Harar, the City of Peace

Ethiopian Airlines has a ton of daily internal flights that are quite affordable if you are an Ethiopian resident OR if you are a foreigner who entered Ethiopia via Ethiopian Airlines (which we did). We hadn’t taken advantage of this option yet, so last weekend we decided to take a quick trip to Harar. We worked most of a Thursday and then boarded a 4pm flight out of Addis Ababa and arrived in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, before 5.

As we stepped off the plane onto the roll-up staircase, the warm, humid air enveloped us like a hug – welcoming and friendly in contrast with the cold, smoggy air of high-altitude Addis during their “winter.”

We wandered out of the tiny airport and down the street towards town, following the small crowd of people who got off our plane, and eventually found a cluster of taxis parked nearby. The drivers lounged in their vehicles and languidly offered to take us to our hotel for a hugely inflated price.

IMG_8118We stayed in this hotel for about $20/night – the pool was amazing!

The next morning, we got up and started making our way to Harar. We had heard that we could travel there in an hour or so by public transportation, so we got a bajaj (a small rickshaw-style taxi) from our hotel to the bus area. After some wandering and asking of directions from strangers, we found our way to the minibus park, where the sleepy atmosphere switched abruptly to dozens of young men shouting destination names at us and pulling forcefully at our arms to direct us to one place or another.

Once they figured out that we didn’t want to hire a private car, but were determined to go by public taxi, at the cost of $1, there was a lot less commotion. We climbed into the back row of a mostly full minibus (which seats about 16 people) and immediately regretted not wearing cooler clothing as we waited for it to start moving, sweating profusely.

We had heard that Harar people were very friendly, and the minibus ride seemed to confirm this. We sat next to two young men who made a valiant effort to talk with us despite very limited shared language. The other people in the taxi stole glances at us with what seemed to be friendly amusement and curiosity as we climbed the gentle rolling hills of the area. We drove through small towns of stone houses with corrugated iron roofs, livestock and children wandering through the corridors between the houses and chilies laid out to dry on sections of the shoulder.

The car stopped frequently to let people on and off of the minibus, and it was a beautiful opportunity to glimpse a slice of rural Ethiopian life.


Harar itself was a much bigger city than we expected. It’s called the city of peace because of the legend in Islam that when the Prophet Muhammad was exiled, he sought refuge in Harar and people welcomed him even though they were a majority Christian town. It is considered the 4th most important city in Islam.

It reminded me a lot of Morocco, in that it has two main parts – the new and old cities. The old city is enclosed within a stone wall, in the style of Moroccan medinas, and the new city is the part that sprawls outside of those walls. A lot of the old city is residential, with traditional Ethiopian houses, many of which are painted in vibrant colors, and narrow alleys weaving between them. It even smelled like Morocco – something like a mix of nice soap, tea, and spices wafting through stone alleyways.


We spent most of our time wandering around the small alleys, searching for and then eating recommended food items, and saying hi to small children and old people who greeted us everywhere we went with cries of  “ferenj-o!” and wanted to shake hands. (In Addis, we’re used to the word ferenj being used to refer to foreigners, but we were enamored with the addition of the “o” to the end of the word in Harar.)

We met some fascinating people in Harar, including a woman who read our fortunes from coffee cups. We heard about her from a guy we met at a café, and he helped us to procure the necessary materials to use her services, including coffee, incense, and khat (the leaf in the foreground of the picture below, which grows in the area and is a stimulant used by a lot of people in the area).

IMG_8308Fortune teller in Harar preparing to tell us about our futures

We also attended a ritual hyena feeding that has been happening in Harar for decades, which was fascinating (I first learned about this on an episode of the Netflix show, Our Planet, which I highly recommend).

In a lot of Africa, hyenas are feared animals that can attack livestock or even people, but in Harar, the community has forged a relationship with the hyenas that is mutually beneficial. Every night, butchers give the hyena man piles of bones, skins, and other parts of the animal that can’t be used, and the hyenas are treated to dinner just outside of the city. In return, they hyenas don’t attack the Hararis’ livestock or children, and people don’t fear them.


We sat outside the hyena man’s home with about a dozen other people, mostly Ethiopians, who had come to see the feeding. The current hyena man is the son of the original hyena man, who is now old and passing on the responsibility to his son.


It was fascinating to see how comfortable he was with the hyenas as he fed them with a short stick or even by hand. All I really knew about hyenas prior to this game from The Lion King, but in person (in this and scared context) they were surprisingly cute animals. At any rate it was a unique experience and our visit to Harar was a lovely break from Addis.


The enigma of Addis Ababa

It’s both reassuring and frustrating that after so much traveling and living in different places, I can still encounter a city that seems so entirely foreign to me as Addis Ababa.

