Wildlife Checklist

Things We Have Seen:

History Class

Who are they?

First Awkwardness.

Today I had my first unpleasant experience at Woodstock. I mean a genuinely unpleasant, made-my-skin-crawl, sort of situation, from a staff member. Short background: Adam and I have known each other for two years, and been married less than one. Kids are absolutely not in our future for medical reasons and our own choice until late 2012, if not later than that. I’m also very much not Christian, which has made Woodstock a bit awkward, but generally manageable.

So, I was enjoying my walk up to campus to have lunch with Adam today, when I was confronted with someone who started up a casual conversation that then turned into “Your life is good if Jesus is in your life, you should be having kids now, there’s no need to wait and get to be more comfortable with each other, you should have kids, you need to start a family, because with God in your life there can never be any problems. There are only problems when God isn’t in your life, and so you need to start your family now.”

Very much not comfortable and happy. My private life – including possible children – is no one’s business but mine and my husband’s. Certainly not a casual onlooker’s, especially when they aren’t going to be raising any possible offspring on my behalf. What concerns me on another level is the talk that the board of directors and others aren’t happy at how non-religious the school has become, and are trying to turn that around. I’m very concerned that our private life and lifestyle decisions, such as giving ourselves time to settle as a couple, are going to become popcorn conversation, and that we’ll get more pressure like what I encountered today. It fills me with an uncomfortable sense of foreboding.

Sodding primates.

Really, “blasted rhesus macaques”. We haven’t really had much trouble with them, but now the students are back in class, the employees are back in housing… and the rhesus are causing trouble. This afternoon, it’s “playing in the neighbour’s sheets, which she’s drying on the roof”. I’ve gone out with Adam’s walking-stick and with rocks a few times, but one of ’em keeps going back to play in the sheets. Which, whilst cute… is also not cool. Yes, they look like adorable little critters with old-man faces, even the babies. Yes, I could – and do – watch them for long periods, grooming and communicating, and realizing how much of our “human advancements” are mimicked in their behaviour (including covering up their tracks, by putting the lid back on the compost bin after they’ve been in it).

Still – there’s only so much willingness I have to let them go about their merry way, when they’re rolling around in the sheets and seeming to play dress-up. I want to discourage this activity, to the best of my ability… so I’m at the ‘throw rocks and wave sticks’ phase, until I can get a slingshot and/or build a small trebuchet and/or ballista (with blunted end) and/or… okay, so my medieval history buff is coming out again. But nothing says cool like a ballista that can fire a telephone pole (I’ve seen one). So I just want a smaller one, with bagged rice on the end, as a discouragement… and a lesson in history and proper siege weaponry. I recognize this is their troop’s territory, too, but… ARGH. Not the laundry!

 

Also, before I forget… do people have any specific questions they want answered? Post some in the comments, and we’ll see about answering them. I’m working on a post about cows, once I pick the pictures I want to use. 🙂

Varanasi (Part 1)

Varanasi was interesting. As an apparent exception to all those who have gone before, I had neither a very positive nor a very negative response to the city; there were many things I found interesting and wonderful, and many things that I had problems with or disliked, but as Darcey is wont to say: “Eh… that’s life.”

The river was beautiful, and at least looked less polluted than I was expecting: it certainly wasn’t the beautiful blue-green of Rishikesh, but neither was it the muddy brown associated with popularized pictures of people bathing in the muddy waters of Kolkata.

A view of Varanasi from the Ganga

Our time was split between wandering the ghats – the word translates literally as steps, but with the added connotation that the steps lead down to the Ganga – and exploring the back alleys of the old town as well as several of the busier thoroughfares through what seems to pass for downtown.

The city itself is a blend of filth and fable; the air is thick with exhaust and the smoke from burning garbage, incense, and bodies, the alleys and streets filled with trash and excrement alongside shrines and monuments to Shiva, who is said to have founded the city five millennia ago.

This legendary foundation is the source of the city’s importance; because it is Lord Shiva’s city, any who die on the banks of the Ganga here are freed from the Karmic cycle of death and rebirth. For this reason, thousands of pilgrims make their way here to die and be cremated on the famous burning ghats.

Every night, Dasaswamedh Ghat is the scene of an elaborate ritual in praise of Shiva. Although I confess ignorance of the exact significance of the pooja and arti, it is nonetheless breathtaking to witness a ritual that has undoubtedly been performed almost unchanged since Buddha walked these same shores.

A priest of Shiva performs the arti on Dasaswamedh Ghat

It just so happened that our visit coincided with the winter festival of Makar Sankranti, a harvest festival that is celebrated by flying kites. Throughout the week it was frequently possible to see hundreds of kites in the sky across the city.

