Jul 2, 2009

Signing Off

Well friends, this is going to be the last post on the The Linen Club. We were supposed to leave for the Bangalore Airport 5 minutes ago so I have to be quick.

Thank you for keeping abreast of our adventures. Now that you've finally learned how to live without us, we're coming back. Pretend to be excited. At least a little. For us.

In less than 24 hours, we'll be back in a garbagey Toronto. At first I was angry (about the garbage strike) but then I realized it will help ease our culture shock, since India has been on garbage strike since forever.

Seriously though, go to India. Though it mostly smells like poo, sometimes it smells really good, like garam masala. That brings me to the first, and last, Linen Club Contest! The first person to reply to this final message will receive a stainless steel container of garam masala that we ground from whole Indian spices today.

Hope to see you all on the other side of the pond.

The Linen Club

Warren Miller Eat Your Heart Out

Manali has the headiest concentration of one-piece snow apparel in the world. It is no coincedence that you can spell "a Milan" out of "Manali". It is truly "a Milan" of skiing fashions in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh.

Haute couture yay, but unaffordable nay. A "snow dress" can be hired out for the reasonable price of 300 Rs a day. The suits are popular with domestic tourists who have never seen snow. They rent a one-piece and skis from one of many rental shops, drive up the Rohtang pass, find a patch of snow and pose for amazing pictures. Then they tell everyone back in Delhi or Punjab that they went skiing over the holidays.

They totally have the right idea. Who likes actually skiing anyway? It's really just an excuse to eat fondue and wear fluorescent. Enjoy these rare glimpses of a real jewel of a ski town. These photos are just a taste...I plan to put on a proper show of Indian Ski Fashion at Steven Bulger gallery if I can ever afford to develop the film.

How It Takes 33 Hours to Drive 485 Kms

Acording to the guidebooks and fellow backpackers, the drive between Leh and Manali is a must-do. While we were warned that the high altitudes and bumpy roads could induce nausea and even vomiting, apparently the amazing views and photo opps make it all worth it. As I was particularly reluctant to spend 16-18 hours trapped in a mini bus on death-defying roads, we opted to do the journey only one-way.

The drivers who do this route are of a special breed. Their schedule is to leave one location at 2am, arrive at the other end in the early evening, sleep for a few hours, and then depart at 2am again traveling back to Point A with a new group of passengers. They have one day off a week.

The roads are in terrible shape. The passes are covered in snow about ten months of the year, so the potholes are enormous, and the roads are often flooded by rivers of snow melt. Our driver, Honey, was a champ. He drove through the many obstacles with ease and, to my great relief, was a relatively cautious driver in terms of not passing other vehicles on blind corners and avoiding getting too close to the edge of the road/cliff.

Our troubles began at the first passport check. When we left Leh we were in a convoy of three mini buses. Apparently, these guys look out for one another - therefore, one bus' problems become our problems. At this stop, one of the passengers in the bus ahead of us refused to show her passport, so the army would not let her pass through the checkpoint. Nobody knew why she wouldn't show her passport because she doesn't speak. It's not that she couldn't speak, it's that she chooses not to. This young lady is very much a typical "hippie" India backpacker. She floats around with a smile plastered on her face, shoeless, hugging everyone in sight, while playing a thumb piano. We had first spotted her the week before at a temple festival where she fell asleep on stage amidst dozens of dancing monks. Eventually, her driver gave up and threw her bag off the roof of her bus. An hour later, and we were back on the move.

Susie is mad

The next obstacle occurred about an hour later when a bus in our convoy broke down. We all had to stop on the side of the road while the drivers tried to figure out the problem - this mostly involved a lot of standing around and shrugging of shoulders. Honey stood there with a wrench in his hand looking particularly useless. We tried to convince him that he didn't know how to help so we should leave anyway, but he insisted that his services were of value. Two hours later, after some tinkering and kicking of tires, the bus miraculously started.

We stopped for lunch mid-afternoon three hours off schedule. A fellow passenger on our bus insisted that we needed a treat and bought a couple of rounds of rum and mango juice. The following six hours went by relatively smoothly, aided by our boozy haze.

By 10pm, we were just 30 kms away from Manali. Having just crossed over our final and highest pass, Rhotang, we anticipated that the rest of our journey would be a breeze. How wrong we were. We were suddenly stopped behind a lineup of trucks. Honey went out to investigate and came back with some bad news: two trucks had simultaneously broken down on the same curve and were blocking traffic in both directions. A group of drivers got together and tried to push the trucks out of the way, but they weren't going anywhere. We were forced to spend another night sleeping in the mini bus. The water supply was limited, and we hadn't eaten since our late lunch. Also, the gas fumes from all the idling trucks were making us all dizzy. Morale was, to say the very least, extremely low.

