Where are we now?

View Where are we now? in a larger map Jo, Annie, Miles and I are living in Northport, Alabama and working at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We've been glad to be in one place for a bit after what appeared to be semi-permanently traveling (in actuality for a period of 2.5 years).We started this blog to catalogue some of the adventures when Jo and I were sequentially conducting our dissertation research in India and Brazil. While we've fallen off the blogging bandwagon somewhat during recent trips to Brazil, we're trying to pick it up again now that we're back in India!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Living Archaeology

Is that an oxymoron? Perhaps, but I'll let it for my cohort to fight it out. Bad news/Good news: Well, the bad news is I seem to have come down with the dreaded Giardia. Good news is A) it explains why I was so exhausted yesterday (always good to know I'm not that out of shape), and B) I was able to pull it together (sort of) to go an "easy hike" to check out my first and perhaps last rootbridge. This was after all one of the main reasons I came all the way across the country. From the perspective of an environmental anthropologist--an I'd warrant that of various others, it was absolutely fascinating.

These bridges are made from the elastic roots of local Ficus (fig) trees. They have been trained over centuries by the local Khasi people of this area. And they are still continuing to be trained: witness the below photo, which I think shows how bamboo is being used as an armature for the elastic fig roots.

The bridges are incredibly sturdy, not surprisingly, given that the roots fuse together over time.

So why do I find this fascinating? To me A) it's a great example of mutually-transformative human interaction with nature (i.e. the trees is benefited as it can extend its root system, gaining access to more nutrients, and humans are benefited by having safe passage during monsoons (it was a trickle currently); B) to me it also demonstrates the effects of incremental human action over time on the environment. I.e. much like Rome, this root bridge wasn't built in a day. Clearly, it was not an all/nothing situation, and people could have crossed long ago; C) it brings up the old "chicken before the egg" question, i.e. was it a freak coincidence that a villager came across on of these trees that had extended its roots providing safe passage; was it purposeful and autonomous manipulation on the part of these villagers, or maybe my personal theory, as bamboo is a common building material, the fig took advantage of some bamboo that was serving as a bridge, winding its way around the bamboo; villagers, under my theory, didn't remove the vine like roots, and after time realized what incremental growth could lead to: a somewhat flexible yet sturdy bridge that built itself and could withstand monsoon flash floods.

So that's my theory, take it or leave it, or better yet, come here and posit your own!

Another interesting thing that I wanted to mention, related to the bamboo-usage, is how people in villages that are remote from water sources get water: the answer, of course bamboo.

What this reminded me of somewhat was my Grandfather's contraption to create a waterfall in North Carolina's Appalachians (I had once considered something similar in Atlanta, yes Atlanta, to create a local ice-climbing area...and then it got warm the next day). What was amazing to me was how far these bamboo rods ran, and in how many different directions.

This one, for example, probably went at a height of 20 feet for about 200 feet through the forest. And they really weren't dripping, except at the junctions.

These and the root bridges I sum up in one word: ingenuity

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Never Stop Exploring

I may have just stolen The North Face Company’s logo for this post’s header, but that’s tough for them. I'll let them cry themselves to sleep in their overpriced parkas...as trite as that saying certainly is, it does seem quite apt right now.

I’m currently at Cherrapunjee (or Cherrapunji) one of the primary stops on my trip, and a place I have been fascinated to visit since I first found out I was coming to India for a year and started exploring the Lonely Planet guide for adventure locales. Cherrapunjee is most readily known as the world’s wettest location, receiving at astonishing mm of rain. While this in itself is pretty impressive by any account, the fact that is receives this all within a six month period is astonishing. In fact, the area has two tourist high-seasons, those like me who come to enjoy the trekking during the dry months, and those who come to experience the wettest place on earth; let me tell you, the latter do not do a lot of exploring of this incredible(ly) captivating but topographically tortured landscape.
The power of water is so clearly a transformational force in this region; driving in, one descends to Cherrapunjee from the top of a massive canyon ridge. As one descends, it seems incredibly similar to Kings Canyon, which we visited in California this year. Much like the Grand Canyon or any similar geologic structure, the river is a small ribbon at the bottom of the canyon.

The place I'm staying is a holiday resort, and it really is pretty ideally set up for folks interested in exploring some beaten paths. I'm staying in a tent complete with a mattress, sheets, blankets and the whole nine-yards- a great budget option in my opinion. Yesterday morning I got up and watched the sunrise light up the valley, working on my computer and enjoying a cup of Starbuck Fresh brew instant courtesy of the Weavers!

I’ve met and become friends with a couple of travellers from the UK (one who is doing really fascinating medical history research in Delhi, small world).

