A mouthful of a trip.

There is a day-trip that we often take guests on that we call the Belur Trip.  It is a three-stop journey, visiting the ancient soapstone carved temples at Belur and Halebidu, and the Jain temple and pilgrimage destination of Shravenabelagola.  So, you see, it would be a bit of a mouthful to call it anything other than the Belur Trip.  

I’ve been on this trip at least a complete handful of times, yet the picture-taking never gets old for me.  There are a myriad of details to get caught up in, especially at Belur and Halebidu.  Soapstone can be carved with such precision that a whole epic event can be captured in a mere corner of the temple.  It is nice to have JP as a tour guide because his brain is a vault for these minute sorts of details, and he finds immense pleasure in pointing out all the cool stuff that I have forgotten since my last visit.  He is a lovely guide, and I usually understand his accent better.

I'm always a sucker for an Elephant (or two)

I love this one because it shows some unfinished business on the part of the stone carvers.

Here, the god Shiva has triumphed over a demon that took the form of an elephant, and now he is dancing within the carcass. EPIC.

Shrevenabelagola is a steep hike up a mountainside.  At the top you can see both the sweeping coconut groves of the surrounding area, and the enormous idol of a Jain saint named Gomateshwara.  He is naked (as very ascetic Jains would not wear clothes because of their belief that the sky is their clothing) so, for the sake of your sensibilities, I won’t show a picture here.  I find this to be a very serene and pretty place to visit.

Attention to Detail on the pillar nearing the idol at Shrevenabelagola

Doorway in the temple wall.

My sister, Amy, and her husband, Kyle just spent two weeks with us at the end of February, and it was a delight to show them around some of our favorite haunts, including the Belur Trip.

good travel companions

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Down South BINGO

Rice Heaven

My friend Tom really loves rice.  His affection for rice was the reason I told my mother-in-law, on my first trip to India, that I had a friend who would love to sit at her table.  South Indians can eat a lot of rice.  There are many varieties of rice, for a whole assortment of everyday and fancy feast preparations.  Sometimes rice is eaten three times a day, and sometimes a meal includes three hearty servings of rice.  I myself have always enjoyed rice, but definitely had to develop my rice stomach during my first few trips!  I have found that eating this much rice can be as difficult for visitors as eating Indian spices.  But, I never worried about this with Tom.  Regardless of how much rice we consumed, it was a real treat to host Tom for three weeks this January.  We certainly ate well, but beyond the good food, I was reminded of just how special it is to see India through the eyes of someone traveling here for the first time.

Tom, who loves rice, but also coffee.

While Tom was in town, we were able to travel down south for the dual purpose of visiting family and seeing Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and one of our favorite tourist destinations.  Many Indians make their way to this spot to take a ‘holy dip’ in the waters where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean meet up.  It is a place of beauty, wonder, and myth.  Approaching the beach area you find a chaotic jumble of vendors hawking dried fruits and nuts, watches, bags, seashells and little bags of sand that can only be found in this area, plus a multitude of unnecessary plastic items all for the bargin price of 5 rupees.  People also love to watch the Kanyakumari sunsets, and then rise early the next morning for the sunrise.  (The hotel where we stay gives each room a wake up call at 5:30am, assuming we’re there, if only in part, to observe the sun’s rising.  Too bad for our wee babe who we’re working hard at getting to sleep through his 5:15am startle.  As if we travel-savvy folks don’t carry our own alarm clocks!!)

JP captured the sunset on his iPhone

It was just Tom and I who made the trek down for the sunrise in the morning.  Well, er, us and hundreds of other Indian tourists.  It happened to be India’s Republic day, and so we suspected the crowd was somewhat larger that day, given the holiday.  It was all we could do to keep from being jostled out of our semi-front row spot along the wall where we watched.  We sure felt that we had a prime view, though, and were glad we got there early.  One of the more interesting things I witnessed that morning was a woman taking her holy dip on the wide, smooth rocks that jutted into the crashing surf, fully clothed in her sari.  Not only did I imagine it was a frigidly cold exercise of faith in the the brisk morning wind, but one that was awfully complex as she made sure every inch of her skin was bathed in that holy water… talk about a fascinating depiction of modesty and piety mixed together.  Ha!  Maybe I shouldn’t have been watching so closely!  Anyway, I never once saw that woman react to the cold, nor the water.  There were no deep, shattering inhales or shrieks.  Just serious, intentional washing away of all those sins.

