Monday, January 24, 2011

Agra to Khajuraho: Eat, Sleep, Ride and Reflect

After leaving Agra and seeing the incomparable Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, it seemed as if everything would be an anti-climax but quite to the contrary, partly to the cessation of the pulsing tooth and getting into a rhythm of the trip, its seems as if each day has its own uniqueness not the least of which is eating, sleeping, riding and having time to reflect on the marvels of the universe.

Within a few hours of riding from Agra, we left behind the heavy cloud of smoke and grime, so characteristic of large cities and the agglomeration that is an extension of New Delhi. To our delight, the temperature also warmed up, starting the day in the high single digits and reaching the mid-twenties quite rapidly, as the blue sky became the norm. Riding in glorious sunshine with a faint coolness in the air, is ideal for cyclists.

Even the traffic started to abate, obeying the gravitational model of traffic generation: the volume being directly related to the size of the cities and inversely related to the distance between them. After Agra only Gwalior and Jhansi were of any size, and soon thereafter, we left the four lane national highway, for the mostly quite two lane roads. Much has been said about the chaotic traffic in India, and certainly in the cities and at most cross roads, where people, animals and goods are transferred from wholesale to retail; from large buses to small tuk tuks, from trucks to small vans, it is noisy, dusty and with a fight for space seemingly disorderly. And yet, after a few days of riding, cyclists are the most nimble and despite our loads, we are able to navigate and like the locals, we too can fight for a fair share of the space. Although I have no musical talents, nor did I ever aspire to acquire any, at times in the heaviest of traffics jams, I think of the hapless concert master, on the first day of an orchestra’s rehearsal, full of head-strong musician: everyone knows the score, ie. the rules of the road, and yet wants to play the music their own way; in the midst of all the other players, I am humming the choral section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and while not a perfect rendition, it feels and sounds good.

One of the joys of riding and particularly being in India, is that it’s largely vegetarian, and after two and a half weeks, and riding about 700 kilometers, we still not have had any meat, and that the food is wonderful. Partly because of building up a healthy appetite, but mostly because of eating “authentically” on the street and on the roads, without menus, without a discussion of the degree of spiciness, no specifying of ingredients, (unlike the interminable ritual of order a coffee in the western world), there has not been a single meal which has not begun with both of us declaring “this is delicious”. There is the ubiquitous chai, hot, spicy and fragrant, an ounce of which is an energy booster, and at its best, from a chai wallah who takes pride in adding fresh ginger and boiling it long enough to meet an exacting standard. For breakfasts, potato stuffed parathas with thick yogurt-like curd have become our staples. For lunch, usually at a place where truckers stop, it’s a “tali”, meaning a complete meal of several dishes, (ie curries, dhal, aloo gobi, rice and tandoori baked breads), the best feature of which is that it’s an all you can eat affair, and we have a prodigious appetite and the food is offered and served with delight. Along the way pick up bunches of small bananas, tangerines and as fragrant guavas are in season, we buy them by the kilo. In the evenings, we have simple bread omelettes, full of spices, a simple soup or perhaps more breads, and in the touristy towns, it’s hard to resist pasta, which unlike in most places in North America, has not been siting pre-cooked, is freshly cook, el dente!

Accommodations have also been excellent ranging from staying in one of only eight rooms in the fortified palace in Orchha from the 1500s run by the Madhya Pradesh tourist department, where being the only guest were treated royally, to small guest houses along the way, where the staff to guest ratio is at least five to one. On a couple of nights, there being no heating available, we did benefit from having as many as six heavy blankets as the temperatures dipped to single digits: this and our mode of travel, the fact that we are not eating meat, is our contribution to lowering carbon emissions.

Beyond the basics, the riding, scenery and sights have been also great, such that between Orchha and Nowgong, we covered 110kms on the flat to rolling two lane country road, almost effortlessly. As in most parts of the world, where people still live off the land, it’s the people waving, smiling and greeting, who make the journey special.

As if great food, comfortable stays, and friendly people were not enough there is the ever present antiquity, which is barely if at all mentioned in our guidebooks, the focus of which are the star attractions. In Gwallior, we had a peak from a distance at a fort from a distance on top of a 300 foot hill as we rode into town. After a quick shower, and no lunch, we took a ride to the easterly gate, where a magnetic force seemed to draw us up a steep cobble-stoned ramp, through five different gates to ward off attackers, to the fort itself and various temples. Exiting by the western gate, we were once again full of “wows” as we marveled at the massive carvings directly into the stone face of the hill.

Between Gwalior and Datia, from a distance of about 10kms over the horizon, a series of spires loomed large and even though it was getting late in the day, we were drawn to Sonagira, well off the main road, with dozens of breath-taking temples dating back to the 1500s. Later that day, stopped at a small village cross-roads, peaking through an opening was the Datia Fort, eliciting more “wows” of excitement. To add to our delight the only guest house in the region had a recently remodeled room, with a clear view of the fort for us to admire in the rays of the near full moon, and a warm welcome from Israil Khan, who is from Kochin, who is a Muslim, but we could not help but imagine that at one time, his last name might have been Cohen?

