Monday, January 25, 2010

McLeod Ganj, Himachel Pradesh

On our way to Dharamsala (McLeodganj) our bus stopped for a 10min break. Sitting there I noticed that the cover to the engine was open and someone was pulling parts out. Sigh. While wondering how we were going to get to McLeodganj our conductor started yelling at us to get on a bus parked across the street that was also going to Mcleodganj. Almost too easy for India.

At 1500 meters the cool air of the mountains invigorated us and we excitedly explored the former hill station that serves as the home of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. With mountain views all around and Dharamsala below, you will notice Tibetans chanting "Om mani padme hum" under their breath as the spin hand held prayer wheels or pass 108 beads through their fingers. The town is much more relaxed with merchants waiting for you to come to them instaed of trying to heard you into their store. We instantly felt at ease here and new we were going to enjoy it.
On the second day in McLeodganj Mo happened to meet a Tibetan monk who was in need of a English teacher. Since she didn't feel quite right for the task, she suggested that I take up the challenge. I excitedly accepted and that night Mo and I went to Gendun's for his first lesson. Gendun is a sweet, generous man with a smile permanently attached to his face. His thirst for learning is inspiring and I do believe he taught me far more than I taught him.
One day when I went to see my new pupil at his room, I found a note saying that he forgot about a special ceremony for His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama. It continued that if I wanted to see the Dalai Lama I should make my way to temple. Uhmm... Ya!!! Then ridiculous thoughts of meeting the Dalai Lama crept into my head. What would I say? "Should I buy Apple stock or stick with GICs? Where should I go for dinner tonight? So?... How's enlightenment?" Nothing that came to mind seemed suitable, which was fine as there was no meeting. There was just a handful of westerners and 2000 Tibetans and me tightly packed vying for a glimpse of His Holiness.

Neither the monks nor the Dalai Lama were visible at first but their chants rang throughout the temple penetrating all in attendance. After an hour of chanting the Tibetan high monks and officials came down from the temple followed by the Dalai Lama. They were all seated on a raised platform a mere 50 feet away. I definitely felt a calming excitement in seeing His Holiness. Once settled, there was traditional singing and dancing in honor of the Dalai Lama and monks threw treats and dispensed tea for as many of the worshipers as possible. Then the Dalai Lama gingerly rose to speak. Lamentably it was in Tibetan so I was unable to understand what he said, but I'm pretty sure I heard a "Go Colts!" in there somewhere. Before I knew it he was gone surrounded by a small entourage. I felt extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity.

For the next ten days I proceeded to have daily classes with my new friend. Everyday I would arrive at 4Pm where we studied for an hour, ate thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and shared stories. One day after class we began to discuss Tibetan Buddhism and their practices. After our discussion Gendun demonstrated just how big his heart is by presenting me with his prayer beads and one of his Buddhas. Overwhelmed with emotion I tried to express that his gesture was far too generous and not necessary. Upon his insistence I accepted and took both gifts with great appreciation.

On my last day in McLeodganj I decided to hike Mt Triund. Not knowing where the trail started, I headed towards the mountain asking locals every ten minutes for directions. While resting a quarter of the way up I met up with two Czechs and after some pleasantries I was off again. To my surprise their pace of hiking is similar to my pace of walking. Far too fast for hiking a mountain. After maintaining that pace for two hours with legs burning and gasping for air at 2500 meters I had to let them go ahead and continue at my now turtle like pace. Running out of time and energy I stopped just below the snow line and sat enjoying the peacefulness and beauty of my surroundings. Even at these heights there where chai-wallahs here. I've yet to find an uninhabitable place in India. There is no place to be alone.
After 7 hours of hiking I was glad to get back into town. The hike was a little ambitious for my first in 5 months and I definitely felt the effects the next day. After dinner and good-byes with Gendun he presented me with a khata scarf. A beautiful embroidered white scarf offered as a sign of love and respect. I will always remember our time together with great fondness.

At 7PM I boarded my bus for a 13 hour journey to Rishikesh.

"Goodness speaks in a whisper, evil shouts."
Tibetan proverb

I'm Off To Pakistan.... Kinda - Wagah, Punjab

Today Monique and I were off to Wagah, the "Berlin wall of Asia." During the 1947 partition when Pakistan and Hindustan became two countries, this divided town became just that. Half the town lies in Pakistan and the other half in India. For sixty years this was the only border road between the two nations. Every evening at dusk there is the 'closing of the boarder ceremony. This ceremony has become so popular with the locals and tourists that grandstands have been built. There is also a MC to oversee the event. An event it is indeed.

