Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tamil Nadu Pictures


Click here to see our latest pictures from Kodai and Auroville

For Jeremy's Birthday today we are taking a scooter ride to a kibbutz-like forest community and hunting down some banana pancakes for lunch. Ali has also worked out a deal with the kitchen staff who will make chocolate cake for all the guests tonight in Jeremy's honor- but shh...its a secret.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

London Jewish Chronicle

There's no link yet, but here's Jeremy's article about Cochin, published in London's Jewish Chronicle last week.

In the old days, Hanukkah in Cochin, India, was more than a festival of lights; it started—and ended—with a bang. “We used to light the lamp in the synagogue and set off fireworks,” says 88 year-old Isaac Joshua, an avid cricket fan and one of approximately 30 Jews left in the southernmost Indian state of Kerala. “It was like Diwali or Vishu,” he adds—Indian holidays celebrated with massive displays of pyrotechnics. “Now, we light the candles in our homes, say a few prayers. Hanukkah is not so important anymore.”

Just about every Jew in Kerala agrees that after centuries of peace and prosperity in the tropics, the aging Jewish community of Cochin is dying. The so-called black Jews, whose ancestors came here perhaps 2,000 years ago, are scattered across the district's main island, Ernakulam, and their synagogues are in disrepair. Samuel Hallegua, the leader of nearby Mattancheri's white—European—Jewish community, passed away in September. “There is virtually no one left in Cochin,” says Nathan Katz, professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University and an expert on the Jews of India. “The very few who remain are dispirited.

Even as the Jewish population dwindles—only 10 are left in Mattancheri's Jewtown, home to the 16th century Paradesi (“foreigner”) synagogue—the centuries-old dispute between black and white, some say, continues to fester. “To me, the Mattancheri community is dead,” says Elias “Babu” Josephai, 52, who refuses to step foot in the Paradesi synagogue. The last shohet in Kerala, Babu stopped slaughtering chickens for the whites a year ago following a dispute with the late Mr. Hallegua; today, the whites import kosher meat from Mumbai.

Others contend that the feud ended half a century ago when the ban on intermarriage was breached and blacks were permitted to pray alongside whites in the Paradesi synagogue. “When I go to Jewtown I am one of them,” says Ernakulam's Isaac Joshua. Reema Selam, a white Jew and the only intermarried woman in Jewtown, adds that the community is “tired of hearing about black and white.”

Still, interaction between the two minuscule groups is minimal, and there are rarely enough men to make a minyan, except during high holidays or tourist season. Although ten men were assembled last Friday night—the first of Hanukkah—not a single Jew from Ernakulam attended.

Samuel Hallegua's brother, Johnny, lit the menorah and led a chorus of backpackers in a half-spirited version of Ma'oz Tzur, followed by a brief Shabbat service. This was succeeded by a second candle-lighting ceremony for tourists (and the Indian press) at Koder House, an upscale hotel once owned by a wealthy Paradesi Jew of the same name. Chaim Weismann, a middle-aged American who teaches English in Cochin, has arranged the function—which includes complementary muffins and ginger beer—for four years straight. Across the canal, Babu, Isaac Joshua, and the other Jews of Ernakulam celebrated Hanukkah in their homes.

Babu, who operates an exotic plant and fish shop in the lobby of Ernakulam's Kadavumbhagam synagogue, is working hard to ensure that some day, services will be held there, too. To date, he has spent over 100,000 rupees to restore the dilapidated building, which fell into disuse following a wave of emigration to Israel in 1972. Isaac Joshua, for his part, has all but resigned the community to history: “It's not worth it anymore,” he says. “The younger generation knows nothing, not even the aleph bet. There is no future.” The only hope, he believes—barring a miracle—lies with Chabad. “Something is better than nothing,” he says, smiling wryly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Trouble with Internet Explorer

If you are having trouble reading our blog, use Mozilla Firefox or something other than Internet Explorer they all work fine. We are trying to fix it, but its weird.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Surprising New Development


For the second time in a month we find ourselves in an international community guided by a charismatic “Mother” figure. Instead of the Hugging Mother Ashram's spiritual focus, Auroville is an experiment in utopianism: an international community of 2,000 residents from over 40 countries striving to overcome boundaries of nationality, color, and background and realize their common interconnected humanity in a money-less, class-less, property-less, and cooperative “universal township.” Residents and other Indian citizens are split on the project's success and merits, and of late, economic strain within Auroville has disqualified those without independent resources from becoming members of the community.


Because Auroville is spread out over many miles of Tamil Nadu countryside—it's located in a rural area about 150 km south of Chennai—the only reasonable way to get around is by motor scooter. We arranged to rent one through our guesthouse for two dollars a day including fuel, with the strict instructions to not under any circumstances leave Auroville's premises. Thanks to Jeremy's persistent questioning, we later learned that although the rental was illegal we would not be at risk with the local authorities. Fortunately, within the vicinity, the empty dirt roads lend themselves to learning and the tree-lined streets make for picturesque cruising. At least when it is not raining.


After several hours of exploring the “township,” getting lost in the densely forested neighborhoods of Miracle, Silence, and Certitude, chatting with and eavesdropping on loquacious Aurovillians in places like Dreamer's Cafe and the Solar Kitchen, we scheduled a three-hour guided shamanic journey for Ali with Divya, who lives in Revelation. As we were driving over to a short introductory seminar on the concept of Auroville, however, the skies opened and we received a proper drenching. We were forced to skip the seminar and battle the monsoon rains on the half hour scoot back to our guesthouse, where the cheerful receptionist informed us that our laundry (all our clothes except the ones we were wearing) had been caught in the rain and wouldn't be dry until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Luckily, we have a sweet little cabin in the rainforest and several dry blankets in which to huddle.


