Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nationalism Gone Wild

My North Indian tour has brought me from the home of the Sikhs to the land of the Hindus and I was able to catch a glimpse of Pakistan along the way. I was reluctant to leave the Golden Temple, with its friendly people and free food, but the road (or railway) beckons.

I was able to meet and get to know many Indians during my time in Amritsar thanks to the Golden Temple being a hassle-free zone, and one man, Paran, made a particular impression on me. After he finished with the usual round of "questioning the foreigner", I turned the table and interrogated him. After a little prying I learned that he was unemployed, has lived in Amritsar his entire life, and eats at the Temple every day because he has no money for food. I asked him where he learned to speak English, since it is usually a sign of high caste or education, and he told me that he graduated from a university with a computing degree, but it is very difficult to find work right now. He was obviously embarrassed by his financial position, but he brightened up when he said that he was planning to become a tour guide, using his English to show foreigners around the city. As he stood up to leave, I realized that 1) he was not a scam artist 2) he needed help and money 3) I needed a guide to get to the Pakistani border. So I made a proposition; I would pay him 150 Rupees ($3) to accompany me to the border with Pakistan as my guide. Most tourists hire a taxi to take them to the border and then back to Amritsar, which costs 600 Rupees. The public bus system in rural India is very cheap, only 50 Rupees to the border and back, but it is not easy for a foreigner to navigate because the signs are in Punjabi and Hindi and the drivers don't speak English. So my guide would be make more than the average day's wage in one afternoon and I would save some cash and get to see more of the Indian country-side.

This raises a legitimate and pertinent question; why was I so intent on getting to the Pakistani border? I have no interest in visiting Pakistan at this time, and I can't since I don't have a visa. So why go to the border only to turn around and go back? To join the border closing ceremony/party/nationalistic pep-rally, of course. The border crossing near Amritsar is the only open point between the two giant nations of India and Pakistan, who have perennially bad relations and a disputed border in Kashmir. Each evening both nations put on a big nationalistic show to crowds of people on each side as they ceremonially close the border. There are bleachers, food vendors, speakers blaring Hindi pop music, and even a charismatic MC to rally the crowd. All in all it is one of the most bizarre gatherings I have ever seen. Luckily I had my guide, Paran, to translate and explain some of the happenings, but such things defy a rational explanation. Maybe my photos will illustrate the scene better, but they are distant and vague. I have some videos that I will try to post, if I can figure out how.

It was fascinating to see the crowds of cheering spectators shouting "Long Live India!" while another large crowd on the other side of the fence yelled "Long Live Pakistan!". The border guards had an elaborate succession of marches, which amounted to a hyper-masculine display of nationalism and power. Finally, the flags were lowered, the gate was closed, and the crowd dispersed. Weird, but an interesting insight into how these two countries, which were originally one under the British, now deal with each other. I also was able to help out Paran, who was more enthusiastic than ever about become a tour guide, but I know he helped me out more because I would have probably ended up stranded in some remote village had he not been there to lead the way.

Now I am in Rishikesh; a Hindu holy city on the Ganges river in the foothills of the Himalayas where cows, white hippies with dreadlocks, wild monkeys, and Hindu swamis roam the streets. This is the place where the Beatles came to study meditation and yoga with the Maharishi in the '60s and now it is the "yoga capital of the world".

The setting is beautiful; the Ganges is clear and fast flowing between the lush green mountains. Also the air is relatively free of India's ubiquitous pollution and the streets are more pedestrian friendly. I can't say I'm smitten with the place, it wreaks too much of "spiritual commercialism". By this I mean a lot of rich kids and retirees come here to pay people to "enlighten" them, or they at least buy enough cool Indian clothes and trinkets to convince their friends back home that they have become enlightened. Regardless, it is a nice place to hang out and relax for a few days. Today I had a nice hike to a waterfall with many encounters with curious monkeys. I'm sure I would enjoy this place much more if I were staying in one of the many ashrams or taking a yoga course, but I must keep moving.

I am leaving tomorrow for Haridware and then Jaipur where I will join a ten day meditation retreat. Afterwards I will visit Varanasi, which is one of Hinduisms holiest cities. But in the meantime, I will try to avoid terrorists and their deadly antics.

Friday, November 28, 2008

All's Well in Rishikesh!

Just a really quick post to relieve those who are worried by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai - I'm fine! It is true that terrorists attacked a number of luxury hotels and restaurants in Mumbai reportedly were looking for Brits and Americans. Fortunately, I am not in Mumbai and definetly not in any luxury hotels or restaurants! Unfortunately, many innocent people, mostly Indian citizens lost their lives, and India's reputation as a safe tourist destination has been tarnished.

