Archive for June, 2010

India, Days 11-13: McLeod Ganj

We have now spent 3 full days in McLeod Ganj, and it is quite an interesting place. I agree with my friend Marjie, who said she saw more white dudes with dreadlocks in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj than she had ever seen in her life. There are definitely a lot of westerners here, doing yoga, meditating, drinking coffee (this is one of the few places in India you can actually find good espresso drinks), calling each other “brother” and “sister,” and smoking who knows what. While we’re not exactly part of that crowd, we’ve enjoyed our time here a lot. The scenery is beautiful, with green mountains just above, and even higher snow-capped peaks in the distance. There are lots of nice cafes and restaurants that are peaceful places to sit with a book and enjoy relaxing.

Our first day pretty much consisted of trying to go to places that ended up being closed. In our wanderings, we did stumble upon a beautiful Buddhist temple in the woods, with hundreds of prayers flags hung in the surrounding trees. We did tour the Dalai Lama’s home complex, where his private residence and two temples are located. There was also a moving museum detailing the history of Tibet and the Chinese occupation. For dinner, we ate in an Italian restaurant that had been recommended by some Canadians we met in Amritsar. They told us it was fantastic, which in our opinion after eating there brings into question the quality of Italian food available in Canada. Oh well. And they pronounced pasta with the “a” sound that we would use in “rag”, so “paaaasta,” which we thought was pretty funny. They were very nice, though. :)

Our second day, we hiked for several miles outside of town through towering pine forests, through two smaller towns and then up to small village with just a couple of cafes and hotels. From there, we followed a trail into the woods, which a sign said would take us to the waterfall cafe. After about 30-40 minutes hiking along this trail (which was very beautiful, but seemingly leading to the middle of nowhere), we were beginning to think it was all a ruse. We were convinced that at some point we’d reach a sign that just said, “Haha, joke’s on you!” Yet we continued following the white arrows that were painted on rocks every few hundred feet, and we did finally reach a little cafe that was situated above a small, but beautiful, waterfall. The waterfall pooled in several places, resulting in beautiful swimming holes with absolutely clear, and absolutely freezing, glacial runoff. We stuck our feet in, but that was as far as we went.

That afternoon, we started a two-day cooking class being offered by a local woman named Nisha who also runs a restaurant. We watched her and took notes on the recipes, ingredients, etc, and the end result was several wonderfully delicious dishes that we had for dinner: aloo gobhi, malai kofta, palak paneer, dahl makhani, and chapatti. This afternoon we go back for one more session to learn how to make samosas, kheer (rice pudding) and other deliciousness. If we can make the dishes even half as good at home as this woman made them, we will be very happy! Let us know if you’d like to be our guinea pigs. It will be interesting to see if we can recreate the recipes, though, given that her “teaspoon” was closer to what we’d call a tablespoon, and she used a “serving spoon” to measure the vegetable oil that she cooked with.

This morning we bought a beautiful Tibetan rug from a co-op that employees local women who are Tibetan refugees, and we actually got to watch the women in action in their workshop. The rug is being shipped back to the states, so we hope it makes it safely!

The biggest event of the day, even though it was very short, was seeing the Dalai Lama! His private residence is here in McLeod Ganj, and he was returning home from a trip to Japan. He passed in a motorcade made up of several cars, which were going fairly fast (probably for security reasons). However, we did catch a glimpse of him as he passed, which was pretty awesome! It was also neat just to sit and wait for him with several old Tibetan women and men who were praying as they waited.

Tomorrow we head farther up into the mountains to Manali, and then on to Leh (at 11,000 feet) from there. It means a few more long bus rides, so I’m sure we’ll have more funny stories to tell in a few days!

India, Days 9-10: Amritsar, McLeod Ganj

Okay, we’ve fallen sufficiently behind in blogging that we’re splitting up the work this time, and now I get to post.

We woke up the morning of the 25th feeling much better after our exhausting bus ride to amritsar (we slept like 11 hours – which is a lot for me!). We caught an auto-rickshaw to the golden temple and joined the crowd of sikh pilgrims making their way to the golden temple. As is the sikh tradition, i needed to buy a cloth to cover my head – a sort of makeshift turban. With our wardrobe in tact, we deposited our shoes at a check, and entered the golden temple.

The golden temple is truly breathtaking. We obviously haven’t been to the Taj Mahal yet, but i’m surprised at how (relatively) little people talk about the golden temple. It truly glistens in the sunlight and this effect is magnified by the reflecting pool that surrounds it. We spent about an hour just walking around the reflecting pool (and taking pictures with sikh children who were thought we were pretty funny looking).

