Archive for July, 2013

back inside the Indian clown car

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when we arrived at the ever hectic New Jalpaiguri railway station my brain immediately snapped back into Indian busy mode.  we negotiated our way through the train station bureaucracy with maximum efficiency and booked a sleeper headed for Kolkata.  with plenty of time to spare before our train left, Escapo and i entertained an unexpected crowd at a nearby restaurant.

i slept on the train in what seemed like hundreds of ten minute increments.  before we even arrived i was already bracing myself for the impact of the chaos and sensory overload that large Indian cities tend to throw at you, but after spending just a little time there i found the place to be… well… pleasant. not only pleasant, but actually one of the most fascinating places i have ever been.

rickshaw2all the processes necessary to maintain human existence all take place out in the open here.  on the street next to the bustle of traffic or tucked into tight alleyways.  animals are slaughtered, prepared and consumed, people sleep, bathe and peddle their wares.  everything that can happen is happening everywhere and it’s all taking place within very close proximities.  it’s life in its ultimate compact and transparent form.  it seems like chaos at first but the more i watched and interacted with it the more i began to notice the fine mechanics.  the fruit seller knows to step over the sleeping man, the chicken killer knows to hold down the dying chicken with his feet so it doesn’t disturb the fruit, the bathing man washes himself discretely so not to un-appetize the passing customers, etc..  everything has its imperative time and place.  these men and women may look like poor savages but in actuality they are professionals of their environment.  it’s not dirty or offensive but rather graceful and efficient.

among them are some of the most helpful, sincere and honest people i have ever met.  they pride themselves on helping you find your way when you get lost and they want to explain things to you… anything.  the people are by far the main attraction of this city.

in the center of town is a giant indoor market with an attached goat slaughterhouse inside an old decaying warehouse where i spent quite a lot of time observing the men go about their work.  they line the goats up on one aisle and herd them into cages under the raised floorboards until they are ready to kill and butcher them on the next aisle over.  i watched one very muscle bound butcher who was aggressively chopping up giant blocks of ice to keep his mutton cold.  next to him were two separated piles of heads and feet and a moat to collect the blood.

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the goat’s heart is the most valuable part

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this urban shepherd lets his sheep out to graze while the children improve their cricket game.  we see him the following day on the other side of town carefully herding his flock through rush hour traffic.

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sandwiched between the Hooghly River and the financial district is a thriving flower market.  right above it a bridge extends to the other side of the river.  this is one of the main arteries through town.

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Hooghly River mouth

when i first looked at the map of the giant sprawl that is Kolkata, i could not help but notice that there was a suburb named “Salt Lake City”.  being born and raised in the other Salt Lake City, it immediately became my mission to pay it a visit.  i simply couldn’t leave Kolkata without visiting what i could tell is the only other Salt Lake City in existence.  after all, how many people on this earth can truly say that they have been to both Salt Lake Cities?  after several days of convincing Nicolas it was a good idea we got in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Salt Lake City.  besides being confused as to why we would want to go there he also asked us where in Salt Lake City we wanted to go.  it is a whole city after all.  Nicolas quickly looked at the map and pointed to a random hospital in the city center.  i also cleared the air by telling the driver that i was from Salt Lake City.  after driving for almost an hour the scenery grew rural then less so when the driver announced that we had crossed the Salt Lake City limits.  it was far different from the Salt Lake City i knew but still very functional.  there were some high rises, nice neighborhoods, shops and restaurant.  the one thing it had in common with the other Salt Lake City is that it had a salt water lake with an island in the middle of it.  we could tell from the reactions of the people that we far from the beaten path.  there was no obvious sign that read “Welcome to Salt Lake City” so instead i had the driver creep slowly through the streets until i saw the words “Salt Lake City” written on an awning, then i would jump out to take a picture.  again i would tell the shop owners i was from Salt Lake City.. as if that made it all better.  the driver took us to the hospital as promised then stopped the car.  yup… there’s that hospital we wanted to go to.  Nicolas and i looked at each other for a moment.  “are you over this yet?” i asked.. “yup” he replied.  then i asked the driver to take us all the way back to Kolkata.  anyway, please enjoy this collage of Salt Lake City signage i pieced together from awnings and buses.

