Friday, November 30, 2012

I am currently without travel plans, which brings me to the (hopefully temporary) conclusion of this travel blog. While I am rooted back home, find updates and new work here

Monday, October 15, 2012

Varanasi--Getting Acquainted with the Ganges

Published on www.traveldudes.org on October 6th, 2012

Claimed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi is a sublime and fascinating place in North-Eastern India.

The much exalted city lies alongside the Ganges -- the holiest river in the country.

Varanasi possesses the most incredible religious and cultural history, making it a necessary visit for any traveler wishing to truly explore and learn about India.

According to Hindu mythology, the city was founded thousands of years ago by Lord Shiva, one of the main Hindu gods. As a result, the city is perhaps the most important pilgrimage site in India, and regularly draws visitors from all over the world.

While there are temples and other tourist sites elsewhere in the city, I would recommend spending a significant amount of time at the ghats, which are the small bodies of water belonging to the Ganges. India has countless gorgeous temples and local museums, but it's the Ganges that will make this city an unforgettable part of your travels.

Once in Varanasi, opt for a paddleboat ride at sunrise.

Many hostels and hotels offer this service to guests for free, but you also won't have any trouble finding a boat once you reach the main ghats. In the wee hours of the morning, Varanasi will already be very much alive and vibrant. Locals can be found washing their clothes, drinking the water, bathing or giving their cows a chance to cool off.

A few incredibly adventurous travelers might join them, but note that doing so would be rather risky. The Ganges is a site where birth and death are intertwined: families bathe their children there, but also part with their dead by sending them out in the water. Most travelers' immune systems likely won't have the strength to hold up to such close contact with the waters.

Sunset is also a particularly significant time by the Ganges.

At this time, you can observe the largest puja (prayer offering). During these ceremonies, and the main one takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat, flowers with candles are released into the waters while dancers chant and lead the prayer.

Many of the ghats by the Ganges serve very particular purposes, and it is important to know which ones you should be prepared to visit in advance. Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghats, are known as the burning ghats. The latter is the most auspicious place in all of India for one to be cremated. The ceremonies are very public and it is important to be respectful of the process, or avoid it if you think you will be uncomfortable.

It is also important for travelers to be weary of the usual scams in the area.

At the main ghats, foreigners are often prayed upon. The most common scam is for someone who claims to work at the burning ghat to approach you and take you to a "hospice" or tell you about how poor families need financial help to bury their dead. Such individuals may tell you how expensive cremation materials are, or how some elderly people who have traveled to Varanasi hoping to die in a holy place cannot afford food. Do not fall for such scams, and if you wish to make a contribution, look into legitimate, local charities.


Varanasi is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.

If you wish to learn about fascinating Indian traditions, and be exposed to one of the most incredible aspects of Indian religion and history, do not miss it!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

City I love Contest: Mumbai


This is my submission for the '3 Things in the City I Love" contest by Velvet Escape, Traveldudes and Wimdu.co.uk

Update: This piece was one of ten finalists for the "3 Things in the City I Love Contest"


It’s the city that one either loves or loathes, because it evokes a passionate response. It’s where a traveler can find every type of person imaginable: the lost, the spiritual, the devastatingly poor, the lavishly rich, the miserable yearning to leave, and the elated setting up a new home. Mumbai is chaos and beauty and the pair is inextricable. So many of the tourists I met there were parting with this wild metropolis only hours after their arrival—overwhelmed, exhausted, and with a bitter taste in their mouths. But Mumbai only offers it’s magic to the patient and resilient. Once you overcome the city’s challenges and idiosyncrasies, you will realize that Mumbai is one of greatest cities in the world.

While Mumbai is known for its relentless salespeople who know no boundaries, it’s also home to some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. People want to show you how incredible their city of 18 million is--let them. Once you make it through the labyrinth of tuk-tuks, taxis, elaborate or makeshift market places, find solace in the city's gorgeous temples and their traditions.

I love Mumbai because it provided me with so many exhilarating, hilarious, and interesting experiences I could never have had anywhere else. In no other city in the world could I expect to be asked to act in a movie while on my way to work or class. Never will I forget dancing on a Bollywood movie set for 10 hours, in a ridiculous costume, at the pay of a dollar an hour, laughing hysterically with new friends, and blowing our earnings in an hour later that night.

Only in Mumbai did I grow accustomed to buying books from street vendors who somehow photocopied every book I had ever hear of, and sold them at a small fraction of the usual cost. Like with many things in Mumbai, there is no system to how these books are organized. The dizzying piles of novels and their copyright infringements line the busy sidewalks. Some of the books may have had a page or two missing, which always made me laugh. Mumbai’s beauty can also be found in its charming mistakes.

While Mumbai has so much to offer, there are three incredible experiences that cannot be overlooked:

Spend the evening on Marine Drive

This main street is home to hectic daytime traffic, but it begins to quiet down later in the evening, making it the perfect time to enjoy the waterfront. Also known as the “Queen’s Necklace” for the way the city’s buildings light up the edge of the Arabian Sea, you’ll find locals relaxing with friends or family, enjoying the crash of the waves and the view. Until the early hours of the morning, chaiwallas will walk up and down the water selling hot cups of tea for only 5 rupees each, the perfect company to the breathtaking view and a cool summer night’s breeze.


A late night on Marine Drive

Join the Festivals

India’s festivals are stunning and plentiful, and even worth planning your trip around. Whether it’s Makar Sankranti, the kite festival that rings in the harvesting season; Holi, the famous festival of colours; Diwali, the festival of lights; Republic day, marking the country’s independence; or, more recently, the Gay Pride parade, Mumbai knows how to celebrate more impressively than anywhere I have ever been. Fly your kites from the terrace in competition with other buildings’ residents trying to cut down your kites, throw colourful powder at smiling strangers, watch puja performances and bursting firecrackers, dance, and enjoy yourself. 


The Gay Pride festival
Take the Train

A city’s public transportation is an important facet of its character, and in Mumbai it’s no different. The smells, the colours, the crowds, the characters—its like the city’s spirit was packed into a single compartment. It’s extremely rare to see a traveler on the local trains. If you can’t brave the train for your regular transportation, take it for an unforgettable experience. Once on the train you have a front row view to the city and colourful life by the tracks, and all the smells, good and bad, that accompany it. Salespeople on the train will sell you everything from the expected, fruit, scarves, and jewellery; to the completely random, plastic containers, earmuffs, and stationary. If you're in for a longer trip, you don't have to worry about going hungry. Mumbai's trains have table service--well, without the tables. You can expect to find men and woman boarding the train to sell snacks, such as samosas and sandwiches, while their repertoire of sales pitches fill the air in the compartment. It's the greatest street food you will ever have for the change you might find in your pocket.

