5. Varanasi

I can’t imagine a place that could be more overwhelming. Once again, this wasn’t necessarily the plan, but I had a chance to meet up with my friends Adam and Aislinn, who are also traveling around the world (but in the opposite direction). It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so without hesitation, I booked a flight from Kathmandu down to Varanasi.

Initially it all seemed quite easy. My Air India flight landed in the midst of spacious green farmland, and I deplaned into what seemed like a brand new, almost empty terminal. Then the confusion began. No one had handed out immigration forms on the plane, so an Indian official started handing them out as we approached the baggage claim area. People started filling them out at the desks of the customs officials, which then kind of turned into lines. It seemed like there were three lines, but no, just two, one of which required going to the third desk after the second. A few Indian people pushed there way to the front, but most formed a neat queue. The worst were the older Western tourists, who just kind of milled about, forcing their way into one line, then the next.

Eventually I got out of the terminal and hired a pre-pay taxi, which I think is legit, but the price still seemed to match too-neatly the amount of money I had just changed next door, and it was a bit hard to follow who got the payment. The ride into town was quite peaceful, at least for the first twenty minutes or so. As we got closer into the town, everything started to fill in, with the number of people increasing exponentially as we drew near the centre.

To be honest, there were so many kinds of crazy overlapping in Varanasi, I can’t even begin to tell you what’s what. I do know this, however. It’s the middle of the Kumbh Mela, (more on that later), and it’s wedding season.

The driver had warned me before we left the airport (though after I had relinquished my rupees) that he wouldn’t be able to get me all the way to my guesthouse because of police barricades, but he actually did a pretty amazing job of using all the back channels and alleyways to get me as close as he could. Anticipating this eventuality, and not wanting to be taken to a different guesthouse. I had carefully followed our route on my map (torn out of my Lonely Planet in a moment of haste!), and was 90… 80… well, quite confident that I knew where I was, where I was going, and how to get there. Throwing on my backpack, and ignoring the waiting rickshaws, I set out on foot.

Varanasi is known for many things. One is for being very spiritual. Another is for being very intense. I can no longer quote the sentence in full unfortunately (see above), but my guidebook proclaims “it’s not for the faint of heart”. Fortune was with me, however, and I was able to make it to the guest house without incident. (It turns out that traveling during a time of peak domestic tourism can be a huge advantage, as most of the hustle is aimed at a different target).

By this time is was hours later than I had expected to arrive, and Adam and Aislinn had already waited for a while, gone out, left a note, and come back again. Fortunately none of us had eaten, so we decided to go in search food. Having already been in India for some time, my two friends were eager to track down a well-regarded pizza restaurant on the banks of the Ganges, and I was in no position to argue.

We had literally just turned the corner from the exit of our hostel, when we came upon the first of several weddings we would encounter throughout the night. All involved massive celebrations, fireworks, a marching band, and a decorated white horse. Here is a picture I took rather hastily:

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The streets were completely jammed with people (and, of course, cows), and it took us an hour at least to track down this pizza place, which was definitely worth the walk, even if it didn’t compare to real Napoli pizza : )

The walk home was completely different, however.Varanasi is situated on the banks of the Ganges, and it’s notorious for being a place where all aspects of life are lived completely out in the open, from birth to death, and everything in between. Although I gather that the buildings are all relatively recent, the place has been important for centuries, and it has the feel of an ancient city. Above all, Varanasi is famous for its Ghats – long staircases leading from street level down to the water. They are all mostly connected along the riverbank, and during the day they are full of tourists, hawkers, and children playing cricket or badminton. At night, however, we found them eerily quiet and empty.

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Most ghats are used for the purpose of washing or bathing. A few, on the other hand, have been established as “burning ghats” where cremations take place. Walking back from dinner, we came across two funeral pyres burning by the water. We watched from a distance, and it was a bit hard to tell what was happening, but we eventually saw the bodies being carried down the steps, which were bathed in the river before being burned. The Ghats were quiet, but on the far side of the river, fireworks could be seen from an unrelated celebration.

Back on street level, the parties continued until late into the night. On the first night, it was weddings. On a subsequent night, people carried large statues of what I later learned was the Goddess of education down and into the Ganges. Everything was very colourful, and somehow involved roving dance parties, with huge crowds of mostly young men seriously cutting loose behind giant mobile speaker platforms.

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I’m going to try an experiment here. I’ve been recording some audio on this trip, and I’d like to post it to the blog. I think this will work in Firefox and Chrome, but not Safari (sorry Mac users!), but I’m not sure. Please let me know if you can hear this recording of the street parties:

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/varanasi.ogg]

On the second day, Adam, Aislinn and I took a day trip out to Sarnath, where the Buddha is said to have first preached the Four Noble Truths and gained followers. It was a very peaceful reprieve from the city, and we were all impressed by the giant Buddha statue. In addition to being an engineer and a doctor, Adam also conveniently holds a degree in religious studies, and was able to provide an amazing amount of historical context and interpretation of the various monuments, symbols, and practices we observed, both in Sarnath and Varanasi.

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The third day, sadly, was Adam and Aislinn’s last full day in India, and we had a choice to make. The weather forecast did not look good, there were a few things to be done in the city, but there was also the Kumbh Mela…

6. Allahabad

For those who don’t know, the Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage held once every three years at at a rotating set of four cities in India. It is generally considered to be the largest human gathering in the world, with numbers growing each year, and (questionable) estimates ranging upwards of 70 million pilgrims visiting over the course of a month. This year was a Purna Kumbh Mela, held once every 12 years at Prayag, also known as Allahabad, a particularly auspicious site for ritual bathing, because it contains the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers (as well as a third river, according to some believers).

I only became aware of the Kumbh last year, and although I didn’t exactly plan this trip around it, it did seem like fortuitous timing. Adam and Aislinn and I had discussed the possibility of doing a day trip there from Varanasi, and for a variety of reasons, it came down to a choice of going on their last day in India or not. Allahabad is only 123 km from Varanasi, but the normal travel time is three hours. Because of the Kumbh, however, we were told to it might take as long as 4 hours to get there and 8 hours to get back on that particular day. There was so much uncertainty, and none of us could quite decide, so in the end, at Adam’s suggestion, we made our decision with a coin-toss.

