Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Games Doctors Play

The last few months I have been seeing a few doctors and over this period, I have come to recognize certain patterns of interaction that are quite common.  These are a sort of play based on personality and training; sometimes these are innocuous but at times they may be irritating or even deleterious.  It's good to watch out for these and not get sucked into playing along.  My golden rule is never to rush into any drastic or invasive treatment that doctors recommend (even if they say seconds are precious).  It's always good to excuse oneself for at least a few minutes (if not for longer), talk to reliable friends or other doctors before being pushed into any action.  As for the things we have to deal with (other than our medical conditions), here's a short list:

1) Brick in the wall: (taken from Pink Floyd's song of the same name) - 'All in all, you're just another brick in the wall'.  Most likely you're being used to ramp up the hospital rather than the other way round.  But this feeling of not being treated as a person begins right from when you step into the hospital.  Don't take it personally!

2) P2C2E: (from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories) : Process Too Complicated To Explain.  Be wary when you hear such things- doctors will often fling them at you.  Nothing is too complicated to explain (at least not in biology), also be wary of oversimplification and inane analogies - there are few analogies that work for the human body and mind (as for the spirit- don't worry about it, doctors will not even mention it!).  Doctors who stick to facts (especially backed with proper medical references) are few to come by but worth paying attention to.

3) Carrot and Stick:  Very common - used sequentially or in random combinations, to push you into opting for something you may not be comfortable doing at that moment.  This is exacerbated by waves of urgency that the doctor suddenly begins emitting or sometimes a hypnotic glare.  A red herring such as a warm, sympathetic smile may sometimes be thrown in.  Watch the doctor for all these signs and watch yourself for inner reactions!

4) No Option: A very common game.  Doctors don't often use these exact words though last week I met one who did.  I promptly interrupted him and said, "There is always an option."  And there is!  The final decision (whether to begin a treatment and, often, even when you want to quit) is yours "against medical advice", though it may be.  Don't be afraid of these words or of taking your time to figure out whether you want to follow the doctor's advice.  Of course, every option has a consequence and you must be willing to face it.  But even if there is only one course of treatment possible in modern medicine, you may still want time to decide which doctor and hospital you want to go to and may want a second opinion.  So, even for sub-choices (once the main decision is taken), options may need to be explored.

5) Trust Me:  Trust cannot be induced, it emerges and flows freely when conditions for it are conducive.  I wouldn't trust a doctor unless I (or someone I rely upon) feel they are worthy of it.  I prefer to trust medical literature and analyses.  If you have reasonable cause for doubt, it's good to get a second opinion or talk the matter through with someone who is familiar with the subject and preferably with recent medical research or guidelines.  I also wouldn't trust internet chat sites though I use the internet a lot to collect technical medical literature.  There are certain official (and relatively unbiased) sites where things are explained in simple terms (medline plus is a good one for example).  It's good to read a little especially when drastic new therapies are being prescribed.  It's also useful to keep in mind that very rarely are those shiny new drugs and methods that doctors dangle before us, as attractive as described.  Medicine can do a lot of good but sometimes the side effects, the length (and expense) of treatment and its success rate are not explained as clearly as one desires.

6) The Three R's R'nt So Important: Trust your school teacher in this respect- they sure R!  Make sure you can read (and understand) the prescriptions.  Doctors also sometimes give the same dosage of medicine to one and all irrespective of their physical condition (body mass, age, other medical complaints they have) but this is not so common and one deals with it if terrible reactions occur.  Sometimes doctors mistakenly write milligram (mg) for microgram (mcg) - it's happened to me twice!  But chemists (or pharmacists) are quite used to this and allow for it while dispensing medicines.  But doctors may still have a few tricks up their sleeve that we may not know of.  A doctor told me last week, "You biologists think you know everything.  But one plus one is not two in medicine, like it is in biology!!!"

7) Next Patient!:  Don't be pushed by the 'Next patient' war cry that doctors often use - take your time to read and understand (and ask if you have any questions).  Also make sure you have enough time to put back all the papers and reports that are strewn over the doctor's table, into a folder, before you leave their office.  Good luck!

Finally, here are a few quotes on medicine, healing and curing, written by exceptional doctors, that I like:

"In a community like ours we have put all the emphasis on cure.  We want to be professionals: heal the sick....  But the temptation is that we use our expertise to keep a safe distance from that which really matters and forget that in the long run cure without care is more harmful than helpful.
   When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares."     (Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude)

"My advice is to live YOUR life.  Allow that wonderful inner intelligence to speak through you.  The blueprint for you to be your authentic self lies within.  In some mystical way the microscopic egg that grew to be you had the program for your physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development.  Allow the development to occur to its fullest; grow and bloom.  Follow your bliss and be what you want to be.  Don't climb the ladder of success only to find it's leaning against the wrong wall.  Do not let your age limit your future growth as a human being...
   ...Remember I said love heals.  I do not claim love cures everything but it can heal and in the process of healing cures occur also."     (Bernie S. Siegel, Love, Medicine and Miracles)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Lunchbox - An Unusual Indian Film

I saw this movie a couple of months ago but didn’t post a review because I felt the original trailer (without subtitles) did not do justice to the film.  Now I see that a new trailer (with English subtitles) has been put up, which is considerably better. 

