29 March 2009

The Himalayas and The River Ganges

The sun is setting in Rishikesh. We are setting the alarm for 4am tomorrow to get a taxi to Haridwar and then a train to Delhi. Full circle, back to where we started our adventure. We are even staying at the same bed and breakfast we stayed at when we arrived, we liked it so much (temprapedic beds...ahhh).
Yesterday we woke up at 4:30am to take a taxi up the winding Garhwol Mountains to the very tip top. The drive took about an hour. We were with our hotel manager, who was our guide (we found out later was a secret thing he did on the side, which is why the cost of the trek was so much cheaper than other places offering it), another friend of his, and a driver. We drove up the mountain in the dark, with the lights of Haridwar sparkling below and some Hindi music with a good beat jamming on the stereo.
When we reached the top we climbed dozens of steep stairs to a Shiva temple (its all about Shiva in this area, I've noticed). We walked around to the back of the temple. We stood and gazed at the Himalayas and soon watched the sun rise to the right of them. (A side note: I read "Into Thin Air" earlier in the trip, so it was especially intriguing to see the deadly mountains) We have now seen the sunrise at both the lowest and highest elevations we have been at in India.
Once the sun started to blind our view of the Himalayas, our guide and his friend made offerings in the temple and we started our way down the mountain. The trail was very steep and was covered in loose rocks. We passed through the remote villages of rice farmers, passing the occasional child going to school (where the school was, I have no idea). The trail eventually became the aqueduct for the rice fields. We followed the waterway while taking in the lush green rice fields, the sound of rushing water at our feet.
Halfway down the mountain we started to see several waterfalls. The first one was in the distance, across a field...I would guess, at least, 60 ft. high. The second was about that height, split into two, with a pool in between them. The bottom of this one poured into an emerald green swimming hole. When we arrived, there was another tourist who had just finished a swim...we shared our bananas with him.
For the rest of the hike we followed the running water as it flowed down the mountain. We passed various black faced monkeys and Indian guys swimming in their undies.
When we returned to the hotel, around 11am, we went back to bed and slept until the late afternoon. It was a great day.
Today I accomplished my other goal for Rishikesh. The Ganges. Yup. I did it. Riley did too. Granted, the Ganges here is not like in Varanasi or other big cities in India. There are no funeral pyres and there is hardly any garbage on the banks. Rishikesh is where the Ganges starts, so the water is very clean, but very cold.
I marched right in with my clothes on, dunked my head two times, and marched back out. It was freakin' cold. Then Riley went in. That was about it. We haven't seen any other Westerners go in, but lots of Indians.
That's all for now. I'll try and write again when we are in Delhi, but we are running short on time before our departure for the States. Has it been two months already?

25 March 2009

Damn Mathura

We are in Rishikesh in the Northern state of Uttarakhand. We arrived around noon today and it was cold and rainy! Yey! A nice change from the hot and somewhat humid weather we have been enduring for the past month or so. The sun is peeking out of the clouds now and there is still a nice chill in the air. It is lovely.
I have to tell you about my henna experience.
Okay, so it is the worst henna I have ever had...now I know what it is like to have bad prison tattoos. BUT the experience was so memorable, I don't care what it looks like.
Riley and I went with Bharat (apparently, Bharat, is the original name for India...India is the British name) to his house so his niece could do the henna. We walked down a dusty road, in the dark (there are no street lamps) through a maze of allies until we reached his home. We walked in on his family (older brother, brother's wife, niece and nephew, and mom and dad) sitting in the brothers room watching Hindi TV. They all greeted us very warmly even though they mostly didn't speak English. The niece, 12, shook our hands, while the nephew, Bobby who is 7, gave me a thumbs up and Riley an OK sign....he was sooo cute.
We never learned the little girls name. They invited me to sit on the brothers bed and the little girl got started. Bharat brought a chair in for Riley to sit and the family all piled in the little room to watch. They offered us tea and Riley some sort of grilled veggies. We also got to try a cucumber, which we have seen around, but it looks so different from ours at home, we were wondering what it was...tastes like a cucumber.
Even though the henna was not great, I was impressed for the girls skill for her age and I was happy to let her practice on me, because with practice she can start making money for her family. She also did one of Riley's palms; a heart with our names in it. =) We spent over an hour with the family...not speaking much, but enjoying the atmosphere of an Indian family's home. They didn't ask for money, but we gave the girl 150 rupees (about $3), enough to help her family financially, and hopefully buy more henna so she can practice more.

