Thursday, November 11, 2010

Top of the World

After spending 10 days in Pokhara not doing anything and nursing my knee, I took a bus to the town of Tansen. The town was supposedly beautiful with lots of nice walks to do around the countryside. When I got there, I found it to be quite dirty and expensive, and I couldn't do the walks I wanted to because of my knee. I only stayed a couple of days, where I mainly spent my time reading 'Shantaram', which is an amazing book, before heading to the (formerly Royal) Chitwan National Park. I settled in a little guesthouse (aptly named Chilax House) about half a kilometer from the town center, right at the edge of the park, which had a really rural feel. One thing it did lack were roofs that kept the bats out. After a walk through the park on the back of an elephant, I woke up on the second morning with bat shit on my bed. Knowing that bats carry rabies, I quickly googled pictures of bat droppings, bat bites, and everything else I could think of about bats and rabies. Turns out a bat could bite you in your sleep and you wouldn't even know it, since the bites are so small. They also mentioned that if a bat was found in a room with a small child, an intoxicated person, or someone with mental difficulties, they should get rabies shots because they may not have realized a bat bit them. I counted myself among such people. The clinic in the town laughed when I told them I didn't think I had been bitten but wanted to get the vaccine, so I thought I'd change my plans and head to Kathmandu to be sure. I had originally planned to stop by the town of Janakpur, on the Indian border, where the women are known for the murals they paint on their houses – these murals are repainted every year during Tihar, which is when I would have been there.

Instead, I headed to the small town of Daman, in the mountains at 2300 meters, and on the way to Kathmandu. The buses were packed because of the holiday, so on the roof I went, along with a couple of tourists from Belarus and New Zealand. The ride was incredibly beautiful. I remember thinking that while many people think of Mount Everest as the top of the world, I think of bus rides on the roof of Nepali buses as such. As we swerved on the windy road up the mountain to Daman, listening to some of the guys on the roof play the drum and sing songs, the view of the Nepali countryside was breathtaking – terraced fields as far as the eye could see, smiling kids at the villages we passed, banana trees littering the side of the road. Things only got better when one of the guys on the bus started singing 'Wavin' Flag' by K'Naan. The last few hours of the journey were harsh, though, as the temperature dropped and the wind chill on the roof only made things worse. We got to Daman as the sun was setting, and we were thrilled at the prospect of getting warm, only to realize than Daman is a village on the side of the road with only a few guesthouses and shops, most of which were closed because of Tihar. We finally settled in a hotel – well, it was called a Resort but felt more like a second class hostel.

The next day, a few more tourists arrived – two guys from Belgium, a woman from Austria, and a Dutch biker who had just cycled 70km in one day from Kathmandu! If it hadn't been for them, my time in Daman would have been pretty crap, but I ended up having one of the best nights of the whole trip there. We took over the only restaurant that was open on Tihar, and cleaned them out of vodka and whisky, played games to determine who would get the chocolate that the Belgian guys had with them straight from Belgium, talked, laughed, complained about the Christmas music playing in the background, and were all grateful we had not found ourselves alone in a place like Daman.
The main attraction of the town is its view of the Himalayan mountain range, from which you can supposedly see Mt Everest, on a 'very clear day.' We woke up for sunrise, and by comparing what we were looking at to a map the Dutch guy had, we willed ourselves to believe that we could see Mt Everest – not entirely sure if we actually did, since all the peaks look pretty much the same size from that distance, but we convinced ourselves that our eyes had befallen the mighty Mt Everest, even if we couldn't distinguish exactly which one it was.

Later that day, the Belgian guys and I took the first bus to Kathmandu that had passed the town in two days. We hopped on the roof, and after an hour or so there were about 40 people on the roof and the rest crammed inside. Just when we thought we wouldn't be able to breath if one more person got on the roof, a group of about 10 people, including six toddlers, climbed up the latter to our pile of bodies, luggage and sacks of vegetables. Despite heads and elbows constantly shoving my spine, the ride went quite quickly since we had to constantly be on the lookout for leaves and small branches that might smack us in the face – one of which succeeded in wiping my cheek, much to the amusement of all the Nepalis around me.

I've been in Kathmandu for a few days now - got my first rabies shot the day after I got back, so I should be fine, and have worked on getting my Indian transit visa for next week when I come home, via Delhi. The bureaucracy here is insane. They needed a photocopy of pretty much everything I own, a passport photo, and two forms filled out. I went this morning at 9:30, when they open, and my number wasn't even called until two hours later! After waiting in line for one hour, since the person in front of me was conveniently a tour group leader getting visas for 25 people, I finally got to the front of the line, where they took my passport and money. Yay.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulation Kyle, one of the most amazing people I know, for winning the Mr. Hyphen contest – a charity pageant aimed at countering stereotypes about Asian-American men, if I understand correctly. I'm so excited to know a Pageant Queen! :) So so proud of you Kyle! You can read his great interview on NPR here:

I can't believe I only have a few more days left of my trip. I'm excited to go home where everything will be familiar again, and to see all of you, but it will be bittersweet. This trip has really been amazing and I'm so glad I decided to spend the six months since graduation discovering the world and myself in the process. But the prospect of clean feet, warm showers, real pizza, and raw salad is oh so enticing.

