Faby

4 07 2015
Matthew, me, Erlin - Flores, Guatemala

Matthew, me, Erlin – Flores, Guatemala

While in Guatemala a few days ago, I was reading through two required summer reading books for the faculty at my school.  Both were on innovation in education, and both gave me some really good ideas on curriculum changes I want to make this year and even a new course I want to submit for approval for 2016.

As our rental bus in Flores, Guatemala (not a car, BUS) made its way from our hotel to the neighborhood where our Compassion International child lives, I was reading about the resources afforded to one school in the US to create innovative experiences—in their various forms—to the educational experience for middle schoolers.

We pulled into the Compassion project in Flores, Guatemala, and I was surprised at the lack of “things.”  Now, this was our sixth visit to Compassion kids we sponsor.  We’ve been to projects in Peru, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, two in India, and this one in Guatemala.  This was the sparsest one yet.  The classrooms only had three walls and were pretty much bare.  Another classroom that looked more like a cage had a huge padlock on it.  The prized possessions under lock and key were student desks.  These desks were so rundown they would have been tossed in a dumpster immediately if they had tried to make their way into the private Christian, uber-upper class school I teach at.

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala

empty classroom (the project was closed for the day)

empty classroom (the project was closed for the day)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - padlocked desks

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – padlocked desks

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - the pastor lives on the second floor, and the classrooms are the three open areas underneath (only three walls, no doors)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – the pastor lives on the second floor, and the classrooms are the three open areas underneath (only three walls, no doors)

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala - where the desks are padlocked when not in session

Compassion project center in Flores, Guatemala – where the desks are padlocked when not in session

The contrast between haves and have-nots was profound.

“Innovate!  Request more resources!  Do more!  Educate outside the classroom!  Provide authentic experiences!”  scream the books I was reading and indeed my own experience as a teacher in a first-world country to families with a ridiculous amount of discretionary income.

The walls of this Compassion center in Flores humbly tell another story about education:  “We’re thankful to have a place where we can keep our desks from being stolen.  We’re thankful to have running water where we can teach our students about basic hygiene, even though it’s not safe to drink.  We’re thankful for the few posters that remain on the walls.  We’re thankful . . .”

Maybe I wouldn’t have been struck as intensely by this contrast had I not for the past few days been reading these two particular books, but that was the serendipitous timing of these two events.

School in Guatemala was out for a week-long break to celebrate Teacher’s Day (YES!  Other places around the world actually celebrate and esteem their educators!)  The Compassion center was also closed the day we visited so we traveled to Erlin’s house to meet her and her family.

Again, the disparity was evident between my world and hers.  Her home was on a quiet corner in Santa Elena, just a few kilometers south of Flores.  She greeted us at the door, followed by the rest of the family comprised of her mother, maternal grandmother, older brother, and baby brother.  The paternal grandfather had died one year almost to the day before our visit, and no father was in the picture.

They did have electricity and running water, but other than in Guatemala City, there is no potable water for drinking anywhere else in the country.  All water for human consumption must be purchased.  Erlin’s family had lived in this house for close to 30 years, and it was paid off—a HUGE blessing—since her mother and grandmother made less than $10 a day to feed, house, clothe, and provide for everything else a family needs to survive.

Erlin’s mother was a hairdresser, and her grandmother sold cakes and homemade tortillas.  Both woman had the opportunity to attend vocational schools for their trades—another blessing that would not have been possible without Erlin’s sponsorship through Compassion.  Erlin, or Faby as she is known at school (Fabiola is her middle name), helps her mom by painting nails in their little one room salon attached to the front of the house.

Erlin's mother's salon (Erlin's middle name is Fabiola and her nickname is Faby)

Erlin’s mother’s salon (Erlin’s middle name is Fabiola and her nickname is Faby)

Erlin's mother's salon

Erlin’s mother’s salon

Erlin's family house

Erlin’s family house

Erlin’s older brother was 15 and was sponsored by a family from Korea, but his sponsors had never written to him.  He wasn’t even sure of their names.  Erlin’s 9-month-old baby brother will have the opportunity to be sponsored in a few years.  An older male cousin also lives with the family, and their immediate neighbors are relatives.

Their home consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen/dining area, and an outdoor area for laundry, processing the corn for tortillas, and a crude toilet and shower.  It was the largest home of the Compassion kids we’ve sponsored, but it was also encouraging to see how our financial contributions to this family was helping to lift them out of poverty into a more sustainable life—one in which every member could thrive instead of just survive.

Erlin's older brother, mother, Erlin, me, Matthew

Erlin’s older brother, mother, Erlin, me, Matthew

one bedroom in Erlin's house (yes, that's a half-wall with the living room on the other side)

one bedroom in Erlin’s house (yes, that’s a half-wall with the living room on the other side)

bedroom two where Erlin, her mother, her grandmother and baby brother sleep (there is another bed behind me)

bedroom two where Erlin, her mother, her grandmother and baby brother sleep (there is another bed behind me)

Erlin and her grandmother

Erlin and her grandmother

Erlin's family kitchen

Erlin’s family kitchen

laundry area

laundry area

laundry/storage area

laundry/storage area

toilet and shower rooms

toilet and shower rooms

Erlin and her 1-year-old cat (who almost died from eating a nest of baby pigeons)

Erlin and her 1-year-old cat (who almost died from eating a nest of baby pigeons)

We spent the morning at her home talking about everything, and then Erlin got to pick the restaurant for lunch.  Of all the choices available to her:  Pizza Hut.  To us, it’s too common a place to visit in the States.  If we wanted pizza, we’d try any number of gourmet eateries in which to partake.  For Erlin, Pizza Hut was a luxury, so off to Pizza Hut we went.  The entire family joined us at our request, and we talked some more about everything.

lunch at Pizza Hut

lunch at Pizza Hut

outside Pizza Hut - there are five people, 2 adults and 3 children, on the motorcycle

outside Pizza Hut – there are five people, 2 adults and 3 children, on the motorcycle

The Pizza Hut was part of a small strip mall, so we walked around after eating, and then we had a couple hours to kill before the bus would pick us up.  Thankfully there was a nice little playground at the mall, so we adults sat there and continued to talk about everything while Erlin and her brothers played.  Back at her house, we said our goodbyes and prayed with one another before heading back to our hotel.

at the playground - Erlin's baby brother and mother

at the playground – Erlin’s baby brother and mother

Erlin and her baby brother

Erlin and her baby brother

Erlin and her two brothers

Erlin and her two brothers

Erlin's two brothers

Erlin’s two brothers

Erlin's grandmother and baby brother - she held a towel under his arms so he could learn to walk without holding on to anything. (I commented to Matthew that someone in the US could invent a similar contraption and sell it for a ridiculous amount of money if it had the right branding.)

