Past due

Many of the things I had expected from our time in Delhi – productive blog posting for one – didn’t turn up in the end. 🙂 We spent just over two weeks there. I’d had visions of all sorts of activities, but ended up being laid up by a potent and lingering chest cold, circumstance and inertia. The primary purpose of our time there was to support my friend Ritu and that I think we managed to do that well, so it’s all good.

Beyond that, our third (my fourth) stay in Delhi comprised mostly eating tons of excellent, home-cooked food, lots of relaxation (sometimes enforced – as an invalid in a household with five women, I got mothered a lot and got to try out Indian home remedies like pure ginger juice tempered with honey – hotcha!), a bit of retail therapy and time with Ritu and her family.

One big highlight for me was the puja that was held at the house the day before we left. Ritu arranged for the family priest from the local temple to come by to perform a private ritual of blessing for the house and its inhabitants (us included. :-)). He was a very sweet, little old man who has apparently been doing pujas for the family for decades.

The ceremony was simple but lovely. The priest prepares a space on the floor with all the implements of the ceremony – fire, oil, incense. Food, flowers and money that are symbolically sacrificed to the deities invoked. The priest is singing mantras during the whole thing; at certain points we were to join in and it felt SO great when suddenly I recognized the Gayatri mantra from my yoga practice and could sing along. It has been months since I last chanted anything and boy did it make me hungry for some yoga practice. 🙂 (Hopefully not too much longer till I get onto a mat!)

At other times during his chanting, he would give us rice or mithai (sweets) in our right hand which we would then need to offer up to the gods invoked, or we would have to throw a mixture of (if I remember correctly), grain and spices into a fire. During the second half of the puja, he wound red string around each of our wrists – a blessing to carry on from the ceremony. After it was all said and done, the house was full of sacred smoke – we had to set the fans to high and open all the doors and windows and it still took ages to clear. The priest was pleased though – now the house was thoroughly blessed. 😉

There’s more to write about Delhi and other things, but the new day is calling and we have lots we want to see. 🙂

Just to get completely caught up before I go, we’ve left India’s capital now and I am writing this from the private rooftop terrace of our hotel in Mumbai. It’s an overcast, quiet Sunday morning and my only company is a mob of crows who are performing their morning ablutions in a nearby pan of water or are otherwise just sitting about curiously glaring at me. 🙂 We only have a weekend in Mumbai. So far I am really loving it – and will try to write more about it later. 🙂

Photos from the puja
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Implements for the ritual – fruit, oil, flowers, the grain substance we burned
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Fruit, money, rice; water to bless it with
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String tying
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Handing out mithai (from our favorite, Bengali Sweets! 🙂 )
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Marigolds
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Adding oil to the fire
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After the ceremony; hands and feet

Back (tracking) in Delhi

We’ve been enticed us back to our wonderful home-away-from-home in India, my friend Ritu’s house. She’s going through some things at the moment that we are able to help out with while we are here. I am so grateful that we have the luxury of such freedom that we don’t even have to give it a second thought and can just come to help – incredible to have so few obligations or limitations.

We arrived back in Delhi last Thursday, Thanksgiving day. I’ve gotten sick again since we arrived. Varanasi is the dustiest place we’ve been to so far; I felt like I constantly had grit between my teeth when we were walking around. I wonder if this aggravated my respiratory system because I’m experiencing the biggest cold I’ve had in years. Today I’ve even lost my voice, which I don’t think has ever happened before.

As opposed to the illness in Jaisalmer though, this is a breeze. I don’t mind colds at all, and I am being absolutely coddled by the women of the household. It’s like having five moms. So I am in great hands and have a perfect excuse to be lazy. 🙂

It should also be the perfect opportunity to catch up on this travel journal. So I’ll be backtracking in the upcoming posts, trying to capture memories from Jaipur to Varanasi before I forget them. 🙂

Desert mis-adventure

I had expected to write at least a post about Diwali by now, but part of travel is plans changing and most of my plans for the past days got entirely sidelined by getting ‘traveler’s illness’ – the standard fever and less-than-elegant stomach issues that I had happily and amazingly had managed to avoid till now but that I kind of figured would catch up with me at some point. 🙂 Now we’re already in Jodhpur, and Diwali is feeling ages away. So, I’ll catch up on Diwali later on.

The timing of falling ill was actually quite good. If you have to be sick, it’s better that it start right after you arrive at the hotel rather than just before or during travel and it was a decent place to be sick – clean, good room, helpful staff. And I am lucky to have such a sweet and patient travel companion too. Roman took great care of me!

We’d left Delhi on Sunday. A short and easy flight brought us to Jodhpur where we decided to go cushy and get a taxi to take us for the long drive to Jaisalmer. We’d been up late and got up early so Roman slept for a lot of the journey but after a short nap, I was up and I loved the ride and was just glued to the window the whole time.

Rajasthan is in the northwest of India, and has a whole different climate and landscape from anything else I’ve seen so far here.

