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Solo travel in India

27 Aug

I spent two months traveling alone in India.  This fact is not groundbreaking.  No one is writing a book about me.  I am not the first to have done this, and nor will I be the last.

But lately, I have been thinking of it a lot due to all the news coming out of India of sexual harassment (here is a good synopsis of some of the reports).  But, like a lot of women, my experience in India was overwhelmingly positive.

I traveled by train and bus.  I was scammed at times, stared at constantly, followed a few times.  I put myself in places where things could go wrong.  But they didn’t.

the masses

the masses

Now — let me be clear — I am not very tall (at 5’6″ certainly not all that much taller than Indian men and women) and at the time, my skin was pretty brown and with my dark eyes and hair, I certainly did not stick out.  No one ever guessed that I was from the US.  I was even told that I could pass as Indian by more than one Indian.

And my skin color and hair color and the fact that I did not go out at night and did not wear revealing clothes probably helped.  But it also probably helped that I smiled.  A lot.  That I made eye contact and tried to connect with people.  I had a belief that if you see me, if you see me as a person, you will not hurt me.

I live in NYC now.  I hear on the news stories of women being followed off the train and getting raped.  I hear stories on the news of people being shot in neighborhoods not far from mine.  I am more afraid here than I ever was in India.  In India, I never worried that someone was carrying a gun.  In India, I was never looked up and down in quite the same way as I am here.

This is not an India problem.  This is a problem of how women are viewed and treated – everywhere.

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13 Nov

In celebration of Deepawali

Planet Aurora

Stepping out of my guesthouse and into the narrow alley ways was …. well, it was a bit of a shock.  Glad I had been to India before!  It took me a few minutes to get my bearings and to remember to ignore or just say no to so many of the requests coming my way (music lessons?  tea?  silk?  hashish?  boat ride?  see the cremations?  see my store, no you don’t need to buy?  where you from, madame?  how are you today?  need a male companion?)

I got directions from my guesthouse to head down to the Ganges – and there I headed.  I got turned around in the many alley ways and ended up on the main road – full of stores. It was a pretty insane re-introduction to India, though it got me on my feet pretty quickly.  I was followed for a short distance – though…

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20 May

this seems to be something i should be keeping in the forefront of my brain…..

Planet Aurora

Happy new year friends.

I have never been a huge fan of new year’s — seeing as it seems so artificial (why is this the new year?  being an east coaster, in the dead of winter, it is hard to feel like it is a new year) and it always carries such high expectations, which never seem to pan out exactly the way you hope.  Though, I do like the idea of making resolutions — or at least reflecting on your life in the past year and looking forward.

For me, this past year has been tremendous – from making the leap to buying my ticket, to planning this journey to setting into motion all the small things that got me here.  I am a planner – I love the work that leads up to the big event – so this year was great for me.  And then — I left…

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8 months in review….

13 May

8 months in review…..

Best Meal:

This is such a hard one…. I have had so much amazing food….  but here are a few of my favorites:

  1. grilled chicken from a street vendor in peru – plate with beet salad, maize and amazing chicken – though this was quickly overtaking by the roasted pig fresh out of the huge oven bought on the street a few days later.  Oh man, I could have had 3 plates worth!
  2. masala dosas in Southern Indian, eaten with my hands
  3. vietnamese soup from a street stall
  4. fresh fruit from the street vendors in bangkok
  5. not quite a meal but…. chai on the trains in india first thing in the morning

drying fish

Strangest food:

Oh man, SE Asia is the place for … different… food.  I wasn’t always terribly explorative but….

There is this sandwich that is really common in Vietnam.  It is combination of the French influence (a baguette) but truly Vietnamese – on one side is a pate-like substance, on the other there is butter.  Then you can choose between pork or a fried egg (or both). Then the condiments and extras include cucumber, tomato, chilies, fish sauce and other unknown stuff.  It is actually quite good – as long as you don’t think about the ‘pate’.

I had some meals in Thailand from the street carts that I have no idea what they were.  Some were strange, for sure.

