Friday, February 02, 2007

"Pull Over!"

Pull Over

"Watch out!" someone yells from the back seat. My hand goes to the dash to brace myself. Disbelief makes me blink. A car has swerved across two lanes of traffic on the four-lane highway and is coming straight at us. It gets bigger and bigger, coming, coming … .
Our driver stands on the brake and swerves to the edge of the road, screeching to a halt with the paint on my side only inches from the crash barrier. The other vehicle angles to a stop … not in front of us, as I expected, but behind.
"Police," our driver mutters.
How can he tell? And are they really?
Men are jumping out of the intercepting vehicle, and, while they’re not in uniform, they do look like they mean business.
"It wasn’t my fault," our driver says taking a stack of papers and walking back to them. "I would’ve paid the tax if the booth had been open."

Indeed, he had stopped at an empty booth as we entered the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh. But was it a booth for tax collectors? Like this so-called "police" car without any identifying paint or signs and like these "policemen" with no uniforms, the booth had been undistinguished by anything except its emptiness.
A lifetime in the third world tells me that none of this matters much. A table can be a tax collection point. A pair of rubber flipflops can be a uniform. On the other hand, thieves and brigands can do a great job of imitating the authorities.
Out of five passengers in our car, three carry diplomatic passports. Two of them—both women—follow the driver.
"What’s this about," demands the senior of the two. She’s all of five foot four inches tall, has an almost permanent smile beneath a mop of curly, light brown hair, and weighs a bit more than she should. Her voice tells everyone that they had better not be deceived by her appearance … she’s tough. And, as a former nurse, nutritionist, college professor, and a current administrator of a multi-million dollar program, she is.
Like the unmarked car, what you see is not necessarily what you get.
"If your tax people had the booth open, the tax would’ve been paid," the second woman drills English words into the dark, male heads. "Your fault. Your fault. Your fault."
"Where’s your identification? What are your names?" says the first.
What we’re all wondering is why the car full of men singled out our vehicle. Later, I ask if the driver was supposed to be exhibiting some sort of tax coupon in the window. "Yes, yes!" he agrees, much too fast. Besides, as soon as the thought was out of my mouth, I realize that the car began to intercept us when it was still way to far away to see any piece of paper in the window.
No. It’s something else. Smuggling? Police extortion?

As soon as the rubbish idea of a tax coupon is swept off the table, I realize that the car we’re in is known. This isn’t surprising since it belongs to a service that provides cars and drivers to tourists. Both car and driver are probably back and forth through Uttar Pradesh several times a month, if not more frequently.
The "police" give up and leave. For whatever reason, they go away—diplomatic passports, American women, mistaken identity, fear of an incident that will affect their careers, failed plans … I don’t know.
Later, we pull into a gas station and stop at a pump. The driver buys a fraction of a liter of gas. But not more. So, what does he do there? Why the stop?
My mental teeter-totter—smuggling at one end and police extortion at the other—plops down hard on smuggling.
We never will know for sure. We never want to know. We may have been very, very lucky.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Go With The Flow

A person can become fond of the packed sidewalks and the tangles of overhead wires, of narrow passages, the steady roar of voices vying with motors, the smell of frying foods, and constantly shifting colors. But it takes practice to thread through the crowds, dodge motorbikes, and compete successfully for narrow, high-demand sidewalk space littered with merchandise, food kiosks, broken paving, and sleeping dogs.

I practice in Khan Market, a chaos of small shops in a stylish area of New Delhi where pedestrians seem less like an endangered species than in the dense streets and alleys of Old Delhi. It’s a good place to exercise what I’m thinking of calling: "Survival Techniques for Expatriates."

Indian women in their colorful and elegant saris, sail along as blithe and unconscious as butterflies, alighting occasionally to purchase spices or scented soap or to finger a piece of cloth. With a flip of a scarf, they’re off again, becoming spots of color in the crowds. Red and green turbans and full beards nod and bob. Girls, bright scarves flowing above tight blue jeans, lean their heads toward young men in tee shirts and matching jeans. Skinny men pedal rickshaws while fat ones, cigarettes between lips, lean out of doors, looking for customers.

"Decide where you are going," Navina Jaffe says, "and maintain a steady course. That way others know what you are doing and will avoid you. This ducking and jumping aside is much too dangerous." Navina’s my guru to street life.
"Easy for you to say," I squeaked, as I jumped out of the way of a car’s fender and almost into the person a six-foot Sikh, his turban making him at least six-foot-four or five.

The trick, it seems, is to know when others will avoid you and when you must avoid them. I’m wondering if an inherent understanding of this isn’t bred into the genetic structure of people raised in heavily populated areas. One thing is certain: it isn’t part of either my Wyoming experience or my northern genes.

"You see, Pat," Navina says of the car fender and Sikh, her voice patient, her hands adjusting a length of embroidered Pasmina. "If you had maintained course, the car would have avoided you as would the Sikh. All would have gone according to the way it was going. It is rudimentary."

The rudimentary part is where I need practice. It’s like memorizing grammar or vocabulary. Once you learn all the parts and practice, practice, practice, you can communicate. But this has got to be easier--all I need to do is survive. A bit of practice should do it, so I decide to tackle the subway next. After that, it will be Old Delhi or Bust! Total immersion. It works for language training.

Baby Elephants

Nothing upsets a baby like having its toy stolen, and what fool would steal a toy from a baby elephant whose shoulder already reaches higher than that idiot’s head?

One did. We’re at the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, an institution that no longer brings in elephant babies made orphans because of the war. But it still has elephants—lots of them. Those original babies have grown up and produced their own offspring, one of whom has wandered up a hill to socialize. When the little guy comes to a stop, he has a length of bamboo tucked into the end of his trunk.

He’s immediately surrounded. Both human adults and children crowd around wanting to touch this adorable (if huge) baby. He seems happy enough with the attention—is probably used to it we decide.

Every day hundreds of people pay twenty dollars each to enter the orphanage and watch the elephants. Their feeding and bathing times are the same every day, giving the public something to watch. We’ve come for the bathing, but, first, have climbed this hill to watch the elephants browsing and milling around at its foot.

“Get back,” one of the mahouts calls out to the crowd … or words to that effect. His order produces almost no result. Hands reach out and touch the baby. Hands pat his hips thighs, back, tail, nose, ears and legs. Little girls giggle about the roughness of his hide. Boys posture and yell. Adults want their pictures taken.

“Get back,” the mahout repeats.

Far down the hill more people are watching the bulk of the herd, enjoying the sight of babies wound around momma’s legs, of trunks waving, of lumbering strides as the elephant moms move slowly to their positions in the herd. They’re getting ready to go swimming, a case of assuming their places in the pecking order.

Halfway up the hill a three-legged elephant stands between two juveniles. “He lost his leg in a land mine explosion,” my daughter says. She’s been here before and has told us about the history of the orphanage—established to care for the elephant survivors of the long and bloody war between the Tamils and Sinahlese. Most of the original orphans are gone—this one remains.

“They tried to give him a prosthetic,” our guide tells us. “They fitted two different ones, but he just wouldn’t accept them.”

I’m looking down toward the crippled fellow when a blast of sound splits the air and brings my hands to my ears. It’s as loud as an air raid siren and just as sharp. I jump. The crowd around the baby elephant scatters. Out of their midst comes the baby, the end of his trunk held up and curled around his bamboo stick.

“What happened?” I ask. “What was that all about?”

“Someone tried to steal his toy,” my daughter says. “His stick,” she adds seeing my confused look. “Someone tried to take it away from him. He got mad.”

“Someone was very lucky that that baby’s a nice baby,” I said, watching the huge rear end and the funny, little string of a tail. “So, let’s go watch as they come to the water.”

Which is exactly what we did, sitting down to lunch at a table overlooking the swimming hole. We’d just had time to order a beer when the gang started making its way down through the town to the river. First came the bulls with their mahouts riding. They moved into the water, long chains connecting leg irons to huge bolts set into rock ledges. Many lowered themselves into the water, the better to accept the attention of scrub brushes and showers of water administered by the mahouts.

Next, the cows and calves appeared. They waded in, the babies ducking under each other in a game of ambush. Finally, the juveniles appeared—our bamboo stick boy now trailing an inner tube.

No one else seemed to want to play, though, and he abandoned his inner tube in a pool near the shore in favor of following his friends into deep vegetation on the far side of the river. Even for elephants, it seems, some things are better than toys.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sigiriya ...The More Things Change

Once upon a time on a beautiful island studded with precious jewels and gemstones, there lived a wicked king who stole his brother’s throne and drove him away. Then, he found the perfect site for an impregnable fort. No one could ever touch him there. So, he built Sigiriya—a great citadel atop a six hundred-foot high, sheer-sided rock. Around its base he laid out a beautiful city of palaces and gardens laced with pools and fountains, with streams and waterfalls.
Dee dah, dee dee dah … a recorded flute plays over and over in a minor key, sending an eerily appropriate sound over the ruins of Sigiriya. My daughter, her friend, Monique, and I sort through our money at a Department of Archeology kiosk. We need much more than we expected and have to pool our resources. Then, tucking water bottles into belt loops or back packs, we pass the source of the music—a motor rickshaw, its body transformed into an ice cream machine.

