Friday, June 26, 2009


While Abigail and Kierahn were still in Canada I took a weekend away from scorching, 40 degree Delhi, and flew north to the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh early one Saturday morning, taking a packed 50 minute flight and landing in the picturesque Kullu Valley.

I chose to stay in Naggar village which boasts a centuries old wood and stone castle converted into a decent government run hotel where I booked a chilly but pleasant room with gorgeous views. The castle clings to the edge of the mountain side, towering over the Beas River and valley below. The valley is protected on each side by massive mountains, their snow capped peaks clearly visible against the clear blue sky. Indeed, the sky and mountains, along with the clean air and friendly people are the principal reasons for visiting Naggar, a fairly quiet town, especially when compared to notorious Manali, the nearby haunt of backpackers, hippies and hash, another hour north along the valley.

Although peaceful by Indian standards, Naggar does attract a strange mix of visitors: Indian families and honeymooners, stopping by to snap photos of the views and castle, sometimes with rowdy children in tow sucking on popsicles; Russians attracted by the Nicholas Roerich museum, devoted to the Russian painter and mystic who made his home in Naggar and died there; and the occasional backpacker, perhaps lost on the way to Manali, too stoned to care. On the first day I arrived, the town was extremely quiet and I happily wandered through the narrow streets and surrounding fields, snapping pictures with the smiling locals, with both young and old happily posing. Kids played cricket in the apple orchards, women washed pots and and plates, and old men with scraggly beards and colorful hats smoked peacefully by the windows in their homes. These dwellings were mostly constructed of wood and stone, keeping with local tradition, making Naggar one of the few towns in India that has not been overrun by hideous concrete structures.

I also visited the Roerich museum, devoted to the painter and his family, who made India their home. Nicholas Roerich was a fascinating figure: a celebrated artist and mysterious mystic, who explored much of Central Asia and Tibet. He attracted devout followers and may have been a double-agent, managing to stay on friendly terms with both the British and Russians, arch-rivals in the quest for influence and empire in Central Asia. The museum contained some of his paintings of the Himalayas, as well as old photos of himself and his son, Svetoslav, who also lived in India, marrying one of the country's first movie stars.

That evening, I decided to have a beer in one of the local rooftop restaurants. Entering the terrace, I was presented with the comical image - surprisingly common in India - of two middle-aged white women dancing enthusiastically to an Indian electronica groove. They were dressed in traditional backpacker attire - scarves, cheap baggy "Aladdin" pants and loose cotton tops. They were soon joined, however, by a large group of their colleagues, Russians it turned out, about 20 in all. After about an hour of chatting amongst themselves, the group leader, a rugged type with a pony-tail and weathered face, began speaking authoritatively while the others listened, nodding their heads and closing their eyes. I began to feel uncomfortable, so I finished my beer and hopped over to the next restaurant.

There, I chatted pleasantly with two brothers who explained that they had just opened the restaurant/hotel one month before. It was a dream fulfilled, they said. The family owned apple orchards, but the hotel belonged to the brothers and they had financed its construction themselves. They were optimistic for the future of tourism in Naggar, though also expressed the desire for it to maintain its peaceful air. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly agreed.

We talked of the weather, and like almost anyone you talk to these days in any part of the world, they commented on its unpredictability in recent years. It was cold as we spoke, unusual for this time of year. In January, almost no snow had fallen for the first time in memory.

The next morning I awoke to a spectacular view of the brilliantly lit peaks, perfect in the morning light. After a potassium-overload breakfast of banana pancakes (with an unfortunate oniony undertone) and banana porridge, I set out on a hike, the route helpfully traced out by Abishek, one of the Naggar hotelier brothers. It was to take me to a Krishna temple and then two local villages, climbing most of the way before returning on a steep downhill road. I set off with the village names scribbled on a peace of paper, my camera and more bananas. A few minutes into my walk, I encountered three ancient, bent figures climbing slowly up the forested path with the aid of walking sticks. Like almost everyone else I encountered, they happily posed for photos and asked where I was headed - turns out they were on their way to the temple as well. I walked off ahead of them, but missed my turnoff. When I finally reached the temple, I could hear drumming and singing; the old men, impressively, had already arrived, though were far from alone.