The next morning we woke up around 5am and the two trucks were as stuck as ever. We made a group decision to jump ship, and the six of us set out on foot, leaving Honey behind. It took us over five kms to walk to the end of the blocked traffic, and even then more and more cars kept arriving and getting stuck. We assumed it would be no problem to hitchhike to Manali, but the stubborn drivers refused to turn around, even when we explained to them that the road was blocked and would be for hours.

A couple of hours later Andrew and I managed to catch a ride with a family from Delhi. It took us another four hours from there to work our way through all the cars headed up to the Rhotang pass, despite warnings about the two broken down trucks. As we soon learned, Rhotang is a major attraction for Indian tourists who have never seen snow before. Apparently, no traffic jam is going to stand in the way of this once in a lifetime photo opportunity.

We made it to Manali at 11am, 17 hours late. We were filthy, hungry, and belligerent. From now on, I think we'll take the plane.

Zero Footprint

In these difficult global environmental times, we should look no further than the traditional Ladakhi way of life. We spent three nights hiking through the Shan valley and stayed with Ladhaki families. Many of these homes are located in extremely remote areas, far from road access. Here are some innovative environmental solutions developed by Ladakhis:

- All homes are outfitted with a few solar panels as electricity is scarce.

- Everyone has a "kitchen garden" full of herbs and vegetables. Yaks do the ploughing.

- Ladakhi toilets are basically holes in the floor. You poop through the hole, and cover it with sand. A few weeks later, the turds are dried and used as fertilizer and fuel!

- Sheep are kept for wool. These guys are future sweaters.

- Booze is homemade. It is made from barley, which is grown by all families. The fermentation process uses kitchen scraps. Here is grandpa's personal supply of chang.

Jul 1, 2009

Four Eyes

Our last of countless overnight bus trips in India was among our more eventful journeys. During this trip we had a mother and two small children sitting behind us, with the husband seated across the aisle. This man was particularly protective of his family and was determined that they receive every comfort possible. For one, he demanded that Andrew and I would not recline our chairs. After a heated exchange, we held our ground and maintained a semi-recline so that we could get some sleep.

Furthermore, our seats were in the unfortunate position where the windows in front and behind us met, so we were shielded from any breeze. As such, I thought it was only fair that the little ceiling fan be pointed on us. But, as soon as I would fall asleep, the father would reach over my head and move the fan back on his wife and children. This went on for hours, until eventually I fell into a sweaty sleep, having conceded the fight over the fan.

When I woke up in the morning I noticed that my glasses had fallen onto the floor, right by the feet of the protective father, and the left lens was completely cracked. Whether he stepped on my glasses on purpose or by accident I will never know, but regardless he had ultimately reigned triumphant in ruining my 16 hour journey.

Upon our arrival in Delhi I rushed off to get a new pair of glasses made. We visited our favourite vintage sunglasses salesman who happens to run a little optometrist clinic in the back of his store. My eye exam was pretty hack, but the promise of new glasses within 24 hours was too good to pass up.

The resulting specs aren't perfect. The lenses are about half an inch thick, and I see double for the first five minutes of wearing them. But, I can't really complain... they cost me the lesser part of $13.

coke bottles

Vote For Me (And My Four Chins)

You may have seen news about India's latest federal election, which took place between April 16 and May 13th. The voting occurred over five stages, due to the immense size of the electorate (714 million) and number of polling stations (828,804). The end result saw the reelection of the Congress Party in a minority government.

Busing people to the polls

Leading up to the vote, we tried to engage many Indians in political dialogue, including taxi drivers, waiters, transit passengers, youth, etc. but nobody really wanted to talk about it. With dozens of federal parties and a confusing network of coalitions between the different groups, it seems that most people are weary of the country's political happenings. Furthermore, there is widespread doubt as to the legitimacy of the voting process. We surmised that it is generally accepted that many votes are bought with Rupees, or a meal, or even a couple of bottles of beer. Also, almost a third of the elected MPs currently face criminal charges, including murder!

Still, there is much trumpeting in the press of the exercising of of "The World's Largest Democracy" going to the polls, which, really, is an impressive ordeal, and despite its many flaws, surely the best choice of many imperfect options.

However, on the ground, I believe what is most impressive is that India has to have to the world's worst campaign posters. My favourite campaign photo of all is of the candidate in the bottom right corner of this poster. Believe me, his quadruple chin is not an optical allusion. His scrunched up face was plastered all over the state of Himachal Pradesh. The worst part is, I have seen other pictures of him in BJP party campaign posters, and he is actually a jolly looking guy with a big smile. How this photo was approved as as his official campaign shot is a mystery.