Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trekking with leeches

Leaving Fort Kochi we headed to Periyar Tiger Reserve hoping to see wild life. Our trek started at 08am with the giving out of anti-leech socks by the guides. These lovely socks were made of thick cotton and pulled on over our socks prior to putting on our shoes. They then covered the total lower leg up to your knee where they were securely tied to prevent the little beasts from crawling into your pants! The guides also powdered our shoes and pants with tobacco to discourage the leeches. When there is rain in India there are thousands of these leeches in the wooded areas, seeming to fall out of the trees. We all had them on our clothes and had to keep doing leech checks throughout the day. And even then, when we took off the magic socks , there were lots of little leeches  waiting on the tops of our shoes, trying to sneak in.
                                                 Anti-leech socks, a new fashion statement

Part of or trip was by bamboo raft, where you sit on long bamboo branches that are tied together. Two men paddle at the back.. The passengers sit with their legs in a small amount of water as the middle of the raft is under water. Given that it rained for the entire eight hours we were out, we were all soaked, and of course the animals we hoped to see were all seeking shelter from the rain. So apart from lots of leeches and a huge scorpion that Pierre almost stepped on, we did not see any tigers or elephants. But we did see lots of elephant poo which is hard to miss!

                                         Bamboo rafting in Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger reserve has about 40-50 tigers living there. They have started to increase in number since a ban was placed on hunting them in 1971. However there is still poaching, as tiger parts are apparently of great value to some Asian peoples and fetch high amounts of money. Periyar Lake where we walked is a man-made lake, a result of the British flooding the land over 150 years ago. One of the hotels in the reserve was a former hunting lodge. One can only assume that hunting was good in this area that  abounds with wildlife. We saw huge deer with antlers, called Sambor, very similar to the Canadian moose. In fact. if it were not for the elephant  droppings, barking deer and the occasional wild pig or monkey, one would think we were canoeing in Parc du Mont Tremblant.
                                          Blue scorpion in attack mode with tail up
The area around there is rich in spice, rubber and tea plantations. Driving back to the coast we passed huge plantation estates with large homes, very different from other areas of this country. the price of commodities has increased drastically and these landowners are raking in the profits.

Our last few days have been spent in Varkala, a wonderful beach town that is still trying hard to resist the tourism boom that has hit India, although hotels are going up in most places. It was wonderful to swim in the Arabian Sea and to soak up some sunshine. The ocean on this coast is treacherous with wicked undercurrents, so swimming is done with caution. The beaches here are segregated, lifeguards preventing any male locals from coming to ogle the sight of white bathers in skimpy suits. Given that at local beaches, only men swim and in their clothing at that, this precaution is understandable.

                                         The Beach at Varkala, Kerala
We end out trip in Pondichery, and as a token to this former French protectorate and my French readers: je vais ecrire ces derniers mots dans la langue de Moliere. Il s'agit d'une ancienne colonie francaise qui a conserve son alllure distincte. On se croirait sur la Mediteranee. Croissant et cafe au dejeuner, gendarmes portant le kepi des legions etrangeres, architecture Francaise etc. Il y a meme des Indiens qui jouent a la petanque!
Adios, le voyage ce termine.
                                    Varkala sunset/  coucher de soleil sur la mer d'Arabie

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Culture in Kerala

We have found paradise in the south and are now relaxing in Kerala where the pace is much slower. This is at the same latitude as Panama so hot and tropical. We spent 3 days in Fort Kochi, a town that is steeped in history.Vasco de Gama landed and died here, and the Portuguese traded for many years before the arrival of Dutch and then English traders. There are churches and forts as well as other reminders of the colonial past of this fascinating town.
This part of India is in fact the seat of Catholicism in India, with Syrian Catholics (brought here by doubting Thomas) and Roman Catholics who had an important role in developing an excellent educational system under the Jesuit missionaries. And of course there is a dwindling Jewish community with about 9 families left and the oldest synagogue in India and the British empire. It has been a bit of a welcome change to visit historical sites that relate to a religious past and present more familiar to us than Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
We soaked up some culture by attending a Kathakali have to see and hear it to believe this art form. It is basically a dance and music performance based on old Hindu texts (the Mahabharata). The artists use hand and facial expressions while the story is sung by a narrator. Their makeup takes hours to apply. They meditate prior to performing in order to fully enter their roles. Costumes are fantastic.
                                          Lord Krishna telling Bhima that he did not sin by killing the enemy

And then to continue our cultural experience we attended a concert of classical music from Northern India.  This was sitar and tabla, and truly something new for us. The sitar has a haunting sound, mindful of Ravi Shankar and the music we first heard via George Harrison and the Beatles.
                                           Tabla and sitar musicians at the Kerala Katakhali Cultural Center

This photo is of the Chinese fishing nets that are used in Fort Kochi to catch fish which are then sold fresh on the board walk. It is amazing to see the men lower and raise the huge nets at high tide. The ropes are all weighted with huge rocks. It takes about 6 men to pull up the nets attached to these heavy weights. It has been good to eat fresh fish for the last few days, cooked in Kerala style...different from the usual Indian cuisine.
                                           Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochi

Tomorrow we trek into Periyar wildlife reserve, in the hopes to see wild elephants and if lucky (very lucky), tigers. From our treetop hotel room we can see many birds, water buffalo, mongoose, wild pigs, and deer.This is beautiful country.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Incredible India

This is indeed a country of contrasts.

