Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
I know some people (like Laura, from A Wandering Sole) manage to keep running while they travel, but I haven't really found it to be a viable option in the places I've been (excepting New Zealand). Beyond finding it hard to imagine running in these crowded, winding streets, as a woman alone, I want to stay as covered up as possible, and donning running shorts seemed implausible, particularly in India. That, and I didn't bring my shoes...
Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt these past few months have been incredible, but while taking in world wonders and eating delicious treats, I've gotten pretty unhealthy. So as I'm preparing to hike to Everest Base Camp next week, I'm excited not just for the exhilarating sight itself, but also the physical endurance and exercise it'll take to get there, to finally feel my body straining for something again. It's going to be awesome! Then after, maybe new running shoes will be in order...
Sunday, March 20, 2011
I am surrounded by the Himalayas, sitting on a floor of pillows and drinking chai in India. I saw the Dalai Lama speak this morning.
Is this real life?
*Edit: Six hours after writing that, I was afflicted with my first case of the notorious Delhi Belly. Yes, this is real life.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Now I'm starting to really love this country just as I’m about to leave it—the colors, the landscape, the food, and even the heat. I love her contradictions, especially: a sea of garbage trod on by immaculately dressed women in beautifully-colored saris; fresh sewage running along the street leading to the breathtaking Taj Mahal; a man in traditional dress working in an electronic superstore; hands reaching for your wallet just outside the Golden Temple, where everything is free; ultra-effeminate heterosexual boy love alongside such dismissal of women; the incredibly complex (and flawless) system of organization for laundry and lunch delivery in sharp contrast to the mind-numbing bureaucracy endured to accomplish the simplest task; “untouchable” children begging in the same streets frequented by beyond-touch Bollywood movie stars...
So many languages, cultures, religions, castes…all thrown together and coexisting to form one thundering heart, one indescribable country: this is the spice of India.
And there’s so much more to see!Favorite place: Udaipur
Favorite meal: thali in Ahmedabad
Favorite saying: "The only problem in India is no problem." [head wobble]
Thursday, March 17, 2011
After a breakfast I never grow sick of—samosas and chai from train vendors—we headed for the Taj Mahal. We had four hours in Agra, which, minus train station, rickshaw, lunch, and queing up to get in, translated to about half an hour at the imposing world wonder. What a sweet half hour it was, too! The Taj Mahal shimmers in the light, and is so bright that, without sunglasses, it's difficult to look at directly. Though it appears to be all white at first glance, there are intricate designs throughout. I’m not doing it justice, so I’ll just concede that the monument to love is, as they say, indescribable.
There were many people eager to get a picture with me (even more with Nicky, for her red hair); white skin makes one a celebrity in certain places, which, having grown up in the West, feels strange and a bit discomfiting. I imagine it's how people must feel when I want a picture of them for their colorful saris and bracelets, so I try to smile with as little awkwardness as possible for the women. The men make me more uncomfortable.
In the evening of my second day, I rode 20 kilometers to the India/Pakistan border in a death-defying van ride (seriously the most terrifying driving I’ve yet experienced—which is really saying something, in India). What an experience! Every day at 5pm, the guards on both sides perform a dramatic border-closing ritual. As tensions between the two countries have grown, this ceremony has expanded to become a sort of dance off a la “Honey” (yes, I did just reference a Jessica Alba movie), and the daily audience grew enough that they installed bleachers. Beyond the lively, crowd-inclusive dancing (taken from the latest popular Bollywood films), women lined up to run with the Indian flag down the street toward Pakistan, there were call-and-response cheers, and the impressively-uniformed guards flamboyantly high-kicked with solemn purpose toward the gate. Through all of it, of course, the crowd went wild.
After many dosas, ice creams, and package shipping together (you have to have packages sewn up by a tailor in order to mail them), Wayne and Nicky took off for Delhi, and I packed my bags for Dharamasala.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Ahmedabad was a dazed day and a half watching Bollywood movies on TV and mourning Ad’s departure in a hotel called the Ritz Inn that, while not related to the actual Ritz, was hands down the fanciest place I’ve stayed during my travels. I got room service twice.
