Better late than never

We crashlanded into India and got an immediate crash course in the struggle of Indian travel logistics. At this point in the trip we were starting to pay more attention to our bank accounts, and the cheapest flight into India from Mandalay, Myanmar was to Chennai, India’s sixth largest city. Chennai was “close” to Kerala, the consensus “best place to ease into India.” Being deep in penny pinching mode and in it to win it, we elected to take public transportation from the airport to the bus station. I had thoroughly researched this transition online and was assured we could get to a commuter train that would take us to the larger regional train station. Having landed at about 10 p.m., the airport was mostly empty. We asked our way towards the commuter train, which was a 20 minute walk away, through pitch dark pedestrian highway underpasses. Eventually we found a desolate train landing and got on the train, unknowingly violating the gender-specific train car rule and earning disapproving and unceasing glares from the few locals aboard. This commuter train ride ended at a station that was a solid 20-minute walk to Chennai central.

My memories of this walk are hazy but include the following: large numbers of humans, the kind of uncomfortable summer humidity that lasts into the evenings, little to no street lighting, only a general sense of where we were going but a rapid pace in getting there, the overwhelming and aroma of urine, a lonely bulletin board under a light with the train number and arrival time (we had reserved our train ahead of time, but the location and number of our train was up in the air until hours before), a very drunk prostitute attempting to make friends and help us find our train, and finally entering the impossibly cavernous confines of Chennai Central, where the floor was almost entirely covered with sleeping bodies. We allowed ourselves the privilege of being the Overwhelmed Young White Couple and paid a couple dollars for entrance to an air conditioned room to wait several hours for our 3:30 a.m. train departure. Our train, which stretched for hundreds of feet down the platform, had little notation, making finding our chosen seat very difficult. The “second class” cars gave you the dignity of curtains separating your berth from the aisle – our car was nothing but closed curtains and there were two Indian women who knew not a lick of English in what we thought was our berth. After what seems like 20 minutes of confusion, some sort of clipboard-toting ticketmaster appeared and dispersed the women, who were general-class passengers that assumed they could get a place to lie down for the evening. Issued single white sheets, we fall fast asleep in our berth, which had two floor-level benches and two drop-down beds that sorta fit me if I curled up real tight.

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Night at Chennai Central.

We woke to bright sunlight streaming in the windows and the hawkish call of “chai, chai, chai…” from the middle-aged man going from car to car with an orange thermos of hot chai tea brewed with milk and lots of sugar, selling a small cup for a few rupees. I have vivid memories of watching the dry grasslands float by. This is something of a cliché about India, but a true one nonetheless – the colors are unreal. Everything – the brash advertisements for laundry soap and soda painted on the sides of concrete retaining walls, the porcelain white of bulls that saunter around the train platforms and fallow land, the fuchsia and gold of the women in their saris – pops. The shades and palates feel almost alien – like you’re a newborn taking a color in for the first time. Morning lurched into afternoon as we watched India go by, drinking chai and taking our chances on some sort of rice and curry dish that looked like every Delhi Belly story we’d ever heard. The landscape turned greener and rounder as we went over the rolling Ghat Mountains and descended into Kerala. We disembarked into another busy train station at Ernakulam find our way to a ferry to the peninsula of Kochi, a mass of colonial buildings turned into restaurants and guesthouses. With dusk falling, we find our pre-booked guesthouse, more than 30 hours after we’d left Myanmar.

Kochi was as the guidebooks promised – colonial buildings seemingly encased in amber, plentiful high-end seafood restaurants, and a relatively gentle pace. Public murals dotted the alley walls, cobblestone streets meandered, with equal parts motorscooters and people milling about. Like much of the country, Kerala was a melting pot of religions and cultures. We did trips to the oldest Christian church in India – the burial site of Vasco Di Gama, the first European to reach India via the sea – as well as the palace of a Muslim sultan. We also spent a day across the water to witness the pageantry of a Hindu festival, complete with men blowing large curved horns while riding gold-studded elephants.

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Hindu religious festival.

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Beautiful colonial decay in Kochi, Kerala.