And if I HAD tried it, baby bird still in the shell would make the top of the list!

Best Book

I have probably read close to 40 books this year.  I am a bit of a voracious reader, which was great because I read a lot, but not good because it meant that I finished books super fast.  So – I cannot remember them all – but one of my favorites was White Tiger by an Indian author.  It is super funny and reflective of life and people in India – I read it while there and I could not stop laughing.

things lost

2 pairs of underwear (but one was not my fault – the laundry service lost them!)

1 pair of socks (damn laundry service)

umbrella  – uh, no idea where I left that…..

my SA cell phone – also no clue….

Best Guesthouse

I have stayed in many many crappy places.  But I have also stayed in some really nice places – whether it was a guesthouse in Vietnam that over looked the beach, or a simple room in a family’s home in Nepal, or a clean room with my own bathroom in Huaraz – the  things that started to matter to me was quietness, cleanliness and bathrooms.  Funny how your needs start to get boiled down to simplicity….

sunrise on the ganges

Coolest Wildlife Sighting

Seeing mama and ‘baby’ rhino from the back of an elephant!  I mean, it was a rhino!  And they look just like the pictures….  (which I know sounds ridiculous but that was totally my reaction….)

going for an elephant ride (not comfortable!)

Most beautiful scenery

How could I possibly pick just one?  I have spent time in some of the most beautiful mountain ranges of the world – Himalayas, Andes, Patagonia.  I have visited Machu Picchu and temples of Bangkok.  I cannot possibly pick one place that was more beautiful than another. But the diversity of Bolivia, the mountains of Huaraz, the raw beauty of Patagonia and the grandeur of the Himalayas definitely stole my heart.

crossing the glacier

Toughest moment

There were definitely times in the fall when I had a crisis of faith what am I doing here?  What am I doing with my life?!  I remember one day in particular.  It was a rainy day in India, I was in Kochi, a city in Southern India.  At that point, I had been traveling for close to 3 weeks or so in India, by myself.  I was enjoying India, at times.  But was also finding it difficult – the constant staring, the constant feeling of being a spectacle, of being uncomfortable.  I was at a coffee shop and just spent the afternoon staring out in space, trying to figure out my purpose….  it was a rough period.

Biggest scam

When I arrived in Mumbai, I had to take a taxi from one train station to another.  It was quite early in the morning, still dark, and I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed to do.  Taxis are always tough because they are really metered, you don’t know how much they should be charging you and how much you should bargain.  I found a driver and thought we had a deal.  When we got there, I paid him with a large bill (I can’t remember what it was, but I was almost positive it was enough to cover the fare).  For the sake of the story, let’s say it was a 100.  But, he told me, no, that is 20.  You need to give me more.  Confused, I handed over another 100.  Again, he told me that it was a 20.

Now, you have to remember that it was still dark out.  There is a chance that he was telling the truth.

But, I am pretty sure that I handed over a whole lot more than I should have.  My theory is that he dropped the money on the front seat and had a 20 there to show me.  Or, maybe I really was just overtired…..  Want to give him the benefit of the doubt but….. I think that I lost out on at least a few 100 rupees that day!

demon

meeting the locals….

I found the people in India to be incredibly funny and want to talk to me.  Of course, at first they stared, but if I smiled at them, chances were they would smile back.  I remember being in the train station in Varanasi and I had accidentally arrived early.  So, I joined everyone else in sitting on the floor.  There was a large group of women who were staring intensely at me.  I tried to smile, but it was hard to crack their stares.  Eventually, I got one of the little girls to smile at me – which in turn got the whole family to smile and giggle at me.  They waved me over and we spent 30 minutes of them staring at me, holding my hand, speaking to me in Hindu and me just smiling.  As they left, they all wanted to shake my hand.

