A day at the Taj…

On our last day in India, we visited the most romantic, most admired, most lavish declaration of love in India, and maybe the world: the Taj Mahal. Despite seeing photos of the architectural masterpiece my entire life, I had never learned the story behind the Taj until today…

[Anxiously awaiting the train for a day-trip to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal…]

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.42.20 AM

Built in 1632, the Taj Mahal is a symbol of the love that the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had for his third (and favorite) wife, Mumtaz Muhal. During the birth of their 14th child, Mumtaz died, and Shah Jahan went into mourning for a year. When he finally emerged, he built the Taj Mahal as Mumtaz’s final resting place. After spending so much of the empire’s money to build the Taj (and threatening to build a duplicate black version of the Taj Mahal for his own tomb!), Shah Jahan’s son sent his father to prison in Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was able to gaze out his prison window at his wife’s mausoleum until his death. Although there were originally no plans for Shah Jahan’s body to be placed inside the Taj Mahal, his son extended him the courtesy of burying Shah Jahan beside his wife, where he remains today.

When we arrived in Agra (the city where the building is located), I was unsure whether I would really be moved by my first sight of the Taj Mahal. As we entered the courtyard and rounded the corner of the gardens, it appeared in the near-distance through an archway… and took my breath away. It was more beautiful than I had imagined. Against the perfect blue sky, it almost looked fake, exactly like the flat, hazy pictures of it that had formed my only memory of it until now.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
IMG_2095

Just inside the inner arch, dozens of people, mostly Indians, were taking family photos in front of the monument and pretending to “hold” the top minaret of the building:

 

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.42.49 AM

The Taj Mahal
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.57.27 AM

The Standard
I love the above pictures because, throughout our trip, we often felt too intrusive to take photos of the local people, and thus, we have very few pictures of the people that we were interacting with. These pictures capture so perfectly the true nature of my now-fading memory of many of the Indian men that we met, in terms of their style of dress, appearance, and [sometimes quirky] personalities. 🙂

[Note: the photo below is not a photo back-drop; we were really there.] 🙂

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.43.26 AM
The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

We were surprised to learn that the Taj Mahal, which is built entirely of white marble with inlaid jasper, jade, crystal, and turquoise from all over the Eastern world, is covered in black Arabic writing that depicts over 14 chapters of the Quran, some of which are read as part of Islamic funeral ceremonies.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.51.15 AM

[Us doning our cloth booties, which everyone is required to wear to protect the Taj’s pristine white marble floor.]

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.49.59 AM

Before we entered the building, we sat in the shade of one of its minarets and listened to the audio tour that we had picked up out front.

But before long, I had embarrassingly become the main attraction for other tourists at the site….

Celeb!
IMG_2122

As I peacefully sat trying to listen to my audio tour, increasingly more and more people started appearing in my quiet little corner and asking to take their picture with me. One lady even placed her baby in my lap and then stood next to me for what must have been a 5-minute photoshoot! Although Scott didn’t get a picture during the peak of the craziness, we easily had 15 people gathered into the frame at one point, with at least that many more people looking on.

Celeb!
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.50.59 AM

Although I didn’t really mind posing with them (even though my cheek muscles would beg to differ), eventually the Taj Mahal’s security guard left his post to disperse the crowd that had gathered around me– although some of them still managed to sneak in a few more photos before dispersing… 🙂

On the other side of things, this little dude jokingly would not get out of the frame of my picture until I took his photo….so I did:

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
IMG_2141

..and we still managed to get some cool shots without any people at all…

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India

When we entered the main mausoleum, we found ourselves in a large circular room with a large sarcophagus centered in the middle, the tomb of Mumtaz. In their quest to construct a perfect building, the Mughals built the Taj Mahal to be perfectly symmetrical– and it is, save for the sarcophagus of Shah Jahan that now sits just to the left of his wife (Jahan never intended for himself to be laid to rest there). Keeping with the symmetry of the building, the only way to view the tombs is to complete a perfect clockwise circle around the lovebirds and then exit the same way you entered.

After we left the main mausoleum, we decided to simply spend the day lounging in front of the Taj. We found some empty benches, pulled out our books, and just relaxed.

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 7.57.58 AM

Of course, in typical fashion, less than 10 minutes later three Indian guys had appeared on the bench next to us and were eager for some English practice. We talked about politics, the U.S., how we liked India, what book Scott had in his hand (Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”)…. Needless to say, we didn’t get any reading done, and by 4pm we were on our way back to the Agra train station and on our way to Delhi, where we would fly to Nepal the next day.

The Taj proved a magnificent way to end our 6-week tour of India, and we found it almost ironic that our last day and last morning in India were the easiest and most peaceful of our entire hectic 6 weeks there….

But not to let us go easily, India had one more trick up its sleeve, which reared its head during the first 2 minutes of our flight on Air India bound for Nepal. Our flight took off into a violent lighting storm and went through a series of terrifying drops and arcs while we were still very close to the ground. Scott was sitting one seat behind me, and we clung to each others’ sweaty hands through the opening in the seats, as others throughout the plane screamed with each drop. My entire body was filled with a level of anxiety I can’t describe or even remember now, and I kept thinking “It’s not worth it, it’s not worth it, just let me get home this one last time.” After we had passed through the worst of the drops, Scott asked me for a piece of paper and a pen.  A few minutes later, he slipped me a note between the seats. It was a love note… and although I’ll always keep it private and safe, I thought it was poignant to this post that he mentioned that as we were bouncing around in the sky, the thought occurred to him that if we hadn’t “made it”, our family back home would have found it fitting that we had spent our last day together at the Taj Mahal, the ultimate testament to love.  Fortunately of course, we would indeed survive another day.  (To pester them mostly :))

Now, people ask me if I’ll ever go back to India. I would go, but I have a long list of other places I want to see before I would ever consider going back. I would travel to the southern, tropical part of the country and try to find some interesting new foods to try, maybe go on a trek or two. I won’t be flying Air India though, and I won’t look forward to using the public bathrooms.

India, you were a roller coaster. So long!

 

Feeling at home in Ranikhet, India

We had some time before we needed to be back in Delhi (where we would be flying out of India), so we decided to break up the long drive from our homestay in Gopeshwar with a stopover in Ranikhet, one of the many “hill stations” (where families travel to higher climes to escape the often unbearable Indian summer heat) we had kept hearing about. What we thought would be a quick 3 hour hop-skip-jump on a bus turned out to be a 9-hour ride, rife with nerve-bending cliffs, gut-wrenching bathrooms,  and… chickens.

First, we kindly convinced our homestay owner to kindly take us to the bus station at 4:30 in the morning, where we hopped on a bus and spent the better part of the day bumping along on dusty foothill roads, with the bus pausing at every local stop along the way either to deliver a package (the bus actually doubled as the local mail service) or add more passengers to our already-full bus. Many passengers were on their way to or from the market, and many carried the sort of cargo you hear mentioned in common stories of travel in the developing world – big sacks of produce, livestock, motorbikes, etc – much of which had to be stacked on the roof.