"And," our guide, Malik, says, "the king loved his creation so much that when his brother came back with an army, the wicked king took his own army out onto the plains rather than risk having his city destroyed. There, he was defeated, and he never saw Sigiriya again. The city for which he risked everything fell into ruins, only monks living in caves on the rock. Finally, even the monks left, and the city was forgotten, was eaten by the jungle."
The wicked king’s parks are laid out before us … the waterways and pools delineated by walls and filled now with grass kept low by wandering cows, its precinct a playground for monkeys. A roadway the width of an oxcart stretches toward the 600-foot high rock with its sheer sides and its crown of ruins. Minus the ruins, this is a Sri Lankan Devil’s Tower—older and half the height but with the same impressive presence.
The crowds here for the Christmas holidays spread out, children vaulting walls and playing tight-rope walker on their tops, adults strolling, teens checking out their peers—blue jeans and tee shirts as common as anywhere else in the world. Slowly, the laughter and chattering diminish, though, as the rock-paved road leads uphill until we’re in the shadow of "the rock." Sigiriya, itself, looms over us, seeming impossibly high.
Stairs funnel the crowds now. There’s no other way … just one flight of stairs after another with these lower sets ending at trails that snake away around the rock, accessing caves and overhanging shelters that once provided homes for monks.
"Buddhist monks lived here for centuries after the kings were gone," our guide, Malik, says. "Then came years of drought, and the farmers had to leave. The monks, with no one to feed them, left, as well."
The sound of rustling clothes and of leather and rubber soles on rock fills the air now in an otherwise hushed silence. Hundreds of us are climbing and climbing. One hundred meters up, we reach the "mirror wall" where frescos line one side of the trail. There’s only space for one person to move forward at a time here, and it’s a traffic jam—a tight press of bodies, those ahead be pushed forward by the stream of people coming up. At this point, my chest cold and my Wyoming need for elbow room tell me that I’ve had enough, and I take a lateral trail that will lead to the parking lot and the jungle—a route blessedly free of crowds.

Back at the bottom, I watch a troop of monkeys raiding a box of coconuts strapped to the top of a van. One by one, the audacious thieves scoop out the fruit, tossing the brown spheres to their fellows in nearby trees. Just so their remote ancestors probably raided kitchens when Sigiriya was inhabited. This thought provides a bit of perspective, a way to pass time until, sweat-soaked, Robyn and Monique reappear.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Golden Carp

Exotic stories of the orient speak of ponds of golden carps, tell of a beautiful princess who, dressed in the richest of gold silk embroidered with pearls and precious jewels, falls in love with a giant golden carp. He is transformed into a prince, his iridescent scales becoming priceless gems, and they live happily every after.

Our golden carp are greedy monsters, fighting and thrashing through the water, swimming over, under, and practically through each other to get at handfuls of rice, chepattis, and French fries thrown at them by the kitchen staff.

Standing on the sunny breakwater, trying to warm a body frozen by a breakfast exposure to an unheated restaurant, I ask, “Why do these carp come for food, and those don’t?” I point first toward the swarming fish, then at a huge school of smaller ones—all facing upstream, with their tails to us. No matter how close the food comes to them, I’ve noticed, they don’t move.

Across the narrow waterway, a flood plain of boulders runs another twenty to thirty yards before reaching the far bank where a group of lemurs play in the trees and amongst the root structures that reach down toward the rocks. The white hairs circling their faces flash as they move, making it look, at this distance, as though they’re wearing hijab.

“A kingfisher,” one of the young men says in English. “See.”

I see. It flits up the river, its wings a vivid blue against the solid green hills. It lands in a large tree and is lost. Unlike its name, the kingfisher is not the huge bird one would imagine, but a small thing—about the size of my fist. What he lacks in size, though, he makes up for in visibility.

A flock of egrets come next, wheeling and turning in a brilliant display of ever-changing white patterns painted on a blue sky. They land, taking up positions on rocks along the far shore, looking like stylized question marks.

And on the subject of questions, I’d forgotten mine about the fish when one of the staff—he tells me his name is Amal or maybe it’s spelled Hamal or with some other variant. Amal says that some of the carp are Black Carp and some are Golden. “Yes. This gold carp.” He points. “This black carp. Yes.” Which is meant to explain everything.

And leads to the next question. Why? But having already tested my ability to simplify English and the budding naturalists’ ability to understand both my vocabulary and accent, I abandon the effort. Some things are best left a mystery.

Warm, now, I leave the carp, both the swarming and stationary varieties, to their breakfast—none of these fish, I fear, will ever make a prince—and climb the hill. Next on our schedule is an elephant safari on a lovely great beast named Lakshmi. Perhaps we’ll see a bear?

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My

Woody Allen, move over. Harpo Marx! You’ve got competition. Never doubt the human capacity for developing two left feet. I look down. Yup. There’s a right one and a left one but they’ve both become the wrong one.

Two days in the Corbett Tiger Preserve and two sightings—a leopard yesterday and a tiger today. That’s by everyone in my group except me.

“You didn’t see it?” This from Monique. She’s pretty and blonde. Her sport is running, and her job is public health. “It was right there in the road. It swished its tail and crouched the way cats do … you know … then it ran off.”

“Didn’t you see it?” Everyone else cried. “It was a leopard. Brown.”

“Watch,” Yogi, the guide, says in a hushed voice. “It’s there in the bushes.” In a whisper, he adds, “This is the first leopard sighting in six months.”

For the next half hour or so, we watch. I’m standing on the front passenger seat of the open-topped Jeep now. The seat and its placement was part of the problem before. With no leg room between the seat and the dashboard, I had turned around to see the road behind but my view was blocked by five people standing up in the next two rows of seats. By the time I’d dumped binoculars and camera off my lap and clambered upwards, the cat was lost in foliage.

If it reappears, we don’t see it. Oh, well. Easy come, easy go. So what if it was the first sighting in six months. So what if everyone had seen it except me.

Then, we had a long drive back in the cold and colder night air. Then, I went to sleep, missed dinner, an open fire in the lodge and a nature movie. Then, I slept through the 6:00 wake up call for the next Jeep outing and seeing the tiger. While I was snug in my bed, tucked under a thick comforter, the rest of the group bounced along in the Jeep, came to a river crossing, and there was the biggest of the big cats.

“He saw us. His tail swished. And he just melted into the jungle.” This from Mary. She’s a nutritionist by training, currently the deputy for America’s health assistance programs in India, running a multi-million dollar operation. She’s ecstatic … can’t stop smiling. “It was like magic.”

Two sightings in two days. “Two of the big cats,” the restaurant manager said, having heard the news before everyone got back. “This is fantastic.” He looked at me in pity.

Tucked into my front seat … well insulated against the freezing temperatures in my bed, though, I had dreamed of … lions, tigers, and bears.

Oh, my.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


The signs are everywhere. They are tacked onto power poles, stuck into the ground on stakes, strung on banners across streets, and emblazoned on windows and store fronts. Some signs carry just the one word ENGLISH and a telephone number. Others are more elaborate.


Learn English Here



And dozens of variations. Trade schools teach English. Regular schools teach English. Everyone with a passing acquaintance with the language teaches English. No wonder little boys come up to the white-skinned tourist on beaches and at historical and religious sites: “Hello. I can talk to you?”

An English-speaking tourist is a target, an opportunity to practice, a chance to improve a necessary skill.

Everywhere in South Asia this is true to some degree, but in Sri Lanka it seems to be a fixation. Of course, like most of India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon, then) was an English colony and English was the language of both the conqueror and the government. Once, statistics say, the island had the highest rate of English-language literacy in the region and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Well, statistics can be extrapolated from very little. In any event, time and chaos have put paid to all of that.

Now, though, on an island split between Sinhalese and Tamilese speakers, an island at war with itself, English has become lingua franca of sorts … not as much as it should be, no doubt, but, if the signs speak true, the number is growing.

At any rate, it may be a ticket to any job. At our Galle hotel, even the cleaning staff and pool attendants speak working English.

Lord Shiva Lives

More tales of death and destruction. Shiva, the Hindu god who controls these things, seems never to take a holiday. Tourism in South Asia some days feels like five parts of old life and death stories and one part stories of fresh life and death--two weeks ago the bombing in Colombo; two years and two days ago the tsunami.

“When tsunami come, they all die,” our Muslim guide, Malik, tells us as we drive along the coast road of south Sri Lanka. “This was my friend … he is also guide … and Japanese tourists he take to national park. But I am with two Russians in Sigiriya. And, now, I think of what if. He was good friend. Sometimes I take Japanese. Maybe that day? Who knows these things?”

In the headlights, we could see what looked like bombed out remnants of buildings. There would be a row of them and, then, a mile or more of new structures glistening in bright paints. And, everywhere, the palms stood, survivors, their green fronds vivid against the night sky.

