Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Abhaneri Step Well

This is a video of an 11 story deep step well in India that would keep M.C. Escher up at night. It's accessed by walls of staircases. No waiting.

Click for video
Abhaneri Step Well

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Celebrity Stalker

The Times of India

Goldie Hawn prays, meditates in Varanasi

Hollywood actress in holy Hindu city

Tue, Nov 10, 2009 10:54:55 GMT

Goldie Hawn is in India for a spiritual trip. The Oscar winning actress is at home in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi where she performed pooja, paid obeisance to her late guru, and also meditated in a boat on the holy river Ganges.

The 63-year old actress performed 'Ganga Aarti' at the Dashashwamedh Ghat (wharf) and visited an ashram to offer flowers as a tribute to her late guru Devkinandan Shastri. She first met the guru about 32 years ago and took lessons in spirituality and astrology from him.

 “I am fascinated by India and its culture and colours. This is my seventh visit to the holy city and the main purpose of the visit was to pay homage to my late guru, who imparted me lessons in astrology and spirituality,” Hawn is quoted as saying by PTI.

Later on, Hawn went shopping for silk shawls in the city. She also observed a Hindu religious ceremony from a boat.

(Image courtesy agencies)


As many of you know (Having heard it from me repeatedly) I am possessed of a certain dark charm that, while not immediately apparent, develops over time. Staci can confirm that it takes approximately 20 years to find me just irresistable. The rest of you will have to take my word for it. (Check back in a couple decades, though. If you're still alive we can have lunch and compare notes.)

I mention this by way of explaining why I'm not responsible for this recent embarrassing situation in Varanasi and would hope that the news media will respect my privacy and that of my wife. She's putting on a brave front; feigning indifference (Those little barks of derisive laughter are Staci's way of feigning indifference...) but it's important she know there's nothing going on between me and Goldie Hawn.

Sure, there's a little history there.

Back in the seventies, I'll admit to finding Goldie attractive. I'll even acknowledge taking grand prize in the "Win a Bubble Bath With Goldie Hawn!" contest four year's running though I never actually collected on it. (Granted that I was creator of and sole participant in the contest but I still feel her publicist and security people over-reacted a bit when I turned up with the Mr. Bubble and several cans of Crazy Foam.) At any rate I remained a fan of Miss Hawn over the years, from a minimum distance of 1,000 feet, as we went on with our respective lives.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when she suddenly turned up in Varanasi everywhere we were visiting. Morning boating on the Ganges; Aarti ceremonies at the Ghats, visiting the bazaars and the Bharat Mata temple; she would show up everywhere shortly after we left. I immediately realized what was happening.

As recounted in the Nov. 4th post, after Staci and I won the annual turban wrapping contest at Pushkar, our pictures were all over TV and in the papers. I put two and two together...

Goldie must have seen me splashed across the media and that dark charm thing kicked in. Now she was  trailing me during the day and spending tortured nights (I'm naturally assuming...) dreaming of me, poor thing. (By the way, Staci just fell off the sofa in great gales of feigned indifference. Poor thing...)

I was relieved to get to the airport for our flight to Delhi, thinking a little distance might help bring her back to her senses. We'd made it through security and were waiting for our plane when I had the feeling I was being watched. I looked around the waiting room till I noticed a blonde woman, surrounded inconspicuously by photographers, who seemed to be making an awfully transparent show of totally ignoring my existence.

It was her! Worse, she was between me and the exit and bound for Delhi on the same plane we were. I was about to be trapped at 20,000 feet with 2 women who were both overwhelmed by a burning, raging indifference (Feigned...) How was I going to keep them apart? How was I going to prevent a catfight? How was I going to get a kiddie pool full of jello onto an airplane, 3 ounces at a time?

Fortunately, I'd had the foresight to book us coveted seats in the rear of the plane while Goldie was stuck in those lonely, oversized seats up front. Once we got to Delhi, I cleverly got us stuck in large lines with everyone else while she was whisked off by security. Hopefully, time will help her to recover someday. (Staci? Do you need a glass of water or something? A little heimlich maybe? Where are you going?)Well, at least it ended with no-one getting hurt. By no-one, I mean me; which is the important thing as Kurt Russell  could probably kick my charming butt. (Oh, let's face it; Goldie Hawn could probably kick my charming butt.)

