Everyday is Saturday


(for larger images click on thumbnails)

location: Cochin, Kerala, India
date: 01/25/07

Laura's thoughts: Since high school, I have been enamoured with everything from Indian clothes, food, and yoga to their rich spiritual traditions and music. And if that was not enough to draw me here, the fact that my mother's maiden name, TATA, is seen on almost every bus & truck makes me feel right at home. In fact, this same family (often called the Rockefellers of India) owns phone, food, and steel companies as well as Air India. Not to mention the fact that my grandfather looked like a Great Buddha. So, naturally, I have been digging deeply to find some hereditary connection to these moguls, but, as yet, none have surfaced. Therefore, until I reach some long lost uncle who will host us in his palace, $12 rooms will have to suffice. But, fortunately, that modest sum gets you a comfortable, spacious, clean and conveniently located hotel. And while that's a deal, nothing beats dinner for two for a dollar. With such prices and the delectable tastes of everything we've tried, we are quite relieved to find that our little morning swig of Milk of Magnesia has succeeded in warding off the infamous delhi-belly.

trip image here

photo caption: Papete Tata and progeny, Shashank teaches Laura bamboo flute

Anyway, it may be redundant to say how much the locals have improved our journey, but it is impossible to avoid reiterating this truth. When my flutist friend, Shashank, emailed us that his "driver" would meet us at the airport in Chennai, we had only a faint idea of the royal treatment which awaited us. As guests of South India's most famous young classical musician (see shashank.org), we were able to listen to world-class rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions every day. And if that was not enough, eight-course, home-cooked lunches and dinners as well as a fascinating glimpse of Hindu family life offered us a warm welcome. This base also helped us make additional travel plans while we braced ourselves for independent life in India.

I won't lie. It is not the easiest place to explore. Lines are long, signage is poor, streets are filthy, driving is insane, and Indians seem to have no sense of direction. But I am hardly the first to mention these difficulties in an Indian travel journal. Fortunately, I was prepared for this and all of these challenges are worth it for the exotic and colorful moments you encounter every hour. We are now on the west coast of Kerala, where yesterday we watched dolphins on a secluded beach, chinese fishing nets collected during a shocking pink sunset over the Arabian Sea, and decorated elephants and Kathakali dancers at a Shiva Temple Festival. Of course, those romantic images are tempered by others like dodging hundreds of piles human feces after taking a wrong turn on Marina Beach in Chennai, but, like Morocco, such contrasts make us appreciate the brilliant instances that much more.

trip image here

photo caption: Kathakali dancer, Arabian Sea sunset

Geoff: Wow! It is hard to even encapsulate what I have been thinking on my first week in India. For sure, I have been mesmerized by all the archetypes of India both the old and the new one. It is just hard to reconcile how they exist so close: 175 million cell phones walking along busy streets with no sidewalks, gleaming coffee chains serving stellar espresso and burning trash piles just outside the door. Like many of us, we hear so much about how quickly India is developing and how it is going to be their century to dominate the world economically. I am going to reserve judgment on that issue for some time, at least until we get a larger sampling, but right now it seems plausible if but by numbers alone.

Chennai is manageably insane for us. When people have asked what I do, they uniformly respond, "oh, we have no city planning here at all. Not since the British left anyway." While, I am sure that is not true, it appears that there are not enough resources, will-power, or buy-in to make a dent in the chaos. More and more people are getting cars and who can blame them-it is like a game of frogger for pedestrians. For North Americans it is like playing wrong-handed: they drive on the left (for one-eyes like me even worse: being blind on my right, makes for some Mohammed Ali footwork to get around in one piece).

trip image here

photo caption: Kochi harbour fishing boats, shrimping lagoons, Kerala, India

Currently we are in the State of Kerala, in the southwest tip of the subcontinent. I had read a fair bit about the cooperative agricultural efforts here before hand, so I had the impression that it would all be rural, but I guess I have to recalibrate my definition of rural to include people everywhere. When we escaped the city on the 5-cent bus, we were able to appreciate the amazing landscape. We are at about 11 degrees north of the equator here, so it is truly tropical and the palms, vegetation, and lagoons are incredible. We took an autoricksaw tour yesterday, along the seashore of Vypeen Island, and saw environments that were completely new to me. Kerala is known for its inland waterways and backwaters, many of which are used to raise shrimp. We also got another glimpse of the Tsunami impacts. Hundreds of homes that were right along the beach were destroyed and have been replaced by a large stone wall and government-built small sturdy homes. In the coming days we will get to experience the countryside more closely by boat and foot and I am thrilled.

location: On the train to Goa, India
date: 01/30/07

Geoff: It is so hot that even Laura is sweating, and this is just their springtime. Right now, we are sitting in a 3rd class sleeper car for this 14-hour ride up the west coast to Goa. The Indian train system is legendary, and because we were advised to take a daytime train for this section, to be able to see the gorgeous countryside, we have chosen a non-AC car since they are the only ones without scratched small tinted windows. Just the classic bars keep you from jumping out of the window.

We have just finished a week in Kerala and one could easily spend a month exploring this lush environment. Being mountain people, I think our favourite experience was the Munnar "hill station" in the interior of the state. It is at an elevation of 1800 metres and cooler and more varied than the coast. It is also much less urban and thus a lot easier on your psyche, excluding the actual driving. We hired a cabbie for the eight-hour, round-trip journey to maximize what we could see with little time. He owns an Ambassador cab that was donated by his French sponsor. These things are like the classic hansom cabs and feel very nostalgic; however, Augustine drove like a nutcase by North American standards and possibly even a lunatic by Indian standards. We are getting used to the aural methods of driving here- horns for every merge, pass, pedestrian encounter, etc. (it may be even easier for a blind rather than deaf person to drive here), but we were laughing by the end of our trip. The same mellow guy who was content to sleep in the car for the whole day while we hiked and toured turned into a maniac at the wheel, honking 40 distinct times in one minute, by my count.

trip image here

photo caption: Ambassador cab at the Rose Garden Home Stay, train to Goa

I have also come to realize that the centre line on the road is more of a suggestion or general reminder than a regulatory measure. It is kind of like the cairns on an alpine hike. I have to throw out all my pendant ic doctrine about traffic calming and safety to stay sane. Remarkably, this is possible because everyone else seems so relaxed, be it the autorickshaw squeezed in the centre between two trucks or the pedestrians being brushed back by aggressive bus drivers.

