Friday, May 25, 2012

Israelis must shun racism, not African migrants


I live in south Tel Aviv. I live in Little Africa. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in this city. It is an oasis of multi-ethnicity in an otherwise insular and homogenous society, where one is just as likely to hear Tigrinya as Hebrew, where African lilts accent English rather than American or British twangs.

In my part of Tel Aviv, some of the veteran residents, themselves long-ostracized by the so-called Israeli elite, have begun to take the law into their own hands to rid the country of African "infiltrators."

What began this year as a series of ugly protests that would have made any proponent of human tolerance cringe in discomfort if not outright disgust, has grown increasingly violent over the last few months, culminating this week in a full-blown lynch reminiscent of the early days of Nazism and the Civil Rights movements, complete with burning cars and looted stores. It was a pogrom in every sense of the word that we as Jews would understand.

The racism that has engulfed Israeli society cannot be ignored, lest we wish to destroy ourselves. History has taught us what becomes of society that dismisses such actions as the work of a marginal handful; what becomes of a society that refuses to recognize hate by its name.

Nobody was killed in the May 23 riots in south Tel Aviv. No innocent African refugee or migrant has yet been killed in Tel Aviv by an Israeli civilian, but how are we to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality?

The fabric of Israeli society is woven of vast and diverse ethnic groups, descendants of all corners of the world. The language of Israeli society is accented by dozens of dialects, accents, historical memory. Israeli society is by nature the ingathering of the exiles, a microcosm of multiculturalism within a single people.

But to Israeli society, a wider sense of multiculturalism - outside of Jewish culture - is a foreign concept. Non-Jews in Israel have suffered from discrimination since the founding of the country. And while it may seem obvious by now that Jews comes in all shapes and colors, in practice, many citizens of the Jewish state have yet to accept that.

When the first Jews from Arab nations began trickling into Israel, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, and then promptly disregarded as primitive low-class refugees. When the first Ethiopians began arriving in Israel, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, and then promptly shunted into the fringes of society, the new target of racism. When the Soviet "refuseniks" were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, they were momentarily embraced as long-lost Jewish brothers, but once they arrived found themselves fighting to belong.

I am not afraid to live alone in my neighborhood. When I came to Tel Aviv seven years ago, well before the migrants and refugees began moving en masse in to this neighborhood, I was afraid to walk these streets. It was a street filled with drunks and addicts, with dodgy characters, where just because of my size and gender, I was an immediate and natural target.

Seven years later, the real-estate inflation in the north of the city has given legitimacy to the street where I now live. Now there are cafes, art galleries, sushi bars and a music school, alongside Eritrean restaurants and stores. Now my street it is livable. Now there are young people, families – and yes, many of them are black. My street feels safe. It is home. I am not afraid to walk alone down the street at night.

I am afraid, however, to live alone in a hateful society. I am afraid to live alone in a country where my government supports discrimination and racism. I am afraid to live in a state founded precisely as a refuge for the survivors of extermination, which now condones the "distancing" of anyone who is not the same: anyone who is not Jewish; anyone whose skin is darker; anyone who has no other home, no other refuge, no other place to have an income and a comfortable life.

I am as afraid to live in the Israel of 2012 as any right-minded German should have been in 1938, or as any right-minded American should have been in the 1960s.

I am afraid that the hate of a marginal handful, encouraged by lawmakers and policy, will be accepted as the norm in this society so fearful of the other.

I am afraid what will happen if more people do not speak out against this racism.

I am afraid that it may be too late.

Originally published in Haaretz

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Vivid inclinations

Intimate details
personal trills
bubbles
and
bursting
and
bravery
swells
Inconsequential
meaning
and
rhyme
instinct is brewing
in blossom and time

Monday, June 15, 2009

Demilitarized Palestine? Just sign this non-aggression pact first

It will go down in history, along with the Oslo Accord and the Camp David treaty, another historic speech of vague validations and vows to break. Cowering to U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said just about nothing in his much awaited foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan University on Sunday evening, when he called for immediate peace talks without preconditions and a Palestinian state stripped of military capabilities.

No preconditions from the Palestinians, Netanyahu meant to say. Israel, on the other hand, is free to scold its neighbor for starting this conflict and delaying a viable final settlement by refusing to recognize it as a Jewish state. No preconditions, but the Palestinian Authority must first topple Hamas or at least cut off all contact. No preconditions, except these conditions.

It is impossible to hold peace negotiations without preconditions. Such diplomacy is subversive procrastination. Both sides of this conflict have demands, but rather than open up negotiations with these conditions in mind, they deny their respective red lines and allow the peace process to roll in infinite still motion.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority both have preconditions; they need to lay them down and abide by them to get the peace process started again.

The Palestinian Authority must concede to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and in return, Israel needs a concrete plan of withdrawal from parts of the West Bank – it wouldn't hurt to include the Golan Heights on a side draft either, to keep that track busy.

Israel should leave Fatah to engage with Hamas in reconciliatory talks, but the Palestinian Authority must agree to hold off elections for a unity government until a final settlement is reached on the West Bank.

The Old City of Jerusalem (and then later with Syria, parts of the Golan) must be divided accordingly, but with free access to citizens of each country. West Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter would remain under Israeli control, as its capital, and East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter would be Palestinian, as their capital. The rest would be annexed to international supervision, with United Nations troops standing guard.

Following these steps comes the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu declared that he would endorse such an entity if the international community could guarantee its demilitarization. There are a handful of countries out there without an offensive army – Japan and Costa Rica, for instance; Palestine would not be the first.

Should a demilitarized Palestine be established, then Israel would have to compromise for denying a sovereign democracy the right of defense. Israel and Palestine must therefore sign a pact of non-aggression as a concession for a demilitarized state.

The Palestinian Authority has thrown the ball into Barack Obama's court, lambasting Netanyahu for “sabotaging” the peace process. Well, the game has not even started yet because neither team is ready to play. Both Israel and the Palestinians need to get out there, spell the rules of the game, and let the referee blow the whistle.

Originally published in Haaretz

Monday, September 22, 2008

New York

America is
the land of the free and
the home of the bling

Walked the bridge today
Brooklyn to Canal
forgot my camera at home

Here with Mimi, Co
trying to write a haiku
Chocolate wins again

Monday, May 05, 2008

A three-state solution

My two favorite headlines of the past year - the headlines I have had the pleasure of gracing Haaretz.com with at least twice a week, regularly - are "Mideast peace deal possible by 2009" and "Iran vows not to halt its nuclear program." These statements are made by various officials - Rice, Blair, Bush, Olmert, Ahmadinejad, Khameini - and for the most part, I believe the second, but not the first. Never mind that these are potentially mutually exclusive proclamations.

The Iran nuclear program is a scare factor I prefer not to consider. I am convinced, in all the conspiratorial nature of the world, that something very shady indeed is happening up there on the axises of good, evil and otherwise, and I would not even know where to begin. The prospects are frightening enough, so the nukes I will leave as just another threatening headline until further notice.

But this peace deal, the Middle East settlement everyone is talking about, and rushing to promise for the end of Bush's term - just another headline? True, Egypt is mediating a truce between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israel, and true, Abbas is gaining some sort of security stronghold throughout the West Bank, but after 60 years, and 39.5 years, and eight years, and however else you want to count, does it really seem likely that a two-state solution, with borders and all, can actually be set in the next eight months? I suppose if a fetus can grow from nothing to human in just about that amount of time, anything is possible, but a peace deal seems a little harder to cultivate.

These promises can be seen as little more than lip service, because the accompanying factors are too great to ignore. Cairo's proposal for truce has been met with tentative, conditional acquiesence from both sides - Israel insists Shalit be included in the deal, that rockets stop, and so forth, while the Gazans insist the siege end, the air force attacks end, and borders be opened - and so forth. Meanwhile, Gaza and the West Bank have never been so divided. Talk of a truce with militants in the West Bank is not even up for current deliberations. First we work out our issues with Gaza, and then we move on to Abbas' territory. All in just eight months.

Israel, which has never had definitive borders, must demarcate its territory "once and for all," Rice said earlier this week. This is much harder said than done, as I'm sure the powers that be already know. The Palestinians in both territories, not to mention Israelis of all different religious and political camps, must agree to these demarcations or we will surely face another war the moment these lines are drawn.

While the wheels are still in motion, let me propose a third solution, one perhaps as futile as all the others now on the table. Rather than a two-state solution, of Palestinians and Israelis, perhaps what we need to aim for is a three-state solution: Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Regardless of how a future Palestinian state looks, the Arab citizens of Israel will find themselves in a quandary. Many are already so disillusioned with the government, which promises them equal rights and benefits but rarely follows through. Most of my Israeli Arab friends say they would not want to be a citizen of a Palestinian state with an unstable infrastructure, wrecked with violence, but their ties to the Palestinian people is unquestionable. They are Palestinian Arabs themselves, just on this side of the border. Another arbitrary demarcation, that is bound to change or be up for consideration once a Palestinian state has been created.

