Our Republic is at risk

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

It is becoming more and more clear (to me, anyway) that the two party system in US political life—if not dead—is on life support.  The Republicans are corrupt, soulless, and feckless.  The Democrats are inept and hopelessly divided.

With current party discipline, there is NO incentive for anyone to compromise on the truly divisive issues like immigration, healthcare, taxation and the budget.  It’s nice that minor issues can be resolved, but some important ones get left in the dust by reason of our sclerotic system.  Half the population has no effective voice.  Our Republic is at risk.

The solution I see is multiple parties.  Suppose, for example, five different parties representing different views of government sent Representatives and Senators to Congress, and that none of the various parties commanded a majority.  In order to have power, coalitions would of necessity form in order to create a majority sufficient to move the levers of power.  Such a result would not require a Constitutional change, only the realization that such a change is necessary.

Suppose again, that five individuals of different parties run for President, and that none achieve a majority of votes (leaving the question of the Electoral College to another discussion another time) to assume the office. A Constitutional change to allow a run off election between the two highest vote getters would solve the problem.

Perhaps other solutions exist.  My suggestion and others should be discussed, evaluated, and chosen.  The status quo is untenable.

 

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Neoliberalism – n’one dare call it treason

“The Guardian” 15 April 2016

George Monbiot

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative?

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

Inequality is recast as virtuous. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book “What About Me?” are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

In “The Road to Serfdom,” published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book “Bureaucracy,”  “The Road to Serfdom” was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in “Masters of the Universe” as “a kind of neoliberal international”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman – to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.

At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets.

But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.

After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”

It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”. But, as Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism”. The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.

As Naomi Klein documents in “The Shock Doctrine,” neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.

Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.

Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that Von Mises proposed would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.

Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.

The privatisation or marketisation of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.

Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.

Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer notes in “Why We Can’t Afford the Rich,” has had a similar impact. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort”. As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.

Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.

Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in “Ill Fares the Land,” Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course. Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment”. When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.

Judt explained that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power. The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.

Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity. Or rather, a cluster of anonymities.

The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his thinktanks, noted that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organisation is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised”.

The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.

A century ago, the nouveau riche were disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Entrepreneurs sought social acceptance by passing themselves off as rentiers. Today, the relationship has been reversed: the rentiers and inheritors style themselves entre preneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.

These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism: the franchise model which ensures that workers do not know for whom they toil; the companies registered through a network of offshore secrecy regimes so complex that even the police cannot discover the beneficial owners; the tax arrangements that bamboozle governments; the financial products no one understands.

The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute. Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about “The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy” or Friedman’s classic work, “Capitalism and Freedom.”

For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. “The Road to Serfdom” became the path to power.

Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.

Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.

What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.

George Monbiot’s How Did We Get into This Mess? is published this month by Verso. To order a copy for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) ) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

 

 

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Gas Tax math

Gas tax vs. electric cars

In Minnesota today, the Republicans are proposing a $250 annual fee for electric cars to offset the fact that electrics don’t pay any gasoline tax.

According to the EPA, the average auto fleet mpg is 24.9 miles per gallon.  The MN gas tax is $0.289 per gallon.  The Democrats propose to raise that to $0.489 per gallon.

Assuming that the average driver drives 10,000 miles per year, at the current tax rate, that driver would annually pay gas tax of $114.86.  If the tax were to be raised as proposed, the driver would pay $195.18.

At those numbers, the proposed electric vehicle fee seems out of line.

 

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India 9 Reflections

India 9   Reflections

Our vacation was an amazing opportunity to visit a place that has captured my imagination since I was a child watching “Ramar of the Jungle” on television. Yes, he did visit India. It was exciting for me to visit a place that had been on my mind for a lifetime.

India is a study in contrasts. It is dry and brown in the north and green and lush in the south. It is bustling and chaotic in the cities, and serene and quiet in the countryside and on its waters. It is the world’s largest democracy, the second most populace country in the world, and ranks 7th in land area.

