Monday, February 25, 2008

Western India round-up in a loophole circle

It's been nearly a full month since our last post here, so beware the lenght beneath. This trip, like a sort of lapsed hiatus within our trip, was as if we needed an extra holiday within a holiday. hah indeed.
It has fully refreshed us though and was perfect for closing the projects.
Well.. closed, that will take a bit longer with the editing ahead back home.

We did get some extra last things done for the Rajasthan project, especially in Rajasthan in Jaisalmer and Pushkar. Recordings that we couldn't do back in November but now were able to do so. Even when travelling in a different mood and quickened rhythm, together with close people this time. Perhaps that was just the most positive part of this ending, to share our experiences and giving our swiftly arrived travellers a seriously good view into our past few months. Ey, at least we haven't been lazy... not too lazy. ;)

At the freshest start of February, our girls Jet and Ness arrived at Delhi airport and it was to be the start of a 23 day trip along the western part of India. We had kinda set upon a blueprint schedule where we would see the desert, sea, lakes and mountains. From west to south-western to north-western surroundings, spawning about 1500 kilometers from up to down. And we managed to do it all, right till the last day! By crikey, after having taken so many long distance buses and some trains we might as well have spent almost a week in transportation if you add up all the hours on the road. All worth it though, as daytime views from our windows were always rewarding, peeking into roadside life, scenery and passenger affairs on board.

