Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Inner and outer journeys

When we set out on this adventure, we knew our plans would shift and change, but of course, we didn’t know in which ways. Looking back, it’s interesting to see how differently things have gone than we anticipated. We’ve added destinations based on recommendations from travelers we’ve met along the way, lingered longer in places we’ve enjoyed causing others to get bumped, and other places have proved too expensive or too inconvenient to visit.

A few months back, feeling a slight aimlessness from constantly moving around and not “doing” anything (goodness, are we programmed to only feel satisfaction when we’re productive, or what?!), we decided that we would change the course of the trip.

I’d been planning on taking a yoga teacher training course for a long time, so why not look into courses in India? I have been practicing for many years and I love how rejuvenating, challenging, and soul-enriching yoga is, and would love to share that joy with others or at least deepen my own practice. So I researched ashrams in Rishikesh, considered by many to be the birthplace of yoga, found one that’s a good fit for my goals, and after much deliberation, registered!

So tomorrow I begin an intensive, month-long yoga teacher training program. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to immersing myself in something I’m passionate about.

Since I’ll be tied up for a month and Mark can’t stay at the ashram unless he’s in the program, he’s heading to Nepal to hike the Annapurna circuit, a 200+ km trek through the Himalayas! So we’re both embarking on journeys: mine primarily an inner journey, and his an outer one!

It will be strange and also difficult being apart, after being within arms reach of each other for almost five solid months, but it will be good for us, too. We’ve been using our days in Delhi to get a few provisions, since we have to divide up things we’ve been sharing, and resting up before the next phase of our adventure begins!

As a result things will be a little quiet on the blogging front for the next month, but I’ll post when I get to Nepal when I will be a certified yoga teacher, and Mark will have morphed into a full-blown yeti!

Peace out!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Taj

How do you begin to describe something so well-known and hyped as the Taj? I certainly wondered if it would live up to expectations, but I can honestly say, it is incredible beyond words. Is it because of it's perfect symmetry that this mammoth mausoleum, with it's central dome, vaulted archways and soaring minarets, that it appeals so strongly to our sense of beauty? It's imposing size? It's idyllic riverside location and surrounding gardens? The creamy, marble surface that becomes a canvas for the sun to paint it's colours on? Of course it's all of these things, and something else, beyond words, that "the sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs" as emperor Shah Jahan wrote of his construction.

It was worth the early morning to be two of the first through the gates at 6 am, and see that classic view without people in it. We sat and watched as the first rays of the sun began to add dimension to the dome, and as the sky turned blue, the light on the Taj shifted through peaches and pinks then brighter whites. So incredibly atmospheric! I wonder had Monet painted the Taj, would he have done it in a series, as he did Rouen Cathedral so he could capture the shifting light and colour over the course of the day?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Agra Fort

Just a few kilometres west of the more famous Taj Mahal lies the Agra Fort, once the second capital of India, and home to many conquering Sultans over the centuries, each adding or removing elements to create the complex we see today.

Within the moat-surrounded walls are many courtyards, arcades, pavillions, mosques, and palaces, with carvings so intricate they somehow make the marble look light and delicate, especially in contrast to the rough, red sandstone of the exterior walls.

An interesting feature I read about after is that because of the "90-degree turn between the outer and inner gates, the entrance is impregnable, because at the time attackers often used elephants to ram and crush a fort's gates, but without a straight ramp to gather speed, elephants are ineffective."

Sleepless, in India

Traveling around India is a pain. The train system is complicated and convoluted, and trains book up weeks in advance. Weeks ago, Mark navigated the confusion that is the online booking system and got us on the waitlist for the night train from Varanasi to Agra. Everything he read and researched said that if you’re within the top ten on the waitlist, you’ll be good to go, and you’ll get a bunk. We began in positions six and seven, and moved up to one and two the day before. So we headed to the train station, anticipating getting a bunk, but the chart had been prepared, and we hadn’t made it off the waitlist. We were then told that we could get an “open ticket” and then talk to the conductor on the train, and he would fill us in the ‘no-show’ bunks.

However, on the train, the conductor was completely unhelpful, and instead of finding us an empty spot (which there were clearly lots of), he said something in Hindi, and gave one of the baffling Indian head bobs accompanied by a gesture which we were not sure meant come, go, stay, good, bad, yes, or no…

When it came time to fold the bunks down and turn in, we found a couple of empty bunks and settled in, careful to sleep in contact with our bags, which everyone, including the station master, had told us to keep an eye on, because theft was a huge problem on the train. Awesome! G'night!

The bunks were hard, dusty filthy, and had no pillow or sheets (like the Vietnamese trains did).

