Saturday, February 20, 2010

That’s really, really where I’m goin’ to!
If I ever get out of here,
I’m goin’ to Kathmandu!

Am I the only one who remembers that song? Whenever I think about Kathmandu that song pops into my head, and since I was just in Kathmandu, it’s in my head a lot these days. The other song that’s in my head all the time is one from “Veer”, the Bollywood movie we saw in Varanasi. It’s incredibly popular in the region right now, and we heard it all over. We declared it the song of the trip, and played it back to back to back whenever we could. Patti even bought the sound track.

So – Kathmandu. It’s a weird mix. We stayed in an area called Thamel, which is backpacker central. Every other shop in the crowded streets is selling knock-off trekking gear – clothing, boots, sleeping bags, trekking poles, hats, mitts, blah blah blah. The real manufacturers of this stuff must tear their hair out because I’m pretty sure there’s very little actual genuine product in Thamel, despite the fact that everything has got the proper labels. I bought two “North Face” shirts for a total of 1,400 Nepalese rupees, which is about $21.00. I also mounted a serious search for new pants, and tried on about fifty different pairs in five or six shops, but only had luck when I went to a real brand name shop, and even then I have some issues with inseam length (the story of my life…).

A trekking shop in Thamel

The shops in Thamel that aren’t selling trekking gear are selling trekking tours, or knock-off CDs and DVDs (where do you think Patti got her sound track?), or carpets and tourist tat. There are even quite a few nice bookstores, which was a treat. And there are lots of bars and restaurants, many of which have loud live bands every night, so you can have the odd experience of wandering through the streets of Kathmandu, past shops selling exquisite Thanka paintings of Buddhist mandalas, while listening to a cover version of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and contemplating the purchase of a –30 degree-rated sleeping bag by “Nurth Face”.

A typical Thamel Street

One of the optional activities offered by Intrepid in Kathamndu was a short flight along the Himalayas to see Everest. Patti was keen to go, and after consulting those who had done it before it sounded like something that was not to be missed, so I signed up too. The costs was considerable - $165 USD - but I figured that was well in the ballpark of the hot air ballooning in Turkey or the helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. As always seems to be the case with these kinds of things, it was an early morning start. Patti and I were up at 5:00 am were picked up at the hotel at 6:00 am. The taxi drove us out to the airport, and that was the beginning of a series of “Oh, really?” events for me that morning. I suppose because I was thinking of this like a private tourist flight similar to the helicopter at Victoria Falls, it surprised me that we got dropped at the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu Airport (“Really?”). And then we had to pay the 169.95 NPR departure tax (“Really?”), and then we had to pass through security and wait in the departure lounge, just like any other commercial flight (“Really?… huh.”). Except this was a flight leaving from the domestic terminal in Kathmandu, so the wait was chilly, and there was absolutely no information about when the flight would leave, and no one to ask, and the guy selling chai was running twenty minutes behind.

Eventually we boarded a small sixteen-seater plane (with propellers!) and got underway. I was a bit out of sorts, maybe because of the early start or the unexpectedly uncomfortable nature of the set-up, and I was also really tired. Even though we were on a flight along the Himalayas, there were times where I really could not keep my eyes open. It was a bit stupid. Especially when the scenery was like this:

The plane was small enough that everyone had a window seat, and as we flew along, the flight attendant let each person go up and look out the cockpit windows a couple of times.

Inside the plane

Certainly it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but even so I didn’t end up coming away from that flight feeling like I’d do it again. I’m pleased that Patti enjoyed herself, but I left feeling rather like I would have enjoyed a couple more hours of sleep. Perhaps it was the long days of travel catching up with me, or perhaps mountains just aren’t my thing. Regardless, I’m glad I did it, because I always would have wondered if I hadn’t.

My best shot of Everest – it’s the peak on the left.

After Patti and I got back from the flight we had time for a bit of breakfast before rejoining the group to see some of the more sacred sites of Kathmandu. Our first stop was the Swayamvsu Temple, commonly referred to as the Monkey Temple, because the Monkees played there in 1967. Ha! I’m kidding. Of course it’s called the Monkey temple because there are loads of monkeys hanging around there being photogenic.

Awww… (another in the series of Pictures of Baby Animals Kathryn Can Not Have)

Of course there’s more to the area than just a few monkeys, but since I don’t know much about Buddhism, the religious significance of the site was mostly lost on me. In fact Patti commented - and I agree - that we really needed a “Buddhism for Dummies” cheat sheet of some kind in Nepal. Hence, you get photos of monkeys, and I reveal myself to be the shockingly ill-informed about one of the world’s major religions. (I actually thought that this Monkey Temple was one that I’d seen in an episode of “The Amazing Race”, but it turns out there is more than one Monkey Temple in the world. And now you know that my knowledge of Buddhism is not just shallow, it’s also at least partially based on “The Amazing Race”. I really need to stop writing about this now.)

After the Monkey Temple we went to see the area surrounding the Pashupatinath Temple. It’s a large complex of temples along the banks of the Pasupati river. We didn’t actually visit the complex itself, since only Hindus are allowed inside the temples, but we did take some time to view the Pasupati, which runs through Kathmandu. Like the Ganges it’s also considered a sacred river to Hindus, partly because it later flows into the Ganges. Also like the Ganges in Varanasi the Pasupati is a site where Hindu ritual cremation takes place.

A couple of ghats, both in use. Also, garbage-pickers in the bottom left.

The river itself was miserable – it was nothing more than a grey trickle flowing sluggishly across a wide, muddy, garbage-strewn riverbed. You could see piles of ash and charred wood and… other things… that had simply been shoveled, still smoking, into the river. And there were people picking through those piles looking for anything of value that might have been left on the deceased’s body after the cremation. I understand that it’s a scared site and that cremation under these circumstances is traditional and holy, but it was such a grungy area that it was hard to feel like this would be a pleasant place to make your last exit.

After that charming interlude it was nice to head to another Buddhist site, this one was a stupa called Boudhanath. A stupa is a Buddhist religious monument, originally they were large mounds or dome shapes that often covered some sort of religious relic of the Buddha. Now stupas don’t always have a relic inside them. Generally they are simply large, solid domes that act as an object of veneration (And yes, you’re right. Since my embarrassing lack of knowledge about Buddhism was revealed in the paragraph above, I consulted Wikipedia about stupas. So sue me.) The Boudhanath is a particularly large stupa, with strings of prayer flags hung from its top. Like other Buddhist sites we saw it was pleasant and calming to walk around.

Boudhanath Stupa

The stupa was also equipped with a lot of prayer wheels – cylinders on a spindles that are marked with prayers and are meant to be spun by hand while you walk past. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it’s believed that spinning a prayer wheel has the same effect as reciting a prayer. At Boudhanath they also had an enormous prayer wheel inside an enclosure – it was about ten feet tall and about six feet in diameter. You grabbed onto a railing that encircled the whole thing and walked around in a circle, turning it as you walked.

Normal-sized prayer wheels at Boudhanath

After finishing up at the stupa on Monday, there was time for more shopping (Patti certainly won the prize there, making the rest of us look like amateurs). And we had that nice meal I’ve already talked about – the one where everyone else wimped out on the yak cheese fondue. Even though it was the last day of our tour, Patti and I still had one more day in Kathmandu, and it turned out that Jonno, Sheila and Adam did too. So we made plans to spend the next day touring around a city called Bhaktapur, and even privately hired the same guide we’d had to show us around Kathmandu. Bhaktapur turned out to be a lovely place. So lovely, in fact, that it certainly deserves its own blog post.

I should get on that.