On day two I did manage to venture out into the rickshaw-packed streets to do some errands. Without a map and with all the street signs in Hindi, I felt quite overwhelmed at first, but many kind people pointed me in the right direction. I had been nervous that I’d find it a lot more difficult without Ad around (beyond just missing his presence, I was worried I’d be harassed a lot more, based on some of the warnings I’d received). I’m relieved to say that that hasn’t been the case. If anything, people seem more eager to help and genuinely concerned for my welfare as a woman traveling alone. As such, I was able to locate a printer and get my hard-to-procure contact solution and phone charger without too much hassle.
(Let me take this moment to strongly advise against the Lonely Planet ekit for an international phone; the rates are through the roof [I’m paying almost $4 a minute to call the US from India despite the advertised $0.39], there’s a delay on the line, the charger broke, and the phone itself is such an ancient model that, despite the overwhelming number of technology stores on the streets here, NO ONE carries that type of charger anymore. If you plan to travel and need a phone, it’s much smarter to buy the phone and SIM from the country you’re in. Also, it’s worth noting that my $50 universal charger from New Zealand refuses to work in any outlet here, though I’ve spotted my former $2 model in use in several cafes. Grumble, grumble.)
After my errands, I had one of the best meals of my life at the restaurant atop the MK Mansion. I also went to see the Sidi Saiyad Mosque (where, shoeless and head covered, I was invited by one man to step closer and encouraged to take a photo, and then yelled at by another who told me women weren’t allowed in and my picture-taking was incredibly disrespectful).
Another overnight train later, Udaipur was a little haven. Situated on a lake and in a valley, the white city—most buildings are white, as opposed to, say, the blue homes of Jodhpur—was distinctively less sweltering than my former stops, the people were friendly, and the whole place seemed infused with an easygoing outlook. The colors were also incredible—the brightest turquoises and richest saffrons I’d ever seen. I love Rajasthan.
I ventured to Sunset Point the first evening, but of course got lost in the tiny, winding streets and was in danger of missing the sunset. A store owner volunteered to drive me the short distance so I’d make it in time, so I had my first, thrilling ride on a motorbike, dodging and weaving through rickshaws, cars, and pedestrians, and arrived safely and breathlessly to the spot on the hill just as the sun started its descent into Lake Pichola, lighting up the Lake Palace in the center.
On my second day, Chiky, my rickshaw driver from the train station, took me on a half-day tour to see Udaipur’s key sights, including the palace, the Museum of Heroes, and the folk art museum (complete with free puppet show), but the highlights were the detour to the bustling fruit and veg market and the final stop at the Royal Memorials, where I sat alone and in silence among the sea of imposing cenotaphs, awestruck. The rest of my time during my almost week-long stay in “India’s most romantic city” was spent working in the extremely comfy rooftop restaurant of my hotel, looking at intricately detailed scarves or miniature paintings in the shops (where one very kind old master taught me how to improve my yogic breathing), or having guitar sing-alongs with Israelis. It was bliss. On Saturday morning I was, as usual, sitting on the floor of the hotel restaurant, drinking a banana lassi, and doing some work, thinking I might never leave Udaipur because it was so carefree and comfortable, when, out of the blue, in walked Wayne and Nicole. I had last seen my friends over a month before, on Tonsai Beach in Thailand, and had not expected to meet up with them in India at all. Yet, we ended up in the same city, at the same time, in the same restaurant. Very auspicious. With only five days left in India, they were on a whirlwind, marathon train adventure, determined to see a few more major sights before leaving. It was just the nudge I needed, so I checked out of my hotel on the spot, waved goodbye to fair Udaipur and my Israeli friends, and joined them on the train to Agra.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
We’d planned on three days in Goa, but instead we vegged out for five full days, taking in sunshine, lots of food, and one another’s company. There were vendors and touts everywhere, and one guy, in particular, so wanted to sell us light-up devil horns that he gave us a twenty minute demonstration of every one of his products. Goa is supposedly “ultra Western,” with bikinis on the beach a regular sight. Not my experience. After about ten minutes of being leered at in my bathing suit, I resigned myself to a t-shirt and pants. The staff at our hotel was highly entertaining, as was the dog and Mr. Bigglesworth-like cat pair that playfully attacked one another.