“One thousand two hundred people,” Malik says flooring the gas pedal and swerving around a bus. The road was narrow before the tsunami and has not improved since. “One thousand two hundred people were killed on the train.” It was a train running from Colombo to Galle, and it was overtaken by the tsunami wave. The cars were derailed and jumbled up. When the water left, the train looked like the victim of a childish temper tamtrum, its occupants as broken as the cars.

I see gravestones … rows of them … alongside the road. “The graves?” I ask. “From the people killed on the train?”

“These are local people. Twenty thousand dead here.”

I wonder, peering into the dark, watching the scenes illumined by our headlights. by passing store fronts, by village street lights … I wonder how it was that day. I wonder and am very glad I wasn’t here. So many gravestones. They don’t line the road but are clustered, a group of them here, another there, fitted among gardens and structures. It’s like the living have infiltrated a cemetery.

A day later I meet Dharanga, an auto rickshaw driver. “I was pastry chef at hotel on beach, but hotel ruin now,” he says. “That day I not at hotel. Why I alive. All there die. See!” his arm shoots out of the side of the little vehicle as he points at the tunnel under Galle fort’s walls. He fumbles for words in English. “Water come. All gone.”

He stops so that I can look around at what is now a big plaza where men are busy laying paving stones. A solitary tree stands near one end, casting shade over an area that might once have held a house. There were many buildings around it … once. Now, except for the tree, it’s a broad expanse of … nothing. ‘All gone.’

The tsunami roared into the protected Galle harbor, surging through the mouth of the bay, hitting the outer walls of the old Portuguese fort first and skirting it. The master builders of four hundred years ago would be proud if they knew. The fort’s exterior facings held. Centuries of use and the wall’s strength defied the power of water. But the tsunami wasn’t stopped, only diverted. It came on, rushing into the harbor, laying waste to the town of Galle, then doing what water does best—backtracking and infiltrating the fort through its open, bay-facing gates. The forty-plus foot long tunnel that led through the impenetrable walls gave the flood a channel, which it used as inevitably as a river follows its bed. Seconds after the wave first reached land, water exploded into the fort’s interior, laying waste to all in its path.

“All dead,” Dharanga says of the empty plaza. He engages the gas, and we putt putt through the tunnel to emerge in the harbor area. On one side the road follows the fort. On the other a fleet of fishing boats are pulled up on the sand, the fishermen just beginning to emerge from their little shacks.

“All gone. Dead,” Dharanga repeats.

We avoid a bus that momentarily looms over us, and Dharanga pulls out his wallet and extracts a card that certifies he is a certified master pastry chef and instructor. “My hotel lost. Job lost. Tourists lost. This is why I drive tuk tuk.” He uses the local word for auto rickshaw.

The Lighthouse Hotel, where we’re staying, is an exception to Dharanga’s general statement. It sits high above the beach, buttressed by an impressive barrier of rocks where on a normal day waves crash and spume flies high in the air.

“The water came up to the second floor,” an IT tech says as we work over internet access for my computer. Gradually, I develop a mental picture of how it was here. The tsunami struck and rose, flooding through the ground floor on the beach side. But that’s the second floor on the land side. Water surged around the hotel and filled the lower two stories but, since the hotel is built in layers over the top of a rise, its foundations weren’t compromised and the bulk of the building was untouched. “Only one person was killed,” the tech adds, “There. Now, just add a password and you’ll be on line.”

“Where were you?” I ask.

“I was driving to another JetWing hotel … the one that was destroyed. When the water came I jumped out of my car and ran to high ground. I was safe. But if I had been at that hotel … .” He shakes his head. “They all died. They all died. My friends there.”

It is two years and two days since the tsunami. We walk the beach, looking for shells, watching the waves break on a rock barrier and, occasionally, wading into the surf. Then, we feel the power of the sea through the little line of water sweeping at our legs. “Whoops!” A bigger wave swoops in and knocks me off my feet. I laugh in the foamy, warm water, sand slipping away under my bottom, tickling.

Two years and two days have passed. Everyone along this coast has a story. In Sri Lanka, memories of the tsunami are equivalent to 9/11 for us. Everyone remembers where they were, what they did, who they lost, who survived. There are tales of miraculous saves and tragic deaths. But mostly the two-year anniversary boils down to the question of what happened to the survivors.

“The government gave me three payments of 5,000 rupees each ($500). That was all.” Dharanga says. “Now, I rent tuk tuk. Before I bake pastry. If tourists come again?”

He hopes the hotels will rebuild and the ones that still exist will fill up. But I am here now, so I reach into my pocket for a generous tip.


Wars, rebellion, and death. These themes jump from the pages of newspapers and history books in South Asia. Then, they come from the mouths of guides. We’re in Sri Lanka this week.

“There were over two hundred casualties here,” our guide waves around a lush green park spotted with vine-covered trees and palms. “Men with guns came during festival and fired until no more bullets.”

It’s the site of the world’s oldest, continuously tended tree, the sacred bodhi tree, an offshoot of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

We walk on bare and tender feet around the walls that separate the two thousand year old tree from the worshipping public. Then, and again on bare feet, we admire a nearby Buddhist stupa (called dagoba locally … don’t ask. Until a year ago I had no idea what a stupa was and still am not too sure except that it’s big and round, generally solid right through, shaped like a Mongol’s helmet and, often strung with prayer flags. For the most part, these are not buildings with interior rooms. You don’t enter them. Instead, you pray while circumnavigating them on foot—seven times is the idea.)

Later, driving back to the hotel, we pass an intersection. “The road to the north,” our driver pointed and gave a snort of sound … hard to tell if of disgust or mirth. “No one can go.”

The roadblock had the usual staggered barriers … you get used to them. In South Asia the police as well as the military set out these tall, triangularly shaped impedances. But these weren’t your typical barriers, these were the mother of all barriers—built like the berms of a Civil War fort—tall, constructed of stone and soil and already covered with grass as though the war, once again resumed in Sri Lanka, had never stopped. Maybe it didn’t.

We definitely got that impression, over and over again as we’re repeatedly patted down by uniformed females and walk through metal detectors to enter historical or religious sites.

My titanium thigh bone and hip set off the alarms, but no one mentions it or stops me. Just as the guards assigned to search packages at the entrances to the modern Delhi metro—a prime target for home-grown insurgents, seldom stir from their tables to hinder the flow of passengers, all carrying something.

That’s because these are wars run South Asia style.

And there’s enough of them. Impossible to go anywhere without seeing the impact. Insurgencies are rife, every country having at least one. Pakistan fights in Kashmir and in the Tribal areas. Bangladesh has its incessant bombings and strikes. India conducts six or seven wars within its various states—nevermind the conflict with Pakistan.

“Once the U.N. comes we will have peace.” Those were sentiments I heard repeated in Nepal, over and over, almost as a mantra. Which, while we were there, didn’t stop the Maoists from calling a general strike, sending armed insurgents flooding out of the camps, and threatening a resumption of violence.

In Sri Lanka the Norwegians came in the nineties, persuaded the Tamils to coexist with the Sinhalese (and/or vice versa) and both of these ethnic groups to put up with the minority Muslims. That put a temporary lid on the decade-long spree of bombings and killings in the name of ethnicism or nationalism or Marxism … didn’t really matter what –ism.

But hostilities have resumed. While the people of Nepal are coming out of a ten-year cycle of hostilities, the Sri Lankans are headed back in. At least they’ve had their refreshing period of stability and economic growth. Too bad you can’t say the same for most of the rest of South Asia.

“It’s bad for business, ma’am,” a hotel manager tells me.

“Too bad you don’t run the country,” I reply and head for the beach. The likelihood of encountering a bomb-lobbing beach boy is slim, and I feel capable of handling anything else.

Death Customs

Today a bandh (general strike) has us trapped in our hotel. Yesterday we watched a woman die.

She lay below us and across the narrow, polluted Bagmati River on a rock-paved ramp, her feet partially submerged in the holy water. Family members were grouped at the top of the bank and stood on stairs flanking the ramp.

Imagine how it was. The same stairs continue along the river in both directions. On one side they disappear into a gorge that borders the temple compound, on the other, they pass under a bridge and continue along under ghats or funeral platforms that are lined up on top of the bank. Three of the ghats burn, the wood on them five tiers high, the scent of the smoke strong in the air. It drifts in white clouds toward the great dome of the Pashupatinath Temple with its golden trident, spreading to encompass dozens of lesser domes and smaller, but equally gold, tridents.

A chanting family fills the big temple’s second-story terrace, thirty or forty feet above the woman and directly across from us. At irregular intervals temple bells ring, summoning the gods. The woman doesn’t stir … appears completely lifeless.

As for us, we’re on another terrace, one with concrete railings and benches. It’s overhung with trees and backed by a high-fenced nature preserve where a little spotted deer just jumped in alarm, spooked by a pack of monkeys. A street lined with weathered, domed shrines runs to one side of our terrace and hermits’ caves and small huts can be seen on the steep slopes of the gorge. Women in long cotton skirts and sweaters sweep their stick-brooms toward us. A dozen or more men occupy the benches, watching.

