Monday, October 31, 2011

Around Annapurna

We did it! We hiked 21 days around the entire Annapurna Curcuit and absolutely loved it. Such an adventure has its ups and downs, of course, quite literally. We trekked from 860m up to 5430m, back down 1000m and then back up again to 3048m and down again to 1012m. And that is just the major climbs, not including any of the endless ups and downs along the way. For us, it was a major accomplishment. We hiked 211km in total, carrying all of our own stuff, managing not to get lost, anger a yak (that we know of), or fall off a cliff. Phew.

One of the most amazing things about the Annapurna Circuit is that not only is the landscape overwhelmingly superb, but the scenery is so diverse that every day you are hiking through (up and over) different terrain. We started off on Sept 25th, the very beginning of the short ideal trekking season which runs through October and November. The day before we left, and all night, it poured and poured. The world weather is changing, as we all know. 'Usually' by the end of September, the skies should be clear blue and the rain long gone. Anyways, needless to say, we were a little worried. Tramping through the mud on slippery trails would be very little fun. Probably, it would suck.

Thankfully, the rain itself wasn't an issue at all. Really, what the rain meant to us, we discovered, was leeches. Totally gross, slimy, stupid, sneaky, little, black, leech-y leeches. And suddenly, our relationship shifted to a whole new level. Survival. Picking leeches off each other. Ok, well maybe this isn't exactly how it went. Maybe it went more like this:

K: Ok, let me check you for leeches, again. (This occurred approx. every 5 minutes- every time after crossing a flooded area of the path. I was obsessed)
J: (who is wearing flip-flops- sighs) Fine. (And he dutifully lifts up his pantalon legs and twists his ankles around until either, I've declared my inspection is complete, or I've spotted one of the little buggers)
K: (GASP) There's one! Gross! Get it GET it! GET IT!!!!! (I would shriek, waving my arms like a chicken trying to fly and hopping around in a circle splashing the leech infested water everywhere. Essentially just being completely unhelpful. 'EWWWW! SO gross!' (I, needless to say, did none of the 'leech extracting' myself. I was more like the fog horn, alerting to the trouble.
Even worse was the couple of times that a nasty little slime-ball somehow found his way inside my shoes and was attempting to steal my blood through my sock. This seems completely unfair. Leeches should not be able to penetrate Goretex shoes. But they did. If I was freaking out because a leech was trying to suck my husband's feet dry, you can imagine I was a tad bit more, I'll say, "enthusiastic" when they started kissing my own precious toesie woesies. The most I could manage was ripping my sock off and throwing it at Jonathan to deal with the blood sucker. (J: If I had a choice, I think I would choose the leech over those socks!)

There are so many highlights from the trek. We loved being up with the sun and watching the spectacular show of its first rays basking the mountain peaks in a sublime gold. We loved being the first ones out on the trail every morning, cherishing the quiet mountain stillness that we had all to ourselves. We loved the daily exercise, how great it felt when we reached the top of whatever daily climb we accomplished, the friendly locals, and of course, the spectacular, ever changing Himalayan scenery. We loved staying in the smaller towns enroute as opposed to following the suggested hiking itinerary in the popular guidebooks, and ending up where everyone else did every night. Not only were we almost always rewarded with cheaper prices, but usually friendlier locals, hotel owners and fellow trekkers. Plus, it meant that there were far fewer people starting their day's trek from where we were and we were much less likely to be caught up in the middle of a trekking tour group, or whatever demographic that you would appreciate avoiding for that matter (If you've hiked in Nepal- you know what I mean).

When we weren't trying our best to avoid all other Westerners, we actually met some pretty fantastic people. Topping our list are Michael and Amy, a couple of Brooklyn-ers whom we coincidentally started the trek with, and then continued to meet up with often enough over the next week that every time we saw them it was like running into old friends. 'The Foursome', as named by us, an enthusiastic and fun group consisting of a couple of Brits, a Torontonian and a German, Martina, a wonderful Swiss woman we had the pleasure of hiking with for a couple of days, our Aussie couple, Marc and Claire, who we loved chatting with, and Dima and Tamara, a friendly Israeli couple that we once saved from hiking down a no-longer-usable path were also all great folks that we hooked up with along the way. (Two side notes. One: For the ridiculous 'conservation' fees Nepal charged they really could have put up a sign up at that path junction and Two: We met more than a couple really friendly Israelis- surprising, but true story).

While trekking we saw so many amazing things. Of course, the mountains were stupendous, but we also loved catching a glimpse of the mountain village life. The further we hiked away from the road, the less kids begged for 'sweets' and 'school pens' (annoying) and the more people were friendly and welcoming just because it was their nature, not because they were hoping for a handout. We passed porters carrying enormous loads through the mountains, shockingly some even bigger than the backpacks that tourists had their porters carting around. We saw Nepali porters carrying loads as big as refrigerators on their backs! Women too- transporting ginormous baskets of hay or produce that looked to be bigger than they were.

We ate dahl baht almost every day. Dahl Bhat (24 Hour Power, a t-shirt read) is supposed to be what the locals eat. Dhal Bhat is 'bottomess' meaning, they will serve you continuous portions of rice, dahl and curried vegetable until you can longer cram another grain of rice into your mouth. Tourists, of course, are only allotted two servings and then the food magically 'runs out.' Except of course, the person at the next table is getting served their dahl at that exact same moment as the server claims all the food to be gone. And, although it is probably true that dahl baht is the local food, I highly doubt that locals pay the ridiculously inflated prices for their (unlimited) servings that we (two serving) foreigners do. There are signs everywhere that say N.E.P.A.L= Never Ending Peace And Love, as an acronym for their country. Three weeks hiking around Annapurna and we made up our own (slightly more cynical) version. N.E.P.A.L = Nice Except Prices Are Ludicrous. Anyways, all the complaining aside, the food was always very tastey and filling, and really, even if I tried I probably couldn't have eaten more than two portions of dahl bhat anyways....

