Monday, April 26, 2010

18. Chasing the weather

After 5 days enjoyable days in the backpacker scene in Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj & Bhagsu), I was rather itching to get back to the paragliding training before I’d forget everything I’d learnt, and before I’d lose my fitness. So I headed back to Bir on the Enfield. Before setting off I tried to buy insurance for the bike so I wouldn’t have to bribe the cops again, but I couldn’t because it was a Saturday. Fortunately the cops weren’t at the checkpoint though.

Back in Bir and paragliding was still banned for another 3 days, so we headed north again to Manali in the hope that the weather would soon clear there so that I could have my first high flight.

map of hp

Back to Manali

This time we borrowed a car and this time I drove most of the journey. Now although it’s only 235km from Bir to Manali, I haven’t really explained how much of a bitch of a drive it is. The entire journey is windy and the first half very potholed. Most of it is spent in 3rd gear. If a bus is coming the other way, you will have to go onto the dirt verge so that it can get past. At any point you could come around a corner and find anything in your lane, from a herd of goats, a cow, or a bus overtaking a truck and coming towards you. For this reason, Indians drive very shanti (slowly). If you drove at Indian villager pace the trip would probably take 7 or 8 hours. I drove faster than that (no one ever passed me), but it’s tiring because you have to be alert for all of the above, as well as the numerous potholes and rough patches. It’s a very active drive, constantly accelerating and decelerating and weaving between potholes. So the whole trip takes like 6 hours with a lunch break.

So back in Manali and unfortunately for the next 2 days the weather didn’t clear. On the 2nd day I got a couple of short practice flights at Solang but it was more of the same, we were still keen for me to have a high flight.

So back to Bir again

Bruce had some business to take care of in Manali and once that was done and with the weather not looking promising we yet again drove the 6 hours back to Bir, knowing that the paragliding ban in Bir would be lifted the next day.

I was running out of time on my trip too – I was due to fly out from Delhi in 3 more days, but I wanted to squeeze in a visit to the Taj Mahal too. Everything depended on the weather. If the weather cleared, I could have my first high paragliding flight, change my airline ticket to a couple of days later and get maybe 3 days of high paragliding in and then go back to NZ with a good 10 hours of flying time in my logbook (yes, I have to keep a paragliding logbook just like a pilot). Or even if the weather was shit, I could change my flight anyway and hope that it cleared and still maybe get one or two days paragliding in.

I decided fuck it – we’d given it our best possible shot, and if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be. I wouldn’t change my ticket unless the weather was clear the very next day, which was my last scheduled day in Bir. If God or the universe or whatever doesn’t want me to have my first high flight in India then so be it, it’s for a reason.

Unfortunately the weather didn’t clear the next day. At one point at about 1pm it looked promising, and Petie thought it would be worth a shot. But Bruce the local was like, well yeah, maybe if you’re on the takeoff right now ready to go, you’d get a short flight in. But it’ll take an hour for us to get up to the takeoff spot and by that time the weather could be doing anything. And he was right – within the hour a monsoon-like storm rolled in and raindrops the size of grapes were pouring down, along with pea-sized hailstones!

Back to Delhi

We’d tried booking me an air-conditioned bus back to Delhi for that night, but Bruce’s travel agent friend said don’t bother – it would cost us an extra 50 rupees (NZ$2) to book ahead, the only thing we needed to do was turn up at the bus station at 5:20pm to buy a ticket for the 5:30pm bus. And if we missed that one then there was another an hour later.

Well guess what. We arrived late at 5:32pm and the bus had already left. So then we had a hair raising drive to the next town to try and catch up with the bus there. When we arrived there we found out that the A/C bus had left at 5pm and that it was booked out well in advance. Awesome.

Crazy local bus rides

I’ve taken many many shit bus rides over the years. I’ve been squished into all sorts of seats, been surrounded by ducks or goats, had my hairy Western leg hairs tugged on by curious locals, ridden on top of trucks, over all sorts of twisty bumping roads, all throughout SE Asia and South America. Crazy local bus rides are part of what makes travelling fun, exciting and rewarding.

08-32 Matt rooftop riding
On top of a truck with bags of rice in Flores, Indonesia, 2002

My main rule of thumb though is to take my crazy local bus rides during the day. You get to see and smell the countryside and the local people en route. If it’s at night you miss all that, and it’s so uncomfortable that sleeping is difficult if not impossible.

Now since I’d just missed the only air-conditioned bus of the day, all of a sudden I was faced with taking a non-A/C bus 12 hours to Delhi overnight. Did I mention that the Delhi area has had the hottest April in 50 years, with temperatures over 40°C? A packed bus ride from the mountains into that sort of heat was not appealing. Especially since I’d dressed reasonably warmly as I’d been expecting A/C.

As it turned out though the heat wasn’t the main problem on the bus ride – with the windows down and at night it was reasonably cool. Far worse was the bumpy road and the local bus’ crap suspension. See, the big Volvo A/C buses have sweet suspension and you barely feel the bumps. The non-A/C buses have shit suspension and rattle and shake along every bump. And since I was getting on the bus at a later stop, the only available seats were at the rear of the bus where you feel the bumps even worse. In my seat I was literally bounced out of it with air time more than once. Sleep was of course impossible.

13-12 Matt on truck 
Nice sunglasses dude. On the back of a ute in Cambodia, 2002. I’m using the same backpack (with the same guitar inside) on this India trip

When we finally stopped for a dinner at 11pm, once I was out of the bus and on stable ground I literally had sea-legs and was wobbling around because I was so used to the constant shaking. Honestly, in all my years of travelling this was the most uncomfortable the worst bus ride I’d ever taken.

In Delhi again

Oh boy. You know you’re getting close to Delhi because the sickly sweet smell of sewer hits you about half an hour before arrival. I arrived at the Delhi bus station at 5:30am. The easy option would have been to catch another bus from the bus station to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), about 4 hours southward. But I hadn’t yet taken a train in India, and a train ride in India is an essential experience.

