Saturday, July 30, 2005

Amritsar, Pakistan, and the ride to Dharamsala (Day 21)

We exited our sleeper cab into the soft light of a 6am sun in Amritsar. Almost immediately after stepping onto the platform, a man was asking to be our driver. Little did we know, we would be getting to know this man very well over the next few days. We discussed it for a while, and decided we just wanted to be taken to the Golden Temple, and then maybe to the bus station, for now. And off we went...

When we arrived at the Golden temple, we had to remove our shoes and cover our heads. Upon walking through the entry arch, we were confronted by a magnificent, radiant structure. Made of white marble and plated with gold (though I don't think it's gold anymore), the structure floats on a pond that is surrounded by a walkway and a building. We stood and stared for a while, then began to circumambulate. Many people were bathing in the water (which wasn't exactly clean, but oh well). At two corners, they were giving out water in metal bowls. We stopped for a drink, talked to some people (Sikhs are so open and friendly), and continued to the bridge. Before crossing, however, we made a donation and got leaf-bowls of prasad. Tony was absolutely loving the Sikhs at that point, because although they asked for a Rs 10 donation, he gave Rs 100 and refused change. He got a HUGE bowl of prasad, which is basically sweet dough. So then we headed to the bridge. We weren't allowed to cross until we had eaten some of our prasad for some reason, so we started chowing down. It wasn't bad, but I don't like breakfast, and especially not a bowl of sweet raw dough. But anyway, we then crossed the bridge, and went into the ornately decorated temple. It has two floors and the roof, and we explored all of it. On both floors men were reading "the book" as others sat and listened. It was a bit crowded, but I bet it gets worse at other times of the day and year. Finally, we left the structure. We weren't allowed to make an offering of our prasad because we had eaten from it (but they made us eat from it, so I'm still quite confused about all this), so Lee started throwing his into the water. Almost immediately, big goldfish came up and ate it. Soon enough, Tony and Maria and I were doing it as well. When we got to the end of the bridge, there were a lot of goldfish, and little kids were watching. It was fun,. but I think it might have been disrespectful. Then again, a few Sikhs had joined in as well. From there, we went into the buildings at the front of the complex. In one they had a book sitting, and a donation box. In the basement of another, there was a small group of instrumentalists chanting, with people listening. We stayed there for about 15 minutes. Finally we regrouped (Maria has wondered off to take pictures), and headed outside. We went to retrieve our shoes, and the attendant asked if we had seen the museum. We hadn't, so we recovered our heads and went back in.

Our second trip into the Golden Temple was thus to the museum. It was filled with paintings of the gurus and other important Sikhs, as well as mighty battles and important historical scenes. Also, they had a number of artifacts and weapons on display. A number of them started talking to me, and took a lot of interest in me. I ended up talking to a group of guys my age for about 10 minutes, twice. After spending about an hour in the museum, we regrouped and headed back out. This time, the attendant asked if we had langar while inside. Langar is the free meal, in which everyone sits in the order in which the entered. We rcovered our heads, and went to get Langar. Volunteers serve out daal and pani to people, and the dining experience is supposed to indicate equality and community. The food was actually pretty good, especially considering that they were pouring it out of buckets. After we finished, we headed out to return our plates. Then we went back, and this time, we were given our shoes. There was nothing more to see. Still, the Golden Temple is a very impressive site, and we ended up there for about 5 well-spent hours.

When we returned to where our driver had been, we were relieved to find that he was still there, and had not just gone through our stuff and ditched us. We got into the cramped vehicle, and asked him to take us to the Pakistani border. He said he lived near there (though we came to find that him saying he lived somewhere, owned something, or was related to someone was pretty much just banter), and that it would be no problem at all. So off we went.

Because of our driver's "connections," he was able to get us into the customs zone between India and Pakistan. At the gate, we were refused entry. We met a teacher from a women's college there, and also an actress and a producer (who had passport stamps from about 20 countries). We started having a good conversation, and in the meanwhile, our driver was able to work out a little deal. One of the guards took us around the side of the gate, and we were able to walk to the actual ceremony area where, every night, soldiers from both countries do a demonstration, then families are allowed to cross (even without Visas). We even got to go right up to the line of Pakistan, and take pictures with the guard. We even got to step over that line, so I count it as having entered Pakistan.