Heading westward toward Jaisalmer, we were driving into a flat landscape of desert scrub. The towns we passed were small but colorful, with women in vibrant clothing and men topped with bright, loosely tied turbans. Between towns we came up behind a cart being drawn on the road. I was confused by the back view of the creature pulling it – the height didn’t seem at all right – until I realized it wasn’t a cow or horse but a camel!

The villages became scrappier and less frequent as we went along. Driving after sunset, there would be periodic dots of light off of the side of the road and less often another small village comprising a handful of buildings, but mostly there was just darkness.

After about six hours, we arrived, found our hotel down a narrow, quiet stone-paved street, had a meal and got ready for bed, which is when the chills started, and after that I was out for the count. We were meant to go on a camel desert safari while we were there, but I was only feeling well again on our last day, so there is so much that we didn’t get to see.

Even for the little time that I did end up spending outside the hotel, I was totally charmed by Jaisalmer. It’s an incredible little city – like something out of another century.

All the buildings and streets are made out of thick blocks of yellow sandstone. Even from my sickroom, it was impossible not to be impressed by the view from my window when the sun lit the place up – you can easily understand why it’s called the golden city. The place looks ancient, like time decided to stand still a thousand years ago. This feeling is reinforced by things like the lack of street lights (it is pretty dark at night, at least where we were staying), the sound of bleating goats being kept outside of people’s homes, and minimal vehicle traffic (due to narrow roads).

The place also has some of the worst smells I’ve experienced in India. Maybe this is due in part to heightened sensitivity to smell from being sick. That being said, I think getting a full on waft from the open sewers might make anyone feel queasy. They also burned a really unattractive incense around the hotel – smelled like a cross between something a really cheap psychic would use and a stuffy old woman’s house. Delightful. 😉

So, I may have been sick and missed out on the desert safari, but I still loved Jaisalmer (despite the smells! 😉 ). I only had time and strength to spend a morning wandering around inside the hilltop fort and seeing the Jain temple within its walls, but I’m really glad I saw at least that. Being inside the fort felt a bit like being in a medieval walled city in Italy, where everything you see is beautiful and every photo you take looks like a post card.

Pictures in the next post… 🙂

Fear and creature comforts in Amritsar

After our stay in Mcleod Ganj, Roman and I headed south to Amritsar. The quickest bus was the one that left, by varying reports, at either 4:45 or 5am from Dharamsala, the next town below Mcleod Ganj. The guy at our hotel had told us the cab ride to Dhar’ would take a half hour, so to be safe, we arranged for a 4am pick up, which meant a 3:30am start to the day. I’m still amazed we managed to get up that early! 😉

The bus ride was great; although I had been nervous when we were at the station in Dhar’ in the pitch black before dawn and no one there spoke a word of English and it wasn’t clear which was the bus to Amritsar.  Roman asked around while having a smoke and eventually some Israeli girls showed up who also knew what they were doing, so once everything was figured out and we were on the bus, it was good fun – aside from some mild motion sickness while we were still in the mountains (see the earlier post, about our crazy awesome bus driver). 😉

Accommodation

After the stay in the somewhat grungy hotel in Mcleod Ganj, I was ready to give our sleeping bag liners a wash, so at my request, we made our way to Hotel Indus, a mid-range lodging. At around R1870 per night (after some seemingly random additional fees/taxes), this place was definitely a step up from the Annex.

The location was a lot louder; thin walls meant we could hear our neighbors coming and going but also, Amritsar is a city of over 1 million people, and Hotel Indus is at a prime location – just across from the Golden Temple. The sound of the chanting accompanied by tabla and the lights from the complex at night permeated the room, which, for the three days we were there, I really enjoyed. The view from the small rooftop terrace/hotel restaurant was also fantastic – we spent a ton of time up there, just taking in the sights and sounds (and, when the sun was high and hot enough to hit the dumpsters outside the hotel, the smells 😉 ). The lovely older man who worked (and, as far as we could tell, lived) up there got to know us as regulars, and knew that when Roman showed up he needed an ashtray, and that he took his coffee black and I mine with milk. The food on offer was way basic, served on questionably clean dishes and made in a rooftop kitchen that I can only describe as awesomely primitive – we just loved it up there. 🙂

The room was smallish and pretty full – only room enough to walk around the bed, but it was much cleaner and there were no bugs. 😀 The linens were clearly old; many were stained, but they were old stains and the sheets and towels smelled and felt clean, which was good enough for me. The AC was decent, the power only cut a couple of times, the TV actually worked (we watched part of an Indian sitcom – didn’t understand the plot but thoroughly enjoyed the sound effects like buzzers, bells and whistles that we can only surmise were included to add to support the clearly stilted acting. 😉 ), the shower actually had a (semi-effective) curtain – in short, we were living in luxury!