Dancing and clapping to the music were members of the Russian group. They had taken over a portion of the courtyard and were happily snapping photos and taking video of the event. I asked their Russian-speaking Indian guide what exactly the deal was with this strange scene: many of the men were topless and a woman walked around in spandex pants and a bikini top - not the usual attire seen in Hindu temples. (I wondered if they would dress the same way in a house of worship back in Russia, but as the locals did not seem to mind, I enjoyed the scene). I tried to get an unobstructed photo of the small temple, but there were too many Russians - so I shrugged and started snapping photos of them. Meanwhile the guide explained that they were a sort of meditation group from all over Russia. He wondered why it is that India sees so many foreigners entranced by its spirituality, when you would never see a large group of Indians traveling to the west for similar reasons. I agreed, shrugging. Then, being neither Hindu, Russian or topless, I again felt uncomfortable and took off.

Before I reached the village, I was intercepted by a young man heading in the same direction as me. On the way we had to pass by his grandfather's house, so we stopped in for tea. The house was made of stone, mud and wood and had a balcony running along one side. Here the old grandfather sat, a tiny figure with a gaunt, wrinkled face, smoking an enormous hash pipe while I was introduced. The extended family within the house - it was not entirely clear how my guide and the other women and children were related - were most welcoming, and tea was prepared. One young boy coughed incessantly, spraying myself and my tea to my dismay. Finally, we set off through the woods again surrounded by towering pines, the mountains to our back. Surprisingly, we came across more drumming, this time from a procession of local men. "It is for the gods," my guide explained. The scent of hash wafted over the strange scene. My new friend was heading to the village of Rumsu, where more "gods" would be in appearance. We split off after exchanging phone numbers. After taking more photos in a village, I moved off in the direction of Rumsu myself, the sound of drums echoing through the woods as I struggled to find the right path. Once again, a local youth came to the rescue, accompanying me to the somewhat isolated village made up entirely of the local stone and wood houses.

A festival of some sort did indeed appear to be underway, with colorfully clad women and children gathered in a clearing before a tent where a sound system was being set up. The men were scattered about in groups, with a large number clustered around a temple. As I approached them to take photos, I was shooed away loudly by a number of the men, the first time all day I and my camera had been rebuffed. Embarrassed, I quickly headed off back downhill to Naggar, part of the way bouncing on the back of a motorcycle, whose owner kindly offered me a lift.

The scene in Naggar was far different than the peaceful one I had found on the previous day. For whatever reason, the tourist hordes had descended and the single narrow road that winds its way through the town was clogged with taxis, jeeps and minivans and the incessant honks and beeps that characterise any such scene in India. A backpacker roared by on a Royal Enfield while young Indians flew through on their scooters and motorbikes. Families swarmed the castle and the tiny temple therein, snapping photos and scolding their children. Men with tight jeans and women in salwarkameez and sneakers strolled through the temple, looking somewhat unsure what to make of this rather tiny "castle". A gentleman enthralled with his own coolness posed with his arms crossed and a tough guy look, his oversized Ray-Bans reflecting the sun. Backpackers munched on dangerously stale-looking pastries and stroked their overgrown facial hair. On older foreigner sported red and saffron "sadhu chic" as he sipped tea through his long silver beard. A Russian walked into the pastry shop where I was having tea, and to my alarm, actually ordered a slice of the "organic" cheese that looked like it had been sitting in the (unrefrigerated) display case for at least 6 months. Clouds began to form over the mountains, the peaks themselves preferring to withdraw from the scene. I headed inside to take a nap while it rained.

I awoke early Monday morning to catch my plane back to Delhi, arriving a full 2.5 hours late on a disorganized flight that included a long delay and an unscheduled, ludicrous re-fuelling stop - all this for what was supposed to be a 50 minute flight. I arrived sweaty and late to the office at 11:30am and slogged my way through the day. The mountain views made the trip worth it, though I have vowed to never fly the airline in question again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Back to Bom

We've been back in Delhi for a few weeks after a great trip down south over the holidays. It was nice to get out of Delhi for a few days, as it tends to get rather drab at this time of year, with grey skies and chilly winds. We hit Mumbai and Kerala, two marvelous destinations that provided the right jolt of colour and variety to make us forget the sometimes dreary capital city we live in.

