India 2001 Travel Diary, Part 11

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© 2001 Giles Orr

Tuesday 22 May 2001, 1630

The street outside Hotel President Park. More pictures here.

I went out on the street yesterday afternoon, but it quickly became evident that we're on the Third World equivalent of an airport strip, and wandering around wasn't very interesting at all. Actually, before I did that, I went with Doug to a nearby Internet Cafe, and wrote some e-mail. I thought connections were slow in Mumbai! I was getting about 1.0 kb/s.

I joined several people lounging by the pool for an hour or two. Outside in the shade here is much more tolerable than in Mumbai. Academics can be very entertaining company.

Dinner was scheduled for 2030, but Marc and Farley got the time pushed back to 2000. Or so they thought. In what appears to be typical Indian style, we sat for a long time and were served around 2030 anyway. The food was Indian and pretty good. We had a birthday cake for Jim Engstrom and Marilyn (his birthday, hers in a few days). Unfortunately, Marc and Farley insisted on a meeting after dinner to fill us in on the schedule (for what it's worth - it shifts constantly, right up until it happens) for the remainder of the trip. After trying to push dinner back since we had to get up early, they then kept us up until 2230, after which I still had to do laundry, brush teeth ...

Breakfast was by the pool outside, it's so wonderful here in the morning. I didn't eat much other than the masala dosa that they made right there.

The caves at Ajanta. More pictures here.

The bus departed for Ajanta a bit before 0800, later than scheduled (but hardly surprising). The distance is probably only 100 km, but her that takes about two and a half hours - the road surface is fine, but only two lanes with Indian traffic ... Scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, autorickshaws, the Tata equivalent of a Landrover (usually with ten occupants), not many cars, old trucks, bullock carts, tractors, pedestrians, dogs, goats, and cattle. And a bus driver convinced he can swerve around anything, or honk it out of the way. Not that that's any different than anyone else. Indian traffic makes Montreal and Boston traffic conditions look desirable. Here, the center line is painted on, but is considered just the barest whiff of a suggestion.

Bullock carts and livestock are rare (but not unheard of) in Mumbai. And there you'll see hand carts.

Getting off the bus was pretty disturbing - when the hawkers saw a bus full of rich American tourists pull in, they literally sprinted to our door. The press and jabber of their sales pitch was among the worst I've encountered. Once we got up the stairs to the admission gates, the only pitch we had to deal with was the "chair-wallahs" (for lack of a better term). Their offer was to carry you around the caves on a palaquin for Rs 300. I thought the price a bit high until I found out that included carrying you everywhere for the duration of your stay at the caves ... Janet took them up on it immediately - she apparently has high blood pressure, and there were a lot of stairs. I find it interesting I feel I need to excuse her. Is it because it smells of exploitation (better they should have a paying customer than not) or decadence?

Cave 26 at Ajanta. More pictures here.

There are 26 caves. I toured them with Catherine, and we shared our annoyance at Marc for having convinced us to load 800 ASA film ... It's hard to explain. He's right: they won't let you use flash on the paintings, but the lighting sucks, so 800 isn't really fast enough, and uneven lighting means no speed of film could make good pictures. It was also less than optimal (too grainy) for outside photos. The worst of it was we'd pretty much used up all of it by the time we hit cave 26, the one we both liked best. It's large, elaborately carved, and Catherine says photos of it are common.

I loaded 100 ASA film and took a lot of shots outside (and a few inside, bracing the camera as best I could). Catherine went off to sketch, I found some shade with the occasional breeze, and sat relaxing and sweating. I was joined by Doug, Phil, and Bettye. Someone put their kids in front of us to take a picture - we tried to get out of the way, but were informed by gestures that we were wanted in the picture ...

Something I noticed at Bibi Ka Maqbara in particular, but other places as well, is that American-style safety standards are not enforced here. Bibi has one foot high railings on the second storey. Perfect for tripping over. No 3-1/2' railing has been added, as it would be in Canada or the U.S.

Getting back on the bus was even more of a gauntlet. Jim Bogert claims he said "no" dozens of times, but he ended up with eight or ten carved stone elephants, boxes ... and of course, some postcards. Bettye and Marc bartered visciously. Most of us pulled the bus curtains to avoid the constant offers from outside.

We had a "dry" packed lunch on the bus - probably the worst meal we've had so far, and at that it's a credit to the program: it was perfectly palatable.

The countryside we drove through again reminds me of pictures of desert areas, although there is a bit of green. But I must remember that in a couple weeks the monsoons start, and the dry fields the farmers are plowing (some with tractors, some with cows or water buffalo) will be quite green and fertile very soon.

The return trip was punctuated by a stop so that Catherine could go take pictures of a small group of thatched huts. She did this in the most brazen manner possible, walking right into the middle of the cluster, shooting. Several others joined her, and Gary told me later that they were invited in for a tour. They were proudly shown ... the electric light.

It's astonishing how much we take for granted.

Sickness ... Diarrhea and vomitting (mostly the former) has taken out about half the group at one time or another. Doug and I have so far avoided it, although Doug seems to have the cough I've been losing as my cold fades. People just ... don't show up for the day, one or two at a time, and it's never clear what caused it. There were also major reports of dreams last night, as most people took their weekly Lariam pill yesterday. Gary enjoyed his - he got to play with all his dogs in his back yard. He was saddened to wake to the reality that the last of them died 12 or 14 years ago ...

Farley, Rich, and Julia left in a hired car this morning (by way of the Ellora caves, where the rest of us are going tomorrow) for Pune, where they will attend a playwriting conference and see performances for a couple days.

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by giles