They faced a long drive to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The tour office had assigned them a guide. Nupur was a tiny woman of four foot eleven inches and shining, thick black hair. Nupur wore a red dot between her brows and her sari like the robes of a queen.
Their minivan came with a driver and his son. Each time they reached a bad place on the dirt roads the small boy jumped out to assess it. Kim saw deep potholes and was glad for their combined care.
The sun beat down. They drove through parched countryside that needed the rain the monsoons would bring. Each home they passed had water sprinkled in the dirt before the door to keep down dust.
Finally, they reached Hampi, and Hampi looked nothing like the beaches of Goa. Hampi was the surface of the moon. The landscape consisted of huge sandstone boulders with the Tungabhadra River running through it. Here the Hindu god Shiva was the consort of Pampa, goddess of the river.
When they saw where the bus was heading, everyone gasped.
“Holy cows! Look at the tower!” Greg exclaimed.
The Virupaksha temple was a pyramid topped with a spire and a red flag. Impressive from a distance, up close the temple was gargantuan. It towered a hundred and fifty feet above their heads.
Architects had carved the creamy white stone into decorative levels. Exotic gods. Strange goddesses. Female figures spraddle-legged and touching themselves.
A gigantic wooden chariot was parked in the temple’s huge courtyard. Long yellow garlands draped the wagon. The top of the chariot hid under a multi-colored cloth. It ballooned out in wide stripes of reds, yellows, oranges and blues. High up, carved lions raised their paws and carved horses reared.
“Tonight this chariot will carry the god Shiva to the river for the Nandi Purnima,” Nupur informed them. “It’s a Nandi full moon. Nandi’s the bull who attends Shiva, so this is extra auspicious.”
The tour group left the minivan and gawked, mouths open.
When Kim had told her friends back home about the tour, everyone was excited. “Wow! India! You’ll have incredible adventures! It has the most powerful spiritual energy. They say you go to India and come back changed.”
She’d responded with vague remarks; Kim was a reluctant pilgrim. She didn’t trust people who talked about India as a portal to enlightenment.
But Goa was too Western for her tastes after all. After ten days on the beach, she hungered for the real India… whatever that was. She wouldn’t experience more than a small chunk of the subcontinent. What did she expect, beach parties or yoga in ashrams? Goat curry, or moguls and the Taj Mahal? Ayurveda medicine, or Kashmir shawls? Nonviolent resistance, or gang rape and murder on a public bus? Castes and slums and hovels, or India’s headlong advances as a BRIC nation?
There was surely more than the mutilated saint of Goa’s Catholicism. “There are as many religions as there are people on the planet,” Gandhi had said. India was Hindu and as easily Muslim and Buddhist and Zoroastrian and Christian and Jain and Sikh and Baha’i and….
And, Kim reminded herself, India’s a mirror. Travelers who expect poverty and squalor find both in spades. Visitors seeking enlightenment find that, too. What am I here for? If I stay open minded, what’ll I find? She chewed the tip of her pen. Goa was Portuguese, she considered writing, and gorgeous ocean views, the rave scene and meals eaten in beach shacks. Every sentence sounded like factoids from a travelogue.
I always feel a little strange when I recognize it’s time to mark milestones and I have several to announce.
This is my 99th blog post.
I’ve posted in these virtual pages twice a month since I began way back in September of 2012. It all started with my husband’s suggestion that I establish an Internet presence….
My published books are fiction, and this blog serves as a good place to present excerpts. Potential readers of my books might want a sample of my writing and a glimpse of the human being behind the words. It’s also a place for non-fiction essays. I get to explore ideas and topics that don’t need to be transformed for novels. Posting every other week is great writerly discipline. I’ve never missed a bi-monthly posting date!
…. and this all began simply as a way to introduce my two novels Tsunami Cowboys and Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Both are available at amazon.com in book and eBook form.
It’s been a fun journey these last three years! Thanks to all of you for visiting these pages. I wish everyone the happiest of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year with an announcement. Milestone #2 is on the way!!!
Uwe and I put an exclamation point at the end whenever we talk about Khajuraho! We visited last January, and we’re still talking about it.
In the interests of proper grammar I’m leaving out the exclamation point from now on. You may add it in for yourselves if you like.…
When we visited, Khajuraho could only be reached via a long trek on bad roads. Since we’re talking about India, this means the roads are bad indeed.
The driver we’d hired was there to meet us at our hotel in Agra, and off we went. Five bone-jolting hours later we reached our destination.
