Adamant or rude?

I need to learn how to say no. A firm, authoritative, no. One that brooks no argument. It doesn’t need an exclamation mark. Or any additional volume. It doesn’t need to be rude.  It should just be firm and final.  But despite years of trying, my no is pathetic. Lily-livered. Downright floppy.

IMG_2139 (800x600)IMG_2141 (800x600)I was up against the professionals. The souks in Marrakesh are the stomping grounds of some of the world’s best traders. They have their sales pitches down to a fine art. They’re people readers. They know what buttons to push. With me, they appealed to superstition. ‘You’re my first customer so I have to make you a good price, lady. Otherwise my luck will be bad all day,’ And yes, I know better but still I fall for it. Or they banter and make me laugh, make me like them. And then I’m doomed.

IMG_2167 (800x576)IMG_2201 (800x723)Many years ago, in Dubai, I watched a British colleague haggle with a trader for a suitcase to the point where the fun had gone and it was approaching embarrassment. There was no way what she was offering would cover his cost. I said as much and she was annoyed with me. I found it a tad immoral. Since then, I fix a price in my head that I’d be happy to pay and once I get to that, we’re done. And so what if the next person comes along and gets it at half again – them’s the breaks. I get to sleep easy.

IMG_2207 (800x499)IMG_2358 (800x600)But Marrakesh – Marrakesh is different. The bangle sellers in particular take no prisoners. They’re bandits. They’re relentless. They’re aggressive to the point of threatening. And I couldn’t get rid of the notion that I might be cursed or jinxed if I ungratefully returned the gift they’d clasped on my wrist – a token of friendship because they liked my blue eyes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re all in cahoots because no matter how well I thought I’d done, someone always came up immediately after I’d closed the sale and offered me twice as many for half the price. My calves are black and blue from kicking myself.

I was warned not to make eye contact. But to ignore them and pretend that they’re not there is so rude. Terribly rude.  I couldn’t do it. Instead I had to admire, explain, and refuse to buy. And when the banter was really good and the tactics really clever, then I bought. And the banter can be good – with the lads especially. The women – they’re tough. They, too, use superstition. And the women talk of how they’re going to feed their babies if I don’t buy their wares. And the violins play quietly in the background, and before I know it, the bangle is on my wrist and the palm is open waiting for payment.But at least I can leave these shores knowing that I have done my bit to support several families. Perhaps even the same one.

Souk1 (800x450)
But the math doesn’t add up. When I think of the time it would take to string together some of the necklaces I was offered, not to mention the cost of the beads and stones and whatever, I can’t see how anyone is covering their costs. The stuff I had no interest in started at €20 and got as low as €3. But if I liked it, the movement was so slight as to be practically unnoticeable.

IMG_2621 (800x600)IMG_2624 (600x800)I’ve put it down to experience. When I come back next year, I’ll know where to buy, what to buy, and how much to pay for it. I’ll know to go to the spice market for my spices [freshly ground in front of my very eyes] and to a herbarium in the Jewish quarter for my Argan oil. I’ll know to stick to the souks where only the locals go for silverware and jars.  And I’ll know to bring a bigger suitcase.

This time around, I was amused at how they’d have the stuff wrapped before I could blink. I was useless in the face of their logic:

Four bottles for the price of three, then. Excellent quality. You will be very pleased.
I don’t need any, really.
Ok madam – three bottles for the price of two – just for you. Special price.
But I can’t take liquid on the plane.
No problem madam – two bottles for the price of one.
I have no room in my suitcase.
Of course madam, just these. Anything else?

Next time, the novelty will have worn off. Next time I will be more definite. Next time I will be more forceful. More adamant. But I could never ignore them. That would be rude.

 

Fear or propriety?

I can sit for hours and watch the world go by, blatantly staring at the teeming masses that flow back and forth as I sit and nurse a coffee. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to do so but it didn’t take me long to get back into the swing of it all. Such is Marrakesh. And in particular, the main square – Place Jemaa el Fna.

