Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Burning Ghats of Varanasi

Drying Laundry on the Ghats, Varanasi
The chanting started softly in the distance, a murmur that grew louder and louder. As the group neared us, the rhythmic chants reverberated off the walls of the dark, narrow laneways.

We quickly scampered up onto the steps of a tiny shop, anticipating the onrush in the confined passageway that was barely wide enough for the motorbikes or Brahma cows that had squeezed by us earlier.

Suddenly the group of chanters burst around a corner and Carol raised her camera to take a picture. I pulled her arm down as the last bearer turned his head and scowled at us. Photos are definitely frowned upon in Varanasi.

Just as quickly as they had appeared, the litter bearers disappeared around another corner heading toward the holy waters of the Ganges. On the litter was a body wrapped in bright gold cloth, which made it all the more startling in the dark laneway.
Carolann's Blurry Photo (thanks to me)

“Don’t worry,” our guide Prashant consoled her, “there will be another one in a minute. Every minute there will be one more. Everybody wants to be cremated on the Ganges.”

Sure enough, a second and then a third group of male mourners shuffled by carrying a body covered in garlands of flowers on a bamboo litter and chanting to their God to accept the deceased on its journey to Nirvana.

We were following Prashant through a dark maze of ancient laneways lined with tiny shops selling iced milk, lassi drinks, and paneer dipped in sizzling pans of hot oil. It was so close that I could feel the heat of the charcoal burners as we passed.

Iced Milk Vendor
The lanes wound down to the fabled burning ghats, a series of long, wide steps leading to the holy river Ganges. Without our guide we would have been totally lost in the narrow confines of old Varanasi. But then I realized we could have just as easily followed the steady stream of chanting mourners. Getting back, however, would be a different story. A guide is a must.

Varanasi is the home of Shiva, the destroyer God of Hindus. And it is every Hindu’s wish to be cleansed with the holy waters, cremated at the burning ghats with the sacred eternal fire, and then have their ashes tossed into the sacred waters of the Ganges. This allows the soul to proceed directly to heaven, without having to deal with karma and reincarnations.

We arrived at the top of the biggest burning ghat, Manikarnika, and saw a huge pile of firewood stacked 12-feet high that blocked our view of the water. Prashant told us that they imported the wood from southern India at great expense. Sandalwood, teak and other precious woods are used by the wealthy; ordinary woods by those who cannot afford the heavily scented imports. People plan their cremations well in advance in order to get the right wood or to save the money for transporting their mortal remains to the Ganges.

Stacks of Firewood
We turned a corner around an ancient temple that housed the eternal flames and saw several columns of grey smoke spiraling up from the steps of the ghat. Oddly, and much to our relief, there was only the normal smell of burning wood. We peered over the edge of the top landing, and saw 10 separate piles of burning funeral pyres on different landings, high above the water.

As we stood watching, a steady column of bearers carried bodies wrapped in gold cloth down to the river. One after the other, they immersed the body in the Ganges, sometimes wading into the river themselves. At other times they merely doused the cloth with handfuls of the sacred water.

After this ritual cleansing, workers stacked firewood in neat piles, laid the body on top and then stacked on more wood in orderly rows. A worker from the temple brought down the eternal sacred fire that had burned in the temple for centuries and lit the wood. The dry wood caught quickly and the flames leapt up, mercifully hiding the body, which was still wrapped in a white cloth.

The amount of wood, not just the type, is critical to ensure complete cremation. If a poor family cannot afford enough wood, and the body does not completely burn, a worker will use a long pole to deftly reposition the limbs over the burning flames.

At some of the fires, a lone man circled and recited a prayer. We learned that this would always be the son or other male member of the deceased’s family. Women were banned from the ceremony for fear that their cries or sobbing would harm the ascendency of the soul to nirvana. The transfer must be pure and not sad or painful.

The Burning Ghats of Manikarnika
Near the water’s edge, a huge pile of grey ashes was waiting to be spread onto the holy Ganges. After a cremation, ashes and bits of bone are gathered up and “untouchables” sift them for bits of gold jewelry. We were told by one of the workers that the recovered gold is used to purchase wood for poor families.

But, having been forewarned, I was suspicious when that same person asked for a donation to the cause. This is a common scam in Varanasi and, in fact, was one of the reasons we had hired Prashant to escort us down to the ghats.

Photographing the cremation is forbidden because the act of “taking a photo interrupts the soul’s journey to nirvana.”  Our friend Dave had warned us about taking pictures and about the scam after an unpleasant encounter with touts on the ghats during his visit to Varanasi the year before. And we were cautioned by our guide and by workers at the ghat to be respectful and to be wary of the touts and their aggressive requests for “donations”.

Our guide, however, told us that taking pictures would be acceptable from a discrete distance. Just the night before, in fact, we had taken a boat ride on the Ganges to see the burning ghats from the water. Our guide then had told us the same thing and I had taken photos from a good distance away in order to avoid offending the families.

Burning Ghats at Night
So I waited this time until we had walked quite a ways from the ghats and the burning funeral pyres. Before taking any photos, I checked again with Prashant to ensure I was far enough away from the grieving families and the ritual. I wanted to be as sensitive as possible.

