Archive for January, 2008

Imagine going into your favorite store and finding that everything fits you perfectly, comes in your favorite color and fabric and is 75% off.  That pretty much sums up our time in Hoi An, Vietnam.  The town was a major port until its river began to dry up; it now finds its commercial edge in the more than 500 tailor shops that line its quaint streets.  I entered one such establishment, Yaly Couture, armed with printouts from the J. Crew website.  Two days later, I shipped home the beginnings of a new, custom-made wardrobe, all purchased at prices dramatically lower than I would’ve paid for the authentic stuff.  Even Derek got into the act and bought a new suit (though, in order to preserve his masculinity and because it’s actually true, I have to admit that he wasn’t quite as excited as I was).
The town is geared toward the gaggles of tourists who come to shop.  Store after store offers up shoes made to match their new purchases, and excellent restaurants and sidewalk cafes wait to serve those suffering from shopping spree-induced fatigue.  People taking a break from consumerism can spend a pleasant few days wandering the streets of Hoi An’s historic Old Town; they’re lined with art galleries, shoe stores, Chinese lanterns and French colonial buildings and are ridiculously charming.
Just 15 minutes outside the city are the gorgeous beaches popularized in the late-80’s sitcom, China Beach.  During the Vietnam War (or, as it’s known here, the “American War”), U.S. soldiers stationed all over the country retreated to this long strip of white sand for some R & R.  Today, it’s barely developed, but signs announcing the impending construction of new, luxurious mega-hotels are everywhere.  Like so many other places, this one likely will be nearly unrecognizable in a few years.  Until then, however, Hoi An has something–shopping or otherwise–for everyone, and it all seems to be a great bargain.

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We’ve covered a lot of ground the last few days, most of it via motorcycle.  From Don Khon, we drove (and, by “drove,” I mean Derek drove and I lazed on the back of the bike) north to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge in Kiet Ngong.  We haven’t been to Africa yet, but I’m pretty sure that the lodge gave us our first taste of what an African safari is going to be like.  From the balcony of our bamboo bungalow, we watched elephants ((Kiet Ngong is one of the few places where elephants are still used to help with farm work.)) munching on impossibly green grass in a field a few hundred feet away.  We climbed aboard one of their peers for a trek up a hill to the archaeological ruins of Phu Asa.  Sadly, we never made it to our destination: our ride took one look uphill, turned around and headed right back home.  I guess that explains why transport via elephant isn’t all that common these days…
Although we never saw Phu Asa, we did make it to the nearby town of Champasak to see Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex that’s often compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.  Frangipani-lined walkways led us through the wat’s tumbledown structures, which–even under the glare of the harsh, midday sun–exuded an almost mystical air.

We turned in our motorcycle and boarded a bus bound for Attapeu, a town near the Laos-Vietnam border.  After a night there, we hopped on another bus, this one headed for the Laotian border town of Bo Y.   We had read that it was now possible to cross into Vietnam from Bo Y but, so far, few Westerners have tried it (they usually cross at a place farther to the north).  (I have to admit that I felt both cool and adventurous to be making this attempt, particularly because it’s not yet detailed in the Lonely Planet…)  The bus dropped us off on the Laos side of the sandy border town, which had a decidedly Wild West feel to it, and we walked into Vietnam, where it picked us back up.  Piece of cake.
Next, it was on to Kon Tum, which boasts a well-deserved reputation as one of the friendliest cities in congenial Vietnam.  We procured both a motorcycle and a guide and set off to explore the area, which was the target of an American bombing raid in 1972.   Our first stop was the Vinh Son orphanage, where I once again fell in love with–and resisted the urge to kidnap–one of the little girls I met.  Although this orphanage was far cheerier and better equipped than the one we visited in China, it was somewhat more depressing, in that many of its wards are never adopted; they live out their entire childhoods in the orphanage.  Of course, this is a much better fate than the one that some of them would have faced had they not been put up for adoption: some of the children are part of an ethnic minority group called the Jarai that, until a recent government clampdown, was known to bury live babies along with their dead mothers.  This horrific practice apparently stems from a time when there were no alternatives to breast milk, and so the death of a mother necessarily meant the demise of her baby.
Waving goodbye to the children, we rode to a Bahnar village, where we saw our first rong house.  Kind of like village community centers, rong houses have towering roofs, the height of which is said to indicate the wealth of their villages.  (I wonder if every village strives for a rong house roof higher than the one of its neighbor…)  We left our motorcycle in the village and set off on foot through jungle landscapes and fields where cows grazed under banana trees.   We floated back to the village in dugout boats, one of which was captained by a boy who could not have been more than six years old.  Although we had nearly as many flat tires as we did days on our motorcycle, two-wheeled travel took us to places–and led us to people–that we never would’ve encountered had we rented a car!

