geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
The mammatjes. Part 4
Our comfortable bus ride to Phang Nga went smoothly. Say what you may about Thailand's tourist industry, they certainly have facilities. As promised , the city itself was indeed ugly. However, we managed to find an excellent hotel, the nearby national parks were jaw dropping gorgeous, and we didn't see a single Aussie.
"James Bond Island" in nearby Phang Nga National Park. Perhaps better known as Saramanga's secret layer destroyed by Bond in "The Man with the Golden Gun".
A forest of mangroves, remarkable for their ability to thrive in saline waters.
Hidden green lagoon.
Limestone water cave.
Scenes from a Muslim fishing village we stayed at in the middle of the Phang Nga's dramatic ocean karst scenery.
Normally, sunburns slowly fade away, but Chris' was adamant. It just grew purpler everyday and, recently, had sprouted small blisters and boils. After much effort, Emmy, Katlijn and I convinced her to get it looked at by the doctor and the two little mammatjes set off alone into the big city.
"Stop worrying about us !" Emmy chastised Katlijn, "we're both adults, you know. We can take care of ourselves !"
Katlijn looked at me with parental concern and I tried to assure her that the two mammatjes were right. "What could possibly go wrong ?"
I believe Asians are genetically deficient in their capabilities at giving clear directions, and the two mammatjes were lost within two blocks of our hotel. A few locals tried to help by offering them a ride on their scooter, but while Thai people are accustomed to cramming a family of five onto a single motorcycle, Chris and Emmy thought it was a bad idea. The mammatjes definitely didn't want to make a fuss, but the family insisted on walking them to a nearby monastery. At the sight of two white ladies in need, a small group of gallant orange robed monks came to help.
Slowly turning redder with embarrassment, the two little mammatjes stood in the middle of a growing crowd of concerned monks, families, and children all wondering what to do. Clearly, there was a problem and they wanted to help, but what exactly was the problem ?
Emmy pointed down to Chris' feet and frantically tried to explain in words and body language, "We want to go to the hospital so the doctor can check her feet." Then she continued in the slow high-volume pseudo-English of a Western tourist in Asia, "VERY...BAD...SUNBURN !"
At last, a monk seemed to have picked up a few words and consulted with the other onlookers. After some discussion, the crowd suddenly erupted into chuckles and a balding old monk assured her, "No problem. No problem". He miraculously produced a stylish and sophisticated cell phone from somewhere deep inside his draping orange robes. This was clearly a 21st century Buddhist.
The spectators visibly relaxed. A few kept chuckling and staring. Everyone seemed to be stifling smiles and laughter. Thrust uncomfortably into the center of attention wondering what would happen next, the mammatjes just stood and smiled back. Within minutes, the whine of a siren could be heard in the distance. The mammatjes exchanged glances, was this intended for us ? It kept growing louder and louder, until it became a deafening wale sending any nearby monks or children not currently staring at the mammatjes running out to see what the two little women were up to.
"Godverdomme," muttered Emmy under her breath and with that, an Ambulance burst into the scene knocking over a tree as the local Ao Nang emergency team heroically leapt into the monastery. With blaring sirens and red lights flickering against the orange robes and golden stupas, two paramedics jumped to the rescue, threw together a stretcher, and rushed to the two stunned mammatjes. Unable to contain themselves any longer, the monks burst into a knee slapping, belly aching, gut-laughter.
Despite Chris' protests, the paramedics forced her into the stretcher and asked her if everything was all right.
"I've got a sun burn on my feet," Chris tried to explain.
"BAD...SUN...BURN...ON...FEET," Emmy translated.
The monks roared with delight.
With gallant swiftness, not sure exactly who or what the emergency was about, the two blushing mammatjes were swept inside and the driver gunned the accelerator. The ambulance lurched and bellowed to disentagle itself from the fallen tree as children, villagers, and holy men hooted and hollered with approval. Finally, the ambulance set off down the street in a frenzy of sirens, lights, and laughing monks. The whole monastery was there to see them off with a wave.
Minutes later, they were in a hospital patiently trying to explain to the nurses and doctors that Chis' feet were sun burned. From what I understand, the staff there was extremely helpful and professional in caring for Katlijn's mom, but I'm guessing they snickered privately to each other when they weren't around. The monks, it turned out, were fully aware that ambulance rides in Thailand are free of charge.
They say that in Thai culture, nothing is worth doing if it doesn't contain an element of fun, be it extorting tourists, kickboxing, or helping two little sun-burned ladies. Though well hidden beneath the tourist industry's thick veneer, I give the mammatjes full credit for finally finding Thailand's smile.
Full moon parties rank right up there with Phuket's hookers, government coups, and excessive anti-drug crackdowns as a Thailand trademark. In fact, the current Thai parliamentary installment is actually trying to provide certified legal protection over full moon parties in what they believe is a patentable concept: tens of thousands of wasted backpackers smoking in, drinking down, and shooting up copious quantities and varieties of illegal substances sold to them by crooked cops and jaded boatmen. The "full moon party" (TM) has become so wildly popular that there are now new moon, quarter moon, and half moon variations on the theme. Furthermore, these parties are no longer limited to their original home on Ko Pha Ngan, but are now being copied on all of Thai's karsty paradises: from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman sea. We have talked to a number of [mostly Aussie] backpackers who attend this sort of event and while their foggy recollections between intermittent blackouts probably won't hold up in the court of law, the verdict is in that this is definitely an event not to be missed.
On the night of the Rayleigh beach full moon party, Katlijn and I left the mammatjes giggling in their luxury room, and joined a couple of curious party-goers on our side of paradise to go visit the others living in a creepy jungle bungalow sprawl. As our boatman rounded the rocky outcrop serving as a natural boundary segregating the decent folk from the crusty layabouts, we fully expected to see the dubious beach property crowded with the bronzed bodies of intoxicated Aussie mountain climbing beach bums indulging in a raucous night of illegal debauchery. Instead, what we saw can only be described as South East Asia's biggest dud: in place of the pounding psychedelic trance of a massive moonlit rave, a single bamboo hut was selling discount Foster's beer to a few drunken backpackers sitting cross-legged on the beach lighting homemade firecrackers. These guys could clearly take a few lessons from the mammatjes who were wisely drinking cocktails in the comforts of our side of paradise.
After hanging out at the bar drinking VB from a stubby holder and having a sadly civilized conversation with a Calgarian oil rig worker and a British yacht manager, we officially declared Raileigh's full-moon party a bust and tried to find our way back to go party with the mammatjes. We asked the nearest cooly the cost for a ride home, then watched as his lips slowly morphed into an all-too-familiar smug grin. In that instant, everything was suddenly made clear to us: Rayleigh's so-called full moon party was organized by the boatmen mafia.
The extortionate rate he quoted briefly brought out the little mad people living deep inside both of us. We adamantly refused. We stormed up and down the beach looking for a better deal. We even sat down beside them and started ranting:
"Thailand stinks ! I had no idea they had you in mind when they called your country the 'land of smiles' ! We got better treatment in India ! And by the way, your king's a phony and we are so on to your 'chicken island' scam !"
Unfortunately, not even slandering their beloved king phased these boatmen. They were professionals. Defeated at last, we payed up and let them take us on a five minute boat ride back to the other side. We found out later that our Calgarian and British friends, in a mediocre discount beer-inspired act of martyrdom, actually swam back around the rocky outcrop in the dark rather then succumb to the mafia's demands. Their brave act of shear stupidity in the face of blatant corruption earned them both a drink from us the next evening.
Bird's eye view of Rayleigh from a nearby hiking area.
While Raileigh and its surroundings definitely constitute one of the world's great scenic beach paradises, complete with gorgeous snorkeling opportunities, jungle hikes, and dirt cheap Thai food three times daily, its full-moon dud and our various experiences with the boatmen weren't doing much to slow the growth of my Thai cynicism. It was time to move on.
We visited nearby Ko Phi Phi island by speedboat as part of an incredible tropical snorkeling tour.
Phuket (pronounced "pooh-kett") may seem to you like an odd destination for a jaded traveler weary of Thailand's shady tourist industry. But Emmy and I firmly believed that, like a bad sun burn and forcing down a spicy hot bowl of green chili curry, a trip to South Thailand is not complete without enduring the obligatory visit to Phuket.
Las Vegas, jet skis, and loud obnoxious Aussies: three things that, by themselves, would give the average holiday traveler second thoughts about leaving the comforts of home. But put them together, and you've got Phuket. It is like hell in Asia, but full of Western tourists. While Katlijn endured one of the most feared of awkward situations (walking through an Asian red light district with your mother), I decided this was as good a time as any to attend a Thai boxing event.
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, is the national sport of Thailand. I am using the word "sport" liberally here, as most sports I know have actual rules. In Western boxing, you are allowed only two points of contact (your two fists). Most sport-oriented martial art techniques emphasize four points of contact (your two fists and your two feet). However, Muay Thai is referred to as the "science of the eight limbs" as all possibilities including the hands, shins, elbows, and knees are allowed. In fact, punches and kicks are mostly used just to soften the opponent: the match is decided by landing knee thrusts and well-placed elbows. It is, perhaps, the most violent spectacle I had ever seen.
Needless to say, there were a lot of loud Aussies present at the Phuket arena that night. Presumably the organizers had predicted this and invited an Aussie boxer to participate. He was naturally pitted against a British boxer to help rile up the crowd (I guess they couldn't find a Kiwi).
"Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie !" screamed the Thai commentator into the megaphone.
In lumbered the crowd favourite: A massive towering Aussie beast with his fists high in the air and a psychotic expressionless mug. He looked like a killer on the loose; a convict that should be doing jail time but was instead reducing his sentence with some sort of sadistic community service in a twisted Phuket social initiative.
"Oi ! Oi ! Oi !" screamed back a crowd of beer swelling Aussies, their enthusiastic blood lust proudly on display.
In crept his opponent: possibly the world's nerdiest-looking kick boxer. I think the mammatjes could have taken him. He looked like Harry Potter in a pair of tatty boxers. To the raucous chants of "Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie ! Oi ! Oi ! Oi! ", the scrawny pugilist was positively green with fear.
The pre-match Muay Thai traditional dance lasted longer than the fight itself. For one minute, parents covered their children's eyes as Harry Potter endured a senseless beating at the hands of a ruthless Aussie brute. By the end of the first round, the previously unruly crowd was watching in a stunned silence, not quite knowing how to react. Perhaps sensing the odd stillness in the arena, the referees mercifully ended the fight and poor old Harry was carried off to fight another day.
Needless to say, this experience did not do much to counter my ever growing cynicism of all things Thai. I announced to the others that I had endured enough. We had "done" Phuket, and thankfully, will never again feel any need to return. Katlijn couldn't agree more and we set off to the city of "Phang Nga", a place that was described in our tour books as "unattractive" and even a careful reading of their review revealed no redeeming qualities. Surely, we could escape the Aussies here.
After our Bridge on the River Kwai experience, it was clear to me that perhaps the only way to halt my rapidly growing cynicism of Thailand was to change scenes entirely. The next day, we booked a flight to a place called "Rayleigh", and left for Thailand's much vaunted beaches.
Rayleigh beach was our home for the next five days. It consists of gorgeous stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters nestled between looming limestone cliffs.
Within hours of our plane touching down, we were swindled by a taxi driver, hoodwinked by a travel agent, and ripped off by a smug boatman who brought us to within swimming distance of Rayleigh beach. By late afternoon, Katlijn and I were still wading through slippery rock-strewn waters while heaving the mammatjes' monstrous suit-cases to our piece of paradise. A long search for budget accommodation resulted in the sad realization that Thailand's backpackers were being priced out of the market. While the sublime limestone cliffs and thick jungles relented to the growing consumerism of expensive holiday resorts, budget travellers are segregated into a "backpacker ghetto" of dilapidated huts on a dubious strip of beach property. Access to this ghetto is controlled by a mafia of smug boatmen.
In addition to hosting the wasted backpacker crowd, the ghetto is also the meeting place for hundreds of the world's mountain climbers on pilgrimage to Rayleigh's limestone climbing mecca.
Limestone not only makes for great karst scenery and excellent climbing, it is ideal material for caving.
To the astonished gaze of apathetic Thais and lethargic beach bums, Katlijn's tourist-induced alter-ego (dubbed "The Mad Woman" by Emmy) was still furiously sprinting up and down the beach, evading bronzed bikini-clad crowds, and dragging those massive suitcases through the sand as the sun set over Rayleigh. Miraculously, she discovered one last neighborhood of creepy budget bungalows outside the ghetto, hidden just behind one of Rayleigh's swankiest resorts. After a brief discussion, we contrived the following arrangement: we took the creepy bungalows, the mammatjes took the swanky resort, and we just hung out with them all the time.
Emmy, Katlijn and her mom going native.
By nightfall, we heard what would soon become the familiar sound of the mammatjes giggling in the distance like Indian hotelmen. When we came to investigate, we found what would soon become the familiar sight of two little mammatjes made ridiculously tiny by their own over-sized beds, scantily-dressed and lying in a grotesque display of gluttony, indulging shamelessly in the comfort of the best value hotel room I have ever seen in my life. Their bulging suitcases, it turns out, were largely full of booze.
View from Chris and Emmy's hotel.
The next morning, we sat together with two slightly-hungover mammatjes peering out at our surroundings from their gorgeous patio lookout. While Thailand's tourist hordes, the inevitable scams, and the jaded boatmen was enough to bring out the inner mad-woman in anyone, Raileigh's blanched turquoise cliffs reflecting off the clear turquoise waters, and the white sands contrasting with the deep jungle greens were simply stunning. Thailand, to my surprise, was rather slow to grow on us. Nevertheless, by about the same time we had recovered from our first really bad sunburn, our cynicism had also, somehow, faded away.
But first, the sunburn
I thought it would be fun to rent a couple of kayaks and paddle out to a good snorkel spot at a place called Chicken Island. "You rent kayaks from me. Good price. You get to Chicken Island in thirty minutes", a slippery boatman assured me. With that, we set out into the open sea in search of another piece of paradise.
The mammatjes about to leave Rayleigh for the open seas.
About two hours later, Katlijn and I nearly collapsed in exhaustion on some remote island off the Andaman coast, our arms throbbing in protest. Wondering about their fate, we looked back into the distant waters: the poor mammatjes were but a dot on the horizon. Slowly, the dot grew larger until a kayak, then two paddles, and finally two determined little women could barely be discerned paddling furiously in the distance across the open sea. Muttering incoherently about how they lost sight of land and wanted to go back to Belgium, the mammatjes finally arrived.
Fortunately for us, there were a couple of food stalls on the island (there are food stalls everywhere in Thailand), and a few members of the boat mafia smiling knowingly at our misfortune.
"Is this chicken island ?" I asked the boatman.
"This no chicken island ! Chicken Island thirty minutes further," he replied smugly, not even making an effort to control the onset of his own gut-laughter.
The boats were conveniently full of other tourists, and while it may still have been possible to pay the mafia an extortionate rate for a ride back to the backpacker ghetto, we decided not to bother inquiring. The mammatjes bravely gathered their strength and, full of the wisdom that can only be garnered after a life-time of experience, aimed their small craft at the open sea towards their air-conditioned accommodation waiting for them back in Rayleigh, full of booze. In contrast, Katlijn and I briefly rested our sore limbs and, full of the naive reckless abandon of youth, set out to find the mythical Chicken Island.
After another hour paddling about until our arms had turned into two heavy jelly-like weights, a small lump of land emerged in the distance. After squinting my eyes in the sun and tilting my head to one side, I decided it looked suitably enough like a chicken and declared our quest a complete success. We dawned our snorkel gear and jumped into the water to enjoy ten glorious minutes with the tropical fish before we had to turn around for the long haul back to Rayleigh.
While it took us only a few more hours to kayak back to our bungalows, our arms wouldn't forgive us for days. That evening, we made our ritual visit to the mammatjes only to find two scantily dressed, glutinous, diminutive lobsters nursing their sore limbs and sun-burned bodies with a bottle of pastis, muttering something about going back to Belgium.
"Ik wil naar thuis !"
