Along the Away

travel, dream, create, inspire, appreciate

Archive for the ‘ Four Months in India ’ Category

In 2011 I was extremely fortunate to take a leave of absence from work and my life in Sydney and spend four months in incredible India. The following blog posts are from this wonderful time of my life – not that every moment was wonderful, as you will see if you choose to read on, but India is like that, crazy, beautiful, chaotic, peaceful, unfair and generous all at once.

India-bound!
Ah Bangalore, one week and already I adore you!
Eating my way around Bangalore, week one
Back to Work
Indian Fantasy #1: Attend an Indian wedding
Mysore Mini Break
Indian Make-Over: Sari Buying
Indian Fantasy #1: Mission Success
Mini-Break: Hampi
Mini-Break: Pondicherry
Safe Travels
Hello Stranger!
Mini-Break: Kerala
Mini-Break: Goa
End of the Working Day: Internship Over
Designing in Bangalore: Projects Galore!
Designing in Bangalore: Activity Book Illustrations
Indian Bureaucracy: Sucked In and Spat Out.
Delhi: City of Millions
Exploring Rajasthan: Agra
Exploring Rajasthan: Madhogarh Fort
Exploring Rajasthan: Jaipur and the Amber Fort
Auto Rickshaw with a View
Exploring Rajasthan: Ranthambore National Park aka Tiger Spotting
Exploring Rajasthan: Bundi
Exploring Rajasthan: Bijapur (Castle! Yeee!)
Exploring Rajasthan: Udaipur
Exploring Rajasthan: Pushkar
Mountains & Mystics: Shimla and Mandi
Mountains & Mystics: Dharamsala and McLeodganji
Mountains & Mystics: Trekking Dalhousie-Khajjiar-Chamba
Mountains & Mystics: Amritsar
Take Me To Bollywood: Mumbai Madness
Yoga Week: About Time
The Not So Holy Dogs
The Holy Cows
Lasting Impressions: India

Indian street dogs, hmmm, not as much going for them as the cows apparently. Not holy, not sacred. But plenty homeless, living on the street so that you come across them everywhere you turn.

This New York Times article paints a horrid picture:

No country has as many stray dogs as India, and no country suffers as much from them. Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children. An estimated 20,000 people die every year from rabies infections — more than a third of the global rabies toll.

Eeeek! Well, to be honest this paints a picture that I didn’t really see in India – the dogs are everywhere, that’s for sure, but they seem quite chilled out. All they seem to do is sleep – which you would expect to mean they are active at night, but I didn’t see any trouble or hear them making much fuss then either.

Maybe I am desensitized due to my exposure to Samoa’s dogs in 2008 which really are a menace. They travel in packs and aggressively own the streets. Come dusk it is actually scary to go outside, you can hear them howling and fighting at night.

The article raises some interesting points about India’s inadequate waste disposal though – if the street dog problem is eradicated before the waste problem then the streets will just end up with a rat problem. I would infinitely prefer a dog problem over a rat problem! I think I would anyway.

In my Indian experience I saw so many ragamuffin dogs, dogs obviously taking care of themselves but going about it pretty pleasantly. Obviously, as the article reveals, there are areas where they are a problem, no doubt the result of low sterilization rates of pet dogs and an indifferent attitude to those on the street. But in general I found the dogs to be pretty relaxed and friendly.

Meet some of the dogs of India that warmed my heart:

It is such an ingrained stereotype that when I came to India I did not bat an eyelid when I saw random cows in random places eating random things. The holy cow is a well known Indian quirk, but the thing that did surprise me was the general lack of regard for the cows.

India apparently has 30% of the world’s cow population (says who? I don’t know, I read it somewhere. It sounds about right). In Delhi it is estimated that living alongside the 14 million residents are 30,000 cows (says who? This person, in a rather interesting read about cows in India)

It turns out it’s a lot more complex and cows are not holy at all, they are not worshiped, but they are recognised as sacred for a number of reasons. Firstly, the cow has historically served so many purposes for an Indian family. The milk provides nourishment, the dung provides energy fuel for devices around the home, they can work on the land, they are used in holy rituals and their docile gentle nature means they become loved like a pet. They are respected because they give so much but require so little in return.

Secondly, cows pop up quite a bit in Hindu spiritual texts, for example Lord Krishna was a cow herd, so this association has earned them some respect as well. This respect means that the 828 million Hindus in India won’t hurt, kill or eat a cow, the Jains won’t either.