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we also got to put our tourist hats on.  having an extensive history of British rule, Kolkata is speckled with sites including a beautiful cathedral and a giant memorial built for Queen Victoria with a very interesting exhibit inside that covers the span of the British occupation from the rise of the East India Company to the Indian liberation after World War 2.  we also saw Mother Teresa’s final resting place which was my favorite of the sites.  her tomb sits in a chapel in a convent in the middle of a ghetto.i_thirst  when i entered the building and walked into the multi-story courtyard an air of gentle peace washed over me.  the sisters were all there going about their daily business while giggling at each other from opposing balconies.  i saw the prison cell of a bedroom that Mother lived in for over 50 years.  i saw the few well worn worldly possessions she had and read the accounts of her life and works.  her tomb was a simple and sleek marble box that had the words “i thirst” written in flower peddles across the top.

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Victoria Memorial

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

we took a shortcut through the Muslim ghetto that lead back to our neighborhood.  i couldn’t keep my eyes open wide enough to take in all the stimuli around me.  these people seemed so happy despite their destitution.  the next day i came back to the ghetto to give the place a proper surveying by walking the grid of streets in a zig-zag pattern.  a group of gentleman invited me to take cover under a makeshift awning during a brief monsoonal outburst.  they fed me tea and explained the dynamics of their neighborhood.  here Muslims and Christians co-exist in peace.  here a man’s worth is measured by his willingness to help his community.  here community is survival.  my mind was blown.  my ‘zig-zag the grid’ plan soon turned to shambles after several of the narrow streets twisted and turned.  i was lost but i didn’t care.  i was granted additional audiences with more of the neighborhood’s inhabitants.  they were very curious about me and tried their best to explain things as they saw them.  they were so proud of their little community and i can see why.  i was ready to throw in the towel and live amongst them.

on our fifth and final day in Kolkata it came time again that Nicolas and i had to part ways.  after spending every waking moment with him for almost two months i knew it would not be easy.  he had gotten an offer from a local casting agent to take part in a Bollywood film so i waited with him at our favorite bar until the dark and mysterious SUV came to pick him up.  it was a little surreal to watch him get in the vehicle with his backpack and drive away with out me in it.  alone again for the first time in far too long i wandered my favorite streets one last time.  then when i was ready i gathered my things, hailed a taxi and headed for he airport… that’s right, i said the airport.

 

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i am no longer trekking, yet i still exist

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when this thought first came to mind on my first post-trek morning in Naya Pul it made me laugh, then as the days progressed it became less funny.  the truth was that i just couldn’t know who i was unless i was mindlessly marching through mud for 6 to 10 hours.  trekking is hard work but the mental prowess required for the task is far less complex than anything i had previously allowed myself to grow accustom to.  you simply look at the trail and walk on it… that’s it.  you could possibly add one layer of complexity by carting along a map and playing connect-the-dots but lets face it, there is no need and your map is soggy, illegible and no longer worth its weight.  i wish someone would have warned me about this apparent post-trek-syndrome and given me some pointers on how to remedy it.  at that point i only knew that step one was to NOT put my smelly boots on and trudge through mud for 6 to 10 hours.  i didn’t want to imagine what the next steps would entail… re-accepting the existence of a lot of humans in a single place, being reunited with all my things in Kathmandu and then suddenly having to actually ‘have’ those things, making drastic “planning” decisions about what i was going to do next… it was a heavy prospect.  so instead of trying to attack it all at once i just hopped on a bus to Pokhara.  at least i was not alone.