From this spot of comfort we reflected on the fact that we have been traveling for nearly three months and have a little more than four to go. Besides the often comedic difficulties of adapting to different cultural norms (putting toilet paper in buckets, more elaborate greeting rituals, the moratorium on public displays of affection), the main effects of the trip so far concern our own personal and mutual growth. It's hard to say what the lasting impact will be, and it probably will remain that way until some time in the distant future, but both of us believe that we are growing wiser and that we are increasingly connected to each other and ourselves. There is also a distinct possibility that Jeremy is getting fatter.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cold at Last

We are sitting in a small wooden hut with two computers. There is a definite draft; actually it's about 40 degrees and there is no central heating in India. We are damp and our bones are cold. Yesterday, Ali bought a hat. But we are not sad. Oh no, the cold and constant rain is quite rejuvenating. Especially after two weeks in the extreme heat and humidity of Cochin which we fled Monday on the night bus. At about 6 am the next morning we arrived in the small and strangely delightful hill station of Kodai.

In addition to escaping the heat and humidity we were trying to flee from the viral fever which had Ali bed-ridden and in lots of pain for five days. Despite Jeremy's pleas that we stay put until she recovered Ali insisted we depart. "I must get to the mountains!" she said. And sure enough the fever subsided upon arrival.

Kodai may have charms besides its miraculous healing properties but it has generally been raining too hard for us find out about them. We did take a quick jaunt around the lake in a mistless moment and have been relishing the good cheer of the people here who seem to appreciate Jeremy's jokes. We also checked into a nicer hotel, Hilltop Towers, and have been making the most of the HBO-providing TV and huge glass windows. This morning Jeremy even ordered a large container of "Day Coffee Day" via room service.

The pictures in the post are actually from Munnar, a different hill station/tea plantation we visited on a day trip from Cochin.

In other news, we are extremely agitated about the potential division of Andhra Pradesh.

More importantly, Ali got into Smith School of Social Work and will be starting there next June!

Lastly, click here to see pictures from Kerala.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jew Town

As Guru Amma's return neared, the atmosphere at the Hugging Mother ashram grew increasingly cultish. Promising the residents that we would be leaving for only a couple of days before coming back to accept our hugs, we fled to the relative safety of Cochin's Jew town. Not many Jews remain here (11, to be precise), and the ones who do are generally well over 80 years old. On the other side of the canal, Cochin's main island, Ernakulam, is home to a slightly larger and younger community of 20 or so darker-skinned Jews.

The origins of Cochin's Jewish community are, as Adam P. Kimmell once put it, mysterious. Here's what we've learned so far: The black Jews say they have lived in Kerala since the second temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, explaining that the white Jews arrived from Europe much later, during the colonial era, while the white Jews say that the black Jews are "impure," attributing their dark skin to intermarriages between white Jewish men and their slaves. Both parties claim to be the rightful heirs of the community led by one Joseph Rabban, who was deemed prince of the Keralan Jews and granted special privileges by a Hindu king possible as early as the 4th century. Whatever the reality, the "black" Jewish community has for hundreds of years faced discrimination at the hands of the white one (intermarriage was prohibited and until the middle of the 20th century blacks were barred from entering the famous Paradesi synagogue in Jewtown). To this day they are generally neglected by the international Jewish community and, in part as a result, most journalistic accounts of life here ignore them.

In our attempt to unravel the mystery we teamed up with our hotel-mate Tova, a retired Israeli police officer whose mother hails from the tiny town of Chennamangalam, 25 km north of Cochin (which we visited together a few days back), and who speaks a few words of Malayalam. (The predominant language on the Malabar Coast, we were particularly impressed to learn that Malayalam is the only language whose English name is a palindrome). Tova also took us to the tomb of a 17th century poet/Kabbalist who has long been worshiped by Hindus, Muslims, Christian and Jews alike. According to Tova, the tomb once stood in the middle of a Jewish cemetary which was at some point demolished. When the villagers tried to raze Nehemiah Mota's grave, a great fire broke out and the earth shook, or something like that. Deciding that he must be a saint (Hindu villages often had their own special gods), they let his tomb stand. Today, it rests in the center of a residential area, and locals often come to light candles and ask Mota to help them recover losts items, heal them, and other such favors.

Yesterday, we paid a visit to "Babu," the dedicated caretaker of an old and underfunded Ernakulam synagogue, where he operates a booming plant and exotic fish business in the anteroom. He is the last shohet (ritual slaughterer) on either side of the water, though he says he stopped slaughtering chickens for the white Jews after being humiliated by their late leader, Sammy Hallegua, last year. Although the whites supposedly import their kosher meat from Mumbai, if all goes as planned, we will accompany Babu to a ritual slaughter of a chicken next Thursday on the first night of Hanukah.

When not visiting sites such as "Jew cemeteries" in various states of decay, we have been thoroughly enjoying the wider and unpolluted streets, fine food, and thriving art and dance community in Cochin. And although our health is good, we have both been suffering of late from minor cases of prickly heat, which we naively assumed existed only in Orwell's India.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Food

Some of our favorite treats:

Thali (Jeremy's favorite): an all-you-can-eat plate-full of spicy but nourishing vegetarian fare. Chappatis, the whole wheat pita-bread-esque thing in the middle and white basmati rice (not pictured) are constantly refilled, as are the the little tin cups with various curries, chutnies, pickles and sometimes, curd (aka yogurt) or an onion-heavy salad. Some restaurants, including this one, have “thali-only floors.”