As Katlijn and I walked back to our bungalows in the dark, we began to worry about both the mental and physical health of the battered mammatjes. Chris had committed the classic blunder of forgetting to put sun-screen on her feet which, exposed in the kayak beneath Thailand's powerful sun, had turned a remarkably unnatural shade of purple. Emmy's legs were afflicted with some, as yet unidentified, form of severe sun rash which looked alarmingly like pictures I once saw of a tropical flesh eating disease. The two of them could be heard through the night giggling maniacally as they drank away the entire contents of their super-sized suitcases: Chris had clearly lost her marbles and Emmy's normally sharp wit had been reduced to juvenile toilet humour.
After a long day, Katlijn and I lay down in the wet heat of our creepy bungalow under the heavy weight of guilt and concern, finally understanding what it must have been like for our mammatjes when we were kids.
Katlijn's mom, Chris, and Chris' childhood friend, Emmy, flew all the way from Belgium to join us on our three week exploration of South Thailand. As they are both Dutch-speaking, mothers, and diminutive in stature, we affectionately referred to them as "the mammatjes" (meaning "little mommies"). For our part, we enjoyed their company immensely. For their part, they let us take the lead and temporarily turned the tables on their former roles as parents.
Chris and Emmy: little people on a big adventure.
Our first days together generally consisted of gorging ourselves on Geert's complimentary buffet breakfasts followed by languishing about in Bangkok's smoggy heat. During this time, we introduced the mammatjes to some of the city's redeeming qualities: Thai food, 200 Baht foot massages, and Starbucks coffee. However, it soon became apparent that getting out of Bangkok as soon as possible was in everyone's best interest.
Statue and the grand palace gold glistening in the heat of the day.
Scenes of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Our first attempt was to rent an air-conditioned car and visit several nearby attractions including the Bridge on the River Kwai: a site made famous by David Lean's memorable war epic. We caught a ride on the historic "death railroad" while Emmy entertained the local passengers who much appreciated her zany style of humour.
The "death railway", built by laborers and POWs during World War II, provided a vital supply line linking Thailand to Burma where the Japanese waged war against the British Empire. It is estimated that 16,000 allied prisoners and as many as 100,000 labourers died of malnutrition and disease during its construction.
While the bridge does exist, and Alec Guiness unforgettable in his portrayal of the quintessential British officer, the film is otherwise fictional. The real bridge was bombed by the allies along with hundreds of prisoners placed on the bridge as a deterrent by the Japanese. The current structure is a re-construction.
Nowadays, the infamous bridge is a tourist circus and the nearby museum comically inappropriate. Housed in a dingy concrete building is a bizarre assortment of random junk accompanied by uninformative explanations gushing over Japan's engineering genius and their alliance with Thailand during World War II. The best part is the hilarious butchered English which reads like a dramatic war novel written in baby-speak. A ridiculously grizzly exhibit featuring dead body parts floating down the water has the caption "after allied bombing of the bridge, bodies lay about in the river all higgeldy-piggeldy". And after the allies dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, "the city was obliterated in a jiffy". You just can't come up with comedy like that on purpose.In stark contrast to the museum's many grotesque wax exhibits, Katlijn and I found ourselves trying desperately to stifle an uncontrollable gut-laughter and though we left the Bridge on the River Kwai in tears, I am guessing they weren't quite the kind intended by the museum curators.
Andrew and a monk who cares for injured and orphaned tigers at a temple outside Bangkok.
Within hours of our harrowing rickshaw ride skidding through the dark streets to Madras airport in the hands of an intoxicated betel nut addict, Katlijn and I were surprised to find ourselves, still living, still breathing, in the immaculate shine of a bright ultra-modern living room, wearing complimentary white bath robes, sweating from the warmth of a hot shower, and roaring with laughter at the ludicrous sub-titles of a pirated Sex And the City DVD. Yes, we were in the trendy gay-chic of Geert's Bangkok apartment. Not bad for a couple of crusty backpackers, just out of India, reeking of Teva feet.
Katlijn and Andrew gazing over the city from Geert's rooftop pool.
In the grand palace, the mid-day sun glistens off of Wat Phra Kaeo's gorgeous curved rooftop. These elaborate layered roofs are typical of South-East Asia Buddhist temple architecture.
It is said that Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter, and f***ing hot. We arrived at the onset of the latter. We made a few half-hearted attempts to explore the city, but after an hour or two bumbling lethargically about the crumbling sidewalks in a profuse sweat, we discovered that, in the end, the only respite from the hot polluted stench of Bangkok is a swanky air-conditioned apartment complex. And this is normally where Geert would find us after he came home from a long hard day of earning huge sums of money: still in the confines of his living room, still wearing fluffy white bath robes, still watching pirated chick flicks. Still stinky-footed.
Bangkok's infamous tuk-tuks.
Wat Pho's stupas at dusk
We didn't see much of Bangkok that first week. On our best days, Katlijn and I would gather our resolve, tear our eyes from the high-definition thin-screen television set, then, in a burst of inspiration, walk no further than the air-conditioned sanctuary of the nearby food court... but oh, what a food court ! A food court that would be the envy of any American-style uber-mall. A food court so massive it supported the entire battery of Eastern cuisine, Western fast food, and multiple competing coffee franchises. A food court that not only had a system of computerized cardboard passes to automate your purchase, but advertised nearby Starbucks and film attractions on slick three dimensional televisions. Between slurping Kimchi Ramen clasped with metal chopsticks and devouring California rolls dipped in a thick wasabi-soy sauce concentration, we stared dumbfounded at the shiny black hipness of Bangkok's twenty-first century excess. It's size and scope Singaporean. Bikaner's dream realized.
Somewhat sheepishly, I thought how, not so long ago, Katlijn and I would escape the heat of Puducherry's exposed boardwalk by running into the shade of a concrete hole in the wall. They didn't have much on the menu. In fact, I don't recall if they even had a menu. You just ate whatever lentils they happened to have that day, dumped unattractively on a metal plate from a large bucket at such a height that dense yellow curry splattered against the grimy walls and spilled onto the table top. We dipped our chapattis into the copious muck, scooped rice into our mouths with our thumb and forefinger, and eyed the cold metal cup of complimentary drinking water with suspicion. We were happy. While basking in front of the cool breeze of a high-power rusty fan, her hair blowing in the wind, Katlijn shouted over the racket about the diversity of India's fantastic gastronomy:
"THEY KNOW OF SO MANY WAYS TO PICKLE MANGOS AND EVERY CHAPPATTI IS A BIT DIFFERENT !"
"WHAT WAS THAT !?" I shouted back.
"LOT'S OF DIFFERENT PICKLED MANGOS !"
"TELL ME ABOUT IT!" I hollered, beaming with contentment, holding down the napkins with my sticky fingers. "I MEAN, COULD THERE BE ANOTHER TYPE OF LENTIL CURRY !?"
In contrast, while Bangkok's massive food courts could very roughly replicate the world's gastronomy, their air-conditioned sterility was entirely devoid of the food's underlying culture and feel rendering the high-tech convenience uninspiring. Similarly, the neighbouring grocery store was cathedral-like in its magnificence, but shopping in it was a thoroughly exhausting un-religious experience. Somewhere between India and Thailand, price tags had taken the place of a long heated debate over a product's worth. The thick wet smell of fresh fruit was staunched by air-tight plastic wrap. Muzak replaced the crackle of a Bombay talkie. Modernity had created distance between people and the food they eat.
Touching up Buddhist murals in the Grand Palace.
Nevertheless, like all place in the world, Bangkok has its charms: one of the world's most jaw-dropping palace and temple complexes, a chinatown with all the grungy polluted dirtiness of the real thing, and, of course, one of Southeast Asia's most diverse and bizarre nightlife scenes. On Geert's birthday, we got dressed up in our spiffiest pair of North Face zip-off pants for a night out at one of Bangkok's swanky cocktail bars. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in because we were wearing Teva sandals (I no longer own a pair of shoes), so the whole party had to be moved to a more backpacker-friendly gay district where we also met up with Maya, a lesbian Dutch yogic we knew from our Bengaluru meditation experience. Together, I am embarrassed to report, we whiled away the late night hours in the company of drag queens playing "spot the lady-boy" and attending an appalling ping pong show which, regardless of your sexual preference, is an event of unparalleled poor taste.
Beautiful men ... ???
Giant reclining Buddhas, futuristic sky-trains, orange-robed monks, Asians in mini-skirts, the dirty streets of old Bangkok and the polluted crush of new Bangkok, the King of Thailand and countless failed coups. Golden Siam's frenetic cocktail swirling about us, only one thing was certain: we weren't in India anymore.
Leaving the cushy confines of our backwater luxury barge, Katlijn and I took a short train ride to the capital of Kerala, Thiruvanthapunam: yet another Indian capital that has contracted the post-colonial "renaming" plague sweeping across this part of the world rendering all village, township, and city name in its wake sadly unpronounceable and unrecognizable to the rest of the world's population. The British, quite sensibly, shortened its original name to Trivandrum, but regardless of what you call it, the city itself is wholly unremarkable and we didn't linger long before we caught a plane to Chennai (that would be former Madras) and then a bus to Puducherry (that would be former Pondicherry).
Scenes of typical small town India en route to Puducherry.
After Mumbai and Old Goa, Puducherry is the last in our trilogy of colonial era cities. French East India's lesser known colony was contemporary with the better known British India and even lasted several decades after the English finally quit India. In fact, the French colony initially held the upper hand against the British and probably would have ruled the country had the French East Indian Trading company not decided that their representatives were playing too much politics and doing too little trading. Disputes with the British ended peacefully and the existing management was sacked. As a result, French East Indian profits increased in the short run, but France was effectively removed as an influence on the sub-continent condemning the Indians to a future of milky tea and dubious sporting events instead of fine wines and exotic cheeses.
Puducherry is a living testament to what India would be like had its history taken a more favorable course. In place of India's revolting sweet breads, fresh baguettes would have been eaten at breakfast. Instead of "3-in-1" South India powdered coffee mixes, these baguettes would be served with actual filtered coffee. Indians would speak an exotic kind of Abu-accented Francais, and police officers would patrol the streets in red kepis. Broad stretches of beach would be covered with pretty boardwalks instead of cow dung. Yes, the French colonists had their standards, and by the looks of Puducherry, it was head and shoulders above that of the average English Officer.
Katlijn and her baguette breakfast in bed. Sure beats dosas !
At dawn and dusk, Puducherry's denizens turn out by the thousand at the boardwalk for their daily yoga workout, meditation sitting, cricket matches, jogging, rope skipping, and more.
But the French colonialists were (obviously) not without their eccentricities, and a French woman known as "The Mother" ("La Maman" in Puducherry) is pasted across the walls of the local cafes, bakeries, and yoga retreats. She was a world famous self-proclaimed guru and her synthesis of yoga and modern science is now France's best-known colonial legacy. She is also the architect of nearby Utopia, Auroville, which is either "a place where all human beings of goodwill live freely as citizens of the world" in The Mother's own words, or simply an "uber-hippy, free love, hangout"- depending on who you talk to.
In the spirit of The Mother and deference to our Munar tea plantation trekking guides, Katlijn and I decided to finally brave an Indian Ayurvedic massage before leaving the country. I must admit that I approached this massage with some degree of apprehension. The last time I entrusted my body to an Eastern-oriented Masseuse was in Istanbul where my hide was violently scraped off by a fat Turk who subsequently sat on my back and pounded me senseless against a hard marble slab.
A typical Ayurvedic massage is a thoroughly humiliating experience that involves a lot of waiting around half naked in a ridiculous white thong and having several liters of oil poured all over your body as two Ayurvedic doctors rub it roughly into your skin until it becomes a flabby unctuous muck. The motions of the doctors is done in exact synchronicity while bantering about the latest cricket match. Slipping about the oily table top under their mechanical drubbing, I began to imagine myself as a car going through an automatic car wash or the dishes being scrubbed clean. Quite suddenly, the painful kneading stopped causing me to slowly skid across the slippery table top until one of them caught me in time before I slid clear of the edge and into the thick puddle of ooze accumulating on the floor below. They supported me on their shoulders as I skated my oily feet across the floor into what can only be described as a human oven. I sat upright on a hot chair while they closed two wooden panels around me so that only my greasy little head poked out the top. Then they baked me liked a buttered chicken.
I spent what felt like an eternity alone in my oven prison until I could see steam rising in the cracks around my ears. Despite applying my recently acquired meditation techniques to calm myself, it wasn't long before I started wondering if my Ayurvedic doctors were in fact cannibals and that I was being cooked in a large deep fat fryer.
"Excuse me ?" I called out. No answer.
I strained my neck and craned my head out from the hole in my oven. "Excuse me !? You can let me out now. I think I'm done," I suggested to the empty room next door.
Finally, just as my increasingly wild Ayurvedic cannibal doctor fantasies were bringing me to the verge of panic, the two masseuses re-emerged, opened the door, and slid me across the room into a cold shower. A sense of relief poured over me as I washed the sweat and oil from my body.
Upon our release from the Ayurvedic hospital, we made our way back into town and caught our last India bus ride to Madras. We were almost at the airport now. Our last uncomfortable commute nearly over. Soon we would be flying away from this noisy country to the backpacker safe haven of Thailand. A reward, we thought, for two and a half long months of intermittent stomach illnesses and rabid dogs.
As though the entire country's collective brain had contrived one final act of magical realism to send us off in true India style, our last rickshaw driver was completely stoned. We both agreed that he seemed a bit odd at first as we haggled over a fair price, but don't all Indian rickshaw drivers ? We weren't certain, however, until he started darting wildly between long haul cargo trucks and motorcycles and potholes, one hand on the wheel, neither eye on the road. Our lives flashing before our eyes, I saw his ruddy betel nut smile flashing in the dark. With our rickshaw skidding through the night towards the Madras airport on two wheels, I heard him yelling madly over the howling winds "Hello ! Where you come from ? Canada !? Good country ! My paan-wallah lives in Winnipeg. Lot's of Indians there !"
Sometime in the middle of the night, tired and exhausted once again from just another day in India, we were somehow surprised to find ourselves sitting on a comfortable Thai Air jet readying for takeoff. Like the thousands of Indian backpackers before me en route to Bangkok after enduring months of the sub-continent, I breathed a loud sigh of relief when I felt the plane lurch upwards and the wheels lift off the ground. Katlijn was finally going to get those Thai beaches she dreamed of during long nights of altitude induced sleeplessness on the freezing peaks of the Himalaya.
I could hear the dull ring of the steward's bell above the distant hum of the engines. The sterile atmosphere of the commercial airliner was the antithesis of India's explosive life. To my surprise, I felt a small pang of sadness welling up inside me as my mind distanced itself from the experience of travelling the sub-continent.
I turned my head towards the pristine window of the cabin and stared into the placid clouds outside, closed my eyes, and drifted into sleep with Varanasi's hand squishers and the rotting smile of its betel nut addicted rickshaw-wallahs, the many appendages of Saranath's queue beasts and their underwater evolutionary cousins in Hampi, Kajuraho's erotic carvings and the splendor of the Taj Mahal, Keoladio's dastardly touts and the foggy binoculars they peddle, elephants in the pink city, white rats in the Thar desert, and the indigo hue of Jodpur's old city, the merciless grind of Alice the camel's awkward gait, Orneel's lustful raspberries, sandy desert chapattis, Bikaner's dubious dancing camel show, transvestites on the express train, and late-night Octopussy in Udaipur, Mumbai's modern skyscrapers and slick coffee shops, Bombay's sprawling slums and dingy holes in the wall, invisible widows, cheeky cabbies, and gossiping hotel men, Portugal's lost paradise and Goan prawn curry, the noble silence of ancient Buddhist retreats and the clogged arteries of Bengaluru's IT future, floating palaces and Keralan fried fish, marathon theatrical Hindu bloodbaths, velvety hills of tea, French Baguettes on the boardwalk, tap dancing monkeys on corrugated rooftops, dog's barking on the ghats, cow's on the beach...
India is the logic of a dream, too elusive to be captured by words.
It was another long and dusty ride in a windowless bus down the mountain from Munar back to the lowland city of Kottayam. From there, we took a local ferry to the tourist town of Alappuzah while surveying the gorgeous green landscape of of Kerala's river-side life and rice plantations.
