India


4
Mar 11

First Foray into Film

Gina and I spent last weekend laid out on various beds and couches around the house, sick with a vomiting bug. And while being sick is never fun for anyone we did manage to use the time stuck indoors to finally look through and edit all the footage we took with our little flip video camera while we were in India. Don’t expect much, I’m sure we won’t be winning any awards anytime soon but we had a blast getting to revisit all the memories of that wonderful trip.


3
Nov 09

Train Journey

For the last 10 days of our trip in India, before returning to Delhi, Jeff and I did a wonderful giant loop of a journey by train. Our selected stops along the way: Amritsar with its Golden Temple, close to the Pakistan border, Jodhpur in the heart of the deserts of Rajhastan, and Varanasi, one of the most sacred cities in India located on the shores of the Ganges river.

Anyone who has travelled by train in India will agree that it is definitely one of those situations where the destination really is only one part of the whole experience, the journey itself being such an event to remember. My brother Diarmuid has been known to say that sleeper class (the lowest of classes on overnight trains) is the only way one should travel in India if they want to really experience India. I am now in a position to wholeheartedly agree with him. In these cheap, low class carriages it seems that drama after drama unfold before your eyes. Although at times it appears calm, the next stop it suddenly seems as if the entire population of an Indian town has entered the train, mostly in your booth. Little kids with endlessly deep brown eyes running amok and clambering from bed to bed. Friends sitting 3 high on laps when no other seating is available. Loud chatter, shouting, people playing music on mobile phones (they are everywhere here), and the endless stream of merchants selling chai (tea) or snacks who have to push their way through the aisles as they shout their own rhythmic team tune “Chai, Chai, Chaaaiiiiii” ! Mayhem Indian-style. And all the smells and dirt of India rushing in through the open windows and doors. A veritable assault on the senses.

Other than the obvious joy of watching the beautiful countryside roll by, what I enjoyed most were our interactions with people sitting near us. The friendly Sikh couple sitting opposite who insisted on sharing all their food with us. Not a word of English between them, and so conversation consisted of smiles, nods and hand gestures for the duration of the journey. Then there were the multiple people who came to sit with us to practice/show off their English, and those that switched seats to sit by us even though they spoke no English. And the boy who sat beside Jeff and chatted enthusiastically with him, complimenting him repeatedly on his “beautiful hair”. These experiences were only slightly tainted by the unfortunate theft of Jeff’s runners while we slept on one of the night trains. What they’ll do with technical climber’s approach shoes on the streets of India we’ll never know…

Proper hygiene is essential

The highlights of Jodhpur for me were the magnificence of the fort, and the wonderful gentle giant of an elephant we met wandering through the market streets. This is a city which truly brings one back in time, to the medieval ages with castles and royal courts, except with warriors on elephant back instead of horseback. Further East on our train journey, Varanasi is a city built on the shores of the Ganges and is in keeping with that whole medieval theme. A truly bizarre, and mystical place. This is considered the most sacred place for Indian hindus to be brought after death, for public cremation in an open fire by the river. The ashes are then sprinkled in the river, which for us westerners is a little disconcerting considering that that same water is used for bathing, washing clothes, and also drinking. Even the open sewers draining into the river don’t put the locals and pilgrims off.

Blue city

Bathing Ghats

Puja

And now after 6 and a half weeks, the India episode of our travels is over. A truly wonderful experience. One filled with many new things for Jeff and I, with one adventure after another. India has also dished out many challenges for us, mental and physical. My guts are happy for a change. It has sparked numerous debates about tolerance, cultural differences and spirituality. It has driven us mental at times, and at other times been our magical wonderland. It would take an entire novel of words to try and describe the ups and downs of our relationship with India, and even then we’d probably miss the point.

We have now arrived in Thailand, a holidays from our holidays…

More photos: Train Journey, Jodhpur, and Varanasi


25
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?


24
Oct 09

Golden

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.

Yarrrr.

Cooking

Check out more photos >


23
Oct 09

Rishikesh

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


20
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.


18
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.

Bhojbasa

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. 🙂


15
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.

Motorbike

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.

road_trip469

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.

Shivling


29
Sep 09

Trekking near Manali

Once again we enjoyed the benefits of having a local friend in unfamiliar surroundings. One of Matthew’s travel guide friends, who works for the same guiding agency in Delhi, happens to be from the Kullu valley, at the foothills of the Himalaya, where we have been spending our time recently. He suggested a few days trekking in the mountains, with him and one of his nephews. Having a local guide on such a trip is great, having a local friend is invaluable. Jagdeesh is a really nice guy, with seemingly endless knowledge of and interest in both local and national Indian culture and issues. I kept thinking how much my Dad would love to meet him.

Way to Malana

So we spent 4 days trekking through the himalaya mountains, led by Heman (Jagdeesh’s nephew), who I believe was a mountain goat in a previous life. In his denim jeans and fake Nike runners he put us to shame on the mountain trails. The first day we hiked for 8 hours up over a pass on a trail which it seems only the locals know about. The trail began in a tiny farming village in the mountains which remains untouched by the tourists and modernization that has afflicted so many other mountain towns in the area. As we walked up the trail from the village, Jagdeesh randomly got talking to a lively old lady who turned out to be a distant relative of his. We were all ushered into her farm house for the obligatory cup of chai. She spoke not a word of English, and so the chai was enjoyed with smiles and giggles across the language barrier.

Way to Malana

After some knee-wrecking hours hiking up and over a 3,700m pass, we spent the night in officially the weirdest village I’ve ever been to. Malana was first settled thousands of years ago, and its people consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great. It sits perched on the side of a steep mountain, in a luscious green valley. Until recently it was a long day’s trek to the nearest road, although the people of Malana had no need for a road as they are a very private and insulated community. With only 1000-2000 inhabitants it has it’s own parliament, and refuses to abide by national Indian laws. In a way it acts like a small independent nation in the mountains. It is also home to a very special temple in honour of the most important god in the area. Traditionally the people of Malana received gifts of food from other mountain villages in honour of this god. Another bizarre issue is the Malana law that forbids any outsider (whether Indian or foreign) from touching the people of Malana or their property, with a 1000 rupee fine for those who choose to test the validity of this law. Apparently this has been the way for thousands of years. Along with this goes the reputation the people have of being very unfriendly to outsiders. It makes for a weird and somewhat unnerving experience as a foreigner stepping foot inside the village. Almost impossible to relax. People staring at us as we walk with arms folded through the dirty narrow passages between the houses. I felt like an alien. Or a diseased creature. I bought something from the tiny shop in the village centre. The shop owner put the bag on the ground for me to pick up rather than place anything directly into my hand. I knew the rules before we even entered the village, but this gesture felt so personally insulting that it made me want to cry or shout out: “We are all people no?!”. Matthew reminded me that this concept of untouchable people is all too familiar to Indian people. To me it seems like the ultimate disrespect for another human being, which I suppose is the point…

To be fair, when addressed with a smile and hello, most of the locals responded with the same. And no rules could contain the children of Malana. We were greeted with big smiles by most, with some requesting to have their photo taken, and others in search of chocolate…

Malana

Another very prominent and strange aspect of Malana is the fact that cannabis plants grow wild throughout the area. Since the 70’s hippies have found their way there in search of a smoker’s paradise. While many locals continue to live the old primitive mountain way, some have entered the lucrative business of cannabis cultivation, with plantations scattered around the mountains. Such a bizarre combination of ancient and modern in one small mountain village.

Malana

The next night we reached Kir Ganga, which consists of an isolated temple and hot spring baths high up in the mountains, surrounded by monkey-infested jungle. It’s a 3-4 hour hike from the nearest village, up through beautiful jungle, past multiple waterfalls. We arrived in darkness and with fading torch light found our way straight to the baths. Such a special experience to sit with the steam rising around you, the stars above, and the dark mountains looming on all sides. With good company surrounding you, and satisfied laughter in the air.

Way to Kir Ganga

A wonderful few days.

And now we are back in Vashisht, plotting our next adventure together. And this is the magic of India. It is bursting with adventure. There seem to be no laws. And for a foreigner at least, just endless freedom…

(More Photos on the right)


28
Sep 09

Rohtang La

My ass hurts. There is a dagger between my shoulder blades that gets twisted every time I hit a pothole, which is a word that can be used to describe pretty much the entire road surface. Oh, and my hands are numb – vibrated into oblivion by the combustion engine that I’m sitting on. I’ve always said that I didn’t want to ever try riding a motorcycle. I’ve always told myself that I do enough injury prone activities already, why add another? But here I am, riding a motorcycle, up near 4000 meters above sea level; and I have to admit, it’s pretty damn fun. If I’m honest with myself though, I think the biggest reason that I never wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle is because I was afraid I’d like it this much.

Rohtang La, at 3978 meters, is one of the gateways to the high altitude desert region of Ladakh. It’s the first pass that you have to cross when you head north into the Himalaya from Manali and, while it is not the highest pass you have to cross on your way to Leh, it is the one most likely to be covered in snow and mud. A perfect introductory ride. We rented a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet, one of the standard bikes here in India. Gina and Matthew are chugging along ahead on the Enfield while I, clad in a helmet reminiscent in shape if not paint job of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, am riding Matthew’s 180cc Bajaj Avenger; a smaller, lighter, easier to manage bike.

The road leading out of town is paved, sort of. It reminds me of roads in West Virginia. You know the ones, with a strip of pavement in the middle that is just wide enough for one vehicle and gravel on either side of that. The idea being that you can drive along in the middle of the road, on the pavement, when there is no oncoming traffic and when you meet a car, you both put two wheels in the gravel and pass. That is how it works in theory at least. In India, there are too many vehicles and too many maniacs to allow for such order and organization. Everyone just drives as fast as they can and blasts a horn when they want to pass you, not minding that it is a blind corner cut into the side of a steep hill, when you are pretty sure that the twisted pile of metal that you can see a few hundred feet below is the burned out skeleton of a bus. No, just a honk and away they go.

We pilot the bikes away from town, switchbacking into pine forests. The road here is newly paved, a treat. Slowly the pines become smaller, more stunted, twisted by the howling wind. Then they disappear altogether, replaced by open meadows littered with stones and small cliffs. The road here is not newly paved. Hard-pack dirt, 4 inch deep sandy dust and rocky mud alternate, each pretending in turn to be the surface of a road. The trucks thunder along, their musical horns blaring, until they meet another of their kind. Slamming on the brakes, the outside truck must take his chances with the crumbling edge of the road. Still higher we climb, passing chai stands every so often. In places, the road is in a state of reconstruction – given that the pass is only open for 5 months a year, it makes you wonder if they ever stop trying to reinforce the road during the summer months.

As we near the top my excitement builds. 4000 meters above sea level, on motorcycles, and we’re still alive. Not bad for a newbie. We pull the bikes over at the top and join the throngs of Spanish, Punjabi and Israeli tourists walking to the highest point in the saddle of the pass for a view of the snowy Himalayas beyond. There are prayer flags waving from the electric poles and the chanting of Buddhist monks reaches our ears, carried on the wind. As we mount the bikes again the tiredness begins to creep in. Just like climbing, we have come up – but we still have to go down. And just like climbing, it’s the down that is the most dangerous. We take our time, focus all of our energy and make it back just as the darkness sets in – exhausted completely.

Yes, the roads in India leave much to be desired. Yes, the traffic in India is maniac. Yes, I’m probably slowly killing my mother with every word of praise I give to motorcycle riding. And yet, I can’t deny that it’s a beautiful way to travel. Good views, complete freedom to stop and go whenever you want, the ability to slip by massive queues of traffic (undoubtedly waiting on two psychedelically painted trucks who are trying to pass each other on an impossibly narrow mountain road while a shepherd deftly guides his flock down the road between them) are just a few of the benefits a motorcycle brings to the table. Plus, it’s just so much fun!

Mom, I’m sorry.

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manali_162

Rohtang La

Rohtang La