Plus, imagine how awkward it would have been once word gets about about my having won the third annual "Win a Hot Oil Massage From Kate Hudson" contest.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Varanasi- The Holy City

(As Staci says, Varanasi was a profound experience and doesn't lend itself to joking about. I'll present my review later on but I think Staci's impressions pretty much stand on their own.)

It’s taken a bit of time before I felt ready to capture my memories about Varanasi. It seems like most of us in our group fell pretty silent for this part of the journey.

Varanasi is the holiest of the Hindu cities and is also one of the oldest cities in the world. There is written history that dates back more than 4000 years. Our goal was to see the Ganges river at sunrise and again at sunset. For the sunrise trip we were able to drive pretty close to the old city that led down to the river. Our driver parked as close as he could and then we all got out and walked the rest of the way. It was still dark and we were warned to watch out for cow patties (which is why we were instructed to bring flashlights on the trip - and here I thought those would be for the camping portion). As we walked the narrow walkways toward the river we passed tightly packed small wooden structures where the shop keepers sold their goods. Cows and dogs wandered aimlessly along with women holding babies on their hips and small children begging for money. Even though there were quite a few people it seemed like the only voices heard were those of the hawkers and beggars. Everyone else seemed to be caught up in spiritual quietness.

In single file, our group made its way down a long series of steps and landings to the waterfront where we got into a small boat and were rowed away from the shore. Looking back on the river front we could see many hundreds of people in both directions as far as the eye could reach. A small family sat on the steps together as they performed a ceremony of some sort; several priests performed ceremonies in solitude; a couple of girls helped wash each others hair in the river; an old man with long stringy white hair and beard bathed himself in the water, as did several other people. Men swam across the river and back. Some people threw flowers and/or incense into the river. Over a muted loudspeaker, a yogi called out yoga poses to a group of followers and several people washed clothes, pounding the material against flat stones along the river wall. There was an eerie quiet about it all and everyone along the shore seemed completely caught up in only what they were doing, as if they were the only ones there. As our boat was rowed up and down the river the same scenes play out again and again, until we reached an area much further down the river. As we approached the area we could see a little smoke rising. Our trip leader told us that once we passed a certain marker we were no longer allowed to take pictures out of respect for the families. Even the hawkers who had been coming along side our boat, with their boat filled with goods to sell, stopped and did not bother us as we were in this area. We saw family members stand close to the cremation pyres as they said their final good-bye to a loved one.

After we finished our boat tour we again walked single file up the stairs and through another very old section of the city where the passageways were even more narrow than they had been earlier that morning (that did not seem possible). We passed the shops where fabric was sold that the Hindus use to wrap the dead and shops that sold the flowers that they used to cover the deceased. We also passed a couple shops where men were having all of their hair cut off. It seemed kind of strange to me that they were all going for the same hair style. I was wondering if they were becoming Monks. Later I found out that when a loved one passes away, the eldest son or another appointed male will have their hair cut off as a sign of respect. It is also this person’s duty to care for all the cremation arrangements.

That evening we made our way back toward the bathing ghats. This time the city was much more crowded and we could not drive as close to the Ganges as has we had that morning.  Our driver took us as far as he could and then we took rickshaws the rest of the way in. The rickshaw ride was very entertaining but I really felt sorry for the guy who was peddling the bike with Denny and me in his carriage.

As we got closer and closer to the Ganges river the noise level got louder, the crowds were more densely packed and the air was charged with excitement. Once again in single file, our group made its way down the steps to the waterfront. The beggars and hawkers seemed more persistent this time and I was surprised to see that one of the young girls selling flowers and candles had managed to make her way onto our small boat. We were once again rowed out to the middle of the river where we could look back at the scene we had just left. As the sun set, the river banks took on a whole new look. Candles were lit all up and down the riverfront. There were priests, each on his own altar, one next to the other. They were all performing the same ceremony in unison which included fire, Ganges water and incense. There were bells clanging, chanting, singing, loud speakers blaring, etc… It all seemed like a rather chaotic gathering to me. It wasn’t until we rowed further down the river where it became very quiet, that it seemed like we saw something similar to what we had witnessed during the sunrise trip.

