Monthly Archives: October 2011

Sweat and Holy Water

In my last update I was looking forward to a long weekend trip to Dharamshala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For those of you who have been wondering whether I stayed there, left all my worldly possessions, and became a Buddhist monk – such is not the case. In fact, I never went to Dharamshala! As India has taught me well, things don’t always go as planned. Luckily, though, in a country as fascinating as India Plan B (or C) is usually as good as your original Plan A when it comes to travel.

Following Plan A I met Daniel L., Blythe, and Daniel C. at 6pm on Wednesday evening to depart for our weekend in Dharamshala. Daniel L. had reserved four seats on an overnight bus which was scheduled to leave at 8:30pm. The plan was for the travel agent to take us from his office to the bus station – he had promised Daniel we wouldn’t pay the balance on our tickets until we saw the bus. This was a smart move on Daniel’s part because it is not uncommon for travelers in India to buy tickets for an AC Volvo bus (the Cadillac of buses) only to arrive and find an old bus with no AC.

The travel agent took us from his office to the bus station on the Metro. At rush hour the Metro from South Delhi toward the city center is as crowded as a rock concert mosh pit – and explodes into the same churning and frantic mess at each stop. If you have never had the experience of riding the Delhi Metro at rush hour, count yourself lucky and feel no need to put it on your Bucket List. I think it actually takes years off your life.

We arrived to the bus departure point at 7:15pm and saw a nice AC Volvo bus waiting on the side of the road.  We then found out why our travel agent had been so nervous throughout the Metro ride. As it turns out the bus was actually scheduled to leave at 7pm and was now full. There was another non-AC bus leaving to a city near Dharamshala but after a group huddle we decided to call it a miss (Delhi to Dharamshala is a 12 hour bus ride) and spend the night in Delhi.  Still wanting to take advantage of the long weekend to get out of town, we headed back to Daniel & Blythe’s to consult Lonely Planet over beers and pizza. By 11:30pm we had booked bus tickets to Haridwar, a hill station on the Ganges north of Delhi from where we could travel to Rishikesh, another hill station known for meditation, yoga, and adventure sports.

The bus left the next morning without a hitch (other than the 1 hour wait) and I think we enjoyed the 8 hour ride from Delhi to Haridwar. Thursday was a large Hindu festival, Dussehra, which celebrates the victory of goodness over evil. It is celebrated with fireworks and the burning of a large effigy of  the demon Ravana, who was conquered by Rama (the seventh incarnation of Lord Krishna). Along the way we saw large parades of people dancing and celebrating in the streets and large effigies in most every village. We arrived in Haridwar and easily found lodging on the main road. We had a delicious dinner at Big Ben AC Restaurant and then hit the streets to explore Haridwar’s endless alleyway markets. The streets were lit up and bustling with families returning from the festivities. We didn’t think they would start until after dinner time so we were disappointed to have missed them.

On Friday we took an auto to the cable car that climbs a hill to Haridwar’s Ma Devi Temple. The cable car had a 3 hour waitlist so we decided to make the hike on foot. It was a very sweaty 35 minute climb but the scenery was nice – a view over the city and plenty of monkeys. We were required to leave our shoes outside the temple entrance so I reluctantly handed over my Nikes, figuring I had a 40% chance of seeing them again. The temple was bustling inside. Directly inside the entrance were gift stores and food stalls. Along the road up from the city there were numerous stalls selling offering bags with flowers, rice, a coconut, and other items to be offered to the deities. A group of Indian men in their thirties started a loud chant of praise behind us as we walked through the temple. Imagine the Litany of Saints as a raucous basketball cheer, it was something like that. We each received a tikka or two (a powder marking on one’s forehead) and asked to make offerings of a few rupees. On the way out of the temple we were able to find a quiet terrace overlooking the city. We stopped there to catch our breath and reflected that the experience was not anything like the serene temple environment we had expected. After retrieving our shoes we headed down the hill to meet our cab for the hour long drive to Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is to Delhi as Goa is to Mumbai – an accessible and amazing escape from the bustle of the city. We spent two days there relaxing in the “backpackers enclave” which is located in the foothills of the Himalayas overlooking the Ganges River. The stunning scenery of hills and the river valley reminded me so much of Bellagio, Italy at the confluence of the two sides of Lake Como. That night we went down to the Ganges and spent time sitting by the powerful river. It was so nice to sit by water. A woman gave us small paper dishes with offerings of flowers, rice, a candle, and incense. We lit them and let them go in the river. I thought of my dad who will come visit me and stand by the bank of this same river in December.

Saturday morning we woke up early and watched the sun rise from our balcony. It was stunning. Here are some pictures:

Since we were the only ones awake the hotel dog came and joined us!

At 8:30am we had a fabulous yoga class and then an incredible breakfast and headed out on a hike to a nearby waterfall.  The guidebook had described an easy 15 minute hike to a waterfall and we calculated that the trail should start about 30 minutes from our hostel. We ended up completing a 3 hour hike up a mountain (foothill). It was a crazy trek but completely worth it. We stopped and swam in an icy pool underneath part of the waterfall, which I’m pretty sure was part of the Ganges River so we are all very holy now!

