Archive for the ‘India’ category

Showering With Shanti (Peace), Goa

September 23, 2013

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Showering with Shanti (Peace), Goa, Sometime in the Early Eighties

Her name was Shanti and she craved
my shampoo.

We stood in a bucket shower, a stall

of tangled vines. She was a Citizen
 of the World,
she said (though her accent spoke

of the States)
and asked, breathlessly,
if it 
was Herbal Essence, and could she please please

borrow some, extending arms thinned to ropes

from a while in India.

While I was just visiting, no matter how long It felt,
so squeezed a gob
onto her waiting palms, and then, 
as they waited longer, another gob.

She pressed the pooling gel

onto her splayed part, right in the center of wet hair

already flattened, closing

kaleidoscope eyes.

I don’t know anything
about her experiences of peace,

but there was bliss–
her whole being–from lathered crown

through smiling fingers, nose, thighs, shins–a stream

of shine, freckles dwarf stars

in a bubble of–It comes in Strawberry?


I squeezed more into

her outstretched palms; she passed them

over shoulders, belly, hips, then cupped them

to her face as if they were a conch shell she might blow,

a prayer that she might call, an answer
to called prayer.

At the time I felt rather glad to be myself,
my ticket home safe
in my zipped passport pouch,
but in years since, I’ve thought of her face

more often than I care to admit,

wishing for at least a piece 

of what she found that day
in between the pour
of pink shampoo and washing
every bit of her, shaded
by tangled vines.

***********************************
Here’s a sort of poem I wrote thinking about h Mary Kling’s “peace” prompt on dVerse Poets Pub over this past weekend. (Shanti, sometimes spelled Shantih, means peace in Sanskrit.) If you feel like you’ve read about this story before, you may have, as I wrote a prose poem about it some time ago. I did not specifically re-write the prose poem for this draft, but when I went back to check it, I was amazed at the similarities. (I don’t know if that means that the story is true to memory, or that I easily get into ruts. Agh.) (I am posting this on iPhone right now but will include link for other prose piece later if any one is interested. I think it was called Duty/Calls.)

I am also linking this to the open link nights at dverse poets pub and real toads.

On a Trip Once

April 27, 2013

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On a Trip Once

Increasingly, I don’t believe in ecstatic experience–
to me, there is ecstasy
and there is experience;
ecstasy that bit where you feel
the wonder of your connection with all
beingness–the velvet purr
of digging your fingers
through a time-mulched fern-feeding log,
and experience–when you understand,
hungover and with bug bites fisting
your wrists, that you too will swell
and rot, your particular beingness decay, bones
fray.

Still, certain moments well,
sparkles on a stream, for no reason–random sun–
I stand in one, on a concrete step
before a white-knobbed sink, which in turn fronts an open window
in the Majestic Tea Room, Mumbai–
Bombay then, and hardly majestic–
though high-ceilinged and robins-egg, the pale blue
blurred by warmth and fans and waiters with their beautiful
dark-hollowed faces, long-fingered
hands–and, just outside the window
and on his own concrete dais,
sits a pan seller, his betel nut grated in small tins, and in a larger can, a soak
of green serving leaves, as tensile
as young skin, and wafting up, not the smells
of the street, or worse of side walls sometimes in India, but the sweet scent of his
rose chutney, and I wish never
to stop washing my hands, not because they feel grimed, but because the sublime
is hard to find, and somehow it is here–was there–
flickering along the wilt of peeled window frame and in the searching fragrance of
jellied rose, the ecstasy of the quotidian caught
in the trappings of the exotic, there, on that sink’s step, no longer concrete
but like the peated log, something mind sifts,
wonders at, tries to connect.

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Here’s a sort of a poem for my Poetics prompt on “a trip” on dVerse Poets Pub. I’m hosting today and would love to see you.

The above photo is by Meredith Martin (my older daughter). It doesn’t really have anything to do with the poem–a pan seller is a person!– but I think it’s a fun picture of India.

