Travel Week! Part 2- Dharamsala

A view of Dharamshala at night

Our next destination was Dharamsala, or rather a village above the city called Bagsu. Dharamsala or more precisely McLeod Ganj is the home of the exiled Dali Lama and Tibetan government. It is situated right at the start of the Himalayas, up at about 1700 meters or ~5,500 feet above sea level.  It was incredibly beautiful, with fresh air and the first time I’ve been at all chilly since I arrived in India.

Tibetan writing on the path that circled the main temple

Our first day we walked down the hill to the Dali Lama’s residence. His Holiness was giving a teaching, which we were able to view on a TV they had placed in the courtyard below the space he was actually teaching in that you needed tickets to get into. The teaching itself was in Tibetan so we didn’t understand anything, but were given read thread bracelets by a monk and saw the Dali Lama coming down the staircase and being driven to his residence for lunch which was pretty cool!

A meditation area with Prayer Flags- stunning

We visited the Tibetan museum which did a good job of documenting the Tibetan flight out of China. I had never really realized that Tibet is actually its own state, separate from China for the last thousand plus years before being somewhat taken over by China. We completed a circular trail around the complex that had a bunch of Tibetan prayer wheels, and an incredible field for meditation among tall polls filled with Tibetan prayer flags. There was something incredibly serine about a grassy hill, including several grazing clouds, filled with prayer flags. We spent 45 minutes at the Tibetan Library, which had some incredible examples of Tibetan crafts and artwork.

The main street

Dharamsala in general is an incredibly interesting tourist town, with the strangest collection of tourists I think I’ve ever encountered. The best way to describe it was a collection of hippies of all ages. There were a good number of younger/college age looking students, along with a few families and middle age to pretty old hippies. I caught a couple ‘dude’s, lots of dread locks. This crowd was mingling with Indian’s, lots from Kashmir, native Tibetans and monks from all over the world.

The library

There was something incredibly neat about sitting down for dinner next to a table of monks clothed in the traditional red robes and shaved heads. As Megan pointed out, we went from the holy place of the religion with people with possibly the most hair, to one with the least.

Terrace Farming!

We took several incredible ‘treks’ (hikes) around the area. As we found out, India does not have particularly well marked trails, generally speaking. Our first day we did took a few hours and went to the village of Nadu, which had an incredible panoramic view of the snow-capped moutons. I am still incredibly impressed by the terrace farming they were doing.

Beautiful views of the mountains

Thursday we got up in the pitch dark at 5am to hike to Triund, a spot with an up close view of the snow capped Himalayas. It was supposed to be an 8 hour hike total, but about 2 hours in we continued on a very large, almost road-like, path that switch backed around a hill instead of one that continued straight around the side of the hill… after about an hour what had been a very defined trail had kind of petered out into an animal track. After losing the trail, finding it again, losing it again, crawling up a hill of mulch and me basically falling about my height down the hillside/cliff, twice (I was totally fine, no worries,) we decided that it must have been the other trail.

The view from the top of our hike

It turns out just around the bend the other trail became a well trodden paths with trail markings- we weren’t the only people we’d met who taken the wrong turn though. In spite of our two hour detour we managed to make it up to the top before the clouds rolled in, and it was a pretty spectacular view.

We climed over 1000 meters- ~3,000 feet

We had climbed over 1,000 meters (~3,000 feet) which I thought was pretty impressive. Unfortunately our wrong turns for the day weren’t over- we ended up kind of accidently descending down an incredibly steep path basically right down the mountain, but found our way back to Bagsu village without too much trouble, although my knees were not very happy.

Accidentally ordering 3 noodle dishes- they were still all really good!

I found out in Dharamsala that Tibetan food is incredibly delicious. In some ways it is similar to both Chinese and south-east Asian food. We had lots of amazing noodle dishes, including noodle soups that were rather difficult to split between the three of us. I liked the momos, which are basically dumplings that can be either steamed or fried filled with potatoes, vegetables or meats. The bread was also delicious, we had some sort of rice flour roles that I think were steamed a bit sticky, and really great fluffy white bread that was fried. We found that honey-lemon-ginger tea is incredible for re-energizing and colds.

Farming in the foothills

I also spent a good deal of time doing some shopping from the wide variety of Tibetan and India handicrafts- I just have to convert everything back to $ and remember how cool it will all look back in the US J But even though was to some existent and tourist town (admittedly a bit of a bizarre one) I really liked Dharamsala, and could definitely see myself going back one day. I also am now really interested in visiting Tibet which would also be really cool.

