Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bond-ing in Udaipur


In searching for the site to film his 1983 007 film, Octopussy, its not hard to understand why John Glen chose Udaipur, India. Like the many other majestic and charming cities James Bond finds himself drop-kicking the bad guy, sleeping with the exotic mistress and saving the world, Udaipur has the ability to capture one’s imagination as if it were fashioned from a fairy-tale storybook.

Even though the tourist sector of Udaipur goes a bit overboard with its Bond “fame”, I was still sucked into watching the entire movie at one of the dozens of rooftop cafes that play the film every night. It was then that I realized how far technology and cinematography has come in the past 26 years and how lame and touristy my trip had temporarily become. The three cute Danish girls staying at my guest house and had asked me to come, perhaps, had something to do with it. However tacky it may have been, it was neat being able to see the Monsoon Palace shown in the movie, then looking back to see the real thing lit up at night on a distant, rugged mountain. Or watching Bond motor up to Lake Palace Hotel in his, then high-tech, crocodile suit, then gazing literally over the top of the television to the see the marvelous Hotel aglow in the moonlight in the middle of Lake Pichola. But that was definitely enough Bond for me!

Day two was spent rather lazily, bumming around the Lal Ghat area while getting my bearings. The highlight of the day was definitely touring the massive City Palace that happened to be right next door to our guest house. The architecture and sheer size were very impressive and, like much of India, stimulating to the imagination of how things must have been back when the various maharajas ruled the region. After City Palace, while wandering around town and through some floral parks, I came across a zoo. “Hell, why not”, I said. 50 Rupees, time to kill. Yep, not surprising…lots of animals that all look rather unhappy to be there. I did see a tiger, some leopards and a Himalayan Black Bear, which was nice. And yes, they were all asleep dreaming of not being in a cage. That maybe the last zoo I visit.

That night me and my Danish comrades took a rickshaw up the mountain to the imposing Monsoon Palace (Sajjan Garh). After nearly burning out the feeble, little-engine-that-could of the glorified skooter with a frame, we arrived at the top for spectacular sunset views of Udaipur from above and the vast Thar Desert beyond. It was a great vantage point from so high and the colors of the desert really come out at dusk. Coming down, it was not so much the engine, but the brakes that we were worried about. No problems. Another breezy, rooftop dinner for the night-capper.

The next day was “Tour-De-Udaipur countryside” by bike and I really covered some ground on my city cruiser that I rented for 30 rupees for the day. First stop was Shilpgram, a small craft and performance village a few miles west of town. Nice, but a tad touristy, as everyone wanted a piece of my wallet. The ride there was actually much better. Next was Saheliyon-Ki-Badi, which was a beautiful ornamental garden, with tons of fountains and marble elephants. Last, and certainly not least, were the Ahar cenotaphs, which are tomb-like temples, honoring the many maharajas of Mewar (the surrounding area). The grounds were a little unkempt, but the centotaphs were incredible. Numbering over 250, it was seemingly an endless range of milky-white structures when viewed from some of the higher ones. As I was leaving, I struck up a conversations with a gentleman (I forget his name) who happened to work there as, none other than the resident cremator Apparently, the families bring their “expired” to the grounds, where this man will have built the pyre of wood, at which point, the family deposits the body on top, lights the wood, spends an hour or so in prayer and remembrance, then leaves. According to this guy, flesh and bodies take 3 days before they’re completely turned to ash, adequate enough to urn. So naturally, I asked him if he ever got the eebie-jeebies performing such macabre duties for his job. He admitted that he did, but being a 5th generation cremator, it was his duty, and went on to indulge in some very fascinating stories of encounters with the spirits of the bodies he burned. This also led to a lesson in Hindu belief concerning karma, reincarnation, and so on. Food for thought, for sure!
After pedaling back to the Soni Paying Guest House, it was time for one more glorious sunset over Lake Pichola and a final dinner with “the Danes” before bidding them “farewell” and seeing them off on their rickshaw to the bus station. I was to leave for Ranakpur to witness the intricate work of the Jain temples here. And here is where I am, in Ranakpur while I type, at the Shilpi Motel. Alas, now I must retire but will expound on the Jain’s work very soon! Good night!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Relaxation in Pushkar