Erlin’s grandmother and baby brother – she held a towel under his arms so he could learn to walk without holding on to anything. (I commented to Matthew that someone in the US could invent a similar contraption and sell it for a ridiculous amount of money if it had the right branding.)

Visits like this are always surreal to me.  We plan months in advance:  submitting the paperwork, going through the background checks, arranging the travel logistics.  When the day finally comes, I’m almost always at a loss for words, and my emotions have to work overtime to process everything.

The work of Compassion is incredible, and we have been privileged to experience it first-hand six times now around the world.  If you are looking for a worthy charity to contribute to, one that really does make a positive impact on children, their families, and their entire community, this is the place.  If you don’t sponsor a child, please consider doing so today.  For those who already sponsor a child, please write to him/her.  You have no idea how much a letter means to these kids, and you can even do so online at the Compassion website.  These are treasures to be sure.  For those who sponsor and have the financial resources to do so, please consider visiting your child.  The impact will last for generations.





Guatemala 2015 – Musings and Observations

3 07 2015

My husband I and just returned from a whirlwind tour of Guatemala, our 2015 international trip.  We only had eight days in the country due to my grad school schedule, but it was a fabulous trip.  Here are my observations and musings about Guatemala and travel in general. (Photos below.)

  1. I no longer find long layovers annoying. Give me a kindle loaded with good books, and I’m a happy camper for hours.  14 hours of travel to get back home?  No problema.
  2. I go to bed earlier when I’m traveling. Probably because I’m not up till 1 or 2 a.m. working on homework.
  3. I eat a lot less when traveling. When I have to shell out cash at every single meal, I tend to eat on the cheap.
  4. Speaking of eating cheaply, I love to eat street food. Tamales, chorizo grilling on a dirty grill in the middle of the street, chocolate cake sitting out in the sun, it’s all bueno.
  5. I also eat a lot of ice cream. And it must be chocolate in a waffle cone.  Nothing else will do.
  6. Guatemala has the most amazing guacamole ever. We ate it at almost every meal.  I need to add way more lime to mine when we make it from scratch.
  7. I drink tea when traveling abroad.  I never drink tea anywhere else, and my version of tea is pretty much sugar water.  Why?  I know the water is safe to drink.
  8. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of looking at volcanos. Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City . . . you can look in pretty much any direction and see a volcano or two . . . or three.
  9. Overnight busses are cooooold. I would take them again if I needed to, but I’d bring a big blanket.
  10. The only straight roads in the country are in Antigua and the north.
  11. Tikal is much more impressive than any other Mayan ruin in the Americas. Chichen Itza does not at all deserve to be on the new list of Wonders of the World.  We even got a private, behind-the-scenes tour with an amazing guide who took us on all of the back trails through the jungles so we could avoid the crowds and see more monkeys.  We could even climb many of the temple structures to the top which visitors are not allowed at the other sites like Chichen Itza or Tulum.  If you only see one Mayan ruin in your life, Tikal is the one.
  12. Guatemala was surprisingly clean, compared to many other Central American and developing countries. The people are humble and poor, but they take pride in the beauty of their country.
  13. At some point in my life or retirement, I need to live on a coast with a view of the ocean, or a very large lake AND mountains (or volcanos).
  14. hotel in Antigua

    hotel in Antigua

    Antigua

    Antigua

    Angigua

    Angigua

    Antigua, view from Cerro San Cristobal, an organic farm-to-table restaurant

    Antigua, view from Cerro San Cristobal, an organic farm-to-table restaurant

    Antigua sunset

    Antigua sunset

    Antigua sunset

    Antigua sunset

    Chichicastanego market

    Chichicastanego market

    Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, view from our hotel

    Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, view from our hotel

    San Pedro, Lake Atitlan, touring an organic coffee plantation co-op

    San Pedro, Lake Atitlan, touring an organic coffee plantation co-op

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal tour

    Tikal turkey

    Tikal turkey

    La Isla de Flores

    La Isla de Flores

    La Isla de Flores

    La Isla de Flores

    Guatemala City, view from hotel

    Guatemala City, view from hotel

  15. I look at clocks and care about the time much less than when I’m in the States. My soul needs this.




I’m Not 40 Anymore!

21 09 2013

I turned 41 yesterday, hence the title. I must say, being “over the hill” has been a great ride so far. I am in far better health now than I was 20 years ago. My cholesterol continues to decrease each year and is at an all-time low of 133. I can still do 180° right and left leg splits. My 5K speed continues to get faster. Spiritually, I am more in love with the Bible than ever and find prayer calming and humbling. Professionally, I continue to revise my curriculum every year. I am not content teaching the same stuff just because it’s easier. I just started working on my MBA. In terms of behavior, I am more patient all around and am much calmer in the car. When it comes to my family, I am ridiculously blessed with an amazing husband and two incredible sons.

I am also very goal-oriented, so I decided to take stock of my “40 Things to Do in the Next 40 Years” list that I wrote a year ago. (My updated notes are in parenthesis after each item.)

Physical
1. Do 40 military style pushups at one time, no breaks. (Still working on this)
2. Successfully finish a Tough Mudder. (Tough Mudder teased us with a Nashville race in May 2013, then moved it out of state.)
3. Swim freestyle for 50 meters without stopping. (Nope, practicing would help)
4. Run a sub 30-minute 5K in an actual race. (I’ve done several races this year, but not a straightforward 5K, not yet. I have 4 more races before 2013 is over, so I’m really hoping this will happen. I ran a marathon relay not too long ago and PRd with an 8:28 minute mile at one point.)
5. Do ab ripper at least twice each week, preferably three times. (Nope)
6. Bike once each week. (Nope)
7. Run two-three times each week. (Yup! I’m averaging 10 miles per week over 4 runs)
8. Swim once each week. (Nope)
9. Always remember to wear sunscreen. (Almost always)
10. Hike the Appalachain Trail. (Maybe next decade?)
11. Still be able to do 180° right and left leg splits 40 years from now. (Yup!)