With all the paragliding I’d gotten used to lugging a backpack (with a paraglider and harness inside) up and down hills. But on arrival in Delhi with its heat and the smog, my backpack felt like it weighed about 40kg and I was having major trouble breathing. My chest was heaving but it felt like the air I was breathing contained no oxygen. I sucked on an old expired rarely used asthma inhaler that I have but it had little effect. Maybe cos it was nearly empty. In this state I had to haul myself to a nearby subway station, queue up to by a subway ticket, get patted down and my pockets emptied by security, get my bag X rayed, catch the subway from Kashmere Gate to New Delhi subway, walk over the overpass to the New Delhi Train Station, and head to the foreigners ticket booth. I got there at about 6:30am, a sweaty heaving mess. Oh, the foreigners ticket office doesn’t open until 8am. Sigh.

The only other foreigners around were a Russian couple who had arrived in India the previous day. They’d told me that a local had told them that the foreigner’s ticket office is closed today because it’s a holiday. I believed them for a minute and then thought better of it, the local would have told them that to try to sell them a fake or overpriced ticket.

It’s quite a scene. As you can imagine, the New Delhi train station is constantly crawling with people – mostly other Indians who are buying tickets or sitting/sleeping on the floor with their luggage waiting for their train. But a lot of the people are loiterers who will spin you any line of bullshit to get you to try and buy a ticket from a travel agency so that they get commission. And buying a ticket from the station is quite daunting because there are so many queues depending on your destination. There’s also many classes (first, 2nd, etc) and arcane rules around ticket availability and prices for foreigners. One guy told me to buy a ticket for Agra from ticket booth number 62. While I was queuing there another local guy approached me and told me that only Indians can buy tickets from that queue, and that foreigners have to buy them from the foreigner’s ticket office upstairs, but since it’s closed I had to go get an emergency ticket from the counter outside. I was dubious, but to lend credence to his story just as I got to the front of the line and it was my turn to buy my ticket the cashier put up his closed sign and walked away. So this guy leads me all the way across the road to what turns out to be a travel agent. I sit down inside for a second because I’m fucked. Hot, sweaty, short of breath. And not happy about being led all the way here.

What a fucking mission.

I catch my breath and decide to camp outside the foreigner’s ticket office until it opens because that’s the only place where I can get a straight answer.

I wait the hour and a half until the foreigner’s ticket office opens, and when it finally does it’s amazingly nice inside. Probably the only place in the station which has A/C, and there’s actual couches to sit on while we queue, and the staff are very helpful. An amazing contrast to the mayhem in the rest of the station. But the clerk tells me that due to some nonsensical typical Indian rule, he can only sell me a ticket for trains that are going to depart no sooner than 4 hours from now. In other words, since it’s now 8am he can sell me a ticket for the 1pm train to Agra but he can’t sell me a ticket for the 10:30am train. I wasn’t in too big of a hurry to get to Agra, I just wanted to see the sun set over the Taj Mahal today, and I would do a tour of it the next day. But he said I could buy a ticket by going back down to booth 62, to not listen to anybody, and to buy my ticket for train 1068 from there. “Don’t listen to anybody!” I queue up and once it’s my turn I have to fill out and sign a form, and finally I have my ticket for the 10:30am train.

When the train pulls into the station I have no idea where my carriage is. The train is fucking long too, and I walk all the way to the end of it, before finding a conductor who tells me my carriage is at the front of the train. So I weave my way back along the platform between the people disembarking and embarking, the food vendors, the machine-gun toting Army soldiers, the people blocking the platform with their bags, the woman screaming and chasing a bag snatcher which draws everyone’s attention, the people crossing the tracks in front of another approaching train, in the heat, sweating and heaving, getting asthmatic now, fuck I just want to get to my A/C sleeper and catch my breath.

Finally, finally, I squeeze my way through my carriage with my giant backpack and find my seat/bed and I want to cry. Some of the beds are reasonably sized but my one is up against the curve of the roof and is narrow and much too short for me, plus where am I going to put my bag, I just can’t catch my breath and the A/C’s not strong enough it’s still so hot and I’m panting like a dog and fuck I need some fresh air so I step back outside but outside there’s no breeze and it’s hot as an oven Christ so I throw my bag up onto one end of my tiny bunk and lie at the other end and try to chill the fuck out.

After about ten minutes I’ve finally caught my breath and can better assess the situation. This lack of oxygen thing is affecting my coping ability. I put my bag on the floor under another one of the beds, and one of my carriage mates offers to switch beds with me since my bed is too short for me, which was nice of him. Eventually the A/C feels effective and I’m able to breathe again and I actually get an hour or so of sleep, which was well overdue. A meal arrives which everyone eats cross-legged on their beds. At one point I go between carriages to see what it’s like without the A/C, and man, when you put your head out the window it’s like a massive hair-dryer is blowing you in the face, such is the heat.

We arrive in Agra and I get a rickshaw to a hotel, and get my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant of my hotel.

Taj Mahal - 01

Aaaah. That feels better.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

17. To the cricket

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

A cricket match in India… this should be exciting.

After bidding the Spanish speakers buenas noches, I headed down to another restaurant which was the last place open, and met up with some people I’d met earlier. We were soon joined by ten or so expats who didn’t look like part of the Indian backpacker trail. I asked them if they were going to the IPL cricket match the next day and they said they were covering it – it was part of the commentary and camera team.

We were the only other table in the restaurant and we soon joining in their discussions of India. One of the guys said they’d been to 25 cities in India and this was the first place they’d been able to see the stars at night cos of the haze/pollution.

We had quite a few laughs, the leader of the group was an English guy named Gavin and I think I recognised his voice from the cricket commentary. Another guy in the group was Pommie Mbangwa, and he was a crack up. His challenge at the last game was to slip “lemon meringue” into the commentary which he’d been able to do.

