Darjeeling Spark

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Darjeeling is amazing set in the foothills of the Himalaya in northern India. The oncoming monsoon season brings with it great rain and, sometimes, lightning storms. I snapped this pic on one such night.

Asian Attitudes on Foreigners
Asian Attitudes on Foreigners

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Photo Courtesy Rudi Roels

China, I thought, preferred to keep visitors out; many Southeast Asian countries invited foreigners in, with ambiguous wink and smile; Japan smilingly greeted visitors at the door and appeared to admit them without ever really doing so. India, by contrast, took in all the hordes and simply swept them up in the undifferentiated tide.

-Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, p 281

Darjeeling: Queen of the Hills

Darjeeling
Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse of the rest of the world combined.

-Mark Twain on his 1st visit in 1896

I love the hill stations of India. Darjeeling, set at 2,128 meters, is no exception. Started by the British as a sanatorium in the 1800’s, members of the East India Company used it to escape the summer heat of Calcutta. My trip would accomplish much the same.

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Tongba: Himalayan Beer

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Tongba is the traditional and indigenous drink of the Limbu people of eastern Nepal. To Limbus, Tongba is analogous to what vodka is to Russians, wine to French, Guinness to Irish and saké to Japanese.

-Wikipedia

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Baba Srinath

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Back when I first visited Nepal in 2006, I met a local villager named Ram. You can see Ram and his house in Episode 2 of the video series I created about that trip.

On that trip and after my trek was completed, I went back to the village and Ram took me to meet a sadhu living in the hills nearby. For some strange reason, the video I took of that disappeared.

This time around, I contacted Ram again and went back to see Baba Srinath again.

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To Be Defeated

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He explained that to be defeated was a condition of life which was unavoidable. Men were either victorious or defeated and, depending on that, they became persecutors or victims.

-Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971)

Comparitive Internet Cafe Studies

halfpint_indian_internet_cafe_by_marc_shandroPhoto courtest Flick user Marc Shandro

Over the last few months I have taken buses, trains, boats, rickshaws, bikes, and horses through a multitude of cultures and minorities therein. It occurs to me that a lot can be inferred about these places based upon my main means of communication: the internet cafe.

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Michael Palin’s Himalaya

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Michael Palin may be best known as a member of Monty Python, but I’m fond of his travel documentaries produced with the BBC. Before I started my trip I watched his series entitled Himalaya where he traverses the cultures in Pakistan, India, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh that reside in this greatest of mountain chains.

I’ve recently stated reading the book published of his journey and am quite taken aback at the similarity to my previous 7 months of travel. For example, his Pakistan travels mirrors my own greatly with stops along the Karakoram Highway, Hunza Valley, and polo matches in Gilgit. (With all do respect, though, I have done mine without the BBC treasury and have come overland from Japan.)

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If you’re interested in further detail about the places I have visited, by all means put this in your Netflix queue or get it for your Kindle. You can also find the book, DVD, and of course torrent file. You won’t regret it.

Death and Life of Buddha

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With my Indian visa quickly expiring, I decided to take heed and depart Benares. Off to Nepal I head for a refresh of both my visa and head in the crisp mountains.

I entered the train station to await my train to Gorakhpur from whence buses will complete the journey to Pokhara and then Kathmandu. As I entered the crowded station I noticed a monk in auroral attire monitoring the entrance to the platform. He quickly engaged me in converstation about my destination and our plans were the same: journey to Kushinagar on the Indian side to visit the place of Buddha’s death and to Lumbini on the Nepali side where Buddha was born.

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Sitar Lessons

img_81411Guru-jee Rakesh

When staying for an extended time in Varanasi, what to do…. Observe Hindu cremation rights? Check. Wash in the Ganga? Check. Listen to the Dalai Lama lecture? Check.

Since it is India, if I were to turn to the Goddess of knowledge, music and the arts the answer would be in her hand. Sort of. The Goddess Saraswati holds and plays the veena, a plucked string instrument that looks very much like it’s more famous cousin, the sitar.

