Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fishing for Tigers

Fishing for tigers is a lot like fishing for fish. You get out of bed while it's still dark and freezing. You collect your gear, a camera and 300mm lens instead of a pole. You take a ride down to the ol’ fishing hole, the grasslands. You watch and listen carefully, or rather your guide does for the telltale warning call of the barking deer.

Fresh tiger tracks.

With a little luck, you'll bag yourself a keeper. I had no such luck, but from the back of my elephant I could see that a tiger was very close, this past Wednesday morning.

Our intended prey, the tiger, spied from a half kilometer away. See that little orange dot in the middle?

This week my group traveled to the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve, an 800km2 national park dedicated to “preserving” tigers and their habitat.

Brittany snaps a photo as we wait to board our rides, on a cold, misty Wednesday morning. The sun had not yet risen.

That morning I rode upon one of three elephants, their experienced drivers forming a net in an attempt to flush our target out from his hiding place amongst the marijuana bushes. We couldn't have been more than 50 meters away, and I know this because a few hours later, from the old British hunting platform turned hotel, we spied the same tiger moving across the grasslands from the very place our elephants had gone.

The sun finally rises over the grasslands and Ramganga river. By this point my gloveless hands were numb, so the warmth was well received.
A wild boar spotted from atop my elephant.

Corbett is an interesting place. As a government-run resort, I expected much less than excellent food and friendly staff. Our bunks were relatively comfortable, although others in my group complained more than enough about the cold. It's one of a dozen or so national tiger reserves intended to save this king of the jungle, and by doing so to preserve the rest of its habitat including various species of deer, birds, leopards, wild elephants, panthers, wild boars, and flora.

A herd of deer across the grasslands.

To reach the tourist center requires a 30km drive on roads that are washed away by monsoons and rebuilt annually. No people are allowed elsewhere; theoretically, it's nature at its purest.

Crossing an offshoot of the Ramganga river, which was dammed for agricultural irrigation just outside of Corbett park in the 1970s.

But to create this wilderness required evicting some 10,000 villagers during the 70s and 80s. Driving through the surrounding area, I saw hotel after hotel, resort after resort, an entire industry built for the park's tourists. So the village farmers have become waiters and bellhops, or else have kept on farming on less fertile land given by the government as compensation. How can there be compensation enough?

Josh and Hannah ride off into the fog.

In America we have national parks and wilderness zones—amazing forests devoid of people's influence. India has the same, but in America we like to think that these parks were created in places that truly were and have always been “natural”. India has no land still untouched by a billion people over a millenia of agriculture. I enjoyed the park, as did the other foreigners and upper-class Indians carrying $10,000 cameras and sporty sunglasses. Countless impoverished villagers enjoyed the same land for hundreds of years, and they're likely more impoverished today because of it all.

Absolute genious: management of vast marijuana plantations by the Forest Department. Even more genious: letting tourists take elephant rides through them.

The whole idea of tiger preservation is noble but subject to criticism on many levels. For one, these pristine grasslands and forests aren't really pristine—they're actively managed by the Forest Department. Every spring the department burns the grass to prevent it from becoming a truly natural forest, in order to provide enough food to sustain enough deer so we can fish for more tigers.

Encounter in the morning mist.

I'm not trying to sound too critical. These are the sorts of criticisms I'm being trained to express in my Sustainable Development class. As I said, Corbett was a very interesting place. You can see that although I didn't have a close-up tiger encounter, there was plenty of other wildlife.

A monkey being curious about Josh's hair.

That includes the wildlife within the compound, despite the electric fence installed some years ago after a cook was mauled by a "playful" and "curious" tiger named Jynx, according to the wildlife warden who in my opinion gives the tigers a little too much credit.

An adorable family of monkeys.

Anyway, hundreds of "playful" and "curious" monkeys could cross the fence at any time—they were obviously quite accustomed to people. I was once alone in my dorm with the door propped open when I was startled to see a monkey literally tiptoeing into the room. A huge deer had also managed to sneak through the fence; he let me pet him, though I was careful to avoid being gored by his antlers. (I've yet to get the photo of that from Lindsey.)

It's good that Corbett was so exciting, because for the rest of this coming week I'll be doing nothing but homework, typing my 25 page final project report.*

* Actually that's not quite true: on a recent shopping trip to Nainital, I was sitting in a post office when two men began speaking with me in Hindi. One claimed he was a police inspector but was quite drunk, and wanted me to come home with him to have chai and meet his daughter (“Do you like Indian girls?”). The other kept saying in English, “We friends now,” and then pulled out a little ball of newspaper. I said, “What's that?” to which he replied, “Do you smoke?” “Sometimes.” He then repeated “We friends now,” and dropped the little ball of hash (“charas”, चरस in local tongue) into my bag. I'd never seen hash before but I'm told it's quite a significant amount. So this should serve as a little repreave from homework.
Just for good measure, here's a photo of me butting heads with a cow. I was actually trying to kiss it, but it's horns (and diseases) scared me off.

