Saturday, 17 December 2011

Himalayas, Train Travel, Indian Ocean

Approaching the Himalayas. About 13000'
Written 7 December: I've just dumped a bucket of brown, tepid water down the drain, the accumulated filth of four days in the high desert of Spiti, where running water is limited to an icy spring during the winter months. Our Himalayan excursion is winding down and today we venture to the much anticipated hot springs of Tattapani, where I plan to soak until I blister.

The Buddhists seem fond of violent iconography.
The trip started in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. I take back all of my previous admonishments of temples. Within 24 hours, we'd smugly informed our guide Vikas that the temple/gompa circuit wasn't our bag and that our interests lay solely in food and nature and physical exertion. He told us, “is no problem," then promptly dragged us to an 850-year-old temple where we begrudgingly removed our shoes and toasty wool socks to walk on frigid stone floors. The craftsmanship and artistry of these buildings are incredible: intricate wood carvings depicting demons, animals, and gods. This is snow leopard country, but alas our wildlife spottings were limited to a few foxes. Anyway, the religious testaments proved to be more interesting than I imagined, due in large part to their age. Most every temple, gompa, and monastery we visited was created nearly or over a thousand years ago. I was struck by the idea that the culture still practices their religion today in very much the same way they did when construction began. These are not archaeological sites preserved for tourists but living embodiments of an extant way-of-life, still frequented by the faithful.

Carved Ganesh
 We initially signed on for a 6 day trip, but extended it to 11 days. We spent many, many hours in the car, driving the tortuous Hindustan-Tibet Road. The villages we visited rely on agriculture and tourist dollars to survive. Kinnaur and Spiti, the two districts of Himachal Pradesh--H.H. Dalai Lama's stomping grounds (oh hai Jaci!)--we traveled through, are geographically isolated and thus less influenced and diluted by broader Indian and world culture, as evidenced by the languages, dress, and dietary choices of their inhabitants. In spite of the recent additions of satellite TV and internet connections, the people we saw live within the limitations of their environment to an extent I'd never witnessed. In Spiti, where there's a dearth of vegetation, dried donkey dung fuels the fires. The matriarch of the family with whom we stayed didn't see her first jeep until eight years ago, upon which sighting she asked, “what kind of animal is this?” Meat is consumed out of necessity, as the harsh climate restricts the growing period to a few months at most. I saw the best treatment of animals in this part of India, probably because they're so intimately tied to the survival of their masters. During the winter months, the women knit socks and work on their looms while the men tend to the animals. The women also spend hours each day preparing food. Work distribution seemed to fall more heavily on the women. I don't know how this changes during the summer months. It was fascinating for me, as the product and sometimes participant in a culture that romanticizes homesteading and old-timey skill sets, to watch people live this life not out of fashion or nostalgia, but rather out of absolute necessity.

The highlights of the trip for me were hiking and bouldering in the Himalayas, but of course. 

17 December: The hot springs were great. The sulfurous water was pumped directly to the hotel room, and I took the most satisfying shower I've had in 2 ½ months. The springs themselves are directly on a river, just below the sand. We enjoyed the peculiar sensation of standing in the icy river as geothermally heated rocks burned the soles of our feet.

Afterwords, we returned to Shimla to plan the next leg of our journey. We had tentative plans to volunteer at Navdanya organic farm for a couple of weeks, but we didn't hear back from the organizers until we'd already left the region. Farm work is still a possibility for January. In order to catch our connecting train to Pondicherry, we had to spend a couple of nights in the hellhole that is New Delhi. It proved to be another onslaught of culture shock as we again acclimatized to the noise, filth, and human suffering of the metropolis after weeks of calm. In Delhi, we met an Indian man in town on business. We spent most of our time hanging out with him and I taught him some yoga to relieve residual pain from a previous accident. He was so pleased with the results that we now have a standing invitation to his hometown of Raipur where he wants me to teach to the locals. We're considering.

Lunch at a Dhaba
After over 40 hours of open-air train and bus travel—black boogers, sooty clothes, books devoured—we made it to the Indian Ocean and are happily residing with a family in Pondicherry. We met Shyam, the son, through, so this stay is gratis. It's also the nicest, cleanest accommodation we've had in India. We have our own room and bathroom, though we share most nights with other surfers: last night a Chinese girl, tonight an Australian. The town was colonized by the French, so in many ways this feels like a European trip, what with English-influenced Shimla preceding Pondicherry. The region is lushly tropical, with lots of coconut and banana trees. The days are humid but breezy. I'm teaching yoga to the family and Vadim in the mornings. It's good practice for me and I'm grateful for the opportunity.

