Monday, April 26, 2010
The family from jillander who give us a ride insist that we are now family. Of course we should squeeze into their little car and with effort pack our cases in back with theirs. Our ride through the mountains down to Pathankot was a jolly time. Bushan waited for us, coming from Delhi on the night train several hours before. He tells us his family is waiting to greet us. We hug our new Jillander family goodbye and move on to meet the next one. Two families of relatives live side by side in neighboring houses. Four generations of people welcome us so warmly. The women cook lavish meals, the young boys proudly show us the neighborhood. So much friendship.
The next day we took the train a short distance to Amritsar. Again we were treated so lovingly by Bushan's brother and his wife. Amritsar is the Holy city of the Sikh Faith. We were amused by the names of some of the stores like Simran Shoes, Satguru Electronics - and the less inspiring Dreamland Resort, sitting right next to a chemical plant spewing obnoxious smoke. Over three busy days, we saw the main points of interest.
The Jallianwallah Memorial
Jallianwallah is a moving memorial at the site of the 1919 massacre. It began as a peaceful demonstration ordered by Mahatma Ghandi against the Rowlatt Act which enabled imprisonment of Indians suspected of sedition without trial. No one had guns. At the order of the Brisith General Dwyer, 2,000 Indians were shot to death and many more injured. The site is now a beautiful garden but with several gruesome reminders: the narrow passage way where the soldiers entered blocking any exit; the bullet holes in the brick wall where people were shot in the back as they scattered; the well where 150 perished when they jumped in for cover. The event prompted Ghandi's civil disobedience campaign and ultimate liberation from the British. Looking at the many photographs and newspaper coverage of the event, I felt ashamed of my heritage.
Westerners are allowed to visit the Golden Temple - the spritiual center of Sikh faith - after covering the head and washing feet. The marble temple has a large lake, in the center of which sits the golden inner sanctum. The best times to go are at sunrise or in the evening when the Sikhs are singing bhajans - devotional songs. We went in the evening; despite the crowds of visitors and pilgrims it was surprisingly peaceful. I was awed at the fierce looking turbaned Sikhs sitting quietly in prayer beside the lake.
Bedlam at the Border
Amritsar is only 27 km from the Indian Pakistan border and every evening at sunset it is closed in a flag lowering ceremony with much pomp and ceremony. Indian guards wearing elaborate costumes with plumed hats perform synchronized speed markcing along a 100 meter walkway to the border gateway, turn and stomp back. A guard lives his feet so high, he hits his hat. The crowd cheers raucously. Then the Pakistani guards emulate - and try to outperform - the Indian efforts, while the Parkistani crowd yells spiritedly. National music blasts on both sides while the crowd dances in patriotic enthusiasm. The flag lowering ceremony is turned into an opportunity for a disturbing (to us) show of extreme emotional patriotism. It was intriguing to watch the Pakistanis on the other side, women in black burkhas, men in simple white cotton suits - but otherwise they looked no different from the Indian crowd.
We say goodbye to our gracious hosts at 4.30 am and take our last train ride to Delhi. For the last time, we step over the sleeping bodies and listen to the familiar voice over the PA system announcing the arrival of each train with: "For your kind attention..."
Khahjjiar is basically a large open meadow sitting in a tall lush pine forest, high in the mountains. Everything looks so green and healthy here, more so than anywhere else we’ve been; a stark contrast from Badami, Orccha, Ajunta… We’d had such a good time in Chopta up in the mountains in Uttrakhand, and wanted to enjoy one more day in a similar environment before descending into the hot plains of the Punjab.
Khajjiar is not really a town – only a couple of hotels and restaurants border the meadow. It’s a popular day trip from Dalhousie for Indian families who take horse rides, picnic on the grass, and have their picture taken in traditional costume. Our guesthouse is set back a little way in the trees – just a few rooms looking out on a pretty garden.
The last couple of days in Chamba the weather kept chasing from cloudy to thunderstorms to clearing off – and continues to do the same here. After three months of continuous sunshine, it’s a novelty to have this changeable weather.
While waiting for dinner at the guesthouse, Gerard starts a conversation with the family in the room next door to us. They inquire where we’re going, and then surprise us with an invitation to join them driving to Panthakot. They happen to be going to the same way we are! We enthusiastically accept. I’m reprieved from one last bus ride in the mountains!
Monday, April 19, 2010
Chamba is much larger than we expected; it is a district capital with a Raj feel. It sits in a river valley, surrounded on all sides by high mountains. A huge flat green, a ‘chagwan’, marks the center of town. It looks as if it was created by the British as a polo field, and I can almost see the horses with their white uniformed riders brandishing polo sticks. Today, it’s a focal point for socializing and cricket games. Alongside the chagwan are several large distinctly Raj looking buildings with pillared verandahs.
