Saturday, June 09, 2007

Introduction to India

In May I took an organized trip to India through Friendly Planet Tours called "The Taj Mahal Express." An express, it was. We visited three cities (Agra, Jaipur and Delhi) over five days. Flying to India is a 15-hour ordeal each way, so I almost felt like I spent as much time in the sky as I did on the ground. But it was all worth it. To me, India was not a vacation, but a field trip -- an opportunity to see how others live. What I saw made me smile, cry, cringe, laugh, and give thanks to God. I carried a small notepad in my camera bag so I could record stories and observations while they were still fresh. I've posted them here so you can see India through my eyes.

Arrival in Delhi

MAY 23, 2007 -- It's a little after midnight and I just checked into The Claridges hotel in New Delhi. There are about 20 people in this tour group -- all of whom I met upon getting out of customs at the airport. Amit, our guide, greeted us with a Friendly Planet Tours sign. He's about 40 years old and very pleasant. You can tell he has dealt with a lot of anxious tourists, as he talks to our group in a very calm, reassuring manner. We learned on the bus ride to the hotel that our day tomorrow starts bright and early -- a five-hour drive from Delhi to Agra, where we'll be visiting the Taj Mahal. My wake-up call is in six hours so I better make this quick and get some sleep. I did my best to not sleep on the plane so I'd be good and tired when I arrived here. (Note: My strategy worked.) I just brushed my teeth using the hotel's complimentary clove-flavored toothpaste. The taste takes me back in time: I'm 16 years old, wearing lots of black eyeliner and writing depressing poetry on my school folder as the physics teacher drones on in the background. What ever happened to clove cigarettes, anyway?

But I digress. Before going to bed I need to put together my "supplies" for tomorrow and make sure my camera batteries are charged. My checklist:

Sunscreen - check
lip balm with sunblock - check
Purell hand sanitizer - check
Charmin on-the-go wipes - check
Stickers to hand out to kids - check
notepad and pen - check
camera with both lens and fully charged battery - check
controlled-release insect repellent with 20 percent DEET - check

OK. I think I have everything and it's time for some shut-eye. Nightie-night!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Fun Factoids about India

MAY 24, 2007 -- The great thing about taking an organized tour is that you learn oodles about the country you're visiting. Here are some things I picked up during the five-hour bus ride from Delhi to Agra:
  • There are 1 billion, 100 million people in India.
  • Delhi's population alone is 15 million. It takes three hours by car to drive from Delhi's south city limit to north city limit.
  • Only 3 million people live in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. (Practically a small town, eh?)
  • In an attempt to improve air quality, Delhi has banned all industry from setting up shop within the city limits. Consequently, a "factory row" has developed just outside city limits. This is also where you'll find the majority of call centers owned by foreign companies. I kept my eye out for Dell Computers but couldn't find it.
  • In India there are three kinds of schools -- federally funded ones for the children of federal government workers; state-funded schools for the public majority; and private schools (mostly populated by children of diplomats and India's wealthier families.)
  • According to our guide, all good office jobs require a university degree, so the federal govt offers highly subsidized tuition assistance to those who meet financial and academic qualifications.
  • It largely depends on the city, but the average monthly salary for factory workers is $250 (and that often includes some meals on site). Teachers get about $500 to $800 a month.
  • Rent in Delhi for a decent apartment ranges between $100 to $200 a month.
  • The major religions in India are Hindu (about 80 percent); Muslim (about 20 percent); and then Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhist, Sikhs and Jains (Orthodox Hindus).
  • There are three kinds of health care in India: federally funded hospitals, state-funded hospitals and private hospitals. The federal and state hospitals provide free medical care to the general population but you have to buy your meds. At private hospitals, the patient pays for everything. Read: It's also where you'll get the most advanced, qualified care. I, fortunately, did not visit any of these facilities.
  • ABOUT THE DOT: Many of you wanted me to find out about the dot on an Indian woman's forehead, so I did some diligent research.
    Me doing diligent research: "Excuse me, Amit? About those dots on foreheads of Indian women... What's up with that?"
    Amit: "If it's a red dot, higher up on her forehead, that means she is married. Any other dot -- whether it's a jewel or another color -- is just a feminine touch. It's merely for decorative purposes."
  • India is agriculturally self-sufficient. It doesn't have to import any produce, though it does export some produce. To keep the farmers happy, the government excludes them from income taxes, and there's lots of subsidizing of utilities and major farming equipment purchases.
  • The signs you see along the street in India that say "STD" with an arrow pointing to a nearby door does not indicate that a man with gonorrhea lives there. STD stands for "Subscriber Trunk Dialing" -- India's public telephone system.
  • Likewise, the UTI Bank (one of the first private banks in India beginning in 1994) is not a business that caters only to women with urinary tract infections. Although it does offer a free liter of cranberry juice when you open a checking account. (Kidding!)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Taj + Teenagers = Big Fun