We then returned to our driver's "boss's" restaaurant, just on India side of the border. We had more Limcas (we'd had some upon our arrival), and then Lee and I requested beer. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to serve us beer, so they....took us around back of their shop and did so anyway. It was thunderbolt, which is terrible, but it was hot enough that we enjoyed it. Afterward, we returned to our friends. Soon enough, however, they ended up heading back to where we were, so we could negotiate the possibility of a ride up to Amritsar and back. The deal we ended up striking was for transport two ways, a driver to go anywhere we wanted while there, and that it had to be Rintu, our driver before (because he spoke a moderate amount of English). (This would turn out to have been a dumb decision later, but $100 for 4 days and 400 miles of traveling IS a good deal). So we moved our stuff to an even more cramped 4-door AC car. Soon after, we were on our way North to Dharamsala.

One of the first things I noticed was a little picture of Deep Singh on the dashboard. Deep Singh is famous because, after being decapitated in battle, he reportedly kept fighting for several minutes, headless. I thought this strange since I knew that Yovindar was Hindu, but whatever. His real name was Yovindar, but he went by Rintu. However, since he decided that he should call me "Jonny boy," I would only refer to him as Yovindar for the rest of the trip. Also, he decided that Lee looked like Dirty Harry (he didn't, and I doubt Yovindar has even seen that film), so he called Lee Harry for the entire trip. Lee never actually informed him that his name wasn't Harry though, on the other hand...

The ride was not fun. It had been sweltering in Amritsar, and for quite a while the temperature kept up. The AC didn't do anything; it was a useless and expensive amenity. We listened to his collection of Bonghra music (about 8 songs, total), on a loop all the way up. He claimed to be friends with every artist, stating that he "parties with them" (a blatant lie). Lee and I ended up sharing my iPod earphones, in a vain attempt to drown it out. Luckily, after we had gotten North by quite a bit, it started to get noticeably cooler. Moreover, he turned the music down and spent the majority of the trip talking to Maria (much to her dismay - but the front seat comes at a price!) Once we got into the rolling, tree-covered hills, it started to actually feel comfortable. The mountain air, once we got farther North, was more refreshing still. Through the course of our ride, we passed several temples, many of them dedicated to the monkey God, Humayun.

Eventually, we stopped to eat. The place we stopped at sat across a small stream (that normally wasn't there, but for the monsoon rains) from a Shiva temple. I went to explore, and found out it was cute into a cave. It was pretty cool. In the mean time, Lee climbed out onto the rocks between the temple and the restaurant, which was pretty dangerous, but ah well. Eventually, we took our seats and had a decent meal (Yovindar ate off us; this would come to be a regular thing). The owner came and talked to us a while, and said he intends to move to New York very soon. He was a very nice guy, and we talked to him for a while. At dusk, we headed out to make the rest of our trip.

Though I might have mentioned it before, driving at night in India is dangerous. Many of the truck drivers drink excessively, plus driving in India is always a little scary. The road is delineated by lines painted on trees on either side of the road, since there are no reflective lines to follow. People still pass, often, at night. So, with all that in mind, imagine our frustration and worries as we started heading up the steepest part of the mountain, and our car started having transmission trouble. After about 30 minutes of worrying, and Lee at one point climbing out of the window and onto the roof of a moving car, we made it to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj.

It was late, so we unpakced. Lee and I decided to go for a walk just to check things out, nonetheless. My immediate impression - so many white people, so many hippies. We stopped into a STD/ISD/PCO shop to call family, and afterward ended up having a conversation with the owner about that very topic. He had a very cynical view of the Tibetan Buddhists, and of the white girls and boys that come to Dharamsala. He was very open with us, and while some of what he said hit me off as non-sense, it was interesting nonsense. Our conversation actually started when a larger white woman started addressing a dog outside of the shop, telling it that it was a "friendly dog, who loved friends," and gently tapping it in the face with her umbrella. The guy told us that people here were nice to white people because they knew there was money in it. He also said that white girls come to Dharamsala to have sex with Tibetan boys, and that he knew of a number of instances in which this had happened. Unrelated, he told us that English is now compulsory in most schools, thus his seeming mastery of the language.

