Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Indian Guide to Street Meat

India, it seems, eats all of its meals on the road. This I mean literally, as every path in India is catered to by street vendors, the roadsides chock a block with any and all type of food stand. The resourcefulness of people is amazing, and kitchens take on a whole new meaning here. Strap a basket to the front of your bike, a stove on a platform to the back, hang a propane tank off the handle bars and you've got a mobile chai stand! Men wander through the streets with a basket of food on their head, a collapsible tray stand in hand, and set up shop wherever hunger beckons. Women spread blankets on the ground (very clean blankets, spread over very clean ground, ahem) and a vegetable market sprouts overnight. For a street meat connoisseur like myself, India's roadside eateries present a not-so-little piece of Heaven.

I've decided to save India one snack at a time, and to date I've pumped more money into the food service economy than any gringo previously. It's my way of giving back. With so many tastes and smells and textures to sample, it's hard to pass up a new one, or a good one, or a particularly spectacular one, especially now, when I have so few days left to embed their flavours in my palette's memory. As a result, there have been days when I've been forced to trudge home humbled, my stomach simply unable to fit any more food into its solid-packed chamber. GASP! Full? Full, you say? Abby endorses my attempts wholeheartedly, and is quick to point out any stalls I've missed, or which I've subtly tried to pretend I hadn't noticed. "Not even ice cream?" she asks with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. You call yourself a man, her tone of voice demands. "Ice cream ALWAYS fits - it just slides into the cracks." Sorry, no cracks exist to fill. Full is full. It pains me to be full - turning down food goes against every fibre of my being - but sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do.

Take South Lake Tahoe, for instance. Halfway through the Pacific Crest Trail, we spent three days in this resort town that caters to the casinos just across the California-Nevada border. Their all-you-can-eat buffets are stupendous, and with 1000 miles of trail behind us our hungers were unstoppable. Or so I thought. Plate after plate went down the hatch, heaped high with all sorts of Food That Wasn't Hiking Food. I finally reached the point of bursting, and as I pushed my plates away in defeat and shuffled uncomfortably to the bathroom, I spied a dessert bar I had missed on my many laps around the restaurant.

- Pause for interlude, cue relaxing muzak, take five. -

Bulimia is real, and furthermore, it works; the blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream was delectable. I've learned my lesson, I swear: always save room for dessert. However, that was then, and this is now.

After 6 months on the continent, I'm a perfectly trained street-eating beast: fast, fit and able to spot a snack vendor at 200 yards, through a foggy, crowded Delhi afternoon, no less. The assortment of foods available is truly astonishing, and I've made it my mission to try them all.

Fresh fruit bursting with sweet nectars, crisp veggies overflowing in colour and abundance, "Chaiiiiiiiiiiii!" stands, lassi stands, soda stands, popcorn stands. Corn roasted fresh over red-hot coals, marinated chicken sizzling aromatically above a homemade portable brazier. Fried dough makes the world go 'round: puris, samosas, jalebis, gulab jamon - I never understood the true potential the combination of flour, water and boiling oil presented, but I've started to perceive the possibilities. Roasted nuts, roasted sweet potato, mix and match your own chat mix - all sprinkled liberally with the ubiquitous masala and splashed with some freshly squeezed lime. Lime is something I'm taking home with me; visitors to my kitchen beware: you will feel the wrath of lime!

Tonight, on our second-to-last night in India, we were treated to the grand finale of street meat eating: the Sikh festival honouring their tenth and final guru, or holy man. The Sikhs as a whole are a rather...portly group, and business success has led to no shortage of caloric intake. They have a very charitable culture, and serving food to those in need is an important part of their faith; at the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine, more than 20 000 visitors are fed daily. Clearly, the Sikhs know how to put on a feast. This afternoon the city was transformed, entire neighborhoods becoming festival grounds, with tents unfurling everywhere, and kitchens being conjured out of thin air. Pots big enough to cook a man bubbled over with all sorts of Punjabi favourites: creamy lentil stews, deep fried sandwiches, assorted curries and sickly sweet treats. A parade appeared, everywhere at once, and the serving of the food commenced. Every stall was thronged with people, but the gringos were always enthusiastically pushed into the crowd, and at every block we emerged happily from the mass of eating bodies with food in hand.

Part of my feeding frenzy has been out of necessity: our time in Nepal was spent either trekking or sick, and all my bulging muscles have mysteriously disappeared, along with that insulating layer of butter I've been storing under my skin for several years now. It's much colder when you're skinny. Hopefully, my focused efforts are beginning to pay off, and the man who returns home will be recognizable as the man who left.

The festival is over, and the free food has run dry. I'm full from dinner, but there's this guy on the way home from the internet cafe who sells skewers of mystery meat I've been dying to try. No time like the present, especially when the present is soon to be gone.

On a completely unrelated note, I've noticed that my stools have been a little loose of late. Hmm, must be something going around...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Holy Cow

I just finished reading a book, Holy Cow, by Sarah McDonald, and her ability to describe India is uncanny. She makes no attempt to explain it, but decribes it bang on. It makes me feel better for going through the same issues, confrontations, and facing the same ethical, philisophical, and moral conundrums. No answers, but plenty of food for thought... Here are some excerpts:

"Jonathan drags me from their party, for as I ride the aftershocks, I begin to regurgitate my repressed memories of why I never wanted to come here again. It's a vomit of hatred and a rambling rage against the bullshit, the pushing, the shoving, the rip-offs, the cruelty, the crowds, the pollution, the weather, the begging, the performance of pity, the pissing, the shitting, the snotting, the spitting, the farting.
As I hear myslef rant I begin to hate myself for hating - for being so middle class and pampered and comfortable that I should now be so shell-shocked. I am shaken to my core; the ground, that stable and strong bed beneath me has moved and it's stirred something once rock-solid within. I put my head in my hands and cry."

"It's a bizarre scene - full of foreigners trying to figure India out. I'm beginning to think it's hopeless. India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all extremes. India defies understanding, and for once, for me, that's okay...India is in some ways like a hall of mirrors where I can see both sides of each contradiction sharply and there's no easy escape to understanding."

Matt and Emma sit staring out the window with their mouths agape, much as I did nearly two years ago in the taxi to Rishikesh. They're aghast at the putrid-smelling mokeys beside the road, the psychedelic movie posters, the scarecrows keeping crows off partially built buildings, the tough female road workers shovelling bitumen, the matted hair of the street shildren, and the towns with more temples than Chinese take-aways. They scream 'Fuck' and flinch every time the car swerves to avoid head-on collisions with trucks, cars and slow-moving tractors. They take photos of the chillies drying on the road and the people stacking hay. They attempt to plug their ears to the blast of the horns and endlessly politely repeat 'no thank you' to the people who push and invade their space every time we stop and get out of the car."

"When we open the creaking door and turn on the single light bulb, the floor moves as cockroaches scatter. It's then that I realize I've made a huge mistake. Rebecca and I are used to India, and are almost unshockable, but for Emma and Matt this is all too much, too soon. Matt is concerned about the filth, the lack of sanitation, the chance of disease...Emma is suffering from chemical poisoning, overheating, dehydration, and sensory overload - she also has a bad cold and is covered in a film of sticky black dirt...
'What the fuck are they doing? They're worshipping the Virgin Mary like she's another god. She's the bloody mother of Jesus. And why have they shaved their heads? There's nothing in the Bible about giving God your hair. Christ, this is just berserck, it's too bizarre.'
She begins to sob. I've hardly ever seen Emma get upset about anything."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Spaces Between

India has a billion people. Stop and think about that. Look at a map of the world, compare the size of India to the rest of the world, to Canada, to the US, to the UK, and now imagine squeezing one fifth of the world's population into that space. It's not easy. One billion people eating and sleeping and shitting and buying and selling and doing all those things that people do everywhere in the world, except here, they never do any of them alone.

On our walk back to the hotel tonight, we passed life being lived all around us, out in the open, shared with anyone who had the courage or desire to watch.

I was asked if I wanted a shave from an enterprising man who'd set up shop against the wall of a house. He had a mirror hanging from a nail, a small wooden shelf leaning up below it, and a battered chair waiting empty beside him. In Kajuraho I had seen the same thing, this time with a tree for a hanging post and the road shoulder providing the necessary empty space. They both had their regulars, the customers who returned day after day to have their early morning stubble removed as they watched the reflection of India commuting to work behind them.

We saw a pair of men pull down their pants and squat to take shits beside the main road leading into Old Delhi. Oblivious of the traffic, the people, the cows, each other, they settled in comfortably and went about their business as normally as you or I tuck a paper under our arms and saunter off to the downstairs shitter. Apart from us, no one noticed a thing.