My 28th birthday was spent sipping pina coladas on a beach in India with one of my favorite people. Culture, love, and more than a few gray hairs. Not too bad. But the best part of my birthday happened a few days before, on the train ride to Goa: sour patch kids. No that wasn’t the real best part (though we did demolish those in hours—thanks, Mom!). The real best part: We were bored, and Ad said, “I know something that will pass the time,” and brought out a stack of envelopes. Oh, man—letters from friends and family! You guys made me laugh and cry, and some (Connie’s) did both, simultaneously and with snorting. I miss you all so much, and it was great to have a little piece of you halfway around the world with me on my bday. 2011: best yet.
Another afternoon, we headed out to see the Haji Ali Mosque rising from the sea, where there were lots of families beautifully dressed up, and teenage boys pushing one another into the water. At Chowpatty Beach, we watched couples shyly hugging, and we spent a lot of time just walking around Mumbai, eating sweets and taking in the tightly-packed streets, the rushing motorbikes, and the fabric stalls.
Then, way too soon, Ad had to go home, and I had to leave the home of Bollywood.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
When we returned back to the Elephant Nature Park after a week in the Karen village in Mae Chem, it felt like utter luxury. We had beds! With mattresses! And mosquito nets! The showers were still ice cold, but we weren’t complaining, because there was a distinct absence of palm-sized spiders inhabiting them. And the food! I cannot do justice to the food at ENP—with about 20 delicious, mostly-veggie offerings at every meal (Curry, curry, curry! Coconut, coconut, coconut!), I was nearly always teetering on ecstasy with the serene smile of food coma on my face.
I spent the days at the park “working,” but the few hours of poop-scooping, washing fruit, making banana balls, feeding the elephants, bathing the elephants, and the hilariously futile cleaning of the mud pit (read: MUD FIGHT!) felt more like fun at camp than hard labor. Apart from one rough morning of cutting very tall, very thick grass by hand with agonizingly dull machetes (motivation for dullness revealed when I very predictably smashed my shin on an over-zealous swing), the only real work was digesting the three enormous meals every day and keeping our camera batteries charged for the postcard-perfect elephants roaming everywhere.
In the middle of the week we had the chance to venture up to “Elephant Haven”—an overnight trip where we walked three of the elephants to veg out in the jungle for awhile—and later to the “New Property” to make mud bricks and build a seed house with the impressive Antoinette, a Dutch woman who started a project called “Bring the Elephant Home,” which focuses on the positive aspects of elephant tourism and in Thailand. I can now dig a hole and mix cement like a pro.
One of the most notable experiences was when Rachel and I turned up at the baby corral one afternoon just in time to catch Lek singing one of the youngest to sleep for its afternoon nap. She beckoned us inside, and as she hummed “Que sera, sera” and Rachel stroked Pha Mai's trunk, the enormous baby shoved me underneath her belly, where I sat, neck bent below her swaying girth, for half an hour. “She trusts you,” Lek told me solemnly. “She wants to be your mama.”
My time at ENP was mostly light, fun, and an amazing chance to be up close and personal with these creatures, shoving basketfuls of watermelon at their waiting trunks and watching them play on the ele gym while I sipped Chang beer with friends on the patio. But there was another, more educational aspect to the whole experience as well, a lot of which was heart-wrenching. I don’t think it’d be fair if I didn’t share some of it here…
If I took away anything from the ENP, it’s the knowledge that the Asian elephant, though revered throughout Thailand and a prominent figure in Thai culture in everything from temples to the King’s palace, currently lives a life of intense suffering, and its days are numbered. In the past 100 years, elephants in Thailand have dwindled from almost 100,000 to barely 3,000, and those that remain live under torturous conditions:
Jokia, an elderly elephant at the park, was blinded in both eyes by her mahout when she was slacking on the logging job right after the death of her newborn. Mae Do could barely walk because her hip had been broken and deformed from a breeding camp in which up to forty males are forced on a single female. It was painful to watch her hobble around, but worse to see her become terrified and incontinent around Hope and Jungle Boy, the young males at the park. These are just a couple of the Park’s stories—others include survivors of land mines and drug addicts—but nearly all Asian elephants encounter misery early on in their lives. When they are three or four years old, all working elephants in Thailand (which is almost all of the population—very few are currently wild) undergo pujam, a breaking ceremony where they are placed in a cage, stabbed with hooks, beaten with clubs, and shouted at for four days to a week. Almost half die in this process. Elephants live to around the same age as humans and have similar developmental stages. They are also incredibly intelligent, emotional, social animals—if I’m remembering right, the only other animal besides man that cries tears. Imagine a toddler tortured for a week with nails. Imagine what impact that has developmentally. Or what it does to its mother.
