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In town

People here often refer to the southern part of the city as “town” as though everything else (which is to say, most of the city) were a suburban afterthought.  To others, it’s at least ‘South Bombay’ — not Mumbai, because it had been Bombay long before the state of Maharashtra changed the city’s legal name 20 years ago in a fit of nationalism.

Critics maintain that the neighborhoods along Marine Drive, in the Fort, Colaba, and Nariman Point areas are just full of old money and old people, and that the interesting parts of the city — including the best nightlife — lie farther to the north in the Bandra area.  Town is ‘geriatric city’ to them.

Whatever people think of the region, what’s certain is that it’s a really beautiful area.  Neo-Gothic and Art Deco architecture crop up side by side in a way that I suspect might not happen anywhere else.  Just as Neo-Gothic was a reaction against the perceived ugliness of industrial architecture, Art Deco was a monument to what could be build with the tools and techniques of industry.  Indian Art Deco is generally different from the kind you might find in the New York.  There’s less of the flamboyant Machine Age ornamentation, and more of an emphasis on rounded corners and smooth, uninterrupted lines.  One of my professors, Gyan Prakash (who has written extensively about Mumbai), told me that Indian Art Deco was largely about Indian builders’ fascination with the flexibility concrete gave them in shaping buildings.

And that pretty much exhausts my knowledge of architecture.  But I can appreciate it, and maybe you can too.  So what follows is an un-comprehensive and meandering tour of town.  Enjoy.

Eros Cinema

Eros Cinema

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The Gentle Sadness of the Urban Banyan Tree

The Gentle Sadness of the Urban Banyan Tree

The Taj Hotel and the Gateway of India

The Taj Hotel and the Gateway of India

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Regal Cinema, Kala Ghoda

Regal Cinema, Kala Ghoda

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The Institute of Science

Sassoon Library

Sassoon Library

Sassoon

Sassoon

The Bombay Stock Exchange

The Bombay Stock Exchange

The New India Assurance Building

The New India Assurance Building. Not a typical instance of Indian Art Deco, but really impressive

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Rajabai Clock Tower, University of Mumbai

Rajabai Clock Tower, University of Mumbai

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Quirky Deco windows along Marine Drive

Quirky Deco windows along Marine Drive

More Marine Drive Deco

More Marine Drive Deco

Pablo, me, Shreyas, and Kasturi striding in front of Victoria Terminus

Pablo, me, Shreyas, and Kasturi striding in front of Victoria Terminus

Me and Chilldog at the Oval Maidan

Me and Chilldog at the Oval Maidan

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Mumbai trains

Hello Friends,

I’m writing from Mumbai, India, where I’m spending the summer interning at Forbes India.  I’ve been here for about a month, and I have about a month left.

Forbes has been really cool. I help out with a variety of things in the newsroom: I’ve done a couple of press conference write-ups, I do a bunch of proof-reading and copy-editing, and I’m learning the very basics of layout and design.  But mostly, my supervisor gives me a lot of freedom to pursue my own projects.  So I’m now doing some research on India’s nascent indie music scene, which with any luck will turn into a story and go to print.  Indian popular music has long been dominated by songs from Bollywood films, and it’s only been in maybe the last ten years that there has emerged a space for original popular music unaffiliated with all that.  I’m looking into the factors that have enabled that emergence, and it’s been good fun talking to musicians and artist managers who know far more about it than I do.

The Forbes office is located in a refurbished mill in the Lower Parel area of Mumbai.  The whole area was once filled with the textile mills that formed the backbone of the city’s industry. Now, most of the old mills are office spaces or trendy bars and restaurants.

I get there by train. The British provenance of the Mumbai Railways should be clear to anyone reads the station names as they pass by: Elphinstone and Churchgate, for instance share a line with Mahalaxmi and Jogeshwari.  Those interested in postcolonialism would want to impress upon you that the British-made Indian railways were an instrument of empire, used to better exploit the subcontinent’s resources and subdue her people.  And I think this is probably right.  During the railways’ construction, it seems unlikely that the British engineers were asking Indians if the course of the lines suited their needs.  They were on the Queen’s business and didn’t have time for that sort of thing.

