Thursday, November 11, 2010

About cakes in faces and kicking asses at my birthday party

Once every year you get reminded of your age. No matter how old you feel or look, this number is not waiting for you and increasing permanently. The strange thing about it is that the older I get, the more I realise that an old man must still be the same little child in his inner self. The reason for this thought is that besides you are going through different periods of your life, which also change you more or less, at the end, you still recognise yourself! You met yourself on the way. Surprisingly for me, the inner self doesn’t change as fast as the number of your birthdays. What about, if the old man also doesn’t feel like 70 years? He noticed that his body was aging, that his mind maybe got a little slowed down, but from my point of view today, I think he is still wondering about similar questions of life, apparently why everybody looks up to him, treating him different then people treated him 43 year back.

Anyway, my 27th birthday was coming along and I didn’t have any clue how to celebrate with my friends. Definitely I wanted to do something active, where everybody can participate and that it’s not just the usual weekend party. I also knew that with respect to Incredible India’s broad variety of amazing to do’s, it wouldn’t be so easy to find a proper answer on my question. After calling heaps of bowling alleys, I found out that some of them didn’t even exist anymore, were closing right at the time when most of us are just about to leave work or we located somewhere behind the moon. The fact that none of them would have served beer didn’t matter at this point already. This option was gone. Plan B was also not to feasible, because I had to ask myself, if having a picnic with some music in the ruins of the District Park would have been too crazy for India, especially since the park is locked and secured after 8 pm. A commonly known picnic place was the area surrounding India Gate, but celebrating at one of the most famous landmarked sites, the party probably wouldn’t have get started. At the end things are mostly simpler than you think before, so we were having a BBQ at our veranda. Back in Germany, we used to have grill parties almost every weekend in the summer and I was actually missing it very much in India. Thus, I kind of made myself a gift by deciding to invite my friends for my first BBQ party in India.

Arranging a grill and chalk coal should have been the next issues, although interesting and funny ones! While having lunch in our beloved small street restaurant, I guy passed by his bike and were delivering the restaurant with a bag of coal. That was my chance, but due to enjoying the food too much, I forgot him and he was gone. Therefore Karan, Jakob and I were going on a mission to find a coal service shop, which required quite some time. Soon after Jakob dropped out, we actually found a place, where hills of chalk coal were being produced, but nobody was there for selling it. Well, at the time being we had a lot of fun with “looking at the features of the close environment”, but we didn’t get any coal and had to go back to the office. After work I tried again and got an insight of the chalk coal supply chain for small businesses in India. People were queuing up to deliver tiny little tree trunks and branches, as well as wood peaces they found on the streets. Obviously they were getting money for supplying the governmental coal store. Others were burning and smoking the wood, while again other were weighting and selling the product. At a rate of 22 Rs/kg (0,30 Euro) I bought some kilos and prevented the coal on being delivered by bike within its last level of the value chain. During the day I was also talking to Alex, who was offering his grill. The only problem was the question how to get it to my place. Without much discussion we agreed on doing it the Indian style, jumped on his motorbike and were manoeuvring the dismantled grill, fixed around my body, through Delhi’s crazy rush hour traffic! It was so much fun. On the way home, I bought chicken and mutton and if we would not have forgotten the gridiron, we could have started the BBQ without improvising. But as an engineer is not hustling with such minor issues, a solution was found very easily: two deformed metal trivets made my day!

After burning one peace of coal on the stove in the kitchen, the whole grill could have been set on fire and soon people were having corn, naan (bread), rice and grilled meat to accompany the beer in their stomachs. Afterwards an Indian birthday tradition took place and I was not aware of it before. I was supposed to cut a peace from the chocolate cake and hand it to one of my fellows. Then I didn’t expect to get it right back, but into my face! Karan rubbed it as good as he could; through my face and hair! Right after that, four of them were throwing me 27 times into the air and I literately could not hold me from laughing ;-) … it was such great and unforeseen fun, especially when you consider the final of the Indian styled birthday. Whoever liked could bump my ass with her/his feet, because I was still hung up by the four guys. Hilarious! Fortunately I was able to share some of the cake from my face with the other when I was hugging them ..haha…

Thanks for all the wishes and great moments we could share! I’ll never forget that funny party with all of you!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hockey fever at the Commonwealth Games 2010 in Delhi

