Feathered Aspen


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Travel by Train

October 10, 2010

There were some things that I feared I’d never see. I don’t really have a list. There’s just sort of this vague recollection of stories and images I’ve gathered in my head from travel memoirs, old National Geographics, and coffee table photo books: people bathing in Ganga, lighting candles in little cups of leaves and sending them down river with a garland of marigolds; women holding hands and walking down the street in jewel-bright saris, barefoot; Sadhus in orange robes with impossibly long hair, canes and faces of holy paint; gaunt men powering bicycle rickshaws with women in full burkas riding behind; a sleeper train filled with Indian business men, families, beggars, and workers but no Westerners; rice paddy fields with women carrying enormous sacks of grain, grass, or greens on top of their heads; peaks of the Himalaya with prayer flags flapping in the wind, red, yellow, green, blue; the Dalai Lama and his monks in red.

What I mean is, I was worried that by the time I finally arrived, everything would be paved and everyone would be wearing jeans, t-shirts, and penny loafers. Big country that it is, the cities of America look pretty much the same. There are the same restaurants, the same department stores, the same sort of homes, and everyone more or less dresses exactly the same. I’ve seen this in other places too, though never on quite the same scale. The cities of Ireland, England, and Scotland – though often lovely – were all vaguely similar in their big, stony grandeur. In Spain, the city centers had lovely kept gardens, parks and historical buildings, but the outskirts had that familiar Meditteranean-cement-apartment-building-thing going on: miles of slightly dirty, very square apartments with shabby balconies and stores selling umbrellas, saucepans, and coca-cola below. The outskirts of Athens and Istanbul were much the same.

I’ll never forget the day Caitlin, Joshua, and I landed in Cuzco, Peru. We had just flown from Portland to LAX, LAX to Lima, and then from Lima to Cuzco. Before that, Joshua had been to Italy, I had been to Great Britain, and I think Caitlin may have crossed over the border into Canada. When we walked out of that little airport, we looked up at the Andes Mountains. On our taxi ride into town, we passed Quechua walking barefoot, packs of stray dogs, and ramshackle shops set up on the side of the road. It was very, very different.

The flight into Leh, Ladakh gave us a similar jolt. Ironically, the comparisons to Cuzco were readily apparent: dirt roads, devil-may care drivers, jagged, snow-capped mountains, and women with long, long braids. But they were different, too: Leh has these gorgeous timber windows and pagoda-like roofs. Leh had gompas and prayer flags.

Ever since we’ve landed, I’ve been presently surprised that India is even better than my imagination and certainly better than my fears. I don’t mean to suggest that Western globalization isn’t a threat to their way of life or culture (I’m in no position to make a generalization like that) but all those things I listed – ganga baths, saris, sadhus, cycle rickshaws, sleeper trains, rice paddies, prayer glags, and Tibetan Buddhism – are alive and well. What’s more, they still seem surprised to see us. People have been traveling in India for a long time, but in some places, you’d never know it. Even in Rishikesh, where Western hippies have been flocking ever since the 60s, is decidedly less Westernized than even Dharamsala or Leh. It seemed to me that there were for more Indian tourists than Western, and out on the street, we were always outnumbered. Which is nice. Which is how it should be when you’re traveling.

I don’t mean to sound puritanical; every once in a while, I appreciate a good clean restaurant where the wait staff know that Westerners all vegetables washed in mineral water or otherwise boiled just as much as the next traveller. Sometimes, it’s very reassuring to see another over-pale traveller decked out in vaporwick and a backpack on your bus, train, or automobile – you know that at least if something goes horribly awry, you’ll all be in the same position. I just mean to say that it seems a little odd when we travel to places to see new and different things, eat new and different things, and then we end up staying with all the other people who are doing the same thing and we end up talking and eating with them only.

Joshua and I haven’t seen a Westerner in over 24 hours. Last night, we picked up our bags from the ashram, and our kindly guide led us across the bridge to our taxi. As the sun went down, Joshua and I held hands in the back of the car. Actually, we gripped hands, and every time our taxi driver headlessly flung himself into oncoming traffic, leaning on his horn and overtaking five to six motorcycles, autorickshaws, and trucks, we squeezed until we could feel bones pop in our fingers. It was harrowing.

A little more than 30 minutes later, it was completely dark. As far as we could tell, we were in the middle of nowhere. Sure, there were still countless forms of vehicles flying down the roads at top speed, neglecting any and all traffic laws (if there are any), but there were no land marks, no signs in English, and our taxi driver knew no English either. Finally, cutting off a cluster of women in saris, a motorcycle, and three bicycles, our driver pulled into a dirt parking lot. Up ahead, a dim, naked light bulb illuminated a cement entry. There were plenty of Indian men and women about, toting luggage and small children, but there wasn’t another Westerner to be seen.

We took our packs and walked through the entry onto the platform. In the dark, we could see two sets of railroad tracks. We sat next to a pile of cow dung, a couple of sleeping dogs, and dozens of Indian travellers, who stopped mid-conversation to ever so casually stare in our general direction.

We still had 45 minutes before the train was expected to arrive, so we unloaded our packs and sat on them. I read while Joshua fretted.

When we first got to Rishikesh, Joshua had the brilliant idea to arrange for bus tickets to Gorakhpur with the ashram travel agent. He went down to work out the particulars, and an hour later, he came up with the particulars: all the trains directly from Rishikesh to Haridwar and then Haridwar to Gorakhpur were booked – first, second, and third class. The only way that we would be able to get to Gorakhpur was via Varanasi, and even then, we would need to take a 30 minute taxi ride to the small station of Raiwala outside of Rishikesh. The detour added about 8 hours onto the total trip, but it was the best we could do; taking a bus would almost certainly take much longer.

Once we had figured out that train tickets are in such high demand, we decided to buy the rest of the train tickets we’ll need for the remainder of our trip. Joshua gallantly hammered out the details with the ashram travel agent, so we now have all our train tickets with us: Varanasi to Agra, Agra to Jaipur, Jaipur to Jaisalmer, Jaisalmer back to Jaipur, and finally, Jaipur to Delhi. All of these tickets are for sleeper seats (except for the last one, Jaipur to Delhi, which is a day train ride anyway).

Although we had all of our train tickets squared away, we were still a little apprehensive. We had ridden trains before in Britain, but something told us this would be very different. How do you know where to get on? How do you know which train is yours? What about which stop?

The train arrived about 10 minutes late. As people made a mad dash for the doors and engaged in general chaos, Joshua ran first left, then whipped around and shouted, ‘no! That way!’ We ran back four or five cable cars, and then Joshua said, ‘ok! I think it’s this one!’ I saw no differentiating numbers or figures, but Joshua’s good with this sort of thing. I followed like a blind, lost sheep.

Inside, there were stalls that opened up to a narrow hallway that ran down the length of the train. Inside each stall, there were two long seats facing each other and then two lofted seats above. Halfway up the stall wall, another long seat could be raised and chained to the top seat, but for now, it was hanging down the side to provide room for seated passengers.

On the other side of the hallway, two more sleeper seats allowed room for a couple of people to sit below and luggage to be stored on top. Somehow, Joshua found the right stall. We unloaded our packs and sat down. There were 8 other people in our little stall. Every single one of them looked at us as though we had just landed from Mars.

Much relieved now that we were sitting on the correct train in our correct sleeper car, we looked around. People were playing cards on lofted beds, women were sitting cross-legged, combing each other’s hair, pointing at us, and giggling. Fans up above stirred the thick air around us, and the grated windows looked out into the dark. I decided almost right away that this was a terribly romantic mode of transportation. Everything was old, and already, there were people laying on the highest sleepers with their elbows tossed over their eyes, sleeping.

By now, I was totally immersed in my book, so after I had my fill gaping at all the newness around me, I went back to reading (Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee). Joshua started to read to, but it just so happened that one of our staring stall-mates spoke English, and they struck up a conversation. It was hard to hear over the sound of the train swaying over the tracks, but I did gather that we were something of an anomally. The Delhi business man applauded us for going out and seeing ‘the Real India,’ while at the same time mentioning that during the high season, we would have been lucky to find any square inch to sit down, much less claim our sleeper seat.

At one of the stops, a little boy – probably five or six years old – got on the train. Barefoot and shirtless, he pushed an empty burlap sack down the isle, picking up trash and dirt. As he came by, he held out his hand where he held a couple of rupee coins. He tapped my knee and tilted his head to the side, ‘please, Madame.’

I know I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again. There are beggars all over India. Some of them beg on their dessicated knees, their legs shriveled and thin from polio. Others are missing limbs, fingers, toes, teeth. Bony women in rags carry filthy infants on their hips. Little children run up to you, begging for your spare coins.

I gave the little boy our last cookie. It wasn’t what he wanted. Looking disappointed, he continued wiping the shit off the floors. I don’t know what to say or do or think. Do I give them money? Do I not? Do I look them in the eye and say, ‘no, I’m sorry’? Do I walk by without looking at them? What’s most humane? What’s most loving? The other day, I saw this poster in one of the Indian restaurants. It had a picture of a lovely, well-dressed Indian girl crying. It said, ‘In order to be happy, we must not be so concerned with others.’ I kept on looking at it, wondering if it meant ‘concerned with what other people think’ or just plain ‘concerned with others.’ In a country so poor, I suppose it could be either.

At about 9:30, our stall-mates started to turn in for the night, and we got out of our seats to pull down the middle sleepers. Joshua crawled into his middle sleeper across from my upper sleeper. With our packs at our heads, we were able to sleep with our legs tucked up.

I slept for a while, and when I woke up, I finally managed the courage to venture down to the toilet. Standing on a awful, piss-wet platform above a hole that opened directly onto the train tracks below, I hoped that an updraft wouldn’t leave me in a very wet, very embarrassing situation. Luckily, I escaped unscathed.

Back in my loft, I looked around at all the people sleeping, curled up like children, smacking their lips and blowing slow air out of their nose. Men were lying on the floors and on top of bags. Every square inch was taken up by a sleeping body. It felt old world and romantic. Someone was snoring, but with the white noise of the train tracks and the two ancient steel fans whirring next to my ear, I didn’t mind.

I slept until 8 AM, and when I woke up, I looked down at Joshua, reading. I read too, and the two of us spent the next five or six hours lolling about on our sleeper seats, reading and napping. This is so much more comfortable than a bus ride. At about 2 PM, it got so hot and sticky, I had to come down and sit by the window to catch the hot breeze. Most people had disembarked either in Lucknow or Dehradun, so there weren’t many other travellers left. Watching India fly by my window, I looked at farm land that had been carved into rice paddies and vegetable patches. Men made furrows in the soil with enormous hoes, and women cut the crops with scythes. Next to the tracks, mud huts sat beneath great big banana trees, and in school yards, children played tag barefoot.

Finally, we arrived in Varanasi. Gathering our bags, we stepped onto the body-packed platform. Although there were hundreds of people, we were still the only Westerners in sight. Following the crowds, we made our way to the exit, picking up a taxi tout along the way. Although we had planned to walk to our hotel, when we saw the mass chaos outside, we conceeded.

