Monday, February 11, 2013

Khajuraho Unfolding

January 20th. Agra to Jhansi Junction to Khahuraho

This is our earliest morning so far and I wake to John’s phone at 5:45 A.M. We have 8:15 A.M. train tickets to Jhansi, at which point we will be met by a driver to travel 4-5 hours further to Khahuraho. The Incentive Destinations tour company continues to choreograph our trip beautifully, seeing to every detail with a representative to help us each step of the way. It’s only a 10 minute drive to the train station where we are assisted with boarding the correct, and on time train to Jhansi. It is chaotic boarding the train; Indian travelers, a German tour group, John and I, are all trying to stow luggage and find assigned seats. We have boarded at the front of the car and our seats are in the back so we must work our way to the rear of the car. It seems that everyone who boarded from the back has assigned seats at the front so we jostle, squeeze and scoot our luggage along the floor as space opens up. The train departs before we find our seats but when we do, John hoists our bags onto the overhead rack and we slide into our pre-assigned places.

Train to Jhansi Junction
We have an unobstructed window view but the glass is scratched and filmy with grime. A well to do Indian family sits opposite us; three women dressed in brightly colored saris with gold borders and wearing filigree gold rings on many of their fingers. The father or perhaps the grandfather sits in the row behind and the two children scuttle back and forth between the rows. There is little of interest out the filmy window, allowing me time to type. Time passes quickly and we arrive in Jhansi at 10:45 A.M.

As expected, when we disembark onto the crowded and chaotic platform, a young man stands holding a small white sign with my name printed on it. We follow him obediently from the platform to a waiting white mini-van and within minutes we are driving the two lane road to Khahuraho.

Colorful Good's Truck

Sunday Bathing

Holy Cow!

After leaving the chaos of the city our drive is mostly through pristine farm land. We pass by small rural villages, the buildings made of brick, many with roofs topped with tidy rows of mud shingles. Patties of cow dung are neatly piled in the sun to dry, as fuel for the fire. The hard packed dirt lanes between the houses are swept clean and free of trash.
Rooftop Children
Immaculate Village
Clothes out to dry
Our new driver is not only road competent but shyly contributes appropriate commentary and is insightful, stopping at places of picturesque interest so that I can take photos. At one such stop a handful of children appear instantly at my open car window and I ask our driver if we may give the children pencils? John pulls out a mixed handful of pens and pencils and our driver takes them from us to distribute evenly among the children. Within seconds the number of children have doubled and then tripled and John grabs another handful of pencils from his pack but even so, many of the children leave empty handed and disappointed. Cows lounge chewing their cuds, scrawny dogs sleep in the sunshine and families wash themselves atop the cement platforms of village wells. Mothers and teens pump water, fill buckets and lather naked children for their Sunday (?) baths.

Village Children
Village Children
Village Boy
We drive over a bridge spanning a wide and very blue river that supplies the drinking water for the region. The countryside is beautiful with fields of bright yellow mustard, chick peas and sugar cane. Clusters of date palms dot the landscape and we learn that Kaju is the word for date. The countryside is lush with banyan, teak and neem trees. Our driver tells us that chewing the leaves of the neem tree prevents malaria and that the twigs are used to clean the teeth. We pass many brick factories, their presence marked by scarred landscape and tall chimneys where the bricks are fired and piles and piles of bricks.

Brick Factory
We arrive at the Hotel Chandela just before 4:00 P.M. Our Incentive Destination contact is there to meet us and after the check-in formalities, asks if we would like to attend a sound and light or dance performance tonight?  I glance over at John and he looks pained at the very thought. We decline and our contact suggests a massage instead?  John and I are both road weary and a massage sounds wonderful and I inquire about the price. He tells us that massage prices range between 1500 – 3000 rupees.($30-$60) By American standards the price is quite reasonable and we are tempted so I take his card and tell him that we may call him. We also tell him that we are excited to be in Khahuraho and intend to go into town on our own this afternoon. Our Incentive Destination contact tells us that he cannot prevent “that” but suggests instead that we relax at the pool and rest. I am learning that there is not only a great cultural divide, but also a language and body language misinterpretation. I do not want to be coddled and kept in a gilded cage and some of our guides try to do so. Our contact leaves and John and I are shown to our room where we find the hotels “spa menu.” A 60 minute, full body oil massage is just 1000 rupees ($20.)

John and I regroup quickly and head out to explore the town. As we exit past the front desk, I schedule two massages for 6:30 P.M.