With countless friends and relatives in Mumbai, five days were not enough to soak up all the nostalgia I felt visiting the city of my birth (then Bombay) after eight years. The city remains familiar, and on previous trips I had regarded many of Bombay's sites as locals tend to do - with an indifference bred by familiarity. On this occasion, for whatever reason, everything caught my eye: the city's spectacular British-built buildings and playful beaches, the red double-decker buses and black and yellow taxis, the wide sidewalks and soaring new high rises. It seemed cleaner than I remembered, with a more pleasant climate.

It has changed in recent years, beginning with a shiny new airport. It has been carved out of the surrounding slums that crowd around the runway, only a concrete wall preventing the tin-roofed shacks from encroaching on the planes landing and departing. The aforementioned high rises are impressive, boasting views of the sea and respite from the noisy streets below. But it is the old that remains eye-catching in Bombay. The 19th century architecture is simply spectacular, with the sprawling Victoria Terminus leading the way.

Also, for whatever reason, the ancient taxis remain fascinating; Bombay icons so decrepit, they're cool. They're based on a 1950s or 60s Fiat model and indeed, every single one looks and drives like it's half a century old. Most drivers personalize their vehicles with any one of a variety of quirky designer items - Krishna dashboard stickers and designer mud flaps, steering wheel beads or fresh flowers hung from the rear view mirror. The interior is cramped and uncomfortable, and the drivers universally unsmiling, looking like they would rather be doing anything than driving their beat up antiques through the streets of the city. But the taxis remain a great way to get around; much less intimidating than the double-decker buses that barrel through the streets, and a good deal more comfortable than the overflowing commuter trains, claustrophobic nightmares on rails. The taxis are still incredibly cheap, and, most importantly, they use their meters. Taking a taxi or auto-rickshaw in Delhi or - anywhere else in India - almost always involves haggling hassles. In Delhi, even when a meter is used, cab drivers tend to cover it up with a filthy cloth in an unapologetically blatant attempt to prevent one from knowing the actual fare. Each journey, therefore, becomes a chore, with each driver seemingly worse than the previous one, some complaining bitterly of the "unfair" cost of the negotiated price, requesting more at the end of the journey or getting lost along the way. The metered taxis of Mumbai - as battered and dilapitated as they are - represent a far superior means of getting around town.

Kierahn loved Bombay as well, starting with our hosts, very old and dear friends of my parents whom he took to immediately, along with the numerous fans in their home. (Kierahn has an unusual obsession with ceiling fans.) Like his dad, he enjoyed the taxi rides, and was fascinated by the double-decker buses - a small toy model I bought him at the local market remains one of his favorite playthings. We managed to find a few playgrounds for him, but, unfortunately, they were almost all absurdly dangerous: sky-high climbing gyms with toddler-sized holes in the platform at the top, slides with razor sharp edges at the bottom, and everywhere signs of rusty neglect. The local parents and children were unperturbed, while we kept an eye on Kierahn like a hawk, lest he tumble, slice or maim himself.

Children's play areas aside, Bombay is a safe city. Many local women told me repeatedly that they can safely take a cab home alone at night, something they correctly pointed out is not possible in Delhi. (The hostility Bombay residents have for Delhi is of a Montreal-Toronto nature - visceral and intense). Unfortunately, however, this reputation for safety has been undermined by the fact that Bombay has been a repeated target for horrendous terrorist attacks, including the shocking ones that took place in November the very heart of the city. Almost by accident, we ended up visiting three of the sites which were struck by the terrorists: the Taj hotel (where we saw a moving memorial), Leopold's Cafe (for a quick lime soda) and the Victoria Terminus train station. Bullet holes remain in the mirrors on Leopold's walls, mere inches from diner's heads. Nonetheless, the many times we walked by there it was never less than packed. For the remorseless attackers armed with grenades and automatic weapons - as well as the advanced commando training required to use them effectively - this amounted to a fish-in-a-barrel scenario, and I honestly do not know how anyone survived their savage attack. Similarly, the Terminus was as bustling and chaotic as one would expect of a building that sees about 2 million visitors a day. Seeking as they did to cause maximum loss of life, clearly the terrorists chose well.

