Monday, August 22, 2011

Taj Mahal

Well, folks, we made it to India! Currently we are in Dharamshala, in the far northeast of the country.  Dharamshala is in the foothills of the Himalayas and is also the home-in-exile of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetans have an incredible community here, and the mingling of Hinduism and Buddhism is fascinating. Despite the Tibetan's brutal persecution by the Chinese government, they are a deeply kind and optimistic people. 

The Buddhist teaching of ahimsa, or non-harming, is manifest in daily life. Ahimsa applies to both physical violence but also to the violence of words and internal thoughts, which can be equally powerful and deleterious. Karen and I are volunteering with some of the Buddhist monks at a local community center by teaching English, and our time exchanging stories over momos with the men and women (!) is my favorite. 

We are hoping to attend a public teaching with the Dalai Lama when he returns here on the 28th. In the meantime, we are taking the yoga and meditation classes we have so eagerly anticipated. It is misty and peaceful here, which is fortuitous as I am recovering from a somewhat serious bout of food poisoning.

For now, I also wanted to share some shots of that most deservedly cliched icon, the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the very heart of the country. Below is a shot of the back of the Taj at sunset. I challenge you to find another monument this stunning from the back.

Now for the front view... The world most beautiful building has been described as a "teardrop on the face of eternity" by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. I got goosebumps when I first saw it, through the scalloped archway of the guard gate. Words really are useless here.

The Taj was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1653 to mourn his third wife and great love, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to his 14th child. The greatest artists of the age were summoned from all over the world, from China to Europe to the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Shah was only able to see the finished masterpiece from his cell window in the Agra Fort across the river, put there by his third son who wanted the throne for himself.

The Shah described the Taj thus:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.

What do you think - do I blend in?

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Halong, or the Bay of Ten Thousand Islands

 Halong Bay's magical island landscape:

We sailed around, oogling the jagged rock formations and glorious sunsets. On the first day, we anchored just off a hidden lagoon and spent the afternoon jumping off the roof into the warm blue waters and frolicking about. The other members of our boat thought Karen and I were strange when we each set off swimming for some much-needed exercise. It felt great, though.

In general it was a very relaxing trip, especially after the barely-controlled but exhilarating chaos of Hanoi. We also explored Cat Ba Island on bikes, and an immense cave system that went on forever, culminating in a giant cavern, complete with stalagtites and underground rivers, that could hold my high school's football stadium and then some.

If you are ever in Vietnam, I recommend a visit to Halong Bay. It a bit of a trek to get there, but worth it. It's also huge! You could sail for weeks and never see it all, if you were so inclined.
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Cu Chi Tunnels

Just outside of Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels, a major hub of the Viet Cong's resistance against American forces. It was a very interesting place to visit. I learned a lot, and it was sobering to think of all the soldiers that fought and died among those very trees.

When we arrived, we were funneled into a movie theater and shown a very propagandized video explaining how the Americans came from so far away to bomb innocent villagepeople because they wanted the rich and fertile land around Cu Chi, a novel explanation for the Vietnam War.

We were then allowed to explore the grounds with our guide, who showed us (totally unrealistic) replicas of everyday wartime life of the Viet Cong soldiers...

As well as the endless variety of grousome booby traps laid in the ground to catch American soldiers.

At the end of the tour, we crawled through about 100 meters of the actual tunnels. Going down...

It kept getting smaller!

Walking while crouching is not the easiest thing in the world. My quads were burning and everyone was sweating. At one point we had to slide down an incline. People actually lived in this network of crawl spaces for weeks without once seeing daylight. And these have been enlarged multiple times to accommodate the fat foreigners! Difficult to imagine...

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Angkor Wat 2: Ancient Hospitals, etc.

These carvings are 1000 years old, some of the best-preserved "apsaras" or dancing maidens, in Angkor. Apsaras, according to legend, danced naked and only for the King. Anyone else who looked at them immediately had his eyes put out.

This is the "hospital" temple. If someone was sick, they would travel here and visit the fortune-teller first thing, who then directed them to a corner of the lake according to their essential element (as you do).

Depending on whether you were Earth, Wind, Fire, or Water, you would crouch under a stream of holy water emanating from the mouth of the appropriate statue in the appropriate temple-niche. The one below is an elephant.

