My faithful readers will already know I am married to a wonderful woman who has made my lifelong wanderlust sustainable. To my new readers, trust me, I married right.
This will be the next to last post on this blog for 2012. I intend to do a “year-in-review” post soon, and what a travelicious year it has been.
This is a short look at a long trip around the world. I had never done that before. Due to circumstances and needs, I had all the excuses I needed to circumnavigate the coconut.
We live near Dubai, which just happens to be a fantastic place to travel from. Everywhere is close it seems. We flew Emirates Air, the first of six airlines I would use on to get around the globe.
This trip starts on a tiny rock in the south Indian Ocean called Mauritius.
The Island has an interesting history. First settled by the Dutch who named it after their Prince, it was taken over by the French. The French used it primarily as a port to launch attacks on East India Company ships taking spices and silks to England from India. The East India Company, owned in large part by the royals, did not like that inconvenience one little bit and sent the worlds best naval power to put an end to the piracy. Consequently French and English are both spoken all over the island along with a native patois that combines the languages of India with African dialects. The main agricultural crop is sugar cane, which of course means there is production of rum, ummm, good rum.
My wife was with me for this part of the trip. It was a break from work for her and she wanted a no hassle week, so we stayed at a Club Med. On Mauritius? Yes, in fact they have two on the island. Mauritius is circled by luxury beach hotels. Tourism comes in second in the local economy.
All inclusive not only means ” have fun with our toys and eat until you burst”, it means drink your butt off if you desire.
Now 8 hours on a sailboat, and many “la bieres” can lead one to be a bit clumsy when you set foot on land. Mary Ann headed to the room to change, and tripped over her flip flops.
Besides the catamaran trip, we took one overland excursion across the island. Pretty small towns, one big city, and a lot of sugar cane!
Mary Ann returned to work. I took off back across the equator for Thailand. I flew Air Mauritius to Kuala Lumpur, then Thai Air to Bangkok, then Air Asia to Chiang Mai.
I have been getting some extensive dental work done there, and this was going to be my last trip. I have covered life in Chiang Mai in previous posts, and they are worth navigating to. It is a very excellent city. I stayed three weeks and walked away from the land of smiles with a new smile. I promised my wife I would use it as much as possible.
From Thailand I flew South China Air into some city in China I cannot pronounce or really even spell. The airplane we took from Bangkok to China had one of the windows in the cockpit held on with duct tape, I kid you not. I tried to get a photo, but it did not come out. Trust me, duct tape.
I had a 90 minute layover before I connected on a flight to LAX. This was both the least expensive flight from Thailand to Los Angeles, AND the flight to LA was on an A380, which I had never been on.
I arrived in LA during rush hour (as if LA is not a 24/7 rush hour), rented a car and sat in traffic (managing not to fall asleep after that flight) to my sister’s house where I occupied her living room and had a fantastic turkey day spread. Thanks sister.
Then I went to spend a week in my personal Valhalla, Big Sur. This is simply my favorite place on the coconut, and has been for close to 40 years.
Now for a couple of sunset photos from John’s house. Eat your heart out.
With a sad heart but a happy mind, I left Big Sur. I drove back to Los Angeles in a rainstorm. I got to LAX early, too early. I was flying Virgin Atlantic from LAX to LHR. A five hour layover in the most confused airport in the world, and then onto DXB and finally home’
Well that about wraps up the coconut for the year! Look for my 2012 recap soon. Meanwhile, please make a comment and/or share this with your FB and real friends!
Yes, Bhutan is a happy place. I mentioned before that the government actually does a yearly census to evaluate the level of happiness and look for ways to make people even happier, now THAT is a wonderment.
I also mentioned that there is a US$250 “tariff” you must pay to visit Bhutan. This is actually a good deal because it includes everything except beer and souvenirs. So, it cost us a bit more ;-). That tariff is actually in place to keep Bhutan from becoming over run with back packers like what happened with Nepal, India and Thailand. I know it sounds snobbish, but thank Buddha they figured that out. The result keeps everyone happy! OK backpackers…snipe away in the comments.
One thing every country wants you to see are the handicrafts. Weaving, carving, and paper making. I always enjoy going because you know what…it is always different in every country, not to mention the best place for souvenirs. (My wife and I have a sort of unspoken but over riding rule, if we see something made, we are going to buy it.)
