Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ciao India

I spent the day shopping - possibility the activity I hate more than anything else in the world. Haggling is fun, but picking out clothes is a god-awful experience. In any case - I now have a huge second bag filled with clothes, batik tapestries, sandals, bags, a chapati griddle, incense, cardamon pods, and a kickass pressure cooker that will mean no more 1.5 hours to cook lentils.

I sold my barebones Motorola mobile phone to a electronic shop for about $7USD, as I won't need it anymore. When I come back to India next time, I'm going to bring a GPRS/data phone so I can surf the web from anywhere.

I rewarded myself in the afternoon with a back/neck massage (which I've gotten quite a bit here in India). They're not as good as the mind-blowingly fantastic (yet sometimes painful) ones that you can get in Thailand, but at approx 30 rupees (less than 1USD) for half an hour, a massage from an Indian barber is dirt cheap, and quite relaxing. It's much much better than the 500 rupee, ayuverdic oil massages that are hawked to tourists here.

With that - I'm done. I've spent the evening catching up on emails, and in about 20 mins, I catch a taxi to the airport. At 2:25AM, If fly from Delhi->Munich, then to London, then to Washington DC, and finally to Indianapolis.. 20 hours of flying, and probably somewhere around 24 hours of total travel.

It'll be nice to have good internet, and escape the non-stop honking of horns in Delhi, but I'll miss India - a place where I can really relax, and not worry about things. Real Life kicks in again tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


This morning, I took an auto-rickshaw about 30km across town (at least that was what the meter said), and went to the super clean and impresive offices of Axiss Dental Clinic. I'd called the day before, and made a last minute reservation.

Its been twelve months, and I was expecting at least a filling or two - but no, for the most part, my teeth are fine. Total cost: 1200 rupes (slightly over 30 dollars), for a cleaning at a top notch private dental clinic. Medical Tourism is fantastic.

To celebrate my good luck at not having to spend my last two days getting a root canal, I decided to go for a bit of karmic payback.....

I spent an hour on the phone with the US and British embassies, trying to get a list of foreigners locked up in the delhi prison for drugs. I want to visit someone who speaks with an accent similar to mine, but who isn't locked up for pedophelia or murder. Due to privacy reasons, neither embassy would give me the names of anyone...

There has got to be a way to do this - so I'l try calling the jail tomorrow morning. I know it's not going to be pleasant to visit a prison, and see someone stuck behind bars - but... it must be even worse when you're stuck behind those bars. As someone who is leaving in a couple days, a free man, I think it's the least I can do.

Other than that - my last couple days will consist of shopping for the most part. Indian clothes are mostly crap quality - breaking, tearing or fading after one or two wears, so I don't know if I'll buy any of those. I did however, spend about $35 USD on a top end 3 liter steel pressure cooker, so that I won't have to spend hours cooking lentils anymore. I want to get a few more kitchen things, and then perhaps some fabrics and such for my home...

I've been regularly praying each evening that I don't get food poisoning again during my last couple days here. Hygine in delhi is beyond horrible, and so all I can do is hope. With 4 flights, approx 7000 miles, and about 18 hours of flights on Friday - I realy realy do not want to be crapping myself non stop.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Back in Delhi

It was supposed to be a 16 hour bus ride.

I'm getting ahead of myself slightly though. Yesterday, I packed up all my stuff, gave my last read book away, waved to the tourists openly smoking chillums at the bus-stop, and boarded a 1.5 hour local bus (bags, and some passengers on top, and lots and lots of other passengers inside). Due to the unwritten rules of decency, I had to stand for 1.5 hours, with my face close enough to a chap's armpit that I could see the individual hairs, all so that two scantily clad Israeli girls could sit down. Grrrr.

The local bus was insanely overpacked. There is always space for one more person, and while I usually feel bad for people who have to stand close to my stinking self, I can honestly say that some of the characters next to me must have come straight from handling cow shit. In addition to the armpit in my face, another gentleman stood very very closely behind me for about half an hour, muttering quietly, with what can best be described as a warm lump from somewhere in his crotch region pressed into my jeans-covered bottom. There honestly wasn't any room at all to move around, and so I spent most of the journey concentrating on not falling over, and on giving the seated Israeli girls the stink-eye.