We went on a phenomenal trek with a guide yesterday. Honestly, I don't think I've been more exhausted since the marathon. 3000 feet vertical loss going down incredibly steep stone steps hundreds of years old through the rainforest; 10 km or so of pretty wild hiking THROUGH this river, and then 3000 vertical feet back up a worse set of steps! To say I'm taking it easy today would be an understatement...just getting too old for this!

The whole hike though was just absolutely fascinating; the area is pretty lush rainforest, not surprisingly, and we passed through these "villages" of 1-2 houses in the middle of nowhere, like 2 hours into the woods. What they survive on baffles me. The river itself was breathtaking as well.

Beautiful turquoise clear water in the magnificent pools that were ringed by house-size boulders that had been molded as if like clay by eons of monsoon floods.

Walking through the river was great fun; a third boulder hopping, a third wading through the pools (see photo above), and a third jumping in and playing around!

The way back up was truly humbling. I can probably make up all sorts of excuses as to why I was huffing and puffing: delhi smog, out of shape, etc. but those aside, I got my bum spanked by that mountain.

We didn't see any root bridges on this hike, but we did see some crazy wire bridge:

and No! we didn't cross it.

Well, now it's time to head off for a MUCH more mild hour long hike to one of the fabled root bridges...check back soon for more updates.

Sitting on the tracks

So back to the train tracks…..this train from Kolkata was a slow train to begin with, another lesson always take the express trains! So to make a long story short, we were supposed to get into Guwahati (the capital of Assam) at 9 am. At 8:30, we passed a town and I asked my berth mate if we were getting close…oh, no, still six hours. Ok, that’s fine, whatever I’m flexible…than the train stops. And a half hour goes by, and I see people getting off the train and standing on the tracks staring into the distance. And so I join them, and I ask what’s going on: “oh, a strike”. Ok, so when might we start moving? “Within 5 days, for sure…” Ok…are we being serious? Can we be serious? So I go and ask a train attendant, “oh, within a half-hour” Ok, so no one knows…and the hours pass, and pass. I’m trying to remain flexible: this is a learning opportunity, right. So what do I do? Introduce thousands of Indians to the banjo. All sorts of people came out to experience first-hand that strange sound. And then we go back to just sitting in the train car…and blowing bubbles.

Until 5 am the next morning, when we headed back on the road…

Lessons learned: take an express train; people can be incredibly kind: all sorts of people kept coming by to check on me, ask me if I needed food etc. (did I look that distraught?);

always carry a banjo, after all you never know who will be the next Indian banjo superstar…

One last note: this trip I took in "sleeper class" (the cheap lower-class option); usually I travel in 3AC, slightly more expensive but worth it, so for those of you who'll be taking train trips with us soon, the cars look nicer than this!

Friday, January 28, 2011

“No need to worry, Sir, your travels will be happy.”

This I was told by a policeman as I sat on the railroad line, in the middle of Assam, about an hour into a 24 hour strike that stopped our train in its tracks. Note to self (and others): don’t plan travel within a week of India’s Republic day…especially in states that are seeking to separate from the country. How did I find myself with the banjo on my knee, sitting on a rail track, wondering why an interminable “½ hour delay only, sir” dragged into 24?

Well, taking the track of many a modern film, I’ll flash back to the beginning.

I’ve taken a 10 day break from the Delhi city life and headed off to the Northeast of the country. Why? It’s a region that’s almost a different country in every sense of the term. A region where due to the proximity with both Burma and Tibet’s borders look visually more related to far East Asians than the majority of their sub-continent kin. The three main areas that I planned to visit were Calcutta (Kolkata by its new spelling); Assam (home of Kaziranga national park, which is itself home to the world’s largest population of rhinos); and Meghalaya, home of great trekking and very strange Lord-of-the-Rings root bridges.

To get to Kolkata I took an overnight train from Delhi. Easy enough, reached there the next morning, and then started off with some excitement. I came into Howrah train station which is on one side of the Hooghy river. Kolkata proper is on the other side of the river. This is a big river with a very big bridge going over it, think GW bridge going into NYC or Delaware Memorial Bridge into Jersery. So, I get off a 16 hour train, and want to stretch my legs. Sure there are some taxis waiting, but there’s also about 2000 people at least (no joke) walking over the bridge carrying everything imaginable-literally. So I join them. It was kind of like being in a car race. I lined up with a few hundred people at the intersection with the main road that goes over the bridge. Two policemen held a rope—their equivalent of a stop light. When they decided it prudent, they stopped both side of traffic and dropped the rope. And off we went, onto the pedestrian lane of the bridge, and over the bridge. Oh the sites I did see…

The rest of my stay—all 24 hours of it, in Kolkata was fairly tame by comparison. I went and visited the must-sees: the Victoria Memorial:

No, this photo is not to illustrate my horrible photographic skills or the effects of degrading a picture’s resolution for web browsing, but rather the very cool reflecting ponds they have surrounding the monument (yes that photo is upside down).