Three hours up we were ready to call it quits but a group of hikers coming from the top of the mountain told us we “must climb up 10 minutes more, you’ll see really beautiful rice fields.” So we kept climbing and eventually ended up here:

Nestled in the foothills are a series of little villages like this one. We met a few teachers from the village who were trekking down the hill to the town below. They said that most teachers stay in the village all week, making the trek down on weekends, but that some of them climb up and down every day! There is a road that reaches a temple at the very top of the foothill (at least four hours more from the point we reached), but no road to access the villages in between by car or truck.

When we reached the bottom of the hill we jumped in the back of one of the many jeeps that shuttles white water rafting tours to and from Rishikesh. As I rode back to town in the back of the jeep, feeling free and refreshed, it hit me that this is exactly what I pictured myself doing in my twenties – traveling, living spontaneously, taking weekend trips to no place in particular with great friends and a taste for adventure, hiking mountains in Target sandals (I did not wear the proper footwear for the trek). When we reached Rishikesh we found a table at a restaurant overlooking one of the suspension bridges that crosses the Ganges. As the sun set we shared a delicious meal and reflected on how totally awesome the weekend had been.

The return to Delhi was just as adventure-filled as our first departure. We arrived at 8:30pm to catch a 9pm bus back to Delhi and ended up waiting until 11:30pm for the bus to arrive. So we made friends with the other waiting travelers – many Israeli students, Germans, a woman from Spain, and the Indian family that sat next to us on the bus from Delhi. When the bus arrived it turned out to be overbooked. But, as is only possible in India, the bus driver and his assistants somehow managed to get us all in the bus and we arrived the next morning in New Delhi in one piece.

You know the feeling of fun that comes with pushing yourself, challenging yourself to keep climbing (literally or figuratively) farther than you think is possible? That’s what I felt during our Saturday morning trek. I didn’t realize until just now, but that climb up the “mountain” is a perfect analogy for my time in India so far. Just when I think I will give up and call it quits I get a new burst of energy, turn a new corner, see a new side of the many faceted gem that is India and decide to keep climbing and see what adventure lies ahead. And at the end of each day I’m always glad I did. I am three months into my Indian adventure and what an adventure it has been. Here’s to the rest of the climb!

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Finding My Groove and the Arrival of Fall

I continue to feel more and more “at home” and settled in my new surroundings every day.  On Thursday of last week I woke up with incredible new and fresh energy which has been carrying me for the past many days.  Fall has arrived to New Delhi and not a moment too soon.  The days are now cool in the morning, rather warm in the afternoons thanks to the ever shining sun, and nice and cool again in the evenings.

When I got back from Goa I was sick for a few days with a horrible sore throat and mild fever.  I hydrated as much as possible, consumed large quantities of EmergenC, and found a good multivitamin.  A doctor at the health center on campus gave me some sort of anti-allergy medicine which I decided to take.  Somehow, with the cocktail of pills and vitamins, and more importantly a diet of fresh veggies and plenty of water, I was better by Friday.

A hearty and healthy breakfast. I even found avocado at the western grocery store.

As of Tuesday of last week Lesly and I have a new roommate.  Her name is Priti and she completing her PhD from JNU focusing on energy politics in Central Asia.  She is from Gujarat, a state on the west coast of India. I met her at my birthday dinner at Gobind-ji’s house.  She knows Gobind very well because she was best friends with a Japanese Rotary Scholar he hosted.  The world is small and it’s amazing how the universe brings you exactly who and what you need if you are open.  Lena came along for my birthday dinner and had been thinking of moving onto campus since it is cheaper, so when Priti mentioned that she’d be returning to New Delhi in October to finish her PhD they struck up a conversation and voila!  The four of us: Lesly, Lena, Priti, and I, had dinner together last night, so Lena remains an honorary roommate.

Along with Priti’s arrival we have also finally hired someone to clean our apartment and do laundry.  We asked our neighbors who was doing their cleaning and lucky for us their cleaning lady was able to take on a new client, so now she cleans our place every morning from 8:30-9:30.  It is very common here for families to hire someone to clean the house/apartment every day.  It is a luxury (a cheap luxury in India) and has made such a difference for Lesly and I.  We were washing our laundry on our own, which was fine but unless you really know how to hand wash laundry it’s hard to get it really clean, especially jeans and such.  The woman we’ve hired also really knows how to properly clean dust-prone Delhi apartments.  There’s nothing like a clean house to bring peace of mind and make a person happy!

Last week the International Students Association (ISA) held elections for a new executive committee.  I planned to run for a position on the exec committee but decided not to in the end because the term is October – September and I am leaving next May.  So instead I have been appointed to the position of casual student representative by the new executive team.  In this role I will represent casual student issues and chair the sports committee.  I’m looking forward to organizing tournaments of badminton, basketball, tennis, etc. and maybe even a Super Bowl party if we can find a way to stream the game on campus.  I also sat my first exam last week, for my Water Resources course.  From now until December I’ll be busy preparing final presentations and papers for my classes.

