Fatehpur Sikri (Agra) Oct. 15 ’16

I arrived in Agra by train in the morning, got settled in at N Homestay, and at the suggestion of their guide/driver Mokul, I took the rest of the afternoon to visit Fatehpur Sikri- home of the Jama Masjid mosque and Mughal palace predating the Taj Mahal.  Little did I remember that the entrance fee for the Historic palaces had gone up to 500 INR, so I only had enough money for it, and to take the bus back to Agra (and maybe a bag of chips).  Lunch consisted of the leavings of my goody bag from Simla.  Luckily I did bring a scarf  (I had completely forgotten my hat) because the Jama Masjid is an active mosque.  I have also been using my water purification drops when filling my water bottles from the tap, and so far, so good.  One could go broke keeping up on drinking water here in India. Also, I paid $20 CAD for this water purification kit, so I might as well use it. TRAVEL TIPS TO FOLLOW, SO NECESSARY FOR SURVIVING FATEHPUR SIKRI.

Arriving in Agra, I knew right away I had officially arrived in India, and gone were the days of orderly, friendly, clean little towns.  It was a madhouse of Autorickshaws around the train station, and all of the drivers clamoured at me “taxi? taxi? hotel, miss? hotel?” Basically one has to say “No,” firmly and give an emphatic shake of the head about a million times or or ignore them completely running the gauntlet until you find your driver, – which will happen, seemingly by magic. After riding the regular public bus from Agra (very hot and dusty- bring a scarf just to put over your nose to filter some of it out), there are tour touts waiting for you at the little bus depot in Fatehpur’s bazaar.  If your hotel or homestay has a driver/tour guide and offers to take you to Fatehpur Sikri (hereafter “FS”) for 700 INR or suchlike cost- DO THIS!   Learn from my mistake.  I decided I didn’t want to spend the 700 INR for my own private autorick and tour, and simply took the 40 INR bus ride from Agra. I thought I was being really smart by forgoing the extra cost…

There is a direct path straight up from the bus depot in Fatehpour’s bazaar towards the gate to the mosque, but one is essentially walking a path of garbage, so I took the long way around and took a second look at the bazaar, which was full of vendors and services of every sort. Traffic slowed to a crawl those last 50 meters from the beginning of the bazaar and the bus depot. The road above the bazaar leading up to the mosque and palace grounds, though, is wide, free of traffic, and lined with ice cream and goodie vendors, so Indian families take full advantage of the refreshments before going into the so-called abandoned city.  Walking up the ramp to the entrance of the huge and extremely impressive Buland Darwaza (Victory Gate) entrance to the Jama Majid mosque, I couldn’t help but laugh at the frolicking and leaping goats combing the ramparts for goodies left by tourists.

As soon as I entered into the mosque, a young man calling himself a “guide” offered to show me around.  These guys (and there are a lot of them) are touts, not guides.  They will indeed take you around the mosque, they’ll show you all the different parts of the grounds and tombs, they have good information, and they will even take really nice photos of you and for you while on the grounds, and will be very pleasant- but they will conclude their tour at their own little blanket set out with the souvenirs they sell- usually carvings in soapstone or alabaster.  There’s nothing wrong with buying from them except they’ll give you the hard sell and you will have to haggle within an inch of your life, and there’s nothing wrong with not buying from them and tipping them for their time instead.  They’re not as happy with the tip as they would to sell you their stuff, but whatever.  Bazinga.  I saw all the parts of the mosque- was encouraged to do all the little things that people do when they visit, like tying a string in the lattice screen of the white marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti and making a wish (NO TELLING), and genuinely enjoyed my tour.  I found the cemetery and the crowded ladies-only cemetery behind lattice screens interesting as the marker stones were very compact. The honour of being interred within the mosque was only conferred to family members of the saint. The white marble tomb with the reflecting pool before it, and single tree growing beside it within the broad expanse of the mosque complex courtyard was genuinely beautiful.  I explored the courtyard of the mosque once I left the young tout, and there is no angle from which this little building is not striking and a spot of visual coolness in the expanse of baking redstone.  It was also a constant hub of activity as people came to pay their respects, tie their string, make their offering of thrown perfume or rose petals and some rupees to the saint.  Directly outside a group of musicians crouched in the shade, playing and singing their devotions. I noticed that the tomb had gutters leading directly to the pool, so that rainwater would be collected there for both its beauty and utility.

Exiting the mosque from the King’s Gate, I then proceeded into the expansive palace grounds, paying the entrance fee at that point.  The architecture and gardens were unlike anything I had seen before (or would see again in India), especially the 5 tiered Panch Mahal, and it’s no wonder for King Akbar who lived here encouraged unique designs melding Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist elements and imagery in the decor. King Akbar decreed that each religion was to be respected equally, and to “seal the deal” he took a queen from each faith.  The special audience hall (Diwan-i-Khas) and the decorative pool in front of his palace use a quartered square design illustrating the new faith he developed, called Din-i-llahi (God is One).  Wandering around this place was genuinely enjoyable. There were lots of arcades in which to shelter from the sun, gardens to refresh the eye from all the red sandstone, and wonderful spots from which to view the surrounding farmlands.  Within the palace grounds, I also discovered the striped chipmunk-like squirrels, wild green ring-necked parrots and many songbirds and swallows (and pigeons) that inhabit India.  To sit in the shade from the softening afternoon sun and breeze, journaling and watching the parrots and other birds race from buidling to building to tree was a real joy.

I was really glad that I had come out to FS and explored these amazing buildings.  Until I was foolish enough to NOT run and catch the bus I saw leaving the bazaar as  I came down to the corner. “Busses run for another two hours,” I told myself, “I’ll grab a quick snack and catch the next bus.”  Famous last words.  I waited at the bus depot and no other bus arrived. I had a snack, wrote in my journal and exchanged a few pleasantries with a couple of the touts there who were brothers… and then it started getting dark.  The young Islamic touts started to look a little uneasy on my behalf and gently remonstrated me “Why didn’t you run for that bus?” Finally one of the young men said “I don’t want you sitting here after dark. Tourists have been stranded here before by the bus. I have seen it and helped them get back to Agra before. Maybe the last bus will be here at 5:45, but if not then you should let my driver friend take you back to Agra because none of the tourist taxis come here.”  This was factually correct and not an exaggeration on his part, I hadn’t seen a single white car with the blue and yellow “Tourist Taxi” emblem painted on the side since arriving in FS, and there weren’t even any Autoricks.  Two of the young touts  arranged someone to drive me back and they tried to quote me double the price of what my homestay driver had offered for the return trip. Boy was I mad at myself and a little annoyed with them as I tried to discuss the discrepancy with them.  When he finally admitted that what he was really including in the price was a commission for him and his brother who had both kept me company for two hours while I waited, and arranged my ride, my frustration vanished.  I was happy to give them a commission, but I was not happy about being ripped off for a drive back to Agra- qualitative or semantic difference, as either way I was out a lot more rupees than I wanted to be for the day, but I don’t have a problem with rewarding people for taking their time to help me.

