Friday, November 29, 2013

20 Things I Took For Granted Until Traveling

Delhi Airport, India
1. Being able to wet my toothbrush under the tap water pouring from the faucet

2. Football season and buffalo wings, even the shitty ones (both included)

3. Emails. I hit a point with emails where I got very lazy with them. Where I used to immediately write people back and write long, long notes, I ended up getting lazy, probably because my attention span got shorter. I am not great with responding right away now, mainly because we don't always have a wifi signal. But getting an email now is such a treat and now I try to take my time writing people back. Emails are like old school letters all over again and I realize how amazing an email is. I can send a message to space and have it land in front of you, no matter where you are in the world, in seconds.

4. Exercise. You can't run in hiking boots without destroying your feet. And as much as I have tried to keep up with some lunges, push ups, and planks, it is hard to get down on the ground in places where the ground ain't so clean and when you are constantly on the move. I have lost weight since being on this trip but I have lost muscle mass in a way that feels gross. I look so forward to taking advantage of my old park run and my old YMCA gym membership when I get back.

5. Gingerale - this one is all Mike.
Stray dog, Darjeeling, India

6. America - For as much as democracy is broken in America and my country has embarrassed herself with the recent government shutdown and blah, blah, blah...I appreciate and respect my country more now than ever before. We have clean water, waste management, electricity, and an infrastructure that takes care of those less fortunate if they so seek help.

7. Women's Rights in the Western World. In 2012, over 600 rapes were reported in Delhi and only one resulted in a conviction. I have never felt more uncomfortable, even threatened, and or felt my general "femaleness" as I have in certain parts of India, Morocco, and even Turkey. On several occasions I have read through an Indian newspaper and had my mind blown with stories about the country's refusal to ban child brides, by the still accepted practice of bride burning, and even a complicated manipulative story of a premeditated rape that involved a 16 year old girl's parents delivering her to the man who violated her. While violent crimes against women happen in every town, city, and country, in the US, I won't get killed if I try to do something about it and I can expect a certain level of justice to take place.

8. Fixed prices. Something I learned about myself: I hate haggling.

9. Decent Public restrooms with toilet paper and soap- On this trip I have been faced a couple times with the possibility of either shitting my pants or using a public restroom in certain countries, or hell, even a toilet on the train and I have chosen to risk the former than bear the latter. We both keep a roll of toilet paper on us at all times, because 9 times out of 10, if you do find a place where you absolutely have to go, it will not have toilet paper.

10. Food sanitation laws - Walk through the Fez Medina where on any given day you will see a butchered camel's head hanging next to its testicles hanging next to a skinned goat's carcass covered in flies and you will appreciate all those shiny packaged wrap cutlets and chops you buy in the States, organic or not.
Chicken Feet & Chicken

11. Wifi and Google- When we find a strong wifi signal we both breathe deep sighs of relief and thank the Google gods for their brilliant search engine powers that bring us imperative information no matter where in the world we are...except maybe I'll let you know how that goes.

12. A long hot shower

13. The American dollar - While in NYC, I feel I never have enough of it, when I can buy a three course meal in India for under $2, I feel grateful for my country's "fragile" economy.

14. Peanut butter - When Mike and I find a jar of Skippy Super Chunk, it's like finding the Holy Grail of American comfort food. We have carried a jar on us except for three barren weeks in Morocco and it has gotten us through 12 hour train rides, overnight airport slumber parties, and general stomach bugs when a scoop of peanut butter is just about the only thing that does not go right through us.

15. Spayed & neutered dogs & cats - Mike says that in America we can all thank Bob Barker for this. I've never seen so many strays in my life and some of the dogs I have seen have needed so badly to be put down, you kind of hope they do get hit by a car just to put them out of their insanely inhumane living and obvious misery. The stray dogs have been heartbreaking and even some of the cats (which I generally dislike), I have felt a genuine concern for.

16. Salads

17. Polyester - When you are allergic to wool and freezing your ass off, nothing feel as cozy as layering yourself in as much synthetic fabric as possible.

