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Published: October 31st 2006
My trip began through a continent of predominantly Spanish-speaking, meat-eating, Christian converts, with wine tours through Argentina and Brazilian Carnaval - cocktails on sun-soaked beaches, wild nights dancing, hairless bodies barely covered by insy winsy bikinis, kisses exchanged freely as the wind...
Like a camelion, I have had to change my colours completely. Now, I'm in culturally, linguistically and religiously as-diverse-as-you-can-get India, where male-female contact in public is frowned upon, where I'm covered from head to ankle (literally, when entering temples) and living with a Sikh family who believe not a single hair should be removed or cut as it is sacred and provides spiritual strength, who are vegetarian, and who do not smoke or drink a drop of alcohol. Sometimes I just sit, eyes open wide, and wonder how on earth I have managed to just slot in to such differing extremes!
It has been a while since I last wrote. I am now comfortably settled in a lovely Sikh family home in Jammu, described by the Lonely Planet as a busy transport hub with no particular tourist appeal. Again I've managed to get off the LP beaten track! What a relief it was to arrive in a
beautiful home - almost like back home. Far from Gurnam (alias Gerry)'s description of a two room house (forever joking), his family lives in a CLEAN, LARGE (by Indian standards - normal by our standards), 'NORMAL' house with even its own garden! I was in a state of shocked relief when I arrived, mouth agape to find things we would class as normal - clean sheets, a room to myself, hot gushing shower spout, clean bathrooms, comfy couches, a kitchen with even a small oven, springwater I can actually drink... I hadn't realised how much I'd been missing all the things we take for granted... and how exhausted I was from living in so many different conditions.
I left Leh a few days (weeks compared to my original plans!) later than anticipated (Tuesday rather than Saturday) as Gurnam had offered me a lift to Jammu from where I could take a bus 6 hours to Dharamsala, and he needed a few days to pack up his restaurant and hotel business for the winter. Although it was backtracking through Srinagar (and I had a panic attack at the thought of going back there), a free ride to Jammu with only
three in a jeep, stops whenever I needed, and people I knew was far more appealing than a full two day trip with 9 people squashed in a jeep to Manali, so I figured I could afford to wait a little longer.
During my last days in Leh I met the newly wedded couple, met the bride's husband's parents for the first time as did she, and marvelled at an Aussie girl giving up so much to eventually come and live with a man in such a remote little corner of the earth (another person I now know living in Brisbane!). We were invited twice to dinner, and I thoroughly appreciated talking with Sheena and her Indian friend about topics ranging from Indian authors to the bloody history of the area, after so long with people who had limited English and a local farming, rather than national/international, perspective. The area of Jammu/Kashmir has immense strategic importance, bordering with Pakistan and China, and I was fascinated (and horrified) to read in the nearby museum about all the territorial wars that had been fought by the Indian Army, including the most extreme army operations on earth undertaken on Siachen Glacier in
-40 to -50 degree temperatures in winter. So I already felt like I had settled into a little community by the time I left!
The trip was long and harrowing. We returned via Srinagar, with an extra driver for the first part of the trip. We left around 5pm Tuesday along the incredibly windy, dusty, bumpy, one lane road, and I convinced Gurnam, who was complaining of excruciating back pain, to stop at a hotel in Kargil (half way to Srinagar) at about 2.30am (he knew the owner, so the room was free of charge!). The few hours rest was enough to revive him, and he took over at the wheel when our driver left us at his hometown around 10am. After the last stretch of dirt road, winding through the mountains with sheer drop offs less than a meter away from the car (again, one lane only, so crossing another car becomes an adventure), we passed through the town of Srinagar - horn honking, cars going every which way... in a word, chaotic. We didn't stop... Gurnam drove, winding in and out of his lane, just missing oncoming traffic, 80kms an hour on a stupidly bendy mountain road...
was it 10 hours constant driving without a break?... I just watched, eyes glazed, amazed that I was not peeing my pants in blind fear.... until we reached Patnitop, a cedar reserve a few hours from Jammu, that evening after a full day of driving.
Again, accommodation was courtesy of Gurnam, this time in his uncle's hotel, in a delightful setting tucked away on a hilltop, as the name suggests, among the huge cedar trees - a popular holiday spot for locals. The next day we had a relaxing morning (returning an hour's drive to our dinner spot for breakfast - the specialty of the region, rice with a bean sauce mixed with butter... just what I feel like for breakfast!!!). Then I sat on the back of his uncle's scooter as we rolled (litterally - engine cut to save petrol) down the windy road behind Gurnam's jeep to his Grandmother's place. The small little four room (a bed and kitchen in one) home also housed his uncle, aunt and two children. Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a delightfully quiet spot has been intercepted by a teeming highway with trucks passing non-stop along the road winding both above and
below the house and its large patch of land. Another highlight was the lack of toilet - we had to find a tree or bush outside, camping style!
