Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Swasticas, Six Pointed Stars and more

Swasticas and Six Pointed Stars
One of the most disconcerting sights for a Jew in India is the prevalence of swasticas. Not just swasticas, but often as decorations on buildings frequently next to what we generally call the six-pointed Star of David. When I asked about the star I was surprised to hear someone call it the Star of India! That was a new one for me. The swastica, symbol that Hitler employed for his National Socialists or Nazis is in fact: "In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, swastica means 'well-being'. The symbol has been used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains for millenia. Early Western travelers to Asia were inspired by its positive and ancient associations and started using it back home. By the beginning of the 20th century there was a huge fad for the swastica as a benign good luck symbol." Nevertheless however benign, it grabs my attention every time.

Indian States, languages, history and culture
India consists of 29 states. Though differences exist between our 50 US states, I have been told that India's states are almost like different countries one from the other. "Historians consider India's modern age to have begun sometime between 1848 and 1885." Prior to that India was not a united country and during much of its history different regions were ruled by various foreign and domestic powers. Therefore even today significant differences prevail. The most obvious one is language. English is taught in the schools as a vestige of British rule, but relatively few Indians speak fluent English (and among those who do, their accent is so thick, they are difficult to understand by American English speakers). The most common language is probably Hindi. However we have spent most of our trip thus far in the South East state of Tamil-Nadu where everyone speaks Tamil. Passing over to South West India we enter the state of Kerala where they speak Malayalam! India has 22 languages which have been given the grade of national languages. These include: Urdu, Punjabi and Nepali. Many of these languages are not related to each other and to add to the confusion they use different orthographies, so that one cannot even read the other, much less speak it.

In addition since these states have different histories, they have different heroes and villains, different musical and dance traditions, different cuisines. I wonder how they can simply share movies and other uniting cultural phenomena. Writing on the computer in their own language must be confusing.

Though the caste system is technically illegal, it is evidently alive and well throughout India. I was surprised to be told that the Sanskrit term for caste is color and that originally and to this day caste is largely related to skin color, the darker the skin the lower the caste. Historians claim that the caste system originated when in the second and third centuries BCE, India was invaded by light skin people known as Aryans.

Though as tourists modern day caste discrimination is imperceptible, again I am told that all you have to do is look at who is sweeping and cleaning up and you are seeing the caste system in action.

Many have fought caste throughout Indian history, among them Buddha and his teachings. Christianity's attraction to a certain segment of Indian society also held out the promise of rejecting the very notion of caste.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Religion and Traffic

When Carol and I traveled in Mianmar a couple of years ago, I wrote extensively about our perception of religion and faith in that country. The people of Mianmar are the most religious people we had ever encountered. Every aspect of society and culture was infused with the Buddhist faith, a Buddhism quite different than the much more laid back Buddhism we experienced in either Japan or China. True there are also Muslims, the Rohingas, who are a terribly persecuted minority in Mianmar, as well as Christian minority groups, but overwhelmingly we encountered Buddhists. We saw them in celebrations and in everyday life.

India, by contrast, is overwhelmingly a Hindu country, though interestingly Buddhism began here. India has also the second largest Muslim population in the world, second only to Indonesia. (We often think of the Middle East as the center of Islam when clearly population-wise the center is much further East.) Additionally India is also home to Jains, Christians of various religious orientations, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and even some Jews. Here too every aspect of life is governed by religious traditions, clothing, foods, language...even how people greet and acknowledge one another. Visiting the US, no one would highlight our religious sights. In New York you might highlight the Empire State Building or Ellis Island, or the Metropolitan Museum. In San Francisco you would take tourists to Chinatown or Fishermans' Wharf or Muir Woods. In India you visit temples: Hindu temples, or Sikh or Jain temples or a Muslim Mosque, but primarily large, mostly historic Hindu temples. (Even the Taj Mahal which we will visit at the end of our trip is a Moghul (Muslim) shrine. And if you visit museums, what you find is religious relics. Because of various dietary traditions all restaurants are listed as veg or non-veg. Due to Hindu sensitivities, cows roam the streets at will often standing in the middle of the street with traffic doing its best to wind their way around them. Hindu priests (Brahmens) where special clothes and wear no shirt. Some Muslim women are totally covered with only slits allowing them to see. Shops carry all sorts of religious trinkets and paraphenalia. I suspect it would be very difficult to be a "devout" atheist in this country and ignore the religious piece. Everyone identifies as belonging to one or anther religious community.