The other main stop on my voyage through Kolkata was the very strange and grossly captivating Indian Museum (that’s what it’s called, basically like the Smithsonian). Indian museums have their own very strange ambiance. It’s kind of hard to describe, and I don’t want to generalize, except that in the various museums I’ve been to, they’ve all been like this, so here’s a generalization.

Cavernous rooms, old wooden pull- out massive drawer shelves. Rooms are categorized thematically, as one might expect. But many of the exhibits are just different from what one would find in the Smithsonian. For example, in the Botanical wing, which had the architectural dimensions of an airplane hanger, the permanent “exhibit” was plants of agricultural usage. It was amazing, they quite possibly could have had every plant, seed, root or stem used by humans in a jar, under old glass, or tacked to a board. It all had a very strange and beautiful aesthetic to it, especially the rolls of strange dusty jars filled with seeds….home decorating tip! Anyway, the exhibits, were some of the strangest things you could imagine. Well, not always. But in the “Mammals” room at this museum, they had an eight legged goat fetus in a jar, a goat with one eye in the middle of its head in a jar, and several human fetuses. Don’t ask me. They like their jars. And so do I.Here's a few photos I grabbed from Google Images, sorry, no mutant goat ones online, at least not in the sites that google images surveys!

Well, that pretty much wraps up my KolKata leg, with the exception of paying kudos to the great Botique B&B that I stayed at, this one a Buddhist art gallery. After a long train ride it was wonderful, another veryifcation of a lesson I learned about the value of having a nice place to stay when one gets in from long travels.
And that brings us back to the train tracks….. but that we’ll save for next time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Sunday Outing

We are trying to take advantage of the pleasant temperatures here in Delhi (before the 120 degree misery hits) by hitting up some parks and enjoying some generally nice outside time.

Today we headed (actually as we did yesterday!) to Lodhi Gardens for a lovely Sunday afternoon/evening. Apparently many Delhi-ites had the same idea. Lodhi gardens is a very green space in the middle of Delhi. What adds to its value is the variety of historic monuments that dot the park. Here's Jo reading her kindle with a 15th century monument and lots of Indian families picknicking in the foreground.

What's also interesting about Lodhi Gardens is it's a clandestine make-out spot for the city's numerous courting couples. India in general, even progressive-ish Delhi, is very conservative in terms of public displays of affection. So much so that even here, you have to play a game of "Where's Waldo' to try and spy the three couples noodling (separately) behind the various trees...can you spot all three?

Another thing that's nice about going to Lodhi gardens is that it's near Khan market which is one of Delhi's various very upscale market areas. We went out for a rolling dinner (no pun intended), got a lovely Tikka roll (think Indian burrito sort-of) and then went out for this phenomenal combination: artisan salad and double chocolate delight desert....

A wonderful Sunday afternoon....tomorrow I head off on a big trip to the countries' northeast so they'll be some exciting updates from the proverbial road.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bits and bops

Hi all,

Excuse the absence of blog posts as of late. Nothing too exciting on this end (!!!) just the same ole same ole....here's a few photos from our ramblings about town.

We've been experimenting with lots of new food places, some much better than others....

Going for the ole street-side shave and a haircut (combined cost: $1)

Whose stall happened to be next to the market's cobbler, where Jo got her shoes resoled (for $2).

In other ramblings we uncovered (pun not intended) a strange trend with mannequins....

Exhibit A)

Even more disturbing is exhibit B)((look behind Jo...)

And on a lighter note...a photo of Jo in our hotel room in Orchha, yes, that is AstroTurf carpeting....

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Only rarely do I actually get around to writing posts, as most of you know. Despite its name, this is largely Dave's blog. However, when something really important comes up I'll make an exception. Today, that important thing is Moongphali, our semi-adopted street dog. (Moongphali means 'peanut' in Hindi.) He's brown all over, is missing the top of his right ear, and has the most pity-inducing big brown doggy eyes I have ever encountered. You can tell he's had a hard life; whenever we approach to give him food or a pat on the head, he cowers with his tail between his legs. It's so sad.

We first found Moongphals (as we've taken to calling him lately) curled in a corner of our stairwell, shivering and looking very forlorn. He likes to sleep in this corner during the day because it's protected by that open-work metal door you see in the foreground of the picture.

However, Moongphals prefers to spend the chilly nights in our upstairs neighbor's autorickshaw, which he parks in front of the house every evening.