IMG_2342 (800x600)The place is a hive of cultural activity. From snakecharmers to dancing boys. From storytellers to musicians. From chained Barbary monkeys to traditional-hatted Berbers. This is where it’s all happening. The massive square is surrounded by the famous souks and myriad cafés and restaurants, all looking outwards at the spectacle on display. It’s like open-air theatre at its best – unscripted, spontaneous, and highly entertaining.

IMG_2278 (722x800)I had heard of the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – something along the lines of a Word Heritage status except that it’s not for a city or a town or a building but rather for a tradition. But I hadn’t realised that it was born in 2001 at the urging of those concerned that the cultural heritage on show at Jemma el Fna was in danger of dying a slow but steady death at the hands of economic development.

 

The spectacle of Jamaa el Fna is repeated daily and each day it is different. Everything changes — voices, sounds, gestures, the public which sees, listens, smells, tastes, touches. The oral tradition is framed by one much vaster — that we can call intangible. The Square, as a physical space, shelters a rich oral and intangible tradition.
— Juan Goytisolo, in a speech delivered at the opening meeting for the First Proclamation, 15 May 2001

IMG_2297 (600x800)Yes, if you dare to take a photo of a snakecharmer in action you have to cough up the 10 MAD (€1) for the privilege. And if you offer anything less to the musicians, you’ll be shamed publicly. Forget about trying to sneak a picture of a monkey or three. Moroccans are far from shy when it comes to naming and shaming. And they have eyes in the back of their head. For every one performer, there’s a bevy of watchers with ears attuned to the digital click of cameras and phones.

IMG_2298 (800x600)Morocco is 98% Muslim. I found that a little intimidating and so far out of my comfort zone as to be almost alien. If there are rules, I like to know them, so at least I’ll know what it is I’m breaking. Kissing in public is frowned upon but that’s okay – I’m not one for public displays of affection. I was more concerned about whether it was okay to show my ankles. They seemed to attract quite a lot of attention – mainly from matronly middle-aged women in full garb. I was concerned, too, about stopping for a coffee in a café with all men seated outside. And I was a tad bothered about whether or not to cover my head. But apart from the ankle stares, it seemed pretty lax.

IMG_2156 (800x600)

It did take me a while though to marry this 98% Muslim statistic and the religion’s thinking that homosexuality is a crime with the number of men strolling the streets holding hands. There are only five Muslim countries where homosexuality is not a crime – and Morocco isn’t one of them. I did a few double-takes before I got used to it all. Interesting though that my gay friends could walk hand in hand in a country where being gay is a crime and me, as a heterosexual woman, thought twice about holding hands with a man. And, of course, last year, there was the case of Ray Cole – the British chap who got jail time after being arrested in the city for partaking in homosexual acts. Yep – Marrakesh is nothing if not interesting.

IMG_2155 (800x600)

I was fascinated with the robes (djellabas) and the women’s penchant for ankle-length furry, animal print, hooded, buttoned dressing-gowns (well, that’s what they reminded me of). Mad altogether.

With a 60:40 ratio of Berber to Arab [the Arabs arrived around the 7th Century and converted everyone to Islam, while the Berbers are the original inhabitants], children are whatever their father is. So with a Berber mum and an Arab father, the children will be Arab. The pointy hoods when worn up at night gave me the heebie jeebies. And while I never felt in any danger, the shadows were reminiscent of the KKK and did cause the old blood to flow a little faster.

I was most impressed by people’s ability to do nothing. So many just sat and watched. While others stood and chatted, No one seemed to be in a hurry to go anywhere. Conversation seemed very much part of the way of life, a refreshing change from the home where everyone is too busy online to have time to ask anything other than what the wi-fi code is.

IMG_2236 (800x600)

I saw the local women sporting all seven types of headdress  from the hijab to the burka, although the latter I only saw once. Most wore niqabs or al-amiras. I found myself mentally chastising other foreigners who I thought to be inappropriately dressed and wondered at how quickly I’d become so judgmental. Never before have I been so put out at a bra strap showing. Whether it was fear or my innate sense of propriety working on overdrive, I’m not sure.

