Friday, December 10, 2010

A Week in God's Own Country

Our next destination in Kerala, or “God’s Own Country”, as it is known in India, was Alleppey; where we would find ourselves a houseboat for two days and two nights.  For her birthday, Missy’s sister and parents wanted to treat us to a special experience in India of her choosing; and I coincidentally, would get to reap the benefits of such a great gift.  It is no secret on the Indian travel circuit that the backwaters of Kerala are a “must see” in India and the only way to do it is on a houseboat.  Also, in our Lonely Planet it specifically states that a cruise through the backwaters of Kerala is an item on the list of top 10 things to do before you die, so Missy’s choice was an easy one.  So, thank you Krista, Mike, Bill, and Pam for a blissful 48 hours in God’s Own Country.

I must share a story with this forum before I continue my rant about the beauty of Kerala.  I have detailed on this blog before my hatred and fear of what I call “critters”.  A critter, by my own definition, is anything the size of a mouse or smaller that moves and is not human.  I hate critters.  I do have to pat myself on the back for the trooper I have been in attempting to overcome my contempt for critters in India, but I have experienced a MAJOR setback.  The night before our houseboat cruise, Missy gently shook me awake around 1:30am to announce that she thinks something just bit her and that I should wake up.  I semi ignored her and rolled over.  Then, all of a sudden, Missy shrieked: “Oh my god! Oh my god! Get up! Get up! Get up!”  As I leaped and bounded out of bed, we saw a centipede half a mile long scurry across our bed.  This thing was basically a snake with 14,000 legs.  What a foul creature.  Anyways, as soon as the sleep left me, and the situation sunk in, I realized that the snake critter thing that had just crawled across our bed was the same critter that had bit Missy on the hand.  DEAR GOD.  After some discussion, we decided that it was impossible to sleep in this room, even if they quarantined it and put it on stilts in the sky.  NOT A CHANCE IN HELL.  So, I politely buzzed our hostel owner man and announced that we would need to move to the upstairs room immediately.  As we packed up our things, we saw two of the snake critter things scurry across the floor to hide under the dresser.  Missy and I had survived the attack of the centipedes with one small bite to prove it.

The next morning, we got out of that hostel as soon as we could, and headed down to the boat docks to pick out a houseboat.  There were about 1,000 to choose from, but we found ours pretty quickly.  We quickly fell into a deep admiration for both our captain and cook, Doss and Don.  The two of them were each about 4’ 9”, and if Mario and Luigi had had Indian cousins, it would have been Doss and Don.  The four of us made an excellent houseboat group.  Doss and Don spoke about as much English as a newborn child, so they basically just watched us and laughed at everything we did, which was a major ego boost for the two of us.  Chef Don’s meals were some of the best we have had in India, and they always contained fresh fish, pineapple slices, rice, bread, and vegetables.  I think he was in awe of the amount of coffee we drank, and if he had understood English better, I would have explained to him that we were American…it’s in our blood to house a pot of coffee every morning.  As for Captain Doss, homeboy seriously has the life.  First of all, steering a houseboat is about as difficult as blinking.  Second of all, he takes a break every 90 minutes to do god knows what, so Chef Don has to sit in the captain seat.  And lastly, Captain Doss gets to float down canals everyday staring at palm trees and honking his boat horn every time he passed one of his friends’ houses.  I am seriously considering starting a houseboat tour company in Washington DC when I get home.  It’s only a vision at the moment.

During the days, Missy and I would sip coffee (this is until Doss and Don stopped at a local village to make a beer run…at which we then switched from coffee to Kingfisher beers), talk about how great our lives were at the moment as we lounged on red velour cushions, and read from the stash of novels we have accumulated.  The backwaters of Kerala are truly beautiful, and we got to cruise through local villages, rice paddies, and large lakes.  The citizens of Kerala are extremely proud of where they live, and every time we tell any of them how much we love Kerala, they break into a large grin and announce: “God’s Own Country!!!”  It really is a spectacular place.  The evenings were a different story.  Before we had boarded our houseboat, the owner handed us a stack of burned, unmarked DVDs and said we could find one we liked.  Missy and I waited in anticipation all day for it to get dark so we could cuddle up and watch a movie.  After previewing all 50 DVDs, we found three in English, and only one we could stomach watching; Mission Impossible II.  Halfway through the movie, it just stopped working.  We tried to revive it, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us.  One does not have to have an education to guess the ending of the epic Tom Cruise thriller, but what were we going to do with ourselves now?  We played two hours of UNO in our room, and Missy beat me seven out of eight games.  I did not realize that one could actually lack talent for a card game based on luck, but I do.  UNO is not my thing.  

Our last week in Kerala was spent on the cliffs of Varkala Beach, and what a perfect place to end our “Indian real world hiatus”.  We stayed at a home stay right on the edge of a cliff, which ended up being about a 30 minute walk from the main part of the Varkala strip.  It rained our entire first day in Varkala, and Missy and I sort of panicked.  We had been banking on sunshine and rainbows for our last week of vacation; this rain was not coordinating with our plans.  So, we spent a chunk of time trying to figure out if we could feasibly make our way back up to Goa and waste away on Palolem Beach for the rest of the week.  We quickly learned that getting on any sort of train that week was next to impossible.  So, we bit the bullet, and prayed for sun.  It came.  We had three perfect beach days where we watched fisherman cast their nets, ate freshly cut pineapple, and played in the Arabian Sea.  One morning, I decided to start my day with a swim, so I ventured into the rough waves without a care in the world.  Two minutes later, I slammed into a hidden underwater boulder, only to emerge from the ocean looking like a shark attack victim.  My leg was a bloody mess and was stinging from the salt water.  To make me feel better, Missy stated: “Well, at least it wasn’t your face…”.  She has a point.  Eventually I got myself all cleaned up and bandaged, and I am now hoping for a nice scar on my leg so when people ask about it, I can say: “Ohhhh that?  It’s from the rough waters of the Arabian Sea.  I got it when I was in India for three months.”  It is healing nicely.  

At night, because of the lack of moon, Varkala becomes pitch black.  We also learned that this is the best time for fisherman to go out and for a ripe catch.  Our 30 minute walk home on the edge of a cliff could not be done without flashlights, which we quickly learned on our first night walking home without them.  After feeling our way home for a short time, we eventually stopped at a local hotel to ask for assistance.  A nice old man named Asbi escorted us all the way home with his torch.  I tried to pay him a few rupees, as a thank you, to which he playful nudged me and said: “Do you have brother?”  I replied that I did have one brother.  “Well…I have sister”.  And with that, Asbi turned around and walked home.  What a gem.  We did not forget our torches for the rest of our duration in Varkala, although we did miss our walks home with Asbi.  Varkala beach seems to be a well-kept secret.  One day, Missy and I stole the playful chocolate lab from our hostel, and walked for about an hour on the cliffs, across abandon beaches, and through small fishing villages.  We saw about three other tourists the entire time and the views were pretty spectacular.  I would highly recommend Varkala as a romantic getaway destination.  No offense Missy.  Unfortunately, it rained our last day in Varkala, but we turned our frowns upside down.  We ended up finishing up our souvenir shopping, went to a long yoga class, and stopped into a hut for a pedicure.  Not a bad rainy day if you ask me.