Besides the crafts, tours in Asia always make sure you see the temples. I know I have been in more Buddhist temples than 95% of the Buddhists on the coconut. But like the weaving, they all have a certain distinctness to them. You have to look hard but it is there. In our travels I have seen the worlds smallest Buddha, and now I have seen the worlds largest under construction Buddha. When he is done, he will just be a big beautiful Buddha, not the worlds largest. Some very rich man from Hong Kong is paying for this project. I wish I could be there when they consecrate it because I am sure it will be a spectacle.
The next post will take a quick look at Bhutan old and new. The ancient library and the brand new technology center. Whatever makes you happy! Stay tuned, share with a friend.
As I start packing for yet another intercontinental flight, I came to the happy realization that I am now quite good at this. I know not to take more than one pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and save the weight and space for a few extra pair of BVDs.
In the last year I have been in five continents and if you want to get technical, I could claim two sub continents. India is known as a subcontinent, but the Indian people are fond of telling you that they are their own continent. It is hard to argue with 1.2 billion people. And then there is the Middle East. I live here and I’ll be damned if I know what continent I live in. This aint Asia, nor Europe, nor Africa. I have never heard of anyone calling this area a subcontinent, so what is it? I’ll just go with subcontinent for ease of calculations.
As far as air travel goes, the Middle East is Middle Earth. Both Dubai and Doha bill themselves as the cross roads for the world. In a way that is very true. A person can fly from Dubai or Doha to anywhere important directly. Both cities are home to an excellent airline. Dubai boasts Emirates Air, and Doha is the proud home of Qatar Airlines, subtitled “The World’s Five Star Airline”. There is virtually no major country that is not served by either of them, together they have the globe covered. On top of that Emirates Air just reduced their fares because the price of oil dropped. Name me one other airline that did that!
I live in the UAE, about a half hour away from the Dubai Airport. This being Emirates home base you would think that I would be loyal to the home boys and that at least the majority of my travel would be with them. However, as any of you who know me are thinking right now, not necessarily. For my trips to Thailand, the third of which I am packing for right now, and for our trip to Hong Kong last month, I take Qatar. Why? Well, simply put $. Hundreds of $’s less. More $’s to spend on tours and stupid souvenirs. To fly Qatar I must first fly to Doha, which is a very short flight, then change planes at the Doha Airport. Qatar is building a new super airport, but I have no idea when it will be completed. For now, all planes coming and going must park in the next county. Passengers must ride a bus into the terminal, and then another bus back out. It is a bit annoying and adds at least a couple of hours to my travel time, but it is the price I pay to save the $s.
Now that I have been a steady customer of Qatar, I am starting to climb up the ladder of their frequent flyer program. Soon I will be a Silver Flyer (please do not confuse that with Silver Surfer) and with a little creativity I will enter the ranks of the Golden Ones (please do not confuse that with getting older). As anyone who flies a lot and stays loyal to one carrier knows, stepping up a rank means multiplying every mile you travel towards the grail of a free ticket. Someday, Qatar will owe me a free trip to somewhere I would never pay to fly to. (I hope that makes more sense to you than it does to me) I am considering adding that to my bucket list; “Get a free flight to somewhere, anywhere at all”. It would not be my first time to achieve this, but last time I did it, mining companies were buying my tickets and it did not mean as much to me.
Back to my inspirational moment that led to this posting. Being good at international travel means more than leaving room in your suitcase for underwear (clean and otherwise) and souvenirs.
Let us consider proper travelling clothes. First let me say that anyone who dresses up for a flight is living in the fifties. Today, unless you have to go to a meeting right off the plane, it is ridiculous. Think of flying like taking the bus, it will simplify the journey.
So what to wear?I’ll do this from the bottom up.
Wear flip-flops or sandals. Not all airports make you take off you shoes, but when you have to, it is really nice to just kick off the sandals. In fact, a lot of TSA types will just let you pass if you are wearing nothing but flip-flops. If you are unfortunate enough that your destination is, say, Minnesota in January, you can pack a pair of mukluks and put them on before you leave the terminal.
Pants. Loose and baggy. That way they do not creep up on you and cause a lack of blood flow to sensitive regions. Also, if you can find loose and baggy cargo pants, then you can carry some essential in-transit items on your person, such as a couple of power bars, Ipod and ear plugs, reading glasses, stuff like that. Yes, it means divesting your gear in one of those little trays before you pass through the security gate, but the trade-off is worth it. If you put all these things in your carry on bag it just causes more work for you once you get to your seat.
Shirt or blouse. Planes are notoriously over air-conditioned. What I find works best is a long sleeve cotton T.