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Pokhara lakeside

Pokhara is like the main trekker hub of Nepal.  it’s conveniently situated at the base of the Annapurna and is loaded with shops selling anything and everything one could possibly need to get lost in the mountains for any desired amount of time.  most trekkers start and end in this town (though we did not do it like that).  the touristy part of town stretches along the shore of a sizeable lake and is loaded with restaurants and bars.  we spent the next 5 days visiting most of them until we became re-acquainted with the idea that having a multitude of delicious cuisine in your immediate grasp was a normal situation to find one’s self in.

DSCN1947 (copy)one fine day a group of five of us rented 4 motorbikes and drove them to a near by lake for a pleasant swim.  on our return we were greeted by a severe monsoonal outburst.  we had all experienced our fair share monsoonal outbursts, just not while also operating motorbikes.  the droplets of rain came down hard and felt like millions of tiny BBs being shot at my chest and face.  it took all my concentration to keep my eyes open and focused on the road.  about 20 minutes away from our destination we pulled off to the side of the road to take a break and find shelter.  to our surprise we spotted an open lit garage just big enough to house our 4 bikes.  we drove in and parked without hesitation.  next door we found a small tea house with a covered raised caged room with a perfect view of the storm (a little too perfect).  we crawled up into it and were promptly served hot tea, blankets and pillows.  there we laid back, cuddled our shivers away and strategized our next move while we sipped our tea.  it became obvious that the storm was not letting up but rather getting worse.  lightning would strike and turn night into day and stop all the rain drops in their tracks for a split second, then we would count: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… thunderclap!!  we strongly considered rain_dance4just sleeping there.  it wouldn’t have been so bad but we were worried that the folks from whom we rented the bikes might want them back eventually.  we thanked and paid our caretakers, mounted our bikes and drove off into the thick of the storm in the pitch black.  the BB-like rain drops from before had turned into continues streams of water all seemingly connected.  other than the fact i could still breath, there was pretty much no difference between being underwater and my current situation.  it was also more or less pointless to keep my eyes open unless there was some source to light my path.  luckily the lighting struck often and imprinted enough of my surroundings on my retina to keep me going.  i could let my eyes rest for seconds at a time and drive from memory.  when we finally reached Pokhara the streets had become a series of small lakes submerging up to half my bike in places.  my front fender would serve up a flurry of water jets that arched over our heads. i tried my best to drive through them at that perfect speed so not to get swept away and to not hydroplane.  we made it back in one piece just in time to dance in the rain.

by the time we arrived in Kathmandu i was eager to be reunited with all my things.  they were still right where i left them over a month before at The Happily Ever After Hostel.  it was good to have it all back though weird to suddenly have clothing options.  most importantly it was good to see Escapo.  he had been well taken care of and had been played and loved by many in my absence.  we moved locations from trekker mecca to “Freak Street” – an older, quieter, more character/less functional part of Kathmandu and relaxed for several days while we slowly chipped away at the final step – “planning” our next move.  the planning went very slowly at first as we settled into a comforting and lazy routine of rooftop relaxing and city wandering.  i was not afraid to let my feet drag here as i had no place to be and no place to go.  i was completely free and unbound by any commitments as is often the case these days.  the more i wandered at the Kathmandu pace the more i felt apart of the place.  i’ve spent more time here than any other place so far on my odyssey.  only a total of 12 days but it’s the closest thing i have felt to home since my actual home.

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Freak Street

one evening in order to give parting friends Lieselot and Ilanka a proper send off, we decided to let loose and visit a gay dance club called “Fire” in the heart of the Tamil district.  this place was gay Nepali style to the core.  it had all the right curves in all the right places if you know what i mean.  after about 7 minutes of cutting the rug my friend Dror manages to get his canvas tobacco pouch stolen by a large Nepali body builder.  we all saw him do it too yet there was nothing any of us could do about it short of losing an arm or an eye in an attempt to get it back.  even the slightest attempt to communicate with the man set off the unruly enraged pitbull within him.  we made our best diplomatic attempts to encourage his friends, the club’s security guards and even a policeman from outside to help us but they were all unwilling to give him a thorough searching.  this man was untouchable.  the only thing left to do at this point was to sit and stare at him from across the room.  stoic and cold, i tried my best to convey to him that i pitied his pitiful existence, but in the end it was actions like these that got us politely and promptly escorted out of the club.  after almost all hope was lost our other friend Micaiah (a sweet and gentile Frenchman) becomes himself enraged, gets a very determined look on his face and then re-enters the club.  4 minutes later he returns holding the canvas tobacco pouch and said “it was in his pocket!”.  how did he do it!? that is a very good question.  i guess certain situations call for a little French finessing.

