Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Meditation or Medication?

Today is a very special day, which I'm sure I will remember a long time, as it's the day I'm checking myself into a Vipassana Meditation Centre so that I can whine about it later. There will be 10 days of waking up at 4 AM, sitting down until the back muscles give out and start complaining (that usually happens by the third day), no communication whatsoever with the people inside or the outside world, no technology, no books, no writing, and above all no smoking or using any type of intoxicants. Again! And, surprisingly, it's all done out of my own free will, this being the reason why I think I'd rather need some medication for having made this wonderful choice. So, I'll be sure to check in here after I escape from the centre. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

It's A Jungle Out There

There’s only one word you can hold high in a cartoon-like bubble above your head, just like you’d hold a big flaming torch in the darkest cave: awesome! This place is awesome! This should be used for the times you return from the speechless bewilderment when confronted with the scenery of Cherrapunjee. No wonder you stumble on every little pebble in your path: this isn’t a time to be looking at your feet; time well spent here is having your eyes wide open, looking over the plateau stretching all around, speckled with valleys so deep that the foaming rivers seem mere brush strokes somewhere far below. You can argue that the place is even more awe-inspiring when the rainy season strikes head-on and the plains turn to a surreal green full of the strangest creatures that walked the earth: butterflies the size of a large cabbage leaf, centipedes with Mohawks, and slugs that cause all your hairs to stand to attention. Anywhere you turn you can see waterfalls, big or small, but each as impressive as the next one. And you’d think that such a rainy place would have you clattering your teeth because of the cold but you’d be wrong. Well, mostly.

There’s the nasty little feeling when, waking up in the morning, after a good night’s sleep thanks to the humdrum sound of raindrops falling on the roof, and to the makeshift wind chime clatter coming from the television tower across the road… that’s when you get that unmistakable feeling that, in spite of all of Mother Nature's beauty, which you can observe all day long, you still need to use the toilet. Right this minute. And, as there’s only an outhouse 30m away, you sigh, give up the warm embrace of your bed, step outside and start running. And then you stop, return, hastily grab the umbrella and make a run for it again.

When you feel you have admired and awsome’d enough (which will probably never happen), you can tackle the 3500 steps down to the jungle strategically hidden in one of the valleys. The 1000m elevation difference allows for a new type of scenery to unfold magnificently, so that you don’t need to discard your bubble of awesomeness just yet: it’s a real jungle out there, where climbers and creepers rule even over the people, who seem to have vines instead of veins blending perfectly into the background. You’ll soon feel like a modern age Alice who has stepped into never-never land and will have the urge to have a pleasant conversation with everything surrounding you, flowers and insects alike. There’s no end to the hours you can spend watching the spiders spin their cobwebs and there’s no explanation as to why these creatures deliberately place their traps at a human head level, so that wherever you walk, adopting the same looking-everywhere-around-you-except-where-you-step pace, you’ll inevitably end up with strands of webs across your face.

And once you reach the root bridges, you’ll never want to see concrete again!



You’d think you’d get used to it. Or at least bear it head held high. If not, at least you’d be able to endure it with not more than a surrendering shrug, just like you’d accept a daily, painful shot that you know would make you feel better. But the Asian heat is still a treacherous, ruthless enemy that will make your skin prickle and your eyelids grow heavier. Your body takes twice the amount of time to get from point A to point B, and requires more rest than usual, so your energy level goes down quicker than a stone in a pond. And there’s no need to go to a remote desert in order to experience this; it’s enough to be somewhere in India. Almost anywhere…

Well, this time the heat attacked while we were in Guwahati, the biggest city in the North-Eastern states of India, a less visited area, but with a great many natural attractions, one of them possibly being this unreasonable weather. Talk about monsoon… hmm, must be wreaking havoc... somewhere else because it obviously never heard of this place.

