Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Road to Leh

Sometimes getting from A-B is just a means to an end and sometimes the ‘-‘ between A and B is just as interesting. That is certainly true of the road from Srinagar to Leh. Except the bit slap bang in the middle where the buses and jeeps decide to stop for the night – but I’m getting ahead of myself – so let me start from the top.
After a couple of hours of driving in dark and early dawn light from Srinagar we arrived in Sonamarg; a one horse town that one might say you could blink and miss – but if you are smart, and do your research before you go, you’ll definitely want to stop off for a stroll. This place is the home of Sonamarg Glacier, which is hidden away just around the bend and out of sight from the main road passing through, so if you aren’t aware, it would be easy to pass it by. As we awoke from our early morning car naps, alighted the vehicle pulling our wooly hats firmly over our sleepy cold heads and headed off to the trail, leaving our prepaid driver to wait, watch over all our worldly belongings (including 2 laptops and $800 in US cash and TC’s) and probably take a nap of his own (hopefully with the jeep door locked) we were excited to see the first real signs of those much dreamt of ‘snow-capped peaks’ of the Himalayas. There had of course been sprinklings of snow on far off distant peaks in Srinagar but now it seemed we were in the heart of snowy country and we could feel it in the fresh icy air as we inhaled deep into our lungs. The trail to the Glacier led us up from the road behind one of the many India Army camps we would see over the next 2 days on the road to Leh, guarding and patrolling the much disputed border of India and Pakistan. This particular camp seemed fairly calm and relaxed at present but in recent times had, I believe, been the victim of considerable insurgent attacks, so we were once again reminded of the fragile state of ‘peace’ in this land. In any case – we strolled past and up, into the fields, following the dirt track which led us around a bend to be greeted by a spectacular hidden valley, housing the Sonamarg Glacier. When we finally reached the end of the trail we were greeted by some local chaps who were very excited to see their first ‘tourists’ of the day at 8:30am and quickly set up shop to ensure that they could provide for our needs. 4 plates of Maggi noodles were ordered up and we enjoyed fresh, warm, spicy ‘breakfast’, basking in the first warm rays of sunlight beneath the glistening snowy frosted rocks of the crags surrounding us. Now that was a breakfast of champions…….and we have the photos to prove it!

As we began the return journey my thoughts turned to ‘Nasir Hussein’ our faithful driver and ‘guide’ whom we had entrusted with our lives and backpacks. Would he still be waiting or would we be stranded with only the clothes on our backs in Sonamarg? These thoughts however did not deter me from taking a slight detour off our original path to find numerous photo opportunities where locals seemed more than happy to pose for a shot or 2. Fancying myself as the next ‘Nat Geo’ front cover photographer I snapped away to my hearts content and when we did finally return to our drop off point I was relieved to find that Nasir was fast asleep inside the car with backpacks and all safe and sound. (I won’t mention that in the final few minutes of walking back to our starting point my heart skipped at least one or 2 beats as my eyes frantically searched for a Jeep with our backpacks inside, not remembering the colour or make of our vehicle and wondering how many stupid tourists fall for this one and how much a Mac laptop would go for on the Indian black-market.)
Once more we hit the road and after quite a drive reached our highest point for the day – the Zoji La pass, with an altitude of 3529M – after being at only 1600M in Srinagar the altitude was quite dizzying, but we only stayed briefly before once again descending the pass to find a perfect spot for lunch. In our many travels around the globe one of the things that Darko and I love to do is ‘scenic picnics’ so when our driver pulled up and used one of the 17 words of English he knew to indicate that this would be our lunch spot ‘lunch’ we were dismayed. All this natural beauty and he had chosen to pull up in the middle of the only village in a 50KM radius that seemed to consist of corner stores and greasy garages. ‘No’ we said – ‘drive on’ – ‘we find viewpoint for lunch’. He looked a little confused and perhaps thought that we were Muslim too and weren’t planning to eat our pre-packed lunch at all, but complied and ‘drove on’. After some minutes we cleared the village and began heading down into a lovely valley with a river running through it (sounds cheesy I know, but that’s exactly what it looked like). We instructed Nasir to pull over, jumped out of the jeep with picnic bags in tow and bounded into the field beside the road, which would lead us to the water’s edge. 2 minutes later we were spreading our raincoats on the ground, unwrapping the newspaper package containing our roast chicken and potato lunch and admiring our waterfront position. Scenic picnic #1 – done!