Another interesting tidbit that I discovered is that I am married to a donkey. Again, surprising, yet true, story. No matter the incline, no matter the elevation, how many hours we had been hiking, how long it had been since breakfast, how hot it was, how cold it was, how many leeches were taking a free ride- J just kept on trekking- consistent and constant- just like the pack donkeys we passed (ok, usually they passed us) on the path. (Side note: There was one pack of donkeys that we actually were quicker than. Before we realized this, we stopped and let the pack pass us only to discover that we were then riding right behind its caboose donkey. Jonathan's allergy thing aside, this probably wouldn't have been too problematic; except that is, for one thing: the caboose donkey was the fartiest steed in the whole Annapurna. Eventually J said we had to hang back because his throat started to feel a bit closed. If you ask me, though, I really think he just wanted to distance himself from Donkey's nerve gas.) This was never more evident on the morning we hiked up and over 'the Pass.' 'The Pass' is the event of the Annapurna trek. Trekkers fret about it for days and have nightmares about it afterwards. Really, its quite a big deal. (For everyone except my donkey husband). People have died trying to cross the pass (J: Its true, but it is people making very silly and very avoidable decisions). First, you start the morning off at about 4400m. That's high. Its cold, the sun isn't over the mountains yet. There is very little oxygen and you are hiking up- pretty much straight up, for 1000m. A whole kilometer up! Generally, at this altitude you can only safely gain between 300-500m in elevation per day. Trying to gain more altitude than this in a single day is really, really dangerous because your body can't acclimatize properly, your brain enlarges, fluid fills your lungs and blah blah blah, you die. I know all this because I went to the 'Acclimatization Talk' high up in Manang and volunteer American Dr. Dreamy, ahem, I mean Dr. Noah told me so. But, this gain of 1000m is ok because you hike up and then right back down the other side. But still, some people have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to this type of elevation gain. Aren't you glad you didn't know all this before we did the trek, Moms and Dads?

Anyways, for the big day, you have to start early because the actual pass, at about 5400m, is really cold, and ferocious winds picks up around 10am, making it very uncomfortable. It takes most people between four and six hours to make the ascent. (If it weren't for J's sense of responsibility to me, being his (slow) wife and all, he probably would have been at the top in two hours. (Side note: How can someone who is SO slow at pretty much everything else be this quick at hiking up mountains?) We were, for the first time on the trek, the absolute last ones fed and out of the guesthouse. It was 6am. Most were on the path by 5-530am- when it was still dark! I have no idea how they did that because it was so, so cold when it was light out at 6:00. My bag was empty- I had every single piece of clothing I had brought with me on, including my sarong as a second scarf and three pairs of socks- and I still couldn't feel my toes until the sun finally (rays straight from on high, it felt like) came over the mountains and de-thawed me (J: Is it just me or does de-thaw imply re-freezing?). J, hiked up like he was on a Sunday stroll. I gasped for oxygen and pushed forward, each laborious step with no small amount of effort. Turns out its hard to hike uphill when you can't breathe. For me, and most other normal human beings. We hadn't even been on the trail for five minutes when we saw our first casualty. A middle age woman, flat on her back, first-aiders fumbling around her with oxygen tanks. Her porter was running around trying to calm everyone down by handing out free 'medicine.' His medicine turned out to be cloves of garlic, (haha-kinda funny, right? Is it rude that I laughed?) which locals say prevent mountain sickness, (or something). Apparently this lady didn't have enough garlic soup for brekky. Either way, I figured I didn't need garlic breath in addition to my gasping and (probably) blue frost-bitten toes, so I declined. After a good stop and stare, J, of course, just kept on trekking. The lady's husband decided that since she couldn't walk over the pass that they would just hire a horse to go over. The first of many stupid decisions we witnessed that day. The scenery on our way up the pass was just incredible. If I didn't have to stop and rest every ten minutes, (and take pictures) J probably would have just kept on trekking right past it all. Thankfully for him I am a high maintenance hiker (J: this is a considerable understatement).

I felt completely elated when we finally reached the pass. Despite being stuck with a break-happy wife, we still passed almost everyone on the way up and made it in under four hours. I was on cloud nine-and we were high enough to actually be on a cloud, so it worked out pretty well. We did it! I danced around a bit and took a hundred photos, completely ignoring the wind that had already started to howl. J, of course, was ready to keep on trekking. That lil' donkey of mine.

My favourite thing about the Annapurna was that every day we had new and exciting scenery to look forward to. The trek started in the lush rice terraces down a bamboo lined path laden with waterfalls and transformed into alpine forests and distant peaks and then really close peaks then barren, dusty desert scenery then a vibrant colourful autumnal valley and finally back to steep hills lined with rice paddies and tropical jungle landscape complete with rascal monkeys. Just amazing. And then, as if the last twenty-one days of hiking through all this wasn't adventure enough for us, I persuaded J to ride on the rooftop of the bus with me from the trek's end all the way back to the city. I can't imagine a better way to end the trek than watching the snow capped mountains and verdant green valleys drift further and further away from our breezy, bumpy, fresh and perhaps slightly dangerous vantage point.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brothers from Different Mothers

Before tearing ourselves away from our wonderful friends in Ashoknagar, we squeezed in a few more adventures that I didn't have room to mention in the last blog. I could go on forever, noting all of the week's highlights, but here are just a few more....

