Friday, 30 May 2014

Week Six Transition

             It has been six weeks… India… things have changed. Something at first turned me away from this country, an extreme culture shock. I didn’t think I would be upset to leave, or really want to return. Still just under the surface of a country that would take a lifetime to fully understand, I felt different. Maybe I just relaxed a little more, leaning back into the life of travel, accepting the good with the bad. Opened my eyes, mind and heart to it, seeing more of what’s below the hardened resilient exterior of this extravagant subcontinent. 
Street snack

              Fifteen hours, it was midafternoon, stifling hot with glutinous humidity, I pulled into Mumbai. The home of Bollywood, millions of people, the financial and commercial city of India and one the biggest slums in the world. Many of the paradoxes of this vast country can be seen here exploring this concrete jungle.
              Stiff and anxious to stretch my legs, I left the station, over a ditch to the street and made my way to the inner city train lines. Hanging out the side of the carriage, trying to catch the breeze, I prepared for what I was expecting to be a chaotic experience. It was anything but, relaxing for me, I was drawn to this place. I’m sure reading Shantaram at the time didn’t help. The famous backpacker novel of India set in Mumbai. I must have taken a step back though as I began to embrace the culture and people as they grew on me during the previous weeks going along for the ride. It was a beautiful city, the coastline of the harbour, Chowpatti, watching the masses go about their busy lives and the slums of Dharavi.

              I made it down to the south of the island city, Colaba, and checked into the India Guest House. Cheapest I could find with a room smaller than most jail cells, still more than I need. The weight of the heat bearing down on me, I went down to the waterfront. A place many come to sit and watch the day turn to night as the boats light up the black water.

Bhel Puri
 As the sun went down I realized I’d been in transit all day and hadn’t eaten, and some of the best chaat (snacks) I’ve had awaited me. Aimlessly strolling into the streets, I found an evening market around the block. The curious browsing began, my kind of shopping. Bhajiya pav, onion bhaji on a bun with chili sauce. Aloo pav, fried potato done the same. I lean towards the Bhajia pav with some fried potato and spinach crammed in. Raw sprout salads being tossed up served in a paper roll, dosas being spread on griddles. On a small metal dish two samosas crushed with a chickpea puree ladled over topped with diced onion, tomato, cilantro, chaat masala, and two sauces, one sweet and the other a chili sauce. Bhel puri, made of puffed rice. Plopping my ass down a curb to digest and watch the flow of life here, shopping, eating, haggling, drinking chai, bikes weaving, I needed some dessert. Fruit stands with their displays so fresh and vibrant, and mango season was just beginning. Mango and jackfruit it was.
              If you walk around long enough in the Colaba area you’re bound to be asked to be an extra in a Bollywood movie. For five hundred rupees and a long day, they will dress you up and have a look behind the scenes. As I was wandering around looking for a tour office I was asked to help with a movie set in the forties. Unfortunately I had a ticket, beach bound for Goa and a tour of Dharavi.
              Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in the world, home to around one million people, no way of really knowing, was an eye opening experience to happiness with so little. Even poverty stricken pride was shown in everything thing they owned and did. Determination in their faces overcoming what most could not bear. Smiles, handshakes, and head bobbles from everyone as they went about their lives, children following us through the alleys. Small businesses with what seemed like a community effort, drying chilies, or making pottery and running their homemade kilns. A scorching job in the already sweltering heat. Small markets set out on plastic on the ground selling produce, fish or shrimp constantly fanning to keep the flies away from their goods. I stopped for a chai and omelette creating I think a surprised crowd. I don’t think many stop for breakfast.
              This was an experience I’m walking away from with a new outlook on what’s important. A souvenir that can never be lost. This city has left a lasting impression on me, a city with many layers like the country it’s in, and I now look forward to dig into them further.