The local bus dropped me off in Bhuntar, where I made my way to a private travel agency across the road from the airport (note to self, next time, fly to Kulu).

An hour and a half later, my deluxe VIP sleeper bus rolled up.

While the lying bastard of a travel agent who sold me the ticket insisted that I had a sleeper cabin in the middle of the bus, when the bus actually showed up, it turned out that I had the very last single sleeper at the back of the bus... which promised to make for a super bumpy ride....

The sleeper compartments of the bus were occupied by tourists, israelis for the most part - while the cheaper "push back" seats below us were occupied by a few Indians, and a whole lot of (what looked like) tibetian nuns.

The journey was supposed to take about 16 hours, putting us in to Delhi sometime in the morning.

At 9AM, we pulled up at a rest-stop approx 250KM from Delhi with a flat tire. I also found out that we spent about 4 hours during the night sitting in a traffic jam. This wasn't going to be pretty.

As the sun rose, the bus got hotter - and thus the entire bus soon smelled of body odor, farts and feet. No matter how holy the nuns may be - their sweaty stinking bodies still smelled as bad as the rest of ours.

I have to admit - that seeing a buddhist nun drinking a coke and eating a chocolate bar just doesn't seem quite right... although I suppose they have just as much a right to enjoy western corporate culture as the rest of us.

Eventually, at around 4PM, the bus pulled into Delhi, making it an approx 20 hour journey.

I've got a dentist apt. booked for 11:30AM. It'll give me 3 days to have whatever work needs to be done. I'll try and take care of a bit of shopping - although Indian clothes tend to fall apart, so there isn't much point in buying them.

I leave for the US on Thursday night.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In Kasol/ Parvati Valley

Kasol is approx 4 hours from Manali. About one hour into the bumpy bus journey, you begin to notice the scenery change. Apple trees are everywhere, and during the long journey, I think we passed at least three wholesale markets where gigantic piles of apples lay on concrete while the farmers and buyers argued.

There is something even more plentiful here than apples: Cannabis. I was staring out of the bus window for ages - admiring the lush greenery, trees and rivers, a pleasant change after the baren moonscape of Leh - when I noticed that one particular plant kept appearing.. At first, it was every few meters, here and there, until we got to Kullu - at which point, it became the dominant plant on both sides of the road... Scrawny, but with its signature leaves that have been drawn on Bob Marley posters hung up in many a college dorm-room. It really is easy to see why it's called weed - I'd be telling a boldfaced lie if I called it a beautiful plant. It's ugly, stringy, and leaves behind a somewhat strong smell when you touch it.

Harvest, I'm told, is in about a month - a topic which usually results in the teller of the tale smiling and explaining how much they are looking forward to it. The area will be flush with tourists, prices for everything will rise slightly, and hundreds of backpackers, mostly Israelis decend upon the valley in search of the freshest and most potent hand rolled hashish - which is called charas.

And so - I'm here, in the Parvati Valley, in a town named Kasol. I have a nice enough hotel right next to a roaring river. My balcony gives me a perfect view of the mountains on both sides, and at night, the water is loud enough to prevent me from hearing the high-pitched war-cry of the mosquitos that ceaselessly attack me in my sleep. Each day, I wake scratching new places on my body, and cursing the entire gender of female mosquitos for their very existence.

I'm happy to be here. Most of the rest of India is hot as hell right now, or suffering with the monsoon rains. While we get a bit of a sprinkle now and again, for the most part, it's rain free. There is no humidity, and I can walk around with a t-shirt on all day without sweating. Indian food is available everywhere - real Indian food, that's spicy, and from restaurants where the staff won't give me a strange look when I ask for Okra.

As I mentioned before - this place is famous throughout India for the apples. I've been drinking about 2L of unsweetened, unfiltered apple juice every day - and it's sooooo good. They make alcoholic apple cider here, which I've tried to limit myself to one bottle every 2 days. It's not particularly tasty, but at 8%, its very potent.

