Thursday, September 29, 2011

Riding the Rails

'Catching the Train' has a whole new meaning here in India. Here they take the saying more literally. If you can 'catch' the train, you can ride it. We love watching people scamper down the platform after a departing train, grabbing onto the handles outside the open door and swing themselves inside. Old, small, young, regardless of luggage- this is how Indians 'catch' trains. This morning, waiting for our train to finally make its appearance at the station, I laughed, watching the scene replay itself over and over again. I remembered that time Jonathan, Gramma and I were in Dublin, catching an above ground metro train. There was a bit of a crush and Gramma and I made it onto the train just before the sleek, glassy doors slammed abruptly shut in Jonathan's face. We watched, stunned, as our train pulled away and left Jonathan standing there on the platform. Its funny now, of course. That would have never happened in India. Jonathan could just hang off the back!

All the trains in India have a name. At first, I thought that not only was this a fun idea, but also it might help us decipher the faster trains from the 'milk delivery' sort. The Something or Other 'Express', they are all called. What a complete and utter fallacy. There is nothing express about any of India's trains. I just had to get that out there. The train that we are currently sitting on is called the Dedra Dun Express. We are going a total of 447km and it is going to take us a total of 10 hours and 13 minutes, assuming, of course, that it is on time, which it isn't. 'Express', it seems simply to mean a pretty slow train that will only stop every ten minutes, as opposed to every five, and will probably arrive before the non-Super Fast train. But, who am I to complain? Our train from Delhi to Amritsar, second class, open window, which took a total of 8 hours cost us $5. Total. For both of us! And we had reserved seats! Its even cheaper in the non reserved section. (Not that anyone should ever, ever do that to themselves). Its Literally pennies to travel by train. And, train travel is far more luxurious than the buses we have been taking through the hill towns. Especially when you 'splurge' for the AC coach- which we have done since our long, hot ride to Amritsar. And by 'splurge' I mean and eight hour train journey with more spacious seating and aircon will cost $10 each, instead of $2.50. Big percentage more, small amount. Worth every penny.

Speaking of those ridiculously cheap non reserved train cars, the class in which most Indians travel, our guide book says it well. 'Incredibly packed... and best avoided for longer trips...unless you are exceptionally hardy or unusually poor.' These trains are 'so cheap as to be virtually free.' We have had our share of free train rides here, though! Fifty cents, total, for both of us to travel two hours, as an example. It would have been really hard for me to imagine how 'incredibly packed' these trains could be if I hadn't seen it with my very own, wide, unblinking eyes. (Thankfully 'seen' not 'experienced'). I was looking out the window from the comfort of my airconditioned berth. We were at a station and were slowly passing a local train. I couldn't look away (for once, I was the one stare-er as opposed to the stare-ie). There were bodies and body parts in every available inch of space. Men sat on eachother's laps, feet, legs, arms, torsos were jutting out everywhere, so tangled that you couldnt tell which limbs belonged to which body. Random feet were resting on stranger's heads, arms around necks, bodies hanging out of the train. People were trying desperately to grab the window bars and shove whatever part of their faces that they could through the grimy bars, just to gasp some air. The space between the cars was jammed. People were suspended in the air, being held up by the bodies of other passengers. It was almost comical. Only because I wasn't one of the people on the train. People were crammed in to the point where it looked impossible that it was actually real. There was a guy sitting, his back against one car, his feet propped up against the next car, only his bottom wasn't on the ground! He was being held up by everyone else. One other young guy sat on the steps between the cars, pressed up against the side of the car, one side of his head resting against the car, the other padded by a large man's round pot belly! Seriously! He couldn't move his head. It was, to me, a fascinating display of what is considered to be in the realm of 'acceptable' here in India. If you can find space, its yours. There's crammed like Rome at World Youth Day, like the subway at rush hour in London, the train in Spain, but no where we've been, nothing I've seen, compares to this. If that subway or that train would have been in India, they would have figured how to jam another 100 people in somehow.. plus 50 hanging off and another 20 on the roof. Its impressive to the point that is horrifying. Clown cars have nothing on Third Class Non Reserved India Rail cars.

Sitting in the air-conditioning, in a berth that had four of the possible six passengers, the juxtaposition was overwhelming. Watching the kids with dirty clothes and painted faces beg for money and food from the passengers. Gazing at people, young and old, going to the bathroom between the tracks. The dogs scampering in front of oncoming trains. The cows begging for treats from people like they are household pets. The shanti men in their white and orange cloth carrying their alms bowls. All this is happening while I am sitting there, sipping chai, delivered to me from a chai wallah that roams the train dispensing sweet tea to those who have the 5 rupees to pay for it. Sitting there, trying to decide whether I should watch or look away. But this is India. A country of contrasts. And its too fascinating and foreign not to look. You attempt (and fail) to take it all in.

India, to me, is colour. If I had to pick one word to describe this great subcontinent, colour would be my choice. Of course, India is so much more than one word. Its hot, its beautiful, its bountiful, its poor, its rich, its incredible... but in all this, its colourful. Today, on the train, I am reminded again of why my word for India is colour. The trains are a bright blue, to start, not the boring dark navy blue like in the west, blue like the bluest sky. The people crammed onto the trains are dressed in sparkling saris, or patterned suits or even just colourful shirts and pants. Their skin is warm cocoa, in contrast to the bright blue train and red and yellow clothes. Just the sheer number of people on the train, all dressed in their everyday clothes is a shockingly colourful sight. One thing is for sure, thankfully, India is not a country ashamed of showing off its colours.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are You Married?

India has been wonderful. By far one of our favourite countries to visit of all time. One of the things though, that will (almost) never fail to frustrate me though, is the staring. I know, I know, we look very white and pastey and we dress funny, this is true. And I'm not complaining about this, I'm just saying, so all of you at home can get a realistic picture of what travel in these parts is all about. Ok, maybe I'm complaining a little bit- but mostly I'm informing. ok? Anyways, I think the three months we spent in China was a good breaking-in for us. Now, sometimes I barely even notice that everyone in the entire train station is looking at me. E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E. (Not complaining- just saying).

