Bombay: at Last

May 31, 2011

Bombay now joins a very small list of places that I can truly call home. It was the heart of my travels through India, both logistically and emotionally. It was the context for some of the greatest nights, most intense experiences, and late-night conversations throughout my trip. And it is the place I miss the most.

The city, like India itself, is impossible to sum up. The more you get into it, the more you realize how vast and beautiful of a place it is. The scale is on par with New York, the neighborhoods rival Boston’s, and buildings recall London’s colonial past and Beijing’s supermodern future. The people range from the poorest men and women on the planet to the richest CEO’s and movie stars. You can get dinner for 50 cents or 50 dollars. And the equal parts of grunge and class make it totally irresistible to people like me; people who are in it for the fun and the experiences at their very rawest state.

But beyond the city is a group of friends who defined Bombay for me. To see a city is one thing, but to live in it is quite another. I got to drive to work every day, work long hours, meet up with friends, hang out for hours, then get home exhausted and ready to do it again tomorrow. To me, that is living in a city, and being able to live in Bombay, even if only for a very short time, was amazing. Thank you.

And see you soon.

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Himachal Pradesh

May 18, 2011

Cold. Sweatshirts. Mountains. Blankets. Hot tea. Pine trees. Clouds. Heaven. The bus ride from Chandigarh to Shimla was a stunning ascent from the hot plains I had spent the past five months in to the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range. And I can tell you, everything is different at 7,000 feet. People dress differently, with nearly all men in Kullu caps and super dorky sweater vests. Tibetan momo stands outnumber the samosa wallas on the streets. Buildings have pitched roofs and shutters on their windows. And there are mountains. I was in heaven.

I took my time exploring Shimla, which is an old British hill-station that clings to the south-facing mountainside. Vehicles are banned from the heart of town (not that they could get around anyways), so exploring the chaotic maze of streets and alleyways was a pleasure. From Shimla, I set off on one of the typical bone-shaking and death-defying local buses that would serve as my means of transport for the next few weeks. I arrived in Rewalsar the same evening and spent the next day exploring the tiny peaceful Buddhist town that surrounds the Rewalsar Lake. The lake is sacred to Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, and it was beautiful to see all three religions practicing in quiet harmony.

From Rewalsar I headed up to Manali, an old hippie town set at the end of the Kullu Valley, and it just kept getting better. The valleys we went through were like nothing I have ever seen – it was like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Roads clinging to canyon walls following the river at hair-raising speeds on your bus, the whole time wondering which highway official forgot to install barriers on the edge of the cliffs you are a few inches from. Every place I went was more beautiful, with snow-capped peaks getting taller, forests getting greener, and nights getting colder. I can’t tell you how good it all felt after missing my own winter back home and spending the last five months in the blistering heat. Manali itself was amazing, set in the mountains with little shops, parks, and restaurants dotting the hills. I made a bunch of friends there, and got to do a few short hikes around town.

Once I was ready to go, I headed back down the valley and up another one to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibet Government in Exile, and the one place in India I was most excited to visit. It didn’t disappoint. I hiked 22 miles and 5,100 vertical feet into the Greater Himalayas, where I got snow in my shoes met Gangada, a old man who has lived alone in his tent for over 16 years, selling water and bags of food to trekkers. I meditated with monks in the Namgyal Monastery and talked about the situation in Tibet afterwards. I wore sweaters and made friends. I wrote poems, read articles on Tibet. And I spent nearly a week truly inspired.

Chandigarh

May 16, 2011

Chandigarh, an architect’s mecca, and me, a kid who likes to think of himself as a bit of an architect, met under uncertain circumstances. I had just run out of money, and of course, it was Friday afternoon, just after the banks closed for the weekend in the states. So I was limited to just 400rs a day for the weekend until I could get money out Monday evening. But I was not going to let a little thing like that affect my pilgrimage¬† to one of the world’s most architecturally famous cities. I was like a kid in a candy store.

Chandigarh, designed from scratch and built on an area of dust and dirt next to a small river over 50 years ago, was a symbol for India’s independence and progress at a time when the country was still a fledgling on the international scene. Championed by Nehru, the city’s architect was Le Corbusier, one of the greatest architects and architectural theorists of our time. Its masterplan, urban systems, infrastructure, and many of this buildings were designed by Corbusier and his team, and the result is amazing. It has as many flaws as it has successes, but to experience a city that was designed by one of architecture’s great modern thinkers, to walk down his streets, to see his thoughts and methods in action, and to physically experience, frankly, a theory, is incredible.

If I am going to get into it, and I don’t think I’ll be able to restrain myself, we first need to look at the problems. First in my mind is the way the city’s growth has been handled over the past fifty years. I don’t think Corbu left quite enough of a guideline or system for growth for the city’s government to go by, or if he did, the government does not quite get it. There is so much potential for modern redevelopment on both a commercial and residential scale within just the city center – large areas right downtown are just sitting, unused except by the dogs and mice who call the scrubby grasses home – but for some reason, the city feels the need to expand out instead of in, which is really a massive loss of potential. There could be so much more life and activity downtown if the blocks were filled in and kept up. And, if I can complain directly to Corbusier for a second – Corbu, your blocks are too big. I know why you did it, and the logic is valid, but at 800m by 1200m, you gota break it up a bit.

But man oh man, the successes! Its so green! There are trees everywhere, grass lining sidewalks, and an amazing system of parks and corridors. It is a beautiful city just for that. But then the transportation systems are great and easy to use. Its internal block fabric is another success, although I would have to live in it for a while to really get a feel for it. And his buildings! Beautiful on the outside and breathtaking on the inside; it is spectacular to see so much of his work in just a few days. The High Court building was simply awesome (after wading through an insane amount of governmental procedures and paperwork), I must have taken 200 photos alone in the Government Museum (and none of that of the art itself), but the Assembly building left me speechless. Simply speechless.

