Friday, January 24, 2014

Jaipur Literature Festival Redux

Asia’s largest literary festival kicked off in Jaipur, India, last Friday, with over 200,000 people thronging the various stages of the 17th century Rajput-built Diggi Palace in the center of the “pink” city.  Speakers at the prestigious festival include Jonathan Franzen, Gloria Steinem, Novel-prize winner Amartya Sen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Reza Aslan, Jim Crace, and memoirist Ved Mehta.
American feminist Gloria Steinem was a big draw at the festival, with huge crowds at her talk on the parallels between the American and Indian women’s movements. She spoke as part of a new series of talks called Women Uninterrupted, which are an effort by the Jaipur Literature Festival to include more strong female voices in its lineup. Other speakers from the forum included American writer Cheryl Strayed, whose bestselling book about a solitary hike on the 1100 mile long Pacific Crest Trail, is now being made into a film, Wild, with Reese Witherspoon. Audiences also packed a session on Women Writers of the Islamic World, which included Shereen El Feki and Fariba Hachtroudi.
The biggest crowds, however, came for Indian Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen’s speech, in which he made seven wishes for a better India. These included a desire for a strong, secular right-wing party, and a greater role for the arts and humanities in contemporary India. 
It was a cold cold Jaipur we arrived in, but the charm, chai, and chatter were all in place, and it was a glorious 5 days.  Gloria Steinem and Amartya Sen were personal favorites of mine as well, as well as many other writers from Southeast Asia, and the world. I will try to review some of my books in a later blog, as there were many.  Our quartet gave each other book talks last night about our Jaipur Lit Fest books, and there was a pile in front of each person. One minor criticism: they need more American writers who don't bash America; there were only a few and they must have felt obliged to be openly critical of their country and its people, and the audience was quite receptive.  Irksome.  I did speak to one of the Iranian-American writers after his session, as he was openly pandering to the audience with his anti-American barbs.  Not cool, Reza Aslan, but then he wasn't cool last year, either, nor when I heard him speak in Iowa City.  
Rajasthan is a very charming state, and we consider it our first home in India, and perhaps our favorite, so we enjoyed getting together with old friends each evening for dinner and conversation, visiting old haunts, and yes, perhaps doing more of that famous Jaipur shopping.  For some pics of the occasion, visit

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Beauty in the Quotidian

 The subject of today’s blog is the quotidian (every day, commonplace) existence we have as a members of a community in the deep south of India.  There is usually comfort and beauty in the quotidian wherever you are, and Trivandrum is no exception.  The interesting part of it all is that what is commonplace here isn’t commonplace where I used to live.
Let us begin with an occurrence I just took note of last week, even though I’ve seen it often enough. Please note the picture of the interior of “my” tailor’s shop.  The tree you see in the middle of the store is quite real, and quite lovely. [Although the holly tacked on to it is plastic…not sure why that's there!] As you travel around the city you an see several trees that alter a road, or a sidewalk so they can happily grow.  They are beautiful trees, and deserve the respect, but it’s not something I saw a lot in Iowa City.
Second, there are lots of classical dance and music recitals here, and we’re exactly across the street from the main venue.  As we watched these dancers perform their classical dance form (forgot the name, but it originates from Bengalaru, I believe) we both marveled at the amount of concentration and training needed to perform this style, as the eyes, head direction, fingers, hands, arms, legs, and hips all had separate but specific assignments.  It may be every day to the people here, but it’s an amazing display of beauty to me.
Next as you travel down any street you will invariably find a statue or two or three dedicated to either a freedom fighter from when they were on the path to freedom from the British, or some politician.  This fellow was a former Chief Minister of this state, akin to a governor.  Often these statues are decorated with garlands of various flowers, although I’ve never seen anyone actually putting the flowers on, and I wonder if this is done quite early in the morning, before the likes of me are wondering the streets.
I saw a funny poster the other day when I discovered what was for us quite a “boon”: a Northern Indian kebab/tandoor shop that had some serious skills.  And, they deliver!  Delivery here that we have experienced is fast, and food arrives hot, so it’s a very nice addition to our daily lives.

Finally, the picture of the park at the bottom of our hill on a typical Sunday.  It's a gorgeous free respite from the city, complete with 2 museums, the zoo, flower beds, places to sit in the shade, and a wickedly good mango ice cream. We like to come here to read, and do some people watching.  There are a beautiful array of tropical flowers and trees that are overshadowed only by the women’s saris and, yes, I’m going to admit it, I happen to think the white mundus (skirts) worn by the men with their crisp shirts are quite pleasing on the eye. I’m still trying to get S to seize this opportunity and don one, at least around the house, but he is holding firm to his trousers….for now!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Day 4: The Churches of Lalibela

