Thursday, June 28, 2007

... and onward

If I haven't been searched for drugs yet in a particular country, it means I haven't been there long enough. Apparently, I've been in India long enough.

After leaving Khir Ganga, I went back to Kasol for the night to collect my bearings before heading off to Manali. There are a few ways to get to Manali from Kasol, but the cheapest and near easiest way, other than by motorbike, is by local bus to Bhuntar and from there to Manali.

A couple of friends who I'd shared a jeep with from Dharamsala to Kasol were also planning to head off to Manali by local, and since the ride is only about 4 hours, I wasn't in a rush to leave before noon or 1. Which is good, because as I may have mentioned, there's no benefit to rushing in Parvati. So we ate our breakfast, and I collected some pants from the tailor, a game of chess or two and one of backgammon were had, and by noon we found ourselves in town, waiting for the green bus to Bhuntar.

A friend of mine told me earlier that week that a few Israelis were searched for charas in Kalga, and forced by the cop to pay $100 in bakshish. I later met one of the infamous trio in Kasol and he confirmed every word. The cops here are more interested in dollars than in incarceration and in this part of the mountains, searching foreigners is normal.

So when the three cops boarded our local bus about halfway to Bhuntar, I wasn't surprised. The ticket seller was also a cop, which is unusual and made me think he probably called his cop friends to come take a joyride. The three officers crowded around the three of us and another foreigner, and asked to see our passports, after which they peered into our wallets, pouches, side bags, and every other visible compartment. When they found nothing on me or my friend Yael, they seemed dissatisfied, but their triumphance returned when they saw my friend Ben's keychain - one of those nifty little leather mixing bowls. Off the bus they dragged Ben, his luggages trailing behind. And then: pffft. Officer #1 blows the whitle and off sails the driver.

"Wait!" I call, and Yael chimes in. "Our friend!" Rrrrrreeeer. Officer #1 looks at us. "You may get off with him," he said. Yael considered for half a second and said, "I'm going."

And me? In that split second at 3 P.M. on a Friday, four hours away from my destination, facing further police conflict and humiliating searches and an unclear bus schedule, what did I decide to do? For a split second I said, "I'll come too," and then, one split second later I said, "actually, I'll see you there." Off went Yael, and off we went.

For the first time, I realized what it means to travel alone. It means not getting off the bus. It means doing what's right for me in such a situation. Ben wasn't alone - he was with Yael and she was with him. I don't think I would have helped the situation by getting of with them in that random town with those bribe-hungry cops. I saw some other mutual friends in Manali the next day, who told me that Yael and Ben had returned to Kasol after Ben paid the cops 1,000 rupees (he managed to talk them down from 2k.)

Believe me, I felt sorry for going off, but felt absolutely sure I had made the right decision. We arrived in Bhuntar just as the bus to Manali was leaving. Four Sikh brothers herded me there and then sat around with me the whole way, leaving an empty seat beside me and not letting anyone sit down and sharing their bananas with me.

Manali was totally different than I expected. I think I expected some sort of mafia town, but it is actually green and charming. I stepped off the bus right into the summer festival, which was wild. A few nights later I got to check out the culmination of the festival, a local beauty pageant whose winner will compete nationally for the Miss India title. It was boring as hell, but the crowd was hilarious.

I've been staying at a great guest house with a bunch of English people, some Austrians (including one traveling with her new Indian husband) and an Italian girl. We got along great and had such a nice time in our little commune, which is a nice house with a huge courtyard, long dinner-party table, and a hammock. A rafting instructor named Lara also joins us at night. He is very depressed, speaks alternately of wanting to kill himself and wanting to take us on a free rafting trip. We've declined his invitation each time. He doesn't seem dangerous, but I think it's best to have happy conversation around him.

While in Manali, I've taken tons of walks through the forest, went to Vashist to see the waterfalls and the hot springs, and to Nagar to see the Nicholas Roerich exhibit.

My plan was to go from here to the lesser-traveled Kinnaur region on Wednesday, but, well, I changed my mind. I'd made the plans with my friend Tiferet, who I met in Dharamsala, and two of her friends. We decided to meet at 7:30 to solidify the plans. The two friends and I met, hardly had anything to talk about, and then Tiferet showed up with another girl, Amelie, and said she was going to walk to Leh instead.

