Friday, 21 March 2014

Cold, Pain, Illness, all amongst Beauty

Not starting with any of these, instead my first mistake… booking two tickets too close together and relying on the Indian rail system to be punctual, but these others were soon to come. I was heading to the hill station of Shimla on the UNESCO World Heritage train from Kalka (six hours north of New Delhi). After realizing my first train to Kalka was already late, I jumped on the local bus, which quality made doors slammed open and close as we constantly braked and tried to pick up speed.  Running through the platforms I managed to make the train with three minutes to spare. Then of course it was delayed, making my mad dash completely in vain. Oh well, I made it and was about to wind the foothills of the Himalayas through pitch black tunnels, over decrepit looking bridges, less than a foot away from the edge. Coated in alpine forests, streams trickling down through a path formed over years, whole villages built into the slanted canvas of the land, I couldn’t keep my head inside the train unable to really capture the natural beauty of it all in a photo. For these six hours I was at peace forgetting the world around me and that I had nowhere to go once we reached Shimla.
Hanging off the side of the train
           It was dark when we arrived and without a reservation to simply get a rickshaw to, I hiked a kilometer or so uphill into town with about an extra fifty pounds on my back fending off porters and touts. No I didn’t want to carry my stuff, but I wanted to pay them less, and with my lack of trust in the touts saying anything to get you to their hotel for commission, they followed me all the way to town not taking ‘I have a reservation’ for an answer. They must have called bullshit because, well they were right, I had nowhere to go. Ducking into the first guesthouse I saw to lose the annoying voices over my shoulder, it turned out to be a cheap place and with good reason I found out later. Going to bed I could see my breath. I had to sleep fully clothed with my winter coat and all the blankets provided on what seemed like a slab of stone. Claiming they had hot water was also a definite lie.
After a numbing shower and relocating my testicles, I headed up about one thousand steep steps to the Jakhu Temple (built for Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god), not realizing how out of shape I was until about half way. Panting in the cold air, refusing my legs the right to collapse, I stuttered up the rest of the way. Meeting a local on the way up, he took me into the temple explaining the story behind it, showing me the proper way to pray. Afterwards the priest dotted my forehead with paint, poured a teaspoon of water in my hands, which I pretended to drink avoiding it like the plague and some sort of sweet. Before I had a chance to eat it, as I walked around the top mesmerized by the view the rhesus macaques stealthily approached. Creeping in they started jumping at me. I found this fun at first, lifting it just out of the grasp each time, like a bullfighter, until one decided to jump and hang on to me, swatting at it. It wasn’t giving up unless I dropped it for him. Relentless, just like the touts and porters. 

Evening came, and with it my bus further north to Manali, what I hoped would be an unforgettable snowboarding experience laced with charas. Well it was definitely a day I won’t forget. A windy road like a giant snake slithering through the mountains, barely wide enough to pass oncoming traffic without pulling over most of the time. I had full trust in the bus driver that we wouldn’t drive off the side tumbling down as I tried to sleep. Suddenly we were at a standstill in a storm of furious honking. I came to learn that a goods carrier truck took one of the many sharp turns to quick and was now on its side blocking most of the road. After ill-fated attempts to tow the truck out of the way with what they had to work with, the bus driver decided he had waited long enough and went to squeeze through. If I knew he was going for it coming inches from the edge, I would have gotten off considering I had a front row window seat if we went down. Barely making it through, I checked my pants before settling back into the sleep for a few more hours.
Awakened in Manali at six in the morning by the movement of the bus being emptied and a sore throat, exhausted and grouchy, I jumped in the first rickshaw I saw to take me to my guesthouse. The stunned driver not being able to find my hotel took me to some random place claiming it was the one I asked for. Arguing a bit, but coughing and unable to walk further I took the room, crashing until early afternoon. With my head in a cloud when I woke unable to breathe well, looking outside to see snow, I thought to myself, ‘what the hell am I doing’. I escaped the brutal Canadian winter to travel to India back into the cold and snow.  
Aloo Tikki
The day came to conquer the mountains, or in actuality get conquered near the brink of death. The bus brought me to Solang Nullah, the ski rsort just north of Manali, at 8:30 as per recommended, only to learn the lift doesn’t start until 10:30 and no public toilets were open, and that cup of chai got the system going. Duck walking out into the bush surrounding the area, picking amongst the many outhouses, I returned to barter for some equipment rentals. Boots that looked shredded from some of the wild dogs here, and a scratched board that well could have been worse. It’s alive, the lift creaks to a start. Not thinking twice I went to the top for the first time on a snowboard in five or six years. With the snow beginning to melt, the frequent rain falls, it was some of the worst conditions I’ve been on. Wet, chunky, layers of ice in spots, no fresh powder and snowmobile tracks ravaging the slopes, I went for it. Worst idea I’ve had in a little while, and my mind festers a lot of them. About half way down the mountain I caught an edge on a snowmobile track sending me flying, knocking the wind out of me and seriously injuring my back. As I sat in the wet snow, in immense pain freezing my ass thinking it over, I really didn’t know what I expected. Catching my breath, I forced my way to the bottom and called it a very short day, the pain so fierce it was making me feel nauseous. Next time, maybe I’ll start on the small hill again.
Useless and unable to dress myself without the utmost difficulty for about two days, I smoked my pain away into a state of complete relaxation with the charas (hash) conveniently provided by the guest house manager, loaded up on munchies and passed in and out of sleep until I built up the strength to haul myself to the bus station, and finally leave the snow-capped breathtaking mountains. One way ticket back to the heat, escaping the snow for the second time where I could comfortably heal.

