Wednesday, June 29, 2011

We're back!


Ladies and gents,
Sadly, our time with you has come to an end. Dayna and I have finally arrived in Canada after 6 incredible weeks in India. After leaving Rishikesh, we spent the rest of our time in the cooler Northern region of the country, among vast green mountains and heavy river rapids. I had a particular appreciation for the natural rivers after a month and a half of man-made ones (the kind dripping from my forehead).

Anyways, instead of boring you with the details of our last couple of weeks in India, I thought I'd give you a reflection of our trip. First of all, I can't talk about India without discussing the food. We initially took all the health precautions one could possibly take, but eventually loosened up (figuratively...and eventually literally). We went from dousing ourselves in purell and refusing to touch street food with a ten foot pole to regarding a man sitting on the ground in a loincloth who serves chana masala and gulab jamin by scooping it up with his hands and placing it into a soggy leaf as an acceptable eatery. Alright, I’ll admit that I took a few too many risks with my food choices, but some the best Indian food came from places that would fail to meet a single health standard in Canada. As we traveled around India I really enjoyed trying all of the different cuisines that were specific to their regions. Although I loved the food in the north, I must say that the south was the only place where the food actually brought tears to my eyes. The food was delicious but incredibly spicy! I'm sorry to take sides in the north vs south rivalry, but the north really disappointed me with their spice. And as a white ashkenazi woman that says a lot.

Anyways, it was interesting to see the way that Indian culture varied among different regions and the ways in which some regions interacted with American culture. In the north, it was clear to us that many cities were much more influenced by their exposure to American culture than others. In these places, seeing a woman wearing pants on the street wasn't necessarily a spectacle, whereas in the south, absolutely everyone we saw wore the traditional Indian garb. The women wore either saris or silwars (a 3-piece suit consisting of a tunic, pants, and a scarf) while the men either wore standard pants or loincloths. On a side note, what remained a mystery to me was how the women wearing saris/silwars were able to remain so beautiful in such ungodly heat. The men in the south had it pretty good in their airy loincloths, while the women were forced to shvitz up a storm in their conservative attire. I'm sorry India, I was pretty accepting of your customs, but this social injustice I could not stand for. Maybe I was just bitter that I wasn't afforded the same airy comforts as the men, or perhaps it was my intuition as a recent liberal arts graduate with a degree in kvetching. Either way, I felt it was my duty to speak out. If only I had more than a week in the south, I could have had time to establish WFLE (Women For Loincloth Equality), but sadly, one week was not enough to become the next Bhakti Freidan.

Even though we saw how drastically Indian culture differed between regions, there's one thing that remained consistent: the universal rejection of toilet paper as a wiping option (Random tip: NEVER shake anyone's left hand).

But in all seriousness, one thing that seemed fixed along all regions was the kindness and warmth that we felt from locals all over the country. Right now Dayna and I would probably be mangy rotting corpses in the middle of Connaught Place if it had not been for the help of many kind-hearted people that we met along the way. Of course I'm not overlooking the many times we were taken advantage of as naive tourists, but considering that we were in a country of more than 1 billion people, where poverty is widespread, the compassion and generosity that we so often encountered was admirable. One particular instance was en-route to Rishikesh from Varanasi. Dayna and I had booked separate trains and while Dayna's train brought her straight to our destination, my train arrived in a connecting city called Moradabad where I also had to take a local bus at night. On the train I met the only person in my car that spoke more than 2 words of English. Although he couldn’t speak English fluently, he knew enough to keep me entertained on such a long train ride. When we arrived in Moradabad he insisted on buying me food, bringing me by rickshaw to the bus station, and speaking directly to the bus driver to ensure that I was safe on the bus. I was shocked to encounter a person who naturally treated a complete stranger as a close friend. I think I was just particularly amazed coming from the agoraphobic country of Canada, where an accidental brush of a stranger's hand warrants an apology and where looking at a stranger in the eye is considered a federal offense. Both of us were amazed to meet people who were quick to warm up to us. In fact, we received a combined total of 3 marriage proposals on this trip. Maybe our Hindu suitors wouldn't have been so rash with their offers had they known that I'm Jewish and that my dad doesn't have 3 cows to give as a dowry (Unless we're talking about the frozen burgers in my freezer).