So far, most of our exploration has revolved around trying to feel what it is like to live here rather than visiting historical sites. As such, we stayed in the non-touristy area and took the ferries and buses to the outlying areas. The lustre of public transit wears a little after several 1-hour sessions standing in Tokyo, subway-type crowds on a bus. Combine that with the guerilla warfare techniques required to survive biking and walking on the roadways and I understand why those that can finally afford a vehicle are doing so in such large numbers. I have also been learning about the role that caste still plays in behavior and I am noticing how my initial formulaic assessments and observations fail to address the cultural context. For example, "if they just build sidewalk networks, then those with cars wouldn't drive the half km to the store and fight with parking, blah, blah, blah." I don't pretend to have enough knowledge about caste systems to even comment, BUT traditionally higher castes intentionally separate themselves physically and socially from lower castes, thus a car is a tool for achieving that purpose. This is more evidence that proves, to me, that the map is not the territory. Thinking that we can understand a place from films, news, books, studies, and visits (least to most effective?) well enough to provide effective council or aid is perilous at best.

We had several shocking conversations with a older, savvy friend here, who feels that the imposition of democracy is a perfect case in point. He claims that the nature of India's political system makes it impossible to implement the painful changes necessary to set India on a healthy track, and the country is only a couple of steps away from a complete meltdown. Contrary to Churchill's quote about democracy being a horribly inadequate system but the best ever invented, he told us that many believe that an autocrat is needed, for a period of years, to address India's fatal flaws: something along the lines of Singapore, whose authoritarian government created the foundation for their prosperous, and now democratic state. Scary and thought-provoking.

Laura's thoughts: I love so many aspects of travel, not the least of which is the experience of "getting there". Keen to miss no new sensations, I often place inordinate amounts of pressure on myself to remain present-minded while observing foreign places. So, often with no where to go and nothing to see on a plane or train, I am released, in these in-between moments, to reflect on the past and envision for the future. That said, in India I have found myself constantly vacillating between numbing and awakening my awareness. To say that this place puts one's senses in overdrive is an understatement of vast proportions. If I hold my breath to avoid inhaling the stench of burning garbage, I might miss the aroma of a gorgeous masala coming from a restaurant around the corner. When I shut my eyes in disbelief as we pass squalid, tin shanty homes on the train tracks, I lose the chance to see a rare 15-foot, orange & white blossoming tree that Geoff was lucky to catch. Blocking my ears to give them a rest from the incessant honking deprives me of the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful Hindu chant rising from the grounds of the temple festival nearby. Though I want to absorb it all, in order to preserve a modicum of sanity as we stay here longer, I suppose that I will need to find a balance that works for me.

When I have fully opened my eyes, nose and ears here, I have been richly rewarded. Most pleasant was our trip to the rainforest, east of Cochin. There, Tomy and Rajee warmly shared with us one of two rooms at their Rose Garden Home Stay. Our visit came complete with Keralite cooking classes, guided hikes through rolling tea plantations, and delectable meals made, almost exclusively, from ingredients grown on their fertile acre. Tomy is a master botanist who harvests everything from cardamom, pepper, and coffee beans, to potatoes, beans, and mangos in their backyard. The grounds are also covered with the most thriving array of flowers I have every seen. It seems that his green thumb charms everything it touches. His wife, Rajee, adds to the charm of this place with personal explanations of her elaborate meal preparation as she whips off six dishes in an hour while also tending to her three-year old son, Deebu. We will never forget the orgasmically sweet steamed banana breakfast she served. Though they have lived on this property for 15 years, they only started their enterprise as hosts last November. We were their 51st guest, but we are certain that this model of sustainability has a very bright future.

trip image here

photo caption: rolling tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala; happy place

Despite their location on a well-travelled, main road, it was simple to escape the traffic sounds with only a five-minute walk up the hill from their driveway. Here, I found an utterly serene paradise which I will now add to maybe only 6 other spots on earth which I call my happy places. Like the deafening quiet cliffs of Canyonlands, Utah; the empty, 50 k beach of Puerto Lobos, Mexico; and the panoramic hilltops of Wanaka, New Zealand; this solitary boulder amidst the tall trees of Kerala has now become an image I can return to when ever daily stresses might get me down.

And, as if such bliss was not enough for one weekend, we topped it off with VIP seats to an outdoor mega-event featuring the legendary tabla player, Zakir Hussein with Shashank on flute. We knew my young friend had really made it big when we saw dozens of policemen circle the performers, on their way out of the stadium, to protect them from teems of raving fans wanting autographs of these masters. But lucky for us, we were let inside the circle as we were invited onto their private boat headed for the after-party. The joy of Zakir's nimble fingers and inventive playing conversing with Shashank's virtuosity transported us to a nearly ecstatic state. Then, the chance to interact more intimately with India's equivalent of Mick Jagger meets Beck was a treat we never imagined.

location: Mumbai (Bombay), India
date: 02/10/07

Laura's thoughts: As we allowed ourselves to become completely hypnotized by the unstressed paradise we found in Goa, it was easy to neglect our website for almost two weeks. Always ones to look for cultural or active adventures, we had previously resisted the typical beach holiday. Our reasoning for such is now hard to imagine. Who wouldn't love days moving no more than 100 feet from a thatched hut bedroom to swim amongst dolphins, meditate with monkeys & read under coconut palms? Though every cell of my being relaxed for these precious days, my body was abruptly jolted into chaos mode as we travelled straight to Mumbai (Bombay) from this haven.

As home to the world's worst traffic and Asia's largest slum, Mumbai shocks most who visit. However, like Morocco, only exponentially more so, the contrasts here are astounding. Immediately upon arriving in the city's northern most train junction, we were driven through a 20k slum with endless rows of tent-sized, tin shanties literally perched on both sides of a 6-lane highway.The inhumanity of such an existence was epitomized by watching mothers bathe their children right on the filthy sidewalks in front of their homes. Then, crazily, only minutes later, we were visiting art galleries in designed spaces that would put Soho to shame. This certainly left me questioning the ethics of such blatant wealth juxtaposed with unimaginable poverty.

trip image here

photo caption: Goa sunrise; swank Mumbai gallery

I have also been made well aware of the privileges my life has afforded me. And it is interesting to recognize how this has or has not prepared me for the challenges of moving through third world countries. While I like to consider myself a flexible traveller, I have come to realize that I do not stray far from the center of the traveller's tolerance spectrum. I am certainly not at the low end of this scale with people who insist on hot water, TV, fresh towels, toilet paper, & room service in 5-star accommodations everywhere they visit. Nor can I relate to those willing to hitch hike, ride on top of local buses, and crash on strangers' lawns like the gutsy, 20-year-old Canadian, Derek, whom we met this week. The limit of my threshold lies somewhere in the middle, as I learned at our Bombay hostel which was consisted of several, 6-foot square cells with only plywood and bars separating us from our neighbors (in this case: 6 Russian men shouting drunken tales all night long). Add to this the fact that a giant, dead rat greeted us just outside our hotel and you had me reaching my whit's end. Needless to say, a tiny splurge for a mere 3-star room on Valentine's Day will be a relief.

All this said, in fact, some of our least comfortable travel options have offered the richest experiences. Just yesterday, a printing error on our reservation ticket left us without a seat on an 8-hour train. To search for a couple of free spots, we were left to carry our 2 packs and a suitcase through 12 train cars as we crawled over people sleeping on floors, and wiggled past vendors porting 50-pound baskets of food on their heads. This maze of activity finally rendered us two empty seats in a lowest class, non-A/C car, and the kindness of several strangers. Before we knew it, our new friends were running out, at their favorite station, to buy us "famous samosas" and were sharing family photos and music with us from their walkmans and cellphones. So, a lesson was learned about embracing some of life's difficulties. However, as we often seem to do, we know that we were lucky to come out of this particular shitty situation smelling like roses.

trip image here

photo caption: Mumbai rat; new train friends

Geoff: This much travelling and stimulus has turned my ability to relate my experiences succinctly obsolete. As Laura mentioned, we took a one week time-out on the ridiculously simple and idyllic coast of southern Goa. While I was able to shed all vestiges of stress on the beach, I did take a nasty little souvenir away from Palolem Beach to Mumbai: a scabbed, sun-blistered, lower lip. A nagging condition left-over from my teenage windsurfing days, this relies on a constant coating of spf for protection. But guess what, Indians don't need lip spf stuff! and 6 months into our trip and toiletries supply, I was left open to endure the tropical battering and voila...You know it's bad when Indian cab drivers, barraged with public health atrocities, in shock and awe at the vision of my distended lip, were saying "medicine?...doctor?"

trip image here

photo caption: enough to make residents gasp, who needs collagen injections to have full lips like Angelina Jolie?

Disfigurement aside, Mumbai/Bombay is a city not to be missed for anyone who likes to travel. When we first arrived in India, I was pretty ambivalent about spending any time in Mumbai or Delhi, but now I am a convert. I continue to be curious about how India functions and how it is developing so quickly. And you can't fully understand that concept without experiencing the bustle of Bombay. 18 million people are producing a whopping 40% of the country's GNP. On the ground, that translates into vast, vibrant middle and upperclass neighborhoods and endless shopping. British colonization inflicted uncountable atrocities and humiliation during the colonial days and we were able to see a personal perspective of those times at the Gandhi museum, (more on that in a second) but residents would be the first to tell you that they certainly knew how to create beautiful urban spaces: big boulevards, mature trees, parks, monuments, wide sidewalks and covered arcades. There is even a remarkable area full of Art Deco gems. We had four great days of walking all over the central peninsula.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption:cricket test in local park: Deco building on park perimeter with apartments that sell for the equivalent of $1,000,000

Hassling is a given, but at least here it is done in good spirit, so we felt comfortable everywhere. We timed it perfectly and were able to catch a street arts festival that was featuring local dance, movies, theatre, and visual art. (I think that this is the fifth film festival we have happened upon during our trip.) The experience was enriched by the ready access to descriptions and explanations in English. This is notable because I have since learned that only 5% of the population is fluent in English and another 10% have some facility but are not confident with their skills. I am not making a judgment, but one can easily have a different perception based on global news stories, the amount of english press and literature available here, and the ubiquitous use of english signage.

trip image here

photo caption: the balcony Gandhi spoke from; street festival exhibit of an interpretation of the tiffin-meal carrying bikes, Mumbai, India

One of the highlights for us was the Gandhi museum, which was actually the residence of one of his close friends, and the place where he lived for his extended stays in Bombay and where he spoke publicly to his followers. The house is perfectly preserved and full of his writings and letters to colleagues, politicians and other famous people. It also contains his library and the simple possessions of his ascetic existence. I have visited Jefferson's Monticello and lots of other places where great history was spawned but somehow this was even more powerful and pure. After reading his deliberate and thoughtful prose, I sat on one of the side balconies for a minute where the father of the nation would have sat. The house is in a beautiful residential neighborhood full of stately English buildings. Suddenly I had a glimpse of how this constant english presence would have felt so assaulting, yet I am astounded that he was able to channel that revulsion into a successful movement based on compassion.

location: Aurangabad, India
date: 02/14/07

Laura's thoughts: After one full month, I feel that we have finally arrived in India. You know you're in the flow when you can stomach train food, use a handful of helpful Hindi phrases with street vendors, jay walk through roundabouts, and even sing along to Bollywood songs in your cab. Despite warnings that, by now, we'd be asking "why did we come to this god awful place?", I simply love it here! And my profound appreciation for this complex, incredible land was never more intense then when we visited the historic cave carvings at Ellora. Where else but India could I stare at a 20-foot, stone Buddha with 300 Hindu schoolgirls while hearing the Muslim call to prayer on Christian St. Valentine's Day? Such an ecumenical experience made my half Jewish/half Catholic heart jump for joy.

