Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How do you measure a year in the life?

How do you start something that just ended...

This can be a shout out, or a sappy sentimental summary, an Oscar night list or an introspective treatise. It could come off like a song, a poem or a high school yearbook scribble. But I would like to think that what my boy Chubaka O'connor says about traveling is true: you learn more about the world than about yourself. Its not to say that backpacking around the world is easy; it takes courage, flexibility, and openness. However, it is non-committal, and it is in commitments that we find ourselves, that we shine. While traveling, we can, and do, re-invent ourselves after each smooth or rough landing. The trick is to adapt quickly, and easily, and without too much fuss, to cherish change. With each new place, we make new friends, we bathe in new experiences, and we take in as much of our surroundings as we can. The difference is that we know that, unlike life back "home" we are only a flight, a ferry, a matatu away from a new friend, experience or environment, and therefore, as a conscientious traveler and human being, though you remain the best person you can be, there is always a way out, a way to escape, a flight to catch.

That must have been the introspective part.

The high school shout out will come soon, but first, we want to remember. We want to remember the pot-holed streets, going the wrong way around the rotary on the back of a boda boda in the night. We want to remember drunk on waraji and bitter lemon, and the sobriety of poverty and death. We want to remember cherishing a medium rare fillet mignon after a month of flavorless matoke. We want to remember the force with which the boy walking naked in front of the police station hit us (remember Rusha?). We want to remember the hospitality of those that live in a scrap wood shack and the baby that was swept away by the flood. We want to remember Scott's spin mix and lounging poolside at Kabira country club. We remember the days and weeks without water or power, and last call at Bubbles. We want to remember the worst bathrooms, outhouses and beds of our lives, and the gentleness of Sonam's village. There is so much we want to remember, and especially, there is nothing we want to forget.

You know, coming back to the States is not so hard. This is a wonderful country. While true adjustment may take as long as our 9 months on the road, adjusting to anything, especially a place like "home", now seems easy in comparison to some of the adjustments on the road. It is easy to romanticize the third world, especially a place like Uganda, but life there is hard and cruel. Life here, while mired in American greed, capitalism, and the ever present gladiator-style race for the best, works. A society that is based on universal principles, that elects its leaders and changes power peacefully, that celebrates community, volunteerism, health, and commitment to a better world, isn't so bad.. is it? The third world is a troubled place, a place where those who can, take, and take, and take, leaving a wake of destruction that swallows up the multitudes who are powerless to take. Its a place where societal and economic pressures can be self destructive and thoughtless and backwards. Its a place of suffering and shit eating, again and again, apathy, hopelessness and despair. It is because of this dark background that lights burn brighter. It is because of this void that faith in God, in people, and selflessness becomes more apparent.

I guess that was the treatise.

There are so many people to thank and to love. So many people that made this possible. First of all our parents, who came to visit, who read our blog, who sent us shoes, who worried for us, and who were proud of what we did. Our family: Haddas, without whose help we could not have done this, who managed our lives and responsibilities back home, and Leah, who's amulet (it's not a sailor being crushed by an anchor Leah, it's a sailor navigating dark waters by sexton) kept us safe from lurking evil and sketchy 140 km matatu rides in the "death seat" past the soul snatching spirits of Mabira forest. To AJWS for making this possible and our selfless friends and colleagues at KCCC, who day in day out, without pay, keep the faith, keep the light, and work tirelessly for the betterment of their community. We thank the people of Kamwokya, who open-heartedly allowed us access to their lives and community, making us feel comfortable walking through the slum at midnight, letting us sit on their benches while mending shoes, and sharing their celebrations and their sorrows with us. To our friends in Uganda, who made our lives better and more entertaining, who "understand" because they were and are with us, and who taught us that life is whatever you want to make it. We thank all the drivers, captains, animal drivers, and guides, who took us from place to place with no incidence. We thank Peter, who brought us to the peaks of Uganda and Dickson, who took us to the top of Kenya. We thank Wolfgang for listening to us and documenting our experience, and Marc for hosting us in Nairobi. We thank the Egyptians for their hospitality and their coffee. We thank our family in Israel for their love and support, for hosting us, for showing us an amazing time, amazing food, and some killer mountain biking. We thank Shiva, Ganesh, and even Kali for ensuring our safety, and teaching us what true balagan is. We thank Sonam for picking leeches off my feet and drying our soaked bags, and all the porters and work animals who carried our crap to the heights of the world. We thank Buddha for teaching us the 8 fold path and returning my parents' passports to them. We thank every meal, good or bad, every cold drink, be it to raise a toast to life's paths, or to quench our thirst in 115 degree heat, even the ones that made us sick. Mostly, we thank God and the universe, for allowing us to be born into these bodies, these times, and allowing us the privilege of doing this....thing.

That was the shout out. There are so many more, and "thank you" does no justice to the gratitude and sentimentality that we feel. We are so grateful.