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Kumbh Mela in Allahabad

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When I jumped a train and rode three hours out of Varanasi to Allahabad, I knew I was going to a very large Hindu religious festival. Little did I know it would be one of the largest gatherings of people in human history, if not the largest.

An estimated 70 million people (!) attended the 45-day festival to wash in the place where the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers meet. A third mythological river, the Sarasvati River, is also said to join them here.

According to Hindu mythology, gods and demons fought a celestial war spilling nectar from a pitcher, or kumbh, at Allahabad and three other places. The festival rotates places every few years to these spots with this one being a “Half Pitcher Festival” or “Ardh Kumbh Mela.” A larger festival, the “Maha Kumbh Mela” or “Grand Pitcher Festival”, takes place every 12 years.

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Munna House

Varanasi Natural Mystic, Photo by Mark Hickman

Varanasi Natural Mystic, Photo by Mark Hickman

A week into Varanasi I packed up and moved to where I intended to stay in the first place. I met two well-trodden travelers in Dharamsala who refer to Varanasi as their home since they have spent so much time here and I followed their precise instructions: down river from the main ghat, up the stairs of Narad Ghat, and through the unmarked broken blue doorway. Welcome to Munna House!

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The Dalai Lama in Sarnath

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Photo by tiengdankeu

My timing was perfect to arrive in Varanasi because just 13 kilometers away in peaceful Sarnath, the Dalai Lama arrived to give lectures from January 8 to 14, 2009 at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. His focus was Arya Asanga’s Compendium of Higher Knowledge and Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.

When I visited Dharamsala, I mentioned I caught a brief glimpse of the DL when he returned from a speaking tour abroad. This time I had the opportunity to sit 100 meters from him and listen to him speak.

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First 5 disciples of the Buddha at the Deer Park of Sarnath, showing their respects to the Wheel of the Dharma, Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Sarnath is one of the four main places of pilgrimage in Buddhism. About five weeks after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha journeyed to Sarnath where he delivered his first sermon to his disciples. Today the Dhamek Stupa inside a deer park marks this spot. It is said a Bodhisattva offered himself as sacrifice to a king in exchange for the life of a doe he was planning to kill. Thus moved, the king created a sanctuary for deer that still exists today.

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Varanasi: The City of Lights

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Seventeen hours out of Rishikesh via train and I arrive in Varanasi, or Benares, if you’re so inclined.

Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

–Mark Twain

Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and claims to be the oldest in the sense that it has been one continuous Hindu culture residing here. Other such places have undergone marked changes in religion and culture of the ruling peoples.

The city is prominently featured in Kipling’s Kim, the novel that started my journey, and I had a great desire to see the city though it largely remained a mystery to me for what I would find until my arrival.

And how. This city is the image I form in my mind when I think of stereotypical India; foggy plains entering the city, cows blocking heavy traffic, rickshaws everywhere, narrow streets, the mighty Ganga, cremation ghats, sitar music permeating the noise, and the unyielding Varanasi hustlers.

Bathing in the Ganga

Bathing in the Ganga

But lets start with some first impressions. I’ve been to some big cities. I’ve been scammed. Never for a lot, but I’ve been there and like to think it’s a bit harder these days to pull one over one me. Invariably the Varanasi hustler will get you at one point or another. This is largely due to the the frequency of such attempts. Walking along the river or streets you have to adopt proverbial blinders and ignore the onslaught of questions and offers. Hash? Boat? Massage? Rickshaw? Where you from? Oh, very nice beard! Anything they can use to get a foothold and latch on. One has to now the price of everything they wish to buy or face the tourist surcharge.

Varanasi is the epitome of village mentality in a vast city. Cows are kept everywhere, soiling the streets which the locals pace up and down in bare feet. The mangiest dogs imaginable scratch and itch their hides. Sari clad women and ancient men sloooowly wander the narrow streets and alleys. Babas appear with natty dreads and orange robes, hands pressed in prayer as they look hopefully for a handout. Every store owner you pass has something to say.

