Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nepal Thoughts, Transit Rambles, and Indonesia!

I've been on a 2 day journey from Kathmandu, Nepal to Bali, Indonesia so I've had a lot of time to think about my experiences thus far. Before I get too into it,  for all of you that have read the book Eat, Pray, Love and are seeing some similarities, yes I'm going from India to Indonesia like she did. But that's pretty much the end of it!  I didn't go to India to pray, the only thing I'll be loving in Indonesia is the coral reefs and white sand beaches, and I never go to any foreign country to eat. I'm the pickiest eater on the face of the planet, I'm more likely to starve to death. I've always had an innate dessire to see the world, but at some point I'm going to have to put a career first, so thus I've lumped a huge trip together so I can see my top picks before I get (somewhat) serious about life. And hopefully I'll have some idea what I want to do with this somewhat serious life by the time I return. .. .But if I don't, I won't be surpirsed or disappointed.

So now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Nepal. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, but in terms of physical beauty, friendly people, and outdoor activities, it is also one of the richest. Nepal is curerntly at that magical place where all the infrastructure and activities you need and want are there, but hasn't been ruined by mass resort-centred tourism. Granted if you want a luxourious and comfortable holiday, Nepal is not for you. But if you're like me and love the outdoors, genuine experiences, and don't mind roughing it a bit, Nepal can be your playground.

I've learned a lot while here. I've learned how to live with a maximum of 6 hours of electricity a day. It's the dry season when the dams aren't generating much power here, so they just don't have electricity! Can you imagine how well that would go over at home?? There would be riots in the street!! I've also learned that hand sanitizer is a magical substance that can multitask as an anticeptic AND deoderant! Scientifically tested and proven in the Himalayas by me, my friends! I've learned I hate curry. . . .Indian curry, Nepali curry, Thai curry, Malaysian curry, Burmese curry. I've tried them all and not a one have I enjoyed. So I'm offically giving up on curry. Finally, I've learned that showers and toilet paper, so coveted in the western world, are actually extravegant luxuries, and I shouldn't be so spoiled as to expect them on a daily basis!

Have I had any magical revelalations about my place in the world? No. Don't believe all the hype, all these travel novels (as the one above mentioned) that tell you that that trip you've just been dying to go on will solve all your miseries and help you discover your true meaning in life. It won't. Lucky for me, I had very few miseries to start off with. As for my place in the world, I'm finding travel, if anything, confuses the matter even more. Why do some people, like myself, have so much while others have so little? Not just material things, we come from a land of infinite possibility, from the second we are born we are told we can do anything, be anything, all we have to do it work a little at it. In India and Nepal you are born into your caste, from the second these people are born they are told who they're going to be and what they're going to do. There's little to no choice in the matter. So in the land of a million choices, shouldn't we be happier? For some reason, I find in general we're not. Why are so many of us unfulfilled, feeling like something is missing, like we should be more than we are? Maybe it's because this is what we have been taught to believe. If you can do anything, why are you (or I) serving people food, that's not good enough. Sitting at a desk? You're better than that. We are smarter, highly educated, and we deserve more. Maybe we are set up, from birth, to be disappointed in ourselves. OR maybe I'm spouting total crap! Maybe if the Nepalis and Indians had half the opportunities we did they'd be at the top of the world right now. Maybe we are not just the land of a million choices, but the land of a million self involved, ungrateful winers! Which do you think? I sure don't know! But before I get too philosophical here, my point to you is that travel is going to elicit more questions than answers. Especially if you are visiting regions more disadvantaged than your own. If it doesn't, you're not looking hard enough and you're missing the point. . .But that's another rant entirely.

So now I am in Indonesia. 24 hours of layovers and waiting in airports for 3 flights combined to equal only 10 hours in the air. SIGH. At the Singapore airport I got screwed over. One of the best airports in the world but all the amenities are inside security. Because I was changing airlines I had to collect my baggage and couldn't check back in for another nine hours. So all the free internet, beds, restaurants, butterfly and botanical gardens, pool, and TVs were within my reach, just through a glass door and x-ray machine, but I couldn't enter until my damn airline opened it's booth and checked my baggage, nine hours from the current time. Lovely. I guess I could have argued with the airport officials, but I just accepted my crappy fate. Others may have been smarter, but after living in the far end of the third world for the last month and a half I wasn't that hard to impress. Everything was so clean and shiny here! I drank a real hazelnut latte (for a real $5) and left my wallet sitting in front of me on the table and didn't fear it being snatched. I watched the people in their modern clothes. Shorts! And tank tops! And no one was gawking at them like they were deranged Western sluts. The holy grail of my whole Day In The First World experience was a trip to the washroom. Glistening and pristine, I nearly jumped up and down with glee when I saw the western toilet, freshly cleaned, with *gasp* toilet paper! WOW! It just doesn't get any better than this folks.