Mwebale Nyo
Asante Sana
Toda Raba
Khob Kun Kah
Thank you

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hong Kong

After a pleasant flight on Cathay Pacific, we began our descent into the Hong Kong area. Immediately, you could sense the sheer size of this city/region. There were massive skyscrapers, in densely lining the shores of the city, while everywhere, high rises that would make any NYC tenement look tiny, were clustered in groups. The ocean and ports of the surrounding islands and channels were littered with massive tankers, cargo and container ships, barges and other crafts. You could already sense the economic engine of China and we hadn't even landed. Hong kong is well organized, and while rules and fines for anything imaginable, from spitting to smoking to jay walking stifle and promote a certain conformism, Hong Kong feels like capitalism on steroids. It's like Times Square-meets-Vegas multiplied by a thousand. It is vibrant, open for business 24-7 and apparently very rich.
The ports were like nothing I have seen before: miles upon miles of containers stacked 10-high waiting to be loaded onto ships that are waiting to transport Chinese goods all over the world, like an LA traffic jam. Dozens of 3-football-field-length ships are being loaded at once on massive cranes, while others, unable to get a birth are being unloaded in the harbor and open water by barges and floating cranes. Cruise ships, ferries, private boats and yachts plow the water everywhere.

We located ourselves in one of the only budget accommodation options in Hong Kong, Mirador Mansion: a massive tenement with thousands of apartments that have been turned into dozens of small guest houses throughout the building. The neighborhood around features Indians and Africans, touting tailoring services, fake watches and purses or guest houses and generally loitering. The room was bite sized, but clean and had air conditioning and was a perfect location to explore the city.
We spent the first night walking in awe, down to the water front where we walked down Hong Kong's Walk of Stars, complete with a statue of master Bruce Lee, and an amazing view of the sky line of Hong Kong island across the channel. There, a nightly light show using the buildings across the channel lights up the cityscape and is a big tourist attraction. Afterward we walked around and found some mediocre sushi.
We woke up the next day and after a 5 dollar Starbucks (gulp-even more than US prices!) we headed to Hong Kong island across the channel that separates Kowloon, which abuts the mainland of China, and the island, on which are most of the financial services and ex-pat community of HK. We walked among the waterfront streets, which feel like a continuous mall, intersected by markets. You rarely ever actually have to walk on the street in HK because there is a labyrinth of elevated escalators and walkways which cover the city, going in and out of buildings and malls, with exits on every block. Its an amazingly organized place.

We walked through the markets and watched the butchers and fish mongers hawk every ocean creature imaginable, including frogs and turtles and other crustaceans we have never met before. No kosher laws here, the mongers may fillet or scale the fish while it is still alive, and frogs are skinned barely 2 seconds after their neck was slit. We had dim sum in a very locally famous place, and got to chat it up with a couple of HK residents who we shared the table with. Then we took the tram to the top of Victoria Peak where we got sweeping views of Hong Kong and the surrounding islands, and walked back down to the city. We didn't wait around on HK Island for the famous happy hour that happens nightly, as the throngs of expats leave their financial posts to plow the trendy pubs and restaurants, but we were told that they are nicknamed "FILTH" which stands for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong". Instead, we went out to the night market for dinner and had an amazingly fresh seafood dinner on the street of crab, shrimp, clams, and fish.
The next day, our last in Hong Kong, we traveled to Lantau island to see the largest seated buddha in Asia, the Po Lin Buddha. After a series of ferries and buses, we came face to face with the 120 foot bronze buddha sitting on top of a mountain on a lotus flower. We toured the area and the monastery, listening to monks chanting and getting cancer from the ridiculous amount of incense they light in their temples, and then returned back to Kowloon via the metro. That night, after a 2 day search of a supposed "all you can eat" sushi restaurant which was recommended to us by my parents, we finally found it. The restaurant had relocated in the month since my parents had been in hong kong. We approached this final all-you- can-eat experience as gentle but fierce food warriors, maintainning focus on stuffing ourselves silly, and systematcally consuming inhuman quantities of sashimi, sushi, grilled and tempura meats and fish, and anything else they had on offer. It was lovely.
There was only one thing left to do as our adventure came to a close: we had to get on a flight that would take us back to the States. The anxiety and anticipation associated with returning home was palpable, we were still standby on the flight and we had been told that all Cathay Pacific flights to the US during the month of July were overbooked. Luckily we were able to get 2 seats on the flight and made it out of HK with minimal hassle. The 14 hour flight was lovely and we both caught up on movies we had missed over the past 8 months.
If you want to see the final pics of Hong Kong, click here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bangkok and Koh Tao

We returned to Bangkok from northern Thailand to spend a few days touring the city. A minute after we got out of the taxi from the airport to our plush hotel, looking forward to an evening on the town, my dad tried to check in and realized he forgot his fanny pack in the taxi! We ran after the taxi but to no avail, it was gone! Everything was in that pack… EVERYTHING: both my parents’ Israeli and American passports, credit cards, visas, thousands of dollars in cash and a brand new smart phone! Michael was beside himself and we were desperate. We tried to call the cell phone a thousand times, we tried reviewing the hotel’s security tapes for any clue of a taxi number, we tried calling the taxi central operator, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack: there are more cabs in Bangkok than New York City. We called and we texted, pleading, with no response. Thinking the documents and cash were goners, and calming down a bit, we started to take care of the details, calling the US and Israeli embassies and going to the police to get a report. The timing was unfortunate. It was the Friday before the 4th of July weekend and the embassy would be closed on Monday, meaning they wouldn’t get their passports till Tuesday. They would be not only missing their flight to Israel, but also a flight the following Thursday to Crete. This was going to be a costly mess!

Aba sat on the phone all night trying to rearrange flights, while Rusha and I continued to call the phone, text, plead with the ringing on the other side. The only thing that would help would be a miracle, a holy interceding on the part of the Buddha, who we had been meeting and celebrating over the past weeks. Lo and behold, Sidhartha came through. We woke at 8 in the morning to my dad coming to our room and announcing that the taxi cab driver had showed up and returned the pack, unopened! My dad hugged him ten times, and gave him enough of a tip to make his year! It took the Buddha, and more importantly a Buddhist to perform that miracle, and it changed the mood of the rest of the trip.