Travel Week! Part 1- Amritsar

The golden temple at night

We just got back from an awesome trip up north for our Diwali break. I was traveling with two other kids from our program- Megan and Harry, and we got a chance to visit three awesome places: Amritsar, Punjab – Darahmshala, Himachel Pradesch; and Delhi.

We flew into Amritsar, which is the site of the Golden Temple.

The golden temple in the morning

The Golden Temple is the spiritual center of the Sikh faith, which I had never known much about until visiting. All Sikhs try to visit the site once in their life, they listen to readings from their holy book, the Adi Granth, and bath in the Amrit Sarovar or “poll of immortality-giving nectar”. It was also the site of Operation Blue Star where the Indian Army, on the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, attacked Sikh fundamentalists who were occupying the temple. This operation seriously damaged the temple and caused outrage within the Sikh community, leading to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards two years later, which in turn led  to a massacre in which thousands of Sikh’s were killed. The Sikh community repaired the temple themselves, and it is now been restored to its incredibly beautiful state.

Sikhs in the temple complex

I learned some of the basics of Sikhism. There are the five k’s of Sikhism that all practicing sikh’s are supposed to adopt: kangha (a comb to be on the person at all times) kkirpan (a sword or in modern times a short dagger worn at the waste as a symbol of dignity or valor), kara (a steel/iron bracelet symbolizing fearlessness and strenth), kachcha (short trousers worn as undergarments, a symbol of modesty) and kesh (uncut hair). Sikh’s do not cut their hair, so the men wear beautiful turbines and have a neat way to fold up their beards. I found the Sikh community very welcoming and open to explaining to foreigners different aspects of their faith and traditions.

Plates stacked up outside the dining hall for free communal meals

The temple itself is incredible. It was built in the late 1500’s, is incredibly ornately decorated temple and covered in gold in the middle of a holy artificial rectangular lake called the Amrit Sarovar. The site is open to all, everyone takes off their shoes and must cover their heads. Given that tens of thousands of people walk though the temple complex each day it was incredibly clean. Hundreds of volunteer workers were continually cleaning and keeping things in order. We first got a chance to see the temple at night, beautifully lit up. There is a continual reading from the Adi Granth at the center of the temple that is projected over loud speaker to the entire complex. We got up early the next morning to see the temple at sunrise; unfortunately it was rather cloddy but when the sun finally peaked out it was incredible how it shown off the gold.

Our meal at the Golden Temple

I think my favorite part of the temple was actually visiting the Guru-ka-langar, which is a giant communal canteen that provides free food to anyone who would like a meal (although donations are appreciated); they serve over 10,000 meals a day. The meal started with tea- served in large mettle bowls poured from giant spickets. At 9, after a grace, they opened the doors for breakfast. You were given a mettle tray/plate, spoon and glass from giant piles outside the doors. Everyone sat on narrow, long carpets on the ground. They came along with big buckets of food- black bean dhal, curry and some sweet rice pudding, pouring a big ladle full onto each plate along with being handed chapatti (flat bread). It was all actually quite good! As people finished they came along with big mops in between the carpets mopping up all the spilled food for the next batch to enter the hall. You delivered your used plate and utensils for collection and a giant plate washing operation. It was definitely one of the coolest meals I have eaten in India so far.

The crowd on the India side of the boarder- people were so excited

That evening we got went to a little place called Wagha on the India-Pakistani border, which is the site of a daily ceremony for the lowering of flags and closing of the gate between India and Pakistan. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve got to see in India yet- it is a bizarre and greatly entertaining ceremony. Big grandstands have been built on both sides to accommodate the hundreds to thousands of people who attend each night.

We got to sit in the special foreigners section

Our US passports got us in the VIP section, or rather what turned out to be a section for foreigners that allowed us a pretty good view of what was going on. Before the ceremony began people were running around with Indian flags and dancing to somewhat nationalistic music (including the song from Slum-Dog Millionaire) blasting from speakers on both sides.

Crazy costumes

All of the guards were dressed up in uniforms and crazy hats, and none of them must have been shorter then 6’2’’. The ceremony started with what was basically a yelling context between two guards on the India and Pakistani side. In turn different guards would quickly march towards the gate, kicking their feed above their heads at the other side. Flags were simultaneously lowered between the two gates, which were then banged shut and ceremoniously locked. I have no idea how they managed to choreograph the whole thing, because most things happened simultaneously on both sides of the boarder.

