My Uncle Warren, a sage of sorts, told me to write down my first impressions of India, and then to revisit what I had written a few weeks later to see how my impressions had changed. Unfortunately, I was too over-whelmed in my first few hours of India to jot down anything. A better way to say it is maybe that I so over-whelmed myself in the first few hours in India to do anything but swat at mosquitoes and fear bottled water. I can, however, imagine some once else writing down his or her first impression of India:
“It was such a treat to step off an eight hour plane ride, onto the tarmac and into the warm air of India. The palm trees here have the ability to transform even the cold modernity of the New Delhi airport into a place of wonder. If it weren’t for that chubby white guy who keeps running and ducking every few steps while frantically swatting and muttering about mosquitoes, I would say this, my first impression, exceeds even my wildest imagination.”
I hadn’t yet bought my bug-repellent and I needed one more day of taking my malaria pills to be in compliance with the recommendation on the bottle, and thus, in my mind, malaria-proof. So the next twelve hours were spent looking for mosquito-free areas of the New Delhi airport. Just to be clear, I am sure that JFK has about as many mosquitoes in rooms with sliding doors to the outside, but I was too worried about malaria.
“New Delhi airport is a treat. There are at least four restaurants and coffee shops to service the wearied traveler. I just had a delightful cup of coffee with the perfect amount of milk and sugar. The sweets look amazing, and I can’t wait to try them. The chubby white guy seems to be in need of some refreshing after all his swatting and high-step-mosquito-evading, but he is examining the top and bottom of all the bottles of water. I wonder if he is some sort of water bottle researcher come all the way to India?”
After throwing away a bottle of water, I learned that the date printed on most products refer to when they were made and not when they expire.
I am happy to report that my time here has changed considerably since those first hours. Chennai was a blur. The New Woodlands Hotel in Chennai was a very nice place with a great restaurant attached. Traffic in Chennai is madness, but I understand not nearly as bad as the traffic in Delhi or Kolkata. My ex-coworker Melinda commented that crossing the street in Cairo was like playing Frogger, a statement that could also be said about Chennai (instead of getting points you get blacklung). My time in Chennai was a waste for the most part because methinks my will to get over the jetlag was week, so many of my waking hours were spent from 1am-7am watching TV.
On June 15, I took a four-hour bus ride from Chennai to Pondicherry, a unique city in India in that it was under French and not British rule. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is located in Pondicherry, and Auroville (the universal city named after him) is located 15km away. During my three-week stay in Auroville, I made many visits to Pondicherry for food and to charge my Indian cell (+919952940683). I even made one visit to get food poisoning from some bad tiger prawns. My trip to the Auroville Health Center cost me 4 dollars to see the doctor and another 25 cents for the antibiotic. I felt 100% better a day later.After a night in Pondi, I traveled to Auroville, where I stayed for three weeks at the Earth Institute (www.earth-auroville.com). The first two weeks were spent in a class called AVD or Arches, Vaults and Domes (do a Google search “Gaudi and Catenary” and you will be fascinated), and the third week, which I finished yesterday was spent in a course called CSEB or Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks. Overall, the AVD course was a better course, but I did get to make a rammed earth foundation and wall in the CSEB course, which made it more than worthwhile. Here are some pictures of the work.
Auroville itself is an interesting, peaceful place that feels like summer camp. You rent a bicycle (bike in India means motorcycle) for about 50 cents a day to take you around the town, which has a diameter of about 5 miles at the most. The roads are all made of red dirt, and the land was actually barren forty years ago when it was founded. It is now full of trees and supports quite a lot of plant and animal life. Cows, peacocks and lizards are everywhere. There are only about five places to eat, but the food is very good. Many of the Aurovillians actually leave Auroville from March-August, to escape the oppressive heat that oppressed me. I was drinking upwards of 1.5 gallons of water a day, especially during the practical session of AVD and on days when we played volleyball.
The best part of both of these courses, however, was meeting people from around the world who are also interested in earth construction. Most of the attendees are architects or are working to become architects, and most are from India. I am currently visiting one of the people from the workshop, Prasad, in Madurai, a town known for its 120’ temples that were completed in the 16th Century. Prasad lives at a school that was designed by the amazing and compassionate man and architect Laurie Baker (lauriebaker.net). While visiting the Meenakshi Temple this evening, I gave an elephant 5 rupees and he or she blessed me with his or her trunk.
