Hankering for Kanker

October 15

Up at 3:40 and off at 4:30 to the airport, with my boxed breakfast, for my 6:35 flight to Raipur. On the plane I met an orthopedic surgeon who has relatives in Chicago and come sit there with some frequency. He gave me his card and invited me to call him if I have any problems in Raipur, he seems to be a very adventuresome guy, camps out and goes to see tigers in Khana National Park, bikes around the US, etc. I hope that I will see him in Chicago sometime. Small world.

I am met at the surprisingly modern Raipur airport by somebody from our travel company. He presents me with a shawl and a lei of flowers as a gift and escorts me to my comfortable air conditioned van in which they have set up WiFi for me, so I have already sent several emails, posted to Facebook (9 “likes” in the first ten minutes) and am writing this blog. Pretty amazing,, huh

My van also has a basket with tins of various kinds of nuts and an assortment of drinks. There is a place to charge my iPad, and the driver has provided a cord that allows me to connect in order to do that. Much of the road is quite bumpy, but nowhere near as bumpy as the roads open counter and and some other places. Patches of paved highway appear in short stretches. It is impossible to know about the areas that I am passing through because my driver’ English is extremely limited. The two and a half hours of driving is harrowing, but somehow we managed to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic, at least so far, weather seemingly random honking of car horns, or otherwise. There is a lot of color in the dress of people we pass and unlike in Kolkata, we encounter some cows in the streets.

Arrive at Kanker Palace before 11AM. We are not at the Oberoi any more,

But it will do, fine, for a couple nights. My princely hosts were to have been Suyra Pratap Deo (known as Jolly) and younger brother Ashwini (known as Jai) of the Kanker royal family. Jolly, though, is in Delhi, so it’s just Jai who welcomes me warmly.

Kanker is in Bastar which was once a substantial State and for long India’s largest administrative district at well over 25,000 sq. miles.  The majority of its people are still tribal with a unique though rapidly disappearing lifestyle.  These in many ways are the “forgotten” people of India, who live on the edge and fight to preserve their traditional lifestyles, though one of the tribes, the Muria, has one of the most progressive systems of bringing up their children – with both boys and girls living in a mixed dormitory starting at puberty, trying out partners until settling on one to marry.

Our guide to visit the Muria, Babbu, is an interesting fellow. He grew up in a Muria village as his grandfather was a Muria chief. His family is of the high Brahmin caste and he is pretty much the tribal guide for the royal family, in whose palace I am staying. His self-taught English is quite adequate, if I remind him (as I do) that he must turn around to speak to be and speak loudly and slowly. Here’s a photo of Babbu and me with some young Muria tribespeople.

We are the first to arrive at the village, before a group of about eight French-speaking people, who are also staying at the Kanker Palace. Here are some of the Muria, including several of some dances that they performed for us.

After the dancing a rather good meal was prepared for us, served on plates and bowls made from leaves.

On the way back to Kanker, we miraculously avoided cows and oncoming traffic. The small figure on the dashboard is the elephant god, Ganesh, to bring us luck, which we badly needed.

We stopped to buy fruit from ladies who were selling by the side of the road.

when we get back to the palace, I rest up in my room and blog. I had about seven, we meet in the courtyard with all of the French guess. The family of Jai, and other palace people, including Babbui, have gathered and the children of these people do some energetic dance. Eventually, the rest of our enticed up to dance with them, and it is quite a lot of fun.

After the dancing, we are served a very good dinner in the Palace dining room. The French people communicate primarily French, but they are quite good about including me, at least from time to time, with English. One of them is a 30-year-old who lives in Vancouver Island. He and I wind up talking Hebrew together. Go figure.

Back to the room to shower and crash.

Kolkata, Day Two: Flower Markets, Ghats, Synagogues, Pandals and Street Scenes

October 14

Slept longer than the night before, and I think I may be back to normal, whatever that may be. Coffee in the room. Service at the Oberoi Grand is terrific. I like the hotel a lot, better than the newer, more opulent Oberois in which I’ve stayed elsewhere.

After an excellent buffet breakfast (eggs Benedict), I meet Partha at 9AM. The very full day included stops at the flower market

At the ghats, where people wash themselves and their clothes, and lie around

at a beautiful Jewish synagogue, Meghan David, not not in operation

We had an extraordinary experience getting to the synagogue. The alley leading to the synagogue was blocked by merchants selling their wares. When our driver indicated that he wanted to back into the alley, the merchants, instead of simply suggesting that we walk the twenty or so yards to the synagogue, moved all of their wares that were blocking the alley and helped direct us as to how to back in. I was dumbfounded at their kindness, and told our guide so.

In the more upscale and greener area of South Calcutta, we saw three more amazing pandals, one of which had been judged the best pandal in Calcutta. The crowds were huge and one needed to push his way, somewhat, to get in. I remarked to our guide that it was “pandalmonium”, and he laughed and said he was going to use that term with other clients. Here is a sampling of some of the pandals and surrounding crowds.