From Kochi, we booked a tour for Kerala’s landmark tourist event – the “backwaters.” Kerala’s coastline is made of a series of inlets and channels whose salinity varies depending on the tides. It’s a National Geographic-level ecosystem and one of the premier birding spots in the country. While there’s quite an industry around carting foreigners and honeymooning Indian couples around the area on motorized luxury houseboats, we found a more Kaytleb-centric alternative – small wooden houseboats that trawl the shallow waters powered entirely by men with large sticks pushing off the bottom. We (along with a few other guests) were given an idyllic villa on the waterfront that came with a child’s birthday party, which turned into a family pageant put on by the proudly Christian family that ran the program. We were regaled with jokes, hymns and stories from the birthday boy and his younger siblings.

The next day was spent canoeing the backwaters on our own (note: fighting the tides in a canoe is hard and the sight of white people paddling for their lives will attract a raucous crowd) and kicking back in deck chairs and taking in the sights on the houseboat as we travelled across the inlet to the spit that holds guard against the Arabian Sea. We watched (Kaytlin even helped out!) as dozens of fishing boats were brought in for the day and fishermen auctioned off thatched buckets full of small silver fish.  The food we had on this trip is something we still talk about today – totally unlike American Indian food in every way – lots of light fish, rich vegetable dishes, lots of coconut. Unreal.

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Woman selling fish in small village on Kerala’s backwaters.

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Who needs motors?

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Kaytlin lending a hand taking in a fishing boat from the Arabian Sea.

Next it was back inland to Munnar, via a tortuous, winding bus trip through the Ghat Mountains. Munnar’s claim to fame is its miles and miles of tea plantations, neatly manicured mazes that recall Alice in Wonderland. Like the rest of Kerala, the town is a magnet for honeymooning Indian couples. Most tourists take guided tours, so naturally cheapstakes like Kaytlin and I both piled on the same rented motorcycle and set out to navigate the winding roads above Munnar.

Indian traffic is truly one of those things that must be experienced to be understood. Nearly every intersection is a four-way stop in which no vehicle has any obligation to any other. The horn is used liberally, not so much as a “hey, stop driving that way” thing but rather a “ready or not here I come, motherfucker” thing. All roadways are shared by every conceivable size and shape of motorized and non-motorized device – elaborately tricked out semi-trucks (or lorries) designed to honor a Hindu God or holy man, countless scooters buzzing around like flies, rickshaws powered by the legs of impossibly weathered old men. All of these navigate pedestrians that cross where and when they want and oblivious cattle that roam freely (this is as true in urban areas as it is in rural ones – cows are sacred, after all). Speed limits are often posted by rarely enforced. Passing is legal at any time and place, assuming no one dies. Needless to say, as a Seattleite whose experience on a motorcycle was non-existent prior to travelling to Asia, navigating this with your girlfriend (soon to be fiancé, little did she know) clinging to your back was uniquely traumatizing. One of these days of sightseeing ended with me back at the hotel, curled up in the fetal position, nerves completely shot, refusing to leave the room.

But the sight-seeing was indeed top-notch, including a guided hike through Pampadum Shola National Park, home of tigers, leopards and dense jungle. Our guided tour was led by a parks employee whose limited English vocabulary meant that tour consisted of pointing to something wrestling in the canopy and saying “monkey … big.”

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Munnar’s rolling hills of endless tea plantations.

Munnar was also memorable for the difficulty of purchasing alcohol. Each Indian state has varying policies around the sale of alcohol – some are more or less “dry” while others allow it to be sold at every corner store. Whether these policies are more concerned with public health or protecting established monopolies is unclear. In Munnar, alcohol could be sold during strict hours at a single store. As you’d imagine, this store functioned like Black Friday in America, but all day long. A rugby scrum of young Indian men circled the small clerk’s window, behind a metal cage. Indian alcohol itself bore little resemblance to the types of booze we knew from home. Whiskey tastes more like bad rum, rum tasted more like bad whiskey, all of it tasted like it had been made in a bathtub somewhere. I succeeded in getting a bottle of Old Monk rum (highly recommended if you’re in a pinch – about $5 as I recall), though it took an immense amount of composure, a few elbows and cold stares at those who tried to cut in line (the concept of lining up for something isn’t really compatible with day to day life in India).

The trip back down the road of death from Munnar to the lowlands was especially eventful. We piled onto a bus for the ~4 hour trip down to Kerala. Just outside of town we were stopped when the road was closed. I can’t now recall whether this was due to construction or a strike or a protest or a religious holiday, but as we’d learn in India, those details matter little. We watched as our bus driver dismounted and began shooting the shit with the uniformed police officers. The conversation veered between what appeared to be an argument – aggressive hand gestures, pointed fingers, excited yelling – and backslapping, smiling and a shared cigarette.

This is something we’d come to learn in India – most conversations look like arguments, and in a way they often are. In a place with so many people, getting what you want when you want it is by no means a given or an entitlement. Simple things – buying a bus ticket or a samosa at a bus station – often become power struggles, particularly when money is involved. Some of this could have been the remnants of the country’s (still very real) caste system that pits neighbor against neighbor and family against family. Winning an argument and extracting money from someone else is both an economic necessity and a moral imperative. Most Indians seem to recognize this and not take it personally. But all of this is of course magnified as a white foreigner, which presented a moral quandary for Kaytlin and I. It’s a shitty feeling to be the privileged white person walking into someone’s home and bickering over whether you’re going to pay $7 for a tuk-tuk ride when you just saw the Indian person ahead of you pay half that and your guidebook tells you it should be less than that. You weren’t going to miss that extra $3.50 all that much, but it might mean a lot to the Indian person trying to save for their children’s future. On the other hand, your Indian vacation won’t last long if you approach it with an open heart and open wallet, and after ~5 months of travel we were very much on a daily travel budget. There is both a well-honed art and science to milking foreigners of their money in India, moreso than anywhere Kaytlin and I had yet been. You learned to pick your battles and try not to take anything personally. As an exceedingly conflict-averse person, my tolerance for this waxed and waned depending on the day.

When the road block finally lifted, our driver got back into the decrepit bus and on we went. Kaytlin and I sat directly behind the driver, close enough to see the implications of his driving decisions. Our bags sat across the aisle from us, on a pile of luggage and next to an open window. Each corner was taken with daredevil speed, and our backpacks, which contained every earthly item we owned, would lurch closer to the open window. Though I would have liked to have grabbed them and moved them, there were few other options, as the bus was crammed to the gills – people sitting in the aisles, produce and baggage piled high in every free space. The bus would stop at several additional construction zones, staffed by a flagger with a stop sign. During the final one, the obviously frustrated and late driver simply gunned it, seemingly personally affronted by the flagger’s decision to stop him instead of someone else. In slow motion, I saw the flagger’s eyes widen as he frantically waved his stop sign – a matador in direct sights of the bull. I grabbed Kaytlin’s arm as the flagger jumped out of the way at the last moment. We careened down the one-lane roadway, construction equipment flying by out the windows. As we came around one corner, the driver jammed on his brakes when confronted with a lorry coming the other direction. No one – not the driver, not the people coming the other direction, nor the construction workers – appeared terribly concerned with what was going on. Just another day on the roads of India.

After averting this disaster, our bus got a flat tire, allowing passengers an opportunity to relieve themselves and stand around smoking while watching the driver install a new tire.

Back down in Kochi, we set to get a long-distance bus to our next location – Goa. Naturally, we found a travel agency with a large sign that said “Bus to Goa”. We entered and asked if we could get a ticket for a bus to Goa. Naturally, the clerk said “no, we don’t go there” and went back to his work. We inquired as to why there was a sign saying they sold bus tickets to Goa when there was no bus to Goa, and the clerk responded by pretending the two white people in his office were merely figments of the imagination. We eventually finagled a train ticket for the next day.

Goa was a very different Indian experience. Full of sparkling tropical beaches along the Arabian sea, Goa is as close as India comes to a “beach town,” with resorts, Western women in bathing suits, etc. This trip had taught Kaytlin and I that we weren’t really “beach people,” but Thailand (five or so months earlier, somehow!) was really the last time we’d spent much time at the beach proper. We were also once again blessed by circumstances and old friends – Sheila, a valued part of my travelling posse in Argentina and Chile several years prior, had close family in Goa and insisted we visit and stay. Sheila’s family showed us incomparable hospitality, giving us the keys to a beautiful old home within a three minute walk of the beach and showing us great restaurants, bars and tourist attractions around the area. After 10 days or so of attempting to acclimatize to the low-key insanity of India, it was a wonderful reprieve. Time was spent exploring the different beaches (each having a different flavor – middle-aged Russian businessperson beach, washed up Western hippie beach, etc.) and finding endless amusement at the sight of cattle roaming the sands, munching on the food and personal items of unsuspecting tourists. Like everywhere in India, Goa is rich with history, and its Portuguese roots are reflected in the architecture and cuisine.

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Beware Goa’s beach cows.

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Beaches of Goa.

From Goa we headed inland to Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best temple complexes in India. We’d seen more than our share of temples during the trip, but Hampi was our first real Hindu temple experience, which included a whole new set of imagery, legends and architecture. Hampi’s surreal location also set it apart – rolling hills of smoothed boulders (most topped with shrines or ruins of previous temples) intermixed with bright green fields, well-irrigated by the Tungabhadra River, which to the naked eye was clean and devoid of garbage like many other Indian rivers. The Hindu Vijayanagara Empire ruled the area before being sacked by a Muslim sultanate in the mid-1500s. Many of the temples still host religious celebrations, others look like they hadn’t been touched in nearly 500 years and had been preserved by the high desert air.

Our tour guide for three days was the tuk tuk driver we chose at random out of the aggressive gaggle of them that swarmed our bus as it arrived in town shortly after dark. He spoke good English and seemed to know what he was talking about when filling in the history of specific temples (battles lost there, Gods born there, etc.) although we began to doubt his historical expertise after the third day of strikingly similar stories. Not worth sweating the details though; the ambiance of the place was engaging on its own.

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Temples and river of Hampi.

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View from the temple of Hanuman, monkey god.

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Ancient Pushkarni, a water tank used for ceremonial bathing and prayers at 14th century temples.

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Kaytlin fan club.

From there, all roads led north to Mumbai, the largest city in India. Getting into the heart of the sprawling metropolis required using the commuter train, which gave us a new understanding of Indian crowds. Both hauling large backpacks and unable to move in the packed train, we almost missed our stop because the doors opened to a sea of locals rushing to cram themselves inside. While your first instinct is to be exasperated and annoyed, our time in Mumbai (and the much more crowded north of India) taught us this is just par for the course in a country where public services can’t conceivably keep up with the number of public that need them. You have to push and shove a bit to get the bus or train you want – you’ll be left behind if you don’t. A little bumping and intense invasion of personal space are just a day in the life of the city dweller.

Once you learned to live with the crowds (always a day-to-day thing for us), Mumbai had a lot to offer. Incredible food, a vivid mix of architecture both old and new, modern art (hard to find thus far in the places we’d been in India) and lots of culture. One night on an aimless stroll to take in the city, we stumbled upon a crowd that had to number in the thousands, parading down the street with speakers blazing, carrying the likeness of a deceased holy man. Another night we went to a viewing a Bollywood movie – more of a social event for the young and well-dressed than an actual cinematic experience. We also spent more time than we’d like to admit at a nearby Starbucks (it may be mediocre coffee at home, but it tastes like goddamn gold when you’ve been drinking instant coffee for weeks).

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I miss streetside fruit vendors on every corner.

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Beach life in Mumbai.

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Likeness of a dearly departed guru, streets of Mumbai.

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Taj Hotel and Gateway of India.

From Mumbai we headed inland again to the Ellora and Ajanta caves. Like Hampi, this proved to be a completely new temple experience than we had grown used to in Asia. The caves date to before Christ and feature impossibly intricate (and amazingly preserved) carvings and paintings of three different faith traditions – Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, an early offshoot of Hinduism. The rural setting was a nice change of pace from Mumbai and the amazingly old dates we saw on the informational signs made many of the earlier “old things” we’d seen seem somehow trivial and new.