Next week we'll present our projects to our CHIRAG mentors, take two final exams, and then relax with one final blowout party on the 10th. On Monday the 11th the group travels back to Delhi.

After that I'll have about 5 days to myself; I'm thinking about travelling to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, before flying back to Seattle early on the 19th. So that's it—my India experience is almost over. I'll tell a few more stories about Delhi and Varanasi and then see you all in Seattle!

2 December, 2006
Sonapani (district Nainital), Uttaranchal, India

A rare group picture, from the British hunting platform within the Corbett Tiger Reserve's Dhikala compound. Top row: me (Peter, holding the camera's remote control in my hand), Brian, April, Adam, Paul, Nathan, Matt, Tara, Hannah, and Hannah's boyfriend Jeff. Center: Evan (with the bandana) and Pat. Front row: Keith (group leader), Rajesh (Forest Ecology instructor), Sayeed (Hindi instructor), Lisa, Lindsey, Brittany, Katie, and Monisha. Sitting in front: Josh, Sarah, and Sarah's boyfriend Brian.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Winding Down

All of a sudden my time in India is coming to an end. When did that happen? Looking back it all seems to have gone by so quickly. I've got a little more than two weeks left here in the beautiful Himalayas, then a few days in smoggy Delhi. Autumn has come and gone, too. I've finished midterms in all three of my classes, and now it's crunch time again as my final project deadline is approaching. The length of my beard, which I've let grow since returning from Rajasthan almost a month ago, reminds me of the long time past and the short time to come.

Nobody really did anything special for Thanksgiving, but for tomorrow's dinner, supposedly, someone has gone in search of a turkey. Now that Thanksgiving has passed as well, one thing I'm definitely enjoying is the lack of Christmas music. When I come home I'll only have to suffer through four or five days of it, or less if I manage to sleep through it altogether.

A view of the mountains from above my cabin. Nanda Devi (नंदा देवी), the tallest peak in India, is on the right side. The cabin on the right is my Hindi teacher's where we have class on the porch facing the mountains. I might not miss writing exams with cold fingers, but when I come home, I will definitely miss this.

So what's winter like here? Yesterday morning was the first frost. For one thing, the cold air gives an even better view of Nanda Devi. Every night we eat in a bitter cold dining hall. No buildings are heated, so I'm making good use of all the winter clothes I brought—often all at the same time. There's still hardly any rain. I've heard about the flooding in Seattle, and I'm not the least bit jealous. I think if it were any wetter here it'd quickly go from cold to miserable.

Most of the trees are evergreen, even the oaks, to take advantage of the post-monsoon growing season, as cold as it may be. A few non-native species are deciduous, like this one behind the dining hall where local people graze their cows and sheep.

Classes are still enjoyable, even though the workload has been a bit excessive considering the amount we learn just by being here in this place.

Below are some photos from a Forest Ecology class field trip to a “nature trail” being set up below the nearby village Sitla. CHIRAG, the NGO my group is working with, promoted the idea as another way to re-establish the people's connection with the forest, and also to produce revenue for the growing tourism industry. Being winter, the “nature” isn't very captivating but the sunset vista is worth the hourlong trek.

Evan, Josh, Matt, and Adam playing hackey-sack before class. Our teacher Rajesh giving a lecture about forest management. The same trail a few days later in the evening.
The only autumn colors from this vine growing by the trail.
The sun casting rays through the ever-present woodsmoke haze. A million porchlights after sunset.

I have helped out a little with that nature trail project, making a map with my GPS and trying to take some nice photos that they could possibly use in a brochure. But for the past two weeks, I've been working on my own project. The rural people depend on the forest for their lives and livelihoods, collecting fuelwood, fodder, leaf-litter, timber, and pine resin, grazing their livestock, etc.

The government school in Sitla (शीतला), where there are 150 rowdy kids, 5 classes, 2 rooms, and only one overworked teacher.

Separately, government schools here are severely understaffed. In addition to working with the village governmental bodies responsible for regulating forest access (known as van panchayats), starting in 1992, CHIRAG has been attempting to raise environmental awareness amongst the youth via primary school programs. CHIRAG provides additional teachers and their own curriculum geared toward locally-useful knowledge, rather than only what's taught in the standardized textbooks that have little to do with life here in the hills. I've been looking at the history and effectiveness of this and similar programs with regard to forestry.

Chandan-ji, the only teacher still around from the original 1992 environmental education program. Today he still teaches and maintains CHIRAG's library in the village Reetha (रीठा).

