There is a saying in Egypt that if you drink the water from the Nile, you’re sure to return. God knows what we drank in Singapore – it certainly wasn’t a delicious Basil Gin Gimlet or a refreshing pint of beer – but nary three months after returning to the US, we’re heading back.
Does this sound insane to you?
Travel was always in the cards. At one particularly gross apartment our wall furnishings included a massive paper map of the world. Each month as we saved money for our fantasy trip, we would color in a different country. Of course that map only lasted a few months before we were evicted and moved to our first real home – spending the travel money on increased rent and a couch that didn’t smell like the whorehouse that it came from (all of this is true).
Packing our bags and selling all of our earthly possessions (it’s amazing how many possessions you can accumulate in a real home) wasn’t a difficult decision. It may have been made rashly and without a lot of planning or concern for our likely living conditions, but it was an idea that had been percolating for years.
Moving to Singapore is more of a strategic decision than a dream.
We chose to backpack through Asia because it was cheap. Our colored-in wall map indicated that we had an estimated US $50 to spend everyday for travel, housing and food. We didn’t know our Shanghai Shakedown from a Singapore Sling but we wanted to explore what was out there.
Now knowing what’s out here – a booming economy and fabulous business opportunities- we’re going to stay for a while. It’s time to hang up our quick dry underwear and reclaim our rightful place as hardworking members of society. And with all this business going down, maybe we’ll be able to increase that daily budget.
Hello to our new life as Ex-Pats.
After one year and 13 days on the road, we are back in the U.S. of A. That doesn’t mean we’re settling down or even unpacking our bags. We’ll be continuing a little more life on the road, splitting our time between NY, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and friends who live somewhere in the middle.
Our trip was summed up nicely on arrival by our U.S. Immigration Officer. Upon inspecting our passports and flipping through the pages – he snarkily pointed out:
“You know, you’ve could’ve down this same tour for free in the 60’s….”
For the past 378 days we lived our dream, though at times we did wonder whose nightmare we were appearing in. We met fantastic, generous strangers and made friends at every step along the way. Thank you for your all for your support. And as Goenka would say:
More photos here.
These days there is an air about Cairo that is exciting to be around. People fill the street-side cafes, sipping tea, smoking shisha, and playing towla (backgammon). People are warm and inviting. They smile with a genuine satisfaction. When you cross the street, you are likely to have an Egyptian man escort you pass crazy drivers and give you a big “Welcome to Egypt” when you arrive safely on the other side.
People ask where you are from with genuine interest. They are proud of their country right now and want to make sure you are experiencing the best of it, even if that means grabbing you by the hand and personally showing you famous monuments and attractions.
I feel fortunate to be here at such a time of re-birth and national pride. I haven’t experienced anything like this in our travels. It’s not frequently that a democracy is ‘born’ (and through non-violence no less). And it can’t be certain that a free democracy is inevitable as Egypt is still in purgatory between the revolution and elections next spring. If you ask people on the ground about presidential contenders, there is no strong figure that stands out that they wish to elect, though the mood is optimistic and you’ll hear “Anything is better than Mubarak!”
You gotta fight to party!
On our second night in Cairo, we were sitting at a packed outdoor cafe (alongside dozens like it, lining an alleyway). A football match was playing on TV screens up and down the street. After the match, all the cafe owners scrambled to move the tables and chairs inside. As it was 1am, we assumed it was closing time. But we soon overheard shouting and asked a local what was going on. The military was trying to issue a curfew and began marching down the street, instructing shop owners to move tables and chairs inside. This was met with angry shouts from patrons and soon a demonstration was forming – pushing the military back and out of the alley! Hundreds of bystanders became demonstrators (including us) and chants and shouts had a mix of anger and smiles. Citizens pushed out the men in uniform sporting face masks and machine guns. Finally congregating in a square which became ground for a larger demonstration with more people, megaphones, and cameras (tons of cameras)
There is a feeling (both noticeable and verbally *said*) that the “people” control the military and the police. When asked if demonstrations ever get out of hand or violent, one youthful group replied “No, we wouldn’t let that happen, we would step in to stop it.” When we replied, ‘isn’t that the police’s job?‘ they said “The country belongs to the people and the military works for us.”
In addition to freedom, there is this sense of “ownership” that the people have over their country (that should permeate through any democracy), but I have never felt such a deep sense of ownership like I felt in Cairo. It’s amazing and we’re fortunate to be here right now, because as somebody from a country spouting to be the greatest democracy in the world – i’ve never come across this level of democratic emotion and I don’t think it can last forever.
