Monday, December 28, 2009

Reflections, part 1

As I start to gear up for the Trip Home, I am looking back at a year ago today to find that I was thinking ahead and my predictions were spot on.

"A lot of things in life people don't do because of the "what-ifs." You know, what if this happens, what if that happens, what if we run out of petrol? And it stops us doing things you know? And after the fact, you find that the what ifs and the might-bes are what makes it so exciting. Because every time we got in trouble and every time we broke down, we met people who helped. And it's a really optimistic view of the world that I have now, that all the people we've met all around the world have been incredibly generous, just nice people."-- Ewan MacGregor, at the end of "Long Way Around"

Amen, Mr. MacGregor. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bon Nadal!

A busy day today! We are expecting 14 people for dinner tonight, for an honest-to-goodness Catalan Christmas. Papa Noel comes at midnight, and who knows what he will bring?

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, or (as we say here in Barcelona) Bon Nadal, all the way from Spain!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

REWIND: India, 2--Mountains and tombs

A summary of my Indian odyssey, part 2:

Exhausted from 4 days of Indian Bus Hell, I settled gratefully into Appleview Manali, a Ladakhi guesthouse recommended to me by a friend from university. The hostel was set outside the modern town, in a lovely apple orchard owned by members of outlying villagers. I slept copiously, ate delicious homemade food cooked by the married couple who owned the guesthouse, and admired the view of the Himalayan foothills from all four corners of the guesthouse´s flat-topped roof. Occasionally, I ventured into town to explore a shrine to the goddess Kali, see a street magician perform, and watch the motley throng of soldiers, monks, wandering salesman, dirty-clothed backpackers, sleek-suited businessmen, old Ladakhi women in robes, and old Tibetan women in rainbow pinafores that converges on this town, which feels drawn from some ideal Tibetan Wild West.

The view from Appleview Manali

Some things are universal-- a street magician performs in Manali

After I was suitably recovered, I did something I had thought I might never want to do again: I got back on a bus. This was no ordinary journey, however. Our van convoy left Manali at 3 AM, traveling in a pack of 4 over the second-highest road in the world, traversing the Himalayas, and arriving in Leh, the capital of the semi-autonomous Ladakh province of India 22 hours later. In the course of the trip we waited patiently as we were engulfed by herds of goats on narrow mountain roads, stopped for chai and instant noodles in yurts on windswept plains, held our breaths as blood pounded in our heads in high passes piled with snow, and broke down twice. The landscape outside my window looked more to me like the moon than anything on earth.

A sampling of the most stunning pictures from my 22 hours of my trip

This is where we broke down

*My Indian visa was set to run out much earlier than I preferred, so I only had a few days in which to pack all the beauty of Ladakh, an ancient civilization on par with Tibet (that has in fact been at war with Tibetans on and off for millenia.) I wandered the winding, beautiful streets of Leh´s old town; explored the ruined castle that lies in the dry mountains above the city; stumbled on a traditional Ladakhi archery festival.

One day I took a car trip over an enormous mountain pass to Pangong Lake, which lies 1/3 in India and 2/3 in Tibet, a stunning drop of blue in thousands of empty miles of forbidding desert and mountains. Another day I went horseback riding through the stony plains outside of town, then hiked my way through the 2 most famous Buddhist monasteries, Thiksey and Shay, which slope up mountains to amazing views at their topmost points.

In the end my time in Ladakh presented only a taste of a world I had also glimpsed in Zhongdian during my travels in China. I found this universe, culturally, geographically and politically different than any I knew, to be fascinating, much like the frustrating, amazing, gorgeous world I had also discovered further south. Some travelers I've met refer to I.N.D.I.A, as in "I'm Never Doing It Again." But I know I have only had a taste and that I want to return for a deeper experience.

The view from my guesthouse

Ladakhi archery

Downtown Leh, with the ancient palace in the background

Yours truly, on the way to Pangong Lake (the sign says "Border Roads Organization Himank Welcomes On World Third Highest Pass, Chang La)
Pangong lake, one the most beautiful places I will ever go

Monks in class at Thiksey monastery
A stunning 3-story Buddha at Thiksey. He's sitting on the floor below.

