Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

India: Endia

Back in Brooklyn now after an unplanned two-day drive from Chicago following an Irene-inspired flight diversion from Delhi, I have had almost 24 hours to catch my breath and reflect on the crazy month that I just experienced. It was fantastic, intense, challenging, beautiful, terrifying, inspiring, depressing, insane, hilarious, exhausting and amazing trip. The few words that I write here can barely do justice to the feelings touching me throughout the adventure. India is maximum sensory overload at all times and it goes straight to the brain.

We ended in Delhi, with two days at the uber-luxurious Imperial Hotel as a treat and reward for surviving the punishing travel demands of Indian travel. Little did we know we were so far from home. We arrived on an overnight train at 5am but couldn’t check into our comfy bed until 11, so wandered around the bizzarely empty center of India’s capital for 6 hours in a dream state before some pool time, some food and a trip to a local Sufi shrine, which quickly became the most overwhelming of all my experiences during the adventure. Unaware, we had wandered into the final Thursday evening prayer session of Ramadan and were crushed with worshippers. I have never experienced anything like this intense density of people and all I could think about was stampede deaths which is why I feel lucky to have only lost my wallet…

The next day was a street food safari in Old Delhi, which was as densely packed as our previous excursion but also involved the same density of motor vehicles, followed by some shopping at Main Bazar and an elegantly delicious dinner at Bukhara. We awoke at 5am the next day to catch a train to Agra for a final day at The Taj Mahal, the most ornate and precious building in the world. On our train back to Delhi, we learned that all NYC airports were pre-empitvely closed for the hurricane and our flight had been canceled. Some quick research opened the possibility of not returning until September 6; panic ensues and we eventually make our way to the airport, where we are offered the possibility of flying to Chicago, renting a car and driving home via Pittsburgh, finally arriving home 36 hours behind schedule. It was a grueling five days since the Buddhist tranquility of Dharamsala, but we arrived home and hugged our cats then fulfilled our sushi cravings and passed out.

I want to go back to India and see more. It has so much to offer and we only scratched the surface, but for the next few months, I will be content with life at home. There is comfort in a regular schedule and familiar environs. The point of travel is to escape that, but if I were always on the move, there would be no standard for comparison.

I want to thank my intrepid partners on this journey, Sarah, Eric and Alaina for supporting me and providing great insights and discussion throughout the trip. I know I can be a tough companion sometimes because I love punishment, finding difficult and uncomfortable situations to immerse myself in while seeking out the cheapest food and accommodation possible. Overall, I think we worked well as a team, executing the travel perfectly and learning a lot about India, its amazing people, food and culture, plus ourselves and our own home. I am certain there are many more journeys in our future!

India: Tibet

The Himalayas have an aura untouched by any other range, partly because they contain the highest peaks on Earth and partly because they contain such a diversity of cultures. I would love to someday travel across these mountains, from the India to China, and witness the gradual cultural evolution. On this trip we made it only into the foothills, to Dharamsala, but the shift was evident.

Tibet sounds like one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on the planet, but unfortunately suffers under one of the most brutally repressive governments in existence. China invaded Tibet over 50 years ago and has sought to systematically destroy all independent political, religious and historical evidence of this society. Millions have died in this persecution and, to preserve their identity, many have fled to this region of India. The spiritual leader of the Buddhist people, The Dalai Lama, currently resides in the small town of McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh and this has spawned a Tibetan expat community that dominates the area, giving it a very different feel from anywhere else we visited. Momos and noodles filled the menus and we took a cooking class to learn the inspiringly simple method of this regional cuisine. The class was led by a man named Sangye, who showed us the basics and let us prepare our own dumplings and noodle soups. It was delicious and fun, but the real pleasure was meeting this man and hearing his story. He escaped from Tibet 13 years ago by trekking over snowcapped peaks and wading through frigid rivers with a group of refugees, first to Nepal and eventually to India. He came with nothing, begging for food along the journey, and has since built himself a nice business where he can share his love of food and culture with foreigners, an opportunity he sadly could never have in his homeland. We met another refugee who had been imprisoned for three years because he was a monk who refused to denounce The Dalai Lama. His stories from prison were painfully shocking and confirmed that China is a persistent human rights abuser; it is terrifying to think that such an enormous population lives under this tyrannical shroud. All of the Tibetans living in McLeod Ganj had endured life-threatening escapes for freedom and it was a humbling and inspiring experience to consider what is truly important in life and to appreciate how fortunate we are to be citizens of a country that may be fraught with problems, but respects individual and human rights as a foundation for a free society.

