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India

I had a taste of the still-feudal side of India this past week.

Saturday I met up with my friends Eric and Holly, who had flown in from Boston to travel with me for two weeks. They had booked a room in Delhi over the internet, which in America makes perfect sense. In India, we quicky came to realize, it’s not such a good idea: I could make a web site with pretty pictures tomorrow and pretend it’s a nice hotel instead of a dirty dump. They were a bit shocked; I was less so.  We moved the next morning, but in the process of doing so we got swept into a travel agency, which I had hitherto managed to avoid. Because Eric and Holly have so little time here, when the agent suggested our hiring a car and driver to take us to Jaipur and Agra, I agreed. I take full responsibility for being the sucker – although I did manage to refuse the hard sell of pre-booking hotel rooms, which the agent tried to tell us were hard to come by.

So the next morning we were swept into the world of Soni, an agreeable-looking chap in his early thirties who drove like an absolute maniac ( so pretty much a typical Indian driver). Our contract said no air-conditioning, but within half an hour of pickup Soni turned it on and told us not to tell his boss. We had been ok with the windows open. 

South of Delhi are miles of office building and factory suburbs. The pollution and traffic are  stunning. I had been amazed in Delhi to find a very modern, very clean subway system; you can use either a smart swipe card or you can buy a big round plastic token that looks like play money but is actually encoded with exactly the station you’re supposed to get out at. (Eric let out a startlingly loud chortle that probably nearly got us arrested when we figured out how sophisticated the silly-looking thing was.) I tried to tell them that the rest of India didn’t look like this, but it was a few days before they believed me.

Once on the road we tried to change our plans and go on to Pushkar for a night, but Soni balked. We had thought we had him for four days and could do whatever we wanted in that time; his contract said Jaipur and Agra, and that was all he was doing. We realized we weren’t going to win that one.  Early afternoon I got hungry and started pushing him to stop somewhere for lunch. Instead of stopping at a dhaba (roadside stand) as I asked, he finally pulled up to a large extremely western-looking restaurant. We walked in, looked at the far overpriced menu and the busload of western tourists and decided to rebel. Walking out again, Soni came running up, then waved us to a normal Indian hole in the wall. Round 2 us.

Over the next few days we had constant battles with Soni – ranging from where we would stop for lunch to where we would sleep the night to what shops we should go into. We tried to talk to him like straight westerners –cut the BS, tell us where you get commissions and maybe we can make a deal — but he denied that there was any such motive.  In Jaipur I called him to pick us up at a restaurant and he said he would be waiting where he’d dropped us off that morning because the traffic was bad. I said no, you’ll pick us up here. In Agra we wanted to cross the river to see a tomb and he said that the road was one-way and that it would take forever to get there. When I insisted, it took about fifteen minutes. Although it was agreed that he would drop us at the out-of-town train station on the final day he tried to do it five hours early, claiming he had a long drive back to Delhi; I told him firmly that wasn’t going to work for us.

All the while we tried to keep a smiling, good relationship going (to the extent of chuckling at his long-winded ‘jokes’, none of which we could understand), but we wondered what was going on in his head. Did he hate us for refusing to be herded, or did he respect us for it? He became our favorite topic of conversation while we were out of the car. Where did he sleep? Did he really do yoga and run for an hour every morning, and if so where? I saw myself becoming more hard-hearted, yet at the same time it was obvious he was testing our limits. And we didn’t use him that much, preferring to walk around by ourselves rather than be driven to every shop. He actually complained the second evening that he had been bored, as we’d ditched him all day. We felt exhausted that we had to take care of his physical and emotional welfare. It became clear to me that even if I can ever afford to have live-in staff, I won’t.

[I’m running out of time now, as we have to catch a train to the Nepalese border shortly. Will write quite a bit more within the next few days.]

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Another #&% early-morning bus, this time to Gaggal (pr Guggul), where the travel agent who had spent what seemed like hours uncomfortably hitting on me while I waited for him to book me a train ticket had claimed there would be a direct bus to Amritsar. There wasn’t. But at least I was on the six o’clock bus, not the four o’clock one I’d originally planned, and I saw the sun rise in clear skies over the shy snowy peaks behind McLo. Apparently my great-great-grandmother was born somewhere around here, but that’s all I know about it. Read More

It was raining icy daggers at five in the morning when I left Manali. I had asked the elderly owner of the guesthouse to call me a rickshaw but no one wanted to come up the mountain so early in the morning in such bad weather. He grudgingly agreed to take me in his own car, saving me from getting soaked and chilled.

