Saturday, October 25, 2008

Astonishing Surprises

To scratch beneath the surface of Kashmir is to reveal astonishing surprises. It is like a fragrant garden of many colors, where nightingales sing and pure mountain wind blows—where one can easily fall under a spell and lose his mind to beauty.
It has been only two weeks, but I now have steadfast friends in Kashmir. We have trekked, rode horses, and visited villages together in the Himalayan Mountains, attended weddings with lavish feasting and singing, taken boat rides and negotiated city traffic in rickshaws. I went to a big feast where six cooks began a day in advance and prepared the food outside in big kettles over burning logs. In Muslim societies, men and women are segregated and mostly stay separate in public. Sitting crosslegged with other men on a carpet laid on the ground under a big tent, we were served delicious Kashmiri food. I was politely given a fork, knife and spoon, but broke through my cultural reticence and ate like the others—balling my rice and lamb, saucy vegetables and sticky treats together and then shoveling the handful into my mouth with a flick of my thumb. It is messier than eating with utensils, but I enjoyed the experience.

It is astonishing the high quality of handcrafts here and I have done something new: borrowed against my savings and bought a considerable amount of goods as investment for resale. Some of the special items are silk on silk rugs that took six weavers three years to make, ornately carved walnut boxes that can only be opened with a secret twist, mesmerizing jewelry in gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, emeralds and more, pure cashmere sweaters and handmade shawls with intricate needlework, and coats of sheepskin and lambs wool with embroidery. All this, and I don’t have a home of my own—I am sending it all to my assistant in Santa Fe. I will not see any of it for at least another three months. It has felt good because many families here are benefiting from the money going into the economy, and I am able to share these remarkable goods with people who are not accustomed to seeing such fineness.
I leave Kashmir tomorrow and go to Agra, where the Taj Majal awaits my eyes. It is with some regret I leave, and others too have expressed remorse. For certain I will return, and when I do, friends will be waiting.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My Astonished Eyes

I arrived in India with only vague ideas about what to do and how long I would stay. In less than 48 hours, THE DREAM whisked me away from New Delhi on a magic carpet ride and set me down on a big houseboat that I have all to myself on a pristine lake at the foot of the Himalayan mountains in Kashmir. Furthermore, I have my own personal servant, Mansoor, who prepares my meals, takes care of my room, escorts me everywhere and even puts a hot water bottle in my bed at night before I retire. I did not plan any of this . . . it just arrived with THE DREAM.
The population in these parts is 90% Muslim, so I hear the call to prayer five times a day. The people are upright and proud, very sturdy and live close to the earth. Religion is central to their life and they get up at 5:30 AM with the first call to prayer. Most of them have had little schooling and the government does not do much to help.

People shuttle around in canoes, rowing themselves wherever they want to go. They either crouch at the tip and pull themselves along, or row from the back. I have not seen a single motorboat. Various vendors come by in their boats, including Mr. Wonderful the Flowerman. He glides around with his boatfull of colorful flowers he has grown. I bought a bunch of dahlias and zinnias from him, and also bought a variety of seeds from gorgeous Kashmir plants. Sometimes, when I am on the lake, amid water lilies and lotus plants, with the majestic mountains all around, the air pure, quiet, and peaceful, I feel bliss, and wonder, am I in heaven?
Srinagar is the city close by. To get into town, I must board a dinghy and be rowed (about ten minutes) to a landing where I can catch a waiting taxi. All my costs are included in the package, so I do not need my wallet, but simply enjoy the ride. I am living for less than it cost me in Europe.
Everyone treats me well, and often I am asked, “Are you happy?” There is a small community around the houseboats and I am already part of a circle and continually invited places. I will go to a wedding soon, and tomorrow I have been invited to lunch with a family and to go for a drive. Traditionally, weddings are held in the fall and they are big events with lavish food, music, dancing and many hundreds of people.
There are four seasons, and it is chilly at night and then warms during the day. The local language is Kashmiri, but people usually know a little English. My landlord knows English very well and we have good conversations. My servant Mansoor never went to school but knows at least four languages—all learned from tourists. His wife just had a baby, their second child.
Kashmir is offering me so much, the days are flashing by, so I am staying two weeks instead of one. Certainly, THE DREAM will surprise me again, so I keep my thoughts from straying too far away from the present, and simply trust what is ahead will be unfolded before my astonished eyes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The people of Kenya have a particular fondness for Barak Obama, whose father hails from this nation. Recently the author Jerome Corsi wrote a book caled “The Obama Nation,” with the intent of casting doubt on Obama’s character and ability. He had the nerve to arrive in Kenya to promote it, but got no further than the airport in Nairobi before being roundly booted back out of the country, amid great publicity and outrage. During my safari, some of the travelers who were on the Kenyan portion before I joined, recounted how a group of Masai children had arrived at the Safari vehicle chanting USA! USA! Obama! Obama! Obama!

