22 September 2008

Sadus & Monkeys & Leaving India

I can't believe how quickly our time here has passed. Well actually, considering my past experience, I can believe how quickly it has passed, but it still seems the right turn of phrase - even if inaccurate. I mean after all, is there anything that happens in the world that is truly unbelievable? And if there were, why would you believe it if I wrote it? Anyway leaving philosophic/linguistic concerns aside, I ought to return to my point, which was that our time here is at an end.

Linda leaves Bangalore tomorrow in the early morning for a brief day in Mumbai and then a next-morning flight to Israel. I'll be following at 2:05AM this Sunday, stopping in Paris for the day (10 hours or so in which I'll drop off some luggage and finalize apartment arrangements and hopefully see a good friend), then arrive in Israel myself the morning of erev Rosh Hashanah.
The next couple of days will likely be quite crazy w/ internship wrap up, packing, last minute errands, etc. I feel like there is so much I want to write about (some of which I've been promising for quite awhile now). However, I don't got the time for all that (hopefully I'll catch up in Israel). What I do have time for is to give you a quick bite of our final trip in India to Hampi this weekend (and not even all of that).

Given the way we've done this India experience - which is to say, just about as fully as I can imagine having done it - our final trip was a great last hurrah. We left town after a full day of work - I went straight from MSR to a MSR party, jumped out of the cab before getting there, stopped to get some pants and shirts custom tailored, got to the party, drank, danced, ate (in the space of 40 minutes) went to the train, overnight trainride, early morning arrival in Hospet, and rickshaw to Hampi.

We spent 3 wonderful days in Hampi before taking an overnight train home, getting in at 6AM.
From the train station, I dropped my luggage at home, showered, changed, and had a quick bite, then off to the office. In the office till around 7PM, then to MG Road to try on
the tailoring, and meet folks for a goodbye dinner for Linda!

So I've got much to say about the trip itself, but since I have little time, I'm just going to share one experience with you.

Sunday morning we left a bit before sunrise to journey to the monkey temple several kilometers from our guest house. We climbed to the top, the early morning air initially cool around us, but threatening warmth and stickiness as we and the sun climbed. The monkey temple was a beautiful place and had inspiring views. But the monkeys, well I think they are pretty vile creatures.

They will attack you if you give them reason - and reason can be anything from looking at them wrong, to having a nice hat, to carrying food. Of course a full grown adult could beat a monkey to a pulp, but they will scratch and bite - and thus if you are an Indian and worry little about contracting Rabies you chase them, while if you are a foreigner you mostly let the monkies bully you b/c you don't want to fly to Singapore if bitten.

So we watched a beautiful sunrise, somewhat marred by the
occasionally aggressive monkey - and of course got to watch them pull tapeworms out of one anothers behinds (a tasty snack for a monkey apparently) and practice raping each other. Disgusting creatures.

It was when we descended the hill that we really started having a good time. You see as we had begun climbing the hill that morning music had began emanating from a small building at its foot. This music was still continuing when we descended and we stopped to watch it's makers - a group of Sadus (holy men) who one could loosely say are Hindu mystics (although they aren't always Hindu - just ask about Sidharrtha). Anyway the rhythmic chanting drumming and clanging drew us in and we stood watching. However, we only stood a short while as they quickly welcomed us to join them on their mat with gestures and smiles, giving us a pair of finger cymbals to play. This was truly the best side of Indian religion - warm, welcoming, and beautiful.

video

The cymbals were difficult to manipulate at first, but a I fancy that I eventually was able to make some passebly musical noise with them. After some time, I felt that I had gauged their bearing well enough to see if they would be willing to let me take some pictures. It turned out they not only were willing, but quite eager to be recorded. You can see them smiling at the camera in the video above. Linda got some really wonderful shots which we will post for the google group later.

These unassuming holy men asked nothing of us, welcomed us into their celebration, gave us tea and friendship - such a contrast to other "Sadus" who roam tourist areas attempting to dab red spots on your forehead, sprinkle water on you, or ask to have their picture taken, only to then demand payment. We stayed with them playing and meditating for an hour - it was a really beautiful experience and when we left, smiling faces were left behind us.