Kanyakumari Sunrise over a statue of the famous Tamil poet and saint, Thiruvalluvar.

A whole class gathered by the water (afternoon time)

The rest of our time down south, as I mentioned, was spent with family.  We visited JP’s mom’s parents, and a number of her siblings and their families.  These are people that I have grown to love and adore despite our limited time together and on-going language barrier.  They are not just JP’s family, but my family, and my children’s family.

with Ava, Esther Chithi, and Tata

These trips to visit family do bring an assortment of challenges, sometimes more strongly felt because of having added my two children into the mix.  And yet, each visit reminds me of the wonder and sweetness of this life I have fallen into.  As it became time to feed Reuben, I gathered him up from the floor where he was giddily crawling between his new menagerie of relatives.  We went into a room best described as the dining room, but the table there looked a bit out of place, as most meals at one time were (or probably still are) eaten seated on the floor.  I myself sat on the red painted floor to feed Reuben.  It was dim and slightly warm in the room. Reuben’s head became sweaty against my arm.  I looked around and saw the old heavy grinding stones in the corner, kept for posterity… and the times when the power goes out and the grinding of rice and dals still needs to happen.  I saw the spray of leaves and flowers hanging in the corner of the window, the afternoon’s yellow sun romantically softening their brittle texture.  As we drove through town I saw these same bunches of dried leaves and flowers decorating every doorway, leftover from the recent harvest festival, and at one time  hung to bring more oxygen into the home.   Slowly the voices began to filter into my consciousness.  With the exception of a few neighbors who had come by out of curiosity, and a man they call “Chicken Uncle” (because he sells chicken, duh), I knew the voices.  I didn’t have much of a guess as to what they were saying, but I knew the voices.  They were the voices of my family.  This blue wall that I back leaned upon is part of the firm foundation of my family, and not just JP’s greater family, but my small family of four.  This village, this house with blue walls, these familiar voices, they are ours.  My children know this place, and they will likely know it better than I ever will.  This India is a part of us.   Oh, it  is a rich and beautiful life, indeed.

Saris drying near the Matchstick Factory

Our time in the village also included some tours of the local industries.  This is a very dry area, and thus perfect for matchstick factories, paper  factories (mainly printing and cutting) and firework factories.  I love to see these places, watching how the products come together.  Check it out below.  I’ve just included a small sampling…

Packing boxes of matches

Fireworks drying in the sun

More fireworks in the works 😉

This guy makes fireworks for a living

At each of the factories that we visited, I learned, we were already known to them.  I didn’t have to feel like a random, oddball tourist stopping in with my camera, making the workers nervous.  Rather, the majority of the matchstick workers were related to us!  And, the guy who owns the fireworks factory came to our wedding reception.  For such a big place, it is easy to be known in India.  We like to play our Dutch BINGO in Holland, but they play the same games here.  All around the world we play these games.  After all, it is good to be known.

Normal Things

View from our Apartment Door

Yesterday afternoon, Leila woke up from her nap in a cranky mood.  The kids are sharing a room, and so when Leila woke up, Reuben also woke up, and far too early at that.  We needed to pass the time somehow, and decided on one of our (meaning JP and Katy’s) favorite late afternoon pastimes: taking a short walk down the street and back.  While Reuben tends to kick back and enjoy the ride in his stroller, Leila has not caught on to the simple pleasures and surprises involved in this little 10-15 minute jaunt.  Leila drags her feet and whines most of the way, wanting JP to carry her on his shoulders.  However, being the gluttons for punishment that we are, we  took our cranky three year old out for her least favorite activity in India.

Things went mostly like usual, except that we decided to stop at a little shop on the way back to purchase some pretty paper stars.  (These stars pop up everywhere this time of year, making Indian shops and streets appear even more festive than usual.)  Being that we really haven’t decorated for Christmas in any way whatsoever, I figured the stars were a perfect and natural solution.  The shop had a small selection of about six stars which made it easy for my typically indecisive self to decide on a red one, a green one, and for Leila to vote for a gold one.