“I will learn from me, from myself, I will be my own pupil; I will get to know myself, the secret that is Siddhartha.” - from Siddhartha”, by Herman Hesse

Friday, October 29, 2010

Doing Nothing is Different From Not Doing Anything

Deshain is the biggest festival in Nepal, and for the two weeks of the festival, almost everything in the country is closed. Lucky for me, my first week in Nepal coincided with the last week of Deshain. Although it has been interesting to learn a little bit about the festival and to enjoy a Kathmandu emptied of its residents who have returned to their ancestral villages, it also meant that we couldn't get the necessary permit for the trek. Our initial plans thwarted, we took a bus to Pokhara, during which we sat on the roof for most of the journey. I definitely understand why dogs love having their heads out the window - it's such a great feeling to have the wind blowing in your face, smelling the smells of the Nepali countryside, and seeing the sun set over some of the highest mountains in the world. What's great about Nepal is that on almost all the public buses, about half of the passengers sit on the luggage rack on the roof - it's safe because of the bars, and such a fun way to travel. We felt oh so very Nepali sitting up there, but were reminded of how silly/incredible cool we must have looked when a van full of Japanese tourists drove past us and everyone inside began waving and taking photos.

We've been in Pokhara for almost a week, just chilling and enjoying the town. We've been doing pretty much nothing - not to be confused with not doing anything, though. It's really beautiful here - we can see the Annapurna chain of mountains from the roof of our hotel, and go for a swim in the warm lake. I wanted to go on a little trek - maybe Annapurna Base Camp - to really see Nepal the way Nepalis see it, as they say - on foot. Unfortunately, I'm a dumbass and fell on the stairs of the hotel and busted my knee. It's alright now but it's probably not a good idea to climb up a mountain with it. I did go on a day hike to a village a few hours away from here, where we watched the sunset and sunrise over the mountains, which was wonderful.

We've mostly been hanging out with some kids on Fulbrights here, a German girl who studied at SOAS for a year and is now spending the year in Kathmandu learning Nepali and Tibetan, as well as another girl from SOAS. It's been nice being social, but I will be starting my solitary Nepali adventure again in a few days, when I head to Palpa, a town about half way between Pokhara and Chitwan National Park. Eventually I will try to make my way to Bandipur, a newar village which is supposed to have great architecture, before heading to Chitwan to ride an elephant through the jungle and spot Bengal tigers :)

Also, I found Craisins in Pokhara. I may never leave.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I love you, Kathmandu

“I must find peace in the only place possible in India. Within.”

This quote from the amazing book called 'Holy Cow' essentially sums up my trip to India. That, and “The north Indian men on the streets stare so hard and are so sleazy that I often feel like I've somehow starred in a porn film without knowing it.”

The last 10 days in India, since my last post, were really nice. Udaipur is definitely one of my favorite places that I visited in the country. I also met up with some other travelers and we had a great few days of eating thalis in the best restaurant I've ever been to – think Fogo de Chao meets spicy Indian food and my inability to eat rice with my hands. The people in Udaipur were much less aggressive than in northern Rajasthan, so it was nice to only have to say 'namaste' to half the shopkeepers instead of every single one of them. I finished my trip to India with a camel safari in Jaisalmer, two night trains to get back to Delhi, and a Bollywood film where all the white girls were strippers in a seedy theater. I see where the men here get their ideas about Western women.

I feel like I must also add a little commentary on Delhi and the Commonwealth Games, and how absurd the whole thing is. I took a bus through Delhi a few days before the games were scheduled to start – the city still looked like a construction site – I can't believe they had enough buildings for the events! When I drove through Delhi again, this time to the airport on the last day of games, the city was like the Twilight Zone - police barricades everywhere, street cleaners with uniforms. Uniforms! What happened to the women in brightly colored saris?! There was almost no traffic, and special lanes for Commonwealth Games cars. Wherever there were slums along the roadside, they just put big billboards advertising the games in front, to hide them. Shame these billboards occasionally fell down and showed the world their tricks. The preparations of the Games were so marred with corruption and missed deadlines, but during the Games they managed to make Delhi into a somewhat livable, European-style city. The organized chaos was gone, and was replaced by soldiers, police barricades, and express lanes. Although it was nice that my lungs didn't hurt after an hour-long auto-rickshaw ride, I think I like the real India better.