Vegetable Thukpa (Ali's favorite): a delicious and spicy Tibetan soup made from leafy greens, carrots, scallions, bamboo shoots, and thick noodles- vegetarian chicken soup for the soul.


Mutton Curry with Appam: We feasted on this chuck in a “working-man's diner” in Kollam (a working-man's town). It was the only item on the menu that day, and it was damn good. Ali loves appams. At first glance, with their spongy centers and flaky outsides, they appear to be fried eggs without yokes; in fact, they are fermented rice pancakes. Mutton (goat or lamb or some sort of combination), is a meat of choice here in India, and especially so in the south.

Chicken Biryani: Many places claim biryani is their specialty, but it is served indiscriminately in restaurants and other food venues throughout the country. We are surprised that we have not yet found it in vending machines. On rare occasions, it can be quite good. Here, it came with chicken, raita (spiced yoghurt with chopped cucumbers, onions and tomatoes) and spicy pickles in addition to rice, and was served on a banana leaf instead of a plate (how about that ya eco-maniacs!). And, for good measure and those with a taste for modern art, a boiled egg was perched on top of it all.


Vegetable Pakora with mango and cilantro chutney: We coated vegetables in chickpea flour and then fried them. And then, we dipped them in these chutnies, which we also made, and then we ate them. Sadly, we forgot to take pictures of the finished feast (too hungry and busy eating), but at least we remembered to take one of the appetizers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hugging Mother

Once we re-oriented ourselves and had our feet on solid ground again after our epic train ride, we simultaneously decided that in spite of all the difficulties, we were really starting to like India; we will definitely miss it when we're gone. During our first month here, we have spent a lot of energy adjusting and reacting to the ridiculousness, discomfort, intensity, vibrancy, beauty, inspiration, and at times repulsiveness of India. It's only now that we're in the relatively more mellow south that we are beginning to appreciate the strange logic of this funny country. And while we are grateful for the less crowded streets, general forthrightness of vendors and rickshaw drivers, and slower pace of life, we already miss the places we visited in northern India, where all the varieties and extremes of the human experience were on full display.


Buoyed by this spirit we boarded the tourist cruise from Kollam, a small port town where we had taken a lovely canoe ride through rural villages on Venice-like backwaters lined with coconut groves, and got off halfway at the Hugging Mother/Saint (aka Mata Amritanandamayi Math) Ashram. Amma, the ashram's female guru and founder, has done extensive and impressive humanitarian aid in the area and gets her name (Hugging Mother) because her primary method of transmitting spiritual teaching is by hugging people. She will hug lines of thousands of people for sometimes 20 hours straight and is reported to have given over 26 million hugs.

The ashram itself is on a 1-km wide stretch of land right in between the Kerala backwaters and the Arabian sea. There are about 2,000 permanent and visiting residents including Indian families and international visitors housed in five pink high-rise buildings. This is especially incongruous given that the ashram is located in Amma's birthplace, a small conservative village.


Despite the surge in Amma's popularity she has made a real effort to make the ashram a resource rather than a force of Westernization for the village residents. Visitors are expected to dress very modestly and are discouraged from leaving the ashram grounds. Men from the village arrive three times a day to eat free meals, older teenagers hang out and flirt at the juice bar in the evening, and many schoolchildren come to meditate and take daily classes at the temple. However, resources and activities for international visitors are organized primarily by Westerners and so the ashram is accessible and hassle-free. In a lot of ways it's the best of both worlds, a needed break where life is comfortable, safe, and easy but we still feel like we are in India.


People really love Amma here. It's surprising how many Westerners live full-time on the ashram; it's not uncommon for people to live here for 10-15 years. The first question anyone asks you is “Have you met Amma?” and people are generally displeased when we suggest we might leave before she returns. She is currently touring in the US and won't return till December 3rd by which point we will have moved on, but in some ways we are relieved, as everything is less Amma-centric and more easy going without the thousands lining up for hugs (and food).


Our daily schedule is as follows:

4:50-6:30AM- Chant the 1,000 names of Amma, the “Divine Mother” (women in the main temple, men in a large, dullish room on top of the printing press).

6:30AM-Chai

6:45AM-7:30AM Meditate while sitting on stone benches by the beach (there is construction going on right now—Indian men moving large rocks with sticks—so it's not as peaceful as it sounds).

7:30AM- 9 AM-Ali peels garlic and/or chops vegetables in the Western cafe with all the elderly people who can't do any hard labor. Jeremy rests or engages in conversation with the many people here from Boston who assume that his interest in religion centers on Hinduism.

9 AM-Breakfast (Rice, beans, potato curry).

10:15 AM-Ali swims during “girl hours” at the pool.

11:30 AM-Jeremy swims during “boy hours” at the pool.

1 PM-Lunch (Rice, beans, potato curry).

2-4 PM-Jeremy scrubs 25 lb pots, Ali rests.

4 PM-Chai,M Fresh Papaya juice from the juice bar, or coconut water from the man with the coconuts by the beach, or vegan(!) wheat free(!) naturally sweetened(!) oatmeal cookies.

5-6 PM-Ali meditates with the women in the temple, Jeremy reads in his room since there is no organized meditation session for men, and because he doesn't want to meditate right now.