Only in India can you see:

  • whole families on motorcycles with the youngest member (a child) in the front
  • elephants walking down main street in the traffic
  • a motorcycle driving on the road with a monkey as  the passenger
  • your driver pull over in front of a bus on the interstate highway and stop to give the bus driver a piece of his mind
  • shrines to an orange Monkey God called Hanuman who was the great ally of Lord Rama, one of the incarnations of Vishnu
  • a seven year old boy come up to you and invite you to come into HIS shop
  • no one ever has change for your 100 rupee bill
  • a clerk running after you when you have not bought something from his shop..or refusing to give you your change when you have bought something
  • hotels who do not provide toilet are expected to provide your own
  • an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) made for 4 passengers with more than 12 people inside and two on top, one holding about 10 cartons of eggs
  • a jeep made for 6 people with at least 16 piled in, hanging out the window and the back door
The list goes on, but what a ride it has been. This is what makes this country so wonderful. It is full of surprises and one can never know what the next one will be.

Only in India can you see:
  • beautiful mustard fields , their yellow flowers blowing in the wind
  • women dressed in colorful saris, working in the fields in the distance and dotting the scene with their bright colours
  • temples, castles and forts that take your breath away at every turn
  • history that fascinates and makes you want to know more
  • the Taj Mahal, a thing of such beauty that despite the number of people( and the story of the Shah who built it and eventually was thrown in jail by his own son after living a life of debauchery once he recovered from his grief at the loss of his second wife), you cannot but help be mesmerized by it
  • amazingly different and spicy cuisine
  • friendly and curious people who want you to love their country
This is what we are experiencing and wish to share with you all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Water and a climb

Leaving Udaipur, we moved on to Pushkar, passing through the beautiful hills arround Udaipur. This is much richer territory, green farms, gentle rolling hills, and many small lakes. In much of Rajasthan, water is very scarce and there are chronic water shortages. Although there seems to be more in the hills than in the desert areas, most people in the countrysides have no running water and there are wells throughout the towns and villages. We passed woman pumping water and filling up their water pots that they carry on their heads back to their little homes. Men and children wash themselves at the wells and both men and women wash their clothes at the wells or at the local river or lake.
In Udaipur we attended a dance show that was a wonderful demonstration of Rajasthani culture. Many of their dances deal with everyday life in the desert. One woman danced  with 9 pots piled on her head, telling the story of women who must go to the well every day and bring back the family's water supply balanced on their heads.
                                                           Dancing with water pots

The next day as we left Udaipur and stopped to visit a 10th century temple, a young girl passed on the road with her pot of water carrid on her head. The posture of the women here is perfect. They stand tall and graceful, moving with ease, even with heavy loads carried on their heads, either water, bricks, wood or large basins of cement. Such elegance despite the hard work they do.
                                                           Water carrier

Pushkar is a small town around Pushkar Lake, a sacred place for devout Hindus who come here to bathe in the lake and pray on the ghats (steps) leading down to the water. There are many people here anxious to give blessings and a Pushkar passport for a fee...that is you float some marigolds in the lake and then allow yourself to be blessed by what you hope is a legitimate holy man. For some rupees, the more the better, you will be given a red string bracelet..thus the "passport". Many of the local holy men look rather ragged and may have reached their Nirvana with the amount of bhang they smoke. But it is fun to walk around soaking up the smells, sites and feeling of India..a true awakening for all the senses.
The hike up a little mountain to the temple of Savitri, wife of Brahma, was a vigorous climb that allows for a spectacular view of the whole area, replete with many temples, camel tents, mountains and the beautiful lake. On the way down we met many people climbing up, holy men and Indian women, all carrying bricks on their heads, children in their arms and  climbing barefoot. I have no explanation for the bricks, other than to think that once at the summit, they would be constructing a simple temple. So many things are fascinating here.
                                                           Climbing to the temple