Not that trailers are required to recommend a film, in fact, if you want to keep everything a surprise for yourself, don’t watch the trailer!  You could watch the second link (to a song) that I have given at the end, to get an idea of the characters and photography.

This film has done well in mainstream cinema even though it does not pander to Bollywood stereotypes and deals with serious issues (in a slightly romanticized fashion).  Perhaps it has done well simply because people are tired of watching continuous and excess glamour and endless song and dance sequences, perhaps it is because there is so much food in the story (food is stated to be the spine of the film, but I don’t think that is correct, however, food does seem to envelope or affect almost all the characters in one way or the other) or perhaps because it is an unusual love story.

I like the film for several reasons – the main one being its intelligent and sensitive approach to showing lives of different kinds of people or communities that still exist in India but that media generally doesn’t want to depict (they are so unglamorous and so not India shining!  Nor are they awfully depraved or violent!!).  It does so without crossing the fine line that would take it to realms of being clich├ęd, didactic or even dark.  It is about quirks of fate that transform people’s decisions and in turn, their lives.

The main actress, Nimrat Kaur, stated in an interview that the hardest thing for her to do in the film was to de-glamourize herself.  Indeed she looks remarkably unlike her off screen chic self, but this is the face of thousands of Indian women, quietly tucked away, working to keep their families together.  Nimrat has given a superb performance, especially as this is her first major role in a mainstream film.  The other two main actors, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are veterans and are a joy to watch anytime.  They convey so much through their body language and style of speech; this is why it’s not worth watching a dubbed version of the film.  The official DVD with subtitles has not been released yet but I’m sure it will appear in the market soon.  The unseen and often heard ‘Auntie’ upstairs is done by Bharati Achrekar , a renowned Marathi actress.  All the other actors are very competent in their respective roles.

The Lunchbox was originally meant to be a documentary on dabbawallahs (the large army of people who unerringly deliver tiffin boxes from place to place in Mumbai) but eventually took the shape of a romantic feature film.  (It is hard to believe that it is the first feature film made by the director, Ritesh Batra.)  As mentioned earlier, this film has no real songs.  It has one borrowed song though, which adds a bit of charm and makes those unpalatable truths much easier to bear.  How does one deal with a life of ‘quiet desperation’?  Is life really as bad as one makes it out to be?  And finally – as the movie posters and trailers ask – can you fall in love with someone you have never met?  The film lets you find answers for yourself as it unfolds.

Apart from the romance and the philosophy, the well edited script and the skillful photography (showing the city of Mumbai), there are some tongue in cheek moments that are wonderfully done.  One in particular is when Ila (Nimrat) asks a dabbawallah whether her carefully packed tiffin box is reaching the right destination and he replies, “We have been commended by Prince Charles and Harvard; we never make mistakes!”  But as Shaikh  (Nawazuddin) says, “Sometimes the wrong train can take you to the right station.”  Watch this heartwarming and thought provoking film to get a glimpse of India that is rarely shown on screen.  I am attaching two links: the first is the trailer with English subtitles and the second is the small song sequence from the film.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Masters Of The Sarod

I have never paid much attention to the sarod, I don't know why.  This is a musical string instrument which probably originated from the Afghan 'rubab' and has been modified considerably since. The last time I heard the sarod in a concert, some years ago, it sounded a bit laguorous and didn't capture my attention.

Last week, when we were invited to a concert featuring Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Amaan and Ayaan, I was not sure what to expect.  There is so much publicity surrounding these artists (and the queue that we had to stand in, even though it was a concert by invitation, was so long) that I began to feel fretful and wonder why I had come.

But it was wonderful - a beautifully explained and presented set of tunes and ragas by Amjad Ali Khan and an inspired performance by his sons and the accompanying percussionist on the tabla.  It opened my mind to the incredible range and depth of this string instrument and the very different style of playing (strings were plucked using only the finger nails).  Amjad Ali Khan's expertise lies in understanding and expressing the mood or emotion of a composition; he displays a certain gentleness and involvement in the process that emanates to the audience.  I attach a link below showing an excerpt of his concert with Zakir Hussain (which he dedicates to great musicians and the memory of those musicians who are no longer with us).

Amaan and Ayaan are very skilled and intense players, each with his own style.  Speed is one of their strengths and they went back and forth, effortlessly, with increasing tempo, the tabla player adding his bit, keeping the audience mesmerized.  However, I personally preferred Amjad Ali Khan's music and the way he could express all kinds of things with his instrument.  The link below (showing all three in a concert) gives an indication of this.