Guys, I just came back from the hockey semi-final between the Commonwealth Games (CWG) host country India against its old conqueror England and must admit that I have discovered my second favourite team sport! It’s like football, because its structure is the same: one big field, 11 players each side, all running to get the ball in the opponent’s goal. Even though the rules are a bit different, tactics and runways are the same. So if you like football, then you’ll probably like hockey as well. It’s like footballs little brother. The exciting and fresh thing about hockey is that you don’t know the moves and tricks the players are performing and thus it seemed like amazing football tricks all the time! It’s also really fast and how they can dribble, pass and receive the ball is just incredible…
Since a couple of years India knows that it will host the CWG in 2010, billions of Euros has be spent (actually 7 billion EUR, which is 2-3 times as much as at a World Cup) more or less reasonable. The big sport event with 71 Commonwealth Nations turned the last two month I’ve been in Delhi into a big chaos and nobody was expecting it to be ready in time. Only a few optimists have been remaining and could hope for an “Incredible India” wonder to happen and then on the 3rd October it was finally the big day, when the event which divided India in pros and cons, was present. The fact that the government pushed all the small street marketer and stands out of the city, the big corruption around the huge amount of money spent, the crucial schedule and the already apart-falling and breaking bridges and building ceilings were in nobody’s mind anymore! Nevertheless the government still seems to be really worried about terror attacks, because what you see on the streets right now, could also take place in Afghanistan. Huge army troops are patrolling the stadiums. Military is even hiding behind sand sack barriers and in observation decks pointing with big guns on passengers. It almost looks like India is in a war…
The CWG were only about to happen for 11 days and by the time some of my friends and I finally made a decision to witch games we should go, most of the tickets were sold out already. Luckily we got tickets for the semi-final India against England, what was actually not known at the time we bought our tickets. The price was incredible cheap; if you consider the 250 rupees (bit more the 4 Euros) we had to pay for a game of the best four teams. At work we were already talking about all the India hockey games as it is the most prestigious sport at the games. No wonder that right before the closing ceremony the hockey finale will be played. In exactly this match India will now face Australia and an entire nation hopes to see a different score than the 7:4 defeat in the group game.

Back to the semi-finale! My first hockey game will be legendary for me and comes close to my first football match what I watched with my grandfather in 1994, when Brazil and Italia were battling each other in 120 minutes and penalty shooting of the World Cup finale! The same happened today, when India equalised the 3:1 handicap from the middle of the second half. India was playing as it was their last game and deserved to get extra chances in the additional time. Unfortunately they missed a penalty during the 1st half of the two times 7.5 minutes additional time and so made it exciting until the shooting. The longer the game continued the more people realised that India really was able to go into the CWG finale for the first time. Therefore more and more often the fans were standing up, singing and cheering for their team. We were right in between them and also supported our India. The atmosphere was really peaceful and fun to participate. When the Indian hockey goal keeper saved one of the English penalties then everybody was jumping around crazy, but still had to wait for some more minutes until it was official that India bet England. In their happy mood a lot of people come to us for sharing their happiness with us, taking pictures and having small talks. At the end I discovered another parallel to football, because England seems to be weak in penalties in both the sports ;-)

Besides all the negative media releases of the CWG in the last weeks, it was a nice evening with a perfect score.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Spiti valley (2) – Monasteries, Buddha temples and a lot of nature

Our first day in the mountains was long and brought us a lot amazing and unexpected nature and situations. So no doubt that after reaching Kaza we only wanted to have some dinner and go to sleep in the double room with an extra mattress, especially because the last two nights were not so comfortable when we slept in the bus and car. The warm shower we could take was more than luxury to us! The next morning we had some time to explore a bit of the centre town of Spiti valley, grab some food for the way and then we left Kaza and the Israeli hitchhikers from the day before for seeing some nature and man-made sights. The mountains and environment up in between 3500 and 4000 metres are so incredible and personally I found out that I can watch them forever. Alternately there were either penurious stone formations and strange mountain shapes or lively oasis with rivers and grain fields. It’s so impressive, if you imagine that people are living in this kind of environment, what makes daily life mostly complicated compared to our society’s life.

