Monday, March 21, 2011

Bharatpur/ Vrindavan

The big Eagle at Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary

So, it is the last day of the group, and I am much relieved by this.  Sure, it brings the added pressure of my solo trip to Kashmir, whose logistics are still to be reckoned with, but I am very tired of this mode of travel.  We are too much the tourist, and it leaves a shallow feeling, almost especially since we are supposed to be studying religion.  I am personally drained by the experience, and my time alone in Kashmir will be, I trust, rejuvenating to me on multiple levels.  I have to sort out my train and accommodations yet, which is a hassle to be sure, but I have learned that in India, a little money solves most problems, and I also have the benefit of time. 
I have really enjoyed getting to know some of the people in this group, I have to say.  Some of them are really great people, and I would otherwise never have come in contact with them.   Joseph is the only one that I could have imagined becoming a friend in normal life, and I hope that I do continue to see him in the future.  But guys like Mattie I can’t imagine ever being friends with, but in these circumstances I love his company and he is totally hilarious. He reminds me of Jason Colliver a bit in this way. (I didn't phrase that right.  I mean he reminds me of Jason in his humour and quirkiness - not in the way we wouldn't be friends.  Sorry Jason!)  Dale (who only arrived with the group in McCleod and is a 41 year old commercial fisherman from the West coast) is another one.  He is hilarious, generous, and has an appetite for life that matches his girth.  He seems the last person you would imagine on this trip, but he is just on for the ride.  He has great stories of his time in places like Pakistan and Africa from his youth.  Grayden is a fantastic guy, brilliant, creative, a strapping farmboy and techie wizard all in one.  I think he would get along in a big way with Don, but we will see. I hope to introduce them and stay in contact. 
As for the girls, Heather is a 71 year old psychologist who I never really talked to.  Pam is a vibrant grandmother with a travel bug.  Marjonneke is the documentary film maker.  Emma is Dr. Bryant’s tomboy daughter with seriously Indian blood. She is co-owner of a large CSA that serves Toronto (Kawartha growers or something) and I hope to stay in touch, at least loosely, with her.  Jessica is the video assistant to Grayden and I got along with her better  than anyone, I think.  She is a real world-travelling photographer who seems to have a real sense of the divine in life, even while eating it up for all it is worth.  She is the kind of person you want at your party – smart, extroverted, full of stories, and sure to bring something good to consume. 

So, after our day at the Taj and Fatepur, the next morning we wake up in our hotel in Bharatpur with only a 10 minute walk to the world famous bird-sanctuary and national park.  We rented bicycles when we got there and toured around for a few hours.  It was really nice  - mostly so just for the chance to be in the silence of nature, riding a bike.  I wish that Anne Dagg could have been here instead of me - she would have really gotten a lot out of it.  Sending my thoughts to you, Anne!  It was a Hero model bike though, and all of us have awfully sore bums afterward.  I had the suspicious feeling that I had purchased a ticket to a  theatre only to arrive during the credits – where were all the birds?  But then I arrived at a marshy section and there were a ton of weird pelicans, cranes and various things I have never seen before and don’t know the names of.  I also so a few packs of Antelope, a furry little creature that looked like a groundhog but had a large bushy tail, and another animal that looked to be a sort of dark-grey antelope/ cow thing, with tiny horns and funny tufts of hair on its back.  I have no idea what it could be.  The highlight was just as I was leaving I spotted, not ten metres away, this enormous eagle or falcon sitting contentedly on a tree. (photo at top of post) I watched it for a good while and made sure that some other foreigners in a cycle-rickshaw approached quietly.  We all took photos until a truck of Indian farmers ripped by and scared it away.  It was pretty cool, though.