One such piece of cargo, a large box of peeping chicks, was too precious to keep outside the bus, so a few passengers shoved around to let three women in saris and their box of birds squeeze in just behind our seat – with their box. Sitting in the increasingly hot and crowded bus with loudly-chirping chicks being loaded in behind us, Steph leaned over and whispered something about this being prime conditions for an H1N1 outbreak. Fortunately, we didn’t end up catching the flu, but in the process of letting the women board, one side of the box unexpectedly opened up and the baby chicks poured out the hole– right down the backs of our shirts… Not wanting to get infected with anything, we kindly just leaned forward and waited for a man to gather the chicks off of our seat behind us… and spent the next hour or two listening to their peeping behind our seat.

This particular bus trip also reminded us about one of the most mundane, most basic issues that we regularly encounter when traveling in places where we don’t know the local language….  Every time the driver stops a bus that we’re on, we don’t know whether it will be a short stop (<1 min), a longer stop (2-5 min), or a very long stop (1+ hours), because we don’t really have the skills to ask…. which presented obvious problems when knowing when we would have time to use the bathroom and/or grab a snack during our bus layovers.

The first time we got into one of these situations, we were 2+ hours into our 9-hour ride when Steph had to use the bathroom. The first time we stopped, Steph figured that the total journey would only take 3 hours, so she decided to hold it. Five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes later we were still idling in the middle of a village. Apparently, it would be a _ridiculously_ long stop. Eventually, Steph was on the verge of losing it, but we couldn’t ask the driver if we still had a while to wait or whether the minute Steph found a bathroom, she’d come out to find dust where the bus had once been. Steph finally decided to go for it. Feeling a little embarrassed, she walked up to the driver, who was by now working on his third cigarette outside, and pulled out her toilet paper and smiled. He motioned for her to follow him, and he stared asking around in Hindi where there was a toilet. In the end, no one really knew, and Steph was left to do the same toilet-paper-song-and-dance for the local restauranteur, who was working over a steaming bowl of chana masala. He led her down an alley stairwell, where the public bathrooms lined a wall across from his restaurant. Luckily, I didn’t have to use them, but sadly Steph reported that they were one of the most disturbing bathrooms she had had to use on our entire trip. The bathroom was a concrete block room, with a plywood door, no lights, and a slanted concrete floor. There was no toilet, no hole in the ground, only a trough tucked underneath the back wall of the room, where the lowest edge of the trough “emptied”. As far as Steph could tell, the object was to use the floor as the bathroom and then wash everything away using a cup of water (there was a spigot in the room) – And that’s exactly what she did, save for the fact that there was no water available to wash the floor. Ugh! She survived the whole experience but returned feeling pretty disheartened and frustrated about the state of India’s hygiene and infrastructure, particularly given that that we were in one of its most wealthy, educated states. Luckily, she made it back before the bus peeled out and continued its path towards Ranikhet.

Not one to be outdone in the nerve-wracking-bathroom-experiences category, I was the next one of us to have to play will-the-bus-leave-me-before-I-get-back roulette the next time we stopped. Not to mention, Steph was getting hungry and cranky and asking that I buy her some Doritos (her one occasional western weakness during the trip). I took off for the bathroom with my grocery list, grabbed the Doritos, and managed to find myself mid-stream just in time to hear the bus driver laying on the horn. I sprinted out of the bathroom, saw Steph waving me over to the bus frantically, and jumped onto the rolling and honking bus, just in time for the door to slam shut behind me. (Note to future travelers: learn to ask how long until the bus leaves in your country-of-choice’s local language.)

After a while, the crowd on the bus thinned out and a local fellow passenger chatted us up about the villages we were passing, the wedding he was headed to, and his thoughts on India’s upcoming elections (and ours back in the US), all of which helped the ever-longer bus ride pass a little faster. Soon, we were climbing up windy roads through noticeably cooler weather and tall pine forests, and we finally, finally reached Ranikhet. What looked to be only 100 km (60 miles) on the map had indeed taken us a solid 9 hours to cross. And we weren’t over schedule either!

In Ranikhet, we had already booked a place to stay at a homestay in the area, so we just had to recharge our internet sim card and grab a taxi over to their house – sounds easy, right? Not in India. Recharging the SIM meant spending over an hour on the phone with cell carriers, and the taxi driver got us to agree to a too-high price to drive what amounted to about 4 miles. (We only paid him about ~$10, but we later learned from our host that it should have cost us $1). Nonetheless, around dinner time we finally made it to the homestay, and right away we knew we’d found a good place to drop our bags.

Upon arriving at our homestay, Shree Haidakhan Guesthouse, our very warm hosts Mr. and Mrs. Seth made us feel at home right away with a great cup of Chai milk tea and cookies on the porch outside our very clean room.

Ranikhet, India

Ranikhet, India

Monkeys on the porch outside our room:
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.03.55 AM

Ranikhet, India
Ranikhet, India

The Seths gave us a tour of the property, during which we learned that the Seths live downstairs in the home during the high-season and rent out the top floor of their home to guests. (During the cold low-season, they back move to their home in Agra, farther south, for 6 months.) We also learned that Mr. Seth was a lawyer before he retired and entered the home-stay business, and together the Seths have two grown, married daughters, who live in India and Thailand.

For the next few days, we were treated like family and spent much of our time around the property just talking with them about life in Ranikhet, their winters in Agra (site of the Taj Mahal), Mr. Seth’s love of U.S. movies (including Jurassic Park and The Terminator, among others), and their family. They proudly gave us a tour of their rose garden and simply gave us insight into how a typical middle class family in India lives and thinks about the state of India and the world.

At the Seths’ house, we received the best food we had in our entire 6 weeks in India, cooked at home in their kitchen by Mrs. Seth. In particular, her dahl (lentil) soup was amazing (we just received the recipe from her via email!).

One night, the Seths’ daughter from Thailand was home for a visit with her parents and a friend, and we were invited to her friend’s birthday party with the family. The Seths, who wanted to keep the 6-person “party” a surprise, asked us to “casually” come downstairs at 9pm on the dot and act like we were helping Mr. Seth with his website, at which time Mrs. Seth sprang from the kitchen with a cake singing Happy Birthday! Mrs. Seth had made a traditional Indian cake (unleavened milk cake) that we shared; she was disappointed that it was not her best version of the cake. It was a little dense and more like our version of cornbread than cake, but we enjoyed both it and the evening immensely.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.05.08 AM Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.05.19 AM
Ranikhet, India

Ranikhet, India

One day, Mr. Seth said that he heeded some help on his website, and when he discovered that I was a web developer, he was overjoyed. Apparently, for years his website form had been sending reservation requests from potential guests to the wrong email address– the address of the person who had built the website for him, in fact. Apparently, the woman who had built the site for him wasn’t timely in her ability to forward emails to Mr. Seth (he acknowledged that it certainly wasn’t her job to have to do so, in the first place), so he would often receive reservation requests much later than a guest would want to reserve a room. When we found out about it, the 3 of us all got a big laugh out of it, and I promptly got to work fixing the issue. Five minutes later, Mr. Seth’s reservation requests were finally heading to the correct email address (i.e., his).

From then on, Mr. Seth decided to take me under his wing a bit– he would express his concern about the posture that I use when using my laptop and and council us on the dangers of climbing the Everest Trail (which we had mentioned we were doing next). We assured him many, many times that we would be extremely careful and would update him as soon as we were safely off of the mountain.

