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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.

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!

So fun!

18 Dec

I have been staying with a family since I arrived in Gurgaon on Wednesday.  Meenu is the mom and she works for Disha, which is the organization that runs that Outward Bound courses for The Heritage School that I visited.  Disha and Heritage partner closely, are next door to one another and staff are very connected.

Meenu and I hit it off immediately – she is fun, funny, adventurous – not the archetypal Indian woman, at all.  She is one of the instructors for the Outward Bound-type courses that Disha runs for the school.  She has two children – Tonya and Tanoush (17 and 15, respectively) – and her husband Sundeep, who is an international pilot.  Her brother, also an international pilot who lives in Qatar, was in town the other day – and he was picked up by their other brother who is a farmer in the village they all grew up in.  So, needless to say, it has been a full house.  I have loved staying in their house and being involved in family life!

We have gone out for great Indian meals – they take great delight in my desire to eat/try anything! I have tagged along on errands to pick up kids (seems to be the same ferrying of teenagers to dance and music and sports as in the US).  I get to ask all sorts of questions about life here that I have been curious about.  Sundeep and I talk about religion and politics. We laugh a lot – he has such a great laugh and they are both so curious about the world (and know a lot themselves – both having traveled quite a bit and both are well-read)!  I told Sundeep that since he can fly huge airplanes, I totally trust his driving (imagine weaving through lanes of traffic at high speeds with no real lanes, only half of the drivers using signals – and that is normal.  in fact, some of you i know would LOVE the driving here!).

A great moment was the other day when I was sitting on my bed working on the computer and Sundeep came in with a snack (couldn’t tell you the name — but sort of like donuts – fried dough and you eat them with pickled mango) – he joked that he was using me as an excuse to heat up a snack – but really he was hungry.  And meenu came in and we all sat around talking about life.  They are wonderful, kind and generous.  They spend lots of time trying to convince me to move here – we are delighted with each other.  I feel so blessed and lucky to spend this time with them.  And all I can hope is that some day I can welcome strangers into my house with as much grace and kindness as they have offered me.

More coming from me later — but I leave this afternoon….  where did the 6 weeks go?  or really, the last 3.5 months in this region of the world….  so intoxicating, so intriguing.  Now, I will spend 3 weeks in a whole different kind of world.  After learning how to be here, I feel that I am going to need to readjust myself, learn a new way of being….

talk soon friends — much love — AK

Outward Bound

15 Dec

Outward Bound seems to be such a bit influence in my life this year.  From Katherine, my dearest friend from when I first trained for Outward Bound, joining me in Nepal to Mike and Beth meeting me for climbing and trekking in South America — OB seems to keep playing a big role in my adventures.  But — my latest connection has been pretty inspiring!

I am in Gurgaon, a city outside of Delhi, visiting The Heritage School, a pre-K-12 school that focuses on expeditionary learning and has a strong OB connection. The school draws from a variety of progressive educational philosophies, but most importantly, they all connect and make sense. For instance, they draw from the Gandhi idea [paraphrased here, hopefully correctly] that students can/should learn from working in their communities — for example, that if you study with a master carpenter in your village and learn that trade, then you have learned all that content (which sounds a lot like Ron Berger’s classroom, to me). They also use EL practices in their classroom — today I met with 20-25 teachers and talked about how we use expeditions a Renaissance and how we organize our curriculum. We laughed over shared frustrations and challenges of being an EL teacher and shared some good ideas. It was fun to feel so connected to teachers half way around the world.

And, as if that wasn’t cool enough, the SUPER cool thing about the school is that they have a very strong outward bound program. From grade 4 up (to 12) the students go out on an expedition — it might be bird watching or going to the desert — or trekking in the mountains or a river expedition. Each expedition has a case study — so not only are they learning the really cool things like team work and importance of persevering, but they are also learning science and social studies and math and language arts while out there. SO COOL!!!! it is like my dream job — right there! 🙂

They have rolled out the red carpet for me — organizing three days of visits to classrooms, sitting in on meetings, meeting with directors, taking me out for fancy dinners — it is amazing. I feel so blessed. I am staying at the home of one of the coordinators – she is AWESOME! She has two teenage kids — one 18 year old, senior who does open school — meaning she studies on her own. And one 15 year old who goes to the heritage school. They are both so fun and warm and friendly. It is great to get a glimpse of Indian culture this way. The first night I got here — Meenu and I sat around eating snacks and have some drinks until 9 when she realized that we should go eat — and off to a restaurant we went — and did not go to sleep until mid-night! It was so fun! And i cannot believe the hospitality and generosity they are showing me… i told them they have to come the US and visit Renaissance.

Tomorrow my schedule is full, as is Saturday. And then Meenu is going to take me shopping! 🙂 Love it.

I will have more to write and say — I am just so excited and inspired about the work they are doing here. My brain is full — lots of good thoughts! I am off to sleep now, as tomorrow will be busy.

Take care friends — much love — aurora

From coconut trees to camels

11 Dec

Pushkar is a whole ‘nother world from Hampi or Varkala.  I have spent the past two days lounging, wandering around and climbing up to two temples that overlook the small city.  There is not a whole lot to do here, so I have been getting ready for my transition and making plans for my remaining days.  But, here are some of the differences and observations:

  • well, there are the camels.  Not wild camels – but today I saw a guy riding one through town.  It was elaborately painted and with bells on it (like the women wear around their ankles)
  • Pushkar is a temple town — there seem to be hundreds of temples around every corner.  there is a small lake in the middle of town – and ghats leading into it where people bath – similar to Varanasi – however you cannot wear shoes down there or take pictures (two mistakes I made my first day)

Pushkar lake

early morning bathers

  • The land is arrid, cacti line the cliffs, and it is cold at night.  People are going to the temple early in the morning (earlier than I wake up – which is pretty early) – and they are all bundled up in scarves and blankets
  • Rajasthan is poor.  I read that it has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country – and that seems evident – from how foreigners are treated to dental hygiene to people’s homes
  • there are the usual holy men trying to get money to snake charmers on the streets to tons of shops with clothes that many of the tourists are buying up (speaking of which – what is up with the pants that foeigners are buying that look like they took a crap in them (not color, but saggy-ness) – but no Indian wears…  let me just ask the question – why?  why would you wear those?)
  • I have been offered special lassis on several occassions.  My guess is those are not just yogurt….
  • I have seen two cows that are seriously messed up….  and by messed up – let me try to describe the bizarre-ness…. Ok – so these two cows, seen on separate occassions — both were painted various colors, though predominantly red.  Both were being lead around by a holy man of sorts (dressed in long flowing garments – white or orange in color, wearing a turban, long beard).  But had a hoof (swear to god) growing out of it’s rear – either near its tail or on its back.  And the holy man was waving around said hoof.  which was painted red.  yes, bizaare.
  • people seem to come here from all over — well, yes – foreigners – but i meant Indians.  I have seen NRIs (or what I assume are NRIs – non-resident indians – as they are speaking english).  I have seen Indian women dressed in such elegant saris with the most stylish sunglasses on (think Julia St. Martin if she were Indian in a sari).

overlooking pushkar

  • Young men are flying through the streets on their motorcycles – which the streets are not wide and full of pilgrims and cows and dogs and foreigners.  But these guys are swerving through traffic – all wearing sunglasses, trying to look as cool as possible.  Makes me laugh that men (and women) no matter what culture will do similar things to look cool and show off.
  • Pushkar is a popular place for weddings.  As I was wandering the streets the other day, outside of town a bit, I cam across a wedding procession with a band – like a marching band.  It was great.  I stopped to watch – but could not tell which was the bride — many of the women were dressed in elegant, fancy saris with their hands henna’d.  On that same walk I was invited in by two teenagers into their house for a cup of tea — our mutual language skills were limited – but lots of smiles were exchanged.  And every time we found some common language, we repeated those facts over and over “yes, i am a teacher”, “i am in grade 10”.

you might know this girl

All in all, I have to say that I do not love it here.  Maybe I am just comparing it to the south too much.  Maybe my headspace has moved on.  Maybe I am just tired of being seen as a dollar sign — whatever the reason, I am glad to be leaving tomorrow.  I enjoy the smiles exchanged between myself and some of the women, I enjoy seeing the kids look at me and then catching them off guard with a smile from me – and then they break into their own smile.  I enjoy the different look of the people here — people are tan – not dark like in Tamil Nadu – but more weathered – and with the green eyes and the turbans and all…  they are quite remarkable looking.  But, all in all – i am good to go.

Kite flying just before sunset