Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Every Christmas in Colorado, I go to the Denver Performing Arts Complex and watch a stage production of the popular story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. The main character in this story, Ebenezer Scrooge, is a miserly old man who gets a visit from three ghosts: The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. This third ghost, who can peer into the future, shows Scrooge the dire consequences of his greed – that he will die alone and unloved. Terrified, Scrooge changes his ways and becomes loving and kind.

Traveling to India is like getting a visit from this third ghost, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

India -- at least, PARTS of India -- represent a nightmare vision of what the world could become if it doesn’t strengthen its environmental standards, curb its population growth, cut bureaucracy, cut corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and strengthen law enforcement.

The beaches in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state where we now are, are naturally beautiful. This state’s shoreline is blessed with and sapphire waters and smooth sand. But no one goes to the beaches, which are covered in filth and flies. Undeveloped beachfront property is piled with bottles, cardboard, and broken furniture. Green fields bloom with the colors of plastic bags instead of flowers. Discarded mattresses lay by the side of the shore. Human feces is piled on the rocks. Most Indians just stand on the sidewalk and look appreciatively at the water. No one dares to go in.

This is all the more tragic because of the climate. Even in December, the weather is swelteringly hot. Sweat beads on your forehead as you sit at a restaurant, batting a swarm of flies away from your food.

Due to the heat, everyone tries to cool down their rooms. Most can’t afford air conditioning, so they power ceiling fans. Unfortunately, this is India, and it’s bursting at the seams with people. Not a single inch of the country has breathing space. The streets are packed with foot traffic at 6 in the morning. From pre-dawn until past midnight, everyplace you look -- the rocks, the rooftops, the restaurants – are covered with literally hundreds of people.

When this large of a population tries to turn on their ceiling fans, the demand for energy becomes unsustainable. All electricity shuts off. At the peak of the heat, when you’re raked with sweat and flies are swarming all around you, you can’t even sit by a ceiling fan or refrigerate your water.

And this is what its like in December – the winter season. Just imagine southern India in the summer. I can’t imagine what diseases sprout when you combine this degree of streetside trash with monsoon waters and mosquitos.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sai Baba's ashram

More than a century ago, a 16-year-old mystic began performing miracles in Shirdi, a town in east-central India. He split his time equally between the Muslim mosque and the Hindu temple, spreading a message of unity and tolerance. His message and his miracles won him thousands of followers, who worshipped him as a living god. He called himself Sai Baba, and he died in 1918.

Eight years later, in 1926, Sai Baba: the Sequel was born.

A 14-year-old boy from Puttaparthi, a small town in the West Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, began performing miracles. Among his most attention-grabbing feats is the ability to produce ashes from thin air. His followers hang photos of him in homes as far away as Brighton, Colo., and ashes emerge from the portrait. Countless examples of these miracles have won him millions upon millions devotees, who worship him as the reincarnation of Sai Baba.

Although Sai Baba has a strong interfaith following – including Muslims -- he has joined the pantheon of Hindu deities. His face is depicted on cell phone ads, painted on the sides of cargo trucks, hanging from grocery store walls. Anywhere you might view a painting of Ganesh or Shiva or Krishna painted, you’re likely to see Sai Baba, as well.

His face is unforgettable – he wears a bright orange robe, and his Afro puffs out like Jimi Hendrix.

His ashram in Puttaparthi is where we have spent the last four days. Around 50,000 Sai Baba followers visit this ashram each day, rendering it the size of a small town. Another 40,000 daily visit the original Sai Baba’s ashram in Shirdi.

All day long, the Puttaparthi ashram buzzes with the activity of a college campus. Devotees sleep in the campus dorms and eat at the campus dining hall. Some attend lectures; others hang out on the quad. It even has its own planetarium. I’m not joking.

Large signs everyone instruct people to observe “Silence!” while walking through the ashram’s many-acre campus. The dining hall tables all hold placards instructing people to observe the same silence. God can only speak to a silent heart, the signs read.

It’s fitting, then, that the day we arrived at the ashram, my friend became sick and lost her voice. She tried whispering for a day; the next morning she fell silent. Now she signals that she has recovered, but is vowing to keep her silence until we leave.

