Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Spice

Just came across an article on how Bhut Jholokia will be used as a chili grenade.

Next thing you know, the terrorists will find a way to combat airborne capsaicin with curd...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Home Sweet Home

On August 7th.  Am I experiencing reverse culture shock?  Hard to say as of yet, but it feels weird to be thinking about staying in one spot for more than a few days.  It truly has been quite an experience!  A few more posts will trickle in as I get photos up.  Looking forward to seeing friends and family.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


First, let me apologize for not keeping you posted with my travels. I will update my travels through NW India and China upon my return to the states as I don't have the time at the moment. I do have an excuse for not updating the blog in China...government censorship of blogger, facebook, and other social networking sites. Oddly enough, the Chinese facebook knockoff (with identical user interface) is reportedly not censored.

I flew from Beijing to Tokyo on the morning of the 22nd of July. This was the day of the much-anticipated longest total solar eclipse ever, which passed through certain parts of Asia. I was very much hoping to get above the clouds in time to see the eclipse from my window seat, but either Beijing was too far north to view much, or more likely, we just did not get above the cloud layer in time to see it due to delays at the airport.

My first expedition was getting down to Fukuoka on Kyushu Island to meet my friend, Clement, who had a conference the next week in Korea and was able to join me for some travel in Japan. I had been unable to get the Japan Rail pass available to foreigners only outside of Japan while I was in Beijing. This made Japan suddenly quite expensive. Thus, I decided to try to save money on accomodation by sleeping outside in an urban park (which are apparently very safe), since Clement's colleague said he only had space for Clement. Fortunately, upon hearing this plan, Clement's friend changed his mind... In the morning, I woke up to the sound of heavy rains outside the appartment, and was quite relieved at my change of fortune. Fukuoka has great sushi as it is a port city. With a local guiding us around the city, Clement and I sampled red bean pastries and some interesting noodle dishes as well. The highlight was seeing an exhibit about a local festival (which occurred aobut a week before our arrival). The Hakata Gion Yamagasa, is a summer festival in which takes place from July 1 to 15, held at Kuahida Shrine.  During the festival, large floats called Kazariyama decorate Fukuoka's streets, and early in the morning of the 15th the Oiyama is held. Men race through the street carrying one-ton "portable shrines.  The spectacle is made more amusing by the sumo-like attire of the participants. The Oyama is extremely heavy and the racers hold it on their shoulders, while a crowd of people push them to increase speed. Not surprisingly, people die in this festival, and in my mind it is somethign akin to the running of the bulls in Pamplona (perhaps without the stupidity of tourists involved).

Nagasaki was the next day's venture. I think you can probably imagine the experience, which is difficult to relate in words. The museum did provide some very interesting history on nuclear proliferation, that I had not expected to find. The number of nuclear accidents is really quite scary and I have to say that I came away from the museum with a slightly new perspective.

Already nearly templed-out after Hakata and Nagasaki, Clement and I took the Shin-Kansen bullet train to Kyoto--the home of 1,800 temples and former government seat during two consecutive Japanese time-periods. The temples were quite impressive, but we lacked the perspective to really appreciate the historical context and by extention to avoid the the mental and physical fatigue that comes along with a temple marathon. Kyoto on a Saturday night is something to behold as the Japanese dress up in their finest and Geisha and Meiko (young geisha) walk from one gig to another. Japan also has a bizarre habit of making the shopping areas either covered or underground, probably because they like to keep everything very controlled (such as climatic conditions). One of the covered walkways had a wonderful selection of pickles, yakisoba (balls of potato in a teriyaki style sauce), and fish (of the fresh and dried variety). Many items were also available to sample, which I enjoyed liberally.

Clement headed south and I headed north for a trip up Mt. Fuji with one of my hosts, named Ken. He is 62 and training for a marathon in November, but has never before climbed a real mountain. Thus, he took the opportunity to climb Fuji while I was here to accompany him. He had arranged a bus tour combined with a guided tour up the peak. I was skeptical upon hearing this and upon hearing the itinerary, which sounded more like a train schedule than a hike up a mountain. We started at 5th station (a little over 50% elevation up the mountain) and during the group stretching excersizes, we experienced a brutal downpoor. We lost the group at this point (quite fortunately, in my opinion). Two hours after arriving at our lodging (between the 8th and 9th stations, 85% up the mountain), our guide and company arrived. I vowed not to join the group on summit day. The guide started arguing fiercely with me when I said that I had no intention of joining. She pulled the usual "the crater rim is dangerous" but I was still insisting that I did not want to be part of the Japanese tour group. She changed her tact with the line, "Robert-san, I love you; come with me; come with us." I did not fall for this bait either, but was eventually forced to succumb because Ken was persuaded by her words of caution. In the morning, after a night of shoulder-to-shoulder hostel-style sleeping, the weather was attrocious, so the sunrise hike was canceled and we slept in. The group was going to descend, but I refused when the weather suddenly changed for the better. This turned out to be a temporary change, but Ken and I made it to the summit, an hour later, to enjoy the heavy mist and strong winds at the summit shrine and souvenir shop. Quite the Japanese experience.

We returned to Ken and Sato's house in Fujisawa and headed straight for the local, public onsen(♨) or Japanese Spa is the best deal in Japan at $5 per session. This is a truly Japanese experience and I have been told that "all Japanese love onsen." It reminded me a little of the bathing houses in Iceland in the way it has become a part of the culture. The Japanese have the most comprehensive spas I can possibly imagine, however, in contrast to the basic pool in Iceland. When you arrive at the onsen, you strip all your clothes (guys and girls use separate facilities). Then you pour some hot water from Japanese style wooden buckets onto your body to clean off (rather than shower first). A few of the wonderful options I will mention. 1) A traditional, stone-carved and barrel-shaped vat withthe top end open and filled with water. This is a favorite for kids (who squeeze two or three inside) and adults as well, who can submerge however much or little of their body as they want in it. It is outside and next to it is a tatami mat, where people can do Zen, lay down and relax, or stretch. Also outside is another pool which is surrounded by a simple rock design and a half-covered pool with small bubbles of air, which is said to replenish energy. Inside, there are pools of varying temperature, one as high as 42C, a saline pool that resembles the dead see (although I still cannot figure out how I was sinking in this water so I might have to question the degree of salinity), one where you lay on your back and receive jets of water at your sides and feet, a cold water plunge (18C) which feels like Antarctica after some time in the hot pools, and the most interesting pool being one with an extremely strong jet in one part of the pool and an anode-diode pair that sends electric current through your hips. After the Fuji climb, I tried this for the first time and experienced some discomfort at first (more on one side than the other), but this subsided and I have to say it might have done some good. The electricity did not stop at the hips and I could see my fingers trembling slightly, but was glad that I didn't lose my memory (think, electro-shock therapy)! The steam bath room is quite interesting because you can lather yourself in salt (I think to extract sweat) and then as is customary in Japan, you rinse the area you use to keep it clean for the next person. By the end, if you don't take some serious cold pool plunges, you end up putting on your clothes and drenching them in sweat.

The following day, we made a trip to Enoshima Island and Ken showed me his caligraphy teacher`s house. His caligraphy teacher is highly regarded and his work is on the title of a major motion picture to be released. The picture is about the once glorious Azuchi which burned just before its completion (I will visit this tomorrow). Since it was hot in Fujisawa, we headed to the beach (Japan's most popular), filled with high-school aged boys and girls, the latter typically thickly laiden with eye make-up. Well, shortly after stepping into the cool water, a siren sounded, and an announcement was being made in Japanese. My reaction was a good one...this is tsunami territory!! So, I made some haste to get out of the water, but most people seemed to be ambling out of the water. It turns out that this was the first stage in the annual tsunami evacuation drill...first, get everyone out of the water. We did not wait around, but instead headed for higher ground (unrelated to this drill) on the island. Ken showed me the traditional method of worship in a shrine (two bows; then two claps). We found some tidepools and noticed a group of men eagerly crowded around a shell-fish that one had found. Ken overheard one of them say that the shellfish would retail in the store for about $40, but Ken thinks that this catch was illegal since we do not suspect they were licensed fishermen.

After an overnight bus, Ken and I explored Nara, the emperor`s seat for several hundred years after Kyoto. Many domesticated deer keep the lawns finely manicured. As I was walking around, I noticed just how softly and politely the people working at the temples in Nara speak. "Ohio gazaimas-ka" was said as if people were singing. Speaking of music, it turns out that in Japan, concerts do not need human performers. In September, people near Lake Biwa (the largest lake in Japan) enjoy a quiet gathering outside to enjoy the sweet melody of crickets. Aparently in August, the crickets are louder, but in September the more melodious ones are active.

The Lake Biwa region (Shiga Prefecture) is where Ken's brother resides and we are visiting him now. He took us to a tea ceremony where manners are very important: first, the tea ceremony attendee should enter the door by pushing themselves forward with shins on the grond. Then, one admires the caligraphy on the ground, placing one's fan, while observing specific parts of the detail and bordering before looking at the writing. Then one sits and awaits the tea service. First, a Japanese pastry: in our case, mochi with grean tea powder sprinkled on top and Azuki (red bean) filling. Next, the server very graciously presents the tea, bowing as she does so. The attendee returns the bow, picking up the bowl with the right hand first, carefully rotating the bowl to the appropriate place, drinking the strong green tea in 3 sips and then one final one (getting all the bubbles). Then the drinker sets down the bowl and admires it, before rotating it and setting it out for the server to take. Finally, some words of formality and thanks are offered and the tea drinkers retire.

