Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Annapurna Massif

After a brief date with Indian and Nepali challenge, we were anxious to find solitude away from the traffic and polution of Kathmandu. Contrary to my expectation, Kathmandu is a sizeable city of nearly 2 million with frenetic streets, mostly unpaved. Streets are narrow, energy is friendly but high, and overall, it's not why you come to Nepal.

We booked a Ghorka Air flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a lakeside town huddled near the Annapurna range about 200 KM west of Kathmandu. Though we could have flown on Yeti or Buddha airlines, something about the Ghorka plane was reassuring... well, kind of. A high-wing Dornier 228 plane, roughly 18-seater, was home for a buzzing 40 minutes. The stewardess brought candies and cotton swabs for our mouths and ears respectively. I sat pinned to the window, watching the cloudy horizon and spectacular Himalayas poking through.

Pokhara is a village on a placid lake under the towering Himalayas. Untouched, forrested hills lunge into the cool blue mirror of a lake that reflects the Annapurna massif on clear sunrise. The town itself is shamelessly touristy, but this only means cheap knock-off North Face from China, Tibetan flags, and Buddhist novelties abound. There are few foreigners, typically Korean, Japanese or Chinese.

We spent two days lake-side, and one day climbing the nearby vista called Sarangkot. A taxi and climb to 5,000 feet leaves you well below the cloud line and mountains that poke through the gossamer horizon of morning moisture. From Sarangkot you can see nearly eight peaks, though their size is deceiving, as distance plays its tricky part. Fishtail, a sharp and holy peak rises above the Annapurna range, but is much shorter (~22,000 feet).

Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world at 8091 meters (26,545 feet). Also in the range are Annapurna II, III, IV, Gangapurna, and Annapurna South. The sight of it rising half-way into the sky is unparalleled and magical. The crisp white of the snow blends with the clouds below, and I found I had a kink in my neck from gazing at the summit for too long with my morning chai. While October is purportedly the time to visit Nepal, we found perfection in our 70 degree days and relatively clear vistas of the world's tallest peaks.

After a night of pick-up football under the range, a japanese dinner at Koto, and a series of Everest beers, each label displaying the famous Sherpa who ascended with Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, we reterned to Kathmandu for a few days of Gompas, Stupas, Temples and other sights. We saw one of the holiest Shiva temples for Hindus, and the largest Stupa in Nepal for Buddhists. We met innumerable Tibetans who had been exiled and were living in Nepal without citizenship, forced to walk a month back home as their only alternative to the official Freedom Highway back to Lhasa. We heard stories of Maoist rebels, but mainly as a protectionary force for local disputes. A boy told us how he'd incited Maoist help to save him from gang retribution, a story that smacked a bit of mafia. There are eight parties, and the country is still politically unstable according to most accounts.

Nepal is a friendly and beautiful country that is worth more than a few days visit. I hope and wait for my return to the Himalayas, or in Sanskrit, the abode of snow.

Delhi to Kathmandu

Our well-earned trip to Nepal began inauspiciously with a trip to the wrong airport in Delhi, followed by Jet Airways not recognizing our already-purchased tickets. There are two airports in Delhi, one domestic and one international, and there is absolutely no transportation between the two besides taxi. Once we made the right airport we had a new challenge. Apparently Jet Airways does not recognize electronic tickets, despite the fact that our record locator, meal preferences and seat numbers were in their computer system, and my AmEx had been charged.

What began as confusion escalated quickly to frustration and then to rage as one issue created another. We thought we understand the unfortunate solution, namely to swipe our card again and issue a subsequent chargeback with American Express to dispute the initial charged for unrecognizable tickets. This would have been easy -- easy, but their credit card machine was not working. In fact, no credit card machine was working in New Delhi International Airport! Despite pounded fists, shouts, and incompetent management loitering nearby, the concept of calling in a credit card was as foreign as our unfortunate situation. Instead, the proffered solution by Jet Airways customer service was to take an armed escort with us to the ATM where we could withdraw sufficient funds (around 3 lakh rupees). We soon find out that, of course, the ATM is not in this building, and while it thankfully recognizes our bank card, it limits withdrawl to barely cover our one-way to Kathmandu. But our one-way ticket to Kathmandu is paid in cash, and the receipt is a mere scribble on paper that does not even bear the company seal. Somebody's pockets were getting deeper along with our situation.