One day, Mr. Seth suggested we visit Ranikhet’s famous Bhole Baba Ayurvetic Hospital, which was established on the teachings of Mahavatar Babaji, a prophet or saint of sorts in the Hindu religion, from what I gather. He said it would help “purify the toxins from our bodies” and leave us feeling young and healthy. The hospital offered treatments ranging from massage to many-month-long ayurvedic healing, which involves a very strict diet, hours of daily meditation, yoga, and loads of unusual treatments we’d never before heard of – often involving oil being poured over you in one way or another. On Mr. Seth’s recommendation, we decided to schedule a massage and lunch at the clinic.

Aruvedic Research Center, Ranikhet, India

The massage itself was… memorable, to say the least. Upon arrival, Steph and I were first counseled by a doctor who informed us that the massage would cause toxins in our bodies to be absorbed into our colons, where they would be permanently purified from our bodies upon our morning bowel movements the next day! (…We uh, couldn’t wait!) We were then whisked off to separate, private rooms for the next hour, in which we were both instructed to strip down to well– nothing– after which they adorned us each with a loin cloth. Mind you, we did not have the luxury of getting into our birthdays suits in private or putting the loincloths on ourselves– all in the name of medicine, I suppose!

Then, we were asked to sit in a wooden chair (naked, all but the loincloth), while one masseuse gave us each a head massage with oil. (In case you were skimming the above paragraph, I was to re-emphasize that Steph and I were in separate rooms for our entire treatments– This was not some romantic experience, and I’m only saying “we” because we were given identical treatments.). Next, our personal 2-person therapist teams coated each of us with hot oil and did this sort of head-to-toe back-and-forth pressure massage, racing back and forth with their hands, while we laid face-up and then later, face-down. Apparently, the goal was to press the hot oil into our pores, which would eventually help with digestion and the release of toxins, sort of like a cleanse, apparently (?). After the oil “absorbed” for 20 minutes or so, I was directed to sit on another chair inside a trapezoidal metal box that looked more like a torture chamber than a treatment chamber. I was instructed to sit inside it, with my head poking out a hole at the top, and the door was closed around me. The box was then pumped full of very hot steam, and I sat in it for roughly 10 minutes. I wasn’t much for the massage technique, myself, but I must say this part was pretty nice. (Steph wasn’t a huge fan of either part, however; apparently she not only has a fear of being in enclosed spaces but also a fear of being naked in front of strange women.)

After that, we were given bathrobes and directed to the “resting” room, where posters of Mahavatar Babaji were plastered all over the grey concrete walls. We were told to rest as long as we wanted on the twin beds provided, although we weren’t really able to relax, being all oily and sweaty and…gross. Steph snapped a picture of me in the nap room, still steaming from the hotbox treatment and feeling not entirely clear about the benefits of the massage.

Aruvedic Research Center, Ranikhet, India

After not-napping for 10 minutes, we walked over to the shower rooms, where we were given a bucket (to fill with water to pour over ourselves) and some gritty orange veggie-based powder to get the oil off of our skin. Once clean again (albeit with clumpy orange flakes tangled into our still-oily hair), we enjoyed a very good lunch at the hospital’s “canteen room”, which served ayurvedic food designed to aid in digestion after the cleansing massage. The lunch included yellow lentils, sliced cucumbers, fruit, and filtered water, which we were told to eat in silence, in order to concentrate on the food we were eating and appreciate each and every morsel. Nearby, a table full of German women were whispering away, and we later found out that one of them was here for a full 3 months for treatments and was very much feeling the health benefits of her treatment. We weren’t sure our treatments did anything for our bodies other than covering them in a thick oil that would take days to fully wash away, but we were happy about having undergone the whole experience…and had a good time laughing at whatever the heck it was we just did.

The next day, we moved on from Raniket. Luckily, we kept in touch with the Seths after we left and continue to do so to this day. Because so many of our stories focus on the difficulties of interacting with people in India, we felt it was important to include a sampling of their very endearing emails to us here to give a more balanced perspective of our time there….

Dear Scott,
 Trust you must have reached Delhi very comfortably. Which transport you
 took from Haldwani to Delhi?
 Send me photos of the base camp where you intend to go in Nepal.
 My wife joins me in sending loving regards to Stephanie.
--------------------------
Dear Scott and Stephnie,
My younger daughter and my son in law along with my grand daughter are here. Having good time. Where are you nowadays? More photos are required.
Love to both of you.
----------------------------------------
----------------------------------------
[After seeing some of our Flickr pictures....]
You have been to Taj Mahal also! Really having a good times.
N JOY
------------------------------------------
Dear Stephanie,
Wish you a very happy and enjoyable birthday and lot of Blessings from me and my wife.
You people have taken wonderful photos.
Namche Bazar must be around 12000 ft from sea level. It seems a very interesting place.
Send me more photos.
-------------------------
Dear Scott and Stephanie
Trust you both are well. My wife and me quite often remember you both. We hope you must have reached home by now.
Please share your experiences with us.
--------------------------------------
Dear Scott and Stephanie,
 Hope you would have returned to your home by now. I am reminding you to send
 photos of the base camp in Nepal to me. Write me about the places you
 visited after India.Love to you both.
---------------------------------------------

{And the latest email…}

My Dear Scott,
Trust you are all well. Have you returned to the house near sea?

I am enclosing recipe for Moong Dal.

My wife tell me that all Dals are made in almost same style but the frying ingredients differ from each other. Instead of butter use Indian Ghee (Butter oil) if available there which will give you a much better flavor.
Best wishes to both of you.

Tea with a Baba

If there is one lesson that I have learned about traveling, it is this: never can we plan the most memorable moments of our trips.

Our hike that day in Gopeshwar (India) had started out like any other hike on our trip. Our guide for the day, Rishidash, wanted to show us a waterfall high up on a mountain in a remote area of northern India. Finding it, he said, would require passing through a small village and then climbing a steep path for several hours.

We set out in a light rain early that morning, with Rishidash walking far ahead of us (as our guides always seemed to do). We passed through the village built of tiny one-room concrete homes, set in a lush valley with rivers running along its western bank.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.15.11 AM

Gopeshwar, India

Gopeshwar, India

Eventually, we reached the base of the mountain (we didn’t catch its name), where women carrying heavy loads of sticks piled high on their backs were just finishing their morning shifts.

Gopeshwar, India

We began winding up the meandering rocky path, full of tight switchbacks, and we could occassionally steal glances of the beautiful valley and the now dollhouse-like village that we had just passed through.

Gopeshwar, India

After a couple of hours of climbing, we passed through an old monastery set near the top of the mountain; we thought we had reached the top of the mountain (we had indeed rung the monastery’s bell at the top, proving that we had made it..), but mysteriously more and more trail kept appearing in front of us, and we kept winding our way higher and higher up its face.

Gopeshwar, India

Gopeshwar, India

As we were crossing over a small stream using a felled-tree, I noticed a purple tarp pulled across the front of a cave to our left, with some bright yellow cloths scattered about the rocks.  “Do you think someone is living in there??” I whispered to Scott, wondering why someone would choose to live so remotely and humbly.  Then I noticed the miniature solar panels that were set up just outside the cave entrance… some pretty well-off hermit, I suppose. We stared at the set-up for a few seconds and shrugged and continued in the direction of the waterfall.