MAY 24, 2007 -- We arrived in Agra around 2 in the afternoon. Our guide told us to check into our hotel rooms, relax for a bit and then meet back in the lobby at 4 to drive over to the Taj Mahal. Being that this structure is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I was plenty excited. I also was relieved to know that we'd be viewing the Taj in the late afternoon, because I assumed it would be a bit cooler (read: under 100 degrees). But I was wrong. I believe the temp sat somewhere around 110. It was as if the accumulative heat of the day had soaked into the pavement and was now radiating back toward the sky like a gigantic stove top. I wasn't dismayed though. As far as I knew, this would be the only time in my life that I would view the Taj with my own two eyes. I couldn't be bothered by no stinking heat.

There's a really ornate wall that surrounds the Taj, and within those walls there's another enormous gate (sort of the shape of the Arc de Triomphe), so you can't actually see the Taj Mahal until you literally step onto the mausoleum's front lawn. The initial view is quite breath-taking. It almost looks like a white mirage in the distance. Quick executive summary of the structure's history: It was built in the 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine the mortal remains of his queen, Mumtaz Mahal. It took 32 million rupees, 22 years and about 20,000 laborers to build it.
But enough about the Taj. Let's talk about teenagers -- specifically, the Indian teenagers I met that afternoon. Unlike in China, where it seems like the sight of Westerners is "so last year," in India, Westerners are quite a curiosity. Everywhere we went, Indians (in particular, children) openly stared, smiled, nodded at us -- even requested photos with us. That's what I love about traveling: You get to see "minorities" as the majority and YOU are the odd man out. I think every white person should experience this multiple times in life -- just as a reality check. The United States is not the epicenter of the universe. But I digress...
After touring the Taj Mahal (no cameras or shoes allowed inside), we were allotted 45 minutes to roam the grounds on our own. I found my way to a shady spot on the great lawn in front of the Taj and took a seat in the grass. Not long after, two little girls whom I'd photographed earlier came up to me and asked my name and "where from?" They wanted me to take more photos of them. They were gal smileys in action. Too cute.
Anyway, after snapping a few photos, I reached into my camera bag and pulled out some stickers of Disney princesses and The Incredibles. I pointed to the stickers and then to the girls, indicating that they could choose their favorites. They smiled big and intently reviewed the selection, finally deciding on Cinderella and Ariel. As I pulled the stickers off the sheet, I suddenly felt the sunlight eclipse overhead. I looked up to see 16 Indian faces -- all teenagers -- peering down on me.
"What is this?" one of the boys inquired.
"Um, they're stickers. You want one?" I showed him The Incredibles and then turned the Disney princess sheet toward the female faces.

