September 17, 2006 Dharamsala, India
Another windy road, this time in a bus which handled the curves a bit better even with smooth tires and was full of interesting people mostly aboard for short stretches. About twenty different passengers occupied the third seat in our row, the small, shy schoolgirls generally preferable to the thick, pushy businessmen who had to be controlled by an occasional, well-placed elbow. McLeod Ganj is a town in upper Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and thousands of yearly exiles make their home. There are only about four streets- mostly filled with souvenier shops but also busy with large cows roaming at will, a large number of stray but friendly dogs, street food vendors selling fried momos and sweet buns and beggers missing fingers and toes. Initially, I thought the shortage of extremities was due to the cold trek across the Himalayas but I was informed by a local that this was not true—that they actually had a “very bad disease”—presumably leprosy. The highlight so far has been a cooking class at “Sanje’s Kitchen.” I talked to the teacher in the morning and he created a special class just for the three of us since none was offered that day. “Ohhhhhh yesss, ooohhhhh yesss…ha ha….” he loved to say. The Canadians joined me in making Thukta, a wide noodle veg soup, vegetable momos, spinach and cheese momos (for which we had to learn to fold the wrappers in three fancy shapes), and the most interesting spring roll I’ve ever seen…a large pancake filled with vegetables and fried to resemble a giant chimichanga.
The cook came to India on foot with his uncle and 27 other refugees on a 24 day journey through the winter snows of the Himalayas. A Tibetan museum at the Dalai Lama’s headquarters tells the general story and presents video footage of actual, tragic events in Tibetan monasteries and instruments of torture used on monks and protestors . We met an older monk later who had been incarcerated for 28 years—the longest sentence served for resistance. Three thousand Tibetan refugees continue to arrive every year with stories of a rapidly changing homeland.
The main monastery here houses about 200 monks, all beautifully dressed in crimson and yellow robes and vests. Every evening they can be found out on the patio debating tenets of Buddhism. Usually, one of the two is seated and the other stands. They passionately argue points and the one that is standing slaps his/her hands together as emphasis. The whole scene looks rather aggressive at first but soon it is clear that everyone is having fun—a healthy way of educating—encouraging students to challenge their lessons.
A generous slice of chocolate cake and chai tea in the attached café brings life back to my tired knees and hungry body. The place is run by some very hip looking Tibetan youth with long hair and multiple piercings. Group activities today included a trip to the handicrafts center and some inevitable shopping—planning to later hit one or two cafes popular with monks to have an extended chat.
places visited on this trip: Delhi, Dalhousie, Chamba, Dharamsala, Amritsar, Simla, Chitrakoot, Allahabad, Varanasi
April 27, 2006 Cochin, India
What did we expect to find at an Indian circus ? I guess we were prepared for anything, mostly figuring that it wouldn’t be a high budget, polished affair. The raggedy, faded tent flapped in the wind – entire walls lifting up to reveal gypsy-like tents on the grounds behind the circus where the performers lived. Many openings let the light and air in…any breeze welcome in the ultra-sweltering heat. The paper fan salesman did well, distributing a much needed personal cooling system for a mere ten rupees. “Free Ice Cream” turned out to only be free for about ten minutes – when the guy came back to collect payment….no problem….we were soaking in the atmosphere and watching the crowd of small Indian children assemble to the rhythm of snake charmer music.
Here is a list of the marvels we witnessed:
*A series of female contortionists bending over backwards, their preferred maneuver
*Various girls and women balancing on each other in tall formations.
*A dwarf man with a black painted face and two sidekicks doing slapstick comedy routines—lots of spanking and slapping going on with a noise-producing cricket bat.
*A dog rolling a barrel, dog riding a horse (did I really just see a “dog and pony show” ?!), dog jumping through hoops
*Camels walking in a circle (neither camels nor elephants are unique or exciting to Indian audiences)
*A fire breather, dancer, limbo extraordinaire with moves to rival Napoeon Dynamite’s routine
*A motorcycle jumping off a ramp and riding circles inside a spherical cage
*A girl doing balancing acts on top of a trauma inflicting, bouncy pony
*A troupe of girls and women all on unicycles and moving through formations—ending up with a 4 unicycle crash and pile-up…..complete with an audible hiss and sneer by the senior member of the group and subsequent giggles by the other team members.
