Categories
Nepal

16: Celebrating Tihar (Diwali) in a Rural Nepali Village with 12 Other Volunteers

Dear readers,

If you’ve been following along with my travels, you will notice that the story from this point on is significantly hastened. Recently there’s been so many forward-looking developments in my life, and I hope to sooner share those, rather than colourfully detailing my 95-day journey in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there are significant turnings of the wheel that led to where I am now, and this story deserves a proper ending. For there are such valuable lessons which are just dying to be morphed into words. 

Oct 21st – 29th, 2019

For the first time ever, I taught english for an hour in the mornings, and would continue doing so for the next week. The kids in the neighbourhood all rode their bikes or walked to Tara’s house, where I gave lessons in a hut made of mud & coconut palm right outside his home. I would continue doing so for the following week, occasionally switching off with other volunteers. Without my usual coffee, absorbing the liveliness of the 7-13 year olds was a great way to invigorate my morning. What a joy teaching is. A highlight was when I taught them a song called “Wild One” that I learned as an instructor at Wilderness Awareness School, and changed the words around a little bit to reflect animals they’d be familiar with such as tigers and rhinos. They sang with such vitality! You can hear a snippet here…

For a few hours I was the only volunteer at Tara’s and Anjana’s house, and was hopeful that it wouldn’t be for long. Hastily, my wish was granted. That evening Ana from Colombia arrived, a few days before her husband, Richard, who hails from Colorado, USA. She was a dance teacher and he, an elementary teacher, who met when he took dance lessons in Colombia. They were traveling the world for an entire year, looking for the right place to settle down and continue teaching. Recently coming from China, they’d spend a few more months in Nepal, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, before heading back to the States, where they’d take a road trip all the way through Mexico and down into Colombia. Right on!

The following day, Oct 22nd, saw the arrival of Mikey from New Zealand. He has quite the heritage – coming from the indigenous Polynesian Maori tribe. Their “haka” war dance is imitated by the New Zealand rugby team before each match. Over dal bhaat (the twice-daily meal of most Nepalis consisting of rice, lentils, and vegetables) and Tiger beer we watched the final game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup together in Tara’s house. Unfortunately, the only time New Zealand scored was when the power went out (which amusingly happens very regularly, since Nepal buys electricity from India on apparently a pretty limited budget).

Left to Right: Jerry, Catinka, and Celina

On Oct 23rd, the Germans started to invade. We acquired Lars & Andre, a duo who proudly adopted the title of “low-budget scientists.” I would end up trading my recently finished copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse with Andre for The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, a thought-provoking book that I would fanatically read during my upcoming 7-day Himalayan trek. That evening also brought Celina from Switzerland, who naturally spoke German as well. She was a down-to-earth gal who had traveled as a solo female in some not-so-touristy (and assumedly dangerous) countries like Pakistan. 

The 24th of October brought Catinka from Germany, a radiant lady who had just spent a week in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. She was excited to share with everyone this “new card game” called “Caboo” which I had actually learned at my first workaway in Goa, India, but pronounced “Cabo.” One of my all-time favourite card games, it became a regular evening activity and really brought people together in cheerful spirits. 

That day also saw the arrival of a french couple: Sonya and her husband, and their two small children! Aged roughly 1.5 and 3 years old, they were reportedly much happier here than anywhere they visited in India, due to the overcrowding and lack of any kid-friendly attractions. Here they could play with the animals, roam freely around Tara’s property, and to some extent play with Tara’s children. I was confounded that traveling with toddlers in Southeast Asia was even possible, and though their children’s frequent cries made me cringe at the thought of parenthood, I had so much respect for them for giving their kids a wholly different type of education.

Left to Right: Ana, Me, Catinka, Mikey, Sonya (and Elza), Richard, Rosario

By the 25th all the volunteers I met at Tara’s house were present. We acquired our last German, Jerry, who was an amazing sketch-artist. She met Catinka elsewhere in Nepal, and eventually took Catinka’s suggestion to volunteer with us. And last but not least, there was Rosario from Italy. A fun, light-hearted, middle-aged man, he really enjoyed trying little sweets in every country he visited, and was just a pleasure to be around. His accent made every word that came out of his mouth so beautiful.

It was such a lively group – and at 12 people it was the most that Tara had ever hosted at one time. He was glad there were so many hands, because the day I arrived he started a huge project to repaint basically his entire house. The outer walls turned bright purple, and the hundreds of concrete pineapple-shaped balcony posts were painted gray, as well as the outer bricks, accenting the white trim underneath. The inner walls were over the course of roughly a week entirely transformed from a faded light-blue to a vibrant blue-green. When Tara was asked about the choice of colour, he said that he chose green because it resembles what waking up used to be like for thousands of years – that is, surrounded by luscious nature. It is pleasing to the eyes, and comforting to the spirit. 

We would paint from roughly 9 AM – 2 PM, with lunch in between. In our free time we’d go for walks, searching humorously for hard-to-find products like toilet paper. Otherwise at our home base we’d often play games in the evening, or sit on the rooftop drinking beer, conversing over cooing pigeons and colour-changing skies. On our off-day we all ventured into the Ghaila Ghari Community Forest (which was basically a less expensive version of Chitwan National Park). There we had 2 rhino sightings, and in addition plenty of monkeys, some deer, and elephants (but with people riding on top of them). 

There was a healthy balance of work and play at Tara’s house. Almost all of the volunteers were put to the task of painting, as Tara was hoping to be nearly finished by the final day of celebrating Tihar, where painting/redecorating is one of several commemorative activities. 