Beyond the chagwan, the town spreads in one direction down to the river Ravi and in the other crawls up the hillside. Intermingled with the usual drab concrete blocks are a surprisingly large number of very old wooden buildings with carved windows, balconies and slate roofs. The town is densely built on the hillside, with very narrow lanes and only a few wide enough for vehicles. At nighttime the surrounding hills twinkle with lights – it reminds me of the hills of Sarajevo. But here the hills are peaceful without the threat of mines.
Walking through town we’re both impressed by how friendly everyone seems. Women sitting in windows smile and call, “Namaste!” Finding our way to the temple complex is not easy and for once Gerard’s Junior Woodchuck’s Guide fails him and he has to ask directions! Without the aid of English, the shopkeeper closes his shop and shows us the way. Once again we find ourselves in a town where very little English is spoken, but people are polite and friendly. Maybe it’s due to the fact Chamba doesn’t see many tourists and we’re still somewhat of a novelty.
Many temples are dotted around the town. One intimate complex of temples is in a style found only in Chamba and one other neighboring town. The outer walls are carved and topped with overhanging wood canopies and a gold pinnacle. The oldest is 10th century. When we visit it is almost empty and very peaceful. Hindi temples clearly manifest idol worship – but performed so lovingly – the flowers, incense burners, orange and gold cloth draped over the idols and the sacred bull...the largest idol even has a ceiling fan and a wall clock!
Another interesting temple is high above the town up a steep climb of steps. Gerard puffs and pants, “,,,this is just like going up the mountain in Chopta!” It is very steep….but the sweat and strain to our knees is worthwhile. There is a beautiful view of the river valley and the town below from the top. The temple is decorated with literally hundreds of brass bells and is almost entirely made of wood. The ceiling is exquisitely carved.
A museum created by the British in 1908, and later rebuilt, houses a surprisingly large and very good collection of miniatures in the unique style of Chamba and neighboring, Kangra. There are also some wonderful old photographs of the Raj in Chamba.
Again the weather is unsettled - during the night it rains on and off, lightening flashes and thunder echoes around the mountains. It doesn’t clear the haze as much as we hoped, but the air is cool and fresh. We try to appreciate the cool 26C temperature because in a few days we’re going to be in Amritsar and Delhi which are reportedly 44C (112F).
As a side note, we recently read that on the last auspicious bath day in Haridwar, during the Khumb Mela, there were an estimated 1.45 crore (40.5 million ) pilgrims trying to reach the river to bathe. In the crush, seven were killed in the crush. We’re thankful that we had long left town.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Home to the Dalai Lama, McLeod Gunj is a small town nestled on a mountainside, just north of Dharamshala. The town is made up of just three streets radiating from a central square, and easy enough for even me to navigate. The higher peaks of the Himalayas seem to be in arms reach. This is the closest we have been to them. The first day we arrive a sudden thunderstorm erupts with heavy rain and lightening. The sound of thunder in the mountains is something you’ve never heard before. It bounces off the mountains and echoes down the valley. It’s wonderfully refreshing - it’s not only the first cloudy, rainy day we’ve had in three months but it also clears the air. In the afternoon, the sun comes back out and the snow covered peaks are crystal clear,
Tibetans make up at least 80% of the town’s population, smiling faced people with mellow dispositions. Many of the women, young and old, still wear the traditional dress with striped apron. But the struggle for a Free Tibet is very evident. Across the street from our hotel is the Tibetan Youth Council; there’s volunteer organizations throughout the town, and many other groups aimed at integrating the refugee community and struggling to promote the Free Tibet movement in various ways.
McLeod Gunj is a backpackers destination but their presence doesn’t overwhelm. They come for the fresh air, yoga, and the Dalai Lama – and hang out in the many cafes eating Tibetan momos and veggie burgers. There are more Indian tourists in town than usual, due to the national cricket play-offs happening in Dharamshala at a brand new stadium. The Dalai Lama is attending the opening ceremonies! Cricketers in India are superstars and everyone in town turns out in the evening to see them arrive at eat at McLlo, the most expensive restaurant in town. A bevy of policemen supposedly monitor the crowd, but are more distracted by the cricketers themselves than to be of much help if any disturbance broke out.
The Buddhist monks wander around town in their red robes, seeming almost like tourists themselves; the younger ones often hanging out on the street and in the cafes with westerners, or talking on their cell phones. Their lively vigor doesn’t fit with our concept of a monk. Then, when we visit the local monastery, a loud disturbance disrupts the otherwise peaceful surroundings. A group of monks are taking part in a ritual debate centered on religious concepts. In turn, one monk presents his view in a loud and boisterous manner. Each point he makes is concluded with slapping of hands and stomping of feet in unison right in the opponents face! It’s very theatrical. In another area of the monastery, a large group of young monks are chanting. The monastery felt vibrant and full of activity and the presence of tourists seemed to be unnoticed.