The guards kicking their legs up at the other side while marching

It was incredible how into the ceremony people were. There were probably a couple of thousand people there on the India side, everyone whooping and clapping. There was a diverse range of foreigners there, and I think most of us were just overwhelmed with how crazy the entire ceremony was, but I do think for the nationals on both sides it was actually quite a serious ceremony. As much fun as it was to see it was also a manifestation of the animosity between India and Pakistan.

The two flags being lowered right at the boarder crossing

From Amristar we headed out to Himachal Pradesh, the Himalayas and Dharamsala.

A long week

A rural cookstove

Coming back from Mumbai we had our last full week of classes before travel week and the start of working at our internship full time. This was defiantly my most stressful week in India yet, with a lot of little things going wrong converging, but sometimes that’s how it goes. There were a couple of highlights. Unfortunately one of the things that went wrong was that our internet both stopped working and then started working only very slowly this week- while it should be fixed soon I haven’t been able to upload pictures, but will do so once I get back from travels next week.

An improved cook stove- the grate at the bottom lets in air and the plate on top directs the flame onto the pot

I have now spent 4 afternoons at my internship at the Appropriate Rural Technologies Institute. The last two of visits I got to test the efficiency of traditional vs. an improved cook stoves. I would not make a very good rural house wife- I was coughing and my eyes were watering pretty bad after just an hour in a room with the stoves. However we did find out that ARTI’s improved cook stoves used significantly less wood and was about 8% more efficient then the traditional stoves, and had a higher power rating.

I successfully finished 5 different papers this week, while most were pretty short it was still a lot of work. Topics I covered included how the media influences public health in India, the role of foreign direct investment in the Indian telecom sector and how this influenced development, observations on how sustainable tribal life in India is, and how infrastructure in Pune influences public health.

I am now really looking foreword to my trip up to the north of India- I will be visiting Amritsar where the Golden Temple is, and Daramsalah where the Dale Lama lives quite high in the Himalayas. I’ll be offline for the next 9 days or so- but will upload pictures once I’m back.

Mumbai

A view from the raised highway of the streets of Mumbai

Last weekend we got a chance to go to Mumbai. I ended up liking the city way more then I was expecting to. We were staying in Colaba, the touristy rich area in the very south of the city. Our first day we got a chance to see the high court of Mumbai, visited a house that Ghandi had lived in for a couple of years- I really need to learn more about Ghandi.

Our group in the recyling area of Dharavi

The next day saw a recycling area and potter in Dharavi, one of the largest slum areas in the world (it really reminded me of Cairo except there were a bunch of high rise buildings).

 

 

We also had a lecture given by a Swiss man who was working in Dharavi on how it is actually an incredibly well functioning section of the city; it uses space efficiently, has a highly developed culture and there is a lot going on there.

Construction in Dharavi

The large statue at Ellephanta Island

I was actually pretty impressed overall with the area, although want to go back. Our final day of  our program we visited a center for the visually challenged, and did an exercise where we were blindfolded and had to perform a series of tasks which was very informative. The school where this institute is hosted has a lot of services to help visually challenged students become part of mainstream education which was awesome.

That ended the program portion of our visit- and I got to spend the weekend doing some more touring. We visited Elephanta island off the coast with some neat caves- although after Ellora and Agenta I wasn’t overly impressed- my standards are really too high.

Pollution on the beach

We got to wonder around the city some, and saw some of the amazing architecture.  There is a clear British legacy left in the south of the city- the streets are wide and traffic lights work! Unfortunately the water and beach we visited were covered in trash- not a place you would want to go swimming. There is a whole corner full of book sellers we spent some time looking at, lots of fun. There is also an art district we spent a few minutes in, and the Prince of Whales museum is really great.

The 27 story home or something like that

Overall I was impressed with the city- although I really want to explore some parts further north and lest touristy. I guess that’s just an excuse to go back! My internet is only semi-functioning this week- so I’ll add more pictures soon, or check on facebook.

Had some good meals- but everything is better with Coke I guess

A Thali of Gudrati food- lots of dishes traditionally served on a banana lief

Getting back from Mahabreshwar was just the beginning of a pretty great week. Last Tuesday I got to go to my internship for the first time. I will be working with the Appropriate Rural Technologies Institute (ARTI), which has developed over 30 different technologies to help improve rural livelihoods. These mostly have to do with improved cooking stoves, treated bamboo for cool and useful constructions, and anaerobic digesters.

