November 20, 2010
Sorry for the prolonged silence! My last few weeks here have been hectic, and I just got back from a week trekking in the Himalayas. That’s right, the Himalayas (as opposed to the poser Himalayas). I realized while we were hiking that it was more or less my first real trek…and that the other one that might count, on the Appalachian trail, involved my over-solicitous father lacing my boots for me (he was worried they might not be tight enough?), which gives you a sense of how rugged that ended up being.
This time, I laced my own boots and carried our shared backpack half the time (okay, 3/7 the time) because even though there was a porter, we were too American to do anything but awkwardly compromise by only giving him the light sleeping bags (we didn’t want to deprive him of a job) and hauling the rest ourselves.
But I’ll backtrack a moment and throw in some highlights of my time in Darjeeling before we left for the foggy, chilly heights of Sandakphu:
I’ll miss being just a 20 minute walk from this Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the Busty Bhutia Ghompa, where I found a yowling, bloody-eyed kitten that I seriously considered taking home for about an hour.
I will also miss the chance to continue exploring the tradition of Nepali dance in home music circles…which, at least in the celebrations I attended, involved one or two women getting up and improvising to the live music of drums, harmonium, guitar, etc. I joined in and imitated it well enough that people asked if I’d been trained. I suspect that these questions came more from my being a white girl and the dance tradition not being rigorous, to be euphemistic, than from my innate talent.
I also took a ride on the famous toy train, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (specifically, the train and all of its stations). I thought they should have played down the fact that this puts it in a category with the Taj Mahal and the pyramids, since it rather suffers from the comparison, but everyone involved in publicizing the train apparently disagrees with me.
I spent a day picking up trash and weeding at the Shrubbery Nightingale Gardens (yes, that is the word order they have boldly chosen), because I fell in love with them and their upkeep has been neglected due to a lack of funds. And also because I have a guilt complex and my self esteem was starting to go down after so many weeks without anything that could be construed as volunteer work.
And while I continued to enjoy monkey watching, I began to keep my distance after several more incidents (think water bottle grabbing, food stall robbing, etc). They’re not exactly squirrels. More like freakishly cute creatures that later turn into freakishly human-like aggressive animals willing to grunt-growl at you and chase you while you try to remember that you are bigger than them. For instance, this one did not like me walking in his vicinity (photo taken on a different date–I know it’s the same monkey because there are only so many one-eyed monkeys in Darjeeling. I think.):
He doesn’t look so mean in that picture, but he was pretty worked up, and I was able to convince myself he might have been frothing at the mouth. Picture him like one of his friends, maybe:
Anyway, enough about monkeys. I did other things, like finally get over to Nathmull’s for a tea tasting (six varieties), and hang out with a bluegrass band made up of Ghorkas! But the most notable activity was probably the trek to Sandakphu, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level.
The trek lasted a week, and involved everything from cubes of cheese that could be sucked on for fifteen minutes before they would no longer be hard enough to crack a molar to baby goats with bloody umbilical cords still hanging from their bellies. I picked up some of the cleaner kids, and they persisted in believing my hiking pants were edible even after clear evidence that they were not–but then, in Varanasi I saw a goat eating away at a motorcycle tire, so I suppose “edible” in goat terms is something like “edible” in a Himalayan cheese contest.
Our guide was fantastic, a 23 year old Ghorkaland separatist whose heritage is Chinese Bhutia and who wants to come to New York to play blues, jazz, and bluegrass. We passed through small villages, sometimes just a handful of crumbling stone or woven bamboo structures, and found ourselves surrounded by fog much of the time. There was a lake I particularly liked at Kalapohkri:
The decor of some lunch areas and rooms where we stopped was quite interesting. It seemed not uncommon to tack up baggies with feces specimens from local wildlife.