Fallen in battle or simply cut loose, kites litter the streets after Makar Sankranti

After the festival was over, many children continued to fly kites – either their own, or those retrieved after having their strings cut by another flyer. While stopping to purchase a kite or two myself, our helpful autorickshaw driver Vijay suggested if I were serious I would get a string lined with glass shards so I could compete in these battles. Having no interest in being embarrassed, I opted for a plain nylon string, and if I have time to practice, perhaps I will partake in the aerial arena next year.

Hurra hurra hurra!

I dag er Adams fødselsdag, hurra hurra hurra!

Han sikker sig en gave får,

Som han har ønsket sig i år

Med dejlig chokolade og kager til!

Now that I’ve gotten my “sing the first verse of ‘Happy Birthday’ in Danish” out of the way: today is Adam’s birthday. He’s now on an age with me, so no more cradle-robbing comments for about six months. Yesterday we went into town to do some errands and, prompted by a Facebook post, I had my camera with me – so, when we stopped for a snack/small dinner (a couple slices of pizza) and a drink, I was able to get video of one of Mussoorie’s phenomena:

Any time you get a beverage which is carbonated, up here, the pressure is sufficiently different that it just exudes the straw: the blasted thing physically cannot stay in unless otherwise restrained (and, at the Tavern, they use a small slice of the citrus fruit that is the ‘lemon/lime’ to hold the straw down). Adam enjoys drinking his Coca-Cola from glass bottles, so he’s given up on straws and just cleans the bottle really well. I am about to throw in the towel on straws at this altitude, because… well, watch the video. Imagine that happening after every. single. sip.

After Adam posted the ‘Sea of Clouds’ picture, I started realizing just how much it does seem that, sometimes, we are at the edge of the world in our mountain retreat. The Doon Valley will fill with clouds, the Sivalik Hills that form the other edge of the boundary are shorter than our range of the Himalaya (the Sivalik cap out around 1,200m/3,900ft; our house is at around 6,500ft). When the valley fills with clouds, and the day is overcast there, sometimes we can’t even see Dehradun and the Sivalik – it can be nice up in Mussoorie, but if we go into Dehradun for an errand or two, we arrive and it’s colder and rainy.

Here are a few pictures that will do a small comparison for the visibilities up here, so you can understand why we *know* there’s more out there, and its absence can be a bit odd.

First: a clear(ish) day. You can see cloudlets dribbling through the middle of the photo.

View from our place down into the Doon Valley and across to the Sivaliks

Then, on one of our questionably-ill fated trips to the bank, we caught this neat view on our walk back.

Clouding up in the valley, as seen from the road by Library Bazaar

And then, views from last night. Nothing we could do a precise comparison with – didn’t think of it, sadly – but here’s a terrible shot showing the employee housing, the side of our house, and the vacant top floor apartment!

Everything was that white cloudy-ness.

Another view, plus rhesus.

And one more, up the hill —

Rishikesh, Christmas, New Years, and On!

Situated on the shores of the Ganga River (or Ganges if you’re the sort that still insists on calling it Bombay), Rishikesh is a small but beautiful town built around tourism and and temples. There are many ashrams here too, and it is interesting seeing which have their rules in English or Hindi or both, and the stipulations on entering. After spending a few days there with the Husthwaites, we had seen most of the local sights, but it is the sort of place that one can visit endlessly for the sights and scenery.

Since then both Christmas and New Years have come and gone, and with their passing so too has much of the stress of moving. We now have just under two weeks to prepare for our trip to Varanasi – not to mention finishing unpacking and settling in. We finally have some good firewood, and between the bukari and our various electric heating devices, we have been comfortably warm.

I’ve also started tutoring one of the grade 10 students from Korea named Louie in essay writing and mathematics, which while not quite teaching should at least get me back into something like a regular schedule. I need to get back in the habit of doing a little work on lesson and unit planning every night.

In closing, this was the view from outside our front door yesterday:

Sunset at 2000m above sea level

The view from our front door.

Those are clouds down below the hills… it was breathtaking to say the least.

Rishikesh

An afternoon view of the Ganga as seen from our hotel balcony.

Rishikesh was an interesting trip; there was a lot of material that gave me ideas for blog posts, and some addition to one I’ve been working on (cows). I think the most poignant thing about Rishikesh was interpersonal communication and interaction: you had beggars, both mutilated (such as one woman missing both arms; men missing both legs; swollen/broken/deformed feet, carefully covered up but under the sock made to appear swollen and malformed) and not mutilated (simply begging), both ‘normal’ and ‘holy’ alike.