When we arrived in Kathmandu we fought our way through the crowds to the block brick building aside the International terminal that housed airline offices. Though the officials for Jet Airways did not show up for over an hour, when they finally did we were welling with hope that we'd be able to make a return flight to Delhi on Sunday. After smiles and greetings though, the nightmare continued with our Jet friends offering little more than an incoherent printout of matrix numbers and letters supposedly representing our confirmation. We were dubious at best, and offered to pay for tickets. Sure, but again, no credit cards. Ok, no problem, how about cash. Where is the nearest ATM. Oh wait, you will not accept Nepali Rupees? I thought we were in Nepal. Right, we are, but you only want American dollars. But we don't live in America, we live in India. Oh, you won't accept Indian Rupees either because of counterfeit worries... 1...2...3...3...2...1

We eventually bought return tickets at the Kathmandu office on Visa after blowing off steam in Pokhara, hiking under the striking beauty of the Annapurna range, and playing pick-up soccer with Nepali youth. Our business class seats on return to Delhi allowed us to spite Jet with each glass of mediocre Austrailian Merlot, an enjoyable but insufficient counterbalance to the sheer chaos that Jet Airways added to an otherwise wonderful trip to Nepal.

Monday, February 26, 2007

To the Taj

At 5AM, after an alley call with mother nature, a dangerous cup of street chai and a bumpy rickshaw ride from New to Old Delhi stations, we discovered that squalor meets chaos at all hours, even in the wee morning. With the discerning help of a large and assertive Bombay friend, purchasing a ticket to Agra was, in an optimistic description, near impossible. Trips between scores, literally scores, of ticket windows was to no avail. A brusque wave of hands, another non-descript utterance in Hindi, and exhasperation drew deeper lines into our friend's already furrowed brow.

The concept of lines in India is both frustrating and hipocritical. You'll get cut off all day, and the moment you adopt comparable propriety, or lack thereof, glowers abound. After the eventual 68 rupee unreserved seat train ticket to Agra, we experienced the insanity of boarding an unreserved train in Old Delhi station. Hundreds, if not thousands, rush for the still-moving doors of the train. When we finally made the train, it was the wrong one, as our platform had changed a minute before. Five hours later we rumbled into Agra station, and spent the remainder of the day meandering the tranquil gardens across the Yamuna from the back of the Taj Mahal. A trip to the older Baby Taj nearby was even more peaceful, with the venue nearly to ourselves (save for garden monkeys, of course).

The Taj Mahal, built as a monument to fallen love by Shah Jahan, is without a doubt, the most spectacular monument I've ever seen. Its pure white marble reflects the light differently through the day, from pure to pink to gold, changing with the sun. Unlike many monuments, its size and solitude bolster its already iconic status. Whereas Big Ben isn't so big, and Corcavado of Rio sits a thousand feet above a city, the grandeur of the Taj is singular and unavoidable in Agra. Up close, the Taj is equally impressive. Well-preserved, inlay marble upon marble, rock upon carved rock, it's amazing that even 20,000 individuals could construct such a masterpiece. We polished off a terrific day with scotch and a Partagas Cuban cigar, a glass of Hennessey and a view of the famous silhouette from an Oberoi Hotel balcony, rocked a rickshaw home and then slept it off in our $10/night hotel. Next day, back to work from our Gurgaon office near Delhi...

Corbett National Park

After an inevitably delayed flight from Hyderabad to Delhi on Air Deccan, the Southwest Airlines of India minus A-round boarding, we struggled to make it across Delhi for our overnight train to Ramnagar, Uttaranchal. Uttaranchal is the state wedged in Northern India between Himanchal and Nepal, Tibet and Uttar Pradesh. It's also the state in which Jim Corbett tracked the legendary 'Man Eaters of Koumon,' or tigers. Following an F-1 drive across New Delhi, me piled atop bags in the trunk, we shuffled our way into Old Delhi train station. I've slept in statioins before, namely Milan, and seen grime, but nothing compares to the Dickensian squalor of Old Delhi station. We happily traded the scurrying rats and festering pools of urine for the clacking night breeze aboard our six-hour ride to Uttaranchal.

