Faith And Action: How The Sikhs Keep The Balance

Sikhs are famous for their turbans, their honesty, their bravery as soldiers, and the Golden Temple.  It’s a spectacular marble complex in the center of Amritsar, India, where 70,000 or more guests get a good vegetarian meal any time 24 / 7 / 365, and where dozens of men are reading the scripture aloud, nonstop, also 24 / 7 / 365.  Let me explain…

Sikh Guard at Golden Temple Gate – Version 2

Founded around 1500, Sikhism began with the experience of a Hindu man named Nanak.  At the age of 30, he had a mystical vision of visiting heaven, where he learned that all religions–including Hinduism and Islam–are imperfect human paths leading to a perfect Divine Path.  Nanak was the first of ten gurus (teachers) who served during the next 200 years until the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, was declared complete.  The book has since then served as on ongoing “eleventh guru.”

Sikhism is one of the largest world religions, and one of the newest.  We visited the Golden Temple on two successive days last week, first with the wonderful Davinder Singh as a guide, and then on our own.

As you enter the gates, you catch a glimpse of the gold-covered marble building that seems to float in a huge pool of water.  The line of people waiting on the bridge to the entrance pavilion, and then the most sacred (golden) part was long, and didn’t seem to be moving, so we walked slowly around the colonnade that surrounds the four sides.

Entrance Pavilion and Golden Temple ROoftop View

Inside the Temple are musicians and singers, and the lyrics are projected on jumbotrons like the one below. “O Nanak,” they chanted, “their faces are radiant in the court of the Lord, and many are saved along with them.”  The hymn, “Kirat Karo,” is one of the three most famous in Sikhism, reminding people of their duty to work hard as well as meditate.  We learned from Davinder (talking with Lynnell, below) that a Sikh house of worship is devoted to both: the inner journey of contemplating God and the outer journey of practicing truthfulness, compassion, contentment, humility, and love.
Davinder, Lynnell, and Jumbotron Lyrics of Live Music, Golden Temple

The “inner journey” was best symbolized, in our opinion, by what was happening in room after room off the colonnade: quiet prayer by individuals, accompanied by a nonstop recitation of the scripture.

In each room, a man sits in front of the scripture and chants one poem after another, until his colleague comes to take a turn.  In this way, a relay of 6 men recite the entire scripture — all 1430 pages — in about 48 hours.

If you have a special intention, you can sign up to sponsor a portion or all of this recitation with that intention in mind.  We stepped quietly into one such recitation room and found these two women meditating to the sound of the Sant Bhasa (holy language).

Continuous Scripture Reading, Golden Temple

The Scripture is treated with great reverence, even put in a luxurious bed every night, under embroidered covers.  Then, the “eleventh guru” is awakened the next morning and brought back into the worship space.

Another ceremony of the inner journey is quietly dipping in the pool, after taking a good soapy shower and focusing on one’s intent to walk closer to God’s Will and wash away selfish or lazy habits.  Men and women have separate areas, the women’s being more screened from view.

Bathing, Golden Temple

This guy was taking advantage of the serenity of the Golden Temple by taking a nap by a marble staircase.  We passed him on our way to the rooftop.  Like most Sikh men, he doesn’t cut his hair, like Samson and Samuel in the Bible.  Sikhs don’t drink alcohol or gamble, either.


As Davinder said, contemplation is one half of a person’s spiritual life.  The other half is action, and the Sikhs are very much women and men of action.  Besides being among the first to volunteer for disaster relief, and besides their stellar record of military service in India, Pakistan, the UK, Canada, and the US, Sikhs do one simple thing as well as any religious group I can think of: feed people.

Every Sikh church (they’re called gurdwaras) has a large, well-equipped kitchen, and everyone in the congregation helps with the cooking and joins in the eating.  For years, I have looked forward to taking part in this; and although I felt suddenly very shy about volunteering last week, I walked up to this guy and asked him if he needed help.  He handed me a stack of plates, fresh from the sanitizing bath, and motioned for me to start welcoming people.  So I did.  I provoked a few double-takes, but my white privilege kicked in and lots people gave me the thumbs up, grinning their approval for my joining in on something that hundreds of Indians were doing as a matter of course.

One guy took my picture, saying “USA is the best!”  In fact, Lynnell and I were recruited into a half-dozen selfies per day by teenagers in Amritsar, and we could hardly say no, since we were always snapping photos of Indians.

Handing Out Dishes To ANyone, Golden Temple

You can get a free meal in the Golden Temple kitchen absolutely any time.  The all-volunteer crew wheel in carts of flour, milk lentils, rice, oil, and radishes (below) and circles of other volunteers peel, stir, slice, and serve in always-changing groups like the one I joined.

Prepping Radishes, Golden Temple

The men and women below are cooking up lentils in spotless cauldrons over propane flames.  The scene reminded me vividly of a soup kitchen crew I used to lead one Saturday a month at Trinity Church, Detroit.  We mostly made chili with donations from grocery chains, and served a lot of Wonder Bread from their bakery just down the street, which is now a casino.


When you’re ready to eat, you get plate, bowl, and cutlery and walk into one of the dining halls.  You find a place on a woven mat, and people come around with serving bowls, ladles, and baskets of chapati bread.  I’m pretty sure there are homeless people who eat there more than once a day, every day, right alongside the tourists like me and the Sikh pilgrims from all over the world.  Pilgrims know the drill, of course: walk into any Sikh house of worship and you’ll be welcomed with a meal.

100,000 meals A Day, Golden Temple

I wanted to take a turn at serving food, too, but there wasn’t a break in the action at the front of the house, so I stayed put.  I could also have volunteered to hand out drinking water or help with construction and renovation work, like the man below is doing.  He and a bunch of teenagers were carrying rubble out to the street in baskets.


Sikhs also have a sacrament they call holy communion.  In the course of their worship service, everyone gets a little porridge sweetened with honey.  Like Christian communion, it’s more of a reminder than a proper meal.  They have baptism, too, but one should wait until ready to follow all the ethical and ritual commandments before accepting baptism.  It’s serious business, and our guide, who is our age, told us he is still not really ready to be baptized.

The custom of feeding everyone, called “langar,” is not a sacrament in the same way as baptism or communion.  But in keeping with St. Augustine’s definition, “it’s an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.”  Or as my theology teacher in high school used to say, “it does what it signifies.”  A sacrament is not just a symbol, though it’s a ritual full of symbolism.  It’s a ceremony that somehow accomplishes what it seems, on the surface, to be only playing at.

I’ve often said that Christianity would be a very different religion if, instead of the sacramental “meal” of bread and wine, the followers of Jesus had picked up on his other mandate from the Last Supper: “wash one another’s feet.”

Lynnell waiting for me at Golden TempleWhat if that sort of humble service was the norm, instead of taking a little wafer for yourself and sipping wine from a chalice?  I think it would be a powerful thing.

It might make us more humble, too, though I fear we’d still have arguments about doctrine.  Instead of debating whether communion was the Real Presence of Christ or Just A Memorial, maybe denominations would split over Soap vs. Just Water, or Splash Through A Shallow Pool vs. Let Someone Actually Touch Your Feet.

The Sikhs have their arguments, to be sure.  One group in British Columbia has relaxed the rule on haircuts and beards, allowing clean-shaven men full leadership positions, even though the ban on cutting hair is one of the 5 khalsa requirements.  The community eventually split in two.

That’s organized religion for you.  And disorganized religion, too.

“We all get to be human,” Lynnell says, though we know we can do better!

It’s true.  Sigh.

Dish Crew, Golden Temple

“Sow a seed and plant a tree…”

(By John) I got up early, made coffee, and sat down in the living room of the shared apartment we’re staying in.  I love morning: it’s so quiet, and during the night, my unconscious img_7293seems to have sorted things out, so I feel calm. And I get to have coffee! So I awoke today full of the urge to write about religion in this remarkable land.

In spite of India being a secular country, it’s utterly normal to be religious here. We see shrines, temples, mosques, churches, and religious pictures everywhere as our bicycle-rickshaw drivers steer us through traffic jams.  Instead of Plastic Jesus on the dashboards, we see Plastic Krishnas, Ganeshas, Durgas, Buddhas, Guru Nanaks, and Shivas.  screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-10-24-51-amThe everyday greeting Lynnell left you with in her last post  is namaste, meaning “I bow to The Divine in you.”  It’s accompanied by praying hands and a little bow.  People bring God into conversations all the time in India , and I’m not talking about “OMG” or “I swear to God,” which in America almost never literally refer to God nowadays, any more than goodbye does.