The reason I even write this is because a funny thing we've noticed -the staring here is different, somehow. Staring is staring, yes, but the feeling I get in India (creeped out) is not the same as in China (not creepy). Its (some) Indian men, of course, that are doing the creeping. They leer. Its like you can tell that they are unabashedly staring at you, and that there are little creepy wheels turning in their creepy little heads. And you don't want to know what is going on up there. Where as in China, they stared like their brains were turned off. In China it was like we were too foreign to comprehend. In India, they are creative.

The other thing is that there are far, far more Indian men out and loitering about. In restaurants, on trains, on the street-its men, men and men. Everywhere. I don't know where all the women are hiding. I'm not usually the kind of person who is intimidated by this sort thing, and its not that I am intimidated, per-say in India, but still I find myself forcing Jonathan to do all the talking (this is hard for me, you can imagine). He just gets a better response than I do. If I try to negotiate I often end up just getting super annoyed by the way some men talk to me. Sometimes they just plain ignore me. A swift slap might fix the problem... haha. Its not always an equal playing field, and it is very obvious to me, as a woman. And being in a room where I am the only female is surprisingly uncomfortable. So, both sides are bad, really- there's the rude-ness in contrast(?) with the leering...not a good combo.

Men almost always talk to Jonathan only, even if I'm standing right there. If they do address me, they call me 'sir.' Although I don't know why. If I had a rupee for every time I witnessed this conversation... well would probably only have about 50 rupees and that would be just over a dollar...

Creepo is watching us and saunters over, creepster fashion.
'Is this your friend?' asks creepy Indian man to Jonathan. I am standing beside Jonathan, rolling my eyes.
'No, this is my wife.' Jonathan responds.
'Oh, very good,' or something equally as irritating, he will say. I sigh as the creepster looks me over, wondering what would happen if we weren't married. How many water buffalo am I worth? If it weren't for the leering, it would be rather entertaining! Maybe we could even convince creepo to throw in a goat for good measure!

ps. There are so many people who give us this feeling in India. Remember, though, that this is a country of about one billion people: there is also so many more people who are the exact opposite of this. We are even fortunate enough to know a healthy handful of them personally.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Out of Office

This note is to inform you that we will be 'away from our desks' for the next month or so... trekking in the Himalayas!! We will be hiking the Annapurna Circuit, said to be one of the world's classic hikes! We plan to take it slow and enjoy the views and side trips. If there happens to be lots of time, as we are in such good shape (haha) we might also attempt the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, although it is unlikely.

Worry not. We have post-dated blogs (about India) to cover our entire trek, so every few days, no matter what snowy peak we may be on, a new blog will pop up here! Exciting, right? The time on this trip that we are the most isolated from civilization will be the time when our blog is posted the most consistently. Go figure.

We plan to be back, enjoying the luxuries (eggplant pizza) of Pokhara by the 20th of October! Happy Trails to Us!

ps. Yes, this also means we will not be able to respond to any emails or even (gasp) facebook messages!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It happened...

It took exactly 350 days of travel, but finally, it happened. Every traveler's (and parent's) dread. We had to make a trip to a hospital. A Nepali hospital. Just to clear it up from the beginning, it was nothing major and all is now well (ok, still on the mend). Almost a year of travel, the majority of it in Asia, and we figured we were safe. We had stomachs of steel. We figured wrong. It was myself (Kristen) that was the reason for the hospital rendezvous. This was surprising in its own, seeing as though we had long considered my stomach to be the stronger of the two. I was actually quite proud of my belly, showing no reaction over the last eleven months on the nights when poor Jonathan's little gut was rather violently disagreeing with our choice of dinner. It was waiting for its 'big' debut, I suppose.

I'll spare you all the gory details, though. To summarize, after almost two days (including the whhoooole, looooong night) of merciless diarrhea, a pounding headache, throwing up, exhaustion, sore bones, being starving but nauseous, taking turns sweating and shivering and generally rolling around moaning and whining, for both our benefits, we decided a visit to the Nepali hospital was in order. Its easy to get overwhelmed and a little paranoid when you get sick while traveling in Asia. There are just so many more things that could be wrong. And the infections or diseases that you could possibly get while traveling could not only put a damper on current travel, but also can affect you for the rest of your life! I could have malaria, or typhoid or dengue fever or hepatitis or giardia.... The symptoms are all quite similarly vague. 'You feel awful,' they might as well have written in the Health section of our guidebook.

Jonathan was fantastic. What a good nurse! He ran around buying me cold water and Sprite, he paced the restaurant while they made me toast, found boiled water to dissolve the re-hydration powder into, rubbed my back, fixed the fan, changed the channel on the TV and regaled me with stories from his frequent visits to the chemist (pharmacist). He had been looking for something for me to take to calm my pounding headache. No one knew what 'acetaminophen' (tylenol) was, so they gave him something called 'Nimesulide tablets,' which they said would clear my head. Being the good husband he is, he looked the pills up on the internet and discovered that this drug is banned in more countries than its not, including Canada, because of the severe damage it is known to cause to the liver! Guess we'll be flushing those... Back to the chemist. Did Jonathan want Codeine? Morphine? The pharmacists were trying to be helpful. You can get anything over the counter in these parts! Anyways, more research by Dr. Moon revealed that acetaminophen is also called paracetamol (good to know) and then, of course, it was easy to find. Five rupees for eight 500mg pills! That's literally almost free. I did the math. One pill costs $0.0085 Canadian. Not even a penny! Think of all the money these drug companies make in the West with the mark up that they sell it to us at!! Actually, I don't want to think about it.

So, back to the main event. Jonathan went to call our insurance company so that we could make a claim when we got home. We didn't know how much anything at the hospital was going to cost, and wanted to be sure we would be reimbursed, especially if it got pricey. Who knew, maybe even the hospital had 'tourist prices.' I had literally just, the other day, been thinking how lucky we were to have been traveling for so long and not had to go to a hospital. What a jinx. Our travel insurance is through Travel Cuts. When Jonathan got back to the room after phoning the insurance agent, he told me that he was incredibly impressed by the our plan's coverage (which we had partially forgot about) and the insurance agent on the phone, and that it was the best phone service he had ever received! He even talked to a real person after only three rings! That makes a difference to me. Anyways, everything was covered, we were set to go to the hospital and a taxi was on its way. Perfect.