The fecundity of South India: an errant watermelon growing on scaffolding.
Alas, my camera battery gave out before I made it to the Himalayas. A photo can't do it justice anyway. I'll really try to get back in the habit of snapping pictures while I'm here.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Omnivorous Mountain Meanderings

A pickle man and his wares.
Posting images is so tedious. I'll tentatively consider adding more in the future....

I'm slamming back palmfuls of tart, dried pomegranate seeds, grateful to be settled in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh for the coming days.

After meeting Vadim in Delhi, we headed back to Rishikesh for a few days of yoga and relaxation. I'd been scoping out teachers for the previous six weeks and settled on Iyengar instruction in the mornings and Ashtanga vinyasa in the evenings. It was a nice balance and I was glad to keep up an intensive yoga schedule. Vadim joined me for four of the classes and proved to be a far more adept yogi than he'd previously let on. We've even discussed doing teacher training certification for him and additional training for me on the chance that we find a mutually pleasing teacher in southern India. Yoga classes in Rishikesh are intimate and cheap. I felt lucky to get one-on-one attention from skilled instructors for about $4 per class. Awesome instruction aside, though, I was ready to get out of Rishikesh, so we booked a rafting trip and then tickets out of the holy city.
Against all advice, we've opted to head north, deeper into the icy Himalayan range rather than meandering south to the beaches like most sane vacationers. The trip to Shimla took 3 days of bus and train rides, with overnight stopovers in some dives that make our current hamlet all the more pristine in comparison. We spent one night in Ambala, an industrial town, where we were the hotel proprietor's first foreign guests. To celebrate our patronage, Rajesh set us up in his personal room on the ground floor, abruptly relocating his peeved wife to a guest room upstairs. It was an awkward albeit generous offer that we cringingly accepted. He also set us up with a delicious in-room dinner. (I ate fish and didn't feel a twinge of guilt. More animal indulgences to come.) Our host joined us for dinner, which was fine, as he'd already been so accommodating. He proceeded, however, to get very drunk and made us increasingly uncomfortable as he refused to leave and let us sleep. The bizarre night culminated with the host insisting, at 11 p.m., that Vadim race Jussi, a 17-year-old employee of the hotel whom the host referred to as both “simple” and his “servant”. The entire experience felt creepy, especially upon sober reflection the next morning.

Toy train
The next day, we took two trains, the second a toy train that winds its way through the mountains. It reminds me a lot of the Silverton train in Colorado. The views were spectacular. We passed through a Ponderosa, agave, and prickly pear forest, a landscape I'd never expected to see outside of Arizona. It made me homesick for the high desert. This region is less densely peopled than the other areas I've visited, something I'm glad of. We stopped off in Solan to visit a brewery and distillery established by an Englishman in the 19th century. Alas, the brewery was closed when we arrived and the town ended up being a letdown. While seeking a room, several hotels turned us down immediately or offered rates more than three times what we're willing to pay, leading us to suspect a racism we'd not previously encountered. Solan was obviously more upwardly-mobile than the parts of India I've seen so far. Some of the giveaways of this wealth were a Western-style florist and a pet food store. People were unfriendly and suspicious. After an hour of climbing up and down steep alleys and staircases, packs in tow, we found a place for the night. To assuage the stress and disappointment of Solan, we headed to a bar for dinner. It was grungy and depressing. The drinking culture in India seems to be limited to drunks, so I think my imbibing will be nearly as limited as it was in Rishikesh. It's not a pleasant scene.
Relentless beggars.
Everything improved the next day as we headed deeper into the mountains and gained elevation, with Shimla, at 7000', as our ultimate goal. The toy train was 3 hours late, but we didn't mind the delay as we befriended Guillermo from Argentina at the station. He's a hardcore, long-term traveler, funding his developing country adventures with a house sublet in South America. He lacks any of the pretense I've come to expect of other backpackers. He's curious and mellow and was a welcome relief after the egos of Rishikesh. He too was headed to Shimla and suggested we stay at his planned hotel, scoring us a cheap room in the process. The room has hot water (!), is clean by Indian standards and is only $3.30 each per night. Sure, my pee steams and I can see my breath, but that's why we have blankets and coats.