When we first arrived at Bina Station, we were warmly greeted by Raj and a jubilant Rabu and Rohan. Vikramjit (or, "Driverjit") was parking the luxurious SUV they had borrowed from friends for our comfort. It was so great to see their smiling, familiar faces. After a small snack and some chai we headed back down the long, long road to Ashoknagar. Being monsoon season, the rains had washed away the main roads and we were left with the bumpy, pot-hole ridden back farm roads for our three hour journey. It was our first of what would be many adventures on Madhya Pradesh's 'bone-shaking' roads. It was so great to see them, and we had so much catching up to do, that we barely noticed when our bags bounced off the seats or when our heads came dangerously close to the ceiling. Being the wonderful, generous people that they are, Vikramjit, Raj and the kids had endured a three hour journey, in the monsoon rains to pick us up and we then turned around and did the whole thing all over again!

We can't say enough about wonderful everyone in Ashoknagar was, and how warmly we were welcomed everywhere we went. It was always more like a home-coming than an introduction. We drank the best chai (multiple times a day) and snacked on the most tastey home-made Indian snacks at every stop along the way. Everyone wanted to have us over for tea (which was always accompanied by enough snacks to be considered a meal) or a full official meal (after which we would literally have to be rolled out of the dining room). Even when our hosts who had invited us over for tea, didn't speak much English, we were made to feel like honoured guests. Of all the wonderful chai (and I had a lot- I'm a little obsessed, I admit), Raj's chai was my absolute favourite. 'Raj Mahal' we called it, as Raj only use the very best black tea leaves made by the 'Taj Mahal' tea company. Oh how I miss Raj Mahal. This is the chai dreams are made of. Chai, not tea. There is a difference. And a secret recipe- which I have.

And the food. Wow, these people can cook. Seriously, the food we packed in (literally) in Ashoknagar was by far the best food we ate in our entire time in India and, probably our favourite food of the entire year. I would go into detail, describing the spectacular flavours and magical combinations, but then I would just start drooling all over our computer...and the keyboard is already misbehaving, so I won't.

Not only were Vikramjit, Raj and their family and friends wonderful chai experts and talented chefs, they were also some of the most generous people we have ever met. So generous, in fact, that over the course of a week we somehow managed to accumulate many, many thoughtful gifts which we will be able to proudly show off once we get home! I personally, can't wait to wear my beautiful suits, scarves, bangles, watch and 'floaters'! Memories of a wonderful week in Ashoknagar. We are very lucky.

Another fun event that I wanted to mention, as you may have already seen the great photos, was the day that Vikramjit put Jonathan's hair in a turban. It was really, great fun, and so entertaining to see everyone's reaction when we went around to visit. I didn't know until that day that the cloth used to tie the turban was so huge! The size of a queen-size sheet! It takes two people to stretch the cloth out and fold it perfectly to prepare it for wrapping. Before all this, though, you have to set the beard. To say trying to tame Jonathan's beard was something new to that bristly red
mass of chin hair would be the understatement of the year. I half expected the Irish in his beard to revolt to such an idea. But with a tightly tied bandana secured around his chin and tied on top of his head, and a little (ok, alot) of hairspray, J's beard morphed from an unruly, overgrown mess to an orderly, shapley 'work of art' (he claims). The turban itself is the real masterpiece. Vikramjit pained until every fold was perfect and every corner was in its place. It was really quite impressive to watch. When J and his turban were all set, he and Vikramjit posed for a photo. 'Like brothers from different mothers!' Raj and I exclaimed.

A special thank you goes out to Vikramjit, Raj, India's Future Model, the Eating Machine, Mommy Jit, Pradish, Mr. & Mrs. Sandhu, Sandeep, Sykhdeep, Abijeet, Mr.& Mrs. Ram and their family. It was truly an honour to be your guests in Ashoknagar.

ps. The picture in which J looks like the love child of Chewbacca and Princess Leia is the result of his hair being tied in the turban all day- Hilarious!!

pps. Happy birthday, Looch!!! Hope you're having a great time in Vancouver! Happy b-day, Jane!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One Raj Mahal Chai, No Please, No Thank You!

When we met Vikramjit and Raj on the train ride from Delhi to Amritsar I don't think any of us imagined that just over a month later we would be such close friends as to consider them our Indian family.

Our week visiting their hometown of Ashok Nagar in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was a highlight of our larger trip and the absolute best part of India for us. We had planned to stay only a couple days, but as those couple days came and went we found ourselves so comfortable, so happy, so welcomed and so well fed that we ended up staying an entire week. We could have stayed even longer, basking in their comfort, conversation and friendship. We all would have enjoyed it, but we tore ourselves away: the Nepalese Himalayas were calling us to hike in their short optimal season before our visa expires.

This blog entry would be pages long if I were to detail all the wonderful things we did in Ashok Nagar. The days seemed to fly by in this beautifully green countryside. We visited a magnificent old fort, a temple full of monkeys and a hilltop temple with vibrant live music and dancing. We hiked a mountain and visited a farmhouse. The single best thing about Ashok Nagar though, was the people. Not only did we have the privilege of spending time with Vikramjit, Raj and their kids Ravneet and Rohan, but we were also lucky enough to meet so many of their wonderful family and friends. The people we spent the most time with, were Mr and Mrs Sandhu and their family and Mr and Mrs. Ram and theirs. Vikramjit's mom, 'Mommy Ji' we called her, also came to visit for a few days and we loved being with her as well. We are so, so lucky to have met such fantastic, caring, generous, fun people and we are very thankful for the time we spent together.

We learned so much too. First, and very important, how to make the perfect cup of chai. I'm sure you know this, but 'chai' is just the Indian word for 'tea' so when we order a 'chai tea' at home, of course we mean an Indian tea, but we are really saying we would like a 'tea tea', which must sound quite entertaining to anyone who knows the language. Raj uses the Indian brand of black tea called Taj Mahal. She says its the best, and she is the expert, and makes the best chai in India, so we believe her. Jonathan dubbed Raj's delicious chai 'Raj Mahal chai' playing on her name and the tea brand. 'We want chai, not tea, please. A Raj Mahal! Only the best will do!' we would joke with Raj. I can't wait to see if I can recreate a Raj Mahal chai when I get home....

