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