Since leaving Varanasi I’ve run into several people who went to the Kumbh and stayed for a week, and they have some pretty insane stories about things they saw, especially concerning the Sadhus, a group of wandering monks known for their extreme asceticism, dreadlocks, and in some cases going about completely naked. Because of our limited time, I don’t think we really got the full Kumbh experience, but we did go, and it was a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

Imagine if you can, a temporary tent city set up to handle 10 million people. It’s hard to describe (and even harder to photograph) the sheer scale of such an deployment, but that is basically what we found at Allahabad. Amazingly, it was remarkably well organized (at least the parts we saw), and felt like some combination of a military operation and a massive refugee camp.

We hired a car (with a fantastic driver who sadly spoke no English), and he got us right into the centre of things in good time. As we approached, we crossed a huge permanent bridge, where I took the following photograph. In it, you can see the dozens of temporary bridges that had been built to facilitate people and vehicles crossing from one side to the other.

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Here’s a second taken at river level, with the permanent bridge in the background, and another showing people crossing in large numbers as the sky darkened:

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The following photograph is taken from the far side, after we crossed the foot bridge, looking back across the water at Sangum. I’m not really sure what the kid in the photograph is doing, but the sign apparently says that the water here is too deep.

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As Aislinn commented, the whole place a the feeling of the end of the world. We only ended up staying about an hour and a half, because a storm was approaching, and we didn’t know how long it would take us to get back. None of us availed ourselves of the opportunity to take a purifying bath in the Ganges, although one of my feet did get a bit soaked as I approached the river bank, so perhaps that counts for something : )

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The trip home ended up being far shorter than expected (less than four hours), but the storm was fully raging the whole time, and I saw some of the best lighting in my life in the midst of the Indian countryside. The rain, however, didn’t stop the kids in Varanasi from the usual all night partying. We hadn’t really eaten anything all day, but as we approached the city, I began to feel quite nauseated. We were getting very close to our guesthouse, but whether from dehydration, exhaustion, or the day’s experience, I had no choice but to roll down the window and throw up – just a light chuck. I was naturally worried that I had already come down with the dreaded Delhi-belly, but by the next morning I was feeling fine, and was able to wish my friends well on their onward journey into Nepal.

For more photos of the Kumbh, (and hopefully more stories to come), check out their blog too!

7. Bodhgaya

After Varanasi, I came to Bodhgaya, and I’ve been lingering here for nearly a week, far longer than I had intended. My reason for coming here was that it is where the Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment, but it also turned out to be a great place to relax, get organized, and plan my next steps.

As the most important pilgrimage sight in Buddhism, Bodhgaya is a fascinating place to observe the practices of various incarnations of Buddhism from around the world. The centre of town is dominated by the Mahabodhi temple, built around the spot where it is said that the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and was enlightened in the fifth or sixth century BCE. A temple was built here a few hundred years later by Ashoka, a powerful ruler who did the most to promote Buddhism in India.

The temple has been rebuilt many times over the years, but it was one of the few sites to survive the Muslim invasion of the eleventh century in any form. A Bodhi tree still grows there, supposedly grown from a cutting of a tree in Sri Lanka which in turn was transplanted from the original tree.

The temple grounds are busy from dawn until dusk, and an absolute highlight of this place is to see Buddhists from all over the world worshipping in the temple grounds. A group of Tibetan monks keeps a constant vigil, alternating between chanting and drumming. Some large tour groups in identical white uniforms gather in song. Many monks clad in ochre or maroon simple walk the perimeter, while others engage in ritual prostrations, in some cases doing both at the same time.

Here’s an image of the temple grounds and a recording of the Tibetan monks:

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/monks.ogg]

The rest of the city is dominated by temples built by other countries. Each shows its own unique style. The Japanese one is simple and restained. The Bhutanese is ornate, with extensive carvings on the walls. The Thai is perhaps the nicest, with a golden roof and beautifully maintained grounds.

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My other reason for liking this place so much is a fantastic guest house I’m staying at, called Mohammad’s House. It’s quite basic, but very clean and well-run, and every night from the roof I can watch a the sunset, as it turns into a perfect red disk against a backgound of blue and green.

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Although it’s just on the edge of town, the guest house is essentially in the midst of a village. Farther out of town in the rice fields, it’s difficult to escape from the children begging for chocolate or money, but here the people seem to ignore the tourists, just as they do the monks who wander through. There are many families living in a fairly simple dwellings but overall it seems quite prosperous. The houses are mostly made from painted, plastered brick, most families have metal cookware and beautifully colourful clothes, and there lots of animals wandering around – ducks, pigs, chickens, goats, and dogs.

The alleyways are mostly full of women and children (there are a lot of children!) During the day, a major activity is making fuel out of dung, which involves combining it with a stabilizer (sawdust, perhaps?), forming it into patties, and letting them dry in the sun, either on the ground or stuck against a wall. In the evenings the women prepare meals in front of their homes, cooking over wood or dung fires. The kids like to play cricket, hackey-sack, and with the ever popular hoop and stick. I’m not really sure where all the men are, but presumably many are working in town.

The town is rapidly expanding, with ever more guesthouses, temples and meditation centres being built on the periphery, and it seems as though the village is slowly being surrounded. The biggest source of activity at present is that sewer pipes are being installed under the streets. It’s a big operation that seems to involve everyone. A backhoe does the heavy lifting, digging trenches about 10 feet deep, and filling the dirt back in, but the access points are more or less built by hand. Starting at the same depth, a large tapered cone is built up out of bricks to street level. The bricks are carried by the women on their heads, eight at a time. The finished cone is covered in cement, and a smooth rim is formed and allowed to dry. A pre-fabricated cement plate is then placed on top. Here’s an image of one in the process of being built:

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Earlier, when staring at the ruins of a ancient Buddhist Stupa made of brick, I was silently lamenting the fact that no one builds such elegant, grandiose architecture anymore. Watching these sewers being built, it was obvious that this is by no means from a lack of knowledge or ability!