Rishikesh is one of the major pilgrimage sites, because it is here, legend has it, that Lord Rama spent some of his time whilst exiled, and because Rishikesh spans the Ganga River. The Ganga, for our visit, was a brilliant blue with only the occasional bit of trash spotting it; you could see where the monsoon-levels would come, the various heights of the ghats, and the great channel and rocks carved out in the middle of a curve. Because of this, there are many, MANY ashrams and temples, and the associated folks with them asking for charity.

Contrary to the belief of some individuals, while Buddhism and Hinduism both encourage donation to charity: Buddhist monks traditionally do NOT handle money. If you have a “Buddhist monk” asking for cash for food – offer to buy them a meal, or donate rice or fruit or such. If they pitch a fit, they’re not obeying some of the rules of the monkhood. I can’t vouch for Hinduism, but I know that you cannot get better karma by donating money to get better karma: you donate out of genuine desire to improve a situation or wellbeing of an individual – donating money to improve your own karma is, basically, like the Christian practice of buying an indulgence, and from a greater scheme, wouldn’t “work as well” (the metaphysics of it aside), because you’re not  donating altruistically; you’re donating for self-gain. Which is not a way to increase your karma in a positive direction!

So we ignored the beggars – though making note of the enterprising man at the top of a set of stairs who would make change from cash bills into Indian rupee coins (generally 1 rupee, 2 rupees, or 5 rupees) so that people could donate a plink in a metal begging cup at a time.

A snake charmer that showed up at our hotel shortly after we arrived.

The touts were present, a mild preparation for Varanasi, following you from shop to shop if you showed even a glimmer of interest. We had one man who sold bindi-stamps follow us and put one on me, which I had Adam rub off only a few metres away from the guy; Adam expressed interest in some drums, and the man literally followed us about a half kilometre. I had some choice words, but sadly none in Hindi, for the drum-seller; I just effectively dragged Adam into the restaurant we were headed for, and had to remind him this is the real-life version of “don’t feed the trolls” on the internet. Unless you plan to buy, making eye contact with _anyone_ in a shop will likely put you into a position of being followed, or being heavily hawked from the shop’s door.

We made some purchases – a chessboard of (alleged) marble, a small carved elephant of the same (allegedly), Adam picked up a multicoloured jacket, and a Tibetan Singing Bowl and a pair of small Tibetan cymbals. The one thing I wanted but couldn’t get was a Tibetan-style orange cotton jacket; they wanted Rs800 for it, and I was limited to Rs500. I’m disappointed, but I think I can come up with a pattern or find some similar pictures, and get one made locally. There were some other “Christmas” purchases, and I have to admit that since I’ve never been one for the holidays, I was fantastically relieved to not hear Christmas carols, see holiday decorations, or any of the like while we were out in Rishikesh. We were there in the down season, so the worst struggles we had were not being able to get certain dishes at the restaurants, because they were mostly printed for tourist/high season – so no Israeli food(!?), mangos, or avocados.

There are langurs and rhesus here as well, though they’re much more well-behaved (since they get fed by the tourists). One rhesus did try to grab a bag of Adam’s purchases (the singing bowl, some other things) and was surprised when Adam said “Hey! Back off!” It scurried away, perplexed. In addition, we saw some ducks, cormorants (not sure what species), the everpresent cows everywhere, possibly a turtle, and various other wildlife. We did not see any river dolphins, but there is a sanctuary for them in Bihar that I’d like to visit sometime.

Rishikesh was a lot of fun to visit – the food was great, the hotel was reasonable and had hot water (though you share the tank with a neighbouring room), and where we were, the temples and all, was far enough north from Rishikesh-proper that we had a lot more quiet. We could have gone into Rishikesh town if we wanted – about 3kms south – but I was happy on our little hilltop. Except when the morning winds nearly pulled the windows off their hinges, but… Ah well.

With views like this in the morning, I can’t complain.

Saharanpur

As a note… this is a general post about the trip, albeit a long one. There may be more posts provoked by experiences or thoughts that occurred while in Saharanpur, such as clothing, child labour, working conditions, etc.

On the 18th,  Adam and I were part of a 25-person trip to Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. One of the staff at Woodstock is from Saharanpur, and the Staff Welfare officer was kind enough to do some creative scheduling, and get us all organized so we could go from the school to Saharanpur for a day trip to see the woodwork done there, as well as (mostly for the ladies) do some cheap fabric shopping, and (for the men) see an Islamic university, as Saharanpur appears to be predominantly Muslim.