In 1957, Kerala became the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government (the second time this rare event occured was in Nepal). This is not too surprising considering that India initially sided with the Soviet Union during the cold war. More surprising is the degree of success with which this communist government has managed in the last fifty years. It has been labeled the most socially advanced state in India boasting the highest literacy rate in any developing nation in the world (91 %), an infant mortality rate one fifth the national average, and a life expectancy that is 10 years longer than the rest of the country. Communists can take heart in Kerala as evidence that there may, after all, be some grain of truth in this economic philosophy.
Unfortunately, a lack of any industrial development in the area has forced many of their educated youth to either leave the region, or simply languish in failed potential: Kerala also has the highest suicide and liquor consumption statistics in the country. The recent boom in tourism is seen as a solution to this problem, and nowhere is this more evident than in the small town of Alappuzha which serves as a gateway to Kerala's famous backwaters. Several ferry stops before we arrived at the city, our boat was flooded with a wave of pushy touts, engulfing every white passenger in a sea of countless hotel and river boat tour offers. Katlijn and I were quickly swept away towards what could possibly be the crummiest budget accommodation offer in all of India. Sweating profusely underneath a holy mosquito net listening to the loud repetitive din of a rusty overhead fan wobbling ineffectively above us, Katlijn observed that "this is the worst place in the world we could be right now" before we decided to down a couple of sleeping pills to hasten the arrival of dawn.
Faced with the prospect of another restless night in South India's ever climbing temperatures, we decided to take an overnight trip on a personal luxury house boat- the quintessential Kerala backwater experience.
Shameful decadence. A typical on-board meal presented to us by our chef: salads, curries, rice, and Keralan-style fried fish.
The backwaters are a vast 900 km network of thin waterways meandering labyrinthine along Kerala's coastline. As our house boat made its way through these waters, we floated quietly by gorgeous villages, mosques, churches, and temples nestled along the riverbanks between thick palm tree jungles, coconut groves, and rice paddies. The journey is filled with all the exotic sites of tropical backwaters: fishermen fishing, women smacking their laundry on make-shift ghats, and commuters paddling canoes along liquid highways.
House boats floating along the river.
Canoes take the place of cars in Kerala's backwaters.
Trees reflecting in the early evening light off a narrow waterway
As Katlijn and I relaxed in the comforts of our admittedly excessive floating palace, guzzling coconut milk and gorging on Kerala's delicious fish curries brought to us by our personal on-board chef, we felt happy to be doing our part in solving Kerala's social woes.
Andrew and our trekking guide sharing a chuckle at Top station.
As Kerala's lowland temperatures began to rise, we decided to head to the cooler climate of the surrounding hills. A few rusty old windowless ex-school buses make their way from Kochi and its blood drenched Kathakali stages to the old British tea plantations in Munar. From here, we stumbled upon a small group of eco-tourists who offered us guided treks through the mountain air and manicured tea estates of the surrounding Western Ghats.
Clouds descending on the tea covered hills.
Massive expanses of perfectly proportioned tea plants cover the hilly landscape in a bright green blanket providing a beautifully exotic backdrop as we made our way around the region's mountains and valleys. Indian trekking guides differ from those in the West in that explanations about the area's outstanding flora and fauna are always accompanied by a detailed explanation of their various medicinal purposes transforming your typical walking trail chit-chat into a bizarre blend of wilderness ecology and detailed pharmaceutical instructions:
"Stomach problems ? Chew two ginger roots and a piece of crushed tree bark three times a day. Don't take this with alcohol or during pregnancy."
"Sore throat ? Smoke three teak leaves mixed with a solution of two parts dried tamarind and one part masala. Get plenty of rest and avoid dairy products."
Good for mosquito bites.
Each diagnosis was given while he scrounged through the dirt looking for the various ingredients. Nevertheless, he was very knowledgeable and we enjoyed his company immensely: nothing is more heart warming than a naturalist excited about his work, even if he is a bit of an Ayurvedic quack.
As we had experienced in Nepal, there is something about the Western trekker - Indian guide relationship that is vaguely analogous to a master and slave, British colonist and Indian subject. When storm clouds rolled in and drowned the valley in a hard persistent rain, our guide quickly herded us into a village shelter where we watched him set up our tent in the downpour. His wet sandal-clad feet sloshed about the muddy pathways in search of tables and chairs for our comfort and he was constantly vigilant to ensure we had a piping hot pot of tea nearby steeped to the appropriate amount of bitterness for the duration of storm. At dinner time, he arrived at our doorway in the dark, panting and drenched in rain water, magically producing a delicious meal that would rival even the best Indian restaurants in Kerala. Any requests for help were quickly rebuked. If we attempted to leave the shelter and help him set up, he would promptly chase us back inside.
The village we stayed at is supported by this betel nut palm plantation.
The next morning, we had a long wet walk up to the region's highest tea plantation where we caught a jeep to Munar. On the way back, our guides taught us about the lives of the hill tribe tea workers and their efforts to responsibly bring tourism to some of these communities.
Early morning in the Western Ghats. Cotton trees and betel nut palms.
Images from the picturesque tea factory at the top.
This tea factory still uses British colonial era machines to process the surrounding tea leaves.
While we were happy to get back to Munar and change into dry clothes, our short trek through the tea plantations was one of our favourite trips in India, as much for the fine scenery as for the conversations with our excellent and conscientious guides.
Worn and dilapidated gravestone of a forgotten Dutch trainer in the corner of Kochi's graveyard.
A long overnight train ride away from Arun's tasty idli breakfasts and Bangaluru's appalling traffic conditions lies the amazingly laid-back town of Kochi, deep in the heart of what is known in India as "God's own country", Kerala. In the thirty minutes it took us to circumnavigate the charming, albeit touristy, 16th century trading center, we took in such diverse colonial remnants as giant Chinese fishing nets, white washed Portuguese cottages, British Raj mansions, Muslim mosques, and Jewish synagogues. Drinking outstanding tea and devouring some of South India's spiciest seafood curry creations in the shadow of the town's abundant foliage, the collective relief of India's weary travellers was almost palpable.
While colonialists somehow managed to sew a European country village into the fabric of a tropical Indian coastal landscape and culture, vestiges of Kerala's native traditions were kept alive. Our favourite Indian art form is, without a doubt, Kathakali. Developed at roughly the same time Shakespeare penned his great plays, Kathakali is South India's own unique form of theatre. To the beat of four drummer's complex rhythms and the exotic melancholic voice of a lone male singer, players dance and act out the great Indian Hindu epics in long drawn out performances that last more than twelve hours. In place of words or song, the story is told through a system of dramatic bodily gestures and evocative, even frightening, facial and eye movements. During the climax, performances become extremely intense. The drummers are drenched in their own sweat as their pounding sends the dancers into aggressive motions, contorting their faces into countenances made more ominously expressive through the use of dies which turn the whites of their eyes a deep crimson.
Kathakali performers study 12 years of dancing, theater, and make-up to master their art form. Preparation before a performance lasts several hours. Paint, elaborate costumes, decorated headpieces and meditation are required to transform themselves physically and mentally into the gods and demons they play.
The stories are a tad on the grizzly side. The performance we saw featured the hero literally eating the intestines of the villain in an act that was made more horrific by the simplicity of the props: a very long white cord and a lot of thin red paint. The final scene had the hero's exotic facial paints covered in fake blood dripping from his mouth, which he wiped off and ran through his wife's hair, with the villain on his back writhing about the stage floor in his own intestines kicking about in a pool of thin red liquid. Personally, I think Shakespeare would have loved it.
To tell you the truth, twelve hours of this sort of entertainment would be a bit much for even the most sadistic of Western horror freaks and shorter, feature film length, adaptations have been developed for the area's tourists. Interestingly, these adaptations are considered a major affront to many of Kerala's people. Kathakali is more than theatre, it is considered an act of worship and an important religious ceremony. Kathakali artists participating in curtailed tourist performances consider it offensive to their gods and often do so only out of desperation to support their families. Some performers have found this type of livelihood so despicable they have become depressed and resorted to alcoholism.
A Kathakali demon dancing in full regalia. Tourism is a mixed blessing for Kerala's theater tradition. While the money keeps their intense art form alive, its presentation must be modified to suit a Western audience. These adaptations are considered blasphemy to serious students of this religious musical theatre.
The 15th century ruins of Vijayanagar's Hindu Empire.
Far away from Goa's former paradise, in a quiet boulder strewn wasteland, lie the brooding remains of one of India's greatest forgotten empires. According to ancient Hindu legend, Hampi is the realm of the monkey gods who aided Rama in his fight against the demons. It later became the vast capital of Vijayanagar's wealthy empire, formed in the 14th century as an alliance between lesser Hindu Kingdoms to counter the Muslim threat from the North. For hundreds of years, it was the front in a campaign between Hindus and Muslims trying to out-atrocity each other with increasing effectiveness in the struggle for the soul of south India.
Virupaksha temple towers 50 meters above the Hampi Bazaar
Hampi's ruins nestled in the surrounding landscape of giant granite boulders.
Ruins hidden between banana plants.
While Hindus and Muslims continue to wage conflict in other parts of the subcontinent, Hampi's role as a modern battleground continues: pitting those who want to protect what little is left of a collapsed empire against those seeking to profit from its lingering ruins. As we groggily gazed out the door of our grungy sleeper bus at the theatre before us, it was clear who was winning. Without a choice, we dove into the turbulent sea of touts blocking our exit at the door, their hands moving about in a flurry holding above them small white business cards that seemed to float above the vast ocean like flotsam undulating in choppy waters. Our bodies fully submerged, we suddenly sensed the presence of an underwater beast. A hundred pairs of eyes fixating greedily on our backpacks that bobbed above us like towering buoys. Numerous hands grasping at our money belts. A multiplicity of mouths loudly querying our country of origin. The countless bodies of hired cabbies fusing together into a single multi-limbed organism that fed lustfully around the aging corpse of a dusty tourist bus whose innards trickled out of a small wound on the front-side and were sucked into the writhing monster. We were in the midst of a close evolutionary cousin to the Indian queue beast that had been domesticated by baksheesh paying hotel owners into a formidable war animal. Each of its brains had been selected and conditioned for the sole purpose of consuming dusty backpackers that emerged tired, weakened, and bruised from a relentless overnight suspension-less bus ride.
But Katlijn and I, hardened by our own struggles against Mumbai's cheeky cabbies and Varanasi's midnight hand squishers, persevered. Swimming desperately against the tide of the monster, we managed to escape its groping tentacles and emerged safely at a guest house one block away. Others were less fortunate. As we looked back, we saw the beast herding blurry-eyed travellers, unaware of what was happening to them, into over-stuffed rickshaws for deportation to the nearest scam.
Ancient Hindu temple architecture. Before its sudden destruction in the 16th century at the hands of Muslims, the city of Vijayanagar covered 650 square kilometers and had a population of over 500,000.
Based in the safety of our guesthouse, we spent a couple of days exploring the crumbling ruins of India's magic. With only 58 of 550 monuments protected as a world heritage and the local businesses constructing new facilities, it may not be long before the war would finally be lost and new India's rampant tourist empire would destroy Hampi's heritage, just as an alliance of Islamic sultanates did more than 400 years ago. For now, however, Hampi remains a fascinating and mystical place. I cannot think of very many things more enjoyable then renting a bike and peddling about the weirdly balanced rocks and lush banana plantations trying to fathom the beauty of the atmospheric landscape when it was home to an ancient civilization and a vast temple complex. We could have spent days in the blissful company of the these ruins and a dilapidated Indian basket bicycle, but Katlijn contracted an alarmingly high fever forcing us to consider the possibility of malaria. As alluring as it was to lose ourselves in south India's turbulent history, we set off to Bengaluru in search of what we really needed: modern medicine.
Sunset over Hampi.
My old floorball pal, Arun, and his lovely and very pregnant Belgian wife, Ellen, were very kind to let us take refuge at their home while Katlijn's temperature crept back to normal under the powerful spell of Arun's home cooked idlis and sambar. In addition to their generous hospitality, Arun and Ellen showed us the other side of India: their charming apartment, the possibility of decent Italian food in a modern Indian city, and supermarkets stocking exotic eastern fair beside more familiar western food items. They have nothing but praise for the emerging cosmopolitanism of former Bangalore, describing it as the perfect compromise between the warring faction's of new India comfort and old India simplicity. However, as I walked down the aisles of Arun's neighborhood food store, I studied the western items closely. Looking down at the jar of Ragu Spaghetti sauce I held in my hands, I realized that Bangaluru was finishing for me a process that began with Mumbai's coffee franchises and continued with Goa's uber-tourism: India losing its magic.
This was it, Bengaluru: center of the flat world, the silicon-coated hive of new India from which the IT money marches forth en route to Bikaner and the furthest reaches of the land, slowly silently dominating the entire planet while nobody is looking. And what does this new world power look like ? A giant traffic jam. A rush hour like no other. A perpetual twenty four hour gridlock with high and low tides that fluctuate between flooding the entire city and just the most important parts of it.
The groan of Bengaluru's creaking infrastructure buckling under the weight of so many vehicles can be heard in the conversations of the city denizens. When they aren't talking cricket and chip design, they are invariably talking traffic. Bengalurians are traffic gurus. Facing the overwhelming congestion on a daily basis, they have garnered a deeper understanding and appreciation of the very nature of traffic that cannot possibly be understood by you or me. Monk-like, driving aloof through the chaos, the city's commuters appear lost in equanimously observation over its impermanent processes. Later, they litter their conversation with tips on new-found insights: how best to time your departure to the office and the present state of street conditions that fluctuate under near constant construction.
There are no bovines strutting through the shroud of the city's formidable air pollution. Bengaluru is no place for cows. And with India's magic tragically disappearing in the clogged and polluted arteries of the world's most important IT boom town, Katlijn and I suddenly felt a burning desire to rekindle our spirituality.
Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, is considered by Buddhists to be the premiere scientist of his day with an intense curiosity of nature. All the major moments in his life (birth, enlightenment and death) took place outdoors, symbolically, under the cover a Bunyan tree. Critical of the unfair caste system and the unquestioned superstitions of the Hindu religion, he decided to try the following instead: sit still and objectively observe sensations on his own body. He reasoned these experiences represented the only reliable truth which, good or bad, needed to be acknowledged without bias. Through this process and living a moral life, he claims to have attained enlightenment which he later described to his students like this:
"Through countless births in the cycle of existence, I have run, not finding although seeking the builder of this house; and again and again I faced the suffering of new birth. Oh house builder ! You have been seen ! You shall not build a house again for me. All your beams are broken, the ridgepole is shattered. The mind has become freed from conditioning; the end of craving has been reached"
Which I thought was a tantalizing passage. After all, assuming he's not crazy, what did he experience and who or what is he referring to as "house builder" anyhow ? We figured this was exactly the kind of thing we needed to think about for ten days in order to feel again India's vanishing mysticism. Thus, under the guidance of Myanmar's great guru, Goenkaji, we set about learning Buddha's 2500 year-old vippassana meditation technique, still practiced today by the Dalai Lama.
The small male area where I confined myself for ten days to learn Buddhist meditation techniques. A volunteer hit the gong to signal the beginning and ending of our meditations sessions and meal times.
Consistent with the Buddha's original methods, Katlijn and I were separated into female and male dorm rooms, and everyone took a vow of noble silence where communication was forbidden for ten days. During this time, we were expected to live the life of monks following a rigorous schedule where we got up at four each morning and logged more than ten hours of meditation each day. All food was provided and prepared at no cost. The experience of living in the charity of others is integral to the teaching and therefore the course is, by necessity, free of charge.
Meditating is more difficult than it appears and certainly doesn't reflect the very relaxing image we had of people in peaceful contemplation. At least the first steps are more like a mental battle ground. Before each session, I saw students marching up and down the grounds, stretching their muscles as if readying for a fight, even air boxing to pump themselves up for another long hard sitting.
If you think it's easy, try this: sit cross legged, your back perfectly straight, and your chin held high, then think about absolutely nothing else besides your breathing for one hour without moving a muscle. I give you one minute before your mind wanders away from the present to some unpleasant past or future experience, and about five minutes before you can think of nothing else but that agonizing pain forming in your lower back and that irritating itch on the tip of your nostril, both of which you should be observing with perfect equanimity.
