Thursday, May 31, 2007

throwing tomatoes at pakistani soldiers

Every night, on the Indian-Pakistani border, thousands of people gather on each side to wave flags and see who has more spirit. I was there only once, on Tuesday night, but based on that I would have to say that Indians are more colorful but Pakistanis have more spirit.

The border in western Punjab is about 30 km from Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, one of Sikhism's holiest sites. I came to Punjab in a private jeep with seven other Israelis, and while the whole trip lasted only two days, it was an intense experience.

The actual changing of the guards at the border is nice, but not so intense. Our driver, an Indian named Mohammed Azar, drove us straight to the border from Dharamsala, after a stop at a gas station and at an empty garage doubling as a restaurant. Considering my recent stomach illness, I decided not to eat there, just to be safe. We arrived at the border at around 3:30, three hours before the ceremony was scheduled to begin. That was our driver's idea, and though everyone I'd spoken to before the trip told me not to arive before 5, it's hard to convince a group of Israelis to listen to you and not to the tired driver.

We plowed our way through the swarms of kids trying to sell us flags and paper visors and postcards and CDs and DVDs and waited for about an hour at a restaurant in the "food court". Our waiter, who also tried to sell us DVDs and postcards, had a disconcerting bandage over his nose. On closer inspection, I realized he had no nose. Or at least no cartiledge. The restaurant, a nice and spacious air-conditioned room, had barely any food. The waiter offered us chai and instant noodles. "Do you have anything else?" we asked. Samosas, he offered us. Samosas it was.

At about 5 we headed out of the restaurant and toward the border. We were seven among hundreds, walking toward the stadium like fans toward a soccer match. A guard checked our bags, and as we continued on we saw a number of Indian soldiers in uniform with white stirrups and a hat shaped like a turkey crown. The guards, some of India's tallest citizens, were trying to separate the swarms of people into male and female lines. I moved over to the women's line, and convinced my other female friends (who originally tried to stay in the men's line) to join me. They had no objections, in the end, having just been dragged into a photo op with a couple of Indian men who took the liberty of grabbing their breasts.

On the women's side, nobody grabbed our breasts, and the line moved very quickly to the stadium, past the famous border gate. A guard with a turkey hat and stirrups sat us in the nearly empty VIP section, with the other white people, while the Indians scrambled and stuffed into crowded rows. One of the girls I was traveling with, said, "I know the battery on my camera is going to die at the worst time." Damn those self-fulfilling prophecies! As soon as she said it, I knew mine was going to also. I turned on my camera, and lo and behold, the empty battery sign popped cheerfuly onto the screen. So I photographed, but not as much as I would have liked.

Eventually, every section was filled to capacity, including the VIP section. We met a young Israeli woman with her two kids, a couple of older Indian women who had come to Amritsar for a national Christian conference, and two girls from Chattisgar on vacation in the north. On the Pakistani side, hundreds of white-clad Muslims sat cheering. There seemed to be fewer of them than Indians, and they sat in a much more orderly fashion, but they definitely knew how to scream. On our side, two boys ran by with Indian flags, and then back again, and then two girls, and back again, and then groups of kids started dancing to Indian music. One kid started breakdancing and everyone cheered him to stay on. Meanwhile, in the VIP section, all of the Indians tried to get the two little blond Israeli kids to pose for photographs with their kids. All of the kids were embarassed.

Then out came the guards, some standing by the gate others on a platform, screaming to each other in Hindi army talk. Then a loud voice said something in Hindi, which I can't remember, and the crowd went wild. The voice said it again. The crowd screamed in response. Then the voice said, "Hindustan!" To which everyone responded something sounding like "Zindaman." Then the voice said something sounding like "Qantas!" To which everyone responded, "madram!"

The two girls from Chattisgar laughed at us. "You don't know what we are saying?" they asked. "No, we don't speak Hindi," we answered. They told us that the chanting was basically "I salute India. India is beautiful." "Don't say that about Pakistan," they said, laughing. We promised we wouldn't.

About five guards came out and stood at attention in the middle of the path. The gate opened, and one by one they walked over to shake hands with the orderly Pakistani guards. Then the ceremony was over, and the thousands of would-be soccer fans walked back out to the "food court," swarmed again by postcard hawkers and water salesboys.


I wanted to go see the Golden Temple right after, having heard that it is an unbelievable sight at night. I pictured a giant temple made entirely of gold glimmering in the sunset. The rest of the group wanted to go eat first, and before that wanted to go find a guest house with a shower. I personally had no poblem eating and sleeping at the temple, which many travelers do, but I was the only one who wanted to.

Traveling with a big group was difficult, not just because we couldn't agree on where and when all the time, but because sometimes Israelis have a tendency of being too Israeli. I like everyone on an individual level, but together it was too loud. Singing and talking loudly in places where it just wasn't acceptable, shouting "what the fuck" in front of the Indians, who just weren't used to that kind of thing, and making fun of a man's mustache to his face, in English. One of the guys wanted to throw tomatoes at the Pakistani soldiers during the changing of the guards. When I asked him if he was serious he said, "yes. That's the tradition here." He actually tried to cross the gate. One of the girls, wearing a thin white tank top, wanted to join the Indian kids and dance in front of everyone during the ceremony.