As I peer down from my perch at Café Enigma, a charming little rooftop restaurant, I can see a dazzling array of people, culture, history and life. The first stop beyond the hustle and bustle of

Cafe Enigma

chaotic Delhi has brought me to the colorful and serene town of Pushkar in the state of Rajasthan, a tad southwest of Delhi, but worlds away in personality and size. The population of Pushkar is supposedly around 14,000. A mere speck of Delhi, a mile long strip of a busy road, perhaps. However one wishes to classify it, it sure is a welcome change for me. It’s a tourist town, which means lots of travelers, but has, from what I have heard and see, held it’s air of purity. It’s been utter amazement everywhere I look.

It was sure difficult parting with Ryan, a sobbing, blubbering, resistant Ryan just a few days ago. When you spend nearly every minute of a whole month with someone, you can’t help but develop some sort of attachment to a person. And I think it’s safe to say that Ryan was not big on getting on that plane in the least bit. If not for her wonderful family, friends and students back in Colorado, I’m certain I’d have a travelling buddy. But needless to say, our stay in Delhi was magnificent in countless ways. I just hope and pray that we continue to see the subtle improvements in Ryan’s physical abilities as she returns to her everyday life.

After seeing Ryan off at Indira Gandhi International Airport, the shift of comfort and safety nets to fending, survival and exploration had arrived. It was back to the winding, narrow alleyways of the Paharganj backpacker meld for my first nights accommodation. I stayed in the plain, but clean, My Hotel for the going rate of Rs. 300 (~$6) in the “cheapie” tier. For whatever reason, My Hotel was housing a big Korean crowd, with a very nice rooftop restaurant of Indian and Korean food. It was all I needed. The following day was surprisingly very productive, considering my lofty goals of investigating and purchasing immunizations and a train ticket to Pushkar. All was done by 5 in afternoon! I couldn’t believe it! By 6 I was all packed up, feeling safe with new immunizations (Typhoid, Hep A and B) and in possession of a ticket to Ajmer, Rajasthan (where I’d need to hop a half hour bus to Pushkar) for 4 in the morning. No worries…my thinking is I’d be so pumped up about travelling that sleep could wait and I’d just stay up all night. So I had a couple of beers and a good chat with some Indians and Europeans at the Gem Bar, made my way to the Delhi train station around 2 in the morning, and waited…and waited, and waited till 9:30 when the train finally left, 5 and a half hours late! The rail system of India is a whole culture unto itself and would like to write a whole blog in the future after I’m a little more experienced on the subject. But for now, I’ll say that I took the bottom class of a 5 class system of train accommodations which was actually very comfortable, till we came to Jaipur, the capital of Rajhasthan and had to disembark and take another train to Ajmer a few hours later. This train was a bit more crowded…crowded like I’ve never seen so many people crammed in such a small area before. It felt a little like I was on a train of POW’s being shipped off to an imprisonment camp or something. Maybe not that bad, but people just kept coming well after I thought we’d maxed out! It was a relief getting off that train, till I boarded the bus for Pushkar, which may have very well been crammed more than the train. Good thing it was only a half hour.

Pushkar’s been the antidote to any Delhi/city blues that I may have had, which was realized after I got here. Peace and quiet…you forget these things in Delhi and I’m so glad Delhi was my first stop in India. It would have been tough to stomach a month there if it hadn't been. At any rate, Pushkar is home to the only (or one of very few) Brahma temples. In the Hindu religion, Brahma was the creator of the universe and has since been in a state of constant meditation. Most of the temples that I’ve seen or have heard of are dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer) and the elephant-headed Ganesh (the god of good fortune and remover of obstacles).

Brahma Temple

There are a couple of wonderful hill-top temples, Savitri and Pap Mochani, for those so-inclined to hike. Another antidote to the city malaise, the hikes were short, but steep and craggly and invigorating. They also afforded some great

Pushkar from Savitri Temple at Sunset

views down upon Pushkar Lake and the desert beyond, as well as some up-close look at some crazy monkeys…I can’t get enough of the monkeys!

A Tough Life for the Monkeys at Pop Mochani

At the lakefront are 52 bathing ghats where pilgrams throughout India come to frolic in the sacred waters. Unfortunately, the many pesky priests leave a sour taste in your mouth, as they essentially force you to take flowers from them and subsequently say for prayers for every member of your family, your karma, your self, this, that and the other for each petal and almost
demand lots of money, as a sacrifice, before you toss these petals into the lake. I’ve learned that, to avoid uncomfortable situations like these, you just cannot give anyone off the streets
Puskar from Pop Mochani

the ability to do ANYTHING for you, unless you want to give them money afterwards or otherwise feel extremely guilty about what they think you owe them. They’re good at doing this, but as soon as you have hard feelings about it, all you have to do is think about the plight they’re under and realize they’re just trying to make a meager living. And there’s just so much need over here!

But after thoroughly enjoying the chilled-out vibe and living for peanuts (Rs. 100 for accommodation and Rs. 30 to 60 for an very tasty meal, ~$2 and 60
A not-so-pesky Priest

cents, respectively) in Pushkar, alas, it is time to leave. I board a bus for the “Venice of the East”, Udaipur, where parts of Bond’s Octopussy where filmed. So I say good-"bye" to the many, and truly sincere, friends that I have made here from The Seventh Sea and Mama Luna Hotels and all over town and head for the desert horizon to Udaipur. More to come when I arrive!

My Petals in the Holy Waters

Monkey at the Ghats

The Far Side of Pushkar Lake

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Stage is Set

January 14, 2009...

As I approach the last few days of phase one of project India, a more defined framework of the trip has began to appear. As stated in blog 1, the first part of the trip has found me in the friendly confines of NuTech Mediworld, meeting some great folks from all around the globe including Florida, Missouri, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and California in the U.S., Australia, the Mediterranean, and of course the warm staff at NuTech, mostly from India. It’s been an absolute pleasure spending time and interacting with everyone here, from the patients who are so eager to share their fears and excitement of their journey, to the doctors, physical therapists, nurses, ward boys and security guys. And last but not least, the reason I’m here…Ryan! It’s hard to imagine that we’ve known each other for a little over a year, since we’ve only spent a fraction of that time actually near one another in Denver and a few other trips while I was Portland and in Michigan. So it’s really been great getting to know her on a whole new level after spending much more time with her in the past month than in the previous year, all together. The way that she has adapted and overcame all of the adversity of such an experience has truly been amazing and again, I feel lucky to know a person with such zest for life and living. Her progress here has been subtle, but tangible. Not a day goes by that she’s not commenting on this or that sensation that’s arisen and I feel it’s only a matter of time before those circuits align and we start to see the results of this groundbreaking therapy. I can’t wait to hear about it.

As for the rest of the remainder of the trip, it’s all starting to come together, be it much shorter than initially planned. I just booked my flight home for April 11th! Consolation comes from believing (if all goes according to plan) that I’ll have plenty of days spent abroad in wild places like India in my future career, with hopefully a much greater impact on those communities. At any rate, in phase two, I’ll be covering some ground and it will be the travel portion of my trip. When Ryan’s not looking, I’ve been thumbing through my invaluable Lonely Planet guide to India, piecing together a loose trip itinerary for after she leaves and have come up with a pretty dandy little foray. As it stands today, from Delhi I’ll head southwest to the dry and arid landscape of the Thar desert and state of Rajhasthan, where the vibrance of the culture more than makes up for any lack of color from the landscape. Highlights on the list include the exuberant capital of the sate, Jaipur, the sun-tanned, camel-happy desert city of Jaisalmer and the holy city of Pushkar.

From Rajhasthan, I’ll head back up north, beyond Delhi toward the lofty peaks of the Himalayas. The area is home to many ancient cities and Raj-era hill stations of the days of the British. Highlights of this region include the spiritual epicenter, Rishikesh, where the Beatles came to seek enlightenment and meaning back in the 60’s, Moosorie, the queen of the British hill stations set in the shadows of the Himalayan giants, and Haridwar and Dehra Dun, two of the bigger cities of the area. I may need to indulge in a few extra layers of clothes around here as it can get downright frigid.

