Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rebel Up! Soundclash, 29th of november @ OCCII, A'dam; India Special!

Hi all,

Finally an update on the blog here. Finally we've gotten off our asses and started working on our audio and video recordings. Time to present it and what better than as an India Special night linked to the India festival in Amsterdam? Sure!

Our Rebel Up night will be have a real special thing; a *live Rajasthani music cinema*, in which filmed footage and music from our Rajasthani experiences will be performed together on screen and through the loudspeakers! A story without words, but with music as a narrative and your own experience to grasp.

More special performances should be expected too, keep a close eye on our website!
All night long, we'll play you loads of famous and unheard cinematic pop, tribal folk and folkpop tunes from allover India's vast continent to make everyone jump and jive on the dancefloor!

Back to our charity motivation as always....
The charity of the night is Telluris India, a Belgian help organisation which gives aid to the Munda tribes in the forest state of Jharkhand in Northern India. These tribes are part of the Adivasi caste and are the native inhabitants of this region. Their culture and way of life dates back to before the creation of Hinduism, 5000 years ago. Nature means all to these tribes; they have a natural religion and worship the nature around them.

Surrounded by dominant cultures of the Hindustan caste system and the ever modernising world, they are on the verge to lose their land and culture forever. By the hands of corrupted authorities that favour industrialisation, mining and lumberjacking, the forests have already robbed of 70% of their original size. As a result, their land is plagued by erosion, droughts and the decline of flora, wildlife and trees!

The forest offers ecological diversity, life, medicinal quailities and protection from erosion and because the Munda are small time farmers and therefore need the forest in order to survive. Telluris helps the tribes with planting of new crops and medicinal plants, the digging of water wells, spreading knowledge about organic farming and other projects linked to their direct environment. The tribes can decide for themselves in which facilities they would like to receive aid in by Telluris, instead of such choices being made for them like most NGO's do. The villagers gather to discuss, unite and motivatie each other for achieving their prime goals and Telluris helps them fullfilling these wishes. Nearly all the local employees at Telluris who work with the Munda, are Munda themselves en educated by Telluris. At Telluris, the most important thing is to actively let people take part in the process where at every interaction, knowledge is exchanged!

More info:

Saturday 29th of november @ OCCII, Amsterdam
Amstelveenseweg 134 (tram #1 (stop Overtoomsesluis) or #2)
doors open 22:30 till late,
4 Euro fee. -> Profit goes to charity!

Rebel Up! Soundclash (#18)
Diasporic sounds from the global underground.....
a global culture mashup of rougher world music and visuals,

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rapid travel in slowmotion

To start off with an oxymoron: work holiday.

That's what Seb and me were having the first three months (we were doing a project). So it was nice to finally have some time off with our girlfriends and do some unadulterated travelling.

So we travelled like crazy and saw all that we wanted, all that we needed and all that we could see. The list is staggering and would make most travel agencies jealous. I could use some rest after all that in Delhi. Seb and I met Machiec, the Polish guy we met in Pakistan and who took the beautiful pictures of Muharram.

What follows in the coming posts is an account of my travels, from March till now (June). I tried to have the posts out earlier but working on the computer was proving too much: traveling, filming, editing the video... there was not enough time to also write blog posts without being confined to the computer screen totally. One needs to see things too!

So: Delhi. Machiec. He was staying in a cheaper place so we decided to stay there as well. It was located in some alleyway from the Main Bazar (hence it's a 120 Rps price tag for a double room). Immediately Delhi gets a lot more interesting from the back streets and alley perspective.

I stayed a few days longer after Seb headed out to Nepal. I had some business cards made, with the beautiful process of silkscreen printing. Only 120 Rps for 100 cards is a steal. So I had some made for our own project and for Jet as well.

Taking the metro in Delhi delivers a nice paradox. The metros are really clean. I would call them European like, but cleaner. They are spotless, reminiscent of airports. The paradox is that using them gives you quick and clean transportation, but robs you of the experience of India. Haha.

A little run-into
Queues can be a little chaotic in India. Or to put it more graphically: instead of having a linear shape, they tend to have a larger concentration of people on the beginning of the line. Especially in post offices there are two kinds of people: people who stand in line and others who go up front and squeeze in.
I didn't dare to squeeze in up front so I tried to form a line. Being a model of patience and wait. When somebody new would come in and try to cut in front I'd give him a tab on the shoulder and point to myself with a somewhat surprised expression on my face. They always get the hint and go wait behind me, or sometimes beside me (which is a quite annoying). The funny thing is that it actually makes me feel a little sorry, for it creates an extra atmosphere of waiting. Whereas the other method of "people who want to wait; wait - others go" might actually work better. You could argue that some people have more time than others. The reason I don't do it is some culturally European inbred sense of justice. Everybody equal and that sort of thing. Well sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. About the post office I haven't decided yet.

In the train station it is another story. There cutting in front is not accepted. People you see cutting in front usually just need a reservation form. Sometimes you see people with money in hand go up to the window. That is annoying. Women are allowed to do this. This is the culture (it is mentioned on signboards). There aren't a lot of women around so it is acceptable. It's a little more annoying when a man goes in the woman's name (with the woman behind him). (This is not accepted according to those same signboards...) Other times it's men alone. I haven't figured out what gives them the right in those instances. I guess they are either very late for their train or cheer cheeky. I also tried to be cheeky one or two times (when my train was sorta late) but that didn't work: people got mad and told me to go to the end of the line.

In most places there are the sort of lines, based on first come first go principle, but you have to watch your place carefully. Somebody jumps it in a blink.

The metro is kind of a save heaven for all this. Boarding the metro vehicle itself by the way is Indian style: pushing and squeezing in no particular order. But the line for tokens is one orderly experience.

So I was really surprised when I was waiting in line and a young guy just comes in from the side and stands in front of me. I tab him on the shoulder and point to myself. He gets really annoyed and says: "Yeah yeah, don't worry man!" Worry? I don't worry. I ask. If you want to cut the line than ask too. I don't get a chance to say all this, another ticket window opens up. He sees it and takes the free spot. He already has his token as I get up for my turn. He passes me and says: "Haha, I'm first and you are second, I win!" Hahaha, wauw I didn't know we entered a competition. Indians can be very nice, but there is a top layer that is also competitive. But making taking the metro a competition... I think to myself: "You are more like the first billionth to get a token and I am the second trillion." I get my token, and walk up to the turnstile, and I see that his token isn't working, refusing him entrance. Oh karma!

Making travel plans
I wanted to do the Buddha Route and I wanted to travel alone for a while. I like the tranquillity and the intensity of it. And so it happened: Seb went to Nepal, as I set out to Varanasi, Budhgaya and Sarnath.
I wanted to do the Buddha Route. So now I was going slooooooooooow.

The Buddha was born as prince Siddhartha Gautauma, in Lumbini, currently in Nepal. He went in search for the answer to life's fundamental questions, making his way through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in current India. He found enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, and then when to Sarnath, near Varanasi, to preach his first sermon to five friends that he met on his quest.

But first stop: Varanasi. It is on the way to Bihar (where most of the places are where the historical Buddha lived and taught) and it was a city I was interested in seeing. Going by train I hadn't taken the time to reserve a ticket and so when I came at the train station ('railway station' as they say here, which I always seem to forget) in a last moment spur, the sleeper compartment was already fully booked. Normally this isn't really a problem: you get a general ticket and then see if there are foregone reservations for the sleep compartment to get a last minute place there. And this had always gone right. Well what do you know? Two firsts for this trip: the train was in time, and it was fully booked. No place in the sleeper. So I rush over to the general compartment to get at least a (good) seat there. Because there is no guaranty for sitting even! I've heard stories and seem completely packed compartment. So I was glad to have found a place on a higher bunk so I could have my bags next to me and try to sleep leaning on them. The coach was full but not too full for Indian standards so it would prove a relatively relaxing ride to Varanasi.

I was glad I had a good book with me - bought in Mcleod Ganj: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep (how appropriate!) - so that I could grow more tired and could practice the ancient art of half sitting half leaning sleeping. The book didn't get me to do dream yoga, but it was a good explanation on Karma and how it relates to dream – quite a recommended read...) Reading till 2 a.m. I could finally catch some sleep till 6 a.m. with the help of earplugs.

Full, but not too full general compartment. This man has found a place in the luggage rack. Good for lying down indeed (impossible to sit in...)! Notice the use of the fan, for placing the shoes when sitting on top. Nifty!

Because sleep-sitting -or is it sit-sleeping?- isn't for everybody, some practice even more ancient art of lying down on the good ol' floor -sleeping. Others forego sleep altogether (for as long as they can muster) and opt for sitting (together) instead.

Yea! Taking photo and being photographed - picture that!

