Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Big, bad bus journeys

My mother should use disgression when reading this post. We're happy, healthy, and very safe! Don't worry!

"The bus is here!" Steve and I, and five other gringos who had been waiting for the bus in the hot, dusty dhaba, jumped to our feet, grabbed out packs, and walked toward the bus. When we rounded the corner, there was a chorus of groans as we realized that the bus was already packed - very packed. There weren't any seats left, which is usual, but the standing room in the aisle was jammed with bodies, and the luggage rack on top of the bus was already overflowing with bags, boxes of fruit and vegetables, baskets of baby chicks, and other misc items. One lone gringo was getting off the bus, but it looked as though everyone else was holding their ground inside. We thought for a moment about abandoning our plan to go to Tabo, but since there was little chance that tomorrow's bus would be less crowded, our only option was to try to sqeeze into the bus. Tabo was only about 60 km from the village we were in, but in India terms that equates to about.....4 hours. No kidding. Not that I would want the bus drivers to drive any faster than 15-20 kph - these are treacherous mountain roads, only semi-paved, barely narrow enough for a single vehicle going in a single direction at a time, and prone to landslides and rockfalls. I've been on sketchy bus rides before, but northern India takes the cake, I'd say.

Anyway, back to our trip. Steve somehow managed to tie our bags to the top of the bus, and I pushed into the front of the bus, and Steve to the back. Getting on to the bus is a task in itself - you can't just walk on, and expect the other passengers to make room for you. You have to shove your way on, ducking under elbows and over small children. I made it to the approximate middle of the bus, finaggled a hand-hold on the bar on the roof, braced my feet on both sides of the aisle (I've learned a wide stance is best to manage all of the twists and turns), and stood my ground, waiting for the bus driver to return and our trip to begin. The bus was hot, so I was sweating like mad, but after about 10 minutes of torture, the driver returned and started the engine. Then, much to my horror, I saw a pack of men approach the bus, and push their way on as well - they apparently were waiting until the last minute to board. I managed to maintain my foot and hand positioning, but now was pretty much spooning with the guy in front of me, had an elbow lodged in my back, and had to turn my head to the side in order to breathe. But, before I could protest, the driver stepped on the gas, and the bus began bumping its way down the road.

The road to Tabo climbs in steep switchbacks, then traverses across a mountain face before switchbacking tightly back down to the river and town. Sounds beautiful, right? Well, in actuality it's terrifying. Until last year, part of the road was destroyed by a landslide, so you drove to the site of the landslide, walked down to the bottom of the slide and back up to the road, where you got into another bus that would take you the rest of the way to Tabo. The road is fixed now, but the potential for deadly landslides remains. There were several places where chucks of the road had disappeared, leaving less than enough space for a big gangly bus to pass, which meant leaving the comfort of 4 wheels on several occasions. The bus driver and Indian passengers thought nothing of these sections, but all I could think of was the 1000+ meter drop to the raging river below. I've been told over and over again, by locals and travelers alike, that bus drivers up here are solid, know their buses well, and make these journeys frequently, so they should be trusted. But, when looking down at certain death, I found it pretty much impossible to trust them. Sure, the bus driver knows the road, but with every turn our bus would sway liberally back and forth due to the immense load on the roof and the heavy crowd of passengers inside. I purposely would try to swing my weight into the uphill side of the mountain around corners, but no one else seemed to follow my lead. I had my headphones in my ears, trying to drone out my terror with some good bluegrass, but the squealing brakes kept interrupting my attempts at calm. We'd just come from a Buddhist village, full of prayer flags and prayer wheels and an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity, but my attempts at chanting and deep breathing were failing me miserably as well. I thought of my dad's mantra of, "worrying doesn't do any good, so I don't worry about things", but it was difficult not to worry about my seemingly eminent death. It was miserable.

When we finally reached our destination, I was beat from the four hour adrenaline rush, but very happy to still be alive, and even happier that we never had to ride that stretch of road again. I managed a grateful nod toward the bus driver as I stepped off the bus, and walked to the back to find Steve. He popped off the bus, sweat dripping from his forehead, but with a smile on his face. "A lady in the back was handing out snap peas the whole way," he said triumphantly. "How was your ride?" he asked me. "Not so bad," I replied, trying to act brave, "but, let's stay in Nako for a couple of days before riding a bus again."


We've spent the past two weeks exploring the Spiti Valley, and it's passed in the blink of an eye. Originally only planned as a sidetrip on our way north, we were quickly seduced by the culture and landscape, and have spent the past 14 days exploring this small corner of India. Nestled up against the Tibetan border, it's an arid land of rugged mountains, narrow river valleys, and terrifying, heart-hiccuping roads. The culture is almost completely Buddhist, and it's said to feel more like Tibet than India. Having never been to Tibet, I can't say if that's true or not, but I can vouch for the fact that India seems miles away, while Tibet is within sight from any of the high passes visible from the roadways.

