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Friday, 19 December 2014

Varanasi - The Heart and Soul of India

I've been really moody lately.....

I naively thought I was immune to such emotional fluctuations. Yet 3 months in India has slowly eroded my tolerance and patience. The sights and sounds of India which first sent culture shocks through my system now registered as either complete numbness or irritation. And my own disposition has become fragile and short fused.
An 80 ft. Buddha statue... so what?
But this is a fact of long term travelling. Believe it or not, it's not like living in an endless dream. Travelers are prone to ups and downs, just like people with day jobs and families. But theirs are different and quite varied, due to the diversity of challenges that accompanies travelling, like an annoying buddy, and enhanced by the rawness of it all, especially in a dizzying place like India.


In Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha became enlightened, my mental funk set in. Somehow, I felt unstimulated rather than meditative. I had seen too many temples and monuments by that time and couldn't get worked up by another, even if it was the holiest place in all of Buddhism, the Mahabodhi Temple.

In turn, I became high-strung and taciturn. I walked past beggars, with their bony hands outstretched, as if they were invisible. I snapped at aggressive tuktuk drivers and hawkers, my tone bordering on contempt. These are human beings for godsakes... how did I become so insensitive? I felt confused and ashamed by this.

Losing my grip, I decided to join a Buddhism retreat already in progress, for one day, at the Root Institute. The idyllic setting of the institute, removed from the craziness of India, and the universal philosophies taught here helped to revive me a little, and gave me pause to think straight.
Mahabodhi Temple, where the Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree
My situation is a complex one, as complex and tangled as the tubes in my brain. As best as I could to self-diagnose, I picked out at least two big reasons for my melancholic attitude of late. One is I have been travelling mostly alone, and for too long. It's good to be alone sometimes, to make space to think for yourself, but too much time alone means too much time spent in your own head.

Alone for too long, stray thoughts lead to stray minds. This is how people go crazy.

The other reason is that I have been in cities too long, isolated from nature. And in crowded India this is a recipe for meltdown. I needed to get away from the constant stimulation.

Keeping Cool in Varanasi

Varanasi is probably the holiest city and pilgrimage spot in India. Hindus come far and wide to bathe in the river Ganga, a sure sign that they'll go to heaven. This is also where they cremate their dead, dipping the corpses in the river 3 times before lighting them on fire on piles of wood, bodies burning while wrapped in cloth but in plain sight. The entire Ganga riverbank is connected by a series of ghats, concrete steps that slowly lower until it reaches the water forming a patchwork riverwalk. 
An amazing view of the Ganga from Kumiko Guesthouse rooftop
My ride to Varanasi was a bad omen for my hopes of an enjoyable visit - an uncomfortably long bus ride in chilly, rainy weather. Varanasi itself looked like a disaster after the rain. The streets were extremely muddy and in the dark you couldn't tell mud from cow poop. I couldn't imagine what it's like during monsoon season.

Relief swept over me as I reached my hostel, and as soon as I settled in, I felt my luck about to change. Kumiko Guesthouse was right by the river with a gorgeous rooftop view, and was occupied mostly by foreign travellers. For just 100 rupees ($2 CAD) per night, I got a dormitory with basic amenities, and for 50 rupees they served a big yummy breakfast feast.
A foggy but vibrant morning on the ghats
I quickly entered engaging conversation with two Spanish guys and one German. They reminded me why I loved Europeans so much. I even spoke to them passionately about western North America, proclaiming it as the land of the hippies with unlimited natural beauty. This made me feel proud of home, something I had been thinking more about while in my malaise. It's amazing how travelling can give you a renewed appreciation of home.

I spent most of my days taking refreshing walks through the city and along the riverfront, taking in the vibrant life along the scenic ghats along the Ganga - aartis (holy rituals), people bathing, washing clothes, playing cricket, flying kites, rowing boats, cows pooping. I witnessed a few cremations, an eerie experience, the burned and scarred bodies looking like crash test dummies in the fires. The sun eventually jumped out of the oppressive fog too, lit up the riverfront, and infused my buddies and I with warmth and smiles as we walked.

My mood seemed to reverse over the course of a few days. I even found a new enthusiasm over dealing with tuktuk drivers and shopowners, achieving a professional level of bargaining while having fun doing it.
Cremations taking place along the Ganga
It seems I couldn't have arrived in Varanasi at a better time - it has an invisible energy, positive and infectious. And I'm sure my mood will continue to improve as my trip undergoes a major transformation in the coming week.

For my Flickr photos click here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Breakfast in Kolkata's Chinatown

I spent about a week in Kolkata with my host, Veronica, and her lovely and accommodating family. Veronica is another family friend extending from the network of people in Shillong, many of whom are Hakka Chinese.