6:30-8:00 PM-Devotional singing (women in the temple, men above the printing press)

8 PM-Dinner (Rice, beans, potato curry).


All this hoodad + a clean private room on the 9th floor of building E with a view of the ocean + steamed vegetables, home-made curd (yogurt) and other vegan delicacies for less than $10 a day.


We are staying for a week, then heading to Fort Cochin for a couple of weeks where Jeremy plans to write an article about the Jewish community living there.


Here is a picture of Gitsy and Jeremy in Delhi which we didn't add last time:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kerala Express

The temperature had dropped into the 40s when we rolled into Delhi early Friday morning. Locals wrapped in blankets and wearing wool hats with ear hats huddled together beside the tracks, shivering and sipping sweet chai from tiny plastic cups. Nizamuddin station-named after a Sufi mystic-seemed quiet for a city of 15 million, and rumor had it that many people were staying home because of the cold. But to us the sudden arrival of the Indian winter came as a great relief. We wouldn't be missing out on fall in America after all.

First thing after settling into our centrally located but rather unpleasant hostel where, despite the weather, we were forced to pay extra for air conditioned rooms, we arranged to meet up with Gitsy, our friend from Wesleyan. It is a tremendous luxury to have a friend in an unwalkable, booming metropolis like Delhi, especially one who decides to dedicate three days to playing with you. For the first time in nearly two months, we did not have to plan all our activities for ourselves, we did homely things such as hang out with a group of (Gitsy's) friends at a grungy bar and spend time at a real house. We were surprised how grounding it was to see a familiar face, to sit in a garden talking with friends, or hang out in the living room while Gitsy chatted with her aunties and her mother offered us chocolates and apple slices.

We started by visiting several of Delhi's important sights, which were made all the more enjoyable because we had been learning about them in William Dalrymple's "City of Djinns"- the Jama Masjid mosque and Chandri Chowk in the old city, as well as Lodhi Gardens and Humayun's tomb, and, of course Parliament row. Especially visiting the last sight we were reminded strongly of D.C. On Saturday, we ventured over to the club where Gitsy's parents, who serve in the foreign and civil service, are members (yes, the British legacy still remains). Despite being ejected from the club's restaurant as a result of our sneakers and general dirtiness, we ate with her mother and sister at a tasty, meat-heavy Chinese buffet across the way. The next night, after drinking Tiger beer at a 1 + 1 happy hour in Khan Market, a run-down looking place in the city's diplomatic enclave that is actually quite lively and full of fancy shops and restaurants, we purchased, at the recommendation of Gitsy's friends, a special treat: mutton (lamb or goat) wrapped in sweet parathas (flaky buttery tortilla-like breads). And, to Ali's great pleasure, we attended Bollywood movies in a huge modern cinema on two consecutive nights.

On Monday, we boarded a train heading south to Kerala. It was quite shocking to wake up to palm trees, 100 degree weather, and men wearing sarongs (Indian-style skirts) instead of pants. After 50 plus hours on the train, we were excited to stretch our legs, stop eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and engage in some activities other than reading competitions and rummy 500 marathons.

We are staying in Trivandrum, the transit hub of the South, for a couple of nights, then heading to Kollam, a sleepy, old port town, and from there taking a ferry to the "Hugging Mother" ashram where we are not sure what will happen...

Love you all!

Jeremy and Ali

P.s. For those interested poll voters, three of you are lucky winners. The following items were confiscated from us (but later returned) upon entering the Taj Mahal: A) Ali's scarf, playing cards, Ali's journal, Jeremy's loaf of bread, two novels, hand sanitizer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pictures!


At long last we have found wi-fi! Here are our latest photo albums:

Click here to see pictures from Varanasi

Click here to see pictures from Agra
- beware we got a little carried away with pictures of the Taj Mahal

Click here to see pictures from Udaipur- cooking class, horse ride, temples, forts, and more monkeys

We are really enjoying being in Delhi, its a beautiful, big, and exciting city that has some of everything and we are being taken care of by our friend from Wesleyan, Gitsy, who lives here. We have eaten some excellent kebabs and seen Bollywood movies two nights in a row...

More later.

Love,
Ali and Jeremy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Octopussy

One of the reasons we decided to stay at Hotel Udai Niwas in Udaipur was that it promised to show "English movies every night on our rooftop terrace." Sounded pretty great. However, when we asked what movies were showing we were slightly dispirited to hear that same movie was screened every single night: "Octopussy," a James Bond thriller featuring the Lake Palace (one of Udaipur's main attractions). As it turned out, nightly Octopussy screenings took place at many of the city's tourist hotels and rooftop restaurants.

This oddity aside, Udaipur-located in the desert state of Rajasthan-has been a wonderful stop on our India tour. The streets are wider, the people are more friendly, easy-going, and relaxed, and there are lots of palaces and forts. Street vendors also hassled us a lot less here, with the sole exception of a dedicated cadre of rickshaw drivers who vigorously peddle marijuana. "Rickshaw?" No, thanks. "some joint? A mariijjjuuaana?" No, thanks. Five minutes later "some joint? A mariijjjuuaana?" No! "Maybe rickshaw?"

