Sunday, April 6, 2008

Conflict in Bengaluru

The 15th century ruins of Vijayanagar's Hindu Empire.

Far away from Goa's former paradise, in a quiet boulder strewn wasteland, lie the brooding remains of one of India's greatest forgotten empires. According to ancient Hindu legend, Hampi is the realm of the monkey gods who aided Rama in his fight against the demons. It later became the vast capital of Vijayanagar's wealthy empire, formed in the 14th century as an alliance between lesser Hindu Kingdoms to counter the Muslim threat from the North. For hundreds of years, it was the front in a campaign between Hindus and Muslims trying to out-atrocity each other with increasing effectiveness in the struggle for the soul of south India.

Virupaksha temple towers 50 meters above the Hampi Bazaar

Hampi's ruins nestled in the surrounding landscape of giant granite boulders.

Ruins hidden between banana plants.

While Hindus and Muslims continue to wage conflict in other parts of the subcontinent, Hampi's role as a modern battleground continues: pitting those who want to protect what little is left of a collapsed empire against those seeking to profit from its lingering ruins. As we groggily gazed out the door of our grungy sleeper bus at the theatre before us, it was clear who was winning. Without a choice, we dove into the turbulent sea of touts blocking our exit at the door, their hands moving about in a flurry holding above them small white business cards that seemed to float above the vast ocean like flotsam undulating in choppy waters. Our bodies fully submerged, we suddenly sensed the presence of an underwater beast. A hundred pairs of eyes fixating greedily on our backpacks that bobbed above us like towering buoys. Numerous hands grasping at our money belts. A multiplicity of mouths loudly querying our country of origin. The countless bodies of hired cabbies fusing together into a single multi-limbed organism that fed lustfully around the aging corpse of a dusty tourist bus whose innards trickled out of a small wound on the front-side and were sucked into the writhing monster. We were in the midst of a close evolutionary cousin to the Indian queue beast that had been domesticated by baksheesh paying hotel owners into a formidable war animal. Each of its brains had been selected and conditioned for the sole purpose of consuming dusty backpackers that emerged tired, weakened, and bruised from a relentless overnight suspension-less bus ride.

But Katlijn and I, hardened by our own struggles against Mumbai's cheeky cabbies and Varanasi's midnight hand squishers, persevered. Swimming desperately against the tide of the monster, we managed to escape its groping tentacles and emerged safely at a guest house one block away. Others were less fortunate. As we looked back, we saw the beast herding blurry-eyed travellers, unaware of what was happening to them, into over-stuffed rickshaws for deportation to the nearest scam.

Ancient Hindu temple architecture. Before its sudden destruction in the 16th century at the hands of Muslims, the city of Vijayanagar covered 650 square kilometers and had a population of over 500,000.

Based in the safety of our guesthouse, we spent a couple of days exploring the crumbling ruins of India's magic. With only 58 of 550 monuments protected as a world heritage and the local businesses constructing new facilities, it may not be long before the war would finally be lost and new India's rampant tourist empire would destroy Hampi's heritage, just as an alliance of Islamic sultanates did more than 400 years ago. For now, however, Hampi remains a fascinating and mystical place. I cannot think of very many things more enjoyable then renting a bike and peddling about the weirdly balanced rocks and lush banana plantations trying to fathom the beauty of the atmospheric landscape when it was home to an ancient civilization and a vast temple complex. We could have spent days in the blissful company of the these ruins and a dilapidated Indian basket bicycle, but Katlijn contracted an alarmingly high fever forcing us to consider the possibility of malaria. As alluring as it was to lose ourselves in south India's turbulent history, we set off to Bengaluru in search of what we really needed: modern medicine.

Sunset over Hampi.

