29 March 2009

Re-entry Is a Bitch

After about 28 hours of travel time, we got back home late Friday night, where I got many smooches from both David and Tuck. I had Saturday to recuperate and am back on at work this afternoon - far too early, really, but the bills must continue to get paid.

At any rate, my mother and I had one final day in Delhi to do a last little bit of gift shopping and veg out before we left. I also got myself a haircut - complete with a full-on scalp massage - for a whopping R60/ ($1.20 US). Then we caught a 2AM flight to Zürich, where we had an 11-hour layover and nothing to keep us from hopping on the train into the city to see some of the sights.

There will be more photos of Zürich, too, but I just wanted to share a couple of photos before I toddle off to bed and try to get back on my regularly crazy schedule. First of all, this one is especially for Dave and Norma and really requires no explanation:


Of course, taking gratuitous butt shots of hunky Swiss cops wasn't my big reason for wanting to visit the city. What I really wanted was some of this:


Mine was made with goat cheese, and it was excellent.

22 March 2009

Shanghaied in India, or When Food Poisoning Is Your Friend

Holy crap! How did a whole week go by without me posting anything? Actually, that's a rhetorical question. I have been BIZ!EE! Um, and I was sort of kind of abducted, though more in an annoyingly frustrating way than a real sinister and scary kind of way, but I'll get to that in a bit.

After a relatively easy first few days trying to pull things together to start doing some spays and neuters, we got to a slightly slowish start on Monday. We did one neuter on an old dog who is usually hanging out around the lake, and I spayed this little cutie:


She looks very happy-go-lucky, but she took some serious drugs to get her through surgery - easily enough for a dog three times her size. Since she didn't have a name already, Nyondo started calling her Amy, after Amy Winehouse. Partly because we were worried about her and partly because she was so damned cute, we kept her with us for two nights just to make sure she was doing okay before she went back to the farm family who take care of her (They didn't have a name for her, either).

The next two days went quite well, not in small part because of the assistance I got from a young and very intelligent surgeon named Naresh that the district veterinary office sent over. Something like 99% of the veterinarians in this state are employed by the government, but Naresh's talent is, quite frankly, wasted at this level, and I tried to encourage him to look for postgraduate opportunities abroad. Here we are discussing something or other (Notice those styling new glasses I'm wearing? Got them in Delhi for about $81):


Anyway, about the whole abduction thing - remember back when I met with district officials and had to drink the water? Well, one of them decided that I needed to go to his hometown and do some surgeries there, as well. And it wasn't really given to me as an optional thing. We were hopeful when said official didn't show up for the three days we were doing surgeries here, but on Thursday morning we got a call that he was coming to town to kidnap take us to his town, which although larger than Riwalsar, is considerably more off the beaten path and not someplace that westerners really go.

Nonetheless, Nyondo accompanied me to act as both interpreter and advocate to make sure my abduction wasn't permanent, I did a few surgeries and determined that the veterinarian at that office had no desire to change how he did anything (which was scary, to say the least), and then we were put up for the night in a government rest house. After being dragged back down into town by one of the lackeys for an "impromptu" photo op with a local politician, whose degree of involvement in all of this was very unclear and who seemed quite pleasant.

The rest house, though designed to accommodate members of the government and their guests, was pretty typical Indian-style. The bed was basically a thin batting mattress on a plywood sheet with a thin sheet on top. Fortunately, I poked around in the closet and found a couple of thick wool blankets and comforters. And then, because it's been a point of interest on this trip, I took some photos of the bathroom. Here's the toilet:


See the wings on the sides? That's in case you prefer to use it squat-style, and is also the style of toilet Nyondo, et al., have here. See the toilet paper? No? It's that pitcher sitting on the little stool by the toilet. We're talking about serious Indian-style accommodations, and with no soap. At least the water was warm and there were towels, though we had to ask for those, and there was a bar of soap at the sink in the dining area, so that you could clean well before eating.

And this is the shower area:


Don't see the shower head? It's that bucket down on the floor. Oh and you say you'd like to see what's going on with the window?


Which is, apparently, why there was a big deadbolt on the bedroom side of the bathroom door. But at least there was hot water.

The next morning I woke up with a touch of apparent food poisoning. Not severe enough to make me really sick, but certainly enough to give us an excuse to book it out of town as quickly as we could, which meant around 11AM. After we got back, I had a nice hot shower, changed into a dhoti, and finally relaxed for a bit. This weekend has been all about monitoring the dogs who'd had surgery, more relaxing, and doing a bit of shopping before we leave.