Bakshesh Baba

Bakshesh Baba

Arriving late in the evening, I used a tout to arrive at a guesthouse with a price I could live with (150 RPS). On the way we had difficulty circumventing the Muslim festival taking place, with packs of revelers carrying religious items and sticks which they battered my rickshaw with. But I arrived at the horribly named Elvis Guesthouse.

I stayed one week here and became familiar with how the citizens of Varanasi behave towards foreigners based on the craptastic quality of the guesthouse workers. One young employee made a side business selling beers to the guests at double the price of the store. Take into account alcohol is strictly regulated through government stores and trying to buy yourself you find again the tourist surcharge. He also literally helped himself to a sample of what you bought and once followed me closely down three stories of steps to ask for the rest of my small whiskey bottle in my bag. The owner like to pull his own shenanigans, trying to charge me upon leaving for things like scant use of their internet, which he told me was included with my room. He launched into a tirade of religion vs. science one morning at 8 a.m. making claims such as scientists are the worst people on earth. He would do things like draw a line on a paper and say make this line shorter without touching it, which he demonstrated by drawing a longer line next to it. I pointed out the line is the same length as before. Typical pseudo-mystical bullshit that some Indians use for their own profit. Nearly all the employees had some scheme to help you out (ie make money off you).

But you become used to it and begin to see the charm the city offers. The Ganga is lined with huge buildings called ghats. Most are used for bathing facilities while others are cremation sites for the deceased. The Ganga is the holiest river in Hinduism and bathing here washes away your sins. Similarly to be cremated or have your ashes spread in the Ganga is a free entry to heaven. Music is everywhere. Sitars, tabla drums, and flutes can be heard at all hours of the days and puja (ritual prayer) is a main attraction every evening and early morning drawing large crowds. Numerous schools offer classes in cooking, yoga, mediation, music, dancing, and art.

Before you know it, Varanasi becomes home.

Shiva Depiction on Ghat

Shiva Depiction on Ghat

Reading List 2009

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Photo Courtesy (Erik)

You can also find my lists for 2007 and 2008. Most recently read first.

  1. Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet by Peter Hopkirk (1982).
  2. Nueromancer by William Gibson (1984).
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980).
  4. Passing By: Selected Essays by Jerzy Kosinski (1984).
  5. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (1922).
  6. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988). I’ve put off reading this for, oh, so long. My pre-reading impression was this book is utterly pedestrian. I generally avoid those works that enter the popular consciousness, whether via Oprah Book Club or otherwise. I can’t pinpoint it for sure, but when I overhear conversation from the next cubicle along the lines of, “This book is, like, so deep and stuff!” it makes me want to go to Walmart and buy a gun.

    Post-reading impression is that the book is pedestrian. But good. There is nothing new here, the author re-read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and regurgitated some old Carlos Castaneda. Can I go home now?

  7. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut (1985). Can’t go wrong with Vonnegut.
  8. Almost Transparent Blue by Ryū Murakami (1976). I really dig this author and filmmaker. An Amazon review by Zack Davisson sums it up succinctly:

    John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat.” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” William S. Burroughs’s “Junky.” The semi-autobiographical novel of disaffected youth and their abusive love-affairs with drink, drugs and sex is certainly not without literary precedence. Over the years, it has become a genre, one which shocks people with its honestly, and lures with its romanticism of the life of a fringe wastrel, who looks no further than the next drink or fix, living life in pursuit of pleasure.

    Joining their ranks is “Almost Transparent Blue,” the debut novel by Japanese virtuoso Ryu Murakami. This first novel, written while still in collage, won the prestigious Akutagawa award and skyrocketed Murakami to fame and financial independence. Telling the semi-connected tales of young junkies Ryu, Kazuo, Yoshiyama, Moko, Reiko, and Kei, the book is a decent into the underbelly of 1970’s Japan, fresh with Jimmy Hendrix music, exotic black men from the local military base, and the numbness of emotion that comes from living in a drug-haze.

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