Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chamba Shaadi - Day 2

Owwww, my head. What do you mean I have to get up in the morning and we have to go eat and get drunk again? Wasn't one day enough?
No wonder they call him Sunny
Well, I wanted a North Indian wedding. Nobody said it was going to be relaxing. The bride and groom got at most one hour of sleep for maybe 4-5 nights in a row, due to the endless pujas happening at all hours of the day/night. And yet despite the enormous stress and sleep-deprivation imposed, I was constantly amazed at how Sunny could keep his smile and energy throughout, and exhibited an even greater level of awareness of his guests' needs (and characters) than most people do on a regular day.

I managed to drag myself through the minimal physical preparations (get dressed, brush teeth...oh what the hell, I'm a foreigner, nobody will notice or mind if I stink, hehehe). I don't think we had breakfast, as we shortly all gathered at a venue in town for the traditional dham (feast). There, we waited our turn for food while observing, mingling with, and photographing the crowd. Dham is an auspicious lunchtime meal where rice and vegetarian curries are served, eaten with the hands while sitting on the floor (although I'll never forget the hilarity of Yuan asking for a spoon :P nor the organisers' kindness and understanding in providing her with one).

This commotion caused Yuan and myself to be adopted by two of Sunny's cousins seated next to us. They proceeded to charm us, kidnap us, and make us try on pretty clothing at their home. Yuan and I decided on our outfits for the big ceremony the following day, and the four of us girls agreed we would meet again at their home to get prepared together.

Two thoughts. 1) Damn (or dham, hehehe...sorry), I am getting chubby - I really wanted to wear a sari but none of their blouses fit me. 2) Everyone kept commenting about how their mum looks like me. I saw a photo of her when she was younger, and the resemblance is super cute! She expressed her wish to speak more English, because she wanted to ask Yuan and myself many things, get to know us, and speak to us more closely, like daughters. Argh, another motivation to learn Hindi. In the meantime, her daughters had to play translators, and I appreciated her efforts to speak Hindi to me more slowly and simply (I could start to pick out some important words - dil, pyaar, beta...). I'm beginning to understand the sentiment when everyone calls each other 'auntie/uncle', 'brother/sister' in India.  

That evening we all headed back to Sunny's family's place for mehendi. We found the place more decorated than before - with lights and drapes in the garden (the boys had apparently been at work while the ladies played dress-up, hmm). So mehendi was in part what I had anticipated - all the ladies sitting around making henna tattoos together. But before that, it consisted in a puja where Sunny was the one being covered in mehendi paste, as friends and relatives took turns applying a bit of the stuff to his hands and feet, followed by that thing where you twirl a 10rs bill around the person's head. Clockwise, as I was almost immediately scolded by the ladies surrounding him when I started off in the wrong direction.

After the ladies' musical movement the night before, this evening they sharpened their fine arts skills. Meanwhile, the gents resumed drinking & eating in the same room as the prvious night. Déjà vu... However, they eventually moved the party outside and began their own session of performance arts. This went on for quite some time before we all went back to our sleeping quarters, knackered.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Chamba Shaadi

She tied the red string with bells and seashells around my wrist, and smiled: "It is believed that if you receive this bracelet at the wedding, you will also be married very soon". "Great! But not too soon!", intervened Yuan. Sunny's sister only shot a devilish grin at us.

I sat there in the crowded room, thinking to myself over and over how incredibly grateful I was to attend this event - it had been my dream to be invited at an Indian wedding since before ever setting foot on the land. And this was already my second one! Not only that, but it was a North Indian wedding - ahem - meaning that it would last at least 3 days and consist of copious amounts of non-stop celebrations. To top it off, for me, those 3 days gave rise to some of the best memories of my travels anywhere (the bride and groom should feel proud, as this author has experienced craziness in over 27 countries so far :P).

I was there with people who quickly became the closest of friends to me. The energy of that time is truly irreproducible, but I will try my best to share some of it.


Day 1

After picking me up from McLeod Ganj on his bike, Vishal and I traveled around the Dhauladar range to get to the other side, passing some stunning scenery, rough roads, and a very cold Jot pass along the way. I sat behind him on the dashing black Hero Honda, listening to Eddie Vedder, entranced by this spontaneous trip and the views.

Five hours and a sore butt later, we reached our destination; Chambaaaa! I finally met the super duper cool groom, Sunny, and his family. I realised that over the next couple of days, I would be attending the groom's part of the celebration only. The bride-to-be has her own separate celebrations at her house with her friends and family, until they are married and the celebrations continue together.