As I raised my camera, a hand suddenly shot up in front of me and a "tout" who claimed he worked at the ghats suddenly started shouting at me. Another rushed over and tapped me on the arm. I protested that I hadn't actually taken any photos and offered to show them the proof on my digital camera. They waved my camera away, called me a liar, pointed a lit cigarette in my face and threatened to take me "inside," whatever the hell that meant.

I was ready for a serious punch up and told them that if they touched me again or jammed that cigarette in my face one more time they would be sorry. Fortunately, for all (but I suspect especially for me), my guide stepped in between us and I decided to walk away, furious but unharmed.

The surly tout followed me along the ghat with his lit cigarette. I turned and jokingly asked him how much he wanted to allow me to take a photo, because he really wasn’t concerned about anybody’s soul he was just using the guilt factor to get money from tourists.

Suddenly his tone changed, "Oh, if you would like to take a photo, you can do so over here, but only if you make a donation to help buy wood for the poor."

"How much," I asked. "Whatever amount you feel is good," was the reply. I was offended by his hypocrisy and money-grabbing approach and wondered aloud, "How much does it cost to pay for a destroyed soul?” He just smiled at me.

Anyway, lesson learned. Always hire a guide to protect you from the aggressive touts at the ghats, be extra sensitive taking photos at religious sites, and don't get thrown in an Indian jail over something stupid, no matter how angry you are! 
Holy Man (Sadhu)

One final note. Not everyone is cremated at the Ganges ghats. Children under five, sadhus (holy men) and pregnant women are considered pure and do not need to be cleansed by the sacred fire. They are simply set adrift on the Ganges.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bali in the Rain (Carolann's Story)

(Carolann's thoughts about Bali. This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

We're in Bali during the rainy season and, according to a bright young university student we met while taking shelter from a flash storm, climate change is responsible for harder and longer rainy seasons here.

So climate change is pounding the island we love and remember well. But so too is over-crowding, environmental mismanagement, and an explosion of tourism-related development. Dan and I are admittedly part of the problem.

Time magazine reported this year that as the moss thickens on the island's prolific mountain temples, "rivers swell and flush down their trash and frothing human waste into the sea off Kuta Beach". Balinese authorities now warn tourists of the potential for skin infections. Swim at your own risk. The infrastructure (essential things like drain pipes, reservoirs, sewer treatment facilities) is not keeping up with development.

Maybe it's just as well that we couldn't find availability at any reasonably priced beach resort in the Kuta area. But it looks, however, like the problems will continue westward, past Kuta.

After a frantic search for accommodation last week, Dan found a delightful villa a few minutes walk from Echo Beach in the former rice-fields of Cungga. I say "former" because this area tells a familiar story. Farmers are selling their fields that roll down to the sea. Developers are ploughing under the crops, raising up in their place square-box glass and cement apartments and chi-chi villas overlooking the water. We are now comfortably ensconced in one such 4-bedroom villa, well staffed with a cook, housekeeper and pool man (included in the $250/night price). Michael Frank's California beach music is playing on an I-pod, rooms are air conditioned, we have high speed internet, a refreshing lap pool, and four ensuite washrooms each the size of a typical hotel room in Singapore. As I said, Dan and I are part of the problem.

Everyone has their paradise remembered story and of course we have a few. One of them is Bali. Dan and I know this unique Hindu island of Indonesia from just after the 2002 terrorist bombing which tanked tourism for a few years afterwards. The threat of continued terrorism, which sadly materialized in 2005, resulted in more bankruptcies. Back then, seeing few cars, we travelled into Bali's cultural heart, worlds apart from the westernized beach resorts.

We drove between hamlets on roads cut into the mountains overlooking terraced rice fields. The mountains gave way to fields of staked-orchids and then we continued under a canopy of trees with pink-hued vines hanging long and straight like a young girl's hair. Even now, though there's more traffic on the mountain roads - motorcycles fuelled by recycled Absolut Vodka bottles filled with gasoline - it's still a pleasant drive. Clusters of houses and private temples are tucked behind intricately carved, stone walls. No one believes Bali to be free of poverty, but, unlike in other developing countries, you generally won't see squalor from the road. Poor Balinese live in simple houses within a walled compound. The thick and blackened stone walls are beautiful in themselves, with the quality of an ancient ruin. The walls deter evil spirits who, it's believed, are unable to climb or turn sharp corners.

Last week in Ubud, Bali's soulful art centre, I am as impressed by the arts and crafts as before, especially by how they can make new things look antique or weathered. But since we're now at that stage of life where downsizing and disposing of possessions has replaced acquisition, I'm not buying, though I can admire. Besides, Dan reminds me that there's a dozen stores in Toronto that import Indonesian home furnishing. Not to mention that the carved wooden picture frames I bought last time warped and cracked in our centrally heated dry Canadian home. Still, Dan has to drag me away from a two-tonne piece of garden statuary which I'm mentally placing in our back yard in front of the dwarf Japanese maple. "But they can ship it!"

Let's get back to the beach.

Canggu is a small town, isolated for now from the traffic chaos and commercial buzz of Kuta, Legian, and Seminyak, home to Bali's well developed resorts. But it's just a matter of time before Canggu is transformed. The advertising boards are already running down the main road promising a luxury lifestyle at the "best beach in Bali."

I'm rolling my eyes.

