Friday, December 30, 2005

Waiting for the Geezer

Two days ago I moved from Haunted, or is that Hunted, Hill House to Hotel Tibet, more expensive, but cozier and in the middle of town. The air is so dry up here (elevation 1800 meters, that's 5400 feet for us Yanks), I have to smear my body in coconut oil to keep my red skin from itching, but it's so cold, the coconut oil is always congealed into solid mass. I immerse the jar in hot water to melt the solid mass into liquid. But first, I have to get hot water, by going into the hallway, and flipping the main switch (why it can't just stay on is a mystery) for my "geezer." Then I go into the bathroom and turn on the wall "geezer" switch with its glowing red light, and watch NDTV for about 20 minutes while I wait.

Yesterday's headlines were all about the attack on Bangalore Institute of Science. A suspected Lashkar-E-Toiba affiliate group sent a lone gunman to lob a grenade and shoot up the main gate, killing one math professor and wounding 4 others. Now there are reports of bomb threats on New Year's Eve in Bangalore.

Looks like my New Year's Eve will be spent here in McLeod Ganj, doing shots of whiskey in hotlemon ginger(strictly under the table; we are back in India now so it's only a "beer bar." Places serving hard liquor are seedy "stag bars"). I'll be in good company with Tom, the insane Irishman; Toto, the insane private-school Indian; Gretel the British painter; Laura and Lauren (from NY and Missouri respectively) and HipHop Lobsang (exactly what he sounds like - a HipHop Tib).

New Year's Day will be 12 hours spent on the posh, 700Rs bus to Delhi, only because there are no more seats on the 400Rs bus. I'm going to tell the bus man that Tom is my husband so we can sit together. I hope Tom won't mind. Any two foreigners of opposite gender are usually assumed to be married, however unlikely it may seem. We'll arrive back in Majnu ka Tilla sometime on January 2nd AM. Then I catch a 3pm plane to Hyderabad, hopefully to meet up with my friend Madhullika who works for the local NDTV affiliate. Somehow, I will get to Amaravati, where the entire world, it seems, is converging for the Kalachakra initiation. Koshek, my stalwart friend from Madras, and I will be meeting there for the first time in 2.5 years.

How am I going to charge my camera and IRiver batteries while staying in the tent? Can I balance my devotional participation with journalistic impartiality? Will I succeed in maintaining a bodhisattva's outlook while sharing public baths with my fellow 100,000 campers? At least there will be little need for hot water, with highs around 85 F. in Andhra.

Stay tuned for more news as it happens.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Goin' south

Hi everyone, I am concentrating on getting well and getting outta here, heading south to Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh where the Kalachakra preps are in full swing. So right now I will leave you with some relevant news and photos links and catch up here later. I need to do something besides type today (sigh). Wait, there is some crazy drunk-sounding Tibetan guy yelling in the doorway so I don't want to leave as long as he is there. Fortunately I am way in the back of the net shop.

Okay, here are the links. By the time this is finished the crazy guy should be gone.

:Photo gallery of Kalachakra festival preparations,
from Andhra Cafe

:Reported attempt on His Holiness'life "nothing new"; from Phayul

:Dalai Lama set to take Kalachakra for world peace to new heights, from Business Standard

Monday, December 26, 2005

I'm dreaming of a working disk drive

...just like the ones I knew in Kathmandu....

Feeling slightly less crappy now that I am hopped up on a combination of aspirin, coffee, ginger tea and ayurvedic cough syrup. A blot of Tiger Balm under each nostril ensures I can breathe. Paracetamol kills some of the pain of having what feels like 2 golf balls in my throat.

As I sat in the hillside Takhyil Peace Cafe ("we boycott all products made in China") I saw a near-continual stream of dressed-up Tibetans. They were mostly older folks all in their traditional finery, with those off shoulder fuzzy robes and braided tassles in their hair. Some even were wearing the special headdress with chunks of silver and coral. One girl's head was so covered in nobs of amber and coral she looked like a pincushion from Mars. They were all carrying 8x12 manila envelopes. I could see by the way they carried them that the envelopes contained something precious.

A young Tibetan man at the table next to me asked me what the word 'Boycott" meant. "It means Do Not Buy," I explained. I took that opportunity to ask him (through my croaking, raspy non-voice) where all the dressed-up people were coming from. They were new arrivals from Tibet, he said; all new arrivals get an audience with His Holiness and are given 8x10s of The Buddha Avalokiteshvara and of His Holiness. I felt somewhat cheated that I had missed such a ceremony; even to photograph all the dressed-up people exiting the Tsulagkhang clutching their packets would have been great. Of course, I have an excuse - I am sleeping off laryngitis and what feels increasingly like strep throat. Stirling says it's the Full Himalayan Flu. Maybe Toto (an Indian nickname) will make me another hot toddy using his 100 Pipers whiskey. His family has military connections so he always gets the good, imported stuff.

The Gu-Chu-Sum (former Tibetan political prisoners') program needs English speaking conversational partners. They get together every day but Sunday at the LungTa Cafe at 6.30, just to chat with native speakers and help the program members learn better English. I would love to do this - as soon as I get my voice back. Don't think I'd be much help right now.