15 September 2008

Casual Anti-Semitism Depressing Me

Today I had an encounter that really got me down.  I was sitting at my desk working when a collegue stopped by.  This collegue then proceeded to start chatting with me and after a minute or two casually mentioned that 'No Jews were killed during the World Trade Center attacks'.  My collegue continued, in the same matter-of-fact way, to inform me 'The Jews were all warned about the attack beforehand, that's why none of them came to work that day'.

Now I'd heard about this new "blood-libel" where people ignorant and/or hateful have been saying that Jews were behind the attacks, that they new about the attacks - that in some quite literal sense, I as a Jew was directly responsible for causing the death and destruction of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers.  Maybe I had been plotting, maybe it was just my people, or maybe I could have prevented it and turned a blind-eye.  I had read that these people out there, somewhere, were saying that I wanted this to happen in order to provide the pretext for an attack on Arabs and Muslims everywhere by Israel and the US.  Maybe I was even the mastermind (I mean any Jew could be right, so what better disguise than for it to be a Jew who is also a lifelong vegetarian, is known to think hard before killing a mosquito, and would vocally opposed the war in Iraq from the get-go?).

But it was another thing entirely to hear what I can only describe as a filthy lie, degrading the dignity of me and my people, pass from the lips of a co-worker at a major international research lab.  Now this co-worker isn't malicious and the statement wasn't made as an attack in an aggresive tone, nor is this co-worker one of the researchers (works in a support role).  It was simply stated as something that happened, perhaps the coworker was even curious to get my reaction.  I honestly don't think this individual had connected all the dots to conciously recognize what this simply statement implied.  But still, it hit me hard.  Hundreds of Jews perished in the attacks.  They've got names, you can visit their graves, their families still cry about it at night.  The names of the victims were published in the international press and read at the site where the Towers once stood just a couple of days ago.  I mean this only happened 7 years ago and all you need to do is simply do a quick websearch and you can read all about it.  You can even read some of their obituaries.

I'm rambling, but my point is that as far as vicious libel goes, this one is pretty easy to refute.  Official estimates are that between 10-15% of the victims of the WTC attack on 9/11 were Jews.  Jews make up 12% of the population.  You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what that means.  But people don't bother to check facts and don't bother to think much.  They will repeat something entirely unproven as fact without any reservation - even if at its root the statement they are making, leads inevitably to the conclusion that my people, and I by inclusion, are homicidal terrorists who will stop at nothing, no matter how vile, to achieve our bloodthirsty ends.  What do one do about that?

I honestly don't know, but I've attached the text of the email I wrote to this collegue shortly after our conversation (identifying information about my college removed).  This email followed my immediate reply in our converations that the statement made was completely and utterly deviod of truth.  My collegue's first reply that was to utilize the power of circular logic by explaining to me 'but the Jews must have kept from being killed because they were warned by the Israeli government to stay away, so they stayed away and didn't get killed, which proves Israel and the Jews knew about the attacks in advance' after which I again patiently explained that 'yes actually hundreds of Jews died in the attacks, no one knew, what you've been told is a complete and utter lie, just look and see' after which my collegue began listening (I think) to what I was actually saying. 

Hi [Collegue's Name Here],

Just to give you some published estimates: between 10-15% of the world trade center attacks appear to have been Jewish. 

About 12% of the New York city population is Jewish.   You can do the rest of the math.

Figures taken from link below.:

http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Jan/14-260933.html

 

If you find the US government a less-than-trustworthy source of information here is a link to a google q&a that lists a variety of other sources, all of which provide similar figures: 

http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=331277

People in my community died, lost friends or relatives in the attacks – it really saddens me that there are anti-semites out there who spread lies claiming that somehow Jews knew of the attacks, or even further were somehow behind them.  I guess if people want to hate Jews they can always find some type of lie to spread about us (100 years ago it was that we liked drinking Christian baby blood http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_libel_against_Jews  ) 

It also hurts that people are willing to believe and repeat these kind of vicious lies without even looking to see if they have any basis in reality.