Buddhism, of course, more or less died out in India a ling time ago, but I have been interested in both Buddhism and meditation for some time now. I first learned about Zen through the likes of Robert Pirsig and Douglas Hofstadter, and it always seemed like a belief system that was relatively compatible with a modern, scientific worldview. The longer I spend here, however, and the more I read, the more I realize that the reality is much more complex.

Buddhism has developed like a river in many directions in different places and arguably demonstrates as much diversity as, say, monotheism. It naturally needs to be understood in it’s historical context, as it developed out of earlier Vedic religions, most of which believed in Samsara, or the wandering-on, the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. If anything, various forms of Buddhism seem to have become a great deal more complex over time, incorporating different rituals, relics, mythologies and philosophies in different places.

Nevertheless, it still seems like the core insight, that life is stressful because we cling to things which are impermanent, is a useful one. All sources of happiness are fleeting, security and stability can never be guaranteed to last, and life itself is sure to end (unless you’re Ray Kuzweil). That is obviously to ignore the extensive metaphysical debates over self-hood, becoming, enlightenment, and so on, but what the hell, Buddhism is, after all, the middle way : )

8. The West Bengal Hills

After Bodhgaya, my intention had been to head straight to Calcutta, where I was sure I would be able to track down some excellent coffee. Someone convinced me, however, that I should first go North to the higher climes of West Bengal, and then come back down South to the old colonial capital. So, with slight reluctance, I plotted a course directly into the heart of tea territory.

By this time, I was feeling like I really had the train system figured out. My first train experience, from Varanasi to Bodhgaya had not been so smooth, but in that case I had been planning on taking a bus which turned out not to exist. This time, however, I knew the names and numbers of the trains I wanted, I knew the schedules, and I had even acquired an Indian mobile phone – a necessity for buying train tickets online.

Now, the train system in India is truly amazing. Employing 1.4 million people, and carrying 25 million passengers per day, there are tens of thousands of trains that cover the whole country, all of which seem to follow quite reliable schedules, even if they tend to run a bit later than the official timetables. For a remarkably small amount of money you can travel just about anywhere, with some journeys lasting upwards of 50 hours (not recommended).

There are several classes, starting with Sleeper – fairly basic, but with an assigned seat that turns into a bunk. Above that there is first, second, and third class AC, which are basically the same as Sleeper, but with air conditioning and increasing levels of privacy and comfort. There is also AC chair, which is just a reserved chair in an AC carriage. Because train travel is so important to daily life, however, these classes tend to get booked up several days in advance. If you just show up at the station on the day you want to travel, you’re only choice will be Unreserved, which always seems to be available, possibly because they don’t actually limit the number of tickets they sell for that class. From everything I’ve heard, Unreserved is something to be avoided at all costs.

To get to Darjeeling, I had managed to put together a decent itinerary – AC chair to Patna, the capital of Bihar, then an overnight sleeper to Siliguri, where I would catch a shared jeep to Kurseong, just south of Darjeeling. The one sub-optimal part of the plan was a 9 hour stopover in Patna, with my overnight train departing just after midnight.

Everything started out well. I travelled the 13 km to Gaya train station by auto rickshaw (a ubiquitous three wheeled vehicle that comfortably seats two, but is capable of transporting perhaps five times that number). My train was an hour late arriving, but it showed up on the right track, and it even somehow arrived in Patna on time.

One of the best parts of train travel in India is that it affords an opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse cross section of people from India. Not everyone speaks English, (and as a first language it seems quite rare), but most people speak a little, and I’ve found that if I just go about my business, it doesn’t take long for someone to strike up a conversation with me. On this particular journey, I met two people involved in rural development in Bihar (the state which contains Bodhgaya). One had just finished a Masters and was looking for his first job, and the other was an older man who worked on projects along the lines of micro-credit – trying to connect farmers with banks and encourage savings.

From them, I learned that not only is Bihar the poorest state in India, it also has the highest population density. These, in turn, were attributed to a lack of natural resources, a poor climate (droughts in one part, floods in another), and a lack of education. As a result, many people from Bihar are forced to move to the big cities in India in order to look for work, and apparently they face occasional backlashes, akin to the situation of illegal immigrants in the US.

While I was digesting all of this, my conversation partner left to catch his departing train, and I decided to use my new mobile phone to check the status of my own. The result which came back – train cancelled – surely had to be a mistake. My ticket said confirmed! Checking again produced the same result, and I began to quietly panic. It was about 11:00 pm at this point, and I didn’t like the prospect of trying to find a hotel in Patna. Someone at the Enquiries desk was able to confirm that the train had been cancelled, but couldn’t offer much more help than that.

To make a long story short, it turned out that there was an earlier train to Siliguri, which happened to have one seat left, in first AC nonetheless! I happily forked over the cash and boarded with only a few moments to spare. None of this would have been possible, however, had a kindly stranger not happened along at just the right moment and taken me through the whole process step by step. It never ceases to amaze me how kind some people can be in helping perfect strangers through a crisis, and it really makes me feel like returning the favour whenever I can.

I slept well at night and during the day the countryside of Bihar rolled past the windows, an endless plain of rice fields. Aside from the occasional urban area, I don’t think I saw an inch of land that wasn’t cultivated. From Siliguri I caught a shared jeep to Kurseong as planned (although due to some hard-ball negotiating, I think I ended up hiring a ride from a Chinese tourist with a private car and driver), and arrived at my destination after a journey of about 30 hours.

Finally, just to round out the various types of transportation involved in the trip, two days later I took the “Toy Train” up the hill to Darjeeling. A remnant of the early rail network, this train runs with an engine and two cars on a rails that are only about two feet apart. More of a tourist attraction than a transportation service, it took 3 hours to cover the distance of 32km, criss-crossing the main road and stopping traffic the whole way. Despite being generally ridiculous, that train trip is none the less part of the Indian rail network, complete with the same ticketing system and residual British seriousness.