By the time we started looking for a guest house, I was tired of traveling in such a huge group (this was by far the biggest group I had been with). We finally found a guest house, ate a nice dinner, and got to the Golden Temple by midnight.

It really was an incredible sight. Before going in we stored our shoes and covered our heads, and then entered the sacred Sikh space. The temple, which I think may be gold-plated marble rather than completely gold, is a stunning building set on a concerete penninsula in the middle of a giant fish-filled pool surrounded by a long rectangle compound. There were people sleeping everywhere, others sitting in groups or alone, praying, others waiting for the temple itself to open at 2 a.m.

The space had such a great energy. In a way, it reminded me of the western wall, a holy temple where devout people come to be close to their history and to a clear presence of God.

Chen and Nurit and I decided to go back to the guest house, after about an hour, so that we could get up early and watch the sun rise over the temple. Despite my dying camera battery, I took a bunch of photos, which I'll post as soon as I can.

Back at the guest house I showered, then collapsed on my bed. After what felt like a few minutes, but was really a few hours of deep sleep, I woke up to Chen and Nurit knocking. It was 5:30 a.m. We made it to the temple in time for the sun rise. When we arrived hundreds of people were standing still on the banks of the pool responding to the chanting. We walked around the compound in sacred silence, sat for a while and watched the people moving, and then filed into a long line to walk into the temple, the origin of the chanting. Once we entered we saw hundreds more people sitting on the floor, some standing, all listening, some following along in prayer books.

We stayed for about an hour and a half and then walked out through the market, into the already boiling dusty day. We stopped into a modest little dhaba for chai and aloo chapati, and then bought the best bananas I have ever tasted. By the time we got back to the guest house it was already 9 a.m., and I was locked out of my room. So the three of us laid down on their bed and slept for a couple more hours. At one point the driver knocked on the door and asked for 1,000 rupees advance, so he could go to the market. 1,000 rupees at the market, I wondered in my sleep, as thoughts of him driving off into the sunset waving the bills gleefully in his hands filtered into my brain.

When we woke up, the driver was still there. I guess he had done some shopping at the market. About five of us went for breakfast/lunch, and arranged to meet the others at 2 p.m. Well, 2 P.M. came and went, and the others never showed, though while we waited we had a nice conversation with the turban-clad guest house manager and his beautiful wife. Both are well educated, their children doctors and engineers, and they seemed very interested in what my parents do. "So your parents are not married?" they asked, me confused, after I told them my parents live in different countries.

The missing three showed up after 3, and we piled into the jeep to head home. First, of course, a car passed by one of the open doors and jammed it, before driving off.

We made it back to Dharamkot by 9:30, dropped our stuff off, and went to eat labne for dinner at one of the restaurants on the main street. We'd all kept our rooms in Dharamsala, so coming back was like coming home.

Monday, May 28, 2007

painting schools and other things

A couple of days ago my friend Chen said to me, "so are you coming to paint the school tomorrow?" I had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded great. "Yes," I told him.

When I first arrived in Dharamsala, I was in bed by 11 and awake by 7 or 8 every morning. Each day, my bedtime seems to be getting a little later, and unfortunately, so does my waking time.

So the next morning, I'm ashamed to say, I almost had to pull myself out of bed to meet the rest of the volunteers. We met out in front of one of the restaurants in Dharamkot and together continued on to an Indian school in Gamru village, overlooking Dharamsala.

Our job was to turn the dirty and peeling walls of this elementary school into a clean place to learn. We started by taking all of the pictures of the walls, and then we sanded, and only then did we start to paint. There were four rooms and a hallway to paint, which we did in green, pink and orange. Even after the paint was on the walls, though, the school still looked manky, so we wandered around painting grass and flowers and leaving handprints and designs all over to cover the black stains. I think the kids are really going to like it.

The institution is a charity school opened three years ago by a young British guy named Phil. The 160 kids enrolled study at a tuition of about 140 dollars a year, which is paid for solely through donations. Our group of volunteers was organized by a woman named Orly, a healer and traveler. The group was all Israeli, but a real mix of personalities and ages.

By the end of last week, I was able to start eating again, which I've been doing with vigor ever since. Dharamsala really is way more interesting without a fever and digestion problems, but I guess even those who have never visited India could have told me that.

To say that I am staying in Dharamsala is kind of a lie. I am staying in Dharamkot, a small tourist village overlooked by Upper Dharamkot, a humble little Indian town. The tourist part of town is really just that, and it is mostly inhabited this time of year by Israelis and some Europeans. Days are spent waking up whenever (between 5:30 A.M. and 10 A.M.), eating a nice breakfast, then going off and doing whatever. People learn yoga and massage and nutrition, relocate from restaurant to restaurant, knit, write, play music and walk. It's never boring here and there are always different and new people to meet and spend time with.

When tourists refer to Dharamsala, they usually mean Dharamkot, Baghsu or Mcleod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama. Most people never even really go into Dharamsala itself, which is a regular Indian town.

Aside from painting the school, I've also visited an ayurvedic doctor, hiked to a beautiful set of waterfalls, started learning to knit, and tried planning the jembe I want to build.