While you can walk for long distances in either direction along the beach, the stretch nearest to the villa is not good for swimming. The current is strong and there's a powerful undertow. It's best suited to walking if you don't mind sand the colour of mud particularly in this rainy reason. Once you negotiate the puddles and stare-down the doe-eyed cows on a 200-metre path between the villa and the beach, it's an easy five-minute walk to Echo Beach central. There, we've found several restaurants with tables spilling out into the open air where you can eat fresh seafood barbecued to order. And ten minutes past Echo Beach, and the current end of the sea wall, there's a very good swimming beach with rented lounge chairs and bar service.

I'm looking forward to trying out that beach in the four-hour gap between rain storms.

Still, life is good, cheap and easy for foreigners in south Bali. The tough part is how to deal with one's conscience. If we come back, are we not contributing further to the problems? Or should we come back so that our tourist dollars can support a better infrastructure? Will Bali go the way of other countries in paving over its paradise?

I remember the young student of International Relations we met at the rice fields. I had asked him if he planned to work abroad after he graduates, since his fine English and marketable skills might secure him a good future in the west. It's a fair question since we're recently left India and so many bright young people we encountered there expressed a desire to emigrate.

He responded: "I plan to stay here. I have a responsibility to this land."

Maybe I don't need to worry about Bali so much.

Melting in Rajesthan (Carolann's Story)

(Carolann's thoughts about travel in Rajesthan, India)

I'm getting tired.

Dan and I have a time-worn understanding that we should only travel for three months at a stretch. Yet we've not been able to do it. Since our excursions are tied to my leave of absences, and these are similarly tied to a rental agreement with tenants, inevitably we stretch out our time abroad. Our first extended travel was for ten months, the second time six months. Now the plan is for seven months.

Still, the rule of three months is tied to my nervous system. Travelling in developing/undeveloped countries takes a lot out of me and, even if we salt our travels with a bit of luxury, it's still hard to blast your way out onto the streets every day when you leave the sanity of the guesthouse.

In this e-mail I'm going to whine. While Dan says just "suck it up", I say "Tag, you're it!" By telling all of you about how I feel at this point, this is a kind of therapy for me. The monkey on my back is now yours.

It's approaching two months and I'm getting tired and cranky. Even the generous hospitality of our hosts in Delhi cannot break my mood for long. I'm good for a day or so, and then everything is a chore. I'm tired of flies up my nose, tired of the incurable congestion. I've overloaded my senses with sights, smells, sounds, tastes and there's no time to assimilate these things, make sense of them. I turn my head from the beggar children tapping at the car window. Once, when I looked, I saw a seven-year old girl who returned my stare. A pretty girl, not at all spoiled or broken, just flat out poor. I overload too in self-loathing.

We pick our way along the streets of Udaipur dodging motorcycles and auto-rickshaws attacking from two directions on our way to check out restaurants - something we do regularly for Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. TheSavage Cafe is a dump! At the recommended Namaste Cafe, our waiter emerges from the toilet and wipes his hands on the chequered tablecloth opposite our own.

At lunch I look out from our rooftop cafe over the houses and to the lake. I see a woman peeling an orange for her son on a nearby roof terrace. With each handful of peelings, she lobs them over the railing onto the street, or onto a car or pedestrian. I can't make out whose day was just made.

On the street after lunch, the vendors attack.

"This is fine product."

"Madam, where you from?"

I give good price"

"Oh. Shut up!!!!"

I'm tired.

My favourite pen has just run dry.

We return to our room at a truly wonderful guesthouse. It's basic, but the owner, a British Expat gives me the western element I sorely need. They serve French press coffee. Outside of high-end properties in India, one gets Nescafe in the morning. Enough said.

"I've trained my staff on how to make good coffee," says Carol the owner of the Hibiscus Guesthouse.

I'm chatting with Carol one morning and one of her staff enters with Oscar on a leash. Oscar is a Great Dane, a gentle, golden, elephant-like animal. When he stretches out for a nap, he takes the entire length of a day bed.

"Take Oscar upstairs to the roof now and don't feed him until he's up there." directs Carol. She turns to me: "If they feed him downstairs, they will never get him out of the reception area."

The attendant shuffles by and nods.

Oscar is next seen on the welcome couch for new guests, licking his chops.

Carol sighs. "It's really hard to make staff listen to instructions. It's a challenge."

At this point, it's hard to tell Carol that while our room has been cleaned for the day and the bed made, the staff did not replace the empty toilet paper, nor exchange the sodden towel on the floor (rather, they hung it up). The soap has also disappeared.

I'm tired.

Today's newspaper headline is all about 400 flamingos fried by electrical wires strung across their breeding grounds. These birds migrate annually over the Himalayas to settle on marshland in India to breed. There's a new hydro installation through this sensitive area. Some claimed that a car horn might have startled the birds and they took off en masse. Others say that predator birds have learned to create chaos in the flock and the flamingos then throw themselves up into the high voltage wires. Ornithologists are demanding that the government coat the exposed wires or bury them.

I sympathize with these flamingos, zapped and charred. Too much, too fast.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Coloured Impressions of India

"A stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature.”
Street Market and 'Red Fort' in Jodhpur

India assaults all the senses in every imaginable way – through the ears, the nose, the eyes. In his excellent novel “Life of Pi,” Canadian author Yann Martel writes that “a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature.” 