That is all, just a note to let everyone know that I'm OK.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Seeking the Sikhs

I made it out of the madness that is Delhi in one piece without getting ripped off - in fact I feel guilty after every transaction because things are so incredibly cheap. An all-you-can-eat traditional Thali (dal, curried veggies, flatbread, and rice) costs 25 rupees -- that is exactly 50 cents! Add a steaming cup of chai and your looking at a bill that could top 60 cents, which means it is nearly impossible to go broke here, even if you are overcharged, it amounts to a few nickels. I was obviously thrilled by how affordable everything was in Delhi, but that hardly compares with the deal I am enjoying in Amritsar.
I took an overnight bus (bad idea, cold, cramped and dirty) from Delhi to Amritsar two nights ago in order to escape the congested city. I couldn't have chosen a better antidote to Delhi's crowds and aggressive salesmen; Amritsar's Golden Temple is a haven of calm. The temple, which is the center of the Sikh religion, could not be more welcoming. Peace and serenity radiate from the temple, despite the fact that thousands visit this holy place each day. Not only is it a beacon of calm, it is also stunningly beautiful. The "Golden" Temple gets its name from a small building in the center of the complex which is plated in 1500 pounds of gold. Usually this kind of ostentatious display of wealth by organized religion repels me, but the Sikhs balance this with incredible generosity. I will stay at the Golden Temple for three nights with absolutely no expectation of payment of any sort. Not only do they provide free lodging, but they have a 24 hour community kitchen that serves delicious all-you-can-eat Indian meals to over 20,000 people each day! It sounds too good to be true, but trust me, it is both very good and true.
After a few days of Delhi, I became very nervous when approached by Indians because I assumed they were out to get money somehow, which is usually the case in Delhi. The first person who approached me in the Golden Temple startled me and I began to politely walk away, until I realized that he wasn't selling anything and he didn't want anything from me except some friendly conversation. He was genuinely interested in why an American was in Amritsar and he was happy to tell me about his religion and its history. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was desperately in need of a guide because I know very little about the Sikh religion and even less about the rituals that take place in the Golden Temple. He walked me through the central ritual in the temple, which involves entering the Golden building in the center and offering food to the men who are reading from the holy book. Not only did he make sure I didn't make any offensive mistakes, but he explained the significance of it all. It was so refreshing to finally meet an Indian who I could talk to as a friend out of the context of a business transaction!
After just a few hours in Amritsar my curiosity about Sikhism bloomed. It is a fascinating religion which is relatively new by Indian standards (about 400 years old). The founder of the religion, Guru Sahib, sought combine elements of the two dominant religions of India; Hinduism and Islam. He also wanted to end the injustice of the caste system in India, which has traditionally labeled millions of Indians as "untouchable". The community kitchen is a fixture of every Sikh temple because it demonstrates two cardinal precepts of the faith; generosity and equality. Men, women, rich, poor, Hindu, Muslim, Christian - all are welcome to join in the communal meals and everyone sits side by side on the floor. This may not seem like a dramatic concept, but traditionally people belonging to the upper caste (Brahmans) do not even touch, much less eat in the company of those of lower castes. Sikhs also do away with the gender segregation that is so common in Islam. In this way it is a very egalitarian and progressive religion. I feel very welcome and at home in the temple, so I'm thankful my Thanksgiving dinner will be a plate of simple Indian food enjoyed on the floor with thousands of Indians of every creed and caste.

The Golden Temple has not always been such a peaceful place. The Punjab Province, where Amritsar is located and Sikhism was born, experienced a great deal of unrest in the 1980s. Sikhs were unhappy with the government of Indira Gandhi and wanted to form an independent nation, Khalistan, from the Punjabi speaking provinces of India and Pakistan. Rebel groups formed and armed themselves, eventually taking refuge in the Golden Temple in 1983 demanding the independence of Punjab Province. Mrs. Gandhi (no relation to THE Gandhi) who was politically and religiously Hindu, decided to use a strong-arm military tactic instead of negotiation. On June 5th, 1984 she ordered the Indian army to storm the temple to evict and kill the militants. The results were disastrous. After two days of heavy fighting much of the temple was destroyed and thousands of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed. This resulted in Sikhs protesting around the world and further unrest in Punjab Province. Sikhs have a very bloody history full of political persecution and it is actually a requirement that all Sikhs carry a special sword, "Kirpan" at all times as a reminder of their duty to defend their faith against injustice. They had their revenge on October 31, 1984 when Indira Gandhi was shot by two of her Sikh body guards. This led to anti-Sikh riots throughout India, and relations between Hindus and Sikhs are still tense, despite years of rapprochement. In India religion and politics are taken much more seriously than in America; they are often a matter of life and death.

