Sunday, 27 February 2011

Pushkar, India

Our next stop after Udaiper was a little town in the Snake Mountains called Pushkar.  Pushkar is one of the holiest cities in India. 

Hindus contend that Lord Brahma (one of the three principle Hindu gods and Creator of the Universe) battled with a demon (Vajra Nabh), and killed him with a lotus blossom.  During the fight, one of the petals from the lotus blossom fell to earth, creating a lake that is now the center of Pushkar (above).  Many Hindus come to Pushkar to bathe in this lake (Lake Tirtharaj), believing that it will wash away their sins.

Monkeys abound in Pushkar.  This one is eating a common Indian food:  cauliflower.

On day one we took part in a Hindu ceremony at Lake Tirtharaj that involved these ingredients:

Each of these ingredients symbolizes something positive (e.g. good health, wealth).  I failed to consult my Lonely Planet handbook before getting on this computer, and my short term memory blows, so unfortunately I can't expound upon this...

Suffice it to say that, during the ceremony, a Hindu priest annoited us with the "red powder" (below).

After the red powder was applied to our foreheads, we threw the ingredients into Lake Tirtharaj.  Afterwards, the priest tied a bracelet to our wrists (again, there is probably a technical term for said bracelet that I'm forgetting, sorry).

This bracelet is said to offer protection to all who wear it. 

More of the little buggers.

The next morning, a Swiss girl named Tatjana and I decided to visit Savitri Temple for the sunrise.  There's an interesting story here.  Savitri was Lord Brahma's first wife.  At some point in their marriage, he married a second woman, and Savitri was so upset that she moved away (to a hilltop overlooking Lake Tirtharaj, that is). 

The temple of a scorned woman.

To reach this temple before sunrise, Tatjana and I first mountain biked through downtown Pushkar.  The mountain bikes weighed hundreds of pounds a piece, sported one gear, and had a horn to boot (in order to alert oncoming traffic).  Needless to say, riding this contraption was not a cakewalk.  After locking up our medieval tortune devices at the base of the hill, we climbed "thousands" of uneven steps to reach the temple.  

It was an excellent workout.  And the view was spectacular:

Pushkar before sunrise.

Pushkar at sunrise.

When I was watching the sunrise, a wild dog came up to me and stood next to me for a very long time and let me pet it.  It stood so still and close.  I knew that it was a wild thing and that you can't expect to contain a wild thing, so I had no expectation for it to sit or lay next to me.  It nuzzled my armpit for a minute, then walked away.  I had the strange sense at that moment that the dog embodied the spirit of someone I know, loved, and had died.  This thought arose spontaneously, and I could not explain it....

Pushkar not only impressed me for religious and athletic reasons but also because of it's hippy vibe.  This place could teach Haight Ashbury a thing or two.  I felt like a Love Child transported back to the 1960's.  And I dug it. 

Picture of ghats (stairs leading to the lake where religious ceremonies are performed).  There are 52 sets of ghats surrounding Lake Tirtharaj.

No alcohol consumption is allowed in Pushkar, but something a little more naughty is going on in this holy city.  It's an open secret that many people are smoking the bhang.   

Bhang is similar to marajuana but supposedly more potent.  Javed reveals that a few of his guests have landed in the hospital after smoking bhang and he advises us to avoid it at all costs.  The secret code name for bhang is "special."  Interpretation:  if you are dining at a restaurant in Pushkar and see something on the menu like "Special Lassi" or "Special Shake," that food item has been laced with bhang.

Some kids dancing for us.

Maybe it was the residue of bhang smoke in the air, but lots of creative and spiritual thoughts infused my mind while I was visiting this little hippy mountain village.  I experienced again that feeling of connectedness with other people.  I thought about all the times in my life where I'd felt a bit of glee at someone else's misfortune (e.g. listening to a friend recount her breakup story when I was sulky and single).  And I realized how counterproductive that was, or is...that when you see everyone as part of yourself, as a continuation of yourself...then you would naturally want the best for them, because when other people are happy, it's as though a part of you is, too. 

I remembered something I heard at a Buddhist meditation retreat.  There are only two emotions:  love and fear.  Everything else is subcategorical.  For instance, fear:  guilt, prejudice, regret, anger.  And love:  joy, peace, forgiveness, acceptance. 
Then, I remembered a science class from long ago, when my teacher explained to me that "cold" doesn't exist.  Cold is just an absence of heat.  There in Pushkar a thought arose from nothingness, "Fear doesn't exist.  There really is only one emotion.  Fear is just an absence of love." 

I feel a bit foolish transcribing these thoughts.  I swear that no bhang was involved when I made my cold/heat and fear/love analogy.  It's just that Pushkar has a profoundly spiritual effect.  And I can't explain it. 

