Saturday, 28 December 2013

A White Christmas in the Unlikeliest of Places

Ready to run for Udayan Care

The past month has been filled with busy work deadlines, music festivals, running a marathon, several “lasts”, and many goodbyes to friends who were leaving Delhi. I have also been on a couple of excursions “out of station”, as they call it here!

My roommates and I ventured to Khajuraho for a well needed break and sun a few weeks ago. Khajuraho boasts the famous “Kama Sutra” temples, a set of 27 temples over 1000 years old, which are intricately adorned with erotic carvings. The details are spectacular, but portray tantric images that probably aren’t conventionally found in the Kama Sutra, such as elements of beastiality. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop every vendor from selling Kama Sutra books to every tourist!

My next trip took some co-workers and I to Mussoorie for a pre-Christmas celebration. We snagged the train after hitting up an Indian Street Food Festival and stuffing ourselves with incredible eats. Our train ride was an adventure of its own – as it happens, a criminal was being transported from Delhi, and ended up sitting in our cabin. We literally “slept” in the same vicinity as a convict chained to a policeman’s belt…but chalked it up to the unpredictability of India! Mussoorie, better known as the Queen of the Hills, has been a summer retreat since the British invaded, as well as a popular honeymoon spot. The city boasts activities that are generally more suitable for the outdoors (unless you are a recently wedded couple), but we did the best we could considering the near freezing temperatures. We woke up to Sunday morning to freezing rain, and heard that it was snowing about 30 km away! Our curiosity got the best of us – who would have thought that we would have a white Christmas in India?!

Although I missed being home for Christmas, I made up for it with my own celebrations here. A dinner with my household on Xmas Eve, followed by opening presents by our Xmas bush the next morning, and a couple more Xmas get togethers made for some great time spent with good friends in India. We also made personalized stockings for the girls in the foster home that I tutor at, as well as decorated sugar cookies. 

Taking a page from this guy's book! 
With 2014 quickly approaching, I’m taking some time to reflect back on this past year. I’ve graduated university, held two internships, moved to another country, and made countless incredible new friends. I’m also taking some time to think about my steps forward, and how to better myself for the New Year. Resolutions for me, and I’m sure for many of you, last maybe till the middle of January if we’re lucky. I recently read an article about the concept of New Year Themes; adopting various themes to implement in your life instead of one particular behaviour. This year, I’m choosing to adopt mindfulness, contentment and compassion. I want to be present and focused in everything I do, committing to actions that I care about, and omitting the negative from my life. On that note, Happy New Year!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Taj in all its Glory

A couple friends and I headed off to Agra on Saturday to cross the Taj Mahal off our India bucket lists! It's an incredibly beautiful masterpiece, but the overall experience was overwhelming and chaotic. I tend to gravitate towards hidden gems or natural beauty, and so viewing the Taj along with thousands of other people diluted the experience a little. Either way, I'm glad I've seen one of the world wonders (or as many tourist shirts like to claim - man's greatest erection for a woman). The architecture is phenomenally symmetrical, but it's the detail in the marble that really stands out. These pictures are mostly for you Mom!


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Namaste Nepal!

I ventured out to Nepal last week to reunite with an old friend. This was a welcome change from the near hell I had endured the previous couple weeks! Nepal is one of the most unbelievable countries I've ever visited - it is breathtaking, adventurous, laid back, relaxed and genuine. I hadn't realized how exhausting daily life in Delhi was till I left!

Ty and I and the Annapurna mountain range behind us.
Ty and I spent a night in Kathmandu relaxing and catching up, and then caught a flight over the Himalayan mountains to Pokhara the next morning. Pokhara is a tourist hotspot in Nepal since its situated closest to the Annapurna mountain range. We spent our days hiking, boating, checking out the World Peace Pagoda, exploring caves and waterfalls, biking around the town, browsing bookstores, and eating really well! The highlight of the trip was watching the sun hit the peaks of the Annapurna mountains - well worth waking up at 4 AM for.