Three hours in the hospital and we were on our way home with antibiotics for my dysentry. The doctors were great, spoke English and were helpful. The security guards lead us around like VIPs and never let Jonathan stand in line to pay for anything- they ushered him to the front every time (aka: an authorized butt.) The worst part about it all was the disgusting 'orange' flavoured re-hydration powder that the doctor insisted Jonathan mix into a litre of water for me (and then prescribed me THREE more packs to take home- great). This stuff is truly horrible. Ew! Ew! I think Jonathan enjoyed forcing me to gulp it down, 'for my own good.' Ew! Ew! Ew! Essentially, its salty water that is supposed to replenish all the stuff I have lost with the diarrhea...and, for the record they shouldn't be able to say that it is 'flavoured' anything other than gross. Ew! Isn't this what Gatorade is for? Electrolytes and all that jazz? Seriously, I want to know. Why can you buy morphine here and not Gatorade?!

Anyways, it might be of interest for any travellers who read our blog to know approximately how much such an adventure to a hospital in Nepal would cost (in Canadian dollars). We went to the Christian Mission Hospital ('We serve, but Jesus Saves' is their motto) in Tansen, recommended the super helpful owner of our guesthouse. The phone call to our insurance in Canada was supposed to be a collect call, but the Nepal operators weren't able to mediate one. Our hotel probably would have charged us the same price anyways, and regardless, it will still be reimbursed by the insurance.

Phone call to Insurance: $11.85 for 13min
Taxi (return) to the hospital: $6.85
Emergency Room fee: $3.08
Stool test cost: $0.82
One week of Antibiotics and horrible Re-Hydration packs: $2.05

Yes, ridiculously cheap (for us) but hopefully affordable for Nepalis. We had no idea what our trip to the hospital would cost. Turns out, not a lot. Ironically, the phone call to the insurance company was, by far, the most expensive part of the whole thing! Don't worry, we'll be making our $20 claim when we get home. Big bucks.
Well, that's why we have insurance, isn't it?

ps. We are in Nepal now, but our blog will be in India for about another month. What can we say, India is one very interesting country!

pps. Welcome Home Mom & Dad Moon!

ppps. Happy Birthday, Mandy!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Walk on the Wild Side

There are plenty of nice ashrams and temples to go walking to in the Rishikesh area. We have spent quite a bit of time walking about, although the heat and scorching sun have been a deterrent. Feeling brave, and needing to stretch my legs after all the work at yoga we decided on the 6km walk out to the Phool Chatti ashram, at the apex of a clear, blue stream and the muddy, swift opaque ganges. We ate breakfast and sipped spicy chai at our favourite breakfast spot and left the comfort of the fan for the steamy, sunsoaked outdoors.

The walk is along an Indian road, which poses dangers in itself, what with all the jeeps crammed with locals flying (sometimes literally) up and down the narrow way. And the motorbikes, with no less than three passengers, none of whom seem to be actually paying attention to the road. Most of the road is covered in cow patties. I guess that's one of the main downfalls of all the friendly, resident, wandering cows that beg passerbys for a chip or two from their bag, 'Magic Masala' preferably. (Or their favourite treat: cardboard boxes. Those they eat with relish. They especially like the Coca Cola variety.) Anyways. Poo. Everywhere. And these cows eat a diet consisting almost entirely of garbage and pretty much anything and everything, except grass, so you can imagine that they aren't perhaps the healthiest of beasts. This is reflected in their spattering, smearing, stinky poo that they effectively spread over every inch of the road. Impressive, really. They rarely miss a spot. A stroll anywhere in India is, essentially a Cow Pattie Obstacle Course. And many people seem to like to complete this obstacle course barefoot! So, to summarize, the 'steps' of walking.

Step One: Avoid being hit by a wayward vehicle. They honk, you moooove. That's it. The cows seem to manage... then again, they are the sacred ones.

Step Two: Good luck trying to avoid walking through cow poo. Get your wellies!

The thick, jungle-y forest that lines the road is sublime, though. And the monkeys!
Sometimes I think about the time when monkeys running amok, clambering through trees and peering curiously at you from the side of the road wasn't a normal, everyday sight. I would think it was a sad time- if the monkeys themselves weren't so terrifying. They don't mean to be, I'm sure. But they don't know any better. People have fed them in the past, and they are still optimistic about handouts, they get yelled at a lot, because they are so very mischievous, and people sometimes even hit them with sticks (sad, I know). So, really, people are much to blame for some of the behaviour. When we were getting all our shots for the trip, the nurse recommended we get a rabies shot, in case a monkey jumps on us. I laughed when she said that. What the heck kind of situation would we find ourselves in that a monkey might jump on us. Ohhh how little I knew. The nurses warning has stuck, and now, to me, monkey = rabies. And rabies = a lot of needles. You can die from rabies within 24hours. This I didn't know until the needle nurse horrified me with this little tidbit. Sad, but true.

Step Three: Don't feed the monkeys.

Anyways, on a positive note, there are two kinds of monkeys here in Rishikesh. Feisty smaller red-bummed rhesus macaque and large black-faced, grey bodied 'Hanuman' langurs. Both are abundant and abundantly mischievious. So, we begin our walk by hiding our water bottle and making sure that there is nothing fun-looking or shiny dangling from our beings. Although we see monkeys now, everyday, everywhere, I still can't help but be charmed by their monkey ways. "Hahaha! That monkey just clambered across the roof and stole that apple, and then skidded across the electrical wire, down the drain pipe, scrambled across the street and scared the wits out of that couple!' 'Hahaha! Its 6am and those monkeys are wrestling on the tin roof, causing one heck of a ruckus!' Its probably less entertaining when you live here.
So, what I am actually trying to say is that you have to have your wits about you when walking through the forest.

