Archive for February, 2010

Where Is Robert?

Indian women dancing at a Wedding

Based on the emails I have received, I understand the following:  Some of you are worried about me, some of you are curious about me and my non-traditional ways, and some of you simply want something to read while at work. To all, I apologize for not keeping up with the posting as I had hoped; there is a simple reason however:  I am spending most of my time creating new stories verses writing about the past ones.  That is not to say that the past is not important, and I will be getting all the good stuff posted…but not today or even likely in the coming days.  Why?  Well, I am in Udiapur, India for another 5 days and I am supper busy during those days.  My day starts with a walk to Yoga, (I buy a liter of water from the same little girl each morning).  I spend 90 minutes at Yoga and then walk to my favorite cafe where I inevitably meet interesting people (this morning it was an accomplished Yogi and fascinating man from Delhi).  Breakfast is rarely over before 11.  Then back to my $6 room.  Mid day I have a bit of time, but as is typical, today we found ourselves in an Indian home looking at miniature paintings, enjoying great company, and figuring out if we have enough time to get our hands or feet painted with Henna (not enough time today…but later for sure).  In the afternoon I have another 90 minutes of Yoga.  For the last several days, Yoga has been followed by Indian Weddings that go late into the night.  Starting tonight, Yoga will be followed by 2.5 hours of Reiki classes. Tomorrow we have to try and squeeze in a Shiva festival after Reiki class….NO I am not complaining – I am living.

Women at another Wedding

But there is good stuff coming in my writing.  Or At least I think it is good.  The experiences certainly were, the writing simply is what it is.   Topics include:

  • I personally met the Dalai Lama and it was beyond transforming – he is the most amazing human I have ever had the privilege of holding hands with.
  • I delivered 100kg of rice to Muslim families from the back of a bicycle rickshaw – this was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
  • I saw poverty in Kolcata that will break your heart; and yet I now greet beggars and those less fortunate with a smile and Namaste rather than looking away
  • I saw the erotic art of Khajuraho and realized why yoga is important – but more importantly realized that the erotic sculptures were only a small percentage of the temples that reflect the entire human experience.
  • I saw the greatest temple of love, the Taj Mahal, with a most wonderful friend and person.
  • I have gone to more weddings in India then I have been to in 20 years in the U.S.

And so much more, that may or may not ever be writen; it certainly will not be forgot.

I greatly appreciate the support for me to keep writing:   It is not something I ever thought I would do or ever enjoy.  And it is most certainly nothing I thought others may enjoy.  I am in your debt, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy that some of you enjoy it.

Boys at yet another Wedding (last night)


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I met a guy

After eying a beautiful Royal Enfield (CIRCA 1950) motorcycle,  I struck up a conversation with the current owner.  The bike is being restored and shipped to Europe in a few weeks to a lucky bastard who is going to be riding it around the EU; I am so jealous, but figured with the gear shift being on the right /wrong (opposite of  all modern motorcycles) side, I would surely kill myself even if I did have the good fortune of owning one.

Monks chanting at sunrise

The same guy had previously helped Sue and Dave book their Himalaya trek….the one that never happened due to Sue’s serious Indian weight loss program (eat, throw up, have diarrhea….repeat for days). So casually I explain that I am trying to get to Boda Gaya and it is proving difficult, beyond difficult actually, as the trains are all fully booked. As he shows me the original name plate that is going back on the bikes fuel tank he says “I know the guy who can get you a train ticket”.  The process sounds highly suspect (something about railroad employees buying tickets, reselling them, and changing the names on the ticket) but I was currently out of options and have come to realize that sometimes, particularly in India , you just have to have trust and let the “guy” help you.

Without such and attitude, you will most certainly be going home earlier than planned. I  have met a lot of travelers who have said: “Nothing works here, we hate India, we are going home”.  Me on the other hand, well I am trying, with limited success, to develop an approach that gives up some of my perceived control.  I am thus starting to figure out that the “Nothing works” is simply according to our expectations, but at the end of the day, things do get done…..or at least somewhat done.  That afternoon Dave and I run into the “cake lady”, who as a westerner, is making Dargeeling her home while selling cakes that taste like cakes.  We mention the odd plan to her and she simply says: “Oh the guy with the cool bike is a good guy, if he said he can get you a ticket he can, no need to understand how”.