Along with its inaccessibility, Khajuraho is notorious for 1,000 year old, perfectly preserved, UNESCO World Heritage erotic carvings.
Somehow this site survived a millennia (millennia, people!), in a spot that had no fortresses or fortifications to speak of. The temple complex existed simply for the purpose of worship.
And what worship. Every single inch of the temple buildings are carved in high relief, depicting gods, tender lovers, voluptuous attendants, monkeys, elephants, assistants for the sexual act….
Hundreds of skilled stonemasons were hired to build the site. The Khajuraho region has excellent sandstone, and the sandstone temples were built with granite foundations. All were constructed without mortar! Instead, gravity holds the stones together with mortise and tenon joints. Some of these stones are megaliths weighing up to 20 tons.
The glory of sandstone is that it loans itself to delicate carving. Even viewing the temple walls from the ground we could see the wrinkles in Ganesh’s trunk; the fingernails of the apsaras and the beads in their strands of jewelry; the sheer layers of veils over their thighs and buttocks.
Uwe vanished almost immediately with his camera, leaving me alone with the young male guide. I could feel my face go red, and it wasn’t a hot flash or sunburn. I was terribly afraid of how embarrassed I was going to be. But the guide pointed out the various depictions of the act of love and spoke in a clear calm voice, explaining the significance (pull your minds of out the gutter, dear readers) in terms of energy, religion, and esoteric philosophy.
It was mid-January, past the usual Christmas tourist season. It was also a two-week period when northern and central India get swathed in fogs – something smarter tourists than we knew. As a result we had the pleasure of being two of the few Westerners at the site.
Most of the others were Indians on holiday, and I was touched to see that at Khajuraho, this meant young married couples. They walked around the compound, standing in front of particularly erotic carved panels, heads together in discussion.
While only 10% of the carvings depict sexual acts, you can guess which panels elicited the most commentary. These were the love-making couples known as maithunas. Other carvings depict everyday activities: playing musicians, potters, farmers, soldiers on horseback, etc.
The temples were probably built in the one hundred year period between 950 and 1050 AD, during the Rajput Chandella dynasty. According to historical records, by 1100 Khajuraho contained 85 temples covering 20 square kilometers. Roughly 20 temples still stand. They were located 60 kilometers from Mahoba, the medieval capital of the Chandela kingdom.
When Muslim rulers took control, heathen places of worship were systematically destroyed. Ironically, even centuries ago the remoteness of these temples helped secure their survival. Nature did the rest as vegetation and forest reclaimed the site. For years the temples were covered by dense date palm trees which gave the city its name: in Hindi, Khajur = date. (The more ancient name was Vatsa.)
The scenes explain Hinduism’s four goals for life: dharma (right way of living), kama (aesthetic enjoyment), artha (prosperity) and moksha (liberation). The complexity of the geometric layout and the grid pattern of the temples with their circles, squares and triangles, the importance of geographic orientation and bodies of water and the carvings’ iconography is beyond my very weak grasp. Instead, here is an excerpt from the UNESCO website:
Greatly influenced by the Tantric school of thought, the Chandela kings promoted various Tantric doctrines through royal monuments, including temples. Sculptors of Khajuraho depicted all aspects of life. The society of the time believed in dealing frankly and openly with all aspects of life, including sex. Sex is important because Tantric cosmos is divided into the male and female principle. Male principle has the form and potential, female has the energy. According to Hindu and Tantric philosophy, one cannot achieve anything without the other, as they manifest themselves in all aspects of the universe. Nothing can exist without their cooperation and coexistence. In accordance with ancient treaties on architecture, erotic depictions were reserved for specific parts of the temples only. The rest of the temple was profusely covered with other aspects of life, secular and spiritual. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
Khajuraho remained forgotten by the outside world until 1838 when a British army engineer, Captain T.S. Burt, was carried in via palanquin. I laughed so hard when I read that the Victorian officer was shocked by what he found….
On July 4th, Germany made soccer history. They are the first country to ever make it to four World Cup Semi-Finals in a row. I’m back in the US for a visit, and watched that game early in the morning on my friend’s couch with the German flag in face paint on my cheeks and a German lei draped around my neck.
I came to soccer late. It wasn’t until after I moved to Europe in 1992 that I realized how exciting the World Cup is. The globe takes its soccer pretty seriously (understatement of the century!); I first became a fan out of a need to share in the experience or miss out on life for weeks at a time. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, I became a fan for real. What great matches! What a party!
