Thursday, September 23, 2004

a REALLY long story a few weeks overdue

ajanta falls.JPG, originally uploaded by seamonkeylifeboat.

So we finally made it on our first little trip out of town (not work related). I feel a bit more like a real traveler now, had a few more intense moments of wow and ohshit and appreciation and irritation. I even, in the end, got diagnosed with dysentery a few days after returning, making me feel quite the intrepid and worldy explorer.
We went to Ajanta to see the Buddhist caves that were carved there in 2 periods, one 100 BC to 150 AD and one 462 AD to 480 AD. We were already in Nasik working on getting a temporary retail shop ready in the winery and had a great evening out on the town (Nasik is a million people and has a movie theater but is mostly dominated by farming, religion, and big industry factories). We went with Adrian and Alika, two Mumbaites from the office, Valerie, the winemaker from France who has been living on the winery and exploring the area on her scooter for the better part of a year, and a driver, Dattu, who was refreshingly open to socializing with us. We walked to the dam with the winery dog and puppies, drank wine on the patio of the guest house, ate good food at a pleasant open air restaurant, had ice cream at a nearby shop, and then tried (under their insistence) a digestive treat called paan made of a betel nut leaf rolled around coconut, limestone paste, fennel seeds, rose petals in honey, betel nut, etc... You're supposed to stuff this enormous thing in your mouth and then chew it for a long time, slowly swallowing the flavored juices until it's mostly dissolved down, then swallow it. I was glad it was dark enough to spit most of it out without anyone noticing and was immediately nauseous but put it off to too much food for the evening and kept smiling. Unfortunately whether it was the paan or something else I woke up in the middle of the night with chills, sweats, achey muscle cramps, and all the more messy aspects of food poisoning. While I spent the next day in bed, getting up only to stagger to the bathroom periodically, Andy finished up (and added to) the temporary retail room plans. So we delayed our trip for a day and took things a little slow. I hate paan.
We went to Fardapur, right down the road from Ajanta, by bus and train. I got a little more of the experience of being the white novelty than I had in the bigger cities (though there's a lot even there). We stopped for a coke in a little shop on the walk from the train station to the bus station and it immediately filled with little boys in brown and white school uniforms who surrounded us with big eyes. We sat by a few teenage girls to drink our cokes who very sweetly worked up the courage to ask my name and shake hands. On the bus two little girls caused a mini aisle jam by stopping by our seats to stare for awhile, then sat behind us and climbed up on the back of our seats with their elbows on our heads to exchange smiles. I like it better when people who are staring will smile back, it's unnerving and eventually irritating to western manners to be stared at constantly with no return expression. Kids are usually the most fun.
Anytime you get off a bus or train you're immediately rushed by men trying to get you into their car/ hotel/ shop and Fardapur wasn't an exception. It was better than some of the bigger areas, though, where tiny teenage girls holding listless babies, old women with no teeth and cataract clouded eyes, and men with no legs on rolling carts come at you from all directions holding up their palms, pointing at their mouths, and breaking your heart. We ended up walking around with one man in matching purple pants and shirt (lots of these matching suits, usually in khaki or navy, though) who claimed us as his own right off the bat and showed us around the town, which is set up in and around an old stone fort. He was rightfully proud in telling us that the town is 50/50 Muslim and Hindu, but they get along peacefully. We walked through goats and chickens and boars and their piglets with a parade of little kids behind us saying 'hello hello,' sometimes running up to shake hands and trade names in struggling English with much giggling. Word got ahead of us so that as we walked, heads poked out of all the little houses along the alleys to say,' hello hello.' Nice town. Later we got to sit on the rooftop of a hotel and listen to the Muslim call to prayer floating over the town and fields along with Hindu chanting - very beautiful while watching goat herders and boars, piglets, dogs and water buffalo wandering through the grass and boys playing cricket in the fields.