Again we saw smoke rising, but this time it was from several sandlewood fires burning one after another all lined up along the banks of the Ganges River. There we spotted the men who had shaved their heads, each one solemnly standing by a separate fire along with a small group of family members. There were also neatly stacked piles of sandlewood that had not been set on fire yet.  By each of those stacks was a body wrapped in cloth and covered in brightly colored flowers. A small gathering of family members stood by as they waited their turn for the priest to come by and perform the cremation ceremony. When the fires ended and all that was left were ashes, the family man with the bald head would take the ashes down to the river and throw them in. Surrounded by the smoke from the fires, we sat in silence as we watched. Even though it seemed like the family members were not aware of our presence, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on something that was so deeply personal.

As we started our way back to the main festive activities, where the crowds were gathered and several priests performed ceremonies, the young girl who had joined us in the boat gave each one of us a lit candle that sat in a small bowl surrounded by flowers. Vishal explained that we could each make a wish and that when we set the candle bowl in the Ganges River our wish would come true.

Vishal informed us that what we experienced that evening played out every single night in just the same way. He said that the crowds were just as large if not larger and that for many, it would be their first trip to the Ganges River and most likely something they had wanted to do for their entire lifetime. I came away from the experience with mixed emotions and a profound respect and envy for the depth of spirituality the Hindus have.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

He said- She said Part 3

Continued from Part 2
(Click on pictures to enlarge)

Our next stop was to a women’s co-operative. Here, women are taught a skill and they were making all manner of craft items to be exported to stores in other countries. They do a lot of business with World Market and Ten Thousand Villages. The money that the women make is deposited directly into bank accounts or in some cases the women use the money to buy gold earrings that they wear as a sort of fashionable savings account. They can sell some of the gold if they need money. (Which has actually done well for them lately.) Either way, their husbands can’t take the money away from them and use it to buy liquor.

The co-op was situated in a wooded area. Outside, there was white material hanging on lines to dry, a group of women dyeing the material and another group of women sitting on the ground doing needlework. Inside, more woman were ironing, stamping, cutting and sewing material. They had 3 rooms with much of the finished products on the shelves, ready to sell.

I picked up some cloth eyeglass cases that had cats stamped on them (What! Now they've outsourced all our cat-stamped eyeglass case production to India? That trade agreement is destroying another American industry!) , along with some other items. As we walked through the various rooms, one of the ladies saw what I had in my hand and motioned that she was the one who had stamped the cat on the case. I took her picture holding the glass case.

The remainder of the day, and part of the next day, was spent traveling to Agra. Vishal arranged for us to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise and again at sunset. I don’t think there is anything I can say that would come anywhere close to describing it; and pictures simply won’t do it justice either. It was bigger than I had expected and was made of marble with inlaid gem stones that sparkled when the sun hit them at just the right moment (which was only for a few minutes in the morning and could not be captured by camera). The marble seemed to change color as the sun rose and set. (Actually, Hon, that pretty much describes it...)Vishal did a remarkable job of passionately telling us the story behind how this building came to be built and bringing it all to life for us. We took a million pictures and repeatedly Denny and I reminded ourselves that we were really in India and that we were really seeing the Taj Mahal. (Since hitting mid-fifties, I need that sort of "reality orientation" thing more and more. Right now, I've no vague idea where I am.)

More experiences, observations and stuff to remember:

  • Vishal spotted his younger brother on a local bus as we were driving around one of the days. He called him on his cell phone and had him join us on our bus when we came to a stop. When he entered our bus he bent down and touched Vishal’s feet. (And deftly tied his shoes together.) Later, Vishal explained that it was a sign of respect for the younger brother to touch the feet of the older brother and that it was a very common gesture (similar to shaking hands I guess). Women don’t do this, only the boys do it. (Women are smarter than that)

  • Vishal informed us that when traditional couples are married, the wife will not call her husband, nor refer to her husband by his first name. Instead they will say something like “this is the father of my son“. (That's right. Stick with that story.) It is considered disrespectful for the wife to say the husbands first name. Vishal said that he and his wife have made up pet names for each other. I can’t remember the name he told us he calls his wife, but it means “beautiful flower”. ("Castrating bitch" means beautiful flower? I'll never understand Hindi...) I think that this practice of the wife not saying the husbands first name may be changing with some of the more modern couples. (And the courts forcing husbands to disclose their names.)

