See ya India: Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bundi, Udaipur, Mumbai

22 May

 I can see how India can be addicting. It’s like getting your first tattoo and then wanting to get more and more. There’s something about this country that’s so alluring and magical that it makes you feel like you’re delving deeper into the core of human existence with every passing day. It’s so raw and unapologetic here, like a once stunningly beautiful, old woman past her prime who doesn’t care what other people think of her anymore. The history, spirituality and richness of culture in India is powerful. It grips onto you and holds on tight, nearly suffocating you in its wrath. Everything that is possible in the human experience occurs in India. Over the past 7 weeks I’ve seen dead bodies being being carried down the street and then burned at the river, people drinking out of the water that said bodies were being burnt in, I’ve been attacked by a cow, warded off monkeys, bowed my head to countless gods and watched people dance wildly in the middle of the street during wedding processions. The circle of life- all of the pain and brilliance of living are inescapable in India. Despite the contagiousness of this country, there are also a lot of things that are hard to get used to. The extreme poverty, and the way that women are viewed here is sometimes difficult to see. On most days I’m skeptical of everyone. It’s strange to rarely see women on the streets here, but instead to be greeted by a troupe of men lining the streets, with their eyes glued on you as you walk past. I am now able to understand why some things have lasted for as long as they have here. India is like a big, messy, beautiful ball of colorful yarn that although tangled, still draws you in and makes you wonder exactly how it works.  

After the meditation course a couple of weeks ago I took a train in the evening from Jaipur to Jodhpur. Jodhpur is deemed the blue city as some of the buildings in the old town are painted blue in the color of the brahman caste. The area is also called Marwar (the land of death) because of the climate and environment. I got picked up from the train station by Imran, a very tall, lanky, 22 year old gymnast who was the owner of the guest house I was staying at. That night I rode on the back of a motorcycle for the first time, trying to stay balanced despite the weight of my 30 pound pack on my back. It was a bit scary going down the narrow, winding streets of the town at night as we swerved past cows and stray dogs. 

On my first full day I walked to Mehangarh, a 14th century fort that towers over the city. Jodhpur reminded me a bit of Athens, Greece, with the fort similar to the acropolis that overlooks the rest of the city. Mehangarh was one of my favorite forts that I visited in Rajasthan. Many of the rooms were magnificently maintained, with stained glass windows and artifacts ranging from textiles to Rajasthani paintings. The fort is still run by the royal family, which gave it a more informative view of the history of Jodhpur as well as the significance of the royal family today. One of the walls of the fort included the handprints of some of the widows of the kings prior to committing sati, or throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre and committing suicide. 

While I was there I also visited Jaswant Thada, a white marble mausoleum for the maharaja Jaswant Singh II. Positioned in the midst of an arid landscape and overlooking a lake, it was an absolutely gorgeous vision. I also spent much of my time weaving throughout the bazaars, as Jodhpur is known for its textiles, spices and teas. 

Jodhpur was one of my favorite cities that I visited in India. I would roam around the city for several hours taking pictures of the blue buildings. It was a compact city so I was able to access everything by walking which gave me a more intimate view of the area. I was able to dodge kids’ cricket balls or peep into the houses where women were cleaning clothes. 

Imran, the owner of the guest house, was quite a character. I and another girl did yoga on the rooftop one evening and afterwards while we were eating dinner, Imran told us stories about his life in Jodhpur. He told us that he had been dating a girl for five years, but that she is a Hindu and he is a Muslim. His parents always told him that it was impossible to marry her, but he proposed to her anyway. Three months ago they surreptitiously married and had planned on running away on Valentine’s day so that they could live their lives together. However, on February 13th, he was taken to the police station where he was met by the girl and her parents. The parents claimed that he had forced her to marry him and that he was planning on kidnapping the girl and taking her far away from their family. Apparently the fear of disgracing her family encouraged the girl to corroborate her parents’ story. The police tore up their marriage certificate and he received threats from other Hindus in the community. He hasn’t seen the girl since and now feels resigned. Imran told his parents that he would do whatever they wanted from then on and that they could arrange a marriage for him. He’s supposed to be getting married in one year once his family finds a suitable wife for him. It seems that arranged marriages are still the norm in India. I had assumed that they were outdated, but most people I talked to explained that it was simply an expectation in life, as inescapable as becoming an adult or getting a job. Surprisingly, most people I talked to didn’t seem to have strong opinions either way about arranged or love marriages. However, not getting married wasn’t an option because it would bring disgrace to the family. Although love marriages are becoming more common, it seems that marrying outside of one’s caste still causes some strife in the family although it is permitted, but marrying a Muslim if you are a Hindu is strictly forbidden. I don’t know what I would do if I had such intense familial obligations set on me. 

After a few days in Jodhpur I took a train to Jaisalmer and went on a camel safari on my second day there. Although I had intended on going by myself, at the last minute the man who booked the tour for me decided to come along. Although Babu was slightly annoying (but harmless), I was glad to have him there as I think that I would have felt slightly more uncomfortable being out in the desert by myself. A driver picked us up in the town center in the afternoon and we we drove to various locations including Kuldhara, an empty village that was abandoned 200 years ago, apparently when the minister at the time wanted to marry a beautiful Brahman woman from the village. The village leader met with the leaders from the other 84 connected villages and they all decided that she couldn’t marry the minister because she was of a high caste and he was a lower caste(despite his political prowess). Because the minister was powerful, everyone decided to leave the villages before he became aware that the beautiful girl was missing. Kuldhara was one of the 84 villages that were supposedly abandoned during this event. In the town there were a lot of brick buildings in ruin that looked quite new. When I remarked to Babu that the ruins didn’t look very old he confessed that many of the ruins were added to the village 10 years ago and are interspersed between the authentic, 200 year old ruins. He explained that the village was recreated to give tourists an idea of how people lived 200 years ago. I felt cheated when I found this out- I wish that the tourism board had kept things authentic.

Afterwards we drove to the Lukmana sand dunes where we met our camel man and Rocket, my camel, at the edge of the desert. The camel man was a small, very dark-skinned man with an all-white tunic and turban and a bright pink scarf wrapped around his neck. The color combination was so delightful against the backdrop of the desolate sand dunes. It was a bit alarming when Rocket stood up so quickly after I sat on the saddle. I don’t think I realized just how tall he was! We rode through the desert for about 1 1/2 hours and it was actually a relatively peaceful ride. Initially I gripped onto the handle of the saddle tightly until I felt a bit safer and realized that it was actually quite stable on top of Rocket. It was so fun riding on top of the camel, looking out at the desert and the increasingly darkening sky. At times it was very windy so I had to close my eyes to keep the sand from getting in them and I simply allowed my hair to cover my face without pushing it away. I felt the steady sway of the ride and enjoyed the utter peace and quiet of the surrounding area. Towards the end of the ride it started to rain, which nobody was thrilled about, but luckily I packed my rain jacket because I’d read that it often rains in the desert at night during the summer. Babu thought that I was a genius for that move. Rocket moaned and began to shake the rain off of him when we stopped, which made me squeal in fright until the camel man and Babu calmed down the camel and me. I wonder what Rocket thought of me sitting on top of him. 

After riding through the dunes we finally reached the huts where the guide’s family lived. He had a few small, brick huts with straw thatched roofs and a herd of goats. His family was very sweet and cute. We ate a dinner of dal and chapati and drank some chai on a cot next to the goats. After dinner Babu and I took a short walk on the sand dunes. It was so peaceful in the desert: we could see the blinking red lights from the windmills off in the distance and we could hear the drums from another camp nearby. The camel guide set up our beds outside of the hut as it was too hot and stuffy inside. I was worried that it would start to rain again, but the sky soon started to clear up and we were able to see the stars. It was nice to sleep under the stars and the air felt so cool and refreshing. However, I had a hard time sleeping because the dogs, camels and desert cows were roaming around so every time I heard one fumbling with something I would jolt up from my bed. On a couple of occasions the cows got quite close to our cots which was frightening me because I’ve been a bit apprehensive around cows since one charged at me at the Vipassana center.

In the morning the camel guide made a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and chai for us. We then got on the camel and rode him back over the sand dunes to where we’d gotten dropped off the day beforehand. Being out in the desert and riding the camel was one of the most unforgettable experiences I had in India. 

The next day I took a 15 hour bus ride to Bundi. I will be glad when I don’t have to take anymore long, hot, bumpy overnight bus rides anymore. Initially I had planned on going to the little city earlier on in my trip(as suggested by Bob, a musician I had met in a cafe in Kolkata), but after going to the meditation center I decided to cut it out of my itinerary. I had wanted to continue making my way south to Goa, but I had heard that the monsoon season had already started there. Since I had some more time, I decided to check out that magical little city that I’d heard so much about.

I arrived at Haveli Elephant Stables around 6:30 a.m. and the owner let me in. He said that he hadn’t had any guests in over two weeks because it was the lowest season in tourism. The elephant stables were connected to the palace and once housed the royal elephants. Circular structures posted in the ground that were once used to tie up the elephants were still present in the courtyard. Throughout the few days that I was there I rented a bike and rode around the peaceful, beautiful little city. It had many more blue buildings than Jodhpur, as many people there were Brahmans.

The next day I visited the Bundi Palace, which was right next to the Haveli where I was staying. It looked like it was straight out of a dream, they appeared like honeycombs built onto the rock face. The palace was constructed in 1631 and had a very nice courtyard that led up to several balconies and columns that had black elephants on the top. Many of the rooms also had many miniature, colorful paintings depicting royal life and scenes of the gods. The traditional Rajasthani artwork is very colorful and full of detail. The artists would use squirrel tails as brushes, allowing the figures to be meticulously drawn. Many of the rooms also offered great views of the blue city and the lake beneath it. There were only a few people touring the palace which, along with the abandoned nature of the cracked mirrors and bats that inhabited the rooms, gave it a majestic and unexplored feel. 

After touring the palace I walked up the same steep path to Taragarh, a fort nestled in the Aravalli hills that overlooked the palace. Before I got to the gate of the path leading to the fort I took a few deep breaths and clenched the big stick that I was given by Raj, the owner of the guesthouse, to ward off any monkeys on the path. I’d read in my guidebook that the macaque monkeys near the fort could be quite aggressive. Before I set out for the afternoon Raj directed me on how to use the stick if the monkeys were getting too close: he swung the large bamboo stick around and yelled ‘EY EY!’

As I was walking up the path I encountered a very friendly dog who lived at the palace and had very cutely assumed the position of guard of the palace. He followed me around for most of the afternoon and started to join me for the hike up to the fort. I was grateful that he was there- he gave me more confidence. I whispered to him: ‘will you stay with me, buddy?’ A group of Indian men who had been resting near the gate stared at me amusingly as I prepared for my journey. As I walked up the steep path I saw a macaque peer out from behind the door. I saw another as I climbed up the stairs and I swung my stick at him for him to clear the path. The dog remained a step ahead of me. As we reached the other side of the path beyond the gate, we were surrounded by an entire troupe of monkeys- about 20 of them. My heart was beating fast. There were no monkeys beyond the beginning of the path so I just had to get through the first little stretch. I started to walk faster, but the monkeys were visibly upset by the presence of the dog. Some of the monkeys barred their teeth so I stomped the stick on the ground which deterred most of them. We continued walking down the path, my heart beating even faster. When we walked past some columns with a terrace behind it, a big macaque jumped out almost as it was going to attack the dog. I screamed and jumped back, off of the path. The dog then started barking loudly at the monkeys. Five of them jumped to the edge of the path and barred their teeth at the dog. He continued to bark at them and I continuously stomped my big stick screaming: ‘GO AWAY!’ I gripped onto the bamboo stick so tightly that it cut my palm and it started bleeding slightly. The entire situation felt so primal. My adrenaline was through the roof. One of the men who was lounging on the other side of the gate opened the door when he heard all of the commotion-more out of curiosity about the spectacle than an intention to intervene. He watched as the dogs and the monkeys had a stand-off and I was caught somewhere in between. The dog eventually just walked back down the hill and I was left alone with the monkeys. I was frightened to go any further so I scurried back down the hill where I’d come from as I let out a whimper.

When I was back on the other side of the gate the men and I let out a nervous laugh. I felt defeated because I’d paid money to go into the fort and I couldn’t even see it. The men reluctantly joined me on my journey back up the fill. The last guy in the group picked up a big stone to ward off the monkeys if need be. Without the dog we got through the gate without a problem. They looked at us as if they didn’t recognize us from the incident just a few minutes beforehand. I’m so glad that I overcame my fear of the monkeys and made it up to the fort because it was amazing. It was a humongous, unkempt fort from the 1300s covered with overgrown vegetation in the middle of the Aravalli mountains. My camera ran out of battery before I had gotten up there, which I was actually grateful for because I felt totally in the moment as I played around the old abandoned fort, jumping from room to room. Next to the fort there were a couple of gargantuan step wells that were (no exaggeration) hundreds of feet deep. They had stairs leading down to them and now dried out, cracked earth at the bottom. Playing around in the totally abandoned fort with no one else around was so magical! I climbed to the top of the fort and was awarded a view of the rolling mountains and Kipling lake as well as the long road that I had biked down the day beforehand. It was such a beautiful image: a side of India that I hadn’t seen yet. It was at that moment that I decided that Bundi was my favorite city in India that I’d been to during my trip. Much to my pleasant surprise, when I made my way back down to the gate there were no monkeys to be seen.

For the rest of my time in Bundi I rode a bike around the city, visited the temples, snapped pictures of the blue buildings and the street life and visited some of the step wells. Bundi has 60 very deep step wells scattered throughout the city, but most of them are dried up and polluted. 

After leaving Bundi I took a night bus to Udaipur. I wasn’t able to sleep much on the night buses, so most of my trip for the last couple of weeks was run on lack of sleep but eagerness to see as much as I could before I left. After getting to my guest house early in the morning I visited Jagdish temple, which was a Vishnu temple built in 1651. Afterwards I walked to the city palace, which was Rajasthan’s largest palace that overlooked Lake Pichola. The palace had many terraces that overlooked the lake and offered a great view. Although the palaces had many impressive rooms that were heavily decorated with traditional paintings, mirrors and were painted in delightful colors, I was honestly getting sick of visiting palaces in Rajasthan by the time that I got to Udaipur. Rajasthan truly is the land of kings. It’s like visiting Game of Thrones.

For the rest of my time in Udaipur I took a boat ride on the lake, got a traditional ayurvedic massage, and I hung out with Anja (the German woman I had met in Varanasi a month beforehand). It was nice to tour around with someone else- I think that the next time that I come to India I will definitely either come during the tourist season so that I can meet other people to travel with, or I’ll visit with someone else. While we were in Udaipur the supporters of a corrupt political official were striking because of charges against him so the entire city was shut down to avoid any violent protests. The workers at a travel agency mentioned that they were going to a park near a lake with friends to have a picnic so Anja and I decided to join them. About 10 of us, including Anja and I, three shopkeepers and one of the shopkeepers’ family all piled in a van and made the journey up to the lake. The road was quite windy and the driver was driving very erratically so we had to stop the van four times so that three of the women in the family and the youngest son could vomit. We arrived at the park which had a small, polluted lake that a few people were swimming and bathing in. The women waded in the water in their full clothes while the men stripped down to their underwear. The women had forgotten their bathing suits, which were apparently long shorts or a dress that came down below the knees. I imagine it to be similar to the bathing suits that people wore during the late 19th century. Again, I was reminded of how glad I am that I grew up in the west. The group seemed to have everything in the day planned out and it seemed natural how separated the men and the women were throughout all of it. The women prepared lunch while the men lounged and ate snacks on a separate mat. After lunch was cooked, it was first served to the women on a small mat as the men sat on another mat. After we finished eating we cleaned up and the men had their turn on the small mat and ate food while we rested on another. It was amazing how integral the separation was even between family and close friends of the family. The women were so sweet and easy going. Even after they threw up, they were all smiles. It was a good, full day and it was nice to spend time hanging out with locals and seeing their customs. 

A couple of days ago I took a night bus from Udaipur to Mumbai, which is where I will be flying out to go back to America in just a few hours. Mumbai is an interesting city and I actually wish that I could have spent a couple of more days here. On my first day I took a walking tour as suggested by my lonely planet guide and walked around most of Colaba and the Fort area, which is where many of the colonial buildings are located. Buildings with the most glorious, regal facades can be used for something as mundane as a train station or a post office. It has been surprisingly refreshing to be in a more western city after spending the past month in Rajasthan. Walking down the street I don’t have to bypass cow poop and I can escape the heat by sitting in an AC Starbucks! I deserved that green tea frappucino. Yesterday I met up with Yasmin, an Indian girl from Switzerland who I met at the Vipassana center in Jaipur. She’s been traveling throughout India for the past six months, which must have been an interesting journey for her.

We started off the day walking around Kala Goda, a part of town with many art galleries, and visited the contemporary art gallery, Jehangir. Afterwards we went to Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, which is where most of the clothes in the city are washed. Many of the clothes are also from the factories and are washed before they make their way to countries like America. The ghat was in the slums and for a small fee that went to the workers for celebrations, we were able to step inside and take some photos. It was so fascinating to observe a place where people have been washing clothes for centuries. I felt voyeuristic taking photos of them, but no one seemed to mind and they were appreciative of the small amount that I gave to them anyway. Later on that evening we went to Haji Ali Dargah, a 14th century mosque on an islet in the Arabian sea. Although the inside of the mosque wasn’t very impressive, the area surrounding the mosque was an impressive amalgamation of scenes: Hindus and Muslims walked up the promenade which was lined by children and handicapped beggars. Next to the mosque was a landfill with goats roaming around and crows feasting. Yasmin and I sat in silence as we watched the sunset by the edge of the ocean. Little kids in their best outfits dipped their feet in the water, trying not to get the rest of their clothes wet. With one swish of the tide everyone’s sandals on a rock were swept away with the current. Everyone let out a squeal and rushed to retrieve their shoes. It felt like a good way to say goodbye to India.  

In just a few hours I’ll get on a plane to go back to America. It feels bittersweet to leave Asia. I wish that I had more time to travel- at least another year. Maybe someday. I’m so glad that I got a chance to visit India before returning to the states. This has definitely been one of the most memorable and interesting trips of my life and I can’t wait to return someday (hopefully sooner rather than later)! 

This Too Will Pass: Agra, Jaipur and Vipassana Meditation

7 May

The past two weeks have been filled with such drastically different experiences and emotions. After leaving Varanasi I headed to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and a few other historic sites in the area. By that time I had been alone for over two weeks and wasn’t having very substantial conversations with others on a daily basis so the lack of companionship was starting to take its toll. I was constantly writing in my journal and photographing as often as I could so it felt fulfilling to document my experiences so thoroughly. I knew that I was growing in incomprehensible ways, but I missed the ability to share my perspective with someone nearby or to simply have someone to laugh with.

I think that there’s a lot to be gained by making long solo voyages. You tend to meet a lot more interesting people and you have the freedom to do what you want to do when you want. Traveling alone makes me more confident in my decision making and it convinces me that I’m capable of accomplishing anything if I just set my fears aside. What once seemed challenging can be disintegrated into smaller, more manageable parts that don’t seem as intimidating. It also makes me not scared of being alone. Nevertheless, I was hoping to have met more people to travel with throughout India as I had in China, but I was hopping around in a route that’s not popular among travelers and it’s also not the prime travel season in India.

In Agra I stayed at Tourist Rest House which I would definitely recommend to other travelers. It was in a central location, close to the main tourist attractions and the accommodation was clean and spacious. On my second day there I visited the Agra fort which was constructed 1000 years ago and was inhabited by the Mughal royal families for several centuries. The Taj Mahal was a short walk away and was absolutely marvelous to visit. Once you walk through the large sandstone gates you are greeted by the magnificent and glowing Taj Mahal, which means ‘crowned palace’, in Hindi. When the palace comes into clear view you can’t help but say: “WOW.”

Emperor Shah Jahan had the mausoleum constructed in 1632 for Mumtaz Mahal, his third (and favorite) wife, one year after she passed away. It took 22 years and 20,000 people to construct it. I decided to go with a personal guide, which was definitely worth it as it was only 50 rupis (less than $1) and he explained things to me that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. For most of the tour I was very hesitant because I was afraid that it was a scam and that he would charge me more money after it was over, or that he was going to try to steal my camera. As we spent more time together I eventually began to trust him more and I loosened up. I think that he definitely got commission from the gift shop that he took me to after the tour, but I had planned on buying souvenirs anyway… so we both won. As it cost 14 million dollars in gold coins to build the Taj Mahal, his son Aurangzeb overthrew him for spending so much of the taxpayers money. Shah Jahan had also planned on constructing a second Taj Mahal in black directly behind the marble Taj to house his remains, but his son captured and imprisoned him before his dream was realized. Only the foundation of the second Taj Mahal was constructed so he is also interred in the Taj Mahal beside his wife. Shah Jahan  spent the remainder of his life imprisoned in the Agra Fort, which overlooks the Taj Mahal. If someone ever wanted to put me under house arrest I wouldn’t mind living in a glorious palace and gazing out at the Taj Mahal for the rest of my days.

The Taj Mahal had many nuances that could be easily overlooked upon first inspection. On the border of the doors as well as on the inside of the mausoleum are parts of the Koran in seemingly uniform size. It’s an optical illusion because the writing on the bottom is small and then gradually enlarges as it reaches the top so that all of the writing appears the same. My guide also took out a small torch and shined it on the precious stones encased in the filigree gate. The burnt orange glowed like fire. He also ran the torch along the marble to show its translucency. The Taj Mahal is also flanked by two large, identical sandstone buildings: one a mosque and the other a guesthouse, although no guests actually stayed there. It was the most breathtaking building that I’ve ever seen. As I left the grounds during sunset I kept glancing back at the glowing white building, as if it might change or as if one more glance could reveal some imperceptible secret to me.

During my last two days in Agra I visited Itimad-ud-Daulah, the mini Taj Mahal, as well as a nearby town called Fatehpur Sikri. I didn’t spend enough time in the town to give a credible account, but I did spend enough time there to encounter an extremely annoying man who followed me around the village for 30 minutes. He kept trying to help me and telling me that I was going the wrong way (because he was a mind reader and he knew exactly where I wanted to go) when I was just allowing myself to wander and take photos. After repeatedly telling him that I was just taking pictures and that I didn’t need help, he finally followed me into a restaurant where I was considering eating lunch. When I glanced over the menu and decided not to eat there, he appeared from another floor of the restaurant and proceeded to direct me on where to go. I finally snapped at him and screamed: “LEAVE ME ALONE. YOU ARE VERY ANNOYING!” Some local women even gestured for him to leave me alone. I got the impression that he was something of a town dunce. He called me a crazy woman!

One of the things about being a solo woman traveler is that the men are quite relentless. They are always trying to sell you something, or trying to get you to come into their store, or to use their autorickshaw. A common phrase you hear on the streets is: “Yes, madam. How can I help you?” Did I ask you for your help? It seems like you can’t have a conversation with a man on the street without him expecting something from you: whether it be a tip for their advice, a visit to their shop, or a physical encounter. I have gotten very good at ignoring people over the past month. It’s been helpful that people keep thinking that I’m Indian because I think that it saves me from a lot of additional harassment, but it’s gotten annoying to have people ask me 5 times a day if I’m Indian and then for them to be surprised when I say that I’m American. When I explain to them that I’m half black and half white they say, ” Ok, so you’re half American.” They don’t realize that America is a country of immigrants. They think that it’s like England where white people are the native inhabitants. That just shows me that America needs to do a much better job of displaying its diversity in the media.

After spending a few days in Agra I took a train to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Rajasthan is known as the most culturally rich  state in the country. The desert background inspired colorful architecture, textiles and an obsession with jewelry. On my first night I was eating at a restaurant when I met Peter, a Polish jewelry maker with long dreads who had been living in the city for the past few months. He told me about his experience at the nearby Vipassana Meditation Center with a sparkle in his eyes like a wanderer through the desert who had finally found a watering hole. You could tell that the course had impacted him in a positive way. Vipassana meditation is one of the oldest forms of meditation in India. It was taught by Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) 2,500 years ago. He spoke to me about the non-religious nature of the meditation.  It simply allows you to see things in an objective manner. Humans are always concentrating on pleasant things, dwelling on unpleasantness, or fantasizing about the past or the future. Vipassana aims to retrain the habit patterns of the mind, which constantly craves an experience that is not the present reality.  During the course you must take a noble vow of silence and meditate for 10 1/2 hours a day.

Traveling by myself I spend so much time in my own head: replaying conversations that I had with someone two months earlier or making plans for when I return to the United States. It can be such a challenge to catch yourself when you’re fantasizing about the past or the future and to simply concentrate on being satisfied with the here and now. There are many Vipassana centers throughout the world and the course has also been taught in prisons in India and purportedly has received positive results for reform. As there was a course beginning just a few days later, I decided to sign up to try to  make the most of the remainder of my solo voyage. As per Peter’s suggestion, I stayed in Tony’s Guest house on Station Rd and MI road, which was the most personable lodging  experience that I’ve had since I’ve been in India. I felt like I was at a home stay as the hotel was in the house that Tony had grown up in and he treated each of us as if we were guests in his home. The hotel had a garden rooftop with a couple of hammocks where people would just hang out. He would serve free tea and chai in the mornings and there were also jam sessions at night with saxophone players, a bassist and tabla player.

On my first full day in Jaipur I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a ride from a woman who lived next door and so that I could go jogging in the central park. I was afraid that running as a single woman would be unsafe in India, but it’s okay if you do it in the early morning in a park area. Afterwards I ate breakfast with some other travelers at the guesthouse and everyone seemed very interesting.  Solo travelers always have their own stories. There was a girl whose family was originally from Shanghai but had grown up in Brazil. She was living at an ashram in Jaipur. There was also a guy from Sudan who had been living in Sinai for the past years, playing music and doing sound engineering. Later on in the afternoon I visited Galta Ji, the monkey temple, which was in the outskirts of the city. I tried to take the local buses as often as I could while I was in Jaipur, which is something that I was hesitant to do in other cities. Taking the bus is so much cheaper and more interesting. I like doing things the way that locals do it or eating places where they eat. It offers me a much more intimate perspective of the city. The Galta Ji was one of the coolest things that I’ve seen in India so far. It was surrounded by the mountains and because it was in the outskirts of the city it was shanti shanti (peaceful). Galta Ji is a temple that is several hundred years old and is adorned with paintings. It was so fun to take pictures of the monkeys that were hanging around the temple. The surrounding area had a lot of old abandoned structures that had become their home. They were basically running the show. It was so interesting to see them interact- I saw characteristics in them that reminded me of humans. I kept thinking: “I know someone who does that!” or “that monkey’s face reminds me so much of this guy’s.”

On my last couple of days before I headed to the meditation center I visited Hawa Mahal, a pink sandstone 5-storey built in 1799. It served as a structure for the royal ladies to have a prime vantage point for festivals and mundane city life watching. Jaipur is known as the pink city because all of the buildings in Old town were painted pink in the 1800s to welcome Prince Edward of Wales. On my last day in the city I visited Nahargarh, a fort constructed in the 1730s which offers a great view of the city. While touring the fort I encountered a security guard who started telling me about the history of the fort. When I told him that I didn’t want a guide he insisted that he wasn’t one. I let him show me around to the different rooms for a few minutes and then he directed me to go down the stairs so that we could see the bottom level. As we walked down the narrow stairs I stepped to the side so that he could go first because he kept awkwardly squeezing himself onto the same stair as me. He reached out to rub my back and when I told him that he didn’t have to touch me he asked “why not?” I was slightly shocked at his behavior because I felt that I was being very cautious in my dealing with men here, but I think that it’s a reminder that you can’t always predict who will try to take advantage of you.  I think that some men here tend to get out of control when they have an unplanned interaction with a woman because the sexes are so divided here. Women and men can’t have a platonic relationship unless they are friends with the family. Women and men are separated to protect women, but I think that it’s counteractive because when some men have the opportunity to have a more intimate connection with a woman (which is so rare for them), they will take it even if it’s unwanted. Although I know that these things can happen anywhere, it honestly makes me glad that I grew up in America.

I arrived at the Vipassana meditation center on April 24th and was instructed that I couldn’t leave until the morning of the 11th day, upon course completion. I was looking forward to the meditation because I was feeling overwhelmed by the insanity of the city and was in need of some quiet time where I could totally decompress. During the course we all took a vow of noble silence, which meant that we could not talk or communicate in any way during the 10 days so that we could meditate as if we were in complete isolation; however, most of the Indian women continued to talk the entire time. We  also could not engage in any form of entertainment such as books or writing. These were considered diversions as we were to completely delve into the meditation. We were completely separated from the men, but we meditated in the same room, on different sides. We were given modest accommodation of a single room with a bathroom. The course followed a strict schedule of waking up at 4 a.m. every morning and heading to the meditation hall for group meditation until 6:30 a.m. when we ate a modest vegetarian breakfast. We then spent the rest of the day meditating with a break for lunch at 11:30 a.m., as well as  couple of hour break throughout the day for rest or walking.  We were not served dinner as we were not to meditate on a completely full stomach, but we were served tea and a small snack at 6:30 p.m.

Later on in the night we watched an informational video featuring Goenka, the modern-day teacher of Vipassana meditation who is responsible for making it internationally known. The discourses were quite interesting and funny. Goenka spoke of his own personal experience with Vipassana meditation and also gave us instructions on how we should meditate and what we might be experiencing. He said many things that were simple truths: that people are in control of their own aversions and cravings which generates misery or happiness. Until we are able to retrain our mind not to respond to these sensations then we will continue down a cycle of our own misery. People are always unsatisfied with the present moment so they think about something in the past that made them happy or they dwell on something negative that someone else said. We plan for the future to avoid concentrating on our current experience. He also shared many anecdotes to better help us understand Vipassana meditation, or the teaching of Buddha. One day a powerful Brahman man (the priestly caste) came to Buddha’s meditation center with the aim to kill him. He was unhappy that his entire family was meditating and he felt that it would take away their Hindu piety. Buddha asked the man if people ever came to his house presenting gifts that he didn’t want. The angry Brahman responded: “Of course, and I give it back to them.” Buddha said ” You have come to me with your present that I do not want, so you can also can keep that. I don’t want it.” When we think that an injustice has transgressed we take this present and we continue to roll in the negativity, instead of denying to accept it in the first place.  When someone says something malicious to you, that is their own problem. That comes from misery within them. You do not have to react to their ill-will and allow them to spread their misery to you as well. The thing that struck me the most about the teaching was the simple truth that happiness and misery  is within all of us. If you get angry and dwell on something that someone else said, you are simply using that person as a personification of your own misery. The meditation trains you to feel pleasant or unpleasant sensations and not to respond to them; but to simply observe them objectively and to realize their impermanence. This too will pass.

Not talking for 10 days wasn’t the most challenging part of the meditation: it was the extreme pain in my legs and back of sitting for 10 1/2 hours a day and also trying not to daydream that was difficult. So what do you think about when you cannot speak to anyone for 10 days and your eyes are closed for 10 hours a day? You think about everything that’s ever happened to you in your entire life. Non-sequitur thoughts would appear totally at random and then an image would pop up of the future. It made me sad to think of my family getting old. I thought of where I wanted to see myself in 10 years from now. Maybe settled down with a house and a partner. In what state? In what country? Memories spanned back to experiences that I hadn’t thought about in years: going camping with my family when I was four years old, going hiking in Yosemite a few years ago, getting sick on my fifth birthday, going on an excursion to Portland, the photograph of my great grandmother (the one where her eyes seemed to follow you to every corner of the room) hanging up in my grandmother’s house and wondering where that had gone. Songs that I hadn’t heard in years popped up in my head and I tried to remember the words. I thought about my family, all of my friends, my past lovers and my enemies. I would chuckle thinking about something a friend had said years ago.

It was amazing that my thoughts seemed to have no pattern, but would weave throughout my memories like a poorly edited film. It was extremely frustrating. I felt completely out of control of my own mind. I just wanted to scream! In the first couple of days we were instructed to do nothing but concentrate on the regularity of our breath. This was the most difficult for me because I wanted to attach some mantra to help me focus, but we were instructed not to create any verbalization or image to help the process. We had to simply accept the reality of our breath. On the third and fourth day our concentration expanded to focus on the sensations on our nose and then every sensation that occurred on the area between the bottom of our nose and our upper lip. During the first few days I felt like I was going to go crazy. I kept thinking: ‘I’m not mentally strong enough for this. I’m supposed to clear all of my thoughts and think about nothing but a sensation that crops up on my nose for 10 hours a day!? I might snap. I might literally lose it in here.’ Then I would come to my senses and realize that the generation of negativity was only making me more excited and less likely to concentrate. If I had been told that I could leave within the first few days I probably would have left. However, by the fourth day we started doing actual Vipassana meditation, which was much more interesting for me. We would concentrate on every sensation that occurred on different parts of our body beginning from the crown of the head and going down to the toes. I would scan my forehead, eyebrows,temples, cheeks, nose, lips, chin and then work my way down my body piece by piece. If I could not feel the sensation in a certain part of my body then I would focus on that part for a couple of minutes until I got a tickle or I could feel the air from the fan brush against the body part.

As the days progressed we would scan through the parts of our body faster in a free-flow manner, which created a tingling sensation that would flow through my body and I would follow it like a trail of light. We were instructed not to move our position for 3 hours out of the day, which meant that we would have to  simply observe the shooting pain in our leg and back and not respond to it. The point of the meditation is to simply observe the sensations and to not develop aversions or cravings towards them. Surprisingly the pain  was often uplifted after a minute of concentrating on the spot in an objective manner instead of attaching the emotion of unhappiness to it. Every experience in life is impermanent. On our last few day of the course we were given our own small meditation cells devoid of light. It was a small room with a pillow on the floor with a tiny vent in the ceiling where you could hear the wild peacocks around the center cawing and the monkeys chattering. I actually preferred staying in my cell because it was easier to concentrate in the complete darkness without anyone else around.

On my 7th day at the centre I was walking down a path to our rooms after meditation when I spotted a cow. I stopped in my tracks as I wasn’t expecting it there, but began to cautiously tip-toe past it so that I could get to the other side. The cow then bucked it’s head and charged at me with it’s horns! I screamed as loudly as I could and ran the other way down the path. A woman opened up her arms to hug me and tried to console me in Hindi, but I was so shocked that I nearly cried. Being in complete isolation the interaction seemed all the more alarming to me.

After the course was over I felt lighter and more refreshed, but the words couldn’t quite come to me as to why. It felt awkward to speak. Everyone was smiling and laughing when the course was over as we spoke to the people we had been living so closely to but had not spoken to for the past 10 days. We fumbled on our words and smiled gleefully like a giddy schoolgirl speaking to her crush for the first time. Overall the course was very interesting, but extremely challenging- harder than I thought that it would be. It reminded me that I’m still very far from perfect, but in a way I don’t feel as anxious about that now. I worry about what others think of me and I expect too much from people sometimes. These aren’t things that I’m trying to deny, but it’s something that I can continue to try to work on. Right now I don’t feel like the course transformed me in remarkable ways, but I think that it’s a process that I’d be willing to give another chance.

Right now I’m staying in Jodhpur, which is where I’ll be until tomorrow when I take a night train to Jaisalmer. There I’ll do the camel safari and sleep on the sand dunes! After Jaisalmer I’ll head to Udaipur, Amhedabad and then I’ll lounge on the beach in Goa for a few days like a G. I can’t believe that I only have a couple of weeks left in India! It’s been quite a ride.

Hitchhiking with Mother Teresa

15 Apr

The first couple of days in Kolkata I didn’t do much besides walk around the neighborhood near my hotel on Sudder Street and get my bearings.  I discovered a local vegetarian restaurant a few blocks away from where I was staying where I could get a super filling plate of rice, a bowl of dal, alook sak(spinach and potato curry) and roti for 28 rupis, which is less that 50 cents. It always amazed me that I was the only foreigner and woman in the restaurant. I have to admit that before I came to India that I was very worried after hearing so many stories about the way that women are treated; however, I haven’t received any extremely unwanted attention. Obviously you have to be smart and not engage in long conversations with strangers and also dress conservatively, but the biggest annoyance has definitely been people trying to rip me off. I think being a bigger woman and darker skinned also helps. People can tell that I wasn’t born in India because of the way that I act, but they’re often surprised that I’m from America. “You mean South America? You don’t look like you’re from America. You look like Indian girl. Did your Mom or Dad give that to you?”

The heat in Kolkata was slightly overwhelming after visiting high altitudes in China for a month. Kolkata was noisy, crowded, incredibly hot and poor. Pigs, stray dogs, women begging for milk for their children, men selling food and spices, rickshaws, British style taxis, colorful buses and hordes of people inundated the streets of that city. I stayed in a very simple, single room at Ashok hotel on Sudder Street. Initially I thought that my bed might have bed bugs because I kept waking up itching in the middle of the night, but then I started to think that my skin was just being irritated by the sweltering heat. There was a fan in my room, but it did little to mitigate the heat emitted from the 9 a.m. sun. Connected to my room was a small bathroom with a shower that didn’t work and a toilet that didn’t flush. There was a faucet beneath the shower and a bucket underneath that collected the water, so I had to get creative.  I would fill up a 2 liter water bottle, lather myself up with soap and then pour the contents of the water bottle over me. The water bottle shower proved quite refreshing in the morning after waking up hot and clammy from the heat of the night. I would then pour the excess water that had been collected in the bucket down the toilet and discard of my waste.  I wasn’t necessarily dissatisfied with my accommodation as I was simply happy that it was only Rs 350 a night ($6), which seemed cheap for Kolkata. It was also very close to a lot of services so I could just walk through the alleyway to Sudder Street to get my shoes fixed, find someone to clean my laundry or to access the internet.

While I was in Kolkata I visited the South Park Street Cemetery which I would definitely recommend visiting if ever you’re in the city. It was a labyrinthine cemetery filled with dome-shaped or pointy peak graves dating back to the 1760s. The most interesting part of the cemetery were definitely the engravings. Many of the graves were for workers or their spouses of the East India Company.The graves had very poetic epitaphs. What was crazy was that many of the graves were for people in their early 20s- younger than me now. Walking around the cemetery I couldn’t help but think about how much the city must have changed since then. It’s incredible that people used to hunt tigers on Sudder Street just a couple hundred years ago.

After the Cemetery I went to Mother Teresa’s house to see the little room that she lived in and to visit her tomb. There were orange flowers on her white tomb that spelled out: ‘We pray for you Mother Teresa.’ All that she did in Kolkata was impressive. She built many schools and even left the parish for a year to live in the slums of Kolkata to help poor and dying people there. While everything that she did was very admirable, I was slightly surprised that her reason for helping the destitute was because she was receiving messages from God. She thought that God was telling her to go to the slums to help people there and to spread the message of Jesus.

Later on that evening I took a taxi to the BBD area because I wanted to visit Old Chinatown and to hang out with my people. Old Chinatown had a large Chinese Christian community for centuries. The taxi driver was confused because there are now two Chinatowns and he didn’t know where the old one was. He ended up driving me around for over an hour, when it should have only taken 20 minutes to get there. We stopped every 10 minutes to ask for directions. Finally one person we talked to said that it was in 10 minutes walking distance, so I told the driver to stop because I was getting fed up and I could not be in the back of that taxi any longer. Before I got into the taxi we had agreed that I would pay RS 150 but when he stopped the vehicle he told me it would just be Rs 1000 (which is about $20 instead of the $3 we had agreed on.) That’s a big difference anywhere, but India especially. I guffawed, “You’re joking!” He wasn’t joking. We then yelled at each other for a bit, him arguing that he drove all around the city and me yelling that it wasn’t my fault that he got lost. He growled at me, I screamed profanities at him and then I threw Rs 200 at him and leaped out of the taxi. I briskly walked away and he tried to run after me but luckily there was a traffic jam so he had to weave through taxis. That was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me while I was in Kolkata. I finally reached Old Chinatown on my own but Nam Soon, the Chinese church I wanted to visit, was closed and the entire area seemed rather anticlimactic. However, I did meet a couple of elderly Chinese men who I spoke Chinese with for a bit and who told me that they were born in Kolkata. Interesting!

On my birthday I went to the Blue Sky Cafe, a restaurant near Sudder Street, and saw an older man who I’d met there the day beforehand. Bob was an Irish musician with a bald head and a long, raspy white beard. He talked about his travels around the world in his melodic, now watered-down, Irish accent. He told me about a dream that he’d had a month ago that he was hitchhiking around the U.S. with Mother Teresa. They started in Texas and they really wanted to go to D.C. to meet Obama. They got to D.C. and Obama let Mother Teresa into the white house but not Bob. Mother Teresa had a long cane with a hook and she told Obama to give some money to her charity otherwise she would hit him with her cane. Bob then told me that yesterday he went to Mother Teresa’s house for the morning mass and he was pondering whether or not to volunteer. Suddenly a rather staunch nun from Texas approached him and told him that they needed volunteers. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He was also advising me to allow myself to steer from a plan and to end up in places that I hadn’t anticipated visiting. He told me a story about going to Bolivia and ending up on a bus going to a town that he hadn’t intended on going to. However, once he got there it was beautiful so he decided to stay for a few days. One day while he was roaming around the small town he ran into a man who he became rather friendly with and who told him to check out a nearby house. He wasn’t impressed with the simple house so when he visited his friend again he asked him what the big deal with the house was- it was nothing to write home about. His friend told him that a very nice man lived in that house for 15 years, but he would only leave his home once a week for the market on Thursdays to sell his marmalade. One day the man just disappeared. He had been captured by the Israeli Police. The man was a Nazi called the Butcher of Leone, apparently a very notorious Nazi from France who’d been missing since World War II. Bob was an interesting chap- a great storyteller.

Later on in the day I visited Victoria Memorial, a grand marble building erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The park was quite nice to lounge around in for a couple of hours and to contemplate my 26 years of life. Afterwards I sauntered over to the Fine Arts Museum and St. Paul’s Cathedral which were all in walking distance. There wasn’t much to see in Kolkata, so I don’t think that I will go there again when I come back to India, but it made me all the more excited for the other cities that I will visit in India.

On the 10th I took a night train to Varanasi. It was quite difficult for me to find my hotel, Shanti Guesthouse, because Old town is just a maze of alleyways. There were often power outages in my guesthouse (which I think is common all throughout Old Town), but the bathroom and shower were working and the private room was only Rs200. My guesthouse also had a rooftop restaurant that awarded a good view of the Ganges and Manakarnika Ghat. Varanasi is like nowhere I’ve ever been before. Cows, buffaloes, stray dogs, motorcyclists, people and food all coexist in the same very narrow allies. Above it all the monkeys reside in the urban canopy, leaping from building to building. I definitely accidentally stepped in cow poop a couple of times. Varanasi is so full of color, sounds and smells.

My second day there I visited the ghats near the Ganges river and watched a few bodies on stretchers decorated with flowers being carried to the burning ghat, Manikarnika. Later on I visited Vishwanath Temple, The Golden Temple, in old town. I wandered around the temple like an idiot, not knowing what to do. A priest pushed my head down onto the shrine and then dabbed my forehead with clay and a red powder, forming a tikka…and then he laughed at me. I was slightly taken aback by this entire transaction. Later on that night I took a boat ride down the mata ganga (the Ganges River) and watched people bathing and swimming, buffalo wading and people tending the logs at the burning ghats. Although the river was surrounded by death, it didn’t at all feel like an unhappy place. Instead it felt vivacious and rich with culture.  My guide (Sonny) bought some Kingfisher and snacks for us so we sipped on our beer as he shared stories about the city. He told me that there are so many palaces in Varanasi (around 20) because kings would come to the city to die but they would want to stay in a palace during their last days. After they were cremated their homes were donated to the city so many poor people live in the palaces now. Sonny also told me that there were five types of bodies that weren’t burned at the burning ghats: children under 10(because they don’t have sense), pregnant woman(because they have a child in them), holy men, people who have been bitten by a snake and people with leprosy(because leprosy is considered a sign of holiness). Instead a huge rock is tied to their limbs and they’re dumped into the river. Buffaloes and cows are also dumped into the river when they die. Knowing all of this I was surprised that Sonny still dipped his hand into the river and sipped on the holy water. I asked him if he’d ever gotten sick from it and he cried “of course not!” He said that he believed in the mata ganga- she was his mother and she would never do him wrong.

The day before I left Varanasi I met up with Anja, a German girl who I’d met on the train. We spent the day walking around the city and visiting the Durga and Hanuman temples. I have a feeling that I’ll probably be sick of temples in a couple of months, but the Hanuman temple was interesting. There were monkeys in a fenced-in area at the entrance. Initially it seemed like a monkey reserve. Inside the temple there were people drumming, singing and playing an instrument that looked like a horizontal accordion. It was nice to spend the day with someone else, especially after being alone for nearly two weeks. I don’t feel particularly lonely yet, but it would still be nice if I could meet someone to travel with for at least a few days. Later on that night I saw the nightly ceremony to celebrate the Ganges Rives and Shiva that takes place at the Dasaswamedh ghat. Four men swung around a holder with several burning candles in unison while music featuring a traditional flute and a man singing with a sturdy, deep voice serenaded the audience. There were probably a thousand people present for the ceremony. Some were sitting near the stage or on the stairs while others were sitting in boats on the river. I spotted some people sitting cross-legged on the boats with their eyes closed and their hands clasped in prayer as they mouthed the words of the song. As I retreated to my hotel and walked down the promenade of the ghats I took one look back at the mata ganga with the candles that were illuminating the boats nearby and the hundreds of people surrounding the Dasaswamedh ghat. The sweet music flowed through my ears. I want that impression of the city to remain in my head forever.

This morning I arrived in Agra, where the Taj Mahal and red fort are located. The hotel that I’m staying in, Tourist Rest House, seems like the best hotel that I’ve stayed in in India so far. My room is about Rs 400 and it’s spacious and clean…and everything in the bathroom works! The hotel also arranged for an auto rickshaw to pick me up from the train station, free of charge. Tomorrow I’ll dress in my traveler’s Sunday best and head to the Taj Mahal for the sunrise.

The End of My China Adventure

6 Apr

I arrived in Kolkata, India around 12 a.m. last night and much to my dismay things went quite seamlessly. I arranged for my hotel, Ashreen Guesthouse, to pick me up at the airport because I didn’t want to be wandering around an unfamiliar city in India by myself late at night. I left the airport and walked into the suffocating heat and humidity of the city to be greeted by a tiny, dark-skinned man who was shaking his head back and forth and holding a sign with my name on it in block letters. This morning I moved to a less expensive hotel, Ashok hotel, which was just down the street on Sunder Street. To my knowledge, Sunder street has the cheapest and dumpiest backpacker hotels in Kolkata, which is just what I’m looking for. My room is RS 350 a night which is equivalent to about $6. I had honestly expected the rooms here to be cheaper, but for a private room with a bathroom, it’s not bad. It’s hard to pin down an impression of Kolkata just yet, but right now I’m feeling slightly overwhelmed by the heat and excited about all of the yummy, cheap food I’m going to be eating. It doesn’t seem intimidating. This afternoon I bought a couple of tunics and a thin summer scarf, which is much more comfortable than my long sleeve shirt and thick shawl that I was wearing. I’m already rocking the local attire. I don’t have any concrete plans for the next 48 days as of yet, besides a list of cities that people have suggested I visit. I’ll stay here until the 11th and then I’ll head west, although today I’ve been flirting with the idea of heading up north to Darjeeling.

My last month in China was hands-down the most amazing month I’ve had in the past two years. When I last wrote I had just arrived in Dali and was planning on heading up to Lijang to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge. I headed to Lijang with a group of 4 other travelers from England, America and Israel and a Chinese guy who was a receptionist at the hostel that we stayed at in Dali. The architecture in Lijang seemed more authentic than in Dali, but the vibe of Dali is much more chill and not as touristy. The day after we arrived we started the two day Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek and it was an incredible voyage. The views were truly breathtaking and the terrain was so diverse. We began the trek in lush fields, encountered steep, rocky terrain and ended the trail by the gorge with the tumultuous Yangtze River running through it. We hiked for 7 hours each day and spent our first night in Halfway guesthouse located in the middle of the trek. It was freezing at the top of the mountain and there was no heat in the rooms, which made me develop a bad cold that turned into laryngitis and left me without a voice for a few days. It was so nice to be outdoors again. It reminded me of my summers working at national parks in America and it made me yearn for that time in my life again. I was really grateful to be traveling with the four for a week…although we spanned from 19-30 yrs old, were all from different countries and have different interests, we had a blast together for those few days.

Traveling on a budget definitely brings people together. As a backpacker you figure out how to make things work any way you can. You learn how to be resourceful, think on your feet, travel lightly and to be satisfied with the best that you can do. That means that if something doesn’t work out the way that you had planned you just shrug your shoulders and go for the next best option. I’ve already given away or thrown out 3 kilos worth of stuff that was in my bag. I’m reminded of how much excess baggage can weigh you down and just how much you can live without.

After Tiger Leaping Gorge we spent one more night in Lijang, said our goodbyes the next morning and started on our own journeys. I partnered up with an Israeli guy I’d met in Dali, because we were both dreadfully sick so we figured that we could wallow in our sickness together. Instead of heading north to Shangri-La as we had planned we decided to go south to Shaxi to be in warmer weather. We bought Chinese medicine from the pharmacy and reminded each other of when to take our cough syrup like an old married couple. Shaxi was absolutely delightful -it was one of my favorite towns that we stopped in in Yunnan province. Shaxi was a small town in between Lijang and Dali and claims to be the last authentic city in Yunnan. It was very tiny with a minute town square, a little temple and a few small shops. The dusty, narrow cobblestone streets and vacant town square reminded me of the wild west. I kept imagining two people posted at opposite sides of the square with their hands on their harness, preparing to duke it out. The next morning we went to the Friday market , which is the major tourist appeal to the town. Ethnic minorities from the surrounding mountains make their way down to the town center every Friday to buy their supplies for the week. There were tables of meat, cages with live chickens, stalls with clothing and electronics and even tables of fake teeth. Some of the older minority women in colorful clothing set down their baskets and sat down at the table. The sides of their teeth were filed by men in jeans with drills and they were fitted for a new pair of front teeth. It was really interesting to see people dressed in colorful, unique outfits and to be surrounded by the energy of the weekly market. Yunnan is my favorite province that I’ve been to in China so far. Being in a congested, polluted city for 1 1/2 years I didn’t realize how much beauty and diversity China contained. I’m glad I got to see a glimpse of that before I left.

After Shaxi Nate and I went back to Dali and I spent the day riding a bike around the city and I visited the lake. The next day we separated and I took a night bus from Dali to Kunming. The bus ride was really an experience that I can’t say I’d like to repeat. I’d slept in a sleeper bus when I was traveling in Japan, but the layout was completely different. The sleeper buses in Japan are basically chairs that recline but in China there are actual narrow bunk beds that fill the bus. I was on the top bunk and although I was strapped down it was impossible to sleep. The driver was driving so fast like he was on a high-speed chase. We got to the Kunming bus station around 2 a.m. and since there’s a law that sleeper buses can’t be on the road from 2-5 a.m., we were parked in the parking lot until 6 a.m. and tried to sleep. People in other buses were standing outside of the bus and being so loud. At one point some people were even having a loud argument…needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink.

Later on that morning I went to Shilin, the stone forest that was a couple of hours away from Kunming. There were huge stone karsts in all sorts of crazy formations as far as the eye could see. Imagine a forest that has huge stones in place of trees. It was interesting, but it was very commercialized and there were a TON of tourists there. It was so packed that I had to wait in line to get around tight areas of the park where the stones were close together. It’s strange to me when there are so many people in a natural place- I feel like it takes away from some of its majesticness.

The next morning I flew from Kunming to Chengdu and spent about 5 days in Sichuan province. I went to the Chengdu panda reserve which was a real treat. I didn’t realize just how fun pandas are. They’re mostly solitary animals, but sometimes they hang out in small packs. One of the pandas was by itself and rolling around in the dirt, then it ran down the hill, grabbed a piece of bamboo, started chomping on it and then ran back down the hill to start the entire rendition again. They were real cute.

A couple of days later Nate came to Chengdu and we took a 10 hour bus ride to Jiuzhaigou Valley. It’s an area with many lakes filled with crystal clear, glacial water. The lakes are a beautiful, iridescent light blue or green color. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It looked like someone had put dye in the water, but you could also see down to the bottom of the lake which was incredible. It was SO cold there- about 35 degrees. At one point when we drove higher up in the mountains it started to snow! Nate was so excited about it because he’d never seen snow before(being from Israel). I had packed up all of my winter clothing and sent it back to America before my travels so my shorts with tights underneath, a sweater and rain jacket wasn’t really appropriate attire for that weather. The next day when we returned to Chengdu Nate and I finally say good-bye to each other and I took a 15 hour night train to Xian.

In Xian I met up with my friend Kate from Shanghai. We stayed in a suite at a 5-star hotel which was absolutely amazing, especially since I’d been sleeping on trains and in freezing hostels for the entire week beforehand. Having a private driver and a staff in the hotel who were attentive to our every needs was such a different experience. I usually spend a day walking around the neighborhoods of the hostels that I’m staying at and try to figure out the cheapest local eats. It wasn’t until the last day of the hotel stay that I realized that I hadn’t walked around the neighborhood at all, but that most of the trip had been door-to-door. Don’t get me wrong, staying in the lap of luxury was incredible, but it was so different from the experiences that I’m used to having of being squeezed in between locals in public transportation and trying to be quiet as I climb onto the top bunk in a room of 10 people. I’m sure that as I get older I’ll prefer traveling the more expensive way, but right now traveling as cheaply as I can offers me the most adventures. On our first day we went to the Terracotta Statues. It was fascinating to see something so world renowned that has been around for so long. The farmer who had discovered the statues was also at the museum taking pictures with people and signing books. Later on that afternoon we walked through the Muslim quarters and then rented bikes and rode down part of the city wall. The next day we drove to Mt. Huashan and spent the morning and afternoon hiking to the peak. Although it was an incredible view, the smog of the city made it difficult to see very clearly, which was slightly sad. It’s been so good to spend so much time outdoors over the past month. It’s something that I’ve really missed in my life. The last couple of days in Xi’an before I flew out to India I mostly just relaxed and walked around the city. It was strange to say good-bye to China, but I know that I’ll return someday. I keep thinking about returning to China in a couple of years and continuing to work on my Chinese…but who knows what could happen in two years. Earlier this week I also sent in my official acceptance to Berkeley so I will definitely be attending in the fall! I can’t believe that I’m going to be living in the bay area. I’m so excited to reconnect with some friends living in SF and to go to school for something that I’ve become really passionate about over the past couple of years. While I’m traveling I’m going to try to keep myself busy by publishing some of my photos and words about certain legs of my trip. I’ve already been in touch with an editor of an indie magazine who wants me to write about my trip through India.

Right now it’s hard to imagine what the next two months will entail, because right now I feel like a clean slate. I’m armed with some advice that I’ve been given by friends, my Lonely Planet guide book, some possessions on my back and little plans…which feels right. While I’m in Calcutta I’d like to volunteer teaching English to children or women for a few days if I can. Recently I keep thinking about the refugees I taught in Pittsburgh. I miss them.

Pictures from my trip throughout China will be up shortly! For now, Bidai from Kolkata!(the owner of the internet cafe just told me that it means good-bye in Hindi).

Cong Shanghai Dao Yunnan

18 Mar

It’s been 10 days since I left Shanghai but it feels more like a month. My last few days in Shanghai were really fun and different. I was staying with my friend Kate in her amazing apartment and I had some memorable adventures. A couple of weeks ago I went on a gangster tour throughout Shanghai for a piece that I was writing for Shanghai247. We met the tour guide outside of the Changshu Lu metro stop and walked around the Jing’an Temple-French Concession area for a couple of hours. She pointed out buildings that had ties to gangster activity in the early 20th century. It was really interesting to walk around places that I was so familiar with and to be presented with information that made me look at it completely differently. I love it when layers are revealed to allow me a new perspective.

On my last day in Shanghai I wanted my photographer friend, Darcy, to take some pictures of me so we went to an old building that she had spotted earlier on a bike ride. We walked to the edifice of a colonial building that was surrounded by a series of similarly old buildings from the 1920s and appeared to have not been inhabited in years. A few of the windows in the buildings even had pictures from old magazines pasted on them. It was a huge construction site so we crept around back and asked one of the workers if we could take pictures in there. They had no problem letting us through(incredibly!) so we roamed around for a couple of hours and wound up in a colonial mansion that was a simply incredible structure. She took some pictures of me in front of the sweeping staircases and in the dim, mysterious light. It was such a random and fun adventure; I really couldn’t believe that they let us in there. If we were in America we would have been kicked out in a second.

As much of a rewarding experience Shanghai was, I think that I left at just the right time. The insanity of the city and the expat scene was starting to wear me down. Regardless, I’m grateful for the cool people I met in Shanghai who I’ll be able to visit around the world and vice-versa. I’m so glad that I’m going on this trip. I think that I’m ending my two years in Asia on a really good note.

On Wednesday afternoon last week I flew to Shenzhen and spent the night there. Just as I’d been warned, there wasn’t a lot to do there. I walked around an area called Dongman which used to be a market for centuries. Now it’s a labyrinth of cheap clothing stores and street food. I wished that Dongman was still the way that it must have been just 40-50 years ago. I then took the metro to Hong Kong and stayed at the Check Inn hostel in Wan Chai. The hostel was very comfortable and pretty spacious for a hostel in HK.Wan Chai was a cool area with a lot of small restaurants and hip boutiques. The next day I went to Kowloon and visited Chungking Mansions which is where a lot of people stay when they come to HK. I’m so glad that I didn’t stay there because it seemed really seedy. On the bottom floor there were a lot of sketchy looking men trying to sell things or just hanging around and ogling people. I then took a bus to the Kowloon Walled City Park and visited their interactive museum. There was a lovely, calm park in place of the Kowloon Walled City, which was demolished around 1995. Ever since I listened to the 99% Invisible podcast on The Kowloon Walled City I’ve been kind of obsessed with it. It was the most densely populated area to exist…ever. Gangsters and prostitutes hid out in the city and there was also a lot of illegal dentistries. Apartments upon apartments were stacked upon each other and everyone living there had to get water and electricity illegally. They also didn’t have a trash system so people would just have to throw all of their trash out of the window. I can’t imagine living in those conditions. It’s amazing to me that it existed until only 20 years ago. I’m interested in things that fall between the cracks.Kowloon City was completely different from the rest of Hong Kong; it had a lot more character and there were also a ton of Thai restaurants there… blocks upon blocks of Thai restaurants, which was kind of bizarre. After visiting Kowloon I took the Star Ferry to Central. Riding through Victoria Harbour, memories from when I visited Hong Kong when I was 17 (nearly 10 years ago now) resurfaced. It’s unfortunate how easy it is to forget things…especially when you don’t write them down.

The next day I met up with Erina and Stam, the Taiwanese twins who couchsurfed at my place in Shanghai exactly a year ago, for dimsum. It was a truly HK experience and it was really nice to meet up with the girls again. Later on that afternoon I took the cable car to Tian Tan Buddha, the tallest outdoor buddha in the world. HK is beautiful from above. From the sky the buildings looked like leggos. I then hurried back down to Central to meet up with a friend from Shanghai247 who was doing a visa run. It was really nice to spend the night with someone familiar. We got drinks in the Lan Kwai Fong area and then met her friend at a house party. I really enjoy meeting up with people who actually live in a city that I’m visiting. It gives me a much more intimate perspective of the city. Although I liked Hong Kong, I don’t know if I would choose to live there. It’s so expensive and it’s not as interesting as mainland China. It reminded me of a mixture of San Francisco, Seattle and New York, but it didn’t have it’s own soul. I actually think that I like Singapore better. I liked the ethnic enclaves of SG. HK was basically like Shanghai in the future, but without the grittiness or all of those idiosyncrasies about Chinese culture that were so always so stimulating. I think that that’s what I’ll miss about China the most…when I get back to the states I won’t be able to walk out of my door and see something totally unexpected everyday.

After my four days in HK I took a train from Shenzhen to Kunming. The 29 hour train ride actually wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. No one was spitting on the floor and I’ve definitely seen grosser bathroom conditions. I was the only foreigner on the train, which got a lot of attention. I was able to practice my Mandarin a TON which I was really happy about. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been using my Chinese a lot more frequently than I did in Shanghai and I’ve been feeling much more confident about my abilities. My Chinese isn’t as bad as I like to think and I was actually able to hold a few conversations on the train (albeit I had to ask people to repeat themselves or speak slower). I spent a few hours practicing my characters which everyone was stoked about it. A few people around me joined in- telling me that I was writing the characters incorrectly and that the radicals needed to be closer together. My biggest fear of moving back to the US is that I’m going to lose the motivation to continue learning and I won’t make the time for Chinese. Overall, everyone on the train was pretty friendly and it was really nice to see such a different landscape through the train windows.

I stayed in Kunming for about a day but I didn’t get to do anything there. I met a couple of people in my hostel who I toured the town center with and who also ended up coming to Dali, which is where I’ve been for the past couple of days. It’s been really easy to meet people in Yunnan because a lot of the people take the similar route of Kunming-Dali-Lijang-Shangrila so I’ve been running into people I met in my hostel in Kunming. Most of the people I’ve met are also traveling by themselves so everyone’s been really friendly and open to hanging out. Yesterday I hiked up Cang Shan mountain with a couple of guys from the hostel. It was a slightly demanding hike as it was very steep and was mostly stairs. We got a good view of the city and had lunch at a restaurant next to a temple. Old graves lined the side of the mountain. Dali has been absolutely lovely. It’s a gorgeous city surrounded by mountains and the huge Erhai Lake. There is also a lot of Buddhist influence so the old town (which is where I’m staying) has a lot of vegetarian restaurants. The city center is a series of small, cobblestone streets that has houses with traditional, sloping Chinese roofs. I think that I got food poisoning from something that I ate yesterday because I got sick when I came home last night and spent most of today in bed. I was finally feeling better in the early evening so I walked to the Three Pagodas which was an absolutely gorgeous site. The three golden pagodas are nestled between the mountains; as the sunshine peaked through a crack in the clouds they illuminated the buildings and gave them a majestic look. This evening I walked to the lake and sat by it for a bit, watching the sparkling of the buildings in the distance and the stars above. It’s so nice to see stars again after such a long time.

Tomorrow morning me and three other people I’ve met from the hostel I’m staying at, Jade Emu(which I definitely recommend if anyone ever ends up in Dali!), are taking the bus to Lijang and hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s a two day trek so we’ll hike for 8 hours the first day, stay at a guest house along the trail and hopefully finish the next evening. It should be a really amazing trip and I’m so glad that I’m hiking it with other people. The three I’m going with seem really fun and easy-going so I think that we’ll have a great time.

After Lijang I’ll head to Shangrila for a couple of days and then back to Kunming to fly to Chengdu. I’ll spend 6 days there hanging out with some pandas and then I’ll take a 12 hour train to Xian. I’m meeting my friend Kate from Shanghai in Xian so I’m really excited about that! Over the next couple of months I’m going to exercise maintaining a positive outlook and not getting so worried about things that are meaningless in the long run. Just since I’ve been traveling for the past couple of weeks I’ve felt so much more light-hearted and less anxious than I did in Shanghai. It’s so good to be traveling again- it’s one of my greatest joys in life. There are so many amazing things to see and interesting people to meet in the world! I’ll try to blog at least every couple of weeks to keep you all abreast on my trip. Until the next time…Zaijian!

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Bringing in the New Year

31 Dec

I feel slightly abashed that it’s been one year since I’ve written in here. In my defense it has been an extremely busy year! I think that I have been keeping in touch with most of the people who I care about though, so I’ll spare you all of the details. I’m picking up my blog again because I’ve decided to take a break from contributing pieces to webzines so frequently; instead I’m committing my last three months in China to reading, writing (for myself), getting ready for grad school and just generally enjoying the end of my time in Shanghai.

Last Friday I had an interview for admission into the M.A. program at U.C. Berkeley’s Journalism school with an alumnus. It was fun to hear about his experiences in the program and to tell him about what I plan on doing with my future. I would be absolutely elated if I could get into Berkeley’s J-school. The program looks amazing, especially the new media courses which is what particularly interests me. I’d learn about web design, multimedia and how to generally best utilize the web as a platform for delivering information. Living in the bay area would also be wonderful. I have a few friends living in SF who I’d love to reconnect with and it would be great to have the opportunity to visit Yosemite anytime that I wanted. It’s unbelievable that it’s been nearly six years since I worked there. Hopefully I’ll be reconnected with one of my favorite places on the earth very soon.

Even if Berkeley doesn’t work out I already accepted admission into Temple University’s J-school. I think that I would enjoy living in Philadelphia and it would be good to be close to family and friends in Pennsylvania since I’ve been gone for so long anyway. I also got accepted into Point Park University in Pittsburgh but I wasn’t very impressed with the program.

It was great to spend a few days in Pittsburgh during the fall. Things hadn’t changed too drastically and I still have a few friends there. Memories that spanned back five years appeared as palimpsests when I revisited the familiar streets of that idiosyncratic, charming little city.  Driving back from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia I was admiring the autumn foliage through my rose-tinted sunglasses when I was suddenly overcome with sadness. At the time I couldn’t necessarily ascertain why I was upset because I had enjoyed seeing my friends and visiting the city that meant so much to my young adult years, but later I realized I was crying because I can’t go back there…at least not now. My insides have altered too much (for better or for worse) over the past couple of years in China. It seems unfair to return to my old life and pretend that everything is the same; it’d be like trying to recreate a distant dream.

It’s going to be strange moving back to America. Right now it’s difficult to know how I’ll feel as my reactions to things sometimes surprise me, but generally I’m very excited to return to the states. I can’t wait to easily access the food that I want and to enjoy cooking as much as I used to. I’m looking forward to jogging without having to bypass a ton of people and feeling like my lungs are being damaged by the smog. When I return to the states I think that it will be slightly alarming to be bombarded by advertisements and media that is culturally relevant to me and that I can understand again. I feel so protected from outside views or peer-pressure in China because I’m immune to the judgements and expectations of the local people due to the language barrier and cultural differences. In Shanghai I feel so free to explore whatever I’d like without worrying about whether or not I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing to be a normal, successful, attractive and happy 25 year-old woman. It will be strange to lose that intellectual freedom.

The main reason why I decided to blog today is because I wanted to share my experiences of traveling to Singapore and Indonesia over the holidays. Last Sunday I flew to Singapore and had a lovely time at an eco-friendly hostel called Tree in Lodge as suggested by my brother and his girlfriend. I was originally meant to visit them in Singapore but their moving date got pushed back so I spent the week by myself. It was definitely a successful trip though and I still had a great time traveling solo. I made a point to try to connect with locals so that I could experience more than just the touristy side of Singapore. On my first full-day in Singapore I took a hop-on hop-off tour bus that took me around to the different neighborhoods. Singapore has a very interesting history because it’s been colonized so many times and due to the immigration of many different ethnicities there are a lot of very distinct ethnic enclaves that encompass the city. People always rave about the food in Singapore and although that was delightful, I was most interested in the distinctions between all of the different neighborhoods (Chinatown, little India, Arab quarter). It reminded me of Shanghai in that it is very western and there’s constant development there, but you can tell that the people still have a great pride for their culture. There’s not a sacrifice of the old ways with the advancement of the city. In the schools the children of certain ethnicities have to learn the language from their home-country. For example, the ethnically Chinese had to learn Mandarin in grade school even if their family had left China 50 years ago.

On Christmas eve night I went to a dinner party that was hosted by Couchsurfers. The event was a great success with about 40 people who showed up. It was really fun to meet local Singaporean people and for them to tell me about their culture. I felt really comfortable, as if I’d been in Singapore for more than just a day. On Christmas day I almost forgot that it was Christmas until the receptionist at the hostel shouted ‘Merry Christmas’ in Chinese: “Sheng dan kuai le” as I walked out the door. It doesn’t seem right that Christmas should be warm. When I think of Christmas I conjure up images of my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, my dad tending the fire and endless viewings of the Christmas Story. I’m slightly surprised that I spent a second Christmas abroad, but this holiday season was less emotional than last year’s at least. Around this time last year I think that I was encountering my first bout of culture shock; I felt so disconnected from everything that seemed normal and comfortable to me. This Christmas I decided to celebrate by going to a night safari in Singapore. My favorite part was definitely being in the bat room where bats were flying around us and eating bananas that were dangling from trees. It was interesting to see species of animals that are only present in Asia.

The day after Christmas I took a ferry from Singapore to Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia. Once I arrived in the port city of Tanjung Pinang I took an ankotan (a white van) to the place where I was staying in Trikora Beach, Bintan.  Tanjung Pinang slightly reminded me of Tangiers, Morocco. It was very poor and people were extremely insistent about trying to ‘help you’. I actually got ripped off by the van driver although my host at Trikora Beach haggled with him in Indonesian and brought down the price a bit.

The ride from the port city to the beach was a very unique experience. The ankotan appeared to be about 40 years old and the door of the bus was wooden with chipped-paint; it looked like it belonged on a craw-space. The door was permanently folded open so that the van was exposed the entire ride. I sat on the other side and took pictures as we were driving through the countryside. As I was sitting in the van looking at people speeding by on their motorcycles, I felt intoxicated by the sense of adventure and the journey that I was about to embark on…not only in Indonesia, but in life. I was reminded of just how important traveling is to me. In my possession I had nothing but my bag, my thoughts, the old van and the road in front of me.

The place where I was staying at Trikora Beach was a family-run business owned by a man named Lobos. He was a very dark-skinned Indonesian man with blue eyes. With his mustache and suave demeanor he reminded me of pictures that I’ve seen of my maternal grandfather from the 1950s. Trikora was an island where only locals lived instead of an expensive resort like the rest of Bintan. There were 10 huts located on the beach and most of them were empty besides the huts where Lobos and his family were staying. The hut was made out of wood and had a bamboo roof. The one that I stayed in had a queen bed with a mosquito net encasing it. A bathroom was also connected to the hut but had very rudimentary fixings: there was a small toilet in the corner of the room that you couldn’t flush. I had to fill up a tiny bucket with water and poor it down the toilet to rid my waste. The accommodation included a single dangling light in the bedroom and no wifi. My time there couldn’t have been more idyllic. Every morning I went for a jog around the small town and returned to the main hut for a breakfast made by one of the family members. The food was beyond delicious. In the mornings I would eat a pancake stuffed with papaya, pineapple and banana and then in the evenings I would eat fresh, sauteed vegetables, homemade tempeh and rice. The beach wasn’t the best for swimming as it was very rocky and there was a lot of vegetation, but when the tide was low I would wade in the water or go searching for sea shells. In the evenings I would go to the main hut to read and write and talk to Lobo’s sister whose English was impeccable. She was a wonderful, middle-aged Indonesian women who spent all day on the internet talking to people she didn’t know on skype. Every few minutes she would ask me my opinion about something or to define something in English: “What does married with kids mean?” Within 5 minutes of meeting her she told me that her first husband was a British man who she had three children with. She was living with him for a few years in England until he left her for another woman: “Of course he did! He’s a MAN!” she guffawed. I was surprised that she was able to reveal such personal information with me so quickly, but for some reason in that setting it seemed appropriate.

In the wake of the Western New Year I’m satisfied with the state that my trip has left me in. I’m optimistic about the future and grateful for all of the trials and wonderful experiences that have helped me grow up over the past year and a half. Happy 2013 to everyone!

The Powerful and Unpredictable Year of the Dragon

31 Jan

If the new year signifies a shedding of the old year and a chance for new beginnings then westerners such as myself in China have the fortune of  getting two rebirths. January 23rd was the first day of the Chinese New Year: 2012 is the year of the water dragon which represents power and unpredictability. On CNY eve I spent the day flying to Nagoya, Japan and immediately after arriving I caught a night bus to Tokyo. This was my first experience on an overnight sleeper bus and it was a very interesting albeit a mostly sleepless night. The atmosphere of the bus was seemingly very comfortable and sleep-inducive. The lights on the bus were turned off 10 minutes after departure. A personal awning attached to the reclining chair that could be pulled down to cover your head created a cocoon-like effect. Despite the relaxing fixings I quickly became paranoid that I would miss my stop when I realized that the bus driver was only making announcements in Japanese. I woke up about 2-3 times during the night when the bus stopped, smoothed down by bed hair, rubbed my eyes and ran down the aisle to repeatedly ask the non-English speaking bus driver: ‘Tokyo? Tokyo?’ I finally arrived in Tokyo the next morning at 7:30 a.m. without too much of a problem. This was the first vacation that I’d gone on to explore a new country since backpacking throughout Europe and the old feelings of excitement mixed with mild fear of the unknown were dredged up. As I dragged my rolling suitcase through the unfamiliar subway the delusional smile and wanderlust look in my eyes covered my exhaustion from traveling for 17 hours. The subway was difficult to navigate and was much more complicated than Shanghai’s public transportation system. Surprisingly I couldn’t find as many people who spoke English in Japan as in Shanghai. I know that Shanghai is also an exception for China as there are a lot of foreigners who live and work here.

On my first day in Tokyo I visited the Yasukuni-Jinja, a shrine for establishing peace in the empire. Luckily I had my Lonely Planet guide book on Japan to point me in all of the right directions during my trip. As I was traveling by myself I wanted to ensure that my trip would go as smoothly as possible as I wouldn’t have anyone to rely on if things went awry. During the afternoon I took the walking tour suggested by my lonely planet guide(I definitely suggest following the walking tours when visiting a new city) which took me through a neighborhood of alleyways with boutiques, small restaurants and cafes. It was a very cute area that kind of reminded me of Pittsburgh. Later on in the day I visited the area of Shibuya which is where ‘Lost in Translation’ was filmed. It was sort of an anticlimatic area with a lot of incredibly expensive stores and restaurants. I can understand why the movie was filmed in that area as it gave the effect of a largely populated area with denizens who seem to be on a mission, but it didn’t have any character or warmth. In the evening I visited the Tokyo Tower which was an eiffel tower looking building that was extremely lit up and that hovered over the city. I went to the top of the building and looked down the viewing window in the floor, watching the torrential rain against the powerful lights. I wasn’t as impressed with Tokyo as I thought that I would be and I had the impression that Shanghai was much more interesting and much less reserved. My second day in the hostel I met two really cool girls my age who also came to Japan by themselves. We spent the entire day walking around the city and it was really lovely to meet new people and to share a random adventure. It was especially nice to be around girls my age as I’m really missing my lady friends back in the states. I don’t have any close girl friends in Shanghai who I can share everything with and it makes me sad. The girls and I spent a ridiculously long time looking for the Sumo wrestler museum which we walked through in about 5 minutes; BUT we did see a sumo wrestler walking down the streets in his robe and sandals and we of course forced him to stop so that we could take his picture. One of the girls later saw him at Burger King and he ordered two double cheeseburgers. Lunch of champs. We walked around Asakusa, the area near our hostel and visited Senso-Ji, the oldest temple in the area. It was a very impressive temple that was filled with people and that had a  large incense container in the center that sent smoke billowing in the air. It was nice to meet some people while I was traveling and to explore the city with them. Obviously I didn’t run into Murakami in a coffee shop in Tokyo as I’d wanted to; however I did buy his new book at a book store and spent much more money than I wanted to on it… but it was my one souvenir from my visit. Tokyo was so incredibly expensive; it was much more expensive than what I’m used to paying when I travel in the United States. It seriously scared me how much I spent my first two days of my travel on mostly food, transportation and admission into temples. For the rest of my time in Japan I was struggling to ensure that I had enough money to get to the airport before my flight while seeing the places that I wanted to see and not starving myself.

On my second night in Tokyo I took a night bus to Kyoto where I stayed with a couchsurfing host in the center of the city for about 3 days. He lived in a very traditional Japanese home with paper thin walls. There was no heater in his apartment and I slept on a small cushion on the floor with about 4 blankets. I continued reminding myself that I slept in a tent without electricity in Alaska for three months so if I could survive that then two days of wearing three layers of clothing to bed should not be a big deal. Although I didn’t sleep very well because I was so cold, my couchsurfing host and his roommate were so nice and easy going and willing to share their culture with me that it totally made the experience worth it. My host didn’t have a shower in his home and the only bathroom was outside so I visited the public bath which was a five minute walk away. I absolutely loved the public bathhouse and it was definitely one of my favorite experiences in Japan. As soon as you entered the bath house of your gender you stripped off your clothes and sat down on a little chair and washed yourself in front of a mini shower. Afterwards you jumped into the various indoor and outdoor jacuzzis of different temperatures. There was also a sauna that you could sit in and watch Japanese trash t.v. between the dunking. After having your fill of jacuzzi you returned to the little chair and mini shower to wash yourself again. Oh I wish I was there right now! What a relaxing and liberating cultural experience.

I totally loved Kyoto. It was much more interesting and cultural than Tokyo. The city was surrounded by the beautiful Higashiyama and Arashiyama mountains. It was an ancient capital of Japan so there were many shrines and temples scattered throughout the city. It’s probably amazing to see in autumn. On my first day in Kyoto I visited a temple near the train station and Gingkakuji Temple which means ‘silver pavilion’. It was a very peaceful and beautiful nature walk. I spent a couple of hours touring the area around the temple and walked a path along the creek called the ‘Philosopher’s Path’. It was such a peaceful, magical and inspiring day. I thought about how nice it was to be traveling and to be young and about the many opportunities to experience great things in life. The next day I visited Fushimi Inari which was a fascinating shrine that had hundreds of orange torii(a traditional Japanese gate) that form a path up the mountain. There were also several stone foxes lining the torii that served as protectors for the prosperity of agriculture and business. According to my Lonely Planet guidebook: “The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of ‘possessing’ humans.” Towards the top of the mountain I was granted a wonderful and eery view of the city juxtaposed to the beautiful and mysterious orange torii. I enjoyed my time in Kyoto so much that I decided to delay my train to go back to Nagoya and explore that city. I spent an extra full day touring Kinkaku-Ji, the golden pavilion. It was a breathtaking golden temple in the middle of a lake. Shortly before leaving I took a walking tour to Kiyomizu-Dera, a temple nestled in the middle of the Higashiyama mountains and I walked down Sannen-Zaka and Ninen-Zaka, charming cobblestone streets lined with sophisticated, traditional Japanese tea houses and inns. I also visited Gion, the entertainment district, in hopes of spotting a geisha. My host warned me that it was very difficult to meet any geishas as they were very discrete. After about 30 minutes of walking down the streets in the biting cold and seeing waitresses who were dressed as geishas I almost gave up my search, but I eventually saw a few heavily made up women dressed as geishas leave what looked like an inn and enter a taxi. One of the girls looked at me with a look of a trepidation in her eye as I  cupped my hand around the lens of my camera, but by the time it occurred to me that they might actually be geishas, they disappeared into the dark car. I suppose I will never know whether or not they were actually geishas. My time in Kyoto was absolutely wonderful and charming: a perfect destination for a solo journey filled with inspiration and beauty.

On my last night in Japan I took the train back to Nagoya where I was to fly out the next morning. It was the cheapest roundtrip flight that I could find. Although I was struggling to eat the cheapest food that I could find in Japan I decided that I had to go to a traditional sushi restaurant before I left. I walked into a bar and asked a couple of businessmen who could speak English the best place to get sushi in the area. I only ate a couple of rolls at the sushi restaurant as it was so expensive, but it was delicious and I was amazed by the sushi-makers ability to quickly and efficiently bundle up the different ingredients into mouth-watering morsels. I decided to cancel my hostel in Nagoya as I was catching an international flight at 9 a.m. and the airport was 1 hour away from the city center. I’ve slept in the airport at least a few unmemorable times before and it’s never been an issue. After walking around my empty accommodation for the night and eyeing a comfortable looking chair where I would be able to spread out, there was an announcement that that portion of the building(the only heated part of the building) would be closing! I was forced to sleep in the lobby next to the doors for the entire night and watch the janitor clean the floors on his industrial floor scrubber with impeccable haste. After several hours of clenching the extra clothes that I mustered up from my suitcase to wrap around my body, some security guards asked me if I was cold and if I wanted to stay in the lobby of the Family Mart that was attached to the airport. I have never spent a night in the lobby of a convenience store before and I can’t say that I’d ever like to do that again. Three other people nodded off to sleep as I sprawled out on my bags with my scarf wrapped around my head to keep out the light and pop music that played throughout the night. It was obviously very difficult to sleep and I was counting the hours until the departures’ area was open so that I could be in warmth and not worry about trying to force myself to relax. I tried to imagine what homeless people think about when they’ve reached the end of their desperation and they can’t find consolation in the fact that the next day they’ll be in their comfortable bed. I wonder if you stop thinking about better situations after experiencing things like that night after night. After walking for 10 hours everyday for 6 days, sleeping in a traditional Japanese house with no heat and sleeping in the lobby of a convenience store I finally reached Shanghai on Saturday evening completely weary and ready for a warm shower and hot food. Although my last night in Japan was not ideal, I definitely appreciated my time there and I think that it was as memorable as it could have been. I was blown away by how clean the streets were although I could never find a trashcan! How does the city stay so clean without an abundance of public trashcans!? That’s what I’d like to know. The people were also so polite and respectful; it was a nice respite from the spitting and public defecation that is commonplace in China. Although it was so nice to finally be able to clearly see the stars for the first time in 5 months, I was looking forward to returning to Shanghai. This city has so much character and vivacity and I don’t need to worry whether eating on the subway is inappropriate. It also made me realize that I’m looking forward to getting a little older and being more financially secure to travel more luxuriously.

This evening it finally hit me like a gorilla with a sledgehammer just how incredibly exhausted I am. My mood was greatly affected and I didn’t even realize it. When I came home from my internship and running errands today I caught a glimpse of the care package that a couple of my wonderful friends in Pittsburgh sent me and it made me burst into tears. I cried for the things I’ve left behind in hopes that they’ll be there when I return. I cried because I’m so amazed and grateful for the awesome people I’ve met in my life (both friends and family) who continue to support me and miss me and show me that they appreciate me. I’m off to sleep for about 11 hours. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be a better person. May the year of the dragon be an auspicious one!