Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive September, 2011
Are you there God? It's me, Kristine.

Are you there God? It’s me, Kristine.

Jerusalem is a heavy destination.

Mount of Olives

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.

Site of Christ's cruxification and entombment

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.

Virgin Mary in her Church

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.

Tourists recreating Christ's crucifixion

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.

Streets of Jerusalem

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.

The Western wall (The Waiting wall)

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.)

All The Single Ladies!

All The Single Ladies!

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.

Amman, Jordan

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.

Petra!

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.

Saving me from car troubles!

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!”

Latest fashion in Amman

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..”

Mud bath at the Dead Sea

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.

The world's tallest flagpole

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.

So this is exhaustion...

So this is exhaustion…

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.

Rickshaw race, day 2

Breakdown on the side of the highway

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.

Waiting room of a train station

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.

Traffic in Calcutta

The safe way to cross railroad tracks

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).

It's the Burj!

Fake islands. Pristine beaches. Manicured lawns. WHAT IS THIS?

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?

Hello India!

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.

Big Love from India

 

The Spectacle of Life and Death

The Spectacle of Life and Death

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.

Alleys of 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!)

Shiva the Destroyer!

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.

Bathers in the Ganga

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?

This is exactly what it looks like

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.

Crazy Baba!

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.

Flood!

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.

Cremation Ghat

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.

Wood at the cremation ghat

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.

The free lunch

The free lunch

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.

The Golden Temple

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.

Nightly prayers before putting the book to bed

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!

Food for everyone!

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.

Volunteers chopping the veggies

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.

The Production Line

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.

I am a traveler of both time and space

I am a traveler of both time and space

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.

Gorgeous Srinagar

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.)

What are they trying to say?

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.

Shakira Shakira!

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.

What do we want! Freedom!

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.

View from the boat