Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trekking at 16000 feet

We just got back from a 6 day trek through the Himalayas. More than anything I would like to post pictures, but the guy in the internet cafe is watching me closely. He has posted a big sign above my computer that says in friendly bubble letters, 'PICTURE UPLOADING' and then beneath it in very serious, wanted poster letters, 'IS NOT ALLOWED'. I'll just have to try to make pictures in your brains using words until we get out of this town.

First off, Leh, where we now are, is geographically connected to Tibet rather than India. This means we have all the traditional Tibetan surroundings and faces without the intense persecution and political imprisoning that goes along with modern day Tibet. 1000 year old, 6 story castles stand on every hilltop, in various states of disrepair and use. The landscape is more or less barren. Rocks and dirt lay at the foot of towering mountains of dirt and rocks. The landscape is the monstrous lower jaw of the earth, unbrushed, brown, jagged teeth rising up to scrape the sky, with only the occasional piece of spinach wedged in the cracks. The towns here are reminiscent of photos you have seen of the middle east. Brown, boxy mud huts that echo the early morning wails of muezzins (why there are muezzins here I don't know as the people are predominantly Buddhist). The air is clear and the sun is warm.

So, our trek.

We started out with a pocket full of homestay vouchers, a topographical map, one French Canadian with a sprained ankle, one other French Canadian, and a gallon of water each. The water is necessary as much for thirst quenching as for mental health. Hiking through endless mounds of dirt can cause panic if you don't have the weight of all that water bearing down on your shoulders to remind you that you wont shortly die of thirst. The sun bakes down with that high altitude intensity that quickly chars flesh but goes easily unnoticed in the comparatively cool, thin mountain air. I tied my red and white checkered scarf around my head, Arabian style, threw on a pair of over sized sunglasses that nod to the 70's, and rubbed down with coconut scented sunscreen. Early morning, we all started walking.

Mia and I held the lead the entire way. We like to do that thing where we are the American team competing with other groups (that don't know they are involved) in small Amazing Race type competitions. In this race we were up against our own French Canadian friends, a group of pack horses, their accompanying campers, and some overweight French trekkers. This kept our pace rapid. The horses were the worst to be close to, as they all have bells on which cut up the otherwise peaceful chirping sounds of mountain penguins and yellow beavers.

The trail starts over dunes of rock and eventually works its way into a cleft between two mountains, where the mighty Indus river has eroded a deep, almost Grand Canyon-like gorge. With a commanding lead, Mia and I were free to converse in peace most of the way. Only once we were interrupted by the carrying voices of rafters far below, who were making up for their dull, 2 mile per hour, non whitewater rafting trip flop by yelling, "WHOOOOOO! EX-TREME!" as loud as they could. After a good 7 hours of trekking the canyon opened up into a lush green valley. The surrounding hills were dotted with wild mountain goats and the grass below was crowded with assorted livestock grazing alongside wild asses. Anyone who gets sick of straining their eyes to look at the distant mountain goats can get a close and personal look at them over the doorway of almost any home, where their lopped and rotting heads hang in various forms of decay or preservation. It is a local tradition leftover from the pre-Buddhist religious practices. This wasn't nearly as creepy as the tangle of rope and rabbit heads that hung like an otherworldly spiderweb above the door of one house we stayed at.

The houses, for the most part, were amazing. Built of adobe brick, stone and logs, they stood two to three stories tall and were surrounded by ruins of older homes which are now used to house livestock. Our vouchers provided us with a room for the night, a bucket of boiled water in which to bathe, breakfast and dinner. Our rooms contained mattresses on the floor and little tiny tables that were about a foot high. Because these people are still very tiny (I swear some would need to be on tiptoes to clear 4 feet) the doors are only 4 -5 feet tall and the ceiling in some were not much higher, leaving me to feel a bit like Alice in wonderland after eating the mushroom. I actually once hit my neck on the ceiling after standing up from the toilet. My NECK!

Every home has a main room that serves as the living room and kitchen. The women collect copper teapots and silver cereal bowls as a form of BLING. It is their jewelry. Some of the houses had dozens of giant, elaborate tea kettles and hundreds of silver pots and bowls, proudly displayed along the walls on fine wooden shelves. We, however, were made to eat out of plastic Whinney the Pooh cups and Mickey Mouse plates that they kept in a Walmart rack in the corner. We were left only able to gaze in wonder at the shiny serving utensils,. Forced to imagine how it must feel to gently scrape a spoon along their polished surfaces to retrieve that final bite of rice and daal.

