Saturday, November 25, 2006


The Road to Kalakankar

We made our way from Chitwan National Park in Nepal to Kalakankar, a small quiet historical village in Uttar Pradesh, via Sonauli, Gorakhpur and Allahabad. And what a roller coaster of a ride it was. After a five hour bus ride from Chitwan, complete with unauthorized stops to pick up customers for extra cash, our bus full of tourists, from Israel, India and Canada, we were dropped off somewhat unceremoniously at the border where we had to fill out exit documents for the Nepali government. Given that it is all hand written in large bound ledgers, one wonders how the information can ever be quickly useful.

As we walked across the border into India, the roads instantly become more clogged, dirty and populated. Diesel, dust, garbage and humans multiplied by a factor of three. Incredible India, as the tourist posters proclaimed. After much haggling we got a car to Gorakhpur, the nearest train station. It was the same price as getting a bus, and usually faster. However, a bridge had collapsed somewhere, so the driver had to take a detour. This detour was 3 hours of winding village road, on land, dusty and narrow, with a village every 500 meters or so, consisting of 10 houses or so. The driver drove with Hindi film music whining the whole way, but we all go to liking it after a while. The tape was quite old, so I think it's something I was vaguely familiar with from the eighties. And anyway, half the time, he had his hand on the horn, chasing down little children, bullocks, dogs, old people, horse drawn carts. Everyone must get out of the way. It is breathtakingly scary for me to be a passenger in a taxi, city or countryside. I can't quite get used to it.
We saw endless fields, meticulously plowed and irrigated, thousands of peasants bent over their back breaking labour, and walking the small paths between the fields going to and from their homes and villages. It was clean and peaceful, except for our noisy car. People stared at us and I was quite embaraased to barge through their life in such a discourteous manner.
We finally arrived in Gorakhpur, at the train station, and after paying a heavily solicited tip to the driver, we went to find railway tickets, an overnight trip to Allahabad. As usual, I got indignant about something. A couple of  blonde tourists, two young women, asked for the cheapest fare to Kolkata of the ticket seller in the next booth. The ticket seller demanded to know why they needed the cheapest tickets. They had to practically beg. Having a guidebook with them, they knew what class was available to them. I told the seller in my wicket that this was outrageous; that his buddy had no right to ask this. I told him that just because they were blonde was no reason to assume that they had lots of money. They were in fact from Poland, as I had chatted with them before. I told him so. He looked a bit sheepish, but did tell his colleague. I further added in my broken Hindi, but taking advantage of my matronly gray hair to pull some rank, that they had a lot of nerve, as so many Western people come to India and give generously of their time to volunteer here. How dare they treat them so arrogantly?
The overnight train ride was fine. We were in sleeper class AC, which means air conditioned. We didn't need AC but that was the only thing available. The real advantage is that it includes bedding and a sealed unit, so you don't get the endless dust and stream of food sellers and beggars that you get in non-AC.
In Allahabad, it took us 4 hours to find an ATM that worked, and a driver willing to go to Kalakankar for a reasonable price. Allahabad has much to offer if you have friends and if you seek out the holy places, and on grand mela days, but this day it was just another  crowded, dirty, noisy, polluted city in North India.
And then to Kalakankar.

