10. Notes from the South Asia Tsunami 2004

As we read about the tragic events in the Philippines, I thought it might be a good time to post my 2004 reports from Sri Lanka  following the 26 December tsunamis.   As I read through them, I am once again reminded of how nature is no match for us mere mortals…

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In mid-December 2004, Hans Einar and I travelled to Colombo to look for office space for the new NCA office in Sri Lanka and a house for us.  We stayed at a hotel in Colombo and had planned to go to Galle on the southern coast for the Christmas weekend.  After a week of intense office- and house-hunting, we were tired and so decided to stay in Colombo and just hang out in our hotel for the holidays.  It was one of the luckiest decisions we ever made.

On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the west coast Sumatra, Indonesia triggered a series of tsunamis that killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.  Indonesia was the hardest hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

What follows is a series of messages that I sent to family and friends to explain what was going on.

29 December 2004

The situation here is quite surreal, at least for me.  Since the tsunamis struck, I haven’t been much out of the hotel where we are staying (except to log in as often as possible to e-mail in the cybercafe next door).  But the changes in the hotel are symptomatic that things are not good “out there”.  The hotel lobby has slowly filled, first with tourists in bandages and now with foreign assistance in the form of military personnel (a large French contingent is here now).  I look at them and think how young they are!  In the afternoon and evening, I see groups of them walking out of the hotel with huge backpacks with labels like “infirmiere” (nurse) and realise that these young people are on their way to the south or to the east to help with people they have never seen before and probably don’t know much about.

The atmosphere is a very strange mix of feelings: excitement, shock, sadness.  I have heard foreign tourists calling home and relating their tales of survival with childlike excitement, bragging about the size of waves they saw from the hotel rooftops.  I think that surviving such a disaster brings out a lot of strange behaviours in people.

The Government of Sri Lanka has declared a national week of mourning and are encouraging people to fly white flags to show solidarity for the victims.  Almost all hotels in Colombo have cancelled New Year’s Eve parties, some are donating proceeds from the sales of tickets to relief efforts.  All throughout Colombo there are impromptu collection points for donations of dried food, blankets, mats, medicines.

We watch BBC World constantly and see the same images as you.  Hans Einar returned from Galle yesterday night.  He described the situation as “unreal” and mentioned that he had a hard time not being emotional about what he saw.  People were walking around in a sort of daze, picking up pieces of debris here and there.  He described the railway tracks as a roller coaster which will be impossible to reconstruct.  A woman told of her escape from the first waves with a friend and her daughter.  The daughter needed medicine and her mother returned to their house to get it, as things had calmed down.  The second wave hit and the mother has not reappeared.  Temples and churches have been turned into makeshift hotels for displaced persons. 

On the way home from Galle, Hans Einar stopped by a wonderful hotel where we had stayed in September, the Taruvillas Taprobane.  The hotel is 10 metres from the sea and we had expected the worst, especially since we read that the large beach resort in the same town has been totally destroyed.  Miraculously, however, the Taruvillas survived, totally undamaged, but many of the staff lost family and friends.  Stories of untouched areas a few hundred metres from areas devastated by the tsunamis abound.

The psychological strain for survivors is great and there is absolutely no capacity in Sri Lanka to handle this sort of counselling.  The clergy do what they can but they too have been affected and it becomes a situation of the affected trying to comfort the affected.  There is a great need for Tamil- and Singalese-speaking trauma counsellors here now and in the coming months.

Yesterday, the Daily Mirror’s headline was Death Toll at 12.000.  Today they just stopped counting and the headline reads “Sea of Deaths”.  News pours in every day about trains and buses that were packed for the tourist season and are only now noted as “missing”.  At the bottom of the tv screens, messages flash from business in Sri Lanka with pleas to employees to contact their headquarters.

So these are a few of my thoughts this day.  Thank you again for your support and good wishes.  They really have meant a lot to us both.