In the evening we watch the TibetTV channel. The Dalai Lama converses with a contingent of westerners who have come to Dharamshala to try and work out a solution to free Tibet. They suggest sanctions against China, but the Dalai Lama says he doesn’t believe in this approach because it will be adverse for the Chinese people and he doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. But then he follows up this statement with “..but since the government has been so unresponsive, maybe they need a little nudge.” And he breaks into his deep joyous laugh.
The Dalai Lama’s presence is everywhere, even though he is often traveling and not in residence. Wherever you go there are pictures of the Dalai Lama, posters are sold on the street, his books are everywhere. We talk to Moslems from Kashmir, Hindus from around India - they all have respect for the Dalai Lama.
McLeod Kunj is a shoppers paradise….or hell. Tibetan jewelry, clothes and knickknack stores are a bait for women like me. We meet a young Kashmiri shopkeeper. While he seduces me with beautiful embroidered skirts I’d never wear, Gerard discusses politics and religion with the young Moslem. Eventually, feeling I have to buy something; I opt for a simple suede bag. I’ve already bough three other bags so Gerard has to remonstrate, “There are other things to buy than bags and scarves in India!” (I’ve also bought a fair number of the latter.) It’s true I have a bag fetish, but he fails to understand a woman needs bags (and scarves) of every size, shape and design for different occasions and needs. I go back to the hotel and then realize the bag is so small my sunglasses don’t fit in it. So we go back and barter for another bag - which is of course more expensive. I agonize over two different designs and finally select one that is very pretty. It takes a few hours for me to realize that the second bag is totally inappropriate for my wardrobe, lifestyle etc. So back I go again, to Gerard’s horror, and politely persuade the shopkeeper to change yet again – of course spending yet more money…When Gerard suggested naming my blog “A Small Case” – he was not only referring to my physical baggage – it also embraces the mental load…!
After five or six days of rest and relaxation the thought of getting on yet another bus of eight hours through the mountains is too much. We’ve got soft and opt for a car and driver to take us in relative comfort to our last mountain destination, Chamba.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
It takes two more interminable bus journeys to reach McLeod Gunj in the foothills of the Himalayas. We travel through precipitous river valleys, pine forests and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards
Well shaken, we stop overnight in Shimla. Once a major British hill station it is now a popular tourist town for the noveau riche Indians from the Punjab and Delhi. The capital of Himachal Pradesh since 1966, the city has become an overgrown sprawl across the mountainside - but the old bazaar is a pleasant surprise to us. Built on a steep incline, everything that comes in and out has to be carried up by porters. Bent over almost double they carry three crates of soft drinks…100 kg flour…or three or four heavy suitcases. We manage to drag our own cases up the hill into the bazaar and find a little guesthouse in the midst of the small shops. Immediately opposite is a fascinating double purpose “dentist and goggles” (optician) shop. The painted sign displays a pair of dentures at one end and glasses at the other, and lists the provider as the LATE Dr Kushwant Singh. He not only services both your teeth and your eyes, but while deceased!
Above the bazaar is the mall – a pedestrian thoroughfare. I enjoy the still visible remnants of the Raj - Gothic churches, elegant tea rooms, half timber and Victorian mansions with British names, But the bazaar is unmistakably Indian, with a chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops and roaming monkeys. Shimla has become exorbitantly expensive, but in the bazaar you can still find a small dhaba serving alu parathas, curd and chai for two for less than a dollar. There’s nothing like a good bargain to make me happy!
Monday, April 12, 2010
We have arranged to spend a few days at a meditation retreat in Dehra Dhun built by an Indian disciple of our Master in the early 1990s. With some difficulty we find it in the suburbs. A sweet older gentleman from Delhi comes up to take care of us while we’re here. Retreats are only held at the end of the month, and this is the beginning. He speaks no English which keeps the chatting to a minimum. Being at the retreat is a welcome break, and to be served is much appreciated. The schedule which is not mandatory includes seven hours of meditation.
The retreat is a three walled bungalow including four guestrooms and a large meditation room, built around a pretty garden full of flowering pot plants, bushes and trees. A large flat roof looks out over a grassy common surrounded by a few well maintained houses and gardens. It has a peaceful dreamy quality that reminds me of an English village green - children play on a swing set, a couple of tethered cows graze, hens peck. People wander by; followed by the odd tractor or bicycle…but the sounds are all muted.
Refreshed we set off for the final phase of our trip with a LONG bus ride to Dharamasala via Shimla.
