Thursday, January 29, 2009

South India in the wet season

Tropical South India is a totally different country than North India. Southern land is rich red clay. Its trees sprout coconut and banana and its rice paddies are flooded from heavy rains.

My parents, who are devout Hindus, went on a month-long pilgrimage to the holiest temples in South India last month. My friend and I tagged along.

Here’s a highlight from four weeks of “Parent Pilgrimage” -- a whirlwind tour of Hinduism’s most revered temples.

India has four temples that are the holiest sites in Hinduism. These are called the four “dhams,” and they are located in the north, east, south, and west. Earlier I blogged about our visit to the eastern “dham” in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa. This story is about our trip to the southern “dham” in Rameshwar, in the state of Tamil Nadu.

My great-great-grandmother visited the dham in Rameshwar. So did my great-grandmother and my grandmother. Now I’m here with my mother. Five generations in a row.

Rameshwar is an island, connected to mainland India by a train that rides across the Gulf of Mannar. It’s only 20 miles from the nation of Sri Lanka, although the connecting ferry between the two countries stopped running more than a decade ago, deterred by civil war in Sri Lanka.

Hindu mythology says that the Lord Ram’s army once built a bridge connecting Rameshwar to Sri Lanka. The army was trying to rescue Lord Ram’s kidnapped wife, the goddess Sita, who had been kidnapped by a demon living on Lanka. According to religion, the rocks that Ram’s army used to build the bridge to Lanka miraculously floated, buoyantly, atop the ocean -- making bridge-building far easier.

Of all the Hindu myths, Ram’s story – written in the Hindu holy book Ramayan – is the one I carry with me from very early childhood. When I was a little kid, I slung an empty Pringles can across my back and pretended it was my archery pack, and I was a soldier in Ram’s army, fighting the demon of Lanka. When I was a little kid and I couldn’t sleep at night, I would repeat the name “Ram” to myself again and again, like I was counting sheep.

Then I started attending Catholic school. By fourth grade I decided I loved Jesus, and I set out to follow God’s Ten Commandments. I even prayed Hail Mary’s on the rosary – the full rosary, which takes about an hour -- every night for a month. I was the only student in my class who wasn’t baptized.

This worked until I was 9 years old and my mom took me to Pashupatinath, the holiest temple in Nepal. At the center of Pashupatinath is a giant statue of a golden bull – Lord Shiva’s holy bull, Nandi.

Seeing this golden bull reminded me of the “golden calf,” which, in the Biblical chapter of Exodus, the Prophet Moses warns the Israelites to never worship. Moses felt so vehemently anti-golden calf that he announced that God’s First Commandment is “thou shalt not worship any other gods besides me.” But the Fourth Commandment is to “honor thy father and thy mother,” and my father and mother were worshipping the golden bull. I was in a Catch-22: I could either obey the First Commandment or the Fourth Commandment, but I couldn’t obey both at the same time.

At this point, age 9, I got confused and gave up. I’ve never been particularly religious since.

Fourteen years later, I’m traveling with my parents on a pilgrimage around India.

As we rode the train to the island of Rameshwar, we saw what looked like rocks floating on the water. But they weren’t floating this time. They were flooded. The area surrounding Rameshwar had been submerged by heavy rains, and the streets turned into canals. Fences and poles stuck out from flooded plains.

Little did I know I was about to be submerged in water, too.

The temple at Rameshwar contains 22 wells covering a 2-kilometer area. At each well, a temple official casts a rope down into the abyss, pulls up a bucket of water, and dumps the entire bucket on the head of the person in line. Pilgrims come from across south Asia to get doused by well water. And so I figured – being part of a pilgrimage – I should too. I mean, when in Rome …. it wasn’t exactly a Roman bath, but it was definately a public bath.

About a dozen men, including 2 male children, all wearing black longis (long skirts) to show their religious devotion, joined my parents and I. Together we were led around the temple to 22 wells. Each well had a different name and signified a different god or geographic location. One signified the Ganges River; another signified the city where Buddha found his enlightenment.

We always let the Men in Black finish first. Then I’d get doused. Afterwards, my parents would get splashed on their hands and feet. And then we’d move on to the next.

And you know what? It felt a little like a baptism.

Five generations in a row.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wedding Crashers

A television commercial for the U.S. Army once asked: "If your life were a movie, which would it be?"