Saturday, November 12, 2011

News from Rajasthan

Our trip through Rajasthan continues, through desert, many towns, mountains and beautiful scenery. Three flat tires later, we have finally arrived in Udaipur, after 8 hours on the road from Jodphur.....remember the pants, all you anglos out there who grew up wearing jodphurs? Well originally they come from this town where the local princes (marahajas) wore them to play polo with their English chums! These princely types still live in each town we have visited, but since 1971 when Indira Ghandi removed their titles and their state pensions , they have been relegated to the status of ordinary citizen. So in order to pay for the upkeep of their beautiful palaces, they have converted many of them into hotels or museums.They head princely foundations to support the upkeep of the beautiful forts and palaces found throughout Rajasthan. In fact, today we are in Udaipur, apparently called the Venice of the East and the number one destination for romance...imagine!! The Lake Palace here was used in the James Bond film Octopussy as was one of the Maharaja's antique cadillacs that is on display in the antique car show sponsored by the present day Maharaja himself.
One of the unusual practices seen here is the piles of dried cattle dung patted into round pancakes mixed with hay and then dried. These cakes are then stacked  into elaborate piles along the roadside where women buy them, place them into large metal pans or baskets which they carry on their heads  back to their homes. This fuel is reportedly very good for cooking fires, giving a pleasant odour and pungent flavour to the food. The cows are strictly vegetarian with a little garbage thrown into their diet, thus the smell of their excrement is not that of a meat-eating animal.
                                           Cow patties for sale
                                           Camel-man, camels and Canadian tourists
                                          Sunrise in the Thar desert, luxury accomodation

                                           J&P with Jodhpur fort in the background

Children on the way to school via Tuk-Tuk

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tradition versus development..musings during a camel ride

Today we are in Jaisalmer, the golden desert town.We are staying inside the fort, built in the 12th century. There are concerns that due to overpopulation and therefore over-use, the fort is gradually sinking. Lonely Planet refuses to recommend any of the hotels inside the fort, encouraging tourists to be environmentally conscious and not contribute to the ongoing decay. As our hotels are prebooked by our driver we are not respecting that advice...of course I feel guilty, but it is pretty impressive sleeping inside of a fort. It feels a little like King Arthur and we are inside one of his gated cities, with a little middle-eastern look!

The Thar desert is between India and Pakistan. e are not far from that country. There is a huge military base at Pokanar, not far from here. We have been told that nuclear tests have been done in the desert near there.

Yesterday we lived the real tourist experience. Our desert escapade was lots of fun. We rode camels over the scrub and dunes to watch a beautiful sunset. We met troupes of goats, cows  and sheep in the desert, gathering at a local watering hole. Many of these animals are herded by children.....they work to support their families, not going to school in many areas, especially rural ones, and the government is hard-pressed to do anything about it as if these children did not work, they could end up begging on the streets. In Khuri, the desert village where we ate and met our respective camels, there is a school and our camel man/boy, told us they attend from 10am until mid afternoon and then they help with the camels.

Riding on a camel is no easy task. Getting your balance and then feeling safe as the camel walks or trots over the dunes required some getting used to. The hardest part is when they lie down, back legs first (camel man says to lean back) and then front legs (camel man says to lean forward). Each time I thought I would fall off. But we saw locals galloping over the desert on their steeds, so I guess you eventually get used to the feeling. My camel kept kicking himself, probably to bat at the flies, but each time he did so I got a good shake and had to steady myself so as not to fall off. Pierre's camel whose name was Disco, was much calmer and did not give him such a rough ride.

After a delicious meal, complete with Rajastani music and dance, we escorted again out into the desert on a camel cart and spent the night sleeping under the stars. Beds were set up for us, complete with dusty old blankets. The stars and moon were incredible. Of course, this is all done for the tourists, and the local camel owners have become wealthy catering to those who wish to have a desert experience.

The villages are clusters of little adobe huts with thatch roofs, or flat roofed square houses built with local- made bricks or stone. Once again they remind me of pictures in bible-story books. But the paradox is the camel man talking on his cell phone as we sleep in the desert, the sound of jeeps in the distance, and most of all, the miles and miles of windmills we could see in the distance. One cannot help reflect on the effect development and the arrival of outside influence has had on the lives of the people here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Family Outing

