A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: clemhadd

A musical journey

Thoughts and stories about musical encounters...

Along with nature, people, language and food, music is for me one of the best aspects of travelling. As the French saying goes, "la musique adoucit les moeurs" (~it makes people better) and as far as my experience goes, it does have this peculiar ability to transcend personal and cultural differences - that is, if the beat is good...

So quite naturally my goodbye party was a mix of all these things; dozens of friends and relatives gathered around a bonfire in the Valley of the Cross, in Jerusalem, jammin' and eating together. The next day, i was flying out without any instrument with me, not even my dear violin. For the next 12 months, I would have to wait for occasions to appear, instead of creating them myself.

Here are the most significant anecdotes I've gathered so far. Just a bunch of short stories, apparently unrelated one to the other, but somehow all these tunes are all playing together in my head, and this is what I want to share here.

Story #1
1st week of travelling, on my way from Srinagar, Kashmir, to Leh, Ladakh. 15 hours in a jeep over one of the most beautiful and dangerous roads of the world. Playing oh so loudly through the speakers and the subwoofer, located right behind me, Bollywood music, full blast. Non-stop. 15 hours. I confess, at that time I had serious trouble tuning in.

Story #2
3rd week into my journey, and Im back in Kashmir, this time with my close friend Doron, who just joined me for a couple of months. We'd escaped hectic and rather unfriendly Srinagar for the haven of a small village lost in the mountains, close to Pahalgam. We had originally planned to stay there only 2-3 days, instead we ended up staying the whole week - an eternity for me :) The Kashmiri family owing the place made it so special, we just didn't want to leave : Gulam, the father, Jon, Kursheed, Rafi, and all the other brothers/sons/nephews/cousins (men only, the women would not work but we'd see them around their own house, next to the guesthouse.
They all were very familiar with the Israeli mindset (so much for the islamist kashmiri leaders who called Israelis "unwanted" in his state), and the atmosphere there was just amazing, one of the best places i've ever stayed at, some of the best people I ever met.
A-n-y-w-a-y. Here comes the day before our departures. Some other israelis just got there, and some other travellers too. Yael, a friend from university, happened to be there also, so we had prepared some banofie pie from scratch, cooking in the guesthouse's kitchen. People started to gather there, chatting and laughing. And then it started : someone put some music on his phone, then we put some more, still cooking and laughing to the rhythm of the pop songs, and before we knew it we were all in the darkened common room, spotlights and dance-lights flashing (phones and headlamps hanging on the walls), making up gibberish lyrics to Hindi songs ("chamak chello chamak chello" became "shabat shalom shabat shalom" and no one shouted it louder than Massud, Gulam's 40 y.o. brother).
But the highlight of the evening was on a different scale : after jumping and dancing to all the Hindi/RnB songs available, it looked like the party was over. The light came on again, everyone took back their phones and flashlights. Then Massud and one of the younger boys took out traditional kashmiri instruments, sat down on the carpet, and started playing and singing Kashmiri folk songs. The thing is, they were planning a small concert in the following days and I had been really disappointed about missing it, so that was their parting present to us. After a few notes I started humming tunes I had never heard before, on and on into the starry night.
Even months later, my memories of that evening, sitting and singing there all together, so different yet so alike, are still among the best I have.

Story #3
I had been Resting in Manali After a 8-day trek from Leh to Tso-moriri, in time for the Hebrew New Year.
Amit, my trekmate and also a drummer, had found a small music shop still open despite it being the end of the season, and he had been whiling hours away jamming with Johnny the owner.
So I join him there one rainy afternoon, and surprise! a violin!!! Now, it's probably the worst violin ever made. Crappy wood, twisted chevalet, plastic sound. And dont even get me started on the bow. My teacher would probably pass out were she to see it.
Still, after some effort, I do manage to extract a couple of decent sounds. Within 10 minutes 8 more people, attracted by the music, have joined us and crammed in the 4 sqm room filled with instruments. British, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, Israeli and of course Indian. Sounds like the beginning of a joke.
Vova, a russian-israeli guy, has picked up a guitar and is playing a mix of russian folk songs, classic international rock, spanish and israeli hits. We're having fun. But then Johnny gets a phone call, goes out and comes back, very agitated: his mother has been hospitalized, he must go. We all get up to leave, but he asks us to keep playing while he's away. We hesitate, no one really knows what to do. He insists, so we sit back down, and after he's gone we keep on playing, a little less merry, but hoping and playing for his mother's recovery.

