Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Budha, Tata, and farewells....

Yesterday morning, a long drive to visit to the Budhist museum and Saranatha, where the Budha is supposed to have been born and preached, and where the relics in the museum were found. The big central tower glitters under the fierce sunshine: Asian pilgrims bring gold leaf and paste it on the sides of the tower. Everything in Budhism is symbolic: saffron is the color of wisdom, orange the color of detachment- although, as David, the bon-vivant New Yorker (who asks me, when I mention my blog, if I describe him as Rabelaisian) remarks: "I can't imagine  meditating in an orange room- it's the least restful color."
Back to Varanasi for the farewell dinner: we all meet in the lobby and exclaim over each other's finery; it's like high school prom night. The men are in coat and tie, and some of the men, including David and Rick (our UNC tour director), wear rings they bought in Jaipur. The women are wearing the jewellery they bought in India and one of the many shawls we have all bought on this trip. We have an elegan,t seated dinner with Indian wine- which is surprisingly potent given its wateriness. Their are toasts and speeches: Linda reads a poem she made up, about our trip, and somehow finds a word that rhymes with "namaste." Linda and her husband Dick, and two other couples, are going on to the Nepal extension of the trip, so are leaving the group tomorrow morning. The rest of us are going on to Delhi, then everyone goes on to the States except for me and my husband- we are going back to Cairo. We all talk of a reunion in Chapel Hill in a month or two, to which not only the North Carolina crowd but the Philadelphians and the New York area members of the group are invited to come as well.
Our last morning in Varanasi, I take a last walk in the garden. Almost all the hotels we have stayed in India are Taj or Gateway, all Tata group properties- Tata is also automobiles, construction, an immense corportation. But they seem to treat their hotel employees well. I was looking for what Indians call an "active studio" (gym) on the grounds, and stumbled onto one that I thought was for the guests till I saw the signs reminding staff- for whom the gym is intended- that when answering the phone, they should not hang up before the guest does even after saying goodbye. When I do find the gym intended for guests, there is someone using the treadmill, so I tell the gym staffer that I will walk around the garden instead. He actually goes looking for me ten minutes later to let me know the machine is available.
But I am finding it much pleasanter walking in thegarden among the beds of dinner-plate size dahlias- the biggest any of us have ever seen, in all colors and striations imaginable. The secret to their lushness seems to be the treated sewage water with which they are irrigated- the smell is quite unpleasant, but the dahlias are splendid, and there is a peacock pacing on the green lawn. There are several trees with big reddish lily-shaped blooms, trees I have also seen in Egypt, and I ask one of the gardeners what they are. He tells me they are  cotton- not the kind used for textile, but another kind used for pillow stuffing. Cotton trees, who would've guessed!
Penultimate bus ride to Varanasi airport, very fine and modern, for the penultimate flight, to Delhi. Kingfisher airlines, Indian-owned, serves us lunch although the flight is only an hour plus. Arriving in Delhi, we take a completely different route from the airport- this hotel is at the other end of town- and we see only wide modern highways and new construction- until we catch sight of three elephants with painted heads striding single file along one of the service roads. Only in India!
Our last hotel, in this new part of Delhi, is very grand and very modern, and Sylvia complains  in her gravelly East Coast voice that it could be anywhere, including Florida. She is disappointed that we didn't get "lei'd" or offered mango juice or wished "namaste." This is New Dehli. The New India. There is trouble brewing, according to the news, and food security measures announced. Demonstrations, inspired by Egypt, they say. Well, we are heading back to Egypt, where it all started over a month ago, to see what change has wrought in the week we've been gone. I can't wait!

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