India tries very hard to present itself as a diverse and tolerant society and in many ways it probably is. However knowing even minimally the historic struggles which led to bloody population transfers creating Pakistan and Bangladesh, the roots of animosity are clearly there. In applying for our visa, we had to answer whether we had ever been to Pakistan, had family there, etc. also indicating ongoing tensions. And the Prime Minister Modi represents a Hindu first political party. So exactly how the religious diversity is worked out is not clear. And where everyone wears their religious identity on his/her sleeve, the concept of a Melting Pot or even a Goulash as we celebrate in America is no where in evidence here.

Getting around anywhere seemingly in India is a challenge to say the least, some would describe it as a nightmare. First of all with a population of 1.3 billion, there are people everywhere, lots of them. Some get around walking, others on bikes, still others on rickshaws (small three wheeled put-put vehicles), others take the bus. Some have cars. Groups like ours travel in vans. Then there are all kinds of trucks and agricultural vehicles. Let's not forget the cows. Each travels at different speeds, but all are on the same roads at the same time. Where traffic has two lanes in either direction, vehicles of all sorts drive down the middle, rather than in either lane, until they must move either right or left. Every vehicle is subject to being overtaken by any other vehicle traveling at a greater speed or thinks it should pass the vehicle in front of it. On roads with one lane in either direction, passing constitutes nothing short of a constant game of chicken with vehicles heading straight for a head on, missing often by inches. When there are three lanes in any direction, Indians easily turn it into five or even six. If it's not convenient to travels on your side of the street (remember this was a British colony, so driving is on the left rather than on the right), travel on the other facing oncoming traffic. If you have missed your turn don't try to go around the block...instead stop all traffic and make a u-turn.

And that's during the day. Now try the same trick at night. Remember: pedestrians, cows and bicycles are still on the road and have no warning lights! Now try being a pedestrian who just wants to cross the street. Yikes! But somehow it works. No police giving speeding tickets. People parking every which way, stopping in the middle of traffic to ask for directions. It's amazing. I wonder what happens when an Indian driver moves to the U.S.? How do they get used to our much more orderly patterns?


Monday, December 19, 2016


Please note: Last Monday as previously reported the city of Chennai was struck by a cyclone. Our flight from Delhi was cancelled and we flew the following day. We checked into the Taj Country Hotel, which had power and internet. Thursday we engaged a driver to take us to Mahabalapurim, a beach community south of Chennai. It was there that we would await the arrival on Saturday of the group from Portland's Concordia University with whom we would travel for the next 13 days. All took place as planned, except that the beach community had no power or internet connection due to the cyclone. The Ideal Beach Resort ran its facility on generators, but the internet connection never returned. This afternoon (Monday) our group of 10 arrived at another beach resort further south in the town of Pondicherry. Completely out of the cyclone area, we are reconnected with the outside world.

We are aware of the snowy and icy weather back home in Portland, though our weather here in southern India is quite toasty and humid during the day. We are certainly also aware and seriously concerned as to the imponderables of the impending Trump administration, knowing that the electors will meet today and make the inevitable a reality.

Sans the internet, here are notes I made in Mahabalapurim about our stay in Chennai:

National Museum:
Museums in India do not meet American museum standards: the lighting is rather poor, the descriptions leave much to be desired, especially for foreigners who know little about the history or ancient culture/religion. The National Museum is housed in a campus of five somewhat overgrown and run down buildings that have seen better days. Note: at all national monuments Indians pay a minimal fee of less than a dollar; foreigners pay anywhere from $5-10. The first building contained stone statuary of Hindu gods taken from ancient temples. Other rooms contained flora and fauna, and coins, etc. far less interesting to us. We then wandered through the fallen trees and branches following sometimes misleading signs to bronzes in another of the five buildings. The lights were out. The guard told us there was no electricity after the storm. Carol expressed her disappointment, because it was the bronzes she was most curious about. The guard said he would see if the generator worked and low and behold, the building lit up with spectacular pieces. We stayed until we were told that they had to shut down. It turned out to be a most worthwhile visit that almost didn't happen.