The next morning we check out of hotel, walk until we find a ride in a jeep going down the hill from Dargeeling before the latest in a series of protest strike (hotel manager and husband are also in jeep trying to get out of town also as the strike may disrupt things in Dargeeling through the new years).  After some tough negotiating, and some help from our hotel manager we convince the jeep driver that the front and back seats do not need to be crammed full, and we pay for a little extra comfort. The back…well they put 7 or 8 people back there. We drive through Gorkhaland independent state demonstrations and somehow avoid the road blocks; aparently there is an agreement with the strikers and the jeep drivers regarding when they can pass, but it is completely foreign to us as to the process.  At one point we see a few rupees change hand as we continue out of the Himalaya foothills.


With no hotel booking we walk to a hotel that looks decent (pretty nice actually) in the non-tourist town of Silugiri,  After checking in, prepaying, showing all forms of ID, we are given rooms; Odd.  Dave and I set out to try and find the guy who can get me a train ticket; We continue to ask directions over the honking horns and bustle of and Indian city at night. Dave ultimately spots a hotel down a side street with a name similar (but not the same) as the name we were told to look for.  “Yes, we know the guy you are looking for but he is gone; I whine, they tell us to sit down and they call the guy.  In India, you are always told to sit down and you never really know what that means, but we simply trusted that something would happen and we wait. Soon we see a rather old, rather haggard looking guy come in and we are surprised the hotel lets him into the lobby. He sits down and starts talking loudly on a cell phone.  At this point Dave and I are about to call the whole process  a bust,  and then this guy hands me the phone and says: “For you”.  It is the Enfield motorcycle guy on the phone telling me that the other guy is my guy and he was simply verifying who I was.  Out pops a train ticket with my name on it. Dave and I look at it and again opt to trust that it is indeed a ticket to Patna (near Gaya, and where I need to get to). As requested,  I give the guy $4 for his effort and walk away repeating Sue’s favorite saying regarding how to explain things in India: “But of course it is”.

The place of Enlightenment

We walk back to hotel in the mayhem of the Indian city and have great dinner (even though it was nothing close to what we ordered as often is the case) and we laughed: “But of course it is”. In the morning I walk to tuk tuk (auto rickshaws) station but opt to avoid what looks like certain suicide and  instead hire a cab to train station.  At the station while I settle in a for a long wait,  I fortunately meet a guy that explains that the train is not late as described on the status board and points out that my train is actually leaving NOW; We run down the platform, find my car and jump the train as it begins to role.  Completely rattled, intimidated, and a bit ticked off,  I find my berth as I clutch my belongings to my chest. I am instantly befriended by Indian newlyweds who adopt me for this part of my journey and share their dinner with me and tell me how happy they are with their arranged marriage (they are totally sincere, obviously happy, and committed to spending the rest of their lives together; divorce is a very very rare thing in India).  And forget the tourist restaurants or even the great street food,  if you want fantastic India food, enjoy the food a happy family packs for long train voyages. Later in the evening I am convinced that the puffed rice, with mustard sauce and chopped onions that is being sold by a vendor at one stop is safe to eat, so I take my newspaper cone that holds the rice and marvel at the rich spicy taste.  As I go to pay, I realize my Indian friends have all ready done so and they refuse my money. Soon a rock in the mix breaks yet another tooth.  I do not have the heart to tell my friends, and discretely spit the rock and sliver of tooth out; I enjoy the rest of the rice and lively conversation with wonderful people.

Indian Buddhist Monk

I Arrive in Patna after an all night train and try to buy ticket to Gaya but the station is closed.  I meet another guy who understands “Gaya” as I try to explain that I need to get a ticket.  He shakes his head in that way I do not understand the meaning, points to a train that is just leaving and we again run down the platform and jump onto the train. This is a local train – I sit on a bench with 3 other guys, while some very fascinating  and very very poor people (I am now in the poorest part of the country) sit around us.  At each stop the train gets more and more full until the is car packed with humans.  No one speaks English and I am clearly quite an anomaly for this train. I try and figure out if I am going the right directions and break out my little guide book map and use compass on watch; yes, I hink I am ok- lets see looks like maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty kilometers that should be about 2- 3 hours, relax. Three hours later the guys indicates I should get off the train which I never did get a ticket for. We shake hands and I walk into a sea of tuk tuks and negotiate a price like a weathered veteran. I make it to Boda Gaya.  Travel – check.