Diet/Nutrition
12. Eat at least two servings of fruit each day. (Yup! Except on my birthday; then I get all my calories from sugar and lard . . . and maybe some cheese)
13. Eat at least two servings of vegetables each day. (About half the time)
14. Remember to take all my supplements each day—multi vitamin, calcium/Vitamin D, fish oil. (Usually)
15. Cut back to one sweet/dessert item each day (except on birthdays). (I’m down to two per day which is way better than it was a year ago.)
16. Try one new recipe each month. (Yup!)
17. Drink more water. (About the same)

Spiritual
18. Fast 40 hours straight once each week. (I still fast, but not for 40 hours—my body did not take kindly to that. I was getting too dizzy and lightheaded.)
19. Memorize one scripture each week. (Sadly, nope. I do read the Bible every day, and my knowledge of scripture is growing, but I just don’t officially memorize verses.)
20. Give half our income away, probably through Compassion International child sponsorships. (Well on our way!)
21. Teach my children to pray in all circumstances. (Working on it; this will be a lifelong lesson.)
22. Teach my sons the importance of sexual purity and protecting and honoring their bodies and the bodies of any girls/women they have relationships with. (Praying about this regularly and having age-appropriate conversations as they arise.)
23. Watch my sons grow into their own faith in Christ. (Yup! So cool to see my sons coming into their own faith rather than living out simply what we tell them to do and say and believe.)
24. Go on a mission trip. (Yup! Texas in March 2013 and India in June 2013)

Mental
25. Get my MBA. (Just started my classes! Graduation = fall 2015)
26. Get my PhD. (Maybe next decade; need to finish the MBA first.)
27. Not go crazy. (Debatable)
28. Read on average one book per week. (Pretty darn close)
29. Become fluent in another language. (If sarcasm counts, I’m fluent.)
30. Learn to play the piano. (Too busy; maybe after my MBA and PhD?)

Miscellaneous
31. Have a weekly date with my love. (Desperately need to do better!)
32. Play more games with my family. (Same #32)
33. Visit all the Wonders of the World. (Five down, two to go—Petra and Angkor Wat)
34. Travel to a new country each year. (So far, so good)
35. Grow my hair out to my wedding day length. (Almost there!)
36. Join a community choir. (Too busy with #1-35)
37. Watch no more than 1 hour of TV each night, except when Dancing with the Stars goes for two hours. (Yup! I have almost cut out TV completely, probably because I’m reading so much. I honestly don’t miss it . . . except Dancing with the Stars.)
38. Re-invent/re-paint/re-design several rooms in my home. (Consulting a friend who is an interior designer is on my to do list for the summer of 2014.)
39. Build a library with floor to ceiling book shelves in my home and fill it with great literature. (Also on my—as in my husband’s—to do list for the summer of 2014.)

Most Important
40. Remember that each day is a gift and to live a life that reflects how grateful I am to be alive. (I’m better at this than I used to be, but there will always be room for improvement. Can we ever be too grateful?)





Travel Tips for India – For the Ladies

27 08 2013

This post is a little different from what I normally write, but I’ve had several women who are traveling to India in the near future, some friends and some strangers, ask for my input on what to pack, how to pack, and generally what to expect as a woman traveling in this amazing country. (And yes, I will even explain the proper technique for using a squat toilet – an important skill for any traveler in a third-world country.)

Several heinous crimes against women in India have been in the news lately, and it saddens me that media hype takes over and jades the rest of the world, dimming the lines between extreme situations and reality. I thoroughly detailed my experiences in India in previous posts, and I must admit, I had a most amazing time. However, I was not traveling alone; my husband was always by my side . . . ALWAYS . . . and we had a native guide with us almost 100% of the time we stepped outside of our hotels. I’m sure my experience would have been different had I been traveling solo.

An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities
Speaking to India’s Future Leaders
Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting)
That Moment When a Dream Comes True
Dining With Royalty

So, here are my suggestions to all you adventurous traveling kindred spirits.

Clothing
•Sleeveless tops and bottoms that show any leg above the knee should be avoided. Wear long skirts, dresses, or pants that fall below the knee, preferably to the ankle.
•Bottoms: Invest in some light-weight, durable, easy to wash, and quick-dry travel pants. I highly recommend The North Face Horizon Tempest pants ($60 at REI.)
•Tops: Make sure they have sleeves and do not show cleavage. Moisture wicking tops–think tech Ts you get at races or running shirts–work well.
•Undergarments: I recommend moisture wicking garments. Champion sport bras are great as are Patagonia undies ($20 at REI.) They wash easily and dry quickly for repeated use.
•Footwear: Everyone in India wears sandals, unless they are going barefoot. Invest in a comfortable, breathable, durable pair that will dry quickly when wet and that have some type of odor control. No matter what you do, plan on your feet reeking by the end of the day. Avoid sandals that have a lot of cloth components as they will take longer to dry. (Tevas and Keens are both great brands.) It is customary to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, a church, store, school, etc. However, most people are not too offended if guests/foreigners do not participate in this tradition.
•If you are warm blooded and don’t like being cold, bring a light-weight jacket, hoodie, or sweater for indoors. Air conditioning, when available, can be really chilly.
•Bring a bandana or scarf that can be used as a head covering in case you visit a mosque, Sikh temple, or other religious site. Having your own is far better than fishing a nasty, possibly never laundered head covering out of a community bin. Lice, anyone?

Bathing and Hygiene
•Indian women mostly wear their hair pulled back or braided, but not in ponytails. If you are in more primitive hotels, don’t plan on having a Western style shower. More than likely, the bathroom will contain a spigot about thigh-high with a big bucket underneath from which you can wash. Be ready to forgo washing and conditioning your hair every day, and just pull it back instead.
•Bring your own soap, hand sanitizer, and a roll of toilet paper for each person in your group. A travel-sized pack of wipes is a good idea, too, for wiping off toilet seats or other things.
•Use bottled water when brushing your teeth. Don’t ever drink tap or well water. Always use bottled water; you can get a 1-liter bottle for less than $1. We even used bottle water in the 5-star hotels.
•Use hand sanitizer before every meal and after using the bathroom.

Miscellaneous Recommendations
•If you will be off the beaten path, be sure to pack you own bed sheet and pillow case.
•Burping out loud in public is socially acceptable.
•If you eat with your fingers, as many natives do, try to use only your right hand. Traditionally, the left hand is reserved for other sanitary purposes.
•If you are a guest for dinner, you will be served many dishes, one after another. Try to at least sample a little bit of each dish so as not to insult the host.
•If you have Celiac disease, India is probably not a place you want to travel to. Their diet seems to consist of 80% grains/rice and 20% everything else.
•When riding in a car, if seat belts are available, use them! Though traffic accidents are much less frequent than in the US, the sudden starts and stops can toss you around inside.

Using a Squat Toilet
•Strong quads and a good sense of balance as well as proper foot placement are vital.
•Skirts and dresses are easier than when wearing pants.
•Get your toilet paper ready first. Practice holding it under your chin so that both hands are free.
•Place your feet a little farther than shoulder width apart over the hole. A stance that is too narrow is going to strain your leg muscles and is much harder to balance on.
•Hike up your skirt/dress or scrunch your pants down to your ankles, taking care not to let any of the fabric touch the ground. This is not as easy as it seems. Keep in mind, if you are using a squat toilet, the ground around it is probably just little germ and disease infested. You don’t want your clothing touching it.
•Squat as low as you can. Your bottom should be just a few inches off the ground. This will offer the most stability and be easiest on your leg muscles. Doing a “chair sit” kind of squat–not squatting low enough–is going to leave your legs shaking. A low squat also ensures that no urine will find its way down your leg or onto your clothing.
•Do the deed, wipe (with your left hand–remember, the right is for eating), and “flush.” To flush, there is usually a bucket of water near a spigot with a smaller hand-held bucket nearby. Fill the hand-held bucket with water and pour, as forcefully as you can, into the drain. You may have to do this a few times to make sure everything flushed all the way down.
•Because flushing can be a challenge, try to use as little toilet paper as possible. If at all possible, feminine hygiene products should be placed in the trash, if there is a trash can.