Apparently, mine is Wedding Crashers.

At least, that's the new activity on the docket – crashing weddings. Specifically, lavish Indian weddings where the buffets stretch as far as the horizon, the bands (and there are several) play 1980's pop hits and the ladies vie to see who can wear the heaviest gold.

We stumbled upon this new activity in Goa, a former Portuguese colony that's now India's most popular beach resort (read: shoreline not covered with trash). Huge waves of foreigners normally spend Christmas and New Years sunbathing on Goa's shores, but the "high terror alert" – Goa has the highest terror alert in the nation in the wake of the recent Mumbai attacks – has kept tourism at bay. We went to Goa in spite of the red alert, hoping the beaches would be empty and the amenities cheap and plentiful.

As it turned out, we were right. For $2 a night per head, we slept in an ant-infested 13 x 9 ft. shack built from woven bamboo mats. Its roof was a single blue tarp with a few palm fronds thrown on top for decoration; its green metal front door opened directly onto the beach.

During the day we walk 100 ft. from our front door to a sandy lounge chair, where we recline under an umbrella by the ocean, drinking Coke, staring at the grey naval warships dotting the horizon. We'd see the occasional foreigner -- like that crazy Dutch woman who feeds chappati to all the stray dogs, whose skin is saggy from far too much sun -- but we'd also see rifle-toting Indian soldiers patrolling the shoreline or bunkered down behind sandbags. Searching for Pakistani terrorists?

We were the only customers at a local restaurant one afternoon when we struck up a conversation with the owner, Amaro Rodriguez. He's born-and-bred Indian who, like many Goan locals, bears a Portuguese name as a result of centuries of colonialization. Amaro mentioned that a friend-of-a-friend's wedding reception would happen close to our hotel that night. "If you want to come, meet me in front at 9 p.m.," he said.

We had our own longstanding evening plans – a dinner date with old friends whom we hadn't seen in a long time. Our party of five dined late into the night, and when we walked past the wedding reception on our way home, around 11 p.m., we knew there was no hope of finding Amaro.

Still, we wanted to go to that reception. The music was bumping. A line of parked cars stretched across the otherwise vacant road. Men in suits and women in evening gowns chatted on cell phones near a cobra-strewn rice paddy. Stray goats peered curiously inside.

We decided we should try to crash the event. We had – sort of, kind of, technically – been a little invited. And if anyone questioned us, we'd just say we were meeting Amaro.

We skirted the party to see if there was a good back enterence we could use to sneak through. Or maybe the kitchen enterance? We toyed with a few stealthier ideas, then decided the best disguise is confidence. With our shoulders back, chin up, head held high, we marched proudly through the front door. No questions asked.

Inside was a wonderland. Fountains sprayed against the foliage. Ice sculptures gleamed next to the ice cream buffet. A red carpet stretched across a miniature footbridge, opening into a sea of white linen-draped tables. Kids in tiny suits scampered on the swingset. A rowdy group grooved to live music. A swarm of Indians rushed to us like servants, asking if they could pour us tea / give us chocolate / help us find a seat.

From the haze, a very drunk Amaro stumbled toward us. "You made it!" he yelled like a victory cheer for his favorite team. "Come!" He grabbed me by the hand and led us to the bar. "You like wine?" My friend and I each took one glass and headed to a table. Before we could finish sitting down, Amaro was stumbling toward us with two more glasses of shiraz. "For you!," he said, then bolted from the table. He emerged a minute later carrying a full bottle of rather expensive red wine. "And this!"

"How exactly do you know these people?" I asked Amaro.

"Um, the groom played football – no, his brother played football with – I mean …," Amaro stumbled over his words.

Then he leans over to us. "There's a wedding here almost every night," he says, winking.

Ah. So we weren't the first to have this nefarious idea.

It's a shame we had to leave Goa after only a week. We could make wedding crashing a full-time preoccupation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

It's 1:30 a.m. as I write this from a dingy internet cafe in Bangkok. I'm here watching live online video streaming of President Obama's Inauguration. The computers have no sound, and my friend and I are the only Americans in this brown-walled building, but still the energy is palpable. We burst into applause at the silent computer monitor when Obama took his oath.

