Sunday, October 24, 2010

Psychedelic Chicken

This was the photo I was busy taking when I suddenly had to jump out of the road to dodge an oncoming parade (see previous posting). I've developed a sudden interest in chickens, having recently learned that the ubiquitous domestic chicken is thought to be descended from the Indian Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus). This handsome specimen still looks a lot like his wild relatives.

Such a good-looking animal deserves a close-up. And because he’s not gaudy enough, here’s what he would look like in some alternate universe of inverse color.

Off to the Parade

Lonely Planet describes India as the land of festivals. With its huge diversity of religions and cultural groups, just about every day is a celebration or holiday somewhere in the country. On occasion the teachers at the language school tell us in advance about some festival or other going-on in town, but most of the time, I simply run into noisy parades winding through the narrow streets of Landour without notice. Having seen several parades now, I have to confess that they all seem rather similar to me so far. There are the obligatory brass bands from local schools. There is the horrible noise-box – a gaudy silver-colored tin contraption pulled behind a truck, blaring music at an immense volume that I’m pretty sure would be illegal in the US. And then there are the open truck beds carrying people dressed up in all manner of costume – some of whom are men dressed like women. Not sure what that’s all about. These photos were from last week, when, while minding my own business in the bazaar, shopping for my weekly staples (beer and bananas), I was forced to jump into a gutter by a parade procession and associated people and vehicles coming down the hill. After half an hour with my fingers shoved into my ears to prevent permanent hearing loss, I was able to continue up the hill, having been treated to the sight of yet another incomprehensible but fascinating and colorful moving celebration.

Speaking of festivals, the celebration of Karwa Chauth (also known as Women’s Day) was observed today in Mussourie. Popular all over north India, this day is celebrated by married and soon-to-be married women, who fast all day to pray for the long life and well-being of their husbands and fiancees. Observant women break their fast at night after seeing the moon, and are then fed sweets by their husbands and often given jewelery or other gifts. All the married female professors at the language school were dressed up in beautiful saris, with intricate henna work on their hands. Here’s a photo of a local woman in her beautiful Karwa Chauth sari.

Kempty Falls and killer street food

One of the most popular tourist destinations near Mussourie is Kempty Falls, about 15km to the northwest along a sickeningly twisty road. It’s a beautiful place, although it suffers from rather a shocking failure of development planning, with an unsightly clutter of teashops and tatty trinket stalls stretching in either direction along the road from the Falls. After a few little rapids and mini-falls upstream, the river empties itself down a rock face into a natural pool, full of Indian tourists from Delhi cavorting in the chilly water. The area was first developed in about 1835 by a British army officer named John Mekinan. The name Kempty probably derives from “camp-tea”, as the Brits during colonial rule would organize their tea parties here.

One major up-side of Kempty Falls –awesome street food! I patronized a grilled-corn saleswoman, as well as a dude with a pretty basket of goodies, including chickpeas, onion, tomato, salt and lime, which he mixed up with a few deft pinches and swirls. The result: a delicious bowl of spicy, crunchy masala goodness.

The next day back at the language school, in halting Hindi I told my professor about our visit to Kempty Falls. After a funny look and a snort of contempt, he told me how that particular tourist trap was only for people from Delhi, and that Mussourie-dwellers would never be caught dead there. In the summer, Delhi is a sweaty hell-hole, and a well-known escape from the heat is to Kempty Falls. Jump in your car at 5:00am and by 11 you can be at the Falls. My professor painted a very vivid picture of Delhi-ites, oppressed by the heat of the plains, very nearly loosing their minds in childish joy upon immersion in the frigid pool at the base of the Falls. The good people of Mussourie, however, having access to pleasant weather and cool water year round, feel they have no need to visit such a tourist trap.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Village Life

More than 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural areas, which is fairly remarkable for a country with such booming and expanding cities. A recent hike took me to another small village, similar to Agorga, which was described in my last post. We reached this nameless village after a short taxi ride along the road in the direction of Tehri, and then a brisk 2-hour hike down a steep path off the side; down, down through a thick forest to the valley bottom. There on the banks of the river we found ourselves in a little village of perhaps 50 houses. A number of school children, roaming about on their way home for lunch, had great fun giggling about our hilarious Hindi pronunciation. Although they look rather serious in this picture!

I must have had food on the brain, because for some reason most of my pictures from the day focus on the various products from the fields laying out on doorsteps drying in the sun. Colorful collections of beans (for dal) and bright red chili peppers (“mirch” in Hindi) caught the sun and my eye.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Assi Ganga River Valley trip

Mussourie is wonderful, but sometimes it’s nice to get away. Last weekend all the Fulbright Fellows in Mussourie plus some friends from the language school took a trip to the Assi Ganga river valley, near the town of Uttarkashi to the east of Mussourie, just 20-30 kilometers from the border with Tibet. We set off around 2pm and finally arrived in the dark about 11 hours later. You may be interested to know that according to Google Maps, this same trip should take 2.5 hours. Yeah right. Much of the road we traversed was impassable just days before, due to avalanches during the last blast of the monsoon. In many places the road was covered with packed dirt and rocks – avalanche residue packed down by the lorries that ply these roads – and the protective barrier dividing the road from the cliff was missing or hanging crazily out into space. About 6 hours into the drive one car in our three vehicle convoy bashed its bottom on some rutted road and from thence forth could not shift out of 1st gear. But having suffered crowded cars, flat tires, and transmission difficulties, we were finally greeted at the Kuflon Basics guest house with a hot meal and comfortable beds!

Over the next several days we swam in the river, enjoyed the views and good company, and hiked up to the nearby village of Agora, on the trekking route to Dodi Tal (Trout Lake, a popular trekking destination). Agora village is one of the sites of the Lighting a Billion Lives Campaign (LaBL), an initiative of TERI, my institutional affiliation in India. The objective is to provide solar lanterns to rural communities all over India, to provide light at night where there is none, and to replace inefficient and polluting kerosene lanterns in villages that use them. Agora has already benefited from some government development projects, thanks to its prominent location on the trekking route to Dodi Tal. About a third of the 100-ish households in the village have either newly installed toilets or solar lighting systems. Along the way we were amazed by field after field of amaranth, a grain plant with bright red tassels. Whole hillsides were bathed in red.

Our guides in our weekend adventure were three recent graduates of Yale University who are now in India running a start-up fly fishing guiding business, Baobab Educational Adventures. In addition to showing American and European sportsmen some world-class fly fishing locations, these three are working to establish sustainable environmental tourism in the Assi Ganga valley that benefits the local people, as well as working with local institutions and stakeholders to conserve the river and valley environment. The Assi Ganga is a holy river, and one of several rivers that converge to eventually become the Ganges. The Ganges is very polluted along much of its length, and these few-remaining healthy headwaters are now coming under pressure from dam building and unsustainable fishing. Baobab Educational Adventures is one of many small ventures working to maintain a healthy river ecosystem while providing economic opportunity to local people.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Where I am

Landour, my current location, is a high-altitude suburb of Mussourie, a town of a little less than 30,000 people perched in the Himalayan foothills at an elevation of 6,000ft. Dehradun, the state capital of Uttarakhand State, is about 30 km away, although it takes the better part of 2 hours to get there due to the winding roads and precipitous contours of this landscape. The hillsides surrounding Mussourie are heavily forested with mixed pine, rhododendron, and oak forests.

Known as the “Queen of the Hills” to the British Raj, Mussourie was a popular retreat from the summer heat of the plains for the British. During the 19th century, the Mall (the local equivalent of Main Street) reportedly sported signs saying things like “Indians and Dogs Not Allowed”.

Middle class Indians now come to Mussourie in droves during the hot season. The west end of the Mall is popular with honeymooning Indian couples. In contrast, the east end, where Mussourie ends and Landour begins, supports a conspicuously large population of videshi, aka white foreigners, studying Hindi at the Landour Language School.

Mussourie is an affluent place, with much higher literacy rates than the average in India (86% compared to 60% overall). Several important institutions and schools were originally founded to serve the families of British army and government officials, and now cater to Indian students. One notable example is the Woodstock School, a Christian, international residential school founded in the 1850’s. This week the Woodstock School hosted something called the Mountain Writer’s Festival – I mooched in on a couple of poetry readings and musical performances – my primary motivation may or may not have been to get a free cup of tea.

Mussourie is a beautiful, but like most of India, suffers from its own share of environmental ills. The town’s booming popularity as a tourist destination has led to over-development. Garbage collection and water scarcity are also perennial problems. A number of beautiful views around Landour are marred by rivers of garbage statically flowing down ravines.