Category Archives: India

Final Thoughts

So now I’m on my way home, flying over the Pacific as I type. I honestly can’t believe how quickly these past few months have passed, but on the other hand, I feel so fortunate to have experienced so much in such a short period of time. I just finished watching a movie on the plane – a nice, no-brainer chick-flick and there was one line it that really resonated with me. It basically said that life is half what you do with yourself and half about who you spend your time with. I can’t iterate enough how much my personal experiences were shaped (mostly for the good) by the people I was with. Had I done this trip completely alone, it’d have been awful. But as I’ve said before, and I’ll say again – that’s the best part of traveling – meeting people.

In the past 109 days, I’ve taken 2 overnight plane flights, camped on a beach for 2 nights, spent 5 nights on bus, took 2 overnight train rides and slept in 59 different beds (yes, I counted). I’ve taken 18 separate flights (well, by the time I get back to Chicago). I can’t even count the number of buses, tuk-tuk rides, rickshaws, motorbike rides, etc that I’ve taken. I walked 150 miles in 14 days, trekked to 5416 meters, rock climbed in Thailand, surfed in Bali, climbed south east Asia’s tallest mountain, white-water rafted in Bali, saw orangutans in the jungle, climbed a sulfur-spewing volcano in Sumatra, experienced new cultures, met amazing new friends, saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets, relaxed on the beach in “paradise,” did yoga in India, discovered new food, and through it all, had such an amazing time.

My time over the past 3.5 months was divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Nepal, India and Thailand. I think it’s interesting to note that the 3 wealthiest countries (that I visited on this trip) are Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. I noticed a few differences between the wealthier countries and the poorer ones. For one, the wealthier countries tend to have more cars, whilst the poorer ones either rely more on motorbikes or foot for transportation. The other difference, which I find quite notable, is that in the wealthier countries, women play a very visible role. They have jobs and interact with the public. They are seen out at night – sometimes even alone. In Indonesia, Nepal and India, local women are seen from a bus window, or seen in groups, or seen with families, but they don’t run shops, they rarely interact with tourists and they’re hardly ever seen after the sun goes down. In most places, it’s ok being a western woman (sometimes alone) at night, but India, it just doesn’t feel safe. That’s probably due in part to the “staring” culture that’s more noticeable than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s just interesting, because I believe that women play a vital role to a country’s development and to me, I’d say that the developing countries should work on making a women’s role in everyday life a more visible and vital one.

As I’ve mentioned, the people that I met made my trip what it was. From meeting an aspiring dominatrix from Montreal to a chain-smoking Jordanian man in Singapore who had his passport confiscated and was contemplating escaping from the country to a British man nearly in tears because his Muslim Indonesian wife ran off with their two children to a tattooed British man who constantly reeked of alcohol and cigarettes, but knew great magic tricks and was a former member of the Iranian mafia who spent time in a Malaysian prison for human trafficking, I’ve met a few characters to say the least. Best of all are the friendships formed and the memories that I share with those people.

My top moments of my trip were:

Tubing down the river in Bukit Lwang with (Indonesia)

Reaching the Throng-La pass at 17,769 ft (Nepal)

Catching waves in Bali (Indonesia)

Motorbiking to deserted beach after deserted beach in Lombok (Indonesia)

Watching the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kinabulu (Malaysian Borneo)

Rock climbing in Railay (Thailand)

Relaxing on the paradise island, Gili Trawangan (Indonesia)

Other cool moments include:

White water rafting for my first time in Bali (Indonesia)

Doing yoga (India)

Seeing orangutans in the jungle (Indonesia)

Climbing an active volcano (Indonesia)

And the only two low-lights that come to mind were:

Sleeping on the filthy floor of an over-crowded Indian train

Getting sick with stomach issues

But, I wouldn’t trade those “bad” experiences for the world, because it’s all part of the experience. Plus, I love that so much of what I experienced can’t just be seen on the Discovery Channel or from the view of a car window. I had to work to get to these places (especially on the Annapurna Circuit!), but that made the satisfaction all the more worthwhile.