We then headed back to our hotel. At the narrow shop next door, we found our driver conversing with the shopkeeper. We started chatting with them, but were soon interrupted by a fight in the alley right behind us. A bunch of asian guys were driving by, and right as they did an Indian guy punched this dude RIGHT in the face. The guy got out of the car, and started trying to fight back (understandably). They eventually moved down the alley, and guy picked up a large rock and THREW it at the other guy. Fighting broke out again, and soon the group of Indian guys can walking back our way. Lee and I were just kind of looking, and one guy turned to us and sai "Fuck you, and fuck your country." Of course, he couldn't differentiate us from any of the other white people, and probably didn't know which country we were from...but whatever.

When we got back to the room, I decided to do some laundry. I soaked and washed things in a bucket, and hung them out to dry. Hindsight is everything: if I'd have known that these clothes would not be clean and dry until I got back to America, I would have saved myself the trouble.

Finally, after a brief allergy attack, I feel into a land of dreams...

Friday, July 29, 2005

Two white guys, a Hawaiian, an Indian, a Tibetan, and a Hindu walk into a Buddhist monastary...

This is a "fill in the blank" joke; While in McLeod Ganj, Jon observed special nature of our group dynamics. So make up a good punch-line and enjoy yourself because the north has been an amazing experience. I don't know which part to even talk about, and given that I will be coming home soon I am apprehensive to even try. Jon and Lee left two days ago and we took Maria to Mundi Yesterday. Currently I am alone, the group has split and soon we will all be homeward bound. After we went to Amritsar and spent about 4 hours at the Golden Temple our crazy driver took us to the boarder of Pakistan. After drinking a few Limcas at the boarder we continued on with our akward driver to Dharmshala and McLeod Ganj. This place is not like India, it feels completly different. Can you just walk down the street and find an operating government in exile? The answer is "yes" if you are in McLeod Ganj, or "Little Tibet." So aside from the lecture on philosophy from a Tibetan Monk, the leeches Maria picked up on our hike, more monkey menace, really good Chow Mein, tons of rain, and really big representations of the Buddha, not much has happened here. Alas, tomorrow morning I begin my long journey home; after a few taxi rides, a 10 hour bus, an overnight train, 18 hours of flying and the Sia Express from SeaTac, I will be home. Shout out to Mom, Sia, Yari, The Fam, the gang, and the office.


Packing, Birla house, and a ride on the Sleeper Cab (Day 20)

Upon waking up on the couches at the guest house, we were informed that we did indeed rent rooms at the Jaipur Inn. Since we were paying for them anyway, I headed over to take a shower. When I returned, I realized that Mary, Lee and Tony had ditched me to go to Catholic mass. Since I had some spare time, I repacked some of my stuff, including a duffel bag full of souvenirs. Maria came down and started packing as well.

When Mary returned, she, Maria and I headed to the Defence Colony market to get some Subway. Maria and I both got a falafel and hummus sandwich for Rs 70 (a little under $2). I made a quick trip to the ATM, then we headed back.

My intention was to hit up a few spots in Delhi that friends had recommended. Mary decided she was tired and didn’t want to come, but Lee and Maria did, so we headed out looking for a rickshaw. We found one who would go for Rs 70 , but a guy pulled up right behind him that said he would go for 60 (you negotiate even the rides, of course), so we got in his rickshaw. What we began to realize, as the ride went on, was that our driver a) didn’t know where the Birla house was, and/because b) our driver didn’t speak a lick of English. I think he stopped to ask for directions (not out of the ordinary) 6 times (that was when we began to worry). Eventually, we passed a sign, and I pointed out the direction of the Gandhi museum. I’m fairly convinced that we came across that sign by nothing but coincidence. I gave our driver Rs 61 and sent him on his way.