Those who do speak say mostly one phrase – “Sai Ram,” a blessing of the Hindu god Ram. People say “Sai Ram” to mean everything. “Sai Ram” means hello. It means pardon me, I’m trying to get past you. It means please put your plate in the correct bin. It means you can exit from the south gate, not the west gate.

The ashram campus is also gender-segregated. Men and women eat at single-sex dining halls. They stand in separate lines. They pray in separate areas. There is an on-site shopping complex, which women can browse in the morning and men visit in the evening.

Men and women also sit in separate sections of the main auditorium, where Sai Baba appears each afternoon.

Being at an ashram waiting for the guru to come on stage is like being at the biggest summer rock concert of the season. The line starts forming two hours before the show. Signs posted by the entrance specify the items you can’t carry into the concert hall –cassettes, books, umbrellas, razors, food, flowers, plates, pens. You shuffle through the single-sex line until security pats you down, searching for illicit contraband, and runs a bomb-detector over your outfit.

The auditorium is a large, empty open-air hall with a ceiling covered in small chandeliers. It resembles the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, except its pillars are pink, and shaped like lotus flowers, and its borders feature a band of blue- and gold-plated elephants running across the ceiling.

The crowd sits quietly in the auditorium and waits. They know the star of the show is always fashionably late. Servers parade through carrying trays of drinks (water). Identifiable by the bright bandanas tied around their neck, they resemble Boy Scouts wearing saris.

Then an audible surge of anticipation sweeps through the crowd. No one can see or hear anything, but everyone knows the star is about to come on stage. The crowd – all sitting cross-legged on the marble floor – scoots forward. People begin whispering loudly and craning their necks.

The band strikes up an “Om.” The crowd chants the mantra in a low rumble. The chandeliers overhead all light up in sync.

And then – he appears. The legend himself. He is 83 now, and rests on a cushion on a plush red throne, his regal wheelchair. He is flanked by a support crew of five or six men wearing white – his holy rendition of call girls by his side.

The crowd is breathless. Everyone raises their hands in prayer. People try to sit on their knees to get a closer look. Security scouts dart around, madly gesturing everyone to resume their Indian-style sitting posture.

Sai Baba is past the point where he has to say anything. His uttering a single word would reverberate like a rock legend striking a single chord.

But now he is in his twilight years, in a wheelchair, and the guru’s appearance is brief. Two or three lucky people in the front row get a chance to bow at his wheelchair before he disappears backstage. He is wheeled out again onto the stage, where his devotees can see his face, but he cannot speak. No one seems to mind, though. They are awed to be in his presence. “Sai Baba: Live!” For them, it is like looking at the face of Jesus -- another miracle-maker with a message of love.

Then Sai Baba is wheeled offstage, and the crowd spends an hour singing devotional hymns with the cover band. No problem, though. They’ll be back tomorrow, to catch another glimpse of Sai Baba, the guru with the orange jumpsuit and the Jimi Hendrix hair.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Postal in India

“We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.”

Everything in India is a headache. Our two days in Bangalore have been consistent hassle. No, hassle is too light of a word. It’s been a hair-graying, wrinkle-forming, blood-pressure-raising debacle.

It began when we de-boarded the train in Bangalore City. My parents wanted to hire a porter to carry their heavy suitcases down and then up two flights of stairs. “How much do you charge?” my dad asks a porter in Hindi. He grabs the bag and starts walking away with it. Dad and I both physically intervene. “No, how much?” Dad asks again in Hindi. He continues walking away with it. “No! Stop! How much?” we ask. “60 rupees,” he finally says in perfect Hindi. Highway robbery. Or, in this case, platform robbery. We needle our baggage away from his grubby hands and I carry it myself. I’m not dealing with porters anymore.

Outside, we’re surrounded by a thick crowd of touts competing to overcharge us for a ride from the train station to M.G. Road, Bangalore’s urban core. They start quoting us between 200 to 350 rupees for a ride; they pull out laminated “price sheets” to substantiate their claims. My friend finds a taxi driver who says he’ll take us for 50 rupees. We start loading our baggage into his car. Then he changes his tune. “150 rupees,” he says suddenly. “No, you said 50,” I reply. “50 won’t pay for the fuel,” he says. “But you told us 50 a couple minutes ago,” I say. “No. 150,” he says.