In honor of my birthday week we stayed at a nicer and more comfortable hotel than usual (17 dollars a night) and participated in some fun organized activities. First, we took a 5 1/2 hour cooking class with Shashi; you should all look forward to reaping the benefits when we are back home. Then, we got some relaxing but rather strange massages, including a 15 minute head rub for Jeremy. We also spent a half-day riding "Royal Marwari Horses," which have different ears than English ones and very curved backs. The experience was very different from our Nepalese pony trek. The horses were beautiful, healthy, and spirited, and while the five-hour ride was scenic, the environment was unlike any we had seen so far-arid, dusty, hot, and with little vegetation. We were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty by the end of the ride and dissapointed that our driver had not yet arrived to take us back to our hotel. He showed up after forty minutes apologizing profusely for being late. "I would have been here earlier," he explained, "but I was drinking beer at my friend's house."

Yesterday, we woke up early for a trip out to the massive Ranakpur fort and an impressive Jain temple. Jeremy and our Australian friend especially enjoyed locating places on the upper parts of the castle where scalding oil could have been dumped on intruders. Ali's favorite part of the day was sitting next to several Jain women in the temple and listening to them play drums and sing devotional songs. The day was pleasant and, other than having our taxi charged by a bull, peaceful and relaxing.

We leave to Delhi tonight and have decided to take a 50-hour train ride all the way south to Kerala next week, where we hope to settle in for a while. No wi-fi in Udaipur, but we'll upload photos soon enough.

Love,

Jeremy and Ali

Friday, November 6, 2009

Crowds, Forts, and More Monkeys

The streets of Varanasi are unrelentingly colorful, curvy and crowded. Vendors sell everything from 2 ounce cups of chai ladled out of big bubbling vats, to deep fried mashed potato patties and samosas drenched in corn sauce, to medicines, spices, underpants, gold jewelry, pots, pans, office furniture, and silk sarees and scarves (Varanasi's speciality). As much as we've been enjoying the hustle and bustle and getting lost-even Lonely Planet's maps didn't help us here-on our last day we decided to venture over to a different and more peaceful part of town.

After strolling through the quiet and peaceful tree-lined streets of Banares Hindu University, supposedly one of India's finer institutions of higher learning (it was a holiday and very few students were on campus), we attempted, for the first time all week, to cross the Ganges river. With the help of some students we took a bicycle rickshaw to a large and slightly rickety bridge at the end of a shanty town, navigating loose boards for 15 minutes until the bridge came to an abrupt end--50 meters from shore. Sadly, we retraced our steps and managed to board a tiny row boat with one oarsmen and at least 35 passengers. We made it across in time to see the sun go down from the ruins of a majestic colonial fort.

The boatride home served as a perfect viewing point for Dev Deepawali (not to be confused with Deepawali, which we celebrated recently in Pokhara), a huge Hindi holiday marking the crescendo of a festive week called Ganga Mahostav. Celebrations were scheduled to take place all up and down the river, aiming to make people feel like they are "in heaven, witnessing a celestial happening." Accustomed to peaceful Nepalese holidays, we were surprised as we floated back into the old city to be greeted by Vegas-style flashing lights, techno music, and periodic bursts of ear-splitting fireworks. Less rattling were the burning candles set in small clay saucers decorating all of the stairs leading up from the river and into the various temples and shrines.

We disembarked in the middle of the madness at the main Ghat, where the celebrations and crowds were at their most intense. As we attempted to make our way to a calmer place from which to view the festivities, we were swept up in a stream of people, struggling to keep our feet on the ground. Suddenly, we found ourselves herded into a particularly narrow and jammed passageway and quickly realized that women and families seemed to have vanished; mainly young men remained. A few groping hands and a minor altercation later, the sea split and we escaped to the relative safety of our hotel terrace. Relating the incident to our friendly hotel receptionist, who, judging by prior conversations, was a bit paranoid about the safety of western women, he told us: "nice people don't go to the river on holiday." We weren't quite sure what to make of that, given the impressive number of foreign-and Indian-tourists who had descended on the city to take part in the festivities. But as the old adage goes: India is a funny country. We are learning more and more about it.

After a 12-hour train ride during which we sat across from a sweet, recently-married Indian couple who were dropped off and picked up by a horde of male family members, we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In Agra, the lemon tea is terrible, the vegetable curries are extremely spicy, postcard peddlers are amazingly persistent, and Jeremy had a bag of bananas ripped from his hands by monkeys on two separate occasions, to the absolute delight of passerby.

There is an unbelievable concentration of majestic forts, mausoleums and mosques in a 5 km radius, which we toured with a warm and yoga-obsessed rickshaw driver on day 1. Visiting the Taj Mahal and seeing it from various riverbanks and rooftop restaurants has been a surprisingly powerful experience. The structure itself is incredibly mesmerizing, seductive and, yes, romantic.

Anyway, our health has improved and the series of unfortunate events seems to have at least temporarily ceased. We arrived this morning in Udaipur, a smallish city, by Indian standards, in Rajasthan, where we will spend the next week enjoying hot water (first warm showers in over 2 weeks!) and celebrating Ali's birthday by taking cooking lessons and horse-rides and treating her to a long massage.

No wi-fi here so it might be a while till pictures are loaded.

Love,

A and J

Friday, October 30, 2009

Varanasi

“India is a very funny country.” Thus we were informed by a friendly young local just minutes after crossing the border from Nepal into India, as we argued heatedly with a jeep driver who kept trying to cram more people into our already overcrowded vehicle. We succeeded in limiting the number of passengers to 10, but our ride was hardly uneventful. About an hour and a half in, midway between the border and Gorakhpur, where we were to catch a train to Varanasi, our driver stopped the vehicle in a remote area and refused to move another inch until all the foreign passengers forked over money for gas. We finally relented, and soon thereafter he sat down to a lengthy dinner while we waited, and waited...