Unfortunately respect (and not being eaten) is one thing, looked after and cared for is another. Respect doesn’t put food in the trough, or a roof overhead or large clean open fields to graze. It means no-one will interfere if one decides to sit down in the middle of the road.

Or takes a stroll down the road.

Or just stands wherever.

Or decides to munch on a plastic bag while standing on a railway track.

And if one wants to eat from a rubbish bin then it jolly well can.

Respect means a cow can do what it wants and no-one will get mad, or impatient, or violent with it…. but they probably wouldn’t go out of their way to help it either.

Well, that’s not true, some people are trying to help the cows. The same article above mentions a state effort, funded mostly by NGOs, to catch city cows and relocate them outside of the city limits. According to some research I did that has had some success though it has been slow to be properly rolled out, and action seems to be taken only when traffic accidents trigger pressure from the community. It would certainly take a big effort – how many cows is 30% of the world’s cow population? A lot.

This guy is also happy to help a cow, he’s not a cow-relocater, he’s just feeding a cow a banana with his kids which I thought was nice (I did wonder if cows are allowed to eat bananas but then I remembered the plastic and figure that question is moot).

And this guy gave a cow water because it looked thirsty.

I guess being kind to a cow is part of the general idea of sacred cows but I only saw it occasionally.

Mostly the cows just live their lives amongst the people with low interference.

So this was a post about cows, a place to put all the cow photos I took in India, some because they made me smile, some because they made my heart break.

Bless the holy cows.

Since returning home to Australia, and particularly after some time to look back and reflect, I can’t help but notice that India has influenced me in ways that still linger. Behaviour changes, figures of speech or habits, every now and then I catch myself doing something that makes me smile and remember where it came from. Here’s some of the lasting impressions India has had on me:

Change hoarder.

My wallet used to be fairly light-weight, even on the odd occasions when I was impressively cashed up. Notes from the ATM in $50 or $20 notes and change discarded as soon as possible. In Australia, we’re a culture of getting rid of the excess weight and keeping our cash as light as possible – even to the extent where it is not that unusual for someone in front of you in a queue to take a little longer to count out a few dollars in silver ‘to get rid of the shrapnel’ – Checkout operators will even ask you if you have the 40c so they can round your change up to the lightest sum.

In India, no-one has change; no-one, no-where, no-way. The ATMs spit out 500 or 1000 rupee notes and no-one will be able to handle them. So you start hoarding small notes, hiding them in your wallet and attempting to force bigger establishments to break them – even they will still crane their neck to get a look at your wallet while shaking their head ‘nooo, madam, smaller?’ They’re playing the same game as you. You know they have a hidden stash of smaller change somewhere and if you hold your ground long enough they will eventually concede and get it out and give it to you, which you will immediately stow away in your hidden stash. In the markets if they don’t have change they will send someone looking for some, they can be gone for up to 5-10 minutes as they traipse around trying to exchange your note for smaller denominations. Once in a market, after a 5 minute absence I saw the guy I was trying to buy from pass me from the back of a motorcycle still nodding and assuring me he’ll be back with change. He was back a little while later and the transaction went ahead. I was once in a bank (the bank!) and had to wait while the teller had to ask around for change, eventually one of the tellers pulled out his own wallet to exchange my note (the bank!!).

It is one of the greatest mysteries of India. Why do the ATMs distribute notes that no-one can handle? The end result is that in Australia, I have become a small note and coin hoarder, It is so weird. I currently have $114 dollars in my wallet; $19 is in coins and $95 is in 1 x $20, 5 x $10 and 5 x $5 notes. Pre-India, that would have been 2 x $50, 1 x $10 and two $2 coins. I’m not sure what I’m collecting all the smaller denominations for, but I just feel more comfortable with them. I even have to ignore a pang in my heart whenever I have to throw away small notes on a larger purchase ($40 with $10 notes, what a waste!!!) I don’t know how long this ingrained behaviour will stay with me… but it often makes me smile.

The head wobble.