Our nation’s recorded history and dominant culture is new. The United States is 243 years old. It has been 399 years since the Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts, and 527 years since Columbus stumbled upon an island in the Caribbean. India’s recorded history begins about 5000 years ago. Its culture is long formed and flows through periods of separation and three epochs of consolidation, the last being its independence from the British in 1947. While the U.S. is predominately white, Judeo-Christian and European, India is a mix of indigenous and western Asian populations with a mix of religious traditions and practices. The first thing one recognizes upon landing in Delhi is that we are a minority, and that “we’re not in Kansas, anymore.” That fact alone is justification for a visit. In these postings, I have tried to convey not only what we saw and experienced but also what we felt and learned as we moved around the county.

What is common across most of the places we have visited over the years, and certainly true in India is the basic decency of the people we meet. We found those we met and interacted with in India to be friendly and interested. I once said that Italy was a great place to visit because the food is good, and the wine is good, the art is fabulous, and the people are happy. Well, we didn’t sample any Indian wine on our trip, but I can attest that the food is good, the art is generally in the form of fabulous architecture with embellishments, and the people are happy. In addition, they are gracious and welcoming, with a great sense of humor and ready to greet with a smile.

The Hindi common greeting is the word “Namaste,” delivered with hands placed together and a slight bow of the head. The meaning is one that says to the other, “I honor you.” Throughout our journey, the people we met honored us – they were simply wonderful.

As to be expected, we saw a lot of good about India, but also some of the bad. The trip was not particularly sanitized for our experience. Yes, there is pollution in India. Air quality varies from place to place, and air pollution, as well as garbage control, can be an issue. We did see evidence of garbage filling empty lots and floating in roadside ditches. But, with respect to each, it was not overwhelming. In fact, the current government has been doing much to improve things. One of our guides remarked that he was amazed at the progress of the last 5 years in combatting the problem of pollution. In one case, more collection boxes are placed at more locations so that garbage need not be just thrown into the street. And, in some of the larger cites, low cost and subsidized propane stoves are distributed so that open charcoal and wood fires are no longer necessary for food preparation. Things aren’t perfect, but they are getting better.

In “India 8” I mentioned the differences in skin tone between the northerners and southerners. While traveling the south we noticed many billboard advertisements along the way. When those ads contained images of people, the women were always very light skinned and the men had darker complexions. Whether this is a particular problem politically or socially I do not know. I do suspect that it would be an issue in the U.S.

If my narratives have been too glowing, it is only because the good we experienced was overwhelmingly wonderful. I had no intention of whitewashing anything. I have tried to be accurate and realistic as far as my experience would allow me.

The sights we encountered were varied and interesting. Our itinerary was such that we enjoyed a wide variety of scenes, places, structures, and modes of exploration. We travelled on vans, on rickshaws, on tuk tuks, on open jeeps, and even on elephants; we walked; and we floated on rowboats, canoes, and a houseboat. We saw people engaged in industry, agriculture, and commerce, for example running shops, preparing food in street side shops, doing laundry (ironing with charcoal fired irons), and hauling freight perilously stacked on top of a rickshaw or on someone’s head. We saw university students strolling on campus and snake charmers in narrow streets. We were invited to a wedding, but couldn’t attend because of our schedule. However we did see a groom arrive at his wedding on a white horse. We saw far more hawkers than beggars. We spent time with crafts, observing rug weaving and silk works, the block printing of fabric, marble works, and jewelry production. We toured fortresses, temples, synagogues, shrines, elaborate tombs and mausoleums. We went on safari and were lucky enough to see a Royal Bengal Tiger. We saw and experienced unexpected and marvelous places and things.