Gopeshwar, India

We eventually came around a bend and found ourselves halfway up the face of the massive waterfall. We continued walking along the path toward the fall, when we found ourselves blocked by a rockface wall with nothing but a sheer drop (that must have been over one hundred feet long) to the right.  Wondering how we would navigate around this wall, Rishidash pointed to the downward-facing arrow that had been spray-painted on the wall in front of us. We couldn’t read the Hindi writing that was next to it, but Rishidash’s movements told us all that we needed to know: we were going under the rockface. RIshidash went first, pulling himself through the tiny crawlspace below the boulder.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.14.15 AM

The only way through.

As Scott began pulling himself under the rocks, my heart began pounding harder and harder, my palms sweating profusely… Being claustrophobic, this was my idea of torture. When I could see Scott’s feet stand up on the other side of the crawlspace, I took a few deep breaths and dove right in– I knew that if I hesitated for one second longer, I wouldn’t do it. I began pulling myself along the cold rough rock floor, slightly wet from the spitting mists let off by the waterfall. It was much harder than I had imagined; my instinct was to lift myself to my knees so that I could crawl, but there simply wasn’t enough room. I would try to lift up, only to have my lower back hit the rocks above. I knew I’d have to continue flat on my belly or not at all. My only means of leverage was to use the very tips of my fingers to dig into the rocks and to push myself along inch-by-inch with my toes, scraping up my clothes in the process. I was terrified of having a claustrophobia-induced attack, so I pulled and pushed and slithered the whole way with my eyes completely closed… which might seem like a good idea, were it not for the sheer drop-off that hung only inches away from my right. Unfortunately, the rock floor was slightly slanted towards the drop-off, and I could hear Scott coaching me as I crawled toward him at an awkward angle with my eyes shut: “Left! Go more left!!!”.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.20.11 AM
The only way through.

(Above, fake smile for the camera. Notice the sheer drop-off on my right.)

In less than a minute, I was through. I want to say that it felt exhilarating to have it behind us, but I knew that to get home, we’d have to pass through it one more time on the way back. Needless to say, my enjoyment of the waterfall was dampened; it was one of the tallest waterfalls I had ever seen, but I was filled with such incredible anxiety and trepidation, afraid that I physically wouldn’t be able to go through the crawlspace even one final time. I would, forever, be stuck on this side of the waterfall.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.17.34 AM

Gopeshwar, India

(Above, notice the crawlspace on the far left in the pic: the only way back to the real world. And yep, you’re looking in the right spot; it was really that small. Did I mention it was horrible?)

Although I’ve seen a few waterfalls in my life, this one was truly special. We were able to walk behind it, half-way up the wall of water and watch it hit far below. We were never able to capture its full height in the camera lens, and it was much more more impressive than it appears in any of our pictures.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.17.18 AM

Gopeshwar, India

Gopeshwar, India

As we were getting ready to leave, I started sweating again, and Rishidash could sense my rising fear about shimmying back through the crawlspace-of-death. With motions and some broken English, he half-way indicated that there might be another way out. “Yes!” I exclaimed, hoping that what I thought he was saying was correct. We obediently followed, trying not to raise our hopes of an easier escape…

Rishidash had us crawl down onto some rocks in the pool of the waterfall itself, and –voila– there was indeed a second trail that led out of the falls and back to the original trail!

Although we had begun heading back towards Gopeshwar and our day-hike was half-way over, we could never have known that the highlight of our hike had yet to come…

As we once again passed over the felled tree, Rishidash pointed out the purple tarp that we had noticed before. “A baba (guru/religious elder) lives there,” he said. Noticing our interest, Rishidash poked his head inside the tarp covering the face of the cave and said “…but the baba is not home today. See, have a look inside his home.”

Scott cautiously approached the cave and stuck his head inside the tarp, as I stood back and watched. Suddenly, Scott’s face retreated as quickly as it had entered – “The baba is home!” he exclaimed, just as a stern-faced man wearing a faded orange beanie beanie and a green cloak poked his head out after Scott. The baba was definitely home. And he was not happy about us poking our faces inside his house.

Rishidash quickly began speaking in Hindi, trying to offer an explanation as to why we had just invaded his space. The baba stood silently as we all listened to Rishidash’s tireless excuses, embarrassed for the situation that was unfolding. After the baba had heard enough, he reached into his cave and pulled out a faded, brown notebook. He flipped to an empty page and began writing. Rishidash began looking over the baba’s shoulder, nodding and answering whatever the baba was writing on the notepad.

“Wow. I think he’s taken a vow of silence!” I whispered to Scott, perhaps a little too loudly, although I figured the baba didn’t speak English anyway– he certainly would have been one of the only people to know English in our last 2 weeks of traveling through the state of Uttarakhand.

The baba turned to look at us next. He had a kind face, and his smooth brown shiny skin and soft brown eyes made him appear years younger than his greying beard implied. His curved lips were pursed in a way that made him seem like he were constantly on the verge of spilling a private joke. Red and yellow lines of paint decorated his forehead, and his bare toes spread in such a manner that suggested he had never worn a closed-toe pair of shoes.

He whipped open his notebook and scrawled something on one of the pages. Instead of showing it to Rishidash this time, he showed it to Scott. In English, it read “Which country?”

Shocked that he knew English (let alone, written English), Scott and I laughed and eventually gathered ourselves enough to reply “America.” The baba smiled and wagged his head in approval.

“What is your name?” he scribbled. And then “Would you like some tea?”

When we said we would love a cup of tea, he motioned for us to remove our shoes and leave them outside of the cave. He led us inside in our stockinged-feet and unrolled a green straw mat on the cave floor for us to sit on.

My eyes took several minutes to fully adjust to the darkness, and for those minutes, I simply sat in the pitch dark in this baba’s cave, in the middle of India, and just smiled.

There are a handful of moments from our travels that I look back on with that feeling of completely surreality. This was one of those moments.  With questions swirling in my head (“Where am I?” and “How do I wind up in these situations?”), I slowly began to make out the various shapes around the room, while the baba busied himself gathering firewood for our tea.

Waiting for our tea:
Tea at the Baba's
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.18.00 AM

We were sitting to the right side of the main entryway, where on the floor there lay an unlit wood pile and, to the side of that, a wooden platform serving as a bed. Around the edges of the room were low wooden planks tacked up to the wall as shelves. Behind us were a few steel glasses for serving tea and a few more notebooks. Ahead of us was another shelf holding a lantern, another notepad, and a single thick white textbook: “Computers” by Peter Norton:

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.17.51 AM
Tea at the Baba's

To our right was another low platform in a very dark corner of the cave; apparently, this was where the baba had been meditating when Scott poked his head into his hut and woken him up.

The baba eventually returned with the firewood and began pouring water, milk creamer, tea, pepper, and other spices into a silver pot that was set on top of the fire.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.18.09 AM
Tea at the Baba's

Everyone was silent; Scott and I didn’t know whether to remain silent out of respect or whether we could freely ask him questions. Finally, as if reading our minds, the baba broke the awkward “silence” and wrote:

“Who will win the next U.S. election?”