Remember: all of these pandals are created for the ten days of the festival, and then taken down.

I think my favorite photographs, though, are of street scenes that just happen.

Partha wanted to take me by the Taj Hotel on our way back, because he’s friendly with the concierge there and I think is trying to drum up business for them. It’s a big, modern, five-star hotel that’s very nice, but not nearly as appealing to me as the Oberoi. I told Patha, but not the concierge this.

We returned to the hotel a bit after four, tired from the heat and humidity, as well has all the activity. During the course of the day, we drove by or through various other things, that I have spared you hearing about.

Showered, began to get ready for tomorrow and went down for dinner at the fancy Thai restaurant in the hotel. Meal was just terrific; not good, not excellent, but terrific. Asked chef to come out so that I could tell him. Even people who think/know that they are good like to hear it from others. I also think that it’s incumbent on those of us who are not bashful about pointing out when something is not right to let people know when something is done well. Chef seemed very pleased.

So far, I’m getting along well with myself, but I’ve been on my best behavior, and know that I can be difficult from time to time. I’m expecting a distinct downgrade in my accommodations for the rest of the trip, but hoping that my guide experience will continue to be excellent.

I’m heading into the hinterlands tomorrow, so internet may or may not be available. I’ll do what I can, but if I’m unable to post, try to muddle through without me, or go to the dualarts.com website and read blogs from old trips.

Let the trip begin; Kolkata, first day.

October 13

Too tired to sleep long, so I am up at 5:15. Ordered coffee in the room, check emails and work on the blog. I have pieces of my birthday cake cut boxed for Partha and my driver. Here is a view from my balcony.

And here’s the shabby lobby.

After a lavish breakfast at the Oberoi, I am met by by my guide, Partha. Last night, on the long drive from the airport to the hotel, we spoke about the festival that is just beginning in Kolkata. Traffic was very heavy, because so many visitors are drawn to Kolkata for the festival. Although I was very tired, Partha’s description was of sufficient interest that I easily stayed awake and talked with him.

I am in Kolkata during one of the most important festivals – Durga Puja.   Even in the dark of night, I could see the bamboo structures that line the Main Street. This is a festival that the city prepares for the whole year.  Idols are made at the Kumartulli, the potters’ village, new clothes planned months out and for one week the city shuts down as the mother goddess is welcomed to her earthly home.  The celebration is comparable to Christmas in the US, and every bit as commercial. Corporations now sponsor building of pandals, huge marquees, many resembling some of the most famous temples in India and housing elaborate images of the goddess. Throughout the day various rituals are performed and people gather to socialize, gossip, and enjoy the food stalls and carnivals. It is a huge party through the city

Durga Puja, celebrated throughout the country with great zeal and fervour, celebrates the triumph of good over the evil! It is basically the celebration of Hindus and on the day of Durga Puja Goddess Durga is revered for having killed the demon buffalo Mahishasura (Devil). This festival honors the power of the female Shakti Maa Durga, who is regarded by people of Kolkata as their mother, or daughter, as much as a goddess.

It is particularly celebrated in the state of West Bengal in Kolkata in the honor of celebrating the unfathomable power of Goddess Durga. This festival is celebrated during the span of the whole period of Navaratri for a time span of 10 days. From the sixth day of Navaratri till the ninth day the huge pandals of the Goddess Durga are open for the visitors. The tenth day of the Navaratri is called as Dashami and on this day the idols of the Goddess Durga are immersed into water and this process is called as Visarjan. Thus Durga emerges from the clay of the river and returns to the river, completing the cycle.

The chief director of West Bengal, Mamta (which means “kindness”) Banarjee, who was reelected for a second year term in 2016 is a big supporter of the festival. She has instituted for the last three years a kind of large carnival parade on the order of the carnival in Rio to celebrate the coming of the goddess. This is controversial, as some people think that it is not in keeping with the culture to have this kind of carnival here. But she persists and in fact she has given all workers for the government a holiday of SIXTEEN DAYS to celebrate the festival.

I am in time to watch the goddess’ arrival at the fabulous marquees (pandals) created for her and five days later, I will be able to watch her departure for her heavenly abode at the home of the BastarTribals in Jagdalpur.

It’s very difficult to capture the breadth of what I saw, with the making and decorating of idols, hoisting them onto carts, the street scenes with traffic so tight that drivers have to get out of cars to direct (loudly) oncoming traffic to avoid collisions, lots of dirt on the street, stray dogs sleeping around, but with vibrant shopping activity and cars, rather than the flood of motorbikes we saw in SE Asian countries. Elaborate pandals, indistinguishable from real structures, are constructed annually for the festival. Photos would not capture the pandals, because you’d take them for real buildings. The pandals started being built some 200 years ago by poorer communities to avoid their being excluded from the festivals that were previously the province of rich people.

