India Bound

Sunrise at 5.30 am Sunset at 7.05 pm

Location: Mussoorie and Delhi, India

Engaging in wild acts of exploration and inquisition.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Tea time in the Himalayas

I have moved to the town of Mussoorie, which is 7,000 feet up in the Himalayas, where I am living in an Indian mountain lodge and attending the local language school. Mussoorie is only 90km from Delhi, roughing the distance from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, but it took us ten hours to get here as the roads are so awful and the hills so steep to climb. There are no traffic rules in India, lanes seem to merely be suggestions and people pass each other into oncoming traffic using horns to indicate narrowly-missed head on collisions. On the way up the hill, the car in front of mine broke down and rolled backwards until it hit ours, giving everyone a good shake. But honestly, sticking my head out the window to see thousands of feet down, I thought it was the most thrilling ride of my life.

We live in the clouds, half an hour above the town (to get down to town, you follow and intricate series of winding paths flanked by the most beautiful flowers) and the landscape reminds me of a mix of the Sierra Nevadas (Desolation Wilderness great pine trees) with the jungle and there are monkeys everywhere. Mussoorie is a town of about 30,000 and is a huge Indian tourist hotspot where everyone comes to escape the heat of the valley (the day we left Delhi it reached 115 degrees!). There is a main bazaar that branches off into other bazaars and so much good Nepalese and Chinese food (the best are these steamed vegetable buns called "momos"). Everyday at four we have tea time, which is masala chai and almond cookies and there is mango mango mango everything.

To get outfitted with Indian clothes (the salwar cameez, or punjabi suit, which is a loose long shirt over pants is much more practical than a saree) you can buy the outfit already made, or it is much cheaper (an a much more interesting experience) to go to a fabric store, pick out the fabric and then take it to a tailor who takes down your measurements and sews it for you. Yesterday a couple of us went to a fabric market where you chose a type of fabric, color and embroidery you like and then they proceed to bring out what seemed like hundreds of bolts of fabric like it. I settled for a sort of peach color with kashmir-syle embroidered flowers after much poking through zillions of different designs and colors.

It was an amazing experience, and to a certain extent makes you feel that you have more power as the consumer. Buying ethic is really interesting in India - upon seeing you are a westerner, prices are automatically inflated at least four times over, so it is the goal to bargain them down half way. This applies to everything - mangoes in the market to clothes and jewelry and is often very frustrating. After offering lower prices, sometimes shop keepers will get cross and say "have a good day madam" and turn their back on you. Its all very funny...

This morning was our first day of classes - we are attending the Landour language school which is in a small school right down the road from where we are staying. Class is from 8.20 -12.20 every day and is broken up into four classes, with a different teacher for each. Hindi is the first language that I have started off with from scratch, and so its interesting to wrap my mind around it. Learning the writing is a bit difficult, but the language is phonetic to pronounce - its all very interesting and the teachers are all very sweet.

It is quite chilly here... The thunder starts roaring around noon and then it begins to rain and rains all afternoon. We are literally living in the clouds, and so the mist comes and goes rapidly - one minute we can look over the hill into town and the next you can hardly see twenty feet in front of you. Every morning we go on small hikes through the woods and are confronted with families of monkeys who are very protective over the trash they find.

Three hundred miles of Himalayan mountains are before us, although it is often impossible to see them through the mist. After the intensity and exaustion of Delhi, it is absolutely satisfying to be here. If Delhi taught me to have a sense of humour about nearly everything, Mussoorie is teaching me to relax and breathe deeper the cold air.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Life in the Street

In Delhi, everything happens in the street. There are roadside barber stands, drinks, food, men sleep and eat in the streets next to dogs, pigs and cows. It is the most exciting place to be, and after a few days of navigating the traffic, my heart no longer jumps to my throat crossing the street - you can begin walking, barely heading traffic and they find their way around you (don't get me wrong, it's still exhilerating to manage survival).

This morning was the adventure of the auto-rickshaws - we took a fleet of these tin-can cars with one front wheel and cloth roofs across the city. We are located in central Delhi, so everything takes about twenty minutes to get to by auto rickshaw. These cars are are the most exciting way to get around so far; you hang out the side to get a good breeze and with five of us packing into a seat the size of a VW Bug backseat, we are all laughing about people worrying about seat belts back home. The drivers usually have no teeth and have pictures of various gods on the dashboard and drive with their hand on the horn. Hanging out the side of one, I have to make myself very small in order to not be knicked by the busses whizzing past and families riding scooters (four people to one scooter) peer inside at us.