We got up and got on the bus (the school bus) and got out of town with no problem. Someone wanted to stop once, so there was a brief 10 minute pause past Dehra Dun for some sort of fresh hot fried snack, I’m not sure what it was (having possibly had food poisoning the night before, I wasn’t up for fried food experimentation). Just as with the drive up to Mussoorie from Delhi, there are very few stretches of space without some sort of civilization on it.

When we stopped for lunch (at a hotel restaurant), the food was good and fairly inexpensive, and I mostly had rice, naan, and some chicken that I could be sure had been well-cooked, plus masala chai. Adam discovered the Indian equivalent to barbecued chicken, getting a chicken dish which had a sauce of tomato, vinegar(?), sugar, and sliced onions. It tasted pretty much like BBQ sauce. We hopped back on the bus for a 10-minute ride, and then briefly browsed a small shop that had some things.

Adam and I had come seeking a bangle rack for me, some serving trays for us, and anything else that suited our fancy. We’d seen the elegantly carved boxes from Saharanpur in a couple of the Mussoorie shops; we’d seen the fancifully brass-inlaid art, and were hoping to find some nesting serving trays with such elegant works on them to use when we host things (since we’ll be having people over regularly, if all goes well). Instead… this one shop had some nicely carved things, but… nothing like what we were after. The one thing I would have wanted to buy was a carved table with matching chairs, for Rs 14,000. A lot of the things were pretty, but then turned out to be spraypainted in metallic colours, or coming apart at the seams/hinges. It was… disappointing.

From that shop (and discouraged from doing other browsing), we went to the cloth bazaar and the men went off to the Islamic school (as women couldn’t go). Adam, and a few other gents, elected to go to the cloth bazaar, so we shopped. I got some suit fabric for Rs250 (compared to the Rs400 or so usually in Mussoorie/Dehra Dun) and we got our curtain fabric: lengths of slubby silk, in bright yellow (tinging towards saffron), ruby red, and a brilliant blue. Adam also picked up some iridescent paisley (yes, you read that correctly!) and I got some purple-blue slubby material, from which to make a kameez. His paisley is to make French cuffs on, when he gets new dress shirts made. At Rs40/meter, this was a huge score – some material we liked for curtains was Rs220/meter!

We then went to the staff’s family home via rickshaws (which was an entertaining ride, and the house itself gorgeous), and found out that we would be receiving a visit from the press. I can’t confess surprise, because it’s great promotion for the town and the industry (and this gentleman can get personal marketing): people from Finland, Canada, America, Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, India, Sweden, Scotland, and England – coming to Saharanpur to look at the woodworking! Explaining the craft, the intricacies, to these pale-skinned foreigners from all walks of life and parts of the world.

We were posed as he began his lecture – we figured it’d be a photo, but instead, with the shortest of us up front, he began to elucidate the ways it was made, the way the brass is hammered in, the different steps; it was hard for some not to laugh at this oh-so-clearly presented photo op, being taken advantage of. I really can’t blame them – I simply applaud the ingenuity in taking advantage of the fat sheep that fell in their laps, ready to be shorn and then showed for benefit.

The one thing that took me aback was when we walked back to the factory, and I saw goats in coats on a roof.

Okay, well. That was the first thing, but not the one. That just surprised me. What made me a bit taken aback was the first actual instance I saw of child labour, a young kid hammering brass ribbon into the designs with a speed that shows he’s been doing it for at least two years or more. The boy was probably 10-12, Adam supposes. I’m terrible with ages so I won’t venture a guess. We didn’t speak to him, so we don’t know the circumstances of his employment: it could be apprenticeship, willing – it could be trying to earn some money on the weekends when he isn’t in school, to support his family – it could be a nephew or grandson who really wants to be in the business. Or it could be a child trying to pull his family out of poverty and this is his only option.

Based off of the number of schoolkids we saw in uniform (which is to say: not very many), I’m inclined to think that this wasn’t anything inappropriate, just startling. Apprenticeships in the West during the Renaissance and even up through the tail end of the 20th century started anywhere from 8-13, depending on the craft and family situation.

Speaking of kids… which makes me tangent to what they were wearing, and clothing in general..