Sometimes I feel that we travel because of a restlessness that we can’t seem to satisfy at home. In India I certainly don’t feel restless – just beaten – by the ceaseless noise, the brain-piercing scream of the horns, the roar of the tuk-tuks, the tap, tap, tap of a small hungry child’s fingernails on the car window. The pain reaches right inside your head and it never stops, even if you plug your ears.

I look at the girl’s pleading eyes and I feel her pain; I look away and I feel guilty. I ignore her hand-to-mouth gestures, begging for money to eat, and my guilt subsides, but her pain is seared into my brain and it won’t go away so easily. And so it is with the pain of India. It is everywhere, like the beggars on the streets. You force yourself to ignore it, but it doesn’t go away.

On the Streets
And it’s impossible to ignore the smells, the pollution, the garbage, the burning sandalwood of the funeral pyres. The ever-present sacred cows, contentedly eating their plastic-wrapped garbage, leave not-so-tidy reeking piles on the streets. In the older parts of cities, the not-so-holy pigs root through open sewers looking for something to eat.  In some parts of India the stench of rotting garbage, cow dung and sewers is overwhelming. I’m thankful for my cold that blocks out some of the smell and for the surprising discovery that all you can smell at the burning ghats in Varanasi is the scent of burning wood. The rich can afford exotic nice smelling woods, the poor get ordinary firewood. Thankfully wood smoke is all we smell.
Sacred Cows Feeding

The guidebook describes the older parts of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, as more “authentic” than some of the other cities in India. Translate this to mean open sewers, cows rummaging through garbage piles, packs of dogs, screaming motorbikes and belching tuk-tuks racing through the narrow laneways. Dodge a bike and you might step into the open sewer.

"Blue City" of Jodhpur
But, in spite of the smells and the chaotic streets, India treats the eyes to a marvelous kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. In Jodhpur, the Indigo blue walls of the ancient “Blue City” contrast sharply with the dark red of the massive Mehrangarh Fort on top of the 120-metre red rock plunked in the middle of the brown desert. The fort, built in 1459, is one of the most impressive in India and is very well maintained. Inside its imposing thick walls are several palaces with royal palanquins (litters), shiny jewelry, and delicately carved stone latticework, cleverly angled to allow the women of the palaces to see out without being seen.

"Red Fort" Merhangarth

Intricate Detail of "Red Fort"
On one massive wall of the fort you can see the imprints of cannonballs and on another the handprints of the wives who sacrificed themselves by immolation (sati) after the death of the Rajah.

Handprints of the Wives
Nearby is the Jaswant Thada mausoleum, so stunningly white it almost hurts the eyes in the bright desert sun.

And everywhere in this city in the very traditional state of Rajasthan, women flit about like butterflies in their brilliantly coloured saris. In the market or even working in the rice fields, they wear their best, brightest saris. At weddings, they dress up a bit more by adding gold trim to the saris and gold bracelets around their arms and ankles.
Buying Saris in the Market

We were fortunate enough to witness a traditional wedding ceremony at our hotel. The child bride and groom arrived on a white horse preceded by a marching band with horns and drums. Over a thousand guests in gold-trimmed finery feasted at tables set up around the lawn. This extravagant opulence was quite a contrast to the poverty and hunger we saw elsewhere.

Bride and Groom
Band and Procession

Some Men Wore Turbans in Respect of Groom

Wedding Guest in Gold Trimmed Sari
Earlier I had helped the cooking staff peel corn for the feast and watched as they prepared massive amounts of curries and gravies and rice in huge cauldrons on open fires. Unfortunately, I broke off the long stem of the corn cob, which resulted in much hooting and laughter at my "mistake." I learned that, unlike at home where we use picks to hold the hot cob, they use the stem as a handle to eat the corn.
Peeling Corn

Preparing the Wedding Feast
The Outdoor Kitchen
The wedding families were from the Krishna, or “peace” sect, and no onions or garlic could be used in the cooking. Sadly for us, they don’t allow alcohol either.

December is wedding month in Rajasthan, so we saw and heard several of these ceremonies every day until we left this state. The noise of the bands, the music and the compulsory fireworks kept us up at night.

The brilliant colours continued into the desert. Driving through the countryside, we passed irrigated fields of bright yellow mustard, dark green winter wheat that had replaced the rice, and white cotton. I spotted a rice factory where they were burning piles of rice hulls. Curious about the process, I asked the manager if I could tour the plant to see how they processed rice.

The tour was conducted in Hindi, but I managed to decipher the following. They burned the hulls to create hot water and steam to clean the rice. It was then funneled through a series of tubes that took it to drying belts and then to a computerized optical scanning machine that sorted the rice into the proper shoots for packaging either for local consumption or export. It was modern, clean and quite impressive given the antiquated methods used for growing and harvesting the rice.

Turbans of Rajahstan

In our rambles through the countryside around Jodhpur, we drove through a small village on market day.  Here the Rajasthani men all wore traditional brightly coloured turbans. They wrap metres and metres of coloured cloth around their heads, the pattern and colour of cloth changing according to their caste or religious sect. The overall effect of saris and turbans in the marketplace is a riot of colour that is so distracting you forget about the cow paddies or the screaming motorbike that grazes your elbow as it races through the narrow, crowded market laneways.

