A Travellerspoint blog

Cienfuegos

Left Habana yesterday with our amiga from Nicaragua, in a private taxi arranged by our current hosts Zunilda y Raya. Cienfuegos is a laid back place, about three hours or so by car from Habana. It has a wide paseo, with covered walkway and many old columned buildings, a cross between French and Spanish architecture, as it was originally a French outpost. It is probably best known as the home of Benny More, a famous singer in the 40's and 50's.

We are staying in a delightful casa, just outside town on Punta Gordo. We have our own terrace overlooking the bay. Zunilda and Raya are muy amable, and cook up what is arguably, the best food in Cienfuegos, and possibly all Cuba. There are several other casas here, as well as the larger and rather ugly Hotel Jagua. Said to have been built by Meyer Lansky, with help from Batista, it is right on the grounds of the magnificent Palacio de Valle, which looks like a moorish castle. The idea was to turn the palacio into a casino, similar to Monte Carlo.

Palacio from our terrace. Construction garbage detracts, but is not noticeable from the street
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At the end of the Punta, there is a small park with several gazebos selling rum and sandwiches, kids frolicking around, a local hangout. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we spent a couple of hours there.

In the morning we walked around the main part of town to Plaza Marti, perhaps a mile away. Looking quite Spanish, it has a number of old edificios, and a couple of interesting art galleries. Nanette later went back and purchased a print from Annia Alonzo. We had another cup of coffee under the colonnades of one of these buildings, and listened to One Guantanamera sung by live musicians. This seems to be a ubiquitous song in Cuba, at least for tourists, although I know it from the Pete Seeger version.

Paseo, on the way to Plaza Marti
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Old opera house, Plaza Marti
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Bomberos (firemen) staying in shape on Plaza Marti
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Nanette and Terry
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Church near Plaza
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Taxi servcie
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After a while, it began to get hot and we strolled back to our casa where we spent the better part of the afternoon on our terrace looking out over the bay, drinking rum and cerveza. What could be more relajando?

Your's truely on the terrace
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Views looking out from terrace
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On another day, Terry and I took the 45 minute ferry ride to the Castillo de Jagua, at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos, It was erected by King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746) in 1742 to protect the bay from pirates who prowled the Caribbean coast in those days.

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View from fort looking out at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos
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Posted by jonshapiro 07:02 Archived in Cuba Tagged photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Habana Continued

I spent another 4 days mostly walking my tail off after moving to Maribel's casa in Vedado, a newer section of Habana. This was much closer to Nanette's hotel and also near the Hotel Nacional. The latter is probably the classiest place in town, modeled after the Breakers in Palm Beach, and built in 1930's. It was also a favorite hangout of Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, and other mafioso who more or less controlled Havana during Batista's time. We had a drink and a sandwich in the outdoor bar, facing the Malecon and La Mer.

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Malecon from the top of tourbus. Hotel Nacional is further down
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Maribel's was fine, if a bit noisy, but no one could be friendlier than Alejandro. Her apartment was on the fourth floor of an old building on a main thoroughfare in Vedado, which generally is less interesting than Habana Vieja. After the first night the key broke, and for the remainder of my stay I would have to shout up to Maribel, and she was would lower the only remaining key in a basket. Apparently getting another key made was not that easy to do. Our friend Terry arrived from Nicaragua and she was also staying just a few blocks away. She kept me company while Nanette continued on with her art group.

Outside of main Havana cemetery
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Street musicians
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I made several attempts to see rumba, some of the original music of Cuba, at the Palacio de Rumba in Centro Habana. This is a very local place that Alejandro recommended. The first night, Nanette and Terry came with me, as well as our other friend, Natalie, also touring with the art group, though she is not an artist. Alas however, there was a terrific downpour and we were told the musicians did not show up for that reason. We did however manage a decent paella in a nearby palador, that I'm sure sees few tourists because of its location. The waiter, an x ray tech in his day job, was quite well educated, and confirmed that the only way to make real money in Cuba was in the tourist industry.

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The following day, we wandered toward the far side of the Malecon, and due to a cold front, the waves were pounding and sloshing over the sea wall. There was little traffic, many decrepit buildings, some interesting, some not, and then a couple of very fancy hotels. Eventually we got to the river and came to an old house,1830, now a boutique hotel. We were told it once belonged to a Spanish bank president. In the lobby, was a picture of a very young looking Che and Fidel, strolling together in their army fatigues. Just outside, and the reason we stopped, was a fantastical looking series of man made grottos and bridges overlooking the sea and constructed of coral and shells. Attached to this was a Moorish looking domed tower. We learned that most of this had been constructed by some wealthy Japanese, who apparently bought the place after the bank president. Eventually, we took a taxi collectivo back to our casas, and finally got to ride in one of the ancient US cars. I think it was a Buick. These collectivos ply certain routes, and will pick up anyone along the avenida who pays a few cuban pesos to sit with the other passengers going their way.

