Sunday, September 30, 2007
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
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
(I don't know when this photo was taken, but I assume it was in the early days of Alyeska.....)
Sunday, September 16, 2007
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
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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 paper...an 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
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.
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
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.