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Entries about landscapes

Excursions from Oaxaca

After a few days of wandering the streets of Oaxaca, we were ready to go a little further afield. We went on a day trip into the Sierra Norte with a small tour group to the Zapotec villages of Lachatao. It took a couple of hours of driving on the curvy mountain roads to reach the village. It is a poor area, but the indigenous people there and in several other small villages, are trying to attract eco-tourists, and have constructed a number of bungalows just outside of town. Our first stop was a small anthropological museum, largely organized and opened due to the efforts of our guide, Oscar. After that, we went on a hike to what we were told was an ancient ceremonial place on nearby Jaguar Mountain. The hike was billed as a ritualistic inner journey, and that exactly what it was. Oscar, though not indigenous, had lived in the village for a number of years, and was convinced that he had found one of the original sites of Zapotec civilization on this flattened mountain. It was not long or difficult, perhaps two hours, but we made a number of stops en route for him to explain certain things to us about the culture and the religion, which was based on worshipping the spirits of the mountains, wind, and animals. We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate on the sounds and smells of the forest. Oscar talked about the Zapotec way of life as being in harmony with Tao, or the Way, similar to the ancient Chinese religion. I'm not sure whether this accurately described the Zapotecs, who apparently were also into human sacrifice, or if it was a reflection of Oscar's time living in San Francisco. When we got near the top, which had wide views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we were instructed to lie down in a certain spot and glance backwards over the horizon, and then describe the colors we saw. The predominant color was supposed to be indicative of a certain aspect of our mood and personality. I forget now what my color was, or its meaning.

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We then gathered around what looked like an ancient fire pit and sent out positive energy to the other folks on the hike, and then in widening circles to all living beings. It was a bit hokey, at least to me, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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On our return, we had lunch in the town's only "restaurant," prepared by local village women. Then some of us climbed up to the roof of the old church, giving us another great view of the mountains beyond.

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Oscar on church roof
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View from church roof
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The next day we hired Luis, to take us on a tour of Monte Alban and a few other nearby points of interest. Having lived in LA for several years, his English was good, and he turned out to be quite personable and informative.

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Monte Alban is one of the oldest ruins in Mesoamerica. It goes back to 500BC, although it was abandoned some 1600 years later for unknown reasons. Like the ceremonial site in the mountains, it is located on top of a flattened mountain with a commanding view of the Oaxaca valley below. It is obviously quite large, and while some of it has been reconstructed, parts of the pyramids are original. Getting there early was a good move, as the place was practically empty.

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Pelota field
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Local man at the ruins
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After Monte Alban, we stopped at a Mescal factory, just out of town. It was interesting to see how they made it from roasted agave.

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Of course we had to sample the product. Unlike most liquor, the newer stuff, made from wild agave, was more expensive than the aged ones, most likely because they are made from cultivated agave.

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Then it was on to see the Tule tree. Said to be 1600 years old, its circumference is immense, at least 50 feet or so.

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We stopped for a late lunch at favorite buffet that Luis knew. They had all four different moles, as well as a huge assortment of other meats, fish, vegetables etc.

Finally we ended the day by going to a weaving "factory." It was very much a family run business, and although they sell some of their handwoven rugs right there, they sell more at the Santa Fe Indian Market during the summer. We wouldn't see them there, but Santa Fe was going to be our destination in a few weeks.

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It was a long day, but I couldn't resist taking a shot of these kids on the way back to our hotel.

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Posted by jonshapiro 08:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes mountains people food tourist_sites Comments (5)

Paleochora

The next morning we set out for Paleochora, following the same route we had taken to Elafonisi two days earlier. This time, instead of stopping at the cave church we went for a walk in the gorge, until we came to a old stone bridge, thick with cedar and other deciduous trees.

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On the way back, we were careful not to step on the bees which swarmed around the clover. We saw more wild, bright red/orange poppies moving in the stiff breeze and the small, but intense yellow and white flowers. We made a short detour to stop back in Elos for another plate of boureki, but the taverna was closed, and we had to make due with one of their competitors. We drove on through forests of evergreens and olive plantations, and briefly stopped in Kandanos, site of a big resistance battle during WW 2. Today, after being rebuilt, it is a sleepy, tidy place with folks, well men, sitting outside a small cafe.

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A few kilometers further, at the end of the road, we arrived at our destination, Paleohora.

It has about two thousand residents, and plenty of small hotels, guest houses, and tavernas, enough to handle the larger crowds of summer. It is slowly being developed as a resort area, but still manages, at least thus far, to hold onto its small town charms.

