Monday, October 27, 2008

love and peace or else

a gentle word
of kindness
and peace prevailed..

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

where the streets have no name

I can't stand still for more than two days, especially since going into the water is not an option..
so I leave the comfort of my beach-front room in Kannur in northern Kerala and decide to head to Wayanad to the wildlife sanctuary there.

after a quick tour of a tea plantation on the way, I wait at a tea stall opposite the plantation and have a chat with workers on a break. George, in broken English, reminds me his name when I leave and asks me not to forget it.

hitching a ride in jeeps is what locals do here. so, I climb into the back of the jeep with four others going the same way.

a bumpy ride and a monosyllabic conversation on a jeep through the forest, and I am at the gate of the wildlife sanctuary. After checking into the nearest guest house, I go for a safari. I see peacocks, different kinds of birds, deer- spot and barking (extremely rare, apparently), and four wild elephants! a mongoose crosses the road in a hurry.

"very lucky" the guide exclaims, "you might see a tiger with this luck" (although they are somewhat rare during this time, he adds). my luck runs out by the time the tour ends, so no tigers in the wild for me here..

early next morning, I head to Kochi. I am the first passenger to board and make myself comfortable in the "ladies only" seat behind the driver, a decision I regret moments later- thanks to what seems to be reckless driving to me 'now'! Seven years have passed since i last drove in India.

I have a cast on my right foot, fairly dirty by now, complete with a miniature Great Wall of China and wishes all over.. as I discovered after being on about 5 buses, the one thing that it gets me, besides pitiful looks, is the best seat in house, sometimes even two of them.
old ladies ask "Accident?", I nod, indian style. they look at my foot, shake their heads in pity while muttering words of sympathy in malayalam, a hand resting on their chin, just like they do when they discover that I am 34 and not accompanied by my mother or my husband.

after just about a week of traveling in India, it feels like Bollywood isn't such an exaggeration, after all..
the downside, though, is that in the land of Ayurveda, I think twice about getting a massage. It just doesn't seem fair to the slightly broken ankle.

a couple days in Kochi, after watching an extremely good performance of Kathakali and a trance-like ritual dance of Theyyam, I head to the place on everyone's must-see list in Kerala- the backwaters- an intricate network of waterways that is the slippery highway in Kerala.

my boat is an extravagant one-bedroom affair with a western style toilet, an upper deck and a glass-top dining table and upholstered chairs on the lower deck.

i settle in, relax and watch life go by in tiny settlements merely meters wide.
occasionally, there are other boats- tourists smile- content in their personal tranquility. the village folks peek out and wave, two men walk on the village street by the water, an arm carelessly flung over his friend's shoulder perhaps discussing the best mobile phone plan, children hold forsaken tire tubes on their head and jump into the water, a rice boat passes by covered with a bright blue tarp, held in place by an old kerosene lamp, a little girl in a magenta skirt and anklets does a little dance as the boat cruises by.
men in small canoes nod their heads, a slight shake of the head towards the right signifying hello in Malayalam, and ask me if I want to buy crab.

another cup of tea on a rainy afternoon while Stan Getz improvises on the tenor sax in the background- a sharp contrast to the drone of the engine- which drowns as it sprinkles- rain forming endless circles on the surrounding waters.

the boat moves on, forming an invisible path through the water, waves crashing against it.

its just another day on the backwaters in Kerala- god's own country- a reputation well deserved.
peace and tranquility abound here- you only have to take a step away from the hustle and bustle of the city or rather a boat away..

in god's country

a fractured ankle doesn't tie me to a place anymore. perhaps, that comes with being on the road for the last seven months- traveling seems to be second nature.

after ten days of spending quality time with my nephews, watching movies over and over again, and savoring home-cooked food (some dishes I haven't had in years!) I decide to make my way to Kerala.

my first brush with Bangalore traffic and I miss my train by about 5 minutes. determined to not run into traffic again the next day, that very night I, a crutch and a small backpack, take a night bus to Kannur.

fast forward a 10 hour bus ride, and I write this while reclining on a chair lying on a raised platform, in a coconut grove, overlooking the beach, a hundred yards away, the backwaters, closer than that.
I sip on the hot tea that Sanni, the beach house caretaker, made, after an excellent feast of coastal malabar food.
I hear the birds chirping, the roll of the thunder faraway loud and clear, the moans of the ocean as it caresses the sand.