You need to visit.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Udaiper, India

"I was conscious that I was experiencing something unforgettable, one of those magical moments which we only understand when it has passed.  I was entirely in the present, with no past, no future, absorbed in experiencing the morning, the music, the sweetness and the unexpected prayer.  I entered a state of worship and ectasy and gratitude for being in the world.  I understood once again that the grandeur of God reveals itself through simple things."
~Paulo Coelho

The moment we arrived in Udaiper, I knew that it was something special.  It's said to be the most romantic place in India (Javed, my guide and a local, maintains that it is the best city on earth), but maybe the reason I fell in love with Udaiper is because of its proximity to Lake Pichola.  As a Cancer, I'm always at my happiest when I'm near water.

The first day in Udaipur, I followed the "usual" tourist agenda.  In the morning, I had henna painted on my hand and arm.

In the afternoon, I visited the City Palace (largest palace in India, built over the span of 300 years)...

Another City Palace shot.  As you can see, it's quite stunning...

Next, there was a stop to Jagdish Mandir, a Vishnu temple in the heart of the "tourist strip."  There was some sort of ceremony going on while I was visiting and I got admonished for taking this picture.  Whoops.  Tourist SNAFU.

The following day, my introvert self felt like being alone so I split with the group and went to read and write at a cafe along the bank of Lake Pichola.  Little did I know that this was going to be the most interesting day of them all. 

The revelation that I made in Udaiper is that when you travel alone, you become a fascination.  So many people want to know the story of the solo traveler and approach to talk.  Immediately, I met another writer from America.  Her name is Lisa, she's awesome and she's traveled all over South America on her own.  I also met four Europeans. 

After I'd had my fill of reading, writing, and meeting fellow travelers, I decided to wander some more.  Wow, the things you see in India.  Like women doing their laundry in Lake Pichola...

And a little girl standing next to a big cow...

Then solo me bumped into one of Javed's friends.  And after some conversation and a cup of Chai tea, I hopped on the back of his motorbike, and he took me to the less "touristy" part of Udaiper.  First, there was a small island where I took pictures of all the exotic plants.


Then we visited Shilpgram, a cultural museum featuring rural arts and crafts.  Afterwards, we drove through what seemed like a mountain rainforest to the Monsoon Palace to watch the sunset.  At that moment, riding on the back of a motorbike through some of the most beautiful terrain on earth, monkeys visible in trees, the wind whipping my hair, a thought arose:

"This is what it feels like to really live."  

Later I was invited to an Indian wedding reception.  Marvelous. 

I capped off the night drinking whiskey on a rooftop, watching fireworks (from the wedding reception) on the other side of Lake Pichola. 

Sometimes it pays to go off on your own and be a solo traveler!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur is the way that I envisioned India to be.  It's chaotic, filthy, and smelly.  There is also a strange, exotic beauty about the place that made me feel like Indiana Jones. 

Jodhpur is known as the "Blue City" and from atop Meherangargh Fort (pictured above) it's not hard to see why...

A trip to Jodhpur is not complete without a visit to Sadar Bazaar, the historical center of Jodhpur.  It has a lovely clock tower and many eager vendors.  I'm sorry Seattle, but Pike's Place Market is not even in the same league as Sadar Bazaar.

We capped the day off at Mandore Gardens (below), where we were serenaded by people playing Mary Had a Little Lamb and Frère Jacques on some sort of musical instrument that I'd never seen before (maybe it was a mandore).

In Jodhpur, I realized that I felt smaller and less significant than I'd ever felt before.  The crowdedness and the dirtiness of India had somehow blurred the lines between me and the people around me.  Not only was I smaller and less significant than I'd imagined, but I realized that I was just a piece of the puzzle, a small part of the collective better or worse than anyone else

Hierarchies and classifications are human-made. 

We are all equal.

"For the warrior, there is no 'better' or 'worse.'  Everyone has the necessary gifts for his particular path."
~Paulo Coelho


Monday, 21 February 2011

Jaisalmer, India

"To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation...And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
~Paulo Coelho 

This is what I know about Jaisalmer.  It is called the Golden City, and it is close to the Thar Desert.  Maharawal Jaisal built Jaisalmer Fort along a busy trade route between Afghanistan and central Asia, and the early settlers became rich by looting passing caravans.  About 30% of Jaisalmer's population still lives inside the fort, and the architecture is really stunning.  Ninety bastions (guard posts) encircle the fort perimeter, and it was built to maximize airflow and to capture precious rain water. 

Golden City.

When we arrived in Jaisalmer early on the morning of February 8th, we got into taxis at the train station.  From there it was Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the taxis weaving and swerving through traffic to the entrance of Jaisalmer Fort.

After the taxis dropped us off, we walked uphill through the fort to the hotel.