The Pincer Movement
On our last night, we learned about the two phased approach of demonstrations that were going on during the revolution. The first is what we all watched on our TVs, hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir square, protesting peacefully in the wake of violent lashes from Mubarak. However, there was a second movement happening off the screen. The military and police fully encircled the square for days so that supplies, like basic food, water, blankets, etc. could not be easily be brought in – and thereby weaken the protesters. Also, as with any volatile movement, there was the risk of looting through Cairo as many shop owners were in the square. So bands of youths came together to be interim village police and protect the community. They would form groups on each block to make sure nobody was looting nor causing trouble – as the police were hoping to encourage this behavior and have the people take themselves down.
It’s an amazing feeling on the ground right now. Egypt is safe, welcoming, friendly, and undergoing a transformation that you may only get to see once in a lifetime!
The fastest way to gain a few pounds is to tell a Malaysian that you enjoyed the food in Singapore. Immediately you will be forcibly carted off to a century old noodle restaurant to discover just how much beef and broth you can possibly fit in your stomach. And while your trying in vain to digest your first meal, your Malaysian hosts begin to cast aspirations that the next meal might be even better. Not two hours later you find out that dreams can come true, then you fall into a deep Thanksgiving-worthy coma only to be roused for an ice cream.
An extra five pounds is certainly preferable to a fist in the face, which is what might happen when you start drinking in South America.
The fastest way to make an enemy in Peru is to mention that their national drink, Pisco Sour, is originally from Chile. And no matter how much you kick back in Chile never insinuate that, technically, the grape brandy in their favorite tipple originated in Peru. In fact, don’t talk at all, just shut up and enjoy that frothy bitter sweet concoction sent down from the Gods of alcohol.
Food and drink are heated topics worldwide, every country believes that their food is the absolute best. (And they’re all wrong, the award for best food in the world has already been given to San Francisco.) As usual the Middle East brings some very impassioned, very loud voices to the great food debate.
In the Middle East this dish isn’t doomed to linger on the appetizer list. It’s not a dip or a salad or a less-fattening alternative to mayo on your sandwich. Hummus is a meal meant to tide a working man over from morning to night. Huge steaming bowls of creamy, olive oil soaked chickpeas are served alongside massively fluffy, steaming hot pita and perhaps some deep fried falafel.
It takes a lot of work to arrive at point where you can lift the last bit of bread and wipe it across the naked bowl to make certain that the last vestiges of hidden hummus are properly consumed. Most westerners can simply not eat that many beans in one sitting.
BUT I CAN.
Hummus scooped with raw onions and crunchy pickles. Hummus covered with fuul or whole chick peas. Hummus served with meat, hummus with mushrooms, hummus with tahina. I ate it all. Everyday. That is, until I discovered just how many calories a blue-collar bowl of hummus contains. A lot.
I refuse to state which (non-)country had the ultimate bowl of this deliciousness for fear of destabilizing the entire region and causing The Great Hummus War.
And because I’m such a peace loving person let me warn you now: no matter where you eat this be careful how you say it. It turns out that my American accented “hum-us” sounds suspiciously like “Hamas” in Arabic…
When I was 20 years old I spent the summer in Spain. One week a friend and I took the ferry across Gibraltar to the port town of Tangiers in Morocco. When we disembarked there was a hoard of men waiting to descend upon the fresh faced backpackers on board. They screamed at us, “You’re not in Europe anymore! This is AFRICA!”
And I was scared.
I felt very similarly as I took the bus to the Israeli border and walked up to the imposing 26 foot high security wall, continued through the intricate set of turnstiles and down a chain-link fence alley way into Palestine with nary a security check or someone at the border to approve my passage.
In my mind I was thinking, “You’re not in Israel anymore. This is PALESTINE!”
But instead of PALESTINE! I found Bethlehem, a quiet little town surviving from the trickle of tourists that make it across the border. Tour buses of people come to visit the site of Christ’s birth, to kiss his star and absorb some of the holiness that might still lingering in the air. I did this too but after saying my respects to baby Jesus, I wandered around the city streets looking for signs of PALESTINE.
Instead I found love, peace and Banksy!
Bethleham is just too small, I reasoned. It’s not the “real” Palestine. It’s not the place of malcontents and keffiyeh wearing radicals waiting for statehood. The next day I once again crossed the border, this time into the de-facto capital of the West Bank.
