Tuesday, July 19

So you think you want to go to India?

These are the websites responsible for my successful trip to India. Anyone who is looking to follow may enjoy them:

1. For packing:
www.travelindependent.info/whattopack
2. For when you must book accomodations:
www.hostelworld.com
3. For travel insurance:
www.canadiandirect.com
4. For info about Vaccinations:
www.mdtravelhealth.com/destinations/asia/india
5. For an Ashram:
www.phoolchattiyoga.com
6. For booking trains:
www.cleartrip.com
7. For awesome volunteering:
www.sambhali-trust.org
8. For all other questions:
www.indiamike.com

Tuesday, July 5

Tiger Tales

We have hit up three Indian national parks now. Our first, Preiyar, despite being a wonderful jungle to explore, was a bust in the large animal front. We only saw a single dear, distant bison, and some wild boar.

Ladakh, on the other hand was an unexpected success. We came for the exercise and local culture, but were treated to a host of birds including the giant Golden Eagle and the abundant Black-Billed Magpie. On a drive to a famous high-altitude emerald-colored lake (Pangong), we saw wild horses and our first bharal sheep. Bharal are commonly called blue sheep, because the male rump has dark-blue wool. They're famous wool is used in pashmina shawls. We also enjoyed conies of super furry marmots having a wrestle and herds of grazing ibex. But, elusive to us were the legendary snow leopards and the musk deer whom are hunted for their musk gland, used in perfume.



Not yet satisfied with our wildlife sightings, Jen and I squeezed in an overnight trip to the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. The objective of the safari is large cats with the tiger as the grand prize. Originally we were quite disappointed. We got a super early start, trying to fetch a coveted ride on the park elephants, but the warden jumped the queue and blocked our chances. The animals we were seeing from our open-jeep were mostly deer, both the graceful spotted deer and the large Indian deer. Feeling a little cheated and dejected, we drove slowly along while half heartedly snapping shots of peacocks, monkeys, a mongoose, and a snake. Paired with a jeep carrying two rowdy young Dutch guys, we were brought to a halt on the edge of a plain and told to stand on our seats scan for tigers. All the other jeeps were at similar vantage points with mobiles at the ready in case something interesting emerged.

Our driver and guide were just trying to convince the Dutch to be silent and continue scanning when a message arrived in some secret fashion. Instantly Nadeen, our driver was back in his seat shouting "Sit down!" We obediently slipped down just in time to rocket down the mud road.

Nadeen, who was earlier literally sleeping at the wheel, showed no restraint and flew past the other jeeps, dodging rocks and fallen trees like Harry Potter's magical Kinght Bus. I swear we were going to hit an enormous Monitor Lizard scurrying across the road, but instead made a 3 second photo stop at my insistence. A pause that nearly lost us our prize.


And then, ahead of us on the road were five parked jeeps and thirty fingers unanimously pointing right of the road. Our aggressive driver skidded to a halt front and center and we hopped back up on our seats. Finger pointing was not necessary, because there, in the tall grass only 35ft away, was one very orange and black tail swishing through the air. Swish swish swish swish. At the end of the tail a tiger who spun his head to glimpse us and then melted into the camouflage of the grass. Swish swish. 

Monday, July 4

Now that I'm home...

To spare my parents, I wait until now to publish this post. This begins with my return to the ashram of the Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram. It was past midnight and pitch dark when Jen and I set out with our new friends, Luis and Jamie. It was an eventful start. Jen dramatically slipped in a juicylarge fresh cowplop, painting herself in liquid crap. We continued to skirt along eerily empty streets where shifty looking dogs and the occasional lost drunkard considered confronting us. We made it without incident to the ashram and carefully climbed the wall, weighed down by a notable amount of provisions. Undetected, we scrambled silently up the path to Meditation Hut 1. Here we set up camp. We swept and tidied, threw down a carpet, laid out our sleeping bags, lit incense and a citronella candle, attached a speaker to my iPod and sat in candlelight listening to words of wisdom.

The evening was terrifying at times, given we had illegally trespassed into a forested area where aggressive elephants and monkeys are known to lurk. But overall the atmosphere was calming and bonded us closely. The next morning we all woke up early and raced to the bus station for our next adventure.

Meditation Hut 1
In Manali, north of Rishikesh, Jen and I caught the spirit of India's adventure capital. We signed up for a full day of canyoneering, the sport of rappelling down waterfalls. Our experience was incredible and with the help of two guides, we clipped our harnesses to a variety of ropes and slipped, slided, and semi-climbed through 15 waterfalls, two that were over 70m high. A highlight was zip lining when a free fall couldn't be avoided and later rocketing along the contours as though the waterfall was a slide. We came out mostly unscathed and very cold.

Also in Manali, I learnt to ride a motorcycle. Jen and I returned to our guesthouse totally exhausted after canyoning, a nice Jordanian man befriended me. We got to talking and before I knew it I had confessed a dream to drive a motorcycle, a dream I didn't know I had. To his delight he had a motorbike and knew 'the perfect place' to learn. We met the next day and before I knew it I was driving a bullet down a narrow rocky Indian road, avoiding rockslide leftovers and oncoming traffic. I even mastered shifting to second gear, a real skill for an automatic girl like me.

Path to Mt. Tiund
And just now, I jumped off a mountain and experienced the exhilarating pleasure of flying. Accompanied by chauffeur pilots, today, Jen and I went paragliding for the first time. It held the excitement of a roller coaster, motion sickness included, but also an incredible liberating peace as we skirted between birds for a quarter of an hour. We actually had quite the morning as we woke up early to see the sun rise from atop misty Mount Triund. After taking in the view and reading a few chapters of Harry Potter out loud, a suitably magical book for such an eerily lush and beautiful mist soaked view, we skirted down the 10km path racing to meet our driver for paragliding. Then we flew.




India is a safer than I imagined and even with the aforementioned risks, I have found that here there are always people looking out for us, but just as I was reading this post over, Jen came in with a bleeding foot. A ferocious driver in Leh ran over her tow as she was walking, but she seems alright, no broken bones.
Paragliding over McCloed Ganj

Sunday, July 3

The Golden City

Amritsar: to go, or not to go? We came and we loved. Colorful turbans. Punjabi sweets. Holy pilgrims. Elaborate border ceremonies. Ladies' dance party. Chicken curries. And, of course, the Golden Temple.

The Golden Temple is architecturally impressive, like many religious meccas, but it is also functional AND free. At any Sikh temple they offer free food to pilgrims and other visitors indiscriminately. Here they serve tasty Indian thalis to 60000-80000 people daily using a chapatti machine and unlimited volunteers.

They also offer free accommodation and free shuttle buses to/from the train and bus stations to aid the many people traveling long distances to visit the most holy Sikh site. For westerners, this meant a row of beds in an large room with India's most affordable air conditioning (0 rupees). The AC was a welcome escape from the blistering damp sun that made even shade-seekers feel as though they were in a sauna.

On top of the free transit, room and board (hundreds of free toilets and showers included), tourist info was helpful and informed. They gave out free maps, which we didn't even need, because helpful volunteers inside directed lost visitors between sites. One young man even guided us for an hour through to the temple centre. The only place I was not assisted was bathing in the holy water.


In an area subtley walled off from the rest of the water that fills the temple lake, there is a space for women to bathe. At dawn, I removed my clothes and took a dip with 7 other woman. Holding onto chains, we gently bobbed in the refreshing water. That was before the warm sun made it's first appearances, rising hellishly between the white towers of the temple walls. 

Saturday, July 2

Momos and Monks

Down down down. Once again we hit the dangerous Rhotang Pass from Leh to Manali. One of the world's most dangerous highways, we wore down the roads over five passes of the Himalyan giants; all the while focused on the end goal: chocolate momos in Manali. After five punctured tyres and blown shocks, our mini bus brakes gave out only 1km from our destination. 

But our shaky late night arrival in Manali was rewarded the next day with delicious momos, including the long anticipated chocolate variety. We picked up another Canadian trekker with a similar itinerary to us and together devoured thirty momos cooked by a maternal Ladhaki woman and her tough mother. They operate a small two table joint with plastic chairs called the 'Tibetan Kitchen.' We'd been before and already each have a pair of the woolen socks the grandmother knits while waiting for customers. To ensure every customer is satisfied, something the food already guarantees, they have a toilet with the world's best view available, located down the street up a flight of stairs. The toilet is in a small washroom with a floor to ceiling window looking out to the Himalayas and the farms below. 

Before leaving Manali, Jen, in desperate need of a haircut after a long battle with lice and low quality shampoos, seeked out a respectable beauty salon. Unfortunately, the haircut left me, someone who has NEVER cut hair before, giving an impromptu lesson to two estheticians as I snipped away to salvage the nearly fatal bowl cut.

And so we continued, humbled by our bad judgement we did not know what to expect in McCloed Ganj. Another rough night had us at the hands of a tourist hunter when we arrived before the sun in the city of Tibet-in-excile. Fortunately, we woke to a bright dry room; outside our first real monsoon was flooding the streets. Although monsoons are promised daily, we were blessed exclusively with sunshine and magical mist during our stay.

Our time in McCloed Ganj (and around) was both relaxing and exciting. We read Harry Potter (just the second half of the Deathly Hallows) out loud to each other overlooking incredible sunset views from the Dalai Lama's resident pizza cafe. And yes, our smoked cheese and spinach pizza was prepared by monks and, yes, it was very tasty (despite a disclaimer that suggested incompetent staff). 

In McCloed Ganj we sampled many other culinary delights as well, including momos made by us (thanks to Lhamo's cooking class) and an incredible mountain thali which was unnecessarily delicious; we were ravenous after our ascent. You see, now that we're such expert trekkers, we easily did a last minute trek up Triund. We simply ignored Jen's toe injury, which was probably harder for her to do than me. Packed lightly, we stayed overnight at altitude in the kitchen of an already full guesthouse. We shared a summer solstice campfire with other guests and shared a bed with our host. 