I was impressed with how much I stamped out this little habitual gesture while I was travelling – when I was working in Bangalore I was an enthusiastic head wobbler, but six weeks on the road toned it down. But now I’m Australia, it does creep back in, mostly at work (maybe because I picked it up in a work environment in India?) It really is the perfect gesture for a non-committal ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I refrain from committing either way at this point’. This isn’t exactly what the Indians use it for. It could just as likely mean a definite yes or an absolute no, but for me, it really does fill that gap between the affirmative head nod and the negative head shake. It’s the non-committal acknowledgement, the ‘I’m listening and am thinking it over’. I like it, and will probably keep using it for some time.

More naan, less rice.

I used to order the requisite basmati rice whenever eating Indian in Australia but now I know better. Rice is unnecessary stomach filler that stands in the way of fitting more of the good stuff in my belly. Ie Naan bread. And main dish goodness too of course, but yes, naan bread. Naan bread is really, just the best thing, and the more room available the better.

Eyeliner

I used to wear eyeliner in Australia, but usually only when going out at night, or if during the day it was pretty light and only on the outer edge. But when I started working in Bangalore I absolutely adored the way my female colleagues lined their eyes with thick ‘kohl’, even adding fresh swipes during the day to keep it working it’s charm – it looked so exotic and dramatic. I started wearing it a big darker, and then one day my colleague Rashmi, who constantly impressed me by applying hers with a thick stick of khol the size of a lipstick, suggested I line my eyes the whole way around. Gasp! What? My tiny little average looking caucasion shaped eyes? I really doubted I could pull it off, but the next day I gave it a go and went in to work – so many people commented on how good my eyes looked! Hooked. Now I love using eyeliner much more dramatically, though I’m still hopeless at applying it with the thick stick of kohl.

Footpath appreciation

The one thing I really missed when living in Bangalore was the ability to head out for a walk every morning. I could have handled the staring. I could have breathed through the strange burning rubbish smell. But falling into foothpath crevices was really too much. I tried a few times, but seriously nearly disappeared from the face of the earth on more than one occasion. I’m not being melodramatic – I read a few news articles while living in India about the number of Indian kids that are injured or killed every year due to the state of foothpaths. The problem is not where there are none (though they’re sorely needed, that’s a separate issue) but the deteriorating state of the ones that are crumbling apart, leaving huge gaping holes where you do not expect there to be a huge gaping hole. As in, walking along the footpath minding your business, whoa! I’ve fallen in a pit underneath the footpath. I love my Sydney footpaths. Smooth, even, kerbed foothpath glory, I safely pound you anytime of day out of harms way. Never again will I take such a simple thing for granted.

Pedestrian paranoia

I find it really hard to trust a that a motorcycle will stop for me – yeh even on a zebra crossing, even at a red light. It just seems so unlikely. In India it was actually more likely they will nudge into you as you take your moment to dart across the road. I don’t think they actually intend to hit a pedestrian at an impact that will cause harm, I think they just calculate the exact speed they can approach you, nudge you, and motor by; a situation that sees the pedestrian across the road where they want to be with no time cost to the motorist. Happy travelers all around. If you are not able to calculate the same speed equation then there may be trouble, and less happy travelers. But after awhile it is surprising how accurate you can get. Anyway, now I’m back home I find it hard to trust motorcyclists. Even at a crossing I’ll sorta stick a leg out to hover over the crossing while trying to make eye contact with the motorcyclist to gauge the calculation. When they come to a complete stop and sit there blinking at me, it’s quite a surprise. I think I make them crankier standing there blinking back, but to their credit they still sit there waiting. I guess increased road awareness is never a bad thing. It’s interesting though, how a few months of repeated behavior can stay with you.

Gratitude

Of course this one was coming.

Find me a westerner who goes to India and doesn’t come out spouting gratitude in every direction. It can’t be ignored though. India is a very unique traveling experience; even to a traveler who has been to developing countries before. I am grateful for the experience I had in India, grateful that I survived it without any of the horror stories people feel the need to tell you about before you go. Grateful for the Indian people I met, the challenges I overcame, the beautiful wilderness I encountered, the vast and varied landscapes I saw, the travelers I shared journeys with, every delicious bite I ate and the cooks that made them, the workplace and team that let me get involved, the storms and sunny days, the shopping, the friendships.