It starts to rain, and I run to take shelter on the wooden day bed in the 'veranda' of my room, tightly clutching my room key on a shell keyring- a little memory from my childhood.
I am thoroughly enjoying this magical moment, where time is standing still. I plan to do just the same.

For the first time in seven months, I toss my watch on the bed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

bohemian rhapsody- part 2

pushin' too hard
early next morning, I am awoken by my urge to take a long, hot shower- a luxury I will be denied for the few weeks in the countryside. I pack my bags while my guesthouse owner reminisces about his few months in san francisco years ago. I hand over the San Francisco calendar i have been carrying and leave him gazing pensively at the Golden Gate Bridge.

the russian van, we call it Dorj, is loaded with all the camping equipment, and groceries, bought yesterday at a supermarket for the trip. soon, we add ourselves to the load and am face to face with 6 people we will be sharing the mongolian countryside with for the next 19 days- cosy and fragrant, as a friend later put it ;)

twenty minutes out of ulan bataar and we are out in the middle of nowhere already.
if there's a 'nowhere', it has to be in mongolia and it's everywhere.

the silence in the countryside is boundless, empty yet so full. It takes a moment for us to register it and takes many more to embrace it. every day in the desert, we pass herds of two-humped camels, their humps flapping about as they run, and in the mountains, stoopy shouldered yaks desultory gnawing the sparse, coarse carpet of dry grass. horses roam wild on grasslands, massive sand dunes as the backdrop, framed by black hills in the distant horizon and land baked into a lunar crust. its spectacular..

every few hours, an overloaded van or truck passes by the driver wrestling with the wheel. apart from that, we feel human presence with the far away gers, smoke bellowing from their chimney or an isolated nomad, who chaperons his herd towards greener pastures.

some days in the countryside are hot, mercilessly so, but the nights are always cold, and windy. the country has a harsh, unforgiving climate, nature unleashing its fury everyday, but there's a certain peace and comfort to the people's existence, which cannot be discounted.
the blazing sun, the howling wings a part of their daily life, they go about doing their chores, milking mares, yaks, goats -all with a tough, calm demeanor, which constantly amazes us. their laughter is pure, rich- just like the yak cream they serve with fried dough. every time we enter a ger, we are served airag- fermented mare's milk, which invites an initial wince from all of us, or salty mongolian tea.
an indigo sky spills light into the room and images from ulan bataar linger on TVs powered by solar panels, while a cup of vodka is passed around. there's always a lone, bare bulb hanging from the center of the ger, an iron cooking stove and enough vodka to drown sorrows and the cold. outside a guard dog, sheep, goats, horses, yaks brave the weather along with a motorcycle or two, seats adorned with a mongolian seat and gloves, attached to the handle bars.

every other day, we pass a spiritless, desolate town and stop long enough to stock up on vegetables, beer, bread. schoolgirls, their cheeks unnaturally rosy, sunburnt perhaps, in white frilly dresses and a big pink bow in their straight black hair, saunter through the uneven streets, giggle and wave at us.

some days are relatively uneventful, with the usual stopping at the forked roads before us and trying to agree on the one to take, instant lunches and refilling our water container.

but most others are more social and memorable - staying at a random ger, milking goats early in the morning, taking a hot shower in a public bathhouse after days, watching a sheep being skinned, dancing to mongolian rock music in a night club in a small town, eating stone-grilled yak meat topped with cheese slices, staying at a wrestler's house, giving ibuprofen to a woman we meet for her toothache, stopping at a stream for an afternoon to do our laundry, taking a dip in the frigid lake water or just drinking beer and learning dutch songs about a cute puppy who grows up to be a bad dog!
our second day in the countryside, we get a chance to watch wild rams fight from a distance.