Coral Merchant Street:
I learned on the internet that Coral Merchant Street was the center of Jewish life in the port city of Chennai, arriving in the 16th century after the Spanish Inquisition. Chennai on the Indian south east coast was a hub of international trade, attracting Jewish diamond merchants. The last of them apparently departed in the 19th century though a Jewish cemetery apparently remains. I was able to locate Coral Merchant Street with the map app on my phone, and after visiting Fort St. George, the British government outpost prior to independence not to far away, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Georgetown. Our driver had to ask directions several times, but we finally got there. It’s a somewhat sketchy neighborhood today to which tourists have clearly never come, but it remains an import-export area. We walked the street looking for signs: perhaps a remaining mezuzah or indentation where a mezuzah once was affixed as we found in Fez, Morocco, perhaps a Magen David in the outside decoration, perhaps a Jewish name on a building. Nothing, except an old building of quite unusual architecture that Carol was convinced must have been built by Jews.

Some might call our effort a failure. But for us walking the street in southern India that at one time had Jewish life was still amazing.

Indian Prime Minister Modi is engaged in a fascinating, if not often irritating, experiment. India functions almost exclusively as a cash economy. That is people have not converted to plastic, nor do most people use banks. Therefore there is no way to track commerce and as a result most people especially the wealthiest pay no income taxes. They keep their wealth in cash. So without prior announcement, Modi declared within weeks the largest monetary denominations would be null and void and in the interim only a small amount of those bills could be converted each day leaving much untaxed money valueless. Long lines gather in front of every bank, because the general public is cash starved. ATMs are empty.

Some in the government denounce Modi for this outrageous experiment, but cab drivers and others we have asked seem willing to endure the inconveniences in order to improve the economy. And it seems to be working. Desperate people are charging purchases on credit cards. People are using banks. People are adopting a new system that allows payments electronically similar to new payment products in the US. Articles in the paper champion the move to a cashless society, much like ours.

But there are glitches. Modi got rid of the 500 and 1000 rupee bill (equivalent to $7.50 and $15) and printed new 2000 rupee bills ($30) . So, the only way to break a 2000 rupee bill is to get 20 100s and most merchants do not have that many 100s available. It’s temporary, but irritating nevertheless. Lines at banks remain long, but people seem prepared to deal with the inconveniences. The jury remains out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Best Laid Plans...

We planned to get to the shul in Delhi Friday evening. New Delhi is not one of the places of ancient Jewish settlement like Cochin. Nevertheless New Delhi does have a synagogue, in fact a synagogue that identifies itself as Conservative, serving a small number of local families and tourists that visit India's capital and want a place to observe Shabbat or simply seek to check out what a synagogue in India looks like. Judah Hyam synagogue is led by Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, who serves as honorary secretary and unpaid unordained rabbi for over 30 years. The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery were gifted to Delhi's Jews by the Indian government in 1956. Struggling to gather a Minyan, services take place only on Friday evening, but on the High Holy Days the congregation grows with the attendance of Israeli diplomats and other expats. The only other formal Jewish presence evidently is that of Chabad set up in Paharganj, an area attracting backpackers and Israeli tourists.

Well, the day just got away from us and we were continuing to adjust to the time change and before we knew it, much to our disappointment it was too late to make our way to the shul. Hopefully the shul will still be here when we return to India at some time in the future.

Our plans to depart Delhi altogether was also met with adversity. On Monday we had reservations to fly to the city on Chennai, formerly known as Madras (perhaps the source of the name of the town of the same name in Oregon) on the east coust of India's south. Although we heard on the news of a cyclone heading toward the town, it appeared that all was go for our flight. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, made it through very tight security (a topic for a future blog), and headed to the gate only to see on the announcement board listing all the flights that our flight had been cancelled. In Chennai itself the city itself was being pummeled by an actual cyclone. We joined the other passengers for a seemingly endless process of rebooking. There were two seats for us on a 6:50am flight Tuesday morning. As we all know in Portland, a 6:50 flight means arriving at the airport by 4:50am and getting up in time to get dressed, grab luggage and transport to the airport. Then we also had to find a place to stay the night. We discovered that there is a Holiday Inn in the airport. How convenient. Upon calling to make a reservation I was surprised to be told that they rented rooms by the hour! and that they only had a room available until midnight. Well, that would never do. So we took a combination of subway and tuktuk (you can use your imagination) to the closest hotel where we had a quite delightful and entertaining Indian tasting dinner of 16 small courses of appetizers, main course and desserts. I called the hotel in Chennai to explain that we wouldn't make it that evening. Now I will have to wait and see if our traveler's insurance will cover the difference in price and additional expenses.

