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.....