Last year, by the end of the nine months I spent traveling, I was starting to feel like in some ways, the world is becoming so similar everywhere that it took some of the fun out of traveling. The ubiquity of English and American music, a general quality of life that you can purchase anywhere with enough money, the similarity of goods sold in different places (and the realization that global trade has brought a lot of those goods to my home town), the availability of western food in so many places… all these things made me kind of sad, thinking there was some global homogenizing going on. Were we slowly erasing all the differences between different places in the world? Were we heading towards one global society that would be all the same?

I came to Addis after reading that it was a place only “for the experienced traveler” and I can attest that this is definitely the case. It is not an easy place to live, though it is fascinating and alluring in some ways. And surprisingly, so many of the skills and techniques that I learned and used in other places don’t translate here. It’s a new place for me, quite different from anything I’ve experienced.

IMG_7983It’s surprisingly cold in Addis…hence the sweater and the scarf

Addis is a place where the push of modernity clashes brashly with the pull of the way things have always been. The city feels to me like it is constantly fighting itself. It’s turbulent, the process of growing and changing, and it pervades everything.

A lot of the city is comprised by modest neighborhoods, in which small houses with rusting corrugated iron roofs cluster together on wide swaths of hillsides, with narrow paths snaking between them. At first glance these appear slum-like, but look closer and you see that many of the homes have satellite dishes perched on the corrugated iron roofs. From afar, it looks like a collection of giant white mushrooms growing on rusty metal.

IMG_7797Fancy mall in Bole neighborhood of Addis

There is new money and all the things that people with money anywhere like – upscale restaurants, bars with imported liquors, posh shopping malls, fancy cars and places to live where security guards keep watch day and night. Men in suits wait in line for ATMs and walk away counting wads of bills.

But there are also a multitude of beggars, street children, and disabled people. At night, one notices that certain sidewalks or stairs of large churches are lumpy, moving slightly, an odd color; and then suddenly the eyes adjust and the forms of dozens of humans sleeping manifest. During the day, they patrol parts of the city in tattered clothing with their hands outstretched, or sit on thin pieces of fabric while people drop coins in front of them.

img_7971.jpgFuture banks being erected in our neighborhood

The neighborhood we live in is aiming to be the new financial district of Addis Ababa, with at least half a dozen shiny new bank buildings going up around us. But on the ground, literally in the shadows of these new skyscraper-style buildings, there are informal housing settlements where families live in lean-tos covered with tarps, which flood in the rain, and children wearing old tattered clothing play games with old tires and sticks.

One of the biggest markets in Africa, Merkato, lies in the center of Addis. Enter there, and you get swept into a maze of vendors lining muddy streets, hawking traditional spices, fermented butter, live chickens (which can be slaughtered on the spot for a small sum), and much, much more. But the young, middle class people we meet tell us “don’t go to Merkato.” They do all their shopping in the supermarkets or small stores that are less hassle and more convenient, leaving the market for the older and more traditional generation.


In a lot of places, you can buy yourself a certain quality of life if you have enough money. Addis does not seem to be that kind of a place. Some of the basic things like electricity, power, internet, and the ability to move around are just not able to be purchased. The power and water both disappear from time to time. Nice hotels have generators that kick in when the power is out, but I’m not sure even they can account for the periodic cutting off of water. The internet and mobile data are shut down periodically by the government (which owns the only mobile phone company in Ethiopia), and the traffic is so bad at some times of the day that even paying for a private taxi doesn’t get you to your destination any faster than using public transit.

It’s a fascinating place, built into rolling hills, at high altitude and quite beautiful in some ways. Some days, living here feels like such a fun challenge. Other days, I’m just so confused by it that I don’t know what to do. Three months is such a short amount of time to spend a place like this – I suspect that as soon as I start to figure this city out, it will be time to leave it.

For now, I am stumbling around in a state that feels familiar from the early days of Peace Corps– it’s the feeling of being totally lacking in all grace due to unfamiliarity with culture and language and perpetually doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Such is life when you fling yourself unprepared into a new place that is so totally different.

Summer in Ethiopia

28023F00-EA82-4D4A-8DFF-681A5632F301Addis in the early morning

This summer I accepted an internship working on public health in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and I thought I would try to resurrect my blog.

I’ve been here for about six weeks now, with a friend of mine from Columbia: Alex. We are doing the same program at school, pursuing an MPH with a certificate in Public Health and Humanitarian Action.

My work here is with the government – a subsector of the Ministry of Health – so I won’t be able to share much about the work, but I’ll definitely be writing about what Ethiopia is like, how it is to live here for a summer, and I hope to go on a few short trips throughout the summer as well, so I’ll be sharing about those.

Addis is an interesting city, and we’ve been stumbling through the culture shock and getting used to living here.

I honestly am a bit surprised at how difficult it has been thus far. I have so much experience living and working in other countries that I thought I was fairly well-prepared for this. But this city and this work situation is very different than anything else I have experienced, and it’s requiring a new set of skills that I am striving to build as time goes on.