But however mixed the trains’ colonial legacy may be, their present usefulness is undeniable.  Mumbaikars or Bombayites — as the city’s residents are called — fully embrace the train system, which supposedly carries 6 million people around the city each day.

The trains are a hoot. At rush hour, they’re so packed that if you’re in the middle of the car, you might not make it out at your station.  Accordingly, a spot on the very edge, head sticking out into the breeze, is highly sought-after.  The vestibules, about 60 square feet between open doors on both sides, regularly hold 30 people. For perspective, a king size bed is roughly 42 square feet.  So this means you’re pressed right up against two or three or four people, with someone else’s elbow on your shoulder and another person’s forearm grazing your head.  Mumbai train riding is a contact sport.

 

As close together as the handles are, sometimes they're just not enough

As close together as the handles are, sometimes they’re just not enough

Those guys are where you want to be (and so am I, behind the camera)

Those guys are where you want to be (and so am I, but behind the camera)

But I should be clear that this is only really at rush hour. At all other times, it’s the best and most pleasant way to get around the city.  The trains don’t go that fast (I’d say they top out at 40 mph), and it’s a smooth ride, so there’s nowhere better to be right in the door, which is not so anxious a spot when people aren’t running over you to get it.  The breeze, I can hardly over-emphasize, is great, and at that speed you can really get a feel for the area that passes by just outside.

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The trains are also cheap, frequent, and never run into traffic.

Anyway, let me conclude my ode to Mumbai’s trains.  I wanted this to go up sooner, but the monsoon winds took out the internet at my flat for about a week.  More to come.

– Doug

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India, revisited

This post is quite late.  I was in India about a month ago now, and since then have been in Beijing.  Between daily Chinese assessments and government censors who do not appreciate the bastion of liberal media that is wordpress, it’s been tricky finishing up this post.  I’ll be better about this for the rest of the summer, so expect more regular updates.

Anyway, India:

I can't believe I was here one day

I can’t believe I was here at the Arc de Triomphe one day…

...and at the India Gate a few days later.

…and at the India Gate a few days later.

After a wonderful though all too brief stay in Paris, I flew to Delhi, where I stayed with my friend Vaasvi and her family.

This India is at once familiar and very different to the one in Banaras last year.

Everything from the shapes of faucets to the sound of choruses of auto-rickshaw horns and the richly fertile smell of the produce markets felt immediately familiar, as if the intervening year hadn’t passed at all.

It’s amazing how much of memory is contextual.  Being here, memories of small details and vignettes of my time in Banaras were sort of unlocked. Things I didn’t realize I’d even forgotten. It’s much easier to speak Hindi here too; here in a natural setting, I remember words and phrases that I could not have recalled at home.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  In some ways, our memories — though imperfect — are more real than the actual substance of us, the “real” part.  It’s what we are at the end of the day: we cycle through all of our cells in about seven years, so atomically you’re hardly anything of the person you were in 2006.  But somehow a continuity of memory, personality, and experience survives our perpetual renovation.  In a word, we are rivers.

Old Delhi, which reminded me most strongly of Banaras

Old Delhi, which reminded me most strongly of Banaras

Apart from all the similarities, Delhi at this time of year was also quite different from the Banaras I’d left.  Most immediately noticeable was that monsoon season had begun.  So thankfully, I missed the 115 heat, and got to see a genuinely tropical  India: green everywhere, instead of the dust I’d become accustomed to, humid but not oppressive.

Green everywhere

Green everywhere

Delhi is also much more cosmopolitan and liberal than deeply conservative and ancient Banaras.  Huge L.A. style shopping malls exist next to chai and samosa stands.  Young Delhites don’t forswear alcohol — the Hindi word for which, sharaab, apparently means “evil water” — with quite the vehemence of their Banarsi peers; the Haus Khas neighborhood is home to some slick bars and a respectable nightlife scene.