As it was, there was a massive traffic jam on the road back to Agra, and my driver was fortunately able to get out of the jam before too many vehicles boxed us in from behind, so we took a link road around the blockage and made it back to Agra with only a little delay.  It was a bit of an adventure itself and when I experienced some acute culture shock (see next entry).  I tried to not kick myself too hard for having to pay so much money to get back to the homestay, but on the other hand FS is a good hour outside of Agra, and I was very relieved that I got back safely and in comparative comfort. Who knows when I would have got back to Agra if I had gotten on that bus. For all I know, it was the thing causing the jam.

I am just so grateful that the world is indeed full of good people, that I do better than survive and get where I need to go safely thanks to the kindness of strangers.  I am very grateful for my karma in this regard, and don’t for a moment take it for granted.  I’m also very grateful that those who took care of me have increased their own karma.  As I chatted with the two young men, both married and fathers in their early 20s, we agreed that everyone benefits so much more when we are kind and fair to one another.

So, if you find yourself taking the public bus to Fatehpur Sikri, do me a favour and hire one of the young touts to show you around the mosque and palace grounds- don’t be put off that they phrase it like you would be just doing them a favour by letting them practice their English- they’re intelligent entrepreneurs tour guides and proved by their help to me thoroughly decent people. You could do a lot worse than pay them for their time.

Matriarch Naghma of N Homestay had a wonderful thali dinner waiting for me when I got back to their place, and was kind enough to sit and chat with me while I ate.  She told me the interesting history of her family home, how happy and content she was to share it with travelers, and how this was definitely the best part of her life with her sons grown and one of them recently married.  After eating, I was grateful to retire to my very spacious room, shower and wash my clothes and retire to bed.

Tomorrow is the Taj Mahal at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simla-> Kalka-> Delhi Oct. 14 ’16

This [Simla-Kalka] train ride, despite the heat, length of time, and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning. There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable…

Woke at the crack of dawn to find that my body was doing it’s  natural female letting go thing, which definitely explained yesterday’s tearfulness on the physiological level…

But, no rest for the wicked, as they say, so I got myself up and power-walked back to The Coffee House for another fantastic breakfast and coffee sitting on one of the back balcony overlooking the town terraces and Himalayan foothill mountains.  On the way back out of town to fetch my luggage, I observed a family of monkeys clambering down the side of the last building of The Mall from the roof using drainpipes and telephone cables, and was deeply touched by the baby of the family making his brave yet cautious effort while her mum watched intently.  The wee one made little noises of trepidation the entire time “ooh, eeeh, umm, ohoooh” I could hear his thoughts, “Umm, I’m going to try this out… Um, oh dear, ok, annnd…. umm, ok I’ll try this this way, oh jeez, I’m not sure now…” Of course he made it safely and he and mum caught up to the rest of the group.  It was very sweet. These are the kinds of monkey behaviours I like, and when they’re quietly preening each other while basking in the sun on top of the walls, etc.  I snatched my bags after bidding good-bye to my pet spider “Bob-Ji” (all my pet spiders are named “Bob”, but since this was an Indian spider, I felt he should have an Indian inflection to his name) who kept guard in my bathroom during my stay, and walked downhill to the train station.

I was sorry to be leaving Simla.  I realized that like Dharmsala it’s “India-Lite” in that it’s a friendly, clean and safe tourist town, though in two days I had seen most of what it had to offer.  I was also super excited for the excruciatingly slow “toy”train ride along the  World Heritage Simla to Kalka line (built in 1906, one travels 96kms, through 102 tunnels, and over 988 bridges in 6 hours).  I got into the 1st class car, and was astounded by how narrow and tiny the train was altogether- economy class in airplanes have higher ceilings and more leg room- and I felt deeply sorry for the gigantic German tourists squeezing themselves onto the miniature bench seats.  Everyone in the train was very friendly, but we had to be as we sat knee to knee!  This train ride, despite the heat, distance and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever-changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning.  There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable, and seem to have no other function except to be perfectly kept up with gardens, lovely hanging planter baskets and shining sky blue and white tiled water stations, so the station master cum gardener can stand proudly in front of it and wave the train on with his green flag.  I was sitting facing the rear of the train, so had real difficulty getting photos of these quaint jewel-like train stations in time.  I would go back and do it all again to get a lot more photos.  There were many instances where we on the train were looking down onto roadways, and they had an awful lot of views of rock faces, landslide areas, and dust.  The vegetation as we wound our way down from elevation was an ever-changing delight and wonder.  The tops of the mountains in Himachal Pradesh are very dry, water is pumped and trucked up to towns and city cisterns, so leaving Simla initially the landscape was quite sere with short grass, shrubs, pine trees and stands of Prickly Pear and Danda Thor cacti! Only at elevation, there was also a rarely seen tree with fine pink blossoms that rivaled cherry blossoms in loveliness, although they were far more delicate.  We later reached the pine forest level, and it was a gorgeous sight as each pine needle glinted and gleamed in the sunshine as if it had been polished, and the colour was  vibrant and fresh. As we continued to descend, the pine gave way to deciduous trees like mountain ash and arbutus, which, again, if you live in British Columbia and have ever been traveling through the interior and Okanagan, they don’t seem so exotic- but it was good to see that a lot of these forests have been preserved and the hills not completely denuded. And of course, the wildflowers grew in colourful profusion at every point down the mountains. The flowers in India… Incomparable.

We finally arrived at Kalka, a completely unremarkable and purely utilitarian transportation hub town on the border of Himachal Pradesh.  There I joined a tour group of Canadians, Brits and Germans in the “Executive” waiting room, which had a lovely washroom, air-conditioning and comfey couches to enjoy while waiting for the Kalka to Delhi train.  Amusingly, a couple of the ladies there recognized me from my wanders in the streets of Dharmsala, and they happened to be from Vancouver.  We all got onto a regular express train to Delhi, and I appreciated the reclining chair, A/C- and the meal and 1L water bottle provided.  It wasn’t immaculate, but it was definitely a clean train- I might have been one of the dirtiest things on it!

Train travel is definitely an improvement over bus travel, but one does get a view of the town garbage tips and constant litter beside the tracks, which is quite sad.  Except for the upsetting amount of garbage Indians strew everywhere, the views are still much more picturesque, and a waxing gibbous moon was shining outside my window.