In the end (yes Jeff, “in the end”), if I may make a few bold claims made on my brief impressions of only a few days time, I think that Chandigarh is a city with a lot of underutilized potential. And only a few changes in the city’s approach – namely re-development instead of development – would truly make Chandigarh a city of the world instead of a city of India. But that being said, to see it in action, to see Corbusier’s theories manifested and his buildings standing to the test of time, is really a beautiful thing. I only wish I could spend a few more months here and really get to see how well the city works – how good its concrete buildings are in the heat and the rains, how comprehensive its public transportation systems are, how the residential systems work, and to see if my first impressions have any weight.

Uttarkahand

May 6, 2011

I fell asleep in Delhi and awoke in Haridwar, one of India’s most famous pilgrimage sites and a city dominated by a river. Haridwar, and in particular Har-Ki-Pairi (meaning “the footstep of God), marks the exact spot where the river Ganga leaves the rapids of the mountains to begin its slow ascent through the plains to the Bay of Bengal. It is a pretty touristy town but delightfully spiritual, especially along the river, where thousands of pilgrims strip down and bathe in the icy rapids with gritted teeth and clenched fists. I was blessed enough to spend the morning watching these pilgrims suffer through this, all for the love of God. It was a beautiful experience. Also, while watching this, I came to a nice little conclusion: love is in the little things, peace is in the big things.

I then departed Haridwar, feeling quite refreshed, for the hour bus ride up the river to Rishikesh, which the Beatles put on the international map in the 60s and the hippies continue to carry forward today. Similar to Haridwar, but with a stronger western influence and set deeper into the mountains, Rishikesh is where I spent my birthday the next day. I purposely avoided all human contact, and spent the day hidden in the boulders by the riverside. I don’t know if it was the fact that it was my birthday, or something in my tea that morning, or maybe even some vibes that the Beatles are still sending out, but it was one of the best days of my last six months. It was a day of pure inspiration, which is as many of you know, a perfect day for me. With my two greatest heroes, Dylan (the Bootlegs) and Kerouac (Dharma Bums) to keep my company, I spent the day doing everything I love. I read. I wrote on God and the illusion of the world, on happiness and its own relativity. I listened to Dylan. I sketched and designed some ideas for a building project I want to do on the farm. I wrote poems. I sang to no one but myself. I meditated and skipped stones. And I was thankful for the day.

Delhi

May 4, 2011

Usually first on traveler’s agendas, Delhi fell near the end of mine which meant that I was not privy to the culture shock that usually hits many as they arrive, bleary-eyed and befuddled, at the main bazaar in Pharganj en-route to a hotel.

But I can’t start there just yet, because there is one even that took place on the 20 hour train ride from Bombay that was pretty special to me: my first rain in five months. Just sit back and think of five whole months without a single drop of rain. I was like a child who made a new discovery for the first time; the smell of the rain, the unnaturally cool breeze, and the dark, warm, eerie quality of light on the land. It was beautiful.

But yes, not needing to spend time walking around in a confused daze, I was able to jump right in and get into the city. I was especially excited to see the city from an architectural perspective – particularly the difference between Old and New Delhi. And let me say, it is quite a difference.

Old Delhi, the seventh of Delhi’s eight historical cities, is just insane. The fabric is an organic maze of streets and alleys, overgrown with shops, shacks, and power lines. It is beyond crowded, polluted, teeming with life, and completely extreme. But like all of India, it somehow works – surprisingly well. My first order of business was to get lost, which I didn’t even have to try to do. I spent the next few hours loving and soaking in the insanity around me in Old Delhi before walking down two flights of stairs and 100 years into the future.

Thats right, it only takes 26 steps (I counted) to travel in time – no need for a flux capacitor or 1.21 gigawatts. Delhi’s brand new metro system is nothing like the streets where I came from only seconds before. It is right up there with the best of them – squeaky clean, super efficient, and quite comprehensive – and ten rupees and five minutes later, I was again transported in time. When I walked back up those 26 steps, I emerged into a city built by the British in the early 1900s in preparation for the shift of its capitol from Calcutta to Delhi. New Delhi is in every way Old Delhi’s alter-ego. Its streets are long, planned boulevards with massive swaths of green lining either side, and white governmental mansions set gracefully behind in the trees. There is almost no traffic, and whenever some crops up, you can count on an officer of the law to be there to save the day. But once this initial glow started to wear off, I began to wonder where everyone was. As curiosity inevitably got the better of me and I started exploring a bit, I found that there were plenty of people in cars and in their offices, working away for various governmental branches and embassies, and even some at home further south, their Mercs parked in the driveway and the TV on. But no one on the streets, talking, laughing, buying, selling; no one living the so quintessential Indian life that I have come to love. And it was here that I got a bit scared because I thought I had missed my stop on the metro and instead got off somewhere in suburban America. This unease did not wear off until I got back to my hotel in Old Delhi and fell asleep to the chorus of insanity that I had been missing.

The next day I had to get my act together if I was to see the countless sights of Delhi, so I started off with the breakfast of champions, a masala dosa, found myself a rickshaw driver, Amin, and set off to take Delhi by storm. First the Red Fort, then the stunning Jama Masjid, then the Gandhi Museum which was a beautiful collection of photos and text about the live of the Mahatma, after the massive and impressive National Museum, and then the Gandhi Smriti, which is where Gandhi was killed in 1948, and finally the Crafts Museum. I was exhausted by then end, which was good, as I had a night train to Uttarakhand that evening…