This is a long one, but it's worth it...
Indian drivers make Peruvian drivers look like precision NASCAR elites. This may be the worst aspect of India. Forget the belligerent salesmen, street food spiked with feces, unsuspecting mosquito bites, child panhandlers, public cremations, and perverted massage practitioners. Indian tuk-tuk drivers top the cake. Every time I ride in their pathetic excuse for a cab, I feel like I'm volunteering for a kamikaze show and tell.
Before the 'ride' even begins, it's an adventure. Everywhere we go, our white faces glisten under the sweltering Indian sun and the rickshaw drivers smell the sweat dripping off our faces and sniff us out as easy prey. Hoards of chauffeurs encircle us arguing over who saw us first, without first asking us where we want to go or if we even want to go anywhere at all.
Once we name our destination and price, the haggling begins. Like some sort of retarded auction, the prices yo-yo around like the U.S economy. One will offer 100 rupees, then I'll hear 75, and then 200, as if I don't know how to count.
When we finally decide on the cheapest tuk-tuk with the least life-threatening vibes, the ride takes off. Sometimes these clown cars are so small I have to angle my body in the vehicle and cross my legs just to fit. Though it may seem appealing to let an elbow or a toe flap in the wind, you must keep ALL body parts securely inside the vehicle at all times.. Or risk losing them. I've had my elbow nicked a few times by other drivers who get so close you wonder where one vehicle ends and the other begins. The instantaneous, mind-changing maneuvers, while gallivanting, the wrong way down a one-way street, playing chicken with oncoming traffic is a terrifying yet masterful art...depending on if your viewpoint is in the backseat or a sidewalk onlooker.
The traffic, the brushes with death, the price bartering, the lack of legroom, the sweating my pasty-white ass off in the back of a non-airconditioned tricycle moving like molasses in January, all this I can tolerate.. With a smile or at least a smirk.
You know what I can't take? What makes me want to have my eardrums removed at the hands of a veterinarian in Tijuana.. is the beeping. Oh the beeping! A sound that haunts my dreams worse than the horny roosters in Peru, the incessant, unreasonable honking! These people honk for everything...EVERYTHING! For "Go", "Stop", "Hey, I'm here.", "Hey, just saying 'Hey'.", "I'm coming", "I'm going", "I'm gone", "I'm turning", "I turned", "I think I might turn", "I saw a bird", "I have an itch", "I'm bored", for everything, there is a reason for the beep. The orchestra of horn-honking chaos is everywhere, all times of day, traffic or no traffic.
By far the worst I've seen was our driver from Satna to Khajuraho. He won the auction at the train station and for 750 rupees we agreed to put our lives in his hands for the two hour drive east to Khajuraho. His guy blared his horn for seemingly, no apparent reason. On a stretch of highway with no curves and no other occupants, he'd beep and beep. He didn't last more than ten seconds without honking at something. It was so excessive
I thought maybe that's what propelled the car forward. No gas pedal for me, I just honk my horn. I haven't the slightest clue.
Then there's the infamous ending to the roller coaster. This is where you have to pony-up the dough and pay him for his superlative chauffeuring skills. An act that may be easy in the U.S, where it simply consists of reading the meter and handing over the cash, it is not so in India. Even though we never enter the cab blindly, don't think they don't try to sucker you into forgoing the pre-negotiation.
Hotel India please.
(infamous head bobble)
Yes, get in.
How many rupees?
Hotel India, as you wish.
Yes, I take you. You get in.
However, even once we've settled on a price, when we reach our destination, we always have to endure another price-haggling, BS battle.
The first problem is navigation. Navigating the labyrinth of Indian streets is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube on acid. Partly because all the streets are named Krishna or Vishnu or some other Hindu deity. There could be five streets with the same name ( almost as annoying as Texas where they have two names for every street). It could be that you've reached a part of town that has no street signs, which is also common, or simply because, despite acknowledging our desired destination point like he knows exactly where he is going, "Yes, yes, get in!", he does not. I sit with patience and no other alternative as he pulls over more than six times to ask for directions, getting conflicting advice from every person he asks, until we finally arrive at our destination. This is where he demands that I fork over a larger sum of money because his directionally-challenged ignorance cost him more gas money.
One outing, our driver breezed past our hotel, despite our repeated requests to be let off. He overshot it by about two blocks and after we asked him to circle back around to avoid trudging through pouring rain, he tried to charge us for that too.
Word of advice when traveling to India; either bring lots of money or bring your game face.
I eventually pulled the plug on our horn-addicted driver and asked him to stop honking when the noise started making me twitch. The honks were impregnating my brain like a tumor and I could take no more.