The children. The children. The horrible things we have seen. The three stories below will chill you to the bone.

Child one. 4 years old. He started out aloof, not even paying attention to us. When he finally did notice us the second day he just stared quietly for a moment and then broke into sudden, uncontrollable laughter for the rest of breakfast. Then he led Mia out to the front porch so she could watch him pee on it. We retired to our room for some packing and gathering of thoughts before setting out on our next leg of the journey. He arrived shortly after with a long, orange balloon which he repeatedly inflated and released. The room was filled with the sounds of gleeful shrieks, the "Screeeeee-PHHBBBBBth!" of the deflating balloon and the thick whooshing burbles of large quantities of snot being forced from his nose when the pressure in the balloon would trump that of his own lungs, and it would deflate forcefully into his skull. I didn't mind this nearly as much as Mia did, but when Stephane stopped by he pointed out that the balloon itself also contained a good half cup of snot at which point I escorted the young man from the room while unsuccessfully stifling my gag reflex.

Child two. The four of us were playing cards in our room on a lazy afternoon when the hiss of escaping aerosol turned our heads. A young man of 5 was emptying a large can of deodorant onto the glass of our closed bedroom window. We ignored it. Then the sound stopped. Seconds later it started again. An opaque cloud of white gas was now billowing in through a crack in the wooden door. Our tiny room instantly became a powder fresh gas chamber. I remember Stephane leaping to his feet yelling, "HEY!" I remember all of us pushing and shoving toward the door, toward breathable air. I remember the sounds of the screams of the little brother, on whom the blame was pawned by the older, evil one for this wicked deed while we stood outside our room with the windows all propped open. The older brother returned 10 minutes later with a steak knife and a balloon. (Where are these kids getting these balloons?) We watched nervously as he slashed widely at the balloon, which seemed to have an un-natural and unnerving attraction to the ground. Was this too filled with snot? I remained leaning casually against the adobe wall of the balcony, but covered my eyes and genitals in case the knife should come loose from his flailing hand. When he grew bored of this game he pinned the balloon down and murdered it. When he looked up, I took notice of the fact that he seemed to have burped cottage cheese out onto his chin. His eyes glistened with caged animal intensity. Isabelle correctly pointed out that he no longer had a balloon and was now just a kid with a knife so we quickly made our way back into the room and locked the door. But the WINDOW! He was against it, pressing it open with one hand to allow his knife hand easy entrance. It swung like a tiny flesh and steel pendulum, scraping against the walls and glass with a rhythm that was anything but soothing. We returned to our card game, huddled in a small group in the corner. With time everyone forgot about him. Only I saw when he returned an hour later. When he quietly pushed open the window. When he reached his hand through. When he opened it with a certain ghoulish grace, and onto our bedroom floor fell a single... long... rusty... screw.

Child three. This one can't be blamed. His grandmother was senile. He too peed on the porch, though this time Isabelle played the audience. Later we sat out in the front yard, enjoying the occasional shooting star and picking out constellations. He crept from the shadows into the eerie, electric glow of the porch light and crouched down pantsless. Diarrhea. We could hear it over the chirp of the crickets. We tried to ignore it but then another figure emerged from the shadows. His grandmother. A wrinkled shadow of a person herself, even during the day, she now took on a particularly creepy air. She clasped her hands before her chest, hovering over him on a raised portion of the yard. Her ancient, gravelly voice oozed out into the hot night air like thick, sour syrup. "Yessssssss. Yesssssssss," she moaned. "Crab walk while you pooooooop all over the froooont yaaard." The little boy obeyed. She rubbed her large, dry hands together, creating the sound of rustling leaves. "HUuhhhhhh, Huhhhhhh." Her breathing was heavy. Pooping and crabwalking. "Huuuhhhhhh." It was gross.

Crossing the pass, 16000 feet.

This was hard. There is not nearly enough air up this high. Not only did our breathing become labored on the 45 degree incline but the air became brutally cold and was compounded by intense winds whipping through the pass. It was a strange feeling to look down at my once mighty legs, legs that were strong and smooth like adolescent birch trees, legs that could dance me around a room like Micheal Jackson or kick furiously into the air while I laid on my back on the floor and pretended I was an astronaut, and see them almost unable to move. At 15000 feet my steps were shortened to about a foot at a time. By the time we reached the pass I was lucky to be pushing ahead in 6 inch intervals. They just wouldn't move. The only exception to this came when we took a rest break. After two minutes of sitting the fatigue became a distant memory. Like a schoolboy with a paper sack full of Lunchables and Oreos I would spring up and race along with a 3 foot gait and a bounce in my step. Wow, was I crazy to be going so slow before?! I feel wonderful! This hike is UHHHHHHH! UHHHHHHHH! Huge, sucking breaths replaced all thought as my body tried to deliver enough oxygen to my brain and carelessly overworked muscles.