A buddhist temple adorned by prayer flags.

We bussed back to Kathmandu, and I gotta say it was one of the smoothest and easiest bus rides I've been on in Asia so far! We spent our last couple days exploring the temples and stupas in the capital, and then unfortunately returned back to Delhi, chaos and reality.

A monkey at the monkey temple! 
This trip has made me realize how eager I am to travel and immerse myself in other parts of the world. I'm loving exploring India, but I'm keen on a change, and I'd love the opportunity to see what else is out there.

Life is great otherwise - keeping busy with work projects, Hindi classes, travel plans and dreaded grad school applications. I'm in the final 2 months of my internship, and am realizing just how little time I have left here! I'll be seeing all of you in person so soon!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Defeating Dengue

the girls in dharamsala!
I ushered in my 22nd birthday in the mountains of Dharamsala, surrounded by good weather, great food, and even better friends. We spent the weekend in Macleod Ganj, which is a small and friendly community, home to the Dalai Lama, serene monks, and tons of Tibetan refugees. I spent my birthday enjoying a "Canadian" breakfast on a terrace cafe, trekking up to a local waterfall, taking in the mountain views, treating myself to a Tibetan massage, and of course the general debaucheries that typically accompany young expats and birthdays.

I arrived back in Delhi refreshed and inspired to return to work - only India had other plans for me. I was struck with an intense fever the day after my trip, which a blood test confirmed was dengue. After seeing my roomate and a few friends suffer through it, I thought I had been so careful applying bug repellant, fully clothing myself, and avoiding going out at dusk!

prayer flags strung across the mountains in dharamsala
Dengue was a thousand times worse than I ever expected. My fever was running at 104, my bones felt like they were breaking, my eyes were in excruciating pain, and I was constantly light headed and dizzy. The time I didn't spend sleeping my anguish away was spent forcing myself to drink 6L of fluids daily. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy!

On top of my misery, I had the great misfortune of suffering through dengue during Diwali. Diwali is a WARZONE in this country - it goes on for at least a week, and celebrations entail the loudest fireworks you have ever heard in your entire life.

Anyway, I'm on the mend now. A day in the hospital connected to the IV, and old Indian medical traditions (goats milk and papaya leaf juice - can't knock those old school methods) helped boost my platelet count, and dragged me out of the misery that is dengue. If anything, dengue & 2 weeks of bed rest have restored my urgency and passion to see more and immerse myself in more of India. I'm looking forward to reuniting with an old friend in Nepal tomorrow, so I'll hit you all up with another post soon!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

That Time I Hugged an Elephant

Hello friends and family! I realize it has been over a month since my last post, but luckily life in India has been too busy for me to stop and blog!

Although Delhi has started to feel like home, we are all more keen on exploring other parts of India. I've been counting down the days we have left (only 100 more!!!) and am in a rush to jump on top of more travel plans!

In the past month, I've been lucky enough to explore Rishikesh, Haridwar, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Dehradun - all extremely fascinating and diverse places.

India has taught me so much so far, but the most important lesson is to never be quite sure of anything. That has never been truer in the case of trying to catch buses for trips away. Our first bus experience to Amritsar was a nightmare - trying to find the bus station in a heavy monsoon rain was quite an experience. In Delhi, there is no ONE bus station for all departing buses - instead departures are scattered across random roadside stops in the entire city. Even after calling ahead to confirm the Rishikesh bus departure, it still took us 3 hours, many rickshaw rides, and quite a few moments filled with stress and anxiety to find our bus. (We still haven't learned from our mistakes and encountered a similar problem 2 weeks later on our journey to Jodhpur!)


We finally stumbled off the bus in Haridwar at dawn the next morning. Haridwar is a holy city just 30 km south of Rishikesh. We arrived in time for the morning puja ceremonies by the Ganges river, which surprisingly were fairly empty, enjoyed a chai, and grabbed an auto rickshaw up to Rishikesh. Rishikesh, a second holy city, is also better known as the yoga capital of the world, so naturally I fell in love with it's atmosphere. We made our way to Laxman Jhula, a quite touristic area of the town, for a peaceful riverside breakfast. Rishikesh appeals far and wide because of its yoga, trekking, waterfalls, white water rafting, bungee jumping, national parks, ayurvedic practices, and vegetarianism. However, as our luck would have it, the majority of those activities were closed due to the monsoon season, which means that another trip will be due soon!