Irene, Vaasvi, and me in Haus Khas

Irene, Vaasvi, and me in Haus Khas

This time around, I found I was much more at peace with India than I was before.  By the time I left last May, I was a little burnt out on the country.  It’s often overwhelming, and it had worn on me.  With the foreign novelty of the place  gone, I’d become less patient with the loud and hot country and its people who wanted me to get out of the way of their motorcycles, come eat at their restaurants, and buy their wears at a very good price just for me.

Now, having had some time away from the subcontinent, while marketplace hawkers can be aggressive and tiresome, I really found myself admiring their hustle.  Truly.  It was easy to forget how tough a line of work that is.

I don’t know if I can adequately express how incredibly earnest and candid a place I find northern India to be.  Nothing is hidden; all of the sweat and striving, work and play are all out in the open for anyone to see.  The US is an extremely private place; people tend to retreat into their homes for everything in a way that is kind of antisocial: they eat, talk, see friends, all from the privacy of their own little caves.  In India as I’ve seen it, public spaces are filled with the public, and that display is part of what I find so engaging about the place.

And that’s what I’ve got for now.  Some of my photos follow.

Warmly,

Doug

 

I had lunch with Goswami-ji, my sitar teacher from Banaras, who was in town for the weekend

I had lunch with Goswami-ji, my sitar teacher from Banaras, who was in town for the weekend

Vaasvi's dad, the Artist in His Studio

Vaasvi’s dad, the artist in his studio

Humayun's Tomb, which I think rivals the Taj Mahal's beauty

Humayun’s Tomb, which I think rivals the Taj Mahal’s beauty

Inside Humayun's Tomb, Mughal architecture at its finest

The ceiling inside Humayun’s Tomb, Mughal architecture at its finest

 

Caligraphy at Delhi's Lodi Gardens. The embellishments in Mughal Architecture are floral or calligraphy, which I think must have to do with the prohibition of graven images that the Abrahamic faiths share.

Caligraphy at Delhi’s Lodi Gardens. The embellishments in Mughal Architecture are floral or calligraphy, which I think must have to do with the prohibition of graven images that the Abrahamic faiths share.

I went to Jantar Mantar, which home of ancient astronomical instruments.

I went to Jantar Mantar, which home of ancient astronomical instruments.

I suspect Jantar Mantar may actually have been the earliest known attempt at nuclear turbines, though, and that the whole astrology thing is a cover story.

I suspect Jantar Mantar may actually have been the earliest known attempt at nuclear turbines, though, and that the whole astrology thing is a cover story.

Jantar Mantar

Jantar Mantar

Some of my new friends from school, piling into a cab.

Some of my new friends from school, piling into a cab.

Irene and me at Delhi's Red Fort

Irene and me at Delhi’s Red Fort

A paan stand that is supposedly the favorite of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. I was very excited.

A paan stand that is supposedly the favorite of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. I was very excited.

At the Red Fort

At the Red Fort

I missed my friends though.

I missed my buddies though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And we’re back.

Hi all!  It’s been a good first year at Princeton, and now that it’s over I’m lucky enough to be filling this summer with travels.  I’ll spend most of my time (two months) in Beijing, doing an intensive Mandarin language program, but the summer itinerary as a whole is really wide-ranging and very exciting: Paris for five days, Delhi for six, Princeton in Beijing for the middle two months, then Shanghai for a couple days, and home via Hawaii, where I’ll see a bunch of my family.

I can’t believe I’m doing this and it feels just totally indulgent, but I’m so pumped up!

I’m actually in Delhi already. Paris was so busy that I didn’t have time to write up a blog post from there, so I’ll fill you all in.

I’d never been to Paris before. Everyone told me that it would be exquisitely elegant and beautiful and refined, and while it’s one thing to know that on an intellectual level, it’s completely different to experience it for yourself.  Paris was beautiful in pretty much every direction I looked.  It’s a culture that is genuinely concerned with aesthetics: buildings and clothes and food serve all the same purposes that they would elsewhere, but why shouldn’t they look great at the same time? I thought this occasionally bordered on the self-absorbed (e.g. down coats and scarves in 75 degree weather), but by and large Parisians were not the chain-smoking snobs the media had told me they would be. People were basically kind and helpful.  Eventually, though, since I didn’t know any meaningful French, I defaulted to Spanish and pretended to be someone other than my suburban New Jersey self.  This worked much of the time, and it both assuaged my own silly insecurity, and made communicating a whole lot easier.