I couldn't speak at all at last night's impromptu Christmas pissup at McLlo's, so I got to overhear an amazing story. This young man at the holiday gathering had just spent a month in Tuva and Mongolia learning Tuvan throat-singing and living with a herding family in outer Mongolia. He even got to meet Ondar, who is like the Tuvan Mick Jagger, and Huun Huur Tu, who are like the Tuvan Rolling Stones. I have 2 Huun Huur Tu albums myself so this excited me tremendously.

Their village was 2 days' drive from the nearest town, which was a three hour flight from the nearest city. They all lived in the yurt and he helped with the herding, riding horseback every day. That part sounded awesome. What wasn't so awesome was the food - he said it's mostly sheep fat, and they would make sure to save the most prized part of the sheep - the upper butt back - just for him. He had to scrape the sheep lard off the roof of his mouth with his index finger after every meal. The good part, he said, was that he got so frustrated with the situation that he would run off to a hilltop and write in his diary every day. He wrote an entire diary in 2 weeks.

Ginger-lemon-honey in hot water has got to be the best drink in the world. For everything. So why can't you get it in America?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Crappy Christmas

Greetings everyone, I was going to get my act together and send an extra cool India Christmas card but am literally under the weather here in McLeod Ganj, with a horribly painful sore throat, headache and laryngitis. So those planned phone calls will have to wait a bit. Somewhere in there I have to find energy to move out of Hotel McLeod GRUNGE and into someplace that doesn't involve a straight downhill hike on a dirt road in freezing weather.

Looks like it is Ayurvedic cough syrup, hot toddies and cable TV for me tonight.
Thanks for the email thoughts and hope you all are doing better than I.

Have a great holiday,


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Top 5 Things about Christmas in India

1. Hearing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" played on sitar as department store muzak (true story)

2. Seeing the locals bundle up in scarves, mufflers and woolen shawls when the temperature plummets to 65 Farenheit

3. Leftover Diwali fireworks can be recycled as Christmas crackers

4. Helping Hindu friends dress their kids as angels and elves for holiday costume parties (this actually happened to me in 2002 at Madras Gymkhana Club)

5. No danger of being force-fed fruitcake.

Friday, December 23, 2005


Diary of a wannabe Bodhisattva
(Still no photos. We are not amused.)

My new room at the ominously named Hunted Hill House was unusually silent this morning, and not just because it's at the end of a dirt road. A quick check with the light switch showed the power was off. This meant I couldn't take a shower (it's an electric hot water heater - no showers in freezing weather with cold water, I've already got a sore throat and crusty nostrils). It's so cold I sleep fully clothed(t-shirt, blouse, 2 pairs of cotton pants, and toe-socks - those Asian socks with an articulated toe so you can wear them with sandals)under 2 heavy blankets and a sheet. The Tibetan habits of bathing rarely, if ever, and heavy clothing that's seldom changed began to make sense.

Actually, temperature-wise, it's nothing compared to the cold of the States at this time - but here there is nothing like a heater in any building, and structures are not properly insulated (that is to say, not at all). I rolled out of bed and pulled open the nylon curtains. The Dhauladhar mountaintops were hidden beneath dark navy-blue clouds. Rain? At this time of year? "Not possible madam."

Fortunately, most restaurants use butane stoves, so even though there's no electricity I could at least get a cup of tea. I zipped up my cheap fleece jacket and trudged up the hill. This steep rutted hill always seems muddy, despite the lack of rain, thanks to a troubling foul-smelling trickle that constantly runs down the center. In a week or so I expect it will be frozen; at least it won't smell anymore. Power was out everywhere, so I sat in the India House restaurant and began reading the local free community newsletter, Contact ("McLeod Ganj's religious diversity means an opportunity for peace and tolerance"). Two pots of tea later, still "no current."

I started the Kalachakra initiation book. There are two ways to participate in this teaching, as an interested observer or actual initiate. To be initiated into this teaching involves promising to think of other people first for the rest of your life (part of becoming a Bodhisattva). I wonder whether it's better to make such a promise with noble intent, and surely fail sometimes, or just be a bystander. The book said, "Technically, the correct term for this initiation is 'empowerment.'" I selfishly thought that all of McLeod could use some empowerment, electrically speaking.

When we finally became "empowered" three hours later at about 12.30, the servers were still down everywhere. Electricity, but no internet yet.

I decided to hurry back down the muddy hill and get a hot shower, maybe even a hair-washing, before the power disappeared again. I switched on the geyser (pronounced "geezer") and waited for the red light to appear, signalling the hot water's readiness. While waiting for the "geezer" I watched a TV show of folk dances from Assam state. This was followed by a news show in Hindi I couldn't follow, so I switched to Oprah(!) who was interviewing Kurt Russell about being a "cool dad" and grandfather for their Father's Day edition of the show. I guess there's a bit of a delay between these shows' original air date and the time they hit the air in India. Watching them talk about how much they loved their offspring, it reminded me of Amma's teaching that even the love of a parent for their child is selfish; they only love it because it's their own child. True love, she says, would be to love all children, everyone's children, equally.

The craggy peaks were now visible - with a dusting of snow. Those had been snow clouds, not rain. That's actually perfect; snow where I can see it, but not on the ground where I have to deal with it. (Besides, I haven't owned any shoes but sandals in 3 years.) So it's a snowy Himalayan Christmas for me, Stirling and her Tibetan friend at the St John's Carolling service tomorrow night. "Bring your own candles and show up early, the church fills up fast!" admonished the photocopied poster. "All faiths and creeds are welcome. Service conducted by Rev. Kunjamon," which I recognized as a Malayalee name. Maybe Shinu will teach me how to say "Merry Christmas and God Bless You" to him in Malayalam. It might bring a smile to the Rev's face, to hear his mother tongue from sunny Kerala in these frigid hills. If I'm going to be a Bodhisattva, I guess I have to think of these things.