A three-state solution would be as temporary as the two-state solution now being prepared. Israel lies smack in the middle of two Arab authorities, one run by Hamas and the other by Fatah. Fatah, whose violent offshoots have been responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks of the Intifada, has realized that the only way to gain international legitimacy and appreciation is to curb its violence. Hamas and the other groups continue to fight as guerillas. The difference between a guerilla and a soldier is all a question of international recognition. So long as an organization is shunned by world powers, it will remain a resistance group (in modern terms, a terrorist organization), while the moment it promises to reign in the violence, it becomes recognized on an international level as a legitimate political authority. Look at Fatah. Look at Hamas. Both elected democratically in their respective territories, but one is the Palestinian Authority and the other is the Islamist Movement the U.S. and Other Western Powers Consider to be a Terrorist Organization.

As long as negotiators are working through a peace settlement with Gaza on the one hand and West Bank on the other, why should we believe that those two authorities can ever be melded into a single state. Israel will always be situated right between them and is hardly likely to allow the Negev to be carved up to allow Palestinins access from one province to another. Jerusalem is an issue that has been brushed off the table more times than can be counted. Israel refuses to even speak to Hamas - but in eight months they plan to let them into Jerusalem?

By January 2009, when Bush steps down and a new administration takes its place in Washington, only a provisional agreement is possible. Israel itself is likely to have a completely different government by then, and there is no way to know which ways the Palestinian electoral powers will have tipped at that point. A two-state solution is a foolish plan because there are at least three entities that need to be considered here. Before any kind of borders are drawn, we must first reach a deal on Gaza and a deal on Jerusalem and a deal on West Bank settlements.

Borders must be set between the Negev and Gaza, and between West Bank authorities under the respective control of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas must be granted some sort of authority to control its own frontier - in cooperation with Egypt and international monitors. Palestinians must stop attacking Israel and Israel must stop attacking Palestinians. We must stop thinking of the West Bank and Gaza as one state until both political and geographic stability have been implemented. That project seems a more likely possibility for 2019. For 2009, let's work on a three-state solution, one step at a time.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

on technology

Sometimes, when you want to make a machine work, all you have to do is turn it on.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

consistency

So it had to happen, change, and I was ready for it, or at least I told myself I was ready. Three months back in Israel, one more roommate gone and another in. Living with Eytan was really special, but it's unhealthy to live in Tel Aviv, or anywhere for that matter, if it's not doing you well.

Tel Aviv has been doing me well, though, so here I stay in my apartment, ready for a new phase. Change abounds - Aliyana the hamster has died and Eytan the human has moved out, leaving Eytan the hamster and Aliyana the human to our own devices, with Daniel, the new roommate (definitely human - the hamster is outnumbered).

The washing machine has broken, the computer is wonky, and here in my Tel Aviv life, I have become dependent on both, so a toast to warranties! A new semester, different expectations, every day fresh choices, and finally, I'm legally licensed to drive in Israel.

Yigal Amir has spawned a very intentional offspring and all sorts of exciting things are going on behind the scenes of the world's foreign policies that I'm sure we'll only hear about next decade - but hey, they're still fighting in the Gaza Strip, corruption still climbs the ranks of politics, and I know I've seen November 4 before in the news. So maybe change is just relative, a new notch in the same cycle.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

no really, i've been back for two months

The day I left India, a friend of mine who moved there six years ago told me that it takes about three weeks at home for the novelty of the first trip to wear off and to get swept back up in daily routine. Two months later, I'm back in my daily routine, but I think the novelty of the trip is getting stronger. The grass is always greener somewhere else, and in this case, the grass really is greener in India. This does not mean that I would rather be in India - I just miss that grass, and also the trees, and the mountains and the weather and the flowing freedom that comes with taking a trip out of time.

I spent the first few weeks back in Israel housesitting for my sister Shira while she and Ben were in the States. It was a good readjustment phase - not yet working, no real responsibilities, just bureaucratic errands and long walks in the park. I moved back to Tel Aviv in mid-August, dragging my friend Eytan away from Chava V'Adam to come live with me. My apartment looked like it had been attacked - overflowing ashtrays all over the place, dirty dishes on the porch, furniture stuffed into one room, tons of my stuff dragged into the stairwell, maggots, holes in the wall. We spent the first couple of days just cleaning and trying to force the subletter to come and fix the holes.

But everything worked out, and now my apartment is super clean and feels more like a home than ever. I started school the day after we moved in, and I guess it's been a while since I last posted, because there's only one class left of the summer session. It's been great. It's forced me to write and to rewrite and to become absorbed in my stories in a way I've never done before. I'm back at work also, so I guess my friend in India was right: at some point, we all drift away from vacation and back to the daily routine. But this doesn't mean back to a grind. Stepping away for three and a half months gave me a different perspective on the things that I want in my life. Now that I'm back in Israel, I just have to remember that perspective and make it part of my routine. Keep the novelty alive.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

since last month...

Okay, so maybe I lied, or was misled, or misguided, or erred. Or maybe, and most likely, fate stepped in and said, "Aliyana, life is good, really good, and it's never what it seems, but hey, it's better that way, so enjoy it and stop asking questions."

So there's no bus from Padum to Manali. No, there's not even a road from Padum to Manali. So in all fairness, how could I have considered taking such a bus on such a road?

Of course, this information was only imparted to me on the fourth day of the trek, at Lakhong, on a green patch in the desert, 4700 meters high, after walking up to 5100 and standing on glacier snow by a glacier lake and then descending to a river which could only be crossed by wading through knee-deep. Helmut, a Latvian guy we met, asked me as I stretched out exhausted, "so what are you doing after Padum?" "Taking a bus to Manali," I answered. He shook his head, amused. And thus the revelation was made.

I made quick calculations in my head and realized that in order to make my flight on July 17 I would need not only to leave the trek a day early, but would then need to spend six straight days on a bus from Padum to Kargil to Leh to Manali to Delhi.

Right. So I'll be back on July 24, instead.

The last few weeks have been some of the best and most invigorating of my entire trip. How else can I describe walking through the most remote place I have ever been, filled with the most unbelievable scenery ever laid before my eyes, raging rivers, giant desert mountains and snow-capped peaks, meeting amazing local people who showed me such kindness and generosity and reminded me of the inherent goodness of humanity?

Tiferet, Amelie and I started our trek in the middle of nowhere, continued on to the edge of nowhere, and found ourselves back in the middle of a different nowhere ten days later. Or rather, we began in a town called Darcha in Lahaul, about seven hours north of Manali. The bus ride from Manali was fun, excellent scenery and the best road signs I have ever seen (including "Better Mister Late than Never" and "Better Careful than Roadkill"). We had a stove, sleeping bags, a compass, maps and some pasta. We planned to hike the ten-day trek alone, without a guide or a porter, though we knew that there were three days toward the middle that we would want some help.

Truth be told, we knew very little about this trek. For instance, we thought the trail ran alongside a road, but, as we've just learned, no such road exists. Instead, the trail ran deep through the valley, over mountains, and through the remote desert. We also thought there would be places to stay and eat along the way, which for the most part, there were, except for those three crucial days toward the middle when both a tent and sufficient food were more than necessary. We also didn't know just how many times we would cross rivers without bridges, or how tired we would have been after 20 km of walking per day with a full pack.

Lucky for us, or maybe because of fate, we didn't have to find out any of these lessons the hard way. After a relaxing shabbat in Darcha (where we mainly ate and walked, and met an amazing woman who gave us chai and boiled potatoes for lack of biscuits and just smiled at us a lot for lack of shared language) we headed up toward the trail. Our compass was really helpful, as was Tiferet's knowledge of how to use it, but the trail itself was hard to follow. With our packs, we scaled up the steep side of a hill after finding ourself on the wrong trail (I am not exaggerating, we had to scramble) and finally found ourself on the right route.

Darcha is the last "big" town (I am using that word lightly) in Lahaul, the northern part of Himachal Pradesh where green meets rock and eventually turns into the remote Zanskar range of southern Ladakh. On the first day we walked through this drastic geographical change. We met Helmut and his friend Edmund in the early afternoon. They were shocked that we weren't prepared with 800 grams of food a day. That we had no tent. That we had no sunglasses. Edmund was wearing water-proof gaiters over his gore-tex boots. Helmut had two walking sticks and butt warmer made of styrofoam. They had two porters and seven horses. I had what could best be described as "light hiking shoes" with airholes to beat the heat.

When we got to first campsite, about four hours later, we learned that Helmut and Edmund had already informed everyone there of our lack of preparedness. They were worried. I lay down to watch the bags, while Amelie and Tiferet went to talk to an Israeli family who had apparently made it to the pass halfway through the trek and then returned because of bad weather. Amelie and Tiferet came back and told me that the family's porter had extra food and extra horses and would take us over the difficult pass for a total 1,000 rupees a day, all included. Sounded good.

So that's how we met Nanda Lal, our undersized one-eyed horseman and Darshant, his eternally smiling assistant. Only it turned out that their English was slightly slight, and they were not actually the family's former porters, but rather Edmund and Helmut's current porters. And so a party of 14, including seven horses, two porters and five happy-go-lucky trekkers, was born. At first, our days were short, but as we delved deeper into Zanskar they became more difficult, longer, and all things considered, so much better.