Mitra, my guide, has already explained the funeral processes and customs and has turned to tutoring me in Nepalese political realities.
The dying woman may be dead. A figure in a red sari comes down to kneel beside her, pushing the men aside.

“Peace,” Mitra tells me. “It is like a dream of prosperity. We are all waiting for peace.” He doesn’t look at me as he speaks but stares down from the parapet.

“After the massacre, we were very happy.” He refers to the 2001 shooting of the royal family by the Crown Prince. “Many corrupt people were dead. We thought the new king would be strong and good. But only result was new corrupt people. Nothing changes. This is why when there is call for julu, we come. You understand? Great mass of people come together to make demonstration … hundreds and thousands … to make change.”
I remember his words the next day. Not only have the Maoists called for a general strike, the first since the king was deposed last May, but they have summoned the people to yet another julu—a mass meeting. Our hotel is largely unaffected, occupying an expansive, walled compound at a distance of some thirty minutes from central Kathmandu. Here we have a shopping arcade, street vendors and local shops, a casino, restaurants, facilities ranging from a watchmaker to a garage, and, of course, the hotel. Those who don’t live on the premises came to work early today, before the bandh. Many of them … those that can … will leave in time to attend the julu.

Big blue government busses arrive just before ten, a long convoy of them. Their doors wheeze open and armed policemen jump to the ground. This is airport transport for hotel guests. Everyone flying out today must depart now since the taxi drivers have joined the strike and Maoist roadblocks bar the way to the airport. Rickshaw drivers—the poorest of the poor—are exempt from the bandh, of course, but we are too far from the city center for them. So, hotel guests with airline reservations load into the busses. No one questions the wisdom of sending police escorts to usher foreigners through Maoist-controlled roadblocks or to face students who, we hear, who have already begun setting fires to piles of tires at intersections.

Two of the busses fill with Thai Buddhist monks in their bright orange cotton robes, worn here against the chill of Nepal over sweaters and topped with knit caps. They have been on a pilgrimage, staying in a five star Crowne Plaza hotel. Monks? What’s wrong with this picture? For that matter, what’s wrong with the rest of the picture?

But back to the terrace … yesterday … a new procession has arrived, this one carrying a body on a mat. With care, the mourners place him on a flower-strewn stair just below the top of the bank, and two people stay to do something. I can’t see what. Mithra says, “In two hours from dead, whether in hospital or house, the body must come here.”

Speed is an imperative. The faster you get rid of your early remains, the Hindus believe, the longer it takes for the elements to reconstitute and for your next reincarnation to begin. Or so Mithra says—my guru on death customs.

People have gathered around us, and I realize that we’re standing in the only place on this side of the river that provides a clear view of the dying woman. “Are these relatives?” I ask.

“No. They just watch. A person who dies here in the Bagmati may go straight to the top,” Mitra says. He means that the person breaks the reincarnation cycle and achieves Nirvana. Timing is everything, which is the purpose of a two-story white house just above and behind the ramp. There, if you have enough money to pay for the service, you can wait for death in the care of a person whose job it is to forecast that death within minutes.

Do people revive on the ramp?

“Of course,” Mitra says. “It can happen.”

Death more than revival, however, seems close and imminent in Nepal, particularly as the blue and white busses pull away from the Crowne Plaza. A new friend stands next to me. “The Maoists have killed over 15,000 people,” he says. “But they are very popular, and the people do what they say. Which is why you must not go into the street today. Many people, you understand, do not read or write. They hear on radio of bandh. They are ignorant. If you go into the streets, these are poor people … you understand.”

His words make a certain amount of sense. The Maoists have come to power on the back of violence and with the support of the untouchable caste. One tall white woman, alone, might look like a reasonable target to such people.
Later, after a discussion of the current reason for a bandh, he says, “So. Will you go to the julu?”

I remember the woman, waiting to die. “I am not ready for the temple ghats,” I say.

He laughs.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Polo, New Delhi Style

I once had a friend … well, he was my boss … who played polo in India even though he couldn’t ride a lick when he arrived in New Delhi for his three-year tour of duty at the American Embassy. Then, someone took him to a polo match. “It looked like fun,” he said. “So, I joined the local polo club.”

Maybe it was cheaper then. Now, it’s one thousand dollars a year plus you pay for your lessons and your rides. But they do teach you polo, and you do get to play—but not like the top national riders.

Most of them come from the military, which means that polo is more or less run by the Indian Army. Every Saturday and Sunday the lorries—that look like beet trucks—haul into the New Delhi polo grounds, each holding eight or nine cross-tied “ponies.” Troop carriers follow, filled with uniformed horse handlers. There are men to hold the horses, men to groom them, men to clean up after them. There are horse-walkers, tack wallahs, and water carriers, not to mention non-coms to direct the whole affair.

…even the seats in the viewing stand sport white slip covers …

Polo, as a sport, originated in India, and the Indians take it seriously. From the horses, which are as good as any I’ve seen anywhere, to the organization, attention to detail is everywhere present. Even the seats in the viewing stands sport white slip covers, brilliantly clean. And, every week a horde of low caste Indians labor on the thirteen-acre playing field, repairing the damage done by hundreds of galloping hooves.

On the subject of caste, I wonder if polo is a social leveler. Theoretically, I would assume, a low caste Indian with a talent for making goals, can whack mallets with a prince and receive a congratulatory kiss on the cheek from princess. Do they? I should find out.

We went to the all-India finals, the last matches of 2006, hoping that rumors of intermission entertainment of performing elephants and other Indian delights was true. It wasn’t. We were treated to music from a regimental band and a marching cadets who goose-stepped right smartly across the turf.

... they missed my own fashion statement of jeans from Linton’s Big R …

Other entertainment included a “best dressed” award that went to a twenty-something dressed in skin-tight designer jeans, a leather jacket and a matching leather tam. What I couldn’t figure out was how they missed my own fashion statement of jeans from Linton’s Big R and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt over a pair of sandals.

Another puzzlement was how we, American horse breeders, missed the Indian market. Most of the horses, I learned, come from Argentina and are Argentinean Thoroughbreds or TB crosses. And the prices the Indians pay! A hundred thousand for a nice 15 hand gelding with potential.

Think of the demand. Most of the players have a string with a minimum of six horses. There are four players with alternates for each team. And there are dozens of teams in Delhi, nevermind those based in other parts of the country.

But for any of you thinking to break into this market, forget it. The Argentines have it locked up through the simple expedient of sending their players to India along with their horses. The players come. They win on their own horses. And they sell and sell and sell. Really, too smart.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Speaking Laughter

“Hello. Hello.” Giggles almost always send the repeated hellos up the musical scale, sometimes creating near hysteria as the children calling us clutch their sides and run around in circles, in love with their own daring. “Hello. Hello.” More laughter.

If I answer, “Hello. How are you?” Faces lift in expectation—surprised and pleased. “Hello. How are you?” they repeat as a chorus. Like little parrots they are expected to repeat and remember. “Hello. How are you?”

“I am well thank you.”

The chorus comes amid giggles, “I am well thank you.”
...soon laughter is augmented by actual words ...

When my own daughter was as young as these children, we talked of the language of laughter that children of different nationalities use to communicate. German-speaking, French, Hindu, Amharic … mix kids with no common tongue and, in my experience, they’ll play happily and in perfect understanding, using nothing except noise and laughter, gestures, and grins. In no time, they are picking up words of each others’ tongues, and, soon, the laughter is augmented by actual words.

But these children at the Imanbala (House of the Iman) want to practice their English. Often, they know only the one word, “Hello,” but, still, it gives them great pleasure to have the “Hello” returned.
...enchanted with the word and our white skins...

Entering the Imanbala in Lucknow, the little group of tourists that I’ve joined is surrounded by an entire school plus their teachers when a New Zealander with us asks to take a picture of one group of children. They are well-dressed in their neat school uniforms. “Picture, picture, picture,” they chorus, enchanted with the word and with our white skins. They all want to touch us. They all want to shake hands and, maybe, get our autographs. One enterprising young man presents an Italian tourist with a ten-rupee note. “Please,” he says as though the Italian is a Bolywood star.

“I am learning good English,” one girl of about fourteen says. And she does speak quite well, telling us where they come from and telling us that they are touring to “understand our history.”

It’s certainly true that everywhere I go, each historic site I visit in India, I see hundreds of school children in their uniforms. They line up and walk along obediently with their teachers. But, once released, they swarm like children everywhere, hooting and yelling, running and playing tricks on each other.

“Hello, hello.” Our school has at last gone its way. Now, we have a new group of youngsters following us. “Hello, hello.”

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Siege of Lucknow

High pillars rise into the gloom. The walls are white-washed brick broken where canon balls slammed into them in 1857. We circle down and down, descending below the thick walls of the British resident’s house in Lucknow to a deep cellar, its vaulted roof forming the ground floor of the house above. Arches lead from room to room

Dark. For the victims of the Siege of Lucknow, what little light they had came from small half-moon windows up at ground level, many of the spaces were black holes, litterally.

