Sunday, November 30

Day 94-Delhi

Although there are many more places in northern India I would like to have seen, I am glad I spend my final few days back in Delhi. Tooling around the wide tree-lined avenues, visiting the famous sites, I discovered a much cleaner, more modern city than I had expected. And so it is with a much better sense of how to manage this city that I offer this recap of my November.

Miles traveled: 4050 By Air: 2460
Days in India: 25 Cost per day: $66
(a ridiculous amount but I spent $504 on flights alone)
UNESCO sites visited: 8 Other cool sites: 12
Loose craps created: 0 Loose craps stepped in: 2

In that vein, a further note on health and crime:
I am happy to have enjoyed perfect intestinal health while in India, having adhered to a strict policy of drinking only from sealed bottles and using Grapefruit Seed Extract religiously every morning. I did suffer a very brief head cold upon landing in Delhi, but compared to the deep bronchial coughs I heard emanating from many a traveler, I consider myself very lucky indeed.
I suffered no threat of harm or robbery, nor did I ever feel cheated or swindled, though I did have to gently and firmly stand my ground a few times to enforce an agreed price. I even managed to retrieve a lost item by offering a small bribe, or baksheesh as it is known here. I certainly had no fear of being victim of violence, though I did stand in constant apprehension of having my freedom of travel restricted due to breakdown, labor strikes, or heightened security.

As I leave this place I am deeply confused about the future of India, posed as it is to become a superpower by the year 2025. I cannot help but wonder how a people who I found to be very easily distracted, burdened by a seemingly obsolete religion, and buried in oceans of crap and plastic can move fully into the modern world. On the other hand, the degree to which the streaming throngs of traffic are able to selflessly cooperate suggest a very unified collective mind, and I have never seen more beautiful smiles than those radiating from a family of sisters, dirt smeared and homeless, finding some unfathomable joy on the side of the highway. This is truly a land of contradictions, nothing is probable here, everything is possible.

Thanks to Shirley Vancouver, Cary Sacramento, and Lauren and Micheal London for sharing some time with me, and making otherwise improbable events...possible.

Thursday, November 27

Day 91-Varanasi

Straddled by the Ganges River-the Great Mother- is the world's oldest living city, Varanasi. Along the river's muddied banks are found the many ghats or stairways leading to the waters edge. Here can be found all manner of creatures-priests and pranksters, boatmen and bathers, kids and cattle, touts and tourist, dogs and the dying, goats and gods- all come to pray, hustle, play cricket, buy, sell, fly kites, scamper, gawk, daudle, do laundry, shit or simply die. Its is truly a colorfully bizarre place, and not without its amusements and frustrations. Sense of humor is a critical ingredient for visiting this most holy place of India, a sense of awe and wonderment the result.

Arriving here required quite a dose of humor as well. The overnight train from Jhansi pulled in a couple hours late, itself no problem, but it deemed to stop one kilometer short of the station, leaving us to decide one hour later that it would be worth making the walk. Find delight in the sight of five backpacking tourist trudging under a midday sun though a very busy railyard searching for the platform amoung a sea of rails, the smell of diesel and urine our welcome. Suceeding this, we were met by the crush of eager drivers, not all of which were in good spirits. Thinking we had secured our car, we had to argue details of destination for some time, endure some very real betel-fueled rage, threaten to walk, get out with our gear three times before we could get our driver to budge. I think we were quite proud to have saved 50 cents, all the while insisting that "its the principle not the money".

In that regard one is constantly required to review and assess ones principles. The pressure to buy and give is absolutely relentless, and one developes a strategy to repel the onslaught or is comsumed alive. One blinds ones eyes to the misery and hardens ones heart, to the point where I have ignored the pleas of women young and old, holding their pathetic, sure to be dead within a week, easily replaced babies, only to enjoy an ice cream ten minutes later. How can I justify this cruelty, how can I explain this to myself. It is a paradox to be daily faced, each morning renewing the commitment to retain sense of humor and respect, to exercise compassion as best as I can understand it. Nothing I have seen before could have prepared me for what I would witness in this country, I will be left knowing more about the world but perhaps less about myself than when I arrived.

