Friday, September 4, 2009

Delhi to Amsterdam

The bus ride from Chandigarh to Delhi was much less thrilling and much more smelly than the bus trips we had taken around Himachal Pradesh. We had a rough six hour ride while completely squished, denied our change from the conductor (of course we didn't stop pestering him until we got it back, with the help of many kind Indians), harassed by drunk men, and assaulted by the smells that began wafting into the bus within miles of Delhi. We can't really describe the scents of Delhi without potentially offending our readership, but suffice it to say that in Delhi, you want to stay in the neighbourhoods that only smell as bad as urine.

Upon arrival in Delhi we were immediately reminded to be on guard for the touts and scams that are rampant here. We were misinformed about the location of the prepaid taxi stand at the bus depot by several different characters, and when we finally found it, even the workers at the stand - who are usually a bastion of decency among a hundred shady rickshaw drivers - seemed to be trying to take us for a ride! We eventually used our bargaining skills to get us to Majnu-ka-Tilla, a Tibetan neighbourhood in the north of the city, where a kind local showed us to a guesthouse. It was a lovely guesthouse and the area was much more charming than the traditional backpacker hangouts. We spent the next few days before our flight home sightseeing and shopping, and were always very glad to return to our neighbourhood for an overnight reprieve from the most intense parts of Delhi.

During our stay in Delhi we knew that we were heading home very soon, and we were generally exhausted and worn out on sightseeing. Also, Delhi is possibility the most intense place we visited, owing to the heat, traffic, touts, smells and astonishing poverty. We had mixed feelings about our approaching departure, so on the whole it was hard to give Delhi the attention and energy that it deserves. But, we tried to be responsible tourists and dragged ourselves around to the sights that we absolutely did not want to miss, and were always relieved to return to the air-conditioned guesthouse restaurant for our daily supper of momo soup and non-alcoholic apple beer.

Our transport of choice to get from our end of town into the action was the Delhi Metro, which is very new, clean, efficient and cheap. It was definitely the fastest way to get around despite having to go through security, including a metal detector, bag search and pat-down, each and every time we entered. There are also a ridiculous amount of armed police everywhere, standing behind makeshift sandbag bunkers in the modern subway corridors, automatic rifles constantly propped up, ready to go, and aimed at passersby.

In Old Delhi we visited Chandi Chowk and its bustling markets, where we shared the street with huge cows, monkeys and a staggering array of aromas. We walked to the Red Fort, built at the time of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort, and in modern times, a symbol of Indian independence. It was beautiful, but less impressive than the Agra Fort, and so it was difficult for us, in our travel-weary state, to muster much enthusiasm for it. Afterwards we walked a little ways to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. As we were removing our shoes at the entrance, a small girl asked us for money, and the shoe-minder swiftly and shockingly struck the back of her head. We reprimanded him and headed for another entrance. There we had some disagreements with the staff, who seemed to be overcharging us, but finally we were able to gaze quickly at the large, beautiful domes and minarets surrounding a small, calm pool at the centre of a courtyard that can hold twenty-five thousand people.

Next we stopped in Pahar Ganj, the traditional backpacker district in New Delhi, for some shopping. Yann and Emilie showed us to a small shop overflowing with old wooden stamps of every shape and size, each one unique. We spent a very pleasant hour choosing some to take home with us, a nearly impossible task out of the thousands available, but they are some of our favourite souvenirs.

Since our flight to Amsterdam didn't leave until nearly 1 am, we were able to pack in a full schedule on our very last day in India, and we did one of the most important things on our trip. We visited in Gandhi Smriti, the memorial and museum built at the house were Gandhi spent his last days and where he was assassinated. It wasn't difficult to muster up the motivation to see this sight. The museum is full of information about Gandhi's life and philosophy, and the history of the Indian independence movement. We saw where he took his final steps and we visited the spot that he died. The most moving part was seeing his own bedroom, still set up as it was when he lived there, and the small collection of all of his worldly possessions, including his walking stick, eyeglasses and pocketwatch.

Perhaps we should be ashamed that what we did after visiting Gandhi's memorial was go shopping, but we have to recount the scams that occur whenever you try to take a shopping trip in Delhi. We were headed to the State Emporia, which are government-run and offer fair, fixed prices. The difficulty began as soon as we hired a rickshaw to take us there, and the driver offered an outrageously inflated price. We simply laughed and explained that we had been in India for many weeks, and he couldn't get away with such a distortion. He actually agreed to a very reasonable price, but only because he figured that he could drop us off at the wrong shop and earn commission. Little did the poor guy know that we had been there before and had suffered through this whole charade once already. He drove us to the wrong store and tried to assure us, over and over, that this was the right place. Finally we convinced him that the jig was up, and he drove us through the neighbourhood, past all of the false advertisements painted on the walls directing you the wrong way, "state emporium, this way!", and with a defeated demeanor, finally dropped us at the correct place.

At the guesthouse that night we savoured our last momo soup and prepared to catch our flight. Fittingly, on the taxi ride from the guesthouse, the song from Kambakkht Ishq came on and we reminisced by singing and dancing along one last time. This was the Bollywood movie that we saw in the theatre with Jitendra and Lucie's family, and the song plays everywhere, including on Indian Much Music, where we learned the accompanying dance moves. The taxi driver noticed our excitement when the song came on and when it ended, he surfed the stations to find it twice more for us before we got the to airport.

One 8.5 hour flight later we landed in Amsterdam, where we had a nine hour layover. We left the airport and took the very easy and efficient train downtown to Centraal Station, during which time we were in shock over the calm, clean, wide open spaces as compared to India.

We enjoyed our time in Amsterdam very much, revelling in how everything was so easy and comfortable, but shocked at how much more expensive it was. We arrived downtown before 8 a.m. and there was almost no one in the streets, it was eerie. It was amazingly quiet compared to Delhi, with the exception of one very giggly, stumbling man who obviously hadn't made it to bed yet. We walked along the cobblestone streets and found a cafe just opening, and sat outside drinking lattes and admiring the wonderful architecture all around us.


Although we were hungry, we were suffering from sticker shock and simply could not justify buying a full sit-down meal, so we walked to a bakery and had the most delicious kaas broodje, apfulflap and gevulden koeke that we have ever had. Antonia was very proud when she ordered and the counter person answered her back in Dutch, assuming that she was a local. After breakfast we jumped on a boat for a canal tour, where we fell in love with Amsterdam and its narrow townhouses, bicycle friendliness, houseboats, density, and amazing ability to preserve the beauty of the core of the city over hundreds of years.

We went for a stroll along the canals and unintentionally stumbled into the red light district, although it was really something to see, bustling away even before noon. We found Dam Square and bought fresh stroopwafel, fulfilling a life-long dream of Antonia's. We ended our mini Amsterdam tour, and our entire trip, with a Heineken on an outdoor patio before making our way back to the airport and catching our flight to Montreal.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Shimla to Chandigarh

We were looking forward to taking the bus from Sarahan to Shimla, the capital city of Himachal Pradesh. We were officially off the notorious Hindustan-Tibet highway and on paved highway. Should be smooth sailing, right? Wrong! The winding mountain road was barely wide enough for all four wheels. In India paved roads don't mean safety, they mean that the driver can go extra fast. We careened around the twists and turns at break-neck speeds, accelerating into hairpin turns and relying on the breaks to get us out of them. James thought that this leg of the trip was actually the most harrowing, but Antonia thinks he must have been sleeping through the high mountain passes when stones where crumbling beneath our tires, falling into the abyss.