Kolkata, or Calcutta as it's known in the English world, is nicknamed the City of Joy, and recognized as the cultural capital of India. The city's rich history has its origins in the East India Company, whose investment was a catalyst for business and colonization of India by the British.
Cruising on a packed wooden ferry on the Hooghly River
During my stay, I managed to see a number of impressive Victorian landmarks, as well as Christian and Hindu religious sites. I visited Mother Teresa's home, which also contains her tomb. And sat on the ghats, with my feet in the River Hooghly, observing people bathe in the brownish river, which contains water from the holy Ganga (or Ganges River) due to an upstream canal diversion.

Hawkers in Flight

Kolkata is an interesting city with many faces. About 15 million of them, to be exact.

I witnessed Kolkata's glamorous side, rooted in its past with its grand old English architecture. But it's a thin mask which barely hides the real face of Kolkata, evident pretty much everywhere else. I was there during the dry season, but everyday I saw monsoons of another presence - people everywhere, streaming up and down the streets between cars and buses, clogging roads, creeping along like boggy rivers. I experienced what comes with too many of these people - dust, noise, open urinals, and half naked men bathing in public by water pumps.

Hawkers, or street vendors, can be really annoying too. Hawkers are virtually everywhere, on sidewalks operating food carts or displaying wares upon tables or blankets, or approaching on foot, entering buses and trains. Veronica told me that hawking as a profession is illegal in India, but is so commonplace that several hawkers unions have been formed at municipal and national levels. Imagine that, unions representing illegal professions that don't pay taxes!
Ironically, I prefer hawkers to actual shops. Here is a Kolkata custom, drinking chai out of clay cups
The regulation of hawking is an ongoing issue in India. Governments provide little intervention to start with, but even if they do try to collect taxes, the hawkers collectively swarm and threaten violence; or if police come to enforce, they simply run away, quickly deserting streets like a scene from an apocalypse movie.

Luckily for me, I'm not targeted much by hawkers here - I look like a local. In a distant sort of way, I am a local because my mom was born in Kolkata, among many other Chinese. Here is the story of how Chinese ended up here.

Chinese Emperors of Leather

In my previous blog I mentioned that India experienced a large influx of Chinese to Eastern India - places like Shillong and Kolkata - due to the Communist Revolution. They were later incarcerated by the Indian government following the Indo-China War. Soon after their release, there followed a mass exodus that continues to this day. In its heyday, Kolkata had over 50,000 Chinese citizens, many of them speaking the Chinese dialect Hakka, like myself and my mom. That number has dwindled to only a few thousand today.
The industrial rooftops of Tangra, overlooked by modern skyscrapers of Kolkata
One morning, I went to Terreti Market for breakfast, once the heart of Kolkata's Chinatown, to find a measly 3 stands selling pork dumplings and buns. Most of Kolkata's remaining Chinese have fled Chinatown for Tangra, a mainly industrial neighbourhood just east of downtown. Tangra is a tangle of dusty roads lined with open pit ditches, filled with stagnant and discoloured water, like dirty dead rivers, contaminated by the numerous tanneries in the area.

Navigating the streets of Tangra, I also found little evidence of Chinese people left - just a few signs up for Chinese restaurants. And of course, there's my host. Veronica's home is in Tangra and her family made me feel welcome. Since they are also Hakka, they gave me a chance to practice my native language, which I have neglected. They spoiled me with delicious Hakka home cooked dinners, which I terribly miss.

Veronica's son, Edwin, told me how decades ago the zamindars, or feudal landlords, illegally sold land in Tangra, mainly to Chinese, who brought the tannery business to India, starting in Kolkata. Edwin's grandfather started a hot sauce company and also a tannery on these grounds but paid his taxes before the legalities caught up to him and the other landholders. Through thick and thin, their business is successful today.
A man working by leather bathing drums in the tannery
Veronica and her husband, Patrick Lee, showed me their tannery, maybe the first eco-leather factory in all of India and recognized by the European Fair Trade Association. Veronica and Patrick are featured on the websites of a few bag producers who they supply eco-leather to, O My Bag and Loyal Workshop.

Edwin also told me how during monsoon season, after a big rain, the open pit ditches flood the street causing a great big stink. Tiny fish, like tadpoles, make their home in these ditches, and these fish are actually collected and sold as animal feed. One day I noticed a rat taking a sip from the ditch water, until it noticed me and ran away.

Legend of Fat Mama

Back home in Toronto, there is a significant Hakka Chinese population, many of whom migrated from Kolkata and Shillong, such as my mom and dad, as well as many family friends I am only now becoming familiar with. Hakka are known for their food, a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines, served in restaurants in Toronto and even Calgary's northeast.
My adopted grandma, and her grandson Andrew Lee, my twin by name. They also have family in Toronto
Some Hakka have formed an organization whose mission is to demand a formal apology by the Indian government for its incarceration of Chinese back in 1962. My mom, luckily, moved to Hong Kong before it happened, but my father and his family got sent to the prison camps for 4 years. My father doesn't tell me much about his past - it was a time that he'd rather forget about. I sympathize with him, though I feel like our family past is something I deserve to know about.