Entire lives are lived in the spaces that we take for granted - the distance you drive from your house to the grocery store, say, here encompasses whole universes. Peoples' lives consist of the small concrete garage where they eat, sleep and earn their livelihood, wedged in a narrow, dirty alley, where they eat the same food, at the same times, and have the same routine, day after day. Blink, and they don't exist, their existence irrelevant to the India you've discovered.

That thought is a very difficult one for me. Irrelevant people, living irrelevant lives. Millions and millions of people struggling daily to survive until tomorrow, with no thought of different, or better, only the immediacy of selling ten more oranges so they can have enough food to feed their family tonight. They don't mean anything to me. They have no bearing on my life. They are irrelevant. How arrogant, how fortunate, how privileged, and in the end, how true. I can ignore the overfilled spaces and keep walking; blink, and carry on. Those spaces between will disappear as soon as I leave, and return home to the emptiness of the West. If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? Or better yet, if you watch a tree fall in the forest, then walk away and never return, did it really happen? Or did it matter if it did happen?

I'll take any comments...

Monday, November 26, 2007

The War Room

Beers in hand, burrowed deep into the warmth of our sleeping bags to ward off the winter chill that's seeped into the air, Abby and I face each other across our hotel room. We each have a copy of the India Lonely Planet, and we're trying to figure out how to spend the final three weeks of our vacation. The floor is littered with our meagre belongings, scattered evenly throughout the room as though a cyclone blew through, or perhaps our bags exploded upon arrival - we just got here yesterday but it already looks like we've lived here for months.

We've been throwing ideas back and forth for over an hour now, and I've made two return trips to the corner store to replenish our planning fuel; a thirsty traveller is not a happy traveller. India is big, REALLY big, and we've barely seen any of it. Three weeks sounds like a lot, but put it down on paper, trace the train rides, the buses, the city stops on the map and it disappears in the blink of an eye.

How quickly things change: before we left for Everest, I could hardly wait for the trip to be done. I was anxious to finish our trek, to head back to Delhi, to board the airplane that would take us home to Canada, to Christmas. Now, with less than 20 days left, I feel like it's all passed by too quickly. There's too much left undone, too many places to see. I need more time! Sitting here like this, sipping cheap beer in a ratty room in a dirty city, planning my immediate future makes me want to dance. The air in the room is alive with possibility - so many choices, so many roads, so many lines on the map that lead to anywhere, to everywhere.

We leaf through our respective books, Abby flipping the pages of our battered, war-torn tome while I try not to crease the spine of the pristine copy I borrowed from the lounge. It was sitting there, lonely, and besides - two heads are better than one. We trade page numbers and intriguing destinations, pointing out restaurants and beaches and ashrams and mountains. We're quickly working ourselves into a rabid feeding frenzy, ready to devour the entire country in a dozen emormous bites. We play off each other as the sights coalesce into various potential routes zigzagging across the green triangle. They grow and grow until finally they collapse like a house of cards under the sheer weight of their ambition. We have only 20 days. We start all over again.

What will we do? Where will we go? The beers are empty, day has become night. We've reached a decision: we're heading to the beach!

Everest, Day 1

(Journal entry November 8th)

After a week of waiting and hoping for Steve to get well, we finally boarded a Yeti Airlines flight in Kathmandu this morning, bound for Lukla. The flight was pretty amazing - I'd heard it was good, but having flown in many small airplanes and helicopters around Alaska, I didn't expect to be as blown away as I was. It was a small plane, and we were on the wrong side to have window views of the Himalaya, but I still spent the entire trip straining and shifting to glimpse the snow capped peaks. Clouds covered the valleys, so all you could see were the jagged tops of the tallest shear-faced ridges. The mountains grew in size and number as we got further from Kathmandu, and when I heard a lady in the front row whisper "Everest?", I was sure the plane was going to fall out of the sky as everyone practically lept out of their seats to catch a glimpse of the famed mountain. Unfortunately, no one could confirm the sighting - the mountains and ridges were too numerous and widespread to pick the tallest among them.

After about 30 minutes of flying, we were fully immersed in the mountains, and I began to lose sight of the clear path through (or around) them. The pilot began banking left and right, between narrow passes, barely above high mountain plateaus, and around knolls and peaks. It felt like I was in a video game, or maybe a Star Wars battle scene, as we seemed to barely skim over and through the ground below us. Complicating the diverse terrain were whisps of cloud and fog that were rolling through the scenery, but the pilot manuevered through it all with complete calm and ease. Suddenly, with a quick turn to the right, the clouds broke and several buildings could be seen, cut into the mountainside directly in front of us. We picked up speed as the pilot aimed the nose of the plane directly at the small village. I was a bit worried that we were heading for a crash landing on top of a sod roof, when, incredibly, a tiny runway appeared, cut directly into the side of the mountain like a terraced field. We touched down at it's edge, and somehow managed to slow down with just inches to spare, saving us from slamming into the concrete wall that marked the runway's end. It was incredible. No descent was necessary; our cruising altitude was exactly the same as the runway's altitude.

There were two Nepali ladies on the flight - a mother and daughter -who obviously hadn't flown in an airplane before. It was an odd thing to witness - coming from the western world, you just take it for granted that people are comfortable with the sites, sounds, and feeling of being airborne. The older lady clutched the seat in front of her the entire trip, looking down at the floor instead of admiring the views, and the younger girl had a vice grip on a Japanese lady's arm and hand throughout the trip. When we banked or swayed at all, she would reach out with her second hand and grab another appendage with equal strength and furvor. I think the Japanese lady was a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, because she kept trying to gently reclaim her arm(s), but the Nepali girl was way too strong for her. Needless to say, both ladies were quite exstatic when we landed safely in Lukla.

We only made it a few hours down the trail today (stopping even for a glorious nap in the semi-sun). No need to tempt Steve's sickness to return, plus the Everest trek is meant to be taken slowly because of the altitude. Consequently, it's 3 pm, and I'm already cozy in the sleeping bag, ready to dig into one of the three books I'm lugging with me.

We really debated doing this trek at all, mainly because I (we) felt guilty about retreating to the mountains - what we love, but what is also easy and comfortable - instead of heading back to the heat, touts, smells, corruption, and assault of India. But, now that we're here, I'm incredibly happy with our decision. Already, the Everest region seems more rustic and raw than Annapurna, and looking at the map, it looks like there are several day hikes to remote glacial valleys and scrambles up to view points that look quite appealing. And, the scenery is fantastic, the fall colors are emerging, there's a cool mountain briskness to the air, and I'm very happy with life!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kathmandu Revisited

I first visited Kathmandu as a mere youngster, in travel terms. It was the first city to captivate my imagination, and grab my soul. As soon as I set foot outside the airport, I somehow felt more alive, and the feeling didn't go away until I waved goodbye to the dry brown valley on my return flight, the snowy peaks of the Himalaya towering in the background.

I'd visited a couple places in Central America, but the assault of the Third World, commingled with such a bustling and established tourist scene was fascinating, and I recall spending days on end wandering aimlessly through the grungy labyrinth of Thamel, being amazed that shop after shop after shop after shop sold nothing but tourist junk! The entire neighborhood existed for no other reason than to keep travellers like myself fat and happy, and I indulged.

Fast forward five years: Now a veteran of the world (or so I sometimes like to think to myself), Abby and I arrive in Kathmandu after an unbearably uncomfortable 7-hour bus ride, having spent the entire day trying to determine the proper technique to staying seated in the back row, with overhanging backrests due to the rear window, and seats proper that are all sloped slightly downhill. Every small bump in the road found me sliding uncontrollably forward, trying to avoid banging my shins on the seat in front of me. I also felt myself becoming sick. As we start and stopped our way into town through rush hour traffic, Kathmandu captivated neither my imagination, nor my soul.

We've been here almost a week now, and I still haven't found that same old magic. Some of my memories are completely accurate – I found the tiny hole-in-the-wall where I had the best tandoori chicken of my life, and the same two bakeries gracing the main intersection are still chocked full of the same delicious pastries – but I also remember being less…annoyed. Overwhelmed, and wide eyed, certainly, but it was all so new, and vivid, and alive, that I never stopped long enough to think about what was around me. It's still that wonderful, energetic place that initially captivated me, full of sights and sounds and a mystery that makes it different from every other place I've been, but I also find myself looking deeper into the fabric of the city, seeing things I didn't see, pondering issues that never occurred to me on my first visit. I'm trying to figure out if it's Thamel and Kathmandu that have changed, or me.

I'm wondering if I'm getting old. Old, and serious. Old, serious, and cranky. Not really, but kind of. Mostly I think it's a function of comfort zone – the bigger it gets, the more it takes to stretch it. Packs of street dogs, sadhus taming cobras, the filth of a third world urban river – these are all things that I've become accustomed to seeing. They no longer shock me. I've come to expect them upon reaching a big city, developed a way of steeling myself for the brace of contact with the vendors, the touts, the beggars, the street kids.

