Thursday, December 25, 2008

Varanasi and the glorious Ganges River



So... The overnight train last night was really nice- first class! Fresh sheets and surprisingly clean bathrooms! And I met two really nice girls also traveling alone, and we were all in the same compartment, which was cool because the worst case scenario is being in the same compartment with a bunch of creepy Indian men. I slept great, and I still feel like I'm on the train, everything slightly in motion, gravity feeling a little bit off.


I went on a boat ride on the Ganges river. Where people come to be cremated and thrown into the river. And yes it's true, people do bathe here too, rub-a-dub, soapin' up at the side of the river! They wash their clothes here as well. And their water buffaloes. And dump their trash in it, along with their prayers. This river is sacred, all is forgiven, all is purified, who bathes in the Ganges river.


Not everybody bathes in it though. The guy who works here at the hotel told me what happened to him- he said it is tradition when a relative dies and they burn the body, you have to bathe in the Ganges too. So he had to get in the water- the weather was cold and he really wasn't into it, then when he did get in there, a dead body surfaced right next to him- completely freaked him out- he said the eyes were falling out of the head...!!! He had nightmares for months. Amazing, what happens in the name of religion.

I'm reading a book called The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. It's very good- so well-written, and introduces ideas about integrity, happiness, self-respect, um... so much I haven't digested it all yet. But it makes me think about how India is so dirty- but people persist in the name of religion- their temples and things they worship seem to put personal health at risk- you have to go barefoot in most temples, avoiding cow shit, and probably human shit, people's nasty spitting on the ground... Why doesn't someone just say- look, this is nasty, we gotta clean it up! But no- somehow it's ok because cows are sacred, and it would insult the gods to wear shoes in the presence of their temples... I don't mean to disrespect, but I prefer to think for myself instead of following some tradition just because it's always been done. Of course I have a different perspective... But I think many modern developments (and improvements) came about because somebody questioned the way "it's always been done."

Tomorrow I wake up for a 5:30am boat trip to watch the sun rise over morning prayers. It should be beautiful. Then it's a whirlwind tour of some temples, and off to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first lecture. When I get back, I'll board the train for another overnight to wake up in Kolkata... I wish I could spend more time and get lost in Varanasi- there just isn't enough time!

Oh yeah, and it's Christmas today! Merry Christmas everyone!

There were a bunch of people celebrating in the streets today, I don't know why!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Off again- one week, five cities

So I arrived by overnight sleeper bus in New Delhi on a frigid Monday morning, and took the autorickshaw to Tinku's house. The bus was not bad- I ended up knowing quite a few folks that were also traveling to New Delhi at the same time- Pushkar was a great small town. The sleeper compartment was also not bad at all, perfect for someone my size!
Anyways, Tinku had to work on Monday, but her husband was nice enough to let me tag along on some errands he had to run, including going to the train station- a great help having someone who knew how to navigate the system. We met up for lunch though at Karim's- delicious! First time I had meat since Mumbai- Pushkar was a veg town- they don't even have eggs! (and no alcohol either... although anything can be had- at a price!) We visited Rafik, a silver jeweler in the main bazaar, had chai and talked of many things...
I booked a ticket to Agra to see the Taj Mahal-

I booked a ticket to Varanasi, where I will arrive on Christmas morning.
I leave Varanasi on the 26th and go by another overnight train to Calcutta, arriving on the 27th in the morning. Then I leave on the 29th to go to Hyderabad by plane- finally meeting up with Pri just in time for the New Year!
Quite a lot of traveling in a short time. I'd rather have more time to chill in one spot and get to know it a little better, but time is ticking! 6 weeks to see India seemed like a long time, but there's so much to see... 6 months wouldn't be enough.

So, I saw the Taj...

It was indeed as magnificent as reported. From the moment you see it at a distance, it looks unreal and perfect. It rises against a blue sky, reflected in the rectangular reflecting pool that lies in front of it. My pictures looked exactly like every picture I've seen of the Taj. Just incredibly perfect and awe-inspiring. I wish I could have stayed there all day- We were there at sunset, until the guards kicked us out. Even as the light faded, the Taj kept glowing.
I also went to Fatehpur Sikri (abandoned city built by Emperor Akbar, who built it in honor of his first born son. It was the capitol of the Mughal empire between 1571 and 1585. Unfortunately it was abandoned due to water shortages. Akbar had three wives, and promoted peace between religions.)
And I went to the Agra Fort- where Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj during the years 1631-1653 (for a cost of millions), was imprisoned by his son soon after the Taj's completion until he died in 1666. Harsh life, no?