A short announcement

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I’m taking a vacation. Yes, I know I’m already on vacation so let’s call this a vacation from my vacation. In the last 75 or so days I’ve been through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Jordan, Egypt, India and Nepal. They were challenging destinations. On March 7th I’m booked to start a 20 day tour of China. That will be challenging too. So in the intervening days I’ve decided to take a break. A break from packing and unpacking. A break from the endless string of “must see” sights. A break from early morning buses and overnight flights. A break from squat toilets, and toilets where you have to bring your own paper, and toilets that are bushes, and toilets that aren’t even bushes (banks of the river Ganges, I’m talking to you). A break from cold water showers and crazy food and strange languages. And – brace yourselves - a break from blogging.

I’m going somewhere to relax and sit. Somewhere I can hang up all my clothes, sleep in the same bed every night and linger there every morning, lay about drinking coffee or beer or wine and do crossword puzzles or nap or watch Olympic hockey on tv or play with the new iPhone or simply stare at the wall.

Where am I going, you might ask? That’s none of your damned business, I say. For now, the “Last known location” area of the blog will remain Kathmandu. The little red line on the Google map will end at Kathmandu and pick up again, miraculously, in Beijing. In the mean time, you can speculate as much as you like.

I’ve still got a few blog posts about Nepal to write, so there will be one or two more published in the coming days. And if I really feel strongly about writing something while I’m on the break I will, but don’t count on it. Probably you’ll just have to go cold turkey until I get into China. I’ll still be online when I feel like checking email, but I’m not going to worry about anything else.

And that’s all there is to say about that. Have fun, and I’ll see you in Beijing.

Your faithful, weary blogger,

- Pam

Steve's Weird Food for Nepal: Yak Cheese Fondue

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Time was running out on the SWF: Nepal timeclock when we went for our last supper as a group, in Kathmandu. So imagine my delight when I opened the menu at our chosen restaurant and saw “Yak Cheese Fondue”. It was an excellently odd mash-up of flavours and cultures that seemed very appropriate in Kathmandu, where on the same menu you might see a traditional Nepali meal of dahl baht, or pizza, or fish meuniere, or a cheeseburger and fries, or chicken cordon bleu. (In fact, that list above is the exact order placed by our group for dinner.)

(Aside: This diverse menu phenomenon was common all over Nepal and India. We could generally be guaranteed traditional local foods, pizza and pasta, Chinese, and “Continental” anywhere we went. Emblematic of this was the place next to our hotel in Varanasi, whose sign proudly proclaimed “Authentic Mediterranean, Mughlai, Continental, Indian, South Indian, Chinese Food and, in parenthesis: Special Pizza.)*

But there was one small problem – the yak cheese fondue was only available for two people or more. Apparently the delicate intricacy of the yak cheese fondue is simply not scalable to a single serving. And, inexplicably, no on else in the group was interested in sharing with me. Dejected, I ordered the traditional Nepali meal, but when I thought about it I realized that two orders of yak cheese fondue would only cost 760 Nepalese Rupees, or about $11.00. With the integrity of the Steve’s Weird Food Project at stake, there seemed to be little debate about what was to be done. I called the waiter back over and changed my order, though it took a while to get the idea across that I was ordering two meals, but I was only one person. (Clearly these are a people not accustomed to the North American appetite.)

Nevertheless, the order went through, and fondue preparations began. A second table was pushed up to ours so we could spread out and make room for all the necessary fondue paraphenalia, and there was quite a bit. The Nepalese don’t waste their time with wimpy little pots of sterno for keeping the fondue warm. Instead, a large gas burner was brought over, accompanied by a two foot tall cylinder of compressed gas.

The set up – no fooling around.

This occasioned much merriment in the group, and anticipation was high when the actual fondue arrived. It had been described in the menu as yak cheese flavoured with rum and cinnamon, served in a clay bowl. And that’s exactly what it was – an enormous clay bowl full molten yak cheese, bubbling away like a science experiment.

Bubbly fondue

It was accompanied by a large bowl of cubes of white bread, and a big plate of coleslaw-like salad. Thankfully, the Nepalese fondue tradition has not evolved to include the ridiculous and non-functional two-tined spear-like fondue fork, so I was able to use a normal four-tined dinner fork.

And the taste? Mild, pleasant, no discernible flavour of rum, and mercifully little essence of yak. Everyone tried it, and they all had the same reaction, “Nice.” It was a thinner mixture than I’d expected, but I think that because yak cheese doesn’t seem to melt very well. This makes it an odd choice for a cheese fondue, but I can only surmise that the supply of Gruyere and kirsch in Kathmandu is probably not ample.

Me and the fondue

With SWF: Nepal safely taken care of, a second round of drinks was ordered and the cards came out for another game of Presidents and Assholes. It was a really nice time. The dinner conversation was as good as ever – that night it was about the common Indian practice of arranged marriage. The general consensus was that it might not be a bad idea; certainly the divorce rate for arranged marriages is much lower than the overall divorce rate. We also discussed the best live concerts we’d ever been to, and asked Akshay why toilet seats in India never seem to fit the toilet bowl to which they are affixed and therefore always give an unpredictable sideways lurch when you sit down. He had no real answer for this burning question, so we wandered back to the hotel with that and other imponderable mysteries in our heads, and went to bed.

Per the request from Rob H, here's a photo of the gang taken in Sauraha. From left to right: Jonno (with Sheila cleverly hiding behind, though you saw her on an elephant yesterday), me, Akshay, Adam and Patti.

* Rob H.: Notice how I did that aside without using an asterisk?

The first days in Nepal

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Astute GSRED readers may remember that Nepal was not originally on my itinerary – it was only added when I found out that Patti was game to meet me in India and was keen to take an Intrepid tour of the area. Since I was busy with Italy at the time I asked her to wade through the seven zillion options Intrepid offers in India and narrow it down to three or four that fit with our dates and general idea of what we wanted to see. (She had loads of time for this, I’m sure. All she was doing was running her own company in Calgary. I was busy trying to sample as many different flavours of gelato as possible, so clearly I had bigger fish to fry.) Anyways, one of the tours on the short list was called “Delhi to Kathmandu” and as soon as I saw Kathmandu, I was hooked. How could you not be? Kathmandu? I mean is that even a real place? It occupies the same place in my head as Timbucktoo or Mars – somewhere so impossibly exotic that you can’t be sure whether it’s real or not.

So even though I was sad to leave India so soon, I was also excited about seeing Nepal and getting to Kathmandu. We drove from Varanasi to a tiny border crossing, schlepped our bags across the border, and got into another minivan on the other side for the drive to Lumbini. The difference between India and Nepal was striking and instantaneous. For hours that morning we’d been driving through India – crowded and filthy and accompanied by the incessant honking that is required at all times in India. After crossing the border things were instantly calmer. There was less garbage on the roadside, and less honking, and a lot less people. Patti was quick to point out that though Nepal may be a very poor country, but it’s a lot easier to keep things tidy when you’ve got a population of 28 million, as opposed to 1.4 billion. I guess you have to cut India some slack.

We had a quick overnight stop in Lumbini, mostly just because driving much further on that day would have been too much. There’s really just one thing to see in Lumbini, and any Buddhists reading this will probably know what that is – the birthplace of the Buddha himself. We visited the site early in the morning, and though I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, I really enjoyed walking around the site. There were lots of people visiting, some as tourists and some as adherents. And there’s an enormous banyan tree near a large square pool that seemed to be the centre of the site. People were seated under the tree chanting and singing, and there were thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags strung from the branches of the tree. In fact, the whole site was festooned with prayer flags and the effect was beautiful.