Head gear. Most people do not wear anything. I always wear a ball cap, even when I am not travelling. I have found that this strange custom of mine is great on an airplane when I want to sleep. I can pull it down over my eyes. Combine that with the Ipod and you can drift into another world, while on your way to another world. The hat also keeps your head warm.
These days airlines have started stocking their inventory with planes that have the acronym ER at the end of the type designator. I.E. B777ER. The ER stands for Extended Range. If you look at international routes available you will find some TRULY Extended Range flights. I think the longest regularly scheduled flight these days is from Atlanta to Johannesburg. That is something like 19 hours. Dubai to Los Angeles is 16 or so. Just a few years ago either of these flights would have been impossible. You would have had to change planes and probably carriers in London, or Amsterdam. Maybe more than one stop. If you think 16 hours is too damn long to be cooped up in a steel tube at 38,000 feet with recirculated air spreading flu germs, well you are not alone. A lot of people still opt for a lay-over in some city. But the problems with that solution are scarier to me than catching this years flu bug. Let’s take a look at them.
Lost luggage. Every time you switch planes in transit you give overworked underpaid luggage handlers another chance to send your bag to Shanghai when your destination is Topeka. Don’t even bother wondering how they do it, but misdirected luggage is still a significant problem even though the world’s airlines are getting much better about getting your bag on the same plane you are on. That being said, it has never happened to me (knock knock) .
Another disadvantage of a lay over is the extra costs. An overnight in say London could just about double your airfare, considering hotel, taxis, meals and a night on the town.
Maybe all you want to do is get out of the flying tube and walk around an airport for 4 hours between flights, like the good old days. Consider this, count meals, that trip to the book store, some time in the bar, the cute souvenir refrigerator magnet at the gift shop that you would not have bought if you had not made the trip to the bar and before you know it your travel budget has taken a hit. Plus, that gives the luggage handlers four extra hours to choose which plane to put your bag on.
I always opt for the non stop on the ER. Just remember, you get on the plane, and sooner or later, you get off the plane.
Now about that recirculated air. Well, other than looking like a Tokyo traffic cop and wear a surgical mask, there just is not anything you can do. However, the air up there is not the only source of exotic diseases in an airplane. The plastic tray and the arms on your seat can hold and transmit all sorts of maladies. And then there is the toilet. I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer and I use it before and after I touch anything. I think of it as preventing others from catching what I have, so I don’t feel like a paranoid. I also wipe down the food tray and the arm rests. Why risk it? Catching one of the worlds staphylococci can really ruin a nice vacation.
If the person sitting next to you is coughing, hacking, sneezing or bleeding uncontrollably, ask to be moved. Same thing if they stink, or especially if they are so fat they should have been made to buy two seats. If there are any empty seats, the cabin crew will try to help you, if you ask nicely. If you are not nice to them, about anything at all, they will not be nice to you, about anything at all. Frankly I think it is pretty shitty job which I would never do. Nobody tips you and some passengers can be real jerks.
Always carry a pen with you because you will need to fill out one of those immigration forms before you stand in the long line to have your passport inspected. Borrowing a pen from another (read: better prepared) passenger is embarrassing and brands you as a novice.
Many people will go to the trouble of finding the local currency exchange and buying Rupees (whatever) before they leave home. I wonder if they have ever heard of an ATM machine? Also, I just can’t understand why anyone uses travelers checks these days. These must be the same people who dress up for the flight. Hello? Eisenhower is not President anymore.
Thats it for today. I am off for Thailand now. All packed in my style, which means I probably forgot some stuff. My next blog will be from Chiang Mai. Stay tuned, tell a friend and please make a comment. Even if you do not know me, just tell me what you think about this post, even if you think it stinks like the guy who sat next to you on your last flight.
Our last tourist experience in India was to visit the home Gandhi was living in for the last four months of his life. The place has been turned into a museum to commemorate his life and his works. Like the man, it is both humble and impressive.
This was the only place in India that has no entrance fee. I was actually looking forward to paying a fee, because the tickets to places like the forts and the Taj make really great bookmarks! However I think the Mahatma would roll in his grave (if he had a grave, more on that later) if they charged an entry fee.
The home, called Girla house, is beautiful and very large with impressive gardens. Gandhi was living here in the first days of India’s independence and contributing to the development of the new constitution.
His bedroom is very simply furnished. A bed on the floor, a writing desk and a little statue of the three see-hear-do no evil monkeys. There is no spinning wheel like in the movie.
The other rooms in Girla house are covered with dioramas telling the story and philosophy of Gandhi. As you walk down the halls and read them, you notice quickly that they are not in any historical order. They do not really need to be. The story is not one that depends on chronology. It is timeless.