On Thursday, I got to Kathmandu. My first taste of Nepal: I gave the lady at the visa desk five $20 bills for my visa. She drops one on her desk and tells me I only gave her four. She insisted the other bill was not on her desk, which was hidden from me, so I had to fork out another $20. Welcome to Nepal?
Other than that, I really like this place. I've spent the past few days discovering Kathmandu and hanging out with Ross, which has been fun. if we get the required permit, we're hopefully going to go trekking for two weeks in a really remote area near the border with Tibet, which should be really fun.
I love the vibe Kathmandu gives off – you can just tell why hippies were so attracted to this place back in the day. Old temples are scattered throughout the city, it's beautiful, and without all the cars and tourism infrastructure it must have been the best place in the world! I wish I knew what this place was like before it became so touristy – it's now full of middle-aged Europeans and Americans with massive calf muscles and camera lenses.

I'm excited to immerse myself in a new culture, to be out of my comfort zone again, and to learn new things about myself. This trip really has been teaching me more about myself than anything else. I think it takes a great amount of confidence to travel alone, to eat in restaurants alone, to deal with problems that arise on a daily basis, alone. The fact that I was able to do all of that in India without any trouble has just increased my confidence in myself. It has made me reassess what I'm capable of (everything?) and what I want to do for the next few years (discover the world and myself in the process). It's so true that the only place you can find peace in India is within, and I really think I have. I also think that the Peace Corps is a natural progression to my travels, life goals, and inner path. As I wait for my invite and contemplate where I will be in two months, six months, 2 years, I know that I can and will learn from every experience, good and bad, easy and difficult, close to home and far from everything familiar. I was talking to a friend recently, and he was saying that until he's 30, he just wants to fill his head with memories, rather than his wallet with money. No one can take those experiences away from you. They are more 'yours' than anything you could ever buy. As I listen to older people talk about their crazy life stories, travels, amazing people they've met, challenges they've faced, the more I hope to have stories like that to tell my grandkids one day. At this point in my life, I want to take every opportunity for an adventure that presents itself to me, and every opportunity to learn more about myself and the world I live in. Right now I can't imagine going home, getting a job and settling into a regular routine. I definitely need a few more years of traveling and adventures.

I will end with some words of wisdom from India.Arie (in honor of my girl Amber):

I was always too concerned with what everybody would think
But I can't live for everybody, I gotta live my life for me
I've reached a fork in the road of my life
And nothing's gonna happen unless I decide
I choose to be the best that I can be
And I choose to be authentic in everything I do

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


What to say about Rajasthan...

I arrived in Jaipur last week. It basically felt like a smaller, but more touristy version of Delhi. Since the tourist season is over, vendors are a little overeager to sell everything in their shops – this overeagerness translates into literally blocking my way on the sidewalk with merchandise that I will never buy. One funny thing that happened, though, occurred as I was walking down one of the main streets. An older man in a long white Muslim-style robe with a henna-ed beard asked me where I was from. After I said 'Switzerland,' he yelled after me 'Switzerduch?” Random. Gruetzi sir.
After spending a few days there avoiding street vendors and insisting that no, I will not transport your “precious stones” to Europe and make a quick profit from avoiding customs for your jewelry company, I got a bus to Pushkar. Some people I met in Jari had told me about a great guesthouse they stayed at, which was a converted palace right on the lake. My room's two windows had great views of the lake, which was really nice to wake up to in the mornings. I really liked Pushkar, although again, the shopkeepers are way too pushy, and saying 'namaste' to every single one of them gets a little tiring after like the 50th shop. I got a traditional salwar kameez made though so I'm all set to fool everyone into thinking I'm Indian...
One thing that has surprised me a little bit since being in Rajasthan is that people will try every trick in the book in order to get your money, including inviting you into their house or having you sit down for tea, only to ask you for money as you leave. This is something I've never experienced in Africa, the other parts of India I've been to, or anywhere else in the world. It's pretty sad to have to doubt people's hospitality, but that's what I have now learned to do. Another thing I found very surprising in Pushkar, a holy city, is how many tourists were in short shorts and tank tops! Do these girls not realize that prostitutes in this country cover up more than they do? It even surprised me to see knees and thighs in the street for the first time in almost 5 months. No wonder the men here have no respect for foreign women.
From Pushkar I took a bus to a town a little bit off the tourist trail called Bundi, which is incredibly beautiful. Most of the buildings in the old town are painted blue, and perched on a nearby hill overlooking the town and a lake is an old castle that seems right out of a fairytale. It's been nice to meander through the small streets, where kids run up to me to take their pictures. I met an older woman yesterday who basically turned our encounter into a photoshoot – she even changed into her best sari mid-way through! It's crazy how much nicer and more relaxed people are in places where there are fewer tourists.
Anyway, I'm off to get ma hurr done.
Next stop: Udaipur – supposedly the most romantic city in India – how depressing for the single traveller!
I can't believe in one week I will be in Kathmandu!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Only 2 weeks left!!!

The past couple of weeks have been great.

