Monday, May 16, 2011

Old Friends

I played with the kid all morning and then when I was finally ready to go at 10:30 I woke my host up and said goodbye as he laid in bed. After 10 hours on a series of buses, smartly not taking unsolicited but well meaning bad advice and, as usual, a tire fix, I arrived in Manali. From there I got a rickshaw to take me to Vashisht which is just up the hill and away from the grossness of main street. I was met by Sarah of my McLo Gang who had already booked a hotel room for me. Nick and Vanessa from The Ganj were there too, this time much healthier. It was nice to be back amongst my old traveling pack.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Total Waste of My Time

We didn't do shit today and it sucked. I was originally planning on leaving first thing in the morning because I thought we were going to spend the previous evening out in the fields with the nanny's father's flock of sheep as they moved to new grazing ground. But then it turns out it was supposed to be tonight so I stayed one extra day.

My host is at a particular point in his life where he just wants to take it easy. I'm a super type A vacationer. I feel like I need to accomplish something each day, rest is for when you get back to work. I would go off on walks in the mornings but there's only so much of a small mountain village street life you can see. I had told myself that this will be a lesson in patience and relaxation for me. Maybe I don't have to occupy every second of every day checking things off lists and photographing ever flower I see.

I think I was doing pretty OK with that until I was told that the shepherd wasn't moving the sheep tonight either, that it was actually the next night. I said it was fine but I could feel myself getting very hot when presented with this news. Unfortunately, this was already at night and too late to hop on a bus to Manali.

I had heard that the Manali-Leh highway had opened early this year. That drive is often described as the most beautiful stretch of road in the world. It's 2 days across high mountains including the highest motor-able roadway in the world. I, originally, had not intended to go to Manali because I had heard that it was just a bunch of tourists smoking charas and getting drunk, nothing of any cultural value. My friend from McLo, Sarah, was headed to Manali today so I'm meeting up with her tomorrow.

Traveling alone in India is difficult and amazing. I don't regret for a second coming and being a part of this experience but I'm not doing this again. For those reasons I'm going to extend my trip by a month and a half. At the rate I'm going, and even if I pick up the pace, I will have only covered the North by the time of my flight on June 28th. If I tack on an extra month and a half I can breeze through the South of India and Sri Lanka and still be back in time for a week in New York and right off to Burning Man.

I have had so many inconveniences and annoyances along the way that I don't expect to have the will to start up another India exploration again. Next time I come to India I just want to visit family, not be a dollar sign to the annoying tourist trade.

Rickshaw drivers are amongst the worst people on Earth. I want to punch every shopkeeper that yells at me from across the street to come take a look at the same shit that can be found at the next twelve shops in a row. I am sick of people pretending to want to get to know you then telling you to come visit their shop or their uncle's guesthouse. I never again want to here the phrase, "looking is for free."  I am completely frustrated with selfish drivers that wedge themselves into oncoming traffic so that everyone on the road has to stop and then inch past. If they just pulled over or stayed in their lane, traffic could have kept going. My eardrums are battered from the constant honks of cars that warn you of their approach even after you've made eye contact with them from across the road. I dread never knowing what my next bowel movement will look like. I am over the crowded, dusty modes of transportation. I hate taking hours to travel a couple dozen miles. I hate the total disregard for the value of my time, my apologies to everyone back home that I've made wait for me. I hate being lied to directly to my face. I can't stand people refusing to admit that they don't know something. I am sick of everyone wanting to offer advice, wether they know what they are talking about or not.

They say that travel broadens your horizons and makes you more flexible and easy going. I find that the more I travel the more I confirm my core values and expectations.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Won't You Have a Bir With Me

When Frank got up at 1PM we had lunch and walked down the hill to the Tibetan colony to pick up supplies and inquire about paragliding. Unfortunately there's a ban on gliding for the week because of the cricket match in Dharamsala as they are worried that someone could sail in and drop a bomb on it from the air. I was told that people were going up after 5PM when the police quit guarding the road for the day but we didn't think of making tentative arrangements for that evening.

I spent most of the day playing around on my computer, organizing photos and making "magic sand" for Aloke. When we got out for a walk at 6:30 I saw paragliders in the air. We called up our contact who raced over with his gear and we rushed up the mountain. This was probably the riskiest and most exhilarating part of the experience. We zipped up one the narrow one lane mountain switchbacks honking the whole way to warn people coming the other way. We were rushing to catch the last few minutes of daylight. It took half an hour to get up the hill.

Strapped in, we ran over the edge of the cliff just in time for the parachute to open. Paragliding is amazing. I found parachuting a bit boring but this was just so much fun. You are low enough that you see everything below you and he did some stunts that would make the craziest roller coaster look tame. At one point I think we were almost upside down. It was ridiculously expensive for just 10 minutes in the air. I paid the full price which usually lasts 50 minutes. I found out similar flights in Manali go for 1/4 the price. I really need to remember that every transactions needs to be negotiated.

When we landed I sat with the guys and had some tea as they smoked a joint. The stuff grows wild everywhere here in Himachel Pradesh. It's actually why a lot of tourists (i.e. Israeli) end up staying so long.

That night Frank got on a tirade about following the tourist path and how little you see of real India when you go by the book. I do agree in a lot of ways that the Indians you meet on the tourist track are a very different breed than regular folk. It attracts a particularly skeezy person to try to make a career out of fleecing and misguiding tourists.