The garbage everywhere, though… When in India, it’s hard to ignore the reality that single serving wrappers and plastic everything are both the bane of human existence and the very thing that gives us the quality of life and health that we enjoy- India simply does not have the infrastructure for human waste and garbage yet.  There were a couple of recycling bins in the bigger towns such as Panaji in Goa, and Dharmsala, that have a very specific context which makes it a place where recycling would be considered desirable and put the resources towards it. I read an interesting Indian magazine article; an interview with a grassroots social activist working to illustrate the effect that the Indian caste system has on how things get done in the country.  The lowest castes traditionally have the dirtiest jobs handling waste and garbage, the higher castes have never had a part in dealing with it.  So in a weird way, the garbage is a cultural blind spot brought on by the caste system. It’s almost not their fault. The caste system makes it very difficult for the upper caste people to put their minds to problems that are “beneath” them, like sanitation, garbage collection, sewage. It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context. Bureaucrats and officials in high levels of government LITERALLY have not been capable of wrapping their heads around managing garbage because it should not even be on their radar- they’re too “upper class”, it’s not something they have ever been concerned about in their caste- it just gets taken away. This is literal, India just dumps everything, and the dumps are just about full.  Whereas, there has been very little improvement for the working conditions of those people who belong to the lower caste because there is little top-down leadership on these issues. This activist really hammered that people of the lower caste were dying when working to empty out septic tanks due to suffocation, the oxygen content is so low and the gaseous offsets of the waste literally suffocates them. Most towns and cities have never built sewer systems.  The officials go on inspection and since they don’t see women belonging to the lower caste carry baskets of human waste on their heads in such a project, they consider the matter fine.  It’s a socio-cultural issue, according to this activist.

Arriving in Dehli again, this time by train, I was happy I wasn’t spending more than an overnight once again. I got to see the sprawl and living conditions of the poor people living near the railway lines while heading through the city to the New Delhi central station.  I’m sure once I got into a nice area and a hotel, that there would be lots of really interesting cultural sites and historical areas that would be amazing to see, but I just wasn’t ready to do Delhi travel in India. Call me a chicken, and I’ll accept that.

I was picked up from the New Dehli train station with little hassle by the driver supplied by “Bloom Rooms” hotel.  The poor guy (whom I discovered was, you guessed it, from Dharmsala) had to run to the opposite side of the station when I failed to wait for him on the platform.  I was sorry to have done that to him because Sanay was one of those devastatingly handsome, tall, bearded Indian men.  Oh yes, there are a lot of very tall, devastatingly handsome, full bearded Indian men in India. When Indian men are devestatingly handsome, they are truly and ridiculously handsome. It’s devestating.  Anyway. I was sorry to see him go.

“Bloom Rooms” in New Dehli, by the way, is an absolutely charming contemporary hotel very near to the train station that takes one to Agra.  I highly recommend it.  Everything is very Western design and Western clean- and the charming beech wood, white and yellow rooms have bunkbeds! I tumbled myself into the gorgeous shower and then into bed as quickly as possible.  Next stop is Agra for the Taj Mahal… tomorrow.

Shimla, Oct. 13 ’16

The Coffee House is a magical place and everybody needs to go there when they visit Simla. It’s got two stories and back balconies worth of tables done all in dark wood, with circulating fans and lamps high overhead, but it is not a fancy place- it’s “well loved” and has a patina that only millions of visits can give…

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Wonderful sleep achieved! There is not the horrible dog barking here in Simla to disturb my sleep, nor is enough traffic able to fit through these extremely narrow streets up by the Spars Lodge that one wakes due to the beeping of horns.  I call this little budget place a total score on all fronts.

I woke up at the crack of dawn anyway and snuck in a couple of sunrise photos before any of the hotel staff were awake.  And I had enough presence of mind to remember how I felt doing all that climbing yesterday so, a) I wore my extra supportive running shoes out, and b) I did some stretching in the driveway, to the general bemusement of the security guards across the street. There is definitely something extremely empowering about being a nearly middle aged woman traveling alone. I stretch when I feel like it wherever I happen to be, I wear the most comfey options of local clothes, sensible shoes, a funny sun hat and not a stitch of makeup, and I feel awesome about all of it!  I couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks- I am an eccentric spinster traveler. Hear me roar!

I ate a quick snack and decided that I wanted not only a good breakfast, but also a good cup of coffee, which could only be found at the legendary “Coffee House” back at the beginnings of The Mall.  It was great that I was out the door before 0830, for I was very happy to observe Simla in its morning routine, with the young school children making their way all neat and tidy in their uniforms and colourful backpacks. Actually, it’s quite the college town! Not only is there the post-grad institution, but I stumbled across signs for colleges of accounting, Fine Arts, municipal engineering (must be important in a town that climbs up almost vertical mountain slopes), and the military.  Lots of tall, strapping young people in military uniforms or workout clothes everywhere in the morning. After all, Simla is the state capital.

The Coffee House is a magical place and everybody needs to go there when they visit Simla.  It’s got two stories and back balconies worth of tables done all in dark wood, with circulating fans and lamps high overhead, but it is not a fancy place- it’s “well loved” and has a patina that only millions of visits can give- a bit worn and dingy, and thoroughly atmospheric.  The waiters dress in traditional and completely charming Coffee Wallah uniforms.  Coffee is served in individual coffee pots, usually seen for tea in North America, and the coffee cup (on its saucer) is full to the brim with hot water when brought to you- the coffee wallah then dumps the scalding water over the cutlery on his tray before snagging your utensils for you and setting your porcelain down, an excellent hygeinic practice! The coffee was delicious and strong, so I had two pots, and the omelette and toast were also perfect (and cheaper than my hotel).

I loitered a bit before heading out to the Jaiku temple because (major confession here) I don’t really like getting close to families of monkeys and their behaviour out of their natural habitat. They completely freak me out when they’re in the habit of being fed by humans, and therefore aren’t afraid of our species- and in fact are quite aggressive.  I was assured that as long as I don’t have any food for them that I would be left alone, but I was tempted to buy a stick to keep them off, apparently sold by the convenience shops at the bottom of the hill up to the temple.

I did not buy the stick at the bottom of the hill and was doing okay until I went to get my camera out of my bag. Of course a nearby monkey assumed I was getting food for it , got really close and stared at me and bared its teeth in that horrible aggressive monkey rictus grin- eek!  And everything I was doing to get it to bugger off was, I was told, provoking it instead.  Crap, monkeys are scary!  In the time I was there looking around the grounds of the temple, one monkey made off with somoene’s shoe from the shoe house where you leave them prior going into the temple proper (prompting me to think “I don’t really need to go in there. I like my shoes,” and another snatched sunglasses off another person’s head.  Hanuman may be a cool god, but his “people” can be a serious nuisance.  So, whatever, I saw the temple monkeys.  I like them better minding their own business and  clambering around town. The view from the temple grounds, and the walk up and down the wooded path was very pleasant (just mind the monkey poop), and you could peek into the grounds of run down colonial mansions, which were melancholy and interesting.