Wrapping the Turban

Market Day in Small Village
Marketplace in Jodhpur
Down a dusty brown dirt road, we came upon a farmer’s hut. The patriarch was an opium drinker and offered to perform the ritual of cleaning, filtering and drinking the opium. He said it was not only legal in India (which is true) but that it was safe, and invited me to join him. His glazed eyes told another story, however, and I politely declined. His daughter showed us the traditional mud and cow dung hut that they lived in and offered us some masala tea, which we also declined. But even here, in the middle of the arid brown desert there was colour.
Glazed Eyes Tell a Story
Preparing the Opium Water

Opium Drinker's Hut
A little further down the track, we came to a weaver’s compound. The head weaver explained the process, gave us a demonstration and told us about the caste system. I never knew there was a weaver caste, but he said he could only marry someone from the same caste and actually worked side by side with his wife to create beautiful traditional dhurries or handmade Indian rugs.
The Dhurrie Weaver
Weaver's Wares

He offered us tea and laid his creations out on the ground for us to see. Having drunk his tea and seen the rugs, Carolann, of course, just had to have one. We bought a lovely blue one as a Christmas present for her brother and sister-in-law Mary and had it shipped home.

On the road we passed a woman in a purple sari carrying two bright silver containers of water on her head. In Udaipur, we saw a traditional dance performance where one adept carried 10 water jars on her head. In the town of Chittorgagh, we saw a young child in a bright red costume with a smaller vase on her head. She was balancing on a tight rope at the side of the road to entertain the crowd and raise money for her family. She swayed back and forth in time to the music as her apprehensive father stood below waiting to catch her. At one point she dropped onto a tin pie plate and slid across the rope on her knees.

Water Bearer

Young Street Performer

We drove from Jodhpur to Bundi and passed through an area populated by followers of the Jain religion. On the way, we stopped at an incredibly delicate Jain temple, again brilliantly white. Every marble column, arch, wall and ceiling was intricately carved with depictions of gods, demons and symbols. Here the absence of all colour was dramatic.
Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Temple

Interior of Jain Temple
In Bundi, we discovered another “Blue City” and another fort, smaller and less well preserved than the one in Jodhpur, but still quite interesting. Bundi had the advantage of being less crowded and noisy, with fewer tuk-tuks and motorbikes, and no cars in the older part, which had narrow laneways lined with bright Indigo blue walls. It was actually quite peaceful compared to Jodhpur, but the Taragarh Fort, which is government run, was in a sad state of disrepair and overrun with vegetation.

Taragarh Fort Elephant Gate

But even here, there were splashes of colour. Beautiful wall paintings with highlights in real gold were hidden in locked rooms. It is best to hire a guide or you won’t be able to see these treasures. Locals are forbidden entry because they have been known to scrape off the gold figures. We climbed through a ssecret trap door on the second level and emerged on the third level onto a patio with large trees, a lawn and pools of blue water. Again, without a guide you would never find it.
Wall Painting

Third Level Patio
Our guide was an amateur archaeologist known as Kukki (Mr. Om Prakash Sharma), who had become famous by discovering over 80 sites of pre-historic rock paintings that were totally unknown until he found them. The paintings are from the Mesolithic period and are estimated to be 15,000 years old.

He took us on a trek in the desert, an Indian version of an African savannah with scrub trees, termite mounds, cobras and sloth bears. Luckily we didn’t see any snakes or bears, but we did see evidence of the bears, including dug up termite mounds and scat.

We were lucky enough, however, to see two galloping Indian antelopes that dashed away as I was trying to take their picture. They were huge animals that looked like a cross between a large horse and a cow, but with a dog-like face. A Dr. Seuss creature if I ever saw one!

Galloping Indian Antelope

We hiked through the parched brown desert dodging antelope droppings and termite mounds to a deep gorge. A peek over the lip of the gorge revealed a lush green jungle and a large waterfall, the bright green and blue contrasting sharply with the brown sandy desert. At the bottom, Kukki pointed out the top of a 35-foot tower that was barely discernible above the treetops. He explained that in the time of the Rajahs, the Rajah would perch in the tower with a rifle. Beaters on elephants would drive tigers up the gorge so that he could shoot them. Hundreds were killed this way.
The Gorge and Waterfall in the Desert

I eased myself over the lip of the gorge and followed Kukki down 30 metres to a ledge with a rock overhang where the rock paintings were. He went first and beat the ground and rock to see if there were any cobras. He assured me it was quite safe, but all I could think of was my friend Dick’s saying about rattle snakes at our cottage. “The first person wakes the snake up, the second angers it and the third gets bit.” Carolann wisely chose to stay up on top of the gorge while I slide down behind Kukki to the rock paintings.

The bright ox-blood coloured pre-historic stick figures of men hunting antelope and large-horned buffalo were surprisingly well preserved having been protected by the rock overhang. In the corner of the large cleft in the rock, a pile of ashes indicated where shamans still conducted sacred rituals at night.

Pre-historic Rock Painting
Even the cows in India can sometimes be colourful. The white Brahmas often have their horns dyed to show ownership.