Charity and I took a nice trip to Lake Navashu, about an hour from Nairobi. A boatsman took me out on the lake, past flocks of pelican, and to my surprise, hippo were swimming in the deep water. They swim all day for hours on end . . . incredible for such big animals.

During my last week in Kenya, my bonds of friendship with people deepened and by the time I had to leave, while I packed my suitcases, my heart ached a bit. I was touched at how many times I heard someone ask, “When will you come back to Kenya?”
My flight from Nairobi, Friday, October 10, takes me to Doha, Qatar, where I transfer airplanes and arrive in New Delhi, India at 3:30 AM Saturday.

Over 16 million people live in New Delhi, and about a sixth of the world’s population lives in India. My first day I am tired from traveling all night and into the early morning hours, but go in the afternoon for a taxi ride and arrive at the Baha’i Temple, fondly called the lotus temple because of its shape in the form of an opening lotus petal. The drive is boisterous through the crowded streets, with no rules applying in the road except get there as fast as you can without hitting anyone. This means squeezing through traffic snarls and constantly honking the horn to alert others of your position. By the time I catch a glimpse of the temple dome in the distance, I feel uplifted as if touched by a vision of the sublime. I learn that it is the most visited site in India, and when I am there, a constant flow of people makes it obvious why. “Since its inauguration to public worship in December 1986, the Bahai House of Worship has drawn to its portals more than 50 million visitors, making it the most visited edifice in the world. People have come regardless of the scorching summer heat of Delhi, which sometimes rises above 40°C during the months of June to September, and have braced the chill and cold rains that Delhi experiences during winter. They have admired the beautiful lotus form of the Temple, and have been fascinated by the teachings of the Bahai Faith, which believes in oneness of God, oneness of religions and oneness of mankind.” From

Today, I leave for the Himalayan region in the north and I will live on a houseboat.

Monday, October 06, 2008

My Safari Adventure

My safari adventure began when I met the other twelve travelers and four African staff at a Nairobi hotel, Friday, September 26 and we set off in our specially equipped rig for a week of visiting world-famous parks in Tanzania to see spectacular wild animals and landscape. Some of the group had already been traveling for a week on the same truck, visiting parks in Kenya. Here is a brief description of the week of events:
Day 1: We leave Nairobi around 2 PM and arrive in Arusha, Tanzania about 9. It is a difficult drive because of poor roads, but especially for the original travelers who had already been driving six hours before arriving in Nairobi. Along the way, next to the road, I saw thousands of workers digging by hand a cable trench that stretched for a great distance. I commented that machinery could do the job much quicker, but heard that the object was to give many people a job.
Along the way we make several stops, and at one, I am swarmed by Masai women in colorful flowing robes and bedecked with beaded jewelry. They push forward with their jewelry and crafts, clamoring and seeking my attention all at once. I am overwhelmed and guess this is what it is like to be a movie star. We stay in a hotel for the evening—our only night that we will not be camping in tents. (We use large dome tents and sleep on camp beds with mattresses while camping on this tour. The staff erects and takes down the tents and travelers are not required to help out in food preparation.)
Day 2: We drive to Lake Manyara and set up at a campsite. Mid-afternoon we drive into the reserve and see baboons and gazelle along the way. When I see elephants for the first time I feel elated. The same when we spot hippopotamus at a water hole. It is a first taste of the true safari experience. Most of the group have brought along cameras with long zoom lenses up to 400 mm. Safari was an afterthought for me and my lens can only go to 70 mm, enough to get closer, but often not close enough. It is strictly forbidden to leave designated trails or get out of vehicles. So I am not getting close up shots like some of the other travelers.
Day 3: Our typical wake-up call is 5 – 6 AM because of the long distances we must cover going from park to park. Today we pass through traditional Masai homelands on our way to Serengeti. At the rim of Ngorongoro crater we stop just as a group of Masai boys are passing with their cattle. I approach them to take pictures and they welcome me—for money. I agree to pay them a few dollars and they pose, relaxed and jovial. This is what I love—being close to foreign culture and exchanging smiles and handshakes. I like fooling around with people too, so with a smile, spontaneously poked my finger in the big looping earring hole of young man. Masai are some of the most relaxed people on the earth, so he took it in stride without surprise. Unbelievably, the rest of the group stood by and did not take a single picture. Throughout the safari, I was the only one to take pictures of African people.
Further on, we see giraffe and zebra, and stop at Olduvai Gorge for lunch. It is where during the 1950’s, the husband and wife archeologist team of Louis and Martha Leakey found remains of the oldest human from almost 2 million years ago. We visit a museum and hear a lecture.
At the entrance to Serengeti Park a group of Masai women are available for pictures. Nothing can be seen for miles, and yet, here they are, some with babies strapped to their backs. I am attracted like a bee to flowers and take pictures. That afternoon, after setting up camp we take a drive and I am stunned at the variety and scope of animal life all sharing the space: lions, elephant, zebra, hyena, jackal, hippo, wildebeest, gazelle, impala, urdu, ducks, baboon, and many more. I notice that all the animals are supremely aware of each other and their positions. The predators depend on their prey, and the others depend on the predators to keep the populations under control.
At the end, I feel as though three days have been compressed into this one-day.
Day 4: During the night, I am wakened by very heavy breathing outside my tent. The grass is being pulled up in bunches, and I hear slow movement as well. Something very big is only feet away. A water buffalo has come. We get up before 6 AM for Serengeti sightseeing because much of the main activity of animals occurs at night, and then they rest during the day. The highlight is watching a cheetah stalk a herd of impala, and then make a kill.
Day 5: We leave Serengeti on a long drive to our next camping destination—the rim of Ngorongoro crater, a huge, perfectly intact volcanic caldera that is home to some 30,000 animals. The night is spent at a campsite on the rim of the crater, where spectacular views of the surrounding region can be had. 
The day is marked by extremely rough roads and constant jostling and banging in the truck. It actually breaks down several times. Fortunately, the driver is also a mechanic and manages to get the vehicle back up and running each time. At the end of safari, I think I will have breathed as much dust as a crew of coal miners. It is too hot to keep the windows up.
Day 6: It is surprising how cold and breezy the campsite is. This day, we break into groups of four and drive through dense fog to the crater in hired landrovers. It is good to get out of the big truck into more dexterous vehicles. The scenery is spectacular, as is the changing weather. On the surface of the crater, the low-lying clouds lift and the sun comes out. We see a vast single-file parade of wildebeest, marching to the edge of a lake where flamingos are congregated.
Day 7: We descend once more into the Great Rift Valley and enter the Tarangire National Park. The Tarangire's open savannah and unique baobab trees provide a mixed habitat for a wide variety of bird and animal life, including elephants, oryx, kudu, gazelles and eland. To me, seeing the baobab trees are as wonderful as the animals. They have massive, stubby trunks and then spread branches into the air in a great fan shape. To be near them is almost a mystical experience.
Day 8: We drive back to Nairobi and exchange goodbyes. The crew has been diligent, knowledgeable and courteous. The entire group has bonded during the trip, sharing marvelous experiences, some hardships, and insights along the way.