Friday, 7 March 2014

A Shock to the Senses

           New Delhi, organized chaos. Not here, just chaos. I thought it might have been the fact that it was a busy, foreign city for the first time, but then I realized I had done this before and it wasn’t like this. Far from what I expected in both good ways and bad from the stereotypical assumptions of what I had seen in movies, documentaries, and heard from embellished stories. I didn’t get knocked out by the smell when I stepped out of the airplane, not that it smelt of peaches and roses, but it wasn't unbearable. Driving to my hostel, surrounded by cars, rickshaws and bikes scattered throughout the road (there are lanes, but they go unnoticed) the smell of pollution choked my nose with an accent of garbage. I didn’t realize how good a filter my nose was until I was shooting black shit like when I stacked straw and hay in the dusty, suffocating mow of a barn. Garbage lined the streets without the existence of trash bins. I felt awkward at first, scouting with my peripherals while I added to the piled gutters, trying to be sneaky hoping no one would see me. Impossible to hide, but it’s a join the crowd situation. The ground of Delhi was the garbage can.
              The crowds and lines of people were a little overwhelming until you got the hang of moving around. There is no such thing as personal space, more or less getting dry humped around every corner. Pushing to move ahead faster with nowhere to go, or grabbing and pulling you out of the way to squeeze through, it was an aggressive way of life, with no room for patience. Something that must be instilled from the first steps taken, or else one would not get anywhere. The weak would not survive. The cycle/auto rickshaws are relentless, but I was used to that as it’s the same where I’d been before. The key for me is to walk as if I know where I’m going, even though I couldn’t be more lost and never make eye contact. Once eye contact is established, it’s a license to hassle. Also unnecessarily long staring is to be expected. Especially on the metro, it’s fast paced, no mercy rules, and always too full. If you don’t make it in, the door just slams in front of you, or if so unlucky on you or your bag. Getting off at one of the last stops is a stampede from both directions. The gates open and they’re off. Funneling out, with two lines on either side just waiting for their opening to get on, chomping at the bit, and bulldoze the last few off. ‘Any unattended or suspicious article like a briefcase, bag, toy, thermos or transistor could be a bomb.’ But don’t worry, only a reassuring message scrolling the screen on the metro. All bags must go through a scanner before entering the platforms and a quick pat down required.
              To make reservations out of the city by train, the maze of the rail station must be taken on full force to find the tourist office to book your tickets in advance. Getting my arm pulled, being pointed in the wrong direction half a dozen times, I was lucky I had proper directions from someone who had already been, brushing them off like a grain of salt. Unfortunately not my strong suit but one must think ahead a couple days, which does makes sense considering millions of people use the train every day in India. For the buses, certain ones run frequently in which a reservation isn’t necessary, but it’s recommended if you want to make sure you get where you want, when you want.
              The markets are another world all of themselves. Frequenting a few of them, it’s nice that the fresh, fragrant food and brewing chai tea somewhat overcome the smell of exhaust. Diving right in I got a couple of samosas, deep fried paneer, chickpea dal with a chili powder, fresh lime, cilantro, eaten with chapatti bread, a dough rolled out and grilled or pan fried. Alleyways to get lost in everywhere you look, certain streets selling nothing but shoes, then saris, then glasses, it’s endless. Chandi Chowk, the well-known market in Old Delhi, right across from the Red Fort, sells just about anything you would want if you dig deep enough. At the end of this chaotic street, the wholesale spice market is right around the corner. Huge bags of chilies and spices on carts on their way out for delivery elsewhere, then every stall with bins of dates, nuts, whole and freshly ground spices, so fragrant your nose takes over, enough to make hundreds of masalas (spice blends).
              Upon leaving Delhi after only a few days heading north, my eyes laid witness to the first true slum I had ever seen. The train picking up speed slowly, the slums lined the tracks. Ramshackle homes built off each other, walls built of tarps, cinder blocks, sticks or whatever was available. Fields, layered with garbage, a massive compost pile, with pigs wallowing in it, dogs sniffing for food, cows trying to graze, and the whole area was used as the public toilet. Everyone has seen a glimpse of the slums in a movie, documentary or article, but seeing it for myself still only beneath the surface as I rolled past, I had to turn away. The worst is hidden from what I thought I knew. Having travelled to Asia before, I thought I had an understanding of what was to come, but this… this left me stunned, with a sense of stupidity and arrogance, realizing truthfully how little I know of this world and how lucky I am.