Before coming here, I knew essentially nothing about Buddhism, other than that it dealt with a fat dude who liked his belly rubbed, and was very "Asian". I suppose I also knew that some Buddhist monks moonlighted as bad-ass kung-fu masters, but I attributed that more to Hollywood's tendency to exagerate than reality. (Sadly, Hollywood appears to have created some expectations that plenty of monks are having a rather hard time living up to. I have yet to see any monks doing any type of martial arts, other than play fighting at a festival, and they looked no better at it than me.) Most importantly (relating to our travels through Spiti), I had no clue whatsoever that India had an entire area considered more Tibetan than Tibet. Since everyone knows that Tibet is the original land of the Dalai Lama, and the spiritual home of Buddhism, that means that I am currently in a place more Buddhist than the most Buddhist place in the world. As you can see, it's been a dizzying two weeks.

We've visited as many different monastaries as we've been able to, and at many of them you can spend the night. It's a very imposing thing, spending the night at a monastary, and the first time we walked tentatively through the front gate into the silent inner sanctuary of the compound, inquiring as to the possibility of a room, I felt very conspicuous, very white, and very much the little blasphemer. Is it right to sleep in a bed surrounded by pious monks devoting their lives to the search for Truth, if you don't believe in God, don't believe in religion, and pretty much think that Hedonism is the way to go? With no God to strike me down (Buddhism is all about YOU, and finding your own inner answers. Buddhas are only enlightened teachers, with no supernatural or god-like powers save those of concentration), I slept like a baby, and was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when the 5:30 gong announcing morning puja sounded.

We walked quietly down to the prayer room, and entered first right (D'oh! Always left side! Counterclockwise, counterclockwise! Monks furiously gesturing "Other way! Other way!"), then left. We sat down on soft cushions along the outer wall, and watched and listened as the monks began their hour and a half chanting. It was magical, it was mystical, you could close your eyes and get lost in the rythmic chorus of the voices, until you started paying closer attention and realised that half the monks looked bored stiff, a quarter were multi-tasking, and the two young ones in the back were trying very hard, but with little succes, not to laugh. Knowing nothing about what they're really trying to accomplish, I have no idea if they were being successful or not, but it just seemed so informal and relaxed, and...amateurish. Pious! You're supposed to be acting more pious! I wanted to yell at them. Rather presumptuous of me, wanting to tell monks how to act in their own home, deep (?) in worship, but I couldn't help it.

So far, this contrast between my expectations and reality seems to be the order of the day, and I can't decide if I'm disappointed or not. Although I said I knew very little about Buddhism, I've realized that I DID have very definite expectations about what it was supposed to look like in action, and imagined every monk to be a smaller, slightly less distinguished looking version of His Holiness (HH) the Dalai Lama. In person, they really do kind of look like that (especially the little ones), with their purple robes, saffron tops, and long, thick scarves wrapped around their shaved heads. Their behaviour is...normal. I mean, sure they seem calm and kind and a bit more serene than the average bloke, but they still horse around, they play with their friend's gadgets, they snicker and laugh and act like normal people. The monastaries are incredible, all with amazing views, fabulous, ancient artwork, and the monks are ordinary people.

We stopped at the monastary in Dhankar, to inquire about staying the night and get some food. We were greeted by a middle aged man wearing wind pants, a knock-off Levi's t-shirt, and a knock-off Nike ball cap, who'd been sleeping on a cot in the corner. He proceeded to tell us that he was in charge of the monastary, and had been running it for the past 5 years. Why would the most important person in the place, the most enlightened lama, be wearing western clothes, sleeping on a cot in the dining hall, waiting for westerners to show up so he could serve up cold rice and dhal? Again, knowing very little about the religion, maybe this is him being the best lama in the world, but to me, it just seems kind of funny.

I spent an afternoon at another monastary trying to sort out all this confusion in my head about what Buddhism is really about, but had trouble finding anything that was at a low enough level for me to grasp any of the concepts. Do they have a Buddhism for Dummies book? If so, I'd love a copy for Christmas (hint, hint). I'm intrigued, and I want to learn more, and I'm in the right place to do it, so hopfeully another couple of weeks of my awkward fumbling will give me some enlightenment. 'Cause that's what it's all about, right?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Random thoughts....