Shimla, let me praise thee. First off, there's no traffic of any kind other than pedestrian allowed in the town center. The absence of both honking and the constant anxiety of checking for marauding vehicles and bikes provides a relief I didn't realize I craved. It's clean and quiet. The streets are paved and nearly cow-free, nearly negating any desire I have to bathe. It's weird how the urge towards cleanliness for me is predicated on sweat and not time away from a shower. Shimla is also steep, built on the side of a cliff, like Bisbee or Jerome, for the Arizona crowd reading. It's a series of bazaars (alleyways, really) connected by stairs and slopes too steep to pass any U.S. ADA regulations. The state of Himachal Pradesh bans plastic, so it's exceptionally neat here. The populace is wealthy by Indian standards, though the prices of goods and services aren't consequently inflated to match the pocketbooks of its tourists. In many ways Shimla's feel and architecture remind me of a cush Colorado mining town cum tourist destination, having been contemporaneously constructed by the Brits in the 19th century. People are laid back and not desperate for foreign money the way they've been in other cities. We just finished having breakfast with our hotelier in a coffee house that could pass for a 1950s men's club, what with its wood paneling, brown vinyl booths, and professorially clad Indian men discussing what I can only imagine are heady topics like economics and politics. I adore Shimla. It's trite, but India is so multifaceted. Shimla is a far cry from the sweaty, desperate, grimy towns I've come to expect. I'm ashamed of how much I'm reveling in the English influence.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Vadim'd been sneakily stowing away a bag of turkey jerky for the occasion. I ate it and it was just as I'd remembered meat. I didn't stop there. I ordered fish for dinner and reluctantly then greedily sampled both Vadim's mutton and his brain masala. I'm comfortable eating meat here because it seems culturally relevant and also because I know India doesn't (yet) employ the same factory farming system as the U.S. We spent much of the day with Guillermo and we topped off the evening with a trip to Shimla's discotheque, where no music played and we were the only customers. It was a lovely Thanksgiving.

And, oh yeah! I'll be way out of touch as I'm spending the next week trekking in the Himalayas. Uh huh. 7 days and 6 nights through the Kinnaur Valley, hiking and climbing all day and spending each night in various ancient, tiny Buddhist/Hindu villages where the inhabitants are reputed to be half god, half man. The trip is at the high end of our respective budgets at $25 per day, but how could anyone pass up this experience? We'll finish the week with a detour to high altitude hot springs. Everything keeps getting better and better!

Monday, 14 November 2011

End of Yoga Camp, Beginning of Travels

I'm on the top bunk of a berth on a train en route to Delhi to meet Vadim at the airport. I graduated yoga camp last night and am relieved to be finished. I'll miss practicing four hours of yoga a day, but am ready to move forward. I thought I'd feel more sentimental than this. Maybe if I was heading directly home, but I still have so much ahead of me!

I haven't had much motivation to write because, again, my routine was so unvaried over the past weeks. I also became totally bored by the prospect of snapping pictures. Oh yeah, no internet, either. I taught a yoga class and it went well. (Here's the part where I unabashedly congratulate myself.) I think I'm good at it and am confident that in time I'll be great. I feel accomplished. Also, my body can do some crazy stuff. In a class of 40, I'm the default model for any contortionist poses. The teacher had me do poses just for the sake of showing that they exist. I am an elastic pretzel. What a useless skill!

I just realized that these postings have been lacking in explicit discussions of poo. Lemme remedy that. Last Saturday I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in a digestive system cleanse. This consisted of chugging a total of 15 glasses of warm salt water in batches of three glasses each, with each round of drinking punctuated by gentle, but intestine stimulating asanas. Most of the students were evacuating by their 6th or 9th glass, returning to the yoga hall beaming and empty and eager for more of the stool-softening tonic. I choked down the 15th frigging glass before finally excusing myself to the toilet. My stomach was distended and I now know that pregnancy will not flatter me, not that that was ever a concern. The discomfort was well worth it, though, for the intense relief and poophoria I experienced once the proverbial gates finally opened.

Relatedly, I still haven't suffered the misfortune of contracting Delhi belly, in spite of my sometimes lackluster attitude towards food safety. I only drink bottled or filtered water and am careful about raw fruits and vegetables, but have rarely passed up an opportunity to try an interesting looking street food and am generally open to dietary experiments of all variety. I also brush my teeth with tap water. Reckless. I plan to eat fish (I know!) once I'm nearer the ocean, so the tides may turn for my gastrointestinal health in the coming months. Also, relatedly is not a word!? But I love adverbs, especially imaginary ones.

This morning I took a bus from Rishikesh to the train station in Haridwar, about an hour away. It was my first bus ride and was remarkably comfortable for the $0.46 it cost. It's now my preferred form of travel between shorter (non-overnight) distances as it's ridiculously cheap and also feels relatively stable and safe when compared to rickshaws and tuk tuks. The bus station is a huge lot with dozens of buses and seemingly no central organization. Everything is written in Hindi, so you just have to ask around to find the correct ride. Many Indians are uncomfortable saying no, and evade answering your question directly, instead offering an inscrutable head bobble. It's funny. Eventually the rickshaw driver who'd been hassling me for the last half hour pointed my bus out to me. My immediate reaction was distrust, since I assumed he was tiffed at me for not accepting his ride. But of course, he had sent me to the right bus. So many of my assumptions are faulty and I keep finding myself in situations where I feel guilty for ascribing bad intentions to people who just want to help me.