On the train, the locals won’t hesitate to let you know, though in Hindi, how you should proceed. Don’t be surprised by the pushing and yelling. In Mumbai, one of the biggest cities in the world, you have to claim your spot. Once you do, there’s no greater place to be.


Waiting for the train at Churchgate Station

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Language Barriers

Languages have never been my strong suit. After having spent some of my childhood in the Middle East, my Arabic was far better than my English when I was young. Almost 20 years later, it's  enough to make my relatives laugh.

On a bus ride out of town, the bus filled up very quickly
and I found myself sitting up front with Carlos the bus
drive for two hours. He was very friendly. It took me a
while to realize that he is way too friendly.


My Arabic professor once looked at me apologetically and said, "I understand what you're saying, but where did you learn to speak like that? It sounds like four different dialects--we're going to have to start over." And suddenly I was learning how to say things like "I want" all over again.

My French is not much better. It's enough to get a furrowed brow and a stereotypically Parisian pretentious, "so you speak English, right?"

After about a week of catching myself saying "oui" instead of "si," my Spanish is finally coming along. But not without at least a few hiccups first.

Like the other day when I went to a nearby shop in need of new clothes. (Turns out my sister was justified when she threw up her arms and said "are you even a woman?" when she had to convince me to take a second suitcase for my nine month stay in Ecuador.)

Generally speaking, I am fine with conducting day to day tasks in Spanish. Generally speaking, I know how to conjugate verbs.

But when I stepped out of the change room, in need of another size, and turned to a woman who looked like she might have worked there and said "trabajo aqui?" (instead of "trabajas acqui?") she and my friend snickered.

"What?"

 "You just asked her if you work here."

Or like the time I stepped into the kitchen to grab a glass of water while the cook was making lunch and I told her it smells delicious and intended to say "yo tengo hambre" ("I'm  hungry" or literally "I have hunger.")  Instead, I said "yo tengo hombre": I have man.

Good thing I'm starting formal Spanish lessons tomorrow...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bargains and Bluffs

At Otovalo
Confession: when it comes to traveling, I am cheap--notoriously so.

Like the time I carried my bags down three flights of stairs and bluffed leaving the hotel to save 75 rs on the room.

Or the time I spent ten minutes bargaining fifteen dollars off of a vintage coat when the shop owner laughed and asked, "Where the hell did you learn to bargain like that?"

Or last week when I bargained 30% off of a silver bracelet and it seemed that the owner couldn't decide whether he was more impressed or annoyed.

When my family tease me and laugh, I don't mind because every handful of dollars is another city seen. Bargaining is like a game and it's a fine line between getting a good deal and not insulting or ripping someone off. A foreigner is a gold mine, a perfect target, and it is just as important not to be taken as it is to not take someone else.

I've learned that so long as you laugh, smile, and say please, you can offer pretty much any price.

For instance, on a new pair of alpaca socks."Cuanto questa?"

"Cinco dollares."

"Por favor, dos?"

At Otovalo
She laughs and won't go lower than three dollars. I say thank you and begin to walk away. She calls me back and we settle on two pairs for five dollars. My friend, who I was bargaining for, paid her and the kind lady wished us a nice day.


The tricky part of bargaining is that no one actually names the price they are looking for or the price they are willing to pay. Once in a Cairo marketplace, while I was souvenir shopping for friends, I was asked for at least five times as much for a paper weight than I actually paid. And on good days the merchant is probably successful selling souvenirs for that much to tourists. My first offer is always a good deal less than what I am actually willing to settle on because the whole encounter plays out like a game of chess, and you have to be weary from your very first play.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Expat Life

The expat life has always perplexed me. Expat communities can be an odd thing, especially when they consist of members from a single community. I can't wrap my head around the idea of moving across the world to be exposed to your former neighbourhood.

Though I can understand why one would seek out fellow foreigners for advice on traveling, to alleviate homesickness, etc. I met a Canadian man who was probably in his late 60s and made the move to Quito only three weeks ago. I asked him why he decided to live the retired life here.

"Well, I could hardly move to Cuenca," located in the south and known by some as the retirement capital of the world, "the foreigners ruined it."

I glanced around the room and the irony was palpable. English seemed to roll off of almost every tongue, with the exception of the Ecuadorian bartender who seemed flustered as he tried to navigate the room. Many, if not most of the expatriates, spoke at least some  Spanish. But in loud rooms and restaurants, unless you can nail the accent you're virtually incomprehensible. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth I lose confidence and stutter orders in Spanish.


There needs to be a fine balance between getting caught up in the expat life and meeting locals. Both sets of interactions are unique and one can't replace the other, but I struggle to understand those who value the former over the latter. I don't think you can transition into a new city without getting to know those who built it. In the meantime, I'll be working on my Spanish to get to know the inhabitants of this incredible city.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Transition South

I left Mumbai expecting to welcome my original life--a juxtaposition to the speeding motorcycles, 3 a.m. celebrations, and late night street vendors. I expected to be relieved. But for days and weeks I felt out of place. I lay awake in a bed that was both strange and familiar and listened to the silent streets and yearned for the familiar ruckus of a far away home. After eight months of a calm Canadian life I'm lying awake and listening to a backdrop of incessant Spanish screaming and music.

Maybe it's because I decided to move to Quito only two weeks before boarding a flight that I have so often woken up unable to remember where I am.

I've spent the last year living on three different continents and trying to, usually poorly, get by in four different languages. Culture shock feels like my natural state, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

After one week, I am settling into my new home nicely and extremely disappointed in the tenth grade version of me that managed to be consistently absent for Spanish class.

-----

I had my first day off today and wandered aimlessly around the city. The only way to get to know a place is to get lost in it--repeatedly. Once I gave up trying to get my bearings, I hopped into a taxi with the chattiest driver ever, which gave me an opportunity to stumble through some broken Spanish. He was very friendly, patient, and curious about where I was from, how I felt about Ecuador, what I was doing there, and where I hoped to go.

We stopped at an intersection where pedestrians crossed briskly, very aware that they did not have the right of way. We continued chatting while three men stood on each other's shoulders juggling blunted swords in front of the car. For whatever reason such spectacles were not an unusual way of making money.

We pulled up in front of the gallery, I paid him and he laughed when I caught him trying to short me a dollar. It's been a while since I've been in a country where you can be smiled at and stolen from in the same moment.

I stepped into the art gallery and the receptionist told me the modern art section was closed for four months. Ecuadorian time feels a lot like Indian time.
View from La Basilica


Monday, June 20, 2011

What would you do for tea?

Sam was sleeping on the bottom bunk of my bed and at about 10 p.m. we  both turned in for an early night in hopes of an early morning. She was having the kind of adventure that was making me rethink my ticket home.