Traveling in Varanasi
•First of all, if you don’t have to visit the city, don’t. Seriously. Don’t.
•If you do visit, wear capris and sandals that can easily be washed. Long bottoms will get in the way and could end up dragging on the ground which is littered with not just garbage but also cow dung and piles of human feces. You never know if you’re stepping in a puddle of rainwater, water from the Ganges or cow urine. Whatever it is, it’s gross.
•It’s not worth the risk of some nasty foot/skin infection to visit a temple if you have to take your shoes off to go inside.
•Use lots of hand sanitizer after you touch anything. ANYTHING!
•At your hotel room, take your shoes off immediately at the door and wear socks or slippers in your room. We actually did this in all our hotel rooms.
•Finally, save your money and time and visit somewhere else.

I hope this is helpful.





Dining With Royalty

22 07 2013

Previous posts on our trip to India:
An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities
Speaking to India’s Future Leaders
Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting)
That Moment When a Dream Comes True

Sunday, June 23
This morning we visited the Amber Fort, another UNESCO site that reminded me partly of the Great Wall of China and partly of Machu Picchu. It was a massive fort with palaces on top of a small mountain range in Jaipur. We rode an elephant to the top as the walk was quite steep.

elephant ride up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur

elephant ride up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur - herb garden

Amber Fort in Jaipur – herb garden

Amber Fort in Jaipur

Amber Fort in Jaipur

view of the old fort/town in Jaipur

view of the old fort/town in Jaipur

Next we visited the astronomical park outside of the royal palace along with touring the royal palace itself where the current maharaja lives with his wife, daughter, and grandson. The common people love the ruling family as they are wise and kind. The former maharaja was a huge man, as wide as he was tall, weighing in at 250 kilos, over 500 pounds. In the museum was a display of some of the royal garments from the past few centuries, and the robe of this “abnormal” man—as Ahmed described him—was the size of a tent.

Jantar Mantar - astronomical park in Jaipur - I couldn't tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun here

Jantar Mantar – astronomical park in Jaipur – I couldn’t tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun hereJantar Mantar – astronomical park in Jaipur

Jantar Mantar - astronomical park in Jaipur - I couldn't tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun here

Jantar Mantar – astronomical park in Jaipur – I couldn’t tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun here

Jantar Mantar - astronomical park in Jaipur - I couldn't tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun here

Jantar Mantar – astronomical park in Jaipur – I couldn’t tell you what any of these structures measure, but Matthew had a lot of fun here

Jantar Mantar - astronomical park in Jaipur

Jantar Mantar – astronomical park in Jaipur

royal palace of the current mahajara and mahajari

royal palace of the current mahajara and mahajari

royal palace of the current mahajara and mahajari - the home of the nobility we dined with was directly across the street from this

royal palace of the current mahajara and mahajari – the home of the nobility we dined with was directly across the street from this

family of four on a motorcycle in Jaipur - I still wish I had a photo of the family of five we saw on a motorcycle

family of four on a motorcycle in Jaipur – I still wish I had a photo of the family of five we saw on a motorcycle

On the drive back to the hotel, we talked again about the differences between America and India: entrance fees to museums and parks–he was intrigued by our description of the Opryland Hotel–public education, and police–they are not anyway near as corrupt in America as they are in India. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’ll take the American system of government and justice over pretty much what any other country in the world has.

Before dinner we stopped at a jewelry store. I bought some bangles back in Ongole, but when I tried them on for our Taj Mahal visit, they were too small. I couldn’t get them past my wrist. Thankfully they only cost about $2, but this meant I was now in the market for a new bangle. I was immediately drawn to a gold bangle with a few semi-precious stones. I was expecting the price to be $50, maybe $75 on the high end. It was $1,600. The cheapest item in the store was more than we wanted to spend so we said thank you and left.

Ahmed took us to a nice restaurant and we chatted more about marriage. Ahmed is number four of five children. His older sister and two older brothers are married. He is next in line, but wants to wait a few more years. However, until he marries, his younger brother cannot marry. Much like in biblical times, younger children should not marry ahead of their older siblings. Ahmed told us of a girl who once proposed to him and how he gingerly declined. As we were finishing the meal, he got a call from his supervisor. A noble family, relatives of India’s royalty, the maharaja, invited us to dinner. (Remember, this was after we just finished dinner, we were now being invited to dinner.)

We were greeted like and by royalty with garlands of jasmine and red dots on our foreheads. Their house was on top of the markets across the street from the royal palace we visited earlier in the day. We were taken to the roof top for a spectacular night view of the city, palace, and mountains as well as the “super moon” on display in all its glory.

Our host explained that they had to turn their country palace into a hotel to generate income so they only had this home in the city now. We then sat through an hour’s worth of viewing wedding photo albums as well as a photo album of pictures of their family’s visits with visiting dignitaries and royalty around the world including Prince Charles and Princess Diana. During this time we were served sodas and delicious, non-spicy minced mutton kabobs. We assumed the family knew we actually just finished dinner, but then we heard those fateful words, “Let us know when you are ready for dinner.”

More love torture. Can you really say no when it’s royalty who’s inviting you to their table? Matthew and I looked at each other with smiles on our faces and horror in our eyes as we began dinner number two at 10:00 p.m., and the menu included chicken, lamb, lentil and corn soup, potatoes in a spinach sauce, cheese in a tomato sauce, chapathi, vegetable biryani, and dessert. I wish we had gotten some photos of our time together, but they didn’t offer, and it felt rude to ask.

As we forced ourselves to gorge yet again, we continued chatting about the early monsoons and how Americans view India. I realized most people I know actually know very little about India. They see it as some exotic land half-way around the world or as the voice on the other end of that tech help phone call. Until we came, I thought much the same thing. After three weeks here, India is so much more. We’ve truly experienced both ends of the spectrum, dining with the poorest of the poor in tribal communities to dining with royalty and a little in between. We can’t say we’ve seen it all, but we have had some pretty incredible experiences.

Random thoughts for the day:
•I saw a commercial advertising Snickers as 100% vegetarian. I wonder what the non-vegetarian version tastes like.