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Ellora – a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples dating back to 600 AD, carved out of a hillside of caves.

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Old stuff rules.

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Just hanging out.

A visit to the nearby Daulatabad fort added to the overwhelming sense of the area’s historical significance. Legend has it that the ruler of a Muslim dynasty in the 1300s had the fort built, moved the entire population of Dehli into the area and then moved them back a couple years later when he realized there wasn’t enough water in the area, earning a moniker as the “Mad King.” (See, we’re not the only country with one!) The remains of the fort are downright Game of Thrones-y (think: dank basement of Winterfell), and tourists (mostly other Indians) are given mostly free reign to wander the dark, bat-filled passageways.

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Hella bats.

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Ruins of Dalatabad Fort, built in the 1100s.

These rural areas outside Mumbai also brought up cultural challenges. The way Kaytlin was treated from time to time by men in India was a struggle for two liberals from Seattle. Servers would sometimes pretend Kaytlin didn’t exist and leave it to me to order food for her. There are no social rules that limit staring for unlimited amounts of time. Young men would follow her in public, insisting on a photo, conversation and refusing to go away when told no. She was groped once. While we vowed that we wouldn’t be the tourists that walked into a foreign country and demanded that people abide by our Western values, this was still a struggle that ruined more than one day in India for us.

From Alora and Ajanta we had some big itinerary decisions to make. We knew we were headed north towards the Himalaya, and Rajasthan was the next logical stop. The largest Indian state, Rajasthan also has many of the “bucket list” tourist stops in India – the Taj Mahal, Delhi, etc. While we knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that might be the only opportunity we’d ever had see these places, we had also learned that tourist hot spots often also contained the most frustrating and emotionally draining parts of India – scams, crowds, child beggars, old white Europeans on packaged tours, etc.

But there’s also a reason some things are popular, and Rajasthan had a lot to offer, particularly visually. We spent time in Jodhpur (all painted blue on the orders of the city’s founder in the 1400s) and Pushkar, centered around a lake that legend says was formed from the tears of Shiva, attracting Hindu pilgrims from all over the country. If all you knew of India was the movie Aladdin, this would be your spot. Narrow cobblestone roads built in medieval times mean fewer cars and make for epic wandering (and fun navigation challenges). If it weren’t for the plastic and the cell phones, the bustling markets would feel like they’re untouched from medieval times. The colors are brilliant and unique in a way you know your camera could never capture. The area’s history of having been passed back and forth between between Muslim and Hindu control made for fascinating museum visits, including the massive Mehrangarh Fort, built in the 1400s and perched on a hill in the middle of Jodhpur.

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They really know how do doors in India. Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

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Blue city of Jodhpur, sprawling out below Mehrangarh Fort, built 1450.

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Kaytlin being mugged by a pack of children.

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A kid and their cow.

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Alleys of Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

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Ghats of Lake Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site.

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You’d be pissed too if everyone wanted to ride you through the desert all day long.

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Beauty above Pushkar.

From there it was an arduous train and bus journey to the mountains of Himachel Pradesh and the Dharmashala area, home of the Dalai Lama. Having seen an immense amount of Buddhist holy sites and been immersed in the culture for much of the trip, this felt like a natural place to end up for a while. Exiled from China in 1959, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism had called this corner of Northern India home ever since, preaching tolerance, non-violence and Tibetan autonomy in China, where uttering the Dalai Lama’s name still leads to “patriotic reeducation” and monks continue to light themselves on fire to protest Chinese repression. Despite the dark circumstances that led to it’s creation, the town is in an impossibly beautiful location – surrounded by Himalayan peaks, with a laid back and contemplative atmosphere. Tibetan monks and their maroon robes make up a sizeable amount of the population, but the plight of Tibet has attracted people from around the globe – some just travellers passing through, others that appeared to have come there as backpackers and stayed for years. If I ever suddenly disappear and you need to find me, this is where I’ll be.

A bit road weary, we decided to call Dharamsala home from a couple weeks and look for volunteer opportunities to pass the time. We did English tutoring for recent Tibetan refugees for two weeks or so, getting to hear first-hand stories of life in Tibet and the week-plus long journey fleeing across the Himalaya.

