Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Missing the Rose Bowl in Rajasthan

            The only question on my father’s mind as he climbed up the cobbled steps to the 14th Century Hill Fort Keseroli in Alwar, Rajasthan was where could he watch -- or at least get the score of -- the Rose Bowl football game being played that day in the United States. Ever since his plane had touched down in New Delhi, he had been asking about the viability of watching his beloved University of Wisconsin Badgers on television or online. He asked flight attendants, sales clerks, my brother’s co-workers, boys in the street, and a blind fruit seller. Either they didn’t know the answer or they told him, as his children had repeatedly, that during the game he would be spending the night in a 14th Century fort and chances were very slim that there would be WiFi.  When my father doesn’t get the answer he wants he doesn’t sulk or curse before accepting the facts like most adults do, he simply looks blankly at the bearer of bad news, shrugs, turns to someone else, and asks them the very same question. He firmly believes that if he can find one person who has the right answer, the cosmos will reverse itself. 
            The Hill Fort was managed by a company called Neemrana, which has converted several Indian landmarks into hotels.  Each room was completely different, combining old world charm with modern touches.
            “Do you think that Du’s mind is going?” Erik whispered to me as we watched my father ask a bellhop where he could watch the game. It was clear that the bellhop didn’t understand English because his answer was to point to a space heater. 
            “No,” I whispered back, “he just hasn’t gotten the answer he wants yet.”
            “Are you sure he hasn’t forgotten that he asked forty people the same question yesterday?”
            “Totally sure.”
            My mother looked out of the window at the endless fields of mustard surrounding the fort, “Du, even if you could see the game, this is the last night of our road trip.  Don’t we want to spend it sitting around a fire with your children in a gorgeous old fort? There are some Rajasthani dancers performing at nine.”
            Du sat on the bed to take off his shoes, “Maybe one of the dancers will have a newspaper.”
            My brother and I backed out of the room and rejoined our own families. Murphy was thrilled with his bed that hung from the ceiling and wanted to sleep in it right away. But the fun of pretending to be knights in a castle with his brother proved too tempting and they both ran out of the room, down the steps, and into the courtyard where we could hear them prepare for battle. Pat and I retired to the private balcony to read and look out at the scenery.  Within moments, however, Keir appeared with news, “Hey guys.  I got online in the office and looked up the game.  It’s already over and the Badgers lost.  Should we tell Du?”
            Pat and I looked at each other then back at Keir.
            “Don’t tell him,” I said.
            “He’ll get depressed and go straight to bed,” said Pat.
            “Let’s tell him in the morning,” I said.
            “And admit that we withheld information from him?” Keir asked.
            “Absolutely not,” I said. “Admit nothing. Say that you just found out.  He’ll be too despondent to grill you about details.”
            Later, as the sun set and our families gathered to watch the dancing before dinner, Erik whispered to me, “Are we telling Du?”
            “Keir told you?” I whispered back through a tight smile. Du was sitting to our left, asking a waiter where he could get an English language newspaper. I heard the waiter answer, “New Delhi.”
            Erik leaned closer to me, “Yeah, Keir asked what we should do.  I was thinking that maybe we tell him right before he goes to bed tonight. That way, he’s going to sleep anyway.”
            “But then he’ll know that we were withholding the information during dinner.  Let’s do it in the morning.  We tell him we woke up and found the Internet.”
            “Found it?” Erik whispered.
            “Whatever.  We can hone the story later. But the timing of telling him in the morning is more plausible.  Then he can sleep off his depression in the car all the way back to Delhi.”
            Erik looked at the dancers setting up their instruments in the glow of the campfire and thought for a moment before turning back to me, “OK.  That sounds like a plan. I’ll tell Mom.” He stood up and I watched him walk over to my mother and whisper in her ear.  When he finished, Mom eyed me and gave a slight nod like a Mafioso authorizing a hit.
            The Rajasthani folk singing and dancing was so entertaining that my father seemed quite distracted from what had been his singular quest to find out the Rose Bowl score. And throughout dinner the adult kids kept up a flow of storytelling that swept Du along with it. When it came time for bed, we all retired feeling good about having withheld the bitter truth from our patriarch for our family’s last night together in India. 
The entrance

The courtyard

The private balcony


Murphy and Zoe watch the musicians



Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I saw at the Keoladeo National Bird Park