Back Left to Right: Sourav, Prasad, Me
Front Left to Right: Pushkar, Lakshmi, Pooja, Ankur
Susan on the right was my dome partner and has a beautiful singing voice.
Tomorrow I plan to visit the Gandhi Museum (it was in Madurai that Gandhi decided to wear only homespun clothing), which documents the independence struggle. On Wednesday, I travel to Pune to visit 6 of the workshop attendees (Ankur, Lakshmi, Pooja, Pushkar, Sourav and Suchi). Some of them have been working on an activity room for an elementary school where Sourav teaches. The activity room is made using a modified version of the earth bag technique that was started by Nader Khalili. They also just received a retired city bus, which they are turning into a science/ecology center for the children, so I hope to help with this project while there.
Being scared of the mosquitoes in the New Delhi seems a long was away now...I'm now somewhat scared of the mosquitoes in Madurai.
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian winner of the Noble Prize for Literature, was a leader during India’s struggle for independence and became known to me at the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai. My Indian and perhaps some of my other friends are no doubt thinking, “Wow, Aaron is so naturally intelligent, so curious and educated, so dangerously handsome that I am shocked he has never heard of Rabindranath Tagore!” Yes, my abovementioned friends, you are so shocked that you are thinking with exclamation points.
Well, it occurs to me that Asia and Asians are not really, how you say, prominently featured in the education most Americans receive. Don’t get me wrong, we learned the important things about Asia, such as how the Huns brutally invaded the Europeans and brought with them the concept of war. We also learned that the Chinese invented gunpowder to make fireworks to go along with their multi-person dancing dragon costumes with heads that shakes, much to my enjoyment, all crazy like. I laugh thinking about it now. When not busy ruling the army or whatever, General Tso liked his chicken bread and then fried in a sweet, savory sauce. Indians have a style of sitting that is cross-legged (but this might refer to Native Americans).
I can honestly say that I do not remember learning much if anything about India in my first 12 years of education (I exclude kindergarten because I was busy with, well, other things), and since most American I’ve met have nary said much more about Asia than the bit above about the dancing dragon, I can assume most Americans are in the same boat. If the Asians or Asian-descendents reading what I write here feel hurt or upset, be thankful you are not African because we did not learn a damn thing about Africa. And the people wonder why Americans generally are uninterested in world events. Perhaps this makes divisive messages (e.g., bring it on, they hate our freedom, etc.) stick better.
I realize I’ve distracted from the quote above, which is definitely worth spending some time with.
The Gandhi Memorial Museum was more than I expected. Set in a large and somewhat run-down colonial building, there were two main exhibits, one about India’s independence and the other about Gandhi specifically. The exhibit about India’s independence contained 30 4’x 5’ panels with pictures, drawings and hand-written narrations beginning in 1757 with the introduction of British East India Company to India and ending on August 15, 1947. There were many great people involved in this struggle. I spent much time reading each panel, and by the time I was done, I was very moved by the exhibit. Looking back, I should have taken a break before jumping into the Gandhi exhibit, as I was not nearly as careful or thorough with the Gandhi exhibit as I should have been, yet it affected me.
Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as [Gandhi] ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth. -Albert Einstein
By the end of the Gandhi exhibit, I wanted to hug every picture I saw of Gandhi.
His letters and images from his many non-violent acts decorated the six or so hallways and rooms of the museum dedicated to Gandhi. One room was painted black and had only one glass display case at its far side. Inside the display case was the loin cloth that Gandhi wore when he was shot and killed. On it was his faded blood. As the Lonely Planet said, this museum does not pull its punches. In reading about his acts and his letters, you realize this was a very special man.
Of course my urge to hug Gandhi pictures was complicated by the fact that his image is on all the currency here in India, “Look at that greedy American. He loves money so much that he goes around hugging it.” Actually, I’ve been told he is on the money to remind the spender of the money of Gandhi’s teachings. Many of you already know this, but I’ll write it for the other, more stupid people reading this, the wheel at the center of the Indian flag represents the charkha (the wheel used for home spinning cotton) that Ghandi promoted to help empower, economically and otherwise, the poor people of India.
My last full day in Madurai was spent buying Khadi fabric (homespun fabric), and I had some shirts and a pair of shorts made from it.
On Wednesday morning, I boarded the Mumbai Express train in Madurai, leaving behind me Prasad and his family’s kindness, and thirty-one hours later I arrived in Pune. I don’t want to talk about what happened on the train…just kidding. Most of what happened on the train was me sleeping. The rocking of the train helped me sleep 16 of the 31 hours. In fact, I would sleep even when I didn’t want to sleep: upon waking, I would pump my fist skyward and say, “Damn the magic sleepy spells of this train!”