*Same group on bicycles—especially impressive when holding hands while doing wheelies.
*The grand finale. Six man trapeze team dressed in full body, jersey knit, loose-fitting tights accented by a pair of sequined, colored underwear. We were afraid for their safety, having witnessed the assembly of the safety net made of coconut husk rope and staked into the hard ground.
All these stunts were difficult, no doubt, but done by performers in ill-fitting costumes wearing very serious expressions…..the same expressions that the audience wore. I was the only one clapping and instead of being appreciative, the performers looked at me like I was an unruly distraction. A small part of the audience joined in but only for the fire breather and trapeze guys and many spent a good part of the show examining the antics of a smiling, clapping, oddly-behaving foreigner.
Oppressive hawkers blocked the view often with constant offers of chips, water, soda, peanuts and popcorn. My small neighbor, Regina, kept me amused with her excellent English and constant questions about what I liked in the show. All in all, a good day of fun—no photos allowed….too bad. Now I am in the airport, trying to keep my eyelids open long enough to get myself and my things situated on the 3:30am flight to Bombay and listening to “Let it Snow” on the airport sound system…a little hopeful don’t ya think?
places visited on this trip: Cochin, Mysore, Ooty, Pondicherry, Mammallapuram, Periyar, Auroville
April 5, 2006 Mysore, India
Mysore is a town I wouldn’t mind visiting again. It features a huge, centrally located palace which lights up Disney style on Sunday nights. We had an amazing muslim guide—long white tunic, full beard and white cap—who had a very commanding presence. He could shoo away looky- loos or locals who were blocking our passage with a single, stern, bug-eyed glare. It was very amusing to constantly witness this technique. The collection in this monument (rebuilt 100 years ago after the original was destroyed by fire) was a series of paintings in “Indian Mona Lisa style” in which the eyes, shoes and shadows of the subjects in the painting would follow you as you moved from one side to the other—amazing, really—no idea how this works.
Numerous moto-rickshaw trips and rides in old school Ambassador cars which made us feel like VIPs of the 1940’s. Our host in this city was Ali, who arranged for our every need—from drivers, to lunch at his home, to henna application by his daughter’s friend. Most of my left arm is covered with hindi designs which wrap around my bicep like a vine and attract a lot of curious interest by local women who normally paint their palms and forearms. It is tricky for two women carry their daypacks, ride in a moto-rickshaw back to the hotel and figure out payment without smudging the freshly painted designs on thier hands and feet.
About half of the group went to a local, Tamil movie…..the cheesiest soap opera imaginable, with exaggerated drama, singing, dancing and loud background music which crecendoed to a deafening volume during the most intense and dramatic moments of the film. I made a getaway at intermission and headed to the outdoor food stalls, a good place to chat with locals who are happily munching on local treats served on stainless steel plates or banana leaves. Afraid to risk my health so early in the trip, a nice room service meal and some rest in the room sounded like a good idea. The butter chicken and chocolate ice cream were good choices…..are 8 trips to my room by the wait staff really necessary ?!?
August 30, 2005 Lake Victoria, Kenya
I slept in until 7:30 a.m. this morning….vaguely recalling my episode with angry fire ants in the bathroom the night before and wondering if the breakfast coals were still hot enough to percolate some European style espresso. We were given a day free from the safari routine to participate in “optional activities” around Lake Victoria, one of which was the entertaining opportunity to observe the grease covered mechanic and cook disassemble part of the truck engine and scratch their heads.
The morning “canoe ride” turned out to be an excursion on a medium sized fishing vessel paddled by five, lean, young men who kept the pace by singing local tunes, the helmsman directing the softer than boot camp style chants. Visits were paid to fishermen placing nets in waist deep water… not having much luck that day but very happy to offer us a small, slimy fish as a gift. Groups of women in brightly patterned skirts sat at the shore to greet the incoming boats, watch the men untangle their nets and hand out snacks of peanuts and roasted sweet potatoes. Our boat landed at a nearby village and was helped to unload by a number of locals who were still unaccustomed to foreign visitors but greeted us warmly with a sort of subdued enthusiasm. A crowd gathered around to gawk as we admired the 20 kilo Egyptian perch ready to be hauled off to the market…nice to experience a village still raw like that. The campground has only been open for two months, so interaction with tourists is still a novelty.