A Literary Footnote
For those who have been following the blog since the beginning and paid attention to minor details, you may remember that I described that a small case only allows for one book….well things have changed. I have fallen in love with a popular Indian author, Chethan Baghat who explores the complexity of India – cultural political and religious- in novels that are both extremely funny and thought provoking. I now have all four of his books weighing down my case, plus Victor Chan’s book on the Dalai Lama.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Everyone tells us you must go to Haridwar to see Kumbh Mela. It only happens there every twelve years; by 2022 we’ll be too old to travel. We’re conflicted – should we take the easy route and go straight to Dehra Dhun? But no, we decide to take an overcrowded bus down to Haridwar first. We have no hotel reservation. The bus drops us outside of town on the other side of the river, but once again my trusty guide gets us across the bridge and through the crowded streets to the Inder Kuter Guesthouse quite close to the river, where we get a shoebox of a room with a surprisingly soft bed.
The town is not what we expected - much larger, dirtier and noisier, exacerbated by Kumbh Mela. It seems a total circus. On the edge of town is a sea of dusty tents where the different sadhus discourse, peddling their spiritual wares. The sight of sadhus and rishis has become quite commonplace after being in Varanasi and Rishikesh, but the sheer volume in Haridwar is impressive - also their bizarreness. Some are clothed in the usual yellow robes, others are naked, except for a loincloth. Nakedness symbolizes giving up everything that is wordly. Some wear turbans, some have shaven heads, other have matted dreadlocks, their faces and bodies grey with the ashes they’ve smeared over themselves as a reminder that death is not far away. If we were searching for a guru we might find it all more attractive – but we’re not.
Elaborate houses are built right on the river bank; some are private homes others are ashrams. Further up the river the ghats widens on both sides, where bathers are protected from the fast flowing current by iron railings and chains. We are not there on one of the auspicious bathing days when hordes of naked sadhus parade through the streets to bathe en mass - but there’s still plenty of people in the water. I dip my dusty sore feet into the Ganges briefly, and the ice cold water feels wonderfully refreshing
In the evening we walk through the busy bazaar swept up in a sea of people to to watch the nightly Arti ceremony the spot beside the river. Thousands have already gathered. Unlike Rishikesh, there are so many Indians, the few Westerners present are obscured. Among the Indians, a fine line exists between tourists and pilgrims. They may not be pilgrims in the truest sense, but no one is here for a vacation; they’ve come to take a spiritual bath in the Ganges and experience Kumbh Mela.
A man with a baton orders us to remove our shoes and fight through a disorderly queue to leave them at a kiosk. I seriously doubt if we will ever see the shoes again even though we’re given a token. If people fail to remove their shoes, the man brandishes his baton threateningly at their legs, while simultaneously praying. Other official looking men walk among the crowds of seated people calling for donations, and writing pink slips as receipts. They seem a bit like wandering bookies at the horse races. As the sun drops, the singing begins and the monks appear from the waterside temple lighting the sacred fires and waving torches. Immediately the crowd stands up and the limited view we have is obscured. After stretching and straining for a while we give up, retrieve our shoes and move away to higher ground up some steps and behind a wall. Immediately some kindly Indians move aside and give us their view. Once again, I’m touched by the spontaneous friendly generosity of Indians toward total strangers.
For me, Kumbh Mela becomes a spiritual version of Comdex in Las Vegas - evening Arti/water performance at the Bellagio… spiritual discourses/hi-tech panel discussions…attendees seeking spiritual advancement/venture capital...big crowds, big headache in common…
Early the next morning we return to the river and watch a huge throng of naked sadhus bathing together in a cordoned off area, guarded by police. We’ve had enough. There may be more to see but we decide to get out of town. At the bus stand we find out there is a bus strike and we must trek off to the railway station and find a train to Dehra Dhun
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Dalai Lama in Rishikesh
At first Rishikesh seemed a disappointment; perhaps because of where we had come from. The hills surrounding the town are less impressive than the spectacular snow capped mountains we had just witnessed. But I love the Ganges, which is the focal point of the town. Coming out of the mountains, it is clear, fresh and cold even though the air is hot; the current is fast. Two suspension bridges for pedestrians cross the river, and are always crowded with people; motorbikes also force their way on, as do the odd cow who has lost it way. We decide to stay on the other side of the river and have to lug our cases across and then some distance to our hotel, in an area aptly called Swarg Ashram for its large concentration of ashrams.
The ashram are the most interesting feature of the town for me. Most are two storey complexes surrounding an open garden. To give a sense of proportion there are literally hundreds of rooms. The ashrams are set up with individual units including kitchens for Indian families who stay for what seems to be extended periods. Westerners also come and stay in the ashrams to do yoga and be in the presence of the resident swami. They also participate in the puja ceremony in the evening on the river across from the ashram, and sing devotional songs alongside the young monks dressed in their yellow robes, and led by a female disciple accompanied with tabla and harmonium, until SwamiJi arrives to take the lead.