I rode in the Tier II AC sleeper car, which means I got my own little compartment and bed. There are at least two downsides to riding in the AC cars. One, it costs 4 times more money than the non-AC sleepers ($40 versus $10). Two, you are isolated from the outside because the windows are not very clear compared to the lack of glassless windows in the regular sleepers. As a result, I spent at least 3 hours standing between the train cars looking out of the doors of the train at the beautiful amarillo Indian countryside.
The coffee guys got to know me and would pop their heads in my compartment each time they passed, “Coffee?” and I would buy their delicious coffee that cost me 5 rupees.
Pooja picked me up from the train station, and we took an auto-rickshaw to Souravh’s house, where I have stayed for the last 5 days. Souravh and his family have been most hospitable to me, and I have been eating delicious home-cooked Indian food for breakfast and lunch. In the evening we usually meet up with all the folks from Auroville and a few other of their friends. A post detailing the food I am eating is on its way, but until then…Pav Bhaji.
Pune is a nice city of about 4 million people (doesn’t seem like that many) and is known for its multitude of universities and its role in the technology boom. Unlike Madurai, Pune is currently in its rainy season, and all around is green. There are many public parks but many more slums.
On Sunday morning, I woke up and accompanied Souravh’s dad on his daily 4-mile walk through a national park located on one of Pune’s many undeveloped (for the time being) hilltops. Then, I got dressed in a Kurta that I had purchased at Fabindia and went to a dolls wedding at the school where Souravh works: http://www.mkf.in/. I helped decorate for the wedding the day before and was the groom’s father. This is the school where Pooja and Souravh built an activity room for the school children, the Kaleidoscope.
The retired bus that was to be delivered is currently in bureaucratic limbo, but Pooja, Souravh and I are currently working on designing and building a playground for the school (mostly out of old tires). Jimmy Jolly, a good man from the States who recently passed away, designed and built many tire playgrounds, and he’s worth a Google or two. We plan to finish the playground in a little less than a week, at which point I will leave Pune to TBD but probably Mumbai (only three hours away).
Tonight I am going to visit the office where Ankur and Raj Laxmi. They work with one of the first architects in India to use green designs, and he started doing so 15 years ago. Afterwards, we are going to Ankur’s for some pure veg dinner.
First and foremost, thank you to Sauravh, Ankur, Pushkar, Pooja, Raj Laxmi, Suchi, Meganha, Debbie, Sameer and all the other Pune folks for being such good friends and showing me an incredible time! Also, a special thank you to Sauravh, Ankur, and Pooja’s mothers for the excellent home-cooked meals. Thank you Suchi for the amazing Gujarati food you made for us. Thank you Pushkar for the 400+ kilometers you racked up on your bike showing me Pune. I hope all your parents forgive me for all the meals you missed on account of me being there.
Second, I am writing the editors of Lonely Planet and suggesting that they change their name to “Lonely Planet: an Utter Guide for Travelers Who Want to Look Utterly Stupid.” They misinformed me, and I, in turn, misinformed you. Pune is not pronounced Poona. That is how the imperialist dogs of England pronounced it. Lonely Planet, I truly hope that your little pronunciation error was an innocent mistake and not some lamentation of better times. Quit India, Lonely Planet. Pune is pronounced Pooney.
It was my sincerest intention to detail in this blost (blog+post=blost, please pronounce the “o” like you would in post, host and most and not like the “o” in lost and cost. Blost. Say it a few times. I could add a “w”, making it “blowst”, but that would seem dishonest…and stupid. I could also an “a”, making it “bloast”, but the pronunciation here would only be obvious if you preceded bloast with toast, coast or boast, and even then it’s not immediately obvious. Who writes a blost about toast? Making words, baby!) the food I’ve been eating, and each time I sat down to a meal, I had my camera ready. However, almost each time the food arrived, I would forget about my camera, about my blost, and begin eating vigorously the wonderful meals. About halfway through these meals, I would remember that I forgot and curse myself. Fortunately, the curses would not last long, as I would think, “Well, I’ll just have to get this again.” Then, I would happily resume eating. The food here has brought many smiles to my face. Keith, you must visit Pune if only to have one of its dark chocolate milk shakes. More on food later.
