19 April 2014

Sunkissed Christmas

When I was a kid, I always wanted Christmas to be exactly the same.  Eat at the same restaurant for Christmas eve, have the same Christmas
morning routine, go to the same church service.  I guess I found comfort in it.  I would be very upset at the very idea of deviation from the plan.  Luckily, people can evolve and this year I had the most unusual Christmas ever. 
To the first timer, every day in India can seem like the most unusual day of the year, but add a few familiar Christmastime items and things will be pushed into the realm of weird.  For Christmas, my companions and I traveled to the India state of Goa and to Palolem Beach (google and swear loudly). 
We flew there on Christmas eve where I got to experience throwing up in an airport.  Good fun, let me tell you.  But all that unpleasantness subsided and I had a lovely dinner of a coke.  We arrived and were picked up and drove about two hours through the jungly (that's a word!) country side to the small town of Palolem.  By our arrival it was dark, but the area was dotted with houses decorated with Christmas lights, large tents beginning to fill for evening Mass and the occasional nativity scene.  Goa was originally settled by the Portuguese and has a large (proportionate to India) Christian population.  Besides, it seems that everyone in India loves Christmas because they love to have fun and have an excuse to get together. 

So we checked into our gorgeous hotel and took a short ride to the beach.  Unlike beaches I know, there was no boardwalk, but a number of restaurants along the beach, all with beach seating and a hut like structure as the actual dining room.  I'm not sure I'm describing this well, but it was awesome!  We sat on the beach and as I sipped my coke, my friends chose from an array of fresh seafood's and curries.  Christmas was celebrated at midnight, like new years eve, with fireworks, lantern releases, and general merriment.  Upon return to the hotel, 'santa' visited us with a special gift (a mug) from the hotel.  It was very sweet, even if it was 2 am. 

The next day, I had a gorgeous breakfast and everyone settled into the beach life.  In full sun, the beach was spectacular, bright, and warm.  Oh, so warm.  It was so glorious and I feel like for the next two days, all I did was relax (as best I can on vacation) and eat.  We took a boat out to see some dolphins, which needs no description and around to a secluded beach where it was hard not to be overcome and jump in the ocean fully clothed. 

In the next two days we also rented kayaks (survived and it was awesome, no pics to preserve the camera)  We also went gambling on a small cruise ship off the coast.  It's illegal to gamble in India, but just off the coast- okay.  It was so campy but fun and the first time I played real blackjack (poorly). 

On the drive back to the airport, I think we were all justifiably morose.  Goa is a place that you promise yourself and your friends that you'll all come back to together.  That vacation place you will catch yourself daydreaming about in the dead of winter.  It's a place where you can truly put your cares away, enjoy nature, and drink a whole lot of Kingfisher beer. 

The Tourist

As I mentioned before (about two months ago), India is a difficult place for me to blend in. I must note now, that in Jaipur, I was never happier to be a tourist.  As you do in India, we had our own car and tour guides for each day here.  This feels like a fancy way to get around for sure.
At Amer fort, I did what felt like the most touristy thing ever:  rode an elephant to the palace gates.  It was uniquely Indian and cheesy and weird and I loved it.  I have a lifelong love affair with Elephants and had certainly never rode one for such a distance.  Lolling from side to side, elephant transport may be fit for kings, but is hard on the back.  These elephants were brightly decorated, well trained, and seemed happy from what (extremely little) I know about elephant behavior.

Built in 1592, this expansive palace was home to many rulers and spans four km.  Each layer yielded interesting Hindu architecture, amazingly detailed paintings, and finally an area decorated with tiny inlaid mirrors, built to reflect the carpets in what must have been dazzling displays of color.

In the city of Jaipur, we also visited Jantar Mantar, home of a collection of astrological instruments.  I don't mean a tiny astrolabe, I mean huge instruments.  A sun dial among the world's largest which can tell time with up to two second accuracy.  Instruments that predict eclipses and seasons.  Ones to help you figure your astrological signs.  Most completely out of my realm of understanding.  But very cool either way.  These are all so young, built in the 18th century.

