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.

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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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.)

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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!

The magic of the Ganges River

Wow, it feels like life is speeding up recently. I think I am finally getting the hang of this long-term travel thing– just in time to stop doing it and return to the US next month.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on the road for more than eight months now, but at the same time it’s hard to believe that it has only been eight months.

In some ways it feels so much longer; I’ve been so many places and had so many experiences. And life in the U.S. feels so far away and kind of like a dream at this point.

After my last post, I spent eight days at a yoga/meditation retreat at an ashram in Rishikesh, an Indian city known as “the yoga capital of the world,” at the base of the Himalayas and on the banks of the Ganges River, which is holy in Hinduism. Rishikesh itself was not a pleasant place for me; it is not at all the serene town you might imagine a yoga center in the mountains to be. It is dusty, chaotic, clogged with traffic and big tourist jeeps going up and down the mountains, and the air is filled with the sounds of honking vehicles.

But the ashram where I stayed is huge and has a beautiful campus with sprawling lawns, huge trees, and an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. It is like a bubble within the chaos of the town, and I spent most of my time within the calmness of its gates.

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An ashram is a place of spiritual retreat, and the people you meet there are all on some sort of spiritual journey. It’s a beautiful energy to be around and I met some lovely people there.

At the ashram, my days started with yoga at 6am. The first few days of this felt like torture. I am usually NOT a morning person.

I have very rarely gone to 6am classes of anything in my life.

IMG_0481This is my “WHY 6AM??? face”

But by the end of my time there, I so enjoyed starting my day in this way. Of course I vowed when I left the ashram that I would continue with the practice, but unsurprisingly, I quickly reverted back to my non-morning person ways after the structure was gone.

There was a second yoga class at 4pm every day (talk about hot yoga – in 95 degree weather, in a room with no fans sometimes), and then immediately afterwards, there was a beautiful Hindu ceremony, called aarti, on the banks of the Ganges River. The holy Ganges is extremely important to Hinduism and Indian people. The aarti ceremony is a collection of devotional songs and prayers and rituals, and it’s open to everyone who wants to attend.

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I really appreciated this about Hinduism – it is very inclusive.

It didn’t matter to them if I was Christian or Muslim or not practicing any religion; I was still invited to participate in the ceremony in whatever way I wanted to.

IMG_0599At the end of the ceremony, a holy flame is passed around in various forms and people have the opportunity to pray with it and bless themselves with the heat.

It was a very spiritual eight days with so much time to do yoga and meditate and reflect on what is important in life. I did feel a transformation, however small, in my body and spirit during my time there.

After leaving Rishikesh, my next stop was the beautiful and ancient city of Varanasi, which also lies alongside the Ganges River. (The two cities were not close together, however – it took me 24 hours by train to get between them!)

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I remembered learning about Varanasi in high school, when Mr. Ross, our well-traveled geography teacher, told us about the Hindu tradition of cremating loved ones’ bodies on the banks of the Ganges. In my memory, the image he painted of this city was a dark, sad, muddy, scary place where bodies were burning everywhere and people were drowning in the water alongside and the water was swirling black with ashes from the cremations.

In reality, Varanasi was completely different from how I imagined it all these years.

(Of course, the city has likely also changed in the 15+ years since Mr. Ross visited and described it – I would love to talk to him about that some time if I ever see him again.)

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The Varanasi that I experienced was a beautiful place, full of joy and life and color.

Though an important part of its identity (and economy) does relate to death and the cremation of bodies, it is not a depressing place. Instead, it’s a hopeful place. When people are able to cremate their relatives’ bodies here, they believe that they are helping that soul to move on from this life in the best possible way.

We spent some hours throughout the week at the Burning Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies take place. Though seeing the first human body being engulfed by flames was jarring, overall there was a quiet grace surrounding all these people sending their loved ones out of this world in the best way they could.

IMG_0895Boatloads of wood waiting to be used for cremation ceremonies

Many people also come to Varanasi on a pilgrimage totally unrelated to death simply because it is a holy city and it hosts a very important temple in Hinduism. They come to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges in a holy city and to offer prayers that they believe will be magnified in such a holy place.

fce7d977-fa8d-4442-8f77-825e5eb29821People bathing in the Ganges around 6am on a Saturday

It was an absolutely incredible place to experience. I spent a week here with a friend from Germany whom I had met at a hostel earlier in my India experience. We each went our own way for a few weeks and then met back up here.