Saharanpur is a Muslim town. Most of the women wore black salwar and long kameez, if not burqas, hair and face covered. A few deliberately uncovered their faces at points, as if to gawk at the foreigners better and let us see them; another few never quite appeared to be covering themselves up, instead having the front part of the burqa up so they could see clearly. We were all definitely remarked upon, and I am still shaking off the stares. Dressed in jeans (so I could wear my knee brace), a knee-length kameez, and a dupatta – I was still getting stares. The ladies who hadn’t bothered (and there were a couple) got more, but it was… curiosity mingled with feeling like I had a “USDA APPROVED” stamp on me, and my quality is being additionally evaluated for what grade. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Adam’s protectiveness is nice… except in India, where physical contact with a woman means she’s easy… so it was this awkward “I want to hide behind him” mixed with “Can’t touch him, there might be Eve-teasing”.

Eventually… we all got on the bus and went home, and it was about 3 hours from door to door… including driving at night with multiple vehicles without lights on, and sheer general “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

It was fun. I want to go again. 🙂

Holiday/Vacation Time!

Recently, Adam and I found out a friend may be coming to India for a work trip, so we are hoping to get a chance to swing down to Delhi and see him. It will probably entail renting a taxi – the trains will likely be just too booked – but it might be nice to see a face from Toronto, and hopefully we can do a little socializing and learning Delhi.

This evening, we were also invited to Rishikesh for 2 days with another couple here at Woodstock. They had an extra room reserved after a guest was unable to make it out to India, so they invited Adam and I. I’m looking forward to that as well, but…

The bigger, confirmed holiday:

Adam and I have managed to secure some train tickets for mid-January, so we can go thaw. We are happy – it’s not always easy to get train tickets, especially in winter, to a warmer place.

We are taking the Doon Express from Dehra Dun to Varanasi (and back); it will be about 20 hours on the train, but we have our own berth in a sleeper car (2A/AC2 class), which means we get AC, and it will be just us in our berth (as compared to being in a 4-person berth).  This is the full train route – note we only go about half way, to get off at Varanasi. The total travel fare is running us just shy of Rs5000, and our guest house budget is about the same/a little more. We are starting our trek the evening of the 12th, and return to Dehra Dun on the 20th — this means that we get a great opportunity to warm up, and then return in time to get settled back in for the New Hire Orientation and the start of the next school term.

Layouts for Indian Trains

Berth layout

For anyone who is interested in more information about the Indian train system, this is a great website. I have looked at it often, and it’s been quite useful to figure out how to negotiate the train system. We will have to pack our own meals, from what I can tell (there’s no ‘pantry car’), but I figure if I can get a handle on how to make up the the chicken tikka sandwiches that the school makes, I can make some of those, some aloo paratha, rice, and some other snack-type things and we can get a tiffin-box, and be good to go. Admittedly… the idea of one of these tiffin boxes utterly fascinates me and I have coveted one since we got here, for no other reason than ‘it’s shiny!’ and ‘would be great as a lunchbox back in the West, too, and DEFINITELY recognizable!’ Actually having justification to buy one is even nicer. 🙂

Adam and I are looking at seeing the ghats, perhaps going to Sarnath (that and Bodh Gaya are a big deal for me, as I’m Buddhist), and I’d like to make sure we see Ram Nagar Fort for Adam’s military history interests. Sarnath is a half-day trip we could manage, Bodh Gaya would be a full day as it’s a ways away. We’re also hoping to be able to maybe get out of Varanasi proper to do some shopping; carpets and silks are what the area is known for, and if we get ourselves out of the tourist-tout central, we can hopefully get some better deals. Since we really only have 4.5 days there (we get in on 13/01 at 16:10, and leave 19/01 at 10:36), I think that the ghats and Ram Nagar will take us at least 2 days; Sarnath + shopping would be a third, and then perhaps Jaunpur, Allahabad, Mirzapur, or someplace else for a day trip for the 4th.

We will be staying at the Ganga Fuji Home, which has been recommended by our Rough Guide to India (2008), and a number of other sources. We’re not looking for a fancy place or a four-course meal – but a place where the travel guide says is clean, serviceable and near to locations where we won’t need to take a rickshaw to get anywhere. They will also pick us up at the train station – which is excellent after hearing the stories about rickshaw-touts and hotel/lodging problems.

The 14th is a holiday/holy day, Makar Sankranti, which celebrates the end of winter, start of the harvest season (particularly in the South), and an auspicious period. It’s traditionally celebrated by kite flying, which is something Adam enjoys – I’m particularly happy we’ll get to be somewhere like Varanasi for it! It’s also one of the big bathing days, though I’m not particularly inclined to go into the Ganga… however unique an experience it might be. I think we’ll be able to keep ourselves occupied, and it’s well within our budget for an affordable holiday, as well as a place that has been around for thousands of years, and is at the heart of a significant amount of Indian culture.