Getting sick

I am not sure how I pulled this off, but I had it 8 months without getting sick – except for a few times that were pretty minor.  My body had a day or two adjustment from being a vegetarian for 4 months to jumping back on the meat-train (with no easing in).  Then in Bolivia, I got sick a few times, but mostly just for 24 hours or so. And one cold in Peru that lasted 48 hours or so.  Moral of the story? Traveling is really healthy for me.  Oh – and I lost my hand sani early on and never replaced it……  🙂

Craziest public transportation

This one is tough, as I took a lot of sketchy transportation this year.  I have been on auto-rickshaws and bike-rickshaws, motorcycles, buses, trans, cars, elephants.  And, as my brother can attest, I can be a nervous passenger.  But, for some reason, the sketchiness never really bothered me this year.  Maybe it is because people do not drive super fast, maybe it is because the lack of rules in so many places means that everyone understands that and works within those parameters (a lack of rules almost means that you are always expecting the unexpected).  And then there is the simple consolation for myself – well, I am sure the driver doesn’t want to die, so…. he’ll be careful., right?

But the craziest?  It was probably a rickety bus that had to be push started and had 4 out of 5 gears working and I could see the ground through the gear shaft.  And I was on it for 13 hours.  And the driver had to avoid dogs and monkeys and people and motorcycles.

worst food

This is hands down Argentina.  I mean, could the food get any more bland?  Yes, yes, I know – this is the land of steaks and good wine.  And I bet that if you have a lot of money to spend, you can have a really good steak. But, I never had a lot of money to blow.  So, I had some good steaks. And I had some good wine.  But on a whole, the food there is boring and bland.

worst guesthouse moment

This one is easy….  I was in Potosi, Bolivia and had gone to bed early, as I am prone to doing.  The other people in my room got back late – around 2 in the morning.  I was already annoyed with them, as it was a group of 3 and the couple of the group was staying in one bed above me (get your own room, please).  In any case, they were clearly a bit drunk, stumbling around, knocking things over. Eventually, they got into bed, when I heard the guy say to the girl above me ‘uh-oh, I think I am going to puke”.  And though I heard him clearly, his girlfriend seemed confused by what he was saying. In my head, I am screaming at her – get him out of the f’ing bed. But she is slow to respond.  Too slow, in fact.  And he pukes down the wall.  You know, down the hall onto the bed I am in.

Yeah, definitely a low point….

friendliest stranger encounter

There have been so many positive and helpful. Encounters with strangers – people have been kind of helpful to me all along the way.  But one memory, in particular was when I was in India trying to figure out how to get to this festival and I had to take a bus.  I could not find the street that I needed to take the bus on, so I got directions there.  When I approached the street, I saw that there were many buses to choose from – all written in a different language.  How would I ever know?  I asked a woman who was walking towards me – and she brought me over to the street, helped me find the bus and told the driver where I was headed.  When I thanked her, she said, “no problem.  You would do the same for me if I needed help in your country”.  Good reminder of what goes around, comes around….

3-faced buddha

Number of high passes (over 4500m) crossed (by foot)

  • 3 in Nepal (2 in the Everest region, 1 in the Annapurna region)
  • 3 in Argentina (2 in Patagonia, 1 on Aconcagua)
  • 4 in Peru (3 on the Ausungate circuit, 1 on the Lares trek)
  • and of course, 1 high summit in Bolivia!

how much rice eaten

let’s see….  I have been traveling for about 240 days.  Most of the countries I was in eat rice with their meals.  Let’s low-ball that I had about a ½ cup of rice with each meal.  And then let’s low-ball that 175 dinners were rice dishes, which means that I had approximately 87.5 cups of rice this year.  Which I would say is definitely a low-ball estimate…. which means that is a lot of rice.

Best luck (and worst luck)

I combined these too – because it was really hard to think of a time when I had bad luck.  Because even when things did not work out the way I had planned them, something always good happened to me. There was the time I had a day layover in Bengalore, but I ended up getting to sit poolside drinking gin and tonics.  And then there was that other time that I was delayed in getting to Huaraz, but my timing meant that I met my mountain guide.

poolside! always good to say yes!

how many miles/km walked

Ha.  Try and figure that one out – not only did I trek in Nepal, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.  But I also walked pretty much everywhere.  Like the day in Bolivia where I tried to walk to a school in La Paz – and it ended up taking me 3 hours.  Or all the times I was a cheap-ass and refused to take the bus or the taxi.  I mean, it has got to be 1000s and 1000s of kms….

biggest fear

Rickety buses?  no.

