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Stories from India

Mumbai (Bombay), India

Flight 309

michelleOur flight from Bangkok to Mumbai in many ways is like any other flight - dry air that makes my hair limp, safety instructions I hope I never have to use, and smelly bathrooms. In my seat, somewhere high over Burma, I sit in nervous expectation:INDIA! I have no idea what to expect.

From other traveler's tales I know when the plane lands I will enter a world of spicy food, millions of Hindi gods, naked holy men, crazy driving, and deep tradition. Flight 309 offers me a small introduction to what's ahead - the stewardesses wear saris, Indian curry is served for dinner, the in-flight movie is in Hindi, and the man sitting in the next seat wears a turban and a bushy black beard.

In the next four weeks I will learn much. top

Welcome to India

timIndia is not a place that travelers talk about with ambivalence - it is either loved or hated with equal passion. We have spoken to many people this year who have traveled extensively in this country and they all express the same opinion: that India is both one of the most difficult and most rewarding countries that they have ever visited.

We landed in Mumbai (Bombay) two nights ago. Even in this relatively affluent British-influenced city, I get a glimpse of what my time in India will deliver. On my short walk to this internet cafT from our hotel, I passed both beautiful women in brilliantly colored saris and dirt covered children who tugged on my shirt and begged for a couple of rupees. I heard both the haunting sounds of Hindu temple bells and the incessant noise from taxi horns. Even the sweet smell of incense that teased my nose was countered with the acrid stench of urine.

It is going to be an interesting month. I think I will like it here! top

Mt. Abu, India

Indian Tourists

timIndia is far too vast and varied a country to "do" in a month or two. It offers landscapes ranging from the Himalaya mountain range to the western Thar desert, plus the central plateau, plains, foothills, and islands. And of course, a billion people speaking 18 major languages and 1600 minor languages or dialects.

Michelle and I are here for a short amount of time by Indian travel standards. I find myself apologizing that I am traveling through India for, "...only four to six weeks." Only! Yet with only four to six weeks, we must confine our visit to a few states and major cities.

Our first stop is the western state of Rajasthan - a desert land of old palaces, surly camels, sturdy forts, kaleidoscopic saris, sweet incense, twisting market roads, and of course - cows and trash in the street.

Rajasthan's only hill station is Mount Abu, a 1200-meter high plateau popular with domestic travelers and honeymooners for its cool climate and good views. We arrived this morning on a 13 hour night train from Bombay and received our first taste of honeymoon spirit on a shared jeep up the mountain, where two newlywed couples sat across from us holding hands and making eyes at each other.

From its soft-serve ice cream parlors to fabric stores, Mount Abu is a tourist destination in full swing. But it is unlike the many destinations in India and southeast Asia that cater to western tastes. The vendors don't sell gaudy travel clothes and internet cafes don't take up half the retail space. And why not? Because Mount Abu is almost entirely a tourist destination for Indians. And as such, it is a great place to watch Indians out having fun.

Tonight we followed the evening crowds to the popular Sunset Point on the edge of the Mount Abu plateau. While we walked, others passed by us on out of control wagon-sized pushcarts. Few things can bring a smile to my face more quickly than watching several Indian women in bright saris being propelled at breakneck speeds up and down hills by a turban wearing men. Think Calvin and Hobbes in India.

The crowd watched the sunset while I watched the crowd. Most of the spectators were in playful moods and, compared to me in my grungy travel clothes, were surprisingly colorful and well dressed. As the sun set, camera toting photographers flashed photo albums and promised beautiful photos of newlyweds with the setting sun perched between them. Meanwhile, a young shoeless girl in a dirty orange dress tried unsuccessfully to sell chai from a stainless steel container that she skillfully balanced on her head. A few minutes later, another seller caught my eye with the color of her sari. Its brilliant red matched perfectly with the tomatoes she had for sale on a silver platter.

Mount Abu was a nice change from the culture of western tourists that we are so used to. I don't know if I'd come for my honeymoon, but I'm glad I had the chance to go. top

Short Hair

michelleI find the women of India beautiful. They all have long, black flowing hair and wear bright colorful saris. The fabrics shimmer while their arms, covered in bangle bracelets, sparkle. Even the women I see working in the fields and doing hard labor are colorfully dressed. So, in my short hair, dingy travel pants, and T-shirts I feel far from their elegance.

It did not help today when the bus we were taking stopped for a break and as I headed to the women's bathroom a man called out to me. As I turned to face him he sputtered and coughed and then turned red. Then, in his thick Indian accent said, "Never mind. I thought you were a boy, not a girl." He had been trying to save me from an embarrassing situation but instead put himself right in the middle of one. I smiled graciously, pointed to my hair and said, "Short hair!" We both smiled awkwardly and I continued on my way.