So there is your daily dose of religious history. If you think that you will never actually run into a Sikh, you are almost certainly wrong; there are over a million Sikhs in North America, all of whom can be recognized by their special turban which covers their uncut hair. I will leave the Sikh homeland in two days on an overnight train to Rishikesh, which is a Hindu holy city that is popular with backpackers. I have photos of a few photos of Delhi and some decent photos of the Golden Temple now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Safe and Sane Thanks to Bahrain

I think that I have finally arrived in Delhi, but it feels more like I have woken up in a cartoon; a world full of vivid colors, bizarre characters, layers and layers of ridiculous sound effects, and constant unceasing motion in every direction. Not to mention the smells; exotic spices, urine, baking bread, burning trash, perfumes, and body odor (most likely my own) fill the air. All in all it is a little overwhelming after three nights of little or no sleep on trains, airport chairs, and planes.

The trek began when I said some heartfelt goodbyes at Yakabagh house and headed off to Istanbul on an overnight bus. Being ever-conscious of my ever-depleting budget, I bypassed Istanbul and took the bus company's free shuttle to the airport. Supplied with a jar of Nutela and a loaf of bread, I waited out until my 4 a.m. flight to Bahrain (a tiny island in the Middle East for those of you, like me, who had no idea). This turned into a 6:30 flight, but they mercifully served a nice breakfast, and the best was yet to come. I was fully prepared for 14 hours of reading and munching on junk-food in the Bahrain airport during my layover, but after disembarking, the passengers were directed to a customer service counter at which we were issued hotel and meal vouchers! Every budget backpacker's dream! As if in a dream, I was transported to a four star hotel in the Kingdom of Bahrain with a full-out-all-you-can-eat international lunch buffet waiting for me! Hummus, grilled vegies, Morrocan rice and lamb, Tandoori chicken, Polynesian beef, Thai shrimp curry, and a whole table of deserts! I ate until walking became strenuous, and standing up straight was impossible. After a luxurious shower and a glorious nap, I went down for Round 2, which was pretty uninspired because my digestive system was still trying to deal with the pounds of spices, meat, and flavors that bombarded it only a few hours before. I was then taken back to the airport where my flight was boarding and where another meal was promptly served. This whole post may be heavy with food references, but when you have a budget of about $5 a day, free meals are a big deal, and two free all-you-can-eat meals in one day is a miracle that needs to be communicated to the world.

I was a little nervous for my arrival in Delhi because I had been reading my Lonely Planet guidebook (I finally broke my own "no guide book" rule because India is just too big and confusing) about how the taxi drivers at the airport are some of the best scammers in the world. Sure enough, they tried every scam in the book. Literally. First he tried to charge me double the going rate. No problem, I was expecting that one. I just held my ground, walked away as if I was going to another driver, and he caved in to my price. That was the easy part. When we were in the car he immediately asked me if it was my first time in India, sizing me up for the next scam, just as the LP guide said. I answered with a non-chalent "no, of course not", but the driver didn't seem impressed. He then asked if I had called to confirm my room, which I hadn't. I told him not to worry about it because I had an email confirmation. Still, he insisted on calling to check on my room because it is the tourist season and many hotels are over-booked and he doesn't want me to be stranded without a room. Of course it is just my well-being that he has in mind, right? Not even close. The scam is that he calls a different number, some friend, and he says the hotel gave away the room. Then he can take me to another hotel from which he will get a nice commission for bringing in a hapless tourist. I was well aware of this one too, so I refused to let him call. He took that in stride and said that he had to stop at a "tourist information center" because the address I provided was "no good", which was obviously B.S. because I had the exact address as well as two landmarks that it was near. Of course at the "information center" there was a sketchy guy who insisted that my hotel did not exist and that there is a much better on just down the street . . . that is when I had to raise my voice and actually get angry. All of a sudden we were back in the car and two minutes later I was at the door to my hotel! Amazing how that works. Of course the hotel also tried to scam me by telling me that all the economy rooms were full and that I would have to take a deluxe room, by this point I was already jaded and demanded the same room I had reserved, and Viola! I had my economy room. I guess I'm glad I'm getting my India Ripoff's 101 course out of the way early, but I'm sure it will become exhausting eventually.

I'll be spending my first two days in India taking things very slowly. I slept for six hours before finally venturing out into the urban jungle to find an internet cafe and write this post. Next; more napping. I have six months in the country and I'm in no hurry to get the inevitable "Delhi Belly" that plagues travelers who are plopped into a whole new universe of germs and bacteria while their immune systems are worn and vulnerable. So I'm taking things slowly, I have lots of time to explore the city.