Varanasi - wauw

Entering Varanasi over the Ganges river bridge we enter the city in the early morning. Slowly we crawl in the city as it is waking up, just as I. The river causes differences in elevation in the city and some green (trees) and this gives it a friendly and varied character. Arriving there is the typical Indian mumble jumble at the station with hundreds of rickshawmen looking for customers. I find somebody who understands where I want to go for a reasonable price and we set out. Fifty meter before the Gaths the alleyways are so narrow that no rickshaw can come there. So my driver beckons me to get out and I follow him on foot. After five minutes of narrow streets we come near the riverbank. This is where the Gaths are: the holy bathing places, well known from film and TV every other visual medium depicting the Indians bathing in the Ganges water. Walking until then I was not bothered by any salesman. We walk some more to the guesthouse, walking up and down stone stairways on the ancient slabs of sand stone. As the guesthouse was in the lonely planet and had views on the Ganges river (only some rooms of course) it was very expensive. So I let the driver show me another place near, the one he wanted to show me in the first place (oh stubborn Westerner!). The place was 10 seconds away from the riverbank, with a roof terrace with nice views on the Ganges river and rooms with warm water for only 150Rps (€3). Good deal (oh stubborn western!).

After checking in I went to the roof terrace to have a Chai and to film some of the view. I was a little bit sleepy after the short night. Sitting on the terrace were two Danish guys who were freelance photographers and journalists. Exchanging some experiences from India I found out that there would be a Shiva Festival in Varanasi on 7th of March. Shivaratri is in name of Lord Shiva. I was told that a lot of Bhang Lassi is drunk by people because it is believed to be Shiva's favourite drink. Bhang lassi is made of female marjiuana leaves. Because Varanasi is believed by Hindus to be founded by the deity Shiva, I thought it would be an interesting time to be in the city. But the 7th is still a week away, so it would be a good idea to see some other places and come back for Shivaratri.


Our exchange of stories of India and doing a project here was interrupted by a large black-faced Languor monkey coming on the terrace balcony. I saw nothing special in him except for his size, but the cook was franticly shouting at the monkey trying to scare it away. He was also shouting at everybody else on the terrace to get their things and leave. Whether the monkey was dangerous or not could not really be established: the cooks shouting got everybody scared and the monkey agitated. So the monkey got angry and the last thing you want to do is test your luck with a big monkey, so there we were: five guys and three staff members in the kitchen with the door shut, the cook still shouting at the monkey and a stick waving through the barred window. Hahaha, what a drama.

The monkey leaves soon enough and so do we, ready for some fast city exploring.

Exploring Varanasi

Varanasi is one of the most holy cities in India. It's a city dedicated to the deity Shiva: in the hindu trinity he takes up the role of the destroyer, but this is seen positively. The Ghats along the holy rives Ganges attracts pilgrim bathers who want to wash away their sins in the holy Ganges river. A lot of Hindu's also want to be cremated here - most Indians believe that onyone dying on the banks of the river in Varanasi attains instant 'Moksha" or enlightment.
With these huge importanties Varanasi for the most part feels like a village at least on these ghats: if not friendly, at least no intrusion from people who want to sell you something.

People are also not bothered by you as you walk among the rituals, as Hindus are not quickly bothered by anything, but mostly people are quite inviting and willing to explain what is going on. Some rituals mundane, like people splashing in the water, other less so, like people getting all their head shaven, women too, and other still quite exceptional ones like a cremation. The only thing not allowed is filming the corpses being cremated, but after paying a fee (that reportedly goes to an elderly home for people waiting to be cremated there) filming this is also possible....

The cremations take place during the day as well as during the night. Cremations take place on a few ghats. Walking along these is quite something to see for the first time. It takes you back in time walking on the sandstone pavement and to see huge piles of wood sold by the kilo for burning a human corps.
It's almost breath-taking to see a funeral pyre for the first time.
It takes some time to take in that a human body is burning and it is also quite consoling somehow.

The river is beautiful, with its wooden boats tied to the shore and each other, and the mist clearing in the morning making the waste shore on the other side visible.

The Ghats feel medieval with its sandstone and archaic instruments for ritual burning and it's little food shops - especially yoghurt products like dahi served in one time use clay pots.

Next stop is Budhgaya to come back to Varanasi on the 7th. Next Blog post also!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Last days on Indian soil

-It has been 3 weeks since I'm back in Europe, never having finished my last post properly, so here it is, sorry for the wait-

I didn't stay long in Delhi as I wanted to get to Jodhpur, in search of a rare to find Kamaycha violin. I just had to renew my visa for a few days as I had before miscalculated in booking my flight, overstaying my visa by 5 days.
At the FFRO office, all went swell this time and got my passport stamped within the hour. It is a truly chaotic and over swarmed place, but as me and Maarten had been at the place a few times already, it was less daunting. In relaxed manner I went through all the paperwork, had to wait a bit and talked to 2 immigrant youths from Congo about their life in India, trying to set up a little business . Other westerners (and FFRO first-timers) were not dealing well with adapting to the chaos. At one moment an Israeli guy (no surprise, who else could it be...) started arrogantly screaming to the officials who didn't want to give him what he wanted as he probably lacked paperwork or solid proof for a visa renewal. Yeah, just waste your time with such an attitude and see how you won't get helped.

Now, I don't want this to turn into a bad generalising slur but I need to say that in all our time in India, of all westerners along our trip the Israeli tourists have always been the worst, the most obnoxious and most annoying ones. Thankfully, we also met genuine and openhearted Israeli's like Gil, Roy and several others, but the sad truth is that the majority of Israeli tourists will just haggle hard and harshly for everything and thereby treating the locals like lower life forms. How's that for generic irony?
Really, we've seen it too many times to remain objective on that part and Maarten even once had to intervene in a verbal fight between a clueless Israeli girl and an honestly sincere shopkeeper about some itty-bitty costs.
Because of the abusive attitude of such bad apples, the good Israeli travellers also suffer from this. Nowadays, many Indians are starting to hate Israeli travellers and some guesthouses have already put up signs saying 'No Israeli allowed' as well as that some shops have signs on them explaining in Hebrew script that one should always haggle with respect and dignity. Only time and a hopeful change of attitude can tell how long this will go on.

In the evening I took a bus to Jodhpur for some unfinished business with the Rajasthani folk institute and acquiring a rare kamaycha, the thick stringed violin from the desert surroundings of western Rajasthan. In the Rajasthan institute I met Kuldeep again and had dinner with him and a Ukranian and American project student, who were in Rajasthan for several months now. The next day I wandered about Jodhpur for the last time. Such a nice place, with its busy bazaar and market and streetlife all about, expanding itself. Together with Jaisalmer it is the nicest and most atmosphere filled place in Rajasthan, even for such a big city. Spices, glass bangles, cloth, veggies, fried snacks, old tapes, dusty junk, plastic utensils. Everything there, filling the wooden stalls or spreaded on thick groundcloths, Kabeliya women and teenage girls squating below. All eagerly talkative to get your attention and you just go along with it, to enjoy those last Rajasthani spheres. After all those months in India, you can't be put off anymore by such bustling market action in eye-winkling manner.

In the afternoon back to the institute, seeing the Kamaycha being strung up. I peeked through the immense folk library and picked up a book on Hungarian folk music by Zoltan Kordaly, an authority on music patterns and the history behind it. Interesting read, in which he claims that nearly all gypsy music in Hungary, Romania and surrounding countries has been taken from old Hungarian folk songs. Its melodies remixed by the travellers in their own context. Through comparing patterns he can trace back the gypsy songs to their original Hungarian source and likewise for instrumental compositions. If you have more than an interest in eastern european folk music and/or gypsy music, get your eyes on this book. The Kamaycha was just made ready and I had to run for a rickshaw to get to my train. Only 15 minutes left, oy oy and ushered the rickshaw man to race for it. Made it just on time, the train leaving 3 minutes after, ouff.

Back in scorching Delhi, it was just 2 days and 1 night more for relaxing and buying souvenirs for friends and family home.
That also ment fun like getting stuck in a traffic jam in severe pollution. Or like the bizarre experience of having a few helpfull artist posh boys driving me around in their big mercedes that pumped out the loudest and worst trance tunes while slowly passing streets. That is India; one extreme after the other by the hands of local people who put you into weird situations. Expect the unexpected, that is India's exciting bliss to which one gets addicted to.

I was slowly winding and closing down this 6 month travel. It was a bit weird, having the feeling of leaving India behind and heading back to the West. How would things be there, what was awaiting me, would life become more boring? and so on. Returning from a long travel only gives you feelings of vagueness. At the airport, all was smooth and peacefull in the terminal. Quite different to several months before, when our girlfriends flew back home and the place was utter chaos. I checked all my bags and was told that I had 20kg excess bagage, which would cost me 11000 rupees, ouch! I had no cash on me anymore and my credit card did not want to work in the several times they swiped it. The staff turned a kind eye and let me go with a wink, my baggage unpaid and forgiven. Sometimes it's lucky not to have your credit card working. ;)

Maarten is still traveling about and should now be in Nepal for a few weeks before heading back home, overland or by air?
He has been a quite busy boy and spent two weeks in the jungle somewhere in central India. There he did some filming for a documentary on a Belgian NGO and their doings in everyday life for people in tribal area's. Soon he should post up something about his experiences there and more.