Once the beeping ceased it was a wonderful car ride. The scenery was beautiful! For once I wasn't looking out the window at men peeing in the street and trash piles bigger than my house. We left the city, passed through the Panna tiger reserve and were officially in the boonies.
The plants were thriving off the monsoon rain and everything was shining emerald green. Forests of trees as far as the eyes could see and no traffic at all.
It was green and serene. It was the best drive I've taken the whole time we've been in India. Every time I'd look up from my book I'd see something extraordinary. After noticing that we were slowing down rapidly, I looked up and we were in the middle of a heard cows, maybe fifteen of them, walking down the middle of the highway.
I saw a man riding an elephant through a small dusty village, a group of monkeys grooming each other on brick wall running along the road, natural entertainment around every curve.
Khajuraho is the Kansas of India. Smack dab in the middle.. Of no where. It is quite off the beaten path and far off the track to any major cities. Why go here, you ask? Two words: Kama Sutra.
It's time for a story children. Gather around..
Once upon a time a long long time ago, the Moon God looked down on the earth and gazed his eyes upon a young maiden named Hemavati, bathing herself in a river. Her beauty moved him so deeply that he descended to Earth and seduced her into a passionate love affair. Before his return home, he would impregnate her and one day their son would erect a temple to celebrate the intimacy of their relationship. And so the temple was built, not just one, but 85. Almost all of them sharing the central theme of erotica. These temples in Khajaraho are a staple of India and although they are a little bit of a trek to get to, these taboo temples were enough to catch my attention and I quickly added them to my itinerary.
We arrived at Hotel Harmony, a subtle foreshadowing of the day ahead, got situated and set off for an exciting encounter with the steamy temples. First, I ran across the street looking for batteries (a good amount of our vacation time has been spent looking for batteries since the ones we buy seem to have the life span of a dog in Korea.)
I went across the street to a local convenient store to buy the double A's I needed and that's when I met Ashish. A 21-year-old Khajaraho local, Ashish caught my eye with his red Billabong t-shirt and relaxed attitude. He approached me with sincerity, asked me where I was from and how I was enjoying India. It is rare for me to have a conversation with a stranger without feeling like they're trying to sell me something or hitting on me. Ashish exuded a simple charm and when he asked me if I needed a ride to the temples, I gladly accepted. That's when we met Washim, his talkative counterpart. He would drive the rickshaw and Ashish would come along and be our guide. We loaded into the most spacious rickshaw in India and began erotic excursion.
The temples are divided into groups based on their geographical location and the southern group was the first stop on our titillating temple trip.
The first temple we visited was one of the last temples to be built and is dedicated to Shiva.
The Duladeo Temple features well endowed, over accessorized characters engaged in acrobatic sex acts that one can imagine are not the most comfortable.
The temple is surrounded by well kept flourishing gardens, a nice change of pace from the monuments we'd seen in other parts of India, where the weeds and lack of general maintenance take away from what could be a great money-making tourist attraction.
Only two miles away, we visited our second temple, Chaturbhuj.
Although this is the only temple in Khajuraho without lewd characters, the stereotypical big-breasted ladies are featured proudly.
Nymphs and mythical lions adorn the exterior and housed inside the sanctum is the image of Dakshinamurti exuding an expression of calm bliss.
The eastern group of are comprised of both Hindu and Jain temple and our first stop is to the Jain temples, Parsvanatha Adinath and Shantiath.
When you enter the temples, you are greeted by mounted slabs that provide a beginners guide to the Jain religion.
The Jain religion began of reform movement and although it did not spread outside of India, over four million Indians practice Jainism. The Jain religion practices strict rules such as vegetarianism, complete sobriety, and reverence for all forms of life. Since Jainism promotes a disciplined doctrine, there are no erotic images featured on their temples, but ironically current photographs of naked holy men are displayed with honor.
Past the charts of Jainism beliefs, the Shantiath Temple is guarded by a pair of allegorical lions, protecting the marble sculptures inside. This is one of the most original temples on our tour and the boxy enclosure is built with marble rather than the typical sandstone.
As the other temples feature intricate exterior carvings and an interior shrine to a specific deity, this temple displayed non characteristic carvings in the main courtyard and featured a colonnaded hallway that lined the inside, which was filled with many individual marble shrines.
It was a lovely temple however I was taken aback by sudden invasive pictures of naked Indian men lining the walls. Call me crazy, but there's something about unanticipated male nudity that is quite startling. If I didn't ask for it, I don't want it.
Parsvanatha Temple is best preserved of Khajuarho's Jain temples and the intricacy is apparent and amazing.
Despite the lack of eroticism, the temple features nude meditating saints, snuggling couples and curvaceous maidens.
In the same complex sits Adinath.