But what moved me most was the fact that, 2,000 years ago, incredible human beings, inspired simply by their love for life and God, went to such enormous efforts to create something of such beauty and magnitude as these sculptural giants. If you think you will ever make it to the Ajanta or Ellora caves, 500 km east of Mumbai, you may want to scroll past the pictures below. Because, as it was for us, witnessing these UNESCO World Heritage sites as a surprise is mind blowing. But in case you are curious, here is just a tiny glimpse of one of the great wonders of the world. The power of this grand artistic gesture had me sobbing and laughing at the same time. While life includes many ugly cruelties, thank goodness it has so much exquisiteness to offer as well.

trip image here

photo caption: Ellora temple (imagine that this was once a single, solid piece of granite!); and cave carving

location: Mt. Abu & Udaipur - Rajasthan, India
date: 02/20/07

Laura's thoughts: Ironically, the same civilisation who produced this profound art has also created kitsch rivaled by none I have ever seen. Every religious deity can be purchased in plastic, neon or Velvet Elvis. Bollywood music videos feature larger-than-life sets, technicolor outfits, clownish make-up and hundreds of synchronized backup dancers, Back-Street-Boys style. Wedding celebrations import fountains of glitter, hire horses and chariots, let off fireworks and blare pop music all night long. So, fittingly, pristine hillstations frequented by honeymooners are replete with cotton candy carts and swan boats. Such is Mt. Abu and the newlyweds are not hard to find. It seems that an exception to the no-public-affection rule is made for first time lovebirds. Never having seen any other men & woman hold hands in India, we were surprised to find honeymooners clinging to each other's palms with the knowledge that such a luxury was soon to end. Sure enough, every time we saw the rare love clasp, the woman's freshly hennaed feet revealed her recent marriage.

Also common in Mt. Abu are the dreadful dioramas. As with the otherwise sophisticated Gandhi museum, even ashrams use these crude, miniature, garishly-painted sculptures to recreate history. And, just in case these school-project-like exhibits do not tell it all, there is plenty of Indlish engraved below to clarify (IE. "This temple exempelerys an arctextured stile never before or since attempted like the Jains, who went to great lengths to enshrine marble as such") Nonetheless, we hiked to some impressive temples in this odd but charming town and loved scrambling around its unique rock formations.

trip image here

photo caption: swan boat & diorama in Mt. Abu

Our next stop also delighted us as we were again fortunate enough to stay with a host family, like we had in Denmark. Riaz Tehsin joined the Servas organization nearly 50 years ago, due to its affiliation with the Gandhi Peace Foundation. A champion of pacifism, education, and simplicity, our host was a true inspiration. He serves as the voluntary President of both a wonderful folk dance and puppetry museum, whose show is a top Lonely Planet recommendation, and of the Vidya Bhawan Society. The latter is a progressive, holistic institution which runs a primary & secondary school, a Teacher's College granting B.As'-PH.D.'s, rural development schools, and university computer and electrical engineering programs for a total of 5,000 students. All the while, he pursues these passions while maintaining his own plastics company which employs twelve people (a vocation he considers his hobby). Riaz and all of his 5 siblings were, themselves, students at VBS, a decade after its inception in 1931. As a testimony to the deep impression that the values of this institution makes on its pupils, all of the Tehsins have committed their lives to social service and community work as adults. So, while time will not allow us on this visit, Geoff and I think that we have finally found the volunteer project abroad to which we would like to give our energy in the future.

trip image here

photo caption: The Tehsin Family: Philanthropists and hosts extraordinaire

location: Mumbai to Delhi to Rishikesh
date: 02/21/07

Geoff: I was convinced that India would be a great travel destination by the idea of the Himalayas, jungles, and deserts. At the same time, I was pretty ambivalent about negotiating my way around and amidst 1.1 billion people. Not having hit the mountains yet, I can now say with certainty that the personal interactions will be the highlights of this chapter. We can learn more from a waiter in twenty minutes than countless articles and books can provide. I have also learned a lot about the way we communicate in Canada in the States. Indians are very candid and very forward. Within 1 minute we can be discussing our religious identity and 2 minutes usually brings us to the uncomfortable position of explaining why we don't have children. It is definitely tougher for Laura, who has experienced some quick gestures of disgust, which are barely mitigated by my efforts to explain the differences in culture and how it is an option in North America, not to. We have resisted the temptation to use the overpopulation argument due to the risk of offending, but we do find it shocking that the mere concept of population limits and controls are taboo even here. I can't transgress my Canadian politeness, but I have come to love the glimpses this openness affords us if I am able to jump into the spirit of things.

I have also learned that statistics don't translate well from country to country. When India says that it has 3% unemployment that is because anybody who makes a couple of rupees a day is officially employed. The Indian Railways alone employee 1.5 MILLION people, half of which appear to be employed solely to wander up and down the train selling trinkets, Indian food, chai, coffee, jewelry, toothbrushes- you name it. I think that there is a tendency in North America to assume that our system of commercialism is a spreading virus to otherwise pristine pure and pristine places. We are egotistical enough to believe that we created the good and the bad, like branding and advertising. Every space is commercial in India. You can't see the buildings for the advertisements, and vendors line EVERY street. They have been doing it for millenniums and we are in the minor leagues in North America by comparison. (Thankfully)

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: signing subtlety in Mumbai and beyond

Speaking of minor leagues, I now know why Indians are often the cab drivers in New York...because Manhattan is an absolute breeze by comparison to Mumbai or Delhi. The "best de fence is a good offence" seems to be the guiding principle and it takes Top Gun-level awareness and skills. Tonight we saw the laws of physics fulfilled, long overdue, when our cabbie cut in front of a little Suzuki coupe and pulled off their front bumper in one clean swipe. Some rapid discussion followed and 1 minute we were on our way without any insurance claims or police or anything, leaving me no more enlightened to the rules of the road.