If someone said [my collegue's ethnic/religious group here] were behind the bombings that occurred last month [in Bangalore] or knew about them and failed to warn anyone, I’d be very careful to check the basis of that claim before believing that your community was responsible and, most definitely before repeating it to others as if it were fact.

-Josh

08 September 2008

Adventures in Coorg

This weekend Linda and I were in Coorg, a beautiful area about 5 hours away from Bangalore filled with coffee & spice plantations. We stayed at the most beautiful organic farm in the rainforest, the Rainforest Retreat , which also (and unsurprisingly given the name) doubles as a retreat/guest house owned by two former molecular-biologists turned farmers (the funds from which are used to fund the owners' very forward looking organic farming/preservation non-profit). We had the pleasure of getting to know the wife Sujatra and taking a tour of the farm with her which was fascinating (and of course, right up our alley). Linda liked it so much she is staying the rest of the week on a work-exchange, teaching the already quite able cooks there some new tricks, in return for lodging and getting to see how they do things.

We had a magical time there, getting in midday Friday and basically loafing in our guest house near a burbling stream, interspersed with some delicious meals and the occasional hike/walk for the next day-and-a-half. We had good company, making friends with a lovely Columbian couple with whom we shared walks and meals.

Sunday was a much more intense day - quite wonderful, one of the best days I've had in India. We got up early and were picked up by a driver par-excellance, Prince. Prince took us first to the Elephant camp at Dubare where we got to meet, bathe, and I got to ride elephants (Linda didn't want to). We also got to see a mischevious and terribly charismatic baby elephant. Oh, and I stepped in some elephant crap. That stuff both sticks and smells. This morning when I got back to my apartment at 4AM, the first half-hour was filled with scrapping them off, so the stench would abate! Anyway I still wouldn't have traded the experience.

Our next stop was the Golden Temple, a buddist shrine built by a community of Tibetean refugees given a land grant in Karnataka some years back. Really neat place.

From there we proceeded to a quaint homestay arranged by Sujatra (they were her friends), where we spent the rest of our perfect day. First we washed off and had a delicious lunch. Next we took a walk through the small plantation, across a mile of rice paddy, and down to the Cauvery river. We spent two hours sitting underneath a tree, talking, resting (I took a short swim at the end). It was soooo relaxing and was the first time we've had in India where we've been outdoors in a large open space, but also been alone. Alone is much harder hear where there is such a mass of humanity, even much more so than a crowded place like NY, and it's really precious.

After coming back from the river, through the paddy again, we had some tea, washed off and settled in for a restful nap. Towards 7 we had another delicious meal, packed and headed back to town, where Prince dropped me off at 8:30PM. I was really sad to part with Linda, but super happy that she is going to have such a nice time (she doesn't have much in the way of email or phone connection though, so don't worry if you don't hear from her for a bit). I was also anticipating a boring wait until my bus left at 11:15PM with everything closed in a dark, sleepy, unfamiliar town. But things seem to work out for me.

I turned out that this particular night was the one on which Madikeri had chosen to throw it's big Ganesh Chaturti festival and the streets were filled with revelers, floats, and music. I was repeatedly draw in to dance and being the only foreigner there was a source of much excitement. Of course I didn't want to disappoint and spent about an hour-an-a-half dancing with the natives and generally enjoying myself. I think over a hundred people came to shake my hand and ask me where I was from, really crazy stuff.