I stand my ground. “What price did you tell her?,” I ask, gesturing to one of my friends. He ignores my question and starts talking about fuel cost, distance – anything but the answer to my question. “What price did you tell her? Tell me what price you told her.” I keep repeating my question. He looks away from me; starts talking to my dad. I physically stand in front of my dad so that he’s forced to look at me. “What price did you tell her?”

“I can’t speak English,” he says to me in English. “You’re a dirty liar,” I replied. A crowd of at least 20 taxi drivers, all men in ugly brown uniforms, had gathered around to watch the scene. “Let’s go,” I said to my family. The taxi driver followed us, talking nonstop in English, trying to convince us to ride with him. “I thought you couldn’t speak English, liar!” I yelled behind me as I walked away. The crowd laughed.

We purchased two rickshaw rides from a government-sponsored pre-paid counter, for 50 rupees each, but the rickshaw drivers tried to rip us off for a 10 rupee per bag “luggage fee” (there is no such thing).

We reached M.G. Road, found a restaurant playing AC/DC at top volume, and parked half of our crew there with the luggage while the other half started searching for cheap hotels. A long hour passed. Then another. All the hotels were far beyond our price range.

Finally we met some Nepalese men, who advised us on the cheapest hotel in the area. It was too dirty for my parents taste, but fine by my low standards.

“I’ll check in and stay here with my friends,” I told the hotel receptionist.

The receptionist looked at my passport, signed me in, and took a deposit. I returned to the restaurant; I gathered my luggage and my friends.

An hour later, I was in the hotel lobby once again – but this time, the atmosphere had changed.

“You can’t stay here,” the receptionist told us on arrival. “You’re American. Only Indians and Nepalese can stay here.”

“But you saw my U.S. passport,” I protested, “and you let me sign in.”

“No, you cannot stay,” he replied, ignoring my logical point.

“But I showed you my passport. You said I could stay. You let me sign in,” I protested. “I walked all the way to my storage area, got my baggage, and walked all the way back here.”

“Only Indians,” he said. “Nepalese is okay. Not foreigners.”

“Then you should have said that when I showed you my passport.” I was angry at this point. “I could have checked other hotels. Now it’s evening, and I’m not walking around this seedy neighborhood at night. Not with all my luggage on my back and no place to stay.”

“You can’t stay here,” he said.

“I’m not leaving,” I replied.

I was feeling bull-headed. I would not trudge along these shady streets at night searching for a room I couldn’t afford. It became a matter of principle.

I staged a sit-in. My friends and I anchored ourselves to the dingy couch in the dimly-lit hotel lobby. We talked. We read the newspaper. We ate donuts. We refused to leave the hotel lobby’s couch. We would sit there all night, if necessary.

After about 2 hours passed, the hotel staff relented. “Okay, you can stay,” the receptionist said. “Give me your passports and another deposit.”

Our hotel room’s windows couldn’t close, so mosquitoes swarmed our beds all night. The people outnumbered the beds, forcing some of us to sleep on the floor. Still, we considered our stay in that room a victory. We had out-stubborned the hotel reception desk. It’s like being more Catholic than the Pope.

The next day, I went to the Air India office to get a paper ticket for a flight we’d purchased from travel agent

In November my friend and I had purchased an “electronic” ticket, but one week later, left me a voicemail saying our carrier, Air India, required paper tickets. Orbitz said they had mailed our paper ticket to my address in Atlanta.

No good, I told Orbitz. I’m in India. I need that ticket to leave India.

Go to the Air India office, Orbitz told me, and fill out a lost ticket form. Sounds simple, right?

It took 5 phone calls to various Air India extensions before I could decipher that they have an office in Bangalore. It took two calls to the Bangalore office before I could get any semblance of its address.

Bear in mind that I don’t have a cell phone or a landline – each time I make a phone call, I need to search for a cybercafe with Skype (an internet-based phone system, which only some cybercafes have). My calls to India cost 34 cents a minute.

At any rate, I visited the Air India office on my first morning in Bangalore, optimistically hoping they could re-issue us tickets. Instead, five Indian women crowded around a copy of our e-ticket printout, not knowing what to do, each suggesting something different. One thing they agreed: they could not re-issue us tickets. I would need to call Orbitz, and ask Orbitz to call the Bangalore office to confirm that I indeed had paid Orbitz for the ticket. Only after hearing from Orbitz directly, they said, could they re-issue a ticket.