At the platform of the guardroom, one guard yells into the microphone for as long as he can. Once finished, he marches with all the flair, chest puffing, over exaggerated fan-fare stepping he can produce until he reaches the twin gates of the India/Pakistan boarder. All of this while the crowd goes berserk cheering him on. Then, the MC yells "Hindustan!!!" over and over like a mantra with all replying in response to him. Not knowing what they were saying, I would just yell wildly. Then the Pakistan side would respond in kind with equal pomp and parade of his Indian counter-part.

The flamboyant style of marching is, apparently, to intimidate the other side as they try and out do each other. It's a mixture of marching, crunk (a very aggressive form of hip-hop dancing), tango and Americas Best Dance Crew with Mario Lopez. I would have never believed if I hadn't witnessed it.

Once all the guards from each side have made there way down the short road, the lowering of the flags is done. They are lowered at a snails pace as not to have either flag higher than the other, showing superiority. The flags are folded with amazing speed and double marched back to the guardroom. With a hand shake between the two countries so fast that no on would suspect them to be on good terms, the gate is closed for the day.

With the end of the ceremony at an end, the crowd, several hundred strong, rush the area for a photo op with the guards.

Here is a great little video with Michael Palin showing the ceremony.

From Cold to Worse - Amritsar,Punjab

After a five hour train ride from Agra to Delhi, we reunited with Matt and prepared for the cold overnight twelve hour journey to Amritsar. Even though the windows were closed, we had blankets and I personally was wearing the following; a button up shirt, two long sleeve shirts, three tee shirts, a scarf, a toque and a hoodie - we froze. I believe the temperature was minus two degrees that night.

One by one we came out of our hypothermia and tried to regain some movement from cold muscles. When Matt went to retrieve something from his bag he saw to his horror that it had been stolen while we slept. If that was the worst thing we all would have been happy. The most unfavorable part of this deplorable action was the thief absconded with Matt's passport as well. Now the mood of the group has plummeted and plans have unfortunately changed.

Once off the train, Monique and I headed in to town and Jen and Matt booked the next train back to Delhi. From one ugly twelve hour train ride to another. Something I would only wish upon the thief. Now it was just Monique and I.

Amritsar is a cool city with the holiest of Sikh shrines, The Golden Temple, were tens of thousands visit everyday. To enter the grounds of the temple you must abide by three rules, check footwear, wash hands and feet, and keep head covered. Since it was freezing out, my toque didn't leave my head for days. Once inside there is a massive holy tank (Amrit Sarovar - pool of nectar) that dominates the area andis surrounded by a marble walkway with the actual temple in the middle. The temple is gilded with 750kg of gold! One cannot help but stare at it in a stunned state at first. Indians don't mess around when they build their monuments. Nothing subtle about em.

The temple is even more spectacular at night lit up with an equally bright refection in the water. Walking around you notice, stern but friendly guards holding grand spears patroling the compound ensuring that all obey the rules, traditional Punjabi music echoing throughout the complex at a unusually soothing level, and four priests constantly reading from the Guru Granth Sahib (their holy book) . All of this happens non-stop from 6AM to 10PM. Once in side the actual temple you realize the music is being played by musicians sitting next to the Guru Granth Sahib which is covered by a pink shroud. Pilgrims bow, pray and give offerings.

Two features of this complex stood out for me. First, the temple has doors on all four sides representing the acceptance of all people regardless of caste, creed or race. People would freely come up to me and talk to me about the temple and answer any questions I might have. This was different from other holy sites I'd been to. The other feature is the canteen in the complex. It serves free meals to anyone who walks in. The canteen distributes 40,000 meals a day in a massive show of generosity and logistics.

Since all are welcome and there is no charge (unlike the exorbitant Taj), I managed to enjoy the serenity of The Golden Temple five times. I didn't even realize how often I was going until Monique questioned me about it. I certainly enjoyed Amritsar. All the people we came in contact with were helpful and delightful.