On Saturday I attended a conference and earth festival held by Navdanya, an environmental organization led by environmental activist and eco-feminist Dr. Vandana Shiva.  The topic was Bhoomi: Learning from Nature, Remembering Tagore.  Emrys came along and we saw the screening of the documentary “Harmony” which some of you may have seen on NBC last year. We also listened to a very interesting cross-cultural dialogue on beauty featuring a renowned Indian artist and a design professional from Japan.  Next week I will start an unpaid internship with Navdanya.  I will help with the organization of conferences and workshops and also hope to learn more about the business side of their operations – in addition to the NGO office they have a farm in Dheradun in north India which supplies organic grains, cereals, honey, and vegetables to a small shop in New Delhi.

Some of you may have heard me say that I am a “high functioning stress addict”.  What that means is that I much prefer a busy schedule to too much free time.  Since my return from Goa I have been really busy and my mood and energy levels are up as a result.

October is the month of holidays in India.  I don’t have classes the end of this week because of Dashera, a Hindu holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil.  So I am heading north this evening to Dharamshala with Daniel, Blythe, and one of Blythe’s coworkers.  Dharamshala is the home in exile of the Dalai Lama.  We are looking forward to exploring the tiny town, hiking, and maybe seeing His Holiness himself!

A final note on fruit.  When in Goa I discovered the custard apple, a bizarre fruit with a delicate, delicious, indescribable taste.  Custard apples have arrived to New Delhi and Lesly, Priti, and I shared a couple yesterday on our patio.  They look like something that would grow on a cactus, or perhaps as though they are about to hatch a baby alien.  Despite their looks, they are delicious!

Custard Apple

Reflecting on Corruption in India After the Hazare Movement

My dear friend Teresa Welsh is a free lance journalist working in New York City.  She connected me with an amazing web site called PolicyMic.org and I was able to publish a piece as part of their Women in Journalism series.  Here is a link to my article, a reflection on corruption in India following Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement earlier this year.

Take a look around the site as well, especially if you are a news junkie like me.  It has a very cool platform for interacting with the writers by posting comments and giving “mics”, which are similar to “likes” on Facebook, to articles and comments that you find especially insightful.  Teresa has posted two articles, both related to the time she spent in Colombia – one on disappearances during the drug wars and one on human rights.

All is well here in New Delhi.  I will write a longer update about me in the next couple days.

Gone in Goa

I have been MIA from the blogosphere for awhile thanks to a week long vacation in Goa from Sept. 16-24 and last week’s mid-semester exams and elections for the International Student Association (ISA).  This is the first of a couple overdue posts.

First, the trip to Goa. Emrys, a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar from South Carolina was planning a trip to Goa with friends from his university and invited me along.  I thought it wouldn’t be a bad place to wait out the last week of summer heat in New Delhi.  I was right.  We had a fabulous time.  A group of eight of us – three Indians, three Germans, and two Americans – spent a relaxing and fun week together in India’s favorite beach getaway.  The colorful and terra cotta tiled houses reminded me of Mexico or Costa Rica and brought back great memories of previous travels to coastal destinations.

Goa is India’s smallest state.  Located on India’s west coast touching the Arabian Sea, Goa was a Portuguese territory until 1961 and didn’t become an Indian state until 1987.  As a result of its Portuguese ancestry Goan architecture is distinctly Iberian and features many impressive Christian churches.  I learned from Rotarian John Gooch in Missouri, who is a trivia junkie like me, that when the Portuguese arrived to India they found the already well-established Mar Thoma Church boasting more than one congregation.  It is theorized that Jesus sent the Apostle Thomas as a missionary to India, which explains the Christian presence in Goa dating so far back.

The week in Goa was a much needed escape from the heat and bustle of New Delhi.  It was great to see a different side of India than the one I’ve gotten to know in Delhi, which I’m also more fond of since my return.  Our group spent 4 days in North Goa and 4 days in South Goa.  For anyone travelling to Goa I would recommend you spend the majority of your time in the south which is less crowded.  The north is definitely worth a couple days, though, especially Arambol beach where you will find sunbathing Westerners, beautiful sunsets, and plenty of tchotchkes (chachkis) for sale.  We rented houses in both places and had fun cooking prawns and pasta and spending the days on the beach.  The water was great and the guys spent a lot of time body surfing in the “Danger Zone” (harmless baby rip tides) which often drew a crowd on the beach.  When we headed south we rented motor scooters and spent two days touring the coast, for me the highlight of the trip.  The scenery was stunning, I spent most of my time wondering if I had fallen into the pages of National Geographic.  If you ever visit Goa, plan to rent a scooter and cruise down the coastal roads to Palolem or Cabo de Rama.

Pictures do not suffice to capture the magic of Goa but words do even less, so rather than write more I will let you enjoy this slideshow of some of the best images from our week.

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