31 December 2004

The Daily Mirror’s headline yesterday was Disease after Disaster“.  The risk of epidemic outbreaks is high and soon we will be reading about deaths from cholera, dysentery and, for small children, diarrhea.  This, while the papers are still reporting on more deaths from the tsunamis.  There was a positive story in the paper about a group of 3.000 people who had been assumed dead but who were found alive today.  All had found refuge on a narrow strip of high ground in the district hardest hit.  They have been without food or water since Sunday morning.  But they are alive.

Hans Einar told of his trip to Galle on the 27th.  One of his strongest stories was from the priest they stayed with.  A friend had called to tell of another friend who had been struck by the tragedy.  The priest asked if the mutual friend was ok.  He was told that their friend had watched his wife and children washed away.  He was alive, but he was not “ok”  Being “ok” has taken on a strange meaning here.

The political situation in response to the disaster is unclear.  One paper reports that the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers) have turned back relief trucks who were bringing supplies to the northeastern regions.  But stories like these are difficult to confirm and they are often political motives behind these kinds of reports.  What is a big concern for relief workers is that the tidal waves have dislodged landmines in the areas already ravaged by civil war.  Some see an opportunity in the tragedy.  If the LTTE and the government can find a way to work effectively on the humanitarian aspects of the disaster, maybe they can resume peace talks with more optimism and solidarity.

Cricket is BIG in Sri Lanka and the national cricket team is currently in New Zealand.  The players had asked to come home but Sri Lanka was bound by international agreeements and cancelling the tour would have resulted in huge fines.   After an appeal by the players, New Zealand agreed to postpone the tour with no penalties imposed.

We had dinner with a Norwegian family who told us what is becoming a very common story of survival.  A colleague of Hans Einar, she lives and works in Laos. She, her husband and their two young chldren were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka and had just come back to their bungalow after a walk on the beach.  As they ate breakfast, their son noticed that the air conditioning started to “drip water” and, a few seconds later, the door to their bungalow burst open and water started filling their room.  They ran with their children to a hilly area a few hundred metres away from the beach, where they were safe from the horrors that unfolded below.  They were picked up on the road by a Sri Lankan family who took them home and gave them shelter until transport could be arranged for them.  They arrived in Colombo the day before yesterday.  She told me that having children was a blessing, since it meant that they had to focus on keeping things “normal” and didn’t have time to think about what they had been through.  They left for the hill country yesterday to try to be “normal” for the rest of their vacation.

Today is a day of national mourning in Sri Lanka and a huge memorial gathering has been organised, ironically, on the beachfront in Colombo.  The Galle Face Green beachfront is usually a place filled with families flying kites and couples holding hands and strolling along the boardwalk.  For the past few days the Green has been virtually empty except for a few tents set up for relief workers who pack boxes of donations and load them on to trucks

It is strange to think about a new year today.  Usually, the 31st is filled with feelings of optimism and excitement for what is to come.  I feel stuck in a past that happened 5 days ago and think about the future of millions of people whose efforts will be on survival, rehabilitation and rebuilding.  Have an optimistic thought for them at midnight tonight.

6 January 2004

Until yesterday, my images of the disaster that hit Sri Lanka were from BBC World, the bandaged and bruised tourists who came to the hotel in the days following the tsunamis and the foreign military and medical personnel who spend a day at the hotel before going out to the affected areas.  One morning, as I was having breakfast with Hans Einar, my view was of a Frenchman wearing a shirt that identified his specialty “Gendarmerie: Identification des Victimes.”

Yesterday I left Colombo for the first time since the tsunamis hit.  I travelled with some Norwegian radio and TV journalists.  Everyone had different needs and it was arranged that we would go to Galle and see what was happening there.  It has taken me some hours to reflect on what I saw and put my experiences in writing.  Here they are.

* * *

We leave at 4.30 in the morning and it is dark for half of the drive.  As I scan the horizon, I can make out the shadows of the terrible destruction left behind.  As the sun rises, the veil of darkness lifts and the horror of what lies before us turns our talkative van into total silence.