When we finally arrived in Shimla it was obvious that we were back amongst the tourist crowd, both foreign and Indian. The beautiful and historic hill station was the summer home of the British Raj, and is a popular honeymoon destination. It was certainly a departure from the small, remote villages that we had been visiting over the past ten days, but we spent an enjoyable couple of days relaxing and using the conveniences that had become rare luxuries to us (internet! coffee shops!). We had already become such small-town folk that the lights strung out along the hillside from the city at night made us marvel at the size of the huge capital city, actually made up of only 400,000 people.

Shimla is famous for its monkey population. They are everywhere: walking along the sidewalk, crossing electrical wires, and covering the roofs of buildings. They are very cheeky and daring and are not afraid to come right into a crowded street if they spot something that they want. They are extremely clever and have been taught that people will feed them if they are mischevious enough. One fellow tourist was taking a picture of a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey-god, when a monkey jumped up and stole the prescription glasses right off of her face. He refused to give them back until she reluctantly threw him a package of cookies that she happened to have with her. Ransom paid, he dropped the glasses and went for the snack.

We found this monkey enjoying an ice cream cone. We wouldn't be surprised if he snatched it right out of a toddler's hand.
So, in hindsight, Emilie never should have hung her laundry on the balcony. Because while we were all watching a movie in her room, she went out to collect it and noticed that her underwear had been torn. We went out to investigate and that's when we saw a monkey at the end of the long balcony, holding her bright blue salwar pants like they were a great prize. He returned our stare and tightened his grip on them with a determined look on his little face. We chased him but he disappeared with the pants onto the roof of our guesthouse. We were straining to get a glimpse of him when we noticed a flash of blue from the other side of the roof. We ran over only to have the dangling pants snatched out of our reach at the last minute. He was taunting us! He played like this with us for awhile and finally took the pants to the lower roof next door, where we could do nothing but helplessly watch him tear them apart. Other monkeys tried to steal them from him, but he jumped from rooftop to rooftop until we could see scraps of blue strewn across every surrounding roof.

We headed away from the monkey business on the historic Shimla-Kalka toy train. This narrow gauge rail was built in 1898 to traverse the terrain, too hilly for a regular sized rail. The toy train is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it wasn't the Tinker Town type train that you might be imagining, and it wasn't conducted by an eight year old, it was pretty teeny tiny and the colourful little cars were very cute. And of course, the bridges, tunnels and mountains that the train was able to go through made it the most scenic train trip we have taken.

The toy train took us as far as Kalka, and after a short ride on a regular sized train (how boring!) we were back in the sweltering heat in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab and Haryana. This oddity of a city was planned after partition, and designed by architect Le Corbusier. We had never before been to a planned city, and this one could not have been more unlike what we have seen elsewhere in India. Divided into equal 'sectors', the city was meant to be made up of numerous neighbourhoods that could act as self-sufficient, mixed-use entities. The resulting map of Chandigarh is a perfect configuration of identical rectangles, and neighbourhoods are known by their sector number. It was like being in a dystopian novel: we were staying in Sector 22, the bus station was in Sector 17, and the train station was in Sector 14. Chandigarh is sprawling, but with empty, green spaces instead of urban congestion. There were traffic lights that were actually obeyed, and separate lanes for bicycles! It was interesting to see a calm, green Indian city, and Le Corbusier's idea doesn't seem like a bad one, but because there is no centre of activity, the space and sprawl makes the city seem like a suburban nightmare with no redeeming core of bustling activity.

Another nice difference that we found in Chandigarh was an indoor, air-conditioned grocery store, where we shopped for picnic supplies before heading to Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden. Nek Chand was a road inspector during the reconceptualization of Chandigarh, which naturally involved a lot of demolition of what was already established there. Seeing the waste that was created, he began collecting it and making it into artwork. This consisted mostly of statues, figurines and mosaics made of ceramics, pottery and things like broken bangles. He quietly worked on expanding his secret little world of creatures for eighteen years before his work was discovered and eventually turned into a public space. He still has an office inside the park and has continued to expand it ever since.

We spent a lovely morning exploring the forty-acre rock garden, which is a unique mix of nature park, playground, art gallery and amusement park. It reminded us of an Alice in Wonderland world, where we had no idea what was around every turn. Following the path along the park, you stumble upon walls made of tiny clay pots, concealing fields full of charming figures made from bangles. A narrow stone passageway will unexpectedly open up to an idyllic enclave with waterfalls, butterflies and dragonflies of seemingly unnatural colours darting everywhere. If you don't look closely you will miss a meticulous ceramic village on top of some rocks, or a stone staircase beside a waterfall that is impossible to get to, and doesn't lead anywhere. Near the end of the journey, the park opens up to a large mosaicked theatre area, with silly mirrors, swings attached to a huge rock sculpture, and a camel dressed in bells and bright colours giving rides to children. The rock garden was so fun, so whimsical, and truly wonderful: literally full of wonders!

After our picnic of sandwiches, we hired a cycle-rickshaw to take us to visit Chandigarh's High Court, also designed by Le Corbusier. This turned out to be a mistake, as the High Court was about two steps down the road, and closed. Luckily, though, the High Court Museum was open, and it was very interesting to see original plans for the city, models of the courtrooms, prints of Le Corbusier's tapestries, and some interesting artefacts from Punjab's judicial history. A very kind and eager curator was on hand to give us a tour and proudly display a copy of the Indian Constitution. Outside we visited Le Corbusier's famous Open Hand statue, and walked around the courthouse for as long as we could stand the heat. Then it was time to head for Delhi and the last leg of our adventure.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Eastern Himachal Pradesh - part II



Once at the bottom of the mountain from Dhankar, we waited on the highway for the bus. Soon we hailed down a van, which luckily happened to be driven by a monk who belonged to the monastery at our next destination. He graciously offered to take us with him and we clamboured into the back of the van for the ride toward Tabo.

At Tabo we checked into the monastery guesthouse. Being very tired and hungry from all of the climbing that we had done over the last couple of days, we were looking forward to a rest, but it was not to be. The Buddhist museum in the monastery was about to close and not reopen until after our departure. So, we stumbled through the rare and beautiful artefacts, hoping that our bleary eyes were registering something for posterity.

The next morning we woke up at 5:30 am for puja. Tabo's was a disappointment after coming from Dhankar. There were more tourists in attendance than monks, and the monks did not seem to have the same gusto in their chanting. In both puja ceremonies, though, our favourite part was picking out the monks who were fast asleep. They would wake up after awhile with a big yawn that was incorporated as inconspicuously as possible into the ongoing chant.

After a breakfast of thick and filling Tibetan bread, we explored the dark rooms of the Tabo gompa using our headlamps. Established in 996 A.D., it houses some of the finest Indo-Tibetan art in the world and is protected by UNESCO. The several temples that we visited in the complex were indeed very beautiful, with thousand year old paintings illuminating the walls that are now warped from the passage of time. The main temple is full of large statues of Buddha, gods and demons, which form a massive three-dimensional mandala.


That afternoon we left for the village of Nako, which turned out to be the most beautiful village we visited on the whole trip. Small and nestled on top of a large valley, its narrow, winding streets were filled with as much Buddhist imagery as could possibly fit into the little town. Prayer flags adorned every stone entryway and villagers stopped every few steps to turn makeshift prayer wheels fashioned from wood, leather and old paint cans. We had to always make sure that we were veering left on the road so that we were properly honouring the mani walls that sprung up wherever there was enough space. These are walls made of flat stones engraved with prayers and piled on top of each other. Walking a complete circuit clockwise - half on your way to work, for example, and the other way back - is the equivalent of saying each prayer in the mani wall.