We made a couple of really great road trips during my second week in Pune. The first road trip included everyone was to Tamhini, a place about 65km outside of Pune. On the way to Tamhini, I was stunned by the countryside, as I have never seen countryside like that countryside surrounding Pune. In every direction, the huge hills/small mountains severely jut out of the wide river plains, and the segmented rock foundation causes these wonderful horizontal lines across the mountains’ green faces, which from above would resemble contour lines.
A view in Tamhini
A view in Tamhini
At Tamhini, we hiked about 1.5kms up a spring-fed creek to an 80ft waterfall. You could barely stand underneath the waterfall out of pain and fear that it would knock you out. My shoulders, head and back were seriously exfoliated. In fact, I think it damaged some of my hair follicles, as I seem a little balder.
The second road trip was with Pushkar to Sinhagad to visit the Lion Fort. Built on the highest point around Pune, the Lion Fort has amazing views in all directions and is about 25kms from Pune, so you barely see any trace of modernity. That is except for the two humungous communication towers they decided to put bang in the center of the Lion Fort. I am confused why this was permitted, but it did not really spoil the views, as the views were most impressive outward. Anyway, the fort had no castle-like structure in the middle, and I’m not sure whether there ever was one. Even without the castle, the fort was very impressive and seemed impenetrable, as there are cliffs on most sides, and the few places with entrances were well fortified. Pushkar informed me that the Lion Fort was once breached in 1670 when Shivaji defeated Bijapur, and I mention it now only because of the way Shivaji succeeded. Apparently, there are these huge lizards that live around Pune (think of a Kimono Dragon).
Like this, a Kimono Dragon
They are very good climbers and have incredible grips when they don’t want to move. Because the cliffs are too high to throw hooks over, Shivaji tied ropes around these lizards’ bodies and sent them up a cliff of the Fort. When they got to the top of the cliff and over the wall, he and his troops pulled on the ropes and the lizards clenched the ground. Thus, they climbed the ropes, penetrated the Fort and won the day. Shivaji is still a great hero in Maharashtra.
Work on the playground was delayed because of the monsoons. Much of the construction in Pune comes to a halt during the monsoons, and so the soil and other materials we needed to complete the playground were hard to get. It became obvious to me that I would be in Pune for at least another three weeks to complete the playground. Thus, I decided to leave Pune and continue my travels. Sauravh, Pooja and I had a good time designing it, and I’m excited to see the completed project.
With two great send-off meals, a hat and pair of slippers traditional in Maharashtra, I bid farewell to my friends in Pune and traveled northeast in Maharashtra to Aurangabad. Aurangabad is not much to speak of, but it is about 20kms to the Ellora Caves, one of ten World Heritage Sites in India. The Ellora Caves are a series of 34 caves built between the 6th and 11th Century. These caves are significant because each of the three major religions in India, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, have caves here. The largest cave, Cave 16, is a Hindu cave, and is not really a cave but rather a large stone carving. Cave 16 is the largest monolithic structure in the world. At the base of the structure are these huge carved elephants that hold up the structure. Leah would love it.
I found the caves very peaceful, especially the caves away from Cave 16, as I was the only one visiting them. The caves also gave me good solar design ideas, as the stonecutters were masters at carving the stones so the large statues received sunlight for much of the day.
I took the back way on the 1km hike to the Jain caves. I was alone, and the path was infested with monkeys. The last monkey I passed tried to grab my ankle, and I bravely screamed.
After the public bus ride to and from Ellora (it cost me 36 rupees instead of 500 rupees by taxi), I know that the bus drivers get paid per person they terrify. A couple of old tenants were challenged on the bus ride:
-Buses are made to be on four wheels. WRONG. Two wheels are acceptable around even the slightest of turns and encouraged on turns with one or more adjacent cliff(s).
-Senior citizens should remain seated at all times. WRONG. Senior citizens should be thrown from their seats if they are not strong enough or alert enough to hold on to the nearest bar or head of hair.
The following morning I caught the 6.5 hour, 6am bus to Mumbai. As it is monsoon season, the rains are heavy now. I am impressed with Mumbai, but will describe it another time. I had a wonderful evening last night with Neelackshi, Shorub and their daughter Mahika. Neelackshi is a school friend of Mo. We may all do Karaoke tonight. After being in Mumbai for 3 days, I travel to Goa, and then to Bangalore.
But, alas, the rains have stopped, and my blosting and wordsmithing must come to an end for today.
P.S. I did a quick Google for “blost,” and the Urban Dictionary defines “blost” as the state of being lost after smoking a blunt (Steve chuckles). So, my blost will have to be a new entry in the Urban Dictionary with a new pronunciation guide.