Our next adventure was the 04:00 bus to Amritsar. We ignored our strong desires to stay asleep when a 03:25 alarm nudged us out of McCloed Ganj. To our surprise we were joined at a most ungodly hour by Jamie Monks, a friend (who we last saw in Rishikesh), and five of his newest friends. We all wanted to sleep on the bus so we groggily tossed our luggage onto the bus's roof rack to maximize our leg room. An architect of sorts safely secured our bags and we were off. It wasn't until we arrived that a problem arose.

Jamie was passing down the luggage to receptive hands when the bus started to roll. Despite some ferocious protest by two girls, it kept going at a slow speed. Working quickly, bags came down one by one. My bag was last and all that was left was for Jamie to hand it down to me, but the bus was accelerating. In a panic Jamie, as gently as possible, lobbed everything I own in an arc towards the pavement. Fortunately an instinct kicked inside me, like a mother rescuing a baby; I gracefully caught up and snatched my bag out of it's descending arc just in time to spare my gifts from making fatal contact with the pavement. By the way Jamie made off the roof safely sometime later when the bus finally stopped. 

And so it goes, in India you never know what you'll find; excellent service or incompetence, hospitality or hostility. However; I must declare that as a western woman there is always somebody looking out for me and I have experienced a whole lot more help than hinderance from India's 1.2 billion residents. This is epitomized by the unlimited policy of generosity adopted by the friendly Sikhs at the Golden Temple (see next blog). 

Thursday, June 30

Breathless

We almost booked a trek in the Himalayas with an expensive trekking outfitter, when someone pointed out the much more affordable option of independently hiring a guide. Raj, our guide and guesthouse operator, is the star of this show. 

He is a young, short Nepalese man who was born in India because of a love story. His parents, who came from devout Budhist families, fell in love and escaped to India to avoid arranged marriages. He has 'Maila' tattooed on his right forearm, a name his mother calls him. In Tibetan tradition it means 'second son.' He, however, is the oldest son in his family, but his mother calls him Maila to remember the baby she lost before his birth. 

With excellent stories told in impressive English, he has led us and entertained us through the hills of Markah Valley. We've taken advantage of arriving ahead of season in Leh to do this popular trek before the summer rush and also before the Indian government follows through with its promise to build roads to the remote towns tucked into the valley. 

We were making good time on our first day and it seemed our cautiously short acclimatization day underestimated our fitness. Even with a late start, we past our destination early in the afternoon and continued to the peaceful Swiss style village of Rumbrak. We walked under the shade of willows with many birds looking on as the path twisted and crossed the winding river many times. We arrived at Rumbak just as the yak herders and shepherds were returning with their flocks. 

Rumbak is set back into the cozy base of a snow-capped mountain. Here we found a traditional style homestay made from local materials. The kitchen, the heart of the home, was huge and cozy with small low tables and blanket seating. An ornate wood burning stove also sat close to the floor, generating heat for us and the residents which included a small bundled up baby. We stayed upstairs in a room with a view that looked out to the mountains and down to the animals. There were two baby yaks in the pen right below us. Warm chai, butter salt tea, and roasted barley were served while we waited for our dinner. After our snacks and some lazy yoga we had a meal of timomo, a traditional food of vegetable soup and steamed bread. Licking our lips we crawled into piles of blankets while waiting for the sound of neighing donkeys to be replaced with sleep. 

On our second day we discovered that acclimatizing was no joke as we huffed and puffed ourselves little by little over our first mountain pass (4950m). A flurry of snow blew down keeping us cool on the slow grunge up. Stopping for air every 10m, we enjoyed seeing yaks, ibex and marmots scrounging nutrients from harsh arid mountains. At the summit, just as the clouds lifted, we had lunch (packed for us by the homestay) and enjoyed looking back on the valley we conquered and the snow capped Himalyan giants glowing down on us. The views from the pass were predictably breath taking in a most literal way.

With blue skies we made a speedy descent and again progressed right past our destination, after stopping at a parachute tent for chai. At magic hour we arrived in a photogenic river town. Green grass patched with salt follows the river through town. Adorable miniature goats bleat playfully from within their ridiculous thick wool coats. At the farside of town we found another charming homestay where we were greeted with 'Joolays' (the multipurpose Ladhaki greeting and manner word) and with a brilliant rainbow. Inside the hospitality continued with hot Maggi soup and chai. 

The next day we waited until after lunch a short day hike. Without packs we eventually got hungry and started seeking chai. We had heard, incorrectly, that there was a town nearby with chai shops. To our dismay, a dull 5 km walk along a new road got us to a town that had no chai and was not nearby at all. There was only one old lady so old she couldn't even make chai. We returned with grumbling stomachs only to discover that our river crossing was blocked. The rickety cable car was jammed on the far side. So we waited. It was another trekker who eventually crossed over and liberated the cart. At this point we were far behind schedule and even with haste we did not make it back until nightfall. Back at the home we ate generous servings and met a British med student and his guide who joined us for the rest of the hike. 

Our hiking days continue in this spirit. We make good time with our light packs, relying on the unyielding hospitality of traditional family-owned homestays to take us in and feed us scrumptious warm food. Raj continues to distract us from the toil of our pitiful sea-level lungs and minor blisters with stories of his service to Indian army and insights on Ladakhi Buddhism. 

On the topic of Buddhism, I must describe the traditions that colour our walks. Every town, no matter how small, has a set of stupas or chortens (towers standing two to five meters tall). Originally used similar to headstones, they now act as shrines to saints and reminders of the five elements: earth, wind, fire, air and ether. Some are new, but many date back to the 14th century when a Tibetan saint brought a traditional order of Buddhism to Ladakh, following the previous less popular Tantric order. 

It is also at this time the Mons (Buddhist missionaries) established many of the villages we are exploring, often with beautiful gompas (monasteries). When peaking into the colorfully adorned gompas we saw snap shots of daily prayers, ritual dance practices, enormous golden statues, and small sculptures made of butter. It is respectful to pass on the left of stupas, just as it is necessary to travel clockwise around gompas. 

Also along the trail, crowding rooftops and summits, are the iconic colorful prayer flags that have found their way into giftshops worldwide. Bought in strings of 5 to 50 flags they hang solitarily here and there and in remarkable density at high altitude stupas. The hope is that the wind will carry the prayers, which are written on them, to God. We hung a set for all of you back home. 

Following the Mons centuries later, Lieutenant Joseph Cunningham was one of the British sent to explore Ladakh in the 1850s. His descriptions are still published and considered relevant, although a topographical survey that followed made more accurate measures of altitude. Cunningham was only accurate within 60m, as he used the time to boil water to determine the height of passes. Hunters and adventurers followed these surveys, but by 1962 the Indo-China war put the region of Ladakh, including Leh and Markah Valley off limits to travelers until 1974. Since then, not much has changed and many places still require special permits but the promise of new roads is always closer and will likely change much of the culture and trekking routes. 

Wednesday, June 29

Full Indian

Jen and I have created a phrase, 'Full Indian' to describe when travelers adopt behaviors that are typically Indian. This includes simple things such as drinking chai with the Indian amount of milk and sugar. However, it is more than just wearing clothes bought in India, it is wearing a full selwar suit, dupatta, and all the typical accessories of bangles and Bindi dots. Likewise, eating spicy Indian food is not 'Full Indian,' unless you eat it at an establishment or home for locals and you eat it with your hand. Taking bucket showers, throwing rubbish out the window, and blowing snot rockets without Kleenex is also 'Full Indian.' And then, something I didn't expect to adopt, but now find liberating, is replacing toilet paper with water. After four months in India I have started to accept a new norm. I am even temporarily horrified when I see a tourist with bare shoulders and I am surprised by fixes prices. 

Sunday, June 26

Mountain Monsoons

When I arrived in Leh, I was ill with altitude sickness, so it came as no surprise when Raj, the man at our guesthouse who nursed me better, suggested a trial hike before committing to be our Himalayan trekking guide days later. 

On out sample hike he took us over a mountain to the neighboring village of Saboo. With packed lunches we set out to test our resistance to the altitude. We were fine and enjoyed a lovely picnic, but on the way we witnessed the damage of the monsoon of 2010. 

Leh and the surrounding area is technically a desert and according to Lonely Planet, it receives less than 11cm of precipitation a year. Last year, however, in 22 minutes more rain came than had fallen accumulatively over the past decade. Major flooding followed with many casualties, but by the next day the ground was again bone dry. 

The news casters quoted fatalities around 300, but our guide emphasized to us that in reality closer to 1400 people died, if you accounted for the deaths in the surrounding villages and those who were not Indian residents of Leh, such as the many Nepalese immigrants and hill people. 

In Saboo a large empty riverbed runs through the middle of the town. Raj had not been there since the flood and when he illustrated a before picture to us we joined him in speechless dismay. Trees, homes, fields and roads had been wiped out and in their place was sediment and rocks in a newly formed canyon. Days later, on our 10 day trek of Markah valley, Raj continues to point out the destruction the unexpected monsoon has caused. This serves as a constant reminder of how difficult it is to live at altitude where the weather has such an incredible influence on daily living. 

Saturday, June 25

The Rhotang Pass

The road from the Manali to Leh in the far north of India should take over 22 hours on a good day, but is closed for most of the year. Only a few tents and one horse towns (or rather one yak towns) break up the long journey. Instead, brave drivers stop at pass markers to let their altitude sickened passengers relieve themselves next to stupas tangled in prayer flags while they tie yet another flag before barrelling on through tunnels of snow to the next pass. 

The conditions of the road are always brutal, so it is difficult to determine when it is safe to pass. This topic is incessantly debated by travel agencies, locals and travelers at the beginning of June each year. We too joined in on the fuss hoping to get an early start on our own Himalayan adventure. 

