Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Slow Down

A glimpse into the process of haggling, and inter-city travel.
Page 118 from my book, The Great Year - India Edition, our last day in Khajuraho and then heading off to Varanasi.

Text below.

Click to see larger

The slow down has officially begun. I think we’re at the point where we’re simply just enjoying India. There’s not much of an agenda, other than eat, explore, enjoy. Sounds like a book title. Laura spent a good deal of time negotiating for some wall hangings and cloth lanterns, back and forth with the proprietor. It was like watching a cross between a tennis match and a Vaudeville act, but with more contact. As the guy set the stage for the final act, Laura replied with a forehand smash. I will accept that offer, she said, if you throw in these two wall hangings. Oy, you’re bad, I said. The man put a heavy hand on my shoulder and said, wearily and with the appearance of great effort, Oh, thank you sir...thank you! as though commiserating with someone who recognized Laura’s deviousness. Then he quickly agreed and happily set to work assembling our purchases.

*  *  *

     Today we are bound for Varanasi. As soon as we are seated in the newer model vehicle, I turn to Laura and say, I could get used to this...The car takes half the time of the bus/train combo, and for that we are truly thankful. I’m remembering one of our bus rides, hours long over mostly dirt roads with windows that didn’t exactly close. We were covered in dirt by the end. Literally covered - after the trip I shook out my formerly white cotton shirt, and we could hear the debris hitting the ground. There are no bathrooms on the buses so you have to wait until the bus stops somewhere and hope that it stops long enough for you to do what you need to do, and it seems like they never replace the shocks on these things...what was I saying again? Forgot to mention that on the trip to Khajuraho we made a stop where Matthew and I got off to look for a bathroom. Well, this was just a snack stop apparently, as there were a ton of chip vendors but no toilet in sight. We found a policeman and asked where we might find a bathroom. He sort of bobbed his head in a direction across the busy street. Well, there is no official looking bathroom here, just an open space, a fence and plenty of men with their backs to us. Official enough. 

Carrying on to the next page:
     This car ride however, is uneventful, at least as uneventful as an eight-hour car ride in the middle of India (quite literally the middle) can be. Even the town with the car-sized pot holes (that is no joke or hyperbole - there was construction going on that necessitated ninety-degree turns in every direction, including down and up) does not merit much more than a glance from us. I am, however, happy to know that there is a town with more and slightly larger potholes than Winnipeg.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Local Bus

The rickshaw driver who takes us to the bus station cannot understand why we’d take a bus to Fatehpur Sikri when he could take us there and back for only seven hundred rupees. Well, for one thing, the bus there and back will be two hundred rupees. We’re getting the sense that there is an impression that money is no object for Westerners. There are times when a private vehicle is warranted, welcome or maybe even necessary. But the local bus provides an experience that is somehow more real, more right, and more informative. The bus ride is a bumpy, dusty affair, the bus itself scarred on the outside (and in some places on the inside) by the unwashed remains of previous passengers’ colourfully recorded memories of this trip. Less than half way there, the woman in front of Laura and Matthew appears to be looking at the somewhat mangled bare foot of the young man a few rows ahead. After a few lurches, she asks her neighbour for the window seat. She rolls down the window and hangs her head out. I give Laura the back pack in case she needs to deflect anything.
     We manage to arrive incident free, and right off the bus are asked by a few people if we would like a guide, very cheap price. No thanks. But how can you see the beauty of this place without a guide? This is the third time that line has been used on us in the last twenty-four hours. Not to take anything away from what a guide can offer, we’ve found that it’s often more fun to let the kids spend time in some of the nooks and crannies, and experience things at our own pace, not feeling like we’re on the guide’s schedule. Some of the guides that we have overheard didn’t have much useful information. ‘Lookit the statues here. The carving is very intricate. It is an elephant. Now lookit here....’ dragging their clients from one point of interest to another. From what I’ve seen, I’m half convinced that some guides are making up their commentary on the spot. 
     A hopeful restaurant owner points out a shortcut to Fatehpur's main gate, which involves a short climb up a garbage covered hill, complete with, much to Jonas and Matthew’s delight, a warthog rooting around in the garbage. At the top of the hill we are greeted by a naked boy and his only slightly more clothed older brother. 
     Fatehpur Sikri is a city that was built by a Mughal emperor several hundred years ago, but was abandoned not long after. As such, it is in immaculate condition. Immediately inside the massive, one hundred and sixty-five foot high front gate, a young man presents himself and tries to begin our tour, like he works there. A student, he says.  We say we’re not interested in a guide. No guide, I just tell you and show you, come over here. Look, not interested. He keeps on and on and on, following us for several minutes, until I finally just turn and move into his space for a change. Listen, we are not interested in you following us around. You’re pissing me off. Go away. Okay, but promise you won’t let any other student guide you around? Get lost, I say, leaning in a little closer, cage door opening wider.
     Mughal emperor Akbar originally called his walled city Fatehpur, or Town of Victory, after, yes of course, a particular military victory of which he was quite proud. Fatehpur Sikri today is a wondrous place (even without the guide), an architectural inspiration, well maintained, with lots of green space. It’s a fascinating place for all of us to wander around, with all kinds of delicate, lacy, carved stone screens in marble and sandstone.