One display shows the story of his assassination. It does not mention the name of the assassin.
There are also multimedia presentations which, being contemporaneous, give a person a much better idea of how stark things were during English rule and afterwards. India was an oppressed country, driven to abject poverty by the English. When the English East India Company took control of India in the 1800’s they made it illegal to export anything from India other than raw materials. This destroyed the Indian textile industries, which is why Gandhi advocated “homespun” as a revolutionary tactic.
The most solemn part of the Girla house is the preservation of Gandhi’s last steps. He was on his way to prayers when he was assassinated. The pathway is marked with raised ceramic footprints, which I suspect are not his size, nor set at his stride. I did not see the little sign that said mere mortals must walk on the path next to his path, not ON the mahatma’s path itself. I got about halfway before I got chased off. But that allowed me to take these pictures for you.
The path leads to the spot where he was assassinated. I have seen where Lincoln was shot, so that is my only comparison. This one seems more special.
As you leave the Girla house there is a shop where they sell homespun cotton clothing. The last thing I need is more clothes, but I was compelled to buy a shirt made of revolutionary authentic homespun. It is quite comfortable and I cherish it.
Across a busy tree lined boulevard is the Gandhi Gaht. This is the spot where he was cremated. Hence, he is not spinning in his grave. This also set in expansive gardens. The simple black marble platform is all the great man needs.
Thanks for reading. Next post will be my final thoughts about Inja. Tell a friend and please make a comment. C’mon, you KNOW you want to.
The Taj. If it is the only thing you see in India, it is worth the trip.
When I was about 10 years old I promised myself I would see the Taj Mahal someday. Often I have heard it called the world’s most beautiful building. It is also called the world’s greatest monument to love.
I will certainly admit that when you consider it was built in the early 1600’s, while Boston was still wooden shacks, it is an astonishing feat of architecture, engineering, construction capability and artistry. It has a certain weightless feeling. It almost floats when you look at it.
The details of the Taj are almost as remarkable as the symmetry. Versus of the Koran are inscribed over the arched doorways. In contrast to that are flowers decorating the walls using inlaid semi-precious stones. That mixture of Hindu/Muslim culture is intentional. The Mughal rulers were Muslim, but most of the people they ruled were Hindu. The cultures and in fact all the architecture we saw in India reflect this delicate balance.
No space in the mausoleum is left without adornment of some type. Intricate carvings cover about every square inch. As the sun starts to set they catch the light differently than they do in full sunlight.
In the sunlight, the white marble glistens and sparkles. We went there a couple of hours before sunset. I wanted to photograph the building in the early evening light. After all, I have a new camera and I am playing with it as much as possible. (I took over 2500 photos in 8 days in India. Thank god for digital photography)
Like entering a mosque or a temple, we had to remove our shoes. But here at the Taj, we were given the option of wearing Ronald McDonald booties.
Inside the mausoleum are two crypts. This where the characters of this love story are supposedly buried. Actually Mumtaz Mahal the wife of Mughal emperor Shaj Jahan is buried a number of feet below. As you enter, the faux crypts are straight ahead of you, and there is a wall all around. You can circle the wall, clockwise of course.
The Taj seems bigger than it is. Even up close and personal. When you get inside you notice that the marble walls are quite thick, so the building seems to grow outwards. It is hard to explain. If you have ever been in a Frank Lloyd Wright building you get the feeling that it expands as you walk through it. Same with the Taj.
Entering the park where the Taj is you have to pass through a couple of very testing experiences.
First, the hawkers. These are the worst, the most relentless and the rudest hawkers I have seen yet In my travels. A typical hawker experience goes like this.
“Hey rich man. Me poor, no food, need money, Starving children. I sell you piece of shit plastic for 5oo rupees, very good price for piece of shit”
”I don’t need a piece of shit. I have plenty of shit already.”
“Ok then 400 rupee.”
“No, get that piece of shit out of my face.”
“Really great shit tourist. I give you best price. Better than any store.”
“I do not care how much it costs. It is just a piece shit. I do not want it. Go away. Leave me alone”
“Ok tourist 300 rupees. Look, you take.”
At this point the guy is shoving it into your hands like a process server with divorce papers. If you take possession, you are in deep shit with the shit.
“No no no, I do not want it. Stop. Go away”.
“How much you pay for my shit tourist?”
“Zero. I don’t want a four foot tall plastic replica of the Taj Mahal, don’t you get it?”
By now you hopefully are at the gate to the park, where they cannot enter. It is quite the relief.