One look at the map showed that the heat would at least interrupt its violent spasms in the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya, just a few hours away but – hopefully – at a higher altitude and, therefore, closer to some colder weather (if this logical statement seems flawed and doesn’t make any sense, it’s because it is and it doesn’t; but there’s more than one way to reassure myself of something and this one was the handiest one available for my overloaded brain).

And that’s how this new overcrowded jeep took us to Shillong. And the sunny weather suddenly changed, becoming a massive vertical sea, so much so that even when we stopped for lunch, no one wanted to get out in the heaving rain. That made it difficult to get out, as we were surrounded by reluctant Indians who didn’t want to get wet and who certainly didn’t even consider getting out, even just for a moment, so that we could sprint towards the sheltering roof of the restaurant.

Onwards then, with damp clothes and armpits raised, so that the jeep soon became too small a place to inhabit along 10 other people (11, if you count the kid stretched on his mother’s and my lap). When confronted with heavy rain, all the windows are closed shut and the air inside the vehicle becomes sparser, thinner, and with a slight tinge to it that can make the weaker ones wish they better had walked barefoot all the way to their destination. On burning coals.

Pretty, posh Shillong had a great vibe to it and we were quite excited to find a nice place to stay and explore the busy streets filled with tourists, underpants sellers and balloon inflators – yes, a nice variety of goods are sold on the streets of Shillong, the items listed above being the most common I’ve seen. Alas, Shillong cannot pride itself with a wide choice of affordable guest houses and, asking around, we were pointed towards another area of the city, on another hill, not really within walking distance, especially when burdened by an assortment of backpacks and bags (between the two of us, we were carrying 4 backpacks and a handbag; also, some bags with fruit and a bottle of water). We took the local bus to this new, unpronounceable area only to discover that we were pointed towards the top end of available accommodations, so we ended up going back to where we started some 3 hours earlier.

By night-time we settled for a lovely cockroach-infested matchbox-sized room somewhere in an underground crypt and we decided we’d better go for a nice, really long stroll, so that the time spend in the cellar would be as short as possible.

The main thing about irony is that it always strikes when you least expect it and in this case, it struck about 10 minutes after we filled in all the check-in papers: a mere 15m further down the street another subsurface hotel would have offered us a room with a smaller number of permanent inhabitants of the cockroach persuasion, a bigger surface (to accommodate the guests alongside the bugs), and at a better price. We ended up finding the local bar…

Monday, 25 August 2014

Sidekick Survival

As you can probably guess, my sidekick got sidetracked for a moment there and lost sight of its purpose in life. To be honest, it should take some time off and stay on the sideline for a while, but for the moment the Sri Lankan sun is shining brightly on its sides. More coming, just as soon as India is out of the way...

Drama At The NMCH

I was roving on the monastery tourist route in Sikkim state and felt happy to return to Gangtok for the evening, where I was looking forward to a nice chat with the wonderful staff at the New Modern Central Hotel, the last place on Earth where I thought I would meet the spawns of an ex-kingdom small as a tiny splinter in India’s finger, and of the promoters of equal rights between sexes. By 5PM I was back on Tibet Road where Sang – the lady owner of the hotel, some tourists and some cops were having a pretty intense conversation just outside the hotel doors. I decided to wait until all the commotion was over and hid in a conveniently placed store from where I could scrutinize the whole scene. But, as I tried hard to refine my hearing and my intuitive senses, they all disappeared together down Tibet Road, so all my attempts at private detectiving were abruptly terminated. So i waited at reception until Sang came back literally purple in the cheeks, panting and huffing. She sat down and proceeded to tell me what had happened (try to imagine this entire dialog taking place in an all but level tone of voice):