IMG_2213 (800x600)

Sitting on one of the many rooftop terraces overlooking the square as the sun sets is one of the more spectacular sights I’ve seen in my travels. The many calls to prayer compete for airspace as the muezzins recite the adhan. There was something a little suspect about the timing though, as they all seemed to be slightly out of sync. [I wondered fleetingly if all the Angelus bells in Ireland are synchronised.] And coming over the loudspeaker as they do, the human voices have an almost robotic quality that had me wondering if I was listening to a recording. [Yes, while I know something about some things, there’s a lot about which I’m clueless.] If you’re in Marrakesh, be sure and find a rooftop come dusk. It’s worth it.

IMG_2343 (800x600)

IMG_2330 (800x600)

2015 Grateful 1

Hard to believe that another year is drawing to a close. So much has happened. So much has changed. And it all went so quickly. Perhaps it’s a symptom of getting older. Of aging. Time flies. It seems like yesterday that I started this year’s Grateful 52 and now the countdown has ended.

Many of my friends had significant birthdays this year; many more see the half-century next year, myself included. And yet in my head I’m still 32 and will always be. I was asked over drinks this Christmas if I had a choice, which one would I pick:

a) €4 million
b) To  go back to being 20 knowing what I know now

Apparently it’s a polarising question with most women opting for the dosh and the men opting for a do-over. I can’t speak to that. But I’d have taken the €4 million without hesitation. There’s no way I’d want to go back and do over.

I’m grateful that I have few regrets and those I have are negligible in the grand scheme of things. I’m grateful, too, that people read this blog and comment and interact and let me know that I’m not just writing for my own amusement (although I think I still would even if no one read anything I wrote – it’s therapeutic). Thank you, though, for engaging.

And a present for you – in case you haven’t heard it already:

carolsChristmas carols are my favourite part of the season – I like the oldies, the classics – and I like, the new ones, too. This one – The Flight – was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge as part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It was sung for the first time this Christmas and is written by Hungarian-born George Szirtes.

The child on the dirtpath
finds the highway blocked
The dogs at the entrance
snarl that doors are locked
The great god of kindness
has his kindness mocked
 May those who travel light
 Find shelter on the flight
 May Bethlehem
 Give rest to them.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark

Words: George Szirtes
Music: Richard Causton

 

Bullied and bloody-minded

Way back in the early 1980s, when faced with the choice of moving to Dublin or making the 20-mile commute up and back each day, it was a no-brainer. It would be unthinkable to drive that distance every day. Fast forward through life in Alaska when I’d happily drive 612 miles round trip just to play 18 holes of golf, to life in twenty-first century Ireland where people commute to the capital from all over the country and some even commute to London. It’s all a matter of perspective.

So when faced with a 70km drive to see Delhi when staying in Greater Noida, the only question to be answered was ‘Am I likely to be back this way again’ – and as the answer was far from a convincing yes, I hired a car (and a driver) and took off.

IMG_2091 (800x600)IMG_2089 (800x588)The only place on my list of must-sees (given that the city was shrouded in either fog or smog) was where the great Mahatma Gandhi had been cremated. Raj Ghat is where the ashes of the great man are entombed. Inscribed on the memorial are the last words he spoke IMG_2094 (800x600)on being assassinated – Hey Ram.  I never knew that. The eternal flame that burns is testimony to the lasting influence he has on so many people from so many different cultures. I’m glad I took the time to drop by and pay my respects.

IMG_1868 (800x595)IMG_1869 (600x800)One of the more famous temples in Delhi is the Baha’i Lotus Temple. And as with all other temples, shoes have to be removed before entering the grounds. This involved a rather clever underground room open at both sides – one to drop off your shoes, and the other to pick them up. No exceptions. The temple, while visibly stunning from the outside, is so plain inside that it seems almost half-finished. Not one picture or statue. No ornaments or embellishments of any kind. It was quite a shock to the senses. It’s this way because it’s open to all people of all faiths to come and pray and have some quiet time with their god, whomever he or she might be. Quite something.