But then, security.
The security procedures to enter the grounds around the Taj equal or exceed any airport security. Men and women enter separate long queues leading to a metal detector. They check any bags you might have. I saw them make a guy with a big lens on his camera take it off so they could check the camera. Then they do the swipe with the hand held metal detector. Then they do a pat down. I cannot imagine this happening at the Lincoln Memorial or Mt. Rushmore.
But in the end, it is worth it. I loved the world’s greatest monument to love. I love my wife for taking me there. I hope you loved this post. I would love it if you told a friend and make a loving comment.
After the wedding we did interesting tourist stuff around Chennai. Mary Ann says I need to write about some of that as well, so I will, out of sequence. However, I wrote this on the spot and it is ready for my hungry readers, so I’ll skip a few days and post it. Your intrepid travelers are now in Delhi after a 3 hour flight from Chennai. We also saw some stuff in Delhi worth writing about, soon. Other than the wedding, my true reason for this journey to India was to see the Taj Mahal. It is located in Agra, a two hour train ride, or six hour drive south of Delhi. We opted for the train because we have always enjoyed train rides.
We left our B&B so early this morning that we missed the second B. We got across Delhi with no traffic in sight until we got within a block of the train station. Then the throngs appeared. Tuk Tuks and taxis were moving in eight directions. Everyone was honking horns, and there were a thousand people carrying huge bags, balancing bags on their heads and pushing and swarming across the street all trying to be the first lemming into the train station. It took thirty minutes to cover the last block. Mentally I went into turtle protection mode and retreated into my shell.
Our driver started asking us questions like “you have ticket/ What seat numbers? What train number?” Mary Ann started deciphering our travel documents. I tried to ignore everything, but ignoring anything in India is like trying to light a cigarette in a hurricane.
Finally our driver pulled up in front of the terminal and suddenly people started pounding on our window. It is still dark and these guys are all wrapped up in scarves. They are unshaven and sorta scary looking. Or driver rolled down his window and started Hinduing with one of them, quickly and loudly. Then he turned to me and said “this your coolie. He take you to train. He show you to seat, you give him 50 rupee.”
I was still in my shell. Mary Ann had to screech at me to get me to open the car door and enter this world of mass transportation/chaos. If the fact was not that I was on my way to see the Taj, to scratch an item off my bucket list, I would have asked to go back to the B&B, had the B and a Beer, and crawled under my covers.
So now we were following this scarf wearing guy into the train station. He led us past dozens of people asleep under blankets on the floor, and past a security checkpoint that most people subjected themselves to although it looked dysfunctional. He took us to a certain spot on the platform and we waited in the cold for the train. I started feeling better because there were other tourists there who seemed like they were in the right place. Mary Ann started asking me what was wrong with me. I was not sure. Although I cannot call my sensation at the time fear, I said “I’m afraid.” She just laughed at me. My wife is a fearless traveler.
The train finally showed up. It is billed as India’s fastest train. I guess I expected a bullet train, sleek and silver. This train is something between that and the Tombstone Express Butch and Sundance robbed. Closer to the latter.
Before the train even came to a complete stop, the masses started pushing each other out of the way to board. I finally got into the groove and shoved a couple of Gandhi looking guys aside and climbed onboard.
Normally I always give my wife the window seat. I took one look at the window and realized it did not matter. In country with a billion people, seemingly half of them beggars, you think they could pay someone a few Rupee a day to clean the windows on the tourist train.
Now that I was aboard the Taj express, I poked my head out of my shell and decided to enjoy the rest of the ride.
The train has many porters. One came by two minutes out of the station and flipped newspapers at the passengers like he was tossing them onto porches from his bicycle. There was nothing in the paper worth reading unless you are a Bollywood fan.
Then another came by with a pitcher of hot water and a tea set. It was really good tea.
Then they came by and served us breakfast. Like all the food in India, very tasty.
I found patches of the window to look out. All along the tracks, there was garbage. Plenty of garbage. The type the holy cows cannot eat so it just sits there.
I am now excited. We are a half hour away from Agra, and my bucket list objective.
The station in Agra was another mass of people. I began to think that if the population of India increases in the next 20 years like it has in the last 20, there simply will not be anywhere to put everyone. They are going to have to be allowed out of their homes on alternate days.
We were met right on the platform by our guide, and before I could light a smoke we were in a cab. Our driver for the next two days is named Babu, an easy name to remember. He took us to our hotel then out on the town for some preliminary touring to build up to seeing the Taj Mahal. When he recited where he was going to take us I thought it was weird he did not say Taahg Mahaul, like we do. The local pronunciation is one word, “ozmeahl”. That is close anyway.