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Our room at Indus

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A much friendlier looking bathroom

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Questionable stain on the towel. I’m *sure* it’s just old hot chocolate or ketchup or something. 😉

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The view from the rooftop terrace 🙂

Wipe out

I’m really glad we chose the hotel we did, because I ended up being a bit under the weather. It wasn’t anything huge or awful; mostly I just wasn’t feeling 100% and in retrospect I wonder if my body was fighting some sort of bug. I had a headache but not too bad, felt queasy but never actually had to throw up, felt achy in my joints but never had a temperature and just generally felt exhausted. Our cozy room was a good place to crash. 🙂

The first afternoon there I thought I was just tired out from the bus ride, and we went to Golden Temple for Roman’s first visit there, my second. Had a late lunch/early dinner at the fantastic, free Langar Canteen – it still amazes me and I think it is just so cool that the Sikhs are able to successfully coordinate the feeding of so many thousands of people each day, all based on principles of generosity and compassion. The logistics alone are a feat, but the motivation behind it and the fact that it works, and has worked for years, based on donations and volunteers is just incredible to me.

The next day, I was determined to go back and volunteer in the kitchens. I was already feeling a bit off when Roman and I decided that he would go without me to the Pakistan border for the evening flag-down ceremony. It is well worth seeing, but I had been before, and though I was feeling impatient with being a bit weak, I knew I wasn’t up for the long, hot, crowded event.

So instead, I headed off to the temple. During the first visit I was on the chapatti assembly line and was looking forward to a second chance to work on my technique and to contribute feeding pilgrims to the temple.

This was my first time really going someplace on my own. The temple was so close to the hotel and I knew it was a safe place, but for some reason, I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was a woman, alone, in India. I’ve felt safe the whole time I’ve been here, and there wasn’t anything that made me think I wouldn’t be safe in the temple, but I just couldn’t shake the nerves I was experiencing.

I got a lot of stares too. I don’t know if this was because I was more noticeable as a woman alone, or if I was just noticing people’s looks more. There don’t seem to be many Western tourists at the temple and we’d gotten plenty of attention the day before, but somehow I could feel the eyes on me much more strongly now. I was also getting stopped a lot more along the way – every few paces from the entrance to the arched stairway leading to the kitchens someone asked for a photo with me; one woman even requested my signature, phone number and email address. The people were all friendly and nice; feeling a bit ill and a bit paranoid I just wasn’t in a great mindset.

Finally I made my way to the kitchen, to find that the chapatti making was over for the day – no practice for me unfortunately! Apparently, this was a special day – Guru Ram Das’ birthday, and maybe this was why things were a bit different. I had noticed that people were being fed even outside the temple, and things were busier than I had seen them before. One friendly man informed me that there would be fireworks later on.

I decided that I’d just stay at the temple and enjoy the ambiance until it was time for the display. Over the next hour or so, the place became absolutely packed! With the dimming sunlight, the swelling the crowds and the anticipation of the upcoming spectacle, I was able to fade into the background, and sit on the ground amongst the families, taking in the dizzying parade of thousands making their way clockwise around the pool. It was some great people watching! 🙂

Eventually the show started, with fireworks being set off from all four corners of the complex, over the water. I watched for a while and thought it might make sense to leave before it was over, thinking about the logistics of so many people exiting the relatively narrow stairways out of the temple. I can’t imagine what that must have been like – even leaving early, it was a mad press at the main entrance and I have to admit I got a bit nervous again.

With people pushing in from all sides I couldn’t move except as the crowd moved; there were hands and limbs everywhere pushing everyone forward and although I was sure there was no harm meant in it, it did feel a bit invasive to get manhandled in that way. It was a relief to make it out in one piece on the other side; and after that extended stay at the temple, I was definitely exhausted, sick and ready for some downtime.

Creature comforts

So, the next day I just took it easy. There was the typical internal battle going on – I felt impatient with myself for being such a wimp since I was only a bit sick (like I should tough it out and go do things anyway), felt impatient with my body for the time it was taking to get better (isn’t one long sleep enough??). When I could get my mind to shut up though, it felt really great and really necessary. Even with all the sleep I’d gotten the night before, napping in the middle of the day was still feeling delicious. 🙂

We finally ventured out in the evening, looking for an internet café to print out train tickets for the next leg of our journey. My stomach had been complaining at me so I’d hardly eaten the past two days. While the internet shop was closed by the time we got to it, there was something even better: Like a beacon, the florescent lights of the KFC called to me, and suddenly I was ready to eat again. 🙂 I am usually not into fast food, but man, the chicken and fries felt like heaven going down, and I am pretty sure that meal was a turning point – the next day I finally had energy again and was feeling much more positive. Any tension from being nervous the day before had left my body; I felt open, relaxed, happy again.

The last day in Amritsar was fun; we made our way through the Hindu Mata temple, which, with its winding passageways, mirrored walls and colorful statues felt a bit like a carnival funhouse. We had some great food – NOT fastfood; my dish was something called Paneer Takka Tak if I remember correctly which was a paneer (of course 😉 ) in some sort of spicy sauce with pepper and onion – totally delicious. And we took an evening walk through the colorful, chaotic streets behind the hotel that were packed with bright shops selling all sorts of things but mostly incredibly beautiful cloth to make salwar kameez. If only I had more room in my luggage; the patterns and color combinations were just gorgeous and I would have loved to go shopping. 😉