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Surrey IS mini-Punjab!

Nearly a week has passed since I was actually in the Punjab region of India. I miss it dearly. So I’m going to reminisce… and please don’t be offended if you’re from Surrey when you read this (hey, my mama’s originally from Surrey)!

Darryn and I parted ways in Delhi, after an exhausting evening filled with disorder. Our train was late coming in from Jaipur, it was nearly 1 am, and our hotel room had been given away. No matter, we thought. We were in a strip FILLED with hotels – we searched around for quite sometime discovering nearly all of them were full. Crap. We finally found an over-priced shit hole (I’m not being dramatic here) and bunkered down.

We were travelling with Cassie, an American clarinet teacher now living in Bangkok. She went to hop in the shower and we started to settle. Then the hotel porter waltzes into our hotel room demanding our passports (the usual for India – the passport request, not the waltzing into hotel rooms). No knock. Then he proceeds to laugh as I tell him in a ‘stern’ voice that it is not acceptable to walk into a hotel room unannounced.

Anger ensued. We left. So, we were found in the same position – wandering the streets of Delhi in search of a place to lay our heads (which we eventually found, after our standards simply dropped to ‘no bed bugs please’).

And that my friends, is how I ended up with Darryn’s passport in hand as I attempted to check into my hotel in Amritsar with Cassie. And I will freely admit that I held my shit together until I received confirmation that Darryn had in fact gotten onto her Dharamsala (northern India) plane.

After that news, I panicked. I cried silently in the internet cafe, imagining my plans to head back to Nepal and complete a trek drift out the window. I tallied up the dollars I had already spent on plane tickets and my trek deposit and envisioned my broke ass stuck on a bus for over 10 hours simply to swap documents.

Okay, now I was being dramatic. Really it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I was forced to abandon plan A and explore/trek in the Himalayan range in Northern India rather than Nepal. But looking back, I think I was secretly really missing Nepal and its people/culture and truly was eager to return.

Anyways, it all worked out – Darryn’s yogi (I still giggle every time I hear that title) coordinated an excellent plan; one of his employees would ride the bus down to Amristar and back and we would swap the goods. It all worked perfectly. My heart goes out to that kind boy who spent most of his day on the bus for us.

After the fiscal was all settled, Cassie and I got to enjoy Amristar fully. We wandered through an intricate Hindu temple full of low ceilings and cave-like rooms.

Cassie crawling through one of the cave rooms - we skipped the one with water, since it looked pretty dirty!

We got our palms read (good news, I should live well past 90!) And,we spent hours encircling the gorgeous and jaw-dropping Golden Temple (basically Mecca for Sikhs).

The stark white marble walkways surrounding the holy pond (that the temple is perched on), are perfect for casual strolls, bare feet and all. Once in a while our head scarves would slip and a guard would gently remind us to cover our hair again. We didn’t mind, we were entranced with the soft chanting that carries on 24/7. This is the ultimate place to zen out and contemplate life, spirituality..the list could go on forever.  Cassie and I both agreed that we loved the temple even more than the infamous Taj. It’s just more of an overall e x p e r i e n c e. I’m still little sad that we missed eating a free meal with 60,00-80,000 pilgrams (volunteers serve meals daily to all that visit, if one desires). Ah well, next time.  

Beautiful people to match the beautiful surroundings.

We visited the place several times to see the breathtaking structure in different light.

At night, hordes of young boys would gather around us if we stopped for a moment. Questions would fire at us from all angles and they would giggle endlessly as they took turns posing with us for pictures. It was adorable and loads of fun!

Cassie and crew.

We ended our time in the Punjab region with a visit to the Pakistan/India border to watch the border closing ceremony – which was a celebration of monumental size!

Punjabi music blasts over the speakers, Indians take turns running down the short walkway with a massive Indian flag in tow, women and children dance festively. It’s a site to see! I couldn’t believe how many people come to take part in the spectacle. And then there are the actual guards – they high kick and fast walk like no other!

Needless to say my stomach hurt from laughing so hard by the end of the show.

Now, the ceremony is all fun and games, and it ends with the border gate opening, the guards from both the Pakistan and Indian sides shaking hands and flailing about and the gate slamming shut for the evening.