On the go for nine months, having traveled much of South-East Asia and on her way to the desert roads of the Middle East and North-East Africa, she was taking a couple days of rest in Istanbul. She told me a hostel was an unusual stay for her and that she normally pitched tents or stayed in the hospitable homes of strangers.

Longer trips need a stretched out budget, but it only made her tales richer. She told me incredible stories about biking across entire countries and the people she met hitchhiking in different languages.

We decided to step outside for a cigarette, Istanbul’s few stars, and to swap stories in the night. Only moments later our conversation was interrupted by a few Turkish men, yelling from a dark, abandoned building rooftop: “Cay? Cay?” Faceless voices of the night were offering us tea.

After several months of traveling, money starts to run low, and Sam and I were on the same brain wave: “free tea?”

I laughed and nodded. For that hot glass worth a mere single Turkish Lira (approximately $0.8 CDN) and interesting company, we were climbing 4 stories of scaffolding. The unruly structure was built of tiny ladders that were diagonally leaning on each other, and single wooden planks that one had to balance on to reach the next ladder. Walking as though on a tight rope, careful hands had to balance on the winds because holding on to the unsanded wooden planks gave us splinters.

Sam laughed nervously, and while tip toeing on our lifeline, she called out our stupidity: “We’re going to break our necks.”

I agreed. “This better be the best cay of our lives."

At the top we were awaited by Adnan, Ahmed, and Shukur. They had furnished a couple of rooms in the building and it was difficult to say whether they were living illegally in that city of 18 million. Though they skipped up the scaffolding with much ease, I had to assume that the building once had stairs, because their rooms had couches, beds, tables and a television.

The men supplied endless cups of cay and not a single word of English, so we relied on the few Turkish words that Sam had picked up while traveling, and the few words that I understood because they were similar in Arabic. But mostly we relied on barely comprehensible gestures.

They had very modest means, but were endlessly generous, insisting on making us a spaghetti dinner and giving us cay every time our glasses ran dry.

After a few hours in that unfinished building, where we sat in what would have been a hallway if it had walls, we started to say our goodbyes. Our new friends walked us back to our hostel which stood at the foot of the scaffolding.

They laughed at our quaking knees and shrieks as we climbed back down, and teased us by cheering when we reached the bottom with our lives in tact.

As Sam and I reached our room we laughed at our random evening and our failed attempt at having an early night and took to our beds. By morning she was gone, taking off at about 6 a.m. to hitchhike to the Georgian border and make her way into Iran.

From Galata Bridge

From the ferry to Eminonu
 
  

the fisherman’s boy is also a fisherman

         There was something precocious about the way he brushed his brow with the back of his hand and took to his fishing. Again he frees a tiny hand from his fishing rod and brushes the late morning sweat from his brow. As though his mother looked at him the day he was born and gave him a fishing rod before giving him a name.

    He barely looked up at the skyline: kingdoms of ancient conquerors and towers of modern day businessmen. He was still too young to care about someone else’s history, or to preoccupied with his father and grandfather’s way of life.

    All of his tiny limbs were suddenly jerked by the pull of a catch. Squinting eyes looked to the tiny dangling fish that flopped in the air millions of miles in front of the morning sun that continued climbing the sky. But from just the right angle the sun also hung from the reeled in line, illuminating a tiny fish that glinted and sparkled and suddenly seemed much more impressive.

    He hurriedly unhooked the fish and darted 40 feet down the waterfront to a man with silent eyes and hands that were led by the same morning ritual. “Papa! Papa!” he received a quick nod of approval and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and returned to his fishing at his original spot.

    As the ferry pulled into the dock, I sipped the rest of a Turkish coffee that I hoped would chase away the lingering sleep from an all too late night. And as I boarded the ferry to cross the Bosporus the little boy stood just a few feet away with his eyes on the water.
Galata Bridge
  

Transition to the West: Istanbul.

           It seems like the perfect transition to the West: an outrageously over-populated city that has all the customs of both the East and West because it is literally divided into the two continents.

    I have a very good feeling about this.
Galata Bridge

Aya Sofya: doesn't get much more gorgeous than this

India: Conclusions

“Why?!”

    It was the question I heard every time I told aunts, uncles and most of all my mother when I said that I wanted to go to India.

    “Go on exchange,” she said, “but please go somewhere else. It’s dangerous. It’s dirty.”

    It was many years ago that my mother left war torn Eritrea; fleeing the magical East for the modern West, and consoled by the thought that it would bring her children a far better education.

    I understood where she was coming from, because now here was her youngest, running into the arms of another developing country, and for an education, no less.

    “Your aunt says it’s crazy over there,” she told me.

    I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t part of the attraction.

    “Why do you want to go?”

Because a sixth of the world lives there and I want to take part in their chaos.
Because I am fascinated by Indian traditions and my curiousity is insatiable.
Because I want to shock my system.
Because I want to feel Indian summers and monsoons on my skin.
Because I don’t entirely know why and that makes the draw more irresistible.

    Now that I have stayed in India for sixth months, I am still not sure I have a better idea of why I wanted to be there. But I think I got what I was looking for because it was the most intense 6 months of my life.

As I wrote for and subsequently quit a paper that I couldn’t believe in.
As I rented a room from the most psychotic woman I have ever met before taking up a new flat next door to a Bollywood star.
As I became a freelance photographer published in Time Out Magazine, The MiDDay, and Mumbai Boss, and secretly only part-way know what I am doing.
As I became a fixture on the morning train whose elbows found a home in my ribcage and whose smells and yells would test my every nerve, and who on my very first Mumbai morning made me think, “Well, Mom was right.”
As I spent evenings yelling English lessons over chatty teenagers with huge hearts, who couldn’t understand my accent and I theirs.
As I met and played with children who had absolutely nothing, but the biggest smiles I have ever seen, and realized that although my mother raised me without a cent, but with hugs and a boundless selflessness that I still struggle to comprehend, I am completely and utterly spoiled.
As I had my heart filled and broken and the most frustrating days in my life  set alongside the happiest ones.
As I learned that in my college there are no real schedules, and professors often didn’t show up, but it was okay because India, well, she was teaching me a lot.

Like how my temper is often out of control and I need to tap into the patience I once had.
How I am not sure that I have it in me to teach 14 year-olds.
How some strangers, even the ones who seem completely bizarre, are the warmest people you’ll ever meet if you give them the chance, and how some strangers will unhesitatingly take you for all that you’re worth.
How it is impossible to call anyone one thing or another, because everyone is everything at once.
How home is just a feeling that you find in people you navigate towards.
How I don’t suspect that I will ever stay in one place for very long.
And how I want nothing but to write, write, write, and see every corner of the world, while helping people as much as I can along the way.