At first we heard it wouldn't it open until July and we were beginning to consider back-tracking to Delhi to take the pricey alternative of a flight. Then the road from the East opened, but it requires travel through the politically unstable Kashmir region, where tourist sometimes go missing. When we remembered our goal was to hike in Leh we approached an agency with the intention of making a trek over the fearsome passes. Then, to our surprise we started hearing rumors of non-commercial vehicles making it. Here our most ridiculous idea yet started to unfold. We had a motorcycle company recommended to us that took groups on 7 day journeys to Leh. The road is one of the world's most dangerous, but views are reportedly (and I can now confirm) spectacular! Don't worry Moms, we quickly abandoned this when Jen realized she was terrified of motorcycles. 

Between Manali and Leh there are several Himalyan mountain ranges that along with the mountains of Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet make up the famous and ferociously jagged Himalayas, a relatively young range. In the south they are dramatically painted year round with snow and glacier, but to the north they have a mean rugged dryness that has you imagining them tearing up recently through the Earth's crust. 

It was, finally, in the very first commercial vehicle, at 2 am June 4 that we set out for Leh. Despite the Gravol and altitude sickness pills, I wasn't keeping food down, but the sights were so powerful, strikingly beautiful, that I often forgot my discomfort. At 5 am I arose from a short nights sleep on the Jeep to discover we were driving on the edge of a barrier free road with a drop of more distance than I can estimate. From there we crept along fresh and old snow on a road that was literally carved through a glacier to our first pass with views that go beyond description.

At nine o'clock that evening we made record time arriving exhausted in Leh, where we were hunted by Raj and his brother, touts who later became our friends. They swept us into their guesthouse and invited us to a second story room. I almost cried in resistance to going upstairs, I couldn't see any reason for more elevation gain. 

Friday, June 24

Gnomes

There is tremendous diversity in Indian culture and appearance across this large subcontinent, but the villagers from the northern hills are particularly distinct.

The woman sitting next to me on the bus may not be a woman at all. I think she started out human, but she is at present at least one quarter gnome. Her facial features are big and expressive leaving only a little room on her face for warts to protrude. Her ears are particularly large and I will venture to call them floppy, although it may be the row of brass piercings along the top ridge of her ears which make them fold over. Her teeth, slightly yellow, are surprising still in tact despite her advanced age. When she smiles her teeth come out to stare in an uneven row.

She is dressed as a gnome should with a warm cotton blouse under a wool dress that falls below the knees. Her hair is tied back and covered by a brown scarf. She has some ornate jewelry that appears to be a mismatch of pieces collected over a couple generations. To top off the woodland appearance, she is inexplicably short and carries an expression as though she knows a secret. Perhaps there is magic in the foothills of the Himalayas. 

Thursday, June 23

Chai

Chai, India's beverage of choice, is a milk tea they serve with two spoonfuls of sugar per cup, whether you like it or not. It is made from goat, cow, camel, yak or buffalo milk mixed with a combination of two of more spices. Surprisingly, my best cup to date was served by someone known in Setrawa as the 'angry lady' and consisted of buffalo milk. 

There is a complicated and cozy (gezellig for all you dutchies) culture around chai in India. Any visit to a home, no matter how brief and how hot, includes chai. Any purchase over a couple hundred rupees is followed by chai. Any visitor to our school is served chai (bought at the chai shop and carried over in a plastic bag). And every bus stop, train station, street corner or other place of loitering has chai available from a shop, stand or one man with a big pot.

The real art of street side chai is crafting up a cup or bowl as chai comes in a bag or soft plastic shot glasses, which the steaming hot beverage threatens to melt or at least burn you as you hold it. Traditionally, it is drunken in small mugs, disposable clay cups, or, as in my Indian home, tin bowls (ideal for fast cooling). Jen and I made a 10rs investment (22 cents) on two chai cups. They are metal and have handles which has greatly enhanced our chai drinking experience.

Wednesday, June 22

Anything is Possible

At 2500m elevation there exists a town that services all your Himalayan adventuring needs. We stayed at the  charming Apple View Guesthouse tucked back on a cliff in Old Manali. Our room had two big windows with views of the snow capped mountains and the turquoise alpine river. From the roof we did yoga with a 360• view of the valley that hugged us. We spent our days walking in town, in parks, and up mountains and waterfalls, all the while eating delicious food such as Yak cheese and hot chocolate which was made from a melted pure dark chocolate. The temperature here is pleasantly cooler, but at the cost of rain threatening to sneak attack. 

Twice we encountered unwanted downpours and fully experienced the Indian hospitality expression 'Anything is possible.' We had heard the phrase many times and mostly delighted in using it to order food not on the menu or to get things for the price we want. Back in Rishikesh we met one Indian who was high on the expression and perhaps something else. When we came to his shop he sung this song:

"I am Mr. Fantastic
Bombastic Monastic
Anything is possible
I am Mr. Fantastic"

Sure enough he procured for us two obscure items without hesitation, laundary soap and cold Mars bars.

Back in Manali, the rain attempted to sabotage our waterfall hike. Sure, we were already damp from the mist of the powerful falls, and sure we were both from rainy Vancouver, but India had us accustomed to dry warm weather and we wanted a place to dry off and wait out the rain. To our delight we noticed an inconspicuous shelter at the base of the falls. Covered in a blue tarp was a low stone walled hut selling chai. We sat in the owner's bed at the back of the shelter and snuggled up with two Israeli travelers next to the open fire which was heating our chai. When the rain stopped we continued our walk no worse for wear. 

On another evening in Manali, we invited some friends over to our scenic guesthouse for drinks and snacks on the roof. Once again the weather had other plans and dropped buckets of rain on the possibility of an outdoor party. When our tummies started to grumble late at night we were left to search for food. Wrapping ourselves in all the waterproof material we could find, we braved the elements. Fortunately, we only made it a little ways when Jen suggested that we follow the muffled sound of music. 

The music was coming from a makeshift tent in the corner of an unlit outdoor patio of a hotel. The tables were all leaned against the chairs, a sure sign they were closed, but when we opened the gate we quickly found a staff ready to make us food. There was one dry table under a tarp; however, when we pulled the chairs back we discovered they were wet. The Brazilian, Luis, casually mentioned to our group that it would be fantastic if we could find a cozy warm place with a washroom. Sure enough, when our host reappeared he offered us the presidential suite to keep warm. 

So we shed our shoes and a layer of wet clothes and crawled, all five of us, into the king size bed of the suite. We sat in a circle with the heavy red silk duvet trapping in our communal heat. In hope for a successful meal we all ordered shakshuka and laughed ourselves silly at our riduiculous appearance as we waited for our meal. Delicious tea came, followed by food, with no shortcuts. And so it is, in the middle of the night in pouring rain, in India you can walk into a closed establishment and get top service where anything is possible.  

Tuesday, June 21

Windows

The rattling of the window is persistent and forms two words in repetition 'pick up' as we chug-a-chug along. The window rattles out 'pick-up pick-up pick-up' like somebody is making a phone call and as they listen to the ring tone they will the receiver to answer by whispering under thief breath 'pickuppickuppickup.' Or perhaps the window is crying desperately to alert us of the approaching pick up truck which is going to challenge us for the road which has the width to carry only one. Himalayas here we come.

Sunday, June 19

I am the Egg Man!

Rishikesh is a happening religious place on the Ganges river. Despite the constant bustle about town, it remains a holy place that makes one feel grounded. It has the constant noises of a holy river town: the sound of water rushing and temple bells ringing. Then, because Indians like to visit their spiritual sites en masse, there are the normal Asian sounds of too many people in a space: honking tuktuks, shouting salesmen, and screaming babies. Unique to Rishikesh are the screams from hundreds of white water rafters ripping down the river. 

There is disagreement on wether the rafting is a good use of the holy Ganges River, but the perpetual shouts of delight enticed us enough to venture down the stream. The rapids were not too aggressive, but we had a thrilling time in a raft of ashram folk, shouting mantras as we past our residence, drinking chai at the cliff jumping point, and practicing non-attachment when we lost shoes to the river.

Also in Rishikesh, amongst the piles of ashrams which mechanically process western travelers, there is one special and magical retired ashram. Closed in 1997, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram has gained charm by replacing visitors with tangling forest undergrowth. The former residence of the ashram, including the Beatles, stayed in one of the small one story circular rooms. A spiral staircase in each leads to the roof where an egg shaped meditation chamber can comfortably hold five meditators.

Just before dusk, myself and four of my new friends, set out to photograph the Maharishi remains. We climbed over the high stone wall and dropped into an imaginary world. Inside the abandoned dining hall with graffiti adorned walls we danced our hearts out to 'Come Together' with the sun playing on our faces as it poured in through the mostly shattered window panes. After the ruckus dance party I convinced the party to switch moods for a group meditation.

After a week at Phool Chatti Ashram, a place of letting go, I instructed everyone to take a petal from the yellow five petaled flower growing outside Meditation Hut 1. Holding the petal, we each named something to hold on to. We then sat in a circle in the egg. For one minute we sat in silent meditation followed by meditating to 'Let it Be.' We filled the space with beautiful energy. Racing the setting sun, we set back over the stone wall feeling an incredible appreciation for the magic that created the White Album.

Friday, June 17

Food

As I have travelled, I have made a list of the most delicious and memorable foods and drinks I have tasted. There is an unlimited variety of delicious Indian food that changes from region to region, making each new destination as thrilling for the mouth as for the eyes. Also, there is a tactile pleasure as all Indian food is eaten with one's right hand. The left hand is for other something else.

First up is lassi, essentially a yoghurt drink that is commonly sweetened with sugar and fruit to make sweet lassi or marijuana to make bhang lassi. It is opaque white and made from curd milk. The best lassi is tucked away in Jodhpur and serves women in a separate room. Makhaniya lassi, at 20 rupees a glass is irresistible. It's made of yoghurt, saffron, cardamom, sugar and butter. It's thick enough to need a spoon.