There is a brief 23 minute documentary made about the history of Chinese in Kolkata, including their incarceration in 1962. It is named after Fat Mama, a famous lady known for her sumptuous chow mein, or fried noodles, which she sold along the side of the street in Kolkata's Chinatown. The first 9 minutes introduces Chinese life in Kolkata before the incarceration. The last half discusses the incarceration and the aftermath. Veronica's father is interviewed in the film, and I think one of her sons appears briefly in one of the scenes in the background.

If you are curious about what my father and his family went through, I encourage you to watch it. Click on Legend of Fat Mama to watch.

Finally, I have uploaded pictures from not just Kolkata but the two other cities I visited in the state West Bengal, Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Flickr link

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Uncovering my Family's Past in Shillong

After leaving the peaceful rural village where I taught some English, I spent one week moving about Sikkim, more as a tourist than a traveler, shuffling from one city to the next, from monasteries to big holy statues. The hours wasted sloshing about in the Jeeps tackling the relentless hillsides took a toll on my butt muscles – and my patience.  
A beautiful monastery near Gangtok... but it took 1 hour just to go 20 km to find this place
The next stop was my father’s hometown – Shillong. I was finally looking forward to slowing down and relaxing a little, but not completely without purpose either. I wanted to understand how my family on my father’s side grew up, and learn about this relatively unknown and unvisited part of India.

Shillong is a city with a metro population of around 350,000. It is the capital city of the state of Meghalaya (sounds like ‘regalia’) in Northeast India, which is like one big arm swinging north around Bangladesh, then down, draping its eastern border.

Meghalaya boasts “the rainiest place on Earth” – Cherrapunji, just 50 km south of Shillong (it recently was overtaken by a place nearby, also in Meghalaya). The English arrived centuries ago, looking for tea, and in exchange brought Christianity, now the dominant religion here.
See? I wasn't kidding.
Northeast India is incredibly diverse, containing tens, and maybe hundreds, of tribes, each with their own language and culture. The diversity here is a double edged sword. Historically, the entire region has been troubled by violence by guerrillas vying for independence from India. Meghalaya is currently peaceful, but rebel activities still occur in neighbouring states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

There are continuing tensions between the Northeast and the rest of India, and I've been reading recent articles in the papers about hate crimes against people of Northeast origin. In addition, the locals prefer to use English over Hindi to communicate outside of their own tribes, so English is much more common.

After World War II, many Chinese fled to Northeast India during the Communist Revolution, ending up in places like Shillong. But in 1962, following the brief Indo-Chinese War, India, still bitter towards the Chinese government, decided to imprison its own citizens of Chinese origin in internment camps. My family spent 4 years in one of these camps. After they were released, they eventually fled to Canada.
Helping out a rice harvest in Victoria's village
I think I overhyped Shillong before coming. Upon arriving, I realized Shillong was generally underwhelming and just like other big cities in India, but this time I had more time to absorb its bores and challenges. The city is hilly and riddled with narrow high-walled streets that add to the drab and claustrophobia. Traffic for a city its size felt brutal, or maybe my extended time here allowed my frustration to build to a fever pitch.

Speaking of fever, I got pretty sick. The whole thing was quite ironic - I got sick for the first time on my trip, and it happened while staying in my most luxurious accommodations all trip – the home of my father’s old landlord, Victoria. I suspect that my body is vulnerable to the laziness and temptations that lie within four comfortable and sterile walls, yet stands up well to the filth and thrills of adventure, of mean streets beckoning to be explored.
Angeline, my adopted mother in Shillong
I have Angeline, a third degree family connection, to thank for nursing me back to health. I moved to her place for the second half of my Shillong stay. Angeline was a strong motherly figure, smothering at times, but providing tender loving care and attention when I needed it most. We got along well and I even cooked a little for her and her husband.

Back to full strength, I got back to exploring Shillong. I visited the old home of my family on my father’s side, a humble three room house. I visited the schools they attended. I walked around the fascinating Bara Bazar, where my family worked in a shoe shop making shoes, and where they purchased their vegetables and meat. The bazar was one of the most amazing I've seen in India. It was deceptively huge, with a network of narrow and dark but busy alleyways, like tentacles, extending well beyond the main street.
An aisle of butcher shops as far as the eye can see - Bara Bazar
I got to join Victoria's son Sherrard on one of his projects to his own family's village, and got to witness them harvesting rice. And on a day tour to Cherrapunji, I saw a nice waterfall (which gets much bigger during the monsoon) and explored a small cave. I regret missing out on the living root bridge, an actual functioning bridge made from intertwining tree roots, formed naturally by villagers.

Back in town, I met many people who knew my family. Everyone said my father was a brilliant and smart man. His nickname was “tuition ako” where ako means brother and tuition implied that he was a tutor. They also said he was simple. And quiet. They were right.

I told them how I came to this point of my life – unemployed and travelling. We got to knowing eachother and, with every meeting, I got to understanding my father just a little more, and the extent of the roots that my family set down, and which still exist in their hometown.