Last week I visited a few nearby villages in order to interview students and teachers. The 1992 students are now grown, and most have moved on to college, employment, or the army. After talking with their old teacher, I met with three who might be considered the “star pupils” of the environmental education program. One is studying forestry, another now works for an environmentalist NGO, and the third is the youngest member in his village's van panchayat. Their stories were interesting, but for me, the most exciting thing was doing this all in Hindi. Fortunately I had an interpreter to fall back on, because it seems it doesn't matter how many times you tell some people to please speak more slowly.

Along with another girl from my program, I also met some girls who had not participated in any such environmental education program. The difference in their personalities, for whatever reason, was astounding. I'd ask the same questions—How do you use the forest? Would you like to be a member of your village van panchayat?—and instead of getting a long winded environmentalist answer, I couldn't even get a simple yes or no. They just froze up. Were they just unsure of themselves? Having dropped out of school after 5th grade like many girls here, were they embarrased to sound stupid in front of these educated Americans? Were they just trying to tell us what we wanted to hear but didn't know what that was? Or was there some other reason? I'm not an ethnographer, and I've never done these types of interviews before. All I can do is reflect on this strange situation.

Some kids coming to check out books from the library. Chandan-ji told me that they've come with their families as sort of refugees from Nepal. They don't go to school here yet but they enjoy reading. If I were them, I'd rather have been playing cricket in the field outside the school.

Then Friday, I spent the whole day with Chandan-ji, the original environmental education teacher. My purpose was to visit his library, to see what kinds of forestry materials they were using in their updated environmental education program, which has changed a lot since 1992.

He reminds me of Mrs. Wick, my kindergarten teacher who was so nurturing. He knows just a few English words, not enough to hold a conversation—probably less than I know Hindi. So Hindi we spoke. He was clear and methodical, finding ways to define words I didn't know. This was a turning point for me, realizing that I could actually hold a coherent and interesting Hindi conversation, that I could actually learn something and remember what was said afterwards. I found myself thinking in Hindi.

Chandan-ji holding one of his hand-made books about life in Uttaranchal. One page tells how women carry grass on their heads, and the other tells of the Kauva (कौवा) bird, as drawn by a student in his 5th class.

I remember how Mrs. Wick made books of paper-bag puppets. There were firemen puppets that taught me about firemen, and also nurses, farmers, and a puppet for each letter of the alphabet. Every month since May 2006, Chandan-ji has similarly made by hand these wonderful books showcasing life in Uttaranchal. He's still intent on teaching his students about their environment, so most of the pages talk about the local forests, trees, plants, or animals. I hope he is able to publish them some day.

Life outside of school hasn't gotten any less exciting. Last week our daily jeep sprung a leak, so the driver put on a spare. The spare was even worse. With 11 people crammed into the car winding around trecherous mountain roads, we soon heard the flap-flap-flap and then clunk-clunk-clunk of the rim on the pavement, and felt the car swerving as it came to a stop. (Our record is 13 people in one jeep, plus the driver.)

This coming Tuesday, the entire group is traveling to Jim Corbet National Park, a “tiger reserve” about 10 hours away where we'll see some different types of forests and, hopefully, a tiger or two. I don't expect this will be any less exciting, either, because the park staff is on strike. We don't really know what to expect, and I won't be alone in being uncomfortable if we have to cross a picket line.

I expect I'll write one or two more updates before I come back home, so I'll tell all about Corbet and the tigers in a week or two. Until then, I hope everyone back in Seattle is having fun swimming and/or preparing for finals!

25 November 2006
Sonapani (district Nainital), Uttaranchal, India

Monday, November 06, 2006

Back from "Vacation"

Hello again! I just wanted to send another update to tell you all about my excursion to Rajasthan. After 36 hours of excruciating travel each way, via winding mountain roads, noisy busses, and sleeper-class train cars, I'm grateful to be back in our serene home in the mountains, but I'm also grateful to have seen so much more of India.

My travel group consisted of 8 people, 6 girls, myself, and one other boy. We departed immediately after class on Friday, October 20, which coincidentally was the night before Diwali, India's biggest holiday that somewhat resembles Christmas in the extent to which it has been commercialized. We arrived in Jaipur, the largest city in the western desert-state of Rajasthan, on Saturday afternoon. From one perspective, Diwali is a festival of lights, so that night every house, shop, and street in the city was lined with candles and small oil lamps. Let me tell you it was quite a site! My group and I walked all around, doing some initial shopping. The central bazaar was absolutely jammed with people. After dark, ad-hoc fireworks shows erupted all over the city. And let me tell you again, Indian fireworks are LOUD! A string of firecrackers here is basically a string of M-80s, yet little kids play without regard for safety, as if they were lighting strings of smoke bombs or sparklers. Back at my hotel, I watched starbursts above the rooftops until well after midnight.