Humm, what to write about...we're sitting in the corner of a restaurant, at the only two computers in the town of Rekong Peo. I just finished a chai, which in India is a delicious mix of milk, tea, and about a pound of sugar, so my head is spinning a bit. Steve and I have been milling about town all day, drinking chai (or, in Steve's case, Coke), reading our books, writing in the journal, checking out the strip of shops on the main street, and now finally on the internet. We had meant to leave today for Nako, a small gompa in the Spiti Valley, but we couldn't get our Inner Line Permits processed before the last bus left. The permit process should be simple - show your passport, fill out a form, and then get it stamped and signed by a government official, but, alas, nothing is simple in India. We, along with about 8 other gringos, were at the office at 10 AM sharp when it opened, and were herded from one building to the next over three hours, before finally being presented with our official papers. Happily, with the exception of a few impatient Isrealis, we were with a good crowd, and it was quite enjoyable to chat and swap stories for a few hours. But, the end result was a missed bus, so here we are.
The last few posts have been a bit negative about India, and, well, I can't lie and say my first impressions of this country were overly positive. But, that has all (or nearly all) changed in the past couple weeks. Northern India and the Himalayas are incredible, more incredible than I had expected. We did a three day trek a couple days ago, from the Spiti Valley south to the Kinnaur Valley. The Spiti Valley is dry (in the rain shadow) and is overwhelmingly Buddhist, populated by Tibetan refugees. The Kinnaur Valley is wetter, more lush, and inhabited by Hindus. Tall mountains soar throughout the entire area, and our trek allowed us constant views of glacier-ridden peaks, glacially-carved valleys, and, of course, sheep, cows, goats, and shepherds. After our hike, we spent two nights in a small village up in the mountains (ok, so everything here is "up in the mountains"), day-hiking and relaxing. We found a place with a kitchen, so were able to cook our own meals, which was quite the luxury. Indian food is amazing, but nothing beats being able to buy vegetables at the local market and cook them exactly the way you want. It was great!
I'm really looking forward to our continuation north toward Ladakh. We've had a taste of Buddhist and Tibetan culture in Spiti, and I'm very intrigued by it. The prayer flags draped on every bridge, restaurant, home, and stupa are beautiful, and convey a sort of peace and calmness to the region that I really enjoy. The people are beautiful, with their hardened faces and big eyes, and they seem more accepting and less abrasive in their interactions with us and others. I've been looking ahead in the LP, and it looks like there are many trekking routes crisscrossing the area, many of them 10+ days long. Sign me up!

Friday, July 13, 2007


It's been a while since we've had time to sit down in front of a computer. We've been busy - with India. It's an entirely consuming country to travel in, and LIFE takes all your focus and energy. Everyday choices and decisions are never simple or straightforward, and very rarely unfold the way you think they might. (I wanted to say should but refrained, because I'm trying to expunge that entire notion from my brain - it's just easier that way.) Directions are vague nods or subtle gestures, most often incorrect. Bus schedules are an unknown concept, with three terminal attendants giving three different answers. Restaurants sometimes serve you, and sometimes don't, although they always make you wait a healthy amount of time first. Hotels are a crapshoot - hot water? clean sheets? - double check carefully; appearances are often deceiving.

Life here is hard, and for once, travellers don't seem to get a free pass above it all. It's frustrating, but at the same time refreshing knowing that you are dealing with the same things that Indians deal with day in and day out. This is their life. As a result, (or perhaps as a cause?) people are unbearably selfish, yet possessed with a level of tolerance that is truly mind boggling. The contrast between those two characteristics confuses me to no end. I've spent hours trying to figure it out, and really haven't gotten very far.

How can people be so cut-throat, where everyone has to fight for everything, all the time, yet stand patiently in a stuffed bus full of sweaty, smelly, vomiting peers, and not blink an eye? Why do they put up with a life that requires constant attempts to put themselves above the masses fighting alongside them for every little scrap? There's no concept of greater good, or social benefit, because people are too busy trying to outwit each other. I want to scream at the top of my lungs "STOP!", and then give people a lecture on how if everyone would chill out, just a little, and consider the people around them when trying to do their own thing, it would be better for everybody. I suspect my rant would fall on deaf ears. Or at the very least, uncomprehending ones - I don't speak Hindi.

Why are things so fucked up? Your first and most logical conclusion is simply that the country is disfunctional. Yes, yes, disfunctional, you think. THAT'S why everything seems to be hanging by a thread, tattered and battered. It's an easy answer, and a seemingly good answer, but sadly, not the correct one. Disfunctional is a strong word, and any country with a growing economy, a large proportion of highly educated individuals, and cell phone towers at 5000 metres can't be doing everything wrong, right?