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After flying out of India and enjoying a couple of rejuvenating days in the cosmopolitan city of Bangkok, Thailand, we boarded a plane to the largest city in Southern Laos – the bustling metropolis of Pakse (population 66,000).  Laos (pronounced like “cow”, but replacing the “c” with an “l”) is a country that has been off the tourist track for…well…ever.  It is quickly starting to attract tourists, but mainly to the Northern part of this small country.  We decided to start in the more remote South, with plans to visit the North a few weeks from now.

As a landlocked country (bordered by China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia), it’s difficult to imagine that Laos’ island life is one of its main attractions.  However, the mighty Mekong River flows through the length of the country, widening at parts to allow islands to form and sustain life.
After renting a motorbike for $7 a day, we started down a newly paved road to the island of Don Daeng.  As we were approaching the island, signs for a new lodge in the area began to appear.  Curious, we found a phone, rang the lodge and were on a small boat to the place just a few minutes later.  Riding down the dirt path to the lodge (no cars are allowed on the island, and there are only a smattering of motorbikes), we passed villages that surely haven’t changed much in a hundred years (the island just got connected to the electric grid 2 months ago, so it will be interesting to see how quickly it changes).  A few minutes later, we arrived at La Folie Lodge and discovered a piece of heaven.

The Lodge consisted of 12 bungalows decorated as well as any 5-star resort, a restaurant serving amazing Laotian and French food and a pool that will no doubt make the pages of Conde Nast Traveler magazine in an upcoming issue.  With initial plans to stay just one night, we quickly checked the availability at the lodge and decided to stay three.  Our days were spent lounging by the pool, watching the gorgeous sunset over the Mekong River and riding bikes around the island.  With tourists still a novelty, we were bombarded by village children running out of their huts yelling “Sabadee” (the Laotian word for “hello”) as we pedaled by, their faces lit up by welcoming smiles.
In need of some lunch, we stopped at a hut filled with a group of screaming men huddled around a small ring.  Intrigued, we stood on chairs and looked down in the ring to witness a cockfight in progress.  I quickly scanned the crowd for to see if Michael Vick was there; unfortunately, he was absent.  After briefly watching the bloody battle between the angered, but perplexed, roosters and the even more spirited battle between the onlookers who had gambled on one of the two birds, we somehow still had an appetite.  We ordered a bowl of noodle soup and finished the bowl while conversing in broken English and Lao with a local who seemed more intent on finishing his bottle of rice whiskey than participating in the cockfight spectacle a few feet away.
After leaving Don Daeng, we continued South via motorbike.  About an hour into our ride, we heard an explosion.  We slowly stopped the bike and realized that our back tire had split in two!  As we were starting to wonder how we were going to fix it, our angel appeared…in the form of…a Laotion man riding on a motorcycle…carrying an AK-47.  Angels take all forms, I guess.  As he pulled up next to us, he smiled, pointed down the road and signaled for us to follow him.  Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts, so we set off down the road towards a small hut just a few hundred yards away.  A local mechanic immediately appeared from within the hut, began removing the back wheel from the bike and instructed the militia man to head to town to buy us a new tire.  Twenty minutes and $9 later, the bike was fixed and were on our way.