These three temples and the smaller vestibules weaved amongst them, create a beautiful triangle of architecture that can be admired from all angles.
We headed down the road to Javari temple.
This secluded temple sits alone amongst green fields filled with grazing mules and lazy water buffaloes.
It has the least traffic because it is not associated with any 'group' of temples. It features a progressive series of spires and carved embellishments protruding outwards on the exterior.
It is surrounded by fresh cut grass, wildflowers and fluttering butterflies which complete the serene scene.
Our last stop was the Hindu temple, Vamana, built for the reincarnation of Vishnu.
It is decorated with small erotic panels stretching high in the sky.
As we circumnavigated the exterior, we were greeted by a group of paparazzi, eager to snap some pictures of us.
As we obliged the first few who beseeched us, a crowd gathered and we were instant celebrities. As is struck pose after pose, my only thought was, "They must have seen Girl Meets Gown".
As we ride from place to place among the multitude of cab ans rickshaw drivers we've employed, there are only a handful of them that can, and will carry a conversation with you. Ashish and Washim are amongst this handful, their English is superb and they have interesting thoughts to add the the conversation. We have only hired them as drivers but they also offer up free information on the different temples and have willingly merged into tour guides as well.
From temple to temple they asked us intriguing questions like "What are your dreams?" and "Where are you going in life?" We carry on a refreshing conversation, unlike the shallow generic questions we are used to, "Where you from?" and "You see Taj Mahal?". We were really enjoying having some new people to talk to and we were digging their style so instead of heading directly back to home base, we decided to walk out into the open grassland, park ourselves under a tree and chill for a bit.
It was perfect weather, you could tell it was going to rain later, but the sky exuded a peaceful gray-blue shade that set the perfect scene. They broke open a cigarette pack and handed me a hand rolled clove cigarette. I haven't smoked a clove in months and now, thanks to Obama, they are illegal in the U.S so I was stoked when I was presented with a real fresh clove.
They asked us more intriguing questions and in return shared with us. Washim did most of the talking, sharing with us his ambitions to finish school and give back to his community. He wanted run an organic farming community and open a school so he could liberate the lower classes and provide jobs and education to the less fortunate. Ashish was also in school and worked at the largest stone carving factory in Khajuraho.
His factory provided all of the stone work for Delhi, Khajuraho, and exported goods all around the world. There are no machines in the factory and everything is done by hands. Although he is skilled at his craft he expressed his goal to teach, using the stonework only as a means to pay for his education. They both expressed strong ties to the community and asked us if we would like to go with them on a tour of their neighborhood. Aside from showing off the tourist sites in Khajuraho, it was important to them to show visitors an off the beaten path view of their town, something that we were very interested in.
This whole trip I have been wanting to find India, the real India. Not the retentive salesmen that I have to haggle with, not the maniac cab drivers, the real people, the real culture of India. I gladly obliged him and we set off our original path and into the villages of Khajuraho. First we arrived at one of their friends houses. We walked through an open cement door and followed them down a narrow entryway and into and open air horseshoe of small cement and brick dwellings all nested together facing one another.
We walked past a leashed cow, hopped over loose gravel and strayed cement blocks and into a small pink bedroom. We made ourselves comfortable and waited as Washim ran off to grab some chai.
He came back with a photo book and showed us childhood pictures of him and his family, pictures of his village and a special section that he reserved for pictures of his international friends, a group that he informed us we were now a part of.
We walked outside into the main courtyard of the houses and drank some chai. We met Washims friend (the owner of the house) and his three children, who immediately took a liking to me and my camera.
I snapped a picture of the little boy reading a book, who eyed me and my camera warily until i turned the screen toward him and let him see his image.
Immediately his vigilance disappeared and a smile stretched across his face.
He pointed to the picture and back at himself in wonderment.
I told him where to stand and snapped a few more and each time he heard the click of the shutter he'd run up to me so he could have instant approval of the shot.
By the end of the day he was the biggest diva, running into all the pictures, dancing for the camera, and modeling like a pro.
The little girl was older and more reserved but I caught her eying her uninhibited brother and I turned the lens toward her.
She shot me an appreciative, shy smile and the whole group joined in.. Some more excited than others.
After we sipped some chai our friends took us on a walking tour of their village.
They taught us about the caste system in India and walked us through the different class neighborhoods, separated only by a strategically placed speed bump. He showed us different temples, that the villagers pray at each day. Not what I would expect as a 'temple' some of them are merely a cement block with a small deity figurine displayed next to the sidewalk. Their places of worship can be massive artistic temples that cannot be missed or small camouflaged shrines you could easily pass by. However big or small, their purpose is the same and the effect is equally acknowledged. We walked the narrow pathways that knit the village and were greeted with smiles and waves by the natives.