In the wake of these latest attacks there has been lots of talk in India of the "spirit of Bombay" and its citizens' ability to bounce back from any and all setbacks. Indeed, the hotels have re-opened, Leopold's was packed and the train station bustled. The reality, though, is that Bombay is a city beset by many everyday problems that make living there a challenge on any normal day for all but the most privileged. Venal and incompetent politicians have neglected the city's infrastructure and extreme poverty while pandering to ethnic chauvinists and zealots. The city has an impressive commuter rail system, but no metro and no ring roads or highways. It also has one of the largest slums in the world. Scores die each year in monsoon floods. So while the terrorists failed in their bid to crush the city's spirit, the reality is that many, perhaps most of the city's inhabitants did not have the luxury of being diverted from the challenges of surviving everyday life in Bombay to pay attention to the deeper meaning of the attacks on Bombay's landmarks; they remain unbowed and unafraid - their spirit unbroken - because in order to endure, they have no other choice.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's been over a week since the Mumbai blasts and analysis is pouring in from every corner of the news media, from both within India and elsewhere. There is a considerable amount of anger in the press, at both the colossal security and intelligence failure of the government, and, more dangerously, at Pakistan. While the frustration with both is completely justified, loudly blaming Pakistan is always an extremely dangerous course of action, and one frequently used by the Indian government to distract from its own shortcomings. The Mumbai episode, unfortunately, revealed to the world the serious challenges facing the Indian state, serious enough to reverse some of the very real progress India has made over the past 15-20 years.

Corruption is at the core of the problem. It has infected the very machinery of government, and has infiltrated every part of the political process, from the awarding of lucrative government contracts and the nomination of party candidates, to the appointment of officials, both low and high. Unqualified individuals have control over key portfolios, leading to disaster when crises strike, as they do with alarming regularity in India: floods and droughts, strikes and riots, bombings, assassinations, derailments and stampedes - all are very regular features of the daily newspapers, often not even page one fare. Even the most efficient of governments would find it nearly impossible to adequately respond to such challenges; a state crippled by graft and bribery is in absolutely no position to do so.

So sadly, we are left with the spectacle we saw last month, where ten well-trained, cold-blooded men could bring India's most dynamic city to a practical standstill for nearly three days. Various analysts have pointed out the inadequate equipment and training of the men deployed against the terrorists; brave men, no doubt, but ones incapable, even, of isolating the conflict zone with bright yellow tape. The result was unprecedented access for the television media, who broadcast live images and a breathless, over the top play-by-play of the counter-terrorism operations directly into the livings rooms of the world - and the Blackberry's of the attackers.

Will a new generation of politicians save India's government, restoring its credibility and efficacy? The talent certainly exists, India being a country full of dynamism and energy. Perhaps more of India's intellectual and business elite will begin agitating for change instead of perpetuating a rotten system or just tuning politics out; perhaps they will stop playing the game enjoyed by a corrupt set of rulers, the one of unwritten rules, of winks and the turning of blind eyes. Instead, perhaps, they will demand accountability and competence from their politicians, demand results. Indians have a progressive set of laws set out in black and white for all to read. It's time they stopped being treated as words of fiction.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pondicherry and Chennai

Hi everybody,

I'm back in Delhi from a brief and aborted trip to South India. We hit Pondicherry and Chennai, the former, a tiny slice of France (sort of) in India and the latter, the largest city in the South and one of the IT powerhouses of "New India". "Old India" still dominates, though, with all the good and bad that entails.

The trip started inauspiciously, with early morning news from Mumbai about the unfolding attacks. My friend swung by in a taxi and I jumped in, breathlessly telling him about the terrible news; turns out, he had some bad news of his own: a massive storm was pummelling Pondicherry (the prettily named Cyclone Nisha). Indeed, we saw many a flooded landscape on the drive to Pondicherry from Chennai airport, and were slightly delayed by roads swamped by rainwater.

But vastly more irritating was the delay caused by a corrupt highways official we faced on the outskirts of Pondicherry.

