Category Archives: Travel

Kutch: The Wild West of India

I made it to Bhuj in one piece. The bus trip wasn’t so bad: I slept. It was the ten hour train ride to go 250km that took my steam away. I’ve just come back to Bhuj after a week of hitching rides around this restricted border area (with a permit). I’ve walked too many miles down deserted desert roads praying to god that something would drive by to offer me hope of a ride. Motor bikes and buses and jeeps and coal trucks have all picked me up and taken me so far — sometimes depositing me at border intelligence to have my documentation scrutinized. Nikiforuk, it seems, is a Muslim name; I’m sure Indian intelligence is having a closer look at them as well as every other person who’s business card I happened to have on me (sorry y’all).

For lodging I have found Gurudwaras and Dharmassalas most hospitable; sleeping on thin mats laid out on concrete floors, stuffing much needed blankets in the holes of the walls to keep out the rats, and waiting for cows to be milked so I could be served chai. Walking down one particularly deserted road I came across a goat-herder with a great smile who offered me chai and then quickly rounded up his herd for grazing. The boy with him went off to milk a few goats while we collected a few scraps of wood to make a fire in a dry creek bed. He made chai for me while we made small talk as best we could (no one speaks English in these parts) and then I set off back down the road. I walked about 15km that day before I finally got a ride, that bit of chai was my only lunch.

And for two days I had a guide, a self appointed 78 year old Rajput man who sang and danced ever chance he got. He would yell at passing tractors to turn up their music which was already blaring, dance as they passed and then curse them when the music went out of reach. He cost me a small fortune (about 12 dollars) and I’ve cursed him a few times, but the friendship and the colour that he lent to the trip was invaluable.

There’s more, so much more I could say, but for now I have to go. In a few days I should be standing in front of the oldest sign-board that the world knows about (about 5000 years old). No one knows what it says, but why should that be important. Soon after, I’ll be going through caves with paintings that are over 12000 years old. But first I’m going to relax for a few days at the beach.

Kathmandu via Bihar: 2008

Patna, the capital city of the poorest and most dangerous state in India, is also the least hospitable. Last night I walked around for hours with my pack trying to find a place to stay. Most of the hotels clerks said said, “Full. No room.” Many others were more honest and said, “Sorry, no foreigners.” I tried taking a rickshaw at one point, but he spoke no English and just took me where he wanted rather than where I wanted. Another man came up to me on the street and asked, “What country?” I told him “Canada” and he replied, “Patna very dangerous for foreigners. Be very careful. Very, very much so.” And then he went away. Many security guards were kind to me and called for me to follow them to their hotels, often down dark alleys, but inevitably, the clerk would turn me away.

I did eventually find one hospitable place. A restaurant named Khazana e Tandoor (for those of you who don’t know, I used to manage a restaurant named Khazana). Although none of the serving staff spoke english, they were delighted with my ability to communicate in Hindi when I’m in a restaurant. They were very surprised when they tried to further the conversation only to lose me completely. The food was the best I’ve had in India, and everything they brought me was exactly what I expected, which doesn’t happen often. But then I walked out and the door man grumbled something to me in Hindi that I’m sure was not a nicety. I’ll be so happy to get back on the bus and finish my journey to Nepal.

After a refreshing stroll through Patna, we caught the overnight bus to the Nepal border. My seat refused to stay declined; instead what I had was a spring loaded seat that threatened to eject me at every bump which is what the road was made of: bumps and pot-holes. Buy the time I got to Nepal 10 hours later, I wasn’t sure if I got any sleep or not. I might have dozed a time or two, but sleep…..

At the border I was illegally charged Rs100 to have my passport stamped, but shared a good-time chai with my extortionist. My rickshaw driver also took advantage of my dream state by demanding Rs120 for a Rs40 trip. I gave him Rs90 and told him to beat it. On the Nepalese side, I was refused entry to the washroom, but appealed to what good nature the guard did have to get my travel partner (my wife for the brief span of this conversation) into the facilities. He wasn’t happy about it, but finally relented. I, on the other hand, found someone to guide me though someones home and into their back….. yard (of sorts) where where I was told I could “psht” (with a pinky finger arc) on their wall. Unfortunately, with the whole family looking on, I was unable to preform beyond a few drops.

The trip from the border to Katmandu was terrifying. The driver was fearless, the SUV was full beyond capacity, and the co-pilot rode on the roof. The scenery, thankfully, was breath-taking. About halfway here, I realized: “I’m in the Himalaya mountains. Holy shit, I’m actually in the Himalaya mountains.” The terraces and paths I was admiring have been there for thousands of years. This civilization I was driving past had been in place for thousands of years. This was so much bigger of a moment than India ever was. This is the fucking Himalaya mountains.