Happily, we went out and toured Bangkok, catching the highlights. We took a river ferry out to Wat Phra Kaew, a massive temple complex that houses both the sacred emerald Buddha and the king’s ceremonial palace and temples. The complex is massive and its many temples, stupas and statues are adorned with shiny gold leaf and glass mosaics. From there we walked to Wat Pho to see the 150 foot reclining golden Buddha that temple houses. We thanked Buddha by dropping coins into the monk’s bowls that line the buddha. We walked south through the flower market and enjoyed Thai ice coffee, which is quite good, in a bag. That night we went out on the town and had a drink at Vertigo, one of Bangkok’s fanciest bars on the rooftop of a 65-story skyscraper. From there we could see all of Bangkok, including the lightening storm that was coming our way and forced us back down into the lobby. The next day we said good bye and thank you to Ima and Aba as they, now on schedule, left for Israel. Rusha and I took the train to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, a massive market on the outskirts of Bangkok that is comprised of thousands of stalls, many of which belong to young hip designers that make their own clothing and sell them for peanuts. It also has stalls selling all sorts of pets, crafts, and of course Thai trinkets and tons of food.

After short flight the next morning we found ourselves in Surat Thani, a coastal town on the gulf of Thailand that is the gateway to the gulf’s 3 major islands, Ko Samui – vacation paradise of 5 star resorts, Ko Phanang – home of the famed full moon party, the largest beach party in the world, and Ko Tao, the smallest and most rustic of the 3, known for unbelievable scuba diving and remote beaches. We ferried to Ko Phanang, and not knowing exactly what to do, we decided to continue onwards to Ko Tao in order to escape as far as we could in the short time we had. Already from the ferry ride we could sense that we were in paradise, greeted by calm turquoise waters guarded by tall granite and limestone forest covered cliffs and karst formations cropped up in the middle of the ocean as long tail fishing boats passed by. We landed in Ko Tao, and after renting a little 125CC scooter, we went off in search of accommodations. We found what we were looking for on a little remote spot between 2 serene bays. We got a simple bungalow on the water, complete with a porch overlooking Thian Og Bay (Shark’s Bay).

We spent the next 5 days exploring the island. I did a 2-day advanced open water scuba diving course, and Rusha joined me snorkeling for the first day on the boat. The crew on the boat was small, but quality and the guys that worked at the small dive shop ended up being great guys to hang out with. In the course I learned advanced diving skills, including a night and a deep dive, and got to see turtles, rays, and the occasional trigger fish. We did not see any eluszive whale sharks, unfortunately, as the waters were too warm. At night we would go to the main town on the island, Sairee and get fresh fish, beers and watch the Tour de France on TV or World Cup, and walk around the busier, drunker, younger, part of the island, always knowing that we would return at night to our serene little corner of the 5 km long island. When not scuba diving, we spent the days taking the scooter and exploring the more secluded beaches on sketchy dirt roads more appropriate for a mountain bike that a little vespa, which brought us to isolated, serene, picturesque bays, where the snorkeling was fantastic, the waters clear and the scenery stunning. Rusha learned how to ride the scooter, and I wouldn’t be surprise if she wants one when we get back.

We spent our last evening watching the sun go down over the long tail boats before boarding the night ferry, a transport barge that allows people to sleep on it and get an overnight ride to Surat Thani. It was hot (no AC), choppy, and crammed, but a great way to get across the 110 km of open water to the mainland. We arrived in Surat Thani at 5 am, got a ride to the airport, where we tried to get on an earlier flight to Bangkok, but were unable to. So we have about 9 hours to kill at the airport, thank god for free internet! Tomorrow morning we are off to Hong Kong, and then, if our tickets come through should be back state-side (gulp) in less then a week. See you all soon!

For more pics of Bangkok, click here

For more pics of paradise, click here

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thailand: The North

We left India ready for a vacation, and we found it in Thailand. We landed in Bangkok and the 92 degree heat felt downright comfortable compared to New Delhi 110. We met up with Guy’s parents who had come to tour Southeast Asia and meet us. For the first time in months it was a proper, modern, beautiful hotel with air conditioning and a soft mattress and a clean bathroom with shampoo samples and a TV and even bathrobes and slippers in the closet. It was luxurious and wonderful. We had a reunion with Guy’s parents after 7 months and all went out on the streets of Bangkok in search of street food that is sold at little carts on almost every corner: noodle soups, grilled meats and hot dogs, pad thai and other fried noodles, papaya salad, duck, custom made omelets, the list goes on and on. We were spending just one night in Bangkok before heading up to the north of the country for an 8-day tour. Our first impression of Thailand was that, especially when compared to India, it was clean, organized, hospitable and functioning. The people were polite and friendly and welcoming. The streets of Bangkok seem to be just one huge outdoor market, with food vendors interspersed with carts selling t-shirts with silly slogans, Thai comfy pants, cheap sunglasses, fake watches, flip flops, and any sort of touristy knick knack or knock-off luxury product that you can imagine. Every other shop is a massage parlor, advertising traditional Thai massage or foot massage or oil massage. And there are girls, and the lady-boys, everywhere, advertising sex, the other kind of tourism that Thailand is famous for.Because of the Red Shirt uprising in April and subsequent riots and burning of the biggest mall in Asia, there has been a major slow-down in tourism in Thailand and the economy is suffering for it. Restaurants and hotels are half-full, bars are empty, the women who do massage are all sitting outside their shops waiting for customers, and the girls dressed in tiny dresses that barely cover, are clustered outside the bars waiting for customers as well. After taking in the sights we headed to our soft, soft bed for the first comfortable night’s sleep in a long while.