India: Chandigarh

Chaos abounds! In every way, Indian cities are collages of clashing elements. It seems that everyone is a merchant, whether they sell from a storefront or a nomadic basket and lawlessness engulfs all aspects of life. Traffic lacks order and food is entirely unregulated, leading to questionable choices in nearly every moment of day-to-day existence. This is, of course, much of what I love about this country; it is raw and real, daring you to test the limits and taxing your comfort constantly.

And then there is Chandigarh. The capital of both Punjab and Haryana states, it is the only planned city in India and quite an anomaly from the typical insanity. Designed by French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, it features a grid of numbered sectors divided by paved and perpendicular streets where red lights are respected and drivers would not even consider dodging head-on traffic. The city is located in India’s agricultural heartland and features some of the finest food we sampled on our trip. With plenty of legitimate (not novelty) multi-cuisine options, we chose an Italian restaurant to satisfy our cravings for un-Indian and were molto impressato! Our second night there, we ventured to Khyber for some North Indian Frontier food that was heavy on kebabs and absolutely delicious, followed by a trendy bar crawl that could have been set in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district.

The highlight of our time here, though, had to be Nek Chand’s Rock Garden; a beautiful labyrinth of sculpted nature, where every twist and bend in the path revealed walls, water features or figures made of stone or found objects. It is childlike in its imagination and playfulness, created secretly for 15 years by a state road inspector inspired by the abundance of waste produced by the fledgling city. When it was finally discovered, it was recognized as an artistic treasure and sponsored with government assistance. It is a perfect microcosm of the city in its organized chaos with a creative flair. It was a city we never planned on seeing until it fit conveniently into our itinerary but it surprised and delighted us at every turn.

India: Rishikesh

We are traveling in a vast and varied cultural and physical landscape. Planning this trip was frustrating because there were too many places we wanted to visit in too little time, so we decided that we would divide it into two weeks in the South and two in the North with specific locations to be determined. We arranged a flight from Goa to Delhi at the midpoint and then, knowing we would end our trip in Delhi, hopped on a train headed towards the legendary Rishikesh; a small town straddling the Ganges River as it flows out of the mountains. It became internationally recognized when The Beatles dropped in to spend some time with The Maharishi and wrote The White Album. Since then it has drawn spiritual seekers and Yoga devotees to its many ashrams and has become a backpacker haven. The setting is supremely beautiful, with the river coursing through the green foothills of the Himalayas, but we arrived and the rain came down heavily for two days, limiting our exploration. We are here during the monsoon season and we expected to get wet, but up to this point had been very lucky weather-wise, with a particularly dry and occasionally sunny experience. This was our seasonal reminder and the location provided an interesting perspective on the rains: the river rose enormously and flooded many areas around its banks. Houses and temples were engulfed in the ripping current and we watched sadly as cows and goats floated by. I had never seen flooding like this and probably would have been worried had the locals shown any concern, but it is obviously a typical situation and life continues even as property is lost and roads become rivers.

As the rain finally subsided after about 36 hours, we were able to wander around the town and appreciate some of its culture. It is a spiritual Mecca for yogis and promotes some new-age healing and philosophy that we are disconnected from–people inquiring about 40 day intense chakra realignment are aliens to me–but it was fascinating to enter this world as a passing traveler. India often seems strange and foreign to my sensibilities, but Rishikesh seems both stranger and more familiar: it caters to its clientele, which means Western food dominates the menus but alcohol is forbidden. It is spiritual, yet less religious than other parts of the country. It has a tourist feel, but many visitors stay much longer than other places. Basically, it is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been and is a world unto itself. It is not exactly my scene, but I think it is a mind-blowing sociological demonstration of a self-breeding culture; people come here seeking something and there will always be someone to satisfy that craving, be it plastic jugs to fill with holy river water, intense spiritual cleansing, sitar lessons or a plate of pasta.

India is constantly evolving and one of the best places to get out what you put in. It is for you and from you, both import and export. I see now that I am wrong to think of my journey as a selfish and voyeuristic experience but can accept that it is a cultural exchange–not simply goods and services bought and sold, but dreams and desires revealed and shared.

India: Gokarna

Our friend Martin grew up in Vermont and attended Middlebury with us but he was always seeking something beyond his New England upbringing and in his post-grad world travels, he found what he was looking for in India. He settled here a few years ago and built a house in Gokarna in the state of Karnataka. We adapted our itinerary to visit him for a few days and confirm that he had indeed found a special little corner of the Earth.