Prayer flags strung between the trees in Lumbini

The whole site was really peaceful and it was a nice start to the day to wander in among the flags and listen to the chanting. Then it was back into the van for another few hours of driving to get us to the small town of Sauraha, near Chitwan National Park. Sauraha reminded me a lot of Orchha, it was small enough that it was a relaxing place to be, but big enough to have restaurants and beer and internet access. My kind of place.

Besides restaurants, beer and internet, the other big thing Sauraha has is elephants! There’s an elephant breeding centre near the town and the afternoon we arrived we rode bikes out to visit it. It was excellent! I never had a chance to get up close with elephants while I was in Africa, so visiting the breeding centre was a real highlight. It’s run by the Nepali government and has produced 34 babies, most of whom have survived. We even saw their exceedingly rare set of twin baby elephants! (Note to Kathryn: No, I cannot bring you a baby elephant, twin or otherwise.)

At the centre we met Suk, who was our guide and who gave us some interesting info about the centre and about elephants in general, and then let us loose to take pictures. The elephants were all behind fences and chained by their legs to big posts in the ground. The chains seemed depressingly short, but Suk later assured me that the elephants didn’t mind, and the reason that some of them were doing a sort of sad, repetitive little dance pulling on their chains is because we saw them close to their afternoon tea break when the handlers come around and give them balls of grass. They’re also let loose to forage in the park twice a day, since keeping twenty or more elephants provided with all the food they need in a day would be a formidable task.

A mom and baby elephant.

Interesting elephant facts from Suk:

  • Elephants eat 200 kg of food and drink 200 litres of water each day.
  • They live to about 75 years old in the wild, but well cared for elephants can live 90 to 100 years in captivity.
  • Elephants have a complete change of teeth six times in their lives.
  • An elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles in it!
The next day we were scheduled for a guided walk through Chitwan National Park, ending up at a “rustic” guesthouse in a very tiny village of Ghatgai. We downsized to daypacks only, left out main bags at the hotel in Sauraha, and set out at about 9:30 in the morning, once again guided by Suk. The day turned out to be… challenging. It’s not that the walking was particularly strenuous. Akshay had warned us we’d have two hour ride in a canoe, and then a six hour walk - that was not a problem. The problem came as we were sitting in the canoe on the Ripta river and it started to rain. I was clever enough to have packed my rain jacket, but it was still pretty cold and miserable sitting in the rain in that canoe.

A boatman in one of the long dugout canoes that took all eight of us downriver

Things were better and worse once we got ashore. It was nice to be out of the boat, but the rain continued and knowing we had six hours of walking on increasingly muddy tracks did nothing to improve my mood. Patti later said that she preferred the rain to the hot and sunny weather we’d had the day before, which strikes me as slightly insane, but perhaps I’ve become acclimatized to the heat after getting through Africa and the Middle East. Whatever, it was miserable. (I later found out that I was the only one who felt this way – everyone else was just fine with trudging though the mud, which leads me to think they might be slightly off, or maybe haven't been traveling long enough to get properly bitter about this kind of turn of events.)

We were supposed to be watching for exciting wildlife like rhinos and tigers, and we’d even had a briefing on what to do if confronted by an angry rhino (In short: run away, in zig-zag fashion, until you can find a tree big enough to hide behind or, even better, one you can climb. We were specifically discouraged from pushing other members of the group in between us and the rhinos.) Unsurprisingly, it turns out rhinos and tiger are too smart to hang around when it’s pissing down rain, so mostly we trekked quietly. Suk, our guide, pointed out some different birds and we saw a lot of deer, and I made up cryptic crossword clues in my head to pass the time. (Best effort: Hill country plane crash (5). Anyone?).

We passed the spot where these walks usually stop for lunch with nothing more than a sad comment from Suk, “This is where we usually stop for lunch. But today… raining.” Instead we pushed on for an observation tower that offered a bit of shelter where we could eat our lunches out of the wet. And to get to the tower we had to cross a small river, which required a trip across the dodgiest bridge I’ve ever seen.

The dodgiest bridge. Ever. (Terrence, if you’re reading this, that picture is for you.)

We all managed to get across, though Sheila elected to take off her shoes and socks and wade, which was probably by far the smarter option. After lunch things improved a lot, mostly because it stopped raining. There still wasn’t much to see in the forest, though, so I don’t think anyone was disappointed when we got to our final destination earlier than expected. There was another short canoe trip across the river and then we settled in to our exceedingly basic rooms. It promised to be a chilly night, and the mattress on the bed was thin enough to see through, which only added to the anticipation. I put on every layer of clothing I’d brought, unfolded all the blankets provided and spread them out onto the bed, and then added the large pink Barbie towel that came with the room for good measure. Then I joined the gang for cocktails.

The rustic washing-up facilities at the guest house. Needless to say, it was cold water only.

It actually turned out to be a very fun evening. We ended up sitting around playing a stupid card game called “Presidents and Assholes” and the whole group took part – me, Patti, Sheila, Jono, Adam, and even Akshay. We actually postponed our scheduled Village Walk (there is a always a Village Walk) because we were having too much fun. We did go eventually, and it was nice. Suk was there again to tell us about the local flora and we exchanged “Namastes” with lots of local villagers, and we got back to the guesthouse in time for dinner and another long round of cards. Patti and I even invented a new drink called either Super Chai, or Chai Plus, which is made up of a nice hot cup of masala chai laced with a generous measure of cheap local rum.

Looking down the road on the village walk.

The night passed surprisingly comfortably, and the next morning we had another few hours of walking to reach a crocodile breeding centre. Things were pretty slow there, mostly because it was still quite chilly and the crocodiles were understandably docile, being cold-blooded and all. After that was some more walking and then a very breezy ride in the back of an open jeep to return us to Sauraha, hot water and blissful free time. We even got there early enough that I had time to go for a run before our last scheduled activity in Sauraha. This is a good thing because my mood was getting increasingly black. This is a good thing, becasue by the time Patti and I were finally ensconced in our room (our third attempt – the first came equipped with a double bed instead of two singles, and the second came equipped with people already in it) I was in that kind of frame of mind where anything other than a private foot massage from Harrison Ford would have left me grumpy and swearing.

Clearly I needed a run, so even though my motivation to drink a beer and have a nap was much greater than my inclination to lace up my shoes, off I went. Of course I felt better right away, though the day was quite hot and sunny by the time I went out. I ran along the road we’d cycled to get to the elephant breeding centre, and it was lovely. I got a few odd looks, but as soon as I gave a friendly “Namaste” the funny looks would always turn into smiles, and I’d get a “Namaste!” right back. Little kids were especially excited by this. And I’m sure I saw more different animals on this run than on any other run, ever. There were: dogs, horses, chickens, ducks, cows, buffalo, oxen and goats. By the time I got back to the hotel, stretched, and had a hot shower, life was much better.

Then it was time for our last activity in Sauraha – the elephant safari! Just seeing elephants wasn’t enough – this time were were going to ride them through the forest for an hour in the hopes of spotting some more wildlife, specifically – rhinos! It turns out that riding an elephant is pretty uncomfortable. Four people were crammed into the sort of saddle/cage that was strapped to the top of the elephant, and there was an elephant driver who rode in front, straddling the elephant right behind its head.

Jonno and Sheila and the back of their elephant.

The elephant drivers were each equipped with a stout length of solid bamboo and an evil looking steel implement that looked like a heavy fireplace poker. Every once in a while our elephant would make some imperceptible error and the driver would wind up and give him (or maybe it was a her… I couldn’t tell from where I was sitting) an enormous thwack on the top of the head. The sound was really alarming, but I had to remind myself that the elephant’s skull is probably about 3 inches thick, and I really didn’t want to be on top of one that was out of control. At least he only used the evil steel thing once, because it made a sickening dull thud.