Our final destination that day was the thriving metropolis of Kargil (the aforementioned ‘slap bang in the middle’ bit of the ‘-‘ from A – B) – possibly one of the 7 anti-wonders of the world – if there is such a thing! On arrival in this place that used to be a significant trading post between Baltistan and Zanskar we tried to persuade our trusty driver Nasir to continue further on to the next village on our route ahead – but since this had been the proposed stop when we arranged the drive several days earlier through our houseboat owner, apparently there was to be no deviation from the plan. We would go no further! Now if you ever have the good fortune to be traveling between Kashmir and Ladakh I firmly recommend that Kargil NOT be on your itinerary if you can absolutely help it. My lasting memories are of multiple posters of Ayatollah Khomeinni on every tea shop wall and the bodiless heads of 2 goats that had obviously been slaughtered just prior to our arrival sitting unceremoniously on the butchers table, next to the hanging carcasses of several gutted and skinned animals ready for purchase. In most of India it would seems that the concept of refrigeration in a butcher’s shop is indeed a long way off, never mind any standard of hygiene – so if you need any incentive to become a vegetarian in India simply keep this description in mind. Sure the meat may be fresh, but how long can a carcass hang in the fly filled, musty air of a place like Kargil without being tainted, filthy and poisoned? Not a question I want to put to the test!

So, after a failed attempt at killing time in a ‘tea house’ with tea so sweet even ‘Willie Wonker’ would turn his nose up we realized the only thing for it was cards. Now I don’t know what card games you all choose to play in your free time but the Spanish apparently like to keep it simple so we learned a couple of new games that day – one involved the loser being a donkey – that was me – twice! And the other resulted in the loser being an asshole. Now even though I lost – donkey was my favourite because in this game you have to make the pre-chosen animal sound of your opponent when your card and theirs are a match. A lot harder than it sounds and you get to watch your new Spanish friends making complete idiots of themselves. So Kargil wasn’t that bad after all!
Day 2 of our drive to Leh was again marvelously scenic but this day was really all about the culture. First we stopped for breakfast in Layamuru, home of an impressive Buddhist Gompa, (monastery) which was built in the 10th century. Despite our lack of acclimatization we managed to scale the hillside behind the Gompa (at an altitude of 3390M) to gain a spectacular perspective over the valley surrounding the area. Due to wind and weather conditions there was an amazing area of rock formations to one side of the Gompa that looked more like a moonscape than any place on earth and for the first time we felt that we had departed Muslim Kashmir and were entering a zone of more silent spirituality, peace and tranquility.
We took lunch in Alchi, another Buddhist site beside the powerful Indus river under the shade of an apple orchard and after food, wandered the complex of Temples containing spectacular examples of Buddhist art and sculpture, including intricate mandalas and several story high Buddha statues that left one feeling dwarfed and ultimately humbled.
Our final destination that day was scheduled to be Leh, the capital of Ladakh, but we decided that, on the advice of our new travel partners and friends (who had also been advised by their friends), that we should make one final pit stop at Likir (one more of the Buddhist villages along the way). Since we would be only 67KM from Leh, we decided that we were close enough to make it on our own the next day so we communicated this to our driver (through a friendly stall holder in Alchi who happened to have at least 200 words of steady English in his vocabulary, compared to our friend Nasir and his 17) and the plan was made. On arrival in Likir, Nasir made sure that we had a place to stay and then happily unloaded our belongings and went on his way. Our first attempt at finding accommodation did not go too well – the place was closed and locked for the season – but we persevered and eventually found a ‘hotel’ that in fact seemed somewhat out of place in these humble buddhist surroundings. We had tiled floors and a room with a view. A room for 2 (after bargaining) was the meager sum of 500INR (just over $10) including all meals. We should have stayed for a week! And the food was good too – our host and hotel owner was such a friendly Ladakhi chap, it was a pleasure to be there. He also agreed (for a price) to drop us off in Leh the next day whenever we were ready to go – so it was a perfect plan.
The fascinating thing about Ladakh is that because of the altitude it can get incredibly cold at night (especially in winter, when temperature plummet to -30) but due to the dry air and cloudless skies, when the sun is up it can be scorching hot. The region is basically like a mountainous desert at altitude. Amazingly, it is possible to be burned by the sun, while your toes in the shade become frostbitten all at the same time, so as soon as the sun goes down it’s time to pile on the layers and dinner was enjoyed by candle-light with wooly hats and down jackets adorned.
After breakfast the next day we ventured off to explore the sole object of our curiosity in Likir – you’ve guessed it – a Buddhist Gompa – but this one had it’s very own 30 foot, golden Buddha, clearly visible from miles away and unlike many of the monasteries we visited, a Gompa school. We happened to arrive on a day of holiday so had the opportunity to watch the little monks in training playing and enjoying a day of ‘relaxation’ and were even invited to join the monk elders for some tea in the garden and gatecrash their picnic. Darko took portraits of all the monks, which we later emailed to them on their request (yes even in remote Ladakhi villages the monks are online these days), and we explored the monastery all morning before returning to our hotel for lunch and the journey to Leh.