Now the servers are back up and I'm typing here in Gu-Chu-Sum internet, a cybercafe run by the association of former Tibetan political prisoners. My fingers are freezing, and the sky is turning solid white. We may have snow on the ground here before the night is through. At least we're "empowered" again. I'd hate to miss the season finale of Desperate Housewives. I think the main characters represent the 7 deadly sins. Trouble is, there's only 5 of them. Some of them are so hateful they could comprise 2 sins in 1 persona. Actually, I'm pretty sure this season finale here in India is last season's season finale from America; so please, nobody ruin the suspense for me. That would truly not be bodhisattvic.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Postcards from the Ganj

Dec. 22
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

Dear Mom and Dad:
I just went to the McLeod Ganj post office to mail some cards to you. Email is nice but there's nothing like a letter or card you can actually hold in your hands. The post office is just a tiny grubby dimly lit room with rotary fans and Hindi bhajans (devotional hymns) playing on an old radio in the background. It was funny in this town full of Buddhists to hear the Hindu religious music I'm so familiar with from elsewhere in India. It's so dark in there I don't know how the 2 old guys actually see anything, maybe their jobs are so routine they just do them without actually looking. I sent one to you and one to Carter - total cost, about 35 cents (8 rupees per card).
The stamps feature the Indian painted crane. I asked for what they call "philatelic" stamps (special picture ones, some are magnificent) and they regretted they don't get them at this branch office. Stamps here are not lick and stick; you have to affix them on the card with a bit of rubber cement or paste, usually kept on the countertop in an old jar with a daubing stick. I glued them in place, trying to wipe the excess dry round the edges. The man behind the counter cheerfully placed them in a "go" batch, but I asked him (with a combination of English and sign language) to postmark them before my eyes. This is a standard precaution here; if you don't, the postal employees may peel off the yet-unmarked stamps, keep them for their own use, and your card will get thrown in the trash. Uncle obliged me and I then asked to see the postmarks. They were half in Hindi, half English, reading "Kangra Himachal" (the district, sort of like the county; and state). When I was younger I used to cherish any international mail that came through the office, running my fingers over the postmark, picturing the far-off place and exotic locale where it had been stamped and dreaming that someday I'd be there.

My friend seemed to think we got a great deal on the room, $5.60 a night for a toilet that doesn't flush, no carpet (extra freeze factor in this region) and no TV. Today I found a room with mountain view windows on 3 sides, bathroom that works w/24-hour hot water, room service, worn-out carpet and cable TV - not to mention a balcony where I can do yoga in the morning - for the same price, so I am shifting there tonight. It has full morning sun, which makes a big difference staying warm. There is no heat to speak of in most hotels, so it's direct solar heat in the day, heap on the double blankets and thermals at night. With all this talk of cold, I should mention that it's still about high 56 in the day, low around freezing - warmer than Tennessee. I'd like to get there before sunset (5.30 pm) so I need to run.

On Christmas Eve I may attend the Caroling service at the church of St John's in the Wilderness, an historic site with stained glass windows. McLeod Ganj was once a British administrative center and hill station, and the church is one vestige of those days.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Of Yakkers & Backpackers

Here in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's residence, views of the Dhauladhar mountain range are stunning, but no snow till January, it's said. Everyone is gearing up to head down south for the Kalachakra event. I am here trying to confirm my press pass for this mammoth Buddhist free-for-all (and trying to picture what it looks like when Tibetan and Western Buddhists come to rural south India to have a free-for-all). My filmmaker friend brought a letter from an Indian production company (who have never met me) stating that I am covering the event for them. Hopefully the office won't notice that I don't own a video camera. I expect this entire process to take about a week. At least it's a rather Christmasy atmosphere. There are giant drooping fir trees on the steep hillsides that just cry out to be laden with snowfall. The local people use burros to transport building materials up and down the narrow, somewhat rocky roads, and the burros wear sleigh bells that make a Christmas jingle.

Street life is a lively mix of tie-dyed dreadlocked backpackers, Tibetan monks and nuns in burgundy robes, elderly Tibetans in full traditional dress, the younger generation (both Tibetan and Indian) in skintight jeans and jackets, and the older generation of Himachal hill farmers driving donkey trains and carrying loads of firewood to their villages. Every once in a while you see what looks like a giant walking Triffid or the old English Green Man coming up the street; it's a local person carrying a backload full of green-leaved tree trimmings. It always reminds me of those scary moving trees in The Wizard of Oz. This has a threefold use - their cattle (cows and hardy longhaired mountain goats) eat the leaves for fodder; then the branches are used for firewood; and the cycle is completed with the animals' resultant dung being dried in the sun and used for fuel. In Bihar I passed enormous rows of dung packed neatly into cakes and drying near the railroad tracks (in Bihar, though, it was probably water buffalo and bullock dung).