The only problem - I suppose - is that with most of the town completely stoned, It's tough to find anyone to have an intelligent chat with. I've gotten completely thrashed in several games of chess - a skill that the many people who have beat me seem to maintain even when high, but actual intelligent conversation doesn't appear to be something that people have the energy for... Thus, I've spent the time catching up on my reading, and have filled a small-notebook with ideas for research projects that keep popping up in my now idle mind. I've also finally caught up on all the sleep I missed out on this summer, and my horrible chest infection/cough seems to have finally bitten the dust after two weeks of take-no-prisoners Indian antibiotics.

After Leh, where the altitude is high enough to keep away all insects - it's suddenly strange to find creepy crawlies in my room, and bed at night.

I was hoping that there wouldn't be Internet here... but there is. So instead of being able to cut myself off simply by going somewhere without access - I have instead resorted to willpower to give myself a break. My inbox is piling up, hundreds of unread blog posts - but they can wait.

The town is a typical backpacker place - although, vastly more Israeli infused than most other places. Many restaurants don't even bother to have english menus, and the local used bookshop has more hebrew books than English. The prices for things are cheap, restaurants with chillout music are on both sides of the main road, and all in all, things are surprisingly hassle free.

In a town whose very presence depends on the booming drug trade, where most tourists come here to pay seemly obscene prices (compared to the cost of living) for fresh and high quality hand-rolled hashish, I'm actually able to say no one has pestered me once to buy anything. The stereotypical figure of the drug-pusher is one that simply doesn't exist here. Sure, everyone you meet tries to -give- you a piece of charas - in the hope that you'll buy some from them later - but it's all very relaxed, and no one gives you a dirty look when (I at least) decline.

The police, for the most part, are nowhere to be found. Tourists happily toke away on joints in the restaurants and cafes, dreadlocked holy men (sadhus) puff away at clay chillum pipes while waiting at the bus-stop, and in the evenings, Israelis approximate the sadhu smoking ceremonies - although using $100 Italian marble chillums instead of the 2 rupee (4 US cent) - complete with the shouts of "Boom Shiva", albeit with strongly un-Indian accent.

As there so many israelis here, the charity/religious group Beth Shabbat has a house here where the israelis can get kosher food, free friday dinners, pray, and just relax in a non-jewish person free zone. I have to say, it's quite strange to see Israelis coming back from their Friday prayers at Beth Habbat, walk across the street to a cafe, pull out a chillum, and then shout out some of the many names of the Hindu god Shiva (Bohlinat, Shambu, Mahadev, etc) as they puff away.

With the entire town essentially focused on taking care of semi-comatose stoned westerners, it's not a complete surprise that nothing happens quickly here, if at all.

I'll be here for another couple days. I have a night bus ticket booked from Bhuntar (a little bit over an hour away) to Delhi. I arrive in Delhi on the morning of the 20th, will spend a couple days with the lovely private Dentists here, and will try and fill the rest of my last few days with shopping.

Expect regular internet access/blogging on the 20th or so. I fly back to the US on the night of the 23rd, and arrive in Indianpolis on the night of the 24th.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Journey from Hell

I now realize that many of my problems on this trip have been due to one thing: I've forgotten my travel-skills, yet think that I still have them.

Case in point: Eating nothing but street food on day one of the trip - assuming that my stomach was ready to deal with things, just as it was when I'd been here for 6 months on my last trip.

And so yesterday - two major mistakes were made. When the travel agent handed me my Leh->Manali mini-bus ticket, which clearly showed that I was in the back-row - I should have protested and arranged to leave a day later. It didn't occur to me.

Likewise, when getting ready for 22 hour bus-trip on the 2nd-highest highway in the world - it should have perhaps occured to me that it would be cold.. and thus maybe I should have worn more than a couple layers.

In the end.... I was in the back seat, in a non-reclining chair, freezing my ass off. There were 4 of us in the back row. 2 brits, a french tunisian, and me. The bus bumped non stop, to the point that I had to constantly keep adjusting my pants due to the non-stop wedgie inducing aspect of the seating arrangement. The Tunisian seemed to have some kind of bowel problems, and so at approximately 5 minute intervals, would release stomach-churning farts, which would very quickly make their way up my nose, upon which they would wreak havoc upon my senses.

