Following a week that carried us from the treetops to Mysore to the seashore city of Mangalore, and which provided glimpses of wild elephants by the roadside in the Western Ghats range and huge crowds of black-clad pilgrims, coming into Mumbai was almost like landing in Europe; slums and smog notwithstanding. Even with the crowds, the British buildings and roundabout fountains of India's most cosmopolitan seem vaguely familiar, though elements such as ornate friezes piling monkeys on gargoyles atop martial scenes show that the colonizers were not just actors but acted upon. Were I inclined to an urban existence, Mumbai-formerly-Bombay is actually a city I would consider calling home -- if they could just solve to pollution problem. And the poverty problem, marked by the largest slums in Asia.

Which is ironic, because for Western travelers the city by the sea (India's answer to Santa Monica or Miami, perhaps) is also one of the most expensive stopovers in South Asia. We were there for just a couple of days, soaking up the urban atmosphere, inhaling the smog-chocked air, dishing off loose change to beggars young and old, and checking out the Chor Bazaar, or "Thieves Market" in a largely Muslim neighborhood. With Mom still in tow, shopping was unavoidable, but it provided glimpses into life beyond the main tourist draws. With Ramadan ending and goat feasts on the menu, there was a definite exoticness to wandering streets crowded with big Rajasthani goats being fattened throughout the district. "There were 2 crore (200,000) killed yesterday," one nearly toothless fakir informed us. "Today there are only about 2,000 left. Tomorrow, they will all be gone."

(It didn't occur to us until too late to work the angle for an invite to Biryani and kebabs, so we relied on a neighborhood cafe for our mutton.)

A certain amount of cultural splashback is inevitable if you spend enough time in a foreign country, I concluded after a couple of days. This was hammered home by a tremendous sold-out concert by the band Remember Shakti, an incarnation of the longtime collaboration between British guitar god John McLaughlin and tabla king Zakir Hussain. Jazz fusion has never done much for me, but with the addition of Indian instrumentation, including indigenous Southern percussion from V. Selvaganesh, and the Sanskrit-inflected scat of Bollywood vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, the music was both as timeless and modern as any I have had the pleasure to listen to. Impeccable polyrhythmic combinations boosted by amplification shook the night air.

Scoring tickets was not as easy I would have hoped; although nor was it as big a challenge as might have been expected given the band's apparent popularity. I had been tipped off to the reunion while still in the South, but we arrived the day of the concert and were unable to score seats before the show started. I expected scalpers, but the crowds of ticketless fans and lack of personal contacts left me doubting our chances as evening fell.

The concert took place out of doors, in front of the historic Gateway to India -- a triumphal arch which the British completed in the 1920s, and then were marched back through in the '40s -- so we just settled along the fence to peak at the video screens and listen from outside the venue. Shortly, though, a grey-haired fan who had been nearby just minutes earlier arrived at the fence: "They're selling tickets at the other gate." Sitting beneath a neem tree, beneath the three-quarters full moon, in a park in Bombay, we were then transported. A rousing tambourine (!!!) solo by Selvaganesh closed the set, a display of virtuosity that transcends words. Splashback happens.

We arrived back in Delhi on Monday, and I didn't leave the tickets for Tuesday's Remember Shakti show to chance. We splashed out for the best seats we could find, and were happily surprised by a combination of now familiar compositions and new numbers, including an apparent classic "Lotus Feet." Unlike Bombay, I don't feel like I could live in Delhi, but the city is gaining a lively edge that I think most India short-timers can't appreciate. After just a couple of days here, C had to leave for the mountains this morning, while research will keep me in the capital city another week.

It won't be nearly as entertaining without my best girl, but I figure we can dine out on the shows (and our new Remember Shakti CD) in the coming weeks. Though the Himalayas got belted with snow while we were down South enjoying our midwinter vacation, springtime waits just around the bend.


Traveling with Mom, we've passed from the state of Kerala to Karnataka, from the busy seaside town of Calicut (West Coast) across the Western Ghat mountains and onto Mysore, the headquarters of the Wodeyar Kings -- one of the last Indian dynasties to fall to the British -- and a center for yogic learning.

Plenty of tourists in Mysore this time of year, and with good reason as the Maharaja's Palace and local temples are celebrated sights, offering clues to India's varied and mythic history. On the way between Calicut and Mysore, meanwhile, we stopped into an excellent and unique "eco-resort," the Green Magic Treehouse, where C and I shared accommodations with Mom in a treehouse (you guessed it!) in the branches of a thick-limbed Banyan tree about 100 above the ground. The view took in the verdant valleys of the Wayanad rainforest, and the morning bird chorus and starry, starry night charmed us endlessly.

