My last Indian entry… written in India.
So, that’s it! My trip to India is done! I get on a plane to Paris this evening! Let’s see if I can remember everything that has happened since the last time I wrote on this blog… the past few weeks have been inexplicable in a way that makes me want to get up on a table and flap my arms around and explain every detail of what I saw and experienced so that you could understand! Again, I hope that you are reading this with another window open on your screen on which you are looking up flights to India so that you can schedule your trip to Ladakh…
Ladakh! After I wrote last, my friends and I spent some time getting to know Leh (basically the capital) we walked around as much as we could, visited local gompas (temples) and monasteries… all of the buildings are built into the mountains. Not ON the mountains that would be too simple… INTO the mountains.. it looks as though the stone houses, temples, and monasteries are just extensions of the mountain- ancient and beautiful designs… this is how it was done in ancient Tibet… this seems to be the design that those who built the Tibetan refugee district in Dharamsala looked to but… for some reason it just doesn’t work in Dharamsala… the buildings and the designs and the neutrality of it all really just fits in Ladakh and I am sure in Tibet… it just works up there.
We did a little road trip to Lake Tsomoriri…ohhh myyy goddd!! Lake Tsomoriri. I’ll give you a minute to google image it… it is JUST incredible. It is at about 15,000 feet high… a beautiful turquoise lake surrounded by NOTHING but mountains… not ONE tree. That might be because 15,000 feet is above the tree line… or… I just made that up I’m not sure… either way, it is incredible. We had a great road trip there… we stopped on a field with nomadic tents on it and we had tea with nomads. I was wearing every layer of clothes I own it was absolutely freezing but for the nomads, and Ladakhis in general, it is summer! So, the children were walking around without their shoes on. Nomads make me laugh. They are SO efficient and live off of nothing. The fire is fed with dried goat shit, they eat what their animals provide or trade for vegetables with products from their animals. They drink Tibetan tea… did I ever talk about that? Sorry if I am being repetitive but I MUST write about it because it would be a shame if I did not explain the craziness of this tea. Tibetan tea is melted dri butter (dri is a female yak) and salt. C’est tout! Butter and salt. I have been trying a lot of things here that I would never eat back in the US… I have had to for cultural reasons and also not to offend anyone… but I can flat out say that I would rather offend a person a day than drink butter tea. I can’t do it. I’ve tried and I just cannot do it. So yes, the nomads offered butter tea. I declined. Sorry. Then after tea the husbands came home… think “Honey! I’m home!” and the husband comes back with hundreds of goats… but not just regular goats.. pashmina goats!
Fun fact: Pashmina/cashmere does NOT come from Kashmir! It comes from the state Kashmir/Jammu, but it does not actually come from the Kashmir region. Pashmina goats cannot survive that heat. Cashmere comes from the Ladakh region. If you are interested in buying real 100% cashmere from those who raise the goats… go to www.nomadicwool.com. My friend Nawang owns the company and he works with nomads in the Changtang region- he gets their wool and then nomadic women who moved to the city hand make the shawls and hats that his website offers. Very cool.
So… the goats came home and my friends and I attacked (with love) all of the baby goats and just hugged them until we had to go. We befriended the son of the family- he is 21 and is in northern India studying computer science. Could you imagine being raised in a traveling tent following a grazing schedule for your animals and then going to a city to learn computer science? That fascinates me. He comes home to a tent but knows everything about IT and computers… that would be like me coming to India to study for a semester and my parents not knowing where India is in the world and not knowing anything about India. Really interesting- a perfect example of modernity and the change that comes with time.
All in all, going to Tsomoriri was a brilliant experience. It is so close to the Chinese border that we had to obtain permits before we were allowed to go… there were areas along the way that had huge signs up that said “no photography”- really interesting. A reminder of the times… a reminder of what is happening over that border. While the trip was incredible- apparently it was too much of a shock to our bodies… we went from 11,000 feet up to 15,000 feet and back in about 40 hours. When we got back we all had colds and felt a bit off. My friends then left back to Delhi and within minutes of saying goodbye I started vomiting for 36 hours straight (anyone who knows me well knows that I simply never throw up)… I knew that it must be the altitude so I thought that I would wait it out… there wasn’t much I could do anyways because I literally could not get out of bed. Then one morning I woke up with chest pains and in my head the alert alarm went on and I thought “fuck- I need oxygen” I crawled my way to the road to get a taxi to the hospital when I walked into the hospital I was taken to the FRONT of the line to see the doctor. Even if my heart fell out of my chest and was dormant on the floor I would STILL be the healthiest person in the room. I felt like such an ass hole cutting the line- that was not fair at all. I don’t realize how unfair the world is and how lucky I am until moments like that come around. In my head I told myself “they are putting you at the front of the line because you can pay for this… it’s because you have insurance… it’s because you’re a foreigner” but when all was said and done I didn’t have to pay for my treatment- THAT attests to how great the government CAN be in India… the government is by NO means great but it simply CAN be great.