Nepal: First Impression 2008

Nepal is a beautiful country. Terraced hills and grass huts. Peasant farmers and shop keepers, almost everyone in colourful local dress. Goats and chickens everywhere, the odd cow snacking on garbage. The bus drivers think nothing of the cliffs dropping down beside us. The people riding on the roof, hardly seem to notice the goats that are bouncing off them every time the bus hits a bump. With the sound of the horn, everyone politely shuffles over and buses and cars and motorbikes and people and sleeping dogs all seem to squeeze by on these impossibly narrow roads. A man gets pick-pocketed and everyone gathers around to hear his story and tell there own similar ones. Then they depart, without a word, as though they hadn’t just that very moment been having a conversation. Another woman, waiting for the bus to take her two children to a village that is two or three days walking after the bus drops them off eight hours after receiving her kiss goodbye. This mother is looking for someone taking the same bus who can show the children the way to the village. Sacks of rice are being taken up the back of a bus by head. One man puts the sack on his head and he balances it up the ladder to the next guy who takes it off and stacks it on the roof. It makes for good seats for all those passengers who will be riding up there.

It’s the cripples who go around walking on their stumps and elbows (or stumps and stumps) who strike me as living in impossible circumstances. And the snotty dirty children who watch me go by with no hope in their eyes, wondering what my life must be like and being unable to imagine such riches as even I have. There are also the desperate mothers with their babies in their arm waving the bottle around saying, “Milk for baby! Milk for baby?” But mostly there are just men women and children who want desperately to survive who wander every street putting their hand to their mouth saying, “Khana, khana” (food, food). There is more of this than you can imagine. People are everywhere hungry in a land where people really do try to help the hungry. I see the help everywhere, from local people, foreign tourists, aid charities. Everyone seems to be trying to easy the suffering of the poor, but the poor are still poor. Children have no parents, wives have no husbands, low caste people simply no chance.

Bodhgaya: Crossing the River

I just spent ten days silently learning the philosophy of Buddha. Over the years, I’ve read many suttras, stories, and texts which explain the path to enlightenment, but sitting in a gompa listening to a nun tell me how to put Buddha’s teachings into practice was a like listening to a whole new story. It was a Tibetan monastery, so the teaching focused on compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom. Practices and exercises abound in how to cultivate a mind that can spontaneously exude these principles. The Venerable American nun who gave the lessons has been working for many years to translate the many stories of Buddha’s life that are written in Sanskrit. Stories of beautiful prostitutes who left their work to follow the Buddha and subsequently went on to excel in meditation and inspire bandits to give their loot in offering. Other women who lost their entire families one by one in separate incidents in the same day, only to find solace in the wisdom of Buddha.

But this is only one tradition of Buddhism. I’ve always been more attracted to the other tradition that ignores the stories and suttras that are written in Sanskrit. Theravada Buddhism looks only to the teachings of Buddha; those which are passed down in Pali. Theravada Buddhism also doesn’t focus so much on compassion for others as it does on cultivating ones own mind; on learning to be full present at every moment. Perhaps it’s my western sense of individualism that leads me down this path, but personally, I believe that if happiness comes from within, if suffering can only be brought to an end by expelling the attachments that I form in my own mind, then it’s only by focusing on m own mind that I will find enlightenment.

And just as a brief aside. Wouldn’t becoming a Buddhist only add to ones attachments. Buddha did teach that though his philosophy could act as a raft to get one across the river of suffering, it’s still necessary to abandon the raft and tread ones own path once the river has been crossed.

Varanasi: First Impression 2008

I just spent five days inhaling the smoke from the fires of dead people. Less than 100 paces from where I was staying is the burning ghat along the Ganges river. Over three hundred people a day are turned to ash there. I saw as many as 12 fires going at once. I rented a boat for an hour and the boatman explained that babies, pregnant women, and holy men are never burnt, their bodies are tied to a rock and they’re dumped in the river. It’s not uncommon for then to break free of their rock and find their way back to shore where, as I soon found out, the dogs and the birds have a feast until the next morning when a dalit (an untouchable) comes along and dumps them back in the middle of the river. The alleyways of the old city that hug the ghats which hug the river are narrow and filled with market stalls, cows, goats, many people, and processions of chanting funeral goers with bodies on their shoulders.

Varanasi is the holiest city in India. It’s also most likely the drug capital of India. Everything is available here: opium, hashish, and bhang (pot) are the most popular, though I was told that the man I nearly punched-out was most likely high on heroin.

Varanasi is like a resort town. Tourists everywhere, merchants happily trying to sell their wares, and helpful english speaking locals everywhere to ensure us tourists don’t get too lost in the alleyways of the old city. You can lie under an unbrella and get an aruvedic massage for Rs400, sit on the steps and enjoy a “special lassi” (keeping in mind that I said it was the drug capital), or just stroll around enjoying the many mini-festivals and the beautiful, unpretentious women.

Varanasi was indeed a lovely resort town of death.