We started in Jaisalmer, where we arrived after a 18 hour ride. Again we settled in the Hillview hotel of the modest Kirta and found ourselves back in the local gypsy area of the Lohar blacksmiths and the musicians, among the goats sitting or lying everywhere on the street. We finally recorded the Kamaycha musician who was sick last time we were here and the setting at the temple lake was just perfect to film. The Kamaycha is a horesehair stringed violin of 3 thick snares that resonates through several thinner metal snares behind the main ones and is like a rounder Sarangi with a darker sound. Kinda like a small desert cello. We did the typical touristic thing by having a camel safari, but we did it in good ecotouristic fashion with local people from desert villages through the help of our kind hotel manager Kirta. Only one night though, but it still was great since we stayed of the main camel routes of all the other tourist treks and got better taken care of. We had heard previous stories from other people, how their camel safari was boring, overpriced and had bad food. But none of this on our trek as we indeed had gotten a special deal with good and earnest people. During the day we sat on the camels, us bobbing up and down with its walking rhythm and listening to the many squeezy animal farts while we passed high dunes. The quietness in the valley and the dunes was impressive. Hardly any sound at all, it was as if everything natural was muffled, silenced like a play-dead organism.
We spent the night around a campfire talking and staring into the fire and looking at the far away and closer stars. So many, we could see nearly all constellations and patterns that you otherwise can not see in city spheres. It was so intensely dark, no artificial lights or anything except for the sparse jeeps of motorbikes passing on the distant road down below the valley.
We tasted a bit of local desert millet brew brought by our funny guides, which tasted like a soft poteen whiskey spirit. . At some point a bit of manical dancing around the campfire by the hand of the elastic legged guide who had quite some to drink. Fun fun. We slept in the desert that night. It was cold, but not as bad as people are led to believe. In the early morning me and Ness woke up to see the sunrise on the chilly dunes. The sun slowly crawling up to reheat the sand once more, continuing the neverending cycle. We had already seen a lot of antilope deers running around the previous day and during the morning we saw many grey desert foxes (fenixes) who didn't really seem scared of us, looking from a safe distance.
Back in Jaisalmer, we met Mohan Lal and his family again where we got some freshmade lassi yoghurt drink, straight from their cow hours before. We wanted to record Mohan with his cousins this time, as they have a band where they play various instruments. Their sound is way different from any Rajasthani folk that we have encountered, so we coined it the *Lohar* style. The central instrument in this group was the tambura, a long 4 metal stringed lute that is played in a repetitive manner, strumming a melody near like a Northern African desert guitar. The sound was accompanied by chanting vocals, clinging kartals, a dholak and an earthwork jug that was thrown into the air while being blowed in (which created a seriously sweet deep and subtle echo!). 60 minutes of pure trancedental Lohar folk with holy lyrics and the longer it went on, the more hypnotic the atmosphere in the room became. Wow.
It was time to leave Jaisalmer after 5 days, how quick time goes. A quick stop in Jodhpur and then down to Gujarat, the coastal state in the midwest of India. Gujarat is a non tourist place for reasons unknown as there is so much to discover and enjoy. A bit of a link to Holland, as Gujarat is the place from where most ancestors of Surinam's hindu people come from. The people were like a true mix of Rajasthani's and Maharastrans (the state of Bombay), since it is situated beween those states. They sometimes had the folkloric dress and looks of nomads or either the open faces of more southern people. There also were quite a lot of people from African descent who most likely have been brought over by Portugese slavetraders in colonial times, one can only guess to where those roots lead in Africa. Perhaps from Angola or Mozambique? We went to Junagadh and the island Diu. In Junagadh we also visited the old Uperkot fort that dates from 300 BC, built during the Mauryan rule and controlled in the era of the Ashoka kingdom (India's first national kingdom in ancient times).
The fort had a big waterbasin behind it that looked out onto the Girnar mountain, of which locals say it looks like Vishnu's face (well faintly, but better on the postcards in a sort of photoshopped version hah). After Junagadh we took various slow rides to Diu. Just 150 km's away, it took us about 8 hours to finally arrive on the island, to give you an idea of the slow pace in local buses and waiting time.
Diu is cut off from the Indian/Gujarati continent by a narrow water passage and straight away it felt like not being in India anymore. The atmosphere was more relaxed than elsewhere in Gujarat and the place had a sleepytown feel to it like an eternal siesta time. We had a hotel just a minute walking from the sea, the Arabian sea! Quite a peacefull sea with no wild waves and open water ahead. The coast was very rocky with darkish grey and sometimes sharp formations. Many shards of old pottery lay in the shallow water pools in which also crabs and small green shrimps lived. We hired motorpeds and spent the next days exploring the island, which was about 15 km's long. The best was a morning trip to Vanakbara, a small fishing town on the other side of the island. The ride to the village through the lush and slightly hilly roads with palm and green vegetation was quite amazing. Many children and townfolks waving to us in the fresh sunlight, various tropical birds shrieking from the trees. In Vanakbara we saw the harbour and visted to fishing market where only women were selling fish (quite unusual in India). Such choice of fish too! Fish we never had seen before, big and small ones. They also sold various types an sizes of shark, ray, tuna, squid and swordfish and we bought some unknown fish pieces to cook up later at the beach with massala and in the oven (which was very tasty by the way). Walking through the harbour, we also encountered many fishmongers cutting up fish. Big ones, like 1,5m sharks, a huge rayshark and fat tuna's. We asked where they sell the fish and most of it was to be sent to the richer cities of Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi and not as international export. Except for the shark's finns. Those were put apart for the London restuarant market. Indian people don't really eat finns anyway, one monger said. After having relaxed in Diu, enjoying the sea an eating a lot of freshly made ice cream (like anywhere in Gujarat where it is very well made, with special tastes of figs, dates, flowers, guava, nuts and so on), it was time to go up north again, back into Rajasthan. We visited Udaipur and by pure coincidence it was valentine's day, urgh. Udaipur is tagged as India's most romantic city so there were lots of couples around. But we escaped the mushy valentine feel as we didn't care about it, thank goodness the girls neither.
