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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
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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:

Friday, 3 October 2014

Of Mountains and Chai

Shimla is in the state of Himachal Pradesh - Himachal literally means "in the lap of the Himalayas" (Wiki source) and Pradesh means state. Himachal Pradesh is itself a world away from Delhi - less crowded, different looking people, and - of course - sitting in the foothills of the Himalayas, it is naturally beautiful.
One of the hills crowning Shimla
The refreshing feeling we experienced upon arriving in Shimla from Delhi nearly negated the culture shock of days earlier upon landing in Delhi from Toronto.

Hanga and I left behind the suffocating big city and emerged from our overnight bus to a pristine otherworld, perched atop forested hills overlooking the faraway valley shrouded in mist. Seeing Shimla before my eyes was surreal, like a living paradise one dreams about or sees in movies, like Avatar.

I took a deep breath of fresh air, marveled at both nature's gift and human's ability to build on even the remotest of hillsides, and then got down to business finding our host.

As I've come to learn in my short time in India, reliable information is nearly impossible to come by. And particularly when it comes to getting around. The best thing to do is ask around, yet information given by locals still somehow is unreliable and needs double- and triple-checking.

In this way, we have somehow managed to navigate this untamed country. And occasionally make unexpected friends along our journey as well. Such as Mukta and Sameera.
Hanga and I barged into Mukta and Sameera's home - and we all became friends!
Hanga and I barged into a home, thinking it was a commercial lodge from the outside, looking for help. Upon being greeted by Mukta and her daughter Sameera, we were embarrassed to discover it was a private home. However, we were overwhelmed by their instant kindness – they offered us to take a break and have some tea.

Mukta and Sameera are both open minded individuals, having previously lived a life of travel around India, since Mukta’s husband used to be an army officer. Our conversations were fun, passionate and stimulating.

Subsequently, they invited us back for tea again later that day and, then the day after, offered an invitation for dinner, which Hanga and I gladly accepted. Sameera’s mutton curry was absolutely delicious (and a rare meal with meat so far this trip). After just a few days, and over many cups of tea, we became fast friends.
Amrit and Auntie, our generous hosts in Shila
We received a similarly warm experience with our actual hosts in Shimla. Here was another India-esque experience, as a previous potential Couchsurfing host in Delhi recommended to meet his brother in Shimla, who worked at a charity tour agency called Wahoe. The office had beds in the back but they were full, so Amrit, one of Wahoe’s employees, offered us his hospitality.

Amrit and his parents were very lovely people, inhabiting a humble and bright home in the Upper Mall of Shimla. Amrit's mom made us parantha (deep fried pancakes, yum) for breakfast and a curry for dinner.
Large statue overlooking Shimla, Jakhoo Temple
Aside from connecting with our amazing hosts, we checked out the Jakhoo Temple site at the very top of Shimla, inhabited by territorial monkeys who will steal from your hands, pockets, and backpacks if given the chance.

We also stopped by the apple festival, where we tried apple sorbet and apple ice cream.

Shimla was a special experience. And there was a cherry on top of it all to make it even sweeter - my grandma grew up here. This fact hovered above me in the mist, 
Near where my grandma grew up - Main Square in Upper Mall, Shimla
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PS. coming soon - photo blog of our 3-day trek to Malana, a remote village in Himachal Pradesh.