                                           Grandmother, mother, father, child, on motorcycle

The road to Rajasthan


                                          Our roof top view over Delhi, waiting for breakfast

We left the smog of Delhi this morning and took the long road to Bikaner in Western Rajasthan, We will be with this driver for 14 days as we tour Rajasthan, probably the most well known of India's tourist destinations. The car is a little beat-up Tata, and  the roads are pretty bad... plenty of red dust and lots of unfinished sections. Driving is pretty scary, in fact no tourists rent cars to drive themselves but rather take a car and driver.It took 10 hours to get here, and several times we held our breath as we passed donkey carts, camels, wedding parties , sacred cows and other vehicles of many kinds. And then 2 hours before arriving our car had a flat tire. Our driver was calm though and within 15 minutes he had changed the tire and we were on our way. 
The scenery is beautiful, almost biblical ,with women dressed in colorful saris, leading their goats and sheep through the dry fields, carrying large pots or baskets on their heads. Bikaner is near the Great Thar Desert making for a dry arid climate.Fields are covered in low brush and lots of sand. Tomorrow we will travel by camel for a few hours and then sleep in the desert under the stars.
As we drove today we passed troupes of goats being lead to slaughter. Tomorrow is the Muslim Eid and on that occasion a goat will be given as a gift, slaughtered and then eaten for the feast. In Delhi we walked past a huge market where the goats were being sold. The goats are very pretty, often brown  with larger white spots. They are small so I assume they are young goats.
This is festival season and the next month it is an auspicious time for weddings. We have been told that there could be as many as 30,000 weddings in India during this time! On the road today travel was slow due to the many wedding parties in the streets, complete with music, drums, people dancing and the groom mounted on a horse, as he and his family paraded to the bride-to-be's house. Each wedding party lets off huge firecrackers. The sky in Bikaner is ablaze with fireworks, which we enjoyed during our roof-top dinner. These festivities make our North American wedding celebrations seem very quiet in comparison.

I am intrigued by the iapparent insoucience of the people here. That is not to say that some of the things we have seen could be a cause for concern if looked at through our Canadian eyes. In Darjeeling for Diwali, little children played in the streets setting off firecrackers without supervision. They were having great fun especially when an anxious tourist passed by just as the things went off with a loud bang. Perhaps the thing that is the most worrying is the common site of mothers carrying their babies on the backs of motocycles, or sometimes young children sitting in front of the driver, straddling the gas tank. With the smog in Delhi and the dust on the roads here, I cannot help thinking that those little children are getting a face full of dusty, dirty air. But they look quite pleased with themselves as they sit in front of Daddy on his motor bike. Today the prize-winner was seeing a young mother sitting side-saddle behind her husband on the motor cycle, holding her young infant in her arms as he suckled at her breast. He had no idea of the precarious situation he was in, feeling secure in his mother's arms!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Arrival in Delhi

Our visit of Varanasi  included the visiting of many temples to Lord Shiva. The most famous is the Golden Temple, hidden among narrow alleyways and a maze-like bazaar area. To get there we followed our guide, being careful to not step in the many piles of cow dung that covered these narrow streets. At least we wear  sandals  and  even then our feet are filthy with dust and dirt by the end of the day. Many of the local people are barefoot and walk without hesitation through the streets. As we neared this   temple there was a strong army presence that we could not understand at first. At the entrance we were taken into a little shop and told to leave all possessions there with the shop keeper...pens , cell phones, cameras , etc. I was reluctant to do so and so kept my small purse  well concealed under my shawl. Little did I know what trouble this small act of rebellion would get me into!
At the gate we were all given  a body search, men on one side and women on the other. When I was asked if I had a pen or mobile in my bag, my guilty conscience  got the better of me and I showed her my phone. Well.... her reaction was to shove me away and shout that I had to leave immediately and go to the shop where the others had left their things. Pierre was behind me  with the guide, and as I passed them, I said I would wait out in the alley until they finished the visit, as I knew I could not find the little shop alone. And anyway, what was one less temple in the souvenirs I am carrying with me in my head?
I enjoyed watching the crowds  jostling to get into the temple, some carrying offerings and praying, others simple tourists like us..I felt in no danger and was happy to be there watching the action. However, when Pierre and the guide came out after15 minutes they could not see me and they began to panic. The guide thought I had been taken by the army and was being interrogated as to why I had not obeyed the rules. Perhaps they thought I was a terrorist ready to attack this holiest of crimes with either my pen or my cellphone.. Finally they spotted me and expressed their relief. The guide told me he had been very worried, imagining the worst.
Pierre has described the temple as being off limits for  non-Hindus so he could only peek through a fence. He saw a solid gold dome and this is the reason that the army guards the temple...fear of theft and possible violence............
Interestingly, the security at the airports here has been less stringent than in North America, but the                temples are strictly guarded.  I will be more submissive next time..

In Delhi we are staying at the "Holiday In....ternational" commonly called the Holiday Inn,  which is not part of the International chain but rather a budget hotel in the busy backpackers area of Old Delhi..   As in other cities  this place in teeming with people and various vehicles all vying for their place on the narrow packed streets. The smog here is very bad and  today it was difficult see any distance.  We visited Ghandi's  cremation place, in grounds that also hold the ashes of Nehru, Indira Ghandi and her two sons.New Delhi has lots of parks and  wide boulevards. The difference between the old and the new is remarkable here.