'So these 3 backpackers come, like, they ask for a room and I show them one and they, like, say they think about it and come back down and, like, they’re not really happy, so I send the boy upstairs to clean the room, right? And the boy comes back and takes them to see the room again, right? And they, like, ask for some clean sheets, you know? And I haven’t checked the rooms, ‘cause I don’t check them every day, you know? This is why I have a manager, like, you know? And I tell them I will personally change the sheets if they are not clean enough, right? So they go up the third time, right? And the boy walks up 4 flights of stairs and cleans the room and shows them everything, you know? And then come back and they say okay, they'll take the room. And, like, they sit here, smoking and filling in the forms and I tell them, you know, they need to get copy of the passport, the visa, the permit, you know? For one hour they sit here, right? And then they fill in everything and go upstairs, you know? And an hour later they come down and drop the key in front of me and they say they don't want to say. And I'm shocked, you know? Because I didn't know what happened, but okay, if they want to check out, fine. But I tell them that because they checked in already, they have to pay a little cancellation fee, you know, like 50-50-50 each. And even the room I gave them was really cheap, you know, like 500 a night. And the boy has to go up three times and clean the room and everything so that they are happy, right? So this fucking German – just one of them, right; the girl seemed already like she wanted to deal with everything nicely, right? This guy throws 20 rupees in my face, you know? So that's when I exploded, right? And, like, I started shouting, well not really shouting but I got very, very mad, and I told him to take his fucking 20 rupees and don't throw them like that. What, does he think we're animals or what? I also travelled, I've been to Bruxelles for 6 months and where does he think he is? In Europe hotels would charge all the money for something like that, you know? And this German guy tells me to show him on the internet the law that says they have to pay. But what does he think? I don't have internet on my phone and c'mon, 50 rupees each is not that much... So they want to go away so I tell them to wait and I'll call the pulice, like. And the pulicemen come and I explain everything and they think I'm crazy, right? You know, everybody in the city knows who I am. You know, this hotel was a wedding present from my parents, you know? And my husband is very well known in the city… You walked around MG Marg, right?’

‘Did you see that gate with the dragons? Well, like, that was made by my father-in-law, right? He’s an artist, you know? Like my husband. And he did all the sculptures of dragons; anywhere you look for dragons in Gangtok, like, all were done by my father-in-law, you know? They call him Dragon Baba, you know? So these-these-these stupid tourists, you know? For 50 rupees I get this much trouble?! But it's not for the money, it's for the ethics, you know? What do they think? That because I live in India I'm stupid? But the pulice, you know? They're always on the side of the tourists so that we here in Sikkim state will make a good impression on the travellers, right? And they think I’m crazy, right? This crazy lady makes so much fuss for nothing… You know? But the old puliceman, you know, he understood what I said and told these travellers that they should pay something and just leave it like this, you know? At least for the boy’s effort for going up and down so many times and cleaning the room, right? But he left and the other one was on the backpackers’ side, like, he thinks I shouldn’t make, you know, so much blah-blah out of this, you know? And he told us to go to the pulice station but that German idiot, you know? He didn’t want to go… and he tells me to show him on my phone on the internet where the law says. I mean, you know, it’s common sense, right?'


‘Sometimes I think I should sell this place. You know, this is the last place in Tibet Road where backpackers can come. It’s the only cheap place left in the middle of the city. All the other hotels renovated and now they have TVs in every room, right? And their prices start at 2000 rupees, you know? Well, I really want to see those guys find something as cheap as this and believe me that I hope they have a terrible night tonight! Because they shouldn’t treat us like this. What do they think that we’re like cattle or something? But then we got to the pulice station and the German guy lied, you understand? He lied to the pulice, telling them that they didn’t check in, right? What does he think all those forms are for? I don’t do them to keep them, you know? I have to send them to the Tourism Office because we also have to pay taxes, right? Fucking tourists!’

And on she went. All my signs of alliance and coalition were acknowledged but could not calm her down. I offered a cigarette. She sent for some coffee. She talked some more and then retold the story on the phone… about 3 times. And only after a long unwinding time, thanks to some coffee, some beer, a joint and a couple of cigarettes did I have the courage to approach her again:

‘So, now that you feel better, what do you say, can I check in again?’

‘Hah, you know what? I’m in a good mood now so I’ll give you a better room…’

She called ‘the boy’ – a very sweet lad, who could win any contest involving dancing and/or re-inhaling the smoke rings he just blew out – and briefly instructed him to take me upstairs. My previous room had been 302 but now I went higher up in the hotel room hierarchy (and the hotel’s floors) and got to 505, a large room with a nice view towards the main road and some unique paintings:


Incidentally, this was also the room zee Germans had checked in and subsequently rejected.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


An unfulfilled request dangled over my head like a hatchet about to drop: when in Darjeeling, visit the monument of the great Körösi Csoma Sandor, a Transylvanian scholar, one of the first to ever research the vast domain of Tibetology and to bring to light Tibetan teachings of immense import, mainly by authoring the first Tibetan-English dictionary and grammar book. He died in Darjeeling following – what else? – fever from the Malaria he contracted during his travels in the Terai.

My pledge of sending photos from places my friends found particularly interesting sent me on a wild goose chase around this city perched high upon numerous hills, making any such endeavour a sort of heaving treasure hunt trek up and down the steep hills of Darjeeling.

In all honesty, Körösi Csoma Sandor was not much more than the tongue-twisting name of the street where my uncle resides and his fame was as familiar to me as the spatial positioning of quarks in mesons and baryons. But I had to do it, not only as a fulfilled wish to my friend, but also for the benefit of my own intellectual (and physical) development. This is what brought me in front of the tourist officer whom I casually asked about the Christian cemetery in town:         

‘Why you want to go there?’

‘Well, you see there’s this Romanian scholar who expired in Darjeeling and I want to visit his grave…’

‘What his name? He is famous?’

‘Well, his name is a tad complicated, Körösi Csoma Sandor. And yes, for my country he was quite famous. I don’t know if he was famous here as well…’

‘When he died?’

‘’Bout a hundred fifty years ago.’

‘I don’t know this name. Can you write it down?’

‘Hmm, no, so sorry. I don’t know. There’s a cemetery here [points to a place on the badly photocopied map] but the only famous person there is Alexander…’

‘Okay, I’ll check it out anyway. Thanks for the help.’

After this deep heart-to-heart I started walking downhill looking around for some nice gravestones where I imagined myself an astute archaeologist in search for some long-lost treasure. I mostly found tea plantations stretching as far as the eye can see, especially since the eye has some difficulty seeing past a thick blanket of low clouds in a city propped on the highest, steepest hills around, where for some reason the British decided that they should inspire the locals and force them to grow tea plants so that they – the British – would feel more at home. 2400m is Darjeeling’s mean altitude (pun intended), give or take 100m here and there, where nature was stubborn enough to erect yet another mound with a 70 degrees slope.

This being said, I walked on, dreading the way back as the city rose menacingly over my head. And that’s when I saw it: I stopped in the middle of the road, oblivious to the persistent stream of honking pouring from every jeep that passed me by; I stared, transfixed by the shiny 50cm letters that composed the message on the opposite wall; and I started laughing again. So hard in fact that my face turned redder than an overripe tomato and my cheeks started hurting:

As soon as he saw me (and probably a little confused by my overly joyful appearance), the caretaker of the cemetery shuffled closer and introduced me to the tomes of greetings and notes that had been left by faithful admirers of Alexander. He approached the matter by asking me if I was from Hungary and I was hurt by this blunt lack of knowledge of obscure east-European history. I remarked that Alex, as well as myself, came from Transylvania and withstood the urge of explaining the whole political and historical situation, which I myself am not entirely clear with. He said he knew all about it but still insisted on showing me all the Hungarian memos safely stored inside his notebooks and encouraged me to leave a meaningful, deep commendation about the great man, of course not failing to remind me that he was the one who took such good care of the monument and any financial acknowledgement of his efforts would be welcomed.     

That’s how Alexander turned out not to be the Great (although he will always be great in my heart – a 50cm high great etching, that is) as much as he turned out to be good old Sandor, the one I looked for and thus excavated, and, if still on that subject, the only famous person Darjeeling prides itself with.      