I've also been quite sick. I spent the first three days in town tossing and turning in my unbearably uncomfortable bed. My neck was on fire, my knees throbbed, and my head felt like it was splitting apart. Halfway through the day, Abby helped me shuffle the few blocks to the doctor, where I was asked a few questions, pricked for some blood, and given a ridiculously small stool sample bottle (ever tried to fill a thimble with mashed potatoes from a big pot - with no utensils?). After a 20 minute wait, my diagnosis was ready. I had giardia – a lot of giardia. The doctor assured me that it had nothing whatsoever to do with any of the symptoms that I was currently exhibiting, but gave me some "atom bombs" that would "destroy all those little critters inside". Uhh, what about the other things. You know, the things I came to see you about? "Ah, viral. I'm pretty sure it's something viral. Wait and see". So I waited, and saw. I saw fevers, and shakes, and sweats, and a blistered brain, and burning forehead, and pain – lots and lots of pain. The next day, I returned to the clinic. Different doctor, similar questions, same prognosis: Virus. "Could be anything. Not typhoid, not meningitis, not encephalitis – nothing major – so we'll just have to treat it with Ibuprofen." Awesome. What about malaria? "Maybe a 1 percent chance." The matter resolved to his liking, he packed me off with some overpriced pink pills and a heftier than imagined bill. I hope insurance pays for things like this.

I feel much better today. Abby and I, along with our friend Rose, went on a little road trip across town. We were excited - Jane Goodall, one of the world's foremost wildlife biologists is in town for three days, and was supposed to give a talk this afternoon. We made the confoundingly confusing trip across the river and upon our arrival were greeted with an ominously quiet building. We walked eagerly up to the ticket counter, were told with a happy little smile that the talk had been moved, and that it had actually been from 10-11, not 4-5. Didn't we read the paper this morning? Yup - Abby checked it at breakfast, and it had definitely said 4-5 pm, Patan Museum, Patan. We were now standing in the Patan Museum, Patan, and there was definitely nothing to be seen, other than a small, sad poster pasted deep in a corner of a side alcove, and some small, sad-looking gringos. It started to rain, and a single lonely tear rolled slowly down my face.

It turns out that the afternoon was quite interesting. We found a café and talked about moral responsibility and begging, and social consciousness, and all these troubling issues that have been hounding us for months across the subcontinent. Rose works for a non-profit in Ladakh, and is trying to build a career in the field of international development. It was good to hear a well-informed third opinion to stretch the bounds of what Abby and I had already gone over again and again between ourselves, although in the end we resolved nothing. We decided the issue is unresolvable. There is no right, there is no wrong, and there are certainly no magic bullets.

With the rain dissipating, and the light quickly fading, we climbed in a shared taxi back to Thamel, and here I am sitting in front of a computer. Of course, the internet isn't actually working, but I've been assured for the past hour that it will be coming back online in "5-minute". That hasn't stopped the business from welcoming customers with warm smiles and inviting them to sit down and try their luck, but hey, who's being cynical?

I'm feeling healthy again (my best guess is that it was something viral) so we've decided to go trekking again. We've arranged to get flights to Lukla, in the Everest region, and go up to Base Camp and around. We've also planned to climb another mountain – Island Peak (6189m), an offshoot of the Lhotse ridge that looks out on the massive Lhotse Face. A little mountain air, a couple of peaks bagged – I'll be good as new and ready for… The Return to India, Part II. Stay tuned…

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pictures from Nepal

Some rural Nepalis playing cricket on market day in their village.

Terraced rice paddies in the Himalayan foothills.

A Maoist checkpoint along the Annapurna Circuit trail. They're asking for "voluntary donations". Wouldn't that be called a tax? "No,no. No tax. Donation." Smile, wink, sneer.

Beans drying in the sun along the trail.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Understanding Abby

Let there be no ambiguity: rupture is imminent. The bladder is about to burst. Our trusty water bottle, hard working and completely reliable, until now, is about to undergo a leaky death. A tear has appeared in its side, a chink in its armour, and its working its way closer and closer to the soft vulnerable inner flesh where water is held.

The question is, how to deal with it.

Abby and I were both sitting in bed this afternoon, relaxing after our trek, reading our respective books. I raced breathlessly through the final pages of my murder mystery, pretending I hadn't figured out the plot 200 pages previous. I set it aside, and decided to snuggle with my wife. She's reading a real novel, by Edward Abby, and looked like she needed some comforting. Or some caressing - he is a fairly sexual guy... As I rolled towards her, her radar went off, and her attention, until now so completely engrossed by her book, was suddenly turned to the emergency at hand.

"Stop!", she cried.
"Be careful of the water bottle! It's about to break and spill water all over the bed." She gave me a look like I had just peed all over the toilet seat, deliberately.

I peeked down from my frozen half-turn and saw the water bottle, innocent and oblivious, lying casually next to Abby's legs. She gave me a look of satisfaction, happy to have gotten through, and went back to her reading. I was left to ponder how to snuggle with my wife without making her angry while staying true to my stance that the bottle of water was no immediate threat. I also had to make sure to stay on the water bottle's good side; it was, after all, about to burst. As I pondered how to not pander, it occurred to me that Abby and I had completely different approaches to the soon-to-be-ruptured bladder.

To my way of thinking, there was no thinking. We'd had the thing for months. It was tough as nails. I'd dropped it, poked it, folded it, unfolded it, filled it, emptied it, dozens of times, each, with not a single problem. It hadn't once leaked, not even a drop, and when it eventually did, we'd deal with it. Besides, it was guaranteed. If it broke, we'd bring it back for a free replacement.

To Abby's way of thinking, the water bottle represented a dark, malicious, serious, and dangerous threat. It was liable to go off, at any second, and when it did, it wasn't going to be pretty. It needed to be watched, monitored, kept under tight surveillance at all times. A single moment of laxity could result in complete disaster. Since I first discovered the leak almost a week back, I don't think a second has passed where some part of her brain, on some level, has been on "Water Bottle Alert: Code Red". Where is it now? What's it doing? Has the rip gotten bigger? Can it reach any of my stuff? Her worry center has been put on call, and the only way to calm it, to placate it, to allow it to relax, is to resolve the issue.

Except she'd never do that. Instead, she makes herself continually aware of the despicable demon's whereabouts and intentions, and carefully plots how to be least affected when the inevitable occurs. This way of thinking frustrates my way of thinking to no end. If I were her, and thought as she does, there would be three options.

1. Shoot the damn thing. Put it out of its misery. End the suspense. Cut the tension. No almost-broken water bottle, no almost-wetted bed. Most importantly, no source of worry.

2. Actively alter reality. Move the water bottle. Instead of keeping one eye nervously on it for the next day, week, month (year? It's Reliable, and Dependable...), do something about it. Physically pick it up and place it on the floor, out of harm's way, where it can burst to its heart's delight with no ill effects. Better yet, refer to Option 1.

3. Make ME do something about it. That's what husbands are for. The water bottle has been my responsibility for months now, and until the cursed tear was discovered, the arrangement seemed to be working out very well. Since "The Tear", however, her faith in my water bottle management skills seems to have been entirely eroded. In her eyes, I can no longer be trusted to do "whats' right" with our leaky friend. No more does she believe my claims that the wondrous receptacle can change water to wine, can miraculously survive falls of thousands of metres, unscathed. The water bottle has lost its magic. That said, she also hasn't been willing to make any demands of me, to ask for specific changes in said faith-uninspiring water bottle management skills, to admit she no longer has the trust. "Please keep the almost ruptured water bottle off the bed", or perhaps "Please keep the accident waiting-to-happen away from my stuff". Instead, it's the eye, always the eye.

I suppose the issue might just be that she wants to worry. She gets it honestly: her mother worries incessantly, and the gene seems to have been passed on. Regardless, it baffles me. Isn't NOT worrying better than worrying? Isn't the absence of stress preferable to its presence? I always thought so, but maybe I was wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, more likely just misinformed. What if-

I decided not to worry about it.

The issue resolved to my satisfaction, I carefully completed my rollover, taking care to avoid the twitchy-trigger-finger water balloon, and successfully napped on my beautiful wife's shoulder. As my eyes were closed, I wasn't able to see how she dealt with it, but we all escaped unscathed.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Trekking a la Tea House

"The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are my cathedrals, the houses of my religion. Their presence is grand and pure. I go to them as all humans go to worship. I attempt to understand my life, to purify myself of earthly vanity, greed and fear. On their altar I strive to perfect myself physically and spiritually. From their vantage point, I view my past, dream of the future, and with unusual acuteness experience the present. My ascents renew my strength and clear my vision. They are how I practice my religion. In the mountains I celebrate creation; on each journey I am reborn."

~Anatoli Boukreev, accomplished mountaineer who died on the SW face of Annapurna I.