I immediately set out to seek lodging amongst a sea of gold and maroon (thousands of monks and pilgrims are all ready here and estimates indicate that 50,000 people we be here in the coming days).  I go to a half dozen places with no luck and begin to think I may have finally done it – I am truly homeless.  Then I meet a guy who tells me to take a seat as he knows a guy; I meet another guy who comes at the request of the first guy and he takes me away to meet another guy who takes me to a hotel that I had all ready checked with – there are apparently no rooms in town, but remarkably, miraculously, or because I said I would pay a premium someone just cancelled and they offer me a nice room for way to much money.  I negotiate a still inflated but fair price given the crowds that I am seeing develop outside, and secure a room for the 10 days that correspond to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet being here and doing a teaching.  Lodging – check.

I have no idea how to secure a ticket for the teaching but opt to relax in knowing I am in the right town on the right day.  I go to find a cup of much deserved coffee; not great, but black and taste something like coffee in a continent of tea drinkers. “Good morning” says an older Lama who asks if he may join me”. “Certainly” I say.  We have a nice visit and I ask if he may know how I acquire a ticket for the teaching.  “Wait here, enjoy another coffee, I will be back later”.  After a tine he returns and we depart together. Every few minutes we have to stop, however, as people keep approaching my new friend; the process is always the same, they clasp their hands, bow, say a greeting I do not understand and then shake both hands warmly.  At one such stop, the Lama simply says “Excuse me for a moment, this is His Holiness’s personal secretary on Tibet and I need to speak with him for a moment”. We make it to the registration area and I am helped throughout the process by this kind Lama. Over lunch I ask: “So, who are you“, I get a humble response that includes a name, and like the Dalai Lama an assertion that “ I am just a monk“.  I knew otherwise and Google confirmed;  I have just spent the day with the 5th incarnation of Chusang Rimpoche who oversees the Monastery that bears his name in Kathmandu, Nepal, studied directly under His Holiness, and is a senior monastic in the Tibetan community.  At one point Lama Rimpoche says “So you are not a Buddhist” to which I reply, “No but I am interested, have been doing some practice, and very much relate to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism with its focus on the mind and analytical thinking”.  “I know” says the Lama, “I think you may have traveled this path before”.  His words are said in a manor that penetrate deeply and for once in my life I am left speechless. “It is best you are not a Buddhist, labels not important, practice important”.  Ticket – check….who know what else.

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By comparison to my limited Indian experience, Dargeeling is quite  peaceful.  The demographics here are more similar to Nepal and the populous is comprised of many Nepali and Tibetans, along with the fairer skin toned Indians. Thus in Dargeeling you see much more of what we would consider an Asian influence on peoples faces; or as Choezom’s sister said when I said I was going to Dargeeling:  “You see more chinky eye their”.  This was not a racial slur,  it was simply a way to describe how people in different regions look differently.  There is an enormous amount of prejudice in India but that is based more on the Caste system.

India will make you marvel about our vanity regarding skin color.  We more fair skinned people dream of having higher melanin and thus darker skin.  We use to work on our tans until we realized it was killing us, some drink carotene to the point of looking like carrots, and some paint their bodies to make their natural color look darker.  Not in India -ust the opposite and every other commercial on television is for a skin lightening product – “Up to three shades lighter” is the typical claim.  I think Michael Jackson must have used the super strength stuff. In India this apparent obsession regarding how we look goes far beyond just physical appearance and as skin tone can demonstrate your place in the society. the upper Caste are typically more fair while the lower Caste are often very dark.  This is partly due to the different labor categories that each cast holds; laborers are low Caste and work outside in the sun, while high Caste hold merchant and other more leisurely post.  This system, while not as all inclusive as in decades past, is still the dominant social structure throughout the sub-continent, and is going to continue to be so for at least a few more generations.

Tiger Hill ans tar

Dave and Sue had not gotten a good view of the Himalaya so we hired a car to take us to the base of Tiger Hill, and although foggy we decided to make the walk up to the top regardless.  Upon summiting we were granted a tad bit of a view, but given my Nepal trekking experience it was indeed marginal.  And to add insult to the fog, at the top of the hill, the road crew was boiling tar and we were forced to cover our noises and mouths as the wind swirled the black smoke around the lookout point. But the kids who were walking up the hill had a great time because this road crew actually had a compactor and rides were being given to everyone; I talked to both the OSHA representative and the Union Steward both and they said this was fine 🙂 It was Christmas Eve after all.

Monkey enjoying the offerings at Hindu shrine

The three of us enjoyed a nice dinner together and called it an early evening.  While working hard not to, be I was indeed in a bit of a melancholy mood as I retired to nice but freezing cold room…. alone. At sunset the temperature drop precipitously and given the rooms are poorly insulated with single pane windows the room was an ice box without the ice.  Rather the windows were dripping with condensation and the blankets themselves felt heavy with moisture.  The blankets are hard to describe….like some kind of heavy cotton fill sewn inside a sheet.  They weighed a short ton, were about 4 inches thick – and lumpy.  I had three of them on top of me – any more and I would have been crushed to death, and they still lacked any real semblance of insulation The fantastic hotel manager secured a mini electric heater to put by our beds.  At one point, I had on all my clothes including my down jacket – and Himalaya hat,  was smothered in blankets, and held the electric heater to my nose and ear to thaw them out. I wonder what it is like here in the real winter which is still a few months away?  And, why the hell did I send my down sleeping bag home from Nepal?  India is warm!  That is like saying California is warm…..say that from the top of Mt Whitney in the winter. I watched bad action hero movies (first TV in three months) and shivered for hours.  It is Christmas 2009.

Observation hill: Hindu, Buddhist again sharing space

Sue got very sick on Christmas day so after the first day of sightseeing together  Dave and I were on our own as Sue opted to throw-up for 4 days.  We did very little actually as I was becoming less interested in seeing things and more interested in interacting with people and simply hanging out.  The days went quickly, we enjoyed some good meals together while each day Dave and Sue evaluated if Sue was up  for a couple of day trek into the Himalayas. Each day Sue answered after breakfast by throwing up everything she ate. When it became obviously that a trek was out the question we all began to make independent plans for leaving Dargeeling.  But before we did we were all able to go for a small outing to the Happy Valley tea plantation where we tasted and explored the fascinating world of the worlds most famous teas. I am a coffee guy, but this is damn good tea; like Folgers to Petes coffee…..comparing Happy Valley to Lipton is well no comparison.

Clock tower

Throughout the Dargeeling area you see signs supporting an independent Gorkhaland. The inhabitants of these foothills and surrounding mountains want, very much, to be an independent state of India. The argument is similar to elsewhere in the world – we are represented by Bengali’s from Kolcata……we are Gorkha, we demand to represent ourselves. These lands have changed political boundaries so many times that I got lost just trying to follow the chronology. The British were the latest architected and crafted some elaborate compromises that seemed to have largely served no-one but themselves. So, I can say this – it is obvious that the vast majority of the people want to represent themselves as a separate state, they are organized and getting more so. And they control a cash crop that is worth a fortune to the state of Bengal…this is going to be a conflict not easily resolved.

Kids getting a ride on compactor

Studded tires and chains are apparently unknown in Dargeeling.  Their alternative snow traction strategy is ingenious however. The roads or Dargeeling are small, narrow, and very steep, so as they put down a heavy layer of tar they imbed golf ball sized sharp angular rocks into the surface.  A bit hard to walk on, but it must work. Like squat toilets, we do not have a monopoly on truth or doing things the ‘right” way. But we typically think we do.

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Gorkhaland, India

The British were here: Christian Church of Dargeeling

Like tribal people everywhere, westerners are drawn together at Indian train stations like  Hindus to the Ganges. Thus, while Dargeeling is not a popular destination (cold) this time of the year, I met five others travelers trying to figure out what platform the train may be leaving from. We quickly formed a partnership, spit up and checked each platform and agreed we would share a private jeep to Dargeeling from the train station. Well all but one person agreed.  A new to India solo women said she preferred to travel alone as she was on a personal pilgrimage and would make her own arraignments. I informed the group that I was assured we could also catch an express train once we got to the NJP station.  “Never heard of that was the collective response”. When I was told this by the hotel manager in Varanasi I had my doubts as to the validity; could not confirm in the guide book or on line. But he insisted it was easy.  What he meant was it was an easy lie for him to tell me so I would not worry about how to get from the train station to Dargeeling, this is unfortunately a rather common occurrence: Tell em something even if you do not know or if it is incorrect; there is no such train. There is the historic steam train, that only leaves in the morning (we arrived in the evening) and it is far from express given it takes 8 hours to climb to the hill station. I was disappointed in Christopher for taking this approach as I had very much liked his little affordable hotel, found his other information to be valid, and like the guy. But I have told lots of travelers that the hotel is a bargain but unfortunately you can not trust he manager; wonder what that has cost him?  Not being vindictive here, it is simply a matter that I choose to do business with honest people; particularly important for travelers in a challenging travel environment. And by doing so, the good ones will also make more money and other will not – seems appropriate and helpful to me.