This small Shop sells mainly school supplies

In the short time that it took for me to choose my three pretty stars, my two pretty children- without even trying- made a HUGE impression on the young woman and school age boy running the shop.  This is a common experience for us.  People love our children.  If I may take the risk of making a blanket statement about Indian people as a whole, I would say that they are a baby-loving culture.  Add to this “fact” the exotic looking nature of little Leila’s skin tone, and the adorable charm of young Reuben, and suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by clucks and chirps, winks and pinches, (plus generously given cookies and free pieces of candy) all designed to capture the attention of one child or another.  Though I’m never quite used to the effusive adoration, I have learned to smile graciously, and take it in stride.

Festive!

 Now, regarding the stars… as often happens in India, when it came time to pay, we did not have the exact amount for our purchase, and there was no money to make change.  The young boy was promptly sent hither and yon, to all the rest of the shops on the street, to find smaller bills and some change for us.  Two things happened while we waited- both very normal things.  First, a wandering cow paid us a visit.  As far as I can tell, the “wandering” cows do actually stay in about the same general vicinity all day, and make their way “home” to be milked in the late afternoon.  I’ve seen this particular cow on our street many times, and I rather like her.  She has a very lovely bell around her neck, fastened by what JP tells me is a “regular cow bell chain,” but I seriously thought it was some sort of motorbike chain.  She is also adorned by a simple, but nice, seashell headband.  (I tried to find her today for a glamour shot, but she wasn’t around, sorry!)  She came close enough that I really wondered if she’d kiss Reuben in his stroller.  Leila watched the whole thing with a good deal of interest.

Right after this, the young woman working in the shop came forward and asked if she could take Reuben.  I knew what she meant.  Everyone always wants to hold your baby here, so I nodded that it was ok, and assisted with the clips and straps of the stroller (a very foreign contraption in India.)  No sooner did the girl take him from the stroller, and she was up the stairs to share Reuben with what I can only assume were her family and friends.

Up 3 Floors to visit his 'Aunties'

And JP, Leila, and I stayed down below, waiting, and wondering what sights he was seeing and what snacks he might be given.  We heard happy chatter from the women above, and then, a minute or two later, the cries of poor Reuben who suddenly realized his family was down on the street.  I guess the good news is that when your baby cries in India, they quickly find mom and return the baby.  Soothing is momma’s job.

Around this time the boy returned with our change, and we happily returned home with three new stars, and a handful of new friends.  It pays to shop locally, I think.  This time it made me remember (and hopefully helped Leila learn) about how different (but fine) the normal things are here.

The stars in the sky look down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Noisy, of course!

A number of months ago, a neighbor of ours in the U.S. brought home a mini-motorcycle.  I don’t know how further to describe these motorcycles than their runty, cartoonish appearance, especially when straddled by a grown adult, and by the fact that they are obtrusively annoying when you hear them driven around, especially after 11pm when you would rather be sleeping.  Maybe some of your neighbors have also disrupted your sleep by gunning a little whining engine down the street?   Perchance you’ve even been the culprit once or twice?

Waking up Happy

Considering the neighborhood that we live in in Michigan, and one that I lived in for five years in Florida, I’ve spent time in some pretty “close quarters.”  I’ve listened to my fair share of night time ballads and brawls.  In addition to mini-motorcycles, I think there was some sort of late-night revival that took place this past summer, with a gentle, but prodding, call-and-response song around 3am.  When I lived a bit closer to the college, I complained about late-night party noise, of course, but also this one, huge dog with a strident, interminable bark.  In Florida, our backyard  butted up against both “the Laugher,” and “the Screamer’s” houses, plus we lived down the street from “the Cat House,” which led to countless late night cat fights and other misdemeanors.  And, yes, we bequeathed those names ourselves… but for obvious reasons!  Being that I haven’t always had quiet nights, I’ve learned to appreciate them.  In fact, the older I’ve gotten I’ve learned to enjoy any good stretch of quiet time, in just about any space.  Quiet soothes me.  It pats down my raised hackles, and calms the stress knots between my neck and my right shoulder.  I find quiet to be soft like fleece, and fleece is one of my very favorite things on earth.