A couple of hours later, we arrived in Si Phan Don, an area near the Cambodian border that translates as “Four Thousand Islands.”  The islands of Si Phan Don have become a haven for young backpackers attracted to the beauty and ridiculously cheap prices (bungalows right on the river can be found for $1 per night).  Only a few of the islands are inhabited and only one has electricity.  We loaded our motorbike on a ferry and were off to Don Khon, one of the smaller islands that is still off the electric grid.
Similar to Don Daeng, Don Khon consists of a few small villages seemingly lost in time. Besides the laid-back attitude of the island and the picturesque views, the main draw is the local marine life – the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins are native to this area.  With only approximately 100 remaining, a sighting of this rare breed can be difficult.

After exploring the island by bike the next day, we hired a boat in the late afternoon and set off in search of the dolphins.  We soon arrived at a large rock in the middle of the river.  Approximately 8 seconds after debarking the boat, we spotted our first of many dolphins.  On my visit to Sea World a few years ago, I witnessed some amazing dolphin tricks.  Unfortunately, these dolphins don’t exhibit the Flipper-like skilz of the Orlando-based dolphins.  Instead, they glided lazily through the water, in no hurry to be anywhere or disturb anyone – much like the Laotian people who inhabit this tranquil part of the world.

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I’ve heard travelers say that, when it comes to foreign experiences, there’s India, and then there’s the rest of the world.  No place is this more true than in Delhi.  ((I’ve always been confused about the difference between “Delhi” and “New Delhi.”  From what I’ve read, it seems that “Delhi” encapsulates both “Old Delhi”–the capital of pre-British, Islamic India–and “New Delhi,” which was constructed by the Brits as their imperial capital.))  Our family has an apartment in Delhi, and the promise of both their company and free lodging kept us there for more than two weeks.  In that time–longer by far than we’ve spent in any other place on our itinerary–we got to know at least three of Delhi’s multiple personalities.  Allow me to introduce you to The Good, The Bad and The Wildly Confusing.

The Good:
Delhi boasts both an incredible past and a wonderfully vibrant present.  We had a great time touring its many attractions and fell particularly in love with the Red Fort, where a tour guide ((In the past four months, we’ve learned that a good tour guide–generally hired at the location we’re touring and for that location alone; we fear the umbrella-led tour group–can really help us get the most out of the places we’re visiting.  We always talk with the guide first to ensure that he or she speaks great English.  And then we bargain.  Hard.)) made the place come alive for us as he described the luxuries that existed within its thick, sandstone walls during the reign of the Mughal emperor who ruled from there.   We also really enjoyed exploring Humayun’s tomb, an amazing example of Mughal architecture that looks a lot like the Taj Mahal’s little brother.

Another highlight was a visit to the sprawling, 2005-built Akshardam Temple.  The fact that it felt a little like Disney World at times (never before have I seen a food court in a place of worship…) didn’t completely undermine its astonishingly intricate marble and sandstone carvings.  A lot of the temple is still being constructed, so we were able to watch artisans as they created the marvels that, 500 years from now, someone will look at in wonderment and say “how did they make something like that way back then?”.
The evenings that we spent at an assortment of wedding and new year’s festivities demonstrated to us how incredibly alive and colorful Indian culture is.  Old traditions and new mixed and thrived at these incredible events, where the outstanding food and the vibrating music served as constant reminders that this country really knows how to throw a party.  Watching 20-somethings honor their religion and their family through age-old traditions and seeing grandparents on the dance floor, grooving to a techno remix of Om Shanti Om, I felt proud to be half-Indian.  Sadly, my impressions of Delhi didn’t end there.

The Bad:
Right down the street from those luxurious parties, people live in slums, burning trash to stay warm as their children turn cartwheels in the crowded streets to try to earn a few rupees from spectators watching from the safety of their cars.  While Delhi’s economy is growing, the gap between the rich and the poor seems terrifyingly wide.  India has the largest population of child laborers in the world (estimated by human rights groups at an astounding 60 million), and this fact is dramatically illustrated throughout Delhi’s streets.