          If Fhatapur Sikri made me feel like the mistress of a Mugul King, The Birder’s Inn (outside the Keoladeo National Bird Park in Bharatapur, Rajastan) made me feel like a pale-faced British widower from the turn of the last century who had been traveling for over a year throughout Asia in search of a rare warbler.  The flagstones in the lobby bespoke another era as did the gift shop full of drawings of birds stacked in piles, edges curling, dust thick, with no shopkeeper in sight.  After the usual hour-long check in for four families including passports and various papers being stamped and handed back to us, we were led to our rooms. During our trip, I often wanted to ask why such extensive documentation was required upon check in, but I was afraid the explanation would add an hour onto the process.
            Each family retired to their rooms chirping delight when their doors were opened, revealing charming, bird-themed rooms.  The boys immediately set up camp while Pat and I unpacked and quickly headed for the campfire in the courtyard with our bottle of red wine.  I come from a family of storytellers and gathering with my parents, brothers, in-laws, and children around a paraffin-fueled fire each night, was as much a highlight of the trip as India itself.
            The next morning we diligently woke early for our bird safari.  I managed to buy two bird books for the children from a waiter who seemed happy to take money intended for the gift shop. The boys flipped through the pages eagerly, folding down corners and circling birds they hoped to see.  We stepped outside the Inn, flagged down rickshaws, settled on a price, and took our chances on how knowledgeable our various drivers would be since they would also be our guides.
            Pat and I loaded the boys onto one rickshaw and grabbed our own to ride behind them. I snuggled up to Pat partly out of affection, but mostly for warmth, and watched our sons ahead of us, peering through their binoculars and flipping through their books.  I made no attempt to look for birds myself because I knew I wouldn’t see any. 
            I have unusually poor eyesight, so poor that I don’t have a driver’s license and even when wearing glasses over a pair of contacts, I have managed to mistake a burly construction worker for my eighty-year-old mother at twenty paces. My eyesight has been substantially impaired since birth, consigning me to life in a foggy otherworld, shadowy at the edges, peopled by dark shapes that can only be identified by their gait or voice.  And, although my family and friends have ample evidence that I can barely see (three car accidents with standing objects the only time I tried to learn to drive, my eyes being the subject of an article for a medical journal, and a lifetime of mistaking strangers for friends, friends for strangers, and sticking my hand out to introduce myself to mailboxes), they refuse to believe that I cannot see what they see. 
            At the bird park, our rickshaw driver and guide would pull up next to a group of other rickshaws that had stopped so their passengers could view a bird. Our guide would point toward a tree and say, “See? The Large Cormorant ?”  This one is male.”
            Pat would put his hands on the side of my head, as if to steer my gaze in the direction of the bird, “See, Brett, it’s right there.”
            I would strain to see it just to be agreeable and then give up, “No. No. I don’t see it. It’s OK.”
            “No, Brett.  It’s right there,” Pat would say insistently. He would stretch his arm out along the side of my head and point.  “Follow my arm.  Now see that lowest branch?”
            “It’s right there.  The bottom branch that looks like a V.”
            “Are you sure we’re looking at the same tree?”
“Of course. You’re just not trying hard enough,” Pat would exhale in frustration. “OK.  Try this.”  He would angle my head toward the ground, his palms flat against both sides of my head like blinkers on a horse. “Now slowly lift your head from here, straight up and stop at the base of the tree.” He would guide my head up slowly with his palms.
            I would peer into the distance, “Where’s the tree? Is that a man?”
            “No. It’s the tree. You’ve got it. Now don’t move yet.”  Pat would stretch his arm alongside my head again, “Now follow where I’m pointing.  There’s the V and if you follow the top of the V it points straight toward the Cormorant?  He’s right there, right there at the end of the top branch. You can’t miss him.”
            But of course I could, and always did, miss the Cormorant and the White-Breasted Kingfisher and the Collared Scops Owl with her adorable babies. And no amount of my protesting that I was having a marvelous time anyway, would dampen Pat’s and my family’s insistence that I simply try harder to see what they could see.  Even binoculars couldn’t help. I’d find myself zooming in on a stalk of grass only to lift them and see only white sky or the dark trunk of something. It was hopeless and I was absolutely fine with that.  But no one else was. It was as if my inability to see was really willful resistance. All my life I had been ruining everyone’s good time by stubbornly refusing to appreciate what was right in front of me for Christ sake. “All you have to do is see where that domelike knob is on the left side of the tree? OK, about halfway up from there switch to the other side of the tree and there’s an owl in the crook of that branch. No?  OK, how about this?  On the other side of the tree there’s a small bush. If you follow the line of the bush about half way up, then at a 90-degree angle there’s a vine hanging down. Follow the vine up and there’s a Finch right there. He’s right there, Brett.  See?  He moved his head. Oh look, he just hopped. He hopped! Why are you looking over there? Not there.  There. Right there.”
            After an hour of this, all of the rickshaws pulled up to a marsh. Adults and children stood along the path gazing out in awe. I dismounted, prepared for the usual drill.  This time, however, the view was so clear it was as if my nose was pressed up against the glass of a private universe. I could even see the birds because they were huge -- Painted Storks alight on the bare branches of a giant old tree.  I couldn’t imagine how these large, elegant birds could fly, let alone perch on such skeletal branches. The aerodynamic impossibility of the scene gave it a gothic beauty that slowed my breath. I stood there with the rest, for once seeing what they saw. And I was grateful.
Straining to see what the others see

