Monday, April 25, 2011


I had not been back to India for more than 20 years. Then, I had vowed to return and learn more about this intriguing country, and now I was eager to explore more of the Himalaya region, this time in Uttarakhand, a newly formed state that borders Tibet and Nepal. While there, we learned that the first photos ever taken of the elusive and beautiful snow leopard had been taken in Uttarakhand, unfortunately not by me.

Upon learning that we were taking a trip to India, many people were skeptical. Why? they would ask, or Aren’t you afraid of the filth and constant beggars? Most had never been to India. On my previous trip I had learned that India is a fascinating country of great diversity in its cultures and geography, and full of delightfully gentle and friendly people. Of course, as one of the most populated countries, it has more than its share of poverty and pollution. This we knew. But we were not headed to Mumbai or Kolkata.

All photos copyright 2011. Do not use without permission. All rights reserved by John Stiles and Kat Hudson.

Our first stop is Delhi, where we are forced to overnight due to flight schedules that didn’t quite mesh. What a lucky break! Our first surprise is the spacious New Delhi airport. So large, that people have massive amounts of room to wander its huge areas. 

Indira Ghandi International Airport, New Delhi

New Delhi and Delhi could hardly show more opposite atmospheres. While New Delhi, laid out by the British colonials, is spacious and green, with housing estates and embassies, Old Delhi is chaotic, historic and cramped. Despite the frenzy, it is nonetheless a worthwhile stop, at least for the mildly adventurous. The Lal Qila, (aka Red Fort) commands a mighty view of the old city, and offers a glimpse into the Moghul life from the 17th century.

Lal Qila arches.

Red Fort scene

Lots of visitors: It was a national holiday.

From there, we walk along the jumble of shops along the famous Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s main market street. Taxis and cars, their horns blaring (We came to realize that honking horns are a way of life everywhere in India: Upon our return, Bangkok is by comparison blissfully quiet), compete with masses of people, pedicabs, and handcarts. Sidewalk vendors shout to prospective customers, and little boys ask for money. Hot, tired and stunned by the noise, we duck into—of all places—Macdonald’s, which offers air conditioned comfort and of course, this being India, veggie burgers. From there we watch the ever changing and interesting sidewalk show.

Along Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi

Man making chaat, a popular snack prepared on and licked from leaves. Old Delhi

Hand washing station outside of Macdonald's, Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. Photo by Kat Hudson

Streetside ear cleaning service. No, I didn't.
We also end our journey in Delhi for the same scheduling reason and this time go in search of art, crafts and fabrics, laid out in a seemingly endless chain of shops on the Janpath Road. If you go, make it the last thing you do in India, as you are sure to spend every rupee you have left.

Shopping on Janpath Road, Connaught Place, New Delhi

Washing hands in rose water at restaurant, New Delhi

Three wheeler ("auto rickshaw"), New Delhi. Photo by Kat Hudson


Jostled and bounced in a hire car, we spend six hours careening around continuous curves and switchbacks along beautiful mountain valleys on the road to Uttarkashi, our actual destination. Dehradun is a 40 minute flight from Delhi; the alternative drive was not even considered. We climb from the plain at Rishikesh, passing through small villages, horn sounding at every turn or approaching pedestrians or livestock (often both). Children run dangerously close to oncoming traffic, oblivious to its potential for harm.

The highway is cut into steep mountainsides and hugs the edges of precipitous valleys, each slope covered with an amazing system of terraces where wheat, rice and family gardens grow. Often we stop to carefully negotiate the small cleared lanes through the rubble of recent rock slides. Every large truck and bus exhibits the words “Blow Horn” on rear panels, and everyone obliges. Barbers shave customers at roadside, women stop to rest and chat, laughing at some secret we can only guess as we pass by, horn blaring.

Valley terraces

An amazing abundance of produce everywhere we went.

School uniforms

Waiting for lunch to be prepared at a roadside restaurant

More people walk than travel by any other means.

Tight squeeze caused by rock slide on National Highway 108

There are always people waiting...for something.

Even in the remote villages, the message is spread. Photo by Kat Hudson

OK, then...where?

