Sophie Brinker

Joined September 2018
  • Day63

    Delhi and Home

    February 5 in India ⋅ 🌫 61 °F

    Hari drove us out of the mountains to Chandigarh. Turns out he was a better movie star than driver. Had a few uncomfortable moments.

    Chandigarh was nice. Designed by a Frenchman, it is India's 'new city'. Plenty of places to walk for the first time in India. Nice neighborhood parks built into each quadrant. Easy flowing traffic. Nancy spent the afternoon at the Rock Garden. It was pretty relaxing.

    Took an afternoon flight to Delhi which was more of a long layover for us. Quite a specifically Indian boarding procedure. See collage photo... Checked into the Bedbug hostel where the room was ok an the wifi password is byobug22. Took a few walks in the neighborhood and visited a bicycle shop to see if we could pull off buying and shipping an old roadster style bike home, but it got too complicated.

    Caught our flight at 3am and Don picked us up at SFO some 36 hours later.

    Wrapup reflections next entry...
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  • Day55

    Himachal Pradesh

    January 28 in India ⋅ ☀️ 48 °F

    We contracted with the driver who took us to the Wagah Border Closing to also drive us up into the foothills of the Himalayas. It was t hour trip from Amritsar to Dharamshala. McLeod Gang is a town just above where the Dalai Lama resides. The whole area is filled with Tibetan monks, nuns, and refugees from the Chinese religious purges. I picked the area because I wanted to get a glimpse of the Himalayas. I'd also heard there were some good walks and some seasonal birding.

    Our first day in the area we walked through McLeod Gang and visited the central temple. Signs along the entrance road depict those lost in the Chinese purges. One of those disappeared is described as the world's youngest political prisoner. In the early 1990s the Dalai Lama chose a successor in a young Tibetan boy. Within days the Chinese government had swept him off along with his whole family. Only the Chinese government knows of his whereabouts. The Chinese also chose a puppet Lama to take his place. The temple itself is a pretty simple place. A central temple with dormitories and buildings set on a knob at the end of a ridgeline. They are concrete structures without a lot of charm. There are bulletin boards with details about the Dalai Lama's next set of teachings. Bring water and warm clothes because the teachings last a while and it is pretty cold up there in the mornings.

    We stayed at a pension run by the Norbulinka Institute which is based on a local Tibetan temple grounds. It is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture and offers workshops in Tibetan art forms. Nancy spent two full days of embroidery working one on one with a nun from a monastery in the neighborhood. I took trips into town and spent a couple of days walking and birding. I also visited a Royal Enfield dealership where I was given hot chai and told about the latest models. The smaller 350cc bikes cost around $2k with a 500cc models going for around 3. We also spent day riding a small old British train up the Kangra valley. The views of the snowy mountains were great.

    The relaxed Tibetan culture represented a nice break from the nonstop business and intensity of India. Everyone up there is pretty chill. The food was a nice break too. We found Mothuk, their vegetable dumpling soup, to be the perfect way to warm ourselves up in the chilly climes.

    On one of my outings I met a driver named Hari. As soon as I got into his cab he handed me a postcard and said the he'd been in a Netflix movie filmed by a couple of Swedish documentarians. 'When Hari got Married' is a really good film about traditional culture shifts. We watched it the night before he drove us some six hours down out of the mountains. It felt like we knew him before we got in the car.
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  • Day51

    The Beating the Retreat Ceremony

    January 24 in Pakistan ⋅ ☀️ 61 °F

    The Beating the Retreat Ceremony at the Wagah, Pakistan/Atari, India Border.

    This one really deserves its own entry. It was so colorful and loud! We arrived about an hour before the start of the show after a short, half hour drive from Amritsar. We took our seats in the foreigner section right on the 50 yard line or midfield. I looked at my phone and Google fi was texting 'Welcome to Pakistan, your regular rates apply.' Obviously the location was a bit off as we were still on the Indian side. As we sat we watched a few individuals push carts and carry children through the road right in front of us. It was still operating as an active border until about 10 minutes before showtime.