For 20 rupees, the man and his friend drove us in their autorickshaw to a hotel about a mile away from the train station. The more touristy part of Varanasi lies along the Ganga a few more miles away, but our train for Gorakhpur leaves tomorrow morning at 7:50 AM, so we decided to stay a bit closer.

Once we had unloaded our bags and I had taken a quick shower, we walked outside to stretch our legs. As we walked, we passed cycle rickshaws full of women in gorgeous saris and still more women in black burkas. Cows with sword-sharp hip bones foraged for food in the gutters, and dogs with distended bellies, missing fur, and engorged teats curled up in corners. Barefoot children ran by, towing small paper kites flying high up in the sky.

At one junction, we found a vegetable market with overflowing wagons. Eggplants, prickly cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, cauliflower, and carots sat in colorful arrangements, and on another end, street vendors were selling fried things. We bought a couple of fried thingys and stopped the boy just in time. He was about to drizzle some soupy stuff over the top, and although we’re stupid, we’re not suicidal: that pot of soupy stuff had been sitting out in the heat all day long.

We kept walking. I ate my fried thingy, but Joshua’s stomach was still feeling a bit iffy, so he set his bowl down in front of a particularly scrawny looking dog. I was walking behind him, just having crossed the street, and I saw a half-naked beggar man leap up, swat the dog away, and snatch up the bowl. He looked to make sure Joshua wasn’t watching, and then he gobbled down the whole thing, including the bowl (which was made out of leaves).

***

We returned back to the hotel, not having seen one Westerner or a single restaurant. In the dining room of the hotel, we ordered a vegetable biryani and an onion parantha. An Indian family came over for a little photo op, and after they had gone, we changed the TV station to the Commonwealth Games.

As we ate the Indian version of Jambalayah with Parantha and chutney, we watched India fight it out with Pakistan on the hockey field, wheelchairs race around the course, and thin-muscled men leap out of the starting blocks. We tried to figure out who all was in the Commonwealth, and then Joshua said, ‘it’s like they wanted to do the Olympics, but they didn’t want to invite the Americans, because they were sick and tired of us winning everything.’

Sometimes, my husband is very astute.

October 9, 2010

We woke up early to catch the coolest part of the day. Joshua was feeling a little bit better, so we decided to go for a long walk/run up to the Shiva Temple in the hills above Rishikesh. Walking past the last buildings of lower Rishikesh, we began to run.

Although we ultimately missed the turn off for the Shiva Temple, we decided that we didn’t care. We ran for an hour through an impossibly green and tropical forest, listening to monkeys scream and passing a sign that said, ‘Beware of Elephants’ (although we didn’t see any). Cresting the hill, we were able to see another town on the Ganga far below. In the distance, the river cut its wide path through the plains and ended in a hazy horizon.

We turned around and ran back, hopping over streams that ran over the road and dodging cars and painted carrier trucks. Back in Rishikesh, the city was waking up, and as we ran by, little school children would start to run too. One Sadhu gave us a thumbs-up.

Back at the room, we showered and packed. Before we left for breakfast, we stepped out onto the balcony. With a breeze running off the Ganga below and a spectacular view of the suspension bridge and the fairy-palace ashrams, the balcony has made this room one of our favorite places to say thus far.

Across the bridge, we ate at the German Bakery again. We sat in the same seats and ordered the same things, watching people, monkeys, motorcycles, and cows cross the bridge as we ate. On our way back to the ashram, we picked up a couple new books. In the room, we said goodbye to our balcony one last time and checked out, leaving our bags with reception.

We had about 30 minutes before our appointment with the Vedic Astrologist, so we headed to one of the fairy-palace looking temples. Stowing our shoes in the cubbies outside, we made the circuitous route up to the very top, stopping to admire the colorful shrines along the way. On the last four or five floors, we were stopped a dozen times to pose in family photos. At the top, we snapped a quick picture of the Ganga and the bridge below, and then we rushed back down, running late.

Things like telepathy, psychics, horoscopes, crystals, tarot, and astrology have all sorts of baggage associated with them, and I know that if I admit that I’ve had my horoscope done by a Vedic Astrologist, some people might find it difficult to take me seriously. That said, I’m not really sure if I care.

Pandit Uniyal’s office sits on a side street not far from the German Bakery. In one small room, he has a desk with a computer, two small Hindi altars with statues of gods and goddesses, and a blanket on the floor with pillows for seating. For our consultation, we all sat cross-legged on pillows.

To begin, Pandit gave us each 10 page packets. The first 8 pages are type-written, and the last two pages are handwritten. On the first page, Pandit has entered our personal information: our names, date of birth, time of birth, and birth place. From these pieces of information that we gave him yesterday, he’s been able to identify the latitude and longitude at which we were born, the day of the week, the time of sunrise and sunset, our ascendant sign, moon sign, constellation, and dates corresponding with the Vedic calendar.

Here’s what Pandit discovered about my date of birth:

I was born at 37:28 North and 105:52 West. On the day of my birth, the sun rose at 5:11 AM and set at 18:39 PM. I was born on the 5th day of the Dark Moon on the Vedic Calendar, and my sun sign is Taurus. My ascendant sign is Cancer-Moon, moon sign is Sagittarius-Jupiter, and constellation is Moola-4. In my most recent past life, I was a dog.

Here’s what Pandit discovered about Joshua’s date of birth:

He was born at 44:56 North and 93:05 West. On the day of his birth, the sun rose at 5:45 AM and set at 18:18 PM. He was born on the 7th day of the Dark Moon on the Vedic Calendar, and his sun sign is Aries. His ascendant sign is Gemini-Mercury, moon sign is Sagittarius-Jupiter, and constellation is Moola-1. In his most recent past life, he was a deer.

The next three pages of the packet show diagrams of our various star charts. They appear very complex and scientific, but Pandit was able to point at totally incomprehensible numbers and shapes and tell us all sorts of things about our personalities and our future.

For example, I have Venus in my corner, and that means that I will make my living with the Arts. Mars likes to hang out in my corner too, and that means that I will be inordinately successful. I’m going to make a lot of money. I’m going to be filthy rich. Saturn’s there too, and that means that I’m a kind person and sometimes too personal, too generous.

As for Joshua, he’s got Mercury in his corner, which means that he’d better hitch his wagon to his wife: a fruitful business is not in the cards for him, but he’s very good at handling other people’s money, and since his wife is going to hit it big, it’d be best for him to just manage hers. (Here Pandit looked up and very seriously told Joshua: ‘men are born with five senses, but women are born with six. When your wife tells you to do something, you say, ‘yes Madame.’ Also, it’s best just to leave the money making to your wife. She has lots of good money signs; you don’t.’) As far as his profession goes, Pandit saw government work in his future. Given the exact constellation of the stars at his birth, he’s a very intelligent man who frequently changes his mind. (Here again, Pandit urged Joshua to stick with his wife. For someone as Mercurial as him, it’s good to have some stability. In addition, he must manage his anger problems; otherwise, disaster will follow.)

The last two type-written pages, an overview of our personalities, financial futures, marriage and children predictions, career opportunities, health, and lucky things.

For myself, I’m a moon sign, so my life is likely to be very changeable. I have a fertile imagination, and I love strange scenes (?) and adventures. I tend to be sentimental, talkative, and extremely hard-working. I am artistic, and I love my family and home. I have deep feelings of loyalty and responsibility, and any anger I feel is short-lived. Being a watery sign, I easily adjust. As indicated before, I will be very, very successful when it comes to money (No problems there, Pandit said.). For my marriage, it will be happy, but at times, I will be far too demanding. I will have two children, one boy and one girl, and they will very likely have strong musical or artistic abilities. For my career, I will work in the Arts, but some form of social work or teaching is also viable. I will likely own my personal business. When it comes to health, I should be relatively healthy, but I may experience some problems ‘below my navel’ in the year 2040. Pandit also sensed that I will be very cold. (That’s strange, he said. It looks very cold for you.) I will die when I’m 84 or 86. My lucky day is Tuesday, and my lucky colors are white, cream, red, and yellow. My lucky numbers are 2, 7, and 9, and my lucky stones are diamonds, pearls, and rubies.

Joshua, on the other hand, is under Mercury’s lordship, and this means that he is both joyous and reluctant in nature. He’s intellectual, understands things very quickly, and has great analytical powers. He is capable of clear, quick, and logical mental action, and he is always alert to new ideas. However, as Pandit mentioned before, his mercurial nature leads him to change fields frequently, and his prospects for business aren’t great. As for study and education, Joshua loves to ‘go deep into matters and study them.’ He does not believe in what he has not experienced. He loves to travel. When it comes to marriage, he’ll marry someone who is successful ‘along either artistic or literary lines.’ He’ll have two children, one boy and one girl. For his career, jobs in government look best, but it’s likely that he’ll do more than one job at a time, given his dual sign. Also, it would be best for him to manage his wife’s money. He’s good at that. He’ll have excellent health until his old age when he’ll struggle with his eyesight and his skin. He will die when he’s 82. His lucky days are Thursdays, and his lucky colors are green and yellow. His lucky numbers are 3, 5, and 12, and his lucky stones are emerald and yellow sapphires.

In the last two hand-written pages, Pandit gave us pointers, predictions, and advice:

For me, I’ll be getting a great job between December 2010 and February 2011; however, I’ll soon change that job for something even better, possibly in September 2011. It’s suggested that I fast one Sunday of every month. On the morning of my fast, I should fill a copper bowl with water and a floating flower. When I place the bowl in the sunlight, I should say, ‘om.’ From August 2012 to August 2022, I will be blessed with two children. There will be long journies and changes in work in this time, and I’m advised to wear a pearl pendant (because I’m under the moon). From August 2022 to August 2029, I’ll move under Mars’ sign, and my work will become even more profitable, although I must steer clear of jealousy. During this time, I should also fast on one Tuesday of every month, as well as the day of the Full Moon. From August 2029 to August 2047, life looks a little bit more difficult. There might be a death in the family, and my children seem a little fickle about their higher education. I need to be careful about my taxes, because my business will be audited, and this is also when my ‘below the navel pain’ comes to a fore. During this time, I should wear a ruby pendant, and I should chant ‘Om Hran Hrin Hron Shaha Rahuway Namaha’ 108 times every morning. Then, from August 2047 to August 2063, things look up again. I’ll live abroad in a foreign country for a while, and my children will settle down. My health might not be so hot from May 2061 to August 2063, but otherwise, things are looking pretty prosperous. From August 2063 onwards, I’m likely to become very spiritual, and if i haven’t already, I will die in July of 2074.

For Joshua, a job in the government sector looks probable by March 2011. After the age of 28, he won’t really have to worry about money because ‘your wife will be the cause of your prosperous life.’ He should also fast on one Sunday a month and fill a copper bowl with water. He should chant, ‘Om Nama Shivayah’ 108 times every morning. From February 2028 to February 2035, he should readjust his thinking about public and private life, and be wary of a senior family member’s declining health. From February 2035 to January 2053, he’ll struggle with worries about his difficult children, but later on in that period, he’ll likely do some extensive travelling. In the next period from 2053 to 2069, he will have problems with blood pressure, but he will also rediscover the joys of social work. In February of 2069, he will die.

