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  • The Sultans of Two Wheels

    Posted on September 10th, 2009 Sheila Yair 7 comments

    sultanWe are in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Ladakh is a very beautiful and unique desert. It is technically dry and very high. It nestles between the Himalayas and the Karakoram Range. I say technically dry, because the snow from the two aforementioned ranges passes through Ladakh when it changes its state from solid to liquid. So despite having less than ten centimeters of rain annually, there is a gushing river going through every valley. Every village builds an elaborate system, a maze, of dams and canals to spread the water around. The result is a very harsh brown desert with all its valley floors green. You walk through a village with trees, green fields and flower gardens after the last field, only two minutes out of the village you are surrounded by only sand and stone, not a single plant around. It is an amazing exhibition of the power of water. A place’s liveliness is directly correlated to the amount of water it has. Nowhere is it demonstrated so clearly as in Ladakh. Since no water comes from the sky, the villages are riddled with canals, most of them less than thirty centimeters wide. Every family will divert its local canal to water its fields and gardens, and to fill their water tank for household needs, then let the canal flow again for the people below. There seems to be no quarrels over water, as they all understand its preciousness. The houses are whitewashed, made out of mud brick and wood, with elaborate wooden carvings around the windows and doors. The edges of the roofs are usually painted bright blue on them piles of drying hay and weeds for winter. These white houses are set among fields of wheat and barley and patches of forest, partitioned by stone walls. But the most amazing aspect is the gardens. Ladakhis only have four months to grow their food before conditions become too harsh. So you see all these beautiful gardens with rows of cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, onion, lettuce, potato, radishes and sometimes even tomatoes. As if these delicious organic vegetables aren’t beautiful enough, they surround these gardens with the most colorful flowers. It is customary in the guest houses to sit amongst these gardens and have a delicious vegetable omelet with fresh made bread.

    desertLadakh is predominantly Buddhist and known for its strikingly beautiful hilltop monasteries. But it is where India, Asia, and all the ‘Stan’ countries to the north and west meet. Located on the ancient Silk Road, there are Tibetan nomads, Asians, Kashmiri merchants, Arian shepherds, Sikks and South Indians. As the water floods the valleys in summer, Ladakh is also flooded by tourists. Monsoon is at its mightiest across India and Ladakh is pretty much the only dry spot in the entire sub-continent. So one other race commonly seen in Ladakh is the tourist race. Many a restaurant and agency serve this visiting race. Although we mostly eat around the market, we have gone a few times to these restaurants. So at 3,500 meters surrounded by snow peaks in the greenest desert on earth, I have had a burrito, olive and mushroom pasta and even a hummus, all dishes coming from very different climates and altitudes. It is here in Ladakh that we also decide for the first time to partake in touristy activities and we actually go to an agency to rent bikes. We hook up with another Israeli/American couple, Lee and Oz, and a crazy Spaniard, Joaquin, who has travelled seventy-two countries. We rent the bikes for four days, and head out to explore the Nubra Valley. Nubra Valley is even desertier than Ladakh, with sand dunes, double humped camels and hot springs. Tourists are allowed to visit only five villages, the army will not allow you any further, due to the proximity to the Chinese border. You also have to pass the highest road in the world, Khardung la, at 5,578 meters. We decide to take a jeep up to the pass as I have promised Sheila to take it easy (or at least to take it ‘easier’, as nothing we do can quite qualify as easy). So we head up. India has this thing about maps. You can never find an accurate one. As if they are trying to keep their terrain top secret. A tough thing to do since thousands of people, tourists and locals, constantly walk this terrain. It is very hard to plan a trip with these maps, maybe that is the point, maybe the Indian government wants to teach you that it is better not to plan. So we are at 5,578 meters, and according to the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide our first village is thirty to forty kilometers away, a nice little downhill ride. When you are going with gravity, you are king of kings. You effortlessly pass kilometer after kilometer thinking the Tour de France cannot be that hard. Look at us, we are the Sultans of Two Wheels. On our way down we have a couple of little uphills that break the euphoria, but they quickly give in to downhill. After seventy kilometers, we see a sign that tells us our village is still twenty kilometers away. This is the map accuracy we are working with. We go a little further, and camp at some dunes by the river. Seventy something kilometers tires you, even downhill. The next day, we have fifteen kilometers to the village, and seven kilometers to the camels. We take our breakfast leisurely and set off. We arrive in Diskit at eleven a.m. Diskit is the main town of Nubra valley, but still a very small and charming one. It is a cluster of small houses, surrounded by green fields, overlooked by a beautiful cliff monastery. It is like the rest of Ladakh, a lush green patch in an otherwise brown desert. We decide to stay in Diskit for a while, and ride to Hundar, the camel village after it cools down a bit. The villages are further apart than what we thought, so we choose to play it by ear. We find a nice guesthouse that happens to have a bar right next to it. Ladakh is a ‘dry’ region. I’ve already talked about the climate, but I also mean alcohol wise. So we are happy to encounter a nice cold beer. The bar is open to serve the general in charge of the area who is not from Ladakh and likes drinking, so army presence is not always all bad. One beer leads to another, until we find ourselves happy and far too lazy to get back on the bikes. We realize this is our first afternoon, the whole trip, lazing about, without doing anything. Now I know where this leads to. You have one rest in the afternoon, then it becomes a habit, resting in the afternoons, then your treks become shorter, the mountains you climb are lower, and the next thing you know your whole trip you’re just sitting on the beach enjoying yourself (…not on my watch).