Moments after our taxi driver suddenly halted our Ambassador outside a thatch shack, the driver requested 200 rupees and handed us an incomprehensible receipt he happened to have in the taxi. It was written in English, but with words that a 7-year old would recognize as not belonging in the sequence they were placed. We argued, hampered by the language barrier as he spoke little English and we knew no Tamil. He gestured that the money was not for him, pointing to the shack, so I accompanied him inside where I found a somewhat humorless gentleman perched behind a rickety table littered with ancient ledger books and an old cash register. The scene looked semi-official (in an "Old India" kind of way) and after some half-hearted arguing, I was prepared to pay him the 200...except he now demanded 250, which I wholeheartedly refused to hand over. "Why 250?" I asked, now genuinely annoyed. "For paper," he explained angrily, pointing to his raggedy receipt book, (where the figure of 200 rupees was clearly printed). I snorted, and continued to insist on the 200, which I already felt was overly-generous on my part considering I still did not know what it was for. This state-appointed highway robber then tried a different and more ambitious tact: he raised the amount of the toll. "400!" he announced, "you give me 400 rupees!" What made him think I would pay the larger amount when I had made quite clear I would not pay the smaller one remains unclear. I was simultaneously disgusted and impressed with his audacity, laughing to hide my surprise. To buy time, I pointed to a cow lingering behind me, eagerly chewing on moldy ledger books. The highway robber seemed uninterested, but the taxi driver made a show of chasing the holy bovine away, albeit to no avail: the cow almost immediately returned, lured by the leathery goodness one only finds in moldy, government-issued Indian ledger books. I returned to the argument, demanding to know what the 400 rupees could possibly be for. The robber-man tried various answers: the paper again, a toll, for cyclone repairs. I stood my ground. Suddenly, clearly tired of me, he bellowed "No problem! Pay 200 rupees". I smiled and handed him the cash. The taxi driver laughed. The cow licked a ledger book. We continued on into Pondicherry.

This relatively small town in Tamil Nadu was once the centre of French colonial rule in India. Reminders of this past are visible in the charming architecture and the "kepi", the hats sported by the local police similar to those worn by the French Foreign Legion. The seafood is fresh and tasty, and locals pleasant and smiling. There are more middle-aged French tourists than is normal for India, surely lured promises of a sub-continental Provence or Paris. I truly hoped they had not jetted in all the way from France for the few blocks of French architecture that lingered. Pondicherry is a very pleasant place compared to most of the hectic tourist towns in India, but it ain't Cannes.

Unfortunately, the cyclone had visited the small town only hours before we arrived and the damage was visible everywhere. Trees blocked roads and streets were flooded, while the wind continued to blow forcefully, especially toward the water. The seaside road was closed to traffic and most stores were closed. We did little that day, as there was little to do. The next day, the waterfront was open and we took some photos, before wandering through the back alleys of the town, snapping shots of everyday life in Podicherry. I decided to head back early to Chennai, as the weather was not promising.

The drive back up to the big city was marked by more scenes of flooded fields and roads although surprisingly, the sun was now out in full force. We reached Chennai after dark, and I settled into a rather expensive boutique eco-hotel - "New India" in all its glitzy, over-priced glory. I was impressed with the sleek lobby and clean room, less so with the taxi racket operating out of the hotel, designed specifically to fleece visitors by forcing them to pay exorbitantly for two or four hour taxi "packages". That evening, all we wanted was a 2km ride to a restaurant, a drive worth maybe a fifth what expected us to pay. We were refused. Disgusted, and muttering to myself that somethings never change in India, particularly its impressive ability to gouge and infuriate visitors, we haggled with a rickshaw driver and went for dinner.

The next day I explored Chennai and spent most of the day with my cousin and his family. We had lunch at a tasty Thai restaurant and exchanged news of the Mumbai attacks, lamenting the inadequate response of the security forces, debating the mid-term effects on the economy and, sadly, agreeing that such an attack or bombing will happen again. He dropped me at the airport with a boxful of sweets and promises to hook up again soon.