Yesterday we had lunch with my friend Stirling, a fellow native Tennessean, who's been here working with the Tibetan refugee children since last May. She was a goldmine of information about the refugee situation here and the politics of visiting Tibet itself. Then we went to see the Tibetan museum in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and the Nechung Monastery, home of the Tibetan State Oracle. You'd be very lucky to catch an actual "performance," if that's the right term, of the oracle, the official advisor to the Dalai Lama, but it is possible. Stirling got to see one last week (it's on her blog, A Peaceful Adventure). If you're here long enough, or have a network of Tibetan friends, you might be invited to or clued in on one of his deliveries. The Dalai Lama consults him on various occasions (the reason for this is never publicly revealed).

The Oracle is an otherwise ordinary man who has inherited this position; he goes into deep trance at which time he is posessed by the spirit of Dorje Drakden (which means something like "Thunderbolt Dragon"), protector deity of Tibet, and gives advice on everything from politics to weather forecasts. Ordinary people can't udnerstand this, though; it's rendered in highly symbolic language and decoded by His Holiness and the advisors. Once the deity assumes posession, the attendants tie on an enormous helmet with a strangling knot beneath his chin; it's so heavy and tight there's no way he could wear it if he were not in a trance. Once the deity "leaves" the man's body, attendants rush to untie the knot quickly as without the spirit's aid, the knot and weight of the helmet would certainly choke him. You can visit the monastery itself (sans performing oracle) at any time.

Amod, my LA-Mumbai filmmaker friend, and I had dinner with a 19 year old Tibetan boy who had escaped across the mountains just 3 years ago. At that time, he lived in remote Amdo, a northeastern province of Tibet, where his family are still nomadic yak and sheep herders. Their entire lifestyle depends upon the yaks, and they are nomadic throughout the warmer herding season. In winter they shift to a small town and live indoors, sheltering the cattle in the harsh weather. At that time (when the family are in a fixed location) Gedun Gyatso is able to phone them.

This kid has an amazing story. Three years ago, he was herding yaks and learning Chinese propaganda in Mandarin medium in the schools there (they teach, of course, that Tibet has always been a part of China). He had no awareness of his own Tibetan identity or their political reality till he escaped. Now, he's in Dharmsala playing in local guitar jams, listening to Bob Marley, speaking excellent English he's learned in the local school, and doing email. Though he is 19, Gedun Gyatso is still in 9th standard because he was so far behind the local learning curve. However, if he works hard, he can leapfrog ahead a few years. His goal is to perfect his English and Hindi, and serve as an English-Tibetan-Hindi translator here in India.

Time to go drink milky chai at the Sunrise roadside stand. Maybe I'll run into "T," a 54-year-old truck driver from Yorkshire who ran away from home at age 14 and has been travelling the world ever since. He's been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for decades, that's how he taught himself to read and write. T lived here in McLeod for 14 years, started a business, successfully sponsored several Tibetan kids and got them on their feet, and was engaged to an Indian woman. But recently the immigration laws have changed and he's no longer able to get a long-stay visa. Now he's having to face his own enforced exile, in this case, back in his original country. He said,"forty years, forty years I've been travelling."

"Just like Moses - forty years wandering in the wilderness," I quipped.

T looked stunned. "Wow. I had never thought of that before."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Techi-nickell problems

A Pilgrim's Blogress
Today, I am typing on an ancient, sticky and dirt-encrusted keyboard. I am waiting for the one terminal that is able to transfer digital photos to free up. Currently it's occupied by an elderly Tibetan monk typing at medieval rate so I think it will take a while. Actually it's quite cute. He leaned over a few minutes ago and asked for spelling assistance. He was trying to type the word "safely." "I am glad Budha has arrive safely." I reached over his shoulder to type for him and he was very grateful.

Now (one hour later) the terminal is free, but the shy young assistant (who is here from 7.30 am till about 11pm) can't get the drive to work at all. I've yet to be able to blog properly or upload photos since my return to India on Wednesday, due to crawling connections and non-working disk drives. Ah, back in India, where everything is possible, but nothing is easy.

It reminds me of the tailor who "fixed" the zipper on my backpack 3 times (three!) and each time it broke again with 24 hours. The second time, I began to get impatient and demanded he give me a good zipper. "But this good zipper," he kept insisting. "Good zipper, but techi-nickell problem." Well, that makes it a BAD ZIPPER! I kept trying to reason with him. The more I kept up with this line of reasoning, the more firmly he insisted that it was a GOOD zipper - somehow in his mind, the fact that it did not work, at all, did not inhibit its being an inherently good zipper. He also didn't understand why I would not give him additional money for fixing the broken zipper he had sold me to begin with. He wanted more money each time he repaired his own crummy zipper. The fourth time he repeated "just techi-nickell problem," without fixing it, I had to restain myself from throwing it across his tiny shop.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Maybe it really was a good zipper at heart, but just needed three or four times repairing to see the error of its ways.
Tomorrow I have to find a place with a working disk drive.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Ahhhhhrival in Delhi

A Bath By Any Other Name...

Ahhhh....that is the sound of me taking a hot shower after 26 hours on a train, after 18 hours in Raxaul, Bihar border; after 1 hour on a bus, after 2 hours on a different bus to see the Buddha Boy, after 1 hour on a bus to his village, after a very turbulent 30 minute plane ride over jagged mountains in a toy 20-seater to get to the nearest airport to his village, after a thrilling half-hour taxi ride to the airport just in time to be told the plane was delayed by 1.5 hours.


And, as you can see, I'm a bit behind on emails....