Lieselot and i left soon after this to make the long walk back to our guest house when we got pestered by several cycle rickshaw drivers.  it’s usually my habit to ignore them but due to the nights events and the sizeable quantity of rum i had consumed, i was in a mood.  i made a deal with one cycle rickshaw driver that i would commission his bike to take us to our destination for a fair price as long as he agreed to let me drive it there.  he happily agreed and got in the back seat with Lieselot.  i mounted the bike, set it in motion with a jolt and then proceeded to veer off the road into a gutter and crash it into the side of a building.  ok, i’ll admit that this was not my finest moment but i would like to state for the record that cycle rickshaws are EXTREMELY difficult to drive.  i jumped off the bike and apologized profusely to the man.  he just laughed and then checked the wheels.  the bike was fine but i had more or less destroyed the silly umbrella that jutted out from the top of the handle bars.  “i drive now” he said to which i replied “oh no you don’t, we had a deal!”.  again he gets in the back seat with Lieselot.  together they giggle uncontrollably while i made attempt after attempt to get us home.  he barked commands at me while i negotiated every cobblestone, dip and turn.  i was quickly becoming a pro and the road was quickly becoming my bitch.  when we finally reached our destination i helped him bend his broken umbrella back into place, paid him five times what i owed him then retired to my room.

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view from my balcony in Darjeeling

after almost a week in Kathmandu enough of a plan had started to materialize to allow us to start moving in a direction.  that direction being east across Nepal to Ilam then crossing the border back into India.  after a couple of days of hard traveling involving a 17 hour bus ride infested with baby chicks, a nights stay in Ilam and a not too painful border crossing, Nicolas and i arrived in the delightfully precious town of Darjeeling – situated at the far east end of the Himalaya, stacked tightly atop a mountain ridge and spilling down either side with avenues that wind through it both narrow and confused.  this place is quite Nepali, relaxing and chalked full of tea.  there is a toy train station in the center of town with a toy train that you can ride to a neighboring town.  we spent days wandering its silly streets while giggling at how such a bizarre place can exist on the same planet as us.  we visited the local zoo, a mountaineering museum, drank tea and dined with a random family in the middle of a small street after getting lost on purpose.  as it turns out, Darjeeling was the exact reset button i needed to heal my post-Annaporn blues and get me re-psyched about the fact that i was STILL traveling the world for an unknown amount off time.

P1030845 (copy)from Darjeeling we took the adorable toy train that never exceeded 5 miles an hour to the neighboring town of Kurseong and did a one night “home stay” at the Makaibari tea plantation.  this included a tour of the tea factory, a tea tasting and accommodations plus three square meals at a private home of the tea overlord’s choosing (not much happens in this town without the consent of the tea overlord).  i now know a great deal more about the production of tea than i did previously.  for example i was surprised to learn that the different tea varieties (white/green/black) actually all come from the same plant… hmm.  the family we got assigned to was very kind and mother cooked a mean Dal Baht.  we ate everything they threw at us and slept soundly despite the philharmonic dog barking orchestra.

i wanted to stay longer up there with the hill people.  in the recent weeks i had become accustom to their gentile ways and they were familiar to me like an old teddy bear.  but as travel land would have it we had to abide by our new realized agenda which was beckoning us elsewhere.  so we said a sad goodbye to the Himalaya and inched our way south toward the third largest city in India.

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