Next day we left for Pushkar, the holy town where me and Maarten lived for 1 month. We were about to be guides, if we wanted it or not but it was fun as we already knew in the in and outs. When we arrived we bumped into the Bhopa gypsies in town as expected and they told us that the eldest son of our teacher Rampal was going to marry the next day. When they called Rampal (cos although they are indeed poor, they do have mobile phones hah) we were straight invited to the wedding! Such a luck, such chance, ofcourse we couldn't let this pass, especially as it was Rampal's family which we have gotten to know the best during our project time. The ceremony and party would be at seperate locations outside Pushkar, more in the desert so we rented motorcycles to get around. We first went up to the tent camp of the bride's family several km's further tucked between the dusty mountains. Both families joining in to start the traditional ceremony and as it was a low caste wedding, there was very little around of what you otherwise would encounter at an Indian wedding. The lack of richness made it only more special and sincere. During the built up, the women of the girl's family started heavily weeping and the bride even louder. The to-be husband stood there alone in the middle, waiting for it all to happen with shiny sunglasses and a sullen, downward look. An elderly woman, the grandmother of the bride, said some rites while the bride and groom stood together. All the men of both families started throwing purple paint on each other's white nomad kurta's. The purple purely signified happiness, not blood. The women started wailing and singing sort of goodbye songs while the bride wept. The girl would go on to live 10 km's further with Rampal's family and perhaps never come back to stay with her family. The family of the bride stayed in their camp and did not travel to Rampal's village where the party of his family would start. Whether the girl's family was allowed to join the party at one of the other days then, as a Bhopa wedding lasts 5 days, we don't know nor ask. Maybe it's tradition that the other family can not come. In the village and inbetween the many small goats of Rampal's household, we sat down and listened to the talking and the acoustic music played on the ravannatha and dholak. They played songs that we didn't hear before as they were reserved for this special occasion and Rampal even asked us to record it in sound and visuals, for us to use in the project and especially as a souvenir for his family. As dusk was setting in, we had to go back to Pushkar and said goodbye to Rampal and Sita for perhaps a long time. Next day we took a night bus to Agra. Yup the Taj Mahal. Cliche indeed, but it was on our way up north to the mountains so it even proved a handy stop. Arriving at cold dawn, we already made sure to secure a train ticket for a midday train to Delhi so that we would not get stuck in Agra. Up to Taj Mahal in the early morning mist, we walked on the empty path to the gate with no people or tourists in sight. Streets still empty from hustlers, such a bliss. Monkeys all around, who were being fed dry bread by local caretakers. At the gate they demanded a hefty fee of 750rps foreigner entry fee, which is like 12 euro. Perhaps not that much money for us, but if you're a while in India you start to see the real value of such money into an Indian context. We opted not to pay and people told us that at the back of Taj Mahal it was for free. The river Yamuna flows behind it and we could get on a small 100 rupee boat which dropped us on small patches of land in the middle of the river. Lo and behold, we had a full view of Taj Mahal!, the back that is. The sun on our faces and the solitude of our river spot at our disposal for the next 30 minutes, wow! We took the typical posing pics, also of the reflection in the water, making the Taj look like a double fold poster. Plus pics of the garbage on the riverside, the other not so nice side of Taj Mahal that tourist probably never see. Back on the shore, we posed with the many military guards, who are there to counter terrorist threats. We wanted to take pics with us holding their rifles with the Taj Mahal looming behind us in a faux-pas style, but alas, permission refused haha. I did get a photo with me wearing their helmet ;)
We spent several hours in the Kinari bazar of inner city Agra, the bustling muslim merchant area in a maze of alleys where Ness and Jet found various paper design thingies and allsorts for their creative concepts. Train at the station delayed as usual so we arrived in Delhi quite later and took a night train to Chandigarh, capital of Punjab. The city is famous for being India's only planned city out of need for a new capital after the 1947 partition, when former capital Lahore suddenly belonged to Pakistan. It was designed by American urban planners Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki and carried out by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, also with the help of the English architect couple Drew and Fry. A city amazing for anyone who has a serious interest in modern and minimal architecture. We were more curious about the design than seriously dedicated to archtecture. We entered the outskirts at night so didn't see much, but the next morning we ventured into the blocks, named as *sectors*. It looked quite bizarre, like a mix of American grid style building with long wide avenues and cubic housing estates which looked very like the new concrete estates in Holland. We first went to the Nek Chand rock garden. Neck Chand was a local who devoted nearly 50 years of his life to living in this spacious garden and building an ornamental garden with the use of riverbed rocks, garbage and recycled building materials. The result is a super special garden that balances between a natural setting and open air art. Man made water cascades, rocky towers, passageways and planted greenery alongside human and animal statues. See our pics when they're uploaded to get a good impression. In the garden cafeteria we met Narinder Singh, a quircky local Sikh man of old age clutching his briefcase and talking to us in a funny jib. He was a guide, but not one that you would normally encounter as he could take us to many special places. Untill his retirement in 1994, he had been a vivid secretary at the Punjab ministry of finance. Because according to him the city lacks any human guides for backpackers, he voluntarily declared himself a non-profit guide and thus guides around young foreigners, for his own fun basicly. We let him show us around a bit and he even had the contacts and stringpulling skills to get us into the special high court building, one of those special structures designed by Le Corbusier. Normally you have to get permission downtown and deliver all kinda documents, passpart and photo's, but Narendra arranged it all within an hour. Wow.
So there we walked, inbetween the lawyers and judges with their white slabs hanging from their necks while we saw all the corners and levels of the building. Click click went the camera of the girls, with design on their minds.
In the interesting city museum we learned that a lot of the housing estates were indeed built with the help of the Dutch, so no surprise there with our thoughts earlier that day. The museum was a nice collection of old pre-partition photo's of the city area and showed the whole story of the operation to build the city from scratch, before first having to flatten 30 old villages or so from existence as playground for the new concrete. Also the original letters with president Nehru were exhibited, as well as some letters containing funny complaints and requests of Le Corbusier (about some of the quircks of Indians workers). On photo's the structures and designs of Jeanneret, Drew and Fry were shown and I think all of us prefered the more lush organic style of Jeanneret to the cubic garden movement style of Drew and Fry.
We had just a few days left and decided that we wanted to go further north, into Himachal Pradesh to see the Himalaya. In the evening we tried to arrange a night bus to Dharamsala and with the kind help of Narendra we found out how and what. He finally took us to an old cinema for free, one designed by Fry and Drew, where we saw a bit of a bizarre King Kong movie, seriously B style from the late 70's or early haha. The screenwall was designed very special in a broad and outlining way as if the screen oozed into the room. Really nice, bonus points for Drew and Fry.
We said goodbye to sweet Narendra, who could go home satisfied and surely he would go on to look for new tourists the next day.