Currently, we are on our very last train ride of our trip.  It also happens to be our longest trek yet.  44 hours on a non-AC sleeper train.  Of course we happened to be put into the “cool kids” car, where everyone has seemed to congregate.  Last night, a group of 25 men stripped down to nothing but their towel wraps and performed a puja ceremony right on the train.  They shut all the windows, turned off the fans, and set a fire in a bowl to which they made offerings.  At first I was annoyed by the act.  Twenty-five half-naked, fat, sweaty men crammed into my train car was not the picture I had envisioned for my journey home.  However, it turned out to be one of the coolest things we have seen in India.  The dedication was inspiring, and the chanting was pretty catchy.  Plus, afterwards, they fed us all sorts of homemade fried snacks, so my annoyance quickly turned into friendship.  It is amazing to me that these men just whipped out bags of ceremony props and food, crowded the aisles to any emergency exit on the train, and lit a small fire to which they chanted for almost an hour; and no one seemed to care.  In fact, train officials and employees respectfully stepped around them.  I mean in NYC or Washington DC, if you so much as say the word “fire”, you would be arrested and thrown into the slammer.  Amazing.  

How do I feel about leaving India and returning home?  To be honest, it is a mixture of emotions.  I am anxious to see my family and friends for the holidays, and get a big hug from my boyfriend.  I am looking forward to contributing to society again.  Living in Washington D.C., near where I grew up, will be a treat for me as I will be near many of my loved ones.  However, part of me is uneasy about leaving India.  What a ride the last three months has been as we made our way through the desert, across the mountains, and to various beaches.  The spirituality of India and the closeness of Indian families is something I will take home with me.  I would say that three months was the perfect amount of time to have traveled India, learned much about myself in the meantime, and return home feeling very happy and satisfied.  

As this is my last post for this blog while I am India, I would like to thank my family and friends for all their support during this time.  You guys mean the world to me and I can’t wait to live in the U.S. again!  I would also like to thank all the readers of this blog for your comments and feedback during our adventures.  I cannot believe how many people actually read this thing...if it has at all changed any of your opinions about India and its people, then I consider it a job well done.  And, lastly, I would like to thank Missy Sirola for being the most amazing traveling companion anyone could possibly hope for on this journey.  I am actually tearing up as I write this at the thought of each of us returning to our “normal lives” where we will only see each other four times a year.  Actually, Missy just found out that she was accepted into the CUNY Master’s program in New York City, so we have reason to celebrate when we land at JFK airport in a few days.  Missy, I know you will do great things in this world, and I can’t wait to see what the next few years bring.

With that, this blog has been such a fun time for me!  I can’t wait to read through it when I get back and laugh at all of our stories.  I am considering keeping it up when I return to the U.S., but we will see what happens. 

Thanks again everyone!

Namaste India.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Riding Bicycles around Fort Cochin

India keeps getting better and better.  It seems that every evening, as we tuck each other into our double bed, Missy and I proclaim with glee: “Today was SO fun!”  Then we laugh and follow it up with: “We said that yesterday too!”  On a side note, it is amazing how well we have gotten along on this trip.  It seems that many of our friends and family assumed that spending 90 days straight in the presence of the same person would have driven us mad or into a deep hatred for one another.  I can proudly say, “O Contrare!”  We have become better friends, while learning a great deal about ourselves as individuals, and about the facets of Indian culture on which our views coincide and differ.  Go us!  Anyways, we have landed in Fort Cochin, Kerala and it is the cutest town in India.  Cobblestone streets on the water offer you your choice of vendor from whom to buy fresh fish and have it prepared in front of your eyes, narrow neighborhood streets are lined with old Victorian homes, and quaint storefronts and restaurants are a plenty.  There were times when I swore I was in South Carolina.  The one major disappointment is the view from the waterfront.  On the other side of the water, one can find oil tankers and industrial machinery, which do not photograph well.  I mean…eye sore central.  If I were mayor of Fort Cochin, that would be the first thing to go.  There is also probably a very good reason I am not the mayor of Fort Cochin.  

By chance, upon our arrival in Fort Cochin, Missy and I met an old man on a scooter who happened to own and operate a home stay within our price range.  His family was extremely kind and generous; and they, like many Indians we have come to know, were in disbelief over the news that Missy and I are not sisters, just friends who look very similar.  Upon taking in this news, Indians often ask us if we are completely sure we are not related.  Umm…yes…we are fairly sure the resemblance is just a coincidence.  Our home stay family gave us a grand tour of the property, and then handed us five keys which we were to operate during our time at their home stay.  It was quite the system.  We were allowed to hold onto the key to our room at all times, but the key to the door to the floor we were staying on was to be left on a table in the hallway if we were home, but handed directly to a member of the family if we were to leave at any point.  The gate at the main entrance would be locked, but that was not a problem since the 1,000 stray dogs that acted as the neighborhood watch would alert the family when we were in a ten mile radius of their home.  We loved our home stay and felt extremely safe literally locked away from the rest of the world.  

One bright and sunny afternoon, after having breakfast at our usual spot at Kashi café (they have ice coffee that tastes like a carnival in your mouth), Missy and I decided to rent bicycles for the day to explore the parts of town we were too lazy to seek on foot.  This turned out to be one of our best days in India.  We discovered half a dozen art galleries with wonderful paintings from local artists, streets lined with small water canals, and…brace yourselves…JEW TOWN.  Missy and I stumbled upon what we think is the only synagogue in India, and the surrounding neighborhood is literally named Jew Town.  I do not think there is a single person of Jewish faith in Jew Town, but what the hell do I know.  The best discovery in Jew Town was the plethora of Jesus and Mary artifacts that can be purchased in any of the storefronts.  It is truly remarkable and ass backwards.  Missy and I loved Jew Town.  There are antique shops for a mile selling beautiful furniture, old record players, ancient statues, etc.  If you are in the export business, you need to get yourself to Jew Town immediately; the place is a gold mine.  We rode our bicycles up and down the streets of Jew Town until ours bums were throbbing, at which point we stopped for our daily dose of ice cream.  Our bicycles were more like rust buckets on the verge of collapse.  You could hear us coming a mile away, and the brakes on Missy’s did not work at all.  The down hills were really a gamble for her.  We did negotiate a discount upon returning the bicycles since they were such shitters and the cut mine happened to give me on my index finger will probably gave me some rare breed of Indian bicycle tetnis.  I am proud to announce that after negotiation, Missy and I saved 20 rupees on those rust buckets; an equivalent of about $0.50 in US dollars.  It’s the small things in life.  

The style of dress for males in Kerala is extremely interesting.  The local garb consists of white wife beater tank tops on the top, and a cloth on the bottom.  Literally every man in Kerala from the rickshaw drivers to the hotel owners looks like they woke up and wrapped themselves in the nearest dish towel.  They don’t look nice and charming like Scottish kilts; just extremely awkward.    Once when I was in high school, my father answered the door wearing nothing but a shower towel when my friends came for a visit, and I am still recovering from the incident.  I could not imagine having to relive that every single day.  

