Thursday, October 29, 2009

Having A Bad Day? Think Again.

Traffic accidents are a common scene here. Most are frightening, this one is absurd. What was he doing?... changing radio stations?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wild Deer in Noida?

We are still finding interesting places to explore on foot here in Noida. Early on Diwali-morning we went out again to walk through a nearby forest. Our neighbors, the kids, Lesa and I made up the expedition troop this time 'round. The forest is less than 1 km from ATS. The rumour was that there are deer (Nilgai) living in this patch of woods. I was pretty skeptical. This eastern part of Noida has been pretty worked-over from construction and deforestation. Much of the area around ATS is dusty and desolate. There are plenty of domesticated goats, cattle and water buffalo, but I've never seen a wild deer anywhere I've explored in Noida...
As we approached the woods, the asphalt quickly became a dirt road and then random trails and brushy forest - mainly eucalyptus trees. Locals were watching us as we entered the woods... looking quite perplexed. These stares always give me the feeling I've shown up at the wrong wedding reception. A few asked why we were there? Shail helped explain that we were, "just out trekking." I think this confused them even more. Especially because it was Diwali.
We walked the perimetre of the forest for a bit, but then managed to find a pretty good trail to follow. Once inside, the forest let us momentarily escape the urban-Noida landscape. I could hear the breeze through the leaves of the trees. We started to see animal tracks that we couldn't identify... and then after a short distance, sure enough, there were some very large deer peering at us through the underbrush!
At first we just saw one or two. Then we quickly realized there were as many as fifteen healthy, large Nilgai in a herd. They kept watch of us, and would let us get to within 75 or 100 feet of them, then shy back away into the woods. We followed and enjoyed watching the deer for a little while and then finished our walk, passing a local Temple near the far side of the woods.
It was great to know these large animals are surviving, despite the rapidly changing landscape that surrounds them!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hiking in Noida

I've been doing some hiking with our neighbors (Mini and Shail) over the past few weekends... The treks have started at the gates of ATS where we head out on foot to explore 'rural' our Noida. The weather has cooled down considerably here (upper 80's during the day and between 65 and 70 at night now) making it a great time to hike.
Our first recent trek took us south - in search of the river Yamuna... which we did eventually find. This is the waterway that divides Noida from Delhi. The river itself is less-than spectacular. Without much rain the Yamuna is reduced to a slowly moving swamp. But the five kilometre journey to the water's edge was interesting...
Our first barrier was the Greater Noida Expressway. This is a four lane highway that runs past ATS. It gives us easy access to New Delhi, but cars typically drive too fast and the highway has a reputation for really bad trucker accidents. The three of us scrambled across this road at about 7:15 am in the early morning mist.
Very quickly we ran into the last thing I would have expected... the Indian Air Force. The IAF's local shooting range, oddly, is in the farm fields to the South of our complex. Hoping their rifles were routinely pointed in a less populated direction, we gave the troops plenty of space as we hiked on.
As we traversed planted fields, we came across quite a few birds including several eagles, a male peacock and many small songbirds.
We saw many farm families working in the fields. Corn, wheat, rice and radishes seemed to be the main crops growing in the area at this time of year. We also walked through several local nurseries. Maybe these are a bi-product of all of the new construction - both commercial and residential -going up on along the Expressway? India loves her beautiful, ornate gardens... so more and more of these are planted with the completion of each new construction project.
Perhaps the strangest encounter along the way was discovered as we walked along a narrow, bricked village alley. Over the top of a stone wall we saw the large statue of a figure standing in a private garden. Shail spoke to some guards at this compound's gate, and with a little insistence they let us in. There, towering in front of us with the figure of Nehru himself, the first PM of India. The guards told us we had entered the workshop-retreat of an apparently famous state-sculptor! There were fiberglass statues (probably molds) and a few bronze ones scattered throughout this enclosed garden. All famous politicians or historical figures. Evan a large horse and the head of the god Brahma. For me, the place was a little creepy - random statues standing in the relative quiet of this slightly over-grown, hidden garden...

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Diwali or Deepawali (in Sanskrit this means a "row of lamps") is probably the biggest festival in India. It is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Each religion emphasizes a different (and sometimes complex) aspect of this holy time. Diwali, in its most basic form, is a Festival of Lights. We went out and bought some of these little lamps (that's one of ours above). They're called diyas. After some head scratching (and the help of our trusted driver) we figured out we needed to get cotton wicks and mustard oil. Lighting them signifies victory of good over the evil within an individual and the welcoming return of the goddess Lakshmi.
The holiday in many ways reminds us of Christmas. Colorful lights are hung everywhere outside - in town centers, on buildings and temples. We put up our own - out on the balcony. Gifts are exchanged between friends, neighbors and loved ones. Candles and lamps are lit in the evening to light Lakshmi's way - the goddess of prosperity - to your doorstep.
Since this is a festival to share with friends we tried to jump right in! Last night we had some of our good neighbors over for snacks and chai. We exchanged simple gifts, our kids played, we all chatted and ate cake and namkeen and Indian sweets!And, oh yes, there is plenty of food during Diwali! Leading up to Diwali, the markets were filled with vendors making special gift packages and baskets. Special Indian sweets are prepared for sale in sweet shops.
For days leading up to the festival, fireworks (known as "crackers" here) are constantly heard going off in the distance. This is our first Diwali here in India. I think our whole family agrees that this festival of light is a very accessible, joyous and heartfelt occasion!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Land Rovers of Ghoom