Terry and Nanette both decided they needed a break, and I, in a determined attempt to hear rumba, made another visit to the Palacio. I got there at 4:15, after being told that the music started at that time. About 5:30, the music finally did begin. Cuban time I guess, but to my chagrin, it was anything but rumba. Actually it was more like karaoke, though it was professional singers, but still singing to canned music. They weren't bad, but certainly not what I was hoping for. I felt a little like I was in a senior citizen center, as most of the people were older, or at least looked older than me. Some of them sure could dance though. After a half hour or so, I gave up, and walked back to my casa. Unfortunately, as in Spain, most of the music venues here do not really get started until after 11 PM, my usual bedtime. I should have known that 4 or 5 PM was an unlikely time for rumba.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:45 Archived in Cuba Tagged skylines buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Book 7: Cuba, Southern Italy, Greece

Habana

FOR MY FAITHFUL READERS, IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT HERE IS THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF VAGABONDING AT 60. Please note the dates. As per usual I am writing this back in my home in beautiful, at this time of year, (July) upstate New York.

Habana Cuba, at Casa Hilda y Alejandro. Highly recommended. This is a small Casa Particular in Habana Vieja, which is the way to go if you want to meet the Cuban people. Alejandro Sr. lives in this 5 room apartment, though he considers it a house, with his wife Hilda, his son, Alejandro Jr. and his wife. They rent out the only extra bedroom to tourists for 30CUC per night, and that has only been legal for the past few years. After his son picked us up from the airport, Nanette spent the first night with me, and then went to meet up with her artist group from NAWA.

I spent many long hours talking (in Spanish of course) to Alejandro Sr., which was buena practica para mi. He told me that his son, Alejandro Jr. is trained as a meteorologist, but is forced to work as a taxi driver because that is the only way he can make sufficient dinero. When he worked for the government, he was paid approximately 400 Cuban pesos per month. The tourists use CUC'S, and there are 25 Cuban pesos to the CUC, which is equal to one US dollar.Generally things are not that cheap even for locals, despite the dual currency system, and it is more or less impossible to live on this amount of money (Equal to less than $20US). He makes much more driving people to the airport for 25 CUC's in each direction.

Doctors and other professionals in Cuba make 800 to 1000 pesos or about $US40 a month, not nearly as much as waiters. On the other hand, medical care is free, most people have some kind of government job, and everyone has some of their basic necessities provided for. At the same time everyday life is clearly a struggle for the vast majority. And there is corruption, as always, in the government and the police. Alejandro clearly understands the political issues involved, both now and during the time of Batista, when his grandparents owned and rented 24 houses, which they lost after the revolution. It was, and still is not possible to buy a house, or an apartment, but through a complicated series of trades, he managed to obtain this place. However, he does not condemn the current system totally, and presents a rather balanced view of the government. He is well educated, and because he managed to procure a Spanish passport due to his Spanish/German background, he has been able to visit relatives and friends in Florida. He is trained in telecommunications and has access to the internet in the company he works for on a part time basis. Internet access is a rarity here, so he is one of the lucky ones.

His son has been fortunate to have spent a year or so in Calgary, Canada, in part because his wife is a nuclear engineer,and got a temporary position teaching at the university there. His English is quite good as a result, as is his wife's. During the boom times of the petroleum industry in Calgary, he was able to get work for the oil companies predicting the level of pollution in the city that was generated by oil production. After oil prices dropped precipitously, this was no longer possible. And so, while his wife worked at the university he was forced to take on a number of menial jobs, although he was still much better off then here in Cuba. He and his wife have recently obtained their visas to return to Calgary for two years, and plan to do so in the spring when his wife will resume teaching at the university.

His wife Hilda was not feeling well, so I didn't see much of her in the four nights I spent here, but they were lovely people, and made me feel like I was part of their family. Alejandro Sr. was incredibly helpful and full of useful suggestions. He even surprised us by showing up to say goodbye when we were out to dinner for our last night in Havana, and no longer staying at his place.

Building of Casa Hilda y Alejandro (1st floor)
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After another lengthy discussion at the breakfast table today, I wandered around Habana Vieja on my own, taking pictures of the elegant, but largely decrepit buildings along the Paseo del Prado, and the renovated heart of the tourist district on Obispo Street. Though most of the buildings are late 19th and and early 20th century, they are a mix of colonial, neoclassical, art deco, and incredibly ornate baroque styles.

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Just off Obispo Street, heart of the tourist district
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A More typical building on the Paseo
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The Capitolio, looking very much like ours does in the US, frames the end of the Paseo, and is now surrounded by scaffolding so that the renovation can be completed. (Or is it to prop up the dome?)

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As noted in many guide books, most of the buildings look largely as they did when they were constructed, mostly a result of benign neglect and lack of dinero. Right now Habana looks even more scuffy than usual, as many of the smaller streets have been dug up to install new water and sewer lines.

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What makes the city especially inviting is the blessed lack of traffic, at least in this old part of town, and of course, there are the ubiquitous 1950's US cars scattered about, many of which are taxis.

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There are also several old plazas with colonial churches and a mix of other styles, looking very much like Spain. For a large city, Habana simply invites strolling about in a leisurely fashion.

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As Alejandro and I discussed, if the place is inundated by Americans because of the changes Obama has wrought, it will be good for the economy, but a disastre for Habana because of the lack of infrastructure. There are no McDonalds or Burger Kings here, and I hope to God they keep it that way. Not likely, at least in the longer term.

Generally most everyone is very friendly and welcoming. I have experienced no animosity towards Americans, but because of the economic conditions many people are, if anything, overly interested in befriending tourists, in the hope of trying to get a CUC by acting as a guide, etc. As I was standing on Obispo street, a woman came up to me and starting chatting in Spanish, and then asked me if I could buy some milk for her child. Thinking this would cost a dollar or two I agreed, but when we went off the nearby market, they wanted to charge me 13. I refused this, but ended up paying 6.6 CUC for a gallon of milk, realizing as I did so, that she probably had worked something out with the manager of the market to kick back 3/4ths of this amount. Oh well.

Lunch counter and market for locals
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On other days I took shots of locals on the street.

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I couldn't resist these kids right on my block
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On Sunday, I walked about a mile or so to a small alley in Centro Habana. This part of town is grittier, and for the most part, is clearly not a tourist area. The buildings are in worse disrepair. However, I had read in the Lonely Planet that today there was outdoor Rumba drumming and dancing on some small side streets. When I arrived at the Callejon, there were a number of tourists there, as I had been forewarned. The alley was decorated with various Santeria paintings and Afro-Cuban sculptures, all of the funky variety. There was no music however, and I sat down on a bench next to a young German kid. We chatted for a few minutes about Cuban music in general, as he had been here for almost two months. Eventually the drumming began and I stood on top of a bathtub sculpture to get a better view. All the drummers were women. This was a surprise, and then there was some rigorous dancing with both men and women, some of whom wielded fake swords, and all wearing colorful costumes. It was fast and furious, but unfortunately, didn't last more than about 20 minutes.

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Soon a Rasta looking guy came over and tried to sell me a homemade cd. He said it was the only way for him to make an extra few bucks. His English, learned in the streets, was pretty good. I asked what his commission was, and then gave him the 2 CUC that he indicated. This made us friends, and he proceeded to rail against the "fucking communist system," that never paid him a living wage. He didn't blame the Americans and clearly understood the difference between our government and the people, as I have found most people do. He didn't understand why Fidel and his brother Raoul, were such good buddies with the "fucking Spanish, who killed more Cubans than anyone else." He was indeed a Rasta, he explained to me, and was duly impressed when I told him I had seen Bob Marley in person before he died. He said there were a number of Rastas in Cuba, and "the fucking government hates us because we smoke ganja, talk about freedom, and think for ourselves. He wore the typical Rasta black,yellow and red cap over his greying hair and looked to be around 50. Later I asked his age, and he said 48, which is why, he added, " he couldn't wait too long for the fucking government to change its ways."He showed me a picture of his wife and son, whom he said, he couldn't really support. Then it was time to introduce me to several of his friends, a few of whom also had dreads, but not all. Another younger man, with a bit of grey hair, said today was his 36th birthday. His English was also good, and he said it was because he worked in the Fort Museum and got a chance to speak to tourists. He wanted me to know that his monthly salary was 350 Cuban pesos or about 15 CUC. Una broma, he said, a joke. Manuel, the Rasta fellow, went off to buy some cerveza with money I had given him, but returned with a small carton of rum, no cerveza to be found. We passed this around, as well as several other cartons that had mysteriously appeared and Jorge, who's birthday it was, said he was happy now because at least he was getting to do some drinking on his birthday and was able to spend time with his girlfriend, who he then introduced me to. It wasn't long before Nayari sidled up next to me on the bench. In her early 40''s, and skinny, she was not especially attractive and had burns on part of her face and hands. She handed me a small plastic cup of rum that was making the rounds, and then started flirting with me, calling me her esposo, or husband. She did not speak English and so we conversed in Spanish. I don't know whether she had another esposo or not, but she did say she had a 9 year old son and worked as a dental assistant.

Manuel then suggested we go into a shop owned by Salvador, a local artist. Currently he was in Miami doing something to promote his own art. Apparently he is fairly well known, but in my humble opinion his art needs all the promotion he can give it, since most of it is all the same primitive pseudo-African looking stuff. Not withstanding, Salvador it seems, has money, and is the chief organizer of the rumba gatherings on the Callejon. Because he was not there, the music didn't last nearly as long as the 3 to 4 hours it usually did. Too bad. Manuel went on to tell me that Salvador was kind of the neighborhood benefactor, and was responsible for all of the street art on the Callejon. Interesting to know where he got his money. I didn't ask, and it is hard to believe he got it from his art work, but quien sabe? Always hard to account for taste in art.

We went back outside to drink more rum. Jorge talked more to me in English while Nayari was trying to kiss me at every opportunity. When Jorge got stumped with an English word or two, despite my attempts to talk to him in Spanish, he turned to a young, and rather clean cut black man (everyone here was black), and asked him how to say it in English. It turns out that the soft spoken Pato, was a professor of English at Habana University. He also happened to speak French, German, and Italian. Damn impressive for a 27 year old.

Continuing our discussion, both Jorge and Manuel said, after I asked about it, "that of course, even in the fucking communist system there is racismo. White people, or at least lighter people, as much of the country is mulatto, always get the better government jobs." Pato agreed with this as well. "Todo el mundo," I chimed in. "Siempre lo mismo, todo el mundo." (Always the same, all over the world). After a time, I said I wanted to start walking back to Habana Vieja and mi casa, and Manuel said that he lived there as well. Nayari said she would walk with us, but went off to get her resident papers because she might be hassled by the police if was seen walking with me.

While she was gone, Manuel asked me if "I wanted to fuck her. Not very pretty," he said, " but I heard she was really good lay and it was obvious she has eyes for you."

I said no, "that my own esposa might not like that too much."

"Is she in Cuba?"

"Yes." I said.

"Well anyway, " he went on, "she's not here so what difference does it make?"

I said thanks, but no thanks, and when Nayari returned in a few minutes, she insisted on holding hands and calling me, mi amor. When I held back, she said, that she thought I was timido. Not wanting to insult anyone I said that I liked her, but was not interested in having sex. She still wanted to hold hands for a bit, which, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to, at least for a few minutes. We started walking back in the direction of the old city, and not having had anything to eat since the morning, and by now it was 5 PM, I asked if there was anywhere we could stop so I could get something to eat. They took me to a little place in someone's house, and although Manuel and Jorge at first said they were not hungry, they quickly changed their minds. I didn't really have enough money for everyone, but agreed I would pay for Nayari to eat, and then give them another 5 CUC to go out and get some pizza. Of course they were hustling me, but I have to say they did it in a nice way, and I didn't feel threatened in any way. It was more like I felt sorry for them, which I'm sure they counted on, and if I had the money, probably I would have bought dinner all around. Nayari of course was thrilled with her meal, probably the best she had eaten in a while. She wanted my address and email, even though she has no way to get in touch.

Nayari lounging in the restaurant
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The professor showed up, and apparently knew the owner, as she gave him a free plate of food. When they returned from the pizza place, we resumed walking, and they pointed me toward the Museum of the Revolution, not far my casa. They said they would continue on their own as it might not be good to be seen with me. Perhaps they were all scamming me a bit, and none of them lived in Habana Vieja, but it was an interesting way to while away the afternoon, and to talk with them about life and politics in Cuba.

The following day, today, on Alejandro's recommendation, I took the a bus tour around the city, which is quite spread out and much of it looks different than old Habana, complete with the occasional Russian style, ugly block building, and a few fancy and expensive hotels. I got out at the university and walked around for a bit, and there were some interesting old neoclassical buildings there, also in disrepair. Nearby was the Cuba Libre Hotel, formerly the Hilton, and supposedly Fidel's headquarters immediately after the revolution.

Next stop, Plaza de la Revolution. Now the political center of Cuba, there were enormous sculpture like faces of Cienfuegos and Che on the side of two adjoining buildings, as well as a rather phallic looking monument to Jose Marti.

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Posted by jonshapiro 14:27 Archived in Cuba Tagged people children photography buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Farewell Picnic

The school wide picnic in my honor took place as scheduled. We walked a mile or two up the road and then climbed up a bit to an open pine forest.

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Groups of kids went off to create their own cooking areas as did the teachers. As the honored guest, I wandered among the various groups sampling the momos, chicken, and other pre-packaged food they had purchased.

There were hundreds of hungry and aggressive crows that would dive bomb for any available food whenever they could. They would practically grab it out of your hands if you weren't paying close attention.

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Playing Uno
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Tashi and a few teachers preparing momos
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Elementary grade teachers
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Kids Posing
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Many of the groups had picked small wild flowers and and put them down on the forest floor like welcome mats. It was all quite endearing.

A bit hard to read, but it does say welcome
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At one point some of the older girls began dancing to music on a cell phone and I showed another group how to play hide and seek.

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School wide photo
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Later in the evening Tashi and Puti gave me a few handmade gifts. Here I am wearing the hat and scarf.

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The next day, Tashi and I left for Jammu. As with any road trip in the mountains, it was not without its adventures. We had to spend an extra night in Kisthwar because the road beyond was blocked by a landslide. It was cleared overnight and we got to Jammu the next afternoon, where I spent a few days in comparative luxury in a decent hotel.

Clearly I was now back in civilization.

Shop on main street
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Before heading back to Mumbai, Tashi showed me the house he was building and we visited the boarding school where his boys are studying. After so many years it was a privilege to meet his whole family.

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  • ****************************************

NOTE TO MY READERS:

This is the last post you will see for several months. We are heading out once again, to southern Europe this time, and as usual I will take notes and photographs, but will not blog until after our return in mid-April.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:16 Archived in India Comments (4)

Trekking

As the days went on, it became obvious that we would not be able to proceed with our original trekking plans. Tashi had prepared a somewhat ambitious journey of 12 days in which we would first go to his village of Kabban, and then over a high pass, roughly 17,000 feet, and then back a different way, through other villages such as Dongel, Lossani, etc. However the snow is late in melting this year, and the weather continues to be unsettled, very likely with more snow higher up on the passes. Instead we will do it in reverse, up through the villages, and then, weather permitting, over the pass. If not, we will return back by the same route and make the trip shorter.

Prior to setting out I talked to Ramdee, Tashi's mother, about the history of her people. She didn't know very much, but she said that four generations of Tashi’s family now live in Kabban. The village was originally settled by four families, who came from the other side of the mountains in Lahaul and Zanskar, some 300 years ago. They moved because of better growing conditions on this, the wetter side of the mountains. Kabban eventually grew to have 60 families.

Legend has it that there was a feud between a Buddhist King,and a Hindu king. The latter said he would marry the Buddhist King’s wife and apparently made a secret agreement with her. She hid her husband’s arrows and bows and prevented him from sleeping. He was tied to the bed and killed by the Hindu King, who then killed his wife. Many of the the original settlers left Kabban after this and settled back in Lahaul in Darcha Marwa. They moved there and became Muslims, but still speak some Ladakhi. Not everyone left, or else more people came over the mountain passes, and the population of Kabban increased once again.

The day we started our trek was fair, and we hiked 15K or 20K up the well traveled path through a steep sided river valley. We spent a pleasant night near the river where the valley widened out in a grassy and sandy area. Despite the warm sun, my attempt at bathing was thwarted by the ball shrinking coldness of the water.

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Not long before dark, a very voluble Hindu man showed up from Mumbai who spoke English fluently. He asked if he could spend the night, as he brought no camping equipment other than a blanket. I didn't particularly want him in my tent, but said that if it was okay with Tashi and the porters, I had no objection. He stayed with us, sleeping in the cook tent, and gushing about how wonderful it was to meet Tashi and I. He was a bit over the top, and by the time he left early the next morning for Machel, I was glad to see him go.

Once more the day started out fair, although the weather began to deteriorate in the afternoon as we approached Lossani. The trail meandered up and down along the river and the adjoining slopes, and a few times we had to make our way across avalanche debris, ice and snow.

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Villages, mostly Hindu, dotted the landscape, including Machel, which is the site of an annual pilgrimage in August when thousands of people show up and camp for a few days near the temple. There is even a helicopter service for those who can afford it. The temple was not all that impressive, though it was locked and we didn't get to see inside.

Small village festival
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I am now in Lossani, a small village of mud and straw houses without many windows. Snow is still visible, not only on the summits, but also the remains of winter avalanches.

Approaching Lossani
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Old Buddhist temple, Lossani
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It has started to rain, a cold, icy drizzle, and Tashi and the guys elected to sleep in an abandoned school and cook there as well. Tashi's brother in law showed up, fairly drunk, and spoke in broken English about all the friends he has in the US and Canada. Doubtful. Another of Tashi's older brothers also lives in Lossani, and we went to his house for a brief time, and then on to a local wedding party. Actually, it was after the wedding had taken place in Manali, but now the couple had come back to the village to celebrate. It was the daughter of the brother in law. Virtually the entire village was crammed into one small room, sitting cross legged on the floor. There was barely room to eat, and the brother in law kept plying everyone with booze. On one end of the room, the cows were nestled in their wooden cages, so their warmth would help keep the room warm. Usually by now, they are put out to pasture, but because it still felt like winter with temps in the upper 30's and a cold wind blowing, they are still inside. Although it was difficult to make our exit, my legs had started to cramp up in the very tight space, and I needed Tashi to find my way back to the the tent. Luckily, as promised, the tent did not leak, as it rained steadily all night long.

In the morning it was still overcast and chilly, with a weak sun trying to shine through low hanging clouds that totally obscure the peaks. Going over the high pass seems increasingly less likely, as it will require 4 or 5 days of snow camping, and with the weather being what it is, it might be dangerous. It seems every time I trek with Tashi I bring the bad weather.

After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at Dongel, a village further up the valley. The weather has only worsened over the past two days. The rain is steadier and heavier now. I am safely ensconced in the house of a distant relative of Tashi's. I have the penthouse, aka, 2nd floor room, all to myself, and I am dry, if not warm. I can see my breath, and the temps inside are only marginally warmer than outside where it is just above freezing.

House where I stayed in Dongel
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Couple inside their house. In the back is where the animals stay for the winter
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Not far up, less than 1000 feet, fresh snow has fallen. Just now it is difficult to see it, because the clouds and mist have descended almost to the valley floor. A profound sense of gloom pervades the pine and cedar forest around this tiny village. Mist swirls amidst the lower trees, blending into the greyish, blank whiteout beyond. Rock walls and wooden posts, strung together with wire, separate the muddy tzo- shit strewn paths and fields that separate the dozen or so houses.

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The dark mud of the paths contrasts with the tawny colored mud of the houses, constructed of stone and timbers cut from the surrounding trees. They are then packed with mud and straw, both inside and out, a surprisingly effective form of insulation, though temporary I suspect. This is not, after all, the dry climes of Leh or New Mexico, where adobe can last for years. For some reason the roofs are mostly flat, and so need to be shoveled in the snows of winter, some of which still remains in the thick forest.

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One of the younger porters, Modup, has been taking good care of me, although Tashi has disappeared into another nearby house to visit other relatives, no doubt imbibing more of the local brew. Hard to refuse in this weather. He reappeared this morning when I asked one of the men to wake him.

There is nothing to do but wait. Hiking in this cold, wet weather would be uncomfortable at best, but it is hard to be patient.

If I want to get warm, I go down a set of very steep stairs, past the wood pile to one room on the first floor, where there is a small wood stove. Though vented, the draft is poor and the room is smoky. There is no furniture, only blankets on the mud floor, which thankfully, is much warmer than the cement floor of Tashi's house in Gulabgarh. After two hours in my sleeping bag, warmed with the aide of a make-shift hot water bottle, I will venture down now and continue writing from there. The walls of my upstairs room are papered with old English language newspapers and sexy pictures of Hindi movie stars, posters of Kashmir, and one larger picture of a boat and harbor, stating, ironically to me at least, God LOVETH THE CLEAN. On another wall there is a half page ad for Nestle chocolate, emphatically stating, "IN TWO DAYS, 100 CRORE(100 million) WILL WORK HARDER FOR YOUR DIGESTION. Hmmm. I never knew that chocolate bars, or a lot of money for that matter, would do wonders for my digestion. I am convinced, however, that if the outhouse, which is perched only a few feet from the water supply, were to be moved 50 yards in the other direction, and pit was dug to contain the shit, most likely this would do wonders for the digestion of the villagers. I have thus far, and rather miraculously, avoided any major stomach upset. I insist on having all my drinking water boiled, but others still cook and handle all the food. I do seem to have developed a cough which is similar to many others in these parts. I hope it will be short lived.

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Well, nature calls, and I have to make my way out to the shitter. After my short, but perilous and very slippery journey, I am back inside the warm room. One of the porters is here, along with some other young men from the village. The man of the house , who looks damn good for his 74 years, sits cross legged to my right, eating rice and mutton with his fingers, as is the custom. He has short grey hair, face wrinkled from the sun, and is garbed in homespun woolen clothes. His right ear is adorned with an earring. His daughter looks to be about 35, and sits on the opposite side of the stove. With high cheek bones, a kerchief on her head, and smooth, reddish brown skin, she is quite attractive. She wears a pearl necklace and a 2nd one of coral and turquoise, which is somewhat similar in color to her machine made orange sweater. Underneath the sweater she wears a flowered tunic and baggy pants, and is barefoot. She has just now finished the laborious process of making roti. The walls of this room are unadorned, though there are wooden shelves built into one side, which hold dishes, pots and pans. On the other wall, a solar powered light and clock, which seems to keep accurate time. A single small swastika is painted on the main soot darkened beam, and there are two drafty wooden windows, letting in the dim, grey light.

Every one sits waiting.

Waiting for the weather to clear so they can plow and plant their fields, several weeks late already.

And we are waiting to hike.

The clock ticks

The cock crows,

but the distant drone of the river is soft and soothing.

There is desultory chatting in Ladakhi, and some laughter. Always laughter. One of the young men, perhaps not from this village, takes out his cell phone and puts on some Hindi music. Cell phones are useless here for calls as there is no service. I can't imagine why a villager would have one, but you can never tell about these things. Actually, he has not one but two, and seems to be comparing them.