When Pandit finished explaining our horoscope, he stood up and retrieved a pot with red paint inside. Touching the crowns of our heads, he blessed us and marked our foreheads with red paint. We paid him and left.

Afterwards, we tried to decide what we thought about the whole thing, and both of us tried to strike a balance between skepticism and possibility. On the one hand, you can argue that horoscopes paint a wide brush, and individuals can see bits and pieces of themselves in any of the wide brush strokes. The power, then, comes from seeing a reflection of yourself and taking time to identify the characteristics that you wish to embellish and those you wish to quell. On the other hand, you could take the horoscope as gospel. You could have total faith in the dates, the numbers, etc., and you could use the horoscope to help make important decisions about your future.

I suppose I lean more towards the first hand where wide brush strokes provide useful reflections, but I’m also drawn to the mystery and romance of considering that there might be a mathematical force out there that can tell me about patterns, fate, and likelihood. In the end, I got a kick out of a number of things that – at this point – I’m still thinking of as coincidences: 1) Pandit said Joshua was a deer in his past life. When Joshua pulled cards to find his animal spirit a few years ago, you pulled a deer. 2) Pandit said that our constellations match, and if we had been considered as a match in India, our families would have considered our constellations favorable. 3) Pandit – without any prior knowledge – pretty much nailed our career interests. Joshua’s been talking about policing in the past couple of weeks, and Pandit suggested something ‘in government.’ For me, he saw something artistic or literary. Beyond those coincidences, I feel a sense of optimism. I’m still not at all sure how I feel about things like fate, etc., but if I should go on from this point believing that I will be successful as a result of my hardwork and persistence, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Even if it ends up being a joke – oh yeah, Ellie’s going to be the money maker in the family – that’s ok too. Anything to give me that boost of confidence to keep trying.

Walking back up to the German Bakery, we sat tucked away in a corner. We ordered small snacks and a couple of drinks to while away the time, reading our horoscopes and then our books as we ate. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of a monkey sliding down one of the suspension ropes on the bridge like a fireman. They’re fearless.

After a bit, it started to rain pretty heavily. We ordered a couple of more drinks so that we could keep or table and view. At one point, a couple of Indian women pulled me away to take a photo of them. Their English was impeccable, and they were both wearing very expensive brand-name sunglasses and side bags. One of them told me that they had flown up from Delhi to ‘check on their assets here in Rishikesh.’ Just a couple of weeks ago, the Ganga had flooded almost 25 feet higher than it is right now, and it had covered a lot of the shops and guest houses’ first floors.

With just 30 minutes before our taxi was due to arrive, we walked back to the ashram, quick checked the internet, and then retrieved our bags.

October 8, 2010

At 7:30 AM, Joshua and I walked to the Yoga Hall inside the ashram for class. Somewhere in the middle of the second asana, I was looking up at the ceiling and I had this rush of dizzyness and tiredness. If I had really cared, I think I would have just pushed through and been fine, but as it was, I just didn’t care that much. I folded my hands in a Namaste to excuse myself, and I went back to bed.

While slept, Joshua wowed the yoga instructor. He was even invited to attend the intermediate yoga class later in the day. When he came back, he was feeling great, and he decided to go book the rest of our train tickets. Our tickets from Rishikesh to Gorakhpur had just barely panned out, and having discovered that train tickets are harder to get ahold of than we had originally expected, we decided to book ahead.

After a couple of hours of fussing, Joshua booked the rest of the tickets for a trip, and it was a good thing too: all of the AC sleeper cars had already been taken.

To celebrate, we went for a little 40 minute run up to the waterfalls and back, and once we had showered, we walked down to Swarg Ashram to get some cash from the ATM and find some grub. In a little cafe hidden between stalls and temples, we ordered a couple of dosas: fried lentil crepes stuffed with curried veggies and potatoes. They were delicious, but unfortunately, Joshua was suddenly struck by a severe case of Delhi-Belly. We paid quickly and nearly ran the rest of the way back to our room.

While Joshua attended to his needs, I poked through some of the handicraft stalls. It’s much hotter in Rishikesh, and I’ve been lusting after a pair of ali-baba pants and a light, short-sleeved t-shirt. After some dithering, I settled on a pair of loose fitting, soft pants and a lovely dark green t-shirt. Wandering across the bridge, I went in search of an astrologist. After our disappointment in Dharamsala, Joshua and I figured that the next best place to indulge in our New Age curiosity would be Rishikesh.

In a little office down a side street, I found just what I was looking for. The sweet old man seemed to be running a high-demand business, and his paperwork and manner were even more professional and official than I had really been looking for. I filled out papers with our dates, times, and locations of birth, and then I scheduled a consultation for tomorrow at 1 PM.

Back at the room, I checked on Joshua. It had been touch and go for a bit, but he was feeling a little more stable now, so we decided to head back down to Swarg Ashram to see the big ganga aarti. On our way out of town, we heard someone making a big fuss up ahead, and we pratically ran into Eshai and Hadas before we realized that it was them, and they had been shouting at us to get our attention. Quickly recommending our ashram for accomodations and planning to meet up later at our ashram’s restaurant, we moved on, hoping not to miss too much of the ganga aarti.

At the lovely temple on the water, we took off our shoes and went to stand above hundreds of worshippers dressed in the most lovely colors: the women were wearing the most beautiful saaris, and the men were either dressed in orange or white. As they clapped, sang, and lit candles, they looked like tropical butterflies in the firelight. Both the ceremony and the backdrop – the Ganga in sunset with a statue of Shiva floating above the rushing water – were gorgeous.

When we got back to the ashram, we met up with Eshai and Hadas on the balcony of the restaurant. A group of travellers from Argentina and Chile joined us, and as we ate spinach stuffed paranthas and mint slushies, we talked about Indian food and gushed over our Ganga view. It was a wonderful evening, and although we hadn’t said goodbye to Eshai and Hadas that long ago, we were sad to say goodbye once more.


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The Banks of the Ganga

October 7, 2010

Joshua and I just went swimming in the Ganga (the Ganges). This morning, when we were eating breakfast, we saw men bathing in the river. Looking at the sewage pipe that entered into the river just 10 feet upstream, we laughed and said that you couldn’t pay us to get in the Ganga, holy or not.

Fast forward an hour, and we’re jumping in.

This morning, we rolled out of bed and padded into the yoga hall across the Ashram at 7:30 AM. Three Israelis rolled in a couple minutes later, followed by our instructor, a thin Indian man dressed all in white. On his forehead, he had an orange bindi, and on his palms, he had matching orange circles.

For the next hour and a half, he took us through a lightening-fast yoga routine: we waved our arms like windmills, saluted the sun four times, walked like crows, contorted our legs into lotuses, and then propelled our feet up and over our heads. ‘Feel the relaxation,’ he said. As usual, I felt no such thing, but I did like the room with its pillars, 70s style ceiling fans, and large windows that let in the breeze and the sound of honking horns. The handsome, scrawny yogi laughed at me when he told us to touch our noses to our knees. Yeah. Right.

Afterwards, Joshua and I headed straight to the restaurant downstairs. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the Ganga, we watched men pray, dunk themselves in water, and even brush their teeth with the chai-colored liquid. I had potato paranthas (soft flat bread with chunks of potato and onion stuffed inside) with pickle chutney (yum yum) and chai masala. Joshua ordered a set breakfast with an Israeli salad, cumin potatoes, and toast.

Once we had finished eating, we went back to our room to change for our rafting trip. Back downstairs, we met up with another Israeli woman and a helpful ashram guide who walked us to our rafting group across the river. Inside an office we signed a waiver, and then we piled into a jeep with an enormous blow-up raft strapped on top. An Indian woman and Brazilian man rounded out the rest of the group, and as we drove, we introduced ourselves.

After just 30 minutes in the jeep, we pulled over to the side of the road and got out. Each of us selected a life jacket, helmet, and paddle, and then we followed the path down to the river.

The Ganga is beautiful; it’s wide and fast flowing, and on either side, the land sweeps up in thick blankets of green trees, vines, bamboo, and flowers. Waterfalls come gushing down from the hills, and white sandy beaches alternate with enormous gray boulders that cause the water to eddy, flow and whirl around. Women wash clothing along the banks, men pray and bathe. Monkeys sit perching on rocks, grooming or eating.

Before we got on the raft, our guide called us around and gave us simple instructions: forward means pull your paddle towards you, backward means push your paddle away, get down means duck into the boat, and stop means don’t do anything at all. We pushed the raft into the water and jumped on.

Just as we caught the current, three more rafts joined us. Our guide began a water fight, and I realized that we were going to get wet, irregardless of the rapids. Things got raucous, and around the next turn, our guide said, ‘forward! Over the rapids!’ The raft dipped and bucked over a few big swells, and then our guide told us to jump overboard.

‘Excuse me?’ Joshua looked perplexed. Thinking that we had misunderstood, our guide told us again, ‘ok. You jump in water now. Now!’ We all looked at each other, certain we weren’t speaking the same language, and then our guide got up and made to push us over. Ok. In we went.

The water was cold, but it wasn’t unbearable, and after I stopped thinking about what sort of large and microscopic creatures might be accompanying me in the water, I had a blast. Seriously. It was one of those times when your having so much fun that you can’t help but have a goofy, toothy grin all over your face. The current was so fast, and I just bobbed down the river in my life jacket, sticking my feet in the air, and peering up at the mountains from under my helmet.

After some persuasion, everyone else got in too. Our guide remained the boat, ‘how’s the water?’ he asked. ‘Cold?’

Before the next rapids, ‘Double Trouble,’ our guide instructed us to swim over to the side of the raft and turn around. He pulled us up by our life jackets, and we wiggled into the boats like beached whales. We paddled quickly over the next rapids, involuntarily screaming over the crashing swells, and on the other side, we jumped back in the water. The whole time, I kept on thinking, ‘I’m swimming in the Ganga! I’m rafting in the Ganga!’ When I looked over at Joshua, he’s was grinning from ear to ear, too.

We heaved ourselves in the boat again for another set of rapids, and afterwards, we jumped out just as we entered Rishikesh. This is the best way to see the city: we floated under the pedestrian suspension bridge, and Indians took pictures of us. We waved, and they waved back. On either side of the river, we saw ashrams and temples in their cupcake-frosting colors, and on the waters edge, people bathed and prayed on the ghats (steps). We hopped back in the boat one more time for another set of rapids, and on the other side, we paddled towards the ghats.

Once we had beached the raft, we carried it to the jeep, strapped it on, and then road back to the city square. In all, it had only taken two hours, but Joshua and I are still grinning. I hadn’t set my expectations very high, and I was thrilled. For about 8 dollars a piece, we rafted and swam down the Ganga. Isn’t that crazy?

Walking back to the ashram, we felt like we had new lease on life and traveling. This was just the rush we needed. Crossing the suspension bridge, we looked down at the rushing water below and laughed. Just two hours ago, we had sworn that we would never get in. By the second set of rapids, our guide hadn’t needed to tell us. We jumped in by ourselves.