Story #4
A Thursday evening in Delhi, sometime in October, Nizammudin shrine. Im sitting on the floor in front of the mosque, surrounded by a mix of foreigners and locals, mostly Muslims. When asked where Im from, i answer frankly : Israel. Hasalaam aleikum - aleikum hasalaam. No tense jaw, no hardened look, no turned back. Slowly, I understand: why should there be any ?
The much awaited-for weekly performance of the Sufi singers, supposed to start at 7pm, is delayed til 7.30. 8pm. 9pm. I hesitate, most foreigners have already given up and left but I decide to wait. Wise decision : a few minutes before 9, a group of men appear and sit in the middle of the courtyard, with instruments very similar to those of my Kashmiri friends. Everyone become silent at once, expecting. A voice rises, falls, and rises again, a plea, no, a prayer. A cry maybe ? Or is it a blessing ? I don't know, I can't even say if it's Arabic or Urdu, but it gives me chills.Quickly the Muslim crowd can be heard murmuring the sacred words, while others, Hindus, Christians, Jews, just hum and listen, moving their heads to the beat, enthralled. The music that evening is so beautiful, full of piety and sincerity, a humble offering from man to God.

Story #5
Im now in Nepal, in Langtang valley, together with Mor, another good friend who's joined me by surprise for a few weeks. We're at 3000m, and are getting ready to cross the Ganja La, a somewhat technical 5100 pass which the vast majority of trekkers avoid by backtracking. Mor and I are trekking without porter nor guide, but for this bit Pema, the Tibetan owner of our guesthouse, is gonna take us over the pass. He came to India together with his parents as a two-year old boy, fleeing the Chinese invasion.
The day before the crossing, Mor and I are sitting in the common room, next to the stove, while Pema is packing. A Tibetan song is playing on the old radio, the tune fills the room, a strange silence falls upon us all. Suddenly we hear sniffling : Pema is obviously crying. In his culture, doing so publicly is a big deal. We ask him if he's okay, and he explains simply, in his broken English, that this music reminds him of his home, his country, and that makes him sad. We stay silent, and listen to the song together with him.

Story #6
my 1st day in Beijing. Im having a hard time, going through a crisis in my journey. The way I travel is so that I'm mostly by myself, always in the low season, often off the beaten track. After 7 months, it is very hard, especially in China where one can so easily feel cut off and isolated, misunderstood or even not understood at all, surrounded by people staring (out of curiosity) and sometimes even laughing. As I'm leaving the park of the Temple of heaven, i see a group of elderly music players, bathed in the golden sunlight of a wintry afternoon. They play strings, my favorite, my own musical universe. I listen a little while, but afraid to be spotted and asked for money (since im an obvious foreigner anywhere in East Asia, I've been feeling and treated like a walking ATM for a while), I slip away before the song ends. But after a few steps, I turn back, I want to listen more, I need to. My instincts are right : these old men are not basking nor asking for anything, they just play for pleasure, just for the love of music. And as their leader spots me, tapping my foot and swaying to the rhythm of the slightly oriental folk tune they're playing, he doesn't ask me for money at all, on the contrary: he turns to me and starts playing for me, smiling back at me, a smile straight from his heart, with these "sunny wrinkles" at the corner of the eye I like so much... This kind of contact is not very common in China. I'm beaming, and explain with signs that I'm a violin player. They play some more, the crowd around them is growing bigger: an old man wearing a Red Guard fur cap, young couples, women stopping on the way back from their afternoon walk. When they stop playing, the leader looks back at me again, gives me another of his smiles, and asks - without words, only gestures - "violonist, ah?" I answer - without words - "yes. Beautiful music, thank you", and I leave.