Next, we took advantage of the free kitchen at the golden temple. The kitchen servers between 20k – 60k pilgrims per day! We joined the crowd and had an nice brunch of dal and roti. Nothing spectacular, but a great experience being among so many sikhs (we were the only white people in the room – and it was a big room).

After our morning visit to the temple we rested in the afternoon before we joined an evening tour offered by our hotel. The main attraction was a trip to the pakistan border to witness the border closing ceremony. We arrived pretty early, and therefore got to witness the “pre-game” festivities. I say pre-game, because honestly, that is what it was like. there were big grandstands on either side of the border indians on one side and pakistanis (separated in male and female sections) on the other side. Before the event, the were playing music and, spontaneously, a bunch of indian women started dancing in the street. After a slight hesitation, sarah decided to join in the fun and danced to Jai Ho! (i guess it is as popular in india as it was at home :) ).

The ceremony itself was pretty funny. We watched the indian equivalent of the british beefeaters wear ridiculous hats and do silly walks back and forth. In the end, they lowered the flag, the border was closed and we headed home. One the way back, we made a night visit to the golden temple. It is just as amazing at night. we brought the tripod and have (what i hope are) some really nice pictures. Once we are back, we’ll be able to post them and share.

This morning we woke up and took a car to McLeod Ganj (the home of the dalai lama and the tibetan government in exile). We opted for the car this time rather than the bus given my last bus experience :/. The ride in the car afforded us an opportunity to take some more pictures of the country side. It really is interesting the contrasts you see in india. It’s hard to describe other than saying that the the last two millennia of human history are all readily visible on a short drive through country.

We arrived in McLeod Ganj about 2 hours ago and plan to spend 4-5 days here. We hope to take some cooking classes, and perhaps we’ll be able to share some of our skills with you!

India, Days 6-8: Shimla, Amritsar

I don’t have my journal with me today to remind myself of what we’ve been up to, but I will do my best to remember aaaaalll the way back to four days ago. It’s rough being on vacation, I tell ya. :)

We spent the 22nd and 23rd in Shimla and very much enjoyed ourselves. In no particular order, a few of the things we did included:

– Hiking up to the Viceregal Lodge, where the British government in India moved every summer. Lonely Planet described it pretty accurately when it said the building looks like a cross between the Tower of London and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. The most interesting part is seeing the room where the partition of India was agreed upon in the 1940s, and the actual table where the agreements were later signed.

– Visiting the Himachal Pradesh (the state in which Shimla is located) State Museum, which included some interesting art, sculpture, and historical artifacts from across India.

– Both days, rain storms rolled in with lightening, loud thunder, and heavy fog. The storms came and went very fast, so they were neat to watch, especially when we were inside eating lunch (even though the power went out in the restaurant for a while). It literally went from being partly-cloudy to pitch black and raining and hailing within a matter of minutes. And in a few more minutes, it was over!

– Dante had two, no, actually three, near encounters with monkeys, which are everywhere in Shimla. The first time, he made the mistake of making eye contact with a male monkey, who bared his teeth at us, hissed, and shook the telephone wire he was sitting on. The second time, Dante was holding in his hand a box of crackers we had just bought (rookie mistake, we realized). A large male monkey spotted us from across the street, instantly recognized the package as food, and headed straight for Dante. Again, he bared his teeth, hissed, and this time even took a few swats at Dante. Dante was about to chuck the crackers and run when a nice Indian man came to our rescue, swinging his backpack like a madman at the monkey. He eventually chased the monkey down the street, and we quickly walked in the other direction. Third, a monkey tried to come into our hotel room in the middle of the night. I had earplugs in, so I didn’t hear it, but the monkey was apparently jumping up from a ledge beneath our window and banging on the glass. Even with all this, I still think the monkeys are really cute (especially the babies, which the female monkeys carry wrapped around their tummies).

– One night, we finally braved the street food vendors (picking a vendor at which a number of families were eating, figuring that was a decent sign that it was a good place) and had some amazing street food. We’re honestly not 100% sure what it was, but we’re pretty sure it was aloo tikki (mashed potato patties) with chutney and chilis. So yummy! And so far (knock on wood), our stomachs are holding up nicely.