I'll have pictures as soon as I suck up my pride and put on my tourist uniform. Until then, I have my Yakabagh photos up on Picasa.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Calm Before the Storm

The last week and a half has been blissfully simple, perfectly balanced, constantly stimulating, and almost too healthy. Morning call to prayer at sunrise from the local mosque (about 20 feet from where I sleep), Yoga at 6, breakfast at 6:30, olive picking until lunch, then crushing and pressing the olives for oil before a authentic Turkish dinner. Our group is now in a rhythm (physically, mentally, and socially) but the end of the workcamp is drawing near. Yakabagh House is more than a place, it is a state of mind.

I apologize if the above paragraph sounds a little flaky and/or corny, but this place and my time here are difficult to describe in prose. The house is surrounded by citrus trees that are yielding fresh oranges, pomelos, and mandarins, I spend my nights sleeping in a treehouse under the stars, and the olive grove is perched on a hill overlooking the Xanthos valley and the ancient Lycian city of Pinara. That is just the setting, the work itself is stimulating and satisfying. Olive picking is obviously monotonous, but climbing trees on warm Mediterranean mornings is not so bad. The group is also involved in the actual oil production, in which we use custom machines to extract the oil from the olives and to process olives into food. I've learned a lot, including that raw olives taste TERRIBLE and that green and black olives are not different varieties- green olives are just young black olives.
The people I've come to know here are also very special. It is a very international group as I mentioned before, but what makes the situation even more unique is that the couple which runs the farm are also intercultural. Sinan is a native Turk, but his wife, Isabel, is Cuban and speaks only Spanish and Turkish. At any given meal there are five languages spoken - Turkish, English, Spanish, French, and German. This makes me painfully aware of how mono-lingual I am, something which I am determined to change in the coming years. Although I've learned little to no Turkish, I have learned more Spanish in the past few days than in all my Spanish classes combined. A casual environment, encouraging teacher, and proper motivation are infinitely more conducive to learning a language than a classroom setting. I really didn't expect to come away from Turkey with more Spanish, but I like these kinds of unexpected twists.

So despite a fall from a tree which left me with a swollen knee, and the rain today which has kept us indoors, my time here has been better than I expected. All of the fresh fruit and vegetables have been the perfect antidote to the loads of white flour and cheese that I consumed in Georgia, so my body is beginning to regain its former shape. It is hard to believe that one week from now I will enter the madness of the Indian sub-continent where a whole new phase of my journey will begin. But, for now, I will try to be more mindful of the present and enjoy each moment as it happens . . .

Sorry I have no photos, but I can't upload them on this computer, so here are a few from the Yakabagh website. I'll post again and add pictures when I pass through Istanbul in about a week on the way to the airport.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Just Another Tourist

As much as I despise looking like the stereotypical tourist, I have spent the last three days carrying around the tourist trifecta; camera, bottle of water, and map. Istanbul has been getting tourists for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so needless to say the locals are used to being gawked at, photographed and asked stupid questions in foreign languages. Luckily I was in good company; I was joined by six other young people from around the world (America, France, Holland, Korea, Switzerland, and Japan) who will also be traveling to the coast to harvest olives. We also had a local tourguide who was able to answer most of our questions and prevented us from getting helplessly lost in the maze of streets that wind around Byzantium.

We spent the first day just wandering around and getting a feel for the city. The weather has been absolutely perfect for autumn; warm sunny days and cool nights. The tourist season is over, so the streets are relatively empty compared to the spring and summer months, but Istanbul attracts visitors year-round. The second day was spent touring the Aya Sofia Cathedral/Mosque/Museum - a long and complicated history, but a seriously amazing building. We also visited the Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, and Blue Mosque, which was the first mosque that I have ever entered. The Blue Mosque was simply decorated and very peaceful, despite there being more tourists than worshipers.

Yesterday we all went for a cruise up the Bosphorus Straight, the body of water which connects the Black Sea to the Mediteranean, and divides the European and Asian sides of the city. After a long hike uphill to an old castle we relaxed and laid in the sun before having a picnic on the boatride back to the city. I enjoyed being out of the city because Istanbul is not the best place for a backpacker on a tight budget. Turkey as a whole is quite cheap, but prices in Istanbul are comparable to prices in some Eurpean cities. I shouldn't complain because a cheap meal of a Doner Kebab and drink can be had for less than three dollars, but a meal at a nicer restaurant is closer to ten dollars. I guess I've just been spoiled by free meals at Temi and the very cheap food in Eastern Turkey.

Tonight I take a 12 hours bus ride from Istanbul to Fethiye to begin picking olives. The weather should be nice and warm and the beach is only a short distance from where we are staying, so again I am narrowly escaping winter's arrival. I hope to post again soon with pictures of the olive farm, but I have no idea about internet access at the site. But here are my touristy pics of Istanbul.