Thursday, March 25, 2010

Almorra and Kausani

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.

Curfew in Bareilly

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.

Varanasi Epilogue

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

Varanasi: The Lotus on the Ganges

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.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Orchha – Hard to leave

We’ve been in Orchha for almost a week. The tour guide came through… Orchha is the kind of gem you can still occasionally find in the third world. It’s very difficult to do it justice in writing.

It seemed promising from the moment we arrived in neighboring Jhansi. We had called ahead for a hotel and a car to pick us up because it would be late. From the open doorway of the train, we saw a young man waving excitedly and bearing a sign saying something close to WIGGINS. Our driver had found us with no problem.

It’s already dark as we drive 18 km through country lanes to Orchha, but we begin to get a sense of the town’s tranquility and simplicity. It’s remarkably quiet for an Indian town - little traffic and fewer honking horns. Sleeping with open windows gives the feeling of being outdoors. During the night, there are surprisingly few barking dogs, and before dawn, the marked absence of squawking crows. In fact in the early morning, we hear many beautiful bird songs, mingled with muffled sounds of people starting their day. It is all very reminiscent for us of the early days in Morocco.

We’re grateful not be on a tight schedule and with no time limits able to stay a while and relax. But it’s so hard for me to stay in the present; I’m commenting, “This is definitely a place I would return to…” Barely arrived and case upacked, I’m already off in the future.

A relatively simple street leads past an abandoned 16th C Rajput palace. But it’s not just the palace; dotted around the countryside everywhere we look are the remnants of smaller temples and cenotaphs. The palace sits on a small island, reached by an old granite bridge. We are reminded of Prague – but in this case the citadel is a Maharaja’s palace.
The palace is three large buildings each with its own courtyard, built over a 300 year period, but remaining architecturally coherent (Indo/Mogul).

Sitting on a hill one km out of town is the imposing Lakshmi temple. An arcade runs around all four walls, and on the ceiling are friezes in very good repair depicting scenes from Krishna’s life. It’s some of the freshest looking paintings we’ve seen yet.

Closer to the bazaar is the Chaturbhuga temple. Its tall tower provides spectacular views over the town. Late in the day, we walk south to a group of chhatris – memorials to the rulers of the time. They create a solemn row of golden domes and spires beside the river’s edge, melancholy in the evening light.

Because we have just come from Ellora and Ajunta, we cannot help but think of the different motivation behind the creation of these impressive structures. The palace and temples of Orchha were built for the gratification of one individual and ego at who knows what human cost; while the cave temples of Ellora and Ajunta were a collective project built to express a spiritual way of life. Even though this palace is awe inspiring, it definitely speaks to a different part of our psyche.

The town has not yet fully geared up for western tourists. We can walk around a large part of the ruins without having to pay; there are not a lot of guides and no red tape forbidding us to enter certain areas; the simple bazaar is more for the Indians than the western tourists. It may be hard to distinguish but the locals seem to be genuinely friendly, perhaps tempered with the beckoning prospect of increasing tourism.

The restaurants are simple and the food more like home cooking - the Nepalese have not yet arrived and set up their look-alike restaurants catering for tourists. Service is slow - yet another opportunity to practice patience. At our favorite restaurant, Ramraja, we have to walk through the kitchen to get to the “garden” in back. It is chaotic and far from hygienic, but the food is excellent (and the fresh pomegranate juice is out of this world). The saying goes that if you looked into the kitchen of almost any restaurant in India you wouldn’t eat there! We watch them make chapattis over an open firepit, dusting off the ashes before serving them to us.

Again we meet interesting people - an American woman, almost 70 and traveling alone, who manages to turn everything into a positive experience, including taking the wrong train here and finding herself miles away in a town with a similar name. She then spends days of additional bus and train rides before finally arriving in Orchha. A Punjabi Sikh, born and raised in England, who gave up his job as a journalist and fled a life of partying to try and find himself in his motherland. A postgraduate from Guernsey who knows he can never go back to the confinement of the island and is trying to figure out where in the world he can call home. We eat breakfast at Didi’s – a popular hang out run by a jolly Irish woman and her Indian husband. In a ridiculously small space, they work together to serve non Indian food and Didi provides a wealth of travel support – from where to buy clothes to where are the best hotels – and acts as a clearing house for information sharing.

Orchha feels a little bit like a scene, but it’s not. Like us, people come here often planning to stay a few days and end up staying much longer because it’s so enticing. Even Gerard is inspired to take daily walks and – holding our breath – the bites have abated!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bitten in Aurangabad

After so many monuments, temples and ruins, today we’re leaving for the last in this series: Orchha. It’s another remote supposedly spectacular site that Gerard found cruising blogs on the Internet. I am satiated with ruins, but this time it’s a Rajput palace which has a certain exotic appeal. Plus there is a chance that “undiscovered” Orchha is a more peaceful and picturesque spot than Badami. But getting there is not easy. It involves a five hour bus ride, finding a hotel overnight, fourteen hours on the train to Jhansi, and if we arrive on time, a rickshaw to Orchha. If it’s too late - a more likely scenario - we’ll have to find another hotel to spend the night in Jhansi, and on the third day finally arrive in Orchha. Hopefully, it’s worth the trouble.