On the train, Ali slept peacefully in a spot by the window despite developing two small but very itchy rashes and patches of fifteen or so strange bites on her neck, shoulder, and shin, while Jeremy talked politics with a pharmaceutical salesman who disapproved of American foreign policy vis-a-vis India and Pakistan and, more generally, of Pakistan as a whole. It was a mellow night, relatively speaking, but things picked up again once in Varanasi, an extremely holy Hindu city on the Ganges river. Since arriving here, we have spent a good deal of time warding off rickshaw drivers and old men offering 10 rupee hand massages (they greet you with a handshake, but then refuse to let go and begin rubbing and squeezing vigorously while saying, yes, hand massage, very nice, very cheap). We have also observed (and smelled) public cremations from ten feet away, seen a tiny dead baby floating in the river just feet from where people were bathing, taken a boat ride at dawn to see an astoundingly beautiful sunrise amidst many burning candles set on lotus flowers in the water, and attended a hypnotic sitar concert.

To top it all off, Ali developed a painful blister on the roof of her mouth from eating spicy street food at a stand popular with locals, and, on the way back to our hotel, was on the losing end of an inadvertent showdown with a large and horned water-buffalo, resulting in a headbutt and a sizable bruise on her arm. The next day she got very sick. India, it turns out, is not a very nice place to feel nauseous. A mixture of cow poop, human urine, masala curry spice, sweet fried milk treats, sandalwood incense, rotting fruit and worse in piles of trash, motorcycle exhaust, and burning fires from the ghats assails the senses at every step. Luckily she was eventually able to sleep it off and hold down some food with the help of the British Digestive biscuits Jeremy hunted down.

Despite all this, we like Varanasi—enough that we decided to spend ten days here—and both of us feel the happiest and most excited to be traveling we have since beginning the journey. India, after all, is a funny country.

The first thing that strikes you about the “oldest city in the world” is how natural life processes are constantly on display. Public cremations take place continuously throughout the day and the bodies unfit for burning (people who died of snake bites, holy men, sadhus, children under eighteen, and pregnant women) float wrapped (and occasionally unwrapped) down the river intermingling with people washing themselves and their clothes, or just taking a dip in the holy waters. We have been surprised at how casually and frequently people bring up their own death in conversation and at the crowds that gather to watch the cremations because they are so “peaceful.” Indeed, strangely, they are.

Our confidence as travelers is increasing in part because we are finding our traveling pace and partnership more and more and also because we recently purchased new Indian-style outfits (photos to come).

Much Love,

A and J

p.s. We finally uploaded the rest of the Nepal pictures, click here to see them. Varanasi pictures to come.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pony Trek

Yesterday we embarked on a full-day “pony trek” to Sarangkot, a beautiful mountain view destination which we were unable to do on foot because of Ali's knees. Our guide arrived with two unhappy and unhealthy looking ponies. When we asked him how long he had had them for, he replied that he used to have ten ponies but eight of them died. Not a very fortuitous beginning to the day.

It was decided that since Ali had experience riding horses horses, she would get the big “scary” pony and since Jeremy did not he got the small “nice” pony (as the guide's friend described them). The guide himself would walk beside us the whole way. This seemed like a real feat especially since he was wearing too-small flip flops that kept coming off and had very short legs.

The guide told us that he would take us up a different path than the usual trekking route because on that route he could find “no peace” with tourists talk, talk, talking all the time. We were happy to try something different, if a little hesitant to ask him many more questions. The route was scenic and very quiet indeed, the only intrusions being bulls, yaks, and cows which would alternately run for cover out of fear from the ponies or stand menacingly in our way until the guide beat his stick at them. It was also, at times, terrifying. For example, when our ponies stumbled and slipped up a steep slope of sliding rocks or were pulled up a tall and narrow set of stone stairs by the guide, or when Jeremy's pony attempted now and then to make a run for it in the woods, with him on it, or when the guide said that because the regular road was broken, we would have to make a new road: “It's a bad system, but it's the Nepali way.”

As the day progressed the guide became increasingly talkative and jolly and even took out a small radio so he could listen to his favorite music as we walked. The mountain views were breathtaking as we wound through rice paddies and small villages. Our butts were very sore at the end of this at times nerve-racking day, but we were happy.

Tomorrow we make a 26-hour voyage to India. Wish us luck.

Love,

Jeremy and Ali

p.s. there is another new post below.

Osho Planet


The past week in Pokhara has included both a well-needed break and some new adventures. We decided to upgrade our cockroach-infested lake room to a six-dollar one in Hamlet Lodge, which was closer to Central Lakeside and had an attached bathroom and a large balcony overlooking the lake. Oh, luxury. It has been really nice to escape from all the unpacking and packing and settle into one place for more than a few days.

Note from Ali: During this time I have been reflecting about all the tension I carry in trying to be constantly responsible and prepared for life. Because of this feeling, traveling is both a freeing and aggravating experience for me. Freeing since the whole point of travel is delving into the unknown with openness to the unexpected which pushes me to relinquish a certain amount of control. But it is also aggravating when things which involve our health and welfare or the safety of our stuff feel less secure than what I am used to. Not panicking or being overly worried in these cases, such as when we tie our luggage to the roof racks of crowded public buses hoping for the best, is something I really want to work on.

