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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Vitality

One label that doesn’t fit India is, “dull and boring.”  Life here is colorful and vibrant.   This was shot on a regular weekday morning at our market.  Life around you stimulates the senses in ways few other things in life do.   I do not want to stop to observe this vitality… I yearn to always be a part of it.

Catching Up – A brief pictorial update

To clear up any confusion, this is JP writing.   Those of you who get this joke know why I had to clarify.

India is a sensory overload for many reasons.   It is hard to capture the essence of India because the moment you begin to describe what India is, India changes shape in your hands.  The smells that were so distinctly Indian, the sounds that were the familiar symphony of the Indian traffic, the sheer volume of people dancing around you on the sidewalks… they all change quicker than you can say “snake charmer.”

So having said that, there a few specific examples of things that I like to carry in my heart that resonates with MY India.   They are, for me, symbols of a layered and deep culture that I am very proud of.   Here are a couple of photos that we snapped on a recent visit to Bangalore City Market that might help draw a picture for you.

1.  Coconuts

Coconuts

Coconuts bring me great joy.   They are used in a variety of ways in India.   We use the branches and husks for fuel, the water for hydration, the flesh for cooking yummy foods, and the canopy for shade, but the real reason I love them so much is much simpler than that.  I love coconuts because coconuts represent the tropics for me.  I see a coconut tree and I know that I am in a warm place.  I know that short sleeves and flip flops are welcomed here.   I know that home is not too far away.

2.  Commentary

Spice Vendor

Spices and India seem to go hand in hand.   This gentleman is offering us some saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.   While this scene is quintessentially Indian, what I liked about this walk in the market were the comments being made as we walked by the various stalls.   Both Amy and Katy wear toe-rings.   While this is a fashion accessory in the United States, in most part of India, especially in the South, it denotes a married woman.    As we walked through the market place, I hung back from the group to catch the conversation happening at the stalls (mostly because I love eavesdropping).  One of my favorite exchanges happened by a flower stall where two shopkeepers who were setting up shop suddenly stopped to take in the “white-people” walking by.  One guy laughingly told the other guys, “They have our Indian clothes on!”   The other guy responded, “Wait!  Look!  They have toe rings on.  Suppose they married a tamil guy?!”  Loud laughs ensued.   I walked by at this very moment and said in Tamil, “One of them did!”  And I flashed him the biggest smile.   It was beautiful!

__________________________

And finally, I had to add this picture of my sister-in-law Amy.  Yes, she has henna on her hands which is VERY Indian but mostly because I simply like this photo.   🙂

Henna

Catching Up

January flew by.  February was a dash to the finish line.  Now, as March strolls down the lane, JP and I would like the make up for our blogging hiatus by sharing a round of favorite photos taken during “flight” and mid-“dash.”  These will just be glimpses into the good and pretty things of life in India these days.

To kick it off, I have chosen to share two of my favorite photos from our recent trip (with my sister, Amy, and brother-in-law, Kyle) to Ranganthittu, or as I like to call it, The Bird Sanctuary.  You can find The Bird Sanctuary on the way to visit Mysore, the historic capital of Karnataka, the Indian state in which Bangalore is located.  It is a stopping point for many a colorful bird, as well as home to a cartload (or two) of crocodiles that keep the monkeys and other predators at bay.

While I don’t know the name of the pretty little bird above, this one below is a Painted Stork. The Painted Storks seemed both serene in their setting, tip-toeing in the shallows and poking around for snacks, and festive with their pink and orange decorative hues.  Though JP likes to joke about getting Peacocks at the feeder, these birds were a fun change from my usual mid-February bird watching– through the kitchen window– back home.

I hope they bring a smile to your face today.

8 things I am grateful for (more so than you think I would be!)

1.   For auto-rickshaw drivers who, without any argument, turn on the meter when you get into the auto.

This is a pet-peeve of mine.  In Bangalore, the meter is supposed to be started (cranked) when you get into the auto, however, most often you find yourself negotiating a price with the driver before getting in.   This wouldn’t be so bad if they charged a fair price.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  So as a goodwill gesture, I make it a point to drop a few extra rupees into my fare every time a driver starts the meter without trying to demand anything (this does happen!).

