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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

my Vaishno devi trip report

I decided to post my Vaishno devi trip report here. Its an old one, but my memories are still very fresh.

Vaishno devi is one of the most popular temples in India. It is located in the mountains 13 kilometers from Katra in Jammu & Kashmir. My mom had been talking about going there for years, and finally she and my dad decided to make the trip and asked me along. There is a special train for Sindhis that departs from Surat and goes all the way to Katra. Several Sindhis have donated to run this train, and cost of the trip (including food) is only Rs. 3,000 plus accommodation. A bargain!! The only problem was the timing – it took us almost 2 days to reach because the train was not on a regular schedule – rather, it went ahead only if it received a signal. The enthusiasm of the organizers is admirable – imagine the time it took to hire people, get donors in line, work with government for permissions, cook and provide good food on the train and in Katra. Amazing! The train runs twice a year, and this time there were 2,000 people in the train, most of them Sindhis but some Gujaratis as well.

Day 1

We took a bus for a 3 hours trip and planned to board the train in Baroda. My cousin Lokesh came to meet us at the station and we had dinner – Pau Bhaji (yummy!). My mom’s sister, Daya masi, joined us there. My mom’s other sister, Rami masi, had boarded the train in Surat and we joined her at the Baroda station. Her husband Anand jijaji was there as well, along with his sister-in-law, cousin brother and the brother’s wife and sister. The cousin brother’s sister brought along her grandson who was in engineering college. Lets call the cousin sister fat cow, the cousin brother N and his wife K, sister-in-law SIL. A completely useless bunch. Jijaji’s other brother and sister-in-law had changed their minds about coming, so he requested N and K to come along using their tickets.

The train was late, and we boarded it at 1:30am. The train was cold. In our compartment there were pockets that had air coming in. The organizers had blocked it using cellotape but it was still very cold. I told (boasted, rather) my parents that I wouldn’t feel cold (NY harsh weather skin and all), but I froze my butt off. I shivered a lot but the considerate person that I am I did not wake my mom to ask her for a shawl. And the lazy bum that I am I did not venture down to look for it either. I slept in the middle section. I always find it hard to sleep at the top. Rami masi slept at the top – her section had a large speaker, so her shorter self would accommodate it better. It was a feat getting her up because the speaker was right over the steps. Mom kept telling jijaji to haul her up. They are like Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan – in height! Jijaji had to sleep with bent knees in the corner section. Mom kept telling him to go to a section where his long legs would be better off, but he refused. Mom and he have a thing going on where they keep fighting all the time – in fun of course. Jijaji does not feel cold probably because he does a lot of yoga. But he did not even cover himself with a bedsheet, and his section was the coldest as I found out the next night.

Day 2

My mom’s annoying alarm rang punctually at 5am. By 6, the helpers were serving tea. There was sweetened tea, unsweetened tea, and milk. Everyone started waking up. I asked my mom for a shawl, and she told me not to wake up since I slept lightly shivering most of the night. Fat cow woke up along with K and N. K is fat cow’s chamchi because the cow is her sis-in-law. Cow is a millionaire and expects everyone to give her a red carpet treatment. I was going to continue to sleep in the middle section above hers, but since it would be uncomfy for her highness who had decided to grace the world with her wakefulness, I was asked to move to the opposite section. Which I did. I just wanted to sleep. Fat cow complained about my sleeping, and mom yelled in front of everyone saying let my daughter sleep – nobody disturb her. Lol. Anyway their talking kept me up and I woke up by 7.

K and cow were complaining that our luggage was in the way. They had tons of luggage and put it all in our place, and were now complaining because there was no room for ours. Mom told them “we have 5 pieces between the 3 of us, and you have 5 between the 2 of you. OMG why so much luggage”. I said, “where do you expect us to keep our luggage – there is no space”.

For some reason I was very cold and kept myself covered the entire morning. I had 2 cups of tea. I always have so much tea in India – its like a household staple. People have headaches if they don’t have tea every morning and evening. I have 3-4 cups everyday – of course the cups are very small and 3 cups cover 1 tall Starbucks coffee. Since there was nothing else to do, I drank tons of tea and read my Sookie Stackhouse series – I was on the 7th book.

At 10 we had breakfast – something sweet, upma, a few other delicacies and tea. The tea was too sweet for my taste. Upma was delicious! One thing I knew we would have is good food – a Sindhi trademark.

I was back to my book. Mid-morning bananas were distributed. Jijaji made me eat one – he insisted so much that I ate a small one just so he would leave me in peace. Afternoon we had lunch at 2pm, then mid-evening snack, and finally dinner. The food was very very good. We had kadi every night – I love kadi! They did go overboard with the food – we had dal and kadi, and every evening we had at least 2-3 snacks. Too much food!