This morning I took the train back to Delhi, where I will hang out for a few hours until I board the train again to Varanasi. I am still a little overwhelmed by the whole train thing- got on the wrong train this morning in Agra and went through some minor confusion and running around, but ended up in the right place (back at the New Delhi train station) after all! There are just so many people in India...
Some people are really nice and helpful. Some are just not concerned with you at all. Others look mean until you smile at them and say hello. Some people pretend they didn't see you smile or hear you speak and then ignore you. And many want to involve you in their scheme- and there are so many schemes... The best technique is to approach someone for help. If someone comes up offering something, there is usually a reason, and it is most likely their reason, not yours.
Anyways, to sum it up, things are still going well, the traveling is harder than the staying put, so this week will be tough, but I predict it will be very rewarding.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Still in Pushkar!

I decided to stay here another couple of days... I still have some silver pieces sitting in the acid bath, and another few I need to file down, and it's just been so nice here! So I changed the bus ticket to go directly to Delhi on Sunday night. I'll see the Taj Mahal on Tuesday, and leave for Rishikesh on Christmas eve... At least, providing my plans don't change...
I have gotten much more comfortable doing this traveling thing... Being alone means I don't have to consult anyone to make a decision, and I can change my mind at the drop of a dime! I can also spend hours and hours in the silver shop, completely in the zone.
I also did a little shopping- clothes here are very styly- I think I found a few good pieces I can rock in the states without looking like a transplanted sadhu (A sadhu is a wandering ascetic who renounces all worldly possesions and devotes himself to religion... They walk barefoot and wear turbans and wrap themselves in white cloth. They beg for money on the street, and I don't think they bathe very often. Like many Hindus, they wear the tikka on their forehead. Some carry staffs. I couldn't ever really imitate the style of a sadhu! Also, I don't know, I've never seen a woman sadhu.)
So, a few other things about Pushkar- my hotel is great, but no bubble bath facilities :-( But the guys who works there are very nice, and my favorite Australian couple also lived there- although they left this morning for Jodphur- It is true, angels exist, and they are some real-life examples. It's 150 rupees a night, which is about $3.50 USD. I love coming home to my own little place! It's quiet and centrally located.
Moon-chul is an enterprising Korean guy who just opened a store here- selling anything and everything, mostly stuff donated by visiting foreign tourists, for sale mostly to visiting Indian tourists. He has a little puppy dog that he brought here from Rishikesh... The little guy has really sharp teeth but is so cute! I donated a blue fleece (Gap brand) to the store. He priced it at 300 rupees- we'll see how it sells!
What else... Silver class is starting later today so Sunil can buy more silver. So I went for a hike up this hill that rises straight up out of the earth and has a temple on top. There were a lot of monkeys on the way... Also a lot of tractors, going full speed on the road which was basically made of very fine dust! Blech. But the hike was awesome- a great workout- huge stone steps- I can only imagine the workout it must have been for the people who actually laid the stones to set the path... People told me it would take two hours to get up and back- one and a half to get up, and half to get down. But you know me, I charged up in 1/2 an hour, passing pilgrims left and right! A group of young obnoxious Indian dudes who had been sitting and taking a break tried to talk to me, and I said hello but kept walking, and they started to walk with me- and I was just pleased as punch because I just knew they wouldn't be able to keep up! The concept of strength and endurance training has just not reached Pushkar.
Anyways, love and miss you all!
Keep in touch and send me news from home.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