29 October, 2007:

Yesterday I watched the mountains. I climbed up a ridge and sat, alone, as the clouds eased like silent ghosts up-valley, following the deep cut carved by the glacier spilling down the mountainside. Up, up, they rose, over the moraine, over the ridge, up to the peaks. Wave after wave would envelop me, then pass, and through the gaps the mountains would once again appear, immense and imposing, white and grey sentinels standing guard above the sanctuary.
I stared at the face of Annapurna I in awe, trying to comprehend how the peak that looked close enough to touch was in reality 4 kms above me. 4000 vertical metres of solid rock. 4 kms and a 50% chance of dying. I searched the SW face for what seemed like ages, looking for a route up the near-vertical wall of exposed stone and ice, struggling to understand how a man could look at this same view and see a challenge instead of death. Anatoli Boukreev and a teammate died right in front of me, exactly where I was now looking, swept to their deaths by an ice avalanche cascading down the scoured rock. Somewhere below me, in the jumbled, groaning river of ice their bodies were being slowly ground back into the earth from which they came. OF COURSE they died - how could they not?

We just got back from 17 days of trekking around the Annapurna massif, in central Nepal. It's a massive massif, a hulk of rock, hulks of mountains, soaring to more than 8000 metres. They're stunning. The country of Nepal slopes gradually upwards from the plains of India, a cantilevered kingdom slowly transforming from lush, verdant jungles to the towering, snowbound peaks of the high Himalaya. You can see the tallest mountains from India, white giants floating above a hazy fog of oppresive humidity: Dhauligiri, Annapurna, Macchupucchre, Manaslu. From Pokhara, the trailhead tourist town where treks start and end, the skyline is impossible. Or at least, it is in all the pictures. We spent 5 days here before our trek, trying to recover from a nasty virus we picked up near the Indian border, and not once did we get a glimpse of the surreal world above us. Instead, we watched the clouds build every day, then ran for cover when they opened each afternoon and rinsed the town clean. Wasn't the monsoon supposed to end in September? Regardless, we set off on our trek once we felt strong, expecting soggy slogs through leech-infested forests. We were wrongIt was amazing! It was unbelievable! The views were mind boggling! My eyes were sore every night from trying to look at everything, all the time, all at once! It was very, very good.

For 17 days we walked through a wonderland of huge snowcapped mountains rising to the sky above us. We slept in soft, warm beds at night. We ate hot, home-cooked meals in cozy lodges. We gave each other daily massages to soothe our aching necks from the constant craning. We met interesting people from around the world, and shared unforgettable vistas with new friends. One morning we awoke to a coat of fresh snow covering the entire valley; winter's pristine blanket obscuring the other seasons. This was not our normal trekking style, but the light packs, comfortable tea houses and social interactions brought a whole new perspective to to walking all day in the mountains. I won't say it's better than backpacking through the wilderness, but I will say it's pretty damn nice.

We arrived back in town last night, excited to rest our feet, eager to indulge in a new menu, but sad to know that the mountains were behind us - perhaps until Alaska? Or perhaps not. We met a man at breakfast this morning, who told us about some trekking peaks he'd climbed near Everest. We've still got 6 weeks, and besides, the beach is overrated, right? Abby's never seen Everest, and I would certainly have no objections to a return visit...

We have some decisions to make.

Monday, October 8, 2007


My mind is a runaway rollercoaster, full of sharp turns, sudden drops, complete reversals. I'm never certain where it's going, or what's coming next. These pasts few weeks have left me dazed. We met a girl a couple of months ago, when we had first arrived in India. She said that she needed to go be by herself for some time. She was looking for a place to do a meditation retreat, to "process everything I've seen and been through". I didn't understand her at the time, but I'm starting to now.

At times, I feel like I could travel forever. I want to keep going and going until I've explored the farthest reaches of the planet, the simplicity of living out of a backpack the greatest freedom possible. At others, I'm tired of the road. I miss home, I miss comfort, I miss the world I know. Travelling for months on end is far from a vacation.

It's 1 am, and we're partway through our overnight bus ride from the Indian border to Pokhara, in Nepal. We're running from the heat, hoping to relax for a bit where the mountains start to reach for the sky. I'm curious to return to Pokhara. I spent a week there 5 years ago, and I'm sure much has changed. Hopefully not too much - my memories are good.

As we were waiting to leave the terminal this evening, a large group of Nepali men started to gather in front of the bus station. Many had sticks; most looked angry. The long-running civil war is said to be over, but the country is far from settled. The mood on the bus became suddenly nervous, and we left quickly, early, everyone eager to escape the growing mob.

The road is better than I expected, better than India, but still not good. I can't sleep, my ass is numb. I can barely read my handwriting. I'm bloated with gas - my neighbors love me, I'm sure. Abby is tossing and turning uncomfortably beside me, She's been sick, really sick, for the past two days. I woke up this morning with her sore throat. We need a break. We can't take a break. We have less than 10 weeks left. Too long. Not long enough. We've barely seen anything.

