India 2008 # 11: More Monasteries, Spoilt Fish and the Near Death of Tinkerbell

Yesterday we wandered into the monastery down the road. We were able to go inside for their puja (kind of like a prayer service, I guess). The monks sat cross-legged in a row talking really quickly for ages (reading from books) while one of them beat on a drum at the same time. Pretty awesome multi-tasking! After a while, two of the monks blew on long horns, which fold into themselves telescopically. At the end of the puja, the same two blew on conch shells. Tibetan books are long and narrow and I don’t think the pages are stuck together like our ones. When they were finished with them, they wrapped them up in saffron coloured material. The temple was full of the most exquisite decorations I have ever seen in my life. Pictures of animals and various beings are painted on the walls and the ceilings. The fan even hung under a mandala! Now I’ve washed a few ceilings in my life and I know how uncomfortable it is just to do that. Actually painting the complex pictures they put up there just beggars belief! The doors have huge round gold handles on them with long tassles hanging off and even the foyer outside is painted with mythical beings, etc. Now I’ve never seen a stunned mullet in my life before but I betcha I was giving a pretty good impression of one! Continue reading

India 2008 # 10: In Which The Magic Stick Is Sadly Missed and the Rewalsar Diving Monkeys

We walked around the lake with Ernie and Leisa and had breakfast at a different monastery. There were a couple of wallahs across the road selling little round things that they poked holes in, put a few chickpeas into, poured some kind of spicy liquid in and this you toss down in one mouthful. I have no idea what these things are called but they’re quite an interesting taste. Continue reading

India 2008 # 9: Caves, Hilltop Con-Men and Monastery Escapism

This morning, due to the Tibetan Monastery alarm system, I was up pretty early. There had been an influx of monks, lamas, etc, from Leh (way up in the mountains) and lots of them were little boys. I amused myself for ages watching them interacting with the monkeys. These monkeys, otherwise known to us as “The Thugs” can get pretty close sometimes, and some of the older lamas’ were actually throwing food to them. So there were a few close encounters. One little guy in a yellow t-shirt and marone robes would bravely tell a monkey off while doing a karate stance at it. Very brave in my eyes, as the monkeys were almost bigger than him and have pretty big fangs. This little guy, however, had a few smarts about him – as soon as he had told the monkeys what for he would run like hell. Funniest thing I’ve seen in ages. Continue reading

India 2008 # 8: Umbrella Bashings and Momo Heaven

Today Paul, Leisa and I went to Mandi to book tickets back down to Delhi for Leisa and Ernie. We went on the local bus, which is always a delight if squishing up with many people and hanging on for dear life is your thing. Mandi isn’t the most attractive of towns. Compared to Rewalsar it was like dropping in on New York. We didn’t spend a lot of time there and subjected ourselves yet again to the usual bus stand confusion (i.e. “this bus going to Rewalsar?” “Yes, no, yes, no, maybe, in 10 minutes, in half an hour, in 2 hours”, etc…) How we actually get anywhere that we actually want to go in this country is a small miracle. I must remember to thank the patron saint of westerners in Asia for this. On the way back (yes, we actually found the correct bus in the end), when the bus had almost emptied out, some drunk guy went past and bashed me in the head several times with his umbrella, which was tied to his wrist and swinging about dangerously. Oh thank you sir, just when I was slacking off and feeling slightly comfortable, you reminded me that life is not meant to be so at all times. What was I thinking? He staggered up the front and sat next to an Indian woman. The bus driver then turned around and absolutely tore strips off this guy. I didn’t understand the words, but the meaning was definitely “Get Away From The Women You Drunken Fool”. Bless his chivalrous heart. The drunk guy went back down the bus, giving me a few more umbrella bashings for good luck and if I hadn’t been sitting down I would have been knocked over by the gin on his breathe. Naturally, Murphy’s law applied and this lovely chap got off before we did, which meant I received my third bashing and I now have a slight bruise on the side of my head as a reminder of our charming introduction to each other.

Later, back in lovely Rewalsar, we dined in a cafe on the street below our room. Now here in this town, I am in Momo Heaven. For those of you who haven’t experienced the delight of eating momo, they are Tibetan dumplings, filled with vege or cheese or mutton (goat) or whatever. You can have them steamed or fried and they are the most wonderful thing I have ever had the privilege to eat. A Tibetan guy wandered in with a large lump under his shirt and we looked at him accusingly and laughed when he saw that we had sprung him bringing beer into the cafe. It’s not a problem actually, but it was funny to spring him not being very successful at secrecy. This guy came through from Tibet in about 1985 and he doesn’t speak English so well, but gestured that he would go and get one for us also. English he might not have, and Tibetan we do not have, but we all had a really good laugh together.

They have what they call “English Wine Shops” here. They don’t sell wine. At all. They sell whiskey (this is what the Indians call wine), rum, etc and sometimes also the local brew – some of which you could run an airplane engine on. Ironically, on one of our ramblings around the lake, we found an English Wine Shop that actually sold wine and nothing else! This we have never seen before. I took a photo of it, I was so amazed.

Anyhow, at the end of the night (we have to be in the monastery gate before it closes at 10 p.m.) we tried to go to sleep to incredibly loud live Hindi music wafting across the lake. Thank goodness it only lasted until 2 a.m. And to let you know it’s the next day now, the monastery very kindly starts bashing gongs, ringing bells and blowing horns for Puja (morning service sort of thingy) at 7a.m. They are so considerate around here with their musical entertainment. This, combined with the hardest rock slab masquerading as a mattress I’ve ever had the pleasure to torture myself on meant I had a least 3 to 4 hours of sleep. Have I mentioned the splendid variety of comfort levels available here?

India 2008 # 7: Once More Into The Mountains

Tuesday 15 July –

We got on a bus to go up to Mandi, which is the entrance way, so to speak, to the Kullu Valley – up in them thar hills. We were told to meet at the guesthouse next door to us at 4 p.m. for the bus. We waited (as you do here) then traipsed around corner after corner and across a busy road to wait some more. Three or four different buses arrived and there was great confusion as to which bus we should be on. Many people waiting, bus loading guys cruising around with i-pods in their ears with not a care in the world (of course not – it wasn’t there bus to miss!) and a guy collecting tickets who looked perpetually worried and didn’t ever give clear answers about whether we were on the correct bus or not. In the end we just got on what seemed like the right one and claimed seats then sat there melting for half an hour. An ice-cream seller, a boy selling cold water and some beggars were working this strip and doing a roaring trade. One of the beggars, a girl of about 10, had a badly burned face, another could do unbelievably bendy things with her body. Watching out the window, after we had all got on, they were seen counting large wads of money between them. They knew the secret to prosperity alright – location, location, location. They’d bought themselves an ice cream each, relishing them as only a kid can. Nice.

Sitting upright for 1twelve hours in a hot bus is not the most fun thing in the world to do, but finally at about 6.15 am we landed in Mandi. Some more confusion in the Mandi bus stand and we found a bus which apparently went to Rewalsar. Another hour of winding roads and finally we got to the end of our journey. The approach was just mindblowing. There’s a huge statue of Padmasambhava (sp?) or Guru Rimpoche looking over the town which surrounds a small lake. This statue is so big it’s just impossible not to be impressed. Apparently it’s taken five years so far to build and they haven’t finished the base yet. Guru Rimpoche is the guy that took Buddhism to Tibet and this town, Rewalsar, is where he started from.

We booked into a monastery here, which is beautifully painted and has a temple, small outside rooms with glass sides and ever-burning butter lamps, a really tall pole smothered with Tibetan prayer flags and, as a nice juxtaposition, lots of thug monkeys. The view from our room looks over the courtyard at the temple and flags and it’s the most watchable view I think I’ve ever had. Tibetan buildings etc are so beautifully coloured. They really have a lovely sense of style.

We wandered around the lake (clockwise, as is the tradition here) and bought some food for the tame fish in the lake. There are hundreds of these fish and they all flop around, half in and half out of the water. For a little more baksheesh (yes, money) the old ladies here will beat the monkeys off with their long sticks so you can feed the fish. Some cunning monkeys a few feet away have learnt to dive for these fish biscuits. I’ve never seen a swimming monkey before, so that was somewhat novel. A nearby cow has also caught onto this whole fish bicky business and took a real liking to Ernie (and his biscuits) – it was actually smooching up to him adoringly. Must have sensed that he’s a farmer I think.

India 2008 # 6: Maharaja Burgers and Mosque Minarets

Monday, we had another crack at going to Tibetan Row at Janpath. We ended up in a shop that was piled high with different brass objects. I think you could sit there for an entire day and still not see every item they have. Ernie saw a neat Galaxy system thingy made of brass, I found yet another animal-shaped padlock and some vertical prayer flags (damned hard to find in New Zealand) and we pulled ourselves out of there before taking out a mortgage was necessary. We risked life and limb and crossed the road to MacDonalds. None of us would go there normally, but they have air-con, toilets with actual doors on and safe-to-drink ice in their lemonades (I hope). Maharaja burgers are actually quite nice and I haven’t had anything with lettuce in it for quite a while so I was a happy camper.