I left the Air India office and searched for a cybercafe in order to phone Orbitz. I finally found one, but a sign in front said it was closed for the entire month of December. So I took a taxi to a busy street near my hotel, where I scouted out five or six cybercafes. None of them had Skype.

Finally, I started ducking into alleys with my friend’s laptop, trying to find an unlocked wireless signal. Fortuantely, I was in Bangalore, the only place in India where this would be possible. I found a weak wireless signal, and signed on.

The signal was so weak that every call to Orbitz – and I made at least 4 or 5 calls -- was dropped midway through. Each time this happened, I’d call back and start from scratch, waiting on hold and explaining the situation to a new agent.

I wondered if I was placing an international call to the U.S. while talking to Orbitz agents at a call center in Bangalore. It could be that the people with whom I’m on a long-distance call are actually next door.

After more than an hour of repeated calls, I’d made minimal headway. Two of the Orbitz agents had gone as far as to place me on hold while they called the Air India Bangalore office. My calls were dropped while on hold.

(A ludicrous policy prevents Orbitz agents from giving me their phone extension or their name – a rule that ensures that anytime a call is dropped, we start over from square one.)

Two friends and I took a rickshaw through rush-hour traffic back to the Air India office, hoping that one of the Orbitz agents had called it. No such luck. And now Air India was changing its story. Orbitz would have to call the Air India branch in Chicago to confirm our pre-paid ticket, and Chicago would have to call Bangalore.

“But our bus tickets out of Bangalore are for tomorrow,” I said.

Then Orbitz should call Chicago, Bangalore said, and Chicago must call Chennai, and you need to collect your paper tickets in Chennai.

Jesus. All because Air India isn’t modern enough to issue electronic tickets, and our paper ones are sitting in an Atlanta P.O. Box.

We took another overpriced rickshaw to M.G. Street and started searching for a wireless spot from which we could phone Orbitz, again, with this new instruction.

Of course, we couldn’t find a wireless connection strong enough to make a phone call. We tried paying for wireless at coffeeshops. At bookstores. Behind the beauty parlor. In front of Ruby Tuesday’s. In a stairwell near a guy selling photocopied books. We tried everywhere. We asked cybercafes if we could pay to plug into their lines. They all said no.

We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.

And that’s what’s so funny about India. Bangalore is undoubtedly a modern city. It has designer shops and coffeehouses. Its women wear jeans instead of saris. Its men drink espresso instead of tea. The intersections have traffic lights. We didn’t see a single cow or monkey on the streets (though dead rats may always be a fixture of Indian sidewalks).

We had a beer at a bar on Thursday night, and we felt like we could have easily been in Denver, Chicago or any major U.S. city. Nirvana and Limp Bizkit music videos played on a flat-screen, the stairs were carved from frosted glass, the red plush booths were illuminated with matching mood lighting. Boys and girls in their twenties mingled at mixed-gender tables, drinking alcohol and eating appetizers. Two twentysomething women in tight tanktops lit cigarettes.

But the mess of motorcycles on the streets, the constant honking of horns, the way the smog burns your eyes, the mosquitoes chewing you alive – you’re always keenly aware that you’re in an Indian city. And as our experience shows, no hotel or taxi service or airline in an Indian city has its act together (at least, none that we've encountered in our many months here). At best, they’re disorganized and incompetent. At worst, they outright lie.

Much is made of India’s rise to power, especially as a technology giant. Certainly, there’s an inkling of truth to this. Being in India is like going to the business school of the streets – you learn to deal with insolent, irrational and stubborn people; to act assertively to get what you want; you learn to be suspicious of everyone; to furiously guard your self-interest in order to not be scammed for every last penny. In those regards, Indians have an advantage. They’re better-practiced.

But their strengths double as their weaknesses. And when it comes to good old-fashioned “who would you rather hire” – well, I don’t think India, in the long run, really has as strong of a chance as some people in the West believe.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Parent Pilgrimage kick-off

Each corner of India – north, east, south, and west – is home to one of Hinduism four holiest sites.

Puri, a beach town in the East Indian state of Orissa, is the holiest city in India’s east. It’s the home of Lord Jagannath, the “Lord of the Universe.” Hindu pilgrims have visited Puri for centuries to catch a glimpse of Lord Jagannath himself, who is carved from wood and lives in a temple with his brother and sister.