Half an hour down the hill the bus driver (public bus, by the way!!) stopped for a cup of chai and to huddle around a fire for a few minutes in a place that resembled an exaggerated Glencoe — steep olive green and brown slopes and shafts of golden light glancing through the rain. After Kullu the landscape changed again, narrowing into a tight deep gorge with an impossibly green river at the bottom, white temples perched on its walls and swingy rope bridges every mile or two. I tried taking pictures, but photographing out the window of a moving bus always ends in heartbreak: you’re on the wrong side, there’s a tree in the way, etc.

Around two I changed buses in Palampur, a regional hub that has little to recommend it in terms of town but everything in setting: green high meadows with tall white mountains behind. The men hanging around at the station (and there are always lots of them — not sure if they’re actually employed or if they’re just there for fun) tried to shunt me onto the Dharamsala bus immediately, but my back and stomach rebelled. I thought I would leave the station and find somewhere safer to eat, but the only place I could find was arguably worse: full of flies, due to the obvious policy of sweeping table scraps onto the floor then never cleaning it. After a plate of greasy noodles I anxiously checked my watch for a few hours, but nothing happened.

Another two hours to Dharamsala — local bus just as school let out, so loads of children — then onto a share jeep for the last leg. A share jeep sits in the bus station waiting for enough people to fill it, in this case twelve (and so crowded in the front that I wasn’t actually sure who was driving). Some hanger-on threw my backpack onto the roof but didn’t tie it down, so I spent the whole trip up the mountain obsessively craning my neck out the back window stressing about seeing my bag hurtle off – or worse, not seeing it.

Finally: McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and his refugee followers, perched on steep foothills overlooking the Punjabi plains with a black and white wall of mountains backing it. The streets are filled with monks and nuns in burgandy robes and shaved heads and a whole lot of blissed-out-looking westerners. Haven’t seen this many dreadlocks since Goa.

That night I dreamt I was in a palace, all white marble, and looking for the toilet. When I found it, it was reachable only through an archway six inches off the floor; in order to get in you would have to scoot through on your back or stomach. Deep-seated emotional analysis? Or just related to how awful the bogs are here? At breakfast I sat next to an elderly German lady who was haranging her young aquaintances volubly: “Aren’t you cold? Where will you be able to wear those thick socks – they’re too big!” When she started in on her version of the world economy I tuned out. There doesn’t seem to be much point in my paying attention other than to know that it’s not the right time to go home.

My mother wrote to say that the Dalai Lama was in Berkely that same day. We must have gotten our wires crossed for him to be looking for me in my home town just as I had come to see him. I went to his temple anyway. There were fewer people than I had expected perambulating about the complex, prostrating themselves in front of the huge jeweled gold statues and turning the prayer wheels. There was a moving museum with photographs of Llasa before the Chinese invasion and some of the streams of refugees trudging over the mountains. There were thank-yous everywhere to the Indian government for having received them, especially at a time when it was not easy for it to do so. There was a huge bookshop filled with literature about Tibet and Buddhism and biographies of His Holiness (then, oddly, a shelf of Danielle Steels and Harry Potters). Posted everywhere around town were quotes from the Dalai Lama, the most conspicous of which being about his policy of forgiveness. I’ve been thinking about going to Tibet, though my back screams at the idea of traveling overland. Hopefully the Chinese government won’t find out that I’ve been to McLeod Gaj when it comes to issuing a visa…

To add to the list of things I do not recommend: a ten hour overnight bus ride on the bumpiest, windiest roads imaginable, seated in the back next to a large snoring man, suffering acute stomach pains from something you ate a few hours earlier and eventually puking repeatedly – but being thankful that you just happened to have a strong plastic bag in your purse (which you hastily empty of the jewelry it contains).

When you’re laid low you tend to obsess about what exactly it was that got you. Was it water from the hotel restaurant that should have been ok? Was it the cheese pastry you unwisely bought at the bus station? It doesn’t really matter, but it becomes a burning question when you have nothing better to do. I suppose the only way to figure it out is by timing. Since I’m still a bit under the weather I don’t have the energy to search the crushing amount of information on the web to figure out how long it takes Delhi belly symptoms to show up. Any of my scientist / geek friends want to comment?  [ My brother and his wife say that it takes anywhere from 2 to 12 hours, depending on how contaminated the food is. So I’m guessing that it was the cheese pastry and that it was just crawling with bad stuff.]