                                           The Red Fort, Delhi
                                          The back of our  bicycle rickshaw driver.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Train travel and the Holy City of Varanasi

                                             Early morning baths on the ghats of the River Ganges

After an overnight trip on the train from New Jailapuri to Varanasi we are are now in the holiest of Indian cities, both for Hindus and Buddhists. The trip to get here was not the cozy cabin ride we had imagined, but rather a two tiered berth (Pierre on top bunk and me on the bottom). We shared the berth with two other men who occupied the opposite berths, no curtain in between. This is called 2 tiered AC car and is the recommended way to travel overnight in India. The berths are relatively comfortable and bedding is provided. Miraculously we both slept pretty well, despite the loud snoring and burping of one of our berth-mates, and the rather dirty toilet that we used and shared with all. We are feeling truly acclimatized to this country and have learned that humour is a great help. Train travel is also a good way to meet locals and learn from them.

Varanasi is believed to be one of the oldest LIVING cities in the world. there are over 1000 temples to Lord Shiva. At Sarnath, nearby there is also a very famous buddhist temple that is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists world-wide. It is believed that Buddha preached his most famous sermon and  achieved  enlightenment  at that site.

To take a rowboat ride along the Ganges is a very moving experience. In the evening after sundown there is a Hindu ceremony of chants, gongs and bells while young priests light candles and sing praises the river Ganges. Little candles float on the river, placed by the people who say as prayer to Lord Shiva as they row down the river.

Our boat took us to the site of the funeral pyres where we saw bodies being cremated in the Hindu tradition. Their relationship with death seems much more open than in our culture. They worship the natural cycle of birth  and death. It was inspiring to watch the families prepare the bodies and place them on the burning wood fires one after the other, a ceremony that can last several hours until the bodies are burned to ashes and then spread on the river. The belief is that if you die in Varanasi and are burned and returned to the river Ganges, you escape the cycle of reincarnation and reach Moksha (Nirvana)

This morning we again were rowed down the river to see the ghats (there are 80 in all). On the ghats(steps to the river) we saw men and women bathing in the river before going to temple. There were  also priests chanting, processions  singing and playing instruments, as well as others practicing yoga and meditating on the ghats. We have felt that the spiritual here permeates every part of life. There is no escaping its presence when visiting India.

                                       Darjeeling view from hotel room.....Mount Kangjungjonga

                                         Teesta River Valley view...separates West Bengal from Sikkim
                             Young monks studying and playing at monastery near Gangtok...boys will be boys

                                                    Lall market scene, Gangtok, Sikkim

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Beautiful Sikkim

We have now arrived in Gangtok , capital of Sikkim, an independent state of India. The foothills of the Himalayas surround us and Mount Kangungjonga is visible from here. We drove here from Darjeeling, very sad to leave that magical place. But the drive here was over mountains and valleys, following  a river in the gorge that divides Sikkim from Darjeeling.
We are about 1 days drive from China in this state which is bordered by China in the north and the east and Nepal in the west. Sikkim  was originally a kingdom ruled by the Choycal(king) of Sikkim. He made a deal with the English(East India Company) who had controlled this entire area at one time. They brought the tea here and deforested the area  as they developed the huge tea plantations. In order to regain their independence, the king of Sikkim agreed to lease the Darjeeling area (which had been part of Sikkim) to the English in exchange for regaining their kingdom. Needless to say this was not a good deal as eventually the English gained complete control and never paid their rent! (Maudits Anglais says Pierre)
Sikkim is a state that is booming economically. India is investing large amounts of money to keep the Sikkim government and people happy as the state occupies  a strategic place in the disputed territory with China. The border with China is heavily protected by the Indian army.
The state of Sikkim was hit by a huge earth quake 6 weeks ago and there are landslides still happening. Parts of the road we drove over was closed for a while but has been cleared since. As I write this blog there is a little boy eager to do his homework for tomorrow and has pictures on this computer about the earthquake in Turkey that he absolutely needs to print. So in between words I am being interrupted to let him get his information! There is always lots of action at the local internet cafe.
In Sikkim new roads are being built, many new buildings are popping up and it is very evident that the people here are more prosperous than elsewhere in India. The state is a mecca for trekkers and other adventure seekers who are eager to experience what is perhaps India's last Shangrila (Lonely Planet).
We have visited fantastic Buddhist temples and gained a better understanding of this religion. We have been blessed by monks, and turned many prayer wheels saying the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" .

Friday, October 28, 2011

Temples, and the important things in life

Leaving Puri we stopped at Konark temple which is a heritage site that honours the sun god. It is one of the important temples of India, built in an incredible style, made in the 12th century and built over 12 years. As we entered ,our guide pointed to the entrance statue depicting the lion crushing the elephant who in turn is stepping on man...a lesson in humility that we were finally able to understand after our guide repeated his explanation twice with us listening intently to him, pretending we understood. When he asked after the first time if we grasped the symbolism, we said we had not really understood his explanation but the image explained itself. Trying to understand the meaning of the many gods and their importance is hard enough in English but made harder with the explanations of guides who try very hard to speak a language that we can understand. By the end of the day and after about 6 temples, we were templed out....just wanting to relax and sip a glass of wine with our feet up...not an easy thing to do here in Hindu India.