The Marsh

Painted Storks

Closer. Picture:  Erik Paesel

Another great view

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Akbar and Me at Fatehpur Sikri

             Walking around the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri made me feel like a girl. When I was younger, I lived in England and when my family visited castles I would lag behind my parents, daydreaming about being a princess who lived there.  The daydreams had an erotic tinge, though I wouldn’t have been able to identify that then.  Twelve and cursed with unusually thick glasses, I wasn’t creating a whole lot of heat in sixth grade. Correction:  No heat.  OK, I was creating negative heat. But when I walked around the ruins of castles, I could freely imagine being beautiful and desired rather than being voted “Mrs. Strange” by my classmates, a dubious distinction that I’ve never shaken amongst old friends.
            Fatehpur Sikri inspired in me many of the same romantic imaginings because it’s so intact. Built in the 1570s, it was occupied for only fifteen years by the court of Akbar the Great.  I could easily imagine myself in billowing mogul pants, breasts spilling out of my tight bustier, catching the eye of Akbar across the sun baked courtyard. 
            He would smile and incline his head toward one of the palaces available for a late afternoon tryst.  But I wouldn’t be that easy. I wasn’t like one of his mousey wives and concubines to be had for a mere trinket or a promise of social favors for my family. I was independent, an equal, and hotter than the sandstone walls of the Diwan-e-Khas. My name was Mona and I was a dancer. My signature move was a flawless backbend with one leg lifted, toe pointed to the heavens – leaving nothing to the imagination especially when I danced naked -- which I would only do if I liked you.
            “Mommy, Daddy says to tell you we’re all on that other side of the gate,” said a high voice, interrupting my thoughts. 
I looked down to see Murphy, “Huh?”
“We’re all on the other side of that gate. Daddy was worried about you.”
“Oh, honey. Tell him I’m fine.”
Murphy stood his ground, “Are you coming?”
“In a minute.”
“What are you doing?”
“Thinking honey. Just thinking. Run and tell Daddy I’ll be there in a minute.”
Murphy shrugged, “Uncle Keir says to hurry up.  He doesn’t want to drive in the dark.”
“All right. Give me a minute.”
Murphy scurried off.
OK. I’m not a dancer I’m a slave girl.  I’ve come to draw water from the well in the middle of the courtyard.  I lean over and feel a hand brush my ass through the thin silk of my pants. I’d know that hand anywhere. It’s the hand of Akbar the great.  I tremble as his hand lingers.  What if one of his wives sees us?  I might be forced to dance naked in front of the whole city. I stand, my water vessel sloshing water because I am still shaking. Akbar asks me who is my master, for he would like to buy me. I cannot look him in the eye. I look down and see that he is...
“MOMMY!!!” I turn around to see Spencer standing at the gate. “Are you coming?!”
“Yes. Yes. I’m coming.  I’ll be right there.”
Spencer disappeared beyond the gate. I started to walk toward it, slowly.
I’m not a slave girl. I’m the newest, youngest, and prettiest wife of Akbar, who has been summoned to meet him just beyond this gate. He frightens me with his gruff manor and large hands.  But I must obey the summons or he will force me to dance naked in front of the whole city. Once I step through this gate, I am completely his. Subject to his every whim -- powerless to resist his large hands and …
I walked through the gate and saw my family waiting for me in a clump.  Pat turned and walked toward me, “There you are. What were you doing?”
“Just imagining what it must have been like,” I said.
“I know,” he said, smiling.  “It must have been pretty wild.”
-- Oh my love.  You have no idea.
Fatehpur Sikri