This is a good auto!

2.  A perfectly crafted Masala Dosa

When I arrive in India, I almost always make it a point to have a masala dosa (crispy rice crepe served with coconut chutney and sambhar) for my first meal.  Similarly, my last meal before I board the plane back to the US, is also a masala dosa.   India’s national dish, when prepared correctly, has few competitors that can match it for sheer brilliance and sumptuous taste.

'nuff said!

3.  Finding parking right near where you need to go

Having a motorcycle is wonderful!  However, finding parking in a city of over 9 million people can be a challenge (as any city-dweller will tell you).   Needless to say, when I park the Thunderbird, I am always happy to exhale a huge sigh of relief!

Case and Point

Phew!

4.  A cell phone that has balance

When Indians talk about a phone that has balance, they are not referring to the center of gravity on their latest smart phones.  They are usually referring to the amount of money (currency) left on the account.  Most use a “pre-pay” system that lets you use the phone for phone calls/text/web/etc., and much like the auto-rickshaw keeps track of how much you are spending.  When your balance hits “0”, your phone stops working.  Not fun in a crunch!

There is a healthy balance!

5.  Chilled fresh lime soda on a hot day

If you come to India, you will quickly realize that you will require various ways to “cool off” and inevitably, you’ll be led to the wonderful glass of fresh lime soda that will not only refresh you, but will restore your coolness quotient!

6.  Empty tree lined roads

I long for these because they bring back childhood memories of life in Bangalore.  This hub for information-technology and the fashion industry was once a sleepy pensioner’s paradise.   As the concrete jungle grew, the tree lines receded.   So when I hit a stretch of road that is covered by green foliage, it makes my heart glad.

7.  Two way streets

As mentioned above, Bangalore is no longer the sleepy little city of India.  This burgeoning metro continues to grow so fast that it’s infrastructure has struggled to keep up.  As a result, to combat the increased traffic, most of the streets have now been turned into one-way streets.   Not only does this make life more confusing, but it really makes two-way streets seem like an oasis!

8. Sandals and linen pants in February…  

My people in the mid-western part of the USA can appreciate what this means.   I have always been built to handle heat…  the cold weather is not for me!

I am sure I’ll think of more in the days to come…  enjoy your day!

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.

Getting Settled In

Quintessential India: Jasmine flowers in Leila's hair

It is a perfect 81 degrees in the apartment right now. The ceiling fan is making its rounds. Our two little babes have turned in, and will now do their level best to sleep through the night. (Jet-lag is a doozy.) As for me, I will try to ward off the heavy eyelids, and bobbing head brigade until I’ve done a fair job of checking in with all of you.

We left the U.S. last Thursday. The Sunday before that, we went to watch football on the big screen at my parent’s house one last time. I overheard my mom say to Leila, “I don’t think you’ll be watching football on TV next Sunday, Leila.” I nearly slid off the couch into a oozy puddle of weariness at hearing that. I had been in serious prep mode for about a month, and had been making concerted packing efforts for a good two to three days. I could barely imagine anything beyond getting on that plane. Life was just hazy piles of this and that, surrounded by the glaring lights of cleaning to get done before the house-sitters moved in, and hustled along by the honking horns of our wildly long ‘To Do’ list. Yuck. Let’s stop remembering that!!

Then today, we sat on the familiar stone bench outside JP’s home, and we sipped chai. Leila was tucked into a bag of potato chips cooked up village-style, a gift from her doting, ever more-endearing great grandpa (a.k.a. Big Tata.) JP and I were munching roasted cashews and sponge cake. I could not have imagined one iota of this idyllic scene while we watched that football game, but here I was. And then JP asked whether I could even believe that tomorrow was Thursday, one week since we departed the U.S.? Again, I could not.