Here was where most of the women and children were sequestered. They were the wives, mothers, and offspring of British officers who had elected to live in India. They were young women who had come out from England to visit relatives and, they hoped, find a husband among the many eligible bachelors posted with the regiments. They were the most unlucky among the unlucky.

I can visualize them in little family groups, trying to make some sort of a life as the siege of the British compound continued for month after month and into the searing heat of summer. They lacked all sanitation, had little water, ran out of food and candles. They were killed by cholera, typhoid, starvation, scurvy, small pox, heat stroke, the occasional canon ball, and plain fatigue.

...fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars ...

Outside the deep hole occupied by the women, the buildings on the British compound slowly disintegrated under regular pounding by Indian artillery. We walk around the ruins, and I’m amazed at the size of the homes, termed bungalows. These mini-palaces were occupied by the senior officers.

I gawk at the regimental doctor’s home, which features in the history books. I had no idea. It’s three stories tall with a massive portico that would dwarf the finest southern mansion’s entry. How the mighty were fallen. On one day in 1857, the middle class British of Lucknow fled their McPalaces for refuge in the cellars and behind the walls of the residency. There they died or there they stayed for time beyond imagining.

At the end, some seven hundred members of the British community holed up in Lucknow lived. Two thousand died. At the end, the British triumphed over incredible odds and despite appallingly dreadful leadership.

“This place,” our guide says as we look at the hole a canon ball made on the cellar wall, “is the only place in India that I can feel sorry for the British. The only place.”

Later, we’re standing in the middle of a street. Just up the way is the cellar of the women. All around are the tatters of brick that once shaped buildings. Then, there is the impressive ruin of the doctor’s house with its reminders of the British Raj and its injustices. “I feel sorry for the people,” I say. “All of them.”

Get Me to the Train on Time

“Holy shit!” I shout out loud into the depths of my blankets, the sound reaching the dark of my bedroom, waking my daughter next door. The illumined dial of my watch, even under the covers, says its five-thirty in the morning. Simple math. I can do simple math. Shocked and at five-thirty am, I can still do simple math. A six-oh-five departure time gives me thirty-five minutes to get to the train.

Five minutes later—whatever I could find thrown into a bag and clothes pulled over arms, legs, and head, with my daughter up and dressed—we wake the soundly sleeping guard to unlock the gate. He takes his time, has to put on his jacket, and can’t find his key. “Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.”

Five more minutes takes us to a taxi stand with its drivers asleep on cots. Unintentionally, our flashing lights and honking rouses two soldiers—on nighttime duty—their automatic rifles jerking upright in our headlines. Two minutes pass as soldiers and guns try to decide if we’re friend or foe. Two minutes of waiting for the designated driver to wind his turban onto his head—God forbid he should go out with his hair showing.

“Hurry!” I shout. “Hurry.” Twelve minutes down. No. Only twenty minutes left. I’ve lost three minutes.

The driver doesn’t hurry, but he gets his car started, and we’re on our way. I barely hear my daughter calling, “Good luck.” The soldiers are on their feet now, the butts of their guns on the ground.

Why a taxi? Because our knowledge of the streets around the train station is minimal, and there’s another challenge—locating the right entrance to the station. As it is … . I punch numbers into my cell … have to do it twice. Whatever did we do without cell phones? “Here,” I hand the device to the driver. “Listen to the directions.”

He does. He can’t talk and drive, so his foot comes off the gas pedal and lands on the brake. His vehicle coughs and chokes, the engine threatening to quit. I get the cellphone back, and we pick up speed, and the taxi clangs and clatters as though detaching and dropping bits and pieces behind, leaving a trail like Hansel and Gretel. Honest to God!

But it is early and the broad streets are mostly empty streets. With five minutes to spare, we creep up to the station, the driver not sure of the entrance. Finally, he mumbles something, and the taxi groans to a halt. Taking it all on faith, I shove twice what the fare should cost at him and leap out the door.

The seat belt comes with me. My foot tangles in it, and I almost go head first into the high curb. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. The words ring in my head, as I run through the door, up a set of stairs, over a track, and down the other side. “Lucknow Express” says the sign. The train is there! Exactly as advertised. And the first class cars are right in front of me.

Now, I run faster, my bag bumping behind, leaping the irregularly placed paving blocks. Three minutes … all the time in the world. I slow. I stroll, looking for car number twelve. I begin to think about what didn’t go in my case, about what I’m wearing, about not bringing a jacket.

“I did it,” I say to my daughter a few minutes later, my case tucked into an overhead bin, my butt planted in a Pullman chair. We’re chugging east in the general direction of yesterday’s Burma where Kipling’s “sun came up like thunder over China cross the bay.” At the very least, we’ll get a red sunrise … guaranteed this time of the year.

My eyes close, and I repeat, “I did it, and with five minutes to spare.” Bed and sleep and a race across Delhi are a memory. The red sunrise is my future.

Lucknow Express

Click and clack. Clickety-clack. The Lucknow Express picks up speed, pulling out of New Delhi Station, leaving behind a snarl of traffic—human, vehicular, and animal—and heads into the still dark early morning.

There’s nothing to see but the white light of the car, the dark skins of the passengers, the packed overhead luggage bins, and the shiny linoleum floor. The door at the end of the car opens and a waiter comes in with the first offering of the six hour trip. He’ll be back … often.

I listen to an iPod and work a Sudoku puzzle while the woman next to me, a heavy jacket over her bright yellow sari, dozes. Her head lolls against the darkness beyond the window.

Dawn is approaching. The door opens, letting in the click and clack of metal wheels on rails, and the waiter is back. This time his cart carries thermos jugs of hot water to go with the tea bags he brought on the first trip. Letting my tea bag seep in the hot water, I turn my head toward the windows where light seeps above the horizon. Here, now, come the black shapes of water buffalo, the thatch roofs of granaries, the tall cone of a brick kiln.

Visual vignettes. A village comes close, and there is a boy on a roof with the giant red ball of a sun just topping the horizon behind him. Briefly, his arms frame it—an Apollo bearing the sun. Then, he stretches, losing his brief flirtation with the supernatural, and begins a routine of calisthenics.

I watch other Indians waking in their incredible numbers. With the dawn, they’re working, tilling fields, riding bullock carts, burning ditches.

Slowing, we pull into Ghanziabad, passing makeshift huts, new construction with unfinished walls and networks of pole scaffolding. Mazes of wire festoon the building fronts, witness to a national freebooting spirit, a help yourself attitude toward power distribution.

The train jerks to a stop. Was it here that the windows of our car were starred and pitted by hurled bricks and stone? Every car in the train is similarly battle scarred—train bashing seeming to be an important component of civil protest in India. Just the day before this trip the newspapers had featured photographs of burning “bogies,” part of a riot in one of the southern states. But what’s the story behind the injuries suffered by my bogie? Were there people like me inside, appearing as bodiless heads to the rioters on the platform. Today, thank God, all is peaceful.

The reminder of violence returns later as we pass an ambulance train sitting on a siding. The windowless cars, a flat shade of orange, stimulate more questions. How often is that special train needed? Did it clack along the tracks to the relief of the earthquake victims last year? It must take hours to get the staff together, to find an engine, to clear the tracks, to … .

One answer comes all too soon when I wake up the next morning to CNN reporting the collapse of an overpass onto a passing train. Thirty-two people died immediately, and many more suffering serious injuries were expected to succumb to them because … it took the hospital train twelve hours to reach them.

Death is common in India, a normal part of Hindu life and, if the person is fortunate, this death ends the chain of reincarnation. I see one such aspirant getting a head start on eternity, being carried toward the sacred waters of the Ganges. His body, wrapped in white, lies on a platform balanced on the heads of eight men. They reach the water and lower him into it. Then, we are past Kanpur and crossing a river along which the gods walked and where death is a business.

Outside, scenes blur. One bullock looks much like the next. The dogs of every town, tails in loose, high curves, scavenge through identical trash heaps. They also lie in roads, apparently mistaking their unprivileged lives for those of the sacred cows. The latter can and do claim roads as beds without fear, and the sight of kamikaze drivers braking to roll cautiously around a recumbent cow is so common, it is as interesting as wallpaper.

Upside down ditches—banks that delineate fields—make similar patchworks everywhere. Uttar Pradesh, the most northern of India’s provinces, snugging up under Nepal, is the breadbasket of the country. It is also the wealthiest province, as anyone from UP will tell you in a nano second.