Walking to Leh takes 21 days and is very difficult. It is an ascent of about 3500 meters, and it is up and down mountains onto desert plateau. I thought about it for a few minutes, let it fester in my mind. I don't have 21 days to hike, since I want to be in Delhi by July 14. But these women, Amelie and Tiferet, are amazing. They are strong and they are smart and if they can do it, why can't I?

So, I am leaving Manali tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. for a town called Keylong in the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. On Sunday, we're going to start walking north. I'm planning to walk 10-12 days with them, and then either catch a bus to Leh or return south, depending on the date. There are two trails to Leh: one that requires a guide and a porter and is entirely in nature for three weeks, and one that veers through nature as well as villages, which we're taking. We'll pass through a village or permanent tent accomodations every night. I got myself a sleeping bag and a huge rainponcho and am stocked up for warmth. I'm leaving most of my things in Manali, taking only what's necessary for a 10-12 day walk through the Himalayas. And then...

Thursday, June 21, 2007


This morning I woke up in a small room built of wood slabs and yellow tarp. It was very comfortable. When I opened the door to this small room, I saw a gigantic mountain, steep and ridged and covered in radiant green trees. It was very nice. Then I had porridge and said goodbye to Shimmy and Sara, my good friends from Israel who I just spent the last two weeks with. Then my friend Anav and I started walking down the mountain, into a magical forest straight out of a fairy tale. Khir Ganga is amazing. It's a tiny tourist site at the source of a hot spring set on top of a green hill facing this unreal view, the kind I really wish I could take and replant across the street from my apartment in Florentine. But I can't.

I arrived in Kasol two weeks ago, planning to meet Shimmy and Sara in one of the villages nearby for shabbat. Friday came, they had't passed through yet, so I decided to wait for them, knowing I would see them even though we had planned something else, and then 4 p.m. came, and then I had a fleeting thought to go to the village anyway, and then the bus passed and the cloud of exhaust lifted and there they were, eating momos on the street.

We decided to go to Kalga village anyway, even though it was late. But this is the Parvati valley, and things are very slooow in the Parvati valley. So we went to wait for the bus, and then 5 p.m. came, and we knew it was still another 45 minute walk from the bus drop-off to Kalga, and that sunset was at 6:45, and the bus hadn't come yet... so we stayed in Kasol, and had a really nice shabbat at the beit chabad and in the forest.

The only downfall, maybe, was the down fall of one of my sandals and one of Shimmy's sandals into a merciless current in the river. We both laid them on the huge rock we were sitting on, and suddenly, when my eyes were closed and I was laying on my back, I heard Sara say "uh, Aliyana, your shoes just fell in." Well it turned out to be one of mine and one of Shimmy's, neither ever to be seen again, so we threw the remainder of each pair in after its partner and walked back to town barefoot.

And then, there was the beit chabad. A good organization in many ways, brings shabbat and kosher food to people who want it, Jewish spirituality to those who want it and those who don't want it and those who don't know they want it. But the Beit Chabad in India is kind of difficult for me to deal with, and not just because I blame them for whatever animal, vegetable or mineral settled in my stomach in Dharamsala. I usually get uncomfortable with Chabad India around the time they say "birshut adoneinu moreinu urabeinu, melech hamashiach leolam va'ed," though sometimes other things tip me off. This particular Chabad experience, the one I spent with Shimmy and Sara in Kasol started off nicely. The vodka, which I don't usually drink, was flowing freely, and after a few hours, I drank some, but the head Chabad guy, a seemingly good dude, he drank a lot. He drank so much that by the end of the night, when all the candles except three were burnt down and everyone except maybe eight people had gone home, he began to have an exchange with the baba, over a canvas partition.

Now the baba, he also seems like a good dude. When the Chabad guys had the whole room riled up in a resounding rendition of "hakadosh baruch hu, anachnu ohavim otach," the baba was rowdiest of the bunch. Now, standing on the other side of the canvas partition, the baba began the conversation by responding to the Chabad guy, who had said something about the "holy temple."