A few observations about Addis so far:

Addis is a surprisingly expensive city, especially in terms of housing.

IMG_7713The building where we live

We aren’t being paid for this internship, and Columbia gave us only a small stipend for the whole summer. We had A LOT of trouble locating a place to live that was less expensive than living in New York, even for apartments that were inconveniently located or lacking in amenities. It was quite surprising.

Now that we’ve been here for a while, I see that inexpensive places do exist (as I knew they must). It’s just that as foreigners, we were getting an inflated price, and we didn’t have any local friends to help us when we arrived. Apparently most foreigners who come here are working for the UN, WHO, or other international organization, and they get a generous living stipend. This has inflated the housing market in Addis and as graduate students with relatively little money, we ran into trouble with this.

We did eventually find a place (pictured above from the outside) – still more expensive than we were hoping, considering Alex and I are sharing a room and we share the apartment with another woman. But we’re happy with it. It is a modern apartment, with tile floors, a television, hot water in the shower, a functional kitchen, and a balcony that looks out over the city.

Apparently the city relies on hydroelectric power.

9E1F36F6-522F-4722-BBBF-8D27E9211AC2Dinner by candlelight

This is very exciting from a climate change and environmental perspective, but it also means that because this is the end of the dry season, the water level is low and there isn’t enough water to power the whole city.

So, the government has been shutting off power to in shifts throughout different parts of the city for 4-8 hours a day the whole time we’ve been here.

So some mornings we wake up and there is no power for the hot water heater in the shower. And some evenings we come back from work and we can’t cook anything because the stove is electric and needs power, so we eat bread and peanut butter by the light of a flashlight or candle. It’s a slight inconvenience but it’s manageable. We do have consistent power at work, due to a backup generator that turns on automatically in an outage, so that helps in the ability to at least keep essential devices like my phone charged.

The coffee is plentiful and fantastic.

IMG_7541Traditional coffee being brewed

Ethiopians have a huge coffee culture. They brew a special type of traditional coffee that is prepared in a wooden jug over a charcoal stove and served in small cups. It reminds me a bit of Turkish/Greek coffee in that it is thick in texture and very strong.

Small coffee stalls abound throughout the city. These are small affairs, often informally placed and protected from the sun and rain by a tarp, with crowded seating on small stools or benches. The operation consists of one woman who sits on a low stool and busies herself with the various tasks of preparing the coffee – roasting the beans, pounding the roasted beans by hand, brewing batch after batch of coffee, washing the tiny cups over and over as people cycle through and pay 5 birr (the equivalent of about 17 cents) for each cup of coffee.

Drinking coffee is a communal experience in Ethiopia. Our coworkers go out for coffee every day after lunch (they’ve been kind enough to adopt Alex and me into this tradition) and someone always picks up the tab for the whole group. They find the American idea of everyone paying for their own drink to be hilarious.

It’s a nice part of my days – a few minutes spent sitting around, balancing a tiny saucer and cup in the palm of one hand, chatting and enjoying a cup of coffee that Alex says tastes like chocolate in its richness.


Needless to say, there is no Starbucks here. Ethiopians are proud of their coffee and they don’t want an expensive global chain coming in and changing things.

That’s all for now. More soon!

P.S. If you want to see more photos of daily life in Ethiopia, you can follow me on Instagram (@ckay444). I post photos to my Insta “story” almost every day, when I have internet connectivity, so feel free to keep up with me there.

The mountain is smiling

The experience of trekking in the Himalayas was, in a word, incredible.

I am so grateful that I had this opportunity and that I didn’t let fear stop me from going for it. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life.


Eva and I did a trek in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas called the Mardi Himal trek.

It took seven days, including one day which was spent sitting around the trekking lodge because the weather was too bad to bother trying to hike.

IMG_1483Eva and me right before starting our trek


We spent most of our days hiking on well-maintained trails through beautiful forests.


It did rain several times, which made the forest look magical (above) but also made the trail really muddy.


We stayed in trekking lodges along the way, like the one pictured above. In the foreground is the kitchen/dining room/common area. Behind is the building with rooms and to the right is the latrine/shower.

Our guide told us that when he first started working as a porter, about 30 years ago, he helped build these lodges by carrying stones up the mountain for days.

I thought about that a lot with all of the things we saw along the trail – the lodges, the hundreds of steps made from stone – a huge amount of effort went into getting the materials to that place on the mountain and building them. A lot of human labor went into building these things so they could be used by tourists like me.

There are roads to some of the lower points on the mountain now, but after about a day of hiking, there are no longer any roads. So the only way in or out is walking or by helicopter.


We hiked for 4-8 hours a day, stopping for tea and for meals in the lodges along the way. Our guide, Ammar, was very protective and careful with us and insisted on these frequent stops and a steady pace. He also carried a seemingly endless supply of Snickers bars in his bag, and doled them out to us when we seemed tired in between stops.

