Thursday, February 26, 2004

They warned me it would be too hot too trek in Karnataka this week -- and I scoffed. I'm from Texas, y'all!

Well, turns out my outfitter and I were both right. Even my local guide had sweat dripping in his eyes, and he appeared cognizant of the possibility that his client was nearing a meltdown in the hundred-degree heat. Nonetheless, we made it to the hilltop temple at nearly 6,000-feet before imploding, and camped beneath a mix of stars that made the Milky Way look downright creamy.

Now I'm back in India's high-tech hub of Bangalore, nursing sore shins and thinking that rather than write about this experience (which is actually part of an assignment, and therefore legally belongs to some one else) I need to go drink a frost Kingfisher.

But I am alive and well, on the road again, and enjoying every minute of it. Even if it is blisteringly hot. I've got through this weekend to wrap things up in Karnataka, and after a couple days in Goa will head for Delhi and points North next week. No worries -- I'm having a good time.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Hello from Delhi faithful readers! I'm passing through enroute from Dharchula, where I spent last week, back to Karnataka and Goa, where I kicked things off last month. I'm on assignment -- yahoo! -- but if I tell you what's up exactly, then I'll have to send my hometown minions to erase your memory. I'll be sure to let you know when the article is scheduled to appear.

Rather, let me tell you how little Dharchula, up in the Kumaon section of the Himalayas, so darned close to Nepal you could hit it with a rock, has changed. Almost everything is the same as we left it.

We've gone back to widow Sonta's house off the main market, where the neighbors are fattening a goat in the front yard for an apparent sacrifice. Our local auntie Sonta actually has been promoted and now works up the road in a flyspeck town called Didihat, while her teenage son keeps watch over the property. We've got our two rooms back, with marble floors and pink-painted cement walls. Besides a few earthquake-prompted cracks in the plaster, the place remains neat and clean, and relatively private. A very good thing!

Our "friends" from Dharchula all recognize us, even me -- sans beard this year -- but mostly Christina with her flowing blond tresses. My Hindi skills are still sorely lacking, although the mountain dialect is next to impossible to decipher regardless. I don't know anywhere where they speak so fast, but it's like when you see those British movies and everybody has a village accent and, for once, you wish that subtitles were flashing across the screen. Mostly I tell everybody I'm "fein" (fine) "family fein" and of course "madame fein" and leave it at that. Still, the weird celebrity of being a foreigner in a small town for an extended period holds something of a charge.

Making a big impression on me, now that we've toured yet more extensively other areas, is how truly "backwards" -- an Indian phrase for the great unwashed masses -- the Dharchula valley is. From the phone lines used for drying laundry to the myriad web of leaky, 1/2-pipes supplying water to half the houses in town (the rest use an outdoor spigot or pump ) the lack of infrastructure is at constant odds with the aspirations of the locals. There are two Internet cafes, but neither can establish a connection with the nearest server hub 50 miles away. Like so much of the planned development in the area, connectivity remains a pipe dream.

Having made the drive back and forth once again, I'll revisit the road conditions some other time. In a word: Ugh!

On the upside, it's wedding season in the mountains now, and there have been constant parades featuring robbed Rang tribals -- the Darma, C's people, are Rang -- dancing and drumming at all hours of day and night. They carry swords and make a simple three-step shimmy as the lead the pony-riding groom through the twisting streets and to the bride's family house, where drinking and offerings ensue. We joined a tea party in honor of one man's marriage, and I was taken by surprise when offered "English wine." Acknowledging that I like an occasional glass, I found that I ordered watered-down Indian whisky, which I left sitting on the floor, fearing for my gastric health.

But overall, these parties offer plenty of opportunity for jovial visiting, and I expect we'll have our share.

The scenery remains the one area that one cannot complain about. Although you could raze the town and start again without any great loss, the central Himalayan range with its winding streams and ranging rivers continue to be a treat to explore. To live amongst the high peaks, although Dharchula itself is only about 3,500 feet, remains an awesome experience. The temple bells at night, the starry skies, the soaring Himalayan vultures, massive birds with white shoulders and wings tapering to fingers that look like they could palm a basketball -- all this tempers the complaints.