"Holy Temple, holy temple," chimed in the baba from the other side of the parition.

At which point the Chabad guy turned to the baba and explained to him that he was "nothing but a poster" in the eyes of God. The baba responded calmly, telling the Chabad guy "you are wrong." The Chabad guy went on for a bit, the baba kept saying "you are wrong" and I sat there at the end of the table watching a woman named Shanti, who moved to India from the states 30 years ago, eat leftovers from the meal.

I met the baba again later in Kasol, and then in Pulga, a small village nearby set on the side of a hill inside a jungle. The baba's name is Mango. The owner of the guest house where we stayed in Pulga, Baba Ji - actually a former baba who now wears a baseball cap and keeps his chillum in the pocket of his khakis - later informed us of the politics between Baba Mango and himself. Mango apparently won't talk to Baba Ji because Baba Ji is no longer a baba. Baba politics. Who knew.

There is much more to tell but I'm off now... I'll write more from Manali...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

three weeks in a day

I am testing out my Japanese language skills now, since blogspot has been reset to Japanese on this computer. I'm sure I could change it, if I could read Japanese, but as it is, I can't figure out where the language options are, since they are in Japanese.

A few days ago I came to the realization that while I've been in Dharamsala for almost three weeks, and am itching to get back on the road, there are so many things I still want to do here. But alas, my trip to India is not so long, and there are still so many other places I want to visit. So tomorrow, I'm off to Parvati Valley to play in Kasol and its surrounding villages.

A few days ago, that same day I came to the realization that I may have been slacking off here on my holiday, I decided to walk up to the Baghsu waterfalls. I'd already been to the falls above Dharamkot, which was an hour and a half walk through beautiful forested hills and felt a little like heaven must feel. The Baghsu waterfalls are a 10 minute walk from the village, and are always densely populated, but still beautiful. I walked to the upper falls and watched Indian boys playing games in the pools, Buddhist monks chatting on rocks and a family of Sikhs splashing their feet.

On the trail up to the falls, I fell in step with an interesting family. There were the obviously western mom and dad, a blond girl and a Tibetan girl, who walked holding the woman's hand, speaking accented English. When we reached the pools, I photographed the girls playing and then introduced myself to the parents, Matthew and Theresa, offering to send them the photos. He is a philosophy teacher at Wesleyan, in India with the family for a year to research the influence of Buddhism on Wittgenstein. Theresa is home-schooling their daughter, Ruby. The Tibetan girl, Zompa, is a friend of the family, and a student at the Tibetan Children's Village school.

We ended up talking about how I had missed out seeing the Dalai Lama (he has indeed gone to Australia), and they told me that if I was interested, I could still go meet the Karmapa, a high Tibetan Buddhist teacher who heads the Karma Kagyu school. He greets the public every Wednesday and Saturday, they told me. It sounded great. They told me I could grab a cab for 400 rupees to the monastery, and that there may or may not be a lecture. That sounded less great. I asked them if they were planning to go. They said yes, so I said, great, maybe we could share a cab? We arranged to meet Wednesday at 1:30 by the Dalai Lama's temple.

So today I waited, at 1:30, at 1:45, at 2. No family. I had almost decided to give up (no way was I going to spend 400 rupees on a cab myself - that's a lot of money here) when I saw Matt running past the temple. "Sorry we're late," he said. Theresa was right behind him. "Difficult day in home-schooling," she apologized.

We climbed into a cab and rode through Mcleod Ganj, past Dharamsala, and to the Gyuto monastery on the outskirts of town. We left our shoes by the door, and I tried slyly to bring my bag inside, even though I could see everyone had left theirs outdoor. I just wasn't ready to leave behind my camera. "Either the camera stays out here or you stay out here," the security woman said sweetly. She was much tougher than she looked. Theresa and Matt told me they come here every week, and have never heard of anything being stolen. So I took out my passport and wallet, assured my camera I would be back soon, and went inside to join the dozens of people sitting and waiting. The Karmapa came out after about 15 minutes, and we walked toward him in a line with hands extended, each of holding a white scarf. One of his assistants put the outstreched scarf around my neck (traditional Tibetan form of greeting) and the Karmapa handed me a red string. That was it. No lecture, which made 8-year-old Ruby happy. My camera was safe. I made some joke about attachments to Theresa, but I was really relieved no-one had taken it.