Some of the greatest sights to take in throughout the state of Kerala are the number of schools dedicated to female education.  I am currently reading Half the Sky, a truly remarkable novel encouraging people to take a stand on female education, and in turn human rights issues around the world.  If you are looking for an educational and inspiring read, pick it up.  Anyways, in the novel, I learned that Kerala is one of, if not the most progressive state in any conservative country in terms of recognizing and acting on the importance of female education.  If you are anywhere in Kerala at 4:00pm, then you are in the midst of a student stampede on its way home from school.  It really is a warm site to behold.  All of the students have pigtails with bows that match their uniforms, and eagerness wears itself on each of their faces.  The innocence of their youth is truly apparent as they chase each other on their bicycles, or share a bag of masala chips as they gossip down the streets.  I have strived to become more familiar with the topics and facts surrounding female education in developing countries while traveling India; and it is a cause I am eager to contribute to upon my return to Washington DC.  Other states in India could learn a great deal from the local government of Kerala to take large steps forward in terms of encouraging female attendance in schools.  I’m just sayin…

Tomorrow Missy and I are off to a town called Alleppey, where we are renting our very own private houseboat to cruise the backwaters of Kerala for two days and two nights.  I would like to thank Missy’s sister and parents for purchasing a large portion of our houseboat as her birthday gift.  We are oozing excitement!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Beaches of North Goa

After everyone in our little group recovered from their ailments in beautiful Palolem, we all hopped in a taxi and took a trip 2.5 hours to Anjuna, in North Goa.  We have spent the last five nights literally beach hopping from one town to another, never sleeping in the same place twice.  Every Wednesday, Anjuna is home to an enormous flea market where you can find anything Indian “souvenier-ish” that you could possibly dream of taking home with you.  It was marked as a “must not miss” in our Lonely Planet (it is simply referred to as the LP on the travel circuit), and it is one of the events that Missy and I have been talking about since our plane ride to India.  Both of us have an appreciation for antiques and digging through bins of junk for that one golden gem, so we had looked forward to the flea market with great anticipation.  The place was another world.  Anjuna, as it turns out, is home to people I like to call “real hippies”.  The Westerners that have planted roots in Anjuna are people who were hippies in the ‘60s.  It’s like trying to picture your parents running around in gypsy skirts and pigtails, selling handmade quilted vests.  The flea market was a ball of a time; we had the opportunity to listen to live music as the sun went down over the Arabian Sea, dig through fairly inexpensive trinkets, and admire old Indian artifacts.  I was definitely in my element at the flea market, but as for the rest of Anjuna, the vibe really threw me off.  Anjuna is lined with beach shack restaurants that play trance music and flash red and white lights that remind me of a haunted house on Halloween.  I would not know this for a fact, but it seems one cannot truly enjoy the beach bars and restaurants here, unless you partake in large amounts of illegal drug activity.  And, judging from the offers we received by simply strolling down the beach, I do not think that would have been difficult to achieve.  I thought I had seen it all in India, but Anjuna beach offered something else.  The combination of wealthy Indian tourists, Westerners, cows, goats, wild dogs, and then weird hippy trance parties was a little too much for Michelle, Missy, and I after our glorious time in peaceful Palolem.  So, in the morning, we woke up, jammed our belongings in our backpacks, and headed for Baga Beach.

We had heard mixed reviews from other travelers about Baga Beach.  Some told us to avoid it all together as it was so crowded that you could literally not see the sand; and others proclaimed it an essential stop for a fun night out.  To be honest, we hadn’t been “out” since sharing beers with our train station friends in Darjeeling.  What better place to spend American Thanksgiving!?  We decided to honor the American holiday by spending our day eating our way through Baga.  In all reality, this really is not that different than any other day, but today we had an excuse to be especially excited about the prospect of mealtime.  We started at a delightful place called Lilla’s Café, where for breakfast we consumed sandwiches, slushes, and an assortment of cakes.  After two hours of lingering around the baked goods counter, we decided to head out and see what the infamous Baga beach really had to offer.  DEAR GOD.  It was like Miami on steroids, minus Cubans, plus Indians.  There were thousands of Indian tourists crammed into any space that was possible to fit a body.  We were immediately swarmed by people offering us beach chairs, boat rides, free beer, anything to get us to spend money at their beach shack as opposed to the other four thousand.  The ten minutes we spent on the surface of Baga beach was more than enough for all of us.  So, what did we do instead?  We went back to our hotel, put on our swimsuits, and slipped undetected into the pool area at the hotel across the way from where we were staying.  As our families at home were gathering around candlelit dinners, eating turkey, and guzzling copious amounts of wine, the three of us illegally confiscated the best seats available at the nicest pool on the block.  (It should be noted, that with Michelle’s arrival, also came a new vigor and mentality for Missy and I.  We were no longer budget travelers, but spoiled vacationers.)  After wasting the day away like true vagabonds, we made our way to another dining facility for our second round of Thanksgiving deserts.  As we gracefully shoved crepes with ice cream into our mouths, we made an executive decision to get dressed up, go to a nice dinner, and then see what the Baga nightlife was all about.  You cannot possibly understand what a treat this was for Missy and I.  We have literally been wearing the same four things every day for 2.5 months.  I did not even know myself with jewelry around my neck and mascara on my eyelashes.  Missy kept saying, “I don’t even recognize you!”  (That does not say much for my all-natural look.)  Our Thanksgiving dinner was nothing short of fabulous.  We headed to a beautiful restaurant called J &K’s, where we closed the place down with two bottles of red wine and fifteen courses of food.  The closest I could come to my mom’s Thanksgiving dinner was grilled pomfret fish and mashed potatoes.  It wasn’t turkey, but it was scrumptious.  Before our meal, we all went around the table to share what we were thankful for in 2010, and then we toasted to a healthy and happy 2011.  Although I missed my family immensely, it was a love-filled and happy Thanksgiving Day, thanks to two indescribably wonderful friends.  We ended our night in Baga’s “clubbing district”, where we spent a total of 45 minutes dancing to the lyrical genius of Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber; a perfect end to a perfect Thanksgiving.

Although we had an epic 24 hours in Baga, we were ready to move on.  The next stop on our North Goa beach tour was in the town of Candolim.  Michelle decided that for her last evening with us, she wanted to treat the group to a fancy hotel room.  Her hotel of choice was tucked into a quiet neighborhood, ten minutes from the beach, and it looked and felt like a room from an old French movie.  The bathroom in our suite was larger than most of the hostels Missy and I have stayed in on this trip.  In fact, the bathtub in the bathroom was larger than most of the rooms we have stayed in on this trip.  Jackpot!  We spent the morning checking out the upscale surroundings in the neighborhood.  We made our way towards the beach, where we stumbled upon the fancy Taj Resort.  Since we had already made a hobby out of using the amenities at hotels in which we were not staying, we decided to go in and have a peek.  We had to fill out paperwork and have our bags checked just to get through the main gate.  I made a beeline for the spa, where I spoiled myself by getting a $30 haircut and head massage.  Makeup, fancy hotels, and spa treatments…I really do not know who I have become in Goa.  We spent much of the rest of the afternoon lounging in our fancy French style room, reading books, playing with the free Wifi, and napping.  We ended our day with a taxi trip to the town of Old Goa, a city which in its hay day, had been compared to prominent cities like Lisbon.  For some reason, Missy had high expectations for Old Goa; expecting it to be a sort of Charleston nestled in the South of India.  It was sad to see the poor state that it is in now.  Besides two churches and a small museum, there is not a lot to be seen in Old Goa; much to Missy’s disappointment.  The evening ended with the three of us lounging in our pajamas in our hotel room, watching the VH1 special featuring J-Lo’s personal narrative about her career.  We were all so engrossed with the story of J-Lo’s life, that someone could have easily entered our room, walked directly in front of the television, and stolen all of our belongings.  We almost ate our dinner off the floor of our hotel room so that we could finish the program, but we realized how ridiculous that would be of us; plus, we all know she marries Marc Anthony and has weird looking twin babies.  