Anyway, some things I saw and did there follow:

I stayed with my friend Morgan, who is there studying French for the summer.

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Morgan and me at the Notre Dame

She has this wonderful tiny little apartment seven floors up.

There was no elevator

There was no elevator

We made dinner there the first night

We made dinner there the first night

It was good. Also, in Paris, baguettes never cost much more than a dollar because they believe everyone should be able to buy bread. It is a good city.

It was good. Also, in Paris, baguettes never cost much more than a dollar because they believe everyone should be able to buy bread. It is a good city.

I just ate really well in Paris.

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The felafel shop in Marais — the city’s Jewish quarter — that everyone who had ever been to Paris recommended to me. Delicious.

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Banana nutella crepe, also in Marais

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Breakfast: cafe au lait, pain au chocolat aux amandes

I did some exploring, too.  One day I just walked all over the city for maybe four hours. Here are some pictures of that day and some miscellaneous ones:

I took the metro over to Marais, where I began my walk.

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You can open the windows on some metros, and the car’s acceleration is accompanied by a whirring sound that rises in pitch. I kind of expected that it would peak with a pop like a champagne bottle being opened, but we always just slowed down for the next stop instead.

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Paris is a museum, so it only makes sense to have labels.

The Hôtel de Ville, which is a city hall, not a hotel.

The Hôtel de Ville, which is a city hall, not a hotel.

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The Louvre, which was closed that day.

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The police at the Louvre wear roller skates.

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Grown men (and women and children) ride scooters in Paris unironically, sometimes in full business attire. I had no way of anticipating Paris’s quirkiness.

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I wanted to race the funicular up the steps to the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur in Montmartre — the city’s most artistic area at its north end. I was not allowed to do so.

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Morgan and I met our friend Noah, who is also there for the summer, for Tibetan food. We took pictures of the food and got kind of carried away.

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Noah wisely realized that 2001 was a bad year for the Parisian mustache.

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Gypsy jazz!

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At Shakespeare and Company, a famous English language bookstore in Paris.

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I went running with Drew, a family friend, in the Bois de Boulogne, on the west side of the city.

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Bois de Boulogne

Updates from Delhi and beyond to come soon!

Warmly,

Doug

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Hi All,

I’m home, I’ve traded monkeys for squirrels once again, and I thought I’d write up a highlights post to kind of wrap up the whole experience.  You’ll get a very rough “pixellated” version of the last nine months, but I think it should be a decent overview.  If you’ve been reading all along, you’ll probably recognize a lot of this.

We spent the month of September in Kausani  — a hill station town just outside the Himalayas — and on an organic farm in Dehradun called Navdanya.  At the end of the month we transitioned to Varanasi (also known as Banaras and Kashi), perhaps Hinduism’s holiest city.  We would stay there along the Ganges River and among the history and chaos and festivals of the ancient city for seven months, working in NGOs and learning Hindi.  At the end of April we escaped the soaring Varanasi temperatures for the Himalayan region of Ladakh, in the northern state of Kashmir and Jammu.  We worked at a couple different schools, stayed with Ladakhi host families for a week, and culminated our experience with an eight-day trek in the mountains.

So here you go:

Our first Indian cup of chai, in Delhi

Isabel and I were pro kitchen helpers at Navdanya, the organic farm where we stayed for a couple weeks in September.

An uncharacteristically wet Varanasi upon our arrival in late September.

We did our best with the Varanasi October heat and discovered the deliciousness of lassis

Crazy crowds and fiery explosions for the celebration Dussehra, in Varanasi in October

Our October Diwali celebrations, as documented by the Dainik Jagran

Sarnath, three miles north of Varanasi, is where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

The Maha Bodhi Temple, at the spot of Buddha’s enlightenment. We visited it in Bodhgaya — a few hours from Varanasi — in late October or so.

November 14th marks Children’s Day — first prime minister Nehru’s birthday. I made that fine mask for a celebration my workplace held.