Tashi has told me a story about the forest here, which is one of the highest in all of Jammu district. A prince of Zanskar, on the other side of the Umasi La pass, four or five days of hard walking, was going to marry a princess from Dongel. The forest was going to be a dowry present, since Zanskar is much drier and has no forest of its own. When the prince arrived in Dongel, the princess held her nose because he was so dirty and smelly. A wolf intervened, and said to the the Zanskar prince, that the princess must not have a nose if he couldn't see it. Enough doubt was sewn by the wolf that the marriage did not take place, and so the story goes, that is why the forest remained here and was not cut down. Exactly why the wolf didn't want the marriage to occur is something of a mystery. Tashi says that no one knows this, but perhaps, in my mind at least, the wolf, who lived here, wanted to continue to roam the forest, and did not want it taken to some far off place.

There are still wolves here. A few days ago one killed a sheep in a nearby village.

Lunch is served, curried cauliflower and rice, not my favorite. They seem to have a lot of cauliflower here, almost every day it seems. Somewhat dutifully I managed to finish most of it, but wait, before I can refuse, in typical fashion the daughter is already refilling my plate. Just then she has a series of sneezes. Yah, just what I need. In their generous spirit, more cauliflower and more germs. Everything, and I mean everything, is shared here. There is no way to avoid it.

The rain continues on unabated, clouds menacing from all sides.

The clock ticks.

Slowly, very slowly.

The cock crows.

  • ****************************************************

The rain continued heavily all night. The wind blew so hard one of my windows flew open at about 6 AM. Now it seems to have stopped and the clouds have lifted somewhat. What the rest of the day will bring is hard to tell. We will wait another few hours before deciding, but at $100 a day for the porters and Tashi's fee, I can't really see the sense of continuing with conditions being what they are. The pass is clearly out of the question, and I am getting tired of waiting and the spartan life of camping in this weather.

Once again the old man of the house is sitting near me, this time with an enormous ball of yarn that he is winding onto a wooden stick. I was told that his wife is in Jammu getting some kind of medical treatment. Tashi said that he doesn't drink much now, but I think yesterday must have been an exception as he seems a bit hung over.

The day has continued on without any decisions having been made, though once again the village is socked in with clouds. In late afternoon, I sought out Tashi for some company in another house, his real brother in law's, as he put it, since he calls even his wife's distant cousins his brother in law as well. There was drinking going on again, and naturally they tried to fill my glass repeatedly, which I resisted.

Tashi and his brother in law wearing my unneeded sunglasses
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As always, there was a lot of laughter, and this time, it seemed as though the women were drinking as much as the men. Someone put on a music tape powered by a car battery, and since I wasn't drinking much, I encouraged everyone to dance, which eventually they did. They all got a kick out of it when I joined them. There wasn't a lot of room to move, but we managed to weave in and out of the bottles of hooch and the wood stove. There were several generation of relatives there, including young women nursing babies, as well as the old man of the village, my host, who after a time began to sing in that same sing-song voice, about how guests bring sunshine to the village. He must have been drunk, because in my case, nothing could be further from the truth.

Tashi's real brother in law, who did look like Puti, kept repeating the word nothing, when I said no booze, no food, hence nothing. I literally had to shield my glass with my hand to prevent him and others from refilling it. After a time, the pressure to drink got a bit much, and despite the obvious pleasure they took in my company, I returned to the other house. I asked Tashi if he could make it over to join me for dinner. What I didn't know was that about half an hour later, he would bring the entire party to "my house." More chang and wheat wine was consumed, but thankfully, the brother in law did not show up. The porters started preparing my dinner of chow mein, basically ramen noodles with a few veggies thrown in. They asked if I wanted any mutton. To be polite, I said a little, but meanwhile another porter took out an enormous leg of mutton, mostly raw, and began chopping away at it with an ax. This was bit much for me, and though they only added a few pieces to my dinner, I did not eat them. I asked Tashi if there was ever a problem with spoilage, and he said they dry the meat, but yes, some of it did spoil. That was all I needed to hear with the ax chopping away at the bloody leg, a piece of firewood on the floor serving as a chopping block. My gut was already giving me a few problems from bouncing around the dance floor earlier, but having the ax, thwack, thwack, right next to me did not improve matters. I had my dinner, or some of it at least, and made my way back up to the refrigerator that was the 2nd floor. I crawled into my sleeping bag, shivering from the cold, but my hot water bottle, held tight next to my femoral artery was a big help. I may be turning into a wimp, but I am looking forward to a few western comforts, especially a hot shower and clean clothes. It will be several days before that is possible.

  • ***************************************************

The rain finally did stop the next morning though it remained party to mostly cloudy.

A brief sunny moment, fresh snow on the mountains
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I was all for starting back, as I didn't want to be stuck in Dongel with more rain. Tashi said the porters wanted to stay, and I finally agreed, but I didn't want to spend money just to sit around. He spoke to them, and they decided to stay anyway, even without getting paid for the day.

He suggested an excursion to Somchen, the highest and most isolated village at around 3000 meters. I was happy to finally get out and walk again, but I had to talk him into coming as the porters and other relatives wanted him to stick around and drink with them. We finally set off around 11 for a pleasant two hour uphill hike. We stopped first in Deschedi, another tiny village about 1K from Somchen, where I was fortunate to meet and take pics of a 93 year old woman. She gave me a toothless grin when I showed her the picture afterwords.

Mother and daughter
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We had some tea with her and continued the rest of the way.

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Somchen looked a bit like the monasteries in Ladakh. The village consisted of one large stone and mud structure of several houses, built one on top of another, like an apartment building.

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The reason for this is that they need to keep the arable land free for grazing, and they are very close to a major avalanche zone. It is quite chilly up here. Fresh snow had just fallen last night, but had melted by the time we arrived. We stopped for more tea,rotis, curd, and fresh eggs, talking with the brother of Sonam, who lives next to Tashi in Gulabgarh, and who had lent me a trekking pole. This brother spoke a bit of English, and told me that his three children attend the Himalayan Culture School. He and his wife stay in the village and run the farm. In the village, life is difficult, he said . This year there were more than 15 meters of snow, which lasted more than 6 months. Temps were often minus 20C, and so all they could do was stay inside with the animals. Staying warm was their main preoccupation. He seemed quite eager for company, and encouraged me to spend the night, and to come back the next year and spend 5 or 6 days. Needless to say, I was not interested in either proposition, but his friendliness and hospitality were contagious.

As the afternoon wore on the clouds looked more threatening. Tashi went out to take a leak or so he said, and then disappeared for an hour. He had apparently met some other relatives.

We made it back just as the rain started anew.

I made it clear that I wanted to leave the next morning, rain or shine. Also, I wanted to get an early start, and if possible, make it all the way back to Gulabarh, about 30K. I didn't relish another chilly and damp night in a tent.

Although overcast, the next morning was dry. I was up by 6 and more than ready to leave by 8, but Tashi and the others were staying in a different house and they didn't seem to be in a hurry. When they arrived about 8:45, the donkey had still not been loaded. Tashi's brother in law, whose donkey it was, literally tried to grab and drag me into another house for more drinking. I was not amused and said no, which he ignored.

No, NO NO NO, LOUDER AND LOUDER. He eventually let go, but Tashi had to stay behind to help load the donkey. He had doubts whether the porters would leave at all if he didn't get them going. Modup, who had done all my cooking for the past few days was ready to leave, and Tashi suggested that I start with him and that he would catch up.

We kept up a pretty good pace and I wondered when or if Tashi and the others would catch up. The clouds thickened, and sure enough it started to rain shortly before noon. We stopped in a crude little dhabba in a small Hindu village. By then we were both pretty damp, and I had stupidly left a rain jacket behind with Tashi. I had a cup or two of very sweet tea and cookies, and huddled up to a tiny fire to try and stay warm. We waited over an hour, but the rain continued. Finally a donkey man and one of the porters showed up. Tashi had apparently stopped in Machel, so when the rain let up a bit we decided to push on, but after another hour or so it was back. Eventually, after two more hours of wet, cold walking, we stopped in another village at a small dhabba, with nothing to eat except ramen noodles. At least it was hot and not sweet. I played out the various options in my head. It was still about three more hours walking to Gulabgarh, and I wasn't sure we had that much daylight. Hiking in the cold rain in the dark did not seem like a good idea.

Finally Tashi showed up, nursing a toothache that had been bothering him for several days, but had clearly worsened. I was not happy that we had to wait so long because of his dawdling, especially without a rain jacket. I was also pissed at the porters, who had obviously been drinking, and told them that they should easily have been able to keep up with me, someone twice their age. It was obvious we weren't going to be able to hike more that day, and the rain had only picked up in intensity. Tashi found us a couple of basic rooms that would at least keep us dry, or so I thought. When I returned after drying my jacket by the fire, I found the rain was dripping in steadily on one side of the room. Luckily it was not on my bed. Later, the porters made a cooking fire in a leaky barn, and knowing I was angry, ran around asking me if I wanted tea or soup or something to eat. It didn't help with my foul mood.

We left early the next morning which thankfully was clear. Tashi could barely talk because of his tooth. I was still upset with all of the waiting around, but he and I go back a long way and I didn't want this to ruin our friendship.

We arrived back in Gulabgarh before mid-day.

Assuming the weather holds, the school will make a picnic in my honor the day after tomorrow. On Sunday, Tashi and I will leave for Jammu, where it will be warm. I will spend a few days there helping him check out computer tablets, and then fly to Mumbai before heading home.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:19 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains buildings foot photography Comments (2)

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