Right across the street is the City Palace.  Once and current home to the Maharaja of Jaipur, (the royal family has no political power, but still exist) this palace is pretty cool.  My favorite part were two enormous (the world's largest, in fact) sterling silver vessels, made for Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II (take that, boring names!).  He was a devout Hindu who only wanted to drink water from the Ganges river.  These vessels were made to transport water for him on his trip to England in 1901.

The city of Jaipur (population ~4 million) is beautiful to look at.  All of the 'downtown' buildings are a bright terracotta color, painted to welcome visiting British Royalty.  The color stuck, and the city is known as the city of welcome.  And the city is known as the city of welcome. (that's for you!)

The city is in the state of Rajasthan, and well known for its textiles; block printed sheets, clothing, and wool rugs.  In a very out of character and touristy move, I am now the proud owner of one of these rugs.  It's pretty awesome I must say and it's not every day one can buy the genuine article.  

18 April 2014

The Taj

Back in 1632ish, the third and most beloved wife of then Emperor, Shah Jahan died due to complications of childbirth.  This most profound and grief worthy death prompted the construction of her tomb, which is now one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal.  Construction lasted 22 years and called for experts in marble work, inlay, architecture, landscaping, construction, and others I'm sure are beyond my skills to see.

Entering the taj campus is quite a process in itself.  Only animal drawn or electric vehicles are allowed within a certain radius of the building.  This is because white marble gets dirty. (the Taj is closed every Friday for cleaning as it is). Then, the tourist has to stand in line (or not much of one as luck would have it) for a pat down and a look in all of your bags.  From there, it's a bit of a walk to one of three towering gates.  A 90 degree turn frames the center dome so perfectly in the gate that it takes your breath away.  Every step takes you closer to the building itself; through the gate reveals the immensity of the complex, and what become clearly tiny people are dotted around the building, looking miles away.  The dome is reflected in the long pool in front of it, lined with shrubbery.  At all times of the year the place is crawling with tourists, all craning their necks and their cameras for that perfect shot.  All trying to capture what cannot be captured.  I'm not sure I can do the place justice with my words or my photos, but I'll share them anyway.

It's obviously a very surreal place.  It looks exactly as it should, just like the pictures.  The main dome is 180 feet high.  Each piece of marble used was soaked in water for a year and weighed before and after to be sure it was of highest quality.  The exterior is decorated with quotes from the Qur'an, words inlaid into the marble in Jasper.  It was believed by Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan's son, that this was a form of blasphemy, as rain waters would pass over the words, then be stepped on by people. True or not, the words are beautiful to behold up close.
Inside the dome features quite spectacular inlay work with precious and semi-precious gems, marble filigree, and the actual tomb of Shah Jahan and his 3rd wife, Mumtaz Mahal. 
The dome is surrounded by four marble minarets, each offset by about 3 degrees so that if there is an earthquake, they will fall away from the dome instead of tragically into it. 

The building is also surrounded by three massive gates, a mosque, and numerous gardens.  Behind the Taj runs the Yamuna river, and across it, a suspiciously flat area, where Shah Jahan intended to build a second, smaller version of the Taj Mahal in black marble.  It was to be his tomb, but his son, Aurangzeb had other ideas.  Aurangzeb felt that the Taj was such a front to the ideals of dying like a pauper and disrespected the words of Qur'an, that he (after arranging for the deaths of his three brothers to become Emperor) imprisoned his father in Agra Fort where he remained until his death in 1666, preventing the black Taj from ever being built.

Caves of Wonder

When I preface this entry with 'we spent a long weekend looking at caves' you may think that sounds ridiculous.  When I explain that they are ancient man made caves carved between the 400BC and the 10th century, you may think that sounds boring, but to me this was incredible.