18. My freedom to wear as little clothes as I want in America - and nothing will make you appreciate this until, as a woman, you have to cover most of your skin, even your head, in 90 degrees weather.

19. Tampons and the Diva Cup - Both impossible to find in certain countries, but thankfully having one or the other has saved me from many an uncomfortable all day bus or train ride.

20. My inherent privilege - a thing I never acknowledged before, but feel everyday I get to spend one more morning in a new place in a different part of the world meeting people from worlds I would otherwise never get to and feeling that gratitude and growth that comes with every moment on this journey.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Darling Darjeeling

Toy Train, Darjeeling, India

Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center, Darjeeling, India
Prayer Wheels at Bhutia Busty Gompa Monastery, Darjeeling
For all those who read my last post, thank you. And, good news…I found an India that I love – Buddhist Himalaya India. We arrived in Darjeeling on an overnight train from Kolkata. I was hacking up a lung and Mike was covered in probably a hundred red swollen bites from the bed bug attack at our last hotel. We took a shared jeep up to Darjeeling, about 3.5 hours and finally got to our hotel, the wonderful Hotel Seven Seventeen. We were warmly greeted and showed a gorgeous room with big windows ushering in rays from a gorgeous sunset and boasting one hell of a view of the mountains surrounding this little hill station town. The bed was big, the room was cozy, and the shower had hot, hot water. We stayed a whole week here trying to take it easy and get well, but the unexpected happened – we were totally exhilarated all over again with that excitement of exploring a new place. We totally immersed ourselves in the town and loved every second of it. We visited a tea estate where we learned about the process of making tea, from the ladies who pluck the leaves to the silk tea bags filled with second flush tea leaves we bought after the factory tour. We visited the Himalayan Zoo where we saw two Bengal tigers, four different kinds of leopards, red pandas and gorgeous birds we would never otherwise see. The zoo is built into the mountain trying to give the animals a piece of their natural habitat. But they also try to breed and reintroduce the animals that are endangered back into the wild, especially the red pandas and the leopards. It was the kind of zoo you felt good about visiting. We went to the Himalayan Mountaineering School and saw the equipment and impressive photos of the men and women who paved the way for trekking Mount Everest. We visited the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center housing Tibetan refugees since the 1950s, providing them a safe place to continue to make a living through traditional Tibetan handcrafts, as well preserving Tibetan culture and educating and caring for their children. We found a local tea house we enjoyed the sunset in most afternoons, and our favorite
Me and Thudken
bakery, and even a pub where we made fast friends with the bartender, Pulan, a fascinating musician and die hard Beatles fan. We met a German and Swiss couple and had a great night swapping travel tips and stories as we each were passing each other onto our next destinations – them further into India and us further North, eventually into Nepal. We rode the toy train along the mountain edge and got lost in the tiny neighborhoods built into the slope of the mountain. We visited monasteries and temples and we met a young Monk, Thudken, who proudly took us through his monastery under construction and invited us to stay for butter tea and biscuits. Our experience in Darjeeling was a complete about face to the chaos we were trying to wade through in the busy city parts of India and it quickly has become one of our favorite places along this entire journey. And the journey continues to get sweeter, the beauty more profound, the experience more rich.