Tihar is known as Diwali or Deepavali in India, and is one of the most important observances in the Hindu tradition. It could almost be compared to Christmas in the West. Plenty of multi-coloured lights, most of which flash on and off in a variety of patterns which would typically be viewed as obnoxious back in the States (but felt very fitting for Nepal) decorated virtually every house in the village. On the third day of Tihar, houses glow in a more traditional fashion, with numerous candles illuminating every floor of the house.

Most memorable were the community get-togethers that took place every night at a different person’s house, where we danced and sang. Percussion instruments such as the tabla (drum) and mini hand cymbals would accompany our voices. Singing was primarily in Nepali, yet I recognized one of the tunes as the Maha Mantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”). However, what really unified the locals with us volunteers was when Ana, the dance teacher from Colombia, was asked to lead a dance that everyone could do. Somehow, she acquiesced into guiding us through the Macarena. Every volunteer was reluctant to join in, yet eventually there we all were: dancing together to the Macarena, among other western and latin american music. It was so strange, and so fantastic.

What a community gathering unlike anything I had experienced before! This is their very special time, where one might expect strict observances of Hindu-only gatherings, singing only spiritual songs. Yet it was the exact opposite. Just as how they all share the duty of hosting each night’s gathering among several households, they divvy up the time spent dancing and singing to make everybody feel welcome. And in the end, I don’t think it was just for us. They gained something from our song & dance, too. 

To give you an overview of what is actually being celebrated during Tihar, what follows is a breakdown of each of the 5 days:

One. Kaag “Crow” Tihar – thanking crows by placing sweets on the roof. Crows are known as the “messengers of death,” so by keeping them happy, they won’t be harbingers of bad news, at least on that day. 

Two. Kukur “Dog” Tihar – thanking dogs by giving them a tika (red marking between the eyes) and garlands of marigolds. Dogs are knows as the “gatekeepers of death,” who help human souls transition from the earthly plane into heaven/the afterlife. 

Three. Gai “Cow” Tihar and Laxmi Puja – to give thanks Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, candles are lit in the evening, and a special “puja” (worship/prayer) is conducted. It is additionally a day of thanking cows by giving them large red markings all over their bodies, as well as garlands and fresh grass. Aside from being sacred creatures, their products (milk for sustenance, and urine & dung for cleaning) have contributed to the survival of countless Nepali families (though like India, cow meat is never eaten). 

This one, our volunteer group was invited to witness. There was singing, dancing, and eating of holy foods prepared specially for this day. We each also received a big, clumpy, red tikka, about an inch in diameter, on the center of the forehead.

Four. Several different celebrations depending on one’s cultural background occur on this day. Some give thanks to the ox, others worship Govardhan Mountain, and others celebrate the start of a new year, and/or the divinity within themselves. At Tara’s house, there were gambling card games, too.

Ananta & Aakriti, the son and daughter of our hosts, Tara & Anjana

Five. Bhai Tika or Kija Puja (Brother’s Day) – Sisters give their brothers a multi-coloured tika on their forehead, as well as a gift, to ensure long life. Brothers return the favour to their sisters, and those without siblings receive a tika from another family member. 

Receiving a tika from Aakriti while Tara holds a stencil-like object on my forehead

This last day was especially memorable for us volunteers, as instead of tending to our typical painting duties, we made our way to the original meet-up point for Tara and his volunteers: the Honda Showroom. There, one-by-one, we all received tikas from Tara and Anjana’s children. Ladies received one from Ananta, their son, and guys from Aakriti, their daughter. Tara, our host dad, did however not receive a tika since he had a close relative die within the past year. Following this, we feasted on a special yogurt/fruit dish, our “24-hour power” meal of dal bhaat, and one of the best foods I had in Nepal: “sel roti” – a scrumptious donut-like food made only during Tihar out of rice flour, coconut, banana, and sugar. I came at the right time!

There was now coloured-sand “rangoli” artwork in front of the plants that I previously hid behind to sleep.

At the Honda Showroom it was such a warm, indescribable feeling to be invited back into their home as a recognized guest, and to receive a tika just like any other family member, after I was invited inside roughly a week ago as a complete stranger who was asleep on the ground outside of their business. At our first encounter I was offered water and tea, and was driven on the back of a motorbike through the rain to arrive after a long journey at my final destination: Tara’s house. Now, instead of my first day, it was my last. The sun was shining, the temperature was cozy, and I was surrounded by people who I knew, and in a wider sense of the word, who I loved. I went from being a rather disoriented and exhausted tourist, to a valued member of their community, albeit ephemerally so.

Although I came to Tara’s house with hopes of contributing primarily to gardening and teaching for my own sake, I spent most of my time painting. And in the end, this was the best work that I could have done for them. I’m happy that I was able to make a significant contribution to the well being of Tara’s family, and all the future guests. Perhaps since I was the first volunteer of our steadily growing group, Tara entrusted me with the main painting duty: using a roller to evenly apply the main colours, while most others were given the smaller (but equally important) detail work. I felt privileged to serve him, and to feel like a part of his family. In the end, it was a win-win situation. 

This is the real beauty of traveling: Getting to know a place and its people. Being open to whatever is in store for you, and being vulnerable to share who you really are with whomever you meet. When you have the humility to serve, and not just be treated like a king (which all over Southeast Asia is relatively easy with an average Western income), it serves you several fold in return. For in the Anthropocene (aka the human era), what makes a place is its people. And how can you see one’s true colours when you place yourself above another? When you choose luxury over authenticity, and the only purpose of other humans in your environment is to serve you?