I find it all more attractive than Gerard. I feel the spiritual energy - from the ashrams and the pilgrims, the sadhus who have meditated in the surrounding hills for many years. Of course the ones we see on the street with their hand out all day and everyday are obviously more interested in begging than spiritual advancement, but the devotion of the pilgrims who come here often at great cost and hardship seems genuine.
The town is simple, easy for me to navigate by myself, but without much variation. Just one street - a bazaar with an array of shops that are part religious memorabilia that you always find wherever pilgrims are, part new age bookstore and aureveydic medicine. It is pleasant but without the excitement of Varanasi.
We hang around several days longer than planned because we learn the Dalai Lama is visting - first to Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, and then in the evening to Rishikesh to speak at SwamiJi’s ashram (next door to our hotel) and stay the night. It is a rare opportunity for us to see him without throngs of people - or so we think. But on the day of his arrival it becomes clear this may not be the case. The town becomes abuzz with activity. Tibetans arrive in traditional dress, the police multiply joined by a special force with metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs. Gerard remarks, “It is sad that this is necessary for a man who promotes peace.”
There have been many moments during the last couple of month when, like Gurdjeff, we could have subtitled our trip “Meetings with Remarkable Men”. The climax may be the Dalai Lama. While waiting we meet two fascinating men from Vancouver. One has written a book about his intimate conversations with the Dalai Lama since he first met him in 1972. The other more recently discovered Him, after lengthy drug rehab four years ago, and subsequently founding his own rehab center in Vancouver. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
It turns out to be a long wait to see the Dalai Lama - but worth it. Literally thousands of us have to cram through a metal detector to await him in a small place by the river where the puja is performed nightly. Eventually he arrives, flanked by spiritual dignitaries and security. We are able to see him better than we’d hoped. Gerard commented that he seems old and very frail. I feel sorry that he has to sit through all of this ceremony when he probably would much rather be by himself, meditating. The next morning, we were briefly able to see him even closer, while walking to a function focused on saving the River Ganges. But without passes, we couldn’t attend. most of the other speakers ranted about the HOLY GANGES. Then when it was the Dalai lama's turn to speak, he said, "All rivers are sacred; water is holy."
We’d made plans to spend at least one day at Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, but due to several obstacles, namely, no vacancies in hotels and the roads being blocked by police security for the going and coming of the Dalai Lama, we have decided to move on to Dehra Dhun.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Someone we meet persuades us to diverge from our planned route further into the mountains to a small hamlet called Chopta. It sounds intriguing and we may never come this way again, so why not? We catch an early bus – a broken down vehicle with windows missing and seats not properly bolted to the floor – to Karanprayag. We’re bounced and jostled for six hours down a narrow road winding through the mountains. Just when I think that the bus cannot hold another person, a man gets on with his goat. He squeezes on to the back seat, holding the poor animal’s head in his lap.
I am beginning to get really fed up with buses, when Gerard points out, “This is merely the beginning of a long series of bus rides.” “Okay,” I mutter in resignation, ”maybe I need to practice one day –or rather one bus ride – at a time.” I sympathize with the Indian women who do not make great travelers and spend a good part of the journey with their heads hanging out of the window. At least this is not my plight.
At Karanprayag, bidding farewell to our fellow English traveler, Gerard and I jump on another bus. The road follows a pretty river valley that is terraced and cultivated. Chamoli, a small town on the roadside, is a good breaking point in the journey to spend the night. It’s hard to find anyone who speaks any English but Gerard negotiates for the room while I find a restaurant with no menu catering to truck drivers. It’s been a long time since I’ve turned heads and it’s amusing when first the man making chapattis drops a ball of dough on the floor as he stares at me. Later back at our hotel, as I pass by a table of men, one catching sight of me, gives his friend a hard nudge! Obviously not many Western tourists pass through here.
The next morning we take a bus a short distance to the next town where we’re under the delusion we can make a connection for Chopta. The road winds along the hillside, giving us beautiful vistas looking down into the valley. In Gopeshwar the jeep drivers in unison tell us, “ There is no service to Chopta…but we will be happy to take you individually…” for an exorbitant price. It must be a plot. But after asking numerous drivers…the same story! Not knowing what to do, we go over to the pharmacy stand to get me throat lozenges for my laryngitis. At this time I have no voice..but nevertheless manage to strike up a conversation with a man who can speak English and agrees that there is no service to Chopta. Like any good entrepreneur he sees an opportunity and calls a friend on his mobile. When he suggests a small car would be cheaper than a jeep, the negotiations begin. By the time the car arrives, a price has been settled on. The man appears to have a break from his busy schedule hanging around the pharmacy, and jumps in with us. It turns out to be a good thing because he was friendly and helpful.