What I couldn’t figure out was how two countries that despise each other so much have such a fantastic event to share their border. It’s bizarre!

It was also quite surreal to stare across the gate and see the Pakistani people on the other side. They were cheering and chanting ‘Pakistan Forever’ (as were the Indians with ‘India Forever’).

I kept staring up at the Pakistan flag flapping in the hot breeze,  a reminder of how many times I’d seen that flag, but attached to horrific news stories of terrorist attacks and state chaos. I didn’t feel much inclined to venture past the gate (even if I did, it would supposedly take up to 3 months to get a visa).

After the ceremony we made our way back to the truck, joking about how we couldn’t find our driver and wouldn’t that be a great call to make to someone back home. “Hi dear, I’m stuck at the Pakistan border.” Eep.

The following morning I headed back to Delhi, sharing my berth with a unbelievably kind family from southern Punjab. We immediately made a connection since the mother’s brother lived in Surrey. This was SUCH a common conversation I can’t even begin to describe how many times I met someone who had a brother, sister, daughter, uncle, son etc. living in Surrey. Everyone wanted to visit there!

Back to the family though. They told me complicated stories of the Sikh history for several hours. Informing me why they always carry mini daggers (usually plastic, often tucked into their turbans or attached at their hip). “It’s simply for protection and not attack”, the father explained to me. The Sikh’s have a rough past – most of it involving being attacked by Muslims and Hindu’s and mostly because of the location of the majority community. Google it, it’s interesting stuff. 

They shared their lunch with me and insisted I spend the night with them in their quaint village. I had to sadly decline since I had an early flight the following morning. But they bring a smile to my face every time I think back to that particular train ride. And you know what? I think I have a new-found respect for – get ready for it – Surrey.

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I.N.D.I.A.

It’s been far too long since my last post, so I offer sincere apologies to you all. I even got some great news from WordPress.com that my blog had made it to the WordPress homepage for a day (woohoo!) and what did I do? Stopped writing on it – oops.

 It became very difficult to find time to hop onto a computer and write about the days events. Even summarizing some of the days in my journal became daunting – so much going on, so many stories and sights!

Well, I’ve got time to kill now. I’m back in Nepal (in Pokhara actually) and there is a two-day strike happening – all stores and roads are closed so it’s an opportune time to catch up!

I spent a total of 10 days in India – it sounds short but it felt quite long! After being delayed in Kathmandu by nearly 6 hours, I finally arrived in Delhi. As I exited the plane, an intense blast of hot air welcomed me – it was a bit shocking to feel such heat! Darryn was patiently waiting in the airport and it was SO awesome to see her gorgeous smile once again (it had been well over a year).

Delhi. Delhi. Delhi. It’s chaotic, dirty, busy, over-populated, and overwhelming. But it’s home to 12 million people and they seem quite proud of their city. I found the people of Delhi much more interesting than the sights – people watching at the train station was unreal. The streets of Delhi are basically all under construction due to the Commonwealth Games coming up in October 2010. Hopefully they are ready, but I somehow doubt it.

classic street scene in Old Delhi.

We had a decent hotel in the seedy tourist district located close to the train station and (thank GOD) we had air conditioning. We left Delhi after only 1.5 days and within that time we sorted out what appeared to be an epic train schedule, visited the Red Fort, a brilliant spice bazaar, and the Hyman Tomb (nicknamed the mini Taj, it’s of Persian decent).

Spice Bazaar, Old Delhi

Most importantly, Darryn and I caught up on life while feasting on Thali dinners and lunches. We giggled away at recent stories, lamented about missing our boyfriends (hers is currently doing a 6 month stint in Borneo finishing research for his M.A.), and got pretty darn excited for what we were about to embark on.

And embark we did. We toured around three other Indian cities together – Jaipur, Agra, and Varansi. We crammed ourselves into teeny compartments on trains with villagers and their massive bags of wheat, grains, rice etc. (in fact, I slept on a berth covered in curry powder and rice – how much more Indian can one get?!) We endured 47 degree weather in Varansi as we dodged funeral processions and idly boated on the Ganga, one of the dirtiest rivers in the world.