A young Israeli soldier with reflective glasses, heavy black boots and a large automatic weapon boarded the bus to check our papers. Seeing my passport, he studied me.
“This is the bus for Ramallah.”
“Yes,” I responded in my most polite, deferring to authority voice.
“You want to go to Ramallah?!”
“Yes,” with a little less certainty.
In a deep, serious voice he said,”Be very careful”
His words reinforced what I believed, that I am heading to a dangerous place. I am going to find PALESTINE!
I was mentally prepared. I imagined refugee camps, a smattering of chaperoned women with babies and angry men openly carrying guns wandering the rubble strewn streets. I fantasized that my blatant American accent would insight an Anti-American riot culminating with a chorus of bearded men shouting “ku-lu-lu-lu” and shooting machine guns into the air as I was shoved in a van and whisked away to be held for a ransom that was never to be paid. Or at the very least I would get some hostile looks.
So two things should be obvious: one, I clearly have an overactive imagination and two, none of this happened.
Instead of a poorly developed, poverty stricken town, Ramallah is a lively, bustling city overflowing with men, women and children. Ice cream parlors filled with families line the street and jam packed shawarma restaurants are busting at the seams with teenagers on cell phones. The foot traffic on the sidewalk swelled into the street where taxis, buses and the odd new model Audi struggle to move an inch.
There is no sign of rubble or collapsed buildings. Instead you see store upon store and the streets filled with things to buy. Outside the open air malls mannequins with headscarves and full-length grey trench coats stand next to piles of sneakers and lipstick. Nuts, dried fruit and gummy bears sit in huge barrels. It’s nearly impossible to resist the siren call of freshly roasted coffee that wafts from every other shop entrance.
Instead of a rowdy, unemployed youth and angry, radicalized machine-toting men, each and every person I met was unerringly polite. “You’re from America?” they repeated after learning my homeland. This was quickly followed with “You are welcome here!” or “Welcome to Palestine!”
I walked through the refugee neighborhoods and peered into the homes clearly equipped with the modern basics. I wandered the markets and lingered around the male dominated tea-and-hooka stalls. I searched high and low for assurance that I was indeed in that famous non-state, the center of conflict in the middle east. Instead I found myself in a peaceful, modern, and distinctly Arab city.
I was in Ramallah just days before Abbas headed to the UN to ask for statehood and when my own government was thwarting that effort. I am amazed at how Middle Easterners – from Jordan to Egypt – have separated the person from the politics.
It’s intimidating to break out of your comfort zone; no one wants to find out that their assumptions or their stereotypes are misguided. I’ve continued to confront the fact that ‘Arab’ doesn’t mean radical, the Middle East isn’t all bombs over Baghdad and perhaps what I’m sure I “know” is just something I heard on the news.
(My camera broke falling off of that bus to Ramallah so I borrowed the most accurate pics I could find of that city. Here are some shots of Bethlehem.)
Jerusalem is a heavy destination.
For Jews it’s the cornerstone of the world, the location of the Holy of the Holies and where your prayers go straight to heaven. For Christians these are the streets where Christ walked, where he healed the blind, ate his last supper and eventually died for the sins of the world. For Muslims it’s the third holiest city after Mecca and Medina, where Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The city was destroyed by the Romans, sought after by the crusaders and remains a core issue in the Israeli-Palenstian conflict.
This is SERIOUS SHIT.
Entering the city walls is like entering a spiritual vortex where millenia of religious struggle weighs upon you. And then there are the guns. Lots and lots of guns.
Groups of Orthodox Christians dressed in bright colors and headscarves wander alongside orthodox Jews with huge black hats and curly sideburns who brush past Muslim women covered in all-encompassing black dresses. Everywhere you look there is a different sect, a different set of beliefs, a different uniform, a different way of worshiping God.
At every church, every temple, every wall there was a person covering their face, crying, or rubbing their religious accoutrements against a holy stone, or kissing the building. Groups of tourists carry a huge cross to recreate Christ’s final steps. They stop along the way to drop their cross in the same place where Jesus fell for the first time or pause to pray at the place where he met his mother.
It was a lot to take in and the intensity of this religious furor left me depleted and bewildered. I expected to feel some connection, some familiarity with the rites and rituals of my upbringing. Instead I felt as confused as I was when I cleansed my soul in the Ganges, entered the Masjid Negara or meditated my way towards enlightenment. It all felt foreign to me.