Story #7
Kolaveri di. Even as i write this post, im listening to that Hindi song that got stuck in my head 6 months ago. In Hampi, 3 weeks after i had gone back to India, i managed to infect 2 Austrian friends i had been traveling with. We'd turn to each other in the middle of nowhere and start singing, making all the indians around look stunned -and then laughing with them.
In a bus, on the porch of a shop (the cashier even played the song twice for us)... And then one evening, in Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India, a group of girls working in the hotel we were staying at joined us on the roof of the building, the best sunset point over the three seas and oceans. We started singing that song, they played it on their phone, then some more Tamil songs, and after they stopped being shy (which took them at least 10mn) they started teaching us some wild bollywood/mollywood dance moves :) Laughter is just another kind of music...

Story #8
Today, I was walking down from Emei Shan, rather exhausted, when I reached a rather isolated monastery, perched on a cliff in the middle of an incredibly green and dense forrest, on a little-used side trail. I had walked up and down the 3076m mountain in 2 days, whereas most people take a bus or cable cars uphill. Despite listening to Led Zeppelin, I had heard voices singing and could soon see a small sunny courtyard through which I'd have to pass filled with a group of Buddhist pilgrims, nuns and monks. I removed my earplugs, out of respect and curiosity. I guess the tiredness was obvious on my face, because as I was walking down the stairs the leader looked at me for a long time with peaceful, soothing, smiling eyes. Unlike the habit I had developed over the last 10 months, I returned his gaze, and his smile. Our eyes locked for a split second, as they all kept singing softly, and I silently mouthed "Amidofu", the Chinese Buddhist greeting I had just learned on that day. He gave a slight nod, just before I looked away. As I quickly exited the monastery, still having a long way to go but still smiling from that shared moment, I lingered another instant, glancing back up at the shapes in the courtyard and skipping Led Zeppelin to put on some Erhu music. I could hear hands clapping, people laughing. This was not a psalmody nor a traditional prayer, like the ones I had heard through closed doors the night before, at the monastery in which I had spent the night near the summit. No, this was a Buddhist jam session.

So now here I am, 10 months within my journey, and i am actually listening to the very same songs the driver from Srinagar to Leh had played in that jeep. People say it grows on you, the sounds, the smells, the tastes of Asia. People are right. And as expected, Music has definitely given me some of my most cherished travel memories.

Posted by clemhadd 11:42 Tagged people music Comments (0)

Des pieds et des mains

“Faire des pieds et des mains” – literally “to do feet and hands”, this French idiomatic sentence could be translated by “to move heaven and earth”.

Some of the Israeli readers will be familiar with Azriel Carlibach’s book “Travel diaries”, relating his three-weeks journey in 1954 India. Among those, some may also remember the way he describes the Indian heads:

“ראשים אשר עורם שחור כשחור הלילה וראשים שחומים בצבע הקפה, ראשים כשוקולדה, כקקאו, כתה חריף, כתה קלוש, ובהירים לחלוטין, ראשים חשופים לאור השמש וראשים מוצלים בצל מטריות שחורות, ראשים מגולחים לגמרי, למחצה, לשליש, לרביע…”

Here's my humble translation :

“Heads as dark as the darkest night and heads the color of coffee, heads the color of chocolate, of cacao, of strong tea and of weak tea, and absolutely fair heads, bare heads under the sunlight and heads sheltered in the shadow of black umbrellas, heads completely shaved, half-shaved, one-third shaved, one-quarter shaved…”

On and on he goes, over several pages, offering us wonderful glimpses of India as it was half a century ago, ever more diversified, more colorful, more incredible.

I keep being told about this India by the Indians and older travelers I meet on the way, so I know for sure that what I get to see now is only a fraction of what it used to be. Yet, like Carlibach, and probably like most travelers, I too was awed by the human river that is India, much bigger and stronger than the Ganges itself in the middle of the monsoon.