Ajanta and Ellora caves are a little off of the beaten tourist track in India, a couple of hour drive day trips from the city of Aurangabad. Ellora caves were carved out of the mountain from the top down. A feat so incredible that some believe that they caves were made by extraterrestrials. How could man be so coordinated, so organized, so artistic over what must have been decades? Well, I think we underestimate ourselves and also underestimate just how much spare time we'd have if we didn't have technology to fill it up.
The crown jewel of Ellora caves is The Kailashnatha, cave 16. Construction began around 756 CE and continued for nearly a century. It served as a temple and meeting place and is covered with Hindu gods and allegories. It's size is incredible, twice that of the Parthenon in Greece. Crossing the threshold I felt overwhelmed by the space, the spirit, and the history of the place. It was the first time that I saw such ancient artifacts in situ, where they belonged and were put so, so long ago. Taking history out of a museum and back to it's native setting really moved me. This cave is surrounded by other caves carved in other centuries by other Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. What is remarkable about this is that all are intact and untouched. This was truly a time of religious harmony in India.

We visited quite a few of these caves, all unique but all with amazing detail and artistry. All made with clear faith and purpose. Most caves here were temples.
 Not so far back, in 1819, a British hunting party (read, tiger hunting) stumbled upon Ajanta Caves. Then covered in jungle and earth, their excavation must have been a mighty task, but well worth the effort. These caves, carved from front to back (unlike Ellora) served as Buddhist monasteries and temples (shoes not optional). Some date back to the 2nd century BCE. (that unfathomable date is over 2000 years ago). Most of these are home to spectacular paintings of Buddha's life as well as daily life of the time.
Photographs, while allowed (riddle me that!) are difficult and much is lost in low light translation. It is best to enjoy these as they strike you. Huge former rocks, covered with such detail as to not be believed. It is hard to imagine it at the time, alive with worship and people, large mirrors reflecting the sun to illuminate the walls, while skilled artists take tiny, tiny brush strokes in the name of religion.

Ajanta and Ellora was touted to me as a "MUST SEE" of India. I would certainly recommend them! Not only did I get a taste of history I can never fully understand, we drove through a lot of surprising countryside, farmlands, and unique city streets.  The whole area around Aurangabad was great, and a slice of Indian life I didn't think I'd get to see.  I also saw the grave of Aurangzeb (a very interesting character), Dulatabad Fort, and a camel drive! Not to mention some delicious roadside food. Also: A monkey!

07 April 2014

Grandmom

Last week, my 97 year old grandmother died peacefully at home.  I wanted to share this eulogy with you who may not have known her.

“97” I said, answering again her famous question of “How old am I?” “Well, I guess that's why my back hurts.” She replied.
“97” I repeated. “Well, that's pretty old, I guess.” she chuckled.
“97” I told her. “Well, I guess I'm lucky to have lived this long. You know, I've had a good life.”

As Grandmoms youngest (of 10) grandchild, I worry I am unqualified to say anything. It's odd to think that I only knew Grandmom for about a third of her life, but I was lucky to feel that in that time, I really knew her. Though obviously, she was a different person than that one whom scrimped to buy a balloon at the fair, different than the young woman who picked up discarded coal to keep her family warm, different than the woman whom started a successful business with the man she loved.

 I knew the Grandmom who would shoot a ground hog from her porch, who, on a hot summer evening, would rather have a beer than anything else, who went whitewater rafting for the first time in her 60's. I knew a Grandmom who would get untold pleasure from a drive through Mountaindale and an ice cream, who wouldn't let me leave the house without a fistful of M and M's and a cold coke.

When I tell my friends about Grandmom, there are always three things that they find unbelievable. That is, if you don't count her valid drivers license.