Tuesday, we took the metro then rickshaws and went to the Jama Masjid (the largest Mosque in India). I obviously didn’t pack my brain before we left to go there, because I was wearing a scarf that had Om signs all over it. Not at all Islamic and not the sort of thing to be seen in at a mosque. Duh!

We had to leave our shoes with some guy who stuffed them into a tin trunk then enter the gate into the very large courtyard. Barefoot, stinking hot day, large open space with hot tiles – you get the picture. We were only there for ten minutes and they pushed us out the side gate because prayers were starting. Not being Muslim, we had to wait outside – bare feet, hot flagstones… About three quarters of an hour later they let us back in again. Still, in the meantime we got to watch an ear cleaning man in action (gross!) and a couple of mongooses (mongeese?) making little mongeeses. An unexpected surprise. India is so delightfully variable.

When they let us back in, we climbed up one of the minarets to look at the view. These minarets are incredibly high. There are no escalators, only spiraling steps up and up and up in a fairly dark passage. Still, the view was worth not being able to catch our breath for ten minutes. Pretty dodgy though. There’s only room for a few people at the top and the staircase kind of cuts a large hole in the floor, so you have to watch where you stand or else you’d find yourself descending the spiraling staircase in a way not conducive to having all of one’s bones intact at the bottom. More and more people kept appearing up there until we were all so jammed in the cage that we couldn’t turn around to get back down the stairs again. Something a little wrong with that system. When we did get back down though, it was funny to look back up and see all those people jammed up there. God forbid there be an earthquake while you’re in that situation. Yet another rapid descent system…

Okay, next bit or the story is about yet another bus ride, so I’ll do that later, as I don’t trust the internet system here.

India 2008 # 5: Warning – Sleeping on Indian Trains is Injurious to Your Sleep!

Well, it’s almost a relief to report that there was a bit of mayhem at the train station in Jhansi. We sat on Platform three, rat-watching as you do, when at the very last minute we found that things had changed and our train was coming in on Platform four. Much as I moan about this whole platform business, I have to admit things had been going boringly smoothly for a while there and I was beginning to wonder if I was still in India. So we did the mad dash along the platform and up the stairs, etc, and joined in with the mad squeeze of humanity boarding the train. Amusingly, at the metro stations they have t.v . screens demonstrating allowing people to get off the train before you get on. Who are they kidding? Orderly queing or boarding of any form of public transport is just not going to happen here. Indians, apparently, are genetically incapable of this.

Unfortunately, we had been given bunks by the door. You’d think this was good for expedience, right? Not so. A door is a very dangerous vicinity to hang out at on an Indian train. Kind of like the Running of the Bulls in Barcelona, but without the bulls. Even though the train was going to take overnight to get to Delhi, hoards of people were still crushing together to ensure they got out of the door first. Leisa and I had side bunks, which meant we were parallel to the aisle. We had a hard time explaining to one man that we had booked and paid for these seats and we were actually unreasonable enough to want to sit on them. Well, lie on them actually, as it was well after eleven at night. Some other guy was lying on Ernie’s bunk and he had a sudden lack of English on this subject also. But never mind – this particular guy perched on the end of my bunk throughout the night. My kicking and prodding him with my feet on a regular basis didn’t phase him at all, the rotten sod. I mean, I’m not known for my height – more so for the lack of it – but this was a very short bunk. However, he wasn’t half as annoying as the dude who decided to live in the aisle right beside my bunk complete with several suitcases. This caused everybody who kept coming to check that the doorway was still there, as after all, we only had eight or nine hours to go, to climb over his luggage, bumping and pushing against my bunk in the process.

We arrived in Delhi at 6.30 am and grabbed a taxi van to the guesthouse. It was Paul’s turn to feel a little unhealthy so he slept in the room while Ernie, Leisa and I went about the business of consulting with our tailor and assorted other chores. Funny thing – we’re supposed to be here on holiday, but we always seem to be going somewhere or returning from somewhere. Perhaps Tahiti, hammocks and palm trees is a good option next year? Nah, heck, we’d be bored in no time and have to start driving around beeping our horns, spitting on the streets and letting cows loose to keep ourselves feeling normal.

Delhi is a hot and sweaty place at the moment so I took Leisa to visit Mr Om at the R-Expo shop. They have air-con, heh heh. But believe me, we paid for it. I think I have about a years worth of vanilla bean soap and natural-based shampoo, etc – I know the package was heavy and my wallet was light when I left there. He’s a scary man, that Mr Om.