Our rocky night bus ride to Dharamsala in half stuffed seats. It was said to be a Deluxe bus. That's also what was written on the outside, so at least they didn't lie :) We did sleep a bit, with intervals, but allmighty!!!! The descending freefall speed of the bus made it a plain hair raising ride, adrenaline thrilling :)
Bend after bend, the driver steered the bus with precision on the narrow mountain roads in the stark dark. I wonder how many lives a cat would lose if driving with us. When the first lights of dawn seeped through the windows we were rewarded with a spectacular first view of the Himalaya range. Jawdropping. At the small bus station we waited a bit and took the bus to McLeod Ganj, the village on the mountain above Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and many Tibetan refugees. It was very busy on the streets and we had problems to get a hotel. We soon found out why, as the Dalai Lama would deliver his yearly speech to buddhist pilgrims in the big monastery. Many western folks too and we even encountered a camera crew from the freethinking Dutch VPRO broadcasting company from a programme Maarten en Jet knew. By pure unavoided coincidence we bumped into Jim from Austin who we had met in Lahore last month and later on also Hiroshi from Osaka who we had met on the bus to Pushkar days before. Travel paths are still very narrow here. Walking around the streets that were filled with Tibetan buddhists in red robes, we felt refreshed in this clear mountain air. We were about 2000 meters up and several snowpeaked mountain surrounded us, surely between 3000 and 5000 meters high. Mountains make humans always feel puny and humble, it's a nice thing for if you want to feel balanced again. Also the Tibetan food was a delcious change to our greasy and spicy Indian diet and we devoured momo's, thukpe and thenthuk noodle soups with pleasure in little places filled with Tibetans. Overly humble and reserved Tibetans as they are, to contrast them with the all too vivid Indians. next say me and Ness got a ride to the Dal lake, which the night before we had turned into a joke; dal as in greasy lentils and India's national dish, "Don't forget to take chappatis to the lake". The lake was small and more for kids peddling on with pedalo boats in the shape of a dragon or swan, but a pine forest lay quietly around it. We had our breakfast there and therefore missed the first morning speech that the Dalai Lama gave. Maarten en Jet did go and see him and even managed to catch a glimpse of him in the crammed monastey. We went to the midday speech but didn't manage to get in as we had to register blahblah, give passport/photo's and so, which we didn't carry on us. Instead we listened a bit to him outside on the courtyard inbetween Tibetan locals and travellers. Westerners listening to him on handheld radio's as he spoke in Tibetan. I bought a variety of Tibetan folk and temple music from streetside stand, enough to still my audiophonic hunger like I had done weeks before in Gujarat. We only stayed one night as we needed to get back to Delhi the day after for Jet and Ness to take their flights back home. Already. Time always passes quick, just too darn quick when you're enjoying it so much. This time around no rocky ride in a *deluxe* bus, but a real luxury tourist bus where we got a sleeper cabine to lay down. A lot of loud honking at night at some point, when we were stuck at some small construction road with trucks blocking the passage. Or us blocking them. Either way, it wasn't a 2 lane way for sure. Back in Delhi we had full day ahead from the morning we arrived till the midnight flight. We went to Inder's house where we had stored some of our project and souvenir stuff to packmule Ness and Jet with, the poor ones. Dinner with Inder in the same good Punjabi restaurant from our meet-ups with Inder before was good and soon after we left for the airport. It was a typcial chaos there and suddenly the looming goodbye was rushed as me and Maarten were not allowed into the departure hall, since only people holding a flight ticket could enter. Pffff. At least we could see from a distance that all went well for Ness and Jet to check in and last waives were exchanged for now....