Although the day began before 5AM, stumbling off a train into an ever-foreign world, riding on a safari jeep that sliced its way through the frigid night air under a blanket of glittering stars, after two-hours of sleep we were ready. We spent the day on safari, making our way through the forests of Jim Corbett National Park, and the open plains under the rolling foothills of the Himalayas. We saw hundreds of monkeys and spotted deer mingling in the golden grass, but failed to see a tiger. We closed off the night with a delectable curry and paratha dinner, and kept adding logs to the bonfire that kept us company until morning, through discussion of Ghandi, caste-life, and education with friends from Bangalore, Delhi & Mumbai. It was a memorable night of iPod jams, a blazing fire and lodge entirely to ourselves, an endless sky of stars, and wonderful company and conversation laced with laughter, smiles, and an exchange of cultures.

After a relaxing morning chai and a series of pseudo-adventure sports we piled into smaller jeeps and made off for safari day-two. Today felt more auspicious, as we silently bumped over softer leaves and muddy waters, deeper into the park. By noon we had spotted hundreds more spotted deer and monkeys, kingfishers and crocodiles. Soon thereafter we spotted the elusive leopard and her cubs. While not a man-eater, we didn't stick around to find out... overnight train back to Delhi.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Varanasi... India in Extremes

This weekend we took the arduous, but worthwile, trip to Varanasi, India. Varanasi is the holiest city in India, and purportedly the second-holiest city in the world, second only to Jerusulem. It is an ancient city on the Western banks of the Ganges, and one of the greatest pilgrimage points on earth. Near Allahabad, at the sangum of the Yamuna and Ganges, the river plane of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India is one of the most crowded regions on earth, and believe me, it feels like it.

Varanasi is, to say the least, a city of extremes. As articulated by Greg, "Varanasi is India in a crucible." It is the incarnation of so many thoughts, expectations, stereotypes, cliches, and extremes. Innumerable adjectives could be used to describe the experience of journeying to Varanasi... overwhelming, powerful, incredible, uncomfortable, holy... the latter perhaps most poignant, altered, though not necessarily diminished, by the innumerable former...

When you arrive in Varanasi it's like any other Indian experience; your flight is inevitably 3-hours delayed, you stumble off your budget airline perturbed, but at least well-fed by veg food and square bottles of water, and you chart your exit from the terminal. Through the sea of eyes, crumpled name cards, and tan-clad security forces nonchalantly bearing weapons, you plot your course and walk decisively, brushing aside offers and "deals" that abound.

Varanasi was all this, but maximized on arrival, and compounded as soon as we began to enter the city. A 12-kilometer drive from the airport took us 90 minutes, and involved one minor accident of a motorbike clipping our bumper... an amazingly low rate given the magnitude and proximity of traffic. While, at a size of 1 million people Varanasi is as large as San Diego, it lacks even a modicum of proper infrastructure. Save for roads, which are paved, the city is impoverished to an extreme, more crowded than Bombay, and host to the putrid scents that I'm starting to associate as common. Scores of people walk amidst water buffalo, pooled water, and feril dogs. A wild boar stands aside a goat next to a man mixing concrete for a building construction staffed by a dozen employed, but idle workers. Trash cans do not exist. Bathrooms abound, and despite the diversity of life on the streets, the smell is quite similar. The smell also eminates from the lapping water of the Ganges, the river in which offerings are made, men and women bathe and brush teeth, and the ashes of the dead are spread.

A walk along the Ghats (steps) of the Ganges involves an uncomfortable but rewarding confluence of sights, smells, thoughts. Holy men in saffron, men who have denounced worldly possessions, stand in reverence aside the holy Ganges, partaking in puja, offering prasad, uttering words in Hindi with eyes closed. Twenty men build a small boat while children scamper to sell you a candle and flowers to offer the Ganga at sundown. Women beat clothes into cleanliness in water sullied by a million pollutants. Others swish the same water and toothpaste to purge their rotting red teeth of the betelnut-stain. And still other men, naked, or wearing only loin cloths perch in tents nursing fire and applying gray ash to their skin. Their hair is madded and made wiry by time spent resolutely devoted to their cause.