The IPL is quite a phenomenon. Take cricket-mad India. Rather than try and wean them off their cricket drug, let them go nuts and have a two month long cricket binge, with not one, but two Twenty20 matches every night, featuring the best local talent playing alongside some top international talent. It’s got to be great for young Indian cricketers. It seems like everyone wins – the players earn a shitload (it’s the 2nd highest-paid sports league after the NBA), the teams are all very profitable, and the cricket-mad Indian public get their cricket fix.

Anyway, so the next day I met up with a group of Australian guys and a local guy, Shami, who were keen to go to the cricket. Shami was organising us and although we already had tickets (650 rupees - NZ$20), our tickets didn’t have seat numbers so the first in would get the best seats. The game started at 8pm and Shami was adamant we’d have to leave at 3pm to get there early enough to get a good seat. I was doubtful – I knew it was a small stadium (capacity 21 000) so even if we were up the back we wouldn’t be far from the action. The commentary team had thought that arriving at 3pm was a great laugh since the gates don’t open until 5pm.

But Shami was the boss so we met up at 3pm. By the time everyone farted around we didn’t leave until 3:45pm and got to the ground at 4:30pm. As predicted, gates opened after 5pm so we had to queue up in the hot sun for a bit over half an hour, but the ridiculous thing was that the police would come along and make sure we were in single file. We’d be standing around in our group but then the police would come and we’d have to totally squish back into the line, chest to back and cock to ass with the guy in front. Of course it was all men too, and it was quite intimate. One of the Australian guys asked if anyone else was feeling “saustrophobic”.

Security at the ground was extremely tight. No drink bottles, food or electronic devices, which meant no cameras and no phones. An intimate pat down, empty pockets, through metal detectors, another pat down, over to the stand, another pat down, and we were in. Second row. Oh, and only 3 hours til the game starts.

The first shitter was that evidently you were allowed cameras and phones in but Shami had been told otherwise and made us leave ours at home. So none of us got photos of the game, unfortunately.

The ground itself was very picturesque – a huge view of the mountains is the backdrop. Again, no picture unfortunately. And that was about the only advantage of arriving as early as we did – we got to see the mountains in the background, because by the time the game started at 8pm it was too dark to see them, which was a shame for the TV audiences.

Here’s the best I could find on google:

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Before the game started about ten dudes were walking around carrying smoke machines – which evidently carried a really toxic smoke which killed mosquitoes and flies. It worked a treat but stunk pretty bad, but it didn’t help with the moths which were thick in the air.

The game was Australian-heavy Deccan Chargers vs. Punjab Kings XI. It was a home game for Punjab but I hadn’t heard of any of their players, and they are bottom of the IPL table, so I decided to cheer for the Australians and go for Deccan.

The atmosphere was good – but it wasn’t as crazy as I was expecting. Since we’re in India I was expecting madness – songs, threats, violence, similar to watching a football match in Argentina. But the truth is Himachal Pradesh isn’t really a cricket-mad state, the Dharamsala ground is relatively small, and the crowd didn’t really care who won, so long as a lot of sixes were hit.

It was good though – cheerleaders for both sides were scattered around the ground, and whenever a 6 was hit or a wicket was taken the corresponding team’s theme music would play, their American cheerleaders would dance, and actual fireworks would go off.

In the end Deccan won with 5 balls to spare, and the game finished around 11:30pm.

Update: well it seems the heavy security at the ground and the paragliding ban were justified, since a terrorist group let off multiple bombs at another IPL game in Bangalore only a day after the game I went to watch in Dharamsala. Scary.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

16. Around McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

After going to the waterfall I went out to dinner in McLeod Ganj with a couple of girls I’d met there, and then we met up with some more people I knew from my hotel. We headed back to the same restaurant I’d been to the previous night, and this second night yet more cricketers turned up. So once again a heavy-weaponed police presence, and once again a crowd of waiting Indians outside. This time it was Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Hershelle Gibbs and young Australian Mitch Marsh. They all play for IPL team Deccan Chargers. I met Mitch Marsh, who I’d never heard of until I’d seen him playing on TV a few nights before. He’s only 18 and he was a nice guy, he didn’t mind moving into the light so that my iPhone camera with no flash would work.

Dharamsala - 08 - Matt Mitch Marsh

One weird thing about McLeod Ganj is that all the hotels have curfews, after which time they lock the doors and you have to ring a buzzer to wake up the angry nightwatchman. I thought my hotel’s curfew was early at 12am, but the others had curfews of 10:30pm and 11pm. Lame!

I was treating myself to a relatively expensive room (1000 rupees - NZ$30), yet I wasn’t getting much for my money. The hot tap in the shower came out boiling hot, and the cold tap was still searingly hot - it was impossible to have a shower. So I’d have to fill a bucket with the hot water, wait for it to cool down, and then scoop it over myself.

The other sucky thing was that my hotel had a bunch of Indian tourists staying, and they would be up at 4:30am talking, watching TV, or clanging Hindu prayer bells to wake the spirits up.

To Bhagsu

So after the second day of only 4 hours sleep I decided to move further up the hill away and out of McLeod Ganj into Bhagsu. Bruce has an old friend who owns a hotel there. It’s only a 2km walk from McLeod and only 5 mins on the motorbike.

Bhagsu was pleasant – less busy than McLeod and much more chilled out – and no hotel curfews. Not that that made much difference, since the restaurants would stop serving beers around midnight anyway. The stinker though was that it was packed full of Israeli backpackers. I usually get on fine with them, but they’re hard to get to know because they’re always in groups of 6 or 7 and not interested in meeting anyone else.

The pewl

To my surprise, Bhagsu has a public swimming pool.  I was entertaining fantasies of lounging by the pool working on my tan, surrounded by girls in bikinis, when I remembered that I’m in India and the only bathers would be Indian men in their Jockey underwear. And since I didn’t have a swimsuit I would be in my boxer shorts too. Before leaving my hotel I had the foresight to change out of my white boxer shorts into black ones.