There are a number Indian tourists visiting today and many say hello and introduce themselves, get their photo taken with us, and smile broadly. Despite the jokers, India continues to impress us.

     The helpful restauranteur is happy to see us, and he takes us up the gritty staircase to the rooftop dining area where we enjoy a relaxing meal, our cheeks brushed by a gentle and sunny dust-kissed breeze. With the bus stand right below us, we can spot our bus and head down in time to get a ticket and get on board. 

     If you visit Agra, Fatehpur Sikri cannot be missed. And I highly recommend the local bus.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Places Kids Will Love

This is sort of a response to a "Where to take your kids" travel post, that I found through Nomadic Chica's twitter feed.
The post was written by Eric Stoen, who has been all over the world, and by the sounds of it, a few times too. (He also has a logo that is eerily similar to what I used in a book a few years ago.)

But anyway, he was recommending places as top spots to take your kids while travelling, and to me there seemed to be some glaring omissions. I haven't been to a quarter of the places he's been, so it got me thinking that maybe there really isn't anywhere that wouldn't be great to take your kids, depending on your sensibilities.
People enjoy different things, and kids grow up with different things and different expectations, so what to some may be a treat, to others may be a nightmare, or at least just not fun.
So with that in mind, here are some of the coolest and most fun places we went with our kids during our year off.

Probably the most amazing place for all of us: Angkor.
Just say it out loud: Angkor. How cool is that? And if you think it sounds cool, check out what's there.

And if you think that looks cool, imagine watching your kids exploring through it all. One day, our older kid took the the book (that we purchased from a young boy carrying a library of books through the ruins) and used that as a guide to take us around to his favourite spots.

Angkor in Cambodia would be my number on place to take kids for extreme cool factor.

Next stop, maybe Termessos in Turkey. I'll just show a few pictures and say no more (other than to say it's located north of Antalya, in these hills).

Fun cities would be Rome for starters. Ice cold water flowing from ancient fountains on nearly every street corner. Super old and fascinating attractions like the Colosseum, museums with neat scale models of the city in its heyday, warm and sunny weather, enormous churches with incredible statues that look like they've jumped out of a Marvel comic book, the list goes on and on.

Petra would be another favourite, great for kids who love to climb and hike and see some of the most amazing remains of any ancient city on Earth.

For some quiet beach time, why not hit up a under-hyped Greek island like Chios? If you're in Limnos in the middle of September, you'll have the whole beach to yourself. 

Climbing sand dunes in the Wadi Rum in Jordan, and hanging out with some Bedouins and fellow travellers for the night.