We walk to the edge of town and are joined by a cute black dog with an incessantly waggy tail. Stray dogs join us on walks often. 'Maybe because their doggie sense tells them that we're friendly?' We originally thought. But, no, its because we don't immediately yell at them, kick them, throw sticks at them or jump at them aggressively trying to scare them. That's what most locals do. Earning a dogs love in these parts is not hard. They do not have high standards. Therefore, dogs join us for walks, and use us for protection (and often protect us against other animals!). They seem to have figured out that people won't hit them if they are 'attached' to other people. We walked along, our new doggie friend heeling in between us. The monkeys and dogs aren't friends. "Dog" (aren't we creative with names?) hid from the monkeys behind us. We're walking along, sweaty in the mid-morning sun, taking in the green, the monkeys and the rushing ganges. Dog is sniffing a bush. Recipe for disaster. All of the sudden a large monkey, aggressively jumps out at him, barring his teeth in warning. We all jump in surprise and Dog runs to hide behind us. Sigh. And the adventure begins.

Step Four: Watch out for cute, trouble causing tag-alongs.

People stop us to take pictures. Its all part of the routine now. One snap of us, then everyone takes turns taking a photo with us, they thank us, shake our hands and we move on. I feel bad that I am so sweaty and gross-looking for their photos. One guy even insists on hugging us. I am wet with sweat. Its so hot. Poor guy. I'm gross.

Step Five: Smile for the camera.

We keep trucking. If it wasn't so darn hot, it would be very enjoyable. 'I wish it wasn't so hot!' I whine for the tenth time in as many minutes. There's barely even a breeze. Dog lies down in a river that has taken over the road, covering the patch in muddy, cool water. He slurps up the drink. Yum. I, on the other hand, don't do heat so well. I complain. 'I wish it weren't so hot!' I say again, in case Jonathan didn't hear me the first eleven times.

Step Six: Get your sweat on.

As if on demand, a wonderfully cool, even cold, breeze envelopes us. Wow! Its such a contrast that I look around to see if we have passed some sort of hidden, magic air conditioned shop with its doors open, somewhere in the middle of the forest. Weird. Its soooo nice. But not free. A very black cloud appears over the ridge of the mountain and almost instantly huge raindrops start splattering around us. Splat! Splat! Splat! Of course, we haven't brought our umbrellas as the sky has been a hot, hazy blue for days. Splat! Stupid! Its monsoon. We've been tricked again. We dash under a dense tree and hope to use this jungle canopy to our advantage. The cooler air is welcome, and we wouldn't really even mind getting wet- but I have my cameras in my bag and Jonathan has the passports and money. The tree diverts some of the rain, but not for long. The rain gets heavier and the drops find their way through the leaves and onto us. 'Well, you got your wish. It's not hot anymore,' Jonathan says to me as his shirt changes colour the wetter it gets. We stand under the tree, getting soaked. So, this is what they mean by 'monsoon,' eh? Realizing that we probably couldn't get any more wet than we were we decide just to walk through the rain back towards town. Jeeps and motorbikes pass at breakneck speed, aiming for puddles (I'm sure) and defiantly splashing us with the entire contents of the puddle. 'Thought that is as wet as you could get?' they seem to be mocking.

Step Seven: Bring your umbrella.

We stomp on. My sandals are slimy and slippery and really annoying to walk in. Jonathan's hair is plastered to his head and his pants are dragging in through the mud (we're telling ourselves its mud anyway...). I am about to complain about our new set of frustrating circumstances when my thoughts are zapped from my head by a massive, shocking, terrifying BOOOOM!!! right above us. I yelp and jump impressively high, no doubt. We look up in time to see a burst of yellow and orange sparks/flames exploding from the power box on top of the wood posts and quickly showering towards us. 'That thing just EXPLODED!' I cry, my heart pounding. 'It EXPLODED right over us! There is a fire! Fireworks!' Do we run? What happens next? We are too shocked to do anything but look at each other. Swerving jeeps and motorbikes, killer monkeys, curious Dog looking for trouble, a monsoon and now an explosion. This was some morning walk! 'If Ronnie were in charge here, that would have NEVER have happened!' I tell Jonathan. Its still 'monsooning' but we push on. A few minutes later, we hear another loud BOOOM!!! from behind us and think that maybe our luck is changing. Explosions from a distance are probably of the safer variety.

Step Eight: Maybe bring a hard hat too.

We finally get to the edge of town. Its still raining with vigor. The roads are flooded and the water covering them is the grossest variety of gross. The cow patties are now floating, disguised in the muddy rain water, and nearly impossible to avoid. People's garbage has grown legs (that they all insist on haphazardly throwing out into the middle of the road) and is chasing us down the street. Garbage cans are not popular here. Why, when the street is closer, bigger and there. Food pieces float by, wrappers, diseases. Who knows, really. Its so gross I can't bare to look what I am wading through anymore. It couldn't have been raining more than twenty minutes and everything is a disaster. And flooded.

Step Nine: Don't get caught up the flooded street without a paddle.

A man sitting irritatingly dry and comfy in his shop tries to sell me an umbrella. I glare at him. I think its a little late for that. In town, everyone is hiding in come cubby hole or another. Under this plastic or that, sipping chai, staring at us as we pass. Soaked to the bone. Our clothes are stuck to us, and I am trying to cover my bag with my dripping shirt, to protect the cameras. My clothes are falling down under the weight of the water. I don't want to think what my feet are touching.

We arrive back at our hotel and leave a trail that looks like a river to our room. Jonathan is happy because he has an excuse to wear his sarong the rest of the day.

Step ten: Be careful what you wish for.

ps. Happy Birthday Fun Aunt Maryann!

pps. We felt the earthquake, but we are fine. Although extensive, damage did not reach to the Annapurna. This should mean we will have no troubles getting into our trek.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jonathan and the Belt of Triumph

Yoga, by definition means to 'unite'. The aim of practicing yoga is to 'unite' an individual's consciousness with the divine. For me, it was more like uniting my body with a following week of barely being able to walk.