Despite our uncertainty as to whether the flight would take off the following morning, we made it. Already from the air we could see considerable flooding. As the cab took us to our hotel we could see the devastation from the cyclone close up: trees down everywhere twisted off their trunks, street signs bent, plate glass shattered. It was pretty amazing. Traffic employees must have worked through the night just to get the large limbs off the street so that traffic could flow on this workday. Electricity was out in certain places; air conditioning in this humid city needing work; internet hit or miss. It's quite a sight and experience.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Old Delhi

We know the capital of India to be New Delhi. But if there is a New Delhi, there must be or must have been an Old Delhi (and in fact except for wine, the new...has usually come to replace/improve the old). (I often use this logic in explaining to Christian groups why Jews prefer not to use the term New Testament, because the terminology assumes an Old Testament that has bee replaced and improved by the New. This is of course what Christian theology assumes, namely the improvement and replacement of the Old by the New, but a notion which we Jews reject. Instead we prefer to use the term Christian Scriptures as opposed to the Hebrew Scriptures.)

And sure enough there is an Old Delhi. And on this third day of our adventure the part of Delhi in which we are staying. Prior to departure I told Leah Conley, our Foundation School director, who had spent a month with her husband exploring India that we would spend a few days in Old Delhi. Familiar with the area, she was surprised there was a decent place to stay in Old Delhi. Well, I can confirm that there is, a hotel that was even recently highlighted in the NY Times travel section (®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=45&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0 Notice also the spice shop mentioned in the article. We were there and met the owner.). This is a renovation of an old family estate that had fallen into ruin, rehabilitated by a member of the Indian government that took 6 years. If you are coming to Delhi, I recommend this place highly for its location and for its chef and outstanding Indian cuisine.

I can't share much about New Delhi except for the very good National Museum that we visited on our first day, but Old Delhi is an assault of sights, smells, tastes and bustle. Tiny narrow streets with car, bus, truck and animal traffic in both directions and in the alleyways with motor scooters with huge numbers of pedestrians doing their best not to get hit. The buildings are old, falling apart in some cases, but functioning. We walked through the extensive jewelry district--it's clear that Indians really like gold. There's an entire section of stores devoted to weddings: fancy saries, jewelry for every part of the anatomy (arms, legs, head, ears), bricabrac, etc. and each one has brides and mothers and mother-in-laws. (It's also strange to wander through a jewelry area and find no Jews involved!) But there are parts of the market devoted to clothing, household goods, toys, plumbing supplies, produce. It's a maze of human activity. Carol is taking photos of the the tangle of power lines, strange goat-like animals called a bakra (from whose wool the softest scarves are made), construction workers on bamboo scaffolding, raptures (the bird), unusual places and scenes that only Carol can love sometimes attracting attention of people wondering what in heaven's name she is finding worthy of focusing her camera.

Food: Everyone at home terrorized us about food since it is common for tourists to get sick, sometimes very sick. Only drink bottled water, brush teeth and clean tooth brush with bottled water. Only eat cooked vegetables. Only eat fruit that you can peel. No street food (and it looks so appetizing...) And since Carol doesn't like spicy food, she left home believing she would live for our entire trip on rice. So thus far we have been eating at our hotel. And the food has been fantastic: wonderful flavors, imaginative variety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have complimented the chef on more than one occasion. And though we are still at the beginning, our stomachs are doing ok.

More later and I will see if I can somehow figure out how to put photos on this blog.

Friday, December 9, 2016


We are waiting in Vancouver, BC, for our eventual direct flight Vancouver to Delhi non-stop. This is a fairly new addition to the Air Canada schedule, what I would imagine to be a testament to the growing Indian population in Western Canada. It will be a 14 hour flight port-to-port, similar to the non-stop ElAl flights from LA to Tel Aviv.

We didn't know if it could be done, but we did it. We checked no bags, flying with a carry-on each and a personal item. Previously we traveled with suitcases and carry-on. We admired those who made do with less, but never accomplished it ourselves. This time we were challenged. Ted Engelbrecht, organizer of the Concordia University part of our tour was emphatic. The vehicle we would be traveling in could accommodate no more than a carry-on and a personal item for each participant. I suspect we may never travel with a suitcase again.

Traveling this way means that we could not take the library of guide books we always shlep along. However I did grab a book on Hinduism, one volume from a well-known 1960s religion series. My prior reading revealed ancient and important aspects of Indian history to which I had been oblivious, that in the second pre-Christian century, India was invaded from the north by peoples known as Aryans who came from Central Asia. (Remember Hitler fancied himself an Aryan, what he claimed to be the authentic original inhabitants of Germany as distinguished from Jews who were somehow alien.) The more I read the more this early invasion seems to be vitally important in comprehending much about India.

