Saturday, January 31, 2009

Home again, home again

This is just kind of a placeholder post, to say that I'm back in the US (alas) and am going to start blogging about things here as soon as I sort myself out (and finish unpacking). (I am, for better or worse, a very slow unpacker.)

I have just a few things to say about being back:
  • It is cold.
  • The cats are glad to see me (and vice versa).
  • I am grateful for the large size of my hot water heater (see first point).
That's mostly it. I remain delighted that my red bag is fixed. That 20 rupee repair is just about my favorite purchase, along with a gorgeous mulberry-colored scarf/stole I found at Cottage Industries and snatched up instantly. I've decided that I may just keep it around my neck until April. (Although Alex wanted to wear it at dinner the other night, and I let him, and he looked quite dashing in it, with his blueberry-colored sweater and blue eyes, like an elegant aviator, if aviators wore long mulberry colored scarves tossed over their shoulders.) (Now that I write this, I also have to admit that I did carry back with me 4 kgs of tea (not all for me), which I have been happily drinking, and my very first tiffin carrier, which I haven't used yet but plan to soon.)

This post also gives me an excuse to post some random India photos, like the dog Andy and I saw comfortably settled into a heap of trash near the water buffalo ghat.

And a dog who might like to explore a trash heap but will never have to:

That's Choti Fatoh, Sunil's newest puppy. He took her, sight unseen, at 7 weeks old because she had been abandoned by her original person upon learning that she wasn't purebred. (She's half beagle and half lab, though she looks quite a bit like Lisa's lovely Dorrie, who's half beagle and half coonhound.) It was 2 days after the first Fatoh had died, and the little one really has some of the first Fatoh's sunny spirit. She is now 8 months old, and the other three dogs (Zulfi, Sufi and Badal) are 8 years old, so while they putter around in their stately, middle-aged sort of way (except when they're chasing the wild pigs near Sunil's house), Fatoh leaps and jumps and wriggles with excitement over everything. She's the only one with enough spring to jump over the fence, and one afternoon, we sat outside and watched her go over again and again. Cows, bicycles, pedestrians, one little white pony--none were safe from her enthusiasm. When no one is out there with her, she has to stay on the roof, which she likes less:

Sunil said she fell off once, but luckily the trees and shrubs below broke her fall. (And it's a one story house as well.)

And because I can't resist, I'm going to close with one final water buffalo shot. This one Andy took, on that afternoon we spent with the water buffalo, and it still makes me laugh when I see it.

More soon. I'm hoping to embark on an Indian cooking project, which will be one of the things I'm going to write about. Just let me finish unpacking first!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It's the little things

Many big things in India don't work exactly like we're used to in the west. Electricity and water, for starters. As I write this, the power has been out for most of the morning, so I'm waiting for the generator to have been on long enough for the geyser (hot water heater) to have heated up enough water for a shower. When I was in Benares, though my hotel advertised the availability of hot water 24 hours a day, in actuality, there was only really hot water before 10 am (when the power cut out for its daily four hour power cut) and in the evening.

In the department of little things, though, India can be superb. When I lived in Varanasi, I rode a bike to get around, and one of my favorite things was my local bike-wallah. (I loved him because he was simultaneously necessary and ever present.) One day, my bike got knocked over by a car backing up, and when I went to ride it again, something was clearly wrong with it. I took it to the bike wallah on the corner, and after a minute's inspection, he discovered that one of the spokes had bent and gotten stuck in the chain. He unwound it from the chain and got it out of the way, and then oiled everything. All of that took under 5 minutes and cost me 4 rupees. I didn't take a picture of that bike-wallah, but I did wonder why there were tires hanging from this sacred tree, and it turns out it was because a bike-wallah had set up shop underneath. (You can see him in the bottom right corner, tending to a scooter tire.)