  • The caste system is very evident here. Vishal explained that people are born into their castes and remain in them for life. If someone from the lowest caste were to become successful, they would still remain in their caste and not be accepted very easily by people in the higher castes. It is just their lot in life which is based on Karma. If someone is in the lowest caste, then it must be because they are paying for something bad they did in their last lifetime. How they handle this life will determine what caste they may be in for their next life. There is not a lot of incentive for them to try and rise to better jobs or positions in life. (The screenplay fairly writes itself! The lead role will be played, badly, by Will Ferrel)  Vishal explained that through education and the passing of some laws, some of this is slowly changing.

  • India has a very low crime rate. Vishal said that this was most likely because of the caste system and karma. (Actually it's because most everything worth stealing is siphoned off by crooked politicians before it can get down to the wanna-be thieving masses.) If you do something bad in this lifetime, you may end up paying for it in your next. I wonder if this will be changing as laws change, more people are educated and future generations come to be.

  • It seems that every member of our travel group has taken their fair turn at having “Dehli Belly” (one lady even had to be flown home as the doctor determined she was no longer fit to travel) and some of us have also experienced some upper respiratory challenges. Vishal had arranged for our bus to stop by a pharmacy to pick up contact solution and cough syrup, on our way back to the hotel. Silly me, I was expecting that they would pull off some side road and there would be a store; something like a Walgreens. (Except you can't get codeine cough syrup without a prescription at Walgreens.) Instead, we pulled up to one of the hundreds of wooden huts that lined the roads. It reminded me of the huts that you sometimes find along an island beach. It was basically a small square hut on stilts that had a swing down door they pad locked at the end of the day. The man behind the counter had all manner of medicines stacked along the narrow wooden shelves. He was able to provide cough syrup and decongestion tablets, but not the saline solution that Denny needed. (I have to sleep in it at night or I start to revert to... But perhaps I've said too much...)We stopped at a similar hut a bit further down the way and there the man behind the counter was able to supply us with the saline solution.

  • Vishal warned us that it might not be a good idea to send our laundry out for cleaning in Agra. As we were driving past the Yamuna river, he showed us where the laundry boys washed the laundry and hung it out to dry. On our trip we saw many places where Indians wash their clothes in the nearest river or water supply. In Mumbai they even have a large operation where laundry men collect laundry from homes and hotels and then hand wash them. It‘s fascinating to watch. They wet the clothes in the water, soap them up, rinse them off and slap them across a flat stone to get all the dirt out. (That's also how they wash the kids. Makes 'em grow up tough and with that popular faded look.) .In the operation we viewed in Mumbai, our tour guide explained that the stones that the laundry men were using have been handed down through generations of laundry men in the same family. (A major letdown if you were expecting that red Toyota for graduation.) In most cases, the laundry workers learned the trade from their fathers. They don’t know how to read or write, but they pick up the dirty clothes, wash, dry and iron them and then return them to their owners by the following week. They wash for hundreds of families and business and have a 100% accuracy rate - nothing ever gets lost or returned to the wrong owner. Vishal told us of a company that came into one of the cities and sold a number of washer and dryers to some of the families who could afford them. When the company representative came back to check on how well the families liked the new machines he was told “Oh yes, they work great - we love them!“ He was then taken to the area where the machines had been installed and found that the laundry workers were slapping the clothes on the machines (in place of using the stones) (He told a number of stories along this line, usually involving Indians with names like "Patelski" and "Singh-owicz")

Click for a video of Mumbai's Dhobis (Washermen) at work.

  • Indians take great pride in their elders. They recognize that they have a wealth of experience and are very wise. Children and young adults know that they have much to learn from them and treat them with a great deal of respect. (We heard this a lot, usually from the elders who seemed happy someone was talking to them.)

  • Even the very old continue to work. As Vishal says, there is no social security in India so everyone must continue doing what they can in order to keep eating. (None of that "New Deal" foolishness here, folks. This is the sort of thing that would just warm the hearts of Mark Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Actually, it would make them moan with pleasure, softly at first, and then faster and faster till, finally, they crest and lie back in each other's arms, spent, smoking cigars and basking in the afterglow...)

  • The beggars and hawkers will try anything to get some money. They’ll offer to show you the best place to take a picture, offer to walk you across the road, offer to give you advice or even ask you to take their picture - and afterwards tell you that you owe them money for their service. (Wonder what they expect if they buy you dinner...) I even had a boy tell me to watch out for a cow that was coming in my direction. He then he tried to convince me that I owed him money for his service. (You could have at least given me a fiver for my trouble. What if that cow had bumped into you? Or if you'd both ended up doing that little side-to-side jig; trying to get around each other? How awkward...)