The bathrooms in the train were disgusting. After living in the US, I expected lower tolerance of the bathrooms. I should have followed my instincts and packed 2-3 rolls of toilet paper.

The seating arrangement was less than ideal. Cow plopped her fat ass in the center of one seat occupying most of it. You could squeeze in if you liked proximity to her highness. She put her purse near the window. So she pretty much had the whole seat to herself. Her grandson was in the upper section listening to his iPod, but cow still saved a seat for him at the opposite window. K and SIL sat in the remaining of the grandson’s saved seat. N sat in the narrow aisle seat. My mom, Rami masi, Daya masi, and I squeezed together in the adjacent aisle seat huddled close together. The great thing about that was that I got to hear unending juicy gossip about every family member. Large Indian families are like a company – you will find “office” politics and protocol galore. Rami masi has 25 members in her house (started with 4), and when they have just 5 people in the house, they don’t feel like cooking thinking “oh who is going to cook for just 5 people”! My dad sat in the seat opposite us, with jijaji there sometimes. To add fuel to the fire, whenever K wanted anything she said “call Rami, Rami will do it. She is very nice. Call her”. So my masi was now their servant. Anytime they needed anything from their bags, she removed them.

My mom and I were angry because we had to accommodate fat cow – she hoarded our entire compartment and yet we did not tell her to move. I kept saying why can’t we sit where our seat numbers are, and my parents kept pacifying me saying that you cannot do that in India to older people. Later on we found out that cow and her grandson had booked seats elsewhere and just came and sat in our compartment. We were huddled during the entire trip, trading places with people in the opposite seat.

There was a holy man in the train, so we went to visit him. We touched his feet and got chocolates (Eclairs, used to be my fav). There was another compartment where Durga maa’s idol was arranged in the form of a temple. It was in 16, and we were in 10. It was very crowded, and every time we tried to go to another compartment it took at least 30-40 mins because everyone was moving around. Everyone had visited the temple except for jijaji and I. The train stopped and we decided to go into 16 from outside the train. The train started moving mid-way and we along with others ran inside. There were so many of us trying to get in that I got in but jijaji was hanging by the door squeezed by people getting in. I pulled his arm and got him in. We decided to stay inside and visit the temple. Jijaji loves to dance, and he danced and danced in the temple. It was so funny!! There was music and dancing, and bells ringing. At every large station we had band baja too, and people got out and started dancing.

The day passed with my books. I read the whole day. People kept coming and going. Everyone knew someone who was related to someone. I met my mom’s brother’s wife’s brother. I met my grandfather’s brother’s son’s in-laws. And so on and so forth. I have no idea how people (my parents) keep track of relatives. You don’t need to go to Facebook for 6 degrees of separation – just come to India, among the 1 billion people.

In the afternoon mehndi cones were distributed. Many years back I learned to apply mehndi. I did a nice peacock design which my mom liked. I started applying for Daya masi but the moving train ruined it, plus I have never applied it for someone else. Rami masi was less-than-impressed with my design. I told her to try herself to get a design like mine. She got hers done by someone else which was not as nice as mine though, despite what she thought. People say that mehndi color is an indication of how much your husband loves you. I am competitive that way and wanted to make sure my color was good. I kept the mehndi on for many hours and did not wash that hand the entire day. I wanted to make sure AM’s love came through. Cheating, I know, but whatever.

At night jijaji asked me to trade sleeping places with him because the small place hurt his legs. Knowing jijaji he would not rest if I was uncomfortable. He kept asking me whether I was comfy, and even woke me up from my sleep to ask about my comfort!! I told him I am fine, just go to sleep (and let me sleep). I wore socks and covered myself with two shawls, thick ones, plus wore a jacket. Yet I froze! It was cold, and the outside air kept coming in through the cellotape. Our compartment was the only cold one.

I missed AM. I wanted to talk to him, and part of me was upset that he had not called me. I know I told him that we would have roaming charges. A part of me was upset, and a part of me felt that since he knew me well he would know that I expect a call and he would call.

Day 3

Next morning we followed the same routine, and reached Jammu after lunchtime. I was on the 8th book in the series. We took the bus to Katra – a 3 hours drive. I had not slept well the last 2 nights and was very tired and sleepy. The organizers had arranged for music and dance and we went there. It was fun, but I was so tired. For the first time I did not join in the dance – I usually never miss Indian dancing, but I was just so tired and sleepy. We had dinner and went shopping – funny because 5 of us sat in one rickshaw. Mom in an extra side seat at the edge, Rami masi in my lap, Daya masi near me, and Dad in the front with the driver. I bought 2 shawls. I was in love with one shawl with gorgeous Kashmir embroidery but it was expensive. My mom and masis bought many many dresses as gifts – they were gorgeous and cheap. On the way back, the driver tried to arrange us. Rami masi sat in the extra side edge seat, mom, Daya masi, and I at the regular seat, and dad in the front with the driver. It was funny because I had to almost stand to accommodate all 4 of us at the back. Daya masi’s knee got stuck, and she could not get out of the rickshaw. We all waited for her to get out, and I burst out laughing so badly. It was hilarious! Mom kept saying “Kick Daya out”. After a few attempts she got out and so did we.