Gokarna is a small town on the Arabian Sea and a sacred site for Hindu pilgrims. There are several temples and a holy spring that provides free and pure water for all. (This is incredibly fortunate because most water in this country is highly contaminated and unsafe to consume, which means we are buying large numbers of plastic water bottles with no recycling available. It is painful to contribute to the already enormous waste problems here and even more painful to watch the locals’ disregard for their own environment by treating the streets as a public garbage disposal, but I am not here to judge anyone, so I view it not as better or worse than the system I know in America, only different…)

The beach at Gokarna is paradise. It extends forever and is completely devoid of any tourist development, filled instead with village kids playing soccer, cricket and fishing. It has the feel of a place that’s remained unchanged for centuries but with India’s tourism and economy booming, it seems unlikely to maintain that authenticity forever. It is a paradox; as much as I love experiencing places like this, I simultaneously feel guilty for inadvertently changing it with tourism gentrification. My imported dollars are supposed to be for the benefit of the community, but they may have an adverse effect, promoting a cultural shift away from the traditional village life towards one that caters to Western tastes.

I admit that my motives for undertaking these world travels are largely selfish and potentially exacerbate old problems while creating new ones, but I also believe that by meeting people and acting as a goodwill ambassador for my own (sometimes antagonistic) country, we can achieve a more harmonious relationship that can lead to greater peace on Earth. I also hope that by sharing my experiences through words, photos, music and video, others might be inspired to venture out and make their own connections around the world, creating a web of relationships that will overcome the selfish political aims of a few rulers.

We the people can turn fear into love!

India: Wildlife

Animals are everywhere. Dogs, cats, goats, ponies, pigs, chickens, cows and others roam the streets at will. Domestic animals are wild and live with the people; they are tolerated in some cases and revered in others. I have seen some stunning birds and today I watched a monkey climb onto our hotel balcony, pick through an ashtray, chew on butts, then toss the container on the floor. Some animals need separation from humans, and they have recently gained some protection in the form of National Parks and Reserves.

Our travel style has always been highly improvisational, inspired by whims and transportation solutions to logistical issues. When we decided to visit Bandipur National Park, we did some online research and found the names of some hotels offering safaris. We actually tried planning ahead, but making a reservation proved very challenging because we lacked an Indian bank account (?) so we decided to show up and see what we could find. It is the low season for tourism (monsoon) so we figured we wouldn’t have a problem, but we were shut out on our first three attempts and beginning to feel a bit concerned that our safari would be limited to the city streets, but then we stumbled into the most beautiful lodge I’ve ever seen. Dhole’s Den is an Eco-friendly service with absolutely gorgeous cottages and food that has been, for me, the best of this scrumptious cuisine. It was complemented by our private Jeep safari through the park, where we saw Spotted Deer, Monkeys, Mongooses, Bison, Wild Dogs (Dholes), Peacocks and many other beautiful birds. We also found a herd of elephants, who were not as appreciative of our presence as we were of theirs and charged us. Our guide insisted that it was only a mock charge, but then changed his mind and reversed quickly as they stomped towards us. They eventually gave up the chase and we were able to admire these awesome creatures from afar. We returned to our Den excited and delighted to have seen all this wildlife in its natural habitat.

Bandipur

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Elephants charged us!

Ooty

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Tea Plantations in Ooty

Rishikesh

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India: Moving

Travel is exhausting; just sitting in a seat can be mentally taxing when large distances are being covered. This is especially true here, where you can be packed into a vehicle that is literally overflowing with people and the appalling road conditions lead to bags and people flopping on top of you while the incessant honking assaults your ears and putrid smells you could never have imagined existing penetrate directly into your stomach and trucks heading dead on towards you tense every muscle in your body and make you want to scream STOP!

Our trip is short and we want to see so much that we grin and bear it because the abuse is worth it, but sometimes the journey is a unique and beautiful experience in and of itself. The “Toy Train” to the town of Ooty in the Nilgiri Hills is one of these moving highlights. It is a hundred-year-old steam engine that climbs into the mountains on narrow gauge track, pushed by a locomotive that stops every 10km to fill up with water. If I were a train enthusiast, it would have been a dream fulfilled, but even just as a beauty enthusiast, I was awed by the scenery; gorgeous hills and rock outcroppings, rivers and waterfalls, tea plantations and a technicolor spectrum of wildflowers. At the end of the line was Ooty, a small town nestled among alpine forests and farmland and a great place to take a break before heading down the back side of the mountain on a road that brought out an aspect of stressful Indian driving we had not yet experienced — steep and winding with sheer drops on every side through 36 hairpin turns with red skull and crossbones danger signs reminding you of the thin line that separates excitement and terror.