The Taj Mahal was everything I hoped it would be (although, I think Riley found it a little overrated and was bored quickly). It brought joyous tears to my eyes. I think, mostly, because we have been through so much to finally see the most beautiful building in the world it was a milestone for the end of our trip.
It was amazing that once I was inside the gate and approaching the grand masterpiece, I still thought it looked like a painting on the horizon, even as we got very close. The detail in the white marble is unbelievable for the 1600's. I loved being inside the mausoleum. The acoustics are like nothing I have ever heard. I so badly wanted to sing in there!
We spent a couple of hours taking it in and then prepared for our next destination.

We arrived in Mathura on the 23rd as planned and took a rickshaw 11 km to Vridavan where we were going to spend a few days. This town was my pick, I had no real reason or need for going there (other than Holi, which as I said before, was earlier in the month), I just wanted to go, so we put it on the literary. We found out later, that Mathura is where Krishna was born, so (like many Indian cities) it is a very holy city...which is cool.
Well, as soon as we got to Vridavan, I got a very uncomfortable feeling. I didn't share this with Riley, but as it turns out he felt the same way. I can't say what it was...I just didn't see us spending the next 3 days in this crammed little village with nothing in English...this made it difficult to find our hotel.
We tried to check into one of the few hotels mentioned in our guide book, but the guy at the reception desk said that he didn't have any rooms and when we asked him if he recommended any place, he said, "Only for Indians". This didn't sit well with us and didn't make us too optimistic about finding a room. At this point we both voiced what we were thinking and headed back to the train station to try and get the hell out of Mathura.
Of course, it was late in the afternoon at this point, so our train options were limited. Because we hadn't eaten since 10am we decided to find a room in Mathura (it is a bigger town than Vrindavan) for the night and then head to North to Haridwar the next morning.
After some searching, we found a grubby little room at a decent price: 250 rupees (5 bucks).
We spent a while looking for a place to eat around our hotel and failed. So, we decided to give our hotel "restaurant" a try. It was less like a restaurant and more like the family dining room.
Well, we don't know exactly what it was but we assume it was the hotel food...about halfway through our 8 hour train ride to Haridwar, the next day, Riley became (as he describes it) violently ill. He said it was the worst experience of his life. Damn Mathura.
We finally got to Haridwar in the evening and I found us a hotel near the train station. Luckily, this one also had HBO...we spent 1 day and 2 nights in that hotel room. Today Riley felt well enough to make the 24 km journey North to Rishikesh. We will spend the next 5 days here before heading back down to Delhi for our departure. He is resting in the room now and we think he will be better by tomorrow.
We have agreed that as positive and wonderful as our India experience has been to us, we are both ready to be home. It is exhausting to be approached like a cash machine, by beggars and venders, every time we walk down the street. And I have had about as much as I can take of endless staring and butt pinching.
But we have vowed to still make the best of our remaining time here and not let the negative aspects out weigh the good.
Love you all.