Ken's brother, Kei-ichi, is a retired director of the Lake Biwa Fisheries research station and Trout Hatchery. We visited both. Interestingly, the lake has 12 endemic species and now has 50 total species of fish. Two are causing problems with the ecosystem...bluegill and black bass. The research station was hosting a public exposition and we had the chance to rainbow trout and black bass and both were tasty. The interesting thing about the trout hatchery is that the color and texture of the meat of the rainbow trout here is different than it is in Lake Biwa because of the food they feed the fish...anchovies from Peru and Cod from the North Atlantic. I was amazed that they are feeding the fish food from this far away, but I would imagine that the trout and char command a much higher price than their food. I finally asked Ken and his brother my biggest question about fisheries in Japan: Do consumers consider the sustainability of the fish, fishing locations, and fishing techniques used for fish they purchase? The answer is that only 3-4% of people give this consideration. As a result, the sellers are not forced to announce much about the fishing techniques, etc. Apparently, Tuna has been virtually fished out around Japan, so Japanese and Chinese fisherman are heading to the Indian Ocean, where fishing treaties have not been established. Kei-ichi thinks that the Japanese fishing techniques emphasize sustainability while the Chinese techniques do not.

My tour guides for a return visit to Kyoto were Ken and Kei-Ichi's daughter, Youko. Per Ken's recommendation, we visited three very different sights, Sanjusanjendo, a tremendously long hall with 33 statues of Gods (many of which are the same as Hindu gods) in front and then 1001 hand-made bronze statues of Bodditsavas (each one being quite similar, but slightly different and made by different artists). The centerpiece is a seated Buddha. The next selections were the silver and gold temples, which contrasted in the colors used (the former being traditional white and black, while the latter is the only golden temple in Japan), but the basic architectural form was quite similar.

The following day, we took a boat out to Kei-ichi's black bass and bluegill trap on a river that is a tributary to Lake Biwa. He is doing volunteer work to limit the number of these harmful invasives in Lake Biwa. He throws the indigenous and other non-harmful fish back into the river. The introduction of the bluegill is a particularly sad story. In 1960, when the current emporer of Japan was still a prince, he was invited to the U.S. to meet the Mayor of Chicago. This mayor presented the prince with a bluegill fish. The prince thought that this fish would provide a wonderful source of food for Japanese people and he introduced it to the fishery center at which the young research scientist, Kei-Ichi, was then working. Kei-Ichi's job was to increase the number of these fish in the lakes and was told "never kill the bluegill." Some 50 years after its introduction, the Emperor (formerly prince), realized the gravity of the problem with the invasive species he had introduced (a problem nobody had foreseen at the time). He made a public apology, the first apology ever made by an emperor. Ironically, this is the same fish that Kei-Ichi now dedicates significant amounts of free time to remove. The story of the black bass introduction was also interesting. It was introduced by a Japanese who took it from the U.S. However, it was during the U.S. occuptation of Japan that the U.S. soldiers, who enjoyed fishing their familiar variety of fish, spread the species to most of the Lakes in Japan. Two very sad stories.

Later that same day, we visited a sake factory. The factory gave us a free tour of the facilities. I was amazed at the hospitality and kindness of the manager, who also showed us one of the houses of Edo-period (18th-19th century construction) that he bought and is trying to preserve.

In the evening, we attended the first day of festivities at a temple festival. A procession of two light lanterns kicks off the event. Meiko (temple girls) performed traditional dance with the primary prop being gold and silver fans. They were accompanied by the Japanese flute (which I guess is very difficult to play) and light drumming. The festival had over 1000 lanters and sponsors fund the event.

Each time I returned from Tokyo to Fujisawa, I spent a day in Tokyo. The first time, I went straight to the Tsukiji fish market. It surprises Ken that foreigners like myself enjoy seeing this, but this kind of stuff goes on behind the scenes in Seattle. Fish are brought in, cleaned, and put in refrigerators for sale. I missed the morning rush, when most of the sales occur, but it was amazing to see the variety of fish available, and the size of many of the fish, particularly the Tuna. Little buggies cart the fish around in styrofoam boxes and the whole market is so large that you cannot see from end to end!

Yesterday, I had perhaps one of the most inspiring interacteractions of my entire trip. I accompanied Ken to his calligraphy course, which is taught by a young calligrapher named "Song" who has already become the most famous calligrapher in all of Japan. He has achieved his fame, like many great artists, through a sound ability in the classical form of this art, but also through innovation in the modern form of calligraphy. He is the one I mentioned who wrote the title of the upcoming movie about the burning of Azuchi Castle. Interestingly, he also has the ability to improvise calligraphy, creating new works inspired on the spot by listening to musical performances (not of his choosing), to the acclaim of his audience. Song warmly welcomed me to his class and told me how much he appreciates the freedom of expression that is highly valued in the US. He mentioned to me an idea of his, a World Appreciation Year, which he hopes to innovate for 2020. He is currently in the process of designing posters for this and consulted my opinion (which was to have the Kangi for appreciation faintly in the backgroiund, but English or whatever regional language in the foreground). The idea is to get everyone in the world to express their appreciation for the world in a way of their choosing. I told him that the challenge would be to reach the people for whom an appreciation of the earth's natural beauty is not apparent...for instance those living in slums and other high-density areas where nature has been brushed aside. The class assignment was to produce a work that expressed the emotion of the Kangi character (an expression with a repeated Kangi character). Ken helped me choose nervous. This was the emotion that he sensed I was experiencing upon entering the class. Since I don't yet have a very steady hand, this was a perfect project for me and I was able to embellish the characters in a way that was both pleasing to me and the instructor, who asked me to sign my work (a challenge in and of itself, and I invented an abbreviated form of the Kangi symbol for my name) and he kept requested to keep it, along with the works of the other members of the class, which were certainly more impressive.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

India Photos

Finally, I've gotten around to post my photos from the first two months of adventures in India:

Southern India

India II

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nepal Photos

In this country photos are worth far more than words: The Khumbu was simply incredible! I've had a wonderful time in Nepal. Here are all the photos:

Nepal Lowlands

Khumbu Trekking

Imja Tse

On to Delhi, tomorrow...heading for Ladakh...

It's been a pleasure to know that people are following my travels!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rajasthan to Kathmandu

From the Hindu holy site of Pushkar, I journeyed back over the mountains to the Muslim holy site of Ajmer, a rival town which was rumored to poison the holy lake in Pushkar in July, 2008. This killed all the fish and created a terrible stench. It is possible that this is merely a rumor made up to explain the fact that fish were dying because the water was polluted with overuse and lack of replenishment. The Hindus apparently retaliated by poisoning the lake (Ana Sagar) in Ajmer. I don't know if this is true either, but the water in that lake was an opaque slime green like I've never seen before and people were happily swimming in it. It was all I could do to bring myself to touch it. Ajmer has two holy sites that are incredible. The Dargah featured a cluster of mosques where people were doing anything from intense recitation of the Quran to visiting the holy body entombed in the central shrine (not open when I was there). I had to wear a cap on my head in order to visit the site.

My first evening in Jaisalmer, I encountered the largest number of people from Washington state since I've commenced my travels. We ended up spending the evening singing songs with Pino (an Italian with a passion that lives up to his name) and another guy originally from So. America, but who now lives in Italy and India, where he's trained apprentices to make classical music instruments (and he gets to kick back and relax). We combined an impressive array of Latin and Italian musical elements, adding Indian elements for kicks. The evening ended with vintage Pino telling the guy from Bainbridge Island how he should kiss his girlfriend in front of the Taj Mahal and demonstrating toward an imaginary individual. Then, he told the couple he thought they should make 3 babies.

The definitive highlight of my day's tour to Jaipur were the astronomical instruments adjacent to the Royal Palace, built to tell time to within 10 seconds, astrological information (aka zodiac), solar zenith angle, etc... Many of these instruments were quite large and the largest sundial in the world is on display here.

In the evening, I headed up to the monkey temple, from which I noticed a large gathering of people far below on the valley floor. I had some time to kill before my overnight bus to Agra, so I decided to investigate. As I approached the area, I noticed that people were slightly more formally dressed than I expected for the average religious gathering. I asked somebody, who told me it was a wedding reception, taking place ~4 days before the marriage ceremony. Undeterred by the fact that I knew I would not be welcome at such an event in the U.S., I asked whether I might be welcome to attend. I took an ambiguous response to be affirmative and entered the venue. Gradually, I started talking to people and was ushered toward the food (samosas and golab jamon for appetizers). Soon the teenage crowd convinced me to join them on the dance floor, which was swarming with little ones. I attracted quite a crowd, but took a rest. A few minutes later, a young lady asked me why I wasn't dancing and I told her I was taking a rest, but I'd gladly return if she joined me. She accepted the invitation and we enjoyed about 15, yes all of 15 seconds, on the dance floor. She was really quite a good dancer and I was enjoying myself, so when her mother (yes, her mother!) signalled her to stop dancing with me, leaving me the only one dancing on the stage, it was somewhat disappointing! I never did get to talk to the wedding couple as they were generally busy and uninterested in me. All in all, it was a successful wedding crash!

Agra, agra, agraaaa! I went into Agra as though I were holding mybreath because of the fould pollution. I wanted to see the sites, but I knew I wanted to move away as soon as possible. After arriving on the overnight bus, I checked into my hotel and headed straight for the Taj. The light was quite good in the morning and I have to admit that the Taj was impressive. The inside of the mosque features cenotaphs (memorial stones) and graves down below (which are no longer open to the public). After the Taj, I headed Agra Fort, Chini Ka Rauza, a smaller version of the Taj, and then the backside view of the Taj from across the river. Finally, I raced off by bus to Fatepur Sikri, site of more palaces and a mosque (very impressive). The way back, I took a vehicle resembling a miniature pickup truck. People stand/sit in the back. At the late hour, this appeared to be my best option for getting back. I put on my shades to prevent bugs or dust from damadging my eyes and enjoyed the wind instantaneously evaporating the sweat from my face.