P.P.S. These photos are not mine, as I've lost my battery charger, but the next will have my pics.
If I were asked a week ago
What I'd do with a wish bestowed,
My wish would have been properly placed
To benefit the whole human race.
End global hunger or something as pure,
Would have been my wish, I am sure.
And then I encountered devilish thugs:
My room was infested with impish bed bugs.
While in Mumbai, sick in my bed,
These little invaders bit my head,
Bit my arms, bit my legs, and even my back.
If it was a part of me, be sure they bit that!
I stood up a ragin', not quite the same,
Like Anakin Skywalker, I was going insane.
If you asked what my wish would now be,
It seems so incredibly clear to me.
I'd wish for a beg bug with a large head and a face,
So I could kick in his teeth and spray him with mace.
I'd punch him and thrash him, bash him a while.
Ooh, I'd brake every limb Steven Seagal-style.
And when I thought that the beating was ample,
Crawling back home, he'd be my example.
Time has passed since I wrote the cruelty above,
And with it perspective: I owe the bed bugs.
They showed an irony I missed at first:
Not since love first bit have I writ in verse.
I apologize for the delay in update, but a couple things made it difficult for me to write. First, I had to clean all my stuff three times to make sure I had no bed bug. A solid two days work if you are blessed, as I am, with OCD. Second, I'm pretty sure one of the more tech-savvy bed bugs crawled into my laptop and reprogrammed it. It won't boot up without freezing and rebooting. So, the time in the evening that I would spend writing is now spent watching my laptop freeze and reboot. If only there were some IT people in India.
The monsoons in Mumbai were B-A-N-A-N-A-S. The rains were really beautiful, and the best part of Mumbai was walking up and down Marine Drive during the evening and a brief repose from the day's hard rain. Neelackshi and her family were kind enough to take me in for my last night in Mumbai. I was still feverish from a bout of food poisoning and crazy itchy.
Happy to leave Mumbai, I headed by overnight train by Goa. My wallet dropped out of my pocket and onto the aisle of the train. A nice man opened my curtain, which almost got him a reflex punch in the mouth, and handed me back my wallet. This act of kindness made me realize that I should stop picking pockets and blaming street children when the owners felt their wallets being taken. I will miss the chase scenes it caused.
Palolem, Goa is a beautiful place. Lonely Planet is down on it because it is too crowded, but I went during low-season and pretty much had the beach to myself. The restaurant where I ate most of my meals was right on the beach, and its floor was made of sand, its walls and roof of bamboo. It was very nice to walk up and down the beach and watch the fishermen bring in their nets and the Japanese tourists eat the catch right out of the nets. No joke. I was only there for three days, and when it was time for me to go to Bangalore, I seriously considered postponing my trip. I've never called a place magical (I don't talk like that), but I'm tempted now.
While in Bangalore, my plan was to volunteer with an ecologically-sensitive architect, Chitra Vishwanath, who uses earth construction in her design. It is difficult, however, to volunteer at an architects office if you have not studied architecture. Duh. I realized this before going to the office, but as her office was teeming with architecture trainees, I felt my presence would have exceeded my notion of the acceptable level of dead weight. She and one of her employees, Sheel, were, however, incredibly nice to invite me to her office and show me some of the work she has done over the last 18 years. Tons of respect to both of them. Besides being a young architect, Sheel is also a trained potter without a potter wheel. So, if anyone has an extra pottery wheel, let me know.
After the hubbub of Bangalore, I decided to go to a place people say Bangalore used to resemble, Mysore. About three hours drive from Bangalore, Mysore is also a large city but hasn't been struck by to the mad development that is omniprescent in Bangalore. Historically, I believe that Mysore is more important than Bangalore, as it was the seat of one of the great Indian kindoms which included Bangalore. I know this because I took a 12 hour(!) tour of Mysore yesterady. I learned other things on the tour, as well.
As the primary goal of this trip is to get experience with sustainable design, I decided the place where I could get the best experience was actually in Auroville. Satprem Maini and his design team planned an affordable housing complex in Auroville, Project Realization, and they are currently in the early stages of construction. So, tonight I am traveling back to Pondicherry and will spend the next few weeks making earth blocks. Don't be jealous.
Sorry for the lack of pictures. Next time.
Morning on the Ganges in Benaras
Sunset in Kalimpong
I'm nervous and excited about my next blost.