This final leg of the journey ended up being quite entertaining, since it turned out our friendly landlord had perhaps over-estimated the abilities of his trusty open topped jeep. I was the ‘fortunate’ one in the cab, out of the wind, while my travel companions rode open air, to enjoy the ‘fresh’ Himalayan air. I’m sure if you picture an open top drive through the Himalayas the last thing you expect is to be gasping for clean air. The reality is that you will actually end up being gassed by the noxious fumes that spew from the exhaust of almost every truck and van that passes you by on the road (black clouds of poison literally pour from the tale end of every vehicle in this part of the world). The real fun part of the journey started when about half way through our 2 hours journey the engine began to overheat and our ride seemed like she had bitten off more than she could chew. We stopped several times for our friend to pour water into the thirsty engine and on multiple occasions, while climbing a hill, we were forced to pull over so that he could pop the hood and bang things around. Amazingly we actually made it to Leh! We found a place to stay on the outskirts of town with an incredible view looking out over the town with the stunning Stok Kangri Range in the distance, just as the sun was setting. Little did we know that staring at that range from a distance was not all we would do in the days to come – but more of that in my next installment!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

It’s all a matter of Perspective.

So – you may recall that in my last post I talked of the peace and tranquillity of Dal Lake and Srinagar. Well – I’d like to take it back! I mean – there is a natural beauty about the place that does lull one into a trance like state from time to time – but as Srinagar is a predominantly Muslim area there is also the regular and rigid call to prayer from the Mosques, which sort of disrupts the peace. It is true that perhaps at other times of the year these prayers may enhance the ‘authenticity’ of the Kashmir experience, however, we made a slight error due to lack of micro-planning by arriving in the midst of Ramadan, a month of religious fervour unmatched by any other in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is the month where Muslims must fast from dawn until dusk and the prayers are longer, larger and louder. It turned out that our houseboat was barely 50 meters away from the nearest mosque and so the call to prayer at 5am quickly became our favourite. (Said with a hint of sarcasm). There were times when the ‘praying’ sounded more like anguished war cries and it felt as if our presence in the neighbourhood was not perhaps so welcome as we had initially presumed! Not only were the calls to the mosque more frequent, the final prayers of the day continued uninterrupted for about 2 hours. Now had there been only one or 2 mosques within earshot this may not have been so bad but since every mosque on the shores of the lake had at least one loud-speaker pointed at the lake and the acoustics of the valley seemed to amplify the sounds it meant that the resulting mangle of sound was far from pleasant or peaceful.
But I am probably focusing a little too much on this minor setback to the peace. There were many great moments to our time in Srinagar. A day trip to the mountains of Pehalgam where we had the chance to hike up to some spectacular viewpoints above the mighty flowing river beneath and for a moment wonder whether Heidi and Clara would come bounding over the next mound into the clearing in which we found ourselves with only a yak or 2 to keep us company.
Then we had a day of touring around the local vicinity of Srinagar itself and had the opportunity to explore the side streets of the old city (quite close to where the bomb had exploded just 2 days before) and truly step inside the world and minds of the locals. We were able to enter the mosques and shrines and experience firsthand the paradoxical nature of this alien religion. Under one roof there would be women moaning and wailing at the pain of glass separating them from the shrine of some great holy man, others sitting quietly in a corner lost in silent prayer and then still others seemingly going about their daily gossip sessions without a moments thought to the ‘holy’ house in which they found themselves. The attendants of the mosques were invariably friendly and quick to inquire ‘which county?’ in an attempt to display their English speaking abilities. In most cases they were even happy to pose for a photograph, which surprisingly wasn’t always followed up with an open palm. Within and around the mosques we were able to see some incredible artwork, in many cases dating back centuries, which was most definitely a highlight of the day. But for me, I think one of the most surprising features of the surrounding area of Dal Lake were the Mughal Gardens dating back to the 16th century. As we strolled through the gardens on the Eastern shores of the Lake, it was hard not to feel that these water features and beautifully composed landscapes were somehow out of place. It was more like strolling through a cross between the gardens of St James Park in London and a Chinese water garden. The magnificent backdrop of the Himalayan foothills surrounding Dal Lake seemed to call for a more rugged and less ‘organized’ version of nature. These gardens have been maintained quite well and contain some gorgeous botanical specimens – but somehow it just didn’t feel like India.