Let Go

And this isn’t just a metaphor.

An imaginary seam across the rich Asian landscape, a bridge and some signposts informed me that I had crossed the border to India. The hot plains didn’t feel any different: the Indian heat gave me the same queasy feeling as the one I had felt for so long in the Nepali Terrai; the people, sharing countenances and features that I love and admire reveal the same pearly-white toothy grin I’ve been welcomed with all over Nepal. And the sing-song Nepali and Newari languages have been replaced with the chirpy Hindi and other thousands of dialects between which I can’t tell any difference. After all, just like someone once told me, the common denominator of all the languages Nepal and India share is ‘ek’ – one; and it’s as good a start as any.

But the scorching plains revealed the dwellers’ character, that cunning sense of trying to pinch a little extra off the ignorant westerners, a skill employed discreetly at any purchase, regardless how small: the water bottle with its official price stamped on is sold to a westerner with at least a 50% service charge, the seller adopting a charming innocent smile that would reassure the customer.

I couldn’t handle it straight away so, after a first hot hour in India I hopped on a jeep to the hills. Darjeeling, I thought would be a good start for this new Indian odyssey: hills, clouds and tea would surely make me forget about that strange feeling I had, which could only be described as having a sense of loss leaving Nepal, feeling sad, missing it.

And that’s when I had to let go. Let go of old customs and the Nepali ways I had come to know, let go of those strange feelings of attachment to a place I only knew for a couple of months, let go of firm convictions. I would soon discover I could even let go of any handhold in the jeep and embrace the way of the mountains, swaying gently along my fellow passengers on this new jeep ride.

The mountain way is simple: get as many people inside a jeep as humanely possible and start negotiating the steep, narrow hairpin bends up the road, disregarding the fog and rain that is emblematic for this area and this season. A tiny thought crossed my mind once we started and I noticed that all the people inside the jeep were chanting little prayers to their respective gods and only later, once we hit the real mountain roads that would be better tackled on a cross bike, I realised that the prayers might have been welcomed by the gods. The steep road uphill got every heart pumping faster each time another car passed us and the driver slowed, viciously pressing the break and getting us to an abrupt stop, so that the other jeeps would have enough space to pass. But the main feeling I had while sitting in between a portly businessman who had a lot in common with a slightly deflated balloon, a small man with a big packet in his lap, and a quiet fellow plastered onto the window – the main feeling was that of being in the mosh pit at a rock concert, only without the tossing and turning: I tried really hard to take up as little space as possible, so I experimented with trying to make my shoulders touch each other while crossing my arms, so that I’d be somewhat closer to giving myself a nice, warm hug. And all the while I was hoping that someone would get off so we’d have a little bit more space or something that might be considered normal, man-sized space.

And finally, someone did get off… only to be replaced seconds later by someone else. But I did manage to get a better seat, mainly a nice place close to the window; a nice place where I would be pressed only from one side towards the dripping wet window, my body taking the shape of the door panel on one side, and the shape of a monk’s shoulder, elbow and shinbone on the other. 

Upon reaching Darjeeling, I soon discovered that I didn’t have all that much to let go of, seeing that the language spoken in this area locally known as Gorkhaland is Nepali and the people’s character is still the one I got used to in Nepal. Yeah, letting go is not that hard.

Front seat of a jeep, built for two, let's say two and a child in the middle...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Rainy Days

Well, it appears I've been lying low for the last couple of weeks, which is not even remotely true. And it appears that I've been stranded between countries for a long time, which can also prove to be completely wrong.

What happened in fact is that I've been internet-less for a long time and, even if there are millions of things to recount, blogging tends to be borderline impossible when there's no internet connection available and your personal computer decided to take an extended break just to spite you. Yup, that's right! My trusty sidekick (i.e. netbook) refuses to cooperate and is now blinking a sad little blue LED at me, all the while not doing anything else. 

The upside: the ex-wettest place on Earth - while being probably the wettest place on Earth right now - is indeed a lovely (rainy!) place.