Muggings?  Nope.

Being abducted by a rogue taxi driver?  Hardly.

But being attached by animals?  Yep!  Top of the list.  And not just dogs (though they are definitely scary in South America), but my biggest fears are being attacked – no, that is not the right word – being charged by farm animals – you know, the cows, horses and yaks that are frequently in the areas where I trek.  I know that a cow is not likely to charge me, but surely it has happened before, no?  And the yaks are so damn big.  And donkeys are total spazzes, hard to predict what they will do!

And, just for the record, I was trekking through a meadow last week and a horse did try to charge me (swear to god!) and the dogs that were following me (I might have fed them…) charged the horse and barked at it and scared it off.

So, I think that my fear is justified.  Ok?!

fishing on the China Sea

Best ‘just say yes’ moment….

there have been a few….

  1. Getting invited to a fancy hotel and getting treated to lunch, G&Ts and dinner while sitting poolside in Bangalore
  2. Getting to visit a Peruvian school with a local teacher and meet and talk with her students
  3. Going to review maps with a mountain guide and then spending the next two weeks together!

rule of life — just say yes!

  1. Getting to try delicious food from all over the world when I let the ‘salesperson’ talk me into it!

Money, money, money

10 May

My goal, this year, was to get by on $30/day (outside of my flights and insurance).  I did really well for the first 5 or 6 months, and then things went downhill, or uphill….  or….  whatever direction — all I know is I spent more money!

Here is what I did not spend money on:

  • Tourist restaurants – for the most part I avoided them, especially since the food was way better at the local places!
  • Taxis – I just walked everywhere for the most part
  • New clothes and shoes
  • Laundry – I probably paid for laundry service no more than 10 times this past year.  Ok, maybe 15. I got really good at washing my clothes in the shower (the trick? Wear your pants into the shower to wash them!)
  • Gifts.  Yes, I know that it would have been nice to bring back some good stuff for my family and friends – but when you are carrying everything on your back, you just do not want to add a whole lot more to the pile.  Plus, I figure that my pictures will make for some really great gifts!

Here is what I did spend money on (which pushed my budget up, especially towards the end):

  • Getting my own room in South America – hotels, and single rooms, are just more expensive in SA. And I did not use couch surfing much at all, which would have saved me plenty of money
  • Buying books when I could not find a good exchange
  • Cafes – I often (like most days) treated myself to coffee and some sort of cake/browning/sweet in the afternoons – this was also when I would write, journal and blog
  • Street food – sure, cheaper than the tourist restaurants, but those $1 bags of fruit add up in Bangkok when you get 10 of them (but oh so damn good!)
  • Big ticket tourst – Palaces and temples in Bangkok, Machu Picchu
  • Buses (and one flight) in Argentina!
  • Going out to eat versus cooking in – most hostels in South America had kitchens.  I did not utilize them enough – but cooking for one seemed difficult

Next time?

More couch surfing, less hotels

More cooking, fewer restaurants

But…. final tally…. NOT counting any flights….

I came in around …. drumroll please….. $28.50/day for the whole 8 months!

3-headed monster

12 Mar

I am used to being stared at.  Being a lone female traveling in Asia solicits stares like you wouldn’t believe.  There is no way for me to not stand out.  I look different.  Or when you are negotiating a busy street in Kathmandu with your friend and you are both carrying big backpacks.  You get stared at.  Or when you are the only white person, not to mention woman, on a bus in a rural area in India.  You get stared at.

I am pretty used to it at this point.

At first it bothered me.  Made me feel self-conscious and very aware of my actions.  But then I started to smile when they stared.  Or I said hello (or whatever the culturally appropriate greeting was).  But mostly I started to smile at the stare-ers.  And usually, it caught them off guard.  But, for the most part, I got a smile back.  Sometimes that smile started a conversation, sometimes it got me offers for food, got me a cup of chai, sometimes it got me invites to join their family.  But most frequently, I got a smile back.