Unfortunately, I stopped eating hot food around the third day, when the smell of dal and rice for breakfast and dinner, breakfast and dinner, brreeeaakkfast and... well, I couldn't really handle it anymore. Really. I had to force the third breakfast down, and even then it came back up, so I decided I would be better off eating dry chapatis in the morning and dry pasta at night, with plenty of biscuits, dried fruit, nuts, and of course, water, in between. And hard candies. Edmund and Helmut fed me porridge one morning, but for about three days, I didn't really eat so well. My nausea wasn't helped by the knowledge that the dishes were never washed properly, and that Darshant washed his hands in said dishes after making the chapatis. For some reason, though, I made it to the end of the trek with full energy, if a little skinnier.

The sleeping part was also a little difficult. Our tent, which we shared with Nanda Lal and Darshant, smelled of horse, dal and rice, which would have been okay, but Zanskar is also really, really cold at night, and my sleeping bag (a "North Fake") just didn't cut it. I fell asleep at around 10 P.M. every night, and then promptly woke at about 3 A.M., when the coldness reached its peak. Then I would stay awake until about 6, when Darshant, smiling, would wake up to begin preparing the dal and rice.

Food and sleep aside, I have never felt so alive. This was a trek with purpose, to get from one place to another, from the last roadpoint to the first. We met a group of Zanskaris on the second day making the trek to Manali (of course, we wondered why they didn't take a bus. Yeah.), and realized that Zanskaris really are some of the nicest in the world. We walked up to Shingu La, 5100 meters high surrounded by glacial wonder, and then realized that Zanskaris really have some of the nicest land in the world. Then we walked down into a desert, surrounded by wonder, simple magical wonder. Like the day we walked for hours and hours in the hot desert, only to turn around to see the same beautiful and majestic mountain in exactly the same place and at exactly the same size at the same distance it had been hours before. We were all Alices in Wonderland. Each village we walked through was beautiful, a green oasis in the desert, where villagers have learned and mastered the art of irrigating their land to grow trees, grass, and vegetables. We met a fledgling school run by Czech volunteers along the way, in Kargyak, and another more developed school, run by young Ladakhis, in Ichar.

After learning that the road to Padum was nonexistent, I told Amelie and Tiferet that I want to finish the trek a day early. If we finished at the pace Nanda Lal wanted, there was no way I'd make my flight. If we finished a day early, there was a chance. My plan was to change my ticket, but I had no idea if and when a new seat would be available and didn't want to take the chance.

They were fine with speeding up (it meant just skipping a side trip to the Phuktal Gompa, which I had wanted to see) but our horseman were less keen. "You, this, hard day, long day," Nanda Lal said. "It's okay," I said. Helmut and Edmund decided to take a six-day side trek themselves, so the horseman were really at our whim, though the Latvian guys made them write where we would be camping every night.

So we sped up, which really wasn't that long or that hard (8-9 hours a day including long breaks). Maybe it sounds hard, but by the 6th or 8th day of a trek through the mountains, it's actually enjoyable to walk for so long. Especially when your pack is being ported by a horse named Ali.

Oh, but man (and woman) makes plans and God laughs, he laughs so hard. And then he cries, and his tears become rain, and then they freeze and become snow, and suddenly man (or in this case woman) finds himself (herself) in a tea stall in a place called Pipla, stranded for a full day with ten Zanskari boys under 21, far away from Delhi and airplanes that fly to Israel on July 17. So the speeding up plan backfired, and instead we spent the day eating local thukpa and drinking milky chai and listening to '80s dance music with these boys in a hut made of mud that began to melt and spread under the weight of the water. Tiferet and I were huddled on a muddy bench listening to her eclectic i-pod collection (especially enjoying Evergreen's "this is going to sound a little obsessive, this is going to sound a little bit strange") when the rain stopped in late afternoon, too late to move on to the next town. We slept inside the hut that night, well-fed on thukpa and warm indoors.

The next day we walked to Rehru, a 7-hour walk from Pipula. Amelie, our strong horsee, our wild monkey, was sick, maybe from the water, maybe from something we ate, and Tiferet had to help her walk, dragging all the way. We stopped for a few hours at the school in Ichar, where the annual picnic was underway (I arrived there about an hour before Tiferet and Amelie). Two of the boys from Pipula were there, Amelie passed out with eyes open, the 21-year-old teachers awkwardly asked me to marry them, and Tiferet led a rousing clapping session while the kids laughed and danced. We headed on after a few hours, on a never-ending walk that actually did end, in a town called Rehru, where a rocky road appeared, dotted with jeeps. If I left one of those jeep, 20km from Padum, I could make it by nightfall, catch the first bus to Kargil, and avoid taking chances. But I really wanted to walk the 20 km, to finish the trek. But if I did, there was no way I'd make my flight. OOOOOH.

No thinking, I decided, just feeling. I needed to get on one of those jeeps. One of the most important lesson I've learned in India, especially on this trek, was to take my Libran scales and use them for good, rather than indecision. Instead of weighing one side, then the other, then the one side again, I learned it's necessary to weigh both sides, quickly, take one side of the scale, stick with what's left, and then take that off the scale as well. So we got to Rehru, found our tent, gathered my things, then I got into the jeep and was off. Just like that. It was the right decision, such a clear right decision, even though it meant I wouldn't finish the tenth day of the trek like I wanted. I had walked from the last available road to the first again, nine days through the mountains. It was better than good. It was great, it was amazing.

And the lessons I learned after getting into that jeep were better than amazing, they were life changing. I met a bridge contractor from Kashmir who took me, in the dark, to the abandoned bus, the only one in town, woke the driver, confirmed that I would be leaving with him at 4:30 the next morning. Then this contractor, Salaam, took me to his friend's guest house where I got a hot thukpa and a beautiful room with a bathroom for a really low price and an amazing four hours of sleep. Then this friend, the guest house owner, knocked on my door at 3:30 a.m., brought me two cups of hot water to drink, then walked me to the bus, where the driver was still sleeping, then back to the guest house for ten minutes, then back to the bus. Such good, good people. I was the only passenger on the bus, for about ten hours, until we got closer to Kargil and the locals started piling on. Just me, the bus driver, the conductor and his friend for ten hours. I should mention that the "conductor" was a very short and skinny 22 years old, as was his friend. The driver was a short and skinny 30 years old. It was the tiny bus club. We drove through the beautiful valley to Kargil, eating cookies and stopping for lunch in some remote town. It was fun.

When we got to Kargil, the bus conductor and his friend took me to buy my ticket for the next day to Leh and then accompanied me to a dark and crappy guest house in the market, where the rooms were overpriced and undercleaned dormitories. I didn't care, I was so exhausted, but managed to convince the manager (Mohammed Ali, no relation to the boxer or porter horse) to give me a discounted room. He did, and then didn't leave me alone until I left town.

Which despite my grand plans actually happened two days later, not one. I called my mom, and told her that even if I left the next morning, I would be rushing at an inhuman pace and would make it to Delhi only in time for my flight. I asked her to change my ticket for the 19th, or the 22nd, and gave her Ali's cell phone number to update me with the changes.

She called me back half an hour later, and told me there was a seat available only on the 23 (tisha b'av) and told me that making these changes had been harder than giving birth to me. Thanks Mommy.

So now, rather than having to rush, I had six extra days in India. What to do. Ali and his friend Ismail decided I should stay in Kargil for an extra day. At first I said no, but then decided, I have the time now, and the next day was supposed to be the annual festival, so why not. Changing my ticket wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy. It meant waiting at the bus station for an hour with Ali and Ismail for the driver to finish dinner, and then negotiating with him to give me my money back. He kept 50 rupees, but it was worth it, and I knew it would be.

Kargil, I should mention, is a town really on the border between Muslim Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. The town is 95 percent Muslim, made up of four separate tribes originating from East Asia, Central Asia and Kashmir. Rather than greeting each other with Namaste, as the Indians do, or Joolay, as the Tibetans do, in Kargil people say "Salaam Aleikum." They say "walla." They say "Yallah." They say "Kif Halak." They aren't Kashmiris, they aren't Persians or Pakistanis. Their main language is Purik - though the town abounds with dialects - a mixture of Urdu, Hindi and Ladakhi. The festival was great, a local celebration of all these different cultures, with dances in all the traditional clothes, a horse polo game and an archery competition.

The next morning I set off for Leh. Both Ali and Ismail were sad to see me go. Aside from the festival, they had taken me on a walking tour of all of the forest, mountains, rocks and rivers in Kargil. I think it would be fair of me to say that I saw more of this bus town than any tourist, aside from the Swiss guy I met who once spent three months there learning the language. He wins hands down.

I met a few other tourists on the bus to Leh, one of whom was a Canadian girl who took me to her guest house once we arrived. The Israelis generally stay in Chanspa, so I decided I wasn't going to stay there. Some also stay in Karzu, a few minutes walk north. We were to stay in Chubi, which was about a 20 minute walk from Chanspa and a 40 minute walk to the market. Our "guest house" was really a family house, where we had beautiful rooms in a house nicer than my parents' and ate and helped prepare delicious Tibetan food. I spent most of my time in Leh wandering into the randomest villages, walking kilometers a day because of all the energy I had built up from the trek. On Sunday I went with a group of 6 other people to a town called Likir, where we stayed in the most comfortable place where food was all included. I really like everyone in this group, even though group traveling is usually not my thing. They were to go on the next day for a "baby trek" to some other villages, but I had to get back to Leh to catch a bus to Manali. No way was I going to delay my flight again (though I would love to keep traveling, I have places to go, people to see, and things to do in Israel).