And now that I’m nearly home, there are definitely some things that I’m looking forward to, and others that I’ll miss dearly. I can’t wait for consistently hot showers. I’m glad that I won’t have to carry my own toilet paper everywhere I go, but crazily enough will miss public squatters (though not the spraying on toes part of it – yeah, I think it happened every time). I’m looking forward to drinking tap water once again and not buying another bottle of water for a really long time. I’m happy that I’ll get a fair price when I walk into any store (and not the “white price”), but will miss the overall cheaper prices. I’ll be glad that when someone yells “hello” at me, it’s because they want to actually say hi to me and not because they want to lure me into their store… or in their taxi… or to their bedroom. I’m happy to have a diverse selection of ethnic cuisines available to me again, but will miss the amazing street food (especially Indian food). I’ll be sad that rent for my future apartment will cost more than an entire day’s activities. And I’ll most certainly miss the under $10 massages.

In sum, I can’t reiterate just how fantastic of a time I had on my trip. But, I think I’m also leaving at just the right time. I’m not jaded by traveling yet and really, really excited to see my friends and family that I haven’t seen in months! I’m looking forward to being in a home again, and not changing a bed every few days. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m looking forward to the food… and to cooking and baking – good thing it’s Christmas! I’m also excited about the winter ski season – I’m moving to Colorado this winter at the very least to ski for the season while I focus on my job search, but will also be looking for work permanently there, so I’m looking forward to exploring a new region of the country and establishing a new life for myself there.

Thanks for reading y’all! Your comments and happiness for me definitely meant a significant amount and kept me going during those harder moments that I might have glossed over. Have a great holiday season! J

Nepal and India

Leaving Kathmandu, we woke up at an ungodly early hour for Erica to catch her flight back to the states and for Niki and I to catch a bus to the Indian border. Our bus ride took the majority of the day, but we passed over to India without incident. We met some other travelers who had hired a jeep, so we hopped in the back and made it to the Gorkaphur train station. Once again, we didn’t have reserved beds, as all beds were booked on all trains from Nov. 27th ‘til Dec. 7th. So, we went ahead and bought unreserved tickets ($3) and crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor like we did on our way to Nepal. Our train was supposed to depart shortly before midnight, but was late, so we didn’t depart until 2-something in the morning.

So, we sat for hours waiting for our train. Indians are used to these train delays as they bring an assortment of blankets and plop down on the platform to catch a few zzz’s until their train arrives. Niki and I just huddled on top of our backpacks and staved off the cold and tiredness. Once the train rolled in, we hopped on and found two empty beds, which we quickly claimed. Who knows if they were meant for someone else or not, but we got to sleep peacefully throughout the night. Our train finally arrived in Delhi around 7:30pm the next day.

We made our way to the backpacker area, ate a delicious dinner and feel asleep watching “Friends.” It’s one of the few places that had a TV in the room, which is a nice luxury. The next day, we ran some errands and made our way to the Sagat neighborhood, where we stayed with a friend of Niki’s, an American ex-pat who is working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His home was such an oasis from the madness that is Delhi – it was clean, comfortable, he had a huge collection of DVD’s, it was heaven. We ordered Dominos and did laundry, and spent a massive amount of time on the internet. It was just the recuperation that we needed.

The next day, I said my goodbyes to Niki – it’s crazy to think that we traveled for 2.5 months together. Never would I have thought that I’d find such a great travel partner, and for so long at that! I already miss her, but headed north to check out Rishikesh, the “yoga capital of the world.” Now, my view of yoga can basically be summed up by that Jimmy Buffet song, Pina Colada, in which he says “if you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain.” I just don’t have the patience for it. But, I figured it’d be a good challenge for me, and I’ll admit, all the massages that are also advertised lured me.