Varanasi, the holy city.

My friend Lekha visited in December. We were all very excited about this, as you can see.

Winter brought a lot of sweater-wearing goats, which I thought was just fantastic.

Me with the Maurya brothers — my favorite (and the librarian’s least favorite) crazy devil-children at the World Literacy of Canada community library.

Holi craziness in March (the Indian festival of colors)

The Taj Mahal, I guess.

Maxson and me, chilling out Hindustani classical style

April brought MANGO SEASON! (our only solace for temperatures up to a stupifying 118 F)

Now, having left Varanasi: me with my host brother Stanzin in the Himalayan region of Ladakh

We stayed at Tsomoriri Lake — a beautiful, desolately high-altitude spot — for two days before our big Himalayan trek.

Us with our rich man’s embarrassingly large (but absolutely first-rate) trekking crew

MOBY (Men of Bridge Year) India 3.0, approaching a pass in the Himalayas.

Icy adventures

Our good-lookin’ group on a trip to Delhi.

“How’s India?” everyone asks.  It’s a big question.  There were ups and downs, but all-in-all, I’m really glad I could go.  There was an enormous country of fascinating culture to explore, paired with the initial (violent) sickness and accompanying homesickness, crazy Indian festivals in the crazy Indian hot weather, the happiness of integrating with a new community along with the chaos and disfunction of Varanasi, etc.  But I’m really happy I had a great group of friends to keep me company throughout the whole thing, as well as our on-site director Daniel, who was a logistical wizard and always willing to talk about anything we needed to talk about.  And thanks to all of you who have read my blog and those who kept up with the occasional postcard, care packages (!), email, facebook message — it was great to hear from you so far from home.

But that’s that now, and I’m back in America.  People keep asking me if it’s strange to be home, and while I keep expecting weird reverse-culture shocky things to happen, the extent of it has been how my bed is unreasonably soft and how the New Jersey suburbs are deafeningly quiet at night.  Otherwise, it’s home — something I’m well used to.

Thanks Princeton, thanks India.

All the best,

Doug

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Ladakh, Part II

[Btw, the previous post is updated with pictures, which I think does good things for it.]

Hi All,

We’re in civilization again — in Delhi for the last few days of our trip.

The Himalayan adventures continued at the SECMOL school, which was a pretty remarkable place.  It stands for the Student Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, and it is essentially a school for Ladakhi students who have failed their 10th grade exams (which is the vast majority of them).  SECMOL gives them a practical education: agricultural classes, personal health seminars, spoken English experience, etc.  We helped out at their (very cool and environmentally friendly) campus and participated in the twice daily English conversation sessions they hold.  It was a beautiful place to spend some time reflecting about the previous eight months, and the kids were a lot of fun.  The highlight was probably the night everyone made momos (Ladakhi dumplings): about 40 of us squeezed into this tiny dining room stuffing and folding dumplings and chatting, until someone busted out the tunes and it became dumpling/wild dance party hour.

Azza with the SECMOL giant solar oven panels

Dinnertime

A fine SECMOL evening

I liked seeing myself in the mirror with the mountains behind me to remind me I was actually there. Yeah, it’s goofy — so sue me.

We met a four-year-old Rinpoche (high priest) on a SECMOL day trp to Leh. He’s supposed to be the reincarnation of a previous Rinpoche.

In Leh — my new look?

We stayed at SECMOL for a week before leaving for a two-day stay at Tsomoriri Lake, a pristine Himalayan Lake that sits at 15,075 ft. above sea level (which, to give you a sense of how high it is, is ridiculously high up).  Tsomoriri was surrounded by bewilderingly perfect skipping stones and snowcaps.  We finished our group seminars on reverse culture shock and that sort of thing there.

Our yurt/mars rover on Tsomoriri Lake

View from the tent

The prayer flags reminded me of the finishing chute at cross-country races. So did hardly being able to breathe after running past them.

Five minute run to the top of that hill nearly killed me.