First lunch, then laundry—drying at warp speed thanks to a temporary spell of high winds. Luckily, the clothing did not blow off the line and into the dirt as the cheeky children hiding behind nearby bushes would have been delighted to witness. The real treat today, however, was a bike ride….the first, official tour offered by the campground staff and serving only one participant because nobody else dared to hop on a Tanzanian bicycle. In fact, the local women had only recently begun to ride bicycles. Hard, dirt tracks made it easy, though…and the manager led the way on a 6km adventure, greeting and talking to everybody along the way. We stopped to inspect some souvenirs at a shop bordering the Serengetti, had a lukewarm Coke (official sponsor of most African town signage), then hit two more settlements on the way home. Nearing the campsite and neighboring village, we were accosted by about 20 young boys in school uniforms. They wanted their picture taken, posed karate style, showed us their strength by lifting a very long branch, then ran behind us all the way home, chanting a traditional song they’d adapted just for me…”White woman on a bicycle…hmmm hmmmm…white woman on a bicycle”…in Swahili, a groovy melody borrowed from the traditional “Monkey on a Bicycle.” More kids joined in Pied Piper style until we reached the village where parents emerged through the doorways of their mud hut to see the cause of all the commotion. Children swarmed about as I grabbed a few photos, made difficult by older boys sticking their hand in front of others’ faces. After each group of 7 or 8 pictures a mini-slideshow was presented on the back of the camera…producing hoots and hollers and everyone exclaiming “Ohhhhhhh Kaaayyyyyyy” to mimic me…such fun.
My biking companions suggested buying the kids some sweets but being opposed to handing out sugar (even in sugar cane country), I decided to get them the soccer ball hanging up at a shop across the path….which disappeared immediately along with all the children..out to the pitch..silhouettes of the energetic bunch against a bright orange sky, buzzing about in clumps raising clouds of dust, producing screeches and laughter until long after sunset.
August 25, 2005 Lake Baringo, Kenya
Must have been tired. I slept like a rock for nine hours…with short interruptions by dogs sniffing around the tent and an episode of aggressive grunting by nearby hippos. Not a good time for a trek to the bathroom.. Breakfast was a mixed veggie omelet- Good job Akio (our cook)- then off to board boats for a two hour ride around Lake Baringo. The hippos were really amusing, taking turns to surface, snort and eyeball us. A fisherman stuffed a fish belly with wood (to improve its buoyancy) and once we’d spotted the fish eagle perched on top of a far away tree, our guide James whistled loudly and tossed the fish up into the air. Within a few seconds, the bird made a big splash next to our boat as he scooped up his easy prey. Well trained wildlife. What a treat. Many kingfisher were in the area as well as yellow headed weaver birds who took no rest while furiously building nests on the reeds near shore. The “Go Away Bird” is appropriately named. It sounds like a whining housewife “Wa wa wa” and is despised by hunters because it squaks when they approach their intended targets.
A midday bath is a good opportunity to practice the simultaneous shower and laundry ritual which I’d learned about from a travel novel before departure. You wear the dirty oufit into the shower, get all wet, wash your hair, soap up the outfit, paying extra attention to the dirty and smelly areas, then peel the clothing off, stomp on it on the floor while completing the rest of the body washing, rinse it out, wring, and hang…has worked wonderfully these first couple of times—best with quick drying clothing I’d guess. It puts the fun back into household chores.