Pat pointing something out to the boys

Spencer Leaping

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Taj Mahal

            I cannot remember the last time a destination exceeded my expectations as much as the Taj Mahal.  Hotel Sheela in Agra, on the other hand, squarely met them. Keir had told us that after several trips to Agra, he could discern no difference between a hundred dollar a night room and a fifteen dollar one.  Things got better only if we’d be willing to drop three hundred a night. The choice was clear:  Hotel Sheela. The establishment’s minor pest problem was offset by the availability of the hotel restaurant where my extended family could chat over meals being served one at a time, in no particular order, by a staff that seemed unprepared for our numbers.  I would have thought that this might charmingly be the actual case, were we not in Agra (home of one of the most visited tourist sites in the world) and had I not encountered this reaction from servers throughout our trip.  
            “Coffee?” a server would repeat my request, then turn his gaze into the distance as if trying to remember where he had heard that word before.
            “Yes. Do you have some?”
            “Yes, yes,” the server would reassure me, picking up my menu to scan it, perhaps for a clue. 
            “Any kind of coffee would be good.”
            “Yes,” the server would say, then call over another server to exchange a few words. When that server would disappear, our first guy would say, “He says. Yes.  Coffee, possible.”  Leaving me still unsure about whether a cup of Joe would actually materialize. No matter, this taught me a non-western brand of fatalistic patience and gave me some pure moments of surprised delight when sustenance arrived. 
There was some discussion over our unintentionally progressive meal that night, about waking up early to see the sun rise over the Taj Mahal.  The notion was abandoned in favor of sleep.  This turned out to be fortuitous, if only because the Taj Mahal was fogged in and at sunrise the view would have simply looked like an untouched canvas.
            As it was, at nine in the morning we could barely make out the Taj Mahal upon entering the gate.  I have been told that the sun glinting off of the white marble is truly magnificent.  I’m sure this is the case, but I quite liked to slow reveal of the mausoleum as fog burned off. Our guide came recommended to Keir and he was full of great anecdotes that impressed the children. He told us that the building took twenty-two years to construct and that many workers filed their fingers down to bloody nubs, inlaying jewels into the walls.  Once they had exhausted their usefulness, the story goes, Shah Jahan put them to death.  Guidebooks warn that there’s extensive mythology that has developed around the construction of the building in the mid-seventeenth century, so it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.  To my mind, there are two strains to both the mythology and the history.  One, the love story of a Shah that loved his third wife so much that when she expired after birthing thirteen of his children, he was driven to memorialize her by constructing the most beautiful resting place the world had ever seen. Two, the violent story of the shah’s son slaughtering all of his brothers and imprisoning his father so that the Shah could neither visit, nor look upon, his beloved wife’s tomb (except through a diamond reflecting the Taj Mahal that hung on a wall of his cell).
            The children were riveted. 
            And then there’s Shah Jahan’s OCD.  Everything about the Taj Mahal had to be symmetrical, from matching turrets and gates to the steeple atop the dome.  I’m a fan of asymmetry, myself, but the extent to which the Shah achieved his objective is staggering. Of course, if a designer stood to lose his life for pointing out that it might be a nice surprise to put one set of steps on an angle, chances are he’d stay mum and keep working like mad. I imagined Shah Jahan as a Mogul Howard Hughes with full blown dementia, “I said EXACTLY symmetrical damn it!  What part of ‘symmetrical’ do you not understand? The part that says 5 millimeters on the left means 5 millimeters on the right – not 6!  I KNOW it’s been 20 years and it’s going to be 20 more years until we get this RIGHT!  How many times to I need to say this? Keep the Taj symmetrical people, or I won’t wait until your fingers are bloody stubs.”
            The boys ran around the building, testing the symmetry by putting their eyes to grates and holding their arms out, delineating the middle, to see how everything matched up. We all watched the guide shine a flashlight through the jewels in the white marble to show how deep they had been inlaid. As I walked around the base of the mausoleum, I wondered why this building seemed more impressive, say, than the Giza pyramids or Notre Dame? The only answer that came to me was that the Taj Mahal is an incredible piece of architecture, precision, and artistry but it is also accessible.  I could touch the walls and walk on the marble floors in my stocking feet.  Even with thousands more tourists pouring through the gate, my connection to the building felt personal – intimate.
            It was hard to leave. As the family gathered at our exit and Keir paid the guide, I asked the boys if they had liked the Taj Mahal. They both declared enthusiastically that they had loved it and that it was a highlight of the trip so far. “Good,” I said, proud that I’d given my young sons a dose of culture that few American contemporaries get to experience.  “Keir says that on the way out of town, we’re hitting a Pizza Hut.”  They both jumped up and down excitedly, squealing their excitement and approval of the Pizza Hut choice.  They even made up a Pizza Hut dance as we waited for Erik and Shona to join us. 
            I didn’t ask if Pizza Hut had now surpassed the Taj Mahal as one of the highlights of the trip because part of the mythology of our family is that our passion for the arts and culture far outweighs our interest in common pastimes like chowing down on a slice.
            I’ll hang onto that for a little bit longer.

Checking out the carvings and the inlaid jewels

Symmetry through the grate, if you hold the camera right!

The boys testing out the symmetry from the middle line

The Pizza Hut dance (Zoe is celebrating behind them as well)