Monday, June 24
As we drove back to Delhi this morning, I thought about being that much closer to home. Once in Delhi, we toured the new city, seeing several sites and monuments that I don’t remember anything about. I’m at that point where I just don’t care enough to try to keep things straight. I imagine I feel like a foreigner walking through Washington, D.C. trying to remember which presidents and wars are for which memorials and monuments–there are so many!

some temple or monument I remember nothing about - a Hindu temple, perhaps?

some temple or monument I remember nothing about – a Hindu temple, perhaps?

some ruins and a very large obelisk of which I remember nothing about

some ruins and a very large obelisk of which I remember nothing about

another mausoleum I remember nothing about

another mausoleum I remember nothing about

the India Gate in New Delhi

the India Gate in New Delhi

capitol building in New Delhi

capitol building in New Delhi

elephant topiary at capitol building in New Delhi

elephant topiary at the capitol building in New Delhi

more elephant art at the capitol building in New Delhi

more elephant art at the capitol building in New Delhi

We did visit a Sikh temple, and that I won’t forget. We had to take off our shoes and walk through a community foot washing pool. We also had to wear coverings on our heads. Since we didn’t have anything for our heads we had to pull some out from a community bin. Visions of hookworm and lice danced through my head. How many other strangers had worn this head covering and when was it last cleaned? Upon entering the temple, I had an overwhelming feeling of oppression. My heart felt physically heavy and I wanted to cry. I held it together, though, but I didn’t feel “right” until we got to our hotel and I could wash my feet. Once again, I am just so thankful for the free redemption, forgiveness and eternal salvation offered through Christ.

looking sharp at the Sikh temple in New Delhi

looking sharp at the Sikh temple in New Delhi

inside the Sikh temple in New Delhi

inside the Sikh temple in New Delhi

"healing pond" at the Sikh temple in New Delhi - the water is supposed to be able to cure all manner of ailments

“healing pond” at the Sikh temple in New Delhi – the water is supposed to be able to cure all manner of ailments

Random thoughts for the day:
•Another example of this land of contrasts: men can urinate openly on the streets, but women cannot bare their shoulders or legs.

Tuesday, June 25
Our first stop this morning was India’s largest mosque which meant another place we had to take off our shoes. I also had to “cover up.” This meant a rather freaky old Muslim man who didn’t look too thrilled at my presence finding a robe that looked like a muu muu and tying it around me. I was just a little conspicuous as a white lady wearing a bright, ugly robe amongst a sea of Muslim Indian men in white robes. I also wondered how many thousands of sweaty, unbathed women had worn this garment before me and when it was last laundered?

mosque in New Delhi

mosque in New Delhi

looking stylish outside the mosque

looking stylish outside the mosque

looking even more stylish inside the mosque in my beautiful, borrowed, (and disgusting) robe - although, the guy behind me was a bit of rival in the color and pattern department

looking even more stylish inside the mosque in my beautiful, borrowed, (and disgusting) robe – although, the guy behind me was a bit of rival in the color and pattern department

inside the mosque - I don't stand out at all

inside the mosque – I don’t stand out at all

The bare feet, the robe, and humidity nearing 100% made me feel nasty. The pavement was super hot, and with all the pigeons it felt like I was meandering through Trafalger Square barefoot. Then a bird crapped on the cap of my water bottle making the experience that much more golden. The icing on the cake was when Ahmed wiped the bird s— of the bottle with the sleeve of my robe. More visions of hookworm and poop-borne diseases flittered through my head. The poor, poor women to wear this next.

pigeons everywhere - and we had to go barefoot

pigeons everywhere – and we had to go barefoot

We took a short bicycle rickshaw ride through the old town of Delhi and saw more of how the locals live. The narrow streets filled with vegetable and fruit vendors, the incredible and probably very dangerous way the electric wires intertwine through the streets . . . all of it was fascinating.

the streets of old Delhi

the streets of old Delhi

a sweets vendor in old Delhi

a sweets vendor in old Delhi

fruit vendor in old Delhi

fruit vendor in old Delhi

streets of old Delhi

streets of old Delhi

bicycle rickshaw workers waiting for a fare

bicycle rickshaw workers waiting for a fare

Next up was the Red Fort in Delhi. You would have thought I was a celebrity the way people were asking to take pictures with me. Ahmed said Indians think it is good luck to have their photo taken with a foreigner; they even put the pictures up on their refrigerators. There was a group of young guys pretending to take photos of their friends with me in the background, but they were a little too obvious. I kept moving and turning around, frustrating their efforts. They should have just asked.

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

Red Fort in New Delhi

lattice work like this was found all over the many monuments and memorials we visited - it was all hand-carved from one piece of white marble - Red Fort in New Delhi

lattice work like this was found all over the many monuments and memorials we visited – it was all hand-carved from one piece of white marble – Red Fort in New Delhi

Finally we visited the Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi’s final resting place, at least for some of his ashes. Being a Hindu, most of his ashes were dumped in the Ganges, the rest were in this memorial surrounded by a huge, lush, serene park.

Raj  Ghat - Mahatma Gandhi's final resting place

Raj Ghat – Mahatma Gandhi’s final resting place

Ahmed brought us back to the hotel, and we said our good byes. He was a fantastic guide, and I would most definitely recommend out tour company, Comfort Tours of India, to anyone planning a trip like this. Even Ahmed, who works with many different tour companies, said this company was one of the best. We are now back at the hotel for the afternoon watching movies. We need to checkout just after midnight for our 6:00 a.m. flight to Amman, Jordan, and then to Chicago.

flying home over Jerusalem

flying home over Jerusalem

flying home in style with seats that recline 180 degrees - makes a big difference on a 13 hour flight

flying home in style with seats that recline 180 degrees – makes a big difference on a 13 hour flight

Random thoughts for the day:
•Regardless of whether we are gone for five days or three weeks, the last 24 hours are always filled with an eager anticipation of home and seeing my boys again.
•We need to fly business/first class more often, especially on international flights. I can get used the premier lounges, buffets, seats that recline 180 degrees, and pampering.
•I am so very, very blessed.





That Moment When a Dream Comes True

15 07 2013

Previous posts on our trip to India:
An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities
Speaking to India’s Future Leaders
Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting)

Wednesday, June 19
After Varanasi, we flew to Khajuraho by way of Agra; that’s like flying from Chicago to Indianapolis by way of St. Louis. The one positive was that we got to see the Taj Mahal from the air.

Taj Mahal from the air

Taj Mahal from the air

In Khajuraho we visited the two temple complexes, built over 1,000 years ago. These temples are famous for their carvings of the Kama Sutra, and the largest of the temples took 22 years to complete with over 6,000 artists working on. They were absolutely stunning and well deserved of their UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Khajuraho hotel

Khajuraho hotel

Khajuraho UNESCO site

Khajuraho UNESCO site

Khajuraho UNESCO site - known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site – known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site - known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site – known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site - known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site – known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site - known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Khajuraho UNESCO site – known for its carvings of the Kama Sutra which are over 1,000 years old

Random thoughts for the day:
•On guided trips like this, half of your money goes to tipping people.
•What does monsoon season mean for us? Significantly cooler weather, though sometimes ridiculously humid. Not that I’d recommend planning a trip purposefully during the monsoon season, but God has most definitely been working things out for us.
•My prayers go out to the poor person who will be doing my manicure when we get back to the States.