Our last day with Michelle was spent parked on a beach with books in hand.  It was such a treat having Michelle with us for our week in Goa; she was a splendid traveling companion and she brought out the classiness in us that we forgot existed.  We will miss her immensely for the remainder of the trip.  Now, I know most of my blog posts thus far contain some sort of description about horrific Indian transportation.  But, the encounter I am about to describe has definitely been our worst.  I swear.  On our last day in Candolim, and exactly one hour before our sleeper train was scheduled to depart for Kerala, we decided to check what station our train was actually leaving from.  We assumed, in true Missy and Alysa fashion, that our train would depart from the closest station to us in North Goa.  This was, of course, not the case.  In a frantic wave of nonsensical movements, we managed to flag down a taxi driver, explain to him in our best Hinglish that our train was leaving from South Goa in exactly one hour, and then demand from him whether or not we could possibly make it.  One phone call later, and with two vehicle changes, Missy and I found ourselves sitting in the fastest car in India.  Our driver claimed that he could get us to our station in 45 minutes; a trip that had taken us 90 minutes just four days earlier.  I asked him if his seatbelts might actually work for once, but he burst into a cackle of laughter.  During the ride, my hands went numb, and I was very close to writing a note to my loved ones, containing my final thoughts of this life, and taping it to my body.  On several occasions, Missy and I closed our eyes, grabbed hold of the door handles, and braced for a head on collision.  The trip was truly horrific, but the man did get us to the train with ten minutes to spare; which we used to buy Kit-Kat bars from a local vendor.  In hindsight, we definitely should not have tried to make the train.  Lesson learned.  We are off to spend ten days in beautiful Kerala.  Only two weeks left on our Indian adventure…

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Beaches of South Goa

Do I start this post with my raving review of the beaches of South Goa or do I go straight to the drama that has so splendidly struck our group this week?  Since drama tends to keep people reading, I will start with the juice.  First of all, Michelle has joined us for a short holiday and we all spent a whirlwind 24 hours in Mumbai, and are all getting along swimmingly.  She has been such a trooper powering through her jetlag and keeping up with our conjoined energy, which I like to call our “travel ADD”, where we run around a new city from sunrise to sundown often without sitting down once.  When Missy and I first got to India, we slept for a straight 16 hours without moving, so koodos to Michelle.  However, our little travel clan has been hit by a dose of “Indian stomach aliens”.  For the past week, Missy had not been feeling 100%.  Some days she could literally not keep any food down, and others she had no appetite.  Whatever was causing her suffering got a lot worse one evening and we awoke the next morning to a very pale, feverish, almost lifeless Missy.  After trying to flush her fever with hot tea, boiled rice water, cold rags, and other home remedies, we decided we should pay a visit to the local hospital.  I mean, the poor girl was lying in the pitch black of our beach hut, on a rock hard bed, underneath a mosquito net.  It was like being sick on Survivor.  Plus, we are in a foreign country, eating foreign food, and I have never seen Missy so completely miserable.  So, we all piled in an auto rickshaw and took a field trip down the road to our first Indian hospital.  The place looked like a dormitory and was completely empty aside from a few nurses, but it still took us about 45 minutes to check Missy in and get her to a room.  After they saw that she had a valid passport, traveler’s insurance, and a money belt full of rupees, the group of nurses disappeared for 30 minutes to “prepare her room”.  After 20 minutes we started to joke that they must be wallpapering it or putting on a fresh coat of paint.  For the love of god, the girl cannot even stand up by herself.  Despite the wait, the staff was very attentive and accommodating to our every need.  After seven different nurses checked Missy’s temperature, took her blood pressure, and asked her the same questions about her age and nationality, despite the fact that they had seen her passport, the doctor came in for his examination.  He decided it would be best if Missy stayed at the hospital for 24 hours, hooked up to an IV of fluids and antibiotics.  Now, before you grow concerned or go feeling sorry for Missy, please note that her hospital room was the nicest accommodations we have experienced in India, and she had a tv with over 80 channels, including HBO.  I was extremely close to asking the doctor to hook me up to an IV for the night as well.  

The next morning, Michelle and I walked to the hospital to pay our sick friend a visit.  We took with us what every sick girl in India would want; handpicked flowers from the resort next door, a t-shirt with a picture of Ghandi’s face on it, and a bright orange beach frisbee.  (I should go into business creating care packages).  Upon our arrival, we learned that Missy spent the evening sleeping, watching “Sex and the City”, hanging with “the girls” on the ward, and eating Ritz crackers.  LUCKY!!!  I was so happy to see she was back to her old self and that her Indian stomach alien had shed itself from her system.  They discharged her that afternoon, and we successfully crossed “visit an Indian hospital” off of our bucket list.  Welcome back Missy!

To celebrate Missy’s victorious return, we decided to rent ocean kayaks the next morning.  We made it about 15 minutes in our vessels before Michelle got seasick and had to turn around.  Five minutes later, dark storm clouds moved in on all sides of us, and Missy and I paddled like bats out of hell back to the shore.  So, needless to say, kayaks were an epic fail.  But, more importantly, Michelle never seemed to recover from her motion sickness.  She spent the entire rest of the day in bed or hugging our beach hut latrine.  NOT GOOD.  So, I made my second trip in 24 hours to the medical store, with new symptoms and a new sick person.  Good thing Indian drugs at the pharmacy cost less than a pack of gum.  My pharmacy friend skeptically gave me new pills and instructions and I was on my way.  After a stressful 48 hours, I am happy to report that everyone seems to have recovered quite nicely.  Both Missy and Michelle are healthy and happy, and I am crossing my fingers that I will manage to steer clear of any Indian stomach aliens.  I am extremely grateful that there were three of us traveling together this past week, and have no idea how solo travelers cope with falling ill abroad.  Here’s to hoping we remain healthy for our last 2.5 weeks in India!

Despite the setbacks mentioned above, we somehow had an excellent time in Southern Goa.  We stayed for four nights at Bhakti Khuri, a small beach camp and yoga retreat nestled in the woods of Palolem Beach.  Most of the guests at Bhakti Khuri were there for a six week yoga course to get their teaching certification.  In other words, there were about 15 girls running around in spandex, reading yoga books, eating rabbit food, and trading stories about their plans to open their very own yoga studios.  Eavesdropping on them provided us much entertainment, as it reminded me very much of sorority rush from college.  On a side note, I do realize that not every person that gets their yoga certification is a blonde bimbo.  I have much respect for the practice of yoga and those who have taken it as a hobby in their lives.  We were nice to the yoga girls, but we still ate our french fries and swore off spandex shorts.  A television network could make a small fortune filming a reality show at an Indian yoga certification course.  I would call it Yoga Wars.  

