Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Rishikesh and Manali

The trains in India are a bargain, which makes last minute tickets exceedingly hard to get.  Luckily. I got a first class single seat, from Delhi to Haridwar, one of the four holiest Hindi cities in India, and the nearest train station to Rishikesh.  Known as the Yoga Center of the world, as well as a very holy Hindu city, Rishikesh is a rabbit warren of hotels, guesthouses yoga centers, ashrams, and little Hindu holy shrines tucked in among shops selling tourist junk and religious objects for pilgrims.  Across a walking bridge over the Ganga River near its headlands is located a large temple and a smattering of shops, guesthouses and local restaurants.

A crush of people, cows, and motorcycles cross the bridge daily.  Numerous times during the day the bridge is so full everyone just stops moving; much like stagnant L.A. rush-hour traffic.  Among all this, people occasionally decide to take family portraits on the bridge to get the Holy Ganga River in the background.  It is amazing that both the bridge and peoples’ tempers survive.  Rather than anger, some groups sing, while others recite little poems, which I assume, are prayers. They recite these in unison over and over as if in a perseveration of the soul, (which I believe if translated into English has, ‘a get me across this lousy bridge before it breaks and we all fall to our deaths’ kind of theme). 

During particularly holy periods or festivals, pilgrims from all over India flock to these holy cities, big and small and I happen to hit one of those weekends.  The color and style of many pilgrims’ clothes, mostly the women, often indicate the area from where they hale.  The red saris and valed faces of the women of Rajasthan are the most obvious.  Yet white worn by men who have recently lost a family member is also prevalent.  Another common sight among these religious souls is an elderly person squired through the throngs by an adult child or relative.  For most, because of financial reasons, this might be their once in a lifetime pilgrimage and not one pilgrim that I observed seemed to miss any of the little shrines stuck between the bigger more obvious commercial enterprises that filled the town. 

My guesthouse, the HARI OM, which cost about $11 US a night, was clean, had a hot water geyser, and was located directly on the Ganga River.  Often in the evening, I would sit on the chair in my room with my feet on the windowsill, and watch the river as it rushed by in torrent-like fashion racing down to Haridwar and Varanasi eager to carry the ashes away of those in wait for reincarnation to pursue their souls. 

 I had envisioned that Rishikesh would be somewhat idyllic. After all isn’t yoga a relaxing stimulant for the body?  One would think it would be taught in a restful environment.  But no, like the river there is a restlessness about the place created by the way the shops and guesthouses are jammed together, having to step over their piles of dung left by the wandering cows, the constant noise of motorcycles roaring through the main street, and the accumulative noise from the overwhelming crowds wandering throughout the town.  Added to that, my room was airless, humid hot weather was encroaching, and there was lots of dust, the evil attacker of my sinuses.  What was I to do?  I could move up the hill to another location, but as luck would have, it wasn’t until I was riding out of town, heading for my next destination that I found the appropriate location, too late.  

I had hired a car and driver and off I went to what I was told was a cooler, beautiful, less dusty atmosphere, Manali in Northwestern India.  Well two out of three aren’t bad. Yes, once I arrived, it was cooler, and located among exceedingly beautiful pine forests marching up magnificent, mountain sides with distant snow covered peaks, and numerous streams of melting snow.  But the roads to get to Manali were some of the worse I have experienced in India.  The mountainous terrain on which they are built, and the avalanches both contributed to my arch enemy arriving again, an incredible amount of dust. By the time I arrived in Manali after a seventeen-hour drive, the polyps in my nose hung down to my knees.  Breathing through my nose was impossible and breathing through my mouth uncomfortably dicey.  To top this off, we arrived so late (around 10:30 pm), The Drifter’s Inn Guesthouse, rated number one in Trip Advisor, had given away my room and was rude about it.  So Dragon Guesthouse kindly took me in but at an exorbitant rate. 

There are two Manalis; New Manali, which is a class ‘D’ Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Old Manali, about a mile up the mountain from the main Manali tourist trap.  Old Manali is a lovely little hillside village, which spiders here and there up the mountainside with a small crowded tourist hamlet located at its base. 

The morning after my arrival my first job was to move to a less expensive room, still pricey for the area.  My second, to call friends to determine the feasibility of coming home, having polyp surgery then returning to India and continuing my travels.  A working plan developed determining where I would stay and have the surgery done. Then the light bulb struck! 

Was there a Tibetan Doctor in the area?  There was a Tibetan community.  Yes!  The MEN-TSEE-KHANG Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute of H.H., the Dali Lama had a doctor and hospital located near the monastery in south New Manali.  I was there in a shot.  These doctors are amazing.  They listen to your problem; actually you don’t even have to tell them the problem.  They figure it all out when they put their fingers on your wrist.  Listening to the magical pulses embedded there, these doctors diagnose your problem as well as explore your medical future.  Although Dr. Lugyal and I had a bit of a language barrier, my description of the problem and his prescription of the appropriate medicine worked.  The little buggers have been sucked back up into the nether lands of my nasal orifices and I am no longer a mouth breather, day or night.  This obviously freed me from the expense and perils of surgery and the flight home.   So I could again continue on my journey. 