And mixed in with all that religion, politics is simmer just underneath the surface. Little kids run around aiming plastic pistols at each other. Gates to the Temple Mount are guarded by men with machine guns and when they see a non-muslim heading to entrance, they block the path with their gun. All religions are allowed to the Western wall, but to get there you pass through metal detectors. Groups of Israeli soldiers with guns mill around the plaza.
There are way too many guns in what is supposed Holy Land.
Squabbles between different sects of Christianity is not unheard of. Five different groups of Christians claim ownership of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site where Christ was crucified – and run the site by ‘status quo.’ Everyone must agree before changes are made to any common area but agreements rarely happen. There is ladder from construction that took place in the 19th century still leaning against the building. The can’t agree to move it.
I spent several days wandering the old city contemplating WHAT DOES THIS MEAN. Surrounded by all that religious piety and political tension, I felt exhausted and not at all uplifted.
Finally I decided that it doesn’t mean anything – it’s OK that I don’t want to carry the cross down the Via Dolorosa or believe that my prayers at the Western wall go straight to God. It was enough to be there and witness, once again, the diversity that exists in our world and remember that I don’t have to understand everything.
So after four days in Jerusalem, I said a prayer for my Grandma and I felt comforted by this quote from the 14th Dalai Lama,
I don’t think there could ever be just one single philosophy or one single religion. Since there are so many different types of people, with a range of tendencies and inclinations, it is quite fitting that there are differences between religions. And the fact that there are so many different descriptions of the religious path shows how rich religion is.”
(Pics of my first few days, no photos of the temple mount because my camera fell out of the bus and broke.)
Heading to an Arab country for the first time is a little intimidating, particularly for a single, American woman. “They don’t like modern women!” people warned, “be careful and don’t walk around alone.” Among other impractical advice I was told to: Cover your head! Don’t talk to men! Say you’re from Canada!
I arrived prepared.
At the airport in Amman I was ready for lascivious, predatory taxi drivers and questioning stares from burka clad women. My guard was up: shoulders back, reflective sunglasses firmly in place and Beyonce loudly cheering me on in my headphones.
Perhaps my guard was too firmly in place. A man waiting outside the airport attempted to help me – to sell me a ticket, direct me to the next bus and place my bag in a pile of other luggage. In return he received a stern dressing down, replete with finger pointing and accusations that he was either overcharging me or attempting to steal my only possessions. The words, “My Husband!” and “Italian Mafia!” may have have been thrown around.
It turns out that he was the bus driver.
He had clearly heard the accusations before because he calmly pointed to his price list and time schedule. The bus left 20 minutes later with my belongings firmly secured in the back of the locked trunk. This was my first indication that my expectations may be off the mark.
This was confirmed the longer I stayed in Jordan.
On the street strangers would approach me, wanting to know where I came from and why I was traveling alone. Instead of the ardently anti-American refrain that I had prepared for, each and every person gave a huge smile and proclaimed, “Welcome to my country!” -or- “You’re American? You’re welcome here!”
It wasn’t just the absence of anti-western sentiment that surprised me; the most difficult aspects of travel – bargaining, transportation, and avoiding touts- were far easier in Jordan than in Asia. The word ‘No!’ actually works in Jordan! Bargaining was as simple as saying, “I’ll only give you 50cents for that bottle of water.” Cabs readily turned on their meters and the only guide who offered his services was a 75 year old homeless man.
In fact, the only problem was that too many people wanted to help me. Women on the bus made certain that I paid the correct amount and counted my change. Cars would slow down to ask if I was lost or if I needed help. Everywhere I went men warned against other men, “watch for dangerous guys at the beach! Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you..”
Confronted with all this kindness, I left Jordan with the feeling that I was missed out on the best part of this country. I felt that I couldn’t accept this genuine hospitality because I was a single woman and it might give the wrong impression.
Every night I relaxed at the same restaurant and every night after serving his tables my very gentile waiter would invite me to join him at his table for dinner. I really wanted to sit with him, to ask questions and hear about his life. Instead every night I declined – smiling demurely, sitting all alone, enjoying my second sweet mint tea. I knew this man wasn’t interested in me romantically but I didn’t sit with him because I didn’t want to give his friends the wrong idea.