After a mere two hours of sleep, we were woken up at midnight by some passengers who’d just gotten on the train, and had tickets for our bunks. Bummer. In a sleepy stupor, we looked around, and the train had completely filled up! There were no free bunks! The only spot we could find was one of the door alcoves by the washrooms which reeked of urine. So we crammed ourselves into that space, and slept beside our bags, on the floor. Or, rather, I slept uncomfortably in fits, while Mark valiantly kept vigil for thieves and Indian men staring at me.

Oh, I'd so much prefer sleeping on a hard, filthy bunk right now!

At some point the conductor came around and made us pay a penalty for sleeping on the floor! It was all very shady and unpleasant.

I kept thinking, someday we will laugh, and laugh about this… but it is not this day.

We arrived in Agra, bleary-eyed, at about 6 am, with ourselves and our packs intact, and headed out to find a guesthouse. And though the hotel we found was ramshackle, dirty, and overpriced, we could see the Taj Mahal from our room! Albeit through the bars on the window, which were there to keep the roving monkeys out—an actual threat! But still, we could see it, and it was splendid, and we watched it change colour as the sun painted various shades of light across it. Was it worth sleeping on the floor of a train for this? You betcha.

The Taj in bright, midday sun.

The Taj in a warm, sunset glow.

The Taj at night.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Intense India

Since I rambled on and on about Bhutan, I’ll keep it brief for Varanasi. In fact, I’ll sum it up in one word:


It is true what everyone says: nothing can prepare you for India. The few peaceful, luxurious days we spent in Bhutan did not help to lessen the shock. Varanasi is intense! The maze of narrow streets are clogged with people and animals and colours and noise and smells. People walking, people on bicycles, and somehow also on motorcycles, honking their way forward through the crowds, past stray dogs curled up underfoot in the middle of the street, somehow not getting stepped on, squeezing past massive cows eating piles of garbage, and leaving equally large piles of dung which is spread around from all those feet, wheels, and hoofs walking through it, creating so much more festering surface area for flies to languish. There is no denying the filth. And the noise! The noise is incredible! Talking, shouting, chanting, barking, mooing, clanging, sizzling, screeching, singing.

And that’s just the streets. These busy streets tumble down into the Ganges into equally bustling ghats. Bathing ghats, funerary ghats, laundry ghats. On the banks of the holy river, from before dawn, until well into the night, life is lived.

And above it all, majestic eagles and lime-green parakeets fly, dodging the kites that flutter and fly from rooftop terraces, across which, hoards of monkeys scamper and jump.

Varanasi is positively thrumming with life, and yet despite the overwhelming chaos, this place feels enormously sacred, and there is something utterly enchanting about it all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Bhutan: how can you not be happy?

Arriving in Paro was like flying into a dream. Above the clouds, the cold white peaks of the Himalayas rise majestically, and as we dove beneath the clouds, the wings of the plane seemed as though they would scrape the sides of the mountains as it banked around the curves of the valley where the runway was rumoured to be. Roads zig-zag up steep mountain slopes as lengths of colourful prayer flags zig-zag through stands of conifers. The hillsides are dotted with cattle and farmhouses, and closer to the valley floor the land is broken up into terraces of rice, wheat, and potatoes.

It is so outrageously beautiful, it makes your heart ache at every turn. The fresh, crisp air! The red blooming rhododendrons! The towering pine trees dripping with lichen! The high mountain passes topped with chortens (stupas) and temples! And have I mentioned the prayer flags festooned through all the forests?! GAH! It’s all so amazing!

Bhutanese architecture is distinctive and striking. From a distance they look like Swiss cottages, their white stucco bottoms topped with dark oak that’s carved and painted, and topped with chalet-style roofs. Colourful figures and symbols adorn the spaces between windows and doors: tigers, deities, and flowers, and also the phallus, which is a symbol of protection.

Travel in Bhutan is completely different than the rest of Asia. Tourism here is regulated by the government, and to visit the country, you have to be part of a tour operated by one of the many federally-approved travel agencies. Every traveler has to pay a base tariff per day, plus an additional surcharge if your group is less than 3 people. This fee (though extraordinarily expensive), gets you a private guide, driver, transportation in a comfortable car, accommodation, meals, entry fees, visas and a custom itinerary for the duration of your stay.

Thirty percent of your fee goes to the government whose development policy is GNH (Gross National Happiness). From our welcome package: “GNH is a holistic approach to development emphasizing the importance of spiritual well-being alongside economic prosperity.” There are four key pillars of GNH which include sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance. Seeing how a rapid increase in unfettered tourism can erode cultural integrity and infrastructure, Bhutan is making a concerted effort to grow in a way that most benefits its people. It’s a very interesting approach. 

Colourful crowds out for the last day of the Paro Tsechu.