Kuta Beach just before a storm 
So I finally arrived in Denpasar, Indonesia at local time 10:30pm. It's always a little unsettling to arrive alone, at night, in an unknown locale. But I am getting used to this travel thing, and it wasn't so bad. I met two solo guys going to Kuta Beach as well and we decided to share a cab. One guy was French Canadian and his accent was comforting reminder of my Whistler home. He had even BEEN in Whistler for a month before he'd left for this trip. So we talked about my home while we slid through the night to Kuta beach. We got dropped off on the side of the road about a km from Kuta, unannounced by the cab driver who was not very helpful with directions (I think he was pissed that he got three of us for the price of one, even though we gave him a good tip. Bad Karma coming his way!). So we got lost and spent the next hour wandering around looking for our hotels. Thunder was rumbling and as we wound our way down the allies and lanes near Kuta the lightning cracked and instantly a waterfall of rain fell from the sky. Just like in the movies! We ran for cover but we were already soaked, the streets filled up with water. After a short downfall it stopped and I was able to slosh through the puddles to my hotel for the evening.

Me and Carly by our hotel pool
Kuta Beach. A sun soaked strip of land lined with vendors and hawkers of every kind. Everything you could ever want or need is at your fingertips here - except any form of peace, quiet, or solitude. After India and Nepal, Kuta is a laugh-out-loud easy place to find my way. It is also glaringly unauthentic, commercial, and Westernized. But I'm ok with that, for a change. A day after my arrival I met up with Carly J. from home. We sipped beers with my new French Canadian buddy while we wandered the main strip, dodging hawkers selling everything from fake label sunglasses to hard drugs. We paid our condolences at the Kuta bombing memorial, then proceeded that evening to one of the biggest clubs on Bali. 6 floors of fake-tanned Westerners jostling to dance music, hip hop, or tech house. They even give you free drinks and snacks between 10pm and 12am. . .Although there's not much alcohol in them.

The next 2 days consisted of lounging by the pool, shopping in street stalls, surfing, and indulging in Kuta's many restaurants, including McDonalds. Hell yes I ate a Big Mac meal, on brand new wooden patio furniture, ocean side, with zero shame! All that surfing works up an appetite. Kuta actually has decent surf . . . If you don't mind wading amongst the trash. That beach is covered, from tip to tip,
in an excessive amount of garbage. It's disgusting, Kuta get your act together! So me and Carly bobbed around with the plastic wrappers and tried to catch some waves, with varying degrees of enjoyment and success. I guess the board rental only cost $3 for the day. Despite coating myself in SPF 70, my poor white limbs got toasted and I am now a lovely shade of pink. So currently I'm on a white sand island surrounded in crystal clear waters hiding from the sun. SIGH. Happy to report, however, that Gili Trawangan is garbage free. I found myself the cutest little bungalow maybe 1 minute from the beach with my own porch, bathroom, and breakfast included for $9. Saaweeeet! I also signed up for my PADI open water scuba dive course. I start tomorrow and this is literally a life long dream finally coming true for me! So I will be parked on Gili Trawangan for the next 4 days at least. I'll let you know how it goes :)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nepal Part 2: The Trek

View from Kagbeni
I was ready to go, full of energy and excited to spend 9 days in the Himalayas doing one of my favourite activities, trekking. As we left our start point at Jonsom and entered into nature all of us fell quiet. The only sounds were the rhythmic crunching of our feet and the constant rushing of the wind. This was completely different terrain than I'd seen so far. We were totally submerged in the Himalayas and giant white peaks rose from what seemed like right in front of me. The landscape was otherwise vast and sparse, making me feel tiny and insignificant. The wind blew strong here, and despite the blue skies it was cold. I bundled into my wool toque and tried to keep up with the boys. 3 other guys, 2 male guides, and 2 male porters make up our team. Like or or not, I was going to have to be one of the boys for the next 9 days. Despite the shortest legs, least muscle mass, and smallest bladder (believe me, this matters in the open wilderness!) I seemed to be holding my own on day one. After hiking for several hours we arrived at Kagbeni (2810m above sea level), a small village nestled into the mountainside. The views here were stunning, I couldn't even decide where to look because there was 360 degrees of mind blowing amazingness. The village itself was made up of sturdy stone houses that were draped with multicoloured prayer flags that never ceased to flutter restlessly with the wind. After exploring around the village we turned in early to prepare for a long hike the next day.

