26.02.2012

A recent journal excerpt:

Dharamsala.

Sitting in a little streetside place, sipping chai as locals eat aloo paratha. Chai waking and warming me up. These little places – can I even call them restaurants? – are my favorite. Serving up chai and chapathi and simple meals of rice and dal and maybe some veggies, they all house a single, tiny table in back that seats about eight strangers. The walls are plastered with posters depicting lord Krishna in various incarnations. I watch the old man (owner?) hover over the stove, charring chapathi and cooking onions to prep for the day, adding spices from refashioned plastic jars that once held things like Vicks VapoRub but now just look dusty (or spicy) from use. The other, younger man chops veggies, holding them by hand rather than relying on a cutting board. A crimson-clad monk takes the seat next to me. We smile as we share the experience of watching the man in control of our breakfast.

“Good food,” he says.

I smile and gush about my love for paratha. I learn that he comes here every day. We relax back into our benches as the radio plays in the background, the noise of passerby on the small street increasing as the morning gets on.

Fire spills up from below the chapathi like a cushion supporting that beautiful meeting of cast iron and searing dough. I think about how much I’d rather be here than the trusty guide book favorites (even though that banana pancake yesterday was heavenly), that I want to just stay in India, eating at places like this, maybe one day learning these old men’s secrets, how they achieve the perect char-to-doughiness ratio in their chapati and paratha, what the ideal spice mix is for a standard pot of dal. For now I’ll just sip my chai, enjoy the company of strangers, watch light spill in from over the mountains, and observe the master at work.

Mornings, part three

Apparently this is becoming a series?

Part One

Part Two

***

If you told my parents fifteen years ago that I’d one day grow up to be be a morning person, they would most likely laugh in your face. When I was little, waking me up was not so much a task as an endurance sport. Even if it took them an hour to cross the finish line, they always got an A for effort.

But in the past few years, things changed. I learned how to wake up early (my secret: just do it.) and learned to love and appreciate morning time.

Two days ago, we arrived in Amritsar, a beautiful city that houses the stunning Golden Temple and served as a stop-over in what turned out to be 40 hours of travel between Jaisalmer and Dharamsala. We arrived before sunrise and had only a few hours to see the city: after finding a hotel where we could buy time and breakfast (and COFFEE), we strapped on our packs and headed towards the temple. There’s something fun about seeing a city with a thirty pound pack on your back; hotels are nice and all, but it’s fun to feel like a true backpacker every once in a while, bus stations and dirtiness and uncertainty and everything.

We walked through Amritsar’s normally bustling streets just as the city was waking up, Sikh men cycling by with long beards and gorgeous turbans, children heading off to school, shopkeepers still setting up for the day. The city was completely different from others that we had visited so far (and the closest to Pakistan that I’ve ever been), and I was so happy to see it at this time: everything starting anew, no salesmen hawking their wares just yet, the morning light beautiful as always. I quickly realized that this was my new favorite time to see an unfamiliar place.

And then, yesterday morning — after arriving to beautiful Dharamsala and sleeping in a real bed for the first time in over 36 hours — I woke up energized and ready to explore my new surroundings. At 7 AM I laced up my boots, checked the weather (40 degrees and windy), piled on almost every layer of clothing in my pack, and set off. I spent over two hours walking through and around town, first to a small (and sadly no longer active) church 2 kilometers away and then through Dharamsala’s steep and winding streets. Everything was quiet, the air was crisp, and the fog was just lifting to reveal striking mountain views.

Seeing a new place with fresh eyes – fresh from a new day, fresh from new surroundings – is always so exciting. I quickly realized that I was falling in love with the town, built into the steep foothills of the Himalaya, with all its quirky shops and cafes and Free Tibet stickers everywhere. I mentioned in this post that I sometimes wonder what’s the best way to see a new city while traveling: how can I go about my day in order to walk away with an appreciation for my surroundings and an understanding of what the city?

