India Part 2 – Cool Uttaranchal

June 2, 2008 at 12:47 am | Posted in India | 1 Comment

April 7 – April 27

We had travelled for 10 days in India and after looking at the map we realized we only covered a very small portion of the country. We spent a few days in Delhi recuperating and a couple of nights at Pizza Hut while deciding where to venture next. Without a doubt, it would include our driver, Rajeev, and our nice air conditioned truck. Since our plans to Nepal and Tibet had been dashed, we decided to head north in an attempt to get as close as we could to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas and we read that Uttaranchal had some pretty scenery so, we headed north.

The state of Uttaranchal is mostly agricultural and the photo opportunities of life as it always has been were plentiful. Our first stop was Corbett Tiger Reserve. Rajeev had been there just the week before and had seen 10 tigers. He used his connections to successfully get us lodging deep in the middle of the park so we wouldn’t have to travel over an hour in and out of the park each day. We went on safari in the evening and in the morning and saw elephants, deer, birds, pointy-nosed alligators and jackals – but not one tiger. We heard a tiger roar, we saw tiger footprints but didn’t see one. But the boys got to stand up in the jeep while it was moving so that made up for the disappointment. They thought they were getting away with murder in the lawless Indian jungle! We decided that not seeing the tiger was a lesson for us because if we do not do anything to save the endangered tiger, no one will get to see them anymore and now we know what that would feel like (it appeased them at the time).

Next we headed into the hills to Nanital which is the vacation spot for Indians and includes all the typical relaxing activities one would partake if they were in, say, New Hampshire…boatride on the lake, shopping, playing in the arcades and horseback riding. We stayed in a hauntingly empty, old mountain villa in an oversized, chilly (higher altitude) room that Rajeev had arranged because it had plenty of grass for the boys to run around on (and they did). We saw old women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their back down the mountain road and we saw maimed children begging for food (the boys “sponsored” one of them for the day) while we tried to enjoy the niceties yet really couldn’t as we observed how difficult it was for others. We learned to not notice the condition of the sheets nor whether the toilet was western or squat. We watched as women rolled dried cow dung into bricks to make fuel for the fire and watched as men labored to bicycle dozens of kilometers with heavy supplies piled high on the back. We learned to accept that litter is the last thing on the minds of India and that Indian people are the hardest working people we had ever seen. The food is incredibly fresh and oranges are known as sweet lemons and young men walk hand-in-hand because they are friends. We learned to pronounce our w’s as v’s and v’s as w’s (Oliver was known as Oliwer) and we learned to take pictures from a fast moving vehicle. We learned to appreciate vegetables in this vegan land and look forward to mattresses without lumps. And most importantly, children were regarded as gifts from the gods and treated accordingly.

We continued on the dizzying road northwards for hours and hours, we took time to contemplate life and the difficult questions such as, “Do snails dream?” and “Who invented infinity?”. At our next stop in Kausani we were rewarded during the dawn hours to a front row seat at our guesthouse of the Himalayas laid out before us 180 degrees across our view. Even the boys were impressed and gladly rose for the occasion. Our guesthouse clung to the mountainside surrounded by rice paddies and 15 member families living in one room amongst the rubble and debris of the harsh mountain lifestyle. Once again, for the boys, the grandeur of the Himalayas was eclipsed by the presence of two black labrador puppies. We are always reminded while travelling with our children that the world is full of things, great and small, foreign and familiar. While we tried to converse the boys simply befriended the neighborhood kids by creating a zoo from small plastic animals and cages made from a donated box of wooden toothpicks from our friendly waiter. They could not converse. This was a big deal for the local children who were seen playing with corn husks for entertainment earlier in the day. We took photos and everyone was anxious to see their image on the camera. We were promptly invited to the family “compound” to meet the elders. We climbed down the muddy, rocky “path” down to their string of rooms. The mother offered us tea and everyone was delighted to have us. The boys were excited to meet the brand spanking new calf and the grandfather of the clan who, with disabled legs, hasn’t walked since he was 30 was excited to have company.

We also went for a 6 mile trek through the hills with a local guide and passed through some remote hill towns with local villagers doing laundry in the river, scything the rice, plowing the fields and bringing supplies home by donkey or on their own backs. Children were tending the herds while groups of girls were taking refuge from the sun under a tree. It was a fantastic walk. We saw a lot of weddings on our adventure. April and May are the popular months for weddings. It was still phenomenal to us that the marriages are arranged and we saw many a somber bride having to leave the security of her family to start a new life with her new acquaintance, her husband. However, there were weddings in almost every town with adorned cars, horses and rented spaces with colorful gateways and streamers. The winding roads in the mountains were too much for our fragile stomachs so we changed our itinerary to head towards the lowlands sooner than originally planned and rested in spiritual Rishikesh and Haridwar. Here we observed the rituals upon the sacred Ganges (Ganga) river and witnessed the unfortunate throngs of people who migrate here for unconditional support from the spiritual sects. It was here that the boys studied those without limbs or eyes or food and tried to make sense of their situation. They rarely said a word but just witnessed and assessed. However, we did cancel our intended trip to Varanasi, the capital of spiritualism and poverty, because we felt that we had witnessed our share and didn’t need to have it intensified exponentially. The boys were quite eager to experience the goodness of the Ganges River and its healing powers and we were all drawn to its blue color and supposed purity. The boys were intrigued by the stories of how the river originates from the head of the god Shiva.