The devastation is clear…for miles and miles and miles and miles.  Where there once were homes and villages, there is nothing but debris and shells of homes and beachfront hotels that had been built of concrete.  It is impossible to imagine the fishermen’s huts that used to line Sri Lanka’s southern coast.  Nothing is left of them.  The shoreline is littered with large broken boats washed up onto the shore.  There are boats upside-down floating in the ocean.  The coast road is clear now but the debris has been piled up along both sides of the road.  It is a war zone where there was no war.

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I find myself wondering how water could be so powerful to, in a few minutes, wash away lives, livelihoods and family histories.  We see many areas where survivors have come back to what were once their homes.  They walk on huge piles of debris trying to salvage something of their lives.  Clothes litter tree branches.  I see a child’s red toy keyboard lying in a pool of stagnant water.  A statue of a Buddha sits surrounded by rubble on the foundation of what was once a seaside temple.

Our first stop is near Galle to see the infamous train that carried holiday travellers from Colombo to Galle on the morning of 26 December.  The train carriages are only near the tracks, which have been ripped from the ground by the force of the waves.  The four cars and the engine are scattered around a 300-metre area. None of the train cars is intact.  The bodies have been cleared but most of the cars still contain personal belongings of those who were on the train.  Clothing and shoes lay on the floor and hang from the luggage racks.  The area is guarded by Sri Lankan military personnel wearing gauze masks over their mouths and noses.  There are a few other foreign news people there and a lot of Sri Lankans have come to see.  I have a feeling of walking on a mass grave.

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Inside a train car.

A man walks up to us.  Through an interpreter, we learn that he had gone to the market on the 26th and escaped the waves.  His entire family has been washed away.  As I find out all throughout the day, people need to talk.  They do not ask for anything…they just need to tell their stories.

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In Galle, we visit a temple that now serves as a camp for the homeless.  About 80 people sleep on the floor of one room.  Cooked food is distributed twice a day with rations provided by NCA’s partner in Sri Lanka.  The camp is full of women and children, almost all of whom have lost a family member.  The men are out salvaging through the remains of their homes.  Children love having their photos taken and yesterday was no exception.  Their faces light up the first time I show them their image on the screen of my digital camera.  Soon, they all want their photos taken with their siblings or their best friends.  These are the faces of survivors.

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At another temple, a doctor volunteers in the mornings to treat homeless children.  Two young volunteers help him distribute donated medicines.  I talk to a social worker.  She is articulate and energetic.  She tells me that it is good that people like us come to see what is happening.  She tells me that Sri Lanka is a beautiful place full of beautiful people.  She tells me that her people will need help to rebuild.  She tells me that her people want to move on from this tragedy.  She starts to cry.  All I can do is hug her.  She follows me out to the van and waves as we drive away.

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Volunteers helping to dispense medicines.

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On a cleared parcel of land across the road from the ocean, the 7 survivors of a family of 11 sleep under tents provided by UNHCR.  A woman tells me her story.  In the morning of the 26th, she was feeding her 19-day old son when the water started invading her coastal home.  Her 7-year old son was in the house with them while her 5-year old daughter played outside.  As the waves grew in strength, she grabbed both her baby and her 7-year old son and started running.  As she was putting her 7-year old up in a tree, she lost hold of her baby.  She grabbed her 7-year old and continued running.  She ran to safe ground and realised that her son was not breathing.  She pressed on his stomach as dirty seawater poured out and he started breathing again.  Her husband, her 7-year old son and she survived.  They found the body of their daughter.  The baby’s body is still missing.  They want to start rebuilding their home but the land on which their home stood has eroded.  She wonders where they will go now.  I do not take any photos.  Sometimes, taking photos just doesn’t seem right.

As we drive through Galle, a group of demonstrators is shouting outside the municipal building.  One carries a sign in English that says “We want to go to our born place”.  They too are wondering where they will go now that the government has prohibited rebuilding within 100 metres of the shoreline (a law that has been in existence for many years but not enforced).

A young Buddhist monk coordinating relief activities at a temple speaks about the tragedy.  When asked what message he wants to send back to the people of Norway, he emphasises that the tsunami tragedy should not divert the Norwegian government from their efforts to broker peace in Sri Lanka.