This began an excited exchange of the teenagers pointing to their favorite stickers and me slapping the stickers on the backs of their outstretched hands. I assumed that the boys would prefer the superheroes, but funnily enough the Disney girls proved the crowd favorite. I thought it unusual until I looked at these cartoon renderings through foreign eyes. These boys weren't seeing The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Jasmine and Cinderella; they were seeing beauties with long, flowing hair; sparkling, come-hither eyes; and perky boobs. These were the pin-up girls of Walt Disney!
Once the stickers were passed out, the teens started interviewing me. What's your name? Where from? (United States was well understood; Texas not so much. "Taxes?" the kids asked. "No, Texas. It's a state in the south," I explained.)
A chorus of voices would echo my every answer.
Me: "My name is Katie."
Teens: "Ahh...Kay-tee. Yes, Kay-tee."
One of the boys placed a piece of torn newspaper and a pen in my hands. "Please write your name."
I carefully wrote K-A-T-I-E as they watched me pen each letter. I smiled up at the boy when I finished, seeking his approval.
"No," he corrected. "Please write ... small letters."
So I wrote my name again, this time in cursive.
"Autograph!" The boy blurted with delight. He took the paper from my hand, examined my penmanship and then shoved the paper in his pocket. His friends were in stitches; he was obviously the class clown.
One of the girls asked if I'd take a photo with them. I agreed but said they had to take one with my camera too. We gathered for a makeshift "class photo" with me as the teacher, I suppose, because they insisted that I sit front and center. The class clown on my left put his arm around my shoulders, as if I were his girl. This created an eruption of squeals and giggles from his pals.
After we'd snapped enough photos to satisfy everyone, we all stood up from the grass to say our good-byes. One by one, I asked each of them their names and then stuck out my hand for a firm handshake and a "Nice to meet you." It was a very American gesture and I could tell the teenagers were getting a kick out of the foreign pleasantries. Once all hands were shaken, I put my hands in prayer position at my heart and wished them all "Namaste." This was a good thing, I believe, as they enthusiastically returned the blessing to me.
Walking away from the kids, I turned once more to look at the Taj Mahal, now bathed in the setting sun's purplish-orange glow. I snapped one last photo of this World Wonder, knowing full well that the most memorable image from that day would be of 16 smiling dark faces -- and one beaming white one.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

And "The Most Synchronized Musicians" Award goes to...

MAY 24, 2007 -- Dave and Karen generously treated me to dinner this evening. They're critical care nurses in the Navy. These Floridians really know how to enjoy themselves in any environment. I really admire the way they embrace life and laugh - A LOT - together. We dined at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel ( After a long day on the bus and at the Taj, we were pretty hungry and beat. I ordered a really good chicken dish in a spicy tomato yogurt sauce and some garlic naan. The ambiance was elegant -- candlelight, white tablecloths, silver service pieces and, perhaps the highlight: live music. I think it was a sitar player and some kind of percussionist. Anyway, they were great -- so great, in fact, that each time the power went out (a frequent occurrence) and then came back on, the musicians would stop (FREEZE FRAME!) and start (UNFREEZE!) in perfect unison. You don't see that every day now, do ya?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sightseeing at Agra Fort

MAY 25, 2007 -- While touring Agra Fort today, I was approached by a young girl and her brothers and sisters. They were from Bangladesh and on vacation with their parents, touring the historical sights just like we were. The boys had binoculars around their necks to better see the view of the Taj Mahal just across the river. The oldest sister wanted to know where I was from, and I told her the United States -- the state of Texas, to be exact.

"Taxes?" she asked.


Anyway, I asked if they were siblings, and she said yes. Then I asked if I could take their picture and they kindly obliged. After snapping their photo, I asked if they'd like some stickers. I pulled
the sheets from my camera bag and showed them the selection. These kids bypassed the Disney girls with fluffy expressions like "Marvelous! Lovely! Simply Amazing! Beautiful!" in favor of the punchier praises from The Incredibles family: "Way to Go! Incredible Stuff! Good Thinking! Great Work!"

When one of the younger sisters reached out for her sticker, I immediately noticed the intricate henna designs on her arms and hands. Amit later told me that a close relative (perhaps an aunt) likely just got married, and she was in the wedding party. I asked her if I could photograph her hands and she gave me that curious Indian nod (not a shake, not a nod -- sort of a head wobble.) It took me a while to get used to this gesture meaning "YES." Her sisters eagerly rolled up the girl's shirt sleeves so I could get a better view of the detail; you could tell they were proud -- an impromptu session of Show-n-Tell right there at Agra Fort.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Little Girl in Red

MAY 26, 2007 -- Yesterday we visited every historical site in the city of Agra. But as I got ready for bed that night, all I could think about was this little girl. Leaving Itmad-ud-daulah's Tomb, we were surrounded by the usual mosh pit of vendors and hawkers. But this time these salesmen were flanked by a small band of street children who simply wanted money or food. Their faces were stained with dirt; their eyes unusually large juxtaposed against their skeletal frames. One girl in red caught my eye. I knew about these child beggars before I came to India; I was expecting them. But it is one thing to hear stories of begging children, and quite another to stare one in the face.