Rishikesh- 'The Yoga Capital of the World', or so they claim. A statement which I suppose a town is allowed to make when every other building is an ashram, temple or yoga school. And everyone, ok, mostly the tourists, all stroll around looking ridiculously flexible and wearing overly baggy 'yoga' clothes and orange scarves patterned with Hindu deities, barely breaking their chants for strictly vegetarian food. Heck, even the Beatles came here, famously, to Maharishi's ashram, just outside of town, for some good old fashioned stretching and 'ommm'ing. On the holy river 'Ganga' (the Ganges) Rishikesh and it's neighbouring towns are a mecca, for varying reasons, for pilgrims, tourists, sadhus (somewhat itinerant holy men who are sustained mostly by alms, but also find supplemental income as hotel touts, tour guides etc.), people who want to learn the secrets of yoga, people who think they already know everything about yoga and want to show off, and, of course, as all Indian towns, for cows, dogs and monkeys.

As a rosey-eyed travel planner, I am guilty of imagining the perfect 'Liz' senario. Liz (Gilbert), of course, from Eat, Pray, Love, whose months spent at the nameless Indian ashram enlightened her in so many ways. (ps. I am NOT the only one who has come to this decision, looks like, from the innumerable single women wandering around wistfully, obviously just waiting to be enlightened) (side note #2: I know, I know this isn't completely fair and quite a bit cynical) In my personal Indian-yoga fantasies, I would sit, cross legged, before a soft faced yogi, breathing deeply feeling the oxygen run through me, filling me with energy, a gentle breeze on my face, the soothing sounds of distant chanting devotees, and I would revel in the peace and stillness. I would leave town feeling rejuvenated, refreshed, and alive. Sigh. What an imagination I have.

Granted, the large studio at 'my' yoga school has a grand wall of windows that look out over the fast moving Ganges. Sitting on my yoga mat, I can hear the rushing water and see the faded, but colourful temple across the bank backing onto the thick, steep, forested hills. Then again, my eyes are supposed to be closed, and I probably should be focused more on contorting my sweaty body into the impossible pose that the calm, pretzel-like yogi is demonstrating... But, oh.. and theres a cute little monkey lumbering along the balcony! The yogi always smiles at me in the way one smiles at a child when they are trying so very hard to do something that is clearly impossible for them to do. Everyone else knows that they are headed for failure, but the child, naive, keeps on trying anyways. Anything is possible, right? How cute.

The first class Jonathan and I took (yes, even Jonathan gave it a shot- we are in the Yoga Capital of the World, after all) was Astanga Yoga. Astanga yoga links various poses into a series of flowing, aka, exhausting, movements. 'Guaranteed to make you sweat,' promised the yogi who greeted us, like the sweating was something to look forward to. The only thing that I could think of as we twisted and lunged and I successfully drenched in sweat, every item of clothing I was wearing, my yoga mat, and most of the floor around me, was 'what a scam that popular, trendy, new 'hot yoga' stuff is that everyone is talking about at home!' 'Hot yoga,' I'm sure, was 'invented' by someone who came to India and took an astanga yoga class in India's scorching hot weather on a day where the power was out, as it was that day for us. (Not that the decrepit fans would have made much of a difference). Guaranteed to make you sweat out at least a half liter. This is no special hot yoga, people. This is just yoga in India. Yoga, where in a place where it is insanely hot. And there you have it: hot yoga was born. I'm sure of it. I loved every minute of it, of course.

Ever more entertaining than myself, was dear ole' Jonathan. I had done many of the moves/positions before in classes at the gym back home (most I had been doing incorrectly, it turns out. Because when you do them the proper way- it hurts... but, anyways). It was a whole new world for Jonathan.He did well, though. He was the only proud recipient of a blue belt, half way through the class. We were sitting, legs out, reaching towards our feet. The yogi came around and was trying to help each of us reach further. He came to Jonathan and pushed lightly on is back. Jonathan laughed. 'Oh' said the yogi, surprised, and he returned with the belt. 'The Rope of Superiority,' 'the Gold Star', 'The Belt of Triumph.' All names Jonathan came up with for his new accessory. Really, what was it? A handicap. Because Jonathan can't touch his toes. Not, really, I'm sad to report, even close. (J: Why would anyone want their fingers to touch their toes when those toes, strapped in thongs, have been walking around in mud, disease-infested water, cow splats, garbage and some other gross things all day long? In this context, inflexibility should be rebranded as Sanitary Yoga). With the rope wrapped around his feet, he could use the resistance to aid in his 'stretching.' This, needless to say was the last astanga yoga class Jonathan came to with me (J: I said I would attend one class of each type offered (three in total)).

I continued to attend, although not the next day, as I could barely move my legs as a result of the class. I am more flexible than Jonathan, but nothing compared to the pretzel-people in the class. Wowzers. Seriously, these people can contort themselves, seemingly effortlessly into poses that you only see in those disturbing forwarded emails. I am hoping that flexibility is contagious. I think the yogi likes when I come, for my entertainment value. In that first class, by some stroke of otherworldly assistance, I'm sure, I managed to fanagle my legs almost behind my head. The yogi looked up in alarm and frantically motioned one of the assistants over to 'assist' me in my efforts. Most likely to do his best in making sure I didn't break my neck. That would probably be a lot of paperwork. Then again, this is India. The yogi in training, without really any help from me, somehow rearranged my legs and feet and arms so that I was almost pretzel-ed in half, kinda like the rest of the class, (except Jonathan). I was stunned. How the heck was I doing this? 'Look at me! Look at me!' I hissed to Jonathan, craning my neck to the side and peering in between my jumble of arms and legs. You don't talk loudly in yoga class, obviously. As I hoped, he looked over and was equally impressed, shocked and horrified. I could tell by the way his jaw dropped and was filled with panic. 'You're folded in half!' Jonathan exclaimed in a loud whisper. Ms. Yoga herself glares at us from between her legs, showing off her perfect 'downward dog.' She's moved on from this pose. Too easy for her. The yogi had left me, all twisted up. I was so impressed with myself. Look at me! Look at me! I'm a pretzel! Yes, I was thrilled, and was wishing that we had the camera to provide proof of this feat, as it was likely never to happen again- and then I realized. Not only had I not the slightest idea how I had gotten myself into this 'pretzel' (mostly because I hadn't), more importantly, and causing a significant onset of panic, 'how the heck was I going to get out?' My limbs were all secured tightly within each other and I couldn't move them at all. Everyone else was gracefully moving on to the next pose. Except me. I was on my back, butt in the air, flopping around like a fish on the beach. Graceful, yes, and attractive, I'm sure. Jonathan was no longer impressed and was laughing. I knew right then, as I had finally wriggled one leg free and flopped it onto the ground with a resounding 'thump' that I had lost any right to make fun of his 'Blue Belt of Triumph.' Darn. As I lay there, flat on my back, breathing heavily I remembered that I was a pretzel, just moments before and smiled widely. 'Did you see that?' I mouthed to Jonathan, referring to the pretzel, not the unflattering depretzelization. To which, he just laughed harder. Whatever, Blue Belt!