Calcutta


Mother and daughter: Ladakh


Jagdish Temple, Udaipur

Bollywood Debut

I enjoyed everyday of traveling outside Bombay, but I couldn’t help but feel homesick for it, which may seem strange since I lived there for a mere four months.
   
    Needless to say, I was excited to return. I am always surprised when I meet travelers who tell me how much they loath Bombay, or how they darted out of the city as quickly as they flew into it. Granted, the city can be overwhelming, but with a second look the same factors that may initially seem suffocating turn out to be endless options and an awe-inspiring vitality.

    Luckily, Elsie was just as excited to see the city or the first time as I was to return. We vowed to go out every night in attempt to stretch out the days and pull at the corners of the night to see the hours that many don’t know exist.

    Late nights on marine drive, at parties, and on rooftops were matched with groggy days that result from 3 hours of sleep, kicking back coffees while watching the monsoon flood the streets, and running through markets and museums on nothing but adrenaline.

    As is the case with living in a new city, I put a few touristy experiences on the back burner thinking “I’ll get to them eventually” but perhaps never would have if it wasn’t for traveling with someone who was seeing the city or the first time.

   One of the things Elsie was dying to do was be in a Bollywood film. Extras are scouted everyday on Causeway, and I always had the excuse of an early morning at college or work to not go. This time there were no excuses, so I decided to join her. I have heard many tales of bad experiences acting in Bollywood films as a foreigner, that include being left in the trailer all day, or never getting paid. Though of course a foreigner never getting paid isn’t so tragic, since the gig pays only 500 rupees, about $10.

    We went ahead with it and were told the day would be spent as extras in a club scene, which essentially meant dancing all day—sounded pretty great.

     The set was in the suburbs, more specifically Andheri, and after getting off of the bus we were welcomed with breakfast, and given a few minutes to mingle before being rushed off to the costume room, which basically meant having a couple of men throw clothes at us that they thought may fit and the girls gasping at how little they were expected to wear.

    It took six costume changes before I begrudgingly went on set. The first five must have been made for girls who were half a foot shorter than me.

    I wanted to look out for Bollywood actors that I might recognize, but I realized that this was going to be difficult since I could count all the ones I might recognize on one hand. After entering the club with my “boyfriend,” one of the leads came on set and the director yelled cut, giving me a moment to release my excitement.

    He was one of the main characters from the Bollywood film I had watched on my last flight, which had also garnered some international acclaim.

    “Hey! You’re in 3 Idiots, right?”

    “Yeah, that was a great movie.”

    I wasn’t sure if he was being funny, or just felt that strongly about his own work. I awkwardly laughed it off.

    “Unlike this movie. It’s total shit.”

    “Really?!” I asked.

    “No, it’ll be good. It’s like an Indian version of the Italian Job.”

    In the following scene as the same actor, Omi Vaidya, went to enter the club and the door handle popped right off. He turned around to a couple of foreign extras, “Welcome to Bollywood.”

    I wondered if instances like that, including water leaks in the ceiling and costumes falling apart part way through scenes also happened in Hollywood.

    Wanting to be able to pick ourselves out in the film in 6 months, Elsie and I decided to tear up the dance floor to try to get some camera time. Unfortunately that may have been the reason we barely got a chance to sit out a scene on that exhausting 13 hour day.

    The shots got more and more ridiculous as we and others tried to see how much we could get away with on set—from fist pumping, to subtle dance offs and outrageous gestures. The shooting should have ended at about 8 p.m., but by 9:30 it began to eat away at our night and I was getting grumpy. I asked one of the directors if we were going to be able to go home soon, and if we could get paid more.

    The first answer was a lie: “Yes”. And the second was an obvious and much expected “No.”

     Once we were finally taken back on the bus and released into the streets of Colaba it was 11:30 p.m. Our night was just beginning and our earnings were spent much more quickly than they were earned.

Players comes out December 23rd 2011

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gokarna

Gokarna was the second city that I visited with one of my best friends from Canada, who also happened to be studying in India this year.

    Traveling on my own the last couple months has been incredible, but I welcomed the change of being joined by an old friend. At 6 a.m. I arrived in Hampi. It took about 20 hours of bus rides, and I stumbled into Elsie’s hotel room, slipped under the mosquito net, and fell on top of her in a sort of hug/collapse.

    We later both admitted that we were a little nervous about traveling with such an old friend, since 24/7 exposure for two weeks is bound to highlight some differences. Living on opposite ends of the country, we only see each other a couple of times a year, and the last time we traveled together we were only 17: ditching class, with all of our money from our respective part-time jobs in hand, running amok through the streets of Paris and Rome. The teenage thirst for freedom was satisfied by art galleries and picnics at times that we should have been in class, and late nights streets and clubs when we shouldn’t have been awake.

    But 5 years later things are much the same, though slightly more responsible, with excitement, exploring and exhilaration.

    It wasn’t considered to be a good time for a beach town, since monsoon season had already kicked in. But with the beaches to ourselves and a few new friends, we took in the relaxation before gearing up or the return to the big city.

    Our days were spent with long walks, swimming and our insatiable appetite for Indian spices. The only thing interrupting the night’s laughter were the mangos that fell from the trees, along with other fruits unknown to the West that we cracked open on rocks and put on the tips of our tongues, which tasted the salt of the sea every time we licked our lips. The sea that we so often shrugged our shoulders and fell into every time we felt the downpour of the clouds and figured, “Well, we’re wet anyways.”
 

Hampi

    The boulders were larger than any I had ever seen and so incredibly round that it was hard to believe erosion could achieve such perfection. They spanned that little Karnatakan town, only to be interrupted by the palm trees that lay in between them. And as we climbed the boulders in search of the much talked about waterfall, that we did not yet know runs dry outside of monsoon season, we were accompanied by the banana plantations and palm trees that provided little refuge against the incessantly hot, hot, sun.

We hopped boulders that were scattered in the lake, and I couldn’t help but think they were arranged by someone who was looking for the same waterfall.

    Once the futility of the search became palpable, we asked a local where the waterfall was and she insisted on leading us there. It was a far more precarious path than I would have ventured alone, and as we skipped and slipped on boulders we wondered how much she was going to charge us. While the four of us struggled, she effortlessly hopped from one boulder to another: an old pattern for wizened feet.

    Finally she stopped and we gazed around or the waterfall and thought perhaps she was giving us a break.

“50 rupees,” she said.

“Where is the waterfall?”

    She pointed to a spot between two boulders where the water moved very slightly faster. We laughed at our disappointment, but weren’t about to spend that much on not seeing a waterfall.

“10 rupees.” She agreed and skipped off as gracefully as she came.

    The much anticipated monsoon slowed down the surge of tourists and in a town best known or its stunning, crumbling temples we were more often surrounded by evidence of ancient civilizations than present ones.