When I arrived I was surprised to see plenty of Indian women present – mothers and sisters were there poolside watching their fathers and brothers attempting to swim. So I felt a little weird sliding my jeans off and stripping down to my boxers right next to this attractive and married Indian woman.

I sat in the sun for a while taking in the scene. It was quite odd. Firstly, some dudes hadn’t given too much forethought into the colour of their underwear and were wearing white undies. Dude – white cotton gets a bit transparent when it’s wet, ya know? Secondly, Indians can’t swim at all. I watched some young dudes have swimming races by swimming the width of the pool, and their stroke was a very aggressive doggy-paddle.

There were also quite a few young Tibetans present, and after they’d stripped off their crimson monk robes, some of those guys could almost swim properly. The freestyle stroke was there but the breathing wasn’t. I’m a pretty crap swimmer myself but I would have outswam everyone there. I realise that’s only because in NZ we’re surrounded by water and much of our holidays are spent at lakes and beaches so everyone knows how to swim. Plus it’s taught at school.

Despite being crowded it was probably the cleanest pool I’ve ever swum in. The water is constantly topped up by a cold water spring, so it didn’t need chlorine or anything.

Here’s a picture of the scene I snapped when I went back for a second swim later in the afternoon:

Bhagsu - 02 - Pool

Fortunately for you there’s a few pairs of shorts and no white undies present.

Drummer boy

As I was walking back to my hotel, I walked past a sign saying music lessons – singing, tabla, Indian classical, djembe. Hmm, djembe, eh? I’ve had a djembe drum sitting at home since my SE Asia trip in 2003, which I’ve always wanted to learn how to play. I just never got around to finding a teacher. So I booked in for a lesson. Check out my teacher, how cool is this guy:

I did my first lesson but then the teacher was a bit reluctant cos he thought it wasn’t enough time, and that I should stick around longer. I was pushed for time though because I felt like I needed to get back to Bir or Manali to get back into the paragliding. So I did a 2nd hour with him that day and 2 more the next day. After 4 hours of teaching I could do a couple of beats. Here’s one:

That night at a restaurant I met a whole bunch of Spanish speakers. It was cool – there were Argentines, French, Canadians, Spanish, Italians and of course Kiwi, but we were all speaking Spanish. Normally amongst such a diverse mix of travellers the lingua franca would of course be English, so it was a refreshing change especially for the native Spanish speakers! My Spanish has gotten a little rusty but it was great fun, and reminded me of the Sunday asados in Argentina where we would sit around smoking and drinking and laughing, often at my crazy gringo stories. Pozzy, Juan, les extra├▒o.

Bhagsu - 04 - Wendy Beto Matt

Bhagsu - 05 - Matt Noe Vivian

Monday, April 19, 2010

15. Off to Dharamsala

Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven’t been able to paraglide for the last week due to crap weather in Manali and crap politics in Bir.

To recap: due to the IPL cricket matches being held in Dharamsala, the authorities banned all paragliding in Bir for ten days before the matches and two days after them. Obviously the paragliding community in Bir are well pissed off. As were a large group of Russian paragliders who arrived in town on a package tour and were planning on spending a week in Bir. Having flown for 2 days to get here, they turned around and went home.

OK, fair enough, ban paragliding if you have to, but not for 12 fucking days. 2 days before and 1 day after seems sensible enough. And next time, give us a couple of weeks notice that the ban will be in effect, not one day’s notice. Dumbasses.

On the road

Here’s a map so you get an idea of where I am.

map of india

map of hp

Wow, that’s actually the first time I’ve seen where I’ve been travelling on a map. I had no idea that we travel south such a long way to go between Bir and Manali. No wonder it takes 5 hours.

Anyway, on this journey I’m travelling northwest from Bir to Dharamsala. It’s only about 63km, but the roads are narrow, potholed and twisty so the trip takes about an hour and a half (that’s an average speed of 40km/h), or so I’ve been told.

Dharamsala - 11 - Enfield

Bribing the police

In my case the trip took a lot longer, because half an hour into my trip I was stopped at a police checkpoint. Although my license and registration were in order the insurance wasn’t.

The cop pulls out a huge form and starts filling it out. As we’re about halfway through the form he asks me: “So, do you want to settle this now?”. How much is it? “1000 rupees”. 1000 rupees? That’s a lot. That’s dinner for 4 people in a decent restaurant. Or one night in a better than average hotel (2 nights in an average hotel). More importantly, that’s ten times the normal bribe. And what happens if we do it the official way? “Well, the court will post a fine to your address in New Zealand and we’ll confiscate your license and <something I don’t understand>”. Fine, let’s do it the official way then. “Are you sure you don’t want to settle this now?”. Yes. “Are you SURE you don’t want to settle this now?”. Yes. “OK then”.

Dharamsala - 01 -

So the cop carried on filling out the large form (“What’s your father’s name?”) and while doing that I called Bruce and told him what was happening. He was surprised I was being asked for a 1000 rupee baksheesh (bribe), but that I should just pay it. I asked him why – I didn’t care if they posted a fine to my NZ address. He said cos they’d confiscate the bike if I don’t settle it now. Oh. That must have been the bit I didn’t understand.

So I go back to the cop and ask him how much the fine is. “1000 rupees”. I sigh and pull out my wad of cash and I’ve only got 750 rupees on me. He wouldn’t take it though. “1000 rupees”. Greedy fucker. I tell him I’ll have to call a friend in Bir to bring me the rest of the money. “Call him”.

Dharamsala - 02 -

I didn’t have to call anyone - I had more money in my pack, but my pack was well strapped to the bike and it would take me half an hour to take it off, get the money out and put it back on again. Sigh.

I gave him the 1000 rupees which he counted out and gave to another one of the cops, who put it straight into his wallet. Another cop came along and he pulled out his wallet again and gave the other cop half. Right in front of me. They wrote me a receipt and sent me on my way.

Dharamsala - 02b - Ticket censored

I tried to calm myself down by rationalising that it was only 1000 rupees (NZ$30) but I was still pissed off. Other drivers were only paying 100 rupees – I saw that happening. Another guy I know had no registration, no insurance and no helmet and got away with paying 500 rupees.