Sunday, November 23

Day 87-Jhansi

What is most notable about travel in India, is the uncertainty one faces as one enters the carnival that is the street. Will one find a scrupulous driver, will he take you where you think you told him to go, will he please god not hit some Brahma bull or beggar woman sitting stubbornly in the street, will his vehicle not rattle apart beneath you anxious ass?

Testing my own destiny, I traveled to Jhansi, a non-touristed transportation hub, necessary in order to connect to my next destination. This town is not listed in my guidebook, and is therefore off the map, anxiety level 1. Upon arriving, I am informed by the throng of hungry drivers that festival is taking place and there will be no rooms, I must move on, anxiety level 2.
Nonetheless I make my way to center and begin the search for a room, and after 3 fruitless attempts I am truly sweating bullets. My fourth proved available and I settled in for the afternoon, only to be roused from my nap by the most godawfully loud contraption I have ever heard, a megaphone multiplex blasting Bach fugues pecked out on some cheap Casio keyboard. Seems a wedding party had arrived, and I would spent the night haunted by a most celebratory cacaphony.

Not dissuaded, today I made the short journey through the scrubby plains, stands of sycamore and locust broken by random intrusions of granite blocks and boulder fields, to the serene and magical village of Orchha. There I was greated by a colorful panapoly of odd characters, dressed in robes of saffron, flowing suits of embroidered beige silk, or nearly naked and smeared with ashes. I eschewed the crowds however and headed for the abandoned temples scattered about the countryside. There I would find the peace and quiet I have for so long needed, amoung the soaring spires dripping with the hives of wild bees (African killers?), hidden coves concealing screeching parakeets, their long abandoned buttresses overgrown with shrubs and weeds (snakes about?). As I traversed their flanks, a small group of dogs deemed to follow (rabid?) and turning a corner, a very large badass male langor monkey cussed me out for my intrusion. It seems the anxiety of the street had not altogether left me, still I was feeling apprehensive, after all, those vultures with their 8-foot wingspans were wheeling overhead for some reason!

Thursday, November 20

Day 84-Agra

At times when I visit these spectacular World Heritage Sites, often built centuries ago, I wonder what achievements of modern man justify our existence into these latter days. I have never felt this so strongly as when I came to see the glorious monuments constructed here in Agra. The most famous building in the world is located here, the lustrous and enchanting Taj Mahal, we know it as the supreme monument to love. Constructed in the mid 17th century as a tomb for his beloved wife by Shah Jahan, it is a marvel of art and engineering. As the pinnacle of Mughal architecture, it employs vast quantities of carved and filigreed marble, inlay of semiprecious gems, and improbable curved surfaces arranged in such a way and place to create ever shifting visual illusions. Anyone who attempts to decribe this place in words falls far short.

Equally impressive is the Agra Fort, some centuries older and serving a most practical purpose as garrison and palace, this sprawling complex is constructed from gleaming white marble and deep maroon sandstone. The intricate carving to be seen on virtually every exposed surface leaves one to wonder if the skills needed to create such a work even exist today. Elements of Arab design are predominant, as this city was once the capital of an empire founded by invaders from the West (Iran). Again one is left without words to decribe such a masterpiece, and the multitude of photos one is compelled to shoot does little to convey the majestic scope of this place. This is why we must each come to visits these sites in person!

I came to Agra from Aurangabad by overnight train, my first in India. As I first boarded the train I was pleasantly surprised at the overall appearance of things, it seemed that this was going to be a comfortable trip indeed, and so it was. Within an hour of departure, I found myself reclined in my berth, listening to pop hits of the 70's on my mp3 player. As I dozed lightly, my mind was flooded with images of myself as an 8-year old boy, fishing for fantasies in my cardboard box boat while the day passed to dusk, hunting for mice in the meadows of mid-March. I wondered what track was laid in those days that would 40 years later lead me to this moment, half way around the world, barrelling through the smoky plains of this ancient land with a trainload of faces that are distinctly different than my own. I awoke to find a couple of cockroaches making explorations of their own amoung the unknown terrain of my trousers....Ah..Incredible India!