I am also grateful for the beautiful country I call home. Find me an Aussie that doesn’t fly back in over Sydney and want to kiss the ground when they get off the plane. No matter where I go, I always get this feeling in my heart when I see Sydney from the sky as we come home to land. I am so grateful to live in a lucky, peaceful land, with a thriving economy, brilliant Indian food, (and Thai and Japanese and Italian) and salads you can eat straight out of the ground, water I can drink straight from the tap, freedom of speech, religion, career, partner and clothing, my family, friends, work I enjoy, clear blue sky, fresh air, an ocean I can swim in – naked if I really want to, rubbish that’s collected weekly, recycling too and footpaths that won’t eat me up.

Most importantly I am grateful for what I have learnt about gratitude. You can be grateful is every situation, in any place. It’s a small thing to have learnt, a subtle shift. Gratitude used to be something I felt earnestly, like the act of gratitude for all that I have was a rite that would ensure I continued to deserve it. Even when removed from the things I am most grateful for at home in Sydney, I was still grateful, and still practiced gratitude each day. I relaxed in my gratitude and became less attached to it. I am grateful for what I have in this moment here, but if it goes then I will be grateful for something else in the next moment. It’s liberating.

Ahh happy days!

They go something like:

  1. Rise with the sun
  2. Morning yoga in an outdoor shala
  3. Enjoy an organic brekkie with fruits and yoghurt and pancakes and muesli amidst a table strewn with flowers
  4. Amble down to the outdoor meditation hut and spend a blissful 30 minutes being still
  5. Have a long hot shower in my private garden bathroom
  6. Read on my cottage verandah
  7. Tuck into a delicious organic vegetarian lunch by the pool
  8. Take a stroll on a bush trail walk
  9. Swim in the pool
  10. Afternoon yoga in the outdoor shala
  11. 1hr massage
  12. Sit in the steam room a little while
  13. Back to read on my verandah
  14. Is that the phone… oh yes thank you for the dinner reminder
  15. Organic vegetarian dinner under the lantern strewn trees
  16. Good conversation with beautiful souls visiting from around the world
  17. Sleep in a fluffy marshmallow bed

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Welcome to Shreyas Yoga Retreat. Oh God was this what I needed. This place is amazing, a true oasis to relax, unwind and recharge.

Although I arrived with a hacking cough still, the lovely staff arranged for the health consultant to meet with me; she organised a special tea to be made for me and for the steam room to have peppermint oil in there when I went in. I started to feel better immediately.

Shreyas is pretty magical, for one thing – whenever you enter a building on site you leave your shoes at the door. Whenever I went in I slipped out of my shoes and left them facing the door… yet when I came out, my shoes were at the door, facing out so I could slip them straight on. Sometimes, I only went into the building for a few minutes but sure enough, when I came out – the shoes had turned around…. and I never saw anyone do it. Amazing.

And the flowers. They’re everywhere, in pretty arrangements or just scattered around. On the table at breakfast. On my freshly made bed when I return from meditation. On the soap dish in my bathroom. On the sun loungers by the pool. Even on the trees… oh wait, yeah they belong there. But even on my outward facing shoes sometimes when I come out of buildings.

As mentioned in the previous post, I have misplaced the photos I took from the last couple of weeks of my trip (I did take a photo at dinner and breakfast on my iPhone (cliche much?) which is why I have those two). But here are some photos I pinched from the Shreyas website (which you should check out if you are in the area as I highly recommend a visit there):

My cottage looked exactly like this one. Maybe it is this one. Who knows, whichever one was mine, it was really beautiful inside. The blinds go up and down during the day by themselves. And the bed makes itself in the morning and turns itself down after dinner. It is a crazy-capable cottage.

Here we did our yoga every morning and afternoon. OK, maybe I missed a couple. Because of my cough… and maybe because all the relaxing one does does skates dangerously close to laziness, but I did go to at least one, sometimes two yoga sessions a day.

The meditation hut was fun – breathing, chanting, humming, and lots of stillness. And so quiet – in India, quiet. Pretty special.

My outdoor garden shower – seriously, maybe my favourite thing.

Can you just imagine the peace that comes from hours laying by this pool under this frangipani tree? Can you?

And that concludes India.

Say what?

Pretty momentous, but yes, just like that it was over.

Four months trickled into three then into weeks and then days and then…

I was on a plane.

And I was home.

I’ll definitely be coming back to Mumbai; but unlike all the other places in India I’ll be back to because I loved them THAT much, I’ll be coming back to Mumbai because I didn’t really like it that much at all. But there’s something odd there; Mumbai is the home of Bollywood, I’m meant to love it… What’s wrong with me? I’m putting it down to bad timing; at the end of four months in India my enthusiastic embrace of Indian mayhem is perhaps not at full capacity.