I might write a last post about readjusting to life in the west, comparing it with India and what is (not) missing here.
We will start working on our immensly gathered sounds and visuals when Maarten is back here. I hope to update the blog now and then on what is happening with our material in terms of releases, documentary, collages, presentations, screenings and performances. Who knows what might come from it.
If you want to be regularly updated about our sounds and visuals, please send us an email and we'll add you to some sort of list (see right hand section for our addies)

signing off for now.... (seb)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Monsooning in Kolkata and the blissfully lost in Orissa

Slacking. These last few days hanging about in Rajasthan and Delhi, actually hurrying from place to place since Orissa and Varanasi, it didn't do the blog any good. Nor my motivation could be startled into quick write-ups either by the muffled heat hanging around since I came down from the Darjeeling hills.

Picking it up where I left the thread limp;
Late morning arrival in Kolkata (or known as Calcutta, in colonial terms)
The bus already wrapped me into an immense irky heat and it was no better outside under the scorching eye of the sun. Such hot and humid weather, the concrete and pavement sucking up all the warmth. The cab found the way to the hotel where Miki and I had agreed to meet. So it went without mix ups.

Kolkata as a city was far more interesting and felt nicer than any of the other big cities I had visited in India. Somehow the people were more kind and helpful than say the tedious hawk-and-hassle behaviour in Delhi or other tourist hideouts. Perhaps it comes from the fact that Kolkata is a metropole with a Communist city government and socialism seemed more virbrant in the air than anywhere else. This is just an all-too-quick glance of a 36 hour stopover stay so I don't know if I saw it through rose tinted glasses or took it in with too much subjectivity. For Miki it was her last day in India as the next night she would fly to Europe and travel on westwards for a longer while. It had been so warm all day, that in the evening it started to get unusually dark and grey, windy too. And suddenly, flasssssch. Heavens opened up and down came a power shower for the next hours. Lightning, rumble and fierce winds too. Some thick branches of trees fell down on the road with a moaning crack, some streets were quickly under water and open sewers flowing over.
Early monsoon styled weather it seemed. Like locals said; unusual. They also linked the opinion of the current state of global environment to the result of global warming.

Next day the morning again dried. Walking around the Kolkata streets, I found my way to the Mondal instrument shop, a place famous for making quality instruments, especially the carnatic violin. Since a long while I had wanted one and having seem them being crafted on the spot, I melted and plunged for one of better quality and all included. And at such a modest price too, in like twice a day's wage. More stuff to carry with me on top of all stuff gathered. it makes me my own slave and wagemaster at once, sucker donkeying my way around India. So it shall be then.

I accompanied Miki on her last doings and we visited a colonial graveyard. The only thing touristic that we did in the city. Just for a few minutes where the elderly and chatty custodians wanted us to sign the guestbook twice, and with comments. My comment being that there weren't enough tyrannic ghosts around to hunt the locals. I wonder what they'll make of that.
Miki had to do some sending at the general post office. A parcel. If you have never been in India, this won't raise a chill or hair but to those who know the experience all too wat...yes, exhilarating fun ahead! In we went, by the helping hand of an elderly stoop stitcher. No really, that's their job. Stitching parcels on the postal stoop. Confusion! The 2 middle aged men behind the inquiry counter want to help us oh so good, but the PC won't start up. There is a list that can tell how much a package can cost, but neither looks to it. They quarrel about the methods of shipment; 'air, sea, speedpost, bookpost!' and also about the cost. Hilarious, free entertainment at your own whim, a mental whimsical one that is. Miki gave a few sighs and sang her song in the way she did quite often in likewise situations of compatible masala mix-ups: "Indiaaaa!" All in all, going from one desk to the other, seeing the whole building (which must say is an impressive building in victorian dome style with high ceilings), back to the stoop for stitching. "Indiaaa!"
Finally needing 2 stickers and some writing on the parcel from the same fella's at the enquiry counter. To prevent Miki from collapsing and singing herself into a bittersweet temper, I went up to the counter and only one of the middle aged men was there. The slower one. He was enjoying a game of Patience on the computer screen. Yes, the card game! At least the computer's slowcoming power wasn't wasted for nothing besided our weighing, pfew. The stickers were put on it, as ofcourse, he couldn't keep his glare too long off his game. Ah, the newly found backalleys to motivation! Time, more than an hour. To celebrate it in irony, we passed a shop selling intoxicating liquids, booze. Treated ourselves to a pint bottle of beer of a brand that I otherwise wouldn't be found dead with. Ahem, it was one of my first beers in all these 6 months and likewise for my Miki, so during dinner the it felt weird having this sensation of alcopop bubbles brewing from your stomach into your nerves. This all before I had to catch my night train to Puri, Orissa, so the packing and going went in a rush as usual.
Made it though.

Arrival in Puri. Hot and humid sea air. Hmmm, good smell, but no a fresh crisp salty smell that one is used to on the Atlantic coast. Rather a manky, salty, thickly aired smell. German friend Mischka had given me a good Puri hotel reference back in Darjeeling and soon I dropped all my bags in said place. The Old Sagar Saikate hotel, it was indeed a safe haven of tranquility and shade. Shanti style. That was the word every guest was or started using in the days to come. Yes, everything shanti, easygoing. The building itself had been a small fortress residence of the British about hundred years ago during the Bengal wars. Nice place, funny how the soldier's rooms were now used by low budget backpackers, most of them stoned all day long. That was the peace most came to look for in Puri and easily found, greeted and hugged with. I spent 10 days in Puri as a relaxing daze that still went too fast. Days where you really do nothing, sleep late and fill it by reading or slowly pacing yourself, are the days where time keeps to a different rhythym. The real rhythym of reality! And time thus walks past you while you're creeping at a turtle's pace. Except for visiting the special Sun temple at Konark (thanks for that early tip Winklemann!) and seeing the Irrawaddy (gangetic) dolphins at Chilika lake, other days were lushily wasted. Here a description in nonsensical words;
Kingfish oven dishes crawling your nostrills and yummy into your tummy; bhang chai taking you up and away a full day, bringing you back to your senses; cycling through sand into invisible bambi habituated tropical pine forests that resemble the Les Landes coastal area in France; the spontaneous skinnydipping by some aware of secludedness and wild waves pushing their bodies and faces into the sandbanks topsy turvy; cheerfull Russians playing hiphop, ambient and IDM deeply into the night as nightwalkers, soundstalkers, photoshophoppers and videorodeoriders, all creatively in the tropical beehive of sugared mangopop and ketamine; Japanese, Russian, Belgian and Kiwi folks of allsorts improvising music sessions in the mosquito dazzled and sticky nights; loafing around in a lungi, being most comfortable and integration into local fisherman society; being daily stalked by drunken yet innocent hash pushers lurking about every alley around the hotel and leading to the ever bizarre conversations; hearing the endless oneliners of Kanu, the liberated servant that chains himself to pleasurable chores; the babbling oneliners back at him from the guests; the allmost-fight between the manager and a local on the hotel premises, rumbling through our shanti time, and so forth and so.....

No, to make stories around these little facts of 'life of a Puri saltbowl refugee', that would indulge too much space of this post and hence your affectionate attention. Let them remain folly fiction at best and most unreal, into the unknown black hole that one gets sucked into while on a holiday in an all-too-laid-back spot somewhere in a tropical hemisphere on this globe, wherever it may be. Things could be worse, like trying to translate it into a common context for others to understand, Shiva forbid.

But, Puri honestly was an amazing place, if not my favorite region of India so far. The region was amazing, the smiling people too and same goes for the coast! How many times we have had, or me alone has had, so much empty beach at our disposal without another soul in sight. Many a headturn; one km to the left, one to the right. Nope, nobody. To waste time time with the least worry, the Orissan coast is the place. That alas, also means that I never made it too the tribal parts in the north and south. They all were quite far away (up to 15 hour busrides and no guarantees of admittance) and hearsay said that you can only get into the jungle villages of the 62(!) different tribes if you have a guide and thus have paid a hefty sum that exceeds the 100 dollar mark. Better to plan a next visit in the future and arrange it with people on the inside and stay in said jungle spot for a reasonable time and not through a hopsack-quick-glance breeze by the tourist winds. On the last night I met Elena from Italy who had been living in Orissa for nearly a year and who spent a few months in the Northern jungle communities where she did social work in a project. Needless to say, she saw a lot of ceremonies and was part of local jungle life in a way a 'tribal package deal' can never bring.

