Monthly Archives: May 2012

Ghoom Monastery, cremations, toy trains & Babas

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Rode a ‘Toy Train’ to Ghoom Monastery today …. this is a big deal here for Indian tourists … It is a very old, coal fired train from the 1800’s 🙂 Wherever the train stopped, people lined up snapping pictures! Historically a significant train … transported both people and tea crops in this mountainous region for well over a hundred years … I am becoming quite accustomed to being the only Anglo around in this rather remote part of India, although I am sure there must be more of me around. I just have not seen many if any …. There are however, many Indian tourists from all over the country, who come to the mountains this time of year to enjoy the cooler weather and the place is bustling … Hundreds of jeeps daily crowd these tiny mountain roads, loaded with people, bags piled high …. Normal 8 seater vehicles with 15 easily snuggled in … a common sight, are the many local men and women carrying very heavy loads on their backs, of all manner of goods … not hard to figure from where the Sherpa abilities stem …. apparently the Nepalese account for about 20 percent of the West Bengal population base …. These are hardy rugged mountain people, accustomed to lugging loads on steep paths and roads in high elevations!

Posting a picture of Sanjay (not my guide Sanjay) and his lady Tehmina. We have enjoyed each other’s company at all our meals at the Windamere … met at the airport in Bagdogra, chatted up a storm, not knowing we would end up at the same hotel in Darjeeling! … They are from Delhi, and Mumbai … Sanjay is a deep sea oil exploration engineer, Tehmina, a lawyer. She attended a boarding school in Darjeeling from ages 8 to 16 … forty years ago! The education system is apparently very good here, due, to the systems set up during the British colonist years which still stand today …. many parents, who can afford to do so, opt to send their children here for schooling. Tehmina’s parents would visit frequently, staying together at the Windamere … It is obviously a nostalgic journey for her. Only one nun from the school remains from her years here, but did remember her! Today she is meeting up with old school friends who still live in Darjeeling. Tehmina has such a beautiful accent, a most charming way of relaying a story, and both have such a great sense of humour, that I could listen to their stories all day and never tire! But on to the rest of my day …….

Sanjay, my guide and I met up at the Ghoom Monastery later in the day … there was a funeral blessing taking place in front of the monastery, body on a flower strewn platform of sorts, family standing around the body, friends sitting on bleachers alongside …. the cremation followed, set up behind the monastery … We waited in silent respect for the service to finish …. I opted out of watching the cremation itself, although Sanjay said I was welcome to watch if I wished …. an education in how Buddhism handles death, he said ….. Strange day.

As I got ready to head for dinner, heard lots of commotion outside my ‘cottage room’, unusual as this is a very very quiet spot in a very noisy Darjeeling!! …. walked into the restaurant a bit early (at that point, I was the sole guest in the restaurant), to find lots of security staff combing the place, tv cameras at the ready, excited expectant staff all waiting for the arrival of a special spiritual ‘Baba’ who would be staying at the Windamere for a month (this is a very small private hotel, probably chosen for it’s isolation and size) … I was briefly on camera, asked what country I am from and if I am a follower …. couldn’t quite admit I had never heard of the fellow ….. In typical white garb, not looking spiritual much, in my opinion, despite the long black hair and beard :), he came in for dinner with his troops, ate and left, all before Sanjay and Tehmina joined me …. No dawdling about … eat and run! ….. I quickly snapped a picture before anyone caught me, as I had been advised, no pictures allowed! Have I said before, that I am a natural born rule breaker?? Baba, apparently, will be hosting functions and healing sessions etc. at the hotel and elsewhere all month in Darjeeling. Yes, strange day indeed ….

Long day of travel tomorrow in West Bengal to Gangtok in Sikkim … Wondering what kind of roads we’ll find, especially given the recent rain 🙂

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Tanzing Norgay Day!

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Upon arrival in Darjeeling, checked into the chintz decorated Windamere, perched high above “main street”. This British colonial era hotel has been here for close to a hundred and fifty years …. the pictures, artwork, framed letters, some dating back to 1845, period piece furniture, all scattered throughout the hotel is like a walk through history. It is far from a typical hotel …. more of a series of rooms in a very large cottage …. very charming and very British, right down to afternoon tea served precisely at 4 pm! Tea, yes, that would be Darjeeling tea ….. delicious.