Laura's thoughts: I will call this entry Trains, Planes, and Autorickshaws as we have been in almost continuous motion since the month began. To ensure enough time in the mountains, we travelled rather quickly from the Ajanta Caves to Mumbai, and only passed through Mt. Abu & Udaipur, Rajasthan for a few days, before making a brief pit-stop in Delhi. If Mumbai was an assault to our senses, this city was a full-out ambush on our eyes, ears, nose, and throat. So, determined to spend as little time as possible in the grunge and noise of Delhi, we took an early morning taxi from our hotel and hopped the first bus heading towards the foothills of the Himalayas. Little did we know that after a fortnight of 28 hrs. on trains, 15 hrs. on buses, 24 separate rickshaw rides, & a 2 hr. flight, this final leg would be the most harrowing, yet hilarious, of all.

It commenced with a 7-hour ride, which covered little over 200 km, to Haridwar. With only 20k left to reach our destination of Rishikesh, we figured that a cab would be affordable and easy to find: our first mistake. The bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere with not a taxi in sight, barring bicycle rickshaws. Therefore, we were left to squeeze all 400 pounds of us and our luggage into a narrow seat, as a boy, half Geoff's size, pedaled us to the main town to find a car (a shameful journey for avid cyclists). There, we were transferred to a tempo which we shared with 3 other passengers. But that ride was short lived as, 5 km later, we were shuttled to our penultimate vehicle of the day, shared this time with 7. All the while, none of our drivers spoke English, so we had nothing but sheer faith to assure us that we would, in fact, get to our desired location. In other circumstances, stage six of this road trip would have surely frustrated and even frightened us. However, in wild and wonderful India, this time joining eleven people in a "deluxe" rickshaw had us in stitches (think of the old VW Bug filled with clowns). Luggage on the roof, appendages hanging out of doors and windows, and people sitting on each other's laps, as well as the floor, gave us an unforgettable picture that no photo could possibly capture.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: Images of Real India along the way

Good laughs aside, it comes as an enormous relief to settle into this retreat town, renowned for its abundance of yoga and meditation, as well as its fresh air, Western veggie cuisine and beautiful views. This place has LAURA written all over it. So, I will relish another week of rest & relaxation while staying in one place. However, at the same time, I am reminded again not get attached to such comfort as I am coming to terms with the impermanence of all things. In keeping with the tenets of Buddhism, Eisenhower once said, "It's not what you accomplish once you get there, but what you've become along the way that matters". Fortunately, India teaches one this lesson quickly. While each new destination offers ample challenges and rewards, my mind has actually been most fertile in the space between guidebook attractions. When road work or insane traffic has delayed one of our journeys, I have used the extra time to brainstorm for future projects. Since all modes of public transit here seem to pick up their fares with empty tanks of gas, I have learned to go nowhere in a hurry and I have developed more patience waiting for drivers to refuel. Most notably, while today's endless ride could have been grueling, I got the chance to see real India in all of its polychromatic glory.

photo caption: sprawling Banyan tree in Udaipur

So, it has occurred to me that the banyan tree is the perfect metaphor for our trip and, consequently, India. This arboreal mammoth is comprised of infinite pathways whose every random twist and turn manages to weave a perfect structure. Also the spot under which Buddha reached enlightenment, this intricate network of tangled roots represents Indians from thousands of different rural, urban, and tribal origins coming together to make something as complicated as it is beautiful.

location: Rishikesh, India
date: 02/25/07

Geoff: The mountains around Rishikesh are welcoming and dramatic at the same time- lots of vertical rise, but starting at low elevations. What makes them really interesting to me is that they are still working lands, not cordoned off parks or odes to wild lands. The trails out our backdoor go through the jungles and into the lush farmland villages on the hilltops and higher ravines. The first day I took off in search of a mountaintop destination.

I didn't find the temple, but after about 45 minutes of climbing fast, I ran into a bunch of 8- year olds in school uniforms walking HOME. Their village was comprised of about a dozen model farms with a few terraced, irrigated fields each. The kids dragged me up to their huts and I played some cricket with them for a while, which was very amazing for me and amusing for them. On the way down, a 45-year old man in shirt and tie asked me if I was exercising. I said I had gone for a trek looking for the temple and couldn't find it. This guy was kind of chubby, yet proceeds to tell me how he walks up and down each day to work- 1 hour climb! Long story short, he quickly invites me to come up to his place for coffee tomorrow and he will show me the way to the temple. "Just say my name,and people will point you to my place."

trip image here trip image here trip image here

photo caption: mountain farming, Rishikesh, Geoff with Jotinder

Laura was eager to join me the next day and sure enough after retracing my steps to the same village we found my cricket pals. I repeated the name as I remembered it, Bindi Pundar or Pindi Bundar- I spend so much time trying to interpret accents and get the gist of things that specifics can be difficult. After much pointing and walking we were delivered to Jotinder Pundir's family farm (people just laugh when I tell them my name is Geoff. "Juff, short name.") In one of those rare travel moments of which the depths are lost in translations, we proceeded to have a cup of tea while the extended family of 10 or so curious youngster looked on nonplussed. No power, no roads, but an incredible view of the holy Ganga River below and delicious tea- our host picked the ginger out of the ground as we watched to go with the milk from the cow I was sitting next to and the cardamom that is grown all over the property. It was one of the simplest and richest moments of the trip.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: patio lunch guests

Travel tip to all men: After nine years of marriage we still may battle over who wears the pants in this family, but we do know who wears the pockets, and it is me. Laura's perfect pair of shorts or pants never include unfashionable pockets. As a result, even for simple packless sojourns, I am forced to endure the bulging and bouncing pockets full of maps, now-scratched sunglasses, money, lip balm, passports, camera, pen, room keys, sun screen, toilet paper, hair accessory- you name it. Men's cargo pants are the best friend for "low maintenance" women who like to travel light. To all my male friends traveling with a female partner, I recommend that while packing for a trip that you insist on a line item veto for all your partner's pants and shorts. Your battered thighs will thank you.

location: Chandigar, India
date: 03/03/07

Geoff: We spent one full and interesting day here in the only master planned city in India. I am no real fan of the architecture or rigid master planning that Le Corbusier espoused, but this place proves that it is often better to try something rather than nothing at all. What it lacks in variation and individual expression it makes up for with function and quality of life. We just kept shaking our heads all day long, throughout the entire city. Why? First off, no garbage, really, and the residents are proud of that. Secondly, there are lanes on the roads that people actually observe. "Le Corb" designed huge tree-lined boulevards with traffic circles that run the length of the roughly 10km by 5km urban area. Thirdly, there are real sidewalks that add a taste of sanity. And finally, it has some of the biggest and immaculate parks that I have ever seen. Midday they were filled with residents.