An embarrassing story from the hospital… so they had to give me a shot to prevent swelling of the brain so I lifted up my sleeve and stuck my arm out to the nurse. She used this offered arm to turn me over… pulled my pants down and gave me the shot in my bum! I know that that is how things are done in Europe but what am I three years old? I just laughed.
So, I have taken a liking to hitchhiking. Probably not a good idea in placed I do not know… but I only do it in Dharamsala and…. Leh when I cannot walk because my heart is 90 years old. So, my last night I hitched a ride into town with this Ladakhi boy who ended up being a total sweetheart and drove me around where he lives, took me to Shanti Stupa (a stupa built for world peace in ’87 by a Japanese monk… this stupa is one of my favorite corners of the world. The view from the stupa commands serenity and a peaceful state of mind. Just lovely). He not only took me there, but he took me to buy gifts for the family I was on my way to visit. This family is the family of my friend LG from Dharamsala and I promised that I would visit their home. It was the most wonderful and misunderstood dinner of my life.
I tried calling the family the entire time I was in the hospital… but my phone nor their phone was working. Why would it? Why would a phone that you are paying to work… actually work? So the phones were not working until 6pm-ish. I called the sister and told her I would love to meet the fam’- so I go, I got there and they all said “we waited for you all day” SHIT, I’m so sorry. Then they served me butter tea… SHIT, I literally cannot drink that… but fine I will try… for every half a sip I took I ate a cookie (see, the weight gain is not my fault ;)… ) Then… we ate dinner… I think it was the altitude but I literally did not have an appetite (again, anyone who knows me knows that I like to/CAN eat a lot… so this was out of character) anyways, I ate as much as I could but I couldn’t finish my plate and they said “oh, you don’t like our food” SHIT! No, I swear I like it but I cannot eat, I’m sorry. Anyways, the family was incredible- really beautiful people… all 16 of them! Mom, dad, and fourteen children! What!? And the mom is only 58… I had a field day on that one- every family photo they showed me I would make a joke about the mom producing a football team.. yeah, apparently I’m not funny anymore.
I told you about the epic drive we endured to get to Ladakh… so you can understand why my friend Brad and I said opted to fly out of Leh. We could either fly to Delhi (no.. too hott), Srinegar (Kashmir… apparently dangerous… but so is Israel so why not?) or Jammu (I would have to wait a week for this flight and my body was begging me for oxygen so I said no). Thus, Sir Bradley and I bought tickets to Srinegar. Some people said “ehh… well, this probably isn’t the time to go, it’s unsafe…” and for some reason they just didn’t convince me. I spoke to quickly. I was in a shop and the shop owner, from Srinegar, said “Don’t go. My parents have not left their house in a week because of the riots and curfew.” Sorry.. WHAT!?! Indian newspapers did not keep me up to date on the situation in Kashmir and I learned from this shop owner about the rape and killing of two women in Srinegar.. ohh… lovely. The two women were raped and killed by soldiers who have still not been identified and so, have not been punished. I thought “shit, riots, strikes, curfew… not a good idea,” so I ran to the closest travel agent and booked a flight out of Srinegar a day later to Jammu… Elinor, you only have to survive 24 hours in Srinegar. And guess what? Not only did I survive but I have to admit that Srinegar was one of THE most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Before I went I got in touch with the US Embassy’s representative in Srinegar who put me in touch with her friend who owns a house-boat (Dal Lake, the holiest lake in India is about 24km by 24km and is covered with 1400 house boats) so we stayed on a beautiful boat and had an extremely relaxing 24 hours in the city that I MUST go back to. After I went there I started to think about the curfew and the strikes and guess what I realized? That that is the most endearing thing in the world- how many unjust things happen in New York City and how many times do we strike? I know that there was a protest for Sean.. (I’m not remembering his last name right now) and that is great but how many New Yorkers would shut down their shops because they were unsatisfied with the way their authorities were working. While I do respect the NYPD, some of its members have done some pretty messed up shit in the past and while I can recognize that I cannot say that I would stop shopping until they apologized. I think we have a lot to learn from the people in Srinegar and I think that we need to stop fearing places because our untrustworthy government says that we should and I think that we need to travel to these corners of the world to show the people our support and make connections with them so that they stop hating America. I realized that the US Embassy sends me emails all the time telling me that India is dangerous and that I should be careful with the outbreak of the swine flew (thank you, that is good advice) but they are so quick to say “don’t go here or there because the place is dangerous”… it seems a bit funny hearing those things now that I am in India and now that I have been to Srinegar.