Thursday, June 20
We had a long car ride to Orchha Fort today before our train from Jhansi to Agra. The fort, built over 22 years for a king who only stayed at it one night, was stunning. The architecture, half Hindu and half Muslim, survived attacks from both factions over the decades. It was situated on the bank of the Betwa River, the only clean river we’ve seen so far.

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort - monkeys everywhere

Orchha Fort – monkeys everywhere

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Orchha Fort

Chhatris - dome shaped pavilions - on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

Chhatris – dome shaped pavilions – on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

Chhatris - dome shaped pavilions - on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

Chhatris – dome shaped pavilions – on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

Chhatris - dome shaped pavilions - on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

Chhatris – dome shaped pavilions – on the Betwa river across from the Orchha Fort

women carrying firewood to their homes across the Betwa river

women carrying firewood to their homes across the Betwa river

We took an evening train from Jhansi to Agra and had a curious dinner. Actually, it was the Indian evening tea which included a “sweet bun,” a bag of spicy hot roasted peanuts, tea, a packet of ketchup–the Indians love their ketchup–and Soan cake. The sweet bun was just a regular hamburger bun with candied fruit in it. (Yes, we ate it.) The Soan cake looked like wood shavings and fiberglass and tasted like almonds/pistachios. It was basically the Indian version of cotton candy, but it was surprisingly good.

tea time on the train

tea time on the train

Soan cake

Soan cake

Random thoughts for the day:
•Matthew read that a person dies of tuberculosis every two minutes in India.
•Why is it you can get on any train carrying a thousand people with zero security checks, but flying in a plane requires a multitude of checks, scans, pat downs, and interrogation?
•The countdown is on! I miss my boys and will see them again in less than a week.

Friday, June 21
This morning we visited Agra Fort and Sikandra, both of which were fascinating. We had some cool views of the Taj Mahal from the fort which took 90 years to build. Ahmed, our guide is Muslim so we’re being educated on the Muslim/Islam religion and lifestyle.

Red Fort in Agra

Red Fort in Agra

Red Fort in Agra

Red Fort in Agra

inside the Red Fort

inside the Red Fort

inside the Red Fort

inside the Red Fort

view of the Taj Mahal from inside the Red Fort

view of the Taj Mahal from inside the Red Fort

Sikandra - tomb of Akbar the Great

Sikandra – tomb of Akbar the Great

women cutting the grass at Sikandra with machetes

women cutting the grass at Sikandra with machetes

Ahmed has quite a good sense of humor, telling us the three Gs of driving in India: 1) having a good heart, 2) good brakes, and 3) good luck. The autorickshaws here are only supposed to carry four passengers, but we’ve seen some with a dozen people. No one really polices anything here, especially traffic rules.

water buffalo heading home after a day at the river front

water buffalo heading home after a day at the river front

working camels

working camels

Two common themes that everyone from Vinay to Allen to all of our guides in the north have told us are 1) the Indian population is coming under control and 2) government corruption is rampant. Regarding the population, most families are limiting themselves to two children, a big improvement, and they do not impose a one-child only policy like China does.

As for corruption, apparently people with government jobs are paid well and their jobs are secure which makes them lazy. In order to actually get anything done, bribes are necessary. It is very difficult for Christians to do well in government jobs. If they work hard, they can be criticized by their peers and made to look bad on the job. (Oh, the irony!)

Despite the problems of America’s government, I’ll take our system any day to what most of the rest of the world is subject to.

We visited the Taj Mahal from the “Moonlight Garden” across the Yamuna River this evening. Those first glimpses left me in a stunned silence, partly because it was simply breathtaking and partly because . . . what do you say when you are at that moment when a dream has come true? The only thing to put a damper on the evening were two little beggar boys asking for money and food. We ignored them as we’ve been instructed, but after a few minutes one of them grabbed my hair and gave it a good yank before running off.

Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna river

Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna river

everyone needs a picture like this

everyone needs a picture like this

On the way back to the hotel we visited a marble shop where we learned how the marble and inlaid decorations on the Taj Mahal were created. The artists today are all descendants of the original family who worked on the Taj Mahal. Only members of this family are allowed to do this type of work or any restoration work on the Taj Mahal, and they still use the same tools and techniques that were used hundreds of years on the original construction which took 22 years and thousands of artisans to build.

cutting precious gems to fit in marble sculptures

cutting precious gems to fit in marble sculptures

cutting precious gems to fit in marble sculptures

cutting precious gems to fit in marble sculptures

Random thoughts for the day:
•I have eaten more ice cream in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Then again, it is 105 degrees outside.
•I have not run in 16 days, and I don’t really miss it. This could also have something to do with it being over 100 degrees outside.
•I can’t wait to get back to the Oberai Maidens Hotel in Delhi; they had great pancakes.
•There is a McDonald’s not too far from our hotel so Matthew went there for dinner, but not a hamburger was to be found. KFC and Pizza Hut are becoming more popular in India as well, and Burger King is soon to set up shop. I wonder if they will change their name since they can’t serve beef.
•Ahmed tried explaining cricket to us–he plays–but I tuned out pretty quickly . . . too complicated for me.
•After four days, I had almost 400 emails waiting for me.

Saturday, June 22
We were up at 4:30 to tour the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and a perfect morning it was. There was a sweet breeze, and the temperature was quite pleasant. We saw the runners out on the streets. Even though it was over 80 degrees at 5:00 a.m., it’s still the coolest time of day.

horse drawn carriage ride to and from the Taj Mahal

horse drawn carriage ride to and from the Taj Mahal

We were treated to a horse-drawn carriage ride to the Taj Mahal where we were the second tourists in line, but were the first ones to enter. Why is this important? Because our guide hurried us to all the prime photo spots before it was crowded with thousands of other people. As we were preparing for our first photo op, Matthew knelt down, opened a ring box and proposed to me again, “I know I didn’t do this right 15 years ago so I wanted a chance to do it again. Will you marry me?”

celebrating 15 years together with a second proposal

celebrating 15 years together with a second proposal

I was completely taken off-guard, and we were immediately surrounded by people taking pictures. They must have thought this was a first-time proposal. Regardless, I said yes and cried more than I did the first time. I’m not sure I even cried the first time. Ahmad has been a tour guide for eight years, and he said we were the first couple he’s seen to propose/be proposed to in front of the Taj Mahal. This made our visit even more special, though the word “special” doesn’t quite do it justice.