I have a tentative agenda. Vadim and I head back to Rishikesh this week. I'm not sure how long we'll stay, as I feel ready to move on. While we're there, though, we'll do some light trekking, raft the Ganga again, maybe take a cooking class, and take cheap drop-in classes with world famous yogis. I've sadly resigned myself to not heading a lot deeper into the Himalayas. It's almost impossible this time of year. I still quite like the idea of working on a farm for a couple of weeks. There are also some hot springs in this general area of India that I'd like to soak in. I have minimal interest in anything cultural or historical or spiritual. I just want to do physical stuff and outdoorsy stuff. I'm a philistine.

Now for the bitching. I hope I never have to listen to another yuppie white guy earnestly wearing a turban talk about how his heart melted and his soul wept the moment he met his guru. Dude, you can afford a ticket to India and a $2000 “ashram” experience, you can certainly afford shoes. There's so much dogma here, and people are competitively spiritual, aggressively ascetic, eager to explain the ways in which their chosen path or teacher or philosophy is superior to all others. It's obnoxious and tiresome. The other Westerners I meet are burn-out, neo-hippies. I'm usually such a tolerant Pollyanna, but I'm super ready for some cynical, secular company, at least for a bit. I don't think India attracts that crowd.

I kicked the sugar habit. I've replaced it with milky instant coffee. Gross, right? I looove it.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

7-20 October 2011: Weeks 2 and 3 in Rishikesh

Wow. I'm already halfway done with yoga camp. Classes are getting more difficult and the asanas more advanced. I'm making steady progress in my practice and am starting to attain poses that I previously considered inaccessible. I'm gaining strength, balance, and flexibility daily. I still have a long ways to go--not that there's an ultimate place to "end up"--and plenty of struggles, but I'm satisfied with the growth. I get super frustrated with a pose and then as soon as I stop caring, it just starts to happen. I have native flexibility and pretty strong legs from years of hiking, but my upper body is (was?) fairly weak. It feels good to correct that. I'm also gaining a lot more general body awareness. I feel fantastic physically.

Brief rundown and highlights of the last 10 days or so:

2 early morning dunks in the Ganga, before sunrise, no less
1 trip to a goddess temple situated on a mountain at the end of a tortuous, single lane road
70 muscles (soon to be) memorized
1 sitar, tabla, Indian flute performance
Near daily photo ops with Indian tourists
40 Oms a day, minimum
Countless cups of chai (I'm developing a sugar addiction...):
7 chakras meticulously drawn and colored 
1 reading from a vedic astrologer (I should wear my hair long, I was a dancer in a past life, I will move states and change jobs in the next year, I should teach yoga and become an astrologer, seek self-employment)
1 visit to the now derelict ashram where the Beatles turned on, tuned in, and dropped out

Maharishi's meditation pods

I just found out that the school doesn't have a fridge! Including staff, they're feeding upwards of 60 people 3 meals a day. Pretty impressive.

I love papaya so much. It reminds me a bit of cantaloupe, which I thought I didn't like, but I'm excited to try it again.

I miss my dog. A lot.

I'm so glad I brought my Chacos. I live in them and have only put on sneakers once. They're a lot sturdier than flip flops while still being convenient to slip on and off. 

Today I raft the Ganges. Afterwards, I'm going to an Ashtanga vinyasa class and then out to dinner.

This is the best way to spend $2 in Rishikesh:

Muesli, yogurt, and tons of fruit

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Waterfalls and Holy Nights

The days are starting to run together. The first week of school flew by, yet I feel like I've been here a long time. The posts are going to be short for a while as the minutiae of my day-to-day comes off a bit boring in writing, though it's fascinating and loads of learning for me so far.