On Sunday, the city had quieted down a little, so the 8 of us rented a couple jeeps for an all-day tour of the city. There aren't many particular details I feel need to be described, so I'll just give a quick photo run-through:

First stop: Hawa Mahal, an elaborate palace conspicuously located in the center of the old city, surrounded by bazaars and juta dukans (shoe stores). Jaipur, like many Indian cities, has a walled inner city accessible only by a few ancient gates. This zone is invariantly the most overpopulated, as well as being the home of the main bazaars and historical sites. Outside the wall is the new city, home to modern roads, offices, and hotels.

Next stop: the City Palace, complete with an armory of ancient weapons. "No photos allowed", except outside at this battery of cannons. Adam was thrilled about the cannons.

Heading outside of the Jaipur city limits, we found the Jal Mahal (Water Palace), surrounded by a nearly-drained lake and overlooked from this viewpoint.

Farther out of the city, Amber and Jaigarh Forts were the homes of ancient Hindu kings. Jaigarh Fort is also home to "one of the world's largest cannon on wheels," called "Jaivana".

I managed to nab this picture of some monkeys sitting high up on Jaigarh Fort's wall.

We spent two more days shopping, touring, and enjoying Jaipur. We particularly enjoyed our extremely posh hotel, Rs 1600 per night for a double room (about $35), which was complete with refrigerators, microwaves, A/C, and TVs. I managed to finish a lot of shopping for little gifts, trinkets, and clothing, including a full-length kurta for myself (see the Halloween pictures at the end).

But 3 days in Jaipur went by quickly, so early Wednesday morning we boarded a bus for a 6 hour ride to Jodpur, connecting with a much less comfortable bus on a 7 hour ride to Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is the western-most major city in India, though it is more of a small town by American standards because of its isolation. It is surrounded by vast desert farmland. The city itself is about three kilometers in diameter, built up around Jaisalmer Fort.

The fort contains some beautiful and intricately carved Jain temples (pictures coming sometime in the future). The temples are surrounded by tourist-oriented shops. The whole city, in fact, is tourist-oriented, that being its main industry this time of year. I thought these "Camel" cigarettes were especially funny to find here in the desert.

Camel cigarettes were so fitting because early Friday morning, all the members of our group took a jeep about 30 kilometers out of the city, out into the middle of nowhere, and climbed aboard our personal camels. Camels are ugly SOBs. Fortunately, this group of 14 must have been well cared for, because they didn't spit or smell nearly as bad as I'd been led to believe. I've been around worse smelling people.

Here's the group playing cards with our tour guides, waiting in the shade of a tree for the midday sun to pass. The shade was cool, but in direct sun the temperature exceeded 90º. This was after a two hour morning ride. Our camels had saddles but no stirrups. We sat on the front of the camels' humps. Camels are much less comfortable to ride than horses, since the slanting saddle, combined with the constant motion of their backs as they haltingly trot, applies quite a lot of pressure on your tailbone. Their backs are also very wide. This all meant that I could barely walk after this first two hour ride.

There were 7 guides in all, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English. I found it difficult to try to speak Hindi with them, too, because they use a dialect called Rajasthani which differs from Hindi just enough to be unintelligible to my untrained ear.

Here's just a nice photo of my camel's shadow. You can see the type of desert landscape we traversed. The area surrounding this ground is agricultural, with small single-acre farms and family huts dotting the path. I was told that this is the start of the growing season, after the monsoons and sweltering heat of summer, but what crops were growing looked malnourished. Outside of farms there were mostly grasslands dotted with shrubs and sparse, flat-topped trees. The ground was also littered with watermelon vines. I didn't dare try to eat one.

Shortly after lunch, we came across a desert oasis. The woman here is a French newlywed, visiting Rajasthan on her honeymoon. Somehow she and her new husband got stuck with our group for their camel safari, but they were extremely friendly. They spoke very good English, and several girls in my group also spoke decent French that they learned in high school.

Just before sunset, after another 2-3 hour ride, we arrived at our camp in the dunes. Though we were 30 kilometers from civilization, a funny Indian man on his own camel showed up carrying a bag of ice-cold Coke and lime soda. At the risk of sounding cliche, this juxtaposition was a little amusing.

Here are a couple photos of my group watching the sunset over the hazy horizon.

And that's it. We camped under the stars (which under the haze were disappointingly dim compared to our view from the Himalayas), our guides cooked dinner and breakfast, and then we packed up and rode two more hours back to a rendezvous with the jeeps. Our hotel provided us with a place to shower and change, and then we boarded a train for an 18 hour ride to Delhi. Our car was "sleeper class", which meant there was no A/C, but the padded bench-seats converted to beds. Sleeping made the ride go a lot faster.

The whole trip was a lot of fun, and like I said, I am glad to have seen and experienced so much more of India. I traveled over a thousand kilometers (at an average speed of something like 50kph) across the width of the country. I ate potentially life-threatening samosas from roadside vendors. I spoke (or tried to speak) Hindi with a variety of people. I toured historical monuments. I bartered with shady shopkeepers. I road a camel. I slept under the stars in the sand.

The only part of the trip that was not fun was getting back to Delhi. Even as the train passed through the outer city limits, I could start to smell the pollution and thick, humid air. The train passed by slums where children played and danced on their tracks — this part was not so much displeasurable as it was eye-opening after the trip to Rajasthan. Rajasthan certainly has its own share of poverty, but Delhi's outrageous overcrowding changes the equation significantly. (To Sarah and Michalina, I noticed that Jaipur and Jodpur both had conspicuous pro-condom HIV-awareness campaigns, whereas Delhi does not have any such thing, at least not in places visible to tourists.) But when our train pulled into Old Delhi Station, our troubles began immediately. We had arranged a taxi to take us on a 10 hour drive back to the Himalayas, but by some mixup, he was waiting at New Delhi Station and had no cell phone. So we scrambled outside to find some taxis to take us across the city. One girl hired a porter ("coolie"), whose price was supposed to be fixed at posted rates but who immediately demanded double. No taxi driver would negotiate a fair price either, demanding at least triple the "Indian" rate. For the first time since I've been in India, I felt like everyone around me was out to cheat me, seeing my skin as a walking white dollar sign.

We arrived "home" past midnight on the morning of Sunday, October 29, after a little more than a week of travel. Over the next couple days I eased lazily back into my regular school schedule. The nights now are significantly colder, and except for the lack of rain, the weather is probably identical to Seattle's.

Last Tuesday, we had a special surprise: a bag full of Indian pumpkins for Halloween! Pumpkins here are small and green, but easy to carve. We all dressed up and had a little taste of home.

Here is Josh, dressed in some sort of outrageous outfit, carving his.
Brian and Evan dressed in togas. Here is their impression of an "omega":
My Hindi teacher dressed in a sari:
And Adam achieved the most convincing impression of a redneck I've ever seen (notice the Budweiser / Confederate Flag tattoo):
And here's the group. I'm dressed in my new kurta on the right, complete with my Hindi teacher's Muslim topi (hat):
Finally, these are our pumpkins.

So that's it! Thanks for reading, and please, everyone, stay in touch. I'm sorry that I don't have time for more personal emails, but I've read everything that you've all sent and I'll reply eventually. I've also picked up some postcards which I should be able to mail in time for Christmas.

So until next time, I miss you all!


Friday, October 13, 2006

Greetings from the Himalaya!

Greetings from the Himalaya! I arrived at my final destination just over two weeks ago, our classes have begun, and we're now settled into our daily schedule. We are living in a tiny hamlet called Sonapani ("gold water"), a 15 minute walk from the nearest road. It's just about as isolated as can be, but we have plenty of modern amenities including electricity, western toilets, and toilet paper. A nearby town called Almora lies within a day's walk or a short weekend taxi ride. There we can purchase other important supplies on the weekends, such as cheap Indian whisky. Toilet paper and whisky: two things for which I've never felt so fortunate.

Here is a picture of the tallest peak in India. On clear mornings, before the haze moves in over the valleys below us, we have an amazing view of these 8000 meter peaks. Just to give some perspective — West of Seattle, you see the puny Olympic mountains on the horizon. Here, to the North, the Himalayas rise four miles into the sky.

Another important supply is available for free, growing wild in places along the trail. Here is a photo of Josh preparing his crop. I will not admit to anything.

The only internet access is via a sort of cell-phone device that all the students take turns sharing for 50 rupees an hour. This is why I haven't been in touch — a half hour slot is barely enough time to read incoming email. I must admit, though, that being almost totally disconnected has a certain temporary appeal. Many of the other students bought cell phones here, but due to some documentation snafu they haven't been working. So here we are, alone in the jungle, at risk of being attacked by a leopard at any moment (really!) with no one to call. Perfect tranquility.

About the leopards — although the locals say they'll go years without seeing one, we've already had three sightings amongst our group. Last week, a cub was spotted actually squatting in the dining hall. And yesterday, our host's dog was killed not 50 meters from my cabin. They tell us not to walk alone at night.

I have one favor to ask of all of you — send me your postal addresses (if you think I don't already have it) and I'll try to mail a postcard. I've got a growing collection of travel stories — a trip to Nainital for a Hindu festival, the routine here at Sonapani, etc. We have a week off coming up during which I'll be traveling to Jaipur. The only problem is finding time to write them up. I'll keep you posted.

Until next time, here are a few more pictures below, in no particular order.


(You can find this and older postings at

Nathan juggling some pine cones, on a field trip for our Forest Ecology class.
A view of CHIRAG, the organization at which we're taking classes and with whom we'll be working on personal projects in a few weeks. I took this picture from a road overlooking a 50 meter sheer cliff. Twice a day, we squeeze between 8 and 14 people in a jeep — yes, it's a very tight fit — which then navigates this single-lane mountain road at breathtaking speed. For my project at CHIRAG, in a nutshell, I'm going to be looking at school and community education about environment and forestry issues.
A colorful building in Kathgodam, the last stop on the train from Delhi. We spent one night here before taking a 3 hour taxi ride to Sonapani.
A sailboat on Nainital lake. Nainital is one of the largest cities in the state of Uttaranchal, a destination for Indian tourists trying to escape the summer heat.
Lisa and Linsdey on Nainital lake. For 120 rupees (about $3), we hired a boatman to row us around. It looked like unbelievably hard work.
Two effigies being prepared for the Dashera festival in Nainital. This festival celebrates a battle between two Hindu gods, whose names I have forgotten at the moment. It kicks off the month-long holiday season across the whole country, roughly analogous to Thanksgiving and Christmas. (The biggest holiday, Diwali, is on October 21, when I'll be in Jaipur.) Come nightfall, the townsfolk put on a grand show culminating with these effigies bursting into flame along with the most amazingly dangerous fireworks show I've ever seen. A fellow student recorded a video which I'll try to post online in the future. Also, because our group composed literally the entire white population of this city, I made the front page of the local paper. I'll try to post a picture of the article.
The forest near Sonapani, featuring Lindsey, Katie, and Lisa.
Katie in a burnt-out tree trunk. This has special significance to our forestry studies: historically, nearly every pine tree in the forest has been tapped for resin. The old method of tapping resulted in these giant scars, which were aggravated by yearly ground fires. The resin industry is still booming here but the people have since found some less destructive ways of collecting resin.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ready for the Himalayas

Hi again, it's time for another update before I jump on a train to the mountains. The other 17 University of Washington students arrived the day before yesterday, so I moved into a new hotel to meet them. This one is much nicer than any I've seen so far, though I wonder how much we're paying for it. It's in a more upscale neighborhood with expensive shops and trendy lounges, but still poverty, pollution, and chaos line every street. Mostly because of the pollution, I'm quite anxious to be leaving Delhi today. To ride an auto-rickshaw to another neighborhood for shopping is to breath nothing but exhaust for 20 minutes. To get out of a taxi and walk around is to breath nothing but thick, sticky air until you find a shop A/C. But A/C is dry and aggravates the cold I caught a couple days ago. If I could live in a personal bubble of cool, Seattle air, then Delhi would be a pleasant place to be. I can't even imagine what it would have been like 10 years ago before they switched all the vehicles to compressed natural gas and banned diesel trucks.

The members of my group are all very friendly. The others have only had about two days to explore the city, so they're frantically moving about to see sights and do last-minute shopping. Because Nathan and I have spent a week in the city and know a little Hindi, we've achieved a sort of celebrity status helping the others. Most shopkeepers speak very broken English, and you're lucky to find a rickshaw-walaa who speaks any at all. Another girl, Monisha, also has taken a year of Hindi and will join Nathan and me as the only three second-year-Hindi students.

There are two important aspects of Delhi that I've not yet told you about. The first is the constant chaos of the roads, which only a select few four-letter words can describe. Delhi's many neighborhoods are connected by large roads, usually six lanes wide. But marked lanes are completely meaningless here — why restrict yourself to six lanes of traffic when 18 can squeeze into the same space? In heavy traffic, cars never have more than twelve inches to spare on either side. Rickshaws are much narrower than even the super-compact cars here, so motorcycles fill the gaps. Most people drive with their side-view mirrors folded back. Each and every car, truck, rickshaw, motorcycle, and pedestrian — as well as the occasional cow — shares the road by constantly ducking and weaving, swerving, braking, and accelerating, in a chaotic dance. Individual vehicles move relatively slowly, 15-40kph, but traffic as a whole hardly ever stops.

I'm convinced that this "non-system" is actually more efficient than American road rules. When a truck (or cow) breaks down in the middle of the road, traffic simply flows around. Discounting drunken driving after dark, it is apparently safer to drive here, too. Traffic seems to achieve roughly the same average speed, but the top speed is slower and therefore less deadly. Anything imaginable can happen at any moment, but everything imaginable is completely anticipated. Pedestrians need not wait for a special signal when they can cross safely between moving cars. Finally, Indian drivers never stop blowing their horns. This not only eliminates the need for side-view mirrors, but makes sure that every vehicle is constantly aware of the exact position of every other.