Click here
to see more safari pictures

Saturday night I went with a few African friends to a juke-joint where a live band played and locals relaxed and danced. I was the only white person in the big crowd and enjoyed experiencing this curiosity. In the United States, I often wondered what it was like for blacks being a minority in such situations. Really, I was not very self-conscious, but rather, joined the crowd, pressing flesh, saying hello, and loving the moments.

I am going to India next. This Friday, October 10th, I fly to New Delhi.

The Dark Continent

Note: This post is late because I was on safari.

Before leaving the United States, my mother pleaded with me, “please don’t go to Africa, they will kill you for your shoes there.” But how could I go around the world and not visit the Dark Continent? It is true that crime and corruption is rampant, along with unrest and inequality, and Africa is dangerous. But it is also vibrant, colorful and soulful.
When I arrived, I was met at the airport by Charity, an African woman who runs Kikuyu Lodge in Nairobi. Her partner, Trevor, is British and built the lodge himself on the outskirts of the city. After living in Rome, I am shocked how disheveled and ramshackle are the surroundings. Streets are crowded and roads are in poor condition. Along the highways are tiny shops pieced together from scraps of wood and tin. People are sometimes dressed in little more than rags. There is a lack of aesthetics . . . Kenya is practically barren of high culture, and my first day in Nairobi, my eyes hurt, starved for fine art in the surroundings.
I search for beauty and find it in people and some of the landscape. Everyday, I swim in a black ocean of humanity. The shades of black go from chocolate brown to ebony, and it is a wonderful experience for my eyes, accustomed to white everywhere. The skin is smooth and soft to the touch and I notice how light reflects differently across dark features. Generally, people seem quick to smile and wave hello, and at least look curiously at me, a white stranger in their midst. The main language is Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya. English is universal, but sometimes among less educated people, vocabulary is severely limited and communication in English difficult.
Baha’u’llah in His Writings, "compared the colored people to the black pupil of the eye," through which "the light of the spirit shineth forth." — Just like the black pupil of the eye absorbs the utmost light to feed the brain information for cognition, it seems the dark race is the principal transmitter of earthiness and primary experience.
I am biding my time, waiting to go on safari. I go out with Charity everyday, mostly to use the Internet while she does errands, but also, we visit a tea plantation, a flower farm, and a Masai crafts market and a self-help co-op for single women with children where jewelry is manufactured. We have conversations and laugh together as our personalities mingle. I hoped to do some street photography, but noticed that people are more wary of cameras pointed toward them. One day, Charity takes me downtown and we walk while I snap pictures. She explains that some areas, especially around government buildings, are strictly taboo for photography and if caught, police can make an arrest. While we walk, she keeps close watch on me, warning me to keep aware of my personal space because of robbers on the street. At one point, she entirely forbids me to go into an area. “Do you know what can happen?” she asks. “A thief will attack you from behind and lift you off the ground while another one will take your shoes!”