Welcome, Caroline!
You have 1603 unread messages:

But I must say it's very comforting to arrive to a mailbox full of friends.

The foreign traveler's ghetto in Delhi is Paharganj, where some of the October 29 bombs exploded, which indicated to many people intention to target foreigners. Upon arrival at the Delhi station I opened the local paper to see there had been recent threats on the American Center and the US Embassy and that these locations were given extra security. This made it seem prudent to choose lodging elsewhere, so I came to theTibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla - not centrally located, about 30Rs rickshaw ride from Old Delhi station, but it's very peaceful and clean, a sound choice. The hotel Wongdhen House is extremely well-maintained; for $4.50 a night I get a room with an adjoining terrace and view of the Yamuna River (this is the river that runs past the Taj Mahal - although at this time of year, it's sadly reduced to a rivulet). Tonight will be primarily resting, eating, catching up on email. reading the Dalai Lama's autobiography as well as Taking the Kalachakra Initiation by Alexander Berzin, a little background research on the Andhra event in January.

The trip to see Buddha Boy was awesome, more for the process involved in getting there than the actual viewing (about 3 minutes), but I'm glad I went. As so often happens to foreigners here, just by my arrival in the tiny whistle-stop village, I became an attraction myself, momentarily rivalling the meditating saint.Right now, it is time for veg momos (Tibetan steamed dumpling) and tea. More later here! and hopefully in personal email.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Bound for Bara, Bihar and Border

Battling a case of recurrent Giardia and ever more recurrent procrastination, your correspondent heads south today for the "Buddha Boy" and Bara district, then the Indian border town of Raxaul, Bihar state, where I will - eventually - catch a train to New Delhi. I've done lots of scary things on this trip, but the reports of Delhi touts still frighten me. There's nothing like the smell of an Indian railway station - believe me, that's a good thing, and one thing I will not miss if India continues to modernize. But I love the big, lumbering, lived-in (literally) Indian Rail system. People, including myself, complain, it still does an amazing job moving millions of people a day.

I awoke early, breath fogging the air like a dragon, to kick around the streets with my new Sony T-17 camera. It's funny what people object to having photographed. A butcher had the entire torso of a goat (I think - hard to tell when it's completely skinned and headless) lying on its back, spreadeagled on a formica-topped table. The carcass was surrounded by various other chops of meat. I did get a few quick snaps before he motioned "no." Hey, you're gonna expose a headless, dead goat's genitals on the public road, and then act all modest?

Then I went to Mitho Cafe in Chhetrapati and had my first-ever authentic Nepali breakfast (a contradiction in terms since Nepalis don't really eat breakfast; I think they invented this for tourists like me who want to be "authentic"). "Ground maize powder with chickpea, soy and curd" turned out to be ground maize, chickpea and soy powder - that is, all dry powder, nothing but a bowl of sawdust - and an accompanying bowl of yogurt that you mix together to make a paste. Surprisingly tasty. The restaurant boys were so excited that I wanted to eat Nepali breakfast. They all enthused about going to see the Buddha Boy and said there were rumours that the King would visit the meditator sometime in the next few weeks. They also showed me a newspaper clipping that revealed (for the first time I had seen) the actual village I need to head for.

Kunda Dixit did a brilliant column this week about Nepal winning the "Conde Nasty Traveller Awards" in the coveted categories of "Place most difficult to get into" and "most difficult to get out of." I would have to agree. The road conditions, grounded airlines and nonexistent railways certainly go a long way toward preserving the Shangri-La mystique. Well, at least it's not in much danger of ruining the natural beauty. Some maintain that Nepal is under threat of invasion from China; having seen the map, my question is "How?" There's only one road that an army could even move down, the Kodari "Friendship" highway (just ask the Tibetans about having "friendship" with China). Personally I think they're going to pull an East India Company move, like the British did in India, and establish "business relations" first.

Currently I'm involved in a back-and-forth with my friend and fellow blogger Shinu about the fate of India, a huge question for anyone to even address. If sometimes my words sound too critical of India, all I ask is that people look at my photos. I think the photos show my real affection for the place and concern for the people; hopefully without overly romanticizing them.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Magical mystery tour

Too much, the magic bus

It's tempting to circumvent the tedious and often dangerous 10-hour bus ride to the 15-hour train ride to Delhi (total cost: about $20) by taking a 1-hour flight for just $80 - on Bhutan's only airline, Druk Air. Even more tempting to my crazed sensibilities is the idea of seeing Buddha Boy, the 16-year-old who was meditating and fasting for supposedly seven months in the jungles of southern Nepal. I have no illusions of seeing a halo around his head or even getting close enough to get a very good photo (thanks to his overzealous managers - uh, I mean devotees). But I just can't resist a pilgrimage to an obscure place to see freaky socio-religious phenomena.

However, I could be halfway to Delhi, on the train, even, in the time it takes to reach Bada district.

"Bada district? Not possible," said Bishnu, the good-natured, open-faced young Nepali Hindu man who runs Youth Travels, one room with faux wood-panelling, a phone, a desk and battered posters of Mount Everest Scotch-taped to the wall. His desk was surrounded by squat stools that look like those used for milking cows. In the West, this would be the reception area of a travel agency. Here, it's the entire operation. I plopped down on a milking stool and gazed up at the Nepali map in hope of finding some way around this verdict.

