Friday, May 1, 2009

Exhale: A Return Home

As I look around me, I’m surrounding by walls decorated with letters, numbers, animals and globes and with the American flag in the opposite corner of the room. The classroom, more specifically, has affirmed the simple fact that life has again drastically changed in my return back to the United States. For the first time in nearly 5 months, I’m feeling that sense of familiarity and ease and life seems eerily similar to the way it was before I left the United States, substitute teaching elementary school kids, in between things. But of course this time is different and I feel like I’ve experienced a lifetime since I left back in December. As I took the attendance of the class I was teaching this morning, my attention was piqued as I came to a certain student. Krishna, an unmistakable Indian name, has effectively sent my thoughts adrift, back to just a few weeks prior when day to day life was starkly different.

I’d like to first of all apologize to all of you loyal followers and fans of the blog for my lack of output towards the end of my trip. As I look back to my blog page, I can’t believe my latest entry was February 24th, before I left for my volunteering! Wow, seems like eons ago! I have a couple of excuses, however unjustified they might be. One is that my volunteering project did not completely go as planned and as a result had me a bit stressed. Partially related, is simply the residual effects of extended travel in the extremities of a paradoxical culture such as India, that tend to wear on a person whose intentions are to live a life somewhere in the middle. I hit the proverbial wall and for these reasons, criticisms began to emerge that I felt needed time for pondering. Also, this period was the start of my travel with a companion, when I’d gotten very comfortable travelling by my self. I simply didn’t have the alone time I enjoyed before. So, for a guy who requires significant thought and time to articulate his crazy little world, this environment was not compatible for positive, quality writing. So I took some time. A LOT of time!

I’ll try to bring you all up to speed on how the final chapter of the trip turned out by starting with where I left off, my volunteering project. Choosing where I would volunteer was difficult, but it appeared Dakshinayan had most of what I was looking for at a price I could afford (unbeknownst to me, volunteering overseas can be quite expensive). It appeared to be a small, grassroots organization with its goals set on making a positive and sustainable impact on the multiple communities involved. Another aspect it appeared to contain, which was very important to me, was significant volunteer/community interaction within those communities. And equally important, was again, a reasonable fee, in which my money, for the most part, was not being put towards any kind of large-scale advertising or to an organization trying to expand beyond their capabilities, which appears to happen all too often, losing sight of the what’s important. Everything seemed to “check-out”, right down the line.

What I was not aware of, however, was that the website, which showed what life might be like for a volunteer at Dakshinayan, was grossly outdated and the project’s mission had shrunk in both capacity and integrity. That volunteer/community interaction that appeared so prevalent on the website turned out to be, for all intents and purposes, forbidden outside of teaching the local children inside the project’s, perhaps ½ square mile, brick walled confines during the mornings 6 days a week. This left a LOT of free time…in the walled confines. The afternoons/evenings and remaining free days were to be spent inside or within site of the project walls. When inquiring about exploring the local cultures and environment that I was so eagerly interested in, I was made to believe that the local culture had nothing to offer and that the villages were not fit for foreigners. End of story! I felt a deliberate attempt to be barred from the local goings-on and vice versa and a real contempt for the communities being served here. So, to keep occupied outside of reading 6 books in the 3 weeks I was there, an hour and half of yoga and an hour run each day, I was forced to, in a sense, sneak out of the area to experience real-life, rural India in the local villages. What I found was the loving interactions of a vivid local culture for which I was searching. The locals were an incredibly beautiful, curious and kind people. It’s these memories, along with the time spent with the wonderful children that I will remember fondly.

Unfortunately, the problems didn’t stop there. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say that there were issues that, in my opinion, bordered on caste inequalities regarding the director’s treatment of his teachers/servant boys, exhibitions of power, intimidation and fear tactics towards the children including observed physical violence. And life at the project outside of teaching was not unsurprisingly frustrating. I did my best to fit in by helping with chores, starting projects and melding into the small group that included the project director, two other local teachers and a cook, but was met with an exclusive attitude that eventually left me feeling very unappreciated. And so it was one fine Sunday afternoon when a friend of the director happened to catch me mingling in town that I was subsequently reminded that I was to have nothing to do with the nearby village life. It turned out to be the straw that broke the camels back and I then made the decision that it was time to leave the project one week earlier than planned.