The sun peeks over the foothills of the Himalayas, bathing our hotel balcony with warmth. The welcome chill of the mountain night begins to dissipate, and our clothing layers are shed one by one. Before us is the Ganges River, known here close to its source as the Bhagirathi. A small tumbling stream rushing southward, its rapids lulled us to sleep last night; we had opened the windows to enjoy the sound and to snuggle under fluffy blankets against the cold. The valley’s steep slopes are marked with scores of terraces that march halfway up before giving way to pine forest. In the distance, drums beat and bells clang, musty charcoal smoke floats across the river. I am struck by the similarities to Bhutan. A man urges his small herd of pack mules along, their hooves clacking on the river rocks; children laugh on their way home through the wheat fields, swallows swoop low, their bellies flashing brilliant yellow. We eat a breakfast of spicy potato stew, chapatis and a delicious chai tea, and then apply sunscreen for our excursion into the town.

A chilly morning on the hotel balcony overlooking the Ganges (known locally as the Bhagirathi).
The Ganges here is shallow, clear, rapid and icy cold!

On the main road to Uttarkashi center from the hotel
Rain clouds descend on our hotel

A walk through Uttarkashi, an important stop for Hindu pilgrims, and a center for meditation, is like walking through a kaleidoscope. Where to begin describing the sights, sounds and smells of the narrow, twisting back streets? It is lively, it is colorful, it is crowded and dirty, it is totally exotic. Women in a dazzling array of colorful saris, wearing clanking silver ankle bracelets and gold nose rings, stroll by or chat in small groups. Wide-eyed children watch us as we walk slowly among the jumble of shops, dodging speeding motorcycles and ambling cows.

A typical street in Uttarkashi

A marvelous collection of spices and grains

A proud restaurant owner and his son

A smithy making machetes

Is there a better word to describe her than "cute?"

A vendor in the central market

Religious processions wind through the narrow streets, gold ribbon and silk-laden palanquins carried on the shoulders of celebrants, drummers leading the way to the temple, Inside, holy water is sprinkled by priests, paint is dabbed onto our foreheads as blessings are given. Bedraggled, thin men with dark skin and long beards wave us over and ask where we are from, others want to be in a photo with us. A man in a wheelchair follows us, mumbling, spittle in the corners of his mouth as he raises his fingertips to his lips. I give him 100 rupees ($2) and he touches the note to my forehead in thanks.

A wedding party comes to the temple for a blessing. 
Is it just me, or does the groom not look all that happy?

Women collecting holy water for washing. Photo by Kat Hudson

A sadhu or traveling holy man who is committed to living an austere life. Photo by Kat Hudson

Colorful paste ('kumkum") applied to the forehead as a blessing marks the "inner eye" of wisdom

Despite the many delicious teas, juices, and always available bottled water, we nonetheless feel a thirst for the amber brew, but to our surprise, find that there is no alcohol available at any restaurant in Uttarkashi. A restaurant owner directs us down a tiny street to the only outlet where liquor is sold. Imagining a 7-11 type convenience store (silly me, I hadn’t been paying close attention to Uttarkashi), we instead happen upon a small black walled shop with no sign, easy to miss had it not been for the tight knot of pushing men shoving rupees through a wire mesh and shouting out their liquid desires. I take a breath and wade into the small crowd, and pass 200 rupees through the wire before being pushed aside by more scrambling patrons. Fortunately taller than the others, I reach over their heads and grab two bottles of 8% Kingfisher beer that are thrust through the grate and retreat into the street.

"Wine Shop" Photo by Kat Hudson

In the center of town where buses board for outlying areas, several streets intersect at the local market. The result is a cacophony of horns, shouts, bells, and revving diesel engines. Overlooking the scene is a popular juice café where we order two pomegranate drinks. They are so delicious that we order two of pineapple. The son of the owners, 29 year old Sonu, sits to talk with us and we end up lingering, delighted to talk with this personable young man. In excellent English (self-taught: “I didn’t do well in school.”), eventually we hire him to take us to Gangotri Temple the next day. Little do we know what an excellent guide he will turn out to be.

On our way to the hotel, we pass more market stalls, cows lying in the street nearby. Further on, we are hailed by a man sitting at a table outside a small restaurant. He asks us to share tea with him. A jovial man, his deeply tanned face is framed by long flowing snow white hair and beard, a large circle of white paint, a “kumkum,” symbolizing his Hindu faith. The paste is generally put on at a temple, always just above the nose where the “third eye” for inner wisdom is located. Guru Rashmikhant is a teacher (Yogi) from Gujarat, a western state. As with every Indian encountered, he is pleasant, polite, personable, and wise. I offer to pay for the tea and he says, “Oh, you Americans always want to pay. But it was I who invited you.” Of course, I say, and thank him.