Khajuraho Temple Complex
Khajuraho Minarets

Motorcycle Friends

We are prey to the many tut-tut and trike drivers parked outside the gates of our hotel. 4 or 5 immediately descend on us and to be fair, we choose the first one, who peddles an open air trike.  John accepts the “peddlers” initial suggested price of 150 rupees for the ride to the temples, waiting for us, and for the return ride to our hotel. (This equates to just over $3.) Two young men on a red motorcycle ride slowly along side of us and strike up a conversation. The younger man is 24 and I surmise the other man is near 30. The older man’s English is good and he tells us that he is studying to become a guide, but I suspect he is studying to become a hustler. Nevertheless, I like them both and imagine that it will be nearly impossible to ditch them.  They become our shadow for the remainder of the afternoon, offering to show us the old village where they live and ultimately directing us to the left side of the gated Khahuraho temple complex where we are able to see over the walls and take photos of the temples in the golden afternoon sunlight. Our “shadows” hang back as John and I skirt the outside perimeter of the temples. John hoists me up onto a wall so that I can take an unobstructed photo but a guard inside soon takes notice and waves a disapproving hand my direction and I jump down.

Steps to Hindu Temple adjacent to Khajuraho Complex
Khajuraho Spires from Hindu Temple

Immediately to the left of the gated Khajuraho complex is an active 900 A.D. Hindu temple. The active temples have flags flying and after a group of devotees descend, John removes his shoes and mounts the rough-hewn polished stone steps. I follow and we enter the cave cool confines of the temple. A temple priest motions to us and asks our names, the names of John’s sister, my children, grandchildren and husband.  He presses flowers into the palms of our hands and motions for us to lean into a pillar. With our foreheads pressed against the immense “Shiva’s pillar,” the priest begins to chant out our list of names; praying for “good job” and “good marriage” and “good children.” The interior of the temple is tiny, cave cool and dark and a second priest sits cross legged just inside the entrance. As we circumambulate to leave he motions towards the donation tray and I deposit 100 rupees. He anoints each of our foreheads with a smudge of red and we exit into bright afternoon sunlight. We are followed by our “chanting-priest” who is not satisfied by our temple offering and asks for 200 rupees for himself. I tell him that is too much and he asks hopefully for 100 rupees which I hand over to him so that we may leave and that the prayers may be manifested.
Hindu Temple Devotees
Hindu Temple Priest

The two young men welcome us back into their clutches, leading us the short distance back to the town via the ghats of a small man-made lake, just the other side of the Hindu temple. A few lethargic men sit on the stone steps overlooking the lake and garbage stagnates along the edges of the water.

We ascend to street level and find the expected tourist shops and street vendors in the small town square. After having experienced the chaos of the markets in much larger cities, the relaxed ambiance of this town is a welcome change. We enjoy a few minutes perusing carts piled with brass trinkets and jewelry but we have promised to visit the shop where the younger man works. We follow him across the square to a store packed full of pashmina scarves and T-shirts. We manage to make a graceful and hasty exit but the second man reminds of our promise to visit his village and we must be back at the hotel at 6:15 for our scheduled massages. Our trike peddler is waiting and John and I climb aboard and he rides us back via the narrow streets of an adjoining village. I regret that we have the massage scheduled because this tiny village feels magical in the fading light and I would like to take my time. I take a few jiggley photos as we jostle along the uneven lanes stopping abruptly at the door to a bronze curio shop.

The shop is small and the shelves are packed with bronze figurines and hardware. A long and dusty glass cabinets is a jumble of more bronze treasures.  As a jeweler and sculptor, I feel confident that I can tell a good piece from a tourist piece but I am overwhelmed and confused and pressed for time. I know that we will not be able to come back tomorrow and the owner of the shop pulls piece after piece out of the case, placing them on-top of the glass for my examination.  I pull a few things aside; a small crude peacock figurine that might have been an ornamental tip to a pipe, several bronze pieces of hardware and a larger elephant figurine. I ask how much?  Naturally, the price is too much and John, my throw caution to the wind son, tells me several time to “think about it Mom.”  I do not heed his advice and make a counter offer of about half of the original price but I do not have the full $150 on me. Not surprisingly, after much choreographed resistance, my second offer is accepted and we hurriedly leave with our shadows following us and plans to stop at an ATM on the way to back to our hotel.

John stands back with the two men as I enter the ATM.  The machine regurgitates money and I pay the older man the balance due and our trike peddler returns us to the gated confines of our hotel.

Our massage will be 15 minutes later than scheduled which gives us both time to shower and prepare. We cross the courtyard adjoining the pool and enter the respective, male and female massage rooms. Although I have enjoyed a number of massages in my lifetime, most have been in foreign lands and I don’t imagine that I will every feel completely at ease, undressed and kneaded by unfamiliar hands. There is no soft music or incense wafting in the air but my masseuse, a gracious woman about my age wearing a simple sari, instructs me to undress and lie down and she competently removes much of the past two weeks of travel stress. John tells me that his masseuse was a man and that he was given a pair of paper undergarments to wear during his massage.

It is 8:30 P.M. when John and I arrive at the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. There are no tables available so we play two games of pool in the lounge while waiting for a table to vacate.  We are the only ones in the lounge area and the bored bartender is amused by our inexperienced game and offers up suggested plays to both of us. Today has been especially wonderful and I count my blessings that I am able to share this adventure so easily with John.

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