Obviously since at least 1000 years ordinary Hindus and also Buddhist monks were worshipping their gods from close to the top of the world. From this point of view it is no wonder that their cities and settlements are sometimes on the peak of the mountain itself! But life is kind of harsh and connected to a lot of struggles. During the year they have to fill up their stocks with the little agricultural outcomes they gain from the stony fields to overcome the cold winter. Except of money from tourism the region has income from the apple harvest. The north of India and particularly Himachal Pradesh, the state where we were, is a big supplier of these fruits to all over the country. But as we had to notice how cheap apples were compared to the price charged in Delhi, the harvest can’t make people rich. People living here only have the necessary things in life: time to produce food and clothes, faith in something and a strong commitment to community life. This endowment holds them back from doing such big harm to the world as we do with our so called normal life style. Furthermore they foster a simple life style, which maybe makes them happier then people in sophisticated and unnatural environments.
In that particular monastery we saw some Buddhist monks doing their religious prayers the whole day long. The monotone song they sang and same moves over and over again, probably brought them closer to a higher feeling. Anyway, on the roof-top I spotted some solar PV modules, which they use to generate electricity for TVs and some electrical devices… The redundant things are even not holding back from mountain villages.
The next lessons we learned that day was in a Buddhist temple in a small town, which holy “Om” letters we could read on the mountain walls from far. Besides watching the impressive construction and stunning old age of the ground with its worshipping facilities, we got taught from a voluntary student. Firstly we had to know, that in Buddhism everything is connected in flows in a cycle. Life, death and life again… therefore we had to walk a clockwise round in the temple. Surprisingly, there was not just one Buddha we could see in the temple, but heaps of heaps. Thus, we learned that in each of us a little Buddha sits and just waits to rise! Thirdly, you can become a Buddhist even though you are married and have a family, but the highest maxima should always be related to honesty, truth and not cheating at all. Then you’ll become pure. The last lesson was from the same importance than all the others before, but in a country like India it was even more remarkable. “Good things are coming without money!” our smiling teacher said and be saying this he gave me a very strong determent for life. Whenever I was travelling after that trip his saying was helping me to distinguish between true good people and other trying to fool you.

We were really glad that we had our own Jeep and driver, respectively friend, because we could reach so many things we could never have done by bus in the short amount of time we had left. They valley is quite big and you need time to go from A to B. The road conditions are not that bad as in the night before on the Rohtang pass, but our average driving speed was still marginal. Once we had to take pictures of the scenic view, once we had yaks on the street, once we gave construction workers a lift to the next bridge, once we stopped for a lost tourist, … a lot of side stories happened.
The evening ended with playing some cards and sleeping in basic beds up on a mountain peak, where the Ki Monastery stands. Due to our late arrival we even didn’t get any food, but for one evening of a fabulous day we could easily afford that. When Caro, Jenny and Jonny were already wrapped into their bed sheets I went outside and watched the stars for a while. Being hundreds of kilometres away from a significant light source, the star heaven is so shiny and you see an amount of little yellow blinking spots, what you could not have dreamed of. The only night in my life, I have seen at least the same great phenomena, was in the 5 million star accommodation of the Australian outback. It’s so magic! The next morning was not less beautiful then the night observation, because we could look down into the valley surrounding our mountain accommodation.

Overnight Jenny got fever and started to feel very sick and weak at the same time. In India you should really take these health issues serious, because especially foreign people are more vulnerable for threatening diseases, especially when the monsoon brings malaria and dengue fever to your city. In the hope that she has no dengue, we skipped another meal and drove to a doctor in Kaza. For that moment we called her luckily, because the doctor said Jenny was not infected by dengue, but without the results of a proper blood sample we couldn’t be 100% sure. Anyway, getting some medicine and the consultation of the doctor made Jenny and us feel better. For the rest of the trip Jenny either were resting in guest houses or sleeping in the car, but since she was too weak she couldn’t join more hikes or sightseeing. By the way, back in Delhi the results of a proper blood test were explaining her status: Jenny had dengue! But as we are still in the mountains, we didn’t know that and let her rest, while Caro, Jonny and I finally had breakfast.
Strengthened by the food we left Kaza for some more scenic views and mountain villages. Before we reached anything particularly, we had a notable drive again and since Caro speaks fluently Hindi, Jonny and she were chatting all the time. Meanwhile I had a lot of time to enjoy the nature and could follow some thoughts from earlier. In the mountain area I even noticed more than in Delhi that cows are holy, straying-around animals and nobody owns them. From an economical point of view it is almost not explainable, because under these conditions they are declared as a public good. Everybody can access them and when one user milked it, than another one would not gain any milk for a while. Thus somebody could just overuse and exploit the cow’s products, because nobody is hindering him. Some-how this is not happening here, so regulations do not have to implement a right to someone to use the cow. In our western world this is exactly how it is done, because if one owns the cow, he will take care for it and charge a price to sell the products of the cow. The demand would decrease due to the price people have to pay for the milk and no overuse would take place. This just shows how different things are. For Indians, their religious beliefs obviously count more than their greed for possessions. Although I’m interested in economics and also had various economic courses in my degree, I’m not an expert on that topic. If there is an economist reading my small contribution, then please tell what’s really behind that observation. Jonny in the meanwhile kind of noticed that I couldn’t really participate in the Hindi conversation, but still made me a good compliment by describing me as “a good man, really simple…” and woke associations to Ghandi’s saying “Simplicity is the essence of universality”. By the time we reached our destination, which was a village up on more than 4000 metres.
The colourful play of the nature surrounding us made let us forget that we had to go back to Delhi again, but how is a saying going: “You should leave, when you enjoy the most!?” Well, it was Saturday afternoon and to make it to work on Monday morning, it was time to drive back, picking up Jenny, having a lost night in the mountains in Chhatru at the same spot where we slept in the car in the first night, climbing up the somewhat 4300 metres over the Rohtang pass and reach Manali.