The bridge was crowded with Indian tourists taking photos and feeding monkeys, and halfway across the bridge, a man walked quickly in front of me, spun around, and snapped a candid photo of me. I raised my eyebrows, surprised and laughing, and then he just as quickly swung his arm around my shoulder, lifted his cellphone and took another photo of us. This started a trend, and I had about six more men tap my shoulder for a photo shoot, or just take a photo without asking. If Joshua hadn’t been with me, I think I would have been come a permanent photo fixture on top of the suspension bridge overlooking the Ganga. I still find this totally bewildering. Joshua thinks it’s because they think I look like a movie star that they know or maybe there aren’t many blonde tourists here. I don’t know. I’m not even very blonde.

Back in our fabulous room, we turned on the geyser to heat up the water. I might have decided to swim in the Ganga, but I’m a long way from considering a splash in the Ganga the same thing as a bath. For now, we’re sitting on our shaded balcony overlooking this holy river, and you know what? I think I know why it’s holy. It’s beautiful, and today, just jumping in made me really, really happy. Now, as I’m sitting above, listening to the water rush by the ghats below, I’m still in awe.

***

At 2 P.M., we wandered down to the restaurant for our cooking class. For 500 rupees, the restaurant chef let us help him make three dishes: Mushroom Chana Masala, Navratan Korma, and Naan. While we took turns chopping and stiring, one of us frantically scribbled in our notebooks, describing the whole process and writing down all the ingredients. Chana means chick pea, and masala is a tomato-onion sauce. For Navratan Korma, we created a sauce with coconut in it (korma) and added paneer, apples, pineapple, and vegetables. Navratan just means that there are both fruits and vegetables in a dish.

Both dishes took nearly no time at all, and save some of the spices, the pineapple, and coconut flakes, we’ll be able to make both of the meals with ingredients from our own garden in Wisconsin πŸ™‚ Next, the chef taught us how to make naan. The only difference between Chapati and Naan dough is that Naan has a little bit of milk in it. Once we had rolled out the dough into a pizza shape, we smeared oil on top, folded it in half, smeared oil on top again, and then folded it in half one more time. Now that the naan was in the shape of a triangle, we rolled it out with a rolling pin again and then popped it on the griddle for a couple of minutes on each side. To finish, he put it straight on the flame to crisp a little and then smeared butter all over one side.

The best part about cooking class – besides learning how to make these fabulous meals for the future – is being able to eat everything once it’s made. We took our plates out to the balcony, took off our shoes, sat on the pillows, and ate until we thought we might burst. Indian food is even better when you get to see it made. You know what makes all those delicious flavors.

Once we had finished eating, we went up to the room to read and write for a while. It’s been a full day! With the balcony door open and the breeze coming in through the window, we can hear the sounds of the ashrams nearby. Across the river, a yogi is chanting and his followers are echoing his chants. On the beach next to the Ganga, a Western couple are doing the craziest yoga positions (Joshua says, ‘you’ve gotta come and see this crazy karma-sutra cirque-desoleil shit!’).

The sun set and we admired another pink-chai night. Down below, another family performed ganga aarti and we watched the candles float down the river. Bells are ringing, and we’re sitting here amazed by India. What an incredible place!

October 6, 2010

We arrived in Rishikesh at 7:30 AM. Once we had secured our backpacks from the luggage trunks below, we stood around, a little overwhelmed. Rickshaw drivers were swarming the tourists, and all the Israelis had banded together and were haggling over how many rupees and where they were going. After a few minutes, a couple of groups had loaded their things into the Rickshaws and left, and we were left with a group who needed two more people. Viola. In we got.

It took about 20 minutes to get from the bus stand in the more modern part of Rishikesh to the square in old Rishikesh. We each paid 100 rupees, and then Joshua led us to the ashram with the Lonely Planet map. Along the streets, people were selling beaded necklaces and rosaries made from seeds, incense, and golden bangles. Signs advertised astrological and palm readings, yoga, and ashram accommodations. Around the corner, we saw the Ganga.

The Beatles wrote their White Album in an ashram here in Rishikesh; since then, that particular ashram has been returned to the forest, but others are still thriving. The whole city looks like a psychedelic Willy Wonka Land of Oz, with ashrams and yoga centers that look like confectionery palaces growing up the banks of the wide, furious Ganga. The hills are green, and even at 8 AM, it was humid and warm.

To cross the Ganga, we took a long, pedestrian suspension bridge. It’s beautiful, and from the middle, you can see either side of colorful Rishikesh. Occasionally, a rogue motorcycle blasts its horn and you lean up against the railing to let it by. Cows and monkeys are pedestrians too.

On the other side of the bridge, we passed men selling lemon salted soda in closed glass bottles, popcorn-wallahs, and great big woks with samosas, dosas, and sweet puff balls frying on top. Saris and mirrored fabrics hang from store windows, and men come up to me, asking if I’d like to henna my hands.

Just around the next corner, we entered the Sri Sant Seva Ashram, a large pink motel palace with marble tile courtyards and lots of men walking around in white tunics and gauzy skirts with orange bindis.

The man at the front desk walked us to a couple of rooms. Like any good salesman, he showed us the best – and most expensive – room first. Spacious with a ceiling fan, attached bathroom and shower (shit ‘n shower), and screened windows, we were already in love. Joshua pressed the tips of his five fingers into the mattress, and they sunk in pleasingly. Sponge. The man walked to the opposite end of the room, opened a door, and showed us the best part: a wide personal balcony directly above the Ganga, with a grand view of Rishikesh and the suspension bridge.

So when he took us to a small, dank room on the other side of the ashram with a two-by-two window overlooking a sewage alley for 250 rupees, is it any surprise that we chose to spend the 500 rupees (12 dollars) for a room with a view? Usually, I’m the one pinching pennies, but when the man looked asked us which room we would prefer, I said, ‘yeah. We’re taking the other room.’

In our new, glorious room, we shed our packs and took quick showers. We registered downstairs, and then we walked back across the suspension bridge for breakfast. At a German Bakery perched above the Ganga, we sat out on the terrace and ate a fresh bowl of fruit (papaya, orange, banana, apple) and tea. We watched tourists walking by in their yoga outfits, alibaba pants (the baggy pants with the crotch somewhere below the knee), long scarves, and dreadlocks. I guess if I thought that Dharamsala was hippy, this is hippy Mecca.

After breakfast, we browsed through a bookshop specializing in yoga, astrology, palm reading, chakras, and various guru autobiographies. Back across the suspension bridge, we stopped back at our room to pack a little day bag, and then we headed North along the Ganga in search of some waterfalls.

As we walked, we passed street stall cafes with huge stainless steel pots on burners on display. The chef stirred each bubbling pot slowly as he spoke on his cellphone in rapid Hindi or yelled at rickshaws that got too close. Another man tossed a cow his banana peel, and the cow stopped to eat it in the middle of the road.

On the outskirts of Rishikesh, we passed an ornate, disheveled ashram that looked like something out of a Disney film. Outside, men in loin cloths with shaved heads and tiny ponytails at the back washed their feet and prayed. A little farther up, we passed a huge family of monkeys galloping up and down the road.

The walk was about 4 kilometers long, and by the time we got to the next small village, we were both sweating from the prickly, humid heat. Just up over the next bend, we found the waterfall. Off the road, we followed a little path through the trees. Butterflies fluttered near flowers and settled on our hair. Just a few meters down the path, we found the waterfall again. With crystal clear water and a strange white, rock and sand bed, the water was enticing. I walked right into one of the rushing pools and just stood there. The cool, mountain water brought my body temperature back down to normal, and for a while, we played in the water.

Walking back, we came across an Indian man, and he stopped to ask for a photo. Joshua obliged and took the cell phone from the man, snapping a photo of him with his sweaty arm draped across my shoulder. He gave a huge smile and wished us a happy walk.

Back at the little village, we ran into one of our classmates from the yoga class in Dharamkot. He told us that there was another trail from behind the restaurant, so we headed up that way too. After about 5 minutes, we crossed the waterfall again, and while Joshua waded in the water, I hiked up a little farther to see if and where the trail ended.

Feeling a little tired and hot, I gave up before long, and Joshua and I headed back to the road. In the cafe, the owner stopped us and asked us if we had seen where the three waterfalls meet. We confessed that we had not, and he told us that we had to go back. ‘You didn’t get there yet!’

We told him that we’d have to go another time. It was getting later, and we were hot, hungry, and tired. He agreed that this was a very grave matter and wished us well on our way.

We walked back to Rishikesh, dodging kamikaze motorcycles and buses along the way. Past our ashram, we found another German Bakery with a rooftop sitting area. Joshua ordered Dal Makhani and a side of onion rings while I ordered nachos. We popped open a couple bottles of limca, a lime soda, and played cards while we waited for our food. While we were playing, a blonde, tattooed man walked up to us and eagerly asked us if we were from Sweden. We shook our heads, laughing, and he sighed, ‘I thought for sure you were Swedes. You look just like us!’

The food was tasty, and once we were finished eating, we paid and kept walking. The road from Lakshman Jhula – Upper Rishikesh – to Swarg Ashram is about 2 kilometers long, and it passes through jungle-like gardens with sweet, square concrete homes in every color of the rainbow. Sadhus with pots for food and money walk barefoot (or in crocs) and approach us for donations. Men in long orange robes with dreadlocks and face paint carry incense and walk in a trance. Beggars on the side of the road are missing limbs, fingers, toes, eyes… They slap the ground next to them, hold up their arms and beseech us with desperation.

Cows and donkeys shit in the roads, and rickshaws without doors lean on their horns and fly by. A lot of India is poor and filthy, but the trash heap stench is quickly replaced by the smell of spices and food frying. Little children with rectangular backpacks run home in their dirty school uniforms, smiling and waving at us. ‘Hello! How are you?!’

I don’t know how to respond to the beggars. Bone-thin women with snot-nosed, dirty children on their hips hold out their hands for money. People who can’t walk or see beg for food. I feel incredibly guilty passing them by, and yet I’m not sure what my 10 rupees would do. Who would it go to, and will it prevent them from going hungry? There are beggar pimps who collect their disproportionate dues, and some of these beggars have been maimed to make them more effective at their profession. On the one hand, I don’t want to support a practise that maims perfectly healthy and sound bodies for the purpose of earning people’s pity, but on the other hand, they’re maimed, and if they do not beg, I’m not sure how they will find their next meal.

The need is so profound that instead of doling out rupees, I resolve to do something bigger someday. Joshua and I have always talked about living abroad for a year after we’ve retired or our children have grown. Perhaps we’ll do something like the Peace Corps, or maybe we’ll teach English or work in an orphanage somewhere (that’s what I’d like to do). No donation – whether it’s time, service, or money – is without complication, but I hope that time and service are less complicated than money. At least the trail is easier to follow. Selfishly, I prefer to give time and service, because I know that I always get something back: the wisdom from my time spent and the friendships I’ve made in service. Maybe it’s selfish, or maybe not. I actually think it’s important to approach service with the expectation that you have a lot to learn. It’s those savior-types that usually get burned. They think, ‘hey! I’ll come on down and save you!’ and then they get their asses kicked because they realize that the people they’re trying to save actually have brains, skills, and wills of their own, and – oh my god – they’ve been trying to help themselves out for quite some time now. The thing is, if it’s easy to fix, it’s probably been fixed. So if people need your help, keep this in mind: it’s either way harder than you expect it to be, or you’re going to need to learn a lot from the people who’ve already been at it, and actually, it’s usually both.