peaceful in pushkar

well, the title of this post is sortof a joke, but not too much. it's a tiny little town, built around a holy lake, with one main drag. Lots of atmosphere- incense burning, people stirring huge steaming pots of sweet milk to make supersweet desserts, stringing flowers on rope to make puja, peanut vendors, village ladies in mismatched saris, dogs, cows, cow patties. Dreadlocks, nag champa and bhang lassis abound. You wondered where hippies got their supply of baggy clothes? This is the motherland. Everybody is doing business of some kind. Even the little kids, who follow you around and ask, "where from?" "where going?" "I know, I know, I take you there." "5 rupees" "10 rupees" "I am your best friend, 10 rupees!" Actually, it's not just the little kids, it's everyone. "Chai!" "Coffee!" "Hello!? Excuse me miss!" It's like the flies that also abound, landing on you everywhere, even on your eyes if you ever were to stand still for long. My refuge from this is the only (well maybe not the only)- reason I am still here- I am learning to make silver jewelry with this kid who comes from a family of silver jewelry makers... There are a lot of people who teach this here- my teacher is the best! ;-) He's very patient, and he says, "It's most important if you happy. You happy? Ok." So I've extending my stay here and spending all day in the silver shop. I love learning, and having a purpose, it's such a welcome break from sightseeing and well- more sightseeing... Which is not bad at all, there is so much to see. But it's nice to be able to go somewhere everyday and work with your hands. And escape the incessant questioning when you go out on the street.
The lake is beautiful, there are steps that go down to the water, and people go there to pray and make offerings. They ring bells and chant, they throw water around. Ghandi's ashes were spread onto this lake. It's a site of spiritual pilgrimage. I wake up at 4 in the morning to music and bells.
There is no nightlife in this town, everything is dead after about nine. I've met some really nice fellow travelers who I've gotten to know a bit, in that we've hung out over a couple of days, instead of the usual brief moment while having a chai or fresh fruit (I had the best fruit salad with muesli, curd (curd is yogurt...!) and honey mix ever here!). There is a nice mix of ethnicities and all with a very pleasant traveler attitude. We meet for dinner at night and chat... The best is Tiger, the little black puppy that one of the kids brought from Rishikesh. Somebody remarked on how different it is here, where cows are sacred but dogs are treated like trash. But everybody loves Tiger.
I've pushed my plans to go to Rishikesh on Friday instead of tomorrow (Thursday), just so I can stay one more day and keep working with silver. It's intensive work, you spend hours on just one piece, sitting on the floor, choosing the stone, designing the piece, cutting the silver, preparing wire, heating with fire to anneal the silver, soldering to connect pieces, sawing out the shape, filing down the edges, dropping it in the acid. The final step is the polish, and after that, it is beautiful. It is so satisfying to make such beautiful stuff- and also to go through the whole process of shaping the metal. It's like being an advanced form of a caveman, shaping art through the fire. What amazing things we humans have done. In India, I feel much closer to the dirt and earth our ancestors must have been covered in when they were making fire and skinning mammoth leather.
So, now I will find some food and return again to the silver shop until evening! I love working like this. It's so one-track and focused, and I love being able to just stay here and do it. I could stay here for weeks, and many people do. But I did want to see Rishikesh, which I will do for a couple days this weekend, then I will get to Delhi by Monday, where I will meet up with a friend of a friend, and on Christmas Eve I plan to fly to Hyderabad to meet up with Pri and her family. It would be so easy to get lost here. I have gotten used to this travel in India thing.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

And the saga continues... Udaipur

Looking back on Mumbai...
How intense. From jet lag to capoeira to visiting the sites of the terrorist attacks and reading the papers, from the heat to the traffic to getting sick.
From India: Mumbai

Udaipur is a peaceful town.

I ended up with a severe case of the homesickness. Jet lag is one thing, but missing home and realizing I won't be back for months, and thinking about how everything will be different when I return- I felt very sad, very nostalgic. Like I am turning over a new page in my life whether I like it or not. I really missed the convenience of being able to contact my friends whenever I wanted to. I think it was a phase of adjustment I had to get through, to admit to myself that I am gone from life as I know it.

But you'll be happy to hear that everything went very well here. My hotel was beautiful.
From Udaipur

From Udaipur


The people were very nice. I made some friends, some fellow female solo travelors, whose family and friends were also very concerned about them as well, but here they are anyways- I'm not the only one doing this! Of course the couples and groups of travelers are much more common- older couples, people in their 40-50s seemingly, who look like they're strolling down the third street promenade! (Except for the motorcycles whizzing by in these little twisty alleyways inches from your elbow!) I am however, the only American I have come across... The two kids I who I thought might be turned out to be Canadian.
From Udaipur

I took a yoga class. I saw a dance show. A woman danced with a succession of pots being placed on her head, and each time they put another one on, she did something, like stepping on the sides of a metal pan and tapping a beat, picking up a hankerchief off the floor with her teeth, and walking on crushed glass. It was a really good show! (I have a mental note to see more dance shows in LA when I get back... I love dancing!)

I took a rickshaw tour of the city and special monuments, and I took a taxi out to Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur. There is a lot of history to Rajasthan that I'm a little fuzzy on but will update more later- There was a huge battle of the Rajputs against the Mughals (the reigning kings) and the Rajputs won and have been ruling this region for the past 500 years. They are fierce warriors. Kumbalgarh was the site of a huge fort built to keep out the Mughals. It was huge and covered the countryside like the wall of China.
Ranakpur was a bunch of Jain temples from 500 years ago. The temples were made of beatifully carved white marble. Very intricate carvings, all the way up to the ceilings, large domed, beautiful ceilings. Very peaceful.
From Udaipur

The taxi ride over was also cool- passing people dressed as they probably have for the past 500 years- turbans, saris, doing all kinds of manual labor- herding sheep, digging ditches- even the women- farming, carrying pots and sticks and leaves and all kinds of stuff on their heads. Everyone seemed to be very wrinkled and old, except for the children, who were all very dirty. Their eyes were really bright and they all looked at me as we drove by.
My taxi driver was really nice, and bought me little cups of chai along the way.
So, that's been my life in a nutshell for the past couple of days! Tonight I go to Pushkar. Welcome to hear your comments!

