Picture
Taxi Dweller: This Calcutta cabbie sleeps on his car at night. Many families live on the sidewalks here, one of India's largest cities.
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

I
n our travels through India, I have come to understand understand some of the etymology of some of the sayings in our language. For instance “ Only, mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

This is true.

 When we arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata nowadays) the midday temperature was 45C or 113 F with 85-plus percent humidity. Most of the locals stayed indoors.


In India, animals are sacred. Most people are vegetarian and in many cities cows and dogs roam free.

So “Let sleeping dogs lie.” was some really sound advice. At night if you roused them, they would bark and bark. If you perchance happened to step on one no doubt a nasty bite would come your way. Best to let them lie undisturbed.


So when I found out that we were going to Calcutta, I was excited. “It's like the black hole of Calcutta!” Great, I would understand another saying. Unfortunately we never made it to the Black Hole on account of the heat. We substituted it for the Central Markets, which was more or less a hole full of unpleasantness.


The rest of Kolkata was very pleasant. We went to a Bengali restaurant and tried hands down the best fish in India (although it was the only fish we had had in India.)


** Please be patient, our photos from Calcutta are coming soon!**


 
Picture
Tyger, tyger...
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]


Often in life as in travel, the conundrum of whether the journey or the destination rates as being more important comes into question.


We had the opportunity to reflect on this when we went on a wild tiger safari at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.


We arrived, (we being Beth and I as well as two new acquaintances, Mike and Silke,) at around eleven thirty at night. We had a prior arrangement with the Kum Kum Home hotel manager for a late pickup at Umaria, got into a smallish mini van, and proceeded to our lodgings along a tired, crater-filled road to Bandhavgarh. The 45-minute journey was highly entertaining because it included, albeit inadvertently, a night safari. Along the way we saw the reflective eyes and dark silhouettes of a number of native creatures like deer and even a jackal.


We awoke the next morning to have breakfast on our veranda. Somehow the layout of Kum Kum Guest house took us to Africa—it seemed to be reminiscent of the set of “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”


The heat was of a warm comforting quality and surrounded us like a tandoori oven. The large, broad trees were absolutely beautiful. They were of the Flame of the Forest variety. The branches were bursting with orangey red flowers that looked like tigers' claws. In the gentle breeze, the trees swayed lazily and the dark shadows that were cast on the hard compacted earth, danced back and forth. The local languar monkey troupe played on the tree limbs in a whimsical fashion.


The manager came over and announced that we could go on safaris through two gates to view the tigers, appropriately labeled Gate One and Gate Two. We booked three journeys through Gate Two, because the popularity of Gate One meant that it was booked out for the days we would be there. Gate Two also cost 500Rps more.


Here's how it went:


Day One, Gate Two, Afternoon.


We were super excited! Today was the day. We would see the tigers. We drove for twenty minutes to get to the gate. We saw some deer. The sun hung heavy in the sky. And then, our jeep broke down.


The engine cut while we rounded a corner. The driver got out and checked under the hood. Steam erupted like Mount Vesuvius. The driver poured water in the radiator. We made some jokes about it, looked on the bright side of it, and all felt relief when we continued on our way. The delay was only fifteen minutes.


After another ten minutes of driving, the jeep overheated again. We were beginning to feel a little concerned--the guide and driver had no means of defense if a tiger were to attack.


After 20 minutes we were on our way again. All of us wondering if we would see tigers that day.


Nope.


Day Two, Gate Two, Morning.

A better jeep, but . . . no tiger sightings meant none of the desperately hoped-for elephant rides were available.


And, no tigers.


Day Two, Gate Two, Afternoon.


No tigers.


Was it disappointing? For me, frankly it was. The perspiration was there. The effort was there. The will and commitment was there. What we needed was just a little luck.


Unfortunately, for our travel companions, their time was up. They had a 4:22 a.m. train to catch back to Varanasi.


Luckily for us, we had a more flexible schedule and Beth and I worked in one final trip.


On our third and final day we set off in the afternoon with a Belgian family, Christian, Genevieve and Mathieu.

Day Three. Gate One, Afternoon.

Finally, we were scheduled to enter the always busy Gate One. I had a good feeling about this: We were in a new Jeep, and making good speed. We saw a couple of rare birds.