We experienced the majestic Taj Mahal in all its glory. We explored several forts and temples – learning slowly about Hinduism and India’s horrific and lengthy history. We saw devastating scenes of poverty and slum living and several shouting/fist fighting matches. We saw children stop playing in the street, amused and in awe by our female Western presence. We shopped in bazaars as the chanting of Muslim prayers lingered in the air….

We fell in love with India.

And the people. OMG the people! So endearing and friendly. Nearly every train ride we took ended with our brains bursting with Indian knowledge. Everyone is so eager to share their culture and learn more about ours.

I encountered this one woman who asked me very personal questions – how much I make, how long my mother was in labour with me, if my boyfriend ‘touches’ me (insert awkward blushing right about here). I answered all of them truthfully, hoping that if anything, she would learn a bit about cultural differences and accept that we do not all practice the same religions and rules.

I will admit, the touts, hotel owners, and rickshaw drivers can get under your skin – it’s exhausting always bartering and they always have an answer for everything. But, they are trying to make a living in a tough country – I get it.

I could also do without the mouth-wide-open, no blinking, full-on staring from most men (and women) – but again, I just kept telling myself they are curious about our white skin and foreign ways. It’s nothing personal…but okay, I’m pretty sure some of the male stares were sexual in nature, and downright creepy.

So there you have it. A teeny snippet of my short stint in Incredible India! I wish I could share more, but internet is pricey in this small mountain town.

I’ll post again on my final 3 days in India (which were spent in Punjab and I must admit, I think they were some of my fav days – minus the whole passport swapping situation with Dharamsala bound Darryn, which turned out a-okay). Here’s a few pictures to sum up the experience… they aren’t necessarily my favorites, just decent ones I can make out from the thumbnail previews!

Sunrise boating on the holy Ganga (Ganges) river.

Varansi

My favorite shopkeeper. So many shirts, pants, pashmina's..such fun!

the 'honeycomb' palace in Jaipur. The windows were for the kings wives to watch the street activity.

cute little guy, at the Gata (monkey man) temple, outside of Jaipur.

A typical train station site. This man would wake the daughter up every few minutes to go beg. It was awful to watch.

there she be - the taj!

What a day! I woke up this morning ridiculously early, hoping to finish up my fundraising manual before I actually got to work. Oh the irony huh? It’s just that I was worried I’d need to look something up on the net and be hooped (no internet there) or somehow my battery on my laptop would die and I’d be left scrambling on my last day.

I was dead tired too – went to bed late last night and woke up three or four times to the most ANNOYING sound in the world. No, not the one from Dumb and Dumber…more annoying! Not dogs barking or horns honking…

S q u e e t e r s – buzzing by my ear like the little obnoxious shits they are. Argh. My bites are bright red welts and they are beyond itchy. 

And I don’t understand why they go for your ears in the first place. And it only takes just one to wake you up in a rage!

Anyways, sleep-crisis was diverted. I threw in ear plugs and literally doused my bed and self in deet. Ignore the third arm I may have growing upon my return home…

Back to the morning. After my standard breakfast – boiled egg, fresh cheese croissant, and a piping-hot coffee, I met my usual taxi driver down at the Cholwk (basically an intersection). This guy has been really kind and has offered me great rates quite a few times. I feel terrible that a CECI driver actually came and picked me up from the office (I didn’t know he was coming!) and I suspect the poor man drove all the way out to my work and waited for me…I’m an asshole. I’m sorry nice taxi-man, I had no way of avoiding it. Karma will get me, don’t you worry.

An hour later, I arrived at work. Finishing touches were put on my pieces, documents were explained in detail and handed over to Prerana staff.  I had a final debriefing session with my CECI coordinator and.. my work and self were a hit!

Finito!

Can’t believe I’m already done my Leave for Change portion of this trip. I’m quite sad about it but at least it ended in a celebration!

The staff pitched in together and bought me a beautiful traditional sari – every single element, down to the earrings, bracelets, and braided-hair thing (um, I lost the Nepali word..again, asshole)! The girls stripped me down and dolled me up.