Jijaji had booked 4 rooms – we wanted 2 rooms – one for my parents and one for me to share with Daya masi. But cow and her grandson had booked tickets without anybody’s knowledge at the last minute and did not book her room. Jijaji gave her one room, one to K and N. So we had to adjust which was annoying. My dad had arthritis pain in his arm and needed space, so he and jijaji were in one room, and mom, Daya masi, Rami masi, and I shared a bed. It was nice because after years we all were in one room. I was very sleepy, but they kept chatting and making fun. I burst out laughing at their jokes. Finally I told mom that I needed to sleep. We woke up at 5am, and I was so tired and sleepy. By 6am we had a light breakfast and were on our way to the temple. We started early to avoid crowds. The way was very very steep. Mom started on her way and walked fast. She was excited and I admire her faith and desire to walk all the way up 11 kilometers. It was a tough way. I walked 1 km, but I was so tired and sleepy and decided to go on a horse. Since Mom left me behind, I asked Rami masi for money. I had not withdrawn cash from the bank. I went up on the horse. I passed my mom and she passed some taunts as to how I should be walking since I am younger. She kept telling me that I was committing a sin by putting the horse through the trouble of dealing with my weight on his back. But better me than someone else – I insisted that my horse-guy did not beat my horse who was a female named Rani BTW. Oh well. I stopped on the way for the horse to eat and rest, and realized Rami masi had not given me enough money. If I told the horse guy this, he would probably not take me all the way so I kept mum. I reached up at 9:30am and decided to wait for my Dad who had an 11am helicopter ride to the temple. The helicopter was 3 hours late! My mom got there by 11am. We went into the temple. We met a nice couple from Amritsar who go there every year, and they explained what to expect. Usually the cave inside the temple is closed, but since there were relatively fewer crowds, the cave was open. It was very exciting to walk in the cave – no easy feat. There was no statue, just 3 rocks (called pindis, to me they looked like rocks) to commemorate the place where the Goddess was seen. Each rock represented Saraswati, Vaishno devi, and Kali maa. I looked at the rocks and I felt a huge adrenalin rush and felt very very emotional. It was very overwhelming. I felt as if there was a God here, there was something powerful – and I am not even a religious person by nature. I felt like standing there, the feeling was so intense. For some reason I felt like crying and was choked. I felt that way for a long time after. I had to move out due to the crowds. It reminded me of my intense Art of living sessions where every emotion came out of you in breathing sessions and emptied you of every negative emotion. The whole experience ignited a faith in me, a religious faith. I had thought of what to ask God for – peace and happiness for my parents, happiness for me and AM, or fulfill my career aspirations. At the end it felt petty to ask for something. God knows everything, so why cheapen the experience by asking for something? So I didn’t ask for anything. I just felt grateful that nothing negative happened, and that I was able to pay my respects.

Outside, there were several people taking a bath in water than ran in the temple through the rocks. The water was supposed to be pure since it touched the feet of the Gods. It was cold. Men are shameless – they were changing in front of everyone – who wants to see their netherlands? Indian men, for the most part, are disgusting hairy gorillas, nothing to see there.

By the time we were done, we met jijaji, Rami masi, and Daya masi. We wanted to have dinner and leave for Bharavnath mandir, but jijaji insisted that we wait for them. They had forgotten to bring Prasad, so mom sent me all the way back to get Prasad. I thought, since I didn’t walk up, God wanted me to go through the trouble of getting Prasad. People nearby asked me to get for them as well. I brought so many bags of Prasad, and it was hard walking back with all of it. People were staring.

We had lunch and waited for everyone for an hour. Finally we decided to leave.

Bhairavnath was a demon who knew that Vaishno devi wanted to kill him, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and kill her. When he went to kill her, she cut off his head which fell 3 kilometers away. So every Vaishno devi temple has a Bhairavnath temple 3 kms away. Mom and I decided to go on a horse. The way was very very steep and 20 mins away. We got there soon, but my mom was so terrified of the horse who slipped twice. We decided to walk back. She wanted to go back in a palki with 4 men carrying it, but it was too expensive. I truly admired my mom’s ability to walk to and from – it was a long long and tough walk. I walked back with her 13 kms. We walked and walked and were very tired, and it felt as if there would be no end to the road. There were shortcuts in the form of steps, but after a while my mom couldn’t take steps because it hurt our knees. I told her that the hotel provided massages for only Rs 50 to Rs 100. We kept going and each time I thought “here it is” but it never was the end. My mom was exhausted but made her way very slowly down. There were so many couples, many newly married, and I felt a pang. I missed AM. Some people were walking barefoot in the cold all the way up, and even some kids were bare foot. One man was limping with his crutch, and still he walked. I was embarrassed at having taken the horse. But to be fair, the horse was not a bed of roses. My butt and legs hurt bad, especially my calves. It was very uncomfortable, and I realized only after I got down from the horse. For days after my calves felt like lead – walking contributed to that as well.

On the way back, we met jijaji, Rami masi, and Daya masi on horses. Jijaji is terrified of horses, and Rami masi kept shouting “ae bhai mujhe pakdo” to the horse-guy whenever the horse took a turn. I asked jijaji to take my handbag, and he would not look at me or sideways. He extended his arm and would not even bend down. It was so funny! The horse guys must have a blast with such customers.

Anyway, we spent the night in the hotel. Thankfully the hotel had toilet paper which I pocketed for my train journey back. We were too tired to go out for dinner so ordered room service. The massage person was a guy so we got our half legs massaged. Mom tried and it was good, so I asked him to do me as well. It felt awesome, but he applied too much pressure. Despite my telling him to reduce the pressure he kept telling me that it was important to apply pressure, else how would the pain go away? So Indian! But the massage felt nice.

Then came drama. Daya masi told us that when they were all in line for the temple, N insulted them so much. Their helicopter ride was 3 hrs late and they yelled at Rami masi and jijaji for not making sure that they were inside the helicopter before leaving and for not being there to take care of their whims and fancies. The guy said this in front of everyone in the temple line. My mom and I were very annoyed at listening to this – I mean, jijaji and masi were there on a vacation, not as servants. My mom told N that night that do not expect VIP treatment when you go out – you have to adjust. People took our seats and rooms and still we adjusted. N went to masi and jijaji’s room to put his hand on her head and make up for his aholeness. Jijaji said “he is like my father so he can say anything”. N said to jijaji “you are like Shravan for me”. So why does my masi have to put up with crap? Why not just dump it all on Shravan? Ridiculous!

Day 4

Jijaji and team decided to go to Amritsar and spend the next day there and then take an express train from there to Bombay instead of wasting an extra day in the slow Sindhi train. We wanted to do the same, but we didn’t get train tickets. In any case we would have taken a separate car to avoid traveling with N and K. Cow and grandson flew back to Bombay.

We boarded the bus to Katra in the morning. I wanted to talk to AM. I dialed and dialed at 10pm EST but nobody picked up. I was deeply disappointed. When I don’t talk to AM I get very very irritated. I was also annoyed that he had not called, but there was no service so not his fault. I got more and more annoyed by the minute because I missed him and wanted him to pick up the damn phone. Anyway, we took the train in the afternoon, but since we had 3 hours my parents went shopping and shopped till they ran out of money. Mom wanted me to go with Dad but I refused, so she went. Had I gone my Dad would have returned with his wallet full. Both mom and dad like to shop, so they shopped and shopped. The train decided to leave at 1:30pm instead of 2, and we kept trying to get in touch with them, but no service. Finally they came at 1:10pm and I was so relieved! Of course the train wouldn’t have left without them. The train was “on-demand” sort of. A guy was talking on his phone between compartments when the train had stopped, and his phone fell down. Till his phone was retrieved the train did not move. I had full plans to pull the red chain to stop the train till my parents returned. The organizers were in our compartment anyway so that helped – which is why our compartment was the cleanest section too.

We had the whole compartment to ourselves. I missed Rami masi and jijaji – plus I had finished all the Sookie Stackhouse books and was bored. I bought The Kite Runner, but it wasn’t as interesting as Sookie – it was too serious. I saw more couples in the train and I missed AM sorely. I wanted to just talk to him.

So of course at night AM and I spoke and fought and I was upset. And cold again. I looked for socks but could not find them. Finally I put my feet in a cap and went to sleep.

Day 5

The next day I had some bonding time with my parents. I showed them how to use the digital camera, and we clicked some photos. None of us are avid photographers, so we forgot to carry the camera around. My parents have been through a lot and are more on edge now. My dad scolded me a few times, and I had a few arguments with my mom. But we keep arguing and making up – it’s never serious.

We had so much food everyday, that none of us felt like eating in the train. All I did was drink cups and cups of tea. It was a long and boring journey back. A helper tried to get me to close my book saying that we were not allowed to read, since it ruined the atmosphere. Whatever. I continued reading.

We got down at Godhra, met Champa masi, and took a taxi back home. I was finally glad to be home. On the way back I was upset several times for a few things, but each time I thought of the feeling I had in the temple, I felt peaceful even if for just a few minutes. In the taxi, I felt a strong desire to go back again, and this time walk all the way up. I want to go back with AM, just the two of us. I feel so strongly about it.
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