Municipal building; notices the Swastika -symbol of good luck in Hinduism and prevalent throughout Asia with similar meaning.  Mirror image stolen and inappropriately used by Hitler

Someone in our group, Sue I think, finally found and English speaker and got us to the correct platform; which was again not the platform listed on the board.   I had fortunately booked the right compartment this time as well and was in relative  luxury in a 3ac sleeper (complete with a sheet for my bunk and a blanket…wow).  Three bunks on each side, but separated in a cubicle sort of way.  Much cleaner, and the car had it own bathroom that was a far more manageable dirty….but not filthy. And I had some travel mates so was less concerned about my gear (it was still locked) as I slept.  In the morning I was due for a panic and so one materialized as I realized that either the lock on my gear had failed or more likely I had inadvertently (rather easy to do) changed the combo the night before. “Shit, we were arriving at our station in about two hour and my bag is locked securely in a Pack Safe stainless steel mesh bag“. Fortunately, because I had been with others I opted (something I never do) to not fully synched down the metal mesh bag and so after 20 minutes I was able to free my pack with only one small tear  “.Ok, relax, you have your pack”. Now the lock, cable, and mesh cover were securely attached to the bulkhead of my bunk.  I sat and looked at it for a long time, tried dozen of combinations and finally said “oh well”. Then Dave, and Electrical engineer from Alaska who had obviously been thinking about it for awhile looked at it for an equally long time. We ultimately determined that there was a “weak link” in the system  – actually an aluminum compression connector that made a loop in the cable.  If we could cut that we could get the bag and lock back even though it would still be locked.  Go McGiver. Dave had a silly small multi tool with an even sillier small file and off to work we went. “Hey, what else do we have to do”. After 20 minutes we had a small grove, and after 40 minutes we had a space big enough to get a knife blade into; after an hour and some bruised and bloodied fingers we were free. The guy at the coffee shop in Dargeeling cut the lock with nothing more than a hack saw blade (no saw) in about 5 minutes….so much for case hardened.

Economics is apparently not a widely taken subject mater by jeep drivers.  Outside the train station we started negotiating with an entire group of drivers who wanted to take us to Darjeeling (about 3 hours by jeep).  Each driver was asking 100rp (2 dollars) per person and they would take 15 people in their jeep.  Now I, along with others had experienced that nightmare before so we wanted to hire a jeep to take only the 5 of us.  “No problem, we take you 5 for 2000rp”.  Humm, 15 times 100 is 1500 but if we do not want to be packed like small fish in a can, we have to pay a 500rp premium, we have to wait for 9 others who want a ride, it will take more petrol….. this is odd.  We each tried to rationalize with the drivers and offered to pay a small but not 500rp premium but had no luck.  Ultimately we regrouped, the solo female traveling came running up saying she REALLY wanted to go with us now as she realized she was about to be stuck at the train station for the night, and we decided to pay the 2000rp and base on decision on our perception on the best driver, with the best jeep.  We choose wisely, and after a steady climb beyond the valley and into the steep tea country of Dargeeling and Gorkhaland we arrived safely. Humm, maybe they did take econ….we paid the premium and I am certain they new we would.

Three in our group had previous reservations and three of us did not.  So we followed the couple with reservations and figured we might all stay at the same hotel. Then as is often the case, our friends discovered that their reservations were good until someone else showed up and took there room.  While the hostilities began to rise, Sue, Dave, and I said our good byes and sent out into the cold night to find lodging.  In the process we met the solo women again who said her hotel appeared to be permanently closed even though she also had a pre booking. We did not have to go far as the hotel next door was happy to give us a room for a reasonable rate. When we told them we may stay for upwards or a week, the rate got even better.  The manager was fantastic in providing lots of blankets, and helpful honest service. Sue went directly to bed, and I happily bought Dave dinner and a tall Kingfisher (national beer of India) as a celebratory meal after a tough day of travel and a successful pack recovery.

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