    The only people we usually found at such sites were Indian families, who were locals or tourists, picnicking on the holy sites of their ancestors. One kind family insisted on us joining them, and with rice biryani poured onto banana leaves, crossed legs, with names forgotten and faces immortalized by camera lenses, the afternoon was passed in one of Shiva’s ancient temples.


.



  

Differences

    It is never intentional. I hold fast to principle and never realize that I am making a scene until it is too late.

    As I waited for the 9 p.m. bus from Bangalore to Hampi, I realized that I was in for a 12-hour bus ride on an empty stomach, and headed across the street to a restaurant. It was packed with men, and the waiter who stood at the door immediately directed me downstairs to what he called the “family section”. Stepping out of the evening’s stifling heat, I wasn’t going to be easily convinced to step into an equally sweaty, dark, basement.

    “Why can’t I just sit up here?”

    “Downstairs, ma’am. Women sit downstairs.”

    This wasn’t my first such encounter. When I was in Calcutta, I accidentally took a bar for a restaurant and was immediately shown the door.

    This time, I stubbornly walked out of the restaurant and into the next one. Same thing.

    “Why can’t I just sit right here?”

    Although a part of me wants to raise my voice and demand equality, I wonder if it’s a Western inclination and a Western understanding of equality. Having grown up in the West but in an Eastern family, I sometimes feel split between the two sentiments. I think it’s the same inclination to yell in frustration that also introduces a tendency to oversimplify.

    I know that I feel wronged when I am treated differently for being a woman, but at the same time I don’t know what to think when I remember that so much of my family lives in lands where it is inappropriate for a woman to walk out of doors unaccompanied by a man. And while I don’t believe such treatment of woman is right, it all too easily becomes a conversation of “we are right and they are wrong because they are different”.

    I began to hesitate on insisting on sitting in a section of the restaurant that was so clearly allocated for men. Ultimately, it felt like wandering into a foreign space and assuming that I understood why things were done the way they were. There are thousands of years of culture and religion that have come to shape modern India, and to think it is possible to grasp that entirely in a mere six months is not just overly ambitious, but simply ignorant.

    Before I could retract my objections the waiter was sitting me down and trying to take my order.

    “Menu?” I asked.

    He paused and gestured to the man, ostensibly the manager, who was waving me over. Silently, he looked at me for a couple moments:

“English or Arabic?”

“English.”

“English or Arabic?”

“English.”

“English or Arabic?”

    I don’t know how he picked out my Arab roots from a face, that mostly shows my mother’s Eritrean heritage. Perhaps he repeated himself because my voice was being stolen away by the wind from the nearby window that was carrying car horns and the Bollywood music of car speakers that were flying by, or maybe he was just looking for the answer he wanted.

    “Arabic,” I said reluctantly.

    Unfortunately, he didn’t see my reluctancy as a hint to how rusty my Arabic is. After 6 months in India, I know the meanings of all the typical Indian dishes, but to now have them riddled off in a sort of part Hindi and part Arabic--in a dialect inevitably different than mine—was verging on incomprehensible.

    But at the end of nearly every dish, I heard the Arabic word for chicken and beef. Apparently I had to make a point of holding my ground in what seemed like the only non-vegetarian friendly restaurant in India.

“Aloo gobhi (Potato Cauliflower),” he said quickly, and I nodded.

    They immediately brought over my food but without any cutlery, which I didn’t mind. I’ve come to think food tastes better off my hands, but maybe it’s the taste of nostalgia because I watched my mother eat off of her hands all throughout my childhood, and it seemed much more graceful than the way that most people ate with cutlery. Next to my mother sat my sister and the juxtaposition they held was bizarre.  Her cutlery was still guided by the English boarding schools she attended as a child. I would sit across from my mother, clumsily imitating her while teasing my sister’s propriety.

    So eating with my hands will always remind me of my childhood, but perhaps it looked unnatural after so many years because the waiter dropped a spoon on my table moments later. And when I looked up, I could feel the stares of men who entered the restaurants, whose gestures and conversation told me that they were regulars, and I was out of place.

I responded as I always do to such looks: awkward smiles all around.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chance

This country is starting to feel outrageously small. I thought it was home to 1/6th of the entire world.

Then how is it that I continually come across the same people and old friends?

Granted, most of us hop on trains and buses with the travel Bible in hand (Lonely Planet), and perhaps because of that we are making similar stops and taking similar routes, but the chances of repeated encounters still don't seem terribly high.

Like when I met a German man on a rocky bus ride from Udaipur to Jodhpur, then found him weeks later sitting next to me in one of McLeod Ganj's internet cafes.

Or sitting down for dinner in Jaipur, at a restaurant that made up in dosas what it lacked in promptness, next to a group of Dutch girls. Then, finding myself over a month later amongst new friends sipping Darjeeling tea over Darjeeling's hills at a table next to the same girls.

Or finding my Japanese friend, who I spent days and nights with in the mountains and deserts of Ladakh, only to hear her voice as I walked through the labyrinth that is Varanasi's streets where she sipped a lassi at one of Varanasi's famous lassi shops.

Or spending time with a lovely pair of Argentinian ladies on my first day of traveling the north, only to find them staying at the same hotel as me, in one of a million of Delhi's hotels, on my last day of traveling the North.

Or finding a familiar face from Dharamsala on the other end of the country in one of Cochin's restaurants, who then joined me for a morning of elephant bathing in Kodanad.

I sat at a Delhi chai stall on my last day in the north reflecting on the uncaniness of such run ins, only to have my train of thought interrupted by a Canadian friend that I haven't seen since I visited in Pune. Making me no longer upset about having to spend the night in Delhi, which I have before mentioned is not one of my favourite places, but happy for the coincidence.

And now as I have reached Munnar and spent almost an hour looking for a hotel with a vacant and affordable room, I found one that was very much under construction, but with decent rooms that sometimes have water.

For whatever reason, I decided to crack open the visitor's book in my room, which I never do, only to find it signed by all my Canadian friends who were living a few hours outside of Bombay.

One of my friends cleverly wrote his message in French saying that although the hotel manager was extremely kind, his kindness had perhaps extended too far to ladies who stayed there, and included a warning for single female travelers.

And when the hotel manager invited himself into my room, to sit on my bed, and repeatedly give me welcoming hugs (more than I would give to my own mother), I was thankful for the advice my friend managed to give from so far away.

Vitthal and his friend: Calcutta

Calcutta

Munnar's Embarassing Moment

I have the most humiliating predisposition to fainting, and usually at the most inopportune moments. It can be brought on by crowds, heat, fatigue, dehydration, or when I am completely thoughtless its because of all the above.