Note from Jeremy: I, too, have been reflecting on sources of tension—not just trying to get the best deals on eggs, papayas and taxis, but also adapting to a mode of traveling very different than what I'm used to. Ali and I both prefer exploring by endless walking, but it's impossible with her knee troubles. It's been difficult to find a comfortable traveling style that minimizes walking and cost but still gives us a real taste for a place, but the process has yielded some pleasant surprises. On another note, I like how our days generally revolve around meals, and I've become quite fond of the tendency in Nepali restaurants to offer free refills on rice and lentils for hungrier people. Definitely something America should consider.

In the spirit of transitioning into a more relaxed, open traveling style, we participated earlier this week in a “full day programme” at “Osho Planet,” a studio located in a family's home which we stumbled upon near our hotel. As some of you know, Osho is a spiritual guru whose writings and meditation practices have been pretty important to Ali, so she was excited. The large board advertising the program outside the studio promised the following activities from 6:45 am-7:30pm: yogic cleansing, dancing meditation, discourses on living a stress-free life, evening and morning meditations, 2 yoga classes, a breathing class, self-massage session, 2 steam baths, 2 tea breaks, breakfast, lunch, a celebration, and dinner. The actual program, while quite peaceful and relaxing, was slightly different.

We were greeted in the morning by a slightly overweight and extremely sweaty Indian man who did not speak much English and began instructing us in a series of calisthenics, including running in place. This developed into stretches such as, touch your toe to your ear twenty one times on each side, very slowly. Then, tea, followed by more stretching and a four hour resting break. The afternoon included more tea, a breathing lesson, a laying down meditation where we were repeatedly instructed to not fall asleep and to imagine ourselves entering a great palace, and a sitting meditation where we imagined ourselves floating on a lotus by the lake. At 4:30, shortly before we had dinner, the odd and portly guru told Jeremy that he reminded him of himself. Despite the peculiarities, we left feeling good and still are.

Love,

Ali and Jeremy

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Deepawali


Since we last posted we have visited the Himalayan mountain town of Dhulikel where we ate dhal baat twice a day and mandarins off the trees, climbed 1,000 more stairs to a newly-built large golden Buddha, and purchased an electric kettle. We actually stayed just outside Dhulikhel on the top floor of a warm and friendly family's home. Being in Dhulikhel was peaceful and rejuvenative and offered a nice break from all the pollution and noise of the city, but yesterday we took a very long bouncy bus ride to Pokhara which left our eyes burning and snot black.

In Nepal, it is Deepawali the Festival of lights. As one local explained to us: on the first day, everyone feeds the crows and on the second day, the bulls. On the third day all the children prance around the city in fancy costumes singing and dancing and collecting donations from local business owners. On the fourth day the women sing and the next day the men do. On the last and most important day (this Tuesday) all the brothers and sisters exchange gifts.

Pokhara was lit up last night by birthday candles affixed to the sidewalks and decorated by small circular chalk drawings outside shops and homes. Throughout that evening and today, what seemed like spontaneous dances and music performances filled the streets. Everyone is in a very festive mood and it's exciting to be here.

We are staying in what our hotel owner called "a simple room." Cockroaches and geckos may pay occasional visits but it directly overlooks Phewa Tal lake and only costs 3 US dollars. As an added bonus there is fresh mint growing out front, which we have been using in conjunction with our kettle to make tea.

Click here to look at new photos from Nepal.


Love,

Jeremy and Ali

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Lama

Once again my weak knees have led to something wonderful! Two days ago I was recovering from a stomach bug and the climb up the temple stairs (and yes, Julia, Jeremy did carry me up at least a third of them) and Jeremy set out for a solo adventure up to Kopan monastery. Luckily, he got disoriented leaving a grocery store and ended up taking a long scenic detour. About half an hour from the monastery in a small Tibetan village he met the son of a lama.

A few minutes later he found himself in the lama's prayer room surrounded by his sons and daughters. The whole family paints thankas, colorful religious artwork that requires scrupulous attention to detail and proportion. After pleasant conversation and a brief lecture on Tibetan Buddhism translated by one of the daughters the lama insisted that Jeremy return the following afternoon for lunch. After Jeremy explained my knee problems, the lama indicated that since I had already seen doctors to no avail, a blessing might be in order.

We made the hour-long journey to the lama's house the following day bearing biscuits as a gift. After some small talk the ceremony began: I sat cross-legged for forty minutes visualizing the green goddess Tara removing my obstacles and healing me. The lama, Tsering, chanted from religious scrolls which he told us were the words the Buddha used to heal the sick in an era before there were reliable doctors. This chanting was punctuated by blowing into my face and on my knees (initially the face blow was very surprising since my eyes were closed.) Midway through he drenched me with holy water and sprinkled rice on my head. To close the ceremony he directed into my mouth three handfuls of holy water (which tasted old and unpurified and like it might lead to a case of giardia or worse.) As I stood up to leave the ceremonial cushion I almost fell and then walked very strangely over to my seat beside Jeremy to the great consternation of the group. Once I explained that my feet and legs had fallen asleep during the long sit everyone had a good chuckle.

Silliness aside, the ceremony was magical for me and the genuine and passionate concern for my welfare on the part of the lama and the participating daughter was deeply touching. Jeremy, who had at the lama's instruction been patiently praying in the corner, found it particularly moving when mama lama delivered us heaping platters of rice, lentils, and freshly slaughtered chicken. I was also excited but a little scared given that all my stomach could digest in the past four days was "digestive biscuits" and bananas. In my head I kept thinking, please please don't let me have to use the bathroom until after we leave their house. Well, I didn't. We exchanged vows of eternal friendship and gratitude with the family (and the daughter gave me lots of hugs) and promised to eat well and stay in touch.