(I usually try to be humble about my musings and avoid sounding like a know-it-all expert. I started out that last paragraph as usual, but then I realized that I know a thing or two about being an ignorant volunteer. So I dispensed some hard-won advice.)

Anyway, we passed lots of brightly colored beggars, and after a couple of kilometers, we entered Swarg Ashram. Stalls selling food and gold jewelry crowded the streets, and down the road, a beautiful gated ashram with gardens, statues, arches, and temples sat at the foot of green, jungle hills.

One temple sat right on the Ganga, and taking off our shoes, we walked onto the marble tile courtyard. On the ghats (steps leading down to the water), a family dressed all in orange and white lit candles and sang. Out in the water, an enormous platform with a statue of Shiva stood with the current swirling and eddying all around it. The sun was just beginning to set, and the water looked chai-pink. It was gorgeous.

Joshua and I walked back along the river, past Hari Hari Ashram, Sadhus bathing in the river, and more school children running home from school. There were Western tourists, but I was actually surprised by how few Westerners there were compared to Indians. I had sort of assumed that Rishikesh was built on tourism because of all the ashrams and yogis, but actually, most of the people I saw are Indian.

Back at the ashram, we sat out on our balcony and watched the sun set. Below us, an Indian family were performing ganga aarti, lighting candles, praying, singing, and bathing in the water. We watched from above, reading our books and writing.

When the sun went down, I laid in bed to finish my book (The Heroines) and Joshua went to check his e-mail. When he came back, we looked at photos of our new home posted by Yvonne. It’s so crazy to think that we have a new home that we’ve never even been in!

Before we fell asleep, we talked about loving India and feeling homesick at the same time. It’s a strange feeling, and at first, we both felt guilty for feeling homesick. How could we feel anything but elation at being alive in this amazing place? But here’s the truth: we’ve been traveling for three and a half months, and part of the reason we decided to travel is because we weren’t sure what we wanted to do next. Did we want to go back to school? Get jobs? What kind of school? What kind of jobs? Did we want to buy a home? Have kids? So really, one of the main reasons we decided to travel is because we wanted to figure out what to do next. We intended to think about the future on this trip, and this is what it looks like: we talk and daydream about possible jobs, we say ‘what the hell?’ and buy a house. We think about home and what we’d like our future to look like. We plan to grow a big garden and make fabulous meals for our friends and family. We want to be close to our loved ones. At the same time as we plan our future, we miss the home we’re planning. It’s strange because it doesn’t exist yet, and it’s a mix of the things we know about the place and people and the things we hope will be.

I guess some people would aspire to being present, 100 percent of the time. They wouldn’t allow themselves to think about the future or yearn for a place that exists as much in their heads and hearts as it does in real land. We’re not those kind of people, and rather than feel guilty, I tell Joshua that this is what we had always planned to do. Instead of stuffing down homesick feelings or thoughts of the future, I say we should recognize them and then just try and concentrate more on what we’re doing right now. For me, it’s even easier: every night, I write to you about all the wonderful places I’ve seen, the things I done, the food we’ve eaten. Writing helps me focus on what I’m doing right now, rather than looking toward the future all the time. It’s ok to be excited and look forward to life; in fact, it’s a very, very good thing, considering how much dread it has inspired in me in the past. I just want to try hard to appreciate and love all the things I’m doing and seeing right here and right now, too. (Wow. That sounds very yoga, doesn’t it? Maybe I am learning something πŸ™‚ )

As I fell asleep, the sounds of the city came in through the window. I could hear the Ganga rushing by down below, horns beeping, dogs barking, and bells ringing. People were chanting and praying. Each time I woke up in the night, I could still hear bells ringing and people praying. It occured to me that this spirituality isn’t for the fairweather seeker: these people pray 24 hours a day, they dunk their bodies in the Ganga, contort themselves into all sorts of positions, and even go on long journeys without food, shelter, or even speaking. Their hair and nails grow long in their pursuit of enlightenment. They breath incense and train their minds to cease or spin. It looks like hard work.

October 5, 2010

We set our alarm for 7 AM. Packing up our sleeping bags, we closed up our backpacks and surveyed our empty room. It was home for two weeks, and now we’re leaving.

Downstairs, we asked Rajjis to cook us some breakfast, and we sat inside the kitchen as he prepared porridge and chai. Just as he began to boil the water for chai, we asked him to share his secret: what makes his chai better than all the rest?

Once the water was boiling, he poured in three cups of milk and brought that to a boil too. Next, he grated a cup of ginger and threw that in. He left it to boil for a few more minutes, and then he tossed in some loose-leaf black tea, half a cup of sugar, and a couple of cinnamon sticks, stirring it all together. Voila! The best chai in Dharamsala!

While Joshua was eating his porridge and I was nursing my hot cup of chai, Eshai and Hadas came and found us. Once we were done with breakfast, we hefted our packs on our backs and paid Rajjis. Hopefully, we’ll see him Varanasi.

Waving goodbye, the four of us hiked up the stairs to the road where our taxi was waiting. Joshua and taxi driver strapped our packs onto the roof rack while Eshai, Hadas, and I walked up ahead. The road’s so steep, cars have a hard time driving to the top with passengers inside.

Hopping in the car, we drove to McLeod, and once we got there, we went in search of some food for a picnic. Eshai and I bought a couple dozen steaming momos from a street vendor, and Hadas went to go buy a few sandwiches.

Back in the car, Sanjay, our taxi driver, pointed out tea farms and mango trees as we descended into the plains below McLeod. From our vantage point lower on the ground, we could see the craggy, stone peaks behind the forested hills of Dharamsala.

After about an hour of driving, I felt very motion sick. I tried to sleep on Joshua’s lap for the rest of the time, but when we got to the little parking lot 15 minutes later, I was still feeling like I might upchuck momos.

Once we got out of the car, we put our packs inside and locked up. Sanjay walked with us through the little village towards the river. Hopping stones across, we avoided getting wet, but just barely. On the other side, we watched in awe as a chai-wallah with a tray of full glasses leapt quickly from stone to stone, not spilling a drop.

For 3 kilometers, we followed Sanjay through fields where women were cutting wheat with scythes and men were leading donkeys and cows to pasture with long switches in their hands. Along the way, a dog donated her guide-guard services and joined our party. Mostly black with white stocking feet, this dog was absolutely sweet and loyal. When we stopped, she laid down at my feet, licked my toes and rolled her belly upwards. I named her Eva.

After hiking for about 30 minutes, we found a temple. Although I knew that we were looking for hot springs, I hadn’t realized that they were in a Shiva Temple. Overgrown with green vines and shaded by poplar trees, this pink and yellow shrine to Shiva looked like a wedding-cake. Joshua said he halfway expected a tiger to be sunning himself near the gate.

Taking off our shoes, we walked through the arch and rung a bell above our heads. Inside, there were three pools, and dipping in our toes, we found that they were – indeed – hot. One pool sat beneath an enclosed arch, and in the middle, a spout in the shape of snake created a waterfall. Striping to our swimsuits, we jumped in. The pools were deep, and at our feet, silt and dead leaves flirted with our feet, making us jump and imagine all sorts of creatures.

We stayed in the pools until we got pink and lightheaded, and then another couple switched spots with us. Besides the four of us, Sanjay, the other couple, and their taxi driver, no one else came the whole time we were there. It truly felt like we had found a little piece of paradise in the middle of nowhere.

While the couple played in the water, we took out our picnic and ate, enjoying the breeze and the shade of the populars. Down here in the valley, it’s much warmer than in McLeod. After a while, the couple got out of the pool and headed back to the taxi. Eshai and Hadas went in for another dip, and Joshua and I stayed under the shade of the temple, reading. While we sat, Eva curled up next to my feet and licked my toes to get my attention. I ignored her, knowing I couldn’t touch her or take her home (which is what I really wanted to do), and after a while, she shifted so that her muzzle rested on her two paws and she looked up at me adoringly. Love me, love me, love me.

At 2:30 PM, we turned back. While we walked, I chatted with Sanjay about the farmers and their crops, pointing at fields and asking, ‘what’s that?’ He’d tell me the name in Hindi and then in English, and then he’d laugh when I tried to repeat the word in Hindi. Further down the road, we ran into a group of pigtailed school children, and every single one of them smiled right into our eyes and said hello, namaste.

Back at the river, Eva ran into the water and then crouched to cool off. More school children were picking their way across the stones, and still more were just wading right through. I decided to wade. Back at the taxi, we loaded the packs on top once again and bought a couple of liters of water. We said goodbye to Eva.

On the ride home, I closed my eyes to ward off motion sickness and asked Hadas to tell me about the things she had learned at Tushita. She told me that no-self actually means that we are like a tree. You can’t put a fence around a tree and say, ‘this is where the tree ends.’ The tree is not a tree without the ground to support it, the sun and water to feed it. In the same way, we are skin and bones, but we are not separate from the things and beings that support us. She told me that the goal of Tibetan Buddhists is to be happy and contribute to the happiness of others. Happiness simply means the absence of suffering. To do this, you must first identify the suffering, then you must identify the cause, and then you must find a way to ease the suffering. There are three kinds of suffering: physical suffering, the suffering caused by change, and emotional suffering.

While Hadas was at Tushita, she had a yogic-karma job. This meant that she cleaned windows for 15 minutes a day to improve her karma. During meditation, she contemplated how to be more compassionate, and before they could stay at the center, they all had to agree that they would not kill another living thing. That included bugs and slugs. You must not even brush the mosquito off of you, lest you damage its wings. All it wants is a drop, and you won’t get malaria here, so just let it have what it wants so that it may be happy.

I thought about Buddhism for a while, and although I might still struggle with the idea of no-self, I do like that the Dalai Lama says, ‘kindness is more important than Buddhism.’ I can believe in kindness.

We rested for the remainder of the drive, and in McLeod, Joshua and I said goodbye to Sanjay, Eshai, and Hadas. Hefting our packs onto our backs, we walked to Peace Cafe to while away the next couple of hours before our bus to Rishikesh came. While we sipped ginger honey lemon hot drinks and nibbled on brownie cake, we read and wrote. Juana, the lovely Argentinan woman we had met in the Tibetan cafe came in, and with her hair down, I realized how much like Mandy she looked. The resemblance was startling, and when I told her (how do you say someone looks like someone in Spanish?) she seemed pleased and said something about being my Spanish soul mother πŸ™‚

Just forty-five minutes before our bus was due to leave, the power went out in the cafe, and we had to leave to find another cafe quick. Ordering a sandwich, we scarfed it down just before their power went out too, and then we walked in the dark to the bus stand. Once we got there, we wandered around, looking for our bus number. A man shouted out, ‘Rishikesh!’ and we gave our bags to the man loading them in the compartment beneath the bus.