We woke up the next morning and took a flight to Chiang Rai, part of the “Golden Triangle” of northern Thailand, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Burma (or Myanmar) , and the center of the old opium trade. The city is famous for a temple that used to house the most revered Buddah statue in Thailand’s history, the Emerald Buddah (that is really made from jade and spent some time in Chiang Rai in between trips to Laos during war, eventually making it to Bangkok where it sits today.) We landed and met our Thai guide, Nettaya, who normally works taking Israeli tour groups around Thailand and speaks much better Hebrew than me, and our driver Mr. Boon. We had our own personal “silver bullet”, a huge 9-seater silver van complete with reclining leather seats, A/C, a DVD player and TV screen that was to take us all over the north of this country over the next week. Guy’s mom, Anat, set up the trip and it was a nice change of pace for Guy and I to not plan and hustle and worry about logistics. We just sat in the chairs of the van and let it take us places….and did we ever see things.We called it “boot camp” because Nettaya had us up every morning, ready to go by 8 and often didn’t get us back to the hotel until 8 pm. The hotels where we stayed were all aesthetic, luxurious, and pampering, and Nettaya was a great guide. She had our number from the start and figured out that Guy’s dad loves markets, especially ones where he can find a good deal. “Shuq, shuq, shuq!” (Hebrew for market), she would yell in a thai accent. She also figured out that we all LOVE to eat. So, she fed us. “Ta’im, ta’im!!!” (Hebrew for tasty, tasty) she would announce and stop the van at little road-side stands and come running back with bags of fun things to try: bamboo poles stuffed with sweet sticky rice, grilled meats, treats wrapped in banana leaves, fried crickets and other bugs, pork skins, rice cake treats, all kinds of fruits that I have never seen before, sweetened ice coffee. The more adventurous eaters, Guy and his dad, tried everything. I even ate a silk worm myself. Thais love to eat and will cook and eat anything, really, ANYTHING. So we got amongst it like locals do.

We had a really comprehensive tour of the north of Thailand. We started in Chiang Rai and from there visited the Burmese border at the town of Mae Sai, which is also a huge market town. We did a small boat trip along the Mekong River that eventually makes its way all the way north and houses the largest freshwater fish in the world, the Mekong catfish that can weigh up to 650 pounds. We also stepped foot in Laos from the boat as well for a shot of scorpion and cobra infused whiskey. We stopped at Doi Tung, visiting the royal flower garden planted in honor of the queen and drank coffee from one of the plantations that is part of her royal initiative. Before leaving the area, we visited the White Temple outside of Chiang Rai, a massive complex that is still being constructed and is the brainchild of one of Thailand’s most famous modern artists who is combining the traditional with the modern. The temple is white, and incorporates modern depictions and ideas of good vs. evil.
From Chiang Rai we made our way to the village of Mae Kham Pong, stopping along the way at a hot springs where we hard boiled eggs in the hot pools and all got foot massages. We stayed at the Tharnthong lodge, a bit of heaven on earth made of funky, hand-built country cabins on a serene, verdant property complete with free range bunnies, chickens, dogs and parrots, and did a day-hike to some waterfalls through dense rain forest. We had a local guide as well as a guy who spent the whole time hacking away at the dense vegetation with a machete in order that we could walk the trail. We saw several snakes, including a green bamboo viper, one of the most poisonous snakes in Thailand. Guy and his dad went hunting for wild mushrooms with the resort staff afterwards and we were treated to a great meal that included the mushrooms and deep fried edible flowers that they found on their hunt.
From there we drove the long winding roads to the town of Pai, a little travelers enclave that has a robust farang (or foreigner) population and caters to backpackers, musicians and artists, as well as city folk looking to get out to the country. It was kind of dead because of the tourism slowdown, but we all got massages and ate mango with sticky rice and pad thai and enjoyed the beautiful hotel. Thai massage is an ancient therapeutic practice and is a combination of stretching and intense pressure point work done by a tiny, 90-pound girl who is much stronger than she looks. It costs about $6-7 per 1 hour, and so we have been trying to get as many as we can during the trip.

From Pai, we made our way to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, and the northern hub for tourism in Thailand. We based ourselves at a very nice hotel in the city and spent 3 days exploring the area around the city and taking in the vibrant night market at night. We spent a day at an elephant camp where elephants that used to work for the now-illegal logging industry live and perform for tourists. They are amazingly well-trained and can sit, lie down, kick soccer balls, throw basketballs, walk holding their tails and trunks, and even paint a picture…I am not lying, we saw an elephant paint a picture of an elephant holding a flower in its trunk. The show includes watching the elephants take a bath in the river, each with their mahout, or trainer, on their backs. After the show we all saddled up and rode elephants through the forest, rewarding them with bunches of bananas and sugar cane conveniently sold along the way, arriving in a hill tribe village where we went through the gauntlet of craft stalls, and then took a bullcart ride back to the start. At the camp we played with a 2-month old baby elephant and Guy and the elephant wrestled through the wooden fence, just like little elephant siblings would. We finished up the tour with a ride on a bamboo raft down the local river followed by an amazing lunch of grilled fish and finally we toured the lod cave, consisting of 3, 2000 meter long caves structures, admiring ancient stalagmites and stalactites, and complete with a 1700 year old coffin, and caveman art. We spent another day hiking through a forest that led us to a hill tribe village where we got to walk through the rice fields. We visited Doi Suthep, a temple on a mountain where some of the Buddha’s ashes are said to be buried. We also visited Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, which rises to 2600 meters and has a pair of temples built on the peak to honor the king and queen. We spent an evening watching Muy Thai, Thai boxing, a vicious sport that is a combination of boxing and mixed martial arts and consists of 5, 3-minute rounds of intense pummeling. We spent another evening watching traditional northern Thai dancing (not as violent). On our last day, which was unplanned and guideless, we actually slept in, ate a leisurely breakfast, visited the pool and did some spa activities before heading out into the old city of Chiang Mai to check out a few of its 30(!) temples.