My arrival in Darjeeling was one of the more stressful moments of the trip so far. It was just turning dark as the train pulled into the station, and although I didn’t have far to go, the hilltop topography made the map difficult to interpret. Just as I got things figured out, I saw up ahead a group of at least forty people carrying torches (literally burning sticks!), shouting and blocking traffic. Given that they were headed in the same direction that I was, I had little choice but to follow, giving them a wide berth. As I later learned, this is a nightly occurrence in Darjeeling, a protest march by Gorkhas which occurs like clockwork, as regular as the train’s arrival. From my room the next night, however, I could see that the real number of people was easily in the hundreds.

Neither Darjeeling nor Kurseong were spectacular, although both afforded the chance to do some hiking in the hills, a cool and welcome contrast to the heat down South. In Darjeeling, I spent a day hiking up Tiger Hill, a trip I enjoyed far more for the walk up into the cloud forest than for the view from the top. Sadly, like so many hill tops, this one has been replaced with a concrete tourist bunker, complete with cell phone towers. Apparently at dawn, and at other times of the year, you can jostle with other tourists to get a glimpse of Everest poking through the clouds. I didn’t see any mountains in the distance, but I had the place to myself, and a was happy to spend an hour a bit farther down the hill, watching the clouds float up one side of the mountain and roll down the other.

Kurseong, was more pleasant over all, being a bit smaller and quieter. It also gave me the chance to stay in a decaying old colonial mansion, the one time home of Percy John Cochrane, the former Magistrate of Kurseong. (I later found his grave in the town cemetery). I was a bit hesitant when I arrived, concerned that I might be the only guest, but the place really came to life in the evenings, and also happened to have a restaurant serving the best Indian food I’ve had since my arrival. They even employ an in-house tea barista (for lack of a better term), who made the most incredible spiced concoctions, and who has got me seriously exploring this whole world of tea in Darjeeling. But no, coffee and Calcutta await!

Here are a few photos of Cochrane Place, Darjeeling, a gate near the top of Tiger Hill, and a sunset in Kurseong:

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Addendum: The skies finally cleared a bit on my last day in Darjeeling, and I caught a glimpse of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain in the distance. This place must be truly spectacular on a clear day!

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9. Calcutta

So finally I have come to Calcutta – former capital of British India, site of notorious rebellions, the third largest city in India, with 15 million people, and home to the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist government (until they were ousted two years ago). As far as big Indian cities go, Calcutta has a reputation for being the safest and most laid back, and to some extent I can see why. But it’s still a rather exhausting place, especially with daytime temperatures rising above 30 degrees.

First, I should explain about the name: since 2001, the official name of this city has been “Kolkata”, which is apparently a more phonetically accurate spelling of Calcutta. I debated about which to use for the title of this blog, but I liked the visual alliteration of the later. I now feel well justified since coming here, as the Times of India, printed in “Kolkata”, comes with a tabloid supplement called the “Calcutta Times”. At some point since achieving independence, many streets here have also been renamed; as a result, the US Consulate is now humourously located on Ho Chi Minh street.

I arrived here via another overnight train, this time in Sleeper. We pulled in about an hour late, but the train brought me right into the heart of the city at Sealdah station. As usual, I chose to walk to where I was  staying, a possible miscalculation, as I had underestimated the sheer size of this place. Although it has nowhere near the bewildering craziness of Varanasi, Calcutta scales everything up a thousand-fold, including the level of inequality and in-your-face poverty.

It’s taken me a while to get into the rhythm here, and I’ve finally decided it’s because there are actually two distinct cities which overlap in the same physical space. On the one hand there is the upper/middle class city with shopping malls, coffee shops (more on that in a minute), restaurants, bars, taxi cabs and movie theaters. At the same time there is a second city of people who are basically living on the street, with little interaction between the two. From beggars to hand-drawn rickshaw pullers, there is a huge number of people living in very obvious poverty. Hand-pumped water spouts are widely distributed throughout he city, and it is quite common to see people bathing on the sidewalk. All the major streets are lined with a seemingly infinite supply of a handful of basic services – shoe-shiners, tea sellers, food vendors, and the occasional curbside barber. I’ve walked through whole districts where everyone was repairing motors by hand-winding copper wire. The most memorable example I’ve seen is a group of people painting an iron fence black, by hand (i.e. without paint-brushes).

Architecturally, the city feels like a cross between London and Kampala (or another third-world capital). Like many ex-colonial cities, Calcutta is dominated by somewhat dated monumental architecture, but the scale at which this city was envisioned is nearly incomprehensible, almost as if they were actually trying to create a second London or Paris. There is a distinct Victorian feel, and there are some quaint human-scale British flourishes, like old-fashioned mail boxes. Mostly though, this place is an ageing Modernist Utopian vision. Giant stone buildings that once housed insurance companies line massive boulevards six lanes wide, with railways running along the banks of the Hooghly river. Vast parklands stand mostly vacant, and huge traffic circles bring all of these worlds together in a great spiraling sprawl.

Here are a few examples of the monumental architecture:

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The following was taken in a park on the banks of the Hooghly, along with the accompanying audio track from a nearby loud-speaker:

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110065_waterside.ogg]

Unlike everywhere else I’ve been in India, in Calcutta, cars rule. In particular, the roads are dominated by a huge fleet of identical yellow taxi cabs that look something like old Bentleys. Apparently the actual make is the Hindustan Ambassador, “the king of Indian roads”.

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The city is also remarkably well-connected by public transit, with buses, streetcars, and even a subway, India’s first. The subway has just one line, but it only costs about ten cents to use, and like pretty much every other subway in the world, puts Toronto to shame : )

At the same time, however, this place can be rather unfriendly to pedestrians. The boulevards, businesses, and busy streets, make a high-speed Manhattan pace seem appropriate, but the heat, broken-up cobble-stone sidewalks, and slow-moving crowds force you to slow down. Police officers and lights ensure that the traffic takes turns at intersections, but cars which are turning apparently have priority over pedestrians, which can make crossing the road rather hazardous. And a couple of times I’ve been caught in the mazes of this urban planning nightmare, with only one endless path to follow between the fences, freeways, and monuments. (The most famous monument here is a memorial dedicated to Queen Victoria, which is, admittedly, quite lovely).