    While we waited the stands on the India native side got more and more packed. Soon they started sending groups of students over to swell up our side. About 4pm a gentleman in uniform came out to MC and drum up the crowd. Nationalistic Bollywood music blared full blast for the next half an hour as women ran down from the stands to join a queue to carry the flag. The women took the flag and ran to about midfield before turning and running back to hand off to the next in line. Between the music and the women, and the MC yelling "Hindustan!!! One Day!!! Hindustan!!! One Day!!!, Hindustan!!! One Day!!!", it all got really raucous. Just as festive as a Bruce Springsteen or MAGA rally in the States. After they shut down the flag bearing event all of the women gathered in a cordoned area at midfield to dance to the latest tunes. It was really something and everyone was having a great old nationalistic time.

    Hindustan is the name of the region of the world that includes both Pakistan and India. It was never a true independent nation per se, even before the British Raj. It is still envisioned as a divided region by most Indian nationals. Hence the chant Hindustan!!! One Day!!! Personally I'm still trying to imagine what it might be like for Modi to be Prime Minister of a billion people, as is, let alone tacking on another half billion.

    By the time the main event happened it was almost denouement. Soldiers dressed in color guard uniforms from both sides marched and stomped and postured until the border flag was lowered and the border shut.

    Regardless it was quite a show. Our photos don't really do it justice. There are YouTube videos of the proceedings galore if I want to revisit the experience. In the meantime I did drag up an old Michael Palin travel show video on the event that explains things better than I can.

    https://youtu.be/n9y2qtaopbE

    Next it's off to Dharamasala in the foothills of the Himalayas for some Tibetan culture.
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  • Day50

    Amritsar

    January 23 in India ⋅ ☀️ 59 °F

    We flew to Amritsar. In Amritsar there's really only one place to visit, and that's the Hamandir Sahib or Golden Temple. It is the holy and cultural center of Sikhism and a profoundly beautiful place. Tranquility in architectural form. Entry is through four opposing gates representing a welcome to all people of faith from all directions.

    We first extended our knowledge of Sikhism in Gent when we visited a Gurdwara and met with a British expat who had lived for 6 years at the Golden Temple. A Gurdwara is any place where the Guru Granth Sahib or holy book is kept. Sikh's believe that the way to follow a good life is to:

    keep God in heart and mind at all times

    live honestly and work hard

    treat everyone equally

    be generous to the less fortunate

    and
    to serve others

    The temple history museum was another learning experience. Depictions of early and later martyrs. It also noted the attack on innocents by the British Raj Commander Dyer that led to the fall of British rule. It also depicted the storming of the temple by Indian troops in that killed over a thousand Sikhs, men, women, and children among them. A wall of names has been put up that one passes through when exiting the museum.

    In Amritsar we spent several nights in a really nice hotel and with really good breakfast and felt renewed. Granted, heading out into Amritsar still brought the intensity of India right back, but the hotel and our visits to the temple soothed.

    We realized why walking is such an impacting event here. The broken infrastructure, lack of sidewalks, use of property right up to the edge of the road, and tons of people, cows, dogs, and pigs make things difficult. There's also the constant blaring of horns and pounding of various metals. Plus, women in particular, don't walk if they can ride. It's just not done. We've received plenty of concerned (judgemental?) stares as we've visited cities in the north. Amritsar is particularly odd for us because looking cross or deeply serious is the natural way to be here. It's only after starting a chat that the smiles and glint of the eyes appears. Certainly not while walking through their day to day.

    Nancy though continues to astound. She headed out solo a few times to visit the temple while I was in respiratory recuperation from the Varanasi air. What a trooper.

    My highlight at the temple was joining the Langar, a simple vegetarian offering of a communal to 100,000 people every day. We sat with people with whom we shared no common language and still managed to have a pleasant and friendly dinner conversation. The best!

    As we left the temple that night we chanced upon some workers doing decorative inlay on marble. They were working by streetlight on pieces destined for repairing sites on the temple grounds. It was captivating watching them work and talking with them about the craft. They said that they were all from Agra had come to Amritsar for the work.