I’m still fumbling a bit with what to think about how that experience played out. Was I being too stubborn, too hard-headed in my ways? Too selfish? Is there such a thing as living too idealistic? Too rigid or too uncompromising? After having two months with which to think about it, I’ve come to two conclusions; one, my reasons for leaving are justified and I’ve accepted that, and two, the guilt of leaving the kids earlier than I needed still remains. Ah, and so is the paradox of India…

Wanting to get SOMETHING on the blog page while another entry once again comes sputtering forth longer than intended, I’m going to post this guy before I pause and slack another month away. I sure hope it’s not that long before I wash my hands with “Over The Hills and Far Away…to India”. At least 2 more blogs should be on the way to wind ‘er up! Then, another extended writer’s sabbatical notwithstanding, I’m proud to announce the summer’s blog of an inevitably action-packed journey up to our nation’s last frontier in Alaska, “Into the Alaskan Wild”. Until next time, I hope this entry finds everyone tip-toeing through the spring tulips, at the ball parks and cheering on our beloved Bulls to pull off a game 7 in Boston tomorrow night! GO BULLS!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Little Slice of Heaven on Earth

A place where preservation and conservation trumps expendability, humility is carried out with a smile and grace, transportation is largely by foot, the landscape is green, the rivers aqua-blue and where silence is greatly relished; this is Sikkim. So far away from the more southern 99% of India, it may as well be a whole new world. Devoting much of my trip to culture and lesson in sociology, I had missed this eco-travel, the natural way that’s been so imperative in my life. What a pleasure was this anomaly in a country so lacking that in which Sikkim is thriving!

A small protrusion in north central India, the state of Sikkim is a geographical crossroads that borders Nepal to its west, Tibet to its north, Bhutan to its east and the rest of Hindu India to its south. The rest of India is added to this list due its starkly contradicting make-up of religion, values and personality and as previously mentioned, may as well be its very own country (or at least added to one of the others).

Spending a few days in Darjeeling, obtaining a needed permit for Sikkim and regrouping after a long deluge of Varanasi and travel, it became apparent that this small portion of the country was different. Darjeeling was incredibly quiet, much cleaner and I wasn’t hassled at all for my business. Much of this had to do with its relative affluence compared to most of the India I’ve seen, but also their way of life. The more north you travel, the more, well, Buddhism you sense, both physically, with the gompas (Buddhist temples), monasteries and traditional Buddhist garb, but also their values of respecting the land, all living things and each other, their calm, controlled demeanor, and just their refuge to the beautiful, hard to reach places. Also, this area has seen much migration from Tibet, due to China’s imperialistic bullying, errrr, I mean, conflict with China, and Nepal from their largely corrupt government. These countries are synonymous with Buddhism.

In Sikkim, due to it’s rugged up and down travel through the Himalayan foothills, travel is by foot or jeep. So, my first day of travel was to Sikkim’s tourist hotspot, Pelling by a breathtaking jeep ride through untouched forests and waterfalls, getting a quick idea of how incredible this week was going to be. Pelling has gotten its tourist reputation due to the magnificent views of Mount Khangchendzonga (8598 meters), the world’s third tallest mountain! I checked into another lovely, local guesthouse with what would have been an amazing view on the beast, but, as is common in the winter, the views were non-existent due to cloud cover. The next day I awoke and was determined to view the 2 beautiful monasteries in the area. The first was up the ridge to Sangachoeling Gompa where the views down to Pelling were magnificent the setting wonderfully serene. There I met with a couple of Argentinians that were in my jeep and ended up trekking with them and a local to some meditation caves higher still on the same ridge. The habitat is not what you’d expect in the Himalayan foothills. It’s very reminiscent of high jungle or cloud forest habitat, with tall trees and bamboo everywhere. It was just stunning and felt completely untouched and pure. Later that evening we hiked down from that ridge to a small village where local families were busy tilling their gardens with their cows and preening their cardamom crops.

Not getting any views from Darjeeling or Pelling the previous night, I realized it was a good possibility that I would not see what many come to Sikkim to see, glorious Khangchenzonga. Luckily I was wrong and the beast reared its formidable stature that next morning and most of the afternoon. As you could imagine, I instantly became very camera happy!

