October, 2009

Oct 09

The Smells of India

  1. Urine
  2. Exhaust Fumes
  3. Dust
  4. Burning rubbish and rubber
  5. Thali and chapati from the numerous Dhabas (tiny street restaurants)
  6. Incense

P.S. – Of course this is different when you are in the mountains, away from any concentrated population. But isn’t that always the case…

P.P.S – Anyone else remember any others?

Oct 09


Gingerly walking through the trough of running water and covering my head with a bandana, I step out of the chaos and noise of the street, onto the cool marble tiles and wonder at the floating golden temple in front of me. The lake reflecting a perfect, shimmering opposite just beneath. The sound of the Sikh priests singing hymns rings around the complex – the even, soothing melodies calming the nerves and welcoming all who visit. Despite so many other guests, this place feels like an oasis of peace.

We walk around the lake several times, taking in the temple from all angles, all reflections. We sit and watch the Indian sightseers, who watch us in return. All of us tourists to this holy site. Stepping up the stairs towards the Langar (free community kitchens), a feature of all Sikh temples, the sound of clanging metal plates, bowls and cups begins to drown out the holy songs from the loudspeakers. On the way through the doors we are handed a plate, a bowl and a spoon.

The dining hall is a huge open space, with people sitting on the floor in neat rows all around us. We join the closest row that is rapidly forming and take up cross legged positions. Volunteers go down the line with food, serving each person from large tin buckets or oversized baskets. The food is simple, delicious and refilled readily. This is easily the most efficient thing we have seen in India so far.

On the way out, our plates are collected by yet another volunteer. We can see the dishwashing nearby, a massive operation involving sixty or eighty more volunteers surrounding long metal sinks. From the kitchen we return to the calm cool marble walkway, refueled for a few more laps.



Check out more photos >

Oct 09


After a week in Rishikesh, sleeping in a pyramid-shaped tent up on the jungle-covered hillside, doing yoga with increased frequency and intensity, learning meditation, and stocking up on pseudo western food (mainly for the sake of Gina’s belly), we parted ways with Matthew. Five weeks is the longest he and I have spent together in one go since we were much younger. Before Matthew moved to Spain, maybe 12 years ago. Bizarre to think.

It has been wonderful. So much fun and banter. With the occasional narky-pants moments along the way, to be expected. I have always felt blessed to have so many siblings. People I love to be around. Now all of us adults, spreading out across the world. So coming out here to join Matthew in his life in Asia, and see a bit of his world, has been a really special experience. He has diligently continued with his role as protector and teacher of his younger sister. The older we get however, the more reciprocal it becomes. Each of us with our own angle on life so far. Our two paths running alongside each other again after so many years of only brief crossings. Hopefully they will join again for more adventures soon…

Ganga Sunset

Oct 09

Hidden Gems

We plodded up the wide trail past the waterfall, climbing higher into the jungle. A few minutes later, the signs announcing the approaching village began to appear. A concrete water drainage, terraces covered in newly cut grass drying in the sun, then the first sound of voices carrying through the trees. We’d arrived, after a wonderful two hour walk along the banks of the Ganga, following vague directions from the owner of the guest house where we’ve been staying.

The village was beautiful, terraces contoured around the hills in every direction, there were flowers growing thickly next to the path and, uncharacteristically for India, there was almost no garbage littering the ground. Stopping at a cross roads in the path we looked left and saw a smiling face. Matthew piped up, “Chai malega?” Is chai possible here? The elderly gentleman smiled and shook his head to confirm. As we approached the simple home his wife came outside and spread a blanket on the ground for us. From the shade of the house we admired the neat rows of flowers all around us.

A few moments later his wife appeared again with a small tray of chai. As we drank the tea, we asked questions about this tree or that and about the tiny village. After each question the man would smile and respond, with broken but very clear english. We finally got around to asking if many foreigners make it up to the village. His smile grew larger and he said that yes, many foreigners have come. Then he stood and walked around the corner of the house.

When he returned, he was holding two photographs. They were pictures, quite recent looking, of himself, his wife and two foreigners. Matthew asked when the photo was taken. The man, misunderstanding, replied that the photos had arrived yesterday in the post. We all smiled, me wondering that the post could even find the place, and fell back into silence.

When we had finished our first tea, the man smiled and said, “Just one more tea, then you can go.” He disappeared around the corner of the house again just in time for his wife to appear from the kitchen, this time carrying bowls of caramelized sugar and semolina with fresh coconut grated on top. A sweet treat for each of us.

Her husband returned, holding a binder. As we ate he began to show us photo after photo of himself, his wife and the numerous foreign visitors that they’d had to their tiny mountainside village. The pictures were wonderful; smiling happy faces, standing or sitting in the exact spot in which we were now sitting. As we flipped through the faces, he would point out the tourists that returned every year, some staying for a few days each time. As we moved closer to look at the photos, we saw that the “kitchen” was just a nook in the side of the house that had a small open fire built in the corner. The man’s wife was squatting next to the fire, pouring our second round of tea through a small strainer into glasses for us, smiling broadly at what must have become a common occurrence: Her husband showing the latest batch of tourists who stumbled into their village his collection of photos while she made them tea and treats.

Oct 09

Mountains, Glaciers and Mules

No one said a word as we walked through the forest. The light from the exceptionally bright moon casting shadows on the ground in front of us, illuminating the snow covered peaks surrounding us. As we near a gate across the trail the pace slows, one by one we inch around the side of the gate and continue slowly between the buildings and make-shift tents on either side of the trail. As the building sink into the semi-darkness behind us the tension dissolves. We’d passed the forest service checkpoint. Short-breathed conversations broke out as we ascended the trail into a Himalayan wonderland; the peaks rising up even higher, blazing orange in the dawn light – hours before that same light would reach us at the bottom of the valley.