Many an evening I stood in the kitchen with Raj, notebook in hand, jotting down notes as she prepared food. 'Its so easy' she would always say, as she scooped handfuls of this and that into pots, not measuring a single thing. Sigh. She made it look easy, that's for sure. Her kitchen always smelled so delicious. The spices, the ghee, the stewing veggies, lentils and sweets. Yum! One of the things we really wanted to do in India was to take a cooking class, since we love Indian food so much, so I really enjoyed spending time chatting with Raj as she cooked, watching and learning. Raj and Sandeep, Mr. Sandhu's daughter joked that when we got home we could continue to have cooking classes over Skype. Only I'm afraid that their dishes cooked over here on the subcontinent will turn out far more delicious than mine and then I will have to watch them enjoying their food through the computer resisting the urge to lick the screen! But, really, the food we ate in and around Ashok Nagar was absolutely scrumptious. The best food in India by far, and possibly even the best food of the trip this far was what filled our bellies in Ashok Nagar. We tried so many different dishes prepared by so many different, very talented cooks. We probably gained ten pounds this week, but, oh my, was it worth it. We especially liked all the food cooked by Raj, the feast at Mr. Ram's farmhouse and everything prepared by Mrs. Sandhu and Sandeep. Our last morning in Ashok Nager we went to Mr. Sandhu's for a delicious breakfast and before we left, Mrs. Sandhu and Sandeep had packed us a huge lunch, complete with cake, to take with us on the train ride! Our bellies were very, very lucky!

We learned that the pleasantries that we use constantly in English are not used really at all in India. Between friends, especially, you would never say, please, thank you, or sorry. Its not rude at all to neglect any of these sayings. They are implied and don't need to be spoken every time. For us, of course, these manners are so deeply ingrained in us that it was nearly impossible for us to stop saying 'thank you' every time someone did something for us, which was often. 'No thank yous!' everyone kept telling us. We tried to remember, but the words just kept popping out. It became a running joke. 'No thank you,' Vikramjit would respond every time he was in a situation that one would normally say 'thank you' in. It was funny. We laughed a lot in Ashok Nager.

Vikramjit and Raj's two young kids are great. Ravneet, their daughter, is about five years old and is super smart. She is a serious gal who loves school and learning. Everyday after school she would run immediately into the room that had a big chalkboard and a bucket of chalk and would start playing 'Teacher, teacher.' A game where she was the teacher, writing on the chalkboard, and scolding her student, namely Rohan, her younger brother. I think at times he was disciplined for being a less-than-willing-student, but as any good little brother, he knows that older sisters are the boss and not to be argued with. Rabu, as the family calls her, has no interest in toys, dolls, makeup, jewellery, dresses or games (other than 'Teacher, Teacher', of course). Unlike Rohan, the typical little brother, who loves all things loud, messy and destructive. Give Rabu pens and paper and she is happy as a clam. In fact, she loves stationary so much that she scolds her father for being a dentist. Rabu told Vikramjit that it would be much better for her if he would close his dental clinic and instead open a stationary store so she could have an unlimited supply of pens, pencils and notebooks at her disposal! haha! The other thing about little Rabu is that she is absolutely beautiful. Our digital camera was a novelty to her and she loved having her picture taken. Every time she would come up with a different pose, (how do five year olds know how to pose?) tilting her head, crossing her legs or resting her hand on her jutted out hip. It was adorable and earned her the title of 'India's Future Model.'

Rohan, their son, is about three years old, and within a day or so of being at their house, Jonathan had nicknamed him the 'Eating Machine.' Eating Machine is a ball of energy, so, quite reasonably, he needs a lot of fuel to enable him to continue on his mission of crawling (sometimes literally) up and down the walls until it is finally his bedtime. One day we had an outing planned so Raj had cooked up a really big, filling, delicious breakfast so that we would all be full until mid afternoon. Eating Machine had eaten his breakfast early, when he had gotten up, and then ate a second breakfast with everyone else later in the morning. We got on the train and a man selling samosas came by, so, of course, Mr Machine had to have a snack. Then, we got to the station and he saw a food stall and suddenly really, really needed a bag of chips, so he ate that. Then, because I saw his hungry eyes wandering, I gave him a candy that I had found in my purse. About twenty minutes later or so a man with an ice cream cart strolled by. Rohan ran up to Raj and started telling her some sad sounding story in Punjabi. There were actual tears in his eyes. "What's wrong?" I asked Raj. She laughed. "He says he's starving because he hasn't eaten since breakfast."