At another refugee camp, a group of young political leaders from the radical JVP party speak about Norway’s role in the peace process.  The problems, as they expressed them, are that Norway is on the side of the Tamil Tigers and that their motivation in brokering peace is to spread Christianity throughout the island.

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Our last stop is at the Galle YMCA which has turned into an orphanage for 25 children aged 2-15.  There is not yet a clear policy on what the government will do with orphaned survivors. The children are sitting in a circle singing songs with two youth leaders.  Many of them giggle as I walked around them taking photos.  My feeling is that most of them are too young to comprehend what has happened.  For now, they are just being children.

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Before leaving Galle, we stop along the coast.  I walk into the shell of what was once someone’s home.  In one room, a picture of a Sri Lankan music star hangs on what was left of the wall.  Evidence of people’s lives are still very apparent.  Some still cling to the hope of finding family members alive.  The streetlamps that are still standing are covered with posters asking for information about loved ones.

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The press is full of photos of the devastation that the tsunamis left behind.  What is difficult to capture from these photographs is that each pile of rubble, each shell of a house, each piece of clothing hanging from a tree branch represents a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a family.  Survivors talk freely of those they have lost.  I think they feel the need, even in front of strangers, to bear witness to the fact that these people existed.

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9. Signs, Shopping, Kerala (15 December 2004)

Signs Seen in India

At a shrine:  Please keep off your shoes
At a hairdresser:  Ladies’ Saloon
At a restaurant:  Serving Multi-Ethnic Cushion

Some signs seem not to serve any purpose at all

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Food Shopping in India

As long as I cook Indian food, shopping is relatively easy.  The choice of dal (lentils) is virtually unlimited (I choose by colour) and don’t get me started on the types of rice available.  The problem comes when cooking other types of cushion.  Buying meat was a bit of a problem until I discovered Haroon’s.  Haroon’s is a meat store located in Mr. Haroon’s house.  Mr. Haroon is a Muslim so that’s where most expats head to buy beef (they go somewhere else to buy pork).   Rosie is the saleslady who pulls packages of frozen beef, chicken, lamb and, much to my surprise at Thanksgiving, turkeys, out of the huge deep freezers in the front room (the store).  As she does this, a very tiny and very shrivelled old lady sits guard at the front door.  I’ve never really found out who this lady is as she and I don’t speak the same language.  I speak English and she either meows or barks at me.  These utterances are followed by a toothless schoolgirl giggle (usually after the “meow”) or a menacing scowl (usually after the “bark”).   I sometimes wonder if she’s trying to tell me something as I walk out with unmarked packages of meat.

Shopping for meat is the easy part.  Shopping for the stuff that goes with the meat is another story altogether.  Bangalore is indeed an international city and the arrival of thousands of expats to the silicon valley of India has resulted in the availability of many foreign products in Bangalore’s food shops.  The only problem is that they are not all in one shop.  A recent shopping list comprised of bottled lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, lettuce, apples, whole-wheat bread and bacon involved 4 shops, 30 km and 2 days in heavy traffic.  The meal took 10 minutes to eat.

Preparing Fruits and Vegetables for Consumption

There are two schools of thought for expatriates on eating fruits and vegetables in India: one is the school that tells you not to eat them and the other is the school that tells you to eat them only if they are first soaked in chemicals to remove the chemicals used in their production.  It seems that India has not yet signed on to the International Treaty on Not Using Life-Threatening Pesticides that were Banned in North America and Europe Years Ago.  Before coming to India, I had read about the need to soak fruits and vegetables in potassium permanganate to remove pesticides but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was and was a bit worried about soaking things I would eventually eat in it.  A quick search on the internet reveals the following about potassium permanganate:

Potassium permanganate, KMnO4, is a purple crystalline compound with a metallic sheen. It is soluble in water, in acetone and in methanol, but it is decomposed by ethanol.   It is prepared by fusing manganese dioxide with potassium hydroxide to form the potassium manganate and then electrolysing the manganate solution using iron electrodes at about 60 degC.  Potassium permanganate is widely used as a powerful oxidising agent, as a disinfectant in a variety of applications, and as an analytical oxidant reagent in redox titrations.”