A very holy lake to the local Buddhists was next on my itinerary, Khecheopalri Lake. A girl from my guesthouse in Darjeeling had told me if I go to the lake to make sure that I hike up to the small monastery above the lake to a beautiful village where there’s a very primitive guesthouse with delicious food. It sounded right up my alley and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. This village had once of the most idyllic settings amongst gorgeous, lush landscape on top of a ridge, children gleefully prancing about through rich, colorful gardens, everyone working hard with gigantic smiles on their faces and loving life. What a place to spend a day and what a generous and kind family where the Bhutia’s and the most delicious food I’ve had in India to date.

Mr. Bhutia informed me about a gompa on a lookout higher above the lake that I could hike to the next day, before trekking to Yuksom, the small village and trekking base to Khangchenzonga. Another impressive view from high above the lake was had, then the trek led all the way down the valley though several villages of terraced farmland and what I kept thinking as meticulously laid stone steps and Tolkien-esque hobbit paths spanning thousands of feet all the way down to the river valley, before climbing back up a gazillion more steps to Yuksom.

While grabbing tea and dinner in Yuksom after a very long day of trekking, I ran into a couple of guys from London who’d been trekking in the area the entire previous week, imploring me to trek the first leg of the Khangchenzonga trek. After their high endorsement, I was convinced and was off the next morning in what was a mostly clear morning, thinking I had lucked out with the weather. The hike was simply breathtaking through lush forest forests and over old bridges spanning raging rivers and waterfalls. The only traffic I saw were the yak/mule crosses and their guides carrying goods to and from their village high above Yuksom and in the shadows of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the weather turned cloudy once again as I reached the highest I point I could on the trail, the first trekkers hut, before turning around. My immediate surrounding were quite enough to put a huge smile on my face. And another glimpse into local life was afforded at The Cottage Homestay, with a lovely family that allowed me the privalege of helping cook dinner. I'm sure I just got in the way, but it was fun for everyone! I am grateful for this family!

Finally, another highlight of my entire trip (I know, there’s many in Sikkim!) was the annual Chaam dances by the Pemayangtse monks that just so happened to be taking place at their gompa. A real treat it was to witness the perfect cultural highlight to a magnificent natural background and preceding week-long display before my volunteering project at Dakshinayan begins, the final phase of my adventure to India.

Varanasi: India in a Nutshell

Since I can remember gaining an interest and curiosity to this phenomenon that is India, it’s been Varansi that has stuck in my mind after listening to those who’ve been here and spoke of the various places they visited. I don’t know why, since I typically do not care for theatrics, novelties or overdone, showy behavior, but for whatever reason, this idea of the ghats in Varanasi has just intrigued me to point where I felt compelled to witness it, even after I thought I’d left the madhouse cultural extremities for the solitude of rural and Himalayan India. I’m so glad that I took that plunge, even if for only a day, to witness what I can confidently say is a good representation of India in a nutshell, Varanasi.

An inauspicious start to the quick drop-by, I broke one of the most important rules in the travel bible…when taking a rickshaw in a new location, asked to be dropped where YOU want and YOU think you can find your type of accommodation and not where the driver “recommends”. It’s another awful reality of the tourist business in India that these auto rickshaw drivers get hefty commissions by hotel owners to take you from the train/bus stations or airports to their properties. If you’d let them, they’d probably be more than willing to drive around the entire day, dropping you door to door of those on their list, ringing up the rupees with each stop (they still get paid even if you don’t stay). So it’s just really incredibly annoying and you have to firmly insist on them dropping you in a good spot to hunt down the right guest house. So, I was dropped at a real dive, far away from the ghats where the guy showing the room quoted an insanely ridiculous price, thinking I was the moronic, na├»ve tourist, Varansi being my first stop. But in some it is kinda fun informing them that you know the routine, the rates and then thank them for insulting you while you walk out the door. Sweet justice…but I was still a good mile from the better-value, better-location guest houses and had to hike it.

That night at Puja Guest House I was finally graced by the hypnotic sounds of the sitar, while grabbing a bite to eat on their very high rooftop restaurant. Having linked the sitar and India together, thinking I’d hear it everywhere, it just sounded appropriate as I gazed out over the dimly-lit, misty ghats, guessing what tomorrow had in store for me. “It’s never quite how you image,” I reminded myself.