This trip, it's about fixing other things. A trusty pair of pants I've been wearing steadily for the past three years ripped, just a bit, above the knee. Sunil ordered me to take them off and bring them to the tailors who sit outside the market near his house. (I put different pants on first, of course.) The tailor stitched up my pants and fixed a broken zipper on something else. On the way to the market, we left my belt with a street corner cobbler, and when we came back, my belt had been shortened. (I'd asked for extra holes, but he took some off the other end instead.) All of that cost 12 rupees--about $.25. No wonder Sunil was horrified when I told him that I paid $10 to have a pair of pants hemmed. (The lesson there is that I probably should just learn to hem my pants myself! That or be prepared to bring a stack of things to be hemmed whenever I come.)

There was one task the market tailors wouldn't do, though. The lining of my red bag (that started as a travel bag but turned into an everyday bag) had ripped on both sides, at the seam. It was held together with safety pins. Sunil said, "If you don't get it fixed here, you'll have to throw it out." Then, I was horrified. It had not been cheap, for one thing, and I liked it for another. Then again, I liked it less when it was held together with safety pins. So, I showed it to the market tailor to see what he could do. He looked at it, shook his head and said I'd have to go to the bag wallah at INA market.

In Delhi, INA market is known as the market where you can get anything. There are produce stores and provisions shops and sari shops and luggage shops galore. There are uniform shops (advertising "Saudi uniforms available here") and housewares shops. And you can get food not readily available in regular shops in Delhi. A few years ago, I was with a friend (American) whose 20 something daughter was sick and wanted my friend to go to INA market to get marshmallows because that's what she craved. I had no idea that people ate ducks (or turkeys) here, but apparently they do.

I asked at one of the luggage shops for the person who could fix a bag, and the man told me to go to the end of that row of shops, and there was a man upstairs with a sewing machine who could fix it. When I got down to the end, I saw no place to go up, so I asked at another luggage stand, and they sent a boy to show me where a different man with a sewing machine sat. He had some bags hung up, so I knew that was his specialty. I showed him my bag, he gestured for me to take everything out, and then he set to work.

He clearly knew bags. He opened it up from the bottom, cutting and snipping at various seams. He sewed, he cut more, he readjusted, he wound more thread onto his manual sewing machine. All I could see was frayed seams and miscellaneous fluff, but he kept going. After 15 or 20 minutes, he handed the bag back to me, the seams perfectly resewn from the inside. The cost--20 rupees, about $.41 at the current exchange rate. He was slightly embarrassed, but he let me take his photo.

I was so pleased to have my bag intact again that I decided to walk for a little ways towards where I was going anyway. The result of that is that walking over the bridge by the Safdarjang Airport, I discovered where old billboards go to die:

As well as old ice cream carts:

Who knew?

Meanwhile, in addition to bringing everything I have here that's dry-cleanable to the drycleaners (470 rupees--$10 or so--to have a jacket, two sweaters and a shawl done), I'm making another little pile of things that need hemming or stitching or general mending. Might as well take advantage of it while I can. Soon enough I will be home, where the electricity only goes out in storms, and the water is almost always hot. But a man at a sewing machine, waiting for business from passersby, will not be sitting at the corner or in a nearby market, and that makes me a bit sad.

Monday, January 19, 2009

At Sarojini Nagar

So, I'm back in Delhi. I flew here on Saturday, having realized that the 25 hours we spent on the train getting to Varanasi had been enough train for me for this trip. It also turns out to have been a good thing because the fog returned Sat. night, which may have delayed things once again.

Yesterday, I made my obligatory trip to the Sarojini Nagar market, which is a big, popular market in south Delhi. There are many traditional stores there, but SN is also one of the big export reject/surplus markets, and over the years, I've found many things there. I would say that a small but significant percentage of my wardrobe is made up of Sarojini Nagar finds--sweaters, dresses, skirts. I bought a Putomayo dress there years ago that I rediscovered and ended up wearing to a wedding party this summer. In late 2001, the first time I'd ever been there in winter months, I found, on a 50 rupee fixed price table, a blue J. Crew fisherman sweater in perfect condition that I gave to Alex.