some mornings we wake up to yaks, sheep and goats invading our campsite- goats munching on tent cords.

sometimes DC stops the van, gets out and mutters something in Mongolian- points to the map. smokes a cigarette, comes back and starts driving again. but most times, its us who shout 'zogs'(stop)- there are all different kinds of zogs- is pee zogs, lunch zogs, oi (wood) zogs, camping zogs, and once- zogs zogs - to take a photo by the zogs sign!

morning comes easy- a cup of tea, sometimes with a hint of onions or tomatoes from the night before, is always welcome on a crisp morning. breakfast is normally stale bread with jelly, butter and mongolian cookies- the size of biscottis but harder.

lunch happens on the road, surrounded by the mostly barren, treeless lands enclosed in habitual tranquility, overlooking a herd of camels or horses.
barring a few days, when we consume leftovers from the previous night or stop for freshly-cooked dumplings or rice in a local restaurant, lunch is sandwiches- bread with tomatoes, butter, cucumbers. occasionally, on special days, carefully rationed cheese slices make an appearance.

dinner is an elaborate affair complete with a campfire. dinner is pasta, noodles or rice with vegetables- stir-friend or boiled.

every evening we set up camp in remote corners of the country- on level ground, whipped by persistent winds, three tents clinging resolutely to a forlorn patch of land. on stopping for the night, tents are hastily put up, water is boiled in the back of the van for pasta/rice/veggies, while the fireman/woman for the evening goes looking for wood, before night falls.

every night, warm in my personal silence and the grey silk sleepsheet, i curl up in fetal position, wearing all the woolen clothes I have, the sleeping bag half-open- i feel claustrophobic in the mummy bags. i think about the millions of stars above me, and savor the infinite silence.

one day all of us sleep under the stars, out in the open. the night buckles around us, a fire crackle breaking that deafening silence and its echoes. it is just the desert and us.

another night we stop at DC elder sisters ger. as it is established that we are spending the night here, we chop vegetables that we have been carrying around, while DCs sister makes noodles, for the noodle-meat soup that will be dinner.
a healthy, heartful dinner later, the men smoke home-made cigarettes while we work on our mongolian and try a conversation. and just like that, amidst this exchange, a boy in the ger starts singing, a song passed on through generations perhaps. on our part, each of us sings a song from our native country. that night, we sleep in their ger, six people huddled on the floor, while our hosts mind their herds through the night.

In ulastaiy, DCs hometown, we decide to sample the city life of restaurants and karaoke bars. Alex, with his dreadlocks and a nose piercing, is mistaken to be a woman, so a mongolian man asks him for a dance. Another steps in to ask Astrid for a dance, then decides she's not quite right for him- she's too tall. The one who asks Mayo for a dance, however, doesn't have height as a criterion!
At midnight, after our share of dancing and beautiful renditions of "Wonderwall", "Eight Days a Week", "Bohemian Rhapsody" (and a very bad one of "California Dreaming" ), and unsuccessful attempts of breaking the door of another bar open, we make our way back home.

Two days in the rattling russian van, and we gingerly make our way back to the capital, trying to soak in as much silence as we possibly can. our last night is in a ger, after an hour of being lost in the wilderness, DC stopping and reversing every five minutes as he encounters dried stream beds. on reaching UB, after a quick hour at the black market to buy mongolian VCDs, we find ourselves in cafe Amsterdam chowing down on their cheese and ham paninis.

as i sit and write at 16mm, a cafe in a popular hutong in Beijing, I am taken back in time to the mongolian countryside, its glorious landscapes, the reverberating silence and nothingness, which seemed to fill everything there and then, suddenly, it hits me that tomorrow i fly to one of Asia's most densely populated country- India- after more than three very eventful years.

i think, i am ready- to make peace, to exercise patience, to be home again.