From Bhakti Khuri, it was a five minute walk to Palolem Beach.  The three of us were so thrilled the first time we set foot on Palolem.  It is a short stretch of beautiful beach in a cove of the Arabian Sea, covered in bright colored beach huts.  What gives Palolem the most character are the thousands of palm trees that cluster on its shore and lean at a 45 degree angle towards the ocean.  The place is the perfect setting for a Dr. Suess book.  Restaurants and beach bars line the strip, and they all compete to attract visitors to their beach chairs and umbrellas.  One can get hour long massages anywhere for $8, have fresh fruit sliced and served to you by “the fruit man” without having to move, and pedicures right from your beach chair.  HEAVEN!  The one potential drawback (depends on how you see it) of this beach are the dozens of Indian women who parade up and down the beaches with jewelry, scarves, and other trinkets for sale.  These ladies are business savvy!  On our first day at the beach, they could see the bliss on our faces and smell our naivety.  I also think they look for the palest people to prey on as they are probably the newest to the beach, and the three of us were so pale that we had light reflecting off of our skin.  These women swarmed us like flies to a dirty cow.  “Hello friends…you look my shop?  Bracelets good price!”  One woman sat down with us for 15 minutes telling us how her family makes all the bracelets by hand and that all the money she makes goes to her four children.  Naturally, I bought a bangle from her to do my part, only to see the same bracelet in 150 store fronts in town the next day.  Either she was yanking my chain or her family that supposedly creates these bracelets is 1,000 people large.  We were extremely duped.  Unfortunately or fortunately, again it depends on how you see it; these ladies are part of the charm of Palolem Beach.  Whether their work is honest or not, they work from sun up to well past sun down trying to support their families by selling cheap crap that tourists purchase because they are on vacation and just want to buy shiny things.  I cannot understand how these women bare the heat.  I could not be on the beach from 12pm to 3pm without being in the ocean because otherwise, the sun would quite literally scorch my skin off my body.  But, these ladies were dressed in female Indian garb from head to toe, relentlessly approaching the same tourists up and down the beach all day long.  I do admit that it could be exasperating at times, but we did our best to humor them.  One young woman told us that she has been working this beach for five years, but has never actually been in the ocean.  She said that every day that they work, they long to take a dip in the Arabian Sea because of the heat, but they are not allowed.  They cannot wear their sarees in the ocean, and they cannot wear anything besides a saree on the beach.  It is a vicious cycle.  Please note that she was telling us this story as we were wearing bikinis, getting pedicures, and sipping pina coladas.  It felt wrong at times.  Oh to be an Indian woman…

One of the highlights of our stay in Palolem, was an Indian cooking class Michelle and I decided to take one fine evening.  No other tourists showed up, so we had the entire three hours (and all the food) to ourselves.  We learned how to make Goan Curry, Paneer Masala, handmade chapattis, and lentils.  I think our teacher, Rahul, was more entertained than anyone.  The poor guy tried so hard to be professional, but we just were not cooperating.  At one point, I whipped out my Bollywood movie dance impersonation, which apparently is more humorous than ridden with talent.  Afterwards, at several points throughout the evening, Rahul would start laughing randomly and then would say, “Sorry, I was just thinking of your dance…”.  He gave us our own notebooks so that we could write down all the recipes and recreate our masterpieces again at home.  My friends in Washington DC are so lucky to have me move there after this excursion!  Our chapatis were constructed so wonderfully, that Rahul called us the Chapati Masters; and the Paneer Masala Michelle made was so scrumptious that he actually ate with us at the end of the class.  I doubt he does that with any of his other students.

Our time in Southern Goa was blissful, and Palolem is an extremely beautiful beach.  However, everywhere we turned, there were beach huts being constructed to make room for more visitors.  Sadly, I have a feeling if we went back in five years, the place just wouldn’t we the same.  So, if you need a vacation, go now!  We landed yesterday in Anjuna, in Northern Goa, to experience the infamous “Wednesday Flea Market”.  I am currently writing this post outside of our room at our guesthouse, while talking jibberish to the three year old British kid in the room next door.  We somehow understand each other.  I will end this post by saying: Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family!  We are off to find comfort food…

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Drinking Tea in Darjeeling

It has been a while since I have updated the ole blog, but I have been busy interacting with my friend, India.  Since my last post, Missy and I have spent a week in and around Darjeeling, 30 quick hours in Calcutta, and of course, about 48 hours on trains, buses, or in sketchy looking vans.  That’s just how we roll here in India.  I was recently speaking with my wonderful mother on Skype and she asked, “Why in the hell would you voluntarily take a 33 hour train from Calcutta to Mumbai, if you could just take a domestic flight?”  The lady has a point.  However, where is the fun in that?  Plus, some of the most beautiful sights in India can be seen through the train window.  So, I am currently on a 33 hour train ride from the very Eastern part of India to the very Western part of India, listening to my “Christmas Time” playlist on my Ipod.  Why is this you might ask?  Well, the other day, I was speaking to my boyfriend on my Indian cell phone, which is really more like a walkie-talkie than anything, and he exclaimed, “Lys…they are already playing Christmas commercials on tv and Christmas music on the radio here!”  That’s when it hit me that, where I come from, they are gearing up for the holidays.  So, I thought it was only fair that I get to listen to John Williams’s version of White Christmas over and over until I feel the Christmas spirit.  In case you were wondering; yes, that is the version of White Christmas that can be heard in one of the greatest American films of all time, Home Alone.  The nice old Indian man sitting next to me is very intrigued by the picture of Kevin McCallister that keeps popping up on my Ipod screen each time I hit repeat.  Anyways, I am sitting here on my way to Mumbai, as Missy sleeps next to me since she is currently suffering from the Delhi Belly (it happens), and I have just finished a wonderful and well balanced meal of popcorn, M&Ms, fried potatoes and a Pepsi.  I’m on vacation!  We are headed to Mumbai so that we can meet my dear friend, Michelle, who has come to India for a brief holiday from real life.  We are going to whisk her away to the Southern beaches of Goa because she deserves a vacation and well, we just want to go.  Below is a post I wrote a few days ago about our adventurous week in Darjeeling.  Warning…this is a long one! 

When and if you should ever have the urge to view a map of India, Darjeeling just looks awkwardly situated.  In other words, the place is difficult to visit without a little hustle and bustle.  In that case, it is a good thing that after traveling India for two months now, Missy and I are equipped for the old proverbial “bump in the road”.  To get to Darjeeling, we endured an uninterrupted string of what I like to call “transportationomics”.  It all started with the 12 hour train delay experienced by the “Varanasi train station crew” mentioned in the previous post; then a 16 hour train ride; followed by a three hour jeep ride up the mountain at 4:30am, in which four of us were shoved across one row of seats; a two mile walk to Alice Villa Hotel; and finally a three hour wait at a café for a room to open up for us.  Just to make sure you fully understand the sitch-e-ation, Missy and I left on the evening of November 7 for the train station in Varanasi and were finally able to settle into our establishment in Darjeeling on the afternoon of November 9.  I cannot explain to you in words how glorious my first shower in Darjeeling felt.  I mean…it was almost emotional.  