"As every thread of gold is valuable, so is every moment of time."
John Mason

Taj Mahal - Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Jen, Monique and myself boarded a train today to go to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Agra's juxtaposition between grandiose beauty and contamination is undeniable. The city itself is nothing more than a series of confusing filthy streets lined with souvenir vendors trying to part you with your money. Just getting out of the train station is an exercise in patience. Once off the train hordes of rickshaw-wallahs attack you with the offers of a ride. For most visitors this is their second stop in India and can be quite overwhelming. Even for the hardened traveler it can be a test.

Other than the Taj Mahal, Agra is most famous for its scams. In the early nineties a scam emerged of tremendous greed and depravity. Certain restaurants in Agra would purposefully poison tourists food, who then would be treated by doctors in private clinics at unnecessary cost to the insurance companies. Although there have been no reported deaths, many fell ill to this heinous scam before the insurance companies got wise and prosecuted those responsible. Another popular scam, so I hear, is for someone to throw shit on your shoes and run away. Standing there in anger, a shoe cleaner will just happen to come by and offer to clean your shoes, at an exorbitant price of course.

The city is just something you tolerate to get to the Taj Mahal. Once you pass through the main gates and are standing in front of the Taj Mahal, all is lost in the sheer beauty and magnitude of the monument.

Even though we arrived at 6:15AM to avoid the crowds, there was easily a couple hundred people there by time they opened the gates at 7:00AM. Although it was a little foggy that morning, it did not dull my amazement of the monument. After a few photos of the Taj from the outside we decided to go in to give the fog a chance to burn off. When we came back out fifteen minutes later, the fog had enveloped the Taj Mahal and one could barely see one of the minarets a mere forty feet away. Standing from the viewing platform, it seemed as though the fog had devoured the Taj with not a trace to be seen.

The girls became cold and didn't want to wait for the fog to dissipate, so they left. Thinking my resolve was much stronger and not wanting to pay the 750 rupees to get in again (by far the most expensive site in India), I decided to wait it out. At the hour mark I too was cold and finally left with fog still blanketing the monument. Later, as we sat in a coffee house killing time till our train left, the fog had completely vanished, clouds parted and the sun came out. Suddenly it was the perfect day we were hoping for. Since the coffee house was right next to the east gate of the Taj and with two hours till our train left, I decided to try my luck at getting back in. With my ever so charming self and slightly saddened blue eyes, I pleaded my case to get back in. Either the guard bought it or tired of me, either way I was back in.

In the sunlight the Taj was even more amazing, as were the crowds now. This is definitely something to be seen in person. One poet described it as "the teardrop on the cheek of eternity." I have no idea what that means, but ya, what he said! The bad news is that pollution is becoming an enormous problem in Agra and is deteriorating the marble. There is even a pollution ticker in the Taj that has the pollution content scrolling across continually. Unfortunately, the politicians are notoriously corrupt in Agra and it doesn't seem like much is being done. A much too frequent story.

Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to enshrine the body of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The emperor was devastated upon her death and set out to create a monument in her memory unsurpassed by any other. Eventually Shan Jahan's son grew thirsty for the throne and imprisoned his father at Agra Fort just down the Yamuna River. As lore has it, Shah Jahan lived out the rest of his life gazing wistfully at the Taj Mahal. Upon his death he was carried down the river and placed next to his beloved in his unrivaled tomb.

"The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes."
Shah Jahan

Who's Onion?!?

One day not so long ago, Jen, Matt and myself were standing on the corner of a very busy intersection. As we stood there, trying to decide how to get to get to our destination, a very weathered man rode up on his equally dilapidated bicycle and said to Jen, "Hey Onion! One smoke?"

As we stood there slightly off guard unsure if that is what he actually said, Jen finally responded,"I don't smoke." And off he rode.

As we stared at each other stunned for a moment, Matt asked, "Did he just call you Onion?" Confirming that we all heard "Onion" we shrugged our shoulders and moved on.

I'm beginning to realize that India is a series of close calls with a healthy dose of random.
"Chaos is my friend."
Bob Dylan

Saturday, January 23, 2010

So.... Cold..... - Delhi, National Capital Territory

After three weeks back home in Canada I wasn't sure if I was to continue my travels in India. Not wanting to stay in Vancouver (homeless and jobless) or go back to India, I boarded the first in yet another string of flights. I have now been on fifteen flights in three months. I think I may walk home in June. On the way home to Canada and back to India, I had a day layover in Bangkok which was a nice way to break up the traveling. The food is so good in Bangkok!