In keeping with the guiding metaphor of my sabbatical — and we will never stop being grateful to Edward Kim and the Faculty Advisory of Breck School for this year of a lifetime — India is trees and rivers all at once. I’m not sure how you describe trees intertwining with rivers without mixing metaphors, though: the branching of a tree means a split, or at least an evolutionary step, but the confluence of rivers signals the union of separate things.

Maybe you could picture Hinduism like this braided river plain on the Paraná in Brazil.


The gurus who developed Sikhism, on the other hand, combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, and their own spiritual experience.  More to come in another post on our wonderful two days at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.  Maybe you could picture Sikhism being like the confluence of the Yangtse (left) and Jailing (right) Rivers in Chongching, China, below.


Yesterday, we visited the Baha’i House of Worship here in Delhi.  We’ll tell you about that soon, also.  For now, here’s one more river picture.  Maybe the Baha’i Faith is like the mouths of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, with various streams coming together, progressively revealing the will of God to an evolving human race:


On the other hand, maybe Islam and Christianity are more like trees: the roots draw nourishment from many sources, and their religions surfaced as a single stem, but soon there were many branches, all reaching toward the sun, but often wrinkled and scarred at the branching-points.  The branches tend not to reunite, though I think God longs for a reunion.  These bare Frangipani trees caught my eye yesterday in the gardens of the Delhi Baha’i House of Worship:

Branching Tree

I’ve spent most my life helping people understand different languages, cultures, and faiths as a teacher of French, History, and World Religions. As a boy of eleven, my parents encouraged me to apply to a Childrens’ International Summer Villages (CISV) camp, and it changed my life.

Two boys and two girls from each of nine countries gathered for a month in southern Holland to play sports and games, learn songs from each others’ countries, and make friends despite the language barrier. I’m not sure if I ever really thanked mom and dad properly for CISV, not to mention so many other world-enlarging gifts they gave me. My folks were deeply-rooted Detroit Catholics.  Hardly world-travelers. They spoke only English and theirs was a bit of a mixed marriage: Dad’s family had been 100% French for generations, and mom was more typically mixed European-American.

CISV was for me what a church or synagogue youth group was for my peers, and I stayed involved in meetings and exchange programs until well after college. I became passionate about learning other languages, I corresponded with friends using those thin-paper aerogrammes, and then caught up with my friends at big conferences in places like Trento, Italy. The only “sacrament” we had was to stand in a big circle, right arms crossed over left, and sing the CISV song while raising or lowering the CISV flag. The second verse goes like this:

Here we live and eat and sleep,
Talk and laugh and somethings weep;
Here we share our hopes and fears,
Build a bridge across the years,
Sow a seed and plant a tree
Beneath whose branches there may be
All the nations gathered free


The late Dr. Doris Twitchell Allen invented C.I.S.V. so that something beautiful might grow from the ashes of World War II. Bigotry, hatred, religious intolerance, and dictatorship had scorched the Earth in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, and Auntie Doris’ gift to the world was to give children like me and my sisters unforgettable experiences before we had the chance to become intolerant. Walter Cronkite did a documentary about us, called Too Young To Hate. Margaret Mead called Doris’ idea “a stroke of genius.”

India reminds me of those international summer villages. We slept all together in a big dorm full of bunk beds, tried each other’s food, and learned to dance at least a half dozen folk dances like the Filipino bamboo pole dance Tinikling (left),

tinikling-traditional-bamboo-dance-of-the-philippines-image-by-symplex              9493965_orig

and the Mexican La Raspa (right). Photos from and

In Agra, India, Lynnell and I we were lucky to find the extraordinary bicycle enthusiast / tour guide John Rosario, whose family later had us over for dinner. (Oh, man, we need to write a post about our ride together!)  Their own Catholic priest, John said, regularly went over to the mosque for tea with the Imam, and participated in Hindu temple ceremonies. John’s family is originally from the west coast of India, and includes a Portugese grandfather (hence the family name).  The family found the grave of a Sufi (Muslim) saint while digging the foundation of their house years ago. The Rosarios carefully moved the remains to a shrine (photo below) they built in the center of their garden, and painted the outside green, the color of Islam.

Shrine to SUfi Saint in John and Moses' garden, Agra

The fact he was a Muslim Saint, not Catholic, was utterly irrelevant. Left to right, below: John, Moses, their mom, Steffi, and Roslynn.

John, Moses, their mom, Steffi, and Roslyn Rosario, Agra

India is a bit like a giant CISV camp, with so many languages, nationalities, castes, and religions that real unity is still a dream; but we have been honored to meet a lot of dreamers. The last verse of the CISV song tells us there will be more to life than simply having fun now, but it’s just a reminder, not a warning.

That our children so may grow
In a world we did not know
Sharing all they have to give
Learning how to love and live
In our hands the future lies
Seize a moment here it flies
(optional stomp for emphasis in some camps) Stamp the present with an act
Dare to make our dreams a fact

And then, without letting go, everyone turns clockwise 180 degrees, making pretzel arms like in swing dancing, until we’re holding hands uncrossed, facing outward to meet the world.  It’s pretty cool.


A couple of years ago,  I gave a talk at St. John’s Church back home in Minneapolis and repeated it at Breck.  It’s got lots of slides, and I titled it Many Paths To God. I later recorded the narration and put it on YouTube. Like a mountain we all climb, I said, the paths of our lives take many turns, and we start out in such different places. The religions of the world are each like a string of path-markers, with sherpas, cairns, shelters, and sometimes even ladders to help us do our climbing.

Our goal, we believe, is at the summit. We call it God. Other climbers may call it the Eternal Tao, Nirvana, or moksha, but the reality is beyond words.  Some say you cannot reach it until you die, others claim you can at least glimpse the summit before death, and still others say they have been there and have come back down to encourage us to keep climbing and show us how to do it.

In this view, religions are a series of upward struggles, rather than downstream flows. Of course, from the point of view of the universe, our lives are both: uphill and downstream.                                                         screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-11-42-54-am

I was going to end this post there, but Brampal just came in and said something wonderful. He’s one of the hosts at the air bnb where Lynnell and I are now staying.  We told each other good morning while he took off his shoes, and without prompting, he told me that he walks here every morning.   It takes an hour, and the streets are so quiet.

Not knowing I was writing this, nor what I do for a living, he said, “Morning is God’s gift to us,” a fresh time for planning and praying. He told me my face and whole personality are so peaceful and happy.  Of course that made me smile.

He asked me if Lynnell was sleeping, and I told him, “Yes. God’s gift to her is the late hours of the night.”

We both laughed.








Taj Mahal & Why It Works

(By John)

Yesterday was our third day in Agra, former capital of the muslim Mughal Empire.  A brief history lesson: starting in about 900, various Muslim sultans and kings ruled parts of what we now call India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and fought each other.  Tamerlane and Genghis Khan swept through, pillaging and destroying, and a man descended from T on his mom’s side and GK on his dad’s seized Delhi in 1526.  He was the first Mughal: Babur.
screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-10-36-09-amOn the map, courtesy of, his territory is the olive-green part.  His grandson was Akbar The Great, who extended the boundaries to the lighter green area, reaching the coasts.  Akbar is most admired by historians for religious tolerance, diplomatic savvy, and even the invention of a new Religion Of Religions, which took what he thought was the best of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and a cult of (his) personality.  He called it Din-i-llahi, “God’s Religion,” which is hardly a modest claim.

Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, didn’t increase the territory of the Mughal Empire, but he spent lavishly on palaces, courtly life, mosques, and the famous tomb for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz.  The last great emperor was Shah Jehan’s son, Aurangzeb, a ruthless infighter who imprisoned his father and killed his brother.  His religious intolerance was ham-handed and smashed his dynasty’s carefully-assembled network of friendly interfaith and international alliances, and after him, a long, steady decline began at the hands of the British.

Back to Shah Jehan: he built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for Mumtaz and, eventually, himself.  It’s maybe the most beautiful building in the world.  The Lonely Planet Guide says so several times!  We sure loved the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona and the Alhambra complex in Granada.