IMG_2100 (600x800)IMG_2102 (800x600)We stopped by India Gate, another must-see on the Delhi tour and I was struck by how similar it was in feel to the Arc de Triomphe. And yes, on checking, I discovered that this national monument of India was inspired by its French counterpart.  The walls are inscribed with the names of the soldiers who died in WWI and the Afghan Wars with the monument itself taking 10 years to build. There was a lot of writing. The eternal flame that burns here, though, is a later addition. The flame of the Jyoti burns in remembrance of those  soldiers who died in the Indo-Pakistan War of December 1971.

Delhi is famous for its Red Fort, which, apparently, was originally white but painted red by the British and while Rampor was quite keen on my visiting it, I was forted out. Hyderabad and Agra had done it for me. Likewise with the Qutab Minar, but some cross-communication fated otherwise. I wasn’t sure why I was paying to go into a market but didn’t argue the point until it was too late. And I got a right talking to, as well. He was a little pissed off at me because I was in a mood (amazing how intercultural my moods are). Eleven days into India and being told what to do was taking its toll. Worse, not being listened to was making a dent. [No, I don’t want to go to another bloody government shop.] And I’d decided that for some unfathomable reason, I preferred Southern India.

IMG_2108 (800x600)IMG_2106 (600x800)The Minar, standing some 73 m tall, was started back in 1200. It took three generations of rulers to finish it over 115 years  and it is yet another amazing testament to the craftsmen of old. Although blanketed in fog/smog, the detail up close was more than impressive.  As to why it was built, the jury is still out. It might have been to commemorate the start of Muslim rule in India or it might have been built as a minaret to the muezzins to call the faithful to prayer. Decide for yourself which you’d prefer it to be. Apparently 27 Hindu Temples were razed to build this compound … a sore point for some I’d imagine. The colours were amazing and in full sunlight it has to be spectacular.

IMG_2113 (800x731)

One thing I’ve noticed is that Indians have little regard for statistics or facts or figures. Few could tell me the population of whatever city I was in. These trivia simply aren’t an issue. Were I to relocate, that would take some getting used to. Another would be not getting my own way. But I’m stubborn. And eventually we made it to Janpath Market – I could spend a day there being bullied by the stall owners who told me in no uncertain terms that IT WOULD FIT ME … but, of course, it didn’t. And yet no amount of arguing would do – I had to show and tell. Colour, life, soul, and certainty – the key essence of India – were all encapsulated here. And if I were to return to Delhi, this is where I’d head for.

IMG_2121 (800x600)

 

 

Originality

What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough. So said French Romantic painter, Eugene Delacroix a couple of centuries ago.  I wonder if there is any such thing as original thought left to be had or has everything already been said and just keeps on being said in a different way? Millions of variations on so few themes?

I had thought that the Taj Mahal was an original, a one of a kind, but apparently it is based on the baby Taj down the road in Agra. What a disappointment that was. An irrational one, admittedly, as whether or not the Taj is original doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to my world – but it did upset me.

IMG_2029 (800x600)IMG_2024 (800x598)The tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah is admittedly much smaller but nonetheless just as grand as the Taj Mahal it is said to have inspired. If anything, the rundown feel  adds to its charm. The tourists are noticeably absent. There was only a handful of people there besides myself. Even my guide decided to give it a miss, saying that I could just pop in on my way back to Greater Noida. I nearly gave it a miss, too. We had actually driven past it and were on the road home when I had second thoughts and doubled back. I didn’t want to regret not seeing it and am I glad I did.

IMG_2033 (800x598)IMG_2032 (591x800)It’s faded glory is just as appealing as the grandeur of the Taj. The marble is the same as is the use of inlay and while a little restoration would do wonders for it, I found myself more engaged with its ruin that I might have been with its potential splendour. Given how impressed I was with the restored tombs in Hyderabad, that was a little surprising. Perhaps it’s that it seems to hold secrets, a treasure of stories that had I had the time to sit and listen it would happily have divulged. Or perhaps it’s that it’s comfortable being the poor cousin, happy with who it is. Or perhaps the whole India thing is getting to me and I’m putting too much effort into humanising these mausoleums. No matter. If you’re in Agra, don’t miss out.