Following five weeks of life on the road and after almost four months in India I’m tired of looking and appreciating; and on my first Mumbai afternoon I got sick with head cold thingy complete with headache and hacking cough. Horrible but on the bright side, good timing as I’m trying to shed as much luggage weight as I can before my homeward flight – I was popping pills from my untouched medical supplies with happy abandon, happily justifying having lugged them around with me since I got here. See, I did need them!

But aside from all this, I did get out and about a bit and I think on another visit I’d probably find much to love about Mumbai. On this visit, I found it just like other Indian cities but a notch more intense in the noise, traffic and population departments. Beautiful buildings though, architecturally impressive and worth wandering around with eyes up. But there are lots of staring boys; lots and lots and lots. Nearly started giving them the finger actually, that’s sorta where I’m at with that Indian peculiarity. But the women are gorgeous and wearing some of the best fashion I’ve seen in India.

I cobbled together a walking tour of sorts, from the lonely planet and from a map given to me by my previous tour leader who lives in Mumbai and is in the middle of creating urban adventure walking tours here.

I was staying in Colaba, right near the Gateway of India so that was my first stop. Then I walked past the Victoria Station – Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus – it was pretty impressive. I walked up MG Rd to the Flora Fountain and walked along the promenade at Chowpatty Beach (it was so hot but the beach was quiet and dirty – apparently it’s much busier at night). I went to the Gandhi Museum and that night went to see a Bollywood film at the Regal theatre. All of this lacks the lustre of my previous posts as quite sadly I can’t find the photos I took towards the end of my trip!  I’m missing Mumbai’s photos altogether so I’m sorry that this post is devoid of any visual appeal… I am still trying to figure out where I put them when I came home.

Naturally, I spent a bit of time shopping and eating, two things I have become an expert at doing in India.

I also spent more down time at my hotel than I have at any other time in India. Next stop for me is a flight back to Bangalore where I plan to visit my friend and Janaagraha colleague Rashmi one last time (and pick up the stuff she so kindly has been holding for me like my laptop). I also need to visit a tailor where I left my Goa-bought sari quilts to have cotton backings sewn on, and then get a taxi to my week of blissful R&R – a week at Shreya Yoga Retreat outside Bangalore.

To be honest my heart had left Mumbai before I actually did – it was sitting in anticipation on a yoga mat in an outdoor shala at Shreya’s waiting for me to finally sit still for a minute. I left Mumbai feeling a little guilty I hadn’t given it a real chance to charm me.

Maybe next time.

There is one place left for me on my north India trip and that is Amritsar. We took a local train there, another 6 hour stint squished onto facing bench seats with Indians getting on and off, going about their business. I sat in a section with an Indian family that broke out a big picnic feast to while away the time.

Amritsar is the holiest city for the Sikh people and the centre of Sikhism – the big highlight is the Golden Temple which I couldn’t wait to see. A favourite film of mine is Bride and Prejudice, in which the family live in Amritsar – I have wanted to go since I watched that movie, I admit mostly because I like the way ‘Amritsar’ sounds in Aishwarya Rai’s accent :-)

Once we arrive we check into our basic hotel and then head out to tour the city by cycle rickshaw, an adventure in itself. I feel like a real dead weight when I sit on human powered transport. I would be happy to have some back seat pedals to contribute a little, share the load. I try to remember that it would be less helpful if I forfeited to an alternative transport mode which was less sustainable and denying someone the right to employment. That was a diversion on the subject, the tour itself was lovely, and even while pumping his legs to cart my friend and I around our rickshaw cycler was friendly, chatting and pointed out interesting things along the way.

We went to check out the Golden Temple even though we had plans to come again the next day as apparently all the action happens at night. Firstly we head to the dining hall where, as with the Sikh temple in Delhi, everyone is entitled to a meal. We sit down in one of the long lines and the volunteers walk up and down putting food on our plate and sloshing water in our cups. The hall vibrates with voices and the clatter of plates, it is overwhelming but exhilarating at the same time.

The Golden Temple (Shri Harimandir Sahib) is quite a breathtaking sight, it sits in the middle of a sacred lake surrounded by a marble walkway.