The sad thing is - is that for the first 3-4 hours, as I was shivering away, curled up and trying to stay as warm as possible - with a cold window on one side, and a flattulent frenchman on the otehr side - I was in some way strangely glad each time one of his horrible gas attacks arrived. Sure, it was probably doing untold damage to the cells of my nose - but each of his farts also provided some small increase in heat.

Once the sun rose, I ceased to feel as positive about his contribution to the air-quality of the car.

And so, we bumped along, for approx 18 hours. The views were beautiful. Leh is a dry desert mountain area, but 10 hours in, as we started to get closer to HP, trees and bushes started to appear, with rivers, valleys, and birds... It really is much nicer in HP.

One very funny, and typically Indian thing happened along the way - at about 4PM into the journey. Our driver chatted with a truck-driver who slowed down as he passed us, and found out that the local magistrate had setup a checkpoint down the road. Neither our driver, or the other 2 driving the two other vans/jeeps in our semi-convoy seemed to have whatever paperwork the magistrate was after - and so our driver stopped, and announced that we were going to have a break.

Most of the other tourists in the bus didn't quite realize what was happening, and so they stood by the bus, waiting for us to get going again. The french guy and I realized what was happening, and so we followed the driver up to a chai-shop just up the hill, where we could wait in the shade.

30-40 minutes passed. The frenchman and I played cards, the bus-drivers sat around smoking bidi cigarettes, until, suddenly, the magistrate drives past us. All hell breaks loose, and our previously lazy drivers suddenly haul ass down the hill, to the vehicles and we zoom off. They later tell us that they needed to have uniforms or something like that. Rather than pay the 500 rupee bribe to the magistrate for not having the necessary items, they instead opted to wait him out - knowing that he;d knock off eventually.

We ended up arriving in Manalai at around 9PM, in darkness. The driver hauled ass the entire way - which is damn scary when you realize he hasn't slept for 24 hours, and that he's taking you around tight mountain turns, with fog everywhere and zero visibility.

I split a hotel room with an israeli lawyer - the two of us in one bed, each trying to get as far away from the other as possible - to the point that I nearly fell off the bed in the middle of the night.

I'm up now - it's 10AM. I'm off to Bhuntar - about 3 hours by local bus, and then to the Parvati Valley.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Leaving Leh Today

Things have solidified.

I leave from Leh at 2AM tonight, making what would normally be a two-day trip in one day. I've got a reserved seat in a mini-van which will hopefully get me to Manali by approx 6pm tomorrow evening.

It's going to be a long, bumpy ride. The Leh->Manali road is the 2nd highest highway in the world, and the views are supposed to be spectacular. I'll probably be asleep for much of it alas.

I've made a concerted effort today to lighten my bag. I finished one huge book yesterday, and gave it away shortly after that. I also gave away another fantastic book - although finding someone willing to take Zinn's "The People's History of the United States" can be somewhat difficult. I gave away the giant pot of honey that I couldn't bear to leave behind in Germany... I also have a huge pot of marmite that weighs a ton, but I can't in good conscience, as a british man, give away Marmite. It's just too good to leave behind.

Thus, my stuff should just about fit into one big bag now - phew.

The plan is to stay in old manali for one night. The next day, I plan to head off to the village of Kasol. I'll chill out for a bit, speak to the israelis, and find out the current situation re: safety, the murder, and what the police are doing.

If things are safe enough, I plan to hike to a village called Tosh, where I'd like to stay for a week or so. No internet, no phone - just a few guest houses, magnificiant views, and a good excuse to finish the remaining books that are weighing my bag down.

I expect to have internet in Manali, and probably in Kasol, but not in the remote villages.

I'll leave for Delhi I think on or around the 19th.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Outta Here Shortly

It's now the 5th. I've been here for just about a week, and, well, it's time to move on.

I'm still sick - coughing up all kinds of ugly things, and in a few days, will be moving from the current course of antibiotics to some kind of industrial grade disease killer. I've been in beautiful Leh for a while, and haven't done much more than read about 1000 pages of fiction, drink black tea, and personally destroy about 2 trees worth of tissues.

I don't see myself getting well in the next couple days, and so, there is no point in waiting to get well so I can go hiking and explore the mountains. Thus, I think I should be reasonable, accept the fact that I won't get to do any outdoor activites, and just move on.

I'm off to buy a bus ticket today - either a 22 hour minivan, or a 2 day bus ride - in either case, will take me to Manali... where it's raining, but at least, is where I want to be.

I've been stuck in Leh, a tourist destination, with 3 dollar per hour satellite internet, hugely overpriced tourist-friendly israeli/italian/spanish/korean food, and aging german hiking tourists everywhere. I want to leave. I've been stuck here, partially due to the fact that I did at least want to go hiking for a day or two, but also because some things came up in my personal life that necessitated me being near internet and a phone.

I think, for the most part, that I've sorted those out now - as best as is possible - and so now, I want to find a nice remote village, and spend the next 2 weeks doing nothing but chilling out, reading books, and playing card games and cultivating my hebrew profanity skills - without a phone, email, rss feeds, blogs, or the outside world.

I expect to be in the Parvati Valley area, which is not so far from Manali. There are lots of small villages around, with 3-4 guest-houses in each. While backpackers have gone missing before, I do not intend to go off wandering in the woods by myself, so I think I should be ok.

Israelis tend to be the ones who get killed - this may be because of the numbers (so many israelis there, thus any random killing is likely to be one of them) - or, the fact that the area is the epicenter of India's charas (hashish) production. Bad people are attracted to illegal businesses, and many israelis (or at least the ones in India) flock to charas like moths to a lightbulb. Bad people + israelis chasing after drugs = dead israelis.

The area is also one of the best sources in India for fantastic unfiltered natural apple juice, and pashmina shawls - but the types of people attracted to these industries won't hurt you...

I'll have my wits about me, and expect to be back in Delhi on or around the 19th of August or so - where, I predict, I'll spend my final few days in a Dentist's chair, making good use of my newly acquired ability to let hebrew profanities flow.

Until then ----

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chickenhawks and common sense

As I said in a previous post, I spent much of yesterday shooting the breeze with a group of Israelis. In general, I find the Israelis in India to be really nice, friendly, and that they wield a dark sense of humor that is often aimed directly at themselves. British humor and Israeli humor have a lot in common.

So I'm at a table - with about half a dozen israelis, and an American girl - the girlfriend of one of the Israelis. She was president of her university pro-israeli orginization, went on multiple free trips to Israel, was closely involved with AIPAC, and then did a semester abroad in Israel. She is a jewish american, and proud of it. During conversations at the table, she would often let us know how she dispised the terrorists, the arabs, and wished Israel would be more forceful.

Clearly, I'm biased, but she'd definitely drank the pro-israel kool-aid. Just as new American citizens often hang flags outside of their homes and stores, she was more pro israel than the israelis.

War is hell. Even if your job consists of peeling potatos in the army kitchens, as a member of the armed forces for 2-3 years, you learn to hate war. I can honestly say that I've not met many, if any, pro-war israelis during my travels. It could be because only hippies come to India, but I suspect that being in the army lets you see how horrible war is.

On the other hand, if you haven't served in the army, and instead, have gotten free tickets to Israel, been showered in propaganda and shown how evil the arabs are, I suppose it can be quite easy to become pro-war - since, you haven't seen the horror.


Ok, that sets the context.

So we're all discussing the group's plan to head off to Srinigar in Kashmir tomorrow. Ms Chickenhawk has a silver star of david hanging from a chain, which is prominently displayed on her chest, outside her clothing. I advise her that in the interest of personal safety, and making her own life easier, she may want to either take it off, or at least tuck it under her clothes.

And thus begins a fairly lengthy discussion.

Essentially, she feels like she is under no obligation to change how she dresses when she travels. She stated that she was a feminist, and therefore also felt that she was under no obligation to cover her arms, legs or chest when traveling either.

I tried to be polite, I really did.

I'm a huge fan of women's rights. I can't wait for the day that we have a woman president in the US, and I strongly believe in complete equality (i.e. the Equal Rights Amendment that was never passed by all the states).

However, I also believe that there is a time and a place for things. In your own country, amongst your own people - you should feel free to dress however you wish to. But when you travel, you are a guest. Even if you pay for your room, and support the local economy, you are still a guest. I strongly feel that we as tourists have an obligation to be sensitive to the local cultural norms. That means, unfortunately for women, that they need to cover up their cleavage, their upper arms/shoulders, and their legs.

You don't -have- to do this, of course - but not doing so, will make it very easy for the locals to assume that you're just another western whore (an image that is repeatedly reinforced by import western movies). On the other hand, if you make an effort to adapt to local dress, cover up, and lie and tell them that your boyfriend is actually your husband, then it's much easier for them to see you as a proper respectable woman.

And thus - back to the star of David. She was under no obligation to take it off, or hide it. But - when you are traveling to a heavily muslim area, where bombs go off with some regularity, where religious and ethnic tensions are high - it does not make good sense to advertise the fact that you are a member of a religion who many of the locals do not look kindly upon.

I don't know what she'll end up doing. I hope she opts for safety vs. religious pride.


The food poisoning is now gone, thankfully. Although, I'd been left with one killer of a cold that has turned into an upper respiratory infection. I've spent the last few days trying to take care of things with vitamin C, paracetamol and heaps of water, but alas, it's not working.

Every time I've gone to the pharmacy to get something, he's offered me antibiotics. You see, antibiotics are the catch-all cure here in India. Students at my undergrad university used to joke that the health care center on campus treated all ailements with salt (to gargle with) and cough drops. It seems like no matter what the problem is, antibiotics are the solution here - which is very scary, as it must be dead easy for antibiotic resistant strains to develop here.

In any case - I succumbed to the pressure, and the fact that it's obvious that I'm sick beyond a common cold and picked up some antibiotics. With any luck, I'll be back on my feet in a few more days, and can actually take advantage of all the outdoor opportunties that Leh has to offer - mountain biking, hiking, rafting, etc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Leh day 3

After taking care of a bit of critical business in town, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a rooftop cafe, drinking black tea, and hanging out with a wonderful crowd of israelis, playing cards, and shooting the breeze.

The Israelis have a fantastic word-of-mouth network, through which they seem to know what has happened where, which guesthouses are the best, what the cheapest prices you can pay with various merchants, etc.

From this network, I was able to learn something useful info about my two potential next destinations. There was recently a bomb attack in Srinigar that killed a bus-load of Indian tourists. My other option: Kulu/Parvati valley, had an israeli backpacker killed on a hike within the last few weeks.

So the question becomes - do I go to Kashmir, where bombs explode, and pakistani mujhadeen wait just across the border, or do I go to Parvati, where 2-3 backpackers vanish ever year. So many wonderful choices.

I also got to play one of my favorite games: Guess the ethnic makeup of an israeli. They have such a fantastic mix of different cultures, that it is really hard to figure it out. Best of all, they take no offense at it - and it's usually one of the first things they ask each other upon meeting.

I was batting about 50% during my guessing - although, at one point, I told a woman that I thought she looked like she was from Yemen, except for the fact that her nose was too small.... She replied that she had gotten a nose job. Normally, this could lead to some embarassment, but she laughed it off.

I managed to pick the brains of the group for the best protocol for bribing police when you get caught with something you shouldn't have. Likewise, the best practices for this have been handed down from seasoned backpacking Israelis to the newcomers.

The general consensus seems to be that whatever happens, you should ask to pay the "fine" on the spot as soon as possible. The more police arrive, the more expensive it gets, until someone high up arrives, at which point, it can be impossible to pay your way out.

Multiple people voiced the opinion that: "It's just money, and no matter the cost, it's better than an Indian jail."

Quite interesting. My experience with paying bribes is relatively minor (my taxi speeding for example), and so it was facinating to hear some of the stories the told...