Yoghurt is also abundant and has the double function of calming down spicy food and preventing unpleasant infections with it's natural probiotics (complimenting the anti-malarial antibiotics I am on). Thank you holy cows. 

The Rajasthani staple, which is the region we volunteered in for 2 months, is dhal, subzi and chapatis. Dhal, subzi, and chipatis may be served in small separate dishes, but they are eaten altogether on a thali, a mixed-meal plate. Dhal comes in over sixty varieties and is a thick sauce type dish made of lentils or other pulses. Subzi is just vegetables cooked dry or more commonly in a sauce. Favorites in Setrawa are potatoes, peas, tomatoes, and onions. The chapatis, which I learnt to make from flour and water, accompany most meals. Flour and water are kneaded together with a touch of ghee (clarified butter). Balls of dough of a specific size are torn off, which every Indian women can precisely guess. The balls are then rolled out on round short legged wooden tables. Then, with a bit of ghee they are cooked on skillets over the stove or sometimes without a pan on a fire. This work, when done on a large scale is three person's work, but can also be managed by any Indian women while she prepares the dhal and subzi. 

In case you think it might be dull having chipatis every night, I should alert you of the variety that may be applied by changing the amount of ghee or the thickness. They can also be folded, inflated, deep-fried, or stuffed with spice. They are eaten by tearing into bite size pieces and mixed with the subzi and dhal, and on special occasions sugar. 

In the desert near Jaiselmir our guide produced for us a gourmet meal featuring dense buns which were baked in a hole with dried camel dung coals. It was actually exciting just to have three dimensional bread after weeks of flat chipates, having them cooked between dung and sand just made the experience extra memorable. 

Leaving Rajasthan for the southern state of Kerala, thalis are still abundant, some with chipates, but the most common bread are dosas. Dosas are nearly paper thin and much larger than chipates, often filling more of the thali than is convenient. They come plain or with a variety of fillings. Folded into thirds like a business style letter, the middle may contain mix veg, potatoes, meat, paneer (cottage cheese), spinach and/or masala (spices). 

One of our latest discoveries is momos. These Tibetan treats are roughly the size of golf balls and sold by the plate of ten. They are food wrapped in a thin dough. They can be fried or steamed. The variety is extensive with vegetable and mutton being the most common filling. In Manali we discovered one Tibetan kitchen that serves to-die-for steamed chocolate momos, which are filled with nutella and cookie crumble.

Then, there is the unlimited and incredibly affordable street food at 3 to 20 rupees (5-40 cents). My favorites include traditional samosas, spicy katori, and mystery burgers. Everything is deep fried and full of spice, but it's hard to guess what will be in your samosa, katori (disc shaped breaded item), or burger (small enough to fit on a dinner roll). It's rarely meat and best when it's hot, and the best ones have a combination of potatoes and vegetables. Also off the street and for pennies, you can get fresh popcorn, fresh corn on the cob, mangos, and ice-cream, but often the ice-cream has an awful soapy taste to it. 

And although we do eat mostly Indian food, I must also give some praise to the western catering restaurants we visited. They often put over 90 items on their menus to accommodate everyone's cravings and do it with success. Beer batter fish and chips for the Brits, thin crust pizza for the Italians, shakahuka for the plethora of Israelis, and Turkish coffee for the other Middle Easterners. I have tried them all and was more satisfied than I could imagine being so far from the origin of the foods. India can be chaotic and taxing at times, but India is the world's expert on food. This was clear to me when I saw 14 month old Kushi properly season her chapati with sauce. 

Sunday, June 5

How to become Hippy

Bad news, friends. I may have crossed over the thin line separating concerned students from hippies. Already I am interested in reducing my impact on the planet and spreading love, but ashram life may have pushed me over. We followed a scheduled regiment of deep breathing, mantra chanting, karma yoga (chores), meditative walks, cleansing, and 3 hours of daily yoga beginning at 5:30am. I adopted the vegetarian diet, accepted the value of deep breathing, and did not scoff at aryuvedic alternative medicine, all the while wearing Birkenstocks. 

For years I had been resisting my transformation to hippy. One point of resistance I held was refusing the netty pot, a watering can for your nose. But, one morning I was congested and standing in a garden amongst a field of snot rocketing keeners. Me-too had filled my ashram netty pot with warm salted water. I felt a warm booger drip onto my top lip. I tested a little blow. Wet dribble sputtered out of my nose. Here it goes. I took a squat, tilted my head to the left, put the spout of the netty pot into my right nostril. I took a deep breath through my mouth and, with a push of courage poured the water from the little plot into my head. The wilting little flowers of peace, love, and tree hugging thirstily soaked up the water, cleansing my head of anti-hippy sentiments, but I was not cleanses of mucus. Instead I had the sensation that of being pounded by a wave while surfing. I coughed and spattered water all over leaving the unexpected taste of salt water in my throat. Of course, after a few days I improved and I am now a proud owner and faithful user of a nasal wateringcan. 

Lotus

First the Beatles and then Elizabeh Gilbert (authour of 'Eat Prayer Love') have taken advantage of India's spiritual wealth through the use of an ashram. Now it is our turn. Jen and I decided to trade our backpacks for yoga mats and mantras.

(If you're reading this with the intention of traveling India, write down Phool Chatti Ashram. Set up for beginners, it presents Budhist style meditation and yoga in a comprehensive and approachable way. You likely won't find enlightenment through their week long courses, but there are victories to be had in touching your toes, opening your lungs, and concentrating the mind.)

We arrived after a whirlwind two day train-bus-bus-metro-bus-rickshaw-walk-jeep combo journey and quickly fell under the soothing spell of 'ashram life' and the gentle roar of the Ganges. Meals at the ashram were taken in silence and we came just in time for lunch. Given a plate, spoon, and cup for the week, we were wordlessly directed to join our two dozen fellow victims sitting in rows on the floor of the dimly lit dining hall. Two Indian men, appropriately named Happy and Me-too, continuously circulated the room scooping food on to our plates with only mild consideration to our hand waving objections that were suppose to indicate we were full. Channeling the persistence of the rumbling Ganges, they functioned as classic Indian mothers trying to fatten us up for an unknown purpose.

We were then given a tour and caught our first glance of our instructors. Lalita Gi is a 20 year resident of the ashram and, like all the permanent staff, she never stops smiling. She has a very Indian way of speaking, skipping words and using 'the' in extra places to compensate. She instructed us in tangent with Brandon, a wandering thirty-something year old with a forgotten home in Florida. They are both natural teachers and gracefully cracked open the mysteries of meditation and yoga while we cracked them from their serene way of living.

Aware that we were the last week of the season, our group was determined to be special. Daily silence is suppose to be held from evening until midday the next day, but our collective lively spirit was not always obedient. It didn't help that on our morning silent meditation walks we were once bombarded by a party of nearly naked and very drunk Indian men and another time two thirds of us got completely lost in the countryside. By the end of the week silence was broken regularly enough that Lalita Gi went so far as to say we were 'the sounding like the railway station.' That day, we had a sacred fire at a remote mountain temple, where we obediently recited our mantras hundreds of times in serene monotony. We were model students, until none other than the instructor, Brandon, made a joke of our concentrated monotony by shouting 'Shambo' at unexpected moments. We obviously exploded with laughter and celebrated our interconnectedness by continuing with more lively harmonized chanting.

Despite the interruptions and chatty behavior, the ashram remains a sacred and calming space to be with God and to be with oneself. It's hard to not feel at peace here. The small collection of all white ashram buildings are surrounded by both wild and manicured gardens at the base of the Himalayas. The shady edge of the fruit trees has overgrowing hemp, flowers, herbs, vegetables, and plants for aryuvedic treatments. The crumbling path that cuts through the garden to the roaring Ganges River, where we scampered to for a swim during every break, passes by a blooming lotus pond. Here I saw my first lotus flowers which I was starting to think were mythical. Although, I'm still not convinced that upside down cross-legged meditation position called 'full lotus' is a real possibility for me. I am inspired by the first Swarmi of Phool Chatti, who was buried, not cremated, in a tomb at the ashram temple, to sit eternally in full lotus position. 

The wealth of knowledge at the ashram was appreciated and I learnt a lot, but greater than my new yoga and meditation skills, I am taking away new friends and a wonderful sense of interconnectedness. This may sound obnoxiously flaky, but give me a break I've just spent my week trying things such as loveandkindness meditation and laughter yoga.

Thursday, June 2

Looking is Free

My purchases from India will suffice to remind me of the memories associated with buying them, but I want to share with you the neat and thrilling experience I had acquiring some things.

First, Jen and I bought Indian selwar suits. We were guided to a small shop stuffed with fabric on a side street off the market in Pitampura, Delhi. There, Raju greeted us with colonial British and guided our selections. Our enthusiasm grew as we picked through hundreds of fabrics. A master tailor measured us every which way. Then, in two plastic bags, our selected fabrics disappeared with the tailor and returned that evening in the form of four lovely perfectly fitting Indian suits. Of course we ended up having the ankles let out to accommodate our giant Canadian feet. Raju specially died duppatas to match for us and gifted us each a lovely pashmina. Operation-Become-an-Indian-Prinsess was complete.

Second: Amelia and Jen get (almost) scammed. Our lovely driver to Agra, Raj, tricked us into going to a marble shop. We received a personal demonstration of how semi-precious stones are inlaid into marble the traditional way. The craftsmen were very skillful and claimed to be descendants of the workers of the Taj Mahal. But, although it was an enjoyable and educational opportunity, the pressure to buy their work was enormous and completely inconvienent. We could hardly carry a marble table or even just the table top with us for four months. Fortunately we were able to talk them down to two marble elephants for 500 rupees. We quickly escaped with our trinkets to the car waiting outside.