We were saddened by the unfortunate experience of having our shoes stolen. It is customary to leave your shoes outside places of worship and while 99% of the time they were tended by paid attendants, this one time we left our shoes unattended in an ashram. An ashram is a sanctuary for spiritual people who engage in daily rituals such as meditation, prayer and simple ways of living focused on the higher beings. Without hesitation we left our shoes while we went to sign up for a yoga class. 7 minutes later, we returned to only 2 pair of shoes belonging to the boys. The shock was overwhelming as the shoes were more valuable as a sentimental piece of our adventure rather than practical. They were the only possession that was with us every “step” of the way. Our only solice was that the boys still had theirs. We walked back almost a mile barefoot along the intimidating streetscape (you can only imagine). For some strange reason, we never had to walk around anything unsightly and it seemed as though the path had been made clear for us. Perhaps it was a lesson to “walk in someone else’s shoes” (or lack thereof as is the case in India) and take a second look at what is most important to oneself. This experience coupled with Peter’s new bout with “Delhi belly” and Oliver coming down with a 12 hour fever left us with mixed feelings. Perhaps our sins of the past were being detected by the conglomeration of spirits or we were just having a bit of bad luck. Either way we bottled some water from the Ganges for future keeping and mailed it home with all of our other treasures for remembrance of a poignant visit.

Rajeev would play classic Indian cd’s and the boys had their favorite songs that usually originate from religious chants but now are played to a catchy beat and sung about Krishna and others. They fell deeply in love with every place we would visit and would soak up the music, the dance, the vibe, the smells and the sounds. They would grow impatient as we sat for an hour or two participating in some ritual but would yell with excitement at a later date when they recognized a song or clothing or a statue that was part of the scene. It was the same as how they felt with all of the attention they got from Indian people – the petting, patting, pinching, ooohs and aaaahs, “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?”, “How old are you?”, “Are you twins?” They grew tired of it and complained on the side but, in the end, they know that the world loved them and wanted to know them and wanted to be with them and was excited because of them. Their experience, without exception, has always been them positive. They also had a positive effect on others and some people who at first glance were indifferent, bored or tired became excited, happy and eager to engage them in a conversation. Travelling with children has yielded a much more friendly, warm and true experience for us and our children.

(click photo for slideshow)

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India – Part 1 – Hot Rajasthan

May 20, 2008 at 7:43 am | Posted in India | Leave a comment

March 22 – April 6

We arrived in India from Hong Kong at a pleasant 2:30am. The boys easily bounced out of their cozy airplane seats and were as chipper as usual even at that ungodly hour. They were always very excited to see the next destination. We collected our bags and, as promised by our guesthouse, a taxi was waiting for us amid the rubble that we had to negotiate to reach it. The driver swiftly paid the young man who was guarding his seemingly illegally parked car and off we went. The Prem Sagar guesthouse was listed in our guidebook and we booked it via email as we felt lucky to find a place in the center of the city with four beds, hot water and A/C for a decent price in expensive New Delhi. The taxi let us out onto the everpresent rubble in front of a doorway whose fluorescently-lit bulb attempted to shed light on the dark alcove with scattered piles of garbage nearby and a lying dog or two which we were unable to discern whether they were alive or not. The smell of well-fermented centuries-old dust permeated the air. We are not sure what it is that arms you with the courage to arrive in a place that is so unlike anything that you had imagined it would be and still push forward around the dogs, over the manure, looking over your shoulder and then continue up the stairs hoping that there is a friendly face at some sort of desk up there. Perhaps it is hope or optimism, perhaps it is “We’ve been lucky so far…let’s go for it” or “We wanted an adventure – we asked for it” but whatever it was, we continued up the stairs with the boys not even blinking an eye at the surroundings (they were probably thinking of all of the things they could build with all of this stuff) and indeed, there was a friendly face behind a reception desk. We went right to our room and as Laura inspected the corners, and Peter looked for the right adapter to charge our batteries, the boys were ready for playtime. Every new hotel room was full of new and exciting contraptions to experiment with. After some coercing, and some prayers that India was going to be more exciting than this, we went to sleep until late the next day.