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Sadly, not much of the city is so well-preserved, with some parts of the city in a state of almost perpetual decay (due in part, I’m told, to a system of rent controls that has removed any incentive to conduct repairs). Admittedly, however, the crumbling facades can make for some rather photogenic buildings.

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Not surprisingly, Calcutta is considerably more expensive than elsewhere I’ve been in India, both in terms of restaurants and accommodation. Fortunately, there is a delightful selection of street food available, such as samosas (two for twenty cents, served in a leaf bowl), chai (milk tea for four cents, served in tiny little terracotta cups), and sugar cane juice, made using large hand-cranked grinding machines, with ginger and lime. It also seems to be a much more secular place, although there is still the odd Hindu shrine tucked away in corners of the city, and I was able to record this call to prayer from the roof of my guesthouse:

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110070_rooftop.ogg]

Overall, however, the best experience I had in Calcutta was a cooking class with a Bengali woman in her home, organized by a small tour company run by two Australians. By necessity, it was a bit like a cooking-show, with much of the preparation done in advance, but it was a fantastic five-course meal (pakoras, chicken, fish, green-papaya curry, and a sweet tomato chutney) and I learned a lot. Things are already starting to blur together a bit in my mind, but it turns out a big part of the flavor comes from Mustard seed oil, which I don’t recall ever encountering in Canada (though I’m sure it’s out there). The best part, of course, was the chance to discuss everything besides food, including politics, religion, and family life. It turns out that my host has a daughter studying immunology in the US, who even spent some time at the University of Manitoba!

Now, I know what you all want to know. How was the coffee??? Well, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but it turns out that I may have come to the wrong part of the country. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. The British aren’t exactly known as coffee connoisseurs.  I just assumed, with Calcutta being the cultural and intellectual capital of India, that surely here would be coffee!

In fact, there were a few options. The wealthy Calcutta naturally has a few chain coffee shops, such as Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, but these are basically Starbucks knock-offs, primarily serving large milk drinks, and not exactly what I had in mind. There is also one place, called Flurry’s, which despite sounding like an ice-cream shop, is actually a fantastic European-style coffee shop and confectionery with origins dating back to the 1920s, and fabulous art-deco interior. It, however, was very upmarket, costing almost as much as Canada for a comparable beverage. Moreover, it is unfortunately located at what has become the most touristy intersection of the city, right across from Music World, McDonalds, and KFC.

The greatest find, however, was the Indian Coffee House, located near the university. Although the coffee was absolutely tasteless, the ambiance was unbeatable. Founded by the government and later re-established as a worker-owned cooperative, the organization apparently has hundreds of branches throughout India. This location was a large echo-chamber filled mostly with students (plus a few tourists) and has apparently been a hotbed of literary and artistic activity throughout its history. The coffee costs about a quarter, and is served in little white cups, by waiters in white uniforms and unmistakable hats (which, I can only assume that they, as the owners, themselves voted for). Here’s some quick photos and a recording:

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/LS110066_ICC1.ogg]

All things considered, I can’t really say that I found what I was looking for in Calcutta. Fortunately, I was able to learn during the cooking class that the right way to get the best coffee in India, is to go to the source, down to Kerala, where it’s grown. Everyone tells me that the South is already heating up, but checking the weather forecast, I see some 38 degree weather headed towards me, so I’m inclined to escape the city before it gets too hot, and take my chances in the South. So, with that, I say adieu to Calcutta, off to see what I can find in the former colonies of the Portuguese.

10. Varkala (Beach)

I’d like to be able to say that I came to Varkala because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and thus not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. In truth, however, I mostly just wanted to go to the beach.

I didn’t intend to spend so much time here, and to be honest, I’m a bit embarrassed at having stayed for a whole week in such a touristy spot, but some things came up that required a few days of consecutive computer work, and, having found a decent internet cafe, this seemed like as good a place as any to be stuck for a short time. Besides, I told myself, tourism is a big part of the Indian economy; in some ways this place is just as authentic as anywhere else. Unfortunately, the people selling Bob Marley blankets, bongo drums, and plastic auto-rickshaw toys made it hard for me to accept my own argument.

Varkala beach is a beautiful spot a few kilometers away from Varkala town. The beach is crescent-shaped, pitched below a crumbling cliff, along which are arrayed a packed strip of resorts, restaurants, guest houses and souvenir stalls, with a couple of steep stairways leading down to the beach. Although the area has some religious significance (the other name for the beach is Papanasam, which translates into something like “washes away sins”), and there is a fair bit of domestic tourism, Varkala Beach is the only place I’ve been to in India so far where Europeans outnumbered locals.

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The beach itself is quite lovely, with a decent surf and very reliable temperatures of 32 during the day and 25 at night. By far the nicest time of day was just before sunrise, between 6 and 7 am, when some of the local residents joined in a daily cricket game, and little groups of people practiced yoga or meditation on the beach. For anyone who’s currently far from an ocean, here’s a reminder of what it sounds like (with the morning cricket game in the background):

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/beach.ogg]

Although the credibility of the sentiment is belied by the artificial nature of such a place, beaches always serve for me as a reminder of how little is required to enjoy life. The absence of more pressing concerns allow us to slow down and take our time. Exposure to the sun, sand and wind reminds us how well-isolated we normally are from the elements. And the unceasing waves of the ocean provide an endlessly fascinating phenomenon upon which to dwell. Though any amount of time at a beach will undoubtedly seem either too long or too short to some, a little time spent appreciating it provides vast rewards for the soul.

Beaches aside, Kerala as a state is yet another interesting face of India. Located on the Western side of the Southern tip of India, the hot, tropical climate and lush greenery feels miles away from the mountainous Northern provinces. Famous for having the first democratically elected communist government in the world, it also has the highest literacy rate and life expectancy in India. Unfortunately, labour costs have also risen in tandem. Although economic growth seems steady, the government is also racking up a sizable debt, and unemployment is high. An important pillar of the economy is remittances, with many Keralans working in the Persian Gulf as maids, nurses, labourers, and engineers. Alcohol consumption is also higher here than anywhere else in India, and according to the BBC, a remarkable 40% of the state’s revenues are derived from alcohol (taxes, liquor licenses, and a state-controlled distribution monopoly).

