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Santa Fe, New Mexico

About a week after getting home from Mexico, we headed out for a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had been there some 40 years earlier and loved it then, but wondered what time had wrought, and if we would still feel the same way. We rented a place for six weeks, intending to check it out as a possible place to live, especially in the winter, and then planned to return to Boulder, Colorado for a couple of weeks to check that out again. We had been there more recently, about eight years ago, and almost bought a house there.

Santa Fe did not disappoint. The central part of the city has managed to retain its old adobe flavor thanks to the foresight of city fathers, who as far back as 1912 recognized that it made sense not to let rampant develop destroy the old town. New buildings had to be built in Santa Fe pueblo or Spanish mission style, at least those surrounding the central plaza, some of parts of which date back to the 1500's. True, the suburban sprawl of Cerillos Road is just as much of an eyesore as any strip mall, with its big box stores and shopping centers, but the main part of town, unlike so many western cities, fits the landscape, and, as one of the oldest continually settled cities in the US, it manages to retain a sense of history. The blending of Hispanic, Indigenous and Anglo cultures is a felt presence, despite the fact that often these groups have little to do with one another. The semi-arid landscape is almost other worldly, and despite the paucity of trees in the valley, the high mountains of the Sangre de Christo are literally just out of town, and they are heavily treed and green. And the sky, which is as vibrant a blue/cobalt as I have seen anywhere, is shocking in its intensity on most any day.

Santa Fe has always been known as a liberal outpost, with an art and culture scene that far exceeds its size of roughly 80,000. We certainly found this to be the case even in the winter, which is the off season. There is also a significant retiree population, our age more or less, but active. There are almost daily hike and art meet-ups, skiing just outside of town, and people that seem friendly and share our values. Once out of town, it is a vast, largely empty wilderness of desert, weird rock formations, high mountains, both the Sangres and slightly lower Jemez, volcanic calderas, along with scattered ancient Indian pueblos,and funky little towns, like Madrid, pronounced Maaadrid. The feeling is that you can walk forever and not see anyone. Alright, a bit of an exaggeration, but New Mexico is huge with a population of 2.5 million, most of which live around Albuquerque, by far the largest city, about an hour from Santa Fe, with little in between.

So we surprised ourselves. After a few days we started looking at real estate, and though not cheap by upstate New York standards, it was a bargain compared to Boulder, which is growing much more rapidly. At first we thought we wanted to be within walking distance of the plaza, but many of the old houses were dark, expensive, and often needed more work to make them up to our standard of livability. It wasn't long before we started looking further afield, a process that I'm sure many other folks have followed. Still close in, but about a mile or two from the center. The fact that our agent, Chris Harris, was a highly interesting man with whom we had a lot in common, didn't hurt our desire to check things out. It was always fun spending time with him. We also met Toni, somewhat older than us, but a former New Yorker who has lived in Santa Fe for some 20 years. She explained the tax advantages of buying and then renting for a year, something she and her husband did when they first moved.

Amazingly, after a few weeks we made an offer on a condo on the north side of town, and it was accepted. Now normally, I'm not a condo kind of guy, but this place, though small, felt quite private as it faced out on open space, and it was relatively affordable so that we didn't feel pressured to sell our house in New York immediately. We heard that the Santa Fe Opera often rents out places in the summer for their staff, but they want it furnished, and so, in an effort to appeal to the Opera crowd, we dashed madly about for the next several weeks looking for furniture in some of the many warehouse sized consignment shops that seem to be ubiquitous in Santa Fe. Of course, we couldn't move anything in until we closed, but managed to get the shops to hold stuff, and then rushed the closing, which happened about a week before we were scheduled to leave town. If all of this seems a bit crazy and frantic, it was. In between hikes, occasional days of skiing, and attendance at art shows, we hunted for furniture, pots and pans, bedding, towels, etc. We probably spent more time riding up and down Cerillos Road than most residents do in a year.

We did manage to spend some time enjoying cultural events, eating out at beer pubs, New Mexican type restaurants, as opposed to, unfortunately, true Mexican. We met up with the stepson of a friend in Albany, who in turn introduced us to his musical work colleagues. Our friend Betty came out for a visit for a few days to see us, as well as her brother who lives outside of town. Our older daughter came out with her boyfriend Jeff from California, and we spent a few days seeing the sights, including Bandolier, a fancy hot springs in the middle of nowhere, Ojo Calientes, and just walking the streets of Santa Fe. What I did not do was to take any pictures of the city. Too busy I guess, though I did take some landscape shots of Tent Rocks which is on a res about an hour from town. With hoodoos and rocks similar to Cappadocia in Turkey, a place we did not visit, it also has a small slot canyon, and is an easy place to spend an afternoon.