This was more or less my first trip to South India and it represented a noticeable change of pace from the Northern part of the country where we live. There is a languidness common to many tropical regions that lingers in the air, mixing with the oppressive humidity to slow things down just a notch. When the rain clears, the sky is a clear blue, not the soupy grey of Delhi. The sea is omnipresent providing a sense of vast, open space that simply does not exist in crowded Delhi, surrounded as it is by the Rajasthani desert, the Himilayan foothills and the endless plains of Uttar Pradesh. Even Chennai did not feel crowded, despite its 4.5 million-strong population. I'm looking forward to our return to the South, less than a month away when we'll visit Kerala.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Took a stroll through the heart of New Delhi this morning, taking advantage of the Diwali holiday and Abigail's generous offer to watch Kierahn. I jumped into a rickshaw, still too cautious to drive myself despite having been here nearly five months. Shameful, really, especially considering I drive a beast of an SUV and much of the competition on the roads consists of tiny little rickshaws; but not being sure of the way or where I would park once at my destination, I splurged and paid the 5o rupees ($1.25) for the luxury of being chauferred in one of these little three-wheeled demons.

First stop: India Gate. I'd never been so close to the structure and it was much larger than I expected - a colossal arch of red sandstone inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers, mostly Indian in origin. The public was not permitted to walk under the gate for security reasons, and soldiers patrolled the scene, or, more precisely, boys with guns. They were so young, they looked like they were playing dress-up, except that the guns were real. Whether they were also functional, is an open question. The kids tried to look tough, but it is doubtful they intimidated anyone. After snapping a few photos of one these kid's adorable snarl, I moved on up Rajpath, the principal processional thoroughfare in New Delhi.

The street is lined by tidy open spaces tended by barefoot women and men sweeping the dead leaves and litter. Men dozed under trees. The half-naked child of a sweeper-woman played along the side of the road, scooping sand with a plastic cup as a group of pigeons - and his mother - kept a watchful eye. A few rickshaw-wallas tried to engage me in conversation. Rickshaw drivers who speak good English make me nervous; their language skills give them the ability to more effectively fleece foreigners so I tend to avoid them. I brushed them off rudely and without apology. Traffic was light.

I walked past the National Museum and stopped across the road from Central Secretariat, the imposing structures housing various important government ministries. I took a seat on the grass and happily took photos of the passing traffic, snapping some good shots as Ambassadors, ricksaws, bicycles and scooters paused at the traffic signal. A snake charmer with a python sat down nearby, pestering me for money and shattering my happy solitude. (I wonder how many other countries in the world feauture snake charmers kitty corner to their houses of parliament?) Once again, my discourtesy chased him off.

I continued towards Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former home of the Viceroy and current residence of India's president, walking between the North and South blocks of Central Secreteriat. The buildings are lovely, understated but imposing. By the standards of Indian monuments, they have been very well maintained, although birds nests overflowed from the lamp posts lining the road, the glass casings having disappeared.

Policemen lolled about, some dozing in their trucks, others more alert. A few carried weapons. More useful were the whistles some wore around their necks. These were blown with great frequency and vigor for reasons not always clear. One skinny fellow seemed to have forgotten it was between his lips, his languid toots altogether quite random. Another sharp fellow directed one of his toots at me, effectively stopping me in my tracks before I wandered onto a part of the lawn mere civilians are not permitted to tread. Needless to say, I was impressed with the effectiveness of the whistles.

I strolled about a bit more, then found a rickshaw to take me home. Happily, the driver's English was poor.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anger and frustration. Reading here, makes me angry!

When I pick up the paper, I too often end my perusal of its pages by flinging the pages to the ground, my ire raised by the myriad tragedies and scandals I've just read about. India has problems! Of course, it also has talent, beauty and brilliance. India defies easy analysis and definition and the daily papers are chock full of the contradictions that make India all but impossible to completely comprehend. A first-time visitor, whose reading material on the incoming flight consisted of a business magazine trumpeting the "rising tiger" of Asia, might be surprised at the chaos, stench and criminality that greets the newly arrived at the Delhi airport. Touts swarm, line-ups stretch every which-way and customs officers' fingers nimbly search baggage before unfolding, palms upturned, expecting a few US dollars in exchange for making whatever customs violation they have invented, disappear. This does not mean the business magazine was wrong; much of India is rising, and most impressively. Meanwhile, however, much of it continues to crumble and too many of its people, despite the progress, are falling through the cracks by the millions. Even the most sanitized visit to India will reveal gross inequalities. So if the business visitor can take a break from an undoubtedly hectic schedule of meetings and consultations, to open the newspaper and read, for 15 or 20 minutes about the disturbing communal violence, endemic corruption and ineffective government, well, they may end up flinging it to the floor as well.