Along the way, we stopped at an umbrella factory and saw how paper parasols are made by hand by an assembly-line of mostly older women who cut bamboo with amazing accuracy. We stopped at a silk factory and saw the process from the silk worm eggs to the worms that feed on mulberry leaves, to the cocoons that are boiled to the thread that is spooled and eventually set on looms and hand woven to make fabric. We stopped at a small factory that processes cashews and other dried nuts and fruits. We stopped at an orchid farm and a leather factory and a teak factory where furniture and wooden wall paintings are carved all by hand. Of course, at each of these places was the opportunity to purchase any or all of the handicrafts being made and displayed. This place has figured out consumerism and they provide ample opportunities to purchase.
Over the week we stopped at numerous temples, or wats, each of which is ornately decorated with multiple roofs, lots of gold paint, gilded statues of the buddah, flower garlands, incense and lotus flowers, and frescos on the wall, often recounting stories of the buddah’s life. We learned about the story of the Buddah, how he was born from his mother’s side after she was visited in her dreams by a white elephant, how he took 7 steps on lotus leaves the minute of his birth and how he came to reach Nirvana. We learned about his 7 postures, one for each day of the week, and learned that Thai people make offerings and prayers to the buddah posture of the day of their birth.

Nettaya was an amazing resource for information about Thai tradition, Buddhism, local foods and customs and history. We learned about the Thai king, who is the longest reigning king in the world holding the throne for 63 years so far. He is so beloved that every town has numerous signboard pictures of him, shrines to him and all over the country you find temples and monuments built to honor him. No house or store is complete without a picture of the king, and many people pray and bow to his image, which is everywhere. We learned about how the queen started a project 30 years ago to try to stem the opium trade and helped the hill tribes, who were growing and selling opium, start other cash crop projects like coffee, tea, and flower plantations that have replaced the opium. Don’t you worry, opium is still being grown in Burma and in more remote places in the north of Thailand, but many Thais have switched to legal products and the initiative came from the royal family. We got her perspective on all the white men with Thai girls on their arm (there are many, many of these couples, some of whom have been together for years and have families, and some who are clearly just vacation girlfriends). Thai men do not treat their women so well, she said, and white men treat them better and for not much money, can afford to pay for their lives so they don’t have to work so hard, and in return, the Thai women offer companionship and whatever else.

We learned about the hill tribes, different semi-nomadic groups who have come to Thailand over the past 200 years to settle from Laos, Burma, China and Tibet, and are not Thai citizens, but have a sort of residency here that allows them to be farmers and own some land and get some education and health care and achieve a much better life than they were able to living in other places. Many of these tribes have become tourist attractions, especially the tribes that have traditions that make them look interesting: the Karen women who coil brass wire around the necks of the girls born on Wednesday of full-moon and extend it as they grow, stretching out their necks; others who wrap brass wire around the women’s’ calves to make them thin and long; the Lhisu who wear plugs in their ears and funny hats. We visited several villages of these people over the course of our trip and while some of it felt exploitative, many of these people are keeping their traditions alive because it is a draw for tourists.

We saw an amazing amount of the north of Thailand and took with us an amazing amount of the foods or northern Thailand in our bellies. We flew back to Bangkok after 9 days and set up for 2 more days of touring that city with Guy’s parents before they left for Israel and we left for the south of Thailand for one last undeserved beach vacation.
for more pics of northern thailand, do not be afraid, click here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Musings about India

I started this at some point on the trip and never posted it...After having left India, I will try to describe to you a little bit about what it was like to travel there, although it will not come close to doing it justice.

India is loud and busy and smelly and dirty and there are people everywhere all the time, hanging out of trains, sitting on the floor of train stations, lying on the sidewalks of the big cities, crowding the streets. There are lines for everything—but if you don’t hold your ground, you will get shoved out of your place by even the most refined gentleman, don’t you worry. There are noises: constant car honking (its used as a way to let the other drivers you are passing, are upset, are about to hit them), people hawking loogies (especially in the morning, it is part of a prolonged and fairly gross waking up routine), people selling food in the street, dogs barking and fighting, cows mooing, people’s voices are even loud and there is no such thing as whispering, even on a night train. There are animals everywhere: stray dogs with open wounds and sores, hobbling on 3 legs with ribs sticking out, happily sitting in sewer water to cool down, cows with bony pelvic bones sifting through garbage heaps and eating plastic bags, rats, cats, bugs, monkeys with red bottoms, brazenly stealing food out of peoples' hands, living in almost every temple, water buffalo sitting in the middle of the road or bathing in the rivers, goats, sheep, even pigs. There is the permeating smell of urine that can hit you at any turn in the road, and often stays with you for your entire stay in your budget hotel as the bucket flush squat toilets and old sewer systems do not lend to getting rid of the odor. There is the smell of paan, betel nut juice that is spit after chewing a mixture of the nut, tobacco, lime and other spices and colors the corners of stairwells, curbs, streets and walls every where a dark-red brown; it also colors the lips and teeth of the chewers and almost every hot-blooded Indian man, and quite a few women, chew this concoction. There is the oppressive heat (at least in the summer), humid and thick in some places, dry and biting in others, but it is relentless and the sweat is constant and it makes the filth stick to you even more and makes every task that much harder.