Speaking of cows, we can't forget our many "out-of-body" experiences in public transit where we transformed ourselves from members of the tribe to members of a herd of cattle. I warned you a few blogs ago that Dayna and I became a force to be reckoned with in the rowdy swarms of people vying for a seat. However, on the third last day of our trip, I came to an important realization as a result of another "out-of-body" experience, this time as I was transformed into an inanimate object. I realized that getting a seat on a crowded bus is not necessarily an advantage. After fending off my opponents who unsuccessfully attempted to push, body check and choke their way in front of me, I managed to get a seat beside a nice elderly lady. My victory, however, was short lived. Soon after, I realized that getting a seat doesn't necessarily result in increased comfort. Rather, it means making new meaning of the phrase "You are what you [s]eat". In addition to being awarded a seat, I was awarded the opportunity to serve as a seat for another passenger, who was well informed of the unwritten rule in India that laps are public property.

We tried just about every mode of transportation: motorcycle, bus, rickshaw, and train, and I must say that my personal favorite was in the back of a pickup truck on top of chicken crates. Even though we didn't have the forethought to reserve our seat in the A/C sleeper class, I think the 0 rupees that we invested were well spent.

Alright, I think I've abused my writing privileges long enough. Thanks so much for following us on our adventures. Our trip to India has been out of this world. We've had our fair share of highs and lows, and have made some unbelievable memories along the way. We hope you've enjoyed sharing in our experiences. If you didn't enjoy yourself, don't worry, our tireless efforts have not been in vain. At least you helped us engage in every Jewish woman's dream: lengthy, self-indulgent rants about ourselves. So, thank YOU!

Friday, June 17, 2011


Adrienne and I spent the last ten days in Rishikesh, a beautiful valley city situated on the cleaner part of the Ganges River. Why so long in the same city, you wonder? Well, we met great local people who showed us the highlights in and around Rishikesh. But first, let me introduce you to the inhabitants of Rishikesh: Hindu pilgrims, tourists, cows and monkeys! But do not be fooled by these adorable chimps . They aren't as harmless as they look. The other day I was walking up the stairs to our hostel room when I turned a corner and found five monkeys staring me down with evil eyes that said "take one step closer to us and our food and we'll clobber you"... as if I had invaded their territory! I froze and without thinking returned the stare. Bad move. Just when I feared they were going to attack I heard Adrienne yell from our room "Dayna! watch out for evil monkeys!!" Ade opened the door and I bolted for the room. Safe at last! Dayna-1, Rhesus-0. But this score has changed since that incident. The greatest words of wisdom we received while planning this trip was not to look the monkeys in the eyes. But curiosity overpowered sensibility and more than once we had to run for our lives!

On the topic of animals I should note that despite the distractingly cute (and dangerous) monkeys the cows have still not lost their novelty. We think it's hilarious when a cow decides to mosey on down to the rickety pedestrian bridge (which is the only way to cross the river into the neighbourhood where we were staying) and take a nap in the middle of the bridge, and stop all foot traffic! Also, on the topic of cows, I'll take this opportunity to restate that Adrienne was headbutted by a cow!

Anyways, enough about monkeys and cows and onto our adventures in Rishikesh. We made friends with locals who were kind enough to show us around. We went on a short hike to a beautiful waterfall just outside of Rishikesh. This short hike turned out to be merely a stroll in the park in comparison to our following activity: a four day hike! We followed the pilgrims' route through the mountains and finally reached a 3500 year old Shiva Temple. What an amazing experience to observe and partake in Hindu rituals that have taken place on top of that mountain for thousands of years! After relaxing on the mountain for a bit, drinking tea and chatting with a nice Indian family, we began what should have been a five hour drive back to Rishikesh. It ended up taking nearly twelve hours because of all the traffic jams and detours caused by mudslides.

Back in Rishikesh, we decided to stay a few more days as the city offers so many great activities. We went rafting on the Ganges, slept at a campsight, and then Adrienne did the ultimate sport- bunjy jumping! I was watching from a distance, shaking with fear as Adrienne voluntarily jumped off an 85 meter cliff! When I asked her how it was, she shrugged and replied "not that bad". I think I was more scared watching her jump than she was jumping!

Anyways, we are now approaching the last few days of our trip and are packing in as much India as possible before our flight Monday night. So, now were off to do some yoga!  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Varanasi...or very-nasty?