This family (the Bangash gharana) is only one of several families of music (gharanas) of the sarod.  Amjad Ali Khan's ancestors migrated from Central Asia to India.  Amjad Ali Khan's father, Haafiz Ali Khan, an iconic musician, settled in Gwalior, under the patronage of the royal family.

Ali Akbar Khan, another incredible sarod player (no longer alive), of the Maihar gharana, has left behind wonderful recordings.  His father, Allaudin Khan, left home and moved from Bangladesh to India when he was a child, to learn music.  He eventually became also a royal court musician, an eminent teacher - and could play 200 instruments!  Of these, he selected to teach his son the sarod (which he had structurally modified considerably) - an instrument that he felt could produce the sound of many instruments put together.

I had unwittingly heard Ali Akbar Khan many times over while listening to 'Concert For Bangladesh' - a recording of two incredible benefit concerts held for Bangladesh, by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in 1971.  The Indian section features Ali Akbar Khan along with Ravi Shankar, but somehow, much of the attention is focussed on Ravi Shankar, perhaps as he was co-organizer.  However if you listen to this folk song (a tune called Bangla Dhun), it begins with Ravi Shankar on the sitar and subsequently Ali Akbar Khan joins in on the sarod, adding a depth and richness that the sitar alone would not provide.  Unfortunately, I could not find a video recording of this and am attaching an audio link.

A couple of these recordings are over ten minutes, but you need only to listen to a few minutes of each, if you wish, to get an idea of the sounds.  Steeped though I am in musical ignorance, I feel I have learnt much by attending the last concert and I am glad I impatiently stood in line to do so!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Changing Shape Of Yoga

Some stray thoughts on the changing 'yoga scene' within and outside the country -

As with many ancient Indian systems of study, yoga was not formally put down in writing until thousands of years after it began.  Information was passed on from teacher to student and the system diversified as multiple schools arose.  This imparted a certain flexibility to the system; each school emphasized specific aspects and developed them over time.

In the last few years, however, the changes have been more drastic and driven by market forces rather than real reasons for change.  I have been thinking about this for some time now as each time I drive out to the main road, I see large hoardings proclaiming how you can lose 3 kgs. in 15 days by attending a certain yoga class.  These classes are apparently packed, mostly with younger people.  These, and other classes, now offer yoga that is practiced in tune to different kinds of music, somewhat akin to aerobic workouts.  To me, the postures demonstrated don't look perfect, but apparently that's not what people are looking for.  Stretching in silence is boring.

There have always been some teachers who have taught while continuously giving directions and verbally correcting students.  One aim of this exercise is to try and keep the students' minds "on the job".  I feel fortunate to have attended a class where the practice was carried out mostly in silence.  My yoga teacher often corrected me, initially by physical adjustments, and subsequently just by signs indicating which part I had to readjust.  The emphasis was on focussing inwards.  When one attempts this, the mind settles down and you attain a certain peace and inner equilibrium.  This internal focussing brings a kind of transformation that nothing from the outside can ever achieve.  But often I suppose people don't trust themselves (or their students) to this silence and to listening to oneself from within.

My yoga classes are long over as my teacher moved to another town, to teach.  I was glad to be able to meet him over Diwali, when he was visiting Bangalore.  Some of our conversation revolved around the numerous classes and advertisments for yoga that are flooding the cities.  He told me that his current classes were very poorly attended.  I was amazed, for I believe he is a very good teacher - compassionate and experienced with knowledge of some old, classical styles.  I asked what the reason was, as many other yoga centres seem to be doing very well.  He shrugged and said that people found the class too intense and wanted it simplified.  This sounded strange because one important aspect of his class has always been that each person goes at his or her own pace.  He claimed that people didn't want to put in the effort on a regular basis.

Of course, many other factors might also play a role.  His traditional (and fixed) hours may not be convenient for all; many yoga studios offer walk in classes through the day with different teachers and different styles of yoga.  It's hard to compete with that but all these are led-classes (where everyone in the group follows one format); very little personal attention can be given especially if the numbers are large.

There are also apparently certain times of the year when yoga classes are more frequented.  In the 'yoga hotspots' which have emerged in different parts of India, teaching yoga is often a '6 month business' that coincides with the travel and holiday season.  The rest of the time, the schools shut down or slow down and the better teachers go elsewhere to teach.  This makes it difficult to sustain a serious school in one of these areas.