As for Delhi, it remains a massive Indian city; I watched Monsoon Wedding with friends last night on DVD, and through the filmmaker's Mira Nair's eyes I was able to rediscover the charms of India's capital. Nonetheless, I have not been in the woods long enough to long for the distraction of super-crowded bazars, legendary monuments or Pizza Hut just yet. Give me another month back in Dharchula for that.... First, however, I am leaving on a jet plane for the southern state of Karnataka, where I have my first trek of the season planned.

I'll be in touch.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Well, we've made the most of the day by cutting a wide swath through India's mid-Himalayan belt over a hundred miles northeast of Delhi. The trip started last night, actually, at the Old Delhi Train Station nearby to the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, sights I missed this week. We took the overnight second-AC sleeper class Ranikhet Express, leaving Delhi shortly after midnight. In the town of Haldwani, we signed on with the driver of a respectable-looking Tata Sumo. By 9 AM we were headed up the road, honking all the way.

Delhi was charming except for the computer crap; I think India in some ways must be what it would have been like at home for a few months if Y2K had actually incapacitated the US energy and telephone infrastructure. It was cold to start, but as it warmed up so did our experience. To begin, the auto-cabs are a lot more compliant when a brisk wind is blowing through the driver's blankets. So haggling was kept to a minimum. By contrast, in Bombay we mostly worked off of meters, although traveling to/from the train or airport always makes you an obvious target for inflated prices, and we did suffer some.

Ater Bombay, Delhi in many ways seemed a lot seedier and dirty. Part of this is the incessant traffic, which is worse than anywhere in India I've been told. The gray days at the outset made it feel grim as well, and while I love staying at the Singh's, I'm thinking of suggesting they invest in a couple of heaters if they're going to keep charging rent. Still, Delhi is a lot cheaper for the most part than Mumbai, although that's partially knowing where to shop and eat away from the tourist haunts, and we took advantage.

It didn't help our checking account in Bombay either to take "high tea" at the Taj Palace hotel, but that was $10 USD well spent. Indo-English snacks with milky, sweet Darjeeling tea overlooking the Gateway of India and the Bay as the sun set. It was both our lunch and dinner, and I'm inspired to seek work writing about luxury hotels in the near future. But the real culinary damage was done in Delhi -- and I mean that in a good way.

We went to our favorite South Indian restaurant in the North, which isn't quite the same as uttapam rice pancakes from the railway platform outside Hampi, but offers a tasty thali; the "thali" being in this case mixed platter of rice, fried bread, and mixed veg and lentil stews. We had to Muglhai meals featuring unusual goat parts (blame last summer's trek): First a lunch with a lung and liver masala, which C ordered cheerfully with the words, "Hmmm... I never heard of that before."

We also went to the classic Karim's, where we dined on mutton brain. That was planned and more delicious than ground organ sauce. Blame the recent Muslim celebration of Id and avian flu, but we binged on some red, red meat this week.

I spent today in a crowded SUV, the muffled Hindi and Nepali pop music tapes blaring from a house speaker jammed directly beneath my seat. The ride was uneventful if you don't count the baby crying and barfing on the seat behind us (thankfully, we were in the front); soon, the dad was throwing up out the window, too -- ah, mountain travel. For hours and hours and hours.

Lest you think I'm a big crab, we super amazing views of the five Panchachulli peaks, on the other side of which we trekked last summer, famed Nanda Devi and Trishul mountains as well; huge ranges all towering substantially over 20,000 feet. It was a grand and sunny day. In the end, our arduous travel and the scenes we witnessed and became a part of answer the question of how exactly we decided to crawl back to these environs. The combination of annoyance and beauty in equal parts makes life here compelling.

Tomorrow we reach Dharchula, where I anticipate something of a homecoming. Internet access remains questionable. But our guts are holding together, and the past three weeks have been memorable in a way I have yet to do justice to.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Sorry, computer woes of the worst kind have kept me from updating more before we leave for Dharchula. Suffice it to say the sun is out in Delhi, and I'll hopefully have a chance to do more writing here shortly.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Having a hard time keeping up with me? I'm having a darned hard time keeping up with myself, to tell the truth. Where were we? Well.... Following the dual overnights Hampi-to-Bombay and Bombay-to-Delhi, split by a day of sightseeing in Bombay with friends from Dharchula, we're back in Delhi. It's pretty damned cold here after the beaches and temples of South India, but I'm not finding India's capital city too taxing. This will be our last taste of civilization before heading to the hinterlands of Uttaranchal, We're trying to take advantage by cooking a few continental-type meals at the flat where we're staying and planning on a trip to the movies before the week is out. (We've already gotten our requisite trip to Pizza Hut out of the way).

