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.