The Birla house, which is where Gandhi was shot, was fascinating. It had been transformed into a museum that included a nice yard marking his final steps, a room full of clay figurines depicting important moments in his life, and a room full of his writings and other materials. Maria got ahead of us, but Lee and I spent a lot of time taking in the site. At the end of the day, we found out that if you go upstairs, there are all sorts of multimedia that we had missed out on, so we pledged to return. Nonetheless, the site was incredible and humbling.

Our rickshaw driver on the way home made up for the last one. He spoke English well, and even knew where Hawaii was (an ongoing joke for us). He played along when we told him that women take multiple husbands there, and men pay dowries. He told us a few things that we hadn’t heard expressed about Indian weddings elsewhere, and I won’t bother to defoul this blog with them. Suffice it to say, this hombre was quite a joker. We had him drop Maria off at the market to get some masala dosas while Lee and I headed back to pack the car – we had to make it to our train!

At 6pm, we were en route to the train station. We got there in time, and the AIIS staffers that brought us delivered us to our part of the track. They even decided to wait with us until our 7:30pm train. In the mean time, Maria and I headed up to the walkover. From there, one could see the families of rats moving in and out of the elaborate tunnel systems they had dug through the feces-covered tracks. The train stations have a charm all their own that eclipses the rats, the smell, the stray dogs, and the homeless people. Anyway, I held on to that thought for a while until we found out that our train would be 2 hours late, at which point I started to think a bit otherwise. Maria and I ate our Dosas right there in the station, along with some Manaqqa. This set the stage for some wonderful conversation with a group of Punjabis who sat down next to us. They were all joining the Indian army, and though most of them had mastered some simple broken English, one of the boys had studied in school and was fairly fluent. We ended up playing Pictionary, taking turns drawing pictures of men and women from each other’s culture. I let the kid wearing a “Cali” hat listen to a little Tupac Shakur (he didn’t like it). Lee touched a dog that was limping around the station, but this was nothing new for Lee.

Eventually, our train arrived. Or so we thought. One of the AIIS staffers had departed, leaving the older man who didn’t speak much English to help us. When someone told us our train would be coming on different tracks, things started to get iffy. We ended up getting help from a number of people, including a 6’6’’ black guy who, when I began to fold my hands to thank him, stop me to say, “No no no my friend. I am Jose Christian!” Sorry friend, my mistake!

In due time, we found a place to sit. I went and grabbed 4 Limcas, which we quickly downed. Then Tony went and got more Limcas, which we again downed. We sat on the ground next to a group of attractive Indian women. I managed to create a seat between Lee and Maria, who were sitting at a slight diagonal. We rocked out to some tunes, and Lee let that same dog lick his face when it returned. Finally, our train arrived and we found our cabin.

On our walk to it, we witnessed a robbery. To be exact, it happened right behind me, and had I realized what was going on just a few moments earlier, I could have dropped a mean clothesline across the small Indian man’s face and floored him. Instead, the Chinese girl he pilfered from yelled as he ran off. But wouldn’t you know it, thirty feet up, a tall Japanese guy was escorting the thief back the other way, and as we passed I tapped him and said “good job,” to which he smiled.

So then we got on our train. Sleeper cabs are COOL. We were on a second class, so there were only two beds per stack, which gave each berth about 4 feet of clearance. I was in an upper birth opposite from Lee, and Maria was on the single bed on the other side of the aisle from us. Tony was in the bunk below her. The beds and the chains that hold the upper birth beds up are wrapped in this bright blue pleather, like gymm class mats. After eating some sunflower seeds and edamame I had brought, Lee and I had a really bad, but really cheap meal. Chai was 4 rupees, and bread was 10. The little bags of water that came with the meal were UV radiated, and presumably safe to drink thus(?). Eventually, I drifted off to what ended up being a terrible night of sleep. Might I suggest, to anyone with allergy problems, that you try to get a bed that isn't under a vent...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Back to Triveni ghats and Onward to Shri Trayanbakshwar (Day 19)