I arrived here via the capital city Trivandrum (formally known as Thiruvananthapuram), where I also spent a couple of nights. I immediately felt like I had come to the right place, as the plane descended from the hills, passing over jungle and tree cover stretching all the way to the water’s edge. The main street of Trivandrum was much like the other mid-size Indian cities I had passed through, but the surrounding alleyways had a very different feel, with eclectic architecture built up in what felt like moderately wealthy suburbs. I happened to be in Trivandrum on my birthday, and I was lucky enough to track down Sanker’s Coffee & Tea, which sells these products in bulk. I picked up a small bag of freshly ground Keralan coffee, mostly just to enjoy the smell of it, but also to make cups of cowboy coffee as necessary.

In Varkala, the options were both more numerous and less diverse. It’s hard to complain when the cost of everything is so low, but relatively speaking the food in Varkala was both over-priced and not very good, as visitors really have nowhere else to go. This place basically represents the antithesis of the philosophy that a business should do one thing, but do it well. Every restaurant here offered essentially the same “multi-cuisine” menu, featuring Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, pasta, pizzas, sandwhiches, and so on. It’s also a classic case of easily-copied innovation. Every night at dinner time, virtually every restaurant puts out a selection of freshly caught fish and seafood, from which customers can select. The supply, however, always seemed to drastically exceed the demand.

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Drinks, on the other hand, reflected the state’s problems with alcohol. Not many restaurants here had alcohol on the menu, but most of them served it. I expect this is partly a matter of avoiding license fees, although it may also be that licenses are hard to obtain. In any event, it turns out that it’s way more fun to order a beer when the waiter brings it wrapped in a newspaper, pours half of it for you into a nondescript mug, and then hides the rest of the bottle under your table. On another occasion, the beer I ordered came to the table having been decanted into a teapot!

Happily, there was one exception in the quality department. India has many, many temples, so I’m not surprised it took me so long to find this place, but I finally came upon the one I’d been looking for:

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Suffice it to say, I worshiped here every morning – sometime a twice a day!

It was somewhat tough to leave, but having concluded my work, I had no further excuse to linger, and I decided to head farther up the coast to Kochi, a place with more history and culture, but (hopefully) equally good coffee.

11. Kochi

I seem to be in the minority, as most people I’ve met told me that Kochi (formerly Cochin) was only worth a day or two, but I personally found it to be one of the nicest cities that I have visited in India. Filled with trees, parks, and historic buildings, it was incredibly photogenic, and this blog post will be a bit overloaded with photos as a result.

Perched on the end of a peninsula at the entrance to the harbour, Kochi was an important port in the spice trade of the 16th century, as Europeans outdid one another to import spices from Asia to Europe. Originally occupied by the Portuguese, Kochi was the first European colony in India, and was later taken over by the Dutch, and eventually the British. As a princely state, Kochi was not officially part of India when it achieved independence in 1947, but joined willingly shortly thereafter.

The historic part of Kochi is a centered around the old fort, and is overflowing with colonial-era buildings. Of note is St. Francis Church, which was first built in 1503 and then rebuilt a dozen years later, making it one of the oldest churches built by Europeans in India.

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Other famous sites around town include the so-called “Chinese fishing nets” (which may actually have been introduced by the Portuguese), and the old Dutch Cemetery, pictured below. (The town is also filled with helpful signage).

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Present day Kochi has to be the most laid back city that I have been to in India, with a minimum of traffic, noise, and hassle (although this does not apply to the mainland part, known as Enrakulam, which is much like any other mid-sized India city). The most touristy parts of it do exhibit some of the usual encumbrances of rickshaws and souvenir stalls, but less so than elsewhere. Moreover, one only needs to walk a few blocks away from the tour-bus destinations to find a whole city of calm, tree-lined boulevards, inviting alleyways, and fascinating architecture.

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Parts of Kochi, especially around the old Fort, have been lovingly restored, with lots of hotel boutiquery.

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In other places new buildings mix modern and traditional styles, with rather mixed results. And yet more areas are even more delightfully dilapidated that Kolkata.

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In terms of religion, Kochi has one of the highest proportions of Christians of any city in India. There is also a tiny Jewish population, the remnants of a once thriving community, most of whom have by now emigrated to Israel.

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While the spice trade is not what it used to be (even the local Pepper Exchange, the world’s oldest, closed down a couple of years ago), Kochi remains a major port in Kerala and is well positioned to explore the inland waterways.

As a day trip from Kochi, I did a one-day tour of part of Kerala’s famous backwaters – a series of rivers and canals where water flowing from the hills around Munnar meet the salt water of the ocean. It was a bit touristy, but quite relaxing, and an interesting glimpse into traditional ways of life. There were about ten of us on board, including Americans, Europeans, a family from Bangalore, and a couple from Sri Lanka now living in Norway. In the morning we traveled in a mid-sized motor-powered canoe, much like the one in the photo below, passing quiet islands and local fishermen harvesting mussels directly from the ocean floor.

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We also stopped off at a former factory where mussel shells were roasted in order to produce calcium carbonate, which was traditionally used for many purposes. At the same location we were able to see all the major spice plants growing, including pepper, nutmeg, cocoa, vanilla, and cinnamon. It was incredible how fragrant the leaves of the cinnamon tree were, despite the fact that the spice is actually made from the bark.

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More importantly, we got to see “toddy tapping” an important job carried out by licensed state officials, who climb up coconut trees to extract the sap from the coconut flowers, which is later distilled into a potent alcohol. Supposedly, even straight out of the tree the toddy is slightly spirituous, although that was hard to verify from the sample we got to try. It’s probably slightly more accurate to say that the sap contains natural yeasts, and begins fermenting once it’s been extracted.

In the afternoon, we hopped into a smaller canoe and paddled up a much smaller canal through the mangroves. We later found out that the surrounding properties are all now fully connected by road, but these canals would once have been used for transportation, and similar infrastructure which is still active likely still exists in other parts of the state.