From Agra, I headed toward Khajuraho, but decided to get off for a quick tour of Gwalior. I ended up carrying my backpack for 3 hours because they wouldn't accept my backpack without a lock in the cloak room (note, this should have been a warning sign). There were a number of impressive Jain rock carvings as I ascended to the fort. The fort itself wasn't terribly impressive, but there were far more peole living in it and going to school than there were tourists, which was nice. I got back to the train station and had made a friend. He entered the train before me, but as I was pulling myself onto the packed train car, I felt intense forces pulling me backward by my backpack. I fought with all my might and used elbows minimally as I had a feeling somebody was pulling on my backpack. Unfortunately, my use of arms had exposed my camera dangling from my side. An individual had wedged himself between my backpack and me. I kept my eye suspiciously on him and eventually let him pass me. 10 seconds later, I could sense that something was lacking in my camera back (since my arms are touching it nearly all day). Sure enough, my camera battery was gone, and the main compartment slightly open, but the camera still inside. Upset about the battery, I knew I could do very little at that point, as communicating with anybody was going to be an uphill battle. I consoled myself that the camera and all memory cards emerged unscathed!

Another extrememly long journey put me in Khajuraho around 1AM. The temples here beg the question: "why so many erotic sculptures." The locals answer this question with the need to expand the kingdom and fend off conquests. Too many sadus and yogis don't expand populations. Thus, a guide showed me some sculptures in which he claimed the women was trying to persuade these men to procreate. Overall, many of these monuments are a tribute to feminine beauty. My favorite of the temples has a complicated structure, which ascends to its apex like a Himalayan Peak, which it was designed to represent. In the evening, a 12-year-old boy took me under his wing (clearly looking to extract rupees from me). He took me on a tour of his residence and around the old town of Khajuraho, which is quite different from what the tourists see. Here, people live according to casts and animals roam the streets. We ended up going to a wedding ceremony. I stayed for dinner, but missed the wedding rituals as I had an early departure scheduled for the following morning. As I was heading back, I encountered the wedding parade, which swooped me right up. The groom was riding a horse and I was quite lucky at one point because the horses hoof landed on the edge of my sandals, just millimeters from my toes!!!

I went into Varanasi with a plan for getting to my hotel; the plan was good, but the execution abysmal. I wound up at a hotel with a sign identical to the one I wanted, but in a different location, 20 minutes from the Ghats. The Lonely Planet recommendations funnel visitors to specific hotels, so hoteliers profit by naming their hotels things like "Old Yogi Lodge" or "New Yogi Lodge" to confuse us. I'm don't really have much to complain about besides the long walk to the ghats. The first morning was by far my most intense experience. I wandered into the main ghat and enjoyed watching people bathe in water that has a facal count too high for mention here. Some locals bathe in these waters multiple times per day! From here, I headed toward the burning ghat. Once I was in line-of-site, I decided to take a photograph, knowing that it was banned to take photos up close. I just figured it wasn't a problem from afar because you couldn't see the bodies. I was DEAD wrong! I was swarmed by a Brahmin priest and his two corrupt side-kicks within 3 seconds. They told me I'd just made a grave sin requiring that I pay 2,000 Rs. in attonement. When I showed resistance, they told me that I had to go to "the office." I continued to resist and tried to evade them, but they grabbed me and started telling me stories of two Israelis who'd done something similar and had tried to run away or something and were met with severe punishment. I continued to resist going inside and I was told that my bad karma had "killed somebody." I made the connection that this was the supposed reason that I was to give large sums of money to pay for the wood required to cremate somebody. I knew that any money I gave would go straight into the pockets of these corrupt individuals, so I didn't give anything sizeable. Finally, I held up 20 Rs. and begged the Brahmin priest to take it, going into a falsetto that I hoped would shock the priest enough into relenting and eventually letting me back to view this sacred site in peace. It worked and I was eventually told that maybe tomorrow, the priest would forget what had happened. Indeed, my return the following evening featured a non-verbal communication with the priest. We exchanged an understanding of what had taken place and that it was ok for me to return. There are numerous rituals associated with these cremations. The location of the cremation is according to societal status. The body is brought on a stretcher after woodhas been prepared for it. More wood is placed atop the corpse and the priest. Then, the eldest brother performs a few rituals around the body and the priest does his rituals too. Some more activities go on behind closed doors, before the wood is lighted while the family watches (women excluded, because they are believed to be emotional and tears are not part of an Indian funeral, which is meant to be a celebration of life). When only the urn remains, the ashes are fed to the fishes in the ganga.

I really loved Varanasi, everything from the Malai (sweet milk custard) to the Mangos (the indian cure for the summer heat), to the impressive music culture. The latter, I was lucky to experience as it was the last night of a 5-day festival featuring some of the best musicians around who come to prove themselves in front of Varanasi's discerning audience. What I witnessed was an all-night performance. I caught the end of a violin performance (very Eastern), then some waffle-voiced (sorry, bad description) traditional singing, local dance which resembled Katakali in the appearance of the dancers and the use of mudras and body motions, then an amazing Sitar player who glided effortlessly about his instrument, and finally I was dosing in and out of sleep to an incredible tabla musician. This inspired me to take a lesson on the sitar the next day. Interspersed through the performance, rousing religious lines(repeated en mass) could be heard at the site of the god being worshipped 20 meters from the stage. After this incredible day, I slept most of the day before attending my sitar lesson (think learning to pluck, play scales, etc), but it was really fun. I was tempted to get a sitar, but I didn't have time to try to find a really good instrument.

The from India to the Saunali border was uneventful except for the 44C reading on the bus thermometer. I suspect this may have been a bit high, but the hot wind blowing against my skin certainly told me that the Himalayas were the right direction to head. I made a day trip to Lumbini, just across the border. It is a curious place, with a temple featuring a stone image depicting buddha's birth. Then, various countries have built a variety of modern buddhist temples, seemingly competing with one another in grandour. The whole thing comes across a bit like Epcot Center, but slightly more tasteful. Interestingly, the German temple stole the show with some of the most interesting murals and high-fallutin' exterior.

Getting out of Lumbini proved to be quite a challenge as I had to face a bus drivers strike. I knew very little about the strike, which made it very difficult to negotiate. I ended up catching a bus to Bhairawa with a Buddhist Monastic tour group from India. Then, I intended to hitchhike north. This was unsuccessful for a while because the locals wanted the strike to have an impact, so nobody would pick me up and there were only a few vehicles on the road. Finally, this Japanese guy in a similar predicamment, and I, were picked up by two sympathetic motorbike riders. From Butwal I was able to catch a bus to Butwal, but it stopped for an hour 5 minutes into the journey. The journey turned out to be a scenic journey through steep hills.

Tansen suffers from the power outages that confine electricity to 8 hours maximum per day. I enjoyed the laid-back town. The next day, I made the trek down nearly 1,000 m of vertical (mostly terraced farmland) to the Ranighat Durbar. The palace was quite photogenic. Here, I befriended a local who now lived in Kathmandu and was returning to visit his parents with his nephews. I joined them to hike up another massive hill to their farmed terraces purched on a steep, narrow ridge. Above the terraces were mud-brick huts. My friend's family welcomed me warmly and treated me to a meal of rice (locally grown), lentils, fresh ghee, tomato pickle (really tasty!), and some other vegetable. Lastly, I visited the town's temple, at the very top of the ridge. It appears that everything is given in offering to the god and it all hangs on and around the figurine here. The Newari people are still Hindu, but the religion appears quite different from in India. The people are also incredibly friendly and less interested in extracting money from travelers than the people in India, where the "one rupee, one photo, one pen" phenomena plagues kids nearly everywhere. Nepal is different and I welcomed the change.

After a whirlwind tour to Pokara, including a trip to the International Mountaineering Museum, a neat cave where a waterfall drops from the surface to form an underground river (to Hades, perhaps?) where Devi is worshipped. Then, I ran up to the Peace Pagoda to enjoy views of the smog blocking the Annapurna range, just 10 km or so away. Now, I'm in Kathmandu scrambling to get my gear together for a trek in the Khumbu. Highlights should include a non-standard route, Everest Base Camp, and a mountaineering course culminating in a 6,000 m summit (Island Peak) if the weather holds. This is my last update until about May 19-20th, when I return to Kathmandu and fly to Delhi for my tour of NW India.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wedding Crasher

My adventures in Rajasthan took me and Sius on a long journey to Jaisalmer, perched at the edge of the Great Thar desert, some 50-100 km from the Pakistan border. The morning we arrived, we joined a camel safari into the desert; the salesmen used two marketing points: (1)non-standard, non-touristy camel safari and (2) Swedish Women. The Swedish women were quite amused that this was how he marketed the tour to us...obviously he didn't use the latter strategy with them. The jeep drove us toward Pakistan and the desert quickly became quite desolate. It wasn't the most interesting desert I've ever seen, but there was a stark beauty to it. The camels and camel crew were parked in the middle of the desert and we hopped on our beasts...and a beast I had! I was given the young, recalcitrant camel which tried to toss me off and bolt within minutes of my mounting it. Thus, they lead my camel by it's leash. After a few bumpy hours, we stopped in the shade of a rare tree and waited for the sun to go down a bit and cool off the temperatures (nearly 4 hours!). In the afternoon, we explored a small village. Nearly everybody was asking for money, pens, or cigarettes and I have a feeling that tourism has not had a good impact, but a traditional lifestyle still appears to be led. I'm really not sure how they survive because I only saw sheep grazing and there didn't appear to be any agriculture at this time of year. An hour before sunset, we arrived at our campsite for the night, situated at the edge of a field of dunes which remain a mystery to me. They trend linearly, but the source of the sand is unclear as most of the desert is rock or pebble. I excecuted a few tele on the dunes as my legs have been ski deprived for so long (well, 3 months!). That night, the stars were unbelievably bright, but my contact lenses didn't want to stay in my eyes as sand was everywhere!