As the week wore on, I got better and better at the positions, and every morning I woke up my leg muscles ached less and less. Yesterday, my second to last class, I was feeling particularily daring. The yogi described and demonstrated some complicated pose where one leg was tucked up into the other and the other leg was bent, and one arm went around this leg, but backwards, or something equally as impossible. I watched the rest of the class twisting and reaching and pushing themselves into position, and I tried to imitate them. 'This pose is very hard for some, very easy for others,' the yogi called from the front of the classroom. I wriggled my way into position with relative ease. Wow! I could do it! I was one of the ones it was easy for. One week of yoga, and I was practically a pro. I smiled and closed my eyes. I practiced breathing the way I was taught. I made sure all my muscles were active. I sat there, eyes closed, impressed with myself. Maybe I should become a yoga instructor! Maybe I could be more successful at meditation, now that I've conquered yoga. Maybe... there was a tap on my knee. The yogi was smiling, inches from my face. The same way I smile at cute dogs. He shook his head, still smiling and dutifully attempted to rearrange my limbs into a position that more closely resembled that of the rest of the class, I realized. He was greatly unsuccessful. There was no way my leg was going there, nor was my arm reaching that far. My limbs were fiercely uncooperative despite his gentle coaxing. Not even close. 'Oh.' 'Not so easy any more, is it?' he laughed, good naturedly. Maybe I will stick to sitting at the back of the class...

The yoga school offers three different kinds of classes. Hatha yoga, which is traditional Indian yoga, Ashtanga Visyasa yoga, a more fluid yoga and meditation. Jonathan and I have tried every class. Jonathan, not surprisingly, liked the mediation the best. And he was far, far better at it than I was. After a half hour of 'breathing' and another excruciating half hour of staring at the flame of a candle, I determined that meditation was boring. Although instead of sitting there "concentrating", as I knew my perfectly figetless husband was doing, I had used the time 'wisely,' planning where we would go for dinner, if this hour did, in fact, ever end, which earrings I wanted from the Tibetan lady down the street, I considered which train we should take to the next town, decided that we should do our laundry the following day...

ps. Happy Birthday Uncle Stephen, Uncle Dan and Candy Dandy!!

pps. Welcome to the family Daniel Ricardo!

ppps. Has anyone in Canada received a postcard from Nepal yet? We mailed them six weeks ago!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dogs that eat Cows and Festivals that turn People into Baked Goods.

Here in Northern India we have been exploring various hill towns, with sweeping views of glorious mountain ranges, steep green valleys and endless stretches of plains. Quite the variety. Our first stop was Dalhousie, a town at 2115 metres, favoured by the British Raj for its cool climate, relaxing atmosphere and rambuncious monkey clans.. ok maybe not so much the monkeys, but we thought they were quite entertaining. Dharmashala, or more specifically McLeod Gange, is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. When it wasn't raining, which wasn't often, being the second rainiest place in India, McLeod Gange, too provided us with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and plains. Plus, they had some great deals on silk scarves... Then, after an excruciating 12 hour bus ride up, over, down and around the mountains, we arrived at our current, and favourite hill station, Nagger. Nagger is a tiny one road town nestled on a perch deep in the Kullu Valley, where soaring green mountains provide the perfect balcony scenery, and apple orchards offering the perfect balcony snack.

Its monsoon up here in Northern India, but there has been little evidence of that for us. There are clouds in the morning, maybe it rains at night, but most of the days are filled with cool summer breezes and blue skies. We have been in Nagger for five days now, and have o idea how. There is really nothing to do here, after you have walked up the town's one, steep, winding road and have had tea at the local roadside tea shack. The forest here is stocked with thick, towering pines. In the morning a atmospheric mist hangs low in the trees until the sun finds its way through the cracks and chases it away. It is wonderful for walks. Luckily for us, the town has a healthy population of friendly, surprisingly nice looking street dogs available for borrow, who like to take us for walks down the various paths. Two or three pups, every morning, wait for us to finish our breakfast at the tea shack (and I use the word shack liberally) and they follow us down the path, swerving between our legs, running ahead and then waiting for us to catch up.

The last time we took random dogs for a walk was in Greece and the dogs ended up attacking someones chickens, resulting in us running for our lives from an angry stick-wielding Greek. We couldn't help but have flashes of terror when the one german sheperard-ish dog that we named 'Funny' suddenly lunged, seemingly for fun, at a passing cow. Right at the cow's neck! The cow, inconveniently walking along the edge of a gutter did some fancy dance with it's uncoordinated hooves, lost its footing and stumbled through the mud and gunk a bit before finding it legs. We watched the whole thing in slow motion. How was this happening? Why was this happening? What kind of dog attacks a cow? Isn't there enough garbage around to eat? Duh, Funny, cows are sacred here! You can't take nibbles from their necks! The dog was startled by the cow, five times his size, teetering above him and jumped away. Funny ran to hide behind us, scared of the cow that he had just, unsuccessfully attempted to eat. Sigh. Oh, Funny. He looked up at us with his shiny black doggie eyes and panted, tongue fully hanging out to the left, in that innocent, smiley dog way. 'What, me?' We shook our heads.The cow's keeper, a lady with a menacing looking stick turned our way and raised her eyebrows. Oh Jeez. Here we go again. 'Um, sorry?' we ventured. She scowled, turned on her heels, gave the cow a smack with the stick, and on they went... in search of greener pastures. Funny just smiled, tried to lick our toes and circled around us, as if saying, 'ok, ok the shows over, get a move on, already!' haha