On the 9 hour bus ride to Rishikesh, I was treated to a near constant cacophony of horns as buses and trucks blast their horns to signal that they’re passing. A motorbike hit a pedestrian who then (maybe) was hit by a truck. I can’t say for certain, but as we passed the scene of the accident, I saw an old man, literally just a sack of bones being lifted off the road. The only indication that he was still alive (barely) was that I saw his eyes roll around his head once. Also on the way, they were repaving a section of the road, so rather than close the road and re-route traffic, we just waited while they laid asphalt and rolled it smooth. Once that was done, we drove on.

People come to Rishikesh for months on end to stay at ashrams, much like Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame. There are definitely a lot of dread-locked, linen-clothed, patchouli types here, which I wouldn’t say describes me per se… The first day I just walked around and ended up spending the majority of the day in bed. I got a cold at the start of the Annapurna Circuit and I think the altitude just never let me heal properly, because it’s still lingering. Finally, I got all feverish, so just needed to sleep it off. I momentarily thought I had Dengue Fever (also known as bone-breaking fever) because my body ached all over and I have a few other symptoms, but I think it’s just a culmination of over-exertion and my lingering cold or maybe just a flu.

The next day, I treated myself to a massage. I got the deep tissue massage, which is supposed to be a combination of ayervedic and Swedish, but basically the woman just slaps tons of oil all over you and rubs vigorously for an hour. I can’t say it’s the most pleasant massage I’ve ever gotten, but it sure beats a Thai massage.

Alright, so now I’ve done yoga. I took one class and it was ok. I’d done yoga only once before – in Chicago and I can’t say I was exactly enamored with it. I did it with my sister and a friend and my favorite part was the end where you lie down. I enjoyed it so much that my sister told me that I was even snoring! Well, this 2 hour class focused on breathing (which was a bit of a struggle as I’m still coughing from my cold) and had bits of meditation interspersed. It was enjoyable enough for me to do again, but I can’t say that I’ll start doing yoga at home. I just don’t get it. Maybe I said my chants incorrectly, held my poses in the wrong manner, but I really just don’t get why yoga is all the rage. Moreover, people stay in places like Rishikesh for months on end. My problem is that I just don’t understand what they do all day. I’m was here for 3 full days and at the end of it, I was ready to move on. I asked a girl I met in my yoga class what she does when she stays at an ashram and she told me she spent a lot of time meditating and reading spiritual books. I guess at the end of the day, for me, while it’s fun to attempt dabbling in yoga/meditation, but it’s not my cup of tea – and certainly not for months on end. I’d rather do “nothing” all day on a beach in Indonesia than in an ashram in India. But hey, that’s just me.

After Rishikesh, I headed back to Delhi. On my final day in Delhi, I did some shopping (bought a TON of spices) and went to check out the Ba’hai House of Worship, more commonly known as the Lotus Temple. I’m currently reading Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead about the modernist architect Howard Roark, so checking out the Lotus Temple, which doesn’t fit in with the rest of Delhi definitely made me think of the book and how his designs don’t fit in with what the rest of the world deems as acceptable. I had dinner with the guy I bought my spices from and a girl from the Czech Republic. She was interesting – she had fallen in love with a baba, her guru. Babas are religious men – perhaps self-anointed as such; I’m not quite sure. And hers basically looked like an Indian version of Brian David Mitchell – remember him? Elizabeth Smart’s captor. Anyway, she wanted to marry him, but didn’t have the funds. I’ve heard enough horror stories about cross-country marriages (not saying they can’t work), and I hate to say it, but hers seems (if they ever actually get married) destined for ruin. Her guru was currently living in a cave and wanted to build a house for her before they married. Not quite what I’m looking for in a future partner, but hey, different strokes for different folks, right? It was a weird dinner conversation, but interesting.

I caught a few winks and then headed off to the airport. I landed in Bangkok and after some time in India and Nepal, this place feels like home – almost. I can’t walk 10 feet without tripping over a white person, the city is clean (relatively) and the cuisine varied. I can walk down the street without getting stared out; it’s a welcomed change.