We can almost always find Moongphals in one of these two locations. We try to feed him once a day or so. Here I am feeding him some bread and milk this morning.

He enjoyed it!

Now, having this adorable canine friend living right outside our house raises some difficult ethical issues. To what extent should we pamper him, when there are 10 or 15 other dogs just like him within a one-block radius of our apartment? Should we let him get used to being taken care of, only to be on his own once again after we leave? We can afford to get him vaccines and deworming pills, but is it worth doing if we know that no one will keep it up after this year? I never know where to draw the line with animals. My inclination is to pamper them and take the best care of them that I can, but a couple of things get in the way: 1) I'm cheap; and 2) I worry so much about making them dependent on me that instead of showering them with love and affection, I often go to the other extreme, doing nothing at all for them and feeling eternally guilty about it.

Sigh. And all of this is to say nothing about the thousands of people living on the streets here, sleeping in stairwell corridors and autorickshaws as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Years at Orchha

When we arrived in Delhi we made the fortuitous choice to stay at a bed and breakfast. The place is called the Tree Tops ( the website I created for them), and is run by gracious Tannie and Murad Baig. Tannie and Murad have been so kind, helping us get established in our apartment, and inviting us along with them on an exciting New Years trip.

We headed out with the final destination of Orchha. On the way down, we made a stop at Agra, home of the Taj.

The Taj was magnificent, as always.

What was much more memorable, however, was our stay with one of Tannie and Murad's friends who lives in Agra. It was a great experience; she had a dinner party and we got to meet some more really interesting folks. One of the most interesting parts of the night was getting a tour of some of the families amazing heirlooms.

Pictured below are Murad and Sam pretending to sword fight with the families' 16th century swords.

Me taking aim at a tiger shot on 1950s hunting trip with a 15th century rifle...

and a closeup of the amazing carvings on the rifle.

Why all the war related antiques? The family is of Rajput descent, i.e. of the warrior class; hence the swords, rifles, and tiger heads....

Next morning we headed on towards Orchha. It was a long long ride on horrible roads, but there were beautiful views of blooming mustard fields

Finally, we arrived at Orchha.

This is taken directly from wikipedia:
On a seasonal island on the bank of the Betwa River, which has been surrounded by a battlement wall, stands a huge palace-fort. The fort consists of several connected buildings erected at different times, the most noteworthy of which are the Rajmandir and the Jahangir Mahal.

Numerous cenotaphs or chhatris dot the vicinity of the fort and the Betwa river. Elsewhere about the town there is an unusual variety of temples and tombs, including the Chaturbhuj temple, which is built on a vast platform of stone. The more unguarded and neglected of these buildings are popular hangouts for tropical bees, wasps, and other such excitable stingy creatures.

Much more historical info can be found on wiki. But here are a few photos of the cenotaphs.

New Year's itself was relatively uneventful; we had a lovely dinner with Tannie and Murad, and we're in bed early (after having to change hotel rooms as the whole room vibrated due to the dance party on the roof).

The next morning I spotted a movie star on top of the hotel. Can you guess who it is?

We had a lovely day in Orchha, complete with renting bikes (2 bikes, 2 hours, 75 cents!) and exploring a lovely nature preserve.

And those are some highlights of our New Year's trip. Next adventure coming soon....

Monday, January 3, 2011

Getting Started (1)

Greetings and a Happy New Year from India!

We arrived here in mid-December, and have been really busy finding an apartment and getting set up. In hopes of not letting the perfect become an enemy of the good, as a Professor once said, I'll post a few overdue photos, and hereby recommence this blog!

More exciting adventures to come soon-I promise!

The apartment we found is a two-three bedroom, two bath flat on the second floor of a very "lively" area (this from our realtor). It's liveliness derives from it having both a hodgepodge of high-end stores (i.e. selling Bianchi bikes-which astonished me) to an incredibly bustling bazaar selling all sorts of bizarre goods (i know horrible pun). Some photos of the bizarre bazaar soon (sorry, couldn't help it)

In choosing an apartment, light was a priority. Many of the flats we visited had no windows, and were absolutely soul-sucking. The thought of spending my days there actually brought tears to my eyes. The place we found has great light as you can see in this photo of our bedroom (love the two-toned paint).

The whole apartment actually gets pretty good light; here's jo in our dining room/study....

So the apartment came "furnished", which is nice. Furnished in this context meant crappy pots and pans, kitchen table, beds, desk, and couches...the couches we're, let's just say very "special".

Jo was let us say nonplussed.

This couch set is a case in point for the cultural relativity of aesthetics. Although this couch set made us actually hurt, and we went out and bought a bunch of fabric to cover them, we've somehow gotten used to them....somehow...don't ask me how. Ok that's it for now. More very soon, promise.