First we went to the Agra Fort. This fort was built by the Mughals. They were Muslim and spoke Farsi. They came into northern India from countries now called “somethingstan” bent on conquest. They ruled northern India for 400 years until the Brits came along with better artillery.
In that time, one of the rulers built the Taj as a tomb for his favorite wife. She must have been a hottie. She bore him 14 children in 20 years. She then died in child birth. He also had 300 concubines living in the palace inside the fort. His pure white marble bedchamber looks out over the rooms for the 300, and he had a gold plated hot tub that looks like it could hold him and about 20 of his girls. If you can get reincarnated into the past, I know who I want to come back as.
Agra Fort was a great place to see before you go to the Taj, because you get the love story that led to the creation of the world’s greatest monument to love. You also get to see where this king was imprisoned by his third oldest son. Son #3 killed 1 & 2, and then had his father arrested and put in prison. The prison is in the palace. If ya gotta be in prison, well hell, why not here. It is as beautiful as the king’s chambers he used to live in and it has a breath taking view of the Taj. I imagine he got conjugal visits.
Next we went to “the baby Taj”. I had never heard of it before. It is about 1/5 the size of the real thing. It is also built of white marble. There are maybe 6 tombs inside of it, princesses mostly.
I am going to skip telling you about the real Taj until my next post, so you will come back. I get paid by the reader. So tell a friend and make a comment. Thanks for reading.
But here is a teaser.
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!
This is not a blog about Cricket, but it might turn into a recurring theme as I go along.
On this side of the coconut, my diamond shaped temple with four stations perfectly spaced at 90 feet apart, has no devotees. In case that was too cryptic, no one knows a baseball from a mango here in India.
However, here in India, that game with wickets is the national sport. This year they are hosting the ICC Cricket World Cup. You wouldn’t know it unless you looked closely.
This being Super Bowl Sunday back in the USSA, I need only to reach into the decaying memory banks I call a mind to remember that the words Super Bowl appear in front of your temporal lobes at least once every waking minute for the week before the game. I am sure that you could not breathe in South Africa without spitting out a soccer ball for at least a year before their version of a world up.
But here in this country with one sixth of the world’s population, I cannot find a ball cap with a cricket logo on it to save my dharma.
We are in Chennai, prepping ourselves for the excursion down the coast and into the interior to attend the wedding we came here to see. We have a driver and an itinerary of sorts. This is not a tourist destination. Our driver is not a guide. What we know about this town is from Lonely Planet, Trip advisor and my new source of travel information, Matadortravel.com. I did the outreach to hotels and such for this trip. Usually Mary Ann marshals that and I am happily along for the ride. Because the flight took us to Chennai, I wrote about a dozen hotels to ask if they could help us with a driver. Only one wrote back. The manager’s husband runs a tour agency. After a couple of emails, I hired him to set us up with tours in Chennai, a driver to and from the wedding, the flight to Delhi and the train to Agra to see the Taj.
Like I said we have a driver, not a guide. We have been on our own for information about the sights. That is OK by me. After the trip to Nepal where our guides relentlessly told us fables from Buddhist and Hindu lore as if they were talking about history, it is nice to just look and see.
We basically told him what we wanted to see and he drove us there. However, I stumped him when I told him to take me to buy a cricket cap. He really tried. The look on his face when I came out of sports shops empty handed was both disappointing, and to me humorous. I would not give up. Every trip to a museum, fort or cathedral was sidetracked by a trip to another sporting goods store. This is a city of 6.6 million people and 12.6 million busses, cars and tuk tuks. So navigating the streets was something was happy I did not have to do.
My last attempt was the largest sporting goods store in town. The name of the local Cricket team, who by the way happen to be the national champions, are the Super Kings. I went into the store, pointed at the ball cap I had on and said “I want a Super Kings cap.”
They responded positively and I thought my search was over. They took me over to a rack of caps and pulled out a Super MAN cap. I officially gave up my search.
We saw a few interesting things in Chennai, but by far was St Thomas Church. This is where St. Thomas, Doubting Thomas, one of the 12 disciples is buried. It is one of only three cathedrals built over the grave of one of the 12. One in Spain, and of course the third is St. Peters in the Vatican. Pretty cool. Here are a couple of shots.