Anyway,  I did arrive in Manali safely at 6:30 in the morning and found the loveliest 1920s wooden guesthouse with a fireplace and a balcony overlooking snowy mountains and blooming apple orchards. It’s chilly here and the season is a few weeks away, so the local population is in the anticipatory process of sprucing up the joint. Not all the shops and restaurants are open yet, which suits me fine. I took the day to rest, leaving the room only to see one temple, buy a book, and have some dinner. In the evening it became extremely cold so I called for firewood and spent an hour staring at the flames before crawling into bed again. More hotel guests arrived at 1:30 in the morning, making no effort to let me sleep. I eventually, sheepishly, came out of my room en deshabille and smiled at them and pointed to my watch. I say sheepishly because I have never before heard an Indian complain to another about noise. On the bus the previous night, for example, about ten students decided to sing all night and none of the other travelers said anything about it (although at the time it was the least of my worries). I can’t tell whether it’s a general tolerance for noise or whether there’s some idea that everyone should be allowed to do exactly as he pleases?

Today, feeling better though still slightly fragile,  I walked up the hill to the neighboring village of Vashist to see more splendid wooden temples. I am once again struck by India’s diversity: the Hindu temples here look absolutely nothing like those only a few hundred kilometers South, let alone those in the Deccan. The people too look different. I noticed it when I went from Kerala to Gujarat and then again in Rajasthan, how the Northerners show the Persian / Afghani influence, while Southerners are darker, showing continuation of Dravidian culture. In Himachal Pradesh the faces are more Tibetan and Nepalese. I did see yaks today, and old ladies hugging gigantic albino bunnies, with which you can have your picture taken. I am considering riding a yak – for purely research purposes to see how they compare with camels – but it may have to wait until Nepal.

At one of the temples I aquired a companion, a young Indian man who claimed to have been traveling for a few months. He said he was an aerospace engineer and that he mostly lived in Russia. He irritated me immediately. He was one of those people who you just can’t tell anything and who will, rather than admit they don’t know something, make up a load of shit instead. For example, he decided to tell me about the temple we were looking at: “It’s made all of wood… and… stuff…”, he sang confidently. I hope he blushed later when I told him I’m an architect. He then tried to tell me that Ooty is in Kerala. Since I was there not too long ago I posited that I doubted it, but he would not brook dissension. I decided it wasn’t worth it to get out my Lonely Planet and show him the map. The bright side of the story is, however, that when he didn’t take the hint that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the afternoon with him, I cheerfully, smilingly, told him that I was going to take a walk alone and that it was nice to have met him. When I was younger I pathologically avoided talking to people who I wasn’t sure I could get rid of  (I still often do this on long plane trips) and so missed out on a lot of opportunities.

At another temple there were hot springs. I was having lunch in a rooftop cafe and could see into the men’s pool but was comforted that the women’s pool had a sufficiently high wall, especially when I went inside and found that it’s used as a bath/shower room for the local women. I had thought to take a dip myself, but when I put my foot in I found that it was, well, hot. The other ladies giggled at me encouragingly, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t think my travel insurance extends to voluntarily scalding oneself.

I’m moving on again at six tomorrow morning, to McLeod Ganj, the headquarters in exile of the Dalai Lama. I don’t expect to hang out with him, but it should be an interesting day or two. When I went to a travel agent to book a bus they told me there were only night buses, of which I am (understandably) not enamored. I enquired further and they said there were some state buses that left in the morning. So I went down to the bus station and found that there are actually only private buses leaving in the morning. I have gone beyond being shocked when blatantly lied to, and in fact have come to expect it from certain quarters, but it makes finding real information a bit more difficult.

I am a heretic. For an architect not to worship at Le Corbusier’s feet is bizarre and suspect, but for me it’s like being an atheist: I just can’t force myself to believe. Chandigardh was conjured out of Corb’s brain where nothing had stood before, so he had full rein to impose Los Angeles on India: discrete districts separated by wide avenues uncrossable by foot; strip malls instead of bazaars; acres of free-standing villa sprawl for housing. I’m being ungenerous — the city is also characterized by swathes of greenery envied by other cities, heightened standards of cleanliness, and straightforward navigation around its districts. But I can’t help resenting how Corb ignored the Indian genius loci. Clearly older Indian cities were constructed with inadequate sewer systems and traffic arteries and so something needed to change, but the I think the expression ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ applies. Maybe I’m just in culture shock. Is this India?