Man needing to let go of some of his ego

The pleasures of the Kama Sutra

At Konark we learned that this magnificent temple has carvings all around it that praise the many facets of life: the cultural, religious, leisure and philosophical. We were amazed at the clarity of the carvings that survive to this day. And here we were told about the Kama Sutra in explicit terms. The beauty of this book whose purpose was to explain the pleaures of married life is incredible, as is the openness of the people of the time.

In Bhubaneswar(3 mil people) the roads were congested with cars, rickshaws, motocycles, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians with lots of honking and crazy driving. There are no sidewalks so walking is a feat  in itself. To get back to our hotel (budget as usual) we took our first tuk-tuk ride...also known as an autorickshaw. It was like an amusement park ride and we have learned that this is the best way to travel, and one of the most economical. It does take nerves of steel, and a good sense of humour ,as the motocycle that carries the rickshaw weaves in an out of traffic at an incredible pace.

Driving on the narrow roads here so far has been fun, but thank goodness we have a driver. They drive on the left and honk in order to pass or to warn approaching traffic in the curves. Women sit  riding side saddle, holding their babies in their arms...that they do not fall off is a miracle. Cars must stop for cows who wander everywhere even on main roads. Everything fascinates the first-time visitors that we are.

From Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, we flew to Siliguri and then were driven up the steep maountain road to Darjeeling. It is a wonder that the people here make this drive to get takes about 3 hours over treacherous roads that have been washed away and rebuilt after the monsoons that come yearly. Scenery is beautiful, lush and colourful. The hairpin turns are the tightest you have have ever seen. Passing is out of the question so when two vehicles meet, one has to back up until there is a  wider section to allow a tight squeeze. But Darjeeling is everything we were looking for and more. Many Nepalese live here, brought to work in the teafields one hundred and fifty years age. They have settled here as have many Tibetans. There presence is felt everywhere. The people are gentle, friendly and speak quietly which is a delight.
Out of our room we see the Himalayas and wake to the sound of chants and gongs. A trip to the highest point here to see the sunrise today at 05:00 allowed great views of Mount Kanjungjonga. This mountain is considered holy by the Hindus. It seems that rising 03am is a popular activity which we experienced first hand as we were crushed by the throng of eager holiday-goers who all had the same idea and did not mind the early rise. Chai whallahs, coffee whallahs, souvenir hawkers and buddhist prayer flags flapping,in the cold morning air, all added to the scenery and the joyous cacophony  as we all watched the sun come from behind the clouds to the sound of cheering.
                                            View from our balcony at Seven Seventeen

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jennifer is now in India (with Pierrre)


No longer in Panama as you know, but after many months of planning we are finally in Incredible India. What a country. During the flight here we wondered  if our contact would actually meet us at 3 am in Kolkata (Calcutta) but there he was. And since then everything has just fallen into place, despite the fact that we never met the person who set this up. The miracle of modern technology!!
In Kokata we were at Heaven, literally....the name of our budget hotel right next to Mother Teresa's mission. We were able to see the novitiates pray several times a day, and hear their singing, through the open window in our room. It was truly celestial. Much of Kolkata is as we have read about, with many people actually living in the streets, babies sleeping on sidewalks while their mothers cook, talk to other women living near them, and of course beg. We were able to walk around and feel very safe.  The sights and smells of the market were a new and interesting experience, as are the open air toilet stalls scattered throughout the streets. They always seem to take us by surprise, the only warning being the strong stench that emanated from them. Kolkata is a beautiful colonial city that is fascinating even as parts of it appear to be falling into decrepitude.
A long train ride (8hours) took us to Puri. This provided me with my first experience of using an Indian toilet. Unfortunately I could not lock the door. As I was doing my business in a very undignified position (required by the Indian toilet) the door opened and then closed quickly. All the person would have see was a large white bottom, but it was a humiliating experience. As we were the only caucasians onthe train there was not problem knowing whose derriere it was.
Puri is a tourist destination for Hindus. Cape Cod it is not! The beach is lovely but crowded with holiday goers, camels and elephants giving rides to children, sacred cows and dogs everywhere and many vendors selling everything from pearls and jewelry to great Indian spicy tidbits of food. The mood was very festive and whole famiiles were playing in the waves, women in their saris splashing about having a wonderful time. As we strolled along the road beside the beech we heard a drum being beaten and noticed a procession of men all dressed in similar clothes, carrying a stretcher. As they passed us we saw that there was a corpse on the stretcher (actually a wooden funeral pire), bedecked with flowers, being taken to the funeral ritual.
Our guest house was run by a seemingly grouchy but eventually friendly guy who forbid the use of the hot water because he paid for the gas, was reluctant to give us a roll of toilet paper because we are expected to provide our own, and insisted we check out at 8am on the dot, rather than 8:30 despite the fact that the place is virtually abandoned.However, we were away from the frenzy of the beach and enjoyed the walk back and forth to get there. Firecrackers woke us during the night while there inintially sounding like gun shots right outside our window. But it was only kids preparing to celebrate Diwali, and their firecrackers lack the subtility of the international firework competition of La Ronde.

Men at the market, cooking candies for Diwali in 40+ degree heat due to huge stove.

 A castle taken over by other walls and homes around it, typical of the formerly beautiful dwellings in Kolkata.
The beach at Puri
To be continued.....

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

home again

Back to the comforts of Saint Lambert life. How luxurious I find our home after 7 weeks in Panamà. The experience has really helped me appreciate what we have here and open wider my horizons. The next few weeks will be spent coming back to a normal life, routines and other things. Tonight I play tennis again after 8 weeks. I wonder how that will be. Jake is happy I am back and his life has taken on the routine he feels safe with.
New blogs will come as Pierre and I set out on our retirement adventures.

Hasta luego
Jennifer en saint lambert

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Brightening the lives of little children

One of the things that our group of volunteers did during our 6 weeks at this place was to brighten the lives of these little ones that spend many hours alone in their cribs, craving human touch and stimulating interactions. I have spent time looking at tactile books with them, looking at pictures and encouraging their sense of touch, and smell as well as giving them individual time  trying to elicit reactions from each one. The books have been a hit, and will stay there for use with individualt children. I wonder how long they will last, but that is beyond my control now.
Our daily outings to the park have been another way of providing new activities to the older children. Unfortunately with the rainy season upon us, this outing has not occurred for the last week as the ground is very wet. But the children still get dressed every morning wearing shoes and caps, and this alone seems to give them a lift!
 The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the lack of any visual stimulation for those children who cannot go to the playroom because of their young age or the presence of an infection. This means a lot of children on some days, with hours spent rocking themselves, looking at the ceiling or through the bars of their crib, or crying to be held. We thought the idea of mobiles over their beds, (which in Canada would be something done for much younger children), would at least give them  something to look at and perhaps awaken some of their sensory channels. Several of our group had brought little toys and bright coloured flowers with them from Canada. They spent hours making mobiles and on Thursday, our last day volunteering, we hung them up using decorated coat hangers. We think the difference between our arrival and today is quite visible, with bright colours bobbing over the heads of the little ones ones in their cribs.
My hope is that other people, perhaps those living in David itself, will think of the needs of these little ones and continue what we seem to have started.

Hasta luego.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

La cucaracha!

Winter (meaning the rainy season) is upon us and with it the arrival of more bugs.
This morning I stepped out of bed and did not put my flip-flops on before getting up to turn on the light. Now I know why the children here are always being reminded to put theirs on (ponga tus chanclettas!) I felt a crunchy sensation under my foot and realized too late that I had stepped on a visiting cockroach! Yuck! And then 5 minutes later his cousin greeted me as I reentered my room. The Panamanian variety are huge, measuring easily about 2 inches long. I usually see them scurrying out of sight when the light is switched on in the bathrrom at night. But this seems to be a new invasion into my territory.
I count myself  as unusually fortunate, having stepped on a dead frog, squished a cucaracha and accidently slipped into the pig trough (plein de purin). If this continues I might actually have nine lives.
As the old song goes:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha!
Tu no puedes caminar.
Por qu´il te falta, por qu´il te falta,
Una pattita por volar.

Hasta luega.


Monday, April 4, 2011

clearing the road for volunteers

 The men had been called so they could clear this bit of the raod that had filled with rocks. They worked to clear it using pick and shovel. The 4X4 could then get through although walking was our chosen mode of transportation given the hudge rocks and bumby road ahead.

This is the teachers room in the classroom we visited. There are no washroom facilities so everyone uses the outhouse although La Maestra has her separate one.

Sewing machines and Ngobe children above Hato Chami, Panama

 Ngobe families arrived at this community centre next to the local school, to pick up their Singer sewing machines and cloth they had ordered in order to sew the clothes they wear and that they can sell to others.  They were able to pay for the cloth with money earned from sales of their goods. The machines are provided by the fundacion Nicole Lepage. Groups have formed as cooperatives in this area. The Ngobe women and children throughout this area, including in the cities outside the Comarca, wear their native dress with pride. The men and women are both learning new sewing techniques that allow them to use these manual machines rather than sew by hand as they have done for centuries. We passed houses where the machines were outside and were being used as we drove by.
 These children were returning home after their classes. They sometimes walk for hours to and from school. The teachers here come in mostly from outside the Comarca although there are more and more  Ngobe teachers being trained. The teachers usually live in or nearby the school, and given the difficulty of accessing the remote areas, stay for weeks on end before they return home for a few days off. In the rainy season the roads become muddy floods with treacherous driving and walking itself is at times difficult. Many people travel on horseback. The teacher in the school we visited had solar panels oustide the school so she could enjoy some form of electricity. Her room was a curtained-off area in the classroom.
A home in the Comarca near Hato Chami. The fences are dotted with clothes drying. The families wash their clothes in rivers nearby.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April Fool and a foot in a pig trough

