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Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Ajanta Caves

Yesterday I swore that I wouldn't get back on the bus to go to the Ajanta Caves. It was a deliberate decision I made upon exiting the bus 'door'. I guess I thought, "Why risk crazed drivers, overloaded seats and pulling Dukes of Hazard moves on the shoulder to pass other weighted down vehicles of all kinds?" The truth is that I simply didn't feel like it. Riding on the back seat, which is where we tend to end up, six people deep mind you, makes for quite the bumpy ride. The price is right, but the 55 km distance takes over and hour and a half. Hmmm, does not compute!

Woke up this morning and got on the bus. Another Gravol ingested, we were safely and happily arrived at the Ajanta caves. This was worth the trip. Would have felt ridiculous staying in my pretty room with cable while skipping these caves, that is certain. (Though, you would not believe my craving for some films!)

We traveled to a viewtop area first, finding that the area we were about to explore is a horseshoe-shaped canyon. The season right now is quite dry, though ordinarily, this canyon would have several waterfalls flowing into the floor of the crevice below. It is a stunning panoramic portrait to take in. We enjoyed the view for a while before traversing the canyon to visit the caves.

The caves are all Buddhist, which simplifies the designs and brings a peaceful environment to the area. There were monks, Tibetan and Thai, who made the trip as part of the journey to enlightenment. At times, we were priveleged enough to take in their chanting, which created a distinct feeling that this moment would be what it was like so many years ago.

The Ajanta caves were wonderful, and really difficult to convey in words, except, well, definitely worth that damn bus ride! They are older than the Ellora caves we explored 2 days ago, dating back to as early as 200 BC to AD 650. They also have an odd way of unravelling themselves in history. The story of their rediscovery in 1819 was that a British hunting party stumbled upon the abandoned Ajanta caves. The caves isolation contributed to the state of preservation in which the remarkable paintings remain to this day. The paintings are difficult to decipher in the dark rooms, though they reflect story and legend that can put you in a dream world of escape and romance and adventure.

Then we got back on the bus. Magic can only last so long. Though getting back to our lovely hotel, with HBO, is a miracle in itself. I am happy to be moving on, confirmed ticket in hand, on the train. Sleeper style!

Mr. Congeniality

Since visiting Aurangabad and currently, Jalgaon, I have noticed a celebrity amongst us. It's funny, because being in such a non-touristy area (to our continuous surprise, considering the magnitude of these rock-cut caves), we are quite the novelty among the local Indians, particularly the children. We get out of our hotel door and immediately are met with, "Hello!", "What's your name!", and often a Marathi joke (another language in this region) that causes all inquiring parties to giggle unrestrained, from all directions.

The celebrity status requires a certain amount of humour and joy as it can be quite silly and even draining. But Angelo, Mr. Congeniality, is the best at covering all the bases. He seems to be the desired conversationalist anyway, particularly with boys and young men, eager to practice their English and shake hands. It's terribly cute and endearing, a common feeling that we have been priveleged to experience with the Indian people.
Monday, February 09, 2004

We've just arrived in Jalgaon, which is in northern Maharashtra, by way of a grueling four-hour bus ride that had the iron-stomached locals vomiting out the windows. Fortunately Esther and I had the presence of mind to share a Gravol early in the trip and were spared the gruesome effects of bad highway, crazed driver and rickety bus.

Yesterday we visited the awe-inspiring Ellora Caves which have been designated a World Heritage Site but which we'd never heard of before researching this trip. They are located about an hour northwest of Aurangabad.

We arrived to find the trees at the entrance bristling with monkeys, but we managed to pass beneath their watch unmolested. (Later one monkey acted as gatekeeper to a particular cave, menacing enough to urge us onward.)

As we approached the caves, which are strung out for six kilometers along a rocky cliff, Kailasa Temple dominated the landscape. Kailasa Temple was hewn from the cliff face over 150 years by 7,000 labourers who removed 200,000 tonnes of rock. To give you some perspective, Kailasa's footprint is twice that of the Parthenon in Greece and one and-a-half-times as high. Remember, this is all carved out of solid rock. Absolutely stunning.

We decided to leave Kailasa for last and explore some of the other thirty-four caves carved by Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists starting around A.D. 600. Apparently the Buddhist caves were built earlier than the Hindu or Jain caves, making the latter more ornate and delicate than the former as each subsequent group tried to outdo their predecessors.

Our favorite set of caves were high up on the ridge, a group of seven Hindu caves separated by a river with great deep pools carved deep into the rock leaving large reservoirs during the dry season. We had the entire site to ourselves, probably due to the wonderful hike up to the ridge overlooking the lower cave sites and the valley below. Our only company was a goatherd and his charges, though Esther kept hearing snakes slithering just off the side of the trail. (We later learned that the sound was generated by dried seed pods hanging from nearby trees. Esther: Hey, you have to admit, they sound like rattlesnakes!)

Sitting alone in the silence on the threshold of these ancient places, overlooking deep cauldrons of water, one could easily imagine the monks gathered around cooking fires, almost hear their supplications to chosen gods.

On the way to the Ellora caves we passed a ruined fort and for the rest of the day were walking ancient paths on an ancient ridge between ancient holy places. Esther was reminded again of Indiana Jones, we think of the films again and again as we ourselves experience the thrill of discovery.