Friday, 16 May 2014

Dune... My Version

4:30 am, my eyes shoot open, soaked in sweat, bloated and scorching flames from the pits of hell surging through my chest. Reassuring myself that I just ate way too much spicy food after my strong bhang lassi and that it would pass, I went to the rooftop in an attempt to cool down, walk it off. Stepping onto the rooftop into the chilled desert breeze, taking deep breaths of the fresh air trying to slow the rapid throbbing of my heart. Stepping onto another planet. A dusty and dry world with who knows what lurking in its arid landscape spanning the horizon. Behind stood the mighty living fort projecting its golden hue as the sun crept up bringing it to life. Jaisalmer, a place of a different time.

 At first feeling slightly relieved, my body was just giving me a moment of peace before it began. Mad dash to the washroom alleviating the tension in my stomach, I hoped that it was over, but unfortunately I knew better. I had just opened the floodgates to an eight hour onslaught, violent and viscous as a brutal war was waged inside. I was in dire need of the Magic School Bus. With futile attempts to keep hydrated, dry heaves ensued, straining the muscles throughout my body. Shortly after whatever was in me was winning and hasty decisions had to be made, choosing where the Ganga was coming from first. In between bouts I curled into the fetal position on the cold tile floor, unable and knowing there was no real point in going far. First case of 'Delhi Belly'.
              Based on my condition and with better sense, I probably should have and was recommended to cancel the camel safari I had planned that afternoon. I tend not to listen to those voices, lacking what some might call ‘better judgement’ in these situations. Plus, this is why I came, I couldn’t let it win.

              2:00 pm, I made it alive, extremely dehydrated and in one hour trekking in the blazing heat of the Thar desert on camelback. Finally managing to keep water in my system and some Imodium with it, it was time to go. Forty-five minute ride into a new part of the world to where my camel awaited me. Raja. Tying up the bandana, I threw my leg over into the awkward wide stance that took a little getting used to. I would be walking funny after this. Grasping the stick used as a handle, Raja rose to his full height and the ball busting ramble through the serenely barren wasteland began. A great expanse of nothingness, yet somehow filled with life. Villages survived and maintained, flora emerged through the cracked landscape and the Indian gazelles galloped through the parched landscape.

              Moving along at a slow pace, taking in the beauty and peace of the quiet isolation, seeing for miles, no one in sight. Something about it was therapeutic, listening to the wind sweeping through taking your thoughts and worries with it. The dunes resembling an oasis pond rippling out as Raja jumped in like a pebble being thrown. In the distance on the skyline a gypsy village rose from the sea of bronze stretched out before me. As soon as we were sighted, the children dashed towards us as if protecting against invaders. Stopping only a dozen feet from the august creatures of the old world, as they lowered us to the ground. Smiles spread across their faces, waving vigorously, yelling ‘Hello’ trying to be louder than the other. Jovial and energetic, wanting nothing but pictures and chocolate, as they fought each other for the first shot, posing for the camera. Using me as a jungle gym, climbing onto my back, hanging off my arms rendering me immobile as I dragged half a dozen around attempting to make it back to my camel. A struggle, but I made it and handed out the mere three candies I had which started a lightning storm between them taking the attention off me so I could escape into the vacant expanse.

              As the sun set making the sky look ablaze, stepping to the summit of a dune, a shack appeared. Camp for the night, lowered to the ground, my knees almost buckling for the first few strides. Enjoying the surprisingly cool desert breeze as the sun crept down, dinner was prepared and I was starving. Over hot coals rice, aloo gobi, mixed veg curry and chapatti cooked on searing rocks. This proves fancy tools aren’t required to make phenomenal meals. Dragging my cot to the center of the dunes underneath the sheet of glass. I thought I saw clear skies in Muskoka, but nothing like this. Cloudless, stars lighting up the ocean of black as I slowly drifted off. 
              Awoken by the sun ascending behind me and the chilling wind sweeping across the ever-changing terrain. Gathering the courage to step into the frozen sand, the sun rose from beneath the horizon, everything shimmering gold. Taken back, it was mesmerizing, lost in a gaze. A yell for breakfast snapped me out of it. Hard-boiled eggs, toast, jam and chai, it was time to ship out. Raja stood up and began a trot back to the jeep off this planet.  
Life in the desert was hard but beautiful, isolated placidity. Sitting back in utter relaxation moving with the momentum of the camel, taking in the minutes as they were my last. I couldn’t forget this quiet peace, surrounded by nothing but what I looked for.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Blinded by the Colour - Holi 2014