I think I will look into buying a skirt. top

Mt. Abu is a popular destination for Indian honeymooners. Nowhere is this more evident than watching the sunset with the large crowd that gathers at this overlook. As in the rest of India, the sun doesn't so much set as fade into oblivion. A tailor stitches clothes in India's Mt. Abu. The Adhar Devi Hindu Temple near Mt. Abu, Rajasthan. Women in colorful saris climb the 365 stairs up to the top of the Hindu Adhar Devi temple near Mt. Abu.

Udaipur, India

Palace Dining

timOur room in the Lalghat Guest House overlooked Udaipur's Lake Pichola and delivered a fantastic view of the ritzy Lake Palace Hotel - a hotel built 250 years ago as the summer palace of a former ruler. The palace covers an entire island in middle of the lake and its imposing white walls rise straight from the lake's surface on all sides. With its majestic arched windows and stylish domed roofs, the palace has all the charm of a floating fairytale castle. The effect is even more stunning at night, when its brilliant white reflection glows off the lake's surface.

The Lake Palace Hotel is a bit too pricey for us with the cheap rooms running $210 a night, but dinner is well within our means. So after inquiring about their dress code, I shaved three days of beard from my face, put on my least dirty pair of travel pants, scraped the many layers of cow dung from my Teva sandals, and took the boat with Michelle out to one of the world's most luxurious hotels.

I made it safely past the doorman and spotted a few other backpackers with the same idea - so I didn't feel too out of place. The buffet-style meal featured both western and Indian food and included tables full of salads, breads, entrees, soup, desserts, and more. I certainly don't eat poorly as a budget traveler, but do you know how long it has been since I had a martini and smoked salmon? After two trips to the buffet tables, I returned for one of the highlights of the meal: a made-to-order Indian crepe with mushroom cream filling and six hot toppings to spice it up. And for dessert? An eclair, some unusual ice cream, and an Indian sugarcane pastry topped with a layer of edible silver foil.

The biggest treat of the evening was our walk of the grounds after dinner - through the Palace gardens and fountains, past the pool, and up to the roof for a spectacular view of the glowing City Palace reflected across the lake.

We ended our fairytale evening with the return boat trip back to land, where we returned back into reality and our $3 a night room. So much for luxury! top

A Rajasthani fort from a bygone era in India. The founder of Udaipur, Maharana Udai Singh, was the first of 20 Maharajas to add to this impressive building. It sits along the shores of Lake Pichola and has the distinction of being Rajasthan's largest palace complex. A cow looks like it might ram an unsuspecting woman who is bent over. Taken in Udaipur's vegetable market. Cows graze along the lakefront (not pictured) in Udaipur. A woman sells vegetables in Udaipur's market. A carving guards the entrance to a temple in Bali.

Pushkar, India

Rickshaw Mafia

michelleAfter a five hour bumpy, dusty bus ride we arrived to a deserted road outside the city of Ajmer. Our destination though was the nearby town of Pushkar, which meant catching another bus in Ajmer's city center a couple kilometers away. The only sign of life on the road was a line of rickshaws waiting for passengers.

I knew it would be an interesting time when the drivers ran to the approaching bus door, pushing and shoving each other for a better position to snag a customer. As we descended into the yelling, waving, pushing group we donned our "don't mess with us" faces and prepared to bargain hard. Very quickly all the local Indian passengers on the bus seemed to disappear and we were left standing with two English guys (the only other foreigners on the bus) and about 20 aggressive rickshaw drivers.

Immediately one driver, who seemed to be the leader of the pack, announced the fare would be 40 rupees. By his insistence to hurry to his rickshaw and lack of eye contact we were certain he was charging us way too much. But to be honest, we had no idea where we were or how far it was to the other bus. We hemmed and hawed not wanting to be overcharged for being ignorant foreigners. It was then I noticed a minibus containing all the Indian bus passengers. So this is where they had disappeared to. One of the British guys asked the driver if his bus was going to the bus station in town. Indeed it was. How much? Four rupees!

So we all gathered our packs and walked to the minibus amidst a shower of protests from the rickshaw drivers. They yelled things like, "You are not allowed on that bus!" or "It's not going to where you want to go!" When we looked undeterred they created a human wall and blocked our entrance onto the minibus, demanding the driver leave. We watched helplessly as our cheap, convenient option drove away.

We thought about walking but not knowing where we needed to go and night was falling, we just had to play along with these bullying rickshaw drivers. The British guys managed to talk a driver into a 20 rupee ride, jumped into the rickshaw and were gone.

Now Tim and I had to fend for ourselves. The leader told us we would never get the same fare. I stood back and watched Tim argue. Standing on the sidelines, I felt a poke in my ribs. A pudgy flirtatious rickshaw driver smiled and whispered he would take us for 20 rupees. I told Tim, who then pointed his finger at our new friend and declared defiantly to the whole group, "He will take us for 20 rupees!" A tornado of activity errupted around us. Fists flew up in the air as the other rickshaw drivers yelled at the dissenter. The scene looked like a disturbed hornet's nest. I think the helpful driver had broken some code of rickshaw ethics and overstepped some invisible boundary. Who knows.