I was more pissed off with Bruce for having no insurance though. It meant I’d have to be on my toes for the rest of the trip and I’d probably have to pay the same bribe on the way back too.

In Dharamsala McLeod Ganj

Dharamsala was a lot bigger than I was expecting. It’s a large sprawling city at the base of a mountain. I was heading up the hill to the outer suburb of McLeod Ganj, which is the official residence of the Dalai Lama and home of the Tibetan government in exile. It’s also a popular traveller hangout.

Indeed, there were plenty of hotels and restaurants to choose from and lots of travellers around the place. It was a nice change to be meeting new people on my own for once – everyone else I’d previously met in India were Bruce’s friends.

Lots of people were in McLeod Ganj for a week or more – doing yoga classes, Buddhist classes, art classes, jewellery making, volunteering etc, or just escaping the summer heat and chillin’ in the mountains.

That first night I went to a nice restaurant for dinner, and a small group of famous cricketers came into the same restaurant. The only one I recognised was Australian Brett Lee. I got a “how are ya mate” from him but that was as close as I bothered to get. After all, they’re Australian cricketers and if they were in NZ I wouldn’t bother to talk to them, so I didn’t bother here either.

The police presence was heavy, and meanwhile a crowd of Indians was gathering outside hoping to catch a glimpse of the players eating dinner or leaving the restaurant.

Dharamsala - 04 -

Dharamsala - 03 -

Dalai Lama

The next morning I went and visited the main temple in town which is the residence of the Dalai Lama. He happened to be on his way back from yet another overseas junket so I got to see his motorcade enter the complex. The crowd had been waiting for at least an hour for him to arrive so I expected to hear them cheering and clapping when he finally arrived. Instead they barely waved and stood in near silence, but he was smiling and waving out the window.

Waterfall

Later that day I headed off to a nearby waterfall. It was a half hour motorbike ride up some really rough roads, so rough that I turned back twice to make sure I was going the right way. From the end of the road it was a half hour walk through the forest. It was nice – not that much of a waterfall, a river ran down a hill and every so often was a drop off and a pool of clear water.

Waterfall - 02

Since we’re in the mountains the water was icy cold. And since I was not planning on swimming in India I hadn’t bought any swimwear. I’d been trying to find some in town but its non-existent. Any locals I’d ask would say “Swimwear? Don’t worry about it, just swim in your underwear”.

Anyway, the water was so bone-chillingly cold that a quick in-out was all that was needed. Once out of the water I was good to lie on the rocks in the sun for about 2 hours, to defrost and heat up again.

Waterfall - 01

Waterfall - 06

Waterfall - 05 - Natasha Mimi

Waterfall - 09 - Monkey

Friday, April 16, 2010

14. So, how’s the paragliding going?

Dharamasala, Himachal Pradash, India

fb

The last time I mentioned the paragliding, I’d just gotten the hang of reverse launching from the top of Solang Nala in Manali. I posted a video of my second ever flight and received some good feedback on it from you guys. That was Lesson 6.

I spent 2 more days doing the same thing – walking to the top, launching off and flying down. I’d only do about 5 flights per day before I’d be stuffed from walking back up the hill, or before the wind direction would change (note: you must take off and land a paraglider into the wind). In the beginning Bruce was supervising my take offs by making sure my lines were untangled and then telling me what to do during launch (”hands up, left, etc”) but I was soon able to do it all by myself while Bruce watched from below.

Bruce was pleased with my progress and so was I. Other observers remarked that I was doing well too. I’ve got the hang of taking off so now the next step in my training is a longer flight, so that I have enough time and space to play with the paraglider in the air. For that I will take off from somewhere high, and Bruce will be at the landing site on the radio talking me down.

At Manali there are plenty of high flights, but at the moment the wind is strong so it’s a bit risky for a beginner like me. More advanced pilots and tandem pilots can fly though.

So we decided to head back to Bir, and that I would do 'my first high flight from Billing – yes Tim, “the big guy”. You might remember that Billing was where I did my tandem ride with Bruce, and that I found it a bit scary. But that’s cos it was quite a rough day, I would only takeoff from Billing if the conditions were just right, i.e late in the afternoon.

Terrorists

We were all set to head back to Bir so that I could do my first high flight, when we got word that paragliding was banned in Bir for ten days. Why? Terrorists. Apparently intelligence agencies received reports (months ago) that Al Qaeda terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taibar has bought a bunch of paragliders and there’s a possibility that they could use one to deliver a suicide bomber. Nearby Dharamsala is set to host two IPL cricket matches on April 16 and 18, and it’s possible to paraglide from Bir to Dharamsala. So as a precaution they banned all paragliding from Bir for ten days before the cricket! Just like that.

So with paragliding banned in Bir, and the strong Rotang wind blowing in Manali, there’s nowhere for a beginner like me to have my first high flight.

So for the last 6 days I’ve been playing a waiting game – either waiting for the wind to die down in Manali, or waiting for the cricket to finish in Dharamsala. It’s been nice though – Bruce lent me his motorbike and I’ve spent the last few days in Dharamsala hanging out with other backpackers. Tonight I’m going to watch the cricket here – Punjab Kings XI vs. Deccan Chargers, which you can apparently watch live for free on youtube. More on Dharamsala later…

Still, a 6 day break is a bit too long and I’m itching to get paragliding again before I lose my fitness and/or get rusty.

PS. Thanks for the feedback by email and on Facebook, that helps to keep me motivated to write this. Even better is if you post a comment here right below.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

13. Village life

Bir, Himachal Pradesh, India

A lot of locals and expats ask me what I think of India. I usually give the same boring answer – nice, beautiful etc. I’ve been trying to come up with a more meaningful answer. I keep thinking to myself “it’s not as Indian as I expected”.