We were some of the first guests to arrive, and we hung around, waiting for more people to appear. I relaxed in Sunny's neighbour's house for a bit, and spent a few minutes trying to communicate with an auntie. Everyone was incredibly lovely and welcoming, and I felt really privileged to be the only foreigner, but that's when I started wishing I could speak more Hindi. So during my "naptime", I whipped out my Pimsleur audio lessons and started on it. As far as my love of the language goes, it all started that day, and the rest is history :).

I then met more and more of the guys' friends - many of them knew each other from college days, and were also super duper cool! Although, according to Sunny's mom - who kept trying to veer me away from the testosterone influence - I should spend more time with her during the wedding. So I helped her to split cashews for some time, in preparation for a rice-based dessert.

I clearly suck at this
As evening fell, it was time for sangeet. Sunny's mom sat me down in a room where the women and children had started to gather to make music. It was cute and all, buuuut it was a little too tame for my taste :P Ok, granted, there was some fun dancing started by some of the younger ladies as well. But still, I was curious to see what the boys were up to. And, as a foreigner and an observer, I had the privilege of not necessarily having to follow traditions to a T.

So I entered the next room. The difference in ambience could be felt instantly - the smoky and alcohol-tinged air stung my eyes, voices were louder and more relaxed. I sat there, slowly beginning to feel comfortable amongst this crowd of younger generation desi guys. They were also just as shy to speak to me I think, not purposely trying to ignore me (plus the language difficulties). And they were, for the most part, quite decent people. The whiskey helped. Eventually, I began to be integrated in the conversations more and more, and I was brute-forcing my brain to try to understand the language as much as possible.

The next couple of hours were spent going between the two rooms, if anything, at least to escape the heavy smokers. But if I thought the night was coming to an end, boy was I ever wrong. The families probably went to sleep, but the 3 idiots - Sunny & sidekicks - plus myself got in a car and went to pick up Sunny's couchsurfer, Yuan, from the bus station. Her bus was supposed to arrive around 2am. From then on, I would no longer be the only foreigner in Chamba. (I later found out that Yuan had been staying in McLeod Ganj for some time before this, and even stayed at the hostel where I had stayed, only a few days before I had arrived! So we had spoken to some of the same people there, including the French girl. I remembered that this girl had told me about a Taiwanese girl who Couchsurfed and was trying to convince her to do the same. Small world syndrome happened quite often in the world's second most populated country.)

We spent more hours in the car, having chai, watching donkeys go by in the dewey cold night, and listening to an incredible line-up of music. (My friends in India listen to - and play on guitar - Neil Young, among others. In fact, they knew more songs of his than I did at the time! This Canadian author felt slightly ashamed.) Eventually, we finally rolled back to our sleeping quarters, and I caught a glimpse of the daylight seeping in as I fell asleep around 5am.

Photos: Wedding in Chamba

Friday, April 13, 2012

His (Elusive) Holiness

The following day, I took Rany for breakfast and decided I would continue to try helping people one by one. While my life is kind of hopelessly tangled, making other people smile seems like the perfect mission. I learned a lot about her, and how and why she ended up in McLeod - quite different from most people.

To take her mind off things, I took her to the temple. To our surprise, a crowd of people was waiting near the exit. As it turned out, the Dalai Lama was leaving that day for an "overseas tour", so people gathered to see him off as his car would drive by. Hah, what luck - only 2 days in McLeod and I at least get to see His Holiness, even if briefly :) We both hurried and got some kathas (the white scarves for blessing), and waited with the rest of the people. In the meantime, we befriended a chick from the Netherlands, who had also recently started long-term solo travel.

I gave up on the idea of trying to take a photo, realising that the car would pass by too quickly, and decided instead to just enjoy the moment. It was quite awesome to see the Dalai Lama's smiling face, gazing out warmly and wide-eyed at all of us as the vehicle passed by. Very cute and special.

Well, that's done and out of the way, let's go get some food now!

After lunch, Rany and I walked to Bhagsu waterfall, sharing some more about our lives. I had to explain to her what all the texting was about so she wouldn't feel offended, because it was getting out of hand at times, heh.

Soon, it was time for some dance class happening at Oasis Café (some event or other is always going on in McLeod - I eventually came to enjoy the uniqueness and creativity of the place). Rany went, but I decided not to join; I needed some alone time...or rather, texting time. I wanted to walk to one of the temples on the mountain, and even maybe spend the night there (all about getting crazier and wilder), but some anxiety struck and I decided not to. As I was walking back to McLeod, the locals were amused at seeing a girl passing by, engrossed in pressing buttons on her phone, occasionally giggling to herself...