`After torturing myself with this process for about thirty hours over the course of three days, I lasted long enough to sense the entire weight of my torso pushing down on my thighs and a tiny trickle of blood still circulating through the tips of my toes. At some point, the guru instructed me to absolutely force myself, no matter what, to stay in this position for a full hour. He dubbed this "strong determination" and it typically resulted in me limping painfully away from the meditation hall holding the railing for support.
I'm not sure how, but I mastered this pain after about seven days to the point where it became possible to sit still for a full hour with only minor discomfort. By the eighth day, some of the sensation could even be described as pleasant: the throbbing in my skull, the tingling in my toes, that soft tickling behind my ears. But this too, is a danger. Just as we were told not to let our minds succumb to the aversion of pain, so too should we never crave whatever pleasant sensations may temporarily flowing through our bodies. Both of these emotions are, ultimately, misery.
According to the Buddha, it is by developing the capacity to remain focused and objective in observing ongoing processes in our minds, ping-ponging between aversion and craving, moving restlessly between connectionless events of past and future, that you can be trained to discover the middle road and understand for yourself, experientially rather than intellectually, the necessity of compassion.
To be honest, I don't know if I bought into it all either, but certainly the nightly lectures on Buddhist philosophy and the experience of learning to meditate was stimulating enough for me to recommend a course in the technique to anyone. And just to ensure I end this lengthy entry by giving you something magical to contemplate, consider the following mysterious facts:
Two thousand years before the advent of modern science, Siddhartha Guatama taught that the body was actually made up of trillions of vibrating particles he called, kappa.
Long before Freud, Buddhist monks, through their system of objective self-contemplation, discovered and wrote about the sub-conscious.
Brain scans of monks during meditation reveal abnormal brain patterns and a substantially higher level of activity in areas of the brain responsible for compassion.
As we rode out of the city's choking traffic, it suddenly occurred to us that we had a new found appreciation for one of India's greatest and lasting contributions to civilization and we felt cautiously optimistic with the knowledge that mysticism could be found even in the depths of Bengaluru's IT madness.
By the time I boarded the night train in Mumbai's Victoria terminal, the busiest train station in Asia, my long campaign against Delhi-belly was almost won and I even managed a good night sleep before arriving in Goa. A rickshaw brought us to Anjuna beach where we began our ritual search for a decent budget room. Along the way, we met up with party-Dean whose presence in the hash-fueled hippy holiday pilgrimage of Goa was entirely predictable. He was nursing a beer at Anjuna's cleanest 30 Rupee eatery while he gave us the low down on the late-night beach side shindigs.
The budget rooms in Goa range from the dank and stinky to the downright scary. As we swung open the creaking doors, an ancient mildewy marijuana haze would issue forth from dark cave-like hovels revealing the blinking startled eyes of crusty backpackers who looked like they hadn't seen the light of day for years. Out of the dark murkiness, an intoxicated voice somewhere deep inside informed us through the cobwebs, "Yeah, man. For only 100 Rupees, this place is a steal !"
Miraculously, we stumbled across a family who, for almost no money at all, rented us a private room in their house, invited us to their dining room table each night for a much appreciated home-cooked Goan meal, and effectively adopted us for a week. Rather than hanging out with Party Dean and Goa's stoned beach bum crowd, we spent much of our days just relaxing on their patio with the mother and playing with her child, while granny was more than happy to fetch us a bucket of hot water when we needed to shower. This was budget travelling at its best !
Our life in Goa revolved around this little man called "Om".
To be frank, the Goan beaches themselves are a bit shocking. They teem with fat topless Germans and the gangs of young Indian men who come just to stare at them, while drunken leathered ex-hippies lament endlessly about how awesome Goa used to be to anyone polite enough to listen to them. Walking down the beach at sunset is done to the throbbing beat of techno emanating from the nearby Western oriented development while constantly vigilant to avoid the unpleasant feeling of slowly sinking your bare feet into the gooey softness of newly deposited dung piles left behind by Goan cows which (god bless them) strut emphatically up and down the coast turning their noses up at the invading European tourist hordes.
And what about Goa as the party place of all-night, open-air raves where the world's young bronzed travellers drink and smoke the night away ? This ended years ago with the enforcement of a government ban on loud music past 10pm at night. It wasn't unusual to find ourselves whiling away the evening at an empty ocean side bar feeling positively lonely as we watched the cows casually stroll by. Meanwhile disappointed party-seeking backpackers were being robbed by the exorbitant cover charge of the only nearby night club that is allowed to be open, or they were negotiating with the beach-side traffickers before holing themselves up again in a dingy budget hermitage.
Anjuna beach feels a bit like an Indian Costa Del Sol with scantily clad Western women being hustled by beach touts and hopeful Indian masseuses.
Relaxed liquor laws makes Goa an affordable spot to kick back on the beach with a beer.
Goa's dusk colors.
To be fair, those that can stomach lying on the beaches all day with a backdrop of all-inclusive package holiday development often love the place. However, it wasn't long before we felt impelled to escape.
Riding a motorcycle through the small villages and back country is a completely different experience guaranteed to re-affirm one's faith in Goa. While occasionally stopping to feast on the outstanding local coconut milk seafood curries and spicy fish creations, we weaved through the back roads between the palm groves, lagoons, and green rice paddies of some of south India's finest scenery.
Images of our Goan back-country motorbike trips.
Britain was neither the first colonial power to arrive in India nor were they the last to leave. Both of these honors go to Portugal who controlled Goa from 1510 until 1961. During its heyday in the 16th century when Portugal had a monopoly over Indian and far-East trade, the majesty and splendor of "Golden Goa" was said to rival Lisbon itself with a population exceeding that of London. However, if it weren't for a couple of impressive cathedrals that survived intact, Katlijn and I would have difficulty believing this now as our motorbike roared past crumbling church remains drowning in the surrounding jungle of palm trees. Without the resources to maintain its overseas empire, Portugal's Indian colony was eventually eclipsed by that of Britain and Old Goa was forgotten.
Atmospheric white-washed churches dot the tropical green landscape. Goa was the most successful of Europe's India colonies at converting the locals: today more than 30% of Goa's population is catholic.
Aging gracefully with their red-tiled roofs, these old
Portuguese houses reminisce over Goa's current capital of Panaji. Panaji is one of our favourite anachronisms in India blending the pastel shades of the Mediterranean with noisy India, it is probably the only place on the sub-continent serving delicious and authentic Portuguese food.
Mumbai's Victoria Train Station: vestiges of British India
While I lay awake in the white city - bollywood overnight express bus, bouncing painfully off the walls of its claustrophobic sleeping capsules, I mentally cursed that slippery little tout who convinced us its superior suspension was worth the extra money. Somehow, I managed to make it through the night and found myself staring out the window at dawn hanging over the city of Mumbai.
I remember once while travelling to Orchha, stepping off our bus in search of a toilet, an old crone pointed me to the back of a concrete roadside restaurant where I saw a thin aging man disappear behind a crack in the crumbling wall. I followed behind him and quite suddenly emerged into the light to find a large open field full of reeking garbage, families of wild boars feasting on rotting rice, and several squatting men, women, and children straining their bare bottoms in the heat. It looked like the apocalypse. It was as though in the last few hours, sometime after we got on the bus at Kajuraho and got off the bus at this nameless highway restaurant, some sort of great cataclysm had occurred which reduced civilization to defecating in their own trash.
Arriving in Mumbai, was exactly the opposite experience. The contrast between north and south India, old and new India, poor and rich India, never felt so vivid. Rajasthan's desert streets and potholes were replaced with modern highways and lane markings. It was as though, sometime between getting on the bus at Udaipur and getting off the bus at this nameless city bus stop, civilization had miraculously reconstructed itself and I found myself once again staring down a long clean avenue full of trendy coffee shops all trying to out-Starbucks each other.
Mumbai looked so clean and modern that I decided it was safe enough to try their medical facilities. The fact is, my bowels, which were waging a long and ultimately unsuccessful war against North Indian gastronomy, had begun to make alarming gargling noises that sounded to us like its last throes. Surrender was imminent and it was time to seek medical reinforcement. After I described my symptoms and had a brief checkup, the doctor asked me if I had eaten a hamburger in the last few days.
"Yes," I admitted before hastily adding, "but only out of curiosity and I couldn't finish the whole thing !"
"mmm hmmmm," the doctor replied and slowly, wisely, nodded his head: this, apparently, explained everything. He informed me I would continue to have more bowel movements then set me up with some antibiotics and the usual remedies for a serious case of the runs. Drinking regularly from my dense solution of electrolyte water, I lethargically set out to explore Mumbai: the first in our trilogy of colonial-era cities.
Renowned for their abysmal map reading ability and tenable grasp of the English language, Mumbai cabbies are among the world's cheekiest. Despite whatever nonsense they tell you, it isn't that far, their taxi meter works just fine, and your hotel did not burn down recently.
In 1661, a small inconsequential region inhabited by fishing folk, called "Bombay" by the Portuguese, was given freely to the British royal family by Portugal as part of a marriage dowry sealing the fate of India and sentencing them to a future of tea times, driving on the wrong side of the road, and soporific cricket matches. Bombay was leased to the British East India Company for the paltry annual rent of only 10 UK pounds a year. Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to this company effectively giving them a monopoly on British trade with India. In fact, for nearly 250 years this private commercial trading company, and not the British government as is commonly believed, 'ruled' British India specifically for the purpose of making profit from iron and coal mining, as well as tea, coffee, and cotton plantations. Bombay flourished into the principle port for trade with British India complete with impressive cathedrals, steam engines, and a cosmopolitan business and culinary culture. Bombay also became a major player in the independence movement where Mahatma Ghandi launched his Quit India campaign in 1942 urging the British to leave India immediately. Bombay has recently been renamed "Mumbai" by its nationalist Hindu government referring to an earlier pre-colonial name.
Every Saturday, Mumbai's young and old, gather at Maidan park which transforms itself into a garage league cricket battle ground hosting more than twenty simultaneous matches at a time.
Today, with a population of 16.4 million, Mumbai is a surging out of control mass of humanity haphazardly blending all of India's extremes. The touristy Colaba district is a pleasant mix of gorgeous colonial buildings, Indian open air markets, and relatively orderly streets crowded with signature black and yellow cabs. A walk down to Chowpatty beach reveals an attractive place to watch the sunset against the city's modern skyscrapers. Nevertheless, this New India often feels like a thin veneer belying the fact that over fifty five percent of its residence live in slums. Just a few blocks away from the tourist safe havens, we stumbled into sizable shanty towns that contrasted jarringly with the pristine gourmet multi-cultural dining experiences just a stone's throw away. In fact, Mumbai's Dharavi slum is the largest in Asia and is by itself home to more than one million of the world's poorest. Something in between Hollywood and Glasgow, Hindu and Islam, Britain and India, swish bars and poverty, Mumbai is, after all, a memorable and inspirational place containing all the beauty and the ugliness of the human condition.
Riding a rickshaw into picturesque Udaipur, we were struck by three things: the bright gleam of Rajasthan's "white city", the influx of foreign tourists, and the number of hotels advertising a seven o'clock viewing of "Octopussy". Every massive tourist draw in India seems to need a gimmick to help fleece the tourists of their money and their dignity, and Udaipur's happens to be a cheesy 80s James Bond installment which was filmed at many of the nearby attractions including the lake palace (Octopussy's secret layer where she trains an all-woman army of deadly kung fu super models) and the mountain side monsoon palace (where double-o-seven once again woos the master villain's gorgeous crony while slyly planting one of Q's ingenious tracking gadgets: the oldest trick in the James Bond mythology).
Sunset over the white city from one of its many roof-top restaurants.
Jagniwas, the Lake Palace Hotel island, was originally built by Udaipur's Maharaja in 1754. Formerly the royal summer palace, today it is the ultimate in luxury hotels.
Often referred to as the Venice of the East, the white city is a postcard come to life with two fairy-tale castles reflecting off the water, scores of temples, cenotaphs, and havelis, and an amazing vantage point to watch it all, sipping on a banana lassi, as the sun sets over Lake Pichola. Over its 500 year history, Udaipur was the epitome of Rajasthani people: embodying patriotic fervour and an aching love of independence by fiercely resisting the Muslim might of the Mughals and never sending their maharaja into negotiation in rebuke of British hegemony. This was a Rajasthani warrior-state that made no compromises.
Udaipur and its 500 year old city palace.
The white city reflecting off Lake Pichola.
The cenotaphs of Ahar is a city of hundreds of domes built over the last 350 years commemorating Udaipurs deceased maharajas and dignitaries.
Today, Udaipur is an international destination unto itself. It spans the gamut from abject poverty to filthy rich: India's penniless smack their dirty underwear against the concrete lake-side ghats while they gaze at a majestic island palace only 20 meters away where the world's wealthiest pay five thousand dollars a night to be pampered beyond imagining.
At roughly seven o'clock, just as Roger Moore strolled into the ritual gun barrel sequence, I made the all-too-common Indian tourist blunder of ordering a hamburger out of curiosity. Sinking my teeth into the soggy no-beef patty from one of Udaipur's many budget rooftop eateries, I too gazed across the lake at the palace hotel imagining the rich and famous dining on gourmet butter chicken, drinking martinis, and watching "Octopussy".
Udaipur city residences.
Basket weavers living in the old city.
By the next morning, whatever poisonous cow meat substitute that oozes forth from Udaipur's hamburgers began to pollute my gut. With my digestive track audibly bubbling and gurgling in protest, we began our first Indian cooking lesson under the competent tutelage of our great teacher, Shashi. While we discovered the ancient secrets to making a decent mango chutney and perfected the difficult art of creating perfectly rounded and puffed chapattis, Shashi recounted to us her story.
.Shashi was originally born in a small town of Rajasthan and was excited to move to the big city of Udaipur through an arranged marriage to work at her husband's family owned restaurant. A picture of her husband hangs over her kitchen, and their two children were often nearby, occasionally helping us to chop some coriander or crush some herbs.
Tragically, her husband died a couple of years ago. As a member of India's highest Brahmin caste, tradition forced her into a full year of mourning during which time she was not able to leave her house or work. With no income or belongings, she and her children were disowned by the husband's family- a fate that is still very common among rural Indian women and is the main reason for the begging widows which live invisibly in Indian city streets and slums. Though sadly underpaid, she made enough money to support her children as a cleaning lady working under the cover of night, and secretly doing the laundry of the region's foreign hotel guests. These arrangements were made by day through her sixteen year old son.
Ghat-side laundry. Shashi made 1 Rupee to wash five pairs of underwear.
About a year ago, she got the idea of using the cooking skills she learned from her mother and her husband's restaurant to teach foreigners. Despite having no knowledge of the English language whatsoever, she managed to convince a couple of Aussie tourists to pay her a handsome sum of money for a cooking lesson by mime. This was so much fun for both her and the Aussies that she has made it a full time career. As her various clients taught her the words to her mime, her English has improved to the point where only a small amount of body language is still necessary. Nowadays, she makes enough money to support her family, her children are back in school and she even has good relations with much of her husband's family again.
'Interestingly, Shashi said that one of the most difficult things for her to learn about and accept in her life was frying an egg. While she can speak stoically about her experiences locked in her dark house mourning for her husband, her little eyes suddenly become huge and she gasps loudly when describing the first time she cracked an egg over a frying pan, "disgusting !" The Brahmin caste are strict vegetarians which (in India) means they also don't eat eggs. Her mother would never have allowed it. As a restaurant worker and cooking teacher for foreigners, she had to learn to make foods with eggs. While she manages, she considers the scent of eggs cooking in her kitchen one of the most unbearable aspects of her new life.
Indian lentil salesman. North Indians prefer bread while south Indians prefer rice, but as in Nepal, they are united in their love for lentils. Literally hundreds of varieties of lentils exist, and some form of bhat (curried lentils) is served each meal.