We are now in Khajuraho, a small village with about 25 astonishing temples dating from 900 to 1100, reminiscent of Angkor Wat in style and period of construction. This was the place I initially found by accident and being one of the more remote World Heritage sites, held special attraction and allure. It being well of the beaten path also accounts for why so many of its delicate and intricate stone carvings have survived in excellent condition for more than a 1000 years. Although comprising only about 10% of the total, the most dramatic are the erotic carvings, some a meter in height, showing the range imagination that might make not only the ancients but some current visitors blush. To some they might give a new meaning to the term “hard-core” but above all the carvings illustrate a profound joy and love of life, a love of life that continues to permeate this Incredible India. Our life is simple in this land full of contrasts where appropriately the national flower is the beautiful lotus that can flourish under any, and often adverse conditions whose pedals are held together by central stem, perhaps like a divine force that unites all people of diverse religions and beliefs.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Some selected photos

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cycling 80 kms to the nearest dentist and monkey proofing in Agra

On day three we arrived in Vrindavan, the birth place of Hare Krishna, a spiritual center with 4000 temples. The town is like most things in India, a study in contrasts. From the ancient temples dating back to the 1500s with intricate carvings, falling into disrepair, to a new monstrous one being built by one man at a cost of about $300million, who according to a local fancies himself to be a god. The road approaching the town is beautifully paved and huge condo towers are sprouting in the fields, whereas the pilgrimage route around the town, is like a bumpy road in the desert, apparently the result of someone having forgotten that sewers are to be built before the road is constructed, hence all the digging and bedlam.

During our first morning, we meet Rasa, a professional musician, a warm, charismatic, Polish man with a calm presence, who lives in Shanghai, and was off to a music lesson but we agree to meet for dinner in the hotel, where he owns a unit, having intentions of perhaps living there on a full time basis. While touring the town with our bikes, I become more aware of a nagging tooth ache, which has progressed over the last few days, which I reluctantly decide will need attention.
At the information office of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness ISKCON, a very friendly person, while short on tourist info is most willing to help with finding an endodontist in Agra, some 80 kms away. The prospect of going back to Delhi, and having to retrace our route and spend a few days there, just did not appeal. Within seconds he proudly shows me the results of his search, and I am copying the particulars when I notice that the address is somewhere in California. On my mentioning this he says “Google is not God” to which my instinctive retort is that “God is not Google”.

At Vrindivan, as in many spiritual centres of the world, the search for meaning goes on, and the struggle is best manifested in the two solitudes: God and Google.
Late over dinner with Rasa, after an exchange of travel experiences, our talk returns to the meaning of life and his being a devotee of Hare Krishna, we share opinions about the emptiness of the western way of life with all the material possessions, versus the contentment of many India, with so little. He is impressed by our mode of travel and our preference partly out of necessity, to not consume anything but food and accommodations.

He offers me his dentist in Delhi, a driver wallah who could drive us to Delhi and back in one day at a reasonable cost, but I politely declined, having myself found on the internet, a dentist who seemed highly qualified, who does general dentistry and also a specialist in the technically complex process of implants. Thanks Google!
The ride of about 80kms to Agra was noteworthy as my pedal stokes kept pace with the pulsations in my tooth, but my mind was more occupied by the prospect of having a root canal treatment in a strange setting since I my own selected purveyor of dental services in Toronto for the last 45 years. But after three appointments with Dr Ajay Singh, I think my tooth is now well and we were able to enjoy the sublime experience of the Taj Mahal at sunrise. To try to describe the experience is to repeat the trite as this is truly one of the marvels of the world and one that more than lives up to its reputation. Beyond the majesty of the lofty structure, the intricate details in white marble is the knowledge that it was built in 1631 as a tomb by Shah Jahan after his wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. Can there be a greater devotion to another? The sequel to this saga, and surprisingly it has not been made into a Hollywood blockbuster, is that the son of Jahan imprisoned the father, for either squandering the people’s money or squandering his inheritance.

Walking back to our Hotel Maya, a lovely guest house filled with colourful Magen Davids, one for each of the six chakras and our resplendent with white marble floors, walls, marble end tables to match, I am thankful for all that we have and reminded that our most immediate need, after a number of cool days and nights, when nothing would dry,the temperature warmed up, and our laundry is safe and dry, having strung all of our clothes through the sleeves on the line. Welcome to monkey proofing your laundry in Agra.