"Not possible! No, it's not possible that it's not possible. I have to go there. I must go there. "

"Well it is possible," he amended, "but it will take time. Some time, maybe ten, twelve hours on public bus. No taxi, no tourist bus. Only some big trucks are going that road." On a normal day, it takes nine hours on a bus to reach the border from Kathmandu. I was looking at a three-hour additional detour. "Actually," Bishnu beamed, leaning back in his chair and adjusting his leather jacket, "I am having lot of tourists ask to go there now. Today, two Korean, and one...well, two Korean, and you."

The jungles of Bada, newly populated by souvenir sellers and tea stands for the tourists, suddenly seemed more attractive than ever in their unattainability. Never mind that not even one report of the dozen I've read ever bothered to mention which town it's in in all of Bada district, the southernmost county of Nepal right on the Indian border. I guessed that a good place to start would be Kalaiya, the "capital." At the very least, there might be more English speakers there, and certainly more buses and taxis available.

"Look at the map!" I cried. There's a road, an actual road, running directly from Kathmandu to Kalaiya, making as near a straight line as ever happens on a road or what passes for one in Nepal. "What about that? Can't I just hire a car? It should take 5 hours max!"

"Yes, but this road not possible. This road very danger. Lot of problem is there, you must take this route." Bishnu rose and indicated a long, red oblong loop on the map, deviating far from the direct one, to the west through Bharatpur and finally southward through Chitwan. "You can take morning public bus" (at this point, visions of the 35 people killed in one day of Nepali road accidents last week flashed through my fevered mind) "and arrive there maybe 3, 4pm. You must spend one night there." It's dark by 5.30 these days - and remember, I don't even know exactly which town or village I'm visiting yet to see the Buddha Boy - I'm just showing up in the largest town and asking questions. In other words, once I get to the town, the fun is only starting.

The impossibility of it all began to appeal to my perverse side (admittedly difficult to distinguish from my other, equally twisted sides). A bona fide adventure - I mean, you can fly round Mount Everest now in 1.5 hours for $120, but this - this was really promising. Ten hours on a bus to the middle of nowhere. A day and half trying to find this freak, and then hopping a taxi to a bus to another bus to cross the border at Birgunj, Nepal to catch my train in Raxaul, Uttar Pradesh, India (described by no less than Lonely Planet as "one of the most god-forsaken places in the country").

THEN (pause to catch breath) a 20-hour train ride in 2nd class sleeper to Delhi!

Something really has to be done about all the new, superfast travel - before we know it Asia will be one giant express lane. I'm going to start a "slow travel" protest, in the spirit of the French and Italians who rebelled against the encroachment of fast food chains into their countries and responded with the "slow food" movement. At the very least, efforts should be made to preserve the bullock-cart. As long as there are bullock-carts, somewhere, Asia will still retain its basic character and traditions. Soon enough, I see a future in which the bullock-cart has gone the way of the horse and carriage or now, the hand-pulled rickshaw - a high-priced novelty ride in the country for foreign tourists, who are desperate to get away from the smog and rumble of the tractors and Tempos which replaced them.

Highway to Hell
The New York Times is running a series all about the new quadrilateral superhighway that's being built, largely by hand in Indian fashion, to connect major sectors of India. This project was begun by the previous government in one of their relentless attempts to make India just as boring and uniform as the rest of the world, in the name of progress and convenience. This writer predicts it will do exactly what the superhighways did in America - ruin small town life, increasingly homogenize the culture till you can't tell one freeway exit from another and everyone talks and dresses the same, then finally, destroy the train system, which has been the backbone of the nation since British times. At one time, you could take a train all across my country. Now it's all you can do to get anywhere by bus or train - it's either drive or fly.

So, Auntie's addvice (said in Indlish with emphasis on the first syllable) is: See India now while there's still something to see that can't be glimpsed at the local mall, or from your car window, anywhere in the West! While there are still people who don't look like the Backstreet Boys! The day is soon coming when vegetables and fruits won't be sold at all on the roadside, but in megamalls like Pune Central (see "New Indian Epidemic: Mall Rats"), and everyone will be wearing t-shirts and Dockers. At that point, you're better off watching Nat Geo.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tuesday the 13th

5-Day Forecast for Kathmandu Valley:
Fair throughout the Kingdom.
Wed: High 68- Low 44
Fri: High 66 - Low 42
Sun: High 64 - Low 41

My enforced "Visa Sabbatical" departure date (December 13 - one is only allowed to stay in Nepal a total of five months of any calendar year, and I arrived in late July) looms like, well, some looming thing on my calendar and in my brain, clouding any clarity and ability to concentrate, a sort of preview of my return to India ("This is your brain. This is your brain in India.") Nepal has not ceased to amaze me with its comparatively greater space, personal and geographical. Foreigners are far more integrated into the Nepali culture and economy than they are in India, and people actually leave you alone here. If you like, you can socialize with the extremely warm, friendly yet dignified Nepalis; or live in as much privacy as you choose. This is rarely possible in India. There, it's all about the people - population is the overwhelming fact of Indian life. You have to deal with people whether you feel like it or not - and after the first ninety times you answer personal questions to total strangers, it becomes "not" more often than not.

The Nepali perception of climate seems quite different from that of India. It's the only place I've ever been in my life that has neither provisions for heat, nor cold. The hotel rooms, residences and restaurants usually have no fans, nor any form of heating. This, despite the fact that it's just as hot in April, May, June and so on here as it is in most of India (very), and gets very cold indeed after December.