Our last stop in Manali was a bit random, because it saw a Bollywood movie shooting and entered it. Usually it is forbidden to take pictures there, but since they wanted to have some of us, we could also click them ;-) It is by the way quite common that these shootings take place in the mountains and such big coulisses are set up. The nice looking “palace” in the background is therefore only made from wood and cardboard.

After the quite cheerful event Jonny wanted to show us the last thing on our trip. It was a small Shiva temple on the mountain side and lucky for me, I food some boulders where I finally could practice a bit! Down in the city we then just had time to say good bye to our friend and promise him to come back. Over the days we really started to like each other and all of us hope that our passes are crossing again. And so our nice trip in the Himalaya ended, at least for this time …

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Spiti valley (1) - Incredible India greets from the Himalaya

After exploring Delhi and some if the sights in the past weeks, the public holiday on the 2nd September was perfectly made for taking some days off! Since my later travel itinerary will most likely bring me to the south and west of India, I have to focus on travels into the north and east as long as my internship is lasting. Another reason to go to the mountains for my first trip is the fact, that by the end of September or early October the passes up to the north will be closed and the only chance to reach the states of Himachal Pradesh or Jammu & Kashmir would be by the far more expensive plane. The disadvantage of that is not just the money matter, but also the short time for reaching those destinations and the issue of not getting used to the high altitude step by step. If you plan to flight into the area of Leh & Ladakh, then you really need some more time than we had. Indeed Caro, Jenny and I were taking the Wednesday and Friday off and due to the Thursday’s holiday and the weekend, we had 5 days to spare. Initially we wanted to go to the mentioned Leh area, but as you might know, the flash floods from early August pretty much destroyed some of the roads and the city itself. Also, we didn’t want to be in the way of the helpers, nor use their limited resources for our needs. So we decided to get on a bus journey to Spiti valley.
Tuesday afternoon I had to leave work early, because at 5.20 pm we were supposed to stand at Connaught Place and jump on the bus, but as usually it comes different. Although we had to rush to be there in time, we still couldn’t leave punctually! Our bus was delayed and actually we also were never too sure where it was exactly going to depart. Anyway, the time passed by really fast, partly because we were talking to an Indian writer and two of the outcomes I have to mention here. One is the fact that he is quite infamous or even hated amongst the Indian readership, because he sees all the Indians as primitive beings, which only recognise humans as flesh. While listening to his strict words, ironically I could observe an obvious male monkey sitting on a wall. He was just letting the females through, if they were willing to pay with the only thing they could give him: their body. It was very strange because the writer’s words perfectly fitted to monkeys, but not to Indians as I have met them so far. We were not just talking about the general Indian, but also about one particular one: Ghandi, who in his opinion was just teaching useless things without any proof of truth. Maybe the Ghandi scientific approach was a bit short, but no doubt he had his positive influence on India. Anyway, the other thing worth telling you might be the book recommendation what he gave me on my request. It is “The continent of circe” by Nirod C. Chaudhari, which he said will make me remembering his former words and in the meanwhile I also know, why that might be so. The subtitle of the book is called “Essay of the people of India”, so I guess I know, where he got his impressions from.
Two hours after our expected departure we were finally sitting in the bus looking forward to 15 hours of travelling up to Manali, where we planned to hire a jeep including driver to explore the mountain area in the few five days we had. But before seeing scenic mountain skylines and monasteries, we had to watch 2 endless long bollywood movies in hindi, had to stop several hundred times for toilet and food breaks and also had to wait in a traffic jam up on a pass into the mountains. The obvious reason was some rocks falling down on the street and blocking it. In line with about 50 military trucks, we had to wait and wait and wait… the military was on their way to Leh and Ladakh, which they supplied with food, water and tool to recover from the damaging floods. Moreover waiting and watching these military people throwing stones in a valley, we also had the opportunity to take some pictures.