But, unlike Carlibach and probably unlike most travelers too, even in India I’m shorter than average (yes yes), so unfortunately I don’t get such a clear sight of heads. What I do get to see clearly, however, is feet and hands, hundreds, lakhs of them. Hands and feet as dark as the darkest night, hands and feet the color of coffee, the color of chocolate, of cacao, of strong tea and of weak tea, and absolutely fair…

Working hands, idle hands, lazy hands, hands choosing fruits, cutting fruits and eating fruits, hands wiping mouths. Sweaty hands, manicured hands, henna-painted hands, discolored hands, wrinkled hands, hands with skin as thick as a crocodile’s, hands that look like silk. Skinny hands and chubby hands. Bare hands, gloved hands, hands covered in gold, and covered in dirt. Fluttering hands, like butterflies, slow hands, like elephants. Shouting hands, deaf and mute hands, silent hands, soothing hands, threatening hands. Hands holding children, hands fixing a flower garland as a hair ornament, hands replacing a fallen dupatta, hands adjusting a turban. Hands lighting a fire, hands holding a cuppa chai, hands grounding spices and sculpting marbles, hands sewing and hands tearing, fishing hands. Hands doing laundry, hands making chapatis, (right) hands scooping dhal. Hands playing cricket and cheering hands. Hands picking tea leaves, hands cutting coconuts off the trees, hands selling necklaces, flowers and pakoras, hands begging for money, hands held out in blessing. Hands saying Namaste, hands saying Vanakkam, hands saying HaSalam Haleikum.

And then, the feet. Feet bathing in the sun, and bathing in the rain, feet walking at the speed of light, feet pedaling like mad. Your average five-fingered feet, and then, once in a while, the lucky six-fingered feet. Tired feet, strong feet, wiry feet, bloated feet and dry feet. Feet silent as a panther, feet clinging and ringing with anklets and toe-rings. Feet covered in dust. Perfumed feet, oiled feet, smelly feet. Feet in plain sandals, feet clad in sparkling golden mocassins, feet in shiny leather shoes, bare feet. Feet under saris and burkas, under churidars and salwars and patialas, feet under lungi, feet struggling with dupattas and pallus and with other feet. A forest of feet, twisted, straight, leafy, naked, deep-rooted, uprooted, banyan feet. New feet showing up suddenly, pushing other feet out of the frame. Schoolgirls’ feet, old men’s feet, pilgrims’ feet, “smart feet”. Poor feet, here and there one foot, no foot. Feet huddled together, feet scurrying away. Feet going somewhere, feet wondering where they are, feet going in one direction then the other then back again, feet arguing about which way to go. Feet on the pavement, off the pavement, on the road, in the sand, in cow dung, in sewers, in garbage, in fresh monsoon rain. Feet dancing to Bollywood hits, feet dancing to the rhythm of rickshaws.

Always in motion. Des pieds et des mains, Indian feet and hands moving heaven and earth, everywhere, all the time… Keep moving !


Posted by clemhadd 08:23 Archived in India Tagged people india impressions Comments (0)

Private investigations

Here’s another lesson I learned in India: privacy is a VERY relative concept. For instance, I still remember when, on the way to Ladakh, i had to stop to register as a tourist. So there I was sitting at a restaurant table (this was the registration office…) filling a form asking for the regular personal details, when all of a sudden i noticed this guy, blatantly reading over my shoulder. Even when I gave him an asking/angry look, he still didn’t get it, and i had to actually hide the paper. Not that I really cared if he knew what was my birthday, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to make a point…Such behavior would have been unthinkable in a western country, but not in India (nor Nepal, or China..). And then there are the questions.

When you travel alone (especially if you’re a young woman below 1.60m) locals are much more inclined to strike up the conversation with you. “Where are you from?”, and maybe even “For how long are you travelling? Do you like India?”, but then, invariably: “Are you single ?” or the Nepali variant “Do you have a baby?”, and “How old are you?”. No, that didn’t came only from single men, but from basically everyone: young, old, men, women, teenagers… At first I was caught unprepared, so I just answered the plain truth, i.e. yes, no, 27 (now 28 respectively, and was rewarded by a saddened look in the eyes of my interlocutor. Oh well. In any case, after a while I decided to have some fun and started making up stories about husbands, kids and pets in faraway countries. But the point is that in these countries, even total strangers will enquire very directly about what we consider very personal details.