Going higher into the mountains, the road becomes narrower and turns into a dirt track, the scenery more alpine. In the higher elevation, a species of rhododendron grow into trees. It is our good fortune for them to be in full flower and whole areas of the countryside are awash in glorious clouds of red, purple and pink flowers. As we climb higher the snow capped peaks become closer. In Kausani we looked at them from a distance; here they are right next to us. It is a long ride but so interesting that the exorbitant price is quickly forgotten!
Chopta turns out to be made up of a few huts along the roadside. Each is a simple restaurant with a couple of room underneath. Before our friendly entrepreneur leaves he tells us a member of parliament who recently won a humanity award is about to drive by. Waiting with him on the roadside, a smart white Lexus draws up from the other side of the mountain and the politician looks out the window. Sitting beside him in saffron robes with flowing white hair is his sadhu, Guru Nath, who always travel with him. Our friend introduces us. We say we’re from Boston and the sadhu exclaims, “Ah, Boston Tea Party,” Everyone laughs and the entourage leaves. We learn later that they are driving around the mountains looking for a good spot for an ashram.
That evening, as we watch the sun go down, and clouds spread over the mountains, Gerard exclaims, “It’s snowing up there!” I don’t believe him. Next morning we make a big effort to get up and watch the sunrise and sure enough the mountains are covered with a fresh coat of snow! I ask Gerard, “Can this be real? Are we really here in the Himalayas? Our accommodation is as basic as it can be, but what can you expect so close to the top of the mountains. And the quilt covering the hard board bed is thick enough to keep us warm.
Above the hamlet is a walk up the mountainside to a small temple, called Taginath. After breakfast we set out. The higher we go the more taxing it his on Gerard’s lungs and makes him cough. . In the beginning we walk through orchards of rhododendrums that eventually give way to meadows and then moorland above the tree line. Just short of the temple, Gerard quotes one of his favorite Clint Eastwood lines: “A man must know his limitations.” I press on to the temple. The peak is another km at 4,000 meters high and the path only loose rocks. The air is thin and the sun blazing. I decide maybe I also have limitations and turn back.
On the way down the mountain we meet a group of Indian school kids from Dehra Dhun who had come up the other more accessible side of the mountain. The girls are whining and complaining to their teacher.. “Good afternoon Uncle and Aunty. Is it much further?” they ask us. “Yes, the climb has just begun..” Their teacher asks us how old we are. “You see,” he taunts his students, “they are old and they made it up there. You must not give up if you want to be like them when you are old!”
We were so excited to finally arrive in Chopta that we didn’t realize it would be even harder to get off the mountain as it was to get there. Once again the entrepreneurial spirit saves us. A young Danish couple has rented a jeep for a three day excursion, and the jeep is idle today. The driver offers to take us down the other side of the mountain for again an exorbitant price. We split it with five other travelers including a sweet Spanish man and his two teenage kids (Another story…) They stay with us on the next bus ride and then continue on to Rishikesh while we decide to take a break from bouncing and jostling in Devprayag, a sacred town at the convergence of two rivers. But finding a hotel is not easy. The only guest houses appear to be for pilgrims who come here to bathe. Less than basic, they are only dormitory style accommodation.
Eventually we find a government run guest house that must have been quite impressive in it prime, but now 25 years or so later, it is shabby and run down. But after the Spartan conditions of Chopta it seems quite luxurious. A friendly patron and his maintenance man – who at dinner time becomes the cook - live there. They speak no English, and we are their only guests. The next day another bone jarring 5 hour bus ride takes us to Rishikesh.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Initially Almorra was a bit of a disappointment. The main drag, the Mall, is very busy and noisy, but above it is a more peaceful pedestrian-only bazaar which has some wonderful old wooden buildings with carved facades. At one end of the bazaar we found an old temple with women chanting inside. But the major disappointment was learning that at this time of year there’s often a lot of haze and the mountains are obscured. Our first view of the Himalayas was thwarted.
We met quite an interesting traveler, a Dutchman living in Russia A bear of a man with a voracious appetite, he teaches yoga and meditation teacher in the summer in Siberia and spends his winters in India. After spending time in this area he helped us plan our route onwards. An exercise that has continued over the next few days as, having gone so far afield, the guidebook is now rendered useless. Like many we’ve met he is more interested in talking about his own journey than asking us about ours, But after a while the conversation became more two way. I warmed up to him more once he called his Russian wife a “sweet heart.” And we were very surprised when we told him about our spiritual Master and he responded, “Oh yes, I know Kirpal Singh. He had very powerful eyes.” He’s another person we may run into again as we’re headed in the same direction - Khumb Mela in Haridwar.
After two nights in Almorra we pushed off by shared jeep tyo Kausani. Unlike the previous ride, our young driver was excellent. His cautious driving enabled us to enjoy spectacular terraced landscape. And I was reassured when he rang a little bell on his dashboard and touched his forehead and heart, each time we passed a shrine or temple - of which there were many.