The Golden Temple and Pool of Nectar, Amritsar, India
After Darjeeling, we took a 24 hour day of travel to visit The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India and though we were thrown back into the chaos of busy, rickshaw crazy India, The Golden Temple again became another favorite experience. What’s going on there is indeed very special, and very welcoming. I think the India I was hoping to find was all happening at The Golden Temple and it has become my favorite sight to experience in this country so far. After having made genuine connections with Tibetan Buddhists and Tibetan Indians and travelers in Darjeeling, we had genuine conversations with a few Sikhs at The Golden Temple and continue to make genuine connections on our current stop – McLeod Ganj, where we have found a beautiful melting pot of cultures, religions, and community. Yesterday, we volunteered at an English Conversation Class with Tibetan Refugees and both felt completely rejuvenated. The topic was on discrimination and stereotypes and Mike and both got more out of the conversation than we could have ever imagined. It was uplifting to make new friends, have meaningful conversations, share ideas and laugh! At the end of the class, after 8 students had to stand up and make presentations, they asked the new volunteers –me and Mike –to stand. I think to unite us all in the courage it takes to stand in front of a group, the class leader said that the students love American music and they asked if we could sing something. We immediately both turned beet red but knew we had to do it. We decided on a duet and busted out with Stand By Me…and we rocked it. We sat down to cheers and thank yous, and a compliment by the teacher saying it was the best duet they ever had. I think we were just more shocked that we actually got up and sang in front of a room full of strangers.

Us at Observation Hill, Darjeeling, India
India is teaching me and much like any lesson learned, it’s not always easy. But the layers of this country and her people continue to awe and inspire, frustrate and exhilarate, conflict and uplift at every turn and for that I am both humbled and filled with gratitude.

*If you go to Darjeeling, be sure to visit the following:
Joey’s Pub – opens at 6p.m. and closes at 10p.m. Cozy pub run by a great family. Good music, cards, and the awesome conversation.
Glennary’s – try the banana walnut cake!
The Sunset Lounge at Nathmull’s – nice family run business, great tea, wonderful views, & wifi!

The Happy Valley Tea Estate – go in the morning, but know that the estate shuts down
Mike at Joey's Pub
at the end of November for winter.

The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center is difficult to find, but worth the adventure.
Go to the zoo around noon. Feeding time is around 1:00 and if your lucky you will see the tigers active and also hear some of their guttural groans as they wait to be fed.

And instead of doing a joy ride on the toy train, just take the passenger steam train to Ghum – it’s the same train and a fraction of the price  - and explore the monasteries at Ghum on your trek back to Darjeeling. It’s a healthy walk back, but totally worth it. 
We can’t recommend Hotel Seven Seventeen highly enough. Very friendly people and we even were invited to tea with the owners who brought us up to their residence at the top of the hotel. They also have a fantastic kitchen – try the veggie momos and wanton soup!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking India

Sunrise over the Ganges
The Residency, Lucknow, India
When I started writing this post it was 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in Jaipur, India. Before we left for India, we had no intentions of seeing anything in Rajasthan, but a couple of bad choices met with sold out trains and we found ourselves making a loop in the center of the country. It’s no surprise I’m now fighting a chest infection and it’s hard to say if it is another stomach bug or just your average traveler’s diarrhea. Mike braved the post office alone leaving me to one of the few moments where I have been all by myself for a considerable amount of time since this trip began. The hum of the neon light above and the fan drying our laundry hanging from a rope that Mike strung up across our small hotel room and me facing a mirror that had been installed crooked, incorrectly…that was what Wednesday, November 13th looked like in Jaipur, India.

The day before, after saying “No thank you” or ignoring every tout and shop owner and rickshaw driver lining the pink city, offering something for sale, a man came up to Mike and asked if he could ask him one question.

“You are American, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mike said.
“How come Americans have such problems with their egos?”