Firstly was that she lived at home. This only happened because of her family. Meals and medications. Outings and dinners. Trips and holiday evenings. “I would have dried up on the vine long ago if it weren't for you.” She'd say. Ask me later what everyone did for her, because I surely can't tell you now. I could never have answered '97' if she hadn't been taken care of, and she knew it.

 The second thing that people find unbelievable about her is that 'it's real'. For those who don't know, I mean her obscenely large diamond ring, that she proudly wore with- well, certainly not her fanciest of clothes. The ring that we often caught her admiring when the light hit it. The ring, that way back in 1994 I got to witness her purchase. Through an 9-year-olds ears, I remember the phone call between Grandmom and Granddaddy to basically 'run it by him.' It was very short- as he would have given her the world. I loved to watch people see the bauble, see her battered sweatshirt and consider them carefully. I often wanted to run back and whisper “It's real.”
That trip also marked the first and only time I saw Grandmom buy something truly for herself. Her generosity to others shone most brightly at Christmastime. I had the privilege of getting an inside look at Christmas at G & Gs. The days leading up to Christmas, Mom, Grandmom, and I would hit the stores pretty hard. Strolling up the aisles- toiletries especially- armed with a pile of wish lists. I'd grab, Grandmom would inspect, and Mom would label. We had so much, it would have been easier to just drag our arms along the shelves and push everything into the cart. Then the endless sorting, wrapping, and checking. Everything had to be fair. The pile of gifts that obscured a 6 foot Christmas tree, the train of bags going through the upstairs. Right up to when she'd sneak back up and emerge with what I called the 'auction items'. Who needs blank VHS tapes? Socks? Shampoo? As she gleefully threw them at their new owners.

Lastly, what many find hard to believe is that her family gathers at least once a year to share their lives with her and each other. And when they do there isn't any fighting. This was a fact that she herself wondered at after witnessing other past Murphy family events. I know this was a point of pride for her and for granddaddy. And although she felt it hard to keep track in the later years, I know she loved every grandchild and great grandchild as individuals.

I told my friend yesterday that she was the glue and that her loss scared me for the future of the family. He said to me; you can be the glue. So, family and friends I set to you this challenge: Be what Grandmom was. She was willing to try anything, knew how to share, even when she had nothing, and she was one of the most loving people I knew. Be the glue for all of us, and especially for her.

22 March 2014

Mumbai

I started this post by opening the folder of pictures that correspond and I find now, like when I was there, that the entire thing is completely unbelievable.  Mumbai itself is a city, the likes of which you won't find anywhere else on earth. 
I found it equal parts fascinating, scary, loud, and beautiful.  I think that what really troubles me about writing about it is that there is so much to say.  Basically, prepare to be bored.  What hit me first, travelling in December from the mid-atlantic, was the heat.  It was so lovely and warm and sunny every day.  Every. Day.  But, December is in the dry season.  It is temperate and the rain is held off for months at a time. What remains constant in Mumbai is the chaos.  I was met immediately with a cacophony of horns, as I've noted before they are just part of the soundtrack of the city, any city in India.
My suitcase had been temporarily 'misplaced' somewhere in Asia, so when I found my dear friend and host, she took me to a department store and right away I was oggling at everything like an idiot.  Christmas trees, affordable clothing...a department store!  Right off the bat, things that I naively I didn't expect.  Then we went and ate food!  Oh, so much food. South Indian food was all new to me and all delicious.  I was warned about food, and took great care to eat 'safe' things, but I also didn't want to deprvive myself of local delacies.  Obviously, a local guide is essential to toeing this line.

The city proper is built on a long, thin penninsula that used to be seven islands.  Land was reclaimed and made into one piece on mangrove swamps.  This prevents them from having a subway, but they make up for it with taxis, private cars, busses, trains and most importantly, rickshaws.  These three wheeled vehicles were a constant source of amusment for me, and they taught me that indeed, the faster you drive, the skinnier you get and if the space isn't big enough; make it big enough.  The rules of the road are complex and largely unwritten (I think) and it takes a deft hand to survive as a rickshaw driver.  I'd love to be one.