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This recording doesn’t provide much in terms of the sounds of the backwaters, but might be interesting for the overlapping conversations in three different languages:

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/backwaters.ogg]

Back in Kochi, I continued to explore the town. A delightful part of it was a thriving arts scene (accompanied by a thriving coffee culture, of course), one much more accessible to tourists than in Calcutta. In addition to plentiful galleries, there were obvious signs of independent artists at work, even in forms such as graffiti. (The tree below says “DO ART WITHOUT BOUNDARY”).

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I unfortunately missed the end of India’s first Biennale by a day, but I was still able to record this part of this audio installation at the main pavilion:

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/arts_festival.ogg]

While in Kochi, I also went to see a Kathakali performance, a traditional form of theatre based on Hindu religious texts, where actors use a rigid set of symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions, combined with full-body dance-like movements, to communicate to the audience and tell a story. Elaborate costumes and full face paint (made from flowers and ground-stone mixed with coconut oil) help the audience to distinguish the evil characters from the good. The presentation I saw was obviously intended exclusively for tourists, but that was actually quite helpful, as the story would have been fairly incomprehensible without their introduction. It also included a bit of a meta-theatrical component, as the actors helped to prepare each others’ make up on stage before the show.

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Although the performance was wordless, the power of it was based in movement and sound. The performers were joined on stage by two drummers and a singer, and even used their own bodies and the stage floor to generate sound. I wouldn’t say I fully understood the Kathakali language by the end of the evening, but I could certainly feel the drama as Bhima (with some help from Krishna), slayed Dussasana, pulled out his entrails, and ate them.

In some ways, Kathakali is representative of so many art forms today. There is obviously a rich history of traditions behind it, and it even gets some press in the Keralan newspapers, but it is rather inscrutable to an audience unfamiliar with the form and the stories, and it no doubt has a hard time competing with the sheer entertainment power of Bollywood. The actors at the performance I saw had all spent many years training in this form, but I doubt if anyone in the audience would have been able to appreciate the difference between an amateur and a virtuoso.

Finally, it bears mentioning that the other big tourism draw in Kerala is Ayurvedic “medicine”, a form of traditional therapy which apparently combines massage, special diets, purging, and so on. You can probably guess that I’m rather skeptical, but I’ll leave it to my friends at the Reality Check to investigate further. In any event, I met several people who had come to Kerala largely or in part to seek out Ayurvedic treatment for various ailments. Based on this building I found, it’s clearly been drawing people for quite a long time.

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12. Amritsar

With time running out on my Indian visa, I had to chose how to spend my last few days, before returning to Nepal. Somewhat arbitrarily I set my sights on the state of Punjab, home of the Sikhs, and the city of Amritsar in particular.

Coming from the intense heat and humidity of Kerala, it was a relief to be back in a drier climate. Stepping off the plane into 30 degree weather, the air felt cool and breezy.

Several things became apparent as I approached my hotel in Amritsar. First, this was by far the most crowded place I had ever been. Second, I would almost certainly get hit by a vehicle of some kind (gently, perhaps) if I didn’t make an active effort to avoid it. And third, by virtue of my skin colour, I was the backpacker equivalent of a superstar.

Never in my life have I felt so much like a celebrity. Kids and young men were constantly coming up to me to say hello, ask where I was from, or to take a picture with me. Several people explained to me that this was partly a habit among Indians with the goal of making foreigners feel welcome, and partly a desire to practice speaking English. It could definitely be irritating (particularly when people knew no English beyond the initial greeting), though I tried to remain good humoured and generous with my likeness.

The city of Amritsar is virtually synonymous with the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ most holy site. Sikhism was founded in the 15th century and, much like Buddhism, was a reaction against the caste structures of the time. Sikhism is a famously open religion, with a firm belief in the fundamental equality of all people. Apparently the Sikhs’ holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains teachings from the Hindu and Muslim religions, as well as from the ten Sikh Gurus. It is also a somewhat practical religion, placing an emphasis on earning a decent living and sharing one’s wealth, as opposed to extreme ascetic practices.

All of these characteristics were reflected in the experience of the Golden Temple. Situated in the midst of a large pool surrounded by a multi-level white building, the two-storey Golden Temple combines elements of both Islamic and Hindu architecture, including beautiful marble mosaic floors. Here’s an image and a recording of the accompanying soundtrack.

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/golden_temple.ogg]

I can happily say that the Golden Temple is the most welcoming religious site that I have ever been to. Unlike so many holy places, the Golden Temple is open to all. There is no visible security, and no requirements for entry, aside from removing one’s shoes and socks, covering one’s head, and walking through a foot bath (with a helpful shoe check and head scarves available at one entrance). This simple requirement, in combination with the beauty of the temple and the enchanting music, achieves a powerfully transformative effect on the visitor. One truly feels as though one has entered into a sacred space and left the everyday world behind.

Inside the white walls, large numbers of people are constantly circumnavigating the edge of the pool, with many lining up for hours to walk through the central temple (I didn’t have the patience), and others bathing in particularly auspicious parts of the water (I didn’t have the courage).

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Most incredible of all, there is an enormous kitchen attached to the temple which serves free vegetarian meals to any one who wishes to partake. Upon entering, you are handed a metal tray, spoon, and water bowl. You then file in to an empty row in the great hall, and as a group sit cross-legged in a row, with your tray on the floor. Servers then come around serving delicious and generous portions of chapati, rice, dal, and raita (a seasoned yoghurt). It’s difficult to capture such an experience in any way other than words, but this recording of the washing of the dishes might give some sense of the scale of the operation.

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/dishes.ogg]

I must make a slight diversion here to note that the food in Amritsar was also among the best I’ve had in India. Punjab was one of the states chosen for the “green revolution”, where high yield crops were introduced to India (not without controversy). As a result, it grows much of the food for both export and domestic consumption in India.

There are interesting differences between North and South Indian cuisine, with the later making much greater use of coconut, and particular dishes originating in one part or another, but it’s all delicious. The main reason India is such a food lover’s paradise, is something called a thali. Available as an option almost everywhere, a thali is a set meal, usually vegetarian, and usually incorporating rice, Indian bread (naan, parantha, or chapati), and a number of side dishes, such as dal mahkni, channa masala, vegetable curry, and raita. Basically, imagine having the best Indian meal of your life for somewhere between one and four dollars, depending on the city and venue.