My one sadness was that Linda had all of the memory cards so I couldn't take any pictures or video - except using my iPhone which doesn't do too well at night with pictures and didn't have the software to take video. But I thought, well maybe the open source community made some progress with their video utility and while dancing checked for upgrades through the Cydia software distribution system. Again luck strikes, there was an upgrade and my cellphone's interent was good enough for me to download, install and then begin filming - all while continuing to dance, carrying all of my luggage and smelly boots! So I had a great time waiting for the bus and can really share the experience with you too. The video is choppy (taking video on a cellphone at night, using beta software you can only expect so much) but actually conveys the experience quite well. In this clip you can watch the music start off slow and build to a frenetic conclusion (also keep your eyes out for the ganesh float partway through). Enjoy!
video

Final thoughts: when Linda returns to me, I'll pepper this post with some more pictures and video, or post another, so those of you who get email should most certainly revist the page itself to check for updates. At around 10PM, I left the revels and headed to the bus station, where I chilled out before my ride and managed to sell my extra ticket (sans a handling fee from the agent, or graft, not sure which). You can read about the mostly non-eventful and nicely quick ride on my twitter posts.

04 September 2008

Ganesh Chatruti

Last night Linda and I got to see a real India festival right around the corner from MSR (or rather up the block and across the way). Indians are now celebrating the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi. It's bigger elsewhere (Mumbia) but we still enjoyed it thoroughly.

For those of you who might not be familiar with Ganesh, he is a rather interesting character. The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha wasn't the most beloved of his rather violent father, who beheaded him for getting in the way. Parvati desperate to help her son, performed what would be the first animal-to-human organ transplant, replacing his head with that of the first living creature she found, an elephant.
Ganesh is a fun-loving god always fat and happy looking with his wonderful trunk - he looks particularly good on Roni Rosenfeld's desk where I last saw him lying on his side like a swimsuit model.

The idea behind how the worship is to be conducted goes as follows if I understand correctly:
1) You build a Ganesh idol out of mud.
2) You optionally paint him with garish, lead-based paints which are very bad for you and don't improve his looks.
3) You do a puja (religious ceremony) with him at
home/temple
4) You dance some
5) You take him to the nearest body of water (or bucket if you are following the eco-friendly governmental advice being promogulated through the radio this year) while ringing bells and/or shouting as you proceed.
video
6) You pray in front of him and shout things loudly, waving fire or bowing over fire, or generally doing fire-related activities in front of him.
7) You carry him to the water where you immerse him several times (sounding familiar anyone?)
8) You drown him (possibly leaving toxic waste if you haven't been careful about where you do this and what Ganesha was painted with).
It doesn't quite make sense to me, but it was a whole lot of fun to watch and the celebrants were quite excited to see us (oh so many picture requests).

So we walked down in the moderate darkness, complete semi-organized chaos (lots of police) and thankfully the dunking was in a pool cordoned off from the rest of the lake (this took place at the Sankey Tank, just up the road from MSR). I'd write more, but am tired and should have gone to sleep awhile ago already.

Tomorrow morning early, Linda and I are heading to Coorg for an extended weekend where we will stay at what looks to be a fantastic eco-retreat - the rainforest retreat. So we won't be easily reachable for a couple of days, but you can check for twitter updates (on the right sidebar).

02 September 2008

I'm so tired

So I've been tardy with my posts. But not without good reason. I've had alot on my plate these past couple of weeks. As you may know, my lovely wife Linda spent 3 weeks up in Jaipur, sometimes known as "the pink city", but actually more accurately described as the "animal-filled-dusty-seething-like-a-boiling-pot city" (the tension in the air was palpable), studying at the Chakrapani Aryuvedic Center . You may not know though that along with missing her lots, starting to cook my own food again (which was actually quite nice, when I wasn't too tired), and generally muddling through on my own - I had quite a bit of work.ut
Namely, I needed to get a significant amount of work done in order to take off some time to see her. This comprised not only getting my Microsoft research done, but also getting a major publication submission for Infocom (in Rio Di Janerio this year, fingers crossed), finishing up reviews for the CoNext Shadow Program Committee on which I'm serving, and finally taking care of several lengthy administrative tasks. So I really didn't have much spare time.

Then on the Thursday evening before last, I traveled to Jaipur to be reunited with Linda. I got to meet her wonderful friends, collegues, and her wonderful landlady.