It’s said that the ghats are best visited and most active at dawn and dusk, with their sultry hues mystically illuminating the, some strange, some commonplace affairs down below in the river. I was up at 6 am, out the door a half hour later and hating every fiber of Varanasi an hour after that. Like the camel safaris in Jaisalmer or yoga in Rishikesh, it’s the dawn/dusk boat rides along the Ganges river in Varanasi, and their on to you like pit bulls your first step out the door. By maybe the 20th time I’d been asked if I wanted a boat ride, I was ready to go back to bed and be done with Varanasi. The droves of boats already on the water, teeming with zombie-like, elderly western tourists snapping photos like the world was ending, didn’t help. But I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. The boat offers began to settle down, as did my nerves and I began to see what Varanasi was all about.

You really do see all of India down at the Varanasi ghats. Everyday chores like getting a shave or haircut, drinking chai, reading the newspaper are done there. Others are performing fire puja (prayers) ceremonial dancing, meditation or yoga. And still, there are many who exercise their spirituality by bathing, doing the laundry or just going for a swim in the waters of that vile river. The same river in which other ghastly, but reverent acts are performed, like cremations, if you’re important enough and/or your family has enough money (otherwise there’s a good number of those less fortunate who are simply dumped into the river upon their expiring). So, along with various body parts and the ubiquitous sludge of waste present in all rivers in this region of India, people are cleaning themselves, relieving themselves and even brushing their teeth with these holy waters. It’s not that the everyday Indian is this ignorantly unhygienic (though some are), they genuinely and sincerely feel the healing powers of what they consider the most holy and sacred water on the planet. It’s said that if you die or are cremated (or dumped) into the river after you’ve died, the sins of your entire lifetime are cast away and you’re a free soul. So no matter how disgusted you are at what you’re witnessing, you can’t help but admire their passion and dedication to their spirituality. This has been unmistakably and clearly shown throughout my time here!

It’s true, I did come to Varanasi wanting to visit the burning ghats and see a cremation. And so, walking back to my guesthouse later that morning, when I saw men carrying wood down to the river and a large crowd in discussion, I became curious. Then it became evident. There was the body! A little creeped out since I’d seen just a few corpses in my whole life in funerals, there it was, on a bamboo stretcher, decked out in brilliant silken sheets. Choosing not to get into the gory details, the ceremony was all incredibly casual. Maybe it was just this one I happened to witness, maybe I had just built it up too much in my mind. But I couldn’t help but notice all the distractions around that I never imagined would accompany such an event, which ultimately kept my attention from what was happening. As the pyre is up in flames, I couldn’t get away from the smoke wafting in my face from close to a dozen small rubbish fires taking place quite near the central blaze. Pariah dogs are everywhere, rooting through waste. The fire attendant is reading the newspaper, just feet away from a burning corpse. There are men jockeying for my business at their silk shops all the while. People are bathing and swimming in the river, just behind the scene. Everyone was just going about their business like this happened everyday. And I suppose it did happen everyday, and multiple times each day. But not for me. And so there were periods during the roughly two-hour process that left me mesmerized by the significance of what was happening in front of me. But mostly I was struck by how unceremonial it was. Maybe if I had known the honorary subject…

Finally, after a tumultuous and exhausting day, the last event on the agenda was the evening fire ceremony that was supposed to be something to see. And it was something; it was the highlight of my short Varanasi trip. This fire ceremony at the main ghat on the Ganges River was packed with all walks of life, local and international, beggar and affluent. The main attraction was maybe 7 or 8 central performers atop stone pedestals above the river and engaged in a beautifully choreographed dance with candles, incense and large chalices used to intermittently billow large plumes of smoke, all in-sync and all to the beat of wonderful drumming and traditional chanting. Take a look for yourself!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

AUM...Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Another long train ride brought me from the arid Thar desert to the peaceful sanctuary of Rishikesh, Uttarkhand in the lush foothills of the Himalayas, via a small layover in Delhi. Since leaving that manic mess almost a month ago, Delhi’s apparently developed into my arch nemesis as it drove me to the brink of insanity being there but a few hours; a necessary perspective perhaps, with which to elevate the status of the rest of India, I can hardly wait to return upon flying back to the states. Rishikesh, on the other hand, is, and was definitely for me, the start of something beautiful and pure, in so many ways!

For all you Beatles fans out there, Rishikesh and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is where John, Paul, George and Ringo sought spiritual enlightenment and the creative material to write much of their famous “White Album” in their trip to India. I was both intrigued, being such a die hard fan and self-admitted western tourist, and put-off, thinking this may have in-effect tarnished a previously genuine spiritual gem, by this notion. However you look at it, George was introduced to the sitar, the Beatles kicked out one the most amazing albums in rock ‘n’ roll history and I witnessed a place not the least bit blemished by the inhabitance of such world icons!