Lunch that day was provided by ‘local craftsmen’, which basically meant the mandatory stop off at one of the many outlets for local Kashmiri goods. We were shown a magnificent display of silk and wool rugs that, had our budget have allowed, we would have loved to indulge in – but alas – the price of the kind of rug we would have wanted would have amounted to at least a month’s living expenses in India – so we were forced to thank the salesmen for their free lunch and be on our way. It was a memorable lunch though – not for the omelettes and toast – but for the conversation we had with one of our friendly salesmen. In the time that it took for us to eat, we learned that he had 2 wives and 5 children, the last 4 of which had been with his second wife – apparently the first wife had proved incapable of providing him with a son on her first attempt, therefore a second wife had been necessary. He was 14 years her senior (probably quite a small age gap compared to many) but had married her at the tender age of 13. Their first child (a boy) had been born only 2 years later. She was currently 23 with their fourth child being a year old. As he explained all this and the fact that most of the time he stayed in Srinagar to do business and spent only 1 or 2 days a month in his village with his family I reflected on my own position: 33, newly married, childless, travelling with the world with my husband and felt truly glad to be from the ‘western’ world.
Our final day in Srinagar was spent hiking to a Hindu Shrine on a hill above the lake, which gave us a phenomenal overview of the lake and the city followed by some of the mandatory errand running that has to be done once in a while whilst on the road. One of the errands was obtaining cash to pay for our stay in Srinagar and make sure that we had enough money to provide for us during our stay in Leh (our next stop) as we had been warned that obtaining money from one of the 2 ATM’s in town there was not always possible and if it was possible usually involved monumental queues. Well apparently getting money in Srinagar wasn’t going to be that straight forward either. We arrived at the ATM only to be informed by the machine that it was ‘low on funds’. However as we stood pondering our next move (trying not to panic too much about how we would pay our houseboat bill) an Indian man approached and successfully acquired his Rupees without trouble… we tried again…..this time the message said ‘contact your bank’…….Oh crap! This was all we needed! True, I hadn’t ‘informed the bank’ in writing before we departed about our impending wanderings, but having inquired twice about Indian Rupees and obtained US$ travellers checks only days before our departure, I assumed that the bank in question would have the brains to understand that this meant I was going overseas. We decided to resort to an alternate bank account (which was supposed to be off limits for the duration of our stay) and I then proceeded to make the call to the number on the back of my card; to be told by ‘Gemma in Coventry’ (it did occur to me that it would have been quite funny to call my UK bank from India, only to be ‘assisted’ by a call-centre worker in India – but apparently that was not the case – Gemma being from Conventry!!) that there was no problem with my card. Only a day later however I received an email from dad telling me that the fraud department had called to speak to me and wouldn’t discuss the matter with him – Obviously Gemma was not exactly up to speed with the status of my account when I called! Now maybe it’s just me, but to me it seems a little stupid that if ‘unusual’ activity from overseas is seen on a card that the only means by which the bank would try to contact you is by calling your home number. Obviously if the use is not ‘fraudulent’ and you are in fact out of the country and simply going about the regular business of accessing your funds from a foreign ATM, calling you at home is probably going to be a bit pointless. I did point this out when I called the bank for the second time in 2 days but was politely informed that they don’t send emails for security reasons… stupid is that?!? The funniest part of the call was that when she asked me if I’d informed them whether I was going overseas and I told her that I’d spoken only yesterday to one of her colleagues she confirmed that there was a note stating I was in India – but only until November?!?!? I distinctly remember telling Gemma until at least April – seriously I think the call centre in India would have been more useful than the one in Coventry!! Anyway, the card was finally re-instated and we once again have access to our funds – thank goodness.
We said our final goodbyes to Srinagar at the tender hour of 5am as our jeep to Leh sat waiting by the lake shore – apparently we had quite a drive ahead of us. In the darkness we listened to the last of the calls to prayer fading away behind us and looked ahead to the new adventures in store.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Settling In!