After recovering from my little mudslide ordeal, I went to Naggar, a small town about an hour-long bus ride from Manali. Weird place. It's famous because some Russian painter that I don't think anyone has ever heard of lived there and painted the surrounding mountains. It's also the place that the most offbeat old Europeans you will ever meet go to smoke and die. I originally went there because it's the start of a supposedly wonderful trek to Parvati Valley. I couldn't find anyone to go with, and to go alone would have been a) lame and b) really expensive, so I just decided to take a bus to Parvati Valley. The evening before I was going to leave, I met an older German couple in a bakery who were planning on starting that very trek the next day, so I joined them.

The trek, hereby referred to as “ScheisseTrek,” was pretty much as the name indicates – crap. The first day was nice, about 7 hours of steep uphill, but enjoyable. We got to 3400m, to a little room made of mud where we were to spend the night. It was freezing and pretty gross, and the next morning the guy tried to charge us $70 for it! We fought him for a couple of hours and eventually got it down to $40, which was still absurd, but at least we could leave. Oh and the guy working in the hut stole my hiking sticks in the night! Luckily, I found them hidden in some bushes a few minutes walk away the next morning.
As we were about to leave, one of the porters decided he would go no further, so the German lady ended up carrying her big backpack for the rest of the trek. The porter knew what we didn't – snow was coming. By the time we got to the top of Chandrakani Pass – 3600m – it was snowing and freezing, but at least it was beautiful – Kullu Valley on one side, Parvati Valley on the other. We then had to go down an incredible steep “path” for 4 or 5 hours, on which I fell multiple times, courtesy of rain and crappy Indian hiking boots with no grip. We finally got to Malana, the most unpleasant village in India, and could relax. The residents of Malana claim to be descendants of the soldiers of Alexander the Great, and have a special caste system that forbids them from touching or being touched by foreigners. The result is that any visitor will be find 1000 Rs if you touch a person or a building. This makes for a very awkward and unpleasant experience while walking through the village. We wanted to buy a bottle of water, and got shooed away from the first store. When we finally found a store that would sell to us, we had to throw the money on the floor and they in turn placed the bottles of water on the ground. Weird.
The last day of the trek was about an hour's walk to the road to Jari, and then potentially 17km of walking on the road, which would have been pretty crap so we decided to take a taxi instead. And so ScheisseTrek finished in wonderful Jari.

I spent pretty much all of last week in Jari, a small village at the beginning of Parvati Valley. It's wonderful, with very few tourists and incredible scenery. Parvati Valley itself is incredible – it's really narrow, and the jagged mountains shoot up right from the banks of the river. From Jari I was able to go on a couple of day trips to Manikaran, which is beautiful and spiritual, and Kasol, which is actually Israel - everything was written in Hebrew.

Once the rain stopped (the monsoon is finally over, yay!) I dared take a bus to Shimla, about 8 hours away by bus, which is where I am now. It's a very strange place. At this time of the year it's almost exclusively frequented by Indian tourists and honeymooners, and has kept a very British/colonial identity. The town, which is massive, is dominated by Christ Church, and all around is British architecture and old British-looking cars. The place makes me a little uncomfortable, because I feel like this is exactly what it must have looked like under colonialism, but with a few more brown faces in the mix. It was fun meeting up with a some girls from the internship who came up for the weekend, but now that they've gone back to Punjab, I'm eager to leave and go to Rajasthan. I decided to forgo on Rishikesh and the rest of Uttarakhand, because it's essentially underwater due to heavy rains.

Tonight I'm taking an overnight bus to Delhi, from where I will directly take a bus to Jaipur. I only have 2 weeks left in India (!!!), so I won't be able to discover Rajasthan the proper way, really taking my time, but I'm really excited to end my time here with a taste of “real” India.

I would also like to briefly describe my attempt to get the debit card that was sent to me via Poste Restante to the poste office:
- Hello, someone sent me a letter, could I check if it's arrived?
- No check. No cash.
- No. Do you have a box where I could look to see if my letter has arrived?
- Letter box is outside.
- No. A letter was sent to me 'Poste Restante', could I see if it's here?
- You want stamps?

Today, when i finally got the letter and sent off a parcel, which took all of about 3 hours, I gave my passport to the lady, and when she saw my birth year, she started cracking up and calling me baby. She then walked off and I heard her speaking hinidi, pointing at me, and saying "baby" to all the other employees. Oh India, I will miss you.

Also, I am currently eating dried dates that are so dry they actually taste like wood. Delish.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'm still alive... Take 3

Yesterday was the most terrifying day of my life. Scarier than a possible LRA intrusion into Uganda. Scarier than the Kampala bombings. Scarier than the Leh mudslide. I actually think I had a pretty good chance of not making it to 22.

I thought the bus ride from Manali to Kaza was scary. But boy, was I in for a shock.