Ajanta is a tourist destination and so trains its young men to speak Japanese, English, and German and not take no for an answer. The worst of it is at the entrances to the cave and surrounding ravine area where you are, even in off season like this, swarmed by 5 -10 men holding newspaper wrapped packages of crystals (their 'shops') and trying to put geodes and stone necklaces into your hands in any way possible. They want to give you a small crystal as a token of friendship so that you'll come see their shop (an assortment of stones and maybe postcards displayed on newspaper nearby). No buying, just looking, then holding, your hand please, then good price! They want to guide you to the bottom of the hill or through the caves. They want to tell you about their brothers/cousins shop at the bottom of the hill or hotel or restaurant in town. They want to meet you later to bring you there. Years of tourists have taught them to get as many sales from people just wanting to get away as from any honest desire for their products. We managed to get free of all but 2, a younger guy who bounced down the slope to intercept us on the trail and an older man missing a few teeth with the grubby little white sailor/ghandi hat and overall look I've heard is typical to the ghati, or hill people of Maharashtra (our state), who decided that he was our guide no matter what we said. So we walked down a beautiful slope with amazing smooth stone bowls and falls carved by a little river among the green trees and occasional wandering band of black faced monkeys. We lost the younger man but picked up two little boys from the neighboring village who begged for rupees, then gum, then candy, then, oddly, gold pens until we pointed out a larger band of tourists we could see on the next slope over and they promptly ran after them. With the stone smoothed into deep hollows and ravines and green foliage dripping down along the sides above the river it was spectacular. A little further down and we could see the bend in the ravine where the caves are carved out, so after a little photo break with our guide and another young man who'd appeared and an exchange of addresses and promises to send them copies of their photos, we entered the cave site.
We lucked out in that our trip coincided with the stay of Professor Walter Spink, a charming and eccentric gray bearded man from Michigan who has been coming to India for over 50 years and is the foremost scholar on the Ajanta caves. We ended up having breakfast with him, then dinner and a bottle of wine, then breakfast again and a walk (complete with mongoose sighting, yay!) - he even loaned me a few books and posed for Andyâ??s art project in front of his books, pills, and whiskey bottles. Everyone in the village knows and likes him and has a story about how well he can dance or how he helped them or their family in some way. He lives in a hotel there close to half the year and even has two very sweet Indian dogs, Chumpy and Jumpy, that follow him wherever he goes (though Jumpy eats shoes and is so isn't allowed to sleep in his room on a chair as Chumpy is). I bring him up at this point because his stories and observations helped to flesh out what we were looking at into a whole new level. Beautiful statues and caves carved out of solid rock (basalt) complete with decorated pillars and paintings are impressive to start, but he pointed out many little details not to miss and threw in his theories of its creation as well. He says that most of the 29 caves were cut in less than 20 years, mostly during the reign of Emperor Harisena. Hindu artists did much of the work, hired by wealthy Buddhists who wanted to make offerings. He pointed out that you can tell that at a certain point work stopped due to political turmoil. The artists went to work in a safer area where the stone happened to be sandstone instead of basalt and so learned different techniques that they used when they returned. I also learned that the floors were carved to have reflecting pools to give light to the artists working in the back. It had a lot more life and interest with his stories added. Pictures will describe it better than I can, though.
Our trip home took a less pleasant bent during our 2 1/2 hour wait for a late train in sweltering heat in Jalgoan. I'm going to switch in between quoting Andy's writing about this experience and my own just to confuse everyone since I was kinda out of it with dysentery weakness and a growing migraine and Andy really stood up to the situations:
Andy - Our train was over 2 hours late which gave a group of young lads at the train station a chance to send every crazy or boozed up person over our way to see if the 2 foreigners would freak out.
The first guy to come our way was some wiry dude with wire-rimmed glasses that still had the price tag on them in a way that seemed like it would significantly obscure his vision. He seemed like a mix between a crack addict and a shaman. He had just a few rotten teeth, a hoarse creaky voice, and a manic glint in his eye as he whispered all sorts of unintelligible nonsense wisdom. All I made out at one point was, 'you are rich and she is poor (pointing to Laurel) and your money is in her pocket.' That's the second or third person to infer Laurel is a gold-digger or expensive and immediately lose all credibility for being able to read people.