By the time we reached Delhi airport, bound for Srinagar my mood was already lifting, like the smog over Delhi. I had slept my first night in India and already this new world of mine for the next few months was beginning to feel familiar. The upward trend continued as our plane descended on the Kashmir value and I marveled at the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas coming into view. This is where our adventure was going to truly begin. It seems ironic really that in my most recent incarnation as an art auctioneer on a cruise ship I spent a great deal of time fantasizing about a time when I could say goodbye to my ocean dwelling days and be back on terra firma and here I was fantasizing about the romance of turning back the clocks to the raj era days and spending a few days aboard an Indian houseboat – granted I would be floating on a lake and not an ocean – but a body of water nevertheless! So here we were in Srinagar with the daunting task of choosing from one of 1400 houseboats that can be found on Dal Lake and no real plan of action. It turned out we didn’t need one! As we stood in line for a pre-paid taxi from the airport, 2 of the other 4 ‘westerners’ on our plane turned to us from their pole position at the counter and politely asked if we would like to share their taxi. Well it seemed like a reasonable suggestion given that we were going to the same place and it would halve our expense (from $8 - $4 – for the 36K trip). A polite and perfect English speaking middle aged man guided us from the door of the arrivals hall to the pre-paid taxi stand and assisted us with our luggage and then of course hopped in for the ride and explained that he was the owner of a houseboat on the lake and perhaps we would like to take a look. Well – with 1400 to look at I was glad of a little head-start on the process so we figured why not? And before you know it we were sitting with a pot of Kashmiri tea in the parlor of his houseboat (our new home for the next few days) discussing our deal and bargaining like crazy. Our new Spanish friends from the taxi stand were now our houseboat mates and as a group of 4 we were wheeling and dealing for the best price on all manner of tours and rides and the 2 day journey to Leh in Ladak along with this fabulous rustic old houseboat roof over our heads.
My husband excelled in the role of hard-ass deal-maker and as we factored and figured and calculated we came up with a number that seemed reasonable to us and eventually met at a point much closer to our original starting point than that of our new Kashmiri land-lord. Hands were shaken, smiles were exchanged and our first appointment was confirmed. Shikara ride on the lake, 5:30pm and until then free time to shower, relax and take our first meal aboard.
As we boarded the small wooden boat that was somewhere between a native Indian dugout canoe and a Venetian Gondola with a canopy we already felt a new sense of peace and calm from our first few hours in Srinagar and as our driver almost silently paddled us down the channel to an open stretch of lake we felt the sensation of a clock ticking backwards or at the least, time standing still. I leaned back on the cushion, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and for the first time finally felt ‘glad’ to be in India. But the tranquility I suppose was somewhat of an illusion: as we glided along admiring the lotus flowers and the lily pads, the intricate carving of the many houseboats we passed, the brightly colored shikaras passing us by we were startled by the sound of something that we could only presume to be an explosion within a fairly close proximity to the edge of the lake on which we paddled. As we turned to find the source of the noise we saw a cloud of smoke rising in the sky above the houses to the west of us and we were reminded that there probably was good reason for all those travel advisories against Kashmir – it was after all still a politically unstable place, not far from the Pakistani border – with constant terror threats and tensions brewing just below the surface of that tranquil veneer. We later confirmed that it was, in fact, a car bomb exploding that we had witnessed from the comfort of our shikara. It had caused 4 fatalities and 16 hospitalizations. A sobering thought and one that made it a little more difficult to embrace the ‘peace’ and feel at one with the world. But we were determined not to let the incident dampen our stay – the bomb after all was meant for police, outside a jail and although civilians had been caught in the blast we thankfully were not in their number and so we stay calm, enjoy the beauty surrounding us and remain grateful to be alive. For me, there is a wonderful peace to be found in the mountains. The magic, the majesty, the sheer magnificence and scale of the Himalayas are unmatched anywhere in the world; so to me this is heaven. I do indeed feel truly happy to be here despite the ever so slight chance that it might not actually be that safe. And I mean – let’s face it – who is safe these days?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Took a few days to get the laptop to internet but here are my reflections on arrival!

As we intermittently sped through the busting and bustling streets and sat stationary in the midst of a multitude of motor vehicles all attempting to go in the same direction at the same time and getting no where fast the visceral energy of India came flooding back to me. This is a place that one cannot engage with on a purely cerebral level. It overwhelms every part of you, every sense organ in a cacophonic symphony of vibrational frequencies. It quite literally freakin blows your mind. There are very few truths about India hidden away behind closed doors; all the world knows, that while a lucky few enjoy the fruits of a fast expanding economy, the majority still struggle quite literally from hand to mouth and have barely the clothes on their back to show proof of their existence, but when you see it first hand it still shakes you to the core.
As our taxi driver wove through the congested traffic I noticed a miniature village made of canvas by the side of the road and managed to catch a glimpse of the interior of one of those make shift tents. The tent appeared to be home for a considerable number of extended family members and I saw that its contents, besides the living breathing bodies, in the momentary glimpse I snatched, seemed to be minimal. The image that sticks out most in my mind was of a dark skinned man, probably of no more years than I can claim to have been on the planet (but with considerably more wrinkles from the wear and strain of living in such minimalistic conditions), crouched in a huddle, in dirty tattered clothing, just staring out of the split in the canvas at the falling rain and the passing cars with a vague hint of a wistful expression - his mind clearly in a place far from that road side tent. And it occurred to me that as he sat, perched on his tiny stool, (or perhaps it was simply a rock), his frail little skeleton had probably never experienced truly luxurious comfort, or in fact comfort of any kind for that matter. Had he ever laid down on a soft feather down duvet and felt his body sink deeper and deeper into the layers of cushion beneath? Had his muscles ever experienced that sort of escape, from the toils of supporting the human frame 24 hours a day? And I realized in that instant how easy it was to put life into perspective in just moments of being in India. Why was I planning to be here so long? What was I hoping to gain when I longed to take this journey last week from the comfort of a homely kitchen in England? I mean I’m certainly not going to say that I’m not excited to be here…….. but glad? The jury is still out. I know that on day one in rainy Delhi I’m hardly likely to be able to give our circumstances a fair assessment, but I am wondering whether my hardiness to the rough and tumble of backpacking ways has in recent years, given way to a more willing tendency to the cosy and pleasant surroundings that a slightly bigger budget can afford. What can I say, maybe I got old (I sure aint 18 anymore), but the damp stained walls and the shockingly cold shower spewing forth from the randomly aimed directional jets are not what one might describe as ‘pleasing’. But lest you are wondering if our journey will be over before it’s begun – fear not! I am not faint of heart and already after only one evening on this slighty lumpy damp bed listening to the rhythmic hum of the ceiling fan I am acclimatizing to my environment and beginning to feel at home.
I should also mention that this feeling of uncertainty over my place in India was given a head start by the wonderful striking pilots at Jet Airlines. As we spent our final afternoon in good ol’ blighty we double and triple checked in our minds that our preparations were complete and since we had time we thought why not just check on the progress of our flight. We were due to leave the house only a couple of hours later, so you can imagine our surprise when our search uncovered a horrifying detail that we had yet to be informed of. Our flight had been cancelled. Now if any of you reading this have been through the same experience you probably already know that it’s just not that big of a deal – they put you on another flight (which they eventually did after several mandatory brushes with misinformation and a couple of irritatingly long line ups) and everybody gets to where they are going eventually, but if, like us, you have onward travel plans that depend on stage one running to plan it can throw that old proverbial spanner in the works…..oh screw it! (with the spanner if you like).
We realized that with our new flight departing at a later time the chances of us making our connection had just been reduced by…. Oh….. about 100%. So – our next task was to change our flight to Srinagar and re-schedule it for the following day – so already India was throwing us the first curve ball of many that would be coming our way in the coming months – and which now of course meant a mandatory night in Delhi – and who goes to Delhi to sit in a hotel room? Not us – so off we went to explore Delhi.
During our preliminary excursions to get a peak at Old Delhi, as the light was fading and the misty soft rain lightly kissed our bare arms in the humid chaos, I was greeted with practically every emotion and sensation known to man. The aromatic blend of baking chapatis, sugared dough and asian spice combined with the occasional cloud of incense, a whiff of clove cigarette and through it all the undertone of excrement, muddy puddles and days old festering, stale urine collecting in the road side urinal troughs (for men only of course) made for a see-saw of delight followed by utter repulsion and the unquenchable desire to vomit. Already the constant tug of war in my mind over whether I love it or hate it here had begun. And along with the olfactory sense sensations there were of course the sights. Not a single millimeter of retina is left unbleached for a millisecond in the constant chaos of the streets. From floor to sky there is mayhem. The filth and garbage underfoot only acted to pave the way for the drama of life unfolding before our eyes. The mud is merely a backdrop for the wildly mingling whirling men, women and children that fill the streets. And as you watch cars, taxis, people, cycle rickshaws and cows all weaving together in an endless sea of motion it feels like the perfect synchronization of a millipedes legs all working together in perfect co-operation. You marvel at how it works, knowing that the front legs can’t possibly know what the back legs are doing and yet they move in perfect harmony. No one stops, no one pushes, no one crashes, no one gets angry and somehow the traffic keeps moving through every intersection. Everyone arrives at their final destination. An impossible feat of co-operative magic is in constant flow and it all just keeps on moving. During our brief ride on a cycle rickshaw to deliver us back to a point on the map that we recognized – that’s right we had no idea where we were – we were thrust into oncoming traffic traveling at high speeds more than once but our driver remained steadfast, unfaltering, unflinching and ever certain that the speeding buses and trucks heading straight for us would yield and allow us to u-turn in their path and re-join the flow in front of them – and somehow my heart never skipped a beat – I trusted that in India, though a singe life seems somehow less valued than in the western world, the intention to preserve life is powerful and we would be safe. And among the many things that I was feeling I did indeed feel safe. In the course of our wanderings there were several memorable moments of human connection, a gang of young boys following and shouting ‘hello’ in the most amicable way, an almost teenage lad trying out his ‘how you doin?’ look on me in the most humorous way, and of course a few looks of surprise and amusement that a couple of gringos were strolling around in the wrong part of town. Our role as ‘outsiders’ was clear but we were no less welcome for it than an outlaw in a western saloon with money to spend, and I can truly say that not once did I feel the need to look over my shoulder or check on my pockets even after the sun had gone down.