The general dearth of water in the desert makes a five day trek a sweaty dirty business to say the least, so we were very happy to get back to Bikaner and finally enjoy that piping hot bucket of water and that pristine sand-less, camel-crap-less Tandoori chicken we had been dreaming about during long bouts of camel induced crotch pounding. We selected a very clean and modern restaurant that looked something like what we might find in Western Europe, though the rat scurrying around the tables combined with the unconcerned looks on the waiters’ faces was a dead giveaway that we were still in Rajasthan.
Bikaner is a hopeful desert outpost town that is trying to get on the beaten tourist path, but hasn’t quite made it yet. In deference to their burgeoning tourist business, we spent several days trying to make sense of their attractions: a crumbling fort, a few dilapidated havelis, and a dubious dancing camel show, before we finally gave up and found ourselves staring at the bland concrete hulk of a large, mostly empty, junk-country shopping mall. We have come across several of these ghost malls in north India and each time find ourselves lost in thought, gazing at some poor visionary’s failed business enterprise: there is nothing more depressing than a poorly executed attempt at mimicking the western excess of a massive shopping complex.
Katlijn bought a salwar in Bikaner. In addition to being attractive and more comfortable, Indians genuinely appreciated her wearing the local clothing and we were subjected to significantly less staring.
In Singapore, they have malls so herculean they have the combined excess of ten ordinary malls into one massive shopping center of mythical proportions that assault the senses with entire districts full of flashing advertising screens, exhausting supplies of expensive consumer goods, and mammoth American-style food courts. It is as though they had begun by carefully studying the very essence of western culture and then decided to quite deliberately go about reproducing it by marshaling all their greatest engineers and artisans, gathering their wisest philosophers, and focusing their tremendous Eastern assiduity to the task of constructing stunningly sophisticated consumer meccas having more Starbucks per unit volume than anywhere else in the universe: a place more western than the west could ever be.
Indian attempts at reproducing this type of western consumer excess are, thankfully, abysmal failures. Wandering around places like Bikaner always brings to mind the same questions: where is all that IT money going to anyhow? Isn’t India supposed to be running the planet in a few decades ? And when they do, will there still be errant cows wandering the streets? God, I hope so.
In Delhi, they tried to get rid of the cows. Several years ago, the nation realized that Western cities don’t have street cows, decided they were an embarrassment to the New India’s modern image, and embarked on an ambitious multi-million dollar program to rid “smelly” Delhi of its wonderfully robust bovines. What about holy cows and holy rats !? Such a shameless rebuke of centuries of Hindu heritage ! Fortunately, the government failed utterly at the task having under-estimated the monumental scale of the problem. Despite persistent effort, cows are still regularly seen obstructing traffic, strutting rebelliously down busy Delhi traffic arteries in defiance of Indian persecution. And I sincerely hope that when India’s IT money finally beats a path to Bikaner’s swirling desert outpost to transform the sad, dusty concrete shopping complex we were staring at into a bustling modern commercial metropolis, the cows will still be there meandering serenely down the crowded ultra-modern neon-lit shopping halls of a unique Indian creation- not another western strip mall clone, but something the world has never seen before: a modern city that actually looks original, a New India with its very own futuristic vision of next-generation rickshaws, touts, and food wallahs.
With this optimistic vision in my mind, we proceeded to Bikaner's crusty train station and waited several hours for our train to arrive. When asked where the train was, the station master told us it would arrive "in time" which is as close to "on time" as you get in North India and is a good indication your train will come sometime before dark. The train broke down on us again somewhere in the middle of the desert and we tried to pass the time reading our books over the general raucous accumulating around us.
Interestingly, if you are the only person on an empty bus or train in India, Indian passengers will come and sit right beside you instead of selecting one of the many empty seats. This is especially true if you are quietly reading a book which, in my experience, results in a large crowd of men invading my personal space and breathing down my back while they read carefully over my shoulder. According to several sources we have asked, many Indians simply do not understand why someone would sit by themselves and read a book- it is just not done here. Apparantly, we look very lonely and either they want to keep us company by engaging us in conversation ("Canada !? Beautiful country. My sister....") , or they are so intensely interested in what could possibly keep us occupied that they want to grab our books from our hands and rifle through them. Trying to read the Lonely Planet Guide to India is particularly challenging as surrounding passengers want nothing more than to pass the book around the train taking turns looking things up. Our i-pod is another object of immense fascination and complete strangers see absolutely no problem with borrowing our earphones for the duration of our trip while occasionally demanding that we change the song for them. After a few weeks in India, it occurs to us that we have completely lost our privacy. Our business and our belongings have now become public property.
An Indian bangle maker and salesman. Bangles are worn by most Indian women, especially during pregnancy when their rustling sound can be heard and later recognized by the baby.
Another Indian train peculiarity is the male Indian cross-dressers that go up and down the hallway generally annoying the passengers and asking for money. Whenever one walks into our train car, every nearby man, woman, and child gets up to stare at us. To the general annoyance of the transvestite beggars, a man wearing a bra and pantyhose is completely uninteresting compared to a white tourist's reaction to the situation- especially if they react by sticking their noses deeply into a massive Indian guide book desperately trying to pretend the text is so absorbing they don't even notice the fake bosoms heaving above them or the growing circus of spectators.
Faced with these experiences, we were glad to finally arrive in Jodhpur, Rajasthan's "Blue City". We tugged our junk-country earphones out of a pair of hairy ears, wrested control of our thick guidebook, and hoisted our bulging backpacks off the train. It wasn't long before we found a nice family-run guesthouse with a gorgeous rooftop view of Jodhpur's looming cliff-side fortress.
Glorious Meherangarh fort reigning over the blue city.
Mughal influenced architecture inside one of the fort's many palaces. These windows are specially designed so that women can surreptitiously peer down on the courtyard, while the men below are not able to see up through the windows at the women.
Tragic tiny hand prints of all the Maharaja's widows who performed sati (ritual self-immolation) when their husband died in 1843. Obviously, this Indian tradition is now forbidden by law though a very small number of incidents still occur each year in remote isolated villages.
View of Jodhpur from the ramparts. Jodhpur is called the "blue city" due to the indigo hue of the rambling buildings that make up the old city. This colour represents the Brahmin caste which constitutes most of the city's population.
We met up with a nice couple, Doug and Lee, both retired teachers from Berkeley, California, who are on their own six month world trip. In the evening, they shared dinner with us as well as interesting experiences including living abroad (Malaysia and Africa), travelling, and teaching Steve Jobs' children in California. They also kept us company while we explored the impressive forts, cenotaphs, and markets in what was our favourite of Rajasthan's colourful desert cities.
Milky white marble memorials and cenotaphs to Jodhpur's past Maharajas near Fort Meherangarh.
Rajasthan is considered a living study in ethno-musicology. The harsh desert climate contrasts dramatically with a sophisticated culture of music, dance, and dazzling clothing often having symbolic significance. The happy pink-and-gold combination seen here may only be worn by a woman who has borne a son.
Immediately following our hyper-dramatic Hindi film experience at the Pink City's Raj Mandir meringue inspired cinema, we caught a night train to Rajhastan's desert outpost town of Bikaner travelling, as always, in India's second lowest train class. Our usual strategy is to reserve, using India's miraculously functioning on-line ticketing service, the two top bunks allowing us to go to bed whenever we want to without disturbing the passengers below us. Unfortunately, the little-used Jaipur-Bikaner line runs an older and smaller model of train with low ceilings that force us to squeeze our bodies through a tiny crack separating the bed from the grungy ventilation fans, leaving us only just barely enough room to lie flat on our backs, occasionally being woken by the sensation of our noses rubbing against the dirty roof-top. Despite expensive ear-plugs, sleeping medication, and junk-country earphones, we are forced to endure yet another restless night when our carriage is invaded, at some ungodly hour of the morning, by a gang of yapping old Indian women.
As later explained to us by a friend of ours from Bangalore: Indians believe that it is their birth-right to make noise. It is not that they are trying to be rude; the entire concept of shutting off the light being quiet for others trying to sleep is, to them, such an abstract metaphysical paradigm as to be simply unfathomable to the sub-continent's general populace. It is not just the gangs of old Indian crones which seem to haunt the wakeful halls of every late-night sleeper train in the country, even the men running the hotels spend hours chattering in Hindi to each other into the wee hours of the morning. And what on earth are they talking about, anyway ? Where I come from, adult men just don't have that much to say to each other and certainly don't stay up all night giggling like school girls.
At times, Katlijn will be driven mad by the hotel men whose incessant gossiping simply overwhelms her specially molded high-end India-traveller's ear protection. Finally, in a fit of insanity, she will throw her ear plugs angrily at the door and storm out into the neighbouring hotel lobby to find six loitering men locked in loquacious banter, and frantically yells out to them:
"Oi ! We're trying to sleep in here !"
The hotel men stare at each other, exchanging blank looks- their brains, having been conditioned to a lifetime of whining scooters, quarrelling urban farm animals, and obnoxious horn blasts, are now no longer capable of even grasping the basic notion of noise pollution. Instead, after a brief pause, their Hindi chattering starts up again more intently as they desperately try to sort out, by group consensus, what the problem could possibly be, until finally they seem to settle on a theory, a plausible hypotheses: their best guess at what her frantic late-night fussing might be referring to. The oldest turns down the volume of the blaring Indian pop music, and asks, in his best English,
"Hot water bucket ?"
As I mentioned already, we don't get a lot of sleep in India. We finally arrived at Bikaner the next morning and groggily squeezed our way out of our claustrophobic train coffin, hauled our gigantic dusty backpacks from out beneath two loudly snoring old crones, and made our way to Vino's fabulous Bikaner Camel Safari Guest House: a sandy desert budget accommodation that seems to be managed and operated entirely by children.
After a brief visit to Bikaner's old city, we made arrangements with Vino for a five day camel safari through the Thar Desert. We were ready to go by the next morning and met up with Steve, a chatty Swiss backpacker who will keep us company the first couple of days. Steve is an economist taking several months off for long-term travel and proving, yet again, that the world's backpackers are quite an agreeable and varied people.
We started our desert trek at Kani Mata Temple, a peculiar and remote 14th century holy outpost in the middle of the sand dunes whose explicit purpose and ardent cult of followers is devoted solely to the worship of rodents. It seems that the cadre of Hindu holy animals knows no bounds: cows, monkeys, elephants, bulls, tigers and more. But, seriously, rats !? Just when we thought India's penchant for superstition could not possibly be stretched any further, we find ourselves in a temple, whose floors look alive with the scurrying of countless holy rodents, where it is considered auspicious for one to scamper over your bare feet and especially good fortune if you can spot a big, fat, fluffy, white one. We made our way carefully around the premises, together with a few barefooted devotees- their eyes peeled for white rats hoping that they might be so blessed as to feel the tickling of rat whiskers between their toes- all the while wondering if this temple was really built here for the explicit purpose of worshipping rats, or whether they simply got deified as the pragmatic solution to an ancient and uncontainable infestation.
According to devotees of the affectionately titled "rat temple", the holy rats seen here (called kabas) are the reincarnation of dead storytellers brought here to deprive Yama, the Hindu god of Death, of human souls.
After visiting the rat temple, we met up with our desert guides, the camelman and the cook. Despite spending every second together for five long hot days, we had a tough time making any kind of connection with them given their tenable grasp of our language and our entire ignorance of whatever Rajasthani tongue they communicated with. In fact, we never even learned their names, having given up after making a hash with the pronunciation and finally settling on calling the camelman the "white guy" and then referring to the cook at all times relative to the camelman as simply "the other guy".
Our camelman, the white guy, so-named for his white turban and white loin cloth which he wore and washed daily.
We had three camels with us: Steve's camel, our riding camel we named "Alice", and a strapping young male camel we named "Orneel de Kameel",who carried the cart while periodically sticking its tongue out at passing lady camels who, without fail, would saunter giddily towards Orneel's manly camel stench, unable to contain their passion at such witty flirtation. All over the Great Thar Desert, camelmen would have to chase after young virgin camels who had fallen under the powerful spell of Orneel's wooful raspberries.
From the very beginning, it was obvious that sitting on a camel for five days was going to be a supremely uncomfortable experience. The camelman had Alice lie on the ground so I could get on the saddle. Before I even had a chance to sit down, Alice, upon feeling my legs brush against his side, would suddenly let out a gaping camel groan of disapproval and lurch upwards, slamming its hard backside into my unsuspecting crotch while stretching my stiff legs sideways dangerously beyond the safety zone of my admittedly limited flexibility. This would be followed by several hours of stoically enduring the graceless back-and-forth saunter of Alice slowly rocking my testes into numbness until, mercifully, it was time for me to get off and begin the long and painful process of returning circulation to the lower half of my body. Camels also do not make a smooth transition from the standing to sitting position. Instead, they sort of fold themselves up in several fast jerking motions like a collapsible lawn chair, each fold giving the rider the sensation of freefall and each time landing, inevitably, hard on his crotch. By the time we finally got off, our legs had been reduced to a senseless oblivion: two heavy weights swinging lifeless from our torsos waddling awkwardly about the desert.
The first few days we enjoyed taking turns riding the camel and lying down in the back of the cart peacefully reading a book. However, it wasn't long before we began fighting over who got to lie down in the cart and who had to receive a three hour crotch pummeling. Finally, perhaps out of compassion, the camel man let us both lie down in the camel cart while Alice, bareback and unburdened, trotted happily behind us with a smug look of victory.
During our trek, we enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of the scrubby desert’s understated beauty punctuated by the occasional viper, vulture, and gazelle. We often passed secluded families living in tiny isolated mud huts, or even small mud villages sprouting sleepy rural desert communities.
Rajasthani boy and his mud home.
Thar Desert village.
The people of the Thar desert were exceptionally curious of us, especially the young children. While we stopped for tea or meals, small groups of brothers and sisters would huddle together and plant themselves at a safe distance to apprehensively study us in great detail like tiny fledgling scientists. Astonishingly, these profoundly patient children could go about their staring business uninterrupted for many hours in such a deep and pure state of meditation that, I must presume, it did not even occur to them to ask me for a pen. In the few cases they did ask us for something, it was never money, toys, or pens, but empty plastic water bottles of all things. In fact, empty plastic bottles were a trophy so deeply coveted by desert children, it drove them to acts of camel cart thievery that forced our poor nameless cook to be constantly vigilant and, when necessary, jump off and chase after them.
The larger Thar Desert villages each have a long trough of water for the camels. As we waited for Alice and Orneel to drink their share, the entire population of the village, often numbering in the hundreds, would emerge from their mud houses and rush down the street cheering our arrival at what felt like a royal welcome. When our camels were finished and we would continue on our way, the children would run after us into the desert for a while yelling "ta-ta !" and erupting into tearful laughter every time we responded to them.
The cook picked up pieces of valuable dried wood along the way which he would use, together with camel droppings, to make a fire. From time to time, he would also jump off the cart and disappear into a seemingly random mud hut in the middle of nowhere with an empty bottle and some supplies, then appear again sometime later behind us, running along the sandy trail in his sandals to catch up, the bottles now full of the desert goat milk he uses for our obligatory morning, afternoon, and evening chai. At some of the larger villages, he could be seen with the locals trading for supplies and, especially, flour for making his delicious chapattis. Furthermore, many of the locals supplied us with water from their personal wells. In return, our operation ran a kind of desert taxi service between the tiny villages as the camelman would allow complete strangers to ride on the cart with us along the empty roads. In many cases, our friends would join us for a hot cup of chai and even sit around the campfires at night, together with their sons and daughters, always staring at us, always smiling, while our cook and the camelman eyed our empty plastic containers nervously.
Despite working in the remote seclusion of the desert, the cook produced some extraordinarily delightful Indian vegetable curries making each mealtime an experience Katlijn and I, saddle-sore, would very much look forward to. While one cannot deny his obvious culinary talents, he did not run the most sanitary of kitchens and the small number of pots and pans he carried with us often served multiple purposes including wash board and portable camel latrine. At one point, we watched in horror as he used his dirty shirt sleeve to rub a large pile of green droppings off the pan and into the fire, mix and pound the dough on the same pan, then roast his superbly shaped chapattis directly on the smouldering camel dung. Furthermore, due to the difficulties inherent in finding water in the desert, after every meal, we washed our dishes in dirt we scooped from the ground. To be fair, a sand-wash is an amazingly effective desert camping trick which I suggest you all try at home if you don't believe me, the only drawback being chewing on the little bits of sand that perennially find their way into every bite.
The cook concocting another one of his delicious stews while desert children nervously study our camp.
The cook pounds and shapes the dough as the camelman cooks the result on a tawa then puffs up the final chapatti directly on the coals. An old local man in a red turban enjoys a hot metal cup of chai while quietly watching them at work.
Evening in the desert is a particularly magical time as the dark blue sky transforms itself into the deep crimsons, violets, and yellows of some of the world's most spectacular sunsets. At night, we sleep in the open sand gazing at the brightly lit stars above us, while each morning the cook wakes us up with breakfast in bed. Sipping on hot chai while crunching down on our sandy toast, the Thar Desert entertains us again with another inspired sunrise, worlds away from the late night gossip of India's hotelmen.
Despite hot weather during the day, the desert temperature drops rapidly at night. Underneath two layers of blankets and our sleeping bags, while isolating ourselves from the ground with two more layers of blankets, we slept comfortably beneath the stars.
A sari shop in India. The line of male tailors on the left display a huge variety of fabrics to the women sitting on the right. The fabrics can be cut into saris or other clothing items. Shops like this are seen all over India and, by tradition, all the fabric tailors and shopkeepers are men while their clientele are all women.
After a long bus ride, we arrived in Jaipur mid-afternoon. All the hotels recommended in our guidebook were fully booked so we had to wander around the crowds with our giant tout-magnet backpacks looking around for a reasonably clean place to stay. In the end, we settled for an over-priced room, with two drab beds and a snowy television, ran by an old Indian fart and his five hapless cronies. As a word of advice: never stay at a venue in India in which the front lobby is occupied twenty four hours a day by six loitering men. As we waited an eternity for a luke-warm bucket of water, staring vacantly out our comically minuscule window, occasionally going downstairs to the lobby to check the progress of our simple cornflakes breakfast (only to find six loitering men staring vacantly at the peeling paint of our stodgy hotel), we began to wonder just how many men it takes to do absolutely nothing.
A much better alternative is to find a hotel run by an Indian woman. At Keoladio Nation Park, for example, our astute hotel lady single-handedly did everyone's laundry, cooked all our food, fixed the plumbing, and helped her kids with their homework while still finding enough time and energy to skillfully hustle us out of 50 Rupees for a pair of foggy binoculars and a crumbling bird book. You had to admire her.
Jaipur was our first stop on our tour of the province of Rajasthan. This state in North-East India, bordering Pakistan, has been doggedly controlled by the Rajput people for more than 1000 years. They are a Hindu warrior clan, constantly fighting, if not with the Muslim Mughals and the Western British, then against each other. Much of their bellicose way of life feels a bit like that of the Japanese Samurai: hierarchical while emphasizing honour and chivalry in combat- demanding ritual mass suicide by self-immolation over surrender. The practice of warfare was such a common occurrence that it became highly ritualized and enshrined in their culture: philosophy as well as an art form developed around combat with beautifully carved swords, gorgeously decorated armour, and vivid paintings. They were such a staunchly proud and recalcitrant opponent, that they managed to retain significantly more independence than the rest of India as both the Mughals and the British found it wiser to make special arrangements with the Rajputs rather than embarking on a long internecine struggle. Unfortunately, this independence ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for these desert people. The Rajput rulers eventually became corrupt and lived a lavish life-style while the general population lived in poverty. When India finally gained its independence in 1947, Rajasthan had one of the sub-continent's lowest rates of life expectancy and literacy. It remains to this day one of the poorest states in India.
Jaipur's impressive hilltop Amber Fort. All of the major cities in Rajasthan have sprawling walled fortresses that served to protect the various city-states.
Entrance to Amber Fort's inner palace.
The palace architecture is a mixture of Rajput and Mughal styles.
We embarked on a long hot walking tour of a desert city that seemed to be choking under the malodorous fumes of diesel fuel, camel carts, and permanently clogged traffic arteries. The 18th century Jantar Mantar observatory provided an interesting diversion- it looks a bit like an amusement park full of mammoth experimental art sculptures. However, each construction has a specific purpose for tracking the motion of planets and stars, including a 27 meter high sundial which can be used to tell the time accurately to within 2 seconds. Unfortunately, we can't tell you what other amazing feats of mathematics and engineering were on display as our guide turned out to be completely stoned, speaking in an incoherent babble while puttering around the observatory in a kind of hashish induced slow-motion.
Upon exiting the observatory, Katlijn made the well-intentioned mistake of offering a begging boy one of our bananas. Upon grasping the fruit in his little hands, his eyes went wide, astonished at such good fortune, his whole face lighting up to assume the childlike expression of barely contained excitement normally reserved for unwrapping Christmas gifts. He quickly ran down the street screaming with glee, summoning his friends and family, who began to emerge wraith-like, previously invisible, from some secret place in between the cluttered jumble of concrete junk-peddling holes in the wall. It wasn't long before Katlijn was surrounded by street people beseeching her for free bananas. Without enough supply to meet the exponentially growing demand, we had to beat a hasty retreat into a street full of rampaging rickshaws and honking motorcycles. A lone police officer stood uselessly in the middle of the chaos, looking positively stranded, staring vacantly at the emerging traffic situation.
At what point did we start snapping at people asking for bananas ?
When was the exact moment that penniless widows abruptly vanish from our view ?
Why do children constantly ask me for pens ?
What the hell is wrong with this place !?
Through the smoggy crush of the Pink City's rush-hour vehicle hordes, the streets bursting at the seems with staring masses and Indian queue beasts, between cars and trucks, careening cycle rickshaws and high-speed scooters, slowly making its way between the fruit wallahs and stray dogs, quite suddenly, an enormous elephant smugly lumbers down the road. Above us, literally hundreds of kites fill the skies for the kite festival. Somehow, the magic of the sublimely foreign scene before us, or perhaps just the serene expression on the elephant's face, filled me with a renewed empathy for this country and made me realize how lucky we are to be travelling to a place which can only be experienced and not easily explained.
A fruit stand in Jaipur. Jaipur is nicknamed the "pink" city due to the predominantly pink colour of the buildings in its old city. The coral colors are particularly vivid just before sunset.
To celebrate my renewed faith in, or perhaps just temporarily prolonged tolerance for, the confounding process that is travelling through India, I decided to take Katlijn out for what is perhaps the world's most dubious "dinner and a movie" date: McDonald's and a Bollywood film.
While some cultures have a problem with culinary fusion, I am personally all for it. Other than tasting good, I believe there should be no rules defining whether or not different schools of gastronomy should be combined together. Despite this, I must make exception for the shameless combination of the well-respected centuries-old Indian culinary tradition with an American fast-food laboratory product designed at minimum cost for mass consumption: an ill-conceived fusion clearly demonstrated in such Frankenstein creations as the "Chicken Maharaja Mac". Certainly, the line of vegetarian potato burger products featured in Indian McDonald's, the "McAloo Tikkas", are a testament to globalization gone awry. However, to India McDonald's credit, they have exceptionally clean toilet facilities. Say what you will about their nefarious influence on global eating trends, even in a country not exactly renowned for its cleanliness, the MacDonald's bathrooms positively sparkle and may possibly harbor the sub-continents only functioning automated hand dryers.
Jaipur is home to India's number one Hindi cinema: the world-famous Raj Mandir- a massive, sublimely ugly, green and white cinema complex with bizarre architectural motifs that seem to have been inspired by marsh mellows and lemon meringue pies. Katlijn was allowed to get our tickets from the "ladies queue", as oppose to the much longer and more unruly "men's queue". She similarly helped a gang of Indian boys get tickets for the show who returned her kindness by explaining to us what was going on during the film. Ultimately, it was not as bad as we thought, and a few of the musical numbers were downright catchy. If you can't make sense of India's Bollywood film mania, it is probably you have never seen one of these films live at an actual Bollywood cinema. The raucous crowd booing the villains, cheering the heroes, and joining together in group gut-laughter magically turn the absurdity of the underlying script into a genuinely entertaining experience. Like its American counterpart, Bollywood films are full of a lot of beautiful people, classy cars, and opulence. However, it feels more artificial and jarring coming from Hindi cinema as it is so obviously at odds with the reality we had seen in North India. Where are the betel-nut stained teeth and the invisible beggars ? How come there are no dogs barking or monkeys dancing and why don't Bollywoods stars ever haggle with rickshaw touts ? Despite the dramatic music and emotionally exhausting story, culled of errant cows and lumbering elephants, Bollywood's watered-down version of India feels a bit empty compared to the real thing.
One of several pythons we spotted at xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />KeoladeoNational Park. The large bulge seen about a meter from the snake's mouth is a recently eaten animal that is currently being digested by the snake.
A King Cobra bite will kill a fully grown adult human being in less than ten minutes without an appropriate anti-venom. Pythons grow as long as 7 meters and are fully capable of constricting, suffocating, and then consuming large mammals including jackals, deer, and tourists. Depending on the time of year, both of these snakes are seen with alarming regularity throughout KeoladioNational Park. At the entrance, there is an enormous yellow warning sign that reads in dramatic bold red characters:
"BEWARE OF TOUTS !"
Not a word of caution for unsuspecting birders about the giant snakes. Not a single suggestion can be found anywhere regarding appropriate course of action when the largest venomous snakes in the world stand a meter and a half high, their throats flared in striking position. However, the sign expounds in great detail who to call when the indigenous species of commission foraging rickshaw wallahs takes you to the wrong hotel. It is very clear, in massive crimson letters, italicized for emphasis, that "absolutely under no circumstances" should one "accept tea from strangers".
Marvelling at the ridiculousness of this piece of advice from India's forestry ministries, I began to wonder whether or not we had come to the right place for a little vacation from Agra's Taj Mahal touts and the energy sapping experiences of haggling with hotel managers, finding our way around dusty labyrinthine alleyways, and digesting countless flea-ridden chapatti. However, we didn't start to get really worried until the forest ranger/tout manning the park entrance stopped us from entering because we were not allowed to bring our binoculars inside.
"But it's a bloody bird-watchingreserve !" Katlijn tried to explain, clearly exasperated, with stress on the word "bird" fruitlessly emphasizing the particular difficulties inherent in this activity without binoculars, given the small size and tendency of its object to flock far away from people in the camouflaged and remote sanctuary of trees.
The so-called forest "ranger" tells us that we must pay him 20 Rupees to use the park's binoculars on top of the entry fee (outrageously inflated 20 fold for foreign tourists), and it was just too bad we already had a pair from our hotel owner who just "should have known better". This was one scam too many for Katlijn, the straw that broke the camel's back, and the subsequent tirade this unleashed from her mouth sent flocks of storks and cormorants scattering off the ground in alarm. This was followed by a long and unpleasant round of haggling over the illusive price of a pair of binoculars, the entrance fees, and a couple of dodgy Indian mountain bikes. However, once we were in the park, it was indeed quite peaceful and pleasant- our serenity only interrupted once by a poor little boy who made the mistake of asking Katlijn where she was from and suggested she give him her pen.
A blue bull drinking waters in the marshy grasslands.
We managed to spot a lot of wildlife including blue bulls, several species of deer, Indian mud turtles, jungle cats, and jackals. However, the real draw at KeoladeoPark are the 500 species of migratory birds, especially water birds, which frequent the area. It is in some ways an artificial sanctuary since it was once an arid region which filled with water only during the monsoon season and dried up afterwards. One of the maharajas artificially diverted water to the region from a nearby canal in order to attract more ducks for the purpose of entertaining his guests with duck hunting. His actions were very successful not only at creating one of the world's easiest duck shoots, but also at attracting all sorts of different types of water birds. It is now a protected area frequented by serious bird geeks, with an artificial ecology that is still sustained by diverting water from nearby canals and dams.
Katlijn bird-watching at KeoladeoNational Park.
Our bird-identifying skills leave much to be desired, and the dusty, tattered 1940s British Colonial era "Bird's of India" book, also given to us by our hotel owner, was of little use. Thus, Katlijn was forced to swallow her pride, make amends with the Park tout, and ask him for his help in identifying birds. Together, we spent many hours spotting countless different varieties of herons, geese, owls, woodpeckers, and kingfishers before coming back and exchanging information with the birders staying at our hotel.
Just before leaving, we realized our hotel lady was attempting to charge us a fee for the binoculars and her crumbling bird book. When we tried to explain we weren't allowed to use them in the park, she simply smiled and gave us the infamous Indian head wobble- perhaps the most mysterious and infuriating gesticulations on the sub-continent: a gentle cranial motion which, in the ambiguous hands of a skillful tout, means neither "yes" nor "no", but rather something more along the lines of, "I entirely agree with you, sir. Life really does suck". We finally acquiesce, once again, in defeat. They should have made that warning sign bigger.
Indian man getting a deep and thorough ear cleaning by one of the local touts.
Before leaving Varanasi, we made a brief stop at Saranath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is the place where Siddhartha Gotama, the first Buddha, gave his teachings describing the four noble truths and the basic tenets of Buddhism. For this reason, it was also once the site of an impressive temple complex. However, there is scant evidence of this now. These days, the most remarkable thing about Saranath is the long and very intense staring we are subjected to by the masses of middle-class Indian families that picnic here on the grassy lawns.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of staring. We look different, we speak different, we come from a different place. For the most part, I can relate to their curious- trying to gather their courage to talk with us. However, Indians take staring to a whole new level.
On a recent bus ride, a man sitting in a seat in front of us turned around, rested his head on his cushion and stared at me, without pause, for ten minutes straight. I tried to stare back at him, but found it impossible to hold his gaze. I swear, he didn't so much as blink ! Most irritating are small packs of middle-class Indian teenage boys who find following a couple of white tourists around a park and staring at them to be a day filling activity so immensely fascinating it warrants repeated photography. Katlijn is a particularly popular target. Even after asking the boys not to photograph her, they'll hide behind pillars and bushes, snapping her picture paparazzi style.
If you are reading this blog, please leave me a comment below answering the following question: what on earth do you do with photographs of random white tourists !? Honestly, we have no idea.
The troubling thing is that most Indians know about as much about the West as we know about India, which is to say, pretty much nothing at all. For example, we once met an Indian on the train who was shocked that we stayed at cheap hotel rooms, did not travel first class, and used an unfashionably low budget cell phone. His impression of foreigners is that we just give money away freely to anyone who asks because we have so much of it. More insulting: our understanding is that many Indian males still think white women are sex-craved targets willing to have pre-marital escapades with any Indian man- an attitude which is clearly reinforced by much of the popular Indian media. We are very often asked about our marital status and, on the rare occasions we tell Nepali and Indian people that we are not married, they tend to shake their head and nudge each other as if confirming their basest pre-conceptions. The problem then with staring, is not so much the staring, it is thinking about what the other person is thinking about- pitting one set of misconceptions against the other.
The only other remarkable thing about Saranath are the locals attempting to "line up" for tickets. There is no actual line, but a massive tangle of bodies elbowing, shoving, and pressing up against each other. At the ticket gate, hundreds of hands can be seen holding onto the booth's bars, white knuckled, pulling the rest of their bodies to the front of the horde. There are so many bodies pressed so tightly against one another that it no longer resembles a crowd of individuals, but one single multi-headed, multi-limbed monster surging up against a poor emaciated ticket wallah cowering inside a ramshackle booth, locked in a life or death struggle with the beast, desperately trying to stave off its many thrashing appendages with nothing more than tiny stubs of paper. Interestingly, women are actually allowed to go, automatically, to the front of the queue-beast. Of course, I have never met a western woman willing to test this theory given the monster's many groping hands and its multiplicity of male brains.
We escaped the monstrous, staring crowd in the early evening to arrive at Varanasi's train station. At night, Indian train stations look like refugee camps full of hundreds of weary Indians sleeping on the concrete ground waiting for their train to arrive. In our experience, nothing ever seems to work as expected in India, so we were positively astounded to find our names listed properly on the side of the correct train car. How could it be that our information was sent from an Internet form to some remote Indian operator, having filtered through the creaking Indian train system bureaucracy (presumably oiled by countless 5 rupee basksheesh) to arrive at the Varanasi station manger who paid off some tout to paste it on the side of a train so it was hanging right in front of us ? And this is not an isolated event ! Our names are always there: spelled correctly and pasted firmly on the side of the correct train car. How all these multitudinous transactions occur without problem, while I can't even get hotel owners to bring me a bucket of hot water, is truly one of the great mysteries of India.