So Thursday night we spent in Jaipur, got up early, had a wonderful breakfast, then went to Chakrapani. There I had an Aryuvedic assessment, and some interesting treatments - a neat massage, preceeded by at least half-an-hour of having hot ghee (clarified butter) poured over my forehead. I was prescribed some Aryuvedic medicines, which I'm hoping help with my acid reflux (more crossing of fingers here).

The second half of our day was a real adventure. The folks at Chakrapani (who were truly wonderful) arranged for a cab to take us sightseeing. But the cab never showed up, so after being delayed an hour, they found a patient who had wanted some business to take us around. Unfortunately, he was possibly the worst cabbie in Jaipur and a liar to boot. But I'll tell that story another time.

In the end we did see some cool stuff in Jaipur, got back a bit later than we planned, switched to a much better driver in a much better car and headed off with our friend Irene to Pushkar, the city surrounding the holy lake where it is said Brahma let a lotus petal fall and mark his spot of worship on the earth (as everyone we saw was fond of repeating "push means hand, kar mean petal" or perhaps it was the reverse, the repitition obviously was counterproductive with me ;-)

On the way there we also got to stop at the Dargar Shariff, tomb of one of the Mughals - a beautiful Mosque/Tomb and a really powerful experience (it's amazing how much cleaner the tomb was than the vast majority of the Hindu temples we've visited).

Pushkar was fantastic, such a beautiful place - it reminded me of Tzfat in Israel - something about the atmosphere of the place seemed light, holy, and a bit crumbling. Pushkar was such a breathtaking place, the entire city surrounds the lake, to the point it almost seems like it was a huge man made pool, it was perhaps one of my most favorite places in India We had some serious adventures leaving (took an overnight sleeper bus to Udaipur upon which we were the only non-Indians) but those stories are best told in person.

In Udaipur we met up with Lucy, another new and fantastic friend. We saw a Krishna festival during which human pyramids were built (more about this later as well), the palace, took a boat ride on the lake, shopped for pictures, and generally unwound (I haven't written much about this, but I've inserted 3 pictures which I hope help tell the tale).
Oh, also we bought some beautiful artwork from a really nice artist who had Israelis raving about him in Hebrew in his guest book - we are really looking forward to hanging it up when we finally return to NY!

Another overnight trip (this time 2nd class a/c sleeper train) took us to Agra where after a good nights sleep we awoke to be picked up by a very competent/honest driver and guide in a nice A/C car. We saw the Agra Fort, the Taj Mahal (as breathtaking as advertised), and the Tomb of Akbar on our way to Delhi.

Got into Delhi (it seems the further into our trip we got, the hotter it got) late and had dinner with wonderful friends Mansi and Guarav. The next morning Lin was really sick, so I had to head out by myself. Despite having the second worst driver in Northern India, I still managed to see the Baha'i Lotus Temple, the India Gate, the President's Residence (apparently the largest of any President's residence in the world), and finally made it to see the construction site of the Cervantes Institute (the Alliance Francias of Spain) in Delhi, where I met one of the many friends we made while caught in the riot in Nepal, Oscar - a scholar of Sanskrit, the human condition, and just an all-around wonderful guy. We went to a fantastic vegetarian (Oscar is also a veggie) Rajastani restaurant, where all of the food was "Rajastani ____", even if it was water ;-)
We had a great time, would have been a perfect afternoon if my idiot driver didn't fail to pick me up, leaving us to wait in the 100 degree (or what felt like it) heat for 40 minutes looking for him, w/ me stressing about getting back to help sick Linda pack and get us to the airport in time. In any case with Oscar's patient help and Mansi's as well, we got to the airport and came home.

I was so tired. Six cities in six days in serious heat over long distances was ambitious and wore me out! But I still had to get my Infocom submission done, make progress for a meeting at MSR, and finish my last CoNext review. I managed to do it all, but it's been a little while recovering. I am so grateful to have this experience though, even with all the difficulties - it's such a privilege to live here!