After a famous lunch, we took the bus to Vrindavan – playground of Krishna and setting of the famous courting of Rada by Krishna.  Because of this it is the international home of Krishna devotees in the form of ISKCON (aka Hare Krishnas) and Bhakti yoga (having been revived by Chaitanya there about 500 years ago.)  It took 5 instead of 2 hours because of traffic and detours, and then we were not allowed to bring the bus within city limits so we park at Swami Bhativedanta Gate (named after the guy responsible for the version of the Bhagavad Gita most prevalent in the English world) and  took rickshaws through the windy alleys towards the Jai Singh Ghera ashram, run by Darrol’s friend, the famous Sivananda Goswami.  This place is remarkably similar to Varanasi to me – ancient, filthy, holy, crowded, and impossible to navigate.  We are warned about the monkeys repeatedly and by every person we meet – they are different here in Vrindavan – they are vicious and you cannot wear glasses out of doors since they get stolen and often ruined.  Bananas are a definite no-no to carry on your person, and we hear some amazing stories from Emma about her past encounters with gangs of monkeys scaring her and her friends.  They are a problem in Varanasi, but it is nothing like here.  Here, everything is screened or fenced off, and patrol dogs live on every courtyard and most roofs.
yamuna river from ashram roof - vrindavan

We are here for the celebration of Holi – the Hindu festival of colour that is celebrated during the spring equinox.  It is famous because everyone throws coloured powders and coloured liquids at each other for a couple days, and the result is mayhem, a big party, and millions of sets of ruined, tye-dyed looking clothes.  Instructed to wear our worst, we go to the temple and experience it for ourselves.  It was a chaos of colour and sound, powders getting thrown from every angle by priests, also water-gun like syringes of the stuff getting shot out on us, and then everyone dancing and clapping to the music and chanting pumped out from the back of the hall.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  No one brought cameras except the film crew who brought special rain gear to protect their stuff.  I stayed to the side and managed not to get too doused, but those who got into the thick of things were absolutely soaked in colours.  It was a lot of fun.  However, the colours are made of staining, toxic stuff that we don’t want to imagine when we are scrubbing it from our ears and noses. 
after the temple - I came away basically untouched by Holi colouring

Joseph after the temple.  Still nothing like our later encounter .... pictures pending

The next morning we took a boat across the Yamuna river and took a stroll trhough fields of wheat and hemp to a small village, just to experience truly rural India.  Later was the famous stage presentation of the Krishna and Radha story that after many hours of shouting, loud music and juvenile play-acting by boys dressed as girls in gaudy costumes, it climaxes in the pouring over the stars so many flower petals that they are actually buried in them.  After, these petals are thrown on the crowd as a major blessing to all. 

The rest of the day was for ourselves, and it was good to have some down time in a city where you really don’t want to venture far or for long.  Using the internet, we lounged around and listened to music.  Later, I decided to watch the sunset from the roof.  It was pretty, but when I tried to go back down, I realized that monkeys blocked the stair.  I approached the stair and when they did not scatter, I slapped the sandals I had been holding together to send them off.  Suddenly this big one rises up his arms and growls a terrifying and menacing, tooth-bearing hiss.  It sends my hair on end, and blasts me with adrenaline – it was downright scary.  This is when I see for myself that these are not like monkeys anywhere else in India, where a clap would send them running.  Getting way back, I let my heart settle for a minute, and then keep clapping my sandals as loud as possible, just to make sure I don’t indicate any submission.  The gruff monkey reclines on the head of the stair and takes a position watching me.  Shit!  Now what?  I figure he will leave soon, but he appears only to be going to sleep.  I wait.  It is getting dark of course, after sunset.  But I wait some more.  More monkeys start lining the rooftop, but they mostly ignore me.  But I notice that even the other monkeys seem cautious with my new nemesis.  This guy is a jerk.  After 10 minutes or so of clapping, waiting, walking, I am convinced that he knows precisely what is going down. After a few more minutes, it is getting too dark to see, and I am resigned to call for help.  Thankfully – our dorm room is separated from the roof via only a metal screen so I call names.  Finally a confused Joseph comes out into the hall, wondering where I am and why I don’t just come in – the door is open.  I explain my situation and four of them come up to rescue me – including Grayden and his ubiquitous camera, just to catch my ridiculous situation on film.  The open the door and yell and clap at the monkey.  Nothing.  Then, they throw bits of broken clay mug at the guy and though they hit, he just stands ground.  Big Dale comes around to the stair and is met with a roaring hiss that sends him reeling back while the rest of us cannot help but laugh.  It is kind of scary,  but mostly we know it will just be a good story.  The monkey will not budge, though.  Finally, Matty pulls out his LED flashlight and for some reason, this is something that freaks out the monkey enough to move him from his post.  It probably blinded him slightly.  I rush down the stairs, swearing at a giggling Grayden who is catching my humiliation on film and we all scramble out the gate laughing. 
I am no longer very fond of monkeys. 
views from the infamous monkey roof.