Click and clack. The refined voice of the female announcer tells us that we are coming into Lucknow, the cultural heart of UP. I see a woman holding her baby boy with his naked butt hanging over the edge of the station platform, his little body obediently defecating onto the tracks … poddy training, Indian style.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Tuk-tuks, thousands of them looking like flocks of ducklings, welcome us back to Delhi, bobbing cheerfully along New Delhi’s broad avenues, swimming together on byways, lined up along tall curbs. They are everywhere—borne along by the ebb and flow of humans and cycle-rickshaws in Old Delhi’s narrow lanes, packed together on the broad avenues of Connaught Circus, speeding under shady trees of the diplomatic enclaves. These yellow-bonneted taxis, small boxes with open sides and one end more or less anchored to three wheels, cheerfully putter about, their protruding single front tire looking like a perky, little bill. Nebishing along each and every street and lane, drivers in their Sikh turbans or Hindi sweater vests, they pick children up at schools and drop them off, carry men to their work and women to their shopping. Call and one will appear in the time it takes to disconnect your cell.

Their little green bodies tend to disappear below the level of traffic, but, thanks to their tops of yellow vinyl, they’re impossible to miss and, with drivers of uncertain abilities, they often aren’t missed. Cages of iron bars fence their lights to protect them from breakage. Dents and dings, scratches and rust, mark their bodies, the ones that bobbed when they should have ducked, that darted forward at the wrong time, that challenged one normal-sized vehicle too many.

...the man has his guide, and he's following it ...

Thinking of this, we come up behind a tuk-tuk that has his single front wheel solidly placed on a line, managing to hog both lanes of traffic. Our driver honks. He honks again. He leans on the horn. But the tuk-tuk driver might as well be sitting in the cab of a train following a track. This man has his guide, and he’s following it.

A circle comes up, and we slide around him, escaping, a flood of traffic following us and spreading out, vying for road space in the usual ‘threading the needle’ way. As we weave and dodge along our own path, I watch other tuk-tuks skipping agilely from lane to lane like ducks in a circus shooting gallery.

From the rear, their hoods could as easily belong to an eighteenth century buggy or the rig that Curly sings about in “Oklahoma” with “isinglass curtains that roll right down, in case there’s a change in the weather.” Many of these, too, come with curtains that can “roll right down.”

...a set of toes visible where the driver's shoeless foot has been tucked up under him ...

Just as the duckling have a certain adorable charm, so do the tuk-tuks. Look a bit closer, though, and most interiors are as battered as the exteriors and as lacking in cleanliness. But the price is right. For the equivalent of two dollars, a tuk-tuk will drive any place you want to go in Delhi.

One slips in front of us, a set of toes visible where the driver’s shoeless foot has been tucked up on the seat and under his body. The toes wiggle as the tuk-tuk slides into impossibly small gaps in traffic, breasts a river of vehicles on a traffic circle, then disappears down an adjoining street. Our driver says something in Hindi that I don’t understand. Just as well. Tuk-tuks often act as mindless as they look, trying the patience of the most phlegmatic driver.

Still, the sight brings a smile. How often are toes a part of a driving experience?

Monday, November 27, 2006


Murder on the Nile! Hercule Poirot, mahogany paneling and elegant staterooms, ladies with parasols and men in spats. Palm trees decorating the banks of a wide river while a boat horn plays a lively tune. It’s clear in my mind’s eye. I know exactly how this trip will be. Waiters in white jackets and pants will carry silver trays through narrow halls while crocodiles lift their snouts in menace, glimpsed through beds of reed. The captain will preside over canapés and cocktails dressed in marine splendor. There will be “murder most foul” and a dapper Belgian detective to catch the killer.

We do have white-jacketed waiters, palm trees, silver trays, cocktails. We also have a cast of characters that includes a professor of English history from Witwatersrand in South Africa. With him is his wife who bleeds. Not just a little bit, but a lot. That’s when I knew.

As Shakespeare said and as Sherlock Holmes plagiarized: “the game’s afoot!” We had a victim. That thought gained credence as we gathered on the second morning to set off for the great temple at Esna.

First, a bandage on the professor’s wife’s ankle turned red. Then, blood seeped through and into her socks. It ran into her shoe, overflowed and pooled on the carpet.

Where is Hercule Poirot when you need him? The rest of the cast had assembled. We had the professor and his wife. We had their companions. We had haughty Spaniards and wealthy French honeymooners plus an even wealthier older French couple. The latter had suites with their own deck on the forward bow (we could lean over the top deck railing and look down on them). They also had potted palms.

There we were that Tuesday morning, standing in the main lounge, wondering if we shouldn’t say something about the blood. What is proper etiquette with a murder in progress and the victim seemingly unaware of her fate? “Rae,” the companion finally spoke, “You might want to sit down.”

I gaped, then. A double gape. One part was for the understatement. Sit down? Rae would soon be lying down—permanently! Anyone could see that. The second part was for the amount of blood. It was as dramatic as anything Agatha Christie ever put in a book.

“We must call a doctor,” our Egyptianologist said. He seemed unperturbed, his swarthy skin smooth and unwrinkled. Nothing impressed him ... that what his expression said. I did notice a small indentation where his eyebrows lifted into his forehead, though. But was it disapproval or sympathy? Impossible to tell.

Nevermind. We would have the indispensable doctor added to our cast. He would wear a white jacket and a vest decorated by watch fob and chain. He would doff his panama hat as he came aboard, inquiring in impeccable English for his patient. Yes! But would he be in time?

In the event, reluctantly, we left the hemorrhaging Rae and her husband behind, and we went ashore to take copious numbers of pictures and to express pious hopes at regular intervals. These ran along the lines of, “I hope Rae is doing all right.” “Such a pity she is missing this.” “Yes, it’s a shame, but she must look after her health.”

“Is she a hemophiliac?” I asked finally, thinking her husband was feeding her rat poison, but not wanting to voice that conclusion too soon. (Well, with no HP around, someone had to play detective, and I can do Miss Marple’s accent.) Rat poison would account for the bleeding and would be something a professor from Witwatersrand might think he could get away with in Egypt.

“It’s the medicine she takes for her asthma,” the companion said. “If she scratches her skin, she bleeds.”

“The poor thing,” I say, hiding my true reaction. LIKELY STORY!!

That night we dressed for dinner served by white-jacketed waiters and presided over by a haughty chef in a black jacket (he directed, the sous-chefs in tall white hats who did the actual cooking). Should we dine with the South Africans? Witnesses would be needed, or maybe our presence would discourage any further sprinkling of rat poison on poor Rae’s food. I was torn between humanitarian instincts and a desire for a good drama.

Outside beds of reeds hid lurking crocodiles. Lights came on in huts and mud brick villages. Boys with sticks trail cattle returned from the fields. The occasional camel stood impervious to river traffic and donkeys protesting their lines. Galabayas flapped around the legs of men and great jars stood on women’s heads. The sky deepened to a dark blue, providing a dramatic backdrop to sand-strewn hills. In short, the Nile banks parodied illustrations from my childhood picture bible.

The companion appeared. “Rae is eating in her cabin, but the doctor has seen her,” she said.

So, we sat at a table next to two Spaniards and their daughter and debated what the Bush administration should do about Iraq, decided that Wyoming won’t elect a Democrat to national office in our lifetime, and considered the important issue of what to wear for tomorrow night’s costume evening.

Later, water swished almost silently past the sides of the boat. Inside chandeliers dripping with cut glass sent prisms of color across deep pile carpeting. Music played softly. Men in black tie cut their meat and one man probably thought profound thoughts: how easy would it be to slip a woman’s body into the Nile?

I went to sleep, eventually, to awake to a new day and the sight of Rae, bandaged and ready for to go sightseeing. “It’s the medicine,” she said. “And we just have to control the bleeding.”

Yeah … likely story. He was killing her. No doubt. If my “little gray matter” was not quite so little, I’d present her with the evidence and save her life. As it was, I shrugged and went sightseeing, too. What I want to know: where’s Hercule Poirot when he’s needed?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Intended Consequences, Aswan

The high dam at Aswan may be the most visible of the Cold War monuments. It certainly had as direct and violent an impact on as many lives as any other aspect of the Soviet-American competition.

There it is, stretching in front of us in a great curve, 3,600 meters long, arcing into the distance, gathering the Nile behind its walls into a huge reservoir that stretches south through the desert to cross into what was once part of Sudan. Aswan is a colossus, bigger even than any imagination can stretch. By comparison the spillway seems miniscule, water sliding over its face in millions of gallons reduced to the apparent size of a trickle by the awe-inspiring immensity of the dam, itself.

“Everyone who lives in Aswan,” our guide says, “is proud of the dam. Everyone here has a relative who worked on it. This is our dam.”

I don’t like the dam, but I understand. Anyone who grows up in the shadow of one of these mighty constructions would. A dam is an easy thing to admire, to take pride in.

“Aswan controls the floods and provides electricity for all of Egypt,” Osama says. “It stores so much water that we could withstand long times without rain.” Later, he admits, “Of course, there are some problems.”

Like it dispossessed some hundred thousand people of their lands, homes, and towns, directly killing 451.
Like it flooded dozens of priceless historical landmarks.
Like it cost the international community millions to move the most valuable of the temples.
Like it flooded the rest.
Like it opened up new farmland but stopped the annual flows of silt onto the Nile delta, leaving once excessively fertile land fertilizer dependent. Visibly, across the country salts are rising, requiring new and expensive land treatments—that’s for the ground not being taken over by apartment blocks.
Like the reservoir is silting up and continuing to spread.
Like the ever full canals propagate bilharzias, causing a public health crisis.