It has happened at concerts, on Cairo's streets, and in Canada Day's partying crowds amongst other unfortunate scene.

Drinking about 6 liters of water a day has probably been my saving grace up till now against the Indian climate. And although it briefly occurred to me this morning that it was a bad idea to have wandered out of the city without a water bottle in hand, I thought the 2 litres I had this morning would tie me over for a bit. Wrong.

It was highly recommended to me that I visit the tea museum before heading up to the tea plantations, so I made the stop. It was a terrific bore.

As soon as it started to get interesting with a talk from one of the factory workers, the dizziness came on. The giant metal tea leaf vats reached the length of the room, reaching up to our waist. The tourists were packed in in between and the smell of fresh tea leaves quickly transformed from pleasant to nauseating as it filled up the remaining gaps of the room. I focused on not vomiting on the tea.

This time sight was the first to go and as I felt around I tried to squeeze by the tourists next to me, who were obviously perturbed as I heard a faceless voice say, "You can't get out."

"I am very di--,"

I really don't think that I finished the sentence before waking up on the cement floor. My first thought was I cannot believe I just ruined that man's talk about tea, and the close second was I really wish they would stop throwing water in my face, but my body hadn't quite figured out how to use my mouth again.

Then, I heard the universal Indian remedy cried out from a pair of lungs: "Get chai!"

I was so emabarassed and felt terrible for being the cause of everyone being rushed out of that little tea factory. But this was slightly eased by the typical Indian hospitality of strangers who sat me by a window and served me water, chai, biscuts, and reassuring smiles.

I pulled my, now wet, hair out of my face and I thought there might be a fire in my brain.

The massive bump on my right temple told me that I must have smashed my head on one of those giant tea vats and because I blacked out before I fell I couldn't tell how hard I fell and was worried I may have gotten a concussion.

I vaguely remember walking back to my hotel, and couldn't believe I lost one of only a couple days I have in Munnar when I rolled over in bed and my ipod read 7:00 p.m. 




Thursday, May 19, 2011

Varanasi



We sat at the top of the ghats having a calm conversation over the smell of burning bodies.

 I don't know if I could ever get used to it, but at Harishchandra Ghat it was Maru's job, and all the generations before him, to burn bodies.

We sat and watched the body burn.

This time it was Maru's grandson, perhaps two years younger than me, piling the wood onto the body of a woman wrapped in gold cloth. All the while, the men of the family sat to the right and would continue to watch for the three hours that it would take for her body to burn. Her son shaved his beard and head except for several strands at the crown to symbolize Hare Krishna. It was a part of the ritual.

I asked why none of the women in the family were present.

"Women cry too much. They're too emotional. This isn't a time to cry, because we believe in reincarnation.
Also because of the sati, but now of course its illegal."

The sati is an old tradition that required a woman to burn herself on a pyre at her husband's funeral. If she did not do it voluntarily, she was often pushed by her husband's family.

"Her hips will not burn, and a man's chest will not burn, so we will throw them into the Ganges for the fish to eat and that is the circle of life."

Her body was burning over the sandy section reserved for the middle class and to the left was the elevated, white, circular, stone reserved for the Brahmins.

"Some people don't need to be cremated because they are already pure: children, sadus (monks), pregnant woman, those who die from a snake bite (since snakes are a symbol for Shiva), and the leperous. They will be thrown into the Ganges attached to a heavy stone.

"We burn bodies all day, every day of the year. During the monsoon, the water rises too high, so we burn bodies in the temple," he pointed upwards, past about 30 meters of staircase.

Behind there I was told that there were hospices, where the old and sick, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles, waited to die in this holy city where Shiva laid his hands thousands of years ago.

It felt strange to sit in that area where death was so palpable, and a mere 50 feet away from where men and women bathed, washed their clothes, prayed, and drank the water that was home to so many bodies.

It was both beautiful and disarming, to be in a place where life and death were so inextricably intertwined.






This Is Not What Bridges Were Built For

He told me to walk like a penguin to the edge of the bridge, but with my ankles bound together and being weighed down by a sort of sand bag, it was a little harder than it looked. All of a sudden the rickety bridge felt like a wet, slippery, bad idea.

"Jump"

I got into the diving position as instructed and fell head first into the hot air of that Kathmandu afternoon. On both sides of the bridge were walls of trees sloping downwards to the rapids and massive boulders, with one in particular standing out. Painted by an unfortunate employee who must have balanced his way to the middle of the gushing river with a white paint bucket in hand, it read "Nepal Bungee".

I thought that if I opened my mouth my brain would slip out.

It was a 160m fall in less than 2 seconds, one of the world's highest jumps, and 100 meters higher than my last. As the rope streched out to its full length it sprung back only to send my flailing and spiraling back up. This is one of my favourite feelings.

As the jump began to lose its momentum, a long bamboo stick came into my preipharal vision. I continued to spiral, grabbed on, and was brought back down to earth, only to be sent on a 20 minute hike up hill, on jagged rocks, with a lingering head rush.

Once I got back up, I was awaited by employees busily trying to sell me videos, pictures, and tshirts, of a memory that was still fresh in my mind. I wasn't interested because it just seemed like more stuff to carry around, after I had made such an effort to lighten my pack, giving away all of my sweaters and shawls in apprehesion of the scorching south. And after even going to the lengths of ripping out the Varanasi section from the northern half of my crumbling Lonley Planet, since it is my last northern stop.

I had also just learned that in addition to the bungee, the resort provides the highest canyon swing in the world, and I learned what a canyon swing was.

Picture a bungee jump where the fall is horizontal rather than vertical with a 7 second free fall at 150 km/ hour. It was about the same price as the memorabilia, so the choice was clear. So after a sweaty walk back up to the bridge, I whipped out my credit card, which has become more and more irrelevant to any actual funds, and signed on for the canyon swing.

I had spent the morning and afternoon with other tourists interested in throwing themselves off a bridge. After signing a waiver that stated: "I understand that bungee jumping is nothing more than jumping off a bridge attached to an elastic. I also understand that we are in a remote area where there are very limited medical resources," we perhaps stupidly put our lives into the hands of strangers, who called us out one by one, and we became bound together by fear and excitement. They went in descending order of weight.

"64 kilograms"

"63..."

"62"

Her name was Louise and her face turned as red as her thick, bright, hair. She squeezed by everyone to the centre of that swaying bridge, where we were all packed together. I caught a glimpse of her right had as she raised it to slip by me: "62 B (bungee)"

The 20 or so of us stood around making conversation with new companions and silenty sympathizing with Louise who stood and shook at the edge of the bridge. After a couple of minutes, she backed up and slipped out of her harness. First bail.

"61" We look around at eachothers' hands in silence...