But enjoying the Manali area was my immediate goal.  I casually walked up mountain roads and paths visiting Hindu Temples, riverside venues, and little village hamlets.  I ate river trout cooked numerous ways at various restaurants, ate honey-peanut cookies from the ‘German Bakery’ (not), and Pizza at Casa Bella Vista, a charming but pricy, mountain guesthouse with a wonderful vegetarian restaurant.  Gilli the owner claims they serve the best pizza in India.  So far it’s the best pizza I’ve had in the India or Nepal, but India is a vast country and I have much pizza tasting to do before I give it my final stamp of approval.

Fourteen Km from Manali is Solang, one of India’s best-known winter skiing resorts.  Having previously been to the charming ski resorts in Switzerland and Austria, I looked forward to seeing one of their Indian counter parts, a charming little skiing hamlet.  Boy, was I in for a brief shock. There was no village at all, rather a large meadow filled with Zorb balls, Para Gliders, children's games of chance like ring toss, bounce houses, jewelry sellers, locals with angora rabbits for photo shoots, outside restaurants and a ski lift.  

So what does one do when they've been duped?  Go with the flow.  I went Para Gliding!  Wow it is one of the most wonderful things I have ever done.  It gave me an extreme sense of relaxation and freedom.  I will certainly Para glide again, as it has become my old age extreme sport. 

I only have two more tourist goals here in Manali, to visit the last temple in the area and to ride the yak.  I have three days to fulfill these dreams.  Wish me luck!


New Delhi

Wait!  Have I arrived in the right city?  The shinning new airport terminal patterned after Bangkok’s airport edifice is a delightful shock.  In fact, because of the 2010 Common Wealth Games, Delhi has received a much-needed facelift.  Not only is there a new airport terminal, but also a new Train station, a wonderfully extended metro system (now one can even go to and from the airport), and the shabby streets previously full of beggar children performing tricks among the moving traffic for small change have been replaced by lovely tree-lined boulevards empty of any distractions.

Although Delhi was much improved, marvelously clean and shinny, for me it had lost some of its lackluster grubbiness of my past visits, and I felt like a third world emigrant magically dropped into London’s Harrods Department store.  But when the taxi finally arrived in the more earthy Paharganj backpackers’ area, and I saw two cows outside the Rama Krishna Ashram metro station, a pile of cow dung nearby, and the hole-in-the-wall tourists shops and tea stalls, I felt immersed again in the Delhi I had previously experienced. The western poseurs wearing caravan pants, with beards and single dreadlocks down their backs, head kerchiefs and tattoos, still roamed the area.  Many were traveling with their ‘ladies’, who were also clothed in ‘1960s’ regimental dress; opaque harem pants or long skirts, Indian shirts, bangles, ankle brackets, and lots of body piercings.  While a marinade of sihdus (supposed, and some very real holy men), draped in various shades of orange to soft pinks carried their miniature silver buckets and red powder throughout the area hoping for donations in exchange for placing a red dot blessing on my forehead.  It was all there, thank God, and happily I settled into one of my favorite guesthouses, Cottage Yes Please, located on the edge of all this lovely madness. Then I immediately headed across the street for a delicious Indian dinner.

 Delhi was getting hot and I only remained for a short visit to make arrangements for my friend Nancy Jo’s and my travels together in October.  After going out to Khan Market for a delightful but somewhat disastrous shopping trip (I can’t resist the goodies at Fabindia and Anoki), I was off by train to what I hoped would be the cooler climes of Rishikesh, advertised as the yoga center of the world.

Monday, June 6, 2011


What do you do about a problem named Kolkata?

From the moment I rode out of the train station on the way to my hotel, I developed a love hate relationship with Calcutta/Kolkata.  No matter how many pictures and movies I have seen in the past, they are no comparison to the impact of seeing the people living out their lives on the grubby streets of this city. 

Upon arriving at my hotel, the Aafreen, Lonely Planet’s budget top pick, I knew I could not stay in this area or in this hotel.  The staff was surly, the paint peeling off the walls and an ant family living in the woodwork, joined me on the bed as I took a short arrival rest.  Immediately after the staff delivered my bags to my room, I got a cab and headed out to the Swiss Street area in the southern part of the city to check out Trip Advisor’s top pick of Kolkata guesthouses, the Bohdi Tree.  It was more than anyone could wish for, in a section of the city where street trash was the exception rather than the rule.  Here was this lovely enclave of only five rooms set within a former private home and art gallery.  The room was over double the price from $20 to $45 a night, but it was lovely.  There was WI FI in all the rooms and each was decorated with a different theme (I stayed the Bengali room), a staff that really tried to make me happy, and the frosting on the cake just, it was a couple of blocks from the Kolkata metro. Oddly I arrived without a reservation and they just happened to have a five-day opening. Eureka!