I've also discovered the Bayit Hayehudi, the alternative to Beit Chabad, which I have inadvertantly begun boycotting (listen, I really don't know what made me sick, but the last thing I ate before vomiting last week was cholent). The Bayit Hayehudi is a great and open atmosphere, and has a certain kind of energy I have really been missing here.

I'm going off to Amritsar tomorrow for a couple of days with some friends I've met here to see the changing of the guards at the Pakistani border and to watch the sun rise and set over the Golden Temple.

Monday, May 21, 2007

fevers, tibetans and the never-ending bus rides

After spending two nights in Rishikesh (at least one night longer than I planned) I headed out for nearby Dehradun to catch the bus to Dharamsala. I was told the ride would take about 12 hours, but knowing Indian buses and knowing Indian promises, I prepared myself for a 16-hour overnight ride. I wasn't far off. Seventeen hours after leaving Dehradun, and at least two engine problems and four stops later (in some of the dirtiest places I have seen yet in India), we arrived at the Mcleod Ganj bus stand.

At least I didn't suffer the ride alone. A few minutes after reaching the Dehradun bus station, a girl I vaguely recognized from my most recent Rishikesh guest house (Nishant, highly recommended) said hello to me. She turned out to be Israeli (despite looking completely European), and also turned out to be a former employee at Haaretz. Small world. In India, as in most places in the world, friendships that are supposed to happen happen. Aviv and I got along right away, and spend the whole ride talking and laughing together. Yes, we spent 17 hours talking and laughing. This is because there was no way in hell we could sleep. We were seated in the front of front seats on the deluxe bus, which must have been comfortable for the tall (read: very, very big, even huge) Tibetan monk seated across the aisle from us, but for us was very difficult. Aviv and I are about the same size (read: haven't grown since we were 15, and it's questionable whether we even grew before then) and our feet only reached the wall in front of us if we leaned our shoulders onto the space where our butts belonged and stretched with all our might.

So no sleep. Still, it would be hard to call it "the worst bus ride I have taken in India" since nearly all have been such gems. But usually, I find myself crunched up against a window or pushed onto the engine seat by an unknowingly overbearing Indian man. So in a way, this was okay.

There was a group of seven other Israelis on the bus, (not to typecast) the kind that just got out of the army and were in desperate search of a shanti Tel Aviv nightlife in Dharamsala. Which they found. Dharamsala, at least its upper two villages Dharamkot and Baghsu, caters nearly entirely to Israeli tourists. Most tourist places in India specialize in Israelis, but this was out of control. I'm talking Hebrew signs everywhere, shakshuka in every restaurant along with a waiter itching to try out his Hebrew, and more Israelis than you'll find in Dimona. But a much better view. Aviv and I hightailed it to the furthest guest house in Dharamkot, set basically in the forest, and set up home.

Which was a great idea, since the next day, after lunch at the Beit Chabad and a long walk in McLeod Ganj (home of the exiled Tibetan government) I found myself almost too weak to walk. Being the stubborn person that I am and the grandaughter of my Polish grandmother, I insisted on walking the 3 km from McLeod Gan to Dharamkot. By the time I arrived at my guest house, I essentially collapsed on my bed, not merely because I was exhausted, but from what would turn out to be a very uncomfortable case of probable dehydration.

First came the near fainting, and then came the shivers, which engulfed me all night long, even after I began vomiting in earnest. Knowing I needed to drink water, I tried with all my might, only to lose it into the bucket or toilet a few minutes later. Since I have experienced probably three fevers in my life, the last one about 15 years ago, I was convinced that I was about to die, and was nearly content to accept my fate. Aviv, who like a sister patted my back and changed my bucket and refused to go to sleep until I did, convinced me that it would pass in the morning. Inwardly, she was convinced I had malaria.

When I awoke in the morning, after sleeping in short spurts, my fever was still high and I couldn't keep down any liquids, or ingest anything into my body. So I elected to stay home and "sleep" while Aviv went off to play with Itamar, a great guy we met at the Beit Chabad over Friday night dinner. Personally, I began the day by cursing the good will of the Chabad, who I was convinced had made me sick, but I soon realized that what I had was a pretty clear case of dehydration. I spent the whole day in bed, hurting from head to toe, unable to eat, cold, hot and weak. But I did finish "Everything is Illuminated" (great book, thanks Gil).

Today, Monday, I got out of bed, and ate a meal (in all honesty, not the best decision) and walked to Baghsu with Itamar and Aviv to explore. Dharamsala is truly lovely, and I'm looking forward to regaining my energy in full so I can explore some more.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bebra to Dodi Tal to Darwa Pass and back to Bebra

(1) Trail to Dodi Tal / (2) Commercial for MSR camping equipment (or, Chandara and his son helping Peter with his stove) / (3) Chandara and Bindra / (4) Trail to Dodi Tal / (5) Dodi Tal / (6) Trail to Darwa Pass / (7) At Darwa Pass / (8 and 9) Bebra children


Gangnani through Uttarkashi to Dodi Tal

(1)Cows grazing in a field of cannabis / (2) Gangnani hot springs / (3) A cow loving Uri / (4) Cow after loving Uri / (5) Agora woman on trail to Dodi Tal

...and back down the Ganga

(1 and 2) View of Gangotri from Gomuk trail / (3 through 6) Hira village, above Gangnani

Up the Ganga

Rishikesh-Uttarkashi-Trail to Gomuk-Bhojbasa

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'homely stay in a beautiful natural location'

For most tourists and pilgrims, Uttarkashi is a stopover town on the way to one of the four sources of the Ganga River. We ended up staying there for two nights, mostly because I couldn't decide what to do next (yes, the indecision of being a Libra has followed me to India) and because Uri wanted to buy some essentials before going off on a week-long trek. I decided to join Uri on the trek to Dodi Tal, which according to Indian mythology, is the lake where Shiva cut off Ganesha's head and replaced it with that of an elephant.

Orian headed off to Srinigar, Rachel stayed in Uttarkashi, and Uri and I took the 8:45 local bus (which left at 9:20) to a small town called Sagnam Chatti, about one hour northwest of Uttarkashi. The bus was crowded, as usual, with people piled three to a two-seater, four to a three-seater, and scores more hanging in the aisle. When we arrived in Sagnam Chatti, at the end of the line, we were met with the usual, "Hello, you want guide?" We didn't, so we crossed the short bridge to the foot of the trail, where I traded my sandals for trekking shoes. A European couple walked by us, their backs straight and tall, wearing hard-core hiking boots and carrying obviously well-packed bags. I continued to tie my shoes.

On many of these treks in the western Himalaya, the beginning is often the steepest part. Uttarkashi is about 1880 meteres high, and according to the map, we would have reached 3000 meters by the time we arrived at Dodi Tal. Up, up we walked, past the brushes of stinging nettle and cannabis, into the dense forest.

About half an hour into the hike, we heard a voice calling to us. We looked up and saw nothing. There it was again, the voice. We looked up again, and saw, behind a rock, a face. The face also had a hand, which summoned us. We looked at each other, and decided to go. The voice, the face and the hand also had a body, that of a toothless woman lounging behind the rock, next to another woman, a young girl, an older man and a teenaged boy. "Chocolate?" they requested, holding out their hands. "No chocolate," we said, but we did have a few packages of Parle-G biscuits, one of which we gave to the toothless woman to keep. We opened another package and shared it with them. They were from the village of Agora, 8 km up the trail, and had come down to cut branches to bring back to their village.

After the snack, we continued on the trail, which was so unlike the trail to Gomuk. To begin with, the ascent was much easier on my lungs. Maybe this was because my body was more acclimatized, or maybe because there is so much more oxyegn in the forest than in the desert-like atmosphere of the way to Gomuk. Also, there were no chai shops on the way up the trail. There was, however, a sign for a guest house in Agora boasting "a homely stay in a beautiful natural location." I hope they meant homey.

Agora, which we reached about two hours later, was in fact a beautiful natural location, but seeing how early in the day it was, we decided to continue on to the next village, Bebra, to spend shabbat. We did stop in Agora long enough to eat lunch and watch the rainclouds gather above us.

By the time we arrived in Bebra, the daily rain had poured, lightly. We paid the 10 rupees to the forest guard, who then accompanied us to the nearest dhaba / chai shop. The dhaba owner asked us to stay in his guest house, which, upon closer inspection, was as unappetizing as it appeared at first sight. "Is there another guest house here?" I asked. The dhaba owner and the forest guard both vehemently shook their heads at me. Uri gave me a disappointed look. "Wrong queston," he told me.

We continued on, about 100 meters, where we found another guest house, this one much more homey and much less homley than the last. The European couple, who turned out to be as Swiss as they looked, had already set up their tent on the grass behind the stone house. We took a room, and then joined the couple (Peter and Miriam), who were trying out their Indian camping stove for the first time in an attempt to make lemon ginger tea. Chandara Lal (the guest house owner) and his "woman" Bindra joined us for tea, and asked us when we wanted to eat dinner.

The rest of the afternoon we lounged and wrote, looking out at the forest and the stream, as buffalo and cows and horses and children strolled by us. Agora is a small village. Bebra is a very, very, very small village. As night fell, I went off down the trail to sing kabbalat shabbat. For the first time I began to feel deeply the peace and quiet I have been looking for since I arrived in India. It is an amazing place to let go, to really rest.

Sunday morning, we continued our trek to Dodi Tal, which is only about 16 kilometers from Bebra. On the way, we passed through another small village called Mahji, bigger than Bebra but smaller than Agora and much less developed than either. We stopped for chai, looking at the clouds above us. "It won't last," I said, now an expert on Uttaranchal weather. "It'll rain for a couple of hours and then clear."

Well, the rain began as we began the hardest ascent to Dodi Tal. By rain, of course, I mean hail. And by hail, I mean hail.

When we arrived in Dodi Tal we were soaking wet and freezing. The Europeans, Swiss as they are, were in much better shape than we were. My shoes were entirely soaked through, as were my pants. We crowded around a fire where about 10 Indians sat warming their hands. The majority of said Indians, we learned, were managers and factory operators from India's largest company, Tata. They were in Dodi Tal for adventure-training / team-building, and they were very funny. I don't know how else to characterize them. One of them, a skinny man with a disproportionately small head, asked us to pose with his colleagues for a picture, so we did.

Uri and I ended up spending the night in a dhaba run by a 17-year-old boy named Moskesh and his 14-year-old brother Bipin, who made us dinner and fed us chai, and set up warm blankets for us on the floor.

The next morning we awoke at quarter to 6 with the Tata adventure-trainers and climbed up to Darwa pass with them. Well, not really with them, since they are all much older than we are and much slower. We began the ascent with them (1,000 meters over 6 kilometers) and met them again on the way down. By the time we arrived at the pass, after walking on snow up a slippery slope, we found ourselves literally inside the day's raincloud. Peter and Miriam, the Swiss mountaineers, scurried up to the summit in their state-of-the-art hiking boots, but I didn't really feel the need. I was standing in the middle of a cloud, 4,000 meters high. That was good enough for me.

We were back in Dodi Tal by noon, exhausted from the already full day. I went to sit by the lake, to sort out the many thoughts and realizations I had reached while slipping down the wet trail.

We spent the night with Mokesh and Bipin in their dhaba again. This time, though, as we set to sleep at around 9 P.M., we found ourselves in the midst of a Hindi sing-along. About 20 loud friends from Delhi had crowded into the dhaba for a late dinner, and paid no mind to our attempt to sleep. "If this had happened an hour ago, it would have been great," Uri said. "It's still great," I said, and fell asleep.

The next morning, at around 5:30, Uri went back up to Darwa pass, where he planned to continue on to another town, two days down then trail, and then to Yamnotri, one of the char dham (sources of the Ganga.) Peter and Miriam came in for a chai about half an hour later, and then continued after Uri. At about quarter to 7, I gathered my things and began my trail back down to Bebra.

Before I left Dodi Tal, Mokesh asked where I was going to stay in Bebra. "My grandfather has a guest house there," he told me. "Well, I stayed at Chandara's before," I told him. Mokesh wrinkled his nose. "Chandara Lal? No good."

"Why no good?" I said, laughing. "You mean good, but not your grandfather?"

"No," he said, seriously. "He is very low civil caste."

I didn't really know how to respond. The caste system is not something I truly understand, and it is not my way of determining who is good or not.

I said goodbye to Mokesh and Bipin, and all of the other Dodi Tal friends, and found myself back on the trail, this time alone. The night before I had realized that, as wonderful as the friends I have made are, and as enjoyable as it has been to share these experiences, I needed to spend time by myself, to have the alone time I have been craving for so long.

At first, as I found myself inside of the dense forest, I was a little scared (mostly of whether or not to tell my mother. Hi Mom.) There I was, alone, on a trail in the forest, with only my thoughts to accompany me. It was then, amid deep thoughts and vivid scenery, that I realized. I was not alone. There on the trail with me were millions and trillions of living organisms, trees and plants and herbs and bugs and animals, all experiencing the early dawn with me.

I was like Dorothy, but without a tin man, or a lion, or a scarecrow. And no Toto. Obstacles arose and I met them, crossing rocks over streams, difficult ascents, slippery paths, the whole while looking around me and within me.

As I walked on, I saw something in front of me, long and slim, slithering on what looked like a big white rock. My heart jumped. A snake? How would Dorothy deal with this situation? How would Jack Kerouac? I walked slower, and then noticed that it wasn't a snake at all, it was a tail, a long graceful tail belonging to a lazy cow.

I stopped for a water and biscuit break along the way, on a rock near a stream. It was there the bees came out, one at first, and then two, and then I stood up and heard them buzzing all around me, either in mind or in reality. Two of them nestled onto my backpack, which I had slung on a rock. I paced, unsure of what to do, as the bees buzzed on bag. Finally I dumped my water bottle onto the bag, and the bees flew away. I grabbed my bag and continued down the trail.

On I went, through Mahji with its beautiful children, down the trail, through the forest. I ran out of water about 5 km away from Bebra. About two kilometers later I heard the giggling voics of wood nymphs, who turnd out to be three young women, under 30, all beautiful, all missing multiple teeth. One of them stuck out their hand and said, "toffee?" 'Toffee?' I thought, and shook my head. "Pani?" they said, arms still outstretched. I showed them my empty water bottle, and gave them what was left of my biscuits. They insisted on posing for a photo with the biscuits in their hands, perched in front of their toothless mouths.

I stopped at the first water spout I saw, just outside Bebra, and stuck my head under the flowing water. The women from the trail passed by me as I sat there, their baskets filled with the branches and leaves they had collected along the way.

I arrived in Bebra a little while later. Chandara and his son were in their dhaba, and seemed glad to see me. They offered me chai and food, and I sat around with them for hours, helping with their wood carvings and relaxing. The food they served me was just what we'd had on shabbat: rice, dahl and fern, which is quite possibly the strangest vegetable I have ever had. A fly died in my chai, more than once, but I just spilled it out each time and graciously accepted another.

The Tata team, who left Dodi Tal half an hour after I did and arrived in Bebra two and a half hours after I did, were staying at Mokesh's granfather's guest house for the night. The team leaders had organized a night of Garhwali song and dance for them, which was really an amazing experience. I sat next to Jasmila, Chandara's young daughter with whom I had developed a special relationship despite our complete lack of shared language. Looking around me, I realized I was the only foreigner there. It was a nice feeling. Later on, I got some advice on good treks in Himachal Pradesh from one of the guides, a Nepali whose father climbed Everest twice without oxygen and "expired" on his third attempt.