My old floorball pal, Arun, and his lovely and very pregnant Belgian wife, Ellen, were very kind to let us take refuge at their home while Katlijn's temperature crept back to normal under the powerful spell of Arun's home cooked idlis and sambar. In addition to their generous hospitality, Arun and Ellen showed us the other side of India: their charming apartment, the possibility of decent Italian food in a modern Indian city, and supermarkets stocking exotic eastern fair beside more familiar western food items. They have nothing but praise for the emerging cosmopolitanism of former Bangalore, describing it as the perfect compromise between the warring faction's of new India comfort and old India simplicity. However, as I walked down the aisles of Arun's neighborhood food store, I studied the western items closely. Looking down at the jar of Ragu Spaghetti sauce I held in my hands, I realized that Bangaluru was finishing for me a process that began with Mumbai's coffee franchises and continued with Goa's uber-tourism: India losing its magic.

This was it, Bengaluru: center of the flat world, the silicon-coated hive of new India from which the IT money marches forth en route to Bikaner and the furthest reaches of the land, slowly silently dominating the entire planet while nobody is looking. And what does this new world power look like ? A giant traffic jam. A rush hour like no other. A perpetual twenty four hour gridlock with high and low tides that fluctuate between flooding the entire city and just the most important parts of it.

The groan of Bengaluru's creaking infrastructure buckling under the weight of so many vehicles can be heard in the conversations of the city denizens. When they aren't talking cricket and chip design, they are invariably talking traffic. Bengalurians are traffic gurus. Facing the overwhelming congestion on a daily basis, they have garnered a deeper understanding and appreciation of the very nature of traffic that cannot possibly be understood by you or me. Monk-like, driving aloof through the chaos, the city's commuters appear lost in equanimously observation over its impermanent processes. Later, they litter their conversation with tips on new-found insights: how best to time your departure to the office and the present state of street conditions that fluctuate under near constant construction.

There are no bovines strutting through the shroud of the city's formidable air pollution. Bengaluru is no place for cows. And with India's magic tragically disappearing in the clogged and polluted arteries of the world's most important IT boom town, Katlijn and I suddenly felt a burning desire to rekindle our spirituality.

Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, is considered by Buddhists to be the premiere scientist of his day with an intense curiosity of nature. All the major moments in his life (birth, enlightenment and death) took place outdoors, symbolically, under the cover a Bunyan tree. Critical of the unfair caste system and the unquestioned superstitions of the Hindu religion, he decided to try the following instead: sit still and objectively observe sensations on his own body. He reasoned these experiences represented the only reliable truth which, good or bad, needed to be acknowledged without bias. Through this process and living a moral life, he claims to have attained enlightenment which he later described to his students like this:

"Through countless births in the cycle of existence, I have run, not finding although seeking the builder of this house; and again and again I faced the suffering of new birth. Oh house builder ! You have been seen ! You shall not build a house again for me. All your beams are broken, the ridgepole is shattered. The mind has become freed from conditioning; the end of craving has been reached"

Which I thought was a tantalizing passage. After all, assuming he's not crazy, what did he experience and who or what is he referring to as "house builder" anyhow ? We figured this was exactly the kind of thing we needed to think about for ten days in order to feel again India's vanishing mysticism. Thus, under the guidance of Myanmar's great guru, Goenkaji, we set about learning Buddha's 2500 year-old vippassana meditation technique, still practiced today by the Dalai Lama.

The small male area where I confined myself for ten days to learn Buddhist meditation techniques. A volunteer hit the gong to signal the beginning and ending of our meditations sessions and meal times.

Consistent with the Buddha's original methods, Katlijn and I were separated into female and male dorm rooms, and everyone took a vow of noble silence where communication was forbidden for ten days. During this time, we were expected to live the life of monks following a rigorous schedule where we got up at four each morning and logged more than ten hours of meditation each day. All food was provided and prepared at no cost. The experience of living in the charity of others is integral to the teaching and therefore the course is, by necessity, free of charge.

Meditating is more difficult than it appears and certainly doesn't reflect the very relaxing image we had of people in peaceful contemplation. At least the first steps are more like a mental battle ground. Before each session, I saw students marching up and down the grounds, stretching their muscles as if readying for a fight, even air boxing to pump themselves up for another long hard sitting.