The next day, we returned to Jaisalmer and the skies darkened in the evening. A sandstorm swept through town, reducing visibility. It actually rained a brief, heavy downpour. Jaisalmer was a gem of a town and I enjoyed wandering the streets and seeing the fort, complete with commerce and residences inside. The rapid increase in availability of water combined with poor drainage in the fort has created problems with the slumping of the fort, built on a sandy base.

Sius and I split at this point as he was heading to Cashmere, before Nepal. I had a nice tour of Jodhpur before heading off to Pushkar, a famous Hindu pilgrimage site. Unfortunately, the Brahmin priests here are rather unethical and I wasn't able to just watch people at the ghats in peace. My first afternoon, I met a few young women who were stacking old, dead cactus for firewood. They carried huge bundles on their heads, back to the village and they took me back to their home. I had an enjoyable few hours with them and took photos. That evening, I developped the photos and brought 4 pictures back to them. They were thrilled!

In the meantime, I also had an adventure on a bicycle. I set out toward a group of Siva temples in the desert. I encountered a local photographer heading in the same direction. Deciding that he was probably heading to an interesting place, I accompanied him, not sure what we were going to see or where we were going. After some bouts of walking the bike on the sandy road, we arrived in a small Muslim Village, where I soon realized I'd stumbled upon a wedding. After experiencing the uncomfortable stares of a group of young boys around me, I joined the wedding procession. The covered his face in dangling beads and the bride also had her face covered. The rest of us just danced to the music of the procession. At the end, I was treated to a wonderful lunch which included dahl baat, a local specialty, and some sweets! People in the desert snack on dried fruit and peanuts as a general rule. I made my way back to town, stopping at any watering hole (mostly ashrams) to rehydrate. More wedding crashing stories to come in the next post!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan

One of my most memorable days, thus far, turned out to be in a town I had no intention of visiting, a mere stop-over on my way to Omkareshwar...the name of the town--Kundwa. The train journey introduced me to two new things: the stick toothbrush (you chew and scrape...I watched, but missed the chance to try) and the cheapest bananas ever (12 bananas for 5 rupees...note, I started asking for 2 bananas for 5 rupees before I knew the real price). At one stop, there was a large gathering of people outside the train. It turned out to be the most disturbing traveling incident that I've encountered. A lady was given a cup of "laced" tea on an overnight train. The tea put her to sleep and when she woke up, she had nothing...robbed. I nearly turned this into an April fools email (using myself as the target), but decided that would not be in good taste.

On my journey from train to bus station in Kundwa, I happened across some music (horns, drums, etc) and a procession of people behind the musicians. Primed with heavy backpack, I forged my way into the mix. Nearly immediately people expressed interest in my presence and funneled me into the action. Men were dancing in a small circle, performing a traditional dance involving slow, rhythmic movements. The women would then take over, then the small children. I was quickly requested to join the young men dance and I gave it my all (weighed down by my pack, making it all the more ridiculous). Soon, I was told that the leader of the female dancers wanted to dance with me, so although out-classed by her, we danced for about 20 seconds before she felt somewhat embarrassed. I was able to interact openly with this girl and her friends, but she was shoved mildly by one of her friends upon telling me that I had a "beautiful smile." I mention this fact, not because I want to broadcast this mildly flattering comment, but because I think it illustrates the edge of culturally acceptable interaction between men and women. The truth is that I would have been quite interested in interacting more her, but never had the chance to talk with her alone. Dancing was interspersed with some inspiring speaches, which were often repeated in unison. The main line I understood was "Jai ma devi" which translates to something like "Praise/hail the Devi God." After several hours of dancing under the blistering sun, we reached the termination at a Devi temple. The women were served food first and I was invited to eat with the men. I had another green mango curry and this one was equally tasty, yet completely different from the one I'd had in Kerala. At the end of the meal, a young boy or "Chortu" was squatting just a meter in front of me. And I looked up as I shoved my last bite of food in my mouth to watch him ejecting excrement out of both ends, right on the floor where everyone was eating. His father watched and then scraped up the remnants, like after a dog who's done it's duty in the park. Over the next few days, I noticed that nobody under the age of about 6 wears pants in these parts and that the young ones, in particular, don't stop to think much about when or where they're going to do their business. Having finished my food, I was told to say one last "Jai ma devi" and head off. Everybody seemed to love having me and it was just a truly marvelous experience from first to last. It is worth noting, that there is a white man in town who has lived there all his life. I was told that he is completely Indian in every way except his skin color. I never had a chance to talk with him.

That evening, I made it to Omkareshwar and encountered a lady who was heading up to the Ashram she lives on with Baba ___ and several other peole. She offered me a free stay, including chapati, provided I was willing to do some "Karma Yoga." I accepted the offer and made a journey through town. I happened across a fight--many local residents were ganging up against somebody else, with whom they were very angry. They went so far as to tie him up. A frenchmen who'd been living in the town for 25 years, told me this happens every once in a while, always because of alcohol. That night, my bed appeared as mat which was unfolded on a cement platform encircling a small, but shady tree. The lady slept on the opposite side of the tree. I woke up in the morning and the others were already swung into action. I offered my service to the ashram and soon found myself relocating stones in order to keep the outdoor dirt ground "tidy." The labor was frustrating because I wasn't really sure why I was performing this action and the language barrier prevented me from getting an answer. It seemed that all the sweeping of the floor just exposed more rocks. It was quite interesting to see how they lived here. All waste was burned in small holes. Squat toilets were out in the open and all excrement was burned. I think that the ashram is almost entirely self-contained as they grew food on the premises. Already exhausted after 1.5 hours of work, I commenced my tour of the local sites (many, many temples). At my first temple, I happened upon Jiten and his friends. Jiten has polio, which resulted in his legs being about 1/3 the size of mine. In spite of this fact, we hiked all over town, up and down large hills. With Jiten's guidence, I performed traditional puja at the famous Omkareshwar temple, using all the manditory props (coconut and flowers for Shiva). It should be noted that this is a famous Shiva pilgrimage location. Shiva lingum (denoting reproduction) is worshipped here by men and women alike; these can be found at temples all over town (and at many other temple locations, particularly in north India). Jiten introduced me to Dal Bati, a dish featuring balls of wheat bread, dahl, and in some special cases an amazing lemon sauce. My relationship with Jiten faltered when we encountered a couple from California. His interaction around this girl was embarrassing to me and I let him know this. Unfortunately, we parted with me being somewhat upset because of this.

After a brutal overnight bus ride from Indore to Chittorgarh Rajasthan, I arrived at this uninspiring town, with a grandiose fort (the first of many I would see in the state). I moved onward that afternoon, to meet my friend Sius, in Bundi. Sius is a a Bangladeshi computer-scientist-turned-self-employed-photographer, who's now traveling the world to take photographs for his books. He's written one on photographic composition and another on the environment in Bangladesh. Sius and I met in Kochi a few weeks earlier and decided to meet up in Rajasthan. By the time I met up with Sius, he'd already made some friends in Bundi (a very neat town, by the way, with another inspiring fort, this one completely dominated by red-assed, black-faced monkeys which were in such numbers that sunset views from the fort required the use of metal sticks for protection). Sius and I ended up joining a German girl who'd arranged to meet some friends she'd made on the bus, who lived in a small village. The family was overjoyed to have us, but particularly the German girl. The family completely doted over her, giving her the full girly treatment (henna hand tatoo, scarves, and let her dress up in a sari). Sius and I just kicked back and missed the dramatic good-bye in which the entire family was weeping as this girl left. We ate some wonderful food, including milk fresh from their cows...so thick it was separating. We also ate some really wonderful dal. Oddly, the family gave all of us some money as gifts (more for the German girl). Apparently it would have been disrespectful to decline the gift. I wanted to decline it because the family, although not obviously poor, had more need for the 10 rupees than me. That evening, we ended up in the jeep of the Maharaja of Bundi (Maharaja means king--although somewhat obsolete, still respected). He took us to a mean thali joint (great food and golab jamun for $0.60) and then we went to a festival performance in town. The music was coming out of bad loudspeakers and the dancers weren't entirely professional, but the atmosphere was great and we had killer seats because we were with the Maharaja. At the end of the show, there was a crazy display of fireworks (crazy in the sense of impressive, but also completely unregulated...people were within about 10 feet of the action...I kept my distance!).

Sius and I moved onward to Udaipur, a town renowned for its gorgeous Palaces. Udaipur was a nice place to relax, see the sunset, visit the palace museum, watch some more professional versions of the local music and dance culture, and take a motorbike ride into the hills (nothing really memorable here, just generally good times).