On the day before I left, I rented a motoped and went to Chilika lake. 50 km's riding through small coastal roads, men and women standing hipdeep in water, browsing for shrimps and shells in the nets below. People who are half jungle and half cultivated into village life, a life that to them already is über-urban. Seeing them look to you, wave to you, smile from a distance. Ofcourse you stop and make contact. Smiles around, shared laughs about pigment and hair colours, different pierced ornaments on both. And all without the slightest hassle nor nervous hands stretched out with the 'paisa' slogan.
The Irrawaddy dolphins, yup nice animals the few pairs of them, jumping up and down, squirting some water. It's a fun deal, just on time to catch the boat and joining a Kolkatan family layered with several generations. 3 hour ride on the lake, stopover to drink palmnuts, chew their white sallow fruity flesh, nibbling on the namkeen of the generous family. Sure the boat ride was nice, but the ride on wheels through those people's fields, watery patches and their villages was way more rewarding than sitting still on a boat and peering for light grey mammals.
Damn camera gave all of its last power and the snapshots of the 50km ride were the last to be taken.

I left Puri and Orissa as it was unavoidable. Back westwards towards Delhi, but first stopping at Varanasi. The city of the dead. Not ment in a sardonic or dark way, but in the famed way of the non stop human barbeque, 24 hours a day at the ghats of the Ganges.
My hotel was just behind the main ghat, the main place where the ritual burning was done. First sight from above; a man burns and the cloth around his bodies has all burned up, right to the face. His head lies back into the fire while the face stares up as if looking to the sky for the last time, the mouth open as if making a final grimace. That's just my imagination running loose, but you make up stories to make it more bearable and understanding for yourself. In a pile next to this one, just a half corpse lies in the flames, one leg curled up by the sheer heat and sticking into the air. Bizarre. All other limbs have burned up already. I explain it like this as photographing is not allowed there, very understandable and utmost respectfull to the mourners, so all you can make of it is a mental note inside your head. A dog next to one of the ashen heaps has snatched a tasty piece of something and drags it off. After chewing on it for a little while, he leaves it be and the piece of bone remains there till a worker casually kicks it aside.
I could go on giving descriptions, but that would either bring out gruesome feelings for some of you and this symbolic poetry doesn't live a long life anyway.
You would think that it stinks there, but it doesn't. Local ghat burning workers explained me that they used special sandal and bunyan tree wood that overruled the smell of smoldering human flesh, plus that special herbs and perfumed powders were thrown onto the bodies as well every so often. The worst is when the wind turns, you get all the stark flaming smoke in your eyes and that seriously bites. As if you were crying for the dead. It reminded me of a "fisherman's friend moment', those coughing pastilles. More explanation: the chest of a man does not fully burn so this stays behind in the ash heap. Same goes for the hip bone of a woman. Those bones are plainly thrown in the Ganges river together with the ashes. Children, animals and saddhu's (baba's) do not get burned, same for pregnant women, as they get heavied with stones and into a watery grave in the middle of the river after a boat ceremony. So the river is filled with corpses in the middle and rib n hip bones on the sides, but locals of the lower castes still wash themselves into the river every day, just right next to the main ghat. Same goes for children who endlessly play in the water. I wonder how many times the joke of throwing bones at each other has been played by them.

I had shared the nightly train ride from Orissa with Italian Elena of the night before and her deeply gentle Spanish partner Carlos and I catched up with them later near the ghats. More like bumping into each other, as we had predicted and Varanasi is just a small city in that respect as everything of interest happens on or around the ghats where everyone is bound to be at. Spent some time with them and their Spanish friends in the evening and the next one. Good to brush up my Spanish a bit for a little mediterranian trip down south next month. Also met their baba, as Carlos lives in Varanasi when he is not involved in social project work and knows his baba for a long while now. The baba speak good Spanish and his wise words are given in comical slogans of enjoying life.

On the last night, just before I have to catch by train to Delhi, a big ceremony was starting at the ghat, with none other that the famous and rather quirky yoga figure Yog would appear. Bah, I had to walk away in order not to miss my train, but I almost saw him. Almost ;)
My dear Maarten, wherever you are lost right now, I was so close, yet I missed to gaze at our uncelebrated hero and applaud his virtue of not being perfect, that being the source of his Indian hero status! At least I now know that his real name is Swami Ramdev, ah wisdom gained in the absence of vision. Alas, and missed his tricks too, see!

Not the last post yet, even on this first-to-last day in India. The last few days I went up and down to Jodhpur in search of a rare Kamaycha violin and more talks with Kuldeep Kothari at the Rupayan Sansthan institute of Rajasthani culture.

Big shouts go out to the Puri folks; the mad Russian bunch, Japanese motohomeless, Kiwi and Brit laughter and the ever providing persons (of anything) that was Kanu. Same for Elena, Carlos, Daniel and the couple from Alicante and whoever I blissfully forgot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Darjeeling's darlings want Gorkhaland

"We want Gorkhaland"
"Gorkhaland Now"
"Gorkhaland belongs to us"

These are some slogans on banners, posters and graffiti'd on walls in the Darjeeling district. Darjeeling is part of West Bengal, but as it is in the northernmost tip of it and enclosed by Nepal and Bangladesh, the people feel themselves not part of West Bengal with tropical southern Kolkata as the capital.
The Gorkha's are originally Nepali's who are known for their toughness, which gives them the fame for being the hardest, toughest and strongest soldiers on earth. In the old colonial days, the British used the Gorkha's in their regiments and since Darjeeling was under British rule for the all-important tea trade, the Gorkha's have found themselves in the area ever since.

Before a month, there still were problems in the area and Darjeeling was closed off for everyone. Since a few weeks the peace has been restored by the people's sacking of Darjeeling Hill Council governor Ghisingh, for whom the local people even held a public funeral to denounce him as being dead to them! Ghising has fled Delhi-wards since then and stepped down from the West Bengal government. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha party is bound to take over, with headman Bimal Gurung in the spotlight.
So that was the reason that several small election manifestations were done in Darjeeling town. I only heard them far below in the streets and didn't manage to see any of it. Except for the many jeeps carrying the Gorkhaland flag and a few jeeps driving around with an announcer on them, proclaiming their hopeful propaganda. Those could be seen allover town. It all was peaceful.

At the Kakarbitta border I had met Marco, who I already had met briefly in Pokhara, an Italian who's cycling around Nepal and India for several months. In Siliguri I met him again and as he knew the mountains to Darjeeling would be too steep for him, he would take a jeep with me. From Siliguri many jeeps go up to Darjeeling for a fair price and the 2,5 hour ride was an amazing one for views. From the first moments outside of Siliguri one could see and smell the tea fields already! A slight peppery, earth-like scent filled your nostrils while you gazed at vast fields of green waves that oozed into the lower valleys. It looked quite mystical and still, as if there was an invisible mist hanging over it that gave it such a natural aura. How much nicer it even must look like if real mist shrouds the fields! Driving through the mountains, many diverse layers of forest made up the mountain greenery just like in Nepal on different altitudes, from tropical to highland vegetation.
I'm glad I didn't take the toy train up. "it took up to 7 hours!", one Canadian traveler told me and that he had to enjoy the slow ride with a bottle of liquor at hand.

Darjeeling itself, well... apart from the open views you can get on the highest points, it's a rather grim colonial town that has lost its grandeur since the partition when the rich British fled the place. The old Victorian greyness from up mixes with abandoned industrial structures down below, rusty as they have become from neglection. Most tourists either come for the tea or for the nice hikes around the area. I came without any desire, just to see Darjeeling for a few days and relax before continuing south. The atmosphere in the Darjeeling mountains is quite relaxed and it felt a lot like still being in Nepal. The locals, being of more Nepali and Tibetan descend than Indian, were all kind and friendly.

The next morning I bumped into Miki from Australia, a friend from the same Freak street group in Kathamandu and also traveling alone now. Path-crossing luck strikes 600km's away, in the Indian subcontinent it really isn't strange anymore to again meet people you know and the longer you're on the road, the more you get used to it. Miki also came to Darjeeling to relax and mostly, to read books from the great library that the Aliment hotel had. She devoured them by the page in the course of several days and ofcourse, feeling regret at having to leave all the other good books behind. We walked around the town, sometimes alone, together, with or without a goal.

In the local market, which was a tidy cluster of wooden shacks, I saw 2 younger men playing the Nepali sarangi violin in folky manner and both singing with raspy and roughly volumed voices. They were brothers and came from Nepal into India every day as the border is about 25km's away, to play in the Darjeeling market streets and earn some money. Their names were Shiva and Shankar and both in their early twenties. With their consent, I recorded about 13 songs right on the street while sitting next to them crouched on the ground. In some way it attracted a lot of locals and shopping folks while I sat there listening and locals curious as to why I sat next to these Nepali buskers. More people threw money on their napkin, so it rather was no bad attention and it also made the boys laugh.
At the end I invited them to a restaurant, at first they were hesitant as they didn't know how to react on my offer or what they could choose to eat. As they couldn't speak English, we spoke in Hindi and talked about their music, the meaning of several songs and little things. I told them that I will try my best for getting their music released on a small scale, so that they could make some money in the west from afar if people back home show enough interest. I also paid them for their songs, -which they didn't ask for nor expected after the meal-, a sum that is not much by western standards but to them more than a full day wage of playing on the street. Hopefully people back home, or the supportive readers here like you all, are interested in their music and want to support them, as well as other artists that we recorded.
I'll try to upload one of their songs, but am not sure if it's recorded in mp3 format or not (which means a very bulky upload otherwise).