Laughing, we answered with who we hoped would win the next election in November. After a few minutes, I gathered the courage to ask him the same question. He motioned to both of us and nodded– his answer was the same.

He returned to tending the tea, then picked up his pad again.  “Colorado– is it a city or a province?”

I answered and then laughed, “You know about Colorado?”

He laughed and gave me a look that said “Do I look like I live in a cave or something?”……….

He eventually responded, “I met a police official from the U.S. last year. She was from Colorado.” And then, “What state are you from?”

“Florida state,” I answered. Scott answered “Massachusetts. Do you know Boston?”

“M.I.T.”, wrote the smiling Baba.

“Haha, yes! And do you know Harvard also? I went there!”, I said, which was answered by a big head-wag from the baba.

Finally feeling like the good-natured baba didn’t mind scribbling every few minutes as he prepared our tea, I asked him, “How long have you lived here?”

The baba held up a single finger.
“One year?” I asked.
Nod.
“How long do you plan to stay here?”
“Indefinite.”

While we waited for the tea to boil, the baba made us some tiny sandwiches by spreading strawberry jam on some round crackers. Perhaps I was just hungry from our hike, but the jam was the best I’ve ever tasted. When the tea was finally ready, we were busy chatting away with Rishidash, who had just learned that I was a biologist (so is he, apparently). The baba began snapping his fingers at us to get our attention so that we could hand him the tea filter that was sitting behind us…we quickly obliged! He filtered the hot milk tea and poured it into 4 small steel cups, passing one to me first and then Scott.

As we sat and sipped the deliciously sweet tea, Scott finally asked, motioning to the book across from us, “You’re learning about computers?”

Nod from the baba. Then he wrote, “I’m working on a little problem on bio-computation–”

More scribbling…

” –of the human mind….”

(Hmmm, is this the part where we get abducted and “donate” our brains to science?)

With the elephant in the room looming larger by the minute, I eventually couldn’t stand it any longer: “How long do you stay silent?”

“Till noon,” he wrote.

“And how long do you usually meditate in a day?”

“6-8 [hours].”

Then Scott said to the baba, “Your English is very good; where did you learn it?”

The baba simply pointed to the sky and smiled.

He thought about it a minute more and then wrote, “If you follow an honest path, the Lord will provide for your every need.” (We were tempted by the urge to test out this divine ability by trying out his Spanish, but we resisted. Kidding……)

He continued, “I used to be an eye surgeon. In Uttar Pradesh, near Lucknow.”

“You are no longer a surgeon, then?”

The baba shook his head.  “I have devoted my life to a higher purpose entirely.”

I nodded and asked, “Are you a follower of Hindu? Lord Shiva?”

He answered, “India is a land of religions.” Then, “The one true God has many names.”More scribbling… “Lord Shiva is also Jesus.”

I nodded and placed my hand over my chest. “I think so too.”

We sat in silence for a few more minutes, then I leaned over to place my empty tea glass on the hearth surrounding the fire. The baba shook his finger at my cup vigorously, still managing to remain silent– apparently the hot cup was bad news for his newly constructed cowdung hearth. I apologized profusely, quickly pulling it back onto the rock floor. Then he tossed a piece of charcoal into each of our glasses and instructed us to swirl them around to clean the glasses. Then we followed him out the entrance of the cave to the river nearby, where we gave the glasses a final swish and declared them clean.

As we were putting on our shoes to leave, the baba approached us again and wrote, “My mobile phone is not charging properly. Have a look.”

Having a look at his mobile was the least we could do to thank him, so Scott followed him back inside the cave. Scott found the charger properly plugged into the solar panel that we had seen sitting outside of the cave, but he instantly figured out (from our past week in freezing Chopta) that the phone battery was simply too cold to charge properly. Scott rubbed the battery in his hands for a few minutes, and voila! It started working. The baba was grateful.

We thanked the baba for his generosity and turned to go, but he waved us back once more.

“Have a visit to a Ram Krishna Mission Centre in the U.S. There are many viz. Boston.” Scribbling….. “It will do you tremendously good.” We nodded politely and smiled, but the baba decided to really drive his point home: “You need insight.”   (As I’m thinking, Isn’t it noon yet?? Why don’t you just say that out loud, buddy?)

For good measure, he copied his advice again onto a separate sheet of paper that we could take home with us:

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.18.25 AM
A note from the Baba

We again thanked the baba for his generosity and turned with Rishidash to continue on our long hike home.

That night, we settled back into our homestay in Gopeshwar, where Rishidash and his family lived and were providing for us. Normally, the women prepared humble but delicious meals for us consisting of rice, yellow lentil soup, hot chai, salted cucumbers, and curried vegetables. Although our trip with Rishdash did not cost us that much, the payment seemed to be a welcome treat for his family, and that night we and the family were dining on thick, grizzly cuts of roast mutton… As I gnawed away at the spiced mutton bones by candlelight, thoughts from the day swirled in my head:  …”a little problem on bio-computation of the human mind”??? A random woman from Colorado? Had the baba gone off the deep-end? Had he really been an eye-surgeon at all? And, What kind of insight did I really need???

A pilgrimage to Tungnath Temple, Chopta, India

Aside from being a beautiful place, Chopta is well-known as being the base village for those wishing to climb Tungnath Mountain, one of the highest Himalayan peaks in India. We didnt really have plans to climb the mountain before arriving it Chopta, but it was there, so, we did.

The morning of our climb, we stuffed some Digestif high-energy biscuits in our pockets and set out from our guesthouse a little past 6 in the morning.  The weather was clear, and the view of the Himalayas was just incredible.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.26.25 AM
Climbing Tungnath

About 4km up the hill from our hotel, we reached the village center of Chopta, which we discovered is not much more than a couple of noodle shops, a guesthouse, and a few single-room shacks for the 30 or so residents who live there.

Climbing Tungnath

..well, that, and adorable sheepdog puppies…
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.28.11 AM

Sheepdog pups

From there, we passed under the arch that marks the start of the climb up Tungath, ringing the bell as we went.

Climbing Tungnath

We started down an ancient cobblestone pathway, lined by green trees bursting with pink rhododendrons. The air around us was silent, and it appeared that we were the first and only people climbing Tungnath that day. A light dusting of snow had fallen overnight, and it made the rhododendrons along path all the more colorful.
Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.03.54 PM

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Monal (pheasant-like bird) tracks along the path.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6942339838/in/set-72157629840757187

Climbing Tungnath

As we climbed up and past the tree line, the terrain changed from lush greenery to harsh and frozen terrain, where snow had accumulated from the storm the night before….

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.04.56 PM
Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

..and the incredible Himalayans in the distance finally came into view as we neared the top.

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 9.06.29 PM
Climbing Tungnath

Rest huts for pilgrims:

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

As we rounded the final corner of the trail, after 4 hours of hiking, we reached a series of buildings– we had expected there to be a temple at the top, but we were not expecting to see what appeared to be an entire village!  Steph rung the giant bell at the entrance to announce our presence. As we looked around, however, we realized we were the only ones there.