Taj Mahal - reflection pool

Taj Mahal – reflection pool

This was the fifth of the Seven Wonders of the World we have seen: the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, and the Colosseum. Each one is spectacular in its own way. We still need to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Petra in Jordan.

Ahmed said a lot of wives want their husbands to build them a Taj, but the husbands quip their wives must die first. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by the Mughal Emporer Shah Jahan for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal. I don’t need a Taj when I have the husband I do. We got to talking about marriage with Ahmed who is not married. Arranged marriage is still the way to go in India, and Ahmed is just fine with his parents finding his wife. Divorce is quite rare and difficult due to the poverty, but in the more Western cities and wealthier areas, divorce is sadly becoming more common.

We then toured Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted royal town made of pink sandstone that was quite fascinating. Being the only white people around, groups of Indian teenage boys and girls flocked to us asking to have their photos taken with us. I saw several subtly trying to photograph me from a distance. My pale skin and light hair intruding in their out-of-the-way corner of the world is as unusual to them as their daily life is to me–water buffalo walking in the middle of the roads, washing colorful saris on a rock in a river, and trimming grass with machetes. Why not document the uniqueness of one another?

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri - Ahmed's hometown is behind him

Fatehpur Sikri – Ahmed’s hometown is behind him

Fatehpur Sikri - posing for photos with Indian tourists

Fatehpur Sikri – posing for photos with Indian tourists

Fatehpur Sikri - a group of guys following us around trying to get our photo

Fatehpur Sikri – a group of guys following us around trying to get our photo

a Jain colony is at the top of this hill (we drove past on our way to Jaiput) - they live there nude and only come down at night

a Jain colony is at the top of this hill (we drove past on our way to Jaiput) – they live there nude and only come down at night

We drove to Jaipur and visited a carpet factory. They also did color blocking and we ended up buying more than we intended, but why not? We’re only here once, and the prices are a lot cheaper than they would be for the same stuff in the US. Plus, it’s beautiful.

carpet factory

carpet factory

carpet factory

carpet factory

color blocking

color blocking

Vinay sent me a message via Facebook to let us know that he received calls from the Intelligence Department and Emigration asking about us. He didn’t say what they wanted to know, but we’re a little baffled why anyone would be inquiring about us.

Random thoughts for the day:
•Chicken is the only meat I’ve eaten for the past two weeks. I really want a bacon cheeseburger now.
•The countryside is quite bucolic, kind of reminds me of driving thought the Texas hill country, with a few scattered palm trees but without the hills.
•I despise bathroom attendants, especially when you have no choice but use them. Need toilet paper? Pay me. Want to wash your hands when you’re finished. Pay me. I can turn on a faucet by myself and dry my own hands.
•I don’t really enjoy haggling, but I’m pretty good at it.





Varanasi (Dark, Deceived, Disgusting)

11 07 2013

Previous posts on our trip to India:
An Introduction to India
Meeting Sai
Local Celebrities
Speaking to India’s Future Leaders

Tuesday, June 18
We flew to Varanasi this mornings. There was some strong BO from a person near us on the flight, but thankfully it was short. As soon as Sapan, our Varanasi guide, picked us up, the pre-monsoon rains for the day began. Had it lasted more than 45 minutes, this poor little town (of only 3.1 million) would have flooded. However, by the time we got to our first destination, Sarnath, the rains had stopped.

Sarnath is an archeological site and very holy site to Buddhists. Apparently, this is a holy deer park where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Sapan gave us a crash course in the life of Buddha, and I learned he is the ninth incarnation of the god Vishnu. Sapan described how Buddha’s ashes were distributed after his cremation, but he pronounced it “asses.” We did a fine job of keeping our poker faces till were out of his hearing.

a Stupa at Sarnath - ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries

a Stupa at Sarnath – ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries

Buddhism, I am discovering, is a very complicated religion and makes me all the more glad we worship Christ Jesus, the one true God whose requirements are simple: love Christ and love your neighbor. At Sarnath, we also had our first experience with hordes of beggars who flocked to us and our car after we bought an ice cream. Sapan reminded us to ignore them as many are scammers.

statue of Buddha - all those depictions of a very fat, happy Buddha are completely of the artist's rendition

statue of Buddha – all those depictions of a very fat, happy Buddha are completely of the artist’s rendition

We then visited a silk factory which reminded me a lot of the one we visited in China. Old men worked looms by hand; the “modern” loom used punch cards for its designs. In the shop, we were shown gorgeous pieces of fabric and ended up purchasing four silk scarves and a pillow cover/wall hanging for less than $50. We always like to support the local economy when we travel. Purchasing gifts we know were authentically made by artisans we met is a great way to do this.

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

silk loom

"modern" silk loom - note the punch cards

“modern” silk loom – note the punch cards

silk fabric - this piece took over one year to create by hand

silk fabric – this piece took over one year to create by hand

close up of the silk fabric - this piece took over one year to create by hand

close up of the silk fabric – this piece took over one year to create by hand

everyone needs a silk wall hanging of Ganesh

everyone needs a silk wall hanging of Ganesh

instead, I purchased this silk wall hanging

instead, I purchased this silk wall hanging

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

Varanasi hotel

view from our Varanasi hotel

view from our Varanasi hotel

the streets of Varanasi - note the electrical wires

the streets of Varanasi – note the electrical wires

the streets of Varanasi - much like everywhere else in India, the cows always have the right-of-way

the streets of Varanasi – much like everywhere else in India, the cows always have the right-of-way

the streets of Varanasi

the streets of Varanasi

sari shop in Varanasi

sari shop in Varanasi

Buddhist monk in Varanasi

Buddhist monk in Varanasi

Hindu temples in Varanasi

Hindu temples in Varanasi

a "ladies only" shelter in Varanasi

a “ladies only” shelter in Varanasi

Hindu Brahmin - to be a Hindu priest, you must be born to the Brahman caste

Hindu Brahmin – to be a Hindu priest, you must be born into the Brahman caste

This evening we had our first boat ride on the Ganges, the holiest river of Hindus. In planning our trip, Varanasi/Ganges was one of the places I was most interested in visiting. I know almost nothing about Hinduism, but I simply wanted to learn about it. What better place to do so than at its epicenter?

our first view of the Ganges near the near the Dashashwamedh Ghat

our first view of the Ganges near the Dashashwamedh Ghat

We saw the centuries-old cremation ceremony. To die in Varanasi and then to be cremated here is the highest honor a Hindu can receive. First, the families embalm the body and wrap it in beautiful fabric. Next people dunk it in the river and then set it out to dry. Dunking in the Ganges is supposed to cleanse the people of their sins and guarantee salvation. Once dry, the pyre is built around it, lit, and set aflame. Fires burn 24/7, even during the monsoon season. During the burning, a family member crushes the skull to ensure that 1) the dead person will know his family has no attachment to him anymore and to head to nirvana, and 2) the aghories will not take the skull for their “black magic.” The family is given some ashes, and the rest are then dumped into the river and the family moves on. Sapan kept pronouncing ashes as “asses.” We thought of correcting him, but it was the one thing we could genuinely smile at.