Everywhere I lived in India (admittedly, I was mostly in the South, and never in a hill station) there were fans - vigorous electric ceiling fans that seemed on the verge of spinning off their axis (ax-es?) when put on "high" setting, which they usually were about half the year. I had never seen a fan rotate so furiously - at times I was afraid to sleep beneath them for fear the frenzied blades would actually come flying off. In contrast, fans, even in sultry summertime, are a real rarity here in Nepal. By August, I had discovered every restaurant that had even a single fan and made a point of eating there, my friend and I dashing to claim the lone table situated under the one pathetic fan, often a "swinging" tabletop model mounted on the wall at an angle. Sometimes I had to request the fan's activation. The employees and other customers didn't seem to mind stewing in the fetid torpor (so why did they have the thing if not to use it? Were they waiting for it to get hotter than a very humid 86 degrees?). In fact, they often seemed surprised that there was a fan. Oh, that strange machine, is that what that's for? okay....

Equally weird, men and women both walked around Kathmandu all summer visibly sweating in long sleeved shirts. The Nepali style of sari-blouse is a distinctive one with full-length sleeves, mandarin collar and cross-ties. This is not to mention the Tibetan women in their bulky chubas. Local architecture, as in India, does take the heat into account; most buildings are somewhat open - that is, they may have an enclosed lobby but often the stairs lead to open balconies (the only equivalent in the US is an old-fashioned Holiday Inn, with doors along the outdoor corridor) and a courtyard.

It was never cold enough in my Indian homes to warrant any kind of heating device, just hot water heaters for winter mornings in the posher places. Here in Nepal, where it gets to freezing with frost on the windows (if not snow) in the Valley - let alone higher elevations- there are no heating systems in any building, and hot water is even more of a luxury than in India. Okay, I'm just a spoiled westerner, but explain this - everyone's walking round now in jackets, shawls and even ski hats and balaclavas, and they still keep all the doors and windows open all day and night (!). Extra blankets are the only heating supplement. When I hear tell of the electrical bills here for an ordinary house, even without heat, it explains perhaps the fact that there is no heating to speak of. (But whatever happened to the woodburning stoves with chimneys that are common in the countryside?)

In the courtyards of most buildings, the watchman builds a small fire on the concrete, and idle employees huddle around, warming their hands. Can you imagine trying to do this in the States? they'd be shut down with some kind of fire violation immediately.

Though the days are increasingly short and growing gloomy here, the prospect of getting on a bus to Senauli - arguably one of the grimiest, dingiest places in all India - and then the train to Varanasi (say no more) after 5 months of shanthi Nepal is like having to leave an air-conditioned room for the pre-monsoon street in mid-May. Plunged into squalor, and often, besieged from every side. This is the real reason meditation developed in India - not because the people are so "spiritual" or advanced or anthing. Meditation was a last resort - it was the only way to get any kind of personal space, internally, because there is never any space externally.

Almost as inexplicable as no heat when it freezes, is the fact that suddenly, everyone wants to know what I am doing, where I am going and what my plans are, right now. For some reason, the plans of a semi-employed photojournalist seem of the utmost importance to an alarming number of people. The only other option is nobody giving a toss about me (nice British expression picked up from companions on the travel circuit) which is equally discomfiting.

Funny how when you are physically ill, you can't think of or do anything else - all your energy goes toward recuperating. If only, you think, I didn't have this cold/sore throat/giardia/infection/headache/toothache, I could accomplish something. Once you recover, however, you then have to deal with all the stuff in your head...which does not go away with plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. You have to do something with it.

Foot Fetish: This is the fresh lower leg of a sacrificed buffalo, covered in blood and placed intentionally in the doorway of a shop in Bhaktapur. Though it's something we might do as a nasty prank, in Nepal it is auspicious and considered to both ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the shop.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Chilling effect

The days are getting short and darker here; it's gloomy and chill by 5.30. The tourists are half what they were 2 weeks before. Lodges up at Everest are shutting down for the season. It's very cold in the AM and after 4.30, though the days are still pleasant, like a perfect fall day. People kind of hustle through the streets in zipped-up jackets now, rather than strolling. The hoteliers and shop owners seem a bit depressed; "the season" is ending and they've seen all the business they're going to till March-April (the "second season"). It's too cold to do hand laundry or take a shower now till around noon.

My eyes are still burning with that about-to-get-a-cold feeling, and my muscles are strangely stiff. Maybe it's some weird mild allergy; or just the fact that I have not been anywhere with anything like a winter in 3 years. But it's far preferable to Indian heat and humdity any day - at least I feel alive. It does take some adjusting - in South India, sunrise and sunset are invariably at the same time every day, all year long, because of the proximity to the equator. I think. Somebody tell me if I'm wrong.

Nepalese bloggers, journalists defy media clampdown by king
After the Royal Takeover in Nepal, King Gyandendra censored the media, arrested journalists and cut communications. But tech-savvy journalists are using their blogs to get news out to the rest of the world.
Full story

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Slow boat to Kerala

Blog's Own Country

101 Uses for a Dupatta

Author's note: the dupatta is a major women's accessory in India, a long scarf, roughly 1.5 metres long and 12-24" wide, that is meant to be draped across the chest for modesty. At first one chafes at the added heat and bulk of this garment, but during one's travels, it proves to come in handy with a thousand uses. Dupattas are best chosen in a dark colour to match all your outfits and not show dirt. After washing in your trusty bathroom bucket (remind me to explain the bucket system in a later post), a cotton dupatta dries in the Indian sun in a matter of minutes. How did I ever travel without one?