We took a short hike up the dry and dusty mountain above Nako to view the town from afar, and to visit the various prayer flags and stupas that are scattered above it. Here we saw the longest mani wall that we have ever seen, and it was wonderful to explore these monuments by ourselves on the rugged terrain. Archways hiding intricate murals and stone stupas with nothing around them but arid land seemed to exist just in case a wandering soul happened upon them in need of a spiritual respite.

We then caught another scary bus, this one with a driver who never honked as he was going around blind turns on the edges of cliffs, despite numerous signs urging him to do so. Several times we broke sharply when he was surprised by another vehicle at the last moment. We wound our way down to around 2,000 metres. Although we were now much lower than we had been for the past week, the scenery was perhaps even more beautiful because of the vegetation that could flourish, and the clouds that were caught up in the trees, beneath the peaks. We found our way to Kalpa, a small town of slate-roof houses in the midst of the lush blue and green mountains, snow-capped peaks, and clouds.

We explored the village and its main temple, which boasted beautiful wood carvings and lots of depictions of animals in kama sutra positions (!!!), set against the mountain backdrop. When the rain started we huddled into a small tea shop for some of the best chai of our entire trip, and watched some toddler boys - without any apparent adult supervision for the day - play in the rain.


That afternoon we felt like playing cards in our hotel room, but decided that we needed to be good travelers, taking every advantage to explore and experience. We decided to catch a bus that went up the mountain to another small town. We knew that we would have to walk back down, but we had been told that it was a nice hour-long hike downhill. So, we waved down a bus heading up and settled in for another periless ride winding up the mountainside. This turned out to be one of the more unsettling rides we experienced, with gravel roads as narrow as the bus being the only thing to protect us from plummetting straight down for miles. There seemed to be no place to 'hike' down other than this road, and we were all silently sizing up how we would walk back. When the bus made it to the summit we all looked at each other and understood what we had each been thinking: there is no way we're getting off this bus and walking down this road. The bus driver and conductor thought it was hilarious when the foreigners paid for another ride right back down without even getting off the bus, and we couldn't believe that we had chosen to take this dangerous ride without even having seen anything at our destination.

That night we were having dinner when all of a sudden we spotted a large procession making its way through the village streets. We left our meals and ran after the throngs of people playing music and carrying huge images of deities through the village toward the temple. We learned that this was a celebration in honour of the gods that are said to protect Kalpa. We also quickly learned that it was an occasion marked by the consumption of large quantities of apple wine, the local specialty. We followed the procession into the temple courtyard where we were offered 'apple juice' poured liberally out of teapots. It was apparent from the behaviour of some of the men that the party had been going on for quite some time, so we declined the invitation to join in the fun and headed home.

Our next destination was the town of Sarahan, renowned for its ancient Bhimakali temple. This large temple is devoted to Kali, goddess of destruction, and for that reason it was the site of ritual human sacrifices until the 18th century, and remains the location of occasional animal sacrifices.

We stayed in the temple guesthouse, which overlooked the platform reserved for human sacrifice. The temple was very beautiful, and of course set amongst gorgeous, lush mountains, but it had some of the most interesting and portentous imagery we have seen. The Hindu gods that we have become familiar with, usually in serene poses and with contented expressions, were depicted ferociously crushing animals and ripping humans apart.

We used our day to explore the temple and walk around the surrounding apple orchards. During this walk Antonia found not one but two four-leaved clovers. Sarahan also had some of the most delicious food. We enjoyed samosas, pakoras and sweets for lunch at a cute little chaat shop, and this Tibetan soup for dinner was divine and cost less than a dollar:

This cow also seemed to be enjoying a delicious dinner when we came across him in Nako:



Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eastern Himachal Pradesh - part I

We have just completed a tour of remote villages high in the Himalayas along the Hindustan-Tibet highway. It has been one of the best parts of our trip and unlike anything we have ever done before. We have visited ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples perched atop rocky fairy-tale peaks, seen more goats and yaks than we can count, exhausted ourselves trekking up steep mountains, counted ourselves big fans of yak cheese, and become intimately familiar with squat toilets. We think we have seen the most beautiful scenery that we might ever see in our lifetimes.

Almost two weeks ago now we reunited with Yann and Emilie in Manali, which is a popular tourist destination set amongst beautifully treed mountains. It actually looked less like McLeod Ganj and more like Banff. After swapping stories of the two weeks that we spent apart, the four of us set off from Manali to begin our trip to more remote locales. We started with a thirteen hour bus ride over the highest mountain passes we have ever been to. The trip was bumpy and nerve-racking, but for the first few hours we tried to enjoy the stomach flips and awesome views. Once we climbed to 4,551 metres above sea level, though, the altitude, constant bumps, and scary roads had taken their toll, and the last half of the ride was spent praying that we would arrive in Kaza soon. When we finally arrived our brains felt a little scrambled, but we were very grateful.

Now that we have made it safely across, we can tell you that our guidebook refers to the Hindustan-Tibet highway as the most dangerous stretch of road in India. Hopefully that is true, so that no one has to endure anything more frightening. We would routinely drive miles above the nearest ledge on a gravel road so narrow that the side of the road was not visible past our tires. We drove over waterfalls that had taken out the road. Sometimes stones would crumble away down the side of the mountain under our wheels. We saw one car halfway down a mountain that had obviously taken a tumble off our road, and another time a crumpled jeep that was being towed up.

We had planned to stay in Kaza for a couple of days to adjust to the 3,800 metre altitude, which at first made us feel drowsy and light-headed, and ridiculously short of breath when going uphill. But we ended up having to stay longer because apparently James is very allergic to something in the air there. He woke up the first morning with a terrible rash all over his face and neck. Assuming it was something on his pillow, we changed guesthouses but the mysterious rash only spread to other areas of his body and was accompanied by a swollen face, feet, and hands. This called for our first attempt to seek medical attention in India, and it was quite an interesting experience. Luckily Kaza has a free clinic, but clinic hours were already over on the evening that we first visited. We managed to find a nurse to look at James. She spoke very little English and all that we could understand was an ominous "Injection. Ready?" With so little information, James responded with an assertive "No" and we decided to return the next day when the doctor was in.

When we came back the next morning there were already dozens of people in the waiting room, but there was no nurse or sign-up sheet or triage of any kind going on, so we wondered what the procedure was to see the doctor. We witnessed the procedure minutes later when the doctor arrived, and it was the following: everyone ran and pushed their way into the doctor's office, hoping to be seen first, on the sole basis of their sharp elbows. The doctor first examined a small boy, while everyone crowded around the examining table so that they might be next. To us, it all seemed so ridiculous and inappropriate and far from the way any examination would take place in Canada. Eventually the doctor seemed to agree that things were getting out of hand and ushered everyone out of his office, and he literally had to push people to get his door shut. Everyone, that is, except for the over-privileged, but shamefully grateful tourists (yours truly) who got to see the doctor before everyone else. He diagnosed James with an airborne allergy and prescribed a daily regimen of anti-histamines and multivitamins, which have been working nicely ever since.

Before we left Kaza we learned that a rare Chaam festival was happening in Ki, a town only half an hour away. We had to take advantage of our amazing luck, since this festival only happens once a year, and we hired a jeep to take us to see it. There, we saw monks dressed in beautiful costumes and elaborate demon masks. They do this to frighten away any bad spirits that might try to threaten the village in the coming year. Other monks play music and light huge fires, and after the dancing we were amazed to see the procession of monks climb over people laying face-down on the ground to receive blessings, all the way down the mountain path.

When we were sure that James was healthy enough, we set about getting permits to travel along the Hindustan-Tibet highway, which until recently was off-limits to overnight tourists because of its proximity to the Tibet border. Acquiring the permits was yet another encounter with often frustrating Indian bureaucracy, but after two and a half hours we left with permits that nearly spelled our names correctly. This enabled us to leave by bus for Dhankar, our first stop on the highway. Reaching the village, which is nestled in a valley at 3,900 metres, required hiking uphill from the nearest town on the highway. Our guidebook told us to take a "very steep" ten kilometre path from the highway, but a local man had told us a shortcut. We were grateful that we didn't have to walk up the ten kilometres until we realized that the "shortcut" cut down on the distance only because it was that much more steep. We spent one hour and a half hiking up what felt like a slippery near-vertical climb while carrying all of our belongings. The scenery was spectacular, with the Spiti Valley below us and caves dotting the unusual rock formations around us. The 1,200 year old Dhankar gompa was perched above us on the highest, starkest, most ominous peaks around, taunting us as we struggled to get closer to it.

We were exhausted when we finally reached Dhankar, but the hike was worth it when we saw the small village: a valley full of white-washed buildings and two monasteries on either side, with the longest string of colourful Tibetan prayer flags joining them, stretched across the gorge. Visiting the town that afternoon was almost eerie, as there were virtually no adults to be seen. The village appeared to be deserted apart from small children who seemed to have the run of the place, and a small goat who was apparently separated from his flock and followed us around for the protection that we offered him from stray dogs. People began returning to the village around dinner time from working in the fields and pastures, their herds of yak, sheep and goats pouring down into the valley for the night. This daily routine was repeated in most of the villages that we visited in the valleys, meaning that during the day the town is oddly occupied only by children too small, and people too old to help in the fields.

That afternoon we forced ourselves to go on another hour-long uphill climb to visit a green, secluded lake with wonderful views of snow-capped mountains in the near distance. In the evening we were treated to a homemade dinner prepared by the family that provided us a homestay. We watched sheep and goats play in the yard, and heard the town crier bellow out an announcement for a town meeting the next day.

The next morning we woke up early to attend puja, the prayer ceremony at the monastery. It was very serene to be the only visitors to listen to the nine monks chant for about an hour. James thought the chant sounded like a didgeridoo. We were graciously served butter tea by a young monk, and we tried to smile as we choked down the rancid yak-buttery taste. To everyone's surprise and dismay, James, not wanting to be rude, accepted the offer of seconds. Everyone then had to help finish it.

Afterward we visited the old gompa and fort complexes, which house thousand year old artwork and are built on a set of rocky, barren peaks that make the gompa look like an evil fairytale fortress. The gompa is protected by the World Heritage Fund and is one of the world's one hundred most endangered cultural sites, since the rocks underneath it are naturally decomposing. It was very beautiful and afforded amazing views of the surrounding valley and mountain ranges. After the high altitude sightseeing it was time to come back down the mountain, which was not as physically difficult, but much more scary than going up. It took us an hour to cautiously come down, using careful baby steps, often holding hands to prevent slipping on the unstable rocks.

Next time on Part II of our Eastern Himachal Pradesh adventure: more temples! more Tibetan cuisine! more death-defying bus rides!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

McLeod Ganj

We are very relieved to have arrived in Himachal Pradesh and fresh, cool mountain air. On the bus from Amritsar to McLeod Ganj we began climbing into the Himalayas and our eyes were glued to the breathtaking view of soaring mountain peaks and green valleys filled with fields of rice or of schoolchildren playing cricket. The fresh temperatures and greenery are quite a departure from what we have been used to in India; for a few nights we didn't even use a fan (unthinkable!) and cold showers are no longer a pleasure.

McLeod Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, as well as a large community of Tibetan refugees. It is also jam-packed with tourists, and most traffic is pedestrian, which is also very strange for us. McLeod Ganj is in fact so easy to navigate and so catered to tourists that it has been likened to a Tibetan Disneyland. Western food is almost more accessible than Tibetan food. It felt difficult to have an authentic experience on the streets of McLeod Ganj, but we enjoyed the natural beauty and we took a little time to relax from the hectic pace and general frustrations that we encounter in the rest of India.

The Dalai Lama's residency is a large complex that sits above the town. While visiting we were witness to a lively debate between several monks in the main square, in which arguments were accented with loud hand claps and foot stomps directed at adversaries. The Dalai Lama's temple was beautiful, and the best part was its setting. Perched on the side of the mountain, it overlooked verdant valleys. Trees in all directions were strung up with colourful Tibetan prayer flags, and just above us were snow-capped mountains in shades of blue, with clouds caught up in their peaks. Our favourite part was being able to see glimpses of all of this from inside the peaceful temple through its open doors. What touched us most about the complex was the Tibet Museum, which movingly recounted the history of Tibet, the brutal Chinese occupation, and the plight of Tibetan refugees who face life-threatening conditions to pass through the wintery altitudes of Tibet in order to escape.

We attempted to walk a few kilometres downhill to visit the Secretariat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, but the road was so steep that it was too difficult even to stay upright, so we had to hail an autorickshaw to take us the rest of the way. The Secretariat is made up of all of the government departments and bureaucracy necessary to run any state, and they are working hard for Tibet's liberation and waiting for the moment that they are able to resume governing it. A library and cultural museum preserves the Tibetan culture that is simultaneously being wiped out by the Chinese government, where we were lucky to see some remarkable three dimensional and sand mandalas.

Nearby we also visited the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, where degrees are granted in these ancient arts. The museum had some very interesting old medical texts and diagrams, as well as some big, sharp instruments used in bloodletting and hammering hot spikes into your diseased areas. We have both been struggling to get over colds, but we tried not to let it show in case we were led to the clinic.

Bus rides in Himachal Pradesh have been an adventure in their own right. We are currently in an area where it takes about five hours to travel ten kilometres. We wind through valleys and up mountains on narrow roads. If another bus happens to be going in the other direction, one of us probably will need to back up until we find a spot that's wider than usual. Herds of goats and cows also need to be accommodated. The terrain means that the snail's pace of the bus certainly feels fast enough.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Amritsar

We arrived in Amritsar after about twelve hours of train travel from Agra, including a 4 am change of stations in Delhi that only feels like a dream now. We had a small heart attack waiting for the train in Agra when James realized that he had left his camera battery and charger back at the hotel. Luckily we always leave ourselves plenty of time to catch any form of transportation, and we made it to the hotel and back with the help of a rickshaw driver that must have seen the panic in our eyes, because he drove even more wildly than usual.

Amritsar is in Northern Punjab near the Pakistan border, and it is the site of the holiest Sikh monument, the Golden Temple. It feels like the most crowded city we have visited so far, with pedestrian, cycle and auto traffic all crawling along together on the same dusty road. Antonia got hit by a cycle-rickshaw on our first night here, but luckily the traffic moves so slowly that it was more of a surprise than anything else.

Our hotel room happened to have a TV. However, the only English station was the all-cricket-all-the-time station. As a result, we are slowly understanding the rules of the game. This is a good thing, since everyone we meet is flabbergasted when we admit to being unaware of the current leading Indian cricket stars.

On our first full day, we took in the Golden Temple, which was only a few steps from our guesthouse. A reflection of the inclusive and egalitarian nature of the Sikh religion, there is no entrance fee, and anyone may take meals and dorm rooms there with no charge. The Golden Temple itself is a glittering palace surrounded by a large pool of holy water used for bathing and drinking. The gold is reflected in the pool, and along with the white marble that makes up the surrounding complex, everything was very bright on this hot and sunny day. Before entering the temple itself, we walked around the pool, met some people who came to introduce themselves, and watched people relax and chat in the shade, take free meals or listen to music. Chanting from the Sikh holy book is broadcast twenty-four hours a day from inside the temple around the entire complex.

To enter the temple, we joined a muddled queue to cross a bridge over the pool, spanning about fifty metres. Standing shoulder to shoulder while being gently pushed and shoved along from behind, we moved a couple of inches toward the temple every few minutes. The heat and claustrophobia and not being able to even put our arms at our sides were almost too much to bear, but after a few minutes a hundred more people had moved in behind us, and we knew that there was no going back. In total it took us about an hour and a half to reach the temple in the queue. The temple was spectacular, though, and it was well worth the journey. Inside we found holy men chanting and playing music, surrounded by more gold, and chandeliers, engravings, and inlaid marble. We (carefully!) walked up the wet marble stairs where people prayed at shrines and sat to watch the musicians and the bathers.

In the late afternoon we wanted to go to the Pakistan border to watch the border closing ceremony, but we weren't sure how to get there. It turned out that we didn't have to worry; outside every important sight in Amritsar at around 4 pm there are many taxi drivers shouting "border! border! border! border! border!" It is a popular destination because of the outrageous patriotic show that both sides put on during the closure of the border every evening. Being foreigners, we got to watch the action from the V.I.P. section instead of the huge stadium-type seats that are filled with fervent Indians on one side, and Pakistanis on the other. First, women and children line up for the chance to race the Indian flag to the border gate and back. Old women and little children get the loudest cheers. Then, women come down from the stands to dance to popular music. Next the border guards come out, dressed in crazy hats and curiously short pants. One of these guards shouts a single note for a very long time into a microphone, and the crowd cheers more the longer he holds it. The guards march toward the gate, and then one by one do a kind of skipping/kicking/marching/silly walk to meet the Pakistani guards, who are dressed in their own outlandish costume. The guards on both sides proceed to stare each other down, and perform kicks so high that they touch the tall frill of their hat with their toe. A series of silly things like this continue, while the crowd cheers wildly at certain prescribed moments, until finally both flags are lowered and the border is officially closed for the night. The whole ceremony appears very comedic, but we didn't mention this to any Indians, as it seemed like they took it quite seriously. (Note the high kick)


The next day we had a wonderful time seeing some other sites in Amritsar, and the best part was that we met some Indian friends who very kindly offered to show them to us. However, we began at a very sad and solemn site. Jallianwala Bagh is a park set up on the site of the massacre in Amritsar by British troops in 1919. On this spot, which was surrounded by high walls and without any viable exit, British troops opened fire without warning on an unarmed group of peaceful protesters. About 400 men, women and children were killed and 1,500 injured. If you have seen the movie 'Gandhi,' you will remember the chilling scene when troops mercilessly shoot people seeking the only refuge possible - in the bottom of a well - like they were shooting fish in a barrel.

Next we visited Mata Temple, which is our favourite Hindu temple so far. It is a building designed to be like a labyrinthine cave, with a circuitous path lined with shrines and paintings, that forces you to crawl through 'cave' tunnels, climb into small 'cave' entrances and wade through 'cave' water. Many rooms in the temple have walls and ceilings that are completely covered in mirrors. It is a very large temple and it was a lot of fun. Actually it reminded us of a funhouse at the Ex. We got a blessing and ate a sweet, and saw lots of women praying to become pregnant, which is what this temple is famous for.


It was at Mata Temple that we met Rohit and Sahil, two young Indian men who at first wanted to make sure that our rickshaw driver was offering us an 'Indian' price instead of a 'foreigner' price. They then offered to be our guides in the temple, which was very fortunate since we think we might still be stuck somewhere in the caves without them. Sahil and another of his friends, Gaurav, joined us for the rest of the day and their generosity and friendship became the highlight of our day. (Rohit and Sahil inside the Mata Temple)


The Punjabi museum at Ram Bagh happened to be closed, but while we were waiting for our new friends, we made another interesting friend. A smiling man dressed in a Gandhi-like simple white longhi approached us and began speaking Hindi. Despite a large communication barrier, he showed us a statue of Gandhi and proudly told us that he shared a birthday and a last name with him, and that he was Gandhi's disciple. He was extremely sweet and when we told him that we were from Canada, he exclaimed "India Zinabad! Canada Zinabad!" Luckily we had picked up from the border ceremony that the constant shouting of "Hindustan Zinabad!" meant "long live Hindustan." Our Gandhi was very pleased when we let him know that we had understood what he said.

Sahil and Gaurav next took us to the Sri Dugiana temple, which is a Hindu temple built in a very similar style to the Golden Temple. In fact, in our guidebook it is referred to as the 'Silver Temple,' but currently men are pounding out bars of gold and it is slowly being plated with gold in the same style as the Sikh temple. The sound of the pounding is amplified around the complex. The temple is nearly as beautiful as the Golden Temple, and it is mindboggling that one city should have two monuments like this, never mind the countless other temples that are located here. While we were crossing the bridge to the temple (much, much less crowded than the Golden Temple), the sky suddenly grew black and a strong wind picked up leaves and dust. We took refuge from the worst part of the monsoon storm inside the temple and watched the rain whip across the waters of the holy pool. It seemed like a divine event as the huge silver doors were blown open and then slammed shut again by the tempest. (Sahil and Gaurav at the Sri Durgiana Temple)


To round out our lovely day, Sahil and Gaurav took us for Punjabi samosas with chutney and chai, and they wouldn't even allow us to pay anything.

This morning they took us for a tour of the 'inner' city of Amritsar. They told us that normally tourists never get to see the twisting alleyways that make up the heart of the city for locals. We went for kulcha, a special breakfast of fried bread stuffed with potatoes and spices, that you dip in a spicy chickpea chutney. Then they announced that Sahil's mother had lassis waiting for us at his house. Even though we were worried about catching the only bus to Dharamsala today, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. We enjoyed lassis, live musical entertainment that our hosts performed, and the wonderful hospitality of Sahil's entire family before we sped away to catch our eight hour bus ride.

[update to previous post: our friends told us that after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jehan cut off the hands of all the workers, so that they could never again create something as beautiful. Some thanks.]

Friday, July 10, 2009

Agra

We arrived in Agra two days ago after a very long and hot train ride. Heat rashes have returned with avengence since we left our wonderful air conditioned hotel in Kanpur.

We have spent the last couple of days exploring the historical Mughal empire that Agra represents. Along with the Taj Mahal, the city is also home to an enormous and extravagant royal fort, and so many tombs, mosques and mausoleums that our heads are spinning with images of precious stones forming intricate patterns on white marble.

We had planned to see the Taj at sunrise on our second day, but of course that happened to be a Friday, the only day of the week that it is closed to tourists. So, we had to settle for a cloudy afternoon. But the Taj is always breathtaking, clouds or no. It is a remarkable building, built as a tomb in the mid-17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, when she died in childbirth. It is said to be the world's greatest monument to love, but we're not sure how the 20,000 men and 1,000 elephants who laboured on it felt about that. It is incredibly beautiful and its domes and minarets can be seen from across the city.

While we were at Agra Fort, which has inhabited by Mughal emperors and their court during the 16th and 17th centuries, the monsoon finally hit. It has been very late coming and droughts and electricity shortages related to the high temperatures have been big problems for India, especially the rural and urban poor. So we knew that it was a good thing when we explored the fort in water rushing past our ankles. The sprawling fort was very regal, and we got to see the private rooms of kings and queens, all delicate marble carvings and once inlaid with gold diamonds, but since then looted by the British. Shah Jahan was imprisoned here after his son usurped him, and he spent his remaining days looking out over the amazing vistas onto the Taj that he built for Mumtaz.

Yesterday we hired a cycle-rickshaw driver to take us to the Itimad-Ud-Daulah and Chini-Ka-Rauza - two other beautifual Mughal tombs - as well as Mehtab Bagh, a park with a spectacular view of the Taj from across the Yamuna river. The Itimad-Ud-Daulah is nicknamed baby Taj since it was the first building to use the style of marble and stone found in the Taj.

We had a great day, but having our rickshaw driver take us back to our hotel instead of numerous shops was a challenge. For those of you who aren't aware, going to a shop recommended by a rickshaw driver in India is not a pleasant experience. The pressure is really on to buy something that you don't actually want, and you are not able to walk out of the store empty-handed without an argument. Agra is much worse for touts even than Varanasi, and unfortunately our driver was not an exception. We knew when hiring him that we had to set a price for the whole trip, explicitly say that we wanted to go to no shops, and make him promise to keep his word. Even after doing all this, and making friends with him over the course of the day, he stopped short in the middle of the highway on our way back after we had to tell him again that we wanted to visit no shops. He refused to keep pedalling, and we refused to go to shops, so we had a long conversation in the middle of the traffic. We had planned on giving him a tip as well, but even after he told him this, he was unsatisfied. Finally we convinced him that we weren't going to give in and we made it back. But we ended the day on an unpleasant note. It's frustrating to believe that you're making friends, only to have them accuse you of being a bad person if you don't pay them more than you had agreed upon.

Agra is beautiful but we're looking forward to heading north, hopefully out of range of the hoards of touts and tourists that we have experienced this week.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kanpur to Varanasi


Four days ago we arrived in Varanasi for the next leg of our trip as backpackers instead of adopted family members. We have parted ways for now with Yann and Emilie, who have seen all of the very touristy sights that we have yet to see, and will wait for us up north in the Himalayas.

Before we left Kanpur, we went out with nearly everyone from both Lucie and Jitendra's families to see a Bollywood film called Kambakkht Ishq, or 'Bloody Love.' It was a lot of fun but the plot was (perhaps luckily) so transparent that we could follow it despite the fact that it was in Hindi with no English subtitles. There was a lot of good music and dancing in it. After the movie we all went for freshly made ice cream with spices and nuts, a Kanpur specialty.

The next day was spent at Jitendra's parents house before we headed for the train station. We went to get fresh jalebis - fermented dough deep fried and soaked in syrup - from a cart on the corner. They are basically just crystallized sugar. We ate these with sour yoghurt and it was one of the most delicious things we have tasted so far. Leaving Kanpur was a tearful event, and promises were made to meet again as soon as possible. We have grown very close to the family and from now on we won't think of going anywhere near Asia without a long visit in Kanpur.

We arrived at the Varanasi train station early in the morning. Four hours later we were ready to leave the train station finally having booked the trains for the next two legs of our trip. After finding a guesthouse and having a quick nap, we set out to explore one of the most holy of Hindu cities. Located at the confluence of the Ganges, Assi and Varuna rivers, Varanasi is a major destination for Hindu pilgrims. Dying here guarantees a release from the suffering of reincarnation and a direct ticket to nirvana, no matter how you have lived your life.

First we headed to the old part of the city, which is lined by hundreds of twisting alleyways too narrow for anything but pedestrian or bovine traffic. After getting turned around many times, we finally found the Vishwanath temple, plated in gold and dedicated to lord Shiva. Being non-Hindus, we could only gaze at the temple domes from across the street but they were indeed very golden, and also featured monkeys climbing on the peaks.

Next we headed toward the Ganges, and the multitude of ghats that line it. Although we had planned to walk, we were accosted by boat owners offering to take us out on the Ganges for sunset. Not having planned to take a boat gave us great bargaining power and we ended up going for a tour of the ghats on the sacred river. Our first stop was Manikarnika, the most revered burning ghat. While most ghats are set up for bathing, this one is used for cremation. We got a fascinating tour of the funerary process from an employee, who was happy to enlighten us. He told us that people visit the ghat to learn about death, but end up learning about life. "Remember," he said "burning is learning. Cremation is education."

What we learned was that it takes about three hours to burn a body, and that the last thing to go in men is their chest bone, while in women it's the hip bones. These are removed from the ashes and thrown into the Ganges intact. We saw a few bodies burning and we think we will always remember the image, despite the fact that pictures were prohibited. Ashes are poured right into the Ganges beside garbage, sewage and debris, and beside hundreds of people bathing, swimming, praying, and doing laundry. The Ganges is amazing - so intimately related to every special and daily moment in peoples' lives, at once so sacred and so dirty.

We ended the night watching the nightly aarti ceremony from our boat, in which Brahman students of Sanskrit honour the Ganges with ritual uses of fire, incense, bells and rose petals. We hadn't gotten enough of the river and its ghats, and the next morning we rose before dawn to get back on our boat. Although there was no spectacular sunrise, we watched the ghats come alive with daylight, and the city's people wake up to bathe and pray. (Here you see James rowing Antonia on the Ganges at sunset. James thinks he should have gotten a discount for doing some of the rowing.)


Then we headed slightly outside of Varanasi to visit Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world. Buddha is thought to have given his very first sermon on this spot, and there are many temples, ruins and a museum dedicated to this moment and to the Indian Buddhist community that it inspired. There is even a bodhi tree here that has descended from the actual bodhi tree in Sri Lanka under which Buddha received enlightenment. Having been interested in bodhi trees and their mythology since her trip to Thailand, Antonia was quite excited about this. The architectural museum was also excellent, and we enjoyed a very peaceful afternoon in Sarnath.


Before leaving Varanasi we had one last opportunity to walk along the ghats on the banks of the Ganges. The afternoon is a down time for river rituals, so it was nearly quiet and peaceful by Indian standards (meaning that we were only asked five or six times to visit some silk shop, by friendly people who took 'no' for an answer; only nudged off the sidewalk twice by herds of water buffalo heading for the river). Slowly soaking in the temples and the scenery on that afternoon was one of our favourite activities in India so far. It is so colourful and panoramic and like nothing we have ever seen before and we know that our pictures could not come close to capturing it.

The only downside to Varanasi was the unrelenting masses of touts. Everywhere we went we received offers for boat rides, massages, postcards and trips to view silk shops with "unbeatable prices." Each time we were assured that we would be receiving the "true Indian price." They were hard to shake because they would start off being helpful and friendly only to slip into the conversation that their uncle owns a silk shop and it would take no time at all to have a look. We got to be quite skilled at avoiding tourist traps.

Yesterday we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The relatively huge amount of tourists that we have seen since we left Kanpur has meant that we are no longer local celebrities, although many Indians have been telling James that he looks like James Bond. Sometimes they mistake him for being Indian, and won't believe him when he says that his hair is naturally that dark. No one makes the same mistake about Antonia, although one man on the train did comment on how impressively large her thighs are, calling them 'good construction.'

(that's the tree! that's the tree!)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Wedding Week

After about a week of ceremonies and parties, Lucie and Jitendra are now officially married. We have spent a very full and festive week in Kanpur joining in on all of the activities and getting to know Jitendra's family. Many of Lucie's friends and family also joined us, so the wedding was an international affair that made our brains twisty from translating French to English for Hindi speakers, and back again.

The wedding was about four days long in total and was filled with more ceremony, food, music, dancing, and fancy clothes than we could have imagined. The first day, a henna artist arrived at our hotel to decorate Emilie and Antonia's hands and feet. They were not allowed to use their hands for five hours afterwards, so they stayed in the hotel room while James and Yann went out to get them food and drinks, and then feed them. Antonia had quite a relaxing time, but she's not sure how James felt about it.

