Friday, October 31, 2008


Greetings everyone!

If you're interested in seeing what life is like in Udaipur, and being entertained at the same time, go rent the James Bond movie Octopussy (Roger Moore). A few of the magnificent palaces around here are shown and the city life is pretty accurate, except there is more dirt, garbage, and traffic.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Sleeper Train and the Case of the Lost Wallet

Hello everyone! We have successfully survived an overnight sleeper train from Jaipur to beautiful Udaipur and are staying in the lovely Hotel Hanuman Ghat. We're planning on relaxing here for several days before hitting the road again.

The Case of the Lost Wallet
Being the wise man that I am, I neglected to remove my wallet from my pants pocket before going to sleep on the train. I was on the upper of three two-foot wide berths, and Stephanie was on the middle one. I rolled around quite a bit during the night, trying to maximize my comfort the best that I could (no matter how futile it seemed to be).

On the fifth time that I woke up, I had the realization that my wallet may have fallen out of my pocket, so I searched my pants, but it was not there. I searched my kurta, but it was not there either. Ohhhhh boy. I looked around and noticed that the man that was sleeping on one of the lower berths on the other side of the cart was no longer there. Did he take my wallet and book it? Ohhhh boy.

I searched my pockets again. I searched my kurta again. No wallet. It's okay I thought, just relax, perhaps I put it in my bag, but I really not no hope that it was there. And it wasn't. Ohhhh boy. So, I checked my pockets again. I scoured my kurta again. No wallet.

I grabbed my flashlight, hopped down to the floor and looked around, and luckily enough, there it was. EUREKA! I grabbed my now dusty beast and stuffed it carefully in my bag, zipped it up and climbed back to my bed where I thought about how lucky I was before falling back asleep.

Anyway, today is the big day for Diwali, so make sure you celebrate with plenty of lights and maybe some fireworks.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy Diwali

Today is the first day of the 5 day Diwali festival. We are in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, it is night time and the city is glowing brightly with tiny butter lanterns, firecrackers and gaudy, blinking light displays. We enjoyed the view very much from the 14th floor of the Om Hotel, in the revolving restaurant!

We've been traveling quite intensely the last few days, have covered a lot of distance. It hasn't always been pleasant. After spending 2 nights at the Golden Temple in Amritsar (which is an amazing place that swept me off my feet that I'd like to talk about for a minute just here inside these brackets ... All are welcome; it is a sanctuary! Waves of people sit in lines on the floor, their plates filled with dahl, rice, vegetables and chapati bread [which is made by machine apparently, and is actually not very good but it doesn't matter much because it is a gift]. That's right, free food - and accomodation. They feed ~40,000 people a day. It doesn't matter who you are; if you are hungry, you are fed. The temple itself is lovely, and we waited in a long, sweaty line the first day to see inside, but enjoyed much more walking around barefoot [before entering one must remove ones shoes, wash ones feet and cover ones head] on the white marble around the temple at night. I felt so peaceful during those walks.) Where was I? Yes, after spening 2 nights at the Golden Temple, we got on a sweet 5am luxury train to Delhi, had lunch and then took a bicycle rickshaw to the bustand where we learned no bus from there went to Agra, so we got on one of those crazy Indian city buses you read about for a half hour ride to another bus stand where we hopped on another one of those buses you read about for a 6 hour ride to Agra. After crashing, we woke early EARLY to go to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. It was spectacular, and we joined in with everyone else in photo fever. (We were more goofy than the rest though.) After breakfast we got a supposedly delux bus for a ride to our current location, Jaipur, which took way too long because of all the stops made to pick up and drop off bags of some sticky sugar liquid that dripped on us and our stuff.

Tomorrow night we plan to head to Udaipur on a sleeper train. We've heard it's very nice there and I'm hoping it's somewhere we'll want to spend some more time. The worst thing about many of the places we've passed through lately has been the air quality. I feel like in the last week I've shaved some chunk of time off my life just from inhaling so much air thick with exhaust and garbage burning. The garbage burns are brutal - on every corner around here. Gahyuck! Please take a deep breath in and, if you're lucky enough, enjoy your relatively pure dose of oxygen.