The evil Ravana prior to immolation.
Wednesday night we attended Dasara. It was festive and amusing. There was an impressive fireworks display within yards of the crowd. I've never been so close to explosives. In addition, the above statue was filled with fireworks which were set off at the end of the night. He went from statue to a smoldering frame within seconds. It was loud and impressive and made me grateful that I've never seen a war because the lights and sounds and suddenness would surely trigger any latent PTSD. Regulatory bodies in the U.S. would never let this fly.
More monkey. These langurs are not as aggressive as the macaques.
Bathing ghat on the Ganges

Today, Sunday, is our off day and it was awesome! I ended up hiking a couple of miles out of town to some waterfalls with a couple of the women from my class. It felt so, so good to hike and get into nature. I'm consistently surprised by how tropical it looks and feels here. Judging from the native plants (many of which we use in landscaping in Arizona), it never gets below freezing.
Holy calves love bananas.
Hare Shiva
 Tonight, the entire class headed to the river for Ganga Aarti, which is a ceremony performed every evening at sunset. There was lots of singing and chanting as we stood before a statue of Krishna. Even though I didn't know what was going on and the fact that the gods themselves hold no meaning to me, I found myself choked up several times. I think it's just the humanity of this place and the sense of community you feel when sharing an experience that's meaningful to a majority of the participants. The divisions between individuals start to melt away a little. Oh no! India's already making me woo woo and wishy washy. In related news, I've quit shaving for the duration of my stay at the school.

Hairy Jordan

Thursday, 6 October 2011

5, 6 October 2011: Rishikesh

View from the yoga room. There are mountains beyond mountains, but the fog obscures them.
Not much to report. I'm settling into the routine here at the school nicely. I like waking up so early. I like the balance of structured learning/practicing/eating and open free time.

I might look into doing another ashram-type experience once I'm finished here. I'm also looking into WWOOF opportunities in India (working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board). Having spent time in both Delhi and Rishikesh, I definitely prefer smaller communities. The pace is less frenetic and the people less forward and pushy. People invite you into their shops here rather than following you for a quarter mile begging for your patronage. Plus, it's a tourist town and they're very accustomed to Westerners, so there's less obtrusive staring.

Yesterday, I had my eyebrows threaded. It took ten minutes and cost $1. I'm pleased with the results, though the brows are much thinner than I normally shape them. It was more painful than waxing or plucking because she had to keep going over the same areas over and over. I had to hold the skin of my eyelid taught while she threaded. It was a good experience and I'll continue to groom my brows this way for the rest of my stay.

After that, I wandered into the village and sat in a cafe that overlooked the Ganges for an hour drinking a papaya lassi. $0.50.

On my way back to the village, a monkey jumped off a wall and started approaching me. Aggressively. A village woman saw the altercation and successfully chased him off. I'm now a bit less enamored of the wildlife, but that doesn't stop the nervio I experience every time I see a baby monkey. Squee.

My evening asana class is moved up so we can attend Dasara on the river. It's my understanding that a large statue, an effigy of negativity, will be burned at sunset. Needless to say, I'm pretty excited to see this.

Yesterday we watched a documentary called Dirt. The teacher is very passionate about food systems and sustainable agriculture. I didn't expect to be talking about this sort of thing, but it feels like a complementary subject. I'd somewhat lost interest in gardening over the past several months and this program has surprisingly reignited it. I look forward to setting up another garden wherever I end up once I'm back in the states. As an aside, Paul Stamets, my favorite mycologist, was featured in the documentary, and I got a little choked up seeing someone so (tangentially) familiar to me in such a foreign place.

I like living with an international community. I like communal living in general so far, which, as an introvert, is a little surprising. There are students from Iran, Singapore, Holland, England, Russia, Canada, Mexico, China, Malaysia, France, New Zealand, United States, Turkey, and Australia. And those are just the countries I can remember. It's a very positive and open group, and I look forward to getting to know everyone better over the coming months.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

2,3,4 October 2011: Rishikesh

Cabs from Haridwar to Rishikesh were expensive, and I couldn't figure out how to navigate the bus station since all of the signs were in Hindu, so I opted to take a Vikram to Rishikesh. 

The ride was rough and jarring, but the scenery more than made up for it. We quickly started gaining elevation as we entered a valley at the base of the Himalyan foothills. Parts of the drive were densely forested and apparently rife with wildlife.

I had the driver drop me off in downtown Rishikesh and then went into a restaurant to get my bearings. I had my first disappointing meal. The restaurant didn't have a menu so the server verbally told me what was available. I had a hard time understanding him, and he me. I consequently ended up with plain (read flavorless) naan and a bowl of curd. Bland. But it cost less than $1, so I wasn't too upset. 

While studying my map, I realized that I was quite far from the area where I thought the school would be and I didn't feel like walking with my pack. I took a Rickshaw to the other end of town. The yoga school is on the opposite side of the Ganges from Rishikesh proper. The two sides are connected by a footbridge.
View from the bridge. It's always overcast. My camera doesn't do the mountains justice. It's so green and lush.
I crossed the bridge and checked into my cheapest hotel yet: $5. Even though there aren't any road names that I'm aware of here, I had a rough sense of where the school was located. I started heading in its general direction and found it.

I went inside and there were already lots of people milling about. The receptionist told me that I was just in time and that orientation would start in 5 minutes. What dumb luck! I paid my fees and went up to the yoga hall for the orientation, which was really more like an initiation. We watched a puja: lots of chanting and candles and incense. Then we were painted with a red a tilaka and several grains of rice were affixed to the wet paint. Red strings were tied around our wrists. We then ate a devotional candy made of chickpea flour, sugar, and ghee. After that we gathered around the altar (to Saraswati, goddess of wisdom) and individually approached the shrine to swing a Hindu candelabra in front of an image of the goddess. We were then blessed with smoke from the same flames.

After that, there was a brief talk that introduced us to the program. People had arrived days earlier. I didn't realize this. I decided to stay there for the night as classes started at 6 a.m. I needed to pick up my pack at the other hotel first, though. By this time it was 1900. I thought I might be able to make it back by 2000 for dinner. My mental map was faulty, though, and I ended up getting very lost. I finally oriented myself at a neighborhood about 30 minutes walk from my hotel. I felt a bit panicky, but eventually made it back to my hotel. I decided not to brave another night walk, and instead stayed the night in my hotel, leaving at 0500 so as to arrive at the school in time to unpack and start the day.

My room at the school is nice. A big bed, a desk and cabinet, a western toilet, a sink and a shower. I had my first hot shower since arriving in India. The electricity is fickle (it's gone on and off five times since I started writing), but I don't mind.

Here's the daily schedule at the school Monday through Saturday:

0600: Tea
0615: Neti pot
0630: Mantra chanting, asana (physical yoga), meditation
0830: Breakfast
0930: Philosophy
1130: Anatomy
1300: Lunch and break
1730: Mantra chanting, asana, meditation
2000: Dinner

Sundays are free days. I've been talking to some of the girls (I think there are three guys total) about arranging a long day hike one of these Sundays. I think I'll also take a cooking class. That'll be fun!

The long midday break is great. Yesterday I napped because I was absolutely exhausted. Today I went into town and took some passport photos I needed. A local man stamped a bindi onto my forehead for free!

A family stopped me and asked me to meet there little girl. I bought a bar of soap and received a free bag of spices. Being fair and Western makes me both a freak and a sort of celebrity.
The cows are petite.
So far I'm pleased with my experience of the school. The foods good and clean. I'll start taking pictures. I'm so glad to be eating raw fruits and vegetables again. It's all quite light and very healthy. We also get three free glasses of tea a day. I'm hooked on the lemon-ginger-honey variety. We're starting at a very fundamental level with regards to the yoga and will build upon that. I like the teaching methodology and am looking forward to watching my practice grow over the coming weeks. It feels good to be in a structured environment, and I hope I can institute many of the routines I'm establishing here once I'm back home.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

2 October 11: I'm in Rishikesh

Yay! There are monkeys, mountains, the Ganges, forests. And monkeys, did I mention those? I love it. I love India. More to come.

30 September, 1 October 2011: Delhi Delays and Haridwar

Friday night was nice. I changed into my ali baba pants and a t-shirt and wrapped a scarf around my head, indulging my inner gypsy. I spent a few hours on the balcony, watching the city, before heading to yet another rooftop restaurant for dinner. I ate vegetable hadai. Hadai apparently refers to the vessel it's cooked in rather than the dish itself. It was very tasty, and not at all greasy. A perfectly cooked medley of veggies in a thick, spiced tomato sauce.

I'm trying to eat something new every time I go out. I ate it with garlic naan and a chai. $1.60.
It was close to 2200 when I got back to my room. The dhobi-wallah had washed my clothes and they were waiting for me, fresh and pressed. $3. I crashed immediately.

Unfortunately, I woke up around 0200 Saturday morning and couldn't go back to sleep, so I began my day with very little sleep. I skyped and chatted for an hour or two, which was nice. It was the most interaction I've had in days.

My sole agenda for the day was getting to Rishikesh, where, as Sara affectionately/derisively calls it, yoga camp is located. I'd purchased a train seat online last week. The train was booked, so my ticket was wait-listed. From everything I'd read, that's usually an arbitrary distinction and I'd likely have no problem getting a seat, especially if I talked to the International Tourist Office, located within the station.

I packed my belongings and checked out of Rak International. I went back to the cheap South Indian restaurant where I'd had breakfast the morning before and ate a tomato omelet with a sickeningly sweet coffee. Eating vegetarian is so easy compared to a vegan diet. At this point it was about 0930, so I headed over to the train station, very near Paharganj, so as to arrive early and guarantee my seat.