I made it back to Leh by early afternoon. My friend Mailani had bought me a ticket for the next day at 4:30 a.m., so I tried to arrange a taxi service to pick me up in the morning to take me to the bus station. I was worried. For some reason, I knew the taxi wasn't going to come. I told this to Vineta and Mailani, my friends from the guest house. They told me I was being paranoid, overworried. I don't know. I just had this feeling.

I borrowed Mailani's watch to give myself a backup alarm for the next morning. Both my clock and hers went off at 3:00. The taxi was set to be at the house by 3:30. At 3:25 I woke up, stuffed my bag together and ran out to wait for the cab. 3:35. 3:40. No cab. I was supposed to be at the bus by 4. The owner of the house came out to wait with me. "No cab?" he asked. "No cab," I said. He went to make a phone call, which was useless, considering that we didn't have the driver's cell number. "I am going to walk," I said, despite the warnings of street dogs, the distance to the station, and the simple fact that I didn't know exactly where the station was. No way was I going to miss my flight again. "No," he said. Ten minutes later. "Okay, you walk. Go. Go!"

So I went. I walked for about five minutes, quickly, with all of my things on my back. Suddenly a jeep appeared from a side road. I flagged it down with my flashlight. It was a group of guys heading for the local mosque. "Please," I said, "I'm late for my bus." They told me they weren't going in that direction and drove off. Then came back. "Get in, we'll take you to the market," they said. They dropped me off near a pack of dogs, and said, "walk straight from here." 3:55. I started walking, an within seconds saw two bagpacked figures, walking quickly. I fell in step with them. They knew the shortcut. It wasn't straight. We didn't talk, just walked toward the bus, put our things on the top rack, and headed off into the sunrise toward Manali.

We were on a local bus, which is much cheaper and apparently less comfortable than a tourist bus, though I didn't mind it at all. We made it to Manali the next day, after a quick night stop in Keylong. I sat next to a Korean girl named Chakuri, and my friends Tiran and Yaara were also on the bus. In Manali I went back to my former guest house, where I had left the rest of my things in a hurry. The owner, Sergo, was happy to see me. "Aliyana," he said, clasping my hand, "wasn't your flight last week?" My stuff was safe, he booked me a ticket to Delhi for the next day, and gave me and Tiran a nice room for 100 rupees.

On my last day in the Himalayas I walked around, took a two hour tabla lesson, and generally just loved the mountains. Sadly, I also spent a few hours at a memorial service for Dror Shack, a 23-year-old whose body was found Sunday on the way up to Khir Ganga. He was found with stab wounds, and a knife nearby. His bag was missing, and nobody is sure what happened. Nearly all of the Israelis in Manali came to the service, though most of us have never met him. Apparently everyone has left Khir Ganga since this happened. Shimmy and Sara, where are you?

I arrived in Delhi this morning, and am exhausted. The overnight bus ride, on a tourist bus, was one of the most uncomfortable rides I have had on this trip. The guy sitting next to me decided one seat wasn't enough for him. He wanted to spread out. I kept asking him to make room for me. When he didn't listen, I picked up his arm and moved it. By force. He elbowed me. I barely slept, but managed to drift off when he woke up at dawn. I leave for Israel Monday evening.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

... and onward

If I haven't been searched for drugs yet in a particular country, it means I haven't been there long enough. Apparently, I've been in India long enough.

After leaving Khir Ganga, I went back to Kasol for the night to collect my bearings before heading off to Manali. There are a few ways to get to Manali from Kasol, but the cheapest and near easiest way, other than by motorbike, is by local bus to Bhuntar and from there to Manali.

A couple of friends who I'd shared a jeep with from Dharamsala to Kasol were also planning to head off to Manali by local, and since the ride is only about 4 hours, I wasn't in a rush to leave before noon or 1. Which is good, because as I may have mentioned, there's no benefit to rushing in Parvati. So we ate our breakfast, and I collected some pants from the tailor, a game of chess or two and one of backgammon were had, and by noon we found ourselves in town, waiting for the green bus to Bhuntar.

A friend of mine told me earlier that week that a few Israelis were searched for charas in Kalga, and forced by the cop to pay $100 in bakshish. I later met one of the infamous trio in Kasol and he confirmed every word. The cops here are more interested in dollars than in incarceration and in this part of the mountains, searching foreigners is normal.

So when the three cops boarded our local bus about halfway to Bhuntar, I wasn't surprised. The ticket seller was also a cop, which is unusual and made me think he probably called his cop friends to come take a joyride. The three officers crowded around the three of us and another foreigner, and asked to see our passports, after which they peered into our wallets, pouches, side bags, and every other visible compartment. When they found nothing on me or my friend Yael, they seemed dissatisfied, but their triumphance returned when they saw my friend Ben's keychain - one of those nifty little leather mixing bowls. Off the bus they dragged Ben, his luggages trailing behind. And then: pffft. Officer #1 blows the whitle and off sails the driver.

"Wait!" I call, and Yael chimes in. "Our friend!" Rrrrrreeeer. Officer #1 looks at us. "You may get off with him," he said. Yael considered for half a second and said, "I'm going."

And me? In that split second at 3 P.M. on a Friday, four hours away from my destination, facing further police conflict and humiliating searches and an unclear bus schedule, what did I decide to do? For a split second I said, "I'll come too," and then, one split second later I said, "actually, I'll see you there." Off went Yael, and off we went.

For the first time, I realized what it means to travel alone. It means not getting off the bus. It means doing what's right for me in such a situation. Ben wasn't alone - he was with Yael and she was with him. I don't think I would have helped the situation by getting of with them in that random town with those bribe-hungry cops. I saw some other mutual friends in Manali the next day, who told me that Yael and Ben had returned to Kasol after Ben paid the cops 1,000 rupees (he managed to talk them down from 2k.)

Believe me, I felt sorry for going off, but felt absolutely sure I had made the right decision. We arrived in Bhuntar just as the bus to Manali was leaving. Four Sikh brothers herded me there and then sat around with me the whole way, leaving an empty seat beside me and not letting anyone sit down and sharing their bananas with me.

Manali was totally different than I expected. I think I expected some sort of mafia town, but it is actually green and charming. I stepped off the bus right into the summer festival, which was wild. A few nights later I got to check out the culmination of the festival, a local beauty pageant whose winner will compete nationally for the Miss India title. It was boring as hell, but the crowd was hilarious.

I've been staying at a great guest house with a bunch of English people, some Austrians (including one traveling with her new Indian husband) and an Italian girl. We got along great and had such a nice time in our little commune, which is a nice house with a huge courtyard, long dinner-party table, and a hammock. A rafting instructor named Lara also joins us at night. He is very depressed, speaks alternately of wanting to kill himself and wanting to take us on a free rafting trip. We've declined his invitation each time. He doesn't seem dangerous, but I think it's best to have happy conversation around him.

While in Manali, I've taken tons of walks through the forest, went to Vashist to see the waterfalls and the hot springs, and to Nagar to see the Nicholas Roerich exhibit.

My plan was to go from here to the lesser-traveled Kinnaur region on Wednesday, but, well, I changed my mind. I'd made the plans with my friend Tiferet, who I met in Dharamsala, and two of her friends. We decided to meet at 7:30 to solidify the plans. The two friends and I met, hardly had anything to talk about, and then Tiferet showed up with another girl, Amelie, and said she was going to walk to Leh instead.

Walking to Leh takes 21 days and is very difficult. It is an ascent of about 3500 meters, and it is up and down mountains onto desert plateau. I thought about it for a few minutes, let it fester in my mind. I don't have 21 days to hike, since I want to be in Delhi by July 14. But these women, Amelie and Tiferet, are amazing. They are strong and they are smart and if they can do it, why can't I?

So, I am leaving Manali tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. for a town called Keylong in the Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh. On Sunday, we're going to start walking north. I'm planning to walk 10-12 days with them, and then either catch a bus to Leh or return south, depending on the date. There are two trails to Leh: one that requires a guide and a porter and is entirely in nature for three weeks, and one that veers through nature as well as villages, which we're taking. We'll pass through a village or permanent tent accomodations every night. I got myself a sleeping bag and a huge rainponcho and am stocked up for warmth. I'm leaving most of my things in Manali, taking only what's necessary for a 10-12 day walk through the Himalayas. And then...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

kasol...

This morning I woke up in a small room built of wood slabs and yellow tarp. It was very comfortable. When I opened the door to this small room, I saw a gigantic mountain, steep and ridged and covered in radiant green trees. It was very nice. Then I had porridge and said goodbye to Shimmy and Sara, my good friends from Israel who I just spent the last two weeks with. Then my friend Anav and I started walking down the mountain, into a magical forest straight out of a fairy tale. Khir Ganga is amazing. It's a tiny tourist site at the source of a hot spring set on top of a green hill facing this unreal view, the kind I really wish I could take and replant across the street from my apartment in Florentine. But I can't.