View on the way to Muktinath
The next day we climbed above the snowline to Muktinath (3802m above sea level), which involved an entire day of uphill.1000m of up to be exact. I started out energetic, but by the end of the day I was dragging my ass up the hill. We were hiking high enough that the air began to get thin, and altitude sickness became a real possibility. But I seemed to do fine, other than some pathetic gasping for oxygen. The younger guys skipped merrily ahead, seemingly unaffected by the constant gain in elevation. SIGH. When we finally arrived at Muktinath I was definitely relieved, but when I tucked into bed that night the temperature became unbearably cold. I huddled in my sleeping bag in the fetal position, shivering. My nose was so cold I thought frost bite might set in overnight. I covered myself with more clothes and blankets, but it didn't help, the wind seemed to howl right through the nearly non-existent walls. I hated being alone then, cowering in my room. Damn you Nepal, for your lack of insulation and interior heating! You think a country this cold would have figured this stuff out by now! I wondered how the locals could survive a winter up here, isolated and frozen, God that would be horrible. No altitude sickness to report, but one of younger guys had some problems. That's what you get for trotting around so happily!

On the way to Marpha on my b-day
By the next morning, weary, tired, and still cold, I was grumpy. And we had to walk 28kms that day. Happy Birthday to Me. Yes, this day just so happened to be my 27th birthday. When I was planning this trip I thought it would be cool to be doing something fun and adventurous on the day of my birth. Maybe it was because I started the day out unimpressed with life, but I actually found the whole thing depressing. Out here, we are completely cut off. Many villages didn't have phones, let alone cellphone reception or internet. I couldn't talk to a single person I loved on my Nepali birthday (which took place mostly on the 15th of March in Canada, a day before my actual birthday, since Nepal is 16.25 hours in the future). I didn't think it would be a big deal to me, but it was, and I was homesick. The guys tried, especially Rupan our main guide. He was so nice, arranging a card (Himalayas post card), gift (Nepali bracelet), cake (apple crumble from the orchards in Marpha), and bought some vodka for us all to share. But really, I just wanted my stupid phone to work or the damn internet to be available. Or better yet, I just wanted to be home, minus the aching legs, nasty blisters, sunburn, and with my loved ones eating a cheeseburger. Yes, a cheeseburger. This simple food item does not seem to exist in India or Nepal and that's all I wanted for my birthday and I did not get it! Is that too much to ask? We are hiking 20-odd kms a day on a vegetarian diet with only eggs and nuts (an lentils, YUCK) for protein. Well bull shit! I wanted an f-ing cheesburger and I felt entitled to pout because I couldn't have one. I put on a half smile for the guys, I think they were somewhat convinced. I went to bed aching for home.


Above: near Ghasa       Below: Hiking in flip flops, carrying my skate shoes
I woke up thinking "I'm supposed to be enjoying this trek. Why am I being such a baby. After all, I chose to do it. Alright, today will be the day! I'm a strong girl, I love the outdoors, adventure....I'm in Nepal!!! Screw the internet, phones, who needs them! I'm going to conquer the Himalayas!" and I hopped out of bed ready to go and OH....MY....GOD....I didn't think it was possible for walking to hurt that much. Apparently the bajillion kms of walking had taken their toll overnight and my muscles had tightened into a ridged, painful mass of useless tissue. And we were walking 24kms that day. Unable to convince my blistered feet back into my hiking boots, I hobbled out in my backup pair of skate shoes. Alright Himalayas, if this is how it's going to be, FINE. I can take a little pain. The first 10kms went relatively well, until I stumbled into a creek soaking my feet. My blisters screamed, my muscled tensed...I couldn't walk with wet feet. Time for the backup of the backup. for the next 14kms, much to everyone's bewilderment, I hiked in my flip flops. I hate to say it, but they were the most comfortable footwear I'd worn so far. My feet were happier, but my legs were getting increasingly painful. So I got my game face on. I clenched my teeth, cranked my ipod to the most angry dubstep music I had (thank you Excision) and put my head down and just walked. Every single step shot pain up my leg, into my lower back, and down again. But I channeled every last ounce of pent up frustration into keeping my feet moving. F-you Himalayas, I don't need shoes! I don't need meat! I don't need working appendages! I grimaced and dragged myself ungracefully up and down a mountain and finally we made it to our night's resting place...Just before my legs gave out and my f-word quota for the next decade was entirely used up. Now I just had to get through the next five days. Oh f*ck. 