If you think it's easy, try this: sit cross legged, your back perfectly straight, and your chin held high, then think about absolutely nothing else besides your breathing for one hour without moving a muscle. I give you one minute before your mind wanders away from the present to some unpleasant past or future experience, and about five minutes before you can think of nothing else but that agonizing pain forming in your lower back and that irritating itch on the tip of your nostril, both of which you should be observing with perfect equanimity.
After torturing myself with this process for about thirty hours over the course of three days, I lasted long enough to sense the entire weight of my torso pushing down on my thighs and a tiny trickle of blood still circulating through the tips of my toes. At some point, the guru instructed me to absolutely force myself, no matter what, to stay in this position for a full hour. He dubbed this "strong determination" and it typically resulted in me limping painfully away from the meditation hall holding the railing for support.

I'm not sure how, but I mastered this pain after about seven days to the point where it became possible to sit still for a full hour with only minor discomfort. By the eighth day, some of the sensation could even be described as pleasant: the throbbing in my skull, the tingling in my toes, that soft tickling behind my ears. But this too, is a danger. Just as we were told not to let our minds succumb to the aversion of pain, so too should we never crave whatever pleasant sensations may temporarily flowing through our bodies. Both of these emotions are, ultimately, misery.

According to the Buddha, it is by developing the capacity to remain focused and objective in observing ongoing processes in our minds, ping-ponging between aversion and craving, moving restlessly between connectionless events of past and future, that you can be trained to discover the middle road and understand for yourself, experientially rather than intellectually, the necessity of compassion.

To be honest, I don't know if I bought into it all either, but certainly the nightly lectures on Buddhist philosophy and the experience of learning to meditate was stimulating enough for me to recommend a course in the technique to anyone. And just to ensure I end this lengthy entry by giving you something magical to contemplate, consider the following mysterious facts:
  • Two thousand years before the advent of modern science, Siddhartha Guatama taught that the body was actually made up of trillions of vibrating particles he called, kappa.
  • Long before Freud, Buddhist monks, through their system of objective self-contemplation, discovered and wrote about the sub-conscious.
  • Brain scans of monks during meditation reveal abnormal brain patterns and a substantially higher level of activity in areas of the brain responsible for compassion.
As we rode out of the city's choking traffic, it suddenly occurred to us that we had a new found appreciation for one of India's greatest and lasting contributions to civilization and we felt cautiously optimistic with the knowledge that mysticism could be found even in the depths of Bengaluru's IT madness.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Portugal's Paradise Lost

Sunset over Goa

By the time I boarded the night train in Mumbai's Victoria terminal, the busiest train station in Asia, my long campaign against Delhi-belly was almost won and I even managed a good night sleep before arriving in Goa. A rickshaw brought us to Anjuna beach where we began our ritual search for a decent budget room. Along the way, we met up with party-Dean whose presence in the hash-fueled hippy holiday pilgrimage of Goa was entirely predictable. He was nursing a beer at Anjuna's cleanest 30 Rupee eatery while he gave us the low down on the late-night beach side shindigs.

Andrew at Victoria Terminal station in the height of trendy backpacker fashion sporting North Face pants, Woolite T-shirt, and hiking socks with Tevas.

The budget rooms in Goa range from the dank and stinky to the downright scary. As we swung open the creaking doors, an ancient mildewy marijuana haze would issue forth from dark cave-like hovels revealing the blinking startled eyes of crusty backpackers who looked like they hadn't seen the light of day for years. Out of the dark murkiness, an intoxicated voice somewhere deep inside informed us through the cobwebs, "Yeah, man. For only 100 Rupees, this place is a steal !"

Miraculously, we stumbled across a family who, for almost no money at all, rented us a private room in their house, invited us to their dining room table each night for a much appreciated home-cooked Goan meal, and effectively adopted us for a week. Rather than hanging out with Party Dean and Goa's stoned beach bum crowd, we spent much of our days just relaxing on their patio with the mother and playing with her child, while granny was more than happy to fetch us a bucket of hot water when we needed to shower. This was budget travelling at its best !

