Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jewels of the Kathmandu Valley

I'm regretting a little bit now going on so much about how wonderful it was in India, because now I'm afraid you wont believe me when I tell you that Nepal is even better. The first thing I had to do when I arrived in Kathmandu last weekend was adjust my meanness level - all of a sudden the hassle died down and people got so much nicer. My defensive stance was both unnecessary and unappreciated, and I quickly changed my attitude. The other thing you notice at once is the air quality. Kathmandu is one of the most polluted cities in the world, to the point that by the end of the first day my head was spinning and I was coughing even more than before. I soon started wearing a face mask around, as do many other people here, and that has helped a lot.

One thing that really surprised me is how many people seem to either hop up here for a three day visit during a short trip to India (what a waste, in my opinion) or fly over and just go trekking, missing out on the joys of the Nepali culture and people. I spent the week mostly doing day trips to other towns in the Kathmandu valley, and I was constantly surprised that I was the only foreigner around, or one of very few.

I spent a few days just hanging around Kathmandu, which is quite charming, if very touristy. The first day trip I did started in Pashupati, which is the Nepali equivalent of Varanasi. A big temple complex with cremation ghats next to an almost non-existent river, I witnessed closer than I wanted to the funeral rituals of the local people. Just when I was looking at a guy poking at a pile of burning straw and thinking I must have been mistaken because there was no way a person was in there, a charred leg appeared, and then the rest of the body followed. It seemed a little bit undignified, really, to burn bodies like that in full view of passers-by, but that's probably just my western cultural perspective talking.

I walked from there to Bodnath, which is a major center of Tibetan Buddhist exiles. I had great Tibetan food and wandered around the huge stupa and the gompas (monasteries) scattered around town. At one point I sat down for a rest and then heard lots of horns blowing and drums beating inside the gompa. I walked up to look inside, and two monks made me pour ceremonial water on my face and put a rock on my head (wish I understood why) before I could peer in the door, where I saw row upon row of maroon-clothed, shaven-headed monks sitting and chanting.

After this I went to Gokarna, where there is a major Hindu temple with an "A to Z" of Hindu gods in statues around the temple. There were several bored policemen guarding the temple, and by the time I got halfway through the statues, I had an entourage of about 6 people following me around, telling me about the gods and cracking jokes. I think they got more of a kick out of me than I did out of the temple!

The next day I visited Patan and Bungamati, both Newari villages that have beautiful, ornate courtyards and little temples and shrines scattered about. In Patan I went to the main temple in Durbar Square, and as I entered I saw a bloody horn on the ground and thought to myself, "this can't be good." I climbed the steep stairs and found a bunch of men sitting on the ground, chanting and drumming, and a buffalo lying on the ground in front of the altar. Don't ask me how they got the buffalo up the stairs. Fortunately there was enough of a wall of people that I didn't have to see full on what happened next, but I could see enough to realize they slit the buffalo's throat. I decided to leave, and when I walked past the temple later, a crowd was gathered around, and I saw the buffalo on the ground outside the temple, still whole but separated by about a foot from its head, and a guy supervising a giant blow torch that appeared to be searing the hide or cooking the buffalo whole... I'm not entirely sure what they were doing, but I did find out they only do this once a year, and I just happened to be lucky and witness it!

On several people's recommendations, I visited the touristy town of Bhaktapur, which was my least favorite place in Nepal. They charge one of the highest fees I've encountered in the subcontinent just for the privilege of walking around the town, and while you are walking around, you are constantly besieged by begging children, tour guides, and souvenir sellers. If anyone is considering going there, I would strongly recommend against it until they put that ticket money to better use - like building schools or providing food for those children I saw begging all day.

I got the heck out of there and went off to Nagarkot, in the hills at the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, where I spent a cold night and then hiked back down, enjoying a beautiful view of the Himalayas on the way. Half way through my hike I passed through a tiny farming village (where they grow wheat on terraces like rice!) and was stopped by a group of children who wanted to talk to me. Soon someone my age came over and convinced me to come to his house, and I went and was given tea and sat to talk for an hour. I think most of the village came over to stare at me and try to talk to me, from 2 year olds to 80 year olds. I was invited to come back and stay, and I was infinitely touched by the kindness and generosity of the Nepalis (this is just one of many examples this week). I did have to go, though, and I walked down to Sankhu, where there's an underwhelming temple, and on to Changu Narayan, where there's a more impressive temple.

The next couple of days were spent in Kathmandu, seeing some sights, hanging out with friends, and trying to plan my onward travel. Tomorrow Damien and I head to Pokhara for some trekking, so it'll be a few weeks before I check in again. There's so much more I could tell you about this week in Nepal, but I fear I've run on already, so if you want more, you'll have to ask when I see you. Anyway, I think Nepal might just be one of my favorite places in the whole world, and I don't say that lightly. If you get a chance to come here, I strongly recommend it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Delhi to Varanasi

My last update was from Jaipur, which didn't impress me too much. The following day I saw the large and maze-like Amber Fort and the "monkey temple," where hundreds of monkeys converge at dusk and come up to you asking for food. In fact, I went with a friend who bought a bag of peanuts for the monkeys, and one actually jumped on his back to get the nuts. It scared both of us!

I arrived the next morning in Delhi, and my first surprise was that, despite it being the capital and an international transit point, almost nobody spoke English. I had received all kinds of dire warnings about Delhi and was expecting to be hassled and groped all day long, but in fact it wasn't so bad at all. The city is big but has a certain charm, with lots of markets scattered around and some interesting monuments. I visited the place where Gandhi lived his last days and where he was assassinated, and they have put together a very interesting exhibit on his life.

From Delhi I went to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, and I must admit that despite the hype, it was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. I went in expecting to be disappointed but actually it was wonderful to see it in person. Agra also has some other monuments, including a huge palace complex at Fatehpur Sikri, about an hour away, which are well worth visiting. Mostly I was very impressed once again by the kindness of strangers, as a person I met on the train ended up inviting me to his home for dinner, and then showed me his (Sikh) temple, which was a first for me. I felt honored to be invited in and to receive a blessing from the priest.

From Agra I went to Orchha, a small and relaxed town full of temples and old palaces. I only had a day there, but I could easily have spent a few. Onwards to Khajuraho, famous for its gorgeous and intricately-carved temples, with scenes from the Kama Sutra carved all over the outside walls, which range from shocking to hilarious. I'll be posting the pictures eventually. This town also had the greatest concentration of French people I've seen so far - coincidence?

Short on time, I went straight on to Varanasi, India's holiest city. This is where Hindus come from all over the country to burn their dead and scatter their ashes in the Ganges. It's an amazing sight just to sit in town and watch the people, who come from all walks of life, in all different costumes and colors. The first day we walked up the ghats (the bathing areas) watching people bathing in the Ganges, beating their laundry in the water, praying and meditating. We arrived at the burning ghat, where people are cremated, and were accosted by two men who looked like they meant business, and we were not able to get away without paying money. It was very unpleasant and we resolved only to go back there on a boat.

So later on we took a boat out on the river and were able to watch the burial rites. Young children, pregnant women and sadhus are dumped into the river unburned and tied to a stone, and snake bite victims are wrapped in banana leaves and floated down the river in hopes that someone downstream can revive them. Everyone else is burned and their ashes scattered in the river. It's an amazing experience to witness such an old tradition, but it also gives you pause when you think that just a few meters away people are bathing and doing laundry in this water, which is also the repository of all the raw sewage of the city. The water is incredibly polluted, and yet still they eat the fish out of the river and bathe in it every day.

In the evening we went to watch the big puja (prayer ceremony) at the main ghat. Five Brahmins, dressed in orange, waved a series of flaming and feathered objects around, rang bells and beat drums. We put a candle in a lotus flower afloat on the river and made a wish with everyone else. Not a bad way to end a month in this amazing country.

So after my month in India, I guess my best summary is that the country is a total sensory experience. The smells and colors and tastes all somehow feel more vivid than they do elsewhere. Despite the inevitable hassle, the Indian people have been some of the friendliest people I've encountered anywhere. It's a place that makes you want to stop and stay a while, relax and not do too much. It's not a place, for the most part, that I feel you come to "see the sights"... most of what's so great about being here is just hanging out, meeting people, eating wonderful food, getting to know the culture, and watching a vastly diverse set of people, animals, and vehicles scramble past you in the chaos of the city. People come for a variety of reasons - some for sight seeing, some on a spiritual journey - and I think some people find they love it here, where for some it's just not their cup of chai, but for me, I felt immediately at home. It's a place I hope to return to many times, and for a lot longer.

And tomorrow off to Nepal. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Colorful Rajasthan

Well, friends, my time in India is flying by. I can hardly believe I've been here three weeks already! I have spent the last week in the state of Rajasthan, in northwestern India. The area where I am is known as the Golden Triangle, which means there are lots of famous sights and altogether too many tourists. It is also a bit of sensory overload, with the women decked out in brilliantly-colored saris, and intense colors and smells everywhere you go.

I started the week in Udaipur, famously the site of the filming of Bond movie "Octopussy." The city is known for its fairytale Lake Palace, but last year's monsoon wasn't great, so now it's more of a puddle palace. I honestly found the town rather overrated, though I enjoyed a side trip to Ranakpur, one of the biggest Jain temples, with 1444 white marble columns, and had an interesting cooking class at the Spice Box, where I learned to make chapati (and succeeded in making mine round rather than shaped like India), and a few kinds of curries, and, very importantly, masala chai, on which I am now hooked.

I spent one day in Jodhpur, expecting touristy but finding that tourists only stop by the famous Meherangarh Fort and pass the rest of the town by. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City, because of its Brahmin blue houses, and I was impressed as I exited the train station onto a major road at dawn and had to dodge cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, camels and even a guy riding an elephant, in order to cross the road. I wandered the small lanes of the old city as the town slowly woke up, and I watched people feeding chapati to the cows (chapati for breakfast, trash for lunch) who wander freely through all the streets of India. I did see the fort, which is also the home of the maharajah of Jodhpur, and a few other sights, and spent the afternoon wandering through the crazy streets of the market and admiring the apparently controlled chaos.

After a night spent on the train, I arrived in Jaisalmer, a desert town famed for camel safaris, which I did not do. It, too, has a famous old fort the color of sand, and in Jaisalmer it houses several Jain temples, the maharajah's palace, and lots of handicraft vendors. There are also several old havelis, big, ornate houses, outside the fort, and I visited a few of those, including the former prime minister's house, which was a study in primitive defensive tactics. Mostly the city was distinctive for me in that every guy I met seemed to think he could get me to sleep with him, so I wasn't too sad I had opted to leave after only one day.

Another night and morning in the train landed me in Pushkar, which if you don't look too closely, you would swear was in Israel. I knew there were Israeli backpackers chilling around here somewhere, I just hadn't found them yet. Hummus (and bhang) was available in all restaurants, and more signs were in Hebrew than English. However, Pushkar is also an important Hindu pilgrimage town, home of one of the only Brahma Temples in the world. It is centered around a lake with holy bathing ghats where pilgrims wash themselves, including one where Ghandi's ashes were scattered. But mostly you go to Pushkar to chill out and shop.

I, however, was there to watch the Hindu festival of Holi, one of the two biggest Hindu festivals of the year. Celebrating the beginning of Spring, on the first day there is dancing and huge bonfires, and the following day there are "colors" - vast amounts of colored powder that people throw on each other as is, or mix with water and spray or pour on people. The festivities range from all in good fun to vengeful, as sometimes things like acid and glass are mixed with the liquid colors, or people will try to smear it in your eyes, which supposedly burns for days. They also will rip your clothing to shreds, leaving people, only boys as far as I could tell, naked in the street. The festival is often fueled by various drugs, which only adds to the craziness.

So obviously my goal was to find a good vantage point and watch, though many foreigners also participated. However, I didn't get up early enough and on my way to my safe haven was smeared with purple color all over my face and arms amidst cries of "Happy Holi!" The guy did try to smear it in my eyes, but luckily I had been warned and had my sunglasses on. A minute later a band of children pretty much attacked me, grabbing my arms and legs and throwing pink and blue powder on me. When I got away, I ended up asking the next person I saw for directions and thankfully being invited in to watch from his balcony. So I spent the whole day holed up with this guy and his mom, watching people get assaulted and colored from the safety of the balcony. I was infinitely grateful for that, and as a side bonus had a chance to learn a lot about Indian life and culture as we chatted all day.

Anyway, I was sad to have to leave Pushkar, but time constraints being what they are, I headed off to Jaipur, where I am now. I honestly don't understand the draw. It's a big, sprawling city with package tourists here to see the overpriced City Palace (home of the maharajah) and the world's biggest sundial in a park full of strange and huge astronomical measuring devices. There is fairly huge area composed of various bazaars where you can buy lots of handicrafts, and a ton of hassle. So all in all, I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I knew this was on the tourist circuit before I came. It's interesting to see what the other backpackers have to say up here, too: last week they loved India and couldn't get enough, but up here in the tourist triangle, everyone seems to have just about had it with India.

So from here to Delhi and then Uttar Pradesh for my last week in India, and then off to Nepal!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mumbai and Gujarat

Mumbai (Bombay) was supposed to be a stopover to take care of some practicalities and get a brief sense of the economic capital of India (Mumbai is to India as New York City is to the U.S.), but it turned out to be much more interesting than I would have thought. It is a big city like any other, although unique in the number of cows roaming the streets amidst the crazy traffic, and the most interesting sights, I thought, included Dhobi Ghat, the "largest human-powered washing machine in the world" - essentially it's a huge compound where thousands of people hand wash laundry for Mumbai's inhabitants - and Haji Ali's mosque, built on an island that is only accessible at low tide.