Marigolds being sold for a festival on the street near my house

The first projects they told me about were testing the efficiency of improved designs of cook stoves, creating and distributing a survey for housewives to see how they are using the anaerobic digesters to create methane for kitchen gas and visiting their training facility about 150km away to talk to people about some of the projects implemented there. I really quite excited to start working there.

Ride in the rickshaw up to Sinhigad Fort

Thursday was the end of a festival ofNavarathri celebrating Durga, a goddess, and her children. Apparently this is more widely celebrated in north India but there were still several parades that passed by our house. We had the day off of school so decided to hike up to Sinhigad fort, about 30km from Pune. We took a 6 seater rickshaw ride for about an hour to get into the fort- our driver would pick people up and take them a few miles along the way. It was rather fun having 11 people in a rickshaw meant for 6 for brief periods of time.

A beautiful view from the top of Sinhigad Fort

The hike up to the fort is actually incredibly steep, it took us about an hour and a half although we stopped several times along the way, but it was really beautiful. It seems I’ve lost a any cardio fitness I had since getting here.  It turns out the top isn’t really so much of a fort, as much as a very large hilltop that has an old fort wall around it. The scenery is incredibly beautiful- I’m still amazed at how green the areas shrouding Pune are, although apparently in another month or two everything will start to turn brown.

A power line over the path… Emily was a bit worried

 

This weekend I spent Saturday attempting to get some of the piles of work I’ve been getting started on. Although classes here are not as difficult as the US we have had a tone of small writing assignments. I think I have written more 500-1000 word essays this semester then the rest of my college career. I am also attempting to organize letters of reference from professors, peers and mentors in the states which has been quite a feat considering the time difference- hopefully it will be worth it if I get a cool summer job!

Flowers at Kass

Sunday we drove to a place close to Mahabreshwar national park to Kass- a plateau of flowers. This is in the western Gatts mountain range, made up of igneous rock that has formed lots of large moutons with flat tops as the softer rock wore away. It apparently has a very unique ecology, with very little top soil plants must grow, bloom and reproduced in a matter of a few weeks following the monsoons. There are many species that are only found these plateaus.

Lillypads on a seasonal lake

One of the girls on the program went a few weeks ago and said that it was just covered in flowers, but it seems that we had missed the main blooming as it mostly looked like grass, with some small patches of yellow and white flowers. We got to eat lunch by a large reservoir created by a dam. Although it was pretty and fun to hang out with people in an open field I wouldn’t say this was one of my favorite field trips.

This week started out with our usual Monday, Wednesday, Friday refreshing round of 5:45am yoga that I’m beginning to enjoy, although the lack of sleep does catch up with me. I also had my second visit to my internship at ARTI and got to see how they test cook stoves for efficiency.

Traffic and temple in Pune

We attempted to go though the procedure to test a traditional stove’s efficiency- basically measuring the enter content in wood, burning it and measuring how much energy was transferred to water. It took over an hour to boil a large pot of water. The wood we used was rather damp because of rain earlier this week, so we will have to repeat the experiment next week, but it was good to learn the procedure. I realized that I would make a terrible rural house wife as sitting in a room with a burning wood stove for the hour it took to run the experiment had my eyes watering and nose running.

Tomorrow we head off for 5 days in Mumbai- we get to visit some neat NGOs and a large slum area as well as hear what sounds like will be really interesting speakers with our program, before getting to spend a touristy weekend on our own. There I’m meeting up with a good friend of mine from Macalester who is studying abroad in Hydrobad so that will be a fun blast from home!

Mahabreshwar National Park

View of the valley- spectacular

Last weekend we got to spend a night neat trip to the area of Mahabreshwar National Park as a part our environmental perspectives course. The park is a bit north of Mumbai, and incredibly beautiful. The area is up in some spectacular moutons- the Western Gatts, which offered some incredible views.

The fog would roll in and completely cover the view- only to revel it along with the thousand feet drop

The first day we got to see Authors’ Seat, basically an overhang of several thousand feet tall cliffs. Really thick fog was rolling in an out.

For a while all you would see is pure white in basically every direction you looked out, and then it would clear to reveal some spectacular views.

Meditation in front of the temple, with a beautiful view

From there we went on to a temple which overlooks a major dam. It was one of the largest dams in the world for quite some time, and holds a huge reservoir. Our professor lead us in a rather cool meditation exercise, it was really amazing. The wind would come up and it would kind of feel like you were flying.

That afternoon we had free time, so ended up having several games of capture the flag on top of a nearby hill. I haven’t played for years but it was a lot of fun.