  • Somewhere in India, someone is wearing my jewelry and 3 of my bras that were lifted from my suitcase during one of our interior country flights. (Police are looking for someone with 6 breasts who likes pretty jewelry. Was Rush Limbaugh in India that week? There, that takes care of my right-wing psycho bashing for the week. Next week, left wing nutcases...)

  • The arranged marriages still continue today. The news papers are full of match requests of people looking for brides or grooms. Our guide explained that when parents think they may have found a match, many times they will consult an astrologist who will let them know if the horoscopes are a good match. If they are, then the marriage takes place. Indians consider that Mars is a very strong influence. They believe that someone with Mars in their horoscope should marry another person who also has Mars in their horoscope. If not and the person with the Mars influence marries someone without the Mars influence, they believe one of them will die. (Another good role for Ferrel...) Indians also consider that there are 32 qualities to a person. Before committing to a new union, at least 16 of the qualities must match. (Hey, isn't that E-Harmony? Why isn't India suing them?)

  • Things are slowly changing over time. In the past, the brides family provided a dowry to the newly married couples. If the dowry was not considered to be good enough, at times there would be a "mysterious" kitchen fire and the woman would be killed. Nowadays, dowries are illegal but are still done under the table. They are not supposed to mention them in the news paper ads anymore. In these times, the article is more likely to mention that they will be provided a “very decent marriage”.

  • I think that I will miss the cows when we return home. (Yeah, squirrels just don't provide the old thrill anymore...) I’ve gotten so used to seeing them roaming or laying everywhere (in the middle of the streets, in front of the shops.) When we were outside the Taj Mahal, there was a whole herd of cattle that just seemed to like hanging around together. They didn’t belong to anybody. They moved together down one of the roads, blocking all traffic from both directions. In the midst of all the hustle, bustle and chaos, they seem to have a very calming presence. (Keep in mind that Staci was on that easily available codeine cough syrup around this time and did a lot of singing to the cows and making up little haikus for them. I'm not sure how much of it they followed but she seemed to be enjoying it...)

The night before returning home we stayed over in Gurgaon. After all that we had seen of old India, it was fun to see such a modern city.

Poonam, another coworker of mine, and her husband met us at our hotel and took us out for dinner. When we first met, Poonam introduced her husband to us by telling us his first name. Remembering what Vishal had said about Indian wives not saying their husbands name out loud, I immediately figured that they were a much more modern couple. Poonam confirmed that theirs was a "love" marriage, not an arranged one.

We had a wonderful Indian dinner and fun conversation. We learned that Gurgaon is sometimes called the Millenium City because it started to build up around that time. Both Poonam and her husband grew up in Gurgaon. They said that it was a very small town at the time they grew up there. Apparently some developers came in and convinced some of the farmers to sell their land. There are now some very wealthy farmers who don't quite know what to do with all their money. (Oh, Ferrell...)

As we left the restaurant, we noticed there was a party going on next door. Poonam said that it was a pre-wedding party. Poonam and her husband took us for a closer look and before we knew it the groom's father was welcoming us to their party. Waiter after waiter came up to us with silver trays of food and drinks. Then the groom came over and welcomed us and the next thing we knew we were having our pictures taken with them. They pulled us onto the dance floor and even videotaped us! No wonder they have such large weddings... if they let anyone from the street in what do they expect! (This was just a blast. I could have happily stayed there all night if we didn't have a 3 AM flight. They throw some wonderful parties there. Having someone actually pleased to see me turn up at a party was a fascinating, new experience. I was packed full of appetizers and several glasses of a very nice single-malt before I knew what was happening. If this is representative of their dating skills, sorority girls don't stand a snowballs chance in Mumbai.)

After seeing so many of India's older cities and small villages, Denny and I were very happy that we also had the chance to see Gurgaon and Mumbai. Both of these cities had a lot of new development taking place. It was kind of a mixed thing.. On the one hand it was facinating to see so much of the "old" India, yet on the other hand it was encouraging to see some movement and progress. Seeing the "new" provided a bit of balance to many of the sights we had seen earlier in the trip. However the changes seem to be happening at such a break-neck speed that I can't help but feel badly for those who are pained to see some of the old ways die out. It's so complex - all the conflicts between older structures and newer ones, between old traditions and the more modern ways... it must be very unsettling for some. (Don't worry. From what I've seen in my travels over the years, these are the most adaptable and resourceful people in the game. And remember that this is India. Once you get past "one hand and the other hand" there are usually at least 4 more hands to go.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

He said- She said- Part 2

As with the last "He said- She said" (See Nov. 4th blog post) this one consists of a portion of Staci's excellent travel journal. I think she's very good at capturing the feel of a place. She prefers to keep her writing private but, with her computer passwords so easy to figure out, I'm considering it public domain.

