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.