The parade through the forest

We bounced along with about eight or ten other elephants, all loaded up with tourists and on the hunt for rhinos. We did see quite a few more deer and even saw a crocodile sunning himself on an island in the river. What surprised me most was that the animals were largely unconcerned with us being so close. I suppose that they focused on the elephants, and since none of them were prey for elephants, there was no reason to be alarmed. I was with Patti, Adam, and a woman we didn’t know who had a small child with her. I think the baby was about two years old. She enjoyed herself for a little while, but before long she got fussy, and then the whole forest was treated to her inconsolable wailing for longer than I’d care to remember.

However, all that was fine because eventually we saw RHINOS! The elephant that Sheila and Jonno were on spotted them first, and the cry went out for everyone else to come over. It was a lot like the traffic jams on the Serengeti when a good lion or leopard spotting happens. There was, literally, an elephant jam in that forest. However, the rhinos were completely indifferent, even as the elephant drivers maneuvered to get closer and closer. It was a mother and baby (K: no baby rhino either) and they were fantastic. They were smaller than I expected – bigger than a horse, but smaller than a bison (I know, I know, everything is smaller than I expect, but I thought they were more like elephants). And they looked positively prehistoric – all that tough armour and the horns reminded me of a triceratops. I can’t believe how close we were able to get. See?

Yes, there was some zoom involved here, but really, we were about twenty feet from this rhinoceros.

It was definitely a highlight. After the rhinos we saw a nest of wild boar, most of whom were sleeping. That is to say they were sleeping until our little passenger bumped her head and commenced to wailing again with such fervour that the frightened piggies ran all the way home. Lucky pigs. We had a bouncy ride back with the poor fussy baby, and all involved were immensely grateful when she and her harried mom de-elephanted (well, if getting off a plane is deplaning, then isn’t getting off an elephant de-elephanting?). We got to ride the elephant back into town and got off at a conveniently located de-elephanting stand near the centre of the village.

That night there was a sort of street food festival in town so we camped out at a table and sampled all kinds of different food, and drank beer and rum and played more of the stupid card game. It was another good night, and I’m really grateful that our group is small, and everyone is fun and easy going and remarkably like-minded. And the next morning we were off to Kathmandu, which is definitely another story.

Steve's Weird Food for India: Pan

Monday, February 15, 2010

My first thought for Steve’s Weird Food: India was a nice but unexpected dessert item called petha. It’s the flesh of unripened pumpkin, cut into bite-sized pieces and then cooked in a sugar syrup. (Pretty much all desserts in India involve either lashings of sugar syrup or improbable quantities of sweetened condensed milk or pounds of ghee – clarified butter. It’s my kind of place). Petha was nice, and odd, and I thought it would do nicely as a Weird Food. That’s until Akshay introduced us to pan (pronounced pahhhn, with the long A sound like in “wash”). (Also, the Wikipedia article about it spells it paan, but notes that the Hindi spelling is pan.)

First, an apology. When I decided that pan was going to be SWF for India, Akshay went out specially and bought me a fresh one so I could take some good photos and show you what it’s all about. I carefully tucked it away in a bag of other snacks and then promptly left the whole bag in the van that drove us from the Nepali-Indian border (I also lost a big bottle of water and a Dairy Milk and two bags of Masala Munch which is a yummy snack food that tastes a lot like curry Cheezies). Any photos here are crummy ones I dug up on the internet that don’t really look especially like what I had.

But back to the pan. As I said, Akshay introduced us to it, during our afternoon cruise in Varanasi. It’s a specialty of the city but I’m not even sure what category of food it would fall into. It’s kind of part snack, part breath-freshener, part chewing tobacco. Some of you might be familiar with the Indian after-dinner practice of having a small spoonful of aniseed and sugar as a breath freshener; I found it sort of like that.

Here’s a great excerpt from a website I found when I Googled “Varanasi pan”. It’s such an excellent mashup or English that I include it here without correction. (Note: “Banarasi” is another name for Varanasi.)

Banarasi pan is world famous betel leaves. Banarasi Pan (Betel leaves) to whole world in fresh natural. Banarasi paan which is renowned all over. Paan is also an alternative to mouth refreshner. Banarasi paan is offered with gulkand,grated coconut and dry dates flavers All rolled in an betel leaf. Preparing paan is very artistic, correct proportion of the ingredients make it delicious.With a shelf life ever 4 month, it is an ideal product to served at weddings, parties etc.

The tradition of chewing pan (betel leaf) is deeply rooted in India. From times immemorial, pan has remained a part of sacred Hindu rites and is always offered to the deities. Pan has great significance in the wedding rituals and all other important functions where its offering is a mark of respect for the guests. The earliest known mention of Pan have been found in the inscription found at Mandasor, Madya Pradesh.

Pan popularly known as tambula in Sanskrit is often consumed after the meals as it helps in digestion, also it gives fresh feeling the mouth and relieves the bad breath. Some important facts are that it reduces the blood pressure assists in digestion, relieves hunger, eliminates bad breath, strengthens the teeth and decreases menstrual bleeding. In unani tradition it is used as household remedies.

How could you refuse?

A bundle of pan is small – fitting neatly into the palm of your hand with lots of room to spare. Inside the bundle is a mixture of aniseed, fennel seed, dried rose petal preserved with sugar, dried rose petal powder, mint, kewra powder and katha paste (two things Akshay didn’t have an English translation for), a small amount of limestone paste and betel nut. The betel nut is softened with water and the whole concoction is wrapped in a betel leaf. All that is then wrapped in another type leaf that’s held shut with a toothpick. You open up the outer wrapper and the bundle inside – leaf and all – is what you eat. The whole bundle is about an inch or an inch and a half square, so it would be a big mouthful to have all at once; we each tore a corner off the one Akshay passed around. It seemed like the kind of thing you’d chew and then spit out, but you are actually meant to swallow it, so swallow we did.

And it was quite nice – crunchy and minty, with a bit of licorice flavour from the aniseed. I really couldn’t taste much betel nut, though I’m not sure I’d have recognized the taste anyway. I think (or at least I hope) that the amount of betel nut in a bundle of pan is relatively small, which is a very very good thing. Chewing betel nut is a popular past time in India, and is completely disgusting. Similar to chewing tobacco, it’s supposed to give a sort of buzz. Also similar to chewing tobacco, it requires you to spit out big gobby sprays of betel nut goop all the time. The streets of India are stained all over with red-orange spatters of betel nut juice. It’s also a known carcinogen and leaves your teeth looking like a horror show. Mr. Sunil from the textile shop, proudly displayed his pan-blackened teeth for us when Akshay ribbed him about his pan habit. For me, one bite was plenty.

Pick of Pics: Varanasi

Sunday, February 14, 2010

One of our boatmen, lighting the floating candles we released onto the Ganges

Traffic, more Ganges, and … Bollywood!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We arrived in Varanasi after a two hour drive starting at the tiny village where we’d come ashore from our cruise down the Ganges. I didn’t have a great start – we had about 45 minutes in the hotel to freshen up before reporting back downstairs. I was looking forward to a hot shower, but our hotel room failed to deliver that luxury, and I was feeling a bit cranky and frayed by the time we set out for Sarnath, the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. We were to travel there by autorickshaw, about half an hour each way, leaving us an hour or so at the site.The traffic in India really has to be experienced to be believed, and in Varanasi it was as bad as we’d seen anywhere. I think the fundamental problem is that no Indian driver will tolerate spending even a few seconds behind a slower vehicle. This means that everyone is constantly jockeying for position, squeezing through the tiniest spaces in a never-ending cross between ballet and demolition derby. At any given moment your autorickshaw might be overtaking three bicycles and a cow, while simultaneously being passed by six motorcycles that magically slide into a space that appears impossible and disappears immediately. Sometimes this means shortcutting around the near side of a roundabout, and in the most extreme cases can even involve slipping over to the other side of the road and travelling for a while in the opposing lane. It’s… invigorating, to say the least.

