Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Uttarakhand by motorbike.

Let me introduce my buddy Manish: proud owner of a Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike, originator of India on Bike tours, and a truly decent human being with a zest for novelty that mirrors my own. When he called me up with a proposition to travel north to Uttarakhand state by bike, I was committed even before he finished speaking.

Saturday morning before sunrise, I piled on the sweaters, strapped my bags to the bike with bungees, and we took off away from Delhi. Within half an hour, I felt comfortable tucked behind my trusty driver, numb to the windchill, hardly blinking as we weaved back and forth between vehicles, making passes into head-on traffic. There is order in the chaos that defines Indian driving.

The only real fear I had was of drifting to sleep and falling off the bike, but so enraptured was I with the feeling of wind in my face that the time passed quickly. I absorbed myself with the sight of farmlands passing into villages passing into small cities, and with the sweet smell of sugarcane, the regional crop.

After 6 hours on the road, coffee pit-stop included, we arrived at the town of Haridwar, our first destination for the weekend.

Located on the sacred Ganges and home to some 3000 temples, Haridwar is a place of intense religious significance. We walked along the bathing ghats in the main part of town and simply observed all the activity.

The Ganges river is the blood vein of India. It is the focal point of Hindu spirituality, an auspicious place, a place attached to life and death and salvation, not to mention a tourist draw that provides employment for millions. The river is worshiped as a holy being in itself. In the eyes of Hindus, it is very much alive.

Next, onward to Rishikesh, an additional hour drive north. We arrived as the sun was setting, just in time to catch the beginning of a public puja on the Ganges banks, attended personally by a well-known guru and a few of his disciples.

For the next two hours, everyone in attendance proceeded to get "spiritually drunk", as Manish aptly put it. The puja was beautiful both to take part in and to observe.

On Sunday, Manish and I left the tourist hub of Rishikesh. We drove further north along the river to the quieter village of Shivpuri, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. Riding a motorbike on the twisting mountain roads was heart-poundingly fun, and made me pine for my own two-wheeled beauty back home.

Okay, this was obviously staged, but that doesn't make the photo-opp less awesome.

The actual operator of that beautiful machine.

The roads were lined with slogans like these. My favorite was "Alert today, alive tomorrow."

The Ganges river ran right outside our campsite where we based ourselves for the rest of the weekend. Whereas the Ganges of Varanasi looked hardly clean enough to touch, the water here up north was close to the source of the river, and sparkled blue.

Our campsite at daybreak.

Manish and I spent the rest of the day climbing rocks, doing some light hiking around the area, eating a lot, and running our mouths around a campfire.

Monday morning, I braved the chill and got ready for my first experience white-water rafting on the river. It felt a little strange for me to worship the Ganges one day and float down it the next, but I forgot that quickly when I was being pummelled by the waves.

We rafted 25km downstream, and shot a total of 7 rapids ranging up to class 4 difficulty. Each rapid had a name, including Crossfire, Rollercoaster, Golf Course, and (my favorite) Good Morning. Some we passed through without much difficulty. Others, especially Golf Course, had waves that loomed 10 feet high and had me holding on for dear life. I can't wait to try it again.

At one point, we parked our raft and Manish snapped photos of another group maneuvering through the rapid we just finished.

I felt so small against the river and the surrounding mountains, a feeling that is at once exhilarating and frustrating.

And then, all too soon, it was time to go home. We packed up the bike once more, and drove through the sunset and nightfall all the way home to Delhi. The way home had some close calls with semi-trucks, potholes galore, and terrible visibility, but we made it home safely.

A thrilling weekend with fantastic company More pictures up on my Facebook soon.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ukrainian food coma.

Last weekend, I helped cook a huge traditional Ukraininan dinner with my friends Iryna and Ayuko. In those two hours in the kitchen, Ayuko and I were sous-chefs, and Iryna brought it all together.

Iryna in middle, Ayuko on her left

I loved getting my hands dirty again in the kitchen.

The vat of gorgeous borscht. Beets, cabbage, potatoes, kidney beans. Perfect on these chilly Delhi nights.