We were all giggling away as one woman worked on my hair/makeup, another wrapping the dress (which I really tried to memorize, but she’s young and doesn’t wear one daily yet since she isn’t married and kept forgetting how to do it – all the redo’s made it hard to keep track), another finding me bangles down the street.

Oh, the bangles – did you know Nepali women have very flexible knuckle-parts (I have no idea how to explain that part of your hard)? They can twist and turn their already small knuckles to put their teeny-tiny bangles on. I broke three glass bangles before we resorted to soap to get them on. And I’ve always thought I had somewhat small hands!

After 15 minutes behind closed doors, I was ready for my grand entrance.

I really did feel quite beautiful in all that gorgeous fabric. And it was soft and airy to the touch. After everyone clapped and admired, we sat down to tea, cookies, and juice. It was a great way to say goodbye to everyone and now I have my very own sari! I’ll miss them all – just a wonderful group of kind, passionate, and dedicated people.

Lots of pieces to the sari puzzle.

Tomorrow I’m off to Delhi and 40 C heat. Feel free to check my Twitter widget for updates – I’ve heard internet is painfully slow and posting might be a challenge, so I’ve brought my Twitter account back from the dead to keep in touch.

For those of you that don’t know what a widget is, updated tweets (gawd, I still hate that word) will be posted in the right-hand side bar of this blog. 😉

Namaste.

Chitwan round 2

The rest of my Chitwan weekend was really just centred around elephants. I’m being honest here – yes, I saw one-horned rhino’s, deer, wild monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, and lots of interesting birds but the elephants were a big hit with me – no, a huge hit.

Check out the bite to the ear. Ouch!

The guide collected rhino pee for about 10 minutes right before this second rhino encounter. Apparently its sold as a – what else – aphrodisiac in China for a fair amount of cash…

Ok, I got the rhino picture out of the way, now I can focus on the elephants. The girl that we took for our safari was great. She only had one moment of stubbornness and I didn’t blame her at all. There appeared to be some sort of delicious plant that she bee-lined into thick bush for and it turned out to be full of prickles. But she devoured it with excitement, so the flavour must have been good?

She was checking out my camera!

After a safari through the jungle on elephant back, I headed straight for the river on Raja’s motorbike to get on another elephant. But this time, in the water! I know this is super touristy and maybe for some, not all that exciting, but I loved every moment of it. I’m not sure there is anything else on earth that can make you so child-like giddy.

Bathing playfully in a river with a gentle beast is not only wildly entertaining, but so refreshing! So much for not swimming in any body of water here (sorry, Doc).

Getting ready for another soaker. I actually learned the command to make them spray!

I even climbed onto the elephant’s back by the trunk (the way the trainers do). It was surprisingly easy since the trunk is so strong (over 40,000 muscles).

All fun stuff aside, these elephants get treated quite well. They share a close bond with their trainers and have restrictions on how many hours per day they can work. The training methods can look harsh (sticks and these hook things) but I read that WWF has funded projects in the area to develop more psychological methods of training.  Obviously, they would lead a very different life in the wild, but at least they are working towards ensuring the domesticated elephants have a pleasant life.

And hey, they looked pretty happy to me when they were rolling around in the water, being rubbed down by eager people.

Next up was a canoe down the river (in crocodile infested water, not my personal favorite).

And…Raja…..

Raja: “Listen Jamie. Do you hear barking?”

Me: “Yes. Is that a dog?”

Raja: “No. It’s Deer. Do you know what we call this type of Deer?”

Me: “Barking Deer?”

Raja:”Canadians are really smart.”

After the river float (and ten crocodile sightings) we wandered in the jungle for over two hours. We really didn’t see all that much. I didn’t mind though, since I’m bad at climbing trees and apparently that’s what you do if you see a rhino. It was peaceful to walk around, just the two of us. We passed a few large groups and I felt pretty lucky with my situation.

And it all ended with a great night in the hotel restaurant – me, the hotel manager, and a bunch of staff sipping on Everests and talking about the future plans for the resort (five stars are coming right up for this place – pool, horse stables, river-side additions). Followed by an early morning bird watching session (really, again, just more wandering around). Great weekend.

Let’s end this on a high note – not just another elephant picture, but a babytwinelephant!

Just way too cute.

Time for Chitwan stories! In the spirit of real blogging (aka not novels but somewhat shortish excerpts), I’m going to break this into two posts. Sorry that this is nearly a week after I returned home. It’s my last week of work with Prerana and I’ve been busy with the creation of a fundraising guidelines manual. That and I’ve been having delicious, late dinners with co-workers, travellers etc. which leaves me too exhausted to blog in the evening!

dinner with Matt and Shusa

You all know what sort of state I was in when I arrived, so we won’t relive those painful moments.

After getting some rest I ventured out for a ‘cultural’ walk with my guide for the weekend, Raja. The Terai district of Nepal is unbelievably different from the Kathmandu valley – it’s dry, rural, and hot hot hot! Not that Kath isn’t hot, but this heat was dry and much more intense (37-43 C in the afternoon). So even at 4:00 pm I got my sweat on just from walking out the front door of my hotel room.

out of my hotel room and into fresh, beautiful gardens!

We wandered around a traditional Tharu village  for over an hour.

Fact: Tharu’s are the only people who have survived in the Terai district for millennia. Since the region they inhabit was malaria-infested (until the WHO came in with DDT and solved that problem), no other ethnic groups survived the terrain. They’ve built up a genetic resistance to malaria and have had minimal problems with the disease that would ruthlessly wipe out thousands of other groups.

This was a quaint photo-op I stumbled upon… 

The village was interesting but also disheartening. These people continue to live so primitively, while we westerners seem to have access to everything at our fingertips. I admire the simplicity of their lives and the emphasis on family, but life seemed just all-around hard for everyone. They live in humble thatched huts made from mud and lattice – with limited access to running water and electricity.

And women were working so hard, cutting jungle grass, sifting flour, weaving sun hats, herding water buffalo, collecting wheat. You name it, they were constantly busy doing it.

Men appeared to be sitting around quite a bit…honestly! Either that or they were digging trenches to keep the rhino’s away from the village and crops. There were cows, buffalo, chickens, dogs, and goats running around everywhere. And loads of children were sleeping outside of the huts, on only thin-weaved mats.

I’ll tell you one thing, Nepali kids are freakin’ adorable. They just have that ‘something’ in the soul of their eyes. It’s vulnerable and soo honest.  

I discovered this little babe, relaxing in his crib…

During the hot walk, I was still struggling with my stomach, but didn’t really want to admit it. It reared its ugly head anyways when I had to pull over into some bushes. Sigh.

Raja immediately asked me, “poops?” I laughed and said, “no, pukes.”  He could see the pain on my face and promptly wandered into the forest for a few minutes.

I waited, since he didn’t tell me to follow.

He came back with an odd-looking leafy plant and shoved it in my face. “Eat it, Jamie. I swear you’ll feel not only better, but good in less than 20 minutes.”

I weighed my options – nothing could really make me sicker at this point and he didn’t seem interested in kidnapping me into the jungle…I ate the plant. It really didn’t have any flavour and the texture was similar to spinach.

Away we went. And away my stomach problems went too. He’s a smart man, that Raja.

I told Raja to take a picture, since this was the first time I was able to walk fully upright in a loong time. People who have seen me hung over know exactly what I'm talking about!

After the village wander, we plunked down beside the Rapti river and watched the sunset over the jungle – just the two of us and a couple of water buffalos grazing. Raja told me stories of Bengal Tiger and One-Horned Rhino encounters, while he pointed out the different species of birds flying around. It was spectacular.

I got a little nervous when the buffalo came too close.

Raja: “Forget them. They don’t care about us. They are hungry for grass.”

Me: “I think that one is giving me the evil eyes. Are they supposed to stamp their foot like that?”

Raja casually turns around, clearly only to humour my fears.

Raja:” Yes. Yes you are right. That one doesn’t like you. Get up. NOW.”

Me: “Expletives” and a serious mad dash to get over the nearby fence.

Throughout the entire weekend this same situation happened another three times! Raja suspected it might be my blue eyes that pissed em off. We’ll never know for sure, but I do know how to spot the ‘evil-eyed buffalo’ out of the crowd!

He's tied to a fence. I'm safe.

Cheers to listening to oldies, but goodies! Love back in the day Bob Dylan.

Welcome to the new face of tea times. Hey, I’m a girl! I change my mind every couple weeks (riight, we all know it’s daily) about these sorts of things. Plus, I’m loving writing on here so much I’m hoping I can keep this up when I’m home. I’m sure it won’t be as interesting (if you even find it interesting now) but no matter – I’ll keep trucking along.

The need for change was also influenced by my professional communications voice, pestering me in the background with, “grr- why did I opt for a one-column approach. My widgets are waaay down at the bottom”.

And now I have this pretty lil blog all set up and it really didn’t take long at all. I also tinkered around on wordpress and cleaned up my act. I’ve learned how to adjust pictures properly (sort of) – woohoo! Thanks goes out to WordPress themes and to the blind corner that my room is perched over. Those warning honks are awesome at 3 am.  

Ooh, another Chitwan teaser. Since it’s dusty season, it was usually hazy. And there were fires in the jungle so it was smokey around sunrise and set everyday. Sounds like it only gets worse till the monsoon here and I likely won’t be able to see much of the actual Himalayan mountains while trekking in the Annapurna region. Boo. I’m sure I’ll see them from the plane at the very least! I already requested my seat to be on the left hand side when flying Kath to Pokhara. Apparently this offers some of the best views around.

I cursed myself. I had been blissfully eating what I wanted, when I wanted without pain or suffering following closely behind. I kept this little secret all to myself and life was good. Then, I got cocky and casually mentioned it in my last post and WHAM – I was forced to endure the worst bus ride of my entire life. I barely survived, seriously, just b-a-r-e-l-y.

Who’s to say what brought me down to my knees. It could have been the outstanding meal I had at Or2K Friday night (but really, could hummus of that deliciously grandeur nature make me sick? I somehow think not.) Perhaps my morning grapes are to blame? The boiled egg I nibbled on as an afternoon snack? Or was it pineapple-vodka-sodas in the living room with Ms. Scarlett?

K, that was terribly bad, but so was my illness so leave me and my bad jokes alone!

All joking aside, I woke up feeling a little under the weather early Saturday morn. I assumed it was from a few too many drinks the previous nite at the reggae bar (which was awesome by the way!) But when I arrived at the bus stop and had to make an impromptu dash into the bushes to relive my stomach of a meager Kashi trail-mix granola bar, I knew something was horribly wrong.

Imagine if you will, a lovely five-hour bus ride through the winding, scenic roads of rural Nepal. Beautiful rice fields, green rolling hills  – all this natural beauty captured from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus with reclining seats (I splurged). Then there is me. I am puking every oh, twenty minutes or so. At first, the bus driver stopped (three times to be specific). Then people started handing over plastic bags.

I can confirm that vomiting non-stop in a bus full of strangers is a horrendous feeling. It’s mortifying and sad all wrapped into one. And why do we always cry when we are sick? It’s not sobbing or anything, but tears are shed, emotions are high. I missed Jare big time.

Thankfully people were really sympathetic and the guy beside me had a strong stomach and gave a few kind pats to my back. I bet he was wondering what he had done to deserve the lucky number 18 seat. 

That’s the thing about travelling in this part of the world though – everyone seems to be or has been sick. So you get that ‘I know exactly how it feels’ look from all angles. It’s just a part of experiencing South Asia. And no matter how much Immodium or Gravol we pack up neatly in zip-lock bags (Darryn’s post had perfect timing!) we can’t avoid it. We can’t run from it. And we often can never pin-point what got us.

So, yes. Worst bus ride ever. Beats out the Costa Rican seven hour stint going straight up a mountain, standing the entire time (or leaning back-to-back with amazing friends). Oh, and that was fresh from our flights from Canada! Just to give you some more feel-bad-for-me context.

This ride really was just plain ugly and cruel. But I made it to Chitwan alive!!

And I actually ended up having an incredible weekend full of wildlife and laughter. After of course, I curled up like a small infant in my room for a couple of hours and nursed myself back to human form.

Fun adventures from the jungle weekend to come tomorrow (I need rest as I’m still struggling a bit with an interesting burning belly sensation)..

But for now here’s a teaser:

one-horned Rhino butt!