Upper main street
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Our guest house, where we rented a small apartment for a week, is about as cute as can be, and serves up what is probably the world's best breakfast. Not a exaggeration.

Manto, who is also a Byzantine style artist, moved to Paleohora from Athens with her husband several years ago in order to build the place.

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Detail from Manto's studio
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Unfortunately, as has been the case for most of this trip, the weather in Paleochora has not lived up to its billing as the warmest place in Europe during the winter and early spring. When the sun is out things are fine, but the weather can change in an instant, and the wind can blow fiercely. Yesterday, in anticipation of bad weather today, we undertook the 11K hike to Sougia, where we planned to take the ferry back to Paleochora at the end of the day. It was a highly enjoyable walk across the volcanic rocks near the beach, and then up and over some of the headlands nearby.

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When the clouds parted, there were views of snow covered mountains in the distance.

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About 3/4ths of the way, we came upon Lissos, an ancient Minoan site, which was later occupied by the Greeks and the Romans. The original askepolis is still somewhat intact, as are the Roman mosaics on the floor.

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Greek letters on a nearby wall
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There were also numerous cave-like burial mounds scattered about, and the setting, below two rocky promontories, and not far from a small beach, seemed ideal for defending against enemies from all directions. To us, the place had an almost spiritual vibe, much more so than the famous Knossos, which is more extensive, but not nearly as beautiful.

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Extensive grounds of Lissos from higher up on the trail
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From Lissos we continued through an immense walled canyon, and fortunately we chose the right way, and arrived in the tiny village of Sougia, around 4:30 PM. There was time for a late lunch of fish soup and moussaka, before we walked over to the ferry dock. By now the wind had picked up considerably, and it started raining. The ticket seller let us wait in his small kiosk, after we heard him playing the mandolin. Trying to keep warm as the ferry was late, we chatted with a friendly Swiss woman, perhaps 10 years younger than us, who had taken the boat over in the morning.

The seas were not as rough as they could have been considering the weather, and we made it back to town without getting seasick. By then, the winds were practically gale force, and it was a struggle just to walk back to Manto's.

Although there was more rain in the night, the next day was largely dry, although the cold wind blew unceasingly for a full 24 hours. It reminded us of our time in El Chaten, in Patagonia. Tired of being cooped up for most of the day, we managed a short, blustery walk through town.

Choppy sea even in the harbor on that very windy day
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We stopped for coffee in a newer place next door to our favorite bakery. It had big plate glass windows facing the sea, and the gusts were strong enough to rattle the glass. At times, it felt like it might crack and shatter. Despite the wind, the place was crowded. Cretans are a very social lot, and often spend many hours sipping a coffee, or drinking raki in a cafe, chatting with their friends, and no doubt catching up on the local gossip. As time has gone on, we have fallen into this lifestyle ourselves, going for a late lunch, and sitting around with a cappuccino. We usually are not able to make it to the 10 or 11 PM Greek dinner time, and instead make due with an evening snack, after having a big mid-day meal.

View of the sea and mountains, just outside the cafe
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Paleohora has lots of great hikes. On another day, this one bright and sunny, we went along the shore in the opposite direction, towards Elafonisi. The sea was a clear, intense blue, and turquoise near the shore.

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It is visible from most any vantage point, along with sharp and oddly shaped volcanic rocks that lie in the water, and across the smooth stone beaches that appear amongst the scrub vegetation at every turn.

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In the distance, also visible from many places along the trail, the snowy peaks of the Leki Ori Mountains stand in stark relief to the water. Rocky promontories stretch out like bony fingers, reaching toward the African shores of the Libyan Sea. Here we found Viena, the ruins of another Hellenic city. Though not as impressive as Lissos, which at one point had over 30,000 people, we saw parts of Greek columns lying on the beach near the water, and others that were partially submerged. None of this was even mentioned in our guide book. It seems that no matter what direction you choose to walk, there are ancient discoveries to be made.

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We spent some time just sitting on one of the larger deserted pebble beaches, feeling the soothing smoothness of the rounded stones. There is something comforting about holding the stones in hand, and of course, skimming the flat ones into the calm water.

It was easy to think about Odysseus plying these craggy shores more than 4000 years ago.

Shadows on the beach
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Returning to town, we had the traditional roasted lamb dinner in one of the few tavernas still open on Greek Easter Sunday. Afterwords, we strolled along the seawall, and heard a young mother calling out to her young son, Orfeo, Orfeo, as he trotted along the sidewalk as fast as he could. Another reminder of the ancient heritage of this island. One has the feeling that despite the economic problems, the Cretans,and probably most Greeks, feel very proud of their ancestors, and the rich culture they created.

At night, there were fireworks and a bonfire, along with a parade of Judas down the small streets of Paleochora.. Unfortunately, it didn't start until midnight and we didn't make it. In the evening of Good Friday, a few days before, there was a small candlelight procession with an effigy of the dead Jesus, who was carried from one church to another. Most of the candles had been blown out because of the wind, and it was cold so I didn't stick around for long.

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Our trip is coming to a close. Tomorrow we leave for Chania, and then fly to Athens at night. When the weather is good, which has been true the last two days, I am in no rush to return. In bad weather, a not infrequent occurrence on this trip, then home, with its added comforts, seems like a good idea after 10 weeks on the road. The Greek food continues to impress, as do the Greek people. They are always trying to feed you more. After every meal, raki and desert, even if you order another desert. Most everyone has continued to be extremely friendly and welcoming, including the folks at Manto's place. I will be sad to say goodbye.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches people photography living_abroad Comments (2)

Elafonisi, Balos, and the Mountain Villages of Crete

From Chania, we drove to Elafonisi through the mountain villages of the Enneachora, including Vlatos, Elos, and Kefali. Most of the tavernas and small hotels were closed, and many of the smaller villages seemed almost deserted. At first, the mountain Gods smiled upon us with good weather, and we stopped for a walk in the countryside outside of Topolia. It was a bucolic and tranquil scene as we wandered down the dirt track toward the river.

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Olive grove
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At one point we had some company.

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And the Spring flowers were starting to pop.

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We then went to see the cave church of Agia Sofia, high on the hillside above Koutsamatados Ravine.

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Further on, in Elos, we stopped for lunch at a simple restaurant run by a mother and daughter. They served up a very tasty boureki, a zucchini and potato, and cheese dish that we had eaten at Chicken Ltd., but in a different form. By then the weather had deteriorated, as it so often does in the mountains, and it was cold enough for them to make a fire for us.

From there we made our way to Elafonisi. None of the distances are very far in Crete, or Creta as they spell it, and even though the roads are narrow and full of curves, it doesn't take long to get from place to place. In Elafonisi, the sun was out, and it was warm enough to lie on the beach. Surprisingly, there were some other travelers sunning themselves as we did for an hour or two.

Elafonisi is famous for its shallow turquoise colored lagoon, where there is a small island connected to the mainland by a sandbar.

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There were also some striking volcanic rocks on the beach
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We found a small hotel and spent the night. When the sun went down it got quite chilly, and as with so many places in Crete and southern Italy, they are not really set up for cold weather. We asked for extra blankets, but could have used even more than they gave us. The next day was overcast and windy and seemed to promise rain, so we decided not to spend another day at beach. Instead we went back into the mountains, but this time took a different route, along the western coast to Kissamos. The weather improved somewhat, and the views along the route were stunning, as the road weaved in and out over high cliffs close to the sea.

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Kissamos, a small provincial and rather nondescript town, was big enough to have a few hotels that were open, and we found a place to stay. After a disappointing lunch, one of our only poor meals in Crete, we went off to see the Balos Penninsula, as suggested by our host at the hotel. Although Balos was mentioned in our guidebook, it was downplayed compared to Elafonisi. When we got to the beginning of the peninsula, the track narrowed, became rocky, and it was no longer paved. Given the balding tires we had on our rental car, we decided not to chance it, and started walking.
The main part of the peninsula is uninhabited, and has been set aside as a national park. It has rocky peaks, scrubby trees, and volcanic rocks jutting into a turquoise and deep blue sea. There is another peninsula on the other side, which frames the wide bay of Kissamos, and it is easy to see why the Minoans created an ancient port on this site because it is protected on three sides.

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After 20 minutes of walking, and noticing a number of cars coming back from the point, a young Italian couple stopped us and asked us how far to the end. We didn't know, but they stopped another car, and were told 1/2 an hour. Realizing that we would never make it by walking, I asked them if they would mind taking us. No problem. They were a delightful couple living in Milan, though originally from Calabria. Francesca is a high school teacher and Carlo a chemical engineer. It actually took more than 1/2 hour to drive out to the end, and then it was another steep 1/2 hour walk down to the beach. But what a spot. The trail led down the rocky, windswept scrub, much like the English moors. There were expansive views over the sea, and a rocky island attached to the mainland with a sandbar. Scattered about were other small islands, also with cliffs and scrub which seemed plunked down at random.

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Our Italian friends took this shot of the happy couple on Balos beach
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As the clouds moved back in, they scraped the top of the highest mountain on the peninsula, and then were blown out to sea. The sun went lower on the horizon, and backlit the clouds, creating shadows over the silver and cobalt water, as the waves washed onto the sandy shore. Goats scampered about on the nearby rocks, and aside from an uninhabited shack on the beach, it was a totally wild place.

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It felt like the end of the world.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:30 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches sky photography 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)

Description of Town and Life in Gulabgarh

The town is surrounded by towering snow covered mountains, pine forests, steep rock walls, etc.

View of bridge leading to Gulabgarh
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Unfortunately, like so many small towns in India, it is full of garbage on the streets, and in the narrow alleys near the houses. Tashi has said that he has organized a clean up a couple of times, but within a few weeks the place looks the same. People just don’t seem to get the concept and importance of cleanliness, and are content to live amongst the garbage and the shit, both cow and human alike, because that is what they are used to. Many houses seem to have some kind of rudimentary septic tank, but obviously not all. There is no town wide sewage system.

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Alley leading to Tashi's house
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Along side the main street is a three foot deep ditch with plenty of garbage, and so I have to watch where I step at all times. Cows and many stray dogs roam about chewing on the garbage.

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There are 40 or 50 small shops selling everything from food and clothing to cell phone sim cards. There is even a “Peace Hotel,” with “semi-deluxe" rooms, though I wouldn't want to stay there. Despite all the rain, the main street is dusty, especially when trucks arrive from Kisthwar. Making it here along the extremely narrow and boulder strewn road is a feat unto itself.

The town has about three thousand residents, some of whom return to their mountain villages for extended visits to family members, or to help out on the family farm.

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The Himalayan Culture School occupies a prime spot on a small hill in the center of town with prayer flags fluttering all around.

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Unlike other schools, this one operates from March to November because it is simply too cold during the winter, and there is no source of heat in the classrooms. Even now, in late April, it is still quite chilly here, especially at night in the uninsulated, concrete houses with minimal sources of heat. I can imagine what it would be like here in mid-winter, at 6000 feet. Many of the the children who reside with relatives here in the summer, return to their parents in their villages for the winter. These villages are higher, 9000, or 10,000 feet, far more remote than Gulabgarh, and there is usually snow all winter long. Animals and people keep very close company, ie, in the same room, in an attempt to keep warm.

Mountain view from school yard
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Relative to these villages, Gulabgarh is a metropolis with creature comforts, and yet life is still primitive here. Bathing is a luxury I have not had for a number of days, and everyone else bathes very infrequently because it is such a chore to heat up the water on an open fire, Doing laundry is also a major production, and I have more or less worn the same dusty clothes since I arrived. I am hoping to wash out some clothes today, or have someone in the village do it. If I can wash them soon, perhaps they will have time to dry in the sun.

After a week, there is no longer any more bottled water to be found in the shops. There was only one place that had it, and they have now run out. I have some trepidation about using the crude filtering system that Tashi has in his house. Thus far I have managed to avoid any major stomach problems.

We are also running out of toilet paper, and Tashi went to see if he could buy more. It seems like there is none left in the whole town, and at least one person said to him, in Ladakhi, “What’s that?”

Perhaps on his return from Jammu, he can bring some. He intends to go soon to check on construction materials for his house.

Drinking, eating, and sitting around the smoky wood stove are really the only forms of entertainment. Most nights seem like a party, as everyone knows everyone, or is related, and they often drop by to talk and drink, at least the men, and I feel some pressure to keep up with them. Tashi was complaining about it to me, although he drinks as much as everyone else. He also mentioned the lack of privacy in the town. These are my words, not his, but he feels that there is pressure to see everyone and check in, especially if he has not seen them in a while. He said he thought that there was extra partying going on as a form of congratulations, because he has started building his new house in Jammu.

I frequently take short walks in the town, and I am very noticeable. Kids openly stare and others just obviously wonder who I am and what am I doing here.

Two gentlemen in local shops
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I may be only one of a handful of foreigners to come here. Two others than I know of, Alex and Mari, have also taught at the school because they know Tashi, but clearly there has not been an influx of tourists. Now that I have been here a little while, I feel incredible respect for Mari, who spent about a month here, longer than I will spend, and while she was here Tashi was absent for almost the entire time. And then she came back again for another month. This is not an easy place to be for anyone not used to doing without western conveniences, but for a woman alone without having anyone to talk to for a month, now that is impressive. Okay, she is 20 years younger than I am, but still....

Posted by jonshapiro 06:24 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains postcards living_abroad Comments (3)

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