I got on the 4:30am bus to Manali and off we went. When we stopped for breakfast a few hours in, the driver informed us that they were expecting snow. As we resumed our journey, it started to rain a little bit. Rain turned into snow. Snow turned into a snowstorm. As our elevation lowered, snow turned to slush, and we all know that slush is heavy, and these mountains are not very stable. The drive is already scary in itself, with hairpin turns and drops down to the valley floor right next to the road, but when you know that the stones that compose the road on which you're driving, as well as the mountain above, could give way at any moment, it adds a whole new dimension to the drive. Especially when you hear thunder and you're not entirely sure if it's just thunder or if it's a mountain coming down somewhere.
The really scary part started around noon, when we had to periodically stop to move rocks and boulders that had fallen onto the road, and the bus had to carefully maneuver around them if they were too big to be moved. I had a window seat on the side of the bus that was most crowded, meaning the side on which the bus tilted more into the abyss on the unstable road. I pretty much stuck to the man sitting beside me so that I wouldn't have to look out the window. As we bounced about hoping a boulder wouldn't crush the bus or that a wheel wouldn't slip off the road, I turned my phone on – I thought that in case I died, at least my body would have a chance of being traced by the radio waves. It may seem silly now, but that's honestly how scared I was. Maybe I was so scared simply because my nerves are shot from several terrifying experiences in the past 4 months, or maybe because my life was literally in the hands of the bus driver and the whims of over-saturated soil.

At about 3pm, we arrived at Rohtang Pass (which literally means 'pile of corpses' in Tibetan). There we found out that the road to Manali was blocked by a mudslide, and it could take hours or days to clear it up. We all got off the bus and started walking down the mountain, heavy backpacks in tow. I'm so glad there were other tourists on the bus – a Polish guy and his dad, a Spanish girl and an English girl – it was nice to have some mental support :). We walked for a few kilometers down the mountain, which at least was absolutely beautiful so we could take our minds off the actual reason why we had to walk down the mountain, until we found some taxis. Unfortunately, most of them were full of Indian tourists in hideous but hysterical rented fur coats who wanted to go up to the Pass to see snow. We left them in their fake-fur glory and continued on our way. Suddenly, the Polish guy yelled that rocks were falling. I looked up and indeed, boulders were falling down the mountain, straight for us. We ran for cover behind a parked truck, which is not so easy with 15 kg of luggage on your back, and hoped the boulders wouldn't obliterate us. Luckily, they stopped on the road above, about half way between us and the place from where they had started falling. About 45 minutes later, we got to a rest stop, where we could have some tea and food, and waited for a taxi. Two hours later the taxi arrived, informing us that we would have to pay 2000 rupees for the one and a half hour ride down, which is almost as much it costs to go to Spiti Valley itself by taxi! At that point we had no choice, we couldn't walk down the 36km to Manali, and the two girls had to get back to Delhi to catch flights, so off we went. I think we all expected a nice drive down in a warm taxi, bringing us to definite safety after our long day, but the taxi driver was insane and drove like a maniac, sometimes with one hand holding a phone and the other on the gear shift, never mind about the steering wheel! We made it to Manali safely, and I think I will wait around here for a few days for the storm to clear before I go trekking in Parvati Valley.

Ironically, the reason I decided to take the bus back from Kaza to Manali, rather than the other way through the Kinnaur Valley and onto Shimla, was because the latter road is supposedly one of the most dangerous in the country, and I was trying to play it safe. Failure.

Anyway, the trend of this trip is sort of starting to scare me a little bit – 4 months of traveling, 4 scariest moments of my life:
11 June: Rumor on the radio that the LRA has returned to Uganda
11 July: Kampala bombings
6 August: Leh mudslide
13 September: Snowstorm and mudslide at Rohtang Pass

Anyway, if this trip kills me know that I die happy because I'm traveling, discovering the world, and living the dream :)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Write your sad times in sand, write your good times in stone"

Greetings from Spiti Valley, one of the most remote places on Earth!

I've been in Spiti for the past week or so. On Tuesday, I took a bus to Kaza, the biggest town in the valley, from Manali, on a road that can only be described as insane – hairpin turns all over these Himalayas! Not to mention the road is usually no wider than the bus itself, which makes looking out of the window on the side of the drop quite terrifying. But I made it in the end, safe and sound, and it was worth it. Spiti Valley is beautiful. It looks a little like Ladakh – barren and sparsely populated – but it's even more spectacular because the mountains and cliffs are literally ripped apart (“d馗hiquet” was the word used by my guide book, which I find quite appropriate). It looks a little bit like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley at times, and the villages are like oases on small patches of fertile land. From Kaza, I shared a taxi with a few older German guys to some of the sites in the surrounding areas. First stop was Kibber, a small Tibetan village that is one of the highest in India, and claims to be the highest in the world with a road and electricity. It was a beautiful place – greenery among the surrounding barren mountains. We walked into the village accompanied by a little girl who could not have been more than 4 years old, struggling to carry a rice cooker in one hand and the peas she had just collected in the other. She gave us some peas to munch on during our journey. Why is it that in the West we always say, 'kids are cruel'? But in places like Ladakh, Spiti, or even Gulu, kids are the kindest, gentlest, most caring of them all. It's like the West forces this idea of competition into our young brains, and forces us to put others down in order to get ahead. By turning everything into a commodity, something to be fought over, capitalism (or Westernization? Or modernization? Or “development”?) makes kids into monsters. Luckily there are still parts of the world where kids can still be generous without it being unusual, be caring without it being embarrassing, and be kind without it somehow being detrimental to themselves.