I am the type of person to say ‘Yes!’ and I enjoy finding myself in unusual, interesting, and exciting circumstances – the very experiences that have made this trip so memorable. But in Jordan I felt that I didn’t have that luxury. Although I felt incredibly safe, it was clear that I was in a man’s world and that there were specific gender roles that I needed to follow.
I enjoyed my time in Jordan – it’s safe, stunning and full of warm, welcoming people. But to really enjoy every minute and take advantage of every opportunity, it helps to bring a friend.
The first month in India we drove through several towns in the southwest of the country, each very similar in their (lack of) general infrastructure. On poorly repaired streets cows competed for dominance with tractors, over-sized trucks and sedans that were packed with families. In the downtown areas tiny homes with corrugated roofing leaned against crumbling buildings; everything seemed to be in a general state of disrepair. And there were people everywhere, in the road, sleeping in truck beds or lounging on top of moving vehicles. It felt like life was on the edge of chaos – the crowds, the traffic, the poverty were overwhelming.
Every time we left for a new city I would think, “OK, this next city will be different. There will be fewer people, better roads, more development.” But that never really happened and after a while I lost that sense of expectation and became accustomed to India. Not just accustomed, we joined in, becoming active participants in a life filled with constant stimulation.
Gradually we developed an ever-present state of preparedness – we were constantly ready to face the onslaught of traffic, prepared for the crush of humanity that you face while getting on the train and geared up to fight off the touts, the vendors and the beggars. We became numb to the sorry state of garbage disposal, readily accepted the abject poverty and eventually enjoyed bargaining for each and everything we purchased. Instead of all the insanity, we simply saw why ‘India is Incredible!’ and enjoyed the ride.
And then we left.
Our flight landed in Dubai, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. We stared at the gleaming marble floors, the crisp reflection in the spotless mirrors and the heavy sense of quiet. Instead of talking in normal tones, we whispered, uncertain of the rules in this pristine new environment. In the hotel we marveled at the hot water and called the front desk to learn if we were allowed to flush toilet paper in the toilet (yes, you can).
Outside we were faced with a resounding lack of car horns, no one was proudly inviting us into his store, or gazing up at us, motioning for food. No one pushed against us to rush out the door or crowded us at the ATM. Where were the people, the animals, the LIFE?
Suddenly, we deflated. We went into withdrawal. The adrenaline that kept us pumped for months drained away leaving a shell of exhaustion. We acted like accident victims who could only look at each other and say, “Did that really happen!?”
Yes, I believe it really did.
It’s appropriate that we finish our trip in the one city that most embodies the beauty, the history and the insanity that is India – Varanasi.
Oh my God, Varanasi.
It’s impossible to translate the utter shock, dismay and overwhelming fascination that you feel when confronted with this place that’s “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” (Thanks Mark Twain!)
This is the famed city where the faithful come to die so their spirit can be released from the cycle of birth and death. Where male family members cremate their loved ones in open funeral pyres and scattered their ashes into the Ganga. The very same water where thousands of people dip to cleanse their souls and wash their laundry. Where toxic runoff from local factories mix with cow excrement and untreated human sewage to form a potent brown liquid with 120 times the level of fecal bacteria permitted by international safety standards.
We woke up early to visit the flooded ghats. Stairs leading down to the bathing area were covered with water and lonely traffic signs in the river marked the height of the monsoon rains. We gazed at the current for a few minutes before spotting a large tree trunk floating our way, hitting into boats and getting caught in the fishing wire. The tree moved closer, it’s flexible branches spread in a distinctly familiar position, wrapped in what looked like gauze… What is that? Could is be? Is it possible?
The tree rushed closer to the bathing ghats where several people were washing and drinking the water. The tree slowly came into focus. We blinked. Nooooo…. It was not a tree. IT WAS A BODY. An uncremated, decaying, human body floated down the water, brushing against the pier where we stood, staring slack jawed in shock.
It was at this moment that we decided that we would NOT be joining the bathers as they dipped in the most polluted river in the world.
The next few days were no less interesting. We wandered around ancient alleys, maneuvering around massive cows and into crowds of colorfully dressed pilgrams carrying bottles of dirty brown river water. Skinny sadhus and gregarious holy men approached, asking for food or money, dabbing your forehead with color or shoving a basket of hissing cobras in your direction. Images of Lord Shiva were painted on every surface, flower offerings and remnants of milk colored the narrow walkways. People stood with their heads bowed, lighting candles at small shrines or smoked charras in front of the tall temples that line the river.