I arrived in Kasol two weeks ago, planning to meet Shimmy and Sara in one of the villages nearby for shabbat. Friday came, they had't passed through yet, so I decided to wait for them, knowing I would see them even though we had planned something else, and then 4 p.m. came, and then I had a fleeting thought to go to the village anyway, and then the bus passed and the cloud of exhaust lifted and there they were, eating momos on the street.

We decided to go to Kalga village anyway, even though it was late. But this is the Parvati valley, and things are very slooow in the Parvati valley. So we went to wait for the bus, and then 5 p.m. came, and we knew it was still another 45 minute walk from the bus drop-off to Kalga, and that sunset was at 6:45, and the bus hadn't come yet... so we stayed in Kasol, and had a really nice shabbat at the beit chabad and in the forest.

The only downfall, maybe, was the down fall of one of my sandals and one of Shimmy's sandals into a merciless current in the river. We both laid them on the huge rock we were sitting on, and suddenly, when my eyes were closed and I was laying on my back, I heard Sara say "uh, Aliyana, your shoes just fell in." Well it turned out to be one of mine and one of Shimmy's, neither ever to be seen again, so we threw the remainder of each pair in after its partner and walked back to town barefoot.

And then, there was the beit chabad. A good organization in many ways, brings shabbat and kosher food to people who want it, Jewish spirituality to those who want it and those who don't want it and those who don't know they want it. But the Beit Chabad in India is kind of difficult for me to deal with, and not just because I blame them for whatever animal, vegetable or mineral settled in my stomach in Dharamsala. I usually get uncomfortable with Chabad India around the time they say "birshut adoneinu moreinu urabeinu, melech hamashiach leolam va'ed," though sometimes other things tip me off. This particular Chabad experience, the one I spent with Shimmy and Sara in Kasol started off nicely. The vodka, which I don't usually drink, was flowing freely, and after a few hours, I drank some, but the head Chabad guy, a seemingly good dude, he drank a lot. He drank so much that by the end of the night, when all the candles except three were burnt down and everyone except maybe eight people had gone home, he began to have an exchange with the baba, over a canvas partition.

Now the baba, he also seems like a good dude. When the Chabad guys had the whole room riled up in a resounding rendition of "hakadosh baruch hu, anachnu ohavim otach," the baba was rowdiest of the bunch. Now, standing on the other side of the canvas partition, the baba began the conversation by responding to the Chabad guy, who had said something about the "holy temple."

"Holy Temple, holy temple," chimed in the baba from the other side of the parition.

At which point the Chabad guy turned to the baba and explained to him that he was "nothing but a poster" in the eyes of God. The baba responded calmly, telling the Chabad guy "you are wrong." The Chabad guy went on for a bit, the baba kept saying "you are wrong" and I sat there at the end of the table watching a woman named Shanti, who moved to India from the states 30 years ago, eat leftovers from the meal.

I met the baba again later in Kasol, and then in Pulga, a small village nearby set on the side of a hill inside a jungle. The baba's name is Mango. The owner of the guest house where we stayed in Pulga, Baba Ji - actually a former baba who now wears a baseball cap and keeps his chillum in the pocket of his khakis - later informed us of the politics between Baba Mango and himself. Mango apparently won't talk to Baba Ji because Baba Ji is no longer a baba. Baba politics. Who knew.

There is much more to tell but I'm off now... I'll write more from Manali...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

three weeks in a day

I am testing out my Japanese language skills now, since blogspot has been reset to Japanese on this computer. I'm sure I could change it, if I could read Japanese, but as it is, I can't figure out where the language options are, since they are in Japanese.

A few days ago I came to the realization that while I've been in Dharamsala for almost three weeks, and am itching to get back on the road, there are so many things I still want to do here. But alas, my trip to India is not so long, and there are still so many other places I want to visit. So tomorrow, I'm off to Parvati Valley to play in Kasol and its surrounding villages.

A few days ago, that same day I came to the realization that I may have been slacking off here on my holiday, I decided to walk up to the Baghsu waterfalls. I'd already been to the falls above Dharamkot, which was an hour and a half walk through beautiful forested hills and felt a little like heaven must feel. The Baghsu waterfalls are a 10 minute walk from the village, and are always densely populated, but still beautiful. I walked to the upper falls and watched Indian boys playing games in the pools, Buddhist monks chatting on rocks and a family of Sikhs splashing their feet.

On the trail up to the falls, I fell in step with an interesting family. There were the obviously western mom and dad, a blond girl and a Tibetan girl, who walked holding the woman's hand, speaking accented English. When we reached the pools, I photographed the girls playing and then introduced myself to the parents, Matthew and Theresa, offering to send them the photos. He is a philosophy teacher at Wesleyan, in India with the family for a year to research the influence of Buddhism on Wittgenstein. Theresa is home-schooling their daughter, Ruby. The Tibetan girl, Zompa, is a friend of the family, and a student at the Tibetan Children's Village school.

We ended up talking about how I had missed out seeing the Dalai Lama (he has indeed gone to Australia), and they told me that if I was interested, I could still go meet the Karmapa, a high Tibetan Buddhist teacher who heads the Karma Kagyu school. He greets the public every Wednesday and Saturday, they told me. It sounded great. They told me I could grab a cab for 400 rupees to the monastery, and that there may or may not be a lecture. That sounded less great. I asked them if they were planning to go. They said yes, so I said, great, maybe we could share a cab? We arranged to meet Wednesday at 1:30 by the Dalai Lama's temple.

So today I waited, at 1:30, at 1:45, at 2. No family. I had almost decided to give up (no way was I going to spend 400 rupees on a cab myself - that's a lot of money here) when I saw Matt running past the temple. "Sorry we're late," he said. Theresa was right behind him. "Difficult day in home-schooling," she apologized.

We climbed into a cab and rode through Mcleod Ganj, past Dharamsala, and to the Gyuto monastery on the outskirts of town. We left our shoes by the door, and I tried slyly to bring my bag inside, even though I could see everyone had left theirs outdoor. I just wasn't ready to leave behind my camera. "Either the camera stays out here or you stay out here," the security woman said sweetly. She was much tougher than she looked. Theresa and Matt told me they come here every week, and have never heard of anything being stolen. So I took out my passport and wallet, assured my camera I would be back soon, and went inside to join the dozens of people sitting and waiting. The Karmapa came out after about 15 minutes, and we walked toward him in a line with hands extended, each of holding a white scarf. One of his assistants put the outstreched scarf around my neck (traditional Tibetan form of greeting) and the Karmapa handed me a red string. That was it. No lecture, which made 8-year-old Ruby happy. My camera was safe. I made some joke about attachments to Theresa, but I was really relieved no-one had taken it.

The monastery was a beautiful building set in front of snow-capped mountains, surrounded by the monk's dormatories. We sat around and talked a bit with Isabel, a French nun with a quirky sense of humor who had just moved to Dharamsala after spending 20 years in Nepal. Ruby got antsy, and in her excitement to leave took a running leap down the stairs, tumbling gracefully like some sort of martial arts superhero. Except then she started to cry. So we told her how graceful she was, which made her laugh, though she still used her scraped knee as an excuse to get out of Tai Chi practice.

Back in Mcleod, I decided to check out Vijay's yoga class, considering that yoga in India is a traveler's addiction and most of my practice has been alone on the roofs of my guest houses. It was an incredible class. Vijay is about 40 years old and slim, and wears the shortest white shorts I have ever seen. (My friend Tamar later told me that she caught a glimpse of his wardrobe in the storage room after class one day - and indeed, he is the owner of at least 10 pairs of cleanly-pressed short white shorts). He is very flexible, and wasted no time showing that to us, while we laughed at his shorts. The class was Hatha, which mixes exercise with relaxation. Through the two hour class, his assistants came by to each of us to stretch our bodies into the correct position, something which noone has done for me before and which I really appreciated.

After the class I went with my friend Tiferet to check out the Dalai Lama's temple at sunset, and then to pick up the clothes Rais the tailor had made for me. He invited me to sit for chai, which I did, taking my first sip just as all the electricity in the city went out. Rais is 23, a Muslim from a small village near Pushkar. He came to Dharamsala last year and makes really beautiful clothing. "One year before I know no English," he confided. Now he is learning Hebrew, and knows quite a bit already.

I'm really going to miss Dharamsala. It's a place where people come to spend a long time, to make a home for themselves in India. I've played a lot of music here, met some great people, and have been working on a new story, writing by hand for the first time in years.

I'm off now, will try to post more photos as soon as possible...