The tabouli stuffing was made with tomatoes, dill, parsley, feta. Wrapped with Lebanese bread, and slightly fried on the bottom til brown and crispy.

We fried eggplant strips with a healthy dose of salt, and wrapped them around the tabouli stuffing.

Great success! I'm definitely saving the recipe. Borscht doesn't get more authentic than a bona fide mom-recipe.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Graduate school plans.

Due dates for graduate school applications are upon me. I'm applying to the following places:

Washington, Seattle
Carnegie Mellon
Wisconsin, Madison

Unlike undergraduate admissions, it is now a total wildcard where I get in. That, obviously, creates some anxieties. Sometimes, I feel pretty optimistic about my chances. Other times, I find myself rolling in the depths of despair, hating myself for holes in my credentials that other applicants will surely be able to fill. Most of the time, I'm just playing along, curious to see this pan out. I'd like to go to top-tier schools, but I chose all these places because they each have something that I want. I'll make good use of my time, wherever I go.

And anyway, in the event that none of them want me, I have a backup plan of eventually running a restaurant empire. Despite the extremely high start-up costs and the even higher likelihood of failure, the attractiveness of this option ensures that I don't sweat about the state of my future.

India is the place where worrying excessively about anything is unsustainable, unuseful, and counterproductive. It's where I learned to just let things happen to me, and trust that I'll drift into where I'm supposed to be. As long as I enjoy myself and learn a lot in the process, then I'm in the right place, and it's with this mindset that I approach my plans for grad school. Ironic, that I learned to take it easy in a country that is defined by chaos, paradox, and unpredictability.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Snapshots from a village.

This weekend took us to the village of Farrukhabad, located 300km (186mi) southeast of Delhi, on the edge of the Ganges. The organization of the trip was less than ideal, but it was good to see a simpler side of Indian life.

The local boarding school that received us.
Align CenterAnd we were received so well.
Typical meal of the weekend.
Snake charmer. Yes, that is a cobra, that he allegedly transformed into a boy.
Cow dung used for biogas digesters. Remarkably sustainable for a little village.

Bathing in the river Ganges.
Surveying the haphazard construction of a new temple.
Spicy rice street food.


I expected to be puking all over the place in my first few weeks in India, but after enjoying three full months of remarkably good health, the inevitable finally happened.

I visited a village this past weekend and had my meals at a local school, which, I later found out, served us table water from a garden hose. Go figure. I've shown absolutely no reservations about eating anything and everything here, from mutton brain to heavily spiced curries to any kind of street food, and its the water that finally takes me down. I can only remember one other time in my life when I've been this sick.

After two days with 103 fever and diarrhea, unable to get out of bed or force myself to eat, my flatmates intervened and escorted my disoriented self to the nearby hospital. The place was refreshingly no frills. I filled out some forms, they strapped an IV to me, fed me a pill or two, took some samples, pumped me with antibiotics, and promptly directed me to bed. Like magic, I was a new person the next day.

I'm usually pretty averse to hospitals -- American ones, at least. I have this impression (correct or incorrect) that, barring serious necessity, they are for the infirm and the helpless, not for people whose bodies are capable of healing themselves. Few things get on my nerves more than seeing people pop pills and call the doc for every small ill. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been admitted to a hospital, and each visit has confirmed my belief that they are a remarkable waste of time and money.

But assuming this hospital visit in India is representative of the system as a whole, I was impressed by its efficiency, especially for a country that can many times be just the opposite. And besides, halfway around the world from home, it was nice to simply be taken care of.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Jungle safaris in Corbett.

Jackals and sambar and elephants, oh my! Last weekend, ten of us took the 7-hour drive to Corbett National Park for 3 days and 2 nights amidst the forest and wildlife.

[Photos credited to my friend Manish, our designated photographer for the weekend.]

Corbett is primarily a tiger sanctuary, with 160 wild Bengal tigers roaming around in its huge premises. The reserve spans over 200 square miles, with only several small sections that are open for visitors.