We set out that morning to find a waterfall nestled in the mountains, about 5 KM away, deciding to forego a jeep ride, and hike instead. We were told that our landmark was a shrine, where we would turn right and be able to find the waterfall easily. However when we got there, the shortcut up was closed since a villager was attacked by a leopard on that path a week earlier! We were told to walk up another km on the road, but due to the lack of signs (and knowledge by people we asked) we ended up walking another 9 km before we gave up, and called a jeep to bail us out. Luckily they dropped us off by the waterfall on the way home, nestled uphill, which was well worth our 4 hour search.


The rest of our night was spent with good friends, great food and a relaxing atmosphere. After an exhausting but exhilarating day, we happily jumped into bed for a peaceful, quiet, uninterrupted sleep; an extremely pleasant change from the constant honking and barking that plagues us in Delhi. We woke up at the ungodly hour of 4 AM, hopped in a jeep, and drove up a mountain. We then climbed around 400 steps to a temple at a top of the mountain (which was challenging considering our hike the previous day), but made it just in time to see the sun peeking through over the Himalayan foothills. After watching the sun break through, many a photo shoot, and some strong cups of chai later, we began our trek down the mountain back to Laxman Jhula. Our walk took us past some rural villages; communities consisting of about 40-50 members, who still maintain somewhat of a traditional livelihood. We passed by fields and fields of corn and rice paddies, overlooking an incredible view over the town and Ganges river. After about four hours, we finally came across the waterfall we had trekked for so long to see. It was so refreshing and breathtaking, and re-affirmed that the trek through rocky terrain and steep slopes was completely worth it.

Ganesh Chaturthi Celebrations
We spent the rest of the afternoon eating and lounging by cafes on the river bank. Some of us were brave enough to dip into the Ganges, while others were a little more hesitant considering some of the spiritual and religious uses for the river. We made our way back to Haridwar to catch some sunset pujas and our bus back to Delhi. As our good luck would have it, the city was wild with celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Ganesh. Seeing as Haridwar is one of the seven most holy Hindu places in India, we were caught up in the midst of parades. Groups of people blared loud Indian music, played on drums, danced, and threw coloured powder around. Children watched from their balconies, and people pulled us in to their crowd to dance. By the end of the evening we were feeling exhilarated, sweaty and were stained pink and green all over – ready for our long bus ride home to Delhi.

All in all, we had a thrilling and invigorating weekend. We may have been known as the village idiots in Rishikesh for losing both ourselves and each other many times over the weekend (it seemed everyone in Laxman Jhula knew us as the girls who walked too far for a waterfall), but we fell in love with the serenity and care-free atmosphere of Rishikesh. It reinforced the right ideals to have when travelling in India – that one needs to be flexible, laid back and open minded, and have faith that things all work out in the end.

View of the blue city + Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur

Our next travels took a colleague and myself to Rajasthan for a four day weekend. We grabbed a 13 hour bus to Jodhpur, and were welcomed to the blue city by plenty of rain - something that Rajasthan does not seem used to! The whole city shut down, forcing us to shop at the few stores that did stay open, or enjoy plenty of tea on a rooftop cafe overlooking the blue city; a pleasant relaxing break from the chaos of work in Delhi. 

Jodhpur is named the blue city because many of the houses in the city are in fact painted blue. Apparently this goes back to the days when lower castes had to seek a blessing from the highest Brahmin caste. Every Brahmin house was painted blue so they were easy to identify! 

Trying my hand at pottery. 
The next day was still quite rainy, but we decided to brave the weather and took a jeep safari out to the Jodhpur villages. We visited a pottery village, a rural farm, a carpet weaver, and a textile factory. Observing a rural farmer distill opium into a drink was probably the most fascinating stop on the trip; apparently it gives them all "power" to work the fields!