*Of course, no trip to India is complete without a visit to the country´s international icon (or at least, so I felt.) So during my few days back in Delhi I boarded an early morning train and visited Agra. The city was dirty, but interesting, with a fascinating market quarter. The Red Fort palace complex was beautiful, even as I melted in heat that reached 48 degrees Celsius (almost 120 F!) My experience at the Taj Mahal was frustrating-- the list of items you cannot bring in include flashlights, iPods, books that are not guidebooks, any kind of food, and I had all of these things in my bag. Once I had resolved the matter of where to keep my bag, the enclosure itself was mobbed with people (I found out later it was the run up to an important festival.) But even debilitating heat, beauracracy, and crowds couldn´t dim the beauty of this building. As I remarked to Faith, and later to other friends around the world, the capacity of the human race to find infinite ways to make architectural beauty continues to stagger me. And stagger I did, back to the train, on to Delhi, and toward the international airport, where a 5 am flight awaited to take me to a cultural universe far, far from the Himalayas. I was bound for a month in the Middle East.

48 degrees!(!!!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

REWIND: India-- Weddings and Rivers

Another installment of my whirlwind rewind summaries. I spent 3 weeks in India, and the experience was intense, wonderful, exhausting, colorful, overwhelming, and a host of other motley adjectives. This one looks to be a doozy. Such a doozy, in fact, that I´m splitting it in two.


*I stayed for my first few days in India with an old friend from primary school, Faith, who moved to Delhi permanently after falling in love with both the country and a co-worker in the course of an NGO service placement program. We spent these days getting a feel for the city, from Old Delhi, where the city's old Muslim still shows through, to the magnificent tomb complex of emperor Hanuman.

Looking out at Delhi from the main mosque

Scenes from Old Delhi

Humayun's tomb

Dehra Dun and the wedding

*Through the miracle of couchsurfing, I was invited to a traditional North Indian wedding in Dehra Dun, a small city northeast of Delhi. The bus ride there was an adventure in itself (more on Indian busses in a moment), but the wedding itself was, of course, the highlight. It is one of my great regrets that I was not able to participate in the first day of the wedding, which included henna painting ceremonies, song, and dance. But I was still able to complete my role as part of the groom´s party. At about 8 PM we gathered at a set point and our 50+ party snaked our way through the evening Dehra Dun streets. The whole party danced boisterously to the music of a hired brass band, illuminated by slanting light from 20 electric lamps whose trailing cords were plugged into batteries carried by yet others in the retinue.

The groom's procession-- going to get the bride

When we finally reached the bride´s house, we found a feast set up, with tables scattered about the lawn. The guests ate, while the bride and groom took interminable photos with seemingly every possible combination of relatives and friends. The rest of the night was a string of rituals-- the exchanging of the dowry; the signing of the marriage contract; and, at 4 am, after many cups of chai and super-sweet coffee, the actual marriage ceremony, which involved a Hindu priest and the ritual of tying the couple together (lightly, no S & M here) and having them walk around a sacred fire.

The happy couple

Circling the fire 7 times (circa 4 AM)

Haridwar and Rishikesh

*Dehra Dun is a veritable hop (well, on Indian terms) from the twin sacred towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh, pilgramage sites along the Ganges River, so with some difficulty I boarded a bus to Haridwar. I wanted to see the Ganga Aarti ceremony, a nightly ritual where thousands gather on the banks of the river to chant together and bathe in the river. Haridwar was everything I expected a sacred town to be-- a riot of color, cows wandering the roads, orange-robed holy men camped on the sidewalks, bindied children selling flowers to float down the river.

