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.
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).
Kris moving to SF in 2006
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.
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.
All smiles until you mention the pisco!
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.
My favorite meal
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.
Hummus in Jordan
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 with Fuul
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.
There is only one dish on this menu - HUMMUS!
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!”
As seen from Israel
Show no fear!
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.
Church of the nativity - The manger had a facelift
Give baby Jesus a big kiss!
Instead I found love, peace and Banksy!
Olive branch 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!
"Take my picture!"
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!”
Peace in the Middle East, yo!
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.)
“Take my picture!”
Treasure hunt sucessful!
Peace in the Middle East, yo!
Olive branch Banksy
But somewhere it’s setting, I’m pretty sure
A redditor made his way to Palestine
Si se puede!
This is why I’m fat
Palestine and Jesus, a match made in the holy land
Arafat is watching you!
Give baby Jesus a big kiss!
Baby Jesus star
A very solemn birthplace
Church of the Nativity
Church of the nativity – The manger had a facelift
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.)
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.
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.
Chillin at the Red Sea in Aqaba
A beautiful sight worth 800 steps in the searing sun
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?
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!?”
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.
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.
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.
Through the flood and into the river we go!
Smoking Charras for Shiva
Offerings for Shiva
Ironing clothes on the side of the street
Time for a Tiny Chai!
The news is less fascinating that reality in Varanasi
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
Beautiful Breathtaking Leh
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.
Prayer wheels and cell phones
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.
Mini Potala Palace in Leh
So in that environment the only thing we could think to do was TAKE IT UP ANOTHER 1,500 KM!
Need LESS Oxygen!
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!
The trip starts off well...
When we hit a swiftly flowing river, we found a way to cross it with FULL POWER!
FULL POWER river crossing!
When the dizzies set in and we nearly fell off a cliff, team FULL POWER was there to help!
Team Full Power!
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.
Don't get stuck downwind!
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.
Family house in Rumback
The village water supply
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.
The road to nowhere
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.
Keeping our energy up during the climb
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!!”
Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.
One lane road high in the sky - without a guardrail
Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?
Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.
Rishikesh to Manali – 19.5 hours of public bus battering One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.
Public bus. Yes, I'm serious.
It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.
Our happy face
Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.
The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.
Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours
Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.
We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)
One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…
But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain. The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days. Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh. This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.
So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.
Home for the night!
That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.
Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours
Leh to Srinagar: OMG!It’s love!
One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.
Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!
Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.
Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.
Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.
Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!
Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror
Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.
That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.
Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day
Public bus unrination
Hello machine guns!
Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable
Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!
On the road again.
76 hours later: Denoument
Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”
No this bridge did not scare me. It should have though..
Rishikesh is famous for several reasons: for yogis Rishikesh is the world capital of Yoga, for Shaivas it’s the location of a holy 12 km pilgrimage from the Ganges to a famous temple and for Beatles fans Rishikesh is where the Fab Four discovered transcendental meditation and wrote the BEST ALBUM EVER.
The Beatles with Sexy Sadie
The Beatles stayed in Rishikesh for several months where they zenned out, wrote music and chowed down on pure veg food. Rumor has is that the Ringo hated the food and left early – he was probably as constipated as were are after a week of eating nothing but dal.
The other members of the band left after a falling out with their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The song Sexy Sadie, originally titled ‘Maharishi’, was inspired by the departure from the Ashram.
The place where nothing is real
The Beatles put Rishikesh in the hippie guidebook but these days you will only find monkeys living on the property. Chaurasi Kutia Ashram has been closed since the mid-nineties and has receded back to the wild. There are huge signs across the front gate warning against trespassing. Rumors abound that the gate is guarded by a bribe-accepting official but we didn’t see anyone so we jumped the wall.
The fool on the hill
Sexie Sadie, you broke the rules!
The path in front of us was overgrown with flowers and weeds, the air was still and it was 41 degrees. Although this might not seem like the setting to a ghost story, it sure felt like one. India is not a quiet country and the silence surrounded us. I was sure that we were soon to be accosted by a crazed Beatles-loving hippie, government employee or the ghost of John Lennon. It was creepy.
Well here's another place you can go, where everthing flows
Only waiting for this moment to be free
The entire Ashram is runover and crumbling. One story stone igloos that were once set amongst the woods have now become part of the forest. Larger residential buildings were crumbling, rooms were full of glass and naked electrical wires. Beatles graffiti decorated everything. Paths laced with spider webs and thorn bushes led to frustrating dead ends. We hiked the property for hours, not really sure what we were looking for or understanding what we we found.
Follow close or you're gonna lose that girl!
I Look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
On top of a large compound of buildings sat squat white cones structures with ladders leading the the very top. From this perch on top of the world you could see from the small clusters of igloos on the property all the way to the Ganges and beyond to the mountains in the distance.
Looking through the bend back tulips to see how the other half live
Kristine in the sky without her diamonds
We were just two of the millions of Beatles fans have trekked to Rishikesh to find the Maharishi Mahesh ashram and somehow it felt like we had discovered something new and exciting. Perhaps we felt this way because there are no directions to this place, as if it’s some hidden secret. We searched for hours trying to find a map, a guide or instructions on how to find this ashram before finding it just 500 meters from our room.
So here you go, here are the directions to the Beatles Ashram.
The road to the Beatles Ashram
Walk across the foot bridge to the Swarg Ashram area of town. Continue along the water, passing Parmarth Niketan ashram and the bathing ghats. Walk beyond the Sri Ved Niketan ashram and keep going even when the road turns to dirt and the cows outnumber people.
You're on the right path!
From here you will see the sign pointing towards the Beatles Ashram (it’s about 1/2 mile from the foot bridge). When the road ends at the beach, turn left. Soon you will see the gates to the Beatles Ashram on your right. Enjoy!
This blog documented our year long adventure as backpackers in 2010 & 2011. We are now living in Singapore and we still travel - but now we have a bit more baggage! You can find us at @Krissymo and @vlauria.