Well, there’s a lot more to say, but this post is already incredibly long…so I’ll leave you with something I encountered on our sixth day, after over an hour of seeing no other people, that I found delightful:
November 1, 2010
Traveling alone is, unsurprisingly, lonely. I am a twenty-four-year old girl who is more often taken for eighteen, and my blonde hair broadcasts a foreign presence to everyone in the vicinity. I have gotten used to strangers taking my picture, or asking to take one with me. I don’t mind doing it unless they start posing me (this has happened on multiple occasions), or if it interferes with my ability to actually see something (I left the flower exhibition in Gangtok early because for every flower I looked at, I ended up mugging for three pictures), or when it’s a guy who puts his arm around me possessively. What on earth will they do with these photos, I wonder; tell everyone this is their American girlfriend? Show their families the shots and say, “hey, look what we saw in West Bengal: red pandas, langur monkeys, and a blonde girl”?
One of my best nights here was when I hung out with two Swedish girls, appropriately named Linn and Lisa, whose hair colors matched mine almost exactly. Sure, people looked at us, but I relaxed knowing that I wasn’t the only focus of their attention; spreading it among the three of us made it easier.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Mexico (Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Sara Azul, etc) and was in Quito for too long one summer. I didn’t blend in, but the sensation was very different. For one thing, I was wearing the same clothes as the other girls, and for another, people would glance at me but then look away. Kids stared now and then, sure, but not adults.
That’s one of the reasons I like Darjeeling: people might look at me, but it’s less intense. They’re used to foreigners, and for whatever reason, this town is crawling with Germans (I’ve also found four other Poles!). You’d think it would also be fairly common to see a blonde girl in Delhi or Varanasi, but people still gaped at me unabashed there. Meeting their eyes–even smiling, frowning, or raising my eyebrows–didn’t turn anyone’s gaze away, didn’t even register in their expressions (that was the most unnerving part).
I experimented: hair up, hair down, Western clothes, chodani kameez, kurta and jeans. It didn’t matter. Once, when I was riding the metro, I sat near a crying baby. The mother, trying to distract him, said, “Look! Look at that girl!” the way one might say, “Look, Timmy, there’s a purple dinosaur!” And it worked: the two-year old saw me and stopped mid-squall to stare. By the time I reached my stop, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get off, his hands were fisted so tightly around my braid.
October 31, 2010
Happy Halloween! I’m missing autumn in the US, but fortunately it’s festival season in India, so I’ve gone to my fair share of celebrations.
Just returned to Darjeeling after a short trip to Kalimpong, the town that used to be the main trading point for Tibet. I fell in love with the smaller town; they make cheese, noodles, and caramel lollipops, and are known for their cacti and orchid nurseries. I met an Israeli fructarian (…yeah) and we explored the hillsides together.
The best part was finding a tiny, second floor room above a hostel that had been converted into a museum of Lepcha culture. The artifacts all come from the personal collection of Sonam Tshering, a renowned Lepcha musician, and he himself was there to show us around (with translation provided by a young man and his granddaughter). He gave us a small impromptu concert, playing five different flutes, birdcalls, a stringed instrument, horns (hollowed ram’s horn and what looked like an alphorn), and singing. It was fantastic. He also demonstrated a crossbow and various other weapons, mostly by pretending to swing whatever it was (spiked club, sword, etc) at my head and laughing.
I also visited two monasteries, climbed to the top of Deolo Hill (I think it should be called Deolo Mountain, but I’m from the Midwest…), visited Dr. Graham’s School for orphans (established by a Scottish missionary in 1900), and learned from my new fructarian friend about how plastic is really much better for the environment than paper, which kills pandas.
All in all, a great trip.
The Fight for Gorkhaland
The separatist movement in the Darjeeling district has existed for over a century. Over the years, the Gorkha (Gurkha is the traditional British spelling) factions interested in either an independent nation-state or a state within India have fought with each other, and have at certain points allied themselves with communists (this may have weakened their petition for independence in 1947).