Please, please, please, if you visit countries where elephants are part of the tourist industry, don’t give money or bananas to mahouts begging with their elephants in the streets. Resist the draw of elephant treks, elephant paintings, elephant dancing and elephant sports. No matter how legit some of these operations may seem on the surface, those elephants have almost universally been beaten into submission for our entertainment.
Before coming to the Park, I thought elephants were really cool. I thought logging was bad for the environment. I never would’ve condoned the mistreatment of animals, but didn’t see anything wrong with riding elephants, either, and even looked into a hill trek that ended in an elephant ride. But Jennifer and Bryn recommended the ENP, and I’m so grateful I took their advice. If you do still want an amazing, close-up elephant experience in Thailand that promotes sustainability and conservation through education, I can’t recommend The Elephant Nature Park strongly enough. Check them out at www.elephantnaturepark.org. I’m definitely going back.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable with the nomadic lifestyle; as I meet more and more travelers—gap year students, retirees, couples who’ve sold their homes and quit their jobs, families with young children—at this point, it’s actually starting to feel like staying put is what’s abnormal. This might be the longest period of time I go for alone, but I’ve started to realize that I need this, regularly, at least for a short amount of time. Maybe I’ll go for a month each year, or for six weeks, but there are so many places to see, I know it’ll take my whole lifetime to even make a dent.
From spending the majority of my time in HK holed up in my guesthouse alone without much human contact, I’ve definitely been savoring the islands of interaction with friends along the way more this past month. My best times have been spent joking about hipsters with John, battling feral monkeys with Wayne and Nicole, and shoveling shit and avoiding arachnids with Rachel. I also came to accept that traveling constantly doesn’t have to mean constantly doing things. I chill out at home, and can have off days here as well—even if home is a hotel room.
I learned quite a bit this month, of course: I learned to savor every single thing I put in my mouth. I learned to bargain well and with a smile, how to eat a crab, to give a Thai massage, to cook a mean red curry, to count and say hello and thanks in multiple languages, to rock climb (well, at least to start to), to tie a secure belay knot, to make banana balls, to mix cement, to stop traveler’s diarrhea dead in its tracks, and to understand the meaning of “Thai time.”
I also learned that it’s not how pretty your feet look, it’s how well they serve you to navigate tiny alleys and dusty hilltops. Even without toenails. This one’s for you, Rebecca:
Favorite place: Tonsai Bay, Thailand
Favorite experience: Being mommied by Pha Mai, the baby elephant
Favorite meal: Tie between spicy crab in Hong Kong and every meal I had at the Elephant Nature Park
Favorite saying: "Same same…but different.”
Favorite lodging: The homestay in the Karen village—at least in retrospect.
Rachel and I were paired up from the very first day, and I felt like I hit the jackpot, roomie-wise. She was super laid back, we had a similar sense of humor (that is, we laughed at the absurdity of almost every situation—from the ant infestation to her dubiously risque massage to the rats eating my underwear to shoveling poop while less-enthusiastic volunteers took pictures of us shoveling poop), and she was also traveling on her own, taking four months off from her job as a mental health nurse in England.
After dinner on the first night, Rachel and I stumbled upon Lek giving a talk to around a dozen other volunteers at a picnic table. Lek motioned for us to sit down and we listened for awhile as she described a hill tribe six hours away in Mae Chem, where volunteers would sleep in the villagers’ huts, do “whatever needed to be done,” and spend two days walking in the jungle with the Karen people’s elephants, among them two babies. At the end of the talk, Lek asked who wanted to go on this “Journey to Freedom,” a week-long trip from the park. As everyone else raised their hands, Rachel and I looked at each other. We had two weeks at ENP. Did we want to go? Oh, yes.