This morning, Maria, Tony and I headed back down to Triveni ghats to witness the other daily ritual that occurs there. In the morning, people bring buckets of milk to the ghats, pour it into the river, then bend to collect more, and repeatedly pour the water in from above their heads. It's kind of neat to see people doing this, eyes closed, at daybreak, as a thick fog slowly rises up from the river. The other interesting spectacle is seeing men and women of all ages getting in and bathing. First, because the water is no cleaner in the morning than any other time. Second, because it is COLD. I think the quote I uttered at the time was, "These men may have balls of steel, but they are small." Anyway, as I walked around, I met a river ecologist who told me about the significance of the river in non-religious terms. He told me the major river systems actually form the image of a cow (don't know if I believe that). I walked onward, and saw a cow trotting along the ghats. This is the most movement I have seen a cow make so far on this trip. Most of them just lay down, usually in the middle of highly trafficked roads. It began to rain as we headed out, and was pouring by the time we made it to the hotel.

Which signaled nap time for me. I had a great nap, and some crazy dreams (maybe due to the malarone, but I usually have crazy dreams, so who knows.) Long dream short, I had a vision of a kid sprinkling something on a rock, and making it become a star. Somehow all of my graduating class had gone on a senior trip to India, and met me in Haridwar to sit in circles and see this. But whenever I took a picture, the screen would show up black. Then I stood up, and the hall was empty.

I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing. My ayurvedic massuer had arrived. I thought ayurvedic massages involved a steady stream of oil on one's third eye, but this one was more or less a regular massage, but the best $12 massage I'll probably ever have. My heel was still in all sorts of pain, which the massuer helped me figure out. When he was finished, I felt quite relaxed. So much so that Lee decided to schedule a massage for himself. While doing so, he also expressed interest in a banana lasse, so I ordered two. They were decent, but it was the quickest thirty rupees I spent on the trip. After that, I relaxed, showered, then packed up some of my stuff and moved it into Maria and Christy's room so Lee could get his massage in peace.

That's when the fun started. Christy and Tony were out on the balcony, and Christy pointed at some grey monkeys running around on nearby rooftops. I got the rest of some crappy trail mix, and we chucked it on the roof of a nearby building. Soon, about 20 monkeys, including moms, dads, and "little oo-oos" were running around. Soon enough, they realized where the food was coming from, and started heading up. Within ten minutes, we had two mamas, two baby oo-oos, and a guardian papa sitting on our balcony. Tony handfed the dad, who just took the banana chips from his hand. But when Tony tried to pet it, it got mean, and thus we immediately went inside. We proceeded to throw banana chips out the window while snapping pictures for the next hour. During this time, the babies started playing tug-of-war with Maria's orange skirt, chewing and rolling to their hearts' content. Then they played a little tag. Then they wrestled. All of this while mama sat by the window and tried repeatedly to get in, as she was in full defense mode. In time, she decided we weren't a threat, and backed off. By the time Lee, who is mildly insane, came to the room, we thought it'd be ok for him to go out and pet them. And he did. One of the babies touched his palm a few times, and the mama let him pet her side and tail. But when he tried to pet the dad, dad got mad again. This kind of ended monkey time. We headed to lunch and I was finally able to get some chaat (I got aloo chaat, which was cold potatoes and herbs). After lunch, Moses was ready to go, so this we did.

So from there we headed to a 13-story temple called Shri Trayanbakshwar. The walk down to it revealed it as a touristy destination: when little streetside shops selling carvings accept credit cards, you begin to realize their targeted audience might not be locals. After walking through the small town, we came to a large bridge. As we walked across, an older man saw my mala (beaded necklace) which I had around my wrist and thumb. He took my hand, raised it in the air, and shouted "Ram! Ram!" Knowing not what to do, I just sort of smiled and said Bom Bolay, which he reacted kindly to. Christy told me that "Ram! Ram!" is a dedication to Ram, and is similar to bom bolay or hello. Anyway, it was pretty cool. Also on this narrow, shaky bridge were cows and motorcycles...