This is life; I am alive.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


"I don't even know the word for yes." Abby spoke the words bitterly, walking back to our hotel this afternoon along the ghats that line the Ganges River in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. "'No'. 'None'. 'I don't want'. Everything I know is negative." We were both confused, upset, frustrated, helpless, and it was evident in our conversation. We were having a very heated argument, in a very public place, surrounded by people who live their entire lives in public, and the lack of respect for our space and privacy and selves was adding to all the negative emotions that were already spilling over.
It had been a very difficult afternoon.
The argument stemmed from our inability to deal with India. More accurately, it stemmed from our differing opinions on how to approach our inability to deal with India. We've been here for more than three months, and still feel completely apart from what's going on around us. I can't figure this place out, and it's driving me crazy. Things here are different. People are different. The values and social mores that bind the country together don't make sense to me. For that matter, I can't figure out if anything at all binds anyone together. The country is such a mishmash of cultures, religions and history that no two people are the same. Common culture? The closest thing I've been able to find is love for the glorious sport of cricket bound loosely together by Britain's finest legacy, the railroad.
We'd spent the previous hours at Assi Ghat, a large, open area on the banks of the holy Ganges, where long rows of sandstone steps lead down to the murky river. It's a fascinating place, a chaotic, vibrant mass of people and colour and commerce and confusion. Life and death mingle and merge, with thousands upons thousands of people using the dirty, silted steps to wash their bodies, to wash their clothes, to cremate their dead, to wait for death. Pilgrims and locals, young and old, devout and irreverent; all join together to create the absolutely world class people-watching.
Sitting on the steps, in the midst of the press of people coming and going, we were completely immersed in a swirl of colour. Most of the people were female, and the women's bright saris turned the world into a living rainbow, the colours and textures combining to create an impossibly complex pattern I tried in vain to capture through the lens of our camera. We found out afterwards it was a festival to honour Laxmi, the god of wealth. They believe bathing in the river on this specific day increases the likelihood of their children becoming wealthy; why this only works for mothers was never explained, and I never asked.
I can't believe how dirty the Ganges is. It's astonishing. It's filthy. Hindu's holiest river, a living incarnation of the religion's most important god, is a hopelessly polluted limpid green cesspool that flows sluggishly across the breadth of the country, collecting the waste of a billion people on its way. Watching people immerse themselves in the opaque sludge makes me cringe; I find myself flinching and looking away involuntarily. At the same time, I've realized I'm jealous of their carefree, ignorant frolicking. I'd love to join them. The heat and oppressive humidity wilts you, and it would be glorious to splash and scream along with them, to swim to the middle of the river and let the current carry me downstream. Unfortunately, my western obsession with hygiene and fear of infectious disease won't let me. Abby has tried to encourage me but I've remained unconvinced. "A billion Hindus can't be wrong...", she's reasoned. Instead I watch from the banks and dream of the cool, clear lakes at home. Indians are upfront about their pollution, and unashamed. They discard anything, anywhere, with such a casual disdain, a barely concealed "Fuck off", that leaves me feeling shrill and self-righteous in my indignant astonishment.
At the ghat, we watched an emaciated man be ridiculed and tormented by a pack of preadolescent boys. The river floods annually, and leaves behind huge banks of loose, fine silt that clog the ghats. It forms a thick mud that's too soft to walk on, and since it takes month before it's all cleared away, people create pathways around the worst spots to get to the river. The man was laying in the middle of one of these silt bogs, and was obviously unwell.
Almost naked, he was dressed in nothing more than a discarded funeral shawl normally used to cover dead bodies on their journey down to the crematation ghats. His body was skeletal, with gruesomely protruding ribs. He was writhing slowly on the ground, singing loudly and incoherently to himself, and smiling and giggling at a world only he could see. His impossibly thin arms scratched deep gashes in the soft mud with surprising strength.
The boys were clustered together to one side, provoking themselves to bolder and bolder feats. They quickly progressed from laughing and pointing to throwing balls of silt at their helpless target. One of the boys soon pulled out firecrackers, and they set them off closer and closer. Through it all, the crowds were silent accomplices. Mothers and fathers stood idly by with half smiles on their faces, pointing and gesturing every time the man made a particularly sudden or spastic movement. A boy ran up close and let fly a large clump of mud, hitting the man aquarely on his naked back. He made a feeble swat of protest then buried his head in the dirt. There was no doubt that the boys behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing to be stopped. The crazy man was worthless.
When the last firecracker expoded so close to the man's face I thought it would blind him, I couldn't watch any more. I was livid. I walked down to the crowd of boys and angrily waved them away. Now I was the entertainment, and the adults focus all turned to me. I glared at them, all of them, moving from face to face. I wanted them to be ashamed. I glared at the boys. I glared at India. I asked a passing man why no one made a move to stop the boys tormenting, and he said simply, "That man crazy", and waved his finger about one ear.
The situation infuriated me. The same questions that have been bouncing unanswered around my head for the past three months came back once more. How could I possibly understand a society that allows a person to be treated this way? How am I supposed to integrate myself into a community that has no respect for life? I can't help but feel a sense of moral superiority that gets driven home time and time again as I watch Indians treat each other like shit as they go about their daily routines. To survive in their world, aggression needs to be an instant response - to board a train, to walk through a crowd, to make your way down the road. There's no backing down, there's no deferring to others. It's a cut throat world.
We left the crowds, my rage unchecked. I was almost shaking, unsure about how to deal with it. I wanted to beat those kids to a pulp. I wanted to shake each and every person who had stood idly by while it happened until their teeth shook out and their noses started to bleed. I wanted to yell and scream and curse. I hated them all, at that moment. I hated India.
Abby wanted to leave, to be gone. I wanted to understand what I had witnessed. I wanted to make people understand why I was so angry. I wanted to teach India a lesson. We started to argue.
A quarter mile downstream, Abby turned to me and started speaking, her voice quivering with emotion. "I don't like the person that India's turning me into. I can't be myself. I'm not a mean person. Every time I shove someone out of the way to walk down the street, I'm shoving myself. Everytime I walk by someone and avoid eye contact out of fear of being sold something, it hurts. I don't like ignoring people. I don't like brushing people off. I hate that I have to assume that everybody's wants my money. I can't trust anyone. I know that there are nice people here, but I'll never meet them. I can't say hi to everyone, to answer the same three questions time after time, only to be asked if I want to buy a scarf, or need a hotel. I have to be mean to everyone to survive, and it's making me a bad person. I just can't do it." She was in tears, the pent up frustration and pain escaping with each drop streaming down her cheeks. "Acting like this tears me up inside. It makes me feel like I'm rotting from the inside out. I'm surrounded by negativity, and it affects me. I don't like this place."
I was still angry, but no less affected. It's impossible to escape the incessant scrutiny and attention, to avoid the never-ending touts who hassle you wherever you are, wherever you go. The pressure never relents. Instead, it builds gradually, daily, with every "Where from?", or beggar's hand in your face, or plea for "One pen". I find it ironic that a country that swallows you whole refuses to digest you, to incorporate you into the fabric of its being. You are always a tourist, a gora, a fact Indians will never let you forget. It's not malicious, and taken individually it's harmless. The problem is, it adds up. Business is business, unless you're everybody's business. Then it becomes difficult not to take it personally.
For me, the aggression has the reverse effect. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses, and brings out my competitive element. It makes me want to win. Win what, I'm not sure, but I can beat these Indians, every last one of them. If it's a game, then I'm playing. Except it isn't a game, not for them. For them, it's their life. The sense of futility and helplessness is one that pushes me. I want to figure this place out. I'm good at that. I'm good at fitting in, at mixing with crowds, at landing on my feet. Why not here? What is it that I'm not getting? Why am I perennially an outsider? I'm consumed by India, but for all the wrong reasons. I can't beat her, but I feel like if I don't, I'll be failing. The issue, I think, is control. I have none, and I fight it. I want to solve India. Except a country can't be solved.
I'm having trouble finding a way of presenting this all in a nice neat package. There isn't one. It's hard to share things that you don't understand yourself, in a way that others might. All I've written here doesn't tell the whole story, not at all. Some things are incredible. It's an unforgettable place, and highly worthwhile. It just confuses the hell out of me, and makes my whole being question everything around me. It's a good thing, but it's a hard thing. I travel to push myself. I travel to challenge myself, my opinions, my perspectives, my identity. I travel because it changes me. But what Abby said made me think about my interactions with this place. Change, sure, but for the better, or for the worse? India is India. I'm not going to change it, but it's going to change me.
I'm going to leave it there, before my brain dissolves into a puddle of that same Ganges silt I walked through earlier today. Fear not, brave armchair travellers, our intrepid hero and heroine are doing well, and fine, and are handsome and strong. They will survive. They will persevere. They will return with Good Memories. Most importantly, they really are having a fantastic time. Not an easy time, but a fantastic time.
Life is good.

India keeps life interesting......

Steve and I will remember Khajuraho, not only for it's elaborate sex temples and streets lined with aggressive touts, but also as the town where our passports were stolen. Steve, with obvious pride in his voice, will tell you that it wasn't due to laziness, or forgetfulness, or lack of responsibility. We didn't leave them in a restaurant, or forget to zip the backpack and then walk thru a crowded market. They, along with about 8000 rupees (~$200) and our visa cards, were stolen from our tiny hotel room, in the middle of the night while we slept. The thief somehow managed to crawl to our second story balcony, prop open the heavy porch door, sneak into our room, and take our valuables from our daypack. We know this because the porch door was propped wide open when we awoke, and our daypack lay unzipped in front of it, with our money belt of valuables gone. When we had gone to bed the night before, the porch door was closed, and our pack with the money belt inside was lying across the room from the porch.

After the initial disbelief and a bit of discussion, we both concluded that, without a doubt, the hotel manager and/or his friends/brothers/children/random men who hang out and sleep at his hotel every night, were responsible. I can tell you more details later, but we knew that they had our passports and money. It became even more clear when we went downstairs and told him of our situation. He smirked, said it was "not possible" and that it was "not his problem". Infuriated, we marched to the tourist police station, and reported the theft to the female officer inside. She had us write a detailed complaint, then got her superior and the hotel manager and myriad of "staff". They made a feable, very theatrical, attempt to interrogate the manager, then sent him on his merry way. Then we were fed samosas and chai, and told to return in a few hours while the police "did their work".

Being pretty confident at this point that the police were useless, we returned to the hotel, and basically pleaded for the return of our passports. "So, what do we need to do, to help you find our passports?" "What can we give you that might result in our passports being returned to us?" We hinted strongly at baksheesh (Indian monetary bribes), but to no avail. The still-smirking manager, surrounded by his also-smirking floozies, could only reply that it was "not possible" that our passports had been stolen. Had we checked our bags? How could they be sure that we weren't making this up, so we could get insurance money for our stolen items? They also insisted that it was "not a problem" for us to get new passports - just go to our embassy in Delhi, walk down the red carpet, and they'll present us new ones on silver platters. (this was something that the police also told us many, many times) For the third time since arriving in India, I broke down and cried, much to the enjoyment of the growing crowd gathered outside the hotel door. More smirking on the Indian side ensued, and we realized we were helpless, and left.

Back at the police station, we were presented with a copy of our police report, and told to bring it to the main station to get an official stamp on it. I'll spare you the details, but the summary is that pretty much the same events occurred there as at the tourist police station. The hotel manager, this time with the head of the hotel union in Khajuraho, were called in, some discussions in Hindi occurred, and we were once again told it was "not possible" that our passports had been stolen from our hotel. Steve, in a great moment of glory, slammed his fist on the head officer's desk, and began a very animated rant on the corruption of Indian police and their unwillingness to help travelers, and ending by predicting an end to tourists visiting Khajuraho if they are treated so poorly. I don't remember all of the details, but he was on a roll, emotional and emphatic in his phrases. It was quite convincing (and I'm sure he'd be happy to repeat it to you all when we're home).

Two days later, I opened my email account to find a new message from Hotel Jain.

"We have found your passport. My brother is going to Banaras today (Tues.). Please tell me the name of your hotel so we can deliver it to you.
Hotel Jain Manager"

The next morning, our passports and visa cards (minus the rupees) were returned to our hotel. The manager's brother claimed that they were found in the alley adjacent to the hotel. I think he expected a big hug and a cash reward, but all we could manage was a frosty "danyavad" (thankyou). I'm still in shock that we were somehow able to cause enough ruckus in Khajuraho to convince them that their best option was to return our passports. They got our money, so it wasn't a complete victory, but I'll take any victories in India that I can get. It was nice not to feel helpless and vulnerable, if only just for a moment when he reached into his bag, pulled out our passports, and sheepishly returned them.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sex Temples

Please forgive my juvenile tendencies.