I hope I did my whole family proud by visiting their hometown of Shillong, a sort of archaeological site of ancestral memories. I think I sparked old memories and reinvigorated connections among old friends. One Skype session proved that those memories and connections are still strong.
My family on my father's side grew up in this home. You can see all 3 of the rooms in this photo
I gained appreciation of all the hardships my family went through, growing up poor, being imprisoned, and working hard to get to Canada – all so I could grow up privileged and choose to be unemployed and travel around the world. It sounds like poisonous humour, but I'm living the stereotypical family of Asian parents raising their children on traditional values in the Western world. I sympathize for my father, but I have to be my own person. I think we both understand eachother these days, and me coming to Shillong was a positive step for our relationship.

Shillong itself isn't a great city, and the local tourism sector isn't properly developed yet, but I’m glad I came here as part of a family pilgrimage. Up next is Calcutta. My mother and her siblings were born there, but there’s not much evidence left of their time there, since they all left for Hong Kong when my mom was only 8 years old.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Teaching English, Giving Back on my Travels

Looking Inward, Building Outward

From the pinnacle of Singalila Ridge in India, admiring in bare faced awe at 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world at once, that familiar feeling returned to me – why am I so lucky?
4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world, and 4 countries... what a view
On many occasions during my travels I have wondered what did I deserve to be doing what I am doing? I don't (or at least try not to) feel different than anyone else. I only remind myself that I was given a specific set of circumstances in life which thrust me onto my current path. In other words, it came down to sheer luck.

Thus far, I have met many people on my travels doing meaningful work such as teaching English or building schools. I regretted that I couldn't join their cause. But these missed opportunities kept me wondering why I'm travelling and not making positive impact like these amazing people?

I've talked a lot about making the world a better place but, up until now, I've been in full travel mode. I've been taking so many wonderful experiences the world has to offer, but have yet to give back.

I guess I was just waiting for the right opportunities to come along…

Featuring: The Nepali Cast(e) of Rising Stars
Bhim, the director of Basanta Sadan English Boarding School
Meet Bhim Adhikary.

Bhim taught for the Nepal public school system most of his life before retiring and starting his own private school. In 2002 he started Basanta Sadan English Boarding School ( on the ridgetop village of Basantapur in remote eastern Nepal.

I happened to visit this sleepy village. Bhim spotted me walking by his school, saying hi to some kids playing. He waved me over, showed me around his school, then asked if I wanted to teach English there in exchange for accommodation and food.

With virtually no time left on my Nepal visa, I agreed to teach for just one day. And what a magical day it was!
Students love the camera - they all want a photo!
Once I got over the probing stares of hordes of students, gawking at me like an exhibit in a museum, I set to work. Over the course of the day I taught two lectures, basically telling students about my life and about Canada. I managed to fit in some English theory on past tenses and participles, but they preferred asking questions about my life. After a couple of lectures I used my time to advertise online Bhim’s school search for volunteer English teachers.

I left the school feeling elated, though a bit short changed at the fact I stayed such a short time. But it gave me a sense of hope that such opportunities could be so easy to come by.

Fast forward one week later…
Anna, myself, and Liz, Couchsurfer and volunteer English teacher
Meet Liz Purdy.

Liz has been teaching English for 9 months in the remote village of Kharka, 4 hours from Darjeeling in northeast India. She advertised her homestay on Couchsurfing, which offered two great opportunities – one, to trek the promising Singalila Ridge, and two, to teach English. I jumped all over it.

After doing the trek with Liz and her friend Anna, filled with the most amazing mountain views I have seen, I got to spend time in Kharka. I guest lectured at her school for 2 days. The lectures were fun and informal and I really had an amazing time connecting with the children.
Having a good time with the students
At the homestay I witnessed Liz's seamless integration into the local community, learning the language and connecting with her adopted Nepali family (despite being in India the area is predominately Nepali caste) as well as other villagers. I learned a ton about the culture through her eyes and ears. I even got to help cook dhal, a lentil based soup, and ochar, a kind of pickled and spicy vegetable.

Her compassion and dedication to this little mountain village and its people was inspiring. I left the homestay with renewed confidence that I have the resources and potential to make positive impact wherever I travel.

Coming Full Circle

It has recently become evident to me of one important reason why I blog.

Since striking out on my own to Calgary 6 years ago as a naïve kid, I have undergone exponential personal growth, and have become addicted to it. After returning from Europe almost one and a half years ago, I outgrew Calgary and felt an invisible pull towards new and different experiences elsewhere.

Blogging has always been my passion and now I realize that it’s just one of my tools of personal growth. It’s a tool that feeds my circle of outward action and inward growth, ever expanding with every new experience. Without it – without you, my faithful readers – I lack the support I require to keep on going.
Teaching others is a way of teaching myself - expand one's knowledge, expand oneself
So I'm making a selfish request – read my blog! Because everytime you do, you propel me towards my goal, my ultimate vision. And hopefully in the process my blogs can draw even the tiniest of smiles across your lips, or create a pang of inspiration within you, and brighten your day.

