Thursday, May 29, 2003

Climate of Cool

It’s become apparent my nature is inclined towards conspicuous consumption.

After weeks in India getting by on little more than water, dhal and chapatis, I’m like a Russian in America for the first time. McLeod Ganj, at the foot of the Himalayas, has all the comforts of home, and I’m finding I want them all. Currently on my list: an ayurvedic beauty bar, fruity shampoo, pashmina shawl, scarf, big-ass necklace pendant, a pedicure, a Buddhist monk maroon sleeveless shirt and messenger bag. Suddenly, I want to try all the packs of foreign cigarettes, the coconut cake and the chocolate one, I want some of the brightly-packaged biscuits just because they’re stocked on the shelves in neat rows, and I even covet the variety of colored, individually-wrapped toilet paper, imported just for us unhygienic ferengis. I don’t need toilet paper yet; I’m still good with the roll I brought. It’s amazing how Cam and I can drink litres of water and only pee twice a day. Of course, up until we hit this cooler mountain climate, we were sweating buckets. It works really well, actually, as when you’re out and about during the day, the last thing you need is to hit up a public facility. I was forced to just the once, but I’ll spare the details. Suffice to say, my entire body was physically wracked with horror, and my expression on exiting the latrine, the one Cam calls my toilet face, is apparently highly amusing.

McLeod Ganj is the spot for massage therapists, dope smokers, Reiki practitioners, those contemptuous of suburban America, the dreadlocked, yoga enthusiasts, loud Israelis, midlife Western women taken to wearing traditional Tibetan dress, Osho novices who practice law, and those looking to meditation to cure their irritable bowel.

We dig into our lamb momos and overhear a conversation at a nearby table. A young English woman complains of a blocked chakra:

“And when I use the toilet, I’m peeing, and I completely black out. My consciousness goes dark.”
An older woman listens sympathetically.
“And this man,” the young girl continues, bitterly, “he has this amazing amount of energy. I’ve figured out he’s stealing it from others. He’s been stealing my energy.”
The sage woman offers her advice to nip this problem in the bud. It’s not completely audible from where I’m sitting, but it sounds practical, and most importantly, it’s delivered in a soothing manner. The nurturing woman who talks others down has always held an esteemed place in the drug scene.

Aside from the scene, there's the scenery, unparalleled in its beauty. Snow-capped Himalayan peaks, gently sloping valleys of trees, Buddhist monks walking the dirt paths wearing hip footwear and Discmans at their hips, the homes scaling the cliffs and their lights scattered in the darkness, the barking of dogs in the distance and the flute player's tune floats up from the street below. Incense is burning nearby. Rows of internet surfers email back home, while those in the adjoining restaurant enjoy veggie lasagna and swat away the flies.

Tonight, I’m sitting in the room, with the door open to the night valley before me, allowing the cigarette smoke to escape, a Godfather beer at my side. Cam is playing chess with Eric, a German we met on the bus from Pathankot. Earlier we saw the residence of the Dalai Lama and spun the prayer wheels a full rotation at the adjacent temple.

“Free Tibet," we say to one another, as if a prayer before tucking into a meal at Nick’s Italian Kitchen. “And damn the Chinese, “ we should add. I meet up with a Tibetan refugee tomorrow to help him practice his conversational English, as promised. I can only hope his English is rudimentary enough for me to understand what I expect to be a compelling story.