For my part, I'll just follow along and type snide comments under my breath in lovely blue Cambria 14 point.

You can click on the pictures to view them full size, by the way.

Nov 6th - Friday

We’re on a very long journey today. Currently we’re riding a train across the country to see the temples that the Chandelas constructed. (You remember those nice Chandelas? They were at Glen's dinner party?) Later we’ll fly to Varanasi and ride down the Ganges river. (For the last leg of the triathlon we have to bicycle across the Himalayas...) It’s a good time to catch up with journaling.

We spent a couple of days at the Naharghar Hotel (Apparently named by Ralph Kramden after having a bowling ball dropped on his foot...) near the Ranthambhore National Park. After driving several hours over bumpy roads (many of them were dirt roads) we saw a giant white palace looming in front of us like a mirage.

It turned out that this was the hotel we were staying in. (Actually, it turned out that it was a mirage but we'd already showered and ordered dinner in so we stayed. This confused the hell out of the neighboring goat herders)  It was wonderful and put some of our American hotels to shame. So far, all of the hotels have really been incredibly nice - a stark contrast to the huts and tarps that line the streets just outside some of the hotel gates. (Probably why the tarp huts just aren't getting the drive-by tourist business.) All of the hotels have staff that greet guests with a tray of powders and water (I think) that they use to place a dot between our eyes (I'm pretty sure that's how they identify who's allowed in the buffet line...) and a small glass of something colorful and cool to drink (usually rose water or soda pop of some sort). (The guys get beer...) A few of the hotels also greeted us with flower garlands made of marigolds and roses.  (Again, the guys get beer; later on when no-one's looking...)

All of the hotels have tall, mean looking fences and gates and almost all of them have many armed guards posted all over the place (especially in the city). We even had to walk through metal detectors every time we entered a few of the city hotels. One afternoon, a few of us decided to use the pool during some free time. We had the entire pool area to ourselves. At least that’s what we thought until one of our travel companions went off to use the ladies room. When she rounded the corner she found that there were a couple of guards equipped with rifles who were keeping watch over us. (Actually, those were guys I hired to shoot that godawful woman from Indiana if she made a move towards the pool again.  Shudder... All the guys at the pool experienced severe shrinkage far beyond what was attributable to the cold water (You could actually hear "popping" sounds as all the little elvis's "left the building", so to speak. Took 2 days, some string and a piece of cheese to lure mine back...  I still start whimpering when I remember her taking off that coverup and (Pop...) Oh, great...)
While at Ranthambhore, we visited the tiger preserve on a photo safari. We went through the park in the morning and again in the afternoon. We saw peacocks, wild boars, spotted deer, sambar deer (the bulls are very large and blue),  (Yep, I know how they feel...) nilgai (antelope), ("Some humpty-back camels and some chimpanzees"... Extra credit for this subreference...) mongoose, (I'm still all at sea about plural here; mongeese? mongooses? Nothing sounds right.) monkeys (they are everywhere, even in the towns), (They're taking our jobs, dammit!!!) a variety of birds including two sleeping owls, but I’m sad to say we never saw a tiger. I was really surprised to see the owls.. I could hardly believe my luck when my eyes came across that owl!  It looked just like they do in the story books.. perched in a hole in the middle of the tree trunk.

Deadly cannibal spotted deer finishing off his victim (That or chewing on antlers for calcium)

Happy as a monkey in a monkey tree...
Click here for video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATkJu6nV8hI

"What the hell kind of flavor is vinegar mesquite for potato chips? I hate you guys..."

When we left the area to travel toward Agra, we made a couple of stops. The first stop we made was at a local school that is supported by our travel company, OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel). (Not "Old-Ass Tourists" as I had originally guessed...) When our bus pulled up, we were greeted by a few kids and a couple of adults. They walked us to the school and along the way other kids from the village joined in.
When we got to the steps of the school we noticed that there were piles of shoes and flip-flops outside.