The Jal Mahal - water palace.

We grabbed another bus to Jaipur that night, excited for good weather, plenty of sights, and a rendez vous with good friends. Our first day in the "pink city" (I have no story for why it is pink), was full of visiting all the sights Jaipur has to offer. We spent the morning riding elephants up to the Amber Fort, visiting 2 other forts which had outstanding views of the city, as well as a couple other palaces. After grabbing a much needed nap, we headed to Chokhi Dhani, a mock Rajasthani village just outside of Jaipur. The village offers performances, musicians, magicians, palm readers, camel rides, artisans, and incredible food! Although a bit too commercial for my taste, it was still an exciting experience. I even got my palm read, and though I don't typically believe in astrology, I hope everything comes true! (I'm going be successful, die old, and will never have money problems! Although, I will get married at 27, an age the palm reader sympathetically thought was rather old.) 

We met with friends the following day in Jaipur, and visited the City Palace. At that point, after seeing 4 forts and 2 palaces, not much of that sight was very interesting. However, the day picked up when our rickshaw driver took us to an attraction called the Elephant House. This "barn" housed 3 elephants who typically work the elephant rides up to the Amber Fort  in the morning. We caught them on a "holiday" and had the chance to meet and play with the elephants, which was hands down the best part of the trip. After watching the sunset from the Monkey Temple (which true to its name, has plenty of monkeys), we packed up, and made our way home back to Delhi. 

Panoramic view of beautiful Jaipur.
I'll be spending the following weekend sitting still in Delhi, as a few of our good friends are leaving us to return home. I've made some solid friendships with expats here - its easy to form strong connections with people while travelling, as they often have the same perspectives on life as I do. Unfortunately, people come and go, and I must face the reality of saying goodbye to good friends. It's never easy, but it's comforting to know that these kinds of friendships last, and that I'll have these connections worldwide. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

1 month-versary


Sorry it has been a while - the roughness of India has finally caught to me! I was down with Delhi belly for a few days, after which the internet broke down due to its inability to handle monsoon season. My stomach and the modem are finally up and running again, which means I can eat greasy indian food while catching up on Breaking Bad after an exhausting day in the August heat!

Yesterday marked a month since my arrival in Delhi! It's overwhelming how fast time has been rushing by. I've seen so much already, but I still feel as if I don't have enough time to really capture everything Delhi and India has to offer. My tourist to-do list keeps growing!

Qawalis at Nizamuddin
Since I last posted, I've listened to Sufi qawalis at Nizammudin Dargah, flown (and attempted to cut) kites for Independence Day celebrations, visited the Golden Temple at Amritsar, impulse bought a tabla, explored historical artifacts at the National Museum, watched an awful Bollywood movie, and checked out crafts at a South Asian bazaar. And that's apart from working a job!  

Nizammudin Dargah is an old mausoleum dedicated to a famous Sufi saint in Delhi. Apparently, qawalis (hymns) have been sung there every night for 600 years, and those who sing the hymns today are direct descendants of Nizammudin himself. It was a very calming way to spend a Thursday evening at a concert in the middle of such a historical site! 

Kite challenges! 

Independence Day, August 15, is celebrated by flying kites on your rooftop, with fun company, good food, loud Punjabi music, and oddly enough, no booze. And so we too celebrated in true Delhi fashion (omitting the booze rule obviously - only young once!!) 

Golden Temple (roof is made of gold leaf)

After too many days in a chaotic city, we decided to venture out of Delhi and see Amritsar. Amritsar is a quiet metropolis located on the edge of India, and is home to the famous Golden Temple and Wagah border between India and Pakistan. After doing obligatory pictures at the temple, and after visiting a few other religious sites and a massacre site, we checked out the changing of the guard ceremony at the Wagah border. This happens every evening, and is essentially a "my horse is bigger than yours" ceremony between the Indian and Pakistan locals. Frankly, it was difficult to tell if this ceremony promoted amicable or hostile relations. We wrapped our day by eating the best Indian food I've ever consumed (with the exception of my mother's cooking of course!) 