Third, Jen and Amelia get scammed (and compensated). We're in Jaipur. The pink city that makes you want to embrace princess-hood and shop until you are pretty in pink. We don't want more weight in our packs, but we cave in when an honest man recommends the bengal shop his family uses. Tucked away from the main drag of humming shopkeepers, we attempt to get some wholesale priced bangles. Sitting on the floor in the back of a three roomed shop filled wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling with bangles, the shopkeeper and his assistant forcefully spin bangle after bangle over our sheared hands. When we finally choose our favorites there is a modest mountain of jewelry piled between us. Excited about our selection and eager to get back to exploring in the warm sun, we mistakenly agree on an outrageous price. We share tea with the sellers and leave feeling warmed by their generosity. As the day goes on I feel increasingly like a victim of a scam. It comes as huge relief to me, when upon exiting the sun soaked mountainous Amber Palace, the bangle shop owner is waiting for us. He hurriedly and quietly explained a complex situation where he feels awful that he had been pressured into scamming us. He insists on sending us back to the shop (and meeting his family, which we politely declined) where we are to ask for justice. We obediently comply and Jen recites a few lines that he prepared for us. We leave two sets of bangles and 400 rupees richer, and hopefully a little wiser.

Tuesday, May 31

Mystery Solved

There is an incredible amount of garbage on all the streets and alleys of India, but the real mystery is why is there not more? Without dumpsters, or regular trash can distribution, I've learnt to go 'Full Indian' and drop my garbage as I walk or throw it out windows of buses and trains. I've heard that on long trains, children will make a game of it and compete to throw the trash as far as they can, picking up whatever they can find that there mother deems is trash. She may even dig through her purse to contribute to the collection of trackside and roadside litter.

After 3 months traveling India, I have solved where the trash goes in order to prevent astronomical accumulation that would quickly fill the entire country.

In our village, Setrawa, the food is made from raw ingredients and goats eat the humanly inedible portions, but some garbage was produced (namely my 20-20 biscuit wrappers). For the longest time I was searching for a garbage pick up service, formal or informal, but then one smoky day I discovered that a fire was burning a secret garbage pile outside the empowerment centre which, by the effort of the children under Mool Singh's instruction, had collected all our dead felt pens and packaging for weeks. 

In Mumbai, and I imagine it's the same for other cities, it is a much more elaborate process, beginning with 'rag pickers.' They are doubled-over women and children with large sacks, who salvage plastic garbage from the streets and sell it per kilo to recycling stations in the slums. There, an orderly process of sorting and grinding takes place, followed by washing, drying, and melting. The final products are enormous bags of small plastic pellets that get sold to manufacturing companies for a profit. There is also a selection of garbage that gets reused. One, which constantly troubles travelers is water bottles. 

Jen and I have so far avoided contamination from bad water, but on more than one occasion we falsely suspected the vendors of reconstituting bottles, all because Indian water companies are generous. When we bought our first water bottles, we thought they were too full. We were accustomed to having our bottles 95% full as is standard back home. It is, of course, the Indian way to give an extra 50mL with each bottle and it unfortunately often the way of the traveler to be skeptical of genuine generosity.

Saturday, May 28

Background....

I am sitting in Leopold's Cafe on the main drag in Bombay. There is a constant flurry of shoppers, local and foreign, swooping past with curious glances shot into this famous bar. Jen and I have saddled in with some refreshing drinks, iced tea and lassi respectively, after three whirlwind days of adventure. I will be selective in retelling them or you would need to join us for our two day Golden Temple train ride to Hardiwar to read it all. We're skipping north to cool off and dodge the monsoons.

On our last day in Hampi we rented a motorbike from a convincing nine year old salesmen and took turns driving it around the nearby tourist-free villages. We were on a hunt for the Monkey Temple, a mountaintop temple to the monkey god, Hanuman. On our search we stumbled upon an inconspicuous sign denoting cave paintings. Turning up dust I swerved the bike down a sandy lane past fields of rice and sugarcane. We continued for a while, but with no follow up sign for the cave paintings we spun around to continue our hunt for the Monkey Temple. That's when a picturesque harvester from the fields gestured for us to pull over and he quietly but confidently breathed "Cave paintings?"

The barefooted, lungi wearing, old man left his pitchfork carrying friends and indicated we should follow him through the field, along a deteriorating path, through a gate, over a rocky ridge, along a surprisingly arid space to a rock formation. There, beside a sizable crevice between the ground and the base of a large boulder, he invited us to sit on the cool rocks which were oblivious to the 40*C + sun that was scorching down. Instead cool air glided up from the crevice past our sweaty faces and through our damp hair. That is where we saw our first ancient cave paintings of men, livestock, and a ferocious cobra eternally brushed onto the underside of the boulder. 

Racing the bike along to create a cooling breeze, we quickly found the Monkey Temple complete with real monkeys creeping the 600 steps which wrap up the mountainside to the towering temple. Leaving our shoes with a baba, we had to skip like frogs across the blistering ground, but our damaged feet and show of respect to Hanuman were rewarded with blessed candies from the priest. On our way back down, dropping alms into the appropriate hands, we parted with a handful of rupees for a refreshing cocunut. A boy, months older than the bike salesman, with expert skill sliced us a coconut into a cup with straws dipping into its milk. When we finished the electrolyte replenishing beverage, he deftly sliced the nut further into two spoons and two halves of solid coconut ready for us to scoop out. 

We made other stops to another temple and a quaint chai stand, but it was the plunge into the reservoir for a refreshing swim which put the cherry on top of our last day in Hampi. Or maybe the Italian style thin crust pizza, which we devoured, was the cherry?

Little did we know, as we reluctantly pushed ourselves onto a bus out of paradise, that more fun and adventure awaited us in Bombay.

Dancers...

Bombay has Asia's busiest train station with 2.5 million visitors a day and 1800-person capacity trains carrying 7000 people at rush hour. But the gothic buttressed station with it's impressive towering colonial grandeur is by far not the only thing world class in Bombay. The street food is to die for, with everything from fresh fruits and vegetables carved into appetizing slices to grilled sandwiches and omelets to deep fried everything. 

Our visit to Bombay has centered around chasing down and stumbling on delicious eats, but all the while exploring street after street of clever Indians making a living selling libraries of books under tarps, rejuvenating leather shoes on the curb, vending out chai, or washing clothes at the enormous 140 year old dhobi ghat or giant human washing machine.

To dodge the heat, I paid a visit to the rich Prince of Wales Museum. I lost myself in the miniature Indian paintings that transitioned from painting on leaves to ornate scrolls of intricate depictions of gods. The highlight of the museum was the New York style natural history wing which featured a host of stuffed endangered and extinct animals labelled with amusingly outdated descriptions from the '60s. The white tiger, forever staring across the hall at a prized deer, was particularly magnificent.

Also on our walks of Bombay we saw India Gate, the Taj Hotel, the High Court, and a host of other historic buildings, most still serving their original purpose.  The most interesting was St. Thomas' 1672 Cathedral which houses the graves of colonialists. The epitaphs were stunning and decorated with white marble sculptures. Many included animated character descriptions of the deceased with flourish words that hint at hidden flaws, suggesting that these men who came alone and suffered premature malarial deaths had their epitaphs written by the very same opportunistic folks receiving a promotion as consequence of the death.

We finished with a successful hunt for bhelpuri at the carnival-like Chowpatty Beach. While munching down on crisp fried thin rounds of dough mixed with puffed rice, lentils, lemon juice, onions, herbs, and chutney, we enjoyed making a Taj Mahal sand castle amongst the thousands of holiday makers strewn across the urban beach with it's toxic water lapping up against the ankles of a few brave naked toddlers. 

Action!

I have brushed shoulders with one of Bollywood's brightest stars, Akshake Kumar. While looking to register for a slum tour, the blatant economic disparity of Bombay hit us as Jen and I were approached by an extras recruit. We signed up for a day of work on the set of Dezi Boyz, the next big Bollywood production, seduced by the promise of an AC set, free food, costumes, hair, make up, and 500rs pay. Nearly simultaneously we followed through with signing up for a tour of Dharavi, Bombay's largest slum.

Bombay has many densely inhabited slums that house an astounding 60% of its residents in the shadows of skyscrapers. These crowded communities are occasionally legal, entirely self-sufficient and highly productive. Between the houses which are piled on and beside each other at the same time, there are schools, temples, hospitals, and most importantly hard workers plowing away at cottage industry craftsmanship, factory level production, or work of another variety.

The film industry appeals to me as much as life in a slum, but I couldn't resist making my debut in Bollywood. Along with 20 other recruited travelers and ex pats, we gave atmosphere to Conexion Latino, a fictional underground salsa club in London, where contracted dancers and the lead actors performed for the camera. Despite the monotony of our role, holding fake booze and chatting, at times it was thrilling. 

The handsome male lead, Akshake, played the diva role between cuts, abusing his support staff and alternately insulting and seducing the female lead. When the shout to start filming, "Background, Dancers, Action!" was cried from an unseen face behind a camera, a blaze of energy would sweep through as we all hoped to be captured on film, even if for a second. The camera, lights, and screens zoomed around for actions scenes, dodging the thespians and sound guys. Crew with small water bottles and chai (of course) danced around the pushy choreographers who constantly rearranged us between shootings. 

By the end of the long day, our dreams of stardom were replaced with desires for real drinks in a real bar with chairs to sit on. And that is exactly where we found ourselves spending our day's pay away until curfew. At midnight we had to race back to our grungy dorms at the Salvation Army, kitty corner to the Taj Hotel, the fanciest imperial joint in town.

Sunday, May 22

Hampi

When I arrived here, I was immediately struck with a fear that I was going to be stuck. It's not only that it is very difficult getting buses and trains to and from here, or that the river boat is unreliable, but also there is an intense lethargy about the place that thrusts itself on its visitors. 