Apparently the kids are not allowed to wear them inside the school. The principal met us on the front steps of the school and gave us an overview of what we were about to see. (I got detention, dammit..) Our group had many questions and he patiently answered each one. The school looked like it was a large brick box, two stories high. Inside, the air was still and thick. I was glad that we were there at the coolest time of the day, as I’m not sure any of us could have handled it much warmer. The first floor had 5 rooms all packed with kids sitting on the floors. (To be fair, they could get more kids in there if they stacked them properly.) Kids were in the rooms by age/grade. In one room, the class was learning world history. Another class was learning social studies.

Our group split up and took turns visiting the classes. All the kids seemed excited to see us and had big smiles on their faces. (Anything to stop the incessant learning!!!) When we finished with the first floor, we headed up to the 2nd floor where the older kids were having classes.

Just as we reached the top of the stairs, we found that they were using the hallway as a classroom. I couldn’t get over how many kids there were and how cramped they seemed in this small building. The majority of the older kids were boys and they were eager to try their English out on us. (There's something filthy in that line someplace but I just don't have the heart to go there. Let's have a contest! Add your double or single entendre response as a comment at the end and the winner gets a nice prize. I brought lots of cheap trinkets back with me. Bob, you start. )

The teacher showed Denny and me the book they were using in class. It was an English reading book, something along the line of “See Spot Run”.(Spot had better run. The traffic here is insane and his non-sacred doggy ass is grass and then some if he doesn't keep moving.) He handed the book to Denny and asked him to read to the class. Denny read a couple of paragraphs while they all followed along. From the looks on their faces, we could see that they enjoyed hearing an American read to them

(Actually, I ignored what was in the book, telling them instead that evil men were planning to come to their school and steal their shoes and flip-flops during second period. When they don't show up, I'll blame British Intelligence.) …. Lots of smiles. We were allowed to ask questions of the class and they were very open in answering them. (Only had to waterboard the one...) They said that they all enjoyed school and wanted to continue learning. One young boy wanted to become a Bollywood star. A couple of the boys said that they were already married, at the ripe old age of 13. Because one girl’s family couldn’t afford to feed her, she was already living with her husband’s family. (That's how Staci got me. By the way, are you going to finish that chicken?) Vishal said that in the villages it was not unusual for the young marriages to happen and that most of the time the girl would continue to stay home until she was a bit older. When it came time for the girls to live with her husband, she would move in with her husband’s family and they would continue to all live together. (That's for one given value of "live.")

Our last stop at the school was to see the preschool kids, who were sitting on the ground outside under an aluminum overhang. They were adorable. (They were just cute as anything...)

They sang a song for us and then we sang two songs for them, ABC’s and Old McDonald. As we were making the animal sounds in the song, the kids were getting strange looks on their faces. It turns out that we make animal sounds very differently than they do in India for the same animals. (Yep, everything here goes "Moo" in the hope of not getting eaten.)

Once we finished with the school visit, we continued to walk through the small village. We walked along dirt paths and passed small huts. Some of the huts had what appeared to be cement platforms in front of them that they used as porches.

Vishal explained that the material used to make the platforms was actually camel dung that they piled up and patted down real hard. (Then they set it on fire, ring the doorbell and run like hell!) They even used white paint of some kind to outline and draw very pretty designs on it. The only problem with a porch made of camel dung is that it deteriorates quickly and must be replenished every couple of weeks. (Yeah, that's the only problem...) They also used some colorful paint to spruce up their homes.

They use color to ward off evil. (Or to just perk up a blue Monday...) At the end of the village we stopped at the home of a woman and her family. They gave us tea and cookies and we visited for a bit. (The lesson of dung's versatility not having been wasted on me, I stuck with just the tea...)  Two of the women had their faces hidden by the long colorful scarves that went with their saris. Vishal explained that when the husband dies, the wife is thought of as having been bad luck for the man. If she continues to live with the husbands family, she has to keep her face hidden (some sort of respect thing). Vishal further explained that in some places the widow is expected to wear only white and is therefore easily spotted by others (We saw some of this at Varanasi). We also noticed that some of the little kids and babies had black circles drawn around their eyes made with kohl. Vishal explained that they do this if the child has a cold or is sick. They believe it wards off evil and will help the child. But in fact, the stuff they use is very harmful and can cause permanent eye damage. (They'll probably just blame it on someone's widow, though...)

(To be continued on next exciting posting!!!)