Flickr Photo Album link:

Monday, 3 November 2014

“Please, can you give Discount?” – Traveling India/Nepal

Upon arriving in India, I initially wrote that Hanga and I entered the big leagues of backpacking. After one month, our travels have matched the billing and the hype, and far exceeded the ease and comfort of my 10 month trip across Europe, which included somewhat challenging Russia, Turkey and Morocco.

I shall now follow up my recent cultural dissertation of India and Nepal with an account from a traveler's point of view. While these two blogs were written separately, to me they are two parts of one blog, complementing and providing insights into one another; essentially summarizing my singular experience from dual perspectives.

The Good

Over one month Hanga and I traversed northern India and central Nepal. It sounds like a long time, but we felt rushed for most of it. Transportation is slow so travel times really added up, plus the grind of two treks took up half of our trip.

Nature has always struck a chord with my soul - Chanderkhani Pass, Himachal Pradesh, India
Those treks were arguably the highlights though, particularly the 10-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp. Hanga and I are both nature lovers, and I have wanted to get more into trekking and there's no better place to do it.

Climate wise, we came at the best time of year, in late September just after the end of the monsoons. It's still hot and humid in the lowlands, and actually quite cold in the foothills of the Himalayas. The other recommended time of year to visit is February to April, prior to the start of the monsoons around May.

Sunsets occur much earlier here, around 6 pm. This meant shorter trekking days. But it also meant better opportunities to see sunsets and starry nights which, with my accompanying star map, I have learned some of the constellations.
To live among hills is to live humbly in the mercy of Mother Nature
We really enjoyed the natural setting of towns like Shimla and Pokhara. In Pokhara, we woke up to views of the snow-capped Annapurna mountains, where we later trekked close to, from our Couchsurfing host’s home.

Surely though, we didn’t go to India and Nepal just for the nature.
Religious devotion should never be mistaken for anything other than a force of good
The Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas have been particularly awesome in Kathmandu, which has the one of the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any city in the world.

We also saw the main temple complex where the Dalai Lama currently resides in Dharamshala. Seeing religious devotion has a powerful effect on me. It’s moving to witness such devotion, even if I’m not religious.
The presence of animals freely in the city indicates harmony with living creatures
For those searching enlightenment, there is plenty of yoga, meditation and massage therapy available in the form of single sessions, retreats or even teacher courses, particularly in Rishikesh. Hanga and I did a few yoga lessons, which cost only around $5 CAD per session, and I got a decent massage for about $10 CAD, a fraction of the cost back home.

And if you’re looking for fun activities, activities such as river rafting and paragliding are available, of which Pokhara is renowned for. Hanga did the paragliding.

We haven’t gone to many museums as they tend to have poor English and are not well organized. The Tibet Museum in Dharamshala was really moving as it shed light on the plight of Tibet due to Chinese government oppression. The International Mountain Museum and Gurkha Museum in Pokhara were pretty interesting too.
Something must be done about climate change beyond inconvenient films and museum exhibits
The food so far has really been amazing, and consistently good even at its worst. The amount of spices used in the food here produces amazing flavours and, due to growing up eating spicy food, I have handled it well and loved every bite.

Nepali food has less vegetables, colour and variety than Indian food. Dal bhat, the meal synonymous with Nepali cuisine, has its own t-shirt with phrase “dal bhat power, 24 hour.” Though this very yellow and starchy meal quickly became predictable, its redeeming quality is that you get free seconds, which came in handy during the trek.

Everywhere I visited, I searched far and wide for cheap local joints with little or no fanfare, often without menus and specializing in just a few items. One of my favourite local joints in Kathmandu, far from tourist friendly area Thamel, spoiled me with momos (Tibetan dumplings), pakoras (deep fried veggie things), chow mein, curried chickpeas, and potato curry with roti, all in one meal for just 150 rupees, less than an individual dish of chow mein in Thamel!
Deep fried pakora, sweet orange jelobi and oily gurung bread are three reasons to live
I have become addicted to street food, and tend to lose all self control over deep fried samosas and gurung bread, sweets such as jelobi (orange shiny flower), and baked goods such as the twisty pastry “mafa” which my family makes back home.

And the guilt typically associated with gorging is absent, since I spend only $3-5 CAD per day on food. This could easily be $5-10 CAD per day eating in tourist areas.

In fact, traveling in the Indian subcontinent is generally very cheap. Nepal has been slightly more expensive due to the fees and costs associated with trekking in remote regions but, over one month, we averaged about $14 CAD per person per day, excluding cost for visas.