In sum, India is amazing and difficult. It’s most definitely a land of contradictions. For some reason, I found it really exhausting to travel there this time, whereas I adored my first trip to the sub-continent. Perhaps it’s the 3+ months of travel that are starting to wear me out. For instance, waiting in line to use the bathroom in the Kolkata airport, I queued by the door for the next available stall. Well, an Indian woman pushes past me and goes and stands directly in front of a stall door. OK, so we don’t form an orderly queue – we pick our stall and hope our line is the fastest. I can adapt to that, for sure, but come on lady, it’s pretty obvious I was waiting for a stall!

Next update will be about the last leg of my trip – Thailand!

Whirlwind India trip and bus rides to Kathmandu

First picture is of a crowded Indian train from Delhi to Agra, and the second is me just posing with a cow in Varanasi.

As I write this, I’ve now been traveling for a good number of days. First, a day long bus commute from Singapore to KL, then a whole day of flying from KL to Bangkok to Kolkata to Delhi. Then, a 4 hour train ride to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is). Then an exhausting overnight train ride to Varanasi (India’s holiest city). Then, an all day local bus ride to the Nepalese border. Then, an all day bus ride from the border to Kathmandu. Basically, that’s nearly 6 days straight of transit of some sort. I’m definitely exhausted from it all.

I arrived in Delhi around midnight and was happy to have my driver waiting for me as I exited the airport. He drove me through the deserted streets of Delhi and I was reminded that I was in India as soon as I saw the cows lounging amidst the heaps of rubbish strewn about. I met up with Niki at our hotel and we were both so excited to see each other; we talked for hours catching up about our respective time apart.

After only a couple of hours of sleep, we packed our bags and headed to the train station to buy a ticket to Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is. We had thought the train would be only 2 hours so we bought the cheapest ticket possible. Our ride turned out to be 4 hours long, which, as the train got increasingly crowded became more and more uncomfortable. The car we were in had sections that had 4 wooden platforms/beds to a section. We climbed on the top bunk/wooden platform and initially shared our bed with our bags. It was comfortable enough… but we couldn’t stretch our legs out or hang them over the edge, as we would’ve put our feet in the faces of the people below us. The fan in our section wasn’t working. And the train got increasingly crowded with each stop the train made. We crammed a few more people on our berth, but the situation below looked to be far more uncomfortable. Finally, we arrived to Agra and got off our beds. The interesting thing is that all the men jumped up to grab our seats and left the woman standing. As we exited the train, we had to push pass the hoards of people loading the train with no regard for those exiting. I’ve learned that in such populous places, like India and China, pushing is the norm, whereas waiting in an orderly queue will get you nowhere.

We spent a whirlwind afternoon and evening in Agra. We only bought a train ticket to Agra and just figured we’d buy our onward ticket to Varanasi upon arrival in Agra, as the line at the Delhi train station was long and the customer service less than stellar. Well, I’ve been to India before so I should’ve known this, but trains fill up fast and it’s best to reserve tickets as far in advance as possible. Well, once we got to Agra, we learned that all the beds in the air-conditioned cars were full. So, we spent some time trying to figure out other options, but found nothing suitable. So, we decided to head to the Taj. Last time I saw the Taj in broad daylight, this time was sunset. It’s a beautiful building no matter the time of day. We got lucky because it was full moon, so we got to watch that rise over the Taj.

Upon leaving the Taj, we headed back to the train station where we learned we could book an unreserved ticket – which is just a general ticket, which means you have no seat, or no bed, but you just stand/sit/lie where you can. We were told that we could upgrade our ticket from the conductor onboard. Thinking this was a great idea and even better price (less than $3), we excitedly purchased our tickets. We chatted for awhile with two awesome 60-year old German women who were traveling for just 5 days. They inspired us to take a reunion trip when we’re 60. J