As the second country in the world to officially adopt Christianity (Armenia was #1), there is immense pride in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community of its rich ancient grounds of Christianity.  None is more popular as a pilgrimage destination, or more famous that the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Named a UNESCO cite some years ago, the 11 main churches in the town of Lalibela are dedicated to various saints (Mary, George, Archangels Gabriel & Rafael). They are remarkable because (1) they are hewn from a single enormous, rock, an not constructed with pieces of rock, and (2) there are so many in such a small area, and (3) the building and architectural detail is quite refined. Many are monoliths, carved completely out of one enormous piece of stone, and a few are carved into the side of the rock, with 3 sides exposed.  The rock is volcanic, with the top a softer lava, and the lower levels a tougher basalt. There are various theories as to how King Lalibela (yep, named the town after him because he had all these churches built during the 93 years he lived) built the churches using 40,000 Ethiopian labor, or, this is a favorite legend, angels took the night shift and did a lot of the building at night.  The common assumption is that the exterior carving was done from top to bottom, while the interior was done exactly the opposite direction.  However it was done, it is awe-inspiring to see such ancient structures (12th-13th century) with such a high level of aesthetic appeal combined with some serious construction skill.  The windows of many of the churches tell of King Lalibela’s travels, (Swastika from India) and influences (Greek  & Roman crosses) as well as Ethiopian history (the Aksiomite details that came from the former Ethiopian seat of power, Aksum).  These churches are still in use, with the people standing around the exterior doing response chanting, the priests inside the church, and various outbuildings for preparing communion, etc.  We sat some celebratory singing and dancing in a few to celebrate the feast day of St. Rafael, I believe. Lilibela is worth the travel pains; it did not disappoint.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Day 3: Gonder

The fame of Gonder lies with its castles, 6 to be exact, all built by different kings of the Gonderian dynasty.  Surrounded by fertile valleys and at the crossroads of 3 major caravan routes, it’s easy to see why King Fasilades chose this location as his capital in 1636.  It served as a capital for a little over 100 years, during which time 6 major castles were built.  Even though it was bombed by the British during WWII, much of the castle and grounds remains intact today.  We could see massive dining halls that still resembled dining halls, and the complexes of each of the kings that ruled Gonder during its hey day.

Ethiopia, Day Two: The Monsteries of Bahir Dar

Today we began the day in a boat on Lake Tana, located at the mouth of the Blue Nile River.  Our destination is the monasteries from the 16th-17th centuries.  These monasteries have treasures and beautiful mural paintings depicting both Old and New Testament stories.  Ethiopians are particularly fond of St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, St. Gabriel, and of course, Mary.  On the way to the monasteries we saw some beautiful birds, including cranes, white ibis, pelicans of various varieties, cormorants, and other water birds I couldn’t name.  The culinary highlight was the discovery of juice bars where establishments list the fresh fruits available, then blend them with water and present a beautiful layered concoction that is refreshing and filling.  

People on Parade

0r what I can see from the window of the land cruiser as we travel the roads of Ethiopia.
We are beginning a trip to the north of Ethiopia, and today we are on an 8-hour road trip to the town of Bahir Dar.  Although I’m not a lover of long trips in the car, seeing what is happening in the countryside from the car window does give you a very different perspective from when one keeps to the major cities and thoroughfares. There is a surprising amount of food traffic on the side of the road, even when the nearest town is several kms away.  Where are all these people going, with the heavy loads, their walking sticks, and heads and bodies swaddled in cloth? This constant stream of people carrying meager crops, sticks, or hay says a lot about the country’s poverty, lack of transportation infrastructure, and the general level of substitence in its rural areas.  There are too many children herding livestock instead of attending school, too many children and adults in ragged clothing, barefoot, walking the rocky road, and too little prosperity in general.
There are young children and the not-so-young dressed in school uniforms walking or, many times, trotting/jogging to school.  As I see so many people spontaneously break into a jog, I wonder about the connection from the casual easy running I see and the Ethiopian domination of long distance track events. It’s an incredibly easy natural gait that certainly looks effortless, but who knows?
I see women carrying all manner of things on their backs in huge baskets:  sticks, eucalyptus branches, water, laundry, and things I cannot imagine. There are men wearing the multi-layered white gauzy cotton, carrying “church” umbrellas, and some people, only a few, carrying nothing, but walking purposefully somewhere.  Almost all the men sport a herding stick, sometimes being used for its original intention, but often used as something to wrap their arms around, or to carry a load with. There are children and boys carrying loads of hay so huge th  They are followed by the happy clean up crew of a few cattle.  I’m often struck by how young and ill clad many of the children are that herd groups of cattle, goats, or donkeys down the road.
at only their skinny legs are visible as they trot in groups of 2, 3 or 4 down the road to take the load of hay somewhere.
Sometimes the children seem to have the dual tasks of trotting to school and moving goats or cattle or sometimes donkeys somewhere to graze.  This shepherding is usually facilitated by a long stick, or a shorter stick with a rope-like end for reminding the beasts who is in charge.  There are donkeys, alone and in groups, being ridden and going solo, carrying enormous loads of hay, or long eucalyptus branches/trunks, and enormous baskets. 
If you extend your view off the road, you can see a beautiful countryside with small plattes of hay, golden blocks ready for harvest alternating with green new shoots.  Look closer and you see the golden hay being harvested using the ancient tool of a scythe, with both women and men squatting, kneeling or sitting to get as low as possible.  Nowhere in view is there any machinery, but occasionally there is a circle of cattle stamping on already cut hay as children or sometimes adults pick it up and throw it back in the air for further stomping, using in a centuries-old technique to further process the hay. Someone recently told me over 90% of Ethiopians still subsist on agriculture, and that’s easy to believe when you see the activity on the countryside.
Our feathered friends are frequent as well, with golden eagles cleaning up road kill, blue and white herons populating the hay fields, and an occasional kingfisher and white and black ibis, who remind me we are on another continent.
Sometimes the topography reminds one of our crew of Kenya, another part is reminiscent of rural Peru to another, but everyone agrees it’s quite educational to observe the parade passing by.  Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves as we manage the jostling and dust of Ethiopia’s roads.  PICTURES on FLICKR HERE.