Swimming in the Dead Sea.

Man, there are a lot of cool places on this Earth that do not include Disney princesses.

The point is, if you want to travel, don't let having kids stop you. There are loads of places they will love, and probably some they won't. But don't let someone's 10 Best list spoil your plans. If you think your kids will enjoy something you've picked out with them in mind, chances are they probably will. After all, they're your kids.

Taj Mahal Reprise

We managed to heed the call of our alarm, woke the boys, and made our way down to a bleary-eyed breakfast, if such a thing exists. We sat in a small covered area just out front of the hotel doors, waiting for a breakfast that did not understand that we wanted to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal.

The distractions of Agra being what they are managed to make the main gate completely invisible to us despite the fact the gate was about a hundred yards from our hotel, but a fortuitous (albeit late) right turn brought us to the entrance at the west gate. Wow, the entrance fee is two rupees!! if you're an Indian citizen. I looked around; we did not qualify. As non-residents, we would pay full fare, 500 rupees then. Kids were entitled to free admission, so once again I found myself amazed that we would be witnessing yet another marvel for only a few dollars each.

The Taj Mahal is likely the most photographed building in the world, and as such, we were originally prepared for it to be something of a cliché, our visit to be fun but perhaps a little underwhelming. We would see it, take our pictures to prove to ourselves that we were there, and we would move on.

As we approached the interior gate, we could see only a fraction of the Taj's front face through the opening.

Avoiding the eyes of the many would-be guides, we walked toward the gate, each step adjusting the proportions of the Taj Mahal in the silhouetted space, every movement forward like walking into a self-induced hypnotic state.

At one point, the gate and the Taj set one another off perfectly, showcasing the spectacular symmetry of the entire site; as the sun began to rise, a touch of muted pink began to reflect of the large main dome. Perfect timing for us.

We stepped through the gate, and realized we were now completely under the spell.

We looked, and we breathed, we looked at each other, and looked around some more. We took pictures of our boys

and they took pictures of us.

We took pictures of others

and others took pictures of us.

I took pictures of the details

reflections on the pond

the classic Taj Mahal shots that have been showcased in magazines all over the world

and then we did it all over again. Laura and the boys, everyone on their own, standing, sitting
and standing again. Hoods down so we can see faces
and then with the sun rising higher, once more with this more intense red on our faces

and new shadows on the Taj Mahal behind us.

Twenty-minutes and exactly fifty pictures later, we descended the steps, but not without one more photo as I make my way down.

Seconds later, I whispered to Laura, "...stop..." and we started the process all over again.


wide angles

Laura with one

and Laura with the other

and then someone offered to take a family shot.

The air was thick with wonder and despite the many tourists and gawkers, nothing could diminish the sense that we were witnessing something extraordinary. The fountains in the reflecting pools were not turned on until later in the morning, so we were gifted with a near glass-like reflection of all we could see, a gentle breeze carefully and continuously manipulating our double view.

As the sun rose higher, the colours began to intensify, the morning haze giving way to a brilliant, jewel-like blue, the pink glaze on the white marble moving on to yellow-gold.

The minarets reflected back like lighthouses

directing tired seafarers (and travellers) safely towards their destination.
Because of the monumental scale of the building, its shape appeared to change with every step forward.

Thirty-one minutes and fifty-four pictures later, we put on our protective booties

and stepped out on to the marble base, upon which the Taj Mahal sits. We looked in every direction, still transfixed by the wonder of it all, the sun growing warmer on our faces.
The Taj is accompanied by a mosque on one side

and an identical Jam'at Khanah, a 'house of assembly,' on the other

each offering us more unique views. As we inspected the meticulous marble inlay work near the main entrance of the Taj

a middle-aged man in a black and gold sweater tapped our younger son on the shoulder and politely asked if he would take a picture of him and his wife. The man had a thick scarf pulled snugly around his neck, his wife wore an off-white shawl over her sparkling blue sari.