Finally, we embarked on our nine-day, 60 mile, trekking Odyssey across arid Himalayan valleys and high snowy mountain passes the likes of which are rarely found in the lower 48 states of America.  Now, yes, it was an incredibly manly (and strong-womanly) trip, and yes, we did carry our big packs on our backs the whole way, but we also had an incredible amount of help.  Our crew of six able guides and camp helpers and a team of ten or so ponies to carry tents and food made the journey both possible and thoroughly enjoyable.

The crew

Each morning we woke up around 7:00 to break down camp before a hot and deliciously prepared breakfast.  After eating, we typically walked until about 3:00 p.m. with a break for lunch.  The scenery was rich and varied, but it was hardly fertile.  This sort of altitude lends itself to inhospitable terrain, and we were only below the tree-line for part of one day.  In a typical day, we would wind along frigid snow-fed streams, pass sheer red iron-rich cliff faces, traverse some lingering snowy stretches, and make our way over rocky marmot-inhabited scree fields.  Despite our dearest Planet Earth-inspired hopes, we never saw the elusive snow leopards, but they are known to live in these areas.  Reaching a pass – as we did three times in our trek – was always a highlight.  They are marked by stupas (Buddhist monuments), yak and ibex horns, and tangled nests of prayer flags left by years of previous climbers.  It all added up to a nice tangible marker of achievement (apart from the fact that everything afterward was downhill), and at our guidesf encouragement we shouted ”Ki-ki, so-so, landz gya lo!”, meaning ”may the gods be victorious!”, as we reached the top.  In the afternoon, we settled into our streamside camps and read and relaxed until dinnertime, when Rigzin – our unbelievably capable camp cook (banana pie and pizza in the Himalayas) – fed us all manner of delicious dishes.  Even with headlamps, the lack of electricity prompted us to fall into a very natural sleeping pattern – going to bed and rising with the sun – and it was a rare thing for us to stay up much past 10:00.  Up there, two miles closer to the stars, the clear atmosphere provided us with the most incredible nighttime skies.  Especially if you woke up in the middle of the night, you could look up to thousands upon thousands of twinkling pinpricks, with the Milky Way forming a thick cloudy swath across the middle of the sky.

‘trekking’

My water bottle froze overnight

Camp, day two

Himalayan sunset, Maxson, Azza modeling a Himalayan sunshine smile

Lunch break — heading to a pass

MOBY, braving the elements.

Our last and highest pass — Khangmarula, “the snowy narrow pass”

Also, we went pants-sledding down from one of the passes, which something none of us had ever expected to do in late May.

Daniel ‘kayaking’ down the north face

A happy me post-trek — and the grungiest you’ll ever see me

*clean* (my face is naked)

As we came back to the hill station town of Leh after the trek and showered off 11 days of hard-earned sweat and grime, the realization that our Bridge Year was coming to an end became unavoidable.  I feel truly fortunate to have had such an incredible experience this year — from Diwali fireworks, to camel safaris, to Holi color wars, to this.  I think a highlights post next week is probably in order.

After a day of rest in Leh, we flew to Delhi, and tomorrow it’s back home to America.  So there you go: India (a very, very small part of it).

Namaskar, Bharat. Phir Milenge.  Goodbye, India. We’ll meet again.

-Doug

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Baaaa

Hello Friends,

So for the past two weeks we’ve been in Ladakh, which is in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. A brief bit of Indian history: In 1947 the India achieved independence from Great Britain, and at the insistence of a group of religiously intolerant politicians the historically united subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan. The latter was to be a homeland for the Muslim (though plenty of Muslims live in India without any sort of persecution), but by and large this very contrived partition has been a huge source of political and military strife for both nations in the over-60 years since independence. One issue of contention is the very border between the two; the disputed region of Kashmir is accordingly heavily militarized.