India’s spiritual and religious experience is remarkably varied, encompassing Hindu, Baha’i, Islam, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, and Sikh. And, despite the variations, it is also remarkably similar. One wonders why we fight. In a Sikh temple we observed a ritual that reminded is in many ways of Roman Catholic High Mass. We also observed in the same place a free meal of bread to all comers. In a Buddhist temple we observed a depiction of the life of Siddhartha and his enlightenment as Buddha. The significant elements of his life were a miraculous birth, and a time of trial and temptation prior to enlightenment, paralleling the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We observed devout Hindus bathing in Ganga Ji to eliminate accumulated bad karma in order to guarantee Nirvana upon death, much as Christians and Muslims seek forgiveness of sin in order to reach Heaven/Paradise. It seems as though there is in the world at large a cosmic consciousness and a need to experience God in some way. All of the religions and spirituality expressed in India lead to the same conclusion albeit in only slightly different ways. This was perhaps the most enlightening and interesting thing to me about the entire trip.

Finally, let me say a word about the value of interested and compatible traveling companions. Ann and I have travelled the world with Dave and Jane. On this trip we added my cousin Shellie and her husband Richard. We got along easily and well, enjoying each other’s company. We were interested in what we were seeing and we shared observations and expectations. In this way, the trip was all the more enriching.

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India 8 Kerala

India 8   Kerala

The State of Kerala in southern India is unlike the areas of the north we visited.  In the first place, the people look different. Broadly speaking, the population of the southern portion of India descends from the indigenous populations who were in central and southern India prehistorically.  In contrast, the northern part of he subcontinent was settled by those who emigrated from the west.  As a result, at least from our perspective, those in the south have darker skin tone than those we met in the north.

Secondly, because it is closer to the coast and Equator (10° North), the climate is hotter and wetter.  Whereas the north that we observed was mostly dry without significant tree cover, the south was lush.  As we were landing at Cochin’s airport, the view from the window was one of trees and waterways, in sharp contrast to the views as we left Delhi.

Finally, the north we experienced is a relatively flat plane (known geographically as the Gangetic Plane).  Kerala on the other hand has a flat coastal area giving way to a range of mountains known as the Western Ghats.

Our first stop was the old city of Kochi.  It became an important spice-trading center in the 14thcentury.  After Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (visited on our South Africa vacation in 2017), Vasco da Gama reached the western coast of India in 1498.  Five years later in 1503 the Portuguese occupied Kochi, establishing the first of the European colonies in India.  Da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 and was buried in St. Francis Church there. We were able to tour the church and see the original tomb location.  The Dutch and then the British later occupied the area.

As with many of the structures in Kochi, our hotel was old.  The Courtyard Hotel is old and looks charming in the Trip Advisor pictures. Old and charming is fine if the place is well run and in good repair.  Unfortunately the place was neither well run nor in good repair. Despite that inconvenience, our time in Kochi was most enjoyable.  As in the north, we met and enjoyed friendly and kind people and wonderful interesting experiences.

Our locale was on the Indian Ocean near the harbor mouth of seven major rivers flowing from the Western Ghats.  A short walk from our hotel took us to the ocean.  Along the river was a bustling fishing trade using Chinese cantilever nets. The nets would be lowered into the water and then periodically raised after allowing the tide to deposit fish.  We enjoyed some wonderful meals featuring shrimp and fish.

In addition to the waterside, we toured the oldest Jewish Synagogue in India, visited a large laundry operation whose workers were of which were descendants of the original families who started the operation (to save the cost of electricity, many of the women used large charcoal heated irons), and enjoyed typical Kerala cuisine at the home of a renowned chef, Nimmy, who lectured us on spices and recipes as she prepared the meal.   A TV camera above the range allowed us to watch on a large screen, or directly, as we desired.

After two nights, we boarded our van and headed inland into the mountains.  Our driver in the south was Bijou.  As in the north, we had an interesting, fun, and accommodating individual to ferry us around.  Bijou constantly pointed out things to see along the route, especially as we entered spice country where he would stop and make us guess the spice, nut, or fruit. I knew cashews.

Our first destination was Munnar in the tea country.  Kerala is the most literate of all the Indian States with literacy levels north of 90%. And, it is the most Christian area of all India.  Along the way we passed many shrines to various saints.  Each one was a free standing structure consisting of a prayer space of roughly 10 feet by ten feet topped by a tower of two or three stories containing a replica of the particular saint.  In addition to the shrines, there were numerous Christian churches and academies.