I realized yesterday, though, that falling in love with a place is simple. Maybe like falling in love with a person? You open your eyes and realize where you are and a smile breaks out on your face and your heart starts to swell, bigger and bigger with each breathtaking mountain view and Tibetan monk and smiling child in a school uniform that you pass. And again, the morning made this even more perfect, more clear, more special to experience. Peaceful and new, I again saw shopkeepers opening their stalls, entertaining myself simply by looking at everything that the man at the convenience store sells and window-shopping the Tibetan handicrafts. Breathless from the steep roads and breathless from my excitement, I soaked it all in and relished my surroundings. With no schedule and nowhere to be, I could just stop for a few minutes and watch the sun slowly lifting above the mountains, or peer across the valley at the numerous small villages and homes, bright green pastures sticking out against the dark mountain trees. And all this before breakfast.

As I huffed and puffed my way back to the hotel, full of adrenaline (and street chai), I felt like I had made a new friend. Another new place soaked in. I felt like I had just seen something special, realized that the quiet of morning makes its observance that much more valuable. I felt alive and I felt grateful.

And I felt ready for banana pancakes. Which, by the way, may have just been the most perfect, fluffy, satisfying pancakes I’ve ever eaten. Situationally awesome and magically delicious.

A lesson in bargaining.

20120222-085508.jpg

If you ever wake up at 5 AM, wait an hour for your 6 AM bus on a pitch black street corner in India, and then realize you missed it because the man at your hotel told you to wait in the wrong place, make sure to negotiate a cheap car to your next destination. Make sure they get you there in time to make your next (14 hour) bus. But above all, make sure they throw in a free breakfast.

CAMELS.

Six years ago (WHAT!? I’m old.) I spent 29 days backpacking and camping in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School (a.k.a. NOLS). We hiked all day, made camp in a new place each night, avoided trails at all costs, mastered our topo maps, and lived in the mountains for four glorious weeks. I came home freckled, a bit more rugged, and with an even deeper love for the outdoors.

Last night, as I laid under a pile of blankets and stared up at a sky full of sparkly, bright stars, I felt like I was back in Wyoming. I got the same intense feeling of nostalgia this morning, waking up with the sunrise, the only sounds coming from chewing camels and companions rustling in their beds. Not in a cabin, not in a king bed with a sweet view. No noise pollution or light pollution. The happiness and peacefulness I feel when I’m that close to nature and that far from “real life” is hard to describe but incredibly powerful.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the camel safari. It’s definitely the “thing to do” if you’re traveling to Jaisalmer, and I often have a bias against touristy activities, fearing that they’ll feel phony or tacky or inauthentic. But luckily, the safari we booked through our hotel (Shahi Palace, two thumbs way up) was perfect. We were with two other women – a super-cool mother and daughter from Australia – and two guides, Mula (age 20) and Sowela (age 9). These guys are the real deal – they live in desert villages and start working as early as age five. They talk to camels the way that cowboys talk to horses, they know everything, and they laugh at you in the most loving way possible.

After a jeep ride through the arid desert – with stops at old monuments where Persian kings were cremated (and their wives often jumped into the fire as ritual suicide) and a tiny village with more goats than humans – we met our camel friends. Raj, my camel, was a young “racing camel”, which meant that he needed to be held tight by Mula to ensure he didn’t race off into the horizon. Awesome.

We rode along, single file, the tall and lanky camels jostling us around. Despite what I expected, a few hours on a camel is plenty. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.

After a few hours of taking in the scenery — all tiny shrubs and distant hills and vastness — we reached our home for the night. The six of us had our own little sand dune all to ourselves. We sat on the dunes as beetles appeared from the sand, our hands filled with cold beers and cameras to capture and bask in the sunset. The sunsets in India are truly beautiful: pollution makes the sun a bright, shiny, firey orb, a perfect circle hanging above the horizon and quickly shifting from gold to orange to pink to nothingness.

My favorite part of the night, though, was dinner time. Of course I insisted on watching them prepare the food, and we all sat around the campfire after the sun went down, the contrast between the bright fire and the dark sky growing more and more dramatic. The round, shallow chapati pan sat directly on top of the fire, and Mula mixed the dough so naturally he could do it with his eyes closed. Of course his mother teaches cooking classes. He graciously humored me one, two, three times as I kept asking “can I try? can I try again?” He’d break off a hunk of the kneaded dough, roll it again into a ball, and again and again, until he patted it in flour and deemed it ready for my hands. I learned to press (not pull!) the small ball into a bigger blob, and then, with practice, a round, flat (hole-free!) disc. Throw that sucker on the searing hot pan because you know those desert boys don’t mess with tongs or spatulas or utensils. Wait a few minutes and flip it again with your fingers. No fear. Flip again, flip again, until those black little blisters appear and the bready deliciousness starts to puff up. Steal it from the pan before your teacher can stack it with the others. Sprinkle on a little salt and dare your tastebuds not to burn as you devour that thing before it can cool to an acceptable temperature. Smile and breathe and let it all sink in, that it’s pitch black, and you’re in the desert, and you’re sitting around the fire and sharing the most essential human experiences you can think of with new friends: Food. Warmth. Laughter.