I did find his disdain for the Western tourists misplaced. I have been meeting great people along the way. I don't know if it's because many of the people I've been meeting are more open to experiencing new things without hangups, or if they share the same issues of having to make their way in a foreign land. Don't get me wrong, just coming to India doesn't make you cool. There are a lot of loud obnoxious tools along the way who come to get drunk, high and laid who will never meet anyone more interesting than their bartender. So far I've only found one American that I wanted to hang out with. I appreciate the people that I've got to spend time with through the last month.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wrapped up McLeod Ganj

I had my final yoga class and was briefly tempted to eschew the rest of my trip and take a month to do the course. Not because I would have any intention of teaching but I would love to learn at this guys feet. No, I said I was leaving today and I will. Oh, but just one more day couldn't hurt.

I picked up my paintings and had my final, so I thought, breakfast with Sarah. She walked me to the taxis in Rishikesh after the post office this morning.  As sure as I was that this would be our last day together, she had a feeling we would see each other again. Sarah's smarter than I am.

It took me 7 hours to travel the 70 kilometers to the small village of Bir, which you will not find on Google maps. It's home to a Tibetan colony and near Billing, also not on the map, but where the paragliding records are set because of its intense thermals off the steep mountains and the idillic setting sure doesn't hurt. The bus ride was hot and crowded as they always are on local routes and the bus broke down as seems to be my custom. When I finally arrived, at the wrong spot, looking for a cab, I was thinking to myself this was a huge mistake until I noticed the tea plantations and realized that a bit of clean air and quiet will do me some good.

I was meeting Frank who I had met on a bus break down between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh three years earlier. At the time, he was traveling with this new wife and new son. After years of no contact he had noticed that my gchat status said Himachel Pradesh and reached out to me. Great, I'm coming over.  Literally a chance to hit a spot off the maps.

Little Aloke was awesome, we hit it off right away. Frank had said that he's never seen him take to anyone so fast. My trick was to ask him to help me carry my bag, which of course he couldn't do but he held it as I carried it in. Aloke really likes to help. In fact his favorite thing to do is light cigarettes for people. I was chain smoking because he kept asking me to have another one. How do you refuse a three year old that encourages vice?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hotel California

You can check out but you can never leave. That's the general sentiment in this town. I got wrapped up in the comfort and familiarity of hanging out with the friends that I made here and the pleasantness of the Tibetan community. I planned on leaving this morning for Bir but then decided to extend just one more day.

I went back to the thanka shop first thing in the morning. I loved talking to this woman, she smiles and truly loves each one of the pieces in her collection. What an expert practioner of non-attachment to not horde them all for herself. She's a student and practitioner of Tantric Buddhism and taught me a lot about the various deities and themes in the pieces she showed me.

Marleen brought out her treasure trove of the better paintings which she keeps hidden away so that casual visitors don't touch them and they are protected from negative energies. I wish she didn't. I found a couple smaller thangkas that were outrageously priced but when I saw them they each respectively called out Suzanne/ Chris and Alberto/ Stuart. The one that screamed Arthur will wait in case I find one in even more perfect in Ladakh or Khatmandu. Anyway, his piece is how I see the man so it's not necessarily anything he needs to possess to remind himself to be. I chose brocades for my two pieces and they should be housed by the next morning.

I met up with the crew, sadly minus Stephan, but happily now with Vanessa for dinner at the Korean restaurant. Vanessa is traveling with the mysterious Nick who's feet I saw poking up, from under a sheet, on their bed when I knocked on their door. I had met them very briefly a couple of days earlier when I suggested my hotel to them. Nick immediately came down with a miserable amoebic infection which had him incapacitated for days.

Vanessa and Nick had been teaching in Korea for the last few years so we had her choose the dishes for us. She wrote the order in Korean and the waiter explained to us that the chef wasn't actually Korean. Not a good sign, but the food turned out to be amazing. I said my goodbyes after dinner but no one believed I was actually going anywhere so we said our see-you-laters.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thankas for the Memories

We all met up in the morning to hike up to Baghsu to check out the village and waterfall. I had been hearing from many people that Bagsu was the place to stay. It supposedly has all the Tibetan vibe of McLeod without the loud bars and shops. I found it to be less interesting with more modern shops and roadside stall with crappy merchandise. Maybe there's a chiller side of town but it wasn't apparent over the gaggles of Gujrati tourists.

The waterfall was refreshing after a long hike in the sun. But suddenly it was overrun with more Gujus. It seems I can't get away from us. To escape the crowd we tracked the stream further up the mountain. Along the way we stumbled on the inaccessible Shiva Cafe which we figured could only possibly stay in business is by supplying Israeli backpackers with drugs.

We climbed up just a bit farther and stopped on some boulders to enjoy a bit of nature and grafiti. The whole way up my stomach was gurgling and I knew it was only a matter of time. India has taught me to always keep a roll of toilet paper in my bag. When the grumbling became unbearable I squirted at the outhouse in front of the cafe, said my goodbyes and sauntered back down towards town with my sphincter held tight.

I was feeling better in the afternoon and took a break from tending to my case of yucky belly to scope out some thankas. I wanted to get a wheel of life for myself. Unfortunately the first shop I went to had the best ones in town and was, of course, the most expensive. I have no poker face whatsoever so it was obvious I was going to buy something there eventually so there was no break in the price for me. I took note of which pieces I liked and checked out the other shops.

I picked out a Wheel of Life thanka from a Kashmeri who was very much the archetype Kashmiri salesman. I'll tell you more about them in a later post. He was a nice guy but didn't really know all that much about the pieces other than what comes printed on a small, and not fully accurate, blurb handed out to customers. When I asked who painted it he said a Tibetan. Marlene would tell me details about the particular monk who painted each piece, his family, background and inspirations. I decided to sleep on it and make my decisions in the morning.  Too many choices, I hate deciding.