The number of different vehicles, people and animals on the road is amazing too. We saw: bicycles, cycle rickshaws carrying people, cycle rickshaws carrying cargo (including 12’ lengths of 4” diameter plastic pipe, refrigerators (plural), bananas, carpet, propane cylinders, car batteries, scaffold braces, 20’ pieces of bamboo, steel plumbing pipe and rebar), autorickshaws carrying people, autorickshaws carrying cargo, motorcycles, scooters, cars, buses, trucks, horse-drawn carts, pedestrians, street vendors, dogs, cows, goats and, in one particularly memorable moment, an elephant. And because it’s India of course there’s garbage everywhere too.

Not something you see at Portage and Main every day. (Photo by Patti)

And the honking. Every action is accompanied by not one, but about seven honks. Coming up behind someone? Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk. Passing them from behind? Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk. Approaching an oncoming vehicle? Honk honk honk honk honk honk honk. Basically any action other than proceeding forward on an empty stretch of road requires a long string of honks. And because there are no empty stretches of road, there is NEVER a time when there’s no honking. Multiply this by the number of vehicles on the road and you can understand why driving in India is as much an assault on the ears as the nerves. My favourite are the horns that sound like dying ducks – it’s like they’re so overworked they’ve gone hoarse.

All this is not to downplay the smell of course. Exhaust, pollution, smoke, incense, dust… I could almost picture my lungs shriveling and turning black. If I clean out my nose with a bit of white issue the resulting black smears are disheartening, and Patti has been coughing up a lung since she arrived.

As I mentioned, our trip to Sarnath was supposed to take about thirty minutes, but the traffic in Varanasi on that day was exceptionally bad so we spent an hour in transit both ways. That left us about twenty minutes at the actual site before we had to turn around, with heavy hearts, to get back into the autorickshaws again. The whole event ended up being much more about the journey than the destination, which was pleasant but certainly not worth two hours in an autorickshaw.

That evening before supper we went out onto the Ganges again, this time in a small rowboat, to have a look at the famous ghats. A ghat is simply an area along the river with steps built right down to the water’s edge – a place where you can get down to the Ganges. There are 102 spots like this in Varanasi, and they sort of blend one into the next.

Janki Ghat, as noted on the wall in the upper left.

The most famous of these – the burning ghats – are where devout Hindus bring their loved ones to be cremated. The Ganges is the sacred river of Hinduism, sometimes referred to as another of the 330 million gods: “Mother Ganges”. Varansi is the most sacred spot on the river, because the river is believed to have changed its course to flow around the city. To bathe or offer prayers or be cremated at the Ganges in Varanasi is most auspicious for Hindus.

We floated past one of the burning ghats as the sun was setting and you could see four or five bonfires in different stages, which was sort of chilling. Then our boatmen started lighting up a whole series of little floating candles which were were meant to release into the river, each with a wish attached. However, there were 101 of them (it’s an auspicious number), so eventually we were just getting through them, or releasing them with wishes like “I wish the mosquitos would go away”, or “I wish we could go have dinner.” (At least that’s what I was doing… everybody else was probably wishing for world peace and a cure for cancer and stuff.) Eventually we ended up at a ghat where a prayer ceremony was underway, and we watched that for a while, listening to the chanting and watching the priests – 5 of them – who performed a series of choreographed actions with large burning braziers and candelabra that left one impressed with their endurance and forearm strength, if nothing else.

Our little floating candles

We were back on the Ganges again the next morning to have a look at the ghats and travel all the way down to the largest of the burning ghats. It was a nice paddle, but I would have preferred to forgo the “sunrise” portion, which meant we had to be up at 5:00 am. What’s the big deal about sunrise anyways? Why not place a greater emphasis on getting a few more hours of sleep and a nice breakfast?

Actually, we did have a nice breakfast, and then went into the old city for a quick look around and a visit to a silk and cotton shop. Mr. Sunil gave us a nice little chat about the handloom process and taught us about warp and weft and how to tell pure silk from fake and about the different kinds of dyes and methods of dying. His business is one of the few left that still weaves on handlooms and prints on cotton with carved wooden blocks. It was another in the carpet factory / paper factory series of visits, but like the others it was fun and interesting and the pitch at the end was a nice soft sell.

Knee-deep in samples, as Mr. Sunil writes up another order in the bottom left

After that it was back into a cycle rickshaw for the trip to the main event of the afternoon – a movie! Akshay picked out one of the latest Bollywood blockbusters for us to go to, so we spent three hours in the theatre while the splendor of Bollywood splashed across the screen. But first we had a quick lunch, and just like anywhere the place to have a quick lunch in India is McDonald’s, of course. However, because India is a Hindu country McDonald’s serves no beef or pork products. In India, the Big Mac is replaced by the Chicken Maharaja Mac, which is what Patti had. In keeping with my status as temporary vegetarian, I had another popular offering, the Chatpata McAloo Tikka – a potato burger! It tasted just like you’d expect – a fried patty of mashed potato on a bun. And it came with fries. Let’s just say I had my full ration of carbs that day.

Patti and the Chicken Maharajah Mac

The movie we saw, called “Veer” was a historical piece about our hero, Veer, the son and heir of the Pindari clan, and the struggle against British rule (Boo! Bad British!), and Veer’s Romeo and Juliet-like love for the daughter of the head of a rival family. There were lots of musical numbers and fights and songs, and Veer spent a good amount of time with his shirt off, and it was long enough that there was a decent amount of time for napping. The movie was almost all in Hindi, but since the plot was not exactly intricate, it wasn’t hard to keep up. At the end Akshay clarified a few points, but mostly it was just fun to watch it all go past, and it was a great break from the pace outside on the street.

That night, in the street outside the hotel, a wedding procession called a braat ceremony went by. We saw a few of these and they looked like a lot of fun. In the hours before the actual wedding, a big crowd of family and friends moves through the streets, accompanied by a sort of DJ truck with speakers a sometimes even a live band. And there are always lines of other people carrying big lamps on their heads – some of which just look like ordinary table lamps – strung together by their electrical cords and powered by a little generator truck that tags along behind the whole business. (And boy, I would not want to be one of those lamp-carrying people, not only because they looked heavy, but also because I had a close look at the wiring on a generator trucks and let’s just say it was not exactly up to code.) Every once in a while the procession would stop and you could just make out the people in the middle of the maelstrom, dancing and puling others in from the circle to join them. The groom follows along behind riding a horse (the bride misses all the fun because she’s tucked away in a secret spot with her closest attendants, awaiting the wedding ceremony). I think they also set off fireworks too, because we heard a few loud bangs from inside the hotel later that night. It all looked like a lot of fun, and it was cool that it was right out in the street.

A fuzzy shot of the wedding procession

And that was Varanasi. We had a few nice dinners, and I managed to have one hot shower (out of three) and very very very early on the morning of the 10th we squeezed into a little minivan for a long and uncomfortable drive into Nepal, country number 22. Our time in India was laughably short; to spend only nine days in a country of 1.4 billion people is ridiculous. I saw a fraction of a fraction of the country, but I’m glad I saw what I did. And I still have to write about Steve’s Weird Food for India, so for you at least, it’s not over yet.