I know of no other large scale master plan, built from the ground up, that was almost entirely realized. As such, it is a pilgrimage site for architects and planners alike- though not everyone else on the tourist path, which is a novelty. The vast majority of the residents are living a comfortable middle-class life and with it is a an active arts scene and a vibrant economy- another slice of the New India we have been a little infatuated with trying to comprehend. What is the downside of the masterplan as it came to be? Well Le Corbusier has been much maligned for being a progenitor of car-culture. The roads are wide, and for a country that mainly walks, bikes or buses, they still need to cross roads! For me, the big thinidea to try and stomach is that it is palatable to only have about 6 residential types to chose from. I need 6 types of coffee beans to chose from so... Anyway, it is an unexpected gem, that I learned a lot from, and will certainly use as a resource in the future.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: part of 2 k rose garden i park-filled Chandigar; Corbusier buiilding on Panjab University campus

Laura's thoughts: Now, a religious festival that requires people to douse their friends in water and cover themselves, as well as strangers, in brilliant-colored paint & powder is my kind of holiday. Today is the second day of Holi, which runs all week, making this the 13th designated holy day out of our 50 here, so far.

In such a public and pervasively devout nation, one can not help but to ponder the question: "What makes a place sacred?" Be it washing in a holy river, rubbing a certain bronze sculpture, prostrating up the stairs of a temple, or leaving an offering of fruit and flowers on an altar, the pluralistic manners of worship in India manifest in a rich myriad of gestures. Certainly, the energy generated by millions of people seeking healing and inspiration from such places can stir the spirit of even the most skeptical non-believers. For me personally, as one who holds no religious affiliations, yet has always maintained a keen interest in matters of the spirit, I have searched deep within myself to feel the strong sense of connection that so many experience in the presence of spiritual giants like the Ganges. However, interestingly, the most profound moments of wonder and awe have struck me, instead, during quiet moments communing with the natural world.

trip image here trip image here trip image here

photo caption: the Great Ganges; Holi celebrations (scroll over for large view); Laura dwarfed by the grandeur of her sacred space

It is in spots like my happy place in Kerala or this solitary hillside in Rishikesh (see above), where I have been afforded even the tiniest glimpses of what enlightenment might look like. And though astoundingly fleeting, these instant flashes of recognition that all things are interconnected are addictive. Another hit me by surprise in the city of Chandigar, famous for its unique, 1950's master-plan by French architect Corbusier. This city's Rock Garden, which had been described as an artistic trash heap, turned out to be a garden of unearthly delight for me. Childlike sculptures, combining broken plastic bangles and ceramic shards with stone, captured the fancy of my imagination and made my soul dance.

trip image here trip image here trip image here

photo caption: the fanciful characters of Chandigar's Rock Garden

So, again, I was reminded that one's sense of the sacred is entirely personal. In fact, I have been similarly amazed to learn that, after 20 years of yoga study in the West, attending teachings in India, so close to the source of this practice, has lent me no greater insight than have many wonderful teachers from home. Apparently, a room full of dreadlocked-hippies hoping for their randomly selected guru-of-the-day to impart ancient yogic wisdom just doesn't do it for me. Give me dozens of athlete-cum-yogis cleansing their bodies and minds on a Vancouver beach while their surfer teacher leads them thru some Yummy Yoga anyday.

With all due respect, I realize that I have not yet been exposed to the truly authentic teachings that many have found here. This may be because my research, thus far, has left me unable to discern between the false prophets and the Real Deals. But, there is one spiritual master, in my mind, who is beyond reproach. So I am presently bursting at the seams as we await the start of Dalai Lama Rama (or, as Geoff calls it: Buddhapalooza). It is our great privilege to be present for a week of 5 hr. daily talks by this man whose simple, honest words about love and compassion resonate so completely with me.

On another note: Geoff may be outfitting me in cargo pants before I know it, but no sooner than I'll have to beg him to wear a dress in order to satisfy my need for female companionship. Being the well balanced guy that he is and having been raised with three sisters, Geoff surely has his feminine side well developed. However, spending 4 months in 2 consecutive countries (Morocco and India) where primarily only men participate in public life, leaves me wanting for some good 'ol estrogen-induced girl talk.

location: Dharamsala, India
date: 03/09/07

Laura's thoughts: Though my expectations were lofty, His Holiness the Dalai Lama surely did not disappoint. Though I suppose that is no surprise when one is speaking about perhaps the kindest human being on this earth. His eternal smile, infectious laugh and glowing presence are simply intoxicating. As latecomers, we had to stand at the very back of the courtyard, which sat 6,000 visitors, from all over the world, who had gone to great lengths to hear his wisdom. Yet this was a blessing in disguise because he approached the temple each morning from a hill descending only 20 feet behind us. As we would fix our gaze on his daily procession, electrical charges permeated my whole body. Others we have met here have seen rays of magenta emanating from his head, and many have been moved to tears just from a glimpse of this walking Buddha who, with absolutely no shred of ego, still refers to himself as a humble monk.

Imagine the power of living amongst thousands of high-minded people, if only for one week, who have set aside this particular time to solely consider the spiritual nature of their existence and how best to spend their precious human birth (to use a common phrase of HH- as he is affectionately called here). If I was not strolling the streets amongst a sea of monks, I was discussing creation theories over coffee with strangers, or debating fate vs. freewill at an internet cafe. Though the discourse has been dense, and I do not proport to be able to relay the subtler concepts with full comprehension, I would like to share a summary of what I feel has been the essence of his teachings.

trip image here trip image here trip image here

photo caption: Can't you just see the Buddhist monks' Enlightenment rubbing off on Laura (orange sweater, big hair)?

Many of you may be aware of my penchant for lists. So, the Buddhist approach to teaching suits me very well as you will see.