Day 5 came with as much pain as the day before with about half the determination. I limped, I stumbled, I nearly broke down and cried...and I didn't enjoy a single second of it. I could barely keep up with the guys, got frustrated that every single step was painful, and I wanted to rip my hiking boots off my feet and hurl them into the river. I found a reason to hate everyone and everything. Mostly I was pissed at myself because I was supposed to be able to DO this. This was my thing. Why am I struggling? Why am I the only one with blisters, shin splints, brutal pain? I hated feeling weak and my spirits drifted dangerously low that day. But I did not give up. I made it to the next stopping point at Tatopani (1189m). Thankfully there were hot springs here and I sighed relief as I dipped my aching muscles into the steamy, sulfur scented waters. Finally there was internet available and I could read all my birthday wishes from my friends and family. It lifted my spirits. But as I went to bed that night, licking my wounds, I feared the next day. I wasn't sure I could take another like the last...

Prayer Wheels
It took 2 days to trek from the river valley at Tatopani (1189m) to reach the mountain top at Ghorepani (2724m). 2 entire days of steep climbing, so basically I was on the stair-master from 8am in the morning to 3pm when we stopped for the day. If I don't look like Wonder Woman by the end of this, I want my money back. Despite some huffing and puffing, the uphill turned out to be a blessing. It gave my sore shins a rest from any impact. As for the blisters, they were still there, ugly, bulbous masses or raw, gaping wounds. How I got around these was to again hike in my flip flops. I'm beginning to think that flip flops are the ultimate in footwear. I mean, they are 100% breathable, lightweight, durable, can get wet and will dry in minutes, and most importantly, DON'T RUB. All the locals wear them so there has to be some truth to this. So I climbed a mountain in my $10 flip flops while my $100 hiking boots dangled off the back of my pack. Figures.

Prayer Flags

Now that I wasn't looking angrily at the ground, I noticed it was a lot greener her. We weaved and climbed our way through villages that were just cute as a button. They kind of reminded me of The Shire from Lord of the Rings, just minus the hobbits and underground dwellings and plus some Nepalis and clay and cobblestone huts. Magical rings and evil lurking in the shadows, not quite, but you could tell life is not easy here. You try scaping out an existence on the side of a mountain with zero flat land, medical facilities, roads, power, or basic supplies. I know I couldn't do it. When electricity becomes a luxury, just count me out. I've been spoiled by my western upbringings. I like to rough it...for a week or two. Then I want my shower to be hot, my house to be heated, and I want to watch TV while eating a cheeseburger! The fact that I feel entitled to these things, that we ALL  feel entitled to these things, well that says something about the world. Think about that next time your power knocks off and you don't know what to do with yourself!

Now that we'd climbed the mountain, we got to come down. Our last night on top everyone gathered around this makeshift wood stove in in our lodges main room. It was the only source of warmth as the wind howled and it stormed outside, so everyone staying at the lodge (all 10 of us) were there. It was cosy and social, but we all turned in early because we had a 5am hike to the top of Poon Hill (3210m) to watch the sunrise. 5:00am sucks. Hiking a mountain at 5:00am sucks even more. But as the sun came up over the Annapurna range of the Himalayas it was worth it. And then for the next 2 days we went down. Down and down and down and down. I was back to
Me on Poon Hill
enjoying myself, but FINALLY, everyone else began to crap out. Knees hurt, muscles were pulled, people fell ill, blisters popped, struggling occurred, pills, bandages, braces came out. And all the while I hopped along footloose and ailment free snapping pictures and loving it. We snaked our way all the way down into the tropical rain forest, fully equipped with gushing waterfalls, gurgling little rivers, and Rhododendron forests in bloom. Yes forests, they are not bushes here but giant trees! Nepal really does have it all...except flat land...Oh, and beaches (and cheese burgers)! 
Rhododendron flowers from the forest