We also learned that cows like to sleep in the middle of the road. Only the middle will do. And that this is totally acceptable. As cows are representations of dieties to Hindus, they are pretty much safe no matter where in India they are or what they are doing. So, why not sleep in the middle of the road, really? The first night we arrived in Ashok Nagar it was late. Being the wonderful people that they are, Vikramjit and Raj had driven almost three hours in the monsoon rains to pick us up at the train station, and then of course, we had to drive back. 'Driver Ji' we began called Vikramjit, as he chauffeured us around that week. ('Ji' is a general term of respect. You can add it to the end of people's name to be polite. Its kind if like saying 'Sir') The main road was closed because of monsoon damage so we had to follow a series of small, barely paved, pot-hole laden roads from the station back to their town (if you can imagine it is even worse than Drummond Hill!). 'Bone-shakiii' MP roads we would all learn to love to call them. When we got about three kilometers outside the city we were met with a mass exodus of cows. It seemed as though they were fleeing the city. It was crazy the number of cows that were strolling down the middle of the narrow road. Maybe even a hundred of them! Ones that weren't strolling, were already lying in the middle of the road, resting. Watching the traffic like it was late night television. Seriously, it was like they each had a special 'middle of the road' spot that they liked to call their bed, and that, like a bed, they returned to every night. Driving in India is like an obstacle course, and all the ridiculous objects in the way that would be completely unacceptable to us, as westerners, are just normal, every day pylons to Indians. Cows, for one, are huge. Both annoyance wise, and their physical size. Travel is slow going not only because of the state of the roads themselves, but also because everyone has to slow down to maneuver around the cows, or 'Speed Breaks' as Sandeep calls them. Or, a 'cow jam,' as I liked to call it. I also delighted in yelling 'MOOOooooove!' out the window every time we had to screech to a stop centimeters in front of a cow and wait for it to look at us for a few long moments in its cowy way and eventually, after it was sure we knew just how much we had displeased him, saunter out our path (and into someone elses). I thought it was hilarious! Most others didn't share in my hilarity.

Besides the cows obstacles include herds of goats and water buffalo, sometimes being shepherded by their owner, sometimes wandering freely. There are stray dogs and stray children, sometimes carrying other children (probably strays, too), bikes, rickshaws, people pushing carts of produce, people talking on cell phones while walking their livestock.... 'Sometimes, when you are really in a rush,' Driver Ji informed us as we swerved around fence dividing the road and towards a herd of oncoming goats, 'you are allowed to drive on the other side of the road.' Why not? After all, this is India, and in India, 'Everyt'ing is possible!'

ps. In the next Ashok Nagar installment I'll tell you all about the day Jonathan wore a turban, an adventure up a mountain, servants, gifts, our new Punjabi vocabulary, and I'll probably talk about food some more too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guardians of the Taj

Probably everyone reading this knows something about the Taj Mahal. Still I shall here regal you with some well-known, taken straight from the guidebook, facts about this magnificent monument.

A lot can be gleaned by a name. Taj Mahal is an informal shortening of the name Mumtaz Mahal, which means "Chosen One of the Palace". Mumtaz Mahal was Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's favourite wife (he had many). When she died shortly after giving birth to their fourteenth child, his grieving process took an historical turn when he decided that she must still be set apart from all his other relations. Twenty two years later, her body was enshrined in the newly completed mausoleum, which became known as the Taj Mahal. It is constructed entirely of marble. The only exception to this marble is the precious stones used to inlay ornamentation and verses of the Koran into the white marble. The big picture of the Taj that everyone is familiar with is justifiably famous, but these details deserve the spotlight, I would say, just as much. I kid you not that the level of artistic execution achieved in even a single inlaid emerald petal is second to none. And that's where the trouble started.

Kristen is in touch with her five senses like no one else I know is. She loves the sound of lapping waves on the shore; and she always points out when she smells lilac in the air; our 'morning hug' is an important part of her day (and mine); her chronically overdeveloped interest in photo taking (we currently have 50,000 plus photos from this trip alone) shows how fully she appreciates seeing things (and maybe how little she appreciates the Delete button); and rest assured that taste is still her favoured of the five senses. Anyway, after a trigger happy storm of macro photography, Kristen was getting even more up close and personal with the fingernail-sized-stone-carvings. All of the stone, marble and other, is polished in such a way that it almost grabs your wrist and begs you to run your hand over its facade.

In this particular corner we were the only ones present. We didn't have to share it with anybody. As we have been so many times on this trip (but in general too), we were thankful for this particular good fortune that happened upon us. Here, Kristen gave in to the marble's urgings and put her hand on one of its inlaid carvings. There isn't any sign that says not to touch the stone. But neither was there any information about the Guardians of the Taj. These Guardians are like ninjas: shadows are their home. And it is for this reason that we were made to believe that we were alone. Before she knew what happened, one of the Guardians reacted to her having a hand on the carving. With startling speed and precision the Guardian went right for her hand. Kristen didn't stand a chance. In all of this, the Guardian didn't even so much as leave the shadows to deliver his warning. Giving her a moment to let what happened sink in, he then said, "You can look, but you can't touch."

Or that's at least the most probable translation that we could come up with for "Coo". Without ever showing his beak, he forced Kristen to wash and sanitize her hand, and he forced me to swipe the camera out of Kristen's hands to photo document yet another time that a pigeon had landed a direct hit on my wife.

But let this be a lesson to you. You won't know they're there, but they are. They are keeping a watchful birds-eye view on all goings-on at the Taj Mahal, these Guardians of the Taj. And before you reach out to touch that oh-so-fine geological ornamentation, just think to yourself: Coo.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Soooo, I fed a cow some ice cream the other day. Stop reading now if you already think that this was a bad idea. The ice cream was no good (taste wise) and I was thinking might have been re-frozen, which is bad, according to Jonathan so I was looking t get rid of it. There was a kid passing by, but I thought it might be rude to give a poor kid an ice cream that I had half eaten. And then I saw a cow. Cows beg for food from people like your dog would at the kitchen table. They look at you with their glass cow eyes and push their big, black, slobbery noses (the riches of which are another favourite treat of theirs) at your bag of chips as you pass by (Lays Magic Masala flavour being their favourite). I held the ice cream-on-a-stick out for the cow and he slurped it up right away. Is it weird for a cow to eat dairy? ("You're sick, Jesse. Really sick.") I wondered. But then, as I watched the cow eat my ice cream I started to panic a little. What if he choked on the popsicle stick? What would we do? I didn't want to watch a cow choke and die! Cows are sacred to Hindus. What if they thought I murdered a symbol of their deities on earth? The popsicle stick was hanging out of the cow's mouth, crunching up and down, up and down as he ate the ice cream. I changed my mind about giving the cow my ice cream and reached out to snatch the stick from his mouth. As it would happen, this is the exact moment that the cow inhaled the stick into its mouth. Darn! He probably knew what I was up to. They are smarter than they look. We watched in time-that-seemed-to-stand-still as the cow continued to munch happily away. What kind of person feeds a cow ice cream? I scolded myself. And the plop. Out pops the popsicle stick completely unscathed. Not a lick of ice cream left. Seems as though this cow has eaten ice cream before...funny, since every time we see them they seem to be eating cardboard....