Kausani is a very simple mountain village with a spectacular view across the valley with the snow capped Himalayas rising in the distance. But again at this time of year the mist often rolls in and spoils the view. But there are wonderful alpine walks to even smaller villages. Above the town is a peaceful Ghandi ashram with a small museum displaying many photographs chronicling his life. Ghandi lived here while he wrote the Bhavad Gita Treaties. We went up and sat in meditation in the prayer hall
We have entered the world of Indian tourists. Our conversations are short and easily misconstrued with Indians not speaking much English and our inability to understand theirs. But we still manage to have friendly encounters. Our hotel is peaceful only until mid afternoon when the Indian tourists arrive. The beauty is they don’t hang around—they roll into town to watch the sunset, eat, and move on in the morning. First they gather on the balcony with me to watch the sunrise. But Indians always have so much to say about anything. Just before the sun appears, the mountains are at their clearest – a black silhouette on the horizon, with white accents appearing as the sun rises.
The occasional western tourist drifts through and Gerard wastes no time asking them where they’ve come from, where they’re going and do they have any information about our journey. He remarks, “This is the way it was forty years ago before guidebooks…” when you had to continually ask fellow travelers for details of the destination ahead. After many discussions we think we know the best route to move west through the mountains.
The beginning of the fourth and last leg of our trip – the foothills of the Himalayas turned out be more of an ordeal than we imagined. What originally seemed a relatively short train ride journey turned into a 36 hour ordeal, starting with our train from Varanasi being delayed more than 4 hours which resulted in our arrival in Bareilly after midnight. Little did we know the town was still under a curfew from 10 pm to 5am because of communal rioting Hindu/Muslim) two weeks before. We had no choice but to sit on the station platform till we could get another train heading north towards Almorra our next destination. Of course, that train was also late. We squeezed on to a bench beside an elderly Indian gentleman who drifted in and out of sleep, his head resting on bicycle handlebars – until he could go to work. India continues to teach me a lesson in patience.
Our wait was not only tedious but we were engulfed in clouds of mosquitoes….but because of the curfew, the station was even more crowded than usual, which made for some visual entertainment! Then out of the darkness a bright light appeared... the Sachkhand Expresss pulls in bound for Amritsar (for the Sikhs, Sachkhand is the fifth and final inner plane to enlightenment)…. Our train finally arrived and took us to the end of the line, an industrial wasteland, a far cry from either Sach Khand, or even the fresh mountain air and green pastures that I was anticipating. The tour guide caught hell…as Hardie would say to Laurel, “This is another fine mess you’ve got us into!” But we had one more leg of the journey to go.
We were talked into taking a shared taxi, but we needed more riders. Little did we know it would take another two hours of circling around a busy intersection. “Almorra…morra..,morra” our driver called incessantly, trying to fill the taxi. I had kept my cool all through the previous day and long night of train travel. But now I was losing it. “ We cannot keep circling like this for ever! You promised we would leave in 5 minutes…” “But Madam, this is a shared taxi.” Gerard pointed out to me that if we abandoned him now, we would only have to begin the process all over again with another shared taxi. We left the industrial plain quite quickly and started our ascent to Almorra up a very narrow windy road. The driver drove like a maniac with a death wish. It was the scariest ride I have ever taken and I was unable to enjoy the scenery while trying desperately to hold on to the contents in my stomach.
Sometimes the places you visit are just places; sometimes you make connections with people and when you leave it’s like leaving a friend. Varanasi was like this. On the last night, we returned to the restaurant we ate at almost every night. Much to Gerard’s delight, the owner, Santosh, played classical Indian music all the time. He asked us if we had enjoyed the concert we’d gone to the night before, and as we left quite unexpectedly gave Gerard two CDs of music he had copied from his own collection, and then bade us a fond farewell until the next time. As we walked back to the hotel through the lanes, our friends at the CD shop, the perfume stall, the man I haggled with over the price of a silk handbag, all said their farewells. It was very touching. Early the next morning, one of the boys from the hotel carried my heavier than ever case through the lanes out to the main road. He took us a shortcut through the Muslim quarter, where the lanes were quieter with no tourist bazaar, and then waved us off in our rickshaw to the train station.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Even though we were here just a year ago, it is hard for me to describe Varanasi in words, and yet there is so much to write about. It is so exotic – everything as a child you might have imagined an Indian city to be – brightly colorful, pulsing with activity and excitement,with ornate buildings majestically rising up from the river’s edge. I am reminded of other vibrant cities we love - New York, Marrakech and Fez. The labyrinthine alleys of the old town especially reminiscent of the medinas in Morocco.
The old city is built on the riverbanks of the Ganges. Three hundred year old pavilions and palaces are lined by stone steps, the Ghats, which stretch along the water’s edge. Some buildings are crumbling, some are now hotels like ours, and others are private homes. Two “”Burning Ghats” are devoted to cremations where the ashes merge into the river.