I rolled into town late, as I usually do, to be met by a small child imploring me to come to his guest house. Tired, unaware and unable to fend off his youthful charm, I followed and settled for an overpriced room without hot water. Should’ve seen that one coming! So the next day I vowed to do my once-over of the Laxman Jhula area of up-river Rishikesh in search of the most practical room for what would be at least the better part of a week’s stay. I awoke early and started the day with a run/hike up in the hills to a gorgeous waterfall plunging down into an alpine bathing ghat and a beautiful terraced village. As I ambled back downhill, I began checking out accommodation to find much better deals at much better prices and was feeling very good about myself. When I nearly made it back to my original guest house, off the main street a bit I saw Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram. I had heard a bit about Ashram life, which basically means living in a small spiritual, meditative and/or yoga community with some rules and regulations in place to maintain the unity and harmony of the operation. Meals are usually eaten together, chores shared and then the core exercise of inner self enhancement, whatever that may be, is practiced.

Anand Prakash, as I learned, was chiefly a yoga ashram, that immediately caught my eye. Set away from the main street, it’s set on a hillside just up from the geographical focal point of Rishikesh, and the life giving artery of spiritual India, The Ganga (Ganges) River. It was a new establishment, built in 2007, which distinguished it against its nearby worn counterparts. It was a lovely property with a lawn in the front and garden area out back that was meticulously cared for. After I was taken on a brief tour and explained the rules and procedures, I was sold…100%. Some of the details went like this; Akhanda Yoga (a holistic, non-sectarian and very diverse version) practiced, a silent period of 9 pm to 9 am to be observed (including breakfast to ensure maximum peace for meditation and reflection within the community), 3 Sattvic vegetarian meals served daily, in by 9:30 at night and an extensive recycling program. Oh yeah, and the gender ratio just happened to be about 40:2, girls to guys, I being one of the 2 guys. This didn’t hurt! And so I was up 5:30 the next morning to start the daily routine seen here. The whole operation was a bit intimidating at first, as my only experience in yoga was a video tape my parents had back home and a few classes offered at the hospital in Delhi with overweight, middle-aged folks to make me feel better about my skills. As carefree as it sounded, attempting to silently meditate as the sun slowly rises in a dimly lit room to Indian chants, then trying to contort your body in ways it’s never before dared try, surrounded by ~40 VERY flexible women was both trying on the body and distracting to the mind.

30 of the girls here were involved in a rather intensive (much more intensive than the normal routine shown above), month-long Yoga Teachers Training course that started a week before I got there. So, as I started to get into the routine a bit and blend in the best I could and meet some of the group, it didn’t take long to really “stretch” my physical limits and settle my soul towards inner peace. But as hoaky as it sounds, the benefits were physically and mentally undeniable. It felt as though my whole existence had gone through a major de-tox and the obvious stresses that accompany India had temporarily been quelled. A sense of community is also such a nice change, anytime, but particularly when you travel. Eating with the same people every meal of the day, seeing them at their worst (5:45 am before yoga) and then their best (8:00 am breakfast after yoga), smiles of contentment while meditating or chanting and just sharing the same emotions as a group is always a good thing, I think.

I also have a few other noteworthy tidbits to share. Attempting to down-play the enviable circumstances, I tried not to think about the gender disparity and to concentrate on what I was there to obtain. But electing to seize an opportunity that just so happened to arise, there was a winner to the “Graham sweepstakes” (a.k.a. one of two available guys in the place) and I managed to find a travel partner for the last couple of weeks after volunteering and before heading back to the states, Caroline Corso from Montreal, Canada. She’s quite amazing at yoga and an even better person, so I can’t wait to spend some more time with her and get to know her better!

And finally, regarding my plans as I arrive back to the states, I scored another bellman job for the summer…this time in the great north…Alaska! I’ve long been told that I have a job waiting for me whenever I feel so inclined by numerous friends that I’m lucky to have way up there and feel that this is the perfect time. It falls between getting back home from India and before I leave for Australia for graduate school (fingers crossed, awaiting acceptance). Have I even mentioned Australia in this blog? Ah, oh well, I’m tired and this blog is finished!

