Thursday, October 27, 2011

Varanasi (I am a scaredy cat)

I had the craziest day today.  I wanted to catch up with Orchha and Khajuraho before moving on to Varanasi - both Orchha and Khajuraho are lovely, lovely places - but I need to write this down before I forget it, because I think I just about ran the gamut of human emotions today.

I woke up at dawn to take a boat ride on the Ganges, up and down the ghats.  That's the number one tourist activity here.  Take a look at the photos and you can see why.

Everything about this city batters at the senses.  There are some scenes, like the ones above, that are peaceful and surreal.  Others, like the one at the top, that hint at the city's battered grandeur.  And then there's the chaos...

And the filth...

And yes, that is a boy with a kite in the foreground.  Because the image wasn't heartbreaking enough without a boy and a kite, was it?

Also, please imagine brushing your teeth with that water.  Because that happens.  You're welcome.

You know what else I saw?  A dead baby.  Varanasi is all about death.  Apparently the belief is that people who die here ascend straight to the Hindu equivalent of heaven, so people come here to die.  Most of the people who die here are cremated on the ghats.  But some - including children, pregnant women, lepers, holy men, and people who die from snakebite - are wrapped in their shrouds and given to the river whole.  Today I saw a family rowing a shrouded little baby out into the river.

We rowed past the burning ghats as well, where the bodies are burnt.  What struck me, drifting by and later on foot, wasn't the pyres.  It was the gigantic piles of wood.  Huge piles of wood, several stories high, surround the steps where the bodies are burnt on all sides and in stacks down the street.  Because there are today's bodies, and tomorrow's, and the day after tomorrow's...and they'll all need wood to burn.

So after my sunrise boat excursion, I did a few more touristy things.  I went to the train station to book some onward tickets.  I went to a cafe/shop to buy some gifts.  And then I decided I'd finish off the day by walking the ghats from end to end, or, at least, as far as I could go before my feet started hurting.  I did that too, and it was nice, more battering of the senses.  Here's another photo from the walk:

Kind of more of the same, right?  Boats, misty city, people bathing, but this time with cows!  Speaking of the cows, they were kind of uppity today.  That was the first odd thing.  I've seen so many cows over the past month and they're always so placid.  They stand around nosing through the trash or chomping on weeds, maybe lying in the middle of the road.  Up until today, the cows I saw were mostly stationary.  Sometimes they ambled.  I didn't hear one moo until today, when all the cows woke up and started acting lively: trotting, grunting, and, in one case, charging.  These things have horns!  They are gigantic!  It's scary when a cow trots your way.

So I get to the end of the ghats and I decided I'd walk back to my hotel a different way, via the streets.  But the streets are narrow and winding and I lost my sense of direction pretty quickly.  That's when the dogs attacked.

I have been repeatedly amazed by how sweet-natured the street dogs here are.  They're more polite than most of the dogs I see in the states who have owners and some training.  It's gotten to the point where I don't notice the street dogs, or, when I do, I just feel sort of happy and sympathetic towards them.  But rabies is common in India and when I turned down an alley and three dogs started barking and chasing me, I remembered the lay of the land right quick.  I was backing away and using my purse as a barrier and seeing my life flash in front of my eyes when some random stranger stepped in to call the dogs off.  (Just to be clear: none of them touched me, not even a little bit, or else this would be a very different story).

I was light-headed for about half an hour after that.  Rabies is terrifying and I was terrified.  So I was sort of getting lost and the sun was heading towards the western horizon and I was light-headed with terror.  I tried asking a few people which way to the ghats, thinking at least I'd get my sense of direction back if I could find the river, but I just wound deeper into this warren of streets.  The women and children vanished as it got darker.  Instead, these aggressive young men zoomed up and down the little alleyways on motorbikes, hooting and hollering and going way, way too fast.  One biker clipped my camera, another jeered when I had to leap to get out of his way and barely saved my toes from a crushing.

Finally I emptied out on an actual, car-carrying asphalt road.  I was tired and kind of miserable so I nabbed the first rickshaw I saw.  It was a cycle rickshaw, which was already bad news - perching behind a guy on a bicycle while he plays chicken with a bunch of cars is not fun.  But, really, I wanted to go back to tourist land.  I wanted hotels and restaurants and cheap jewelry stores and chai shops.

Instead, the rickshaw driver drove me right into the middle of a parade.  With people in fuzzy red hats and a band and lots of angry cops who all yelled at him and made him turn around.  So the poor driver is trying to turn around while half-a-dozen people shout at him and then someone let off a really, really loud firecracker.  I screamed and clapped my hands over my ears, the rickshaw driver took off, and we careened into a horde of those testosterone-crazed motorcyclists that I'd been dodging on foot for the past hour, all of them wearing identical orange turbans.  Hundreds of them.

At that point I just ducked and covered my face.  I didn't want to know what would happen next.

But all that happened is that the rickshaw driver plowed his way through amidst much catcalling.  The first few roads he tried were all blocked, thanks to the parade, and jammed up with confused drivers, and periodically trails of those orange-turbaned motorcyclists would force their way through, all of them howling.  Once we got onto free-flowing roads there were long long lines of people all waiting for...something...going on for ten or twelve blocks, and police cars all over.

Eventually the rickshaw driver dropped me back in tourist land and then, because I was a terrified puddle of spineless goo, bulled me into paying him WAY too much (by which I mean, I paid him $2 when I should have paid him $0.50).  I found a nice, quiet place to have dinner and that was that.

Let's see how long it takes me before I decide to wander off an explore a new city on foot again, hmm?  Might be a while.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I got down from the mountains with one priority: go someplace warm.  I'd originally intended to hang around up north for a while, making my way east through the mountains, but the way things work at the budget hotels around here you get like, one blanket on a thin hard mattress and that wasn't going to erase my memory of chattering the night away with icy feet in the Himalayas.

There's also a sort of general consensus that the far-north cities are "over".  I met a girl in Dharamsala who said she'd originally gone to Leh - a city even farther to the north, at a higher altitude, with more dramatic mountains - who left because Leh was "over."  And then, when I was in Manali, a lot of the shopkeepers and restauranteurs all said that they were only going to stay open for a few more days, because Manali was about to be "over".  More than one of them put it like this: "Now that Goa has started, Manali is over."

I thought this was pretty hilarious - this town is over! - but it's just a fact of the changing seasons: the northern hill stations are most popular when the weather down south is unbearably hot.  Now that the south is cooling down and winter is on its way to the mountains, the tourist season is winding down.  

So I decided to make my way to Khajuraho.  In order to do that, I took another all night bus south - my third all night bus, ugh - to Delhi, where I spent a few unpleasant hours in the massive, hectic New Delhi train station before catching a train to Gwalior.  I get pretty nervous when I'm moving from place to place because I know I'm at my most vulnerable, carrying all my valuables, weighted down, slow and uncertain. I got harassed a bit in the train station but the worst moment came towards the end, after I'd been wandering up and down the track for twenty minutes trying to figure out where my car would be once my train rolled into the station.  

I ran into a pair of British girls who were in the car right next to mine, so I decided to stick close to them.  But they had just arrived in the country and hadn't yet learned that it doesn't always pay to be friendly here.  This old dude, dressed in white with a big old beard and a toothy smile, started chatting up the British girls.  And they chatted back, cheerful and laughing and hand-gesturing all over the place.  This attracted attention, which is to say it attracted a crowd of male onlookers.  They surrounded us three deep, to the point where the British girls finally started to get nervous.  I'd been reading in my Kindle but I looked up, shooed all the men away (literally: I waved at them and said SHOO) and then abandoned the British girls, because that was not my idea of fun.

Anyhow.  The train was calm and pleasant.  I had a hard time figuring out where we were stopping and the other passengers in my car were really nice.  They noticed how nervous I got every time the train slowed down and finally they were like, "We'll tell you when we get to Gwalior!  We promise!"  And then they were like, "Ok, Gwalior in three stops," "Gwalior in two stops," "Get ready, it's the next stop." So that was nice.

I stayed in Gwalior long enough to rest up, see a couple of the major sights, and move on.  The city has a big hill fort, most of which is underground and infested by bats.  Thousands and thousands of bats.  It's a magnificent structure that has become very creepy and very, very smelly.  

For example.  Check out the photo on the left.  Once upon a time, it was a sumptuously decorated chamber where the maharajah's many wives whiled away the afternoons on swings that hung between those thick pillars.  Later, the room was converted into a prison and the hooks for the swings were used to string up prisoners.  Guess which use the room seems better suited to today?

The above-ground parts of the fort were easier to appreciate.

Here's a temple...

Some goats eating offerings at a shrine:

Me on one of the balconies, overlooking a small palace:

My other stop in Gwalior was the Jai Vilas Palace, basically a glorified storage facility for the family that owns it.  The "exhibits" are just things they don't use anymore, like a big baby stroller shaped like a swan, or a table and chair set carved of wood that's too heavy to use but too valuable to throw away.  My favorite thing was a miniature choo-choo train they'd laid out in their massive dining hall that carried bottles of champagne up and down the table.  Here's a picture of the biggest attraction, an assembly hall that contains two three-ton chandeliers!  And the largest hand-woven rug in Asia!  Cuz bigger is better!

I found the place about as wonderfully absurd as I'd hoped to, but I'm pretty sure that's not the effect the family is really going for by opening their home up as a "museum"

I think I'll save Orchha and Khajuraho (my favorite place in India so far) for later.  

Monday, October 17, 2011


So I signed onto a three-day trek through the Himalayas, circling around the small city of Manali.  I didn't ask too many questions before setting off, which was a mistake - I didn't realize, for example, that the plan was, "For two days you will hike up a really steep mountain, and then in one day you will hike all the way back down the really steep mountain."  No flat terrain in sight; my calves are still killing me.

Here are some pictures from the first day, on the way up:

We camped at around 14,000 feet altitude, both nights.  It was pretty warm during the day (you can see my wearing a t-shirt above), but got cold fast.  Insanely cold.  We had porters and horses carrying all the heavy stuff, but had to set up our own tents and such.  The porters laid out a tarp and then tossed a dozen sleeping bags on it and said, "Two each!" and we were all like, "What?  Two sleeping bags?  Who needs two sleeping bags?"

I could have used three.

I went to bed that night with one sleeping bag tucked into the other, wearing a full set of long underwear, wool socks, and a thick fleece, but I was still too cold to sleep.  I just lay there all night with my teeth chattering, waiting for the sun to come up again.  

Here's that camp: 

Day two was more uphill, but with the addition of scary shale slopes.  Honestly, if we hadn't been a day in, I probably would have turned around here because, seriously, this is not a trail:

It's a rock slide waiting to happen.  I crawled through most of this terrain at a snail's pace, irritating the other hikers, but I was terrified.  At one point I sat down next to one of our guides.  I think his name was Mani but we all called him Money; he was a cool little Nepalese kid who wore killer white sunglasses and, get this, sandals at night.  He was that hardcore.  Anyhow.  I said, "This looks like a rock slide waiting to happen," and he said, "Yeah, we get a lot of avalanches here."


Here's our camp for the second night:

And some of the wonderful views from Camp #2: 

Bizarrely enough the third day - the downhill - was the worst.  I didn't get winded the way I did on the uphill slopes, but that contributed to the problem.  I just forced my muscles to carry my legs forward long after they were shot, trying to keep up with the other hikers.  I admit to being the slowest person on the trek in general; there was a fifty-eight year old Spaniard who could have run circles around me.