As I sat mulling this thought on Bruce’s balcony, I looked out and saw the following, all at once:

Bir - 08
Woman doing her washing outside and hanging it on a tree

Bir - 09
Cowpats drying in the sun (which they burn for warmth)

Bir - 10 
Barley being harvested by hand with a sickle.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been in Bir or Manali, and in both cases I’ve stayed in local houses in small villages, so I’ve witnessed local village life. And village life in India is probably the same as village life in any developing country – living hand to mouth off the land. It’s fair to say that I haven’t seen “the real India” yet.

Here’s another example of the laborious methods they use around here – these people sit by the side of the road breaking rocks all day, with nothing but a hammer. They break the rocks into smaller stones to make concrete. No crushers here.

Manali - 16 - Breaking rocks

Every day I see labour being used instead of machinery, especially on building sites – the chain of workers tossing bricks to each other along a line, instead of employing one man and a wheelbarrow. The reason – labour is cheap. Still, it’s an economic tragedy. People shouldn’t be employed doing stupid tasks like breaking rocks. If they had a crusher those people could instead be doing something more productive – like planting crops.

12. Hey, whitey

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

Growing up in NZ I always had a few Indian and Asian classmates. Those that were born in NZ didn’t suffer much discrimination as far as I know, because to us they are Kiwis – they dressed, spoke and acted like the rest of us. So I’ve always been curious to see a white kid who grew up in say Japan or India. Well it’s taken me more than 30 years to find one but here he is, playing football with the locals, on the left. 
 Manali - 07 - Robbie football

This kid was born and raised in India to an English father and an Italian mother. He speaks English, Italian and Hindi. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to meet him yet, but I’d like to.

11. Living off the land

An interesting friend of Bruce’s I met was Simon, an English gent. He built his house near Manali around ten years ago. It’s a beautiful place with a productive veg garden, but the other interesting thing is that it is completely powered by his own hydro power plant off a creek at the rear of the property.

Manali - 23 - Pumphouse

At the bottom is Simon’s pumphouse. These ancient stone huts line many of the creeks in the region, and a community one can be seen in the background. Inside is a design that hasn’t changed for perhaps thousands of years:

Manali - 25 - Wheat grinder

It’s a wheat grinder. Wheat goes into the hopper at the top, the river turns the heavy stone wheel, and flour comes out the bottom. These are still in use by village folk today.

However, Simon’s pumphouse contains this: 
Manali - 24 - Generator

which is enough to power his home, and the excess power generated goes into an underfloor heating system.

10. Around the house

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

It’s been a great experience staying with Bhagtu and his family for a week.

A note on Indian furniture:

 Manali - 21 - Bhagtu's lounge
Watching IPL cricket in the lounge - mattresses

 Manali - 22 - Bhagtu's dining room
The dining room – mattresses on the floor again

I don’t know if mattresses on the floor is the norm or just the preference at Bhagtu’s.

The only small negative about staying at Bhagtu’s was dinner time – we’d have to wait until he got home from work before we’d have dinner, and sometimes that wouldn’t be until 9 or 9:30pm. Dinner was always the same – dhal (lentils) on rice. It’s nice, and it really fills you up, but it is a little repetitive. They love it though and eat it for dinner every day, year-round.

Indian beds

Indian beds can be summed up like so: rock hard, short (my feet touch the end), and wide enough for the whole family (cos they’re often two single beds pushed together). What’s quite gross is that when you check into a hotel they will only have a sheet on the mattress itself, and then no top sheet – only blankets. I don’t wear pyjamas and I don’t fancy an itchy woolly blanket on bare skin so I always have to ask for an extra sheet.

09. A note on weed

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

Cannabis grows wild almost everywhere in the north of India. Here’s some plants that just happened to be roadside.
Manali - 19 - Wild weed
Unfortunately for the would-be smoker, there’s so much of it around that the plants are quickly fertilised so not very potent.

The preferred manner of ingesting cannabis is in the form of charas. Charas is made by workers who rub the cannabis plants and then scrape the buildup of resin off the palms of their hands.

Charas has been smoked for thousands of years in India but it was made illegal in the 1980s. It’s still smoked in public though, but only on the low-key. A common local method for public smoking is to remove the tobacco from a cigarette and repack it laced with charas. If you see a group of young guys sitting around, one of them will likely be doing the telltale mixing motions in the palm of his hand. More traditional methods include smoking from a clay chillum pipe.

As for the effects, well it is effective, but it’s not as strong as plain old marijuana back home. And I assume it feels stronger here than it did at sea level, since we're now at altitude. Apparently the best charas comes from around here, Himachal Pradesh.

08. Hangin’ with the locals

Manali, India

So far on this trip I’ve been spending all my time hanging out with Bruce and his friends. He has a lot of local Indian friends and also a bunch of expat friends who’ve been living here for years. Most of his circle is connected with the paragliding scene. Many of the foreigners live in India doing nothing for half the year, and spend the other half of the year doing tandem paragliding for $$ (oops, €€) in Europe.

One afternoon we had a great impromptu drinking and smoking session at a local pizza place. Everyone is always very inviting and pleased to meet me, and if they’re a local almost every time they’ll start going on about how Bruce was the first to paraglide in the region and how he helped so many of them get started, either by teaching them or lending them an old paraglider to train with, or even just by doing it and they learnt from observation and copying him.

Manali - 13 - Matt Florian Vinay Bruce
Drunken afternoon at a pizza place. The quiet gangsta dude at the back with his sunglasses on was the Mayor

At the end of the session one of the dudes drove us home. “I always drive drunk”, he told us. I guess catching drunk drivers isn’t a priority for the local police.

More hangin’

Near Manali in the village of Vashisht are a bunch of natural hot springs, which Bhagtu offered to take me to one morning. The pools are emptied daily at 3am so the sooner you can get there the cleaner the water is. We arranged to get there at 7am.

Well, it wasn’t what I expected and out of respect for privacy I didn’t take any photos so you’ll have to make do with my description.