The only shock that hit me when I went to Srinegar was that I realized Srinegar was the first Muslim city I have ever been to. It was really nice. Salaam Alechum.
Jammu! So… then we flew to Jammu. Oh! Before I forget, I have to say that the flight from Leh to Srinegar was one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life… FLYING THROUGH THE HIMALAYAS! Breathtaking and humbling. We are so small! This world is huge!
In the Jammu airport my friend Brad was taken to fill out foreigner forms… no one said a word to me (woo hoo! They thought I was Kashmiri! If that means I look anything like Kashmiri men, it was officially the best compliment in the world.) Anyways, Brad was filling out forms as I collected our luggage and tried to figure out how we were going to get back to Dharamsala. My head was all over the place trying to figure out when we were leaving and then I decided we had to eat before anything could be done- I asked Brad and he pointed to this woman behind a desk and said “ask her where to go, she is really nice.” Ok! So, I spoke to this alleged sweetheart and she said “ahh, madame ji you cannot come to Jammu without going to XYZ temple….” Ok- sweet, Brad and I will go to this temple and then go eat lunch and then get on a bus. “But oh… madame ji, you cannot come to Jammu without going to Katra”. What’s Katra? One of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Ok! Brad, do you have some time to spare? Want to go to Katra? Why not? So, Brad and I buy the little “Katra manual” from our nice friend Rita… we hop in a cab and make our way to Katra. We get to the pilgrimage house in Katra and lie down (literally the heat prevented us from doing ANYTHING)… so we rested and read our Katra book…. WHICH WAS PUBLISHED BY THE SHRI MATA VAISHNO DEVI SHRINE BOARD! THE SHRINE BOARD THAT MISS RITA WORKS FOR! I was completely ignorant of this fact when I was taking advice from Rita, SO… Brad and I found ourselves in a tiny town FILLED with pilgrims from ALL over India. We were the ONLY white people there… but hey, a pilgrimage? Why not… our book said that the pilgrimage was 12km to a cave in which one would find three rocks which would give them blessings from Devi, the compassionate mother goddess. (I apologize for not being more formal about describing this holy pilgrimage, I just don’t have the manual with me and cannot give really accurate information- I’m sorry if I am being disrespectful.)
12km. No problem. I was closer to sea-level than I had been in a few weeks. I can handle it…. or so I thought.
Our lovely manual did not tell us that it was 12km up a mountain! We started at 7pm because it was just too hot to start earlier. We walked about 2km… ‘jai mata di’… (the mantra everyone repeats as they make their way up)… and after 2km we could not handle the dust storm so we decided to hop on a pony. You can either walk up the mountain, which I would say most people did, OR you can take a pony, OR you can have people carry you. You think I’m kidding. Think of ancient Egypt- four men walking with a beam balanced on their shoulders... the beam holding a chair. It cost 400IRS or… 8.60USD at today’s rate to have four men CARRY YOU 12KM UP A MOUNTAIN. I’m sorry, where I am from that is slavery. Most people walk- I guess you collect more merit that way… it takes about 24 hours to complete the pilgrimage by walking. People are resting and sleeping on the side of the walk way and its just an INCREDIBLE thing to witness… I would have taken pictures but the manual said no cameras allowed so I didn’t bring my camera. I would say that I would take pictures next time but I promise I will not be doing it again. Brad and I got up to 7km on our ponies and we had to turn back. I know, I know, if any Hindu reads this they are probably shaking their heads because I committed the ultimate no-no… I probably shouldn’t be writing about this on the internet… ok then..
Well, the most incredible thing about our attempted pilgrimage was seeing thousands of people so faithful to their religion in a harmless way and seeing all of them doing it together. While I am not religious and not really a believer in the power of the blessing from a goddess (I find personal growth and questioning and learning to be more effective in life, but that is me).. it was really cool to see the pilgrimage culture. On my pony ride down I thought about WHAT I would climb 12km to see… I thought long and hard about Johny Depp and decided that I wouldn’t… I concluded that I would ONLY go up to the cave if my aunt Elissia, aunt Elisheva, grandfathers, and grandma were in there chilling- I would go to talk to them about the things I wish I had time to talk to them about. But seriously that is it… even if you told me that the recognized God was up there I wouldn’t go through with the climb.
So… here I sit waiting to go to the airport and I have to say that while I have had QUITE the past five months seeing, thinking, eating, experiencing, and meeting the most intriguing people, places and things… I have to admit that I am just so freakin excited to leave. I am already planning my trip back to India but it is time to go. It is really tiring being a tourist 24/7. I know Dharamsala like the back of my hand by now but it doesn’t matter- I will always be a tourist in India. And I even LOOK Indian! So you can imagine… its just tiring. I don’t like the feeling of always being a bank to the people I meet. It is possible to make real friendships here but it is so hard to make friendships that are 100% not tainted by money because the gap between our incomes are just too big. 21,000 USD is one million rupees which is more than most people make in a lifetime. They know that 100 rupees isn’t a lot of money for us (a little bit more than 2$ at this point) but for some Indians that makes all of the difference… so why wouldn’t they charge us more? I actually do think that they should have tourist prices… why not? But what kills me is the cheating… the manipulation that occurs sometimes… the lying. I am not saying that this is all the time but I will say that most of the time this corruption happens. While I know that I will miss the bargaining, I am excited to walk into a store and see a price tag. Here, I can walk into a store and shop owner will look at me up and down and then make a price. That’s annoying.
I’m also excited to not be the tourist because I am excited to sit in a circle of people and KNOW the language that they are speaking. I want to sit around with people who understand my culture and think on the same page as me… a really stupid example but I bought a bootleg version of “Bride Wars” which is such a stupid, hilarious, chick flick and I loved it. I saw it with my Tibetan friend and had to explain parts of it to her but she just kept on saying “why can’t they just get married on the same day?” and yes, while I spent the entire movie thinking why one couldn’t have a morning wedding and the other an evening wedding… my friend just didn’t understand why a wedding is such a big deal and I had to explain to her that in America girls in their youth dream of their weddings… of course the movie is an exaggerated version of this dream… but it’s still a dream and we consider weddings to be pretty big deals in our lives. My friend’s sister had an arranged marriage when she was 21 and lavish weddings are just not in their culture. (Weddings for Indians are HUGE and lavish and 7 day affairs but I’m talking Tibetans…)
Anyways, I am so excited to be back in what I find to be a familiar world. I’m excited for my body to start loving me again (no more force fed butter, sugar, chapatti, curry), I’m excited to be one of the crowd- all I want to do is blend in, no more sign on my head that says “hi, I’m a tourist, please take advantage of me”, I’m excited to eat whatever I want without thinking I might end up in the hospital from it, I’m excited to show my legs without feeling like I am horrendously promiscuous, and I am excited to be in a clean environment. I just forget that cleanliness, warmth, and comfort are all privileges, and not only are their privileges they are also privileged expectations. It’s not that the average Indian cannot be clean- they are surrounded by rivers, anyone can bathe, its that the level of cleanliness that we expect of people is just not at the top of the list here. So, clean sheets when you go to a hotel in India… not necessarily going to happen. Not because the people are lazy, but it is almost wasteful to clean sheets every day or every new guest. Weird right? They aren’t cleaning enough but we are being a bit too wasteful… I think an Indierica or Amerindia would be best.
So, that’s it! My first trip to India is over! I have to already plan my next trip back because I have not seen even 1/10th of the country… I have barely even seen Northern India. But I came to the conclusion today that you do not decide to see India… India will show it self when it wants to be seen… for instance, you can buy a bus ticket to go to any city, but its not up to you when you get there.. it may take 4 hours it may take 12 hours… it all depends on the driver and how many times he wants to stop for chai, the bus and if it decides to break down which it so frequently does, and the roads.. they might collapse- I’ve seen it happen, the animals- they may choose to follow their friends and walk on the road instead of the grass, the weather- if monsoon season wants to start early it will et cetera… so we just have to be open and without any plans and voila India will be seen. Eventually.
I was told that the biggest learning experience from going to India for the first time comes with the reverse culture shock. I’m not sure that that is going to be something I will totally want to share with the world- I find that a lot of the feelings are personal and would be better kept to myself, but if anything brilliant comes up I will definitely write about it.
Thank you for reading my thoughts and stories! For anyone who has not yet come to this glorious country, I look forward to reading your blog about your first experience! Keep me updated!