Pick of Pics: The Ganges

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sunrise on the Ganges. One of our crew having a short break before we push off for the day.

On the sacred river

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Boats seem to be a mainstay of the kind of tours I end up on. There was the felucca in Egypt, and my upcoming tour in China includes two full days on a tourist boat on the Yangtze. So it’s no surprise that my Delhi to Kathmandu trip included some time on the water – specifically the sacred Ganges river. This time though, I was in a much better mood than on felucca day, and I’m also now fortified with long underwear brought from home by Patti, so a night roughing it in a tent on the banks of the river didn’t seem so bad. Camping this way – when you spend the day lazing on the deck of a tiny sailboat for hours, then pull ashore where someone else sets up your tent, cooks you dinner and does all the cleaning is a far cry from those dismal, rainy, dish-flapping days in Africa.

Even so I was a bit apprehensive when I saw the boats. They were… very basic. I thought the feluccas were primitive, but they were comparatively huge had a small, low cabin where you could change clothes, and a tiny kitchen area, and even a cooler full of beer. These boats were wooden hulled, with a patched shade cover and a bamboo main mast. Each boat took three passengers and had two crew who sometimes manned the sails and tiller, and sometimes rowed when the wind was not favourable.

Here’s a look at one of our boats.

Along with the two passenger boats, we also had a kitchen boat with four crew on board. They pottered along with us, periodically pulling alongside to deliver cookies and hot cups of chai, or a massive lunches with four or five different dishes. Then they’d collect the dirty plates and leftovers and float off to do the washing up and get ready for the next meal. The food was really good. It was all vegetarian, because you’re not allowed to eat meat or drink alcohol within one kilometre of the sacred river. The vegetarian thing was fine with me, because I’ve decided to experiment with eating only vegetarian while in India. This turns out to be laughably easy (there has only been one moment when this was even slightly annoying and I had to wait a bit, but this was at a kebab resaturant, which was kind of all about meat). The first lunch we had rice, dal (lentils), spinach and paneer (plain cheese), cauliflower, potatoes, and salad. And chai, of course. Just like in the rest of India, I did not go hungry.

And what did we do on the boats besides eat? Not much, which was just fine. I may have thought Orccha was relaxing, but it was a positive maelstrom compared to life on the boat. All we really did was lay about waiting to be fed. I read a lot, and here I have to give thanks to the Good Times hotel in Delhi because they had a take-one-leave-one bookshelf in the lobby where I quickly abandoned the book I had been reading and grabbed a knock-off publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I also did a bit of blogging, and some napping.

Another in the series of Pam blogging in unlikely places.

It felt decadent to be rowed along while we lazed and napped and ate, but it was also a bit uncomfortable being one of six people waited on by eight others. I don’t know how much our crew was paid, but I’m confident that jobs with Intrepid are considered a good gig, so I suppose that our crew were not a lot different than the women in the paper factory or the ones knotting carpets where the point is to employ as many people as possible. I hope that a good number of my tourist dollars ended up in the pockets of those guys.

I also took a lot of photos, and my love for my new camera continues to grow every time I click the shutter.

Here’s a favourite.

And here’s another one, this of Sheila.

The sun set and we continued to glide along until we got to the place where we were to camp. The crew laid out a big tarp and blanket on the sand and we sat and talked while they put up the tents and lit fires and cooked. Akshay is really good at giving us a lot of information about India – the history, religion, politics and culture. On that night we ended up talking about Mahatma Gandhi and I was surprised to learn that he’s not universally revered in India, as I’d expected (as as you might think from the fact that his face is on every denomination of bank note in the country). Akshay said that a lot of younger people – generally in the twenty to forty year old set – feel that he gets a disproportionate amount of credit. Apparently there were other people fighting for independence too, and Gandhi wasn’t very good at acknowledging their contribution. It was in interesting discussion.

Camping overnight on the banks of the Ganges was reasonably comfortable once I’d put on my new long underwear, and sweatpants, and two pairs of wool socks, and three shirts, and gloves and a toque and cozied up in my silk sleep sheets under two blankets. It wasn't exactly warm, but I only woke up once or twice in the night. And I have to say that being greeted with a hot cup of chai in the morning really takes the edge off the whole rough camping experience.

We spent the rest of the morning on the boat, and I devoured another few hundred pages of Harry Potter and watched India slip past. A lot of life happens on the banks of the Ganges – people washing their clothes and themselves, or fishing, or ferrying things across. It’s like that everywhere in India – all of life is lived right out in the open, and that takes some getting used to.

Morning ablutions on the Ganges (I’m getting more shameless about taking people pictures, mostly because now I’m hiding behind 12x zoom capabilities.)

In the end, I was reluctant to leave the boat. My trepidation when I’d first seen the vessels was long gone, and I was dreading leaving the warm and sunny deck of the boat and plunging back into the madness of India. But plunge I did, and ended up in Varanansi, the most sacred city on the most sacred river, and just as insane as Delhi or Agra. But that’s another story.

Pick of Pics: Orchha

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A stack of the paper they made at the Taragram paper factory in Orchha. (Ok, I admit now I'm just getting hopelessly arty and pretentious with the new camera, but come on! This looks cool!)

Off the beaten track in Orchha

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It’s already clear that the pace of this tour is much more manageable than the frenzy of the Middle East. For instance, we’ve just left a lovely little town called Orchha where we spent TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW (Orccha is pronounced, it seems, to rhyme with Porch – ah, and not like the name of the killer whale). It was a really nice break, especially since there wasn’t a lot to do in Orchha. There are quite a few temples and palaces, and there’s a river for rafting, but otherwise it’s a sleepy town with one main street. It’s small enough that walking from one end to the other takes about ten minutes, and getting from our hotel to the centre of town was about the same. We arrived mid-afternoon after another interesting train ride and a heart-stopping 15km in an auto rickshaw. They’re the curious three-wheeled vehicles that are half motorcycle and half taxi. All auto-rickshaw drivers (in fact, all Indian drivers) are completely fearless and insane. so traveling 15km in one is not for the faint of heart. We all survived, and after a few minutes to settle in to our luxury tents (with real bathrooms and fridges!), we headed out for an orientation walk around the town. Akshay showed us the good internet cafĂ©, the freshest sweet shops, and the temple complex, and then steered us towards some local street food.

Aloo Tikki is apparently a specialty in Orchha. We saw a few places that made it, and it looked like they were all serving up a fat potato pancake sort of thing. However, when we actually placed the order it turned out that there was a lot more to it. Each of those fat potato pancakes was just the beginning – once our order was placed the cook moved an appropriate number of those fat cakes into the middle of his wide bowl-like griddle and started flattening them out – this is to give them more surface area to soak up the fat, of course. Then he sprinkled them with chopped onions and cilantro and then sort of chopped it all up together. So much for the potato pancake theory. Then there was scoop after scoop of some stewed chickpeas, and I’m sure there were other spices and things too. By this time we’d moved inside the tiny establishment to await our order. It was served up with a flat wooden spoon in a bowl made of leaves that had been stitched together.

Patti showing off her aloo tikki, in the special dried leaf bowl (which leaked and left aloo tikki stains on my clean pants).

It was spicy and tasty, though several of our group weren’t fond of it, their general opinion being that the cook should have stopped at the flat potato pancake stage. But Patti and I both shoveled ours in, and aloo tikka joined the list of good food I’ve had in India, which includes basically everything that I’ve eaten since arriving. (And that has been a LOT. It seems like we’re eating every time we turn around. Whatever ambitions I had about slowing the creeping weight gain that’s been going on since I left hope are, I think, dead. At least while I’m in India.)