Let me count the ways....

1. Wiping your dripping hands after the restaurant "hand wash" (there is never a towel)

2. Covering your nose against diesel fumes, stench of urine and sewers, et al

3. Impromptu monsoon-season umbrella

4. Shade from blazing afternoon sun (the rest of the year)

5. Thin shawl against morning chill

6. Bath towel

7. Extra bedsheet, or use to cover the filthy pillowcase the hotel never changes

8. (when folded) Pillow on long bus or train ride

9. Head scarf for Sikh gurudwara, Muslim mosque or Parsi temple

10. Wrapping breakables inside your luggage

11. Instant Moghul princess costume (above)

12. Blindfold during terrifying bus ride (below)

13. Curtain in cheap hotel room

14. Change purse (small bills and even coins can be tied securely in one knotted corner)

15. Tourniquet for cobra bite

16. Wrap-around skirt/sarong / Beach coverup

17. Tea strainer

18. Kidnapping blindfold (useful in Bihar)

19. Balinese/Sri Lankan waist sash

20. Add your own here!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

What's your sign?

In case you were wondering what happened to that adorable place. Bangalore, India.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Letter from a former employer

A wonderful art professor I worked for in Nashville wrote me this letter nearly 2 years ago. I read it every once in a while when I get discouraged.

February 2004
Nashville, TN USA

I was going to write you this a few days before New Year's but got felled by the flu. Seems like everyone is passing the flu around but I was too busy with school to pick it up until after the holidays. Damn Procrastination!

Anyway I was thinking about you and all the fantastic/incredible pix for which you've sent links this past year---I've shamelessly downloaded all kinds of weird shrines, colored market stalls and outlandish costumes. It gives my computer some more international literacy, diluting boring WORD documents and the underlying operating system. But even more so I have marveled to numerous friends about your bravery, sense of adventure and (probable) amazing stubbornness to stick out there on the edge with little money and lots of ambition and a good deal of chutzpah. There isn't one of them who isn't amazed at the intensity of the life you've been leading. Nor isn't totally amused by your deadpan take on Hindu culture as seen through American eyes. I for one can't wait to read the book!!! PLEASE consider writing one whenever you return to Middle Earth.

So I wanted to send you my congratulations, energy from a couple chakras, and heartfelt well wishes for the upcoming year.

And to THANK you for the pix, totally wicked amusing thoughts and the role model to pitch students when they think all they will ever do in life is graduate, get married and work at a lot of routine, demanding jobs 'til they retire.

May Ganesha shove aside all the dumb things that would block your way.

Peace to you,

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Return of the King

Makeover or Takeover?
A day of running back and forth to the Indian Embassy (a story in itself, but I got the Indian visa, and it's good to at least be legally able to leave the country in case the worst should happen) has left me really fried. There are extra Royal Army and police out patrolling as everyone expects....something to happen tomorrow (below), but no one seems to know exactly what. "Tomorrow we will see," is a common comment, with no further explanation. The Communist Party has called a mass demonstration and the UN Human Rights commissioner, among others, is determined to uphold their right to peaceful protest.

The King is returning from

his vacation, conveniently taken during a crisis (sound familiar, fellow Americans?), wherein he toured various nations with whom Nepal has virtually no diplomatic links (Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Burundi - remember Burundi?) and, on his South Africa jaunt, got dissed by Nelson Mandela. Man, that's gotta hurt! This trip was referred to sarcastically in the local press as his "African safari."
The final leg of the trip, to Mauritius (remember Mauritius?) was cancelled at the last moment.

My email inbox contained the following cautionary letter:

Embassy of the United States of America
Kathmandu, Nepal
December 1, 2005
Important Security Information for American Citizens in Nepal
This warden's message is being issued to alert American citizens that the political parties (ed. note: over here, unlike the States, there are more than two! ironically, it doesn't matter because now the King runs everything!) have indicated that they plan to hold protests and/or mass demonstrations over the coming period. For example, demonstrations are planned for Friday, 2 December 2005 and may occur in a number of locations throughout the Kathmandu Valley.

This date also coincides with
the return of the King and the expiration of the Maoist three-month cease-fire. During the coming months, American citizens should pay close attention to media reporting to stay informed about when these protests may occur. ...Given the nature, intensity and unpredictability of these disturbances, American citizens are urged to exercise special caution at this time, avoid road travel (a good idea - see "35 killed in road mishaps yesterday")and maintain a low profile. ...

American citizens are encouraged to refer to the Consular Information Sheet for Nepal and the current Travel Warning for Nepal (which hasn't been updated for six months) issued on June 24, 2005. ...In the event of a communications blackout, security information will be left at all of the major hotels in Kathmandu. (Ed. note: No names named - Major hotels, you know who you are!)

from the Hindustan Times, Nov. 30th:
Nelson Mandela refuses to meet Nepal King

Links to news from Nepal:
The Kathmandu Post
The Himalayan Times
BBC South Asia
Indo-Asian News Service
South Asian Media Net
International Nepal Solidarity Network
Nepali Times (strangely unavailable)
The Rising Nepal (strangely unavailable)