On the last afternoon, just as I was about to check out of my hotel, I bumped into Mischka from Germany who I had met in Lahore, Pakistan. The same theory applies to the crossing of paths, ever and ever. Mischka had just come back from spending 1,5 month in Orissa, just where I was heading to! So I quickly decided to stay for an extra night in Darjeeling, enjoying the talks with Miki, Mischka and his friends. Traveling is much more fun with these unexpected things that make you improvise by emotion than by time. I think that perhaps will be the most difficult thing to get used to again back in Europe; the consumption and value of time in regards to your own impulses and the expectancies you tie yourself onto. Blah, that should sort itself out once there is a harmonious balance between them, if a person allows him or herself to do it.

The next day me and Miki left Darjeeling together as we both were heading to Kolkata, she by night train, me by a night bus. It was quite funny, as in the first jeep that passed us in town had the 3 friends of Mischka from the night before sitting in it, also to get back to Sliguri. Ah, how much longer can a theory of luck and coincidence go on unproven if the evidence speaks by recurrent meetings? Magnetism of energy, by culture or whatnot... it leaves a lot of blanks. They made the jeep stop and we got in so we had a quick ride down to Siliguri and retracing the same beautiful way down the mountains and layers of forests and finally driving in between the peppery scented tea fields. *snifffff, mmmmh*.
As someone from our pack said, "now we're really back in India" and indeed, once we got out of the jeep, a whole wave of hassling washed over us by rickshaw men, hawkers and any shape of transportation men. Nothing that we weren't used to.

I waited to take a night bus to Kolkata....

*still no photo's because the upload speed in Orissa isn't up to scratch*

Le voyage de Béliveau, c'est du douze annees beau!

The ride from Kathmandu to Kakarbitta.
A long haul from the too early morning to the early evening. Frisky cold in the morning from the draft out every crevice of the bus door and windows, and steaming hot later on with the sun pressing and teasing my body. Such is the fun of 15 hours in a bus with not enough space for your legs and other discomforts. Though luxury of suffering and pleasure at the same time, because the changing views repaid the hassle of sitting with painfully sleepy limbs. Passing through mountain area's into the lower and more tropical valleys, next to rivers with gorges and overhung rock formations, even some stretches of jungles and over a big river.

Scene from my bus window while passing one of these gorgeous river stretches. A young family stands next to the river, mother, father and a pack of loose children. Father is in the middle of the river, pulling a fishing net and slowly wading through the water and hauling his likely catch. Mother is busy washing clothes and dishes all the same but unexpectedly gets splattered with water by one of her little giggling girls. She jumps up and runs after the girl with a smiling grin, scattering and singing some playful shrieks that makes all the kids join in the fun of running along the shore. Pure and immediate happiness. It looks so simple in this momentarily glimpse, by the sincerity of the movements, the laughter and the sheer harmony that surrounds it. And these are people who basically do not have much, perhaps no electricity. Depending on what they catch and make themselves for food and living on nature's resources in a most simple way. In strictly materialistic and financial terms, it is plain poverty at the same time. But then it hits you that free happiness in such a way can not be bought or earned through any of those means, as we might incline to think from our own accumulated western mindset, with our own values and expectancies sculptured from an early age on to what we think they should amount or lead to, out of misleading habit and sometimes false aptitude. The road high above on which I am nearly seems to symbolize my position in to theirs below. My road signifies the west; man made, fast-paced for moving, striving to modern standards and less personal. Their spot below is natural, down at the source and in touch with intimate environment and family members. One of these different levels costs more that the other and is created out of different motives. On such moments, one's thoughts can find itself in a locked grip between these parallels of different cultures and their attached social paradigms, trying to calculate equal comparisons. There's never a clear answer at hand, nor a solution provides itself either. Just some new puzzle pieces to fumble with, to replace older ones that are already outlaid. Better get playing and make the most balanced picture with the colors that you have. Bus rides with near heatstrokes do inspire me to a lot of philo-faux-sophical mumbo jumbo, for what and to whom it's worth.....

Somewhere in the afternoon we stopped at a little pastry shack, for chia and sweet bites. Suddenly the Nepali's around me pointed to a nearby hiker. 'kya dekho usko gora!!?' they uttered and all looked straight at me, awaiting my sure reaction. There came a-walking a white foreigner, pushing a 3-wheeled cart in front of him that looked like one of those modern baby buggy. What, why and how? I went up the hiker and he greeted me jovially. He introduced himself as Jean Béliveau, from Montreal, Canada, and told me in a cheerful tone that he had been walking around the world since 2000! wow.

Jean started off back home in Montreal and went straight down into the America's; north, middle and south. All. From Sao Paolo, Brazil, he took a boat to South Africa and from there he walked all along Eastern Africa up to Egypt and into Northern Africa from where he entered Southern Europe. From Europe on he continued eastwards and through Turkey briefly entered the Middle East into Iran, UAE and entering the Indian subcontinent at Gujarat by boat. And so up he went into Nepal, did the half length of the country and I found him now walking near the border.
These walks up to now took 8 years of constant walking and he's still going strong!
4 more years of walking to do, which will take the rest of Asia, Oceania and back into Canada on the west coast. Wow, such a trip done & ahead! Just imagine the experiences Jean has had in every country, overwhelming to say the least. It makes one longing for more travels than just those lasting 6 months or a year.....

The noble goal of this 12 year long walk is not out of Jean's mere self-enjoyment but in fact to walk allover the world in promotion of "Peace and non-violence to the profit of the children of the world", a proclamation of the United Nations that was set for the first decade of this millennium. Jean is living and walking the dream of this positive manifest.
His walk is not sponsored in any corporate way, but with his own and family's funds. In ways of food and accommodation he often gets local help, but he can always use any help offered along the way. Check out his website and keep track of him. Help him if he's around your neighbourhood or even give him some emotional or financial support through the web! www.wwwalk.org
Keep walking Jean, best of luck and enjoy!.

Here some pics of Jean etc.

the worldly wanderluster on the road

his cart companion

Seb et Jean

Bizarre poster of nerdness. show or product? who knows...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Kathmandu, the cat's scribbles are due

My temporary homestead of Freak street, as the Jhochen Tole street is affectionately called by locals since the 1960's when backpacking hippies flooded the area. Freak street is kinda dead these days, dead & empty of the freak and hippie vibe that it once had.
There now hangs a spirit in the air that contains a whiff of ironic nostalgia in the body of cliche clothing shops for young western travellers following the footpath of the 60's. But beside that there are at least some good cheap local eating spots.
It's not that the place gives bad vibrations, on the contrary. The quietness and peace is true bliss! Much better than the congested Thamel area, the main tourist hood of Kathmandu, where the generalisation of everything western and touristminded really touches nerves beyond irritation through loud bumping music, heckling shopkeepers, tigerbalm hawkers and whatnot. Hence I was happy to be on Jochen Thole, just like other western folks who chose the same pick.

Durbar square, the famous square with about a double dozen wooden-roofed brick temples in different sizes.
Scene. Tour-touted tourists on the side of a nearby square gather around, watch. Photocamera's around their necks, white sneakers and gucci sunglasses. I see a bearded baba in an orange robe screaming out loud against this flock. Did he not receive but but one coin from them or does he experience the apocalypse in his own mind? Poor fella. The tourists step away from him, as if he doesn't exist nor wanting to acknowledge his persona of shouting bravery.

On one of the first days I rented a good mountainbike with suspension to go into the Nagarjun forest. So I did. 16 km's uphill to the top on a dirt road with loose stones. I guess I just like the pain of cycling up to mountain tops. It gets me into this bizarre trancelike state that feels like a thumping meditation while all kinda thoughts cross my mind and I go over them one by one. I reached the top, aching and thirsty as hell. There stood a Tibetan stupa, a place for buddhist pilgrimage. A lot of Tibetan monks and families were gathered next to it, eating self-made food that they had brought in big pans. They saw me in my exhausted state and laughed at me. They kindly offered me food and tea and all the while, especially the sweet elderly, laughed at me and it made me grin too. Laughing at me was a thing they liked doing and afterwards a western buddhist told me that Tibetan people always laugh when they find something sincerely interesting. Riding a bike up to the stupa and being white was a combination of interest apparently :)
On the way down the mountain, I rushed with vivid speed. Cutting corners, shrieking brakes and jumps, adrenaline extravaganza wow! I saw a wild deer who jumped off the road and into the bushes and from high up peeked at me untill it dashed away. I also saw 2 pair of wild lemurs (those sort of monkey styled cats) clutching around a tree.
Back before it was dark, back into the smoggy nastiness of Kathmandu traffic and I was happy to have bought a mouthcap as you do need it, unless you revel in choking on fumes. In the evening, the sisters from Tasmania also arrived in the same hotel as we half had agreed upon back in Pokhara before the Chitwan trip. It's fun to be around people you know better, even just for a little while. For that reason it was also no coincidence that the sisters bumped into some friends that they met in India months before. And so a little group of freak streeters was formed.