The next morning we had an organized tour of the palace complex near the town. There are two palaces – the Raja Mahal and the Jahangir Mahal, both from around the 16th century. They’re impressive, but I found them most interesting because they have a lovely, abandoned feel and some really fun architecture – secret passages linking the king’s room with those of his concubines, and brackets shaped like elephants, and a lot more stairways and balconies and windows than strictly necessary, giving both palaces a sort Escher-esque feel in places. The plaque outside the Jahangir Palace – the larger and more important of the two, claims that it is the “culmination point of the evolution of Medieval – Indo – Islamic architecture” and “an example of harmonized imagination and organized execution.” Well, indeed.

A view of the Jahangir Mahal Palace, from one of the many balconies

The palaces both had some nice wall paintings that have survived since the 16th century. Most of them depict the life and deeds of the Lord Rama and Krishna, and also of the god Vishnu (one of the most important Hindu gods, though you could be forgiven for glazing over slightly at the mention of any of the various Hindu gods, because there are three hundred and thirty million. No, really.)

A painting depicting Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver.

The palace tour took the whole morning, after which we had lunch in a local place and then Sheila, Jono and Adam went off to do some rafting on the river. Patti and I decided to have the rest of the day off, and there was a shopping, napping, blogging, general relaxing and trying to digest quickly enough that we could cram more food in for supper.

That evening we attended a Puja (prayer) ceremony at the local Ram Rajah temple – dedicated to Lord Rama (he of the mural above), though as indicated by the addition of “Rajah” he is also worshipped as a king at this temple, which is apparently unique. We had to take off our shoes, and weren’t allowed to bring in cameras or phones (not that I have one anymore) or anything leather. As we entered the temple, each of us rung a bell hanging in the entry way – Akshay told us this is to let the god know that someone is coming to offer prayers. There was a fairly large crowd in front of a set of ornate doors, but it was hard to see because the doors were up on a higher level, and people were standing up on that level, so those standing behind them couldn’t really see much. But there was a festive atmosphere – people chanted and sang along with the priests, and at a dramatic moment the big doors were opened and there was cheering and more singing. The idol to Lord Rama was behind the doors, but it was impossible to see anything other than (maybe) the top of the head, and an occasional glimpse of someone waving candles or a fan or something. We stuck around until the singing ended and the devotees raced to queue up to leave their offerings in front of the idol. Most people had flowers and small boxes of sweets for this purpose. And when I say “queue up” I mean that strictly in the Indian sense, which basically means “trample your grandmother to get to the front”. We wandered off for dinner once the trampling started, and I had a nice roasted eggplant dish before heading back to the hotel.

After the ridiculous pace of Delhi and the buzz of Agra, Orchha was fantastic. It was small enough and relaxed enough that I was actually able to run both the mornings we were there. Even better, I had a running partner! On our first morning there Adam, one of the guys in our group, decided to come along. It was great, not just because it was nice to have someone to run with, but because it turns out that Adam is ex-Army and a police officer, so I can say I’ve never felt so safe on a run in a strange place. The second morning I went on my own, but having done it once with Adam, it was easier the next day to be on my own, and the most menacing thing turned out to be a mama monkey who did not appreciate me slowing down to have a closer look at her.

Having two days in one place also makes a lot of normal, practical things easier. For instance, I was able to have laundry done (two loads, for only 150 rupee each, about $4.00). And I had the hem let down on a pair of new pants Patti brought for me from home (50 rupee, and they could have been finished in as little as one hour. In fact, I could have had a whole new pair made for just 500 rupee, ready the next evening.) This is one thing that’s hard to get used to – the prices. The exchange rate is about 45 rupee to the dollar, and the bills in my wallet are usually 500s, 100s, 50s, 20s, and 10s. It seems like a lot to pull out 100 rupees for something, so I have to keep reminding myself that’s only about $2.00.

On our last day in Orchha we had a couple of organized activities, both of which were excellent. The first was a visit to the Taragram paper factory, just outside of town. Taragram is a similar sort of project to the carpet factory in Agra – they employ mostly local women, and make paper out of reclaimed or recycled cotton. The factory intentionally uses no modern machinery in order to provide employment for the greatest number of people. We saw the whole process: sorting of the cotton material (mostly offcuts from local garment factories), cleaning and pulping, creating the individual sheets, drying, pressing and trimming. At each stop along the way we could take pictures, and the whole thing was really interesting.

This woman was working making sheets. They worked in pairs, each holding one end of the screen covered with pulp. Then they’d flip the screen over in unison, depositing the wet layer onto a big, drippy pile of other sheets. Then they’d both sit on top of the pile to try and squeeze the excess water out. That’s why they’re wrapped in many layers of plastic like a skirt. (And yes, the photo is out of focus, but I like it anyways. It's not the new camera's fault - it's the fault of the person holding the camera...)

After the paper factory was another highlight – a cooking lesson in the home of a local Indian woman. Vandana welcomed us into her house and showed us how to cook six different dishes, and then, of course, we got to eat them. This is the kind of cool local experience that Intrepid seems to excel at – like the meal with a local family in Russian, or the banya. Certainly they’re a bit formulaic for the person presenting, but they’re much more authentic than anything you’d likely be able to rustle up as an independent traveler.

First we started with masala chai, the milky spiced tea that’s served by the gallon at every opportunity. It was the nicest chai I’ve had so far, and turns out to be quite simple to make if you got the correct spices, none of which were hugely exotic – peppercorns, cloves, green cardamom pods, cinnamon and ginger. After that there was aloo palak (literally “potato spinach) and again, it was super easy and the kind of thing I could envision making for myself on a weeknight. There was also an eggplant dish, and a vegetable pulao (rice), and an odd watery yogurt concoction called raita.

Vandana’s pantry

Finally, Vandana demonstrated her consummate skill with the humble chapati – the mainstay of the diet around here. It’s the Indian version of unleavened flat bread – a simple combination of whole wheat flour, water and salt. But in Vandana’s hands this was kneaded into a lovely dough, portioned expertly into small balls and then rolled with impressive speed into perfectly circular rounds for her small griddle. Once each chapati was cooked long enough on the griddle, having been flipped several times, it was taken off and laid right on the gas flame. If it’s made right this causes it to puff up perfectly, creating a pocket inside. Naturally, all of Vandana’s chapti puffed obediently and then settled down on the growing pile at her side. They were the lightest and best chapati I’ve ever had, but I suppose that’s the kind of skill you get when you make them twice a day, every day, for your whole life.

Vandana, kneading the chapati dough. The entire cooking lesson was conducted on a two-burner gas stove on the floor. And each of us got to try rolling a chapati, and acquitted ourselves reasonably well, since all our chapati did achieve puffiness.

Orchha was an excellent stop, and the balance between free time and organized activity was good. All in all, I’m quite happy with how India is going so far (other than the obvious hiccup of losing my phone, which is still bugging me, and is not dealt with yet). In some ways India has been what I expected, though it’s also so much more. In fact, it’s a bit hard to describe. It really is filthy and crowded and smelly and sad. Yet, for every garbage-strewn ditch or cow eating from a dumpster or insane snarl of traffic, there’s a parade of pink and yellow and red saris or a plate of magical spicy veggies or a crazy wedding celebration glimpsed on the side of the road. I’m definitely glad I came.

Pick of Pics: Agra

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Man hand-knotting a carpet at the place we visited in Agra.

Agra: the obvious and the obscure

It had to be done. You simply don’t come to India without visiting the Taj Mahal. So on the second morning of our tour, after the night I lost my cell phone, we saddled up early and caught the train from Delhi to Agra.