There was a separate men’s and women’s bath. It was quite small, only about ten metres square, and crammed inside were dozens of Indian men, all in their underwear. So I stripped down to my boxers and in I went. It was actually quite relaxing, and when an old grey-haired dreadlocked holy man came in for a dip and started chanting it was even more relaxing. It was quite a “this is India” experience.

Manali - 08 - Hot springs

Outside the hot baths, hot spring water flowed into the street and local village women gathered there to wash their clothes and dishes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

07. Look at me Ma, I’m flying!

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

As I write this I’ve finished my sixth day of paragliding training, 5 of them here in Manali.

I’ve been training at the Solang Nala ski-field just north of Manali. In winter time it’s a bit of a ski-field, with one beginner’s slope with a rope tow, and a brand new gondola to the top of the hill (currently under repair due to a freak avalanche). But the area around Manali is great for back country skiing, if you have the energy to walk to the top of the mountains.

A local showed me a photo on his cellphone of the ski field covered in snow just 2 months ago in February. However what greeted us in April was now a dustbowl of a landing area, and dozens of paragliders in the vicinity.

Manali - 03 - Solang paragliders

The grass slope in the background is the skifield – that’s all of it. The rope tow is just out of frame to the right.

When Bruce came here in 1988 he was the first ever to paraglide in the region. Back then Solang Nala in summertime was well-grassed, attracted a few tourists as a nice picnic lunch spot, there was a bit of horseback riding in the summer, but not too much tourist activity. Lots of Bollywood productions would shoot there with all the green grass and the snow-covered mountains in the background. Bruce always intended that Solang Nala would remain a paraglider pilot training area, and that actual tourist tandem flights would be taken from nearby mountains much higher. But from what I’ve been told, Indians always go for the cheaper option, so if you offer them a 500 rupee (NZ$15) 1 minute flight at the training ground, versus a 3000 rupee half hour flight from a nearby mountain, they’ll usually go for the 500 rupee option. So now at Solang Nala in the summer it’s still a pilot training ground but the majority of paragliders are tandems taking tourists for one-minute flights. Lame.

Manali - 02 - Solang zorbs

Check it out – Zorbs, an NZ invention. Bruce said he once contacted Zorb HQ in NZ about setting up here, and they had all sorts of requirements around space, tourist numbers, revenue, marketing budget, franchise fees, safety, yadda yadda, so he didn’t bother. Sooner or later a local copied the design of a Zorb, got a bunch made in Delhi, and set it up here himself. They still call it Zorbing, and of course he’s not paying Zorb HQ any franchising fees. Well well well, I just found out that Zorb-fakery is quite popular worldwide, and it looks like Zorb NZ didn’t invent the concept either but copied it from a Frenchman. OK, enough about Zorbs.

Lessons 2 and 3

The first couple of days I was mostly practicing ground handling, which is controlling the paraglider while you’re on the ground. The most dangerous part of paragliding is the takeoff and landing, cos that’s when you’re close to the ground and can get slammed, so having good ground handling skills is essential.

I also practiced my forward launches, and got short little hops of flight in.

Most of the time it went OK but I did have the occasional crash:


Run Forrest, run!

Man, I’ve never seen video of myself running before but the above looks pretty funny, with those fast little steps as I try to drive the paraglider up and generate enough speed to get off the ground. Go boy!

Anyway, in this case the paraglider started to deflate on one side so I should have pulled the brakes on the other to catch up with it. Lesson learned!

I also started to attempt the reverse launch, which is where you stand facing backwards and use the wind to get the paraglider above you. But that was frustrating as I couldn’t figure out which strings I needed to pull to correct the paraglider on the way up.

Lesson 4 and 5

I kept battling trying to get the reverse launch figured out, but was getting more and more frustrated. I’d get confused as to which brake line I needed to pull to straighten out the glider, and I kept getting rope burn on my fingers. Bruce suggested a variation on my grip with the A lines in one hand and the Ds in the other and that worked much better for me, so I finally got the hang of the reverse launch which was a victory.

Fitness

I tell you what, it’s a great cardio workout doing the sprint takeoffs, and then walking back up the hill carrying the paraglider. Especially when we’re at 2600m. Bruce likes to tell a story of the pasty English stoner he took on a week long paragliding course. By the end of the week the guy had a decent glow on, and was tanned and fit.

Man, if you had to lose some weight, a paragliding course in India would be the way to go – altitude training, cardio, plus diarrhoea thrown in for good measure (more on that in another post).

Patience

Learning to paraglide in the mountains is an exercise in patience. It’s a lot like learning to surf – first you’re battling the white wash trying to get out the back, then you’re lying there waiting and waiting for the right wave, finally it comes so you paddle and paddle and either miss it and have to turn around, or you catch the wave and barely stand up before falling off.

Here you’re battling walking to the top of the hill carrying your paraglider, unpack it and lay it out on the ground, check for line tangles, strap up your harness and then you’re standing there waiting and waiting for the right breeze. It needs to be a headwind, but not gusting too strong (8-15 km/h). If the conditions are good you won’t wait long but sometimes I’d be waiting 5 or 10 minutes. Finally the wind comes and you start to lift the paraglider over your head but then it twists to the side and crashes into the ground before you even get going. So you lay it out on the ground again, check for tangles again and wait for the right breeze.

On some days we’d only get about 3 hours in before the wind would get too strong and we’d have to call it a day. And on those short days I might only get a handful of launches in – frustrating. But on Day 6 it finally all came together – the wind conditions were good and we were able to get about 6 hours of training in before I was too tired and called it a day.

Lesson 6

With the reverse launch figured out and growing confidence in my ground handling I was able to make some reasonable flights by launching from the slope and getting a bit of air time. So it was time for me to step it up a level and fly from the top takeoff.

Here’s the view from near the top:

Manali - 14 - View from takeoff

and here we go:

Notice I start with the reverse launch, where I’m facing the glider and I use the wind to launch it, instead of doing the Run Forrest run thing I did on the forward launch.

It looks like I’m heading way out to the left over the rope tow and into the trees but I’m not, keep an eye on my shadow on the ground to know where I really am.

Altogether we did 4 takeoffs from the top and I practiced my turns in the air on the way down. Now I need to keep flying to get used to the feel of the glider in the air.

Update: Day 7 was shit, only half an hour of ground handling practice before the wind got too gusty and we called it off. Damn mountains. There’s something to be said for learning the basics near the beach with a constant sea breeze.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

06. To Manali

Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India

Bruce decided that I needed a bit more space to move than at the Dhelu training ground so we headed to Manali so that I could train at the Solang Nalu paragliding area. Petie rode in a chartered taxi with our luggage and the paragliders, while Bruce and I rode together on his Enfield 500.

The trip ended up taking 6 hours, with a couple of chai (tea) stops along the way.

We took the back roads there for parts of the trip, and the views were amazing.

To Manali - 01

To Manali - 03 - Bruce and Enfield

To Manali - 10

To Manali - 20

To Manali - 21 - Road workers
Female road workers

To Manali - 24

To Manali - 22 - Matt Bruce Anil

The Enfield is fun to ride – a big 500cc single cylinder, so it’s all about the power at low revs, not like the 4 cylinder 250cc I used to ride which redlined at about 19000 rpm. And because the Enfield is so heavy it handles the potholes reasonably well. Like many of the cars in India, the bike is based on 1950s technology yet it’s only a few years old. The design has barely evolved. Unlike most motorbikes the gearshift is on the right foot and the rear brake on the left, which takes some getting used to. It’s like trying to drive a car which has the clutch pedal and the brake pedal swapped – sure, you get the hang of it, but in an emergency you’ll probably instinctively stomp on the wrong pedal.

About the only traffic we’d come across on the back roads was the occasional sheep or goat herd:

Once we arrived in Manali we stayed with Bucktooth, an old friend and business partner of Bruce’s. Actually his name is Bhagtu but in hearing his name in conversation I’d thought it was Bucktooth. I also kept hearing about another friend of Bruce’s who I thought was called Knuckle. Turned out to be Nakul.

Bhagtu is in interesting guy. He’s only a couple of years older than me but he’s already got a number of businesses and has built his own house, something that is quite an accomplishment anywhere but especially here. He’s lived his whole life near Manali so whenever we take a trip into town to visit his adventure sporting goods store, the half hour trip takes double that because of all his stops along the way to chat to the locals. I commented that he knows a lot of people and he said that he always tries to be friendly to people and that he’s well respected around town because of that.

Luxury

Bhagtu’s house is sweet – located amongst picturesque apple trees (Manali is famous for its apples).

Manali - 01 - Bhagtu house

It has a hot shower, clothes washing machine, sit down toilet, and a fridge! Bruce’s bachelor pad in Bir had none of the above – no hot water, no fridge, no washing machine, communal squat toilet shared with the neighbours, and to bathe is quite a performance – fill a large 20L plastic bucket with water to the brim, then dangle an electric heating element in said bucket. After about 10 mins give it a stir, cos otherwise the water at the bottom would still be cold. After about 20 mins you’re good to go, so carry the bucket outside into the back yard and scoop water over yourself with a plastic scoop. Best to bathe in your underwear lest the neighbours see (there are no fences).

I got used to this bucket-scoop bathing system when I was in SE Asia a few years ago and it was fine there – the climate was hot enough that a splash of cold water was refreshing, and the water was tepid anyway. But up here in the mountains it’s quite a drag having to heat the water first, and it’s hard to feel hot when you’re wet and exposed to the cool mountain air.

Although Bhagtu’s house has all the mod-cons, it seems that old Indian habits die hard. His wife barely uses the fridge and it’s switched off at the wall. Likewise the electric hot water cylinder – it’s usually switched off at the wall so when you want a shower you need to switch it on 10 mins before. His wife still washes the dishes and some of the clothes outside in a large bucket and still gets hot water from a huge kettle on top of the wood-burning stove. Back home we think nothing of having hot water on tap 24/7.

But they have been perfect hosts and it only just occurred to me that while Bruce and Petie are in the guest room, I am sleeping in Bhagtu’s & his wife’s bed! They are bunking down with their daughter and the wife’s brother on mattresses in the living room. Bruce says they are used to that, and in winter they sleep on mattresses in the living room around the fireplace anyways, but I still feel stink about it. Of course I’d be happy to sleep in the living room but maybe they’d feel weirder having the foreigner sleeping amongst them.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

05. First lesson

Bir, India

Prior to taking our tandem flight, Bruce gave me my first paragliding lesson at Dhelu, an easy paragliding area about 20 mins taxi from Bir.

Delhu - 01 - Practice spot
Dhelu practice ground 

There’s a hell of a lot to learn. I think of a paraglider as being like a giant kite with dozens and dozens of strings. So first step after unpacking the chute is to make sure the strings aren’t tangled.

Delhu - 04 - Matt Bruce
Checking the brake lines 

The goal of my first lesson was to do a forward launch, which is what you do when there’s no wind – you need to run forward to generate enough wind to lift the paraglider above your head. Once it was up I’d just keep running and running down the hill, steering it slightly if need be, and occasionally taking little air-steps as I’d slightly lift off.

Delhu - 08 - Matt takeoff
Getting the chute up 

Easier said than done of course… sometimes I’d get running and it would drift to the side and into the ground.

Like learning any new activity, there’s a lot to think about and it’s just a matter of practising and practising until you don’t need to think and it comes automatically. I’m nowhere near that yet.

After the lesson a shepherd walked his flock of sheep and goats past us.

Delhu - 03 - Shephard
Shepherd and his flock 

The shepherds here spend their whole day amongst their flock and the sheep seem very obedient. He’ll just whistle and tongue-click and they’ll follow – no sheep dogs necessary. I suppose it’s because the sheep see him as the leader of the flock, not like in NZ where the farmer will just boss them around from paddock to paddock every now and then, using barking sheep dogs to keep them in line.