When we hauled our packs into the rickshaw, another rickshaw was pulled up in front of it, blocking our exit. By this point we were laughing. The whole ordeal had become comical. I told the drivers I didn't care who took us, but we wouldn't go for more than 20 rupees. Our bags were transferred to another rickshaw and we were finally allowed to leave. As we pulled away we waved in relief and the mob of drivers waved back. It looked like a warped version of a sentimental farewell send-off. The ride to the other bus was uneventful and I was thankful we hadn't tried to walk.

Tim handed the 20 rupee note to our driver when we arrived at the other bus. The driver said, "No, the fare is twenty rupees for each of you." But there was a twinkle in his eyes and we all laughed.

It was a hard won fight - all over about 50 US cents! top

Holy Lake

michelleFor a couple of days we have been visiting Pushkar, a small town on the edge of the desert. In the center of town is a sacred Hindu lake, making the town an important Hindu pilgrimage center. It's fascinating to watch Hindu holy men walk around the narrow streets and hear the drums beat over the water as people celebrate holy festivals.

Guesthouses and signs along the road post instructions to help foreigners behave correctly. Here is a sample of the rules: no alcohol, drugs, or non-vegetarian food allowed (this includes eggs); men and women must not embrace in public; shoes or slippers must not be worn at least 30 feet from the lake water. In Southeast Asia I was just getting a grasp of the Buddhist religion when we left. But I find myself painfully ignorant of the Hindu religion and customs. I have much learning to do and the signs are quite helpful; things quite natural for me to do at home could be highly offensive here.

Pushkar's streets are narrow and windy and are lined with temples, hotels, restaurants and stores displaying all kinds of touristry knick-knacks and souvenirs. Foreign visitors come here to wander, relax, and observe.

Just sitting on a restaurant balcony watching the activity below offers a feast for the eyes: rich Indians in fancy shimmering suits and saris stroll by shops, buying beads and bangle bracelets. A tea seller (chai wallah) wearing a bright orange turban offers pedestrians hot milk tea in clay cups. The clay cups look like small flowerpots I might buy at home. These cups are disposable though - after buyers finish their drink, the cups are smashed on the ground! Chunks of broken pottery sit around the chai wallah's feet. Colorful carts full of vegetables or cooking ware roll by. Cows, goats, dogs and hogs walk around as if they own the streets.

I find the old Indian men the most interesting characters to watch. Bright red turbans sit upon their heads, their leathery dark brown skin wrinkled and worn with character. White wisps of hair make-up their mustaches and beards, and beads dangle from their necks. Loose white cotton is tied around their bodies resembling huge diapers.

Pushkar attracts many hippies and they are almost as fascinating to watch as the Indians are. Dreadlocks, outfits from the 1960s, weird body piercing, and dazed looks parade by. Some look like they came to India to get lost while others look like they have been lost for decades and need to be found! top

Written Photos

timIt is easy to forget the little details that make a destination memorable. So here in Pushkar on a 20- minute walk around the holy lake, I took a few notes about the everyday things:

  • A sign reminding visitors to remove their shoes before crossing a bridge over the holy waters.
  • An old man in flowing yellow robes descending towards the waterfront, passing baby blue buildings lit brightly in the morning sun.
  • A urinal open to public view overflowing with feces and filling my nose with stench.
  • Two women filling buckets of concrete and hoisting them on top of their heads as part of a nearby construction project. One is dressed in a pink sari with a gauzy pink scarf wrapped over her head. The other wears orange.
  • A boy in red sweeping the dirt road with a straw broom. A huge dust cloud envelopes him.
  • An Indian bicycle with a stainless steel tea thermos hung over its handlebars. The bicycle rests quietly against a brick wall.
  • An old bearded man in a bright red turban sits in the shade.
  • Milk boiling in a huge wok. The shopkeeper stirs the boiling liquid by deftly lifting the wok and dumping it into another wok several feet below.
  • Competing salesmen situated across the street from one another yelling for me to buy water as I pass between them.
  • Two women beat a big bass drum and rattle the gate of a house to ask for money.
  • Two pigs in a narrow alley eating the largest pile of crap I have ever seen. As I walk through, the stench makes me gag.
  • A road full of shops catering to western tourists - selling baggy travel clothes, jewelry, and anything else we might buy.
  • Two snake charmers removing the lid of a woven basket and starting a tune with every tourist that walks by. The weary cobra looks annoyed.
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A dog waits patiently for scraps from a food vendor in Pushkar. A man takes an afternoon nap on his push cart in Pushkar. Two cows stand in front of richly ornamented Rajasthani buildings. A fleeting moment on the streets of Pushkar. A woman sweeps a dirt road  in Pushkar while the always-present cows walk by.