On the 24th, we boarded an early morning bus to Amritsar (after wandering around the bus station for a while trying to figure out how in the world you know which bus to get on!). And well, one of us threw up out the window of the bus, but it wasn’t me. Poor Dante looked green for about the first hour of the ride, and the only reason I didn’t look the same is because I’d take Dramamine before. The driver drove the bus down the windy mountain road like he was driving a race car. We literally had to brace ourselves against other seats to keep from sliding all over the place. Somehow the Indians on the bus with us managed to sit still and seemed totally unfazed, even as Dante was puking out the window and we were both sliding all over the place.

Once we got out of the mountains, the ride was very hot (the bus did not have AC). We did pass some fascinating countryside, in the state of Punjab, the homeland of the Sikh religion and also India’s agricultural heart. Several times, our bus got stuck in a traffic jam caused by groups of young Sikh men stopping traffic and handing out a free cups of an orange-colored beverage. They even boarded our bus to hand out the drink the first time we came upon one of these groups (the second time, the ticket-taker on the bus made us close our windows and lock the door so they couldn’t come in). The exercise appears to have some sort of religious significance, but we have yet to figure out what it is (and did not partake of the beverage, since the cups are reused and who knows how many people drink out of each one in any given day).

While the ride was definitely an interesting and memorable experience, we were so glad when it ended. After 10 hours of being carsick, hot, sweaty, and grimy, we were absolutely exhausted and fell asleep right after dinner. But it was absolutely worth it, because we loved Amritsar! Which Dante will tell you about in the next post…

On another note, we miss all of you at home and hope you are doing well! If you happen to be reading this and have a few minutes, submit a comment and let us know how you are!

India, Day 5: Shimla

Continuing from our last post…Monday was our anniversary and we had a wonderful day. We explored some of Shimla’s winding streets (many of which are unbelievably steep, since the town is built into a hillside). Before lunch, we climbed to a temple just outside the town dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. At the start of the uphill climb, there is a large sign indicating, by age, how quickly you should be able to climb to the temple if you are “fit.” To be considered “absolutely fit,” we needed to make the climb in less than 30 minutes. So we took a picture of Dante’s watch to note the time, and we were off! It was quite a climb, particularly since we were at 8,000 feet, but I’m happy to report that we made it up in 28 minutes. :)

The forest surrounding the temple is, fittingly, full of monkeys. They are clearly very used to people, and will even steal food out of people’s hands!  A woman walking in front of us was carrying some sort of offering up to the temple, which was deftly stolen by a passing monkey.

As soon as we got up to the main temple, a large group of Sikh children asked if they could take a picture with us. And that was the first of many (~10) such requests we have had over the past two days! We feel a little like movie stars. Shimla is a vacation destination for many Indians, from nearby Punjab and elsewhere, and so our guess is that they don’t see many westerners in the towns where they live. Everyone who has asked us for a picture has been very friendly, and we even were told by a woman last night that we both have very “pleasant personalities.” We talked a little with the Sikh children we met at the temple, and they wanted to know our names, if we were boyfriend and girlfriend (the tone of this question implied it was a little risque, so we were happy to report that we are in fact married), if we know Bill Gates, who we support in the NBA, etc.

That night, we ate dinner at the Cecil Oberoi, a fancy hotel built the British over 100 years ago. Stepping inside really did feel like stepping into England – lots of wood paneling and fancy carpets and paintings of British viceroys. The meal included delicious Himachal dumplings and chicken, a surprisingly delicious Indian cabernet shiraz, and an Indian dessert platter (gulab jamun, kheer). I wore one of the outfits I bought in Kalka, and finally received the first compliment on my clothing from an Indian (the waiter). I had been wondering what people thought of seeing a white woman in a salwar kameez, given the stares we get, but it’s nice to know that at least one person didn’t think I looked ridiculous!

Each night we have been here, we have heard drums and music coming from a wedding celebration. Monday night, we actually saw the male half of the wedding party. All the men were wearing white pants and shirts with red vests and turbans. The groom was about to get on a horse, which itself was decorated with red and white ribbons, and which we assumed the groom would ride into the celebration.

Okay, the power just went out and came back on, a common occurrence across India. Luckily, I had saved a draft of my post, but I think it’s a sign that it’s time to sign off. Will write more about the rest of our time here in Shimla later. Tomorrow we take a 10-hour(!) bus ride through the mountains to Amritsar. Any bets on whether I throw up out the bus window at some point?