First off, getting train tickets is not simple. There’s no other option than to go the train station at the crack of dawn. The Indian style queues are less than orderly. We work our way up to the ticket counter only to be told to go to a building across the street. It doesn’t open until 8 am but a crowd has gathered around the entrance. When the cleaning people arrive, it’s a trigger – a wild stampede for the open door occurs. It’s like boarding the commuter rail in Mumbai all over again. We’re swept in with the crowd, and land in a line specially designated for ‘VIPs, senior citizens, foreign tourists’ (categories we easily fall into) ‘freedom fighters, disabled and government officials’. We continue to wait…then right on the strike of 8, the man opens for business and within a relatively short while we’re at the counter. Bad news - there appears to be no availability for several days. But we can’t understand the man and it’s all very confusing. We end up getting the train we want but for a ridiculously high price through an emergency quota system.

Meanwhile, Gerard has broken out in an epidemic of flea bites that spread in lines across his arms, legs and back. They blow up into unsightly red pustules that itch like mad. Oddly, I’m not bitten at all. True to his New England heritage Gerard annoyingly keeps his equilibrium. If he had a good outburst he would feel much better. I know I would!

We try everything – wash all our clothes, repeatedly spray everything in sight with insect repellent. He continues to get bitten. So we find a doctor – conveniently just around the corner from the hotel. The sign says he’s a gynecologist, but so what….even a gynecologist should have an answer for fleas…or whatever it is that’s biting. An assistant shows us into the doctor’s office immediately. It’s Sunday and the doctor is not working, but we’re assured he will see us in half an hour after he’s had his breakfast. Despite the fact it’s the doctor’s day off, there’s a number of people hanging around.

It’s well worth the wait. A sweet, gentle mannered man arrives. With no hesitation, he diagnoses the condition. “Yes, you have been bitten, but you have an allergic condition; the bites set up a chain reaction – your body keeps creating more ‘bites’ on your skin”. He prescribes pills and ointment and advises: “Don’t eat anything sour or ice cold and reduce proteins in the diet”…not difficult, we’re already protein deficient. “And it would be good not to eat meat.” “No problem, we are strict veg,” we tell him. “Oh, that’s very good!” and he extends his hands to congratulate us. We thank him for seeing us on Sunday, his day off. The visit and medicine costs less than $10 and we feel reassured that we’re taken care of. But then Gerard continues to get more bites. His allergic condition is resilient….or we still haven’t got rid of the critters.

Taking public buses is a rough ride, but the experience is one of every day India. Fellow passengers help us check that we are on the right bus; they graciously squeeze up to give us a seat – or part of a seat. A man takes his small son on his lap to allow Gerard to balance one buttock on the edge of the seat. The boy stares at us with big black eyes. When they leave, the man holds out his son’s hand for me to shake.

After a night in Jalgoan, we board the early morning train. The usual sleeping bodies litter the floor, but it’s an unusually clean station. Railway stations now have helpful illuminated signs that direct you to the right platform. Then once on the platform another side supposedly directs to you where your specific coach will stop (remembering that these trains are 22 cars long it is critical to know where to go). The board lists our train but not the location of our A1 coach. Gerard goes to consult the station manager. In spite of the sign inside his office ‘NO ENQUIRIES’, the station master asks, “Yes?” Gerard asks about our coach. “Ah,” he turns around and yells at a boy sleeping on the floor, who immediately jumps to attention and punches more information on the key board. Meanwhile the station master asks the usual questions, “Where are you from? Where have you been? What do you like about India?” (No mention of coins this time). Our coach information has now appeared on the board.

1 love train stations at dawn. A huge full moon still hangs over the platform, while the sun rises beyond the tracks in the east. I start taking pictures, trying to catch the activity as the train arrives- the chai wallahs racing up to windows, people disembarking, all while the train is still moving. In my enthusiasm, I forget the fact that I am supposed to be boarding….and furthermore helping Gerard find our coach. His equilibrium is broken for a minute. But we manage to board and find our way anyway.

It goes without saying that as we travel through the country, we are constantly faced with the poverty of India. But we don’t say much about it. It’s too overwhelming to take in.
I watch families on the train stations – women exhausted with the basic struggle of survival and child bearing. They seem to have given up caring about themselves or their children who hang out on the platforms their hair matted thick with dust and dirt. We go by shanty towns where the conditions are deplorable. We pass through Bhopal where we remember the terrible 1984 gas disaster when 50% of the population was reputed to live in slums. From the train window it looks as though that is still the case. Without a certain degree of denial and abstraction, we couldn’t travel around India.