That night the three of us stayed and we joined in collecting the water, going to buy vegetables, and going to the local festival - and oh how they DANCED!!!! I watched, dumbfounded, at all the GUYS dancing in front of the stage (together - it's perfectly acceptable for men to hold hands and walk arm in arm here) like CRAZY, limbs flying! None of the women were dancing, but I finally got my chance when little Sasha and Ramid (the children) got up and danced with me! I was quite the tourist attraction (being the only tourist there) with all the kids coming up and chatting to me in English and wanting their photo taken with me! A great evening (I had been missing a good night out!).
The next day we drove a few more hours and arrived exhausted at Gurnam's house in a lovely quiet area of the bustling Jammu... ah, peace at last! Apart from the televised chanting at the Golden Temple which is turned on
at high volume every morning around 4 or 5am till 8am (earplugs please!) and then again for a few hours in the afternoon, I settled in beautifully. His family is delightful, with a great sense of humour too! I immediately decided I would not be leaving in a hurry - not only have they been encouraging me to stay, but I needed a good bout of rest, relaxation and... FAMILY life again!! Mama-ji has taught me how to make butter and cottage cheese from the milk of their cow which resides in the backyard (remember, we are in India!), I have been watching closely how to make curries, helped clean the dal, wash the vegies, and make the chapatis (flat round bread made from flour and water). I even made them some ANZAC biscuits!! 😊
Gurnam and I have started (as of yesterday) daily yoga sessions, and we even went for a jog one morning! His sister has been a great companion, especially in the suit department! We have had a few excursions into town, namely to choose from the incredible variety of materials to have a few Indian traditonal suits made for me!!! We managed to keep our
My newfound friends
Everyone at the festival came up to talk to me as the only foreigner present!
trip to the material shop, as well as to the tailor (so cheap - 9 dollars for the material, 3 to make the suit!), a secret so that when I arrived 'home' on the nation-wide Hindu festival of Divali in my new suit, there were admiring gasps and compliments all round! 😊 I was so excited, and it is fabulous to blend in a little more so that I receive fewer stares while walking through the streets!!!
Following Divali, the Festival of Light, on Saturday 21 October - a day when sweets are exchanged, candles are lit to welcome the Goddess of fortune, and hundreds of fireworks are set off all night from the streets and rooftops (I have never in my life seen or heard such a display lasting literally for hours!!) - I suddenly found the whole family (including me - it was to be a surprise so I was told an hour before!!!) was returning to Grandma's place for a few day holiday - thanks for the warning!! It was a great break though, and we all went for a couple of day trips into the forest - including stops at some gypsy houses where we
were welcomed handsomely, helped de-kernel the corn, and were treated to delicious corn cobs roasted on the fire. Gurnam and co were marvelling at these people's hospitality in feeding the 9 of us (jeep rather than car transport becomes essential) at the drop of a hat when they have so little! It was lovely to be roaming through the hills again, not to mention good exercise! The children were also delightful, and they helped improve my limited Hindi knowledge by giving me a little test each day from my Hindi book! We also played cricket and other games in the yard! 😊 Second childhood. Grandma pleaded with me to stay, but I told her my mother would be sad if I didn't come home to Australia!
So, we arrived back at the family house in Jammu last Thursday, in time for Viky to return to her job teaching at a local kindergarten - oooh, another excursion I forgot to mention! Not long after I arrived, given our common profession, Viky invited me to join her for a day in the school where she is teaching! I was surprised to see it is so similar to schools back home, whatsmore,
priority is given to English as the working language. Her children could understand, but not yet express themselves in English, so I had little children coming up to me to explain things (like today their brother, not their father, was coming to pick them up!) in Hindi and I didn't understand a word! In fact, local languages are becoming prey to the globalisation of English, an unfortunate linguistic tendancy which is spreading throughout the world.
So, last week I had my little existential crisis, wondering where I should head from here - what about Nepal, where I have always wanted to visit??? And I decided that this in itself - being accepted into a delightful Indian family - is an invaluable experience, and that I really am quite exhausted to want to travel further as a single traveller throughout such a tiring country. To get to Nepal I would need more than 3 days of straight travelling, the same to return, and given I only have 3 weeks left (I want to arrive with plenty of time in Delhi to catch my flight to Hong Kong on 22 November to see my brother, given the unreliability of transport here),
I decided it wasn't really worth the effort this trip (yes, I can see a return trip happening!!). Therefore I have decided to make the most of my new-found friends, and plan to travel with them from Jammu to the surrounding areas...
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