Further down the Ganges are more naked, ash-covered men, others in saffron, others self-mutilated into forms a boy explained to us as "in the form of Ganesh." Ganesh, the god of beginnings and good fortune, has the head of an elephant. One man atop the ghats too had one eye, and half of his face loosely hanging in a flap of skin vaguely reminiscent of a trunk. Again, I cannot fully comprehend, but I can appreciate the experience as an eye-opening look at religious devotion.

Our final stop along the ghats was at the "Burning Ghats." When men and women are prepared to die, many Hindu devotees will make the trek to the Ganges for cremation and final resting in the Ganges. It is believed that the holy river can absolve one of sins, and allow one entrance into heaven. At the burning ghats there are hospice houses. There are piles and piles of wood. There is banyan, mango, and sandalwood. There are pyres. There are colored linens that vaguely resemble human forms. There is one eternal flame from which all cremation ceremonies begin. Though there is undoubtedly sadness, there is reverence and there is also no crying. There is no smell but that of wood. There are a dozen fires on different terraces alluding to the status of the individual. There is silence, save for the lapping water of the Ganges, the occasional crackle of the flames, and the communal hush of respectful onlookers engaged in a timeless Hindu tradition on the bank of the Ganga.

Varanasi, while tiresome, culturally daunting and immensely crowded, retains a holiness that transgresses the squalor and saddness that are the brethren of poverty. And that experience is sufficient enough to visit, though perhaps not return.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Jolly Roger in the Straights

On a Saturday night in Mumbai we met two guys at our table who were deck hands on global oil and container tankers. What began as an awkward drinks-for-four, two Americans and two Indian locals, quickly became an in-depth discussion about life married to the sea.

It's not often that you can compare favorite Ipanema joints, and hear an explaination about the process by which an oil tanker passes through the Panama Canal, but it's even less often that you get to talk about PIRATES, especially in Bombay. I'm not talking Johnny Depp, but veritable swashbuckling buccaneers... except maybe without the anachronism of the sword.

As deck hands they're given an assignment from Mumbai, flown to the necessary port (let's say Dubai). From there they board the ship and begin cruising in stints, 4 months for oil tankers, 6 months for container ships. They're modern mercantalists, shuttling goods around the world, beans from one location, jet fuel to another. On routes from Mumbai to East Asia, the only viable passing point is through the Straight of Malacca, the notorious stretch of ocean between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. The straight narrows between Malaysia and Indonesia until Singapore, at which point the tanker can proceed East to it's port of call, say Manila.

When the tanker is in the Straights, there are a number of tactics they employ to avoid the Jolly Roger. By sticking close to shore, boarding up the hull, sailing full-steam, and expelling jets of water off the port and starboard sides they can deter pirates for the small window of time during which the tanker is vulnerable. The deck hands said there are never more than 20 or so guys on a tanker, so it's easy to see how a few modern Captain Cooks could commandeer a stockpile of jet fuel... marooning our friends on some Lost island paradise, or worse, sending them to Davey Jones' locker... shiver me timbers!

Monday, February 5, 2007

In Bombay Looking West

Friday we decided to jet-set it over to Mumbai, the coastal capital of Maharashtra known as Bombay until it changed its name in 1996. It's the home of Bollywood, the putative New York City of India, financial and business center, and one of the the most notorious cities in the world for its crowds. Sixty percent of its 14+ million inhabitants live in slums that are heart-wrenching and troubled while the other half (or almost) live in places with the prices of Palo Alto.

The apartment in which we stayed had a beautiful view looking westward over the Arabian Sea, but as far up and down the Malabar coast as could be seen, dilapidated apartment towers loomed over the tin roofs of coastal slums. We spent less than $0.50 on a street vendor's bhelpuri lunch, and $100 on a dinner fit for Brad and Angelina. It is, like every city, one of extremes.

When traveling, I always have what I call "Thomas Friedman moments." The first came when I ordered a green-tea latte and a tall regular latte at the exact same time in Tokyo and Washington DC. A latte at a Narita Starbucks, a direct ANA Tokyo-DC flight, and another upon arrival landed me in two Starbucks restaurants on two different continents at the same time on the same day(with receipts to prove it)... but I digress. My Tom Friedman moment in Bombay came while drinking scotch, and listening to salsa music.

We were, as the story goes for many, asked to act in a Bollywood film. Approached by a "foreign model scout," he promised us 500 Rs and a day on the set. With a 4AM start, the opportunity cost of lost sleep far outweighed the $11 salary that our Bollywood good-looks promised, so we assured the scout that our agent would return his call... right.

We spent Saturday meandering the city and seeing the old British sites. The Brits inauspiciously constructed the "Gateway of India" sometime in the early 1900s, but did leave a number of beautiful buildings along tree-lined boulevards in the Colaba and Fort districts of South Mumbai. While the bygone buildings stand grandly aside cricket pitches, encircled by buzzing streets, the more modern financial area was surprisingly dilapidated. Despite police presence, the Mumbai stock exchange housed sleeping dogs on the steps, and opened to a razed dirt/gravel road.

Sunday we decided to splurge on the 25 Rs entry to the Indian Derby horse race tracks. The supposed second home to many Bollywood stars, I put 10 Rs down on "Gorgeous Blue" to win it all. My odds were not bad, but others were onto our tactics. A man in line casually asked if I, "liked the horse's name," in reference to my bet. "Yes," I responded, "and that's MY exact science... there will be no copying of strategy." Gorgeous Blue and Master Planner, my two horses, came in nearly dead last and dead last respectively. Needless to say neither was a cash cow, but then again maybe that'd be obvious to others.

After two races and no Bollywood sightings we returned home for another sunset over the Arabian Sea, the placid water sloshing against the backyard tide pools of the hundreds of brightly-dressed kids who'd emerge from the warren of corrugated-roofed homes to chase a cricket ball or fly a kite. India may be China's analog, but Mumbai is not Shanghai. In contrast to China's politically stoic feel, Bombay's vibrant democratic voters took the streets in their parties colors, thumping drums and lighting fireworks. It's hard to know what will ultimately improve the lives of those in coastal shanties... China's cold order, or India's impassioned chaos.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Mahabalipuram... on the Coromandel Coast

After a jaunt past the famous Pallava-architecture Shore Temple and a seafood lunch to Bob Marley hits, we incited a small dance party on the sands of Mahabalipuram.

When the little girl's father came by, he agreed to catch crabs for us if I held his necklaces. While I wasn't able to hawk any to the other confused, passing tourists, he did catch us a small crab before asking that I take a photo of his daughter.

I obliged, and took a round of photos of his little girl to the giggles and exciting novelty that only Panasonic on the beach can create in India.

Wickets of Fun

On Saturday we attended the India vs. West Indies cricket match in Chennai, India. Attending an Indian cricket match in the year of the Cricket World Cup was the unlikely and fortuitous result of the fact that our Indian co-worker has cricket connections. Having played at the state level for Tamil Nadu, and having roomed with one of India's rising stars, our friend secured us shaded tickets to an impossible match.

While the match lasted nearly 100 overs, and ran from 2:30-10pm, it was hardly a slow event. India is notoriously busy, and to layer on top of the status quo the crowd and enthusiasm of national team cricket in the year of a world cup still doesn't do justice to the craze and buzz in the balmy Chennai air. Streets were blocked, and we hopped our way over standing water and through crowded smiling streets toward the stadium, armed with flags, orange and green, and rare expat cricket enthusiasm.

India, in my superficial view, combines a bizarre mix of chaos and order that I suppose comes as a result of its immense population. Strict rules exist, but with the excess of employees, plurality of officialdom means you can often slip by. If mom says no, just ask dad. When I was stopped at the gate with my camera and told unequivocally that I could not enter, I merely had to loiter, shuffle pockets, claim it was a cell phone all along to a new guard, and walk through the buzzing metal detector to no notice. Bingo -- try doing that to the superbowl! It helped that I also distracted them with the old "sunblock in the white-boy pocket" card to evoke laughter from the bevy of bronzed local guards.

Though they don't serve "adult beverages" at Indian cricket matches, they do serve samosas and ice cream. While the samosas come with dirty fingers and greasy cardboard, they proved a tastey addition to watching Brian Lara (the Michael Jordan of cricket) disarm the Indian fielders with 80+ runs. West Indies won by 3 wickets.