The mountains were similar to the roughest part of our Appalachians.  This was something I had not expected.  The route took us through several towns and cities with the accompanying bustle.  All areas appeared prosperous.

The area around Munnar is dedicated to tea cultivation.  The hillsides as far as one could see were covered with tea plants.  A tea plant if allowed can grow to 40 feet in height and live for 100 years.  The plants are trimmed to about 3 feet in height and resemble topiary.  Harvesters work by hand to take the stems and leaves from the top. Every so often, the plants are trimmed to maintain the uniform height.  We toured a tea factory to see how the tea is processed.  The leaves are sorted, then cut, crushed or rolled, dried and oxidized and finally packaged.  Whether black tea, green tea, or white tea it all comes from the same plant. Differing types of tea, Earl Gray for instance, results from a blending of teas from different regions of the world – India, Ceylon, and Kenya.

Our accommodations in the area were a luxury resort, the Spice Tree.  It was located high on a mountainside with a good view of he valley below and surrounding mountains.  As much as we were disappointed in the Old Courtyard, we were impressed and pleased with Spice Tree.  One morning several of us hiked down the mountain through a spice plantation where we learned about pepper, bananas, cardamom, cinnamon, coffee, and others.  The hike back up the mountain was very taxing.

Our journey continued when we – sadly – left Spice Tree and headed toward Thekkadi.  Along the way we toured another spice plantation (a favorite of Bijou’s) where we were able to test and taste and buy some harvested spices. At our destination we had two opportunities for safari, one on wheels, and one on foot.  We left the resort early in the morning and headed to the Periyar Reserve, hoping to see elephants and possibly a leopard in the forest.  While we saw much evidence of the presence of elephants, we didn’t see and elephant or a leopard.  We did see many monkeys, a mongoose, large squirrels, and on our walk a mean looking 7 inch black scorpion.  At a lake, others in the group took a boat ride and saw many snakes.  The experience was not as exciting to me as our safari experiences at Ranthambore, but it was interesting and enjoyable and gave us all another view and appreciation for India and what it offers.

Our last destination – and another long drive through the mountains and down to the coast – was Alleppey where we spent a day and overnight on a houseboat in the Kerala Backwaters.  Our craft had a lounge deck, dining room, and three small but comfortable bedrooms all very nicely appointed.  Our crew of three prepared our meals – way too much food – featuring local fish grilled on the boat.  The tour was relaxing and gave us an opportunity to see life along the water.

The “shore” consisted of a dike large enough to support houses and buildings, which dike separated the river/lake from rice fields on the other side.  People in the area had electricity, but apparently no running water. Instead, the residents used the river and canals for bathing, washing of clothes, washing of cooking utensils, and presumably drinking and cooking water.

In the late afternoon, we took a canoe ride (two boats, 3 to a boat) through some of the canals.  We saw beautiful birds, including kingfishers, gray herons, pond herons, hornbills, and cormorants.  We observed the people living along the banks.  The children were joyful and would smile broadly and wave to us as we passed.  It was one of the best experiences of the entire trip.

The next morning we left the boat, boarded our van and sadly headed for the airport for our flight back to Delhi.  For Grabiels and Lepuckis this meant that we would check into hour hotel for a few hours and leave early the next morning for a 3am flight to Amsterdam and onward to Minneapolis.  The Kostiks’ schedule allowed Dave and Jane another day in Delhi.  All proceeded well until they were notified that their 10pm flight to Newark was cancelled.  Oops. They were rerouted eastward through Hong Kong to Detroit to Minneapolis.  They of the group not only visited India, but they circumnavigated the globe.  Fun? Ask them.

We spent three weeks touring a beautiful country, meeting friendly engaging people, traveling with good friends, and enjoying the sights.  It was a great adventure.