The next morning, early, I headed back down to Sagnam Chatti, taking my time to complete the 10 km. The Tata crew left at around the same time as me, and we were accompanied by the children of Agora, who walk up and down the trail to school every day.

I reached Sagnam Chatti about an hour and a half (and a total of 60 km) later, just in time to catch the bus back to Uttarkashi. I spent a few hours by the Ganga and then got on a bus, planning to go to Dehra Dun. I decided to get off in Rishikesh instead, where I am now. Tomorrow, Dharamsala.

a stroll through uttarkashi market

Before leaving Uttarkashi for another trek, this time to Dodi Tal, I decided to buy antiseptic cream, considering that the tube my grandmother lovingly gave me before I left expired in 1996.

The market in Uttarkashi is lined with pharamacies, so I figured the whole mission would take about 10 minutes. Into the market I went, where I located the first pharmacy (Parvati Memorial Clinic) and walked up the stairs.

"Namaste," I said. "You have antiseptic cream?"

The pharmacist stared at me.

"For cuts and scrapes?" I tried again.

He stared at me again, then turned to his assistant and said something in Garhwali. The assistant went over to a drawer and pulled out a tube for me.

"Oh, good," I said, turning the tube over to read the indications. "Oh, this expires in June 2007," I said, pointing to the expiration date. "Do you have one that will last longer?"

The assistant put the tube back in the drawer, and pulled out another one. "10/08," he said, pointing.

"Thanks," I said again, looking it over. And there it was, not even in small print: 'This drug has proven carcinogenic in rats and mice. Use in moderation.'

I handed the tube back to the assistant and thanked him. Back into the market I went and up the stairs into another pharmacy.

"Namaste," I said to the pharmacist, who sat behind the counter, sweating henna from his balding head. "You have antiseptic cream?"

"No," he said, shaking his orange-stained scalp.

"For cuts and scrapes?" I asked again.

"No," he said.

"You know what I am asking for?"

"No," he said. And that was that.

Back into market, this time to an ayurvedic pharmacy, where I should have gone from the beginning.

"Hello," I said to the man at the counter, who was talking to a his friend with a big smile.

"Hello," he said back. His friend smiled at me.

"You have natural antiseptic cream?" I asked. "Yes," he said, and handed me a tube. Sixteen rupees and no indications of carcinogens. Perfect.

As I pulled out my wallet to pay, the pharmacist's friend said to me, "which country belongs to you?"

Now it's fairly normal in India for a local person to say, within minutes of meeting a foreigner, "which country?" Sometimes they say it under their as they pass by a foreigner, without even saying hello first. But "which country belongs" to me?

"Well, no country belongs to me, yet," I said. "But I live in Israel."

"Very good, many Israeli live India," the man said.

"Yes," I agreed.

"Have a sweet," the man said, pulling out a ginger-flavored Halls throat candy and handing me my change.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

hello? hello? hello, you want room?

About a week and a half ago, I left Rishikesh in all its heat and splendor, and headed northeast then slightly west then up, up, with my friend Liran to Gangotri, one of the four sources of the Ganga River. The season was just opening there, which meant it was cold and more cold, and also meant that each day a new restaurant and tourist pull was being built before our eyes.

I'll start 11 days ago, when I arrived in Uttarkashi, the passing town where I am sitting at this very moment. Since my first transportation experience in India was the relatively calm, pre-booked tourist bus from Delhi to Rishikesh, I only learned about the gem that is Indian transport when I attempted to leave Uttarkashi for Gangotri. Liran and I, dutiful westerners that we are, woke up early, ate a nice breakfast of champions, and arrived at the station at 10 A.M. sharp, awaiting our bus. No bus in sight. When we asked the station manager when the next bus was scheduled to leave for Gangotri, he told us 12:30. He then told us 2 P.M. He then told us 1:00. We then left the station and wandered around the market, ducking into a back alley where we met a beautiful baby, his parents, his grandmother, and a deaf uncle with wild white hair. I took family portraits, which they loved and which I'll post as soon as I download my photos.

At 11 A.M., we returned to the bus station. No bus, but it would be there by 3, the station manager promised. So, we sat at the station and talked to a group of babas and their protege, an 11-year-old boy with beautiful dimples wearing only an orange scarf around his waist, who we later met wandering around Gangotri.

The bus arrived at 1 P.M., and we eagerly got on. A smiling man with an unfortunately cracked yellow tooth saved us a seat and took it upon himself to be our translator and personal adviser. About 20 minutes after we left Uttarkashi, the bus driver stopped, and the Man with the Yellow Tooth smilingly urged us to get off the bus and drink chai at one of the roadside dabas. I didn't really want chai, considering that the last time I'd used the toilet was after breakfast. So I left Liran to drink the powdered milk and sugar while I went off in search of a toilet, or at least something resembling one. I wandered through the gates behind the daba and found myself overlooking a giant dam. I started to take out my camera, and immediately put it away when an officer motioned to me to put it away. The Man with the Yellow Tooth told me, "no camera." Got it. I went up to the officer and asked him if there was a toilet nearby. He motioned somewhere away from where we were standing, and said, "No camera." Yes, I understood. No camera. It also turned out there was no toilet.

