Tuesday, July 19

So you think you want to go to India?

These are the websites responsible for my successful trip to India. Anyone who is looking to follow may enjoy them:

1. For packing:
2. For when you must book accomodations:
3. For travel insurance:
4. For info about Vaccinations:
5. For an Ashram:
6. For booking trains:
7. For awesome volunteering:
8. For all other questions:

Tuesday, July 5

Tiger Tales

We have hit up three Indian national parks now. Our first, Preiyar, despite being a wonderful jungle to explore, was a bust in the large animal front. We only saw a single dear, distant bison, and some wild boar.

Ladakh, on the other hand was an unexpected success. We came for the exercise and local culture, but were treated to a host of birds including the giant Golden Eagle and the abundant Black-Billed Magpie. On a drive to a famous high-altitude emerald-colored lake (Pangong), we saw wild horses and our first bharal sheep. Bharal are commonly called blue sheep, because the male rump has dark-blue wool. They're famous wool is used in pashmina shawls. We also enjoyed conies of super furry marmots having a wrestle and herds of grazing ibex. But, elusive to us were the legendary snow leopards and the musk deer whom are hunted for their musk gland, used in perfume.

Not yet satisfied with our wildlife sightings, Jen and I squeezed in an overnight trip to the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. The objective of the safari is large cats with the tiger as the grand prize. Originally we were quite disappointed. We got a super early start, trying to fetch a coveted ride on the park elephants, but the warden jumped the queue and blocked our chances. The animals we were seeing from our open-jeep were mostly deer, both the graceful spotted deer and the large Indian deer. Feeling a little cheated and dejected, we drove slowly along while half heartedly snapping shots of peacocks, monkeys, a mongoose, and a snake. Paired with a jeep carrying two rowdy young Dutch guys, we were brought to a halt on the edge of a plain and told to stand on our seats scan for tigers. All the other jeeps were at similar vantage points with mobiles at the ready in case something interesting emerged.

Our driver and guide were just trying to convince the Dutch to be silent and continue scanning when a message arrived in some secret fashion. Instantly Nadeen, our driver was back in his seat shouting "Sit down!" We obediently slipped down just in time to rocket down the mud road.

Nadeen, who was earlier literally sleeping at the wheel, showed no restraint and flew past the other jeeps, dodging rocks and fallen trees like Harry Potter's magical Kinght Bus. I swear we were going to hit an enormous Monitor Lizard scurrying across the road, but instead made a 3 second photo stop at my insistence. A pause that nearly lost us our prize.

And then, ahead of us on the road were five parked jeeps and thirty fingers unanimously pointing right of the road. Our aggressive driver skidded to a halt front and center and we hopped back up on our seats. Finger pointing was not necessary, because there, in the tall grass only 35ft away, was one very orange and black tail swishing through the air. Swish swish swish swish. At the end of the tail a tiger who spun his head to glimpse us and then melted into the camouflage of the grass. Swish swish. 

Monday, July 4

Now that I'm home...

To spare my parents, I wait until now to publish this post. This begins with my return to the ashram of the Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram. It was past midnight and pitch dark when Jen and I set out with our new friends, Luis and Jamie. It was an eventful start. Jen dramatically slipped in a juicylarge fresh cowplop, painting herself in liquid crap. We continued to skirt along eerily empty streets where shifty looking dogs and the occasional lost drunkard considered confronting us. We made it without incident to the ashram and carefully climbed the wall, weighed down by a notable amount of provisions. Undetected, we scrambled silently up the path to Meditation Hut 1. Here we set up camp. We swept and tidied, threw down a carpet, laid out our sleeping bags, lit incense and a citronella candle, attached a speaker to my iPod and sat in candlelight listening to words of wisdom.

The evening was terrifying at times, given we had illegally trespassed into a forested area where aggressive elephants and monkeys are known to lurk. But overall the atmosphere was calming and bonded us closely. The next morning we all woke up early and raced to the bus station for our next adventure.

Meditation Hut 1
In Manali, north of Rishikesh, Jen and I caught the spirit of India's adventure capital. We signed up for a full day of canyoneering, the sport of rappelling down waterfalls. Our experience was incredible and with the help of two guides, we clipped our harnesses to a variety of ropes and slipped, slided, and semi-climbed through 15 waterfalls, two that were over 70m high. A highlight was zip lining when a free fall couldn't be avoided and later rocketing along the contours as though the waterfall was a slide. We came out mostly unscathed and very cold.

Also in Manali, I learnt to ride a motorcycle. Jen and I returned to our guesthouse totally exhausted after canyoning, a nice Jordanian man befriended me. We got to talking and before I knew it I had confessed a dream to drive a motorcycle, a dream I didn't know I had. To his delight he had a motorbike and knew 'the perfect place' to learn. We met the next day and before I knew it I was driving a bullet down a narrow rocky Indian road, avoiding rockslide leftovers and oncoming traffic. I even mastered shifting to second gear, a real skill for an automatic girl like me.

Path to Mt. Tiund
And just now, I jumped off a mountain and experienced the exhilarating pleasure of flying. Accompanied by chauffeur pilots, today, Jen and I went paragliding for the first time. It held the excitement of a roller coaster, motion sickness included, but also an incredible liberating peace as we skirted between birds for a quarter of an hour. We actually had quite the morning as we woke up early to see the sun rise from atop misty Mount Triund. After taking in the view and reading a few chapters of Harry Potter out loud, a suitably magical book for such an eerily lush and beautiful mist soaked view, we skirted down the 10km path racing to meet our driver for paragliding. Then we flew.