The Bad

Of course travelling India and Nepal is not without its challenges. It’s humid, chaotic, noisy and claustrophic, particularly in the big capital cities of Delhi and Kathmandu. Poverty is everywhere, hygiene is poor and infrastructure is in disrepair - roads and sidewalks are uneven and dotted with cow poop.
Nepal needs to clean up its act by cleaning up its streets
Nepal is comparable with India for the above, but trumps India in terms of its terrible roads and, thus, inefficient and uncomfortable buses. Unlike Nepal, India has trains, but they are ridiculously crowded. Nepal also seems dustier and has a bigger garbage problem, a lot of which can be seen burning in piles in the streets in the morning.

The culture shock of the entire sensory experience is too much for many people to handle, and took Hanga and I quite awhile to adjust. By now, I don’t blink at these things anymore.
Can you see the mountains in the distance? Big as they are, they can still play hide and seek
The one place which takes exception to all of these issues is Pokhara, Nepal, particularly the touristy area Lakeside. The heat and humidity is tolerable, and Lakeside is peaceful, orderly and clean. Though staying in Lakeside was a nice respite, after a short while the experience felt too washed out. The food was too international, expensive and lacked flavour, and left me wandering off again in search of truly local eating experiences.

Especially in touristy places like Lakeside and Thamel, prices are inflated but nearly everything can be bargained down generally to around two thirds the asking price, even toilet paper. I was lucky to have Hanga with me because my bargaining skills are meek by comparison. But bargaining is a piece of cake in comparison with getting around.

In India, particularly Delhi, there are many deceptive locals who appear helpful, but are really directing you to certain businesses instead of where you really need to go. My initial encounters here initially eroded my trust in the locals. This trust was thankfully restored in northern India and Nepal, where people generally leave you alone.

Hanga and I adapted out of necessity by learning to search out which locals to ask for help. Asking is, in the end, the only way we got anywhere since information is unbelievably scarce and unreliable, and streets and bus stations are not labelled. We narrowly avoided missing several buses simply by asking everyone we could, and aggregating their scattered answers.
Even the greatest philosophers couldn't answer the question... why did the chicken cross the road?
In Kathmandu I rented a bicycle for one day and rode to four temple sites, winding up and down many local pathways, and witnessing Nepalese life along the way. I knew I would get lost of course, and I did, but I simply asked locals, who are milling about everywhere in the city, every time I was unsure of the way.

The Indian subcontinent also lacks many amenities that are standard in the western world. We haven't stayed anywhere with heating or air conditioning. Daily water supply is restricted, pressure is low, and hot water is also rare. I have taken just one hot shower my entire trip. Washing machines are rare and dryers are entirely absent, which meant hand washing.

In Nepal rolling power outs left us without electricity for several hours once or twice a day, which really only hindered access to Wifi internet. Internet is hard to find and when I find it, the bandwidth crawls as fast as a caterpillar taking its time.

The Ugly

There can only be one thing to label “ugly” - the overall lack of hygiene deserves honourable mention. India is smelly and, particularly in Delhi, the stench of human and animal waste is almost unavoidable. Thankfully, Nepal is not very smelly.
Worship a cow, and how does it return the favour? By blocking traffic and leaving large piles of poop in your path
The combination shower and toilet rooms are smelly, damp and mouldy, sometimes to the point where "do nothing" is a better option. There is no toilet paper. Hanga always brought a roll everywhere with her and, since parting ways, I have failed to carry on this tradition. Fortunately I don’t need to take showers often, and have adapted to washing my tush with water, in accordance with traditional custom, whenever I go “number two.”

The Wrap Up

There seemed to be no more appropriate blog to use “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly” format. India and Nepal truly encompasses the full spectrum of stimulation of the senses, and confirms that you can’t have the beautiful without the deplorable, or the intriguing without the repulsive.

If you are thinking of traveling to either of these countries breath a small sigh of relief because some of the experiences Hanga and I had can be avoided by paying more money for guided itineraries, hotels, taxis and coach buses. But with it comes a more sterile and scripted experience, leaving no room for error.
At nature's whims, trekking requires flexibility in the face of unpredictability; flexibility not pictured here!
For example, during the day the typhoon affected the Annapurna Region, many trekkers with paid guides and pre-booked accommodations couldn't risk falling behind schedule and had to hike in the intense rain and wind. Hanga and I trekked independently and with a flexible timeline and were thus able to patiently wait out the typhoon.

Another example is staying at the amazing House-for-Everyone in Pokhara, which is open to travelers on Couchsurfing. We got to stay there free for almost one week, hang out with some really cool people, and share hearty home cooked meals together. It’s not easy sharing a house with up to 8 people at once, but the friendships made and inspiration shared outweigh the sacrifice of comfort and privacy.
Inspiration from the walls of Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu
Basically, Hanga and I chose the lower budget options, to save money, yes, but also in order to get a spontaneous, immersive and real experience, living like the locals, meeting interesting people (locals and travelers alike) and gaining appreciation for the comforts which we take for granted in the western world, such as running water, and the ability to wear shorts and t-shirt indoors on a cool evening.

It’s the time worn argument of traveler vs. vacationer, time vs. money. I consider myself rich, not in money, but in time, which allows me to travel and just live life in the most fulfilling way possible.