Back at Scandal Point, I was eating my channa masala and chapati lunch, and attempting to like the achar (veggie pickle) sides provided at the very colonial and picturesque round HPTDC restaurant overlooking the plaza.  I have tried to like mixing curry with the very sour and acidic pickles often offered alongside, but I find the curries to be so wonderfully flavourful, with a really pleasing depth to the heat that the achar almost cancels out on the palate. Indians seem to enjoy the pickle accompaniment, but I don’t see the point. I prefer the raita (yoghurt/milk curd dishes with chopped onion, cucumber and tomato, or pineapple , although it sometimes mellows the fire of the curry a little too much for my taste.  I enjoyed my lunch, but to my own bewilderment I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I ate sitting in the sun, it was weird- but I’ll reflect on that later.

After purchasing a disposable cell phone and temporary SIM card with minimal expense and effort (about $30CAD all told) and grabbing a “Rose Dream” ice cream (made with real rose petals- YUM!) to cool myself from the hot sun inside out, I found my fellow traveler Bete again, hanging out in the terraced area under the pagoda while I killed time waiting for the Gaity Theatre to open again from lunch break.  Simla is a wonderfully scenic and just plain “cool” place to hang out, thanks to Scandal Point’s  big, open triangular space lined with iron-wrought fences and lamp posts, British architecture and MASSES of Indian tourists paying for the kids’ fancy and be-jingle-belled horse rides back and forth. Lots of Indian men go for the horse rides as well, which is both quite hilarious and endearing to watch.  A couple of those dudes were BIG.  And presiding over all is the gigantic pink (and therefore very phallic) statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, from the grounds of the Jaiku temple on the far slope above.

The Gaity Theatre in the neo-gothic building (recently restored) was worth the wait.  I took a lot of photos in there, for it was a genuinely charming space and the interior decor was done with typically Victorian beautiful ingenuity, for the lovely relief panels of gold were all done by hand and made out of paper mache in order to assist with the accoustics of the space.  Brilliant!  One would look through the doors leading from the balcony seating, and they were in direct line with lovely neo-gothic arched windows, so from the opposite side, all thelovely colours of the interior framed an archway of decorative light. I thought a lot about my (deceased) sister, Linda, who had a distinguished career in theatre costuming, and knew she would have got a serious kick out of this place.  I was reminded by the tour guide that Rudyard Kipling wrote two books while he lived in Shimla (for his father was the person who designed the stained glass windows at Christchurch Cathedral)- and he performed and wrote plays for the Dramatic Society.  The photographs of the plays that were performed over the years in this space were very evocative and quite funny indeed- lots of hamming it up!

After the theatre, I had my first visit to a public squat toilet in India and nailed it! There is good reason why women wear skirts and tight leggings here… followed by a bit of a nature walk down in the area known as “The Glen” on the way back towards the hotel.  I was taken in by the gigantic signs pointing the way to the “Historical British Resort” hotel and grounds, and found an entirely charming house and garden (and pet geese) at the bottom of the hill, but by the advertised nature walk is in itself quite “Meh.”  Speaking as a spoiled Vancouverite, the path was littered with garbage, and I am already quite accustomed to alpine paths lined with fir, pine and cedar.  Nothing exotic to see (except the garbage) and the small tenement-like Victorian apartment buildings and houses.  I DID find a beautiful vintage Triumph Royal Enfield motorcycle to admire, though.  Beauty.

I popped into the State Museum just up the way from the hotel before it closed, with a little less time for it than I would have liked, but the traditional jewelery from the mountain peoples of Himachal Pradesh, miniature paintings, and bronze sculptures were my favourite, and genuinely fine work.  Really one could entirely skip all the stone carvings on the main floor as they are in pretty bad shape for the most part with generally eroded and indistinguishable figures.  I got back to the hotel while the sun was still out to avoid washing my hair in the cold night, but it didn’t dry before the cold set in and subsequently I didn’t feel too good for the rest of the evening.  After getting half packed and mostly organized for my departure, I huddled under the extremely thick duvet blanket provided and put my hat on to keep my head warm overnight (like the locals do). No heat otherwise. So ready for sleep.

 

Simla- Oct. 12 ’16

Instead of backtracking through the bazaar, I decided to use of the steep stairways connecting it back up to the Mall, and was humbled by how slowly I had to take it. The way is so steep, little shops are situated at the terrace levels as well, just as much to give people a break from climbing as much as to put every available space to use…

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The bus ride to Simla was not nearly as comfortable as I’d hoped, nor as uncomfortable as I feared.  I got a classically Indian bus: pretty grubby, but otherwise comfortable enough.  I was happy to ride with average Indians around me, sharing stories about their travels, and the seats reclined so we all slept snuggled deep in blankets, heavy coats and touques (Indians in Himachal Pradesh, land of altitude induced cold are no stranger to touques- they are not a solely Canadian phenomenon!)  I got at least 6.5 hours “travel sleep” feeling the bus rise and fall and sway with the mountain road, and then woke a good 40 minutes before dawn.  The stars above the mountain peaks were stunningly bright and thick in the black sky, and the area is generally pretty sparsely populated, so there wasn’t a lot of light pollution coming from the little villages outside Shimla. I caught sight of my traveling companion (from childhood road trips) Orion for a while.  I definitely got suckered by the taxi driver that took me up to “Spars Lodge”, a mere 5 minutes from the bus station but live and learn! I was initially weirded out when he let me out in front of a gated property with two armed security guards (one of them sweeping the sidewalk) in front.  It turns out there is an official ministerial residence of some sort directly across from the Lodge.  I doubt they have to worry about robberies around here…

Spars Lodge is pretty tiny with only about 6 or 7 rooms for visitors, and the single room I had on the lowest story was very simple, with a rooftop of a building on a lower terrace blocking any view down the mountainside, and in need of a bit of a sweep.  However, the common area/reception area/dining room (like I said, this is a small place) has a magnificent panoramic view.  After a shower, disappointing breakfast (instant oatmeal and Nescafe), nice conversation with a fellow lodger named Bete from Luzerne, Switzerland, and visit from a local monkey wondering why there was glass between himself and my breakfast I headed out for the historic Viceregal Lodge.