Our tea shack ladies, our popscicle man and a couple taxi drivers had all mentioned that there was a festival going on in the next town, a couple kilometres down a small forest road. 'You should go,' they all said. We figured that they were probably right. Either we are very lucky to come across so many festivals, or Asia just has a whole bunch more celebrations than we do in Canada. We are thinking its the later. We had seen many people walking down the road towards the festival, all dressed in their best, bedazzled suits. Everyone looked so nice, colourful and festive. Hey, I could do that too, I thought excitedly! For the occasion, I would wear my beautiful white embroidered suit that Raj bought me back in Punjab! How great! I would totally blend in! (hahah, right.) I changed quickly and we were on our way down the road. We could see the big yellow tent and hear the festive Indian music long before we acutally arrived in town. The road was muddy from the nights rain. No one seemed to mind. There were shiny streamers hanging and plenty of stalls frying up sticky Indian desserts. Under the big tent was man belting out long, upbeat Indian tunes and three women dancing enthusiastically, albeit completely un-choreographed, to the beat.We wandered through the crowd, past the stalls, took in the dancing and admired the decorations. It was a nice festival and everyone seemed to be having a good time. A little while later we decided it was time for us to start our walk back to town. We were strategically tip-toeing across the mud when loud drumming and cheering erupted from a mountain path above us. Sounded like a party. Sure enough, there was a sizeable party in the form of a parade winding down the path to the main road. They were drumming and dancing and singing. Bringing up the rear were three ornately decorated thrones supported on thick sticks and being carried by groups of men. No one sat in the thrones, but they looked relatively heavy nonetheless. In front of the parade there were some teenagers that looked to be throwing dirt at each other. Kids, always messing around. 'Don't go that way', I told Jonathan,'It looks like they are throwing dirt and I don't want to get my white suit all dirty.' It as a nice, new, white suit.... anyone could see that. They wouldn't throw dirt at me! Right? Jon agreed that I was probably, maybe safe, but we tried to cross over to the other side of the road anwyas, just to be sure. Have I mentioned that I was wearing my new, white suit? As it goes, we didn't pass unnoticed. A group of young men gave us mischievous looks, smiled, and reached into the little sacs that they were carrying, grabbing handfuls of the substance and tossing it at us. Darn! White shirt! White shirt! I paniced. Except it wasn't dirt. It was a powdery, flour type something. It smelt ok, like you could eat it, if you mixed it with water or something (and maybe some sugar). Not that the powder being edible made it any more ok tohave all over my beloved suit. We made it to the other side of the road with only minimal powder damage. I saw a large, shaky, randomly place concrete slab, the purpose of which was unclear. But it was elevated out of the mud, big enough for the two of us to stand on, and would give us a great front row view of the passing parade. As the drumming drew closer the crowds moved from the festival grounds to balconies and porches above the street to watch. No one came down the the street though. 'Wow! We have a greatI view down here! We are so lucky!' I thought. Not once did it cross my mind that maybe there was a reason that everyone was keeping their distance. All of the sudden, the parade, all men, was upon us. They were jumping and singing, and very enthusiastic. Particularily about covering everyone and everything in powder from their secret little pouches. Everyone, of course, included us. Especialy us. Woosh! As if on que, powder was flying everywhere. You couldn't even see across the street through the thick, powder-filled air! 'Wooooohoooo' they called. 'Yeah!' Turns out, I didn't blend in quite as well as I thought, wearing my Indian clothes. It also turns out that I am not mature enough yet, to own white clothes. Maybe when I'm older... but probably not. They had these num-chuck looking things, rather phallic looking, if you ask me. Between powder baths, the numchucks would come out. They were held with both hands, above the head and clunk the two pieces of wood together that were on each end of the rope. Very, very, phallic looking. The head numchuck guy saw us standing there, covered in white, elevated oh-so inconspicuously on our concrete platform and brought the numchucks to us. He wasn't leaving until we were dancing around with the numchucks flailing above our heads. That was for sure. What the heck? Jonathan's red beard was white, our bags were white, my camera was white, every smidgeon of our skin was freshly powdered, I could have rung my precious new shirt of enough flour to bake a cake.. might as well wave some penis' above our heads too. Why not? Everyone else was doing it..... Jonathen tentatively rasied the numchucks above his head. Another powder shower. The crowd cheered. Phew. We were a hit. After an appropriate amount of num-chuck waving and cheering, we were allowed to move on our merry way. The parade had other places to be, anyways. Maybe, just maybe, this explains we were the only ones taking advantage of the 'great front row' view? Man, its fun to be a dumb foreigner. 'Don't add water to your hair,' my Gramma warned when I talked to her that night. ' You might turn all that flour into dough!' hahaha! Isn't she the cutest? One big, happy festival for the village, one step closer to being a baked good for us. The day was a success.

ps. The Happiest Day of the Year is soon approaching... HAPPY BIRTHDAY SARAH!!!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Third One's a Charm

We woke up this morning (September 2nd) to find a monkey, a langur, to be precise, on our balcony. Being in India, this isn't exactly shocking. What's funny about it is that, three years ago to the day, the day Jonathan and I were married, there was a similar sentiment. Although, of course, we were in Canada, on Georgian Bay, and there was no actual monkey. Let me explain. The night before our wedding I slept in a cabin with five of my favourite ladies. From this statement alone you can maybe guess that our wedding wasn't of the classical sort. Anyways, the cabin awoke to giggling. Marta, or Sarah, or perhaps the two in kahoots were lying awake listening to the 'wild' animals fussing about in the woods. Birds, chipmunks, typical Northern Ontario fare. There was though, to their credit a bird (my best guess) making a very weird call or at least singing very off key. 'Who ordered the monkeys?' or something along that line was whispered. More giggling. It did sound quite exotic. Laura, who had been sound asleep assured them that there was, no way, no how a monkey on the cabin's roof and hoped they would go back to sleep. They probably could have used more sleep to prepare for the gauntlet of wedding-day duties that they had generously agreed to. But, there was no convincing Sarah and Marta. There was a monkey on the roof and everyone was now wide awake listening for it. It worked for me. I had been awake for hours, just waiting for the sun to finally rise so I could get married already! Turns out my friends were more physic then I gave them credit for at the time. Here was that monkey they were convinced was pouncing around on our roof... only he missed the party by three years...and a few thousand kilometers...
ps. The green drinks are my Rishikesh obsession. Fresh mint and lemon, blended with ice and probably a hefty scoop of sugar! Yum!!!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

How Bizzare! How Bizzare!

