Sunday, April 25, 2010

Himalayan Photos

Monkeys run around like squirrels. I noticed this one walking out of the room next door to ours in the guest house we were staying at.

Looking up at the farm from the mango orchard. Devinder built a system of terrace gardens. This is where his rat problem comes into play.

There is a glacial spring that comes down from the mountains. In the foothills, they are lucky to not have a water issue like elsewhere in India (or even higher up in McLeod). The villagers in Bondi Chowk divided the river into smaller streams, allowing farmers like Devinder to create an irrigation dike system on their farms.

'Farming' in the Himalayan Foothills

It has been a long time since we last posted (besides Andy's today). We just returned to McLeod Ganj after spending nearly 2 1/2 weeks on a farm just down the hill from Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

Dev Bala farm was a pleasant enough place. It's a small, three acre farm run by Devinder and his wife, Brijbala. Devinder is about 60 years old, and often told us stories of how Dharamsala used to be ("I remember when McLeod Ganj had only one guesthouse) and how global warming is affecting this part of the world. The farm overlooks a large field of barley at the base of the gorgeous Himalayan mountains. They have mainly mango and lychee orchards and a small plot of barley and wheat below. They also (and this was our favorite part) own two cows which provide the family and their guests with fresh milk to make yogurt and butter (the most delicious yogurt we've had in India!).

Dev Bala farm, however nice, turned out not to be the place that we were looking for. Devinder rarely gave us work to do beyond weeding (the name should be changed to Willing Weeders on Organic Farms) and told us to rest us a lot. This was perfectly fine for the first week, as we were tired and needed a rest after 6 long weeks of traveling. Weeding turned out not to be our most favorite task, and after completing the natural farming workshop in Auroville, we now have our opinions about the necessity of weeding which unfortunately do not coincide with Devinder's. But after the first week, we began to get a little bored, and ansty. Anstyness is perhaps one of the worst feelings to experience because even though we are in a wonderful place, all we can think about is going home. It did not help that we were the only WWOOF guests at the time, so we didn't have anybody else to distract us from our ansty thoughts.

Depsite the antsyness, I was lucky enough to be able to learn a little bit of yoga from Brijbala in the mornings and am now looking forward to continuing that practice when I get home.

While the family is wonderfully kind and hospitable, we started to feel a bit uncomfortable about the money situation. Dev Bala farm asked for a Rs 300/day/person 'donation' (this is a bit steep for WWOOF guests in our experience). Devinder seemed to be a bit uncomfortable asking for this and often said "we are just living simply. We do not have a lot." We felt that this was a bit of bullshit, since Devinder and his family owned a washing machine, a tv (with a satellite dish) and a computer with internet. They live more luxuriously than the majority of Indian families we've seen and even more so than John, the American owner of our first farm. Not only that, but we would participate in things (such as yoga classes) with the assumption that this knowledge and experience would be shared freely only to be asked for money (another 'contribution') afterwards.

In the end, we decided to leave a few days earlier than originally planned. We are to WWOOF (meaning that we work for our accommodation and food) not to spend weeks away at a homestay retreat (however nice it may be) and be badgered for money all the time.

Good news is that Andy and I will be beginning 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism course in McLeod Ganj on Tuesday. I am really looking forward to learning some new things. More will come on this later.

One more thing....Devinder was telling this story and it was all I had to not crack up laughing at the dinner table...
Devinder's response when I asked him why he doesn't just get a cat to take care of his rat problem:

Well, you see, there was this man, you know, from England or somewhere, yeah? And he had this problem with rats. So he got a trap, that didn't kill them, you see? It just caught them. So, he kept catching all these rats and he put them in the cage. Pretty soon, he caught 1000 rats all in this trap. Then, he stopped feeding them, you see? And pretty soon, the rats, they start to kill and eat each other. And then at the end, there were only two rats left. They all killed each other, you know? So, there are two rats left and one eats the last one (Me: so that's the King Rat?). And he was a big rat you know, (he holds out his hands about 2 feet apart) and so then, this man, he sets that rat free. And then he has no more problem with rats because they are all afraid, you know? (I am now imagining a huge, two foot long rat roaming this English guys house and wondering 'why the hell would he want that around instead of a cat?)

*Pictures of the farm to come later (because it really was a beautiful place)

Observations on Labor in India

On the farm we're staying at the owner Devinder--Papaji (Papa G) for short--got his hands on some avocado trees and wants to plant them.

Exhibit A

It's not a big thing--the container is maybe only a foot and half tall. But Papa G wants us to dig a big fucking hole for the avocado:

Exhibit B

A little unnecessary perhaps but Papa G knows what Papa G wants. Two feet down we hit soft granite bedrock. Most people I know would dig a different hole or grab a stick of dynamite. Papa G grabbed his pickaxe and set to work--with short pauses to tell me how he once dug through 10 feet of this stuff when he was younger and stronger and about how this sort of work requires great patience. Indeed.