The monsoon rains poured down and the Ganges rose to meet the flood water on the street. We walked through the knee deep brown rapids trying not to think about the potential for water borne illness.
In this crush of humanity, with cows, traffic jams and millions of people, it was impossible to forget the reason why we were all here: the spectacle of life and death.
The sandalwood smoke from the funeral pyres drifted over the city, through the ancient walkways and temples. The alleyways spread between two burning ghats, a walk in either direction would eventually pass by the very open display of life passing from it’s physical form into ashes. Beside the burning ghats, children climbed the massive trees that were soon going to be sold for fire wood. At the water men carried their dead loved ones for their final bath in the Ganges. And in the street, right in front of your eyes, fire envelopes what used to be a living person. A foot turns brown, curling backwards as it’s reduced to charred bone. The untouchable man whose family has been burning bodies for centuries pokes at a wayward arm, returning it into the flames.
Varanasi marks the end of our time in India, it’s truly the culmination of everything that we’ve witnessed in this country. A place where striking poverty blends with unparalleled color and beauty. Where life screams past you in a rickshaw and death is just a part of the journey. No matter what God you believe in, he’s waiting for you in a temple, at a shrine or under a Bodhi tree in India.
And let’s not forget those Holy Cows.
If I were to tell you a tale of a modern day warriors with massive turbans carrying swords who pray at a temple made of gold, you may think that I’ve been overindulging on the pot pakoras. But clearly you’ve never been to Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and their gorgeous Golden Temple, an architectural success that according to people in the know, rivals the Taj Mahal.
Religious sites as a tourist destination can be a little tricky. Of course you’re not entirely familiar with the rites and rituals so it’s easy to make a mistake, (ie: accepting the offering with your left hand at the Mahalakshmi Temple in Bombay. Or accidentally joining the men on their side of the temple at Wu Wei Si. Or letting the shawl drop from your bare shoulders during lunch at Vipassana.) Most of the time people ignore you, sometimes people correct you and occasionally people clearly do not want you there.
The Golden Temple may be the most inviting religious destination in the world. Sikh’s are huge believers in equality and everyone – EVERYONE – is invited to visit their temple, listen to the continuous chanting and -best of all- sit down and enjoy a meal as a community. At the langar (canteen) Sikh’s demonstrate their belief in equality, sharing and community by feeding everyone at the free kitchen.
Over 35,000 people every day eat at the Golden Temple!
It must be said: The Golden Temple is stunning, it’s magnificent, it’s a masterpiece. But the thing that I loved most about my visit to Amritsar was the inclusive, inviting atmosphere in the langar.
Hundreds of people stream in and out of the entrance. As you walk in a man in huge turban hands you a metal plate and points you down the line where someone is waiting with a bowl and another person with your silverware. All around you sit groups of volunteers. They’re chopping onions and mincing garlic. The smell hits your eyes and you can do nothing but follow the crowd, blinded by the immediate tears. You ears tingle from the continuous din of metal trays being washed, dried and thrown into a pile.
People surround you, jostling, pushing you into the canteen as soon as the doors are opened. Everyone runs for a spot on the freshly washed floor and even before the entire crowd enters, servers are tossing chapatti and ladling spicy dal onto waiting trays. The food is served until everyone is full – but this happens quickly. Another group of hungry people are already pushing at the door and men with buckets and brooms are heading your way to wash the floor you’re sitting on.
Many religions preach about tolerance and charity, about feeding the poor or helping the needy but Sikh’s put their money where their mouth is. It’s amazing to walk into a temple and be welcomed not just with hymns and icons but with a smile and a steaming cup of tea.
The word Kashmir brings to mind two totally unrelated thoughts, one being the famous song by Led Zepplin and the other being a horrifically dangerous militarized border between India and Pakistan. Neither are wrong, except for the fact that the song ‘Kashmir’ was written about Morocco and this year things are pretty peaceful in the region.
This has been one of the more confusing parts of India. Huge swaths of barbed wire cover buildings where sandbag barriers and men with machine guns stand at attention as you walk past. Graffiti in the old town shouts “Go India, Go Home!” and oddly, “Pakistan!” (Oddly because Kashmir wants autonomy, not to be part of Pakistan.)
While trying to judge the security situation, we were also confronted with the most stunningly tranquil scene in all of India. Dal Lake is the center of tourist activity where intricately carved house boats line the shore and families pile into smaller shakira boats for a relaxing afternoon floating along enjoying a little shopping, a shave or a meal all from their bed on board.