There are constant requests by Indians to take photos both alone and with them, and we are decorating many a mantle after this trip. There are the rapid fire questions that are almost the same sequence: “What is your good name?” “Where are you from?” “What is your profession?” There are the constant stares by everyone, with no attempt to hide them once you acknowledge that you see them staring. There are often lecherous looks by men and sometimes a feel as they pass you on the street. (Indian boys have very little contact with girls basically until they get married and are incredibly immature and clueless about how to behave around women so they think that a white woman is a chance to be lewd.) There are trains and train stations and it seems that the whole country is traveling on a train: in general seating the people are crammed into the cars like you would not believe, hanging out the doors and windows, standing for overnight rides, lying on the floor, sitting on hard benches for 36 or 48 hours, in order to cross the country for $2-3, lying in piles of bodies and food and trash on the floor of the stations, waiting.

There are other white people such as you, always with a backpack, a copy of the Lonely Planet, henna tattoos, Indian scarves, and the ever-present “dookie pants” as Guy and I have named them, baggy pants that could be a skirt except the are stitched at the bottom, creating the effect of having taken a dump. All these people are doing just what you are doing: trying to see and understand this place, all for as cheap as possible, and they keep turning up at the same tourist landmarks because they are on the same trail, making it both nice to be sharing a crazy ride with strangers and a loss of the sense that this is only your experience. Of course there are beggars and naked children and people showering in the street at common water taps and old women squatting at the entrance to the train station with outstretched hands and people with polio and deformities, all asking for money. And there are the admonitions from Indians never to give money to beggars as almost everyone begging is part of a larger operation that should be discouraged. Disabled people are “owned” by beggar masters who collect the money at the end of the day, women can rent babies for the day and then ask for baby formula from a certain store and then return the product and split the profit with the shopkeeper, kids are all being forced into it, and most people say that almost anyone in India can find a job of some kind. But it is hard, hard, hard not to give.

And then there is Hinduism and the temples and the boisterous, colorful, loud, crowded, chaotic expression of devotion that happens all the time with bell-ringing and chanting and incense and cracked coconuts and holy water and red dye and crazy old saddus sitting next to beggar women in the temple entrances. There are priests who are happy to grab you in all your whiteness and give you a “tour” of the temple for a small bakshish, people selling fruit and colorful, endless flowers with which to decorate shrines, and money is being handed over right and left at these temples in order for people to do puja or devotion. There are an amazing number of incarnations of god, many of whom have devoted followings and temples addressed only to them. And it doesn’t even matter if the gods are Hindu, with Christian Indians decorating Mary and Jesus with red dots and flower garlands and dipping them in the holy rivers or Buddhist temples that also serve as Shiva temples. There are sculptures and mini-shrines everywhere of 6 armed, blue gods riding their animal mode of transport, carrying the tools that differentiate them, orange blobs, and sometimes just a phallic-shaped stone on a base called a “lingam” that represents Shiva.

None of this even touches on the different culture and geography of the north, at the foot of the Himalayas, seeped in Tibetan and Nepali culture, with cooler temperatures and more mild dispositions and less spicy (and interesting) food and massive mountains covered by stupas and prayer flags and low-land Indians on vacation escaping the heat and Sherpa porters carrying massive amounts of weight on their backs up the steep hillsides and tea plantations and monks. That is India too.

It is so hard to describe and to integrate and to understand and I think that the pictures Guy has been taking probably do the best justice to the places we have seen. Its a mind-blowing place and very complicated, but I think we are both really glad to have had the opportunity to travel in India and feel that there is much more of it to be explored.

Last days in India: the Taj Mahal

Arriving back from Dharmasala to the sand-filled air of New Delhi, we decided to push through and pick up a train that same afternoon for Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. We spent a few hours roaming around Delhi, seeking refuge from the heat, and got back on a train for the very hot, non-air conditioned 3 hour train ride to Agra.

After settling into another winner of a hotel in the backpacker friendly neighborhood of Taj Ganj, boasting crap hotel rooms but only a few hundred feet from the Taj and affording amazing sunset views. We walked up to the roof-top restaurant of our guesthouse and were met with the magnificent Taj Mahal, a building considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world. Above the city hundreds of home-made paper kites, being flown from rooftops by young and old men alike, filled the skies in a display of mastery and tradition of this muslim city.

The Taj was built in 1632 by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his favorite wife, who died giving birth to her 14th child! He brought architects, material, and skilled labor from around the world, but in the end, he watched the building from the Agra fort, where he lived out his final days, imprisoned by his ambitious son.