At 8am the next morning, we were clenching our teeth as our van barreled north down the back roads, shooting past buses and mopeds around hairpin turns on the edge of cliffs sorely in need of a guardrail. We later switched out of the van and spent the last hour of the trip standing up, bumping along a two track through the jungle and past fields of cabbage as we climbed higher and higher up the mountains.
The village looked down from its perch to the dense, green valley below, and the 13 of us were welcomed into three homes. Our house mother was really curious about us at first, and watched everything we did with extreme interest; the first night, she didn’t leave the doorway until all four of us had closed our eyes to sleep. The lives of the Karen people definitely contrasted my own more than any I’d seen up to this point. The huts were made of bamboo, some of them beautifully woven, others Spartan, some with decorative windows, others missing walls. Hogs, dogs, water buffalo, and chickens lived beneath the houses. The women wore beautiful sarongs which they wove, and only virgins were permitted to make the shockingly strong rice whiskey.
We spent the first couple of days generally being a nuisance to the villagers. No, that’s probably wrong, but it certainly felt that way much of the time. We had three vet students with us, and they led the group in vaccinating the abundance of dogs and cats for rabies and de-worming them. We also attempted to “build” a “shower,” which really meant that we knocked down a perfectly good bathroom (only built in the first place for Western visitors) in front of expertly-constructed new homes and, with no tools, nails, wood, leadership, or carpentry experience, managed to rig up a very precarious and hilariously lopsided shack with no roof. We even managed to jam a hole in the hose that was to supply said shower in the process. But regardless of the outcome, we did our damndest, and I think all of us knew that it was more the money we (and the ENP) paid that mattered, less our construction successes.
Toward the end of the week, we met the elephants. The mother, a teenage daughter, and four month-old twins are owned by one of the families in the village. It’s historically a sign of prestige for the Karen to own an elephant, but these days the villagers are usually far removed from their elephants and rent them out to logging camps or trekking camps. The elephants can earn far more a day in logging season than their owners can (300 baht/$10/a day versus 3 baht/day), so it’s a hard sell to fight the camps. In the case of these four elephants, the ENP essentially pays the owner instead to insure that the elephants can NOT work. As such, we got to don some gum boots/Wellies and plod after the elephants in the surrounding dense jungle, sloshing through mud and rivers lined with webs filled with these palm-sized spiders:
Apparently Hugh walked smack into a web and ended up with one of the nightmarish suckers on his face, but because he is both quiet-natured and Australian (i.e. used to unfathomably grotesque arachnids), he just brushed it off and waited until we were leaving the village to casually mention it to anyone.
In the evenings, we sat with the locals around a campfire under a sky glowing with more stars than I imagined existed. The oldest woman in the village, Sozu, who was 65, took a liking to me and linked her arm in mine. With no common language and no shared background, we could barely communicate, but we laughed and laughed as she tried to teach me to count to ten in Karen (Deh, Kee, Suh, Louie, Zeh, Ho, Nouie, Huh, Kwee, T’chee) and I tried to teach her the English equivalent. We had a chance to ask the Karen people about their culture and they questioned us in turn (“How old are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Why do you come here?” “What do you do at home?”) Jobs like “marketing assistant” and “children’s book writer” were a bit lost in translation, though Dino did his best.
Poor Dino. Dino was our guide throughout the week, and after a day or two, I began to pity him what must have been the overwhelmingly frustrating task of managing us: translating between us and the Karen (whose language seemed to have more French influence than Thai), the Karen and us, answering every imaginable question about the elephants and the Karen people, directing our hourly tasks in the village, all while explaining where we needed to sleep, when we would eat, where we’d go next, how many local customs we’d offended in the last five minutes, and how to manage the toilet (Tip: in Thailand, toilet paper does NOT go in the toilet. Ever.).
We also had a chance to buy the beautifully woven scarves, bags, sarongs, and shirts that the women had made. After we left, we learned that the women don’t sell their wares at the market in Chiang Mai or elsewhere. The woven items they’d made, they’d done so only to sell to us. When I learned this I remembered the stacks of scarves and bags, a dozen women’s eyes watching me intently. I wished I would’ve bought every single thing on that table.
I find it hard to know how to talk about some of my experiences with accuracy, honesty, and sensitivity, because so much seems marred by the haze of my own feelings of guilt—of my own excess, my privilege. (I expect this will be magnified in India.) The children had worms because of bare feet combined with rare toilet usage. There were starving dogs everywhere. The women chewed betel nuts so were spitting constantly, the oldest among them with very decayed teeth. It seemed…simple. Primitive. But it feels unfair to call it that, too. Only from a Western lens does it seem that way. To the Karen people, who seemed extremely happy living in their picturesque jungle paradise, it is only their life. The life they’ve always known. This was not a trek with an agency, which might cart ten groups a day through, encouraging the kids to beg for change and gifts. This was a trip set up through a conservationist organization with the goal of keeping more elephants out of logging camps just over the border in Burma, encouraging a closer relationship with the Karen and their elephants (as they once had decades ago), while providing them with a way to earn income. I know these things. But I struggled because it still felt wrong to be there, somehow. It felt like disturbing the peace.
The night before we left, Dino fielded questions around the campfire again. An older man asked something, and Dino shrugged, looking at us. “He wants to know if you’ll come back.” All of the villagers nodded and smiled.
As the Thais like to say, mai ben rai. No worries. We'll figure it out.
*Note: All names and phrases were a total guess as far as spelling. I'll do a separate post on my week spent at the actual Elephant Nature Park.
Individually, the challenges aren’t exceptional. There are plenty of Western toilets and toilet paper is much more common here than it was in Thailand. I can manage the open stares, and dressing conservatively certainly helps. Though the traffic is a complete circus and on a whole new level from any road antics I’d previously witnessed, New York cabs prepared me at least a tiny bit for the necessity of complete faith in your driver. And, as Ad said, “From what people had said, I kind of thought it would be a sea of child amputees.” It’s not. But neither is it like anything I’ve experienced before.
“The only problem in India is no problem,” several different vendors have told me over the past few weeks. Yeah but… can you really help me fix this actual problem?
My arrival at the airport gave me an early glimpse into what I would come to know (and, gradually, to sort of love) as India’s reliable unreliableness. At baggage claim, I followed the instructions on the screen for my baggage carousel. It wasn’t running. I checked another one that said “Bangkok,” but learned that it was off of a Thai Airways flight, not my Air India plane. I was pointed to the other side of the airport (there were apparently two baggage areas at opposite ends, though no signs indicated this). I trekked over there, waited in line to enter the area, presented my passport and ticket again. Got inside. No luck. Went back to the other side. Line. Passport. Ticket. Rinse and repeat for around an hour. In near-despair, I asked an official-looking airport person where the lost luggage counter was so I could file a claim. He didn’t answer, but started walking with me. On our way, I spotted my backpack rounding the corner of a carousel inexplicably labeled “Tel Aviv.” I gleefully snatched it off the belt, and the “official” picked up my daypack. I asked for it back repeatedly. When we got to the door (twenty paces away), he said I owed him 100 Rupees.
I definitely struggled at first, here in India. Everything seemed so unnecessarily complicated, from getting a taxi to ordering food to printing a train ticket at an internet café. Garbage and poverty were everywhere. Beyond just language (many people speak English), there was a serious communication barrier; I could not explain myself, at all. There seemed to be no lines; whoever shoved most forcefully and with the most gall was first. Interactions with most men felt either predatory or dismissive. The touts had an aggression that was exhausting. “Yes. Madam. You buy.” “No.” “Cheap price for you.” “No.” After awhile it started to feel like everyone wanted something from me; every interaction seemed loaded. I felt guarded here in a way I’d never been, felt pressed in and pushed on. Any one of these things would’ve been manageable. But it was everything at once, all of the time!
All of this leading to…. DUN DUN. Culture shock. Recognize it. Accept it. Overcome it.
There is much to love here, too. The vivid pinks, blues, greens, and yellows of the saris. The rhythm and expertise of the taxi and motorbike drivers as they weave and dodge, their horns speaking an intricate language. The exquisite mixture of spices and diversity of flavor in endless curries, dosas, thalis. The candy in the street stalls, tasting of pistachio, milk, and molasses and so, so sweet. And the people, curious and pushy and beautiful and resourceful, and full of the joy of life.
India is a place that constantly surprises in the amount she can give and take away. I just needed to settle in and throw my expectations out the window.