The simple yet elegant precepts of the Buddhist Path are referred to as the Six Perfections:
*Meditative Concentration

And the DO rather than DON'T nature of Buddhism's equivalent to the Ten Commandments has great appeal for me:
*Cultivate Love and Compassion for all Sentient Beings
*Develop a Calm Abiding Mind
*Recognize that all Sentient Beings are Equal in the sense that we all want Happiness and want to avoid Suffering
*Commit yourself only to Virtuous Actions
*Train yourself well in Morality
*Daily practice Meditative Concentration
*Understand the Impermanence of all things
*Consider the Laws of Cause and Effect in relation to everything that arises
*Know that everything in existence is Interdependently related &
*Always maintain Selflessness

As the true embodiment of these concepts, the Dalai Lama elaborated upon them with eloquent explanations and skillful examples. Consequently, in concert with everyone in his proximity, I experienced many an AH-HA moment throughout the week. So, here a just a few of the gems I will take with me:

* Put all others needs before your own, recognizing the fact that when a community thrives, you thrive; and when another suffers, you suffer.
* Respect all others, Benefit all others, Bring Happiness to all others, & do No Harm to all others.
* Know that when a harm is done to you it is caused by a disturbance in the mind of the one who has done you harm. Therefore, react to this harm compassionately, with patience rather than anger. And, in fact, cherish and appreciate your enemies for giving you the opportunity to cultivate this patience. (Very logical in theory but extremely difficult in practice, of course)
* Similarly, recognize that those who deny you praise or material gain are preventing you from developing the arrogance that would cause you to harm others. So, cherish them as well.
* Delight in the joys of others and never envy their successes.
* Live in a way which is virtuous so that you avoid any regrets at the time of your death. (In other words, "Go Big or Go Home", as Geoff and I always say, or, more recently adapted to "Life is Short, Live Large")
* Consider the consequences of all of your actions before you proceed, and check to ensure that your intentions are pure.
* At all times be the pupil of everyone.
* It is not enough to Aspire to something, but rather, it is more noble to Engage in that to which you aspire.
* Respect all Faiths, for the true practice of any religion is virtuous. Each of us need only to place our faith in that path which resonates the most truth for us personally.

As a parting image, I will leave you with a story that epitomizes the lessons which the Dalai Lama taught so clearly. The door to the Office of His Holiness was located only inches away from where we stood all week. Last night, as soon as the teachings ended, floods of Buddhist monks stormed the door, in a race to be first in line for a treat that was unknown to me at the time. Since offerings are quite common in Buddhist practice, and these same monks had daily distributed tea, bread, rice and even rupees to each and every participant in the teachings, I assumed that what lay behind this door was finally their due reward for the week's generosity. But this misconception could not have been further from the truth. These monks were hardly waiting for a handout. Instead, they were rushing to GIVE donations to the monastery of their beloved teacher. And, not only did they run for a coveted front spot in the queue, they were then made to wait 90 minutes to test their endurance and true commitment to accumulating merit with this virtuous action. Amazing!

trip image here

photo caption: Tibetan candlelight vigil against Chinese occupation (Dalai Lama photo in center and Penchan Lama photo in lower right-hand corner)

Geoff: Being immersed in Tibetan culture for a week was an opportunity to refresh and expand our understanding of the plight of the Tibetan people. We were aware that the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet in 1959 after 10 years of Chinese occupation and an ever increasing threat to his life and the integrity of their faith. Through our film festival, we had both also seen the ongoing lengths that residents go to escape to India or Nepal. (walking for a month in the middle of winter over 6,000 metre passes with nothing) I was less aware that China continues its offensive to eliminate all vestiges of Buddhism in Tibet through censorship, arrest, torture, and assassination. One of the most nefarious actions was the kidnapping of the 8-Year old Penchan Lama in 1997.

The Dalai Lama recognizes the reincarnation of the Penchan Lama, who in turn, after the death of the Dalai Lama, recognizes his new incarnation; thus, preserving the chain of spiritual leadership. Since his kidnapping, the Penchan Lama has never been seen again and even if he is ever recovered/returned his spiritual development will have been stunted and possibly intentionally co-opted by the Chinese Authorities. We were given a brief explanation of the state of affairs by a new friend, and Professor at Stanford, over a spontaneous dinner conversation. Sometimes you can be a little jaded about striking those up for fear of repeating the same few small talk topics, but in India most of these interactions have been incredibly informative.

location: Delhi, India
date: 03/11/07

Laura's thoughts: Well, from my brother's sardonic though hilarious last email, which recounted his packed-subway, homeless person-hassled, freezing Manhattan work day in rather eloquent travelogue style, I realize that many of you may be tired of hearing one blissed-out account after another from us. So, rest assured, we've finally had one of those terrible days that travel nightmares are made of. The universe was certainly quick to provide us ample opportunity to put the Dalai Lama's principles into practice as we departed Dharamsala. And, quite literally, when it rains it pours. Since HH was not teaching on Saturday, in honor of the 58th anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, we had planned a hike up Triund (over 12,000 feet). However, the skies did not cooperate, so we spent our last day cafe hopping. Though we have been fortunate to have had almost no rain since we left Europe, 7 years out of Vancouver has made us complete wet weather wimps. Needless to say, we and our things, without proper gear or plastic bags for our luggage, got soaked. Then, stupidly, we put our suitcase in storage, underneath the bus we took out of town, and water leaked onto our entire wardrobe and most of the music I have carried for the entire trip. But that was the least of our bus woes. Harrowing hairpin turns, no suspension, and a speed demon driver gave even roller-coaster-loving me horrific motion sickness for the first time in my life. So, I took the 8 pm vomit shift and Geoff proceeded to outdo me with continuous retching from 3-11 am. We are only disappointed that we did not photo the Jackson Pollack artwork we left on the outside panels of the bus windows.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: Himalayan glory (pre-storm); happy travellers (pre-bus ride)