So I survived the trek and overall, enjoyed myself. Still haven't had that elusive cheeseburger. I'm currently finishing this blog from the Mumbai airport, en route to Indonesia. Rumour has there is a Mcdonalds on the Kuta strip where I'm staying for my first few days on Bali. Not going to lie, my hopes for a delicious beefy, cheesy burger are getting pretty high! Wish me luck! My next blog will be from Bali, Indonesia! 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nepal Part 1

Kathmandu Valley
As most of you probably know, I've been a bit disconnected lately as I've been trekking through the Himalayas for the last week. I still have two days left, but I just so happened to have an afternoon free in a village that has working internet (while the power is on, it could cut out at anytime). I apologise if this post is a bit rushed and not my best, but you will get the gist of what has been going on up until the trek. My next post after this one will go over the trek, in an effort to keep things from getting too long.

"You have now left hell and entered into heaven," were the first words spoken to me after I crossed the Nepal border. "Sure, sure," I thought. Little did I know that those words would become my mantra. Nepal, the rooftop of the world, is a dream. An organic wash of greens, grays, browns, and blues cover the landscape, dotted with ramshackle little villages and a patchwork of terraces. Rising above it all are the Himalayas, which tower in the distance, framing the whole scene with jaw-dropping beauty. It's just coming to the dry season, one of the best times of year to be here as everything is still green, but the skies are mostly clear and it's not too hot. The only sign of the chaos of India is a smoggy haze, blown up from the south, that sometimes lingers in the air.

Walking on the elephant
I've spent most of my time so far in the subtropical lowlands. By "lowlands" I mean no snow capped, 3000 meter peaks, it is still far from flat, with sharp changes in in elevation and very hilly. My first stop was Lumbini where I visited the birthplace of  the Buddah. After I short stay, I went to Chitwan National Park where I jam packed about a billion activities into 2 days. Chitwan is beautiful in itself but the highlight for me was all the elephants. I went on an elephant trek, visited the elephant breeding centre with all the little babies, and then got to go swimming with some elephants! For the swimming,  I watched the elephants crashed into the river with their trainers on their backs, rolling over and splashing around with glee. Once laying down, I climbed with the trainer onto the elephants side. Gripping it's huge neck and holding on for dear life, the giant animal stood up. Once upright, I was sitting on the bare back of the elephant while he splashed around. I could feel his rough skin and prickly hair beneath my palms and hear his ginormous breath beneath me. I then was able to stand up and walked up and down his spine, all the while being shot with water from the elephants trunk. When he had had enough the elephant rolled over again, sending me flying into the river. It was one of the best experiences ever.
Trainer on his elephant

Next it was off to Pohkara where I was the random western guest at a Nepali wedding. How did this come about you may ask? Well I happened to be walking down the street when a massive bus with a 5 piece band on the roof drove by. Liking the apparent party bus I waved and clapped at them, and then they stopped and asked if I wanted to see a Nepali wedding. Really? Hell yes I do! So off I went in my hiking boots, dirty jeans, and 3 days unwashed hair. I was introduced and passed around and tried to make conversation with only broken English to play with. I watched the ceremony quietly wondering if the bride or groom were wondering why the hell there was a random white girl at their wedding . . .but they didn't seem to even notice or care. Everyone kept asking me if I liked to dance and not knowing what I was getting myself into, I said sure. Before I knew it the band was being reassembled and everyone was shouting at me to dance. I was being dragged against my will by both my hands, so what could I do? Before I knew it I was busting a move with 3 Nepali guys to indecipherable music with about 70 people watching. I tried to encourage more to join but no one would budge. So, as a last resort, I looked around for the alcohol at this party, I needed a drink badly, but alas there didn't seem to be any! It was an equally humiliating and hilarious experience.

Wedding Ceremony
When I'd finally had enough (much to every ones disappointment) they insisted that I stay and eat with them. I looked wearily at the unknown foods at the buffet. Anyone who knows me has seen my more than average selectiveness when it comes to food. In other words, I'm very picky. So as the unknown curry, sloppy vegetables, and scary looking sauces were piled on my plate I watched with terror. On the first bite a mass of unknown spices exploded in my mouth. Spicy, spicy, SPICY!!!! The second mix looked a bit more promising...But wait, no...It was terrible! Between each bite I shoveled a cleansing pile of white rice into my mouth, plastering a fake smile on my face. "Mmm, good," I lied. Finally a bowl of yogurt was pushed into my hands for dessert. Oh thank God something normal. After eating I'd had enough culture shock for the day and quietly (and quickly) left.

Next I arrived in Kathmandu. Despite some hype, the city resembled most of those of the third world, a tangled maze of indistinguishable streets, congested traffic, too many people, and too many piles of trash. After India, I was anxious to get out of the city, so me and two guys I was with promptly booked an overnight white water rafting trip down the Bhota Khosi. The first day was fairly mellow, we meandered our way through the mountainous jungle , impressive terraces, and picturesque little villages perched on the sides of cliffs. Children could see us coming and would thunder down the river banks screaming "Naaamaaasstte!" and waving vigorously. It was just us, our boat, and a few friendly Nepali along the way. We swam a bit and jumped off some cliffs, even though the water was icy cold. As we floated under a suspension bridge (very popular in Nepal), a line of crimson robed monks stopped to watch us pass beneath them. As we came closer, they waved, and I noticed one monk pull a cell phone out of his pocket and take a picture of us. A small reminder that the modern world is creeping in everywhere, even in a land seemingly so medieval.

Me in Pohkara with Himalayas behind
That night we made camp on a grassy bank beside the river. It was an incredible setting with the mountains rising 360 degrees around us. We were 'real' camping, sleeping on the hard ground, cooking by fire, and using mother natures toilet, the kind of camping I most enjoy! The next morning we were back on the river and it was a much more intense day, featuring only class 3 and 4 rapids. It was all going well until our emergency kayaker flipped over and got wedged up against a rock, held head first under water. Unable to stop ourselves against the rapids, we hurled right into him, hitting him hard and trapping him under our raft. In the impact, most of us were dislodged from our seats, and flew from the boat. The shock of the cold water was told me I was out of the raft before my eyes had surfaced. I pushed through the current back towards the boat,  only then noticing almost everyone else had fallen out too. Our guide, a chiseled little Nepali guy with 0% body fat was right on us, and yanked me and a fully grown German guy simultaneously back into the raft like ragdolls. Luckily, our safety kayaker survived the crash, but was shaken and lost his paddle, so we had to continue on without him. But all was well and everyone, myself included, had a blast.

So that concludes the highlights of what's happened up until the trek. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up quickly when I get back to civilization! Until then :)


Monday, March 7, 2011

Varanasi and Final Thoughts on India

Wood for cremation

Varanasi was the India I'd hoped and dreamed for. A place where holy men wander and life, death, riches, and poverty all mingle in some sort of strange and unjust balance. The tattered buildings cling to the banks of the Ganges River and the view is so surreal the eyes struggle to believe what they are seeing. People come in the thousands to bathe themselves in the spiritually cleansing (but horribly polluted) waters of the Ganges. Smoke twists up from one point on the river bank, covering the whole scene with a cloudy haze. This is where the cremations are taking place. As I approach I can see the dead bodies, wrapped in brightly coloured fabric, being carried to the river. They dip the body in the Ganges' holy waters to wash away any impurities before the body is burnt and the soul is sent away for reincarnation. As I get closer a priest approaches and says he can guide me through the process. He asks me to follow, and before I know it, I'm standing painfully close, literally inches from a burning corpse, so that the fire is scorching my skin and ashes are raining down on me. I didn't think he meant "guide me through" literally, but apparently he did. There are several neat piles of wood, some already burning, some ready for a new body. We continue walking, and stop less than a foot from a neatly wrapped corpse. I can smell it. I can see the bare toes they leave unwrapped for the cleansing. A tuft of hair escapes the fabric. I feel out of place, like a morbid form of wedding crasher. I and two other friends are the only women, as Indian women are not allowed here. I wonder why they make an exception for us. I cringe at the fire burning the back of my thighs, it's already over 30 degrees out here. I ask to move on. Thankfully we do. I make a donation for the families that struggle to afford wood for this process, receive a blessing from the priest, and then I retreat to the outskirts of the scene and watch for some time. They unwrap the bright fabric just before cremation, leaving only a thin, transparent layer of cloth covering the body. They place the body on a bed of wood, then perform several blessings that I can pretend to understand. Finally, they wedge grass between the earth and the wood bed and set it aflame. Nobody cries, as it is believed this will stop the soul from being set free. I was suddenly very aware of my mortality, my tiny little life lost in a sea of billions of other lives on this planet. This is enough to make a girl contemplate the meaning of it all. Strangely the process was not dark or depressing, in fact is was almost peaceful, silence seemed to fall over the whole scene, although it was not in actual fact quiet at all. This ritual has been going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for hundreds of years.