If we’ve never met before, I’m Marian and I really like making food. I like learning how to make new things, especially when they’re so simple but so tricky that all they require is flour and water and salt and fire and hands that know what they’re doing. I like sharing food experiences – authentic food experiences – with other people. I like to learn and I really like to eat. I like nature and – apparently – I like the desert. I love new friends who sing “welcoooome” after each “thank you” comes from your bread-and-vegetable filled mouth.

Once the sky was so dark that the stars blinded and the fire glimmered all alone, our guides sang us a desert song. A song about a brother and sister in the desert but separated by country borders: one in India, one in Pakistan. A sad song, percussion coming from a nine-year-old boy banging on a silver pot, his voice moving up and down like the most graceful and moving warble you’ve ever heard. It was a blessing to witness.

Little Sowela passed the pot on to me and I knew I couldn’t say no. So we exchanged songs, exchanged the currency of the desert and of the mountains and of people who need songs and stories more than they need (or maybe want) money. I sang the only thing I could, the only cowboy song I know, the song that my mother would sing softly to me as she rocked me to sleep, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. It’s loving and it’s true and it makes me cry sometimes.

I am so happy to be on this trip, so hopeful for what’s to come, excited for the next few months and already nostalgic for the time that has passed. But I know that last night will always linger in my heart and my head as one of the most special memories from my time here in India. It’s such a blessing to see a country in that way: away from the street bazaars, away from any tangible or intangible pollution, through the eyes of the boys who live in the desert and laugh at camels and race with you in the morning to see who can clean out a chai cup with sand the fastest (shocker: I lost). It may have been touristy; it may be cliched; but at this point, I don’t care. At this point I’ll just hold fast to memories of new friends, perfectly charred roti, a sky full of stars, and peace and gratitude and laughter.

And rock-a-bye, Sweet Baby James.

fat tuesday in the desert

Image

Just returned from an overnight camel safari in the Indian desert just in time for Fat Tuesday (but really, considering all the fireside roti I ate — and made! — last night, I think Fat Monday will suffice) and the eve of Lent. With my wide brimmed hat and the vast scenery and my neckerchief, I felt a bit like Karen Blixen. I have decided that the only things better than channeling Karen are 1) sleeping under sparkly clear stars and 2) peeing on a sand dune. I’ll post more in-depth about the safari (bodily functions excluded) later, but suffice it to say that this was one of the most breathtaking, enjoyable experiences of my life. Nothing like a desert to make you feel close to the earth in its most untouched form.

ff32

Karen is my idol.

During my stay in Mysore I read Henri Nouwen’s “The Way of The Heart” (more of my thoughts on the book here), in which Nouwen talks about ancient ‘desert fathers’ who retreated from civilization and into the desert in order to become closer to God. Over the past 24 hours, I began to understand these men a bit better.

Lent begins tomorrow, and I’ve had a tough time recently coming up with habits to give up (or adopt) to bring myself closer to God. I no longer see Lent as an excuse for a Catholic diet, and I’m therefore hoping to make a change that is both difficult and meaningful for me, emotionally and spiritually. I’m also traveling, with a constantly changing schedule, which makes daily plans and observaces a bit more complicated.

I think, though, that being in the desert was a nice precursor to Ash Wednesday. After all, the Lenten season reflects the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. My stay in the desert was a bit shorter, a bit more comfortable, and involved more food than that of the Son of God, but I still experienced it, if only for a few hours. I saw its vastness, felt the harshness of the sun and the wind whipping sand past my body. I felt closer to the earth. And feeling closer to the earth and the stars and the sky always makes me feel closer to God. All good things.