Our life in Goa revolved around this little man called "Om".

In addition to English tutor, Andrew and Katlijn also served as his playmates, entertainers, and cricket bowlers.

Om and his mom ready for school.

Proud Momma and Granny admiring little Om.

To be frank, the Goan beaches themselves are a bit shocking. They teem with fat topless Germans and the gangs of young Indian men who come just to stare at them, while drunken leathered ex-hippies lament endlessly about how awesome Goa used to be to anyone polite enough to listen to them. Walking down the beach at sunset is done to the throbbing beat of techno emanating from the nearby Western oriented development while constantly vigilant to avoid the unpleasant feeling of slowly sinking your bare feet into the gooey softness of newly deposited dung piles left behind by Goan cows which (god bless them) strut emphatically up and down the coast turning their noses up at the invading European tourist hordes.

And what about Goa as the party place of all-night, open-air raves where the world's young bronzed travellers drink and smoke the night away ? This ended years ago with the enforcement of a government ban on loud music past 10pm at night. It wasn't unusual to find ourselves whiling away the evening at an empty ocean side bar feeling positively lonely as we watched the cows casually stroll by. Meanwhile disappointed party-seeking backpackers were being robbed by the exorbitant cover charge of the only nearby night club that is allowed to be open, or they were negotiating with the beach-side traffickers before holing themselves up again in a dingy budget hermitage.

Anjuna beach feels a bit like an Indian Costa Del Sol with scantily clad Western women being hustled by beach touts and hopeful Indian masseuses.

Relaxed liquor laws makes Goa an affordable spot to kick back on the beach with a beer.

Goa's dusk colors.

To be fair, those that can stomach lying on the beaches all day with a backdrop of all-inclusive package holiday development often love the place. However, it wasn't long before we felt impelled to escape.

Katlijn, readying our bad-boy hog to escape Goa's topless throngs.

Riding a motorcycle through the small villages and back country is a completely different experience guaranteed to re-affirm one's faith in Goa. While occasionally stopping to feast on the outstanding local coconut milk seafood curries and spicy fish creations, we weaved through the back roads between the palm groves, lagoons, and green rice paddies of some of south India's finest scenery.

Images of our Goan back-country motorbike trips.

Britain was neither the first colonial power to arrive in India nor were they the last to leave. Both of these honors go to Portugal who controlled Goa from 1510 until 1961. During its heyday in the 16th century when Portugal had a monopoly over Indian and far-East trade, the majesty and splendor of "Golden Goa" was said to rival Lisbon itself with a population exceeding that of London. However, if it weren't for a couple of impressive cathedrals that survived intact, Katlijn and I would have difficulty believing this now as our motorbike roared past crumbling church remains drowning in the surrounding jungle of palm trees. Without the resources to maintain its overseas empire, Portugal's Indian colony was eventually eclipsed by that of Britain and Old Goa was forgotten.

Atmospheric white-washed churches dot the tropical green landscape. Goa was the most successful of Europe's India colonies at converting the locals: today more than 30% of Goa's population is catholic.

Aging gracefully with their red-tiled roofs, these old Portuguese houses reminisce over Goa's current capital of Panaji. Panaji is one of our favourite anachronisms in India blending the pastel shades of the Mediterranean with noisy India, it is probably the only place on the sub-continent serving delicious and authentic Portuguese food.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Mumbai's Victoria Train Station: vestiges of British India

While I lay awake in the white city - bollywood overnight express bus, bouncing painfully off the walls of its claustrophobic sleeping capsules, I mentally cursed that slippery little tout who convinced us its superior suspension was worth the extra money. Somehow, I managed to make it through the night and found myself staring out the window at dawn hanging over the city of Mumbai.

I remember once while travelling to Orchha, stepping off our bus in search of a toilet, an old crone pointed me to the back of a concrete roadside restaurant where I saw a thin aging man disappear behind a crack in the crumbling wall. I followed behind him and quite suddenly emerged into the light to find a large open field full of reeking garbage, families of wild boars feasting on rotting rice, and several squatting men, women, and children straining their bare bottoms in the heat. It looked like the apocalypse. It was as though in the last few hours, sometime after we got on the bus at Kajuraho and got off the bus at this nameless highway restaurant, some sort of great cataclysm had occurred which reduced civilization to defecating in their own trash.

