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.