To be perfectly frank, my initial impression of Darjeeling was one of mild disappointment; but to be fair, I was crabby from extreme drowsiness, embarrassingly filthy from the “transportationomics” mentioned above, and running on very little food consumption.  I was utterly shocked at the congestion, commercialization and noise in a city that I was expecting to be quiet, serene and peaceful.  I would almost go so far to say that I was annoyed with the amount of Indians who inhabited their own country.  Are Indians really populating their country at such a massive rate that even the most remote hill stations are turning into mosh pits of people?  For the love of god, someone tell them to slow down the baby making.  (To the credit of Darjeeling, one positive observation I made immediately upon arrival was the absolute absence of a single cow…praise Buddah!!!)  However, after spending three precious days of my existence in the town of Darjeeling, it rapidly grew on me.  

First of all, Missy and I have the “Varanasi train station crew" to thank for hours of entertainment.  Well…we should really thank the ingenious human being who finally realized the lucrative potential of opening a pub for travelers somewhere in India.  Joey’s Pub became our evening sanctuary and the only reason Missy and I stayed up past our usual bedtime of 9:00pm.  Joey’s is seriously the first drinking establishment I have come across in over six weeks, and I was immediately buzzed just from the scent of beer.  One evening we even stayed out until 11:00pm; only to be lightly scolded by the owner of our hotel, who was waiting up for us by the gate upon our return.  Missy and I were buzzed AND getting in trouble for coming home late…it was like being a senior in high school all over again.  REBELS!!!  Anyways, the combination of drinking beer for the first time in months and having three sarcastic English traveling friends regale us with stories in their posh UK accents was truly special.  (On another side note, it really is a mystery to me why my parents did not try harder to raise my brother and I with English accents…it is one of life’s greatest travesties and setbacks).  Anyways, the five of us spent hours trying to “out funny” each other over a few brews, with tales from our Indian travel experiences.  For those of you who faithfully read this blog, you can attest to the fact that Missy and I have accumulated enough ridiculous stories from the last two months of our lives to have really held our own in this group.  However, Craig and Jennifer from Birmingham (England not Alabama people) take the cake for giving the group the biggest laughs.  I especially appreciated one of Craig’s animated rants, after reading a story in his trusted Lonely Plant, about a city in India that experienced a recent outbreak of the plague in the late ‘90s.  The plague as in…the disease that can be referred to in Shakespeare plays or fifth grade history text books.  After Craig had consumed about five beers, he exclaimed in his best English accent: “I know it’s not supposed to be funny, but……..THE PLAGUE!.......IT’S A MEDIEVAL DISEASE FOR GODS SAKE!......WHAT PLACE ON EARTH COULD POSSIBLY STILL GET THE PLAGUE!?”.  It was indescribably funny at the time and Missy and I laughed about it for the next 36 hours.  I could honestly write a short novel recalling the conversations had amongst the “Varanasi train station crew”, but I will save that for a rainy day.  I would just like to thank the powers that be for throwing the five of us together for a few days.  Craig, Jennifer, and Jenny; if you are reading this, we love you.

Now, beer and funny English people were obviously not the only reasons for my heightened enthusiasm about Darjeeling.  The real credit goes to the incredibly harmonious and painfully friendly community created by the Indian, Tibetan, and Nepali citizens of this great town.  I have never seen so many people of varying descents and religions coexist so beautifully.  It really made for a warm and fuzzy experience.  I especially have a soft spot in my heart for the dozens of chubby Tibetan children and old Nepali grandpas that populate this hill station.  I can’t decide which ones I like to stare at more.  All the children in this town look like the little Boy Scout from the animated phenomenon and Pixar movie, UP.  It took all my strength not to pinch their pink cheeks or kidnap one of them as a souvenir.  Could you imagine that conversation at customs upon my return to the United States?  “Uhhh yes sir…I am carrying a couple of wool blankets, some Indian spices, and one 150 pound Tibetan child”.  Amazing.

Lastly, I credit Darjeeling’s massive appeal to the mountainous terrain that creates its outer layers.  One morning, all the members of the “Varanasi train station crew” jumped in a jeep at 4:30am and were shuttled to the top of Tiger Hill to catch the sun rising over Khangchendzonga.  This is the third highest peak in the entire world and its name literally means something like “big snowy peak”…creativity at its finest.  From the top of Tiger Hill, besides battling 5,000 Indian citizens to be in the front of the line, we could see the peaks of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kabru, and Janu.  It was truly spectacular.  It was one of the times on this trip that the hair on my arms actually stood up; one of those moments where the appreciation of taking in such a sight was overwhelming.  The pictures do not even come close to doing this image justice, but you can’t blame us for trying…

The rest of our time in the commercial section of Darjeeling was spent eating at Sonam’s kitchen, the only place downtown to get coffee instead of tea and a breakfast sandwich that will change your life; listening to local citizens sing into a microphone in the middle of town square, known as Chowrasta; and doing massive amounts of souvenir shopping.  I mean MASSIVE amounts of shopping.  All I can say is that our families and friends are extremely lucky to know us at this time in our lives.  Missy and I had to buy an enormous (and eco-friendly) bag to hold all of the trinkets we picked up in Darjeeling.  We are the only backpackers I know who have a backpack AND a carry on.  Don’t worry people; we plan on shoving said bag into a locker in Mumbai for three weeks before we head south to beach country.  We will be backpacking in style again soon enough.  

Now…onto the good stuff…like drinking true Darjeeling tea, experiencing the remote beauty offered by the tea farms on the far outskirts of the informal state of Gorkhaland, and living under the roof of a Nepali family at Makaibari Tea Estates.

What is Gorkhaland, you might be asking yourself?  I will tell you.  It is the name of the state people in this part of India have appointed for themselves.  The inhabitants of this section of the country, who admittedly have an extremely different culture and lifestyle from the rest of the state of Bengal, would like the Indian government to recognize this by giving them their own state; which they have decided to call, Gorkhaland.  I mean, if I was a map maker in charge of giving territories their labels and titles, I could not possibly think of a better name than Gorkhaland.  It sounds like somewhere Darth Vader would set up shop.  Anyways, to make their point known, the citizens of Gorkhaland have painted the word on every single shop and stall from one border to another; just in case you forgot that they no longer associate themselves with the state of Bengal.  One quiet afternoon in the town of Kursheong, Missy and I stumbled upon a very peaceful and organized line of picketers yelling over and over again; “We want Gorkhaland.  Gorkhaland.  Gorkhaland!”  I say why not just give it to them India?


After spending a few days in town, Missy and I fled to the countryside.  We had booked two nights at the infamous Makaibari Tea Estates.  Darjeeling is responsible for supplying India with 25% of its tea…and Indians drink A LOT of tea.  Makaibari is the only tea estate in the world that offers bioorganic tea, and many of you have probably tasted tea from these hills if you have ever had the brand Tazo.  Anyhoooooo, our experience at Makaibari was extremely authentic and blissfully tranquil.  The estate employs over 600 workers, and is home to many of them.  In late October, a reporter for the Washington Post wrote an article about Indian homestays, and she claimed that Makaibari was the best money she has ever spent in India (and it was not much money at all); and I could not agree with her more.  We were able to stay with a Nepali family in their home, drink as much tea as we wanted, eat three freshly prepared meals every day, participate in a formal tea tasting, and forever meander through the endless acres of beautiful tea plantations.  All this for about $15 a day…RIDICULOUS!  I do have to confess that after drinking tea for 48 hours, all I could think about was slamming an extra-large vanilla latte as soon as possible.  I think I even dreamt one night at the homestay that I went tubing down a river of frappuccino.  It is safe to declare that I am a coffee girl through and through.  Nevertheless, I do enjoy a nice healthy cup of Indian tea.

