Excerpt from my journal:
Day 1 December 8, 2015
We arrived in Mumbai at an unglodly hour this morning. I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. I felt like I was sleepwalking my way through the airport when we stumbled upon a well dressed man with a nice watch and slicked back hair. He called us over with a nod and we followed him to what they call a "pre paid taxi" meaning a big fat rip off. We accidentally paid $35 to go a few miles to the train station. We needed to purchase a ticket to go to Delhi today. It was much cheaper to fly into Mumbai and take a train and I was also eager to train travel in India. I read this incredible book a few months ago called Around India in 80 trains about a writer with Indian heritage who decides to explore India via train to get back to her roots. You can get almost anywhere in India by train. They even have this medical train that drives through low income areas and picks people up to do minor surgeries for them at no cost.
Already, this train travel has not disappointed. The station ceiling seemed to reach far up into the sky with beams stretching back and forth like big friendly welcoming arms calling you into the magnificently vast space. Trains honking their horns. The smell of samosas and steam permeating your nostrils as the gold and red colors pop and explode the senses. I felt like my head was buzzing as we quickly paced towards our AC3 class compartment.
As we walked from our hotel where we slept for the day leading up to our departure at 5, Chris stopped to gawk at the delightful array of street food decorating the sidewalk. Samosas, real fresh squeezed juices, chick peas--oh my! There was all the fresh food one could ever hope for. We are in vegetarian heaven.We stopped for a dish of which I am unsure of the name. There was a giant bowl of flaky brown crusted shells. The kind fellow took six of them and first, one by one, inserted small amounts of potato into the shells. Then he added chickpeas cooked in a curry sauce and brilliant spices plus a yoghurt sauce drizzled over the top. Indian street food is an art form.
Our first driver ripped us off but our second driver was a saint. He had blue green eyes and wore all white. For a small price he helped us buy our train ticket and drove us to a cheap hotel to sleep in for the day.
Now, as Chris sits across from me I am contemplating what this journey means for me, for us, how it will potentially effect our future and what it will teach us.
We are sharing our train compartment with two Indian men and an Ethiopian. One quiet but distinguished looking fellow with the staple Indian mustache, big bushy eyebrows, and silver hair. One congenial family man who owns a bookstore in Dheli and is writing a book about education in India. The Ethiopian is dark skinned with a beard lining his chin. He holds beads in his hands and smiles often. He told us about the knowledge of Islam and how it is like a flicker of a flame that lights up a dark room and fills it with the power of sight. He stands to my right chanting prayers as I write. He bathes often by going to the train's sink and wetting his arms and legs. To my left the sun is low in the sky like a tangerine you feel you could reach out and take a bite of it's so close. The orange light illuminates the tips of the surrounding mountains, casting reflections on the water as rays of light dance along the river speeding by us. We will arrive in Delhi by morning and who knows what's to come next.
Our itinerary for the trip.There is a school break between December 1st to mid January in Africa. For our time off, Chris and I decided prior to coming that we would pursue our shared dream of visiting India and Nepal. My suggestion to any future volunteers would be to buy your plane tickets for the school break prior to coming. It was a big pain to try and purchase tickets with our cards when we are in Africa but our server registers as being in Spain.
Prior to when we flew out of Dar Es Salaam we spent a few days camping on a beach at an abandoned resort called Silver Sands. The resort seemed to be functioning without any rooms or management. The sign was hanging half broken from a chain as our cab driver approached the resort enclosed by a rock wall, with baboons running across the empty parking lot. Part of me thought that the two men who greeted us might of been scam artists pretending the place still even offered camping options because the only beings in sight were monkeys that now live where the welcome office used to be. All I knew is I wanted to swim in an ocean and eat some fish, so we hesitantly decided to stay.