Here are a bunch of photos of the idol activities and various street scenes.

In the afternoon, I visited a Jain temple, learned some of the history of Calcutta from Partha at the Victoria monument and had lunch with Partha, before visiting the very moving tomb and exhibit at Mother House, where Mother Teresa worked and is buried. One gets some sense of the extraordinary work that Mother Teresa did over her long life. While these activities were somewhat rushed, they were all worthwhile, especially the visit to Mother Teresa’s. Partha did a good job of describing the Jain temple and giving highlights of Calcutta’s history, which I’d have benefited more from if I’d had more time or energy. We had rain on and off in the afternoon, but it didn’t interfere materially with our activities.

Below are a few photos of Mother Teresa’s Motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity. I have not included any of the Jain Temple or the Victoria Monument (museum), because those would be sorta boring.

Overall, it is hot and humid, with our air conditioned vehicle a most welcome respite. Streets are crowded and there’s a constant cacophony of car horns blaring.. Partha says that Kolkata is a “Eoropean” city, and there’s a certain truth to that, as compared to other Indian cities I’ve visited, but nobody would mistake Calcutta for Paris.

Showered and relaxed a bit before going out for the dinner that my other fabulous travel agent (besides Shonali), Jean Zunkel in Santa Fe (jean.zunkel@bjadventures.com), arranged for me tonight with Bomti Isengard, a who mingles across global travel circles and offers a taste of real Kolkata at his home, surrounded by tastefully appointed interiors and an enviable art collection. The interior designer, art collector and consultant invites discerning travelers to browse through it, all the while narrating and answering questions.

This experience largely caters to expats and foreign travelers for whom he is something of a gastro guru. Apart from Bengali cuisine, he serves Anglo-Indian dishes like jalfrezi and vindaloo, which are intrinsic to the city’s culinary fabric, including classics like luchi, dal, aloo posto, fish curry, bhaja, mishti doi.

The day before I left on this trip, Jean wrote to warn me, “I just want to remind you that you need to trust me when you start to walk into the building where Bomti lives. It’s a beautiful old historical building and it looks totally abandoned…..

When you are walked up the steps to the floor of his apartment you may think that his assistant is taking you somewhere to murder you….Have your phone flashlight ready because the stairs can be a bit dark. [In fact, there was an old elevator.]

And then you walk into his apartment…..totally amazing and a huge surprise.”

As usual, Jean’s description was spot-on. Indeed, even getting the couple blocks from the hotel to his building was harrowing, because the streets were mobbed with people, and one had to dodge cars, mud puddles and dogs. The approach to the apartment, located in what had once been a huge department store, was seedy, but safe.

Bomti also was hosting a couple from Argentina, Heather and Will (Will was originally from Canada), a couple from Devon in England, Jo and Jeff, a woman friend of theirs from England, and we were later joined by Bomti’s mother, who had chosen some of the art, his younger brother, who is in the tea business and with whom I bonded because he had a labradoodle, and an uncle and aunt who had lived in England for 49 years, but had now moved back to India. Drinks, multiple hors d’ourves and about seven main courses were all excellent, as was the surprise dessert, complete with serenade

Conversation was varied and lively. We looked at art which Bomti is selling (in another room), but nobody was interested in buying. My impression is that Bomti is more of an art dealer than an art appreciator, but that may not be a fair assessment on my part. All in all, it was a fun and unusual evening, well worth the cost of about $70.

I brought Bomti a copy of Carol and my poetry and photography book, WHERE THE SACRED DWELLS, NAMASTE, which he passed around to everyone. All the guests took time to look through the book and were impressed, as was Bomti, who said that he liked it a lot and asked me to write “To Bomti” and the date above our signatures. And, hey, this seems like the perfect opportunity to tell you about our new book on Southeast Asia that just came out, WHERE FOREST TEMPLES WHISPER. Carol and I are both very pleased with the way it turned out. And, if you’d like a copy (or several) of that and/or our other books, you can order them at www.dualartspress.com. It’s the least you can do, for godsake. 😀

More tomorrow, when I spend my last day in Kolkata.

En route to Kolkata

October 11-12

Well, I got carded for the first time in quite a while. At O’Hare. One of the few advantages to being seventy-five is that you don’t have to take your shoes off going through security. Once the guy was satisfied that I qualified, he asked whether I had any implants, pacemakers, etc. I think I was just profiled.

There are definitely advantages to flying business class. There was one person ahead of me in line. Here’s a photo that does not BEGIN to show the wait for economy. In addition to a full zigzag line, there was a straight line of people about a city block long.

Though I was there about two and a half hours ahead of time, I honestly do not know whether I would have gotten through in time. It’s the longest airport line I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some long ones. And this was just to check in; there was still security to get through.