We had our bottled water with us – the boys knew the routine by now as we had trained them on the places where they should never use the tap water for brushing teeth. There was no distinction between the shower and the rest of the bathroom so the shower water would run all over the bathroom floor and slowly make its way to a drain somewhere in the corner. This made for slippery conditions but kept the floor clean! There was room service! We ordered 4 hot chocolates, bowls of corn flakes with cold milk and toast with butter. Little did we know that this would be our breakfast for the next 40 days. All dressed and ready to explore, the receptionist warned us not to go outside – it was dangerous.

We were in danger of getting colored. It was Holi. A religious day where everyone had free reign to protect you from evil by sprinkling, spraying or dousing you with brightly colored powder and it`s considered impolite to say no. After a few questions about the permanent nature of this coloring agent, we stayed in until mid-afternoon when it was supposedly safer. This gave the reception desk ample opportunity to try to sell us a car and driver deal to explore Delhi and outer regions such as Rajasthan. After converting rupees to dollars, it was too much for our wallet and we still were wondering how we were going to explore the country with no car and high temperatures and be able to break through India’s foreboding exterior. We ventured out. For a country with a billion people in it, there was no one on the streets because of the holiday. It was like we were walking onto the set of a disaster film where no one was left but us and the rubble from all of the explosions and the sun beating down on us as a few vultures soared overhead waiting for their feast. OK, there were no vultures. We declined an invitation to get “colored” and we made our way to a recommended taxi service where we may be able to hire a car and driver at a reasonable price. The office was closed. But suddenly, a non-descript man loitering outside chatting with the only other person in sight bounced up and gleefully lured us inside and assumed the position at the desk. The office was the size of a walk-in closet adorned with Hindi religious relics. The boys played with their Lego while we scrutinized this man and his suggested itinerary and his fair price. What kind of car? How big? Who is the driver? Does he speak English? Where will we stay? What is the quality of the hotels? He rustled through a few brochures and made a couple of calls and tried to assure us that we would be happy. It seemed like he was pretending to work there. Nothing seemed right.

But in India, nothing is going to be like other places, no familiar gestures or signs of trustworthiness. It was third world – business was conducted differently. They supposedly had a big fleet of cars, many drivers and years of experience and a recommendation from our guidebook. With not much to lose and plenty of time on our hands since we had canceled our adventures to Tibet and Nepal due to political turmoil, we agreed on a price. Just then the owner came in and splashed some holy water on pictures and sacred statues of Shiva and Vishnu in honor of Holi Day. There was a small gaggle of drivers outside and it was when we emerged from the office, that we met Rajeev. He immediately struck a conversation with the boys and he had a big SUV. We decided to upgrade to an SUV rather than a cramped car and because of that, Rajeev was our assigned driver since he was the driver of that vehicle. Rajeev made all of the difference from that point on. We could have been stuck with a driver who didn’t take pride in his job and who didn’t understand a foreigner’s perspective and who mumbled the minimum number of English phases as necessary. Instead, Rajeev was enthralled with the boys (he lacked children of his own), was eager to teach and our facsination with his country spurred him on to show us as much as he could off the beaten track. What was perceived as horrible became interesting, what was perceived as strange became familiar and what was inaccessible became close enough to experience.

We ate at a recommended restaurant nearby and with the English translated menu, we picked some safe options like tandoori chicken and chicken tikka and unleavened buttered bread. The next day Rajeev picked us up and we were now known as “Sir” and “Madam” and he took us to all of the major sights in Delhi. We went to temples, memorials to past kings and leaders and mega-tombs designed by those interred within but the most interesting sights were those outside the van window. Every few feet was another poignant picture of a life so different than ours. Some depicted poverty, some depicted back breaking labor, some depicted smiles, some depicted the hard way to get things done while others depicted simplicity that first world countries have traded for complicated, abstract lives. No matter what the scene, it was always made more magical by the sarees. The women’s sarees were bright, flowing and covered with a tens or hundreds of sequins. Every woman looked like a princess despite how mundane her circumstances were.

After our day in Delhi, we found the truck to be too hot. The air conditioner was weak and with the intense heat, we wondered how we were going to make it for 12 days. When Rajeev lifted the boys out of their seats, he noticed that their shirts were wet with sweat. Being that he would do anything for these boys, he announced that he was going to have the air conditioner repaired before we set out for our trip the next day. We asked how he was going to do it at night but he assured us that in India, anything is possible. Sure enough, he picked us up the next morning and there on the ceiling in the center of the truck was a brand new air conditioning unit that could reach the rear back seat where the boys sat and that we could control ourselves. Turned out that he stayed up all night to get it done.