We took a break from staying in hostels and split a room in a guesthouse, which was simply a room in a local family’s large house. The house was in the old part of town, where the alleyways are too narrow for cars or even rickshaws to drive, and the door opened directly onto one of the main footpaths (on which motorcycles also drive). It was a fun experience to live closer to local people and to tumble out of our door each morning directly into the chaos of the city.

54d56179-9804-4d06-9792-6768a927aed1Eating delicious street food in an alley

We spent our days wandering around the alleys, which are narrow and dark and stay relatively cool even in the 100+ degree heat at this time of the year, and our evenings walking along the river. We made no plans for our time there and just stayed open to whatever crossed our path on a particular day. One day we stumbled upon two men who were working with an old-fashioned printing press. They invited us into their tiny shop to watch how they used the press to print a bunch of neon-colored bags for a local store.

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Another day, we encountered three men lounging with a very docile cow along the river bank and we spent several hours talking with them about Hinduism, cows, and the meaning of life. Another morning, we met a young man who took us on an impromptu walking tour of some of the most beautiful (and well-hidden) temples in the city. At the end, we invited him to share a meal with us and then we parted ways, wishing each other well in life.

Beautiful small moments.

It’s so interesting to me that often the most memorable and magical parts of traveling are the things that are not planned, that don’t cost much money, that aren’t on “the list” of things to do in a place, but are simply found along the way if you’re open to them.

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The city wakes up very early and a lot of its life is centered around the river.

A lot of people sleep outside in Varanasi, sometimes on the concrete by the shore or sometimes in the boats that line the bank. Some local people say they just prefer to be near the river, even though they do have homes in the city. I suspect that some of the pilgrims who visit want to be as close as possible to the river so they can bathe first thing in the morning, before sunrise, which is the holiest time. And I suspect that some also may not have funds to pay for another place to stay, but it’s warm enough to easily sleep outside at this time of year.

Boat taxis are available to go out onto the holy river in the mornings or the evenings – we woke up super early on two mornings to catch the sunrise over the river, and it was absolutely incredible. We met some very nice boat-rowers, too.

In the evenings, a lot of people board boats to get a good view of the nightly aarti ceremony (very different from the aarti in Rishikesh – this one is much larger and flashier).

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After spending so much time in these two cities, I do have a new appreciation for the Ganges River, a name that I always heard in geography class. It means so much to so many people, and it does feel like its presence is something special.

I love this about traveling – it is like getting to color in all the details on a picture I have sketched from information in books or school or TV. The concepts are abstract when I learn about them, but they’re all filed away somewhere, waiting to become real. Then when I get to see something in person, the sketch gets filled in with the rich details and everything comes to life.

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Such a beautiful experience…

India, the land of everything

I’ve been in India for more than a month now, and have barely shared anything about it here.

I’ve been too busy living.

India has been such an all-encompassing experience for me. It’s unlike anything I’ve felt in a long time, maybe ever.

The best way I can describe it is that I feel so full here. Like my body can’t contain all of the life that is coursing through it.

India feels like that too. Like it is bursting at the seams everywhere.

Food with so many spices and flavors that every bite is like fireworks in the mouth. Trains with people crammed in so that some are hanging out the doors and the last ones aren’t able to get on. Saris and shawls so vibrantly colored that a group of women anywhere looks like a work of art. Smells so intense and varied – incense, sewage, frying food, dust, smog, curry. So many sounds of humanity – horns blaring, tongues chattering, music drifting, coughs sputtering, brooms sweeping, cows mooing. A pervasive sense of spirituality in the temples that are everywhere, the Namaste or hari om with which people greet each other, the religious necklaces worn by so many. Sun so intense that my skin burns through my sunscreen, heat that completely engulfs the middle part of the day. And so much natural beauty: the powerful and sacred Ganges river that courses through the east, the Himalaya mountains in the north, the tropical forests in the south, and the enchanting desert in the west.

India is everything all at once.

It’s too much for some people; it’s too much for me some days; but I’m captivated. I can’t look away, I just want more and more and more.

I started my India trip planning to spend a few days in a bunch of different places so I could see a breadth of the country in the one month I had allotted for exploring India.

But after two weeks, I realized I was too in love with this country to leave after 30 days. And that I would prefer to get to know a smaller number of places in more depth than to briefly breeze through more places.

A few days is nothing to spend in any place. You can see the sights and take pictures for your Instagram, but you don’t get any idea what the place is actually about, what makes the world go round there, what is important to its people.

With a fruit vendor we got to know in Pushkar

A week or so is enough to just start feeling the pulse of a place. Of course you need months or years to really understand all the intricacies, culture and language. But in a week or ten days you can settle in, build a few relationships, notice what a normal day looks like in that place and what people do in the place.