Kaytlin and I had already experienced serendipity on this trip once, stumbling upon an Aung San Suu Kyi speech ahead of historic elections in Myanmar, and it struck again in Dharamsala. His Holiness, who spends much of his time giving speeches around the world, was scheduled to give a rare public teaching from Dharamsala. While the speech obviously wasn’t in English, we were given headphones to listen to an English translation over the radio. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had sitting cross legged on the ground for three hours. Within minutes of being in the presence of the man, it becomes clear how he has commanded such a following over the years – his smile and laughter are disarming and fill a room. And his refusal to give into pessimism or cynicism in the face of what appears to be an increasingly unwinnable fight for Tibetan autonomy continues to be an inspiration.

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Monks monking around.

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Pema, my English student for a couple weeks. He hiked 10 days through the mountains to flee China and study under the Dalai Lama. He insisted on showing me his tiny boarding room and making me noodle soup as a thank you.

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Dharamshala, perched below the Himalaya.

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The Dalai Lama’s residence is circled by a mountain path covered in prayer flags. Monks do a daily lap (always clockwise) to help with meditation.

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Monkey making eye glasses out of a cassette tape.

While we could have stayed in Dharmasala for eternity, Nepal – and the looming need to return to “real life” – called. On the way back to Dehli for a flight to Kathmandu, we earmarked several days in Amritsar, the spiritual center of the Sikh faith. While my American ignorance had led me to assume that Sikhs are the same as Hindus, it’s the fifth largest faith in the world and distinctly separate from both. Grounded deeply in justice and equality, it arose in the 15th century as a bit of a rebellion against the Hindu caste system. The Golden Temple, the religion’s holiest building, is a living testament to these egalitarian ideals – it’s connected to a massive volunteer-run kitchen that feeds 100,000 people a day for free no matter caste, creed or skin color. While the hustle and bustle of Amritsar was a bit overwhelming after the tranquility of Dharmasala, seeing this testament to power of cooperation and charity was humbling. One of the best “big city” experiences we had in India.

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Golden Temple of Sikhism, Amritsar, Punjab, India.

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Street life of Amritsar (taken from comfort of air-conditioned cafe).

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The communal kitchen at the Sikh Golden Temple.

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Food prep for free kitchen. Clean-ish.

We also took a day to go to the famed Wagah border ceremony. The split of India and Pakistan in 1947 was (and continues to be) a bloody tragedy. The animosity has birthed a surreal ritual in which border guards on both sides gather every night and perform elaborate and aggressive choreographed marches in front of each other. This daily nationalist pissing match has become a spectator sport, and the Wagah crossing is now surrounded by grandstands on each side of the border, where thousands come every day to watch their border guards do higher kicks than the other. Our Lonely Planet aptly described this as something out of Monty Python. The marching is preceded by a celebration of Indian womens’ (relative) rights, where women with uncovered heads gather and dance to pop music. (No such celebrations happen on the Pakistan side of the border, at least that we could see.)

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Wagah border crossing.

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All the single ladies.

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Golden temple.

While the common meal at Amritsar’s Golden Temple was worth every bite as a cultural experience, it also likely gave me the worst stomach virus of the trip, which reared it’s ugly head as soon as our plane landed in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. We had planned to head immediately to Pokhara to start the Annapurna Circuit trek, but ended up spending four long days in Kathmandu, where I was mostly confined to our hostel room because I could not go 30 minutes without very suddenly having to poop (or something resembling it). We’d heard an endless amount of warnings of “Dehli belly” but mostly avoided any problems by sticking to a mostly vegetarian diet and telling ourselves that six months in Asia had made our stomachs into hardened machines of digestion.

Recovered, we made our way to Pokhara, second largest city in Nepal via a harrowing bus ride winding up and down a seemingly endless amount of mountain passes. A couple days of arranging logistics, stocking up on counterfeit versions of Western outdoors gear brands (most of which were as durable as the originals), and we were off on one of the most famed treks in the world.

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Annapurna massif shows itself as we get ready to board a bus to walk around it for 28 days.

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So fresh and so clean.