Monday, June 04, 2007

day in dharamkot

same, same, but different. wake up, stretch my arms, sun pours through the windows, bathing me in heat. i look at the clock. it's 7 a.m. back to sleep till 9. wake up, stretch my arms again, think, what am i going to do today.

could climb up to the snow line, would go see the dalai lama but i think he left for australia, maybe i'll go to the waterfalls in baghsu. but the days here start slow.

a day in dharamkot begins with breakfast. teeth brushed, clothes on, i grab my bag, walk through the gate, an immediate left up to the restaurant, where mohan and rinco smile and serve. "hello madam," they say. people alreading lounging on the cushions at a low table, sometimes chen and nurit, sometimes yael and ben, before that itamar and dena, who went to kashmir, and aviv, who went home. i join them, eat cornflakes or sometimes banana porridge, either topped with bananas.

we sit and we talk, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for hours. we talk about politics, we talk about diharrea, then we introduce ourselves to the new people, with whom we've just talked war and digestion. some people go down to the israelit restaurant to see what movies are playing. others go to the silver school to make jewlery. others go to yoga, or just came back from yoga. today i go down to baghsu, over the stones and the trails, through the trees. i want to sit and write but i forgot my notebook. i hop down the stairs, swig water, say hi to rupert, out for his daily walk, and find myself on the main street in baghsu. i go straight to bulu's workshop to talk to sam about my drum, but he's not there, so instead i play jembe while others play didg. then off to deep the tailor, where i laugh with him and he makes my pants, then makes them smaller, then makes them bigger, then makes them smaller, and finally i give up.

dharamsala for the traveler is slow, relaxed, always busy and always a holiday. at nights there are concerts, there are long sits, there are movies, there's time. it feels less like india than like summer camp. dharamsala for the resident is different. it's planting and harvesting and working and selling and living, and it's not summer camp. two different worlds, the traveler living on rupees to bide time for cheap, the native living on rupees to bide life and its expenses.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

throwing tomatoes at pakistani soldiers

Every night, on the Indian-Pakistani border, thousands of people gather on each side to wave flags and see who has more spirit. I was there only once, on Tuesday night, but based on that I would have to say that Indians are more colorful but Pakistanis have more spirit.

The border in western Punjab is about 30 km from Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, one of Sikhism's holiest sites. I came to Punjab in a private jeep with seven other Israelis, and while the whole trip lasted only two days, it was an intense experience.

The actual changing of the guards at the border is nice, but not so intense. Our driver, an Indian named Mohammed Azar, drove us straight to the border from Dharamsala, after a stop at a gas station and at an empty garage doubling as a restaurant. Considering my recent stomach illness, I decided not to eat there, just to be safe. We arrived at the border at around 3:30, three hours before the ceremony was scheduled to begin. That was our driver's idea, and though everyone I'd spoken to before the trip told me not to arive before 5, it's hard to convince a group of Israelis to listen to you and not to the tired driver.

We plowed our way through the swarms of kids trying to sell us flags and paper visors and postcards and CDs and DVDs and waited for about an hour at a restaurant in the "food court". Our waiter, who also tried to sell us DVDs and postcards, had a disconcerting bandage over his nose. On closer inspection, I realized he had no nose. Or at least no cartiledge. The restaurant, a nice and spacious air-conditioned room, had barely any food. The waiter offered us chai and instant noodles. "Do you have anything else?" we asked. Samosas, he offered us. Samosas it was.

At about 5 we headed out of the restaurant and toward the border. We were seven among hundreds, walking toward the stadium like fans toward a soccer match. A guard checked our bags, and as we continued on we saw a number of Indian soldiers in uniform with white stirrups and a hat shaped like a turkey crown. The guards, some of India's tallest citizens, were trying to separate the swarms of people into male and female lines. I moved over to the women's line, and convinced my other female friends (who originally tried to stay in the men's line) to join me. They had no objections, in the end, having just been dragged into a photo op with a couple of Indian men who took the liberty of grabbing their breasts.

On the women's side, nobody grabbed our breasts, and the line moved very quickly to the stadium, past the famous border gate. A guard with a turkey hat and stirrups sat us in the nearly empty VIP section, with the other white people, while the Indians scrambled and stuffed into crowded rows. One of the girls I was traveling with, said, "I know the battery on my camera is going to die at the worst time." Damn those self-fulfilling prophecies! As soon as she said it, I knew mine was going to also. I turned on my camera, and lo and behold, the empty battery sign popped cheerfuly onto the screen. So I photographed, but not as much as I would have liked.

Eventually, every section was filled to capacity, including the VIP section. We met a young Israeli woman with her two kids, a couple of older Indian women who had come to Amritsar for a national Christian conference, and two girls from Chattisgar on vacation in the north. On the Pakistani side, hundreds of white-clad Muslims sat cheering. There seemed to be fewer of them than Indians, and they sat in a much more orderly fashion, but they definitely knew how to scream. On our side, two boys ran by with Indian flags, and then back again, and then two girls, and back again, and then groups of kids started dancing to Indian music. One kid started breakdancing and everyone cheered him to stay on. Meanwhile, in the VIP section, all of the Indians tried to get the two little blond Israeli kids to pose for photographs with their kids. All of the kids were embarassed.

Then out came the guards, some standing by the gate others on a platform, screaming to each other in Hindi army talk. Then a loud voice said something in Hindi, which I can't remember, and the crowd went wild. The voice said it again. The crowd screamed in response. Then the voice said, "Hindustan!" To which everyone responded something sounding like "Zindaman." Then the voice said something sounding like "Qantas!" To which everyone responded, "madram!"

The two girls from Chattisgar laughed at us. "You don't know what we are saying?" they asked. "No, we don't speak Hindi," we answered. They told us that the chanting was basically "I salute India. India is beautiful." "Don't say that about Pakistan," they said, laughing. We promised we wouldn't.

About five guards came out and stood at attention in the middle of the path. The gate opened, and one by one they walked over to shake hands with the orderly Pakistani guards. Then the ceremony was over, and the thousands of would-be soccer fans walked back out to the "food court," swarmed again by postcard hawkers and water salesboys.

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I wanted to go see the Golden Temple right after, having heard that it is an unbelievable sight at night. I pictured a giant temple made entirely of gold glimmering in the sunset. The rest of the group wanted to go eat first, and before that wanted to go find a guest house with a shower. I personally had no poblem eating and sleeping at the temple, which many travelers do, but I was the only one who wanted to.

Traveling with a big group was difficult, not just because we couldn't agree on where and when all the time, but because sometimes Israelis have a tendency of being too Israeli. I like everyone on an individual level, but together it was too loud. Singing and talking loudly in places where it just wasn't acceptable, shouting "what the fuck" in front of the Indians, who just weren't used to that kind of thing, and making fun of a man's mustache to his face, in English. One of the guys wanted to throw tomatoes at the Pakistani soldiers during the changing of the guards. When I asked him if he was serious he said, "yes. That's the tradition here." He actually tried to cross the gate. One of the girls, wearing a thin white tank top, wanted to join the Indian kids and dance in front of everyone during the ceremony.

By the time we started looking for a guest house, I was tired of traveling in such a huge group (this was by far the biggest group I had been with). We finally found a guest house, ate a nice dinner, and got to the Golden Temple by midnight.

It really was an incredible sight. Before going in we stored our shoes and covered our heads, and then entered the sacred Sikh space. The temple, which I think may be gold-plated marble rather than completely gold, is a stunning building set on a concerete penninsula in the middle of a giant fish-filled pool surrounded by a long rectangle compound. There were people sleeping everywhere, others sitting in groups or alone, praying, others waiting for the temple itself to open at 2 a.m.

The space had such a great energy. In a way, it reminded me of the western wall, a holy temple where devout people come to be close to their history and to a clear presence of God.

Chen and Nurit and I decided to go back to the guest house, after about an hour, so that we could get up early and watch the sun rise over the temple. Despite my dying camera battery, I took a bunch of photos, which I'll post as soon as I can.

Back at the guest house I showered, then collapsed on my bed. After what felt like a few minutes, but was really a few hours of deep sleep, I woke up to Chen and Nurit knocking. It was 5:30 a.m. We made it to the temple in time for the sun rise. When we arrived hundreds of people were standing still on the banks of the pool responding to the chanting. We walked around the compound in sacred silence, sat for a while and watched the people moving, and then filed into a long line to walk into the temple, the origin of the chanting. Once we entered we saw hundreds more people sitting on the floor, some standing, all listening, some following along in prayer books.

We stayed for about an hour and a half and then walked out through the market, into the already boiling dusty day. We stopped into a modest little dhaba for chai and aloo chapati, and then bought the best bananas I have ever tasted. By the time we got back to the guest house it was already 9 a.m., and I was locked out of my room. So the three of us laid down on their bed and slept for a couple more hours. At one point the driver knocked on the door and asked for 1,000 rupees advance, so he could go to the market. 1,000 rupees at the market, I wondered in my sleep, as thoughts of him driving off into the sunset waving the bills gleefully in his hands filtered into my brain.

When we woke up, the driver was still there. I guess he had done some shopping at the market. About five of us went for breakfast/lunch, and arranged to meet the others at 2 p.m. Well, 2 P.M. came and went, and the others never showed, though while we waited we had a nice conversation with the turban-clad guest house manager and his beautiful wife. Both are well educated, their children doctors and engineers, and they seemed very interested in what my parents do. "So your parents are not married?" they asked, me confused, after I told them my parents live in different countries.

The missing three showed up after 3, and we piled into the jeep to head home. First, of course, a car passed by one of the open doors and jammed it, before driving off.

We made it back to Dharamkot by 9:30, dropped our stuff off, and went to eat labne for dinner at one of the restaurants on the main street. We'd all kept our rooms in Dharamsala, so coming back was like coming home.

Monday, May 28, 2007

painting schools and other things

A couple of days ago my friend Chen said to me, "so are you coming to paint the school tomorrow?" I had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded great. "Yes," I told him.