The driver asked, “ What do you want to see today.” to which I replied, “ No spotted deer, no Sambhar deer, no barking deer, no peacocks, no monkeys, no langaurs, no kingfishers, no beetle eaters, no vultures and no jungle chickens! Just tigers please!” We had seen these other animals at Gate Two.


“They are wild pea fowl.” corrected Christian, about the peacocks, and then continued, “ Can we also see leopards and sloth bears?”


“Leopards and bears are very rare.” answered the guide.


I began to notice the position of the sun. I asked Beth with some concern, “Are we going towards Gate Two?”


“It seems like it.” she replied.


A few hundred metres more, and we received confirmation. We were driving towards a derelict trailer with one wheel missing. We had passed this trailer each of the time we entered Gate Two. We were going on the Gate Two trail again.


“Not Gate Two again!” I said.


I took Beth's hand and held it tight. I must have looked crestfallen.


Geneviere whispered, “Ce n'est pa vrai!”


The guide noticing the change in mood, responded immediately.


“No, no, not Gate Two, only Path C for five minutes.


After fifteen minutes, true to his word, we were with six other jeeps in a clearing by a water hole.

Three tigers strutted through the tall yellow grass with poise and pride. They bathed and groomed themselves and we watched on in awe.

I had seen tigers before but I hadn't seen them free. An unspoken agreement must have been made. 'You people can watch us, and we won't eat you and by the way, thanks for not hunting us.' We watched for over an hour and then left, bubbling with excitement.


The sun had set and in the mango orange afterglow we had almost reached the exit when the jeep in front of us stopped abruptly. We also stopped and saw that on a ridge just 30 metres above us was a leopard. It stretched, yawned and was gone.


The journey contained such a variety of animals. The destination only required tigers.

Was it too greedy to get the best of both?


***

Click here to see our photos from Bandhavgarh!
 
Picture
The moon over Varanasi
At five thirty a.m., the gunmetal sky above the Ganges river promised us another hot day.

Before the scorch, though, we were off to watch Varanasi wake up.

From burning dead bodies, to bathing babies and washing hotel sheets, life's rituals are performed on the holy river.

Our first sight before sunrise was the cremation ghat. Tall piles of wood are stacked in the alleys surrounding it. Families pay for the wood and taxes, our boatman, 20-year-old Sanjay, told us. Three glowing fires flickered at the beach. Men stood around without apparent grief. Are they the families or paid pallbearers, I wondered.

A few children played in the ashy mud at the river's side as the shadows in the fire played hide and seek with my imagination. Are those feet I see? A skull?

Sanjay knows the morbid interests of tourists: "There are five kinds people not burning. Five, bodies in river."

Children, pregnant women and holy men are already pure and so they don't need the flame to cleanse them, he explained. Plus, people who have died from a cobra bite or leprosy are considered already touched by god. Later we pass a bloated mass of something. Bones protrude. Animal or human?

As disturbing as it is, now I have a plot for my next novel, I think. A murder mystery.

Past the cremation site, we went to a more joyous part of the river. Men and women stood hip-deep in the water, washing their faces and arms. A few men chanted: "Om. Om. Om." Little boys played in the water, clinging to an inner tube. Older boys had plastic jugs stuck in their underpants as flotation.

One section seemed to be for laundry. Stones were piled up to make a line of washboards. Men beat hotel linens in the water rhythmically. After a good beating, the twisted fabric was thrown to a pile on the bank, and later spread on a retaining wall to sun-dry. "Not your guest house!" Sanjay told us reassuringly.

Sanjay pointed out some landmarks among the chaos of buildings and stairways that make up the riverside 'ghats.' The Ganpati guest house also houses a home for widows. A Bollywood star owns a big flashy red building. A royal family donated such-and-such palace to sadhus (holy men). And, one elaborate building belongs to the guy who collects the 200 rupee tax from the cremations at the burning ghat.

"He is very rich, but his caste is very bad," Sanjay commented.

We turned back, facing the golden sun that rose through the smog like a burning penny. Even at 7:30 the heat was getting intense. Sanjay pulled the boat up to a group of stones to let us get out for breakfast.

Varanasi had awoken.


**Click here to see photos from Varanasi**

 
Picture
We should have visited the Taj Mahal at the first part of our trip. We realize that now.