INSERT ST THOMAS
In my last post I told you my friend summed up a trip to India in 3 words, “you’re in India.” I can beat that, I can do it in one word. THRONGS. Every place you go it is like standing outside of a stadium when the game is over. Thousands of people everywhere, you cannot get away from people. For my friends in Bocas, Imagine Isla Bocas having two hundred thousand people on it, and everyone over 12 has a motorcycle. I am enjoying the experience, but after I see the Taj, I do not know what would make me come bac
The next post will be the wedding. Promise. It takes me hours to make posts, sorting photos, writing, re-writing and editing the prose. And that does not count the time living the experiences and taking the photos. AND, doing it on the road often means having to use slowwww, internet connections in hotels, which takes all that more time. So I will probably wait until I am back in Sharjah to post.
I hope you enjoyed it. Please comment.
OK so I stole the title of this post. It was an excellent movie and I will try to write something worthy of it.
At the moment Mary Ann and I are at 35,000 feet in an Air Arabia A320. We are the only white people. That includes the Pilots and the cabin crew.
The plane we were supposed to fly didn’t work. With 178 brown people, Mary Ann and I had to march across the airport from our gate to another. This was 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We loaded up on busses and they took us out to a plane out at the edge of civilization. We all boarded plane that had not been swamped out after it arrived from Jeddah earlier that day. It had not been refueled either. It takes a long time to fuel up an A320. There was no air conditioning. It was a cool night but 180 people in an aluminum tube can really build up the BTUs. It got hotter and hotter. People started to push that little button to call the stewardess all about the same time. Ding ding. Ding ding ding. Somehow she recognized that if we did not get the air cooled down, this situation could replace Thahir Sq. on AlJazeera. So, about the time I was about to strip down to my BVDs, the air came on. But we were still sitting there. I went up front to get a glass of water and I looked into the cockpit. I wish I had not. Two ground techs and the pilot were in an argument. They were each holding some sort of manual and pointing at stuff, busily turning pages. None of this bothered me, I was starting a journey to India!
We took off at 11:30 instead of 9:30 p,m. I felt sorry for the driver in Chennai who was supposed to meet us at 3:00 a.m. and would now have to wait until 5. However, we are big tippers.
Along the way a thought came back to me that I get every time I fly. I do not think there is a single airline left on the planet that allows smoking on-board. Yet Airbus and Boeing continue to build aircraft with a no smoking lamp over every row of seats.
These lamps glow all night annoying light sleepers. They also serve as a perverse reminder that I cannot have a cig, which I would love to do while I pondered why the pilot had to read the manual before the flight. The simple cost of including no smoking lamps in a new airplane should be something the cost accountants would red flag. Also, as new models of planes get launched, someone is paid to design a snazzy new version of a red X over a burning Marlboro. Then, there is the cost of maintaining them when invariably the little light bulb burns out. And what IF it burned out? I for one would take advantage of it and light up. This would of course cause a confrontation with the cabin crew.
“Sir, Sir, you cannot smoke!’
“But the captain turned off my no smoking sign, didn’t he?”
The ground crew guy back in Sharjah must have provided excellent tech support because we landed safe and sound in Chennai Intl. One neon sign said Chennai Intl, another said Madras Intl. It made me think that change just might come slowly to India. It has only been ten years since India rebranded many of it’s cities. Madras became Chennai, Bombay became Mumbai while Old and New Delhi just became Delhi. I am sure there countless other towns and villages that shrugged off the last vestige of colonization and changed a name like SmytheTown to Rakamannaroil. When you are in a struggle to supply meaningful employment to a billion people, employing a few thousand cartographers and highway sign painters to celebrate your nationalistic pride cannot hurt. Now if they would only learn to drive on the right side of the road.
The reason I decided to cop the title of this post that my favorite scene in that movie is when they board the train to go to the caves. They have enough luggage for a circus. Every time I leave the Sharjah airport I am amazed at the amount of luggage the Indians take with them. Here is a photo taken at the luggage carousel in Chennai.
That covers it for the journey. The next post will be my first impressions of India. I’ll give you a preview. A close friend of mine, whose talent with a quill I can only envy, who can humor me with colorful descriptions of a grey wall, went to India last year. When he got back I asked him “how was the trip?”
“The flight was fine. When you get off the plane, you are in India.”
That’s it. That is all a man who gets paid by the word to write for journals could come up with. I am beginning to think he nailed it.
But I won’t let you off so easy so stay tuned, tell a friend and make a comment.
