Thursday, April 04, 2002

Email from India Apr 4 02

April 5, 2002

Hi All, “Warning” this is long so make sure you have enough time to read it or read it in sections.

So, here we are just 30 days left before we head back. While we are anxious to return and see all of you, we will miss many things here, most especially the friendliness and warm hospitality. After being in Kanchipuram for the last two months we needed a break so......

For the last 6 days we have been tourists. We went to the “big” city, Delhi, India’s capital, and a big city it is – about 15 million souls. Very crowded and many people crammed into a small space. Delhi is divided into New Delhi, the modern city, and old Delhi, the very old and ancient city where many streets are only wide enough for a bicycle rickshaw if even that. Nevertheless, it was great to get away from this fairly small, semi rural environment for a few days, and as you might know, Delhi is in northern India, so everything there, including the food, people, language, is very different from the south where we live.

We spent 3 days in Delhi and went to some very interesting places. We hired a car and driver which made getting around much easier than if we had not. The so called air conditioned car kept the heat down a bit. It was about 104 on a couple of the days. Getting hotter day by day.

The AC in the hotel cooled the room but also poured out a lot of moisture so the choice was to sleep in a hot room, or a cool room with wet sheets! We chose the wet sheets.

Here are some of the places we saw in Delhi: The India Gate which commemorates the honor of Indian soldiers who died in WW1; India’s tallest stone tower standing 234 feet high and built in 1200 – remarkable and beautiful; Jama Masjid, India’s largest Mosque – large enough for 20,000 people – very beautuful, (we love mosques and their architecture and have seen many around the world) built in 1650 by Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal; the Red Fort, considered by many, including us to be the most maginificent fort in the world – also built by Shah Jahan (must have been India’s Donald Trump), a couple of miles around; the Raj Ghat where Gandhi was cremated – very moving and spiritual, we felt privileged to be there, and are now reading Gandhi’s biography, and close by, the Gandhi Museum; and we also visited a very famous and beautiful Hindu Temple – Lakshmi Narain dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and the consort of Shiva, one of the 3 major Hindu gods.

Delhi is full of beggars including young girls, perhaps 12 or 13 usually with an infant on their hip who might follow you for several blocks asking for money. as do all of the beggars. And touts – India must be the tout capital of the world. They try to sell you everything under the sun and start off by asking perhaps 500 rupees for an item and eventually want to sell you 2 or 3 for 10 rupees. Better not even engage them in conversation or touch their item, or you will lose the game! Back to the beggars for a moment. The poverty of these people is overwhelming, although one is not sure how much is a facade in order to get a rupee or 2. When you are in a car with the window open you have to close it and look the other way in order to dissuade them and all the time you are hoping that the car will pull away quickly. Then there are many beggars with no arms or legs, or both, and crazy religious fanatics. The slums of the poor people are beyond description – all slums are bad, but these must be the worst – open/no sewage, sleeping in the streets, very bad smells, etc. Hard to describe, and so out of our frame of reference. For many, not only the poor by the way, the street is used as a toilet, especially by men, downtown, on the avenues, against bank buildings, you name it!

Delhi, a city of 15 million has cows, bullocks, monkeys, etc., wandering the downtown in front of fancy stores and on traffic laden streets.

Thus, Delhi is a city of contrasts. Close to the slums, is the seat of government with beautiful buildings and residences for officials. Not unlike our Washington DC where our capital is surrounded by some pretty bleak poverty and many homeless sleeping on steam grates. Here, it is never cold, although I am not sure that is really a blessing.

On to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. We went by train – at last we got to ride one of india’s fabled trains and it was a very interesting ride, about 2.5 hours, and would you believe that we and all of the other passengers rode backwards. We suppose that on the way back you would ride forwards, but we drove back so we’ll never know. We were in a chair car, as opposed to a car with no seats, and were served breakfast, snacks, etc. It was ok, and considered one of India’s finest trains (because it was going to Agra where all tourists eventually go – but while ok, that’s all it was).

The Taj Mahal in Agra is considered one of the 7 wonders of the world. We haven’t seen the others, but we are sure that it is the most beautiful. It takes your breath away. Magnificent. In case you don’t know, the Taj was built by Shah Jahan in the mid 1650’s as a tomb and a tribute to his wife who died in child birth. We hope we got some good photos, but no photo can do justice to seeing the Taj up close and real.

Like other public places in India, the admission for Indians is different than for tourists. In the case of the Taj, it is 20 rupees compared to 750 rupees and we went to see it 3 times in order to photograph it at dawn, sunset, and in between. While we don’t like the different fees, we have seen it before in other countries and there are some cogent explanations for it. Indians are very poor, and most tourists have money, so it is a mean of revenue for the government, and we guess that if everyone paid only 20 rupees, the government couldn’t afford to keep it as nice as it is. It is the only place that we have been to that is spotless. All the other places for the most part, except for temples and mosques are pretty dirty.

In Agra we had the best meal that we have eaten in this country and about anywhere else for that matter, and the lousiest. You will laugh when we tell you that in Agra we ate lunch at a place run by the disciples of the Baghwan Rajnees. Remember him from Oregon a few years ago. Actually it was ok.

Here are some random observations that were fun for us: men getting shaved and haircuts right on the street by a “mobile” barber; huge lawns being mowed by a bullock pulling a lawn mower; the plane from Chennai to Delhi held together, (at least on the inside by duct tape – by the way, it was an Airbus, not a good old Boeing); we noticed street vendors selling a few pairs of sneakers here and there and found out they are stolen from tourists who have to take them off before entering certain place such as Gandhi’s cremation site, or temple and mosques; a ride in a bicycle rickshaw in Delhi is pretty scary, and our driver had to get off and push us up the hill; little girls dressed in frilly dresses that were popular in the US about 50 years ago or more; lots of snake charmers all over Delhi who open their baskets as soon as you get near and out pops a cobra for you to photograph – we didn’t. I (Hinda) lost a few pounds living in Kanchipuram but spending a few days in Delhi helped put it all back on, plus some. The food was great except for the one meal we considered the worst in the world.

A comment or two about work here in Kanchipuram. We were guests of honor at a school where the students put on a 2 hour performance for the end of the month celebration and for us, a few of the performances were in English including a hilarious Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The children danced and sang and we got some great photos, and felt honored to be their guests. We were also given honorary shawls. The program was to start at 5 and end at 5:30 and at 6t it finally got going, and around 7:45, we finally said we had to leave. We gave the school a small contribution to use to buy something nice for the kids like a globe. Government schools are pretty dismal, very little equipment, few books, few writing instruments, most of the time the electric is off and so the fans don’t work and it is very hot. The classes are all overcrowded and the teachers spend most of the time disciplining the kids. It’s a wonder the kids learn anything.

We taught the RIDE director’s wife how to use the computer. Until now she has not known how to use one and after learning, she feels so empowered, which was so uplifting to us. It may not sound like much, but it is a real example of helping a women have the ability to do what a man can do and thus finally share some power. You know, knowledge is power, and it really is. Women are treated very badly as we have told you before, so teaching Britto, was a real treat.

We must end here, our battery is getting low, and this is very long and we hope you will read it.

Before we end, thanks to the large number of you who have indicated a desire to contribute to RIDE.

Love and regards,

Peter and Hinda


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