I got myself lost taking the wrong fork of a road, and wandered down  into the valley of Annadale.  A military vehicle went by (what is with all the military here?) and let me know I was headed the wrong way- but it was an interesting diversion. Simla is a seriously beautiful alpine town with lots of gorgeous views. I came back to the same fork of the road and still wasn’t sure which way to go (I had 4 choices), so I ducked into the nearby bird sanctuary to admire some Indian species of pheasant, fancy chickens, peacocks and geese… and consult my map.  Upon exiting the sanctuary, having read the Lonely Planet entry for the Viceregal Lodge, it made sense to me that the large gatehouse directly across from the sanctuary had the sign “Indian Institute of Advanced Study”- housed in the Viceregal Lodge. The grounds of the Institute are pretty extensive and, charmingly, the ticket office, gift shop and cafeteria for the Lodge are in what used to be a fire station.  After wandering around the grounds waiting for the next tour group to be let in, I sat down inside for a coffee (“please put a big scoop of it (Nescafe) into my cup”), chatted with a nice man from Delhi guiding a tour group around Simla himself, and rested.  Simla is at even higher elevation than McLeod Ganj, so walking uphill for any amount of time is serious business.

On a somewhat frivolous aside, I was grateful every day since arriving in India that I impulse-bought a bottle of “Liquid Oxygen” from the Skymall shopping on my Air Canada flight. It was a serious lifesaver in dealing with the jet lag and altitude, when taking it about 3 times a day. I can’t imagine how I would have felt without it- life saving product for travelers!

The Viceregal Lodge building itself was beautiful outside and in, and also intriguing! The huge main hall paneled completely in teak from Java was very impressive, and the Victorian technologies built into it equally so: the building has a still functioning sprinkler system fed with collected rainwater (also used to water the grounds)-  the sprinkler heads are all sealed with wax, so if there is a fire the wax melts and the water is released- also the water is released if the multiple thermostats filled with solid nitrogen evaporates. The surrounding gardened grounds were also lovely, and I was struck by how many of the flower species there are commonly seen in Canada.  It must be because the British brought the local flowers back to England, and then from England to Canada.  I wonder whether some of them, like nasturtium, started off in England or in India.  That would be a fun little research project- the history of decorative flora. Yup, I’m a nerd.

It turns out that Spars Lodge really is “on the other side of town”, for I walked a good 20 minutes before finding the beginnings of “The Mall” and Scandal Point. Simla is truly interesting and eclectic place with all this British architecture on the crest of the mountain ridge overlooking a very Indian bazaar and city.  I went into it via a downwards forking from the Ridge end of Scandal point, closer to where the cable lift operates (very handy if one takes a hotel further down the mountainside- no cars are allowed into the Mall and Scandal Point Ridge area, which makes for really pleasant walking and relative quiet).  Going through the winding, narrow streets of the Middle Bazaar I realized I had better get used to being bumped gently and physically brushing past people continuously, because there’s not a lot of room to spare, and people don’t pause to apologize or even bat an eyelid.  Like most markets and bazaars around the world, there’s a lot of “same same, but different” and I wondered at the profusion of corner store type places.  I stopped for some pretty, fresh barfi (a kind of cross between baked square and fudge, more fudge-like than pastry- the texture closest to coconut lemon squares) decorated with silver foil, shaved pistachio or rose petals in coconut and “regular” flavour, which is pretty much an explosion of “leche” like sweetness.

A note on the Indian’s love of sweets- there is no exaggeration. Cake slathered in buttercream icing, ice cream, barfi, and candy shops abound- and then the corner store type places then also stock a profusion of name brand cookies and biscuits, ice creams and kulfi.  Watch out- it’s all seriously awesome.  There was even a lunch spot chain called “The Honey Hut” that added honey to every single one of its curries! That I refrained from- honeyed curry did not sound appetizing.

Instead of backtracking through the bazaar, I decided to use of the steep stairways connecting it back up to the Mall, and was humbled by how slowly I had to take it. The way is so steep, little shops are situated at the terrace levels as well, just as much to give people a break from climbing as much as to put every available space to use.  By the time I got back up to the top level, I arrived a bit too late to the beautiful Gaiety Theatre for a tour.  As the sun was beginning to sink towards the mountains, a decided chill crept into the breeze, and my walk home in the shadowed area was a blessed cool relief from the scorching heat when the sun was full.

So far I have visited Tibetan India (Little Tibet) and British India (Little England)…

Dinner at Spas Lodge proved to be more than satisfactory. The proprietor makes delicious everything.  My scramble of tomato, onion and egg dish was excellent, as was the  sabzi (lightly stewed and curried mixed vegetables). It was hard to keep my eyes open even as The Swiss visitor, Bete, fascinated me with tales of his amazing bicycle trip through the remote mountain areas of Himachal Pradesh, the “foothills” to the Himalayas (to ensure that he can travel just as much as he wants for as long as he wants, he has only 3 cardboard boxes worth of personal belongings- ONLY 3- AMAZING!!! INSPIRING!!!).  I excused myself early and after taking only enough time to brush my teeth and stretch my sore leg muscles (and take a dose of arnica montana) after all that hill and stair climbing (owies), I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

McLeod Ganj & Bhagsu- Oct. 11

the Indian government has done an amazing and noble thing continuing to accept Tibetan refugees into its already very crowded and resource stretched country.

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7.5 hours of almost unbroken sleep achieved!

I got out of bed at the crack of dawn again, did some asanas, bathed and was ready for the day early.  I chatted with another a lovely soft-spoken clean-cut hippie from Austin, TX with one of those exotic American names I can never remember (are you sure that’s not a car model name?) over breakfast on the patio. He suggested I check out the walk and waterfall at Bhagsu, the next village over.  I proceeded on the road out of town and thought I was supposed to take a side foot-path to get down to the waterfall… Nope.  I took some photos of MacLeod Ganj from afar, but gave up trying to reach the river at the valley bottom- it was quite a climb.  I retraced my steps back up the steep hill-side and proceeded on to Bhagsu, finding the Shiva temple pool busy with bathing tourists.

Indians don’t bother with bathing suits, they just strip down to their undershorts and proceed.  The mystery of why Indian men sport underwear on Canadian beaches solved! I noticed that there was not a single woman not accompanied by her husband or boyfriend around, and certainly none of them in the temple pool, so aside from giving my hot and dusty feet a dip, I was out of luck.  I also tried poking around to find the path to the natural waterfall down below the temple, but like everywhere else in the vicinity there was nothing but Indian men in their underwear lining the paths.So again, I gave up.

Now, normally I just do whatever the hell I like, but I found it pretty tough to proceed in this situation.  Since arriving in India, I get stared at pretty much constantly which doesn’t phase me- it’s simple curiosity and totally void of negativity. I get the sense they think I’m kinda crazy, very daring, very unconventional for traveling on my own, and all this is tolerated because I’m White.  Being stared at is one thing, but to start wandering around without a chaperone of any sort amidst half-naked dudes in a culture where women don’t do things on their own- and there were no women to be seen doing this particular thing at all, male chaperone or no- that’s another story. It’s probably a shame I missed it, however my side-track down the valley towards the river and the climb back up (at this altitude and in this heat I wouldn’t even dare anyone to not take it slow, or take rests in the shade when you find it) ate up a lot of time. That didn’t stop me from trying to get to it via another path on the way back to McLeod Ganj though. Still unsuccessful as the path came down to a dead-end. I sure got a lot of cardio this morning- up and down nature’s Stairmaster.  The views were glorious from those spots, so while the sound of rushing water mocked me, I got some gorgeous photos of the mountain scenery.