Jaisalmer, India

Desert City

michelleThis morning we arrived in Jaisalmer, a city nestled in the Thar desert, close to the border of Pakistan. High on a hill towers a huge fort, dominating the city landscape. Built in 1156 for protection against invaders, it now houses a busy city life including hotels, shops, and restaurants for tourists. Contained within its massive walls are giant gates, a maze of narrow lanes and alleys, small courtyards littered with cows and sleeping dogs, and a magical palace whose sandstone walls are covered in intricate carvings.

It is five in the evening and I am sitting on our hotel roof high above the city, across from the palace. I am alone except for the company of gray pigeons, singing sparrows, and the whispering dry hot wind. Everything is the color of yellow sand - the ground, the walls, the buildings, and the roads. From this height I can see far into the distance where civilization ends and only stark desert terrain remains.

Directly below me is the massive fort wall and then a steep rocky slope. A family of pigs makes its way down the slope as a dog chases and teases the piglet, who squeals in protest. A woman balances a water jug on her head as she passes on the road below. A cow lumbers down the road.

It is easy to see the desert houses from this height. They are simple square structures with courtyards in their center. A woman sits on the ground in her courtyard with a child in her lap. They both wave as they see me peering down on them. Large clay pots for storing water surround them and wash is laid out on the house roof to dry.

As the sun sinks lower, I watch the hues of honey yellow change. I relish the solitude and quiet up here. The lone voice of a man singing Muslim evening prayers begins and floats up to me. His voice is melancholy, slow, and soothing - reflective of my mood. top

Festival of Color

timThe owner of our guesthouse smeared my face with the first streaks of color - two palms of bright red gulal powder right across both cheeks accompanied by a cheerful, "Happy Holi!" It was a good start to the festival of colors, the Indian holiday that marks the end of winter and commemorates a legend from Hindu mythology.

It wasn't long before the craziness of the streets called me outside of the security of our guesthouse. The once impressive Jaisalmer fort, with its golden stone walls, intricate details, and rich history, was now covered in the whimsical colors of Holi. My white clothes soon looked the same - with brilliant blotches of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Three adults blessed my face with three new colors and cheers of "Happy Holi!" Mobs of hyperactive kids in the street just blasted me with squirt guns full of colored water.

After passing through a gauntlet of colored festival-goers guarding the fort gates, I arrived to the market and bought two packages gulal powder to throw back at people. An Indian man called for me to follow him through the old part of town. I followed along with a British guy and the real fun began.

Through twisting narrow roads, outstretched palms grabbed my cheeks and spread silver paint across the several colors that already blessed my face. Similar hands spread additional layers of green, red, orange, and yellow. Two hand fulls of green powder thrown by a purple man blossom into a huge cloud that filled the street and rained down on top of us. Buckets of purple and red water rained down on my head. Water balloons burst on my back. Rambunctious children tried to stick gulal in my ears, nose, and eyes and steal my bag of powder.

The wash of water blended the dye, leaving every square inch of my skin and clothes a murky mess and making me look like a red grape. My face was visibly purple, silver, and green, although other colors would no doubt be seen a few layers down. My matted red hair was shellacked to my head, my teeth were green, and my ears and nose were full of powder. And I would do it all again if given the choice.

I will be back home on the next full moon of March, so don't be surprised to be hit with a bag of red powder and an enthusiastic greeting.

"Happy Holi!" top

Desert Adventure

michelleI learned something new over the last two days: camels are very smelly creatures. However, I could not tell you which smells worse, their breath or their farts. For the last two days Tim and I have been on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, on the borders of Pakistan and India. During much of this time my nose has been in an unattractive wrinkled position, trying to avoid a sick, hot grassy odor. At first, I thought the camel in front of mine had a terrible gas problem (I often heard little toots coming from his rear area), but with time I realized the culprit was my own camel. Out of his pouty lips poured green grassy foam and grumpy grunts producing the foul smell. This was my first prolonged contact with camels and despite their offensive smell, I quickly grew endeared to these creatures and their surly ways.

We started our trek in the morning after an hour jeep ride into a small desert village. Camels and guides were waiting for us there. Village women passed balancing large clay pots on their heads as they headed to the communal well, children gathered around us asking for candy, and a small goat sniffed my backpack, also looking for goodies. A Japanese couple and their daughter joined the group and we began our adventure. Our caravan consisted of five tourists, six guides, and nine camels.

Perched high on the camel's back, I sat on a saddle loaded with blankets to protect my bum. I held a rope, attached to pegs sticking out of the camel's nose, to help direct the creature. Pulling on the ropes was supposed to steer him the right direction. I was also supposed to kick my heels into the camel's sides to prod it to start walking or increase speed, but he blatantly ignored me until a guide would nudge him from behind. So much for showing who was boss!