India, Days 2-5: Delhi, Kalka, Shimla

Day 2 (Friday, June 18): Delhi

Our second day in Delhi, we visited two major sites in the city: Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque) and the Red Fort (home of the Mughal emporer in the 17th century). Being in the mosque was amazing. At prayer time (when only Muslims are allowed in), it can hold up to 25,000 people. We were required to remove our shoes before entering, and walking barefoot across the hot sandstone floor helped us feel more connected to what was otherwise a very foreign environment for us. We sat in the shade for a while, feeling very peaceful and yet outside of ourselves (we were the only white people there). We then climbed the mosque’s south minaret, from which we had an impressive view out over the city of Delhi. Although the smog prevents you from seeing very far in the distance, it was nice to see the city from above rather than from the crowd and dust of the streets.

Inside the Red Fort, you get a sense of how impressive it used to be at the height of the Moghul emperors, but the building and grounds are now rundown. We found it a stark comparison to the Forbidden City in Beijing, which has been meticulously restored. I think what I will remember most about being at the Red Fort was being hotter than I have ever been in my life. The high in Delhi that day was 42 C, or 108 F.

The other highlight from our day was seeing our first elephant in India! A man was riding him down the street as we zoomed by in a motorized rickshaw.

Day 3 (Saturday, June 19): Kalka

Friday morning we took a train north, from Delhi to Kalka, on our way to Shimla. It was a very pleasant ride, given that our $10 fare covered seats in an air-conditioned car, morning tea, and breakfast. We passed miles of flat countryside, seeing everything from desperate slums and people farming with ox and plow or bending over rice fields, to brand new office and apartment buildings. The amount of trash along the railway and piled on the streets of the towns we passed was astounding.

We were unable to get a ticket on the train continuing to Shimla that afternoon, so we stayed a night in Kalka. Even though our Lonely Planet guide book is almost 1,000 pages long, there is no mention at all of Kalka, which tells you something about the town. About 100,000 people live there, running clothing shops, street food stands, and other shops, while sacred cows roam the streets eating food scraps and trash as rickshaws, motorcycle, cars, and trucks whiz by.

We were easily able to find a decent hotel and a tasty lunch. We then decided to check out a clothing store that was having a clearance sale, so I could get one or two more items of Indian clothing. I’ve found that while I still get stared at, I feel more comfortable wearing the local dress.

As soon as we walked into the shop, the owner, Amar, asked us to sit and have tea with him. He then showed me several outfits (which come with loose pants, a long tunic-like shirt, and a long scarf), of which I picked a few. I had to insist several times that I couldn’t buy anymore, or he would have sent me home with 10 new outfits.

Although we had just eaten lunch, Amar insisted that we share his lunch with him. He opened up several small metal containers full of delicious dishes and chapatta (bread) made by his wife, and then insisted that we help ourselves. We didn’t want to be rude, so we ate. And then we had tea again. By the time we left, we were so stuffed that we didn’t eat dinner that night!

As we ate, we chatted with Amar and his sons, who were very welcoming and curious about us. Although they asked questions we wouldn’t ask in the U.S. (How much money are you spending on your trip to India?), it was clear they were just excited to talk to westerners and practice their English. Their family has lived in Kalka since 1947, when India gained independence from Britain. That year, they left Pakistan to come to India, as many Hindus did after the two countries were divided. Since 1947, the family has owned and operated the clothing shop.

Amar and one of his sons insisted that we come back later that night to experience the night market. The town comes alive after dark, when the heat is a little more bearable. It seems the concept of an evening “passeggiata” is universal. We spent a little more time chatting with two of Amar’s sons, once of whom, like Dante, is a software engineer getting ready to go back to business school. Conversations with Amar and his sons were interesting for me, because I was the only woman in the room, and they directed the vast majority of their questions and comments to Dante. While this would certainly bother me if it happened at home, my understanding is that in India’s conservative culture, it is mostly out of respect (men generally do not speak directly to another man’s wife). When I was addressed, it was always as “Madam.”

Day 4 (Sunday, June 20): Kalka to Shimla

We went went back to the shop once more the next morning, to pick up the clothes I bought, which had to be tailored to fit me. We had one last cup of tea with Amar and took pictures with him (which he requested we send to him once we get home).