We spent 12 days touring around the state of Rajasthan. We visited Agra-Jaipur-Pushkar-Udaipur- Ranakpur-Jaisalmer-Bikaner-Mandawar. Rajasthan was famous for its magnificent forts and palaces and the colorful sarees worn by the women. The Taj Mahal was very beautiful and larger than life. The palaces had intricate marblework that was created to make screens to hide the royal women from public view and was unlike anything we had seen before. By the end of our visit, the boys were quite adept in recognizing and naming the ubiquitous gods – Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna and the monkey-faced god whose name we only knew as monkey-faced god.

We had been gawked at in other countries and locals would not hesitate to approach us but in India, the fascination with us with exponentially greater. Indians would unabashedly stare at us with no expression nor words but as soon as we took the first step and looked them straight in the eyes, smiled and boldly said, “Namaste” (Hello), a whole group would be transformed from wary and quizzical to practically a bunch of giggling, shy toddlers. Even grown men. Once the ice was broken it was not unusual for them to form a ring around us and just look and be part of the sudden excitement that we created. Everyday we would feel either like martians or like royalty. They didn’t want anything from us, just wanted to be with us and talk to us but they didn’t know how to approach us. In this country, most people did not speak English so we often just looked and used body language or sometimes relied on a lone English-speaking person or Rajeev to translate. It was very cool. We posed for more pictures for other people’s cameras than for our own. We felt like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and their fascinating children (OK, use your imagination).

Cows – they were everywhere. It was actually amazing how quickly we acclimated to their presence and even their unsightly dung that was splattered all over the walkways. You simply went around it. Somehow it seemed to get cleaned up the next day. Cows were in middle of the road, they were in the alcoves between shops, and they were in the markets. They were like people. In India cows are very sacred because they provide people with so much to live on.

We got used to the perilous driving, sort of. Meaning, we allowed ourselves to be driven and were on the “wrong” side of the road as much as the “right” and drove closer to cars, trucks, cows, dogs, buses, camels, mules, people and rickshaws than we would ever dream of doing ourselves but we watched constantly trying to assess whether we were in danger which was difficult because, according to American standards, we were in danger of an accident 90% of the time but when in Rome…

We decided that we could not apply American standards of living here if we were going to try to explore India and have a positive experience. Rajeev had a sense of anticipation on the road that we never acquired at home – he knew what the other drivers were going to do and how much time he had before we hit head on. He knew which way a cow was going to walk as he nearly skinned its nose with his front bumper before he swerved to the right and the cow sauntered to the left. It was like a roller-coaster, you had to trust that the wheels were going to stay hitched to the track despite the mind-boggling curves. As a parent, we felt that our children were only in harms way if tried to fight what was normal in India. Even walking the narrow lanes to go to shops was risky as there were no sidewalks so you had to look down to avoid the cow dung, look straight to avoid the cows and look behind you to see if a vehicle was coming towards you. The boys never left our side and knew what to watch out for.

We had a few celebrations while we were in India. The Easter Bunny visited us the second day we were there and brought chocolates, jelly beans and Lego and left them at the end of Oliver and Henry’s beds during the night. Jelly bean filled eggs were hidden around our small room. The next day we arrived at the Taj Mahal to celebrate Henry’s 7th birthday. Henry picked out his own chocolate cake at a nice bakery (surprised to find chocolate in India). We decorated it with chocolate-filled eggs from our Easter stash and paper drink umbrellas that Henry picked out. We had carried our wax “7” candle all the way from Greece where a bakery had given it to us at Oliver’s birthday. We always carried paper so that we could make cards and we picked up balloons along the way. Rajeev surprised Henry with a game and a matchbox car set despite only knowing us for a day. We celebrated Peter’s birthday while we were in Udaipur. We had dinner on the lake overlooking the palaces and listened to traditional Indian music. Rajeev covertly obtained a cake and we surprised Peter with it.

Unfortunately, Rajeev did something to his back and was practically a cripple a few days into our trip. He had to contort his body in order to even walk. He consulted with the locals who recommended a “back man” who could possibly help. We drove down a narrow dirt road and from inside a tiny nondescript “office” with a buffalo and a calf outside, Rajeev emerged 5 minutes later. This doctor would accept only what his patients could afford to pay him, usually the equivalent of 25 or 50 cents, and fixed Rajeev`s back 50% of the way at that moment and by the next day, he was 95% cured. If we hadn`t seen this with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed it. Rajeev introduced us to all sorts of natural concoctions that would make you feel better, naturally. Anise seeds after a meal to help digestion, rice and lentils for an upset stomach, cold yogurt lassi drinks for diarrhea and most of all, Cadbury chocolate bars once a day so the boys would feel their best!

Despite all of this good advice, we ran straight to a Pizza Hut as soon as we returned to Delhi but in the meantime booked another leg of the trip with Rajeev for 11 days in the mountains so we could get closer to the Himalayas and the hill tribes of pastoral India.

(We found India to be so full of poignant photos that it became a difficult task to pare down. Click picture below for full slideshow (179) or here for only highlights (77).)

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