I was reassured that the description did not include the words “lethal if swallowed” and further reassured when I discovered that the only place to buy it was at a pharmacy.  I bought 11 boxes, just in case I need to analyse a bunch of oxidant reagents in redox titrations.

Indian City Names

When the colonisers arrived in India, they had trouble pronouncing some of the place names so, in the good old tradition of colonisation, they changed them.  The “decolonisation” of names started in 1995 when the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party came to power.  The ruling party of Bombay decided to change the name of their town to Mumbai, believed to be the original name of the settlement that became Bombay.  The state of Tamil Nadu changed Madras to Chennai.  Later, Cochin was changed to Kochi and Calcutta to Kolkata.  Tranquebar (a former Danish colony) became Tarangambadi, Benares became Varanasi and so on.  All of this makes for interesting stories of furious travellers insisting that they have been cheated because their tour guide took them to Varanasi when they paid to go to Benares.  Two of the more successful changes (i.e., names that are totally impossible for foreigners to pronounce) are Trivandrum reverting to Thiruvananthapuram and Ooty becoming Udhagamandalam.  It reminds me of learning Norwegian…

 Kerala 

I recently returned from a one-week trip through Kerala, a state in India known for

  • its high literacy rate (almost 90% compared to India’s overall rate of 52%);
  • its low fertility rate (1.8 births/woman compared to 2.9 for India overall);
  • India’s highest life expectancy and lowest death rates; and
  • India’s highest female sex ratio (1,036 women for 1,000 men).

Kerala is also known for the fact that, from 1957 to 1991 it was administered by a Marxist government and for its coconuts (no pun intended to the Marxists).

The capital, Cochin, is home to the exquisite Pardesi Synagogue, built in the 16th century.   The Jewish community in Cochin dates back to 175 BC, when it is believed that seven Jewish families settled after being shipwrecked off the Malabar coast.   Until 1948, when a large number of Jews left for Israel, there was a thriving Jewish community in Cochin, located mainly in the area called Jewtown.  Today, there are only 4 Jewish families left in Cochin.  When I visited the synagogue, a very Indian man asked me if I was Jewish and, when I said that I was, he said “Shalom”.

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The exquisite Pardesi Synagogue, Cochin

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No trip to Kerala would be complete without a backwaters tour.  The overnight tour starts in Alappuzha/Allepey on traditional-style rice boats (kettuvalum).  I say traditional-style because some modern amenities have been added for tourists, including air conditioning, proper bedrooms and bathrooms and a kitchen.  A three-man crew catered to our every need, preparing delicious Keralan food loaded with chilis and coconut and even taught us to play Karam (a board game similar to billiards with flat round pieces that you flick with your finger).  As the boat meandered slowly through the narrow backwaters lined with coconut trees and rice fields, villagers went about their daily activities at the water’s edge.  It is difficult to describe the beauty of the landscape.  What I can tell you is that there is nothing quite like watching the sun setting slowly from a houseboat on the Kerala backwaters…

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8. A Garden, a Dinner Party, the Dalai Lama and a Palace (5 December 2004)

The Garden 

We have a small garden in front of our house.  When we moved in, it was a full of dirt with bits of green popping up here and there.  Our realtor had told us that the green stuff was “Mexican grass” and that, within a few days, it would cover the dirt completely, making a lush lawn that would make us the pride of the neighbourhood.  Well, one month later, we still had a garden full of dirt with bits of green popping up here and there and not a single neighbour had stopped by to tell us that we were the pride of the neighbourhood.  It was time to do something.  We needed a gardener, which was good because one showed up a few days later.

With our driver acting as official interpreter, I explained that I wanted the garden to be a wall of privacy, with lush green plants letting in sunlight but keeping out prying eyes and shielding us from our ever-present guards.  We also have a small terrace off our dining room.  It has a very small patch of dirt that runs along a bare white wall.  With our driver still acting as official interpreter, I explained that I would like the wall to be covered in flowering vines.  I mentioned jasmin and honeysuckle as examples.