When I first arrived in Dharamsala, I was in bed by 11 and awake by 7 or 8 every morning. Each day, my bedtime seems to be getting a little later, and unfortunately, so does my waking time.

So the next morning, I'm ashamed to say, I almost had to pull myself out of bed to meet the rest of the volunteers. We met out in front of one of the restaurants in Dharamkot and together continued on to an Indian school in Gamru village, overlooking Dharamsala.

Our job was to turn the dirty and peeling walls of this elementary school into a clean place to learn. We started by taking all of the pictures of the walls, and then we sanded, and only then did we start to paint. There were four rooms and a hallway to paint, which we did in green, pink and orange. Even after the paint was on the walls, though, the school still looked manky, so we wandered around painting grass and flowers and leaving handprints and designs all over to cover the black stains. I think the kids are really going to like it.

The institution is a charity school opened three years ago by a young British guy named Phil. The 160 kids enrolled study at a tuition of about 140 dollars a year, which is paid for solely through donations. Our group of volunteers was organized by a woman named Orly, a healer and traveler. The group was all Israeli, but a real mix of personalities and ages.

*******************************************************************************
By the end of last week, I was able to start eating again, which I've been doing with vigor ever since. Dharamsala really is way more interesting without a fever and digestion problems, but I guess even those who have never visited India could have told me that.

To say that I am staying in Dharamsala is kind of a lie. I am staying in Dharamkot, a small tourist village overlooked by Upper Dharamkot, a humble little Indian town. The tourist part of town is really just that, and it is mostly inhabited this time of year by Israelis and some Europeans. Days are spent waking up whenever (between 5:30 A.M. and 10 A.M.), eating a nice breakfast, then going off and doing whatever. People learn yoga and massage and nutrition, relocate from restaurant to restaurant, knit, write, play music and walk. It's never boring here and there are always different and new people to meet and spend time with.

When tourists refer to Dharamsala, they usually mean Dharamkot, Baghsu or Mcleod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama. Most people never even really go into Dharamsala itself, which is a regular Indian town.

Aside from painting the school, I've also visited an ayurvedic doctor, hiked to a beautiful set of waterfalls, started learning to knit, and tried planning the jembe I want to build.

I've also discovered the Bayit Hayehudi, the alternative to Beit Chabad, which I have inadvertantly begun boycotting (listen, I really don't know what made me sick, but the last thing I ate before vomiting last week was cholent). The Bayit Hayehudi is a great and open atmosphere, and has a certain kind of energy I have really been missing here.

I'm going off to Amritsar tomorrow for a couple of days with some friends I've met here to see the changing of the guards at the Pakistani border and to watch the sun rise and set over the Golden Temple.

Monday, May 21, 2007

fevers, tibetans and the never-ending bus rides

After spending two nights in Rishikesh (at least one night longer than I planned) I headed out for nearby Dehradun to catch the bus to Dharamsala. I was told the ride would take about 12 hours, but knowing Indian buses and knowing Indian promises, I prepared myself for a 16-hour overnight ride. I wasn't far off. Seventeen hours after leaving Dehradun, and at least two engine problems and four stops later (in some of the dirtiest places I have seen yet in India), we arrived at the Mcleod Ganj bus stand.

At least I didn't suffer the ride alone. A few minutes after reaching the Dehradun bus station, a girl I vaguely recognized from my most recent Rishikesh guest house (Nishant, highly recommended) said hello to me. She turned out to be Israeli (despite looking completely European), and also turned out to be a former employee at Haaretz. Small world. In India, as in most places in the world, friendships that are supposed to happen happen. Aviv and I got along right away, and spend the whole ride talking and laughing together. Yes, we spent 17 hours talking and laughing. This is because there was no way in hell we could sleep. We were seated in the front of front seats on the deluxe bus, which must have been comfortable for the tall (read: very, very big, even huge) Tibetan monk seated across the aisle from us, but for us was very difficult. Aviv and I are about the same size (read: haven't grown since we were 15, and it's questionable whether we even grew before then) and our feet only reached the wall in front of us if we leaned our shoulders onto the space where our butts belonged and stretched with all our might.

So no sleep. Still, it would be hard to call it "the worst bus ride I have taken in India" since nearly all have been such gems. But usually, I find myself crunched up against a window or pushed onto the engine seat by an unknowingly overbearing Indian man. So in a way, this was okay.

There was a group of seven other Israelis on the bus, (not to typecast) the kind that just got out of the army and were in desperate search of a shanti Tel Aviv nightlife in Dharamsala. Which they found. Dharamsala, at least its upper two villages Dharamkot and Baghsu, caters nearly entirely to Israeli tourists. Most tourist places in India specialize in Israelis, but this was out of control. I'm talking Hebrew signs everywhere, shakshuka in every restaurant along with a waiter itching to try out his Hebrew, and more Israelis than you'll find in Dimona. But a much better view. Aviv and I hightailed it to the furthest guest house in Dharamkot, set basically in the forest, and set up home.

Which was a great idea, since the next day, after lunch at the Beit Chabad and a long walk in McLeod Ganj (home of the exiled Tibetan government) I found myself almost too weak to walk. Being the stubborn person that I am and the grandaughter of my Polish grandmother, I insisted on walking the 3 km from McLeod Gan to Dharamkot. By the time I arrived at my guest house, I essentially collapsed on my bed, not merely because I was exhausted, but from what would turn out to be a very uncomfortable case of probable dehydration.

First came the near fainting, and then came the shivers, which engulfed me all night long, even after I began vomiting in earnest. Knowing I needed to drink water, I tried with all my might, only to lose it into the bucket or toilet a few minutes later. Since I have experienced probably three fevers in my life, the last one about 15 years ago, I was convinced that I was about to die, and was nearly content to accept my fate. Aviv, who like a sister patted my back and changed my bucket and refused to go to sleep until I did, convinced me that it would pass in the morning. Inwardly, she was convinced I had malaria.

When I awoke in the morning, after sleeping in short spurts, my fever was still high and I couldn't keep down any liquids, or ingest anything into my body. So I elected to stay home and "sleep" while Aviv went off to play with Itamar, a great guy we met at the Beit Chabad over Friday night dinner. Personally, I began the day by cursing the good will of the Chabad, who I was convinced had made me sick, but I soon realized that what I had was a pretty clear case of dehydration. I spent the whole day in bed, hurting from head to toe, unable to eat, cold, hot and weak. But I did finish "Everything is Illuminated" (great book, thanks Gil).

Today, Monday, I got out of bed, and ate a meal (in all honesty, not the best decision) and walked to Baghsu with Itamar and Aviv to explore. Dharamsala is truly lovely, and I'm looking forward to regaining my energy in full so I can explore some more.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bebra to Dodi Tal to Darwa Pass and back to Bebra

(1) Trail to Dodi Tal / (2) Commercial for MSR camping equipment (or, Chandara and his son helping Peter with his stove) / (3) Chandara and Bindra / (4) Trail to Dodi Tal / (5) Dodi Tal / (6) Trail to Darwa Pass / (7) At Darwa Pass / (8 and 9) Bebra children









Agora





Gangnani through Uttarkashi to Dodi Tal

Photos:
(1)Cows grazing in a field of cannabis / (2) Gangnani hot springs / (3) A cow loving Uri / (4) Cow after loving Uri / (5) Agora woman on trail to Dodi Tal





...and back down the Ganga

Photos:
(1 and 2) View of Gangotri from Gomuk trail / (3 through 6) Hira village, above Gangnani









Up the Ganga

Rishikesh-Uttarkashi-Trail to Gomuk-Bhojbasa



















Wednesday, May 16, 2007

'homely stay in a beautiful natural location'

For most tourists and pilgrims, Uttarkashi is a stopover town on the way to one of the four sources of the Ganga River. We ended up staying there for two nights, mostly because I couldn't decide what to do next (yes, the indecision of being a Libra has followed me to India) and because Uri wanted to buy some essentials before going off on a week-long trek. I decided to join Uri on the trek to Dodi Tal, which according to Indian mythology, is the lake where Shiva cut off Ganesha's head and replaced it with that of an elephant.

Orian headed off to Srinigar, Rachel stayed in Uttarkashi, and Uri and I took the 8:45 local bus (which left at 9:20) to a small town called Sagnam Chatti, about one hour northwest of Uttarkashi. The bus was crowded, as usual, with people piled three to a two-seater, four to a three-seater, and scores more hanging in the aisle. When we arrived in Sagnam Chatti, at the end of the line, we were met with the usual, "Hello, you want guide?" We didn't, so we crossed the short bridge to the foot of the trail, where I traded my sandals for trekking shoes. A European couple walked by us, their backs straight and tall, wearing hard-core hiking boots and carrying obviously well-packed bags. I continued to tie my shoes.

On many of these treks in the western Himalaya, the beginning is often the steepest part. Uttarkashi is about 1880 meteres high, and according to the map, we would have reached 3000 meters by the time we arrived at Dodi Tal. Up, up we walked, past the brushes of stinging nettle and cannabis, into the dense forest.