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Local swimming/bathing hole.

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Some villages on the route were served by a road, but many still get all their supplies – including steel rebar – via human power.

Words can’t adequately describe the Annapurna Circuit experience. While the scenery and hiking was awe-inspiring, the glimpse you get into the daily life of tiny villages in the high Himalaya is really what makes it special. We carried one sleeping bag for the coldest nights, but tiny outposts along the route offer basic rooms to stay in (often for free if you eat your meals there). You pass through a wide range of ecosystems throughout the trek, starting in humid jungles complete with monkeys and palm trees, up through high-altitude pine forests, alpine scrub, over snow-covered 17,769-foot Thorong La Pass, down into high desert communities populated by Hindu pilgrims, apple orchards, etc. While we’d read that crowds can get immense on the trek, we set out on shoulder season and didn’t find things too crowded.

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Waterfall.

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There was a lot of “lose 800 feet so that you can gain it again” kind of hiking, which is our favorite.

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Often you had the choice between hiking the road or the trail. Roads tended to be more direct and have some amazing views, even if it meant trucks would come by and kick up dust every once in a while.

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#Tree2018

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Little village to little village. Each more scenic than the last.

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You said it.

Wanting to make sure we got everything out of the experience we could, we contracted with a guide in Pokhara that would take us on a side trek to the remote Nar-Phu Valley, which stretches up to within a day’s hike of the Chinese/Tibetan border. Settled around the 10th Century by Tibetan traders, Nar-Phu has it’s own distinct language. In six days of hiking this leg, we saw one other group of Western tourists – the only other people we saw were porters hauling supplies, some hardy sheep farmers, and itinerant families headed to the high country to collect a rare caterpillar to be sold the Chinese for use as an aphrodisiac. More yaks than people, and some of the most beautiful mountain views I’ve ever seen.

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Above 4000 meters (~13,000 feet), it’s difficult-to-impossible to bury the dead. For humans, that means cremation or, for traditional Tibetans, “sky burial” – in which the corpse is hauled to the top of a mountain and given to the vultures. On our first arrival to the village of Nar, we were greeted with a dead horse.

 

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Views from Nar, 4,000+ meters.

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Prayer stones, prayer flags and mountains in the Nar-Phu Valley.

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Makeshift Buddhist stupas make good lunch stops on a day’s journey between Nar and Phu.

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Very tempted by “Way to Tibet” but it was not to be.

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Glad to be at the highest point of this point of the journey – the village of Phu (the collection of mud and stone huts behind us).

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Village of Phu. Mostly empty for the season, aside from some hearty sheep farmers and itinerant families heading to the high(er) country to collect a caterpillar sold to the Chinese for use as an aphrodisiac.

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Kids giving peace signs in Phu.

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We got a dusting of snow on our way out of Phu. To the left is the only path into and out of the village. The structure on the ridge on the middle was a lookout tower, built around the 10th century, where archers would keep an eye on the path for enemies.

There’s a reason that holy men of just about every faith tradition incorporate pilgrimages and long walks into their spiritual practice. For 28 days, we awoke every morning with the knowledge that all we had to do that day is to walk to the next destination and consume enough food and water to keep going. That simplicity is incredibly mentally freeing. I’ve searched for the same serenity on long hikes since then, but never felt it as deeply as I did on this trek.

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Spent the night in a Tibetan monastery.

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Every night, meals were prepared on the wood stove, which also happened to be the only source of heat in all buildings.

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Yakity yak.

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Cow glamour shots.

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Signs of life going on as it has for centuries were all around. A woman collects potatoes that were stored underground for the winter.

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Every town had a series of prayer wheels, packed with hundreds of handwritten prayers that fly out into the universe when spun.

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Porter hauls a wooden door on his forehead at twice the speed we were able to walk.

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Mystical paths under waterfalls attract strange creatures.

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Typical meal on the trek – rice, daal (lentil stew), and curried potatoes (some cabbage or other kind of vegetable if you’re lucky). It was actually better than it looks, but got a little old after 28 days.

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Back on the main Circuit, some impossibly smoothed valley walls on the way to Manang.

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Woke up to this most mornings.

