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Advice for Bali: Get off the beaten track, if you can!

The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.

Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.

Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience

On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.

Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity

Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.

We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!

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Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?

Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.

The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.

In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!

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Ritual bathers at Tirta Empul

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For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea

From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!

Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen

Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!

Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean  companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.

The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.

What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).

thumb__DSC0419_1024thumb__DSC0430_1024thumb__DSC0438_1024thumb_IMG_9546_1024Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.

The contours of faith at Ajmer Sharif #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

On the stretch from Udaipur to Ajmer, I had the pleasure of getting off of NH8 onto NH79, an equally good highway that passes by Chittorgarh and Bhilwara through some really pretty countryside. Again hilly and dotted with spectacular water bodies, I really enjoyed the drive. At one point where the scenery got particularly enjoyable, we stopped and took a break, breathing in the fresh air and reveling in the wonderful freedom of being out on the road._DSC5416

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There is a certain spirituality in beautiful landscapes and this hit me at this spot!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At this magical place, we decided to finally bring into action the camera and its little tripod! Timer zindabad!

At Ajmer, we stopped very briefly at our homestay. Badnor House is quite a neat little property, well located and convenient. Pretty too!

_DSC5425IMG_5460IMG_2824We headed for the Dargah Sharif the same evening. It just didn’t seem right to come to the city and not go. And it was quite the experience. Our host Sanjay set us up with Furkan bhai, a tall strapping gentleman who is a khadim (equivalent of a priest). Furkan bhai would take us through the dargah with businesslike gentleness. You cannot take cameras in, or the pictures would have spoken of the atmosphere of utter faith inside this famous Sufi shrine, the final resting place of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, who established the Chisti order in the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. The Chisti order would go on to become one of the most important religious movements in the northern part of the subcontinent and the dargahs of his descendants like Salim Chisti and Nizamuddin Aulia are also living shrines in Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi, very much revered.

I’m not very religious, but I’ve come to believe religion and faith are perhaps two different things. At the Ajmer Sharif, I went in with little expectations, mostly curiosity. We entered through the magnificent, ornate main gate, past the hauz (water tank) called Victoria Tank that was dedicated to the shrine by Queen Mary, and past hundreds of devotees into a courtyard milling with people and the enchanting sounds of a sufi qawwali. Furkan bhai took the three of us into the sanctum and ushered us close to the enclosure, putting a green chadar (sheet) over us as he murmured the ritualistic passing of our wishes to the saint. Without explanation, I found myself weeping, uncontrollably. Rachna put her arms around me, Nupur sidled closer. All three of us were crying, in various degree. Next to us, pilgrims from Pakistan were also offering their prayers.

It was a defining, irrational, moving moment, after which I felt visibly relaxed. We made a cash donation to the shrine, we walked around, we tied a string around a jaali to make a wish, we saw the enormous cauldron in which something yummy was cooking away, we walked past many Mughal monuments built by Jehangir, Shahjahan, Akbar, others. And then we walked out, back into the street in a bit of a daze. Back to the real world, we went into a giggly, selfie-taking mode, then found a simple and delicious dal-roti meal at a local eatery before finding a ride back to our homestay.

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

Heading to the Dargah Sharif

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The Buland Darwaza, main gate to the Dargah

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

The magnificent dome. This pic was sent later to me by our khadim

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree

Tired, relieved, mad- the selfie spree

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Sky gazing at Ramgarh and surrounds

I would stare at those paintings made by the famous English landscape painters, copies of which would commonly adorn walls and calendars when we were young and I would wonder if skies could really be like that! Well, in our four days at Ramgarh, we saw our fair share of changing skies. Often times, we were moving in a car and pictures could not be taken and many a times, my photography skills were simply not good enough! One evening while driving back from Nainital at dusk, we saw crazy shades of orange, pink, grey and blue all changing constantly, with different combinations in different parts of the sky- too much to capture! At times like these, I feasted my eyes all I could, for there really is no replacement for seeing nature’s beauty first hand, is there? Nor a more beautiful instrument to capture that beauty than the human eye! In any case, here are some clicks….DSC_5962DSC_6177DSC_5976DSC_6148DSC_6196IMG_2433IMG_2435IMG_2442

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