The station's parking lot and entrance hall are full of men trying to convince you that you're going the wrong way. “Come here. Tickets this way.” “Tourist office relocated.” “Where you going? I take you cheaper.” While I didn't do a lot of research into places to visit, I read widely about the culture here and possible obstacles I'd face as a foreigner. I'm glad I did, because it'd otherwise be so easy to be led astray, and while it's not necessarily physically dangerous (generally), it's easy to get ripped off or even outright robbed. I finally made it to the tourist office only to learn that I wouldn't be getting a seat on my train. The Tourist Office has a great in-person reservation system in place, so I filled out some paperwork and queued up. I ended up getting a seat on an afternoon train that'd get me to Haridwar, the closest stop to Rishikesh, in 4 ½ hours. The seat, in an A/C train car, cost $7.

I had 5 hours until my train came but no interest in wandering around a hot, crowded city with all of my belongings on my back, so I opted to hang out in the station all day.

The train station obviously attracts a much broader swathe of Indian humanity than do the more tourist/city-centric areas I'd visited. The people watching was fantastic. Let me mention how pleased I am with the technology I brought. I would feel so isolated without this netbook. And my ipod provides a reprieve from the constant auditory barrage and also discourages interaction. I just pretend not to hear. People watching is great, but people watching while listening to your favorite songs is sometimes transcendent.

In general, despite the crowds, heat, filth, and noise, people seem composed, even when rushing about. I rarely see expressions on faces or in body language that indicate a person is on edge, overextended, anxious. Even the honking, which is constant, is more just social habit than driving aggression. It doesn't say “screw you, man, get out of my way.” It's more like, “here I am. Here I am. Here I am.” The dichotomy of stressful and laid back is interesting to me. Especially since I watched myself getting stressed throughout the day.

The train station consists of 16 platforms. I couldn't find a master schedule that tells which train arrives at which platform, and my ticket was partially in Hindi, so I asked where I would find my train. Platform 15. I found a bench and waited for hours. A train pulled up right on time and I started looking for my car. I then realized that this train was going to Rajasthan, not Haridwar! I ran off the platform and into the main thoroughfare, frantically looking for my train number. Luckily it was only a few platforms over. I didn't have time to make it to car, and had to board at the front of the train, just as it was starting to move. I would've missed it had I been even one minute later. My car was at the opposite end of the train, so I spent the next 20 minutes pushing myself through the crush of people. By the time I found my seat, I was soaked and stinky and exhausted. Also, this was my fourth form of transportation in India in 3 days.

The train moves slowly. I saw a lot of countryside before it got dark. It was incredibly green. While most places along the way weren't crowded, there were no entirely uninhabited stretches. So many people!

Since it would be dark when I arrived, I decided to stay the night in Haridwar instead of pressing on to Rishikesh. I'd studied a map of Haridwar on the train and chosen a cheap hotel close to the station. I didn't want to wander around at night. I was feeling kind of edgy, arriving after dark without a definite sense of where I was going. I ignored the touts and drivers and quickly walked through Haridwar, finding the hotel within 15 minutes. The Himalyan Lonely Planet is apparently very outdated, as they were charging over 4 times what I expected to pay. As tired and frazzled as I was, I still wasn't willing to pay over $20 (!) for a room. I know I'll be exhausted and overheated and exhausted plenty of times on this trip. I can't afford to get into the habit of overpaying for convenience.

It was over an hour until I finally found a place. It was close to $10. So far, India is not as cheap as I expected it to be. Lodging will be cheaper shared as will in-town transportation. The room was comfortable and the proprietor was nice. Soon after checking in, someone started trying to open my door. I got scared and called the office. The owner came up immediately. I guess it'd just been one of the employees checking to see if I needed water. But trying to open the door? Creepy. I was glad there was a deadbolt.

There was a restaurant downstairs and I ate Navratan Korma, which was like a regular vegetable korma, but this one also had pineapple, raisins, and cherries. It was perfect, especially since it was the first thing I'd eaten in over 12 hours. I'm going to head down there now for breakfast, then I'll find a cab to Rishikesh. I'll edit and add images later because my internet connection is sloooow.

Friday, 30 September 2011

29, 30 September 2011: Surviving My First Rickshaw Accident

Last night ended up being nice. I'm already becoming more comfortable and confident in my surroundings. I think maybe the beer I had with dinner helped to loosen me up a little, though not so much as to drop my guard. I came to terms with the fact that I'll be seen as a source of income by most Indians. I realized, though, that that doesn't necessarily cheapen my interactions with the people I meet. I can still be friendly and create meaningful connections.