After returning from the futile urination attempt, I also learned that there was no bus. "Poonture," the Man with the Yellow Tooth told us, smiling as was his way, though it looked like the bus driver was fiddling with the engine, not the tire. "Another bus at 3," the Man said, showing us his watch, which read 2:30.

A jeep/taxi pulled up about 20 minutes later, and Liran, The Man with the Yellow Tooth and I jumped aboard. The jeep was going to Darali, about 25 km from Gangotri, which meant we would have to get another taxi from there. And so the ride began, a slow uphill climb through the mountains on roads built only for one, and certainly not for the massive trucks that tried to chicken us around the bends. I've got to hand it to our driver, who successfully maneuvered us around some trying curves. We stopped about 5 times along the way, at various dabas, where we got out to pee and stretch, and at a blasting zone, where we stayed in the car with the windows rolled up.

When we arrived in Hermsil, about 2.5 km from Darali, the jeep driver said "challo" and the Man with the Yellow Tooth explained, this is where you get out." And so we did. Liran and I were joined by Shiva, a mountain guide who really seemed to want to be our guide, and Sergei, a giant Russian who told us he had lived in Israel for five months with his Jewish wife in 1991. He also told us he had recently returned from Jammu Kashmir which "vasn't danger" except for "few moment" when snipers shot at his bus after some sort of kidnapping attempt.

Sergei, Shiva, Liran and I walked along to Darali, already high in the mountains. Waterfalls flowed over the highway in cold currents, which I ran across barefoot to avoid soaking my leather sandals. An overly packed jeep came by and offered to take us to Darali for 40 rupees. We declined. Less than a kilometer later we arrived in Darali. "Excuse me, you sit," said Shiva, who really wanted to be our guide. "No, it's ok," we said, "why don't we get on this jeep to Gangotri?"

As the jeep crawled to Gangotri, night fell, though luckily none of our luggage precariously strapped to the roof did. We arrived in Gangotri at around 8 P.M. I let out one foot, and then another, and within seconds was swarmed by 15 boys shouting, "hello? hello? you want room?" I did, but not like that. The gang followed us down the street, repeating their mantra, which was echoed uncountable times from every corner. Little did I know that we had arrived on what was ostensibly the first day of the Gangotri season.

We found a place for 120 rupees (including a bucket of hot water for a shower), and went out to eat, trying to tune out the shouts of "hello, want room?" I am not exaggerating, not even a little. I wish I had recorded it.

The next day, Liran and I headed out on a three-day return trip to Goumukh, a glacier over 4,000 meters high. Gangotri is about 3,000 meters (these are not exact measurements), so the hike was 36 km round trip at an incline of about 1,000 meters. We arrived at the entrance to the park and payed 150 rupees to get in. Indians pay 40. On the sign it says Pony - 25, so I guess even horses have to pay. Babas get in for free.

The first few hours were difficult, not for my legs or my back, which were handling the walk well, but for my poor sweet lungs, which have barely experienced such high altitudes. My face beat bright red as we walked up the hill, through melting snow patches, a view of giant mountains over 6,000 and 7,000 meters high visible in the distance.

On the way up, we were passed by young guys in ripped shoes and flip-flops carrying generators and bags of something unidentifiable, which we soon learned were to stock the chai shops. On the first day of the trek, there were only three chai shops scattered along the trail. On the way back there were about nine. For some reason, these shops were built in clusters right next to each other, each cluster at least 5 or 7 km away from the next.

We met a nice Japanese duo walking up, who kept stopping to smoke chillums along the way. My lungs cried out to these Japanese guys, but they seemed fine. Aside from the incline, which got easier, the hardest part of the trail was avoiding the kilometer of sliding rocks, about three kilometers away from where we were to be spending the night. Oh, and the rain.

The walk up should take most western-bred white people between five to seven hours. By the end of the sixth hour, my western-bred white self was tired. We were supposed to be sleeping at an ashram at a pass called Bhojbasa, but I was beginning to believe there was no ashram. As we turned a corner, my foot hit a metal object, which I realized was a horse shoe. Now, I'm not so superstitious, but it was a nice sign. It meant that there had been life on this trail before. My optimism returned, and soon enough, we saw below us Bhojbasa pass.

First, we went to a cluster of tents which we mistakingly believed to be the ashram. The manager showed us one tent, where an Indian man was tucked into bed. "250 rupees per person," he said. We stared at him. "Ashram is there," he pointed.

Down we went to the ashram, which was run by a nice baba named Raju, who told us food and board were included in the 160 rupee price. I went with him to fill out the guest form, tired and hungry, and oh, so cold (it was approaching about 2 degrees up there). When I got to the question about "purpose of my visit," I turned to Raju and said, "what is the purpose of my visit?" "To meet me," he said, looking at me half-seriously, half-mockingly. So I wrote in the slot, "to meet me." Raju jabbed me in the ribs.

Darkness fell, wrapping the mountains which I can only describe as glorious, and we went inside for the evening prayer (arti), which consists of bells and chants, and ends with the leader of the prayer bringing around a flame, water and a sweet to each person in the room. After the prayer, we went into the dining hall. The room was set with three rows of narrow cloth, in front of which were placed a metal plate and cup. We sat down, two of the rows filled with babas in their orange cloths, blankets, some wearing sandals, some barefoot, none in shoes. The travelers, which numbered to about 10, sat in the third row, all of us layered and freezing.