It was almost too much to arrive in Mysore, which is relaxed, but only if you're acclimated to India already. Mom made great strides, getting into the swing of things after our Tarzan-type treat. The palace was an overwrought swirl of tile, stained glass and elaborate murals, the sort of structure too rarely preserved in India and too often closed to the public in Europe; the Mysore food, a lot of veg thalis served on banana leaves, was zesty and amazingly cheap: Averaging about a buck a head.

One Mysore-area highlight for all of us was paddling around the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, where flying-fox fruit bats were just returning to their riverside roosts alongside the rookeries of pink-feathered Painted storks and comical Eurasian spoonbills, their beaks looking like huge ladles. Big crocs alternately swimming and lazing in the sun proved disincentives to trailing our hands behind the boat. Kingfishers and Medium egrets in breeding plumage added to the fun.

We swung back to the West Coast just yesterday, reaching the small city of Mangalore, a steamy Karnataka trade center across the Indian Peninsula from the tsunami destruction in Madras. Remarkably, it's party-time now for the Hindu faithful as they are working up offerings for a variety of local gods. Everywhere we have been since checking out of the treehouse has held large numbers of pilgrims, most from sects worshipping some form or other of Shiva, the King of Destruction, but plenty of local deities are also recognized in the festivities.

It's quite a scene overall, with Indians from all walks of life, chanting and praying, bowing and scraping at the doorsteps to various shrines. Unfortunately, getting caught up in the action paved the way for us to become the target of our first true Indian crime....

C left her shoes at the door of a crowded temple today. It was nothing she hadn't done dozens of times before, as you're required to remove footwear in Hindu, Jain and Muslim worship halls across South Asia. I joked as we stacked our fancy Chaco sandals that they were worth hundreds of dollars, and we tottered off to see what we could of the processions, including a meal for thousands of local people come to make lunchtime offerings. But when we returned some SOB had lifted my darling's sandals! I'd heard of this happening dozens of times, but always to other people.

Don't know if someone heard my quip about the cost of the shoes, or if it was just bad luck, but we got a quick lesson in letting go of material objects. No tragedy, but an aggravation nonetheless. After a quick stop at a shoestore for a pair of utility sandals, we were back in business, though; and tomorrow off to Bombay for the final bit of Mom's tour.

Recognizing that many details are missing from this travel account, I apologize. But please if you're reading along, I'd love to get a sense of what my friends are thinking. Namaste!


In the steamy South of India, well away from the tsunami wreckage. Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka from this perspective, though, do appear to be working their way towards recovery. The long-term impacts cannot yet be judged, and it's daunting to consider what will happen to orphans and other survivors when this tragedy fades from the headlines. But talk of rebuilding infrastructures, and reconstructing local communities and bringing back the tourists is already bubbling out of the morass. Meanwhile for the fishing communities of India, there has been a double dose of pain, for not only has their greatest patron the Sea emerged as an antagonist, but many Hindus who ordinarily eat fish are reluctant to consider the gruesome possibility of a eating animals that have been feeding on human corpses. The destruction of livelihoods is almost as damaging as the destruction of property.

Without being too indelicate, however, I have ascertained that the fish caught locally near Calicut, Kerala, are far from the disaster zone, and therefore took advantage at lunch today to consume a few of our piscine friends. A delicious sweet rice and tangy curry sauce were served alongside plates of mussels, squid, small shrimp and a boney "Black" fish, lightly breaded and fried with chilies. The owner of the restaurant laughed at our gusto as we tucked into the meal, and I made a mental note to remember to observe the sea even more carefully than usual next time I visit the beach. Needless to say, this feast was delicious -- and cheap. For three bucks American, Christina, my Mom -- who joined us for a two-week tour yesterday -- and I ate more seafood than our bellies could comfortably hold.

Unfortunately, getting here was the usual hell, as we had to pass from the chill mountains to the crowds of Delhi to the upscale confines of the Mumbai airport, and finally to Kerala, where literacy is high and the birthrate low. The trip took two days of hard travel, including a 10-hour jeep ride, overnight train journey and two-flights totaling 4 hours in the air. One woman who heard our ordeal, squirmed and then said -- it's easier to reach Kerala from New York than Dharchula. It is, of course, which is one of the reasons we're going to stretch this Southern swing up through Mysore and back through Bombay/Mumbai before heading for the hills again.

Modern India is in full force in these parts, with cell phones proliferating and cyber cafes everywhere. Power outages are virtually unheard of in Kerala, and the kids are watching DVD's of all your favorite Hollywood action heroes to boot. In line for check-in at the Bombay airport, we stood behind a group of college-aged Indians on their way to Goa, and I was struck by how similar they seemed to the sorority chicks and frat boys we run across back home in Austin. Cute as heck, with perfect make-up, and a sense of entitlement which makes me think they might have more in common with Young Americans than the typical youth of their own country. Another puzzlement of the mysterious East....

Running low on gas and inspiration, I sign off here. Updates sometime next week.