Many pilgrims even commit suicide in the presence of Jagannath, wanting to die while being watched by the Lord. When the British invaded India and saw the spectacle, they coined the English word “juggernaut,” which means a “compelling, destructive force.”

My parents, who are traveling with me for the next four weeks, choose Puri so that they, too, could look into the eyes of Lord Jagannath. (They are on a month-long pilgrimage to east and south India’s holy sites). They visited Jagannath’s temple twice in the past few days – once without me, because I was on my period and, as such, was not allowed to enter the temple, and then once again with me.

Lord Jagannath’s temple is a perfect microcosm of India – chaotic, claustrophobic, filled with crooks. And, like India, the best and only way to derive meaning from it is to filter out the madness and focus on the divine.

Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister, all of whom are large carvings with intense eyes, live in a dark room. The walls are painted black. There are no windows. A single door opens into another dark, windowless cavern. The only light comes from candles.

Enormous puddles of water are spilled across the floor, probably left over from the God’s morning bath. In the afternoons, rice from the God’s lunch turns the floor into a sticky mess. The priests feed the Gods seven times a day.

Lord Jagganth’s room is clogged with pilgrims, who come to pray, and priests, who come to extort money from the pilgrims.

My mom and I entered the room. The crowd and the darkness and the puddles immediately gripped us. My first thought was of the news reports of Hindus getting trampled to death at temples. It’s easy, very easy, to see how that could happen in a heartbeat.

“Look at Vaghuan,” said my mom, using the Nepali word for “God.” I made eye contact with Lord Jagannath. I held his gaze as my mom and I pushed our way through the thick maze, circling the statues clockwise.

A priest stopped us and forcibly directed me to bow my head, then deposit money. I obeyed, foolishly, because he was a priest.

“Don’t do as they say!” my mom told me afterward. They’re scammers, like the rest of India.

We circled the Gods, bowed to Lord Jagannath, left five rupees at his feet. We bowed to Lord Jagannath’s sister, and left five rupees at her feet.

“That’s all you’re leaving?,” a different priest sneered at my mom. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you.”

I couldn’t believe him. This so-called holy man talks trash to pilgrims who waited their whole lives for a chance to pray at this spot? It reminded me of the irate priests in Jerusalem who screamed at Christians to hurry up as they knelt in prayer at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s nothing like a sacred site to bring out the sins of greed and anger in the men who purport to be holy.

“Don’t think about them,” my mom told me later. “Just focus on Lord Jagannath.”

Yes, the temple is just like greater India. Tune out the scammers, the pollution, the traffic, the monkeys, the beggars, the trash, the thieves around every corner. Keep eye contact with the Lord.

In Puri, your faith in humanity is rigorously tested. I mentioned Puri is a beach town, but let me tell you about this despicable beach.

On one side of Puri are the hotels, where pilgrims rest. The beach by these hotels is relatively clean, by Indian standards. Yes, there are hypodermic needles in the sand (we saw two), and yes, there are wrappers and plastic bottles and dog feces everywhere, but, hey, that’s India. No big deal.

Travel a little further, past the hotels, and you’ll reach a primeval fishing village that hasn’t changed in 500 years. The huts are built from clay and straw; the streets are too narrow for vehicles to pass. This is the Land Time Forgot, and it exists in a parallel universe where motors, plastic bottles, wrappers, haven’t been invented yet. Ducks and chickens roam in people’s front yards, where the fish – the day’s catch – sit drying in the sun. There’s one tiny store, but carries only homemade goods. It sells nothing with packaging. You get the feeling that the people who live here have never seen packaging; never heard of Coca-Cola. It is a self-contained fishing village.

And it’s infested as hell.

The kids all have open sores on their faces and arms. The stench is disease is rampant. Behind the straw huts, where all the villagers take out their fishing boats, the beach is covered with human feces. Absolutely covered. I’m not talking about one or two people taking a crap in the sand. I mean, this beach is the toilet, and at any given second, you can see at least five men with their pants down. We gingerly walk along the shoreline, but the feces is everywhere. There’s no way to avoid it. The waves touch our feet, and we scramble out of its path. The water is a carrier for infectious disease.

