the new year in India - a day in the life


Oh, wow. On New Year's Day I celebrated by having my very first hot shower in more than five weeks, thanks to getting a bucket of hot water that had been heated on the stove. It was pure and simple luxury. I know you might not be able to understand, I certainly wouldn't have understood just two months ago when I had my last 30-minute hot and steamy shower in my house before the tennants took it over... something as little as this, hot water after the weeks and weeks of ice-cold showers from a bucket can really change your perspective on things. So there I was, celebrating the new year and celebrating my new life.

I've moved several times since my last email, having spent about a week in a truly magical place called Hampi in the state of Karnataka, India. This is my favorite place in India thus far. Never have I seen a landscape such as this, it's the kind of place where you'll see a picture of it one day and you'll say --wow, you were really there?-- and yet still that doesn't convey the feelings you get in a place like this. Hampi is a small village of only a thousand people, quite amazing in a country of one BILLION people. It's so much fun to travel alone yet never be alone, meeting new friends at every turn and spending every waking hour in the company of someone from another country as you explore the world around you. So many people there I met, ate with, spent the day walking around the ruins together...

On New Year's Eve my new friend Markus from Norway and I set out to scour the ruins, across many giant bolders and a landscape just peppered with rocks of all shapes and sizes, the likes of which most people have never seen before. Four hundred years ago this place was the center of the Hindu empire, rivaling Delhi in size with about half a million people at the time. And we're walking through what's left, the temples and stones and remains of a culture that has moved on and grown.

Where we wanted to go was across the river. Five rupees is what it's supposed to cost. After walking and walking to what felt like the middle of nowhere we came across a small boy with a funny-looking little round boat, like an oversized hubcap, that could take us across the river. Ten rupees he wanted. Forget it. Of course, we'd have to walk several miles to find the next boat... so we negotiate. I got him down to 6.5 Rupees, still more than it should have been but he insisted that he'd get in trouble from his manager if he took any less. So we get into the little boat. Then the manager appears, an even smaller little boy who promptly starts paddling and ends up falling head over heels out of the boat and into the water, holding on only to my arm and the side of the boat. He was soaked. I helped him back into the boat. He was all wet, I saved management's ass. Like usual. hehe

On the other side of the river we walked through a lush banana jungle plantation and were chased by three snorting, angry buffalo and then later a rabid-looking dog suddenly came across our path. It's funny, sometimes you just know what to do. Let's say three angry buffalo with horns are storming towards you. What do you do? Do you run away, run towards them, yell, pull out a cape, or maybe a mirror, or WHAT? Fortunately my friend Markus had earlier told me quite proudly how he read a book about dangerous situations, factual information on what to do if you come across a Cobra snake or an aggressive monkey, or if someone is shooting bullets at you, you know, that sort of thing. Of course, when it's needed the information is always gone, he forgot completely what he read about buffalo so I just bent over and picked up a palm tree leaf, the skinniest, weakest sort of branch that you could find, and the buffalo quickly high-tailed it out of there. Never mind the fact that it couldn't have hurt them at all; in the developing world, animals know what they need to fear. Same with the dog. Reach down and act like you're picking up a rock, even if there is no rock nearby. Dog here are used to having rocks thrown at them, and as a manner of personal safety you have to remember that sort of thing.

Later I found out that Markus had told his friend that I had saved his life. We had laughed about it a great deal, and of course that life saving wasn't true but it was a nice little adventure, walking through the jungle only to come across these different animals.

Finally, we got to where we were going. The Hanuman Temple, the Monkey Temple, far up at the top of a rock mountain. There were supposed to be hundred of monkey living in the rocks on the way up, too. At the bottom where a group of four sadus who motioned for us to come sit with them. So we did, exchanged formailities, and then,

"Shanti Hanuman" they said. Of course, I didn't understand. They were making a chillum (pipe) of ganja (marijuana) so we sat and watched, talked to them for a little while. They didn't appear to like monkeys at all. Strange, I thought, they're sitting at the base of the monkey temple after all. We got up, left, and climbed the long, winding rocks to the top of the temple, only to find a sign at the top that reads,

"BEWARE OF MONKEYS AND THIEVES." So of course I was glad to be exploring with a friend and not alone. (Incidentally, on the other side of the sign when you're coming down it reads, "HAVE A NICE DAY." Saw one of the most amazing views I've ever seen at the top of the mountain/hill, and then went back down. Again the sadus motioned for us to sit. They asked me if I liked the Hanuman temple. I thought it was nice. I asked them why they didn't like monkeys. They were packing another chillum of ganja, already being quite stoned (you could see it in their eyes). All day these people sat and smoked weed, waiting for people to come up to see the temple of the Monkey Goddess at the top of the hill. All day, everyday they urge people to come sit with them.

"Shanti Hanuman" he said again. Then he spoke in English. Apparently they had tried to help the monkeys smoke weed, seeing as it was something they enjoyed doing so much. That's what weed is like, I suppose. You want to share. Everyone says monkeys are so much like human beings, too. But it was not a good idea.