Some of you might, perhaps, have an interest in international border crossings. But, even if you haven't the slightest, the nightly shenanigans at the India-Pakistan near Amritsar border are quite entertaining.

Its no secret that India and Pakistan are not best buddies. I'm not sure this fact has much to do with the performance staged on the countries' boundary lines, at the closing of each day, but it sure fuels the fire. I could never have imagined this, if I hadn't seen it first hand for myself. And, oh my, is it entertaining. I'm not even being disrespectful. Its supposed to be entertaining. They've built stands on either side of the border for the comfort of the spectators. Seriously. They have an M.C.

This is how it goes down. Every night. It all happens in Wagha, the border point on the Indian side is about 30km from the city of Amritsar. Tourists take taxis and Indians arrive in droves. We were lucky enough to come with our new friends, Vikramjit, Raj, their kids and cousin. It was like arriving at a carnival. On Canada Day. (But, Indian day -actually called Independence Day here, but anyways). Today was just a regular day. Vendors selling cold drinks, chips, cotton candy, coconut and snacks line the streets. Kids run around selling little plastic Indian flags and teens parade through waving huge flags. Upbeat dance music is blaring. Being foreigners made us 'VIPs'. Or that's what they called it anyways. Huge, tall, stern looking uniformed officers scrutinized our passports and refused to let us sit with our Indian friends. 'Foreigners in this section, Indians in that one.' There was no arguing.

The crowd was huge and it was blazing hot. The stands were packed. Like we were at a huge concert of someone really famous. People danced in the street. Others were given huge orange, green and white Indian flags and they ran up and down the stands, riling up the crowd, proudly swinging their flags. People cheered, hooted and hollered. An MC with a loud microphone shouted out into the Indian crowd and they responded resoundingly loud. The best however, were the officers. Their uniforms were a dark sandy khaki colour. Their boots were black, shiny and huge. On their heads were peacock type red headdresses that stood straight up. They all must have been seven feet tall. No joke. Either there are heels in those shiny boots, or they only hire abnormally tall people to guard their borders.

As the sun drops lower the real festivities begin. The officers move the street dancers and flag runners to their seats. Something similar is happening on the Pakistani side of the border, only with far fewer people (on this particular day, anyway). The officers and their red peacock hats line up in front of the building. The MC riles up the crowd again and then yells out a long, looong, command, holding the last note for an unnaturally long period of time. When he finally gasps for breath a pair of officers take off simultaneously in a crazy half run, half walk, taking huge, quick strides down the main street, determined and cold stone serious, to the Pakistan gate. They are met there with Pakistani officers, dressed similarily, only with black uniforms and black peacock headdresses. There is a stern-faced, unsmiling stareoff and the crowd goes wild. The MC again calls out his abnormially loooong command and more officers take off, stomping loudly down the street. Only these ones add a 'kick' to their step. An actual kick. Higher than their heads. Seriously, they are acrobats. I don't know a single male that could be capable of actually kicking this high. (Or maybe I do, and just don't know it). Either way, its absolutely crazy. How do they do it? Once they reach the gate, they puff out their ginormous chests and kick at their Pakistani counterparts (not actually kicking them, of course, just kicking in their direction. Point taken) and then Pakistan kicks back, and again, the crowd goes wild. Like insane. Being 'VIP' foreigners, we don't know where to look. The barrel chested, kicking, peacock-head officers are pretty fantastic, but the boisterous crowd is pretty distracting in themselves. The country gates are slammed closed, the flags are lowered simultaneously and another day at the border comes to a close. Its all over... until tomorrow. These people were fellow countryfolk a few decades ago and now, here we are, in a bravado showdown where everyone is trying to out-puff, out kick, and out stomp the other. Every night.

Then there's all our very own officers, right in front of us, having the tedious task babysitting us 'VIPs.' I don't envy them. Tourists are pretty annoying. All the poor officer wants us to do, is sit down and just sit there and enjoy our front row VIP seating. But no. This tourist needs to stand up so they can get the absolute best pic of the action, because, of course, they are the most important tourist and their photos/videos are all that matter. So the person behind them, in turn, stands up because they can't see anymore, then of course, everyone stands, and then everyone gets yelled at. (again.) And then, the front row isn't good enough for that tourist. They need to sit on the curb, or the median, or on someone's head. I lost count of how many times this impressively patient border officer had to tell this one British guy to just sit down. Its embarrassing. For me. The British guy didn't seem to care. As long as he got his 5 million pictures of the same thing with the same DSLR that most travellers seem to need to have now for their trips (Bigger cameras don't fix bad photographers, people), which he is, no doubt, going to blow up (all of them) and have an entire room in his house dedicated to 'that one day at the India-Pakistan border.' The room in which he will also likely play the video that he was painstakingly filming with his other hand- on repeat. Because this experience was that important to him. Sorry fellow Niagara Falls-ians -turns out, no matter which far corner of the globe you try to escape to- there are stupid tourists there too.

Although, as far as I remember, in Niagara, the Canada Border Services Officers don't put on a nightly show of this caliber, stomping and kicking at the US Officers in the middle of the bridge. That I know of. Yet. I would certainly support such a spectacle if it were to allow those hard-working, dedicated officers to close up shop every night before dinner and be home for sunset. Oh, sorry, Ohio, Canada is closed until tomorrow morning at nine, or nine-fifteen, depending on the line at Tim Hortons. And, yes, they turn off the Falls and roll up the sidewalks at.... Hey, one can dream, right?