Over-secularisation is another hazard to the teaching of yoga.  Several people have asked me about the religious overtones of yoga.  The answer is, of course, that there are none.  Well, not absolutely, because, as with most ancient systems of philosophy, yoga is based on certain assumptions about what comprises an individual and how a person is linked to a higher source of energy.  This is what the philosophy of yoga has in common with several other Indian systems of philosophy and spirituality.  The religion and rituals of Hinduism have also developed in this milieu and there is naturally a social and cultural overlap in the way some of the thoughts are expressed.  But that is a very tiny aspect and is not relevant when it comes to the practice of yoga.  The aim (rather definition) of yoga (as mentioned in the earliest known text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) is to alleviate fluctuations in the mind, intellect and conscious self.  Nothing more (and nothing less)!

Many schools outside India have stopped reciting the prayers that are typically chanted at the beginning of the class so as to make people of various (or no) leanings comfortable.  I have no cause to complain about this all-inclusive approach.  The prayers were always in Sanskrit (for obvious reasons), a language not everyone is comfortable with and one that most people are not familiar with.  However I continue to say the prayer I have been taught; I find the sound very soothing and helpful in focussing my mind.  This is a prayer to the teachers of yoga, beginning with Patanjali, asking them to help us remember the objectives of yoga in our practice.  I always find it a good reminder and a nice way to express my gratitude to those who have helped me learn.

Certain semantic aspects of new approaches to yoga have taken me completely by surprise.  Recently a friend told me that in some Indian Universities, teaching of Surya Namaskar (the Sun Salutation) has been banned because of its religious connotation.  She attended a class where the instructor refused to teach this set of movements.  Surya Namaskar is the beginning (the warm up exercise) of yogasanas (yogic postures).  It is traditionally done facing the east.  In some schools of yoga, a prayer to the sun is chanted first.  We don't say any prayers because we follow a style where the movements are uninterrupted and repeated at least for five or ten rounds (about half an hour), leaving no extra breath for anything!  This is a particularly beautiful set of movements that warms each part of the body without causing any pulls or strains (by 'warm' I mean that in summer one is dripping with sweat at the end of this practice!) and expels mucous that may be blocking the nose or throat, clearing the respiratory passage.  These are a small subset of the regular yoga postures that have been linked together in a dynamic fashion.  Often when one has no time for a complete practice, one just does Surya Namaskar to get the circulation going.  To eliminate them without understanding anything about their purpose, just because they happen to be called Sun Salutations, seems to me a tremendous pity.

These, of course, are some of the stranger trends I have come across.  I'm sure there are successful schools which rise above populist sentiments and focus on the depth and vast range of possibilities that yoga offers.  But they are few and getting harder to find.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rain, Apples and Cinnamon

Just a few days after the cyclone, the north-eastern monsoons have stepped in, or rather gusted in, bringing thick clouds and rain at all hours.  We barely got a fortnight of sunshine squeezed in between two heavy monsoons.

I am grateful for the apple season - there's a bumper harvest this year and apple growers in the north are concerned about crashing prices.  No trace of this is evident down south, in Bangalore, where we are still subsisting on pomegranates and oranges.  These fruits are refreshing, but there's not much in terms of wholesome baking that can be done with them.

And these days, steeped in misty mornings and wet evenings, hot apple with a scent of spice is what I long for.  Fortunately, several visitors from Delhi have brought an unending supply of fresh apples for me - tangy golden ones and sweet red ones from the hills of Himachal and Kashmir.

I have spent the last few weeks trying out a range of apple recipes with the bruised, left overs (the best way to eat them of course is as they are) and here are some of my observations:

For sheer elegance, nothing can beat a classic French apple tart - a layer of crisp pastry topped with soft apple filling and covered with thin, lightly caramelized apple slices and perhaps a bit of glaze.  A variety of taste and texture in every mouthful.

One of the tastiest apple desserts, in my view, is Tarte Tartin - the French recipe where apples are bathed in caramel and topped with a crisp, buttery pastry.  I don't throw the tart on the floor (as the legendary Tartin sisters supposedly did) or even turn it over on a plate (the more conventional way) because I feel the pastry stays crisper when it remains on top.  No tartin pans or special skillets are required to make this here, for we have our own stainless steel dabbas, which make very good containers.

However, this comes more in the 'indulgence' category of desserts and it inevitably requires a side serving of cream, which adds to the calories.  I like crumbles too, but I face the same problem - if they're hot and crisp, they beg for a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of cream on the side.  So, instead, for everyday wholesome snacking, I make a plain spiced apple pie.  This uses a very basic crust and a delicious filling of a little bit (but not too much) of all the things that go well with apples - lemon, orange, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.  Nutmeg and cloves are good too but apple and cinnamon have always been a classic pair.

When the stomach refuses fresh apples, apple stew is a marvel.  Apples, sliced and stewed with just a little sugar, clove and cinnamon are light and satisfying.