Otherwise, there's plenty to share on the first three weeks of our trip: The beaches of Goa were a definite hit. We stayed, as noted, in an area called Arambol, which is the northmost beach with any development. Still, it's well away from the main party scene and the tourists traps and lux hotels of mid-Goa, and worked well as for rejuvenating our tired US bones after arriving and taking the whirlwind tour of Mumbai. The warm waves of the Arabian were great for swimming, and starry, starry nights and wonderful grilled, fresh seafood dinners set the tone for our evenings.

But so far Hampi has been the best. The former center of the Vijayanagar Hindu empire, which encompassed most of the southern states of India well into the 16th century, Hampi is really just one village set amidst several now-abandoned markets, where archaeologists and historians have determined continent-wide trade took place in silks, jewels, spices and precious metals. The region is dotted with ancient ruins, many going back further than the Vijayanagar. The area is known as the mythological birthplace of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and his army of monkey soldiers, who according to legend freed Lord Rama's wife Sita from imprisonment in Sri Lanka.

Without my comic-book version of the Hindu gospels at hand, I must leave off on this bit of story-telling, but as with many other spots in India, it's remarkable to visit 10,000-year-old shrines and find they are still centers for worship.

What's more, despite having fallen into tremendous disrepair following a thorough plundering by North Indian Mughals in the mid-1500s, many of the temples and palaces around Hampi remain an obvious apex of culture from an artistic, aesthetic standpoint. Bas-relief carvings in rock and poured-metal sculpture decorate the walls of the various markets and churches at many turns. The late influence of Mughals -- Arab invaders who established the Taj Mahal and other famous Indian monuments -- is evident in some of the architecture, while the wild and vibrant representations of various gods, Hanuman in particular, as well as the elephant-headed Ganesh and biggies such as Ram and Shiva, compare to the Roman-Greco classical periods. A favorite small portion of sculpture was the decidedly sexy Kama Sutra sculptures in the main temple complex in central Hampi, where the various gods and goddesses look to be having a VERY good time.

This makes sense given the dynamite natural surroundings -- all florescent green rice paddies and well-watered banana plantations -- and also recalls for me that I had first heard of Hampi practically a year a go, when far to the North I came across an old saddhu, a holy man who told me about his home in Karnataka. Karnataka is the state where Hampi is located. This man before giving up his worldly goods and leaving his family behind to recite the holy vedas in the shadow of the Himalaya, had been an employee of India's renowned archeological survey. The stories this old fellow told in Oxford-tinted Indian English of hippies running wild performing their own Tantric rites -- he told these tales gleefully, always noting that he never was part of the sex and drugs, but rather a simple observer -- seemed like they might still be pursued when we arrived.

Today's tourists interested in the so-called "boom-boom" parties happening in Goa and Hampi head for the north side of the Tungabhadra River in Karnataka. The orgies aren't happening in the open anymore, so far as we saw, but there's plenty of people chilling out and smoking dope. Problematically for those seeking total abandon, every last would-be guide warns visitors to stay away from the ruins after dark as thieves and brigands drawn by the abundant tourists have meant real trouble in the past couple of years. Rock-climbing on the red and gold boulders that surround the ruins also appears to be taking off, thanks largely to a recent film featuring 22-year-old US climbing phenom Chris Sharma: It's called Pilgrimage.

Our own pilgrimage to the Hanuman Temple, about 1,000 feet above the valley floor, where the Hindu faithful have visited for thousands of years, also showed the foreigners are not the only ones interested in partaking of the green herb that grows so plentifully in India. As he answered questions, the lead Guru toked on his chillim, sending sweet plumes of smoke to the ceiling of his humble hilltop abode. Then he ducked out to have his photo taken with a couple of very cute German girls. So I never got a chance to ask him what kind of television reception he got, but even a priest has got to have his MTV I suppose.

There's more to report, of course -- as always -- by lunch is crying my name. More catching up as catch can!