We had an eventful and restful week in Bodhnath and are back in Thamel, Kathmandu for the evening. Tomorrow we leave for Dhulikel, a small Newari village two hours east of here. Supposedly we will treated to great views of the Himalayas and mandarin oranges fresh off the trees at the Shiva Guest House.

Click here for pictures of Nepal so far (temples, monkeys, and monks!)

Love,

Ali and Jeremy

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kathmandu Valley

We'd been in Hong Kong for 4 days, but it wasn't until we arrived in Nepal that we really felt our trip had begun. Kathmandu is full of contradictions. The streets are hectic, bumpy and unpaved, and full of honking motorcycles, water-bottle-tooting rickshaws and trapped taxis. But just off--and sometimes directly on--the main road are huge, holy stupas and stone carvings of deities. We enjoyed Kathmandu and our sweet but noisy guesthouse, but after two days, decided to escape to the relative tranquility of Tibetan-oriented Bodhnath.

It was raining when we got here, and the mud and puddles made the short trek to our guesthouse--the Lotus--difficult. But it was worth it. Our room looks out over a monastery catering to young Nepalese boys who spend their afternoons playing cricket (or, as Ali excitedly declared, "Look! They're playing baseball with paddles!") Unfortunately, as we learned very, very early this morning, they spend the beginning part of the day differently: We awoke at around 5 AM to loud chanting, which gradually turned into a cacophony of gong-wacking, trumpet blowing and general ruckus-making. After we survived the initial shock, it was actually quite beautiful.

Yesterday, before making the half hour commute to Bodhnath, we went to Swayambhunath (aka "Monkey Temple.") We climbed approximately 3,000 stairs to reach an enormous Tibetan prayer-flag filled universe, complete with wild macaques (large baboon-like monkeys) dangling from trees and swinging from temple roof to remple roof. There are ancient carvings jammed into every nook and cranny, and many Buddhist and Hindu devotees making offerings. It was a magical experience, but it was also quite wet. Fortunately, when we entered a nearby Tibetan tea-shop afterwards, we were greeted by 2 very cheerful, and very drunk Nepalese men, one of whom spoke excellent English. Their favorite game was "how much did you pay?" When we informed him that we had paid $1.25 for incense, he and his pal broke into gales of laughter (it should have cost 40 cents). As a gesture of goodwill, he insisted on buying us tea (20 cents per cup) and we traded emails before parting ways.

Ali felt a little funny in her stomach this morning after breakfast, but hopefully will recover soon. Generally, we have been eating really well--rice, lentils, vegetable curry and Tibetan noodle soup, as well as large pots of masala tea. We've also been taking things pretty easy so far and are finally starting to feel a little less disoriented as a result of the 12 hour time difference.

Ta ta for now. We'll post pictures soon.

Love,

Jeremy and Ali

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hong Kong




Day Three in Hong Kong is coming to an end and so far we have spent a lot of the time recovering from jet lag in the public parks. The parks here are pretty incredible- they all have museums, Tai Chi courts, aviaries, and Chinese foot massage patches. Unfortunately they do not have any grass to lay in :(. I tried laying on a bench but got instructed by a very stern security guard to sit properly.
We have been doing a lot more relaxing in nice places than we normally would because of my knees. Even though at times its frustrating, its also relieves the pressure of having to see everything and has given us a real feel for park culture here - a lot of old men doing Tai Chi.

Its a good week to be in Hong Kong. Yesterday we went to a lantern carnival to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, an impressively corporate affair that also included a free cantonese opera. Plus, when we showed my knee braces and grimaced the guard let us into the special V.I.P. seating area. Outside of the carnival space families were gathered on the grass burning candles and eating mooncakes.

Tonight we went to a Dragon Dance festival, an annual celebration commemorating an incident 130 years ago where the sulfur from a lot of fireworks got rid of a plague. Or so we understood from the loudspeakers... A huge stick dragon with fireworks attached to it was led through the streets accompanied by a drum set. The event was packed and everyone was really excited and snapping photos constantly.

The most shocking thing for me about being in Hong Kong is all of the billboards and posters in train stations and on the street of nearly naked young girls and women with a price next to them and a number to call. I can't imagine how Chinese women must feel walking by these every day.

Our hostel is kinda groddy and we are excited for Nepal! Arriving to Kathmandu tomorrow evening...

Click here to see our pictures.

Love!
Ali (and Jeremy)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Day 1

September 26th 11am-

Our adventure begins! This morning we arrived at the airport and were not able to check in because I had a security freeze on my name. This was a little scary especially given the fact that I accidentally left my license plates on when I sold my car to a man I later realized was a drug dealer. The United Representative assured me it was probably random selection, but I am not so sure. Then going through security Jeremy got stopped because he tried to take two zucchinis in his carry on bag. Luckily, the security screener was pretty amused with the situation and let the zucchinis through but advised him to place them in a 1 quart ziploc bag next time around.

Yesterday we found out that both our flight to Hong Kong and to Kathmandu is leaving a day earlier than expected. A little sad, but I guess we need to get used to these types of changes.

It finally feels real that we are going to be traveling for seven months and I have to admit I am feeling a little dread along with the excitement and anticipation. I plan on getting us some safety and harmony tailsmans in San Francisco. I am hoping I will be able to stay open and relaxed with most everything that comes up and not take anything too seriously. I also feel relieved since I got a rolling backpack yesterday and won't have to stress about carrying my backpack around with my weak knees.

Well thats all for now. I love you all!

-Ali