The Taj is best toured early in the morning before the big tourist buses show up, when the heat of Agra is bearable (only about 100 degrees F) and most importantly, Agra’s famous light makes the Taj appear to glow from the inside. We walked through the gate and paid the entry fee which costs 38 times(!) as much for foreigners as for Indians, and were met by the classic view of the building, reflected in the long pool of water leading up to it. The building was built on a platform so it always appears with the sky behind it, designed to invoke the Koran’s description of heaven. We walked the grounds for several hours, taking in the building, the gardens and the mosque from various angles. We ventured inside to see the graves of the mausoleum’s inhabitants and gawked at the finely inlaid precious stones and bas-reliefs that decorate the structure. No detail was overlooked in its design, no expense spared: the marble was the finest in India, and its translucency is what gives the Taj its glowing look; the Koranic verses along the walls are written so that looking at them from the ground, the letters appear to be of the same size.

The temperatures continued to rise, but since we only had one day in Agra, we decided to push on and visit another attraction, the Agra Fort, about 2 km away along the Yamuna River. The walk took us through some neighborhoods and down by a burning ghat, so we got another chance to watch burning pyres and the ceremony which surrounds cremation in India. We arrived at the fort which was built in 1080 and later became the seat of Moghal power. It later became his prison when his son took over in a coup. Its huge, and interesting, but by non means as magnificent as the mausoleum we had visited that morning, though it does offer a beautiful river side perspective of the Taj.

At this point the temperatures were soaring to the point where it was impossible to sit outside. We found a restaurant, any restaurant, with some A/C and milked our way through a long lunch, dreading going out in the sun. We were reminded of the heat whenever we went to the restroom, which was outside. We made our way back to the hotel in the early afternoon, unable to do anything else in the searing heat, which only later did we find broke the thermometer at 48 degrees (118 deg F). Too hot to function, we finally got on our a/c train, and returned to Delhi, where we spent another couple of miserably hot days, in the 110 degree range tying up some loose ends, shopping, shipping things home in preparation to leave India. We even treated ourselves to a killer dinner at a high-end restaurant in one of the plush Delhi suburbs, dining on Punjabi lamb, tandoori fish and delicious chicken. We had been craving meat for 2 months and the meal was spectacular. We left the next morning for the airport where we boarded a plane that would take us to Bangkok, Thailand.

It’s hard to summarize our time in India. It is different from any other place in the world that we have ever been. And, like many people that spend real time in this country, we both loved it and hated it. Everything in India is hard: the streets, the cities, the transportation, the weather, the people, the hypocrisy, and the filth. The hotel rooms are filthy and hot and miserable, you have to squat to take a shit and wipe with your hands, the people pushy, obnoxious, loud and seemingly unaware that any of it could be offensive. The weather, especially in the summer, is unrelenting and suffocating, the air thick and dirty, the poverty inhuman, and the density of people overwhelming. You have to battle for everything, and a handshake is never a done deal because there’s always more to try to milk out of you. The rivers and country are polluted beyond belief and there is trash everywhere. On the other hand, you will never go hungry in India and the millions of homeless, poor and devoted all get fed somehow, all sleep somewhere, be it in the street or on a bench. They will step over their own mother, yet they will never steal.

The people are colorful, the traditions are old and the society has survived for almost 5000 years, built upon a common culture and religion that permeates everything. Everything is sanctified and worshiped, and peoples’ devotion and displays of devotion are beyond belief. And while they seem to have the capacity to suffer more than any other people we have encountered, they also seem to tolerate their situation, often just out of necessity. By the time we left, we were done with India: we were tired and over-heated and worn from the trials of navigating the place, yet, I think we will be back. We only began to scratch the surface of this country and its people and, with the right attitude and preparation, there are many more trips-worth of exploring to do. Namaste.

To see the pics from Agra and the Taj Mahal, click here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dharmasala, McLeod Ganj

After the intensity of the heat and the spiritual (and otherwise) experiences in Varanasi, we were ready for a break. We made our way to New Delhi where we set up for our next trip northward, this time on the western side of the country in the state of Himachal Pradesh. We had our sites on a different kind of spiritual capital: the place where the Dalai Lama lives and has established his government in exile and a center of Buddhist and Tibetan culture. Its also become somewhat of a mecca for Westerners who descend upon the place to study Buddhism, yoga, meditation, tantra, reiki, rebirthing, and generally chill out and drop out. The place is called Dharmasala and its about 400 km north of Dehli, at the very beginnings of the Himalayas. To get there involves a gut-wrenching, twisty-turney, 13 hour overnight beast of a bus ride with no shocks. We arrived in the morning, bleary eyed and still somewhat nauseous, to the town where the action is, McLeod Ganj, nestled at 7000 feet and set on a hillside of pine trees, looking up at some rocky, snowy peaks, reminiscent of a Colorado landscape. The weather was pleasant, a nice break from the heat of Delhi and Varanasi, and teeming with westerners seeking bliss, Punjabis on vacation, and Tibetans who now live and work there. Every other store is an internet café and we finally found the critical mass of wireless internet we have been looking for all over India. In the past 10 years, the town has grown too quickly and the narrow streets are teeming with auto-rickshaws, taxis and jeeps ferrying the Indian tourists around. Even still, the atmosphere is 1000 times more mellow than anywhere in lowland India. We found a nice guesthouse with a balcony and a Western toilet (a joy, let me tell you) and set to reading the signs plastered on every spare building surface that, not dissimilar to a college campus, advertise all the goings-on in town: where to get dreadlocks done, where to learn to play the tabla, where to watch documentaries on Tibet, where to find the best cappuccinos.