The monastery was a beautiful building set in front of snow-capped mountains, surrounded by the monk's dormatories. We sat around and talked a bit with Isabel, a French nun with a quirky sense of humor who had just moved to Dharamsala after spending 20 years in Nepal. Ruby got antsy, and in her excitement to leave took a running leap down the stairs, tumbling gracefully like some sort of martial arts superhero. Except then she started to cry. So we told her how graceful she was, which made her laugh, though she still used her scraped knee as an excuse to get out of Tai Chi practice.

Back in Mcleod, I decided to check out Vijay's yoga class, considering that yoga in India is a traveler's addiction and most of my practice has been alone on the roofs of my guest houses. It was an incredible class. Vijay is about 40 years old and slim, and wears the shortest white shorts I have ever seen. (My friend Tamar later told me that she caught a glimpse of his wardrobe in the storage room after class one day - and indeed, he is the owner of at least 10 pairs of cleanly-pressed short white shorts). He is very flexible, and wasted no time showing that to us, while we laughed at his shorts. The class was Hatha, which mixes exercise with relaxation. Through the two hour class, his assistants came by to each of us to stretch our bodies into the correct position, something which noone has done for me before and which I really appreciated.

After the class I went with my friend Tiferet to check out the Dalai Lama's temple at sunset, and then to pick up the clothes Rais the tailor had made for me. He invited me to sit for chai, which I did, taking my first sip just as all the electricity in the city went out. Rais is 23, a Muslim from a small village near Pushkar. He came to Dharamsala last year and makes really beautiful clothing. "One year before I know no English," he confided. Now he is learning Hebrew, and knows quite a bit already.

I'm really going to miss Dharamsala. It's a place where people come to spend a long time, to make a home for themselves in India. I've played a lot of music here, met some great people, and have been working on a new story, writing by hand for the first time in years.

I'm off now, will try to post more photos as soon as possible...

Monday, June 04, 2007

day in dharamkot

same, same, but different. wake up, stretch my arms, sun pours through the windows, bathing me in heat. i look at the clock. it's 7 a.m. back to sleep till 9. wake up, stretch my arms again, think, what am i going to do today.

could climb up to the snow line, would go see the dalai lama but i think he left for australia, maybe i'll go to the waterfalls in baghsu. but the days here start slow.

a day in dharamkot begins with breakfast. teeth brushed, clothes on, i grab my bag, walk through the gate, an immediate left up to the restaurant, where mohan and rinco smile and serve. "hello madam," they say. people alreading lounging on the cushions at a low table, sometimes chen and nurit, sometimes yael and ben, before that itamar and dena, who went to kashmir, and aviv, who went home. i join them, eat cornflakes or sometimes banana porridge, either topped with bananas.

we sit and we talk, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for hours. we talk about politics, we talk about diharrea, then we introduce ourselves to the new people, with whom we've just talked war and digestion. some people go down to the israelit restaurant to see what movies are playing. others go to the silver school to make jewlery. others go to yoga, or just came back from yoga. today i go down to baghsu, over the stones and the trails, through the trees. i want to sit and write but i forgot my notebook. i hop down the stairs, swig water, say hi to rupert, out for his daily walk, and find myself on the main street in baghsu. i go straight to bulu's workshop to talk to sam about my drum, but he's not there, so instead i play jembe while others play didg. then off to deep the tailor, where i laugh with him and he makes my pants, then makes them smaller, then makes them bigger, then makes them smaller, and finally i give up.

dharamsala for the traveler is slow, relaxed, always busy and always a holiday. at nights there are concerts, there are long sits, there are movies, there's time. it feels less like india than like summer camp. dharamsala for the resident is different. it's planting and harvesting and working and selling and living, and it's not summer camp. two different worlds, the traveler living on rupees to bide time for cheap, the native living on rupees to bide life and its expenses.