Tuesday, February 27, 2001:
McLEOD GANJ (near Dharamsala), INDIA (North)
I arrived in India after a safe flight with Aeroflot Russia airlines from Bangkok. Apparently they have a poor crash record (as evidenced by their mascot, the flying elephant, along with the slogan, "Light on its feet")
Delhi is an absolutely mad place - so many cars, so much pollution, so many cows, and so many people trying to get you into their shops. I have, of course, instantly fallen in love with the madness. The people I have met are friendly. The food is also fantastic. I have not eaten anything I didn't enjoy. I really love chappatis and daal for breakfast (mountain food staple!)
I bused in the mountain in the north, first to the town of Manali for two days, where I hooked up with some English travellers, and then 10 hours to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The Tibetan people are very beautiful. Maroon seems to be a popular colour here (its the colour of the monks' robes, too).
Thursday, March 15, 2001:
McLEOD GANJ, INDIA (North)
I am still in India. No, I haven't been in McLeod Ganj for the entire time. I am alive. I am having fun. So much fun, in fact, that I never really had the energy to update the site until now.
India is an overwhelming experience. It is so rich in colours, sights, sounds, people, smells, adventure and movement that to describe it in mere typeface couldn't do it justice. I'm not going to be idealistic about it: most of the smells are rancid and smell like sewage; most of the people want money; many of the adventures involve being lied to or misinformed; the sounds are of traffic (especially car horns... pretty much a constant feature of life here); and the ubiquitous sight of beggars with leprosy is so disturbing that I can see why some people end up crying for much of their stay.
It's not easy, and I have been only to relatively well-off areas. But at the same time, India is a culture (well, many cultures) full of contrast and contradiction. Amid the squalor and smell and beggars, the beauty is intense. Scarlet-robed Tibetan lamas (monks and nuns) are never out of sight where I am now, always with smiles and peace on their faces. The mountains are spectactular, as are all the sunsets up here. The Hindu festivals are colourful and exciting, and have a real air of community and playfulness. It's not hard to get a smile from almost everyone you meet. Most of the travellers you meet are spiritual seekers. And you never see cows lying in the road in Canada!
After spending over a week in McLeod Ganj in the mountains, Allan and I, and two Irish friends we met here, took the bus down to Amritsar, in the Punjab state. The Punjab is the birthplace of the Sikh religion, and in Amritsar is the most sacred monument of Sikhism, the Golden Temple. Every Sikh we met there was incredibly welcoming. We had the privilege of staying and eating for no charge in the temple complex (but we made a donation), and wherever I went, Sikhs of all ages approached me and chatted, welcomed me, and answered questions; several families invited me to stay with them. One man said, "We are so happy that people like you come here. All religions, classes, castes and creeds are very welcome here."
The Golden Temple itself isn't a large building. It is covered in gold, and sits in the middle of a square body of water, which I was told represents purity; the lake was calm and peaceful to look at, especially at night when it reflected the gold of the temple. The temple is connected to shore by a walkway. Surrounding the lake is a wide white marble path, a pillared corridor, and some beautiful domed buildings. The entire complex (and the city streets nearby) are filled with the dreamlike sound of music, played live inside the island temple and broadcast via loudspeakers.
Before entering the area around the temple, you have to cover your head with a cloth, remove your shoes, and step through water to clean your feet. I joined the devotees inside making their way around the rim of the lake. There were many Sikh families, some visiting from overseas (Canada, England, the USA). Many people sat behind the marble pillars, in the shade, resting. When I reached the walkway out to the temple, I entered through a tall golden gate, touching the ground with my hand as I entered (a gesture of reverence). Many Sikhs bring in a soft brown dough called prasaad, which is offered once they reach the temple. On the walkway out it was always packed with people. You just have to be patient and shuffle forward slowly. Finally I reached the temple.
Inside is as golden as outside. In the center is a clear space, in which sits the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib (aka. the Adi Granth). They consider this to be a guru ("teacher" or "holy person") in its own right, and each night it is wrapped up and carried to a room where it sleeps until the next morning. Also in the temple were musicians playing devotional hymns on drums, an interesting organ-like instrument (I don't know what it's called), and voice. This is what you hear everywhere outside. Devotees file past, while some sit on the ground to listen and worship. After passing through, I followed the Sikh ritual of scooping water in your hand from the lake, taking a sip, and dripping the rest on your covered head. Once I reached shore again, I was given a handful of the prasaad dough, which I believe was the same stuff devotees had offered on their way in. One must recieve with two hands together, cupped. The dough was warm and soft, and tasted of sweet butter.
The whole place had a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere. We ate in the communal dining hall, on the floor, and were served a simple meal of dal (beans) and chapati (flat-bread). One day everyone sang together before eating and this was a special experience. I read that the hall feeds 30,000 people a day.
Our stay in Amritsar also coincided with the Hindu festival of Holi, where basically everyone runs around rubbing coloured powder on each others' faces and throwing water balloons. Allan and I bought bags of powder and chased Indian kids through the streets and alleys. Many people invited us up onto their (crumbling) roofs, where some of them were flying kites.
That night, the Sikhs "played" Holi with the Adi Granth (holy text) - throwing blossoms and insence instead of powder. We missed this, unfortunately, but there was a massive crowd and apparently it was quite an event. The night before, I was part of the crowd trying to touch the Adi Granth's throne as it was 'put to bed' for the night. What a crazy feeling - the be in the middle of a surging crowd, everyone trying desperately to get a brief moment of contact with the throne, and being almost lifted off your feet and carried away in the frenzy!
Thursday, May 3, 2001:
VICTORIA, BC, CANADA
So I'm home now. This is an all-time record: over 45 days since my last entry. Sorry! Here's a quick summary:
We went to the desert state of Rajasthan, where we took a seven-day camel safari out of the beautiful golden city of Jaisalmer. Our guides' names were Jinda, Fatam and Abdul, three Muslim men who knew the desert. My camel was elderly and grey, and had a mean streak, unlike Allan's good-natured camel. My camel's name was Raja (means 'king).
Every night we slept on smooth sand dunes, facing the bright stars and marveling at the fact that we could see the entire panorama with nothing obstructing the horizon. There were actually only sand dunes every 20 km or so; the rest of the terrain was dry and scrubby, with thorny plants and the occasional isolated village.
Allan and I then split up, and I went south to the state of Gujarat, which was hit by an earthquake in January. I saw little damage where I was. I was invited farther south by an Indian man, who wanted to show me the ocean. We saw it, but his scooter broke in an obscure sea-side village and I ended up staying with the wonderful Patel family. If they ever read this: Thank you so so much! I miss you!. I only stayed for four days, but I was almost crying when I left. I got a flavour of village life - racing to fill the family water tank one morning, drinking locally-brewed 'fruit beer' with the guys, talking about village life and the massive, bulbous Banyan tree growing in the centre of town (cutting a Banyan tree is bad karma in India).
After that, I spent a horrendous 45 hours (!) on trains getting accross India to meet Allan in Varanasi. The city is famous for the holy Ganges river, and its sacred swimming ghats. A swim in the Ganges washes off all sin, it is believed.
I then flew out of Delhi, to Malaysia, then London, and then to Quebec City, where I was ready to confront the unjust economic system in the form of the Free Trade Area of the Americas... but you can read about that back on my main site....
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