The gardener nodded as our driver interpreted and, while I do not understand the local language, Kannada, I did hear words like “privacy” and “vine”.  It seemed to be going well.

With cost and timing agreed, Hans Einar and I then went on a trip to Sri Lanka.  The trip was fascinating, as you may have read in an earlier Bangalore Brief.  On our return, the drive from the airport was filled with anticipation, knowing that our garden was completed.  Finally, we would have the privacy of a tropical paradise.  At this point, I would like you all to repeat after me: “oops”.

The following photos are accompanied by my instructions to the gardener.  These are the “after” photos

Wall covered with flowering vines

“I’d like this wall covered with flowering vines”

The wall of privacy

“And a wall of thick bushes for privacy”

You may have noticed that the gardener did lay down real grass.  From the result of his work, I have an idea of what he did with the Mexican grass…I think he must have smoked it.  

It has been a few months since the gardener was here…for the last time.   A new gardener was hired and the garden looks much nicer.

Our First Dinner Party

In attendance

5 Indian nationals (3 castes, 2 religions, 4 regions, 3 languages, 1 vegetarian)
2 Norwegians (1 west coast, 1 east coast)
1 American (democrat)

Food Served

Appetizer:       Humus with raw vegetables, bread sticks and roasted cashews
Main Dishes:    Eggplant Parmigiana, Salad with Walnuts, Garlic Bread
Dessert:           Indian Sweets, Bananas
Beverages:       White Wine, Fruit Juices, Water (room temperature and cold)

Amounts Consumed

Our indian guests ate one small serving each of the main dishes, politely refusing seconds.  The Norwegians and the American ate well.  Hans Einar and I ate eggplant parmigiana and humus for 4 days…

Nobody admired the garden.

Travels with My Husband

Dharamsala

We spent one week in Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and, perhaps more famously, the Dalai Lama.  To get to Dharamsala, one takes the train from Delhi to Pathankot.  The rest of the trip is by 4-wheel drive vehicle for a 2-hour ride up into the mountains.  The trip started off well.  Hans Einar and I arrived in Delhi and met one of his colleagues from NCA Oslo, Anders.  We proceeded to the Delhi railway station, ready for our adventure (our first train trip in India).  As with everywhere else in India, you arrive at a major transport station besieged by porters (called “coolies” in India) who are more than happy to hoist your heavy luggage on top of their heads and speed away as you follow, trying to keep sight of your floating belongings.  We were taken to our seats on platform 16, from which the train to Pathankot was to depart.  Just as a precaution, I asked two different railway employees on the platform to confirm that we were on the right train.  They did and we settled in nicely.  Despite being 40 minutes lates, the train departed without incident.  Little did we know that, by that time, the incident was already in progress.

About an hour into the 9-hour trip, the conductor came by to collect tickets.  We proudly showed him ours and waited for him to punch it and let us get ready for bed.  Unfortunately for all of us, the conductor neither punched our ticket nor spoke English.  We found out from a fellow traveller that the conductor had no intention of punching our ticket because we were on the wrong train (here, it is useful to imagine feelings of total panic on our part).  As it turns out, we WERE on a train to Pathankot but it was a different train from the one we were supposed to take and it would take a longer route, getting us to Pathankot a few hours later than expected.  We breathed a small sigh of relief, knowing at least that we were headed in the right direction.  Our fellow traveller then proceeded to tell us that (1) our ticket was not valid on this particular train; (2) we would need to purchase a new ticket AND pay a penalty for travelling without a ticket (3) we were seated in the wrong class of travel (we were in a 3-tier air-conditioned car instead of a 2-tier air-conditioned car) (4) there was no space available in the 2-tier air-conditioned car).  Keeping all of our wits about us, we agreed amongst ourselves that we would pay for new tickets in the first-class car.  The rest of the trip passed without incident and, by the way, without much sleep for any of us.  Do you know how difficult it is to sleep in a moving train???