But I feel compelled to end with a few centerpiece word/phrases often uttered throughout the ashram, Rishikesh the rest of the Eastern World. “Namaste” is the greeting, when meeting and departing and means that “The Divine spark in me greets the Divine spark in you”. It’s said in conjunction with putting hands together in front of the chest with a small bow. And finally, uttered after chants, yoga, before eating and any other auspicious actions, the Sanskrit symbol “AUM” (hummed simultaneously throughout one large breath) is seen and hummed/chanted EVERYWHERE in India and is a very mystical and sacred symbol. AUM is the universal name of the Lord and its three letter symbolize three states (waking, dream and deep sleep) and also the means and the goal of life, the world and the Truth behind it, and the material and the Sacred, all form and the Formless. The symbol is seen at the bottom of this blog. And “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti”, referring to “May there be peace (physical peace), peace (mental peace) and peace (spiritual peace).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Just Sonia and I


When it came time to depart Jodhpur, my anticipation of getting to Jaisalmer was abounding due to top-notch reviews many of the travelers that I’ve met throughout Rajasthan had given it. Some went as far as claiming Jaisalmer as being their favorite place in all of India, due to the serenity of the quaint town, sandcastle-like ambience and of course, “the thing” to do in Jaisalmer, the highly admired camel safari into the desert. Having been drawn more to the mountains in the past is not to say that I dislike other environments such as the beach, or in this case the desert. So during the bus ride to cameltown, through the rugged and arid landscape of the Thar, I realized that traveling through this environment was not enough and that I would relish the opportunity to go out and touch it!

I arrived at yet another cheaper-than-cheap guest house with another amazing rooftop restaurant/social area with great food (why in the world they don’t have this in the states is beyond me-maybe they do in the cities) and had a nice chat and dinner with some very nice Aussies (Australians) on break from med school. Jaisalmer Fort (much like Megerangarh Fort in Jodhpur, just nowhere near as large and imposing) dominates the views from any point in Jaisalmer and is the focal point of the town. It's impressive, but apparently the infrastructure is failing due to the septic pressure applied from the stingy guesthouse house owners inside that will not yield to the better judgement of saving the historical landmark. It would be very neat and there are some very nice places to stay inside, but come on people! So, as a result, the structural integrity of the fort is compromised, as is the character inside and the magnificent structure will likely be condemned in the near future. Such a shame!

Exploring the various alleyways and corridors throughout the fort on my second day I ran into a couple that I had met from Heaven Guest House, the girl from Brazil and the guy from Israel. We exchanged greetings and plans for our stays in Jaisalmer and realized our mutual interests in a camel safari. As mentioned previously, camel safaris are “it” in Jaisalmer, which means lots of hotels/travel companies offering trips of various lengths and locations, all, of course claiming THE BEST safari in town. Consequently, with so much supply available, the demand becomes a bit of a game, and the bigger the group you have, the more you’re able to influence price negotiations. So even though I’d be a third wheel in this party of three, we agreed to see what sort of trip we could muster. When we recognized another English couple from Heaven and who later entered our party, my apprehensions mounted at first as I became the fifth wheel, then eased as I became aware of the harmony and leisure of our group. This is a fun clan!

Our chief negotiator, the Israeli, even with a more limited English vocabulary, was a pit-bull haggling with the tour director and used his Israeli influence (young Israelis are travelling everywhere in India, and the world for that matter, as a re-initiation back into the world following their mandatory 3-year commitment to the Israeli military, and consequently can get really good deals with such representation and free advertising to their comrades) to get a really amazing deal; 2 full days, one night, all meals included, only a small backpack of personal items needed, for the meager price of $20. We agreed that it was a screamin’ deal and we were off the following day atop those strange camel creatures into the desert.

When we arrived at our starting point, following a brisk early morning jeep ride away from the town, we sat speechless, studying what were to be our modes of transportation for the next couple of days. They’re huge, they kinda stink, they’re strong and are completely docile and super friendly. The saddles are probably 4 feet tall when the camels are sitting down upon mounting and the awkwardness of these beasts are such that, when they stand, you are thrust forward and their back legs are straightened, then thrust backward as their front legs bring them to a complete stand. The weariness continues as it feels like the camels are just going to dart through the desert at any moment, you clinging on for your life and needing to bail. At least that’s what I was feeling. But they never do, and contrary to what I was told, I had a comfortable ride, finding a fine balance and nice rhythm to their gate. The two other guys weren’t so lucky. I think it’s because they’re both taller than I, with longer legs, and unable to utilize the stirrups as effectively. Being shorter does have a few perks!