Quick sidebar: I can hear some wheels turning in certain cerebrums out there, so let me address your thoughts. For those of you who think that these children are pulling one over on the tourists and I should never mind my heart strings and closely watch my purse strings, go ahead and think that. To a degree, you're right. Some of these children have slippery hands. But who do you think has taught them to do these things, and do you think they were given a CHOICE? Do you think that after a long, hot day of begging on the streets and being shooed, ignored and cursed at by adults, these children return to a well-balanced, loving home to count their rupees over a nourishing meal? Of course not. They are victims of a merciless cycle in India. If they're not answering to their parents who have sentenced them to a hard life of begging in the streets, then they're likely answering to a "street boss" who exploits their vulnerability in ways you'd rather not know. According to a 2007 study on child abuse in India by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which interviewed almost 17,000 children, young adults and stakeholders in 13 Indian states (the largest study of its kind in the world to date):
  • Two out of three children are being physically abused.
  • 50 percent of the abusers are persons known to the child and are in a position of trust or responsibility.
  • 50 percent of the children are put to work seven days a week to supplement household income.
  • 53 percent have experienced sexual abuse or have been sexually assaulted.
  • Street children, child laborers and those in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual abuse.

So, when I tell you that I give these children money because my heart hurts for them, don't smugly tell me that "that's exactly what they're counting on." I WANT them to have my rupees. Nobody's conning anybody here. Now back to my story about the girl in red...

When our eyes met, I subtly motioned for her to break from the crowd and follow me; I didn't want to dig in my purse in front of the masses. She quickly responded and came right to my side -- her four quick steps to each of my two longer strides. Together, we walked away from all the fuss. I slipped the bills into her tiny fingers and then, without really thinking, I ran my hand over her dusty black hair -- a gesture that suddenly made me think of Mom. She looked up at me and smiled, and then it was over. I moved toward our awaiting bus and she fell back into the crowd of beggars and hawkers.

As the bus engine revved up, everyone took their seats. I found a seat by the window. She and the other children were still standing outside on the sidewalk, calling to us with outstretched arms. I watched her eyes scan the contents of each window until she reached my window. Again, that beaming smile. I waved and blew her a kiss. She did the same. As the bus wheels pulled away from the curb, she suddenly broke into a run, laughing and waving to me, her little legs pumping to keep up with the bus. I raised my camera and snapped a couple photos, then stopped to blow her another kiss. As the bus merged into traffic she stopped and waved one last time. I turned to face forward in my seat, tears in my eyes.

That evening I took out my camera to review the photos I'd taken that day. When I got to the photos of her, something cool and uncomfortable ran through my body. A lump grew in my throat, and then everything I had been feeling that afternoon came rushing to the surface. I cried because she looked so grateful, so innocent, and I didn't do anything but give her enough rupees for a soda or a bag of chips. I should have given her more. But then what? I wish I could have held her or spent more time with her. But then what?

I thought about these things and more - that image of her running so clear in my mind. I don't know how long I cried, but after a while my thoughts replaced the tears, and then dreams replaced the thoughts.

Do You Yahoo?

MAY 27, 2007 -- It's funny how you can feel like you're in the midst of a completely "foreign" environment and then something happens to remind you that the world, indeed, is a small place. Case in point: While visiting Akbar's Tomb in Agra, I photographed a young boy. I thought that was the end of it, but when I started walking away, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the boy's relatives -- parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, neighbors, you name it! The kid had a bigger entourage than Mariah Cary. This is how it went down:

Me with a sheepish grin: "Uh...hey y'all..."

Indian Entourage: [Insert multiple commands and questions in Hindi here.]

Me to the young boy: "What do they want?"

Young boy who speaks a bit of English: "They want the photo."

Indian Entourage: "Copy. [Insert lots of Hindi.] Copy."

Me a bit panicked to the boy: "Ummm... My camera isn't a Polaroid. But I can show you the image on the screen."

I pull up the image of the little boy and turn the screen toward the Entourage. Gratuitous head wobbling and more comments in Hindi ensues.

Me to the boy: "Now what are they saying?"

The boy, clearly frustrated: "They want a copy."

I look at the Entourage and weakly smile. "I can't. I mean, I want to, but ... It's not a Polaroid."