Speaking of streets, the traffic in Delhi is so bad that it’s almost comical.  (We could laugh at the traffic delays because, given our blessedly easy lives at the moment, we rarely had to be anywhere at a certain time.  I can’t imagine the stress that would accompany having to actually arrive someplace at a certain hour.)  We had to allow 45 minutes to an hour to get anywhere by car.  Happily, Delhi has a sparkling new subway system that will hopefully alleviate some of the strain on its roads.

For now, all of those cars, trucks, buses and auto-rickshaws are teaming up to create some wicked air pollution.  I often felt like I was breathing in solid particles (probably because I was…) and, when I ran a white washcloth over my face at the end of the day, the cloth turned gray.  What’s more, Delhi’s streets are littered with trash unlike any I’ve ever seen.  Every corner seems to be growing its own landfill.  The environmental situation is bad and getting worse, which leads me to…

The Wildly Confusing:
India has environmental laws, but they’re often not enforced.  It has traffic laws (surely?), but the only traffic police I saw in Delhi were the ones helping to control the scene of an accident.  It may even have anti-littering laws but, from the state of things, those would seem to be a waste of the paper on which they’re written.  The lawyer in me mourned for the lack of law and order in Delhi.  (That’s the lowercase “law and order”; I’m can almost guarantee that the TV show is regularly available on cable.) I polled the locals, i.e., my family members, on the cause of this sorry state of affairs.  Many of them pointed the finger at corrupt government officials.  The thinking seems to go like this: why bother following the law when it’s cheaper and easier just to bribe the government official tasked with enforcing it? It pained me.

Less painful but similarly bothersome were the gaggles of ogling young men that seemed to lurk around every corner.  They rarely spoke, but they followed me, took pictures of me and stared so much that I bought sunglasses to avoid having to make eye contact with them.  Even the “I’m going to really hurt you if you don’t stop staring at my wife” looks constantly given by the 6″4 Derek rarely seemed to phase them.  I know that Delhi is not alone in this annoyance–friends living in the Middle East and Latin America complain of more of the same, and it’s certainly commonplace throughout India as a whole–but I was never able to figure out (1) why the men were staring and (2) why they weren’t embarrassed by their own behavior.  ((India has been more focused lately on the harassment perpetuated there by some men.  On New Year’s Eve, two California-based Indian women were attacked by a gaggle of men as they left a Bombay night club.  A press photographer got it all on film, and the ugly scene has since been splashed across the front pages of India’s many newspapers.))

Although Delhi’s challenges made it somewhat more difficult to enjoy, enjoy it we did.  The city has so much in store for travelers–from ancient ruins to modern dance clubs, from bustling markets to shiny new shopping malls–that it’s worth the effort it takes to uncover its gems.

Warning: Because this entry discusses cremation in fairly vivid detail, it may not be for everyone.
Varanasi is to Hindus as Mecca is to Muslims or the Vatican is to Catholics: many of the religion’s most devout spend a lifetime planning and saving for the visit they hope to someday pay to the holy city.  A journey to Varanasi is of specific significance: dying here is said to liberate Hindus from the endless birth-death cycle attendant to the repeated reincarnation in which they believe.  Although it was once named Kashi, or “city of life,” Varanasi is a town where many people come to die.
The Ganges runs through Varanasi, and many of the dead are cremated on the wide steps (or “ghats”) that lead to the water.  Some ghats, known as “burning ghats,” are used specifically for this purpose, and it was at one of these that Derek and I witnessed the many stages of a Hindu cremation.  We watched dead bodies swathed in brightly colored cloth being carried through Varanasi’s narrow alleyways and down to the river, where they were doused in the holy waters and then placed upon a pyre fed with wood and fuel.  Upon incineration, societal outcasts employed specifically for funereal purposes threw the ashes into the Ganges’s slow-moving current.  In the case of holy men and children, we learned, the cremation process is bypassed entirely in favor of throwing the bodies directly into the river.  I guess it goes without saying that we found the whole process fairly overwhelming.  Still, we were glad to play witness to this most holy of practices.
Varanasi seems to be a place better observed than toured.  Rather that visiting every site that our guidebook recommended, we spent our time wandering the city’s ghats, exploring its streets and taking in the life along its riverbanks during an early-morning boat ride.  Like so much of India, Varanasi is equal parts chaos and vibrancy–a photographer’s dream and a place where we felt very lucky to spend a few days.