The first ceremony took place in Jitendra's parents' house between Jitendra and Lucie's eldest brother, Etienne. This was a giving away of Lucie, where after feeding each other sweets, Etienne formally invited Jitendra to wed his sister. After this we danced to a live band and ate a catered dinner under an open-air tent on the roof. The entire house was decorated with lights and garlands of flowers. This celebration itself was nicer than most Canadian weddings, although it was only the first of many days of ceremonies, and not nearly the most important one.

The night was marred slightly when a camera man suddenly had an epileptic seizure and vomitted all over James. The camera man was alright, though, and James was back to the party after a trip to the hotel for a change of clothes. Emilie and Antonia got to borrow beautiful saris from Jitendra's mother and were styled by many aunts and cousins who perhaps were a little overzelous with the makeup and gold jewellery. They were completely stymied by Antonia's short hair. In fact, one relative from a small village asked if she was Lucie's brother. All of the women here have gorgeous long hair and got to have hundreds of tiny white flowers pinned in it for the wedding. Antonia is thinking that she needs to grow her hair out.

The next day was a ceremony for Jitendra's parents to bless the wedding and ask for the presence of the gods in the marriage. They also dressed Jitendra in a sash marked with Lucie's handprint over his heart so that he wouldn't be distracted before the wedding, and prayed for three days without any arguments to ensure that the wedding had the greatest chance of actually taking place.

For the biggest day of all, we tried to heed the instructions to "rest as much as possible," although we found that there were always more bangles, bindis, and earrings that we had to buy for all of our wedding outfits. In the late afternoon we went to Jitendra's parents' house for a ceremony to dress the groom, followed by lots of dancing and a trip to the temple across the street, and of course more dancing. Emilie and Antonia got dressed in their beautiful lehangas, rented for them by Jitendra's parents, with more help from the women. Once we arrived at the hotel where the celebration would take place, the groom's side performed the Bharat, which was one of the most fun parts of the entire wedding. A huge, brightly-decorated mobile stage with a live band led a parade of Jitendra's family and friends, all dancing, and taking up the entire street so that the insane traffic had to wait. Jitendra's family are all very skilled dancers and loved to pull the foreigners right onto the middle of the circle to watch us try to imitate them poorly.

After the groom's side arrived with such frenzy, Lucie arrived to meet Jitendra for the garlanding ceremony. They sat on thrones while each guest visited them for congratulations and photographs. Then we danced, and danced, and danced. Dinner followed this at around 1 am, and most of the 300+ guests left as the actual ceremony is meant to be witnessed by only the closest 50 guests. We changed out of our fancy clothes into salwar kurtas and pyjama kurtas, which are very light and comfortable traditional suits. Then, starting at the exact hour prescribed by the priest according to his astrological calculations, the nearly four hour long ceremony began. Lucie and Jitendra sat under a beautiful tent and made their promises and offerings, Jitendra occasionally translating the Hindi into English for Lucie.

After 5 am and after sunrise, the traditional Hindu ceremony ended and Jitendra and Lucie changed for a condensed version of a western wedding, with a ring exchange, cake cutting, and first dance. Seconds before the ring exchange, Jitendra asked James to stand up with him and hand him Lucie's ring, "and, oh yeah, say a few words." James stepped up to the job of pinch best man and made a great speech off the top of his head. By 7 am rush hour we were stumbling down the street toward our hotel for a daytime sleep.

Yesterday the wedding finally concluded when we accompanied Lucie and Jitendra to the Ganges, where they made an offering, were blessed, and we were all sprinkled with the holy river water. We visited another temple where the couple was blessed, and later the final ceremony took place in Jitendra's parents' home between Lucie and Jitendra. It was after this that they were allowed to spend their first night together. Experts were brought in to decorate their bed with a canopy of white and pink garlands.

Lucie and Jitendra seem very happy and understandably exhausted. So do their family. This has been an amazing week.

We have mostly been able to beat the heat in our air-conditioned hotel, other than all of the dancing that we have been doing in the middle of the day. Heat rashes acquired in Lucknow have dissipated, although we have been taking turns suffering from some stomach issues. Our theory is that our systems could only tolerate the food for so long before giving in. We each had one day of wretchedness before recovering, and we have since been managing alright. Jitendra 's family has treated us as part of the family. Tomorrow we will reluctantly leave Kanpur and Jitendra's family - our new Indian home away from home - and return to the backpacker trail.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lucknow to Kanpur

"It's not hot here. It's crazy."

This is what a Spanish tourist told Yann and Emilie in Lucknow. And he was right. When Antonia stepped off the plane in Lucknow she could feel scorching hot air blowing on her from the engine. Then she tried to step out of the way of this firey jetstream, and realized that this is just how the air is here. It was 47 degrees. There is only hot water running in our hotels, not cold, because the water tanks are heated by the sun. Our air conditioned hotels are a great respite, although today we measured the temperature inside our room and it was around the mid-30s. This is heaven to us.

We had one full day in Lucknow to enjoy this capital of Uttar Pradesh and see as many sights as we could manage while we were sweltering. We saw the Lucknow Residency, which are the ruins of the site of the 1857 Siege during the Uprising/First War of Independence (depending on your perspective). You can still see the bullet and cannon ball holes where the local forces tried to drive out the British supporters held hostage there for five months.

We went to the Bara Imbara, which is a massive tomb built in the 18th century. The best part was a labyrinth that led us to the top of the building for a panoramic view of the city and many of its beautiful gates and mosques. We had to remove our shoes before entering, and the heat forced us to stay on the most shaded areas, since the unshaded ones were like hot coals to our bare feet. We played a game of 'rock/paper/scissors' to determine who had to cross the wide, sunbaked expanse of the roof of the tomb for a photo op. Of course Antonia lost, so she sprinted over and back trying to keep her feet above ground as much as possible.
We also saw the highest clocktower in India, although it didn't keep time, and wandered around the old city to see huge gates and more sights. The Chota Imbara has on its grounds two models of the Taj Mahal, each bigger than a house, and inside is a large and quirky chandelier museum. We also saw the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in the city.

We loved Lucknow. It was like how we pictured India before we came; monkeys living on buildings and electrical wires, cows decorated in flowers wandering the streets, alleys lined with paneer and jalebi sellers, crazy traffic, and frequent power outages. Beautiful and insane. Maybe the weirdest part was what an oddity we were to the locals. Wherever we went, we were stared at. People would want to shake our hands and have their picture taken with us, sometimes running after us to get the chance. Although we couldn't quite understand their interest in us, they were very sweet. While we were riding downtown in a cycle-rickshaw, almost on parade, people would shout "welcome to India!" as we went by. In fact, we just had to take a break from writing to pose for pictures with the owner of this internet cafe.

Yesterday we took a bus to Jitendra's hometown, Kanpur, where everyone is very busy and excited with wedding preparations. Jitendra and his family are very generously putting us up in a fancy hotel where we have been relaxing in the AC and watching CNN and Wimbledon in between outings to meet his lovely relatives. It has been so nice to spend time with his family instead of being only backpackers. After checking into the hotel we went to the tailor to get James and Yann fitted for suits, and to order another outfit, all of which is being made especially for them. Altogether the boys will have three outfits and have been very busy shopping. Emilie and Antonia only have two outfits and everything is being arranged by Jitendra's mother, so they can relax a little more. Wedding activities will begin on Monday and last until Thursday. We got some details yesterday and all that we will say now is that it is going to be quite a party. The first instruction that we received for the final wedding day: "9 am to 4 pm - rest as much as possible." We soon discovered why. As Jitendra was listing the events, we kept anticipating a change of clothing. "Not yet," he kept saying, even though his schedule was getting past midnight. It turns out that we have a couple of changes to do in the wee hours, and the celebrations will not end until sunrise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Alleppey



We have spent the past two days in the paradise of the canal village of Alleppey, Kerala, dubbed the 'Venice of the East.' Or, at least we have decided that it would be paradise if it weren't for the mosquitoes. We took the train from Trivandrum, which made Alleppey feel even more charming and relaxing by comparison. After dodging the schemes of some very sneaky rickshaw drivers seeking commission from hotels, we found a lovely spot to spend the night. The Gowri guesthouse is on a shady, quiet piece of land with chickens and three very hilarious geese running around. Our independent little cottage had a beautiful outdoor bathroom: four walls, no roof, and some trees next to the toilet. Rather, Antonia thought that it was beautiful and James cursed the mosquitoes that joined in on his shower.