Next stop was Tabo, the only other town in Spiti Valley, which is really more of a village – a dozen or so houses surrounding the main attraction, the 1014-year-old monastery. Perched on the surrounding hills are caves carved into the mountain and surrounded by prayer flags, where the monks go to meditate. I can't imagine a more peaceful place to go and contemplate life or try to reach Nirvana. The monastery was incredible. I don't know much about Buddhism or gompas or art, but even to my untrained eye this one was special. It is made of clay and wood and almost looks like an adobe structure that could easily be found in the American Southwest. Inside are several rooms, all covered in centuries old paintings and sculptures of different divinities and Buddhas. It is completely dark inside, so the only way to see anything is with a flashlight, which makes the whole experience even more intimate.

This morning I took a bus back to Kaza, and tomorrow morning will be heading back to Manali, before going to Parvati Valley for a trek. I will most likely spend my birthday in whatever village I find around there. Maybe I'll get myself a jar of Nutella as a substitute for cake.

I also quickly wanted to describe my paragliding experience from last weekend. Yes, paragliding. No, I will not do it again.
After a 45 minute walk up a 45 degree “trail” that was not a trail, we got to the patch of mud from which we were to take off. I was the last one to go, and had to wait a while until the winds picked up again. After a few minutes of flying and me wanting to die because all that was suspending me in the air and keeping me alive was wind, which I could neither see nor control, we tried to land. Fail. Updraft. So we keep flying and tried again. Partial fail. Because of another updraft/downdraft/whatever-you-call-it we landed too quickly and skidded/crash-landed-gracefully into cow poop, almost hitting a group of Indian tourists who ran for their lives. Anyway it's all on video for to admire when I next see you. All that really matters is that I'm alive, have all my limbs, am $30 poorer, realized I am a little afraid of heights, and got it out of my system so will never do it again. :)

To end, here is a quote that was scribbled on the bathroom wall of the monastery where I stayed in Tabo:
"Write your sad times in sand, write your good times in stone."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This is not what I was expecting, but that's ok :)

My plans have changed quite drastically in the past week.

On Sunday I arrived in Punjab to begin my internship, and soon found out that the organization was a crapshoot. I'm not entirely sure if it's a scam, or just incredibly badly conceptualized and run. Basically, I had decided to intern with a local NGO because I wanted to learn from local staff – I wanted to learn about Punjabi culture, about traditional ways of interacting with the environment, traditional ways of water conservation. Instead, I found myself in an organization whose boss, although Punjabi, hadn't lived in a rural setting since childhood, and one local staff member whose job was essentially to pick up interns from various train stations and airports. The real work was done by interns – there were about 30 when I was there. This NGO represents everything that angers me and frustrates me about development – Westerners with no local knowledge going to an area for a short period of time, seeing the situation as an outsider, and trying to be make culturally inappropriate changes to the way of life. That is not the kind of development work I believe in. I truly believe that any project needs to start from the bottom-up, needs to be conceptualized by members of the community who have a real understanding about the needs and possibilities of “improvement.”
Instead of doing something that I truly believe is not only ineffective but counter-productive and wrong, I decided to leave the internship. I argued with the head of the NGO on my last day, telling him that I was not comfortable doing the kind of work that he was asking of me, and that I fundamentally disagreed with his idea that “anyone can do anything without knowing anything” (his word!) He told me that “those were just words” and that maybe he could explain things to me in a way that I could “understand” (please read with the most condescending tone of voice imaginable). I don't know if he was so condescending because I'm a woman, but it was really infuriating. My favorite (least favorite?) line that he told me was when he said that I was closed-minded. “If you're blinded I can't explain to you the color blue.” As if his idea of Westerners trying to change rural Punjab was some sort of absolute truth. That signaled the definite end to my internship. I'm still in “talks” with him to try to get my intern fee back, which I doubt he will have the courtesy to return, but either way, I'm out of there, and am I ever glad about it.

I took a bus to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj on Friday with one of the interns, where we spent the weekend listening to a public teaching by the Dalai Lama. He talked a lot about the science behind calmness, and the scientific benefits of following Buddhist philosophy, which I found really interesting. I love how Buddhist philosophy encourages self-discovery, reasoning, rationality, and logic, rather than blind faith in a God or dogma. He told a story of being invited to speak at a government function in the state of Bihar. The head of the state gave a speech saying how, “with the grace of God,” Bihar would become successful and achieve its goals. When the Dalai Lama got up to speak, he said that if all Bihar needed was the grace of God, it would have gotten everything by now. Instead, the fate of the state was in the hands of the governor and of the people.