It works on so many levels:

As a sculpture, it sits on a ten-foot high marble base so there’s no background to distract you.  It’s perfectly symmetrical, a huge square set on that giant marble base with four minarets at the corners, and the building’s corners are sliced off at perfect 45-degree angles to make the whole thing rounder.  And then there is the dome and the smaller domes.

Taj Mahal

As a monument to Love, the Taj Mahal reminds everyone who sees it of the guy who built it for the woman he loved most.  He had many wives and lovers in his life, but Mumtaz was his treasure.  Imagine 22,000 workers spending more than a decade making the world’s biggest Valentine!  Lynnell immediately recalled the famous picture of Diana, Princess of Wales who, when visiting Agra with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Prince Charles, showed up for the couple’s scheduled photo shoot alone.  Charles was off making a speech.  In retrospect, the image became an icon of her brave loneliness and her tragic elegance:


As a dark and somber interior, with almost no light except that which enters through carved marble lattices.  The inside is surprisingly small.  These monuments are not the real resting places of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal.  Those are sealed up under the base of the Taj Mahal.

False Crypts of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz, Taj Mahal

As a landmark and a focal point, because so many other buildings in Agra have views framing it through prominent windows or arches.  Shah Jehan, imprisoned in the Red Fort just a few miles down the river, must have looked through the haze to see his beloved wife’s resting place many times a day.

view of Taj, Red Fort Agra

As a teaching tool, inviting the visitor to read, and to consider their mortality and readiness to face an evaluation of how they’ve lived their lives so far.  The inscriptions (a) invite you to contemplate Paradise as you enter, (b) remind you that your words and deeds matter, and though your reputation with people is an indicator, your reputation in God’s Eyes is far more important, and (c) remind you of God’s Eternal Mercy if you surrender to Him, and (d) specifically commend Mumtaz Mahal herself to God’s Embrace.

Qur'anic Inscription, Taj Mahal

As a decorated surface, like a page of parchment with flowers and stems as well as stunning calligraphy.  The black lines above and below, and all the designs, are inlaid.  That means someone chiseled the marble a few millimeters deep, and then glued in the proper color of semi-precious stone. Here’s a YouTube for any art nerds out there.  We saw a guy outside his shop two days ago sawing marble with a water-cooled circular saw, which people did not have in 1632-1643!   The first picture is a simple floral design from inside,

Inlaid wall design, Taj Mahal

and the second picture is the west gate.

Qur'an Inscription, Taj Mahal

As one of the greatest works of Muslim religious art, because it avoids any depiction of human forms, relies on abstract beauty, including the letters of the Arabic language, which I started learning ten years ago in part because it is so fun to write the words! Spanish Christian Art, funded by crusaders and glorifying martyrdom, often repelled us with its gruesome depiction of martyrs, conquerers, and submitting Moors and Jews.  Hindu Art is often joyful, frequently playful, full of magic and symbols.   But Muslim art is so understated and elegant.  It takes some time to work its spell, but it wows you.

Lynnell at Taj Mahal




Cows In The House, Gods In The Streets And Why Indian Women Have The Best Hair: A Report On Our First Two Weeks In India

(By Lynnell)

We’re now a little over half-way through our 30-day Indian visa on our year-long sabbatical trip. We love India. We love the food. We love the people and can I just add that Indian women wear the most amazing clothes with the most vibrant colors, enough to make the rest of the world look drab by comparison?

But it’s not an easy place to travel.


We were lucky enough to spend our first five days in India under the protective and generous custody of Pankaj and Retnam Kurup, who are the in-laws of one of John’s former students at Breck.  They picked us at the airport, housed us, fed us, took us around town, and found a tailor for John (who took advantage of Indian’s incredibly affordable and excellent suit-makers)  They also helped us get new Indian SIM cards for our phones .

This last item is no small thing. Because we are often in countries for three or more weeks, we now get local SIM cards, so we can have data and call each other if we get lost in a crowd. We’ve bought SIM cards in England, France, Spain and Morocco and it’s usually a pretty smooth routine process.

But not in India, land of legendary bureaucracy. In order to purchase a pre-paid SIM card in India, we had to make multiple trips to multiple stores, seeking the right person who could do the right paperwork. We needed copies of our passports, visas, plus new passport photos, plus the full names of our fathers (“But we’re 60 years old and our fathers died years ago,” we protested, but if it’s on the form, it must be filled), plus a local address for India, plus a local name and phone number of someone who can vouch that you are indeed staying at this address.

After you do all this, you have to wait for up to 24 hours to have the SIM card activated. And then you have to buy data and minutes at a separate shop..

But with Pankaj’s help, we were successful and voila, we’ve had working phones!  We’ve encountered fellow travelers who went through same long process and their phones never did work, so we felt lucky.


While we were in Bangalore, Pankaj and Retnam also took us on an overnight visit to the famous ruins of Hampi, about a six-hour drive by car. We had been so deep in their protective, all-Indian cocoon that this was the first time we saw other tourists in India!!  Guidebooks call it the number two sight to see in all India, and as we write, we’re a couple of blocks from Number One, the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Hampi was once a sprawling city, but warring kings demolished it and turned it into a ghost city.  See John’s earlier post about Hampi.

Elephant Stables at Hampi


After five days with Pankaj and Retnam, it was time to move on and see India on our own. We flew to Kochi, which is in the south on the ocean where it’s very steamy and tropical, full of coconut trees and backwater fish and prawn farming—it reminded me a lot of southern Vietnam in terms of heat and humidity and water, water everywhere.

Kochi is the home-stay capital of India——there are lots of places where people have turned part of their house into a guesthouse. We stayed at the Honolulu Home Stay, which we found on-line  and saw that it got good reviews through Trip Advisor.

It was a great place: simple, clean and welcoming. We had an air-conditioned room with a private bath and breakfast for $25 for the two of us.  It’s run by Mr. Taris, who spent 20+ years working on big cargo ships before retiring from the sea. His favorite port was Honolulu, so he named his homestay after it. He lives with his extended family on the first floor of his large house and basically runs a seven-room hotel out of the second and third floors. The third floor also has a big terrace where they serve breakfast.

LM at Honolulu Homestay

Mr. Taris genuinely seemed to enjoy having guests. If we needed an auto-rickshaw or a lift to the airport, Mr. Taris would call one of his friends or cousins. So you felt like you were part of a family network. In the afternoon or evening, we’d come home all hot and sweaty and find Mr. Taris’ toddler grandchildren, happily playing in the courtyard or running around naked either before or after taking a bath.

I mean, I’d take that welcome over uniformed desk clerks at the fancier hotels any day.

In Kochi, at one point, I tried to get my hair cut and colored.  Mr. Taris’ daughters called around, but alas, no one had any blonde hair dye in stock. There’s just no market for it. So I walked around the corner to Seena’s Beauty Shop to look for just a haircut. Seena’s shop was on the third floor of a house. She spoke only a little English and she and her assistant and her 16-year-old daughter, who was just hanging out, seemed taken back to see a foreigner at their door .

“How do you find us?” Seena asked. I said I was staying at the Honolulu Homestay just 50 or so meters away  They looked at me blankly. Anyhow, I sat down and through my pantomime and Seema’s limited English, we started doing business

Seena said a haircut would cost 400 rupees, which is about $6. But she  insisted I should also have a “hair spa” treatment” which would cost an additional $13.50. When I said, no, I just wanted a haircut, Seena touched my sweat-encrusted head and said, “But your hair, so sad, so dry.”

I looked at her hair. Indian women have the best hair in the world—so thick and shiny and gorgeous. So I thought, what the hell, she’s a professional, just do what she says. We started with the hair spa, which consisted of dumping some kind of oil on my head, massaging it around for a half-hour, then putting another kind of cream in and steaming it for 15 minutes, then a few other things.  When it was time for the haircut. I showed Seena some Googled pictures on my Iphone to to try to show her what I wanted. But Seena, now fully in charge, looked at the photos and waved them off with contempt.

“No. Not look good on you,” she said. “I do my way.”

In the end, I actually got a great haircut.  It looks pretty much like my usual haircut, but still. And I came away a devout believer in the hair spa.  My hair felt so soft, healthy and happy. She was totally right on both counts.  Trust the pros!