The city is revered by pilgrims who come from all over India to pay homage to the many shrines and bathe in Mother Ganges; the old and infirm to die. It baffles me that people who know full well how polluted the river is, can still submerge themselves in it. Some time ago I asked one of our young Indian friends in Boston about it. He said, “I wouldn’t do it, but ....if you truly believed your sins would be absolved wouldn’t you do it?”
Arriving in Varanasi is not easy. The touts are eagerly waiting to take you to your hotel, which turns out to be “their” hotel where they get commission. “Oh, sorry madam! Your hotel burned down last night, this is much better hotel..” But having been here once before, we can avoid that pitfall. The taxis and rickshaws can only go through the busy streets to the edge of the old town and then you must proceed on foot because the lanes are too narrow for anything bigger than a motorbike – or a cow (which are often times much bigger than a motorbike). A young tout attaches himself to us insisting he knows a better hotel. Gerard says he’s welcome to accompany us but we are going to our hotel first. Meanwhile I’m getting impatient. There are too many obstacles to negotiate and, trailing behind Gerard, I’m beginning to trip over the man. But my attitude changes when he insists on taking my case and carrying it on his head. The lanes are remarkably clean considering the cows that inhabit them, but trying to wheel a case is still too hazardous.
Our hotel is on one of the main ghats but in a different section from where we stayed last year. As usual I need a period of adjustment to a new environment –during which time I have been known to pick on the guide….Hotels are not the strong point of Varanasi, and this one is no exception. But it’s tolerable. Its redeeming factor is a barred window (to keep out the monkeys) overlooking a temple with clanging bells and chanting at odd hours day and night. In the early morning we have a bird’s eye view of activities in the temple courtyard and the young monkeys playing right outside the window. They jump from roof to roof and leap into the tree covered with yellow flowers that they then maliciously pluck and eat.
Beyond the temple we can see the river and the ghats stretching upstream. The sun rising over the river creates an unusual soft light through the mist. I go out early to watch the early morning bathers, washermen stretching wet saris out on the stones, boats full of pilgrims drifting downstream. Holy men elaborately dressed in orange and gold can be hard to differentiate from the charlatans who want their photographs taken for a price. Others, wearing only rags, their faces streaked with ash (from cremated bodies), are better identified as more authentic.
In the evening, as the sun goes down, the temple monks perform puja – a ceremony of homage to Mother Ganges. Standing on platforms, they wave incense burners creating clouds of smoke, then perform a solemn dance with candelabras and bells, accompanied by singer, harmonium and tabla player. Throngs of people come to watch both on the steps and in little wooden boats surrounding the ghat. The ceremony is more for the pilgrims than the tourists. The whole scene seems as old as the city itself.
Having a good sense of direction is needed for traveling in the third world. And in negotiating the maze of lanes in Varanasi it’s imperative, and without my guide, I would get hopelessly lost. They say, “If you get lost, just head to the river”. But where is the river? Coming back quite late one night from a concert we see two Asian girls crying with relief as an Indian boy leads them back to their hotel. Stumbling along in the dark, I exclaim that our hotel has locked us out…. Gerard points out, “It’s a neighboring shrine that is locked, not our guest house!”
The lanes are welcomingly cool and shady during the heat of the day; the sounds hushed. We must weave our way around gigantic cows and bulls who believe they own the lanes, and increasingly now also motorcyclists - who wish they did. Gerard shops for music, I look for clothes. Creatures of habit, we return to the stalls we visited last year. “Yes, I remember you,” the owners proclaim. But how can they? Thousands of tourists must come by their store each year. The boy at the music store insists, “Yes, of course I remember you! How many other tourists have your knowledge of classical Indian music?” Good point! Gerard is armed with his list of musicians - the titles he has, and the titles he wants…
Shopping is pleasurable. The shopkeepers are patient and know better than to put on too much pressure. Quite different from our experience of the aggressive Moroccan approach. Tea drinking is likely to accompany the process. Chai wallhas come by the stalls intermittently through the day and serve the best chai in tiny disposable clay cups - a green alternative to the ever mounting piles of plastic.
Unlike most Indian cities there’s a healthy tradition of classical music in Varanasi. Most of the CD stores are playing classical instead of Bollywood movie music. Gerard questions the young proprietors who say, even if they don’t like classical music they must be knowledgeable about it. There are music schools everywhere and concerts at night several times a week. We attend a couple and I am happily surprised at how much more I enjoy the music here in its true environment - even though the young performers do not have the skill of the Masters that we hear in Boston.. Perhaps it’s also because I am more receptive – my mind less cluttered and free from its usual stresses.
I love Varanasi, but to appreciate its uniqueness and beauty I need to pull my attention above the trash and manure. The city is like the lotus; from the muck and mire grows the most beautiful flower.