The Indian railways system is the biggest in the world. 14 zillion people ride it every day, there are enough miles of track to reach from Mumbai to Pluto and it employs 86.2% of the population (the rest are employed selling Taj Mahal snow globe key chains and chai). Ok, I made most of that up, except it’s true that the system is the biggest in the world, and riding it turns out to be a really good way of seeing India – not just the landscape but the people and the culture. One of the things I’m enjoying about being back on an Intrepid tour after my two weeks as an Imaginative Traveller in the Middle East is that with Intrepid we take a lot more local transport. If this was my ImTrav tour we probably would’ve got a private minibus downtown to Old Delhi, and driven from Delhi to Agra. Nevermind that if we’d had a private bus in Delhi I’d probably still have my cell phone – traveling should be about experiencing the places you visit, not viewing them from behind glass.

The Indian Railway System is also a good place to write a blog. (Jono and Akshay pictured at the left!)

Pulling out of the station in Delhi at 7:00 in the morning was an eye-opener. It turns out that the train tracks aren’t just for carrying trains. They’re also a gigantic garbage heap and a place to dry laundry, and a toilet. I couldn’t count how many people we saw who simply dropped their pants to squat down on the tracks. It’s hard not to be shocked and saddened and disgusted, which are all the things that everyone says you’ll feel about India. I’m glad that I scheduled this stop as I did – I think that going through Africa and the Middle East first has made it a bit easier for me to accept the conditions here, which are definitely worse. Patti has traveled a lot in China and Southeast Asia, and she says things are far worse here than anything she’s seen in those places.

Back on the train, we made it to Agra by about 11:00am and quickly headed out to see the Agra Fort. It was interesting, and we had a nice local guide, but ultimately it felt like a bit of a time-killer because we weren’t scheduled to go see the Taj Mahal until just before sunset, so we could get the all-important “money shot” of the Taj. The fort is still 75% controlled by the Indian Army, but the 25% that’s open to the public was quite nice. It was a former palace to a long line of Indian rulers, including the one who built the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan. There are private apartments and public meeting areas and a lot of very nice carved stone and marble inlaid with semiprecious gems.

A bit of intricately carved stone screen – it was about three inches thick. Again, my old camera would never have been able to focus this closely.

The fort was nice, but I was happy to get back to the hotel for a some internet time and a short rest before we met up to walk to the Taj. Security at the site is understandably tight - we weren’t allowed to bring any bags, just cameras and money belts. And any bottle of water we took with us had to be factory sealed and could not be opened until we’d passed through the security at the gate. We were even given fetching shoe covers to wear when we entered the actual building. (Another in the series of “Pictures of Pam’s feet” is here.)

Quite a few of the people I’ve traveled with in recent months had been to the Taj Mahal, and all of them declined to make any real comments about it. The best I could get from them was a vague sense that you just need to experience it for yourself, and anything they said wouldn’t really mean anything anyways. I was expecting great things but also aware that these mega-sights often end up being a bit disappointing because they are built up so much in the collective consciousness of the world that it’s impossible for them to be as great as their reputation. So I’m pleased to report that while I was not moved to tears at the majesty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal, I can still report that it is undeniably impressive and well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area.

Mandatory shot of me at the Taj Mahal, followed by mandatory bit of Taj history:

The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his favourite wife, Mumtaz. They were married for 18 years before she died while giving birth to their 14th child. That’s why the Taj is sometimes called the ultimate monument to love. Construction started in 1621 and finished 21 years later in 1653, and more than 20,000 labourers worked on it. It cost about 41,000,000 Rupees at the time, about $10,000,000.

It really is beautiful, though it was (I know I must sound like a broken record when I say this) kind of was smaller than I expected. However the details and intricacy of the decoration inside is amazing. The tomb itself is surrounded by an octagonal stone screen, carved similarly to the one above, but in much thinner stone (white marble, of course) and with an smaller, finer design. And around the edges were more floral patterns of inlaid semiprecious stones like in the fort. But again these were infinitely more delicate – I overheard one guide say that each lotus blossom pictured had 64 individual pieces of stone in it, and they were only about two and a half inches across.

No photos are allowed inside the mausoleum, this is an example of the type of inlay work I’m talking about (from the fort) but on a cruder level.

We looked around inside some more, then went out to wait on an empty bench for sunset to arrive, so we could get our all-important photos. There were lots of people everywhere, but I was surprised that a couple of prime photo spots were open, and came equipped with helpful Indians who would show you exactly where to crouch down to get a nice picture of the Taj reflected in the pools out front. Patti and I each took too many pictures, and then finally decided that we were finished with the Taj Mahal and headed out of the complex and back to the hotel.

My best “money shot” of the Taj. Many many others are over at Flickr.

True to form, we took the wrong exit and then a wrong turned wrong and got hopelessly lost. This was ok though, because it meant we got to take a motor rickshaw, which are those three-wheeled contraptions you see everywhere. It cost quite a bit – 100 Rupees ($5.00!), but it included a tour of what seemed like the whole city of Agra, with frequent virtuoso solos on rickshaw horn.

After another short break we gathered in the lobby to go for dinner, but Akshay first asked us if we were interested in visiting a carpet factory, for a tour of the facility and a little lesson on how hand-knotted carpets are made. I was wary because my experience with these kind of things is that they inevitably end in a showroom with a sales pitch. However, Akshay assured us there would be no pressure to buy, so we gave it a go. And you know what? Despite the fact that I’d just seen the Taj Mahal, I think I actually had more fun at the carpet factory, and I learned a lot.

We started with a brief stop at a hand loom where a man was knotting a carpet, then we moved on to see how the carpets are washed by hand. A four foot by six foot carpet takes one man five hours to complete for each washing, and there are many washings involved. Then we saw the big piles of wool waiting to be used and also went upstairs and saw the design room where the carpet designs are rendered into graph paper so that the patterns can be recreated by the village women who are employed by the company – they’re usually illiterate rural women with no other means of support.

His hands did not stop. Ever.

The company itself is one that’s supported by the government as a mean of promoting clean, socially responsible industry in the area. Apparently there’s a lot of industry in the area that creates pollution which, in turn, discolours the marble on the Taj Mahal (Nevermind that it also discolours the lungs of the residents, clearly this is a governement that know which side its bread is buttered on.) The government provided the money to buy the looms, and the company has distributed these looms to woman in rural areas, and taught them how to use them. They train women because, as the company representative explained, women have more patience for the fine and tedious work involved. More importantly, when money flows into the family through the woman, it actually flows into the family, as opposed to ending up at the local bar, when it’s earned by the man.

After viewing the design room we saw how the carpets are trimmed after they’re knotted. Of course that’s also done by hand, in three stages. An expert trimmer uses a plain pair of scissors and simply trims the excess length from the hand-knotted strands. This would be like using a pair of scissors to cut a four foot by six foot patch of lawn, and having EVERY BLADE come out exactly the same length. It was astonishing. And there’s the six months it took two people working full time to knot the carpet in the first place, or the fifteen hours for cleaning it three times, or the inspection for quality control, or any number of the other critical steps in the process. I used to think handmade carpets were ridiculously expensive, but now that I’ve seen how much labour goes into them, I can’t believe how reasonable the prices are.

A trimmer at work on the right. The guy on the left is using a long pointed metal tool and rubbing it through all the strands of the carpet to make sure every one stands up straight.

And yes, there was a visit to the showroom and complimentary cups of chai, and the unrolling of many carpets. And there were actually three sales, though none of them were to me. I was sorely tempted, but then I realized that I was just getting caught up in the fun of it all, and I really don’t need a carpet, especially since I don’t actually have a floor. Also, I’m buying an iPhone (I think), so I’ll just have to look at my pictures of carpets on my iPhone, and be content with that.