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 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.