One of the friends I made when I was going through the process of RCIA was a guy named Dan who, instead of giving up something during Lent, gave classes in Guitar and Swing Dancing and anything else he had to offer. At Easter Mass, he put all of his earnings from these classes into the collection basket. And that was the first time that I really considered adding something beautiful to the world, rather than giving up sweets or fries, during lent. And let’s be honest: giving up refined sugar in India would be a travesty. So instead of abstaining from any sort of vice or tasty treat (and because I can’t think of something worthwhile to give up), I’m hoping to add habits to the next forty days that will increase the amount of good in the world and increase God’s presence in my daily life. Praying more (thankfully I bought some new prayer beads at the market in Jaipur), showing more kindness to strangers (including the pushy salesmen pouring out of streetside shops everywhere I turn), and finding ways to use my own gifts to better the lives of others.

I find the simplicity of desert life so appealing. Fewer decisions to make. Fewer distractions. More appreciation for the important things in life: fire. water. companionship. In The Way of The Heart, Nouwen wrote about how the absence of noise (both in the literal and figurative sense) in the desert allows us to retreat into our hearts and truly connect with God. And I think Lent is a beautiful time to do this: rather than look at it as an obligation or an excuse to diet (diets are stupid, after all), I hope we can all move towards thinking of this season as a joyful one: a way to deepen our faith, examine our conscience, and by ridding our lives of needless noise, grow closer to that which sustains our hearts and gives our lives meaning.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone! I’m off to flash my Mala beads.

conspicuous consumption

first off: apologies for the lack of posts lately. I think it’s been a combination of writers’ block and vacation laziness. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a good balance from here on out.

Living in North Carolina for four years, I became accustomed to the role of misplaced northerner. My friends teased me for my liberal tendencies and my parents teased me for my use of the word y’all; I snickered at the UNC students who walked through campus with umbrellas on snow days, and my parents snickered at me when I lost all immunity to cold New England weather.

So, in the past week, it’s been fun transitioning from life in Southern India to life in Northern India, seeing the differences in the people and the culture and the food and the weather. (The bread is plentiful and my jeans have made a comeback!) We’ve been in Jaipur, Rajasthan for three days, and tonight we hop on a midnight train to Georgia Jaisalmer, another desert city with beautiful forts and bustling bazaars. I love it here; the city is modern, all of the rickshaw drivers claim the ability to hook you up with the best shopping, and the food is fantastic.

If you’re a good little backpacker and you read Lonely Planet’s literature on Jaipur, you can easily get caught up planning days upon days of sightseeing: forts, palaces and ancient tombs abound. We spent half of yesterday walking through Amer Fort, which we decided would be the perfect setting for a game of hide and seek (or, if you’re brave, sardines) with its endless hallways and steep staircases and gardens and columns. It was beautiful! But it was also exhausting. Sightseeing is such an important way to understand a city, but after a few forts and a few palaces, sightseeing is just sightseeing….at least for me.

So, when our rickshaw driver dropped us off at Jaipur Palace today, we decided to walk around the neighboring bazaars instead of paying the 200 rupees to walk through the palace and look at more beautiful arches, embellished doorways, and rooms fit for a king. It was the best decision we’ve made all week.

We spent the afternoon walking up and down the crowded sidewalks of the tourist bazaars. You may recall a post I wrote about Mysore’s market? That was child’s play compared to Jaipur. The old city – referred to as the “Pink City” because of the uniform color of all of the buildings – is a grid of streets full of every sort of store and street vendor you could imagine. Simply observing the different types of stores is entertainment in itself: the man who sells pots and pans also sells metal chains (this makes a shocking amount of sense, actually) and the man who sells spices and tea also sells random drug store merchandise.

The tourist bazaar, of course, is home to countless stores offering sparkly saris, scarves, wall hangings, blankets, and other beautiful handcrafted textiles. Salesmen call out to you as you pass, displaying their wares and asking you to come in — “no buy, just look” is a common come-on. Bartering is a professional sport, such that buying things is so fun you don’t even have to like what you’re buying. These streets could turn anyone with functional adrenal glands into a shop-a-holic.

So, against my budget and better judgement, I did a little more shopping today. A present here, a trinket there, something for my long lost cousin’s boyfriend’s sister. I’m such a good person that I don’t want anyone to be forgotten. Thoughtfulness is such a good excuse for poking your head into any store that suits your fancy (even though they’re essentially all the same), admiring pink sparkly wall hangings, coasters carved from stone, local teas in bulk, or prayer beads being sold next to a stall where ladies were getting veneers put on in broad daylight (hygiene be damned!) Nothing beats walking away from a man and subsequently having him run after you in defeat: “Okay, okay! You pay five hundred”. Awesome. I win.

And the only thing I love more than getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the markets is spending an afternoon sampling street food in the most unabashed and nondiscriminatory way possible. I’ve written a bit about my love for Indian food and the way my relationship with food has evolved on this trip. But this is different. This disregards intuitive eating and embraces caffeine, sugar, and anything fried. This requires abandoning fear of calories, fear of food, fear that your pants won’t zip tomorrow. This is, at least for today, my kind of tourism.

As we wandered through the bazaar, peering into stores and smiling “no thank you”s to most of the salesmen we encountered, I picked up any food that fit my fancy. A samosa here, an aloo tikki there, and there’s no way I was going to pass up a freshly-charred aloo paratha. The savory treats here are often fried, always full of flavor, and rarely disappointing. Indians have found every combination of food, every way to fry it, and the tastiest ways to hand it to you wrapped up in yesterday’s newspapers.

And of course you can’t neglect the bakeries. Piles of Ladoo (sweet balls made with lentils and rice) and burfi (sweets made from condensed milk and sugar) line the shelves in every shape and flavor. They’re bite-sized, so it’s totally normal (if your name is Marian) to buy a sampling of sweets and share them with…..yourself. And trying something new is always safe because you can generally rest assured that it will be delicious and/or be made from milk and sugar (remember that time I was a vegan? me neither). And of course you’ve got to wash everything down with thimble-sized plastic cups of chai, dumped from silver pots of boiling sugary milk steeped with tea leaves and spices.

This way of eating through a city is cheap and delicious and exhilarating, but it’s sure as hell not sustainable. I’m not suggesting we do this all day every day. Pounds of refined sugar and fried treats won’t add too many years to your life. But it’s really one of the best ways to travel. Disregard the assumptions of how you should see a city and just walk through it. Don’t feel bad about missing out on a museum or two. Allow yourself to sit at breakfast for four hours, playing cards and daydreaming about the future. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen a vegetable for a few days (do potatoes count?) You know how everyone rolls their eyes at the scene in Eat, Pray, Love where they eat all the pizza? It’s because we’re envious. We want that silly, reckless sense of enjoyment that we can’t really rationalize in our daily “normal” lives.

I’ve been having a bit of an internal crisis over the past few weeks because I’m not exactly sure how to travel. Should I try to see all the sites? (probably not.) Meet as many locals as possible? (yes.) Sleep in? (always.) I still haven’t figured it out. But it’s so nice that every few days, I get the feeling like I did this afternoon. Giddy and grateful. Any thoughts of anxiety or guilt thrown out the window (rickshaws don’t have windows?) Like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

And with that, I’m off to finish this pot of chai (yes, it’s 7 PM) and head up to dinner with our two new Norwegian friends we met over a lazy breakfast this morning at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant (don’t tell the Ashtanga police that I skipped practice). As I try to get to sleep on our train tonight (that’s not going to happen), I know I’ll be thanking God for this day, for my ability to enjoy it, and for the privilege to eperience Indian culture on my stomach’s my own terms.

and that’s a swastika cake.

instagram postcard

Greetings from Varkala, India!

20120210-164034.jpg

The palm trees are as plentiful as the European tourists, every restaurant has pizza and french fries on the menu, and I have successfully learned how to barter.

Our cottage, set back in the palm groves, is quiet and quaint as could be.

20120210-163446.jpg

Ganesh protects our door from any intruders,

20120210-163902.jpg

And the cliffs are two minutes’ walk away.

20120210-164127.jpg

The day starts with sleeping in, yoga, and complimentary breakfast at a nearby restaurant. And beach time is always a must.

20120210-164406.jpg

It’s the kind of place where even the milkiest, weakest coffee tastes perfect (it’s free, after all), and the only thing more interesting to watch than the people is the crash of the waves.

20120210-164447.jpg

No more 4:30 AM wake-up calls. No more going to bed at eight. Although I still miss Mysore, I’m liking the feeling of being on vacation. Of the sand on my toes. Of having a beer with dinner if I so choose. Of laying around for hours just reading a book and watching clouds pass.

I could get used to this.