Monday, January 9, 2012

At the Foothills of the Himalayas

view of the Ganges River in Haridwar

Made it sleeping until about 4am this morning after going to bed at 9:30 last night. <sigh> At least it means that I am doing an excellent job keeping up on my blog writing (although keeping up with posting them is a different matter altogether :-/ ) I realized last night that I get free 3G on my Kindle in over 100 countries - India included :) It is super slow and tedious to check email and reply to email on it, but at least it means I have a connection to home always at my disposal! I’m not quite sure how I got along so well before the internet. I have found that I am fine without a phone (although I may get one once I arrive in Bangalore for convenience) but I do not like being without internet. 

I was concerned the morning my driver was supposed to pick me up from my hotel for the trip to Rishikesh that he was not going to show up. I had agreed to be picked up at 7am but my driver did not show up until 7:30. I was glad when he did show up because I really did not want to have to deal with a mess of getting my money back. I am done with tourist offices unless I am going with another person. Although I have found people to be very nice, when they are trying to sell you something, they are really quite pushy in a somewhat passive-aggressive way. I can deal with outright aggressive selling (this is what I encountered most in Haiti) but the passive style has really thrown me and I definitely need to work on making myself more aggressive in response. 

kids playing cricket on the side of the road
A brief side note on a road trip in India...I would never want to be the driver. I have never been so nervous in a car in my life. It wasn’t that I had a bad driver - it’s that all the drivers are bad drivers. There “rules” of the road are basically nonexistent. You drive on the left side of the road, but you don’t have to stay there if you are going to weave around other cars, even if cars are coming at you from the other direction. Just blare your horn and don’t slow down so that the other cars will move. I am not sure how I didn’t see accidents during the many hours it took to get to Rishikesh and back. Part of the road was a toll road and was 4 lanes which was scary enough but tame and mild in comparison to the long stretch of two-lane that took up at least 1/3 of the distance. And the problem isn’t just that cars are weaving in and out around each other blaring their horns to signal their coming, the cars also share the roads with autorickshaws (glorified golf carts), large trucks, buses, motorcycles and mopeds, farm vehicles often loaded down with stuff (mostly sugarcane), bicyclists, and best of all...cow-led carts. Yes, even cows are allowed on National Highway 58. At times I would just close my eyes certain that a head-on collision was coming and pray that I wouldn’t die. Thankfully, nothing like that happened and we made it there and back safe and sound without even the tiniest fender-bender. 

Ganges River in Haridwar
It took a long time to get to Haridwar - the first stop of my pre-planned trip. First getting out of Delhi was slow going. We stopped at a roadside stand for chai tea and for my driver to take a smoke break. While on the road I discovered that my driver’s English is not very good which was extremely frustrating. We can communicate about some necessary things but casual conversation is out. I tried a couple of times before completely giving up. The scenery was mostly farmland for what looked like sugarcane. And nearly every place there was bare ground, kids were playing cricket. For breakfast, we stopped at a roadside place which I would not have chosen but I am somewhat at the mercy of my driver because I cannot get him to understand when I ask to do something or go somewhere. The “restaurant” was an outdoor kitchen and tables set up under a sort of pavilion.  The server did not speak any English and I did not really know what anything was on the menu. So I picked blindly and thankfully got something well cooked. The best I can describe it is a stuffed flat bread. It was quite good. I did not know how to eat it properly and was making a fool of myself before my driver and the server explained to me in gestures that you tear the flat bread and dip it into this mix of chilies and spices. The chilies were hot but the whole meal was quite tasty. The main frustration is that I had been told my breakfast would be included in the price and I ended up paying for not only my breakfast, but my driver’s as well. At least it only cost 125 rupees (about $2.50) so not really worth making a fuss about. There have been a few situations where my driver has made me pay for things that I am pretty sure I am not supposed to have to pay for but due to the language barrier, it is impossible to discuss this. The extra money I have spent is nominal so not worth an argument. But I was supposed to have all of my sight-seeing paid for and I ended up paying for my shoe check at one of the temples (5 rupees) and for a auto-rickshaw ride back up the mountain to my hotel (30 rupees) which I would have been fine walking but I don’t think my driver enjoys walking so much and it had started to drizzle outside. The amount of money is nominal and not worth worrying about, but it is the principle of the whole thing that really bothers me. I guess these experiences early on are definitely helping me shed some of my “Minnesota nice” when dealing with people trying to sell things.

Ganges in Haridwar
The destination of my trip is stunning and although some of my experiences have been frustrating in terms of the logistics, it has not taken away from me enjoying the beauty of my surroundings. Haridwar and Rishikesh are in the state of Uttarakhand which borders Tibet and Nepal and lies at the foothills of the Himalayas and where the Ganges RIver flows out from the mountains. The two cities are considered Holy Cities for the Hindus and all of the food in these cities is vegetarian. In Haridwar, the Ganges leaves the mountains to enter the plans and it is this site, Har-ki-Pairi, that is a holy place for Hindus to visit. Along the river there are people wading in to receive some of the river’s spiritual power. All around there are beggars, most of them with a range of bodily disfigurements. It is quite sad to see this concentration of people with such obvious medical ailments. The town of Haridwar is filled with several colorful markets. Above the city in the mountains is the Mansa Devi temple. Normally you can reach this temple by taking a lift up to the top, but the lift was closed for maintenance. Instead, we walked up a long set of stairs to the top of the hill/small mountain to reach the temple. There were vendors all along the set of stairs wanting to sell a variety of offerings for the temple as well as water for the hike. The stairs were also lined with monkeys. The monkeys are probably attracted by the visitors and the prospect of food. It was great exercise and the view of the valley below was spectacular. In the temple, I was accosted by people trying to give me blessings in return for donations and one man gave me a flower and a small banana. I had no intention of eating the banana and thought I would leave it for the monkeys. The problem was solved for me while admiring the view from a lookout point near the temple when a bold monkey ran up to me and snatched the banana from my hand. It surprised me and when I realized what had happened, I couldn’t help but laugh. 

monkey who stole my banana
I had been hoping to stay in Haridwar or at least to return for the daily evening ceremony of Ganga Aarti but my driver did not understand when I was asking him about this. We got in the car and started to drive towards Rishikesh. Along the way we stopped at a shop selling all varieties of gems important to the Hindu faith. Like the scarf shop the day before, I am sure I was brought here because my guide or the tourist office gets some sort of commission for bringing customers there. I bought a small necklace for about $12 and to the disappointment of the shop owner ended my spending there. Rishikesh is a starting point for many who are headed into the Himalayas. It is also the yoga center in India with several schools and ashrams devoted to teaching the practice of all forms of yoga. Once we arrived in Rishikesh, we stopped at the hotel to check in. My room is pleasant and clean with a view of the mountains from the window. Thankfully my driver knew that I had already paid for this through the tourist office and I was reassured when he informed me that he would be covering the charges of the room. After settling in and washing the Hindu paint off my face that I acquired from the hike up to the Mansa Devi temple, my guide and I headed into the town. There is a massive footbridge that spans the Ganges River which we crossed to the other side of the town. The view from the bridge is incredible with the mountains and the river lined with ashrams and yoga schools. The city is also dotted with Hindu temples with gods and goddesses to pray to, ring the bells, and provide a donation. The town is also filled with a large bazaar for shopping with a range of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepali wares. While walking through the town, I saw the highest concentration of non-Indian people that I have yet seen while in India. If it weren’t for the fact that I had my guide with me the whole time, I think I would have found some people to hang out with for the evening. I had hoped to watch the evening worship at the river as the ceremony is also supposed to be quite a site to see but my driver again did not understand me when I asked about this. I could hear the singing and chanting from my hotel and had to settle for that. I also would have liked to stop at one of the many cafes for dinner, but again because my guide was with me, I was pretty sure he would expect me to pay for his dinner as well which I find quite frustrating. As a result, I fell asleep early and did not have dinner. I am looking forward to getting to Jaipur to see my sister on Wednesday so that I can eat more regular meals and have some good company! 

I slept well although my room is quite drafty and I was especially cold after being able to take a hot shower. Unfortunately because I was cold, I laid in bed and wound up falling asleep around 8pm which means I was wide awake at 4am this morning. It is raining hard outside which does not bode well for any shopping or sight seeing today. Perhaps it will clear up by the time I head out this morning. I am supposed to meet my driver at 9am. I would like for it to clear up and to go for another walk around the town and stop at shops I find interesting to browse and also to stop at one of the internet cafes with WiFi that I saw on the walk around town last night.

Ganges River & Himalayas - Rishikesh
Well, it did clear up but when I walked down to the hotel lobby to meet my driver and got in the car, he informed me that we were going back to Delhi. No sight-seeing for me. After all of my failed attempts at any sort of conversation yesterday, it wasn’t worth it to try to explain what I had been hoping to do. Oh well. At least now I have the confidence that I can arrange my own (safe) travels in India and don’t need the assistance of a tour office. Also, I am more determined then ever to find some friends once I get to Bangalore to travel around least every once in a while! The return trip was just as frightening as the trip up but we made it back to Delhi safely although the traffic was horrendous and the total trip took 7.5 hours. Again we stopped for breakfast at a roadside stand and I wound up paying for my driver’s meal. Yes, I am officially done with personally chauffeured tours.

bridge over Ganges in Rishikesh
One good thing about the long drive and the fact that my driver and I could not really engage in small talk (this made the fact that he didn’t have a radio in the car worse) is that I did a bit of reading about Bangalore and also about Delhi. I discovered that there are two (reliable) internet cafes in the neighborhood of my hotel and also was able to locate my hotel and the cafes on the map. Once my driver dropped me off, I unloaded my stuff into my hotel room and headed for the internet cafe. I didn’t make it to the one I had intended to, but instead stopped at a restaurant/coffee shop with WiFi. The WiFi is free if you order food, so for the first time this trip I actually ate three meals and was able to check my email and post a couple of the blogs that I had written. I also booked my accommodation for after I return from visiting my sister in Jaipur. I will be staying at a different hotel that has free WiFi. Within an hour of booking, the hotel sent me a welcome email and offered airport pick-up. They also have 24-hour hot water! Winter temperatures in Delhi are not warm enough for a cold shower to feel good at all and I have found myself colder in India than I think I ever was in Stockholm. 

One final comment - at both of the hotels I have stayed at so far in India, there has been a bucket and a smaller container in each shower. These collect the water from the shower and I think are supposed to be used for subsequent washing. 

So, plan for tomorrow is to head to the internet cafe in the morning to send some emails and post this blog then off to a few museums - the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Ghandi Smriti. Wednesday I am off to Jaipur to meet up with my favorite sister! Namaste.

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