So here I am in 2014, cheering on everyone. I’ve cajoled my friends into going to pubs and restaurants with wide screen televisions, or watching at home. I was happy to see the USA make it through the elimination round in Group G (the Group of Death), ironically up against Ghana, Portugal, – and Germany. I rooted for both even as I knew Germany would take it.
During the next round I watched the Argentina-Belgium match on a Spanish speaking station. I had the volume turned low, but I love hearing the cheering and chanting of fans in the stands.
The sounds suddenly reminded me of Pink Floyd, of all things. I was 16 when Dark Side of the Moon was released, and if you know me that fact explains everything. But Floyd’s earlier album (and that’s a word that really dates me) Meddle contains the song “Fearless” with a background of singing Liverpool F.C. fans. At the time I didn’t know from soccer. I was sure the sound had to be religious chanting, like the noise of saffron robed Indians on a hillside in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Remember the scene in Dharmsala where they sing out notes and point at the sky? I somehow made a connection between religion, and Pink Floyd, and joyous tones.
It was decades later that I moved to Europe. When I heard the chants of fans in the stadiums I realized with a start that it’s really about soccer.
So it’s all come full circle. I’m back for a visit in the wonderful country of my birth; I’m watching the land I currently call home kick butt and take names as they make sports history; and it’s all accompanied by a soundtrack that returns to me to one of the happiest times of my life.
GO TEAM !!!
A shout out to Mark O’Brien and American Dream Pizza for opening up the bar early so we could watch Germany make more history as they beat Brazil. 7-1, baby! http://www.adpizza.com/
Soccer ball image courtesy http://www.dreamstime.com. Cover art work for Pink Floyd’s Meddle, image courtesy of Wikipedia. Music video courtesy of YouTube.
“A brave heart and a courteous tongue,” said he. “They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling.” —The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936)
We’re in India for a few weeks and currently we’re riding in the back of an open jeep. We spent the better part of 5 hours each day on really bad roads to get here. Now we’re layered in the few long-sleeved clothes we brought along. How cold can it be if you’re not way up north trekking in the Himalyas?
How cold? Man, it’s effing freezing.
It’s shortly after 6 a.m. in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and we’ve been up since 5. “Remind me,” I beg. “What are we doing here?” I wrap the blanket the tiger lodge lent us tighter around my body. (What I really want is a sub zero temperatures sleeping bag.) “Remind me,” I ask again. “Why are we doing this?”
“You wanted to come back to India,” Uwe prompts.
“Oh, yeah. Now I remember.” And it’s true: I was really excited to return. I fell in love with the subcontinent when we visited a decade ago. In Goa we walked miles of pristine beaches. In Karnataka we attended an astonishing Nandi Purnima, the full moon festival, and Hampi was a bare landscape filled with gigantic boulders and ancient temples.
In a country this exotic and large, surely we’d experience something new when we came back. What I did not expect was that I’d be freezing my ass off.
We’re doing a mix of culture and nature. India is one of the two most populated countries on the planet, and we thought it would be smart to schedule some time in quieter areas too. I’m glad we did. The north central region of Madya Pradesh is green and varied and home to some of the few remaining wild Bengal tiger populations.
So for two days at Bandhavgarh and a day at Kanha National Park*, we haul our sorry butts out of bed at the crack of dawn, pull on all our clothes and drape ourselves in borrowed blankets. 6 a.m.-1 p.m. for the early safari; 3-6 p.m. for the afternoon attempt. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot a big cat.
We’re not lucky. We’re cold.
Later we shed layers as the day warms up. The parks contain barking and spotted deer, gaurs, nilgai,
lemurs and langurs,
wild peacocks and other birdlife,
wild boar, and a landscape filled with watering holes and high grasses, forest and farmers’ villages. On the second day at Bandhavgarh our jeep carries a park ranger to inspect a water buffalo kill from the night before. It occurred just outside the official boundary of the preserve and the farmer will be reimbursed for the animal the tiger took down.
We aren’t allowed to leave the jeep – ever – and the ranger approaches the carcass very slowly.
Where there’s a fresh kill, the big cat can’t be far.
By the third day I’ve perfected what I name the mummy wrap. I have myself wrapped so tight that I literally can’t move, but this way the blanket doesn’t unwind in the cold wind.
And, suddenly, a tiger leaps from the forest, followed by his mate. He moves into the reeds and returns dragging a dead spotted deer by the neck.