I met up with Rany and Petty (the Dutch girl) after the dance class, and we meandered to the same rooftop place as the previous night for dinner.

After hilarious efforts from Petty and myself to try to make Rany eat more, I was feeling quite knackered and decided to head back to the hostel. Especially seeing as how I had to wake up early the following day to meet Vishal and head to the wedding! However, thankfully, I stuck around and waited for Rany, because on our way back, we were followed by an Indian guy making rather crude verbal passes at us. He even attempted to grope Rany as we reached the hostel. Good that neither of us had gone back alone! Sometimes, in certain special and isolated pockets like McLeod Ganj, I forget that I'm still on "planet India", and that one has to remain vigilant :P

More Clouds in McCleod, Less Clouds in My Heart - A Tomato Love Story

As I awoke, slightly more confused but also slightly less, paradoxically, I spontaneously asked Vishal if I could join for his friend's wedding happening in Chamba in a few days. He had thought of asking me to come along as well, so things turned out great.

Plan could now go as follows; I can get a couple of days in McLeod, then he will pick me up there and we will fly on the bike to Chamba for the wedding. Hurray for random decisions and changes of plans!

Pure freedom.

So I hopped on a bus to McLeod Ganj, with Eddie Vedder in my ears (dammit, thanks to Vishal, I became so addicted to that soundtrack for the next months!).

I was a bit irritated with McLeod, which I didn't get to properly see a couple of nights before. So this was my first proper impression - it felt unfriendly, loud, and bustling with tourists. Ugh.

I walked down to find Ladies' Venture - the hostel recommended by the French girl we met on the trek to Triund. Still a bit dazed and confused (as I tend to be for days on end sometimes during my travels :P), I checked in and settled in a bed in the cozy, European-style dorm room. It was empty except for a French girl reading a book. She had been a little sick so she stayed in that day. We talked a bit and she answered a few of my questions - who the others in the dorm were, how to get to the temple...

Knowing I only had 2 days there, I set off to see the Dalai Lama temple that afternoon. It was a lovely walk and peaceful area. I took a few good shots and headed back to the hostel. I was feeling in a social mood and hoped some people would invite me for dinner with them.

I met a few more of the girls staying there, and Rany - also a new arrival - a fashionable pretty lady from Cambodia. A few of us went for dinner together. It was rather strange to be with a group of foreigners in a pizzeria. I was always curious to know what everyone's story was. Some volunteers, some travellers...

Eventually, I started befriending Rany, who was very sweet and approachable, even though communication was at first a little difficult due to language. One of my favourite memories of all time was probably as we all left the diner and headed to a "bar" in the vicinity. Rany and I walked behind the rest of the group when we noticed two tomatoes falling from a veg stall nearby. We stalked the tomatoes as they made their way down the winding, hilly road, completely absorbed in their progress. They "chased" one another for quite some time, occasionally slowing down, sometimes passing each other. It was a rather incredible little interlude, and no one else seemed to notice. Soon, one tomato fell in the gutter, shortly followed by the second one. Rany and I had no need to explain what had just happened, we both loved it and laughed, and it became a favourite inside joke.

However, due to the tomato incident, we completely missed where the others went inside, so we just picked a random rooftop restaurant and settled there. To my surprise, we bumped into some people Vishal and I had met on the trek to Triund a couple of days prior - one of them being the very fit older guy! We all had a great time, some guitar playing, some laughing, some cheering up Rany who had slowly begun to open up to me about her story. The cool older dude turned out to have been in India for quite a while. He tried to get on the same vibe as Rany to get her to smile.

In parallel, Vishal and I were having some of the best texing conversations I've ever had...

Photos: McLeod Ganj

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Recovery, Illumination, Spontaneity

The following day, we woke up early and rode back to Palampur. I took a nap while Vishal went straight to work. Ahhh, I really have been spoiled and fortunate on my travels. Then again, work is two steps in front of his house :P.

I spent that day recovering from the trek and preparing my leave for McLeod the following day. The plan was to stay in McLeod about a week, then go to Manali (and find some goddamn sheep and mountains to overtake!). And since Palampur is on the way back, I could leave my huge bag there and just take my daybag to McLeod.

That day, Vishal showed me a book that was left there by two of his previous couchsurfers: Courage - The Art of Living Dangerously, by Osho. Now, I had heard of Osho previously, and enjoyed his videos, but I can be skeptical of books with such hilarious titles. Still, I gave the book a try though. I sat down at the shop and started reading.

As it turned out, just about each and every passage, starting with the first line, made me want to burst into tears or burst out laughing. The words fell into places in my mind where they fit perfectly inside little holes that were making all the ruckous until now.

That night, more mind-shifting occured as we watched Motorcycle Diaries...

Dharamsala & McLeod Ganj

Well, it was finally time for me to do some highly awaited trekking (and highly needed - thanks to Indian food) in these beckoning mountains, and to finally see the one place in India I had been waiting so long to get to. The place that started it all, that motivated me to come to this country in the first place! None other than...Dharamsala, the humble abode in exile of the Dalai Lama.

Well, it wasn't so much humble, and it was definitely overhyped - like huge tourist attractions are wont to be sometimes - and technically the Tibetan colony is actually in McLeod Ganj, and I had discovered other places in India that appealed to me more, and and and... BUUUUT still; without my seeing Seven Years in Tibet, I probably would not have discovered India. That movie drove me to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. And in the meantime, I fell in love with a whole country, so much so that the anticipation for this particular place faded somewhat.


So after my 3-day crash course on Buddhism, Vishal had promised to take me on a hike on his day off. I had to choose between a more difficult, less frequented trek, or a somewhat easier, more touristy one close to McLeod. I ended up picking the easier one because my shape was...somewhere between a samosa and a puri...

So we went on his motorbike to McLeod Ganj. Along the way, the wind in my hair, the view of the snow-capped mountains, the distant lightning flashes...were all leaving me with a huge grin on my face. Nothing like being on a bike in a Himalayan thunderstorm.

We arrived and stocked up on goodies. I had apparently forgotten how it is to hike, because I brought a bag-full of random food that I only took for the ride and didn't end up eating. We made our way slowly up the trek to Triund, the most popular in the area, meeting people along the way. First, an older foreign man so in shape that he would pass us several times on the way up while waiting for his friends to catch up. "Wait till you see my daily regimen!", he told me as I laughed.

We then stopped for chai in a tent closer to the top. The view was breathtaking, the whole place had an incredible vibe to it, away from the incessant honking and noise below (as India will be India even in small mountain towns). There, we met a French girl and a dog on their way down. She recommended a good hostel in McLeod (I was looking to stay for a few days in McLeod after my stay in Palampur). The beautiful huge dog belonged to the hostel apparently, and was used to hiking with travellers. They had camped at the top the previous night with some other travellers she met at the hostel.

Back on our way to the top, scattered rain and drizzle tried to discourage us from the ascent. And then...SNOW! :D Patches here and there in valleys hidden from the sunlight.

And I was soooo incredibly out of shape! Vishal patiently put up with my slow pace, although I'm sure I caught him yawning several times. Every now and then he would feed me a clementine along the way, ask interesting questions, and encourage me to keep going.

Sure enough, eventually - after more hours than estimated by Vishal :P - SUMMIT! Well, not quite, but the end of our trek, the first base for more serious potential treks. The view was stupendous! There were some tents and chai shops up there, along with a few groups of people we had met on the way up. We all amassed under one tiny chai shop roof, and just in time as it started to pour. 

Vishal knew the owner, Sunil, and started a conversation with him and some other local guys, while Sunil cooked up some Maggi for us. The foreigners were sitting together outside, also having their own conversations. I was stuck in between, not understanding enough Hindi to chat with the locals, and not feeling very comfortable with certain kinds of foreign travellers either (the obnoxious kind mostly). So I sat quietly and sipped my chai, waiting for my clothes to dry off.

As the rain came to a halt, I went outside to take some photos. I couldn't take my eyes off this landscape! Snowy Indrahar (which apparently you can climb and pass over), the distant valleys lit up by lightning... As most of the travellers soon went back down, I started talking a bit more with Sunil, some of his friends, and a hippie Romanian chick I discovered living behind some curtains, haha! I also found out from one of them that the Dalai Lama had just given a talk and I missed it! The next one would be in a month and I would likely not be there anymore :(

The Romanian girl was the most inspiring person I met there. She had arrived at Triund in the winter and stayed some time, then came back later and "lived" there for a bit, helping out with the daily needs - fetching water from the river and hiking back up with it, cooking... A sort of unoffical CouchSurfing-meets-WWOOFing perhaps. It gave me tremendous urges for doing something like that. Deeper into the wild, being with shepherds, living on mountains, roughing it out! The desire for adventure and spontaneity was overwhelming. I didn't know where and how to start. I mean, sure, I've done some crazy things, but still there is always fear at the back of my mind which prevents me from really getting out of my comfort zone sometimes...

At some point, we had to say our goodbyes and start our descent - Vishal and I still had a ride to Palampur awaiting us after the descent. "Don't worry, you will fly back down now", said Sunil as he handed me the joint one last time. And so we were on our way, with another French guy that tagged along asking too many questions. I don't remember much of the speedy descent, except that the sunset was breathtaking, and that Vishal and I both had the same Mumford & Sons song stuck in our minds.

Unfortunately, we reached the bottom as it got dark, so we decided to spend the night in McLeod and ride back to Palampur in the morning. We celebrated our trek with dinner at a famous rooftop restaurant. I was feeling nostalgic for South India, so I had masala dosa :P

Photos: McLeod Ganj

Buddhism 301 - No Beer in Bir, nor Deer in Deer Park

The next morning, we walked to the main road and attempted to hitchhike but failed, as the first vehicle to stop was the bus headed to Baijnath. We hopped on.

In Baijnath, I was showing off my Hindi skills ordering parantha & channa masala for breakfast, even though Eric was not too keen on spicy food. We finally took a taxi to Bir as the buses were not in agreement with our schedule, deciding to skip the channa masala in a leaky plastic bag on the bumpy ride and making do with the paranthas.

Bir happens to host yet another cool Tibetan colony. We arrived at Deer Park - the monastery where the talk was happening - which looked kind of like a resort. Mostly foreigners of all ages attended the talk. We were a little late, and the room was full, so we joined the few other people sitting outside on pillows, peeking in through the open door and windows.

The speaker turned out to be Tenzin Palmo, a rather "known" British woman who became a Buddhist before it was cool. I didn't know what to expect but immediately felt I was in the right place. Somebody handed me a sheet with the Buddha teachings she was covering during the talks. She would read them and interpret them, and give examples in our daily lives. I can still find a peaceful smile on my lips when I think of her charismatic and subdued way of talking. Important yet simple messages. There was a strenghtening, uplifting energy about her. It was a suitable temporary harbour for lost and confused me who was still incredibly unsure about the next step, and still felt greatly emotional after so many attachments and goodbyes, and kept panicking whenever thinking too much of the big picture...

Following the talk, many of the attendees took refuge - taking vows for a sort of first step towards becoming Buddhist. Tenzin Palmo cut a small piece of their hair and placed it in a bowl. She asked "Are you happy?", and they would answer "I am happy". One woman started crying during this.

Yup, that day I probably realised I needed some more meditation in my life. And a change in gears. I had to remind myself again that the point of my travels is not solely to do crazy adventurous things that I can later brag about, but to become humble and grow my own mind in parallel with helping others.

Eric and I parted in the evening. He had been facing a dilemma of where to go next in his life as well (albeit, he had more specific options to choose from than I ever did). He wanted to continue his Buddhism studies but was unsure where. I tried to be an attentive ear and get him out of the loop of his dilemma a little, offering an outsider's perspective whenever I could. Not sure if I helped much directly, but I think just talking it out gave him a better grip on the situation.

Whenever we tried to talk about my life, words and guttural sounds would spew out uncontrollably, a bit like an alien eating spaghetti, or two tortoises attempting to mate... According to Eric, I, "master of neurocomputation" as he put it, was in the ideal position to reconcile East and West philosophies. He saw me as a good candidate for uniting science and meditation into a more cohesive explanatory process of consciousness. But I didn't quite feel a calling for that, nor am I really a master of anything, to warrant devoting all my energy to... I was still feeling beyond confused, anxious, and restless, and I didn't see any improvements whenever I tried to talk it out. So I decided to focus on other people's lives for a bit, until something came along in mine (which it did, eventually, :) through an unguarded back door I had forgotten I left open. It slipped through quietly one night...).

We exchanged phone numbers and thought it might be cool to meet again in Nepal - where we were both headed eventually - for some more Buddhist insights. Unfortunately, when we both left India, the numbers stopped working, and although I had given him my email, I still haven't heard from him since last we spoke. Eric was definitely a person I would have liked to keep in touch with and follow his progress in life. If you ever meet this peaceful, interesting individual - probably he will have shaved his long hair and beard, and become a monk by that time - do let me know he is alive and well.

Photos: Bir & Deer Park