After two days in Udaipur, we spent many hours in the bus, on the way to Mt. Abu, stopping at an amazing Jain Temple in Ranakpur. I had fun exploring Mt. Abu on my own (Sius was trying to fix his camera lens) as I hiked through the hills. I witnessed people building a new temple. Two people would carry two rocks attatched to a wooden pole. It was back-breaking work and appeared to be the way rocks have arrived at temples for centuries. The Jain temple at Ranakpur was outdone by the Jain temple at Mt. Abu. Here, the workers were paid the stone dust scrapings equal weight in gold to encourage fine detailed work. The results are incredibe. In some cases the rock is so thin that it is transparent to light.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Goa through Maharastra

With two days to spend in Goa, I headed first to colorful and laid-back Panjim (the more recent Portuguese Port Capital--where I ate some amazing Xacuti Mutton, similar to Vindaloo) and Old Goa (or old capital). Each of these harbor some impressive churches. My only complaint was that nobody would stow my bags while I walked around these places--the 26/11 Mumbay attacks are the cause of this reluctance on the part of hotel and shop owners. In the afternoon, I headed to Arambol, a hippie retreat town. The next day, I started hiking north along the bluffs and encountered German guy about my age. He was coming back from the plateau which extends several km inland from these bluffs. It turns out that he's living in the forest and on the plateau, sleeping out in the open and leaving his belongings in the cheap beach town to the north of Arambol. The amazing thing about the beach town is that due to some severe monsoon-related flooding last year there was significant beach erosion and they were remedying this problem by re-inforcing the beach with a rock wall. In order to build this wall, they employed several machines and labor from about 100 poor families from Kanartaka who were living in tents on the sandy flats to the east. A few families talked with me and let me take a few photographs. With the temperature gradient between land and sea quite strong in the afternoon, a sea breeze was quite strong and sand was blasting my legs. I lost track of my german friend, but found him at the Banyan Tree in the jungle after passing a place where people were mud-bathing. The banyan tree is very old a flat area has been cleared and provides a gathering place for people who are living in the forest (hippies, hindus, and otherwise). Sitting around the tree was an odd experience that I can't really describe, but people were friendly and taught me the basics of circular breathing (to play the dig). I accompanied my friend and another German (whose path I'd oddly crossed several times in Kerala) to his forest site, which was well worn and adjacent to a small stream. We just built a small fire and hung out. His conviction persuaded me that drinking the water from the stream (unboiled) was fine. I had doubts after the fact and I'm holding my fingers crossed that I don't contrive giardiasis. Living in the forest is the simple life and the greatest worry seems to be the monkeys. My friend just buys some vegetables and masala and cooks it himself, otherwise eating local berries and cashews which grow in abondance on the plateau (the locals make an alcohol out of it). I couldn't stay the night because I was heading to Mumbay early in the morning.

I was incredibly fortunate to have Rahul's parents to host me in Mumbay. Rahul's father picked me up at the Dadar station and we went straight up to their suburb of Andheri on another rail line. I thought the suburbs might be less crazy, but they are even crazier when there is any sort of construction (which i in full force this year). Rahul's father took a vacation day just to show me the city. The first day we made a slum-to-riches tour of the city, commencing in the largest shanti-town, Dhaveri (I think slumdog millionaire was filmed in part, here) and ending at the Taj Hotel where we spent some time enjoying the AC and plush couches, while contemplating the events of just 5 months before. I had a glimse of one of the stairwells (they told me to leave, immediately), but I could imagine just how scary it might have been to be stuck up there in the rooms. There is an amazing amount of activity in Dhaveri and it's not like a US slum where I might feel unsafe. It acts like Mumbai's recycling center where all kinds of used parts are stripped for useable materials. Child labor is common, but under-cover, as authorities are cracking down. Some art work was also being performed with the spare parts. There are several successful streets were merchants sell items amidst the maze of narrow shanti-lined passageways which become part of the workplace. Other highlights of our walk from Victoria Station to Colaba, include the Prince of Wales Museum, with some amazing Asian art and the finest Japanese embroidery I've ever seen (including some Hahns--roosters). The natural history section was a nice opportunity to see a few of the birds I'd seen, up close.

My second day of exploration was on my own and I went to several dobi ghats, where laundry is done (en mass), manually. The best place to see this is at Malabar Hill (and they don't ask for money here!). Malabar Hill was a real gem. I also paid a visit to Maji Ali's Mosque (the first I'd ever been inside) and Chowpatty Beach on Mumbai's emerald necklass (marred principally by the trash, blowing sand, and large numbers of pigeons).

Rahul's parents fed me some tremendous food (specialties from rural Maharastra) before I departed on a night bus to Aurungabad. I witnessed a tremendous scale of stone carving at the Ellora Caves (~30 km from the town). A string of 34 caves showcase Budhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples. The biggest of these was carved down from the top into a 3-5 story rock face. I was just awed by the amount of stone excavated and the various scales and planning of symbolism. A British Friend introduced me to a new form of transportation, the jeep taxi. Imagine a large-ish jeep with 23 people packed in it like sardines...I decided that these jeeps could only be full when Westerners approached...otherwise room was always made.

Ellora caves were also amazing, but in the quality of their cave paintings (rather than scale). I joined a group of Farsis from Mumbai who had a guide. The setting would have been amazing in the rainy season, with waterfalls cascading into the horseshoe-like bend in the river, complete with upstream slot canyon and locals living simply on the plateau above.

I will leave my more recent travels in Madhya Pradesh and Rajastan for the next post.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kerala Kerala Kerala

I awoke the following morning to a city virtually devoid of motor vehicles, with women walking in large numbers and filling the streets. Other women lined the sides of the streets and were cooking, using a single pot held up between bricks set on either side of bamboo wood fires. I walked and the smoke became intense and at times slightly suffocating. Some streets were blocked off to most males, but I was permitted as a foreigner with a badge I'd obtained the previous day; as a non-active participant in the ceremony and the culture, I didn't count. I cannot describe the story or the purpose of the Attukal Pongala Festival better than this blog: Click here. In the evening, a children's parade involving elephants sets out, but I was eager to get to the yoga ashram. Traffic was nearly at a gridlock and buses were unable to make it to the bus stand, so I ended up getting a rickshaw. The driver spent most of his time on the right side of the road, which would have been cool in the U.S., but in India, it meant that we made good time, but I was white-knuckling.The Sivananda Ashram was a haven from the big city. Set in the hills above Neyyar Dam and preserve, this ashram is a place for serious yoga training. I arrived between yoga teacher training courses and toward the end of the "yoga vacation" two week course. I jumped right in, under know dillusion that this was going to be a walk in the park. A typical day's schedule involved Satsung (meditation, followed by chanting) from 6-7:30 PM; yoga from 8-10; Breakfast at 10AM (all you can eat vegan; silence requested; sitting crosslegged); Karma Yogo at 11 (I cleaned some bathrooms each day); Special Practice for working on assenas (I attended these to work on head stand, crow, and later scorpion); Lecture on eastern philosohy, meditation, etc. from 2-3PM; Yoga class 3:30-5:30; dinner at 6PM; Another round of satsung from 8-10; Then bedtime. The good news is that they added variety to this blank schedule. We were incredibly fortunate to have a concert by a Hungarian musician who specialized in Indian music. He played an instrument resembling a sitar, but without frets, called a Sarod (I tried, but failed to play this instrument later in the week because I didn't have long enough finger nails); a copper bowl filled with water whose wet handles he stroked to produce an etherial sound whose vibrations excited the surface water; and an instrument that he played with his mouth and fingers that made a twang-like sound. Furthermore, he was able to use Tibetan throat, mouth, and head techniques to produce multiple tones at once and some incredibly deep sounds. At times, I wondered whether the sounds were coming from him at all, but they were. The result was one of the most sublime concerts I've experienced. I have his CD. I was fortunate later in the week to have a vocal class with this artist. He taught us some of the Eastern scale and worked on our voice control. An amazing teacher!
Another highlight of the yoga was the evening walking meditation. We went down to the edge of Neyyar Dam on the full moon and meditated to the reflections of various gray shades of trees, the moon, and the mountains beyond over placid water.Meditation was a challenge for me, principally because I have limited flexibility in the hips and so it's hard to find tranquility inside when physically uncomfortable. We had a lecture one day which involved the things that we should and shouldn't do in life (according to eastern/Sivananda philosophy); at the end, I wasn't sure how this related to the original topic--meditation. The response was that the things that occur in our everyday life, really affect our meditation dramatically and meditation is a continuum with the outside world. I didn't entirely believe this until I experienced it for myself. Partner yoga, offered by a guest yoga instructor, lead to a flirtatious interaction between me and and an Indian girl named Sanditha (she was really doing most of the flirting, but I won't deny my subtle reciprocity). In any case, our interaction became slightly confusing and awkward after this and one phrase she'd said while enjoying the yoga session baffled me: "I'm nearly crying right now, we would make such a wonderful couple." Well, things never progressed to this point for reasons I won't explain here; however, I found that my meditation from here on out was a constant mental struggle. Questions and conflicting thoughts about Sanditha riddled my mind and attempts to use mantras or other techniques failed miserably to erase these thoughts as they kept returning. In the individual quest to understand oneself, meditation has a place, I am convinced. I am not ready to commit hours to it, however. Well, that's my "spice" delivery for you ...time for some more curd...the spice is more difficult to write.After the yoga session, I headed north to the Amma (meaning "mother" in Malayalam) Ashram. Amma has the reputation for being an enlighted individual who gives Darshan through her hugs. This is the reason most people visit and some report truly enlightening/lifechanging experiences. This Ashram is more like a city sandwiched between the canal and the ocean. My accomodation was 16 stories tall. Most people are slightly older and less happy than at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram. It was Amma's last night before she left her Ashram for a trip and I had an opportunity to attend Darshan, where I recieved a hug after waiting for about an hour. I actually received quite a long hug with forehead pressed to her shoulder while she whispered "moomoomoo" or something into my ear (the crowd control people had instructed her vociferously, "English" in advance). Well, I felt like I'd received a quality hug and the general vibe was one of adoration for this woman, so I felt a small surge of adrenaline. I let myself enjoy it and figured I might as well keep myself open to the possibility of a life-changing experience. A few people issued tears coming out of Darshan and one caucasian girl got significant attention as she gave some gifts to Amma, including what I was told was a pet squirrel. At the end, some ceremony occurred that I couldn't see and I was annoyed by the incessant photography, apparently from Amma's own crew.
I headed north to Alleppe, "the venice of India" and caught a ferry to a backwater village (Chemankary) where organized homestays can be arranged. Not wanting to pay as much as an organized home-stay, I just showed up and wandered around. Eventually, somebody took me to a family who offered me a home stay for a better price. The family had a beautiful home with Joseph, Sally, and their daughter Lijina (Liji) and son (Lijo). The house was in a backwater enclave, surrounded by surrounded by rice paddies (they farm rice and earn money through tourism). Interestingly, they told me that they use about 1/3 of the rice that they farm for themselves and during the harvest, about 300 people will come to their plot of land from surrounding villages to harvest the rice in April. I really enjoyed this family and the food they made for me (small fish fry for lunch, _various curries for dinner, and rice/coconut steamed served with steamed bannana--really good mashed together). I also enjoyed a canoe tour of the village. The calm water made for excellent photography in the evening light. Siblings in this town have interestingl similar names: (1) Lijo, Liji; (2) Stella, Stephi, Steha; (3) Tinu, Tiho, Tibin, Titi, Tindu, Tinsi. A pet mina bird in the hose repeated like a parrot the following words: "amma," meaning mother AND "Issuay sto dram," meaning Jusus Thanks You. A shrimp trap in the nearby backwater channel produced results that morning and Lijo played with the shrimp's latent triggering reflex which was abrupt and strong.