Namaste + Hare Krishna

From New Delhi to Vrindavan, India

On arrival in Delhi, the front page of the newspaper blared that the school vacation is extended because of the cold, and that numerous flights, thankfully not ours, and trains were cancelled because temperatures are about five degrees below normal with record lows of 40 years. Because of the cold theatre owners were bemoaning the fact that people are not venturing out in the evenings and numerous deaths were associated with the deep freeze. Cold is hardly what one associates with Indida and It’s a small consolation, but we did have early warning that this will be a cool trip, not as in the 70’s lingo but as in temperatures being lower than what one generally associates with India. My early planning suggested that nights would be in the teens and during the day, it would warm up to about 20 degrees, with a likelihood of some fog and a rare drizzle.
During the ride from IGI (Indira Gandhi International) airport, we were in our own daze, having departed from Perth at 2:30 a.m. but we rapidly had a sense of being in India. The traffic had its unique way of flowing, thanks to the belief of drivers that by constantly blowing their horn they create imaginary spaces where there is none, and that flashing the bright beams, somehow acts as jet propulsion energy, a new branch of quantum physics, an invisible after burner, speeding them along to the next opportunity to break precipitously.
At our comfortable guest house, Soni Villa in Gurgaon, we were warmly greeted by Sunjay the manager and Sunny the owner. The old fashioned single element electric heater in our room, potentially deadly to the touch, did take a bit of the chill off in our marble clad room, clearly designed to cope with the heat of summer. We spent a day getting acclimatized by walking about in this sprawling suburb of high rise office buildings, hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks that have transformed the sleepy rural village over the last 15 years.
One benefit of starting our cycling in 4 degree cold and 100% humidity, was that packing our gear was remarkably quick: we wore nearly all our clothes, properly layered. By riding we quickly got a sense of the “real” India. There is no substitute to seeing first-hand the massive pace of construction with high rises sprouting out of fields, heavy machinery alongside women in colourful saris toiling along the roads. From a real estate perspective, most telling are the simple 10’ by 10’ tent structures used as sales offices to sell the apartments.
Yet within 20km, we were back in familiar India – with colourful markets, vendors selling fruit, fabric and clothing, Brahman bulls in the street, water buffalo along the roads, carts being drawn by camels and horses, motorbikes, motorized tricycles and trucks overloaded with wares, and the constant noise of horns blaring as vehicles navigate roads and intersections. We stopped in a delightful small town, Sohna for a delicious meal: our standard fare of chipatis, daal, aloo gobi and sweet fragrant chai which we enjoyed at a simple family run place, watching the many men with colourful turbans and huge bushy mustaches – each craggy face furrowed with deep lines and piercing eyes, they were friendly and happy to be photographed. We watched women in colourful saris of red, orange and magenta, wearing thick shawls against the cold, toiling in the fields or engaged in other manual work, while children shouted greetings to us as we cycled by. Day one of our 80-day adventure involved a cool 72 km in the saddle – so far, so good.
Day two found us tempo riding along National Highway #2 a multi-lane expressway, of sorts, where traffic flows in every direction and a stay at Grace Hotel in Palwal, by which time we were getting used to the practice of the ancient art of highway usury. After a simple meal on the road, we were presented with a bill about double the norm. I said no and smiled. The waiter said yes with a straight face. I said no with an irritated voice. He said yes with a sterner face. I said no with a big laugh. Ten minutes of back and forth and the waiter retreats to consult and we leave after a reduction of about 40%, smiles all around.
At the above hotel, I asked the rate, to be told 2500 rupees. I say but website indicates 1400. An immediate OK; to be followed by a demand for taxes and service charges of 25%. We shake hands on 1500 all in. Welcome to traveling on the tourist highway. It pays to pay attention and not just to the traffic.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Year, Perth Australia and New Delhi India

I believe that this is my 16th time in Perth, (and Alison's 26th) which perhaps explains why I have not yet been motivated to blog about the experience, even though I could describe in excruciating detail the 26 hours of actual flying time and the nearly 48 hours it took to get here, by way of New Delhi. But having done it so many times, its no longer memorable and even the experience leaving Toronto at minus 20 degrees and arriving in plus 40 degrees Celsius, seemed hardly worth a mention. Then there are the endless bicycle paths along the river, lakes and ocean, the exotic cockatoos, pelicans and the famous black swans, and did I mention the white beaches of the Indian Ocean, and yet I have stayed away from the blog as if this is all so "ordinary".

Perhaps its spending time with family, ranging from Issy the patriarch in his ninth decade and his great grandson,Daniel in his nine month, and the familiar family patterns of eating, sleeping, nightly movies etc. which has been so much the focus of our stay; the fact that in about two weeks we logged about 450kms on the bikes and the odometer on my bike passed 71,000 kms also seems to have gone by without much fanfare.

Then I came across an article by Matt Ridley that described how the brain is more active when it is surprised. It cited an experiment wherein volunteers followed a moving pattern of dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot would appear out of step, which caused the brain to be more active.

Ridley then goes on to suggest that based on related research, that the human mind's main preoccupations is prediction, which is based largely on past experiences, and that the longer the memory of past events, the better ones ability to predict future possibilities.

In my case, as my short term memory is fading, I look forward to those random dots and recharging the memory bank with memories and experience, of which which I am sure there will be many, as we enter the New Year, in New Delhi, India and travel on to Kathmandu on two wheels.

Wishing you many new dots and experiences in the New Year,