I had time enough to dry my sweaty clothes out on the back balcony of my room, have some quiet time and pack everything up before checking out of the hotel.  I booked an overnight bus to Simla rather than waste a day traveling, so today has been about keeping myself occupied between check-out time and catching the cab to Dharmsala’s bus station at 8pm.  I went to the highly recommended “Moonstruck Cafe” for a Himachal thali lunch (thali with dishes common to the state of Himachal Pradesh) and masala chai.  The dahl was very different in this thali, with a distinctly sour tang to it. I didn’t care for it at all, and I had to forgo the meat they served with it (because meat in India), but there was a yummy dessert included, sweet and fragrant saffron semolina with blanched almonds in it. I noticed sitting at the outside table that the town cleared out quite a bit- all the students went home, and with the Dalai Lama gone, many of the people who would’ve been in town to hear his talks also left. The traffic and crowds may have dissipated, but the Brahman beggars have had to become more aggressive in turn. The Brahman beggars are a very exotic sight, they dress in wrapped robes, are as skinny as skinny can be, carry begging bowls and holy symbols or icons, and paint their faces with white or yellow pigment.  I have noticed the truth to the guide books assertion that there are nearly 100 different ethnicities that make up the Indian population, so one cannot pin down a “typical” Indian person; there is so much diversity in skin hues, body shapes, facial features, and hair colour and texture.

I went back to the temple after lunch to visit the Tibetan Museum and then do a proper meditation on the temple grounds.  Oh man, was that ever upsetting- as in extremely disturbing and emotionally wrenching.  His Holiness would not approve of my hating those responsible *coughpeoplesrepublicofchinacough* as he does not condone hatred at all, but it is hard not to feel hatred towards those responsible when faced with the full scope of their actions- actions that are deliberately kept out of the consciousness of their own populace, out of the consciousness of the rest of the world so as to remain unanswerable for those actions.  Forcibly removing nomadic peoples from their ancestral lands, the land is strip-mined, used for nuclear test sites, used for nuclear waste dumps,  a culture systematically destroyed as historical and cultural sites are razed decade after decade. Cultural genocide has been and continues to be committed with the continuous jailing and murder of Tibetans for attempting to protect the remnants of their culture, for protecting their environment and natural resources, and nearly 150 young Tibetans have self-immolated in protest over the past 10 years which nobody knows about for the government has such as stranglehold on the media. In the meantime, they cynically  allow a few cultural/historical sites to remain for plausible deniability, and to reap tourist dollars. Sure, I tried to meditate after visiting the museum at the temple, but it was extremely difficult. I examined my own comfortable life in the face of that horror, a horror thought confined to history, and felt myself a parasite with nothing but a superficial and selfish take on what to accomplish over my lifetime. Forget world travel, forget achieving any semblance of personal happiness, if I was worth my salt as a human being I would be putting every extra penny I have or will ever have to rescue someone from that persecution. No matter how much I might have to sacrifice, it’s no hardship in comparison.  How does one wrap their head around winning the genetic lottery by being born in the West? One doesn’t. One forgets quickly, and we are encouraged to forget by our culture of distraction and consumption at every turn.  In the meantime, the Indian government has done an amazing and noble thing continuing to accept Tibetan refugees into its already very crowded and resource stretched country.  Although I was shocked to discover they can’t and don’t take every Tibetan person in who makes the dangerous journey over the Himalayas, I can understand it.  Before I left Canada, someone in FB land recently leveled a criticism about our taking so many Syrian refugees in simply because of media attention and hype- whereas Tibetans don’t get the same consideration or treatment because the government that will remain nameless deliberately suppresses any coverage of the their plight.  I now see his point.  We could and should be doing more. I should be doing more.  So yeah, my visit to the temple today held none of the magic it did the day before.  And it was doubly weird to see the same Indian tourists who visited the museum then blithely take selfies with the Sakyamuni Buddha in the background. It was too surreal for me. I had to sit and wrestle with it all for a good long time, looking at Buddha. Watching the monks work tirelessly in the candle house (a glass building, full of candles in little metal chalices) was actually helpful.  Why were they doing it? They were setting every single candle alight systematically, filling the space with fire.  I have no idea of its significance, but they did. They were enduring a very uncomfortable practice, with the discomfort likely a very key part of the doing.  After all, Tibetan Buddhism is renowned for gaining mastery over the body and mind both.

It rained on my way out of the temple complex, so I ducked back into the Internet office again.  It was another fruitless visit in terms of accessing my existing e-mail account, so I simply created a new one and proceeded from there.  Doing something so mundane and solving such a simple problem really helped me shake off the last of my despair. The way out is through, take each step in its own time.  When it stopped raining, I proceeded along the high road to Dharmsala to visit St. John’s in the Wilderness. It was trippy finding this very European/English Anglican church complete with Victorian dilapidated grave markers in “little Tibet”. I thought of my friends who have a taste for the macabre and gloomy, and how much they would have appreciated this particular spot.  Interestingly, the large church bell sent here from Scotland as a gift was too heavy to hang in the church tower when sent here in the 1800s, and equally too heavy for the thieves that tried to steal it for scrap in 1995 over 100 years later- so now it’s enclosed in an ugly cage to keep it “safe.” What I liked most about this site was that all of the paths in and around the church grounds to the road and along the graveyard way are flagged, and coloured stones were used to create red-circled white Anglican crosses, and to enhance the entry. The cedar and pine trees around the church are very large and thick, so have crowded out the views that made the location so attractive to Lord Elgin, the Viceroy who asked to be buried there.

The rest of the early evening was about drinking tea, catching up on journaling, and killing time before leaving for the bus station in Dharmsala.  However, I finally met and had an awesome conversation with an Indian woman over dinner.  She was an Intern working as a scholarly editor. I didn’t quite understand how it worked for her, but she was actually in MacLeod Ganj and the environs to assist with research, so we had a really interesting conversation and she gave me a good sense of what not to be worried about anymore, given where I was traveling in India “People will be too busy with their own business to care about bothering you.” Wonderful!

 

McLeod Ganj & Tsuglagkhang- Oct. 10

We were having a similar experience, crying but not crying, overwhelmed yet fully in the moment.