One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the renowned memorial to a Shah's dead wife, it is supposed to be the most beautiful monument of love on earth.

The quote about it that the Indian public seems to like most is that it is 'a teardrop on the face of eternity.'

It's an icon, the name of a blues singer, a metaphor for an act of love.

It's, well, it's pretty.

Really pretty?

Set in a lush garden of flowers, grass and trees (not part of the original plan, I overheard a guide say) and approached along a wide, fountain-dotted reflection pool, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place to sit and look around.

The cool marble exterior takes on the color of the dawn and sunset. The dim interior is a hushed mausoleum.

But, I can't help but feel, despite its technical elegance, it's world-famous history (Boy meets girl, girl has too many babies, girl dies, boy is sad, boy's son locks him up to die alone), that it's just, well, pretty.

I contrast it to the mirrored palaces and pavilions of Udaipur, Bundi and Ajmer. The gardens in Bikaner. The marble work in Jaipur. Before we had seen these things, I think we would have appreciated this solemn place a little more.

**Click here to see photos from Agra**

 
Picture
"Oh, no problem. It's flat."

The small man in the office in McLeod Ganj didn't look like a mountain climber, but he seemed sure of himself. Lots of tourists use his guiding service, he said.

"Triund, 9 kilometers. Snowline, 3 kilometers. One day!" he said with confidence. And he quoted his prices with confidence too--4,400 rupees for the two of us to take a guide up to the snowline, spend a night in a mountaintop lodge and come back down.

We decided that instead of spending five days' budget on one hike, we'd rather try the trek by ourselves, using a map we bought from the tourism office for two rupees.

'How hard could it be?' we asked each other. 'We just hike up the hill, then to the snowline, it's flat!"

Yeah, flat like a mountain is flat.

In China, briefly, we considered ourselves good hikers. We would power up the hills in the national parks, leaving whole families of Chinese tourists in our wake. Well, that was when the competition wore high heels and the trails were antiseptic, cemented parodies of nature.

Unfortunately, a real mountain and real hikers kick Dan's and my collective butt.

The general consensus of the several guiding agencies and the talkative man at the tourism department was that it would take us about three hours to hike up to Triund, the 'base camp', and then a further hour to the snowline below Ilaqua pass.

Four hours up? No problem, we said at 7 a.m., lacing up our boots and stocking our backpacks with bottles of water. We'll be back in time for dinner.

Hah.

At 8 we stopped for breakfast.

At 8:15 we stopped for breath.

At 8:20 we stopped to take pictures.

At 8:25 we stopped for a pee.

At 8:30 we were down a liter of water.

At 9:30 we were wondering where that shortcut was.

By 3:30 we were in Triund.

Evidence of our weakness passed us by every half hour or so. A Japanese or Korean couple who ate breakfast when we did passed us at the halfway mark - but they were going back down, at 11:30. A Dutch mother-son duo got to the snowline by 12, took a few hours to relax at Triund, and strolled leisurely back down to the village for meditation classes. An Indian man afflicted by childhood polio passed us on crutches, smoking.

We persevered.

And the day, when seen from the top, was gorgeous. At Triund, we could see the three snow-frosted peaks clearly. Down below, back the way we came, the afternoon sun lit the flowering rhododendron trees to a flaming red.

A man came out of one of the stone and tarpaulin shacks at the top and offered us tea. We ended up renting a tent from him too and staying the night on top, watching the moon light the snow caps and the stars shift through the night.

A group of recent college grads, three Tibetan refugees and a Nepalese guy, invited us to sit by their campfire with them. They talked about sports and some of the hardships of being a refugee.

The next morning we got ourselves up for the sunrise and continued to the snow.

Flat it wasn't. But it was fantastic.

**Click here to see photos of McLeodGanj**

 
Now, this is fast food.

Like a tin wind-up toy, the food server danced toward us in near frantic rhythm.

Sweating a little, and worried that my scarf has slipped too far off my hairline for propriety, I watched him from my seat on the floor.

Left foot sideways. Ladle in the bucket. Right foot sideways and back. Ladle out. Left foot forward, and, plop!, a deposit of green pea curry in the metal tray of the Sikh woman in front of him.

She sat cross-legged with her family on the long woven mat with her dishes in front of her, like me and Dan, just one of the thousands of hungry who come to the Amritsar Golden Temple's langar, or community kitchen.