Indian trains have about 6-8 classes to accommodate the budget and comfort requirements of all travelers. We are budget travelers and therefore ride in the "sleeper class" which is the second lowest class (even we don't travel with the lowest class which is a kind of repository of all the worst rumours you have ever heard about India). Trying to overcome the snoring passengers around me, I stuffed my imitation Sony earphones from Nepal deep into my ears for a bit of music. However, no matter how hard I pushed, the right ear piece produced nothing more than an annoying buzzing, while the left one gave only a distant hum. Whenever something like this happens, Katlijn likes to make the following remark: "junk country !" which succinctly summarizes the quality of the merchandise we have purchased since landing in Nepal. Without functional earphones, I took a few sleeping pills and let the gentle motion of the train rock me to sleep.
We began our post-Varanasi, post-queue-beast encounter by visiting the erotic temples of Kajuraho. These temples were the result of a mysterious creative burst occurring between 950-1050 AD by the Chandelan people, one of the last early Hindu empires in North India. Nobody knows why they bothered to make such an extensive temple complex in a place with absolutely no strategic value at all. I can tell you from our long overnight train-ride and subsequent 6 hour bus experience that it truly is in the middle of nowhere. If not for the temples, the small band of locals who man this outpost attraction would never be here. They constantly complain about the lack of rainfall and are more reluctant than usual to provide us a bucket of hot water- it hasn't rained here for three years !
Most tour books erroneously refer to the Kajuraho temples as "erotic" temples. Admittedly, a few of the thousands of fine sculptures that cover these temples are of rather shocking threesomes and foursomes. However, the vast majority simply depict women in daily life. The reason for sculpting such lurid scenes and the artists' original intent in general remains a mystery to Indo-Aryan scholars.
Shortly after the completion of the Kajuraho temples, they were abandoned for the nearby forts to help ward off the various groups of Muslims invading from Afghanistan. This was the beginning of centuries of Hindu-Muslim conflicts which continue to this day in various forms, including present tensions along the Pakistan-India border. It would be another 800 years before the temples were accidentally rediscovered by a lost British colonist. We spent a couple of very happy days biking around the temple grounds, absorbing the beautiful architecture and exquisite carvings- definitely the most impressive we have seen in all of India.
We continued on to a city called Orcha where we met up with Party-Dean, the Aussie backpacker, and the German couple, Karsten and his wife Julianna. Party-Dean is to us representative of the younger generation of 20-something ultra-low-budget travelers you have heard about: living the good life while hauling their backpack around the globe. However, Party-Dean is the minority: the reality is that the backpacking scene has changed over the years. They aren't the ragged bums we were initially afraid we'd have to deal with. Nowadays, the vast majority of modern backpackers are an older more sophisticated sort and range anywhere from their late twenties to early sixties. They travel cheap, but still have enough money to occasionally splurge on a truly awesome Tandoori Chicken. Most of them are professionals taking a couple of years off, confident they can return and find work again with no problems. Karsten and Julianna, for example, have been traveling for two and a half years and will shortly go back to Germany to continue their careers. Of the very few young backpackers we do encounter, they are not nearly as annoying as we thought. Party-Dean is actually a pretty nice guy, not to mention the fact that his frugal life style has taught him the very useful ability to ferret out any given city's cheapest 30-rupee quality Indian eatery.
We spent several days exploring the ruined forts of Orcha with the German couple and Party-Dean. The most successful of the Muslim invaders were the Mughals who arrived around 1500 AD into India. At one point, their empire contained most of the sub-continent and their legacy can be seen in the many old forts and cenotaphs of most North Indian cities. Orcha's forts, though massive, are less famous and some are in a state of near collapse. Nevertheless, we had a great time clambering over their impressive, atmospheric remains.
Orcha's Forts and Cenotaphs are fine examples of Mughal architecture.
Undoubtedly, the most famous Mughal legacy is the Taj Mahal, located in Agra, just south of Delhi. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and, if you will pardon the cliche, is in fact as beautiful as they say it is. It was built by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1631-1653. He was so grieved by the loss of his second wife, who died giving birth to her fourteenth son, he built this massive white marble masterpiece in her memory. It is said that he actually had plans to build an identical Taj in black marble, exactly opposite the current white Taj. Fortunately, one of his many sons over-threw him by force and locked him in the Agra fort before he could deplete the empire of the considerable resources required to complete his mad, though inspired, vision. Shah Jahan together with his wife, Mumtaz Jahan, are currently buried together beneath the gorgeous domed roof of the Taj Mahal.
While you have undoubtedly seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, you have probably never seen it from this angle. Most photographs of the Taj Mahal are taken from the front garden since this was the view intended by its architect. We chose to photograph it here from the backside not only for the nice reflection in the surrounding waters, but because this angle reveals one aspect of the architect's creativity: the Taj Mahal is built on a platform several meters above the ground so that, whenever we look at it, the building is always framed against the sky enhancing its beauty. Another important feature, seen here but omitted by most photographs, are the red sandstone structures on either side which complete the frame and contrast nicely with the white marble of the main building.
In addition to the Taj Mahal, Agra is famous for its touts which rival those of Varanasi. The Agra rickshaw touts are particularly renowned for their exceptional skills at shuttling tourists for hours between commission peddling shops while never actually taking them to the Taj Mahal. Our particular tout managed this by using the excuse of a city-wide rickshaw strike. Nevertheless, he did take us to a few interesting places with some chatty craftsmen which almost made his hustle worth our time.
If you get close enough to the Taj Mahal, you will see that its marble exterior is decorated with inlaid gems. Agra is world-famous for this art form. Even though the cost of marble items with inlaid gems is well above our price range this year, these craftsmen are happy to show us their trade.
It takes this carpet weaver more than a month to make a full sized carpet. Every carpet pattern is different and for each pattern, he invents a new song with mnemonic lyrics that help him remember the order in which to weave different colours of thread. He sits for hours singing this song in complete concentration, while his hands move in a blur steadily weaving the carpet imperceptibly longer and longer.
Katlijn gets a little help trying on this red sari.
Sunrise on the Ganges. The Ganges is possibly the holiest place in all of India if not the whole world. Ironically, it is also the most poluted. Five hundred faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water is considered safe enough for bathing. Samples from the river indicate more than 1.5 million bacteria per 100 mL of Ganges water.
We took off through the thick fog of Kathmandu's outdated airport with Air India- an airline which tops the black list on travel advisory websites. We flew this company using the same dubious logic of most Air India customers: "hell, it's got to be safer than the bus !"
Perhaps because Nepal is India's smaller and less famous neighbour, or perhaps because most people visit Nepal after India, Nepal is forever compared with respect to India. They always say the same thing: "Nepal is like India, but different". We, of course, went to Nepal first and will forever see India with respect to Nepal. Here is our first impression:
India looks a bit like Nepal- there are cars, goats, and cows bustling about to the sound of honking horns in a kind of street havoc. BUT, India's is a paved havoc. That, and the cows are bigger. They're huge ! Cows in Nepal are poor, emaciated, mangy little beasts. Cows in India are rich, fat, robust bovines with massive horns often seen chasing naked children off the road. Otherwise, India looks like Nepal. In time, this first impression will be proven wrong. Nepal and India are utterly different, and don't believe anyone who tells you this "same but different" nonsense. The Nepali people, of course, know that they are not Indian and, to avoid any possible confusion, they actually invented their own distinct time-zone exactly 15 minutes ahead of India's.
After landing in India and setting our watches straight, we caught a pre-paid taxi service which navigated us successfully through the chaos to drop us off near Varanasi's old town. From here, we spent a long time haggling with a shabby rickshaw tout and came to an agreement which neither of us understood completely. This is the first among many similar experiences we will encounter throughout our India travels. Prior to coming to India, I had never met an Indian without a fluent, Abu-accented, command of my language. Furthermore, language was never a significant barrier in Nepal. Thus, we were a bit surprised to find that the majority of Indians on the budget-travel circuit do not, in fact, speak much English.
After getting about halfway to our desired destination we had a heated altercation with our rickshaw tout over something neither party understood and had to elbow our way out of the gathering crowd of curious on-lookers. We then wound through the impossibly old and narrow streets of Varanasi, our massive backpacks scraping a layer of grime off the crumbling plaster walls, desperately looking for the Ganges. We couldn't find it. Worse still, we made the mistake of asking one of the locals for directions. Attempting to capitalize on the commission racket, our new friend tries taking us to several guest houses before finally dropping us off near the river and demanding five rupees baksheesh for his service. After refusing, we are chased out of the old city and stumble inadvertently onto a dark and smoky ghat full of dead bodies burning in the night. Apprehensively, we approach the fiery pyres and are surprised to find ourselves so close we can see a leg, a foot, toes. An arm burns off and falls to the ground. A man in a dirty white turban is attempting to to put it back on the pyre. He can't manage it- instead, he chases the severed limb around the ground with two sticks, trying unsuccessfully to pick it up.
Katlijn begins to feel a little queasy at this sight, so we head straight for our desired guest house, chosen because it is perched strategically above one of the Ganges' famous ghats. Within minutes we are already haggling over the inflated price of a room barely big enough to fit the bed, with one tiny screen window too dirty to let in any light but still having enough holes to leak in a steady stream of mosquitoes and the ashy smoke emanating from the corpses below. It's late and we are too tired to explore other options, so we roll out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep.
In Varanasi, the monkeys come out at night.
When I was in Nepal, I used to think the monkeys were cute, funny, fuzzy little creatures providing hours of entertainment and plenty of atmosphere. Now I hate the little monsters. They begin by performing what sounds like a late-night tap dance on the corrugated roof of our budget accommodation. As the show reaches its climax, things get out of hand and, from the subsequent screeching, clawing, and scampering, I gather that a giant monkey fight breaks out. As more and more monkeys pile on each other above us, the whole roof shakes and rattles.
Then the dogs start.
Egged on by the brawling, roof-top, monkeys. First one. Then two. Then a hundred. All the dogs in Varanasi are barking at the monkeys, and then at each other, and then just for the sake of barking. Varanasi turns into a nighttime zoo of canines and apes all trying to out-bark each other. The barking induces aggression and I find myself imagining poking a small rifle through the holes in the screen window of our strategically located sniper position, gunning down the unsuspecting mutts. For Katlijn, the situation is worse. The constant yapping becomes so irksome it seeps into her sub-conscious so that when she finally falls asleep, she actually dreams of violently bludgeoning helpless puppies with a blunt object.
Then the bongos start.
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. At first, the holy man's drums are barely audible above the symphony of animal noises outside. But once you notice it, you can't stop listening. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump, made more obtrusive by its irritating childlike simplicity, it consumes my very being until the incessant thumping becomes a roar above the howling monkeys and yelping dogs, driving me slowly madder, until I want to throw open the shutters of the dirt-stained windows onto the choking Ganges, inhale a lung full of ashes mixed with dead body smoke, and bellow out over the flaming corpses,
"Oi, Bongo man ! Shut up ! We're trying to sleep !"
But I don't do this. Instead, I lie awake in my bed listening, unable to stop myself, to the ceaseless thumping, imagining myself taking one of those Tibetan horns, big as a python, positioning it right next to the bongo-playing sadhu, and exhaling with all my might into its sonorous chamber generating a massive, deafening, horn blast. I would then casually glance over at the sadhu's frail frame, like I never noticed him before, and say politely,
"Oh, I'm sorry about that, Mister Bongo Dude. It's my religion"
And with only that explanation, I proceed to let loose another thunderous honk. HA ! Let's see you bongo over that, bongo boy !
Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep. Dreary-eyed, we clamber down to the dingy cellar of our low-budget accommodation for breakfast. The grumpy chef emerges from his dark kitchen: a fat, balding Varanasi resident with a perpetually tired look on his face and huge bags under his eyes, the product of whole generations of screeching primates. He slowly fumbles around on the table looking for the menus, then throws them at us across the room so they land on the table with the pages fluttering open. After disappearing into his kitchen for ten minutes, he re-emerges and we tell him our order. The cook doesn't speak a word of English, not even the words "pancake" or "banana", so he motions us to write it down on a notepad before returning back to his kitchen. After some time, he re-emerges and studies our hand-written order disapprovingly, scanning it for errors, until finally, he finds one. Thrusting his stubby finger up and down on our notepad he says, "room number", and disappears again.
Naturally, it was quite a while before we received our breakfast and left the confines of our tiny stifling room to emerge onto Varanasi's hazy river-side ghats. We are immediately approached by touts, trying to take me for a boat ride, trying to get me into their shop, trying to stick a long thin medieval-looking implement into my ear to get the "best ear cleaning, no problem, I give you good price !" By the time we reach the main ghat, touts are coming at us from all sides with their hands outstretched,
"Hi ! Hello ! Where are you from ?", one grabs my hand, "Canada ? Good country. My brother is from Canada. Lot's of Indians in Canada", but rather than shake my hand, he is squeezing it about painfully.
I try to pull away, he holds on.
"No problem, I give best massage, good price", I watch helplessly as he manipulates my fingers into obscene gymnastics. Finally, with Katlijn's help and using my other hand, I manage to wrench free from his iron grip, but it's too late:
"Five rupees," he demands.
Trying to escape this tout, we walk briskly away towards an aged sadhu sitting cross-legged on the stairs beckoning us toward him. Surely no tout will bother us around this respected holy man. He is wearing a tray full of variegated colours into which he dips his finger and places a saffron tikka on my forehead. At first, I naively thought this was a kind blessing, but then he demands five rupees baksheesh- our would-be saviour turns out to be just another tout in sadhu's clothing.
View of Varanasi's ghats in the haze. The turqoise boats on the right can be used for transportation between the various "ghats", or steps leading down to the river for bathing.
Even the children are in on it. A young boy and his brother picked us up for a boat ride to watch a nightly dance festival from the water. When he dropped us off again, he tried to double our originally agreed upon price based on a fabricated misunderstanding. When we walk off his boat and refuse to pay him anything extra, he yells at us "bad karma !" This is initially laughable until I stop to think about it, and it occurs to me that an eight year old kid just told me the Hindu equivalent of "go to hell !"
This rickshaw driver, shown with his tree-wheel rickshaw and my backpack, offered me a ride to the station in his helicopter.
Main street Varanasi. You should see this place at rush hour !
By nightfall, I needed to get back to our guest house so I ask the nearest rickshaw driver to take me to the main ghat. Like all cycle-rickshaw drivers, mine is thin, dressed in rags, and destitute. Happy to get my business, he smiles revealing a row of sickly red teeth, rotting away from a life of chewing paan. Paan is a popular Indian digestive made from betel nut wrapped in a leaf. Unfortunately, betel nut is both cancerous and mildly narcotic so that many Indians consume it like chain smokers leading to ruddy, rotting teeth- an affliction which has reached epidemic proportions in Varanasi. Betel nut is illegal in most parts of the world outside of India.
Being peddled around Varanasi on a rickshaw by day is scary enough. Riding one at night is downright terrifying. The cars and trucks have only dim, often mal-functioning, headlights. It's hard to tell them apart from the motorcycles careening madly through the chaos. Cows don't have headlights. Monkeys don't have headlights. Everything you can possibly imagine is a potentially lethal obstacle. Nevertheless, my poor rickshaw driver, sweat dripping through his tattered rags, pedals as fast as he can. Periodically, he swerves violently to avoid a flock of chickens, a pothole, or a pedestrian seen just in time, and I have to hold on tightly as our rickshaw tilts on two wheels, the third spinning wildly in the air.
After a good half hour, we still don't arrive at the main ghat and I start wondering where we are, quickly coming to the conclusion that, wherever we are, it is not where I want to be. I tap my ragged, panting driver on the shoulder, and ask him "how much longer until we get to the main ghat ?"
He replies by trying to repeat what I said with a confused look on his face. He pedals to the side of the dark, busy road and stops the rickshaw. I ask again and he repeats again. After a few more of these exchanges, it quickly becomes apparent that his understanding of the English language can be summarized by only two phrases: "30 rupees" and "no problem"- enough to land him a client, but not quite enough to get him to where he needs to go.