Natural Phenomena

Not everything around here has been about political intrigue and dog surgeries. We've also been watching brush fires burn on one hill...


...or another...


...welcoming some much needed rain...


...and keeping the monkeys from coming in the apartment and wreaking havoc.



Of course, one of the great things about being in a place like this is the people you get to meet. There have been quite a number of them, but one of the most memorable has been a young Tibetan monk named Sonam. Nyondo and wives describe him as "clinically happy", and he seems to be infectiously so. He only managed to escape Tibet after at least one attempt in which he was caught by the Chinese, jailed, and tortured. In addition to that, he contracted polio at some point, which has left him with some leg deformity but certainly has not slowed him down much or done anything dampen his optimism. Here he is with the local Sikh guru looking at some photos of a hike the two of them recently took to one of the mountaintops.


Today when I went down into town to walk around and check on the dogs, I found him at a local cafe with Martin, an ex-pat from the Isle of Jersey, and a visiting Aussie (whose name I don't know). When I found them, Sonam was going through the "Groom Wanted" ads to make a prank phone call.


Cheeky monk! I'm not quite certain how Martin was managing to drink his tea without spewing it all over the place.

15 March 2009

Riwalsar, a Few Photos

I haven't posted too many photos of town yet, so I thought I'd share some I snapped yesterday. This is the Padmasambhava statue (Guru Rinpoche to the Tibetans) viewed from down in town. The corner of the pagoda structure that's in view to the right holds a smaller statue. We're staying up the hill in that cluster of houses behind the big statue, but you can't quite see it because of the pagoda.


To get down into town, we take a path that leads down past the base of the statue. Padmasambhava is sitting on a lotus on a platform that's held up by eight snow lions.



Every bit of work done on this statue has been done by hand. All of it - no laser-cut metal, no prefab parts, no cranes or bulldozers (or even a way to get them to the site if they were available). When they brought in a cement mixer to make the work a little easier, it had to be brought down the hill in pieces and reassembled. And work is continuing on prayer rooms inside the base of the statue and on outlying structures.

And one last, unrelated photo. This big boy wanders around town, and Nyondo tells us he's very fond of head skritches. So much so that once you start, you're pretty much committed to the job until he decides you're done. At this particular moment, he was deciding that a flower placed on the little altar looked like a tasty snack.


13 March 2009

मुझको पानी पीना था

That there title translates as "I had to drink the water". Which I did. Had no choice, actually. See, it goes like this:

I think I've mentioned that one of the things I've come here to do is to spay and neuter some of the local street dogs, which are fairly numerous. While some of the people around here actually do keep dogs as personal pets, most of the dogs just live from handouts or what garbage they can find on the street. In this little town it's actually a pretty decent life for most of them. They play with the local kids, get a fair bit of attention, and are generally quite friendly. But they also keep making babies, which becomes a bit of a public health problem as the population grows.

Anyway, with Nyondo working on things from this end, we managed to catch the attention of the area animal husbandry officials, who offered to help with some of our supply needs and who are providing us with some work space to do this. Of course, this required going over the mountains to Mandi, the district capital (think county seat), yesterday to meet with said officials. And at each meeting, we were brought glasses of water to drink. From tap.

Under the circumstances, it would have been a very impolite thing for me not to drink any. So while I didn't drain my glass at any point, I did drink enough to be polite. Which was a little bit worrisome, as I'd had some mild GI issues that morning, but as I said, I didn't feel I had a real option in the matter. Fortunately, the Pepto and the Chinese herbal pills Lena had given me seemed to work well, as I didn't suffer any further ill effects. And now I feel a little more comfortable with drinking the water, even though I plan to continue being somewhat careful.

Anyway, I don't really have any photos on hand of that, but I do have a couple of the town that I took from way up here on the hillside, just to give folks an idea of the view. This one is a poorly stitched together panorama (definitely click to embiggen):


And this is one I took of the right side of the lake from up on the roof yesterday evening:


I also took a few today that I need to upload, including some I hope to use to make a better stitched-together panorama, but now I need to go see if any assistance is needed in preparing dinner.

12 March 2009

Heading Down the Mountain

We got to Riwalsar from Delhi in record time yesterday, despite it being a big holiday. I got a quickie tour yesterday afternoon from Joy, Lena & Nyondo's housekeeper Chinta, who knows maybe half a dozen words of English. I know only slightly more Hindi.