We made it to the top, over, and down the other side. Picture a photo of Stephane, Isabelle, Mia and I huddled together with nothing but snow capped peaks stretched out behind us as far as the eye can see. We are bundled in every piece of clothing we had to stave off the cold. We are grinning from ear to ear.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Over the Himalayas

(By Joe)
We are now in Leh. We were in Manali. Here is our story. Manali was nestled in the lush green valleys of the Southern Himalayas, but breathtaking scenery and cheap pot drew tourists by the thousands. It can be hard to really feel as though you are experiencing something cultural when you crouch down to take a picture of a elderly local and the same photo is being taken by an obese western lady who is breathing all hard and 4 guys from a Japanese break dancing competition in full Adidas gear. The magic is just... gone. I'm no longer Indiana Jones. I'm just the tourist who chose to take a shower today and not dress in a way that would make Ralph Lauren roll in his grave. We needed to move on.

The Lonely Planet guide describes Leh as a remote, high altitude destination in the Himalayas. It says that it's geographical location has spared it from the Hindu/Muslim turmoil and it remains a sleepy, Buddhist town butted up against cliff side palaces. It is a two day jeep ride through some of the world's highest mountain passes (17000 feet) and dangerous cliff side roads. It also has an airport, which we should have taken into consideration. We booked our jeep from Manali to Leh and, deciding to rip the trip off like a bandaid, went for the 1 day, 20 hour ride. It left at 2 am from one of Manali's 30 or so 'German Bakeries' and was scheduled to arrive in Leh some time after 10pm the following night. Stephane (one of our travel companions) booked two extra seats in the jeep so that there would only be 8 passengers instead of 10. But still... Awesome! A real adventure!

We slogged down through streets of cow diarrhea to the bakery in the middle of the night. The first thing we saw was the entire population of Israel (and a one Irish guy) eating cakes and smoking pot on the front steps of the bakery and a whole fleet of jeeps and minibuses. Israeli tour companies must really be pushing the Himalayas because even the computer keyboards here are in Hebrew. We climbed into our jeep feeling a bit less original and headed down into the main part of town to change drivers and pick up the four people who were going in the back. Turns out they were 3 locals and a French guy.

As they were loading into the jeep two tourists who were passengers in another jeep began freaking out at their driver. "This was supposed to be a TOURIST jeep! There are locals getting in! They are loading MERCHANDISE on the roof! MERCHANDISE!" They came over to our Jeep. "Look! THEY have MORE ROOM!" We pointed out that we paid for extra seats so that we would only have 3 people across our little bench seat instead of 4. "Yes, but they put MERCHANDISE on our ROOF!" They returned to yelling at their driver.

Our jeep, fully loaded, took to the road. It took to it FAST. Often, in small transport vehicles here, I find the drivers have a death wish but this one took the cake. 3 am and we are whipping around switchbacks in dense fog, in the rain, 2000 feet up a cliff, in an overfilled, lifted jeep that has all of our heavy packs on the roof. We were going so fast that the tires were squealing around the corners. At one point the fog got so thick that we could barely see the lights of the car we were tailgating to overtake, and we had to slow down. The rest of the time the fog was not that thick, so he kept it balls to the wall. Our driver seemed uninterested in his own road handling, and always kept one hand free to switch out Hindi cassette tapes and constantly adjust his hair in the dark.

The locals in the back provided at least some distraction from the fact that we were probably going to die. They smelled BAD. The guy directly behind me had the worst breath I have ever inhaled. I could have farted directly into his mouth and it would have smelled better. Then there was an enormous oaf of a man who knew all the Hindi songs and decided to sing along at 4am. This would have been fine if he wasn't tone deaf and if he wasn't mostly trying to mimic the female vocals. I should cut him some slack though, he did a nice job of echoing some of the singers during pauses in the vocals. When he got too hoarse to sing anymore he resorted to drumming along to the beats on the back of our seat. At one point the guy behind me discovered he would be more comfortable if he reached over the seat and slid his arm between me and the chair. After a while I found the best way to counter this was to press my spine hard enough against his elbow that he put it back on his own side. I repeated this process many, many times.