What I loved the most about the city are it's markets.  I am a marketphile(?) anyway, and India might take the cake.  I took two tours that led me through the labryhthine streets of the the area of Colaba.  This is, I guess, the most touristy area of Mumbai, where there are famous hotels, trendy eateries, and is dotted with colonial buildings from the British Raj.  We wandered through food, fabric, flower, meat, fish, and incense markets.  One could really hurt their neck trying to take it all in.  In a city of almost 20 million, (yeah, let that number sink in for a second) there is plenty of business to for every one.  The sights at these markets are the best.  I watched a man butcher a goat head for five minutes, I wandered through the same meat market surrounded by various brains, hearts and tracheas, only to be surrounded by stalls of piles and piles of garlic.  This segued into rows of insense sellers.  In short- a delight for the senses and I say that sincerely.

In Mumbai I saw great poverty and great wealth, ate food sold from a bicycle and from a modern shopping mall.  I danced at my first actual club, experienced a Hindu temple, and rode a train without doors.  I worry that I'm not doing it justice, but it was a very cool place.  I am blessed to know people there who were willing to guide me through the crowded streets, and help me to navigate the madness of it without me making any cultural faux pas.
All this rambling and I didn't even mention the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (my favorite museum name ever), Gandhi's house, or the Dharavi slum.  Don't worry.  There's time.

10 March 2014

Blog?

Mom:  Did you forget about the blog?
Me:  Blog?....(laughs)  Yeah, I did.
Mom:  What happened to writing once a week?
Me:  (feeble excuse)  Oh, man, I even missed my blogiversary!  Now I'm going to have to get it a special gift.  (hence the dozens of roses)

Okay, so I haven't forgotten the blog, but damn it has been neglected.  I don't even have an excuse (as usual).  Even if I did have one, is there one that is sufficient to have not blogged in four weeks after promising a weekly post?  I don't think so!
Arm fell off, computer broken, true detective; all fixable and complete non excuses.  I wish that I could tell you that I was working hard on another project, making tons of cash, saving the world, finishing my PhD or something important, but alas.  Not so much.  Actually, I have been working on another project, but not one that will help me become a more skilled writer.
After Santa brought me a kiln, yes actual kiln, for christmas I have been hard at work drving myself insane by making millions of tiny clay tiles.  Maybe not millions, but if you want to cover a table with 1x1 inch squares, it takes quite a few.  This project does take up a lot of time, but still.  No reason exists for me to not have blogged about India.  None.  In fact, I think I should be in blogger jail (aka handcuffed to the laptop) until that's finished.

And to you, blog.  Happy belated Blogiversary.  This one marks nine years (or as my mother cheekily said seven years and two years of sporatic posts).  The traditional ninth year gift is pottery, so for the first time I am actually fulfilling it (see pottery tiles below, ftw!). 
Annoyingly, nine years of blogging does not qualify me for anything but does give me some mad street cred.  I still enjoy it.  It is still my outlet.  And I still hope to be writing here on our golden anniversary.

Here's a picture of some tiles to help back up my excuse, and as a true gift the the blog.  Happy Blogiversary!

06 February 2014

India

I've waited a long time to write about India, wanting so deeply to do the country justice. There are so many negative stereotypes that I want, in my small way, to break, while showing my great affection for the country without being completely trite. That's really a tall order.

Before I left, I'd watched Gandhi, Slumdog Millionaire, all of the Bollywood I could find. I'd read all the books from the library, cracked the Bhagavad Gita, and even attempted yoga (rather unsuccessfully). But I now know that India smacks you in the face no matter how you've prepared. The uninitiated will be surprised, overwhelmed, and delighted.