From our thatched roofed lodge sporting hammocks and mosquito nets, below I can see the romantic river of my childhood dreams. Indians come in small groups all day long to bathe and wash their saris which they display on the river steps while the sun soaks them dry. The children jump in and out and call to us to play with them while a row of naked babies squat on their haunches waiting to be dipped in by their bathing mothers. Boys on the precarious line of manhood show off their strokes to whoever will spare them a glance. A handful of travellers find rest gazing from the shade of the ruins or bathing on the rounded boulders. Behind the reeds, a couple is half immersed in the current as they pan for gold like traditional prospectors. The charm of the river and an explosion of my childhood fantasies came together as a bathing elephant distinguishes itself from the smooth boulders scattered in the slow current. 

In case the magical river ghat is not enough to lure you, this all takes place with beautiful scenery and a world heritage site as the backdrop. One side of the gentle valley is lined with the now expected mango, jackfruit, and palm trees, but peaking out behind these are ancient towering temples, worshipped by pensive monkeys that siege my imagination with Jungle Book adventures. On the opposite side is a remarkable rock formation that has it own set of sedated devotees, western pot smoking climbers and rumoured babbas also smoking the ganja in secret caves. I am not surprised that travelers lose themselves here for weeks and occasionally months. Not even the heat which makes is severe enough to create this 'off season' is going to push these lounging travelers onward. In fact, the heat provides them with an excuse for lengthy midday hammock rides which fuel their desire to stay. Hampi, you fly trap, will I be your next catch?

Saturday, May 21

Thrissur Poornam Elephant Festival

We arrived in Thrissur early to watch the jubilant minor elephant processions, but when we made for an early leave a very large crowd was forming and we couldn't justify missing the spectacle for which thousands were coming. We thought we'd take a seat on the curb and watch from the distance. We couldn't have been more wrong. A well intended police officer told us, "There's a place for you people." Then seeing my amusement at the term 'you people,' he meaningfully looked to his partner for the politically correct term. 'Tourist' was supplied. Anyways, we were directed to the only seats at the event, which were set on a red carpeted pavilion protected by guards right at the entrance to the temple, centre stage.

In reality the VIP box was mostly made of sweaty, poorly dressed white young tourists, but it also contained an impressive collection of what I can only assume is India's upper crust. We sat next to an elegant woman accompanied by three girlfriends. She was a devotee returning every year and was able to explain the events as they unfolded, namely 15 elephants walk down from the temple, 15 more follow, then they switch umbrellas, not with eachother but with a highly organized army of volunteers, in honor of the blue god, Krishna.

An hour later when the first decorated elephant came through the temple door there were easily a million people gathered. A path just wide enough for 15 elephants abreast was being held off by a thick rope supported a line of hand holding policemen dressed in adorable safari getups. They held there line well until the first set of elephants made their procession, but it was with a tumultuous riot-like atmosphere that the young men held back by the ropes gained ground, kicking up dust and cheering as the police retreated to protect only the ground immediately surrounding the elephants and our seats, of course.

Eventually 101 elephants and riders toss around brilliant ornamental umbrellas changing colours in a coordinated and seemingly arbitrary order to the sound of beating drums and traditional horns. Applause followed each exchange with extraordinary energy and the elephants remained cooperative with dancers on their backs, umbrellas on their heads, and photographers in their face. The colours of the
changing umbrellas, temple flowers, golden elephant masks, and Krishna statues were a feast for our point and shoot cam.

Friday, May 20

Arabian Paradise

This entry is dedicated to my exboyfriend Jeremy, who stole a piece of my heart when he wooed me by singing a song from Disney's Aladdin. I wish you were here for some Arabian nights.

Finished with our volunteer segment, Jen and I decided to put some distance between us and the desert. Our journey to the south went surprisingly smooth, despite some unexpected events. Firstly, we flew between two international airports the morning after Osama was killed nearby and dropped into the Arabian Sea. Secondly, there was a pilots strike in India. Lastly, the airline we flew with stopped providing service to our destination. Somehow we didn't even notice the extra security or the strike. Our only hurdle was when we arrived in Mumbai we were surprised we had no flight to connect us to the South. The over qualified attendant at the counter solved our problem with first class seats through another airline and a valet to escort us there. Free of extra charge, we indulged in unlimited leg room, tiramasu, and a stack of Indian newspapers on Osama (and all the other terrorists Pakistan MUST be harboring). 

We're now sampling the tropics of Kerala and it couldn't be more different from the desert of Rajasthan. There is a caribbean feel to the single story shops strung with fruit that only gently press against the streets. The men are dressed in lungis, fabric tied around the waste, and they often walk about topless, giving the impression thy just came off the beach. Everyone is a shade darker and the women sport black umbrellas in an attempt to reverse this process. 

We begun in the beach town of Varkala, which is unbelievably tropical and has forced us into its ambling pace. A red clay road, winding through the palm tree jungle, brought us to the bamboo bungalows that make up the Ayurvedic retreat where we stayed. Past the hammocks strung between coconut heavy trees, is a sharp cliff separating us from the azure waves of the Arabian sea. I could gush about the soft sand, strong waves, warm weather and more, but if you're reading this you're probably at your computer screen powerless in mobilizing yourself to any beach in India. What I will share with you instead, is the Indian charm that shined through the tourist production of Varkala.

The main beach has two parking lots, unofficially one for Indians and one for Westerners. Both have the same explosion of tourists, but the Westerners are dressed to leave no tan lines in bikinis and nut-huggers, while the Indians are dressed for a family portrait in their Sunday best. In fact, once they've done the clown car trick and unloaded their fifteen closest cousins and aunts from a rickshaw-for-two, many of them start with a family photograph contrasting their matching saris against the backdrop of the ocean.

The fun begins when they remain in full Indian dress for their first interaction with the ocean. They dip their toes in and race the waves back like toddlers, until eventually they are lured or dragged out past their knees. They scream and delight in the waves that crash against them, but the lifeguards and me are relieved when they don't venture further. Saris and waves are not ideal for learning to swim.

It's summer vacation across India now so the beach hosted many families, but also children, presumably from summer camps, under the guidance of catholic nuns. These children made aware to me the contrast between Rajasthan and Kerala. Keralans speak Malayan instead of Hindi and their communist state has created 100% literacy, so they also have remarkable English skills. And, here Hinduism is closer to being a minor religion that the dominant. Plus, the women dress in shades that aren't as offensively bright as the north, but compensate with painting their homes toxic colors. In place of the usual litter mountains, stray dogs, and pushy peddlers there are bananas. Anyone who has lived with me knows I eat a lot of bananas, but I am no where near as creative as the banana connoisseurs of Kerala. They make banana chips, fried bananas, deep fried bananas and banana currie from bananas that vary in colour and size, growing in scenic plantations and in the lush tangle of jungle.

It was deep in the jungle one night that I ate the most delicious dinner. It was prepared and served by one woman, Mama. By flashlight, Jen and I were led by three experienced travelers along a long winding unmarked path under the jungle canopy. We stopped at a picnic table laid out with banana leaves for plates, and literally over 12 dishes just for the five us. Many hours later when we were more full than I thought possible, we fed our leaves and left overs to the cow and painfully dragged our heavy bodies home.

After some fantastic beaching (and digesting), we peeled ourselves off our sandy towels to see the land from the sea. We dropped some big money (4500rs) for a night on the jungle back waters of Koolam. Our private house boat was fashioned in the style of a traditional rice barge. Sewn together with coconut rope and thread, it surprised us with luxury including a personal chef and driver.

The boat roamed along towards the thick of the backwaters until it became too narrow. Here we jumped ship to a canoe. Our delightful gondolier style driver sang as he paddled us through a couple backwater villages and highlighted the many sights such as the fish farms, women making coconut oil, and men traditionally sewing together future houseboats. Returning to our houseboat at magic hour we devoured chai and fried bananas before jumping into the surprisingly hot water for a sunset swim. The magic didn't end as dinner was followed by fabulous star gazing where fireflies and shooting stars mimicked each other. In the distance an energetic religious festival played haunting music that soaked the atmosphere in jungle mystery.

Back on shore in Kollam, we literally stumbled into the most intriguing market. Turning at the red bananas we followed a man carrying two handfuls of upside down chickens. Stopping at the chicken stall briefly, we past through to rows of fish stalls, then taking a winding corner we were voraciously coaxed into to an open air meat factory. A man whipping flesh off of a fresh cow insisted on shaking our hands. After that we skipped over the goats for the more pleasant hodge podge of nuts and spices. Exiting through a tunnel, the final odor was pineapple as hundreds were neatly stacked a meter high along the wall of the exiting tunnel.

From there we bussed up to Kumily, a cool hill station, to bike through tea plantations and take a guided hike through the tiger and elephant infested jungle park of Periyar. On the return journey we twirled and shook down the 6 hour winding road through the most captivating geography. As the jungle twisted with spice and tea fields, the lush vegetation made tunnels over the road with frequent breaks so we could see the dramatic mountains and contrasting river valleys. We eventually arrived in colonial Fort Chochi where we stayed long enough to sneak into a gated Dutch cemetery, visit an Indian Jew town, and detour to the largest temple festival of India, the Thrissur elephant procession.

Wednesday, May 18

Kerries

Kerry, the brilliant young volunteer from South Africa, seems to have unlimited gifts, most notably her generous hospitality. It was her, who on our arrival at Sambhali Trust, gave us a warm welcome and valuable insights. She has repeatedly provided me and Jen and all of Setrawa with exactly what we want, delivered to the small village with a smile (namely chocolate and cake).  As I struggle to package my last two months, she gave me a final gift: a gem of knowledge, to go with the 8 rings and other jewelry I was gifted on my departure. She shared with me that in sanscript, colour and passion are the same word.

Kerry is a charming teenage girl with a mature presence and a radiating beauty that draws people to her. She is bursting with passion; I have a theory that her visible beauty comes from her passion sneaking out of invisible holes with intensity. Her name, in Hindi, means unripe mango. This is exceeding suitable as her passion is a match for the brilliant green colour of the unripe mangoes sold on the street. Of course there is also the glorious promise that she will ripen into something wonderfully sweet. She could not have been more suitable for acting as our tie from the rural village to the headquarters. 