On the surface, the desert appeared a dry, hot lifeless terrain. But as our caravan processed through the stark land, we met many of its inhabitants. Peacocks, the national bird of India, took flight from the shrubs into surrounding trees as we passed, their blue and green tails lighting up the sky in a startling color. Goats and sheep would pause in their hunt for food to curiously watch us. Everything was so dry and dead and I wondered what they possibly ate, but they looked healthy and well fed. In the distance, a huge black vulture sat alone, warily watching our party.

A dog joined us as we left the village and remained close by throughout the entire trek. He had a peculiar look, for in its past, someone had cruelly cut off his ears. Besides being ear-less, he was terribly skinny, with his rib cage protruding out, and had a long, pink tongue that hung so low it almost touched the ground. When I grew bored with the monotonous desert landscape I would watch the dog's antics for entertainment. He would weave in and out of the camel's legs with ease, chase birds and other small creatures. Once he appeared with two white legs sticking out of his mouth - a lizard lunch.

Around lunchtime, when the sun was the hottest, we dismounted and I could feel the hot sand burning through my sandals. We settled on blankets under a large tree as the guides immediately set to work making lunch. One dug a hole in the sand and started a fire. Another man chopped vegetables and another kneaded dough to make chapatis - a familiar staple of thin bread cooked on a hot plate. The smallest guide, a ten-year old boy, main job was to chase the camels that grew restless and wandered off. Camels are surprisingly quick and the boy worked hard. For the next couple of hours we rested, read, and ate a tasty lunch of cauliflower potato curry, bread, and fruit. A hot dry air blew and in the distance we watched small air funnels (small tornadoes) emerge suddenly and whip tumbleweed and sand high into the air.

The heat eventually softened as the afternoon progressed and we set off once again. Soon, beautifully wind-sculpted sand dunes emerged from the flat land. Here we stopped to set up camp. While our guides fed the camels and made dinner, we kicked off our shoes and explored, letting the fine grain sand sink softly between our toes. We jumped down the steep slopes like little children and walked along the ridges, marveling at the simple beauty of sand and sky. In some places we found white sea shells, evidence that once this desert had been under water.

When the sun sank low, we climbed to the highest ridge to watch it set. Later we climbed the ridge again to watch the full moon rise. After dinner and time around a bonfire we fell asleep on blankets, bathed in moonlight and sprinkled in star light. top

A train of camels crests a sand dune during sunrise in India's Rajasthan. Two children, participants of Holi, have been stained red by colored gulal powder in the old section of Jaisalmer. This Hindu festival of color marks the end of winter and commemorates a legend from Hindu mythology. A surely camel in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. A camel nips at the hat of his young handler. A camel in Rajasthan waits to be saddled by his handler. Sand dunes in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. Sand dunes in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. An arch in the old section of Rajasthan's Jaisalmer frames a doorway from across the alley. A cow stands in the middle of the road in Jaisalmer, India. A herd of cows relax in the streets.

Jodhpur, India

Heifer Heaven

michelleA cow lies lazily in the middle of a busy intersection. Seemingly oblivious to its awkward location, it chews nonchalantly as motorcycles, cars, rickshaws, and bicycles whiz past with only inches to spare. A truck driver turns his steering wheel wildly to avoid collision, barely missing a rickshaw. But no one honks or looks annoyed. The cow is a natural element is this city scene รป like a rock in a fast flowing stream of water.

A symbol of mother, fertility, and nurturing, cows are considered sacred animals in India. Beef is not eaten, leather is not worn, and in almost all of the country it is illegal to kill them. Cows wander freely in the streets until they are ready to be milked. They sit in groups along the road, stand defiantly in the middle of the street, cruise alleys, and hang in front of store windows. When a cow is ready to be milked, the owner brings it back to their house. Many of the cow horns are painted in bright colors, making it easy for the owner to distinguish it from others.

Just in my short stay here, I see the cows usefulness to Indian society. The cows and bulls are used to pull heavy loads on carts and work the fields; milk is used for curd and butter, in the villages dried cow dung is used in fires for cooking or mixed with mud to build walls. The cows also serve as good garbage disposals, eating much of the litter piled high on the streets.

I love cows. I developed a special fondness for this creature when I attended college in rural Virginia, surrounded by farmland. Who can resist their large brown eyes, black and white patches, pink udders, and gentle moos? As an artist I am charmed by their shape, their silhouettes in the landscape.

Indian cows seem to know the gods have shined special favor on their lot. They roam around the city streets with a confident smugness, making trucks and buses ten times their size go around them. I might not fully understand the concept of worshipping cows, but I do know this: India would not be the same without cows on the streets. They add charm and extra spice to an already chaotic and vibrant scene. top

Village Safari

michelleJodhpur is a large bustling city with a large fort to explore and a city painted in indigo blue to wander. But the highlight of our time here was not in the city, but in the surrounding villages. We took a tour by jeep visiting the local village life.

