(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.
(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")
- 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.
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.)