After a relaxing morning of reading (largely an excuse to stay there to eat lunch), I headed back to Alleppe, from which station I intended to catch a bus to Munnar. I happened upon somebody (Manoj) who was excited to practice English with me. He invited me to see his village to meet his friends and family and offered to let me stay overnight. The fact that I missed my bus made the decision easy, so Manoj took me to his small village nestled amid a maze of small streets outside of Harripad. Manoj's residence was two bedrooms. One for the pareents -- Pushpa, Manoj's mother, and Ma Tra Van, his father, with a small kitchen area, I presume; the other for Manoj and his older brother (and me). The room was about the size of my smallest college dorm room. 4 cows, including two calfs lounged outside and were brought into a shed out back for the night. Manoj took me toward the rice paddies and on the way we met most of his family and many of his friends and English students. He would often make comments to me about the quality of these students, saying something like "Her English is quite good, but she's too shy!" I was incredibly warmly welcomed and felt like everyone in town was amazed that I was there. I think Manoj was even surprised that I was willing to accept such marginally adequate accomodations (i.e. sharing a bed). I did have to establish earlier in the day that I was not interested in the favors he implied by his unusual offer of a massage, but he later earned enough trust that I was willing to work with the situation. Before bed, we took a hair-raising motorbike ride to a local Toddy bar. This time, I tried it without alcohol and still didn't enjoy it, but the spiced beef made the trip worthwhile.

The following morning, I headed to the Portuguese/Dutch old port city of Kocin. I will let the words of Arundhati Roy describe my Kathakali experience that evening. "In the evenings (for that Regional Flavour) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances ('Small attention spans,' the Hotel People explained to the dancers), So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were dashed to twenty-minute cameos." We were given an introduction to the make-up, the important role of the eyes, the mudras (which are really the language), and the emotions expressed in embellished facial expressions and hand gestures. The show we saw involved an infatuated female who was ultimately "slashed up" by the sword of the man she fawned upon. I would hope that if this were a 6-hour classic, there would be more to be witnessed...but perhaps I was missing a lot by not understanding the mudras.

That same evening, I experienced the wonder of green mango fish curry and my hotel owner agreed to teach me how to make it, so after a quick tour of Kocin's sites the following day, I learned to make the dish. Here are my notes:

Keralan Fish Curry (Green Mango or Tamarind)
150-200g shaved coconut (preferable) or 1 bottle coconut milk
1 small green mango sliced in thin-ish strips (for green mango curry)
2-3 Tamarind pods or 2 Tbs. Tamarind juice (for Tamarind curry)
2 Tbs. red pepper
1/2 Tbs. tumeric
~1 Tbs. salt
  1. Combine dry ingrededients and blend with one cup water
  2. Add to frying pan along with another cup or so of water (or coconut milk if subsituting).
  3. Add deeply scored 3/4" fillets of white fish (snapper was used here).
  4. Heat until boiling, then reduce heat somewhat and simmer 10 mins per side.
  5. Serve with steamed white rice.

After a five hour bus ride into the hill station of Munnar, a vestige of England's colonial influence punctuated by it's thirst for tea, I found myself shivering for the first time in months. The next day, I set out with an open agenda, but hoping to be able to climb the tallest peak in the Indian Subcontinent, south of the Himalaya. I was repeatedly told, I was not allowed (yes, NOT ALLOWED) in Ervakalum national park (in which Anemudi "Elephant peak" was located) because the rare species of goat was breeding. I avoided one security guard by going through thewell-manicured tea terraces and spotted a Great Lemir and a flying squirrel in the trees between plots of tea. The people working on the tea plantation were adding some sort of chemical to eliminate some sort of pest. The one I spoke with kept talking about "Elephant--very dangerous." Apparently, there was a herd of elephants in these parts, but lone elephants can be quite dangerous. I finally saw my route into the tempting high country. After a short stop at a waterfall, I turned my red raincoat inside out so it looked black, to better camouflage, and I started upward. Within a few minutes, I found myself amidst a swarm of 1,000-10,000 bees which were traveling rapidly. I was able to restrain myself from the urge to swat at the first few (very fortunate I didn't swat!) and I dropped down and cowered, motionless, probably not even breathing. The swarm passed nearly as rapidly as it arrived. I had some second thoughts about continuing at this point as I viewed this to have been a potential "near death" experience. After some discussion with Karen, my top source for all things entomological, we suspect that a swarm of female bees were following their queen and I probably hadn't disturbe a nest since the bees were not interested in me. I just happened to be in the wrong place along the subtle ridge they were crossing. At this point on the hike, I decided that the event must have been a freak occurrence and continued onwards. The greatest challenge was the high grasses, which I feared harbored snakes. Navigation became tricky as there were rock bands to negotiate with steep hill slopes between the precipices. I found a suitable route and found myself in terrain resembling the rolling gold hills of California (above 6,500 ft here). I spotted several packs of the rare Nalgiri Mountain Goat and realized that although far away, I was disturbing them as they ran off away from me. I was trying hard not to impact them and feel badly if I affected the breeding in any way. A few small cumulus clouds were developping, so I rushed to the summit. There was a small trail coming up from the other side, which is odd because the mountain is supposedly within the "core zone" of the park, which is never open. At this point, I should mention that I completed this 5 hour hike with only one of the 10 essentials (a rain coat, doubling as insulatin), which meant that I had neither food nor water. Thus, by the time I made it back to the road, I was severely dehydrated and even after 1.5 liters of water downed, my legs started cramping as I approached the entrance to the TATA tea museum (this must have looked ridiculous as I was having difficulty hauling myself out of the parking lot).

The tea museum has a functioning tea processing facility demonstration. It also has media which touts how the tea plantions (growing from 3,500-7,000 ft.) are one with nature. Although the plantations are genuinely beautiful, the monoculture introduced here must have been ecologically devastating. One pieve of evidence for this devistation is that 20 years ago Elephants roamed the streets of Munnar and people were afraid to walk outside at night as a result.

My final morning in Munnar, I visited a spice garden where I witnessed the very origin of the spice trade (40 species of plants with wonderous aromas). Then, I commenced a 24-hour journey to Goa. In an attempt to save travel time (and not backtrack), I decided to catch the train one station beyond it's origin (from which my sleeper ticket was issued). Well, my train didn't actually stop at this station (express train, yeah I'm an idiot!). So, they sent me to Thrissur to try to catch my train there...well, the train didn't stop there either, so the station master said they'd have the train stop "just for me." Well, I watched "my train" slowly pull in, roll by, and exit the station while I waved furiously and ultimately hopelessly for them to stop. It was going just a bit too fast for me to jump aboard. Thus, I had to purchase a general compartment seat for another train (the sleeper class being booked full on this one). I boarded the sleeper compartment and they refused to cut me a bone (threatening a 400 Rs penalty if I elected to stay in the compartment). Well, I followed a Goan lady in the same predicamment and we went to the jam-packed General Compartment. After some visions of hours standing, Ijoined some boys who were sitting in the baggage racks near the roof of the train. The position was uncomfortable because we couldn't sit up straight, but I enjoyed their company. Meanwhile,the lady I'd followed kept giving me food which she bought me from the train vendors. When I offered to pay, she told me that "Jesus gives it to you, not me." This lady had just come from a 7-week bible camp in Trissur. That night, numbers in the train thinned and I ended up with a baggage rack all to myself. I was able to sleep on my bag and hold my valuables to avoid any theft. Now, I'm in Goa!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tamil Nadu & Southern Kerala

With the 24-hour bug in check, I headed to Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal coast, south of Chennai. This spot is renowned for its ancient rock carvings, which were entertaining for about half the day and then the ocean provided a nice relief from the heat. I had a late lunch of shark's fin, although I probably should have known that I was contributing to further decline of an already imperiled population. I had to try shark once and it just tasted like fish, really.

The next morning, I headed to Pondicherry, a former French Colony. At the bus stand, however, there is absolutely no evidence of this region's past. The Indian population here has exploded! I walked a good kilometer to the Ashram, where I hoped to find lodging. I found it at the Ashram's international guest house. The room looked quite clean, but ended up getting me with bed bugs. Sri Aurobindo, a political activist during the period of social upheaval against the British rule, turned into a spiritual guru and profound writer on the subject. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram complex was a disappointment to me. I went in hoping to find activities, but found only meditation in a courtyard centered around a flower-hewn tub of water. When I asked about activities, I was told somewhat snobbishly "read the literature," at which point I made for the exhibition (which provided a more summary-style version of the litterature). Here, I learned about the tremendous following that Sri Aurobindo inspired. People would come from all around to see him and he was highly venerated. Ultimately, he decided that spirituality and politics should not mix and he devoted his life to spirituality and the unity of mankind; and that unity represented itself for him as faith in a higher being.