20 March 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

We are in Khajuraho, Madya Pradesh, India. We spent today exploring the famous temples of this city (the ones with dirty Kama Sutra carvings on it). They date back to about 900 AD and are impressive. We are waiting for the heat to wear off and then we going to rent bicycles to explore more temples South of town.
We survived the long journey to get here, but it wasn't easy.
On the 12 hour bus ride we lived on peanuts, mango juice, and Indian snack food.
The 24 hour train ride; peanuts, raisins, and oranges.
I am staying away from the train food from now on.
After our bus ride we arrived in the stinkiest city yet, Hyderabad.
We were only there 24 hours and that was too long for me. The city was covered with a smoggy haze that is the worst I have ever seen.
I mostly stayed in the room after having my butt grabbed on the street and waited until we could leave for our train to Jhansi. (Luckily, we had HBO, in English!)
We were very optimistic about our train ride. 24 hours, but in 2nd class AC, which is quite comfortable and we hadn't had to share our cabin with any weirdo's...until this ride.
I won't go into it here, but the man we were bunking with made me so uncomfortable that I moved to an unoccupied side bunk and hid behind the curtain until he got off at his stop. Riley didn't sleep most of the night.
We made it to Jhansi around 9:30pm yesterday and found a room. We crashed before waking up at 5:45am to get the 4 hour local train to Khajuraho. Phew.
We finally made it around 12pm.
After getting off of the train yesterday, I had a realization: being a tourist in an Indian train station is just like being a celebrity. As soon as you get off 12 or so guys come running up to you offering rides and rooms each one cheaper than the last. They follow you all the way to the parking lot, until you get in a taxi and drive away. Now I know what the paparazzi is like. It sucks.
The rickshaw driver we went with also came with 2 guys pitching their hotels and a small boy about 10 yrs old. The 5 of us crammed into the tuk tuk. The 2 guys competed with each other the whole drive, trying to sell us a room. (It turned out that they were friends, they said they both date 2 sisters, but are competition while they are working.)
Riley told the guys that we would eat at the Zen hotel (we were starving) and then look at the rooms of both hotels and decide.
During our lunch there was quite a sales pitch. We had complementary crackers and spread, (a first for us in India) we both received free 10 minute massages, at the table, from their ayruvedic masseuse, and even a little friendly whit bunny rabbit came to greet us. His name is Lasso.
The 10 yr. old drove us to the other guys hotel but we went with Zen.
Tonight Riley is going to have a massage and I am going to get henna from the niece of a guy that works at our hotel.
Tomorrow we leave for Agra, we will arrive about 6pm. We plan on getting up early for the Taj Mahal. We read that it is best at sunrise. I can't wait.
Riley says hi!

13 March 2009

Namah Shivaya

I was disappointed that nothing panned out for Holi (the festival of color, where people throw powdered paint on everyone and Indians go crazy...uh, crazy in a good way). Originally, we had planned part of our trip around it. My cousin told me that a great place to spend Holi was in the Northern town of Vrindavan, although it is celebrated all over India. I looked up the date as we were planning the trip and got March 21st...when we arrived and discovered it was the 10th and we would be in the South, we just hoped that we would still get to celebrate.
I suppose we did get a small taste.
When we arrived in Madurai on the 11th, we saw some kids running around the streets covered in pink paint. And we saw the the occasional person going by with their clothes, face, and hair covered in the brightly colored paint, and we drove by in a rickshaw to see some young men smashing the colored powder into their friends hair yelling at us, "HAPPY HOLI!!!", but we never got to participate.
Madurai was also a disappointment, as the purpose of our going there, the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple (a temple celebrating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati), was under renovation.
The major draw, 12 gopuras (towers), elaborately carved and brightly painted with depictions of gods and demons, were covered with scaffolding and bamboo leaves. Boooo!
All wasn't lost though, because at least the temple was still open so we were able to explore it for part of the day (it is one of the largest temples in India). They were mostly repainting everything and power washing the thousands of carved pillars that fill the halls.
What was finished was amazing.
My favorite were the mandalas, different colors and patterns, covering the ceilings...hundreds of them. I also was blessed by the temple elephant. I gave him a rupee and he touched his trunk to my head. =)
The next day, we took an overnight train to Bangalore just to catch a train to the next destination, Hampi. We had the day in Bangalore and planned to see some sights, but I got sick again from some train food so we got a room for the day so I could rest.
Riley was able to explore some and got some new digs (Indian style, kinda 70's polyester) and I was I was better and ready to go by 10pm for our over night to the Hubli station in Hospet, Karnataka.
About 13 km from Hospet is Hampi or Vijayanagar, The Rock City. We arrived this morning and we will spend 3 nights here. The terrain, described as "bizarre" in our guide book, is really beautiful and different; lots of large rocks, boulders and lush greenery. The landscape is covered with many temple ruins which we plan to explore.
It is kind of touristy, but on a much smaller level than other towns we have been in...which means, more modern commodities and less crowds.
It only took us 5 weeks, but today we actually booked train tickets ahead for the rest of our trip (We have mostly, been booking a week or less in advance) I am excited that we will have time to visited all of the places we set out to see.
From Hampi we travel the longest leg of our trip (a 12 hr bus ride and a 24 hr train ride, with a night in Hyderabad in between) to Khajuraho, then to Agra (we finally get to see the Taj Mahal!), Vrindavan, Rishikesh (The Ganges, yeah!), and back to Delhi. Phew. Time is really flying.