Dharamsala is a lovely town and, while it is in India, there is little that is Indian about it.  It is populated mainly by Tibetans and young Western hippies who come to study buddhism, reflect on life and be hippies in a place where hippies can still be hippies.  I spent most days wandering around the small winding streets being happy not being a hippy.  One day, I took a class offered by Lhamo, a young Tibetan who makes a living giving cooking classes.  I learned to make “momos”, traditional Tibetan steamed dumplings.

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Skilled hands forming moms

Our Tibetan government hosts took us on a field trip to visit some of their projects.  There were two highlights of the day:  the Norbulinka Institute and the transit school for Tibetan refugees.  The Norbulinka Institute specialises in training Tibetans in ancient forms of art, including the famous Thangka painting and wood and metal work.  They have a museum of Tibetan dolls made by monks showing all forms of Tibetan customs and dress.  The day we visited the Institute was special as only the master teachers were present.  All of the students were in Dharamsala participating in a hunger strike for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk who has been sentenced to death by Chinese authorities.

The Transit School provides a basic education for newly arrived adult refugees who have been denied an education in Tibet.   There, students learn the Tibetan language and culture.  We sat on the grass amidst a group of young men studying, Chinese-Tibetan-English dictionaries sprawled about.  Only one of these young men, Taski Nyima, was brave enough to talk to us in English.  I asked him to tell us his story.  In halting English, he described his 50-day walk through the Himalayas with a friend and a guide, his arrival at a Tibetan refugee camp in Kathmandu and his subsequent transfer to the Dharamsala transit school.  He was so nervous speaking English that his hands were shaking the entire time.  After he told me his story, he then asked me to tell him my story.  Shocked and humbled, I blurted out something about working in Paris, falling in love and moving to Norway and then moving to India.  He seemed as fascinated by my story as I was by his.  It was a strong moment.

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Taski Nyima and me

Our visit to Dharamsala was over and we headed to the train station.  On our way, we were privileged to stop at a Tibetan convent to meet with Ugyen Trinley Dorje, recognised as the 17th Karmapa Lama of Tibet.  The Karmapa Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, ranking only behind the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama in the Tibetan spiritual hierachy.  Ugyen Trinley Dorje was the first high lama to be officially recognised by the Chinese government.   In January 2000, when he was 14 years old, he fled Tibet, much to the embarrassment of Chinese authorities and has now been granted exile in India.   We had a short, private meeting with him, during which we held out the traditional Tibetan white scarf (the kata) for him to bless and place over our heads.  He gave us a small red ribbon symbolising the lama’s protection and blessing that we tied around our necks.   While meeting the 17th Karmapa Lama was awe-inspiring, it was also very touching to realise that this spritual leader of Tibet is a young man…not a typical 18-year old by any means, but, nevertheless, an 18-year old in a body that seemed slightly too big for him.

A final word about our train trip back to Delhi.  We managed to get on the right train this time and the right class of travel (first).  This is good!  The only incident on the return trip was that we had an additional traveller in our first-class compartment.  We didn’t notice him at  first but, as we were comfortably seated and talking, we noticed a small, quick movement out of the corners of our eyes: a small mouse had decided to accompany us on our journey.  Since none of us likes mice, I went to notify the train conductor, who sent two train attendants to our compartment to catch the mouse.  It was fun watching them scrambling around on the floor trying first to find the mouse and then to catch the little critter.

In search of the mouse

In search of the mouse

They did not manage to catch our fellow traveller (who, by the way, was travelling without a ticket and I thought they should have been prepared to fine him) and they gave up.  Several minutes later, the conductor came by to tell us that the mouse had moved into one of the other first-class compartments and they managed to chase it off the train.  We slept well that night, knowing we were safe.  We awoke refreshed and hungry.  It was at that moment that I decided to eat some of the leftover cake we had purchased the day before in Dharamsala and, as I reached for the package, I noticed that someone had beaten me to it: our mouse friend was happily nibbling away at our breakfast.  At that moment, I could only appreciate the psychology of the train conductor who, by telling us a lie, had allowed us to have a peaceful nights’ sleep.