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I may have only been here 24 hours, but I’m a bit fed up with McLeod Ganj as I write this.  when the traffic noise and honking finally stopped, all the local dogs started to bark unceasingly until very, very late (or very, very early depending on your perspective).  I remember this same experience from the town of Cahuita, Costa Rica, but it’s still tough- especially when jet lagged and sleep deprived.  After my nightmare, I woke up once again at 0400, so I’m back at Nick’s Italian Kitchen having a pot of tea to keep myself awake. But I’m getting way ahead of myself…

I absolutely could not stay in bed after 0540, so got myself up, washed, did some sun salutations and dressed to watch the sunrise over the mountain with camera in hand, which proved to be a longer and colder process than anticipated, so I advise layering up.  It is a totally worthwhile and wonderous experience to have.  By the time the sun cleared the peak and shone directly into my room, the town was officially awake.  I had watched monkeys, crows and kites hunting diligently in the pre-dawn, and heard all the morning birdsong.  I happily noted (being a crazy bird lady) a small cardinal-like bird with white cheeks, and a pair of birds whose wings had circles of white near the tip so they flashed merrily like winking eyes as they flew and soared. What a lovely, cheerful sight!

I breakfasted on the patio of my own hotel, enjoying tsampa (Tibetan barley porridge, much like cream of wheat) with a handful of golden raisins and honey, a glass fresh pressed beet, carrot and apple juice (slightly earthier flavoured than I would like, fingers crossed), and an Americano. THIS is how you get good coffee in India- EUREKA!

Unfortunately I broke the string of my mala (Buddhist/Hindi prayer beads) while getting dressed and ready for the day as well, so I popped into the shop of a Tibetan jeweler to have it re-strung.  He made improvements on it adding a larger 108th bead, a vertical keeper bead, and wove lovely end decorations at the bottom of each strand- it’s better than new, and I have a special Tibetan memento within my trip to India. I like it!  We chatted while he worked, and he was excited to hear that I am Canadian.  A couple of his friends received refugee status in Canada and are very grateful to be living there- he himself has applied a couple of times, but it’s very hard to get in, he told me.

I walked to the Tsuglagkhang temple complex, and home to the Namgyal Gompa monastery where H.H Dalai Lama resides.  I thought the views were beautiful on my walk there, but I hadn’t seen anything yet! The Tibet Museum is closed Mondays (today), so I went straight to the Tsugagkhang temple, and it finally hit me- I am in India and visiting the temple at which the Dalai Lama lives and teaches! So tears streamed down my face continuously as I looked upon the Sakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitsevara (Chenrezig in Tibetan; the bodhisattva of compassion, Tibet’s patron deity), and Padmasambhava- the Indian king sage believed to have brought Buddhism to Tibet.  I was still overcome by the atmosphere, the reverberation of the presence of the Dalai Lama,  and realization of a personal dream when I ran into Corrine, the former RN I had met on the plane yesterday. We were having a similar experience, crying but not crying, overwhelmed yet fully in the moment. It was difficult to talk.  Also touching to a lover of books and learning like myself was the glass-faced cases stacked completely with scrolls in between the altars.  The Tibetan grandfathers’ devout prostrations within and without the temple proper to the Sakyamuni Buddha was humbling and amazing to watch.  Upon leaving the temple interior, I received a little sweet puffed rice candy from a monk- I ate only a little, and stashed the rest to pass on the blessing to friends.  I took the prayer circuit around the temple, touching and turning each prayer wheel inscribed with the fundamental Tibetan mantra (and my mantra of choice) “Om Mani Padme Hum”- Om the Jewel of the Lotus”.

I took some time to come back to myself and watched the monks of different ordinations (in different coloured robes, of different nationalities I think) practice at their debates in pairs in the courtyard outside, sometimes with monk onlookers sitting on the ground, listening. The air was lively with voices and the impassioned “final word” as the monk finishing his point would step forward stomping his foot down and simultaneously clap his hands in front- almost a contemporary dance step. “I have spoken!”

When I finally exited the temple complex (after taking photos of the surrounding mountain peaks), I got a kick out of passing the Tibetan grandmothers in the town streets with their smiles and open “Hallohh” greetings to me. Impossible not to smile in return.  I popped into the little Indian spot (the name escapes me) recommended to me by Kim the American Buddhist nun for a thali lunch (a large lunch of several dishes of different Indian foods with rice chaval and papadam or chappati bread), and it was deliciously spicy and cheap!  I had a friendly chat with some visitors from Mumbai who mentioned to me there were so many Indian university students and junior high-school aged kids tourists in McLeod Ganj because it was a long-weekend from school.  They were surprised I was eating a thali. I said “Of course! I’m in India- why wouldn’t I? Indian food is delicious.” They were also impressed I traveled all the way from Vancouver, Canada. What to say to that? “Thank you. India is amazing.”

I visited the Internet place and discovered that Internet security measures to protect your public domain email accounts (like Gmail) are a total pain in the ass.  Hotmail asked for my phone number or my alternate email (my Gmail) to confirm my identity, and Gmail asked for my phone number or alternate email (my Hotmail) to confirm my account- and I hadn’t brought my phone, and even if I had there was NO WAY I was going to use my Canadian SIM and incur global data roaming charges- like most sane people, I would have bought a temporary Indian SIM… so, no e-mail.  This process is something my father would refer to as the domain companies “playing silly buggers.” This is frustrating because all of my future hotel stays have my hotmail email address on record, and more pressingly I recalled I had not printed out my bus ticket from Dharmsala to Simla for tomorrow’s journey. Hmmm…

Lonely Planet book to the rescue! I found the HPTDC (Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation- you try saying that fast 3 times!) ticketing office right at the 5 point intersection.  The young Indian men working there looked gobsmacked when I approached them (as most of them do, wherever they work – this might be the effect of blue eyes and white skin). For a little baksheesh they printed my ticket for me because technically they were “not authorized” to help me in that way. That’s the spot to get cabs as well, so I’m all sorted! I backtracked a little bit to observe the hustle bustle of the town, and to visit the interior of the cheerfully and riotously painted Chorten Temple.  Inside is an equally cheerful golden stupa (that’s the proper noun- it’s a Buddhist thing- these tall, kinda abstract, globe sculptures sometimes on pedestals- I don’t know why) or chorten in Tibetan (hence the Chorten Temple). It was fun trying to take an effective photograph in the very close quarters. This temple, too, has brightly painted prayer wheels to turn “Om Mani Padme Hum” along all it’s outer walls. By that time, it was 1430 and I was exhausted.  I went for a rest back at the hotel and had a read on my back balcony, listening to thunder rolling around the mountains.  I neatly avoided being caught in the daily afternoon downpour.