On board, we found our seats, and a couple of minutes later, Amira (the older Israeli woman from dinner and yoga class) sat down next to us. The bus ride from Rishikesh is about 12 hours, so I spent most of the time sleeping, waking up in a cramp, and then resettling myself so I could fall asleep again. At one point during the night, a rogue cricket jumped down my cleavage and I woke up with a scream, fishing my hand down my shirt to pull it out. The Israelis next to me thought I was crazy until the cricket flew in their faces and up their pant legs, causing mad swatting and unmanly yelps.


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Moon

September 17, 2010

When we arrived in Rambok, there were women washing their hair in the stream. Up above the houses, men were gathering hay and lashing bundles to donkeys. The mud-brick homes were simple, but the windows – with beautiful, carved wooden casings – elevated them from the mundane to the exotic and lovely.

One of the women in the river came over to us as she was brushing her hair and said, “home stay?” We nodded our heads wearily and followed her to one of the homes. Inside the entry, the floors and walls were made of mud. The woman led us to a curtained doorway and pointed inside. Taking off our shoes, we entered a lovely painted and carpeted room with many windows. Like the room in Lakrook, a small, built-in shelving unit displays photos, cut-outs from newspapers and other lovely, brightly colored baubles. It looks like a mini Buddhist altar (which it may very well be… I have no idea.).

Two pallets lie along the windows, and once he had dropped his pack, Joshua made a bee-line for one of them. Still on my feet, I drew back the simple white curtains to look out at the village and the valley. Just beyond the dusty, dunn mountains lie snow-capped, jagged mountains. In the East, the moon was rising over the mountains, and down below, donkeys were braying. Horses with bells munched on grass and their swaying movements made the most lovely sound. A woman was milking a yak. Men were herding goats with long curved horns (ibex?).

After a few minutes, the woman came back in bearing cups of tea and sweet, nutty cookies. We polished the whole tray off quickly, and when we were done, I left Joshua tucked under his blankets to go for a little walk with the camera.

Cameras simply cannot capture landscapes like this. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s true: the thing that makes these places so otherworldly, extraordinary is their scale, the way they sweep out before you, the way they make you feel so absolutely small and big at the same time. In the photos, the treeless mountains looks dry and barren, and the farmland looks just as meager. But up close, this place is surreal. It looks like photos taken of the moon. The people who live here farm and care for their animals, and clearly, it is not so meager that they haven’t been able to live here since before the 10th century.

I walked a ways past the village. A couple of donkeys let me come close enough to run my hand down their noses, and then they trotted past me. Over a small stream and up a scree slope, I paused to sit and watch the moon rise. The sky is so blue here. It’s uninterrupted, intense, and bluer than any other sky I’ve ever seen. Overused words like ‘electric’ come to mind.

The sun began to dip below the mountains, and the long shadows made me cold. Turning back, I walked quickly to avoid a chill. At the home-stay, Joshua was bundled in his long-sleeve, flannel, fleece hat, socks, and two blankets. His face was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Although I had been chilled in a t-shirt, it was pretty clear that the layers of fabric were warding off more than just long shadows.

I fussed over Joshua for a bit, but when he fell asleep, I sat reading the India LP guide and a little Ladakhi phrase book that I had found in the room. ‘Joo-lay’ I know. It’s the best sing-song greeting I’ve ever heard, and it’s compulsory: if you see someone as you’re walking by (or vice versa), you acknowledge them. ‘Kamcheng?’ means ‘how are you doing?’ ‘Kamcheng’ means ‘I am doing well.’ See? Ladakhi is already easier than Turkish πŸ™‚

The Ladakhi phrasebook also had some helpful tips: 1) never EVER put your used silverware back in the serving dish. If you do, you’ve made it unclean. 2) never EVER point the bottoms of your feet at ANYONE. Feet are considered unclean, and even if you step over an object, you’ve tainted it. If you step over food or items used to prepare or served food, no one will use it. 3) The Ladakhi practice ‘dzangs,’ or insincere refusals. When a Ladakhi offers someone something to eat, drink, etc., it’s customary for that person to refuse two to three times before they accept.

All of a sudden, I was panicked that I had pointed my feet at someone, stepped over something, and accepted offers too quickly. I’m a walking cultural-faux-pas. Oh well. The phrasebook says the Ladakhi are known for their forgiving nature.

Isn’t that weird? It’s strange to read cultural analysis of people who are right in front of you. Apparently, the Ladakhi people who live in the Hemis National Park (where we are right now) are semi-nomadic. In the summer, they live in tents and move their herds all over the park. In the winter, they go back to their villages. Some people remain to grow crops, and this combination is called agro-nomadic. As one of the most isolated Himalayan cultures, the Hemis Ladakhi are one of the last remaining tantric Buddhists. While their Buddhist roots are influenced by Tibetan leadership and inter-marriage, it’s possible that this area has been Buddhist for much longer – some anthropologists hypothesize that Buddhism came to this area by way of India in the 10th century.

I don’t know what to think about all that. On one hand, I feel privileged and honored to be able to observe and engage with people that I’ve only ever read about hypothetically: one of my favorite scholarly books is ‘The Other Side of Eden,’ and in it, the author talks about nomadism. Now I’m staying in a home with people who spend part of their year living as nomads. But, until I read this, I had no idea. I didn’t realize that the modern neon-colored tents we had passed earlier in the day were nomadic tent villages. For them, this is not some political statement, but rather a way of life. I know this should be obvious, but I think I’m guilty of seeing the idea rather than the people. Does that make sense? I thought nomadism was cool as an idea, but even though the author of ‘The Other Side of Eden’ give anecdotal evidence, I’ve never really considered that nomads look (and probably think and talk) like anybody else.

When I was writing about Turkey, I think I did the same thing: I was so in awe of Islam and all its trappings – veils, the Call to Prayer, minarets, etc. – that I may have overlooked our similarities. This probably sounds very confused and discombobulated, but I’m thinking about inadvertent racism, or ‘nice racism.’ I’m obviously not the kind of person that thinks that people of different colors, religions, lifestyles, etc. are bad or somehow inferior (although my story of the walnuts in Zumi Valley might prove otherwise). I believe in treating others the way you wish to be treated. But here’s the thing: sometimes being too nice (trying to compensate for all the ignorant nut-fucks who do and say bad things about any kind of humanity that dares to be different) is its own kind of racism.

When I was receiving training to become a teacher in a diverse (or in my case, completely segregated and not diverse at all) setting, one of the main things they talked about was holding students of different classes, races, religions, etc. to the same standards. The absolute worst – and most racist – thing you could do would be to excuse behavior or poor academic performance because of a student’s difference. This was something I had never considered before, and if no one had warned me about it, I’m sure I would have made a lot of mistakes (I probably did anyway).

Blurgh. I read the last three paragraphs, and I’m still no closer to a nice and tidy summation/conclusion. I wish to be kind and loving, but I’m sure I make mistakes all the time.

***

This morning, the alarm went off at 8 AM, and shortly thereafter, our guesthouse-keeper knocked on our door to tell us that our taxi had arrived. Panicked, we double-checked our ticket to confirm that we had arranged for the taxi to arrive at 9. We had, and we tried as best as we could to explain this to the flustered taxi driver.

Packing quickly, we cleared out of room within 30 minutes. Joshua still wasn’t feeling well, but we hoped that a couple of millet crackers and an apple might settle his stomach. Once we had paid the guesthouse-keeper, we loaded our packs into the jeep taxi and got in. I sat in the front, trying to stave off some of the inevitable motion-sickness.

The drive from Leh to Zancheng takes about an hour and a half. While the first few miles are on paved road, the last 15 are all on deeply rutted, boulder-strewn dirt roads. As we drove through the outskirts of Leh, we saw a lot of construction going on. There were quite a few houses that looked badly damaged, and I asked our driver if the damage was from the floods that had happened earlier in August. He nodded, and warming to me, he explained that although there had been a warming, nearly 150 people had died in the mud-flows.

Beyond the airport, our taxi driver pointed out the military bases and the Spittuk monastery. Although Leh is very safe, Jammu-Kashmir is sandwiched between Pakistan and China, and India has a strong military presence here because of the disputed borders. (Parents: don’t worry; there are big-ass mountains between us and all disputed borders πŸ™‚

Past Spittuk, we drove through a small village and across the Indus River. On the other side, we drove for a few miles on a flat, rocky plain. Every once in a while, our taxi driver would stop to ask vehicles coming in the other direction about the state of the roads. There are lots of the landslides here, and after the mud-flows, the road conditions can vary from day to day.

After a while, we exchanged names, and our taxi driver explained that his name, Douwah, means ‘Moon.’ He asked us what our names meant, and we told him that Ellie means ‘light’ and Joshua basically means ‘Jesus.’ After that, Douwah took out his cellphone and started playing Avril Lavigne. He asked us if we were married, and when I said yes, he seemed very pleased. He nodded his head, smiling with all of his teeth. Next, he asked us how old we were and then told us to guess how old he is. I had absolutely no idea. Like most Ladakhi, Douwah’s face is sunburned and weathered around the eyes; even so, his teeth are white and straight, and he has an enormous smile. When I refused to guess, he told us he was 29.

Past the plain, we began to follow a harrowing, narrow road above the Indus river. We climbed up and up, and looking at the wilderness around us, I thought, ‘what the hell have we gotten ourselves into? Is there anyone out here?’

Finally, we began to descend, and when we reached a fork in the road, we saw four hikers coming in our direction. Douwah stopped to arrange a return ride for all of them, and then he dropped us off at the start of our path. When he left, he waved goodbye over and over again.

The trail from Zancheng to Rambok isn’t very long; in all, it’s probably about 6 to 8 kilometers. That said, the terrain is very rocky, and we had to ford the river a number of times, soaking our feet and our pants up to our knees. The scenery was beautiful, and on either side of the river valley, steep red cliffs rose up to the vibrant blue sky. On our way up, we encountered a couple of other hiking groups that had hired guides. The first was an unfriendly German couple, but their guide, Douwah (yup, same name… Are you beginning to notice this post’s theme?), was very friendly, and he walked with us for a little bit, asking us where we had come from, where we were going, if we like Ladakh (a resounding yes), and if we planned on coming back again. He seemed a little concerned about the size of our packs, and after confirming that we were heading to Rambok too, he seemed to adopt us, pointing out directions and suggesting that we all take the same taxi back to Leh from Stok. He also asked us if we were married, and like the other Douwah, he was very pleased when we said yes. Although I don’t think many Ladakhi ever communicate their discomfort with many non-married traveling couples, they were all too happy to express their approval over our matrimony πŸ™‚

Although our elevation had increased with our taxi ride and the climb to Rambok, I was feeling fine. I was a bit short of breath, but otherwise, the headache and nausea were gone. Joshua, on the other hand, was not feeling very well at all. For him, the hike from Zancheng to Rambok turned into a bit of a death-march. He was grim faced and silent for most of the time, and when I wasn’t gasping at the scenery, I was asking him how he was feeling around every turn (which I’m sure didn’t make matters better).

Finally, we reached a parachute cafe and a little sign that pointed to nearby Rambok. Although we were about to pass the cafe by, Douwah ran out and stopped us, encouraging us to come in and have some tea. Looking like he was about to drop, Joshua agreed, and we sat inside the white parachute tent with the mean German couple and another unfriendly hiker couple of unknown origins (would it kill people to make small talk? I know they all knew English.).