P.S. There are lots of camels in this province!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fifty Percent!!

Believe it or not, we've made it 50% through our trip! Day 57. It feels good.

We left Dharamsala for Amritsar yesterday afternoon. The start of the ride was incredibly beautiful. Driving through Kangra we got to see the Himalayas in all their glory. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get any photos, so you'll just have to trust us that it was amazing.

The bus took us to Pathankot where we decided we'd get a train to Amritsar for.... EIGHTEEN RUPEES!!! We couldn't even believe the cost for this supposed 3 hour train ride over 107km, but when we finally got on it ended up being fairly comfortable. Perhaps our definition of comfort has decreased since arriving in India. The train wobbled when it finally got going, but spent half the trip sitting around waiting for other trains to pass the single track that was available to us.

So we're here now. Amritsar, home of Golden Temple. This place is equivalent to the Vatican for Sikhs. It's a wondrous site. We're staying overnight for a crazy slumber party with the Indians in one of the many dormitories they have available for free (by donation).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Wig hats!

on our way to enlightenment

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Meditating with Monkeys

We're out! We're out! Yes, the rumours are true. We have made it through our 10-day retreat in silence, learning about Tibetan Buddhism. Now, the time has come for me to share nothing other than our encounters with the lovely monkeys of Dharamsala.

The monkeys around Tushita are very clever and rather sneaky little guys. We were warned that if we were eating any of our meals away from the dining hall and some monkeys approached, it was best to just hand your food over to them, since they would take it anyway. Since we had heard similar warnings in the past, I wasn't too concerned about it. I mean... they're just a few monkeys, right?

Well, it turns out we lived very intimately with these creatures and I will share three encounters with you.

The Cookie Thief
From 2-3pm everyday we were allowed to speak in small groups of six to ten people. These were our assigned discussion groups. After a few days, one of the members of my group thought it would be nice to bring a package of cookies for us to enjoy while we discussed different points of Tibetan Buddhism. What a lovely gesture, I thought, and apparently so did the rest of my group, as the next day three people brought packages of cookies!

Three packages!!! A FEAST! Oh boy oh boy, so we quickly devoured the first package and opened the second. Discussions took our attention away from the cookies and towards each others' hearts. It was really the most lovely part of the day.

Anyway, back to the monkeys. So, as were were listening to one of our group members speak, a monkey slowly crept up and crawled silently between two of us. Before we had time to even acknowledge that a monkey was sitting in the middle of our circle, it snatched the package of cookies at incredible speed and ran away to consume them in a nearby tree.

We laughed heartily as did all the neighbouring groups. Oh, you little monkeys.

The Apple Snatch
Often we had the opportunity to eat apples as part of our lunch. We grabbed as many as we liked from a bucket where they had been sliced in half. Being an apple lover, I grabbed a half, put it in my salad bowl, and head outside to eat on the porch of the dining hall.

Practicing mindful eating meditation, I sat very quietly and observed every bite I took, taking special care to put down my fork between bites. While I sat there, surely as serene as Shakyamuni Buddha himself, a monkey saw the perfect opportunity for his lunch. He jumped down from a tree ran across a nearby roof, fell to the railing, scurried across the table, and SNATCH! He reached into my salad bowl and looted my apple!

Everyone laughed and the monkey returned to a tree just above where I was sitting and sat there eating the apple right in front of me. Oh, you sneaky little bugger.

The Revolution
One evening while we all sat in the gompa, we heard incessant monkey cries from outside. This was not altogether unusual, but this time there was quite a bit more than what we typically heard. So, Stephanie and I took a peek out one of the windows where we saw around ten monkeys just hanging around out front of the gompa. They just sat around in what Stephanie saw as a planning moment of the revolution when monkeys will take over. It lasted for 20 minutes and was really quite interesting to watch.

Around fifteen of us were just standing watching the monkeys in confused amazement. Oh, you crafty little buggers.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this post. I've been at this computer for far too long now, so I'll see you later :-)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Om Mani Padme Hum

Yesterday we emerged from Tushita after ten days of intense learning and contemplation. I feel saturated and tired, inspired and happy. Along with the mystical aspects of Buddhism, there is so much powerful, logical goodness. What I saw as the heart of the Buddha's teachings simply felt like a summary of my upbringing.

Last night everyone who did the course, about 50 of us, met for dinner. It was really neat getting to speak to people for the first time after feeling like I already knew them through the silent experiences we shared.

For the next few days Pete and I are gonna hang around here. The mountains are beautiful and never seem to escape our sight, the place is colourful and compact (I keep running into people I know which is a great feeling being so far from home) and the Tibetan momos (dumplings) are delicious. Dharamshala is a place with a predominantly Tibetan population: this is where the Dalai Lama came for refuge and has called his home for the last 49 years. It is only since I've been here that I've really gained an awareness of the tragedy happening in Tibet. We visited the Tibet Museum this afternoon where there is an exhibition called "A Long Look Homeward". Eleven Tibetan refugees shared their recollections of the Chinese violence and oppression against their people, their fear that Tibet's history and culture will be erased, stories of their escape and their hopes for the future. It's very upsetting. I am very interested in talking to some Chinese people about the issue.

After that we went to the temple out front of His Holiness' abode. We went at a good time; we got to see a whole bunch of Buddhist monks debating. They pace back and forth and are extremely animated, one monk lunging at his opponent and smacking his hands together in front of his face, shouting something so profound, I suppose.

"Om mani padme hum": a Tibetan Buddhist mantra that generates compassion. Of all the mantras I've been introduced to, this is my favourite. (Mantras are a big deal on this side of the planet.) I will sing it for you when I'm home. I hope you're all well. Peace and love!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Itinerary Map Updated

Hi Everyone,

We have arrived safely in Dharamsala, albeit at 3:40 in the morning with nowhere to go. Tomorrow we begin our course, but I just wanted to let you know before we go in that I made a big update to the itinerary at Google Maps (see the side bar for small version, or click the link beneath for the full page). I just wrote some small descriptions of the places we've been, and I updated the pins to reflect where we are (and our trail).

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Peace Out, Manali

Well we're just about ready to leave Manali. Tomorrow will be our final day. I think we will take the bus in the evening, but we've yet to decide. Then we'll be reaching beautiful Dharamsala!

For those of you who didn't know, the Dalai Lama held public teachings in Dharamasla from September 30 to October 4, which we strongly considered attending. We were going to take the train straight from Rishikesh, but all the tickets were sold out. We decided it wouldn't be worth it to sit amongst thousands of other pilgrims, likely a few blocks away and around the corner from the Dalai Lama himself, so we didn't look into any other method of getting to the city. Of course there was also the fear of there not being enough guest houses for everyone!

Anyway, back to beautiful Manali. The most lovely place we've been yet. Everything is just wonderful here. The people are very nice and relaxed, the climate is perfect, the hotels are cheap. We actually changed our hotel from the Sunshine Guest House to the Paradise Guest House in Old Manali. It's a great place to stay. The water is hot, the room is clean, the owners are friendly, and it's only Rs. 200 a night (approximately $5 Canadian).

We were eager to go see the sulphur hot springs across the river at the town of Vashisht just outside of Manali, but upon arriving we were grimly disappointed. We had visions of a beautiful little pool in a cave or something similar, but we were greeted by a grungy little box in the ground in the middle of the town. We let the water pour on to our hands, but we refused to dip our entire bodies in that cess pool.

Besides Vashsisht, we've visited a couple temples, including the place where Manu (aka Noah who owned a really big ark) meditated after saving humanity and all kinds of other creatures. It was all right.

More interesting was the Hadimba temple where vicious animal sacrifices are given for three days every year in May. Tons of skulls of the animals are attached to the outside of the temple. Strangely enough, we didn't get to see the inside of the temple. Why, you ask? WELL!!! They were filming a Bollywood moving out front!! It was pretty funny to watch the actors poke their eyes to facilitate crying.