After an exhausting few hours tramping the streets and taking a crash course in daily Delhi life it was time to fuel our taste buds with the culinary delights of India and so it was that we chose a ‘modest looking’ but busy street side cafĂ© for our evening repast: Veg korma and Mushroom paneer with garlic naan and rice. In a word, delicious! The greatest Indian cuisine ever made? Absolutely not – but after the day I’d had – a welcome treat.
And so – to Srinagar!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Preparations and Final Countdown

The planning of a trip like ours to India was fairly simple and straightforward. Since I’ve always known that I would return and that there was far too much to see and do in India all in one go I picked the most inspiring landscape as a starting point and simply went from there. It doesn’t take a genius to work it out – for me, the most inspiring and monumental place of natural beauty on the surface of the planet is of course the Himalayas – so that is where our journey will begin.
But before we get there, there are things to think about, items to be purchased, vaccines to be administered and travel arrangements to be made, not to mention visas to obtain. Ahh, the organizer must come out to play. Over the last few years as an art auctioneer I had to learn to not only talk about and sell art but to organize and run a business, to manage a team of staff and generally take care of things. It’s one thing to see the bigger picture, but someone also has to take care of the details and while this is not necessarily a source of joy for me, it is most definitely my forte. I have a talent for remembering ‘the little things’, the ‘bits and pieces’ and so it was my job to get this trip up and running, on her feet, so to speak.
As soon as the wedding and honeymoon were done with and ‘out of the way’ my attention could be turned to the nuts and bolts of our ‘dream trip of a lifetime’. The ‘to do’ list was composed and the research began. Visas, flights, health requirements, travel insurance, shopping lists, gear checks, practice packs. Google became my best friend while I not only took care of the practical matters but also honed in on the wish list of stops and etched out an itinerary that fueled my imagination. As my ideas took shape I reminded myself that this is India and since anything can happen I would need to keep an open mind and be ready for anything.
Well now it’s all been done. With only 2 days remaining before our ‘SpiceJet’ flight takes to the sky and carries us to Delhi where we will have only 2 hours and 45 minutes to make our way to the connecting flight for Srinagar I am already reflecting on the process that brought us here and looking ahead to what lies before us. A combination of thrill, anticipation and fear of the unknown buzz over me and I try to remember all the things I may have forgotten.
And as I look at my backpack, filled with the few items I have selected for my travels I don’t understand for the life of me, why there is still so much space. Did I finally, after all these years of backpacking realize that its best not to take too much or am I forgetting something crucial. Oh well, I can always buy what I forget to take! As long as I can find an ATM somewhere in incredible India, which does seem questionable at some of our intended early destinations (according to Google!).
It is my intention to keep a record of this great trip for some purpose or other – so if you care to come along with me and take this journey from your desk in your own imagination, then be my guest. I offer you my thoughts and dreams, my experiences and visions as I attempt to do them at least some justice through my description and perhaps I will, through my words, plant those little alien forces in the depths of your own soul to whisper softly to you and one day beckon you to India.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why Not?

Now much in my world has changed since my first brief stay in India. I have experienced a great deal more in life myself and in many ways I am a completely different person. But at my core I am still that free spirit, that wanderer who wants to see the world in its truly raw state, to experience ultimate freedom and peace. If I was to compare myself to an onion I would say that the onion that arrived to Varanasi all those years ago was a spring onion – sweet and young and fresh and great with a salad with only a few layers and a hint of a kick in it’s bite. The onion I am today is much bigger and bolder in flavor and yet has many more layers and a much, much thicker skin that may need to be peeled and discarded before the stuff worth keeping and using for a succulent curry will be found. This time India will most definitely be showing me much, much more, but this time I am sure to resist with those layers of thick skin and it may take some time to peel away the top parts and get to the good stuff.