Next day I cycled to Patan, a more medieval and quieter city attached to Kathmandu which also has a Durbar square with a whole bunch of temples. Nice place. There were big crowds of local youths hanging around the well, as they were eyeing the young females who were all in line for collecting water for the family home. It was the day before Holi and the young males were bombaring the females with waterbags. Quite a scene, some females took it for granted, some did chase a single male and beated him if they could. Revengeful girl power in effect. At some point when a military police officer got hit wet and the fun was abruptly over as they chased all the youths away. The women were safe again to collect water without becoming immersed in it.

Holi, 21st of March. The day that everyone warns you about; westeners do it with a sense of suspicion and fear whereas the locals speak about it in a gleefully and joyous way. As said in last post, we, the freak street tourists, had prepared and bought an abundant amount of powder and plastic bags to counterstrike in a joyfull manner and so happened. After I left the internet shop in Thamel, I cycled back to the hotel and from the first moment was bombared from all angles with colored water, hilarious! I stopped at some group of teens and got paint smeared allover my face and shirt. It was better get over your western neatness and give into the experience than getting frustrated by it like many tourists did. What gives. There were some real annoyances for the western women though, as many local teens took advantage in the paint smearing on the street by groping their bodies on unwished spots and feeling them up. Not so fun. Some of our female friends threw some righteous punches back at them, whack.
Back in Freak street I went to the hotel rooftop where everyone had gathered from various other hotels and we started our Holi celebrations upon the locals, young, elderly and anyone within range. We did more our best to aim at tourists, especially the clean ones and on the moment that an elderly tour group walked by with umbrella's, well, they had to run for cover. From their safe spot they looked at us with disbelief and you could hear them say "it are white folks!" as if they only expected locals. Some of them probably damned us for being such crazy colorful hippies spoiling their day, while others could see the fun of it and gave us thumbs up. At the end of the afternoon, the colour war came to an end, more from lack of bags, water or powder
Introducing Holi in the west for all, that would be fun for a change. The colours and the general craziness make it a pretty bizarre and splashing day, so next time join your local hindu's back home hah!

The other days in Kathmandu. All in all I was there for 9 days and the days went fast and I did several other day trips.
The day after Holi, I went to the huge Pashupatinath Temple complex, the famous Hindu temple of Kathmandu and they were still celebrating Holi there, but in a mild manner. I sat down for a while with elderly musicians who played temple music with a Holi theme and recorded their songs. They gave me donuts and chai as a blessing and got another rice thika smeared on me.
Then up to Bodhnath, Boudha or either one of the many names it gets called. My luck was that I got lost to find the stupa and instead heard music coming from a buddhist temple. When I entered, it was completely packed with buddhist monks, lama's, guru's and pilgrims, even up to outside! An elderly bald female monk who must have been in her 70's, gave me a pillow and with a nod she asked me to sit next to her. Suddenly the monks in the prayer chairs started chanting their mantra's, clinging their brass bells and the air became filled with a fuzzy vibrations. Then, the hornblowers with their long trumpets in all corners blew their high tones while several big drum of about 1,5 meters were hit with thick sticks. An echo travelled throughout the whole room and its high ceiling, bouncing down from above and back from the walls, such sensation! I felt goosebumps allover and quickly got my recorder ready and so I stayed for more than hour, recording bits and pieces from the whole ceremony. The monks served yak butter tea and little biscuits to everyone and also dropped a spoonfull of liquid of alcoholic nature in the palm of your hand, which you had to lick up. Bittersweet alcohol that tasted like african honeywine. As soon as the ceremony ended, The elderly monkesse had been viewing my recording device with interest and I made her listen to just-captured sounds, which sparked her eyes and made her laugh. I said goodbye to her and she gave me a big hug. Outside I sat down, still reeling from the sensation of sound of the powerfull air vibrations. One of the important guru's came up to me and gave me a slap on the back with a hearthy laugh. He was a short and heavy fella, roundbellied indeed as a cliched buddha. "Are you a saddhu?" he asked me in Hindi and ended it with a loud laugh, pointing to my long loose hair and my shiva shirt. Had a talk with for a little while while he played with some little kids, touching them up in ticklish manners and they hung over him as a playhouse.
I did find the stupa in the centre of town and walked around it, clockwise. Ate at a little Tibetan canteen in a backalley away from the westernised cafe's, getting smilingly stared at by the Tibetans.

On another day I took a southern route away from Kathamndu, to again drive over some hills, mountains and past gorges. It was the road to Pharping, another place in the Kathmandu Valley where many Buddhist monasteries and temples are, as well high numbers of Tibetans. It was a 14 km ride to it and 10 of it was uphill, which was tough on the legs again but way better than the stone track of Nagarjun. At least on the way down it would be a quick ride. The scereny down on the valley and into the gorges were brilliant. I saw some of the temples near and in Pharping, went into some grotto where a lama had once sat for 10 years, ate momo's, let a kid drive my bike (as they all want to). The usual ;) On the way down I halfway stopped to take a picture. A girl stood in the doorway of her house and signalled me to come to her. Normally I'm easier to kindly wave back and drive on, but I stept off and walked down to the house. She introduced herself as Krishna, 22 years old and wanted to talk a bit in English. She told me that she once had met Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea who were walking along this trail and directly she showed me a picture as proof. Indeed, there she stood so, as a small and young Nepalese woman amidst tall western women. I talked with her about the battle Clinton and Obama are having right now in the pre-elections, telling her of my own preference for Obama. She told me that she had been an orphan before being taken in by her foster family and it was a subject that straight went to her emotions as her eyes became shining from the tears that she withheld. She also spoke about her study to earn a Phd degree and that her college costs had all been funded by an elderly Dutch man and his wife. The man had died last year of cancer, with his wife now fallen ill too. How good intentions can backfire on people in unexpected and such unfair ways, one can't explain.
It was getting near dusk and I had to go back to Kathmandu before it would get too dark. We exchanged email and adresses to stay in touch as friends, for Krishankali to improve her English and hoping to find a way to study in Holland.

9 days came to an end and I was about to take an early morning bus at 4.30 to Kakarbitta, the easternmost bordercrossing into India, to go to Darjeeling.
On the last night we went out and ended up in a pillow-seated restaurant where there was a folk-fusion night. Good music. I must admit that although Thamel is a shit place otherwise, a few cafe's like OR2k and Full Moon played good music and had a good relaxed athmosphere compared to all other tourist places where only coverbands played western rock and reggae, or just plain bad eurohouse. I quickly became late and at 3.30am, I hastily was back in the hotel, packed my bag and to the bus station without any sleep. Sleep I saved for the bus ride, as it would become a 16 hour ride.

Quick overview of Nepal.
The Nepali's do like to idle themselves by saying that they are better than the Indians, since they speak in despising tongues about their southern neighbours. After all the chaos and hassle of India, Nepal does feel more relaxed and 'westernised'. That is perhaps the keyword that lulls mosts tourists into believing the Nepali hype, which sometimes is more seen through pink glasses rather than through their own eyes. Western women always speak easily about the hassle and over-attention they receive throughout India, though most of the foreign females I was with in Nepal were just as well hassled by the local Nepali's on various occasions, meaning those traveling without male company. Some even got more hassle in a few weeks Nepal than months in India! Holi was ofcourse the day par excellence that weasely men could run sleazy and up-touching amok on foreign women, which made it less pleasurable for them to be on the streets celebrating, than say, the local women. All in all, as much as Nepali's want to idle themselves, they are just like Indians but with different traits. The most kind people were always the Tibetan people or the mountain folks like the Gurungs and other Tibetan-Burmese ethnic groups, as they were more reserved and sincere in their approach so that you quickly felt comfortable in their company.