 Grungy is the best adjective I can think of to describe the rest of Kolkata.  Whether it’s the streets, the museums or most of the city.  In the poorer neighborhoods around Sudder Street, Kolkata’s nearest to what could be called a backpackers’ area, the street people were rampid.  Some live under black tarps, small protection from the elements, while others just live in the open. Covered or not, street people have placed nails in the walls and along fences on which they have strung a piece of rope for hanging their clothes and/or laundry.  Faucets imbedded in small rectangular lipped areas on the sidewalks are large enough for two men hunkered down to take care of their morning libations; their soapy bath, brushing their teeth, washing, their hair.  Seeing my camera, two men smiled and waved me over to take their pictures.  People sat on stools along the street getting haircuts and beards trimmed. 

Paan sellers called Paan Whallas sort large piles of leaves, sprinkle each with different favored essences, pack them with tobacco, then roll them to sell throughout the day to those who imbibe in the soporific addiction these rich green leaves gave to the chewers. Also called betel nut, not only does it give the chewer a relaxed high, it also stains their teeth brown with hints of red around the edges and over the long-term ruins their teeth. 

Every so often on the sidewalk, I would see what I call a ‘pissarteriam,’ a three sided tile enclosure about shoulder high, built with the opened side backed to the rest of the sidewalk and the buildings, for people (I think only men but I’m not sure) to relief themselves.  On the street side of every ‘pissarteriam,’ there was a metal plaque stating the name of the politician who provided the facility, his title or position in the government, generally a Councilor of a particular district. As political office holders can never let any political opportunity go to waste.

The next morning before checking out of the Aafreem, I took a couple of hours to photograph life on the streets around the Sudder Street enclave.  Again, I found my pictures did not do justice to the horrible reality of theses peoples’ lives.  Children naked or only wearing only bottoms playing a version of ‘Ring A Round the Rosy.’ People sleeping on the sidewalk where ever they found a spot to lie down a piece of cardboard or small blanket the size of their body. Women and children searching for scraps of wood they can use to make fires in their braziers along the street side of the sidewalks to cook the family meal.  Makeshift food stalls where one can buy a chapatti, curry, or rice dish for a pittance.  Dogs, lots of somewhat emaciated dogs, mostly brown and white, sleeping here or there, or off on some special business moving slowly because of the execrating heat. 

Most people when they saw my camera, were thrilled to have their pictures taken, and loved seeing the outcome.  Less than one percent demurred and would simply refuse, shield their face or turn their back.   During the few instances when I was asked for money to take a picture, I didn’t take the shot. 

Kolkata is the only place left in the whole world that still has human rickshaw pullers.  Although the government has considered stopping this inhuman occupation, it is still a necessary evil because of the monsoons.  During these periods of heavy rains the water is too deep in which to drive a car and the human rickshaw pullers are the only transportation available other than the metro.

Kolktata is considered India’s cultural center.  And there is a decadent elegance to many of the old colonial buildings originally built by the British now left to decay by the Kolkata community.   The Indian Museum building is in desperate need of repairs and even the displays are a shambles.  Although I was told that the museum has it’s first ever curator (out from England), and it is going through the process of major repairs, it was a sad example of a museum. Not much work was happening, but there was scaffolding and one lone man was painting a wall within the building when I visited.  There was also one air-conditioned room with a well-done modern museum display. The Academy of Modern Art was also closed because of a major theft and I was told they too have been bequeathed an amount of money from the government for repairs. 

The Victoria Memorial is a lovely piece of architecture, with displays of the history of Calcutta.  As Kolktata was the original base for the East India Company and eventually the first seat of the British Government in India, the pictures and information are really quite interesting.   There are also rooms of poorly displayed paintings of little interest. Outside are beautiful gardens with large pools of water surrounding the whole edifice?

Neither the policemen nor the taxi drivers know where they are, and communication with each group is almost impossible.  Street signs are rare, yet every taxi driver will tell you he knows exactly the location of your destination and regularly gets lost.  Typical taxi adventure - destination the Marble Palace: the first taxi driver, not only chewed paan as he drove but also slowed down and talked on his cell phone to run up the meter while driving in the wrong direction.  Eventually, when the car was at a stop light in the middle lane of a very busy main street, I simply left some money on the seat, got out and walked across lanes to the sidewalk.  The second driver, who had the directions explicitly explained to him by two locals who spoke English and knew the area, and also set a rate of 50 rupees with the driver, passed the final turn to my destination.  Then he stopped to ask directions from another man who fortunately (?) spoke English.  Here he decided to raise the price to 100 rupees.  After much conversation between themselves, the English speaking man ask my next destination and informed me that as a woman alone it was obvious that I would need this taxi driver’s services for the rest of the afternoon.  At that, I got out of the taxi, handed the driver his 50 rupees and walked away leaving them both with shocked looks on their faces.  Helpless female tourist I am not.  Within ten minutes I found my destination was a left turn and a short walk of three blocks. I was there in a trice.

The communist party has been the elected government for thirty-seven years. I was told that prior to their coming to office, Kolkata was a financial powerhouse, while under communist leadership business and industry stagnated.  In May of this year the communists were usurped and a socialist government was elected.  From newspaper articles, I got the impression much of the city seems to have hopes for better times ahead. But isn’t this always the way with any new administration in any government.

I will return at least once more to see the few things I missed, the Kali Temple, the Harikrishna Center, the Botanical Gardens and the Park Street Cemetery.  But as a regular stop, I think not.