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Trail to Tilicho Lake, a side trip to one of the highest lakes in the world, near 5,000 meters. Unfortunately altitude sickness turned us back, but it was worth the effort.

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When a dang ol’ yak is trying to eat your drying socks.

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Stop along the way on summit day.

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Dramatic reenactment.

Annapurna was the culmination of Kaytlin and I’s epic journey in more ways than one. When we crossed the highest point on the trek, with altitude sickness slowing us down and every step harder than the last, I dropped to a knee, produced a ring I had bought from a kind Burmese family, and asked her to marry me in the language of every country we’d been to thus far. She said yes, which is good because it would have been a long 9 days of hiking back to civilization if she’d decided differently.

 

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The other side of the pass switches from the Tibetan/Buddhist culture of the east side of the trek to more Hindu. Hindu pilgrims (sadhus) visiting Muktinath, a holy site.

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There were many Buddhist monasteries to visit along the way, all full of incredibly detailed art work.

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Bahhhh.

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We saw monkeys, a yak and cactus on the same trek.

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This dog followed us for multiple days, never leaving our side, before suddenly departing. We were pleasantly surprised when he showed up again four days and 8 towns later.

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Back on a bus to civilization, 28 days later.

After the trek, we took a couple days to decompress back in Pokhara, which had a wider array of food options than the handful of staples available in remote villages (basically your choice of eggs, fried bread, rice or potatoes). We also celebrated my 30th birthday at a bar where a Nepali band played the best American hair metal hits of the 1980s (they dedicated “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns & Roses to me, which is hilarious because I fucking hate that song).

We spent a few more days exploring Kathmandu before our flight home, visiting famous Buddhist temple Boudhanath and staying a night in a Buddhist monastery outside of town. While at times I’d give anything to be back on this trip – soaking up the sights and sounds, finding beauty in little moments and standing in awe at the depth and width of the human experience – we were eager to get home. It was time to see friends and family, throw away the same sets of clothes we’d been wearing for months and try to reenter the “real world,” whatever that might be.

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Kathmandu street life.

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Holy rocks are given reverence, and cities are built around them.

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Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.

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One of our last sunsets, from a hilltop Buddhist monastery outside Kathmandu.

It’s a cliche at this point to talk about how a trip like this can “change” you, but cliches are cliches for a reason. Once back in the United States, I would spend months being overwhelmed by grocery stores – so many choices as a consumer, so many products that came so far to get to my fingertips, and so many products that would be promptly thrown in the garbage within a day or two. I’ve never been one for consumer culture, but the constant drive for more expensive clothing and cars and electronics was too much hard to wrap your head around when you’d seen so many live on so little and be (for the most part) so happy.

The trip also gave me a deeper understanding of the legacy of colonialism – the evils and collateral damage that had been done in my name as an American, including the hundreds killed every year to this day from unexploded Vietnam-era bombs dropped indiscriminately over Cambodia. It also drove home how much of a responsibility our country has to be better global citizens and advocates for the ideals of freedom of speech and democracy – a responsibility we now seem content to actively run away from.

It taught me some of my blind spots around privilege, power and culture – lessons that I couldn’t have learned without having lived so far out of my comfort zone. It gave me empathy for the less fortunate and a greater appreciation for the things I’d been bred to take for granted – clean water, clean air and a roof over my head. It drove home the challenges we face as a planet to find a sustainable future in a rapidly changing climate, but also taught me that human beings are remarkably adaptable and resilient, and can find a way to thrive and live lives of contentment in difficult conditions.

Not a week passes without a scene from this trip popping into my head randomly – the immense view from the top of a temple in Myanmar, a meal in a noodle house in Cambodia with the owners’ infant children crawling around the floor, a fellow traveller whose paths overlapped with ours for a couple days. Quitting jobs, putting a career trajectory on hold and spending down savings accounts to go do something like this was a big leap of faith for Kaytlin and I, but I’ve not once regretted the decision. I’ve never felt as alive and exhilarated – spiritually, emotionally, physically – as I did during these seven months.

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Kids hamming it up for the camera, on a bus somewhere in rural Maharashtra state, India.

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