Sri Aurobindo's primary student was a French lady who came to be known as "The Mother." She was also quite clever and claimed when Sri Aurobindo died that his spirit and strength now resided in her. She too inspired large crowds and admiration. I find it amazing that in a society that still poses the question on a billboard in Bangalore--should girls and boys be treated as equals? SMS one or two--that a foreign woman could be such a powerful religious figure. It was "The Mother" who founded Auroville, a town 10 km north of Pondicherry, which was set aside to grow into an international community intended to strive toward the unity of mankind. Her rationale is that man is imperfect and will thus be replaced by a more perfect being, so we must strive toward that perfection. Work was a very important element in her discourse on this subject.

The next day, I had went to Auroville to see for myself. It turns out that the first person I ran into in Auroville is an Australian who works in guest relations and is responsible for the University of Washington undergrad group that comes to visit Auroville once each year. He directed me to the visitor center and the Birla Mandir, which is a globe-shaped bronze-colored ball at the center of Auroville, designed to represent the unity of mankind. If one were to go inside (requires advanced reservation), intense concentration would be expected as a single shaft of focused light is directed to a small area within this globe. I only saw the Birla Mandir from the outside and it was impressive. It is the only aspect of the town that is complete. Everything else is a work in progress and large amounts of creative research are underway in a variety of different areas. The whole thing was very neat and subtle. You couldn't tell where the town edge is, but it is circular and there is a town architectural masterplan. Architects get excited by the freedom of expression possible here. I think what helped Auroville to succeed is the fact that people come here with ideas and a desire to work, rather than to escape reality, a feature in most aspiring Utopian societies, which I believe contributes to their downfall. Life is hard here for people because decisions are made on a consensus basis (they are experimenting with new systems of governance) and thus it is difficult to get things done. There's also no cash flow as everything is put on "the account," which is some amount of money you are given as a "starter." People here also have to interact with the realities of the outside world and as such it is not an escape.

Well, I think thatAuroville is a very cool place, so last night I asked myself what I would do if I went there. I think that one of the greatest problems in India (and southern Asia in general) is the accumlation of rubbish (mainly plastic bottles and wrappers, but all kinds of junk) as people just throw items on the ground, without thinking. After these items pile up, people burn them, creating noxious fumes in the air (making my eyes tear on the buses). My idea is to innovate a high-temperature incinerator that burns this rubbish more cleanly (I've been told that higher temperature incinerators are cleaner and although not ideal, are better than the lower-temperature burning alternative). My thought would be to build upon the idea of the solar kitchen that exists (and feeds 1000 people for lunch) in Auroville. Since I'm not good with electronics (and photovoltaics), my thought would be to use mirrors and powerful magnifying glasses to focus the solar energy on small regions...and try to generate enough heat to melt the plastics. I have some research to do in order to determine whether this actually reduces the relative to low temperature flames. Thus, this is a fledgling idea, concocted last night as I was trying to think what ideas I could explore if I were to spend more time in Auroville. It's kind of a fun question to ask yourself: What idea, experiment, or societal development project would you explore if you had the time, appropriate environment, and access to some resources?

My next stop was Tiruvanamalai. I came here to see the inspiring temple complex and Ashram. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi inspired many by his presence. He would meditate for long periods of time and spent 7 years in a cave temple on the local mountain. I went to this temple and truly meditated for the very first time in my life. Part of the spirituality of this site is because of the mountain, which is geologically quite old and associated with Sheva. The mountain aspect to this helped me feel a small degree of spirituality. I descended to the main Ashram, where there are opportunities for both seated and walking meditation. Lunch and dinner at the Ashram were really terrific. You sat cross-legged in lines organized by rows of bananna leaves (i.e. plates) in a big open room and servers would come around and dole out rice, sambour, pickle, chutneys, etc.

Note: The story you are about to hear is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

That same evening, I took the bus to Salem in order to meet a friend that I'd made on the bus, who was an off-duty conductor. I had some reservation about truly trusting his friendship, but I decided to give it a shot. We met late at night in the Salem bus station and he and I searched for a hotel with limited success. We decided that I would stay with his family about 20 minutes outside of town. His family warmly welcomed me at 2AM and I had a wonderful time with them after I got some sleep. Keel's wife and two daughters were really sweet and everyone seemed a little amused at my inability to utilize my hands efficiently for eating (somehow food always seems to slip through my fingers). Keel took me up to a place that was near and dear to his heart, a nearby mountain village called Yercaud. We took a bus with 20 hairpin turns probably 3,000 ft. up where the air was cooler and coffee plantation (originally developped by the English) replaced the savanna scrub. I was a bit bored in Yercaud and getting sick of Keel's company. After returning to Salem, Keel and I met up up with his friend, the bus driver who is the union leader and also a politician...go figure. Did anybody ever warn you never to trust a politician? Well, this guy also poses as a granite/marble slab broker and after a quick trip to the local watering hole (featuring alcohol that grows on palm trees! that tasted disgusting, unfortunately), we met with a client of this polititians. It turns out that Keel was along with him because Keel is a certified broker. Keel told me that the politician was a good man and wouldn't ever cause me or him any problems, but sometimes he bends his morals and it quickly became clear to me that Keel was willing to bend his morals as well (as an accomplice). The client was unsure whether to go through with the deal. Keel asked me (in the client's presence) how the floors of his (Keel's) house looked. The house had beautiful granite floors, so I responded to that effect, inwardly furious that I was being forced into being an accomplice to this shady interaction and already upset that I was there in the first place with a "friend" who would do such a thing.

Well, from that point onward, my relationship with Keel went downhill. He kept telling me I should come back and visit for a longer time and kept repeating himself and apologizing for things. After we parted ways, I received stalker-like numbers of phone calls from him and just decided to start ignoring them and it seems that we've cut off contact. It is unfortunate that our relationship ended this way, but it is a reality in India that many of the most outgoing people are not trustworthy, so if I continued playing his game, at some point I'm guessing he'd try to extract money, in spite of having professed no interest in that motive.

After a long overnight bus, I arrived in Kanyakumare, the southern tip of India, the confluence of the Arabian Sea (West) and Bay of Bengal (East). It's sunrises and sunsets are famous and the sunset didn't disappoint. Children were bathing in the waters here and at the temple, men (including me) are required to remove their shirts. Two small rocky islands are just off the coast. One features a very impressive statue. A white, Christian Church is also notable in town. The next day, I headed to Panaburnam Palace, mainly carved out of teak wood in the traditional Keralan style of architecture. From here, I hired a rickshaw to go to a large bridge which transported water in an aqueduct high above a stream valley, below. Very impressive in a setting of lush coconut trees and people bathing in the streams. I had a chance to talk to some young girls who were bathing in a stream near their mother who was washing clothes on the opposite bank. They asked me to take their picture. In no relation to this incident, about 15 minutes later, I was alerted that in Tamil Nadu, I should never take pictures of girls around my age. The men might throw me in jail, they said. Apparently, I could probably pull a foreigner ignorance card, but I decided not to take further risks. The cab driver took me back to town. We'd agreed on a rate of 6 Rs/km at the outset and I told him I'd pay 50 Rs for his waiting, but when we arrived, he demanded 120 Rs more than the math called for. I argued with him for 5 minutes and then another rickshaw driver came over to "arbitrate" the situation. He heard both our cases and of course sided with my rickshaw driver. I demanded an explanation, but all I got was something about "up and back" which sounded to me as though they were just doubling the odometer distance, arbitrarily. I knew they were trying to scam me, so I paid what I thought I owed and stormed off. Fortunately, nothing further ensued.

Yesterday was the 9th day of a women's festival in Tivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The festival will be discussed in the next post, but it is called 'Attukal Devi Prasadam.' Although there were enough people there yesterday to create crowd control issues, today, authorities estimate 2.5 million people will attend the final, 10th day of the festival.

I made a trip to the beach resort of Kovalam. The waves were big enough to body surf, the beaches were nice, and the palm trees were gently swaying, but a parade of vendors detracted slightly from the experience. I had an Ayurvedic Massage by a licenced doctor, complete with hot oil, followed by an herbal steam treatment. I was put in a wooden cask, seated, while a pressure cooker with hose attached pumped herb-infused steam into my chamber.

Back in town, I ate a sinfully delightful fish masala. Later in the evening, I told a German girl she could crash on the floor of my room, knowing full well that it was going to be very challenging for her to find a room in town at 10PM the night before the final day of the festival. Well, after the concierge of my hotel had told herc that no rooms were available, he demanded she leave the premises while she waited for me to run a quick errand. When I came back, the concierge was irate that I was trying to house another person in my single room. I tried to reason with him that we'd pay extra, but he presented a single, illogical argument about the price of the room meaning that only one person can sleep there. Well, I guess the name of guest house, 'Kukie's Holiday Inn' describes the owner pretty well. I was not pleased, to say the least, with this inflexibility. We searched the town for 2 hours, with no success finding a budget room and received very terse and unfriendly responses from hotel owners. By phone, we did manage to find my friend a room for the night.

Today, after attending the festival, I head to an Ashram for 3 days of Hatha Yoga boot camp...5 hours of yoga per day...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Indian Summer: Curd for the heat

It's only February, but the heat is on here in central India. Before India, I enjoyed an afternoon sojourn in Singapore an acquaintance whom I'd originally encountered in northern Laos. I can also recommend against Indian airlines. They changed my flight time, added an additional stop, were generally running late, and condensation on the windows leaked into the cabin (unsettling). Once in India, my first reaction was to the driving. Vehicles of all sizes co-exist in apparent chaos, each one managing to maximize the limited space on the road. Horns of all timbres and resonances fill the air to signal approach, passing, etc... I felt uneasy at first, but then I realized that the drivers are quite skillful and no vehicle travels much more than 20 mph because with all the auto rickshaws clogging the lanes and disobeying traffic rules (for example, sometimes travelling short distances the wrong way), it is impossible.