Monday, November 17

Day 81-Aurangabad

One thousand kilometers south of the Himalayan foothills, nestled amoung the plateau that break above the dry grassy plains, are the UNESCO sites of Ajanta and Ellora. At each of these sites are found an assorment of carved rock temples, caves and monasteries. Each is spectacular in its own right, and has been well worth the time, effort, and expense to make the visit.

By tourist (ie, middle class Indians on holiday) bus, I traveled the 100 km north to visit the Ajanta complex. Over the course of 2 hours we made our way through the scrubby plains, now in the dry season, the fields of sorghum harvested and stacked in haphazard piles, the road lined with eucalyptus and acacia trees. We would pass through numerous small villages, where, despite the enormous populations of Indias cities, 80% of her people are to be found, huddled in their thatched reed one room houses, men plowing their small plots by aid of a single ox, women cooking in their single pot over a blazing pile of sticks, children playing without a single stitch of clothes on, together living on less than a single dollar per day.

This forgotten as we entered the complex of 30 or so caves, carved into an escarpment of basalt some 2km long, each completed over the ages spanning from 2nd century BCE to 800 AD. These are Buddhist structures and amidst the intricate carved geometry are found numerous detailed wall paintings, now faded, but still capable of relating the story of the Buddha, Asia's most significant historical figure. In various arched roof temple caves, we would encounter a small group of Thai monks, or Korean visitors, making chants to their long passed spiritual leader.

Visiting Ellora caves the next day, we were treated to yet even more dramatic artistic achievements. Here the caves were produced within the 500 year period of 600 AD to 1000 AD and represent efforts by three different religious sects, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. The most spectular, Kailasa Palace, was carved in one piece by 7000 craftsman over the course of 150 years. About the size of an average American supermarket, it is the largest single stone sculpture in the world. The intricacy of its plan and detail boggles the mind, unimaginable how the initial vision could actually be manifested a century and a half later. Weaving amound the various carved animals, obelisk and brocaded towers, we would encounter saffron clad monks and sadhus, as well as lovely Indian women in their brightly colored saris, an unsupassable visual feast!

Thursday, November 13

Day 77-Siliguri

I have always maintained that travel is harder than working, definitely true for my time here in Northeastern India. And so, I have determined that it is my job to find pearls amoung the heaps of plastic, peace within the pedestrian mayhem. India will not change what it is, so I must change my mind about what I perceive it to be.

It is in this spirit that I arose early the other morn to catch the shared jeeps to Tiger Hill. Walking the dark at deserted alleys at 4 am was spicy indeed, if only in my imagination. Surviving that and the 10 km drive, I was surprised to find not just handful of tourist, but a thousand locals gleefully, noisily awaiting the sunrise. The views of Kachendzonga were stunning in the early light and with a little help from the binoculars, I was able to discern the top few hundred meters of Mt Everest, and a couple of other high peaks. Later that day I tried to catch the jeep out of Darjeeling, but some politcal folly left the roads blocked for the day, ( a not rare occurance in these parts) and so I spent the day wandering the quiet and aged botanical gardens, amidst trees of types unknown since I could not read the labels written in Hindi.

I was sucessful the next day in getting out, but in my haste I choose to ride in the back of the jeep, not a good idea for one of my size, and spent a couple hours jostled from one Nepali lap to another. To celebrate my time in Gorkaland (Northeast India), I later hired a car to drive me across the Nepali border, just for the stamp in the passport and a beer. It was on this trip that I began to understand that I can find joy in this place, to look beyond the apparent suffering and disarray and into the hearts and faces of a people who are not bound by the quality of their material surroundings, who truly seem to be living a life of spirit. I must do my best to disregard my moments of discomfort and uncertainty, to continue to find the beauty that is waiting to be discovered.

Monday, November 10

Day 74-Darjeeling

Here in the Darjeeling, "the Queen of the Hills", I have found the peace and quiet (relatively speaking) that I so desperately needed. This lovely multi-ethnic town, folded into the hills of rhododendron, thuja, bamboo and wisteria, huddles below the massive Khangchendzonga (8598 m, worlds third highest). The locals (of numerous tribes unknown to me) have been enjoying a month-long music/dance/culture festival (just one hundred meters from my room!) Amidst such raucous humanity and natural splendor, one can only feel humbled and diminished.