Arriving in Mumbai, was exactly the opposite experience. The contrast between north and south India, old and new India, poor and rich India, never felt so vivid. Rajasthan's desert streets and potholes were replaced with modern highways and lane markings. It was as though, sometime between getting on the bus at Udaipur and getting off the bus at this nameless city bus stop, civilization had miraculously reconstructed itself and I found myself once again staring down a long clean avenue full of trendy coffee shops all trying to out-Starbucks each other.

Mumbai looked so clean and modern that I decided it was safe enough to try their medical facilities. The fact is, my bowels, which were waging a long and ultimately unsuccessful war against North Indian gastronomy, had begun to make alarming gargling noises that sounded to us like its last throes. Surrender was imminent and it was time to seek medical reinforcement. After I described my symptoms and had a brief checkup, the doctor asked me if I had eaten a hamburger in the last few days.

"Yes," I admitted before hastily adding, "but only out of curiosity and I couldn't finish the whole thing !"

"mmm hmmmm," the doctor replied and slowly, wisely, nodded his head: this, apparently, explained everything. He informed me I would continue to have more bowel movements then set me up with some antibiotics and the usual remedies for a serious case of the runs. Drinking regularly from my dense solution of electrolyte water, I lethargically set out to explore Mumbai: the first in our trilogy of colonial-era cities.

Renowned for their abysmal map reading ability and tenable grasp of the English language, Mumbai cabbies are among the world's cheekiest. Despite whatever nonsense they tell you, it isn't that far, their taxi meter works just fine, and your hotel did not burn down recently.

In 1661, a small inconsequential region inhabited by fishing folk, called "Bombay" by the Portuguese, was given freely to the British royal family by Portugal as part of a marriage dowry sealing the fate of India and sentencing them to a future of tea times, driving on the wrong side of the road, and soporific cricket matches. Bombay was leased to the British East India Company for the paltry annual rent of only 10 UK pounds a year. Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to this company effectively giving them a monopoly on British trade with India. In fact, for nearly 250 years this private commercial trading company, and not the British government as is commonly believed, 'ruled' British India specifically for the purpose of making profit from iron and coal mining, as well as tea, coffee, and cotton plantations. Bombay flourished into the principle port for trade with British India complete with impressive cathedrals, steam engines, and a cosmopolitan business and culinary culture. Bombay also became a major player in the independence movement where Mahatma Ghandi launched his Quit India campaign in 1942 urging the British to leave India immediately. Bombay has recently been renamed "Mumbai" by its nationalist Hindu government referring to an earlier pre-colonial name.

Every Saturday, Mumbai's young and old, gather at Maidan park which transforms itself into a garage league cricket battle ground hosting more than twenty simultaneous matches at a time.

Bombay laundry.

Today, with a population of 16.4 million, Mumbai is a surging out of control mass of humanity haphazardly blending all of India's extremes. The touristy Colaba district is a pleasant mix of gorgeous colonial buildings, Indian open air markets, and relatively orderly streets crowded with signature black and yellow cabs. A walk down to Chowpatty beach reveals an attractive place to watch the sunset against the city's modern skyscrapers. Nevertheless, this New India often feels like a thin veneer belying the fact that over fifty five percent of its residence live in slums. Just a few blocks away from the tourist safe havens, we stumbled into sizable shanty towns that contrasted jarringly with the pristine gourmet multi-cultural dining experiences just a stone's throw away. In fact, Mumbai's Dharavi slum is the largest in Asia and is by itself home to more than one million of the world's poorest. Something in between Hollywood and Glasgow, Hindu and Islam, Britain and India, swish bars and poverty, Mumbai is, after all, a memorable and inspirational place containing all the beauty and the ugliness of the human condition.