Our tour guide with an infectious laugh and unflagging energy, Pulyn, took us to ten of the best temples over the course of two days. He also took us to the locally revered Chinese fortune teller, but that's a story for another post. Also pictured below is one of the many adorable child hawkers, who put us to shame with their ability to count to ten in at least five different languages (ten being the number of postcards they will sell to you for $1). We didn't buy any postcards, but we did give them some sunflower seeds and ChocoPie cookies.

Pulyn told us a lot about Cambodia society and his life, such as his struggle with arranged marriage (70% of marriages are arranged in Cambodia, Pulyn estimates). His parent's won't let him marry the girl he loves, as her family is too poor. She continues to wait for him, turning down suitor after suitor, even though he tells her that his parent's won't change their minds, and that she should just marry someone else. He didn't like the one his parents chose, but luckily the fortune-teller said that match was bad luck. Still, the problem remains that he is 27 and STILL unmarried. It was a fascinating conversation.

Can you spot the Dana in this picture?

Gorgeous sky.

What NOT to wear when clambering around 1000-year-old ruins? A nice silk dress and 4-inch wooden heels. Sigh. (Hard to tell in this picture, but she is standing at the top of a long, steep staircase.)

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Going Batty

This, my friends, is a bat.

In our hotel room. I turned on the A/C unit, and out it flew! I have no idea how it fit inside, nor how it got there. It flew in circles around and around our tiny room until we successfully tricked it into the hallway. We then promptly fell asleep. I guess daily encounters with mosquito clouds, rats, and giant cockroaches makes a person relatively immune to bat trauma.
On a related note, today I watched a man on a motorbike pull up alongside a roadside vendor, who measured a heaping cupful of fried, crispy, leggy bug medley into a plastic bag for him. He crunched them as he pulled away. Grosser than a still-beating snake heart ("good for man at nighttime" wink wink)? You tell me, but both are readily available in Vietnam.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is the Wat?

The "wats" or temples were all built around the 10th and 11th centuries by the god-kings of the ancient Khmer civilization. They all served as temples (except for the 'hospital'), but they were also either tombs for the king that commissioned it, or were built as tributes to, for example, the king's mother. Most also have large moats or even huge reserviors around them, which were used for irrigation purposes for the surrounding countryside in the dry season. Call it compensation for having to send family members to work on temple construction.

The moat below surrounds Angkor Wat. It's huge!

You approach Angkor Wat by a large causeway that crosses the moat. It's a very impressive walk.

A favorite of locals looking for luck, this Buddha statue is an amalgamation of both Hinduism and Buddhism, with its Buddha's head but the many arms of a Hindu god.

Various temple photos below. None of the temples used cement or anything else to hold the towers together. Instead, they used stone-locking methods that have lasted for a thousand years!

Bayon was Karen's favorite temple, famous for the Buddha faces staring down at you everywhere. The misty morning added to the quiet and mystique of this place.

My favorite temple was this one, fighting a battle against Mother Nature and clearly losing.

Check out the tree at the center of the photo below -- it is growing on the roof!

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

One of things I was most excited about seeing on this trip was the temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia. It is an area of several hundred square kilometers filled with over 150 ancient temples in various stages of decay, the most famous and well-preserved being Angkor Wat. On our first day in Siem Reap, the nearby town, Karen and I rose before dawn to see the sunrise over the iconic silhoutte of of that temple. It did not disappoint...

We weren't the only ones so transfixed (See below). However, the small crowd was hushed by the beauty of the sunrise, and dispersed after the colors changed to daylight.

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Monday, August 1, 2011

Fashion on the Cheap

Hoi An is justly famous for its tailors. There are about 500 tailor shops in the city, of varying quality and price. Getting perfectly-fitting cheap dresses and suits is the town's main attraction, and indeed, Karen and I spent the majority of our 2.5 days there dashing from fitting to fitting. I definitely spent a bit more than I planned.

Getting measured for my linen pants...

Silk top and cream linen pants (both $11).

Though Hoi An was sometimes painfully touristy, it was very peaceful, a welcome respite from the other frenetic and booming cities here in Vietnam.

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