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Get 'Er Done

India does not seem to be a country that sits by and lets things happen. (Although we do sit around and wait for trains and buses a lot...) Ever since Gandhi's salt march (and perhaps before), protest, both violent and non-violent, seems to run in their blood. In the first two weeks that we were in India we witnessed two major protests. The main one being, of course, the Anna Hazare fast to end corruption. News of the fast was everywhere. Shopkeepers hung posters, cars were adorned with bumper stickers, an entire TV channel seemed to be devoted to broadcasting Anna's every breath. There were gatherings and ralleys in the streets every night of people showing their support for the cause. It was really impressive to see, in every city, how many people were aware and involved. Everyone was talking about it. Witnessing such a vast country united for one cause was remarkable!

In Vashist, a smalll town a few kilometres from Manali, where we spent our time, we witnessed our second protest. Vashist has a stunning waterfall. We had enjoyed the short hike out to it ourselves and were pleasantly surprised by both the walk and the waterfalls themselves. Turns out there are plans of building a hydro dam to harness the power from the falls and the town people are none to happy about it. They planned a protest. We watched from our balcony. The protest walk sounded like quite the party! There was music and instruments and drums and singing. They held posters and chanted. The most amazing thing about it was that everyone, in Vashist, but also in the bigger city of Manali closed down all their shops and restaurants for the entire day! This is a major tourist destination and these people were willing to lose a whole day's income for the cause. Of course, it wasn't so great for us, since there was literally nowhere to eat, but we did appreciate their commitment. Although, their commitment also meant that I didn't get to buy the gorgeous gold and turquoise silk pashmina I had been eyeing for days, working up the courage to buy... now that was the real sacrifice...

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Incredible India!

India. Guaranteed to bamboozle your senses. This country is a true overload of colours, smells, sights and tastes. How it manages all this, and more, within ten minutes of your arrival on the subcontinent, really, is quite impressive.

Our first port of call was Delhi. We stepped out of the modern, air-conditioned airport, and into a wall of hot, sticky, smelly Delhi-ness. Then, on to Delhi's brand spankin' new, ultra-modern Airport Express metro line that wizzes passengers from the airport to downtown in a mere 16 minutes, all while telling you, in English, in that unique English/Hindi accent (Hinglish), where to 'alight'. A complete contrast to the outside world. Its like being on London's 'Gatwick Express,' only cleaner, sleeker, faster, and a tenth of the price. Weird, but wonderful. Then, of course, you arrive at the New Delhi station (too bad it only takes 16 minutes- because that is one luxurious quarter hour) and are thrown from the comfy-cool metro Delhi back into the hot, sticky above-ground Delhi. Couldn't we just stay on the train? I asked Jonathan, sweating withing seconds of 'alighting'. Apparently not.

India's capital is hot, loud, polluted, frantic, chaotically busy, and hot. Did I mention hot? But, really- its just fascinating. I had prepared myself, mentally, for India. Expecting to have to dodge the dodgy constantly and out trick tricksters on the side. But, there we were, standing outside the New Delhi Rail Station and we had yet to have anyone even talk to us, let alone be bothersome. Seriously, no one had talked to us, not even the Indian immigration officer, who just grunted while (rather) forcefully stamping our passports, and that doesn't really count as a conversation as far as I am concerned... It felt like an accomplishment. We had made it this far, without incident. Maybe some rickshaw wanted to take us somewhere, and maybe some guy on the side of the road wanted to sell us a drum or something equally as useless, and definitely everyone tried their darndest to run us over, but it was in no way, at all, the hassle I was expecting (and dreading). Maybe all this chaos is just normal to us now? Maybe taking your life in your hands crossing the road is a given? Maybe we looked like seasoned travellers, not to be bothered? Maybe it was just too hot for people to be annoying? Maybe they were intimidated by Werewolf Jonathan? Who knows? But whatever the reason, Delhi, to us, was a breeze. (Relatively speaking...but without an actual breeze). And, everyone speaks English! What an absolute treat!

India has poverty, the likes of which I have never seen before, and barely like to imagine. In China, they planted huge, emerald rice fields along the train tracks, long long ago, purposefully to paint a picture of China's abundance for train travellers. In India, there was no such scheming foresight. From our grubby, wide open, second-class, train window, the images we saw also leave poignant images in our memory- although of the significantly less pretty sort. People not only live beside the railroad tracks in India. They live on them. On them. Many Indians die because of this. The slums our train passed through on its way from Delhi to Amritsar, were simply shocking. There is no doubt that my jaw was literally hanging open in a mix disbelief, horror and fascination. People live there? Some areas looked as though there had once been a building there. Only it was blown up. Fragments that remained were painted odd, super bright colours. Plastic sheets, ropes and scraps of corrugated metal were somehow strung together haphazardly (or perhaps not) to close the wreckage in. Tiny little spaces held a large number of people.