Here’s a recent blog with similar themes, written by my fellow Canadian, friend and travel addict:

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Wandering and Wondering - 1 Month in India and Nepal

Namaste from Kathmandu, the bustling capital city of Nepal!

I recently said goodbye to Hanga after one month travelling together. We had a really great time and I want to thank her for her awesome company. As a solo traveler at heart, I'm also looking forward to what the future brings me.
We're both selfie-challenged, so this is about the only photo we got of both of us during the trek
In chameleon like fashion, I feel like I have adapted, even embraced and fit in, to the chaotic life in the Indian subcontinent. At least Kathmandu, though a lot like Delhi, has less heat and humidity. As I slither seamlessly in and out of the barely porous traffic and wander aimlessly about exotic streets thriving with small shops and colourfully dressed people, now on my own and without time constraints, my mind is free to ponder, my body free to immerse fully in its surroundings, like an interactive video game come to life.

Being in Kathmandu has reaffirmed my pursuit of the pure raw experience: nothing can reproduce the sensory experience of actually being there. No travel videos, postcards, blogs, nothing. It brings me to the challenge then whether I can effectively translate my experience to my readers, especially after admitting that blogs don't help much. But I digress... I shall do my best!

The sensory experience I will relate to you will not be from my tourist perspective, but through sharing tidbits from my day-to-day experiences of interacting with and observing life and culture in the Indian subcontinent.
The children's friendliness really fly in the face of the western mantra "don't talk to strangers"
First of all, the people are really friendly. I believe it's largely because there are simply so many people everywhere, that they are used to the presence of others and sharing the same space. It's also because they live simple lives rooted in family, religion and in their land, and not in possessions and power.

Their level of intimacy with eachother shows, as men are very touchy with eachother. They are often seen holding hands in the street, or physically resting by leaning on eachother. And, amazingly, in Nepal I've seen women breastfeeding in public. I've seen this happen on a few buses recently. Note that the rides were very bumpy.

In keeping with the theme, Indians and Nepalis are also very hospitable. Fellow travelers I have met profess to knocking on doors, asking for and receiving accommodation and food, getting the local experience (Hanga had a similar positive experience recently where she got lost on arriving in Kathmandu but met a local who she judged to be friendly and ended up staying with his family for one night). Travelers also profess that one can walk into any village, ask to teach English, and they will invite you to stay and teach at their school as long as you want.
A very friendly and honest shopowner and his shop the size of a kitchen pantry (ironically selling kitchen stuff)!
Their friendliness, of course, is double edged because the touts and shopowners can be really annoying and deceptive. In India I am constantly pestered for money. Strangely, though, in Nepal for the most part I am left alone. I get very seldom approached for taxis or to buy something, and when it happens it catches my attention, so rare is the occasion.

More often they talk to me because they are curious about me. After all I'm as foreign to them as they are to me. In fact, I appear in their eyes as some sort of new and peculiar species. They ask where I'm from, and I tell them I'm Canadian but I usually need to supplement this information with the fact that I'm originally Chinese, though my parents are born in India... I'm honestly getting sick of this conversation.

Indians or Nepalis generally have a skewed concept of time because they live at a very slow pace. When they tell me it takes 10 minutes by walking to get there, it will almost always take half an hour.
A man on a mission
In fact, in the streets, I notice that people on the move do so very slowly. Some carry ridiculously heavy loads on their heads, or strapped to their bicycles. But the majority of people, especially in rural areas, just sit around virtually all day, often gathered in front of shops or anywhere they see fit to sit, and take infinitely small sips on their tea. They appear content doing nothing for hours on end, a mind boggling concept to me and I think to most westerners.

The lack of presence of corporations is also in sharp relief to the western world. The informal and local economy dominates. Instead of big box stores and shopping malls, streets are lined endlessly with stalls the size of walk-in closets, carts on wheels selling sweets or fruits, or blankets with various goods such as clothes and electronics laid out on them. The most common advertising signs on the street are for schools and educational institutions instead of for commercial goods. I've seen American fast food joints only twice my entire trip, in the big capital cities Delhi and Kathmandu.
Microbus ticket collector, yelling out in search of passengers
India is famous for its overcrowded trains, but Nepal may win out on crazy transportation schemes. In Nepalese cities many privately operated microbuses ply the major roads, yelling out destinations to passers-by, then stuffing passengers inside so violently the vans look like clown cars full of tangled limbs. Better yet, the ticket collectors usually hang their bodies outside the van's sliding door as it drives. I use these everyday since they appear more frequently than public buses, and routinely get crammed into them like a sleeping bag in a stuff sack.