And if you like apple in your salad, apples, avocados and walnuts make for a nice combination.  But when they are fresh, I just like to eat them plain!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vastrabharana - the Annual Saree Exhibition

Come October and Bangalore saree shoppers are on the look out for signs of Vastrabharana.  This is an annual saree exhibition and sale organized by the Crafts Council of Karnataka; weavers and saree sellers from around the country (typically one from each region) are invited to participate.  Unlike many other cloth exhibitions, the emphasis here is on sarees, generally those obtained directly from craftsmen.  This year however, I found that about one third of the sellers were designers or individuals running their own shops.  Not that I have anything against this, but it leaves less room for weavers from smaller places (whose sarees I inevitably end up buying).

However, it's always nice to visit the stalls, to see sarees everywhere - on walls, on shelves, draped alongside mirrors and held in the hands of prospective buyers or sellers.  Yards of beautifully woven material - silk, cotton or a mix of the two as many modern weavers are now using.

This year I bought two sarees, both from traditional weavers - a soft pale green Maheshwari with colours of spring and autumn mixed together in a beautiful way.

The weaver, of course, came from Maheshwar (Madhya Pradesh) and had brought with him a range of these typically light sarees in silk or cotton, woven generally in one main colour with a similar or contrasting pallu (part that is draped over the shoulder).  These are easy to wear for most of the year.

The second saree I selected was quite different - a rich green-gold shot silk with a yellow-orange border and a pallu that was vividly woven with peacocks in orange, blue, green and purple.

Yes!  A typical Paithani saree from Maharashtra.  Colours are bright and thrown together in unimaginable combinations but they look splendid when worn on special occasions.  And with the festival season round the corner, there's no dearth of special occasions!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Here Comes The Sun!

After more than three months of continuous rain and cloudy skies, we have the sun back again.  Not just peering through and sending a few weak rays, but gloriously beaming down on us.  What a tremendous sense of relief - and such delight to see blue skies once more.

The plants look up cheerily and my pots of sprouts perk up (I had begun planting them because it became impossible to buy good greens due to so much rain).

I open my cupboards, shake out my cotton sarees. These can now be worn, washed, starched and sun dried without a second thought.

I too have been hibernating in the grey gloom of cyclonic weather.  I celebrate these warm golden days (I don't know how many there will be before the winter rains begin!) by writing this little blog and beginning on a round of baking - crusty bread, crisp crackers and more..

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Kingdom of 'Sun Shield' and 'Serpent Jaguar'

Palenque - a modern name for an ancient city in the Chiapas area, is one of the best preserved Mayan sites.  Much of it is still believed to be buried within the forest for the trees spread far and wide, covering everything if they get a chance.  This empire began around 100 B.C., flourished under the rule of the king Pacal (Sun Shield) and his son Chan Bahlum (Serpent Jaguar) in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D.  Its decline began in the 9th century A.D.

This was also one of the first cities to be re-discovered after many centuries.  In 1746, a Spanish priest, Padre Solis, was sent by his bishop on an exploratory trip to Santo Domingo de Palenque.  He had heard of a buried city and came across impressive remains that lay deep in the forest.  After his reports, several explorers visited the area and each contributed and added to the information that is now available about this site.

Pacal ruled Palenque from 615 A.D. to 683 A.D. and constructed a huge 'Palace' complex.  This may have served as the home for the royal family (there are buildings with naturally air cooled 'bedrooms' - laid out with a stone bed and ventilation channels, systems for sewage management and also water canals) but the complex may also have served as an area for religious and cultural ceremonies.  A large tower rises above the Palace.  This is believed to be a watch tower or, more likely, an astronomical observatory.

Near the palace stands the Temple of Inscriptions - a splendidly built structure, tapering in pyramid style, with a flattened top and a central room filled with intricate, carved symbols.  For a long time, people had been trying to study this central room, however, in 1952, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz found that this building contained much more than was apparent to the eye.  Hidden by slabs in the floor of the temple lay an entrance to a long staircase.  This led to a high ceilinged crypt - a Funerary Crypt that contained a monolithic, highly inscribed and decorated sarcophagus.  The inscriptions indicated that this was the tomb of King Pacal.

The Temple of Inscriptions was closed for renovation when we went and I was greatly disappointed, for this is one of the highlights of the archaeological site.  I had foolishly avoided visiting a life size model of the tomb at the museum at Mexico City, thinking that I would shortly be seeing the original!  Apparently all the contents of the tomb have also been moved to Mexico City - and there were several treasures that it originally contained.  An amazingly carved funerary mask of jade with eyes of shell and obsidian had been placed over the face of the king.  Two realistic stucco heads, possibly portraits of the king, were placed close by.  The lid of the sarcophagus is a complex relief with astronomical symbols, interpreted by scholars to depict the Cosmic Tree (a symbol of the Milky Way) or the 'White Road' along which the spirit of the dead king travelled before it was reborn into a new life.  The inscriptions mention that Pacal was succeeded by his son Chan Bahlum, who constructed three great temples in this complex in specific cosmological orientations.