So, the train arrives a bit after 11pm. We hop into the 2AC car with the German ladies (2AC is the nicest train car – basically, each section has 4 beds, with sheets, a pillow and blankets, a curtain dividing it from the train “hallway” and air conditioning). We sat on empty beds for awhile and when there were still a few empty beds and the train started moving, we decided to pick two beds and hope to just pay for an upgrade when the conductor came by. Well, not 5 minutes after climbing into bed and taking pictures of our victory does the conductor saunter through our car. He was none too pleased to find us there and we were told to go to the sleeper class. So, with heads hung low, we sling our backpacks on and walk through a couple of cars of 3AC (same as 2AC, but just 6 beds to a section instead of 4) until we get to the sleeper car, which we can’t get to, because a large garage door-type thing made from corrugated metal is closing off the nicer train cars from the riff-raff. Bear in mind that India is not exactly the world’s most egalitarian country in the world and doing something as overt as locking the poor people in their cars so they don’t sneak to the more expensive sections would be considered normal.

We finally get the door unlocked for us and enter the dark, extremely crowded sleeper car. There are 6 beds to a section, no AC, no blankets and more than 1 body to a bed… not to mention all the bodies we walked over on our search for a spot. Finding nothing, we’re told to go sit between cars (where the bathrooms are located and thus the overwhelming stench of urine and feces). We finally find a vacant bit of floor between some beds, so we decide that this will be home for the night. The area definitely wasn’t large enough for both of us to sleep comfortable, so we sat up and literally took turns sleeping in the others’ arms for the next few hours. At 4am, a lot of people got off the train, so we were able to move to actual beds. I ended up sharing my bed with a random Indian dude sitting at the edge of my bed. I woke up to discover that he was using my hip as a pillow. Normally, I’d have swatted a stranger away who was lounging on my body, but it’s India. Men walk down the street with fingers interlaced; they spoon on the floors of train stations; they stand extremely close together – basically, personal bubbles don’t exactly exist.

At 7am, we decided to see if a bed in the 3AC section had become available, and you can imagine our elation at finding multiple empty beds. So, we found two beds where the sheets weren’t overly tousled and eagerly hopped into bed for a few really, really good and welcomed hours of sleep. At the end of it all, Niki and I were both really happy that we a) got to Varanasi when we wanted to b) eventually upgraded ourselves to a nicer bed and c) only paid less than $3 for it. Granted, we did endure a few hours of sleeping on a nasty Indian train floor, but at the end of the day, I’m really grateful for a travel companion like Niki who doesn’t complain when we get ourselves into undesirable situations and just laughs along with me about whatever pickle we’ve most recently gotten ourselves into.

We finally arrived in Varanasi and got to our guesthouse, took a MUCH needed shower and set off to see the sights. After devouring a large lunch, we ran into the German ladies again, so the 4 of us set off to see the burning ghats. Varanasi is India’s holiest city as it’s located on the holiest point on the Ganges River, which is India’s holiest river. About 300 people are burned in Varanasi each day, 24 hours a day. It takes a body 3 hours to burn and I forget how many kilos of wood are required. Bodies are burned with sandalwood, which is fairly expensive and the elderly are required to buy their own wood for their own cremation, which costs roughly $3 USD per kilo. As such, you have a plethora of very old people in Varanasi, literally waiting to die and begging for money for their cremation. The Hindus believe in reincarnation and that you are reincarnated to the same caste as before. The reason people come to Varanasi to die is that they believe if you are cremated in Varanasi, you can escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha, or nirvana, ultimate enlightenment. No caste is discrimated against during cremation, and as such, there are many Dalites (the Untouchable caste) who hope to die and be burned in Varanasi.

At the burning ghat, I took 2 photos, which you’re not supposed to do, out of respect for the dead. Oops. But, I was trying to be discreet about it, but I guess I wasn’t that discreet, as a local man cum guide seeking money consequently demanded payment for that privilege. I apologized and offered to delete the photos, but he would have none of that. He wanted money, claiming it wasn’t for him, but for the elderly to buy their wood for their cremations. After a lengthy altercation, I finally paid him a portion of what he demanded and we went on our way.

We went to the main ghat and watched the sites there for a bit – a bit less activity than the early morning bathing, laundry and praying rituals, but still just as gross to see women dousing themselves in river water and the swallowing it. Ew, ew, ew. Not only are ashes of the deceased dumped in the river each day, but there are 5 types of people who can’t be burned in Varanasi – children under 12, pregnant woman, those with leprosy and I forget the other two types. In lieu of being burned, their bodies are tied to a rock and dropped off a boat in the middle of the river. And that’s not even why the river is as dirty as it is – there is a sewage plant a few kilometers upstream that dumps heaps and heaps of sewage into the river, unnecessarily polluting it. Varanasi is one of India’s most fascinating and disgusting places to see. I’m intrigued by it, but also equally disgusted and happy to be on my way.

The next day, we left Varanasi early in the morning and caught a local bus to the Nepalese border. This was an 11 hour affair. Our bus stopped exactly twice this whole time. Towards the end, there were about 8 people begging for a bathroom stop, which was repeatedly denied. Finally, we were granted our wish and got to pee in a garbage-strewn field behind a chai shop on the side of the road. We crossed the border into Nepal with ease. I had forgotten to sign my Indian immigration form and the officer looked at me and said “what, do you expect me to sign this for you?” I thought he was joke-being-an-asshole, so I laughed and said that I would sign it. And he wobbled his head and said, “no it’s ok – I’ll sign for you” And he scribbled my signature for me. Ahh, the security of it all – so different from the western world.

We crossed to Nepal and made it through immigration with equal ease and finally found a restaurant in which to eat, as we were starving, since only 4 samosas comprised the bulk of my eating for the day (we were on the bus that just didn’t stop…and when we were at the stop where we got the samosas, the bus driver nearly drove away without us – he was on a mission!). We shopped around at a couple of hotels and finally settled on a $4 room, as it had an en suite bathroom with hot water. Given that I did nothing but sit on a bus all day, I was filthy – my body was absolutely clad in dirt. My hair felt thick with grime and my pants, which were clean in the morning had a visible layer of dirt and grime on them – all from just sitting on a filthy Indian bus all day.

So, our room was good enough. We showered and as we were sitting on the bed – I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I look again and hesitate to tell Niki that I had just seen 2 cockroaches, as the night before, in Varanasi, I was typing away on my computer in bed and looked up to see a mouse staring at me at the head of our bed. I’m not super squeamish or disgusted by bugs and the sort, but a mouse in my room is not cool. That night (in Varanasi) we were able to change rooms, though the men running the guest house thought we were crazy as they’d come to find us standing on our bed and squealing about the mouse. This room in Nepal, however, was MUCH worse than the one in Varanasi. We talked about it and decided that cockroaches weren’t that bad – they exist in this part of the world. All was cool until we saw a mouse scurry along the wall. And before settling in for the night, Niki wiped some bugs off of her pillow. This place was disgusting, but the town was dead – the stores literally all shut down by 8pm and the other places we had looked at weren’t much better. So, we sucked it up for the night and went to sleep in our cockroach and mouse-infested room.

So, now it’s been quite a few days of traveling – I’m currently on a bus from the Nepalese/Indian border to Kathmandu – and I couldn’t be more excited to do a load of laundry and to sleep in a clean-ish bed and to not take a bus or a train for at least 1 day. I know I’ll get my wish. Tomorrow I meet up with Dean, my boss from Cushman and Wakefield and my sister. Shortly thereafter, we’ll head off for 3 weeks to hike the Annapurna Circuit, where we’ll have no access to internet the entire time. I’m really excited about the hike as I built my trip around this hike specifically and have been wanting to do this for quite some time. In our three weeks of mountain fresh air, we’ll reach 17,769 ft at the highest point – the world’s highest pass! – and circumnavigate some of the world’s tallest mountains. So, Happy Thanksgiving to all – I won’t be in touch ‘til after the holiday has come and passed.