And that, connecting to and learning from people and places, is what creates meaning in travel for me.

So, on that note, here is some of what I’ve learned from the first few places I visited in India.

Mumbai

A supremely varied city (India’s largest), full of amazing energy and even better food. A lot of colonial architecture left here, and so interesting to me to see the way that the tropical climate intersects with these old buildings, covering some of them in vines and framing them in palm trees. It just seems incongruous to me, since I associate that type of architecture with cold European countries.

Mumbai was described to me as India’s City of Dreams.

I definitely understand why. It is a modern city, the Bollywood capital of India and a financial hub, full of businessmen in suits and commuters flooding in and out of trains at rush hour. It reminded me of a tropical New York.

I spent two days doing nothing but walking around the city, sampling the street food and taking in the energy of the city. When the heat got too much for me (the pictures look grey but it was so hot and humid), I took refuge in one of the nicest Starbucks locations I have ever been in. I had a cold drink and wrote in my journal while a group of young women worked on a project for school, some young professionals interviewed some candidates for a job and businessmen came in to get their expensive drinks to go.

Mumbai street food

But Mumbai also has a darker side. Sixty percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, in which the conditions of some are pretty rough. I didn’t visit the big slums because again, I don’t believe in treating human beings as objects to be viewed, but I did accidentally wander into a couple of the smaller slums, just blocks from the more upscale parts of the city, and was struck by the disparity in this country.

Of course, we also have a lot of income disparity in the US. We have people living in mansions while so many are homeless or barely scraping by. So I’m not passing any judgment on India – simply observing.

There is a striking parallel existence between an India that is modern and growing fast, with its strong economy making some people very prosperous, and an India in which some people are stuck in poverty, with seemingly little chance of moving upwards. The tide of prosperity is rising in India, but it’s not lifting all the boats.

Still, I liked Mumbai, and it gained a place on my list of “places i could see myself living someday if the right situation arises.” Maybe it’s the wandering spirit in me, but I always assess new places to see if I could ever live there. Just in case.

Udaipur

A beautiful, prosperous city in the Rajasthan region which is a tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike. Some describe it as “the Venice of India.” There are two big lakes, lots of parks, and an amazing palace that takes two hours to walk through.

I met some lovely people here – a couple of young women who were on a break from volunteering at a nonprofit in neighboring Jaipur, a young pre-med American man who shared my love of books and provided some great conversation, and the sweet hostel manager who was trying to learn French and spoke a few words with me each day.

It is a pleasant place, nice to look at, easy to be in, but I didn’t feel much here. No energy, spirit of the city, etc. (Some Indian folks I shared this with later said, “that’s because you were alone. Udaipur is a romantic city!”) Anyway, I spent a relaxing long weekend and then moved on.

Pushkar

The day I arrived here, I shared a rickshaw from the train station with another young woman and when he dropped us off a few hundred meters from our destination, we were confused. But as we started walking, we saw that there was a huge festival going on, completely filling the streets. What a fun way to arrive in a city!

Pushkar is a holy city, with two important Hindu temples and a holy lake. There is supposed to be no alcohol or meat consumed within its limits.

But it’s not an uptight place. The people here are spiritual, they will stop you on the street to tell you about your energy or your chakras, but they’re laid back and friendly. It is a place that a lot of Indian tourists go on a spiritual pilgrimage, and where a huge number of foreigners are staying at any given time.

It felt like a magic place for me – i met so many incredible people here, both locals and travelers. We had beautiful nights of taking motorcycles out to the desert and watching the stars, days of visiting temples and exploring the surrounding area, and evenings spent hiking up to different hilltops to watch the sunset.

I celebrated my 29th birthday here and the staff at the hostel where I was staying surprised me with a cake which we all shared on the rooftop. And as a birthday gift, I treated myself to a massage from a highly-recommended Ayurvedic masseuse. He gave me an amazing massage and then inexplicably also told me some things about what was going on in my mind and some remarkably apt life advice, which he said he felt in my energy during the massage. He said that reading people was a gift he had inherited from his father, who did the same thing. These are the interesting people one meets in India!

I’ll end with this interesting tidbit about India. People here really like taking selfies with foreigners. Random people will just walk up to you and ask you if you’ll take a picture with them. I guess it’s a fun souvenir to show your friends later. When unknown men ask me, I usually say no. But for families or women, I say why not?

Happy Wednesday from me and this adorable Indian family:)

India

When I first turned up in Greece a few months ago, I had the idea that after spending some weeks there, I would be flying back to Africa to continue the trip that Daniel and I had originally planned. But months passed in Greece and I started to get my bearings as a solo traveler when I learned that Daniel was definitely not rejoining me (he was off chasing love in Italy – but that is his story to tell some day). So I spent some time reflecting on what I would most like to do with my remaining travel months, given the new situation.

And I was surprised to find that I heard Asia calling, not Africa.

IMG_9750Sunset on Goa beach

I so enjoyed the years I spent living in Africa, and I would love to go back and see more countries at some point, but at this time, I decided that I wanted to go somewhere new.

For me, I realized that returning to Africa would be going backwards in a way, retracing steps I’ve already taken (especially because I know I wouldn’t be able to travel in Africa without making a stop in Benin to visit old friends, whom I miss dearly). I would have loved to do it, because that time in my life was so important to me and it also seemed familiar, as opposed to Asia which is completely new to me. But ultimately, I want to move forward, to experience new things, venture to the unknown instead of dwelling in what is familiar and comfortable.

And sometimes you just have to leave the past in the past.

P1010276Already five years ago

 

So I chose to continue east instead of going back west. And I set my sights on India.

I’ve always wanted to visit India – I was captivated by the photos and stories from this diverse country for years. It seems like a place that is very real. A place where one can see clearly what it means to be human. And, of course, Indian food is pretty incredible. I always say that at least half of the point of traveling is to eat new and delicious food in different places.

I flew from Greece to Goa, India in a 24-hour journey consisting of 4 flights (Greece –> Romania –> Dubai –> Goa). It was long, but the price was less than what you can pay to fly across the US, so it seemed worth the extra time

The plane dropped below the clouds and I saw India come into a hazy focus. Dark green forests alternating with water, and light brown dirt roads and houses of varying sizes. Pollution is bad in India and the day I flew in, it had rained and the smog seemed to be trapped beneath the clouds, so I couldn’t see the ground very clearly. When I finally stepped off the plane in Goa, I had the familiar feeling of walking into a wall of thick, humid, hot air.

Ah, back in the tropics.

I was already sweating as I carried my backpack through the airport, got my 60-day visa for India and my passport stamped, withdrew some rupees from the airport ATM, and pulled out the directions for getting to the AirBnB that I had reserved for that night.

Leaving the airport, there was a rush of taxi and rickshaw drivers trying to feast on the fresh blood of new visitors to their country. They know that foreigners exiting the airport are the most likely to drastically overpay for transportation. You’re exhausted, you have luggage, and maybe you’ve never been to the country (like me) and you don’t know how much things usually cost. Some travelers are offended that people try to take advantage of them in this way, but I don’t begrudge the drivers seizing the opportunity to make some extra money for their families. I’m sure I would do the same, were I in their position.

It was a bit overwhelming, the rush of people, the heat, humidity, and so many new things, but I had some information from my AirBnB host that helped me get the right price to her place in a trustworthy taxi. The fifteen minute ride reminded me of what it’s like to be in the developing world – old cars, bumpy and dusty roads, traffic laws that are more like guidelines, and lots of horns blaring.

Out the window, I watched as we bounced past small shops with packets of useful items hanging from corrugated metal roofs, women in brightly colored clothing, full-sized cows that were strolling along the road nonchalantly, small dirt roads that darted off from the main road, old men hanging out in front of the shops and groups of kids playing barefoot in the streets. My eyes took it all in hungrily, and I felt part of myself relax in recognition of something familiar.

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I’ve missed this kind of world.

India is of course quite different from the African countries I’ve visited, but there are some similarities. And in a strange way, being here feels a bit like being home. India feels so much less different from Benin or Uganda than Morocco did, even though India is thousands of miles away and Morocco shares a continent with those countries.

My five days in Goa were spent almost exclusively at the beach. After somewhat accidentally spending the majority of winter in Europe, I was so excited for warm weather and swimming in the ocean, which was gloriously warm and so pleasant for swimming.

Since then, I’ve been to three different cities and I am quickly falling in love with India. I only planned to spend one month here when I arrived – I was hoping to also visit Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – but I have a feeling I will stay here for the full two months that my visa allows.

There is so much to explore here, I feel like I could spend years traveling India and still not experience everything.

Short post today but here are a few pictures:

IMG_0122Climbing 900 stairs to see a sunrise above the town

IMG_9921So much amazing food here

IMG_9825Mumbai has amazing architecture

IMG_0181Traffic!

Monkeys watching the sunset

IMG_0057Colors

Coconut water straight from the coconut:)

Sunset scene by Pushkar Lake