Dear reader, we have transitioned and the colours of India have inspired passion in me.

I am coasting along a shaky train out of Jodhpur with a warm heart. The children of Sambhali followed us all the way from the school to the bus stop. We had treated them all to a parting gift of freezies, but I have a hunch that their affection for us goes deeper as we have shared more than just snacks. I am full of children's laughter from my memories of chasing peacocks and bakaris (goats) out of our lessons. I am also full of respect for the courage I have seen in the girls; they are standing up for themselves to their teachers and parents. They have insisted on equality and the right to learn. Although not an excessively oppressive society, options are limited and education is a privilege. The older girls are heavily burdened with chores and younger siblings; while the boys are more free, they struggle without guidance. Sambhali is magical because it transforms to be whatever it's participants need.

It was the bus stop rats that drew out my tears as we pulled away. Boys who spend their days peddling to the faceless hands that reach out of buses, these have been our most recent recruits to Sambhali. When I told them to watch out for the younger boys, they beamed big grins as it occurred to them that they are role models. It comforts me greatly to see their self appreciation exploding at the fragile age of 12 (although they consistently claim they are 9 to me, so that Sambhali can accept them).

The work of Sambhali touches many lives in many ways. Just the presence of an empowerment centre and foreign volunteers teaches locals to value themselves more. They are learning what they deserve and I have see that some of the Sambhali children and Sheerni women are going to claim better lives for themselves.

Tuesday, May 17

Five Feathers

I have wandered onto the roof of my home to escape the heat while I wait for my supper. The sun is slipping away in the distance where it will burry itself in the warm sand of the horizon's dunes. Through the large opening in the roof the smell of fresh garlic, spices, and chai waft towards me along with the sounds of my sisters entertaining the baby. Wrapped in a brilliant red sari are a thousand small hand-picked green berries laying on the ground next to where I sit. They, in fact, now only hint at their green colour as they have been sweating in the heat of the desert sun for weeks. Each day they are lovingly attended to and inspected by mum as an intermission to her daily pujas or prayers. Also on the roof is a shine to our family god and a clear space where I will lay out the blankets for sleeping.

I am not watching the berries or the shrine, though. There is small army of disappointingly unattractive but strong young men next door. They are moving enormous slabs of sandstone for the addition of my neighbors' now two-room home. They are hiding their pain well or maybe practice has taken away the pain. They suspend from two yolks, two men to a yolk, one unimaginably heavy sandstone plank. The four carry it into the home and by some unseen miracle elevate it to the roof where it is received and flipped into place by more burly men. The heat of the day has now passed, but there hasn't been the usual breeze to blow things along. Their sweat hangs in the air.

In a couple days, when the breeze is back, I will be swept from Setrawa to pursue travels in other less remote corners of India. But I leave behind, in the heavy air, some of myself. My sweat. The warmth of my soul has nurtured my students for two brief months. Some children, I have only led in song and writing, but others I have loved with great intensity.

First there is Jabra Ram, the motherless Dhalit boy I took to the 'hospital' for a gruesome and neglected skin infection. I followed up with meeting him thrice daily to grind his medicine with cookies (20-20 biscuits, of which I graciously offered to eat the remainder of). He was more surprised then me when he realized he didn't know how to swallow pills. 

My favorite Dhalit boy, Abhishake, dances and dresses like he's starring in 'The Wonder Years' in an 80's navy sweat suit with neon script. He's had no formal education but thrives at Sambhali since he's determined to get into our advance class. However, he's a brat and only listens to Mool Singh.

One day when 'Sir' was unavailable I took him unwillingly out of class. I can't imagine what punishment he expected but I figured his visible fear was sufficient. So I simply left him with my very confused host mother, who happened to be present for the Sheerni Microfinance Group meeting. They both stared at me confused and with no Malwari words to explain, I silently returned to teach my other needy 15 students. 

Then there is the smallest girl in my afterschool class. I patiently waited for her to pull out of a clueless stupor every time I called on her. Given enough time she always uncovers the correct answer in the depths of her manicured bob. She has risen to be first not only in my class, but also at her co-ed school. 

Then there is my favourite two students, keen and helpful Gunjan and Puja. Their advance English has rescued me many times in class as they interpret my words for the rest. I can't measure any progress with them but when I announced to my class I was leaving on Saturday I was looking at them and they together looked at me, as though to say they were grieving that our trio will go down to two.

These five students only represent a sample of my relationships built in Setrawa. It saddens me to reflect on these people which will all be plucked from my life as the feathers of a peacock are the casualties of successful copulation. When I dip into the cool ocean next week, I will wash away my connections to Setrawa, but hopefully I will grow new feathers from the affection and wisdom these relationships have inseminated in me.

Monday, May 16

Nuns, Scorpions and Tupperware

Approaching our final days in Setrawa, Jen and I ventured out to the surrounding areas on our run-until-the-heat-makes-us-walk time in the morning. We have discovered manicured fields almost void of crops and cool orchards hiding in the shade of dunes. We spotted a herd of deer, piles of peacocks, and one morning nomadic Jain nuns: six woman clad head-cover to bare feet in loose white fabric. Coming off a sand path from nowhere, each carried a small white broom and a large tin pot, also wrapped in white cloth. They were accompanied by two female youths in pastel selwar suits. The entire company were wearing medical masks giving the impression that they were sedately escaping a tuberculosis epidemic.

Their soothing presence turned me inside out in introspection for the rest of the morning. But events of the day spun me around and I was turned right side out. First, I witnessed the most exciting variation on a Tupperware party. Brought by a door-to-door pedler, unwrapped from an enormous bundle, were over 50 brilliant saris piled in two towers on the floor of my home. The poor peddler was surrounded by Setrawa's most aggressive women, one of which, my mum, chased another around the room in pursuit of the best sari. My eye is not distinguished enough to determine what sets one sari apart, but it had the women screaming. After that excitement I had to remove the infected fingernail of Rakhi, my 13 year old sister and later carry Sonu, my 10 year old sister, to the hospital. 

A short walk from our house is a roadside hospital. The building is modest but surrounded by lush plants and large enough for several simultaneous operations. However, like all of Setrawa, it was void of furniture and looked functionless with rows of doors locked up. We cut through the eerily empty unlit halls to a small house on the other side. There were several women, each bundled up with their respective small child, already waiting in the shade of a tree. 

Sonu had stepped on a large scorpion, so we were instructed to skip the queue, but then told to wait under a different tree, and finally to wait under the first tree with the maternal packages. The doctor was unavailable until afterlunch break. Meanwhile a middle aged man, using just his hands, moved the energy around Sonus foot by vigorously rushing his hand in the air above her injury. He finished by dropping her foot with a gentle thud to the sandy ground. I don't know what school of teaching this is, but I'm a convert, because the screaming Sonu was more soothed than when the doctor eventually swelled her foot with xylocane injections and an anti venom. All this cost 30 rupees (less than a Canadian dollar).

Each day here holds many unexpected and raw human experiences which I am grateful to sample. I have moved my whole self into a village family and truly existed here. I have attached myself to these people. Now, I leave behind nuns, scorpions, and violent sari shoppers. My prayers and my love will stay with the boxes of sweets and photos I gave, and I hope that as my memories fade with the photos, I retain the gift of a new perspective.

Saturday, May 14

Teachers are Beautiful

I teach English to 18 girls and 2 boys under eleven. It is awesome to watch my plans hatch and grow as I instruct my receptive pupils in various adventures. I spend an hour or so everyday brainstorming how to fill their heads with English using only my small Hindi vernacular to assist me. I dramatize my stories and mime most of our vocab words, but for 'beautiful' all I need say is the name of the Hindi teacher, Usha. I was particularly amused when one child incorrectly labelled the illustration of teacher as 'beautiful' on a classroom objects test weeks later.

From Jen's class I heard another charming story. Jen and I have both been struggling to have our names pronounced correctly. She has mostly corrected locals from calling her John, but when one day she used herself as an example in a lesson, there was ferocious objection to her spelling. 'Jen' suffers from being very similar go the common last name and caste, 'Jain.' Her students were adamant that she'd spelt her own 3 (or 4) letter name wrong. After previously defending the incorrect spelling of 'tomorrow,' she had lost her spelling cred and was nearly forced to submit to this new identity. Fortunately there is one goat in town that has eerily perfected the pronunciation of Jen. The goat often tricks her into thinking someone is calling her when it  repeatedly bleats 'Jen.'    

On Saturdays all the girls come together and we teach them a special interest topic. With the diversity of English abilities, I find these the most intimidating to plan; however they have also been the most rewarding. We've learnt about phalanges and resuscitation through colorful life size tracing of our body systems and treating imaginary injuries. We've travelled through the western calendar year to celebrate Christmas, have it stolen by the Grinch, only for the Easter Bunny to return the gifts after trick-or-treating and carving a desert melon. 

The best was the magical Sambhali Trust Talent Show that we hosted in an long room above the school. Enormous windows without glass invited sunshine into the space which we had draped in blankets and old saris. The children of all castes came together to show off traditional twirling Rajasthani dancing, recitation of Hindi poems, yoga-style push ups, and clapping the English preposition song I had made up. The highlight was a 5 year old boy, Moolchandra, leading everyone in a repeat-after-me English rendition of the 'P for peacock' alphabet; belted out from on top of the table-made-stage we placed him on.

Wednesday, May 11

Sweet Duppatas

In Setrawa almost everything we eat enters our home as a whole ingredient. Our flour comes as grains that we mill down and sift. Our rice needs to be picked through and is never washed. The vegetables all come with stems still on and the spices are made from the plants they grow on. Processing the food eats up most of our recreational time, but is typically a therapeutically methodical and social activity. 