The Gorkhas are a heterogenous group, united by speaking Nepali and the Raj’s haphazardly drawn borders. While they are immigrants in India (the Lepchas are the actual natives in the area), they argue that this did not prevent other immigrants from being granted Indian states, pointing to Jharkhand and even the Bengals in the state that currently has authority over them, West Bengal. They believe that West Bengal is distant, culturally very different, and serves its own interests rather than the minority interests–though the Gorkha minority is actually the majority here in Darjeeling. They cite issues with road construction, access to water, and political representation, among others.
The separatist movement got pretty violent in the 1980s, and many here remember that time well–citizens got caught between police who suspected them of being Gorkhaland supporters and the Gorkha National Liberation Front suspecting them of being spies for the police. The uprising was led by Subash Ghising and resulted in a hill council being established; though not uncontested, Ghising kept his hold on the area until just three years ago.
With Ghising gone, there was a bigger opportunity for moderate Gorkha separatists to step in–and indeed, a more peaceful leader, Madan Tamang, became very popular. Sadly, Tamang was assassinated just five months ago in public. I walk past the spot frequently; it’s marked by a framed picture of the man with a garland of marigolds draped over it. Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party has stepped into Ghising’s place, more or less, and I’ve heard very little that’s positive about him. For the sake of my father, I’ll keep my mouth shut and leave my criticism of both the West Bengal government and the Gorkha separatist movement for after I return to the states. Suffice to say that the politics of the Darjeeling District are complicated and dark, and it doesn’t sound as though they’ll be looking up anytime soon.
October 25, 2010
This afternoon I started Nepali classes. I have a problem with commitment when it comes to languages; I love to flirt with them, but rarely end up in a long-term relationship. The only exception has been Spanish. Otherwise, I have started a new language almost every year since I was out of high school: Italian, Russian, Polish, Nepali, Hindi. I had a moderately serious relationship with French, and a brief fling with Gaelic.
So it’s a familiar feeling to be back in a classroom getting acquainted with the amorphous shape of a new language, and one that I really enjoy. This time, I can argue that it’s also practical: I intend to volunteer with the community of Lhotshampa refugees being resettled in the US who speak Nepali (originally from Bhutan, they are culturally Nepali and have been living in camps in the Jhapa district for two decades now).
The part of Nepali I find most intriguing at the moment is that there are no clear words for “yes” and “no.” It depends on the context; you can say okay, or assent; you can negate a verb used in a question, or say that something does not exist or is not true, but there is no universal yes or no. I’d love to read theories on what this indicates about Nepali philosophy or culture.
And hey, if I do end up losing interest in Nepali, I’ve already found Tibetan classes I can take–both conversational and classical!
October 20, 2010
Finally accessing the internet from my own computer!
I’ve been very schizo (in the ignorant vernacular use of the word) in my reading choices while in India. After finishing Buddha by Deepak Chopra and a (terrible) translation of the Bhagvad-Gita, I picked up a trashy Regency novel from a hostel shelf; I followed this with Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss (what a fantastic title…and a very good book, but nothing in it surpassed its title. The setting is the next town over from Darjeeling during the 80s, when the Gorkha separatists went on strike and started a violent conflict) and then moved on to the addictive, commercial YA trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which starts with The Hunger Games.
From my varied reading selections I’ve chosen a couple of excerpts to share on this blog–first some interesting bits from Wangyal Sonam’s Footprints in the Himalayas, and then a passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay Consider the Lobster.
I picked up Footprints in the Himalayas on the advice of my Tibetan refugee host, Wangchuck (I lived with him and his wife for my first nine nights in Darjeeling; they just started their guest house five months ago, and it was really more like living with a host family). Though uneven, I enjoyed Wangyal’s essay collection, and here are some of my favorite factoids:
In August 1914, the Gorkha soldiers fighting for the British “were asked to take over the trenches vacated by the men of the Manchester regiment…the trenches were so deep that…instead of pounding the enemy the night was spent filling the trenches to suit the Gorkhas’ short height. Imagine the state of the British when they had to reoccupy the trenches.”