We got the opportunity to do both but somehow managed to forget one of the sixteen bottles of sun screen Chris's mom purchased for us before we left. I would tell you we got sun burned but that would be a sever misrepresentation of what happened to us on that beach in Africa. I was so burned that my face took on a different shape and I looked like an old Hmong man. The burn forced us to leave a day early in search of some kind of pain medication that would allow me to not feel my face. That's exactly what I told the woman at the pharmacy we ended up at. I pointed at my singed, swollen face trying to indicate the sun had done this to me and this was not actually how I looked.
Eventually we found some medicine and were thankful to have already had some ointment with us. We camped out in our hotel for a couple days, hoping the burns would subside quickly considering we needed to carry packs for a month. Besides a small electrical fire in our room and getting locked inside the morning we needed to get to the airport--the beginning of the trip went off without a hitch.
The hotel we found in Lonely Planet was a Muslim owned place with a bustling budget restaurant downstairs. I point out the religious affiliation of the management because the driver that took us there asked us why we would want to stay in a place owned by Muslims. He felt they had ruined Tanzania. All my experiences with Muslim people in my travels have contradicted the demonizing image being painted in the global media. They have been some of the most gentle and hospitable people I've yet to meet--because of their religion, not in spite of it. I recently finished the autobiography of Malcom X. He was a peaceful Muslim who American media painted as an angry, violent man because of his radical and revolutionary beliefs about racism. I think it's important to recognize that whatever media wants to portray, it will.
As you can see from my journal entry, we landed in Mumbai on December 8th.We were on a mission to meet our friend Pujan in Delhi by the 12th so we could travel together with her to her homeland Nepal. Once in Dehli, the known streetfood capital of India, we ate everything in sight. After four months of a rice and beans diet, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the winding alleys of Dheli full of carts upon carts of fried, spiced everything you can imagine. If you can eat it, Indians can fry it. I sat down for a thimble full of milk coffee with a couple old Indian men on a wooden bench. The one to my left handed me their newspaper because that's just what you do in India mid day. I played badminton with a group of kids in an alleyway. Found a seemingly secret corridor that lead to an apartment complex with a Hindu shrine in the middle. And tried out a rickshaw through Delhi traffic which makes the 110 in Los Angeles look like a raceway.
Our first taste of street food in Mumbai.
There are shrines on almost every street in Delhi, decorated with burning incense and flower wreaths. Later in our trip we happened upon the market where many of these flower wreaths were made. It was like the Pike Place of flowers. A flurry of color and floral aroma filling the air around it. The place was pure magic. A market set in an old stone British fort with stairs leading to nowhere and men eating their rice lunch served on giant banana leaves. The merchants all bore huge smiles and welcomed us to take pictures, even asking us to take pictures with them. They were the happiest people I met in India. Guess selling flowers is a joyful racket to get into.
We took a tourist bus to go see the Taj Majal and Agra Fort. Later in the evening, on the way back, we pulled into a dusty old town that looked like something out of an Indian western movie. We got out of the bus to stretch our legs and turned up a side road. There we found a temple much older then the Taj Majal. There was an older man with a round belly and mischievous eyes sitting outside with a group of young men who hung on his every word. He saw me light up about the monkey that was perusing the place with her baby on her back. "You like monkeys?" He said with a sly smile. I had become wary of anyone talking to us at this point because almost always they were trying to sell us something so I brushed off his comment and began walking away. "Wait! Let me show you something." He called after us. Reluctantly I turned around and with my heart pumping I followed him back behind the ancient temple. He told us how it was a temple dedicated to the Lord Baby Krishna and the young gaggle of men with him said we must anoint our heads by the shrine of his feet we passed by. It was a large cement block with baby Krishna footprints in the center. Behind the temple sat hundreds of red faced baboons huddled together for warmth, staring down the bulb of our flashlights with hesitant, fearful eyes. A large male began screaming and within seconds they all joined in, chasing us out of their domain. We found out this man was the owner of this sacred place and they still hold service there every week. But at night, it belongs to the monkeys.