To top off this experience, when we arrived in our Delhi hotel, I realized that I'd left my favorite Mephisto sandals in Dharamsala (a lesson in detachment). Next, while Geoff recuperated in our room, I braved Delhi alone, only to further my frustration. My rickshaw driver got exceedingly lost and made a 5-minute trip to the metro take an hour. Three calls to Bangkok (where we will be on Thursday), to make a room reservation, cost me $6 and, ultimately, no one took phone bookings. And we failed to get train seats for the Taj Mahal tomorrow. However, through it all, I actually tried to be patient and maintain a calm-abiding mind, as HH taught, and this worked surprisingly well. Our clothes are being laundered as we speak, my music has almost dried out already, I found a hip Bangkok hotel online, and Geoff and I have finally eaten our first solid food since the bus ride. Plus, we decided to splurge on a driver to see the Taj after all. So, we know that absolutely nothing could make anyone feel sorry for us while we are on the trip of our lives, and we would not dare to wallow in self pity either. But the weekend sure gave us fodder for the website.

location: Chennai, India
date: 03/14/07

Geoff: Monday we visited the Taj Mahal partly out of obligation, since this is one of those things that everyone says "is not to be missed". Though we have a healthy aversion built up towards MUST-SEE monuments, years of comparing every ostentatious Islamic-style edifice to the Taj Mahal, and staring at fuzzy reproductions on place mats did combine to make us pretty curious. The drive through Delhi and the surrounding country side provided nonstop stimulation. We caught glimpses of the massive, modern business parks being constructed on the outskirts of the city. Indians have a tendency to try and communicate modernity in their buildings with toy-like ornamentation, almost as though Pixar was designing the place.

Anyway, after hiring a car for convenience and comfort, we were treated to an 11-hour round-trip drive that would have cost 10% as much on the train and taken 6 hours less, but hey, it's all a lesson. (our driver had cheap tinting on his windows and lame wiper blades. So, at night, in the rain, he could only see well enough to drive about 40km/hour on the very nice freeway. Plus, one of his four totally bald tires blew and caused another hour delay.) In the midst of the 11-hour road trip, we spent a couple of hours at the Taj Mahal. It has been called "Man's greatest erection to the memory of a woman." That is a little crass, but for all of its power and grand austerity, I couldn't shake a feeling of shame. It is visually impressive. But, for me, it also felt very vain. Unlike the life-affirming Ellora and Ajanta caves that serve as points of worship and appreciation to God, all of this effort was, and continues to this day, to be for nothing but a tomb of a beloved spouse. I think that Laura would get really upset at me if, in a similar situation, I spent a billion dollars and hired thousands of people to dig up prime farmland, use ridiculous amounts of marble, and other people's sweat and toil so that she was properly honored. (A nice functioning music hall might be palatable.) Okay that is a little bit of hyperbole, but when you have travelled around India, or even 100 metres from the place, you are easily struck by the incredible detour from reality that a monument like this can take you on. Oh ya, it is beautiful, don't get me wrong.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: Taj with looming squalor and Taj in all its glory

Laura's final thoughts from India: This country's tourism slogan, Incredible India!, says it all. I don't think there is another spot on earth more quintessentially suited to those people who truly love travel and all the great stuff voyages are made of. Whether you venture out to meet diverse people, enjoy great food, discover new religions, experience cultural life, or explore a variety of landscapes, you can accomplish your travel goals here. In fact, Geoff and I had composed a list of "reasons we travel" before our trip, to guide us in our destination choices. Periodically, we have checked it to see if our current location is satisfying our purpose, and in most places 2/3rds of our list has been fulfilled. In India, all 30 intentions have been met and then some.

Now that we are seven months in, having traversed four continents, I feel that we have made a full paradigm shift. While I have been abroad numerous times before this year, I never came close to travelling this extensively. And, for me, one of the main differences in an excursion of this length and distance has been the way in which I now consider everything from a global perspective. For instance, it never fully sunk in, before now, that outside of Europe, the US, and Canada, there are only about 6 other non-third-world countries out of the globe's hundreds. And I can finally visually understand what 1/3rd of the world's population being concentrated into only two countries (India and China) actually looks like. Plus, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the amount of leisure, open space and choice that we have in North America, compared to absolutely everywhere we have been (including Europe). Lastly, though when Geoff and I first dated we used to trivia quiz each other by simply opening a random page of the atlas and asking questions about capital cities, river names, etc., even geography geeks like us have developed a much clearer mental map of the world.

trip image here trip image here

photo caption: morning latte and nightly rooftop chai in Dharamsala

I have also reaffirmed for myself that I can feel at home anywhere. Particularly helpful in achieving this has been to learn a few local proprietors' names, unpack a few of my things (even if only for a day or two), listen to familiar tunes on my ipod, and find the eats in which I will regularly indulge. It has amazed me how quickly I can become both loyal and accustomed to local cuisine. Just like Belgian beer in Denmark, pesto & foccacia in Tuscany, and mint tea in Morocco, it is hard to imagine my life after India without real chai, naan and curry. And, especially here, it's easy to make friends. In fact, the majority of decisions that we've made in India have come from suggestions from people we've met on the road. Though hardly ones to shun the helpful hints of the Lonely Planet, we've realized that nothing beats the advice of a like-minded stranger scribbled on a paper napkin over coffee.

One memorable encounter with a traveller occurred in the Udaipur airport. There, we spoke with a Chinese couple living in Brazil who had a typically mixed experience in India. Used to the threats of Rio slum life, the wife could not shake her fear in the poorer areas of Mumbai and Delhi. Yet the husband noted a marked difference between the lowest classes here compared to South America and China. His trip left him with great hope for the future of these people who have been steeped in spiritual faith for thousands of years, who have historical traditions of generosity, who maintain extremely close family ties, who take great pride in their country and self, and who are willing to work their tails off. I sure hope he is right. We have definitely witnessed all of these strengths while avoiding any moments when we have felt unsafe. But the over-population, garbage, and infrastructure probems still make it difficult to believe that India will be one of the world's next super powers. One thing is certain, things are changing rapidly in this vast country, and I am very curious to see how India will evolve as it dangles on the precipice of prosperity.

As an aside, since ample transit time has given me cherished time to read, write and, of course, make lists, I thought I would include a few of them, that may be of interest, for you to link to if you wish.

indian curiosities
recommended reading from our travels
rough trip budget
recommended accommodations from our travels