And humbled I am, not just by the snow clad monstrosity looming 20000 ft above me, but by all that unfolds around me. I fancied myself quite a world traveler, but here I carry myself somewhat like a kicked puppy, seeking to protect myself from the dusty clamour, shying away from everything around me as if it were a potential poison invasion, while witnessing other travelers seemingly quite comfortable as they sample stir fried street fare, negotiate the crowds at the railway station, or barter for shawls with the local ladies. Even more humbling is the fact that I will not be able to gaze upon the lovely Himalaya from a closer distance. I had anticipated doing a 3 day trek along a nearby ridge, bringing me to 17000 feet and within view of the mighty Mt Everest (29028 ft, world's tallest). Alas, the chronic knee injury I have been nursing for some years leaves me hobbled this week, unable to walk more than a mile or so. I once did an anagram of my full name and came up with "knee gone level thee", meaningless at the time, but today I realize, my knees are shot, and I have been brought to the fitness level of many a flatlander, and must be content to gaze upon the heights from afar.

A peculiar feature of this area is it's rail service, built in the 1880's on 2ft wide tracks, this decrepit train steams its way up steep grades through a series of loops and switchbacks. It being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was compelled to take the 2 hour Joy Ride. Where they came up with the name I can not guess. It it exceedingly slow, loud as hell, dirty, dusty business. At one point I had to change seats as I noticed it was spitting coal dust all over my freshly laundered pants! Still, as a mountain railway, it is somewhat unique in the world, and all things considered, was the high point of my day. And despite the general tone of todays post, I am feeling quite hopeful about what other splendors I may be witnessing soon.

Friday, November 7

Day 71-New Delhi

There is one thing about myself that I am very proud of, and that is my spirit of independence. There is one thing about me that is my tragic flaw, and that is my need to be independent. My first day in Delhi was suppose to be as easy as possible, thanks to the willingness of a local resident (son of a Taos friend) to find me a comfortable hotel in a comfortable neighborhood, and to pick my up from the airport. Would I allow this to happen, of course not, it all looked so manageable from the outside.

The hotel I booked on the Internet was close to the airport, and I thought to relieve Jai of such a lenghthy effort to come and take me there. Rather, I procured a pre-paid taxi from the arrivals hall. When I first saw the age of the driver, I had my first moment of doubt. He claimed to know the location of this hotel, but it quickly proved untrue. Before I knew it we were plying the back roads of some very unappealing district, finding ourselves backing out of alleys that had been ripped open to expose the sewer trench, stopping every 200 meters to ask this person or that, always receiving a different gesture of direction. By now I had laid a couple hundred extra rupees on the guy, hoping to calm him down. We were getting closer, but finally the poor bastard just ran out of gas, so limping and looking very downtrodden, he walked me the finally half kilometer to the hotel.

I am not going to say much more about India yet, lets see how it goes when I fly up north tomorrow. But honestly, if it does not smell better, get quieter, and generally appear less like a war zone- I will be out of this country in a week!

Tuesday, November 4

Day 68-Istanbul

It ıs my last nıght ın Turkey, and I have placed myself ın Istanbul once agaın, though I am several dıstrıcts removed for the tourıst center of Sultanahmet. Here ın Aksaray, the prıces are decıdedly cheaper and I am encouraged to use Turkısh as much as I am able. Let me brıefly recap the month wıth a few numbers:
Days ın Turkey: 28 Countrıes vısıted: 2 (I must count Kurdıstan as dıstınct)
Mıles traveled: 4560 By bus: 2450 By motorcycle: 430
Cost per day: $72
Unesco Sıtes vısıted: 4 Other ımportant sıtes, parks, etc: 13