Some-when after we lost another 2 hours, we continued heading north and reached Manali after 20 hours of bus ride. Manali is the place to arrange you some tour through Spiti valley, especially if you don’t have the time to take the local bus. After checking renting fares of Jeeps and bargaining, we had about an hour for dinner and getting ready for our trip. Just for the purpose of advices and comparison I state that we had to pay 10000 rupees (170 Euros) for 5 days including Jonny, our driver as well as his food and accommodation and petrol for the car! This was by far the best price we could get and honestly Caro’s Hindi skills were helping us superbly. In the late evening we left the civilisation with Jonny our driver. The journey over night brought us up on the Rohtang Pass and the higher we climbed up to the almost 4000 metre top, the more fog we had to face. Honestly it was not that much fun, because we could only see as far as half a metre lets you see. This is kind of scary when you know that there deep side along the serpentines. The girls were sleeping on the back seats and Jonny and I had to take care that everything was save. Sometimes it was very crucial and we had to go back some metre, but still it was a nice night. I was tired as hell and Jonny and I couldn’t talk much, because of Hindi-English language barriers, but we managed to understand each other blind. Sometimes we stopped in the middle of nowhere and had some chai in soil and brick made compounds in the mountain. That was pretty amazing, seeing people living in up in this unlikely conditions. So step by step we made our way up on the one side and a little down on the other side, where finally also found some sleep for some hours. The month just turned into September, but in a night in the mountains above 3500 m you can really feel the cold. On the next morning we had to wake up early to follow our journeys timetable, but no day in the mountains starts without having chai. Since we spent the night in the car right next to a little brick house in Chhatru, it was no problem to get the Indian tea and spice mixture. While waiting for the chai, I had a lot time to explore the area and totally realise that we must be on a high altitude already.

Pictures were taken and the chai made us wake up and our journey continued. As a friend of climbing and bouldering, I was almost upset that we could stay in the area around Chhatru, because along the river there were plenty of nice boulders and for those I even brought my climbing shoes and chalk bag. But nevertheless we had a great goal this day, because we wanted to hike up to Chandra Tal. After a couple of hours driving on bad streets and jumping up and down in the Jeep, we reached the base from where we did a 3 hours hike up to the famous lake of Chandra Tal, which is situated at an altitude of about 4300 metres in the Himalaya. Again nobody moved even a toe without having a cup of chai before. At that time we met a newly married Israeli couple, which joined us on our walk. The air notable became thinner and we had to breathe kind of heavy. Reaching the top was therefore the more stunning, because the colourful play of the different impressions of sky, clouds, mountains and lake were overwhelming. We liked it so much that we spontaneously decided to have a swim in the cold lake ;-)

Since the two friends we made, were hitchhiking their honeymoon, we of course offered them some places in our Jeep, especially since at least 3 more people would have fitted in! The next stop should have been Lahore, where you register yourself and show passports. This identification is for the reason if you get lost and somebody has to come looking for you. But we first of all not reached the spot. Why we got delayed another time is again an incredible India story for itself. Somehow we realised that the Jeep was driving straight anymore and by looking at the front tires, it was easy to tell that one of them was not in its proper position. Some part of the wheel suspension broke and we were all alone in the middle of nowhere, apparently without jack or extra wheel part. So what to do then waiting! After half an hour the first car came gave us a jack without getting something in exchange, and off they were again. Some more cars passed us before another car gave us the broken part we needed, but also left. And since the first jack we got, didn’t bring the car up, we had to wait until a Jeep of Israeli backpackers came by, stopped, offered us their jack, and actually helped us to fix the break-down. This was somehow random, but incredible India just started as the Indian driver started to hammer with the other not working jack at a steel part of the broken wheel part. I’ve never thought that they will be able to fix our car, because they actually bended and broke more than they could heal. But finally our Israeli friends seemed to have a good idea and so they could use the old jack a lever... After 3 hours it was done and at the maximum of 7 cars could easily pass our street blockage. The day and our journey were saved and we didn’t have to think about how our limited time was running away.

The six of us continued to Lahore, where we not just had to leave our passport detail, but also wanted to stay. However we had a run after the crazy day, so we continued driving to Kaza, the heart of Spiti valley, from where a lot of monasteries and Hindu temples can be visited. Jonny more and more became part of our travel expedition than he just would be our driver. We could understand each other pretty good and had a fun time. be continued...