Today, though, my mom put on one of her new salwar kameez, which she had made in Delhi, and after we convinced her that she would fit in beter and look less like a tourist in them, we headed down the mountain into town. It was a longish day of running around town and meeting some of the movers and shakers who are helping to make this little project of mine become a reality, so I was a little worried about how my mom would fare, since her knees aren't what they used to be. She held up quite well, though, and will hopefully sleep very well tonight.

Anyway, since we knew we'd be running errands and needed to get around a little, we held off on taking cameras down with us. Nyondo brought hers along, though, and got this one of my mom taking a break on a stoop with a little old Tibetan woman on the right and a Kinnauri woman who came along while I was down in one of the monasteries spinning prayer wheels. I found out afterwards that the Kinnauri woman was so taken by my mother that she had to feel her all over, just to check her out properly.

10 March 2009

The Road Most Traveled

The one thing my mother absolutely was determined to do while we're here in India was to visit the Taj Mahal. I'd heard not so great things about Agra, so it wasn't really that high on my priority list this time around. Still, being the Responsible Eldest Son, I wasn't about to let her go off on her own where she might get fleeced by a tout, pick-pocketed, or worse. And at the end of the day, the Taj is what it is for a good reason, and there was no good reason to pass up the opportunity. So, a driver was arranged for Monday morning and off we went.

As a former British colony, Indian drivers drive on the left side of the road. Except, of course, when they don't. Which is often. The rules of the road here are really more like suggestions, which a driver may or may not choose to follow, depending on how convenient they are at any given time. Or depending on whether or not there's a traffic cop with a big cane about to give your car a whack, which is generally less often than not. I decided that the stop signs should really have a question mark on them. It's especially fun at night, when functioning vehicle lights appear to be another one of those optional things.

On top of all this, add on the interventions of the Indian bureaucratic machine and fairly regular and exorbitant road tolls, plus throw in a few popular religious sites along the way, and it creates frequent instances of what in polite circles would be referred to as a clusterfuck. All topped off with a liberal, and literal, dusting of pollution and, well, dust.

What should theoretically have been a 2 to 3 hour trip took us nearly 4½ hours. In the end it was, though not for the faint of heart, well worth the effort. We decided to go first to Agra Fort, which is a huge complex built by the Mughal rulers and where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son and lived out his last days. There was quite the gauntlet of touts and beggars to run before we got into the relative sanctuary of the fort, but we were well-rewarded for the effort.

At one point, the whole crowd of tourists was swarmed by what appeared to be some sort of honeybee on steroids. I managed to escape unscathed, but my mother was stung three times and they continued to dog her everywhere else we went in the fort. Our only escape was to stick to darker areas, as they seemed to be drawn by her black camera and black pants, a color well known to trigger bee attacks. Staying in the shadows had the additional advantage of keeping us a bit cooler, though, and helped keep our pale northern skin from getting quite so fried.

Then after a nice lunch, we headed downriver to the Taj and yet another gauntlet of touts and beggars, this one even worse because of the greater distance visitors are required to walk to get inside. Still, we had gotten there in time for the best of the afternoon light, there was a nice, cool breeze coming off the river, and the world's greatest monument to love absolutely lived up to its reputation.

What I couldn't get photos of, and what I was most taken by, were the stone inlay flowers on the marble screen surrounding Mumtaz Mahal's tomb. The inlay around the exterior is beautiful, but these were beyond exquisite. The inlay was so intricate and detailed that the flowers may as well have been botanical illustrations, as if they had been painted with stone.

While the experience was absolutely worth it, by the end we were very ready to leave on the long ride back to Delhi. The traffic clusterfucks were far fewer and farther between on our return so we made good time, but it was still after 11PM by the time we got back to Likir House. We took just enough time to stretch out our knotted muscles a bit and take hot showers, but we fell into bed very soon and slept, exhausted but satisfied. Today we are spending a relaxed final day in Delhi before heading into the hills.

07 March 2009

Delhi, Days One and Two

note: This was written offline on Friday evening, then just updated now. Finally found wifi, thanks to Desiknitter!

We got to Delhi last night and got through our first day here without any problems. Or at least none that were critical. I suppose it could be premature of me to say this, but I think my prior travels have helped prepare me enough to avoid serious culture shock. Really, in a lot of respects, Delhi is very much like Lima – sprawling, noisy, polluted, dusty, etc. There's just twice as much of it here. In fact, coming in on the plane last night, you could see the city lights bouncing off the thick haze. My snot is coming out grey, and my throat is raw this evening, so that aspect I certainly won't miss when we leave the city.

Fortunately, the Tibetan-run guest house where we're staying, Likir House, is a little off the main thoroughfare, so the noise is a little bit dampened. Also, we're in an area of South Delhi that's not heavily trafficked by tourists, which means fewer touts and beggars, as well. And my time in Spain dealing with the gypsies taught me well the importance of not making eye contact with all the people yelling, “Sir! Sir! English?”

Of course, the big disadvantage of being in a less touristy area is that wifi hasn't made many inroads in this neighbourhood yet. We're just a short distance from a Starbucks wannabe chain store that typically does offer pay-as-you-go wifi, but the local one doesn't have it, nor did they know of anywhere nearby that does. And when we got cell phone SIM cards today to make calls on the cheap (srsly, about $0.48/min. to call the US), I figured for sure they could tell me where I might find a connection around here. No dice. So I'm typing this out in our room Friday night and planning to post it tomorrow afternoon when we go to Connaught Place to meet up with Desiknitter.

No Delhi Belly yet, either, but we are trying to be a bit careful about what we eat and there are several more days to go before we head north. Still, I figured this would be as good a time as any to share a few pics from the bathroom here in our room. Richard, this is especially for you.

We're actually relatively fortunate to be staying somewhere with Western-style toilets, since the traditional norm in these parts, as in many other parts of the world, is a squat toilet. Still, the septic systems around here aren't equipped to handle things like toilet paper. Hence the little wastebasket sitting next to the toilet.

For those who are accustomed to squat toilets and aren't part of the TP set, the room is also equipped with this:

How this is supposed to work is that the big bucket gets filled, and while you're squatting, you use your right hand to wield the pitcher while using the left to do the job toilet paper does as you pour water down your crack. A bit of a complicated operation to perform, and it's the reason that handling food with your left hand here is a serious faux pas. On the other hand, when one has the Delhi Belly, it's probably kinder to the hiney than constantly abrading it with TP.

The bucket also comes in handy, I've found, when your geyser decides to blow up. And when I say geyser (pronounced “geezer”), I'm talking about one of these:

This is where hot water comes from. Or sometimes not. It worked fine this morning, but when my mother went to turn it on in preparation for washing off the day's grime, the switch sparked and smoked and the little light on the geyser went out. Which, naturally, prompted her to flip the switch on and off several more times.

Hopefully it will get fixed tomorrow, but tonight it meant squatting in the shower and strategically soaping up and splashing water from the pitcher to get clean. I figured it'd be less of a shock to the system than standing in a cold shower. It does, however, make one tend to hurry up.

Oh, and one last thing before I go. Actually, it was one of the first things we noticed when we got to our room last night. Check out the bathroom tiles.

Gives cowboys and Indians a whole new meaning, doesn't it?

Day Two

Well, not much to report, really, except that we met up for coffee with Desiknitter. It was really nice to meet up finally after following each other's blogs for so long. We spent a bit of time getting to know our own section of the city better, too, and I took a couple photos sitting out on the porch of Likir House.

The guest house is located on a small square that's surrounded by apartment buildings. This is the power source for all the buildings:

They've also been doing some beautification in the area. Note that there's no paintbrush involved in this operation (the occupational hazards of which I'm trying not to think too much about):

And that'll have to do for now. We're about to go try to find the brand new Delhi Metro and head up into Old Delhi to see some of the sights there. I may even manage a photo or three!

03 March 2009

My Hero

So it's my last night at work before I leave for India. I've got homework I should be doing and planning lists I should be working on, but it's busy like it hasn't been for months. Because getting a foot of snow dumped on you is apparently a compelling reason to drive to the emergency clinic with your pet. Plus, of course, I got way too little sleep for fretting over getting up early to make sure I got to work on time.

Anyway, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but thanks to a certain birthday boy I made myself a hero when I had a few spare minutes. Naturally, I made him to look just like David.


Now I just need to get some Lycra and some giant bat wings and make that costume. Rrrowr!

And the song put me in mind of this video of a drag performance one of my friends (I don't remember which one, but one of them) linked to on Facebook the other day. They've disabled embedding, so you're just going to have to click over to see it. It's very much worth a watch, though.