The elections are approaching fast too, on the 8th of April there will be the all important government elections and it seems to be a very open race because people are not happy with the current elected government that overthrew the royal family. I haven't looked into all the different parties, but I know there's a party that carries a green banner of a tree (I reckon they're not a Green party like we know it back home), then the Sun party, who has banners with a red striped sun on it (see pics in the Palpa post) and then there's the Communist party with the famous red sickle, which are the Maoists. To me, it seems that the Maoists actually might win it as any building where low-class workers live/work/gather are covered with Maoist flags. Flags that you see striding in the air more than of any other political party.
On the other hand, a lot of people see the Maoists as terrorists since they do still carry out little fights in remote places whereas in the big cities and important area's the cease-fire is respected. The rebels and the politicians however are not one and the same group but do have links with each other. I guess it's best to explain it in terms of the IRA and Sin Fein in the North Ireland.
Should the Maoists win, it will be interesting to see what would happen/change in Nepal on a social and economical level. In regards to tourism, there won't be a severe change as Nepal thrives on tourism and any political party will not want to waste this segment of the economy.
When I was in Patan the day before I left, I stopped at a gathering of Maoists sympathizers, who were getting ready for a normal election march like I've seen any of the political parties doing (either by foot or by car/jeep/bus). I was received with a smile and talked with several people who just wanted a more socialist government, equal pay and better working conditions and pension schemes (as only retired Gorkha soldiers or government workers get a pension). One guy gave me his cap of the Patan communists. 'to keep *sun* away' he said, as a great pun aimed at the Sun party, haha. One election souvenir for the road.

Ah the Nepali folk pop music, how I will miss it. I really have taken a liking to it, especially the modern folk stuff that is Lok Geet and Tis Geet. These newer and mostly classic folk songs are produced through sampling and electronic engineering though they still keep the sound as original as they can, with the effects nor the vocoder having taken control like in a lot of the over-done Hindi and Arabian folk pop. It's bouncy uneven pace and the up-and-down vocals form a good partnership where you can cleary hear the Asian influences being melanged with the Hindi vocal style. The Nepali 'riddim sound' gives a very urban and folkloric feel at the same time, more than any other Asian music style has ever sounded to me. Before I had already compared the faster Lok Geet to certain reggae riddims and a paced, bizarre form of dubstep. I think that a Nepali variation on ragga or dubstep could work really well, if someone's up to it to create it into a unique blend.....

On the cassettes industry, the sleeves are designed with a humble form of tackiness compared to the symbolic designs of Pakistan and the overly colourful ones of India (especially Rajasthan). It's a tackiness that looks quite plain and simple and that perhaps can mislead you on the style of the music if you're not a local.
Photo portraits of the vocalists, a photoshopped background drop with a mountain on it and somewhere a folk scene or a kid in the corner.
The small beauty of the designs of these sleeves is that they put pictures of buses on it, clearly marking it to be designated for bus play and proud of it. 1-0 to the Nepali truck/busdriver musicians for keeping it more real!

-more Nepali music to be uploaded later-

Big hug to the sisters, Krishankali, Ri, Aretha, Aki, Roxanne and all the other fine folks from UK, South Africa, France, Canada, Australia, Mexico etc. etc. during those 9 days...

-more photo's to be uploaded later-

Holi, just at morning time. We were still relatively clean then

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Up and down Annapurna and Chitwan's elephant water massage

A funny thing about the overly courteous Nepalese. Every time I reply them the recurrent *which country from?* question with the answer 'Belgium', they all seem to know Belgium and where it is situated and so on. Remarkable! Or actually not so remarkable at all, because Belgium has the largest Nepalese immigrant population in the west ever since they started receiving a lot political refugees in the 1990's. Especially students currently make up a lot of these numbers and Belgian universities welcome Nepali students by the load. That's what the people here tell me. Good news, Belgium is finally known for something social and positive which is not related to food, drink or painting. I'm happy for the Nepalese, who otherwise have a real hard time getting into the west. I do hope their gained knowledge will be brought back to Nepal, to better conditions here.

Ah yes, the 5 day trek to Annapurna sanctuary, the large mountain region above Pokhara stretching out towards the Tibetan border (perhaps better say 'Chinese border' before they put me down). In the morning we got my permit done and off we were to Nayapul, the starting point. It was just me and Hem, my guide who is born in a village in the Annapurna's. We had customized the trek and made a mix of the 2 famous treks, the Ghandruk - Ghorapani loop and the Jomsom trail, to take a slight diversion so that we could also visit a special hot spring which not many trekkers get to see.
I only took the minimum for 5 days; a small backpack with just a few clothes and my duck down sleeping bag. No need for a porter that many other trekkers would have, to have them carry all their stuff. Stuff which they probably wouldn't even use and had better left behind in their hotel, like me and most younger trekkers had done. Easy goes best, light is even better.
From Nayapul on, there would be no road anymore on our track. Just footpaths that were shared withy mules, the only different transportation system to human porters on the trail to all the villages high up or low down in cut-off valleys. Their bells always tolled a beautiful hymn of broken melodies, rhytmically out of tune, yet so in place on those moments. Echoing from the hills and through the forests. Given my allergy to all horse-like animals (it's a weird one, I know) I wasn't too thrilled to walk behind them, but their cling-clanging pace made more than up for it. 'But was it music?' to quote Henry Miller. Why, gorge-ous!

We walked up along the river, where kids were fishing. With hammers. Seriously. They hit upon the big rocks in the shallow river because the small fish that they were after always seem to hide under rocks. Death through vibration and pressure, food for the table. The mountains slowly started rising, but as this was just the first day we wouldn't see the high peaks for now, smaller mountains still concealing them.
We arrived in Hille end of the afternoon, a little village full of lodges for the trekkers -as every village is filled with-. The mule express overpassed us again, for them their working day surely wasn't over yet. Hot shower, relaxation and waiting for dinner while watching some emotional Korean movie. I met fellow-trekkers there. 3 friendly young folks from the Jersey island in the UK and a Norwegian son and his 74year old mother. Except from the hardship-shaped elderly locals, the Norwegian lady must have been the oldest person I met doing this trek.

2nd day. After an early breakfast we left towards Ghorapani, which promised a be a steep 6 hour walk. It was, especially the first bit. The day before I had met Martin, a kind German man who was giving trekkers a course in film shooting with as less equipment as possible. A creative thing to combine on such a nice trek. He comes to Nepal every year for several months and knows the Annapurna circuit and its villages by heart. He pointed to a nearby slope above a string of houses and told me in an affected tone that last year, there had been a landslide that divulged several houses and killed 17 people. Landslides are a common phenomenon here and we would encounter much more of their traces in the next days. Up on the way near a little village called Tikedungha, we passed a Nepali church that held a service. Vocal music of praise was oozing out of the doorway, kids playing around, making scattering noises. I went inside, not to pray or anything but just to hear and see as I found the sound quite intriguing, very un-western, they sung in Nepali which gave it a special shine. Here a song:

Tikedungha church members - Song of praise
We arrived in Ghorapani quicker than we thought, as our pace was very swift and we constantly overtook trekkers. Sure I knew the pain was gonna come later, ah what did I care. I loved the climbing up, heavy as it was, but it got me into a nice trance of near walking meditation, walking slowly over all my thoughts while focusing on natural surroundings at the same time. In Ghorapani it was cold and foggy as we now were at 2500 meter altitude. Tibetan people hawked their wares on the street and they liked getting into ironic arguments with trekkers about buying their crafts. If you're trekking, the last thing you want to do is to by a solid metal singing bowl or anything else heavy or useless to you. Unless you have porters perhaps. In the lodge we met 2 funny German-Australian sisters from the woods of Tasmania, Elia and Johanna. I nicknamed them the pagan sisters, natureloving and spiritual as they were.
They had been trekking for nearly 10 days without guide, just on their own which was no problem at all as the trekking trails are quit easy to follow. We had a long evening at the fireplace, talking about all things spiritual, natural and creative.

Day 3, early morning wake up call at 5.30am. To see the famous sunrise at Poon Hill, a 3200 meters high peak from where all of the Annapurna mountains could be seen. It was pretty cold and we packed ourselves into layers, wrapped in fleece, wool, gore-tex or whatnot. The sisters also joined us. Walking uphill for 40 minutes does make you warm quickly. But yeah, what is the Poon Hill vibe? In the nutty dialogue that me and Elia made up on the spot, this was Poon Hill:

"Welcome to the Gore-tex festival, the Poon Hill 2008 edition. Yes people, there will be live shows on the left, right, under and above by Korean, German, Canadian and Australian clickety-clackers, snapshot speakers and zany zoomers. They all use special hand instruments and throw poses on this natural stage set under the early morning sky. You are obliged to pose originally. And no, not with the aid of alcohol to loosen yourselves up, but only chia and water will be on offer, at a high cost. As are cakes, crackers or cookies of any sort. Pay up or remain thirsty and hungry at your own sake. The sunlight shall be shared with everyone, like the views and the fresh morning air. The watch tower is for those who care for the VIP treatment. It's not backstage but the abovestage for those higher beings. But alas, everyone is a VIP here! Devil may care, climb up that ladder at your own whim and see for yourself, look beyond the whitest of snow, into that golden trickle of light shining from it!"

Thus ended our Poon Hill stay and we descended down for a much needed breakfast.

