Friday, February 09, 2007

Editor's note: When I took a writing seminar recently, The Chief assigned me the job of writing about India. I did a pretty good job at first but then the assignments got more complex and I had to ask for HELP on the details from my friend Jane at Straitwell Travel Books. Here is our third and last essay assignment. And The Chief DEFINITELY likes her better!

On getting promoted: From American drudge to the Laughing Goddess of India!

"Your next writing assignment," said The Chief, "is to write an essay on Scenic India." I'm on it like white on rice!

By Jane Stillwater

India is scenic. It is really scenic. It is the most scenic place in the world.


After reading my essay, The Chief just frowned, shook his head and sent me back to writing rude diatribes about George W. Bush. "Jane," said The Chief, "stick to what you know." Whew!

Then Jane Straitwell took over and did an amazing job. Don't you just hate when that happens? Show-off! Teacher's pet.

By Jane Straitwell

Today we drove south through Indian farmland on a road that was rutted, half-paved and only one vehicle wide. If you see a truck coming in the opposite direction, you just close your eyes and pray that the other guy swerves first.

We passed a boy at the edge of a mustard field. He had his back to us and was obviously relieving himself -- but when he saw us drive by, he switched his peeing apparatus to his left hand in midstream so he could wave to us with his dominant hand. Priceless. Good grief, this place is scenic as hell.

Between the villagers, the camel carts, the ruins of ancient forts, the temples, the decorated tractors and the herds of goats sharing the road, you feel like you've been set down in the middle of a great work of art -- and that you are lucky to be here as well.

This brings up the age-old travelers' question. "Would you rather stop the bus, get off, stay here for the rest of your life and become part of this landscape -- or would you rather only drive through it?" I don't know. I might consider staying here. Could I get an internet connection?

A pig and seven little piglets just crossed the road. This place is SO scenic! Little kids in blue uniforms trudging off to school. "When sacred cows die, they have a funeral for them and then they bury them," someone just told me. "In India, only humans are cremated." Good idea. Cremating a cow would just be too much like BBQ.

I saw decorated camels, motor bikes loaded down with whole families, vegetables spread out on blankets or being sold off of carts. Women on roofs putting cow patties out to dry to be used later as fuel. And everywhere you look, there is the flash of brightly-colored saris and mirror cloth.

"Always lean backwards when you get up on a camel," I was told, "and hold on really tight." Then we stopped at the Abhaneri step-well. That place is really hard to describe but I will try.

Imagine a giant city-block-wide hole in the ground, about a football field deep. Down in the hole, on one side of the hole, is an exquisitely-carved summer palace. You with me so far? Then on the other three sides of the hole are about 100 flights of criss-crossing stone stairs that in the sunlight and shadows look just like an Escher painting. And at the bottom of all this is a pool large enough to train the high school swim team in. "This well was built in the ninth century and it took 50 years to complete. It is famous for having one thousand stairs." Nope. I can't even begin to describe this step-well in mere words. You will have to have been there. The Taj Mahal is gonna have to work very hard to beat this one!

Then we drove past a Hindu temple with approximately 200 women in front of it, dressed in multi-colored saris -- bright orange, fluorescent pink, turquoise, yellow, chartreuse. Can it get any more scenic than this? Good grief!

Then we went on a tiger hunt. And we found a real actual tiger! How scenic is that! The big cat walked out in front of approximately160 camera-ready tourist paparazzi; posed left, posed right and then walked back up the "catwalk". It was all very America's Next Top Model. And scenic as hell.

Then we stopped for the night at a tented camp. And it got even better! A camel ride to the nearest village where I watched the sun set over a mountaintop fort from under a tree in a terraced field being tended by women in saris holding babies while they worked. In the twilight stillness of the outdoors 50 miles from the nearest electricity? Magical.

"I'm afraid to get back on that camel," I whined.

"Well then don't," replied our guide. "Just walk back to the camp." But then I'd be a wimp. But I AM a wimp. But I didn't want to admit it so I climbed back up on my camel.

Sitting on the back of a kneeling camel when it stands up is a humbling experience. Not for the faint of heart. But much to even my own surprise, I started to laugh! Joyfully! And I realized that I hadn't laughed like that in years! For all the luxury of American life, it took me a trip to a backward village 500 miles from nowhere to teach me to laugh again the way I had laughed as a child. Plus the camels were really funny too. And the fields in the twilight and the fresh air. If they only had an internet connection and a branch of the Berkeley Public Library, I could live here forever.

What's next? A cooking demonstration back at the camp. Chapattis -- they're sort of like wheat tortillas. Flour and water kneaded together, fried in a pan and then placed on the open burner for a few seconds on either side.

Curry? You heat the mustard oil then add cumin seeds and onions. Turmeric, coriander, chili pepper and salt. Cooked in a wok. Stir-fried. Lots of vegetables. I almost forgot. There were vegetables too.

Then there was the evening campfire and music and dance. Tabla, harmonium, trumpet and RUM. How can it POSSIBLY get more scenic than this? Full moon. More rum.

Then things suddenly got a little TOO scenic. One of the dancers, a graceful young woman in a lovely fuchsia sari that glittered and glowed as she moved, was dancing with a pot of flames on her head when the flames leaped out of the pot and set her sari on fire. "I don't think this is part of the act," someone said. Yikes. But somehow the drummer managed to put the fire out and the lovely lady then went on to dance on ground glass.

You want to win the "scenic" award, Chief? Come to India!