We've been out of touch with civilization for the past few days (Dayna will tell you about it later) but we're finally onto the Varanasi post #2. Actually, I think 2 is a very appropriate number to associate with this city. Along with the monumental Ganges River, Varanasi's most distinct feature is its poop-filled streets. For a holy city, Varanasi is pretty impure. To get around the area near the Ganges River, one must maneuver their way through a maze of narrow alleyways filled with obstacles of various sizes and bacterial infections. The roads really do feel like a maze. But instead of dead ends, there are inconveniently located cows and large puddles of mystery liquid (its better not to know). The day we arrived we found it difficult to understand what makes Varanasi such a holy city. It can't be the heavily polluted Ganges river inhabited by floating tires and 3-eyed fish. Well, the moment I stepped foot into the streets a came up with a hypothesis: cows! an abundance of cows! Cows have roamed the streets of just about every city we've visited, but none have compared to the mass horde in Varanasi. Cows are considered sacred animals according to the Hindu religion... coincidence? I think not! I've heard of many people who have felt spiritually uplifted after their visit to Varanasi. Perhaps they were lucky enough to get infected with one of the many sacred cow diseases.

The sight of a cow poses a difficult dilemma: walk behind or front? If you walk behind, there's a good chance of receiving a face-ful of the key ingredient of the mystery puddle. But on the other hand, a couple of days ago I learned that walking in front is just as dangerous. I discovered this as I was headbutted by a cow in the middle of the road. We've been subject to so many near death road experiences, a rear-ending was bound to happen at least once or twice.

Along with my spiritually enriching run-in with a cow, our 5-day stay in Varanasi showed us the close connection that Hindus have with the Ganges river. We appreciated watching the beautiful nightly ceremony that takes place in front of the river. We also witnessed the death rituals that take place by the Ganges. Many Hindus request that their remains be thrown into the river when they die. There were a few times when we actually watched bodies being burned in front of the river. It became clear that the religious and non-religious lives of the people of Varanasi are closely tied to the river. One morning I woke up at 5 AM to watch the beautiful sunrise and see the locals bathing (not in a voyeuristic way), washing their clothes and even taking swimming lessons.

 Alright, that's all I have time for right now. I promise we'll try to write more frequently, but we're just having too much fun!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

new post has finally arrived!

Hi there!
Yikes, I apologize, this post was way overdue. I'm writing from Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India.
Varanasi was endowed with its holy status because of its main attraction, the Ganges River. But before I tell you about Varanasi, I need to tell you about our experience in a city that is just as well-endowed. After our visit to Agra we spent a couple of days in Khajuraho, the Kama Sutra capital of the world. But don’t worry folks, this is not the Las Vegas of India. None of the famous lovemaking is performed by people, only represented in temple carvings. That is, unless we’re talking about my intimate bond with muttar paneer, which unites my two greatest loves, curry and cheese, in an orgy of flavors.

Last Wednesday we arrived in Khajuraho from Agra after a train connection through a scorching city called Jhansi (it was reportedly 49 degrees). Alright, alright, I’m sure you’re all eager for me to get right to talking about the temple carvings (or just eager to finish reading this post because you feel uncomfortable (sorry mom and dad)), but before I get to the climax, at least let me talk about the city itself. For the first time in a while, we were lucky to have found a terrific hostel (Hotel Surya), where we were able to shield ourselves from the 45 degree heat that had penetrated into the city. We also lucked out by getting to know a couple of really nice people from Khajuraho, who showed us around the city and brought us to places that we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. A highlight of the tour was our visit to a small village on the outskirts of Khajuraho. We’ve seen so many areas in the North that have been impacted by the tourist industry, so being able to see a part of the untainted North India was very special. We visited a tiny village inhabited by people who were extremely poor, yet incredibly welcoming. It was crazy to see such a small village that was entirely self-functioning. They even had a court house (which was just a small 5 foot platform made out of cow dung) and their own constitution (a list of 20 laws written on a plaque (presumably also made out of cow dung)). What was most astonishing was the sheer amount of ways these people used cow dung. If only the people of Varanasi knew how much of a hot commodity cow dung is. With all the cow poop on the street someone could really become the next Donald Trump of India. Dayna and I are considering scrapping our travel plans to start our own poop collection business called Two Girls One Scoop.

Anyways, our stay in Khajuraho was short, but definitely worthwhile.

Alright, alright, and now for what you've all been waiting for: our tour of the Kama Sutra temples. These elaborate sandstone temples were erected as early as 920 CE. What made these temples special were the intricate carvings on the outer walls that mounted their base. However, with the risk of losing our pg 13 rating I will not describe the carvings in explicit detail. Instead, I will leave you with this music video, which I think aptly sums up what we’ve seen in Khajuraho: