A few days after my last post, Huggie decided to join up with her sister, who is vacationing in Thailand. It was a good opportunity for them and it happened fast. Before you could blink, Huggie was booked on a flight from Kochi to Chiang Mai. Our plan is to meet up on March 4th in Varanasi, before flying home on March 7th.
I headed inland to Parassinikkadavu to see a theyyem. A theyyem is a spirit-possession ceremony held only in northern Kerala at various village shrines and is quite the event. According to Hindu belief, during a theyyem, the performer doesn’t just impersonate a deity, he actually becomes the deity and acquires their magical powers. I arrived to find that absolutely no one would rent a reasonably priced room to a single, unaccompanied woman. There was nothing to be done but enjoy the evening ritual and deal with where to sleep afterwards.
The golden shrine was illuminated by hundreds of candles on bronze tiers. A series of drums started to beat loudly. The deity emerged from the shrine wearing an elaborate and enormous headdress and mask with showy jewelry and costume to match. The dancing started out gentle and rhythmic with a lot of complex hand motions. As the ceremony unfolded, the dancing became more frenzied, until the final crescendo a couple of hours later, when He seemed to have a sort of seizure. Like moths to a flame, people leaned their heads inward hoping to be touched by the Divine. The extraordinary experience was made even more memorable by the night that followed.
I was the only non-Indian face among the Hindu pilgrims and was sitting beside a beautiful teenaged girl named Pravda. She could speak a little English but her sister, mother and grandmother, with whom she was sitting, could speak none. They invited me to join them for rice with curried vegetable broth, the dinner that is offered to everybody, after the ceremony. During dinner they invited me to join them in the pilgrim’s sleeping room (her father and brothers were on the men’s side). I felt very fortunate, not only for the authentic opportunity, but also, for the secure place to sleep.
It was a large open space with woven bamboo beach mats on a concrete floor and everybody just found a spot and stretched out. I posed for no less than 25 pictures with various women and children. We all slept until 4 am when it was time for morning ablutions.
I enjoyed being cocooned under the protective wings of my new friends. Pravda invited me to her wedding in their village on March 4th and I would have loved to go but I am due in Varanasi that day. When they asked where I was headed next, I told them that I wanted to go to a small coastal town from where I could then walk overland from village to village. I’m not sure they understood. In any case, they started their journey home with a predawn boat trip and I followed along. I was still with them two bus rides later, uncertain of where I would end up. At one of the bus stops, Pravda explained that her mom had her menses and we all created a shield of sisterhood while her giggling mama changed her rag. Literally. It made me think about the things that we take for granted!
In the town of Vatakara, they indicated that I should stay while they continued on and it was exactly what I was looking for. I found a hospital for my third rabies shot (which I received in both arms) and then found a coastal trail.
I have been hiking next to the Arabian Sea for three days now and it is beautiful, easy, and dotted with fishing villages. I am often invited in for food while the local grapevine notifies the rest of the village that I am there and they all come.
I play with the kids for a bit before venturing back into the 35 degree heat. When asked where I am going, I reply, “north”. There are no guest houses here. Last night I slept on another concrete floor (with permission) in a quiet temple anti-room. After I find somewhere to send this post, I will continue on my shanti (peace) trail.
The small village of Hampi, in the province of Karnataka, used to be the magnificent, but ruined city of Vjayanager (City of Victory) from the 1500’s. It is set in a surreal landscape of golden-brown boulders, vibrant green rice paddies, and leafy banana fields. The ruins were spectacular but a highlight for me was spending time with a small group of children on a concrete step, teaching them to read and write simple English words. Huggie bought them each a pen and I bought them some paper and their eyes shone with excitement at the gifts. They were eager learners and it pulled at something deep inside of me and rekindled a childhood desire to teach English in either Africa or India. Something to think about.
We landed in a spot called ‘The Hidden Place’. It was well off the road, had a babbling brook, only a handful of tents (of which Huggie and I each had our own) and a lounging place with cushions to hang out. No internet but that was no surprise. We haven’t had internet for awhile.
I was excited to scramble up the boulders and Huggie was eager to explore the countryside on a scooter and we set out on our respective adventures. I started down the road enjoying the muscle stretch that comes with a good stride when, out of the blue, it felt like flying glass had embedded itself into the back of my thigh. I spun around to see a snarling dog biting my leg. There was no warning and I was stunned. I shook him off with a vengeance, picked up a fist sized rock and hurled it at the snapping canine. He backed off. When I was well away, I checked my burning thigh and found three skin punctures and bruising, so decided to hold off on the scramble and headed instead for the populated Monkey Temple with its 575 steep stone steps. By the time I was at the top, my leg was on fire. I was about to head home to wash and treat the wound when I turned around and saw Huggie. She was with a new friend that she had met on the way up and when they saw the bite they insisted we go to the hospital. The dog didn’t appear rabid to me but the doctor scared the bejesus out of us with “no cure” and “paralyzingly painful death” if it was rabid. I yielded to his (and Huggie’s) recommendation that I start a series of rabies shots immediately (the only series of shots I didn’t get in Canada). It was obviously the prudent choice.
Puja and Huggie had decided to spend the day together and they invited me to join them. I did and the day was a blast. We visited a few more temples where Puja, a smart, affluent, little Indian spitfire with an infectious belly laugh regaled us with stories about a few of the 2600 Hindi Gods. It was great fun to have an insider who spoke the language and knew the customs. We also went to a monastery where food was shared and we enjoyed a dinner of rice with a vegetable broth and milk poured over it. It’s an engaging experience to eat soupy rice with your hands. We finished the day at a lake, went for a ride in a ‘Moses basket’ boat, and chilled on the boulders. But when an aggressive monkey tried to wrestle Huggie’s bag right out of her hands, we took our leave.
The following day, my leg felt fine and I went on my hike. It’s hard to follow a trail on enormous boulders and I got more of a hike than I planned for. When I was ready to climb back down, I couldn’t find my distant landmark between the rice paddy and the banana field (in the sea of rice paddies and banana fields). After hitting dead end after dead end, and belly crawling through thorny brush, I finally found a place where I could continue up, and hoped to find the Monkey Temple which I knew was up there somewhere. When monkeys started swinging all around me, I worried that I was trespassing into King Louis’ territory and crouched under a large boulder, being quiet and submissive, until they left. I was probably overreacting but they have shown themselves to be aggressive and I was taking no chances. It was a happy moment when I heard voices and saw the temple flag. The stairs that had seemed so long and steep the previous day were a joy. Everything is relative.
When you ask an Indian a question, invariably they will answer with a head wobble. The head wobble is a cross between a nod and a shake (somewhat like a figure 8) and it can mean yes, no, it’s over there, who knows, who cares, or I don’t speak English. If it is a man, the head wobble is often followed by a penis adjustment and a spit of red chewing tobacco.
We needed a rest from our steady diet of sensory overload and settled ourselves on the beach in a three-sided bamboo tree house (minus the tree) facing the Arabian Sea, and beside another open air restaurant. We asked the man if it was quiet there. When he responded with a head wobble, we took our chances, but it looked like an awesome and unique place to stay and the price was right ($6.00 each a night). The beach scene was more ‘touristy’ than ‘traveler’, but was a welcomed break anyway as we lounged on chairs and swam in the surf. Women in brightly coloured Saries cruised up and down the strip, persistently beseeching us to look at their ‘shop’ as they stretched out slim arms laden with bracelets and other finery for sale. It was hard to resist their big, brown eyes that tugged on our western guilt at having had the good fortune to be born in a place as wonderful as Canada.
India is a country of extremes. Whatever can be said about it, the opposite is also true. I know that statement has merit everywhere, but it feels more acute in India with the stark contrast between the rich and the poor (poor in Canada is not like poor in India), the karmically devout and the swindlers, the gentleness and the cruelty, the beautiful and the ugly, the chaos and the calm, the list goes on. But by and large, while many faces are etched with hardship and creased by the sun, they generally seem a happy and carefree people. Whole families will toodle around town on scooters with toddlers between dad’s legs and mom sitting sidesaddle with a sleeping baby in her arms. They are programmed from infancy to sleep through anything and everything.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for us and we have had our fill of the base thumping music on the beach that blares day and night. We are as rested as we are going to get, and so, with ears ringing, we are ready to move on. Tomorrow we will take a 12 hour overnight sleeper bus inland to Hampi. Maybe in the splendid ruins of the far past we will find a measure of quiet in the present. I asked a local woman who was raised there if Hampi was a peaceful place. She answered with a head wobble. Of course.
Pune, like Mumbai, is a big, ugly city and we made a fast exit (Mumbai was definitely more a rite of passage to be endured, rather than a pleasure). Our train ticket didn’t come through again so we booked a sleeper bus for the coastal province of Goa, a process that sounds deceivingly benign. With no western sense of privacy or order. , getting around in India by train and bus is taking a lot of effort, time, and patience, but we are managing. We have seen amazing sights and are now on a quest to find the quiet.
The morning we left Pune, Huggie was hit by the dreaded Delhi-belly. The diarrhea was a s__t storm (pun intended) and she immediately dosed up on Imodium. It worked wonderfully, but anticipating the 12 hour overnighter was a sobering proposition nevertheless. Fortunately, all went well. It was a surprisingly quiet ride and we would have slept if not for some crazy brain scrambling brought on by continuous travel over dirt tracks and large craters in the road.
We are now in the small coastal town of Anjuna where we have found the ocean, the tourists, and many of the worlds remaining dreadlocked hippie population. We are staying in a funky little room behind an open air restaurant, in the middle of a large market, that is right on the beach. It is not the secluded beach time of our dreams, but it’ll do for now. We will stay for a bit and rest our bones.
Yesterday Huggie rented a scooter (she is very competent on motorcycles) and we went to a gorgeous beach a few towns away. Imagine driving on the left side of the road, traffic and scooters coming at you from all angles, pedestrians everywhere, horns honking, and most important, avoiding the sacred cows who wander where and when they please, knowing they are the safest things on the road. It was like being in a real life video game, and through it all, Huggie remained highly focused, cool, and in control. I concentrated on helping with directions, reigning in my erupting expletives, and trying not to poo my pants.
On our way back we stopped at a small local joint for food where the waiter was attentive and adorable. I had the fish Thali (rice with curried fish and vegetables with spicy Indian pickle) and the flavours were so piquant and divine that every bite was a gastronomic pleasure (for about $2.40 Canadian). Huggie had palak paneer (a spicy creamed spinach and cheese soup with garlic naan) that was also amazing.
Driving back in the dark, I was both exhilarated and terrified. It was a fun day but I breathed a deep sigh of relief when we arrived back to our room safe and sound with all our parts intact. Now for the ongoing feat of trying to sleep through a chorus of birds squawking, dogs barking, music playing etc..
The Ellora Caves are a series of 34 caves, temples and monasteries carved out of pure basalt stone on the hillside in the area of Aurangabad. They represent a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths and imagining the work involved and how long it took to build them was simply too overwhelming to process. We would look at one small corner of one room, on one floor, of one cave, on one hillside, at one site (there are multiple sites) and marvel at the carvings. Trying to wrap our heads around the enormity of all of the caves was mind-boggling. But the Hindu temple, Kailash, is Ellora’s crowning glory, and to call it a ‘cave’ is a gross understatement. Like the other ‘caves’, it was hewn from pure stone and pictures could not begin to do it justice We happened to go to Ellora on a national holiday and it took a fertile imagination to envisage orange clad monks winding their way down the rough walkways (fortunately, we both have fertile imaginations). Nevertheless, we managed to find some quiet caves and basked in them. Overall, we have seen remarkably few non-Indian tourists so far.