Raju stood at the front of the room and said, "you may eat as much as you wish, we will come by to fill your plate again and again. But please, do not take more than you can eat and do not leave food on your plate." He began chanting, "Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram," as the babas sang along.

Then came the food, which, true to Raju's word, did not seem to end. "More chapati?" I nodded. "More sabji?" I nodded. "Rice?" Yes. "Dal?" Of course. "Chapati?" No... well, okay. "Sabji?" Well, it is really good. "Dal?" Okay. "Rice?" Uhhh... But on my plate it went, and try as I might, I did not finish my food. So I scooped it up and put it on Liran's plate. One of the kitchen workers laughed. Throughout the meal, which was delicious, which was filling, which was warm, I couldn't stop saying or feeling, "this is amazing."

Liran and I shared our room, which consisted of a giant thin mattress on the floor, with an Israeli guy named Uri (not the same as the one I met in Rishikesh), who had recently returned from Tapovan, a higher peak above the Goumukh glacier. We all passed out at around 9 P.M.

We woke up at 9 A.M., but I don't think I slept more than five hours, partially because of the cold, partially because the bed was not very comfortable, and partially because of the very odd dreams that kept sliding through my brain.

We woke up too late for breakfast, but Raju gave me a pot of hot water to clean my face and teeth. We then headed up to Goumukh, which is only about 5 km from Bhojbasa. Despite the rain, the walk was beautiful, and the glacier astounding. Rachel, a British woman who we met at the ashram, and who I later would spend the good part of a week with, told me that she had seen a sign next to the chai shop (about 1.5 km from the glacier) which was marked '66 - apparently signifying the recession of the glacier since 1966.

There were a couple of officers at the glacier when we arrived, who told us "duty, no go glacier." Ice was falling from the glacier, in the rain, so it apparently wasn't the best time to get close. "50 rupees," the officer told us. "No way," I said, and went to sit on a rock to look at the glacier, leaving Liran to bargain. "No," Liran said. "20?" the officer suggested. No-go, go-go.

We stayed another night at Bhojbasa, this time without Uri, who went back to Gangotri in the morning. There were at least three times the number of travelers staying there, and half the number of babas, who all seemed to have gone up to Tapovan that morning.

The next morning I woke up early enough to drink three huge chais and eat a bowl of chickpeas, and to talk to some of the other travelers staying at the ashram. We headed down the mountain at about 10 A.M., lazily wandering. The decline was so much easier than the incline, I could practically run it (which I did, when we passed the kilometer of the landslides).

When we arrived back in Gangotri, we were exhausted. We went to our previous guest house to retrieve our belongings, which we'd left locked in a room at a high price of 50 rupees. The owner of the guest house was nowhere in sight, and when he finally arrived he was very sad (I'm using the term "sad" lightly, to describe his fury) that we were not going to stay there another night.

We went to the Krishna ashram, a place mainly for travelers. Liran left the next morning for Rishikesh, and I ended up moving in with Uri, who was also staying there. We stayed that for two nights, and were promptly kicked out into the rain on the third for having "violated" the "rules" of the ashram. The "rule" we "violated" was returning past 10 P.M. the night before, when we'd gone into the forest with about 10 friends to make a bonfire. I apologized for my violation, though this rule was not written anywhere (there actually was a very extensive list of rules posted in our rooms, and this was not on it). The swami, who I will call here Swami Ego, said to me, "sorry? didn't know? I do not forget and I do not excuse." Our German friend Anne, who had been at the ashram for 2 weeks helping out, was also booted for this violation.

So Uri and I went back to pack, as the rain started to fall in bursts. When it cleared for a few minutes we took our stuff and went to sit in a cafe, where we sat for about six hours at a huge table with just about every traveler in Gangotri (remember, this was still the beginning of the season, so there weren't very many). We found a room, and moved on to another restaurant, where met our friends again. It was a very lazy, beautiful day.

The next morning I left with Uri, Rachel and an American named David to Gangnani, a small village housing pools of hot springs. We went for breakfast before catching the bus. My banana porridge had not yet arrived when David spilled my chai on my lap, soaking me through. I jumped up and started looking for another pair of pants in my bag, when I realized that I'd left my laundry, and with it all my pants, in the guest house. It turned out to be a very good thing to have had my chai spilled on me. On the bus I kept hitting my head on a piece of metal above me. I haven't figured out the significance of that yet.

In Gangnani we relaxed for three night and three days, in a really nice wooden guest house/chalet set above the hill. Anne joined us for a night, and then David left. We had two rooms between us, so we figured Uri would need a roommate. That's when Orian came by, completing our crew. Most of the other travelers from Gangotri were also there, in the same wooden cabins as us, so it really felt like Camp India for Adults. On the first day we strolled up to the nearby village, which with its lush setting and slate thatched roofs really looked like a fairy tale. The little creatures running around playing (beautiful children who I will post pictures of soon) made it seem all the more so like a fairy tale. The rest of the time we lazed around, going into the pools at night, eating and relaxing.

Except for Rachel and a Dutch guy named Mark, all of the campers at Camp India for Adults headed out in a jeep for Uttarkashi, where I am now, staying with Uri and Orian. Still undecided about tomorrow's journey, but I think I see a lake in the distance.