The Entourage frowns. Their disappointment pokes me in the chest. I crack under the pressure and toss out what seems a ridiculous question: "Does anyone have email??"

The Entourage perks up. "Email?"

One of the older boys steps forward, gesturing for a pen and paper. I gladly hand over my notepad and he scribbles something down. With a smile, he hands the pocket spiral back to me.

Manjeet Yahoos.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

How to Ride an Elephant by Katie Ford

MAY 28, 2006 -- Today was a banner day for Katie Ford. What better way to start your day than with an elephant ride to Jaipur's famous Amber Fort? Sitting atop an elephant is the biggest kick. First, you climb stairs to a large platform that's roughly 20 feet tall. This is the jetway, so to speak, where you board your elephant. One at a time, the handlers bring the elephants up to the jetway, and the riders, two at a time, take a side-saddle seat on these large square "mattresses" that are strapped to the elephants' backs. Our elephant's back was so wide that my legs didn't bend at the knees when I sat down in the "saddle." Instead, they stuck straight out as if I were a toddler sitting in a gigantic high chair. I sorta felt like Lily Tomlin's character "Edith Ann," sitting in that big ole rocking chair and lisping wise cracks.

Taking pictures while riding atop an elephant is (dare I say) a fine art. As the animal chugs forward, the saddle rocks and sways beneath you. After losing my balance and grasping for the handrail a few times, I realized that the trick is to rock your hips with the dip and sway of the saddle while keeping your upper-body still. A seated hula dance, if you will. Meanwhile, Raji, our elephant handler, straddles the elephant's neck, constantly wiggling his hips as he squeezes the thick, gray neck between his thighs to encourage our elephant to move forward. Raji and I boogied and hula'd all the way up the hill to Amber Fort. We were quite the dance pair.
At one point during the ride, Raji turned around to face me and asked if I'd like him to take my photo. I replied "sure" and then internally reprimanded myself as I handed my brand-new, high-end camera to a man balancing precariously on an elephant's neck. For good measure, I draped the camera strap over Raji's neck. In turn, he removed his colorful turban and placed it on my head. He snapped a couple pictures and I'll be damned if they weren't the sharpest pictures I'd ever seen. This elephant handler didn't need no stinking tripod. The elephant IS his tripod! Raji took the camera off his neck and I handed him his turban. We rode for another five minutes or so before approaching the jetway at our final destination: Amber Fort.
With construction beginning in 1592, this sprawling marble-and-sandstone complex was built by Raja Man Singh, Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Sawai Jai Singh over a period of about two centuries. I think this was my favorite building of those we visited in India. What spoke to me were the muted, earthy pastels; the feminine detailing; the labyrinth of rooms and hallways; and, of course, the Jai Mandir Temple within the fort. Tourists come from all over the world to see the temple's intricate mosaics of mirror tiles. I'm posting a few photos here so you can see the beauty of Amber Fort for yourself. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

How to Shop in India by Katie Ford

MAY 28, 2007 -- I don't know about you, but when I've spent a morning riding elephants, I like to follow it up with a good solid four and a half hours of shopping. And who better to shop with than a Brazilian woman named Pilar. Pilar is a prolific and fearless shopper. I think she bought out half of India in the five days we were there. The girl takes no prisoners when she barters. She can wait out, outwit and talk down the slickest of salesmen. I was just an innocent bystander who occasionally with conviction belted out the phrase: "Yeh, what she said."