Ruminating on this, I had a revelation. There are a fuckload of people in India so labor is much cheaper than capital. It's cheaper to hire a dozen guys with shovels and pickaxes for a week than it is to hire a bulldozer for a day. Some other examples: Road crews we've seen shoveling out ditches have two guys to each shovel. One guy pushes it into the ground and another pulls it up with a rope... Paige and I were collecting dead leaves as mulch in Devinder's orchard and rather than sending us out with rakes--there are no rakes on the farm...--we and a bunch of other people used ghetto stick "brooms" to collect the leaves. When you gots to employ a billion people, you can find a lot of ways to stretch the work.

Honestly, the inefficiency and lack of adequate tools infuriates me. Half the time I'm given a job in the morning and I'll spend until noon coming up with a better tool or method to do it (which infuriates Paige :-D).

Given that, I'm incredibly impressed with the workers here. They are enthusiastic and work far harder than I can--and they have shit for tools and live off rice and lentils! Their patience even when progress is crawlingly slow is... impressive. Ants are lazy by comparison. Tour guides'll tell ya: "monks took 100 years to carve this temple out of a single rock with nothing but hammers and chisels." You'll never see something like that in the States.

Sidenote: this unthinking enthusiasm is why it's a bad idea to outsource software programming to India, but that's another rant.

On balance the slow pace is a good thing--even if it annoys me at times.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Downs

For the past three months (yep, it's been that long already!) we have been sharing bits and pieces of our journey with you. We've shown you places we've been, monuments we've seen and people we've met along the way. We recently realized that we've really only told you about our ups. Here are some of our downs:

1. The Beggars.
The beggars in India are unlike any we've seen before in the U.S. First of all, the sheer number has been overwhelming. In every town we go to and on every train we ride, we are asked for money. If they have a deformity (clubbed foot, no hands, a hunchback, a blind eye and on and on...) they are not shy about shoving it in your face to let you know just how bad their life is compared to yours.

Sometimes, they 'work' for our money. Young boys on the train will crawl on their hands and knees on the disgusting floor to sweep up trash from underneath our feet with the shirt off their backs. Afterward, they hold their hand out for payment for this service.

Women carrying infants will point to the sleeping child and then to their mouth as if saying 'feed my child because I cannot.'

We are still frustrated that beggars seem to only hold out their hands when they see us, the white people, approaching. We are automatically assumed to have more money than anyone else because of the color of our skin. It is true, that relatively we possess extreme wealth compared to slum dwellers, but we have also met many Indians who have a lot more money than we do.

There are so many beggars that we can't possibly give every one of them enough. Early on, I would give someone a few rupee coins and still they held out their hands wanting more. Children tugging on my pant leg staring up at me with huge, sad, brown puppy dog eyes was enough to make run to the other side of the street in tears because I didn't think there was anything to do to help them. I was overwhelmed with guilt as I clutched the days souvenirs in my hand, thinking that with the amount I just spent I could have fed that child for a week.

I started following a self-made protocol in which I would give children biscuits or fruit and ignore the adults. This worked for a while, until we were at the train station in Hospet. There was an elderly woman walking from person to person. When she came to me, I gave her a piece of fruit that Andy and I had bought earlier that day. She accepted it into her apron and continued on down the line of people. A few minutes later, my conversation with Andy was interrupted when I felt a slap across my face and shoulder and realized that woman had returned to throw the fruit back at me! Her was twisted in anger as she grumbled something at me before leaving. Apparently food wasn't she wanted even though she held out her hand and pointed to her mouth signalling 'food'.

Since this incident, I have not given another beggar anything. The longer we stay, the more desensitized we become to the poverty.

2. The Cities.
Indian cities continue to be a source of frustration, annoyance and disgust for me. It is in the cities where my American arrogance really shines. The streets are jam packed with trucks, busses, rickshaws, bicylists, motorcyles, cows and (because there are often no sidewalks) people. I will be so happy to get back to the states and have sidewalks! Since traffic laws seem to be non-existant there is constant congestion and endless honking. So noisy! Always the honking that never makes any difference anyways because you can never tell who is honking at whom.

Trying to cross the street is a real life version of Frogger which leaves me digging my fingernails into Andy's arm as we dart into oncoming traffic like a pair of squirrels.

There is trash everywhere: on top of roofs, in the gutters and the ditches. People will just throw their plastic cups or food wrappers right on the ground.

We often pass through areas that have the nauseating smell of human waste. The lack of proper waste management is why India struggles with issues of poor water quality.

It is for these reasons that we have avoided cities at (nearly) all costs.

3. Diet.
Diet has been more of an issue for Andy than it has been for me. Andy seems to get sick every new place we go, while I for some reason have survived without any stomach issues. We don't know what causes Andy's stomach issues but we think it may have something to do with his radical diet back home. This trip has generated much discussion on the state (liquid, solid or gas) of our poop.