I remember watching a slide show at my aunt's house, in Hamilton, when I was in university. My dad's sister Liz and her husband David had just returned from a months long vacation to India, and so after dinner we all made out way down to the cramped little basement to share in their many adventures. David proceeded to spin a dazzling tale of the history of the subcontinent, with pictures of all sorts of wonders: rare and endangered animals; bright vibrant colours that are the lifeblood of the country; ancient temples buried deep in forgotten jungles. It was all fascinating, I'm sure, but of all the pictures, of all territory they covered in that 30 minute talk, the only thing I remember are the sex temples.

Halfway through the slide show, we arrived at Khajuraho, and we were shown shot after shot of erotic scene, great sandstone blocks covered with lovemaking rendered in the most candid detail. The room was energised; David had our full attention.

Needless to say, as soon as we decided to come to India, I made a pact with myself that I would not leave before visiting the sex temples. I, too, wanted to experience the magic of the site. I, too, wanted to be able to capture the majesty and awe of those ancient temples with the same talent and creative vision that David had, to share the experience with my friends at home, to spur them to travel to distant and foreign lands, to push the boundaries of their small, safe worlds. Today, my dream came true. Today, I got to wander around and stare openly and unabashedly at frieze after frieze of naked, writhing bodies, engaged in very energetic, and often astonishing, acts of love. It was, to quote the government's tourism slogan, Incredible !ndia.

The temples were amazing, and worth ogling even without the XXX rating. Made completely of sandstone, they got lost in the confusion of India's ancient history, and managed to escape destruction by the myriad conquering armies that moved back and forth across the country in the intervening 800 years between their abandonment and "rediscovery" by a morally offended British officer in the mid 18th century. The facades on all sides of the temples were covered with intricate carving of all shapes and sizes: patterns, animals, people - swirls of detail assaulting your eyes, competing for their attention. Remarkably preserved, we spent hours roving up and down the temple sides with our eyes, focussing on image after image, scene after scene. There was lots of sex, sure, but it was far from the only visual delight. Scenes of battle, music, and dance told stories that travelled around the exteriors in thin strips of history, displaying an era much different from today.

All the figures were incredibly beautiful, with big, almond eyes, and smooth, perfect figures. No one wore anything but jewellery, and the women were irresistible. Cast in seductive, sultry poses, their bodies had more curves than a mountain road, and their breasts were inflated like balloons, big enough to rival any modern porn star. In a time before silicone, I admired the sculptor's imagination. It was strange, but both Abby and I wondered how an obviously distorted stone figurine could seem sexier than a woman ever could in real life. The men, too, were beautiful, and the statues were completely mesmerizing.

The irony of the situation was hilarious. In a country where movie stars get detained by immigration officals and harassed for having given a film peck in public, dozens of couples roamed the grounds and stared for hours at scene after scene of vivid lovemaking. There was no hesitation, no red-cheeked glances over shoulders, no fear of being "caught". People were here to look at sex, and so look at sex they did. The herds of young, undersexed Indian men giggling like schoolgirls completed the picture.

All in all, it was a truly wondrous day. However, it did leave some unanswered questions. First and foremost, with so much sex on everyone's mind, how many children are conceived in the "lovemaking capital of the world"? And as a corollary, how often do they REALLY change the sheets at our budget guesthouse? Perhaps requesting fresh sheets wouldn't be such a terrible idea. Most importantly, how did they manage to contort themselves into some of those absolutely intriguing positions? Some research is definitely in order...

One of the temples. I forget what it was called. I, uh, didn't really read the sign.

An example of the detail. These figures are all ~1 m tall, and this type of intricate work covers all the temples.

Ganesh, one of the deities to whom the temples were devoted.

One of many orgies we witnessed throughout the course of the day.

Interesting...very...interesting. Note the woman in the back "I can't bear to watch. Oh my god, I can't look. No, please no, tell me it isn't happening. There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home..."

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Poem of Reconciliation

The first time we came to New Delhi
The shit and the heat turned our bellies.
My beautiful Abby
Was so very crabby
We left for the mountains (less smelly).

Himalaya, we love you, we love you.
We love you, we love you, we love you.
You're so very tall
And not dirty at all
But we now must go back to "Le Big Poo"

Upon our return to the "Crapper"
The monsoon had washed 'way its wrapper.
The streets were all shining;
Their bright silver lining
Laid bare to be awed at - how dapper!

New Delhi, we think we might like you.
Love could blossom with time, if we're both true.
We take most of it back,
All that venom we spat.
Let's try this once more, "Nice to meet you."

So the moral, you see, of this story
Is that sometimes, at first, what seems gory
Might be covered in shit
So then don't be too quick
To condemn it - you'll miss all its glory.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Happy Retirement!

My dad officially retired from Alyeska two days ago, after a whopping 32 years working for them! Congrats, Dad! There's a party for him tonight, to celebrate his new freedom. So, all of their kids out of the house (Zak started college at NAU this fall), my mom sold the Calico Whale to her employee about a month ago, and now my dad's out of work as well. It's time to go have some fun!

(I don't know when this photo was taken, but I assume it was in the early days of Alyeska.....)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pictures from Ladakh

Some of the scenery on our bus journey north to Ladakh - this is at the pass through the Great Himalaya Range, near Baralacha La. I had no ideabefore arriving here, but what most people generally refer to as the Himalya is really a series of over a dozen separate moutain ranges, all squeezed together and covering the area from Bhutan up to Kazhakstan. The Great Himalaya, the Zanskar, the Karakoram, the Dhauladar, the Pir Pinjal, the Hindu Kush, etc. etc. They all have different histories, appearances, characteristics, climates. You could spend lifetimes here and be confronted with new scenery every day.

Road workers near the Baralacha La, most of whom come from the plains, particularly Bihar province (notoriously poor), and earn ~80 rupees a day ($2), plus food and lodging. Food is rice and some dal (lentil soup), and lodging consists of a tarp strung between some rocks. Almost everything is done by hand, including smashing rocks to make the road foundations. The smoke you see comes from the boiling tar. They cook it in big barrels, and lay it down by the shovelful. I don't want to think about what this type of work does to their life expectancy...

Prayer flags leading to the monastary sitting high above Leh. It's close to 1000 years old, and gives spectacular views of the area. It also gives spectacular views of the foreign tourists. This is a highly Buddhist, highly conservative area, and to take this photo, I had to maneuver around a European tourist who was sunbathing against the stupa. He had his shirt off, and his shorts pulled down to his knees, revealing his g-string leaopard print underwear below. Needless to say, his tan was superb, if not his judgement.

A skyline view of the Zanskar Mountains. The tallest one on the right is Stok Kangri, at 6153 m (~20000ft). We climbed it after an 8 day trek around the mountain range. It's really high, but really easy, and sharing the summit with 200-odd fat, elderly white guys definitely ensured that our egos stayed firmly underfoot.

This is me at the top of the Kardung La. It's advertised by the Indian Government as being 5600 m high, but apparently this up for debate. Some people say 5400, some people say 5500, I say, it was bloody high, and a really stupid idea to take a bicycle strapped with all of our belongings to the top. It alomost killed me. I rached the top, and collpsed in a qiuvering mass. Abby, of course, had ben at the top, running back and forth to sdmire the pretty views for almost 20 minutes by the time I got there, and had a genuine look of concern on her face when she came to sheck on me. She also told me that no less than three separate army men came to do welfare checks. I don't really remember them, I was too busy trying to fill my lungs with oxygen. We took a bus to the top on the way back.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pictures from Spiti Valley

We were very close to buying a motorcycle - an Enfield - and cruising the mountains with it. It's quite common here, and there are hundreds of bikes passing from travweller to traveller on a rotating basis. It was tempting, but it would have meant storing it for as long as we would have driven it, so we decided not to. Perhaps a return trip...?

Prayer flags above Spiti Valley.

Chaam dancing near Mudh, at a festival at a monastary.

The fabulous Spiti Valley: there's a monstary perched above a cliff in the bottom right corner of the photo which is more than 1000 years old.

More amazing scenery from the Spiti Valley. If anyone has read Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer had to walk up this valley on his way to Tibet, after he escaped an internment camp during WWII. There are powers lines and a road now, but I doubt much else has changed in the 60 years since.

Oh the Humanity!

A few people have expressed interest in hearing more Hinglish. This isn't exactly the legendary prose of Avee's Oats, but it's a bunch of articles culled from the Times of India. The paper is essentially full of death and mayhem, and the variety of ways that people kill and are killed in the course of a day is truly astonishing. I often find myself laughing at the absurdity of all of these deaths, until I realize that people actually died, and then it isn't so funny. Life seems to have less value here, and I'm not sure of the reasons why.