The waterside in Kochi

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Laundry operation, note the charcoal fired irons

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The oldest synagogue in India

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Nimmi and her assistant preparing delicious food

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A shrine typical of the area

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Cultivated tea plants covering the hills

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The view from Spice Tree Resort

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Harvesting cardamom

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Intrepid explorers

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Watch where you step

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Relaxing on the houseboat

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Scenes from the Backwaters

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India 7 Agra and an overnight stay in New Delhi

India 7   Agra and an overnight stay in New Delhi

On Saturday morning, 2nd February, we left Ranthambore and headed to Agra (180 miles, 6 hours). Again we saw vast acreage of mustard fields and passed through several villages and towns on the way.

The golden age of Agra was as capital of the Mughal Empire during the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan from the 1550’s to the 1650’s. It is today a major tourist destination.

Our first stop was the fortress of Fatehpur Sikri, a few kilometers from the city of Agra. Akbar established his capital here, building a beautiful complex of buildings and grounds, using the hard red sandstone and white marble. Unfortunately, the location was want of water and was abandoned 13 years after its creation when Akbar moved the capital to Agra.

We entered the city of Agra late in the afternoon. The air was heavy with fog, and the smoke from numerous small fires along the streets to warm the street-side stands. Our hotel was modern and large, and our rooms were “Taj view.” Although we were on the 5th floor, the view from the room was mostly occluded.

We met our guide Bindu “the Hindu” who took us on a rickshaw ride and walking tour of Agra by night. Once again, the streets were full of people, animals, and various conveyances. We saw numerous shops focusing on the wedding trade, and sampled some great food from street vendors, particularly “Mama Frankie’s.”

The next morning, the air was so clouded we were unable to even see the street. Accordingly we nixed the “sunrise view of the Taj” excursion and went instead to the Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort. The original location was constructed C1000, but its prominence came with its reconstruction and commissioning by Akbar in the mid 1550’s.   Shah Jahan later made it his palace, adding many beautiful marble structures.

When we left the fort and headed for the Taj Mahal our concern was that the air had not yet cleared. However, as we were waiting in the long admission lines, a breeze came up and the air began to clear. How fortuitous!

The Taj Mahal was constructed by Sha Jahan as a mausoleum to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. He mourned for a year and built the shrine as a monument to eternal love.

Everyone has seen or will see pictures of the Taj Mahal. The images are but a shadow of the impression one sees in real life. The Taj is absolutely magnificent. Words do not do justice to the beauty. Ann was moved to tears and I to goose bumps upon the first sight of the structure. It is amazingly beautiful.

Upon completing the structure, Sha Jahan made plans to build an equally impressive mausoleum for himself across the river from the Taj. His problem – if one can call it that – is that he considered the public treasury to be his to do with as he wished (anyone else we know who is like that?). His son, Aurangzeb (a/k/a Alamgir), believed that this was a misuse of public funds and deposed his father, imprisoning him in the Agra Fort. In homage to Shah Jahan and his love for Mumtaz, Aurangzeb saw to it that the room in which he imprisoned his father looked out towards the Taj Mahal.

Late in the afternoon, we visited the park on the opposite side of the river from the Taj Mahal, and enjoyed a sunset view of the magnificent structure. When we returned to the hotel, the promise of a Taj view room came true as we were able to faintly see the Taj Mahal through the distance and heavy air.

The next morning our destination was New Delhi where we would catch a plane to continue our adventure in the south of India. On the way we made two guideless stops at temples. The first was in Mathura where Lord Krishna was born. The second was in Vrindavan at the Krishna Balaram Mandir temple. This temple is under the auspices of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and we all chanted the Hare Krishna mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

as we circled through and around the temple. Jane suggested that it was just like being back in 1968.

Once we were in New Delhi, we passed a statue commemorating Gandhi’s walk is opposition to the British salt tax. It was here also that we witnessed the only traffic mishap of the entire trip – amazingly, given the fluid and hectic nature of the traffic – a motorcyclist and car had apparently bumped, and the car’s driver was helping the cyclist right his motorcycle.