Strange as it may seem, the town of Ghoom (spotlighted in the previous posting) is the location of some of the few remaining classic Land Rovers in India. The Land Rover company (ironically now owned by the massive Indian Tata Corporation) hasn't sold Rovers here for decades. I have never seen them in other parts of India. But a few surviving examples can still be found still running about on the narrow, winding roads in the Himalayan hill stations of Darjeeling District. The kids and I managed to spot four of these rugged, aluminum-bodied trucks. The oldest dated back to 1952 - A Series I, still in working condition.

Tea Train

One of the most famous (and oldest running) narrow gauge trains in the world runs through Darjeeling District. The track starts in the city of Siliguri and winds its way up through the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling. During its run up into the hill stations the train passes through what most consider to be the best tea-growing region in India.The track for this train really is narrow. The rails are only about two feet apart. The train is very small and very slow, (agonizingly slow), but the seats are comfortable and the views are often spectacular.
We just took the "Joy Ride" version of a trip, riding the 8 km from Darjeeling to the next town of Ghoom (sometimes spelled, Ghum). The train ascends about 1,200ft as it travels from the center of Darjeeling over to Ghoom. It is slow going as the train passes beside the main road and winds its way upward past guesthouses, village shops and several Buddhist Monasteries. The train makes a 10 minute stop at the Batasia Loop. Here the train circles around a garden memorial dedicated to all the Gorkha soldiers who have died for their country in past military actions. The Gorkha are considered to be some of the best Special Forces soldiers in the world - known for their courage and incredible abilities in high altitudes. The memorial overlooks the Himalayas and the massive snow-covered peak of Kanchenjunga.
The town of Ghoom is the highest point on the entire 83km line, with an elevation of about 7,400 feet. The top floor of the Ghoom train station has a small museum dedicated to the history of the train. As you can imagine, the track was not easy to build - many workers died during construction of the line which was completed in 1881.
After a 30 minute stay in Ghoom, we all hopped back on the toy train for our return trip back to the city of Darjeeling.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Darjeeling District

We have returned from our trip to Darjeeling... Spent eight days in the Himalayan foothills overlooking Mount Kanchenjunga - the world's third tallest peak (approx 28,160 ft.) The weather was cooler and everyday we had a view of the snow-capped range.
Darjeeling has a much more Asian-oriental feel to it due to the huge shadow of China. The cultures of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India, Sikkam and Burma all mingle together in Darjeeling.
While there, the kids discovered a fondness for Momo's - a Tibetan dumpling filled with pork, chicken or cabbage. Lesa and I savored the Tibetan soups... very nice on a chilly evening. We all enjoyed eating at the "English" bakery in Darjeeling as well!
We traveled to three hill stations in the district. Kalimpong was the first and our favorite. It was quiet and we stayed in a lovely family-run Guest House (Holumba Haven). Good food and plenty of garden space for the children to play in. The owners had two small children (aged 6 and 8) - so Audrey and Evan had a blast there. Hide and Seek, Tag, bunnies and guinea pigs - plenty to do. All while under the shadow of massive Kanchenjunga. Who could ask for more?
Kalimpong has a fascinating past as it was a trade crossroads for hundreds of years between Sikkam, Nepal, and Bhutan. As a result, all four major orders of Buddhism are represented in the town by monasteries - the oldest of these dates back to the 17th century. Buddhism is probably the most prevalent religion in this part of India. There is also a strong influence from Christianity and, of course Hinduism. We chatted with monks in each of the several Buddhist monasteries we visited - they were all well spoken, educated, and gracious.
Darjeeling, (elev approx 6,000 ft) was the second place we visited. Although established on a high ridge, the city was a bit of a disappointment. The city-center is crowded, noisy and has a lot of diesel pollution because the taxis ("Sumos") constantly running between neighboring towns. More on Darjeeling (and the unusual neighboring town of Ghoom (elev. 7,400 ft.) later...
Finally, we had a one-night stay in the town of Kurseong - in a pleasant, but weathered hotel called, Cochran Place. This small hotel sits on top of a ridge line with a near-360 degree view of the neighboring foothills. Warmer, and lower in elevation (4800 ft), Kurseong is surrounded by tea plantations. This is the heart of Darjeeling Tea country where many plantations have operated for 150 years or more.
The trip to Darjeeling District included a three hour flight from Delhi to to Bagdogra and then at least another 2-3 hours by jeep/taxi up into the many hill stations above.