Gaining entry into the place was extremely difficult. We booked our entry tickets a full month ago -- very unusual considering most of my travel plans here are decided days before -- and even then, our Indian friend Manish had to use his connections to get us in. Corbett was extremely well-operated, with a distinct lack of irresponsible tourists and an apparent sensitivity to preserving the objectives of the wildlife sanctuary. The base camp where we stayed our second night was even solar-powered.

We arrived Saturday morning at 5:30am. Ill-prepared for the freezing morning air, we wrapped ourselves in all the clothes we packed and promptly set out on our first safari. By the time we reached the gates of the park, the sun was just rising.

The beauty of the jungle was staggering. I've been so far removed from nature for the past three months living in Delhi that the sight of lush landscape had me continually on the verge of tears.

Within the first hour, we spotted black storks, loads of spotted deer, barking deer, langur monkeys, and gigantic white-ant mounds.

There were also many sambar (similar to elk), and I had a brief sighting of a peacock.

Our knowledgable driver helped us spot and track the many tiger footprints around the road, but we had no sightings.

More successful was our quest for wild elephants; we spotted two wild ones by the end of the day, whacking their trunks loudly through the bush.

We spent the rest of the day on a light hike to and around the Corbett waterfall, a scenic little stop tucked away in a forest cover on the outskirts of the town.

Back at our guest house outside the park, we had a hearty dinner of chicken masala, butter chicken, paneer something-or-other, and chana pindi -- followed by stories and laughs around a bonfire.

Sunday morning started at 4:30am, once again to frigid temperatures. Destination: Dhikala, the core section of Corbett, located deep inside the jungle. It was almost an hour drive just to the gates. Once we got there, it was an additional 2-hour winding, bumpy drive through the jungle to reach our base camp.

Along the way, we stopped to look at crocodiles and continued to keep our eyes peeled for any sign of tigers.

This weekend, I had no less than four food comas, largely attributable to the buffet meals at our Dhikala camp.

Safari number three brought us enticingly close to tigers. There were footprints everywhere. There were three sightings the previous day, so we parked our jeep in the locations of those sightings and waited breathlessly for a glimpse of stripes. There was one area of road that a tigress and her two cubs frequented, according to our guides, but we were unlucky. I wasn't expecting any sightings this weekend, but to know that they were so close was exhilarating.

Before heading back to the camp, we stopped by a rickety old watchtower, where we took in the stunning view, observed a herd of eleven wild elephants from afar, and ate some bhel puri.

Dinnertime was a gluttonous event. I went back for round after round. Back at our 12-person bungalow, sleep was instant.

Early Sunday morning, I and three others headed out for an elephant trek, while the rest continued with another jeep safari.

Rather than keep to a trail, our guide let our elephant wander where it pleased, which involved a lot of bushwacking and tramping through thick underbrush. The plains where we roamed had an incredibly diverse range of flora. The plants around us changed every five minutes.

We spotted a jackal (it's tiny and hard to see compared to the sambar in the picture).

Today, it happened. We heard a tiger roar. Fine, it could have been a leopard or jungle cat, but it was undeniably the roar of a wild cat. I fancy that it was a tiger, having tired somewhat of having seeing just tracks so far and nothing else. The sound seemed like it was right behind us, but we quickly realized that the source was probably farther away, given the loudness of the roar and the silence of our surroundings.

Food coma number three later, we were on the road back into town. Final destination: back to Delhi.

But the weekend wasn't quite over. Just before reaching home, Manish surprised us all by taking us instead to his parents home in northwest Delhi, where they had prepared for us a full home-cooked Indian meal.

I was excited beyond words. We had fried fish stuffed with a coriander paste, boiled eggs in masala gravy, fingerling potatoes sprinkled with mustard seeds, spicy prawns, vegetable pulao, raita and fresh salad with a home-made chutney, and gulab jamun for dessert. This was food coma number four, and it ended our trip in the most satisfying way possible.

It was an indescribable feeling to be back in nature again. I felt like I had been holding my breath for three months and could finally let it out.

Pictures up on Manish's facebook.