Kashmir is heavily reliant on tourist dollars and with the recent unrest those dollars have dried up. Kashmiris are clearly trying to rebuild the image of Srinagar as a summer capital where wealthy Indians can come to relax. But even while trying to put on a positive face animosity lingers behind the smile.
People were very quick to tell you about their troubles with the Indian government, about the number of Kashmiris killed in last year’s unrest and how oppressive the military presence is in their daily life. Then in the next breath they will present a huge smile and ask when you’re planning to return.
Kashmir felt like one big emotional contradiction: safe and peaceful on one hand, simmering animosity and violence on the other. In a situation so tense and straight up confusing the only thing I can say is that after just a few days I was ready to leave and sad to go.
When we mentioned to a friend that we planned to travel to Leh and he became super animated and excited for us. “Beautiful! Leh is beautiful. But it has one problem.” In all seriousness he said, “Leh lacks oxygen.”
Leh is tiny Buddhist city nestled in the Himalaya mountains. The entire city is bathed in searing light and the white stone buildings glow against the mountain desert. Gompas, prayer flags and stupas line dot the barren landscape. Monks and women carrying prayer wheels walk in the shade of the huge Potala replica that looms over the city.
It’s a stunning site but our friend was right. You absolutely can not breathe.
It’s difficult to catch your breath as you casually stroll downhill. Simple things like showering too vigorously can send your head into a spin. I constantly found myself trying to take huge gulps of air and panicking when I couldn’t fill my lungs. It’s not uncommon to spot a tourist sitting on the side of the road, eyes bulging, chest heaving, trying their best to simply breathe.
So in that environment the only thing we could think to do was TAKE IT UP ANOTHER 1,500 KM!
Vin and I teamed up with a few Frenchies and an Englishman to form team ‘Full Power!’
India has many, many amazing expressions. In casual conversation people will bust out with things like, “No worry, no hurry. No chicken, no curry” and the ever popular “First Class!” (Vinnie heard this the street everyday. Someone would call out to him, “Boss! That is a FIRST CLASS mustache!”) One of the most famed Indianism has to be “FULL POWER!” Anything and everything worth buying/eating/visiting/seeing was FULL POWER!
So on the way when the car broke down, we continued on with FULL POWER!
When we hit a swiftly flowing river, we found a way to cross it with FULL POWER!
When the dizzies set in and we nearly fell off a cliff, team FULL POWER was there to help!
The hike had no trail markers instead we were told to follow the path of donkey crap to find our way. Surprisingly this worked. Donkeys and their droppings were are hiking partners the entire climb and honestly, they are the only creatures cut out for moving at this altitude.
Our first day of hiking ended at a nearly empty Ladakhi village 4,000 meters above sea level. Giant stone stupas lined the path to the village where the 50 villagers poked their heads out of their mud homes and welcomed us with smiles. It’s always amazing to realize how many cultural divides can be crossed with just a smile.
We spent the night sleeping on a mattress on the dirt floor in the home of a young family. After a fantastic dinner of potato and spinach momos (Love those momos!) we settled in for the night, only to be abruptly woken by the frightening bray of a donkey. And then the screech of a goat. And the wail of several unidentified animals. It was the soundtrack to a horror film or noises heard nowhere else but a delivery room. Clearly we are not farm folks.
It turns out we’re not billy goats either and the next day of a vertical hiking proved very, very difficult.
We started out early, aimlessly walking through a vast valley surrounded by soaring cliffs. How were were expected to cross? There was no break in the vertical wall of mountain, no pass or even a smaller looking mountain.
Our eyes did not deceive us. We walked over a vertical kilometer to the top of the Stok mountain pass. In the thin air, on a tiny gravel path used by donkeys and criminally insane backpackers.
We walked until we had to climb. Then we climbed until we had to crawl using every muscle to propel our bodies up another foot. We gave it a FULL POWER effort but every five minutes one of us would collapse to the ground, gasping for breath, fighting the dizzies and trying to stay on the path. We were in constant danger of passing out and rolling off a cliff.
It took four hours to reach the top. And I would love to say that once at the peak we enjoyed the sweet smell of success but honestly we couldn’t breathe at all. It wasn’t until we had walked down a good 1,500 meters before enough oxygen hit out brain and we basked in the euphoria of walking to the top of the world.
At that point we gave out a scream that echoed from the mountains that once again surrounded us. “FULL POWER!!”