For now let me speculate on language, particularly the language of Sanskrit. When I studied linguistics in college I remember that scholars claimed that Sankrit was an Indo-European language, related to Latin, ancient Greek and modern European languages. Wow! how did that happen? Especially when you consider that all of the important Hindu texts, the Upanishads, the Bhagavid-gita, the Vedas, etc. were all written in Sanskrit. Though there are varying theories, the most common is that Indo-European Sankrit was brought by the Aryans! Thus that which becomes the religion and culture of the Indian subcontinent and beyond was either imported or at least transcribed not by the native population, but by the invaders. Amazing... More later on the Aryan source of the Indian caste system.

What a difference being able to fly a long flight in business class becomes? After eating dinner, the plane was dark (we were flying through the night), our seats decline fully so that with blanket and pillow we could really sleep. We were flying on a brand new Boeing Dreamliner, the smoothest flight we have ever experienced, the windows darkened automatically, requiring no shades, and no pressure issues upon landing.

The Indira Gandhi Airport must be enormous, because we seemed to walk from the gate to passport control forever. Not needing to locate luggage solved one problem, but we suspected that we would have to face another, namely converting dollars into rupees. Yes, there were ATM machines, but they were all inoperative. Instead there were people in long lines waiting to be served by one of two banks. We couldn't even see the front of the line when someone told us that the bank had run out of rupees and the agent had gone somewhere to get more. Everyone waited patiently, even though it was 2 in the morning! And it wasn't just foreigners in line. Indians too needed to procure their own currency. It was nearly two hours before we got to the front of the line. We were only permitted to transfer a maximum of $70 per customer. So Carol and I each went separately, each collecting the equivalent of $70 in Indian money. It's about 68 rupees to the dollar, translating into some 4400 rupees each after fees.

Then amidst crowds (after all this is India) we had to figure out how to get to our hotel. We had been warned not to go with just any taxi, but then which one. The answer was right there. A sign for prepaid taxis. Tell them where you are going, pay and hop in the next cab. What a relief to walk into our reserved room. It was about 5am, but that bed felt good. Mission accomplished. We made it. Lights out.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Getting Closer

More last minute details:

Well, it wasn't just the dryer (see last email), the microwave died as well and needed to be replaced. Not serious, but just needed to be dealt with...

After some unexplained delays and beginnings of panic on our part, our India visas arrived. This was a much more complicated process than we would ever have imagined. We've done this before; the visa to China was much easier.

We are pleased that Cheryl and Lee, old friends will be moving in for the duration of our adventure. They keep kosher and know our kitchen, but we of course need to get everything ready for a smooth transition. Cheryl works from home and Lee, like me, is retired. They are between homes and house sitting works out terrifically for them and for us. Thank you Cheryl and Lee. We hope nothing else breaks down in our absence.

Two pieces of recent news from India raise new concerns. We fly into New Delhi, Indira Gandhi Airport, and will remain in Delhi, new and old, for four days. Yes, there is an Old Delhi. Air pollution is evidently at an all time high. The government closed schools for a few days and took other steps, but it doesn't diminish so quickly. Carol is asthmatic. We will see whether this will affect us and to what extent.

What concerns me more and perhaps a more serious issue is the government's effort to transform the cash supply of rupees. India, we have come to learn, runs almost entirely as a cash economy. Most transactions are not by credit cards and many even avoid banks, resulting in few records on transactions and large parts of the economy that simply avoid paying taxes. To get this under control the government has simply canceled the largest denomination 500 and 1000 rupee currency, allowing people limited ability to cash these bills for smaller denominations. With 68 rupees to the dollar, that is comparable to cancelling all currency larger than a $5 bill! As a consequence American banks from which all international currencies can be purchased, will not deal in rupees! Though India has ATMs, with the run on small bills and change, I am concerned the ATMs may be temporarily out of cash. In addition another strange phenomenon we learned when visiting Mianmar is the same in India: though it is possible in many instances to use dollars, people will only accept new bills...uncreased, unfolded, no ink marks. Luckily these are available especially before Christmas, since people like to give brand new bills as gifts.

India is also a country where malaria is prevalent. Two precautionary drugs are recommended, either Malarone or Doxycyclene. We chose the latter, because the former was five times the price. That's a pill every day beginning two days before arrival and continuing for a month after our return. Thankfully our shots from our former journeys were all up to date.

As we begin the packing the prospect of this adventure is becoming ever more exciting.