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)