IMG_2034 (800x574)IMG_2039 (800x600)

2015 Grateful 2

Tradition is a wonderful thing. It lends a certainty to uncertain times, anchors us in times of change, and wraps us in the comfort of familiarity. Every year, the party at Craigford brings together a bunch of usual suspects, some of whom I won’t have seen all year. But even if a year has passed, it seems more like weeks than months since we were all together last.

Every year, those of us who are free, show up in the afternoon to transform the house from December to Christmas. One of my jobs is to hang the Christmas cards. Another is to iron. A third is to  help out in the kitchen. This year we were ahead of schedule, and ready a full five minutes before the first guests arrived. It’s nothing if not hectic.

The inimitable DD has a tradition of his own that he brings along. Each year, we get one of his hand turned wooden Christmas ornaments, collectibles that everyone looks forward to. A souvenir of the year that has passed, something to help us remember the year that was.

Gin me2 (480x640)GF’s mince pies and sausage rolls and LN’s beetroot roulade are staples around which the table is set. An open fire is a must as PM needs somewhere to heat the wine. This year, a new tradition was inaugurated: the Christmas G&T garnished with halved cranberries and springs of rosemary served in a large wine glass. And an old tradition let go: the annual Kris kindle.

For years now, the Craigford party has been my Christmas marker, the night that starts the Holiday festivities.  A real Christmas tonic that brings to mind that classic poem  by Edgar Guest:

A man is at his finest towards the finish of the year;
He is almost what he should be when the Christmas season’s here;
Then he’s thinking more of others than he’s thought the months before,
And the laughter of his children is a joy worth toiling for.
He is less a selfish creature than at any other time;
When the Christmas spirit rules him he comes close to the sublime.
When it’s Christmas man is bigger and is better in his part;
He is keener for the service that is prompted by the heart.
All the petty thoughts and narrow seem to vanish for awhile
And the true reward he’s seeking is the glory of a smile.
Then for others he is toiling and somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas he is almost what God wanted him to be.
If I had to paint a picture of a man I think I’d wait
Till he’d fought his selfish battles and had put aside his hate.
I’d not catch him at his labors when his thoughts are all of pelf,
On the long days and the dreary when he’s striving for himself.
I’d not take him when he’s sneering, when he’s scornful or depressed,
But I’d look for him at Christmas when he’s shining at his best.
Man is ever in a struggle and he’s oft misunderstood;
There are days the worst that’s in him is the master of the good,
But at Christmas kindness rules him and he puts himself aside
And his petty hates are vanquished and his heart is opened wide.
Oh, I don’t know how to say it, but somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas man is almost what God sent him here to be.

Now that Christmas has officially started, I’m grateful for the wonderful bedfellows – friendship and tradition. And I’m thankful, too, to be able to add to my gin repertoire. Here’s to you all…

 

Weird but wonderful

IMG_1880 (800x600)The cows I’d gotten used to. The dogs, too. But turning a corner and coming face to face with a camel while monkeys cavorted like mad things wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Agra is like an open-air zoo. Pigs rut in the garbage. Goats walk the streets with a nonchalance that comes from being the undisputed kings of their home terrritory. Monkeys run amuck, so used to people that they practically come up to you and introduce themselves. Camels work pulling carts, doing the work horses might do elsewhere. It’s all rather weird but definitely rather wonderful. Mad.

IMG_2061 (800x600)

IMG_2059 Amidst all of this, life goes on, in the streets. Barbers set up stalls on the roadside, complete with mirrors, and men are shaved in full view of the world. It seems like everything is on show. Northern India has a different feel to it. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. But there’s definitely a difference.

I’d been to the Taj Mahal, had the tour of the marble factory, and was headed to see Agra Fort, something I was assured was quite different to other forts I might have seen in that this was one in which people actually lived. Fair enough.

IMG_1980 (800x600)IMG_1987 (800x590)It was here, in one of the many palaces, that the Shah who built the Taj Mahal was imprisoned by his son in an attempt to keep his dad from squandering his inheritance on yet another massive tomb. Mind you, if you had to be imprisoned, this wouldn’t have been a IMG_1976 (800x600)bad place to live. It is absolutely stunning. The decor, the carving, the marble. Absolutely stunning.