Having tea with Guru Rashmikhant


Our final destination is at the end of National Highway 108, in Gangotri, a Hindu holy site near the Tibet border. We are picked up by Sonu at the hotel, and spend the day leisurely driving through the magnificent Himalayas, stopping often to have tea or wander through small villages. As we move deeper into the Himalayas, stunning snow-capped peaks appear all around us. Deep valleys, lined with terraces and mustard fields enchant us. We are slowed by two types of monkeys, the ubiquitous Asian macaques, and the large handsome black-faced langurs that lope across our path. At other times, flocks of sheep and goats, or herds of slow moving cattle bring us to a standstill, Sonu blowing the car horn to no avail. We must wait until a passageway appears at the discretion of the livestock.

Our guide, Sonu, and Kat enjoying breakfast on the way to Gangotri

One of several "road conditions" that slow traffic on the Gangotri Highway

Mustard fields in the Ganges River valley

We meet many people, thanks to the social nature of Sonu. Everyone seems to know him, from drivers of army trucks to hotel proprietors. We briefly stop to soak in a hot spring, soothing our travel-jarred bodies. Men in one bath, ladies in another.

Hot springs bath. Photo by Sonu Bhole

Pilgrims on their way to Gangotri

We finally reach Gangotri. Admittedly, my first impression is one of disappointment. What I expected to find is an isolated, iconic white temple nestled into the magnificence of the Himalayas. The reality however, is a small time-worn temple surrounded by shuttered shop fronts and run down guest houses, none yet open after the long harsh winter. Workers paint the temple walls and sweep the debris from the street leading to the holy place. Piles of human feces clog the public toilets. Despite this scene that would surely send most tourists scurrying in retreat, we analyze the situation seeking the hidden gem or lesson that must be lurking nearby.

Gangotri Temple

Bells above doorway to bathing platform on the river

We notice a path leading into the wooded valley toward distant snowy peaks and decide to follow what turns out to be a well maintained and marked trail to the glacier from which the Ganges originates. We do not have time to travel the 17 km (10 miles) to the source, but go far enough to finally burst onto a sight of breath taking beauty: snow-clad mountains of 22,000 feet (6700 meters). We simply stop in our tracks and stare, unable to find words to appropriately express the emotions brought about by the scene before us.

Noting the late hour, we grudgingly returning to find Sonu, but do not, so I walk to a café where a dark-skinned, smiling man invites me to have tea with him and his companion, who smiles continuously but never speaks. I gladly accept, and spend yet another short, but delightful few minutes chatting with an interesting person. In perfect English he introduces himself and the other pilgrim as gurus. I learn that not too surprisingly, he spends half of each year meditating in a nearby cave. The rest of the year he spends in Uttarkashi. Of course he knows Sonu’s juice shop. I marvel at how this small town Iowa raised boy now finds himself sitting in the Himalayas with men who, if nothing else, are icons of stories, legends, and even New Yorker cartoons of legendary solitary sages who give wise advice, or in this case, have a friendly conversation over tea. It was a very good day. It was a very good trip.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Streets of Jakarta

Wherever I travel, I find that the best stories are told in the lives of the people who live there. Although cultures and customs may differ, there is a common thread of quiet dignity in all people, particularly those who may at first seem to be "less privileged" than the "haves." But as I walk through the back streets of cities around the world, the common folk bear witness to such a misconception. Remarkably, even the homeless laugh and enjoy what little they have. As a friend in India recently said, "I think that those who have the least are often the happiest." Earlier this month, I spent a few days at a student-led conference in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city; 500 high school students from around Asia converged on Jakarta International School for the annual Global Issues Network Conference, started by two former colleagues: Clayton Lewis (former principal at the American School in London), now head of school at the Washington, D.C. International School, and Linda Sills (former teaching colleague at the International School Bangkok), now a consultant in San Francisco.
Here is a glimpse of the lives of the people in Jakarta's less traveled neighborhoods. Next: Northern India.

All photos by the author. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved. Do not use without permission.

Repairs in a fishing village near the Jakarta port.

Many years of hard work in the face of this boatyard worker.

Rickshaw driver taking a break.

Homeless under the freeway.

Proud shopkeeper.

Tattoo contest: I lost big time!

A quiet scene in Jakarta's back streets.

Light moment, waiting for alterations. Note the sewing machine mounted on a bicycle!

Colorful canisters with rice cake snacks

Jakarta kids.

Boat repairs, using sawdust jammed between the planks!

Preschoolers in their bus.