When we go, it is packed. And I mean busier than Sydney Harbour on NYE packed! The night-time air is filled with chanting from the Sikh holy book. People mill about praying or talking, and the crowd spirals in a throng toward the temple itself, the purpose to touch it before spiraling back out again. It was intimidating, especially as the crowd is mostly male and I had read and heard that groping in the crowd was not uncommon. But it is just one of those things that you feel the pull to do – you come all this way, and there it is within reach. So with a small group of my fellow tour buddies we join the crowd and were soon squished into the middle of it. I didn’t know where I started and another begins, we were so molded together. In a way it prevents too much worry about groping – who can even move? I do feel a few suspect nudges here and there, but when I turn around an old lady is staring at me – hmm, I think this crowd is more impatient than frisky, phew. Closer to the Golden Temple the crowd calms down as there is more crowd control and we walk single filed around, I touched the gold and soaked in the reverent atmosphere. It was special, but obviously did not hold the meaning or appeal to me as it did for those here for spiritual reasons. I felt kinda bad I was taking up room as a tourist… but a few more elbows and nudges from the crowd snapped me out of it.

We returned again the next day and it was such a different experience – I definitely recommend going at both daytime and night if you can.

A meal is also provided to temple goers during the day. It is an epic task to feed the throngs the people that pass constantly into the dining hall. The clanging of the metal plates being washed and thrown in large metal cages was immense.

We decided to go exploring and discovered where the chapatis were being made.

We somehow wandered down into some underground spaces, still not entirely sure where we were or what they were used for but the architecture was beautiful.

The temple goers can bath in the lake surrounding the Golden Temple if they wish. Of course there is an area for men (who strip down to their undies) and an area for women (who go fully dressed) and children. Check out the line to the ladies changing rooms (some things are the same everywhere huh?)

The colourful clothing of the temple goers was so magnificent against the blinding white of the marble. The scene really is a feast for the eyes (and my camera).

After we left the Golden Temple we traveled by cycle rickshaw again to visit Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the massacre in 1919 that was a pivotal incident in the lead up to India’s independence. The story is very sad, in summary 15-20,000 people gathered at these public gardens in 1919 following clashes between the British regiment and the local population. Fearing that the gathering was gearing towards an overthrow of the British government, an acting Brigadier-General ordered his regiment to fire into the crowd (including women and children) for ten minutes (ten minutes!) Official records claim nearly 1700 bullets were fired with 379 dead and 1100 injured. It is estimated the number of dead was really around 1000.

The gardens are now a memorial for those who lost their lives. A brick wall scattered with bullet holes is still standing.

In the evening we went to see the India-Pakistan border daily flag ceremony – holy moly. What fan fare. What theatrics. What a pumping dance party vibe on the Indian side (blaring Bollywood music, impromptu dance parties complete with shoulder shrugging and finger pointing) and solemn steady chanting from the Pakistan side.

This daily ritual has been performed by the respective security forces since 1959 – and it is really very cool and lots of fun. Plus there is a lot of high kicks, pivotal hop things and yelling. This ceremony takes place every evening before sunset on the Grand Trunk Road, one of the only roads linking the two countries.

Somehow I can’t find the photos or video that I took of this momentous event… I will have to keep hunting and add them when they resurface.

And just in case there was not enough photos in this post already – here is a final one – because sometimes you see things that are just worthy of a photo, I took this as we were cycling around.

Now that summer has well and truly hit North India and the temperature languishes in the mid-forties everyday, I’m going to join the migration to the mountains where it’s cooler. The travel distances are long and the trains and buses notoriously unpredictable the further north you go so I decided to travel with a group on the Intrepid tour Mountains and Mystics.

From Delhi we traveled by train through the state of Punjab to the state of Himachal Pradesh where my first stop was Shimla. This town is a former British Hill Station where the entire British Government would relocate during the heat of the summer monsoon. As a result there are plenty of quaint British buildings, including the stately Viceregal Lodge where the Government operated from. The town is breathtaking; it staggers down the sides of the mountain so that looking across it’s a brilliant cluster of buildings that seem to tumble down the slope. Only by looking closely you can see the alleys and roads that shape the cluster into a town.

The Lodge is across the mountain from where I’m staying but easily accessible by taking a leisurely 40 min stroll along the hilly pedestrian road ‘the Mall’ which forms the backbone of the town and is lined with shops, bakeries and cafes.