When we stopped at train stations, small begger children approached our open windows, hoping for handouts. They aren't shy about it either. They stick their little hands through the window bars and poke at your arm until you pay attention to them. Then they look at you with their watery, brown, shiny eyes and put their hands to their mouth- showing that they want food. It was very hard to look at their ragged clothing, dirty skin and scrawny bodies: Many of us from the West have seen beggars before, but here, in India, the poverty is different; it is real in a way that might be hard to fathom. 'Give me your chocolate!' one child demanded. I would have laughed, seeing as the kid had chosen the person on the train who would be most likely to have chocolate, but it was too sad. Older beggars boarded the trains and played music, sang, banged their tin beggar bowls on our seats or just stuck their hands in our face for a long, awkward period of time. Second class train travel is a constant string of people trying to convince you to part with your rupees. Either in exchange for whatever they are selling, or just because they want it. It was exhausting for me, so I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the other end.

While in Delhi we spent a moving afternoon at the Gandhi Smirti. This is where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last months of his life, and where he was assassinated. In a loud, chaotic city, and for being a place where such a tragedy occurred, the Smirti was a quiet, even peaceful sanctuary. The house in which he lived has been converted into a very interesting, interactive museum dedicated to Gandhi's life and works. Gandhi's bedroom and living areas have been left just as they had been. The walls are all white. The only decoration is a small framed piece of paper that reads, fittingly: 'My life is my message,' one of Gandhi's famous quotes. The garden path that Gandhi took to his nightly prayer spot, the night he was shot, has been outlined by small concrete footprints to a small gazebo built in the exact spot he was killed by the Hindu extremist. Visitors can walk along side where the Mahatma took his last steps.

India reveres Gandhi, and for good reason. He was instrumental in their independence, he empowered his people and was passionate about his country, their happiness and prosperity. The Mahatma, a name which means 'Great Soul,' adorns every Indian Rupee note. Being at the Gandhi Smirti where one of the greatest Indians of all time lived out his last days was the number one highlight of Delhi.

J: From childhood I've played a "connections" type of game with myself not completely unlike the Seven Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon. I have always been interested in overlapping lives (aka Who do I personally know who was alive when this person was living or that situation happened?). Gandhi, more than any other person in this little game, is most special to me for a few reasons. One reason is that he was such an important historical figure. He had a lot to say about how costly real peace is but was also a living example of how a person can strive for peace despite this reality. Too, along the way he was both serious and funny...and had a penchant for simple dress: something I have an personal affinity for, especially back in Canada. To be more precise, though, I should say his death is particularly special to me (I know that sounds morbid, but I promise you its not). The other reason is how clearly I can picture the day he was assassinated. Its not Gandhi's day that I spend much time envisioning, though. Its the day of my "personal connection" with Gandhi that I have thought so much about: my dad. The date and time of the assassination make it very easy for me recreate my dad's day: he was exactly fifteen days old. Even without being a parent myself, I know there isn't much to the daily routine of a fifteen-day-old infant. Taking the time change into account, it was about midday for my dad. He was either sleeping or feeding at the time (or having his diaper changed, I suppose). He probably cried a little bit that day and was comforted and made to feel safe in Nanny's arms. On top of this, I can also picture Nanny attending to some sick despite having a newborn. And Pappy was probably beaming because of his young son and this could be seen clearly by all the villagers he was working with. Numbers help me think more clearly and having a specific time and date so close to my dad's birth lends itself quite nicely here. To stand right were Gandhi was gunned down and be able to paint that exact hour in my dad's day a continent away, was quite a powerful moment for me and not one I will soon forget.

ps. Yes, our India blogs are a bit out of order. Kinda like the country.

pps. Happy Anniversary (in two days) to Walter and Penelope!!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

365 Days of Summer

One year ago today, October 4th 2010, Wally and Karly picked us up for the airport run before the sun had even thought about opening his eyes. Wally was quiet; he was losing both his daughters again for a little while. Karly wasn't talkative either. This could probably be chalked up to the early hour, but she was sad to have to leave, too. It was dark with only some streetlights and our headlights illuminating our path. Pulling from our driveway, Sixpence None the Richer came on the radio. It was their single Kiss Me. Within everyone's mixed emotions in the car, enveloped in a serene darkness, the gentle rhythm of Matt Slocum's 12-string guitar, coupled with Leigh Nash's soft voice seemed the most perfect way to begin our journey. I don't know exactly why that is; it just was.

Not including our touchdown in British Columbia, we weren't sure what was to lay ahead for us after our car ride to the airport. We were alright with that, though. Its part of travelling.

Now, we could give someone a bit of a heads-up as to what to expect in the countries we have visited. We didn't race through them, trying to check off as many countries in the world as possible. We took our time (and even extended our visas if we felt we needed more time) to really try to get even a bit of a grasp on some of the things that are important to each country.

It has given us a good opportunity to learn more about each other and discuss the What's Next? question. Without any doubt we have changed over the course of the trip so far. (K: Maybe the most obvious change you'll notice is in our blog photos: I left Canada with my husband and now I am travelling with a wookie).

So far we have more than 50,000 photos (K: ok, maybe I am a bit snap happy, but how else are we going to remember a whole year, that's 365 exciting days?) We narrowed down our collection 'a bit' to one of our favourite photos from each country we have visited this past year. Boy was it hard!

Black Tusk, British Columbia:
I earned this photo! I had to hike up a mountain for it, encouraged with a dangling chocolate bar in front of me the whole way. So that we wouldn't succumb to hunger on this arduous journey, Adam brought us to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. We suggested looking through the bulk section and Adam replied, 'Do you mean the grazing aisle?' Adam was in no danger of succumbing to hunger in the supermarket that night.

Barry Town, South Island, New Zealand
We had driven our spaceship Adama down the path to the ocean so that we could have dinner with a view. We were relaxing in our chairs after dining and saw this horse-drawn sled galloping down the beach silhouetted in by the falling sun.

Broome, Western Australia
Oz is a country of extremes. Its extremely big, extremely hot and extraordinarily beautiful. The contrast of the red rock, blue sky, turquoise ocean and white sand in Broome was simply spectacular. Did I mention that it was really hot in Australia?