Frozen wonderland

We arrived at the dharamshala before many of the pilgrims had even awoken, and are greeted with chai and porridge, both steaming. The quiet and peacefulness of the wide alpine meadow spread out before us, the sun pouring down and warming us, drying the sweat from our clothes. Gina nips away for an early morning nap in an unused room while we laugh and joke, now warm both inside and out. Her ashen face reappearing a short while later. Something clearly wrong.


The warmth of the tent had become oppressive. The reason for the black plastic on the outside of the tent now very clear. A very sick Gina is still buried under her blanket and mine, sleeping soundly. I venture out into the fresh air and am greeted by the Baba, lunch is ready. I eat dal and chapati under the guise of Shivling and Bagirathi, listening to another traveler conversing about devotees and babas, meditation and yoga.

Gina’s pace had slowed to nearly the equivalent of the glacier that had just come into view, only a kilometer away. Her color wasn’t far off the glacier’s either. Sitting down on a rock, silently suffering for a few moments, she agreed that it was time for a full (and hasty) retreat, her stomach standing in between us and the source of the holy river Ganga. The glacier would have to wait for another trip.

Gaumukh glacier and Shivling

Gina’s mule trotted down the trail, dangerously close to the edge. The look on her face somewhere between pain and terror. “My mule had spark” she would later comment, though right now it doesn’t look as if she is appreciating this spark. Slowly (though not as slowly as if Gina had been forced to walk), we make our way down the steep trail – the mule driver now holding the rope around the neck of Gina’s mule to make sure he maintains a consistent pace. Gina’s expression becoming softer with each step closer to the bed that waits for her at the end of the trail.

This is the last way we imagined passing the forest service check post when we ascended in the moonlight, Gina sick and sitting on a mule, me walking right up to the officer, a play-dumb smile on my face. A tongue lashing and our passport details carefully scrawled on a scrap of paper later we were allowed to pass. Rest for Gina is now nearly in sight.

UPDATE: It’s now been nearly a week since we got down out of the mountains and Gina is doing much better. 🙂

Oct 09

Road Trippin’

Everyone can appreciate that riding a motorbike is a skill; and one which Jeff has, in my totally biased opinion, become pretty good at. What I had not realised is that being a good passenger on a motorcycle, especially on the mountain roads in Northern India, is also a skill to be acquired. In ways it’s like being a good (female) dancing partner: Relax, let go of urges to control, and follow the lead of your partner, or in this case, the person riding the bike and the movement of the bike itself. Weaving the bike back and forth on bends, between cows on the road, squeezing past oncoming traffic on narrow roads when the edge is uncomfortably close, bumping over monstrous potholes and hillocks in the road. Just go with the flow, and let go of the survival instinct that makes you want to jerk at every steep edge or large truck you pass. The jerky passenger just upsets the balance of the bike which is a serious no-no on these roads. As reward, the passenger gets hours of wonderful sight-seeing with constantly changing surroundings. Hours of pleasant contemplation, a meditation of sorts. Just watching the world go by, literally.


Our motorbike voyage commenced in Manali just over two weeks ago. Our destination: Gangotri, the starting point for a three day round trip trek to the source of the holy Ganges river, where it rushes from the snout of a glacier high up in the Himalaya. To fully embrace the wonderful freedom of traveling on motorbikes we took a scenic route through the mountains, which took 8 days of riding to arrive in Gangotri and then another 2 days back to civilisation (Rishikesh) after the trekking.


Our route, which remained a fluid and ever-changing thing, took us high up over mountain passes, along high ridge lines, through deep gorges and valleys and up to the base of the snow-capped Himalaya. Along the way, we weaved through all sorts of creatures on the road; cows, sheep, goats, yak and monkeys, monkeys, monkeys. Passing countless Indian villages, with their pretty coloured houses perched on the mountain sides. The filth and rubbish on the streets of these becoming less of a shock with each new town we passed. Such a stark contrast to the mountains in which they stand.

Shimla rooftop

Men washing themselves in the springs on the side of the road. Women carrying huge piles of grass on their backs up the mountain side to feed the animals over the long winter. Road repair crew squatting in the road, making gravel by hand, literally, and filling potholes with these labour intensive small stones. The fun of responding to high five requests from kids as we rode through their home streets. Many of the villages we passed rarely have foreign visitors, being well off the beaten track, so we were greeted at times with stares and at other times with cheers.

Men ‘hocking’ and spitting so much that it is a sound I imagine will always remind us of India. That and the noise of repeated beep beep beep…

We swam in beautiful, clear rivers and streams along the way, stopping where and when we pleased. One night was spent at Tattapani where hot water springs flow from the riverbank into the cold waters of the Sutlej river. Another was spent in the calm refuge of Hatkoti dharmsala (pilgrims rest house) next to very important Durga temple. Perfect respite after a day spent driving in the rain, sliding on muddy mountain roads.

One of the roads we had planned on taking had been washed away by a river or landslide (depending on who you asked). Our detour brought us to an unexpected hilltop army station, Chakrata. Foreigners are absolutely forbidden. They fail to mention this fact, or even the presence of the army station, on the map or in any of the towns on the way up the mountain – a 3 hour bike ride. That’s India. We had to stop to get petrol when we reached to town, but were escorted away for questioning. After we had answered satisfactorily and had our passport details noted, the officer told us to leave immediately and never return. All of the local people in the nearby market gathering around to watch the proceedings with great interest. I wanted so badly to laugh, but didn’t think it would go down so well with the officers.

After what felt like a wonderful lifetime of being on the road we arrived in Gangotri, where we joined pilgrims from throughout India and world, gearing themselves up for the trek to the source of the Ganges river. The most sacred river in India.