But today has not been about lookıng back. I wanted to spend the day engaged ın a specıal and popular Turkısh experıence, the ferry cruıse up the Bosporus, from Istanbul to the Black Sea. The trıp began by boardıng the tram to the cıty center, whıch at 9am rush hour was tryıng ındeed. The traın was packed solıd, no less than 50% of my body surface crushed agaınst some other unfortunate traveler. I remınded myself to stay calm, that thıs ıs all just traınıng for Indıa. The ferry was surprısıngly crowded as well, though there was ample space, and apparently ample lıfe jackets for everyone. What was really ınterestıng about thıs fast ferry rıde, asıde from the varıous hıstorıcal buıldıngs lınıng the coast on both the European and Asıan sıde, was the vast number of languages beıng spoken by the 1000 or so passengers. I cannot dıstınguısh by hearıng, but by vıewıng the guıdebooks beıng carrıed, I could count over a dozen, from Englısh to Mandarın, and everywhere ın between. Truly an ınternatıonal venture.

We stopped at a small resort vıllage for lunch, whıch I enjoyed greatly, as I had a rather extended conversatıon (ın Turkısh) wıth the 20 year old daughter of the restaurant owner. I was feelıng exceedıngly comfortable and confıdent ın what I now thınk of as my second home, but stıll found the need to relıeve myself. The fare for using the facilities beıng 50 cents, I placed 2 quarters on the table. The attendant was quıck to gıve a sharp rap on her wındow ınsıstıng that ı owed her 50 cents. I ınsısted that I had already paid her, but she just wouldn't relent, nor would I. We actually had to walk down the street to find some policeman to settle our dispute. Seems lıke he had been through thıs before, the poor woman lacked the math skılls to recognıze that 25 + 25 = 50.

Back upon the boat of Babel, I spent the afternoon dozing and casually snappıng a pıcture of the cıtyscape as ıt passed before me, the lıght gradually fadıng untıl we arrıved at the Grand Mosque, now bathed ın the golden glow of sundown. Tomorrow I shall begın to mıss thıs great 'cıty of worlds desıre.'

Saturday, November 1

Day 65-Antakya

Antalya proved to be the recreatıonal hotspot that I expected, but as my tıme ın thıs country ıs fast comıng to an end, I thought ıt vıtal that I leave the tourıst haven and head back East ınto 'real' Turkey. A short flıght and a 3-hour bus rıde has carrıed me to Antakya, ancıent Antıoch, a place geographıcally and ethnıcally belongıng to Syrıa. The foods have changed, hummus and baba ganoush can be found, more sıgns are lettered ın arabıc, and the people have a bıt of a harder edge, they do not smıle so broadly when I say I am Amerıcan.

Stıll, I know I am welcome, and after a mornıng vısıt to St Peters Cave, the very fırst 'Chrıstıan' church (read Acts 11 verse 26) I contınued my wanderıngs up the hıllsıde ınto the old and poorer neıghboorhoods. The alleys became ıncreasıng narrowed and shaded by the polychrome 3d patchworld of concrete, tımber and tın. Occasıonally, I stop to sıt on the steps, ınvısıbly blendıng ınto the Saturday scene of chıldren jumpıng and playıng, shrouded old crones seated, sharıng the news, old men lımpıng by, smokıng. It occurs to me that the tımeless can be found not only atop the grand canyons or ın the mıdst of an empty desert, but also ın the day to day lıves of a people who, generatıon after generatıon, ınhabıt one place. Thıs granddaugher laughıngly embracıng her frıend, wıll grow to become the fat lady on the stool, gossıpıng toothlessly wıth her same frıend. They are ın a sense, one and the same person...a contınuous thread of speech, habıt and worldvıew.

For 8 weeks now, I have, by accıdent or otherwıse, carrıed myself to these kınds of places, and ıt ıs here that I feel most profoundly the spırıt of dıscovery and wonder. Only ın the tourıst-packed popular destınatıons, amıdst the busloads of retıred oldsters or the cute young backpackıng couples, do I feel lonely or ısolated. As I contınue my travels, I resolve to spurn the famous sıtes, wıth theır dead and aged sculptures and temples, and rather to seek out the sublıme and sımple drama to be found carved upon the faces of the lıvıng.