The authenticity of the home stay experience at Makaibari was something that truly caught me off guard.  The property is not at all geared towards tourists, and the family we stayed with did not alter their daily habits, lifestyle, or chores for us at all.  We really got to experience what a day in the life of a tea farming family is like in India.  Our host mother spoke very little English, but the enormous smile she wore at all hours of the day was enough for me.  She made us feel so welcome in her home without having to carry on hours of conversation.  Her husband is a mountain trekking guide in India and Nepal, and one of the most respected members of the Makaibari community.  Their seven year old son, Sonam, goes to a Christian English school, and watches more TV than any American child I have ever known.  I mean the kid lives at the bottom of a mountain, on acres and acres of tea farms, and he spent his entire Saturday afternoon watching Power Rangers.  To each his own I guess.  Also crammed into this single story home is their nephew, who studies at the local university; one set of Sonam’s grandparents; and who knows who else.  Honestly, different people were coming in and out of that tiny house the entire time we were there, and I could not keep track of them all.  My favorite family member by a landslide was Grandma.  I did not hear her utter a real single word the entire time we were in her home, but she ran around the house like crazy cooking, cleaning, and scolding her grandson.  She was about four feet tall, 90 pounds, and could put away more rice than any human being I have ever seen.  Seriously, watching Grandma eat rice was an adventure of its own.  I have no idea where she stored it all, but before every meal, Missy and I would place bets for how many trips to the rice cooker grandma would make.  The one occasion I interacted directly with Grandma, was when I tried to roll my own Tibetan momo (dumpling), and it ended up looking instead, like a doughnut hole.  She took one look at the thing, then at me, and then she burst into a giggle fit.  The realization that I made grandma laugh that hard almost brought tears to my eyes out of pride.  VICTORY!  


As Missy and I spent three hours sitting at the kitchen table with our host family; I helping to make homemade Tibetan momos, and Missy singing Christian school hymns with Sonam from his school book; I could not help but feel extremely gratified about our decision to stay in India for our entire trip, rather than try and cram in Southeast Asia.  It’s crazy to think that one month ago I was sleeping on a camel blanket in the Thar Desert and taking in the sight of the Taj Mahal; that currently, I was kneading dough with a Nepali family in the middle of the Darjeeling mountains; and in two weeks I would be lying on a beach and cruising the backwaters of Southern India on a house boat.  I am so very grateful for this experience. 

The actual beauty of the tea plantations is really hard to describe here.  You can literally view rows and rows of tea bushes, up and down the hillsides, for miles on end.  As we strolled through the tea gardens, we were able to stop and watch the female workers pick leaves and place them into baskets they wore on their backs.  Their colorful outfits stood out so pleasantly against the greenery of the tea gardens.  During one of our strolls, we were lucky enough to run into our host mom working in the tea fields with a large group of women.  Naturally, Missy and I invited ourselves to join them on their morning break, and were able to carry two baskets of freshly picked tea up a steep hill in the traditional manner of carrying tea; by placing the straw handle across your head.  Apparently foreign tourists do not usually partake in such an activity, because these fifteen to twenty women thought the sight of two white girls carrying tea baskets up a hill was the most hysterical thing they have ever witnessed.  I thought our host mom, who happened to be five months pregnant, was actually going to pee her pants from laughing so hard.  Needless to say, it was a fun 60 minutes.
If you should ever have the opportunity to travel extensively through India, I would say that Makaibari is a must do.  Mr. Banjaree, the owner and chief operator of the estate is a well-educated, lively fellow; whose humanitarian goals and efforts are quite impressive.  He conducted our formal tea tasting, and after spending just fifteen minutes in his presence, I deduced that he must dissolve caffeine pills into every cup of tea he drinks.  He was like an Indian Willy Wonka shuttling us through his land of tea and happiness. 

After spending about a week in Darjeeling, we were ready to head to our next stop; Calcutta.  In true “Missy and Alysa” fashion, we waited until the last minute to catch the three hour van ride down the mountain to the train station, and had to nearly risk our lives to make our train.  If my mother had seen the way we were barreling down the mountain, without seatbelts, on the edge of a cliff, in a scary white van that would never pass inspection in the United States, she would have surely disowned me.  However, had our driver not driven like a bat out of hell, we would have been stuck at another train station for the night and I am not really sure if we would have survived it.  After all, like so many Indians have preached to us, “The only driving rule in India is that there are no rules!”  It’s true.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Diwali from Varanasi!

Since my last interaction with this forum, Missy and I have been up to our usual act of galavanting around this great country, getting ourselves into interesting situations.  Of course, this sort of behavior in turn, provides me with the material I am able to so haphazardly provide here on Gypsyjuice.  In 72 hours, we have taken a 15 hour, horribly over packed sleeper train from Rishikesh to Varanasi; experienced the Hindu celebration of Diwali; witnessed the beauty and despair of the burning ghats; felt our first real inkling of near exasperation brought on by the copious amounts of filth, hassling from vendors, and inappropriate gestures from men that all presented themselves to us in this particular city as this particular time; devoured the entirety of Greg Mortensen’s second novel, Stones into Schools, which left me completely dumbfounded and moved to tears; listened to beautiful Indian classical sitar and tabla music for a whopping $2; and fell victim to a 12 hour long train delay last night, which left us sleeping on a tarp on the ground outside the train station.  Yup…life in this neck of the woods is quite entertaining and I would not have it any other way at the present moment.  

                                                            (Cricket game on the ghat)

I will first address our train excursion from Rishikesh to Varanasi, which just so happened to take place on the eve of Diwali, the most celebrated holiday on the Hindu calendar.  In other words, everyone in this overpopulated country was traveling that evening…and I mean everyone.  To paint a clear picture, there were hundreds of Indians sleeping, while sitting up, on the floors of the train cars and in the spaces between each car, which happen to house the restrooms and sinks.  At 3:00am, I woke up with an urgent need to visit the little girls room (which is really just a hole in the floor that leads directly to the train tracks), but when I looked down from my ceiling bunk, I saw that the only way to reach the restroom feasibly would be to quite literally crowd surf.  After a very brief internal pep talk, I peeled myself from my “bed”, stepped on several innocent peoples’ hands and faces, probably severed a few limbs on the way; and was eventually able to reach the bathroom with little trauma inflicted.   Thanks to Tibetan brown bread and peanut butter, an endless source of excellent and cheap reading material, and just overall awesome attitudes, Missy and I have gotten quite good at the actual “travel part” of traveling.  If I may be so bold to declare, we are true descendants of Into the Wild.

