I'm back, for now. It's been a bit troublesome to get to type or get any alone time with the computer as Jordan and I have been traveling and fulfilling tasks. We rafted on the Ganga, traveled back to Haridwar to get to Ambala, moved on to Kalka where we boarded a smaller gauge rail "Toy Train" and visited Solan, and finally settled in Shimla, where we'll be residing for about a week. We plan on taking a week-long trip to the Kinnaur Valley, northeast of here, where we can camp and rock climb. Our hotel manager has spent the last few days organizing the weeklong excursion to this Tibet-like region.
I've inferred more Indian nuances since I've last written. While some are attributed to my presence as a foreign "other" to the general populace, I feel some are more specifically related to the sub-continent's mentality. For one, I've felt the constant inquisitive staring much more than when I arrived a week ago. Every public arena features scores of social tiers intermixed. These classes intercept my being with varied differences depending upon their status. The homeless, impoverished bodies, who rest under layers of dusty, tattered blankets and seldom shift or show any signs of life, as if to reinforce the defeated nature of their economic position, only glance at me if they happen to be awake. Groups of either gender and age promenade, chit-chat and broach topics I cannot access, only to pause their discussions and reflect to another that Jordan or I are amongst them. Children, clad in woolen overcoats affixed with badges of their respective schools, grin uncontrollably, giggle and shout or tug their parents' hands when we pass. Shopkeepers who watch me often smile when I nod or acknowledge their presence. Single males approach me and ask, "From which country are you from?" "U.S.," I respond. We may further this discourse when specifics like jobs or cities are revealed, dependent on their English-speaking abilities. More often than not, we end talks there, after an extended handshake reminiscent of those that elders like to have stateside. I've been handed several business cards and told of factories that these men manage. All seem to focus on products India's touristic avenues haven't properly exploited. We've had many aggressive touts advertise to us but firm rejections and walking away ends their spiels.
Jordan and I have been trying to restrain our affection in public, though I have a harder time keeping my hands off of her than she does. I was warned by Asha and Fran that Indians may not kindly receive our personal gestures and reject them physically, by spitting or scowling or as they've experienced, tossing water balloons. We're unsure how much of the positioning of our bodies affects these responses but we try to maintain a distance. Our repugnant host in Ambala Cant mentioned to us that we do not appear as if we are married, which we'd told him at first, and that we must be "just-friends." We went to a discotheque last night, remaining the only patrons in a spacious hall for nearly an hour, and discussed our observations with Guillermo, our Argentinian companion. "You are expected to be affectionate as foreigners," he noted. So, in my attempts at a sociological experiment, I scooted Jordan into my space and embraced her intermittently. The ambiguous stares she'd gotten since I've arrived near-faded after that moment. The bar was filled with bored servers who never seemed to interrupt their deadpan stares at her, felt uncomfortable continuing to do so once I'd established the nature of our relations physically and they somehow found work to do. She's mentioned that I shouldn't contact her because men glare at her, possibly insinuating that she's loose or behaving inelegantly.
But from last night's discovery, I want to continue displaying this sort of dominant male behavior to strangers, if it will lead to less lecherous looks. Perhaps this is due in part to ascribed gender roles the Indians make for themselves and we are to take part in this social order ourselves. I, however, am going to grow tired of acting on the defensive if I have to stare others down all the time. The taboo against staring at people which adults abide by in the West isn't felt here. The so-called bar we sat in at Solan had a young man locked onto Jordan for the duration of our hour-long dinner. He refused to break his stare, even when he started to advertise his tourism business to me. In fact, most men speak to me solely, splicing conversation with how beautiful my occidental female companion is. These actions must regard more common gender values held here as the only people genuinely interested to speak to both of us are Westerners or those that deal with them on the regular.
But all is not victimizing social lancing here. Many of our interactions are from purchasing goods. Service is exceptional and the interest people have in us is not limited to just business transactions. Though some seek monetary gain from our piggy-bank reputation, many just want to know what life is like for us back home or what we think of their India. The cost of things seems to be normalized towards perceived product value and not the actual work performed in working with said items, so few seem bitter about the market price despite the effort it takes to sell something. Peeling fruit, brewing sugar-free chai or clearing tables throughout meals doesn't demand any more of a price than if we'd stuck to default options from lazier, poorer attendants. Sometimes, the cheapness of the same products elsewhere surprises us and makes us lament returning to the States to pay our domestic prices for the same things. Blue collar work doesn't seem to be beyond anyone here either, unlike our entitled culture back home. Shimla features porters who carry colossal loads on their backs, uphill in battered flip-flops, and make less than Rs. 300 a day.
We've gone to not tipping unless awkwardly implied upon us and though 40 cents to a dollar on the total sum isn't much, I think inflated prices will take care of any discrepancies on our part. I don't agree with the tipping system as it exists in the U.S., substituting itself for a livable worker wage as through an arbitrary percentage. That being said, I will continue to take advantage of it for my own income as I've had for the past year. Why should any service automatically expect tipping if nothing exceptional was performed for the customer?
Our host here is ineffably gracious in setting up the tour to Kinnaur. Without him, we'd be wracking our noggins on how to tie together every confounding factor for the trip, especially transportation. Though I've had no problem navigating trains and buses by asking strangers about destinations, rates, and schedules, places like the bus transit hubs are a nightmare. They are a cluster-fuck of luggage-clad Indians and aloof Westerners, scrambling to make sense of a completely unreliable transportation system. We re-seat ourselves several times in varying buses as drivers change their minds about the routes. I'll ask a few times how to get to where we're intending to go, grab seats inside, and then find that the whole bus is emptied when the driver reneges on their choice. Rickshaws don't post average rates and our own suggested prices are the only way we parse their fares. Even the elegant booking system of Cleartrip, which we use to book every train, has let us down. We booked seats that were five times the regular price of a lower berth yet we sat in an unmarked rail car with every other traveler. This was, coincidentally, where were met Guillermo and other nice backpackers. Though I've never been on the underground rail in Delhi, which I'm told is a display to be experienced as hundreds shovel in and around the cars with furious fervor, I've felt the calamity Indians seem to experience when getting in and off trains and bus stops elsewhere. There's a harried, uncompromising attitude where you're shoved and boxed in every time the vessel stops. It's quite amusing from my perspective as I'm used to polite and cautious embarking and departure. So, I shove along with the best and tell Jordan to hold onto my pack. Working in a nightclub, porting large loads in betwixt crowds, for the past year had prepared me better than I expected.
Our trip is unfathomably fortuitous. We get bang-up deals and meet sweet people. We spot glorious sites and marvel without interruption. We're alone here, in between the varied interactions with strangers and daily purchasing queries, and we couldn't have envisioned it better. Sparse contact between my friends and family back home has left me with a lot of relief that I'm able to enjoy my months with Jordan fully without worrying about home. I've looked into hashing here somewhat and it seems Delhi is the only option but with their web page covering the calendar up til 2010, I'm hesitant to believe there will be any opportunity to yell, “On-On.” I've spotted the hasher feet stuck to running store entrances and hotel doors but that may be an association I'm making fallaciously. The night I “raced” Jussi in Ambala was the closest I'd come to hashing since I'd left. I was hammered off of the last of our Maker's and the Seagram's Blended Scotch our pimp proprietor Rajesh kept offering. I stepped into heaping, muckish cow shit numerous times in the pitch-black before I ended the quarter-kilo drunk endeavor. Formally, I've run twice here, scantily clad of course, and have never felt more gallant in my life. Everyone is staring down at my junk, as foreseen, and girls have been covering their eyes. There are people on every main drag. Alabaster thighs flexing below a billowing, empurpled running skirt might be too much for the Indian populace. Though the hilly views, bowing roads and crisp air all the more make running less of a chore. I look forward to our trek this coming week and will hopefully write shortly afterward. Below are my various snaps, which take such effort to post online here that you should be licking my heels, detailing a taste of my every day sights. There're fewer cows here in Shimla and the ban on plastic packaging has made approaching subjects less intimidating.
|Delhi from above. I obtained panorama software after the last entry.|
|A Languor in Rishikesh.|
|A very local source of building framework.|
|Dust covers everything beautiful.|
|These estate houses look menacing.|
|The idyllic Ganga.|
|A colossal sprouting Agave on the mountainside.|
|Agave where you'd least expect it.|
|Our entry to the Ganga.|
|We'd later lose sensation in our phalanges from neglect on the Ganges.|
|Camping outposts on the Ganga.|
|Jordan and our technologically-devoted raft guide.|
|Rafting teams floating behind us.|
|A temple on our approach to docking.|
|The Russian presence is strong here. Found inside Topi Wali restaurant in Rishikesh.|
|A schoolboy who ate breakfast at the same time as us daily.|
|Preparations for a wedding.|
|I don't usually take cow photographs, but when I do, I make sure they're the most interesting in the world.|
|The most lecherous, gag-inducing host ever. Vile. So vile.|
|Jussi, my RACEist hasher and Rajesh's slave.|
|Unforgivably ugly progeny.|
|Unrestricted observation on our toy train from Kolka to Solan.|
|Terracing in the foothills of the Himalayas.|
|Glamor in Grunge, Solan.|
|An engine car for the narrow rail train we took from Solan to Shimla. Our train was 2 hours late.|
|Jordan's first reconnoiter of Shimla.|
|A coffee house where M. Gandhi used to frequent.|
|Array of Punjabi pickles in Shimla.|
|A British-built church from the colonial days in Shimla.|