Sarojini Nagar also has great people and clothes-watching. I'm always on the lookout for the ugliest or most bizarre clothing I can find. This was the winner from last year:

What cracked me up was that moments after I took the photo, someone came over and starting asking the guy if he had it in any other sizes.

This year was a tossup. These mannequins win for multiple ugliest outfits, while the bottom outfit wins for the one I'm least likely ever to even think about buying.

There was also a large selection of tube tops:

I was sad not to be able to find this shop again:

In typical Indian fashion, the commercial and the sacred brush right against each other. There's a Durga temple right in the middle of the market, and extra clothes appeared to be stored inside the doors of the temple.

There are also lots of street vendors selling things. The pinwheel-wallah is one of my favorites, and he was there again this year. The street guys always seem to be selling things you wouldn't expect street hawkers to be selling--long flesh-colored socks and sleeping bags, for example. This year, there were a number of guys selling aprons and table mats.

This time, for the first time in the 19 years (!) I've been going to Sarojini Nagar, I came home empty handed. If I liked the color of something, the size wasn't right. If it fit, I didn't like the color. At Sarojini Nagar, I've discovered that being a Hindi-speaking foreigner has its advantages and disadvantages. Some of the shopkeepers and the boys who work in the stalls, armed with long metal pokers to remove things hung high up, tried very hard to find me things. But usually what happened was that I would say I wanted something plain, and then they would show me a plaid sweater or one with ruffles or some huge design on it.

I did come close to buying a black zip sweater at one stall, but there I encountered the first person on this trip who's been truly rude. He had a fit because I wanted to try something on (a purple sweater/jacket, over my shirt). He basically said, you're only paying 100 rupees for it, you don't get to try it on and literally tried to grab it away from me. I pointed out that the old grandmother standing behind me had tried something on, and he didn't yell at her. (I'd seen her modeling a sweater for her whole family.) Finally, a guy came from the front, asked what was going on, and said "koi baat nahii" when the guy proclaimed, outraged, that I wanted to try something on. (Koi baat nahii means, basically, no big deal.) And he gestured to me to go ahead and try it on. My concern was mostly that if I was going to schlep it home, I wanted it to fit, no matter if it cost 100 rupees or not. It didn't quite fit, it turned out, and the daughter-in-law of the old grandmother then picked it up. I suggested that she try it on.

As for me, I'd lost my taste for sweaters by that point. Luckily, my mood improved within moments, when I encountered one of my favorite group of people in India, the popcorn-wallah. He was also extremely gracious about letting me take some photos. ("Kyo nahii," he said. Why not.) And he also made me some fresh popcorn, even though there was a pile already on his cart. I won't go on and on about my love for the popcorn wallah, since I wrote about it in my Christian Science Monitor essay a couple of years ago. But suffice it to say that this was only the second popcorn wallah I've seen since I've been here, and I was very glad to see him. (Andy and I found one in Paharganj, on our first day in Delhi on Jan. 1, and that seemed like a good New Year's omen.)

He asked if I would bring him a copy of the photos, and if I were going back to Sarojini Nagar on this trip, I would. It would be worth it, both to return his kindness and to go find that store again and try some more things on.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Short Post in Appreciation of the Water Buffalo

Soon after we got to Varanasi, Andy told me a story about being on a safari in Africa and having the guide tell the group that the most dangerous animal in all of Africa was the water buffalo. He and his girlfriend (who’d also spent time in India) laughed and laughed and laughed. They wondered if the solution to the African water buffalo problem was a small army of 10 year old Indian boys armed with sticks. Because here, that’s basically who takes care of the many, many water buffalo that wander the streets of Benares. Admittedly, these are domesticated water buffalo rather than wild ones, but still. You can see exactly how dangerous they are here:

I don’t actually have too much to say about the water buffalo except that it’s kind of nice to have a daily life in which water buffalo are tangentially involved. They’re everywhere here. Sometimes they seem to be aimlessly hanging out in the road. And sometimes they are clearly on their way to or from the river.