We see them for less than a minute and those seconds are absolutely worth the days of waiting. My God, they’re magnificent! During the afternoon safari we get lucky again: 10 seconds of spotting a shyer, rarer leopard.
Uwe captures the group of spotted deer nervously fleeing the leopard. He’s in Photographer Heaven.
Naturally we’re already dreaming about an African safari (… and I’ll pack a wool jacket, just in case…).
NOTES: *Kanha National Park provided the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. Go to my earlier post Travel Karma to read about our first visit to India. More pictures from India and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.
Travel karma is the bad luck, bad weather, bad room, bad case of Montezuna’s revenge… all the moments that you hope you’ll look back on and laugh about someday. That Jamaica honeymoon your brother booked, and the hotel had a fire? Blame it on travel karma. Our week on Malta in the autumn month that the travel agent swore got only 2-3 days of rain, and we were there for all 5 of them? Oh, yeah. It was travel karma.
There’s nothing you can do except shrug your shoulders, find a comfy café to hang out, and pull out the book you brought along.
Travel karma is other moments, too. It’s serendipity, the magic of being in the right place at the exactly right time. It’s the town festival you stumble into while out exploring. Travel karma is the restaurant with the fixed price menu that turns out to include champagne throughout the meal. It’s when you jump on a train 10 seconds before the doors close to leave.
Every so often travel karma gives you a heady dose of both moments…
We booked a charter flight to India.
I don’t always sleep well on the eve of a trip, and slept especially poorly this night. The next morning we were on a very early ICE train to Frankfurt to get our flight to India. The ICE is a sleek, fast train that makes few stops and great time.
I hauled my train pass out of my travel purse out of my day back for the train attendant to check. Tired, I reminded myself that I would need to put the pass back in the purse and the purse back in the day pack.
We got off the train and headed up into the airport. A few horrified minutes later I realized my purse was right where I’d left it, on the seat of a train now heading to Amsterdam… containing my passport. And my credit cards. And my train pass. And $$s. And €€s, all the ready money I was carrying as we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find cash machines.
We could get more cash in the airport and use Uwe’s credit cards, but I wasn’t going anyplace unless I got my passport back. The helpful folks at DB (Deutsches Bahn) contacted the train and they checked: my purse still lay on the seat where I’d left it! The problem was that the next scheduled stop for the ICE wouldn’t be until Köln, several hours up the tracks. DB would hold my purse for me there. There was no way I’d have my passport back in time for us to make our plane.
It was too late to do anything but rebook the flight to India. If I said “Uwe, I’m soooo sorry!” once, I said it 100 times. Man, did I feel awful. But – it was travel karma.
Uwe climbed on the next train heading back to Stuttgart (looking a whole lot less happy than he had early that morning) and I caught a train to Köln. The DB personnel hadn’t been able to report if my purse still contained my valuables. My passport was stamped with the resident alien visa that allowed me to remain in Germany. And without my passport I couldn’t head back to America to see my country, or my family, or go anywhere, for that matter. I felt oddly vulnerable. This situation was bad, and the more I worried about it, the worse it became.
As I sat on the train I bargained with the travel gods: “Just leave me the passport.”
When we reached Köln I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since supper the night before. I wasn’t ready yet for good/bad news about my purse. I bought myself a sandwich and a coffee and stalled for five minutes. Then it was time… I headed to Lost & Found and told someone my story. Of course, I no longer had any ID to prove who I was. He asked me to describe the purse and what was in it. I flinched inside as I told him.
The nice man vanished into the back and returned with my purse. “Go ahead and check that everything’s there,” he suggested. I know my hands shook as I unzipped it and looked.
Not a pfennig had gone missing. I shrieked Ya-hoo! and he laughed. Then I said thank you and left the little office.
I went directly to the flower vendor kitty-corner to Lost & Found and bought the largest bouquet of white blooms they offered. I marched with the bouquet back into the Lost & Found office. The employees all looked up astonished when they saw me again.
My voice quavered. “These are for all of you. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Thank you for doing your jobs’. It’s so great to know that there are still honest, helpful people in the world!” Nonplussed, they accepted the flowers, but everyone was smiling.
The train trip back to Stuttgart from Köln took 3 hours. The next charter flight to India left 3 days later. When we got finally got there I had one of the most amazing trips of my life. I probably used up a lot of good travel karma on that day I had to journey to Köln, but I hope I’ve added to my karma account since then. And I will never, ever forget my belongings on a train going anywhere. That’s one lesson I’ve learned!