It was great to see my three chums again. I truly missed them while I was away. What I hadn't anticipated was how cold the north was this time of year. It was five degrees when I landed in Delhi. That doesn't sound that cold, but when there is no heat in any of the buildings, it is like you are sleeping outside. I went to bed fully clothed with two blankets and a toque. The winter has been unseasonably cold this year and has even taken the lives of five hundred people thus far. It is a common sight to see people huddled around a fire on the side of the street trying to stay warm.

Delhi is everything you would expect from a big Indian city, crowded, annoying, fascinating, and exhilarating. At first all of Delhis quirks annoyed me and I though to myself, why would I come back here? But was surprised as to how quickly I acclimatized to life in India and even enjoyed it.

Even after three months of traveling in India, it never fails to surprise me. As I was sitting outside a book store having a glass of chai watching street life transpire, an elephant strolled by, down the narrow roadway. There was no parade, celebration or puja (prayer) as in previous sightings, just some dude riding an elephant. I quickly snapped a photo of the elephant thinking I'd never see something like that again, only to have another elephant go by five minutes later. Must have been a race.

With only a couple of days in Delhi, I decide to do some sight seeing and headed off to Humayun's Tomb. It is Delhi's first mausoleum, considered one of the prototypes to the Taj Mahal, and houses the second Mughal emperor Humayun and his family (150 in total). Constructed out of red sandstone, it adopts Aphgan, Hindu and Persian architecture. The mausoleum was commissioned by Humayun's widow nine years after his death and took eleven more to complete. Wanting the mausoleum to be one of a kind, Humayan's widow had the architect executed as not to have his design duplicated. I don't think that was the bonus he was expecting.

During the Partition of India it housed Muslim refugees on their way to Pakistan. The extent of the damage done by the refugees was severe and restoration continues to this day. Evidence of this can be seen on the ceiling and entrance of one of the mosques. The ceiling is charred and black from the fires used for cooking and much of the inlay work is also missing or damaged. Many of India's monuments are unfortunately in a constant state of disrepair.

"If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool..."
William E. Gladstone

Please, No More Jewelley - Goa

After my plagued time in Badami, I was more than happy to move on to let my bones knit while relaxing on a beach in Goa. Goa is the Haight-Ashbury of India. With its full moon parties and lax policing it was the place to be if you where a hippie. Many stayed on for years and years in a perpetual haze. Goa is world famous for its beaches, ocean and churches.

With a fist full of Imodium in my belly I was ready for the 12 hour bus ride to Panaji, the state capital. Being a Portuguese colony, Panaji is a wonderful mix of Portuguese architecture, big city amenities and beef. It was great to be able to eat that tasty animal again, which is so sacred in the rest of India. How much chicken can one man eat? After a much too short stay in Panaji I was off to reunite with Jen and Monique in Anjuna.

What at first seemed like a nice beach town quickly turned aggravating. Anjuna is a town overrun with abominable restaurants, relentless touts, tourists, and crowded beaches. Our first time to the beach we were approached by two women selling their wears. After ten minutes of telling them to leave us they finally agreed and sat down beside us. Ugh! With another five minutes of firm declarations of of not wanting to buy anything, they very, very gradually left. This encounter left us quite annoyed, so Jen and I decided to go for a swim to cool off. While enjoying the water I happened to notice that Monique was surrounded by three more women pushing their jewellery on her. I decided to get out of the water to help her out. Once I reached Monique I found that the women had put jewellery on her wrists and ankles and were telling her how beautiful she looked. With all patience exhausted I yelled at them to leave. Having had enough relaxation for one day, we too left.

With two scooters and a little patience we were able to find the relatively quiet beach of Mandrem. The tourists were still there but the number of touts had dropped exponentially. We booked some lovely huts close to the beach and were ecstatic to find a good restaurant just steps away run by a Nepalese family. They were definitely the highlight of Goa. I played frisbee with the cook everyday, who could rival any ultimate frisbee player I've seen, and we all befriended Camron, a nicer guy you could not meet. I hope to reunite with him once I make my way to Nepal. We finally had a nice place to relax.

Just when I was starting to warm up to Goa (pardon the pun), I had to leave to tend to some family business back home. Five flights and three and a half days I'll be back in Canada. From +30 degrees to -30 degrees, Paula better be at the airport with a jacket for me.

Good bye India, hello Gyoza King!