Most of these consequences were anticipated. In the early 1950’s the United States refused funding for the project because of them, suggesting a series of smaller dams. I’m old enough to remember this and Egypt’s reaction, which was to nationalize the Suez Canal, thereby sparking a brief war during which we sided with Egypt and against England and France (we still did things like that, then).

When the dust settled, and Washington stood firm against the monstrous dam (still the world’s largest as of this writing), the Soviets grinned and opened their money chests.

We walk out along the dam’s top, going as far as a military barrier that blocks the roadway, the wind ruffling our hair, seagulls flying. Water bracketed by sand reaches to the horizon.

“It’s a sensitive military zone,” our guide says, and I have no doubt but that he’s right. If the dam hadn’t still been under construction during the Six Day War, one could assume it would no longer still stand.

We don’t stop at a tall monument, “Built to celebrate Soviet-Egypt friendship,” our guide says. “Now … ?” He gives a small laugh, it’s a rueful sound containing a world of questions and change. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The cold war is over. The great Egyptian ally is again America.

Another complexity edges into his voice. The Egyptians don’t like America much. Our guide doesn’t, either. “We know that our President is forced to do things. We understand,” he says on another occasion, meaning that Mubarek’s policies are jammed down his throat by Washington. “Now …?” with a laugh. Much meaning is wrapped up in that one small sound; that one small word.

Here are some unintended consequences to mix with the intended ones.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unintended Consequences, Harmones

“Cute,” I say, observing a fair sampling of Egypt’s youth. Harmones, it seems, level the human behavior field.

We’re driving by lines of buses—block after block of them disgorging hordes of kids on the main street of Giza, a city of millions that has grown up between the great pyramids and Cairo. It’s Saturday, the equivalent of our Saturday, and it looks like every person in Egypt of school age has come to visit their cultural heritage.

My “cute” response is to the dress and behavior and is said with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek. This is a Muslim country, one growing more radical by the year, and, just as one would expect, many of the girls are in the hedjab, the Muslim head covering.

Somehow, though, this tribute to modesty in the hands of an inventive teen becomes a theatrical prop, one we can see in many permutations as the girls glide around as provocatively as Nerfertiti to gather in giggling groups under the eyes of any nearby boys and wait for their school chaperones.

Inventiveness is everywhere. The basic hedjab is just a scarf worn to cover the hair. A popular form comes pre-sewn with an opening for the face and a long end that can be brought around the shoulders, draped across the chest, and drawn up and pinned above the ear on the opposite side of the body. As worn by our guide, it is a modest piece of clothing, hiding the neck and disguising breasts. The teenaged girls, though?

Ah, they are a different matter. Take the very same basic white hedjab, adjust the drape to accentuate the breasts, raise the forehead line above huge black eyes, add a jeweled pin … then put the whole lot over a tight pair of jeans, boots or cute little shoes, and a lace-edged top. The combination is guaranteed to stop any male in his tracks. But this is just the beginning. We pass dozens of variations with hedjabs of several pieces and colors and combinations of skirts, jackets, and pants.

“Cute.” And, they are.

Unintended consequences. Tell a woman she must wear a scarf, and there’s no telling what she’ll produce. No wonder the mullahs and imans keep women out of the mosques. No male over the age of puberty could focus on Allah while such temptation is within eyesight. “Someone must stay home and tend the children so the men can pray,” our guide says. “That is a woman’s duty. That is why she is excused from the mosque.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “No doubt about it.”

Something in my tone must make her wonder about my sincerity, because she gives me an appraising look. I smile.

The boys, themselves, make their own entrances, using bus hand holds as gymnastic bars, swinging athletically to the ground and swaggering around in tight jeans, boots, and tee-shirts. Jackets are also in evidence, the temperature being (for Egypt) a cool 75+ degrees fahrenheit.

To my real surprise, some of the boys pair off with girls, draping arms over shoulders, lowering their heads for more intimacy. But, mostly, the girls bunch together, laughing and talking in ways designed to attract attention. The boys do the same … without the giggles. Then, there are those few in truly modest attire, who walk with lowered heads and serious demeanors. I know those kids, too. They are the class nerds, the youth headed for religious careers, the moral-guardians-in-training for their communities.

After a mile or so of buses, we get our first good sight of the pyramids, of the creations of people who lived four thousand years ago. And, I’ll bet their teens weren’t much different than those of today’s Egypt or today’s America. Harmones will out.


My line is never the right line. Everywhere, people in turbans and fezs, wearing hedjabs, burkas and galabayas move briskly along while we wait, passports and entry cards in hand. A pair of eyeglasses perched across a slit in a mound of black cloth … I take it as an article of faith that there is a woman under there … seems to stare at me. I stare back. Her line shuffles forward. Mine doesn’t. Beyond the row of booths with their uniformed attendants, luggage carousels go around and around. Beyond that, beyond corners and doors, families, tourist agents, and taxi drivers wait—my daughter waits.

Cairo is our meeting point. After twenty-three hours of travel, there is this last line, the longest and slowest one of all. There’s no point in changing, though. As soon as I do, my new selection will stall. It’s a rule.

Robyn is there, outside the customs hall. Her hair is cut in a slightly bouffant page-boy style above tailored slacks and a back-belted jacket. “Beirut wasn’t all bad,” I say, after hugs and greetings, noting the fashionable clothes and hairdo.

“Great shopping,” she says with a grin for the incongruity. She’s been getting danger pay and getting it in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities. I laugh but not because there’s anything funny. It’s a sound of relief. She’s come out of a war zone alive one more time. She’s there in front of me, tangible, talking, with all ten fingers and ten toes.

Now, we’re launched on another excursion—for her a break before work in South Asia, for me relief from a Wyoming winter. Out we go, exiting the airport into the as-advertised pollution created by twenty-plus million people.

Cairo surprises by being relatively clean and attractive, trees with skinny trunks twisting toward whatever sky is visible on narrow streets, their canopies expanding to fill the sky above the many broad boulevards. Lines of cell-like shops, open shutters serving as display racks, spill into the streets, their neighborhoods jostling against bougainvillea-draped walls and wrought-iron balconies of French-style quartiers. Signs lead to English hotels. Minarets and domes dominate big hunks of skyline, proclaiming the power of Islam. Another god … Mammon … shines from bank fronts in polished copper or brushed aluminum, eyeing pockets not yet picked. His power is also evident along the river where high-rise, luxury hotels compete with extravagantly built office structures. There is wealth here. Great wealth alongside hurrying men in galabayas and slippers.

There is a lot of everything. We come to a round-about and enter the fray becoming another bit of flotsam, the melee of jostling cars, busses, and trucks, all vying for street space. At the center, a functioning fountain sprays water through sunflower spokes of aluminum. Around we go to be slung out the far side, passing a robed man with a broom sweeping the gutter, pushing desert sand and bits of paper toward a grate.

The Nile here lacks an expected width, is not the broad highway I imagined. It has been tamed and constrained since the Soviets built the high dam at Aswan, islands pushing up where the river once covered the land. For over four thousand years the river fed one empire after another. Now, it has been reduced to service as a recreational waterway, the lands it once fertilized built over by apartment buildings and streets, its inlets vivid with the triangular wings of feluccas, its banks are marked by the hulls of floating restaurants waiting for their dinner and lunch-time patrons.

Food is more palatable when eaten with a rocking motion?

From the wide double balcony of our Four Seasons’ suite, we watch the red of sunset as it fades, the accents of fushias and golds dimming until the sky is a graying, darkening salmon. Amber pinpoints, streetlights, flash into existence, speckling the Nile’s far bank. Below, candles appear on white linen tablecloths under awnings. Engines rumble to life, and the floating restaurants launch outwards on their evening cruises, making great splashes of light on the river. A low rumble of sound punctuated by frequent blares, hoots, and beeps of honking horns through the night tells of population density, of continuing life and commerce. Cairo does not sleep, barely pauses to take breath before the sun god is reborn, emerging from the vagina of the mother goddess to light a new day … that’s one of the stories, anyway.

Tomorrow … early … we’re off to Luxor. But tonight we nibble from small plates, enjoying the variety that mezza provides. We drink our wine, and catch up on Wyoming’s elections and Beirut’s reconstruction.

Tomorrow we’ll endure more lines. Tonight we enjoy Cairo.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Flying from Frankfurt to Cairo takes longer than expected, even with the airline itinerary and the times spelled out.

In other centuries our rapid global transits would have been unthinkable. “Keep a sense of perspective,” I mutter. “It’s plain ungrateful to complain, even if it’s just to myself, about a few hours.” Once, getting there was both the challenge and the reward. “Once” there was no choice in modes of travel. “Once” is the governing word.

What if … what if I had to make the trip on transport available in the fourteenth century, the tenth, or even the nineteenth? Just imagine setting out to see the world on horseback or in a wagon without springs or bailing a leaky boat.

