01 April 2010

Of cruel fools and black-faced temple monkeys

From the highest kund looking downstream at Galtaji, the Hindu pilgrimage site outside Jaipur, India. The mixed bathing captured my attention because the likelihood of seeing men and women bathing in public in Afghanistan is effectively nil.

KABUL, Afghanistan—The April Fools’ Day joke was that internet access for the faculty guest houses would be down for six days. That is what I told by my poker-faced colleagues, who were expecting a big rise from me as we stood first in line for lunch at the university cafeteria. That’s cruel, I thought, but why not? It sounded believable, maybe even predictable. So I accepted their ruse as truth with the indifference of a bodhisattva, which punctured their hopes for at least a good grumbling.

Ahhh, but see, underneath my skinface I was resigned to defeat, already whupped. I can even tell you when that realization poured over my head like a gallon of housepaint: about 48 hours after arriving in Jaipur, the capital of Rajahstan state in northwestern India earlier this month. I sat up on the bed in a comfortable room with painted vines on the walls and the ceiling that looked Moghul in influence to my untrained eye and realized: My ass is kicked, my job sucks, and I don’t want to return to Kabul. Brother, that’s cruel.

But I did visit some remarkable places in India, none more impressive than Galtaji, better known as the Monkey Temple, a Hindu pilgrim site, with seven tanks or kunds of spring-fed holy water, a complex of temples and pavilions, and monkeys, lots of them, in rocky gorge about 10 kilometers outside Jaipur on the road to Agra. Vendors sell peanuts and grains to feed the monkeys, not just the common pink-faced ones, but black-faced monkeys, too, which are leaner and longer, have whiter fur, and seldom chatter.

Then of course there are the pilgrims, bathers, gawkers like me, rent-a-guides, beggars (children and sadhus), young women who will pose with a “cobra” draped around their neck for a few rupees, temple priests, a school full of Sanskrit students, caretakers and sweepers. Outsider the temple gate are candy and drink sellers and cows, one of which was happy to finish off what was left of my bag of peanuts.

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