In Udaipur, the “White City” where all the buildings are made of white stone, the highlights are the ornate and lavishly decorated City Palace, the James Bond hotel from the movie Octopussy and the Rajah’s summer home, both on islands on a lake in the middle of town. Both are a lovely white during the day, but lit up like torches at night. The best view we found was from the Ambrai Restaurant right on the water. This was the best restaurant in town and the setting was priceless.
View of City Palace at Night from Ambrai paito

Lake Palace on Pichola Lake

Folk Dance in Udaipur
Udaipur was probably our most enjoyable city in Rajahstan. It still had tuk tuks and piercing horns, but it was more peaceful, had a more relaxed atmosphere and it was easier to walk around the narrow streets. This is where we attended the performance of traditional Indian dance and saw the woman balancing 10 water jars on her head while walking barefoot on crushed glass. It was a fitting end to our tour of Rajasthan, not because we felt we had been walking on shards the whole time, but because the brilliant colours of the costumes will always remind me of this part of India. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Blue City Madness (Carolann's Story)

In the cover song of his 1992 album, The Future, Leonard Cohen sings: "Repent. Repent. I've seen the future, brother, and it's murder."
Maybe it's Cohen's lugubrious, dark voice, or maybe it's the shock of today's experience inside the guts of a medieval city, ravaged by the contemporary world , but his words resonate with me now more than ever.
Here in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, I've seen the Blue City. And it's murder.
It's nothing new for us to walk through crowded markets, narrow streets thickly packed with auto-rickshaws, contending with motorcycles, pedi-cabs, bicycles, fruit carts and cows for pedestrian space. In fact, I'm boring myself with the same old stories of chipped cement blasting horns, and cow dung. How can Jodhpur's Blue City be different from any other pile of 15th century rubble shoehorned into the new millenium?
Let's say it ratchets up the experience.
It's been two hours since emerging. I'm at our hotel. My glass is almost empty. Though my hands are no longer shaking at the keys, I'm still a little light headed... and it's not the rum.
Dan wanted to see the Blue City from the inside. We've seen it from the tower of the Mehrangarh fort and it's truly a blue city. The town growing up over two centuries at the base of this spectacular fort was painted indigo blue, and continues to be maintained in blue.
It's late in the afternoon. We ask our driver to drop us at the clock tower and we'll walk into the Blue City. He agrees, but surprisingly, takes the role of guide now and joins us on our walk. After 15 minutes of the usual struggle along narrow streets, he negotiates a tour for us all in a auto-rickshaw through the maze of inner streets. Cars can't fit; only motorcycles or auto-rickshaws, horses, and bikes.
With a jerk of the engine, which the driver starts by pulling on a cord, we're tearing into the twisting ribbon of streets. Our driver is a maniac for speed, allowing for the circumstances, which includes old women, vegetable carts, and cows among other small motorized vehicles and the odd goat. Our guide, squeezed into the back with Dan and me is energized by the mayhem. Half standing and half sitting, he grips the back of the driver's seat like the reins of a kicking bronco, shouting something at the driver, teeth blazing.
We're going way too fast for the street traffic. We're swerving left and right and the engine sputters and coughs and we shake like a tractor over hardened furrows, every bolt and gear box shaking loose and banging amidst the cacophony of horns and bells and the wail of babies and blasts of motor scooters amplified by the funnelling streets as in an echo chamber.
We shriek to a halt nose to nose with another auto-rickshaw and a Brahma bull all vying for the same piece of pavement. The bull's tail is twitching and slightly raised and he's backing up into the side of our open carriage, yikes, towards the passenger side. Yikes, my side! I brace myself expecting the spray and all at once our cab veers sharply left. So this will not be the day I'm pissed on by a holy cow.
Instead, the whole cab lunges deeply and one of its back wheels is spinning over the open sewer. Quickly correcting, the driver pulls the vehicle ahead with a blast of power I wouldn't believe possible in this bucket. In an instant, we're back on the street but halting once more for a marching band. Red suited trumpeters, drummers, trombone players block our way forward so we wait until the last of the coronets pass and a dozen women who follow wearing yellow and red silk saris trimmed in gold. This is the wedding season. The fear-stiffened groom on a white steed is not far behind. His child bride is somewhere underneath a burden of heavy bands of gold and red cloth.
Rounding the next corner, the driver picks up enough speed to race by a hydro generator, a portion of which suddenly explodes in a burst of fizzling white light and everyone looks up at the web of wires and I suddenly pray that the driver makes speed. We leave the warren and hit the main street and fall into the wake of a large truck and we all briefly disappear inside a billowing cloud of black exhaust.
I now know what it feels like to be inside an oil drum filled with fifty pounds of loose car parts, two bolts of silk, a live chainsaw and a single-stroke lawn mower, two bags of sand, one confused cow, a pot of burning machine oil, random pieces of fruit, and a marching band. The drum is sealed and sent rolling down a hill.
Dan emerges elated and giddy as a teenager. I don't know my husband any more.
I emerge dizzy and coughing and wondering if this indeed is the future - declining empires, madness, grit, decay, noise, and stench, all in the desert of our own making under a burning white sky.

[see for more travel stories by Carolann]

Crossing into India (Carolann's Story)

[From Carolann's Blog at Maturetraveler]

We enjoy hiring a driver and moving about in a private car. As we're older now, we're putting more of our money into door-to-door transport than in previous years. A private car eliminates complex and optimistic train and bus schedules, dirty waiting rooms, the crush of touts and beggars, all of those things you get in stations. And although on the road, we're limited to one snaking, overcrowded pathway, it's still easy to enjoy the passing landscape. I'm engrossed by the swell of the hills, surprise of mountains and drama of recent landslides, and narrow, rutted bridges that shake with bouncing vehicles.