Much has happened in the span of a week. In some ways, I don’t think that we have ever had a better trip to India than this one. In other ways, I don’t think that we’ve ever had a more difficult trip that this one. We flew from Grand Rapids to Cincinnati, to Paris, to Bangalore. The first (and greatest?) crisis that we faced was in Grand Rapids when, after bidding good bye to ‘Holland Tata and Ava,’ we had to go through security. It was hard enough for me, tired from the stress of packing and having come down with a nasty cold, weepy from saying goodbye, and further discombobulated with the removing of coats and shoes and computers and ziplock baggies, all while holding an infant but not being allowed to hold my three-year old’s hand as she proceeded through the beeping machine into the line of security guards. Then, when Leila panicked and began to wail because poor Elmo had to go through the X-ray machine, I cried too. I didn’t cry because I feared for Elmo… those security guards were actually quite kind… rather, I cried knowing that there were so many things that I had forgotten to tell Leila, so many things that would have prepared her better, and helped her along the journey. I cried because I knew that she’d just have to trust me (us) in so many ways on this trip, and I hoped we were all up for it. The good news is that Elmo made it through just fine, and so did the rest of us.

We were thankful that everything was on time. We did not have to deal with turbulence. Fellow passengers and airport/flight personnel were incredibly helpful all throughout the trip. People even occasionally told us that we had good kids… usually it was some lady who Reuben had flirted with, but on our last flight it happened to be the young 20s guy who shared our fourth seat in the center aisle. Leila had even slept with her feet flung over the armrest on him, and this was the flight that we sadly did not receive a bassinet for Reuben, who subsequently slept for just a few short, short naps. That was one sweet man.

It was adorable to watch Leila delight in the little trays full of food that were delivered to her. You should have watched her eat her salad!! We had a much needed laugh mid-way through, while entering the waiting area where we would catch a bus to the next terminal in the Paris airport. The moment that we reached the bottom step, Leila told us with much expertise, that it smelled like Russ’! (a local diner for those not from Holland…)

I spent way too much time in tiny airplane bathrooms or airport stalls trying to help Leila avoid sticking her hand or her butt into too many germs. JP would probably agree in the realm of changing our wiggly Reuben’s diaper! By the end of the last flight, we were so exhausted and ready to head home to bed, that JP told me as we exited the plane that he was going to pay one of those guys that is always trying to “help you” get your luggage at the airport, something he has never been known to do. I was almost in shock, but I just tried to look agreeable knowing that we had eight pieces of checked baggage, and had already been struggling with our five carry-ons. Rubbing our eyes, and just about getting our second wind, JP said yes to the first luggage guy, and I went to sit on a chair with Leila and Reuben. Each time that I managed to catch JP’s eye he would indicate that they had found -0- pieces of luggage. Soon everyone began to leave… with their luggage, and ours was no where to be found. This had happened before (thankfully?) so we knew just what to do, and spent the next hour doing it, getting all of the paperwork and details taken care of (and helping a few other forlorn lost-luggage companions as well.)

Around 3am we fled the doors of the airport into the loving arms of our family, who had patiently waited for hours to collect us. On the way home, I sat in the back seat with Leila and Judith, her 2 1/2 year old cousin. They held hands. It was cute, and it made the whole stinkin’, longer-than-ever, journey SO worth it to me.

I find it hard to believe, but tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. We won’t be having turkey and stuffing, but we will be attending a wedding, and thus will eat a rich, celebratory meal of some sort! Regardless, in the Thanksgiving spirit, let me tell you what I am thankful for, right here and now…

I am thankful to have family and friends in the U.S. that make good byes hurt so bad. I am thankful that our luggage arrived at 7am on Sunday morning. I am thankful that we are nearly all unpacked. I am thankful that my cold is getting gone. And, I am thankful beyond belief for our family here who have made this wild ride more comfortable, graceful, and good. We are happy to be here. Simple pleasures are making us glad.

Leila's simple pleasure hangs right in the front entry way!

Thank you, one and all, for being on the journey with us. We love you, and will certainly have much more to say as the jet lag wears off!