*Update with pictures: Jan 31, 2009... I took a boat tour on the lake. How resplendent with glory from days past until today!
From Udaipur


From Udaipur


The Taj Group has a hotel there, where they filmed Octopussy...
From Udaipur

Today you can take a boat ride, as I did...
From Udaipur

Or you can take a boat ride, as they did... The couple in the boat were having a glass of wine...
From Udaipur

Then you can stop at Jag Mandir, a 3-story palace built on an island for Shah Jahan, where he cavorted with his female attendents. Today it is a 5-star hotel, complete with spa and fine dining!
From Udaipur

From Udaipur

Monday, December 8, 2008

Colaba

So I've found myself in a quiet cafe with a cappucino.
It's funny, how when traveling without a plan it is initially so nervewracking.
The sense of relief when things come together is so proportionately great! I hope the scheduling works out!
It looks like I will be leaving for Udaipur on Wednesday, then as follows:
Udaipur - Jodphur - Jaisalmer - Jaipur - Agra - Varanasi - Rishikesh - Delhi - Dubai - Hyderabad - Kerala - Sri Lanka - Hong Kong - China mainland...
Although things change by the hour...
Took the local train down to South Mumbai with Aarti this morning, a ladies only car. Everyone in saris except for me and Aarti. We had a conversation about arranged marriage. Her dad keeps trying to set her up, but she doesn't like anyone he chooses. She acknowledges that the time has come to start looking for someone to settle down with. She spoke of company, but also of responsibility and consideration. You have to share everything! and your decisions will not be yours alone to make. She is a very independent woman.
I read a sign at the train station. Didn't have time to photograph it, but it stuck with me as I ventured into South Mumbai- "Fearlessness is the key to spirituality".
Fearlessness...
So I wandered the streets, got lost, then found what I was looking for- ended up at the Gateway of India, with the Taj Hotel across the street, the burn marks coming from it's windows like shocking, shameful scars. It made me want to look away, then turn back and stare.
I met a friend for lunch, a fellow capoeirista who broke her pinky doing au last week. It was delicious!
After posting this, I will continue my wanderings...
-Akemi

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cheguei!

So, I arrived in Mumbai on Thursday morning and it's been a whirlwind...
The hotel was good, they picked me up as scheduled, and it was a little moldy smelling but clean and breakfast was good (Hotel Airport International, very close to Mumbai Int'l airport in North Mumbai).
From India: Mumbai
From India: Mumbai

And thank you so much to Reza/Baba, who picked me up from the hotel a few hours later...
From India: Mumbai
He is from Grupo Cordao de Ouro, and the only capoeira group in India.
From India: Mumbai

I am staying with Aarti, who is a really cool chick who has hosted me very graciously in her place in North Mumbai. It's walking distance to stores, internet, food, bunch of stuff, so I can wander around during the day while she's at work.

The couple of evenings I've been here have been filled with capoeira, capoeira
From India: Mumbai
and... capoeira- oh yeah, and Mumbai totally reminds me of Brasil- the same trees, tall bldgs, and crazy traffic, although it's probably worse here. There's also slums very similar to favelas, and little street kids selling stuff when you stop your car at a street light.
From India: Mumbai

Tonight we celebrated Reza's son's 6 year birthday, at the backyard/park of the complex where they live. There was a huge inflatable slide, a DJ, tons of delicious food homemade by Reza and his mom (he used to be a chef in Israel, where he learned capoeira over 12 years living there...). Oh yeah, and a roda... Capoeira India is in the infatuation stage - the students all hang out and drink beers after class, playing atabaque on every available surface, practicing take downs on unsuspecting classmates, singing - great singing! even though they don't know (some of the) words! They've been here about 3 years, and there are some very dedicated students. They have been so nice, so welcoming.
I made plans today to fly to Udaipur next Wednesday... After that to Jodhpur, then Jaisalmer, and from there I am still adjusting the itinerary.
As far as the terrorist attacks- Monday or Tuesday I will try to make it out to South Mumbai where it all happened. Going to run that one by the locals tomorrow and see what their suggestions are, but I think things are pretty much back to normal. The problem with normal is that security is not that good to begin with, so... whatever that means, I guess. There are more guards sitting outside the hotels behind banks of sandbags.
From India: Mumbai

There are risks involved here, as far as traveling in India- I'm trying to stay on top of the news and choose the safest options, listen to the locals, and stay away from major tourist hotels and red alert airports. Wish me luck and I'll keep you updated...
Love to everyone!
-Akemi