A picture of some young female Gorkha police officers who were at the festival last week:
There are distinct Nepali words for ghosts that call names, white monkey ghosts, headache-causing ghosts, ghosts of women who died in pregancy, etc…
“Till about the early 1950s, cannons placed on hilltops…were fired into the air with the hope of inducing rainfall.”
In David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” I ran across this passage, which resonated with me:
“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather than intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way–hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all…To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for sheer ontology, the very unspoildness you are there to experience. it is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
DFW is talking about domestic travel, but I think many of his points apply to all travel and the inherent contradictions and difficulties. There is a certain cultural broadening I think can happen when you live in foreign countries, and this can go both ways if interactions are handled well…but I think they mostly aren’t. I’ve run into far too many foreigners here who want to commiserate about what they generalize as being Indian culture–beggars, dirtiness, hawkers, etc. Many of them are passing through each city for only two or three days, but they speak with authority on cultural priorities and how “Indians” act. I feel less and less able to speak about anything “Indian” the longer I’m here; there’s such a wide spread of ethnicities, cultural practices, religions, etc…it’s hard to know what to say when a German yoga teacher tells me that “beggars here are okay if you don’t give them something, because their spirituality–their approach to life–is that maybe they weren’t meant to get something today, maybe they’re meant to tomorrow, and then tomorrow is when they’ll be more persistent” or a UK programmer insists that “Indians don’t take care of their homes, it’s not important to them.”
There are also great people I’ve run into, of course. For example, I met a Harvard senior named Katie who is filming a documentary on a deaf school for children in Nepal, and I can only hope that one day I’ll be as cool as she seems.
But too many others want to complain to another white person, to talk about how they’d love to see the Taj Mahal without having to also see slums. They ask what the hawkers are like in Varanasi or if it’s worth going to Gangtok; they want me to trade in the currency of tourist conversation, to share anecdotes about schemers and bathrooms and cows, to relate to this country through a safe filter of Western Sanity…and of course I’ll always be looking through a lens of my own; there’s no way to evade that, to erase the self or to eliminate the impact one’s of sheer existence in a place, which DFW points out. But I really hope I’m more aware of my lens, and more interested in contextualizing what I see through it, than most of the foreigners I’ve run into here. I don’t want to see the Victoria Monument but not the amputee begging outside of it. And I hope that I always have at least enough knowledge of the politics and cultures of a place I’m in to avoid doing what that same German yoga teacher did to our Tibetan driver, asking him, “Why do you people want this Gorkhaland?”–without stopping to first figure out what Gorkha means, who “you people” might refer to, whether or not he was Nepali, or even realize that there are centuries of bloodshed and dozens of ethnic groups and the borders of six countries that factor into any possible answer to her question…none of which, it turned out, she wanted to hear about.
A picture of the girls I mentioned in my previous post:
October 18, 2010
This is festival season in India! Dussera, Dashain, Diwali–there has been and will continue to be lots of singing in the main square of Darjeeling, Chowrasta. While at one of the celebrations, three young Gorkha Nepali girls surrounded me and asked me questions: what’s your favorite color? do you live with your mom? what ice cream flavor do you like? are you rich? how old are you? do you have a sister? They kept telling me I was beautiful, which seemed sweeter until they showed me the “pool”they’d been talking on and on about that they also said was beautiful. The pool turned out to be a defunct, rusty fountain whose water was covered in a brown scum. Eye of the beholder. Anyway, it was a fun afternoon.
October 15, 2010
Darjeeling is known, obviously, for the tea estates. While Assam actually produced the tea that most Indians drink (chai masala), darjeeling is what the British have made famous. Sadly, I prefer the masala tea…but I also prefer less volatile conflicts (Darjeeling has a separatist movement I’ll post more on later, but Assam is even less stable), so here I am. I visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate, which exclusively provides tea to Harrods, and sampled several qualities of tea before a brief tour of the factory.
October 12, 2010
Warning: I have spent several hours in the past few days monkey watching, and this blog may devolve into a series of monkey photographs as I now have hundreds of them.
October 9, 2010
I’m in Darjeeling now, but will back up and say a bit about the stops I made on my way to get here….
I left Delhi for Varanasi, taking an overnight train that was very comfortable (AC class, at least). Varanasi is on the Ganges and a very holy city for Hindus (if you die in Varanasi, you obtain moksha, release from the cycle of birth and rebirth). It’s extremely crowded and much more traditional than other cities in India–I’ve heard it described as “what India used to be.” As do most visitors, I took a boat ride along the ghats during that silvery time just before dawn to watch the sunrise and set a candle and flowers into the mother Ganga for good karma.
I spent my days going to temples, watching puja ceremonies, and wandering the narrow, twisting maze of alleyways while trying to avoid cow dung, vespas, and the crush of people (by flashlight at night). I enjoyed it, but found the experience exhausting; I ended up covering my head with my dupatta much of the time to try and hide my blondness, but of course my pale skin was still enough to attract touts who would follow me down the block.
After a few days, I took another overnight train and headed to Calcutta. Luckily, I have a wonderful friend from Carleton College who is from Cal and returned there after graduation, so I was able to stay with her and her family. Avantika took me around to the Victoria Memorial; the older administrative district from Cal’s days as the seat of British power in India; the very first cricket club established outside of the UK (founded in 1792, it used to have signs saying “no dogs or Indians” out front), which is the club to which her family belongs–although I mostly saw the bathroom, since I was vomiting for no apparent reason, it was a very posh bathroom; her uncle’s art gallery, where Bengali paintings from the 19th century are displayed, sold, and restored; and to various hangouts with her friends. I got a break from the crowded Delhi metro and the peddle rickshaws of Varanasi, instead traveling in air conditioned cars with family drivers. It was a select side of the city, obviously, but an interesting slice of Indian life to see and temporarily join. And it was great to go out with Indians–much less harassment, and of course we never got lost. A good, comfortable break after the intensity of Varanasi.
September 24, 2010
This is my last day in Gurgaon/New Delhi. In a few hours, I’ll be on an overnight train to Varanasi, the city where fellow BU writer Anna Pattison will be staying during her fellowship.
I’m sad to say goodbye to Delhi, but look forward to experiencing different sides of India. Yesterday I finally made it out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which was of course spectacular, the Lal Qila, and a Hindu temple at the birthplace of Krishna (pictures not allowed).
The day before my Agra trip, I had my final Hindi class. I will miss the adventures of the Hindi Guru school fan (yes, fan as in box fan). One of my teachers had either a complete lack of imagination or a strong fondness for this fan, and so all of my sentences ended up involving it somehow or other; “Is this your fan?” “Did the fan eat dinner?” “How many sisters does the fan have?” In a way, I suppose this actually required more imagination than using a fictional friend named Anusha or Raju, since it did take some creativity to invent the sordid lives of Pankha-Ji and his brothers.
Learning Hindi has been difficult, but I love tackling a new script. Two hours of one-on-one class was tiring, but well worth the effort. During my final class, I thought I was just having difficulty paying attention; my leg kept itching, but I figured this was because I couldn’t focus on the past imperfect, so I ignored it. And kept ignoring it, because it kept itching. Until I finally scratched it for the twelfth time, and a cockroach fell out. A cockroach that had been in my pants for FIVE MINUTES.
My friend Lisa wanted me to share this story and also the details of last week’s laundry day outfit. See, I was wearing pajamas when I put all of my clothes into the laundry bag, and so the next day I discovered I had no pants to wear…but did still have (black) long underwear. Which kind of look like leggings. And women here often wear chodani kameez–a sort of leggings and tunic top. So I spent the day walking around Delhi in my long underwear. As far as I can tell, no one knew the difference, but then, I suppose they might come up to a stranger and say, “hello, ma’am; you appear to be wearing your underwear out in public.”
I’ll leave you all on that note to run off to the train station. Thankfully, I have a Kindle to keep me company during the 13 or 14 hour ride! My feelings on e-readers are mixed in other situations, but not when it comes to travel.
September 19, 2010
Blogging, I have discovered, intimidates me. I write fiction. I don’t even believe, really, in nonfiction—I would get absolutely nowhere as a journalist. Committing to a version of events, to a written version of reality, goes against my intuition. I would easily use up my allotted word count just on disclaimers.
This is a melodramatic response to blogging on this site, since recounting a trip isn’t particularly serious and there is plenty of room in this instance for me to tell you all one thing and then tell you the opposite in my next post (or the same sentence, as the case may be), but when I’m alone with myself I get very caught up in this sort of thing. And on this trip I will have three months alone, letting me talk myself into all sorts of complexes and convictions that may or may not have anything to do with the rest of the world. It’s a very contradictory thing, traveling alone and knowing no one and not speaking the language—there is no choice but to be fairly narcissistic, focusing on yourself and your interpretations of what you experience (that’s all you have access to), but at the same time you see how small a part of the world you are and what little context you have.
I could go on, but this is all very abstract, and I’ll never get around to actually blogging about India if I do, so I’m cutting myself off. Here we go:
I arrived just over a week ago, and I won’t lie; India and I did not get off to a great start. On the first day, I discovered a crack across my laptop screen (fortunately, this was what my brother terms a “craptop”—a computer he has salvaged for such purposes as traveling and using as doorstops). On the second, I visited a hospital and was diagnosed with strep throat. This was unsurprising, since my immune system is terrible, and I end up getting diseases that are supposed to be the territory of Louisa May Alcott novels, like scarlet fever, or kidney stones.
Monsoon season is not letting go of Delhi, and this is the rainiest September on record for the past 18 years, so naturally my umbrella broke, and then there was my usual dislike of transitions. I love travelling, but I don’t adjust quickly. It took me a year to be okay with things after the Carleton College cafeteria switched the location of the silverware. Well, maybe two years.
But things turned around by the end of last week–my antibiotics did their work, I acquired a netbook, bought a few kurtas and dupattas, and started my Hindi classes. I can now proudly ask questions of the three men who clean my apartment and cook in the kitchen unit just outside of it. To all of the questions the answer seems to be, “My name is Krishna (or Jarj, or AJ),” even though I usually try to ask “How are you,” or “May I have a glass of mango juice?” but I’m not losing hope. My goal by the end of the visit is to get a different answer, even if it’s “We have no chicken” when I ask “How was your day?”
I’ve gone to explore several interesting sites in and around Delhi: the Lodi Gardens, with tomb ruins from the 16thcentury; the Akshardham Temple, next to which they’re building the arena for the 2010 Commonwealth Games; the Indira Gandhi Memorial; the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial; and the Jama Masjid. I think pictures and Wikipedia will probably tell you more about these explorations than I can, so I’m putting up a few photos. I trust you can all handle the Wikipedia part yourselves.
And, since this is getting a bit long, I’m going to end here. Soon I’ll post some more photos and probably more about my Hindi lessons, attempts to clothe myself appropriately, etc.
This fall, I plan to travel to India for three months. After a week in Delhi learning Hindi, seeing the city, and taking a day trip to the Taj Mahal, I will travel to my ultimate location, Darjeeling. Located in West Bengal, Darjeeling fascinates me as an intersection of many cultures and languages; it is closely bordered by Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Bangladesh. I hope to cross the border to visit my original destination, the Lhotshampa Bhutanese refugee camps in Birtamod and Damak, as well as learn about the ethnic Nepali population in West Bengal and Sikkim, the Gorkha Nepalis. While practicing my basic Nepali and learning some rudimentary Hindi, I hope to read/reread books often classified as postcolonial Indian and Nepali literature as well as some translated classics (currently on the list to revisit are Tagore, Naipal, Rushdie, and Narayan). With luck, my own writing will be enriched by this study of language and literature while I immerse myself in the confluence of Indian, Nepali, and Bhutanese cultures.