The guy I'd travelled with went back to Punjab on Sunday, so I switched into a cheap hostel with stinky sheets but a nice atmosphere, and began this solitary adventure. And I'm loving it :). I love being able to have diner with other travelers when I feel like it, but being able to sit alone and self-reflect when I don't. I love walking to neighboring villages on my own, whenever I want, stopping to take pictures or have tea at a time that suits only me. I love looking through my guide book, knowing that I have 6 weeks in front of me to do absolutely whatever I want in this vastness of Northern India – being able to choose between the mountains of Sikkim and northern West Bengal, the bustle of Kolkota, the desert of Rajasthan, and more. This country is at my fingertips, and I'm so excited.

I think I will stay in Dharamsala for another day or two, then get a bus to Manali. From there, I will make my way around Himachal Pradesh, Uttarkhand, and Punjab. And then? Who knows...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who knew?

Who knew you could fit one white girl and 9 Punjabis in the back of one auto-rickshaw?

Who knew that it was actually possible to get soaked with rain while sitting INSIDE a public bus during monsoon season - leaky roofs :)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Yes, I'm Still Alive, Take Two

On August 6th, at about 12:30am, a cloud burst over Ladakh and caused massive flash floods and mudslides throughout the region. The devastated area includes Ladakh, China, and about one fifth of Pakistan. The death toll will likely never be known for sure, but hundreds were killed in Ladakh, and hundreds more are missing, presumed dead.

Before this happened, we had spent a couple of beautiful days in Nubra Valley, in northern Ladakh. We were in a small village called Hunder, our guesthouse was next to a stream and shadowed by gorgeous mountains. On the night of the 5th, we watched the intense lightning from the safety of our valley, not imagining the devastation that was about to occur. The next morning, as we drove into Leh, on what turned out to be the only road not destroyed by the mudslides, there was an eery feeling, as everything was closed and no locals were around. Turns out, about a quarter of the town of Leh had been destroyed or damaged, including the main bus station and the hospital, and many of the surrounding villages were also devastated.

The next morning, I went to the place where volunteers had been working the previous day, and did what little I could to clear some rubble, in an attempt to find the last body that had yet to be found from a group of destroyed homes. We didn't find a body, but we did find personal belongings. As we pass buckets of mud and bricks down the human chain of volunteers and Tibetan soldiers, we would occasionally see a spoon, a child's toy, a sock... We essentially deconstructed homes, brick by brick, minute possession by minute possession. We would occasionally come across children's school books or family photos, which were put aside by the monks. Every now and then, our human chain of hands would have to stop to let through authorized cars. “Authorized cars” basically meant a funeral procession – a car carrying a dead body up to the mountain to be burned, the following car carrying some monks, and the last car piled high with firewood. That's really when it hits home – these are not just bricks, these are people.
At one point in the afternoon, while I was standing in a mud hole that used to be someone's home, I suddenly looked up and saw everyone running down the road, away from the place where the mudslide had come. A rumor had started that another mudslide was on its way. Within a matter of seconds, I found myself on the top of a steep hill next to the destruction. I had run so fast that I don't even remember how I got there. We waited at the top of the hill, waited for something to come crashing down, women crying in fear. In the end, it turned out just to be a rumor, and it took me a while to figure out how to get down because it was so steep. At the end of the day, we started finding clothes, so assumed we had stumbled upon what could have been a bedroom, where we were likely to find a body. Soldiers took over and uncovered CDs, notebooks, a pair of jeans with a wallet still in the back pocket, but no body. Although I hope for the person's family (and for public health) that the body is found, I'm glad I did not find it. What sort of psychological effect would that have on someone...

By the next day the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) had taken over the coordination of the relief efforts. In the morning, they sent a group of us out on a flatbed truck to a surrounding village to gather firewood to burn the bodies. The truck stopped at every house, and everyone gave some wood. Although they most likely would need it to keep warm over the winter, the sense of community was unmistakable. Something had happened that was bigger than an individual, bigger than one family's immediate comfort. The community was mourning, and everyone did their part to alleviate the pain. That afternoon we were sent to the hospital to start clearing the first floor of the 40 cm of mud that covered it. Back breaking work. I felt like a rice picker. While there, I overheard Western tourist doctor who had been volunteering at the Army's mess hall, by then converted to a makeshift hospital, that they had no more anesthesia. All they could do was hold the children down as they performed surgery...

For the next few days, we were sent to various villages around Leh. We first went to Phiyang, or what used to be Phiyang. On the drive there, we witnessed what seemed like a mass exile of Bahari seasonal migrants – hundreds of men walking on the side of the road with all their possessions strapped to their backs, seemingly getting ready to walk across India, back home to Bihar. I was in a group with 3 Frenchies and a few Ladakhis, and we were the first relief team to make it to Phiyang, since the army had only finished rebuilding the bridge to the village that morning. We walked up to the monastery, one of the only visible structures still intact. As we walked, we passed a gate with a sign saying “Welcome to the Monastery School of Phiyang,” but there was nothing behind the gate. Just mud. In front of the monastery, about 20 shell-shocked locals welcomed us to their tent camp, offered us tea and biscuits that the army had just brought them. “First, we have tea.” It reminded me so much of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” which I had just read. Despite tragedy, these people remained so hospitable and grateful that we were there.
A monk led us down to an area still covered with wet mud that sometimes reached our knees. As we stood on a mound, he poked his walking stick in the earth and said “one body missing from here.” We walked over to the second mound, in front of some trees, and with the same motion and stoic voice said “two bodies missing from here. Dig.” So we dug. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The bodies could have been there, or they could have been in Pakistan, brought down the Indus by the force of the raging waters. In the end, we found nothing but a single, crushed, plastic bottle - the only sign of life that came out of that mud all day.