Sunday morning, it is the last day of Holi.  The shops are closed and the streets are chaos unlike anything you could imagine.  Crowds of people are out throwing coloured dye on each other either with simple powders, water guns, aerosol sprays, and even buckets.  Emma, Joseph, Dale and I decide we will be brave and see how bad it really is.  Outside the front door of the ashram are a couple families just waiting for people to exit to soak them, so we take the back way – but don’t get very far.  Soon we are on thhe street and Indian boys grab us and smear our faces with purple.  I get an aerosol red right in the ear, Dale has a boy actually lift his shirt and spray up his back.  We are not allowed to get mad – this is what Holi is all about.  Emma, as a Caucasion female, gets the worst of it.  As we approach the intersection we are finally intimidated.  Now, even the rooftops of the shops are lines with hoses and buckets and pump-style water guns filled with liquid dyes.  The ground is sloppy and the open sewers run red.  Emma is blinded by powder in the eyes and we are all soaked in colour.  Luckily, I wore only flip-flops, cheap 100Rs pyjama pants I bought the day before specifically for this, and a dark t-shirt.  It is frankly disgusting.  But what the heck – we are in Holi central, and I am abiding by the ‘when in Rome’ motto.  Only Dale and I venture further.  He actually finds an open shop – he needs to buy chips and cigarettes.  I just go a bit further down the street but after a few minutes I just can’t handle it and turn back.  I feel slightly elated, certainly invigorated, but mostly gross.  I hope I never find out what these un-monitored, chemical Indian colours are made of:  they are in my teeth and up my nose and I may as well have been swimming in it. 
I will have to get pictures from Jessica to post later of when we got back – we were quite a sight.   Going straight to the shower was futile.  Even after scrubbing, the colour would not leave our stained bodies. (PS note:  weeks later, even after my return to Canada, I find that one of my toenails is permanently stained a light hue of red.  Amazing!)
Our shared room in Vrindavan

Hall outside our room - roof direct above through the fencing

The rest of the group gets nervous now.  We are supposed to be leaving this city in a few short hours – how on earth will we escape to get all the way to our bus again without having all our things ruined? We borrow garbage bags and cover our luggage and ourselves before packing the 12 of us into the only two auto-rickshaws our messages into the world manage to secure.  It is 2pm now, and we are assured that shops are now open, Police are out, and the Holi is officially over.  And, it after rounding the first corner outside the ashram, that appears to be true: the streets are empty and look like they have been through a war.  With relief we zip through a city where people throw coloured clothing into the garbages, rainbow faced men laugh their way home, and every shower and bar of soap is surely being used with zeal.  But, just moments from our bus, Emma yells “Look out!”.  Young boys who don’t want their fun to be over throw handfuls of pink powder at the rickshaws from the side of the road.  It is on the other side from me and Pam takes the brunt of it.  She gets squared but the luggage is spared.  Getting on to the bus, without a shower for hours, we all feel sympathy for her (and Joseph too, who got a good chunk in the other rickshaw).  She is bright pink/red, and her clothes are ruined for good.  Getting into the security of the bus, we all feel enormous relief, like we have escaped a danger zone, and we are glad to be done with Holi and for many of us, done with India too. 