That said though, a prison, no matter how beautiful it may be, is still a prison.

IMG_1981 (800x600) (2)

IMG_1947 (800x600)IMG_1991 (800x600)Elsewhere in the fort, there’s a lot going on. There’s the beauty bazaar where the Shah fell for his third wife. Apparently, only beautiful women were allowed into the bazaar and it was the Shah who decided what he meant by beautiful. A lot of subjectivity going on there, IMG_1954 (600x800)me thinks. I wonder if the gentleman preferred blondes? In the rooms overlooking the courtyard lived the harem. It is still hard to get my head around all of this, around what it must have been like to live there.

There are all sorts of nooks and crannies that hold  secrets and wonders. In one room, if two people face the wall at opposite ends and whisper to each other, their whispers are transmitted through the walls and ring out clearly. No secrets there.  In aIMG_1972 (600x800)nother the air conditioning and heating systems of old are clearly visible.  By pouring hot or cold water into the walls, the rooms were heated or cooled. You have to wonder at the minds who thought all this stuff up. And figured it out. And made it work. And did this so many years ago.  A friend commenting on one of my posts recently recapped a conversation he had had while in India when he expressed amazement at how they do so much with so little. The reply:  We wonder why you do so little with so much. Yes, the mind boggles.

IMG_2011 (800x574)

The fort is more like a walled city that a fort. Rebuilt in red sandstone in the 1500s, it too 1,444,000 builders 8 years to finally complete it in 1573. A large part  was converted by the British into military barracks and even today the majority of the grounds is still in accessible to the public and under military use. Definitely worth a look if you’re in the neighbourhood: Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.

 

2015 Grateful 3

With so many of the world’s corporates searching for cheaper and cheaper labour, outsourcing has become a way of life. The uncertainty that comes with not knowing how long you can stay competitive is something that has seeped into most aspects of our lives. There’s only so much you can cut before there’s nothing left to cut. I know. Up the road from me, a couple of Polish girls who have been turning out delicious sandwiches for three years and even more delectable cakes are throwing in the flour and shutting shop. They’re not making any money, in spite of the hours they’re putting in.

Years ago, in a previous life, I remember contracts being negotiated that left very little by way of margin for my Indian colleagues. I wondered then how they were making ends meet. And I wonder now.

In Agra recently, I was hijacked. Nothing new there. Whether it’s a private car hire or an auto-rickshaw, if you’re not behind the wheel you are at the mercy of whoever is. Having witnessed the splendour of the Taj Mahal and hearing how the craftsmen from Kabul had taken 21 years to decorate the marble walls in slivers of precious stones, I simply had to see how it was done. Or so I was told.

After the oblIMG_1921 (600x800)igatory tea, I got a short introduction to the history of the factory – it’s been in the family for generations and uses the same traditions that were used to build the Taj Mahal. Then I got a short introduction to the various stones used in the Taj and where they come from. The onyx from Belgium threw me a little but hey – what I know about stones, precious or otherwise wouldn’t fill the tip of a chisel. Then I had a crash course on how it’s all done. I may be missing a few steps but bear with me.

IMG_1922 (800x600)IMG_1924 (800x621)The stones are cut into tiny slivers using machines that look like they came out of the dark ages. The finished pieces are sold according to how many individual pieces of stone it took to make the design so this bit is important. The white marble is then washed so that sweat stains don’t mark IMG_1926 (800x600)it. The pattern is set and then pressed so that the outline is left on the stone. Then the master craftsman takes over. He gets to carve the pattern 2mm into the stone. Apparently he can work for about 30 minutes before needing to break for 90. The work is very fiddedly and I would IMG_1927 (600x800)imagine there’s blood, although I saw no evidence of this – it’s just my imagination. Each individual piece is then glued into place using a glue made from tree gum, rice water, honey and a secret ingredient. The whole process takes days, weeks, months, depending on the size of the piece. How can this make economic sense?