There are a couple of ghats where the water buffalo hang out and have their baths. On Makar Sankranti, as we ambled up the ghats, we spent quite a bit of time at one of the water buffalo ghats. It was amazingly restful. We’d noticed the day before that the water buffalo did not seem to like going down steps, and the ghats, of course, are steps, so the water buffalo need to negotiate the steps to get to the river for their baths, which they clearly do like. Some of them seemed to rush down the steps, as if to get the unpleasantness over more quickly, while others slowed way down, as if hoping that maybe if they went slow enough, they wouldn’t actually have to go all the way down those steps.

They seemed much more steady going up the steps.

These water buffalo had responded to the voice command of their minder from the top of the steps. He called, and they all left their friends and proceeded up the steps with dispatch.

They didn't mind posing for photos:

And they definitely liked being scratched on their brillo pad heads. They use the steps to scratch when they're on the ghat, but I saw an enterprising water buffalo scratching against an empty cycle rickshaw on the road to Assi Crossing.

I know it's the way of baby animals, but it's hard to believe that this little one will turn into a spitting image of her mama:

Since this is my last full day in Varanasi, I think I will have to make a special effort to scratch a water buffalo's head, since I'm not sure when I'll have my next opportunity. (Delhi is not the water buffalo mecca that Varanasi is, at least not where I hang out.) I don't think about the water buffalo much when I'm not here, but when I am, I'm always glad to see them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Day of Kites and Khicheri

Yesterday, Jan. 14, was the festival of Makar Sankranti, which happens every year on that day. Usually Hindu holidays happen on the lunar calendar, so I wasn't sure why this one always happened on the same day. It turns out that this is the day the sun enters Capricorn, which apparently happens on the same day every year. (More info about Makar Sankranti can be found here and here.)

Two things happen on Makar Sankranti. Everyone flies kites, and everyone eats khicheri. The kites are a spring thing. The khicheri is also about giving to the poor. So, for the past few days, more and more poor people have been showing up. There's a usual row of beggars on the road leading down to Assi ghat, but their numbers increased exponentially, so that two days ago, there were a ton of people on the ghat itself and on the road away from the ghat, past my hotel. Yesterday morning, there were even more. The routine is that people come down to the river to do their puja, and on the way back out, they give things to the poor. Sometimes they pour handfuls of rice into people's dishes, and sometimes they give money. Many of the temples also make huge vats of khicheri and feed whoever comes. (Khicheri is very simple food, a kind of porridgy lentil-rice mixture, definitely Indian home cooking and the kind of thing you might eat if you weren’t feeling well. I love it.)

Assi Ghat usually looks like this:

Yesterday morning, it looked like this:

(I was taking the pictures from my balcony, thus the view from above.)

Even at the little chai stall next to Vaatika, there was a massive pot of khicheri cooking. (The guy bent over to put another stick in the fire just as I took the photo.)

It’s probably the biggest pot of khicheri I’ve ever seen, though I certainly wouldn’t say it was the biggest pot in Benares. Andy and I took a walk in the afternoon and stopped at the temple at Kedar Ghat. There was a guy ladling out khicheri (in little banana leaf bowls) from another huge pot, and he said that they’d fed thousands of people already that day. We took our bowls and sat on the steps to eat them. A nearby goat ignored the bowls with khicheri remains in them and instead went for the garland of marigolds worn by a small child.

I’m not sure what the khicheri-kite connection is, but the kites are also a key part of the day. In the weeks leading up to Makar Sankranti, makeshift kite stalls had sprung up all over the city.

And kites were everywhere in the sky in the days leading up to the holiday.

Some of the kite flyers, both kids and men, are great at it, and it's amazing how high their kites go. Sometimes, though, they're maybe just a little too little to do it well.