South America is different.  Here, I get stared at, though I don’t think I look all that different (especially when I get asked if I am Argentine or Spanish).  Here, I get stared at, though I dress fairly conservatively (especially compared to the teenage girls).  Here, I get stared at, and I don’t get a smile in return.

I have been surprised.  I do not find the people here (so far in Bolivia and Argentina) to be all that warm and friendly.  They do not return smiles, instead, quickly averting their eyes (‘what, me?  No, I wasn’t looking at you.  no, not me.’).  Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, my smiles fall on cold faces.

local women, who tend to look through me

And it is hard.  It is hard to not take it personally.  It is hard to still feel open.  It is hard to feel compassionate and warmth towards the people here.  It is hard to keep smiling.

One of my goals on this journey was to open myself up to the world – to not let fear stop me from new experiences and new people.  To build bridges and not walls, something I sometimes struggle with.  I have been forced to build bridges along the way – to trust strangers and new friends.  To make allies where I can and to smile at strangers.  To laugh at myself and believe in the inherent goodness of others.

South America is testing me.  It is hard to remain open, to want to build bridges, to keep my guard down (and not build walls) and not cocoon myself.  The looks I get sometimes, the unfriendly, cold stares — sometimes I feel myself retreating back in — and I want to fight it, but at the same time, I want to protect myself.  Sometimes all I want is to go back to where I look different from everyone else – because at least there I got smiles.

and that is not to say that there were not cold looks in asia and there are people here who smile….

So, perhaps this is my test – to learn to stay open to the world, even if they are not open to me….  to remember that it is about me and how I present myself to the world – not about how others react to me.

Planes, trains and automobiles…

24 Jan

… and motorcycles, buses, rickshaws.

Over the past 4.5 months, i have taken a wide variety of public transportation options.  From auto-ricksaws to cycle-rickshaws to motorcycles.  Trains are hands-down my favorite.  There is nothing like watching the India countryside speed by while sipping a hot cup of chai.  But, the buses have been the most varied.

From the first buses that Katherine and I took in Nepal — the microbuses that were hot and crowded.  Then we found the public buses that were also hot and crowded, but these had a whole of people on the roofs.  My first bus in India tooked like it was on its last wheel and people had to get out each time the bus stalled to push it to pop the clutch.  And I could see the ground through the 4-speed gear shaft.  And did I mention how comfortable the seats were?  Ha.  And that was the ‘express’ bus that I got scammed for.

But buses in argentina are a whole new world.  I unfortunately do not have any pictures, but let me describe them to you.  First off, they are double deckers.  Secondly, there are a gazillion companies and various options for travel.  Since Beth and I were traveling  overnight, we took the ‘cama’ – which is not the most delux, but not the worst, either.

In cama, there are just 3 seats across (two, then aisle, then one).  So, the seats are bigger, wider, plush.  comfortable.  they play movies (mostly american films with spanish subtitles).  there is free coffee that you can drink all day.  there is a bathroom.  they serve you food.  I got wine the other night.  yeah, this ain’t no greyhound.

Though the buses are expensive, everyone takes them – there is a good mix of Argentines and tourists on the buses.  The buses travel all over the country, though it takes awhile.  For instance, we traveled from Southern Patagonia up to Mendoza and over the course of 3 days (left at 4 in the afternoon and got to Mendoza around 7:30 two days later) we were on a bus or in a bus station for close to 50 hours!  Fairly insane.

Argentina is big, there are a lot of sheep and lots and lots of prickly plants.

A quick note about food….

I cane from the land of amazing food (that land would be india and thailand and vietnam) — so the food here had high expectations to live up to.  I am so so so sorry to say that it failed miserably.  Argentines eat an amazing amount of bread and meat.  With not a whole lot of flavor.  The other day, on the bus, we had a total of 5 different bread products.  with meat.  it definitely leaves a bit to be desired….

next post….  our so very exciting plans for the nest few days!  🙂