The first day was really incredible, spent ambling through the sun-scorched, barren landscape, visiting a village that didn’t appear to have much, if any, contact with western people and eating delicious Indian food prepared by our multi-talented guides that were so very good to us the entire way. My camel, Sonia had bit of a mind of her own and a dual agenda on this trip. In addition to pleasing her owners and hauling my heavy load aimlessly around the desert, she was continuously leading the pack and surveying the horizon. She’s a born leader with a curious personality, I thought. Then, when she made this hideous, guttural noise from the back of her throat and, what seemed to be her cheek or part of her throat or something came bubbling out of her mouth, along with loads of saliva and an awful stench, I presumed something else was up. I was subsequently told that Sonia, luckily for me was in heat, or the rut, or whatever you might call it for camels. Alas, whatever the term, her incorrigible, but endearing behavior gave my camel a different sort of disposition and as the other sweethearts behind me were doing their thing, Sonia, the camel and I leading the pack out front, doing ours (i.e. me constantly slowing her down and yanking her focus back to our destinations ahead).

In the evening we came upon an oasis of sand, in a vast see of craggly trees, rocks and gravel that was stunningly beautiful and provided an inviting opportunity into what the desert is supposed to look and be like. As the sun descended, an Indian couple from the state of Punjab that we joined with maybe an hour before announced it was their anniversary and they had some liquor to share. Turns out we had our own sand bar of whatever our livers could hold and the remainder of the evening was spent sitting around the campfire with fantastic food, chanting and singing, a clear and moonlit sky atop a sea of sand, under a sea of stars communing with quality people.
After a glorious sunrise and another delicious breakfast, we set out a little tired and sore from the previous day and were met with the jeep in the early afternoon. Before leaving the following day, Our Punjab friends insisted that we all meet them for their anniversary dinner in Jaisalmer that night. So we all gathered one last time to mingle and gorge ourselves on tons of traditional Indian dishes, each one tantalizingly delectable. Oh, how I will miss this food…and this place!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The City of Blue

I arrived in the blue city late in the evening half asleep, after the hike at Ranakpur and following a long bus ride. I decided to take the advice of some fellow travelers offered to me as I was getting on the bus at Ranakpur, to try Heaven Guest House in Jodhpur. In the traveler circles of India and most other countries, you end up criss-crossing routes with lots of other travelers, many of whom you’ve already met, from destinations of places you’ve been to or are going. As stories are told and advice is given, inevitably, common topics surface such as what to do, what to see, where to eat and particularly, where to sleep, and the business owners are privy to this (at least the smarter ones). So, in an attempt to secure future business from the mouths of paying guests, and hospitality heads attempt to give ultimate care and pampering, often and not surprisingly, right at the end of your stay near check-out. At this point, business cards or small brochures are given out and it’s kindly asked that you distribute these to travelers coming their way. It’s really a great and cheap approach to advertisement and the best form of accountability for the guest house owners. Everyone wins! So when I was given the card for Heaven and told how great the service and kind the family was, I felt compelled to try and was rewarded!
I was actually disappointed to learn that there were no rooms available at Heaven when I plodded up the stairs to the office with my large backpack. But my fortunes quickly turned when I was offered the bed on the ornamental rooftop under the stars, and later to find out, under the strikingly colossal Megerangarh fort, rising out of the desert practically right overhead! All of my aches, pains and fatigue vanished as a full enough moon lit the clay-colored fort abright in an ochre-colored brilliance. I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of it from this vantage point!
The inside of the fort was no less impressive than the outside, complete with everything you’d imagine to necessitate such a mighty structure. In an effort not to excessively bore with insignificant names and details, I’ll just let some of the images I was able to capture do the talking.
Aside from the fort and a few of the other monuments around town that I didn’t get to, Jodhpur was just a smaller, albeit much smaller, version of Delhi. Lots of traffic, honking and people. I never did learn for sure why “blue” theme dominated Jodhpur (the guidebook said something about it being Brahmin-blue), but this amalgamation was pleasing, particularly when viewed from high above in the fort.
Two nights in Jodhpur did the trick and the deep desert town, teeming with camels is calling. Jaisalmer is the next stop…