Process notes–“pan” is a concoction made sometimes with betel nut, sometimes without. It includes various spices, like fennel, and a sweet rose chutney (made from the flower), all wrapped in an edible green leaf, forming a small stuffed triangle. The pan sellers in India used to make each pan by hand, sitting on street corners or in little booths with an array of spices and tins. Nowadays, a lot of the pan seems to be packaged.  (The poem above should probably be made into two very separate poems some time!  But this is how it came out for now.  It has been edited since first posting.)

On the Way to the Airport (draft poem)

April 22, 2013

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On the Way to the Airport (In Kerala, India)

Our driver says, “so your problem, home, all finished?”
as we look out at palms
on water, women in burqua
on sidesaddle, motos and
rickshaws, and after one slow roundabout, a grand filigreed
church, Catholic, its forefront embroidered
with maroon and gold umbrellas shading
the spillover, and “oh,” I say, “you mean in
Boston?” And “Finished, yes?” he repeats,
and I try, “Yes, I guess. I mean, they caught
the guy,” not knowing what else to say, his face
beaming with the pride
of arcane sympathy, and we hear the music now, as we drive,
emanating from this side of the church, music that chirrups
like a Bollywood dance number, and my daughter mutters
something about the aim of amplification here (to reach as
far as it will go, no matter)
and also something about
Miranda rights, and I feel the harsh prickle on the skin
that I’ve lived in for so long, the skin made smooth
and supple (so it thinks) by civil rights, but also flash the headlines
of amputations and that lost child’s gap-toothed smile, but mainly my mind
circumnavigates its wish for something, whatever it is,
to be done right, the music still reverberating
over our overpass, and over people on the street below too
people buying, you know, betel nut
on the corner, and grams of fried
snacks, cellophane gleaming its pink mirrors
over the golden morsels, stacks of light,
shadow, refrain, a flak of debris
at the sides.

*************************************
Here’s my first attempt at a poem in a while. I am not sure what it means. I am back in the U.S. now. Thanks so very much to everyone for your kind comments during my trip to India. I really appreciate your support.

The photo above doesn’t really go with the poem, but was a bit tired to get another one.

Leaving (With a Pool)

April 21, 2013

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We have graduated to jasmine. And Christina has been allowed to operate the food processor.

This means that we have definitely moved up a notch or two in the small steamy world that is Fort Cochin. (Or Fort Kochi, under its its original Indian and now official name. Many names of places in India were re-transliterated a few years ago – so Cochin became Kochi – Bombay – Mumbai – Madras–Chennai.)

But the reconfiguration I am talking about now is ours, moving from mid-budget (and rather heavily laden) backpackers to lap-of-luxury (and packed light, considering) travelers.

In other words, we’ve sprung for our last night or so in India, meaning that we now have a room in a top hotel “with a garden view” complete with freshly-pressed kimonos, straw bedroom slippers and jasmine blossoms gyred upon our pillows. (Due to the off-season, there is a thirty percent discount.)

Being India, there are a ton of crows that hang out by the pool–we have a pool!– often resting on shower head, and in the late afternoon–we are just by the harbor–there’s a build-up of fishy smell–but the water is clear and blue and chlorinated, and it really is quite nice.

The move-up in cooking occurred at the Flavour Cooking School, where Meera let Christina go hands-on with the blender. (Almost every dish involves the blending of a “paste.” )

So we are almost gone. Before I signed off from India – and who knows if I will, as we have about a 24 hour journey ahead of us – I wanted to make all kinds of point about safety and misogyny, and the difficulties and wonders of travel here, but there is no time to make the points clearly. So better to just post some of the last day’s photos.

They include: our hotel–crow and cat–, Meera Leo and Christina cooking in the dark (during a power outage), the cook at our hotel taking us back into the kitchen on discovering we were interested in cooking, people pouring out of the Catholic Church – many more on the shady sides, and various family members of Sabu, our driver from Munnar.

PS thanks so much to all of you who have followed this trip. I’m sorry for my disjointedness. I really appreciate your support. Must run now.

Archeological Museum (Not)–Golden Mugget in Thrissur

April 20, 2013

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“Heh, heh,” the autorickshaw driver answers with the sideways shake of his head that looks like ‘no’, but means, ‘yes,’ only his is a particularly dismissive sideswipe which seems to mean, ‘of course, you idiots’ and he springs into gear (and put-put) and we, who are not able to bear crossing the sprawling exhausting tar-melting streets one more time, breath a sigh of relief that we won’t have to, so sit back, holding our hats, thinking maybe this city, Thrissur, isn’t so bad if you just whiz around it, avoiding the sidewalk crush of people and trash and generator (the small gas kind which exude hot rumble outside every couple of shops.) (The hydro-electric grid can’t be trusted after a few years of very bad rains.)

Until suddenly, the ride just seems too long, and I shout out once more “Archeological Museum?” and “do you know where we are going at all?” and the driver stops in the middle of a roundabout, annoyed, but also clueless, so after I shout “Archeological Museum? repeatedly and show him my guidebook map, he swerves through the traffic to a guy on the side of the road, and at last, after much discussion and more blank review of my map–I realize that drivers here–even men – are not used to reading maps–we head off again, in a completely different direction, till our driver pulls us into the grandly gated entrance of a large official-looking building bright with white paint and past colonialism, where I confirm ‘Archeological Museum?’ and he bobble-nods again.

We walk up to a dark entryway, a blur of fans and men in glasses–maybe the intellectuals of the town–sitting around a long wooden table. They look up from their newspapers (many with wooden slats down one side) intensely irritated by our approach, telling us dismissively that it is the town hall, also, it seems, the public library and basically to go away–

But I insist, and one comes to the door, and “Museum,” he says and directs me around the block – well, around the block and “no more than half a kilometer.”

In truth, we are not sure we care half a kilometer about the Archeological Museum, but it is really too hot to look for elephants right now, the reason we have come to this town–so trudge down the road, backtracking the way the rickshaw has come, and treading a fine line between debris and traffic but glad at least that the alleged museum is on the same side of the road, and that the only street crossing required is relatively mild (though we hold hands and trot)–

Come at last to a small gathering of food stalls and rickshaws, people, children – the municipal zoo is here – park benches, shade, wilting flowers-and a large green building labeled with a small sign “Multipurpose Museum.”

The description “Multipurpose” does strike me as odd, but this is India – home of signs like “Infant Jesus Tyre Repair,” and electric words at the highway toll booth that blink after one has paid “Happy Bye-bye”–

My husband, a man of maps and precision, particularly when it comes to historical, geographical or scientific matters,would undoubtedly look back at the guidebook around now and comment that this building is not in the same location as the “Archeological Museum.”

But hey, it has a big skeleton of an elephant in the doorway. The tallest elephant in memory, says the explanation, and describes this particular beast’s history in all state festivals around the early 1900s.

It doesn’t occur to us that the early 1900s is not exactly an archeological age, nor that the large wooden sculpture (next to the elephant’s bones) that was made in ten months in the prison yard by someone sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1970’s is a strange choice for an archeological curator.

As are the chipped models of various sea creatures. “A Dolphin.”

The next room though has some old armor and weaponry: “A Curved Sword.” “A Straight Blade.” “A Sword with a Silver Line.” “A formidable knife used by Afghans.” Truthful enough descriptions so far as they go.

Next there’s a model of a Dutch House, Kathakali dance costumes, and many cases of minerals – meaning rows of rocks with things like “Sand” written underneath them. Photography is prohibited, but we cannot resist the specimen above ‘”Model of Gold Mugget.” (We joke, but also acknowledge that our Malayalam is nonexistent, and frankly, I kind of like to imagine young children coming here on a Saturday morning, their imaginations sparked.) (There are large conical breasts on one of the Kathakali sculptures that would seem to spark a lot of things.)

However, the most excited visitors we see are two young couples in the shadows of the upstairs landing, who, when we come up the stairs, immediately spring apart from each other, while the guard up here, a woman pushes a small plastic “backscratcher”- the kind with a little curve-fingered hand–down the back of her sari blouse.

On this floor, the cases hold rows of cloudy glasses of water showing various species of dead crustacea,fish,a cobra and various moth-eaten birds.

It is worth noting that in all this touring neither my daughter or I question where are those items specially mentioned by the guidebook – the cooking pots big enough for children to fit into, certain special intricate boxes, old scrolls – but honestly, we are probably just as happy to see things like the “gold muggets.” There is something about spending time in India when it is very hot – combined with the strange veering between freneticism and torpor (all mixed up with a heavy dose of avoidance of any kind of offer, question or tout)–that just seems to sap the good old intellectual curiousity.

Then of course there’s the brain fog of the antimalarial tablets.

Though, as I sit here, writing this, I suspect that our willingness to accept, to even be content with the Golden Mugget Museum, to not even realize till several hours later that it could not have been the Archeological Museum, probably cannot truly be blamed on the antimalarial tablets – or even on the heat.

But rather that it comes from some deeper aspects of our personalities, at least, of mine. (I will not hook it on my daughter.)

On the one hand, I seem marked by a kind of intellectual laziness–that part of me that would find all the informative signs at a true archeological museum rather hard going. On the other hand, I have been granted the gift of a fascination with “just folks”–big-eyed couples jumping apart, bored women scratching themselves.

I do not, frankly, know if this is a genetic gift, a general gift (meaning applicable to my greater life), or simply something I long ago picked up for the specific purpose of travel in India. I do know that it is an extremely useful quality for traveling here.

There are plenty of historic sites, beautiful sites, archeological sites, and even some good museums in India. But if you travel here with an expectation of seeing a large number of them (even those directly on your route) in any truncated period of time or budget, you are pretty certain to grow almost immediately irritated and frustrated (i.e. “hot and bothered.”)

You are also likely to miss whatever golden muggets lay just before your eyes.

And there are so many of those – I think of our cooking instructor in Cochin – who so sweetly called out “Leo” – her husband’s name–every time the power went out in our little cooking class–not pausing in her supervision of my daughter sauteing at the small gas range; while Leo repeatedly carted out a lithium battery powered light from a back room, and set it up on a corner shelf, and how, in those fan-less moments of rather complete- and then semi-darkness, I would become conscious of a delicious, if slight breeze, lifting the air–

But I am still in the museum in this particular story, and as we step out into the blistering light, we come onto two hedgerows of deep red Amaryllises–and I say something to my daughter like – “okay, they’re wilting, but you have to admit that they are beautiful,” and she admits that they are beautiful, and we get into another rickshaw, and this time, although we tell driver the name of the biggest road in town, we mainly just get him to drive until we get to a good stopping place, or should I say, jumping-off place, and ‘stop’, we tell him, waving our hands, and he, scooting as close to the curb as possible (given the traffic), does.

PS -after the museum and elephant, we got ourselves taken to one of the big churches in Thrissur – Our Lady of Lourdes.

There are a zillion churches in Kerala. They are huge and extremely ornate, with spires and a bit of a wedding cake motif. This church – which really had a lovely atmosphere–had a big green tent in the inside (below most of the front nave) to block out the sun, and a very cool (temperature-wise) underground sanctuary. The pictures show the tent part of the nave.

I also include a quick picture of the Town Hall’s reading room, and my favorite place in Thrissur – the Indian Coffee Houses. Indian Coffee House is an old chain owned and run by a cooperative of Indian coffee workers (in the South.) The waiters all wear weird cockades. I really liked this place because when I was here before (thirty years ago), they always felt like a certain respite. They’ve gone a bit seedy, but still feel very fun to me.

You can see that pink is a popular color around here.

PPS – sorry for endless typos and endless text – I really feel as if I’m losing my grasp of language of late. This part I’ll blame on the anti-malarials.

More on Finding the Elephant (Thrissur)

April 19, 2013

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The elephant had an erection. I can’t make any jokes about the size of it as it was somehow part of the sadness of his situation, how the body goes on even enchained, how little dignity is allowed the enchained.

The thing that struck me most – and I have seen elephants before – but what struck me most about this one was the development of the head. The sculpted mounds of the temples; the cranny in the center of the cranium; the intense (and immense) modeling of the skull, the slightly bloodshot thick-lashed eyes that looked with intensity out of its thick skin almost as if looking out from a mask,

Touching its side felt like touching a road made live, tar-folds of a circuitous bristled pathway, back and forth and back and forth, and back again. Dry, grooved, tear-inducing.

It sounds like I am being overly sentimental. I don’t think I am. .

We left chastened. Again, I’m not sure why exactly – we had known any captive elephant we would find in India we would make us feel sad and punily powerless, and not really all that separate from the actual people that get the elephants and make money off of them. All connected.

(PS– these are pictures from Thrissur, India, a couple of days before a large elephant festival, where elephants, in costume, parade around a Hindu temple. The guy in the photo is the elephant owner or trainer. The young woman is my daughter.)

Worries/Recriminations in Thrissur, Kerala

April 18, 2013

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We are currently staying at the best hotel in Thrissur, a small city in central Kerala. It lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Let’s call it, freshness.

We have come for elephants –there is an elephant festival here in a couple of days–and the air conditioner in our room– it is about 100 degrees and muggy outside–has a definite rumble.

Thrissur was an odd choice. The actual festival is known for an intense jam of people, heat, and elephants (sometimes running amuck), so we thought we’d give it a miss.

On the other hand, we also thought it might be Interesting to see elephants being prepared for the festival.

We know that they will likely be mistreated. We could have gone to some kind of elephant park instead possibly– maybe even have washed elephants. It would be pretty cool to wash an elephant. But we worried that those elephants might also be mistreated (subtly) and that by paying to wash them we might be complicit in their mistreatment.

Is it better to be where there are no pretenses of sanctuary?

And what if they were actually kind to the elephants at the washing place?

We go through these questions again and again. But part of the whole calculus had to do with heat and logistics. It would have been very difficult to get to the elephant washing place at elephant washing time. And so we didn’t. And now we are here.

One of the advantages of traveling with somewhat open-ended plans is that you have endless things to fret about and regret. When you travel with another person, you can also re-miscommunicate all prior miscommunications as to who wanted to do what and who wanted to please whom. There really are many different ways of passing time.

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And now we have passed time, and after miscommunications not with each other but with several rickshaw drivers, we have located elephants. This was after being led several blocks by a man with bare feet of leather (or iron) –it is super hot–from the big temple where the festival is planned to a smaller temple where three elephants were stationed in the back yard. (The ones for the festival are not here yet.). Only one elephant was touchable– the other two dangerous–and truly, touching the tamer one was unutterably sad.

There were comic elements to our adventures today, which I may relate when I am not on the iPhone, but finding the elephant was not one of these. On the way to find him we went through a large temple park– mainly surfaced with dirt– where many very poor men in orange lungis were squatting on the ground digging holes to hold some kind of posts or scaffolding for the upcoming festival. One can’t expect great treatment for elephants in a place where humans are also not treated so well. Though it is easier somehow, as a Westerner, to block out the plights of some of the humans here. Do we anthropomorphize the elephants more than the human? Or is it because the elephant is in a situation that is so clearly against its will and nature? (Chained.). Or is one simply overwhelmed by the numbers again. (We had to look for elephants–people are everywhere.)

Anyway, back in the room now hoping for some freshness by turning off the AC.

I can’t post very big pics without wifi– but there’s our room, a waiter in an Indian Coffee house (part of an old chain where we snacked), the workers and the elephant. I may repost more or these in bigger scale when we get wifi again. Tomorrow.

PS. In case you missed and are interested I posted early this morning pictures I quite like of tea pickers in Munnar.