so what's next up for us, still having 2 months left to travel about......
After having tasted the first Himalayan mountains and soaking up all the good talk about Nepal, we just can't miss it. At the start of our trip we didn't intend to go into Nepal but how quickly things change. We will seperate our ways in a few days and I will go straight up north and spend a month or so in Nepal. Maarten meanwhile will first go southwards to the coastal Karnataka state before going up north again into Nepal and get himself into Tibet to explore the vast mountain plains and unknown village regions.
No Tibet for me alas, as I will turn eastwards back into India and visit Darjeeling's tea region, communist Kolkata (Calcutta) and then down to the eastern coastal jungle state of Orissa and perhaps inland Chattisgarh. Around that time, Maarten will probably be finding his way to Europe by overland travel through Iran and Turkey and who knows where. So many destinations, possibly criscrossing each other's routes and such.

From the moment we split up, we'll both keep the blog alive with our dislocated stories into digital moulds. Some more nomadic sleeping bag adventures for you all to read, as successive stories from different locations that will mix like colors that don't match. But that's just the fun of it all, we think.

Some photo's are uploaded, some more tomorrow, a fine best-of mishmash taken by all of us! Especially Jet has been a busy bee taking what must be thousands o pics with her much better camera, proving her artistic photographic skills.
Oh perhaps you noticed already: my pictures have a certain hazy blur in the centre right since a while now. Bruised and strained lens, that also doesn't like to close anymore with other bizarre side effects. I guess that's what happens if you expose a cheap camera (samsung fyi) to the elements of backpackerism. yup.

click.

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