Performing in Delhi 
As time goes on,  I’m starting to learn what adjustment really means.  The act of adjusting is more than just adapting to my new surroundings, but constantly and consciously realizing that I have no ownership to this country, and to the norms that exist here. I am merely a guest. I cannot expect that life should be conducted the same way that I am used to. I cannot demand that cars will watch out for me crossing on the road; instead I must move cautiously around traffic, staying out of the way as much as possible. I cannot wish that my autorickshaw driver use his indicator, stick to a traffic lane, or even look to the side when turning; instead I must accept the honking system that is so ingenious to Indian driving (as well as the headaches that accompany it). I must come to terms with the stares, on the metro or the street or even the grocery store, by women who are curious about my mannerisms, or by men who probably stare for more indecent reasons. However, I must not blow my nose into a Kleenex in public, or point at anything with my finger, or touch food with my left hand – customs that are considered bad etiquette in India, but that most of us would not think twice about.

Making friends during our travels! 
In spite of this adjustment, there are some aspects of the culture that are difficult to understand, especially as an independent Canadian woman used to having certain privileges and somewhat of a sense of equality in society. Being a woman in India can be a challenging experience – the respect is minimal, the attention is unflattering, the risks are vivid, and the expectations of your role in society can be rigid. In that sense, it is comforting to work for an NGO who aims to empower the girl child. Through my internship so far I’ve seen how abnormal it is for a girl to finish her education, and how predominant marriage is as a solution. For example, when deciding on candidates for our fellowship program, we interview parents to determine whether they would marry off their daughters if an eligible match came about, even if her education was incomplete, which is typically not a concern for similar programs back in Canada. If the girls in our foster homes are unable to support themselves independently after the age of 23, our organization takes the step to actually arrange marriages for them. I am in no way condemning this custom, nor do I find it repulsive, but I can realize that it is a norm that is drastically different from ours in Canada, and one that I would personally find difficult to accept if I was in these girls’ shoes.

Feeling inspired and humble! 
All in all, India has an unwavering beauty and kindness that is hard to find elsewhere. People here are hospitable and proud of their country, and will go out of their way to show you a glimpse into their lives. I have encountered humility and generosity in the unlikeliest of places, and I’m excited for the gems I'll keep discovering in my next 5 months here. 

P.S. If you dare to watch Chennai Express, it is 3 painfully long hours of your life that you will not get back. But I want the leading actress' saris! 

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Djinns of Delhi

We joined a tour group last Thursday, that was leading a walk around the Feroz Shah Kotla. The fortress was built by Feroz Shah, who I believe formed the 5th "city" of Delhi in the mid 1300s. Crumbling parts of the fort still exist today, along with a tower that dates back to the third century BC. Today however, the fort is so much more than a historical landmark. Legend holds that the fort is full of the good "Djinns" (angels), and is believed to be a very spiritual and holy place by most people in Delhi. Since part of the fortress is an open air mosque, Muslims from all over the city flock to the fortress to light candles for the Djinns and conduct their Thursday prayers. The fortress is full of altars, scattered with candles, coins, rose petals, and letters from people expressing their wishes & prayers - it was incredible to see!

I encountered my own "good djinns" at the Jama Masjid on Sunday evening. We arrived close to iftaar, when Muslims break fast at sunset, and sat down to immerse ourselves in the festivities. As we sat, people came over to our group, bringing us dates, rice, fruit, and water - even though none of us were fasting. I was deeply touched by the generosity and humility of strangers who shared their food with us; people who have much less wealth than we do, but certainly have bigger hearts than we do, and are so immersed in the spirit of giving. We ended up giving most of our food away to street children who probably needed a meal more than we did, but it was an emotional, inspiring and overwhelming moment nonetheless, and one that reminded me how far a small act of kindness can go.