With the basics in hand, I was then taken inside to the showrooms. Aladdin’s cave comes to mind. Of course, by now I know that it will be anything but cheap. The stage has been set. The man hours noted. And regardless of what the boys are being paid, each piece takes an age to put together.

IMG_1937 (800x600)IMG_1941 (800x600)I sat and oohed and aahed all the while repeating that I had no money. And no, I had no credit on my credit card, either. I converted my Hungarian wage to rupees and I could see that he wasn’t impressed. I held strong … for about an hour. And then I saw the piece I’d love had I the money (the hexagonal green marble table inlaid with mother of pearl) – a stunning number that had 8950 individual pieces and could be mine for just €8000. Door to door. But even at that price, I couldn’t make the sums add up. The workers must be working for pittance.

The more I saw, the more I liked and the more I appreciated the work that went into it all. All hand done. Laboured over. Painstakingly worked. And I caved. I bought a piece he said I could use as a chopping board – just like his mother did. Yeah right.

I’m torn though. Yes, it is worth every cent I paid but what are they being paid to produce it? Is it just one man getting rich through it all? It’s hard to know. Should I not have bought? But then no customers mean no work at all and is some work better than nothing? The angst.

table agraAnd while the moral arguments gave me a headache, I am grateful that I got to see it all, how it was done. I’m grateful that I’ve not yet been deadened by the false economy of mass production. I’m grateful that I have it in me to appreciate a job well done. And I’m particularly grateful to Emirates for their generous baggage allowance. Without them, it would still be just a photograph.

I also got a sneak preview of how the Taj Mahal changes in the various light of day… stunning.

IMG_1931 (800x600)

Sunlight

On a full moon

On a full moon

My wish this Christmas

The world is in a mess, a terrible mess. Decisions being made in the hallowed halls of power in one country are affecting the lives of ordinary people in another. Natural disasters are occurring all too regularly, depriving many of their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Unnatural disasters like mass shootings have become so frequent as to warrant little more than a raised eyebrow and a tut-tut from those not affected. Our morals are skewed and our values warped. We have relinquished control of our lives, lives that are now dictated by a constant search for success, be it material, fame, or power.

I can do nothing to change the world at large. I can’t stop the wars. I can’t reverse climate change. I can’t eradicate poverty. And much as I would like to, I can’t turn the clock back to an era where family and friends came before work and progress on our list of priorities. But that doesn’t stop me wishing it would all get better, that we would find a way to live together in peace and harmony, to share our resources, and to look out for our fellow man. Yet where would we start?

I’m writing this from India. I’ve been here for a week now and have been struck, once again, by the hospitality of the people, the pride they take in a job well done, and their constant good humour. When they smile their infectious smile, it’s as if someone switches on a light inside them. They’re quick to laugh, and seem to take genuine pleasure out of ordinary, simple interactions.

Take the service industry as a case in point. Nothing is too much trouble. Everyone is so obliging. And the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s the auto-rickshaw driver or the hotel chauffeur, the concierge or the officer janitor, the shop assistant or the restaurant manager – each one seems to want to do what they can to make my life better. And the more I express my gratitude ‒ a simple thank you, an acknowledgement of what they’ve done ‒ the better it gets.

I made a lot of comparisons with Hungary and Ireland over the first couple of days, mostly unfavourable ones. If I could wave a magic wand, I would arrange for customer service everywhere to be like it is in India. It’s so refreshing not to see miserable faces, not to have to deal with recalcitrant attitudes, not to be dragged down by bad moods and foul humours.

And it’s not just the service industry. I’ve met a lot of different people in different cities and circumstances, people from all over India. And each one delights in the ordinary. It’s contagious. It’s hard to complain when all around you are actively looking for the best in everything. It’s hard to be negative when those with so little can still smile. It’s hard to be unhappy when everyone you meet finds joy in simply being alive.

None of this is new. As far back as the fourteenth century, Amir Khusro, poet-courtier-soldier-chronicler-linguist, nailed it:

How exhilarating is the atmosphere of India!
There cannot be a better teacher than the way of life of its people.
If any foreigner comes by, he will have to ask for nothing
Because they treat him as their own,
Play an excellent host and win his heart,
And show him how to smile like a flower.