Our wild ride took us to the Qutb Minar, which was built a thousand years ago by a Muslim King to signify Muslim domination over the Hindus. They were the most breathtaking and amazing ruins I have ever seen, far surpasing the Roman theatre or any European ruins I have seen. The most intricate carvings of vines and gods and flowers with amazing arabic script! It was also really interesting to watch the Indian couples strolling across the shady lawns under sun umbrellas, in all their colorful saris and the temple dogs lounged well-fed in the shade.

Then we went to the Bahai Lotus Temple, a huge marble lotus-shaped building and inside we listened to prayers, but had to keep strict silence. The sound of all the bells on ladies anklets tinkled and echoed through the entire space, like the sound of water and the light filtered in most beautifully.

A man and two women in the most beautiful saris had been following us around the temple, whispering and giggling for quite some time. We had been ignoring them, until the man shyly came up to me:

Man: Ma'am, what country:
Me: America.
Man: Oh, very good country, but India is the most beautiful country in all the world!
Me: Yes, I really like it so far. (He proceeds to ramble off a list of places I need to see while his two female freinds nod very enthusiastically and come closer and closer to me until they are surrounding me).
Me: (I comment on one of the women's saris and her jewelry)
Man: (Looks as though he is going to burst or exploe or hug me) YES! YES! She is my wife! She is the most beautiful woman in the world!
Me: You are a very lucky man...
Man: Oh ma'am you are the most beautiful American in the world, oh thank you thank you! (shakes my hand until I withdraw it and keeps looking longingly at me)

Indians are very patriotic and always want to engage in conversation about you and about how Indian is better than any other country in the world.

Tonight, a traditional dance performance followed by a Hindu musical and then in the morning to the Hanuman temple for 5 am prayer.

Mmm, I will never get tired of variations of ways to eat mango (mango lassi, mango milkshake, mango granita, mago goes on..)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In India, solitude is a selfish pursuit

Well, after typing out a very lengthy account of my experiences in India thusfar, the put-put internet and ten year old computer I am on crashed. This is how things here work - everything runs on a system of chaos and everyone seems to find their place or plan within this chaos.

Everything is moving here - bustling, rushing, weaving along. The streets are crowded with bicycles, motor-rickshaws, busses with painted scripts and mantras covering them (everything from "horn please" to guru blessings. Crossing the street is a death-defying adventure as pedestrians hold the lowest place in the traffic pecking order, and it is often hard to find a place to walk as the sidewalks are covered with sleeping men, children and dogs in the afternoon sun.

We have been let loose to explore Delhi at our leisure, and though I have hardly been here at all, India feels like home. Everything is humorous and there is a laugh to be found in anything - the men peeing against a wall right alongside the busiest road in Delhi, the water buffalo holding up four lanes of traffics, the people who all seem to know the best places for us to go and how to get there are are fiercely adamant on leading us there.

Leaving the hostel in the morning there is the smell of roasting spices and chai from the chai wallah. Roadside food stalls display fruits and fried foods and food is ordered and eaten in the shade next to the stalls. Everyone on the program seems to have the fear of food deeply instilled in them and forbid cut fresh fruits, milk, no brushing teeth with tap water and absolutely no street foods. I have been a little lax with these fears, hoping that my body will acclamate to all these new microbes and eventually I will be able to try more things. So, morning chai at the chai wallah means I have a stomach ache for half the day, but all of my senses are so overwhelmed by everything else that I hardly mind it.

We have been to a Sikh temple made of marble and covered in gold where we sat by a huge reflecting pool filled with giant carp and saw the thieving monkeys at the local Hanuman temple at the dawn morning prayers. Underground markets, men offering us their ear-cleaning services, giant cockroaches poking their feelers out of every crack, and endless amounts of human oddities surround us. In India, nothing is hidden.

The heat is heavy, a heaviness I am learning to carry. Monsoon season hasn't quite begun in Delhi, we will be leaving for Mussoorie this Saturday where it will be cool and we will be out of the majority of the heat. Mango and India ice cream has been a savior, and then the afternoon rain comes in huge drops that takes the temperature down but only makes everyone feel all the stickier.

Notices: there is much less advertising here. Most food operations and clothing stores are independently run and very casual. There are hardly any women out in public (must be at home running the house?). Men are extremely affectionate with each other - strolling the streets arm in arm or hand in hand, riding double on bicycles and scooters. We are a spectacle here everywhere we go, there will never be any blending in (so far have had to pose for pictures twice, and I don't know if I will ever be used to this strange and unwatned celebrity status).

I am absolutely taken thusfar. I could hardly complain about a thing, I am merely exausted from the complete and entire overtake of my senses. Saturday we leave for the foothills of the Himalayas and there is talk of venturing farther north to the northern holy pilgrimage sites. Everyone is buzzing with possibility - I could be anywhere in a couple of days, who knows!

My love to you all.