"60"

I double-checked my hand. Thought so. As I got my harness on, I wasn't uncomfortable about the jump so much as the man who wouldn't get his lense out of my face for the videos they wanted to sell us.

"Rudayana (I spelt my name for him 6 times, but he couldn't get it right) how do you feel jumping again?"

"More broke."

And as I grabbed onto the rope, my eyelids fluttered with the wind, the water rushed past, I could hear my own screams, their laughter, and I felt as light as my pockets.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wildlife

"We call this the London Bridge, because we used English technology to build it," he made the joke with an expressionless face. I could tell he was joking when I looked down at my feet to see them standing on a few wood and bamboo logs, lined with bags of sand, and of course no hand rails.

I was in Chittwan, Nepal's oldest national park, with hopes of seeing crocodiles, the one-horned rhino, which is found only in India and Nepal, and like everyone else--I wanted more than anything to see a tiger, but was right to think it would never happen.

Unfortunately in trying to book a bus ticket to Chittwan, I got suckered into purchasing a tour package, and was told that there was no way of getting to Chittwan without the transportation provided by the package. Sounds unlikely, I know, but every agent stuck to that story, and I didn't want to ask my hotel manager about it, since with every conversation he would insist that I join him to a far away mountain lookout to watch the sunset and sunrise. I don't know how many combination of words I can use to explain that it is never going to happen.

I bought the package, also because it didn't sound half bad with activities including a jungle walk, canoeing, and an elephant safari, with a guide each day.

I had a guide for about two hours total over the period of three days.

"Canoeing" was misleading, as we sat on the river being paddled around by a local at the back of the boat, more in the style of a gondala. Complaints aside, we managed to see a few crocodiles at close distance and several gorgeous birds. One in particular looked oddly familiar, but I did not know where I could possibly have seen it.

"Do you know this bird?" my guide asked. "It's the Kingfisher."

A word I knew, but never associated with birds, but with friends who sat and laughed and drank away the stars late into the night. Kingfisher is India's biggest beer company.

After our short "canoe" ride," my guide and I set off for the jungle walk.

"This is fresh rhino print," he pointed at the round impression in the ground with the three points for toes.

I couldn't really say that I trusted my guide, as he didn't really appear to be a professional so much as a bored man barely out of his teens who recited a memorized script.

I looked for reassuring words: "I once heard that rhinos kill more people than any other animal."

He wasn't worried, and it was disconcerting when he pointed at his bamboo walking stick. Apparently my guide was properly armed to fight off  a rhino. Good. Great, really. I am so lucky.

He asks me what my favourite animal is, and in response to my answer he pauses and turns around. "But why? They are so dangerous. Just two weeks ago one of the villagers was killed by a wild elephant while she was picking grass."

Oh, good. I probably shouldn't worry about that either.

After about an hour and a half of canoeing and going on a jungle walk, he took me to the elephant breeding centre, where a baby elephant was born just a few days ago. It was pretty much as adorable as you would expect.

After our visit, which was finished by 9 a.m., since the program, for reasons beyond me, required me to wake up at dawn, my tour guide said we would return to the hotel for a rest. Was the morning really that straining?

Left to my own devices I wandered around the the village for a while, which was a refreshing shift from the city, and quite beautiful.

The afternoon held what I was most excited about going to Chittwan for: elephant safari. This entailed riding atop an elephant in search of animals, where we saw one horned rhinos, barking deer, peacocks, and monkeys.



Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Most Memorable Hotel Yet

We met after two cities spat me out in a single morning and afternoon. My 6 am flight leaving Leh dragged me out of bed at 4:30, and an ice cold shower that I couldn't bring myself to take awaited me in that detatched bathroom whose concrete floor felt colder than Canadian mornings on my bare toes.

I piled on everything in my pack that wasn't a tank top or a t-shirt, and hopped into the taxi. The airport was the size of a resturaunt, but all that really mattered was that it had sufficient space for sleep as I kicked back after the announcement sounded that the flight was delayed.

It took only an hour in the sky to take me from that tiny Tibetan city with mud houses tucked away in the tranquil mountains, to Delhi's bustling bazaars, sweltering heat, and its insatiable appetite that will take every goddamn rupee you showed up with. As I was given the run around from tourist office to ticket booth, and was told I couldn't buy a ticket at such and such place because I wasn't an Indian, and I wasn't a tourist, and as the railway officers even began to scam me, I decided that Delhi seems to have more crooks per capita then any city I have ever been to in my life. I was furious and exhausted, and asked for a ticket that would go anywhere, and somehow it wasn't possible.

As a last resort I showed up to an airline agent office and asked to book a plane ticket for any city that would strike my interest and that would leave in the next few hours.
Calcutta it was.

A couple more hours in the sky, and an arduous 2 hour cab ride where the driver continued to pretend he was not lost. I fell asleep and dropped my cellphone on the pleather seat. The second Indian cell phone lost, the first was to Goa's midnight sands, or perhaps, by now, to the tide.

After two rainfalls in that same taxi, we finally reached your door. I use the term loosely. It was crammed and opened like a garage.

You seemed friendly enough, and other wanderers seemed to be enjoying your company--laughing over beers. I was sure you'd suit me for a couple of days. I didn't realize how unique your situation was, until I began to settle down for bed, on sheets that looked worn out enough that they may have come over with the British. Your air was filled with the laughter and buzzing of the seedy Stuart Lane, and you are no less seedy, with signs that request "no cocaine and no hiroine," and stories that rapidly passed from lips to ears about a murder that happened here just two months ago--already a legend.

I had to share my bed with Mr. Big, ironically named, one of many stray kittens from a hotel accross the street who were doing away with the problem. They were dirty, but I am glad you saved them.

Mr. Big, along with the draft of your windows, broken glass filled in with scraps of newspaper and old scarves, which brought in endless mosquitos, kept me up at night and left me staring at scrawled on walls left behind by tourists.

To shake off the sleep was your rusted shower. Two taps for ice cold.

Paragon Hotel, you are a shit hole, but for a couple of brilliant Calcutta days you were home.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Ladakh

Eyes closed: breathe breathe breathe. I try to forget the incessant beating in my head, the fact that after 8 years without a puffer I would kill a man for one, that my stomach is suddenly part of my esophagus, that I'm pretty close to sharing my two hour old breakfast with the mountains.

Car jerks back, makes one more climb, and I measure time by the Bollywood songs blasting on the stereo. Couple more tunes and the pressure starts to ease. We're finally descending the highest road in the world. My lungs feel familiar again. Step out the car, see the view, and think that was definitely worth the altitude sickness.

I almost glance around to look for the National Geographic photographer, because I have only seen such sights in print, and I imagine most people only get to see such views from their living room couches or their breakfast tables.

Oh look, some mountains. Pass the pepper.

Deep Breath--it's been a helluva year.