After only one day, I'm starting to recognize people and they me. I say hi to the man who sold me my phone every time I pass by, as well as to the man who sells me my water. Last night, I was sitting on the balcony of the hotel when one of the staff members I'd previously interacted with asked if I'd like to have a beer. Of course! He put the bottles on ice for a bit while I wrote and gathered my clothing for the dhobi wallah. I then sat on the patio for an hour and a half with an Indian lager, watching and listening to the street life below me. There was a Hindu puja happening to my left and a Muslim salah to my right. I saw my first holy cow. It was magical!

This morning, I woke up with a resolve to see more of the city. I decided to ditch the internet and the Lonely Planet and find breakfast on my own. Soon after I left my hotel, I was approached by a young man who started asking me questions. Instead of ignoring him, I told him where I was from and that I was looking for breakfast. Tangentially, Indians always ask if I'm either English or Australias. When I tell them I'm from the U.S., they say I don't look American. I'm not sure what to make of this? Anyhow, he led me to a tiny South Indian restaurant that provided the very environment I was lamenting last night: a ground level shop with an open view of the street where I could sit and watch and eat and drink. Plus! I finally found some heat in my food. I had a masala omelet which was perfect. I then drank both a tea and a coffee while I watched the city wake up (most shops don't open until 11). I probably sat for an hour. The proprietor was careful to seat new customers in booths that didn't obscure my view of the street. People have been so kind!

After that, I started wandering in search of a similarly appointed street view. On the way there, another young man, ostensibly a tout like the first, approached me and started asking the same questions. Where are you from? You like India? Where are you going? I played along and answered his questions. In addition to lying about the length of time I've been in India, by the way, I've also invented a fictitious boyfriend who's always taking a nap at the hotel. He took me to a tiny stall along a back alley and bought me a chai. He then offered to be my guide and take me to the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place, the so-called heart of Delhi. I agreed.

I took my first rickshaw ride ever to get to the temple. It was a hairy drive, as were all of the proceeding trips. But for about $0.50, I was able to travel a couple of miles in a novel form of transportation. 

The temple itself is awesome. For one, it's built beneath this huge, as in multiple story, statue of Hanuman. 

You take off your shoes outside the temple and pay a little boy to watch them. You enter the temple through Hanuman's mouth and walk down a staircase. 

Once inside, you essentially walk up to statues of various gods, touch their feet and then bow to them. A priest pours a teaspoon of water into your hand which you sprinkle on your head. You also receive a lucky orange tilaka (you can kind of see mine in the top image). I hope my temple worship today counters the Kali curse I received yesterday. See, I'm already thinking like a Hindu. Inside the temple was a low cave that took you to a basement full of yet more gods and goddesses. The ground was flooded above my ankles. Finally, you exit through the mouth of a lion. I enjoyed it more than I expected to and look forward to visiting other temples.

Sunil, my guide, exiting the Hanuman temple.
After this, my guide/tout, Sunil and I took the Delhi Metro into a different part of Connaught Place. It's such an efficient form of transportation. It's a raised light rail. Why is Arizona's light rail at street level? This is so much faster. Delhi does public transportation remarkably well. For about $0.10, I traveled a couple of miles in 3 minutes. Incredible.

I bought a salwar kameez in hopes of minimizing some of the attention I've been getting. We'll see if it works. I kind of think I went to a place where Sunil gets a commission, because the prices, even after my haggling, seemed a bit high. I spent about $12 for 3 scarves and the salwar kameez. Later on, I bought a pair of pants I like better for only $2. I don't know. Even if I was ripped off, I don't mind because my day was so rich and varied thanks to Sunil's guidance.

After that, we went to a South Indian restaurant for lunch and I ordered a thali meal. So much food!

Then I lifted up the puri—the puffed up bread—only to discover more food!

It was delicious. I was maybe able to put a third of it away. The total? About $2.25.

At this point, I was getting hot and exhausted and needed to get back to my room and my glorious, powerful ceiling fan. So I told Sunil that my “boyfriend” was worried and that our day together was coming to a close. We took a rickshaw back to Paharganj and that's when the accident occurred. I'm not quite sure what happened, but it involved our bumping into a cab. The fender bender was followed by 15 minutes of heated argument between the drivers and a cop. My driver ended up being fined 100 INR, a miniscule fee. The driver was very good natured about it.

Reckless rickshaw driver
Back in Paharganj, I bid Sunil adieu and here I am, in my blessedly cool room at Rak International. I'll probably go pig out some more in a couple of hours and have a final beer before I begin my six and a half weeks of abstinence. 

Oh yeah! The best news of all! Vadim bought his tickets and got his visa. He's coming for real and I couldn't be more thrilled! Hooraaaaay!