Smooch in front of the Taj Majal.From Delhi we took a bus to Kathmandu, Nepal. A city set in a magnificent green mountain range where the people live as they have been living for thousands of years. I saw women carrying heavy baskets with the straps slung across their forehead. Steps carved into the sides of the mountains so that the earth and grass have naturally grown around them. This ingenuity allows them to live and farm on the sides of the mountains. Smoke rising from hay stack structures and cows languishing in the fields. As we neared the city, driving through dangerously narrow and winding roads, we began to see some effects of the earthquake. Damage done to parts of the road and structures being held up by bamboo. Across the lake there was a resort that you used to be able to reach by taking a ski lift. Now that the gondola is gone, locals use the cable cord that used to hold it up to make their way across the lake back to their home with their bare hands.
We toured the temples of Kathmandu and hiked the hills of Pokhara, Nepal. We watched the sunrise over the Himalayas and meditated in front of one of the World Peace Pagodas. We somehow ate at one of the best Italian restaurants I've ever been to and we drank our first great glass of wine since leaving home. We enjoyed how cheap everything was but were also cognicent that the earthquake has destroyed Nepal's tourism for now and we were reaping the benefits of them being desperate for revenue.
Monkey Temple in Kathmandu.
Sometimes the best discoveries are those made with no expectations. In route to Darjeeling, I had no idea it was a city set 7,000 ft high in the clouds or that it would be the dead of winter when we arrived. The car we took kept creeping higher and higher and it began to feel like they were never going to stop. We passed cities upon cities of people living on the cliffsides. The road was overcrowded with tourist adventure vehicles driving people up and down. I had to close my eyes numerous times just to keep from screaming at how dangerously close we were to toppling off the side of the mountain.
In Darjeeling we stayed in a place that had a giant window exhibiting the breathtaking view of the mountainside and nearby monastery. People have always said I have my head in the clouds, well in Darjeeling I actually did. We drank tea and wandered around, discovering temples and marketplaces along the way. Later that night we found a store owned by a man who inherited the place from his father. We purchased a mask from him which is said to be of the wandering man, a man who wanders the earth alone. His place was like a treasure chest, each piece hand chosen from his travels around India. A nice relief from all the booths selling made in China trinkets.
A shot from Pokhara, Nepal on the morning
we hiked up to the World Peace Pagoda.
In Chennai We visited a beach that was covered with enormous amounts of litter, plastic bottles and bags being shoved back onto the sandy shore--bits of glass strewn about. I didn't know how poor a state the planet was in in many parts of the world. It's just a total lack of education. I watched even the most regal looking people in India throw their empty foil chip bags and plastic water bottles out bus windows and into the ocean.
From Chennai we took a sleeper bus to Goa. I've always wanted to take a sleeper bus and was excited to climb into our very own queen size bed with cushion pillows and fold down seats. We intended on traveling around India by train but ended up taking mostly buses--besides having to stowaway on a couple sold out trains because we had no other option. We had no idea how quickly the trains book up, any train to go anywhere had a waiting list of at least 100 people. The thing about buses in India is that they, like everyone in the country, are the most horn happy people in the world. If they don't have a horn to honk then they'll ring the bell of their bike. So we had more then a few sleepless nights on cross country buses who honked their horns all night, letting out long absurd songs sounding like the royal trumpets to the Smurfs.
Our friend Pujan as the sun
rose over the Himalayas.Goa was insane. It has one of the most infamous NYE parties in the world and there were hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world there to attend it. We got mistaken for being from every country except USA. We took it as a compliment that we don't look American. We also took advantage of saying we were from Africa because people want to charge you more for things where then hear you are from America.
We wandered around for an hour looking for a hotel when we first got to Goa because everything was either sold out or the price was jacked up for the New Years party tourists. I was getting really worried when we left the tenth place who told us there were no rooms available. With my head down we began walking out of the alleyway of the place. "Hello." An older scrawny Indian man with tanned skin and a full head of silver hair said. "Oh, hi! Are you the reception?" I asked nervously. The crew of people sitting on the stoop of a tiled deck all laughed and told us they basically were. It turns out the Indian man and his girlfriend live in the hotel six months out of the year and then live in her home, Latvia, for the rest of the year. "It's a visa relationship." The Indian man's girlfriend smirked and said to me as she let out a puff of smoke from her cigarette.