What is Diwali all about?  From the outside, it looks like a disheveled, chaotic, mess of countless people, vibrant colors, small street fires, and temple celebrations.  However, once you see past the insanity, there lies a deeply inspiring Hindu faith, an unreal sense of Indian culture, and a side of India I have not yet truly seen: the party people.  What struck me most were the very distinct differences between the Hindu New Year celebration and Christmas, what I would deem as the Catholic New Year celebration.  For me, Christmas Eve as a child boasted an intimate family gathering at my grandparents’ home, a letter writing session to Santa, followed by an 8pm bed time.  As I looked around me at 8pm on Diwali, there were goats roaming the streets wearing men’s button-up shirts, Indian music blasting on every street, and very young children who had hardly learned to walk were running around setting off what looked like miniature NASA rockets.  We saw one old woman’s hair almost catch on fire due to a two year playing unsupervised with a sparkler.  Experiencing Diwali in Varanasi, the oldest and most spiritual Hindu city that exists on earth, was a cross between standing in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve and being caught in a real life game of toddler laser tag.  Needless to say, we had fun.  I am considering putting in a formal request to my family to incorporate explosives into our Christmas Eve traditions this year.  I think there is a time slot available right before we all sit down to eat caramel popcorn balls, drink spiked fruit punch, and watch six hours of the action packed Christmas thriller, Moses.  

The main reason so many Indian pilgrims and International travelers visit the city of Varanasi is not because many believe it to be one of the oldest cities in the world, or because of the romantic gondola rides that can be taken down the Ganges River for a mere 50 rupees; but for the deeply moving showcases of spirituality, sadness, and humility witnessed at the burning ghats.  Hindus from all over the country bring their deceased loved ones to Varanasi, to cremate them in the very public fires along the Ganges River.  It is believed that in doing so, these souls go straight to the sky.  The reason for this belief involves a long, interesting story having to do with a certain king and the god Shiva, and you can Google this story at your own leisure if you would like to educate yourself further, because I cannot recall the details at the present moment.  I was extremely apprehensive about visiting the burning ghats.  First of all, I have never in my life witnessed a cremation before and I had no idea how it would make me feel.  Secondly, in my culture, this is a very private practice reserved for close family and friends.  And lastly, it felt extremely foreign and intrusive to be witnessing such an event.  However, after speaking with several Indians regarding the ancient practice, I learned that in India, the ceremony at the burning ghats in Varanasi is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow on a family member.  The combination of the heartfelt loss that was painstakingly visible on the faces of each family member and the presence of a calm celebration in light of the soul moving on from this life was extremely powerful.  

As for feeling utterly exasperated from the Diwali crowds, relentless heckling from street vendors, and the filth that results from a lack of garbage cans and cow poop that happens to be EVERYWHERE; let’s just say that this is the first time we have really felt at wits end in India, which is highly commendable given the fact that we have been here for two months.  On a side note, on our last day in Varanasi, as Missy snoozed on a cushion on a restaurant terrace, I spent a good 45 minutes watching a very slow moving, old man walk up and down the main ghat, collecting cow droppings in a bag, and then turning them into cow dung patties, which he stacked in rows.  He did this all day…with his bare hands.  I realize that Indians can make use of the cow droppings as fuel for fires, but at the time I was watching him thinking: “What in the Sam hill is that crazy old man doing?”

Missy and I both just finished reading Greg Mortenson’s, Stones into Schools. His first novel, Three Cups of Tea, which relayed his seriously inspiring story of how his life changed after stumbling upon a remote Pakistani village, after a failed attempt at climbing K2, was an International phenomenon.  This simple and ordinary man has single handedly launched a powerful initiative within the U.S. to promote the dire need for female education in war torn countries.  The 130+ schools that his NGO has miraculously built in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban infested areas; has been one of the largest movements in combating long-term threats from militant Islamic groups to date.  He and his colleagues have dedicated their lives to the reality that the education of children is a vital part of not only stabilizing war torn countries, but eventually turning them into peaceful, prospering nations.  His collaboration with the most remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as his work with U.S. armed forces truly is awe-inspiring.  I finished the novel feeling extremely proud of our soldiers for the work they are doing in these communities.  So much of the American media is focused on the exorbitant funds our government spends every day on weapons and machinery, but tends to overlook the importance of highlighting the positive impacts our soldiers are having on Afghan communities, for the American public.  Greg Mortenson really focuses on the changes our soldiers are making on a daily basis through interaction and education.  My apologies for the sermon, but this is what happens when I connect with a novel.  

For the past few weeks Missy and I have been keeping our eyes and ears open for a fortune teller.  It’s just one of those odd practices that seemed incredibly enticing at the time.  So, you can imagine our excitement when a crazy old man (there seems to be a lot of those in Varanasi) walked right up to us and announced that for 300 rupees he could look at our hands and faces, and tell each of us our fortunes.  We negotiated the price to 50% off, and followed the man to his secret lair, which was really just a seat on the most crowded place on the Ganges River.  After ten minutes of hocus pocus talk, I learned that I will be married at the age of 29, have a son when I am 32, and a daughter when I am 36.  On January 7 of next year, I will begin the golden period of my life…our friend did not elaborate as to what this means, but it sounds good to me.  Also, he told me to be careful of any boyfriends because they could be using me for my money or as a fling, and not my heart.  This was amusing to me since: 1) I am currently squandering a chunk of my savings in India, and 2) I recently started dating my best friend and childhood sweetheart again.  I’ll have to look into these speculations further when I get home (insert wink face here).  The best part of our fortunes is that Missy and I will each live to be at least 85, so we have many trips ahead of us!

And finally, probably the most local experience we have had to date; sleeping on the ground outside the Varanasi train station.  Upon arrival to the station yesterday evening, we quickly stumbled upon “the other white people” that were quizzically meandering around the place, trying to figure out where to go.  We quickly united and formed a cohesive traveling dream team.  After inquiring about our train several times, I began to feel like I was back in an American airport dealing with Delta Airlines, and actually experienced a severe case of déjà vu.  “One hour delay”.  “Two hour delay”.  “Your train will not come until 4:00 am”.  “Your train will come at 7:30am”.  At 9:00am this morning, we boarded the train that was scheduled to depart at 10:00pm last night.  So, what did we do with 11 hours of free time?  We bought a tarp for 10 rupees, spread it on the ground, polished off a bag of Ritz crackers, and had a little sleepover picnic with hundreds of Indians and several dozen cows outside of the train station.  I would like to say we slept under the stars, but the dust was so heavy in Varanasi, that you could barely see a streetlight.  This morning I brushed my teeth in the parking lot and peed in a hole in the floor, just like everyone else.  Like I said in a previous post, we are survivors, Missy and I.

At the present moment, we are on another long and arduous train journey to Darjeeling, one of our most anticipated stops.  After a 16 hour train ride, we are going to rent a van with our new train station friends; Jennifer, Jenny, and Craig from England; and eventually get to Darjeeling sometime this week.  We will spend three nights in town admiring the beauty of the mountains and tea plantations, and then we are off to spend two nights at Makaibari Tea Estates, an Indian home stay 90 minutes from Darjeeling.  The Washington Post just printed an excellent write up on Makaibari, and apparently all of our meals are homemade and we pick our own tea leaves for our morning tea.  A nice travel agent in Varanasi declared to us one day; “When you are in Darjeeling, you will think you are in heaven.”  I’ll take two please…

p.s. - For pretty pictures of our adventures, check out Missy's blog:  The pictures on my blog serve simply as illustrations.  I do not have the knack, nor the artistic talent for picture taking that Missy possesses.  They are fantastic!