Sunday, March 23, 2008

Well, look who's back on the intraweb

Mood is a fickle thing, and it looks like I'm going to be blogging Udaipur after all.

You may actually recognize Udaipur; it's the city where the Bond movie "Octopussy" was filmed (as about a million signs and restaurants remind us daily). It's got the white palace floating on the lake, etc. Beautiful, but we're definitely getting a little too used to Rajasthan and the northern architecture; we've been here for three days, and only spent one morning doing anything especially proper-touristy (the City Palace). The rest we've just been enjoying the town, which is a little pricy but very laid-back and comfortable for us Western types because it's absolutely overrun by tourists. That's unfortunate - a town this nice should belong to its people - but it is nice to be able to sit on the rooftop in a tank top for a change.

Mostly, what we did here was Holi. I'm going to write a bit more about it in Mumbai (tomorrow) or Aurangabad (the following day), because some very interesting things happened that have got me thinking, and I know I'll need more than a half hour or so to get it out properly. But, in the meantime, a bit about Holi. (Skip the part of that wikipedia article on the health hazards. We did.)

It starts with a huge serious of bonfires in the streets just after sundown on the night before. Stacks of wood, tented together, reach 12 or 14-feet high in small squares (about the size of 3 driveways), and 6-7 feet in the smaller streets. Firecrackers and cherry bombs are thrown into the blaze or launched into the sky. The noise, in a town the size of Udaipur, was tremendous - as was the fireworks display. (Fireworks are legal here and easy to buy year-round because they're used in weddings and on other auspicious days.) Then, a good chunk of the population starts drinking; for most of the residents of a town like Udaipur, Holi is the only day of the entire year that they won't have to work. The enthusiasm is contagious, and there's no argument about it - they deserve it.

Revelry in the streets is over before midnight, but starts again early the next morning. By 9am, the streets are full of people moving in big groups, swarming through each other. Everyone you pass, you say "Happy Holi" to each other and throw a handful of coloured powder (or water) over each other - sometimes you put it directly on each other's faces. Sometimes hugging follows. The result is an incredibly congenial, hilarious atmosphere in which you can't stop laughing and end up with colour in your mouth as well as everywhere else. People are almost unrecognizeable - after about 20 minutes I could only pick out the other people in our party by height and stature, as even our clothes were so covered in bright colours running together that you couldn't tell what they originally looked like. My skin is still stained in a lot of places (all visible, unfortunately), and my clothes are absolutely ruined.

All of which is fine, because it was so much fun. S. and I went out with a couple we met from Toronto named Aaron and Marion, who are maybe 10-12 years older than us but very fun. (Bonus: he's a criminal lawyer who loves his job, and loved law school, and wasn't a jerk in the least. There's hope!) We'll post photos once we get them from Aaron, who was the only one brave enough to bring a camera into that mess.

There were some tourists who were not loving it - which was maybe the most hilarious part of all. Every once in a while you'd see some sour-looking European in khakis and a white golf shirt lurking around with an expensive camera giving death stares to anyone who approaches them with powder. Imagine coming down from your hotel into that chaos - just a huge mob of people greeting, throwing colours and paint everywhere, hugging, laughing - and expecting to be left to yourself on the sidelines. It doesn't work like that. Like I said, there is no solitude in India - and definitely not on Holi. Did I mention there were people walking around with drums, stopping when they met other drummers to play together, and people came running from the sidestreets to dance in big groups wherever they were?

All of which has reminded me that joy can get you through a lot. Again, I'll save some of the details for a longer, later post, but the last few days have been extremely instructive.

Gordon, a British man we met in Pachmari who has been coming to India for 15 years, said over and over again that India is the great teacher about humanity, and that whenever you start to get it wrong, India will correct you. That's certainly what's happened here. Just when I've had all I can take of touts and aggressive salespeople and everyone trying to squeeze every penny they can from you, staring at you, talking about you, and giving you wrong information, you meet a young shop worker who stops you with a glance and all but closes up his shop to sit and talk with you - and then refuses to sell you anything. That's what happened the day before yesterday, to E. and I., when we were out in the market. A man named Surya (appropriately, he's named after the sun) started the conversation the way most touts do - "From which country?" - but ended up being so sweet and so interesting that we spent a few hours with him drinking chai and talking Big Ideas. He grew up in an ashram in Kerala, but when he was in his teens his guru told him he needed to see the world before he would understand anything. So she gave him Rs. 2000 (about $50) and sent him on his way. Ever since then (about 10-15 years ago) he's been moving from place to place every few years, working two jobs for 11 months of the year and then using his 12th to travel around India. He had a really interesting perspective on the world. Although astrology is Not My Thing, he was talking to both E. and I about our signs and whether we match with them (it seems like everyone here takes astrology very seriously), and suddenly got very intense about needing to read my palm. He told me a pretty good story. A lot of it was familiar. With these things, it's not so much about the accuracy or inaccuracy of what people can tell about you; it's about paying attention to how you react to the news. Your own response can be highly, highly instructive. Mine was.

(Actually, this is the second time a relative stranger has singled me out to read my fortune for free. The first time was years ago, and it was helpful too.)

A wave of goodwill can carry you for a long time. I'm hoping mine carries me through Mumbai, but I'm dumping it there, because I have things to do and some serious business to write about. As always, the last few days weren't all rainbows, and I think there's some big shit brewing here. Holi, joy, and the British travel warning released last week about Goa - and, for good measure, how all these remote things on the other side of the world help shape how we perceive our communities at home.

Be good, all.


Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you had so much fun taking part in their festivities. It sounds amazing. Nice that everyone is welcome & encouraged to participate. Would love to see pictures of all of you!

Take good care of each other.
Happy Easter.
Love Mom & Dad

E's Dad said...

Re: "Just when I've had all I can take of touts and aggressive salespeople and everyone trying to squeeze every penny they can from you, staring at you, talking about you, and giving you wrong information ..."
Sometimes what you see as misinformation is actually misunderstanding. I remember an area in the south of India where the convention was to shake the head to indicate "yes" and to nod up and down for "no". A question like "Is this the way to San José?" would elicit vigorous head nodding and off we'd go on the wrong bus! Othertimes, of course, they are just trying to deceive you.