The Indian Phone Bureaucracy Strikes Back

While we were in Kochi, we got a text message from Airtel, our phone company, saying there was a problem with our Indian government SIM card applications and the government would de-activate our SIM cards within 24 hour unless we went to an Airtel store and sorted it out. So once again, we set off on the pilgrimage, driving in an auto-rickshaw from phone store to phone store, looking for right person authorized to fill out the right forms. We ended up having to drive to a different city, about 30 minutes away.

When we finally found a person who was authorized to help us, she first said it was a Bangalore-issued SIM card, so we needed to return to Bangalore and the store that took our first application. But we’re travelers, we pleaded. Bangalore is a 14-hour train ride from here. Okay, she said, but then she needed the address of the phone store in Bangalore, so she could call and talk to the person who first filled out our application.

Bangalore is a city of 10 million people; we had had to inquire at multiple stores before we found the right one. Furthermore, we weren’t driving–our host Pankaj and the auto-rickshaw driver  were always negotiating where to go next in Malayalam, the local language. So we had no idea what the address was.

But we found a receipt from the photo shop which had taken the required new passport photos of us–we remembered we had to walk about a half-kilometer from the Airtel store to find it. Then we Googled descriptions of Airtel stores in area and found one that said the store was crowded, dirty and the staff was rude.

“That’s the one!” I cried triumphantly.

She called the store. But the person who had filled out our application was off for the next few days. Can we just start over and fill out another application? we asked. She wasn’t sure. She also thought the Indian government was just bluffing and would probably not deactivate our phones. But we didn’t want to risk it. We use the data plan on our phone all the time–for Google maps and as a back-up if the wifi fails. It’s our life-line.

After a long conversation by phone with a regional manager, she agreed to start over—no small thing because this involved making multiple copies of our passport, visas and other documents and filling out the extremely long and detailed form. We called Mr. Taris and asked him to tell the phone representative that we were indeed staying at the Honolulu guesthouse. She activated new SIM cards but told us not to use them—just keep them in reserve and wait and see if the government really does deactivate our phones.

The whole visit took about 90 minutes. She had an office filled with other customers. Yet she was so patient and generous to us. Factor in all the driving around and solving our SIM card took about four hours.

One of the advantages of having this long year to screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-9-48-44-amtravel is that when something goes wrong, it’s not as if we’ve lost a half-day of our precious vacation time. And it’s often in these very mundane tasks that we get a better sense of what it’s really like to live in a country. Plus, we meet such nice people.  In addition to the phone store lady, our auto rickshaw driver–who was either a friend or relative of Mr. Taris—was a sweetheart.

By the way, the phone store lady was right—the Indian government has yet to deactivate our phones. But we still hold on to our reserve SIM cards. They’re like a talisman.


Above: Goats on our street near the Honolulu Home-Stay

Varanasi Lodging, In Which We Discover That All Homestays Are Not Created Equal

From Kochi, we flew to Varanasi. After our great experience at the Honolulu Homestay, we booked six nights at The Somit Homestay, which we planned to use as a base while touring the city and doing an overnight side trip. The Somit Homestay also had rooms for about $25 a night, was located about 500 meters from the Ganges River and  got wildly enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor.

According to the Somit website, the homestay also ran a small Hindu academic tutoring program for poor kids, offered yoga training and walking tours of Varanasi as well. Plus, for a reasonable fee, they would have a driver meet us at the airport and take us directly to the homestay–a huge help, since the place was located in the old section of the city, which is a tangled warren of alleys that can only be reached on foot.

It was dark when the driver dropped us off on a corner. Somit, the owner, who is in his early 30s, met us and we followed him through a labyrinth of alleys and walkways, trying to step over the huge piles of cow manure, which wasn’t easy because it was dark. John stepped right into a particularly gooey pile.

When we arrived at the place, it was an old, narrow, dingy and dimly-lit concrete building. The walls of the narrow reception area were covered with lined notebook paper from previous guests, saying how wonderful their stay had been.

Somit said there would be no official charge for the room, meals, or guided tours. Instead, everything would be a free-will offering for their project with poor kids, which is why their suggested rate was higher than usual.  All the money went to the poor.   “I can feel your spirit and heart,” Somit said, “so I know this will be fine with you.”

John, a naturally trusting person, seemed to have no problem with this. But I was raised evangelical, so my red flags went up as soon as I heard “free-will offering” and ”I can feel your heart.”  Somit also pushed us hard to take their tours; we finally agreed to take one the next day.

An assistant led us up a steep flight of stairs to our room, which was as grim as a prison cell with one dim light bulb from the ceiling and a bed with one very dirty blanket on it. That was it. No chair.  No towels. The toilet across the hall had a broken seat, which slid off every time we sat down.

I met two other groups of guests that night—an American couple traveling with two kids for a year and a Danish couple. None of us could figure out the glowing reviews on Trip Advisor. It made no sense.

There are temples everywhere in Varanasi and as luck would have it, there was a small Hindu temple in the alley directly below our room. We later figured out they were celebrating the feast of the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, although we initially thought it was some kind of bachelor party because it sounded like a bunch of drunken young guys happily shouting about beer and football. Whenever their shouting died down, the temple drums would start up and when the drums stopped, extremely loud Hindu praise music—which turns out to be just as inane, repetitive and annoying as Christian praise music— blasted through the loudspeaker.

How John managed to sleep through most of this. I do not know. On previous travels,  I have slept through massive fireworks going off 50 meters away. But this was too much for even me. The festivities went on all night.  At some point in the wee hours, as I laid awake, feeling something in the bed bite me (fleas? bed bugs?), I went online and tried to book us into another guesthouse starting the next day.

The only place I could find at that hour in the old city near the Ganges River was the two-star Alka Hotel which was offering its premium room for $75 a night, which is a lot more than we usually spend and pretty expensive for India. The Alka Hotel also got mixed reviews on line and in order to make a reservation I had to pay upfront with no refunds.

I hesitated. Then the recorded Hindu praise music started up again. I clicked on “Book Now.”

At dawn, the Danish couple rose to go scout for another guesthouse. The American family was gone by 7 a.m. Around 8 a.m., I went down to the reception to say we were leaving and found a huge cow in the room.


Apparently the same cow comes by twice a day, and Somit and his family, who are devout Hindus, open their door and let it in. Somit’s mother filled a giant pail of water for the cow who drank it quickly. Getting the cow out of the reception area was tricky—the space was too narrow for the cow to turn around, so the cow had to back out and down two steep steps to the alley. But with our hosts’ gentle encouragement, the cow managed.

That morning, we also watched Somit and his family lead their young students through a ceremony for Saraswati. The kids were adorable and well-behaved, sitting quietly for over an hour while Somit and his family set up an elaborate altar and offered fruit, flowers, incense, school supplies, and more to the goddess of knowledge and study. As a priest,  John thought it was cool. As a former Baptist, I remembered sitting as a child through endlessly long services when I just wanted to be outside and running around. Even at age 60, the ceremony made me feel fidgety.

kids at Somit Guest House, Varanasi

Somit and his family were sad to see us go. All the testimonials on the wall and Trip Advisor reviews aside, I get the impression they are often sad to see guests go. We told his brother, Amit, that we still wanted to take his walking tour—we just wanted the first stop to be our next hotel and he agreed.

Can I just say I have never been so happy to check into a premium $75 room at a two-star hotel?  The Alka Hotel is located directly on the Ganges; our room was spacious, bright and airy–it even had its own balcony.  The views from the hotel patio were breathtaking; the beer in the hotel restaurant was cold; the staff treated us like family. After a few days, we downgraded to a $38 room. The hotel was close to fully booked all the nights we stayed there and we keep meeting other travelers who had fled bad guesthouses.

Varanasi, One Of The World’s Most Intense Cities

After we checked into the Alka, Amit gave us a tour of Varanasi temples and holy places.  He turned out to be a terrific tour guide—great teacher, thoughtful, well-informed and passionate about Hinduism and the city where he has lived his whole life.


Varanasi is one of Hinduism’s most holy cities.  It’s full of temples, especially to Shiva, and it is considered an especially auspicious place to die and be cremated. In Varanasi, the Ganges is lined with a six-kilometer series of linked stone boardwalks—they’re called ghats–featuring wide steps down to the river.


The ghats are where people do laundry, ritual washings, meet with Hindu priest for religious ceremonies, play cards, ritually shave their heads, meditate, wash their cows,  sell snacks, go boating, cremate their dead, play cricket, fly kites—I mean, it’s all there and it’s all happening in the same space, with a lot of cows, goats, and stray dogs wandering around.