09 March 2009

Elephants, Amma, and Holi, oh my!

I am writing to you from the southern most tip of India, Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu. We have visited 6 Indian states so far and plan to visit at least 3 more before returning home.
Our time in Kumily, Kerala was brief but nice. We arrived after a 7 hour bus ride. The ride was just like the "horror" stories you here about the driving here, but all we could do was trust. The drive reminded me of driving on Mt. Tam or HWY 1, very windy and mountainous, with lush tropical forests instead of redwoods. And the driver went as fast as he could! Riley and I played Jell-o and I was able to read without getting sick, for some of it.
We arrived in Kumily around sunset and took a rickshaw to the homestay Priya and Mr. Q recommended.
We woke up at 6am the next morning to get to the wildlife preserve by 7am. They offer many tours through the preserve; jeeping, boating, trekking. We opted for the nature hike...unfortunately, it was hardly a hike, but our small group of other tourists had a good sense of humor and we were very lucky to see some animals. Riley didn't see his tiger, but we saw 4 elephants (2 mamas and 2 babies), black monkeys (which apparently, are only in South India), 2 giant squirrel, some white necked storks, 2 elk, bee hives, wasps nests, a termite hill, and the blur of a wild boar running into the brush.
We stayed just two nights in Kumily before taking a bus to Kottayam to catch a train to Amritapuri (Amma's ashram). (If you don't know who Amma is, I'm sure you can google her)
The ashram was nothing like we expected and nothing we have ever experienced.
We took a rickshaw 11km from the train station. The rickshaw driver knew the ashram, and when we arrived he dropped us off in front of this large white bridge spanning over the backwaters. Without knowing how to go about getting accommodations (Riley's brother, Ben, just said, "get a room at the ashram") we headed over the bridge not knowing what we would find.
We followed what looked like a path through high rise dormitories and soon someone pointed us towards a temple and said we "check-in there."
A devotee (dressed in white) gave us a pass for E building on the 14th floor. The elevator had pictures of Amma taped to the inside and a piece of paper that looked like a scroll that said, "Chant you mantra".
When we arrived on our floor and stepped off the elevator we were amazed to see the Arabian Sea (having no idea we were so near the ocean) to the West and the Backwaters to the East...palm trees covering every other inch of land. The ashram sits on a peninsula, probably less than a mile wide, running between the two bodies of water. It was the best view in India we have seen yet. To my dismay, they request no photography at the ashram, so no pictures! =(
We stayed for 4 nights, for a very very inexpensive fee. They ask that you contribute 2 hours a day for Seva (selfless service), so I spent some time in the kitchen washing dishes and cleaning the floors, while Riley cleaned the dorms and scrubbed the sinks. I also was asked to help for a bit on stage with Amma during Darshan (the hugging) to tell ladies to wipe their faces of sweat and make-up and hold hair clips and eye glasses as the not hurt Amma during their hug (Ben said this was quite a blessing).
Amazingly, Amma was at the ashram the whole time we were there. I received Darshan twice, Riley once...a very powerful and healing experience, and she gave a surprise group meditation that Riley and I were able to participate in.
We visited with Riley's step brother, Ben and his wife, Sarviga.
We met some amazing people (the most Americans we have seen yet!) both devotees and visitors alike.
It was inspiring to see how the ashram worked and what communal living is like.
We left the ashram and took a train an hour south to Varkala beach to relax and enjoy the beach again. Unfortunately, the Indian food caught up with me and I got a bug. No beach. I was in bed all day yesterday, but luckily, it only lasted the day.
While I was sick in bed, Riley had an thrilling experience at the Kollam Elephant festival. He watched a parade of 30 adorned elephants marching to hoards of drummers. Riley was one of the many people lining the street watching the display, when one of the elephants got angry and ran through the crowd. The crowd turned into a mob and Riley ran for cover in an alcove (and he got it recorded on his camera!). He said after that, he had had enough excitement and headed back to the house.
We will stay in Kanyakumari for 2 nights and then move on to Madurai.
Tomorrow is Holi, the festival of color. Holi was one of the things I was most looking forward to, but we haven't heard of any happenings, so we will have to see. This is a primarily Hindu town, as the tip is a pilgramage site, so there should be celebration.
We will get up early tomorrow and watch the sunrise where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea meet. (It is a holy site to bathe in...I stuck my toe in!)