For a moment the pleasures of two or three hours on a well-trained horse and a comfortable saddle come to mind. Horseback travel provides plenty of time to look around, to enjoy the scenery and see the detail. There’s the smell of sun-warmed grass, of hoof-bruised herbs, of dried pine needles … none of this recycled plane air. It could be heaven. Until the rain pours down or the snow flies, until the horse bucks or a wheel comes off the wagon. Thinking of the negatives brings on avoidance syndrome and an instinct to stay home. No wonder in previous centuries the average person never moved more than five miles from home.

So, I’m out to see the world, squeezed into a seat measuring one foot by one foot. Visualizing the six hundred miles between Billings and Denver as equivalent to the Frankfurt-Cairo leg of my travel and wishing it would go as fast. To each generation, each culture its own rewards and complaints.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Quotes from Beirut

Nearby, on a windy Wyoming day, a rifle cracks, but a pheasant strutting across the lawn doesn't flinch. It's deer season.

In Beirut, my daughter reports via email about hearing one Lebanese friend says to another:

"You've changed since the war; you're much more picky." The response: "I have? Since which war?"

Later, when asked why the central district of Beirut had filled with soldiers, an embassy bodyguard shrugs, says:

"What can I tell you! This country is really fucked up."
"So's this one," I think. Just beyond my Wyoming window, sparrows forage among dead leaves while down the road a ways, the shooter stands by his open truck door door, aiming across a barley field. He fires again.

Ready to go

GETTING GONE, AGAIN ... or Practical Civics 101

"Oh, Madame … that is not being my responsibility," a cultured voice in the Embassy of India Public Relations section said. And, "You must be talking directly to the person responsible," and "There is an order, here, Madame. Please to be calling the correct number."

"Order?" The Indian bureaucracy has swallowed my passport whole, and this woman is talking about order? "Calling the correct number?" This from the country that has given us the call center?

Getting a status report on my travel documents had seemed a simple, practical process and a good antidote to the mind-numbing task of researching candidates and issues on the November ’06 ballot. So far, though, calls to the four numbers assigned to the Indian Consulate had gone unanswered and produced no voice mail alternatives. There were other official Indian numbers, though, and they did answer. Not that it did me any good.

...providing a lesson in the evils of entrenched bureaucracy...

Hours passed, providing a lesson in the evils of entrenched bureaucracy, and an ode to the joys of being able to "vote the bastards" out once every two to six years. Our county bureaucracy began to look pretty good.

Along the way, Alex Thomas came into my life. "The Indians never answer their phones," this employee of American enterprise, specifically a travel documents expediter, said.

"And, it’s not likely that we can find it. Our people are only allowed to ask at the walk-in counter. Your passport was mailed in. Consular officers in the mail-in section never respond to the walk-ins, and, they definitely don’t answer the telephone."

Peter the Great would've been proud ...

"Would you like to repeat that?" My ear felt like a snail had crawled inside, sowing swirling confusion. Indian bureaucracy being the ultimate in a concept driven to the extreme, though, the message was clear. Peter the Great of Russia, the father of the modern bureaucracy, would have been proud of his southern brothers.

Six weeks had passed since the Embassy of India received my visa request. The calendar now read late October. Snow fell on Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains. The sun shone in Washington, D.C. A travel itinerary said: departure 11 November to Cairo … then, Dubai, New Delhi, Darjeeling, Bhutan, Sikkim, Bali, New Delhi, Jaipur, New Delhi, Cody. Easy for it to say. But no normal person with a tourist passport (presuming they do have one) goes anywhere without visas.

"Consider your passport lost," Alex Thomas said, "Just start over. Eventually, this year … next year, it’ll arrive in the mail, but it’s not likely to happen before you’re due to leave."

... thanks to a depleted checkbook ...

Three days later, thanks to a vastly depleted checkbook and hours spent filling out documents, news came that the U.S. Passport Office had issued me a new passport and the Embassy of Egypt had given it a visa. Okay. We’re back where we started. But the dreaded lair of the entrenched bureaucrat--the Indian consulate--still waited, the dragons of procedure and regulation and limitation lurking, waiting to feast on another delicious meal of fresh passport.

Will the skies of United carry this passenger east? Who knows, but if Northwest College ever needs a lecturer for Practical Civics 101, they should call me. Those who take the class will be told: read the above and answer one question: Compare and contrast the virtues of: a. entrenched bureaucracy; b. elected bureaucracy; c. private enterprise.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

AGRA: Singing the Colors

"red six, light blue two, yellow one, red eight … ."

Fingers dancing to singing words, weavers pull brightly dyed wool between cotton strings, tight-stretched over massive rollers. A row ends and … slam! Down come the forks, packing knotted threads into the intricacy of a growing pattern, the density of the knots a characteristic of an Agra carpet. Slam! Slam! Slam! We’re hearing the muffled kettle drums of the weavers’ music.
"… dark blue two, brown two, gold one, dark blue two, red ..."

"Notice the bluish cast," the proprietor instructs. "This is lac red, a unique color, the red of an Agra carpet."

Fingers flicker, following the song, sensuous colors flying to their appointed places, building the velvet nap and creating Agra’s distinctive floral patterns. The city, I would learn, has given its name to all carpets made in India, their manufacture growing from exactly the same artistic impulse that inspired the construction of the Taj Mahal.

As the weavers sing, their chants cascade, one lyric leading to another, each carpet having its own verses and melody, repeated and repeated. Today’s voices, yesterday’s chanters, last year’s baritones lead the yarn in the same way, painting beloved flowers, winding identical vines. Originally, they say, the fingers belonged to artisans brought to India from Herat by the greatest of the Moghul emperors, Akbar, while today’s designs spring from his grandson’s, Shah Jahan’s, love of stylized flower motifs.

Our visit here was intended as a side excursion, a break from the serious business of viewing monuments. We hadn’t been sure we should bother, our guidebook having been less than enthusiastic. "Carpetmakers in Uttar Pradesh turn out respectable imitations … ," Lonely Planet: India told us. Uttar Pradesh, of course, is the province that houses both Agra and New Delhi.

"Everyone does rug-making," our local guide had said, his voice lacking enthusiasm.

Neither source was much of a recommendation. But here we are.

In stocking feet I step across a field of lac red that is patterned with rows of flowers to kneel and look more closely at a carpet dominated by blue. Its color and intricately wound flowers mark it as a pattern that probably originated in western Afghanistan when that area was still part of Persia. It’s an old pattern, one that has seen much use. Macedonian soldiers might have lounged on identical carpets--loot stolen on their eastward march under Alexander. And the conquering hordes of Tamar the Lame, known to us as Tamarlane, probably carried clones of this same carpet to Samarkand.

"We have less expensive carpets, of course," the proprietor says. "Only 156,800 rupees." The coffee tastes bitter; is as thick as pea soup. "Hmm. Perhaps I would consider 20,000."

Half an hour later, bargaining inconclusive, my daughter and I have resumed our tourist duties and are in a pavilion, a small palace called the Khas Mahal atop Agra’s massive Red Fort, sunlight filtering through elaborate marble screens. I lean against a parapet, imagining the gleaming marble covered in carpets. Surely, the ghost of Shah Jahan, the architect of the Taj Mahal, must be here. Like us, he will be looking up the Yamuna River to the marble tracery of the ethereal tomb he built for his wife.

Legend says he stared, day after day, at the fantasy of the Taj, remembering in its lines and beauty a woman of laughter and music, his mind stuck in the past. Did the patterns of curving leaves, delicate flowers, and climbing vines remind him of the mosaics in the Taj, ones he had commissioned as he had the carpets? How many of his memories would have been played out on Agra’s rugs?

History moves on. By 1857, the British had taken over the carpet factories, had introduced artificial dyes, degrading the colors. But in that year, carpet making was far from their minds. In 1857, six thousand English came through heat reaching 136 degrees Fahrenheit with hastily packed carts overflowing with family heirlooms and ayahs, followed by horses and bearers. Fleeing revolting Sepoys who killed whole garrisons elsewhere, they crammed the fort.

They would have made partitions with their carpets, beautiful even in the killing heat, tacking them across empty doorframes and along pillared arcades, spreading them over stone floors. Journals from the period tell us that the refugees lived in fetid disorder for months, uncomfortable but safe behind walls built by the Moghuls.

We walk along a gallery and imagine stifling family enclosures here. It would be nice to think they found some relief in the harmonious designs of their carpets, that their spirits might have lifted seeing the beauty in these patterns, if not in the chemical colors. But it probably didn’t work that way.

Later, we watch yet again as the weavers’ fingers flicker in the looms. We listen as their music grows an ancient pattern. There on the frame is a fresh version of an old composition, one that will carry a bit of Agra’s lifeblood and history across the world. Where will I see it next--in a New York hotel, a Paris apartment, or my own home?

The merchant says, "Perhaps I would consider 70,000 rupees." "Hmm," I consider. "It would be difficult, but I might manage forty." And, so it goes. So it has always gone. The song, too, continues:

"… six gold, two red, one blue … ."