The infrastructure that exists in Nepal for trekking was really rather remarkable. I imagine my trek was a very different experience than that of someone who did this 20-30 years ago. At that time, Ammar told us, trekkers (or their porters) would have to carry in all their food and camping gear as well as all the other gear that we were carrying.


We woke up very early in the unheated lodges and saw some absolutely breathtaking sunrises.

The feeling I got when stumbling from my sleeping bag, out the door of the lodge, and being surrounded by such magnificent nature was just incredible. These mountains are definitely another example of a thin place – where the border between heaven and earth is blurred (I wrote about this concept in Greece, read it here).

I experienced such an intense feeling of gratitude on these mornings. The phrase “achingly beautiful” came to life for me here. Because that’s the only way to describe sitting in nature and seeing the sun slowly climb over the jagged Himalayas as they reach boldly into the sky. It is so incredible that it actually hurts your heart in a way.

And even though the lodges and the trails are well-developed, it is still quite a remote place. So many people will never get to see this magnificence, and I was so overwhelmed with the good fortune that allowed me to experience it.


The plan was for the trek to culminate at the Mardi Himal Base Camp – the place where alpine climbers start an ascent to the actual top of the mountain. But on the day that we were supposed to hike to the base camp, we woke at 5am to the entire mountain being covered in a cold, dark, cloud. Ammar said there was no point in hiking – we would be miserable and we wouldn’t be able to see the spectacular view at the top. Eva and I trusted his advice, but we were worried that we were missing out as other groups decided to hike, assuming the cloud cover would lift later (it didn’t, as it turns out, and everyone came back soaking wet and freezing).

So we spent a day in the lodge, sitting around a wood stove with other trekkers and their guides and the staff from the lodge as the cloud sat outside and rain and snow fell intermittently. It actually was a pretty fun day. At one point, we organized an impromptu yoga session around the wood stove. Those of us who knew some yoga each took a turn leading some poses and teaching a group of giggly young Nepali women who had never done yoga before. I also met a young Nepali man who had lived in Colorado. He had gone to college there, and then worked on search and rescue in the mountains. After ten years, he decided to come back to Nepal to help his country build the type of search and rescue capabilities that we have in the States.


The next morning, we awoke at 4:30am to discover that the sky had cleared and the mountains were visible by the light of the sun that was just starting to creep up behind them. No sooner had we seen the beautiful view than the clouds rushed over and covered it again. But Ammar said that today would be a good day to hike, so we packed breakfast, had a quick cup of tea, and started off.

It had snowed the night before and it continued snowing at intervals as we hiked through the clouds. But after a few hours, we hiked a pretty steep ascent and found ourselves on a long plateau with the clouds clearing. Before our eyes, the mountains emerged one by one as gentle winds pushed the clouds away.


“The mountain is smiling,” Ammar told us as we pointed at each peak that poked out of the cloud cover, “everyone is happy today.”


We kept hiking as far as we could go, but shortly after this point it became clear that we couldn’t make it to the base camp, another hour or two away, because of our shoes. I was wearing worn-out running shoes and Eva was wearing slightly less worn out sneakers. We had opted not to rent trekking boots because others had told us that sneakers would suffice for this trek, and that we were likely to get blisters by trekking many hours in shoes that we weren’t used to. Sneakers probably would have been fine had it not snowed the night before, but when we started to ascend near the base camp, there was a section of snow-covered rocks that was just too slippery to risk with our footwear.

But it didn’t matter. Neither of us was seeking to reach a certain point – we wanted the experience of doing the trek, and seeing the Himalayas, and we had done both of those things.

We found a few rocks to perch on and have our breakfast/tea that we had brought and we took in the surroundings.

IMG_8610Eva, me and Ammar

Soon, two Nepali trekkers appeared nearby and started playing music from a phone and dancing. Everyone was so happy to be there and to be seeing the mountains so clearly – the joy was infectious. Eva and I went over and joined them, and soon Ammar joined us as well. What a funny and beautiful moment – five people dancing out of pure joy on a mountain.


The clouds started creeping back up and we turned around to head back to the lodge. It took a lot longer going down than it seemed like it should. Mountains are always like that – the descent is tougher than the ascent in some ways.

It took us a few days to get down the mountain from the peak of our trek, and each day continued to bring its own beauty. We followed the same route out until the last day, when we diverged from the route that we took in.


This final day, we hiked through several small villages in the foothills of the mountains as we made our way to the road where we would be picked up. This was one of my favorite parts of the trek. I was so in love with the Nepali countryside, the architecture of these small houses, the farmlands and the livestock that were grazing near the houses, the laundry hanging on lines to dry, the way the people fit into the nature.