The real answer is that the country is functional at the lowest possible level. To illustrate the concept, let's use the example of a television. A disfunctional television won't turn on. You can bang it and bump it as hard as you want to, but nothing happens. Turning the knobs, checking the cord - all to no avail. Maybe the remote batteries are dead? Nope. The power's out? Uh-uh. Sorry dude, your tv's busted. (!!!!!!! - relax, it's just an illustration. I promise there's nothing wrong with your tv.)

A television functioning at the lowest possible level, on the other hand, has wires and cords and sprockets and vaccuum tubes sticking out of it in a jumbled mess, smoke coming from unseen parts, lots of twisting and turning and fussing about to get any reception - but you do eventually get a picture. It might not be the channel you were hoping for, or even a program that you have any interest whatsoever in watching, but you have something tangible to look at as a reward for the effort you put in. THIS television is India.

We've been gradually working our way north since leaving Delhi. We managed to reach the mountains just as the monsoon hit, and while we've been getting wet regularly, it isn't a daily occurance. Before arriving here, I had heard almost nothing about Northern India. Nepal and Tibet are talked about all the time, as is Bhutan, and even Pakistan, but the Indian Himalaya covers more area than all of those countries combined, and offers all of the same things. I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out why no one's ever told me about the place. The only thing I can come up with is the season - you need to visit during th monsoon to avoid the snow, and most people give India a pass during the rainy season. Abby and I, being the terrible planners we are, seem to have stumbled onto something good due to nothing more than our lack of foresight. We've started to explore the mountains some, and plan on being in the area for another month and a half or so. There are mountains EVERYWHERE, and loads of trekking opportunities.

Stay tuned...

Monday, July 2, 2007


Delhi doesn't leave a very good first impression. Actually, that's drastically understating the case - in reality, Delhi leaves a dirtycrowdedfilthysmellynastynastynastydisgustingOhmygodIdon'twanttotouchanythinggetmethehelloutofhere first impression that won't be soon forgotten. We came, we saw, we ran.

To be fair, I can't say that it was all Delhi's fault. The main issue is that Delhi is in India, and India is not Turkey. Nor, for that matter, is it Canada, America, Nepal, Guatelmala, Peru, Thailand or anywhere else in the world I've ever visited. More importantly, India bears almost no resemblance to any of the aforementioned countries, and requires a completely different set of travel skills than those aqcuired in those other places - skills you don't have when you're fresh off the boat, so to speak, and trying to take your first halting steps into the thriving, writhing mass of humanity that's India's capital. You quickly learn that India is India, and India is fucked up.

I slowly reach my foot out, and, closing my eyes, brace for the impact as I take a tentative step into the abyss of the Delhi street. I'm expecting first my sandal, my foot, my leg, then the rest of me to dissolve upon impact, but the uneven cobble takes my weight, and I'm resigned to taking a second step, then a third, a fourth, until my body takes over and my mind is free to contemplate what the hell I'm putting myself through. I open my eyes, and attempt to make sense of what lies before me.

The street occupies a narrow space between two rows of buildings, teeming with activity. The buildings rising on each side are a patchwork of concrete and rebar, some painted, most crumbling, and the ground floor spaces open into shops of all shapes and sizes. Cell phones, samosas, fruit, pens, paper, pop, wires, pipes, tires, motorcycles, stoves, pots, toothbrushes, rice and spices - I'm amazed at what's for sale in the fours shops visible from where I'm standing. The road itself is thronged with opposing currents of life moving in opposite directions. Pedestrians, bicycles, carts, rickshaws, motorcycles and delivery trucks are all trying to share a 10 foot wide space that's further narrowed by the vendors lining the edges, wedged between the shop openings. The rule seems to be might makes right, everyone constantly trying to get out of the way of everyone else. Progress is slow.

Interspersed throughout are a handful of cows, casually grazing through the piles of refuse that are everywhere. The currents open now and then to expose the ground, the pavement nowhere to be found under the mix of piss, shit and garbage that covers the entire city. Mangy dogs weave their way through the openings, snarling and fighting over the rotten scraps of yesterday's leftovers. The smell is revolting, a toxic miasma that permeates everything, alternating clouds of scent that come in waves. I want to throw up.

I have to somehow figure out how to get to the phone around the corner without making contact with anything. Maybe I'll take up meditation so I can float above it all. On second thought, that wouldn't help. The air is oppresive, a solid wall of heat and humidity that's full of the same disgusting grime lining everthing. I don't want to breathe. I feel like I'm being consumed by the filth of India, and I can hardly bear it. I'll never be clean. What am I doing here?

This place is crazy.