Army base outside Leh

While we weren’t in the disputed region itself, we were pretty close, which was satisfyingly edgy. After a Banaras to Delhi train ride, we took a short flight to Leh, one of the bigger towns in the Ladakh region, due to its military base. Except for the lack of lifts and groomed trails, Leh looks a lot like a Colorado ski town – quaint guest houses, lots of restaurants and cafes against the backdrop of the snowy Himalayas. [It snowed on our second morning here. The contrast with 115 degree Banaras could not be more extreme (nor more welcome).] We stayed in Leh for two days to (somewhat) acclimatize to its 11,000 ft altitude. This sort of elevation is totally unforgiving; on our second day I went for a short run at a 7:30-per-mile shuffle, which felt for all the world like an aerobic effort around 5:10 mile pace at sea level and left me in moderate respiratory distress for about an hour afterwards. Gotta be kind of careful here.

After Ley, we left for a homestay in our guide Namgyal’s village of Domkhar. Because of Domkhar’s relative proximity to Pakistan, we were only able to get permits to stay for five days, but we all enjoyed our stay. Domkhar was incredibly idyllic – a small town nestled into the mountainside along the Indus River, peppered with slender poplars and blossoming apricot trees. The Ladakhis are a very hospitable and laid-back people. We could get by with Hindi and a few words of Ladakhi, the most important of which is julley,  meaning hello, goodbye, and thank you.

My host family was really sweet. They were very friendly and always sat me down for a cup or two or five of butter tea whenever I came inside. My younger host brother Stanzin Namgyal was especially curious and playful. I played cricket with him and my other host brother Nurboo, and went for walks with them during which they would turn the many roadside Buddhist prayer wheels and pass stupas (Buddhist monuments) on the proper right-hand side. They simply took them in stride, as though they were as much an inevitability of the road as the twists and turns.

A stupa

Big old prayer wheel in Leh

Chillin’ out with (left to right) host brothers Stanzin and Rigzin

Making butter tea in the gurgur churn

My host family’s cows and composting toilet (which is the opposite of how high-tech it may sound, but still cool)

We all helped out at the Domkhar Government High School for the week. The kids were a lot of fun, but the education was terrible. Most students fail their 10th grade exams (i.e. they don’t pass the equivalent of high school). The fact that there were always classes for the four of us to teach is a sad commentary on the problem of absenteeism in government jobs in India. It made me appreciate my own West Windsor – Plainsboro education a lot more. But again, Domkhar HS wasn’t a grim place, the students kept things interesting. All of them, mystifyingly, were big fans of Justin Beiber, so we heard a lot of “Baby”, along with a good deal Shakira too.

7th grade class

Morning announcements at the Domkhar government school

The Dhomkar government school across the valley

One of my friends from Domkhar

Tyler throwing the discus for their mini-field day

Exercising in Ladakh – after some initial altitude adjustment – is gratifyingly manly and awesome. Two weeks in, I’m still not running at normal speeds, but I can manage a much more than my sad second-day 15 minutes. In Domkhar it was all glorious riverside mountainous views. Tyler and I ran together for a few days there and on our trek. We also traded our Banaras squat rack and 10 kg plates for “boulder squats”, which taps into some happy primal caveman part of you. The village kids liked to join us in this.

A run along the Indus River

After we left Domkhar we went on a four day trek that covered about 35 mountainous miles. I highly recommend it. My words can’t do justice to the Himalaya scenery. Each mountain pass was marked with stupas, cairns (rock pilings) and prayer flags – a nice reminder that you’d made it to the top of that one. We spent our nights in village guest houses and trekked for four or five hours a day, and tumbled into bed dirty and tired.

At Bangbangla pass the first day

On steep drop-offs, we were all subject to the occasional acute crisis of confidence, but if you keep your gaze three feet ahead of you and keep on trucking, the moment passes and none of us even tumbled to tragic deaths.

Lunching on top of our first pass

Ladakh has been incredible so far, and I’m really grateful to Princeton for organizing and funding all this – it’s pretty crazy. I’ve been as unplugged as I’ve ever been in recent memory, with internet and phone access about once every ten days. Apart from pending summer jobs, this is not such a bad thing. We’re back in Leh for the day. Next up is a week volunteering at the Secmol School, followed by another week of trekking, three days in Delhi, and then AMERICA WOOHOO!

I hope to shoot off a post-Secmol blog post in a week, but if you all have burning secrets or desperate news you have to tell me, you’ll just have to be a little patient until then.

Julley!

-Doug

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