The idea for this most current trip as I already explained was germinated many years ago, during that first glimpse of India, but the final momentum for lift off has been gathered more recently thanks to a few, major, life changing events in addition to, for want of a better phrase: ‘the state of the world’. The newly wed status, which I find myself in, often, it is said, inspires change and experimentation. This compulsion for change has been compounded by the fact that when deciding to marry, my husband and I also decided that now would be a great time to change some other circumstances of our lives and not only join the ranks of ‘marriagedom’ (not that that word exists but I am known from time to time to invent my own words should I feel that there is not one in existence that suits my precise needs), but also join the ranks of the ‘unemployed’ and find a new start in life. In turn this also meant for us, a change in just about everything about our day-to-day life: since our job was our life. Having spent the last several years as cruise ship employees we were in fact very much ‘married to our jobs’ or rather living in our jobs. Work was life and life was work – that’s pretty much how it goes on a ship – since the ship is home and work all in one – so when you decide to change your work, well, your life goes too.
So here we find ourselves, newly married, without job or home but with the overwhelming desire for one last fling with freedom before we ‘toe the line’ and get ‘settled and stable’. In actual fact at this point in my life I find a powerful dichotomy within myself. Since in a sense I have been ‘traveling’ and ‘homeless’ for several years now there is a powerful yearning within me to put down roots and find a place to call my own, but there is still, on the other hand my unfulfilled desire to go back to India. So, ‘why not?’ we said. It’s now or never. We return to land and find a home and we may never have the chance again to be so free from bonds and baggage, to freely roam and wander. And India is calling.
And so it was to be. The newly-weds would seize this perfect time, certainly perfect personally and in addition perfect professionally, considering that to join the ranks of the ‘unemployed’ as an active job seeker seemed like a pretty uninviting prospect since those ranks are fairly deep and wide thanks to the ‘economic crisis’ that this poor little planet finds herself in. Why waste time searching for jobs that don’t exist, when we can be in India, searching for ourselves and wondrous wonders of the world? While the world attempts to right herself like a catamaran swaying in the blustering winds on the surface of a tormented ocean, we can wait for the storm to pass in a place where our funds will go far. Why not? Why not? Why not? That was the phrase that surfaced time and time again in our minds. And lucky for us, we could find only compelling reason to add to the list of ‘Why?’ and pretty much none to add to ‘Why not?’

Escape to Paradise or Crash Course to Insanity.

For many, the concept of travel through India is a minefield of mayhem, a double order of disaster, a cesspool of pestilence. For others it is the promise of seismic spirituality, tropical temptations and tantalizingly tasty treats of sizzling spicy proportions. For me it is any and all of the above and a whole, whole, whole lot more. My dream of discovering India and more than that; discovering myself in India have been with me since the very first time I began to wander the globe with the spirit of an intrepid traveler many years ago. My first trip (another story altogether) was a 6 month ‘around the world’ extravaganza that took in 9 countries and all terrains. The final stop on this whirlwind tour was India – although with time and money running out fast it was destined to be only a brief sojourn into this vast land of fascination. With only 11 days to reach our final departure city, Delhi I was only granted a glimpse of the delights and disgraces of India. Undoubtedly one of the greatest highlights of my trip and stunning man-made wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal was of course upon my list as well as Varanasi, the Holy City on the banks of the River Ganges and the sights of Delhi. This final location was sadly, mostly missed due to the unfortunate condition in which I found myself upon arrival. That of requiring a toilet within easy grasping distance at all times for about 72 hours so that I could expel every ounce of intestinal contents at regular intervals – one of the many joys of travel in India – but again I digress. In those first 7 days in India, despite the maddening confusion and chaos of a great many moments of my time there, I managed to fall in love. In love with the sights, the sounds, the smells (not all of an entirely pleasant aromatic nature – but intriguing and memorable nevertheless), the people and of course the spirit. The spirit of India cannot be described in any simple way but it absolutely cannot be denied. Once you have experienced India it kind of burrows under your skin and finds a resting place deep in your soul from which it calls to you now and again and gently reminds you that it is in fact still where it was when you left it, and that you are not there, and have not returned, and eventually it will have it’s way, you will succumb and India will once again draw you in, tempt you back and unfold her gems and jewels for you, if you give her half a chance.
And that is exactly what happened to me. Somewhere between the border with Nepal, where I entered her fine lands and the departure gate where I boarded my flight from Delhi airport back to London Heathrow, the spirit of India entered my body and deposited little alien forces within me that would arise every now and again to haunt me and call to me and remind me that the promise I made to myself to return and explore further had not yet been fulfilled. Finally the voices of that alien force have become so loud, so deafening that they can no longer be ignored. Finally it is time to return and explore all, or at least some more of what this wonderful, wild, beautiful remarkable country has to offer. I am off to India.