Speaking of traffic, if China has the worst drivers, then maybe India and Nepal have the best. Their streets are unbelievably chaotic yet inexplicably work. In fact, I only noticed the other day that I have not seen a single traffic light on my entire trip. A few of the busiest intersections use men with whistles to control traffic, but the vast majority have no traffic controls at all.
Navigating with old school maps (simultaneously avoiding GPS) has always been something I enjoyed
I don't even see street signs, and have yet to figure out the addressing system. In fact, Indians and Nepalis haven't figured out their own addressing system either. I've learned that most have never seen a road map to a city. On asking locals for directions, showing them the city map has more often than not befuddled them and hindered the situation. I sat down at a restaurant recently and pulled my map out on the table, as I love to do, and the waiter sat down beside me in awe to stare at the map of his own city. I had to point out where everything

I think in this part of the world, you either know the place or you don't, and if you don't, you can only find a place by sheer luck or by meeting someone who knows. Up to this point I think Hanga and I have gotten by mostly out of sheer luck.
Kathmandu traffic is much more challenging - and fun! - than Calgary traffic
The craziest part of all is that I like the chaos on the streets. I actually think that with the right amount of collective skill and guts of all road users, be it trucks, tuktuks and cars, to bicycles and pedestrians (don't forget cows, dogs and monkeys), the streets actually operate better without traffic lights. Now if only their government had enough money to fix up the pothole-ridden roads, which make Canada's driving experience feel like Mariokart's rainbows in space.

The proliferation of English throughout India and Nepal, even in small cities and in local areas, is a lucky thing for tourists. However, it's also completely senseless at times because of the consistent disregard for correct spelling and decent grammar. Almost every menu in Nepal spells "buff" instead of "beef." A friend of mine contemplated the "craps" on the menu, which I can only assume are crepes.

Above all of my observations on life and culture so far is that while many people are poor and the city appears to be crumbling, people appear to be generally happy. Which makes me happy.

I regularly exchange smiling glances with locals passing by. It makes my day and I hope it makes theirs.
Dancing in the streets during Tihar in Nepal, the equivalent of Diwali in India
Flickr link:

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Annapurna Base Camp Trek... Dancing Away the Typhoon, and other Journal Entries

Hanga and I completed the amazing Annapurna Base Camp trek in 10 days. We had an amazing time and, fortunately, no harm came to us (save for a stomach ailment).

We apologize to friends and family, who were worried about us following the typhoon, for not getting the word out earlier about our safety. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by the typhoon and by the ensuing avalanche on the Annapurna Circuit trek.
Sunrise at Poon Hill
We stayed inside during 24 hours straight for a massive storm, which we later found out was a typhoon
Here are some paraphrased excerpts from my journal during the trek:

"We have been stranded by a massive storm with strong winds... And it might last into tomorrow!... everyone is gathered, huddled in the dining hall to stay warm... I decided to put on some music from my iPod, go outside and move around a little to warm up my muscles. Before I knew it I started dancing, and really enjoying it! I realized how long it was since I danced to good music and so I kept going, letting the beats guide my footsteps... the dance session helped me appreciate my situation of being caught in a typhoon, lifted my spirits as well as warmed me up."
Panoramic view of sunrise over Chhomrong
"I had one of the best hiking days of my life... thrusting me into a narrow, steep valley and up into the realm of the clouds, which floated past me like large blimps. Waterfall after waterfall cascaded down the cliffs, coming from out-of-sight sources beyond the clifftops... Bursts of happiness surged through me as I ascended the gorge, threatening tears. I kept feeling so lucky, wondering why I deserved this amazing experience, to stand in awe of such a beautiful landscape"
Ascending the final valley towards the Base Camp
"I also had the following thought on my epic day of hiking: it seems that the phrase "Life is Short" is very popular but nobody seems to live in a way that justifies it. If life is so short, why are so many people working so hard so they can save up for the twilight of their lives? They will likely need their savings for health issues developed through a lifetime of hard work, stress, and 'catching up with the Joneses.'"
Sunrise catches the tips of mountains Hiun Chuli and Annapurna South
"Sunrise from Annapurna Base Camp revealed a dead white and grey landscape dominated by jagged summits. It was beautiful but too cold to enjoy for long..."
Annapurna Base Camp and Macchapuchhre (Fishtail) Mountain
Soaking in the hotsprings. Took a few dips in the river too!
"After another great day of solo hiking, bathing in hot springs, then climbing terrace after terrace of rice paddies, I felt like I could do anything. So I started... running down the mountain and agonizingly climbing up the other side. By the time I found a guesthouse in Landruk I was drenched in sweat and could barely see the stairs in front of me, it was so dark. But the accomplishment was worth the sweat, pain and proving the doubters I could get that far before sunset."
Sunrise from Landruk
"I've had nice meetings with people through unexpected circumstances arising during the trek, like Jasper the Dutchman who hiked with us for 2 days, Martin the German who was stuck in the same guesthouse during the typhoon, Markwus and Hailey, Canadians I spotted taking a break beside a bridge crossing, the Polish couple at our guesthouse couple living in Australia, and Saifur, the doctor from Bangladesh at the hotspring. All these people have helped this experience become more meaningful!"
Hanga photobombing Jasper's photo
Flickr link: