The Lester File

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Trains are an interesting mode of transportation in any country, but I would probably venture to assure that no travel by train is more interesting or educational than training it in Asia. Whereas the Western world tends to fly more often, Asians for the most part move long distances on trains. We've spent weeks of our lives on trains all throughout Asia, including China, Malaysia, Singapore and India these past few months, but the most memorable overnight train ride I ever took was our first attempt in India. Up until we arrived in Rajasthan (the desert) we'd been flying to cover distances more quickly. We bought the cheapest, high-end seat, ensuring us a place to sleep and "A/C", which turned out to be a fan and an open window. The set-up was not unbearable, but it was definitely hot. Quickly though, we realized that having open windows in the desert would pose a problem, especially when the wind began to blow around 10pm. We were stretched out on our sleeper mats, no blankets, no pillow, one eye open and one hand on our bags. As the night wore on, sleep was elusive except in short spells. The sand from the endless, monsoon-thirsty desert kicked up into our seats covering us with a gritty, dry film that invaded our mouths, ears, noses, and eyes. When we finally reached Jaisalmer, the sand had gathered in mini dunes around our bodies. It actually outlined our lying positions.
One of our final train stops was to the holy city of Varanasi. It is here that Hindu spirituality enters the tangible realm in the form of the river Ganges. However, before we explored the riverside, Jen and I were in much need of some R & R, so we immediatly booked ourselves massages at Hotel Surya. There we received a full body massage, cooling head massage, and a steam bath for less than $20 total!! It was a steal. We also got a clandestine facial from another woman there who made me promise not to tell the head staff. By this time, we kind of expected something like that to happen or at least we weren't surprised.
Now, the Surya was not OUR hotel... we just reaped the benefits the establishment had to offer. Usually, hotels don't offer services to outsiders, so this was extra awesome.
When I finished, I stepped outside into the beautiful courtyard of green green grass against white British inspired columned buildings. Then the clouds rolled in and soft thunder, combined with rain, created the perfect afterglow to an afternoon massage. I would have fallen asleep right there in that chair if the flies weren't so annoying! The only way to hold them off is through constant motion and angry words.
Later that evening we joined a small tour (us and a couple from Holland) headed towards the Ganges riverbank for a rare evening puja. As we drove towards the banks, the traffic was at a standstill aside from the massive and endless group of orange-clad pole bearing Hindu men supposedly on pilgramages to... everywhere. Honestly, everywhere we turned these guys showed up chanting and walking together towards an end that neither of us understood. They were in the streets, on trains, and always carrying poles with jars and other ornaments attached to them making them
somewhat hazardous to the rest of the population! Alongside the orange guys, every body in Varanasi seemed to be trying to get to this 15 minute ceremony and it was becoming very apparent that we were not going to make it. The driver tried to get us there, but it was too late
To make up for the fiasco, our driver took us to one of the Ganges river's two burning ghats to witness funeral ceremonies. We walked down a dark alleyway accompanied by animals (goats, cows, donkeys, chickens), humans, and waste products from both. The electricity constantly cut in and out, which accounts for the darkness. We followed the driver down the steps leading to the river bank, which was beginning to rise due to the monsoon rains. We came to a small structure that stood about 20 ft tall and we climbed to the top to look down on the funeral ceremonies taking place near the river. This picture of that particular ghat was taken the next morning. The small building on the left side of the picture and the ledge inland was where we sat. The small patch of land leading down to the water is where bodies of loved ones are ritually burned day and night.
That night we looked down while family after family came down the stairs from the temple carrying
bodies on bamboo stretchers wrapped in cloth and flowers to loud brief music-like clanging. This particular ghat was over 43 centuries old according to the decendents of this family owned ghat. One member of this ancient family explained the cremation process to us. The financial class or cultural caste of the deceased determined where the ritual took place. The high castes were placed near the river, middle classes further back, and poorer members of sociey burned near the steps furthest away from the river. Dying near the Ganges river and being ritually burned on her shores insured the deceased passage to heaven. The ritual begins by bathing the body in the spiritually fuelled waters of the Ganges. Meanwhile, member of the Ghat family and member of the deceased's family pile wood and bring fire from the temple in preparation. The body is then brought to the carefully arranged woodpile and the eldest male relative, wearing white with a freshly shaved head, begins covering the body with expensive sandlewood or other sweet smelling kindling. He then walks around the body 5 times as a ghat family member lights the pyre. The body will burn for 24 hours until only ashes and bones are left. The remains are thrown into the river so that animals who consume the remnants will enjoy humanity in their next lives. An experience to say the least.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

We Survived!

Three Days.... THREE DAYS in the desert! Wow. I'd now like to render an account:
First, we set off at around 7:30am. The hotel provided us with a quick cheese omelete and toast before heading out into the desert in a Jeep about 30 km west of Jaisalmer. Jen and I plus a new friend Richard left together except Richard only signed on for 2 days and we did 3. We arrive at the camal station to our friendly guides Isaac and a boy named Hussein. Isaac had salt and pepper hair (although he claimed to be only 26 and was a bit upset about the early grey), simple reddish pants and long shirt, and a ready smile. Hussein was much younger, but his smile was just as big. Both smiles were quite brown from tobacco use. We told them it was a bad habit, which only made them smile bigger. They were quick to get us onto our camels. I had a large one named Rocket and Jen and a little one named Johnny. Richard rode a camel who's name I really cannot recall... not much of a personality, but GYPSY was the guide's camel. Gypsy was a horrendous camel who bleated unceasingly with her mouth agape to reveal the remnents of whatever she'd been eating which forced us to inhale her incredbly bad breath. One night, the smell became so awful that we had to put her downwind so that we could sleep!
As we set off, Isaac began to sing in his Rajasthan/Hindi accent and it happened to be the ONE hindi song I've actually heard, enjoyed, and semi know the words to.
I sang one line and for the rest of the trip he urged me to sing it. I obliged most of the time because Jen and I enjoy singing on road trips. We got along with Isaac immediatly as he walked along side our camels and talked and sang.
We stopped midday at a shady spot so that we could skip out on the most excrutiatingly hot hours of the day. This was also the time for Isaac and Hussein to let the camels out to pasture and begin cooking lunch. At every meal, first comes chai tea to ready ourselves, then some fried pasta seasoned with a little salt. Finally, he stews up some India veggie delight and makes some stove-top bread called Chapati. Although the cooking was amazing, the heat constantly stole our appetites and we could only eat a fraction of the amount we wanted to eat. Our bodies were wondering why we were eating hot food and not cold water.
As we plodded along on top of our enormous beasts of burden, I took pictures of nearly everything I saw. We passed vast flatlands dotted by magnificent dunes that change constantly wth the wind. The monsoon had not yet come, so everything was thirsty. The shrubs and grasses seemed to be begging the sky for rain, which made us all the more thirsty. Good thing we opted for the unlimited water supply package tour! Sometimes we'd pass villages were desert people and gypsy children would come running out asking for chocolate or Rupees. All villages are centered around some kind of well or pipeline that has fresh, clean drinking water. In distince contrast, or maybe in defiance of, the desolate, scortched earth surrounding them, women dressed in brightly colored saris that somehow made the desert seem more friendly and charming. They came in groups balancing perfectly metal pots of water or bushels of firewood on their heads as they traveled from distant villages to watering hole. Some women bring laundry and chatted with each other about the strange, red-faced foreigners standing stupidly in the sun while ther camels get a drink from the water trough.
At one point, we encountered a well that you had to lower a bowl into in order to draw the water out. We sat and waited while Isaac and Hussein gathered the cooking water when all of a sudden the erupted into Hindi exclamations. The water jug had fallen into the well. "This is a big problem," said Isaac, "must have water." He made a high pitched crow-like call to a passing human in the distance that failed to render aid. Isaac soon decided that tiny Hussein must be lowered into the well through the equally tiny opening. He began preparing a rope rigging for the endeavor and asked for our assistance. Then, we hear bells ringing as a herd of goats come trotting up to the well followed by their bright orange-turbined shepard. He's an old man, but he doesn't hesitate to aid in our mission to get the water bowl back. Honestly, Jen and I played with the goats and I got video of the last parts... it was awesome!
That night around 60 miles from India's border to Pakistan, we met up with some other camal tours for a night of food, music, and dancing of local faire. Wonderful! Jen and I even danced a bit. Some Indian male tourists then began drinking heavily, so Isaac suggested we find a more secluded place to sleep away from the crazy men. We slept under the stars against a sand dune on a raised concrete slab to escape the insects and animals of the desert. Soon the stars began to fade and a brilliant full moon lit up the night sky... making it somewhat hard to fall asleep. Soon though, Jen, Isaac, and I drifted off...
Day 2

We woke up to blue sky and a mouth full of sand. As I wiped my eyes, I noticed that we were not alone. About 4 boys from the nearby village were staring at us curiously from a safe distance and apparently had been for quite some time. They stood close together and had unsure, pensive expressions. A momen later, Hussein arrived to tell us we'd slept late, which is strange for him or anyone to say since NO ONE had a watch. We soon realized that the boys were waiting to have our permission to take our empty water bottles back to their village and to make an attempt at inquiring about the possibility of chocolate or rupees. We stumbled over to the breakfast slab for chai and toast, but again we weren't hungry. Suddenly, one of the village boys takes of like a rocket towards his home in the distance. Another boy runs after him and a tourist claims he is missing some sunglasses. Isaac won't tolerate this, so he sends Hussein bare-backed on a camel after the fugitive. If he'd had a lasso, I'd have thought I was at a rodeo in some parallel universe. The boy came back having stolen nothing, claiming he got spooked by the amount of people. Whatever. We went behind a tree, changed clothes, and then set off again into the desert.
We came to a lake and quietly had lunch. Herds of goats came and went. The gentle ringing of beels and bleating of goats was like a desert lullaby and we fell asleep in the shade. Richard, left at around 3 while Isaac, Jen, and I set off for a day in the dunes. Isaac seemed a little uneasy today as he did not sing a single note or make a single joke for nearly 3 hours. We asked him what was up, but he never really explained himself. We arrived to the edge of some impressive dunes and unpacked for dinner. Isaac started cooking up a storm as Jen and I cursed the heat and amused ourselves with the dung beetles fighting over f
resh camel poo. We were really waitiing for the Jeep to come with the promise of cold drinks that would help us gain an appetite. The Jeep took
FOREVER and by the time we were finished eating, Isaac asked us if we REALLY wanted to sleep in the dunes. "Whatever you want of course, but now is coming rain maybe and wind. If no coming, then come animals and insects like scorpion and snake. Is no good I think, but up to you. You happy, I double happy." We decided that scorpion bites, though curable, were not pleasant and snake bites would necesitate hospital time, which we did NOT want to experience. Isaac quickly packed the camels and we starte off at dusk for a small empty house on top of a rocky slope. He promised cool wind and no insects. Awesome.
By the time we arrived, it was nearly pitch black and the stars were amazing. We sat up a long while singing, talking, and laughing until the wind really began to blow. The wind was hot and it brought sand. We covered ourselves with blankets and faced away. Somehow, I slept, but in the morning we were covered in sand and in desperate need of a shower. Thankfully, it was our last day.
Day 3
We started off at some unknown time and came to a village for water. I took pictures of some boys and colorful desert saris before walking a little further in to find cold drinks. One wealthy woman with a refridgerator sold us 3 cold-ish Pepsis that we greedily sucked down. Meanwhile, the little house has filled with small children hoping to get a glimpse. Big and small, young and old, all sported elaborate gold studes in either ears, noses or both and bright white teeth. Beautiful people.
Eventually, we sat down again for our last lunch and nap with Isaac. At around 3 o'clock we arrived at a crossroads where a jeep with cold drinks came to pick us up and take us back to the hotel. We waved goodbye to Isaac, Gypsy, Johnny, and Rocket and willed the truck to take us quickly back to cold showers and water.
If you're ever in India come and do this. There's nothing like solitude in the desert on a camel to give you some perspective about life!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Safe and Sound

In case there are any worries about our travels in India, I want everyone to know that we are doing great! It is a truly enlightening and immensely humbling experience. The bombs in Mumbai went off after we'd already left the city by plane and they were in commuter/subway trains, which Jen and I never rode, but plenty of foreigners and native Mumbains do and they are the ones who truly suffered the most. So, we're now in Jaisalmer city in Rajasthan province. Camal tours are the thing to do here and we're off for an excursion tomorrow. We'll be back on the 3rd day.
Everybody be calm and no worries. Keep us in your prayers!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Kolkata, India

Picture this (because right now i don't have real pictures to show you):
It's a Kolkata (Calcutta) mid-afternoon and it is HOT and humid. Walking outside is like walking into a sauna. The sun isn't completely out, but it wants to be. The rain clouds are creeping up in front of the monsoon thunderstorms hitting the west coast. The rain is coming, but your nose is bombarded by stewing garbage, street vendors, and stale polluted air. The sight laid out ahead is a dirty, pot-holed street with people coming and going and taxis honking and pushing through crowds of people. Note that there is no slowing for pedestrians here! The city wakes up right where it left off the night before. People and animals choose the coolest spot on the street to stretch out for the night. It's too hot to use a blanket and there are too few spaces indoors, so outside is the only choice. Around 6am, they arise and use the public water spout to wash off the night and previous day's filth and perhaps run a hand over their teeth, you know for good hygene.
One of the best activities for any tourist is to take a walking tour of the city being that the hostels are generally within walking distance of the best sights. Take a left on Sudder street until Chowringee Rd and then cross. There is another road that borders the Maidan park that stretches out before the Victora Memorial. This park and memorial was once the headquarters for the British presence in Calcutta. Imagine a huge bright white Victorian Mansion with crisp green gardens with lush flowers and perfect lawns where ladies in full ornamation would walk along with their Indian fan-wavers and other servants. Cricket and polo would be played on the Maidan all very posh and rigid. Native Indians were not allowed to enter this premises in those times, but now the building is a memorial where art from both India and Britain are displayed. A short history of Calcutta is also displayed bringing together Indian and British influences in the region.
On the Maidan today, you can still see groups playing cricket and soccer carelessly in the heat. You can also see grazing farm animals such as goat, cows, and horses. Some business-minded people will actually offer you a horse to ride on around the park with one of the numerous horses (big and teeny-tiny) lining the north end. People sit under the few trees along the borders to escape the heat and perhaps take a nap or an even longer rest. Buses and commuter trains blow past with people barely hanging on, arms and legs protruding, as the bus slows down, but does not stop, to let passengers on.
The colors are magnificent. Women clad in saris and other traditional dresses turn the ever present stream of people into a river of color streaming with every imaginable hue complete with accessories.
In short, there is much to discover in this place and 3 weeks simply cannot be enough to do so. Therefore, I am content to soak up as much as I can. Many foreigners in Calcutta The Lonely Planet is a godsend and no one should leave the US without one! Amen. Right now, Jennifer and I are in
Bombay until the 12th where we will then move north west to the desert for some amazing ancient architecture and camal tours. OOOH goody!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Hong Kong II

We arrived in Hong Kong a few days ago and even though its only been a few months since the last time we came, some things have changed. Buildings are finished and roads are clearer, but more than that we have also changed somewhat. You never really know how much until you've retraced your steps. Meg, Michelle, and I went to the Buddha on Lantau Island again today. Michelle had never seen the largest, sitting, bronze, Buddha in the world, so it was special for her. It was also a gorgeous day, so the pics are great! Tomorrow, we move on to Macau and then catch a plane to Bangkok, where we finally pick up another plane to Calcutta. Lots of planes = lots of plane food BLEK!