We stayed around to watch a few downtrodden scenes before heading out to be greeted by furry yaks and rabbits. Steph was actually swarmed by four or five ladies each with rabbits in their hands asking if she would like a photo with them (for money, of course). Little did they know, all Steph wanted was to be surrounded by the incredibly furry creatures and was completely satisfied by the swarm.

Besides all that action, we've just been chilling and eating delicious foods, a topic I prefer to leave to Stephanie.

Oh and before I go, I suppose I should mention that Manali is the Cannabis Capital of India. It's growing everywhere! It has quite a pleasant smell. Many of the locals sell charas (although it is illegal), which is basically hashish. Someone told me they make it by rubbing their hands on the plants the rolling the crystals they get from them into the charas. Cool, eh?

So we're sad to leave Manali, but we're hoping Dharamsala will be just as nice. We'll be doing a 10-day meditation course at the Tushita Meditation Center, in complete silence. To read more about the course we're taking, see Introduction to Buddhism.

See ya

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mountainous Manali

We took the plunge last night and hopped on a 10 hour bus ride through a winding mountainous route to the astoundingly beautiful city of Manali, India.

Upon arrival this morning, we were immediately enamored with the place. It is so lovely. Snow-capped mountains in the distance, nearby foothills, beautiful trees and gardens, and best of all, no monkeys.

In the sun, it is quite comfortably warm. In the shade, it feels much, much colder. The forecast for today is a high of 20 degrees celsius and low of 3. Hopefully we'll be adequately prepared for sleep. Shimla had a similar climate, with a high of 20 and low of 9. I think this is the coldest it will get for us in India, which is awesome. :)

This is definitely the most beautiful place we've been to in India as of yet. Our hotel room is pretty large. In fact, it has about 3 rooms as well as a washroom and a balcony which overlooks a beautiful garden and snow-capped mountains.

That's all for now! It's dinner time.

Monkey Business

Before leaving Shimla we made the trek up, up, up to the Jakhu Temple (a temple for the monkey god Hanuman), which is situated around 2500m above sea level. It was a steep and tiresome climb, but when we reached the top we were thrust excitement and danger!

Monkeys! They've gone mad! They are very aggressive near the temple, since many visitors give them prasad (food offerings). They think whats yours is theirs. Oh boy!

As our guidebook had recommended, we rented a walking stick for Rs. 5 at the bottom of the climb to the temple, so we were well armed to deal with the foul beasts. We managed to visit the first temple without any confrontations, but as soon as we left, we were talking with an Indian fellow from England and a monkey crept up to him, jumped, hung off his backpack and ripped off a bag of prasad. It sat right there beside us eating the entire bag and picking up very meticulously all the little sugar balls that had scattered when it tore the bag.

It was pretty funny, since we were just spectators and nobody got hurt. Things were a bit different on our way down from the second temple when Stephanie showed her true, barbaric colours. We were alone on the stairwell which was crawling with monkeys. I began shooing some of them away with my stick, but Stephanie was awestruck by the sight of it all. I had walked maybe 10 steps ahead when I heard Steph shriek a warcry fit for a fearless amazon. She was afraid a monkey was about to jump on her, and managed to scare it away with her glorious, thoughtless, instinctive roar.

We stayed closer together for the remainder of the descent and experienced no difficulties :-)

In other monkey news, the day before we visited the temple, Steph was sitting on our balcony in Shimla when she noticed a monkey about 6 feet away from her on the roof. She called me out to come see, and out I came. Unfortunately, I had to walk directly beneath the monkey to get out to see it, but I managed to do it without harm. It looked angry. Furious, even. Quite satisfied by my short observance of the creature, I began to head back to the room, under the monkey again. This time he was scowling and I made a quick dash and just as it was about to jump on me, Steph let out an instinctive cry, "PEEEEEEEEEEEETE!!" which scared the monkey away. Thanks, Steph.