The heavens opened up and it started to pour. We busted out our trusty umbrella and continued on our way, weaving between rows of cattle and children playing in the rain. Although we were having a great time, it was really raining hard and even with an umbrella I was drenched.
We headed back to the hotel, changed out of our soaked clothes, and grabbed a quick bite to eat while we waited until the rain let up.
After the rain subsided we met back up with Washim and Ashish and headed across the street for a cup of chai at a rooftop restaurant. We enjoyed our spiced tea and overlooked the innocent town of Khajuraho.
Over chai, Washim told us how much he enjoyed showing us around and asked us if we would like to join him and his family for a traditional Indian dinner. We eagerly agreed! He lived close to the town and it was a quick rickshaw ride to his home. We were welcomed inside with smiles and looked at family pictures while we waited for dinner.
Washim spread out a table cloth, transforming the bed into a table to eat dinner. His mother laid a feast in front of us and we thanked her with smiles as she did not speak English.
The spread consisted of a fish curry, daal, rice, and paratha bread and it was all very delicious.
We thanked his family profusely for their welcoming hospitality and said our goodbyes.
Our next stop was to the stone carving factory that Ashish works for. We were really intrigued when he was explaining the stone carving process to us so he said that he would give us a first hand look at his artistic work. It was a small factory filled with huge complex carvings down to small figurine displays.
We saw the different stages of the art, starting at a huge stone block and they explained that even a small, one foot carving can take weeks at a time.
From there we headed to a warehouse that houses and sells the sculptures. We met his boss, a large Jain man who opened the shop just for our curious eyes. He showed us their gods which ranged from the stone that we had seen previously to jewelry, pashminas, gold statues, saris and more. His shop was well kept and professional and he was a very knowledgeable businessman.
While we were looking around the shop Ashish took off on an Indian version of a beer run. This consists of running down the block to "a guy" and coming back with a water bottle filled with some homemade alcohol. We could not resist sampling this Khajuraho moonshine. The drink, which slightly resembled wine, could be mixed with water or drunk straight, as they explained.
Washim, Ashish and his boss sat with us outside of the warehouse as we drank our prison wine and talked amongst the crickets. Being Jain prohibited Ashishs boss from participating in the boozing, which made me wonder if we should even be drinking with him. I wouldn't eat pork ribs in front of a rabbi or take a Mormon out dancing, is this a no-no? This question sparked a great religious debate. Actually, I wouldn't call it a debate as much as a discussion. He put my mind a ease and told me that it did not offend him that we drank in his presence, he would just choose not to partake. I asked him to what extent he practiced Jainism and he told me that, while his family went to pray every day, he chose not to. He told me that his family accepted his distance because if he went to pray when he did not truly want to, it would mean nothing. It would simply be the act of going and he would not benefit from it. He prayed when he felt spiritual but he practiced the Jain religion in his everyday life, hence the sobriety. I looked around at our group realized what an unusual, special mix of people we were. Here, I am agnostic, but raised Jewish by my converted Christian mother and my Jewish father. Max who is also agnostic, but was raised by his Buddhist mother, and comprising the rest of our odd little circle is Washim, a Muslim, Ashish, a Hindi, and his boss, a Jain. We had quite a mix of people all sitting together talking peacefully and respectfully with no harsh words, no judgments, no bombs.
Even in America I would be skeptical starting a religious conversation with a group of people. You always get somebody trying to convert you, some jerk who has to turn it into a heated debate, and someone usually gets offended. This is a different story and I am enlightened with their knowledge and maturity. As we talk further, the conversation moves to travel and Ashish tells me how he's been to Thailand and what a good time we will have. I ask him if he has ever been to the US and he laughs. Despite his impeccable English, his education, and his docile demeanor, he informs me that there is no way he'll ever
be granted, even a visitors visa, because he is Muslim and the American perception of Muslims has permanently branded him a terrorist. This is a huge wake up call to me. It was so easy for me to get a visa. Apply, send money, get Visa. Done and easy. It didn't even occur to me that there was a possibility of not getting one, of being told that I was not allowed to visit someplace. Through this whole trip, it has been very apparent to me how lucky I am. When you walk among the poverty stricken and live without everyday comforts, you realize what a truly privileged life you lead. However it is unfathomable to think that a no matter how hard you work, how educated you are and no matter how big your desire to do well, the possibility of liberation slim to none. Even if he had a verified US address to stay at, even for a vacation, he would be denied access. It's sad.
Today was a dream come true. It was an eye-opening education that I would have never had the opportunity for, had it not been for Ashish and Washim who opened their life to us. These guys were willing to show us their world, without anything in return except an open mind and a gracious heart and I can't tell you how much I benefited from it.