The hotel was perfect. The India man, Vinaya, turned out to be a published author and professor who I got to have many stimulating conversations with about American politics and the meaning of life. His girlfriend hated America, and for the first time in my life I actually felt defensive about my country. I live in a poor village and I have traveled around enough of India to see that we are fortunate to have the freedoms we do. To see how much sacrifice has been made so we can have those freedoms. I thought I hated America too by the time I decided to go to Africa, but now I see the big picture. How lucky we are to have sanitation systems and accessibility to clean water. How lucky we are to have education just handed to us, and healthcare at our fingertips.
In Goa we rented a scooter from our hotel and Chris took us joyriding around the island all day. We swam in the Arabian sea and ate incredible Goan food. The best places were always family owned. Restaurants that are run right out of their own kitchen. We had as much prawns curry and fresh calamari as we could take. New Years Eve we made sure to try fenny, a Goan alcohol must-have made from fermented cashew. The beach was full of a sea of dancing, wasted Indian men losing their minds as fireworks exploded against the night sky. Vinaya warned us that these men are so repressed in there own culture that they totally lose their minds when they party in Goa.
Sunrise from our tree fort.
Our last night in town we moved out of our hotel and camped out in a tree fort right on the beach. We watched the sun rise and fall and I sent out a paper lantern with a secret wish for the New Year. When I left Africa for India I wasn't sure what was going to happen. We had this crazy plan to cover hundreds of miles in a month by train and weren't sure if it could actually be pulled off. But together, we did it. It wasn't easy, but it was worth it. I feel like every time I travel my scope gets a little larger. Like my vision started off as a pinhole but it gets stretched a little more each time. If you don't travel then all you have is a narrow point of view influenced heavily by your limited surroundings. By seeing how other people live I think I become more in touch with the unity of the world. How similar the most basic desires of all people are.
I've learned how to say no this year which is an invaluable lesson I'll take with me forever. As a woman this is a lesson we all must learn in a society which tells us to 'say yes to the dress.' I learned how to stay calm under pressure and handle high stress situations, like being so sure that we would never find a hotel in Goa. I further realized what a great team Chris and I make, and it deepened our connection in a way that only traveling together can.
Our trip ended where we started, in Mumbai. Mumbai is the most modern city we visited in India. From the moment we stepped out of the train station I was struck by the grand British looking architecture. It was a beautiful city to get lost in and we spent most of our time doing just that. We saw a strange Bollywood movie staring an alcoholic father who disowns his whole family because they made him move out of the house. I was flabbergasted each time the audience laughed at parts where he was extremely offensive towards women. I think if you want to know the role of a woman in a culture just watch their films and television. On our second day we walked down to the Gateway of India and took a 60 minute ferry ride to Elephanta Island. It's an ancient island full of grand caves with intricate Hindi art carved into them. We played chess on top of an old cannon and I had to run from a cow that tried to chase me down for my corn on the cob. Beware of the monkeys and cows of Elephanta Island, they will jack your snacks.
Now we are back in Berega, and it feels good to be home. It's mid rainy season and pouring in sheets like I've never seen. The place became a tropical green wonderland overnight. Yesterday it started up while I was teaching in a classroom with no power and a tin roof. It was like bullets were being fired in a darkened room. I was trying to teach verbs by yelling over the apocalypse happening outside the window. One adorable nine year old in my class, Abraham, kept telling me, "Teacher, I am concerned." He lives across the river and when it rains like this it floods so he cannot cross it. There was no way I could keep teaching. We needed to get back to the school so the kids could get home. The dirt road was flooded up to our ankles. The second we stepped into the rain we were drenched like we had gone through a car wash. Laughing so hard it was hard to run, I ran with a group of ten soaking wet kids to the school a quarter mile away.