These are broken up by the Town Hall in the middle on the hill side and interspersed on the other side with narrow alleys that feed into the bazaars criss-crossing down the hillside below, offering quick peeks at the brilliant mountain vista.

Another Shimla must-see is the Jakhu Temple, a ‘monkey temple’ dedicated to the Hindu monkey God Hanuman, situated right at the top of the mountain, accessible by a steep 30 minute hike. It was tough going after three months of inactivity, but worth it to feel my muscles pumping again and to breathe the crisp mountain air in the forest.

Like all monkey temples in Asia, you’ve got to be on your guard from the hundreds of monkeys that hang around the temple being fed offerings each day; they get a little greedy and will take anything from you including food, sunglasses and cameras. They’re smart too, they’ll return your item in exchange for food! Cheeky! There aren’t that many around when I went though, probably because we walked up at 5.30am at the tail end of a thunderstorm, assured by our leader ‘oh it’ll stop in a minute’. True, it had stopped by the time we reached the top :-)

The night before we left we enjoyed dinner on the rooftop of our hotel, complete with a bonfire and bottles of local made rhodium flower wine and yummy yummy Indian food. The best thing about a town built on the side of a mountain is that you have a fabulous view wherever you are. The sun was setting and the misty clouds rolled across the hills against the changing colours of the sky, breathtaking! The diversity of the Indian landscape is amazing, it’s hard to believe everything I’ve seen belongs to the same country.

Following Shimla we traveled a winding six hour drive around the hills to Mandi. We stretched our legs walking around this rural town checking out a number of colourful temples.

Walking around absorbing the local sounds and smells is the best way to experience a place. You are bound the bump into some interesting locals along the way too.

In the evening we stayed the night in the Palace of the former Raja of Mandi – in fact the 80-something Maharaja himself joined us for dinner and breakfast! Did you know that Maharaja means Great (or High) King? Neither did I, I looked it up. Prior to India’s independence in 1947, one third of India was under the rule of state rulers – Maharajas and Princes (the other two thirds were ruled by the British). After independence the titles did not hold the status that they used to; our dinner host told us that many of the former rulers had to sell their palaces and estates because they were left with no money to look after them. Some – like his family – turned them into hotels to be able to afford their maintenance. It was very interesting – he was also quite the joker and showed us little tricks on paper that he was chuffed to baffle us with. It was a lovely experience, he was a gentlemen from an era that will soon be only in the history books.

I’ve been a-trekking! What a truly beautiful experience, I feel so recharged after some physical exercise and some fresh air.

First we left Dharamsala via local bus and took yet another twisty turny ride around the mountains – all the more fun hanging onto the rails of a bus seat as we went. It was a nice cosy ride though, iPod on, watching the mountain views out the window. We stopped for a brief break somewhere, found a local toilet, bought some local food. Little things that seem so normal at the time, but looking back seem like such a foreign experience (and one I’m glad to have had).

We arrived in Dalhousie in the afternoon and took a wander through the town spotting some more pretty impressive rock art.

And chillaxing dogs. I like a town with chillaxed dogs.

And monkeys!

As we started out in Dalhousie we passed this settlement. It is these moments that make travel so rewarding. When stark reminders pop up around you and you remember how different parts of the world are. Ironically it is when I am out in nature overseas that I am struck with how similar places in the world are – I’ve been on bushwalks all over the world and when you disappear down a path away from civilisation it’s the tree and hills and mountains and sky that make you realise you could just as easily be in Australia, in Canada, in Thailand, in Samoa. Sure there are subtle differences but essentially we have all been gifted with trees and sky – it is our own man-made interferences that divide us. Here as we started the trek, just before we disappeared into nature, the sight of these shanty homes struck me.

From Dalhousie we trekked all the way to the Chamba Valley, which took about 6 hours and was up and down the whole way. I love a good trek and don’t mind the ups and downs. At least we were able to send our bags on ahead in a vehicle so we were traveling light and earning fabulous views with every up. We went up and over the Lakhar Mandi Pass, traveling through the forest, then down down down a steep and narrow path.

Really, I had my camera out the whole time I think, it was just so beautiful. See what I mean:

We stayed the night in Khajjiar, however we were all so tired we ate and retired to our rooms pretty quickly. I had a TV in my room (so rare) and watched Bollywood music videos till my eyes closed.