"No good. Monkey no smoke. Get red face, go funny." he says. He motioned with his hand in a circular motion beside his head, as if to say that they went crazy. And finally I understood what he was saying. Shanti Hanuman, meaning the Monkey Goddess is not a good goddess, in their eyes at least, because the Monkey God does not allow monkeys to enjoy marijuana. And it was obvious to me that they really, really enjoyed their ganja. Incredibly impressed that I had figured this out, upon leaving the sadus asked me to pay tribute to their Goddess, so I did and gave a small donation. There I saw a decorated picture of an old man, probably in his 70s, looking more stoned than any many I have ever seen in my life. They told me his name but I forget what it was. The Ganja Goddess, I'll call him. Praise the Ganja Goddess.

On the way back we got incredibly lost. Again. The ruins spread over maybe 20km and the maps are not particularly good. A car and a motorcycle stopped to offer us a ride, but it wasn't until the old man and his boy in an old, rickety wooden rice cart came tromping by that we decided to make good of the offer. It was being pulled by two buffalo and the cart had wooden wheels, so the ride was quite bumby. I nearly fell off. The man turned back to speak to me.

"Careful," he says with a laugh, and then he adds very slowly, "remember this third India." As if to say, remember that you're in the Third World and you have to look out for yourself. The man and his boy struggled through some surprisingly coherent English and explainded that he could now feed his family and afford this cart and two animals be because the rice was being sold to the restaurants nearby, now busy and thriving because of tourists. And that's when things hit home for me, here we were getting a ride on this ancient cart from a man who so happy just to see us and he's happy that we were kind enough to make conversation with him in return. I thought no, this isn't right, it's too much, we're just travelers and nothing special, here in this place the locals treat us like kings, people ask to take *our* picture, just because we're white and came to visit, and we're the same as them, we're exactly the same, human beings, just people from another country. Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming, when people shake your hand enthusiastically three or four times just because you spent five minutes of your life to talk with them, explain which country you're from, you name, the usual stuff.

I spent that evening, New Year's Eve, sitting on bamboo mats in a restaurant near the river, eating thalis, drinking beer with the ten or so people around me and sharing a joint or two that was being passed around. Ganja and charras is so common here, even with the locals, but too common I think. It was a nice, relaxing evening in a completely foreign place with all sorts of new people whom I had met. They even had fireworks, and varous parties scattered along this tiny village. Strange, too. Many of the New Year's Eve parties here charge money for the local to attend, ranging from 150 Rupees to 600 Rupees ($5 to $20 Cdn) -- a *huge* amount of money for them, and yet foreigners get in free. We'd walk into a party, looking for other foreigners that we had met along the way, and get bombarded by the locals, shaking our hands, asking us all sorts of questions, saying happy new year and that sort of thing. A few even said, after we talked for a while, that now we were friends. That made it feel especially weird to leave the party, looking for another one and when asked why we're leaving we say, "we're looking for friends."

Of course, it would be unfair to mention why there were no foreigners, definitely no foreign women at this party. They walk in and immediately get touched, groped, felt, hugged, stared at, and all sorts of things that intimidate them that as a guy I always forget about. We walk in and we're treated like drinkin' buddies; a woman walks in and she's treated like a piece of meat. So on we went.

That's a day in the life. I am really enjoying my travels thus far. This is a whole different world from back home. It's been only about six weeks or so now and I have moved yet again, away from Hampi this time to a place called Gokarna, along the coast again and just south of Goa. A beautiful place, one of the most holy places in south India too but unfortunately many of the temples forbid foreigners to enter. So instead we sit on the beach, watching dolphins and the sun set, eat incredible food and watch people walk by. I am staying in a small thatch beach hut very close to the water, so close that the crashing waves sing me to sleep every night. It costs 40-/Rs ($1.30) a night and I sleep on the ground, on a mat, and the restaurant here is particularly designed to help people socialize. You all kind-of sit together. The only thing that disappoints me is the drugs, the drugs, the drugs, they are everywhere you go and all throughout the day; I doubt there is a single person here who does not smoke at least on occassion. So I'll be heading south again soon.

A quick safety note: parts of the state of Rajasthan have been closed to tourists by the Indian governement. One person told me two weeks ago that he just left the desert city of Jaisalmer near the Pak border and saw no less than seven arriving trains full of tanks, personnel and machine guns. Eek. Sounds like India may be gearing up for yet another war with Pakistan, it's a reoccuring theme and yet another reason why I'm heading south. It's very safe here, there are many, many travelers but sometimes we are a bit removed from world events. Can someone PLEASE email me if something dramatic in the world happens, as I may not hear about it right away. I don't know the current status on Afghanistan but I suspect things with Pak are really starting to heat up.

That's it for now, thanks for all your emails. Over and out. k

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