8:02:00 AM

I’m still in India, but I feel I’ve left the country proper a number of days ago. It happened when we hit Punjab. Suddenly, the train stations seemed cleaner, roaming pigs were nowhere to be seen, the cows were tied up, the landscape was more lush, the people more prosperous. Punjabi men are more stately than the slight Hindus, more have pot-bellies and of course many wear the large and regal turbans. The Sikhs have been impressive with their welcome. We stayed at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhdom’s most holy place, and a significant site of pilgrimage. We knew the complex invited people of all denominations into its accommodations, and we anticipated sleeping apart in a dorm-like setting. Instead, we were checked into a large private room, one of the 600 available for a small donation, with a view of the nine-story tower, the Baba Atal. We waited until sunset for better photography light, and for cooler stones onto which we’d set our bare feet. We checked our shoes and padded into the community kitchen. The hall feeds 50 thousand free meals a day and operates like clockwork. We filed into the hall, grabbing a tin plate and water bowls on the way in. Then we found a place on the mat on the floor with the lines of others. Volunteers, who consider it an honour to serve meals or dispense advice or wash down the walkways, come around and quickly dole out food. One pass will yield mung dhal ladled from a bucket, another water poured from a large kettle, and yet another round will see a grinning man tossing chapatis delightedly into the cupped hands of the cross-legged below him. We eat and file out. The bhuratta, or scarf, of my salwar suit has come in handy, as the inner precincts of the Golden Temple require the head to be covered. Cam has fashioned the loongi he bought in Bangladesh over his, and I’ve gathered it at the back with a ponytail elastic. In to the Golden Temple itself, a 2-story building surrounded by a huge pond called the Pool of Nectar. It no longer feels like India, as there’s no trash and it’s completely organized. We walk with the hundreds of others, slowly, on the cool, white, clean marble, pilgrims stopping to make prayer hands at head and chest at certain significant stops. Inside the temple itself, the crowd crushes forward for a glimpse of the holy men reading the scripture, and toss donations onto the pile of cash and flowers, some of the pious bring food offerings. Immediately outside the inner sanctum, they bend and scoop water from the pool and drink and toss bread to the eager fish below. The place is so peaceful. No one wants anything, no one is selling anything. We talk with some youth about politics, bold girls of about 18 come up to me to ask the standard questions: “What is your name? Where are you from? What is your profession? Is that your husband?” The volunteers smile in welcome, others are curious. A man bold enough to ask us about ourselves creates a crowd. It’s been a highlight.
7:27:00 AM

Sunday, May 25, 2003

"You have Indian feet," he states, grimly viewing my ground-in dirt, my ring-around-the-collar, my no ancient Chinese secret feet. But I don't really, at least they look nothing like the feet I've spied on trains and buses throughout the North.

One woman wearing an emerald-green sari and sharing a bus seat with husband and young son folded her legs up under her. Hers are smooth, brown, wearing rings and bronze polish. No dirt on those. Another wraps her sari closer, bending her knees into her, and after slipping off her silver sandals, her toes curl over the lip of the dusty vinyl seat. They are polished with pearl, and luminescent. The dust on the train's pale blue vinyl seats is undeniable; the grit on the bus is indelible. But passengers come prepared: they sling big plastic canteens across the seat backs in front of them, or on hooks by the window's passing landscapes. Couples and families take turns uncapping the bottle, holding it over their mouths to take a drink. Then after eating a messy mango, a process which begins by drinking the juice from holes punched in both ends, they'll hold the canteen over their sticky hands and cleanse them out the window. It's everything out the window: mango peels, water bottle, the newspaper the deep-fried pakora came in.

We're nearing our stop, so she flings her scarf from her head and fixes her hair, smoothing it from her face, re-clipping the silver barrettes, uncoiling her hair and winding it up again into a bun, the choir of bangles on her arm jostling musically. The damp face cloth comes out of a baggie and she gives a quick swipe to her face and the back of her neck. Sleeping daughters on the laps of their dads are woken, prepared. We all step off, putting many different feet to pavement, into the bustle and heat of the next city.
10:05:00 AM

The Sacred Cow

As far as I know, it's the first time a 12-year old boy has cooked my breakfast.

"What's your name?" he asked me.
"Tracy," I said. "What's yours?"
"Naimesh," he answered.
And our pronunciations both stumble over the other.

We took the standard issue notepad and wrote down our breakfast order: 2 X Mineral Water, 1 Museli, 1 Banana Porridge. Naimesh scanned it, read it back to us unsteadily and was on his way. He was in the kitchen for awhile, chopping fruit and busying about, the only one up on this hazy morning. He padded back, sure-footed, and delivered to us delicious meals on the silver tray familiar to all of India's restaurants.