Leftovers from the mouse

Leftovers from the mouse

The Palace on Wheels

The Palace on Wheels is hailed as “one of the top ten luxury trains in the world”.  I’m not sure what the other 9 trains are but I can unequivocably say it was the most luxurious train I have ever been on.  Until 1991, the Palace on Wheels comprised some of the original cars of the formers princes of Rajasthan, the Maharajas.   Apparently though, trains fit for Maharajas were not fit for tourists and, in 1991 new air-conditioned cars with individual bathrooms were inaugurated.  Despite the overhaul, the Palace on Wheels remains a tribute to travel in a most luxurious (and comfortable) style.  Not only were we referred to as Maharaja and Maharani, we were treated like princes and princesses.  At the end of each day of sightseeing, we entered our train car, greeted by our head cabin attendant Umesh who handed us cold towels sprinkled with rosewater to freshen us up.  The bar was a friendly meeting place where we sipped outrageously-priced Indian wine before being called to dinner in one of the two dining cars, named, of course, the Maharaja and the Maharani.  The food served by white-gloved waiters and all of it was good.

The 7-night, 8-day journey took us to the most famous “purs” of Rajasthan: Jaipur (the pink city), Jailsamer (the gold city), Jodhpur (the blue city), Udaipur (the lake city) and Agra (the Taj Mahal city).  We also went on an early-morning Tiger Safari (the no-tigers-in-sight place) and a visit to a bird sanctuary (the not-such-a-sanctuary-as-it-was-teeming-with-tourists-like-us place).  At each city we were met by guides who, after taking us around the forts and palaces of Rajasthan humbly thanked us for our attention and mentioned that we could show our gratitude as appropriate (the tipping cities).

Everything we saw was splendid.  However, I must admit that the Taj Mahal is overwhelmingly spectacular.  Despite the vast number of photographs I have seen of it, nothing can convey the sheer size and beauty of this monument to love.  It was built between 1631 and 1653 by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his wife after her death during childbirth.  It is also a tribute to the 20.000 artisans who worked to build this monument, some of whom had their hands or thumbs chopped off so they could never replicate the work they had done.  While reflecting on this monument to romanticism, it is worth noting that legend has it that Shah Jahan also planned to build a replica of the Taj Mahal in black to house his remains.  This never happened because, when his son found out, he decided that this was not a good use of his inheritance and imprisoned his father.  He was, however, considerate enough to imprison his father in Agra’s Red Fort in a room with a direct view of the Taj Mahal.

Some images from our voyage on the Palace on Wheels

DSC00872 DSC00890 DSC01014 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 2 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 3 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 55 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 56 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 72 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 73 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 78 Palace on Wheels Nov 2004 113

Hans Einar’s Birthday

Like everything else on the Palace on Wheels, this was celebrated royally, with a birthday cake and flowers in the morning after our no-Tiger safari and another birthday cake presented to him in the bar before dinner and served later as dessert.  Warm wishes from family and friends were with him on the train (and via mobile telephone) and he spent part of the morning opening gifts and birthday cards and hearing me read a very special speech sent from Norway.  Our Palace on Wheels friends, Anna and Graeme, surprised and touched us by sending a bottle of champagne to our room (which we shared with them at dinner).   But, while his day was spent in one of the most luxurious trains in the world, surrounded by new-found friends in one of the world’s most spectacular places, I would venture to guess that Hans Einar’s birthday celebration was only complete when we decided to skip the day’s afternoon visit to yet another fort and walked into town where he called home and spoke to his parents on the 50th day of his birth.

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Happy Birthday from our stewards of the Palace on Wheels

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Hans Einar at 50

Epilogue/Prologue

Since our garden debacle, our dinner party and our fabulous trips to Northern India, we have learned that we will be leaving India much earlier than planned.  It has been decided that we will move to Colombo, Sri Lanka where Hans Einar will set up a new South Asia regional representation for NCA.