The following day we went to a beautiful village called Saboo, which is where the cloudburst is rumoured to have occurred. Because roads and bridges had been destroyed, we walked up the mountain for two hours until we found the house we had been looking for. We were to dig out the three remaining rooms of a house, and look for the body of the old man who had been living there. His body would either be in the room to which I was assigned, or else it would have been carried down the valley along with the other two rooms of his house. We found nothing but boulders and mud. At one point while I was digging, the Ladakhi guy that was with us told me “Don't shovel too hard, there might be a body under there...” He had pulled several bodies out of the mud in the previous few days, so he knew what he was talking about...

The next day, a candle-lit march was arranged. Thousands of people, presumably the entire town - survivors, victims, tourists - gathered at the petrol station, and began the assent up the main road that had paved the way for the mud to flow smoothly through civilization. As we walked up through the devastation, surrounded by pentatonic Buddhist chants, candles, and prayer beads being fingered by faithfuls, it really hit home that this could have happened to anyone. We were in the path of destruction at that moment, just like we could have been at 12:30am on August 6th.

After a day of rest to nurse a pulled hamstring, I returned to my digging expeditions, but this time in the devastated Tibetan refugee settlement of Choglamsar. Most of the army brought up from Delhi had been sent there, as the village was in ruins - there were rivers where there once had been roads and homes. Unfortunately, the soldiers seemed quite disinterested with the local population. Their combat clothes were perfectly clean, while us volunteers were covered in mud, cuts, and bruises. More than once I witnessed scores of soldiers standing by as exhausted locals attempted to move heavy furniture or tree stumps from their homes. After lunch, I was walking back to a house in need of digging out with a girl from St Gallen I had met that morning, when a soldier came up to us and asked for our help in digging out a home. We followed, thinking his request was sincere. However, when we got there, shovels were put in our hands while the soldiers sat around and smoked cigarettes, still perfectly clean despite a morning of supposed 'hard work.' The soldier who had asked us to come over told us that when we were tired we could take a rest. I told him that when I got tired I would give him the shovel and it was his turn. “No, I don't shovel. I command.” Well, commander, it's time to stop giving shovels to women, children, and tourists, and have your men do some real work. After berating him for a while, in an attempt to kick some good old Swiss efficiency into these men, he left to go on his lunch break, from which he never returned. With the commander gone, the new and improved Swiss commandos were able to take charge, and get the few remaining soldiers to do some real work (although they were sure to avoid picking up any stones with their bare hands, as it may have dirtied their previous jewels). After about a half hour, though, they were too tired so decided to take a break. We left.

On the final day of work, I returned to Phiyang with a big group of German volunteers. We dug out a family's home alongside the family members, who had all survived but were forced to live in a tent in what used to be their back yard – 3 generations, eating, sleeping, living in one tent. The family was so grateful we were there – one of the women said thank you under her breath every time she filled her shovel with mud – that it almost made me uncomfortable. Why were they so grateful? Why was the fact that human beings were helping other human beings after a disaster like this so unusual? They showered us with biscuits and chai and butter tea, and fed us a wonderful lunch, just like all the other affected communities had. They sacrificed what little they had for us foreigners who have everything, who will soon go back to our cooshy lives where we know that mountains won't come down on our poorly constructed homes, where we know our water will be safe to drink, where we will have enough food for the winter because our only source of food, our crops, has not been destroyed.

Reflecting on the experience, I suppose that what makes me uncomfortable is that I feel like the Ladakhis were so grateful that someone, somewhere was finally caring about them, that they were finally important. It took a disaster to make these people important to the West, to reverse the roles and have the rich foreigners do manual labor for the benefit of the poor brown people. And does the world really care? Pakistan, which was even more severely hit by this same disaster, is not receiving the kind of help from the international community that it so desperately needs. Twenty million people have been affected by the disaster in that country. 3.5 million children are at high risk of water-borne diseases.

I don't really care if this seems tacky, but here's a link to donate to Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders' efforts in Pakistan:

And to end, a short list of things I've learned from this experience:
- I really do have a talent for shoveling mud out of houses. Maybe I should think about a career in construction?
- After smashing my finger between a rock and a hard place in Phiyang, I realized that I can live quite well with only 9 fully functioning fingers, at least for a few days.
- Thank Novartis for Tetanus shots.