Sleep in this situation is almost impossible. Because we were going over huge bumps and around sharp corners at 80 KPH gravity didn't really have any direction. Any time I got comfortable against the door we would whip around a corner, my pillow would go flying and then we would bounce/swerve back, whiplashing me into the door, hard. If I rested my head on my hand the next large bump would bring me down into my palm with the force of a dragon punch. The only option was for Mia and I to take turns laying our heads in each other's laps. This worked well except we only got about 15 minutes at a time before the worst dead leg imaginable would set in. It would start as just a nagging numbness, but when you sat back up you'd have a solid minute of overwhelming pins and needles. Intense. These short naps could only be used in emergencies.

Also our driver ran over two dogs.

And what were the upsides of all this? The thrill and the views. I ran out a fully charged camera battery just during the daylight portion of the drive. The air is so clean that there is no difference in clarity from the mountain right in front of you to the most distant snow capped peaks. Monoliths of stone rise up from the valley floors, cradling ancient glaciers from which waterfalls drop thousands of feet. Clouds roll off the blackened peaks like billows of smoke, making them look as though they are smouldering after a devastating fire. The valleys are a rich green, and strewn with black horses and yellow beavers. The sky, hidden away from pollution and dust, almost glows with a warm, deep blue. A constant variety of pearly white clouds parades across the scenery, winding between the peaks or clinging to them for dear life.

All along the road, repairs are being done and new construction is being completed. Not unlike lower India, the work is still all being done by hand. Crews of men in dust blackened clothes flatten dirt with archaic shovels while others follow behind with tiny hand brooms for the final smoothing. Asphalt is heated over open fires and carried by hand in what appeared to be woks. The asphalt is sporadic at best and even in the places it does exist it is bumpy and crumbling. All along the way signs warn to slow down. "This is a mountain way, not a runway", "I may be curvy, but take it slow", or my favorite, "Don't gossip, let him drive." The last one is really just more about how men are better drivers and women are always talk, talk talking. The government here doesn't mince words.

Our driver had us into Leh before sunset. I shook his hand and said energetically, "Good work! New world record!" He smiled. We beat every other jeep there by hours I'm sure.

And what is the payoff for all this? It ends at the scenic trip. As soon as the jeep stopped a million touts crowded the windows selling guesthouses and taxi services. We stepped out into a landscape that is so similar to southern Arizona it could be Tucson, right down to the white people. I don't think we have seen a local human being here yet, and our morning walk turned into yet another stroll past tourist trinket shops, guest houses, and 'German Bakeries'. Well, I'm off to have a slice of warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream while I watch reruns of Friends.

Love, Indiana Jones.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Animal Sacrifice!!!!

Women begin to gather under the shade of animal skulls to witness... a SACRIFICE!!!

A musician waits with his instruments before the ceremony.

Esmarelda and Mildred have stopped talking ever since Mildred said she cooked a moister Christmas goose.

Who let that white guy into my perfect shot?

In a trance, the head of the ceremony slashes at his tongue and body with a ceremonial dagger as he dances through the crowd. Spectators begin to scream and shake violently.

The women pile onto boulders to watch. They are unable to compete with the press of all the men who crowd around the center.

The screams are terrifying now. They compete with the blaring of the horns and the pounding of the drums. An ox is led into the center. The crowd crushes in.

When the ceremony is finished the ox (and a good two dozen other animals) lay headless around the temple.

Now people press in to get a chance to dot their own heads with the fresh blood of the animals.

Manali: The ankle of the himalayas

Joe sulks by a tree after Mia says he has to 'walk himself' because everyone else is too tired to carry him anymore.

A typical Manali home.

Mia and Isabelle.

This is where we would live if the land of Whinnie the Pooh was real.

Isabelle crests a hill.

Mia relaxes after a hike in a lush meadow overlooking the 'knees of the Himalayas'

This is Marijuana. It is almost as dense here as the hoards of hippies that crowd the town to smoke it.

A little man in his smartest evening vest.

Two ladies have a good laugh over whose husband collected a bigger pile of firewood in one hour. Gertrude's husband is the winner, again.

A group of local youths draw an elderly crowd of volleyball lovers.

Two women have a tiff over who is holding the larger woven basket. Agatha is the winner. It's an upset!