May 29, 1953 is probably not a date that automatically stands out to most of us from North America. It seems my first full day in Darjeeling coincides with “Tenzing Norgay Day”!! Still stumped?? He is rather a local hero in these parts! Sanjay my guide and I walked to the Himalayan Mountain Institute, where there was a celebration just breaking up beside the museum dedicated to Tenzing … Yes, that famous Sherpa who scaled Mount Everest with Sir Edmund!! ….. Although there is still doubt even within the climbing community here, that perhaps Mallory did indeed make it there first! Unless the infamous letter to his wife is found at the top, which is highly unlikely, the record will stand …….. Norgay and Hillary it is! A large statue of Tenzing Norgay stands proudly in front of the museum …. A monument at the foot, bears some of his ashes. The museum was fascinating … what a change from gear used 60 years ago to the plush supplies and insulated clothing, tents, sleeping bags, climbing supplies and boots of today!

Tenzing was born into the Sherpa community in Nepal, but eventually made his home in Darjeeling, hence the national hero status he enjoys here … Rightfully so ……. He became the head of Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, contributing much to Himalayan expeditions his whole life. Most of my pictures below are of his extended family, friends and many friends living here, dressed up for the day, celebrating all over town!I In the late afternoon, I walked over to a concert held in his honor … the festivities continued into the evening … thousands milling around …. the younger generation enjoyed posing in their celebratory clothing.

Darjeeling’s historical Raj splendor is still somewhat in evidence here, but it is the Tibetan, Nepali and Bengali character that makes up the ambiance of this area for the most part. Looking around at the population, I feel more like I could be in Tibet or Nepal, or what I imagine them to be 🙂

How cool to end up here for Tenzing Norgay Day …….

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Darjeeling …

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The road to Darjeeling, I am about to learn in short order, was basically a cart path at one time, that has been graveled and tarred in a few spots 🙂 but certainly not widened! After a two hour flight from Delhi, arrival at Bagdogra, I am met by Santosh, who advises that we will be on the road for at least three hours ….. At that point, I thought, well, 100 or so kms, why the 3 plus hours?? I rarely read my itineraries and sometimes I just should!! …. So, onward to Darjeeling, a town perched precariously on a hillside, deep in the foothills of the Himalayas … it is highly possible I would not be here in Darjeeling, had I known the road conditions, but glad I didn’t know …… there is my winging it theory at work, albeit, overtime …. After holding my breath for far too long, my knuckles white, strained and exhausted, I exhaled, let go, put my faith in God, and finally got into the amazing scenery surrounding me … I could not, would not, ask Santosh to stop for pictures, so have barely a picture to share of the most awe inspiring scenery I have yet been exposed to in India! …. Just a few shots of the road in places where it was undergoing repairs and Santosh was forced to slow down! When I realized Santosh turns to me in the back seat with each attempt at conversation, giving me his full attention, eyes off the road in the process …. a road of sidewalk proportions, consistently curving up a steep mountain!! ….. well, needless to say, I remained quiet for the duration of the 3 hour climb to Darjeeling!!

Darjeeling has been sitting in and out of misty clouds since my arrival, so no good pictures of the stunning scenery except through a haze …… Wish we could have stopped enroute yesterday but not on that “road” 🙂 …. If you use your imagination in one of my pictures, you can see the tip of Mt. Kanchendzonga, India’s highest peak at 28,169 feet …. On a clear day, it’s view dominates Darjeeling but alas, not in the cards for me as Darjeeling is normally under cloud cover this time of year ….. Will see, as I am here for a few days yet … Might be lucky …..

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Mangoes

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Now what was I saying about ‘Mango Season’ ?? I had a platter of the most delicious mangoes ever, delivered to my room just now …. All I did was mention to my waiter earlier in the evening, how much I loved the fruit!!! Voila ….

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Back in Delhi!

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A few days of lounging around the pool, a few swims, a massage or two, savoring the fine restaurants of this awesome hotel in the centre of New Delhi, The Taj, (rates on Expedia were fabulous this time of year so well worth booking!!) and I am ready to hit the next stage of exploring India …. A month here last year was far too short a time …. my visa ran out, otherwise I could easily have lost myself here for months! …. So I was thrilled when my friend Madeline suggested a yoga and meditation retreat in Rishikesh! ….. She had me at ‘India’, as I read her email 🙂 We meet up on the 6th so am off on my own to the foothills area of the Himalayas for a snoop around. Took a taxi to Khan Market area and India Gate today and yesterday … Noticed the trucks unloading boxes of mangoes … looks like I lucked in to the season! …. This country is so chaotic, crazy and colorful …. I love it! ….. only this time, instead of temps in the teens, they are now in the mid forties!! Provides, ummm, a rather organic workout for the olfactory system, as I walk along the streets ……..

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Pa Pa Romania … Hello Delhi

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Leaving behind another beautiful country I have fallen in love with … I must be the easiest traveller in the world to please 🙂

I will miss the rolling hills and hillocks of Wallachia, Transylvania, Bucovina, the agricultural flatlands of Moldavia, the lush heavily forested regions along the Carpathian Mountains, remote villages, historical medieval towns, mythological vampires …. Oh no, not vampires!! …… there never was a real Draculian vampire as Bram Stoker’s novel from the 1800’s suggests and that set so many imaginations on fire, but there is a bit of a touristic component to keeping the myth alive and well in Transylvania 🙂

There was, however, a blueblood Count Vlad Tepes, son of Dracul … Dracula literally means, son of Dracul, the dragon being their family crest and symbol. He lived in what is now one of Europe’s last remaining inhabited medieval towns, Sighisoara, during the 14th century and was well known as Vlad the Impaler. There is a museum and a restaurant set in his old family home in Sighisoara’s town square . Enjoyed a nice spot of tea there after walking the old cobblestone streets of the town and of course exploring the old fortified church on the hill! ….. The Count’s method of dealing with enemies and particularly, Turkish invaders, was to torture and impale them with stakes …. lovely man …. Brutal times, brutal punishments in Europe over the centuries …… man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds. So, hmm yes, no vampires, but there are many species of bats in Romania!!

The Romanian language (Latin base) is lovely to listen to ……. not at all harsh as are most Slavic languages in this part of Europe …….. sounds somewhere between Italian and Portuguese to my ears at any rate …. (the Romans were here at one point in history and I do note a similarity in features … Alex said it is a possibility that Romanians share bloodlines with the old Romans … not sure about that one, but it could be possible). The country is still behind most European countries economically, even though it has been in the EU for over five years. Alex jokes (sort of jokes …) that it is a contest on any given day, whether Romania or Bulgaria is at the bottom of the EU heap! Most live on incomes of between $500 – $1000 dollars a month … on average. Petrol is more expensive than in Canada although food, shelter, clothing are cheaper by far except in Bucharest! Still, it is hard to get ahead in this country with that kind of income disparity from the rest of Europe.

I must say, I did have my fill to some degree, of the many many many painted monasteries and old fortified towns and churches that Alex dragged me to 🙂 ……. All in all, I will still miss trekking up hills, in the pastoral settings of the villages and towns to these old fortified churches ….. They hold a lot of charm today but in reality, life was one violent siege after another in those far gone centuries, hence fortifications! My preference would have been to enjoy more visits with the townsfolk in these villages than view their temples of worship. Much as I enjoy history, and the structures attached to the stories, my preference is to mingle with the local folk in whatever country I find myself in. Fortunately, got a bit of that in as well. Aah, and the children ….. My sole reason for choosing Romania as a country to visit in the first place! I feel sad for their lot in life …. but happy that I was able to give them some love, comfort and sorely needed attention and that there is a steady stream of volunteers in their lives to do so. I have always believed that it is up to the able to help the least able in our world. I heard from Mihaela that another group of 7 are arriving soon. That kind of news can make my day.

Had a long travel day …. not always the best connections on these points tickets … Left Bucharest at 4:00 am May 24 and arrived in Delhi at 1:00 am. May 25!! So, here I am, in a totally different environment and culture yet again …. Posting my first picture in Delhi …. A view outside from my 7th floor window … on that note, I am off for a swim, an Indian head and foot massage and catch up on a lost night of sleep. Very hot here .. Temps in the low 40’s.

Sad news also as I opened a message from Mihaela in Birlad …. Apparently 6 month old Marian was returned back to St. Nicholas last week … His dad had taken him to Iasi for tests for ten days and also I suppose, to determine if he could handle caring for the child …. guess not. I often think that the one flaw God made, was allowing anyone and everyone the ability to procreate ….. Not everyone is a good parent, or in this case, a parent of any kind. Some people just f—, birth and abandon. I had high hopes that this little munchkin would have a home finally. I think of his little old man face, peering up at me from the crook of my arm, happy as a lark as he watched me with those old soul eyes. Little Marian, what’s to become of you? I hope some volunteer will take to him as I did, and give him comfort and love. For some, that is as good as life gets ……. Honoring the little dude today.

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La revedere to Alex Nagy and the back roads of Transylvania, Wallachia, Bucovina

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What a marvelous ride, Romania evolved into! It is unlikely I could have ‘planned’ a better finish to an amazing month! Alex Nagy was a great mate to have along as my guide to his mysterious country. Hard not to get a good glimpse of someone when you are together for so many days in a row …. we became, if not best buddies, at least friends and our goodbye was just a tad sad for me ….I will miss his passionate dialogue, his sense of humour (even though it is tinged slightly in what I have termed, the dark Romanian edge), his knowledge of just about everything …. one of those jack of all trades kind of guys …… A German/Hungarian ethnic background, dating back hundreds of years, creates a bit of that stubborn attitude, although must admit, Finnish folk aren’t exactly exempt from that prevailing attitude either 🙂 ……… but he is just so darn likeable, knows his history and politics so well, never mind everything to do with the wilderness and outdoors …. that it was easy to ignore the contentious stubbornness 🙂
I do notice that a serious stoic kind of contentiousness, appears to be somewhat of a Romanian characteristic! Smiles do not come easily to those 50 and up! I think that has everything to do with the communist regime the older generations have grown up under. Those 35 and under appear to have a more naturally cheerful disposition. A politically stressful life obviously makes living a carefree happy life hard to do. Alex shared much about life here after WW2 and I am still reeling from what Russia under Stalin, did in this part of Europe, right through to the early 1960’s!! Seven million Ukrainians alone, were murdered during and after the war … Never mind those deported to die in Siberia, including his own Russian countrymen, millions of them!! Romania lost almost all it’s intellectual and middle class due to Stalin and Hitler’s systemic murder of anyone they deemed inferior …. racism taken to extremes. One quiet evening, while staying in a medieval village, Alex showed me a documentary on his laptop, produced in 2008, of the atrocities during and after the wars. This country suffered deeply and in many ways, is still in transition from that period in history, never mind from the communist era. Unfortunately, most politicians in Romania today, are made up of leftover corrupt communists or the second generation raised by that first guard of communists ……. Living in North America, we come to know everything about the Jewish holocaust, but little about the other 20 million people killed during and after WW2. I need to sit with myself, reflect and absorb the month, the overall experience, what I have learned on so many fronts. Romania is a country steeped in many layers of history. Good thing I have a few days in Bucharest before flying to Delhi! This whole month, even though I had to preplan some of it …….. does reinforce a lifelong love of winging life, with minimal planning …. too many plans often equals too many expectations, and too much rigidity with little opportunity for spontaneous delights to present themselves …. intuition, a trusting hopeful heart, a positive flexible attitude …… they are my loyal guides …. still, there will always be bloops and bleeps, good and some not so good ….. part of the travel tapestry.

The children of Birlad ….. what can I say ….. My time was but a blip in an ever revolving door of strangers in the lives of Emanuela, Sami, Marian ( both little M and big M), Luca, Maiastra, Alina, Delia, Cleo, Lavinia, Ion …. but that same period of time has changed me irrevocably. I know friends and family wondered about my timing … that big 60th birthday would happen on foreign soil, far from my family and friends. A decade ago, at my 50th birthday party, I realized a tad late perhaps, that I am not overly fond of large parties in general, and in my honor, hardly at all! The surprise birthday dinner in Palm Springs this past February, was the size I am most comfortable with 🙂 and it ended up a beautiful evening, surrounded by those I love. I am thankful to Sarah, Margaret, Linda O., Mickey and Gordon for organizing the surprise and knowing me so well, being there for me! I love them dearly.

So, at some point in the last few months, despite my natural inclinations, I did have to resort to some organizing, albeit a bit on the last minute side, to accomplish my goal of starting a new decade doing something meaningful and helpful for the least able in our world. The fear that I would not have enough love to share, that I was not really who I thought I was deep in my heart, put that plan on ice for too long! I finally decided to stop dreaming, talking, planning, worrying about possible issues that might be a hindrance, and just do it! … and so I did! The abandoned children of St. Nicholas Pediatric Hospital in Birlad, Romania, unwittingly became my helpmates … so who really helped whom?? On a wing and a prayer, I continue along on this journey of the heart. That I once thought I would not have the capacity to love orphans, is a long gone memory. The well is endless.

“Every day holds a series of great possibilities. Today you can encourage someone, today you can make someone’s day brighter, today you can heal a broken heart.” Dr. Phil Nordin

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