Like soldiers assigned to retail detail, we swooped down on the marketplace and secured the area. Weaving and dodging the aggressive street hawkers, we ducked into shop after shop. Shopping in India is quite a production. It kinda reminds me of how people in the olden days used to make social calls to neighbors' homes on Sundays. In each shop, the owner invites you to sit down and have a hot chai or cold soda. You might browse the shelves for a minute, but ultimately you'll take a seat and the shopkeeper will bring everything to you. If it's tapestries you like, he'll bring out a variety of them in different colors and patterns. If you like a certain style, he'll show you more of the same; likewise, if you don't like a particular design, he'll put those aside. When you've narrowed it down to what you would like to purchase, the bartering begins with your opening line: "How much for all of this?" And if you're Pilar, you follow that up with the qualifying statement, "And make it a good price."
Typically the salesman will ask for double, even triple, the amount he would actually take and still make a profit. That's our cue to protest and make a counteroffer; then he scoffs at us and says he can't make a profit at that price. He reminds us of the craftsmanship, the quality, and then he makes another offer. Now it's our turn to scoff. We come up on the price just a little and say "That's it. That's all we'll pay. If you don't take this offer, we don't want the [purse/scarf/tapestry]." The shopkeeper will hold his ground, saying he couldn't possibly let the [purse/scarf/tapestry] go at that price. He'll come down just slightly -- maybe 25 rupees worth and say that that is HIS final offer.
This is where I usually wave my white flag and surrender. Particularly when I convert the rupees to U.S. dollars and realize that I'm still paying a dirt-cheap price whether I settle at 300 or 400 rupees.
But not Pilar. No, Pilar will call the salesman's bluff. She will stare down her enemy, arms folded across her chest, her face devoid of any signs of weakness. "No deal," she'll say. "I'm not paying that much." And then she'll deliver the clincher: "I was just at a shop down the block and they were charging half of what you're asking. I know what you're asking is too much. I will give you [X amount] or nothing. Do you want to make a sale or not? If not, I can do my business elsewhere."
In the end, Pilar typically gets her price, and I ride her coattails, getting good prices because she did the talking. We shopped all afternoon. I bought embroidered pillowcases, elaborate tapestries, beaded sandals, woven blouses, silk pashminas and two painted elephants. Our merchandise was stuffed into black garbage bags. Wandering the streets of Jaipur, we must have looked like two confused ladies who couldn't find the dumpster.
As the hours wore on, I couldn't believe how dirty we got. Moving between the scorching sun in the streets to the shaded coolness of the shops (no A/C, just big fans and a few window units if you're lucky), I must have acquired three or four layers of dried sweat and grime. My sandaled feet were grayish black and my fingernails looked like I'd been working on cars all day. The city streets in Jaipur (and in Agra and Delhi, for that matter) are riddled with waste -- crushed soda cans and plastic water bottles, food wrappers, cow poop, monkey poop, goat poop, camel poop, elephant poop -- that's a lotta poop!
You'll even see (or smell, rather) urine from time to time. In India, men frequently and openly assume the V-legged stance and let er' go. I had to get used to that; it's not every day that you walk past men doing their business --- sparkling arches springing forth from open flies.
Indian men do EVERYTHING in the streets. It's where all the action is. Need a shave and a haircut? Barbers line the sidewalks, setting up a simple table, chair and mirror. Need a shower? Join your brothers and uncles on a cement slab, where you'll find water hoses and buckets with sponges and soap. Want to catch a quick cat nap? You'll find rickety cots made of rope and wood. Toothache? No problem. "Dentists" lay their medical tools and salves on blankets and do their handiwork right their on the sidewalk. Just look for the little handmade signs with the big toothy grins.
And, of course, there are a million things for sale in the streets: milk, vegetables, meats, fruits, tires, ice cream, coconuts, cotton candy, cigarettes, hardware, shoes. Commerce is everywhere you turn. Indians are always, always, always working, hustling, conversing, arguing, laughing, moving, running, begging, hammering, chopping, doing whatever they can to make do and survive among the masses. Humanity is in your face at every turn. I was humbled, awed, digusted, moved, touched and entertained. Most of all, I just felt alive. Very, very alive.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Religious Experience