This is the third time I've been in Varanasi for Makar Sankranti, and of all the Hindu festivals, it's one of my favorites. And I was glad, this morning, the day after the festival, to see little boys on rooftops flinging their kites up toward the sky til they caught the breeze.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The End of Sea Mail: A Lament

The other day when I was sitting in Harmony Books and talking to Rakesh, he mentioned offhandedly that he’d just heard that sea mail had been eliminated. I was stricken. I don’t know how many packages I’ve mailed by sea mail over the years I’ve been coming to India. Larger parcels of clothing and textiles, smaller parcels of books. Every single package I sent, I received, anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months later. Sea mail has never failed me.

And it was cheap. To mail 5 kgs of books cost about 300 rupees (and that’s with the recent price increase.) (300 rupees is about $6.50 or a bit less.) If you’re sending very dense paperbacks or hardcovers, that’s maybe 10 books, but if you’re sending lighter Western paperbacks, that could be 17 or 18 books. And if you have someone like Rakesh to pack them up and ship them for you, it’s even better (and worth every last rupee he charges, which isn’t much to begin with).

Shipping things from India is a bit of a chore, which might be the understatement of the century. You can’t just tape the box up and mail it. It needs to be sewn in white cloth, with sealing wax applied along the edges. (At many major post offices, there are white cloth and sealing wax-wallahs waiting outside for your business.) I still remember my very first time attempting to mail a package from India and overpacking it by approximately 100 grams. (The scale I weighed it on was apparently off.) The post office was unyielding, and I wasn’t prepared to pay for the next rate up (like the 20 kg rate for my 10.1kg package), so I had to unstitch the whole damn thing to take out 100 g worth of stuff and then have it resewn and sealed. I believe I cried.

For years after that first traumatic experience, I was spared the task of mailing my own packages. When I had a Fulbright, there were guys in the Fulbright office who would do it for a small charge. (The charge added up given how many packages of books I mailed, but no matter.) When I lived in Jaipur, our amazing assistant Awadhesh helped. But when I lived in Varanasi, I had to do it myself. (Rakesh mailed my books, but I also wanted to send a parcel of clothes.) Because I am a person who saves most of my email, I was able to find documentary evidence of what happened the last time I had to do it. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of the experience my friend Harriet and I had:

At first it seemed like we might be done in a few hours. We took a cycle rickshaw up to the GPO (which took about 40 minutes) and had our packages weighed and asked how much they'd cost to mail, and then some guy directed us across the road to a phone booth that doubled as a parcel packing place. For 55 rupees for my bundle of stuff (which was smaller) and 65 rupees for Harriet's, he sewed them up in white cloth and sealed the seams with sealing wax and gave us a thick magic marker to write our addresses with.

The first sign of trouble was that the guy at the post office asked for our passport numbers to write on the package, and Harriet didn't know hers. Meanwhile, an Israeli guy came over and told us that the guys at the counter might ask for baksheesh in addition to the money for the postage. We didn't have a chance to find out because the guy behind the counter flatly refused to take our packages without our passports. (Someone later said this was a sign that he was indeed asking for baksheesh, but I don’t know. He just said he couldn’t mail them without seeing our passports, and that seemed to be that.) But we had the customs forms, and he assured us that we could mail the packages from the BHU post office which is closer to Assi. (BHU is Benares Hindu University.)

So, we got back in the rickshaw (our guy had waited for us) and rode back to Assi, stopping on the way at my house and Harriet's so we could get our passports. And then we got to the BHU post office, which, of course, was much, much smaller than the GPO and very crowded. We went around to the back and went inside (the line was all outside, but our parcels wouldn't have fit through the windows), and eventually someone weighed our packages and wrote the weights on the parcels. Progress.