I spent most of my first four days and today (nearly a week later) with Sheela, her parents, and relatives (who have been truly wonderful hosts). Several afternoons I played street cricket and lagori (an interesting form of dodge ball) with my host family's youngest son, Ajay. We only broke one car headlight with a tennis ball (oops!!) and had to escape one dog that was walking it's drunk owner. The food has really been the highlight here...from home-made masala dosas to curries, idlys, biryanis, and golab jammon, just to mention a few. I didn't see all that much in Bangalore, but we did a bit of shopping and generally relaxed.

One day, I accompanied one of my father's friends' relatives to Mysore, a town known for its beautiful architecture. I was quite impressed by the Royal Palace (lots of gold, ornate ivory and wood door carvings, etc). While I was there, I also visited a temple on a commanding hill and made friends with some locals before attending a light show involving fountains and set to Indian popular music. The show itself was not really that impressive, but the crowd was into it, so that made it fun.

My streak of connections in India continued in Hyderabad, where Reddy's family (and Vineela's too) planned several wonderful days for me. Hyderabad is known for its Islamic influence; Charminar Palace is emblematic of the Islamic architecture. Once I ascended the structure, I got a taste of the lack of personal space afforded in India. Everybody is standing centimeters from one another. Around the structure, a swarm of rickshaws, people, vendors, beggars, and bicycles extends in all directions. The Salar Jung museum has an amazing collection of Indian and Eastern art, plus a famous Italian statue of a woman veiled in delicate drapery and a wall clock with a blacksmith hammering seconds and a surprise personage appearing at the end of the hour. I had to rush through this exhibit, so I actually returned several days later. The evening's visit to Birla Mandir was delightful. This all-marble temple is my favorite that I've seen so far in India. It's a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of Hyderabad. In the evening, I had the famous Hyderabadi Biriani at the Paradise Hotel. The spicy mutton just flaked off the bone! My second day, I toured Golkonda Fort which featured accoustic enhancements designed for communication and the first water system (pumped and piped) in Asia. The King's office afforded a magnificent view and underground passageways connected it to very large burial tombs of the kings (several kms distant) and the huge mosque near Charminar Palace. The Queens' chambers were impressive as many queens resided there simultaneously. Reddy and Vineela have told me that they are envious that I'm getting to eat this food, so I'll spare them the description of the Samosa Regalas at Gokul Chaat. Let's just say that samosas have been re-defined for me. They are no longer a bland dish that readies the palette for more innovative cuisine. Later that afternoon, I went to a local arts and crafts village and enjoyed seeing some of the objects made locally. On my final day in Hyderabad, I toured to a temple recommended by Vineela near the Ramoji film city (a Bollywood vestige/tourist site).

The overnight bus to Hampi placed me in a small town, 10 km from the archaeological site at the unfortunate hour of 4:45AM. I was immediately accosted for a ride/tour/boat etc. I told this individual that I just needed some space, which he refused to provide me. Fortunately, I encountered another traveler in the same predicamment and we took a cheap ride to his hotel in Hampi where we crashed for some more hours before exploring the archaeological sites. Hampi is one of the most interesting places I've been because it is very laid back, but the local people are very religious, so it is nearly impossible to get meat or alcohol in any restaurant. People wash, brush teeth, and do laundry at the river side in large numbers, and the town elephant gets a royal bath treatment twice daily. When I witnessed this, the elephant was happily moving it's trunk as it lay on its side. Apparently it sometimes makes a joyful whistling sound as well. Elephants have been given royal treatment around Hampi for ceinturies. The finest architecture that I saw in Hampi was the royal elephant stables (12 very large stone-carved stables adjacent to one another, with amazing Islamic domes on top). The neat thing about the sites around here is that one can just explore. The terrain features boulders everywhere and some of the finest low-land rock climbing in India. One overland adventure put me in a cave formed by these weathered granite boulders. We made it through the cave, but decided that negotiating miles of boulders the size of tanks would waste the entire day.

I came back to Bangaluru to enjoy one more day with Sheela and her niece. The latter amused us with her opinions on such matters as dating white boys, a subject which arose because we weren't sure whether her parents would oppose an eventual "love marriage." The large dowry that the bride pays would really be the issue, she explained. I suggested that if she married a non-Indian, her family wouldn't have to pay a dowry and they might be satisfied. This is when the subject of dating white boys arose. Although she hasn't tried such, she is convinced that all white boys cheat on their girlfriends. Sheela and I tried to paint a more multi-hued picture for her, probably to limited success. Teenagers are difficult in India, as well. The evening featured a family gathering (many relatives) and a presentation of white gold ear-rings in commemoration of Sheela's return after many years without seeing her. Sheela's uncle explained to me that the Hindu religion is rapidly declining among Indian youth in India, but that the culture is still quite strong amongst Indian youth in the U.S. This is quite paradoxical and I'd be interested to know why this is the case. During the potluck, I was beginning to come down with a food poisoning that I must have gotten from some street food earlier that day or in Hampi. This placed me squarely in bed for a good solid 24 hours. Now, I'm back to 99% and ready to move on to Tamil Nadu.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Photos Uploaded--Finally!


Diving: Similian Islands and Koh Bon (from Khao Lak)

I regret to say that my overland adventure is currently taking a brief sebatical. I flew from Siem Reap to Phuket (from which I took a taxi to Khao Lak) and I will be flying (today) to Singapore and tomorrow to India. Then overland adventure for a long, long time (I hope!).

I figured that I had a short time in Southern Thailand due to my added days at various points along my itinerary, so I might as well experience the best diving I can. This lead my to Khao Lak (thanks to Ashley's suggestion), the gateway to the Similian Islands (among others). I met Keith on the plane and he wanted to get is Open Water Diving certification, so the two of us shopped for courses together and ended up with Big Blue Diving, which offered a 3-day course (one day in the classroom and pool and the next two days on a live-aboard boat).

A small head/chest cold was my only concern and it prevented me from descending on my first dive, so I had myself a small snorkeling adventure and scared the ___ out of my instructor, because she couldn't find me as I'd lost track of time. My next dives went smoothly. The fish were terrific (snappers galore, pufferfish, etc., squid (amazing creatures), boxer shrimp, huge sea aenemone and urchins) and the fan-like branch corals on several dives were incredible. The visibility was excellent (often 20-25 meters). The second day on my fourth Open Water dive, we saw a manta ray. Some divers have done thousands of dives and never seen one, but in the Similian Islands these are not uncommon. The creature was incredibly graceful and gave the impression of an alien spacecraft gliding through the deep. I decided to stay one final day and went straight into the advanced course for night diving. This was certainly an unforgettable experience (bioluminescence, solitude, and the threat of hidden corals), but with mask issues, I wasn't entirely happy on this dive. The next day, we were gliding through narrow passages between the classic Similian Island weathered granite boulders and then looking down at the tops of the same boulders with strands of marine plants growing on them...the variety of the dive made Christmas Point my favorite dive. Today, I let my blood decompress (nitrogen levels return to normal) and I walked along the beach before we headed to the market and cooked ourselves a feast with the Thai lady working at the hotel. I didn't think it was possible to spend ~$20 per person on a home-cooked meal in Thailand, but we proved that theory wrong (eating 3 king prawns a person, alongside pork steaks, pasta, and spicy Thai dip). I'm still in a food coma!

Siem Reap and Angkor

It's been a while since I've last posted. I've enjoyed writing the previous posts, but I was anxious to write this one. Here's why--the experience was amazing, but my words will do little to describe my experience here, neither in describing the temples nor my reactions to the tourist-instigated pity-begging which plagues all of Siem Reap, but particularly the entrances to each temple (Wat) site. Parents have trained their cute little children to engage the empathy of rich western travelers and sell trinkets such as wrist bands, etc. Their acts are incredibly convincing and it is nearly impossible to tell which people actually are in real need. The land mine victims playing music on the street were certainly an exception to the previous observations.

My bus travel to Siem Reap took me into a bus station which sold fried spider. A local bought one and entreated me to some of this delicacy. I tasted two of the eight legs. They were charred, but I could still feel a bit of the hair on the legs...the stomach was just too much, considering the fact that I had more hours on the bus.

My first day, I did much of the small curcuit at Angkor, by bike, but only made it to Angkor Wat itself just after dawn on the second day. Desiring more information, I joined a guided group at this point. The guide had unique insights because he'd been a monk for 6 years, enlisted upon the request of his parents (apparently this brings his parents good luck) and told by them that he should move on after 6 years. He is now married with a young child, but plans to go back to life as a monk when he is old again and his wife will become a nun. He enjoyed this peaceful life. Our guide described the Buddist religious stories depicted on the walls of Angkor along with other information. My lack of commitment to a specific guide enabled me to get a guide who was really good. The depictions of daily life around the Wat/Palace at Bayon/Angkor Thom were the most interesting to me. At the end of the day, we caught sunset at Bakkeng (along with hoards of others, but the people added rather than detracted from the scene). My favorite temple was Ta Prom (depicted in Tombraiders) which was not excavated as thoroughly as the others. Many large trees were left in place; their gnarled roots and trunks are inseparable from the stone structures at this point and lichen gives the stone a beautiful green color. I heard more birds calling from within this temple than I did in the jungles of Northern Laos...and for the arborists among you, Angkor is a jewel, with very old (labeled) trees that were protected for centuries because monks (rather than farmers) were residing in the region. Some latin names forthcoming, Jonathan.

The final day, we saw dawn at Angkor and then moved on to Bantea Srei, a smaller temple with some of the finest carvings along with some temples of the outer circuit and the land mine museum (a valuable and sobering stop for me, as I knew little about land mines). The multitude of road-side makers/sellers of palm candies was notable. They heat the sap and churn it before letting it dry in cookie-like circles. They were very tasty.

Back in Siem Reap, noodle bars enable one to avoid some of the Westerner-induced inflation of prices, but it's impossible to avoid all of it. After three days, I was ready to move on.