By now, a large crowd of Indians gathers around me and my frail, betel nut addict- most of them just staring at me in awe, many engaging me in inane conversation "Hello ! Where are you from ? Canada ! Good country. My son lives in Toronto. Lot's of Indians there", but none having the requisite map reading skills I wanted.
After several futile minutes, trying to say the words "main" and "ghat" in as many ways as I know how, while each Indian individually puzzles over my map, some sort of group consensus is reached and everyone confidently points my rickshaw driver in a seemingly random direction, sending us peddling furiously, once more, through the night. My driver turns around, flashes me his rotting teeth and yells back "no problem", giving me absolutely no confidence whatsoever we are pointed in the right way.
After a long time, I can hear the cadence of my driver's peddling growing slower, his breathing growing heavier. I don't blame him- it's late and we've been travelling a long time. At some point, he points to a dark hole in the wall and asks, "hashish ? Marijuana ?" and I say, "No thanks". Nevertheless, he stops the cart anyhow and disappears into the hole leaving me sitting on his little rickshaw wondering if he understood my answer properly.
It isn't long before I'm approached by a nearby Indian (there is always a nearby Indian). "Hello ! Where you from ? Canada !? Great country. My cousin works in Calgary. etc." Fortunately, this one miraculously turns out to be a student at the University with perfect, Abu-accented English. We chat for some time before my driver finally emerges out of the dark hole in the wall with a joint hanging out of his mouth and a bong tucked into his loin cloth. I ask the Indian student whether he thinks my rickshaw driver will be able to get me to the main ghat.
The student assures me, "He's no good, but the ghats are just a few blocks from here so no problem." And with that, we are off once again, the scent of marijuana trailing behind my driver's smoldering weed as I wave back at the student thanking him for his help.
Indeed, it wasn't long before we finally arrived at the main ghat. Of course, my driver asked me for twice our originally agreed upon rate. However, I was too tired and happy to be back to give up much of a fight. I just paid him his money and waved goodbye to my stoned rickshaw wallah. He flashed me one last betel nut smile before finally pedaling out of my life and into the night.
I could already sense the presence of the hand massage touts nearby and was preparing myself for the inevitable gauntlet when, without warning, the power goes out and my surroundings descend into pitch blackness. Instinctively, I stick my hands deep in my pocket for protection, hoping to fool the masses of touts I know to be coming at me now from all direction with outstretched hands, desperate to give mine a good squishing. But it does no good, instead, my guard down, I feel a cold spot of paint dripping between my eyes which, slowly adjusting to the dark, can barely discern an old man's withered hand moving away from my forehead. "Fiver rupees", the tout in sadhu's clothing demands for his blessing.
I quickly learn that Varanasi's famous ghats are a death trap in the dark with no lights to illuminate the many holes, steps, and river side drop-offs. Slowly and carefully, I walk back towards my guest house. I can already hear the scampering monkeys preparing to begin their late-night corrugated rooftop tap-dance extravaganza which will begin the unstoppable chain events leading to a thousand barking dogs- another sleepless night. I begin to wonder:
Since when did I become afraid to ask people for directions on the street ?
When did I begin walking around in fear that somebody might try to shake my hand ?
Why are there twelve light switches in my room, and only one light bulb ?
What the hell is wrong with this place ?
On the way home, I pass by a real sadhu dressed in yellow and orange rags with a small sac containing a few coins. I give him a ten rupee note. "Thank you so much, and bless you" he says to me, and somehow I feel instantly better. A bit further, a young western woman wrapped in a warm pashmina waits for me by the river-side. When I approach she tells me she feels uncomfortable walking alone in the dark and asks me if I can walk her to the hotel. I don't blame her. As we walk along the Ganges together, I tell her about my rickshaw ordeal.
"Did he really not understand me ? Was he stoned ? Or was he just trying to scam me into paying more money ?" One never knows, we agree.
Back at my hotel, I over-hear some recently arriving tourists ruthlessly grilling the staff like suspected criminals, completely certain that they would somehow be scammed unless they spell out in great details every aspect of their agreement beforehand and write it down on paper, their misplaced anger giving them away as recent victims of Varanasi's shakedown.
That night, the monkeys took their show elsewhere, the dogs didn't start their chain-reaction barking, and even bongo man, god bless him, provided us with one night of blissful sleep. By morning, we had our order ready for the grumpy chef in neat block-letters with our hotel number clearly written on the top. When he emerged from his dungeon kitchen, he put both hands on the table, bent over our notebook, and studied the papers carefully for a long time while we waited anxiously. Finally, he made a low grunt of reluctant approval, eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and returned to his dark kitchen which soon emanated the sweet smell of banana pancakes. I discovered a new respect for this chef's grumpiness- I'd be grumpy too if all the tourists I baked pancakes for talked to me like a common thief. Whatever is wrong with this place, it is cyclic leading both visitors and locals alike to badger each other.
Varansi at morning time in gorgeous pastels.
Less tired, our stomachs full of banana pancakes, we set off to explore Varanasi again. Over the initial shock of so many people treating us like walking money bags, we focus our attention instead on the vast majority of people bathing and bustling about the ghats. There are rich people, poor people, old people, young people, holy men, hippies, body builders, kite flyers, cricket players, and any other sort of person you can imagine doing anything you can imagine: bathing, swimming, playing, rowing, eating, cremating, dancing, defecating, laughing, crying, singing, praying, meditating, and more.
Colourful ghat-side characters. After cremating their deceased, Hindus will shave their heads and dress in white. Unlike in the west, white, rather than black, represents mourning.
As the days go on and we become use to life on the Ghats, the touts grow less and less prominent in the kaleidoscopic hubbub until they, too, are just another type of person, like any other, going about their business. In fact, we don't even notice the tourists. We know they must be somewhere, having chatted with them at our guest house and dealt with the touts that cater to them; India's tourist business is booming like never before. It is just that the tourists are a minority. Overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of local people, they disappear completely into the crowd, replaced instead by a feeling of authenticity like no other place we have visited.
Varanasi is, of course, the final earthly destination for Hindu souls. Though many Hindus will not see Varanasi in their lifetime, it is most likely where they will come to die. It is, at very least, the most auspicious place to have your body cremated. Hindus believe that if your life expires in Varanasi, you will be immediately offered moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Not everyone can afford to burn their loved-ones near the Ganges: the priests, ceremony, and wood cost considerable sums of money. The wood is particularly expensive, and three different types are provided to accommodate a range of budgets. Those who can't afford wood can use a nearby electric crematorium, which is also significantly more environmentally friendly. However few people are willing to do this since wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, providing a symbolic connection between the body and the earth.
Given the high cost of wood, it is weighed carefully and sold by the kilogram. These people are experts in knowing exactly how much wood is needed to burn a given corpse.
The dead burn along the Ganges' ghats twenty-four hours a day. The Indian concept of a funeral is exactly opposite that of the West. Instead of a solemn and private affair around a body made artificially to look alive, the Hindu funeral is an entirely public spectacle set around a raw burning corpse. It is a place to contemplate death. While bodies are burning around you, there is a constant sound of ceremonies, drumming, and music filling the air which, combined with the many colours and varieties of people, creates a special mystical and spiritual atmosphere completely unique in the world.
Looking back on Varanasi, it was the highlight of our visit to the sub-continent: India at its most vibrant and irritating. It is simultaneously busy and peaceful, colourful and dark, magical and raw: exploding with life.
Nepal is home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Of these, we only managed to see two of them during our trek through the Annapurna Circuit: Daulagiri (Number seven at a height of 8167 meters), and Annapurna I (Number ten at a height of 8091 meters). While we won't have time to trek up to the other mountains until our next visit, there are alternatives.
Nepal offers perhaps the most scenic mountain flights in the world. Unfortunately, Kathmandu's dubious airport is strategically located in a part of the valley nearly always covered in a thick blanket of early morning fog. It took me three trips to the airport before there was barely enough visibility to allow planes to take off. However, once you do manage to catch a plane, it will get you your shot of nearly all the great Himalayan peaks with almost no physical effort. It isn't quite the same as walking up there- the sterile cabin environment just can't reproduce the experience of actually earning the view. On the other hand, this is the only way you can enjoy gazing upon the world's highest point with a gin and tonic in your hand.
Mount Everest. Elevation 8848 meters. Highest point on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, in an over-priced Indian budget hotel room in Jaipur, something attracted my attention: barely visible through the snowy static of the television screen was a a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary: most likely the first person, together with Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Edmund Hillary had just died. The only photograph taken on Everst's peak commemorating the successful joint Nepali-Indian-British expedition, is of Tenzing taken by Hillary. It has become a very famous image since appearing on Nepal's own "Everest" beer label.
Interestingly, in 1999, they found the body of George Mallory and his partner frozen just beneath the summit fueling speculation that they had reached the summit many years earlier in a 1924 expedition. It is still not clear whether they froze to death on the way up or on the way down. While, Tenzing and Hillary are still credited with the first successful Everest conquest, George Mallory is more famous for his stoic reply to a journalist questioning the purpose of climbing Everest: "because it's there".
These days, you need to meet three necessary requirements to conquer Everest: you must be an experienced mountaineer, totally nuts, and filthy rich (not necessarily in that order). It costs 60,000 Euros just to be given permission to climb Everest. Nevertheless, though many die each year "because it's there", wealthy people continue to pay the exorbitant fee for their chance. In Nepal, you can hear many of their stories. Some of these stories are gripping, such as the definitive adventure book written about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (also a film). However, my favorite story is that of Briton Maurice Wilson, who enacted his cunning plan to crash a private plane halfway up the mountain and then simply walk from there to the top. He was found frozen to death in a light sweater a few hundred meters from the crash sight, proving that harboring only two of the necessary three requirements for conquering Everest is not sufficient.
Katlijn and I will have to leave our definitive shot at Everest for our next visit- though on our budget, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the view near the base camp. We were sad to leave behind Nepal- one of the poorest and most admirable places on earth. From their office in Kathmandu, our guide, Mahesh, our porter, Vishnu, together with our initial Nepali contact, Ram, waved us one last goodbye as we crammed ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny white car and risked one last harrowing taxi ride to the foggy airport en route to India.
As a wise man once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child ?". With this thought in mind, we returned to Kathmandu in search of a western-style Christmas dinner. Let's be honest, the best thing about Nepal is not the local food, it is the fact that there are enough decent foreign restaurants that you can avoid eating it entirely. A new brand of swanky foreign run restaurants have popped up all over Kathmandu, one of the best being "Kilroys" owned and operated by an Irish chef. We had to reserve early for Christmas dinner as it is perhaps the only place serving up a decent meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot buns, and a large selection of tasteful wines. One can only wonder where in Nepal they managed to find a turkey, but it tasted incredible so we didn't ask too many questions and spent the entire evening gorging ourselves on Christmas goodness.
Over the next several days, we explored Kathmandu and its surroundings. Kathmandu is an awkward blend of the most exotic ancient and the most uninspired kind of modern. The streets are tiny, crowded, and pot-holed. They wind haphazardly around crumbling structures, home to a rats nest of rickshaws, touts, and dog pooh. One can't help but wonder how on earth it will ever be possible to modernize a place like this. They'd basically just have to bulldoze the whole lot and start over again, and come to think of it, this probably wouldn't be such a bad idea. Many parts of town are destitute and falling into decay. Much of this is not the kind of graceful decay of ancient civilizations, the buildings brooding over a time forgotten. Kathmandu's is a poor, humiliating, concrete modern decay.
We met up again with our Himalaya guide, Mahesh, to get his advice on where to buy some electronics- a card reader for our digital camera and some headphones for our ipod. He leads us to a hole in the wall full of dusty 80s era audio technology- the kind of devices used in local buses where the pounding rhythms of Nepali pop music can barely be heard above a low fidelity crackle. The shop is run by two old ladies who show us their stock of audio headphones. For a moment, I stop to admire the superior craftsmanship of the imitation Sony boxes. It's amazing- you could swear it's the real thing until you open the box revealing a shoddy product on which no respected electronics giant would dare gamble away its trusted brand name.
We ask the shop keepers a few simple questions about their goods to help us decide what to buy. Their response is to shake their head from one shoulder to the other- an irritating Nepali gesture that means neither "yes" nor "no". In fact, as far as I can tell, it means nothing at all- a gesticulation of such utter meaninglessness that it can't possibly be translated or understood. It is the non-answer given to such vital queries as "Do you have anything other than Daal Bhaat on the menu ?", "Are those ice-cubes made from tap water ?", and "Is that milk pasteurized ?". In the face of such total absence of information, there is nothing one can do but acquiesce, defeated, and buy whatever junk they are trying to sell you.
However, while it must be said that modern Kathmandu is a stumbling junk heap of a city, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting its prouder and more dignified past in the old city and the surrounding Kathmandu valley. In fact, you can pretty much avoid seeing Kathmandu itself except as a kind of wasteland between the tourist sanctuary of the Thamel district, full of backpackers buying last minute North Fakes from the multitude of trekking shops, and the ancient exotic of the Kathmandu valley.
Christmas day turns out to fall on Kathmandu's laundry day.
Some of the most interesting places to visit are the Buddhist temples and Tibetan refugee villages which dot the entire Kathmandu valley. We visited the most important stupas, Swayambunath and Bodnath, where the monks allowed us to sit with them during their ceremonies. One of the monks begins with the low, ethereal, Tibetan chant. Over top of this barely audible rumble, an entire room full of at least 50 monks begin to chant, rhythmically and in unison, the syllables of a verse. Suddenly, a cymbal crashes, winds cry, and horns blast in an ear-splitting cacophony to break this contemplative rhythm. According to an Irish student of Buddhism I met later, the Tibetan verses simply describe a scene which the monks attempt to imagine in great detail as they repeat the verse over and over. The banging of the percussion and the harsh horn blasts are intended to represent the grand entrance of the Buddha, or one of his incarnations, into this scene.
Tibetan Prayer flags fluttering over Swayambunath Stupa. The watchful eyes of Buddha gazing in all four direction over the Kathmandu valley. The nose-like sign below the eyes is the Nepali number one; it is a symbol of unity.
In Nepal, both Buddhists and Hindus have worshiped peacefully together at the same temples for years. Both Buddhist and Hindu shrines are juxtaposed in the same compound. Furthermore, Swayambunath stupa is over-run by monkeys who are considered sacred animals by Hindus. Thus, Swayambunath is affectionately known as "The Monkey Temple" by the locals.
Tibetan horns and cymbals.
Nepal is the lesser known home to its legendary people: the birthplace of Buddha and refuge to many of his modern spiritual followers, the Sherpa people who are still paramount in the ascent and exploration of the world's highest mountains, and the fierce Gurkha warriors many of whom still serve as the Dalai Lama's personal guard and are employed by the British military. The traditions of these and Nepal's other people have remained intact over the years. Unlike India, Nepal was never significantly influenced by the British who decided early that the rugged hill side terrain would be too difficult to colonize. In fact, after initial conflicts with the west in the early 1800s, Nepal shut themselves off completely and the country was almost entirely unseen by foreigners until 1951.
The most important residents of the Kathmandu valley are the Newari. They are the inventors of the pagoda and therefore their architectural heritage, disproportionate to their fame, can be seen throughout Asia. Furthermore, the painfully spicy Newari meat dishes serve as a delicious caveat to the bland and soupy lentils otherwise dominating Nepali food. While reading an entertaining and informative book by a Nepali girl once worshiped as a living goddess, called From Godess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Roayal Kumari by Rashmila Shakya, we became most interested in these people and visited their ancient and once-glorious cities at Patan and Bhaktapur.
Patan's Durbar square provides the largest density of Newari architecture in the world.
Examples of Newari architecture.
.Bhaktapur in graceful decay. At first glance, many of the old buildings appear dilapidated. Closer inspection reveals elegant Newari touches.
And what do you think the sport of choice is in Shangri-La ? Hacky-sac, of course. Children all over Nepal can almost always be seen enjoying a good hack. Too poor for our decadent western style cloth bags, children forge their makeshift hack-sacs out of a tangled ball of elastic bands rummaged from the garbage !