Making our way back from the day and up the stone path to our Dream Heaven Guesthouse, I note with a smile that cow again. It's perhaps the sweetest cow in the country. Lying contentedly, she is young, pure white, clean and not surrounded by rubbish. She sits half in, half out of the shade, in the same nook of the hotel entrance at the same time each day.

I climb the concrete steps, followed by the impossible iron stairway to get to our landing. Naimesh is there, leaning over the rail, looking out at the rooftops. The sun is golden now, the wind has picked up, and the boys from good homes, the ones not on the streets, are flying their kites in the waning sun. I get Naimesh's attention, pointing down to the sweet cow and say, "Is that your pet?" He struggles to understand. "Your pet," I try again.
"Pet?" he scrunches his face. "Not pet. God," he informs, reverent.

I nod and he smiles. I go back to my room and shut the door, knowing this lapsed Catholic can renew her faith at any time, with just a quick trip down to the bottom of the hotel steps.
9:41:00 AM

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Flip Side

No morning that starts at 4:30 can really start well.

Ours was no exception: up early to catch an early bus, but our rickshaw driver didn't pick us up to head to the bus station as promised. We hoofed it to Jagdish Temple, a place we'd seen earlier, inundated with rickshaws vying for business, and hoped for the best. In the pre-dawn, we stood looking for a ride, amid the surreal bell-pealing of the Hindu Temple and the eerie milling of the cows. Imagine a traffic circle, a roundabout, with no green space in the middle, scatter liberally with garbage, add a pinch of urine smell on every corner, throw in 15 cows, and picture the perimeter of the circle ringed with shops measuring about 5 feet in width. That's an Indian intersection. They vary in size.
By some miracle, a driver appeared from the near-dark and following our instructions, "Bus station. Fast," he got us there with minutes to spare.

We were ready to sack out on the bus, but I quickly found it wasn't meant to be. I was carrying two water bottles and keeping them close to the body was out, because it just resulted in clamminess. Well, resting your hand on your thigh resulted in clamminess. Hell, so did just sitting there with no limb touching another. So down on the ground between my feet went the water. I should also mention mine was the aisle seat, and it was without an outside armrest. Pair this deficiency with a bus driver who likes to take corners at breakneck speed and the odds of falling into the aisle on your ass increases tenfold. I tried to brace my feet to take the corners and not fall out of my chair, but the bottles would roll. Then there's the horn. Everyone in India makes good use of it. Painted on the backs of some rickshaws is "HORN PLEASE." It may be the only policy the Hindus follow to a t. Generally, I've tuned the sound out, but this driver brought it to a whole new level: the use of his horn was frequent, sustained, shilll and without reason. And his spring-coiled seat was in desperate need of oiling.
I slept sporadically, arriving at the hotel after some more rickshaw wrangling and the host said we could sign in later because I "looked tired." I checked in the mirror to see for myself: eyes small, bridge of nose beaded with sweat, clothes rumpled and dirty, hair a nest in pigtails.
If ever I thought the bloom not off this rose yet, it's certainly wilted under the harsh desert sun.

12:06:00 AM

Friday, May 16, 2003

Taj Against the Machine

Cam's a little stuffy today, so we're taking it easy and staying away from the sites. I took his under-the-weatheredness as an opportunity to strike out on my own for the first time here. We're in Udaipur, slightly off the main tourist track, in low season, so things here have been considerably quieter. I thought that would mean I could handle things like the independent chick I am, wander about at my leisure, shop with some autonomy, etc. It would appear not. I was all of 1 1/2 hours under the blazing sun by myself, wandering lost in this maze of small streets known as the Venice of the East. I didn't panic, but I was uncomfortable without Cam's sense of direction and fierce protection. Without it I felt vulnerable, leered at, chatted up.

Plus, there was the bull.

I was charged by a horned beast, twice, and I'm lucky he gave up so easily. I merely felt my body surge with adrenaline and I pulled a few matador moves, getting out of the way quickly so he never made contact. I actually screamed, and was grateful there was no one around to snicker. Also on my trip, I left my salwar kameez with a tailor to have taken in. I don't know if I'll ever find that shop again.