Monday, November 20, 2006


Between the lines

There is hope. I may not have had a chance to blog the good, and perhaps focussed only on the bad and the ugly. But there is much good and much hope. And many people have given of their time and resources generously to us, such as Rana Bose in Kolkata with his beautiful flat at our disposal and Ashok Singh with his ancestral home in the village of Kalakankar, where we were treated like royalty. I will elaborate as soon as I have more leisurely internet time.
All the positive practices of compassion, gratitude and kindness, such as thinking of three things every day to be grateful for are more imperative in India. I am challenged to remember these things here, when these are much easier to practice at home when I am surrounded by graceful forests, clean communities and mindful friends.
I have not been compassionate or grateful or kind on many occasions. It was not done out of malice, but rather as a strong reaction. I felt entitled to my reaction, and I still do. It is alright to feel disappointed when someone you love dearly, such as a father or mother whom you have not seen for 23 years, has progressed from a mild smoking and drinking habit to one that is so excessive that it is killing them with emphysema and cirrhosis. It is possible to love that parent and still be angry and disappointed. One is always a child in that respect, fearful of losing a loved one and angry about the downhill turn.
I don't have a right to expect anything of India. India is India and owes me nothing. It has a right to go to hell in handbasket. But it is the country in which I spent my formative years, and I have an emotional bond which runs deep and brings tears to my eyes. I heard recently that enlightenment was not about seeing the light (as a kind of "light") but rather accepting things the way they are. And that is why it is so difficult. "Accept India the way it is". Acceptance is not apathy, although frequently so confused. Apathy is about doing nothing about it and not caring, whereas acceptance is a kind of loving understanding of the situation. Acceptance has room for doing something about it too. I don't even know that I have accepted India as it is yet on this trip. And I am not going to be hard on myself about it. I will let myself feel what I feel, not trying to contrive my feelings to go one way or the other. And I am trying to let go of my more negative feelings... in that, I feel them but am trying to not to invest in them so I don't have to wear them like a burden.
I too want to imagine and support  the idea of a healed homeland. I too want to piggyback on the mulitude of good deeds and fine people I have met here who are working to make positive change. To them I take my hat off... and make my obeisances.


From Katmandu to Delhi

It is so hard to blog when you on the road, and priorities are to find transportation, lodging, food, etc. I have so much to write about. Mehdi said he would buy a laptop and I hope to do more when we get it.
From Katmandu we moved on to Chitwan National Park, with elephant rides and tiger camps. Needless to say we did not see any tigers, as they don't want to see us, but we did see some  crocodiles on the sandy shores of the river. They were absolutely still, so we pondered if they were not perhaps plastic replicas planted for us rather unclever tourists. I saw a woman washing clothes on the banks of the river, and it would have been one of those idyllic travel pictues, if it had not been that she was wearing jeans and a skimpy top. Since it was only 1-2 kms from the "eco" resort, I thought perhaps it was a tourist in another lodge. I asked our guide Lalu, and he called to her in Nepali and she turned around and waved to him. She was Nepali. During the jungle walk, which was largely uneventful, I had a lovely leech fall onto my clothes. Beautiful red bugs, as large as grasshoppers, but walking like beetles, were in the thousands everywhere on the path and the forest floor.
I had really mixed feelings about our elephant ride as it is so contrived to have loads of tourists, albeit most of them were Nepali school children, crowding together in an elephant caravan. And isn't it out and out elephant abuse? Zaman and I were of like mind, but having come this far, we decided to go with it, justifying our actions by saying to ourselves that these were domesticated elephants. In fact, they were not wild, and had been bred in captivity, much like the ubiquitous cows and bulls. We went in serach of the one horned rhinos, which we did not see. However we did get to feed the elephants a lot of green bananas.
The funnny thing is that I took my Danish wooden shoes off so they would not fall off on the ride. I placed them in what I was told was a secure place, but lost one somewhere in the jungle. The guides promised me that they would look for it the next day, but now it's been ten days and no word from them by email. These shoes are really comfortable, summer and winter, and nt cheap, so I was sorry to lose them. And they are still looking for them. So it brings a smile to my face that every morning, in the resorts off Chitwan National Park, a group of elephant riders are looking for a Canadian tourist's Danish wooden shoe. And by the way, I did leave the other one there too. So they could be together, and hopefully someone would use them one day. But I don't imagine they will use them. Wooden shoes in Nepal are quite an oddity.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


The new coalition in Nepal

It seems to be a day of optimism here in Nepal as all political parties have finally agreed to work together in an interim coalition government, consisting of the current Nepalese Congress party and the Maoists, as well as five other minor parties. The UN has overseen an arms truce, which consists of both the Maoists and the army putting away all their weapons under lock and key, ostensibly, and having access to them but only in such a way that video cameras would record the where, when, who, etc. People seem to be really happy here about it, but cautiously. It's hard for them to think that something major could change for the better, although it is acknowledged that some things have changed for the better over the last thirty years including less hunger and more education opportunities. Countries all over the world are congratulating the new accord, and Nepali people are cautiously looking at removing the monarchy entirely, even as a figurehead.
Today we wrapped up our extensive shopping spree, and shipped it all home. I am tired of shopping for things, though I must say one is easily overwhelmed by the hundreds of stores selling fantastic chunks of turquoise, coral, silver, emeralds, exotic textiles, buddhas, prayer flags, and kurkuris. Tomorrow morning early we head of for Chitwan National Park on another ecotour, to see one horned rhinos on elephants, and hopefully to sight a tiger or two. After that, southwards to India again for Allahabad and Kalakankar. Life is good. I hope I surrender to India and make peace with her.... soon.
Our last evening in Kathmandu was celebrated by having a Nepali dinner in a small restaurant with our British friend Patrick and our Nepali friend Manju and her 9  month old daughter Anju. It was the first time Manju had ever eaten in a restaurant. She is 30 and sells Tibetan silk bags for 80 cents on the main tourist drag. Anju was awfully cute, trying to climb up on the table and bang various dinner spoons on dishes and glasses. We took turns feeding her bits of rice. Since she wasn't wearing diapers, we had to make sure Manju took her out the street regularly to have a little preventative pee. The owners were very accommodating of us all, though one could see they had rarely seen such a motley crue for dinner. Eight of us, all sizes and shapes, from all over the world, eating and laughing and just having fun.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The Soaps

Good news and bad news. We went to the opening ceremony of a wonderful orphanage in Godavari, a suburb of Kathmandu. A German woman of Yugoslavian origin has worked, against all odds, to build a most beautiful orphanage, a Rolls Royce of buildings to house and take care of 62 wonderful children of the lower castes. She came as a tourist and could not turn away. We saw a beatifully designed facility full of large spacious rooms, clean toilets, playrooms, libraries, gardens, all built on ecological principles. ... complete with passive solar water heating, earthquake resistant walls, septic tanks that empty into living pond filters... and rain water harvesting. The children had actually been with her for many years, but in a different facility. The architect, Wolfgang, who was there for the ceremonies, told me about a model house he designed and built in Nepal using local materials and traditional design elements, but incorporating modern ecological principles.
You can visit her web site at
We left Kathmandu to go to Dhulikhel, a small town at the top of Kathmandu valley, one that I had visited with my brother back in 1972, and then again in 1983. Things had naturally changed, and one of the new things is a big huge hospital, funded by Austrian donors, and completely run by Nepali staff. It is clean and spacious, and local people are charged a nominal fee compared to private medical care in Kathmandu. I had a lovely visit with the administrator, and he gave me some literature, celebrating their ten years of operation.
Wolfgang's model house is in Dhulikhel. I asked around for it, but most people did not know what I was talking about. I finally found it within the municipality's administrative grounds, and asked to see it. A very formal town administrator showed me the house but did not bring the key, so it was a bit pointless. After a courteous amount of time, I expressed my regret that there was no key since we had come so far. It magically appeared and we took a good look around. The house seemed ideal for a large family or two small families complete with passive cooling and heating systems. Unfortunately no one had actually used the design, which is available free of charge, with tax break incentives, since it was built in 2002. There seemed to be no reasonable explanation for it. The house is used occasionally by visiting dignitaries as a place to sleep.
We were fortunate enough to run into an English speaking foreign urban planner working there. He was reluctant to talk at first, but his frustration was obvious. He said that nothing can change in a country where people do not see any need for change, and where people accept the hardships they are faced with. He said that in his experience, between the feudal system, corruption, unstable government and fatalism, most people do not think they can change anything, and therefore do not entertain the idea that things need changing. Of course, there are many exceptions, but generally this it the case. So the model house sits empty, and new houses are being built constantly using designs that are neither ecological, earth quake resistant nor cheap to build. And so the world turns, like the soaps.

Friday, November 03, 2006


The River

As I make my way up the ostensibly 365 steps to the Swayambunath
stupa, or the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu, I hear a clear small girl's
voice in Danish: "Ja, men det er jo ikke så slemt, far." but I am too
winded to turn around to look at what must be a very fair
blonde-haired little girl. She keeps talking and walks past me up the
stairs, but she is a small fair complexioned Nepali girl. I chat with
her in Danish, to her surprise, and her Nepali father tells me they
are on a two week visit back home from Denmark. Her mother and baby
brother stayed back in Denmark. Finally reaching the top, after
passing scores of hawkers and beggars, I sit down to simply rest and
gawk. It's hard for me to be here. I want to cry again.

I want to cry because Katmandu is so smog covered. I want to cry
because Vishnu's river, which we had to cross on a bridge, is so
filthy, so depleted, with raw sewage, wild pigs foraging large black
bags of garbage, the stench, the filth, is more than I can bear.
Perhaps I am naive, perhaps I am frail, but I don't mind. I cry.
Across the river, there is a small temple, and inside the inner
chambers where I find dark images of various Hindu gods and goddesses,
and reliefs of the Buddha, all smeared in sindhu, vermillion powder,
rice, ghee, marigolds, I start to cry again. I mourn and grieve all
this is lost to me and to my world. There is no judgement about who
and why and where. I know that the whole world is on a monumental
environmental roller coaster ride, reaching incredible speeds near the
bottom, and that the only difference between my Vancouver Island and
this place is that we hide our filth better.

I cry because I have lost so much. My Hindu Grandmother, and her daily
faithful devotions in her Takugorh, despite the incredible injustices
she suffered silently in her life, having no choice, and me sitting
beside her on the cement floor fifty years ago, is never again going
to do that for me. I cry because my Grandmother Earth also so
violated, having no choice, continues to heal herself stoically. The
river, handicapped, terrorized, continues to flow.

There is no solace in my worldliness. And that I am, worldly. I blend
into any culture I want in Katmandu, by simply changing my clothes and
language. The old Moslem tailor from Bihar and I chat in my broken
Hindi about his family and the lack of tourists due to the Maoist
insurgency. We talk about his five daughters, and his opinion that
there is really only one God for all people, and it doesn't matter
much which one you worship. The Danish bookstore owner has lived here
for ten years with his Nepali wife, and we discuss the mental
development of children who have learned more than one language before
the age of five. Two young Frenchman from Bretogne discuss the
depression and drug addiction among Tibetan monks and laugh at my
Quebecois French. I get treated differently when I wear a salwar
kameez and tikka on my forehead. My greying hair allows me to be firm
with taxi drivers and the hawkers assume I am not interested or unable
to afford their adapted-to-western-taste would-be Himalayan
merchandise, mass produced Goddess knows where. I get lots of nods and
extremely friendly smiles from Nepali women and children.

It is a pleasant distraction, all these people. But there is no solace
when the water and the air and the earth of this subcontinent, and
that of the earth, are ravaged with poisons and garbage and sewage. I
am a doer. It is hard for me to do anything here, on a short term.
After a good cry, and a rant that my children kindly listen to, the
sun rises again in my heart. The monkeys in the monkey temple are
funny. If indeed it is the end of the Kali Yuga in 2012, I for one
can't wait. I hope it comes now and I hope it comes fast. I need a
renaissance, a new cycle in the wheel of life. I need to know that
there is another way to live. That we are not inevitably greedy,
careless, cruel and violent, towards our planet and towards each
other. I need to believe that my efforts, however miniscule here, in
the form of kind words, and somewhat larger actions at home, are
meaningful and that the New Age indeed will be upon us. And I don't
care much what the new cycle is called. Just come now, and hurry. Let
the earth restore itself, let the waters run clean, let the air move
oxygen into our lungs and carbon dioxide to the flora.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Kathmandu again and again

We have landed into the capital of Nepal, Katmandu. To keep matters simple we headed straight for the tourist district for at least the first night. Tom Carter ( had told me it had changed vastly since I lasted visited in 1972 and 1983. So I was prepared for a change. And it had changed. The urban sprawl is one huge dusty bowl in what once was a pristine valley with a small town in the middle. The tourist section has changed from one main tourist drag to several streets completely dedicated to selling mounds of cheaply duplicated Tibetan dorjes, prayer wheels, pashmina shawls, dope smoking paraphernalia, plastic look alike turquoise jewelry (old stone, Madame), hippie clothes galore, Buddhas and Taras by the thousands, in resin, metal, plastic, gold, you name it. The shops are cutely piled next to each other, jammed tight, with a permanent festive air for the benefit of the tourists, who happily trundle around buying bracelets, munching on chocolate cake, croissants and apple crumble, after arduous days of trekking in the Himalayas. The party is complete with New Age fusion music and hundreds of internet cafés and restaurants with Thai, Japanese, and Italian cuisine. I suspect Tokyo might have been like this fifty years ago. It's gay, pretty, and inviting. The hawkers badger you but it's innocuous enough. The beggars are not too pushy and it all looks like a third world "happy" hippie Disneyland.The air is comfortable and cool and the tourist district of Thamel is relatively well kept, so it makes you want to believe that all is well. Relax and shop.
Patrick is from Liverpool and takes year long vacations from his job as a street worker with drug addicts. He has also spent meaningful amounts of time in Vietnam, Ethiopia and India. He helps us out by showing us a much cheaper hotel on the second night, and what pitfalls to avoid and where to buy better quality cheaper goods from real Tibetan refugees. He speaks a bit of Nepali. He tells us about the seedier side. Most of the young kids on the street are sniffing glue and begging to support the habit. The young mothers begging with nursing babies, ask for milk powder (insist they don't want money) and when well meaning tourists buy them a $10 bag of powdered milk, they sell it back to the grocery store it came from for hard cash. The teenagers who harangue the female tourists for money use it on cheap Indian heroin and African cocaine (what do I know? I thought it was from South America) and ecstacy. African men ostensibly setting up a missionary network are actually setting up drug distribution networks, and somehow using Nepal as a gateway to get immigration into Europe. Tourists are flying in from Europe via Bangkok to get cheap sex in the massage parlours. Indian shopkeepers sweet talk and seduce young blonde female tourists traveling alone, have a fling and then sell them fake jewelry at exorbitant prices. All the prices are inflated 3-4 times more than a reasonable profit - and tourists often fall for it when they only have 48 hours here. They take home all kinds of goodies, mass produced in China but with labels showing "Made in Nepal". The Chinese are buying out hotels opened by Tibetan refugees, and they are moving onto other businesses. My kids are infatuated by all the goodies for sale, but the novelty wears off. Patrick takes us to a jewelry factory just behind our hotel. A dismal dark stairway with loose planks, stinking of old urine and garbage, takes us up to a hovel of a workshop where two men work at making huge silver rings with humongous pieces of coral and turquoise suitable for the fingers of the well to do. I consider buying a large quantity for resale and fund raising cutting out the middle men, and giving the workers a fair price. But this raises six hundred other questions, ones I cannot answer because I cannot fathom them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


A long bus ride

We left Rumtek on the morning of Oct 30th for a gruelling day of jeep and bus rides. The drivers are incredibly sure of themselves as they stare death down at every high risk turn and sideless mountain pass. We seem to get drivers that have to pass every vehicle on the road, be it a monster truck, bus, jeep or motorcycle. We are downright blasé about near misses. The drivers don't stop for vomiting people. A poor slight Bengali woman threw up the whole time, retching and retching, and we still went ahead like a bat out of hell. Along the way, we stop to pay off police blocks as it is payday for them, end of month. Fifty rupees for our jeep apparently. I learn a lot as I speak a bit of Hindi and Bengali. I chat a lot with everyone.
 In Siliguri, we switched to another jeep that takes a different load to Kakkarvitta, a small border town. It was night time by then and everything looked exceedingly seedy and humid and decrepid. Leaving India means having your names registered in a tiny office manned by resentful officials who bark out orders in a menacing way. They have a humongous book and everything is handwritten. All our names, addressed, birthdates, passport and visa numbers have to e recorded. The air is thick and smelly, and scores of people stare at us through windows with metal bars. One young man in particular looks very friendly. He has short hair and is conservatively dressed, but his very sweet and effeminate smile, and his little gold stud of an earring, and the twinkle in his eyes tells me he is gay. This is a not a problem in a big urban area, but in this little border town, full of smugglers and goons, I can imagine he isn't that safe. I think we have a meaningful exchange with our eyes. The official softens up considerably when I play my Bengali card. I speak to him in Bengali, talk about my Bengali roots and he sees my trademark conch shell bangles. I remain subservient; it's an act, but it works. We get through the line much faster, and the service is now with a smile.
The Nepali border isn't much better. They all seem to have gotten out of bed at 8 p.m. to take care of us. They are dressed in singlets and lungis, and shake their heads because I don't have passport size photos for the visas, which in themselves cost USD30. They don't accept Nepalese currency. They talk, scratch their heads, and decide the absence of photos will cost me an extra five hundred Indian rupees, for which I don't get a receipt. Corruption is rampant.


More on Rumtek

For those of you much interested in Tibetan Buddhism, here is the official site of the Rumtek Monastery:
We would love to load up more pictures to go with the blog, but it isn't always easy. It means the connection has to be relatively fast, and the internet cafe must have a USB port, which not all the computers have due to age.

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