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.