    Oh, and one more thing. We went to the border crossing between India and Pakistan to see the closing of the gates. But that's an entry on its own.
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  • Day47

    Varanasi

    January 20 in India ⋅ 🌙 57 °F

    Ok. Ok. Maybe an amp that goes to 11 isn't enough and India definitely doesn't need any more cowbell. We've been collecting startling, and awful, and utterly amazing experiences that make India an 11, or off the charts compared to anywhere else on the planet. I'll make an entry on that later, probably on the flight home. In the meantime suffice it to say that Varanasi blows the scale out of the water. India, in its whole depth of history experience is here. Most days it has made me want to hide in the hotel room, except our first hotel room was clearly decorated by men in the 50s and had just grown uglier and tatty with age. No respite there. So out into the streets and ghats we went. Nancy more than me. Remember that she has grown less risk averse in the past several years and I have grown less risk tolerant

    How can one apply a standard measure to a city that is likely the oldest continuously inhabited place on the planet. People have been praying, washing clothes, defecating, building temples, and burning their dead here since before recorded history. Probably over 7000 years. Older than Genesis. It makes me wonder if that is part of what makes a place identifiable as holy, the mere repetition of these common acts over time. Waking each morning to celebrate the coming of the sun and praying each evening to mark its passing. Bathing away one's sins and filth every morning in a body of water. Donning priestly garb and paint to repeat a piece of the story. Are there imprints that are beyond what we are able to directly witness through our senses and our tools? Elements that transcend time? There must be some reason that so many people point to this place and others like it and say, 'this is a holy place.' Either way, it is incredibly impacting. More so than anywhere else I've been in my almost 60 years.
    More photos:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/F4qSDXKH5XtA5Sgu6

    Pooja Ceremony video:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ro9evhCf78hrMrK76

    After two nights in the dreadful place we switched to a hotel right in the middle of things overlooking the Ganges with the ghats below. Really interesting and old place called the Palace on the Steps. It was worse for wear, but the owners were really trying and the staff was really friendly and attentive. We were given a room in a circular turret with wrap around windows that allowed us to look up and down the ghats from our bedside. There was also a cool light show that took place on the domed ceiling of the room. I could see Nancy's coming and going quite well from that vantage point.

    As in much of India there were scheduling snafus and disappointments during our stay. We requested Ubers only to have them cancel 10 minutes later. Nancy signed up for a photography walking tour on TripAdvisor that never showed. I arranged a car and driver to the 6 year mid Kumbh Mata gathering of some 60 million people. Driver showed up an hour after he said that he would and by the time we'd have arrived, the morning bathing would have been over. No problem. We took Tuk Tuks, Nancy arranged her own photo and boat tours, and there are enough itinerant priests in Varanasi due to its proximity to the Kumbh that it was quite enough.

    I think I've been able to gain some perspective here. Next we're off to Amritsar and the Golden Temple. We'll see if this somewhat new perspective sticks or shifts in a whole new direction.

    Either way, it will be interesting.
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  • Day44

    Udaipur

    January 17 in India ⋅ 🌙 57 °F

    Udaipur is a sprawling city set in a beautiful landscape. A series of ridges surround lovely lakes. It is considered to be the most romantic city in all of India. It's the site of numerous films, one of which was the Roger Moore as James Bond film Octopussy. It is also notorious as one of the places on the planet that middle-aged women go to experience another culture and let their hair down. We enjoyed our time here. Lovely sunsets and good food.

    Here's a link to a panoramic photo of the city. https://photos.app.goo.gl/BmyYQNENM7K6shw57

    We were able to take care of some business while we were here. Laundry, ATM, and a haircut. Nancy chatted with the proprietor while his son gave me a post haircut head massage.

    Later, as we were on one of our walks, we were commenting on how Sri Lanka and India are so similar in that it is hard to strike up a natural conversation that doesn't end in a pitch to visit a shop, or go to a cousin's restaurant, or see an art gallery, or get one's photo taken with a camel, or pay to have a prayer said by a priest, or be asked if we need a ride by a Tuk Tuk driver. In many places we've been in Rajasthan the barrage is almost constant. It has become another one of the things that we gird up for when leaving our hotel room; like seeing a person with a crippling malady begging, or copious amounts of trash, or incessant honking, or being cut off by pretty much anyone and everyone. Just as we'd reached the conclusion of our discussion, we walked by an older woman drying pappadam in the walkway of her home. She smiled and called out to us. Next thing we knew it we were being asked in for tea and biscuits. Her whole family joined us and we spent the better part of an hour talking politics, recipes, California, and family connections. It was great. India, if nothing else is a place of contradictions which shakes my convictions each time I come close to any sort of understanding.

    Here's a video from a wedding procession in the street below our hotel room this evening. https://photos.app.goo.gl/zb1gp6ext89FBzQw7

    Tomorrow we fly to Varanasi and some other new way of almost understanding...
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  • Day41

    Jodhpur

    January 14 in India ⋅ ☀️ 66 °F

    Jodhpur is sort of a strange city. It has an old center and sprawls for miles. The old center has a clock tower that is lit up at night. At one point the Maharaja of Jodhpur asked the citizens of his realm to paint the city blue. It is known as the Blue City, just as Jaipur is the Pink City, and Jaisalmer is the Gold City. Lately it was in the news as the place where an unknown to me famous actress named Priyanka Chopra married the unknown to me famous American singing guy named Nick Jonas.

    The fortress overlooking the city pretty much dominates the skyline. We walked up to the fort for a tour. It is surrounded by a natural area called the Desert Park. We felt right at home as it resembles the deserts in both and Baja California. From the turrets of the fort we saw a path leading back to the city. To get into the park requires jumping over a locked entrance gate. I was reluctant, but the no-longer-risk-averse Nancy was game, so I went along. See photo below...

    Next its on to Udaipur. The site of another recent famous wedding. This one between the heiress of the most wealthy man in India and a guy. It was attended by Beyoncé and Hillary and Bill. Nancy had previously filled me in on Hillary's fawning over the rich and famous which she'd gleaned from Hillary's autobiography titled, 'WTF Happened?'
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  • Day38

    Jaisalmer

    January 11 in India ⋅ ⛅ 73 °F

    We've spent the past few days in Jaisalmer, an old trading city at one of the ends of the Silk Road. Once thriving, it boasts a huge sandstone fortress built on a Bluff surrounded by the Thar desert. Many of its inhabitants were wealthy in the time before the Raj. They built beautiful homes called havelis with intricate detailing carved into the sandstone.

    On our first day we wandered from our Kaku guest house up to the fort. The place was filled with Indian tourists. One Jaisalmerian explained that they come to take camel safaris into the desert. They ride camels to base camps in the dunes that are set up with hot water, tents, and cots. "The Indian tourist is not like the European or American tourist, they need their niceties. The foreigners like roughing it a bit." Several Indians asked us to take selfies with them as we sat and people watched.

    Inside we happened on an artist painting meditaively in the doorway of his gallery. He works in a variety of media using antique paper, cotton, and camel bone. Beautiful and intricate work. His pieces take anywhere from a day to several months to complete. We returned on our last day to buy two pieces. One for Grace's 90th birthday in August and one for ourselves. Kamal Swami also holds a masters in sanskrit. The piece that we bought for Grace has a sanskrit border which translates, "A good life is like a lotus flower held in the hand until it opens. If one is giving, then happiness will come to them in the later years." The border on our piece is in Urdu. He said that he had a friend translate it to make sure that it "didn't anything stupid." He talked at length about his art and its purpose in his life. He shared that he'd once been summoned by an emissary of the Majaraja of Jaisalmer to one of the closed galleries in the palace to look at the artwork on the walls and ceilings. He was asked to do restoration of the work. He declined the invitation. "It is not how I work. It is not what I do. Each piece is its own once it is done." Several days later the Maharaja asked him to come to his country house at 10:30 in the morning. He arrived and was "seated on a nice sofa and given chai." "First it was 11 o'clock, then 11:30, then noon. Finally it was lunch time and I expressed my regrets and went home." Later I met the Maharaja at a charity event. He said, "You are the one I have invited twice and you didn't come. I shared what my father had told me; that the light from a lamp in a regular house gives the same light when the lamp is in the palace."

    Grace's piece is a very special work. He changed his approach to mimic the traditional mud wall painting of the Thar. The women mix dung and mud to build mud walled houses in the villages in the area. The color is very deep. They then make paints from crushed minerals in the area to decorate the homes and low frontage walls of the home. Kamal depicted a different setting from his usual work to set off the background. The rest will have to wait until Grace's 90th birthday, but the effect on the subject is lovely.

    Next we're on to Jodhpur. We've changed up the schedule a bit. After a couple of days, we're then off to Udaipur. A few days there and we fly to Varanasi where Nancy will spend lots of time exploring and taking photos while I relax in the Inn that we've booked overlooking the Ganges. Unless I decide to take a special side trip to witness and take part in Kumbh Mela, the greatest gathering of people in human history.

    Could be interesting.
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  • Day37

    Bikaner

    January 10 in India ⋅ ☀️ 68 °F

    Bikaner is a late comer among the cities in Rajasthan. It was founded when the heir to the Maharaja of Jodhpura decided that he wanted his own realm in 1488. He took over the barren lands to the north of Jodhpur called Jangladesh. It is now home to the most beautiful city palace fortress complex in all of Rajasthan.

    We spent our nights here at the posh Grand Maharaja Heritage Inn. A hotel based in one of the subsequent Maharajas palaces. Very nice place with soft beds, extensive grounds, and a good breakfast.

    We spent our days touring the city palace and wandering the streets and alleys of the old town. The City Palace was extensive. It is still in the hands of the latest Maharaja and his family and all of the items on display are on loan. At one point a guard asked us if we wanted to see something special. He led us to a gallery of colored Belgian Glass looking over the gardens.

    Entering the streets again required a rapid transition. Seems like rapid transitions and witnessing unexpected and startling things are hallmarks of our time here in India. The streets. Always chaos. Nancy demonstrates her Indian city walking skills here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/B1KxVPAxZnjXCayu5
    We walked through several market areas, one of which was known as the Kot Market, or cloth market. Here's a video of the place with sewing machines all lined up and taking business: https://photos.app.goo.gl/YGeJ2JYjobmLp8BK9

    Later today we catch the bus for a six hour ride to Jaisalmer. Rajasthan's oldest city.
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  • Day36

    Rat Temple and the Carion Dumping Site

    January 9 in India ⋅ ☀️ 66 °F

    As we entered Bikaner we asked our driver Mahendra to make two stops. The first was to visit Karni Mata. It is pretty beyond the pale so I'll let Wikipedia explain:

    Karni Mata Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Karni Mata at Deshnoke, 30 km from Bikaner, in Rajasthan, India. It is also known as the Temple of Rats. The temple is famous for the approximately 25,000 black rats that live, and are revered, in the temple. Wikipedia

    It is supposed to be lucky if one of the incarnated beings runs over your feet. We stayed about 20 minutes. We didn't end up being one of the lucky ones.
    Here is a video from the temple.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/7wYaKYGQKtnNNy3t8
    And another:
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/6e2mSCnT1h3q7A5c6

    Next we hit one of my India list items. One of the prime raptor birding sites in the world. The Bikaner Carcass Dumping Site. Needless to say the place is prime territory for carrion and raptors. The nearby Bikaner sewage settling ponds make it prime for all sorts of rare species as well. This site is also a winter migration site so we were there in prime time. We saw lots of Red-naped Ibis and Black Kites on the drive into the facility. Most of the 300 or so birds were in the air at the time of our visit. This may have been due to the arrival of a fresh cow carcass. Most prevalent were Egyptian Vultures and Eurasian Griffon. Among them were several Tawny Eagle, two Imperial Eagle, and the only remaining eagle native of to India, the Indian Spotted Eagle.
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