Here is a sample of what we saw:

The Bishnoi people believe killing any animal is a crime. We visited a home in this village and the oldest woman of the household welcomed us with a traditional drink of opium (mixed with water}:

A pot factory:

A carpet weaver whose talent has been featured on CNN, BBC, and many interior design magazines. He was very proud of his trade, weaving colourful intricate rugs. I was so impressed by his work that I bought two camel hair rugs from him:

Two sisters in the Bishnoi village:

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Jodhpur is often called the Blue City for obvious reasons, but what isn't so clear is why all the homes in the old section are painted this color. Some say it keeps the houses cool, others claim it keeps the mosquitoes away, and still others say it is because it is the color of the Brahmins.

Dharamsala, India

The Tibetan Community

michelleA sign read "Welcome to the Land of the Eternal Snow Peaks" as the bus started ascending up the steep windy road from the warm, green plains of farmland below. The temperature was getting noticeably cooler as we climbed higher and I reached for my jacket. The bus rounded a bend and revealed white peaks jutting into the sky, keeping company with the clouds. Tim and I grinned broadly at our first glimpse of the Himalayan Mountain peaks. The bus continued to climb as the sun set and soon the mountains glowed bright pink until darkness blanketed the land.

Our destination was Dharamsala, home of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Tibetan exiled government. The Dalai Lami is giving public teaching in the temple for two weeks and therefore the town is packed full of red-robed monks and foreigners seeking spiritual enlightenment. Arriving at 10 PM, we found the hotels full but eventually found a room in a small village 2 km away. From the moment we arrived I noticed the town has a different feel from the rest of India. The Buddhist influence and gentle Tibetan community make it an easy, laid-back place to hang out.

The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949 claiming it to be a part of their country and in 1959 the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government were forced into exile into India. Now they reside in Upper Dharmasala, (called McLeod Ganj). The Tibetan community here is very strong and their on-going struggle against the Chinese is evident. Posters line the street with slogans such as "Free Tibet" and "Boycott Chinese Goods." Over 1000 refugees are still coming out of Tibet each year, fleeing from the violence and their stories are moving and tragic. The Dalai Lama, a gentle man with a huge smile, still hopes to return his people to their homeland. He is a committed to non-violence and compassion towards the Chinese; so much so that in 1989 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The community atmosphere here is very strong. There are many organizations set up to help the refugees - an orphanage for the children, medical clinics, cafes sponsoring speakers, a center for former political prisoners, and many opportunities to volunteer. It is a special opportunity to visit a community where people work together for peace and healing with a common purpose - freeing Tibet and saving its culture. top

Political Prisoner

timThe KhanaNirvana Community Cafe looked more like an Arizona coffeehouse than a typical Indian restaurant, but it should - it was opened by several western expatriates who are in McLeod Ganj helping the Tibetan cause. Besides serving food, the cafe serves the Tibetan freedom cause by publishing a monthly newsletter, acting as an information center, employing recently arrived refugees, and sponsoring lectures every Sunday night.

It was here in a crowded house that we saw the 70 year-old Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso speak about his 33 year experience as a political prisoner in a Chinese jail. Through the aid of a translator, the saffron-robed grandfatherly man talked about the history of Tibet and told a moving story from his start in a small village to his incarceration and torture by the Chinese. His remarkably gentle face surprisingly betrays no bitterness or anger towards his captors despite the hardships they put him through - he watched helplessly as many of his fellow prisoners died of thirst and malnutrition and was frequently tortured with a cattle prod. In one particularly harsh story, he detailed how his Chinese jailers forced a cattle prod in his mouth, breaking two teeth in the process and shocking him unconscious to the ground. The rest of his teeth fell out within a month.

But his story has a happy ending. Through the help of Amnesty International, the Chinese released Palden Gyatso and he fled here to Dharamsala. He detailed his story in the book Fire Under the Snow and has since lectured at 87 schools and universities and has been interviewed by CNN and the BBC. And in the most shining example of his change of fortune, Amnesty International provided him with a new set of teeth, which he happily took out to show the audience. top

Lepers

michelleA cup of hot chocolate sits steaming in front of me. I sit at a cafe in the town square and the cafe's large windows offer me a view of life on the streets. From here I can see the taxi stand, bus station, and people greeting each other while others hurry by. Directly below me is a row of lepers begging on a ledge, their backs leaning against the window. The two women and man chat, pausing only to ask for money as people pass.

All that remains of their fingers are stubs and their feet are bandaged and unwhole. The oldest woman is also missing her nose. These beggars have become a familiar sight during my stay in Dharamsala. They usually camp out on this ledge and I pass them several times a day. But the sight of the fingerless hands extending towards me made me uncomfortable and I would walk quickly by. But today I watch them undetected and the longer I watch, the more involved I become in their world.