There are two cremation sites on the river, surrounded by big stacks of wood.  People do not play cricket on this ghat–they do that at the adjacent boardwalks.  Taking photos of the cremation up close is discouraged.  But outsiders are allowed to watch and it’s both fascinating and gruesome  (you can see and smell various body parts burning at various rates). It’s also moving because it’s done with a lot of ceremony and reverence.  Eldest sons and grandsons, clad in white, heads newly-shaved, swing smoldering straw bundles in circles around the pile of wood.


The Lonely Planet Guide, which in India is the independent traveler’s scripture, describes Varanasi like this: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

We’ve got another 10 days to go, so we don’t know whether it’s our favorite stop yet. But once I got to the Hotel Alka, I really did like Varanasi. It’s an intense city, so it was really nice to have an oasis of calm to retreat to. Here’s a photo of the Ganges in the evening, take from the hotel patio.


——Lynnell Mickelsen

Next up: Riding the Indian Railway System, In Which We Are Saved By 20-Something Indian Millennials With Cell Phones and Apps.

December and January In Pictures

Click on each image for captions.  We cannot believe what an amazing year we are having.  Thanks to all you frequent and infrequent readers for your clicks and comments!

-Lynnell and John

In Siddhartha’s Footsteps

Too Much Luxury

Prince Siddhartha’s dad worried a lot about his son fulfilling a wise man’s prophecy: he will either be the king of all India or the savior of the world.  Well, no one had ever conquered all of India, so the king set about making sure that his son had the best possible training for such a task.  Lots of sports, great food, and no distractions.  Especially not the kind that might make him empathetic or compassionate.  Everyone knows rulers can’t afford those evil temptations!

But of course, one day the prince insisted on actually seeing the city his father ruled, and was shocked and heartbroken by poverty, sickness, old age, and death. But, God knows, there is more room in a broken heart.  He left home during the night, and soon joined a group of ascetics.  They gave up just about every material thing, and soon he was the champion of self-denial.  He spent five years like this, and was nearly a skeleton when a simple request from a young woman jarred him out of his single-mindedness:

“Please, sir, eat something.”

When his disciples found him eating and enjoying the porridge, they abandoned him as a heretic.  But Siddhartha knew that neither extreme, sheltered luxury or extreme, voluntary poverty was a gateway to what he was looking for: the key to unlock the prison of human suffering.  This meeting with his savior, who is sometimes called a village girl and other times as a queen, took place at this spot, under a banyan tree:

Banyan Tree, Bodhgaya (village girl story)

Here is a closer look at the scene on the altar under the banyan tree:

Ascetic Siddhartha being offered food by village girl/queen

The Middle Way: Moderation!

John’s dad used to preach the virtue of moderation, despite the fact that he struggled not to overdo things.  Perhaps because of grade inflation, John likes to say that most daily tasks you should do well, but not perfectly.  A-minus is quite a good grade.  Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The Buddha, giving up the quest for perfect self-denial on one hand and total self-indulgence on the other, sat down again to think.  His great meditation happened not too far away from the banyan tree, also near the place Bodh Gaya.  It’s now the Mecca or Jerusalem of world Buddhism.  Unlike the banyan tree shrine, the bodhi tree shrine is a gigantic temple on grounds that could hold six football fields.  The tree is next to the main temple, and that’s surrounded by several terraced levels of gardens, flat horizontal surfaces for offerings, and shrines.   Photo: wikimedia


Tradition says that Siddhartha reached enlightenment sitting right there, under the bodhi tree, after seven days.  “Humans can remove suffering,” he said to himself, touching the ground, “the Earth is my witness.”  From then on, he became Lord Buddha.  His discovery was the famous Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is full of suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by our selfish craving for our own private fulfillment at others’ expense
  3. To remove suffering, stop the selfish craving
  4. Do that by following the Eightfold Path, which can be a lifelong effort to become more mindful, more devoted to the happiness of others, less anxious, and so on.  Easy, right?

We lucked out, coming to Bodh Gaya this week.  Half the Tibetan monks who usually stay in their monasteries on the Indian side of the Himalayas are in town for a ten day prayer celebration called The XXVII Nyingma Kagyu Monlam (okay, they really just call it the 28th).  Led by the second most important Lama in Buddhism, the 17th Gyalma Karmapa, thousands of maroon-robed men and women, their heads freshly shaved, gathered in national groups that also included some westerners and folks from all over Southeast Asia.

We saw them meditating, some swaying, some walking with prayer beads, some sitting still like a mountain, ranged in perfect rows and columns facing the Tree.  It is probably like being a Muslim finally seeing the Kaaba cube in the center of Mecca and walking seven times around.  Or stepping into the church on the spot of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem. Photo: wikimedia.


In their spare time, monks, nuns, and laypeople filled hundreds of metal bowls with water and placed them on one shrine.  On others, they made beautiful mandala designs with marigold flowers that match their yellow and maroon robes.  We couldn’t have taken either of these pictures, however, because cell phones are not allowed in the Maha Bodhi (Great Awakening) Temple grounds.  At all.  As a result, no one bumps into a meditator while backing up to get a little more in the viewfinder.  No one poses self-consciously for a selfie in front of “that Buddha thingy.”  And no one paces back and forth, spare hand covering his ear, like John, saying a little too loud, “no, I hear you, but there’s a delay.  Yes, we’re in that Temple place, but we’re gonna get some food pretty soon.”

Instead, everyone is quiet.  Near the temple, shoes come off.  More than half the people look like they are praying.  The rest are relaxing in the shade, for even in January it’s hot in the sun.  And when we come close to the Tree, we feel the sacredness in everyone around us.  Some hang garlands of yellow or white marigolds on the fence around it.  Some press their foreheads to a stone shield in front of the trunk, as if to ask for some of the wisdom still residing there.

The actual Bodhi Tree was poisoned by the jealous wife of Ashoka the Great about 300 years after the Buddha.  She resented his obsession with everything related to Siddhartha the Buddha–all the shrines, temples, stupas, memorial stones, monasteries, libraries–and it fell to their children to save a cutting and some seed from the tree.  These were taken to Sri Lanka, where an offspring tree still stands.  And the present tree is an offspring of that one.  bodhi-leavesKind of a grandchild-tree of the original.

The leaves remind me of linden trees, as do the berries.  The bark is like a pockmarked moonscape of craters, only smoothed-over.

And the massive trunk appears to enclose a number of other trunks, each now deeply wrapped up in the base of the tree, sending roots like buttresses into the Earth that the Buddha called on.  We picked up a leaf from one of its neighboring Bodhi trees and tucked it safely into John’s passport.

The shade was glorious.  The branches were powerful, some propped up with steel pillars as they stretch far out in every direction to cover the hundreds of people seated in meditation.

What if we really could let go of all that craving?

  • We wouldn’t stress out over train delays on Indian Railways.
  • We’d just notice our hunger, thirst, or tiredness, rather than become crabby like Siddhartha was when he accepted the porridge.
  • We would do our work, and not cling to the outcome.
  • We wouldn’t need to have even a souvenir leaf, nor our very own photos.

One last picture, of the back of a taxi at the Root Institute, a Mahayana Buddhist Center where we stayed the night in Bodh Gaya.  Their head Lama was also in town, visiting from Dharamsala in the Himalayas, and we got to see him and try to hear his talk about training your mind.  This was maybe the car that was poised to take him over to the Great Awakening Temple for the ninth day prayers.


“If no anger, then no enemy.”  It sounds impossible.  Or maybe we just want it to be impossible so we can hang on to our anger.  Sometimes it’s useful.  John says he’d settle for someday getting an A- in No Anger.

Kerala: “God’s Own Country”

The tourist motto for this southwestern Indian state reflects the enthusiastic religiosity of the people here in Kerala.  There are Hindu temples and shrines everywhere, including a statue of a saint in a glass display case just 10 yards from our Homestay guest house.  You hear the call to prayer from several mosques at once.  And so many churches!

There’s also a lively neighborhood of tourist shops and restaurants called Jew Town, a name we can’t bring ourselves to say aloud.   The currently-standing synagogue was built in 1567 and includes materials from two centuries before that.