A hairdresser I chatted with while she was grooming me ( in an effort to make myself look more presentable after three months of being on the road…) bemoaned that Chandigardh has been growing more crowded and dirty. It seems to me that the model of low-density works well enough for an affluent populace — let’s face it, wealthier people don’t like to be as sociable — but the population boom is catching up even with enclaves like Chandigardh, and once you have past a certain number of people the sprawl ceases to work. I guess what I’m saying is that while I appreciate certain of Corb’s sculptural gestures and I think his free-standing villas for wealthy people can be beautiful, I consider him a terrible urban planner.

There is a built evironment in Chandigarh, however, that appeals to me immensely: the Rock Garden. In the sixties, a transport official by the name of Nek Chand began building himself a garden composed with refuse from the building of Chandigardh in secret on government land. It grew immensely, and by the time it was discovered it was judged to be a masterpiece, even if an illegal one, so instead of punishing him the government gave him a salary and underlings. Most of the photographs on his website (www.nekchand.com) focus on the armies of mosaic people and animals he’s constructed, but I was more struck by the sense of otherworldiness in the garden. You enter through low archways (in fact, you have to stoop whenever you move from one section of the garden to the next and even the ticket window is so low that you have to hunch over to hand over your ten rupees) and are led around winding paths enclosed by high rock walls. Surfaces are covered with potsherd mosaic and often anthropomorphic or animal in inspiration. There is shade and water everywhere, from small pools to huge waterfalls. The inherent organicism contrasts mightily with Corb’s strict grid.

I arrived here Friday morning to attend a wedding of a couple I had never met, friends of friends who had heard I was traveling and graciously invited me. I can’t say enough about how welcoming and affectionate the couple and the family of the groom were. I managed to actually be overdressed for wedding as it was Sikh, which is apparently different from Hindu weddings, but I was told repeatedly how much my dress was appreciated. Tonight I get on a bus for Manali, 10 hours on a sleeper over mountain roads. It will be cold there, a welcome change, but I’ll need to buy a sweater.Yes, I know I don’t deserve your pity… I’m currently sitting in the hotel restaurant ripping some cds I bought earlier. The general manager came along and asked if he could copy them too, then brought me a number of his own to copy. He’s also arranged for his car to take me to the bus station. Once again I’m taken aback by people’s generosity. When I complain about touts trying to rip me off I have to remember the flip side.

Camels are not attractive creatures. They seem to be constantly in the process of farting, burping, pooping, peeing, spitting, or baring their teeth while wailing agressively. In all fairness, belching is considered polite in Indian society, but they have no excuse for the rest of it. One month a year (i.e. NOW) the males have to be separated from the females because they get far too horny to be useful. When a male camel has impure thoughts he bellows loudly with a strange gurgle, all the while waggling his tongue. He also, um, enjoys himself with his tail, slapping it between his legs; some camels have their tails tied up to restrain them. All male camels have hairy tails.

Daniel and I have just returned from three days in the Great Thar desert, a surprisingly varied landscape that stretches along the Western border of Rajasthan and Pakistan. We drove out of Jaisalmer for an hour to where the camel drivers waited, switching passengers, as we later found out, every few days and generally doing the same route. There are vast fields of windmills out there, along with herds of cows and goats and sheep and villages every twenty kilometers. The drivers said that there are few men in the villages: most go to work in the cities, leaving their wives and children at home.

There were nine goras in the group (white westerners – –  a word we quickly learned when it was heard five hundred times in a conversation) and six or seven camel drivers. Each one brought his own camel or two and was responsible for taking care of and feeding them. I got onto one of the biggest camels and felt pretty chuffed that I learned how to control him quickly, but I later learned that he was one of the less lazy, better trained sods, so perhaps I should stop calling myself Mirren of Arabia.

The camel, after much coaxing, kneels down onto his callused heels and chest, then you climb onto a saddle made out of blankets tied to his hump. There are no stirrups and only a puny pommel to hold onto as well as the rope reins pushed through his nostrils, which makes fast trotting both painful and frightening. I had occasion to be very pleased of my female anatomy, hearing groans from the male goras around me.