And it’s not likely to get much warmer when I head toward the land of world-renowned tea plantations and awe-inspiring views of the mountains in Darjeeling. En route to Darjeeling I plan to make a pit stop in Varanassi, largely considered India’s choicest pilgrimage destinations. What makes Varanassi so intriguing are the ghats arranged along one of the worlds most spiritual rivers, the Ganges. I’ve heard stories of Varanassi that are sure to shock even the most seasoned travelers at the heralded river where funeral pyres still exist.

After Varanassi and Darjeeling, I'll attempt to encroach further on the Himalayas in the state of Sikkim, which is situated in India and borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Off the tourist map a bit and off season, it should be a great stretch of peaceful solitude.

Finally, it'll be off to the state of Jharkhand for my volunteering stint, which has been confirmed and set for the month of March. Siddarth Sanyal is the man who runs the small project and has done a good job of producing youtube videos for those intrested in the project and potential volunteers, as well keeping up a blogpage of his own at Check 'em out!

Ok, I'm off. Posted blogs from here on out may be past the time they're written since I do have my laptop, but not always internet and am going to try to consolidate my internet chores so it's less time and less expensive. Until we meet again...

Friday, January 9, 2009

All In a Morning Jog

It's been my ritual throughout my vast travels and new residences that, when I arrive somewhere new, I jog to explore the fresh, new surroundings. Delhi has been no different. With all its touts of mad traffic and the severe density of people, you wouldn't think that a peaceful stroll down the lovely boulevard would be in the cards, but I've been fortunate in our location at the hospital. Green Park is situated in a relatively quiet neighborhood (for Delhi anyways) nearby one of the cities premier parks, Deer Park (also Hauz Khas and Rose Garden adjoined).

You could just as easily take a taxi of a new area and see more, but your experience is restricted to your sense of sight. You can't smell what's cooking or touch your surroundings. You could go for a walk, but you simply cannot cover much distance in a short amount of time. Yes, exploratory jogs are the way to go for the perfect blend of interaction, scope and excersize while diving into new territory. Plus, you get priceless stares of wonder from the locals, whose fitness is geared a little more towards yoga and mediation and definitely not running. It's pretty hilarious!

So, in attempt to capture what I've come across in one, 45-minute jog and to celebrate my new e-bay-India camera that came the other day, here goes:

This picture was taken literally right across the street from the hospital. Yep, that's a donkey. Also behind the car, is a vendor frying up some naan (Indian flat bread).

After bidding Eeyore a "good morning" it's down through Green Park Market, a cozy little strip
of flowers, (shown right) fruit and chai vendors and other shops of necessities and as well as less necessary establishments (e.g. Sony Center (also shown right), McDonald's and I think a Pizza Hut...grr). Notice the gentleman, middle of the photo to the right, quietly meditating through the surrounding traffic!

At the end of market, but before Deer Park lies this lone majestic temple.

Further down the road on the edge of the park are a whole group of temples and ruins that are perched above the Hauz Khas section of Deer Park.

More ruins above Hauz Khas Park. Notice the lagoon below.

More ruins and the subject, himself.

Still the same collection of ruins. Notice the modern buildings in the background. These contrasting elements of architecture and eras in Delhi are unbelievably common!

On the other side of the walls of the ancient civilasation was this quasi-slum or shanty neighborhood. There was a man asking me not to take pictures and I kindly obliged. But this gentleman insisted he be photographed and the nay-sayer agreed. Behind him to the right begin the shanties and the children were ever so cute and curious!

On the southern border of Deer Park you find the chichi Hauz Khas neighborhood. It's a little hard to tell from this picture, but what a difference a few hundred feet can make in India, as you can compare to the above picture. Either way, such a neat place and super narrow alleyways!

Here is Hauz Khas park with a old temple at the top of this small hill.

This picture shows the "below" view the above picture with the lagoon below. Here's looking up to the ruins from the lagoon.

Between Hauz Khas and the Rose Garden is a forested area where the ubiquitous game of Cricket is being played by neighborhood children.

Peacocks between Hauz Khas and the Rose Garden.

The beautiful and wonderfully aromatic Rose Garden.

And finally, an appropriate picture for Deer Park! I think these are called Hog Deer.

So there you go...this took way longer than it should have and now I'm exhausted and am done! Next time it'll hopefully go a lot quicker, so check back for more soon!