Lovina, Bali, Indonesia
We were in Lovina with our Parisian friend Sandra and heard loud music and clanging symbols down a nearby alley. We investigated and found a wonderful family festival taking place and were invited to join in! The festive-goers were dressed beautifully, there was endless amounts of delicious food and everyone wanted to chat. It was a great day!

Marina Bay, Singapore
We flew into Singapore for New Years Eve. It was a great place to kick off what I deemed to be 'Our Year.' The epic year of travel. There was quite the bash at Marina Bay and everyone in the country seemed to be there! The craziest thing about New Years in Singapore was that the malls around the Bay were open and people were actually still shopping as the massive fireworks display started at midnight! 'Hello, 2011! And, do you have this in blue?' Our favourite Singapore saying that we saw on a girl's beach-type bag was especially hilarious after we witnessed how much Singaporeans really do like to partake in their 'national pastime' of shopping: "I see it. I want it. I'm buying it!"

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The Highlands were our favourite place in Malaysia. For us, it had it all: Beautiful rolling hills lined with tea bushes, a cool climate, great hikes, delicious food, cheap accomodation and wi-fi. We celebrated our 100th day of traveling in the Highlands and made some great friends. I can't believe that it was, well, 265 days ago! Most importantly, though: the Malaysian roti. Oh my, it was so delicious! Like a pancake, only bigger and stuffed and more pastry-like. Especially yummy when I ordered it with chocolate and peanut butter melted inside. I'm now drooling.

Chiang Mai, Thailand:

We were in Chiang Mai and visited a Buddhist temple up on the mountain overlooking the city. We went late in the afternoon so that we could see the gold temple shimmer in the warm light of the setting sun. It was a very picturesque place with many saffron clad monks, Thai devotees, colours, bells and statues. On the way back down the mountain we had our tuk tuk driver drop us off at Dairy Queen. Now that was exciting! haha

Sunshine School, Vientiane, Lao:
We loved volunteering at Sunshine School! Didi, the headmaster was fantastic and we really enjoyed getting to know the teachers and kids. The students seemed to take a special liking to Jonathan and his facial hair. His beard was a constant source of entertainment for the kids. The just loved playing with it. Poor kids. Who knew what was living in it at the time....

Angkor Temples, Siem Reap, Cambodia:

We half expected to be a little disappointed by the temples of Angkor. How can something possibly live up to such an immense amount of hype? But, happily, we were completely blown away by them. There are so many temples, crumbling but still detailed and fantastic. So many trees with magnificent roots taking over the ruins. So much atmosphere! When we were lucky enough to visit a temple when it wasn't overrun with tourists, the experience was complete magic. Its easy to feel like the Lara Croft or Indiana Jones in Angkor, losing yourself in the abandoned corners and courtyards of even the busiest temples.

Halong Bay, Vietnam:
Touring Halong Bay on a Junk boat was a wonderful experience. Just when you think the calm waters and eerie rock formations of the bay can't get any better, your Junk drops you at a cave with a hidden entrance and you get to go exploring inside its extensive hallows (although lit with a rather unfortunately tacky display of neon bulbs). I loved wandering through the caves and taking in all the unique stalagmites, naturally ornate entrance ways, wall 'decorations', cathedral ceilings, underground rivers and cave dwelling creatures.

Litang, Sichuan, China:
I'm sure you all read the blog about my photoshoot with this 'Tuga, tuga' Tibetan monk. I just love the colours in this photo. To this day I wonder what the monk wanted me to do with all these photos he insisted I take of him. He jotted a page of what we thought were instructions for us regarding these photos in our note pad in Tibetan script. Upon returning to our guesthouse, we interrogated its Tibetan proprietor as to what it says. "Who wrote this?" she asked us. "A Tibetan monk up at the monastery," we replied. She studied the page again. "It just doesn't make any sense. His Tibetan is very poor," she concluded. "Are you sure he was Tibetan?" We just smiled.

Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal:

Kathmandu has turned out to be our favourite of all the major cities that we have visited this year. Here, we are visiting one of the city's numerous temples high up on a hill (aka- up a million and one stairs). The steep steps are lined with colourful prayer flags and mischievous monkeys looking to steal anything that even remotely resembles food. They will even settle for snatching your water bottle, if you happen to have it sticking out of your backpack! I loved watching the monkey mayhem and could have sat there and photographed their hilarious monkey shenanigans all day long.

Agra, India:
The guesthouse that we stayed at in Agra had two resident baby goats that were tied up outside in the alleyway. They were so cute and every time we passed them to go to or from our room they would strain their leashes to try and get close enough to us that they could rub up against us for a good cuddle and scratch behind the ears. One morning this kid was affectionately playing with the goat the same way we play with our dogs. It was too cute to resist snapping a pic of these two 'kids'! Who says the Taj is the most photogenic subject in Agra?! I love the colours and texture everywhere in India. To me, India equals delicious food and one big photograph waiting to happen!

In three months we will be back in Canada and all of this will seem like a distant dream. Our large amount of time has dwindled down so quickly into what we feel is almost (but not quite yet) the home-stretch. A weird concept, considering that three months really isn't a short period of time at all. Before this trip, the longest we had traveled was when we went to Europe in 2006 for 'A Once in a Life Time Trip, Part II' and that was four months. We can almost fit what was previously our longest trip into the home-stretch of this trip! It's mind boggling for us! Anyway, everyday we wake up and feel extremely lucky to still be traveling. We're 'living the dream,' and we know it. Don't get us wrong, we are really looking forward to coming home in December, but seeing as we still have 79 days left (I just counted! wow!) of our 'Once in a Lifetime Trip Part III' we plan to squeeze the adventure out of every last drop of time we have left!

Happy One Year of Travel to Us!!