We had heard that Dharmasala is known for being a place where you can sample some of the spiritual activities that make India famous. The town is home to 2 very well-known Buddhist meditation centers that offer 10-day intense, silent meditation retreats and it is a hub for people wanting their yoga teacher training certification. Its also surrounded by Buddhist monasteries and nunneries and, if you are lucky, you can attend free teachings by the Dalai Lama or one of the other prominent Buddhist lamas who live in the area. Unfortunately for us, His Holiness, as he is called, was on a retreat and not in town, so we didn’t get a chance to have an audience with him or get blessed by him or hear any teachings, but the classes abounded and so we signed up for a milder 2-day introduction to meditation course with the Tushita Meditation Center.

We spent 2 days sitting cross-legged on pillows, learning to quiet our minds and focus on a single point and ignore the pins and needles and frank pain in our knees and ankles and our racing thoughts. The class was led by an Aussie who was attempting to find happiness in an otherwise empty life through Buddhist philosophy and meditation and 85 people showed up for 2 days of learning the basics of meditation, drinking a lot of ginger-lemon tea, eating vegetarian food, and attempting silence during breaks from meditation. We learned that sitting for 10 hours at a time is hard, very hard, and calming the mind is even harder. About 20 people dropped out over the course of the 2 days, but we hung with it, and although I had some problems with falling asleep the first day, still recovering from the bus ride, and we both felt totally silly doing the walking meditation (picture 80 people pacing back and forth v-e-r-y slowly, focusing on each footfall), it was very interesting to get a little taste of what meditation is about and how much work it takes to maintain such a practice. It really requires being in a community where other people are doing the same thing, and Dharmasala is such a place, with streets crowded with monks and nuns with heads shaved and crimson and saffron robes, spinning meditation wheels as they walk, as well as Tibetan and westerners, lipping mantras as they thumb their prayer beads.

After 2 days of meditation, we really needed a rest, so we hung out and drank amazingly good coffee, chatted with other travelers and took a hatha yoga class with a 90-pound Indian guy named Vijay who has been teaching classes for years and did a nice mix of the yoga we are familiar with in the west and Indian-style yoga, which is more like rapid calisthenics and does not have the usual flow or narrative. Refreshed and recharged with plenty of western-style food (a nice break from thalis and chow mein), we decided to do one last hike. No guide required here (!) so we hiked 10 km up to a place called Triund where there was a small government-run guesthouse and 3 tea shops that make simple meals and rent tents to people who want to spend the night above Dharmasala, with beautiful views of the big mountains that tower over the town. We slept on mattresses on the floor of one of the back rooms of the guesthouse, had a lovely meal of veg-dal-rice, and woke up early the next morning to try to hike up to a pass at 4300 meters where the views of the valley on the other side were supposed to be stunning. Normally the trek takes several days and people hire a guide and camp at some caves higher up, but being us, we decided to shorten the trip and try for 1 day to summit and come back down.

For the first time on this 8-month adventure, and probably deservedly so, we encountered bad weather. The hike takes you pretty much straight up the mountain, covering 2000 meters in about 10 miles, and most of it is clambering over rocks and boulders to the top. We hit snowline and the rocks started to become icy and slippery, but we were getting closer and wanted to make it to the top. Every day before we hiked (and as it turned out, after as well) the weather was beautiful with sunny, clear skies until 2 or 3 in the afternoon when a mountain thunderstorm would hit and then clear again. The day we decided to attempt the pass, the skies never cleared and we were eventually walking in clouds and slipping on the snow and goat shit that riddled the path. About 50 meters from the top, I chickened out. We were wearing running shoes and I started to have feelings of impending doom. Just as we stopped and geared up to go down, the sky opened up with a huge crack of lightening right above our heads and poured down torrents of freezing rain/hail, creating little landslides of the icy balls and making everything more wet and slippery. Several hours, some tears and frozen fingers and 3 more giant rainstorms later, we were down, hiding under the plastic tarp of a tea shop, watching rain and thanking our stars that we made it down the sketchy slope without any falls. So, no view of the pass, but another adventure all the same.

The last few days in Dharmasala were spent with more yoga classes, more coffee, more eating, and plenty of chilling out. We took an Indian cooking class and learned how to make malai kofta, vegetable korma and chapatti and can’t wait to try the recipes out for you guys when we get back. We met a fun Aussie couple, a British couple who have lived in India for the past 20 years, and a ton of Israelis, many of whom get stuck in the town for weeks on end as they travel around the world. Guy found a Chabad House and went to Shabat dinner, and we both enjoyed pretty authentic falafel from an Indian guy named dudu.

We also visited the Dalai Lama’s residence and the main Buddhist temple, Tsung Lakhang that is a replica of the one that was in Tibet and houses images of different Buddhas. When you approach the temple there is a loud din of voices and we assumed it was Indian tourists, who in our experience make a lot of noise wherever they go. We were surprised to see the temple courtyard full of mostly Tibetan monks, although mixed in were some white monks and some women and men dressed in western clothes, all passionately arguing and discussing. They were broken up into pairs, with one sitting down and the other standing above, and they were punctuating their points with loud claps of the hands. We found out that Dharmasala houses a Tibetan Buddhist university that specializes in debate, and the students are given a topic daily. The clapping is done on a point that is particularly clever or intelligent. All this is done in Tibetan and is very lively. The café at the Dalai Lama residence happens to make delicious Roquefort cheese pizza as well, to our delight (and it's rumored that occasionally his holiness himself orders take-out!).

We finished up in Dharmasala with some gift shopping and clothes washing and boarded the same night bus, this time armed with Dramamine and Ambien, and landed back in the hot, dusty suburbs of Delhi to complete our last days in India with a trip to the Taj Mahal.
For more pics of Dharmasala and McLeod Ganj, click here.