At over 12,000 feet high, the temple at the top of Tungnath (meaning Lord of the peaks) is one of the highest in the world. It is the highest Hindu shrine dedicated to the god Shiva, and we were told by several locals that the temple is over 5,000 years old… the Wikipedia entry has it listed at at 1,000 years old, but who knows…
IMG_1986IMG_1997

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Although the entrance into the temple would be closed for another month (it is only open during summer months), we wandered through the snow-covered grounds of the temple complex, where we also found a small monastery, what appeared to be a school, and a smattering of other small buildings. Across the valley from Tungnath, it seemed we could see all of the Indian Himalayas.

We were shocked that only 1,000 feet farther down the mountain we had been enjoying balmy T-shirt weather, while now we were trudging through fresh knee-deep snow! Although we would have liked to have spent more time gazing at the views, Steph’s tennis shoes were thoroughly soaked, and and her toes were going numb by the time we decide to turn around and head down.

Just as we were began our descent, we were stopped in our tracks…

IMG_2001
Climbing Tungnath

Could that be? Barefoot prints in the snow? (Just to be clear: it was utterly freezing at the top of Tungnath… 12,000 feet doesn’t afford much in the way of heat!)  But sure enough, just as soon as Steph slipped on an ice slick onto her butt, the Barefoot Baba (yogi, religious person) himself came upon us. “Namaste!” we greeted each other. (If he spoke English, he probably would have told us that you get better traction on these ice slicks when you’re barefoot.) Later, we were told that he lives at the top of Tungnath, caring for the temple alone during the winter, and that he lives extremely minimally, and indeed, does not wear any shoes.
IMG_2000 2

Climbing Tungnath

Some scenes from the way back down…

IMG_2009
Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

Climbing Tungnath

A large white-headed monkey.

Chopta, India

After our trek, we packed up our belongings and enjoyed our last night in Chopta, assuming our usual positions by the outdoor dung fire. We were really getting tired of the cold and had devised every method to try to overcome it: bringing hot coals into our room at night; wearing 6 shirts each at all times (seriously); not bathing. Steph really took it to the next level on this particular night and ended up melting her shoes in the fire while attempting to thaw out her frozen feet.

The following morning, we loaded into an old safari “Maxx” jeep and took off for our next stop, Gopeshwar (…a completely random choice on the map that would eventually take us back to Delhi in time for the following week). The road between Chopta and Gopeshwar is not really a road, it turns out– it’s more like an off-road dirt track, full of downed-trees and pot-holes. Indeed, our hotel’s caretakers had to call several taxi drivers before one would even agree to take us. Needless to say, it was more than a little bumpy…

Chopta, India

Chopta, India

Chopta, India

Chopta was an experience. Despite cold temperatures, painful sickness, and less than comfortable living conditions, the quiet beauty of Chopta and friendliness of its people combined to make it one of our favorite stops of all…

On to Gopeshwar!

Thank you Jesus for Chopta

As our taxi to the tiny, remote village of Chopta approached the Himalayan foothills, our frustrations from a very rough start began to melt away. The road climbed higher and higher and slimmed to a winding, dusty line, barely clinging to the steep sides of the mountains. We sped along, passing the occasional overloaded utility truck barreling down the mountain, and looking out our window at the Ganges hundreds of feet below made us glad we were on the inside of corner on the turns.

River Ganges, India

Knowing we were headed into the mountains where cell service can be spotty, I whipped out my Macbook to get some work done while Steph attempted to rekindle a friendship with our driver.

Chopta, India

To prepare for the weeks holed up in the mountain villages ahead, we stopped off at the last major town and unloaded all that its ATM machine would give us.  Back in the car, time seemed to fly by, and before long, we saw our first peek (peak?) of the majestic Himalayan mountains in the distance… Steph grabbed my arm and let out a dramatic gasp; it was massive and beautiful. (…and the mountains were pretty nice too. 🙂 ).

The villages on the map slowly began to tick away. We were having fun; yes, this was traveling again! Our taxi climbed ever upward, eventually towering over a bright green maze of stepped farming terraces.

Chopta, India

Rain set in as our taxi rounded the final ridges leading into Chopta. But thankfully, traffic this far out was nonexistent (I noticed that the cell service was as well…). Only minutes earlier, I’d uploaded all of the work I’d done that day up to the web server so my colleagues back in Boston wouldn’t be inconvenienced – whew. Another hair-raising, foggy corner or two, and we were finally there.

Maya Deep Herbal Resort, Chopta

We paid our driver the agreed-upon amount, without bothering to bring up his brother again (amazing what a change in scenery can do!), and we wandered down a small dirt road following a sign to a guesthouse we’d found recommended online, The Maya Deep Herbal Resort. When we arrived at the hotel, the old caretaker greeted us and showed us our room in his beautiful red-roofed cottage, while his sons served us hot milk chai tea.

IMG_1900IMG_1898

Ahhhhh- this place was exactly what we were looking for. Just a day earlier, we were dodging beeping traffic and pooping cows in a crazy city (as much as we loved Amritsar, really, it was batshit crazy walking around there); now, we could finally exhale, stretch our arms to either side without touching another person, hear nothing but our own breath and the flapping of birds’ wings.

Chopta, India

It was the first time on our trip that we had encountered any semblance of cold weather, and the crisp cool air reminded us of the fall season we had missed back home.  As soon as the sun dipped behind the Himalayas in the background, it started to get cold…fast. Soon enough, we heard pounding on the roof of our room and ran outside to find hail, and eventually snowpelting the grounds of the hotel! Good thing we bought those North Fake jackets (for $27! 🙂) back in Rishikesh!

We decided to stay at Maya Deep for a couple of nights.  I should note that we never did figure out what was particularly “herbal” or “resort”-like about it… but that was fine with us. It was completely quiet (we were the only people there) and relaxing and a much-needed break from the crazy cities of India. About the only problem with the place was the complete lack of cell service, which I’d need to get any work done online. I knew I’d need to get creative to post my work, but at least for that night, I was covered by my earlier post.

Another tiny problem that we should have taken to heart more seriously that first night was the issue of showering in Chopta. There is no internal heating or insulation in any of the buildings in Chopta (or anywhere else we ventured in northern India), meaning our room and bathroom were freezing– definitely hitting somewhere in the 40s at times. We were able to order a bucket of hot water from the kitchen to pour over us for baths, and the first time around, it was a little exciting (we were used to taking bucket baths, but never heated bucket baths, delivered by the hotel staff…) What was at first sort of fun and novel got real old, real fast, and it became impossible to bathe some days. Even in spite of the heated water, there were long stretches of time between throws of water when I’d need both hands free to soap up, where I was left shivering uncontrollably and utterly miserable. More on that later.

On our first morning, we spent the day hiking the various hills in the area surrounding our guesthouse. Chopta was gorgeous, like a miniature Switzerland: cows with bells ringing on their necks grazed in the green hills, cobblestone cottages dotted the landscape, villagers worked the land all around.

Chopta, India

IMG_1905 2IMG_1908

Chopta, India

IMG_1926 2http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/7088378931/in/set-72157629840757187

Chopta, India

That night, our host family served us a delicious dinner in our room: dahl (lentil) curry soup, chapati (unleavened bread– the ubiquitous utensil of India), papad (a spicy, thin fried cracker), sliced cucumbers with masala seasoning, curried cauliflower, hot chai tea, and steamed rice.

IMG_1910 2http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/7088371087/in/set-72157629840757187

Looking at that image above, I don’t need to tell you hold cold it was in Chopta, especially at night. During dinner, we would bundle up as much as possible during dinner and throw blankets from the bed over our legs just to stop shivering. After dinner, we would immediately go to bed (usually by 7:30pm!) and not leave its confines until we absolutely had to.

A challenge in getting work done…

Throughout most of our trip, getting my work done while on the road has been unexpectedly easy; the biggest challenge was usually figuring out which time of day would be best. In Chopta, it was a bit harder. This part goes out to my friends at work…

Unfortunately, despite the freezing rain that pelted our hotel each night, I still had to find a way to send the work I’d done that afternoon to my colleagues back in Boston.  I had to wait until nighttime each day to post my work, because there is no electricity in Chopta, and the hotels in town only turn on their generators for an hour or two each evening (usually starting at 7:00). Again, there was no cell service on the grounds of the hotel, so after charging my laptop for 30 minutes I would have to hike out into the mountains to find a signal. This particular night, I had just finished getting some charge into my laptop by around 8pm, so I strapped my headlamp on, grabbed my macbook, internet dongle, rain jacket and umbrella, and set off down the stairs. Because the caretaker locks the gates to the hotel each night immediately after dinner, he agreed to wait up while I went to the top of the hill to “make a call”, and I set out into the dark, driving rain. It was pouring. It was freezing. It was pitch black.

I began walking down the dirt road that we’d come in on, knowing it led up to the road where a tea stall was located, and supposedly, a decent cell signal. I kept walking, the light of my headlamp bouncing off the trees around me. But the road was going downhill instead of up, right instead of left, closing in instead of opening up…. The woods around me were getting thicker, and the surroundings looked completely unfamiliar. After a few minutes of walking, I decided to turn back and see where I went wrong – surely I missed a turn. After a while, I reached the guesthouse again without seeing any turnoffs for the main road along the way. Strange. I asked our host which way to go and in the little we could communicate, he assured me I was headed the right way. But I knew the road was no more than 50 feet in length – that just wasn’t it, and oddly, I never had noticed a second path during the day…

I ventured out again, and despite looking hard with my flashlight, I was soon on the path in the same part of the woods, listening to crackling forest sounds and getting increasingly nervous. I’d already gone back once, so I pressed on. The path just kept going, and the rain was getting heavier and heavier. At this point, I knew I was on the wrong road, and merely hoped that it too would lead to the main road. I came to a fork in the path, chose a left turn, then promptly stepped deep into a puddle, soaking my socks. Frustrated, my heart beginning to race, I picked up the pace and wound around a couple more turns. I began hearing my footsteps echo in the trees around me, and to my nervous mind it sounded like I was being followed. Suddenly, I came to a guardrail – the main road at last! By then I was about 300 feet down from the tea stalls. I hiked up and found one of the shops, and ducked inside one of the tarp walls, as the rain was too hard to open my computer outside, even under an umbrella. Despite my last-minute worry as I went in, thankfully, nobody was sleeping inside, and I sat down, pulled out my computer, and hooked up the internet dongle. Fingers crossed….

No service.

I tried all I could fiddling with the settings, but there was nothing there. No bars.

I had my Android phone in my pocket – maybe it’d get a better signal than the dongle? I turned it on and switched on internet tethering, making a wifi cafe of this tin little tea shop with tarpaulin walls. A faint single bar signal appeared on the Android – a surprise! I connected my Mac to the wifi and pressed the send button. Fail. Pressed again. Fail. No web connection. It wasn’t going to happen from the tea shops.

I considered walking further up the road where I knew there was a ridge and probably better service. But we’d been told that these mountains have large cats – cougars, and even tigers in the lower elevations – I admit I was scared to walk up the hill at night. As responsible as I always try to be, my work would have to wait this time. I resolved to walking back to the guesthouse, this time easily finding the 50-foot long road that took me straight in.

When I got back, Steph was surprised to hear about a second path from the house, as well. We certainly hadn’t seen it during the day. Where the heck had I gone? We fell asleep entertaining ourselves with scary, made-up stories of paths that only appear in the shadow of the night…:)

Moving up the hill

The next morning, we loaded up our packs onto our backs and trekked up the hill to the next hotel. When we reached the ridge, I was able to check-in online and post my work; fortunately, the delay didn’t appear to be a major inconvenience to anyone back home. What a relief and a nice benefit to working in a timezone 12 hours apart!

We unpacked our bags at the next guesthouse, Chihuan, and with a second glance at the cellphone signal, we were there to stay.

Unfortunately, our stay at Chihuan did not start out easily, as Steph and I both became quite sick for a couple of days. This wasn’t the first time we’d been ill in India, but being sick in Chopta was particularly unenjoyable: no heat in the rooms, no electricity aside from 2 hours of generator power around dinner time, no warm water for washing (they would also, however, deliver hot water buckets from the kitchen during the day if we asked), and the bathroom was cold as ice, with an open window that exposed it to the outdoors. I won’t soon forget getting out of bed in the dark to vomit (and more) in the pitch-black  freezing bathroom, shivering, only to clean up with numbingly cold ice water from the faucet!

The day Steph became sick, she had just taken a hot-water bucket shower (she didn’t know she was sick yet); when she got out, she was so cold that she was shaking uncontrollably and continued shaking for several hours after, despite being fully dressed and bundled up. I put her out in the sun and and gave her some hot tea, but nothing helped. She eventually relegated herself to lying under the covers in our room under 4 heavy winter blankets (where she remained for the next 3 days)… but even with that, she was unable to get warm. Eventually, Steph realized she wasn’t just cold– her body wasn’t handling the cold because she probably had a fever. Sure enough, it was 103 the first time we thought to check it. We got a little worried, and did some research to make sure we’d be able to get her down off the mountain if it reached a dangerous enough temp (another 0.5 degrees higher was our breaking point). Despite lying in an absolutely freezing room with no electricity and suffering from major bouts of boredom, Steph got better after a few days  – no small thanks to some very kind Ukrainian girls we met who offered up some excellent fever-reducing pills!

At first, we’d assumed we were sick due to the unhygienic conditions in the kitchen. The guys who ran the hotel, who were fantastic hosts, unfortunately spent much of the day fixing up the stoves and ovens of the hotel, which were made of yak dung (a lot like mud as a  building material). Despite sometimes cleaning up before cooking, they– well– didn’t use many utensils when preparing our food… However, one day, after asking them if they could refill Steph’s water bottle for her, I learned the real reason that we had been sick. As she lay shivering and sick in bed, I took her water bottle outside to have it filled and came back into the room a few minutes later: “Well, I know why you’re sick.” After handling her bottle to one of our hosts, he had carried it across the road and filled it from the river stream that flowed by the hotel – the same stream that runs through the buffalo pastures. Before then, we’d wrongly assumed that the drinking water at the guesthouse was being boiled, but now we knew, and without any purification on-hand (our Steri-pen’s batteries had died), buying water was the plan for the remainder of our time.

Chopta, India

The rest of our time in Chopta was a relaxing mix of trekking, reading, keeping warm by the fire, and getting work done here and there. Despite the cold and the sicknesses, we really loved Chopta. We kept saying to ourselves, “Chopta keeps trying to make me hate it– why do I still love it?!” It was so open and beautiful, and the fresh air was such a welcome change from the rest of India. I’m saving the write-up of big trek that we did in Chopta for the next post, but here are the remainder snapshots from our time spent roaming around the hills and hanging out in the [mostly outdoor] lodge:

Chopta, India

Chopta, India

IMG_1951The friendly neighborhood buffalo/yaks…

Chopta, India

IMG_1931http://www.flickr.com/photos/12339764@N00/6942311036/in/set-72157629840757187

IMG_1932 - Version 2

A taxing taxi

From Rishikesh, our long transit to the small, quiet Himalayan village of Chopta started out with just the sort of scammy behavior we’d grown accustomed to in our travels (especially in India). Our hired private taxi picked us up at our guesthouse an hour later than scheduled, and we were off… well, so we thought. First, we’d need to make an unplanned stop to pick up his “brother”, who needed a ride for an indeterminate portion of the way.

Now, I admit this may sound innocent enough, and had it been the first time a taxi driver had decided to pull this one on us, we would have let it slide. But it wasn’t the first time. Sometimes it’d be the driver’s friend or relative, but either way, it was rare that we’d hire a taxi and find ourselves alone in the car, and the tagalong would rarely need to go the whole distance – it was never just to keep the driver company. This happened so commonly in India that we envisioned people throughout the country, knowingly awaiting taxi rides that would take them where they needed to go, just as soon as a tourist paid a driver to make it happen. The idea that they would share the cost of our ride seemed as foreign to them as cows walking in city streets did to us.

What was usually a minor annoyance was pretty costly this time around, though. We had trouble finding a cab to take us at the standard rate (the price is different for locals and tourists, but even the rate we were told to expect was much lower than anyone would agree to), and we were paying 70 dollars for the day’s ride. On top of that, his “brother” was a chatterbox, meaning our nice, quiet ride into the Himalayas would now be spent trying to tune them out. We were agitated. I gathered the hubris to lean forward, “So is this a shared taxi for part of the way? If so, you need to pay us for your share of the ride.” They both laughed and shook their heads, “haha, no no, this is my brother”, then turned to resume their chat. I persisted. “Well, I’m asking because we paid a very high rate for this taxi and we were told it would be private. We don’t mind if it’s not private, but it makes sense that he should pay, just like us, for the ride.” Our driver looked puzzled and laughed again, “Sorry, I don’t understand. English not good.” Hmm… it sure as hell was good a half hour ago, I thought. Sigh. I decided to give up for a while.

Another half-hour passed, then a little more. Eventually, we stopped so “his brother” could get out at his stop. I asked his brother once more – purely on principle, not for the money – since we’d grown really tired of this trick. Once more, a laugh and a shake of the head. His brother shut the door and left.

We started to drive again, and awkward silence filled the car between the driver and us. I leaned forward, thinking I’d have a last word… after all, relations were shot at this point anyway. “Sir, I just want to say that we felt what you did was wrong. We don’t like being cheated, and it happens to us here every day. It’s not about the money, it’s that you’re not being being fair to us.” I then lost my cool and added something about bad karma, which I immediately felt embarrassed to have said to a Hindu man. He half-way apologized, and said it wouldn’t happen again. A few miles later, he stopped the car and got out, “breakfast!” Oh no thanks, we ate already this morning (during the hour we were waiting for the taxi to show up…). “I didn’t,” he said, while walking away to sit down in a restaurant. We sat in the car while he ordered and ate.

I looked over at Steph, fuming, and worried more delays would mean we’d be driving on these dangerous cliffside roads past dark. Are these the moments that will stand out in our minds when we think back on our time in India? We really hoped not. The great things we’d heard about our next destination had better be true…

Far Out in Rishikesh

Amritsar was our favorite stop in India yet, but despite its charm, we’d seen enough busy Indian city life for a while and were ready for some rural change. Uttarankand, a state in the east of India, bordering Tibet and China, appeared to be just the speed we were after, and specifically, a mountain village called Chopta was recommended in several trekking blogs, so we decided we’d head there next.

Chopta is fairly remote, however, and even given the vast reach of India Railways, it seemed that from Amritsar, you really “can’t get there from here…” So we decided to break up our transfer with a quick stop in Rishikesh: the birthplace of yoga and home of the ashram that hosted the Beatles on their famous east-meets-west vision quest, during which they wrote most of the album Abbey Road!

The train to Rishikesh was our first foray into first-class Indian Railway accommodation, which we quickly learned is a relative distinction depending on the route. The first class cabin on this particular train did provide us a private room for our bunks (shared with one other person on her way to Dehradun), but it ended up being a lot less comfortable and with fewer amenities than our previous 3rd class rides – no bed sheets, no power chargers, no pillows, and completely freezing – a bummer, and little did we know, an appropriate foreshadow of what was to come later in the week! Soon enough though, we were in Rishikesh, and we detrained and spent our morning as we usually do on connection days: haggling with tuk-tuk drivers over ridiculous overprices, never knowing if they actually knew of the address to which we were going anyway, and eventually resorting to looking for a way to get to our hotel without their help.

More on that: one curious recurring trend we noticed in India is this unwavering desire people have to not disappoint when answering someone’s questions, or at least that’s how it’s been ironically described to us… When you ask directions in India, or ask if you’re headed in the right direction to a particular place, or if a store has a particular item in stock, you’ll often get a positive answer (“yes, it’s that way”), or at worst a vague, “we’ll see…”, even if the person giving directions has no idea where to point you. Picture this: you’re asking how to find a particular monument in town, and regardless of whether the person you’re asking has any idea of where or what that monument is, they’ll point you in a certain direction with a smile. Hooray for not disappointing anyone! 

A girl about our age overhead us talking with one of the tuk-tuk drivers and decided to nicely intervene, telling them in Hindi exactly where we were headed, and even climbing aboard with us to ensure we got to the right place! Sure enough, we did, but the hotel was booked, so she then proceeded to direct our driver to other guesthouses in the area until we finally found a suitable spot. Along the way, we learned that she was a yoga teacher, visiting her parents in Rishikesh for a week or two, and in keeping with the hospitality we’d seen many times in India, she even invited us to have tea at her parents’ place the next day (that unfortunately never panned out).

We only spent a couple of days in Rishikesh, and we unfortunately did not get a feel for what many people appreciate about the city. To us, it appeared to be the Gatlinburg, Tennessee of India, with hokey trinket shops and packaged excursions for Indian tourists. We assumed that the ashrams people come to visit from far-and-wide were on the outskirts of town, since the typical blaring of horns and city noises made the city seem like the most unlikely of places to enjoy a yoga or meditation retreat (perhaps people enjoy the challenge?).

Rishikesh, India

But Rishikesh did provide our first sighting of the Ganges, the holiest river in India, and that alone made it a worthwhile stop.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 6.09.28 AM Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 6.09.43 AM

Rishikesh, India

Rishikesh, India

Rishikesh, India

Rishikesh, India

Beyond the Ganges, the cafes in Rishikesh made for a good place to research and arrange our transport to Chopta, plan any trekking we’d like to do while there, and stock up on cheap, warm North Fake gear for the weeks ahead. After a couple of days, we were very ready to move on, but perhaps we missed out on the “real” Rishikesh… I guess we’ll never know.