Wow! Highlight of the day. My leader hooked me up with some Spanish honeymooners from a neighboring campsite who had plans to visit a village out in the bush- a tribe similar to the Samburu in that they live in mud huts, enjoy a diet of blood, milk and meat, are nomadic and practice polygamy. Womens’ skirts are made of leather with shells and beads sewn on in patterns and large, stiff necklaces using the same materials along with anything shiny the woman happened to find—including bottlecaps, wristwatch parts and cell phone circuit boards. A bracelet is worn rather than earrings to indicate marital status. Our visit was slightly unexpected so the driver spent some time negotiating and catching up with the tribal chief, a man happily married to 5 women. He ordered a group of villagers to get dressed in all traditional clothing and adornments and prepare to provide some entertainment. I think both the tribal folks and the visitors enjoyed the experience equally. I held hands with two men and did the jumping dance, impressing the village with my vertical leap—probably aided by my lock-on Teva sandals and belted pants…(as opposed to the flip flops and wrap-around sarongs the local men were wearing.) Good times….the best of times, really. My leader, Steve, knows I really dig this sort of thing and will hopefully connect me with more such experiences as opportunity presents. On the way out, one of the tribal men offered to sell me his tiny stool for the extremely inflated price of $7. I declined for two reasons. First, because he carried that stool everywhere- held with the same hand as his staff. He needed that stool. Also, we’d been informed during our visit that women were not allowed to sit on those stools. I’ll get one later and sit on it at home. Ha !
Hanging out here at the “Thirsty Goat” campground bar is a great way to relax at the end of a satisfying day out. A group of travelers from various countries sits nearby and pontificates on the usual topics of the vagabond life and the advantages of being single. I feel so typical for the first time in my life.
May 14, 2005 San Diego, CA
A warm desk lamp illuminated a scarred workbench and a man hunched forward, listening attentively to a struck pitch fork and a plucked string. Violin pieces scattered about in various stages of completion surrounded Raymond Wise, a local violin maker. Beckoning him with a knock on the window of his North Park shop, I gestured to meet me at the locked screen door. He emerged from the dark room to greet me through squinted eyes. Stumbling for words, I spilled forth a jumble of “pleases” and “if you wouldn’t minds” for permission to look around and chat a bit. I had been curious about this workshop for a long time, having passed it often on neighborhood walks. “Awwwwl–right…Do whatever you want..” Raymond replied in a coarse but welcoming tone.
As I poked through and photographed things around the shop, an eight-by-twelve foot room, Mr. Wise continued with his work–finishing repairs and plucking and tuning the completed instruments. We talked about his childhood on a farm in North Dakota, learning to play the violin at age thirty-five, his grown children, and his twenty-two years of work as a guitar and violin maker, taking a few minutes to admire some of the instruments. A dozen violins and violas were hung from hooks on a high bookshelf, casting shadows on a large oil painting of a serious boy in a blue suit and knickers. Twenty or so hard-shell cases of stringed instruments lay in a row on the floor awaiting attention.
Each violin requires about 150 hours of labor and sells for $3500. Raymond pointed to the wall and started talking about a red violin he made a couple of years ago as a showcase piece. His young daughter painted a gold decorative trim as a finishing touch on the extraordinary instrument. This one was clearly not for sale. I asked the host if he’d seen the film “The Red Violin”..hoping there was some interesting story or point of inspiration to be revealed. “No…I just had a 3/4 size scrap of maple and I like the color red….”
“Look under the cabinet. You’ll have to move some of those cases. There’s a really old half-size down there in a blue case.” On my hands and knees I was able to reach way back under the bureau for a dusty blue canvas case. Inside, I found a 200-year-old, child-sized violin from Germany…light and delicate, rich in tone, and physical beauty….a piece of history kept hidden away so customers would stop asking to buy it. Then, Raymond explained to me where his materials come from. He handed me bows made from pernambuco wood from Brazil. The bow hairs came from Mongolia and Argentina. Violin tops are made of spruce. The back and sides are from maple imported from the Italian and Swiss Alps. A small sign in the window read “violin maker’ in chinese..such a big world outside the cozy, lamp-lit shop
Mr. Wise asked me why I was interested in photography, about my background in music and if I had “run out of electricity yet.” Sensing that my time was about up, I announced that I was finished. Raymond showed me out, taking a break himself…setting his Chinese coffee cup on the mailbox and opening a section of the sunday paper. I thanked the violin maker, while our eyes adjusted to the sun and told him that I would stop by and say hello from time to time. I see him often now, taking a rest in front of the shop, facing the wall while reading the paper and smoking. I startle him with a salutation and sometimes receive a smile in return, my new neighbor.