I can't watch the pea curry guy for long though, because someone is coming with water to pour in the metal bowl in front of me, and another man is coming with the chapati basket. All of the scurrying servers, cleaners and cooks are volunteers.

They have to rush--hordes of people wait for every twenty-minute seating. After our quickly eaten meal of curry, dal, rice pudding and chapati, the diners carried their trays, bowls and spoons out to the communal dish washing area. I have never seen dishes washed so religiously.

Leaving the area to the hand washing station, groups of men and women clustered on the floor peeling onions and garlic for a future meal.

We visited the Golden Temple to try to get a picture of Sikhism, a religion from Northwest India. Sikh men are easily recognizable by the large, tightly wrapped turbans they wear.

From what we gathered from the museum and other reading, in general Sikhs believe in community service and standing up for the poor. They are fierce soldiers and have no caste system. The founder of the religion mixed some Hindu and some Muslim beliefs with his own workaday spiritualism.

As nice as it was at the Golden (as in real gold!) Temple with it's huge pond for ritual purification and laid-back shady colonnades, we weren't in love with Amritsar city itself and decided to press on to the Himalayan foothills after only a few days there.


**Click here to see photos from the Golden Temple.**
 
Picture
Dan giving a magic show in the village.
Dan now has an international reputation as a magician.

From classroom tool to ice-breaker, the few dollar-store tricks he carries in a special pouch have charmed children (and plenty of adults) from China to Cambodia and Indonesia to India.


But he'd never actually been asked to do a show until Rajasthan.


Through our guesthouse, we had hired an autorickshaw, a three-wheeled motorbike cab, to drive us out of Bikaner and go to a traditional village. The driver, Baba, took us to Raisar, a place about 20 kilometers north where he had some personal friends. They would open the doors to the village and let us get a look at what life is like in the desert.


At first though, when we got to the village, it was awkward. The driver didn't seem too sure of his English. The friend kinda seemed like he didn't know what to show us. And, like anywhere in Asia, we were getting stared at by a dozen or so earnest pairs of eyes from a distance of, oh, about two feet. They treated us like honored guests, pulling out weather-beaten plastic chairs for us to sit on while everyone else hunkered down on the sand or on the concrete wall. We sat for awhile, the driver and his friend talking in local dialect and small (and not-so-small) children running up every few minutes for a nice long look at us and then running off again to tell somebody else about the cool thing going on down at so-and-so's house.


Tea came and we sat up stiffly wondering if there was some etiquette about who needed to drink first. While we waited to figure that out, Dan pulled out his magic bag.


“This is ten rupees, right?” he asked them, holding out a piece of money-sized paper with a cartoon rendering of Gandhi and a big ball-point “TEN” written on it.


They looked at him and nodded. Whatever you say, crazy foreigner, I could almost hear them thinking.


“No, it's not!” Dan exclaimed. And, with a bit of folding and re-folding and a generous dose of magic, he produced a real 10-rupee note. “This is!”


They all sucked in their breaths and grinned. “Aaaaahhh!” The kid who brought us the tea almost fell off the wall. The other boys, the self-appointed staring crew, broke into bird laughter. Our driver started to smile. Yes, it was going to be a good day.


We walked around after that, looking at houses, watching a camel being shorn in a decorative pattern, peeking in to a new-born camel milking its mother, and taking pictures of the kids who followed us as if we were the Pied Piper.


We stopped to greet some people the driver knew.

“Show them your magic rupees!” he told Dan.


Later, we greeted some old men with a respectful Hindi greeting: 'Ram ram sha.' We went into an adobe home home and met five generations living under one roof. We saw camel wool being woven into shawls.


“What about the magic?” the driver suggested.


Dan was famous.


A long rickshaw ride later, we got back to the family-run guesthouse where we were staying. We were tired, since we'd also stopped by the royal cenotaphs, a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god, and a fanciful concrete faux cave/temple dedicated to another manifestation of Durga.


The guesthouse owner greeted us, wanted to know how the trip went. Very good, we said.


A few hours later, he found Dan.


“Hey! I hear you're a magician! Come show my family and show the guests!”