I admit that touring like this gives you only a succession of images. You don't understand much of a culture just because you see rural people at work. As a passing voyeur, you're privy to a storyline that's much the same between under-developed countries: people assembling wares for market, or bent over mats of grain separating out pieces of chaff, or packing cow dung with straw and wrapping the mixture around three-foot sticks that will serve, cleverly, as easy-to-handle cooking fuel. I might as well be watching television without the voice-over. Framed by my window, it's hardly different than a twenty-inch screen.

I'm deep in such thoughts as we near the Nepal-India border. I've got a second wind now after a drug-induced sleep in the jeep. Earlier that morning, I'd thrown out my back yet again, this time worse than before. This is the earthquake which a few days ago had hit me like mere tremors. It happened in the hotel room, just before leaving. When I reached back for the toilet paper -which is all too often badly situated in these budget hotels - I felt that familiar and unwelcome pain. In order to avoid a full out seizure of the muscle, I hit the floor immediately to perform some breathing and stretching exercises.

We planned to leave at dawn in order to get to the border before the worst of the truck traffic. With no place to get breakfast so early (an acceptable breakfast that is), I took two extra-strength muscle relaxants on an empty stomach. By the time we were into the countryside, I was seeing pink piglets in the fields, wearing pink saris, marching into a pink spaceship.

Then it started to rain. Hard sheets of rain. The spaceship disappeared into mist, as I did myself.

The Border

Border crossings are always challenging, confusing, humiliating, or all of the above. It's never easy and Dan and I needed to have our wits about us to figure out how to manage this one into India. My back was sufficiently numb now after the pills, and provided I didn't sneeze or laugh, and stood or sat absolutely erect, I was ready for the crossing.

Our driver, Berinda and his companion Suriyanna (his fiancée had joined him for the trip with our permission) were very helpful. In fact, we had the power of a high-priced tour agency in our jeep. Berinda knew, for example, exactly where we would find all the jeeps waiting for people wanting to go to Kalimpong versus jeeps for other destinations. You could either pay 150 rupees per person (about $7 for Dan and I) for a shared jeep - meaning three or four people corkscrewed into the back seat and three in front - or you could pay 2200 rupees (about $48) for a private jeep. It would take about three hours from the border to Kalimpong. Curiously, all of these India-destination jeeps were lined up on the Nepal side of the border, counter-intuitive for me as I had expected to have to source our jeep once in India.

Dan chose the vehicle (his criteria is functioning seat-belts) and then Suriyanna used her cell phone to call our hotel in Kalimpong to get the owner to give direction to our driver in Hindi. As another precaution, Berinda took the license number of our Indian jeep and gave it to the hotel with notice that he would telephone again in about three hours to check that we had arrived safely.

We parted from our friends promising to keep in touch and wishing them happiness in their forthcoming marriage and emigration plan. Suriyanna would be leaving Nepal soon for Australia. As a recent nursing graduate from a university there, she was being sponsored by a hospital in Brisbane. Once there, she would in turn sponsor her new husband and, like tens of thousands of Nepalese, would make a new life in a foreign country and send money home. Within a year, Nepal will lose one of its very best mountain drivers.

We're off to India. But not yet. After about 100 meters, we stop. Our driver, who doesn't speak English, motions with a wave of his hand for us to go into an office at the side of the road.

It's raining hard. The dreary cement building is cold and appointed like a quarter master's office. This is the Nepal immigration and our visa is checked to ensure we've not overstayed the time limit and our passport is stamped. We also agree to dump our Nepalese currency with this official in exchange for Indian rupees. He offers an acceptable rate and gives us our new currency out of his pocket. Everyone has a sideline.

Then again, we're off for India. But not yet. Another 100 meters we stop again. The driver points to India customs and pulls over to park on the curb.

At the end of a gloomy, muddy path, we enter a one-room wooden shack. An official in army fatigues offers us two grimy seats opposite his desk, and pushes over two forms each (they seek identical information) and waits for us to complete our paperwork. He's rolling back on the legs of his chair, his eyes follow the strokes of our pen.

The room is dark. A single light bulb dangles on a thread from the wooden ceiling, either it's burned out or turned off. A pig waddles in crab grass outside the window. He's not smiling but he's not snarling either, the official that is, not the pig.

Twenty minutes later, our visa is in order, our destination is acceptable. We're dismissed.

Dan can't leave without trying to lighten things up. "Welcome to India. Oh, sorry. You're already here."

Something like a smile, or perhaps it's just a muscle twitch, crosses his face.

It's taken ten years of cajoling and scheming and throwing literature at Dan to convince him to come to India. Not that I'd been to India myself, but it's always seemed to me that I have too narrow a perspective on Asia. And since both Dan and I have proven we're able to get sick in a wide variety of countries, developing and under developed, we can't exclude India any longer for health reasons. So we're finally in. It's still raining. We're choking in the exhaust of idling trucks. I take another pill for the road and hope for the best.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Toy Train of Darjeeling (Carolann's Story)

(This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

I've had two goals in coming to Darjeeling. The first was to visit Lloyd's Botanical Garden, and the other was to take a toy train ride. And during our three days here, we also hoped to have a good cup of tea, something that's eluded us to date in India.