The next day we were up early and started day two of the trek to Chamba. It was just as beautiful but we spent most of the time heading downwards this time.

Indian toll booth? Not sure what the payment is to get past…

Oh the peace and serenity of a blue sky, clean air and wide open spaces…

Finally our trek was finished as we arrived in Chamba just as it was starting to downpour – we grabbed a bite to eat, stocked up on some supplies and caught the local bus to the base of the hills near our accommodation. The bus ride was comical, we were wet and carrying our large packs, wedged in wherever we could find room. It was raining, the roads were steep and winding, the driver hoon-ed this way and that, barely stopping to let people off. With no clue when we were supposed to get off we watched our tour leader like a hawk ready for the signal to jump up and launch ourselves out the bus before we accidentally got left on it and were trundled away to God knows where.

The home stay we were spending the next three nights at, a place called Himalayan Orchard Huts, can only be reached by a 30min steep steep steep walk up a narrow and rocky path – I suppose it makes the place even more special by having to put in a solid effort to get there. Our arrival was all the more so by doing it in the rain – yep, soaking, bedraggled, tired and this time carrying our bags – let’s just say the trek was made pretty much in silence, heads down, lets-just-get-there-already determination. That’s generally my strategy when I’m well over something before it is actually over. Grim determination, let’s do this as fast as possible.

It was worth it, the views alone but also being a home stay the family also live on site so we were welcomed warmly with a special ritual (well, OK, I got a dot on my forehead but I was so tired otherwise I would certainly have paid more attention and would have more specific information to give you). The family are friendly and happy to chat about their life in the Chamba Valley and our lives back home from the various places we come from.  There is a fresh water swimming pool (it’s actually less like a pool and more like a hot tub next to the verandah – but cold… can I call it a cold tub?) which is filled by the fresh spring water on the mountain. The family have an organic farm that supplies the delicious food we eat everyday around a large dining table. The son joins us at each meal time and explains the ingredients and local methods of cooking. The father runs morning meditation classes and our tour leader holds a few impromptu yoga classes outdoors each morning. It was certainly a time for R&R which is always made all the more divine when you’ve earned it after trekking for two days.

The area is itself beautiful and we had the chance to do some treks around the hillside. The paths and cultivated land are jutted into the slope and form beautiful patterns when you look out across the valley.

On one walk we were invited into a local classroom where the teacher asked the students to stand and say ‘my name is…” in Hindi. This was actually quite frightening to some of the children as Hindi is not their mother tongue, they speak a local dialect instead. Some of the kids whispered so quietly we couldn’t hear, others were more confident, giggling as they went. One little boy was so petrified he stood there staring blankly at his teacher like a deer in headlights until his teacher excused him to sit down, it was really so cute (though I felt so bad for them – who the hell are we to waltz in and disrupt the lesson in such a way!) Finally the whole class sang us their local anthem and we waved goodbye. I would have loved to take some photos but the kids were really so shy I didn’t dare. They were very different to the kids in the cities or towns that regularly see foreigners and have no problem running up to us yelling ‘hello hello’ before running away giggling.

I took this photo when we walked past a local house and they offered us chai. This is their kitchen – wow huh?

The rest of the three day stay I relaxed on the verandah reading or just enjoying the views. The accommodation was basic – I stayed in a little room on the ground floor which actually felt a bit cave-like due to the plastered walls and low light. I had a bad experience with large hairy spiders here. Two mornings I woke up to find one in my room to my horror. I just really truly can not handle spiders. Not big hairy ones. I can’t rest if I know there is one near me – so both times I had to call out like a wuss and get one of the guys to remove it for me. Ughhh! To make matters worse, during the second day’s meditation session there was a mother of a spider on the top corner of the room. We were in a small cosy room as it was, so heaven help me I could not close my eyes or lapse into the meditation. I kept one eye open for 60 minutes and then had to run underneath it when leaving the room. No, I did not go back to meditation the next day.

Aside from that, I would recommend the Orchard Huts to anyone traveling in the area, it is a fabulous way to experience local life in a relaxing, beautiful environment.

And a bonus is that when it’s time to leave the 30min trek back to the main road to catch the bus is mostly down hill, yay! This time we were lucky to do it in dry weather; so off we went on the last leg of our journey – to Amritsar!