Thank you, the man said as he smiled at our son while retrieving his camera. He could have asked me, I was standing right there, but he chose to ask our ten year-old son. It's moments like these, added up over months of travelling, that make everything seem so worthwhile, and so alive in our memories.
Several times we walked around, looking from every possible angle

and looking across the Yamuna River, trying to imagine life in the 1600s when the Taj Mahal was built.

Seeing it last night from the north side of the river was an experience that seemed to spring from our dreams.

But now we've been here, we've touched it. It's real.

Eighty-five minutes and ninety-two pictures later, we stepped off the marble platform, removed our booties, and meandered about the grounds.

Eventually we settle in The Garden, atop the small island mid-way between the main gate and the Taj.

We watched as Indian families and groups of young men carefully posed and took their own group photos. We listened in on casual conversations in Hindi, and several attempted (some successful) business transactions in English, as a 'guide' would do his best to lure a tourist to a particular spot for that perfect photo op and offer to take said photo, us knowing full well that an exchange of rupees would be asked for at the end of it all. "Here, Ma'am, it is over her that you must see, the Taj Mahal is most pleasantly positioned for your best photo. Come, I will take it for you. "No, a little further this way," he would say, trying to direct his usually female client out of earshot where his demands would not be heard by others.
A little more wandering

and, one hour and fifty-seven minutes later, we left through the front gate

back into the busyness of Agra

returning to our hotel rooftop for a picturesque lunch, if such a thing exists.

The whole experience reminded me of a conversation I had with my artist friend Christian, about how artists can amplify a sense of beauty by creating a relatively plain or sedate atmosphere set to act as a foil to the focal point of a work. Chris made specific reference to Rembrandt's paintings and how many of them involve a single light source that illuminates only a fraction of the work, intensifying the impact of the moment captured on the canvas. As well, we talked about Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and how you have to sit through a sometimes agonizingly dull twenty minutes of fairly average music, until all of a sudden you are hit with this powerful, anthemic masterpiece that is made that much more majestic because thirty seconds ago you were ready to walk out on him. And now this.

So yes, the Taj Mahal is a great building, a remarkable icon, but to find it here, after two months of travelling in India (which I must stress is anything but agonizingly dull), the land of open sewers, cows on the streets, garbage and dung underfoot everywhere, poverty and overcrowding, crumbling infrastructure, spitting, burping and all manner of other expulsions, one rupee one pen one chocolate, hello sir rickshaw yes please, let me take you to my shop, men with guns urinating on the side of the road*, twenty-hour train rides and ten thousand kilometres later...step through a gate, take a breath and smile...and marvel at this marble angel that sits quietly before you for no other reason than to be beautiful. And as shallow as it is, it works, because it IS beautiful. A monument to love, painstakingly crafted by the hands of twenty thousand imported workers under the thumb of a man who was likely going mad.
We strive for beauty, every day, in our lives, our actions, our thoughts, sometimes succeeding and many times failing, and here before us is what appears to be a physical manifestation of what we work for all our lives. And yet, it's just a building, a beautiful building set amidst a hard and often unforgiving landscape. It's a building that makes me realize that every bit of good we do has a place, and the more hopeless the situation seems, the more wondrous that little bit of good can be. When a child comes to us begging for money**, and Laura asks the child what their name is, plays games with them and sings them songs, the smiles that they return are like the light of the sun somehow touching the darkest places on Earth, and it begins to warm up. Just a little bit.

* India is all his and so much more. It is very easy to dwell on the negative, as I found myself doing on many occasions, but there is just so  much to see and do, so many friendly and inquisitive people, that a visit to India cannot help but lift your spirits.

**There were many children who would ask us for money, but the majority did not. When it did happen, it often seemed like they were not so much interested in the answer as just breaking the ice and opening up conversation, after which all sorts of questions would come.