So now I am back at the beginning of this entry- at Nick’s drinking tea.  I tried to look for a different place to eat supper, like one of those restaurants closer to the “star” intersection, but the constant and chronic honking of car horns drove me back to Nick’s, whose patio just so happens to have the best view of the mountain peaks anyway.  Having eatn a massive piece of chocolate mousse cake (which actually has a consistency more like chocolate ganache), I predict I’ll have less trouble staying up past 2000 tonight.

The Tibetan jeweler opened his shop again this evening, so I popped in with a Canadian nickel as a good-luck token for him. I told him about the beaver’s hard work and ability to create lakes through their dam-building efforts, so maybe it would be the right energy in assisting him to finally get authorization to come to Canada as a refugee or immigrant.  There were a lot of other customers browsing, so I excused myself afterwards despite his gracious offer of sitting down for a chai. Instead I tried a saffron tea closer to home (a whole 20 feet down the road) and chatted with an Israeli woman before retiring for the night.  After my shower, I found I had managed to stay up until 2130.  C’mon sleep!

 

 

Dehli -> McLeod Ganj/Dharamsala Oct. 9

The 5 point intersection at the centre of town… a lot of restaurants are situated at every point- I guess people enjoy overlooking the chaos they themselves had to go through!

A little about my arrival in Delhi- I was horrified.  In the airport, people were laid out on their belongings wherever they could to sleep waiting for their flight, and any part of the airport not enclosed was teeming with mosquitos and flies.  The air was as thick with bugs as it was with smog- I couldn’t tell if the haze over everything was the usual pollution of Delhi or the fact that the area was completely infested  following the monsoon rains.  My hotel shuttle driver didn’t warn me, and I would have really appreciated a head’s up.  I was actually pretty grateful I was still in my heavy westerner clothes, too thick to get a bite through. I tried to put my hat on before getting bit on my scalp and or face, but I’m certain I wasn’t successful.  It was pretty scary, with me just having taken my first dose of anti-malarial meds, and no protection against Dengue.  As we walked to the car, any light source we passed was surrounded by thousands of jockeying, swarming brown bugs.  I really felt for anyone who didn’t have a good home in Delhi at this time. Imagine having to deal with that for days on end!

Although I wasn’t in my hotel room until 0100 this morning the hotel was perfect. “Hotel Airport Residency” is close to the airport (important since I have to go back for my flight to Dharmsala), India clean (towels and bed sheets clean, but slightly dingy, and everything else clean, but fixtures a little worn and hard-water stained), extremely spacious and very well appointed- the shuttle cost includes the return to the airport, too.  The service from the extremely young workers (they can’t be older than 19!) and Indian breakfast this morning was great! Instead of porridge, I had the traditional masala dhosa– a large savoury crepe stuffed with spiced mashed potato. I was also faced with the Indian version of coffee- instant Nescafe! Leave your discerning coffee palate behind folks!  But I was back at Delhi airport by 0800 clean, in my new Indian clothes, and comparatively well-rested.

The flight to Dharamsala happens on one of those small charter planes that you bus out onto the tarmac to board- really fun. The curried egg sandwich they tried to serve me on this flight was not exactly the classic mattar paneer (unfermented cheese and pea curry) and chaval (rice) they served me on the plane from Mumbai to Dehli last night. Oh well.  My seat neighbour was a lovely lady, Corrine, who had been an RN in her past (and hated it for the same reasons I did), has been to the OSHO resort, and is visiting Dharamsala for the first time.  We were both at the end of our traveling tethers and so relieved to arrive.  The view from the plane, once away from the Delhi smog and sprawl was amazingly beautiful, for a glacier-fed lake surprised me.  It was fun to trace the runoff river paths down the mountain with their rapids, falls and flats- all visible from the sky.  The drive up to McLeod Ganji from the purely utilitarian town that is Dharamsala proper near the airport was equally charming with wildflowers and villagers, and challenging to my vertigo with its unbelievably steep, narrow and twisty way.  Of course traffic went both ways along this narrow track, and the drivers have reflexes like lightning. I continually avowed my faith that existence would see me arrive safely at my end destination.

My preconceptions of McLeod Ganj were quickly shattered as it’s a CROWDED place on the weekend.  I think this is something I had to see before I truly understood about being in any part of India; this area is a bustling tourist town, home to all the monks and nuns in residence or visiting here, AND all the Indian and Tibetan people as well.  The streets are constantly full of vehicles, animals and people on foot- there is no such thing as a sidewalk here.  The 5 point intersection at the centre of town with roads leading back over to Dharmsala over a high road (I took the low road up), and over to nearby Bhagsu and Dharamkot is a seemingly a mass of taxis and scooters, and a constant cacophony of beeping horns and the traffic policeman’s whistle.  Oddly, a lot of restaurants are situated at every point of this intersection, and they seem to be quite popular.  I guess people enjoy overlooking the chaos they themselves had to go through to get to their respective hotels!

After settling in my hotel, I took a little walkabout.  Yes, there are cows in the streets, hawks and kites overhead on the wing, dogs, monkeys and even a lone chicken hanging out at a public dumpster not far down the road from “The Green Hotel”.  I watched monkeys clamber up through the trees and over rooftops equally today.  My room’s balcony faces the mountains, so it’s lovely, but the room itself is nothing fancy.  Bring your own padlock for added security to your door as there is an additional bolt you can secure upon leaving your room- and ALWAYS close and secure your balcony door unless you want monkeys ripping through your stuff! Hotels in India don’t provide maid services- they clean between guest stays and upon request only.  Remember that before you track the dust (made up of countless different species of garbage and dung) into your bedroom or bathroom areas.  I went to the famous “Nick’s Italian Kitchen” for lunch and shared the table with Kim, a Buddhist nun from Montana- and proceeded to talk her ear off after inquiring after an Internet place in town (closed today).  It was really lovely to chat with her and hear her story of how she came to becoming ordained as a nun.  I didn’t get much else done.  By the time I finished my lunch of spinach and tofu momo (Tibetan dumplings), it was nearly 4pm and it was nice to feel settled in my room.  I am really looking forward to my visit to the Tsuglagkhang Complex tomorrow and taking lots of photos of the interesting things I’ve spotted already.  Kim mentioned that sunrise is absolutely stunning here, so hopefully I’ll be up for that, for I want nothing more than to go to bed.

Kim also mentioned I had missed H.H. the Dalai Lama’s talk today as I sat in my taxi today, and he leaves tomorrow for Europe.  Of course I’m very disappointed- that layover in London and Mumbai robbed me of an opportunity it would seem, but how could I have known about this talk a year ago?  However, he will give more talks here and elsewhere (even in Vancouver), and I have been in His Holiness’ presence before- the memory of that day and recollection of how his presence literally feels in my body stays with me and sustains me to this very day.  In the meantime, washing my socks in the sink and giving myself a facial it is- tee hee!