           The pink city, or in my opinion more brown than anything, but hey, who am I to judge. Jaipur, for me was rather uneventful and uninteresting compared to the many other cities in the desert state of Rajasthan. Stunningly bright colours bouncing off the light brown sand, saris flowing in the dry breeze throughout the magnificent state, rich with history of invasion and conquering, full of culture, tradition, hospitality and some succulent North Indian food. But here, to brighten Jaipur for me, I was here for the monumental spring festival, Holi, celebrated almost country wide and now throughout the world. The festival of colour and love is on the last full moon of winter signifying the coming of spring, and for the most part an anarchy of colour.

              I woke in a sweat, wide eyed as if a shot of adrenaline was pumped into my heart bringing me back from the cusp of an overdose. I could feel the sweat beading down off my chin on to my lap, the monotonous drone of the fan spinning, the temperature slowly rising, I had to get out. I knew it was all going to begin soon and I didn’t know if I was ready. Armed with a pump action water gun loaded with blue dye and five bags of paint, I wasn’t sure if it was enough, was I going unprepared. How much is enough when it’s every man, woman and child for themselves in the lawlessness of the riotous streets. Gathering the troops on the rooftop that were as much enemy as friend in this, we passed through the front doors into city streets where it all began.

              Coming at us from all angles, I was locked and loaded deciding which one to shoot first.  Drawing first blood from a distance the rickshaw drivers with handfuls of paint, too many, just kept coming. Happy Holi, and I was hit. Smearing the powdered paint into my face, I returned the favour. Loading up the rickshaw with all ten of our squadron, I hung off the back acting as our turret firing at oncoming motorists. No one was safe… unless my cheap gun couldn’t reach. Bombs had been dropped left and right through the city leaving walls, cars, cows and people massacred with the coloured shrapnel. Stepping out into the mayhem, immediately being swarmed by locals, I was lost in a cloud of dust and transformed into a tie-dye smurf before long as we walked the old city. Rescuing a few lone soldiers along the way from the opportunistic groping hands, we regrouped at our hostel to figure out our next plan of attack.

              Decisions made, troops rallied, the infiltration of an outdoor rave was our next target. Little did I know upon entering the warzone, the mayhem was only truly beginning and the best was yet to come in the following hours. In need of some liquid motivation, we found the bar. Going straight to my head making short work of a few with so little in my stomach, I was anxious to get to the heart of the storm. Attacked from all angles, a free for all, I was a complete different colour at what seemed like five minute intervals. Drenched from top to bottom, temporarily blinded by the few who would forget that I had eyes when they smothered my face with paint, rendering me only capable of drinking while I waited for my vision to return. Moving my feet and arms imitating the locals dancing as camouflage as I walked through the mist sprinkler to remove some of the layers of colour was a poor, ill-fated attempt. Within seconds of stepping out of the mist, I was a target. If I didn’t stick out enough already, a reasonably clean face, free of colour brought them swarming.

As the sun retreated over the horizon peace was declared and the music brought to a halt. I’d ingested enough paint to piss a rainbow and in dire need of a proper meal and shower to refuel and calm the soul. Watching the colour run off into the drain, it looked like I may have slaughtered the teletubbies, left with wounds of dyed skin and a green scalp. It was a city wide blitz leaving its mark on me for the remainder of my days. A festival like no other, never to be forgotten.