So, to recap, (for those of you who might happen to look at a map of India), we've left Pune, stayed over in Aurangabad, and have moved on to Jalgaon. Why Jalgaon? An excellent question. We've booked passage on an overnight train, (fabulous to travel through the night on a train, but more on that another time), to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, then on to Udaipur in Rajasthan. We're moving pretty fast these last few days, but intend to be in Udaipur, "The Golden City," for Valentine's Day, then hang around in Rajasthan for most of February.
Friday, February 06, 2004
Bhaja & Karla Caves

For the last couple of days we've been traveling with Matthew, a Brit we met in Benaulim. Yesterday we did a day trip out to Malavali to see the Bhaja and Karla Caves.

We decided to take a Local Train from Pune to Malavli Station, then walk the three kilometers to Bhaja, after which we would hire an auto-rickshaw to the Karla caves which we could see tucked into the mountainside ten kilometers across an arid valley.

We showed up at the Pune Station just around nine o'clock and bought return tickets to Malavli, twenty-eight Rupees ($0.75 CAN) for the one and-a-half hour journey. Cheap? Yes, but let me be the first to say, you get what you pay for.

The Local Train platform is not announced until the train is physically rolling into the station at which point the locals, who have beein milling about on the elevated causeway over the tracks, descend the perilous concrete staircase en masse to the appropriate platform.

Once on the platform everyone, their ridiculous luggage, produce, rice sacks children et cetera, jostles for position, attempting to approximate where the train will stop, and more specifically, to load the train from one of the two doors for each car.

We successfully managed to make our way to the head of the crowd on Platform #3, and were traveling light, but hadn't anticipated the crush of passengers disembarking at Pune Station. As the train rolled to a stop, we whispered prayers at the sight of bodies hanging out of the doors from hand rails. In the ensuing manic crossflow of human traffic we actually managed to get seats, which is a remarkable task.

The Bhaja and Karla caves were carved into solid rock by Buddhist monks between 200 B.C. and 80 B.C., and long before Hinduism became India's predominant religion.

We visited Bhaja first, climbing a steep winding staircase up to a magnificent view of the temple entrance and the arid valley below. Many of the caves were simple living quarters best described as cells -- a single bunk carved out of rock in a room the size of a closet. The more deluxe accommodations featured a shelf carved into the back wall with space enough for a candle or a cup of tea. The main temple had massive pillars (also carved out of solid rock, not built) with rather ornate scenes depicted near the vaulted ceiling. The main temple contained a single dagoba, but the Buddha who once rested upon it was long gone.

We rested from the sun in Bhaja Village and had a cold drink while entertaining local schoolboys with our presence, but denying them 'One pen?' After haggling with the rickshaw-wallah, we were on our way to Karla.

The caves at Bhaja were nearly deserted, but the staircase up to Karla was littered with buttermilk and cucumber sellers, as well as a rising slum of shops selling religious trinkets and Hindi dance music.

While the main temple at Karla is much larger and impressive than the temple at Bhaja it has been despoiled by the construction of a gaudy, shoddy concrete Hindu temple at the cave entrance. Once inside the temple, however, you can put that all behind you. The main chamber is shaped like a horseshoe with thirty-seven massive pillars, topped with kneeling elephants, rising up to a fifteen-meter vaulted ceiling. I was reminded of Tolkein's Moria.

Back outside we were badgered by a group of Indian young people making jokes at our expense in Hindi, and who followed us everywhere we went. At one point we stopped to let them get ahead of us on a narrow trail skirting the mountain. They came back quickly saying, "Nothing. Only shitting place." Esther and Matt were happy to turn back, but, ever curious, I had to follow the trail to see for myself. Sure enough, the trail ended in a rather scenic place to...well apparently to take a dump after a long religious pilgrimage. Absolutely disgusting.

On the way home we caught the train in the nick of time, only to wait stalled on the tracks for over an hour. The night before a petrol truck had collided head-on with a transport truck, the carnage still burning twelve hours later.
Coffee anyone?
Who else would be writing this one? Hahaha...

Well, upon leaving our lovely Benaulim, Angelo and I have found a good cuppa Java. MMmmmmmmm.... My tastebuds are now completely tantilized! (Although the Indian feast we ate yesterday evening after a difficult day caving and exploring in the country side really should have been 'maximum tastebud tantilizing' humanly possible.)

We are currently in the city of Pune (pronounced Poo-nah) and they have not one but thankfully two major coffee chains here.

One is called Barista, which is by far the superior cup of coffee and captures the North American culture. The other is called Cafe' Coffee Day, which is legendary, (that is for all you Starbuckians out there) and has a killer Cappuchillo (iced latte with purified ice cubes!). I have collected some pamphlets and even coffee news from each but here is a neat website on coffee information in India at this time:

My feeling about the industry is that it's on the move, in it's beginning stages really. The potential for growth is phenomenal, considering it's a country of over 1 billion people. The best part about each is the fact that it is great fresh brewed coffee, great tunes (even heard U2, happy me) and an upbeat atmosphere. We nearly felt normal.

No matter what I do, I am essentially a coffee geek. It's brewed into my nerves or something.

So, this espresso is raised in ode to you, my peer Starbuckians!

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