Legend has it that St. Thomas, the “doubting” apostle, traveled here after Christ’s Ascension and converted local high-caste Brahmin priests with miracles.  One story says he proved the truth of the Gospel by a sort of controlled experiment: “OK, so you guys splash water from the river into the air every day in honor of your God.  I will do the same thing today, but my God will actually take the water up, and none will fall.”  And the story says it happened.

Lower caste people have also converted over the centuries, finding more divine compassion in the Christian idea that we live only one life, not thousands bound by our many sins which generate bad karma.  In most Hindu traditions (but not all), your caste is determined by good or bad deeds in past lifetimes.

About 1400 years after Thomas, Vasco Da Gama showed up on these shores, and the Portugese, then Dutch, then British all took turns fighting each other for spice-trade monopolies.  They destroyed each other’s churches with alacrity.  Many European traders remained in walled, segregated isolation.  Others built grand houses and warehouses in Kochi, Goa, and other cities.  Priests were very active in the community and today about 20% of the people in this state are members of one of a dizzying number of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations.  This church, St. Francis’, has been Roman Catholic (Portugese), Protestant (Dutch) and Anglican (British).


Jews have been in Kerala even longer than Christians.  After the Babylonian Captivity in the 500’s BCE, communities of Jewish merchants came here from what is now Iraq.  When the violent post-partition ethnic cleansing of India came in 1947, the remaining Jews feared they’d end up in the crosshairs, like in Europe.  So they went to Israel.

When it comes to tree versus river, Kerala is complicated.  On one hand, everyone we’ve met–Christian, Muslim, and Hindu–say that everyone gets along well here, though intermarriage is unusual.  So if the streams of belief aren’t exactly merging, they are at least flowing placidly parallel downstream.  On the other hand, WITHIN, say, Christianity, Kerala is a hothouse of sprouting denominations.  On Sunday, Lynnell went to to an Anglican church and John a Roman Catholic one (below).


So as not to bore the reader, we cite one branch of Eastern Christianity (often called “Orthodox” back home).  The St. Thomas Christians trace their lineage back to No-Longer-Doubting Thomas in the first century CE.  During the first few hundred years, they followed Nestorian Christianity, which was part of the mainstream until 431, when a schism led to their leadership moving to Persia.   The fight was about the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures and the schism separated Syrian-speakers from Greek and Latin churches in the west.  Even when Persia converted to Islam, Nestorian Christianity flourished under their rule from the Mediterranean to China.  A later schism happened in 1552, between the Chaldean (modern Iraq) and Indian branches.  And when the Portugese got to Kerala and found Nestorians there, they wasted no time trying to force them to be Roman, not Indian, Catholics.  This effort mostly failed, but today among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, you find the following separate denominations (thanks to wikipedia)

Today (Monday) we visited the biggest church we could find in Kochi, the Jerusalem Mar Thoma Syrian Church, where a wedding was just winding up:


One of the guests said she was a Jacobite, but felt completely welcome.  The Vicar greeted us in his chilly air-conditioned office and told us he’d once led a Mar Thoma parish in Des Plaines, Illinois where, like back home in southwest India, the service is in Malayalam and Syriac and the Chicagoland congregants are almost all immigrants.  The Vicar commented that the recent US government moves against immigration was making his flock there very nervous, though they aren’t Muslim.  But they are brown.  And foreign.  So the rest of us need to be good allies, something that seems hard to do at this distance, but we’ll be home soon enough.

Kerala became world-famous as the Malabar Spice Coast, when globalizing European businessmen got rich on importing cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and tea.  The Arabian Sea is full of fish, and some Chinese fishermen brought large land-based movable nets from southeast Asia perhaps in the 1400’s.  They’re pretty cool. Photo credit: Gaius Cornelius, 2005.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 6.18.05 PM.png

And plenty of fishermen string vertical nets out from shore:


Kerala is also known for its extensive inland waterways, called backwaters.  Sometimes they’re canals, sometimes giant fish or shrimp farms, and during the monsoon season (summer) when freshwater pours down all the rivers toward the sea, they grow a crop of rice in the backwaters.  We took a bicycle tour along 25 km of roads and little lanes that connect villages, lagoons, beaches, and fish farms.  At one point, we put our bikes into a canoe.


The pilot poled six of us along through a soft rain past settlements like this:


Keralans are proud of their status as the best-educated state in India.  The government has alternated between center-left and left-wing coalitions including several socialist and communist parties, but like interfaith cooperation, the parties seem quite stable, from what we can tell.  Here’s a Communist sign on a wall facing an Acumen mutual fund sales office across the street.


Kochi has centers for local theatre, and on our second night here we saw a traditional play about the Hindu God Shiva and the archer Arjuna.  Although the subject matter is explicitly religious, Keralans don’t fuss about it.  The more religion, they seem to say, and the more kinds, the better.  Here are the actors getting make-up applied:


The man in the photo below is hand-painting excerpts from the Latin American spiritual novel Baroni: A Journey, which combines magical realism, experiences of the afterlife, and the parallel existence of the spiritual and material world.  John counted at least ten panels like this one.


Tomorrow, we’ll head north, away from summertime swelter to spring weather in Varanasi, the beating heart of Hinduism on the Ganges River.   We’ll say goodbye to God’s Own Country, Kerala.


One last picture: this little girl is the granddaughter of the family that runs our homestay guest house.  She loved ringing the bell on Lynnell’s rented bicycle and getting the attention of the good-natured man across the street.


Not a ghost town, but nobody lives there: Hampi, India

We began our month in India with our generous friends, Pankaj and Retnam Kurup, as hosts and shepherds.  John met them last year at the marriage of their son, Priyesh, to Breck alumna Laura Egerdal, in a double-religion ceremony in Washington, DC.  Papa B got to do the Christian part and got to be an honored guest at the Hindu part.  Here is Retnam in the photo below, stepping into the brilliant January sun.

img_5943We started with a whirlwind first day of ordering replacement lenses for John’s glasses, making a hair appointment for Lynnell, buying wedding clothes for John to be shipped home, getting Indian SIM cards in both of our phones and activating them, and buying more tropical clothes for Lynnell to wear now that we are out of Europe until April.  The next day, we climbed aboard a taxi, driven by the resourceful Prakash, and we two couples headed north to the ruins of the city of Hampi.

In 1500, Hampi was the capital of a sprawling Empire that covered most of the southern cone of the subcontinent, and historians guess that the city was second only to Beijing in population in 1500.  There were more than a half-million inhabitants.  Palaces and temples were built in stone (either granite, which is hard to carve on but withstands the elements or schist, which is easier to carve on but which erodes over time).  Most other buildings were built of wood, and not a trace remains of them.  The Virupaksha Temple below is over 500 years old.


The Vijayanagar Empire was the last Hindu dynasty to rule there, and in 1565 the city suffered a catastrophic defeat by the armies of an alliance of Muslim kingdoms.  Most people escaped.  The rest were killed or enslaved.  The city was burned and no one, really, has occupied it since.  We wish we knew why.  It’s a perfect location to defend: it’s got steep, rocky hills around three sides and a big river on the fourth.  The land seems verdant.  Even if the capital of the newly-conquered provinces was moved, wouldn’t it have still been a good place to live?  It reminded us of Tikal, the great Mayan city swallowed by jungle, or Cahokia, which wikipedia tells me had a population of 40,000 in the 1200’s.  It covered 6 square miles along the Mississippi where St. Louis now stands, and only a few of its mounds remain, most of the others having been leveled.  No American city would be as large again until 1800.

What’s left of Hampi is ten times as large: an area of sixty square miles (Minneapolis is about 54 square miles) where  almost no one lives.  They farm bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, and corn, but the roads are winding, narrow, and dusty.  And although we saw plenty of school groups and foreign tourists, what ought to be the number one sight to see in India is pleasantly uncrowded even during this time of the year when the weather is perfect.    img_5906

We entered a dozen or so temples, and to oversimplify, they are a lot like churches.  There’s a place to enter (leave your shoes at the door, because it’s sacred ground).  A gathering space, often with columns all around and lots of sculptures.  A focal point, like an altar, inner sanctum, or niche.  There’s a strong metal box for donations.  There are people praying and people taking pictures.  Sometimes, there is incense.  There are carved inscriptions honoring the patrons as well as commemorating great deeds, healings, and saints.


There was also a clever young woman who cheerfully gave us a blessing and a smear of red powder on our foreheads, way before Ash Wednesday.