It’s hard to imagine how people can trash their environment so abrasively. In the cities, its easy to blame faceless “government” or “industry” for the diesel exhaust. But in this fishing village, its individuals who are crapping all over the beach, turning a natural resource into, literally, a dump. It wouldn’t be hard for them to build a latrine – just dig a hole in the ground! – but laziness prompts them to excrete into the water table instead.

Along this beach, strewn among the human feces, are the bloated bodies of dead sea turtles. Sea turtles are an endangered species; it’s thought that they will be extinct within our lifetime. They’re dying in droves at this exact beach, where – judging by the dozen recently-killed corpses – we estimate that at least two sea turtles a day are trapped by the fishing nets and carried on shore. These turtles are larger than my torso, and its clear they’ve reached sexual maturity; they might have some to Puri to mate, and instead were killed and turned into crow food.

Flies fester this beach, feeding on dead corpses and human feces.

This is truly the land that time forgot.

But time, it seems, passes slowly in Puri. My grandparents came to Puri to pray, back when the fishing village looked exactly like it does now. When my grandkids visit Puri – or will my grandkids be only ¼ Nepali? Will their genes be too white to be allowed entry to the Hindus-only temple? – the fishing village might still look the same.

Ah, yes, my grandparents. I’ll close this with a happy story.

At Lord Jagannath’s temple, there is a Nepali priest who lives by the temple’s west gate.

My parents met this Nepali priest, who handwrote our names into a book of Nepali visitors. He then flipped through his book and read aloud the names of several of my uncles, aunts and cousins who had prayed in the same spot. “Raghab Dhoj Pant, wife Indira, son Ranjan,” he read. “Hari Dhoj Pant and wife Basudha.”

“What about my parents?,” asked my dad, whose name is Prahlad Dhoj Pant.

The priest flipped through a single volume of a large book. “In 1956,” he read aloud, “Bhadra Kumari Pant, wife of Dambar Dhoj Pant, visited this temple.”

Wow. We were amazed. How can so many Nepali visitors be so meticulously documented – and their entries found – in a single paper book? Such organization.

Perhaps India does have a praying chance, after all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A well-dressed cow

If you need to beg for money in India, make sure you have a nicely-dressed cow.

We spotted a “sadhu,” a holy beggar dressed in orange rags, walking from shop to shop along the narrow streets of Varanasi. Most beggars are ignored – there are just too many of them – but his ally, his cow, won him a plate brimming with donations.

This cow wore a bright sequined cape, garlands around his neck and a crown of flowers on his head. He was the cow equivalent of an Indian bride.


In both Nepal and India, drug dealers are everywhere. We were offered hashish three times on the way to breakfast. Three times on the way to breakfast!

A simple “no” won’t deter the dealers. Indians are persistent. So we’ve started messing with them.

Like last night. As we were buying apples at a fruit stand, a dealer approached us and asked, “Hey, you want some hash?”

“I already have a hat,” my friend said.

“No, hash, hash,” the dealer replied.

“Yes, I’m wearing a hat now, can’t you see?,” said my friend, who was bare-headed.

“I’m talking about dope,” the dealer replied.

“Are you calling me a dope?” she said.

The dealer laughed. “You are happy like flower, not sad like rain,” he replied.

Talk about a shitty job.

There’s a large yellow curtain, tied to wooden poles, opposite the clay oven at the restaurant we frequent.

Behind this yellow curtain are six water buffalo. These buffalo voluntarily confine themselves to the space behind the yellow curtain; backstage.

Needless to say, the buffalo create a lot of crap. And someone’s job is to pick up this crap with their bare hands, pat it into “dung pies,” and stick these shit pies to the sides of the restaurant’s walls. The walls are tiled, end to end, in shit pie after shit pie. Handprints are engraved into each one. Once the pies dry, someone peels them off the wall and burns them for heat.

Let’s just hope that whoever has this job isn’t also the cook.

We’re in our Varanasi hotel room and someone is throwing stones and trash at our window. We can hear a loud “clang!” twice a minute.

We can’t see, through the streetlight-devoid alleys, who the perpetrator is.

“Screw you!,” my friend yells out the window, after trash smacks the window pane for the two dozenth time. “Quit it!”

She looks at me, confused.

“Am I yelling at a monkey?,” she asks. “I don’t know.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Trekking in the Himalayas

In the month since I last wrote in my blog and now, I’ve:
-- Trekked in the Himalayas for 10 days,
-- Visited the Taj Mahal,
-- Picked the first orphans who’ll be supported by my families’ foundation, and
-- Watched a surgery for injuries sustained from a water buffalo attack

Here’s the story, in five scenes.

Scene 1: The Taj Mahal

In early November (on the 5th, to be exact), we catch a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We arrive the evening before Laurel’s birthday and visit an upscale Indian restaurant for dinner, where the waitstaff bring out blankets to shield our legs from mosquitoes.

We visit the Taj Mahal at dawn, as the sunrise casts light and shadows on its marble walls. The 17th century monument is symmetrical on every side, and its splendor exceeds it hype. It was built, humorously, by a Moghul king who died during an opium-induced sex fest at age 74.

From Agra, we ride a bumpy bus to the India-Nepal border, where we discover that the border-crossing station doesn’t have electricity. The guards stamp our passports by the dim glow of a single flickering candlelight.

Little did we know it would mark the start of an electricity-free month.

Scene 2: The Journey

Our first Indian scam took place at the border, where we paid for “tourist bus” tickets but were herded like cattle onto the public bus, which traveled at an average speed of – no joke – 7 miles per hour. For 11 hours.

The bus stopped constantly. Is someone selling corn on the side of the road? Let’s stop the bus. Have we reached a town with a tea stand? We’ll stop. Waiting for a prospective passenger who said he’d be standing by the side of a highway? Halt the bus for 20 minutes!

People filtered on and off, riding on the rooftop if there wasn’t space in the aisles.

After 11 hours of squirming on rickety bus seats, we finally reached Pokhara, Nepal, only 75 miles from where we started.

Mt. Macchapucchre, towering at 23,000 feet, stretches across the sky to greet us.

I point out to my friend that the mountain’s topmost 3,000-ish feet are bare; its slope is too steep to hold snow. No climber has ever summitted Macchapuchree.

“I’ve never seen a mountain that couldn’t be summitted,” my friend said. She would later laugh at herself for saying those words – less than two weeks later, while standing at Macchapuchre’s Base Camp, an icy river bed at the lowest point of a valley, a measly 12,137 feet in altitude.

She’d stare at the sky and study the rocky summits towering yet another 11,000 feet higher than where we stood.

“That one can’t be summitted, either,” she’d observe. “There’s no route. It’s too cold for trad climbing, and there’s no continuous ice face. And that one --,” she’d point, “can’t be summitted either. Nor that one. Nor that one. Impossible.”

Scene 3: Trekking

Our first two days of trekking are all uphill, up, up, up, up, 10 hours a day, up slopes so steep we get vertigo when we move too quickly. On the morning of Day 3 we awake while the moon is full and robust; its glow illuminates the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Annapurna and Mt. Dhaulagiri.

We hike with headlamps and mittens for an hour, until we reach the top of a hill, named for the indigenous Poon tribe that lives on that hill, altitude 10,474 feet.

The sky’s colors – as many Coloradoans know – become more intense as you rise in altitude. We watch the first glimpse of dawn burst into a symphony of vivid reds.

We endure an 11-hour day of traversing the mountains. We ascend 1,092 feet to Poon Hill to watch the sunrise, then descend that same distance to our starting point. We then descend another 1,049 feet before ascending 1,804 feet until we can rest for the night.

Our hike raises us above cloud line, then down into the mist, then above cloud line again.

The landscape changes with the altitude. At its low points, the trees are covered with moss and tiny purple flowers spring from rocks and fallen logs. The air is so thick with water that life can’t help but thrive from every crevasse. Waterfalls of all sizes spring from every direction, countless waterfalls. The sound of the nearby river indicates how much further we’ll have to descend before we cross the bridge and can start ascending again.

Once we do cross that bridge we walk higher, higher, for hours, until we’re above cloud line. The landscape turns into dry, bushy yellow grasses on clay soil. It’s brought to life by the hisses and whirrs of insects and birds, or on occasion, by the jingle of cowbells worn around the neck of every horse, donkey and dog that cross our path.

We check into a teahouse for the evening and warm ourselves by the fire in the kitchen, in the clay pot they call a “stove.” The next morning we descend a little lower in altitude, to a lush area covered with bamboo, oak trees, aloe vera and rhodedendrons. Even at 10,000 feet, the landscape is dotted with rice paddies, poinsettas, marigolds – and marijuana, enormous trees of marijuana, taller than the ears of corn they’re planted next to.

We sleep in teahouses at night, little stone shacks perched on whatever ground could be terraced flat. Most rooms don’t have electricity; some say they’ve been without lights for weeks. Walls are paper-thin; some built from nothing but a single sheet of tin.

It’s too cold to sit outside our sleeping bags after sunset, so we eat a candlelit dinner of rice and lentils (dal baht) and crawl into our sleeping bags by 6 pm. Thick fog rolls in at night, obscuring the sight of everything except the water buffalo nearby. Morning skies are clear, and at our altitude, the colors of the sunrise are more majestic than ever. The sun paints vivid pinks and reds on the 24,000-ft peaks.

On Day 4 we continue with the ups and downs – descend 2,722 feet, then ascend 1,213 feet. This is tiresome.

By Day 5 we reach the tiny, remote high-altitude villages, just before Base Camp. Just to eat dinner, I pile on 3 long-sleeve shirts, a fleece, a down jacket, an outer shell, 2 pairs of pants, wool socks and mittens. Still my toes feel like a singular block of ice, and I curl and uncurl them while I eat to improve circulation.

Until today, the scenery has reminded me of other places I’ve hiked. The lush mossy forests, with life sprouting from every nook and corner of rock and tree, resembled hikes in Japan during the rainy season. The terraced rice fields reminded me of hilly northern Thailand. The dry landscape above cloud line was reminiscent of trails in Arizona.

But by the time we reach 12,137 feet, on Day 6, the scenery becomes downright fictional. It looks like Lord of the Rings meets Impressionist Art. Heck, it looks downright cartoonish. There’s no other way to describe it.

We reach the Base Camp of Macchapucchre on Day 6, and spend a night acclimating before our sunrise hike to Annapurna Base Camp, 13,548 feet. The mountains are unlike anything we’ve ever imagined. They tower over us like imposing gods. Some portions held snow and glaciers. Other shot into the sky as sheer, straight-angle rock face. Their vertical rise measured 10,000 feet above where we stood. We’ve seen these same mountains from a distance, but up close, these are Mountains.

It took us four days to walk back to town. We finished the trek on Day 10. We’ve all been changed from the vision of the Mountains.

Scene 4: The orphanage

My parents have launched a Foundation to sponsor orphans in Kathmandu, Nepal. The day after I arrive in Kathmandu, I go with them to Bal Mandir, one of the city’s largest and most reputable orphanages, to agree to an ongoing relationship between our Foundation and this particular orphanage.

In Nepal, its hard to decide whether or not your charitable contribution is going to “leak” into the pockets of the corrupt, but we’ve met with Bal Mandir officials several times, and we feel like at least the majority of our money will go towards the children.

Most of the infants at the orphanage get adopted by foreigners, so we decide to start sponsoring kindergarden-aged kids, who are unlikely to be adopted. We decide that the Foundation can afford to sponsor 8 kids per year, at $375 per child, which covers the entire cost of housing, meals, and private school.

I spend 4 days in Kathmandu and visit Bal Mandir twice, selecting the kids on my second visit. We read through their case files. We give priority to the kids who’ve lost both of their parents to either death or disappearance. We decline the kids who are registered as orphans because their mother got remarried – which, in Nepal, is included in the definition of “orphan.” (Stepfathers usually reject the child, because she is the spawn of a different man).

The kids – mostly boys – were adorable. Like most kindergardeners, they have virtually zero attention span. “Which of you is Suman Gurung?,” we ask when we walk into a playroom filled with children causing havoc. A little boy, wide-eyed, walks up to us. “And which one of you is --?” By the time we’ve called up the second boy, little Suman has wandered away, playing with blocks in the sparsely-furnished room.

Because we’re sponsoring specific kids, we have total decision-making authority over the kids’ lives. My parents and I decide to send these 8 kids to Kathmandu’s best private schools, even if it ends up costing more. I left Kathmandu, and headed back to India, while my parents remained in the city to negotiate tuition.

Scene 5: The hospital

I visit Kathmandu’s Helping Hands Community Hospital to write a story about it for a magazine in Colorado. While I’m there, I go into the surgical room and watch, up-close, as a woman has surgery for injuries she sustained from a water buffalo attack.

I’ll post the link to the story and video when it’s published.