I enjoyed this part so much that I seriously considered doing a second trek after we returned from this one. I was very interested in walking through more of these villages, taking my time, meeting people.


We had been experiencing natural beauty for the past six days, and this seventh day switched to human beauty, which is something I’m very interested in. The reason I travel is actually mostly in search of human beauty, to see the way other people live, to find the common humanity between all of us, despite our differences, and to experience human connection. So I absolutely loved this day of descending slowly through villages, through farms, and alongside Nepali people going about their days.


See the picture above, where it says “Once is Not Enough”?

It’s true. Now that I have experienced the magic of Nepal, I do feel the pull to go back. That’s the problem with traveling and expanding your view of the world. It introduces you to so many new things and ideas that you return home with an even longer bucket list than you started with.

What an incredible world we live in.

Do something that scares you

Going to Nepal was outside my comfort zone.


Nepal was a place that my brother would go. (And did go – and wrote an entire book about it – you can read it here.)

Mountains are his thing.

Still, as I traveled through India, the idea of going to this small country famous for its Himalayan peaks crept into my mind and stayed.

I toyed with the idea of doing some volunteer work in Nepal, which is more “my thing.” But I didn’t really have enough time to devote to make it meaningful.

And I kept thinking about doing a trek in the Himalayas.

But that was REALLY far outside my comfort zone.

Again, hiking is Daniel’s thing. I’ve never enjoyed it much, though I’m ashamed to admit that as a Coloradan. And I’ve always thought that I’m not very good at it. The Himalayas seemed like they might be more than i could handle.

But the idea kept coming back: Maybe I should go to Nepal and go trekking.

And while it scared me, I resolved not to let fear make my decisions.

Growth is about doing things that are uncomfortable. I figured that if it made me nervous, that was even more reason to do it.

And, my friend Eva, with whom I traveled in India, happened to be in Nepal and was available as a trekking partner. So I decided to seize the opportunity.


You might remember me saying that I bought a very last-minute ticket from Delhi to Kathmandu, somewhat impulsively. Doing so meant that I left India in such a flurry of activity that I forgot one of the major things I had feared about Nepal: flying into the Kathmandu airport. It is known as a somewhat dangerous airport, located in a valley, having only one runway and lacking some of the technology that other airports have. It has seen a few plane crashes, including two in 2018. And though I do a lot of flying because I love going places, I actually have a slight fear of flying, based on an illogical belief that planes are huge pieces of metal which will eventually fall out of the sky.

So anyway, it was good that I forgotten about this. That is, until we had almost arrived and the captain made an announcement that the weather was bad over Kathmandu and we would need to circle the airport until we could make an attempt at landing. An attempt? What did that mean? My heart started beating faster and I turned up the music playing through my headphones as I told myself to breathe, that it would be fine.

Some time later, the pilot announced that the weather still wasn’t great but we were going to try to land. However, he said, we only had one chance to attempt the landing because of the location of the airport. There was that word again, “attempt.” Why was he telling us this? What happened if the attempt failed?

As the plane descended through seemingly endless clouds, bumping and shaking like we were driving on a massive dirt road, I gripped my armrest until my knuckles turned white. I honestly thought I might die that day. And oddly, I made my peace with the idea, and I didn’t regret being on that plane. If I didn’t live past that moment, I thought, I had used my time on earth pretty well. Of course I wanted more. But if it had to end there, I realized, at least I felt like I had lived. I closed my eyes, took deep breaths and went over happy memories in my head.

Suddenly, the wheels touched the ground and I was thrown forward in my seat as the plane slammed on its brakes to slow down before the end of the short runway. I blinked my eyes open, unclenched my hands, and looked at the Nepali woman sitting next to me. We both took a breath and smiled.

Still alive. One fear conquered.

When the plane came to a stop and we climbed down the roll-up stairs onto the tarmac, the air felt cool and fresh compared with the air in Delhi, where I had boarded the plane. Beneath the curtain of clouds, everything was not nearly as scary as I had imagined it to be. There were no mountains in proximity to the runway, extremely ample space for a commercial plane to land, and the actual airport was small and cozy-looking. The outskirts of Kathmandu were visible from the tarmac and it looked different than anything I had ever seen.

I felt the excited little leap in my heart that comes from experiencing something totally new and a sincere gratitude to be alive.


Eva and I spent a few days in Kathmandu after my arrival, but we didn’t leave the tourist/trekking section of Kathmandu, called Thamel, a place that I found pretty oppressive. Completely void of Nepali culture, Thamel features rows and rows of trekking agencies, stores selling knockoff trekking equipment and/or traveler clothing, and expensive restaurants featuring foreign foods.

The trekking industry in Kathmandu seemed to me like a huge monster, with tentacles reaching out and sucking money out of the many foreigners who are clogging the streets of Thamel at all times. There are so many people who fly into Kathmandu and go trekking every day that I had the distinct feeling of being an item passing through an assembly line – just one of many identical things that goes through and deposits money and leaves.