Most interesting was a visit to Dharavi slum, now made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, but to be honest I felt like I visited it despite having seen the movie, rather than because of it. Dharavi is home to more than a million people, and from what I can tell, it's not a typical slum. It is defined as a slum because people are squatting there in makeshift housing in tiny alleys, but they mostly earn a living, they have free education and hospitals in the slum, and there are more than 100 NGOs working to improve conditions there. So I didn't get the impression it was entirely representative of Indian slums. Most remarkable is the amount of industry in Dharavi. People say nothing ever gets wasted in Mumbai. If you throw out a plastic bottle, someone will come along and pick it up and take it to Dharavi, where someone will melt it down into little plastic pellets and sell those to manufacturers, who make other goods out of it and sell it back to you. They recycle not only their own plastic, glass and paper waste, but tons of ours that is shipped to India. The working conditions are of course unsafe and unsanitary, but the people have jobs and don't have to beg. It's an amazingly efficient system that has grown up there.

I left Mumbai on a 16 hour train ride to Ahmedabad, followed by 9 more hours to Somnath, on the little-visited southern Gujarati coast. My train rides were plagued by cockroaches, crawling over the walls and on my bunk (and on me), which made them two of the most horrific train rides I've ever taken. However, when I arrived, it was worth it.

Somnath is home to one of India's major Hindu pilgrimage sites, the most sacred of the 12 Shiva shrines. Upon arrival I was treated to a beautiful pink and orange sunset behind the temple, and as the sun went down I was able to enter the temple and take part in the prayer ceremony. As you walk in you are overwhelmed by the loud beating of drums and the crush of people inside clapping, and you feel you've walked into an ancient ceremony. You immediately walk past a large, painted sculpture of a cow, and then up to the front, where a priest is waving a candelabra and another is fanning incense around. Then you join the throng while the ceremony continues, and afterwards they pass a flame around on a plate and everyone tries to touch it. I don't pretend to understand the meaning behind it all, but it was quite fascinating to see and to feel like I had stepped thousands of years back in time. However, being the only foreigner around, I sometimes seemed to be more of a spectacle to those around me than the service.

The next day I made my way to Diu, a former Portuguese settlement that is now a cute beach town with a huge fort. After a harrowing overnight bus trip and a strange conversation with a guy who worked in a call center for US National Bank, I arrived at 5:30 am the following day in Palitana, the most sacred of Jain pilgrimage sites.

Palitana is the home of Shatrunjaya, a complex of almost 900 Jain temples built on the top of a hill. There are 3200 steps to reach the temple complex, and as the heat builds, you feel each one of them. If you are lazy or ill, you can be carried up the hill in a dholi, but I chose to walk. With views over the surrounding desert for miles and miles, it wasn't a bad walk. At the top you first come across a Muslim shrine, where women deposit small cradles if they want to have a baby and inhalers if they want to cure their asthma (I was tempted). The caretaker showed me around and anointed me with some strong-smelling oil that he said was for "protection by God" but I had to wonder if it was because I had spent the night on a bus without showering and then walked up a big hill in the blistering sun. Anyway, you then walk through some of the hundreds of small Jain shrines, trying not to burn your bare feet on the hot ground and admiring the intricate carvings and ceiling artwork.

Jains believe that constructing temples earns them some kind of merit, and as a community they tend to be very well-off, usually businessmen, so whenever someone has money enough they construct a new temple at Shatrunjaya. Actually, Jains have a serious policy of ahimsa, or nonviolence, and that extends to killing animals or even insects, which means they are strict vegetarians, avoiding even onions, garlic and potatoes, which grow under the ground and might, therefore, kill an insect if you harvest them. They time what they are allowed to eat with what is growing well at the time, so it's a very environmentally friendly philosophy. And Jains are some of the nicest people I've met here in India. One adopted me when I arrived fresh off the bus and exhausted, treated me to breakfast at the place where Jain pilgrims eat, and then made sure I had all I needed before he sent me on my way.

From Palitana I headed north to Rajasthan, where I have been for the last three days. Unfortunately I am back on the tourist circuit, which means it is much less pleasant than Gujarat, but it's interesting in its own way. However, I've already written so much that I will save Rajasthan for next time.

Adventure map for 2009...