After an hour or so in a rather crowded Air France lounge that Air India business class passengers have access to, I walk the short distance to the gate. The plane is fine, but rather tired compared to those of many other airlines.

Now starts the least enjoyable part of these trips, the long 15-hour flight to Dehli and then the connection to Kolkata. I’ll do some reading, try (most likely, unsuccessfully) to sleep a bit and perhaps watch a movie or two. In yesterday’s post I alluded to Dorothy and not being in Kansas any more, and said that I had another Dorothy I’d mention, so, here goes.

My Dorothy, our good friend Dorothy Hunt, lives in the land of CA, not Oz. She’s been our dear friend since the mid-1960s, when she was in the University of Chicago School of Social Services with Carol, and her husband, Jim, was a close friend and law school classmate of mine at Northwestern. We remained in regular contact with Jim and Dorothy, though we didn’t see them often, because they lived in San Francisco. Ours was the type of friendship, though, that no matter the length of time that passes, you pick up right where you left off as soon as you get together.

Sadly, Jim died a couple years ago, but I remain in regular/irregular contact with Dorthy, who is the founder of the San Francisco Center for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and serves as Spiritual Director and President of Moon Mountain Sangha, Inc., a California non-profit religious corporation. Dorothy offers meditation and satsang gatherings, weekend intensives and retreats, and also sees individuals for both psychotherapy and dokusan (private meetings with a spiritual teacher.)

My communications with Dorothy invariably contain three elements—catching up on our families, some discussion relating to Dorothy’s spiritual work and an analysis of the SF Giants, the Warriors and the Cubs. Dorothy’s devotion to the Giants (who Jim used to represent) and Warriors is nearly as deep as her meditative practice and her emails always reflect her compassion. Her most recent email to me, for example, was to express condolences for the Cubs early playoff demise.

I bought Dorothy’s latest book, Ending the Search, From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness, when it came out about a year ago, intending to read it right away, but I got distracted after a few chapter (thus proving how much I need the book). I told Dorothy that I’m taking her with me to India, which seems an appropriate place to delve into her writing. I may sneak some of her wisdom into this blog, so watch out, if you don’t want to be enlightened. Heading to Kolkata is a particularly auspicious time to be reading Dorothy’s book, because Dorothy actually worked with Mother Teresa (yes, I misspelled Teresa in my earlier Al Capone/Michael Jordan post), who, Dorothy says, referred to herself as just “a little pencil in the hands of God.”

Well into the flight the flight now, I have not slept, watched a movie or eaten (turned down the first meal but will be getting something soon; not quite sure what, because I couldn’t understand what she said). But I have delved quite a bit into Dorothy’s book and find it interesting and challenging. It’s challenging because the concepts she espouses are so foreign to me, as a Westerner—including the non-existence of a separate self, the interconnectedness of all beings and things, the centrality of silence and stillness, the illusion of progress, the importance of self-inquiry and the inadequacy of words to express any of this. Can one really square any of this with being a Cubs fan or, in Dorothy’s case, a Giants and Warriors fan? As one who has, from time to time, meditated and, like all Jews I know, been attracted to Buddhism, I am engaged by her writing and would love to participate in one of her silent retreats, some time.

The other reading I’ve been doing on this flight is Harari’s new book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, which I downloaded this morning before leaving for the airport. He continues to be extremely provocative, and I don’t mind that some of his points are repetitive, from book to book. First, they’re important enough to bear repetition. And, second, hearing them again helps me to understand them better and appreciate how everything he says hangs together. Harari, by the way, is heavily involved in meditation. So, maybe the universe is speaking to me here.

Not sure whether all this book stuff and reflecting interests you. But I’m not writing this blog just for you, y’know, so just suck it up and keep reading.

Anyway, landed in Delhi. The gate we deplaned at seemed to be roughly in Duluth, MN. Walking to the spot where you claim and re-check your bag, you are channeled through an area of ritzy shops–airports have become shopping malls–in the same manner that guests at a Las Vegas hotel have to walk through the casino in order to reach the elevator that will take them to their room. Several Air India employees were very helpful and forthcoming in providing directions and help with luggage.

I had a few hours in the Air India lounge before my flight to Kolkata. After clearing customs, I was met and driven (more than an hour) to my hotel, one of the fabulous chain of Oberoi hotels in India, The Oberoi Grand. Nice.

It’s now the night of October 12, so I spent pretty-much my whole birthday in transit. My guide, Parthia, who picked me up at the airport speaks English very well and clearly (which was a concern I have). Parthia and all of the Oberoi people wished me a happy birthday, and this was waiting for me in the room.

Yeh, I know, you meant to send me a nice present. Luckily, you still have time, because I won’t be home for two weeks.

Plan to crash just as soon as I shower and post this.

And tomorrow, the trip begins.