MAY 28, 2007 -- One night in Jaipur we attended evening services at a Hindu temple. It was about 6 p.m. when we arrived, and although the sun had not set, you could no longer see it. A front had blown in from the dessert and the sky was a hazy grayish-white. Dust and debris kicked up in the wind, making it hard to keep my eyes open at times. It felt like God was pointing a blow dryer on us. Families hung out around the temple, waiting for the service to begin. The entire temple and surrounding grounds were made of white marble; it looked like an ice castle.
Hinduism, which encompasses 330 million gods and goddesses, is a very tolerant and inclusive religion. Rather than condemning those of other faiths, Hindus embrace any human effort to know and connect with the divine. Our guide Amit pointed to two carvings on the temple's pillars: Madonna and Child, and Jesus Christ. It's all good, say the Hindus.
At 6:15 our group entered the temple with the rest of the worshippers. (No cameras allowed.) To my surprise, there were no pews or even floor pillows. It was a stark-white marble room from floor to ceiling. At the opposite end of the room was a heavy red velvet curtain. A horn blew and the congregation gathered at the curtain, which slowly parted, revealing gigantic gold statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi. At their feet were several yards of flowers and lit candles. A man began beating a drum and cymbals as another man faced the gods and offered up a glimmering plate of eternal flames, which he slowly circled over his head and then out in front of him.
The congregation sang along to a soundtrack that piped in from some loud speakers overhead. This continued for about five minutes, maybe longer. Then another man on the stage turned to the congregation and flicked holy water from a silver cup into the crowd. Amit later told us that this gesture symbolizes the congregation's receiving of the Hindu gods' energy. In case you're wondering what it feels like to receive energy from a Hindu god, it feels a lot like cool water hitting your tired, hot, grimy skin. It's pretty awesome.
The singing, drumming and flame-waving continued for a little longer and then it was all over. Our group retreated through the doors of the temple and meandered over to a corner of the common area outside. As we waited, a little girl in a yellow dress approached me. We made small talk, which sounded a lot like the transcript from an English 101 language lab exercise.
Girl: "Hello."
Me: "Hello. How are you?"
Girl: "I'm fine. Thank you. Are you Hindu?
Me: "No. I'm only visiting."
Girl looks confused.
Me: "I'm from the United States."
Girl: "Ohhh..." She looks at the man standing near me. "Husband?"
Me: "Oh, no."
Girl: "Father?"
Me: "No. I'm alone here. I don't have any family."
Girl suddenly looks concerned for me.
Me: "I mean, I do have family. In the United States. I have three sisters. Do you have brothers or sisters?"
Girl: "No. No brothers. No sisters. What's your name?"
Me: "Katie. Kathryn. What's your name?"
Girl: [Insert an Indian name that begins with a 'D' because that's all I heard.]
Me: "How old are you?"
Little D: "I'm fine. Thank you. And you?"
Me: "No. How old? Your age?"
Little D: "Oh! I am eleven. And you?"
Me: "I am 36."
Little D looks me over, unabashedly assessing my 36-year-old face and frame. She then looks at my camera. "Photo?"
Me: "You want me to take your picture?"
Little D wobbles her head yes.
I take her photo and then show her the image on the LCD. My friend, Joy, offers to take a photo of Little D and me. We pose for the camera together and Joy takes our picture. By now, we've attracted attention. A group of teenage boys cruises over to check out what's going on. They don't really say anything to me; they just giggle and rib each other and stare at me and the other Westerners in our group. Finally, one of them - the speaker for the group - asks me, "Where from?"
Me: "The United States." (Side note: I always want to follow that with "I think Bush is an idiot." But somehow I think that this crowd doesn't really care about politics.)
The Speaker: "You Hindu?"
Me: "No."
Everyone is looking at me, anticipating something. My mind races over ideas of how I could entertain this impromptu audience. "Want to take some pictures?" The boys smile and nod. They huddle together and I crouch low and begin snapping away as they pose and joke and give me their studliest boy band album cover stances. Joy asks me if I'd like to get in one of the photos. I hand her my camera, stand in the middle of the boys and pull Little D next to me. I love this shot.
"It's beautiful! Look at all your faces! You all look so great!" I tell them. The boys take turns looking at the image on my camera. They're smiling, laughing. We're having a blast.
The Speaker: "What's your name?"
Me: "Katie. Is everyone here from Jaipur?"
They all wobble yes.
Amit suddenly appears, trying to pluck me from the crowd. He says it's time to go. I tell the kids I have to leave. I bow my head and say Namaste. They do the same. I turn to Little D who has been quietly by my side, watching me this whole time. I give her a big hug and we exchange: "It was nice to meet you." I want to stay longer with her, but my group has gone away. I have to catch up. As I'm running through the crowd to find my group, I hear a boy calling behind me, "Miss! Miss!" I turn around. It is The Speaker. His face is one big smile.
"Thank you, Miss, for showing us such a good time." The Speaker sticks out his hand for a firm shake. The perfect gentleman.
"Of course, of course," I tell him. "Thank YOU."
We part and I leave the temple feeling recharged, hopeful -- and ever mindful of God's grace.