Sunday, 27 December 2009

Soul Searching

Such a funny phrase – I mean what does it mean exactly? There is barely proof (depending on which school of philosophy you adhere to) that the soul exists – so how can one search something that has no solid existence? And how does one go about a search of this kind? What kind of navigational tools does one employ? Is there even anything to find there? Or do we just invent what we want to find in an effort to make our endeavors worthwhile?
I came to India with the hopes of finding a little time to get to grips with my inner-self, my ‘true nature’ and all that malarkey. And here I am in Goa, with time on my hands, sitting in a hammock………mastering the art of Sudoku! I mean – it’s pretty cool stuff – rearranging numbers 1 through 9 incessantly to complete a square puzzle – for like hours on end – and I suppose, maybe in a way this task has a zen like quality to it – but really – aren’t there better ways, more useful ways I could be applying myself to the task of delving into my soul?

Of course – Sudoku is nothing more than a distraction tactic – one of many, like reading ‘War and Peace’ – (seriously – do literally critics really believe this is one of the greatest books ever written – cause if they do then I think I’m missing something – sure it has it’s moments – but in my humble opinion – the Russian nobility of the early 1800’s were mostly a bunch of pillocks, so to write 1400 pages of waffle about their vacuous thoughts and lives – well – I suppose that’s an achievement in and of itself – to get through that without blowing your own knee cap off with a sawn off shot gun – but really – for me – Tolstoy is a cool name – but not really the greatest writer of all time – but anyway – I digress), or editing photos, or obsessing about my gradually expanding waist line (thanks to sitting around doing nothing – obviously one of my least enlightened past-times – I’m quite sure that obsessing about an extra pound or two would be considered a little self-serving and positively unenlightened by Mr. Siddartha) and the list could go on!

Originally I had planned to use this time in Goa for all of the above but also to get settled into a daily regimen of yoga (in preparation for the yoga teacher training course I intend to do) and meditation (to help me obtain a stillness of mind and some inner calm). Now, granted – I have spent some time in a much needed state of relaxation, doing none of that – but as the time here has progressed and I’ve played, ‘avoid the task’ with greater determination and denial daily, the state of relaxation that I had managed to attain initially has dwindled and been replaced with that oh so familiar state that I learned to call ‘free floating anxiety’ during my oh so useful time studying for my BA in Psychology many moons ago.

So – what is it all about? This anxiety! This state of discontent! Is it just the unattended energy of an over-active mind looking for something to do? Is it the quiet urging from within to give myself a task, to find a role? The need to be achieving something with my life? To be working towards some greater goal? Or is it something else? Is it my soul, whispering to me, from the depths of it’s recess, wherever that may be, that there has to be more to life than Sudoku in a hammock and Tolstoy in Paperback Penguin Classics?

I do believe that there is more – but what ‘more’ means is different to every person, and that is where the challenge lies. Every soul must have it’s own ideal environment in which it will thrive? Every person’s idea of true happiness must be a subjectively different experience.
Perhaps the search for happiness in life is actually like a big game of, ‘hunt the thimble’. In today’s world though, the way I see it, one of the biggest problems is that there are so many choices and options – there are so many different thimbles in so many different places. It’s impossible to narrow it down. It’s like hunting for the thimble, with a playing field the size of the Americas, with only public transport to assist you in moving from place to place to find your soul’s delight. I use the analogy of public transport as a medium for locomotion as it seems fitting to me, considering that most public transport systems are impossible to fathom and seriously overpriced. In turn, this reference to pricing is borne out of the fact that there are many ‘navigational tools’ for searching of the soul, in the form of self help books and motivational guru’s out there ready to assist in your search, but this help usually comes at a hefty and unjustifiably high price, and doesn’t even end up leaving you where you want to be – just like public transport! In the same way, the search for something that makes your soul sing is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. It could take a lifetime of searching and you still won’t come up with the goods.

Or perhaps the search is more like pin the tail on the donkey. The tail is like your happiness. You already hold it in your hands – you just need a place to put it! We go through life blind-folded, just like in the game, with no way of seeing what is under our noses, so we just blindly take a stab in roughly the right direction, hoping that where the pin lands will be in about the right spot. The parallel between life and the game is in the element of competition. For most of us, the best way to determine our level of success is to look around at those close to us and compare our circumstances to theirs; to see if we are happier than our neighbors – did we pin the tail closer than anybody else? – Or did we, in fact, pin the tail on the end of the donkey’s nose, but being too proud to ask for another turn we settle with our first attempt and claim the booby prize instead of swallowing our pride and giving it another shot.

Life is full of second chances. Every day when we wake up, it’s another opportunity to start over, to have another go. But for most of us, we never see that. Since we are so determined to get it right first time, we refuse to acknowledge that we might be going down the wrong path, we refuse to take the blindfold off – or rather, to put the blind-fold back on! Or else we are so convinced that in that hunt for the thimble, we’ve already taken so many wrong turns en-route that we will never make it back to the road we should have been on, so we continue on, in the hope that maybe there’ll be a short-cut up ahead.

Really, there is now easy way, no simple answer! No one can guide you down the ‘right path’ to your destiny because each and every path is unique and individual. But I have to at least hope that the search is more like a treasure hunt, than an aimless game of chase. There have to be clues along the way. That is why I believe it is important to try new things all the time, to try new roles in life on for size, and see how they feel.

It’s important to follow those sparks of inspiration: perhaps that moment of clarity you have while you are singing in the shower, or that seed of an idea that pops into your thoughts while you sit at a red light, is a clue from your soul about where it’s source of nourishment might lie.
So why is it so hard to follow through on those ideas? All those good intentions? If nourishment is good for you, shouldn’t it be easy to find the will to eat, to put great plans into action? Well – to that I say, ask the fat lady why she still hasn’t stopped eating fries and whipped cream and switched to salad when she knows it’s what her body needs and will ultimately make her feel good and healthy. It isn’t always easy to do the right thing, the good thing, the healthy thing that will ultimately lead you to happiness.

Sometimes I feel weak, I feel lost, I feel lazy. But that’s what makes me human. And sometimes it’s OK to forgive myself for that. But in forgiving myself I also have to live with the realization that another day passed without fulfilling my goal, which will ultimately lead me to the possible fulfillment of my soul. I have to live with that, knowing that that is what makes me anxious.
Eventually, I suppose, my anxiety will lead me to action, and action will lead me to enlightenment, or at the very least contentment. But if I don’t try I’ll never know. So if you would excuse me for a few moments I have a Sudoku book to burn and a month of meditation to catch up on – this may take a while!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Ahhh the Beach

From Calcutta to Mumbai was a relatively uneventful 30+hr train ride. I did some writing, edited some photos, finished my book, began the mammoth task of writing up my Everest ‘journal’ and slept and ate at varied intervals. The train food was surprisingly good (think Indian airplane food, without the cutlery, salt/pepper sachets and napkins) and although our cabin mates were saddled with an irritatingly tantrum tendencied 3 yr old who wasn’t yet quite in control of his newly potty trained bladder when he was sleeping, we managed to get a descent nights sleep and occasionally during the daylight hours remembered to look outside the window at the passing scenery of central India to observe the slowly changing landscape of the lush, tropical fields.
Upon arrival to Mumbai’s Dadar station we swiftly managed to obtain an onward ticket for the short journey by local train to Bandra (thankfully without joining the half mile long line-up - occasionally it pays to be a pasty white blonde girl with a backpack on who appears to be completely lost and clueless), where our Vancouver friends reside. Martin and Tonya had graciously offered to open the doors of their lovely home (and washing machine) to these 2 stinky backpackers for an unspecified number of days without a hint of hesitation, which I found incredibly generous, considering the fact that Martin and I had actually only met briefly many years ago and besides being friends on Facebook have had minimal contact since that first meeting. But as is often the case with travelers – the generous spirit of a wandering soul is ready to help a fellow traveler out in any way possible. Fortunately the sight of a familiar face from home was enough to generate the spark of friendship back to life, so after only a brief period of introductions for our other halves we were all getting along famously. (Tonya you are amazing!!)
Anyway – as I was saying - we managed to obtain our tickets without too much trouble; however making proper use of those tickets wasn’t quite that simple. Unfortunately the helpful ticket man didn’t think it pertinent to mention the slightly unusual design feature of Dadar train station: that there are actually two ‘platform ones’ – so we managed to board an incredibly packed train carriage, only to discover after several stations that we were in fact on the wrong train (heading north on the Eastern line instead of the Western one)….ooops! We jumped off and made the swift decision to switch from train to rickshaw and finally, by a stroke of luck, (when I noticed the names on the sides of the buildings on the street we were driving down) I realized that we were right outside Martin’s building. The rickshaw screeched to a halt at my order and we had arrived. Hallelujah!

Our time in Mumbai was quite a change of pace, due to the luxury of a ‘home’ to escape to at the end of each day (or in fact a home to hide out in all day if we felt like it). And although the city centre itself was quite pleasant by big Indian city standards, with some lovely European style architecture (never mind the smog and pollution) there really isn’t that much to it - so a couple of days really would have been enough, however both Darko and I had some ‘opportunities’ to pursue.

Darko was fortunately able to tag along with Martin and assist him on a photo-shoot of an up and coming Bollywood cutie, which gave him the chance to watch a fellow photographer at work. (Since arriving in Mumbai, Martin has made some amazing contacts and already shot the front cover of GQ India so it was quite a privilege for D.) He also accompanied Martin to an Indian Photographers Guild Event where Martin had been invited to speak and got to meet some of the top photographers of India. Score!!
In contrast my ‘professional’ aspirations for Mumbai weren’t quite so fruitful. Through a friend of friend I had the number of a possible ‘Bollywood’ contact who might be able to hook me up with a paid dancing gig. It all ended up being a bit of a wild goose chase, that left me feeling more like I was in the running for a chance to be a go-go dancer at a Christmas party (no thanks!) than with any hope of making it on a set with a camera – but oh well – I tried! Nil!!

Since my aspirations of making it to Bollywood had been dashed I decided to spend my final day in Mumbai as Darko’s assistant, shooting another more likely Bollywood hopeful (an Indian guy), which gave Darko the opportunity to add another angle to his portfolio and me the chance to practice my role of second shooter (which may turn out to be all I’m good for when we get back to Vancouver). And finally we were ready to take the train South and head to the beach.
After yet another full day on the train we arrived at Pernem station in North Goa just in time to jump in a rickshaw and arrive at Arambol for the last of the breathtaking sunset.

Now it might be said that Goa is to India what Bora Bora is to the South Pacific. The gem, the ‘piece de resistance’! But let’s keep in mind; it is still India – so there is plenty to keep you shaking your head. The sound of the ocean crashing on the golden sand is still interspersed with the deep guttural noise of belching cows.

The beautiful sari-clad women are still trying to coerce you into buying their wares, but essentially it is stunning here. Palm fringed beaches and candle lit dining tables on the sand as the sun goes down are the order of the day.
It was our plan to find something a little more ‘permanent’ for a longer stay in the region but on our first few days we were happy to perch on the hillside over-looking the beach in a little ‘Coco Hut’ and decide if Arambol was it. After an amazing fish dinner on our first evening in town it was decided that we would be happy to spend a few weeks hanging here, eating lots and getting fat. So the hunt for the ‘home’ began. We spent 2 days hard at it and finally found a place that suited our needs (and budget). For less than a tenner (GBP) our balcony looks out to the ocean with only a few palm trees and a rocky shore separating us from the waves (the Golden sand is just around the bend). We have clean tiled floors, a fridge and a stove, but much to my honey’s distress, an ‘Indian style’ convenience - unfortunately no porcelain throne (which we didn’t notice until after we’d moved in) – oh well – you can’t win ‘em all!!
So finally we begin to relax and unwind to the rhythmic sound of the waves lapping against the rocks, only steps away. The sun is shining, the beach is calling and we are ready to chill the f(*&k out!!!
India challenges your patience not just daily, but sometimes hourly, so Goa feels like a little corner that lets you escape the barrage of incessant hassle. The mother-hen of India that lets you hide under its wing for a while to rest and recuperate until you feel ready for the next intense round in ring. The daily assault of decisions to be made when you are on the road can be put on hold for a while and we will have time to take some space. Darko and I met, and conducted the whole of our pre-wedding relationship in incredibly enclosed quarters on a cruise-ship. Consequently we have had very little time to ourselves since we met…….ever! We were constantly by one another’s side. And India has, of course, been the same thus far – but here we can spread our wings a little and take a moment or two in solitude. Considering my desire to get more in touch with myself during this trip I’m thinking this might be a good thing. And since the last time the romance richter scale read anything past a 0.2 in the rest of India, since the beginning of time (God knows how they managed to come up with the Karma Sutra) it seems that Goa could provide the honeymoon environment we’ve been looking for!

There will also be time for work of course. Darko has his never-ending hard-drives full of photographs to edit and fine tune and I will be honing my craft as a writer. Since there won’t be a great deal of ‘new’ information about India to share with you and mostly just the hum drum stuff of day to day life going on, you may not hear from me here for a while (unless I get around to finishing the ‘Everest Episodes’). My writing may take me in a new and different direction that I haven’t even fathomed yet – or I may just spend time tailoring work for ‘professional’ publication. Who knows…….maybe I’ll finish my first novel. I’m going to meditate a little, start the yogic ball rolling with a class or 2 and maybe even spend a day or 2 in the ocean or off on a scooter exploring the rest of Goa,

but mainly I’m just going to be living and breathing – something I forget to do far to often in this current incarnation. I might read a book (Tolstoy’s War and Peace right now) or I might just stare at the ocean for hours.
Whatever I am doing, you can guarantee that every single one of you reading this (at least the ones of you that I know personally – I doubt there’s anyone else out there reading it!!!) will enter my thoughts at least once, because I miss you all and think of you often……. Oh and cos I never ever stop thinking about random stuff, day and night, try as I might!! But for the time being I’m off to ruminate on the shape of my navel and maybe get a tan.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Tigers and Headless Goats!

This ol’ blogging thing keeps taking a bit of a back seat at the moment I’m afraid – but when I get to it, I really get to it. I’ll be sitting here for approximately the next 30 hours – so lots of time to perfect the next ‘episode’ (I’m on the overnight train to Mumbai and won’t be arriving until 9pm tomorrow night – it’s 3.30pm now).
So – where was I? Oh I remember: Darjeeling. Well on our first afternoon in Darjeeling we were fortunate to run into a lovely and incredibly sweet young couple from Denmark who’s plans seemed to be running quite nicely in tandem with ours so we’ve spent most of the last week in pleasant company and not had much time free to write – but we finally said our goodbye’s at the Howrah train station in Calcutta a couple of hours ago and it’s back to just me and my Mac (oh yeah – and my husband too – stinky feet in my face and all!).
So – we finally gave up on Darjeeling and the clouds and jumped in a jeep down the mountain – and whatdya know? Just as we were heading out of town for just a brief moment the clouds cleared in the distance and we got our last sneaky peak at the Himalayas and the chance to say ‘farewell’. Not to worry – we’ll be back I’m sure! And then we were heading down down down to board the night train to Calcutta. Now, based on everything I’d heard and read about Calcutta I was bracing myself for the absolute worst of the worst: Dirt and poverty in profusion. So I was very pleasantly surprised by the city that greeted us.

Now I doubt very much whether it made the shortlist for ‘best cities to live in’ in the last 50 years and since Mother Theresa seemed to have her hands full in it’s city limits for most of her waking life it obviously has it’s fair share of problems

– but next to New Delhi, it’s positively radiant. I mean, by Delhi standards, it’s clean, it’s friendly and it’s relatively quiet. We didn’t have plans for a protracted stay in the city and in fact were merely passing through on the way to Sunderbans National Park but I might almost go so far as saying it was a pleasant stay and I wouldn’t have minded a couple more days. (Please don’t get carried away and go booking your ticket to Calcutta on my recommendation - I did only say ‘almost’).

We found a decent place to stay and from the safety of our hotel lobby we managed to arrange a three day boat trip to the Sunderbans: the biggest river delta in the world and home to the largest concentration of tigers in the wild left on the planet. So, in theory our best chance to see these magnificent beasts, outside captivity.

It was a 3 hour drive from Calcutta to the launch site and from there we would remain mostly on the water for the next 3 days. Within a relatively short period of time we had left the city behind and entered rural West Bengal to get a real taster of how most of rural India actually lives: in a word – simply. The scenery was stunning. A flat land of tropical, lush, watery farm land. Paddy fields interspersed with fresh water ponds and simple mud huts with thatched roofs were dotted along the ‘highway’. Occasionally a small town would appear with the usual snack stands and street side vendors selling their wares and brewing their chai and then a few moments later we were back out into the open plain and surrounded by the simple reality of life in the Sunderbans. With a population of over 4 million, most of whom have little, if any access to power, daily life is extremely basic, and dictated by the limitations of mother nature. Most of the inhabitants wake and sleep according to the hours of daylight provided by the sun and while the occasional hut is equipped with solar power or the luxury of a generator, most survive with no power at all. It is truly humbling to enter the homes of these people (which we did on our first evening in the region, when we left the boat to visit a riverside village), and realize that the equivalent of almost a quarter of the population of Canada live in this way, with mud floors and a single ‘platform’ providing sleeping quarters for the entire family, while the chickens and goats are cooped and tethered just outside. Surprisingly the interior of the homes seemed incredibly clean and well cared for despite the fact that they are mostly made of mud. Considering the devastation that had swept through the region only a few months ago due to a cyclone of monstrous proportions it was nothing less than impressive (especially when you consider the amount of filth and dirt that seems prevalent in urban India). The families in this area may be poor, but that doesn’t stop them being house-proud. Most of the people live off the land, from hand to mouth, barely above the poverty line but somehow they survive and live with dignity and grace, relying on the river to bring them food in the form of fish and supplies via boat, while at the same time defying the river to bring it’s forces of destruction.
One of the greatest potential forces of destruction around them is of course the mighty Bengal Tiger! It is not uncommon for a tiger to ‘visit’ one of the many riverside villages at night in search of a goat, or maybe even a person, to provide a meal – but of course the tiger is stealthy and remains mainly elusive and aloof for the purposes of tourist viewing pleasure.

So although our trip to Sunderbans was a wonderful chance to appreciate the lush scenery of this Mangrove delta and see some marvelous birdlife (a twitcher’s paradise) in the form of many varied Kingfishers, Egrets, Cormorants and Storks our hopeful dreams of tiger spotting were sadly to remain unfulfilled. We also enjoyed the added bonus of a run in with a gastric visitation of a rather unpleasant nature in the form of diarrhea and vomiting (probably the result of breaking my cardinal rule in Calcutta and drinking a juice that was likely mixed with ‘unhealthy’ water) which was also accompanied by a lovely dose of fever and chills. But this only slightly took away from the joys of slowly chugging down the narrow channels of the Sunderbans between viewing platforms to look out into the jungle. Our trip was also enhanced by the presence of our very own resident ‘Mother Theresa’ in the form of Jane, a yogi from Manchester who had accompanied us on the boat to deliver supplies of medicine and blankets to the sick and needy, still left homeless after the afore-mentioned cyclone of 4 months previous. Her light and calming energy (and the occasional pilfering of her medical supplies) helped lift our spirits and gave us another person to share our thoughts and musings on India with. Her presence also gave us the opportunity to get an ‘expert’ opinion from an India regular. Jane has been visiting India for many years now, and as a yoga teacher and daily meditator has an ease and gentleness about her that makes it hard to be agitated around.

So all in all the 3 days in Sunderbans were quite an escape, and a relaxing break from the maddening chaos of the rest of daily India – especially the last day when the worst of our ‘symptoms’ were clearing, almost as much as the skies which had thus far been somewhat cloudy and we were rewarded with a final sunset of heart wrenching gorgeousness that didn’t quite compensate the glaringly obvious lack of the sought after tiger sighting – but certainly cushioned the blow.

It was definitely quite nice though to return to solid ground and a night in a bed with a real mattress (instead of a double folded blanket to sleep on) and our one full day in Calcutta before our departure was spent wandering quite close to ‘home’ (our Hotel on Sudder Street).

We visited the impressive Victoria Memorial and hunted out a taste of real home in the form of a very expensive but worthwhile Italian pizza joint and a great slice of Brownie from the best cake shop in town (we were still suffering withdrawals from our overdose of cake hits in Darjeeling) and that was pretty much it.
In the evening we did manage to come across a crazy man on the way to dinner (or so we thought) who it turned out was not actually crazy but just doing a mad dance in the middle of the street in an attempt to eject a genetically modified sized version of the biggest cockroach you have ever seen in your life from the inside of his flip-flop. The response this display elicited from my darling husband was absolute dismay. India is officially on probation. He has declared that if Goa does not impress the pants off him he’s on the next plane out of here – so it looks like I might finally get some alone time in India!!! By the time our Paneer Kati Rolls had arrived (a typical Bengali snack – featuring a tasty version of a rolled up roti and filling of your choice – in this case Paneer, the local cheese) the hissy fit had subsided and his appetite had returned – but truly I’m not so sure how much more of the filth my fragile photographer can withstand before he’s ready to snap his last shots, shape up and ship out so I’m putting the cockroaches on my hit list. If I see one when I’m in my shoes – it’s a gonna – sorry guru Jane – ahimsa just went out the window for this little yogi in training!!!
Since our train today didn’t actually depart until the afternoon we decided on an early morning outing to the ghats on the bank of the Hooghly river to check out a little more local culture and finally found something that put a smile on my honey’s face: A wonderful flower market where the flower sellers of the city congregate to stock their stalls for ‘offering’ supplies.

It was spectacular and marvelous and full of fascinating faces and colorful characters equally as enthralling as their chlorophyll filled counterparts. We all snapped away to our hearts content with surprisingly few requests for bakshish (the Indian for ‘tip’) and many happy and sheepish grins from our models as we gladly showed them the results of our looming lenses (the magic of digital SLRs).

Calcutta was back in favor as we headed for our final breakfast and planned a quick late morning visit to the Kali Temple to see the ‘intense’ side of India.
After a short cab ride and a stroll down the busy street full of flocking devotees we arrived at the Kali temple and the mayhem began. We realized that if we wanted to get inside the temple this side of Christmas we were going to need some assistance, so we agreed to let one of the temple ‘priests’ accompany us to the front of the line for a small but agreeable sum. Once at the front of the line there was still an incredible amount of pushing and shoving to be done to make it through the gate, (while several of the locals continued what seemed to be an overly aggressive altercation right in front of our faces and at one point I was sure I was about to get a stray fist in my face). Once we were within the central enclave and within reach of the Kali statue it was only marginally calmer but I could barely believe what all the fuss was about. What we actually viewed was a gaudily painted blobby head with 3 eerily staring eyes surrounded by offerings, glimpsed only briefly between other viewers arms and heads and the looming figures of the many temple attendants collecting offerings (more accurately demanding donations or violently shoving the empty handed on their way – that would be us!). And all of this in bare feet, while our shoes sat outside in the safety of a storage locker to be picked up on exiting the temple. The whole experience lasted only a few short minutes but for many seemed the exciting culmination of a lifetimes ambition – this being the oldest and most important Kali temple of the 51 in India that represent Kali, god of destruction and therefore an important pilgrimage for Kali devotees. Following our Kali viewing we decided it was time to have a gander at the other spectacle of the temple area: the sacrificial alter, that had apparently been getting a thorough dousing of sacrificial blood all morning. As we approached I heard the blood curdling scream of the next goat in line at the platform and before I had time to question the wisdom of my decision to actually check out this horrific and barbaric practice out I realized that we had arrived just in time to see the executioner swing his blade high in the air above his head and then bring it down on the poor innocent goats skinny little neck, ending it’s sad little life. Thankfully my view was obscured at the point of impact but what I did see is an image that will probably haunt me for the rest of my days. First a man with his hands over the severed neck of the goat shielding the onlookers from the squirts of blood flying from the headless body that writhed uncontrollably on the blood-spattered concrete, and then the now detached head being tossed aside. And shortly after a second goat in the same condition writhing equally as violently beside the first this time with no hands to cover the severed neck – and so – the view of spinal cord and neck musculature, dissection style, in cross section. I had seen enough. And by the look on Line’s face (my Danish friend) so had she and it was time to make a hasty exit before we both threw up in our mouths.
And here we are, full circle, back at my earlier proposition that India is full of barbarians. And while some will argue for the ancient practice of sacrificial rights as a methods to appease the gods and in this instance the great god of destruction Kali and it’s relevance, to me, it seems a practice that has absolutely outlived it’s value in this world. And I have to ask: what positive can be said about a race who clamor over one another in an almost violent rage to view a plastic three eyed god, while goats are slaughtered in its honor only feet away? (Apologies to my beloved Indian friends who are the exceptions to the rule in this country of Barbarians.)
As we taxied back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and be on our way I reflected on it all and took it all in. The longer I remain in India, the more clearly I see how obvious and distinct the castes of India are and how deeply ingrained into the fiber of this place they have become. The untouchables that unroll their mattresses on the street as night falls, and defecate in plane view of their fellow citizens are literally inches away from being animals. They have no respect from other by default and instinctively have little respect for themselves. They have no will to improve their status as they understand in the DNA of their cells that it is futile, and walking through their world you realize that you are merely a spectator of their lives and this system. It’s like watching Coronation Street, Brookside, Dynasty and James Bond all at once on the same TV screen. There is no way that these 4 realities should co-exist in the same space at the same time – but they do. In India there are many levels: 7 castes – and you can see each one operating independently of the others but occasionally intersecting so that some in ways rely on others to continue as they are – but the awareness of the other human life belonging to a lower caste is almost as a ghost like presence. It inspires the sentiments of injustice and hopelessness – but the players seem un-phased by their lot.
Having studied religion in school until the age of 16 (a requirement by law in UK), I was already pretty well versed on the main practices and beliefs of Hindu’s in India and the basics of the caste system but when I first arrived in India I also read ‘White Tiger’ to give me a more personal insight into the reality of India today and I’m certainly glad that I did. I have moments when I look around and realize the profound truth of what the writer is trying to say – and find a much deeper understanding and recognition of it’s truth and reality in the India of today than I first garnered while I was reading. The caste system was built to perpetuate itself and it seems almost impossible to break the cycles set in place by it, so it will be fascinating to watch and see what the growing economy of India will bring and if the scales will tip or whether the rungs of the ladder will stay firmly in place – but it seems to me, that if the rest of the world is watching as closely as it doubtless will be – something will have to give – but how and when – well those are some mighty big questions?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Back in the Saddle

Well, it has officially been many many days since these keys were clacked in any way shape or form and my poor little miss Mac was beginning to feel utterly rejected so I figured it was time to get her back in gear. Strange as it may seem, after 3 weeks away from technology in the Himalayas, I was not actually chomping at the bit to get back in the saddle – in fact – quite the contrary. After a healthy dose of techno starvation I was somewhat repelled by the thought of switching this puppy on – partly since ‘getting back to nature’ left me void of a desire for information – but partly because I was just too damn lazy (and a bit exhausted) to face the prospect of catching up on a months worth of blogging. But of course – since habits are hard to break (and a habit is formed in 22 days or something like that – so definitely less time than I had been plugging away on an almost daily basis at this old blog thingimijiggy stuff, prior to the trek), the urge to document and write about my thoughts and experiences has been gradually creeping back into my conscience over the last couple of days. Then yesterday I found myself on our long bus ride, composing sentences in my mind and trying to commit them to memory for recall later.
So here we are: back in India, Darjeeling to be precise. Sipping on tea (but of course – what else does one do in Darjeeling when it’s cloudy out with not a Himalayan peak in sight) and I’m back at the keyboard. And yes: I’m a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin! So I guess I’ll just jump right in from way back about a week ago when we returned from our trek (I will of course fill you in on the details of the trek when my urge to mindlessly type up the daily ‘journal’ I kept en route), exhausted but very contented and satisfied – well actually that’s not entirely true –but to sum up – the trek was stupendous, spectacular, all I imagined and more – and then it ended – and it all felt like a bit of an anti-climax. Not because it ended, but because of the way it ended. We had decided to hike out from Lukla, instead of flying like most, to experience some of rural Nepal, and we had been warned that it was tough territory. The days of hiking were long and hard and the ups and downs steep. Well – we thought – after 2 weeks at altitude it will be a breeze. We are in shape! No problem! But it was HARD! Now that in it self was not so much of a problem but our final day to reach Kathmandu was a very long and bumpy bus ride from Shivalaya, which began at 5.30am. The early start was not so tough since we’d been waking before 6 with sunrise most mornings, but since it was around 6.30pm before we stepped off the bus, those 13 hours of jumping and jostling just kinda took the wind out of our sails. The return to Kathmandu was supposed to be a victorious fanfare of civilization and perhaps a glass of wine – and instead it was – get me to a room with a shower and maybe I’ll see the real world again in the morning. The planned celebration was postponed and I felt like I’d been robbed of my achievement. Three weeks of hiking had earned me a hurrah – and somehow it felt like the moment passed. But oh well – some celebrations are only in thought and not deed I suppose. We did buy that promised bottle of wine we’d been dreaming of for days, but I drank most of it alone the following day while my hubby was lost in computer hell, trying to figure out why his photo’s wouldn’t transfer from hard drive to laptop and ‘not in the mood’ for a glass of wine and a ‘cheers to us’ – oh well – like a true alcoholic I drank alone and tried to retrieve that jovial celebratory spirit from the deep well of despair it was diving down into……OK OK I’m being a drama queen – it wasn’t that bad really – I mean – I had a nice lazy day – read my book – had a massage and generally felt a little bit good to be back in the real world – but like I said – a bit of an anticlimax.
Our second full day back in Kathmandu was also kinda slow to get going but after a leisurely breakfast on our little roof-top terrace we visited Bodnath stupa

– a gargantuan Buddhist monument just outside the city centre with prayer flags floating in the breeze from the centre to multiple anchor points all around the surrounding courtyard.

We strolled around taking it all in and as always I had the delights of personal commentary under his breath from my cynical narrator and companion – berating the phony buddhists (aka white hippy travelers) for their public displays of Buddhist prayer.

After a couple of loops to admire the perfect proportions of the huge white dome with it’s central golden spire, almost akin to a huge white bosom with a nipple resembling something from the brazier section of a Madonna costume we picked one of the many roof-top terraces for a spot of lunch and a different, elevated angle of viewing.

From this new perspective we were reminded once again of our greater surroundings – the Kathmandu valley, crammed full of people and buildings and in the distance those omnipotent Himalayan snow covered peaks. Ahh Kathmandu! Now we were in the Stupa mood so we decided to make the journey across town to the monkey temple. We decided that another tempo ride might give us both stiff necks (very mini mini buses that seem big enough for perhaps 3.5 normal sized white guys that cram about 14 Nepalese into them and shuttle passengers all around the city for the cost of a grape – we couldn’t actually sit up straight without hitting our heads) and weren’t sure which number tempo would get us close to where we were headed so we decided to splash out for a cab to take us direct. Now on leaving the Stupa area the first cab driver wanted 600rp – but I knew that was over the top so we headed away from the ‘tourist price’ area and bargained our way down to just 250rp for the 30 min ride via the ring road to the opposite side of the city. I was quite proud of myself and impressed with my hard nosed bargaining skills that have been coming along quite nicely (that’s less than $4 people).

Now my memories of the monkey temple were quite spectacular, since on my last visit I happened to coincidentally time my arrival at the temple with the Nepalese New Year; so there were literally thousands of devotees hanging around in a jovial spirit. This time around however there were just lots and lots of tourists taking pictures and a really amateur looking music video shoot going on with a couple of Nepalese gangster rapper wannabes who looked like they’d dressed for an 80’s costume party as the bastard child of Eminem and Michael Jackson. (Just picture it!)

The saving grace though was (once again) those darn mountains glowing away in the distance and the wonderful aerial view of Kathmandu, since the monkey temple sits on the top of a steep hill to the West of the city centre.

We strolled the 3km back to our hotel, crossing the river and taking in the ‘suburbs’ of Kathmandu, arriving just in time for sundown from our rooftop with the last of the red wine from our celebration splurge (actually a surprising good Cab Merlot blend from Australia for less than $10 – about half our daily budget).
Our final day in the Kathmandu valley was spent in the city of Patan,

which is basically a much smaller, quieter and in many ways more well kept version of Kathmandu city. Although it used to be a completely separate city, these days the border between Kathmandu and Patan is pretty much non-existent as the cities have grown and all the small towns and hamlets of the valley have pretty much mingled into one. Although it was much less impressive and not half as packed with sights and artifacts as Kathmandu it was still a fascinating day and was a nice way to escape the crowds.