John was surprised then, when she also insisted on some rupees.  Lynnell was not surprised.  Our intrepid shepherd Pankaj gave her what he thought was a fair price.  She scowled, but then he said something to her and did that magical Indian wobble of the head, and she laughed along with him.  Such a diplomat he is, as well as a fierce advocate for our happiness.

One of our favorite visits of the day was the Queen’s Bath, which is a big swimming pool inside a courtyard inside a very secure building with a moat around it.  The queens used to take some ladies-in-waiting and enjoy the hot tub (really), the pool, the sundecks, and a plunge with perfumed water.  A real spa.  This school group (below) spent exactly five minutes walking in, scampering around the square cloistered inside, and then running out, singing a song together with a catchy chorus.


The last four kids included this one very friendly guy maybe ten years old.  They were still moving fast enough for John not to have realized until just now that the friendly boy was out of dress code: no tie.img_5890










The most perfectly-preserved building we saw was the Lotus Mahal.  Built in an Indian/ Islamic style, the invading armies left it untouched though they tore many temples down.


And it wasn’t spared because it had no representational art: the columns are full of carved animals and gods.  Its arches are just so beautiful.  img_5934

They are meant to imitate the leaves of a lotus plant.  The rooftop pyramids, which cover domed ceilings below, are meant to look like lotus buds.

The lotus is a richly symbolic flower in many Asian religions, in part because it is anchored in the mud, its graceful stalk rises through the water, and the leaves and flower sit in the air, thus bridging three of the four traditional elements.

Below are the 15th Century Elephant Stables, with iron rings in the domed ceilings of each giant stall to tether the pachyderms with.


Finally, a snapshot of our genial host, Pankaj, getting ready to What’sApp a photo back to Priyesh and Laura in the States:























Farewell meals

We had two stops left before leaving Morocco: a visit to the imperial city of Fes, and dinner with our friend Amin at his family’s home in Casablanca.  As we drove over the Atlas Mountains on our way north from the desert, we obediently stopped to take this picture of snowfields that remained a week after the higher altitudes got a blanket of snow.


The French preferred to pronounce the name of Fes with a “z” at the end, because fesse in French means buttock.  Kind of distracting to the colonists.  We found a big new campground on the outskirts of town and set up under Eucalyptus trees.  It was very cold, so we skipped cooking off the back of the van and ate at the campground restaurant.


The next morning, Wafi, our guide, drove us into the city.   Married to a Polish Christian though himself a devout Muslim, Wafi is the youngest of nine children.  He excelled in languages and history in school and loves storytelling.

He also had Qur’anic verses handy for so many situations, an aptitude we found especially appealing.  He explained the history of Islam in Morocco, which is different from the way religion developed in the Middle East.  From the very beginning, Sunni Islam was the only option, and Arab sultans frequently married Berber wives to unite the mostly city-dwelling newcomer Arabs with the mostly-agricultural and pastoral indigenous Berbers.  To this day, the two groups maintain their own languages, though food, culture, and religion overlap a lot.  Moroccans are also quite fond of their Sufis, saintly people who, like Buddhist or Christian monks, try to make every moment a prayer.  Unlike those monks, Sufis often have families, though they regularly retreat for solitude.  They also sing together.  John is still working on a post about a remarkable Sufi-style gathering we happened on our first night with Will in Rabat.  Stay tuned.

Fes cemetery

Fes was frequently the capital of Morocco over the years, and its many shrines have made it a pilgrimage destination, especially since Mecca is so far away.  This cemetery on a hillside overlooking the city is packed with graves of the faithful.

Wafi made sure we saw lots of traditional artisans at work, all of which would have been happy to sell us something, but we were mostly able to resist the pressure.  Morocco is famous for handicrafts and for aggressive salespeople, who are delighted to meet people like us, who say “no, we’re just looking,” and then end up buying a wallet and backpack for too much money.

Once upon a time, we paid too much for a house and only felt bad about it a couple of times a week for the first few years….

We especially admired the Artgile Ceramics workdpainted ceramics.  The purple color this man is using, when fired, becomes a brilliant blue.  We also saw a young man chipping larger pieces of fired ceramic into triangles, squares, and even stars to be cemented into mosaics later.  How painstaking and accurate his work was.

And finally, the tanneries. Moroccan leather is famous because the hides are soaked in 100% organic pigeon excrement.

For a month.  You need to hold a handful of mint leaves in front of your nose to get near the dyeing vats, but it’s worth it to see a 1200 year-old art that’s flourishing in the center of a crowded city.  The different colors come from vegetable dyes, and in a matter of hours, someone can stitch a leather jacket, pants, purse, luggage, or iPad cover for you.

Fes Tanneries

The old city (medina) of Fes is the largest one we’ve seen, and all the guidebooks tell you to plan on getting utterly lost there.  The streets are mostly covered for shade during warm weather, and there are thousands of tiny store-fronts, each the size of a one-car garage back home.  Every block of the medina is like a village where everyone knows each other, and if you live there, you seldom have to go very far to get whatever you need.  Porters with donkeys and oversized wheelbarrows bring everything in and out: fresh fish, beef butchered at midnight and rolled in at 4 am, bags of flour, firewood, propane canisters, laptops in their factory packaging and flat-pack deliveries from IKEA, huge bunches of bananas, and seedlings for rooftop gardens.  And satellite dish antennas.


One morning John took a cooking class and Lynnell went to a hammam, one of the famous spas or public baths of the Muslim world.   The class shopped along one block of the medina for spices, bread, fish, vegetables, and phyllo dough, which this asbestos-handed woman makes all day, every day, and jokes with passersby.

IMG_5654.jpgWith her right hand, she rolls dough into a ball and with her left hand pulls the 50-second result off the “rather hot” griddle stone.

Then she slathers olive oil with the paint brush on the newest pancake in the stack to keep the paper-thin layers separate.  The oil also makes the pancakes stretchy.  The class made bastillas, a sort of phyllo burrito, stuffed with steamed fish and Moroccan spices.  We learned that you don’t have to measure accurately (which made John happy) and you should mix them by hand.


Clockwise, starting with salt near the top are chopped cilantro and parsley, olive oil, smoky paprika, cumin, and in the center are two kinds of mild chili paste.  Moroccans go easy on the heat.  Standing by to be added later are garlic and lemon juice.   The menu included the fish bastillas, a lentil-fava bean soup, and a salad (which usually means cucumber, onion, tomato, carrots, peppers, and maybe two more things in neat piles side-by-side and no lettuce).


Fes is most famous for its University (maybe the oldest in the world) and its numerous Islamic boarding schools, now mostly closed.  The curriculum was classical Arabic language, poetry, scripture, math, and natural sciences.
IMG_5635.jpgWe got to enter the Bou Inania school whose mosque is still used.  The school was founded in 1350, and at least some of the walls we saw date back to then.

Families with enough money would send their sons to Fes, along with a donation of food and school supplies.  The young men came from all over Africa and Spain.  Wealthier families would send enough food for a half-dozen boys.

The compact fluorescent light bulb hanging overhead is part of a nationwide effort by the king to modernize mosques and make them “green,” energy-wise.

The students slept in tiny rooms like the one shown below, but like all people in this sub- tropical land, they spent their waking hours outdoors, in courtyards or the winding streets of the medina.   Bou Inania Madrasa dorm room

The bathroom around the corner featured a half-dozen very clean, tiled squat-toilet rooms around a small courtyard with a fountain in the middle where students could wash up before prayers.










hBy a happy turn of fate, we got to meet the prayer-leader (imam) for the mosque.  Since that’s part of John’s job at Breck, we asked for a photo.  Here are the two imams:


After Fes, we had one more very important meal on our itinerary.  Our new friend, Amine Nourdine, who we’d met almost a month earlier on our first day in Morocco, had invited us to come through his hometown of Casablanca on our way north.  Amine is a notary, which in Morocco involves civil transactions, and he was helping a colleague write his PhD thesis at the Sorbonne.  Amine’s French is really good, so he was happy to oblige.  His own interest is in the different sources of Moroccan law.  The tradition of notary is descended from laws originally given by religious as well as civil authorities, kind of like the Divine Right of Kings.  Courtroom law, on the other hand, depends on the constitutional principles from the time of Napoleon.