The following morning, I visited the Maharawal Palace (a palace inside the fort where Jaisalmer's royalty used to live).  Intricate carvings and great views of the surrounding city (where the other 70% of the population lives) make this 200 rupees well spent.  (In case I didn't explain, 1 USD = 45 rupees.)

View from inside Maharawal Palace.

Other interesting things transpired in Jaisalmer.  For instance, a local shopkeeper lent us saris for 150 rupee.  They are surprisingly comfortable and, IMHO, fashionable.

Hot...or not.

The last 24 hours were spent riding camels in the Thar Desert.  It was a bumpy ride, especially for someone still adjusting to the local food.  Thank God for my "steel stomach." 

In India, the camel is regarded as the Symbol of Love, the rationale being that if you can love a camel you can love anyone.  Incidentally, the potbelly you observe is my money purse.   

The Thar Desert is beautiful, btw. 

Please excuse the weird angle.  I've been doing lots of odd things with my camera lately. 

The revelation that I had in Jaisalmer was that I was dreaming bigger than I'd ever dreamed before.  Sometimes I feel like my dreams are silly...or too expansive to accomplish in a lifetime.  But here in Jaisalmer they seemed important and possible again. 

Perhaps we know that we're in the right place when it makes us dream bigger than we've ever dreamed before...dreams akin to when we were younger and idealistic...dreams like the ones we had when our lives were sheltered and secure...

"Please, God...don't give up until I've taken the shape that you wish for me.  Do this by whatever means you think best, for as long as you think best, for as long as you like, but never ever throw me on the scrap heap of souls."
~Paulo Coelho

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Delhi, India

When I landed in Delhi, the first revelation I had was that I felt very much like a child again.  Everything was so new and novel and fascinating to me.  Stray dogs and cows sauntered down the streets.  Trash littered the roads.  A monkey scampered along an electrical wire overhead.

The streets of Old Delhi.

People drive on the left side of the street in India.  Except there are no lanes.  Taxis, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, people, and city buses all swerve around one another, blaring their horns.

Ironically, I haven't seen a single accident.

I experienced sensory overload.  As they say in the Army, I felt like I was "drinking from a fire hose."  Except this was one fire hose that I didn't want to stop drinking from.  Ever.

After wandering the streets of Old Delhi for a bit (there is also a New Delhi portion of the city) we wandered into Delhi's oldest mosque, the Jama Masjid.

Jama Masjid.

In order to go inside the Jama Masjid, we had to take off our shoes and don a billowing cape that they handed out to us at the front door.  It was beautiful and peaceful inside the mosque, with birds flying overhead.  I don't subscribe to organized religion, but here as in some other places of organized religion I have visited, I could sense a spiritual aura.  

Shoes at the door.

We returned to our hotel, retrieved our bags and headed to the train station.  

Four boys sniff glue on the shit-covered train tracks in Delhi.  When they noticed that I was taking their picture they called out, "One rupee.  One rupee."  I didn't pay them.

We rode the sleeper train for 18 hours to Jaisalmer.  I was jet lagged, and the motion of the train rocked me to sleep.  The cabins were mixed gender and on the other side of the room, two Indian men laughed and snuggled together under a blanket, listening to their radio.  In India, it is culturally acceptable for men to hold hands, hug, kiss and...snuggle.  I saw this display of same-sex affection three years ago in nearby Afghanistan.  

In the middle of the night, I went in search of a toilet.  

Indian style toilet.  Yes, you squat.

I am now a fan of the squat toilet.  A huuuugge fan.  

On trains, in cinemas, restaurants and hotels across India I have noticed that there is often a western and Indian style toilet available at the same facility.  The squat toilets are always cleaner.  No pee and poo stains dribbling down a bowl.  No need to worry about putting your bum down on a dirty seat.  I can't speak highly enough of the squat toilet, and if I ever own a home, I swear to God almighty that I will have a squat toilet installed in the bathroom!

The childish wonder that Delhi invoked remains with me.  Days seem longer now as I drink from the "Indian fire hose."  On the sleeper train, a song from U2 came on my IPOD and I found myself absently-mindedly scrawling the words in my journal... 
"The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then, than I do now."
Only when I read what I had written did I think, "Wow.  How true."

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Beginning

This blog begins in India.

Delhi, to be exact.  Where I landed on February 6th.

This trip was 18 months in the making and it will encompass India, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Europe.

On February 15th, I hopped on the back of a friend's motorbike and got a ride to the Monsoon Palace in Udaipur, where we watched the sunset.

I'm not sure how to sum up the last 12 days, other to say that India has exceeded every expectation.  I've seen monkeys, camels and elephants.  I've witnessed things that have made my laugh, broken my heart and restored my faith in humanity.  I've had a shitload of spiritual moments.  And I've learned some travel tips along the way.

I'll share some of these revelations with you tomorrow.

Welcome to my blog.