The next day we set out on our houseboat ride. This is one of the most luxurious things that we have ever done, and it was strange to have our own private crew of three people for the twenty-four hours, but it really was wonderful. Our boat was a floating palace, with an outdoor dining area, upper observation deck, bedroom, and the only hot shower we will likely use for weeks. Shoreline villages passed us as we drifted by, we watched people wash their laundry and dishes in the waterways, and exchanged waves. For lunch the boat pulled into shore and our chef promptly leapt out of the boat and cut off some banana leaves that were then used for our plates. The traditional Keralan food was served to us in very large amounts and it just kept coming. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the upper deck, lounging in the chairs or on a shaded bed when the sun was too much for us, all the while watching some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen go by. Our chef brought us a snack of fried bananas. We had to laugh at the amount of pampering that we received. The only negative was the swarm of mosquitoes that attacked us while we were eating our dinner, which caused us to eat as quickly as possible while swatting each other, "okay, two more bites and we can go inside, hurry up!" It's funny now, but wasn't then. But this was only a small irritation in an otherwise sublime day. We fell asleep to a wonderful, rainless thunder and lightning show.

Antonia had hoped to ease her conscience about this bourgeois activity a little by befriending the crew and trying to close the obvious social gap that existed between them and us. This didn't really work; only one of the crew spoke much English and they declined our invitation to join us for lunch. Antonia tried to simply enjoy this rare experience but feared that she had come to the oldest freely-elected Marxist state in the world only to be waited on.

This morning we had another huge meal on the water, this time while moving back to port, so thankfully the mosquitoes couldn't keep up. We reluctantly left our floating palace and heading for the train station, where we booked a train to Kochi in order to catch our flight back up north tomorrow morning. We are getting to be quite proficient and comfortable with the Indian railway system, if we do say so ourselves. Today we wandered around Ernakulam, the mainland and more metropolitan part of Kochi, and now we need to go to bed because we will get up before 5 am to catch our flight. Tomorrow we will meet up with Emilie and Yann in Lucknow.

We have been very lucky with the weather in Kerala. It rains a little in the morning and then clears up to a sunny and tolerable temperature, if a little humid. This ends tomorrow; we head back to 44 degree weather!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thiruvananthapuram


We figured out how to ride the train! Okay, well it was made easier by the fact that our friend Pallavi booked our first round of tickets. We found our car number, found our seats, and found someone sleeping in them! After he gladly moved for us we struck up a conversation with the man sitting beside us. He told us a lot about his views on India and Kerala but apparently wasn't being patriotic enough for the man who was sleeping earlier. An argument between these two men broke out that we could only understand snippets of but apparently the sleeping man didn't like the fact that the other man was criticizing India and was telling him to "be Indian!" It was uncomfortable for us; we could tell that we were the subject of the argument but we couldn't understand it since it was carried out in either Hindi or Malayalam or both, we couldn't tell. They were both nice, however, and after tensions relieved we continued with our conversation. Once the sleeping man left the other man told us his views on life and honesty, and soon we were in Thiruvananthapuram, or Trivandrum for short.

It was quite hard to find a hotel. We think it is because the Kerala International Documentary and Short Film Festival is in town. The only hotel room we were able to procure was one with three beds! It was clean at least so we took it. We had dinner and tried to find a room for the next day with the right number of beds. We checked out a place called Kukie's Holiday Inn which was recommended by our guide book and a rickshaw driver upon our arrival. The employee of the inn was gracious enough to show us a possible room which came equipped with a double bed, private bathroom, and cockroaches. Needless to say we stuck with the three beds.

The next day we woke up, went for breakfast, and unsuccessfully tried to take a bus to the Neyyar Dam Sanctuary. The Neyyar Dam Sanctuary is a wildlife refuge built around an idyllic lake that was created by the 1964 Neyyar Dam about 30km north of town. We were able to figure out that a bus to the Neyyar Dam did indeed leave from the station we were at but unfortunately were not able to figure out which one it was since the signs were all in Malayalam and no one understood us. Plan B: hire a rickshaw.

We took the rickshaw to the elephant rehabilitation centre inside of the sanctuary. Having been to a similar place in Thailand, Antonia was expecting a large operation with guides able to tell us what the centre was about. Instead we were the only tourists at the place and it was a significantly smaller operation. No one spoke very much English or could tell us much about the centre. The conversation went something like this:
-"elephant ride?"
-"yes please"
-"rain?"
-"that's okay"
-"okay"
After throwing a blanket over the elephant and leading us up a staircase, the full elephant riding instructions were "get on!" Riding the elephant was amazing. It was huge and lumbering and would stop every once in a while to pull branches off of trees to eat which sprayed us with recently fallen rain. After the ride we got to pet and touch the elephant while they were instructed to wrap their trunks around us and rest them on our heads.

Before we left we were able to pet a five year old elephant, very cute! We also got to take some photos of a seventy-five year old elephant and were instructed "no touch!" We weren't about to, it was huge and regal with long tusks.

On our way back to the main part of the sanctuary our rickshaw got stuck in the pouring rain in the middle of nowhere. For a second we wondered how we were going to get back but luckily after several attempts at starting the engine our driver was successful.

At the sanctuary we took a boat ride around the lake and were able to see monkeys, lions and owls. The neatest part about the ride was hearing the enourmous roar of the lions all through the park.

Today we went to the zoological gardens and museums of Kerala. It was a nice relaxing getaway from the bustle of downtown Trivandrum. At the zoo there were zebras, alligators, lions, elephants, tigers, rhinoserous, pelicans, cobras, pythons, giraffes, leopards and lots more. Our favourites were the sloth bear and the hippos. Next we went to the Napier museum inside the gardens which was inside a gorgeous building. The museum contained ancient Hindu and Buddhist artifacts.

We are among the only tourists that we have seen in Trivandrum, and we get a lot of stares and children are sometimes excited to see us, sometimes scared. We have tried to strike up conversations with local people and have noticed that everyone addresses James, never Antonia, and he is expected to order our meals and pay for them. Even getting to know our friends on the train, Antonia was never asked anything about herself. When we introduce ourselves, separately, using our first names, we end up being refered to simply as 'Mr. and Mrs. James.' It feels quite strange, but Antonia will try to stomach it for this leg of the trip, and hopes that things will be a little different in areas where tourists aren't quite such a novelty.

Trivandrum has been the most difficult place that we have travelled so far; dodging the traffic has been a feat in itself and our plans are determined by where there might be a safe place to cross the street. Where elsewhere we have had to dodge traffic, cows and goats, here we have to watch out for traffic, rats (dead or alive) and cockroaches. We've had a good time, especially escaping the insanity to go to the zoo and the sanctuary, but we are looking forward to heading toward Alleppey tomorrow, which should be quite a bit more laid back, and where we will hopefully have our much-anticipated houseboat ride.

Oh, and we can't believe that we thought $2,50 for two dinners was a good deal. Here, we have been consistently eating delicious food for around $1,25 for two complete meals. And (knock on wood!) no Delhi belly yet!