Today, on our way home from Sambhali, Usha, Jen and I were stopped by Usha's brother holding something peculiar. In his hand was a pot of warm honey with the comb still attached. I was thrilled after sampling and he generously offered a demonstration. 

On recommendation I protectively wrapped the bare skin of my face and arms with my duppata (the semi transparent scarf that matches my selwar suit). The teenage boys were making smoking torches out of old straw brooms. They used these to smoke out the bees which had settled in the heap of materials being used in a construction project. They then uncovered and picked up an entire brick which was half covered in a honey comb.

A piece of the honey comb was instantly torn off and fed to me before I could ensure the bees had left it. Thankfully the busy bees were effectively disinterested and ignored our ravaging of their hard work. After the best of the comb was salvaged, the children scrounged off every bit of honey with their fingers. 

Meanwhile one boy wrapped the honeycomb in a pink dupatta and essentially wrung it out like a wet towel, spinning it tighter to force the honey out of the comb, through the fabric of the dupatta, and dripping into the pot below. Everyone from Baby Kuishy to her dadi (grandmother) enjoyed touching sticky surfaces and licking their fingers clean. I have never tasted such delicious honey. Maybe it was that it was still warm from the heat of the bees' efforts or the communal experience. Maybe it was actually sweeter or I have gone too long without honey. Or, just maybe, it was especially delicious because it was dripping from a brilliant pink duppata. 

In Hindi, pink is gulabi. I have no trouble remembering this word as it takes on the feeling of an onomonpoeia with the bubble gum colored saris that fill buses and shops all over Rajasthan and now with the gooey drips of decadent honey gliding along the edges of sweet pink dupatta.

Desert Oasis

We escaped for a weekend deep into the desert to visit the ancient sand castle city, Jaiselmir. Waking up early, we were privileged with seeing the golden glow of the sand stone carved fort before the heat and Indian men made it uncomfortable. Accustomed to the peace of Setrawa we were apprehensive to the people biding for our money and attention, even those with the best intentions. I curtly said, "No thanks" to one peddler suggesting we buy his water. However, he ended up winning us over when he pointed out that the bottle I was carrying was empty. A classic case of Indian hospitality, making the offer before the need is realized.

Checking our hostility we decided to venture out of the city to a hotel palace, but not until after indulging in chocolate banana and pineapple crêpes in the fort. In the palace, Jen and I further indulged by donning bikinis and delighting in the luxuries of their spectacular swimming pool. It was liberating, as swimming always is, to immerse myself into a medium I can over power with crisp strokes, and furthermore to enjoy the radiating sun against my shoulders and legs that have sensibly been hidden for weeks. 

Our quick dip was followed by a bus ride out of sensational Jaiselmir to tiny quaint Khuri. From Khuri we arranged a camel safari into the picturesque dunes. The adventure included a cliché turbaned guide, sleeping under the stars, a meal cooked on burning camel dung and of course two well packed camels that bounced us into the sunset. 

The wind swept around us as we trotted through the sand. My stead was Kamila; she was connected by a rope to Lal, which carried Jen and Guide Durger. We stopped once in a hamlet for drinks, specifically: water to refresh the camels, chai to refresh us, and wine to refresh with later. Our guide selected a particularly handsome dune for our camp, next to a large lush shrub. He also prepared a great meal that left me warm and heavy all night. Laying on the sand, we passed out under the influence of the sugar cane wine, which had fermented in a hole not far away.

Fully satisfied, Jen topped the weekend off by sharing a coveted chocolate bar with me on the return bus ride. 

Sunday, May 8

Nature

Nature is the topic for the upcoming art competition we are putting on for the community. Setrawa has a host of wild animals I feel are worthy of inclusion on this topic. Most majestic is the peacock that cries like cats in heat. Then there are the stray billies or cats. There are several angry packs of dogs that sometimes fight to the death during the night. On Sunday I saw three wild camels going for a gallop. Domestic, but wild, are the cows that have free range of the streets and goats that have free range of the streets and homes. I have also encountered a stampede of two donkeys charging past me on a narrow street.

There are rodents and rodent sized animals. Such as chipmunks, rats, mice, lizards, scorpions and song birds. I have seen them all in my house and even found a scorpion in my bed one morning. Going smaller are the porcupines, giant spiders and giant bees. There are scarab beetles, flies, mosquitoes, ants and finally lice. In fact, it was when I was sitting on the floor in a brightly colored sari soaked meeting that it was uncovered by one of the Sambhali microfinance woman in attendance that I have lice. I was swept with shame and then helplessness. I put my head in the lap of one woman with a plea in my eyes and she generously removed the inhabitants of my head. The meeting continued around us.

Thursday, May 5

Boys

For those of you hoping I will include a romance in this blog, this title will be disappointing. I assure you that the only romance I am having is with India.

After adorable threats from small boys declaring to shut down Sambhali School, we decided to gradually let boys join. Yesterday was our first recruit for boys from the untouchable class. We went to the outskirts of town where the untouchables live and told the first boy brave enough to listen that we wanted students. He bolted full speed to gather all the boys he could find. When they returned we sent them all for more. They went with such speed that the ones with sandals ran right out of their flip flops. 

We gathered them under a tree and explained our business. One boy had a small girl attached to his arm who was quietly weeping. After a while I asked Usha why she was crying. Apparently she was terrified of us white girls.

We carefully lead the boys, aged 5 to 9, to the Sambhali school. They clung to each other and were very skittish. A couple made a run for it before we arrived making me feel a little like I was guarding a chain gang. When we got to Sambhali we had the pleasure of introducing them to shampoo. We took their tops off and gave them a much needed scrub down. Even the cleanest came out a shade lighter after the desert was washed off of him.

Reminding me of pre-K day, we showed them around and let them explore. They were quite overwhelmed and stuck to together. We drew pictures for nearly an hour and then sent them home with candies. 

It worked. The next day 13 students returned. After daily grooming (bucket showering, shampooing, lice picking, combing little man hairstyles, and teeth brushing) we wrote out their names for them to copy. For some of them it was their first time reading their name in Hindi and for all of them it was their first time writing the English spelling of their name. They played with the English and Hindi word on their page, tracing it and copying it. I also learnt to spell my name with the beautiful phonetic Hindi characters. We finished with a game and sent them home smiling, already a little more empowered.

Monday, May 2

Amelia 'Khatri' Stegeman

I hope you don't find my blogging of religious ceremonies too tedious. To be honest, I am relieved when a day doesn't hold a new unusual tradition. Today I was far from relieved. For Brahmins it was a day of fasting. This meant the Hindi teachers at Sambhali were both a little cranky and we finished school early (or rather we finished at the scheduled end time for the first time).

At home I was faced with a confusing message of which all I understood was 'no eating.' I heard 'market' mentioned a few times, so I asked in mime if I should buy my dinner at market. This caused profuse objection and I was assured that Rakhi, Soonu, Durga, Revi, Mooti, Jusraj, etc. (everyone) would go together. So for an hour I waited outside with the others for an invisible signal that only I didn't notice to indicate it was time to go. 

It was very dark and exceptionally cold when we set off and we didn't stop at the market. We kicked our shoes off in front of a strange house a little ways down and wandered through a series of dimly lit abandoned rooms that tunneled us through to the back yard. Here the dark mystery of the night was drawn away as our barefeet hit a soft red movie-premiere carpet leading to a warmly lit outdoor space where dozens were eating under sparkling lights on the indoor-outdoor turf that had been laid out for that purpose. 

I joined four of my relations in sitting in a circle around a thali (large plate). Teenage boys waited on us serving delicious subzi, chips, dhal, chipatis and sweets with amusingly repetitive English. The food was wonderfully satisfying and the atmosphere was warm and exciting, but I still had no idea why I was there. 

After much questioningly it was explained to me in laughter that the food was for 'sub Khatri.' That is my host family and extended family's surname. Today was a holy day for the Khatri family god, Hanuman. So the next time one of the servers repeated 'what is your name' for the zillionth time, I said "meera naam Amelia Khatri hai." He beamed a smile at me and it was settled that I belonged there.

Shocking

There are two Indians permanently employed at the Setrawa Empowerment Centre. The first is the principal, Mool Singh who arrives at Sambhali to the sound of his pop theme song which he blasts from his cell phone. He is a beautifully personal young man with a regretful teenstash. Like all Indian men I have met he takes every suggestion as a personal attack. When he feels threatened he compensates by assuring himself of his qualities by unpredictably demonstrating the power of his position and his favor with the children. 

On one occasion he had me ask, with a show of hands, which students felt he was a good teacher. Of course, with him translating there was unanimous agreement that he was superb. However, I would not disagree. At about 20 years of age he has already made a legacy for himself. The school was his baby and now is his teenager. The students come because of him and he pours his heart into everyone of them. Mool Singh, in the honorable spirit of the Sambhali Trust, meets each participant where they are at and helps them where they most need help.

Usha Sharma, different from Mool Singh in most c ways, shares with him a ferocious competitiveness. This competitiveness is a driving force for much of the recreational time and leaves me doubled over in laughter. Contrastingly they both have me cringing with horror when they repeatedly try to repair the fan and jump and hiss as they are shocked. This a common pastime in India as they rarely have proper plugs and just stuff wires into their outlets. 

Usha is an unwed 20 year old of the highest caste, Brahmin, and is the definition of an Indian lady. She carries herself with dignity and commands respect with her smile and alternately her scolding look of death. Although a strict teacher, she has a soft spot for small children. She feigns shyness around performing, but she is a skillful dancer and beautician. Her recent work includes Jen's and my eyebrows. 

Her weakness is chocolate, but otherwise she's stubbornly determined to be the perfect host; accepting few gifts and rejecting offers to help with household tasks. She lives with her brother and parents and suffers from their often oppressive tyranny, but finds liberation in daily life through shouting matches with Mool Singh and small disobedience, such as wearing black when her father is away.