To say ‘goodbye’ to Kathmandu we decided our final dinner would be in a traditional Nepalese restaurant but when we arrived to find the ‘entertainment’ of a ‘cultural show’ in full swing, the enthusiasm for a dose of Kathmandu culture was written all over my darling husband’s face so we opted for the backpacker version – looked more like a soup-kitchen from the d├ęcor but provided us with a final tasty dose of Dal Bhat (the traditional Nepalese dish) by candle-light…… not for the sake of romance – there was yet another power cut in that part of town!

And we were on the road again. I do have to note that since my last visit 14 yrs ago the roads have drastically improved but since there are still many pot-holed and unpaved sections of highway this was not exactly something we were over the moon about – but a necessary evil. We were on our way to Chitwan National Park to hunt for the ever-elusive tiger and maybe a Rhino or two. Twice our journey was halted by mysterious and unexplained ‘hold-ups’ but eventually we arrived to the warmth and lush tropical surroundings of the terrain (the fertile strip of land separating the mountains from the Indian low-lands), and we settled in to the Jungle Lagoon Safari Lodge.

We had only one full day in the park but boy what a day. Our 6am wake up call sounded pretty much like this: “your elephant awaits”. Literally – we walked out of our lodge to be greeted by a small group of elephants and their mahouts (their drivers) and climbed up a ladder to a mounting platform from which we took our place in the ‘saddle’. Actually it wasn’t a saddle, but a small padded area kind of like an upside down table with cushions inside strapped to the back of the elephant that fit 4 riders. Once ‘onboard’, our elephant transported us to the forest where we would find wild boar and various kinds of deer, birds and butterflies.

I think the highlight of the day for me was later that morning when our guide took us to the riverside for elephant bath time. At 11am every morning the mahouts bring their elephants down to the river for a good scrub and tourists are welcome to assist. For a 200rp (less than $3) tip Darko and I took turns riding an elephant bareback into the river and giggled with glee as our elephant doused us with water from the river via her trunk.

It was truly incredible to be sitting on the back of the largest land mammal on the planet taking a bath. The elephants are so well trained by their keepers that with a simple command they can wiggle their massive behind in such a way that you suddenly feel like a cowboy at the rodeo riding a bucking bronco, and off you go, into the river. The mahout will then quickly throw you a hand, pull you back up and wait for you to be back in position before performing the whole little stunt all over again and there you are back in the river. What fun! Not once, did I feel afraid or scared for my safety, surrounded by these ten-ton creatures, playing in the water. Amazing. I even got to stand on my elephant’s head before diving into the river. Definitely the most fun I’ve had in a long long time.
And the afternoon came in a close second for favorite moments. After a lazy lunch it was time for our canoe trip and jungle safari on foot. We paddled down the river, watching, surprisingly calmly, the lazy crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks and admiring the many beautiful and unusual birds passing by.

We saw Storks, Egrets and many different types of Kingfisher, many with almost luminescent plumage of bright orange and shining turquoise. After a few km’s we were deposited ashore (on a stretch without the sunbathing crocs) and headed into the bush to find some more wildlife. We had not got even a couple of hundred meters from the bank of the river when our guide stopped us to explain what to do if we were to run into any dangerous animals. Only a few words into his explanation and the mention of something about climbing trees we suddenly became aware of some movement less than 30 meters away. Standing right there in a clearing, staring our way, was a mother rhino with her baby in tow. We stood completely still in awe and watched in disbelief as she sniffed the air and with an almost nonchalant toss of her horn turned and walked away. We followed, a healthy distance behind and heard rustling through the undergrowth. We climbed a tree for a better vantage point, we listened….. nothing. As stealthily as they had appeared, they had disappeared into the jungle. And so we continued on and found deer, a mere cat type animal, and many birds. We thought our rhino encounter had come and gone and then suddenly our guide stopped dead in his tracks and entreated us to find a tree fast and get up it. We froze and saw immediately ahead, not more than 20 metres from us, poppa rhino, chillin’ in the bush. Clearly he knew we were there – he looked our way many times, but since the eyesight and hearing of a rhino is exceedingly poor and we stayed as still as we could he pretty much ignored us.