Distracted by idle gossip, a woman loses her whole load of apples to a sneak cow.

Check out these socks.

Tiny legs protrude from what will soon be the contents of the biggest doobie EVER!


Two local shepherds.

Mia looking fit on yet another hike into the mountains.

Oh, THIIIIIS is what it feels like to be a beaver.

Zorbing. A person is strapped into a giant inflatable ball and rolled down a grassy ski slope. It... is... AWESOME!!! (kind of) Ask Joe for details.

A mighty man on his valiant steed. Joe steered this horse all by himself*.

*With a little help from the man standing next to him and Mia.

Our bus passes a truck on a deadly mountain road.

A street performing girl tight rope walks on a wheel for spare change.

McLeod Gange: Home of the Dali Lama

An umbrella repairman rakes in the cash in one of the rainiest towns in the world.

Looking out a lonely window at homes of the displaced Tibetan government.

Old people.

Mia and Joe REALLY enjoyed the first half of this mango. Then... ROOOAAAAAA!!! India 2008.

A misty town square in the mountains. Then.... ROOOOAAAAA!!!

The view from out hotel balcony.

Hey, who unleashed those animals* at the public pool?

*animals: hairy men in speedos. Not the sheep being stalked by men with corncobs and umbrellas.

A lovely Himalayan waterfall.

This one goes out to those of you who complain we don't have enough 'couples' shots on the blog.

Tibetan prayer flags provide shade for grazing sheep.

This is where we meditated for 12 hours a day during our silent retreat. It's better than meditating in a cave.

Mia walks down a mountain into the fog. What lies around the corner? A fog monster? No. More peaceful scenery.

Out on our balcony in the damp, chill air.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Golden Temple and BRAINS!


This Labyrinth was secretly built by a man hiding just outside the city of Chandigarh. He would sneak bits of construction materials and rubbish out of the city and assemble his maze in the jungle far from prying eyes. After many years he was discovered, and the government gave him a staff of 70 people to continue his work.

Stepping into this maze is like entering your favorite fairy tale. Small villages, waterfalls, steps to nowhere, tiny doors to other mazes... it has everything.

It even has THIS! Come on guys, there are enough open swings that you don't need to share! The worst part it that the young man in red was the one pumping for height while the man in blue yelled, "Har-Der! Har-Der!"

Hoards of stone people and animals watch you as you wind your way along the stone paths.

Who's hungry for BRAIN?

ROOAAAAA! Time for another round of Cipro.

The most holy site for the Seik religion, the Golden Temple. The Seiks are an imposing bunch. They strap themselves with swords and daggers and tower over you in their bright turbans. They all sport beards as thick as the trunk of a tree. They are also quick to give a hearty handshake and a smile.

Or a frown.

...or saw you in half alive.

Mia, Stephan and Isabelle try to placate Joe with a smile. Why have they stopped washing my floor!?

A man does some touch-ups in the Seik Museum. This museum was pretty much just hundreds of painting of horrible ways to die. (see one example above). Others included boiled alive, crushed between two spiky wheels, de-skulled and left to die from a dried out brain, beaten and decorated with a garland of your own baby's limbs and head, etc.

It was agreed that this gentleman looked a lot like Joe.

And this is the artist who makes it all possible. He has been working for the museum painting portraits and historical paintings for over 25 years. His portraits were photo-realistic. Truly incredible. In the background you can make out a painting of two young boys being bricked into a wall alive.

Every night at sundown the the India - Pakistan border breaks into pandemonium as the two nations most jingoistic patriots drive 3o kilometers to crowd the fences and scream at each other. It is a pep rally style affair. Both sides blast their own national music over loud speakers that would put a Slayer concert to shame. They dance in the streets, chant at each other, wave national flags, and then the Military comes out to really get things wild. Here, an Indian soldier preps himself for a showdown.

When the soldiers are in place a 20 minute ceremony commences as both sides try to one up each other with yells, marches and high kicks that repeatedly bring soldiers shoes close to their own ears. A military man from each side starts off by having a 'who can yell into a microphone the longest without taking a breath' contest and then each man marches at the border to meet his rival where they both KICK, KICK, turn, KICK KICK! Repeat. Everyone goes WILD!

Is this really the best way for two nations to act even as their other soldiers are dying in the north because of hotly contested borders?

So long, Stink-dia! We are off to the Himalayas, where the streets are a little cleaner and the air is a little cooler.