Mary Ann and I were lamenting the fact that we had not gone anywhere in January. I actually like January in the Arabian Desert, it is very temperate. We have not had the air conditioner on for almost two months. Mary Ann thinks it is freezing. (Folks, it is between 65 and 80 f) She started looking for someplace warm to go in February. We were looking at Istanbul, Sri Lanka and the like. Then, like warm a wind off the desert, we got an invitation!
We have a houseboy. He comes in once a week and does floors and bathrooms, two tasks we do not want to do. He is a young man from India. He is pleasant and works his butt off. A week ago he told us he was getting married and would be leaving for home for about three months. We congratulated him and started thinking about wedding presents.
Then he rocks our world by handing us an invitation to his wedding! We thought about it for maybe 30 seconds before we said “OK, we’ll be there!” He seemed pleased that two old white folks would come all the way to his home town to see him get married. We were excited to be invited. Indian weddings are supposed to be wondrous events, vividly colorful while saturated in custom. A great photo op for my new camera!
Now the adventure began. I was looking at the invitation and I did not understand a word of it. (Yes, it is in English.) That is not entirely true. I understood that the wedding takes place at 6 a.m. on a Monday. That was curious, but just the start. I could not figure out where the venue was. I am not surprised that I did not recognize any city names. I started using my old pal Mr. Google. Then panic set in.
The town (at least what I thought was the town) did not exist. I went to Trip Advisor, and no one who uses TA has ever been wherever this is. My next resource was our next door neighbors. They happen to be from India, and the groomn, Kanbarasan if you need his name, also works for them. I walked next door with the invitation and my best “I’m so confused” face and asked for help. It turns out what I thought was the city was the name of the marriage hall. She pointed out to me the name of the city and the district and told me what state it was in. “Oh thank you thank you thank you.”
I ran back to my computer and used Wikipedia to find out about the city. The name of the city if you insist on knowing is Kattumannarkoil. Wikipedia told me that in the 2001 census it had a population of about 22k. So in 2011, what 40k? That makes it little more than a village in Indian standards. I went back to TA. Nope, no one has ever been there. I checked every hotel website I know of, nope, no hotels.
So I tried to find it on Google Maps. Nope. I started to think we were headed for Terra Incognito…”beyond here lie dragons”. But this is India, not 17th century Africa. I started searching on the state. The name of the state by the way is Tamil Nadu. It is in the south of India on the Eastern side. I found an international airport in a city called Chennai. When I studied things a bit more I found out that Chennai used to be called Madras. All I know about Madras is that Rodney Dangerfield wore madras shorts in Caddy Shack..
Our local airline, Air Arabia, just happens to fly directly from here to Chennai. If you look at a route map for Air Arabia, they have at least twenty destinations in India. The reason for that being all the labor force from India that works in the UAE. The RT airfare is less than US$300. We booked our flight. There is only one flight a day to Chennai and it arrives at 3 a.m. Oh well.
Now it was time to figure out where to go when we leave the airport in pre dawn hours. I found the district in Tamil Nadu where this village is supposed to be. It is called Cuddalure. Or Cudalor, or Kuddalore, depending on your source. There is no train from Chennai to Cuddalure, only busses. A six hour bus ride. And that does not get us to Kattumannnarkoil.
At this point in typing this story, and probably from your perspective of reading it, we are both tired of these multiple syllable unpronounceable names. OK, Cud and Katt from now on.
Realizing that we would be absolutely lost with a mere three days to find the wedding, I figured out a new approach. I found a bunch of nice hotels in Chennai and emailed them. I said that if they could find a way to get me to Katt, we would stay with them before the wedding and afterwards. When I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. To quote John Lennon “I’VE GOT BLISTUHS ON MY FINGUHS”. No one wrote back. Perhaps they had no damned idea where Katt was either.
Finally, a woman who runs a B&B wrote me back. Things were looking up. Her husband runs the AMEX travel agency in Chennai. He is hooking us up with a car and driver. No folks, I am not about to drive a car in India. I would rather sword fight a ninja.
In our communications he of course offered to provide tourist type activities for the rest of our trip. So, we are hiring him to find flights for us to Delhi, and get us to Agra. In Delhi we will do what can only be described as the Slum Dog Millionaire tour, a walk thru the ghettos with young guides who worked their way out of them. The next day we will take a tour of historical sites relevant to Gandhi. (I watched the movie last night and seems how I am now an expert, it better be a great tour.)
Then we are off to Agra. Agra is of course where the Taj Mahal is. The Taj is one of my bucket list items. We will see it at sunset and sunrise and I expect to really put my new Nikon through its paces.
So, don’t forget to read my next half dozen blogs, if for nothing more than the pictures. Tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.