I interviewed Vice President Joe Biden once. Well, "interviewed" is a strong word -- I was one of three reporters in a room with Biden, and each of us could ask him one question. It was April 2007, when Biden was a Senator preparing his own Presidential bid, and he had just made a speech in Boulder, Colo., about foreign policy. During his speech, he said that there were certain issues he cared strongly about, and other issues he didn't care about quite as much.

My question to Joe Biden: what are the issues you don't quite care about?

He faltered and gave a run-around political answer: Well, what I really meant was that there are some issues, like Iraq, that I deeply care about .... he began. After a minute or two of talking in circles, he saw from the expression on my face that I wanted a straight response. So he gave me one.

Federal highway allocation, he said. He didn't care very much about divvying up money for highway projects. (I published this response in the newspaper that I wrote for at the time.)

Ironically, now that the economy is in tatters, the first thing that Pres. Obama and VP Biden will do in office is pass an enormous economic stimulus package -- which will include a HUGE federal highway allocation.

Funny how the world works, ain't it, Biden?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Queen of the Arabian Sea

We’ve discovered India’s most charming state: Kerala. Shaped like a miniature version of the South American nation of Chile, the state of Kerala runs lengthwise down the coast of southwestern India. Its lowland coastal areas are brimming with narrow waterways framed by palm trees and tropical bushes. Floating down these backwaters on a canoe or houseboat is remarkable.

Kerala is the richest state in India, with the country’s lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy rates. It (officially) has a 100 percent adult literacy rate. Its electricity is on at least 23 hours per day. It has sidewalks in some areas, and is beginning construction of at least one overpass.

Kerala was ruled by the Portugese, then the Dutch, followed by the British, before coming under India’s command in the 1950’s. As a result, Kerala’s buildings are the first we’ve seen in India that have any semblence of architectural style. Most homes in India are rectuangular concrete boxes. The homes in Kerala have architecture – curves and frills and tiles and archways resembling a hodgepodge of different genres and cultures. Some of the homes even have a fresh coat of exterior paint. I haven’t seen fresh exterior house paint in 4 months.

Kerala is officially the cleanest state in India. The streets here are littered – they perpetually resemble the morning after a street carnival – but they lack the knee-high mounds of trash that characterize other Indian cities. Yes, people still burn trash in open sewers. But the size of these trash fires are smaller than India’s norm, and the occasions are less frequent. People boast with pride that Kerala is as clean as Mexico City.

Kerala is a communist state, and although its citizens are educated, they lack local job opportunities. As a result, the sons of Kerala find jobs in the Middle East, and send oil money home to their wives and daughters. The women of Kerala spend their newfound wealth on silk sarees and gold jewelry found in upscale department stores. (We spent an afternoon browsing in one extravagant department store where sales associates carry silver platters of complimentary cups of coffee.) Across Kerala, thousands of jewelry advertisements and home-furnishings billboards list their company branch locations “across the Gulf.”

We arrived in Kochi on New Years Eve after an 11-hour bus ride involving 4 transfers, and we fell asleep before midnight. We’ve been traveling around so much in the past several months that we’ve decided to stay put in Kochi for a full week.

Plus, this is the first place in India where we’ve found good donuts and milkshakes.

Kochi is a small fishing town on the Keralan coast, with a cosmopolitan core – movie theatres, department stores – that grew from its legacy as a trading post. We’re living on Press Club Road, where the journalists congregate, and our street has more English-language bookstores than I can count on both hands. Our room is the cheapest in the city, a major plus. Our favorite neighborhood breakfast nook is on our street corner. We commute around town on boats – Kochi’s alternative to buses.

Each day we catch the ferry across the lake to Fort Kochi, a once-obscure fishing village that became the first European settlement in India. The water over its main square is covered with Chinese fishing nets. It takes four men to lower and raise the nets, with are supported by teak wood and bamboo poles.

The buildings, restaurants and general ambiance is Portugese-Dutch-British inspired, with flourishes of Indian and Arab influence. It has a Jewish quarter with a Kashmiri workforce. You’re as likely to meet a Christian or a Muslim as you are to meet a Hindu. The Italian traveler Nicolas Conti, who visited Kochi in the 1400’s, said: “If China is where you make your money, then Kochi surely is the place to spend it.” Though the town still feels like an obscure fishing village, its known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea.”

We spend our days floating on the backwaters, strolling through the architecturally-interesting neighborhoods, and chasing the perfect donut.