The three temples are the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross.  These are also pyramid like structures with flattened tops with roofcombs.  The dedicatory ceremony for the Temple of the Cross was celebrated at a time of the year when three planets were in conjunction with the sun.

Most of the inscriptions and several of the reliefs on the temples have been deciphered and copies are seen in the small but well designed site museum.

We spent the better part of the day walking around, exploring these and many other smaller structures that are clustered around this site.  While each building is partly worn out and sometimes broken, the feel of the entire area - a whole incredibly designed (now ruined) city is intriguing.  One wishes one knew more about the lives and beliefs of those who lived here.

We also took a short walk in the adjoining forest.  Howler monkeys shrieked in the distance and invisible birds called out periodically.  Other than that it was quite still.  Tree roots clambered over small ancient buildings and temple-like structures.  Our guide pointed out trees and plants that were used locally for food, as natural dyes, as medicine.  He broke off a large termite mound and rubbed some termites on his skin - this serves as a mosquito repellent.  Then he popped some in his mouth.  "Delicious!  Minty!  Try them!" he said and we did.  To our surprise they did taste of mint and were rather refreshing.

At the end of a long day we trudged back, negotiated (rather fought over) our return fare and took long, hot baths to wash off all the grime and sweat.  We had dinner at El Huachinango Feliz (which roughly translates to 'The Happy Snapper').  This place is packed every evening, with locals and tourists.  Prices are reasonable and service is efficient.  They serve all kinds of Mexican food but are known for their seafood.  Along with our drinks they served a large plate of avocado and small, delicious shrimps witha sprinkling of lemon juice and salt.  This was on the house and a perfect beginning to our large meal.  It was followed by fish and shellfish, cooked in Mexican sauces and served fresh and piping hot!  Then, we somehow managed to walk back to our hotel (a few metres away), climb into bed - and were soon fast asleep.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Visiting Chiapas - Mexico's Southernmost State

Ruins in Yaxchilan
From Mexico City we flew to Villahermosa (in the state of Tabasco) where the Governor had apparently been doing terribly corrupt things and is now fighting some legal battles.  Tabasco has hit the headlines for this!  It is also known for its sauce and for its ancient Olmec ceremonial site, La Venta, which has now been converted into an outdoor museum that contains (amongst other things) colossal Olmec basalt heads (the largest being over two metres tall).

We had no time to stop here, we immediately took a bus to Palenque and walked from the bus station to our hotel in the tiny town.  Guide books do not rate the town highly, advising people to stay outside in the lush forest guest houses and hotels.  But we liked the town, with its tiny lanes - some green, shaded and quiet and some bustling with people and sounds of loud speakers and generators interspersed with small, interesting shops.

We stayed in hotel Chablis, a 'standard hotel' which we found very clean, comfortable and friendly.  It had a courtyard filled with beautiful plants and walls painted in warm shades of off white, yellow and orange.  The food was good and the service friendly.

Flowers in the hotel courtyard
The first evening, we just walked around to get our bearings.  Everything in this town is within walking distance, which makes it easy to shop, eat and equip oneself for travel.  It's also a blessing because the taxi (and minivan) drivers, like drivers everywhere, over-charge all tourists.  There are regular vans (with irregular prices!) that take one to various tourist destinations around Palenque.  We selected one amongst the many small travel agencies and booked two seats in a van that was going to Yaxchilan and Bonampak the following day.  Then we bought some supplies and headed back towards our hotel for dinner.

We ate in an elegant restaurant close to the hotel, that served a fixed price, three course meal.  It was a delicious dinner that began with glasses of house wine, tacos and salsa and continued till we were too full to move.

Maya Canada restaurant
Tacos and salsa
Soup made of local greens
Vegetable soup
Fish in cilantro sauce
Grilled pork, banana and beans with tortillas
Fresh mango ice cream
The next day we rose early, ate some mangoes in our hotel room and were ready before sunrise, waiting for the van.  The van arrived duly and we were packed in like sardines along with various other tourists, negotiating for space and air conditioning vents.  We sped off towards the border of Mexico and Guatemala, stopping on the way for a pleasant buffet breakfast at a spot that every tourist bus seemed to halt at.  Eggs in vast quantities (the Mexicans have an infinite and delicious variety of egg dishes), breads, beans, pork, tortillas, coffee, tea, fruit and more.

Continued, rather sleepily, towards the valley of the river Usumancinta, where Yaxchilan is located.  Yaxchilan, rediscovered in 1881, was an important classic Mayan city, built strategically to control river commerce in the area.  Many of the large structures were gradually taken over by forests but it is still an impressive sight and a very scenic location.  The surviving monuments include stelae, altars and lintels with elaborate relief carvings and also distinctive 'roofcombs' that decorate the tops of the buildings.  The reliefs and some inscribed texts tell us that Yaxchilan was ruled by kings of a single dynasty (and peaked in power between the 7th and 9th centuries A.D.); some important figures depicted are the rulers "Bird Jaguar" and "Shield Jaguar" and "Lady Xoc", the wife of Shield Jaguar.