But at that point, they then attempted to send us back to the GPO to mail them. As you might imagine, we didn't think this was a good idea at all. We told them in Hindi that the GPO people had assured us that we could do it from there and we showed them that we had the customs forms (which they didn’t have) and they looked at the return addresses on our packages, which were both in Assi, and finally, they agreed that they would mail them. But in typical Indian post office fashion, there was one fellow selling stamps at one counter, one fellow dealing with a huge line of people waiting to mail things speed post and registered mail and needing their letters franked, and then one guy sitting there reading the newspaper. The guy dealing with the huge line of people was the one we needed. So, we sat for awhile, and Harriet kept making little protests that the line outside was never going to get any shorter, and one of the guys not doing anything said she should drink a cup of tea and relax, it would be awhile, and she said, in rather petulant Hindi, that she didn't want tea, she wanted him to do it right now, and they all laughed.

Eventually, the busy guy asked whether we were sending them airmail or sea mail and looked up the rates to the U.K. and the U.S. and looked at how much our packages weighed and told us how many stamps to get. Then we had to go to the other window and get these huge sheets of stamps and glue them onto the back of our packages and then we waited some more, and finally, the busy guy ignored all the obnoxious BHU students outside long enough to fill out the forms for our packages and carefully frank all of our many, many stamps, which we were then allowed to tape the edges of, to make sure they stuck, and then he carefully looked over our packages to make sure everything was okay and gave us our receipts and said, “Okay, now you can go, and they will go.” All of this, you might have noticed, without ever once mentioning our damn passports.

So we got back in the rickshaw (our same guy, still) and came back to Assi, the whole thing having taken 4 hours. I know that in my other life, you can just throw your stuff in a box and tape it and address it, and if there's a line at the PO, it might take 15 or 20 minutes or even a half hour, but it's hard to imagine any situation in the U.S. in which shipping two parcels abroad would take 4 hours. I was quite exhausted by the end of it, as you might imagine, and had to come home and take a nap.

Okay, so I’ll admit that I’m not feeling nostalgic about the actual process of sending something sea mail, but I’m sad that it’s not an option anymore. And I’m not the only one. Today, at Harmony, I got into a conversation with another woman at the counter about how sad we were about sea mail. When I first saw her, she had 8 books in her hands, but when she learned that she either had to mail them airmail (1400 rupees for 5 kgs!) or carry them with her, she put 4 of them back. I suppose I should be grateful that we had sea mail to bond over. We ended up talking for more than 2 hours in Rakesh’s shop and then for at least another hour on the ghats. (It turned out that we know several people in common, for one thing.) We exchanged addresses, and she has invited me to come visit her in Maine, and I just might do that.

In the meantime, while I’m glad that the end of sea mail may have given me a new friend, I still hope its end is not permanent.

Oh, and this is what happened when Rakesh attempted to weep about the end of sea mail. He did pretty well at looking mournful, but he was less successful about the weeping.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tagging Along

One nice thing about not having any particular program in Varanasi is that I’m free to tag along when other people have things to do. When they say, “It might be 3 hours or 4 hours or 5,” I shrug and say, “Okay, whatever.”

A few days ago, this meant that I got taken to see the sister of my friend S. and her very fat baby, along with her in-laws and other misc. friends and relations. S. is the younger daughter-in-law in the house where I lived when I was here in 2001-02, and I’m not naming her because when I’ve written about living in that house, I’ve used different names for people, and I don’t want to compromise that.

S. and I, along with her two children (the elder of whom was a baby when I lived in the house) took an auto rickshaw out to her sister’s in-laws’ house, in a part of Varanasi where I’d never been before. The house is in a partially built colony, so while there were houses next door, in the front of the house was a large open space—there were a few patches of mustard and other vegetables, space for cow dung patties to dry and a makeshift cricket pitch.

The neighbors on one side had two placid water buffalo.
What I liked about this visit is that I wasn’t the center of attention. The friends and relations asked a few misc. questions about me, beginning, as always, with my marital status (different from my actual marital status), but mostly they gossiped with each other, alternately in Hindi and Bhojpuri (a local Benares dialect). Just when I thought I sort of knew what they were saying, they would switch to Bhojpuri, and I’d be lost again. The kids ran around with their cousins, shrieking and laughing and running up and down the stairs to the roof, and the fat baby was passed around the room, though his grandfather had him most of the time. At some point, the bread pakoras I mentioned in my last post were served.