India is a safer than I imagined and even with the aforementioned risks, I have found that here there are always people looking out for us, but just as I was reading this post over, Jen came in with a bleeding foot. A ferocious driver in Leh ran over her tow as she was walking, but she seems alright, no broken bones.
Paragliding over McCloed Ganj

Sunday, July 3

The Golden City

Amritsar: to go, or not to go? We came and we loved. Colorful turbans. Punjabi sweets. Holy pilgrims. Elaborate border ceremonies. Ladies' dance party. Chicken curries. And, of course, the Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple is architecturally impressive, like many religious meccas, but it is also functional AND free. At any Sikh temple they offer free food to pilgrims and other visitors indiscriminately. Here they serve tasty Indian thalis to 60000-80000 people daily using a chapatti machine and unlimited volunteers.

They also offer free accommodation and free shuttle buses to/from the train and bus stations to aid the many people traveling long distances to visit the most holy Sikh site. For westerners, this meant a row of beds in an large room with India's most affordable air conditioning (0 rupees). The AC was a welcome escape from the blistering damp sun that made even shade-seekers feel as though they were in a sauna.

On top of the free transit, room and board (hundreds of free toilets and showers included), tourist info was helpful and informed. They gave out free maps, which we didn't even need, because helpful volunteers inside directed lost visitors between sites. One young man even guided us for an hour through to the temple centre. The only place I was not assisted was bathing in the holy water.

In an area subtley walled off from the rest of the water that fills the temple lake, there is a space for women to bathe. At dawn, I removed my clothes and took a dip with 7 other woman. Holding onto chains, we gently bobbed in the refreshing water. That was before the warm sun made it's first appearances, rising hellishly between the white towers of the temple walls. 

Saturday, July 2

Momos and Monks

Down down down. Once again we hit the dangerous Rhotang Pass from Leh to Manali. One of the world's most dangerous highways, we wore down the roads over five passes of the Himalyan giants; all the while focused on the end goal: chocolate momos in Manali. After five punctured tyres and blown shocks, our mini bus brakes gave out only 1km from our destination. 

But our shaky late night arrival in Manali was rewarded the next day with delicious momos, including the long anticipated chocolate variety. We picked up another Canadian trekker with a similar itinerary to us and together devoured thirty momos cooked by a maternal Ladhaki woman and her tough mother. They operate a small two table joint with plastic chairs called the 'Tibetan Kitchen.' We'd been before and already each have a pair of the woolen socks the grandmother knits while waiting for customers. To ensure every customer is satisfied, something the food already guarantees, they have a toilet with the world's best view available, located down the street up a flight of stairs. The toilet is in a small washroom with a floor to ceiling window looking out to the Himalayas and the farms below. 

Before leaving Manali, Jen, in desperate need of a haircut after a long battle with lice and low quality shampoos, seeked out a respectable beauty salon. Unfortunately, the haircut left me, someone who has NEVER cut hair before, giving an impromptu lesson to two estheticians as I snipped away to salvage the nearly fatal bowl cut.

And so we continued, humbled by our bad judgement we did not know what to expect in McCloed Ganj. Another rough night had us at the hands of a tourist hunter when we arrived before the sun in the city of Tibet-in-excile. Fortunately, we woke to a bright dry room; outside our first real monsoon was flooding the streets. Although monsoons are promised daily, we were blessed exclusively with sunshine and magical mist during our stay.

Our time in McCloed Ganj (and around) was both relaxing and exciting. We read Harry Potter (just the second half of the Deathly Hallows) out loud to each other overlooking incredible sunset views from the Dalai Lama's resident pizza cafe. And yes, our smoked cheese and spinach pizza was prepared by monks and, yes, it was very tasty (despite a disclaimer that suggested incompetent staff). 

In McCloed Ganj we sampled many other culinary delights as well, including momos made by us (thanks to Lhamo's cooking class) and an incredible mountain thali which was unnecessarily delicious; we were ravenous after our ascent. You see, now that we're such expert trekkers, we easily did a last minute trek up Triund. We simply ignored Jen's toe injury, which was probably harder for her to do than me. Packed lightly, we stayed overnight at altitude in the kitchen of an already full guesthouse. We shared a summer solstice campfire with other guests and shared a bed with our host. 

Our next adventure was the 04:00 bus to Amritsar. We ignored our strong desires to stay asleep when a 03:25 alarm nudged us out of McCloed Ganj. To our surprise we were joined at a most ungodly hour by Jamie Monks, a friend (who we last saw in Rishikesh), and five of his newest friends. We all wanted to sleep on the bus so we groggily tossed our luggage onto the bus's roof rack to maximize our leg room. An architect of sorts safely secured our bags and we were off. It wasn't until we arrived that a problem arose.

Jamie was passing down the luggage to receptive hands when the bus started to roll. Despite some ferocious protest by two girls, it kept going at a slow speed. Working quickly, bags came down one by one. My bag was last and all that was left was for Jamie to hand it down to me, but the bus was accelerating. In a panic Jamie, as gently as possible, lobbed everything I own in an arc towards the pavement. Fortunately an instinct kicked inside me, like a mother rescuing a baby; I gracefully caught up and snatched my bag out of it's descending arc just in time to spare my gifts from making fatal contact with the pavement. By the way Jamie made off the roof safely sometime later when the bus finally stopped. 

And so it goes, in India you never know what you'll find; excellent service or incompetence, hospitality or hostility. However; I must declare that as a western woman there is always somebody looking out for me and I have experienced a whole lot more help than hinderance from India's 1.2 billion residents. This is epitomized by the unlimited policy of generosity adopted by the friendly Sikhs at the Golden Temple (see next blog).