Click here to see photos of Raisar and Bikaner

 
Picture
Since our cooking class in Cambodia last December, we've been excited about taking another—it's a fun way to spend the afternoon, and best of all, we get to eat the result. And, unlike my high school cooking class fiasco, nobody's going to grade me on how thinly I slice anything or make me wash the dishes.


One of the draws for us to stay at Vino's Guesthouse in Bikaner was that the family that runs it offers free cooking demonstrations. They have a short menu of items you can order , and then a window built into the kitchen where you can watch the owner's sister-in-law cook up your dinner or lunch and explain what she's doing. You just pay for what you eat.



We decided to get a demo of dal fry, since it's one of our favorites and ubiquitous on restaurant menus throughout India; alu gobi, curried potato and cabbage ; a local Rajasthani dish we'd never heard of before called dana methi, principally fenugreek; and as a snack, vegetable pakora.


Click on "Read More" to see what we observed. (Forgive me for my lack of technical cooking language!):


 
Picture
A holy rat.
If you died and came back as an animal, what would you like to be?


Bet it's not a rat.


But, the desert temple of Karni Mata in small town Deshnoke, Rajasthan, protects a whole flock of rodents the faithful believe were locals in their past lives.


We came across several versions of the story, but it seems that a girl who lived in the town some 500 years ago turned out to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga.


One of the miracles attributed to her, along with saving people from snakebites, creating springs of water in the arid desert, taking the form of a lion to fight enemies and feeding an army from just a few chappatis and a bit of yoghurt, is that she saved the souls of a group of people from going to the death god, Yama. Instead of going with Yama, these peoples' souls are reborn in the form of the holy rats that scamper about the temple consecrated to Karni Mata. Which group of people are now living rodenty lives seems to be a matter of confusion—whether it's storytellers in general, the relatives of a specific storyteller or the family of Karni Mata herself, wasn't clear to me after our visit.


The temple is a small one, down a dusty dirt road surrounded by low buildings and near the train line. At the entrance, people hawked the normal things you find by any temple in India—bangle bracelets, religious tracts, effigies of gods and goddesses and cups of tea. At this temple, they also sold food for the rats.


Entering the temple, I clumsily stepped through wet, clotted globs of pigeon doodoo, feeling the crumbs of yellow sacrificial meal (read: rat food) between my bare toes. Rats ran freely about the enclosure, snacking on the meal or slurping down milk from large steel pans placed there just for them.


The first rat—though Dan and I agreed it would be better termed a 'large mouse'--made us jump a bit.


We're in agreement--we've reached a new level of gross. But, strangely, though the thought of going to the rat temple had made my skin crawl while we were planning our trip, at the temple it seemed as normal as anything else we've done traveling.


The mice were pretty cute, really, scrubbing their little whiskered faces with tiny pink paws and scurrying back to the many holes in the temple walls to escape the increasing brilliance of the morning sun. A lady took a special interest in us and showed us how to walk around the back of the altar and where to hug the wall if we wanted to pray.


We spent awhile craning our necks in an alcove watching a few mice in the shadows, trying to spot the holiest of holy rodents—the albino rat. A man standing there, seemingly for that express purpose, told us to watch out for it. We had no luck there, but did spot a jaundiced-looking yellowy rat in a different part of the temple. The guidebook also mentioned that if the mice ran over our feet, that would bring good luck. We had brought some cookies with us on the bus for breakfast and decided to give the rest to the rats. While we did this one climbed up my bag, and later some nibbled on our toes, mistaking them for cookie crumbs. I figure, we're in good with the rats.

So, if you do come back as a rodent, mention my name.

***

Click here to see photos of the Rat Temple

 
Picture
The Phantom.
“I thought you weren't interested in cars,” Dan said.


“Hmm....” I snapped another picture. “I like looking at them. I don't like talking about them much.”


That didn't stop us from spending over an hour exclaiming over (and coveting) the fifteen vintage cars on show in the Udaipur maharanas' collection.


From a Rolls Royce Phantom (only 50 made) to 1940s Jeeps, the automobiles were an interesting look into the garage of a family richer than I can imagine. Rolls Royces are great, but our favorite was the 1930 Model-A Ford. Classy!


Usually when we go to palaces or forts, we get to look at the old swords of the maharajas, the clothes worn by the princesses, the household items. Checking out the old vehicles was a refreshing change from our usual sightseeing, and—bonus--the entrance ticket included lunch!