In the late afternoon, we went upstairs and a mini photo-session commenced. I still don’t understand why people here are so committed to staying solemn when they’re having their pictures taken when they look so much nicer when they’re smiling.

When we finally left, after maybe 3 hours there, S.’s sister and the fat baby joined us. I think it may have been my first experience of being in a rickshaw with 6 people (and the driver). Luckily, three of those people were ages 7, 5 and 6 months, and the other two (besides me) were slight Indian women. The baby had been fussing before we left the house. But he was silent and big-eyed in his grandfather’s arms as we walked to the main road, and once we were in the rickshaw, he fell asleep.

Today’s outing was of a different sort. On New Year’s Day in Delhi, I’d gone to my friend Rasil’s house to drop off a bag to leave there while I was here. (No point in bringing nice clothes to Benares, not to mention the rather bulky magnetic spice rack I’d brought for Sunil.) She introduced me to a friend of hers, a German-born, Paris-based photographer named Diedi Von Schaewen who was in India working on a book on sacred trees.

Diedi turned up in my hotel in Varanasi a few days ago, and we had dinner together last night. She told me she was going to take more photos of trees here and then in Sarnath, which is not far from here (and is where the Buddha did his first teaching of the Dharma) and asked if I wanted to join her. I said sure. So, we set out in the late morning. She took photos of lots of trees. I also took photos of some of the coolest trees.

And sometimes I took photos of other things.

(I’m kind of curious how that traffic light melted.)

Sarnath is usually a sleepy little town, but it is crazy at the moment because the Dalai Lama is in residence, giving teachings for a week. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get in, since you have to register ahead of time, but we figured it was worth a shot. It seemed silly to be so close and not try to see him. I think it helped that we arrived in the middle of the afternoon teaching, and the gate wasn’t crowded. It also helped that I had a photocopy of my passport with me. We left a bag with our cameras and phones at the gate and went in. I was sad about the cameras—it was a wonderful scene. A massive maroon and orange striped awning, the poles holding it up also covered in maroon and orange. Probably about 80% of the people there were Tibetan, many of them monks, but many families as well. I loved the picnic atmosphere of it—people were very well prepared, with cushions, food, dishes, notebooks. People had their own cups, and teenaged monks served as chai-wallahs, swooping around with these huge aluminum tea pots with rope handles. (I really wish I had a photo of the teapots, not to mention the teenage monks, especially the one in the mesh shirt underneath his robes, which seemed not entirely appropriate for a monk, teenage or otherwise.)

The whole thing was amazingly well organized—the entrance, the bag check, the seating, everything. We stayed for a little while and listened, but the teaching was in Tibetan. All the Westerners we saw had headphones and little radios, so they must have been listening to a translation. I had headphones in my bag but no radio, so while it was nice to listen to the Dalai Lama, not to mention be in the same space as him, we didn’t understand a word he said. (The radios were apparently available outside for 100 rupees or so, but it didn't seem worth it since the session was almost over.)

On the way out, we went to the main gate, and I handed over the photocopy of my passport along with two photos (taken by an enterprising fellow across the way—he offered 9 photos for 30 rupees—maybe $.65—which seemed like a deal too good to pass up), and I now have an official entry pass if I decide to go back. (The teachings go for 3 or 4 more days.) I just might—it was a scene worth revisiting, even if I can’t take any photos.

We did nearly get backed into by a truck on the way back—our rickshaw-wallah clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to the warning on the back of the truck that said “keep distains”—but we got out of the way in time. Perhaps it was the benevolent presence of the Dalai Lama in the area that did it, or maybe it was something else. Anyway, we arrived back in Varanasi safe, if extremely dusty. And after this past week of fog, the sky was clear enough to be able to see the lights of the city down the river for the first time since I arrived. That seems like a good sign--for something, even if just better weather--as well.