Well today was the BIG DAY and apparently I am going to be lucky for the next year. We have been staying at a center in San Felix that belongs to the catholic church. It has been dormitory style, but clean and cheap. This has allowed us to visit the Comarca for two days without having to sleep there where there is no electricity or safe water. This place is huge, welcoming indigenous people who need shelter and food. They have a working farm and a place to teach new farming method to the people here. There is also a waiting hospice for women who are ready to go into labour and live far from any medical care. We met a group of young native women who were waiting to give birth, some in labour and others near due. I admire their quiet, calm nature as they wait patiently for this event, which in many cases will repeat itself every year.
As we were visiting the Centro de Capacitacion y de Formacion this morning ,we stopped to greet the many pigs that were in varying stages of development. Just as one of my friends started to say that precaution was needed given that the troughs outside the pens holding the runoff from the pens  were not covered (you know what that contains!)...I stepped into it with my left foot. What an odour. And what a way to start a new decade! Hopefully the good luck will last for many more.
Today we drove up to a very high peak called Pena Blanca. The ride was very difficult, but luckily our driver who volunteers for the foundation and knows the Comarca well because he supervises bamboo plantations here, is a good driver and is used to driving over rocks, over rivers and around hairpin turns. Once again the children at every village wanted to talk to us. The girls and women dress in native dress which is very colourful. I am having difficulty attaching photos but will try again .

Hasta luego

La Comarca

We have had the honour to visit the comarca (Native reserves) Ngobi-Bugle with a group from the foundation that is supporting us here and that works in the comarca supporting local projects there. Today we drove up into the mountains to Hato Chami and then hiked up to a small school where we met a group of natives who are setting up sewing coops to make their own clothes and also to attempt a small business of making and selling clothing to other groups. It was fascinating to watch the negotiations as new Singer sewing machines ( manual of course as there is no electricity in these remote areas) were collected by two groups of people who will then share the machines according to their needs. Some men and women hiked for a few hours to meet with the others and talk about their work. One group then left with the machines on their backs to hike back to their homes. We passed children who hike about 2 hours to get to school everyday and then back to home. The road is very rough, in fact a team of men was sent out to clear an area that had been blocked by huge rocks so that one of our vehicles could pass. 4 of us walked from the local school to the next village as only one car could pass. It was a long hot walk over very rocky terrain, needless to say we were very glad to arrive at our destination. The children were very curious about us.
Coming back we stopped at el Centro de Salud where staff at a small hospital sees people daily and also have a birthing centre. Most women here give birth at home, having children starting at a very young age, from about 12-15 years old. There is a very high child mortality rate here, and many of the children where we are volunteering come from remote areas such as this where the malnutrition rate is very high.
We met a group of women on Friday that are involved in setting up local efforts to protect their natural resources, developing an ecotourism centre, and training as well local women to assist with the births in the villages. All of this is supported by Fundacion Nicole Lepage, the group of Panamanians that is working with these indigenous groups. We are truly privileged to have been witness to this process for 2 days.


Monday, March 28, 2011

The elusive Quetzal and an elated hiker!

Our trip to Guadelupe (Cerro Punta) was a huge success, not only for the chance to enjoy some cooler weather ( it is about 40 degrees in David today with a very high humidex) but also because we were able to see these beautiful birds at very close range. Our guide agreed that to be able to see a Quetzal couple as they prepared their nest was a true and relatively rare privilege. The male quetzal in these pictures was busy pecking out a hole to allow his partner to lay her eggs. The wood chips were flying. We first saw the female but by the time I got binoculars and camera ready, she had left. The couple takes 3 days to build the nest and then the female lays 2 eggs. They take turns caring for the eggs until they hatch. The little ones then stay in the nest for about 2 months, according to our guide. The quetzals form a couple for the duration of their lives. Apparently they choose trees like this one that have a smooth exterior and that give off a certain smell that attracts the quetzals, similar to the way pherenomes (spelling) work for attraction between humans and other animals.
We met several very serious birders while at the lodge..they were actually quite funny to watch and listen to as they described their wait to see the various birds that inhabit the tropical forests of Panama, as well as their search for the perfect picture. The names of  birds they could say before the birds flitted off to their next perch was quite incredible. I am afraid that we appeared to be real amateurs compared to the others. Thank goodness they left with a private guide as I think we would have disturbed their birding activities. I can say that my Pentax binoculars that the health service staff gave me as a my parting gift are a great tool each time we hike into the tropical forest. Thanks again everyone!

Hasta la proximas

Jennifer en Panama