    sultan2After a while we gather our tipsy selves up to the river for a swim. We find a nice spot underneath an apricot tree. The water is ice cold, but the sun is blazing, and we stay there and watch the sunset. Thus with only fifteen kilometers under our belts, we end our second day. The third day finds us traveling the seven kilometers to Hundar. To the right of us, the famous sand dunes slowly reveal themselves. It is like a picture out of the Sahara desert. We stop along the way and go swimming in some pools that are nestled between the dunes, probably left from the winter snow. It is amazing. Your body is under crystal clear water, as you look around, you see only sand dunes and mountains as dry as a bone. As I approach Hundar, one of the peddles on my bike breaks. It is like those movies, when you’re on a vehicle and your comfort is dependant on it, it is very feeble. One moment you’re sipping champagne on the Titanic, or you’re sitting in a cozy cockpit, the next moment you’re in the ice cold Atlantic or stranded in a jungle. Fortunately mine is not of such grave circumstances, but I was a Sultan of Two Wheels (and this is the last time I use this expression) and now I have a bike with no peddle. There is not much you can do with a bike with no peddle, but push it. So for the next two days, I will be pushing my bike. We reach Hundar and search for a place to have lunch. There are many signs advertising restaurants, but they all point to closed places. Eventually we find a canteen by the army base that serves masala dosas. We have our lunch and call to arrange a taxi for tomorrow, to take us up to the pass, and call the agency to let them know about the broken peddle. The agency does not offer much help, basically saying that I am on my own and they expect to see the bike on Friday at the shop. Our last night, we camp in the dunes. Lonely Planet warns you about ‘wild’ camels. But the only camels we’ve seen are the ones tied at the camel safari gate, waiting to take the occasional tourist on the routine ten minute walk. We are on the soft dunes with a beautiful river below us and a blanket of bright stars above us.

    Our last day we head back to Diskit. I of course arrive last. The others have found a motorcycle shop with a few enthusiastic mechanics who can’t wait to try and fix my peddle. I go have breakfast as the team starts handling my bike. I have to admit, I feel a little bit like an important Formula One driver, as I eat my breakfast and see my bike being treated out the restaurant window. They try many things, and eventually put a big screw with two bolts and a few rubber pieces to keep it steady. It is not the best peddle, but it will do for the downhill back to Leh. We get on the jeep and drive up to the pass. We all remember every turn of the way, as we have done all this by bike. We figure out that in the last three days, we have done about a third of the kilometers that we did the first day. The way down goes pretty smoothly, with my contraption holding on. We have only one flat tire incident. We arrive back in Leh, and all five of us are happy to get back on our feet.

    click here to see photos

  • Hinduism and Capitalism

    Posted on September 10th, 2009 Sheila Yair 26 comments

    hinduI’ve been writing a lot about green valleys, snow peaks, and beautiful hikes. But India is not only nature. It has a lot of culture, and a lot of religion.

    Now why compare apples to oranges? First of all, it makes for a more interesting comparison. Secondly, many Hindus will tell you that Hinduism is a way of life, while many capitalists will practice and defend capitalism religiously.