Anyhow, the point is, the downhill was really steep and we had to descend at a rapid pace.  By the time we reached the finale, the village of Vashisht, my knees were killing me.  Imagine going down a really steep set of stairs, with half the steps taller than is comfortable, for five hours straight and you might get an idea of how I felt.  I hobbled around like an old lady for days.

But no regrets.  I saw some seriously beautiful scenery, and I tested myself.  Both good things.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Today I hiked down Old Manali’s single, half-paved road to the bridge over the river that separates the old and new parts of the city.  Going uphill again, I passed a park full of the tall trees that cloak the hills in these parts – massive pine trees that give the whole area the look of a fantasy movie, a landscape subtly stretched beyond the limits of reality.

I was headed for the shops.  I figured that was about all I could handle with my cold. Manali is in the far north, tucked into the Himalayas, and known for its woolen goods.  I ended up buying a pashmina shawl for my mom, cornflower blue and light as though it had been woven from cotton candy or spiderwebs, and – for half the price – a silk and pashmina shawl for myself.  Mine is a mellow Bordeaux color, so thin and soft my fingers feel rough and uncouth by comparison whenever I touch it, but I draped it around my shoulders anyhow.  The slide of cloth against my neck is delicious, and as the weather cooled and rain threatened during the afternoon, it kept me pretty warm.

I started back towards my hotel, more energetic than I’d expected to feel after hoofing it all that way.  I ended up stopping at one of the town’s fancier cafes for a salad and a tall glass of plum-ginger juice.  Salad and ice cubes are dangerous for travelers, but look at the picture and tell me you wouldn’t have succumbed (the apples are local):

Manali is a prime honeymoon destination for Indians, and when you’re sitting in a beautiful garden with a bright green lawn surrounded by full-blown roses while snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, it’s easy to understand why.  The contrast is magical.

Fortified by lunch, I detoured up to the Hadimba temple.  It’s a seventeenth century temple dedicated to the goddess Hadimba – don’t ask me to explain who she is – and my visit there was nothing I would have predicted.

The building itself is plain, a pagoda shape constructed of dark wooden beams and white plaster, its roof clad in timber shingles.  At first, the only ornamentation I could see were the ring of antlers fastened just under the overhanging roof. 

A long line of people snaked out from the doorway, so I did a circuit of the temple before deciding if I wanted to get in line myself.  Pollen rained down from the trees, turning the air green.  Halfway around a pack of young men stopped me and asked if I’d take a picture with them.  This has happened to me surprisingly often since I arrived in India; I got through months in Morocco and Egypt without ever feeling very weird about being white, or blonde, but it’s impossible here.  Once I agreed to take a picture with the young men a whole bunch of other people approached me.  I ended up standing around while little crowd swirled around me, people taking turns standing at my side and mugging for the camera – including a lawyer from Calcutta, who insisted that I converse in turn with each of his three children, two daughters and a son, to practice their English before they gathered around me for a big family photo. 

Next to a temple!  A sixteenth century temple! 

Finally I got in line, made my way up to the front and clambered through the small door into a dark, almost empty space thick with smoke from an open fire.  The devout crept down a small ramp to a little shrine, laid down their offerings, and left.  I couldn’t tell if the shrine contained anything of note; I just saw the candles and the rupee bills and a sort of dark carved rock.  I stepped aside, uneasy about getting any closer.  I didn’t feel like I’d come to a tourist destination at all, and I didn’t want to intrude any further.

This cute little dog followed me home from the temple.  I’ve seen street dogs everywhere I go.  They tend to be starving and scruffy and at night they’ll bark and howl and fight.  Some of them are injured.  Some of them are tiny, adorable little puppies.  In any case, India has the highest incidence of rabies infection in the world and I avoid them…until this adorable creature followed me down the hill.  Pale and scruffy like all the others, but what manners!  It walked at my heel for almost two miles, stopped when I stopped, sat and waited patiently with me when I hugged walls or signposts while cars zoomed past.  I’d started to formulate a plan, thinking I’d find a vet, find out if the dog had rabies, get it a bunch of vaccinations, name it Kiddo and find a way to bring it home with me when it saw a pair of tourists walking by in the opposite direction and started tagging after them instead of me. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

See that?  Three layers: bottom layer honey, middle layer strips of ginger, top layer hot water with lemon juice squeezed in.  With a teabag on the side.

I've had about five of those today.

I decided to move east from Dharamsala/McLeod-Ganj to Manali last night.  Easy enough to do: I booked a ticket on the bus leaving that evening, packed up and checked out of my hotel, and voila.  The bus left early and the drivers sped over the bumpy roads, tipping and tilting the bus around each hairpin turn.  It was horrible.  I heard something electronic crunch about a quarter of the way through and spent the rest of the trip clutching my purse and cursing the driver.  At one point another passenger was literally flung from her seat onto the floor, where she cut her leg on a piece of rusty metal.

The bus was scheduled to drop us in Manali around six in the morning.  Instead, thanks to the reckless driving, we arrived at four in the morning.  It is not good to arrive in a new town at four in the morning!  We all stumbled off the bus, bleary eyed and rattled, only to find a hotelier waiting with a minivan and an offer we couldn't refuse: go with them, or sit around in the dark at the bus station until the rickshaw drivers woke up and arrived on scene.

So we piled into the minivan and looked back with sorrow at the pair of French girls who remained behind in the pitch-black parkling lot, unwilling to be conned.  The hotel turned out to be out of the way, a five minute walk on little dirt footpaths away from Old Manali's tiny little main road, and nice enough, but the whole episode left a foul taste in my mouth.  I suspect the hotelier had made some sort of arrangement between the speeding bus driver.

I ended up splitting the cost of a room with the poor girl who'd cut her leg on the bus for the remainder of the night (my share added up to about $3), dragging myself out of bed again at 8:30 and finding a different hotel.  I imagine inertia was supposed to keep me in place, justifying the hotelier's time and effort, which is why I was so prompt about leaving.

I'd been developing a mild cold in Dharamsala and the miserable, sleepless bus ride made it worse so I've been nursing my sore throat with the delicious concoction pictured above.  It's available almost everywhere here.

Below is the view from Manali - the mountains are getting bigger and look at those trees!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Dalai Lama

I've been in Dharamsala for a few days now - or, actually, McLeod-Ganj, which sounds much less romantic so I can't blame people for referring to the town by the name of its big sister.  It's the site of the Dalai Lama's home since he went into exile, the current epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism, and as a result the town feels a lot like a cross between...well, between a small Himalayan village and the student union of a particularly hippy-ish university.

My arrival was lucky, since the Dalai Lama was in residence and giving a series of lectures at the temple.  I attended one...well, I snuck into one, anyhow.  I read the signs explaining how to register for entrance and went about assembling the necessary items: passport photos for security, an FM radio so I could hear the instant translation of his lecture, a safe place to leave my camera behind.  But when I showed up bright and early at security I was told that registration had closed.  Too bad for me.

Disappointed, I turned around to head home and figure out what else I might want to do here when this long-haired Russian dude pulled me to the side of the road.  He was sitting on a little bench drinking masala tea with a monk.  There are lots of monks here.  For some reason, the Russian dude was determined to get me into the lecture and he devised a brilliant scheme: I'd head back up to security with the monk, who would announce that I was his wife, and then they'd have to let me in!

I'm not sure who was more embarrassed by this suggestion, the monk or myself, but the remarkable thing is that we actually tried it.

It didn't work.

But Russian Dude was not deterred.  He led me back around the temple, away from security, and then up a series of staircases and rickety little ladders until we'd snuck into the audience hall from another direction.  This felt sort of wrong and, furthermore, was kind of depressing - those poor security guys at the gate were confiscating Swiss Army knives from all the visitors and for what?

Anyhow, the temple looks a lot like a public school building.  Not fancy at all.  Which is nice, in a way; a show of humility and simplicity, no concern for worldly goods.  And I saw the Dalai Lama as he passed into the main hall where he'd speak, preceded by incense and surrounded by devoted believers who pressed their palms together and bowed in his presence.  It was the sort of thing that reminds you that Buddhism isn't just a philosophy or a spiritual practice; it's a religion.

The lecture itself wasn't anything new or revelatory.  Compassion, non-violence, emptiness, the non-existence of things.  Maybe if I were more invested in the philosophy I'd have a comment on the nuances.  Instead I felt a lot like I was listening to a primer on Structuralism (if things are interdependent for existence, they have no existence of their own, they are not real...)

As the lecture wound to a close, someone unwound a long strip of yellow cloth along the railing of the staircase leading down and out of the temple.  They tied the ends, tying the sleeve to the rail, the Dalai Lama walked down the staircase, someone rolled up the yellow cloth and the morning session was over.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I don't have anything smart to say about Delhi so instead I'm going to go for the chuckles.

(1) I packed a little bottle of iced-tea flavoring to add to bottles of water.  This made me feel really clever and when, upon arrival at my hotel, I was presented with a bottle of cold water I triumphantly unwrapped the flavoring and squirted it in.  Unfortunately, the flavoring tasted awful and later that night I had to brush my teeth with iced tea.  Not a success.

(2) I woke up early the next morning, courtesy of jet lag, and ventured out into the city.  I took the metro three stations on my own!  I felt so proud!  I presented my token, let some ladies feel me up behind a ratty curtain and correctly read the signs telling me which direction to go and where to exit.  It's amazing how venturing abroad makes even the smallest accomplishments feel huge.

(3) After wading through waves of irritating, harassing touts I arrived at the state tourism office at 9am, ready to schedule myself a spot on a daily bus tour of the city.  Delhi is so big that I wanted a general lay of the land.  The dour, droopy-eyed concierge assured me that the bus tour, scheduled to begin at 9am, no, 10am, no, 9:30 am, and touring only New Delhi, no, lasting all day and covering all the major sights in Old and New Delhi, was completely booked.  After scolding me for not having booked my bus tour weeks in advance, he asked me if I wanted to take a car tour instead?

(4) I declined the concierge's kind offer and took an auto-rickshaw to the Red Fort.  The Red Fort was gorgeous and epic and a wonder to behold.  But I left to hoof it around Old Delhi and within the space of an hour I'd burned myself red as a beet (forgot to put on sunscreen!), overheated and exhausted myself.  I headed back to my hotel to take a nap at about 3 in the afternoon and then slept until four the next morning, when I woke up and immediately booked myself on a bus to Dharamsala.

(5) I've heard the buses that wind north through the Himalayas are terrifying, but I was never nervous about our driver's competence.  What did totally freak me out were the bumpy roads.  I'd lean my head back against the headrest to doze off and a few minutes later one of the bumps in the road would knock my forehead against the window pretty hard, I'd wake up, and my hair would have been teased into a bee-hive at the back of my head from all the bumping.  So I'd finger-comb my hair smooth again and then doze off until the next pothole had me repeating the process.  By the time I got off the plane, my hair felt stiff and crunchy as though I'd been swimming in the ocean - the accumulation of the day's sweat.  Ugh.

Delhi totally kicked my butt; maybe by the time I return there at the end of my stay I'll be able to handle the chaos, the harassment, the heat and the dirt.  It will be interesting to use my first experience of the city as a benchmark.  So far Dharamsala has been divine, and I'll finish this post with a picture of my view over breakfast, after I checked into my hotel and ventured out for a bite on a nearby terrace: