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Craigieburn Forest Park/ Lake Pearson

After Mt Cook, our plan was to spend a few days at Arthur's Pass but the closer we got to top the more the weather deteriorated. The east side of the island is generally drier than the west and the pass marks the transition from one to the other. This was quite noticeable in terms of the vegetation which was considerably more lush and green the higher we climbed. We stopped in the ranger station to check about the weather in the coming days and indeed it looked to be rainy and very windy for the better part of the week. The east side appeared to be a much better bet, and so we drove back down and managed to find a fairly secluded spot near Lake Pearson. There were plenty of other campers on the lake shore, but further back far fewer. We spent a couple of nights there and hiked during the day.

Views from our camping spot near Lake Pearson
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Our first hike was a few hours up to Helicopter Hill. We started out in the forest and were almost run over by a group of kamikaze mountain bikers near this spot. The tell tale red marker denoting a mountain bike trail should have tipped us off.

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The 360 views from the top of the hill were superb.

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It was extremely windy cooking dinner that night, and because we were now in our Wicked Van there was no place to cook inside. We had to make due with a one pot butane stove which kept blowing out. Finally we managed to rig something up behind the tire of the van and managed to cook our lamb burgers. You have to make do with what equipment you have. As Bill would say, "It is what it is."

The next day was also clear and warm and we ended up, more or less inadvertently, hiking up to the Cheeseman Ski Field. Starting out in the forest, we came up to a steep and what felt like a road to nowhere.

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But rounding the bend here is what we saw

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The only lifts were poma style up some rather steep terrain. Falling off the lift, easy to do, would not be an option unless you want to slide down backwards several hundred feet. This was bare bones skiing where even getting up the road would be an adventure with snow and ice. There was nary a condo in sight

We sat on the floor of the porch outside the lodge and ate lunch. It was difficult to stand in the nearly gale force winds

Posted by jonshapiro 10:30 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes mountains postcards foot Comments (4)

Kerosene Creek

Our next stop was Rotorua, famous for its hot springs and geothermal activity. However on arrival, we found the whole area to be touristy and crowded, with many of the springs using their Maori history to attract the hordes. We were not interested, and figured that the hiking would be similar. And so, after asking a number of folks, we were directed to undeveloped Kerosene Creek. Though not exactly undiscovered, by the time we got there it was close to dusk and most of the soakers had left.

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Photo by Bill Wertz

The creek meandered through the forest creating small cascades over the rocks and pools of deliciously hot water, just deep enough for soaking. There were enough pools that privacy was usually assured. And yes, they did smell like sulpher, but that was a small price to pay. Although we were never sure whether the camping was strictly legal since the creek looked to be on a private logging road, nevertheless we decided to spend the night, and, as it turned out, the next as well. Nobody chased us out, and there were a few unmarked trails that went off into the forest so we spent the day exploring, in between long periods of hanging out in the creek. After several days on the road, it felt great to get squeeky clean. You know the feeling when the tips of your fingers get wrinkled after a long time in the bath. In this case, it was more that just our fingers. Even after two days it was hard to pull ourselves away.

It took Bill and I a while to get our sleeping and cooking routines down. I have been an insomniac for more years than I care to remember, but in many ways, Bill was an ideal sleeping partner. He would be out within 5 minutes of hitting the pillow, and my tossing and turning generally didn't bother him. Alright, after time went by he did insist on putting a long pillow between us so that I would not encroach on his side of the bed. Getting up in the middle of the night to pee was a somewhat arduous process as each of us had barely enough room to squeeze by one another. Often we would end up getting up at the same time. I know, more information than you needed to know. He was also in the habit of waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, but he was quiet enough not to wake me. Usually I would get up about 6:30 and sometimes he would have the water already heating for coffee. That went a long way in making up for his grouchy periods. I really can't complain, as I was very fussy about where we would camp. I never wanted to be right next to someone, and often we would drive a long distance just to find pristine spots. He was the designated driver and was always a good sport about going out of our way.

I hadn't given much thought about what sharing a very small van for six weeks would be like, but it sort of felt like a second marriage, minus the sex. And unlike a lot of second marriages, we are still good friends.

Posted by jonshapiro 16:07 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes people postcards Comments (4)

Trinidad, Cuba

Hostal Margaritas, Trinidad

Picture postcard cute, Trinidad is an almost fully intact colonial city of about 30,000. It feels a bit like San Cristobal de Las Casas in Mexico, with hills and cobblestone streets. Of course, that was close to 40 years ago. Plaza Mayor has been almost fully restored, and is the center of tourism in town, of which there are plenty. In seems almost everyone who comes to Cuba stops here, mostly Brits, French, Italians, Spaniards, and a smattering of Canadians. The are also plenty of Jinteros, touts, who seem more aggressive than elsewhere in Cuba. People are still friendly, but they are clearly a bit jaded with all the tourists around, and are quick to overcharge for agua and comida, especially around the plaza.

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Step away from the center of town however, and life proceeds in typical Cuban fashion, with buildings in need of major repair, horse carts and bicycles, tiny tiendas and mercados, etc.

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We have spent the last few days wandering around, sometimes with our friend Terry, and sometimes not. We have eaten a couple of tasty meals here at our Casa, and then last night, based on the advice of our casa's dueno, we found Restaurante San Jose. Excellent Cuban food at reasonable prices. We had to wait, but it was worth it.

One of the oldest churches in town, now just a shell
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On one of the days we took a short hike up one of the colima's (hills) on the edge of town. We walked up to the cell tower/radio station, and got into a lengthy chat with the caretaker. He took us to the roof of one of the buildings for a panoramic view of the city, sea on one side, mountains on the other. As a largely self-educated black man, he confirmed the presence of racismo here, and was not sure that even if the embargo is lifted entirely, that the common people would benefit. Of course, the hombres de negocios, businessmen, will profit, he said, but probably not guys like him. He had similar complaints about the government as most of the folks we have talked to, but again, it was even handed. He told us about the free medical care, education, food allotments, etc. that the government provides. We spoke with him for quite some time, and he let us know that most Cubans are very interested in reading, and line up for books at the library or when there are book fairs. Although a compesino, he was very well informed about what goes on in the world, more than you can say about his counterparts in the United States.

Yesterday we took the 2 CUC tourist bus out to the Ancon beach. Said to be the best beach on the Caribbean side of the island, it was nice, though not perfect for swimming because of the seagrass which started close to shore.But no matter, as it was too cold to swim, at least for us. There were several large and expensive hotels nearby, but we spent an enjoyable day lying on lounge chairs, in the shade of umbrellas made from palm leaves.

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After dinner, in my endless quest for rumba, we wandered up to Casa La Musica, which is an outdoor venue just off the plaza. not a casa at all, Although not strictly speaking rumba, which has been variously defined, it was a hopping place with a very good band, that had several congas and timbales, trumpet, singer, electric base and piano etc. We met a young Belgium couple there, intentionally, as we had run into them earlier in the day at the beach, and who we had previously met at Zunilda y Raya's place in Cienfuegos. It wasn't long before Nicholas and I were buying each other mojitos, with his girlfriend Caroline keeping up without any problem. Actually, they had a few rounds before we got there.

There were some incredible dancers in the crowd, almost all Cuban, who were moving in perfect sync to the music. It inspired me to consider taking lessons once again when we return to New York. It seems that Cubans know intuitively how to swivel their hips, and it is easy to believe, as the book I just finished reading about cuban music suggested, that Elvis had seen a Latin movie in the States, and copied his moves from the movie. There was one old guy there, probably in his 70's, who was dancing expertly with a few women less than half his age, and he had no trouble leading them around, twisting and turning them with his arms, sometimes more than one at a time. A placer para mis ojos. And then there were a couple of white folks, also our age, who knew how to dance to this afro-cuban stuff. Spaniards? Possibly.

After an hour or so, another group came on, all black this time, with even more drummers and singers, along with costumed dancers. They sang in a combination of Spanish and African, and although clearly done for tourists, they were damn good. I felt, really for the first time, that I was getting to hear some of the music that I was hoping for in Cuba, which until now has eluded me. It was a mixed crowd of locals and tourists with a very nice vibe. We stayed two hours before walking home. The music seems to start earlier here than in Habana, which is a good thing for us older folk, though I could have stayed even longer. Tomorrow it's back to Habana for a night before heading to Europe.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged churches buildings people postcards Comments (4)

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)

Rockfall and Conversations

One day at around 5 PM, there was a giant rockfall at one end of town, a few hundred yards from the house. It sounded a bit like thunder, but went on for several minutes, creating a large cloud of dust. At first I didn’t pay much attention to the noise, assuming that it was thunder, which we had earlier that day, but then I stuck my head out the window, and not seeing anything, I continued reading. When the sound continued, I went to the front of the house which faced the opposite direction. The dust cloud was still quite visible, though most of the rumbling had stopped by then. Above, the Gulabgarh-Manali road had been cut in half by tons of rock debris, and several cars were stranded on both sides, unable to move. Tashi and I, along with half the town it seemed, walked over to see the damage. A couple of shops and houses had been completely destroyed, and there were several truck sized boulders on the road leading out of town. Although not visible, I was told that one woman had been killed when she went back into her shop. We all milled about for a time, until a group of soldiers and policemen, some with machine guns, came running up and insisted we clear the area.

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Road being repaired after rockfall
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I returned to Tashi’s house to find him sitting around with several other relatives discussing what had happened. The drinking had already begun. Soon after, the rain began to fall in earnest, a real problem given the almost constant rainfall of the last two months. It was the first actual rain since my arrival, but although each day was clear in the morning, clouds usually appeared in mid-afternoon. No doubt all the rain was a factor in the rockfall. These young and intimidating mountains are still unstable. As they are pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates, they are simultaneously worn down by the forces of erosion and gravity. Despite man's obvious presence, we are still visitors here. We are not in charge in these mountains. Nature is, and life is tenuous. It always is of course, but here the feeling is palpable.

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Later in the evening more people showed up at Tashi's including a pony man from previous treks, as well as some villagers who had worked as porters. Ram was also there, a man of about Tashi’s age, mid to late 40’s, who is headmaster of a government school, some 15K up the road. Or rather, 15K, and then a 3-4 hour walk beyond the road. It is a Hindu village, though Ram is Buddhist. He is well educated, with a master’s degree from a college in Manali. Now that he is headmaster, after 12 years of teaching, he only has to be at the school about 15 days a month. The rest of the time, he lives in Gulabgarh, where he has a house and also owns a small restaurant which serves Chinese food. His English was quite good, although with a thick accent that got harder to understand as he continued drinking. Apparently he too has been on a couple of treks with Tashi during the summer months, first as a cook and then as a guide. He has two daughters and a wife who in live in Jammu. This way his children can attend school there.

As headmaster, he earns about 40,000 rupees per month, and then his little restaurant brings in another 10 to 15,000. At one point, he and Tashi got into a drunken discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of a government job vs. the private sector. According to Ram, in a good year Tashi can earn twice as much as he does in just a couple of summer months, but as Tashi pointed out, nothing is certain in the trekking business.

Once again they attempted to ply me with wheat hooch. Although they made it hard to refuse, I managed to avoid drinking more than a glass or two, as the stuff gave me a headache the night before.

Ram, more or less talked my ears off, even telling me about his French girlfriend who he met on a trek in the late 90’s, when he was young.

“She really wanted to get married,” he said, but he encouraged her to go back to France and think about it. After that, he never heard from her again.

He made a point of telling me that I would be welcome to stay at his house, or any house for that matter in Gulabgarh

He said that the Buddhist community really goes out of their way for a guest and a foreigner.

I have no reason to doubt it. I can certainly say that Tashi and Puti have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable, like an honored guest.

Ram also questioned me about life in America, and whether kids there are the same as kids here. Not an easy question to answer. Tsering, Tashi’s 8 year old daughter seems incredibly responsible. She understands a fair bit of English, but like so many kids here, is reluctant to speak it. Even so, she goes out of her way to take care of me, just like her parents, without being asked by them to do so. She does things like getting me an extra pillow to sit on the floor, getting my water bottle so I don’t have to get up, etc. I doubt whether too many 8 year olds in the states would just take it upon themselves to behave this way. On the other hand, perhaps Tsering is just a great kid. Unusual. She certainly is a great kid, but I suspect she is not unique in this way.

After a few hours of rambling conversation, Ram came right out and asked me what I thought about him, obviously wanting my approval, the approval of an American, and someone he considers his better.

As he put it, “USA people on top of the world.”

How else could I respond other than saying that he seemed like a good guy.

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

On a different night, Tashi and I sat around with his older brother, 55, here for a few days from Kabban. They were drinking local stuff, and I was drinking beer that Tashi had picked up for me from Jammu. Somehow we got started talking about Karma. Tashi believes in Karma, but only in his life time. He thinks that If you do good things you will reap the benefits of your hard work and diligence in this life. He does not believe that he was born in a poor family with nine other siblings because of bad Karma.

“What would you brother say about this,” I asked.

And then he translated.

The brother, not surprisingly, said he did think he had done something to cause his birth in such a poor family during a previous life, and added that I must have been a better person in a previous life to have been born in the US, and to have all the opportunities that I have had. He then looked at me, put his hand together, and bowed his head.

Tashi had previously told me that his brother’s children were also studying in Jammu. One was in engineering school and the other had passed the initial exam to go to medical school. And so I said, “If he believes in Karma in the way he described, then why is he sending his children to school?

Tashi translated this.

His brother said that sending his children to school is not the same and that their Karma is not the same as his.

This seemed somewhat contradictory to me. How could their Karma not be influenced by his, since they too were born under similar circumstances? I did not ask him to explain, as I suspect there was no rational explanation. I am sure that he would think my Karma was still better than that of his children.

Tashi and I continued to talk about the fact that there is no reason for his birth in poverty with few opportunities, and mine in America to a middle-class family. Just an accident and luck. He said that with hard work and a wider vision of what is possible, no matter where he was born he could make something of his life.

Amen to that.

He is clearly an example of this, especially in relation to his siblings.

He explained that one day, he and his younger brother went to a fortune teller.The fortune teller said that Tashi would be a kind of king, and that his older brothers and sisters would be beneath him, and more or less his servants. He didn’t believe this, but his brother who has more formal education than Tashi did believe it. Tashi’s beliefs have clearly evolved over the years, probably because of his western contacts.

He told me another story. There is a section of road somewhere between here and Jammu that has been the site of many accidents. The Hindu’s have built many temples there, thinking that if they did so God would protect them. More recently, a well trained engineer came to that location, and pointed out all the technical problems with the road in terms of the grade, width, sharpness of the curve etc. If these things were fixed, he said, there would be fewer deaths.

"So," Tashi continued, "it wasn’t the fault of God."

This was an obvious conclusion to me, but perhaps not to most people who live here. I didn’t ask whether the engineer’s recommendations were ever enacted by the J&K government, but I think I know the answer. Perhaps that's why people believe that God will somehow protect them. They know that can’t count on the government to fix things, so what else do they have?

The discussion continued about local politics. Apparently there are two contiguous districts in Kisthwar, each with its own district magistrate and administrator. One of them cares very much about the people, and in that district, the medical care you receive in the local hospital is free, and each person receives 20,000 rupees if they have a serious illness in order to help pay for their lost wages. In the other district there is no free care and no stipend.

I asked, “ Doesn’t this make people angry?”

“Yes, it would, but 90% don’t know. Of the other 10%, probably 8% are in the pocket of that district administrator, and that leaves 2%. What can you do with 2%? Nothing.”

It is not hard to believe that 90% are unaware. There are no newspapers here. No reliable internet. The only news is word of mouth. And yes, there is more access in Kisthwar, a fairly large city compared to Gulabgarh, but how many can afford it?

While these discussions were taking place we were all sitting on hard cushions, on a cold, concrete floor. Not that easy for me with my creaky, older bones, but they are used to it. For the first few hours there was no electricity, true for most nights, and the room was lit with a single candle. There has been no water for two days now, and the toilet and bathroom reek. I have been going to the school to shit for the past two mornings because somehow there is still running water there. As we talked, the smell of urine wafts through the room. At around 10, Tashi fired up the kerosene stove to heat up the remains of lunch, dried beans from last summer and potatoes mixed into a curry. There was also rice and chapatis left over from lunch.

Normally Puti cooks dinner, but she was not here. There was not that much food, but as usual Tashi gave me the biggest plate, his brother next, and took the smallest one for himself. They have consumed two bottles of local hooch, whereas I have managed one can of beer.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:18 Archived in India Tagged people postcards living_abroad Comments (0)

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