We watched for several minutes and then slowly retreated, leaving him to his peace and quiet. Once again: amazing! From there we made our way to the elephant breeding centre where we saw several baby elephants and their mothers being fed by their keepers.
Our time in Nepal was coming to an end. We were sad to be leaving, but looking forward to our next stop and final Himalayan destination, Darjeeling. But of course before we could reach this tea-lovers mountain oasis…… one last bus ride. The Mahendra Highway runs the length of Nepal through the Terrai and this was the only way for us to reach the border. Almost 12 hours of bumping and jostling. And since it is not a hugely popular tourist route – we were forced to do the journey by public bus. Our seats were a squeeze, but at least we had seats, which is more than can be said for many of the passengers along for the ride. We stopped more times than I could count to pick up or drop off passengers and the aisles were packed. One guy even had a live chicken in a little wicker basket with him, which he carefully placed in the overhead shelving for the duration of his ride. It was actually during this long and arduous ride that I started to get re-inspired to ‘catch up’ with my blog. As I stared out of the window, watching the daily life of Nepal pass by I was once again impressed by the constant contrasts and juxtapositions staring back at me every minute that I spend in this colorful continent (not to mention the nosey Nepalese men…..staring that is!).
A stream of consciousness series of observations:
A town full of dirt and grime, a bike workshop with tools and pieces of engine strewn across a cement courtyard, fields of agriculture with crops of mustard, and grain with colors from green through yellow and orange to golden and straw. Seeds and grain spread on plastic sheets and tarps to dry by the roadside. Women in colorful saris of red, orange, turquoise, blue and green striding through the fields with bundles of straw balanced atop their heads. Dry riverbeds. A truck parked in the middle of the dry riverbed with colorfully sari-clad women taking rocks and boulders from the expanse of rock and placing them in the truck. Fields being ploughed by ancient methods: wooden ploughs, pulled by a pair of white humped cows, driven by the farmer. Pigs snuffling in the dirt alongside chickens and mangy dogs. Wooden huts, mud huts and in the gardens orange, yellow and red gladioli injecting a splash of vibrant color into the dirty view. It is interesting to me that sometimes in this land of ‘survival’ there are signs of appreciation for beauty and aesthetics but surrounded by so much filth: A flower for the sake of beauty. And marigolds everywhere that are cut and the petals used for offerings to the gods. And then a huge dam which we passed over on the road. The water still and glass-like, offering a perfect reflection of the man-made structure that has been built to harness this incredible force of nature, the power of water, a natural resource that Nepal is beginning to use for it’s own benefit. Roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetables. Bunches of bananas. Pyramids of apples. Shacks full of snacks, packets of nibbles, biscuits and chocolate. Roadside cemeteries. Holy men in orange robes with bare-feet and painted faces walking down the road. Many many people walking down the road in both directions and cycling and brightly painted trucks and honking and honking and honking.
And finally, after dark, we reach Karkabitta, the border town for India. It was almost 6pm when we reached the border and had to ask a policeman to point us toward the immigration building. In most countries with land borders there is only one way to get across that border and that cannot possibly be done without presenting papers to a border guard or immigration officer. Here the locals were just freely crossing like it was any other road. We actually had to go and find the office. When we presented our passports we had an entertaining conversation with the official who was subtly implying that we might need to offer a bribe, since our visa had actually expired the day before. However, we had been informed on arrival that if we wanted to stay longer there would not be a problem we would simply pay an extra $2 fee per day. So I clearly and calmly stated that we were aware of the policy and were happy to pay the correct fee and be on our way. He then suggested that instead of the $4 US we gave him we should give Nepalese money – 500rps. We politely declined, since that amount is closer to $8 than 4. Did he really think after a month in Nepal we wouldn’t know the exchange rate? Can’t blame a man for trying I suppose.
Next we walked the km long no-mans land to the Indian side in pitch darkness. As Darko happily pitched in – a country that in 20 years will have the #1 economy in the world cannot even light the road to it’s entry – this seemed quite bizarre to us. Next we had to go through the whole process of searching for the immigration office that we had gone through on the Nepal side all over again, to find a small, badly lit building with an un-uniformed ‘official’ sitting at a desk with a pile of papers and a hand-written leather bound ledger. He wrote our passport details in the ledger, gave us a stamp and sent us on our way. Welcome back to India!
After a day of snacking on curry flavored chips and coconut cookies, in a bouncing bus, we were dying for some real food - so we found a shack with some tasty Samosas and then joined a rabble of locals waiting for the bus to Siliguri, the town from which we could catch a jeep to Darjeeling in the morning. When the bus arrived there was an almighty jostle to alight the bus, but somehow, with the help of my 20kilo backpack and some brute force I managed to shove my way through and make it to the door of the bus and we were on (with a seat).
We were looking forward to a few days of doing not much of anything but enjoying the view and saying a final goodbye to the mountains in Darjeeling, so we were sadly disappointed to see that as we went winding up the mountain, gaining altitude and losing centigrade at a high rate we were also ascending into the clouds. Those wonderful snow capped peaks were looking set to elude us on this last stop of our Himalayan tour. Not to be deterred by this slight setback we set off up the steep alleys of Darjeeling to reach the highest ridge of the town and find a ‘room with a view’, optimistic that the clouds would lift and the magical views would appear.
It is now day 3 in Darjeeling (I started this entry 2 days ago and then got interrupted by some fun conversation in the cafe with a fellow traveler and her friend who actually lives here in Darjeeling) and although we’ve put on a brave face and visited the zoo (I’ve now seen a tiger and a snow-leopard through a chicken wire fence), sampled some of the world’s finest Harrod’s stocked Darjeeling tea in the world (and seen where and how it is processed) and sampled most of the cakes in the best bakery and tea shop in town I am still sitting here typing with my head quite literally in the clouds. While we are well aware that we probably used up most of our good weather Karma in Nepal with some incredibly perfect blue sky days throughout our whole trek, I will still leave Darjeeling feeling somewhat cheated by this dam thick white glue hanging around us in the sky, which shows absolutely no signs of going anywhere anytime soon (especially since it’s completely still, with not a hint of a breeze to help shift the dam stuff). So, if I could give a word of advice about visiting Darjeeling: before you make the journey, check the weather report and if it predicts low cloud – give it a miss. To be fair to the place, it does have a certain charm to it, even without the magnificent views that are apparently hiding just behind the mist, and the food here is pretty good – so far having had several great meals at decent prices, not to mention the tea which I have a newly invigorated love for, having seen exactly how it is made (don’t forget I’m originally English), but truthfully – if the views are in hiding there’s just not much to it.
We’re going to give it a couple more days, just incase the sun decides to come up but after that we will head south to Calcutta and the Sunderbans National Park for another shot at glimpsing a tiger in the wild and then…… well – we’ll get to that when we get to it.