Varanasi Video

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Two years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh – one of the poorest countries in the world.  As a result of the award, the microfinance activities of Grameen Bank and other similar institutions around the globe were brought to worldwide attention.  I was particularly intrigued by this new type of assistance to the very poor.  With some persistence on our part and a little luck, we were able to contact Grameen Bank and arrange volunteer work with a sister organization, Cashpor Micro Credit, located in Varanasi, India.

The theory behind microfinance institutions, or “MFIs”, is fairly simple.  The very poor don’t have access to loans from traditional banks.  With no assets and no steady employment, banks simply won’t lend to them.  Historically, this forced the impoverished to seek credit elsewhere, mainly from village-based moneylenders.  These moneylenders charged exorbitant interest rates (e.g., 100% per year) and had less than gentle collection methods, making Tony Soprano look like Snow White.
The founder of Grameen Bank saw an opportunity.  He began making credit available to the very poor, using a few set of rules that produced incredibly high collection rates.  First, loans were typically made available only to women; as our contact at Cashpor explained to us (after first apologizing to me and my gender), men usually take the money and spend it on booze or gamble it away…

Second, the amount of the loans are very small.  For example, the loans at Cashpor are typically in the $100-$200 range, with the maximum loan topping out at around $350 per year.  This may sound like a paltry sum, but you have to realize that the average daily wage of the very poor in India is around $1 per day!!!  Let me repeat that – $1 per day!!! These funds are used for various purposes, with many of the borrowers using the funds to open up a small shop in the village or, in the villages served by Cashpor, to buy a buffalo (whose milk they sell in order to repay the loan).
Third, the loans are only given to individuals who are part of a group, usually consisting of 10-20 members.  The group is formed by the women in the village, and new members (i.e., individuals who will receive loans) must be approved by the group in addition to the MFI.  The group members vow to help pay the loan of a member who, for whatever reason (e.g., the buffalo they bought dies), is unable to pay.
MFIs have been very successful.  The collection rate for loans is typically in the high 90% range, a rate that would be the envy of any bank in the world; in fact, many banks are realizing the opportunities that exist in this market (as noted below).  Most importantly, the effects these small loans have on the villages that receive them are dramatic.  While the villagers are still poor by our standards, they have used the income they’ve produced from these loans to improve their quality of life, building more protective homes (e.g., graduating from a simple tent to a home with mud walls), improving their nutrition and health and educating their children.

During our two days of volunteer work, we feel like we were able to add true value using our respective skill sets.  With my background as a corporate and securities lawyer, I was able to help Cashpor review and negotiate the terms of a transaction with the largest bank in India, who wants to enter the profitable microfinance arena but has decided to outsource its activities to Cashpor instead of starting the business internally.  In addition, we assisted in structuring a new benefit to the borrowers that forgives loans in the event the borrower or her spouse dies during the repayment period of the loan.  As a previous press secretary in the US Senate, Shanna used her media skills to rewrite parts of the annual report that is distributed each year to current and prospective investors of Cashpor.
The highlight of our time with the organization was our visit to one of the villages serviced by Cashpor. We sat in on two different group meetings, led by staff members of Cashpor on a weekly basis.  These meetings allow the villagers to ask questions and voice their concerns, and allows Cashpor to collect the weekly payments (which are recorded in a booklet retained by the borrower).  After the meeting, we took a few photos of the women and the children of the village.  After I showed one kid a picture I took of him on the digital camera, I was swarmed by dozens of other children wanting me to take their photo and show them the result.  We’ll never forget the smiles on their faces.

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Tourists come to Amritsar primarily for two reasons – to visit the Golden Temple sacred to the Sikh religion and to watch the closing ceremony at the border crossing between India and Pakistan.  After a 7-hour train ride from Delhi, we checked into our hotel with the goal of checking these two activities off our list the next day.

The Sikh religion is relatively new compared to the other predominant world religions.  Sikhism began in the 15th century when Guru Nanak became dissatisfied with the Hindu religion, primarily due to its acquiescence to the caste system that pervades Indian society.  The Guru believed that all should be treated equal, regardless of birth.  The Guru’s teachings (and the teachings of the 9 other Gurus that followed him) are written down in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
While the religion’s followers are a small minority in India (and virtually unknown to the rest of the world), they have played a large role in recent Indian history.  In response to repeated persecution by other religious groups (predominately Muslims in present-day Pakistan and nearby Afghanistan), Sikhs learned the art of warfare and became respected as great warriors throughout India; in fact, many of the leaders of the Indian army are Sikhs.  Male Sikhs are easily recognized by the turban worn to cover their head and a typically long beard (one of the customs of Sikhs is to never cut their hair). Shanna’s father’s family is Sikh, so our visit to Amritsar had particular importance.

After covering our heads and removing our shoes, we entered the Golden Temple complex.  The Temple is a stunning site, covered with over 1,500 pounds of gold that sparkles throughout the day and night (with the help of spotlights).  The Temple is surrounded by a pool of water considered holy by Sikhs – it is said to have cured diseases of devout followers.  Inside the relatively small temple, priests and musicians take their turns throughout the day chanting scripture from the holy book, which is broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the complex and on cable tv throughout India.
One of the most noteworthy practices of Sikh temples (called gurdwaras) is langar – the free meals that are offered at all gurdwaras to anyone regardless of religion, caste or nationality.  The langar at the Golden Temple, which is run by volunteers, is massive – approximately 40,000 people dine here for free each day (donations, of course, are accepted, but not at all obligatory).  We were able to tour the impressive operation required to feed this mass group, and to eat a simple lunch of chapati, dhal and rice.  They even let me attempt to cook some of the chapatis (Indian flat-bread); my service was short-lived considering my skills at flipping the chapatis and transporting them to a basket were woefully inadequate (at least seven of the chapatis ended up on the floor; luckily, it appears that the five-second rule applies at the Temple since they were quickly placed in the basket alongside the non-soiled chapatis).
That afternoon, we made our way to the nearby India/Pakistan border.  While India shares a huge border with Pakistan, the crossing near Amritsar is the only one currently open.  On each side of the border, football-style bleachers have been erected for the thousands of people (mainly Indians; the Pakistan bleachers were nearly emptly, possibly related to the current political turmoil of the country) who come to watch the enigmatic border-closing ceremony each evening.

Shortly after we were escorted to the VIP section of the bleachers (oddly, foreigners are given the best seats at this pro-India event), the 20-minute ceremony began.  The border guards on each side of the gate took their turns marching to and from the border, atte
mpting to look as intimidating as possible; however, their flamboyant style and dress looked more like something out of a Monty Python movie. Particularly amusing was the Rockette-style kicks they executed with regular precision.

Eventually, the gate was open and the opposing guards stood chin to chin in a staring contest.  After a couple of minutes, the stares were broken, the flags of each country were lowered in unison and the border was closed for the evening.  Throughout the event, the crowds on each side of the border chanted nationalistic songs with the fervor of fans at a Duke/Carolina basketball game.  Restrained by Shanna, I was unable to start a “Taste Great – Less Filling” cheer or to introduce the wave to India – the only negative of my visit to Amritsar.

Golden Temple Video:

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Border Closing Ceremony Video:

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In structuring our itinerary for this trip, we have tried to stick to places that are new to both of us.  We are making several exceptions for places that one of us has visited before and truly loved.  When we knew we were meeting Shanna’s parents in Delhi, India to attend a wedding there, there was no doubt that we would add Agra to our itinerary, regardless of the fact that we’ve both been there before.

Agra is famous the world over as the location of the Taj Mahal, which, in both of our opinions, is the most beautiful building in the world.  On top of the fact that the architecture and symmetry of the building is beyond belief, the place has an incredibly romantic history.


While India is predominately Hindu now, much of the country was once controlled by Muslims (who were called Mughals).  Mughal rule in India began in the early 16th century when Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, marched into India from his capital in present-day Afghanistan.  Babur’s successors ruled much of India for a few hundred years before their power faded and eventually passed to the British in the early 19th century.

The Mughals’ many conquests in Asia made them incredibly wealthy.  They used these excess funds to build grand mosques, forts and palaces throughout India.  One of the greatest Mughal emperors adopted the name Shah Jahan.  (This moniker, incidentally, translates to “the king of the world.”)  Shah Jahan assumed his duties in 1627 after executing (!) all of his potential rivals to the throne.  His majesty demonstrated his penchant for building when he constructed the Red Fort in Delhi and converted the Agra Fort into a beautiful palace that housed himself, his 3 wives and his harem.


By all accounts, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife by far was his second one.  Far from trying to keep his preferences a secret, he awarded this wife the name “Mumtaz Mahal,” or “chosen one of the palace.”  Mumtaz Mahal apparently returned his affection–she gave birth to 14 children in only 19 years of marriage!  All of this child-bearing finally caught up with her, and she died during the birth of her 14th child.  Shah Jahan was inconsolable; legend has it that his hair turned grey overnight.  Soon after her death, he set out to create the greatest monument to love ever conceived. With the help of 20,000 artisans and 1,000 elephants, the Taj Mahal was completed in approximately 1643, and Shah Jahan’s beloved Mumtaz Mahal was finally laid to rest.

Sadly for the Shah, he didn’t get to enjoy the Taj for long. He was imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb, who took over the throne in 1658. Either as cruel torture or as a gesture of compassion, Aurangzeb locked his father in a room of the Agra Fort that afforded the elder a clear but distant view of the Taj.  When Shah Jahan died 8 years later, he was buried alongside his wife in the Taj Mahal, unaware that his final resting place would later become known as the most beautiful building the world has ever seen.

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To be honest, I was fairly skeptical about the commitment I’d made to my yoga-instructor mother to spend a few days at an Indian ashram with her when she and my father met us in India this month.  Looking at the ashram’s website, which featured an orange-clad guru surrounded by orbs of twinkling lights and informed would-be participants that their days would start promptly at 4:30 a.m. (a morning person, I am not…), did nothing to calm my nerves.  I made my way to Rishikesh, the home of the ashram–and, incidentally, the place to which the Beatles retreated during their new-age phase–repeating the mantra “I can do anything for three days.”
I had no idea that those three days would be so enjoyable.  The ashram lifestyle proved to be a lot more flexible than I’d imagined, particularly for short-termers like me.  I could choose among the center’s offerings at will and spend the rest of my days exploring our nearby surroundings.  Derek and I had a great time wandering around the town, which sits on the banks of the much-revered Ganges.  The people-watching alone made the trip worthwhile: mellow, dreadlocked backpackers shared the narrow streets with a collection of even-more-mellow sadhus, a wide variety of souvenir hawkers and a truly overwhelming number of cows, monkeys and dogs.  The menagerie ensured that getting from one place to another was always an adventure.

From Rishikesh, we made our way downriver to Hardiwar, a city that is sometimes known as the spiritual (if not the actual) source of the Ganges.  Every few years, Hardiwar plays home to the Kumbh Mela, a festival that attracts millions of pilgrims and is reported to be the largest religious gathering in the world.  The next one won’t take place until 2010 but, even without it, Hardiwar had plenty to offer.
We spent the day exploring area temples, each one of which seemed more colorful (and, frankly, more Disney World-like) than the last.  Never before have I entered a house of worship by stepping into a gigantic, paper-mache cave.  Never have I received holy water by means of a coin-operated religious figure.

In the evening, we joined hordes of people on the riverbanks for the nightly aarti, or river worship ceremony.  Along with so many others, we placed in the Ganges a leaf basket filled with flower petals and a glowing candle and watched it drift away with the current, past pilgrims washing away their sins in the holy river and off to other cities made holy by the river’s mere presence.

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