We have gone to other castles, monuments and forts; all ancient, all breathtaking and now we are off on another bus and train to continue our journey southward. We are fervently hoping that the agent from Delhi who sold us the prepaid 2nd class seat assigned train sleepers (at an exorbitant rate) comes through with the tickets. He hasn’t been reliable so far. We bought the package in Delhi when, fresh off the plane and jet lagged, we were whisked away to his office like lambs to the slaughter. Live and learn. So far we have taken a combination of train and bus (and one plane) and with the exception of one train ride, we have travelled in 2nd class sleeper seats all the way (India has 8 classes of train travel). When we booked our own ticket, requesting 2nd class, we unknowingly weren’t given a seat assignment and ended up crouched in a corner of the carriageway between first class and cattle class. We survived the 8 hour ride unscathed with the exception of a good sized rat running across our feet. Our screeching and prancing caused quite a stir but provided much entertainment for the 8 or so men jammed in with us. Stories of the two old white ladies with the backpacks and the rat will likely be the topic of many a lively campfire conversation.
Jaipur (the pink city) isn’t pink anymore and we only stayed a couple of nights before heading to Jaisalmer in the the far western corner of India. Getting there was a 14 hour overnight train ride. We had sleeper seats and our romantic notion of a great sleep lulled by the soothing chug of the engine and the lonesome whistle as we rolled through the night was shattered under the crush of noise. Long shrill whistles, Indian music, food vendors shouting, babies crying, multitudes of people and luggage coming and going all the way through. What on earth were we thinking! While we are revelling in the unparalleled experience that is India, the general cacophony of sound and mayhem are also taking their toll. We have both lost multiple nights of sleep and are sick with sore throats, coughs and colds. But so far, touch wood, no diarrhea. We eat street food which is generally delicious; usually some form of vegetable curry surrounded by a pastry/dough that is deep fried. Our favourite so far is something they have for breakfast – a very thin circle of dough, deep fried and then covered with Dahl sauce (lentils/onion/spice boiled down) and then sprinkled with lemon, onion, parsley, cilantro, tomato, and chillies. Amazing flavours.
Jaisalmer (the golden city) is the quintessential desert town with golden sand coloured buildings and exquisite architecture. It looks like a scene right out of the Arabian Nights and we are loving it. In the heart of the town lies a massive sandstone fort surrounding a Jain temple full of intricate carvings that was built in the 12th century. The king allowed the families who worked for him to live within the fort and from that time on it has been passed down from generation to generation to the eldest son. Today, the descendants of those families are the only ones still allowed to live and sell their wares within the fort. Buying and selling the houses are not allowed as, technically, the king still owns the land. Our sandstone guest house ($9.00 a night) is within the fort walls and a stones throw from the temple. It all feels very exotic.
We went on a desert camel safari almost to the Pakistani border and have arrived back ‘home’ to Jaisalmer dusty, stinky, tired, and (in my case) somewhat sore in the nether regions, but happy with the experience. It took me some time to get into the flow of riding a camel. I would almost topple off when she stood up and knelt down but eventually my body relaxed and I was able to move with her. Our camel drivers cooked amazing food over open fires and the cooking lessons were an added bonus. (Sambhu taught me how to make chapati and I taught him how to write his name). Using a mixture of cumin, chilli powder, curry, fresh cilantro, coriander seeds, garlic, lentils, chick pea flour, and a variety of vegetables with rice, we ate well. We (quasi) slept without tents, under a crescent moon in the cold desert night (me paying to sleep rough is a bizarre concept) with a sky full of stars and completely different looking constellations.
Travelling as ‘unaccompanied’ females has its drawbacks. While we always keep our arms and legs covered (and usually our provocative hair), sometimes we still get too much unwanted male attention but we have never felt unsafe. People have been kind to us (with the exception of a lady who kicked me in the Delhi train station). In fact, in Jaipur, after exploring side streets and alleyways on foot for hours (I was exploring solo as Huggie had hired a tuk tuk and taken a tour) I finally emerged onto a main street with cars and asked a bellboy at a fancy hotel how to walk back to my guesthouse. He insisted that it was too far and too complicated. He tried to flag down a tuk tuk to take me but none would go the distance (it was over 16 kilometres). He snapped his fingers and a real bellboy appeared producing two helmets. Turns out he owned the hotel. He said that he was Rajput, who are kings of the Rajasthan men, and that I reminded him of his mother. He drove me back to my guest house on his motorcycle (that was an experience). It was a lot of fun but it made me feel ancient.
Now it’s bedtime. I dearly wish that it was also ‘quiet time’ but that is just a dream.