“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

That Wasn't Supposed to Happen - Badami, Karnataka

After spending ten days in Hampi I thought it time to move on to Badami to explore the 5th century sandstone-cut temples. As I was the only one ready to leave, I was to go it alone for the first time, and was excited for the adventure. I left early one morning preparing my self for the eight hour bus ride.

During the first half hour I met a lovely Hindu man that held my hand the entire time we talked (that is common place here and is even a compliment, I swear). 20 minutes into conversing with him he started to introduce me to everyone he new on the bus, which was quite a few people. It was a great way to start my new journey.

Unfortunately, that is where the good times ended. Half way to my destination we had a rest stop and upon returning to my bus I noticed that my large back pack had been stolen. With eyes darting and heart racing I soon realized that I had boarded the wrong bus. As I tried to avoid a small child while exiting the bus, my foot slipped and I fell smashing my knee and falling into a puddle of disgusting sludge. As everyone stared at me I quickly got up and boarded the correct bus that still had my backpack on it. Dousing my ravaged knee with antiseptic and changing my shirt in front of twenty Indian people staring at me, my earlier jovial mood quickly faded.

With my knee completely seized up, the next three days in Badami were spent in bed wondering if I fractured my knee and what to do next. The closest "good" hospital was eight hours from where I came and my friends where just as far so I waited till my knee started to feel better. By day four it was at 80% and figured that there was no fracture. Dreadfully, however, that was the day I became ill and instead of the bed being my best friend, the toilet was. Thank God it was a western toilet. At day five I couldn't be in my room anymore. With hobbled walk and clenched buttocks I finally ventured out to see Badami's carved-out temples.

Badami was the center of the ancient Chalukyan society in India and has some of the best Dravidian architecture around. There are four temples carved into a red sandstone cliff nestled beside the town, all dedicated to different deities; Shiva, Vishnu, Buddhism, and Jainism. This shows the religious tolerance of the rulers of the time (something that rarely happened). The four temples are modest in size with elaborate and detailed cravings throughout. Each temple is perched higher then the previous with the final temple having an amazing view of the Agasthya Lake and the town below.

It was good to get out again and just stare into the past. Although my tranquility never lasted as class after class of school children would advance on me at first sight with a barrage of barely intelligible questions. After the fifth class I grew weary of children and began to hide in the temples. Shiva and I became tight.

One of the scarier moments in this dusty little one cow town was in the bar of the hotel. One night someone spotted a King Cobra in the middle of the room. Once caught, they were more than happy to retrieve the very large snake from the gunny sack and antagonize it so I could see it with hood fully retracted. Not a request I made, but one they insisted on. I think they like to make us tourists squirm. It worked.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Up, Up, Up - Hampi, Karnataka

Hampi is the capital of the former Vijayanagara Empire that reigned from 1336 to 1565 and is an UNESCO world heritage site. Peppered through out this colossal site of hills and valleys (26 sq km) are over 500 monuments including; temples, elephant stables, ancient market streets, royal residences, bastions and so much more. This town definitely needs three or more days to explore fully. There are so many sites congested in this area that you actually get a feel for what life was like 500-700 years ago in India.

The landscape is like nothing I've seen. Every size boulder imaginable is stacked on top of each other like blocks into countless hills. The rocks slow gradient of color from beige to orange to red throughout the day is stunning. It is hard to imagine how nature has eroded the landscape the way it has.

As amazing as Hampi is for historic sites and beauty, it is just as amazing for the bouldering, which I am now a huge fan of. At first I thought bouldering was primarily a sport of strength. Was I wrong, it is so much more. Strength, determination, problem solving, and flexibility are needed to excel in this sport. The infinite number of boulders here makes it a boulderers paradise.

The climbing community in Hampi is amazing. Climbers from all over the world are here and within a day or two you find many people to climb with. One of my fondest memories of India is when I completed my first "difficult" boulder. After two days of trying to overcome it's problem I finally was able to conquer it. As I rose to my feet and screamed in triumph, a group of climbers 50 feet away cheered and one of the Turkish climbers came running up to me and handed me a cookie as a reward. Truly amazing. As the boulders grew in difficult so did the support from my friends and strangers.

"GO! GO! GO!" Is what rises from below as you begin to struggle and never stops till you are at the top or on the ground. Everyone wants to see you complete a climb.

Everyone absolutely loves it here and doesn't want to leave.

Here's a cool YouTube video to give you a taste of Hampi and bouldering. Great intro.