"manual" crematory in Varanasi - there were several funeral pyres going when we were there - supposedly, there has been at least one funeral pyre going at this site for centuries

“manual” crematory in Varanasi – there were several funeral pyres going when we were there – supposedly, there has been at least one funeral pyre going at this site for centuries

"manual" crematory in Varanasi - there is an electric crematory at the other end of the river

“manual” crematory in Varanasi – there is an electric crematory at the other end of the river – we couldn’t take photos right up at the site nor would we have felt respectful doing so

aghori (taken from Google images)

aghori (taken from Google images) – aghories are a very holy group among Hindus, and though it is not a popular practice anymore, they are infamous for cannibalizing the remains of the cremated bodies.

Young children under 10 do not get cremated; a stone is tied around the wrapped body and then slid into the middle of the river. We witnessed this, and it made me wonder how many young bodies are in its depths?

disposing of a dead Hindu child's body in the Ganges

disposing of a dead Hindu child’s body in the Ganges – the child’s body is at the end of the boat

We sat through a long Hindu prayer service to the Mother Ganga. They celebrate this each evening around 7:00, but tonight was a special Hindu annual festival celebrating the day when Mother Ganga came to earth. The celebration included lots of incense, fire, drums, bells, and noise, and took far too long.

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening's aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening’s aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening's aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

preparing the ceremonial prayer platforms for the evening’s aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship comprised of song, dance, chanting, and lots of incense and fire

the evening's aarti underway

the evening’s aarti underway

the evening's aarti underway

the evening’s aarti underway

I felt a deep sadness watching all of this. The spiritual darkness and deception these tens of thousands of people present live in, not to mention the hundreds of millions of other Hindus around the world, is mind blowing. I also just felt gross–not just from the humidity and bugs and sweat dripping down my body but also from the human ash in the air and sitting in a boat on a river filled with dead children and cremated remains of adults.

women ringing out their saris after having "washed" them in the Ganges

women ringing out their saris after having “washed” them in the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges

the bank of the Ganges - a dog caught a fish, at least it won't be eating refuse for dinner

the bank of the Ganges – a dog caught a fish, at least it won’t be eating refuse for dinner

opposite bank of the Ganges - normally completely deserted as it is a flood plain during the monsoons

opposite bank of the Ganges – normally completely deserted as it is a flood plain during the monsoons

a ghat on the Ganges - a ghat is simply a series of steps leading to a body of water, particular a holy body of water

a ghat on the Ganges – a ghat is simply a series of steps leading to a body of water, particular a holy body of water

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

Varanasi ghat

Sapan was very moved by everything, though, and kept commenting on how beautiful all of it was. He was enraptured. I prayed a lot during the ceremony for Christ’s light to break forth and lead these people to the one true God.

Random thoughts for the day:
•I like airport security at IGI; we can keep our water bottles and don’t have to remove our shoes. Also, everyone gets a personal hand/wand scan with ladies in a separate enclosed room. No one can argue discrimination.
•I’m really glad I decided to start growing my hair out a year and a half ago. I’d be even more out of place here with short hair.
•I’m really starting to miss American food.

Wednesday, June 19
We were up at 4:15 for our sunrise boat ride on the Ganges to see the people bathing and the morning prayers. The weather was nice, that’s about the only positive thing I can comment on. Sapan was embarrassed by all the people taking a dump along the banks. Both Matthew and I agree that this is the most disgusting place we’ve ever seen, and we’ve been to some very dirty, unsanitary area of the world during our travels.

preparing bowls of water from the Ganges for the morning prayer ceremony

preparing bowls of water from the Ganges for the morning prayer ceremony

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

ZOOM in on this photo - all those little brown piles . . . human feces

ZOOM in on this photo – all those little brown piles . . . human feces

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

bathing in the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

this man's vocation was that of a launderer - can you imagine wearing clothes that have been "washed" in this water?

this man’s vocation was that of a launderer – can you imagine wearing clothes that have been “washed” in this water?

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

sunrise on the Ganges

After the boat ride we walked through the old area of Varanasi visiting several Hindu and Muslim temples. You are supposed to take your shoes off when entering the temples so I declined. At the main temple, there are over 1,000 in town, we had to leave our bags in lockers, and we were patted down before the entrance. They always separate men and women for the pat down, and the security woman in charge of me was not shy where she touched. We also visited a spice store and finally found some saffron, though it wasn’t as cheap as we hoped it would be.

walking through the old part of Varanasi - trash everywhere - imagine that smell

walking through the old part of Varanasi – trash everywhere – imagine that smell

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

the streets of old Varanasi

The old town was even more disgusting than the river. The streets were narrow and stifling, cows were eating garbage, and their runny dung was everywhere. Matthew commented that all the cows had diarrhea due to their less than desirable diet. Thank God we finished this part of the tour before it started to rain again or the streets would have been awash with runny and slippery cow diarrhea. Add to that the smells and people walking barefoot throughout, and you have yourself one mind-churningly disgusting, vomit-inducing place.

no wonder all the cow's had diarrhea - if this was your diet, you'd have diarrhea, too

no wonder all the cow’s had diarrhea – if this was your diet, you’d have diarrhea, too

More than any other area we’ve visited, Varanasi is a city of contrast. Walking the streets are women in beautiful saris, decked out with equally beautiful jewelry and flowers in their hair. These same women later bathe themselves and wash their garments in the Ganges. The river front is decorated with amazing and colorful shrines to their Hindu gods. Just a few feet below them is a muddy river bank polluted with trash and pile after pile of human and animal feces. Dead bodies occasionally wash up on shore.

Deceived is the word we both used to describe Varanasi. Whether or not you follow Christ, how can anyone claim that the water of the Ganges is holy, life-sustaining, and cleansing? It is polluted with human ash, cremated remains, dead children, human and animal waste, and who knows what else. Satan has done a fine job in deceiving these people and has such a stronghold here; I’m not sure I’ve been in a place this spiritually oppressive before.

I am ever more thankful for my faith in Christ. Regarding the Hindus in Varanasi in particular, I saw their struggle to make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to this city so that they can wash in the river Ganges to cleanse them from their sins. I saw their idol worship. I saw their rituals. I heard their prayers and pleas for purification and salvation. And while we all desire forgiveness and cleansing and redemption, I saw the weight of the oppressor on them trying to achieve all this through human means. I have a freedom on earth and a sure eternal salvation that these people know nothing about, and that only from Christ.

Experiencing Varanasi has made me realize how important it is to support the work of Christians in India. While it truly was a fascinating place, I hope to never return.