Smiles, soft like fleece...

Well.  You should have heard the noise pour in through my bedroom window last night, say around 10 pm.  (Hey, I’m still getting healthy again! Jet lag is still lurking around a little.  Don’t mock my 10pm bedtime!)  I literally felt like my bed was smack in the middle of an auditorium that was filling up before a high school orchestra concert.  There was such a din!  I could hear instruments warming up, with an occasional squawk or screech mixed in, and it was like there were voices everywhere, talking louder and louder in anticipation of the concert.  It was like the noise of bragging, and the shouting of hellos over tops of heads, and the murmuring of mothers to orchestral siblings.  I’m telling you the truth…  between the wedding taking place down the street, the neighborhood conversing, and the traffic bellowing on as usual, the pre-concert cacophony was mimicked perfectly in my bedroom last night.  I was quite in awe, myself!

Leila LOVES playing ball!!

It has been 1 year and 8 months since I last spent time in India, which for me, is a pretty long time.  Since 2003, I had been coming to India at least once a year, and it had always been less than a year’s time until I returned.  This particular return to my “second home” has been remarkably odd.  Add to the unusual amount of time between trips, the  horrible head cold that I had upon arrival, and it has made for an incomparable adjustment phase for me.  My cold was so awful on the plane that I could not taste or smell a single thing.  JP asked my how breakfast was, and I told him I ate only because I was hungry, and could not give any indication of how it tasted, whether it was sweet, salty, spicy, or bland.  I had put copious amounts of lime pickle on my previous meal, just so I could feel the burn on my tongue.  In all seriousness, yesterday and today are the first two days I’ve been able to consistently taste or smell much of anything.  We’ve now been in India for a week and four days!  In one of my previous posts about getting ready for India, I mentioned that I have an incredibly sensitive nose.  Truly, my nose has always led the way, for good or for ill, but not this time, not this trip.  Additionally, if you know much of anything about me at all, you know of my affection for food in general, and Indian cuisine in particular.  Yet, I’ve tasted very little so far.  So strange.  I’ve had over a week of neither smelling, nor tasting my India.

So what has it been like?  Noisy, of course!  I’ve always thought about India as a loud, clanging kind of place.  JP and I always make a point of prepping groups for the rambunctious, honking traffic, and the extra-loud audio played on every device.  I knew about the clatter of stainless steel in the kitchens, and the sudden, surprising bursts of steam from the pressure cookers.  I’m even on near-friendly terms with the morning ruckus of bird call around here.  Despite all of my prior knowledge, however, when my taste and smell where whisked away, it was noise that stood in their stead.  Fascinating.  I counted the different kinds of car horns one day, and after 11 in a short span I stopped counting.  (Leila actually told me after hearing one of them herself, that it was someone’s cell phone ringing!  You should also hear some of the “backing up signals” around here!!)  We’re definitely close enough to hear the neighbors’ lives lived out, but only if you pay attention.  For example, since my last trip, I’ve noticed that our devout Hindu neighbors must have moved (or become less pious) because I no longer hear the regular ringing of bells that were intended to invoke their gods in worship.  I have heard nearly every last call to Muslim prayer, however.  During the last few days I’ve also been listening to the vendors that make the early morning rounds.  While I make out very little of what they shout, (just the Salt guy, the Tomato guy, and the Vegetable guy are familiar words to me…) I do hear the same familiar voices ring out day after day.  It has made me wish for much fewer ice cream trucks in the U.S.(nothing new,) and way more vegetable vendors, ha!

The BEST noise worldwide is this: Gleefully, Hooting and Hollering Leila-- Jumping and Dancing and Playing... all while wearing her anklets!!

So I guess this is the thing about quiet, right?  It’s all about what we are listening for.  These sounds have always been around when I’ve come to India.  I think I’ve even noticed them all individually before.  But, since my normal go-to senses have been out of whack, my ears have been more finely tuned this last week.  I’m acutely aware of the “quiet” in India, like who wakes up when (due to some extra-loud brushing of teeth!)  I am aware of the religions practiced around me.  The traffic seems louder, and in my opinion, drives later into the night than it did before, but who knows?  This is my India, same as always, just differently revealed.

My India, so beautiful!