India is so full of contrast that it can be viewed infinite different ways depending on the individual. I only saw a fraction of a huge country, focusing my time mainly in Rajasthan, so I'm sure my view of India as a whole is incomplete. I have learned and seen a lot, but in the end, my opinions are just my opinions, so take them with a grain of salt.

My travels through South East Asia left me wishing for a simpler time when we were less focused on material possessions. A time when we could romp barefoot through the rice paddies, work the land, spend our nights in the comfort of a wood hut, and eat fried rice 24/7. India has elicited the exact opposite response and left me thanking God I'm from where I'm from. I'm f*cking loving my material possessions right about now! I guess I expected to find a plethora of mysterious ancient temples, a deeply spiritual people, yogis at every turn, and steamy green rice patties awash with beauty. I pretty much found none of those things. I'm disappointed to say, I never set foot in an ashram, saw a yogi, or did any yoga. Apparently I was in one of the WORST regions of India for this. Oops. Bad research. I had one opportunity in Pushcar, and I was sick, of course. The people are spiritual, when they're not trying to sell you something, which unfortunately is 99% of the time. I know I come from a privileged part of the world and as such I am seen as insanely wealthy, and compared to most of the people around, I was. About half of India seems to be doing ok for themselves, but the other half seem to be just squeaking by, on the edge of existence, working insanely or begging just to make ends meet (or not making ends meet, as the case often is). I get this and I respect this and thus I put up with the relentless harassment with a smile on my face and a polite as possible "no" every time. But it beats you down. I began to feel like a walking ATM rather than a living, breathing human being. In many cases it ruined whatever it was I was trying to experience. Being female made it infinitely worse. The nail in the coffin was I spent the majority of my time in a parched, sparsely vegetated desert with barely a blade of grass in sight, let alone a rice patty. Oops. Bad research.

Traffic in India
All that being said, there were things I liked about India. The food was not one, except Mcdonalds, which was epic. I liked the public long distance buses. So crammed full, 30 seats meant 70 individuals should about fit. You may ask WHY I liked this, but I actually found it amusing, it was so wrong and so not like home. Once I got used to it, I liked the chaos, the bazillion people and their random methods of transport, all squashed in to an area that should be double the size. You never get lonely. I must say, despite harassment, I never felt in danger and moved about in what felt like safety, except for the impending traffic disaster that luckily never took place in my presence. People here are always willing to help you out, you will never get lost or want for something. Anything is possible in India . . .for a price. Chai tea is awesome. I liked the gaping stares of some people, mostly on public transport, trying to discretely (or not so discretely) take my photo, knowing I was probably one of the only Westerner's they'd ever seen. Camels have gained a small place in my heart. There is beauty here in India, you just have to (literally and figuratively) sift through the trash to find it. I guess that pretty much sums up my opinion of India.
Bye Bye India

Friday, March 4, 2011

Camels, Temples, Henna, and Rats

So much is happening day to day at this point it's hard to decide what to write about. I have only a few days left in India and while I want to breathe a giant sigh of relief, I am also a little sad because there are things that I would have like to do that I didn't have time for. But I think that's almost always the case while traveling, and better to focus on the experiences had, rather than experiences missed.

By far the highlight of the last few days has been the camel trek we went on. We drove out into the desert, far past the hustle and bustle of Jaisalmer, and met our camels and guides on the side of the road. Camels may not be the most majestic of creatures but I've become a big fan anyway. What they lack in grace they make up for in ridiculousness. With big, docile eyes and a constant grin you can't help but be amused and delighted, awkward though they may be. They literally laid down on the ground like a giant dog for us to climb on their backs. Then, in one jerky motion, they are up on their feet, and we were off. We rode into the dunes of the Thar desert, stopping once to run through sand, which was so soft I didn't even need my sandals. After an hour or so we made camp, stopping only 60kms from the Pakistan border. At dark, we lit a campfire, and celebrated a fellow traveler's birthday with some impressive fireworks. We spent the rest of the night laying around watching the stars and enjoying the very rare Indian silence! At dawn the next morning we trot back out on our camels to watch the sun, a giant orange globe, peak it's head above the dunes for the first time that day. It was freezing and windy on the back of a camel (not to mention bouncy!) but it was by far worth it for the view.

Other highlights include a trip to a Hindu temple in Jodhpur to watch the priest do his daily prayer. This was by far not a tourist activity, it was average people going to service (or whatever they call it here), and I would have felt extremely uncomfortable if I hadn't been with an Indian guide. He doesn't usually take people, and I sensed it would have been disrespectful to bring a boat load of tourists to watch, but because I was alone at the time he brought me. We had to bend to under a low roof at the entrance of the temple, stepping into a smoky interior. Once inside the roof opened up, and we walked around, paying our respect to each of the Gods, and then sat outside the chamber where the priest was preparing for the ceremony. The women all sat neatly off to one side, while the men gathered near the front. The priest lit this thing that kind of resembled a Jewish menorah (basically several candles on a stick - except these weren't candles). Then everyone started chanting slowly and periodically ringing this a large bell near the priest. The priest then began waving the fire around. The chanting got faster and faster, and the bell ringing again and again until everything was quite frenzied! I stood up with the men watching the whole thing go down, not really knowing to do or if they were pissed that I was snooping in on their religion. But then a man tied a prayer bracelet on my wrist and another filled my hand with flower pedals, showing that they accepted my presence. Obviously confused, my guide informed me the flower pedals were for the offering. A basket is passed around through the chaotic chanting, and you throw the pedals in as an offering to the Gods and you make a prayer after you do it. At the height of the chanting and bell ringing, the priest stopped waving the fire around and then, as a grand finale, splashes us all with water, the Hindu equivalent of holy water I assume. And then, as if nothing had happened the crowd scattered, and it was over.

The fact that I stood with the men during this ceremony is somewhat symbolic. I've found throughout my travels in India that the men are far more present, and I've found myself spending a lot of time talking to them. It's not that women don't exist, they are there, but the tend to always be sitting quietly to one side. They don't openly engage you and they don't tend to work in shops, so it was quite refreshing when me and a friend went to get henna done and a women was there, running her own business. She was very candid and open, and we had a great talk with her. While in the big cities woman's rights are gaining momentum, but it seems they are lagging painfully behind in more tribal areas. According to the shop owner, a girl can be eligible for marriage as soon as she starts menstruating. Her good friend was married off when she was just 11 years old, to a 36 year old man. A girl has no real rights, and is basically at the whim of what her parents decide to do with her. If she is lucky, she might receive an education, but many families think that this is wasted on girls (school is not free in India) as they are just going to be given away to a man and his family. In the case of the 11 year old girl, the husband died a couple years later leaving her 17 years old with 3 young children and no source of income. Her only hint of luck was that she had a son, so she could keep her property. If she's had only girls, the property would have been transferred back to the husband's family, as property (in the year 2011) still can't be passed through the female line. This pissed me off big time. Even in more "forward thinking" areas of India, most marriages are arranged, divorce is not possible, and all property and wealth is passed through the male line. This particular young girl, at the age of 17, will NEVER be allowed to remarry, as she has children from one line, and can't marry into another. This is all extreme bullshit if you ask me! 

Finally, I also visited Karni Mata, or the rat temple. This location is special because, like the name suggests, there are literally hundreds of rats living freely within the temple. For Hindus, it is a main site of pilgrimage, and they come to worship the rats which they believe are reincarnated humans. Because of this, the rats are sacred and are fed and cared for. Tourists can go take a gander, but they are not breaking the rules because you are a foreigner, it's a temple so SHOES OFF. It wasn't as bad as I thought, although you do feel vulnerable in bare feet, as you walk over the sticky marble caked with God knows what and rats scurrying everywhere. The plague no longer exists, right?
Well...before I ramble too much longer, I am going to end here. We are off to Varanasi on a night train tonight, then I will be crossing over into the Nepal border after we are done there.