I observe who they target as they beg - foreigners get the most pleas and animated gestures, monks are ignored, and it is give and take with the locals. I also watch the responses of the pedestrians. Some people hurry by, others quicken their steps careful not to look at the beggars, while others smile and say hello. A young woman stops and offers her crackers. I found myself secretly cheering when money was deposited in their tin buckets. Once in a while someone would stop and talk to the lepers and I would witness laughter, smiles and beautiful human interactions.

I watch as one of the women takes a 10 rupee note from the donations, fumbles with her bags, stuggling to grasp the handles with her stubs. She rises to walk to a nearby vegetable seller and buys potatoes and onions, no doubt for a meal later. I wonder about her daily life and how she copes each day as her body deteriorates. The longer I watch, the more compassion grows in my heart. The row of lepers ceases to be just beggars wanting something from me, but individuals trying to survive.

As I leave the cafe I make a point to give them each some money, a smile, and a blessing. By sitting and watching them my heart has grown a little bigger and I am thankful for that gift. top

His Holiness, the DL

timI hoped to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama while in Dharamsala, so I was pleased to learn that our arrival coincided with two weeks of his annual teachings. All I needed to do was show my passport, fill out an application, relinquish my camera and pocket knife to security, and I was allowed entrance to see the man himself.

Most of the foreign attendees listened to the teachings from outside the auditorium in the less crowded backside of the temple. We spent a couple of days there as well, soaking in the scene and listening to the English translation through an FM radio.

Since I am not here specifically for the teachings, I tended to be far less concentrated than the average attendee and found myself laughing at the monkeys playing in the trees, gazing at a storm brewing over the mountain vista, or watching the eagles circling in thermals above the pine trees. The temple is an attractive place to learn and I envied those who took to the time to listen to all two weeks of sessions.

So many people had traveled so far to listen to this one person, a leader famous for his compassion and positive attitude. The man sat radiantly in the front of a sea of maroon robes. And though I couldn't understand him speaking his native tongue, his laughter came from the heart and needed no translation. I'm so glad I had a chance to see him in person.

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Monks take a break from the Dalai Lama's annual Losar teachings at His Holiness' temple in northern India.

Obstacle Course

michelleWalking down the street in India is like participating in a complicated obstacle course testing one's ability and competence. It is essential to always be aware of your surroundings. A careless step could land your foot squarely in a fresh steaming cow pie or black sludge of a sewer gutter. A wrongly angled foot, knee, or elbow is in danger of being smashed by a vehicle flying by.

Cows, which dot the streets, add special pizzazz to any stroll. They might look innocent but they actually offer several hazards. It is wise to keep your eyes on them as you pass. A rising tail is an important sign to hurry by. When a cow rids itself of excrement many times it shoots out like a cannon. If you are in the line of fire it could be a smelly, nasty mess. Equally important is to watch the head and horns, as some cows have unpleasant dispositions and sharp horns. A couple of days ago I was standing in a narrow alley in Jaisalmer when I was pushed hard from behind. Shocked, I turned to find a cow's lowered head and horns pointing at my chest. It kept bumping me hard, pushing me farther and farther into the dead-end alley. (Luckily the distance between the horns was so wide that they framed me on each side and missed me entirely.) I was alarmed and felt trapped. Locals sitting on roofs above peered down, laughing and pointing at my predicament. Finally, a man with a stick came to my rescue by pushing the cow to one side, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze by. It was a close call.

To successfully complete the obstacle course, you must watch your stamina. The constant barrage from rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, and touts can be draining. The easiest solution is to hide in your hotel, which becomes an oasis from the hassles. But locked in a hotel room you won't see India! Therefore, a positive attitude is essential - smile at shopkeepers, joke with the rickshaw drivers, and ignore the touts (who lie, misdirect and cheat). Remaining calm and positive keeps your dignity and your energy.

India is two thirds the size of the US but its population is over one billion - lots of people, lots of poverty. Beggars add a whole other element to the scene. Children with large eyes tugging persistently at your sleeve, mothers pointing at babies in their arms, lepers without limbs, deformed men on wheeled carts, old women pleading for a rupee confront you when you step out into the street. It is emotionally draining to see all this human suffering and it's a struggle to know how to help. I know plopping down a few coins doesn't really alleviate the problem and it's impossible to help everyone who asks. I don't give any money to children beggars because I was told many times parents keep their children out of school deliberately so they can beg instead. I don't want to encourage this practice. I fight guilt knowing I can afford a trip around the world and yet many of these people can barely afford to eat. There are no easy answers.