Along the river Usmancinta
Roofcombs of Yaxchilan
A surviving relief
To reach Yaxchilan, we took a boat a long way up the river; it was a beautiful ride with thick forest on either side.  Then we walked around amidst the sprawling ruins, surrounded by water and greenery and saw (heard!) the howler monkeys making their eerie calls.  Then we retraced our path, back through the forest, down the river and stopped at a very pleasant roadside place where long tables had been laid out for our lunch.

After a substantial meal, we headed southwards, to the valley of the Rio Lacanha, a tributary of the Usmancinta, to see the ruins of Bonampak.  This city of 'Painted Walls' (as the name indicates) also dates to the same period as Yaxchilan.  There was apparently a significant alliance between the two cities in the Classic Mayan period.  Bonampak was more deeply hidden by the forest and came to light only in 1946.

Bonampak is in a reserved area so we could only use the reservation vehicles (which were rickety and completely airless) to the entrance.  After that, it was a pleasant walk, past rows of small stalls where locals sold crafts and bead jewellery, to the actual ruins.  Along the way I saw what seemed like small leaves scurrying along rapidly.  It looked surreal but a closer glance revealed a row of ants carrying bits of leaves larger than themselves, across our path!

Walking leaves of Bonampak!
Bonampak has a few small structures and carvings that are strewn around but the main area that still stands is a series of rooms filled with frescoes in vibrant colours (or whatever remains of them).  The rooms show ritual preparations for war, scenes of war, celebrations of a victory and conclude with a depiction of a sacrificial ritual (rather bloodthirsty!) in which the victims are being offered to the gods.  Replicas of the original paintings (or what they must have originally looked like) are on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

More frescoes, in fragile condition
After this we trooped back, tired, sat in the airless van, returned to our own van (which seemed luxurious by comparison) and quietly drove back.  One by one, we were dropped off at our hotels.  We had a quick (and very restorative) bath, then walked around in search of a place to eat.  Discovered an excellent seafood restaurant - but more about that later (I'm running out of space)!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Glimpses Of Mexico City

Traditional Mexican kitchen, painting in El Cardenal
As we landed, blurry eyed from our early morning DC flight to Mexico City, we could catch only a few glimpses of the city from the air.  It was covered with clouds and a light rain pattered incessantly.  We could not see the mountains and volcanoes that surround Mexico city from up above.  As we left the plane, the height and coolness of the place suddenly hit us (Mexico city is about 7200 feet above sea level) and I wondered if we should have brought more woolens.  Fortunately, a light sweater and jacket sufficed.

We were met by our old friend and her incredibly pleasant and steady driver at the airport.  Battling the chaotic traffic (very reminiscent of Delhi) requires steady nerves and a ton of patience.  Mexico city is densely populated (about 57 people per sq. km., so the statistics say) - and the roads are groaning with vehicles (despite the fact that there is a very efficient metro system in the city).  There were cars, buses, two wheelers, real taxis and fake ones (discernible only by the order of alphabets on the number plates) - the only thing we missed here were the cows!

We stayed with our friends, in Coyoacan - the place of the coyotes - a beautiful area where once a river flowed.  Now it has picturesque old houses, narrow, winding lanes and bird-filled trees.

After a delicious lunch of tortillas and chicken with mole and glasses of hibiscus juice and tamarind water, our friends took us around.  It was a whirlwind tour of the city covered in the short time we had - to show the diversity of the region : the large green spaces and cramped roads, the famous murals and architecture, the local bazaars and the world renowned museums.  During most of my stay, I shunned my camera, just wanting to soak in the atmosphere and sights.  I do this sometimes (and generally regret it later, when I am unable to describe all that I have seen and experienced, to others!).  Fortunately others were not so lackadaisical.

On the first evening we visited UNAM, the second oldest university of the Americas.  It has a sprawling, green campus dotted with architectural wonders including beautiful mosaics and sculpted murals.  We walked around to get a feel for this venerable University; it seemed like a wonderful place for students.

Mural atop a University building
We returned home for tea and then visited a nearby marketplace.  An old church stood at the entrance and much to our delight, a wedding procession had just begun to enter.  "Weddings are lucky," we were told, and this one certainly lit up the entire area.  A few feet away, a stage was being set for live music.  Further down there were rows of stalls selling the most interesting looking food - an incredible variety of chopped fruit, vegetables, tortillas, steamed and roasted corn, all kinds of fried snacks, juices and more.  We stopped to try some hot guava juice - thick, soup-like, laced with cinnamon and very slightly sweetened - it was delicious in the cool, rainy weather.  Our friends bought all kinds of things for us to try- pumpkin seeds and more held together with a kind of caramel, paper-thin wafers of different colours sprinkled with seeds and nuts, fried snacks served with a thin sauce.  We then entered the actual market, which was filled with art, craft, textiles, jewellery and hand made products of a high quality.  Very similar and yet very different from India.  Our friends bought us a painted wooden box made of a local citrus-scented wood and I bought myself a jaguar T-shirt, which made me feel very powerful when I put it on!