Learning About Tibet

Prayer flags catching the wind is the sound of McLeod Ganj.

I knew nothing--less than nothing about Tibet. So even just a week in McLeod Ganj, immersed in the culture of Tibetans,  forced to relocate by the danger that's swallowing their homes, was a real eye opener.



After making a new friend at the Dalai Lama's appearance at Tsuglagkhang temple, and chatting over lunch, I learned how criminally so many Tibetans have been treated. And that although the Tibetan community in McLeod Ganj is warm and ostensibly happy, its filled with homesickness and endless protest.


I asked my friend why his journey to Dharamsala (next town to McLeod Ganj) took so long, and before I finished posing the question, I realized the obvious answer.

"I came on foot."

Passed borders, military, and over the Himalayas that have claimed the limbs of so many Tibetans.

I casually asked him if he liked Dharamsala without first realizing that the question had far more nuances.

He quickly turned a sad, pensive face into a forced smile: "I have to."

What disturbs me most about the Chinese occupation of Tibet is not only the attempt to eradicate its people, but the complete destruction of its culture and religion. During the sieges of the 1950s, Chinese troops used holy Tibetan scriptures as shoe soles, and the present is no different as the Chinese military will continue to trample on Tibetan culture until it ceases to exist.

And if we allow it, are we not guilty bystanders?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flying in Manali and Shimla's Fortunes

I heard that it had killed someone out here in Manali just a few years ago. That it became illegal shortly thereafter, but that the ban was lifted, and now pilots were apparently taking new precautions. I could see my mother shaking her head, and hear that ever familiar phrase from continents away:

"Rudayna, you're crazy."

I initially mistook the guy who was responsible for carrying the gear as we hiked up the mountain for the person who would be flying with me. He turned to me half dazed and asked, "do you have any marijuana?"

"If you're high, I will kill you."

We didn't talk much after that. We sat and waited for the winds for what seemed like forever and I hoped my Hindi speaking bus driver was waiting for me, because I couldn't understand what time he had asked me to return.

My flying partner patiently stood looking at the sky, while seemingly all the riders who had arrived after us were taking off. "Chello, chello!" I wasn't expecting more waiting after I got my helmet on and was all strapped in. It was getting unbareably anticlimactic.

"Wait," he said, "I want it to be safe for you." He stared at the gliders' chutes with such focus it was like he was guiding them with his eyes. Or, he was full of shit because that look was also reminiscent of one I wore all through high school math classes to coast by and pretend I understood slopes.

I was getting very impatient, and just moments after I complained the next pair to take off spent 2 seconds in the air before coming crashing down on the rocks. I hate when the world does that to me. Maybe that wasn't my high school math class expression. I was silent from then on.

He asked how much I weighed.

"I don't know. Maybe 130 pounds."

"In kilos?"

"Not sure. I guess that would be about 60."

"Nevermind, it doesn't really matter."

"Are you sure?!"

Helmet rolls down the mountain, my body is in an inescapable twist of cables, blood is caked on the mountain, and my face is so crushed it is just another boulder.

I'm snapped out of the image: "Chello," Ram finally yells. I am suppose to be running to propel the chute, but after three steps my feet can't reach the ground. Then, rock face, rock face, rock face, I cringe, and pretend I know how to steer, but I don't miss it before crushing my knee.

As we soared through the air, it took about 30 seconds to dawn on me that I didn't ask the most imporant question: How do we land?

"Just keep your legs up," he answered.

That didn't make much sense to me, so I decided to try running. But as we came closer to the ground, there wasn't time for anything at all, and with all of the speed of the wind at our backs, we came crashing down, and I broke Ram's fall. Maybe he asked for my weight to know if it could bare his.

"Yeah the wind is still no good," he said.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

From the gazebo by the hostel, I had a pretty good view of that city that was built into the mountains. The layers of the mountain, were like the layers of a cake---each with a different flavour. Below, I could see the trucks and cars circling their way up, and a few layers up, where I was, there were no cars allowed, and the city instilled strict bans on littering and public smoking. It seemed like an unbelievable Utopia in comparison to life just a few weeks before in Bombay, where it feels like you're constantly surrounded by a foot of garbage.

The houses were trickled up and down the mountain. Some looked pretty precarious, others were hugged by the hills, and some were so isolated and inaccessible they seemed like a bored architect's elaborate practical joke.

Like every quiet moment in India, it was quickly interrupted. This time, by an old man, who had a million things to tell me about life. Old people always have advice for you. I am not saying that you cannot learn from your elders because you certainly can, but to assume that with age comes wisdom without fail, is a fallacy. Some people seem as lost their first day as their 100 000th. And this man was sure that he knew everything that there is to life, and said "I know all of the secrets to happiness." He was handing out cliches as quickly and repeatedly as a man selling somosas on a mid-afternoon Bombay street corner. His name was Gajnesh--elephant of the rains. I wanted to tell him that the secret to my happiness was him leaving me the hell alone.

Though I will admit that he was right to suggest that I climb to Jakoo temple, Shimla's  highest point, early in the morning rather than in the middle of the afternnon, which is when I chose to go. Trailing behind me were two men about my age walking with more swagger than I thought a step could bare, but blasting Justin Beiber on their mobiles. It almost put as much extra speed in my step as the monkey who chased me with murder in his eyes.

I don't know if you could call him a palm reader, because he never looked at my hands.

"Your hands and feet are always cold. Your hemoglobin count is low, and so is your blood pressure."

What are you talking about?

"I just have really good insight on people. I teach people about life."

Well I recently went to the doctor and my blood pressure and hemoglobin count are fine. We're in the mountains, isn't everyone cold?

"You have two sisters and one brother."

Bang on. That's kind of scary.

"And in your parents' house, there is a guitar."

No.

"Are you sure?"

Quite.

"There was once a guitar."

Wrong again.

He paused, "but there is an instrument."

I have a keyboard.

"Yes! I thought so."

Impressive?

"I sense that you are impatient and lazy."

Harsh.

"You are very organized, and you have a great memory."

Double miss.

"You have difficulty saying what is on your mind, and you're much more analytical than emotional."

Massive third strike.

"When were you born?"

"March--"

"Yes, fish! I knew you were a pices."

It was like sitting before Jesus himself.

He began to show me postcards and letters people had sent him from all over the world, thanking him for his "guidance". It was strange the way he talked about cultures. He judged Germans by one German he met, and Americans by one America, etc.

He told me that he believes Westerners are arrogant and selfish. I asked him how he could talk about cultures he's never seen and countries he has never been to so confidently.

He asked me where I was from.

He then began to tell me all the names of the provinces, territories, and go through trivial encyclopedic facts.
He was mistaking memorization for knowledge, and I was extremely bored.