My Christmas wish is that we might be infected by the spirit of India and learn to take delight in the ordinary, to appreciate those around us, and to count our blessings rather than our burdens.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 December 2015

The mists of time

Had I been one of Shah Jahan’s harem, I might have had to do my wifely duties once, say, every 18 months. Had I not loved him, I probably could have lived with it. But knowing I was just one of many would have done my head in.

The seventeenth-century ‘King of the World’ had three legal wives. Wife No. 1 was Christian. Wife No. 2 was Hindu. Wife No. 3 was Muslim. The 460 other wives in his harem were probably a mix, too. Wives 1 and 2 were without issue but Wife No. 3 produced 14 children in 19 years, 6 of whom lived. And as it is said that she was so beautiful the moon hid in shame when she appeared, Mumtaz Mahal was clearly the Shah’s favourite wife of all. Born Arjumand Bano Begum, the name the Shah gave her – Mumtaz Mahal – means Chosen One, or Jewel of the  Palace. On her deathbed, she made him promise to build her a tomb, a testament to his love. And he did. And we know it as the Taj Mahal.

IMG_1892 (596x800)We’d driven through three hours of dense fog to get to Agra from Greater Noida, leaving the hotel at 5.30 am. I was really looking forward to seeing this wonder of the world up close and personal. I was hoping to get there by sunrise and see it in its dawn glory but as it turns out, I was lucky to see it at all. The fog was terrible. But I took heart that I hadn’t paid $1000 for a room in the Oberoi Hotel boasting a view of the great monument. That would have been a right waste of money.

No matter which side you view it from, the Taj looks the same. Perfectly symmetrical. The four minarets tilt slight outwards so that if they collapse, they won’t damage the main building itself. Inside there are just four tombs – two are real, belonging to the Shah and his favourite wife. These are open for viewing on 7 July each year. The two that are on view year round are exact replicas. I’d never have known the difference had I not been told.

IMG_1887 (800x600)IMG_1911There are four gates through which you can enter. Back in the day, the south gate was for the workers, the west gate for the VIPs, the east gate for the locals and the north gate for the royals. This is the one in use today.  It has 22 domes on top, one for each year it took to build the Taj: one year to build the structure and then 21 years to add the detail. It took 20 000 craftsmen to do the job, most of whom were important from Kabul. Seventeen generations later, their descendants are still plying their trade in the city of Agra.

IMG_1904 (800x592)IMG_1903 (800x600)Security was grim. They took my pocket torch. I wondered what damage I could do with a torch and when inside I saw. My guide borrowed one from the security guard and showed me how the semi-precious slivers of gems in the marble glow in the light. Magnificent. Among the 28 or so types of precious stones uses, the malachite comes from South Africa, the lapis from Chile, the onyx from Belgium, the mother of pearl from New Zealand and the turquoise from Turkey. The marble – a lot of which comes from the town of Makrana in Rajasthan – reflects the light so that at various times the Taj appears to be a different colour: pink in the morning, milky white in the evening, and golden at night when lit by the moon. It is said that this change in colour resembles the changeable moods of women … and presumably that of the favoured wife.

IMG_1902 (800x593)excerpts from the Quran are etched on the wall – the pressure not to make a mistake must have been fierce. I wonder if it was proofread? The level of detail is simply stunning. I have it on good authority that the building itself is made of brick and is covered in marble. Whatever works. It certainly doesn’t take from anything. Rumour has it that the Shah had intended building himself a black Taj across the river, but his son and heir decided that he was frittering away his inheritance and promptly put him in prison – well, a prison of sorts.

IMG_1906 (592x800)IMG_1907 (600x800)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the pillars, while made of three slabs of marble, are designed in such a way that there looks to be six. What would it cost to build the Taj today, I wonder. And would we even know where to begin?

I came, I saw, and I left wanting more. I want to come back, on the night of  a full moon in summer and see it in all its glory.

IMG_1888 (800x600)