One of the women at the house showing us how to pound rice to shed the husks

We stayed at a really cool old house that was part of an organic farm. The man who ran it, Peter, is semi-blind, but does not let that stop him at all. The farm used their kitchen waste to run a anaerobic digester to make methane gas for the house. They grew all kinds of plants, including a giant herb garden that was spectacular. We had a delicious dinner, and several fun games of Mafia and “nan or chipati” (kind of like would you rather building up to pretty philosophical questions.)

On a hike, it felt like exploring though the jungle

It really felt like we were hiking though the jungle at first. We came upon some beautiful rivers and waterfalls, and ended up on the top of a pretty high mountain. The next day, after an incredible breakfast with homemade strawberry jam, we went on a trek for a few hours.

We stopped at a village market with some interesting “chiki” snacks- different nuts and seeds in a peanut brittle like substance.

The area is known for strawberries, unfortunately they weren't in season but the jam was great

I tried some mango honey- bees made it from Mango flowers, and it was really delicious. We had lunch at a place with really great local jam and some of the best ice cream I’ve had in India.

 

Once again I was amazed by how Beautiful India can be. Driving back into the city the contrast between the rural wildernesses that vast amounts of the country contain and urban sprawl became even starker.

An incredible waterfall seen from our trek

Waking up to an incredible view of a bright green valley (although it would look quite different in the dry season) to carry water back to the house from a well or spend hours pounding rice, it’s no wonder people seek a better life in the cities. Still, the haze of pollution makes me wonder which life is really more fulfilling and why we can’t create rural lifestyles that can sustain a basic quality of life.

Tribal Village

Road building along with the beautiful scenery

Last weekend we got the opportunity to go to Jahawar, Thane, a rural area near several tribal villages. Tribes are basically native peoples to specific regions in India, often with their own dialects. It was basically a rural village about seven hours from Pune. We got to go in 6 different for SUVs, and bouncing around on a bench in the back of a car on bumpy roads really took me back to Kazakhstan.

We actually didn’t end up staying in the village but in a nearby town, with 20 girls in one room with lot of bunk beds.

Medicines stock available at the Primary Health Care Center

The first morning we got to visit a Primary Health Care Center. These are part of India’s rural health initiative that is working to provide universal health care. Health care is a service provided to all by the government, and to get most basic medicines you only have to pay a five rupee (~10 cent) registration fee. Still, about 80% of people choose to use private medical practices instead of government facilities.

Few doctors like to go out to rural areas, they are considered punishment posts. The center we visited, as with most centers, was understaffed and the staff that was there couldn’t take care of all the duties they were supposed to do in addition to filling out the massive amounts of paperwork required by the government.

Seeds in the seed bank!

I was impressed because the center was stocked with all most all of the medicines they were supposed to have even though it was getting close to the end of the month when supplies are lowest. The doctors said that their biggest problem was people lacking even basic education about health. People didn’t always trust modern medicine, and lacked knowledge about basic hygiene and food/water health.

A rice plant- almost ready for harvest

Our group walking though rice fields to the BIAF experimental field

That afternoon we got to visit a really neat program called BAIF which worked with farmers in the area to do organic farming. They started a seed bank and helped developed effective organic pesticides and virmi-compost (using worms). They are working to save different varieties of rice, wheat and other grains, and cross bread plants to get the most productive ones. They were also helping farmers start Mango, Cashew and Papaya fields, and helped them grow flowers to sell in Mumbai while these trees are established.

Now most of the farmers in the area are moving away from genetically modified seeds that can’t be grown for more than one year in favor of seed banks. Chemical pesticides are also being replaced with organic alternatives. Soils quality has been improving due to these measures, and yields have not fallen, and in some cases actually increased.

Tools used to make Paper Mache

We got to talk to two different farmers, and they said that this project really had improved their lives. They were satisfied with the way they were living. We did as them if they would want their children to farm and they said no, that their children were going to the cities to be educated and do something ells with their lives; and interesting development predicament. I thought this was a really cool development initiative, and wonder if it will spread.

Hanuman Gods made out of paper mache

Our last morning we got to visit a village and meet two tribal artists. The first made traditional paper mache masks and figures that are used during one specific festival- although now sold year round to tourists and in Mumbai.

Really cute kids who enjoyed posing for pictures

The women made a paper mache turtle in front of us, using paper and the glue of a specific local tree. We also got to see some traditional Warli paintings which were quite cool.

I wish that we had gotten to spend more time in the actual villages around the area, but it was still a good trip.

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