    The first striking similarity is that both accept poverty. In Hinduism, there is karma, which means your present life circumstances are a result of your past life actions. So if you are poor and belong to a lower caste, it is because you did something wrong in previous lives. Capitalism looks upon poverty a little lighter, saying that the opportunities are always there, and if you are poor you just didn’t work hard enough or grab the opportunities that were present. The religious aspect to poverty and it being a punishment, perhaps explains why Indians mistreat their poor and are so appallingly indifferent to misery. Going through India, you will often see old men getting kicked and pushed in a train or bus line, you will see shop owners pouring jugs of water on beggar kids to scoot them away and I have even seen a policeman hitting a homeless person with a stick to make him leave a corner where the policeman wanted to stand. This behavior is accepted both by the inflicting and the receiving parties. You will never see any protest by the beaten poor. In capitalism, the punishment of poverty is less personal, and you are not reprimanded for being poor. Capitalism sees poverty itself as punishment enough. You have less means, therefore you can only afford lesser education, lesser health care, lesser accommodations, and even lesser justice when you get into trouble.

    In Hinduism, there is also the comfort of knowing that your position, your caste, is secure for this lifetime and will change only with the next reincarnation. Perhaps this gives a Hindu more security to mistreat the ones below him. In capitalism, you are more on your toes, as changes occur in this lifetime. Obviously, if you’re a multi-millionaire and do not have risky investments, you are financially secure for life. But there are very few of those, and even upper middle-class with one bad investment, with losing your job after taking too big of a mortgage, or with unexpected medical bills that no insurance company will pay, you can fall down the ladder and find yourself a lot lower than where you were. You are constantly responsible for your actions, being rewarded or punished accordingly.

    Every system needs a force to glue it together, to keep the poor from revolting, to keep order, and to keep chaos away. The forces are usually fear, necessity, or hope. A feudal farmer knew that if he would not make his quota with the harvest, the landlord could kick him off the land, mistreat his family, or inflict any other punishment. That fear made the farmer wake up early every morning, and work a plot of land that wasn’t his.

    In Hinduism, if you are good and fulfill your duties to the gods, to family, and society, your next life will be better. There is also Maya, in Hinduism, which claims everything is an illusion. All is false but god. So your poverty and misery are not real, and if you do right this life, your next life will be better. That gives you enough hope to keep going. With capitalism I have mentioned before how you can fall down the ladder, but you can climb it just as well. There is an abundance of rags to riches stories, people who started with nothing and accumulated vast fortunes. If you work hard enough, if you have a bright idea, or if you’re innovative enough, you will make it. That is the hope that makes people go to work, whatever job they have. That is also the hope that brings millions of immigrants knocking on the doors of the US. But both are a little bit of a pyramid scam, no matter how much people pray in India, go on pilgrimages, and offer goods to the gods, poverty is still at almost 50%, with many living way below the poverty line. No financial expert in his right mind will tell you that everybody can be a millionaire (unless they are trying to sell you a book they wrote). Someone has to open the shop on Sunday, wash the dishes in a restaurant, or man the cash register on Christmas Eve, we can’t all be the C.E.O. There will always be upward and downward movement, but there has to be a base. Now some will rightfully argue that the middleclass outnumbers the poor, but that is only because we have outsourced our poor base. The people making our clothes, electronic gadgets and pretty much everything else that we buy, are the base of our pyramid and are very poor.

    There is a reason the Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayas, and ancient Hindus, thousands of miles and years apart, all built pyramids. It is the sturdiest most stable shape we know. In Peru, which is very earthquake prone, the Spanish churches come tumbling down after every earthquake but the Inca ruins stay intact, they are all wide at the bottom and narrow at the top.

    We see social pyramids all across nature; a wolf pack, a bee hive, and a monkey tribe all have a pointy top and a large base. With capitalism, humans have taken the most stable shape, poured hope as the gasoline to keep it running, and even added a fair amount of justice by integrating socialist elements. But with globalization the base is pretty much cut off from true ability to rise.

    We have broken out of evolution by boosting our survival rate. We have fought and won many diseases. In the west, we have even managed to control our food supply, where drought, floods and plant disease no longer cause famine. So maybe one day, we will devise a social system that breaks out of the pyramid shape and is more horizontal, with more people enjoying a bigger piece of the pie, without compromising stability or efficiency.