So I started thinking about it, and again, I found the answer right in front of me: in countries so crowded, so densely populated, there is literally no room for privacy, not informational nor physical. On my first day in India I saw a woman crouching on the side of the road, defecating under her saree, on my first day in Nepal I saw a toddler doing the same, just without the saree, on my first day in China I went to the toilets in a very modern bus station, and saw 5 or 6 women peeing, all with the door of their stall wide open and their heads sticking out… In Agra Red Fort, I heard a guide giving his version of the origin of the saree: when husband and wife wanted to have sexual intercourse, the garment could be easily lifted up or let down, in case someone suddenly entered the common room during the act. Huge families living in one single room, three or fours total strangers sharing a narrow berth in a sleeper bus, etc. Such forced promiscuity leaves no room for secrets, solitude or even silence.

So this is something to know when planning a trip to Asia (and probably many other places I still have to visit). You can choose to be offended, or deal with it with a smile. No need to feel uneasy or ill-at-ease, you can choose to answer the questions or not, to tell the truth or not, to wait for hundreds of Chinese women to leave the toilets empty just for your personal use. This only made me soooo grateful to have been born in a world where we simply take these things for granted, and while I travel, well, “A Rome, fais comme les Romains”.

Posted by clemhadd 08:23 Archived in India Tagged people culture india Comments (0)

The Stare

On July 2012, 30th, at 2 a.m., I landed in Indira Gandhi International Airport. India being among the top destinations for Israelis, countless friends and acquaintances had warned and lectured me over and over again as to what to expect when I'd get there, and of course, it was just as they all said : no one could get ready for India. Especially not for THE STARE.

The first thing I did when i got off the plane (besides stalling my first encounter with Delhi through repeated visits to the sparkling bathroom and a thorough examination of every single ATM in the international terminal) was finding out how to leave the city and go to Rishikesh, which I'd been told would be a good soft landing spot. Luckily, I met a nice Israeli couple with the same plan, so there we were sitting in a first-class carriage on a train to Haridwar. [Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, we had wasted several hours being almost scammed, and therefore had no choice but to buy the most expensive tickets at the very last minute, but this is another story...). One bus and one rickshaw later, we finally reached our destination, found a guesthouse, refreshed ourselves and got ready to walk around town.

Carmit was blond and pale-skinned, and I myself have very curly hair. This combined with our western clothing, could lead to only one thing: Indians, lots of Indians, unabashedly staring at us. It was late July, very early in the season for that area, so there weren't many foreigners among the crowd. Rishikesh is located on the bank of the holy Gangaji, aka the Ganges, and as such is always filled with pilgrims and poor people hoping for a blessing, the great majority of which never saw a westerner in their life except maybe in ads and movies. [When I told my brother about this after my visit to Amritsar's Golden Temple, he had a hard time believing me, yet one must remember that only a tiny proportion of Indian's 1.2 billion inhabitants ever come into direct contact with foreign tourists, and most live in rural areas which no one bothers to visit. Stray just a little from the beaten path, hop in the "wrong" bus, and you may probably not see another foreigner for weeks].

At first it wasn't so bad, just a few looks, here and there, as we walked down the bazaar. But by the time we reached Laxman Jula, one of the pedestrian/motorbikes-only bridges connecting both banks, cameras in hand, ho-ing and ah-ing at the billowing sarees, the mooing cows and the mischievous monkeys, it was impossible to ignore. Suddenly - a traffic jam. In a few seconds, we found ourselves surrounded with phone cameras pointed at us, from behind, from ahead, from below and above, some stretching their necks to get a better view, others whispering and giggling behind their hands... L'arroseur arrosé, as the French saying goes: we came there to take their pictures, but here we were, clearly outnumbered by Indian paparazzi... After a few moments, some women overcame their shyness and handed us screaming babies, to take pictures of this memorable encounter. Carmit got the most attention, blond hair being really alien to Indians, so i had the occasion to step aside a little and take pictures of us being taken pictures of, until a group of teenagers also asked for group pictures [already on that first day, I insisted on no physical contact, since considering the Indian culture it would have reinforced misconceptions about western women]. Eventually the excitement receded, and we could reach the other side... Where even more people were waiting for us.


Reenactments of this scene happened about everywhere i went to in North India -except Tibetan areas, and very touristic towns like Manali. It usually wasn't as extreme as in Rishikesh, but anywhere i went, there almost always was at least one local staring at me, especially when I was alone. Like the time when I took a jeep from Kashmir to Ladakh, and an Indian guy sitting on the other side of the car kept his eyes on me for the whole 15 hours, as if he were afraid that if he turned around even one second, I'd grow wings and fly out the window or something. A wonder his neck didn't get stuck.

At first it's disturbing. You're terribly aware of it, yet can't do anything to avoid it. Then, over the time you get used to it, at least to some extent, and after a few weeks you barely notice it. Or at least it doesn't bother you that much, maybe also because you become more and more familiar with Indian culture. Indeed, in western culture, staring is usually rude and often bears aggressive - sometimes sexual - meaning. But this is not the case in India, whose concept of privacy (of what ??) is so different from ours. The Indian stare is usually not malevolent nor aggressive, it's just plain curiosity about creatures belonging to books and movies. I still remember this time in Jaipur, eating with my friend in a small dhaba, and the woman at the table next to us was staring hard at me, an apparent scowl on her face. After a minute, I couldn't bear it anymore so I looked straight at her, and gave her my best smile. There it was, a flash of white teeth, "sunny wrinkles" around the eyes, and a wide, sincere grin as big as Delhi spread on her face.

Of course, there were times when, especially as a solo woman traveler in Kashmir, Agra, Varanasi, the looks were not innocent at all and made me feel very uneasy, but I usually found a fay to deal with it, sometimes by directly confronting the man (which invariably led him to turn his gaze away) or when it was just too much, like in the old city of Srinagar, a deeply traditional Muslim area, by simply -and admittedly, angrily -walking away. [Despite being dressed very modestly, my face was still uncovered, so I was constantly catcalled and hailed and I felt undressed and aggressed by the burning eyes of basically every male around. Unless she's totally impervious to this, I'd suggest every woman considering to travel to Kashmir first - to go there, it's a wonderful place; second - to find partners or to wear a full cover (which doesn't come into account for me)].

In any case, if you're going to India, you will have no choice but learn to deal with The Stare, some way or the other. But if you have enough patience, dig out a real smile for those bold enough to ask to take a picture together, and you'll be invariably rewarded with so many faces smiling back, a nice souvenir to bring back home :)

Posted by clemhadd 08:21 Archived in India Tagged people india women impressions Comments (0)

Introducing myself

I'm Clem (short for Clementine), I was born in France in 1985, and at age 17, after getting my baccalaureate, I emigrated to Israel. It didn't take me long to catch the travel bug, very common among Israelis, who go roam the world for months after their military service, a way to let go of all the pressure and intensity of Israeli daily life. So after my service, I bought a new backpack, good trekking shoes and an open ticket to New Zealand and Australia.
That was in 2006. 6 years and one degree later, I suffered another outbreak. There had been many warning signs, a stern money-saving policy, intensively reading travel websites and National Geographic articles about Asia and South America, long talks with friends who'd been there... So I handed back my last seminar papers, wrote a resignation letter from Intel, where I had worked as a student programmer for 4 years, and booked an open ticket for India in late July 2012. The plan: 365 days across India, Nepal, China and Mongolia. 365 days away from friends and family, 365 days meeting other people from all over the world, 365 days exploring some of the most incredible places on Earth.

After 4 months, I reached the conclusion that posting pics on facebook just wasn't enough, so here I am sitting next to the World Peace Pagoda,  admiring Pokhara and the Annapurna Range, waiting for the sun to set and paint the mountains with fire and jotting words on a piece of paper. This blog is about my journey, now I actually have to see whether I have something to write which is worth being read...

Posted by clemhadd 03:09 Archived in Israel Tagged about Comments (2)

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