But India is not defined by its thousand and one problems, anymore than it is by a glowing writeup in some hyper-capitalist periodical. Descriptions that exclusively describe one or the other are superficial.
It is the contradictions themselves that define India; accepting this reality is an important step to understanding the country and if one is a foreigner living here, making peace with it.

I'm cynical, sometimes bitter, often angry. As such, I'm limiting my newspaper intake. There is too much wonder and beauty in India to focus on the negative. It is not even that we have to look too far to find this, living as we are as priveleged diplomats in a lovely, peaceful neighborhood in one of the most historically important cities in the world, one bursting with monuments, creativity, learning and inspiration. So I'm taking tabla lessons. Snapping lots of photos. Counting my blessings. Kissing my wife and playing with my beautiful son. I'll keep my newspaper subscription. But I'll stop throwing the paper around.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Returned from a long weekend in Dharamsala, up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. We stayed at a charming, somewhat rundown tea plantation just outside of town. The area was lush and green and rain fell periodically, but did not interrupt our sightseeing excursions. We caught occasional glimpses of the massive Himalayan peaks that rise very steeply behind the town. They seemed impossibly close, but despite this apparent proximity, remain elusive to the eye. Dharamsala was shrouded in mist for most of the weekend and the snow-capped peaks were mostly hidden.

We stayed at Whitehaven Tea estate, a typically inconsistent Indian hotel. There was plenty of old colonial charm and attentive service in the dining room, yet, somehow, despite the near $200 per night price tag, our room was not cleaned for the three days we were there. No matter. Kierahn was happy. He especially enjoyed the hair-raising car rides along the steep, narrow roads. Our driver was pretty solid, although he slumped over the wheel as he drove, giving the alarming appearance that he was falling asleep at the wheel. He was not - seems he just had poor posture.

Mcleod Ganj is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and a popular backpacker town about 20 minutes from Dharamsala. Lots of scruffy westerners of all ages in "Save Tibet" tee shirts, sporting dreadlocks as well as shaved heads, some looking serene, others just bored. We couldn't enter the Dalai Lama's temple as a sermon was taking place. All around a courtyard in the temple complex, disciples and tourists listened to a sermon over a loudspeaker and on small transistor radios. It was a pleasant scene, and people appeared relaxed and engaged in the words of the speaker. The town is a peculiar mix of people: the afore-mentioned backpackers; genuine exiles from Tibet, some who have likely been settled in Mcleod Ganj for years , if not decades; and Indian holidaymakers, who don't quite seem to know what to make of it all, looking like strangers in their own country. Women sell momo's by the side of the road beside backpacker cafes serving lattes and grilled eggplant sandwiches. The roads are narrow and crowded, but all is laid back compared to most of the rest of India, which is why people come here.

On our last day in the area,we drove to Dharamkot, about 3km past McCleod Ganj. It initially appeared to consist solely of a tea stall/rickshaw stand, but our driver directed us down a small road that lead to a decrepit and downright dangerous children's playground perched on a precarious platform at least 3 meters above the road. Without proper supervision, my guess is that it would take about 30 seconds for the average 2 year old to launch himself off the edge of the platform onto the crumbling road below. Kierahn avoided this fate, but did earn a nasty bruise by running head first into the rusting teeter-totter. We didn't stay at the playground long.

Continuing our walk we ended up in a small, rather unique backpacker village, the temporary home of dozens of Israelis. Signs were in Hebrew, falafal a featured item on at least one restaurant menu. The village offered pretty views, a cheap bed, tranquility and little else, including cleanliness. We had a nice walk, saw some cows and donkeys and then turned back.

The Indian Himalayas are my favorite part of the country. The steep hills are breathtaking, the snow-capped peaks, awe-inspiring. It's worth braving the treacherous roads for the views, to mingle pleasantly with the locals and breathe some cool, fresh air, free of choking exhaust fumes and thick humidity. I hope to return again.