If you finish your walk unscathed, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It is not easy to be flung into so much commotion, to be the target of unwanted attention, and to constantly keep your guard up. But if you can successfully avoid the obstacles, you will be richly rewarded with new sights, sounds, and experiences. India is a place like no other. top

Just Follow Me

timWe had just stepped off a harrowing 13-hour night bus and the last thing we wanted to do was to put up with Delhi's famous touts. But there we were, dressed as suckers, wearing backpacks and lost expressions while searching for guidance from a Lonely Planet map.

With a fair way to walk, our journey turned into quite a game. Here were the rules:

  1. Our object was to buy tickets at the New Delhi Railway Station's Tourist Booking Office.
  2. The object of the touts was to misdirect us to private tour companies, who would then lie to us about the availability of rail tickets and offer their bus tickets or tours as an alternative.
  3. These private tour companies were always labeled as being "Official Government Tourist Offices".
  4. Touts would say ANYTHING to get you to come with them, as in:
  5. I am a student and here to help. Just follow me.
    • The office is over there (Pointing to wrong direction). Just follow me.
    • The tourist booking office is closed today. Just follow me.
    • There is a major festival and the streets are closed, so you must go to the other office. Just follow me.
    • Etc. Just follow me.

We crossed several major touristy areas in Delhi and as more "helpful" people approached us from all sides, more rules became apparent. Our journey was like a real life logic puzzle:

IF 100% of the people in Delhi who offer unsolicited help lie... BUT 75% of the people whom YOU ask for help tell the truth to the best of their knowledge... HOWEVER 50% of the people who try to answer truthfully do not know the answer, but make it up to avoid looking foolish... HOW many wrong turns will you make walking to the Tourist Booking Office?

It didn't take long before we ignored the tout's constant advances and stopped listening. Even walking up to the second floor office, under a big sign labeled Tourist Booking Office with an arrow pointing up the stairs, someone pointed us into an incorrect office. I couldn't believe their lies - one after the other and all with a straight face. It was comical to a degree unmatched in 10 months of travel.

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Agra, India

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

Kids enjoy the day by bathing in Agra's toxically green Yamuna River. A view from the back of an Indian auto-rickshaw in Agra. The most well know symbol of India - the Taj Mahal.  Shah Jehan built this mausoleum with the help of 20,000 workmen and master craftsmen to honor his departed wife. After 22 years of construction, the structure was completed in 1648. A view from the Taj Mahal of the Yamuna River shortly after sunrise.

Varanasi, India

Sick

timI'm in Varanasi, sick in bed, fighting a nasty bout of food poisoning. In my delirious haze the room spins with the fan above my head and my eyes involuntarily trace "S" shapes into the ceiling. I'm unable to sleep and my body is simultaneously shivering and sweating.

Outside my room, thousands of people celebrate the Hindi New Year down by the bank of the holy Ganges River. The uproar floating in through my window speaks of a world very foreign to mine, as festival goers ring bells, toot horns, bang drums, play exotic musical instruments, and chant. Ash smeared Hindus cleanse themselves in the polluted river. A fog of incense smoke covers the large crowd as they celebrate riverside all night long.

At 4 AM the festival continues. Five, six, the sun comes up and I've just slept in catnaps. I've got a fever over 103 degrees, I'm restless, and waves of nausea hit me like a brick when I move. I sit up too quickly and soon find myself thanking Michelle for placing the trash can bedside. I feel like a human geyser with liquids shooting out both ends.

It is times like this when I feel the most alienated from home. We move to a more expensive room that has a TV and cable, but even taking solace in mindless programming is impossible. Fred Flintstone and Scooby Doo are on the Cartoon Network, but they speak Hindi along with the rest of the translated programs on the Discovery Channel.

Outside in the guesthouse courtyard the Hindi music is screeching. I yearn for the clean sober feeling of health and pray that I'm well enough to leave on our flight to Kathmandu in 36 hours. top

The Holy Ganges

michelleThis morning I hired a man to take me out in his boat on the Ganges River. I wanted to see the Hindu pilgrims bathing in the river, washing away their sins and making offerings. As we slowly glided down the river, I stared in fascination at the busy bank. The ghats were alive with activity.

I watched as men and women stripped to almost nothing and plunged into the water. Children splashed and swam as a woman stood over them, lifting her hands to the heavens, her lips moving in silent prayer. People washed their clothes, pet dogs, and children in the holy water - a baby screamed in protest as a mother scrubbed her naked body, soap suds flying like electric sparks. Orange marigold petals floated by the boat, the remains of an offering. It was intriguing to witness the sacredness of a river and the people who worshipped its waters.

 

 

 

 

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People ritually cleanse themselves and drink from the Ganges River - one of the most sacred places in India.XXXXAccording to Cleanganga.com, the local fecal coliform count (of which E. coli is a member) is almost 400 times the US Environmental Protection Agenc'Ys limit for safe bathing. Festival goers are kicking off an all-night celebration on the ghats of the holy Ganges River in Varanasi. These crowds of people burned incense, rang bells, played music, and chanted until the sun came up the next morning.