Kandariya-Mahadev and Devi Jagadamba Temples, Khajuraho

High Tea at the Imperial, Delhi
At this point, I could no longer contain myself. Neither one of us could, and we both erupted with anger in our voice to answer such a confrontational question. Since arriving in India, it is as if we stepped into the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland’s world. The Instagram photos catch the highs, but who wants to document the lows or the constant friction between the two? I have been trying to photograph the lows as a sort of a funny reminder when things go south, but usually in those moments we are just trying to get through it. In truth, the traveling in India has been hard, the trains have been booked, the budget travel fraught with all the creepy crawler nightmare stories one might expect, the touts and commission agents aggressively nonstop, and our white faces more exposed than ever and now photographed with more strangers than we ever imagined. (People think Mike and I are brother and sister and want pictures with white people). But the hardest thing of all has been to rectify my complete disillusionment with the idea I had of India. I think like most westerners, I romanticized the great exotic east and expected something of India. I expected her to give me something even under the auspices of possibly volunteering and being of service and being "giving." I know now that I expected something. Maybe a spiritual experience, perhaps some moving confrontation with a world so completely different from mine that I would figure out exactly what it is I want to do with my life and all the cobwebs of my over-privileged, over-democratic, over-choice filled world would magically be swept away and I would finally have some sort of clarity with what my next step is to be. I thought India would give me breathtaking beauty and unparalleled compassion, genuine connections with people different than me, and motivation to make a change. What change I think I need, I’m not even sure. But some sort of improvement. Like maybe I would come back from India and finally like yoga and become a vegetarian again and drink loose leaf tea and meet daily stresses with closing my eyes, taking ten deep breaths, and opening them back up with a smile and a Namaste!
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Our bathroom in Lucknow

As of Wednesday, the only thing India had given me was a chest cold, traveler’s diarrhea, and a hardened edge when walking around the streets here and as of today, Friday, Mike has been thrown a curve ball or sixty. But the reality of our experience here has stripped me of any idealized image I had of this country and on Wednesday it brought me to my knees in a shitty hotel room where the only thing I wanted to do was watch the rest of Breaking Bad and conserve my water bottle so I didn’t have to step outside to get another one and tell the three rickshaw drivers parked outside of the hotel (one that followed us here from the train station) that I am not interested, really, no thank you, please, I’m not going anywhere.
Morning Dip, Ghats, Varanasi, Ganges River
I jokingly told Mike the other day that I felt like everything I had ever been told about India was a lie. And then I realized that they weren’t lies. They were true, just as my experience so far has been true. But what I single-mindedly neglected to see was just how many different Indias there are. Just like the many different Americas there are, India is just as layered. There is Black America, and White America, and Immigrant America, and Women America. There is Manhattan America, and Deep South America, and New Mexico Indian Reservation America, and Chicano Los Angelino America, and Hazlet, New Jersey America. I don’t know what the different Indias are, but I know that I’m experiencing White Woman Budget Travel India and I expected Exotic Spiritually Inspiring Loving India. I am sure there is a crossroads between the two somewhere, but so far, between Jaipur and Varanasi I have not found it. We arrived in Kolkata yesterday and both quickly decided it has been our favorite place so far in India, a big surprise since I expected Kolkata to be the Born Into Brothels Documentary India that I remember so vividly. Instead we have been greeted with a more laid back city, delicious Bengali food, an easier more colorful travel experience complete with visits to one of India's holiest temples, a blessing, a visit to the British imposed Queen Victoria Memorial, markets and music...and just as we got ready for dinner tonight, I noticed a couple bug bites on Mike's arm. He said his shoulder had been itching earlier, an assumption that the damn mosquito that was in the room had got him. But when he took his shirt off, we saw that he was covered in bug bites and my greatest New York City fear came to light: we got bed bugs.

A friend of mine wrote me and said that she had friends who described India as "sharply contrasting spiritual highs and wretched lows all bumping up together in the density of humanity." And indeed, this description is exactly the experience we are in the middle of. Just about to lose my mind on a rickshaw driver we turned down who followed us to our hotel, I walked past a group of potted plants with a sign that read "stay well planted," and I was reminded to be just that and let it go, find compassion. Just when I find myself having a pretty cool experience at a temple where we received a blessing by a priest and Mike and I excitedly talked about our future post-trip, an hour later I found myself sternly telling a young beggar girl carrying a baby who was physically not letting me pass her, "NO!" I felt myself sink with shame just hours after being completely uplifted. My "no" came from complete instinct and also a little knowledge. I have read about the kids in this area (Mother Teresa's house) who make such a killing from begging that they turn down offers to go to school.  But still, she was a kid, probably doing what is asked of her by her family. The density of humanity, indeed. The bumping up, the friction, moment to moment. The swimming in my own skin in a body unfamiliar...