After nearly two weeks back in Dharchula, New Year's Eve day came with our Dharchula auntie's announcement that we would be hosting a "pooja," or offering to the gods in this case one associated with her family and town of origin in the courtyard out front. When we arrived back in December, Auntie Sonta, our landlady, had been at her hospital job. Fortunately, despite our delayed return, our rooms were still available, but the courtyard was a wreck filled with trash, indiscriminate piles of rock and large bricks of gray mortar and hand-broken stone. Sonta came back to town to welcome us briefly just before the holidays, jetted back to work for a couple of days, and then reappeared in time for Christmas. In keeping with our predominantly Hindu environs, our own Xmas had been decidedly low key; a few drinks with the German dam contractor and his small multinational crew of engineers, plus a covy of local drivers.

The excuse for a grander New Year's celebration came as a welcome. We definitely were pleased to see the courtyard cleaned in anticipation of the pooja.

For those familiar with Hindu tradition, as we've slowly become after two years, it should be noted that this celebration featured none of the serene chants, bright marigolds or fragrant incense one might expect. Rather, at about 10 a.m. the butchers showed up with a shaggy, white, very dead sheep, which they had killed in a nearby temple; we were told the process of ending the animal's life consisted of cutting a small incision through the chest, and reaching behind the ribcage to close a hand and stop the heart from beating. Still supple, they laid the sheep out on a plastic sheet and set to work skinning it, eventually opening the body cavity and cutting the meat from the bones.

Some internal organs were diced and mixed with a salty, red pepper garnish, which was served as "prassad," a communion-type snack of liver, bladder and brain. The pepper all but overpowered the flavor of the sheep innards, making them palatable -- so long as you didn't focus on where exactly they had come from.

Around here, it's worth noting, they haven't so much turned their backs on vegetarianism as they never fully embraced it (although given the high cost of meat most maintain a veg diet when it's not a feast day). Dharchula is on India's border with Nepal, which is evident in not just the steep canyon landscape but also the increased Asiatic visage of many of our neighbors. So while the region is predominantly Hindu, animal sacrifice remains an important part of religious practice as it does in Nepal. Moreover Auntie, despite concerns about her Hindu dharma retains connections to the older indigenous religions of this region. Her worship of ancestral family members, connected to her historic mountain home in the hills, calls for slaughter.

For us, the curried but curiously bland mutton, served with pungent, fresh blood sausage and large quantities of rice splashed with broth leftover from cooking, made a nice change of pace. The feast, which brought about 30-40 people to the house, involved a bit of fortune telling focused on the sheep's organs (prior to consumption, obviously), the collection of a couple thousand rupees ($75 USD) to pay for the poor animal, and a division of leftover hunks of meat among 28 family units descended from long-dead but still honored grandfathers. The name of the god additionally being worshipped escaped me, though intriguingly he was reported to be an inhabitant of holy Mount Kailash, a Tibetan peak also believed to be the home of Shiva, one of the big-time Hindu gods.

In other regards, the days since we returned to Dharchula have passed in familiar fashion. Beyond the occasional stop at the German dam engineer's to sponge off his satellite Internet connection (utilized to post this), we've been soaking up sights and smells, wandering the hills, shopping for rugs and visiting the bazaar daily for dinner ingredients. It's been pretty damn cold in our house, with nighttime temps sticking in the low 40s and no heater or fireplace. On the flip side, our old friends, including Govind the photographer and Davinder the founder of the new Rang school and community center (Rang is general name for the tribes related to Darma, which C is studying; our landlady is Byansi, which means her tribe is from a different valley), are happy to have us back.

Things remain rough in this neck of the woods for the permanent inhabitants, though. The Maoists are still running things on the far side of the Nepal hills, and the latest national news in India from Dharchula concerns a group of Sino-Tibetan traders who were robbed in Nepal and stranded here until about the time we arrived. Another dispatch discussed a smuggling operation busted carrying endangered antelope wool to New Delhi. A couple of the Tibetan traders are still here, sticking out almost as much as we do. Though doubtless they're much stronger mountaineers, they're likely stuck here until spring.

Of course, the major news from this part of the world concerns the impact of the tsunami on South India and its neighbors. The plate tectonics that caused that natural disaster, which looks like it may eventually claim some 50,000 fatalities globally, are the same that forced the Himalayas up over 60 million years ago. Not that we had any sense of what had happened until a friend stopped by to tell us the news. It was the only time since our first stay in Dharchula that I thought a television might be a good thing to have.

In a week, we'll start South ourselves towards Kerala on the West Coast, which we hope to find relatively untouched by these recent events. It seems callous to worry about our coming vacation in the face of such tragedy, but to lean on a cliché, we're all destined to be lambs to the slaughter, aren't we? With this epiphany, we ring in 2005, Indian-style.