We talked a lot about religion, the veneration of Sufi saints, the authority of scripture, and the need to be free to understand it and interpret it in light of ur own experiences.  He told us about a teacher he respects a great deal, a Muslim physician in Vienna who, among other things, praises western democracy, creativity, and religious tolerance, all of which are lacking in many Muslim countries.  It reminded me of what our congressman, Keith Ellison, once told a group I was in, “there is no better country in which to be a Muslim than the USA.”

Amine lives just a couple hundred yards from Rick’s Café Américan, a homage to Humphrey Bogart’s fictional Casablanca piano bar.  He met us there and we walked around that corner of the city, and then we met some members of his family, including his aunt Zaynab, far right, a professional chef who really IMG_5687.jpgought to have her own tv cooking show.  She made us dinner.  Her mom (far left), Amine (next to John), husband, and three kids joined us.  After the appetizers came this stunning platter of couscous, as light and fluffy as you can imagine because it had been steamed three separate times.  Vegetables and lamb were heaped on that, and the whole thing was topped with a special, sweet-and-savory chickpea sauce with onions and spices.

And then more green tea, and pastries.  Zaynab’s mom is a pastry chef.  Although she’s holding a spoon in this picture, she also showed us how easy it is to eat couscous the “eastern” way–with her right hand.  The last course was a bowl of fruit, including Moroccan mandarin oranges, which almost peel themselves.  We said goodnight and Amine drove us back to our van.  A half hour later we were back at our campground in the moonlight, with the waves of the Atlantic a muffled roar in the background.

Eating a meal together is essential to most religions: Muslims fast all day during Ramadan, but the feasts right after sundown are, so I’m told, more than worth it.  You remind yourself for 28 days how you depend on so many others and, ultimately, on God for the necessities of life.  You think of the poor, who are not voluntarily hungry like you are, who don’t have the freedom to choose to abstain.  And twice a year, Muslims feast: once in commemoration of Muhammad receiving the first words of the Qur’an and again to recall Abraham not having to sacrifice his son as he feared God was asking him to do.

For me, there is no more important Christian ritual than communion, where we gather to receive the bread and wine of Christ’s sacrifice.  The infinite God became a finite human being.  The immortal Creator experienced death.  The Good submitted to the torture of The  Evil Empire.  In all those paradoxes, as we taste life-giving food and drink, we share in a measure of Eternity.  I can’t explain it fully, but having this sample-size portion of a meal with others devoted to walking onward toward God is truly a sacrament: an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.

Whether it’s a Friday-after-prayers big meal of couscous, or a Jewish shabbat dinner, or Sunday brunch, our weekly special meals still recall the sacredness of family and community life.  Even if we forget to say grace or take a sneak look at our phones.

For our last day in Morocco, a cold and gray one, we drove north past the fishing village of Moulay Bousselham, which is apparently mobbed in the summertime.  Moulay-Bousselham harborThere’s a big estuary where we could have rented a boat to take us out to see storks, but that didn’t sound fun on this wintry day.

Every one of those boats has an owner offering “the best price” for the trip.  We just walked around a bit with our hands thrust into our pockets and then kept driving.

We snapped a photo of a welcome sign on a wall topped with broken glass to deter nonpaying customers.   John was able to read it, with his limited but improving Arabic:  “Much Welcome…Fried and Grilled Fish.”  The place wasn’t open yet, or we’d have stopped in for one more farewell meal.

Welcome wall with broken glass, tajine, and grilled-fish mishwi

(So Much) Life in the Desert


For this last week, after saying goodbye to Mackenzie, Jackson, and Will in the capital city of Rabat, we returned to Marrakech and checked ourselves into a wonderful campground. It wasn’t literally an oasis because, although dry, Marrakech isn’t in the desert. But figuratively, in the sense of “oasis: a haven surrounded by desert provided by the sufficient of water near or at the surface; a refuge.” Called Manzil La Tortue, it’s the brainchild of a Frenchman with a terrific eye for design. The paths are all shaded by vines, and gardeners tend olive and orange trees, roses, palms, cactus, and flowering plants we never learned the names of.


The metal doors and chairs have turtle motifs. The walls are made of Berber stucco, made with straw and red earth.   This is the swimming pool and the domed restaurant:


We did laundry and hung things in a tree to dry in the sun:


We saw the last yellow leaves of the autumn (on January 4th) clinging to their branches.


Driving south and east into the desert, we passed Ourzazate, the self-styled Hollywood of the Desert (Kundun, Lawrence of Arabia, Last Temptation of Christ, Game of Thrones, Star Wars locations), and came to a tiny and very basic campground. Okay, it’s more of a parking lot with a restaurant and an enthusiastic staff).  And a great view of a riverbed that’s dry in the summer, but in the winter stays trickling.


John had his second backing-up accident with the van. He messed up the bike rack, but it’s fixable. The next morning, we drove up the gorge of the Dades River and marveled at how much living people can coax out of the earth with just a little water. Here’s a village with terraced irrigated gardens and stands of fruit and nut trees.


Our next stop was the end of the road: Merzouga. Beyond the town is a series of dunes they call an “Erg” in Arabic. Beyond that, a line of mountains on the Algerian border.

Merzouga, Morocco

Although the road had been mostly a strip of asphalt on a vast expanse of gravel for quite awhile, now we knew we were in the Sahara. There were camels and oases with palm trees and people of both genders with heads and faces covered against the blowing sand. A Swiss German couple we’d met earlier had recommended a certain place to stay, and we were grateful to be able to ignore the guys at the city gates waving for us to stop for valuable lodging and dining tips. Yes, towns in Morocco still have gates, but they appear to be always open.

Our hosts welcomed us, showed us a place to park, and then we went for a bike ride through the town. In the oasis, under the date palms, folks have garden plots for barley, carrots, onions, garlic, lettuce, and some things we couldn’t figure out, until a young mom named Mouna said hello and invited us to follow her. She took us along the irrigation ditches to her own garden, where she made up for our lack of a shared language by pantomiming sheep, pulling turnips to show us what was growing, and pulled out an old Nokia phone with video of her three sons. Naturally, we pulled out a picture of our own three sons. She’d bought a small bag of fertilizer in town and was walking to her home in the next village.


We returned to our hosts and made plans for a bit of camel-riding the next day.


and a longer 4-wheel drive tour of the nearby desert. Our guide, Ali, took us to see this vein of barium-rich ore being mined.  His father had once worked on the mines, with a French company which abandoned it in 1960.  Since then, freelancers have blasted and shoveled and smashed and sorted the rock, taking the white mineral and leaving the rest.  The vein is only about a foot wide.


He also showed us a place where thousands of fossils like this lie everywhere on the ground:



We spent the night in a permanent campsite on the edge of the Erg, made mostly with Bedouin blankets. We settled into our room:


At sunset, we took this selfie.


We had dinner with a great young couple from Australia–both actuaries–then went outside for a campfire and drumming by some young guides from the area. This side of the Erg has a half-dozen camps owned by hotels and inns, some smaller and some larger, but ours seemed to be the music magnet. We tried in vain to come up with a good, drummable American song, and the Aussies also failed. But the stars were amazing. John saw a couple of shooting stars later that night.


After breakfast back in town, we cleaned off the dust and drove north past this oasis:


There is actually so much life in what could appear to be a bleak, God-forsaken landscape.  Bleak? A little water judiciously applied can make the desert bloom.  And God-forsaken?  We cannot judge, but our hosts peppered their conversation with “God willing,” and “thank God,” and “God be with you,” so they clearly experience the Creator as alive and well and tending to life in the desert.

I (John) have often taught that our Abrahamic faiths sprung from the desert, and are thus based somehow on a spirituality of hidden bounty.  Jesus and Muhammad drew their deepest inspiration in desert retreats, and we were profoundly moved by the immense silence and brilliant stars.  At the same time, the drumming evoked heartbeats, dancing, and joy.  All over Morocco we saw people stretching irrigation hoses or making irrigation dams.  They have such  respect for water and patience: they wait for it and tend it like a living being.

And five times a day, a lot of people–not all–drop what they are doing and turn toward the Source of All Life, bow, drop to their knees, and thank God for the path ahead.  Show us the straight path, they say, the path of those who have gained your favor, not the path of those who go astray.  

You don’t want to lose the path in the desert.  Although there is plenty of life there, the source is often hidden far under the dunes.  Like a compass, God exists to orient us.  Whether we face the right path and find the next oasis or go astray and find ourselves panicked and anxious is up to us.

Lynnell on the dune