While I do not suffer from stomach issues I am more than ready to return home for some American food. Around the half-way point in our trip. I realized that I could no longer eat another dosa, idly, chapati or any more rice, curry, sambar or chutney. We have many conversations about what we can't wait to eat when we get home. Like the Indians, Andy and I admire cows-but only when on a plate covered in A1.

We are counting down the days 'til we return home...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

We left Bhuj on Saturday morning for a VERY long train journey to Agra. After reaching Delhi on Sunday afternoon, we took a very crowded 3 hour train ride down to Agra where we got to our guesthouse and collapsed on the bed from exhaustion. We had been on a train for 36 hours and traveled over 1500 km.

We woke up early (6:30 am) so we could get to the Taj Mahal as soon as possible (it's best to see it earlier in the day when it is not so hot and not quite as many people). The Taj is every bit as breath taking in person as it is in pictures. We walked around and enjoyed the view for a while before heading back to the guest house and packed up to leave. We were in Agra for a grand total of 12 hours.

Our train took us back to Delhi where we had to wait for a few hours in the dirty and decrepit Inter-State Bus Terminal. The place is a multi-story concrete building that looked like it came from a post-apocalyptic world. Delhi was the most polluted city we had been in yet. You could see the smog hanging in the air and the terrible air quality mixed with the heat made it a less than desirable place. We were happy to get on our bus that would take us to Dharamsala.

We are getting used to long and cramped bus rides now. But when we woke up on Tuesday morning, we were basking in the cool, refreshing air of the Himalayan mountains! I almost cried I was so happy to be here. The weather here is much more comfortable for us mid-westerners. Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan Government in exile so there are many Tibetan refugees and Buddhist monks that live here.

We will be exploring the town for a couple days before we head to our next farm!

All is good in India.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Wow! It's been a while since we posted! Indian computers/internet have not been our friends for the past couple weeks.

When we last left you, we were headed for Ahmedabad, a city in the western state of Gujarat. We reached Ahmedabad from Hampi after three nights either on a train or a bus. It was a long trip.

Ahmedabad was our first north Indian city and the change from south to north was quite the culture shock (at least for me). The city was bustling with people, noisy rickshaws and the streets were crammed to the brim with markets and stands. We visited several historical and folk museums and Ghandi's ashram.

Ahmedabad's polluted river divides the city in half. Slums line the river banks and people sift through the trash looking for useful things. This boy is on a raft and is using his flip flops for paddles.

We left Ahmedabad for Bhuj on an overnight bus. Bhuj is the capital of the region of Kutch. Kutch is known for its traditionally made handicrafts such as embroidery, hand block printed fabric, and weaving. Bhuj was an awesome town with narrow streets that were packed tightly with stores selling textiles, textile trimmings and interspersed throughout were tailors who would make clothes with the textiles you just bought.

We took a rickshaw tour that took us through some villages were tribal people still live and produce their handicrafts as a way to sustain themselves. We were invited into many homes and shown many beautiful pieces of work and unfortunately, we could not buy everything that we saw.

This family of brothers runs a woven shawl business. They are the 15th generation of their family to carry on the craft. Weaving is traditionally passed down father to son, while embroidery is passed down mother to daughter.

Uh oh. Truck tipped over. Many of the men in the villages work as truck drivers or farm hands while the women stay at home to embroider.

We had the opportunity to visit two different festivals while in Kutch. At the first, we stopped there for a lunch break. Here, all the different tribal people had gathered together under a large colorful tent to honor the monkey-god Hanuman. There were tables along the sides of the tent serving foods of the traditional Thali meal. We definitely stood out and people cleared way for us to sit on the ground as they watched us eat the delicious food with our hands. Afterwards, we went to the temple to make our offering in exchange for the food that we were given.

Our second festival was in the village of Kera, just 20 km south of Bhuj. We have no idea what the festival was for, but we do know that there was wrestling involved. There were tons of people crowded into the clearing in front of the temple. Since we were the only white people there, we turned heads wherever we went. Everyone wanted us to sit by them like we were the popular kids at lunch. We ended up being pulled in two different directions: Andy went with the men and the women took hold of me. Andy had a front row seat to the wrestling and was able to take pictures while bidis (small cigarettes) were passed around. I sat above with a bunch of women and quickly made friends with some girls who asked me many questions and talked a lot about clothes and make-up. They admired my fair skin, but thought that I should use cream because my forehead had broken out in acne.

Men stood on top of buildings and even in the trees for a good view.

Our ride back from the festival was certainly in interesting one. We took a share jeep (basically the same as taxi that just takes a lot more people) back to Bhuj because it was cheaper and faster than a bus. We climbed in and the jeep was already reasonably full. Or so we thought. A couple stops later, a large group of about ten people tried (and did) climb into the back of the jeep with us. This brought our jeeps capacity to a total of no less than 26 people. To say the least, we got to know our seat mates very well.

Hybrid motorcycle and lorry.

We ran into a farmer on of our tours and he brought us to his 70 acre farm with orchards of mangoes, chickoos, lychee and pomegranate.

Camel. Gujarat was the first place we saw camels pulling carts down the streets.