Regarding Lloyd's Botanical Garden, I can skip over that chapter quickly. We had been warned that the garden has seen better days, as it had been raided many times, and an unhealthy smell of sewage clung to one of the lower terraces. As I stroll, I reflect on what the garden once was, and what it could still be with proper investment.

The placement of the garden is perhaps the most interesting thing as it spills down the steep hillside. There are very large trees between which tall shafts of light, like milky spears fall to earth. It's peaceful, save the distant whistle of the toy train. Dan makes note of the varied orchid species and is pleased to find the botanical name of an autumn flowering cherry tree he's been tracking for weeks. I ponder a cactus garden that is enclosed by barb wire.

Darjeeling. The very name conjures comfort and goodness. There's romance in most any former British hill station, pictures of cool summer retreats, the architectural look and feel of Europe for India-weary career diplomats or officers. But Darjeeling overlays that picture with the Himalaya. On one side of the ridge, the town and its hotels cling to the hillside and then the plantations carpet the rest in an undulating descent. On the other side of the ridge, the mountains line the horizon and reach upwards into the sky. Mt. Khangchendzonga is surprisingly close, the third largest mountain on earth after Everest and K2.

But this is 2011, not 1911. The modern world has not been kind to Darjeeling (nor to Kathmandu for that matter). Photos of Darjeeling from a distance are misleading. The place looks lovely, strings of low, wooden buildings draped in layers down the side of green hills like strands of a necklace.

That's the view from a few kilometres away. It's different up close.

Like other crumbling urban spaces in Asia, Darjeeling aches under the crush of honking cars, jeeps, trucks and motorcycles bleeding through wounded, pocked streets more suited to donkeys and rickshaws than to motor vehicles. The town is cut into the mountain so that a home's foundation rests on one terrace and its street level entrance is off a higher terrace. To move between levels of roadways, the switchbacks are so steep and severe that the average small car must stop, shift, and execute a three-point turn to round the corner.

We have confirmed seats on the train for the next day.

Or do we?

The next morning, we enter the train station which smells of burnt coal and garbage and every kind of solvent imaginable. I'm recognizing that the congestion in my lungs and the bubbly, underwater feeling in my head is to be a new norm. It began in Nepal, and I expect it to get worse in India before it gets better. Dan suggests that I steam up the bathroom and breathe it in. but I know what I really need -  a week in Singapore. Only fleeing to my favourite high-humidity city in southeast Asia will correct my sinuses and restore my hearing. But that will have to wait for a while.

I'm curious because our tickets do not have assigned seats. I'm told that we need to check in at the wicket.

The attendant looks at our tickets. "You are on the waiting list."

I'm instantly furious.

"We booked our tickets forty-eight hours in advance as we were instructed. An agent through our hotel arranged it."

"What's the name of your agent, madam?" The attendant's head is wobbling in that characteristic Indian manner. It's a bad sign. It's a gesture of apology and agreeability at the same time, but ironically, given the side to side motion, also prepares me for some inflexibility. He won't be budged.

"I have no idea the name of the agent! The hotel arranged it and it was confirmed and we have this ticket and it's paid for and we've paid a fifty percent commission for the ticket so we didn't have to come to the station ourselves and stand in line."

"Madam, I always tell people to come to the station and do these things themselves. Hotels should know that."

I'm beside myself. Dan moves in.

"This is unacceptable. Look at this ticket. It says CONFIRMED."

The attendants looks at his list, puts on his glasses and looks again at our ticket. The head wobble abruptly changes direction. It's now up and down and his face explodes into a big fat toothy smile.

"Very sorry sir. Cooper is confirmed. Leuper is on the waiting list. I did not have my glasses on."

We board the Joy Train, which is a two-hour sight-seeing train that runs between Darjeeling and Ghum,. During the half hour stop at Ghum, this pint-sized 19th century refurbished coal-fired, steam locomotive is detached from one end of the two-car train and reattached to the other end so it can return us back to Darjeeling.

We're actually taking this tour as a compromise. We originally planned to take our departure from Darjeeling on the famous Toy Train which over ten hours takes you further down West Bengal to a real train station and the airport. But this route had been cancelled since the earthquake in late September. A landslide continues to block the tracks. 

Dan and I have seats 9 and 10. The seat numbering is interesting. I'm on one side half-way up the car and Dan's across the aisle towards the rear. The upholstery is worn thin, the windows unyielding.

The car bounces and sways on the uneven, narrow gauge rails, the whistle screams and the locomotive's chimney belches black smoke. Our little museum piece slowly groans and shakes along the ridge. Being on the mountain side, my view is all about the backsides of tenements, colour-faded laundry draped over grey cement railings. Dan has the best picture taking opportunities from his side and a morning departure throws strong light on the Himalaya.

However, Dan's pictures will not likely be good. There are few places along the route where the view is clear of a dense spider web of legal and illegal electrical wires.

On the way back, the ceiling draws my attention when a fast jerk wakes me up (this is not the most exciting tour I've ever taken). The car's ceiling is elaborately decorated with slices of flattened bamboo arranged in an artful design. It looks like gold if you don't look too closely.

Then again, that's how I feel about Darjeeling itself.