Once we had finished our tea, we walked the last kilometer into Rambok.

***

At about 6, I took a break from my Ladakhi studies to use the Ladakhi toilet (I may agree with the idea of no-waste, spartan toilets, but they are no fun to use). On my way out, the same woman who had served us tea in the parachute cafe ducked her head out from another room and invited me inside. The room was lovely; in the corner, a beautifully decorated wood-burning stove had our rice and bhaat dhal simmering. Above, open cupboards held delicate pottery, plates, tea cups, and copper cooking pots. On the floor, woven mats brightened the room, and in the corner opposite the stove, pillows and low-lying tables provided a seating area beneath the large, lovely windows. Like our room, the ceiling was comprised of thin sticks that had been bundled together and laid over beams supported by elegantly carved posts.

While Tseching cooked, we had a stilted conversation in English. She is 26; I’m 24. I’m married but don’t have children; she’s unmarried and doesn’t have children either. I have one sister and two brothers; she has three sisters, and like me, she’s the oldest. After a while, she came over and pointed at all my jewelry, wanting to know the stories about each piece. I told her that the thin gold chain around my wrist was my sister’s, and then seeing how much she liked it, I asked her if she would like it. She nodded her head, and I clasped it around her wrist (Hannah: I thought you would approve.).

When the food was done, Joshua came into the room too, and we all ate the rice, lentils, and greens. The food was delicious, and when we had finished, we watched Tsering try and offer her cousin more (she refused twice, and then finally agreed). We drank yak-butter tea while Tsering washed the dishes, and when we had all finished, we went back into our rooms. Tsering and her cousin knocked on our door to see if we needed anything, and when they saw that we had a bag of dried apricots, they looked envious. Inviting them in, we shared our pistachios (from Turkey) and our dried apricots. Tsering looked at my brand-new running shoes and was in awe. She picked up Joshua’s camping pillow and was amazed at how it stuffed into a tiny sack. She tried on Joshua’s gloves.

After a bit, we said goodnight. After a meal and a little nap, Joshua was feeling much better, so before we go to sleep, Joshua and I are reading and writing. We don’t want a repeat of last night!

September 16, 2010

We just barely roused ourselves out of bed by 11 AM. Although we had set the alarm for 9, it just wasn’t going to happen. We slept like the dead for almost 14 hours. When we finally managed to get up, we dressed and put on our hiking boots to explore Leh.

The night before, our guesthouse-keeper had told us that there was a short-cut foot-path to Leh, and wary of the fast and furious drivers, we wandered around, trying to find it. Not too far down the road, we spied a number of people opening a gate and heading downhill. We decided to follow them.

It pays off to imitate locals, and past the gate, we found a foot-path that wound around gompas, lovely prayer-wheels, and statues of Buddhas. Next to us, an irrigation ditch fed gardens and burbled pleasantly, and before us, the Himalayas reached up to the sky. Although we’re skeptical that this foot-path is a short-cut, we’d walk a mile further just to enjoy it πŸ™‚

Back in Leh, we stopped at the bakery below the mosque for some freshly baked bread, and then at Dzomsa, we returned our glass jar and loaded up on water and millet crackers. I love that everything is re-used here: the cheery woman at Dzomsa even wanted our apricot pits (she grinds them down into a powder to cook with). Through with breakfast, we checked out the bus offices, and finding them closed, we decided to go with one of the smaller tourist agencies that offer mini-bus and jeep taxi rides to Manali. At Glacier Adventures, a nice man named Juma gave us our options, and when I explained that I get really motion sick, he made the decision for us: mini-bus, seat 3 (best seat on the bus). We leave for Manali at 2 AM on the 20th, and we’ll arrive between 7 and 9 PM on the same day. (LP describes the journey as ‘bone-jarring.’) Although the bus cost a bit more than we had wanted (a little less than 40 dollars per person), we weren’t fussy; it’s one of the only ways we can get to Manali, and everything else is so cheap. Once we had our bus ride to Manali sorted out, we arranged for a taxi to Zancheng. Juma gave us his business card, and told us the taxi would pick us up from our guesthouse at 9 AM.

Feeling much better with all our transportation worries taken care of, we decided to hike up to Leh Palace, an enormous mud-brick complex that sits high above the heart of the city. Although there weren’t signs delineating the way, we wandered through the higgeldy-piggeldy neighborhoods winding vaguely up. Eventually, we found a road that seemed to lead to the palace, and just before we got to the gate, we stopped to admire a couple lovely gompas below.

Inside the palace, the walls and floors are made of dirt. The ceilings have long beams, and above them, branches lie in thick clusters. The rooms and halls are earthen and dark, but as we climbed higher in the building, more and more windows allowed light inside. In the center of the palace, a prayer room is fully decorated, and its beautiful carpets, painted walls, statues of Buddha, and altars give you some idea of how the whole place would have looked hundreds of years ago. We took off our shoes to go into the prayer room, and once we were there, we sat and stared at the beautiful candle-lit altar.

At the top of the palace, we climbed a couple sets of ladders to reach the roof. Looking out over the city, we had our best views yet. This high up, the sun bleaches out everything except for the sky.

Making our way out of the palace, we headed for the switchbacks that led us to the fortress and gompa above. Draped in thousands of prayer flags, the place flutters in white, yellow, red, and green. I’ve never liked the sad, single strand you see so often on porches in the states, but here, threadbare and in the thousands, flapping in front of gompas and Himalaya, they are fantastically beautiful. We took the most unbelievable photos (see Joshua’a photo site http://andertfamilyfun.shutterfly.com).

Back at the palace, we stopped for a little water break and ran into Derrick and Aubrey again. We talked for a little while, asking them how they had thought of their epic journey and what they had done to prepare for it. After graduating in ’07, they had taken a two month trip to Indonesia, and inspired by the travelers they had met who were traveling for years at a time, they spent the next three years saving up.

Once we had parted ways, Joshua and I agreed that although their trip sounded incredible, a year and a half would be too long for us. While we’re envious of all the places they will visit and get to know, six months is long enough. We’d miss our family, friends, and pets too much to be gone any longer (that, and my bed. I miss my bed.).

Back down the hill, we went in search of Amdo, a Tibetan restaurant that Derrick and Aubrey had recommended. On the second floor overlooking the busy main street, we found a table and immediately ordered the hot lemon-honey-ginger concoction that had made us feel so much better the day before. Although I was starting to feel much better from the altitude, Joshua was not. His head hurt, and he had felt nauseous all day. We hoped a little ginger and food would help.

To eat, we wolfed down a spicy mushroom and vegetable soup with fried vegetable momos (stuffed dumplings). It was all delicious, and still hungry, we ordered another plate of momos.

By the time we had finished eating, it was already 6. Trying to beat the sunset, we picked up more water and snacks from Dzomsa and head up our new foot-path to the guesthouse. After nearly four days without showering, we decided to brave the the outdoor solar-shower, even though it was getting cold and dark. Joshua went first, and when he came back, he told me that the water was so hot, it almost burned him. He wasn’t lying. I had to flood the shower head with cold water and then add just a little bit of the hot. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us; the sun is so strong, it’s no wonder that it can cook the water close to boiling point.

Clean and warm, we burrowed into our sleeping bags and read for a little bit. Around 9, we turned off the lights to go to sleep, but then the oddest thing happened: we couldn’t fall asleep. We laid awake for hours fretting about falling asleep and wondering if it had to do with altitude sickness or not (it is one of the symptoms LP lists). Finally, we convinced ourselves that we weren’t dying from acute altitude sickness, and instead, we were just jet-lagged. We fell asleep.


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Alive in India!

September 14 and 15, 2010

On the night of the 13th, Lucky found us at our hostel and gave me a couple pieces of her Otia Root which I tucked between my lip and gum and sucked on for hours. Waiting at the bus stop, we said goodbye to Lucky (and hello and goodbye to a couple of Lucky’s new friends who were also leaving) and read our books. Just before the bus came, we met a Canadian named Steve who had been traveling in Egypt and Turkey for the past couple of months. As a Physical Therapist, he had gone over to Kuwait to work for about 6 weeks, and that stint had earned him enough money to travel for a bit.

Eventually, the bus came, and we all boarded, saying goodbye to Cappadocia. Although sleeping on a bus is deeply unsatisfying, we still managed to sleep for most of the 10 hour bus ride. Our bus line, Metro, dropped us off at the Otogar, and although they offered a free shuttle into Sultanhamet, there were too many people waiting, too few buses, and one person said he had been waiting for nearly an hour. We ended up hanging about for a little bit, trying to figure out our best option. The full and mini buses would pull into the parking lot and they didn’t slow down at all: you just had to leap out of the way. It was especially funny when the buses would drive right into the crowds of people, and everyone would try and guess where it was going next in order to stay out of the way.

Opting out of the free shuttle in favor of the more reliable tram/underground route we had taken before, we walked with a French couple and a young undergraduate from Istanbul to the underground. On our walk, we chatted, and by the time we had switched onto the tram, I found that I really liked Claire and Nicholi. The two live in Paris, and Claire works as a freelance translator for film subtitles. She’s interested in documentaries, and she’s spent the past couple of years working on a project involving pen pals of death row inmates in Texas. Before we parted ways at Sultanhamet, we exchanged info and agreed that it had been wonderful to meet one another.

We arrived at the Grand Bazaar at 9 AM. Our flight to Delhi was scheduled to take off at about 6 PM, so we figured that we would need to be at the airport by 3 PM. Taking basically the same route we had taken to get from Sultanhamet to Otogar, we figured we need about an hour to get from the city center to the airport. Which meant we had 5 hours to shop.

The Grand Bazaar is a covered and walled complex that has many aisles made of small stalls. Within the Bazaar, there are also separate sections that specialize in different crafts or products. There’s the leather section; the gold section; the fabric section; the Turkish lamp section; the silk section, etc. Starting from one corner, we methodically made our way, up and down the aisles, to the opposite corner. Because it was still relatively early in the morning, the Bazaar had very few costumers, and all the shop keepers were setting up their wares and drinking tea. As we were slowing down one of the shops, a younger boy poked his head out, beamed hello, and asked us how we were doing. Neither Joshua nor I are very good at figuring out how to evade salesmen while still remaining friendly and polite. Luckily, Yunus, this shop keeper seemed to understand that we were just looking. Like the man in Uchisar, he gave us his business card, hassled me for my sister’s facebook contact (he told us that he had just broken up with his girlfriend last night, and did I have any beautiful sisters? Well, as a matter of fact, yes I do, but no, you may not have her facebook πŸ™‚ ), and then as we were leaving, gave us two free evil-eye magnets as a parting gift.

The jewelry was plentiful, but by and large, none of it really caught my interest: there were silk bracelets with beads and golden clasps, but at 35 lira a piece, I though they were far too expensive. Similarly, the earrings and necklaces were lovely in brass and tarnished silver and many bells, but they too started at 20 lira. What we really wanted to buy were the Turkish lights: with a disc near the ceiling, these lovely, mulit-colored glass globes hang in a staggered spiral. Shops that specialized in Turkish lights were just brimming with these sparkling globes, and we couldn’t help but wish that we had stopped in Turkey on our way back from India (so we could stock up on bigger stuff).

By the time we got to the other corner, Joshua thought there might be something wrong with me. Is it really possible for Ellie to walk through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and not buy a single thing? I felt a little disappointed in myself, too; I mean, when else am I going to have the opportunity to load up on Ottoman jewelry? But the truth is I wasn’t particularly enamored with anything, and all the stuff that I might have bought was too expensive. Plus (and I don’t want to disappoint any fantasies you might have had about the Grand Bazaar), it actually wasn’t the greatest craft market we’d ever seen. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still fun to walk through things like this, and it’s definitely a must-see part of Istanbul, but I think I prefer smaller markets where some of the wares are actually being sold by the men and women who made them. The Grand Bazaar seemed too clean, and a lot of the shops were just selling the same things that another shop was selling two stalls down. And, although most of the crafts would have been made by women, there wasn’t a woman in sight.

Once we had finished with the Grand Bazaar, we walked the half mile down towards the Bosphorus. Next to the Yen Cami, the Spice Market is another covered, enclosed complex; however, with just four aisles and all the stalls selling spices, it was quite different. It’s so much fun to browse through all these bushels, sacks, and boxes spilling over with brightly colored, fragrant spices. There was cumin, coriander, saffron, dried jasmine, every kind of loose tea you can imagine, and still some more mysterious powders in nearly neon colors. I had this overwhelming urge just to sink my hands into the saffron, but judging my the price – nearly 200 lira for a quarter kilo – I thought that might be a bad idea.

Outside the Spice Market, we found the same cafe where we had had baklava and tea. Tired from our long night on the bus and wandering the markets, we sat down and savored two small plates of pistachio and walnut baklava. It was enough to make up for not buying anything at the Grand Bazaar, and it was just as good as it had been the time before. Drawing out the experience as long as we could, we read for a little bit.

Walking back up to Sultanhamet, I finally spied the combination I had been looking for: cheap AND cute earrings. For just 2 lira, I was the proud near owner of Ottoman-inspired brass danglies πŸ™‚ In the square, I left Joshua with the bags and went in search of a couple more postcards and stamps. Although writing more postcards had started as a resolution, it’s now one of the things I really enjoy. I love picking them out, figuring out who would like which ones, and then writing little notes while I sit in some fantastic place – above the Bosphorus, below the Blue Mosque, etc.

Postcards written, addressed, stamped, and posted, we used up our last few lira on a piece of boiled corn from one of the street stands and some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (the answer is yes. Yes this is the most amazing fresh-squeezed juice of your life.). While we were finishing our snack on the park bench, the Call to Prayer sounded from the Blue Mosque. It would take so much longer than just one week to get tired of this sound.

We made our way to the airport by tram and underground, and once we got there, we went through security and took an hour-long nap on the benches. At 4, we checked into Turkish Airlines, and before we boarded, we took turns going to the bathroom to brush our teeth. If you can’t be clean, this is the next best thing: fresh breath πŸ™‚

Turkish Airlines is pretty plush. The seats are a cheery light teal, you get a free package with an eye mask, headphones, ear plugs, and socks (?!), and each seat has an individual self-select screen. The ride from Istanbul to Delhi is just 5 hours, so after we finished eating the delicious Indian-vegetarian in flight meal (I know; delicious AND in flight?!), I chose to watch the Indian-American film, The Namesake (which was ok, but not great).

By the time we arrived in Delhi, it was midnight in Istanbul and 2:30 AM in Delhi. We quickly made our way through immigration (the officer said that the permit to re-enter within 2 months doesn’t apply to neighboring countries, so hopefully we’ll be ok coming back from Nepal), and then waited nervously for our packs. Although they were the last on the carousel, they were there, and I’m certainly not complaining (for a while there, I was thinking, ‘and what exactly do we do when we lose everything?’).

Outside the airport, we searched for the free shuttle to the Domestic Airport. It was hot. I mean, we lived in New Orleans, and if anyone knows the meaning of humidity, it’s people who’ve lived in New Orleans… Delhi brings the meaning of humidity to whole new level. I wasn’t even sweating and I was soaked. Eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, we found the shuttle and boarded. Thankfully, there was air conditioning a couple of the people riding with us were also flying on the same flight to Leh. Derrick and Aubrey are two gaunt, young Americans who’ve been traveling in the Middle East and Indonesia for the past 6 months. Ironically, they went to LSU together, and Derrick’s from TN while Aubrey’s from TX. It really is very strange to see other American backpackers; we just haven’t seen very many of them.
At the Domestic Airport, we had to go to the Ticketing line to get a print-out that said we had tickets. Before we got to the gate, we had to wait in two more astronomically long lines, and there was really intense security. Thankfully, we made it to the gate just in time to start boarding, and to get to our plane, they took us all on little buses and drove us half-way across the airport, through planes, and around other buses to a plane that looked like it was parked in a parking lot of planes.

The flight from Delhi to Leh is an hour long, and at 6 AM, the plane took off. Although Delhi sits at about 300 m, Leh is at 3500 m (in other words, I think half the flight was just gaining elevation). Before we knew it, the plane had landed in Leh, and we all deboarded to catch little buses to the terminal. With our packs in hand, we headed outside to pre-pay for a taxi into the city-center and then jumped in the back of a jeep taxi.

Prepare yourselves: I’m about to gush. Leh is surrounded on every side by the most magnificent, craggy mountains. Some of the mountain peaks are covered in snow, but most of them are naked and dry. Leh sits nestled in a cup at the base of all these formidable Himalayan peaks, and it is a small oasis of tall, skinny trees, gorgeous vegetable gardens, brick and timber homes with elegant scrollwork and carving, gompahs, stupahs, mosques, and prayer flags around every corner. Cows with horns roam the streets, poking their heads in the trash to rummage for food, and dogs have curled up in corners and along curbs to snooze.

The people may well be the most beautiful people on Earth. A huge Tibetan community, the people of Leh have thick, dark hair, smooth, wide faces, and ready smiles. Everyone says, “joo-lay,” an all-around, all-purpose greeting, farewell, thanks, and you’re welcome. While the men are wearing Western clothes (and some of them wear turbans), the women are either wearing long tunics with baggy pants and a shawl (North Indian shalwar kameez) or even longer tunics with big woolen jackets and traditional, pointy hats. Everyone has a brightly colored shawl wrapped about their head and face to ward of the chill and the smell of exhaust. Occasionally, monks in red robes walk buy. It’s not even fair to talk about the children. They’re freaking adorable, and one of them came up to me and said (in perfect English), “hello. Where are you from?”

Our taxi took us up past the ramshackle city center to the smaller, farm-y neighborhood of Sangkar where we found our guesthouse. Inside a gate festooned with prayer flags, we walked along a beautiful garden, spilling over with flowers, cabbage, root vegetables, and fruit trees. The house is made of brick and carved timber, and the man sweeping the front porch showed us into our room: we have a double bed, a wide window overlooking the garden, and one naked light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. For 200 rupees (about 4 dollars), we said, ‘we’ll take it.’

The shower is solar-heated, and since it’s pretty cool (about 20 C), we skipped it today. Upstairs, there is a Turkish toilet and a Ladakhi toilet (read: human compost heap). Thanking our host, we got out our sleeping bags and immediately tumbled into bed. We slept from 9 to 12, and when Joshua’s alarm went off, we pried ourselves out of bed.

The walk into town is about a half mile, and on our way there, we stopped at the Ladakhi Women’s Alliance to fill up on boiled, filtered water (10 rupees per water bottle). The woman behind the counter was popping bubble wrap and beaming at us the entire time. In town, we wandered in search of the bus company that we plan to take to Manali in about 5 days. There aren’t really any maps or street signs, so we had to make do with a rough map in LP. Finally, we found the bus company, but it was closed with directions for another office. That office was closed too.

No worries. We’re charmed by Leh (actually, totally and completely in love), and we’ll find the bus details tomorrow. For today, we went to the book exchange to unload our read novels and stock up on a couple new ones. Hungry, we went in search of a light meal. The altitude started to take its toll, and by the time we had found ‘My Secret Recipe Bakery,’ we were both feeling nauseous and woozy. Although the Secret Bakery wasn’t in LP, the signs for baked bread looked promising (it’s hard to commit to something exotic when you’re feeling like you might pass out). Inside, the Secret Bakery sits next to a school, and in a comfortable room with lots of couches and windows, the bakers served us our meal overlooking Leh and the Himalaya.

We ordered a piece of Himalayan cake which was absolutely delicious – moist with cooked apricots throughout, a bowl of vegetarian noodles – savory, but not too crazy with cabbage and carrots, and ginger-honey-lemon drink. We ate it all for less than 200 rupees, and when we were done, we chewed on the ginger to help with our altitude sickness. All around us, travelers who have come to Leh over and over again told us that we had found the best meal in town on our very first try. We felt blessed πŸ™‚

Feeling much better, we went in search of the vegetable market to stock up on food for dinner. We picked out a couple of apples and pears for 40 rupees, and then we went to check in at an internet cafe. As you might imagine, internet is a bit slow in this neck of the woods, and it took us nearly an hour to write three e-mails. Just as we were finishing, the power went out in Leh (this happens pretty regularly, we gather), and the owner sprinted out to flip on his generator. Outside on the street, shopkeepers were all doing the same thing, and we wandered in search of bread through the smog. Just beneath the Mosque, we found a little bakery and bought some bread, and then up around the next corner, we found a Ladakhi co-op with boiled, filtered water and other home-made, fair-trade food stuffs. We filled up our water bottles and bought the apricot preserves from the beautiful Ladakhi attendant.

Walking back to the guesthouse, we passed more stray livestock in the streets. A couple monks came jogging past us, and we just panted our way slowly up the hill (feeling a little dizzy). At 6:30 PM, the sun began to set, and we made it to our guesthouse just in time to see the sun explode behind the Himalayas. It’s gorgeous here.

For dinner, we munched on a couple fresh rolls and the most delicious apricot preserves you’ve ever had in your whole life. Oh my god. A cute, fat little kitten came out and did her best to work her wiles on us, but Joshua has forbidden me from making friends with the strays. The family who own the guesthouse were finishing up their dailing chores, and their adorable little girl came to get all the pots and pans that had been drying in the intense sun. On her way back to the house, she kept sneaking glances at us, and then when she went inside, I saw her go up to the second floor and sit by the window to spy on us. Her dad tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen, and instead, she hid halfway behind the curtain to watch us some more.

At 7:30, it was completely dark and another stray had come to see if there were any crumbs (oops. There were.). I exhibited a vast amount of will power with this adorable puppy sat down at my feet, rested his nose on top of them, and then sweetly begged for more.

Back inside the room, I’m writing, and Joshua’s already fallen asleep. Sounds like a good idea to me.

P.S. This really shouldn’t be a post-script because it suggests that I’m anything less than grateful, but here it is anyway: thank you for all of your concern over my rebellious tonsils. The Otia (Ocea? Osha?) Root proved to be a miracle drug, and I have no more symptoms – yay! I’m feeling much better πŸ™‚