As I said, no big sites to see today. Not like just a few days ago when we were in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. You go through the main gate and are immediately struck by its being probably the most picturesque scene you've ever taken in. An awesome dome of marble, impeccably manicured grounds, symmetry in its trees and reflecting pools, exotic birds flying about. There's one place where every couple gets their photo professionally taken--Cam says I'm sure if you go into any middle class Indian's home, that photo will be placed prominently. So we had one of the few guys who spoke English and knew something about cameras take a shot of us with my camera. Too bad that such a gorgeous vista will be sullied by the site of a rumpled girl in pigtails sweating profusely. At least at that point I wasn't shuffling about in the little felt booties they provide to protect your bare feet from the hot stone. Nerdilicious.

Cam and I also turned out to be a bit of a tourist attraction of our own. Many asked us for our picture, taking turns plopping the various kids between us and snapping away, making sure the whole family got in. Perhaps Cam and I will be in the photo albums of many middle class Indian families. Perhaps it's my big-ass hat, or the fact Cam is so tall and has been told he resembles a New Zealand cricket player. Cricket's all the rage here, and it's the only sport I think Cam really follows. We had a TV in one of our hotel rooms and I got a taste of what some women must go through during hockey season, football playoffs, etc.

Taking my vitamins and wearing 45 SPF,
Tracy
1:29:00 AM

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Girl's Got Grit

What isn't pollution hanging in the air's haze is dust. Which isn't surprising: it's hot, it's the desert, there's a proliferation of the 2-stroke engine auto rickshaw. I'm covered in dust daily, from head to toe. Those tan lines on my sandaled feet are not just from the sun. Cam likes to point out when I have a particulrly noticeable smear on my face. This time his index finger motioned to an anomaly on my right cheek and he said "It's not so much a dirt smear, as a clean spot surrounded by dirt."

"Do you love me even when I'm full of grime?" I asked.
"I love you even more because of the grime," he says. "You're in the trenches with me now."

And we occasionally smoke our cigarettes in those trenches, walking up to one of many kiosks and buying them in singles for four ruppees apiece. We make our way there by walking on the road, sharing it with the rickshaws, the scooters, motorcycles carrying families of four, the cars, bicycles, occasional camels and others among India's one billion people. I stop to admire a goat--aaa-aaa-aaa.
"Oooh, it's so cute. And so filthy."

Living harmoniously on the busy street with the goats are the pigs. I see one suckling at his mom, the sow in turn munching on a pile of garbage. India's animal kingdom of course is not complete without the cow--just a couple of feet away, one is fully immersed, lying in the rubbish, chewing contentedly. Some cows are apparently more discerning, though. We waited briefly outside for a restaurant to roll up its metal shutters and open for the night, when a cow sauntered up, stopped and looked in at this restaurant. Perhaps he'd read the Lonely Planet recommendation, too. The owner motioned at it, as if telling it to wait, he won't be sorry, and he came out with stale chapatis for the bovine. The street takes care of its own.

But it's not all grime, there's so much beauty: the crimson scarf of a Rajasthani woman's sari as it blows in the wind; another jewel-toned garment lined with gold thread, worn by a woman riding side-saddle on the back of a motrobike; grown men who walk hand in hand and young boys, such great pals, have their arms flung over one another's shoulders; a family send-off at the bus station adorning each other with garlands of flowers; the selling of spices, marigolds, everything in the bazaars; delicious cheese paneer, served countless ways in countless curries, in which to dip roti, straight from the tandoori oven; a mango yogurt-like drink, the omnipresent lassi; the coolness of the ceiling fan after a cool shower, the room a reprieve from the sun and 45-degree heat, the ceiling colored like the night sky, maroon Indian print curtains blowing in the breeze. We'll make our way to the rooftop cafe in awhile, but first, after an overnight, 10-hour bus journey, first we'll sleep.
3:27:00 AM

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