Laurel's note: when Andy left for a few minutes to buy water and try and find out about the train this guy returned and locked onto me for long enough to speak in several completely different voices, from guttural demon style to the usual hoarse whisper to high pitchedâ?| about what I have no real idea but it wasn't pleasant stuff. The crowd stood around and watched, some laughing. After I was starting to lose all politeness and just turn away and ignore him he suddenly looked at his watch, turned around, and ran and jumped on a train moving through the station. Very Freakin weird - almost Jacobs Ladder kinda weird.
Andy - We had a brief period of sweating, water drinking, biscuit eating, and wondering where the hell our train was. The crazy dude had chased us from the more remote end of the station we had been told our train would arrive at to the more densely populated middle section of the platform. At some point we wandered back to where our car was supposed to stop and found a seat. After awhile an Indian guy comes up and asks in broken English what we think of his country. In a flash we are surrounded by about 30 young guys all looking down on us - slightly intimidating. The first guy seems agitated and keeps saying that his friends want to know what we think of Indians and asking why we are here. I tell him that we find Indians nice and friendly overall. He flips and flops between seeming friendly and seeming pissed off. I start to suspect he's kind of drunk and maybe slightly whack. He keeps trying to infer that we look down on the Indians because we come from a superpower and they all dropped out after 11th grade or something, but I just say it was nice to talk to him and shake his hand, then have to shake hands with everyone, and the crowd disperses.
A few minutes later someone starts pinching my leg. I look down and there's this little middle-aged man beaming up at me. He hesitates and then in timid English says, 'I want you.' I look at him and repeat, 'you want me?'
'Yes. I want you to stay at my house tonight.'
Laurel and I alternately try to explain that it's a very nice offer but we have to go to Mumbai tonight so that we can work tomorrow. Our boss is a slave driver, etcâ?| Every time it seems like he's gotten it he grins again and says,' you go to Bombay tomorrow. Tonight you stay at my house.' It's dawning on me that this guy is not the brightest bulb and he's drunk, to boot. In the meantime a good portion of the earlier crowd of young men has gathered to nudge each other and watch.
Then the first guy returns and starts asking the same questions about his friends wanting to know what our opinions of Indians are while the gang of onlookers closes in on us and leers down. He whips out a piece of pare and starts asking me about Nefertiti and what she means to us and mummies and shit and demanding to know what the word 'revelt' means. I tell him I don't know. He keeps switching fro being antagonistic to friendly. I decide to change the subject and ask him if he is a painter since his arms have flecks of blue and yellow paint on them. He starts getting agitated thinking I'm passing judgment on him and talking about some guy who sounds like a religious figure who 'makes all the laws' and I should remember that. We're both getting pretty tired of it, and Laurel's been fighting off a migraine all day, and the guys are sort of leering down, jostling each other, so I decide to stand up and equalize the balance of power. So I stand up, which has the desired and slightly gratifying effect of everyone stepping back and sort of letting out a gasp. The 'conversation' continues in the same vein a little longer, and then I thank them and ask them all to please clear out and give us a little space. The whole time this has been going on the little guy has been pinching my leg or, when I stand up, my elbow and saying positive things about what the other guy has been saying. He starts in again about us staying at his house, so we get up and leave. He follows us around pinching my elbow and, just when I think he's got it, turning to Laurel and starting in on her. We finally shake him. Laurel has been watching the crowd dynamic and says that a bunch of the guys had been revving the painter/Nefertiti weirdo up to talk to us. We settle on some packages waiting for the same train and enjoy a 30 minute lull before the little pinchy-pinch stay-at-my-house fucker shows up and starts in again. Laurel points out the group of guys and says that he'd just been hanging out with them. He seems drunker and soon gives up and wanders off. I decide to just cut it off at the source and start staring at the guys who seem to be spurring these madmen on. Anytime one of them looks at us I stare him down. Laurel is doing the same. Pretty soon no one is looking at us and our train finally arrives. Of course, after all that time of enduring the boondocks of the station and its loonies, we're standing in the wrong place and have to hustle it through the crowd along the train looking for our car. We catch it just as the train is pulling out. Our first catching of a moving train. How great is that?!


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