We spent two nights sleeping out under the stars. We would stop for the day at around five thirty, stumbling off our steeds and straggling up to the top of a dune to watch the sun set while the drivers made chai and cooked dinner. There was a fair amount of rum and whiskey floating around, which helped erase the pain of the day. The first night after eating we lay around the fire and sang songs. Our favorite was about camels but set to the tune of ‘Barbie Girl’: you know, I’m a barbie girl, In a barbie world, It’s fantastic, I’m so plastic; You can touch my hair, take me anywhere… remember that one? We were also treated to a serenade by old baba, a grizzled veteran in an orange turban with few teeth who was said to be missing his wife. Both nights we were all in bed by 10 o’clock, finding our own isolated patch of sand dune to watch the stars and the moonrise and the sunrise. Both mornings we found tens of tracks around our blankets proving that we had been thoroughly investigated by dung-beetles. The second night we were adopted by a pack of stray dogs who decided to sleep with us.

In the morning we would breakfast shortly after sunrise then ride for a few hours, usually stopping in a village to water the camels mid-morning. At noon we would halt for lunch and nap for several hours under a tree. That was the hard part: I’m not used to napping for so long, and I would rather have ridden all day. For that reason we decided to return to Jaisalmer mid-morning on the third day along with the rest of our group, although we both would have liked to continue sleeping nights outside.

Back in town I was momentarily tempted to stay at a guesthouse within the fort, even though Jaisalmer fort is one of the world’s most endangered buildings. It has basically no sewer system and a very rudimentary water supply; tourists are a major cause of the destruction, although the locals certainly don’t seem to be paying attention. Daniel, however, had the willpower to resist for us, reminding me of the principle of each person taking responsibility for his own actions.

I rested much of the afternoon while Daniel figured out how to send home a gigantic wooden sculpture he’d bought in Jodpur. He came back to the guesthouse thoroughly fed up, but with the thing gone. He then went out in search of gin, and should be back shortly. The sun is setting over golden Jaisalmer fort and all is right with the world.

Tomorrow we part: me to Chandigarh and he to stay in Bikaner then make his way to Delhi to fly home. 10 days isn’t a long time to get to know somebody, but the enforced intimacy of travel leads to a quickening of friendship. I think we will both miss each other.

I am my mother’s daughter. Here I am trying to live on the cheap to extend my trip as long as possible and yet I still managed to get sidetracked by Jodhpuri jewelry.

Westerners do not actually know what jewelry is. I tried on a few sets of jeweled necklaces and chandelier earrings that would be considered black-tie in America and everyone in the store pooh-poohed them as being far too casual for an Indian wedding. And I know they’re right. The set I bought is comprised of the largest necklace you’ve ever seen, gigantic earrings that have chains that go over the top of your ears, a thing that you clip into your hair that hangs down on your forehead, an upper arm band, two bracelets, a ring, and an anklet. I then bought another gigantic serpent ring for good effect. Apparently the guys at the store still weren’t quite satisfied, so this evening they’re making me a special nose ring (for someone who doesn’t have a pierced nose). All of this goes on top of a sari that is already extremely elaborately embroidered with gold thread and sequins and beads. Once I’m dressed I doubt you’ll actually be able to see my face from all the bling.

As you may have gathered we’re in Jodhpur today. Daniel and I caught the bus early yesterday morning and thought to stay only one night, but one turned into two. We’re staying in a 500-year old haveli with stone carvings and murals (and great food and beer on the rooftop with a view of the fort and the entire old town.

The city perches on the flanks of a steep ridge, with tight alleyways winding around in every direction. The streets are too narrow for cars, but motorcycles and rickshaws vie with cows and dogs to create potent smells. Many of the houses are painted blue, which creates an absolutely lovely effect in the arid desert. Looming above the town is the Jodhpur fort, a 500-year old behemoth that makes Edinburgh Castle look like a dollhouse. Apparently it has never been conquered; looking at its series of steep ramparts and huge gates with elephant spikes, I believe it.

I have a bone to pick with Daniel: he revealed to the guys at the guesthouse that we’re not a couple, which immediately gave them license to flirt with me like crazy, especially when we went separate ways this afternoon — he to look at furniture and I to my jewelry. On the upside, the guesthouse owner took me around town on the back of his bike all afternoon and helped me deal with my sari tailoring etc. … But next stop Daniel and I are married.

I didn’t want to leave Udaipur and now I don’t want to leave Jodhpur, but I’ve been told that Jaisalmer, where we’re headed tomorrow, is the best one. Watch this space.