...and yet, if I really look at what I thought India would give me, it kind of has, just not in the lotus-flowered delivery I thought it would, but more in the cockroach infested anxiety provoking bed bug nightmare realized push that I probably needed. As of the last three weeks, I am a vegetarian again, mainly because I realized I kept getting sick whenever I ate meat, but now more from what I am seeing. At the markets, the live chickens are silent in their coups, as chicken feet rest on the tops of their cages. Mike pointed this out to me after reading White Tiger, and the living image is everywhere. The smell of blood, the power of fear, keeping control. When we order dinner, I can't bring myself to order the chicken curry. Because of my stomach issues, I have moved away from coffee, and yup, you guessed it, I’m ordering things like ginger tea and planning a trip to Darjeeling to visit a tea plantation. I've seen breathtaking beauty (The Taj Mahal) and felt compassion (at the Kalighat Temple) and while I have made a few genuine connections with the people here, I have also gained friends, traveler friends, with whom I’ve had fun train rides with and toured the Ganges River with, and laughed through a jeep safari with as we searched for tigers, and most of them happen to be women around my age, a refreshing and sometimes encouraging experience. I have deepened my own sense of gratitude for my upbringing and my family, my friends, my traditions, and my country. I have been forced to reckon that, although I have this tough chip on my shoulder that my single-parent home living in a one-bedroom apartment struggled immensely while trying just to stay afloat while growing up, that still, my life is and always has been a privileged one.  As for the cobwebs, a few of them are clearing a way, but not until I confronted possibly letting go of other dreams that like India, I have idealized and romanticized for far too long. There comes a time, when we can no longer outrun the narrative we promised we would actualize when we were teenagers. There comes a time when we are left with nothing but our own reflection to finally see that the mirror has been installed incorrectly.
Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi
After giving our honest answers on why that Indian man must perceive Americans as being egotistical, he asked us if we would have a cup of Chai tea with him. All of us had been caught off guard by the blunt honesty a question probably meant to lead to a sell, had provoked. We happily agreed to tea, eager to continue the honest conversation with someone from India. We followed him down a side street to a worker man’s area where only men sat around drinking Chai under a blue tarp. Seeing us coming, two Indian men cleared off the only bench left in order for us foreigners to sit down. I stood for the first few minutes and finally took a seat realizing it was rude not to at this point. We talked about our respective countries and he said that India is changing, becoming more modern. I asked him if that was a good thing and he said, “No…India is losing her spirit.” He went on to say though, that in India all things are possible, whereas in America they are not. He believed that Americans were incapable of finding satisfaction, perhaps another way of saying America has lost her spirit. And after asking us why we come to India, perhaps suggesting, that is why Americans come to India – to find spirit.

We never ordered chai, and an associate of his asked him to come with him for a moment. He deserted us and after waiting a couple minutes, we deserted him. An hour later, we found ourselves walking in a parade with marigolds being thrown out of a van to pave the streets before a float carrying a god traversed it. Ornately decorated horses and a regal camel and an elephant draped in red velvet led the parade. Men sang in Hindi and a marching band banged on drums.  A sword spinner dazzled a crowd and not far from there, another man tossed out candy to a gaggle of children jumping to try to reach his hands held high above his head. We stood there taking pictures and waving at children excited to say, “Halloo!” We took pictures of them while they took pictures of us.  Mike and I moved along, opting to walk home instead of another rickshaw. It felt good to use our legs and our instincts in a country that so completely can take them out from under you. When we approached our hotel by foot at the twilight hour, none of the rickshaw drivers said a word.

Now, we are in a new room at or hotel in Kolkata, and tomorrow we will make the overnight train trip up to Darjeeling to see what the north of India has in store. For now, we are trying to take care, me nursing my cough and Mike covered in cortizone cream. We are in another hotel room with our laundry strung above us, a fan gently swaying the room, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on the television, staying well planted.