Within the my first week, we took a tour of some markets in Mumbai. The tour guide asked me if this was my first time to India.
 “Yes.” I answered without looking at him, unable to tear my eyes away from the myriad of unusual sights.
“I can tell by looking at you.” he laughed, pointing at my face.
I laughed and pointedly shut my mouth.
India is a place where I cannot pretend that I am not a tourist. I cannot blend in and try to look calm and collected. I might as well have kept my open-mouthed stare, because if that didn't give me away, surely my white skin, blonde hair, and fancy camera did.

India is everything you expect, and everything you don't expect.   It's thick crowds, chaos, and dusty streets. It's cows on the sidewalk, smiling faces, and brightly patterened sarees. It's tractors, flying kites, and camels. But then it's upscale shopping malls, fancy cars, and towering skyscrapers.

I should have expected these things. It shouldn't surprise that India is on the cutting edge of almost everything. But unfortunately the perception of India that travels 8000 miles to the US is almost entirely negative. These negative things are true, but the opposite is true too. What I saw there were proud people. Kind people.  Hard working people. Innovative people whom seem to make the most of what they have.

It's much bigger, much greener, and much cleaner than I expected.  I had safe, amazing experiences, ate delicious food, and was never afraid.  I was struck by the buccolic countryside full of small villages, farming communities, and vast lands.

India is industry too.  Every product I touched there was made in India. The handycraft, of course, but also toothpaste, soaps, clothes, everything. This is probably due to many factors, but one big thing about India is that it values people. If a job can be done by one person but two people do it, that's okay. If a machine exists to do a job, a human will do it in India. With such an enormous population, the country must value jobs and must value people. Outsourcing is not a thing there, because their own people need employment. Sound familiar? What greed and loopholes gets America is a growing unemployed population which has a negative domino effect for the entire country.

I am struggling to make a conclusion about the country. It is one of great division, of great dichotomy. I want to give you deep, accurate, philosophical conclusions about India, but I can't. Well, maybe a few, but I'll probably just write about what I did first.

27 January 2014

Consistency

What annoys me the most about driving are the drivers whom are completely inconsistent. Those who speed up in the passing zone but manage to stay well under the speed limit at all other times. Those who will go five miles under the speed limit on the outskirts, then magically go fifteen over in a residential area. Those who can't manage to maintain the same speed while going up and down a hill. This, my friends, is one of my biggest pet peeves.
Which leads me to some random thoughts I've had about consistency. I started my current job six years ago. I feel that for a younger person, six years can make quite a difference. This time was really the genesis of my career. Though I feel like I've almost always had it all together, that's not true. There was a time in there when I just stopped caring. I was lazy and horrible. Generally got the job done, but more in a 15 year old 'what's the least I have to do to get by' sort of way.
There was a period when I was depressed. It happens, and, like many people I couldn't really explain it. Far more than these times, I have felt confident and competent and like I was in exactly the right place. Through good times and bad, I always feel like I am evolving. I am always looking to sort out my flaws and motivate myself to be what I consider to be a better person. I try very hard to remember this when I see my colleagues do or say very silly or hurtful things.
My favorite DaVinci quote (really the only one that I know) is “I am still learning.” This and my past rough times help me to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they're just going through a bad phase. Maybe they are just trying to figure it out. Maybe I should help them instead of shunning them in my mind. People can evolve, right?

Then again, maybe they don't. “A leopard can't change his spots” as they say. I am confident that I know people who are incapable of change or improvement. It's like that little voice is missing that says “I can be a better person.” They already are who they will be forever. These people are almost always exceedingly boring or exceedingly horrible. I worry more about the horrible ones. They can be relied upon to always be horrible, and maybe there is comfort there. Maybe I always want people to be predictable. At least then won't raise my expectations.

I thought that I had a point, but I am now seeing the irony of being inconsistent in my opinions concerning consistency. I give up. No wait. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to be judged on the bad times. I don't want one mistake to be held against me forever. (generic statement) And I want to be more vigilant in myself to give everyone a second chance. We all deserve one.