We then boarded the train to Shimla, which was once a popular British hill station. The train from Kalka to Shimla is called a “toy train” and seems to be primarily a sightseeing train. Although the train is no longer steam-powered as it used to be, it still rumbles slowly up the mountains, with beautiful valley and forest views out the window. Unlike our train out of Delhi, this train was not air-conditioned. For the first hour or two out of Kalka, the temperature inside the train was pretty miserable, even with the windows open. However, we did enjoy the view, and reveled in the air becoming cooler and cooler as we rode higher and higher. We also enjoyed sitting near a nice Indian family, with three adorable children. I was, however, appalled to see one of the women in the family, with apparently no second thought or shame, throw two tin food containers and several wads of aluminum foil out the train window. The amount of trash in India, on the streets, by the railroad tracks, and pretty much everywhere else human beings live or pass through, seems to be an insurmountable problem. It appears they have a long way to go before properly disposing of waste (and taking a personal responsibility for the environmental condition of one’s own country) even becomes part of the public consciousness.

We finally arrived in Shimla around dinner time, and are staying at a neat wood-paneled lodge with a beautiful view of the mountains.

Day 5 (Monday, June 21): Shimla

Today it is a blissful 85 degrees, with cool breezes coming off the mountains. It stormed as we ate breakfast this morning, clearing the air and opening up beautiful views of the hills in the distance. Compared to Delhi, it feels almost like heaven! Today we are exploring the town and enjoying the nice weather. It’s also our 2-year wedding anniversary; what a wonderful place to celebrate!

India, Day 1: Delhi

Wooooaaaaah, Delhi!

We have arrived in India’s capital last, after 30 long hours of travel. Our hotel arranged for someone to pick us up at the airport, and getting our bags and meeting up with the driver was surprisingly hassle-free. The drive to the hotel, however, was wild – traffic lanes, signs, and lights are clearly seen as suggestions to ignore, rather than laws to be followed.

Today we accomplished four goals – buying a few items of Indian clothing for me, getting money out of an ATM, buying a train ticket for Saturday, and finding an internet cafe. Sounds simple, right? Add in 100-degree heat; streets crowded with people, cars, rickshaws, animals, buses, motorcycles, and dust; people asking us where we are from (Hello? Where from? Canada? US?); people trying to convince us to follow them to their rickshaw/tourist office/restaurant/hotel; people wanting to sell us stuff (Hello Madam, you like drum? Hmmmm?); and practically every street and building being under some sort of construction; and the day gets significantly more complicated. Within the span of 2 minutes, we had 3 people try to send us to the wrong ticket office (i.e. a scam office that would rip us off) at the train station. Having read enough about Delhi’s “touts”, we confidently ignored our would-be scammers and accomplished what we needed to!

Sounds crazy, and it is, and we love it. We’re experiencing what many before us have said about India – love it or hate it, you can’t ignore life here. The streets are full of people living, with all the smells, sounds, and sights that go along with it.

And that’s only day 1! Much more to come, I am sure!

Mid-Year Goals Update

Okay it’s June, and as anticipated, I know a lot more about the rest of my year than I did in January. I’d like to refocus my goals for this year to stay focused on what I’d like to achieve.

Professional
I start business school in august. I’m quite excited about it, but it’s important to me to maintain laser focus on what I want to achieve during my time in school. Although, I know that part of being in school is about being open to the unexpected, here are a few principles that I want to keep.

  1. Deepening rather than abandoning technical competency. This might be a funny principle #1 to have going into business school, but it is quite important to me. I aspire to lead by example rather than by edict, to do things rather than say things. To accomplish this, I will take technical classes, join non-MBA student groups, and continue to be a hacker, prototyper, and tinkerer.
  2. Challenge myself to do the hard things. As an undergrad, I was really scared that I couldn’t hack it as a CS major; however, doing CS was probably one of the best decisions i’ve made. In bschool, this means that I should follow my passions and interest even if the path is less certain or won’t provide financial stability. I’m incredibly lucky to have all that I do, and I must continually challenge myself to follow whatever calls to me.
  3. Avoid “the bubble”. When you’re in school, it’s easy to get into a bubble where you don’t really pay attention to what is going on in the world around you. You only have school friends, you only talk about school, you stop paying attention to the news. I want to fight that as best I can. While i want to immerse myself in all that Sloan has to offer, it’s important to keep my head up and still pay attention to everything that is going on around me.

Personal
Looking back, my personal goals from January, still look good, but unfortunately, I’m seriously slacking on my cycling. I’ll be living in a great area for cycling, so when i’m back in Boston in August I need to get back on the bike! In the fall, when the weather is still nice, I’d like to get out and ride every weekend. Need to make that happen!

Summer
I’ll be posting some short updates regarding Sarah and my travels this summer either here or on sarah’s blog. My goal for this summer, is just to relax and enjoy it. Hopefully i can accomplish that :)