I suspect part of it is the sheer number of poor people who have to struggle constantly, every day of their lives. Death is common, so it's not as big a deal. I read an article last week saying that half of the deaths in three or four Indian provinces were of people under the age of 18. Hinduism also incorporates endless rebirth into the religion. People here are quite devout, with most quite certain of their impending return to the world once this life has ended. People commit suicide in droves, and the reason most often cited is poverty, or hopelessness. Of course, they usually also kill their families as well, because...well, I'm not sure why. Another huge element seems to be the concept of "citizen justice". I don't think that ANYONE has much faith in the police or the judicial system, so as the saying goes, "if you want something done right..."

Anyways, enjoy the death and destruction that follows. It truly is astonishing.

Story One
"As doctors fought with chairs, scissors and scalpels, a minor girl died at the Gokarna health centre in Kandi on Monday. The fight broke out because none of the doctors was swilling tio treat the seven-year-old girl - they each wanted to get out of the health centre quickly. When the block medical officer of health was informed, he allegedly grew furious hta his sleep had been spoioled and attacked a doctor. The fight lasted over an hour and the child died without being treated."

Story Two
"An agreement on stamp paper where the vicitim's family promises the kidnappers that they won't go to the cops after the hostage's release, and even if he is kidnapped again in future. The bizarre sequence of events dates back to August 19 when 14-year-old Saddam went missing from outside his house in Ratupura village near Moradabad in the heart of UP's badlands. After a frantic search in the neighbourhood, the boy's father went to the police to lodge a kidnapping case. With their usual nonchalance, the cops told the desperate father to hunt for the boy himself. Left to his own devices, Bhure made inquiries but drew a blank. Then, on September 2, he was told that his son was spotted moving around with some eunuchs in a vehicle in a locality about 80 km from Ratupura village. Bhure rushed there to meet the eunuchs and miraculously found his son lying unconscious in a house. 'When I asked them to give me my son, they started abusing me. Thigns came to a point where they even tried to assault me. But I kept begging them for mercy. I told them Saddam was my only hope for the future,' Bhure told TOI on phone from Moradabad. Before the gang of eunuchs agreed to free Saddam, the father said, they made him sign an agreement on a stamp paper that next time if they manage to kidnap the boy, Bhure would beither try to claim him back nor go to the cops or initiate legal action. The eunuchs told Bhure that they had bought Saddam from a woman in Ratupura village for Rs 2,000. Bhure denied he had paid a ransom to secure his son's release, but sources in the village said RS 5,000 changed hands.

'Woh log ne mere larke ko hijra banane ja rahe thhey. Woh log waheen, apne ghar par hi operation kar dete hain (They were planning to turn Saddam into a eunuch. They conduct such surgeries at their home),' Bhure said. If kidnapping has become a business, then methods have taken on modern business practices. In Bihar, where abductions are common, kidnappers have been sympathetic in claiming ransoms - they've allowed to stagger payments in equated monthly installments, just like people paying off housing loans."

Story Three

"In yet another instance of police laxity, two professional killers shot dead a liquor businessman in his hospital bed inside the intensive care unit of a private nursing home in Meerut on Friday. Businessman Shrinivas had earlier been shot at on August 19 and was undergoing treatment in the hospital. Even on Friday, police reached the spot only after an hour of the incident. This despite the fact that Tejgari police outpost is barely 50 yards from the nursing home. This was the third such incident in Meerut in the past month. Earlier on August 7, two contract killers shot dead the deputy jailor of Meerut outside a mall. On August 12, a busuinessman of Kankar Khera area, too, was shot dead."

Story Four
"A man killed his wife and injured two sons with a sickle at village Panjyali in the district on Saturday. Rakesh Kumar, the man responsible for the crime, has been taken into custody and booked under sections 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code. An official spokesman told TOI that Rakesh Kumar, 38, was living in utter frustration due to poverty and that led him to commit this crime."

Story Five

"Expressing shock over the mishap, Kataria termed it as the biggest-ever road accident witnessed by the state in three decades. 'I have not seen such a big road mishap in which 86 persons were killed,' he told reporters here. Asked about the truck which was overloaded with 150 pilgrims, he said:'I think there is some negligence on the part of the administration. But at the same time, when people are going on a pilgrimage and if someone stops them, it hurts their feeling,' he said. 'People should also think and behave responsibly,' he said. Stern action would be taken against those found guilty. According to police, the truck carrying some 150 pilgrims from various villages to the annual fair of Babaramdeo in Jaiselmer district fell into a 60-foot-deep gorge at Desuri-ka-Nall village on Friday night."

Story Six

"Times have changed and so have sexual mores but in prosperous Haryana, there's one regressive institution that refuses to embrace modernity. Passing by a gathering of one such band of men - women are never part of this all-male club - you'd think this was an innocuous gathering of village elders. But these are the all-powerful khap panchyats - village elders grouped along caste or community lines and motivated by the need to perpetuate a feudal and patriarchal order. Usually upper caste with land as well as muscle power, these self-styled guardians of a medieval morality dole out "justice" at will. They issue fatwas to ostracise families, declare marriages void, make man and wife brother and sister and order abortions. The guilty can be ostracised, banished from the village, made to drink urine, paraded naked, beaten up or killed. So strong is the influence of these panchyats among villagers and educated class alike that the state machinery fails to react in time to their diktats. Even politicians in Haryana tread carefully for fear of losing their votebanks.

The marriage of Renu and Sunil Malik of Ahulana village in Gohana district was pronounced invalid as they belonged to the same gotra (a system oif lineage). The couple fled to Gujarat with their child. They were tracked down by police (italics mine) and brought back. Renu and her child were sent to a nari niketan and Sunil was put behind bars.

Manoj and Babli of Karora village in Kaithal district were murdered for a same gotra marriage. Their bodies were recovered from a canal in Hisar district."

So far in Delhi this year, Blue Line, a private bus comapny contracted by the municiplaity to service public bus routes, has killed almost 100 people. Pedestrians, bikers, rickshaw drivers, motorists: none are safe from the wandering wheels of the Blue Line.

And in today's article about a mob that lynched ten "suspected" thieves in Calcutta. A "community patrol" saw two boys suspected of being responsible for some recent thefts, and when the boys ran, they chased them. They found them in a house along with 11 others, and proceeded to beat ten of them to death. Two escaped, one was found still alive, barely. The police promised to deal with those who were found guilty. I presume they mean the boy who wasn't quite killed.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Leaving Ladakh

We've been in Ladakh for more than a month now, and during that time have used its capital, Leh, as our home base between forays into the mountains. In our three or four different sojourns in the city of 20,000, we've spent enough time wandering its narrow alleys to become familiar with it, learning to ignore the blaring horns reminding us of our return to civilization and to walk with confidence down the congested streets, paying no heed to the wandering donkeys, the foraging cattle, the swerving motorcycles. In short, it's become our temporary home - the place we come back to. When you're travelling, familiarity is rare, and therefore cherished.

We have our comfortable little guesthouse, run by Lopsang and Palmo, a wonderful couple with two children at boarding school in Manali. Lopsang likes to wrestle, and is always chanting; Palmo makes time to talk, and smile, regardless of what she's doing. They store our extra stuff when we go trekking, and always greet us the same way upon our return: "Ahhh! You come back! Come, you have tea!" We sit in the common rooom and choke down butter tea as best we can while talking about where we were this time before asking for a hot bucket to wash the sweat and grime from our tired bodies. This last time she had trouble finding one of our sacks, and knocked sheepishly on our door several hours later, handing us the missing sack and apologizing for the next five minutes.

We know what restaurants are good (and some that are not so good), and we talk about which ones we'll visit in what order we'll visit them during our last days on the trail. Lamayuru is our favourite, an inexpensive Indian restaurant that's always full, just as often with locals as with gringos, a sure sign of success. The sebzi mandi (vegetable market) is also popular, and we wander from vendor to vendor trying to see who has the firmest apples, which pears look the ripest, who's willing to give us three bananas for 10 rupees, instead of the standard 5 rupees a piece. I've discovered that we're pushovers when it comes to bargaining; it's not often we get the local price.

On one of our "town days" we discovered a little snack shop down a side alley off the main bazaar where they serve the best puri bhaji in town (a chewy, deep fried bread that comes with various different dipping sauces. It comes out of the kitchen on a round tray puffed up with steam, hot from the fryer, and is very impressive looking. Luckily, it tastes just as good, and I usually rub the extra grease on my dry, scratchy legs, since no napkins are provided.) and it's always a lunch stop. The last time we were there we had to wait for a seat, and watched as a yong shepherd drove his mixed flock of goats and sheep through the busy marketplace. The villagers selling vegetables along the side of the road made sure to shoo them away, but other than that, no one seemed to notice.

There's a used book store in town, run by a friendly Sikh who buys back his own sales at half the price. It's a brilliant strategy, and his shop is always packed with gringos, trying to find their next good read. It's rare to find such a good selection of good books, and his store contrasts quite dramatically with the shop down the street. It's run by a cultured-looking Indian who speaks very good English, but has an arrogant manner that makes me want to tear a page out of every one of the new books that line his shelves. He sits behind his counter in his black velvet jacket, a young woman fawning on his arm from slightly below and behind him. A couple of weeks back, Abby asked to look at a book that was behind the counter, which required taking it out of its protective wrapping. He first asked her if there was any chance of her buying it before handing it over to her and staring down at her while she tried to thumb through it. I don't think he gets a whole lot of repeat customers.

We've learned that fresh water comes only twice a day, from very specific taps throughout the city. Locals place their water jugs in a queue, and spend a frantic hour trying to collect as much as they can before the taps are dry for another 12 hours. We watched the city fill up with monks when the Dalai Lama came to visit, and were amazed as the local Ladakhis changed out of their trendy western dress into traditional costumes with no sign of self-consciousness at all. We always know where to look to get a glimpse of Stok Kangri, the 20,000 ft peak looming over the city to the west. We climbed it, several weeks ago, and want to go back, particularly on clear, sunny days when its summit ridge looks so soft and white and inviting. We briefly toyed with the idea of a return trip, but decided that India was too full of other adventures to have any repeats.

This morning, we woke up to a fresh coat of snow on all the peaks that surround town. Termination dust means one thing: winter is on its way. On our last trek, the mountainsides had turned from green to brilliant shades of gold, auburn and red, as though they'd caught fire, overnight. The trekkers have disappeared, and the the city has quieted down. The crowded streets have opened up, the shopkeepers have started to pack their wares. The season is finished, so it's time to leave. We're taking a bus tomorrow morning, back to Manali, and then back to the real India. We're going to slowly make out way over to Nepal, and enjoy some time away from the mountains on the way. Ladakh has been great, but we're ready for a change, and the seasons have given us a good excuse to move on.

More Buddhist Enlightenment......

(from our journal, dated 8/23/07)

Today was day 5 of our trek from Lamayuru to Padum, which became a sort-of half day off. We hiked down into the village of Lingshed this morning, and ate breakfast in the baking sun at the campground while chatting with an independent European backpacker. The campground was quite nasty - full of garbage and horse poo and animal smell (apparently it was quite full last night), and I was very happy that we decided to dry camp near the pass instead of making our way to town and joining the circus last night. We got a beautiful sunset all to ourselves, and the tour groups got a dirty, dusty animal stall.

After breakfast, we sauntered over to the gompa (monastery) to check it out, and were greeted by Sunim, a 65 year old monk, who was washing a handful of small red berries in a stream. He smiled at us cheerfully, insisted that we share his berries, and led us into the gompa. He and a half dozen elderly monks unlocked both the old and new prayer halls, and gave us personal tours, answering all of our questions as best they could in halting English. The first room was my favorite, bright with new-ish looking thankas (paintings) decorating the walls, with a two-story imposing gold Buddha sitting at the head of the room. The thankas all tell stories; some depict the first Buddha's life and quest for enlightenment, some describe how monks and Buddhists should live and interact with others, and some predict future Buddhas and events (or at least that's what I think I understood from the monks' descriptions).

After seeing the prayer room, we were invited to sit on the floor in a medium size hallway-ish room, which was also decorated by thankas and lined with windows looking down on the village of Lingshed and the mountains beyond. Other monks began appearing, greeting us happily, and sitting down with cups and bowls. After answering many questions (and doing lots of smiling and nodding when we couldn't understand each other), it was insisted that we stay for lunch with them. Steve left to grab utensils, and while he was gone, two bowls and cups were placed in front of me, and a monk carrying a huge bucket of tsampa and a giant ladle filled everyone's bowl with lunch, followed by a monk with yak butter tea. I scooted to the edge of the room as the monks began their puja (prayer/chanting) and when finished, dug into their meals. The tsampa (barley flour) was actually pretty edible, saturated with butter and sugar and formed into little pellets. The yak butter tea was terrible. The monks were going crazy, though, sucking down their lunch and filling the room with a chorus of slurps and gulps. Steve and I tried our best to eat and drink as much as we could, to show our appreciation, but we were no match for the monks. Each monk finished their meal by taking their last handful of tsampa, and rolling it into a mini-snake in their hands, moisturizing their hands, arms, and face with the grease. Quite crafty, those monks.

When everyone was finished (except Team Gringo, who just didn't have the stomach to finish the last swallows of butter tea), more puja ensued. All the monks seemed very animated and interested, both in us and in their religion, which was very different than the normal semi-apathetic monks we've been seeing at other gompas. During puja, whien I would make eye contact with any of them, they would burst into a huge smile, and during our conversations with them, they kept insisting that we stay in Lingshed for the entire day, attend evening puja with them, and then continue our trek the next morning. It was interesting because I'd say 30 hikers pass thru Lingshed every day during the trekking season, and I'm sure that most visit the monastery and go to puja, so we weren't anomalies or token white foreigners to them. I'm not sure why they were so excited to see us, but they definitely were. It was a great feeling!

After lunch, we packed our bags and prepared to go, but Sunim insisted that we go to his "house" and drink sweet tea. We consented, and were led up the stairs, around a dark corner, up a ladder, and to his tiny room. Only a small mattress, a tiny coffee table, and a rug fit in the room. Monks don't own much, but don't need much either, I guess. We drank two pots of tea while chatting with him, asking questions about the monastery, Buddhism, and his life. After being thoroughly chai-ed, we said our good-byes, and trotted down the trail, full of Buddhist love and hospitality. Definitely my favorite monastery visit so far (although I have to admit, it wasn't an easy climb up the next pass with a belly fully of greasy tsampa and butter tea)!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Morning puja

Pulling the curtain gently aside, I slip quietly out of my sandals and enter through the narrow doorway, into the darkness. My sleep-stained eyes struggle to adjust, and while I wait patiently for my pupils to dilate, the pungent scent of juniper smoke fills my nostrils. A few long, deliberate blinks and the interior of the monastery slowly begins to materialize before me.

The room is roughly square, and I'm standing halfway along the front wall of the ancient temple. Abby leads me hesitantly across the unfinished floor around the edge of the room, the wood rough against the soles of my feet. I wonder how rough it must have been originally, before thousands of foot steps could remove the biggest of the splinters, could smooth the largest of the burrs from its uneven surface. We sit down cross-legged on a long, low bench, one row removed from the chanting monks.

They sit in two rows, facing each other under a raised cupola in the center of the temple. The only light comes from a single row of small windows high above, and the early morning sun struggles to creep in. Through the haze of wood smoke the young lamaa' faces are bright and eager, even at this early hour, their energy and enthusiasm contrasting sharply with that of other pujas we've sat in on, where the sleepy-eyed elder monks rock gently back and forth, each absorbed in his own thoughts and meditations.

The chanting, too, is different: younger, more musical. I close my eyes to focus better on it. Reciting verses from their holy book, the boys' voices rise and fall in a loose chorus that slides in and out of sync. A single baritone signals the coming of manhood that stalks them all. At irregular intervals a few of the monks pick up bells and cymbals, the crashing and ringing creating a cacaphony of sound that echoes throughout the room. Anywhere else the assault of sounds would be nothing more than noise - young children playing at making music - but here, in the chamber of prayer, it's strangely appropriate. The echoes fade, the voices cease, and are replaced by the noisy slurpings of butter tea. Breakfast.

I open my eyes and look around. The dark recesses and corners have exposed themsleves to my light deprived eyes, and I take it all in, slowly. Everything is crooked angles and sagging ceilings. Nothing is clean, nothing is uniform; it all blends together perfectly. Rough-hewn timbers protrude from mud-caked walls, cracks and holes and lumps abound. Across the back wall of the temple sit perhaps a dozen deities of various shapes and sizes, their brightly painted bodies covered in a thick layer of dust that dulls their appearance. Like everyting in the building, they look old. Some of the statues are covered with richly embroidered scarves and blankets, other stand completely naked, undressed for the people to see. Modesty has a strange definition in a land where children can run around naked and gods are scultped in the act of love, yet a public display of affection is cause for scandal.

The walls are adorned with intricate paintings depicting teachings from the life of the Buddha, along with other important figures and lessons. The level of detail is incredible: panel after panel of colourful figures in miniature, their faces and postures conveying worlds of wisdom with a few deliberate brushstrokes. A monk at another monastery told us it took a single lama more than three years to paint the inside of their temple. The walls are cracked and water-stained in places, the lessons slowly melting away with time.

My attention is drawn suddenly back to the center of the room, away from the centuries old art. The monks have set down thier mugs and are resuming their meditations. I close my eyes once more and let my mind go blank, to embrace their prayers. The room fades, the world fades, my body fades. My mind is free to soar.