The next morning we were on a plane to Kochi (Cochin) in the state of Kerala on the Malabar coast.

 

Scenes on the way

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Fatehpur Sikri

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Agra by night

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Agra Fort

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The Taj Mahal

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Gandhi’s Salt March

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India 6 Ranthambore National Park

India 6   Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore National Park is about 100 miles southeast of Jaipur.  It once was the Royal hunting ground of the Maharajah of Jaipur.  It is most noted for its Royal Bengal Tigers.

Our journey was by van driven by Mokesh and his assistant Naveen.  They were our drivers in the north.  I have to say that these two were wonderful: professional, accommodating, friendly, and an enjoyment.

During the drive, we were able to experience the agricultural practices of the region, and observe some of the progress instituted by the Modi government over the last 5 years as illustrated by the road construction we endured.  The 100 mile trip took us about 5 hours.

Agriculture.  Most of the area was covered with large acreages of mustard plants used to make oil for cooking.  Interestingly, the US FDA will not allow mustard oil for cooking purposes due to its high erucic acid content.  In high doses, the erucic content has been found to be damaging to the heart. Indian studies have concluded that the beneficial effect of other compounds in the oil offsets the risks presented by the erucic acid.  In any event, none of our party noticed any adverse effects from consuming Indian food. Some of us enjoyed large quantities thereof with no adverse results except those noticed at the scale.

We went through several small farm villages noting the markets and the shops devoted to ag equipment, and the ever-present motorcycles.  Occasionally we would see a large home and compound obviously owned by the farmer.

Roads.  Our main highway was being reconstructed into a 4-lane road.  It was entirely under construction.  Unlike here where a road is done on one side and traffic rerouted to the other side, often in no more than 10 mile segments, this road was all under constructed.  We would travel along concrete pavement for a few kilometers, and then come upon a 30-yard segment that was unpaved.  We slowed down to avoid the bumps, and then again traverse another few kilometer long paved segment, until reaching another 30-yard unpaved segment.  Occasionally we encountered a diversion caused by bridge or culvert construction requiring a slow down over a bumpy section.  I applaud the efforts to improve transportation, but I was really tired of that trip.

Our accommodations at Dev Vilas were top notch.  We stayed in a gated traditionally styled hunting lodge.  Over the next two days we had three excursions, twice to safari in the park, and once to tour the Ranthambore Fortress.  As we returned from each outing, we were met with hot towels to refresh ourselves, and treated to coffee, tea, and cookies.  The Dev Vilas staff was excellent.

Our first safari in the afternoon did not result in a tiger sighting.  The guides advised us as to the rarity of such sightings.  Often when a tiger is seen, it is seen only partially through the bush.  We did see tracks, and other animals including some monkeys, antelope, and some beautiful birds including peacocks.  The scenery was rugged and mountainous.  Unlike our safaris in Africa in 2017, the variety and frequency of animal sightings were sparse.

The next morning we entered the park from another entrance several miles from the one taken the day before.  On this excursion we hit the jackpot, a Royal Bengal Tiger.  The large male was surveying his territory and walking along a streambed.  We were able to move along with him for at least one kilometer.  He paid no attention to us but we were enthralled.  And, we were extremely fortunate.

Because we had seen the tiger, we chose not to do a third safari, but rather visit the formidable Ranthambore Fort.  Built on the top of a steep hill sometime around the year 1000, it served historical developments of the Indian State of Rajasthan.  Near the entrance were several long tailed monkeys ‘begging’ for handouts.  Once in the fort we were pleased to see a tree full of bright green parakeets. Unfortunately, every time I aimed my camera to take a photo, they flew away.  Even so, the fort provided us with an interesting walk.

The next morning after breakfast, we joined Mokesh and Naveen in the van and headed down the road to Agra.

On the road

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Dev Vilas our lodgings

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Ranthambore National Park

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(Dave Kostik’s tiger photos were better than mine.  Thanks for the courtesy, Dave.)

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Ranthambore Fortress

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