About half an hour into the hike, we heard a voice calling to us. We looked up and saw nothing. There it was again, the voice. We looked up again, and saw, behind a rock, a face. The face also had a hand, which summoned us. We looked at each other, and decided to go. The voice, the face and the hand also had a body, that of a toothless woman lounging behind the rock, next to another woman, a young girl, an older man and a teenaged boy. "Chocolate?" they requested, holding out their hands. "No chocolate," we said, but we did have a few packages of Parle-G biscuits, one of which we gave to the toothless woman to keep. We opened another package and shared it with them. They were from the village of Agora, 8 km up the trail, and had come down to cut branches to bring back to their village.

After the snack, we continued on the trail, which was so unlike the trail to Gomuk. To begin with, the ascent was much easier on my lungs. Maybe this was because my body was more acclimatized, or maybe because there is so much more oxyegn in the forest than in the desert-like atmosphere of the way to Gomuk. Also, there were no chai shops on the way up the trail. There was, however, a sign for a guest house in Agora boasting "a homely stay in a beautiful natural location." I hope they meant homey.

Agora, which we reached about two hours later, was in fact a beautiful natural location, but seeing how early in the day it was, we decided to continue on to the next village, Bebra, to spend shabbat. We did stop in Agora long enough to eat lunch and watch the rainclouds gather above us.

By the time we arrived in Bebra, the daily rain had poured, lightly. We paid the 10 rupees to the forest guard, who then accompanied us to the nearest dhaba / chai shop. The dhaba owner asked us to stay in his guest house, which, upon closer inspection, was as unappetizing as it appeared at first sight. "Is there another guest house here?" I asked. The dhaba owner and the forest guard both vehemently shook their heads at me. Uri gave me a disappointed look. "Wrong queston," he told me.

We continued on, about 100 meters, where we found another guest house, this one much more homey and much less homley than the last. The European couple, who turned out to be as Swiss as they looked, had already set up their tent on the grass behind the stone house. We took a room, and then joined the couple (Peter and Miriam), who were trying out their Indian camping stove for the first time in an attempt to make lemon ginger tea. Chandara Lal (the guest house owner) and his "woman" Bindra joined us for tea, and asked us when we wanted to eat dinner.

The rest of the afternoon we lounged and wrote, looking out at the forest and the stream, as buffalo and cows and horses and children strolled by us. Agora is a small village. Bebra is a very, very, very small village. As night fell, I went off down the trail to sing kabbalat shabbat. For the first time I began to feel deeply the peace and quiet I have been looking for since I arrived in India. It is an amazing place to let go, to really rest.

Sunday morning, we continued our trek to Dodi Tal, which is only about 16 kilometers from Bebra. On the way, we passed through another small village called Mahji, bigger than Bebra but smaller than Agora and much less developed than either. We stopped for chai, looking at the clouds above us. "It won't last," I said, now an expert on Uttaranchal weather. "It'll rain for a couple of hours and then clear."

Well, the rain began as we began the hardest ascent to Dodi Tal. By rain, of course, I mean hail. And by hail, I mean hail.

When we arrived in Dodi Tal we were soaking wet and freezing. The Europeans, Swiss as they are, were in much better shape than we were. My shoes were entirely soaked through, as were my pants. We crowded around a fire where about 10 Indians sat warming their hands. The majority of said Indians, we learned, were managers and factory operators from India's largest company, Tata. They were in Dodi Tal for adventure-training / team-building, and they were very funny. I don't know how else to characterize them. One of them, a skinny man with a disproportionately small head, asked us to pose with his colleagues for a picture, so we did.

Uri and I ended up spending the night in a dhaba run by a 17-year-old boy named Moskesh and his 14-year-old brother Bipin, who made us dinner and fed us chai, and set up warm blankets for us on the floor.

The next morning we awoke at quarter to 6 with the Tata adventure-trainers and climbed up to Darwa pass with them. Well, not really with them, since they are all much older than we are and much slower. We began the ascent with them (1,000 meters over 6 kilometers) and met them again on the way down. By the time we arrived at the pass, after walking on snow up a slippery slope, we found ourselves literally inside the day's raincloud. Peter and Miriam, the Swiss mountaineers, scurried up to the summit in their state-of-the-art hiking boots, but I didn't really feel the need. I was standing in the middle of a cloud, 4,000 meters high. That was good enough for me.

We were back in Dodi Tal by noon, exhausted from the already full day. I went to sit by the lake, to sort out the many thoughts and realizations I had reached while slipping down the wet trail.

We spent the night with Mokesh and Bipin in their dhaba again. This time, though, as we set to sleep at around 9 P.M., we found ourselves in the midst of a Hindi sing-along. About 20 loud friends from Delhi had crowded into the dhaba for a late dinner, and paid no mind to our attempt to sleep. "If this had happened an hour ago, it would have been great," Uri said. "It's still great," I said, and fell asleep.

The next morning, at around 5:30, Uri went back up to Darwa pass, where he planned to continue on to another town, two days down then trail, and then to Yamnotri, one of the char dham (sources of the Ganga.) Peter and Miriam came in for a chai about half an hour later, and then continued after Uri. At about quarter to 7, I gathered my things and began my trail back down to Bebra.

Before I left Dodi Tal, Mokesh asked where I was going to stay in Bebra. "My grandfather has a guest house there," he told me. "Well, I stayed at Chandara's before," I told him. Mokesh wrinkled his nose. "Chandara Lal? No good."

"Why no good?" I said, laughing. "You mean good, but not your grandfather?"

"No," he said, seriously. "He is very low civil caste."

I didn't really know how to respond. The caste system is not something I truly understand, and it is not my way of determining who is good or not.

I said goodbye to Mokesh and Bipin, and all of the other Dodi Tal friends, and found myself back on the trail, this time alone. The night before I had realized that, as wonderful as the friends I have made are, and as enjoyable as it has been to share these experiences, I needed to spend time by myself, to have the alone time I have been craving for so long.

At first, as I found myself inside of the dense forest, I was a little scared (mostly of whether or not to tell my mother. Hi Mom.) There I was, alone, on a trail in the forest, with only my thoughts to accompany me. It was then, amid deep thoughts and vivid scenery, that I realized. I was not alone. There on the trail with me were millions and trillions of living organisms, trees and plants and herbs and bugs and animals, all experiencing the early dawn with me.

I was like Dorothy, but without a tin man, or a lion, or a scarecrow. And no Toto. Obstacles arose and I met them, crossing rocks over streams, difficult ascents, slippery paths, the whole while looking around me and within me.

As I walked on, I saw something in front of me, long and slim, slithering on what looked like a big white rock. My heart jumped. A snake? How would Dorothy deal with this situation? How would Jack Kerouac? I walked slower, and then noticed that it wasn't a snake at all, it was a tail, a long graceful tail belonging to a lazy cow.

I stopped for a water and biscuit break along the way, on a rock near a stream. It was there the bees came out, one at first, and then two, and then I stood up and heard them buzzing all around me, either in mind or in reality. Two of them nestled onto my backpack, which I had slung on a rock. I paced, unsure of what to do, as the bees buzzed on bag. Finally I dumped my water bottle onto the bag, and the bees flew away. I grabbed my bag and continued down the trail.

On I went, through Mahji with its beautiful children, down the trail, through the forest. I ran out of water about 5 km away from Bebra. About two kilometers later I heard the giggling voics of wood nymphs, who turnd out to be three young women, under 30, all beautiful, all missing multiple teeth. One of them stuck out their hand and said, "toffee?" 'Toffee?' I thought, and shook my head. "Pani?" they said, arms still outstretched. I showed them my empty water bottle, and gave them what was left of my biscuits. They insisted on posing for a photo with the biscuits in their hands, perched in front of their toothless mouths.

I stopped at the first water spout I saw, just outside Bebra, and stuck my head under the flowing water. The women from the trail passed by me as I sat there, their baskets filled with the branches and leaves they had collected along the way.

I arrived in Bebra a little while later. Chandara and his son were in their dhaba, and seemed glad to see me. They offered me chai and food, and I sat around with them for hours, helping with their wood carvings and relaxing. The food they served me was just what we'd had on shabbat: rice, dahl and fern, which is quite possibly the strangest vegetable I have ever had. A fly died in my chai, more than once, but I just spilled it out each time and graciously accepted another.

The Tata team, who left Dodi Tal half an hour after I did and arrived in Bebra two and a half hours after I did, were staying at Mokesh's granfather's guest house for the night. The team leaders had organized a night of Garhwali song and dance for them, which was really an amazing experience. I sat next to Jasmila, Chandara's young daughter with whom I had developed a special relationship despite our complete lack of shared language. Looking around me, I realized I was the only foreigner there. It was a nice feeling. Later on, I got some advice on good treks in Himachal Pradesh from one of the guides, a Nepali whose father climbed Everest twice without oxygen and "expired" on his third attempt.

The next morning, early, I headed back down to Sagnam Chatti, taking my time to complete the 10 km. The Tata crew left at around the same time as me, and we were accompanied by the children of Agora, who walk up and down the trail to school every day.

I reached Sagnam Chatti about an hour and a half (and a total of 60 km) later, just in time to catch the bus back to Uttarkashi. I spent a few hours by the Ganga and then got on a bus, planning to go to Dehra Dun. I decided to get off in Rishikesh instead, where I am now. Tomorrow, Dharamsala.