On the other side of the Ganga, standing like an enormous phallic symbol, was the temple. This temple required the visitor to walk all around each level, ringing a bell at North, East, South and West (you are supposed to touch these walls when in Hindu temples anyway, so the bells were a nice "touch"). The temple featured images of Gods such as Ganesh, Ram, Brahma, Kali (God of Death), Saraswati, Durda, and Shiva, to whom the temple was dedicated. The images appeared in separate small rooms, many of which have been converted into stores (in fact, one whole floor was all shops). On about floor six, a small boy smiled at us, and we said hello. We had gotten most of the way along the floor when he came running towards us, shook Lee's hand, smiled, and ran back to his mom. It was SOOOO cute. Toward the top, we started seeing, instead of images, these egg things with lines and dots on them. Christy told me that you were supposed to look into these eggs, and through them you would see the image. I'm no good at magic eye posters, and I couldn't do this either... After walking back down all 13 stories (my heel was purple again), we headed back to the car, and after some brief shopping, got on the road to Delhi.

The trip home did not go well. For some reason, most of the major roads had been shut down, so we were rebuffed in our return effort about three times. Each time, we were redirected to roads of worse quality. Eventually, we stopped for a meal at a hotel. We did the unthinkable: We had a meal without daal OR paneer (Tony will contend that one of the dishes had paneer, I will contend that Tony is a complete liar). When we finally got into Delhi, we had turned a five-hour drive into about a 9 hour drive. We made it to a gas station in the nick of time. Many of them close down at night so they won't get robbed, and this has the unfortunately side effect of creating long stretches of road where no gasoline can be purchased. While at the gas station, one of our group members kept holding out a stalk of marijuana leaves out the window, and asking the attendants, in a superb towelie voice, "you wanna get high?" This person even offered it to a guy holding a gun, who took it, looked at it, and HANDED IT BACK. See, the plant grows literally everywhere. Collecting it was no challenge whatsoever, and possessing it was no cause for alarm for anyone. They just thought the person offering it was kind of strange. That's why we made sure to tell them we were British before we left.

We got in late, and headed straight to the couches to pass out.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sunday, July 24, 2005

I drank from the Ganga

Right out of the river, it was pretty cool. I figure if the Hindu Gods protect them from water borne illness, my God will keep tabs on me. In Haridwar our hotel was like a woven hut on the bank of the Ganga. It is a religious holiday right now, so thousands of men, and a few women, came to Haridwar from throughout the region. Anytime during this month they will come, stay for a few days in large tent cities and bathe in the Ganga. Then they will carry very ornate yokes with Ganga water back to their homes by foot. Throughout the process the water may never touch the ground, it is holy and will bless their houses and used for medicine and other religious purposes. While in the city the men were very festive; most had a 12-15 day walk ahead of them, but were empowered by the number of other Hindu believers in the city (which was very apparent because they were all clad in bright orange clothing with Shiva markings on them.) There were virtually no other tourists there so our group of five was like a parade. Everybody wanted to talk to us, take pictures with us, and just follow us. The girls, who were by far the most popular, always had at least a dozen men around them. Lee would often yell "Bom, Bom" and the street would just echo back in an uproar of people "Bom Bom Bolay, Bom Bom Bolay, Hare Rade." The people were very excited. In Rishikesh we got to see a candle ceremony that takes place on the river bank at twilight. We sent flower bowls with candles down the river. There was nothing familiar to me, but I could not stop thinking about Shan, it was really moving. At our hotel we coaxed some monkeys onto our balcony with some of Jon's trail mix. At first I fed some banana chips to a male. Then we retreated behind our windows for about 50 minutes while two baby monkeys and their mothers and the male relaxed on our porch. They played in some of Mariah's clothes that were drying. Then Lee went out and was petting them and holding their hands. I have rode an elephant and petted a monkey. Tonight we leave on a train for Amritsar; at least we will not be able to get detoured and have to drive obscene distances at night like our last excursion (that was another story.) For Sia, my flight home is Northwest Airlines landing at 11:30 am on August 1, you can bring my phone from my bedroom bookshelf if you want, you should come hungry because I will be, and be early because I will give the pilot a little Baukshish to expidite the flight (that is how we work in India.) Shout out to Mom, Sia, Yari, The Fam, the gang, the office, C-Woo and all our new freshmen who are coming, DHC, Mat and Joe.