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Snow covered Sangres in the distance
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Bandolier has an almost spiritual feel, having been settled by indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years. They mostly lived in caves created by volcanic action, in cliffs lining the river valley. Indeed the general area around Santa Fe also felt spiritual to us. We sensed the spirits of the ancestors in the rocks and the sky, perhaps because the landscape hasn't changed all that much.

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Round human settlement in Bandolier where farming took place
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Tasha and Jeff climbing into cave dwellings
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Nanette and Jon
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Mule Deer
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That big sky near Bandolier
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We also managed a trip up to Ghost Ranch, to see the landscape of Georgia O"keefe. On the way we stopped to see these incredible white rocks where apparently Georgia used to camp out with friends.

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Pedernal in Jemez mountains opposite O'keef's summer home in Ghost Ranch
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Red rocks at Ghost Ranch
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Door to O'keef's winter house, about 10 miles from Ghost Ranch
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Lest you think that everything is perfect, New Mexico has a reputation of being practically a third world country. There is definitely a manana attitude, and most things take longer to get done, especially for those of us who are used to a New York minute. I also had an interesting run-in with the Santa Fe police. On one particular day, I had parked my car at one of the consignment shops, and there happened to be another one diagonally across the street. Both of these were located on a non-busy road outside the center of town, and Nanette was not with me. So without thinking, I just cut across the the corner and as I walked into the parking lot of the second shop, I heard a siren behind me. Turning around, it was a cop car flashing its lights at me.

"Stand in front of the car," the officer said to me.

"What did I do?," I said somewhat incredulously, knowing I had left my car in the other lot.

"You cut across two streets and did not walk in the cross-walks."

"Jaywalking? I didn't even know that is illegal here."

"I need to see your license."

"Okay." I happened to have my license with me. " I'm from out of state," as he could plainly see, "and jaywalking is not illegal where I live in upstate New York. Can't you just give me warning."

"It is a crime in New Mexico. Just stand in front of the car." I had moved off a bit to the side because the sun was hot.

I must have been standing there for a good 20 minutes while he fiddled with his computer, probably checking to see if I was a terrorist.

"It's getting hot officer. You must have more important things to do, like going after the real bad guys. All I did was walk between two shops when there was no traffic."

No response. After another 10 minutes or so he said that he was having trouble with his computer, and asked me to give him the number of my cell phone. He said he would call me when he could print out the citation.

"Can I leave now, and go into the store?"

He nodded, and I went into the second consignment shop. I had been there before, and the delightful woman who ran the place, S., a Jewish-Sikh convert, (apparently not that unusual in New Mexico), recognized me and could tell something was wrong.

"I just got a ticket for jaywalking," I said.

"What. I've never heard of anyone getting a ticket for that in Santa Fe. People jaywalk all the time around here. I feel really bad for you."

I guess she could tell I was shaken up.

"Well, if you see anything you like I'll give you an even bigger discount than usual.

Sure enough I did see a couple of copper lamps, but about ten minutes later the cop came running back in.

"I was able to print out the citation."

"Can I just mail it in," I said.

"No you have to appear in court."

"But I won't be here on that date. I'm leaving town before that."

"You'll have to go in as a walk-in and tell it to the judge. Wait a few days to make sure they receive the citation," and with that, he turned around and left.

"Fuck you." No I didn't say it, but I certainly felt like it. This was unbelievable. Welcome to Santa Fe, I thought.

Well it was only to become even more unbelievable. A few days later I called the court, and they still had not received the citation from Officer Krupkee, or whatever his name was. Gregg, I think.

"Call back in a few more days." I did so, and they finally had received it. I explained that I would be out of town when my court date was set.

"Alright, Come in tomorrow as a walk-in."

Figuring I would get there early to beat the crowd, I showed up at 8. There was already a line. I got to the desk, and they asked when my appointment time was.

"I don't have any. They told me to come in as a walk-in. "

"Oh, I'm sorry, but the judge is not taking any walk-ins today."

"WHAT. BUT THEY TOLD ME TO COME TODAY WHEN I CALLED IN YESTERDAY. I'm from out of town and I'm leaving in a few days."

In fact it turns out that they told several more people, six in all, to come in as walk-ins. "Who'd you speak to?," they demanded.

"I have no idea."

"Well wait here, but you other people will have to leave and come back another day."

Eventually, perhaps because I was from out of town, they took pity on me, and told me to have a seat in the courtroom. Since they were doing me a favor, I would have to wait until the other people with appointments were taken care of. The female judge seemed reasonable enough. More than reasonable actually. Many of the other folks were there for shoplifting, and she let them off with the minimal fine, no jail time, and told them to attend a shoplifting class on Saturday. Shoplifting class. That's a new one . Other people were there for DWI's and driving without a license. They too got off easily. I was the only jaywalker.

Finally, after about two hours my turned came, and I went up to the bench. "I can see you're here for jaywalking. What happened?"

I explained that I crossed diagonally between two consignment shops and there was no traffic. I added that I didn't think jaywalking was even a crime in New York and was surprised that it was here.

"Yes it is a crime. In fact, I have to talk to the prosecuting attorney. Some jaywalking offenses require jail time. Please have a seat."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Shoplifters let off by taking a class, but I might have to go to jail for jaywalking. After another 20 minutes the prosecutor finally arrived, and after consulting with him, the judge called me back to the bench.

"Well, Mr. Shapiro, since this is a first offense, there is no jail time required. You're lucky. I will fine you the required $25 dollars and then an additional $58 dollars for court time. Any questions?"

"No," I said, by now just desperate to get out of there. I noted to myself, however, that the shoplifters were somehow not required to pay for court time. Just jaywalkers it seems.

"See the clerk over there."

I went over to the clerk who had to fill out the paper work. I said, in sotto voce, "You know, it would have saved a lot of time if you just gave me a ticket which I could have mailed in."

"Oh, we don't do that here in New Mexico. And we take jaywalking very seriously. You could have gone to jail. Just the other day two homeless people were killed crossing the railroad track in the wrong place."

What the hell does that have to do with me I thought, but knew enough not to say a word.

"Go over there to the cashier to pay."

With that, I did so, and they took credit cards. I felt lucky to have escaped with me life.

New Mexico can certainly be a strange place.

A short time later, we closed on the condo and moved in for a few days, postponing our trip to Boulder to finish furnishing the place. In the end, the opera was not interested, though we did later rent it for the summer over TripAdvisor.

As a postscript, S. called me a while back to say that she too had been arrested on a minor traffic charge, talking on her cell phone, and then not pulling over immediately so she could get out of the middle of the road. She also had to go to court, where they acted as weird with her as they did with me, so the whole thing had nothing to do with being from out of state. Being the lovely law abiding person that she is, she was as shaken up as I was.

I am hoping to avoid the police on our next trip out. Jaywalking may be illegal, but it seems, at least in Santa Fe, that an ounce or less of weed for personal use is not. And shoplifting, barely a slap on the wrist.

Yes indeedy, in New Mexico you're not in Kansas anymore.

Road to nowhere in New Mexico. Traffic not a problem.
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:06 Archived in USA Tagged mountains photography living_abroad cities_postcards Comments (0)

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)

Mt. Aetna and Siracusa (Sicily)

To get to Sicily we took the ferry to Messina, which was quick and easy.

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Then we drove on to Nicolosi, near the slopes of slopes of Mt. Aetna, which took hours in a driving rain. The main problem was that google maps didn't seem able to find its way on these crazy Italian roads, where there are more roundabouts than you can shake a stick at. The major roads are fine, but as soon as you get off of them, the GPS gets lost, and it doesn't help that the name of the same road seems to change every few miles. At any rate, it was cold and damp when we arrived, and so we left a day early and drove to Siracusa.

We were lucky to get some nice views of the mountain, totally snow covered, as the weather cleared overnight.

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In the more distant view, you can see smoke rising from the top of this very active volcano
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Siracusa turned out to be a delightful city with a mostly restored old section, Ortigya, about a ten minute walk from our B&B. Ortigya is on a small island separated from the rest of the city by a causeway. We spent most of the day there just wandering its narrow alleys and piazzas, going to the papyrus museum, and later to a crazy puppet show, in Italian, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense even when we read the plot in English.

Houses and sea wall near papyrus museum
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Siracusa has a long history of several thousand years. The Greeks occupied the place for quite some time around 1000 BC to 2 or 300 BC. In fact there is still an ancient Greek amphitheater where aeschylus' plays are performed as they were during Greek times. Aeschylus lived here for a while, as did Archimedes. Siracusa was a major maritime power and Greek city/state. Eventually it was taken over by the Romans, and then the Arabs, and finally the Normans who came in around 1000 AD.

The Duomo, the towns most famous cathedral, is built on top of the columns of the Temple of Apollo, which dates to 600BC. The old columns of the temple are still quite visible, and the building is, in a word, magnificent, both inside and out.

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Side view with columns still visible on the outside
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Inside the building
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Inside of dome,
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Not quite Michelangelo, but almost
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Our B and B, Siracusa, is newly opened by two very friendly women, one of whom speaks some English. We spent some time talking with them at breakfast and soon they felt like good friends. We are very happy to be staying here, and they invited us back for breakfast on our return trip to Rome in a week or so. Nanette even arranged for an inter-cambio over skype with one of the women.

Nanette with our hostess' showing off breakfast pie
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Posted by jonshapiro 06:31 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains buildings cities_postcards Comments (1)

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)

Hot Springs Excursion with the Boys

Several of the older boys asked me if I wanted to visit some hot springs, a couple of kilometers up the road in another small Hindu village, Atholi.

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I jumped at the chance, and they came and got me at Tashi’s house on their only day off, Sunday. It was a bit further than they said, perhaps 4K, and then a long set of stairs to climb up to the village. When we arrived there was furious drumming going on, and as unbelievable as it seems, the sound of bagpipes. All of this was the beginning of a village wedding. Somehow the bagpipe has made its way here, another legacy of the British, or the Scots in this case. No kilts could be seen. We stayed for a while as the women danced. There were hot springs right on the main street that were big enough to climb in and bathe, after they had been enlarged from a stream flowing down the mountain. As per usual in India, they were dirty, and I was not tempted. Luckily, the boys knew of some other springs, less developed, further around the mountain, and so we made our way there. Though these were far from pristine, and not deep enough to actually soak, the warm waters made for a delightful shower. We all soaped up and took a wash, the best one I have had in two weeks. It was a picturesque spot, with a cold water stream rushing down the pine clad mountain 50 yards or so in front of us. We spent some time drying out in the warm sun, and then went back by a different route through terraced fields, sheep and goats, before hitting the road. The views reminded me of the Andes. We stopped at a small dhaba, and there was a man there who spoke English well, and of course, knew Tashi.

On the way back, perhaps emboldened by our bathing together, the boys asked questions of me.

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Did I know this or that Indian movie star or cricket player.

"No."

"Justin Bieber?"

"Yes."

"Bruce Lee?"

"Yes."

Returning to Gulabgarh, I took them all out for lunch at their favorite restaurant for momos and chow mein. Quite a combo. It was, as is every place here, a very modest eatery.

I returned home to find that grandma had locked the door. Tsering was playing next door with her 5 and 6 year old cousins, but grandma was nowhere to be found. Luckily, Sonam, who lived nearby, and who had earlier invited me to lunch came to the rescue and invited me into his house. He offered me more to eat, and despite having just had lunch, I did not heave the heart to refuse. After a few hours grandma returned, and so did Puti, who had met Tashi in Kisthwar for a much needed visit to the dentist. Kisthwar, you may remember is 10 hours of hard driving, and in the morning, Tashi told me that when he left a few days ago, the road was completely blocked to Jammu. After waiting a few hours, he had to walk around the landslide to the other side of the road, where he was able to get a ride with someone who was returning to Jammu. It was still partially blocked on his return, which is why, he said, that there are few vegetables or fruit left in Gulabgarh. No way to transport them. We have also been without any water for washing or flushing the toilet for about 24 hours, the reasons for which are not entirely clear. Supposedly, there will be water tonight, but I’ll believe that when I see it

Puti left the next day to walk to her village, having heard that a relative had died. Her brother in law had died a few months back by falling off a trail in winter, but she was in Jammu when it happened. Now she will go back to mourn his death, as well as the death of this other relative.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:03 Archived in India Tagged mountains people postcards Comments (0)

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