I’m happy to say that, at least in Toronto, we seem to have fairly authentic India take-away, though of course the meals here add a little extra in terms of spice, freshness, and subtlety of flavour. Actually, the only time I’ve been disappointed with a meal in India is when I ordered meat (which was not very often).

While in Amritsar, I visited the Golden Temple more or less everyday, and every time I ended up having a long, in-depth conversation with someone from India covering religion, politics, family life, the history of India, and Sikhism. All the Sikhs I met were extremely welcoming, as well as being very knowledgeable about and proud of their religion.

Among other things, I learned that there are five emblems which identify a committed Sikh saint-warrior, one of which is the unshaven beard (and uncut hair). Although this requirement seems to be some what loosely observed, especially among younger men (for reasons of fashion, of course), the Golden Temple was filled with older men whose long beards made my own two months of growth look like a five o’clock shadow : )

One topic I was most keen to discuss with people was nearby Pakistan. Over various conversations, I heard a diverse range of opinions, but everyone was happy to share their views, and up to date on the news, especially related to the upcoming elections.

Curious to take a look for myself, I decided to do a day trip to the border, to attend a border closing ceremony which has become something of a tourist attraction. Amritsar is just 30km from the Pakistan border, with Lahore just another 30km beyond that. I haven’t had time to investigate the full history of the ceremony, bit it’s become so popular that grandstands have been specially constructed on either side of the border to accommodate the hundreds of spectators that attend. The ceremony seemed to involve a lot of high-kicking, some gun twirling, much warming up of the audience, and each soldier take a turn to give an Arsenio Hall-style “Hindustan zindabad!” (“Long live India!”). Eventually, the flags on either side were ceremoniously lowered and the border was officially closed for the night. At no time was it was particularly clear what was happening, but there were a great many people there, and they were very excited about it!

I was seated in a special section reserved for foreigners and VIPs. You can see the gate between the countries in the distance and the Indian border officers in the khaki uniforms and red headdresses. The guys in fatigues would come around periodically to make sure that people were staying more or less behind the rope and not blocking anyone’s view. The right side was a mirror image of the left, with giant Indian flags waving behind me. The audio was recorded during the warm up to the ceremony.

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[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/border.ogg]

It was all pretty intense and jingoistic, but seemed more celebratory than aggressive. The relationship between India and Pakistan is obviously complicated, but no one that I spoke to on the Indian side seemed overtly concerned. Although the regular meetings of the joint border control forces were temporarily suspended in the wake of the recent widely-reported violence, the next one has already been scheduled

There were two other bizarre aspects to the day trip. The first is that there were a large number of palatial resorts on the road between Amritsar and the border. Many where shaped like Mughal palaces, and one had a set of water slides! There was no evidence of any visitors, and I can’t quite imagine who would make use of them, but perhaps it wasn’t the season. The second was the sight of literally hundreds (I think it was over a thousand) small transport trucks lined up along the side of the road, with their drivers sitting in the shadows.

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The ones coming from Pakistan were mostly empty, and the ones heading to Pakistan were full. Some were covered by opaque tarps or burlap. The ones that were not were completely full of bags of potatoes. I have no reason to doubt that the others were carrying anything else, but the sheer volume of tubers is hard to believe. Since the above photo was taken on the way back from the ceremony, I can only assume that these trucks were destined to be stuck there for the night.

Having now traveled to five states in India across the East, South, and West, I can safely say that India is a far more diverse and complex place than I had ever imagined. In terms of religion, personalities, lifestyle, and cuisine, it’s sometimes hard to believe that this is all one country! As a traveler, the only constants seem to be the newspapers, the railways, and cricket. But then, as a book I recently finished by Meghnad Desai argues, what we now think of India fundamentally did not exist as a country until the British forged it into a nation.

Certainly, such a large swath of territory had never previously been united under a single leadership in this part of the world, and the tensions which result from this are readily apparent. The protests I saw in Darjeeling were related to perceived injustices against the Gurkha people, possibly agitating for a separate Gurkha state within West Bengal. While I was in Kerala, the state parliament was debating making Malayalam the official language of the courts, rather than English or Hindi. And Punjab, itself divided at independence in 1947, and now further divided into Sikh-dominated Punjab and Hindu-dominated Haryana, has seen more than its share of separatist movements and state violence. By many accounts, far worse atrocities are ongoing in Jammu and Kashmir. While India can legitimately claim the title of the world’s largest democracy, everyone I met agreed that corruption rules, and that the Indian government has failed to deliver both equality and development.

A recent article in The Hindu noted that globally, the Under Five Mortality Rate has declined by 35% in the past two decades, and that India has actually improved more than the average over that period of time. However, the average across India is still 59 deaths per 1,000 live births, with more than half occurring within the first month of life. Because of it’s population, this means that India accounts for nearly one-fifth of the world’s child deaths. Not surprisingly, there is tremendous variation both between and within states in India, with the worst statistics in the poorest and most remote places.

Having had spent a mere six weeks in the country, I’m not in much of a position to comment, but from talking to people and reading the newspaper, it seemed clear that both the strengths and the tensions in the country have roots stretching back to pre-independence days and, in particular, the circumstances under which the country came into being. In some ways, India seems to be changing very quickly. Many tourists I met who were here twenty, ten, or even five years ago described the tremendous changes they noticed. At the same time, many of the most serious problems are long-standing and show few signs of being resolved in the near future.

For me, it’s been an fascinating experience to have been a part of it for a small stretch of time. I didn’t get to half the places I thought of going to, but of course, there is never enough time. In brief, here is a quick list of the major destinations that I missed – Sikkim, the Northeast Tribal states, the entire East coast, Hampi, Mysore, Rajasthan, Leh, Ladakh, Dharamsala, Bombay, Delhi, and oh, the Taj Mahal.

I’m now back in Nepal, soon to set off into the wild. Posts might be a bit less frequent from now on, but I promise that there will be more to come…