The next day was Sunday and we rose early in anticipation of our Sunday breakfast at 'the best breakfast place in town' (as our friends said).  It truly was.  El Cardenal (named after the bird) - located close by, in a huge traditional house with gleaming wood, beautiful stained glass, white linen and large vases overflowing with fresh flowers.  Everyone was impeccably courteous and no one was rushed us (even though a long queue built up as we sat down for breakfast).  I was quite amazed at the unhurried atmosphere - families large and small, sat together and ate their food with relish amidst much chatter.  "It is the Mexican way," I was told.

It was a memorable meal, that began with a plateful of hot, freshly baked rich breads and a cup of steaming chocolate that was made at our table.  The Mexican chocolate is lighter (and I think, tastier) than the Spanish variety.  It is generally made with milk but one can also request for a version made with water than is still lighter and has a more intense chocolate flavour.

Then, to my great joy, we were able to taste two specialties that I had read about and had been wanting to try in Mexico (and it was very fortunate that we ordered them because I did not see them anywhere else subsequently).  Huitlacoche - a corn fungus (that was served in tortillas).  This is a fungus that grows on the ears of the corn, transforming them into dark coloured, earthy tasting nuggets.  The second was an omelette (Mexicans are experts at cooking eggs) stuffed with nopal (a cactus) and a kind of ant larva - a surprisingly tasty combination.  This was one of the most memorable meals that we had in Mexico.  We were also offered lots of fresh fruit but could only manage a slice of Mexican pineapple (a different variety from the American kind).

Tortillas with corn fungus
Omelette with cactus and ant larvae
Tortillas with a baked tomato sauce dish
After this, we staggered out and managed to head towards the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology) - a world famous museum and the best anthropological museum I have seen so far.  On Sundays, there is no entrance charge and we trooped in along with many other families.  The museum is far too large to be covered in a day, it requires almost a week to do justice to all its exhibits.  It has some visiting foreign exhibitions that change periodically (at the time we visited there was an exhibition on Indian miniatures) and a large number of galleries showcasing Mexican civilization through the centuries.  Some of the permanent highlights include the colossal Olmec heads (there seem to be no bodies, just large, incredibly carved, ancient heads) from sites in Tabasco and Veracruz, sacred objects from the cenote near Chichen Itza, a replica of Pacal's tomb from Palenque, a model and layout of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (currently central Mexico city) and the original gigantic Aztec 'Stone of the Sun'.

Stone of the Sun
We spent half a day at the museum and then stepped out, into the Chapultpec park - vast, green and filled with picnicking families.  Suddenly we saw some people in brightly coloured clothes, wrapping vast amounts of rope round themselves.  Traditional acrobatic dancers!  Another wondrous surprise for us.  We sat and watched them climbing up a tall metal pillar and securing themselves to the top.  A single musician remained below, the others (some carrying small musical instruments) were high up above.  All of a sudden, the music started and they launched themselves, upside down, off the post and descended slowly, in wide graceful circles, almost flying through the air, until they reached the ground.  It was a spectacular performance.  Then they nonchalantly untied themselves and drifted away.  We clapped and dropped some money into the can that was being passed around.

After this we went for a drive through the most amazing and varied sections of town - tiny lanes, broad boulevards (some of the roads are closed to traffic on Sundays, leaving a clear path for cyclists - this was a heart warming sight, and we wished that the same could be done in India).

Finally, we drove past the Gandhi bookstore (one of the best in the city), past the sculpted coyotes, to reach home - in time for a Sunday nap and a good Sunday evening gossip session followed by a small piano concert.  Later at night we met my husband's college friend, who had driven miles in the pouring rain to come and see us.  We sat in a little cafe and watched him eat his dinner (we were too full to eat anything except a bit of rice pudding that was thick, creamy and liberally sprinkled with cinnamon).  Caught up on news.  He has recently opened a hotel in Baja California and invited us to stay.  Alas, we had no time, but I did secure a job as a Yoga teacher in his hotel!  An offer to be seriously considered at some other time, in the future.  As we parted he handed us a bagful of guavas- they were small, ripe and delicious.

Thus ended our last night in Mexico city.  We left (after another excellent breakfast and a bagful of gifts) the following morning, carrying with us sunny memories of Mexico city and all our friends.

(Note on photographs: All pictures were expertly taken by Gossi Soto but Blogger has somehow changed the dimensions in the process of uploading.  Some of the pictures have been slightly distorted in this process.)  
#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }