Greetings from Vrindavan! Aaron asked me what I was going to post today, and I told him that, to his chagrin, I was going to start with the Monkey & Lassi story, and go from there... (Haridwar stories will follow -- we have made it to Vrindavan, town of Krishna & monkeys -- internet access in Haridwar was sketchy, overpriced, and only occasionally powered with actual electricity...)
So, the Monkey & the Rose Lassi -- this morning, Aaron and I were sitting in a lovely little cafe overlooking a plaza in Vrindavan outside the main Krishna temple. Little boys were shooting marbles on the plaza, a little hut was blasting drum-machine bangra, a wild dog was nursing her pups nearby, cows wandering around, monkeys playing on the tin roof of the bangra hut. Happily ensconced in The Times of India, sketchbooks, and journals, the sun, and our masala dosas and chai, we didn't notice the monkey that was inching closer and closer, pretending to be very interested in bits of fruit rind and the nits in its tail. Aaron had just gotten his rose lassi, which he proclaimed "Delicious!" when the monkey LEAPT ONTO OUR TABLE. Aaron, whose reflexes were obviously in top form, instantly reacted by jettisoning his lassi from the cup and straight at the monkey. However, I happened to be ON THE OTHER SIDE of the monkey! And so I, like the Krishna and Radha statues in the temple, was blessed with a great faceful of rose-flavored milk and yoghurt, much to the amusement of EVERYONE around, including, I think, the monkey. There are definitely worse things that one could get face-full of!
OK, more on Vrindavan --
To save valuable time and rupees, here is an excerpt from an email I just sent:
this experience is so intense, so full, i can't even begin to describe it...
ok, i'll try. right now i am in a little internet shop. drum-machine ragas are playing over the speakers. outside there is a little alley full of cows, bicycle rickshaws, beggars, sadhus, shops that look like they're from the middle ages, wild dogs, pigs, people in saris, people in turbans, motorbikes zooming thru and beeping everyone out of the way, women with huge baskets on their heads. we are staying in a palace (!!) ashram called jai singh ghera. a friend of aaron's lives here, a wonderful australian woman named robyn beeche, who is a photographer and works for the ashram. she is going to outfit me with a sari to go to the taj mahal tomorrow! the ashram is so beautiful, right on the banks of the yamuna river, which is very clean here, thanks in part to robyn's efforts -- she gets local theater troupes to do all-night performance/education sessions on the river and the environment. many of the migratory birds which have had to leave neighboring regions because they have been too dry are now on the yamuna -- this morning we watched the sun rise over the river and saw herons, kingfishers, plovers, ducks, and zillions of other birds i don't know the names of.
this town is gorgeous, sandstone pink and gold and white. there are monkeys everywhere! you have to be very very careful or they will steal the glasses off your face, and then you have to bribe them to give your glasses back with a banana! this is also the place where krishna stole radha and the other milkmaids' clothes while they were bathing, so there's krishna-radha madness everywhere. the temple has little krishna-radha figures on an altar, and their clothes are changed daily, pajamas at bedtime. there is also a little bed in the temple, covered in rose-petals, for them to "sleep" in together. there's a big festival on right now, so we will head over to the temple at 6pm for a few hours of drums and bells and ghee and honey and milk...
Mealtimes at jai singh ghera are amazing. We are the only two gringos there (with the exception of Robyn). Everyone sits crosslegged around the edges of a big brick-and-stone room, on grass mats on the floor. Each person gets a big metal plate, and then people come around with big pots of rice, dal, spicy vegetables, chapatis, and prasad (sweets/offerings) -- and they keep coming again and again. You eat with your hands, scooping together rice and food and then scooping it up with the chapati. It is challenging, but wonderful...
Last night a celebrated storyteller/singer entertained us in the palace -- a tremendous woman (in every sense) in the brightest pink sari you've ever seen (and that's BRIGHT) and did a very loud & emphatic version of the Krishna-Radha story, backed by about 10 musicians. She was so amazing, so absolutely present, bright, and sharp, that it hardly mattered that I couldn't understand a word.
We took the early train from Haridwar yesterday -- about 10 hours in transit -- 9 1/2 on the train and 1/2 on the most terrifying autorickshaw ride -- I told Aaron there should be a video game called "India Autorickshaw," where you zoom at absolute top speed between cows, bicycles, people, dogs, and what have you. White-knuckled, we arrived at Jai Singh Ghera at sunset, just in time for the above-described performance.
Haridwar was incredibly intense. In so many ways, it was amazingly beautiful - our pre-dawn 1.5-mile hike straight up a mountain to the Shiva temple, where we did the rounds at about 10 shrines. You hardly have to go to a temple for a religious experience in Haridwar, though -- as the beginning of the Ganges, it's one of the most holy places in India, and thousands of pilgrims are pouring thru the place. The Ganges is very very blue and fast and cold there, and blue-lipped people nevertheless bathe in it all day, even in the chilly dawn. It's the place where Vishnu dropped a drop of nectar and left a footprint, so that makes it doubly-triply holy.
It was also the end of the tourist season there, and all the vendors were trying to squeeze the last drops of milk out of the cash cows (that is, us), tho we were not considered so holy. We had scams and rip-offs coming at us left and right, which, as you can imagine, are quite an impressive in India. As Aaron said, we were at the carnival, and they were the best carnies in the world. The good thing is that, even if you get ripped off for 100 rupees, it's only a couple of dollars... whew! I have to hand it to them... I never saw most of them coming, and I'm from New York! Before we knew it, someone would hit us with a bindi (3rd-eye dot) and then demand 20 rupees!! or some guy in a jacket with Hindu symbols on it and a receipt book would demand 500 rupees for "upkeep of the ghats (bathing steps)"... or we would give money to one beggar, and then be surrounded by (NO exaggeration) 50. Even Aaron, who's been here so many times, needed a couple of days to get his chops back. It's so hard to walk past the poorest people here! and I can't even talk about the dogs.
Haridwar itself is somewhat reminiscent of Kathmandu, a mountain place full of temples, drums and bells everywhere, constant prayers and singing. India everywhere is full of sights and sounds and smells(!) that I am only starting to be able to walk through without being in shock. It is amazing to be reminded how good we have it in some ways, and how much we've lost in others, in our first-world world. There are windy, dark little streets in Haridwar, with gutters running alongside, water constantly running down toward the river. Little stalls packed with glittering things, colorful things, shiny things, smelly things... At night we would go to bed listening to the prayers at the ashram next door (one-two, one-two of drums and bells, and a conch shell-horn at beginning and end), which went on for a good hour, and then again at dawn. Our hotel overlooked a dusty yard with a great big banyan tree, a family of pigs, some cows, and a couple of piles of garbage. We became very fond of it, and of the kids that played in the swing there.
ok... I've said too much! Handing this post over to Aaron. Love to all, Greta
dreaming every night, strange uncharachteristic dreams, each morning i come to consiousness around 4:30-5am Greta also wakes up and we tell each other our dreams then the temple bells start ringing. really beatific. drawing alot, mind getting into that groove i love so much, Greta is radiant, i'm glad . hemingway sentences, we write. Haridwar was kind of a drag in some urban ways that a touristpilgrim town can get painfully jaded at the end of a season,everyone was just DONE. that said, we had the kind of days that would have made improbable fiction, strange things that all informed each other like a poem that writes you as you go and wonder who could have thought to conclude it this way. wierd circular signs, people being there exactly where and when you need them as though the whole town in it's fiesty way had something to tell us if we were subtle enough. met some very kind people and some real poops, but there was a saving grace to every interaction.
it was like walking in your own dream and wondering who is dreaming whom... -- Aa
signing off for now -- soon we will post pictures, we promise!
G & A