I took a chairlift to a mountaintop shrine outside of town, but it was so mobbed that I only had time to admire the smoggy view of the river winding into the distance before I had to go back down to find a spot at the Aarti. In the press of people along the riverbank I was sure I would be pickpocketed, or at least lose my shoes (which were left in mountains outside in a designated area), but I was lucky. In fact, even when I was pulled forward by a scam artist looking to make me pay for a fake ritual I was able to use that opportunity to find a much better position from which to view the ritual, which was haunting and beautiful.

A temple in Haridwar

Washing in the Ganges

The Ganga Aarti

*My experience in Rishikesh was similar, although the few days I spent there turned out to be very frustrating and overwhelming in some ways. It was my goal to cross into Himachal Pradesh province to Manali. I had been told in Dehra Dun that I had to go to Haridwar to do this. In Haridwar I was told I had to go to Rishikesh. And then when I got there I was told I had to go back to Haridwar. Nevertheless, I was able to explore the enchanting streets and even to celebrate the river goddess Ganga´s birthday with an impromptu dip in the river, clothes and all. Hindu bathers around me nudged each other, cheering, and laughing good-naturedly. Sure, I had to wait a week to wash those clothes and wear them again, but the memory is priceless.

The streets of Rishikesh


*What followed was one of the worst three day stretches of my entire trip. I was trying to get to Himachal Pradesh, and I had very little success. My nerves were already stretched thin from the exhausting ordeal that is traveling in India. India is (quite literally, I think) where the busses from the rest of the world come to die, and there is nary a shock absorber, functioning vent, or unbroken window among them. I spent 3 almost uninterrupted days on these overfilled busses, gritting my teeth over the bumps, elbow to elbow with 8 other people in a seat made for 4, with the dusty 100 degree wind dehydrating me. Ten hours later, exhausted and near tears, I would get to my next destination and be told that I could not get from there to Manali, despite the information I had been given at the chaotic, overwhelming bus stand that morning. I would try desperately to find a place to stay for the night and try again the next day, when I would again be given misinformation but the single English speaker at the bus stand, only to end up in another Wrong Place that night.

By the time I ended up in Shimla, a place I had never intended to go to, I was desperate-- and then the bus was late and the hotel owner chastised me for my tardiness and told me he had given away my room. I was lucky enough to meet Bala, an Indian-born Canadian, at this point. He shared his hotel room and his dinner with me and helped me to find a bus (semi-deluxe, even) to Manali the next night. Sure, the so-called semi deluxe bus had broken windows and lacked shock absorbers just like its brethren, but I had my own seat in which to drowse, and when I arrived in Manali I was finished with long, hot, torturous bus rides in India. Train rides, well, that was another story.

Really the only good part of Shimla-- sunset over the mountains

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Your European trivia for the day

Food (literally) for thought:

In Holland I reached for a slice of pizza and my host (who is an American transplant) said, "Oh, we don't do that here" and pointed to the knife and fork at my side

Here in Liguria, northern Italy, I finished up lunch with my hosts and looked around for cutlery with which to eat the pie we were having for dessert. But my search was fruitless. In Liguria you eat pie with your hands!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A fractured (computer screen) fairy tale-- Normandy edition

Once upon a time there was a girl who disappeared to Normandy for 10 days. She had a lovely time there, driving around the D-Day beaches; exploring some 15th century towers; sampling regional specialties like apple tart, Calvados, and tartiflette; and enjoying the slow pace of small-town life. She spent a long, fun night at a Cherbourg night club; she hosted a boisterous Thanksgiving dinner party with local couchsurfers and rotisserie chicken; she marveled at the crazy raining-9-times-a-day weather and resulting rainbows; and finally she caught a terrible cold.

So she stayed there in Normandy a few extra days, nursing her cold, drinking lots of tea with honey, and generally feeling lousy. One tragic morning, in her feverish haze, she brought a steaming cup of tea to bed, and sat down on the bed and.... on her computer. And so the story had a woeful end, with the girl's laptop out of order, a fact which will make her traveling life dramatically more difficult and severely curtail her blogging.

The moral of the story is: Please be patient in the coming weeks, as I cope with my suddenly computerless existence.