IMG_1439Paying for our trek (the Nepali rupee is ridiculously inflated, but it was also a lot of money)

It was a strange place and I was relieved when we finally had procured all the necessary gear and permits and we left the city for the mountain town of Pokhara, the launching point for most treks in the Annapurna region of Nepal.

Despite horror stories that I had heard about reckless Nepali driving and of buses plunging off the sides of mountain roads in Nepal, the 8-hour trip went smoothly and was pleasant, with a bus that stopped nearly every hour for bathroom breaks and snacks. Eva and I couldn’t believe the luxury of this after traveling in India, where buses sometimes stopped only once during a long journey for a bathroom break and even then sometimes there was actually no bathroom, just an opportunity for the men to pee on the side of the road.


That evening, we met our guide, went over our route and agreed to leave early the next morning. Eva and I were both a bit nervous as we had dinner and shared an Everest beer. The Himalayas loomed in our minds, though we couldn’t see them from the town because of cloud cover. We both took mountains seriously and knew there were risks involved in an endeavor like this, just like any time one goes into nature.

We mused about what the next week might be like. We communicated with our families, let them know they might not hear from us for a while. We re-checked our supplies and re-packed our bag. We sent some prayers into the universe for a safe and meaningful trek, and the atmosphere was serious as we went to bed early.

Our adventure would start in the morning.

The Taj Mahal, and goodbye to India


The Taj Mahal: the most famous monument in India, a UNESCO World Heritage site, possibly one of the wonders of the world, depending on which list you consult. Everyone I talked to about where to go in India said, “And of course you have to see the Taj Mahal.”

With places like this, that are so well-known in popular culture and about which I’ve heard for so long, I always wonder if the real thing will live up to the image that I’ve created in my mind.

Before I went, I heard a lot from other travelers about Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is located. They all concurred that the city was not a pleasant place to be, that it is a giant tourist trap, that people weren’t as friendly as in other places in India, etc. So I always asked them, should I just skip it? No way, they said.

It’s absolutely worth it, they assured me.

e3b407be-6cf1-4d44-9bed-1337ba479400.jpgSo I went, and I do think they were right

There are always so many people trying to visit the Taj Mahal on any given day that the recommendation is to wake up around 5am and get there before sunrise. Then you can be one of the first people in the gates, which allows you to see its magnificence in the early morning light and also to get a picture that doesn’t have a ton of other people in the background.

However, as previously noted, I am not a morning person and even though I had two mornings in Agra to try to get there by sunrise, I did not succeed. By the time we arrived at the ridiculously late hour of 6:30am, there were already tons of early birds who had swarmed in ahead of us. Good for them. It was still amazing, even with hundreds of other people sharing the experience.


In India, people say the Taj Mahal is one of the greatest symbols of love, because the ruling Shah had it built to in 1632 to honor his late wife, whom he loved dearly and who died giving birth to their 14th child. The monument is actually a mausoleum, where the remains of the Shah’s wife were entombed. And later, the Shah’s own tomb was added beside that of his wife.

It is a romantic image, I guess, to think of this heartbroken Shah deciding to put all his resources into building something beautiful for his wife’s memory.

And now it is one of the most-visited touristic sites in the world. As we walked past their tombs inside the building and people snapped photos (despite the numerous NO PHOTO signs), I wondered what the Shah would think of the spectacle that his monument has become now.


Up close, the best part is getting to see all the intricate details that make the Taj Mahal special. After seeing it, I understand why it took nine years to complete the decorations after the initial structure had been finished. There are lines and lines of beautiful Arabic calligraphy, which inscribe verses from the Qu’ran on the monument. And there is a lot of inlaid stone work, with decorative flowers and other designs. It’s gorgeous.

We accidentally fell into a tourist trap and ended up visiting a workshop where people are still doing the same painstaking stone inlay work that they did on the Taj Mahal. It was pretty cool to see, even though I was displeased that our tuk tuk driver had tricked us into going there. It is very detailed work, that they are still doing completely by hand.

Allegedly, almost everyone who does this kind of work in Agra is descended from one of the people who originally worked on the Taj Mahal.

It seems like something they just tell tourists because it makes them more likely to buy their goods. But then, there were 20,000 people who were originally employed in the 1600s to work on the construction, so hey, it’s possible. Now these alleged descendants use their skills to create tiles and plates and other things that tourists can buy and take a piece of India home with them. Honestly, it is a pretty nice souvenir and I thought about buying something for my family until I thought about having to carry these heavy items around for the next few months. And of course, they weren’t cheap.

IMG_1309The Agra Fort – has some similar stone work to the Taj Mahal

As for Agra as a city, I ended up agreeing with everyone else who told me there wasn’t much to recommend it. It’s like any place that has a huge tourist attraction; it has a ton of hotels, lots of buses going in and out with people who want to see the attraction, lots of kind of tacky restaurants for the people to eat at, and a bunch of local residents trying to earn some money by selling some cheap souvenirs to those people.

But it was a pretty cool experience, and a nice end to my India trip. After visiting there, it felt like a good ending point, though I would have loved to spend many more months in India. The morning after I saw the Taj Mahal, I went back to my hotel and somewhat impulsively booked a flight to Kathmandu for two days later. It just felt like time to say goodbye.


It’s so incredible. I spent less than two months in India, but it changed me as a person. I left a piece of my heart here. And I left so much unseen in this massive country. I’m not sure when it will be possible, but I know I will be back here at some point with more time to spend. I want to keep discovering the things that India can teach me about humanity and about myself.

New Delhi, not my favorite place

There were two last things that I wanted to experience in India before moving on: New Delhi, the capital and home to 26 million people, and the Taj Mahal, India’s most famous monument, in the nearby city of Agra.

A good amount of people who visit India actually only visit these two places, plus the city of Jaipur, which was the pink/orange city I described a few posts ago. Together, they are called the Golden Triangle, and many blogs I read prior to coming to India suggested this route as a potential first India trip.

Personally, I can’t think of a more terrible introduction to India.

Had I only visited those places, I’m not sure I would want to return to this country.

My time in New Delhi was about 5-6 days in total, but broken up into several pieces as I stopped there on my way to and from a few different places.

The experiences I had were quite varied, but I came away at the end without any fondness for Delhi as a city.

Except for its metro system, which was incredible and I enjoyed immensely. IMG_1414

The metro was clean, efficient, and well-organized. Having experienced the New York metro at rush hour, I could not believe what I witnessed in New Delhi at rush hour. A train full of people pulled up to a platform that was also full of people at the transit hub, Rajiv Chowk. The doors opened. And there was no pushing or shoving as people tried to get on and off at the same time. The people who were on the train exited while the people who wanted to board waited on one side. Then, when people had finished disembarking, everyone entered the train. Amazing.

I also really enjoy that instead of dispensing disposable paper cards like we use in the US (which inevitably end up littering the ground outside the metro station) the metro here gives you a token as your ticket, which you then drop in a slot to be able to exit the system at your destination. The tokens are then re-used. So sensible and environmentally friendly!


Good things about my Delhi experience:

  • I was graciously hosted by some young professionals who work in media in the Delhi suburbs. I met one of them at a hostel (because India is so big, one cool part about staying in hostels is that you meet lots of young Indians exploring their own country) and he invited me to stay with him and his roommates when I came to Delhi. That was an amazing experience – making friends and seeing how people like me live in another country (and actually their apartment was very similar to my friends’ apartments in Denver – see the view from their balcony below).
  • My friend took me around to some of the places he likes to go in the city, including a shopping mall that made our American malls look pretty run-down and a hipster part of town where we went to a bar/restaurant that reminded me a lot of home.
  • Did I mention the metro? It was lovely.
  • The metro also has a car designated exclusively for women, of which I was a huge fan. See the section on men below to know why this is especially important, other than it being a bit roomier and better-smelling than the crowded other cars.

9411f2aa-0e02-49d7-9edd-8aaf6d208b0dView from my friends’ apartment outside Delhi

Bad things about my Delhi experience:

  • It was REALLY HOT when I was there. Over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s even hotter now. As with most major cities, the pavement and big buildings seem to keep in the heat, and it’s a miserable place to be when it’s hot.
  • There is SO MUCH TRAFFIC. That’s part of the reason the metro is so wonderful. You can go under the traffic. But then you have to walk in the heat from the metro stop to wherever you are going, which is sometimes far. So sometimes an air-conditioned Uber is a good option. But then you spend half the time you’ve paid for sitting in stop-and-go traffic.
  • There is a LOT of air pollution and smog. (The World Health Organization named it the most polluted city in the world in 2014.) My throat, nose and lungs definitely felt the impact even after a short time.
  • So many MEN. This is the only place in India where I experienced the harassment from men that I had read about from female bloggers prior to coming here. It was a strange dichotomy, because so much of the city is super-modern with super-modern people, like my friends who hosted me. They were absolutely lovely men who were aghast to hear that I had been harassed. But as they explained to me, there are also a lot of uneducated men who come from all over India to work in Delhi, and those people may not have views that are quite as modern about women.

IMG_1160Me trying to look happy at the Red Fort in Delhi

I was actually excited to visit New Delhi. I had heard so much about it, and even though other travelers generally said they disliked it, I wanted to experience it. I recently read a book by Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply. This quote, about her drive to travel, jumped out at me:

“I wanted to meet those mysteries, too. I wanted to feel the limitless Mongolian steppe spread out in front of me. I wanted to know what it smells like in Rajasthan in the morning.

Why? ‘I want to do it because I want to do it,” Amelia Earhart once wrote in a letter to her husband.”

That’s how I felt about Delhi. I wanted to know what life was like there. Just because it was a mystery that I wanted to know about.

IMG_0350Bahai Lotus Temple in Delhi

The first time I visited, it was a weekend and so my friend had time to take me around everywhere. It was nice to have my first introduction to the city be with a local person who knew the ropes. But his style of living is different than my style of traveling. As a backpacker, I’m used to doing everything the cheapest way. This is not how the middle class of India lives, because India has a huge spectrum of incomes and classes and each person lives according to his place on that spectrum.

So when we went sightseeing, it was an all-day affair where we hired an Uber for 7 hours and the driver drove us from place to place. I felt strange and elitist seeing the city in this way, but I admit the air-conditioning was a haven. Even with this method of transport, our photos from that day just got sweatier and more disheveled.

74ff8f10-0951-412d-b304-1fc8ced8aeb4One of our last stops: sweaty and so tired

When I came back to Delhi the next time, it was during the week and my friends had to work, so I seized the opportunity to explore the city my way. I took the metro and I walked and I went some places that we had missed the time before.

And after doing it both ways, I have to admit that Delhi is a city that is best seen through the windows of an air-conditioned taxi. And I hate that.

(I also hate that this post is generally pretty negative – I usually like to focus on the positive things, but I also want to write honestly, and in this case, my honest experience was not that positive. So I will share that with you.)

The days that I explored by myself via public transit, I was constantly so HOT and exhausted that I couldn’t really focus on anything else. Those days, I just felt like I was doing everything wrong, which was a funny feeling to have at the end of my India trip when I generally felt like I was getting the hang of the country. Maybe part of it truly was just being there at the wrong time of the year. It would probably be significantly more pleasant in cooler weather.


It was just one of those times when everything felt wrong. I visited the mosque pictured above in the old part of the city. It is one of the icons of Old Delhi and the mosque complex is a huge enclosed square that is really beautiful. Of course at mosques you have to remove your shoes, and the pavement was so hot on my bare feet that I practically had to run from one side to the other. To make matters worse, because my shoulders were covered only by a shawl and not by a full shirt, when I bought my ticket to enter the complex, the gatekeepers made me wear this MASSIVE, seafoam green, smock-like garment. It covered every inch of my body, from my neck to my wrists and came down to my feet. It was quite embarrassing. And also VERY HOT. And as I was walking around, feet burning, sweating from every inch of my body inside this huge coat-like object, feeling ashamed for having been dressed too immodestly in the first place, I STILL got asked to take selfies with a handful of people. So funny.

Then there were the men.

Especially in Old Delhi, I felt like there were constantly men staring, leering, and making comments as I was passing. I was dressed conservatively, but that didn’t seem to help in this situation. There were a few who followed me, and a couple who ‘accidentally’ bumped into my chest or butt, but mostly it was just people staring with unfriendly eyes. (And yes, there is a difference between friendly and unfriendly staring, and yes you know it when it is directed at you.)


I paid 5 rupees to use the bathroom at the Red Fort (even though I had already paid the exorbitant tourist fee to enter the fort in the first place, not that I’m bitter about it), and as I was standing at the sink, brushing my sweaty hair, I saw a man standing outside the open door watching me in the mirror. OK, maybe his wife is in here and he’s waiting for her, I thought. I met his eyes, and he didn’t look away. I moved to the other side of the counter to get out of his eyesight and carried on. After a few minutes, all the other women who were in the bathroom exited and I followed them. The man was still there, still staring at me.

These are the kinds of things that made me feel so weird about the men in Delhi.

There were also men who spoke English and came up to me in all the various places I visited. Some of them were nice and some of them were creepy; one tried to hold my hand and put his arm around me which was not appreciated; some of them blatantly ignored the fact that I had headphones in and sunglasses on – obviously not wanting to talk. Of course these kinds of things also happen in other countries and in the US. But it was mostly just the volume in such a short time that I had never experienced before.

I can usually handle myself – in a city, around men, around foreign men – but as I sat in the women-only car on the metro heading back to my friends’ house that evening, I was so exhausted, and so grateful to be in a space safe from all those male eyes and male hands. And as I looked around at all the young Indian women in the car with me, I realized that this is what they have to deal with every day. Because my experience was not related to my being a foreigner – Indian women experience the same things, and much worse.

And that is a very heavy thought.

IMG_1416Women in the Delhi metro

All this said, I would give Delhi another chance, given the right circumstance to return. I know that there are lovely things about the city, I just couldn’t find them this time. We’ll see if life brings me here again and if the experience is different.

This post got too long – I’ll have to save the Taj Mahal for the next one (which I promise will be shorter and published soon)! If you read until the end, you are a champion. Thank you!