March 21, 2011
Having arrived back at Hamdard after an easy drive from Vrindavan, we have one last meal together before people start to head to the airport.  3 women leave at midnight, then Emma, Dale and matty leave first thing in the morning to fly to Goa.  Joseph leaves today for a week in Portugal before going home to Canada after 4 long months away, Don stays in Delhi to figure out his passport before heading south to Kerala, Grayden leaves for some southern travel via Goa in 2 days, Pam heads back to McCleod tomorrow, and Darrol goes back to Canada tomorrow. 
Having had about enough of the external world, I broke down and dove into some fiction reading yesterday – something I have not done during my stay in India.  But I need a bit of down time, and today, with the whole day to myself, I just might relax, make tea, sit on my porch and read.  I am tempted to go down to Connaught Place, the central hub of New Delhi, but honestly, I don’t think it is worth the crowds and the energy.  The only other thing I will probably do is find a Bollywood movie to see in the evening – that is something that I have been hoping to do since being here – and today is my last chance to do that in a big city. 
I am a bit tired, and saying goodbye to the group members feels good, though this is nothing against them as individuals.  I am ready to have my time and energy and space back for myself, that is all.  The past 3 weeks have been hectic and I have had little time for truly personal contemplation.  Scheduled hours here and there do not add up the same way, and it was far to easy to end up socializing, especially since we were sharing rooms every night (and in Vrindavan we were in dorms).  I am not complaining, just explaining.  The social aspect was more interesting than fun, but I had some wonderful times laughing and heard some wonderful stories and perspectives.  People are fascinating, and I learned a lot by living so closely with such an odd mix for this time. 
Three weeks sure went by quickly, though.  It seems to me that Amritsar and McCleod were epic moments of my trip, and after that it was all denouement.  Rishikesh, Alwar, Bharatpur, Vrindavan are all jumbled up on my mind as a bunch of hot and dusty places in a similar region, with similar architecture and culture.  Nothing during this time stood out as particularly magnificent or moving on a very deep level, though of course there were beautiful moments.  Highlights from this group of places would have to be the music and the swim in the Ganges in Rishikesh, the Palace and museum of Alwar and our brief hour at the Akbar’s palace at Fatepur-Sikri.  Otherwise, it was not too thrilling, and I clearly expected more from this group venture than was possible.  Though it is true that Darrol made some interesting connections for us, and took care of logistics quite well, I also feel that he did not spend enough time explaining what we were about to experience and setting context for things.  Also, this whole thing with the film crew was a real mess for me – only in the last days have I finally come to see what this whole thing is about.  I had utterly the wrong impresson of what was being done at the start, and if things would have been explained to me I would have been much more ready to be a part of it.  I was reluctant to be interviewed one on one for the camera, since I was given the impression that this was a documentary movie being filmed for small cinema that would hopefully make it TV, with Marjonneke as the producer behind the whole thing.  That did not suit me.  But it turns out that it is more of a project that Darrol wanted filmed for his own legacy, for his own record, to capture the people and places that have been important to him during his 20-plus visits to India over the years, and that he largely funded this second trip.  Also, it has only the slightest chance of ever being seen anywhere further than very small independent cinema film festivals, and even that may be a stretch.  It is all a bit confusing to me, since there was a major expense in this filming.  Someone had to pay the entire trip expense for Grayden and Jessica plus their equipment, and Marjonneke will put in hundreds of hours of editing and work on this in the hopes of pitching it for TV.  I don’t quite understand, but it is over now.  For me, I just hope that it will be a video record of this portion of my travel, and someday in a couple years I will be able to see footage that will remind me and give me a different perspective of my journey.  Jess and Grayden have promised that they will send me some video clips and stills of a bunch of things that I was not able to capture, so that will be great – they are talented professional photographers with state-of-the-art equipment, so their contribution to my personal digital scrapbook will be incredible. 

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