The rest of the day was a nice up and down walk through foggy forests, beautifully filled with trees of all sort and we touched upon many packs of blooming Rhododendron trees. We arrived in Tadapani and it seemed as the crossroads for most treks and many people were crowding the lodges. In the evening we were visited by the Gurung mother group, the females of the local Gurung community who have Tibetan roots. They played their traditional songs in a sort of vocal choir, accompanied by a dholak drum. It all were short songs and the local people (and Nepali guides, porters and sherpa's) did traditional Nepali dancing, which looked a bit like Indonesian gamelan dances with a hint of India in it. Ofcourse, the tourists couldn't escape either so me and the sisters got pulled up dancing while others were reluctant to give it a try. Here a song:

Gurung mother group - Gurung folk song

The next day, with limbs starting to ache, we had to do a lot of inconsistent climbs up and down to Jhinu Danda, the special hot spring place. it actually was one of the nicest walks of all days, as we went through even more beautiful forests, covered with moss, ferns and flowers, the smell of fresh earth into our nostrills. Also we passed many little settlements and farms where people were working their fields by hand or by buffalo. The sun shined brightly upon us and we could see all the forested ridges clear and green while we still had the Annapurna mountains in our hindsight. Such air and view. It's too hard to describe it with the right words as that would take up another post, so I'll leave that for your imagination. Just let the photo's put the words in your head. We arrived in Jhinu in the late afternoon and lazied about as we were all tired, the sisters surely even more as they had been walking so long already and were quite fed up of mountains in their sincere honesty. Around 9pm, we went down to the hot spring, about a 20 minute walk. It was pitch dark and through a narrow stone path down into the forest, which was amazing. We heard the river getting louder and it was flowing at a rapid pace. The hot springs were just next to the river, in a cut-out and rock-layered pool of 4 by 6 meters, made by locals. Wow, they were so cosily warm, as if it was nature massaging your limbs and body. We had brought candles for light and it only added more to the special atmosphere. Many shadows flickered on the rocks while the sky above us was filled with stars, so many! We just felt lucky to experience this unspoilt place, especially at the time of the darkened day. The walk up, well, that was a bit harder again after this softening experience. Exhausting we went to bed.zzzzz.

On the 5th day, my camera went *crack* and refused to open and focus again. Like an early eternal sleep, the little cheapskate. The walk down to Nayapul, to get the bus back to Pokhara, was again beautiful just like the day before. This day we passed more little villages and farmer dwellings, more and more beautifully cultivated fields. It was a long but easy walk, as the trail mostly went down. Though I have found out that I rather like walking up than downhill since my muscle pains all came from the irregular downhill walks. Those really kill you more if anything. Back on the road, civilisation and shops. It felt so weird for a little moment to be back out of the wild, as in the days that you are walking, you feel much more in touch with your natural surroundings, the sounds and the crisp clean air. Except for the stunning views that they offered, the villages all were quite bare, except for Jhinu Danda that was more placed in a natural spot. These little villages solely serve as trekking stops instead of beautiful spots, filled with lodges as they are, but it offers the locals a way of income, an income that they otherwise never could earn if it were not for the trekking trails. On the 1,5 hour ride back, all for of us, me, Hem and the sisters, sat on the roof. Such beautiful views again, turning away from the Annapurna's. We did had to stay low and dodge the electricity cables, as they flashed near overhead.

Back in Pokhara, me and the sisters just relaxed. Had a 1,5 hour massage of acupressure and ayurvedic matters. Plush luxury indeed, but I felt revived. In the swell Peace Eye hotel we had some good nights with cheese and red wine (such combination, first time in months!). The sisters bumped into friends that they had met in India and they joined us in the evenings. Raul from Spain, a funny fella like a true storyteller, did a lot of his tricky magician tricks. Hello to Giorgios from Greece too! Travel well etc. I packed all my shit together and decided to move for Chitwan national park on my own, as the sisters were unable to move out of their relaxtion mode yet.

In a packed bus, on a tourist package. That, because the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Chitwan wild reserve was on such a deal. On the too well paved tourist trail indeed. The oh so kind hotel manager of Peace Eye had arranged a too cheap deal to refuse, much cheaper than any of the commission hunting agencies offered.
After a 6,5 hour ride we suddenly were in the tropical bush, away from the mountains. We got picked up by jeep and delivered at our lodging like a packet. There I met an irish couple, Tony and Emma, and a Dutch couple, Ed and his wie (whose name I forgot, sorry!) and with them I would do most of the excursions. The excursions, as corny as they may have sounded to me, I did enjoy them a lot.
In the afternoon we walked around a Tharu village. The Tharu people are believed to have moved all the way from Rajasthan to the tropical Nepalian forests in medieval times, when the mughuls were slayering tribes at will. Their name springs from the Thar desert perhaps? We went to the elephant breeding centre and saw several elephants relaxing. With chains, which make them look sad. In the evening, I met some other tourists in the lodge from Japan and the UK, who invited me for an evening tour to the edge of the jungle. We walked in darkness as the power had been vut off and from far we could already hear the cacaphony of mostly birds and insects. We just sat there silent for half an hour, listening and peeking into the bushy darkness across the river. The next day we had a canoe ride. They didn't let us peddle so I felt a bit useless and once again the typical tourist. We saw crocodiles (gharials and muggers) and many birds, like kingfishers, ducks, maraboe's and storks. The walk into the jungle was promised to be something special. Though we walked a good hour or more in the dense vegetation, we saw only some birds and insects. Only footprints or droppings of the wilder animals like the sloth bear, tiger and rhinoceros. When we came back to the river, they were washing the elephants. That was really why I wanted to go to Chitwan, to swim with the elephants and wash them! I was the only one of my tourist pack who went into the water, and no sooner I found myself looking an elephant in the face upclose and being hosted up into the air by it, woah! I got a tarzan style elephant snout shower while I sat on it's back. The elephant sometimes rolled over and I fell softly into the water, laughing from the sensation. Like a kid, again and again. After my own bath and play, I helped the mahout driver to clean the elephant and he gave me a porous stone. The elephant skin is thick and crusty so only a stone can wash him good. The elephant lay on his side, enjoying the rub and stoned massage. You could hear her groan out of satisfaction, bizarre. In the afternoon we would have the elephant jungle ride, riding in a wooden seat atop the animal, which I didn't know what to expect of. The beginning was boring, but as soon we went into the jungle, it was great to be so high up, getting branches and bush slapped into your face. We soon saw rhinoceros, a mother and her baby. We also encountered 3 different types of wild deer and all these wild animals weren't afraid of us. Because they couldn't see or smell us, sitting high on the elephant and that was the whole trick with having elephant jungle rides and getting so close -right next!- to wild animals. In the evening there was a Tharu cultural programme planned for all the tourists of the different lodges. It was an ok performance, except for the chattering noise most tourists made, ones who perhaps didn't care for the Tharu music or culture but came anyway. The dances and music were very similar to the Indian tribal stick dances of Gujarat and Haryana, places were Rajasthani tribes also have settled in the last few hundred years, if that's not a clear link enough. Also hello to the fellow Belgian person from Antwerp (Essen) that I met, I'm so bad with names sometimes, so forgetful.

That was the end of 3 days and 2 nights in Chitwan. It was long enough for me and I was itching to get to the Kathmandu valley. We entered the city in its most vile and smoggiest form. wow, after all the natural quality of Annapurna and Chitwan, it did feel awkward.

I turned my camera into repair in Kathmandu, to see if first help can reanimate him. Breathe oh little one, breathe!
-and guess what, they fixed it; gone is then asthma and its bad cough, yay-

Today (friday) is Holi, the special Hindu day for coloring one another by throwing powder or colored water on each other. I've already been waterbagged a few times in the last days as a warm-up. But today, me and friends can throw back as we have bought powder and plastic bags. We're prepared, mwhahaha ;)
Ok, time to sign off and run through the water barricades that are happening right in front the internet shop. Many tourists covered in colours have stepped into here looking bewildered. Better be prepared, I'm on my way to get and throw some colours, yeah! :)

More on these savage wet celebrations and Kathmandu's surroundings in the next post.

just photo's of the 4 days trekking....

awareness poster

staring point Nayapul

kitchen at our first stop

where no roads can go....the mule express always delivers. Chickin' on the move!

fishing with the hammer

some views....

local folks

...with baby asleep on the back

gentle german Martin in shooting pose

Nepali church at Thikedungha

first sigh of the red Rhododendron, Nepal's national symbol

elderly woman, breaking for a smoke.

stupa at Ghorapani

the Machhapuchhare just at the first of dawn

view of the Annapurna I

'hereby I declare the Poon Hill gore tex festival 2008, opened!'

the crowd goes mental...

our pose

sisterly hug

a view for the fun of it...(this guy told me I already was the 5th person who asked to photograph him. such copycats we all are!)

been here, done nothing

must admit, the Koreans did the best posing poses!

the forests and its trees