The other story I wanted to tell is about a couple of little punks Nathan and I met at the Delhi Zoo (दिल्ली चिड़ियाघर, dillī chiṛiyāghar, or "birdhouse"). Soon after we entered the gate, we were approached by two little kids, probably 12 years old. We've found that it is not abnormal for Indians at touristy monuments to approach and ask to take pictures with us, as if the two westerners are as much of a spectacle as the monuments. The kids then proceeded to give us a little tour of the zoo, which also is not unusual as most Indians are very friendly and helpful, especially to westerners who can speak a little Hindi. But fairly quickly we realized that these two kids seemed to be spending a little too much time asking us about our cameras and the contents of our pockets. At first their tour was helpful, but next thing we know they are trying to lead us on a roundabout path back to the exit instead of to the larger animal exhibits. They ran the perfect scam — wearing schoolboy outfits and backpacks (though their lack of any English skills should have tipped us off that they weren't students), and they tried to make us comfortable with their expertise as guides, and with their hands being around our bags. They also started begging for money to disguise their motive. If they had gotten us to the exit, surely they would have grabbed our stuff and ran. These are apparently the first pick-pockets I've encountered, but it's no surprise that less wary travelers could easily fall for the scam.

But we didn't fall for it, so as I pack up this morning I find myself safe and sound, complete with all my money and belongings. The crickets chirping in my hotel room are getting a little annoying, so I'm going to wrap this up and eat some breakfast. We're told that there will be internet access in the mountains, but it sounds like it will be in the form of a single cell-phone connection which we'll all have to share. So I'll continue writing stories about my adventures, and posting them periodically, but it might not be possible to upload any pictures for a while. I've had regular internet access in Delhi but the connections are dog slow and so unstable that I haven't been able to upload a single photo. I'll keep trying, and in the meantime, stay in touch.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Touring Delhi

Hello all,

I've been moving from place to place in Delhi, staying at a couple different guest houses (basically hostels but with private rooms). On my first day in Delhi I talked to the manager of the Ajanta Guest House, named Manoj Dewan. He was extremely friendly and showed me around the city in his own car. Before meeting him I was quite nervous, worried that I'd get ripped off or robbed or that I would simply not know what to do in this enormous city. But he made me feel much more comfortable. Because of his own business as a travel agent, the first place I toured was the Taj Hotel, a 5-star joint that made my hostel seem like one of the ratty tents that line the sides of many streets.

With Manoj I had my first chai and learned how to eat Indian-style, using a piece of roti (रोटी, pronounced with your tongue curled back to make a hard 't' sound) in your right hand to scoop up the vegatables (सब्ज़ी, subzee) or meat. It seems most Indians would prefer roti or nan as a base instead of rice. All the food here is basically what you'd find at any Indian restaurant, but saltier, with more spices, and tastier, and costing one fifth the price.

On each of my three nights at Ajanta, Manoj invited me down to eat and drink with himself and his staff. Some could speak better English than others, and others spoke Hindi that was easier for me to understand. Basically no one except the super-educated speaks English that is easily understood, and the people upon whom you rely for basic services — rickshaw drivers, waiters, hotel attendants, dhobis (laundrymen) — speak very little English at all. Most of the time, they speak about as much English as I do Hindi. Nathan and I have found it easiest to attempt to speak in Hindi and ask for responses in English. This limits the range of possible expressions but ensures that both sides of the conversation are understood. We have become well practiced in expressing wants and needs, asking for directions, and explaining that we are American students going to study Hindi in Nainital. I haven't yet tried to find the words to explain "forest ecology and sustainable development", but most people seem to understand "computer science".

On the third day we took a tour of Delhi to see a bunch of old mosques and monuments. Qutb Minar was by far the most extravagant — a tower 65 meters high built in the 17th century. We took a bicycle-powered rickshaw on a tour through Old Delhi (पुरानी दिल्ली, purānī dillī), which was basically a roller coaster ride through streets so narrow and crowded it's a wonder we didn't crush any pedestrian's toes. Above each street was a massive tangle of electrical wiring.

On the fourth day we hired a car to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was a long trip (the whole day) but absolutely amazing. The Taj is everything it's chocked up to be.

That night we moved to the YWCA guest house in the center of the city, near the largest shopping/business district. The staff here is friendly (but not like Manoj). The city center is lined with shops, so-called tourist agencies (usually nothing more than scam operations), theaters, restaurants, and bars. It is also lined with poor, abandoned and unwanted people who shit on the street and each try to sell you the same wooden chess set or package of handkerchiefs. The only thing to do is to ignore them — especially the hawkers, for whom the slightest acknowledgment or eye contact is an invitation to follow you down the street. I'm not sure how to feel about the situation of the poor people here, except to recognize the problem and that I can't do anything about it.

I think speaking even a little Hindi has made the trip much more enjoyable so far. I don't think that Manoj would have been as friendly, nor the taxi drivers or numerous other people who heard that I was trying to learn Hindi and suddenly opened up, striking Hindi conversations and trying to teach me new words and give me practice. I haven't bought anything yet (except a long-sleeved shirt in a non-touristy market for 35 rupees, about $0.80), but I noticed that although shopkeepers normally raise their prices for westerners, after speaking to them in Hindi suddenly their prices go down by 50%!

Delhi would be a horrible place to live -- hot, muggy, dirty, poverty all around, and polution so bad that although the sun sets at about 6:30, by 5:00 it's already hidden behind a haze so that you can look directly at it without any problem. I have yet to see any blue sky in Delhi. The first time I saw the sky was in Agra, where no industry and only battery powered vehicles are allowed within several kilometers of the Taj Mahal. Thus there were several kilometers of open sky, completely surrounded by haze, smog, and clouds.

I have taken some good photos of monuments and stuff but at first I was too nervous to bring my camera out and about in the city. I think I'm more comfortable now, though. I'm really looking forward to getting out of the pollution and heat, into the mountains, about 4 days from now. I've done and seen all that Delhi has to offer.

Internet access has been available in all the guest houses but it's been difficult to find an up-to-date computer (they run Windows 98, with no USB port to transfer photos) or to find time enough to do more than check my email. We got word from our program leader that there will be access in our living quarters for the rest of the program, so I will publish more updates whenever I can.

I miss you all, and thanks for the support and good wishes you've offered in email. For those who asked for my postal address, I don't have one yet, nor do I know whether the postal system can be relied upon (there is no standard addressing system in place for any city).

If you've read this far, I apologize for making this so long. My time in Delhi has been such a whirlwind of places, people, and sights that there's simply no way to summarize it all. Today the rest of the program's students are arriving and Nathan and I are moving to a new guest house where we'll all stay together until we depart for Nainital.

Stay in touch,

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Contrary to what I heard before booking my tickets, China Airlines' planes were comfortable and provided plenty of entertainment, with a touch-screen TV in front of every seat and a wide selection of "on-demand" movies. After 12 hours over the Pacific, I landed in Taipei at 05:30. The airport was barren, both of passengers and of maps or any other (English) information to help me find may way around. Looking lost, I approached the "transfer" desk, meaning to ask from what gate my next flight would depart. But before I could get a word out, the clerk handed me two meal tickets. Well that was nice — generosity something I've never experienced in a US airport. I guess he felt sorry for my having such a long layover.

I pretty much had no choice but to stay in the airport for the next 16 hours. It was poring rain outside and, though US travelers apparently don't need a visa to tour in Taiwan, where would I go? Fortunately, I found a room with free internet access (and 120V power) and was able to entertain myself on the web for a while.

Taiwanese food, or at least the fast food you get in the airport, is very different from any Chinese food I've ever had before. Let's just say my so-called "vegetarian" noodles had several ingredients I couldn't even come close to identifying.

I met — er, smelled — my first Indians at 18:00. Yes, really, I smelled the curry wafting from their clothes before I saw them. A large group was transferring planes from Vancouver. Now we were all in the same boat, with another 4 hours to kill before the final flight. A Canadian Panjabi girl, about my age, as well as a Muslim man, took a seat next to me in the waiting area. Meanwhile, whenever someone would walk up to the check-in counter, a mob of traditionally-dressed Indian women would follow. They were chattering in Hindi, but none had any clue why or where they were going — each blindly following the crowd. The Panjabi girl thought this was especially amusing because she could understand what they were saying enough to know how truly confused they all were.

I thought for a minute, trying to formulate a Hindi sentence. I practiced what I was going to say, in my head, but of course I still stuttered as I spoke. Thus my first Hindi words in several long months were, क्या आप उन्हें समझ सकती हैं? (kyaa aap unhẽ samajh saktee haĩ — can you understand them?) This struck up a conversation that at least kept me occupied until we boarded the plane. The girl said she had been to Nainital (where I'm headed) and claimed it was and is the most beautiful place she's ever seen.

Upon landing in New Delhi at 01:45, I quickly passed through customs. They didn't even ask any questions — the man just rubber stamped my passport and sent me on my way. That struck me as a little strange considering the recent terrorist bombings.

And on the final leg of my long journey, a taxi driver was waiting, with my name on a placard, to take me to my hotel. He drove very slowly, so I have not yet experienced the insane driving I've heard so much about. I suppose the speed was a tactic to get a better tip after some conversation, and in that case it worked. I told him that I was here to learn Hindi (not wanting to explain what "forest ecology" is), which prompted him to begin a Hindi "lesson". He'd say something in English and I'd start to translate, and he would correct me or provide vocabulary. Then we'd repeat the completed sentence a couple times. This was a very interesting process, given that he himself spoke very broken English and claimed to be uneducated (which is how you get to be a taxi driver, I guess). He said he learned a little English in what schooling he'd had, but that he'd learned everything else from conversing with his fares. At one point he explained that "Nainital" means "seven lakes", and said that he had also been there before, agreeing with the Panjabi girl that the scenery was breathtaking. After these two conversations, the rest of my trip will have to meet some very high expectations.

The Ajanta Guest House would not win any awards for outward appearances, but what can you expect when you're paying $10 a night. Here's my room — functional, and relatively clean. In particular, there were no cockroaches in the bathroom (or at least the staff scared them away before I checked in). I'm looking forward to a bucket bath in the morning.