The ephemeral nature of such cultural exchange opportunities means there is little pressure to impress, whether host or volunteer. Chances are, I’ll never see any of the faces who lit up my experience at Tara’s house ever again. And especially in such a unique opportunity of having 12 volunteers from all around the world under the same roof – why waste such precious moments being anybody but yourself? Why ruin your “vacation” by second-guessing how much of yourself you ought to reveal? This spirit is pervasive among most travelers who I meet, and makes personal connection so easy.

I once was a rather anti-social creature, but especially when traveling I’ve learned to embrace my extroverted side. For by freely conversing with others, especially those who come from a different background than you, there is so much to gain and so much to offer. In the process, you somehow get to know yourself and humanity as a whole a little better too.

Hop hop hop,

Per

(here)

Categories
Nepal

15: Volunteering for a Nepali Family, and Sharing Kindness with Strangers along the Way

Oct 19th, 2019

I had a wonderful night’s sleep in my $3/night private tent, and upon ordering a french press from the bar at Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar, my host helped me book a bus for later that evening. It was to take me from Thakudwara, in the far-southwest portion of Nepal, to Bharatpur, which was about 100 miles away from Kathmandu. Near Bharatpur I would be volunteering at my third Workaway since the start of my Southeast Asia trip, 40 days prior. Since it was going to be approximately a 14-hour ride, my host suggested a night bus, so I could arrive in the morning and not be stranded somewhere in the middle of the night. A sound plan, I thought. However, it didn’t work out so seamlessly.

But, before my bus left at 4 PM I had plenty of time to kill. I explored some rural areas, bathed in the Girwa river, and ordered some killer home-made french fries (my first time eating fries since in back America.. so yumm).

It was a pleasant surprise that allowed for some valuable cultural exchange. The rugby game started, and since they were big fans they taught me the basics about how the game is played. I’d never really watched rugby before, and found it comparable to American football, and in some ways more exciting. We enjoyed each other’s company until the time came when I was to venture onwards by bus. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to the most hospitable host I had yet met in Southeast Asia, as well as the kindhearted ladies who worked there. But, life must go on. 

The bus ride was notably rough, but authentic. I was surprised to see a big tv screen on the standard, non-touristy bus, just like the one that I took over the border from India to Nepal. And just like the prior bus, they played music videos (and a popular show involving a back-and-forth singing competition between a child and adult) at an obnoxious volume. To make matters worse, I was in the very back of the bus, and to say that the roads were bumpy would be like saying that the Himalayas are kind of tall. I honestly can’t recall any prolonged ride in any sort of vehicle that was more consistently turbulent than this. And this is on their main “highway” that runs through southern Nepal in the relatively low and flat region. And I thought India was poor. They at least sometimes had well-paved roads. There were no smooth sections in this. At all. It was too bumpy to read or write, and too loud to hear my own music through my earbuds. All I could do was look out the window, try to sleep, or write some poetry in my head.

At one point the seat next to me literally fell off of its frame after hitting a deep pothole. I looked at it, and all I could do was laugh. This is Nepal! I made eye contact with the man on the other side of that seat, and he laughed too. It was maybe 10 PM, and I had been sitting near him for some time, so he scooched over to strike up a conversation. 

He was really friendly, but I could barely hear him over the loudspeakers, which made his broken English even more difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I gathered that he was in the Indian Army, and would be spending time in Kathmandu before he goes back to India. He asked if I had a SIM card for Nepal, which I didn’t, and so he insisted on giving me his, for free. They’re super cheap in Nepal anyway, and I’d still have to pay for data, but it did save me the hassle of trying to find a store that sells SIM cards. So, I kindly accepted even though I didn’t really plan on using it (I never did purchase any data for it). 

I talked with the nice but strange fellow for a little while, until we ran out of things to talk about. Both of us could barely understand each other. He added me on Facebook, where his name is Heaven’s King (why?). I also gave him my Whatsapp number, through which he would consistently seek contact over the course of the next few weeks. I think he just liked me because I’m American, which I don’t really mind, but don’t really appreciate either. If I’m to be judged by something external to my personality, I’d hope it’s by my ripped clothing or dragonfly necklace. 

October 20th

At some point between talking to Heaven’s King and finally falling half asleep for a moment, only to be flung out of my chair as we hit another pothole, it became the next day. Approaching 2 AM, I was watching the blue dot on my phone get closer and closer to my destination on the map, which was happening sooner than anticipated. Despite how excruciating that bus ride was, this wasn’t a good thing. I wanted to arrive post-sunrise for logistical and safety purposes. My host said he would pick me up at 6 AM from a Honda Showroom near his home. But by the time I arrived in the city of Bharatpur, it was only 4 AM. 

Now, being alone in a relatively large city for Nepal (population: 280k) in the dead of night, alone, with 3 travel-months worth of luggage, was a little intimidating. Especially since the city resembled the run-down parts of Detroit, but if all of the garbage trucks dumped periodically on the side of the road instead of a waste facility. A few scattered people were hanging out on the street, but it was silent for the most part. No businesses were open. No wifi to contact my host about arriving early. Barely even any cars on the street for such an urban landscape. 

Since the next bus wouldn’t run until 5:30/6, I decided to take a rickshaw out of the city to get dropped off at the Honda Showroom. My driver was very wholesome, and only asked of me 400 Nepali Rupees ($3.35) for the maybe 15-20 minute ride. I was ready to pay 1000 since it was the middle of the night, and he could have easily kidnapped me, but he actually didn’t try to scam me, unlike 90% of the Indian drivers I rode with. 

Now it was only around 4:30 and I had an hour and a half to kill before my host, Tara, would arrive. I was so tired and happy to be on solid ground, I laid right down on the concrete in front of the Honda Showroom, relaxed my head on my backpack, and finally rested. I kept one eye open for the first 15 minutes to feel out the area. It seemed like a safe-ish semi-urban area, so I hid behind some potted plants as much as I could, and dozed off into lala land. Oh how I had never slept so fantastically on hard ground in my entire life!

When the sky was barely lit an older man walked by, noticed me, and woke me up. He was friendly, but confused about what I was doing sleeping infront of what was presumably his shop. I explained how my host was picking me up but I came too early, and so he gestured me to follow him.

Uhoh. Am I in trouble? Is he going to report me to the police? Where is he taking me? His demeanor was however calm and helpful. Maybe this has happened to him before

He walked me into the room above the Honda shop, which turned out to be his home. As I entered he told me to sit, and soon his wife came with two full cups of water. I explained with more detail my situation, and I think he vaguely understood. His english was very limited, but we could communicate the important things, such as how he knew my host, Tara. That was a huge relief. Plus he had a phone to call him. Amidst trying to contact him, his wife came in with two more cups of hot tea. How hospitable Nepali folks are to complete strangers! 10 minutes ago I was sleeping on the ground right outside his business, now I was sitting peacefully in their home drinking tea. 

The time passed 6 AM when Tara was supposed to be there, and still no answer. By 6:10 he told me once again to follow him, and led me back down the stairs. Hmmm, is he going to tell me how to walk there? 

Next thing I know he hands me a helmet and tells me to hop on his bike. Woohoo! I love riding on motorbikes with semi-strangers. 

It started raining on our way there, and his nice button-down shirt got totally soaked. He didn’t really seem to mind, and once we got to Tara’s house it was obvious he was welcome there. He walked right in to their open-air kitchen/living room, sat down, and accepted a cup of tea from Anjana, Tara’s wife. 

I met an older couple, Thomas and Mitte, who were from Sweden and working on renovating a house nearby. Incredibly, they come from the same tiny neighbourhood in Sweden, but first met each other all the way in Nepal a few years back. They knew Tara from volunteering, and now share meals together while working on building their dream home together.

Eventually Tara came down covered in paint, and suggested that I rest upstairs for the next few hours. He showed me around their humble home and guided me to the bed where I’d be sleeping for the next week or so. 

Lying in a real bed in this Nepali countryside, I was in heaven. There was a constant chorus of “coos” thanks to the 50+ pigeons and other birds right outside my window, and very rarely any vehicles passing by. The road outside his home was unpaved, and Google Maps didn’t even recognize that it existed. The air was fresh, moist, and warm (but not too warm). The people around me were kind and peaceful, and for the first time in a while there was no need to start figuring out how I’ll get to my next destination. Needless to say, I slept like a sloth. 

Later in the day I arose from my slumber and met the only other volunteer there – Mary, from Germany. She showed me how to do some of the volunteer tasks such as picking up the milk from our next-door neighbour and walking the dog. Our stroll revealed a few tiny shops selling snacks and beer in the area, as well as basic necessities for Nepalis (therefore excluding hand sanitizer and toilet paper). Most of the houses nearby, though they weren’t in the best physical shape, were boldly colourful. Outside were plenty of chickens, goats, dogs, ducks, and people. A group of grown men were fanning a pile of rice with a huge mesh sheet, other kids were playing soccer or just sitting outside with their mother while she works on some handicraft or chats with her neighbour. It was a community where everybody seemed to know everybody in the area, and all took care of each other. It was one of the most gorgeous, inspiring congregations of human beings that I had ever experienced. 

Every time we walked past a child we’d say “Namaste!” or “Namascar!” with palms together and they’d perk up with a huge smile and return our “Namaasteeee.” Out of all the neighbourhoods I had stayed in while volunteering (2 in India, 1 in Nepal, 1 in Thailand), I loved this one the most. For it felt most like a real, thriving community, despite how outwardly poor most folks were. In fact I’d say it was the poorest of them all, and correlatively, the most close-knit. 

Anyway, after seasoning my tongue with some conversation in German, we ate the classic Nepali dinner at Tara’s house: Dal Bhaat. It consists of rice (and I mean a lot of rice), plus a smaller portion of cooked vegetables, and a side of lentil “soup.” Some folks prefer their “soup” (more like slightly liquidy lentils) poured direct on top of their rice. Others (like me) prefer to scoop rice, veg, and lentils into one bite while keeping all of them separate. I experimented with different methods, for I would be eating the same meal for lunch and dinner basically every single day for the following week. 

I ate with Thomas & Mitte, Mary, Anjana & Tara, and their 2 children: Aakriti and Ananta. It became almost immediately evident that Ananta loves riddles, and at age 10 speaks better english than his father. Aakriti, 15 or so, is much quieter, at least around other volunteers. I wondered what life would be like for her. If I was a teenager, and all these strangers from all over the world were staying in my family’s home, eating with us, and doing work for us, would I get really sick of meeting new people? I’d imagine sometimes its more fun than others, depending on how well you get along with the current flock of foreigners. 

After dinner I retreated back up to my room, admiring the stillness in the air. Finally some peace and quiet after spending a month roaming around a country 1/3 the size of the US but with an extra billion people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved India, but I loved Nepal in an entirely different way. Many Indians likes to think that Nepali people are basically Indian, as if Nepal were a part of India, but the two countries and their inhabitants remain quite distinct, despite many similarities.

Sure, their languages are similar, and Hinduism predominates in both countries, and to a westerner their dress and decorative style are similar. They both drink masala tea, eat mimosas, and drive tuk-tuks in their cities. Yet Nepal is significantly poorer than India, their government (and its history) is very different, and they have their own unique traditions to celebrate shared Hindu holidays. Another key difference is in their staple foods. Though both consist of rice and vegetables, they’re prepared and spiced in very different ways. 

Furthermore, the way population is spread geographically over Nepal’s territory is radically different from India, which has a great impact on their culture, lifestyle, and economy. 68% of Nepalis rely on agriculture as a living (compared to 50% for India). And with Kathmandu as Nepal’s biggest city at about a million inhabitants, it’s still smaller than fourty-six Indian cities with populations over a million.

It seems nonetheless that Nepal is slowly becoming more like India as it turns more into a “developed” country. Thus, when looking at the countries historically, their differences are stark. Since the start of the Common Era, India was the largest economy in the world for 19 out of 21 centuries. Looking at Nepal before 1950, they didn’t even have roads, schools, or hospitals, let alone a bustling economy. Being landlocked and rather isolated from the rest of the world thanks to the Himalayas, they mainly traded with India, and a little bit with China. Large swaths of the population were basically entirely self-sustaining, but those numbers are dwindling, for better or worse. Most of those that still exist are in extremely isolated Himalayan villages. 

To put a cap on this post, I invite you to imagine what a life in such a village would look like. Nobody in our community uses money. Growing rice & millet and herding buffalo provides for our livelihoods. Trading with neighbours, the value of each commodity is clear enough. A coin symbolizing the value of something is unnecessary, and engaging in the production and upkeep of a monetary system only amounts to a waste of time and energy. No need for so many boring, meaningless jobs. No need for roads to take our goods to far-away places. Everything we need is in walking distance. We know all of your neighbours, and without the incessant drive to constantly be producing capital, spend time getting to know them. The divide between work-life, family-life, and leisure-life is largely disintegrated.

The divide between the natural world and the human landscape is similarly not so apparent, as your homes are built of materials directly from Earth. The streetlights are replaced by the stars and moon, the television replaced by the sunset. The games we play – arise organically, out of the curiosity of the mind meeting the natural world. The traditions we practice – inherited wisdom from timeless generations, invoke a sense of life being so much larger than one’s mere conscious experience. 

Our inner lives – are much more vibrant, too. Without such a constant stream of entertainment to fill the void of boredom, stillness is a regular part of life. The fears and anxieties that in modern society silently torment one for their entire lives – are heard, and are more or less seamlessly dissolved as the mind awakens to reality.  

Sure, this sounds quite dreamy. I mean not to overlook the immense amount of suffering that is still present in such lives. These traditional communities would indeed benefit from some modern products such as hospitals. And yes, (in my subsequent travels) often times I met folks in these isolated mountain communities who greatly enjoyed watching singing contests on their smartphones. But if they were forced to choose between all or none of the developed world’s proclaimed “advancements,” so long as they’re aware of the inherent consequences of those advertised perks, I doubt that any of them would make the switch. Do you? I welcome disagreement, so please share your thoughts if you so desire. 

Namaskar,

Hoppper

Categories
Nepal

14: Stalking Tigers and Rhinos in [Bardia National Park, Nepal]

October 18th, 2019

It turns out that due to lack of sleep the night prior, I slept so hard, I literally missed a WILD ELEPHANT trampling down the road right outside of the tent that night. Welcome to Nepal! In addition to elephants, tigers occasionally come into the village at night, eating livestock and… people. Politically this creates some issues, since Nepal relies heavily on tourism for revenue and is home to so many unique wild areas filled with intriguing endangered species. But since their natural habitat is nowhere near the size it used to be, tigers are literally eating their children.

The solution in the Thakurdwara community was to allot a certain percentage (somewhere around 25-50%) of the revenue from Bardia National Park to go directly back to the communities. Though you can never buy back your loved one, this helps to cover medical expenses and crop damage from a 11,000 lb elephant tromping through.

Despite my disappointment of missing the elephant, I was soon to seek them out in the wild. At 6:30 that morning I was picked up by one of the guides at Bardia NP on a motorbike, and was brought to a guesthouse where they were preparing our lunch of fried-rice, hard-boiled egg, and mango juice. Once ready, I met the two other folks who would be exploring the jungle with us as our guide explained what to do and what not to do. The first thing he did was hand each of us a firm, blunt stick and advised, “this is your weapon. Use it carefully.”

He made tigers seem like big, shy scaredy cats, and made elephants out to be bigger, uninterested forest behemoths. Our greatest danger was actually the one-horned rhino, who is especially defensive when rearing their calf, and can run up to 34 mph.

I didn’t feel a drop of fear, for my guide’s confidence was contagous, and I knew that animals are far less likely to attack a decent group, and we were four-strong. The two other tourists were some friendly Brits who were also teachers. One was at least 6 feet tall, but our guide was closer to 5’ 2”. A tiger would barely even have to chew to gobble him down! Yet He said he’d been guiding groups for some 30 years and never been seriously injured. That just goes to show, your biggest enemy is your own fear when facing deadly animals. For if there were to be a confrontation, his main piece of advice was to stand your ground, make yourself as big and loud as possible, and don’t turn your back to run unless they’re already charging at you. In which case, drop your stick, throw your bag, and book it!

As our guide brought us into the park we lowered our voices and entered stealth mode. There was an eerie silence, interrupted occasionally by a squawking bird or quiet comment on a dead lizard hanging from a blade of grass. The first sizable living creatures we came across that morning were some security guards, each holding large assault rifles. Apparently poaching is a big problem, so for that reason (and safety concerns) nobody is allowed into the park without an official guide.

Within 20 minutes we found a huge hairball and some scratch marks on the ground. It was official – we were tracking tigers. A few hundred steps later we stumbled across the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever seen. Now we were officially tracking elephants, too. The open grasslands were fairly inactive, and as we continued into the jungle I found my favourite plant, Lantana (Lantana camara). It’s an invasive species which I had identified in Dharamshala and Rishikesh as well. My guide also taught me how to identify a curry tree (Murraya koenigii), which is edible raw and tasted exactly like if curry spice had turned into a leaf. Yum! Earthy!

Further down we found some psychedelic mushrooms growing out of a heap of rhino dung, in addition to a very fresh tiger scat. I’d never been so excited by poop in my whole life. To rest and listen for the tiger, we found a spot to sit and silently snack. Our guide heard a deer call meaning, “Beware! Tiger nearby!” and we crept in that direction. After some time, however, we found only monkeys, no tigers. Our hunt continued into the heat of noon… still nothing. I was still excited by animal tracking but I could tell that the British couple were becoming tired and discouraged. All we needed was a big animal to pick our spirits back up…

We started crossing a river, my eyes glued to my feet, making sure I didn’t step on any little critters. When I reached a small sandbar, the group told me, “Hans! Look up!” and lo and behold, off in the distance was the first wild rhino I’d ever seen.

It was gorgeous. Majestic. Gentle. Formidable. We took plenty of pictures as it drank and cooled off in the Girwa river, and with one significant wildlife sighting we were boosted on our way to tracking tigers. A few lookout towers provided some long, beautiful vistas, though still void of big cats. We all wanted to see a tiger jump out of the tall grass and chase after a herd of deer, who we could see off in the distance peacefully grazing beside the river. So we waited, and waited, until the sun was nearing the horizon, which indicated that we must leave in order to avoid issues with the rangers, and to avoid being eaten. Tigers are crepuscular animals, which means they are most active around dusk and dawn, and I wasn’t ready to become a chew toy just yet.

On the trail back, however, I came across the most dangerous creature I had seen the entire day: a scorpion. It was smack-dab in the middle of the trail, its tail and pinchers ready to attack. Though not 100% positive about the exact species, upon research, its appearance most closely resembled that of (no joke) then Deathstalker Scorpion (Leiurus Quinquestriatus). And yes, just one sting from this bad boy can kill you.

We carefully kept our distance as we took pictures while circumnavigating the fearsome arachnid, and returned to our lovely bird-chirping, colour-blooming, sun-setting walk towards the exit. Near the gate there was a dark room where a tiger was recovering in captivity, since it had been hit by a car, causing it to become blind. I glanced at it with sorrow, though thankful that I could finally lay eyes on a tiger.

Our guide walked us out of the park and back to the guesthouse where we had initially convened. I still had to pay, so the other guide who picked me up that morning drove me into town on his bike so I could withdraw some cash. Now, finally, I had an animal chasing after me! For there was a dog who apparently recognizes the sound of his motorbike, and every time he hears it he chases after him (and can keep up with the bike at its typical speed!) until he is fed something. Ah how backwards expectations turn out sometimes.

Money was exchanged and he drove me back to my guesthouse, where they were preparing fried rice. Since I had that for lunch I initially wasn’t thrilled, but this turned out to be some of the best fried rice I’d ever eaten in my whole life. The owner, being as hospitable as he was, saw my excitement about eating curry-leaf and at the last minute added some into the rice. With a side of chapati (or some thin bread akin to it), fresh vegetables, and a Tiger beer, it seemed my satisfaction had reached its pinnacle after such a long day of walking. But then, I took a supremely rejuvenating shower in the owner’s mom’s house. Satisfaction heightened. And to top it off, it was movie night, so they pulled out their projector, aimed it at a pull-down screen affixed outside to a concrete wall, made popcorn, and put on “Seven Years in Tibet.” This was easily one of the best days I’d yet experienced on my 40-day journey.

A tiger track and a hopper track inside an elephant track

Sure, seeing a wild tiger would have made it even better, but I had no disappointment. I knew from studying tracking at Alderleaf Wilderness College that one’s chances of actually spotting such an elusive animal, even if you’ve been tracking it for hours, are very rare. I was so grateful for all my new animal and plant sightings, for having such a kind and experienced guide, for being able to spend an entire day walking around in a jungle, for feeling safe during the whole journey, for being fed delicious food, for the incredible place I had to sleep that night, and for my life as a whole. I am so blessed to have experienced over a month in India, and still just be starting my month in Nepal. After only 2 days in the country, I loved Nepal in a very different way than India, and had an ineffable feeling about the days to come.

Coming up: Sleeping on the concrete at 4 AM in a very foreign place, and my third Workaway volunteer experience teaching english and painting for a super sweet, down-to-earth Nepali family.

Follow, comment, and/or like, if you so choose!

Tootles,

Hopper

Categories
Nepal

13: Arrival in Southwest Nepal: Pristinely Primitive [Mahendranagar; Thakurdwara, Nepal]

October 16th, 2019

Inevitably, after 35 bedazzling days in India it was time to finally say goodbye, and say hello to Nepal. I enjoyed a traditional Indian breakfast of Aloo Paratha (pan fried potato/wheat flour bread with curd and spicy pickled veggies) for the last time in who knows how long. I thanked the amiable folks who hosted me and helped guide me towards some amazing experiences at Rishikesh’s Indian Culture Hostel. Backpack on, sunblock on, keen awareness on, I strutted off towards a towering riverside temple to kill some time before my night bus to Nepal.

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A tuk-tuk brought me from the temple to the Rishikesh bus station, where I took a bus to Dehradun. From Dehradun a night bus would ship me over the border into Mahendranagar, Nepal. Confusedly, Google Maps had labeled the town, “Bhimdatta.” Thus, when asking for directions, nobody had any clue what I was talking about. This was my introduction to Nepal. Even Google is primitive in this country (Unlike India, where it’s relatively accurate and well-developed as far as maps are concerned).

The bus ride was slow, bumpy, and rather uneventful. Oddly, although this was definitely no luxury tourist bus, they had a very large, bright, and painfully loud TV playing Indian music videos almost the entire time. My seat was right underneath a speaker, and I had to keep my earbuds in the whole time for protection from the over-amplified sounds directly above me. It was too loud for me to even be able to hear my own music, so I sat patiently in mild pain for most of the 12 hours required to reach Nepal. At least the music videos were… odd. There was obvious influence from American videos, yet maintained an Indian colourfulness and playfulness. Plus, these were nowhere near as outwardly sexual. It was risque to even show a couple quickly kissing on screen.

Thankfully the person next to me had a child, and around 10 PM they asked for the music to be turned down. It fell silent for 10 minutes, and then music came back on nearly as loud as before. After some time I adjusted, though it still hurt to take my earbuds out. I managed to doze in and out of slumber, until all the sudden I realized…

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It was bright out again and many people were getting off the bus. I tried to follow, but the driver told me to stay on. As the bus was inching forward I looked out the window to find all those passengers walking ahead of the bus. We were about to cross an enormous river (the Sarda), which drew the border between the two countries. I was so curious if all those people chose to walk over the border simply because it was a beautiful morning, or if there was some deeper significance behind entering one’s home country by foot. Unfortunately my curiosity remains unsatiated.

Once off the bus in Nepal, I had to pass through 3 different security checkpoints, none of which even searched my bag. It was all just filling out forms and smiling like a naive American tourist so they know I’m not a terrorist. At first I was rather intimidated by the abundance of heavily armed guards dispersed along the first few kilometers of road. But they smiled back at me and I felt a little more secure. fwd5kbxWQfin1ctlYiOsqA_thumb_ace2Still, I had a strange sense that maybe I was doing something wrong, since I had to walk 15 minutes between checkpoints down an empty, trash-laden road in order to receive my visa. Regardless, 50 US dollars later I got my visa without any issues, plus a wad of some really cool Nepalese Rupees. They had animals like tigers, rhinos, and elephants decorating one side, and Mount Everest on the other.

What I found fascinating is that the largest denomination, the Elephant-backed 1000 Rupees banknote, is only worth 8.3 US Dollars (1 USD = 120.6 Nepalese Rupees). Imagine buying a car with $10 as your biggest bill. This doesn’t even equate to that, which really says something about Nepal’s economy. For even India’s greatest denomination, the 2,000 Indian Rupee, is at least worth about 26.5 US Dollars (1 USD = 76.3 Indian Rupees). That means spending the equivalent of 26 bucks in India is about as big of a deal as spending $100 in the states. But in Nepal, spending roughly 8 dollars is like spending $100. What a completely foreign land I found myself in. And I loved it!

So, with pocket full of animals and a fresh 30-day tourist visa, I was able to continue my journey forth.  A rickshaw brought me to the Mahendranagar bus station, where I hopped on a bus towards my first stop in Nepal. It was a relatively short bus ride compared to what I was used to, taking only 7 hours until I hopped of near Thakurdwara, where I would stay for 2 nights. It was a much needed break from the long bus rides required to reach semi-central Nepal, where I had been planning to volunteer for the third time through Workaway. So I saw a big green space called “Bardia National Park” in between the western border and my destination, and went for it.

The rickshaw on the way to my guesthouse literally had to cross through a river (the bridge was under construction), which concerned me that it might breakdown in the middle of the dried-up riverbanks before it reaches the “road” again. Thankfully we plowed right through and he took me to my humble abode: Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar.

For roughly $3/OntOMmacSAKqA6o+mHKTGQ_thumb_ad5f.jpgnight I had a personal tent to sleep in, which was protected by a natural structure made of dried mud and coconut palms. There was even electricity, a fan, and a lockable chest to store valuables. The guesthouse/cafe had only two other tents, which meant the maximum guest capacity was around 6 people. This wasn’t due to lack of space or resources, rather, the host wanted to give the utmost hospitality to his guests. Two sweet women worked there too, one young woman from France who was his girlfriend, and another young traveler from Romania who was also volunteering through Workaway. The place had a very home-y feel to it, especially since the host still lived with his mother in a building right next to the cafe.

Once settled in, I crawled out of the tent only to notice a large grapefruit-like thing falling from a tree. I picked it up, brought it to the host, and he not only informed me that it was a pomelo (like a sweet grapefruit), he brought out a cutting board and knife so I could eat it right then and there! I talked with him for at least 20 minutes about life in Nepal and how it compares to India. He told me that Nepali people have big hearts. Not that Indians don’t, but unlike India, you’d be hard pressed to find scammers or simply rude people in Nepal.

After he helped me make plans to visit Bardia National Park the next day, I utilized the remaining daylight by going for a leisure bike ride. The bike was free, of course, and offered me a sweet taste of life in the Nepali countryside. Lots of rice farms, cows, chickens, kids playing in the streets, quaint trickling creeks, and burning piles of plant (and plastic?) material. Houses were colourful, some well-maintained and others falling apart, and the streets were less trash-filled than those I was used to in India.

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Since I had lost my travel-essentials bag (hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and band-aids) the day before, I figured I’d bike to the village’s nearby “Tigerchowk Market” to restock. The challenge was that there’s no such thing as a CVS or any sort of recognizable corporation in this village. Most of the vendors didn’t even have signs above their storefront. You just look inside and see if they’re carrying the type of stuff your looking for. This made for a fun and engaging hand-sanitizer hunt.

Here’s basically how it went at every shop I stopped at.

Me: “Namaste :)”

Owner: “Namaste :)”

Me: “Do you have hand sanitizer?”

Owner: “What?”

Me: (gesturing how one applies hand sanitizer) “You know, like soap for hands. But NO Water. Just making hands clean.”

Then either 1 of 2 things: 1. A friendly smile and a “no, sorry,” or 2. A “hmmm…” and they hand me baby oil, or lube, or a bar of soap.

This happened LITERALLY at least 10 times as I would zig-zag across the street following the recommendations of shop-owners looking like a very confused tourist in a very non-touristy place. Yet every time I was redirected, I could only laugh more at the fact that most of Nepal is so undeveloped by western standards that they don’t even have hand sanitizer. Hah! I loved it actually. It was so nice to be in a land that capitalism hasn’t completely taken over (yet).

The sun was starting to set, so I rode back, hands unsanitized and now somewhat gooey thanks to the baby oil I accidentally bought and applied. Upon returning I drank an incredibly satisfying Gorkha beer (named after the Nepali soldiers) and finalized plans for the next day with my host. After 3 tuk-tuk rides and 3 bus rides since my last time sleeping in a real bed, I could feel the need for a long, restful slumber. By 9:00 I was in bed, listening to the chorus of insects with a mild breeze occasionally slipping through the tent, and I slept like an exhausted, oily baby.

Next: A stupendous adventure through the Nepali jungle – tracking tigers, elephants, and rhinos with only a blunt stick for defense. If you’d like, hop on my adventure with the “follow” button to be notified of my next blog post 🙂

Namaskar,

Hopper

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Categories
india

12: Strangers or Dangers? +The Beatles Ashram [Rishikesh, India]

October 14th, 2019

I passed out early the night before so I could hit the Beatles Ashram with some fresh energy the next morning. It was a good thing I did, because there was far more to explore than I had expected. And though I knew it had been closed for some time, I was shocked by how much the jungle had taken it over.

Construction along the banks of the Ganges began in 1963 per Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “founder” of Transcendental Meditation. Intially built were 84 meditation huts and a large concrete visitor center/guesthouse, though several more structures had risen up by the time The Beatles stayed there in early 1968. With other musicians such Donovan and a couple Beach Boys soon following suit, the place gained some short-lived popularity. Maharishi abandoned the site in the 70’s, and it wasn’t until 2015 when it finally reopened to the public. Meanwhile, nature made quite a few renovations, as well as the trespassers who vivified the walls with colourful art and quotes paying homage to the Beatles and other Indian cultural figures. The result today is a glorious concoction of human and non-human activity. 

Right when I entered, a huge monkey came plummeting over the concrete walls aside me as I cringed in defenseless hope. Soon I found a firm defensive walking stick, with which I wandered around the stone huts and Maharishi’s residence, and eventually into the vacation-stay of the Beatles. As my all-time favourite band, it was so awe-inspiring to walk into the rooms where they stayed and composed most of the White Album, among other savvy tunes. I could picture them jamming right where I stood, and was engulfed in a gracious, peaceful feeling. I wandered into every nook and cranny of the structure, fantastically wondering about where Ringo or John would have slept. That pattern continued into basically every other building that was still standing, as I was determined to uncover as many the hidden gems of artistry and exotic plants as I could. 

After 2.5 hours of exploring I covered the entire area, so I walked out to the Ganges for some fresh, cool air. The sun’s reflection was glistening, Babas were bathing, and langur monkeys were swinging from vine to electric line. I splashed my face with some river water and felt refreshed enough to start the hour-long walk back. 10 minutes outside of the Ashram, on the border of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, I re-stumbled across a heap of cow skulls & bones lying at the intersection of two paths, and re-questioned if this was indeed sign of the ominous bengal tiger.

Thanks to my education at Alderleaf Wilderness College, I knew that felines leave signs like this at cross-paths to mark territory. I stopped to look for other tracks and signs, and two passing Indian guys were intrigued as well. A baba (aka guru) then strolls by, and the Indians asked him in Hindi if this was tiger sign. The baba showed no fear, and started down the skinny path into the jungle to investigate. Upon return, he (somehow?) confirmed that it was indeed tiger sign! Whoa.

Soon enough I found my way back to urban development, and felt secure in the crowds of humans and unassuming cows. The sun was close to setting, so I sauntered into Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where I was recommended by some folks at the hostel to attend a Puja ceremony. Like the ceremony I saw the day prior, it started just before sundown, and involved releasing leaf-cups of fire and flowers down the river. Unlike the day prior, here were hundreds of Indians (and some tourists) singing praise and performing rituals around a large central fire. Though I didn’t really know the significance of anything that was happening, I was entranced by the chorus of voices with the sun setting behind a towering Shiva statue on a platform over the Ganges. Both human and non-human aspects of the scene were stunningly gorgeous.

On the way back to my hostel I gobbled down some paneer masala and had another rather uneventful night. I worked on writing a report for Waste Warriors on the interviews that I conducted in Dharamshala a few days prior, and hit the sack before 10 to prepare for yet another long day of walking adventures ahead of me.

October 15th, 2019

For my last full day in Rishikesh (and in India as a whole) I had planned to do a 7-mile hike up the mountains and through the jungle to a renowned temple called Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. It’s a common pilgrimage site for many Hindus, as it was apparently built in the spot where Shiva consumed poison originating from the ocean, turning his throat blue in colour. I was interested to see the temple but more excited about the journey. With a defense stick, a packed bag full of essentials, and a collected mindframe I was prepared to face my biggest fear in the Indian jungles: a troop of angry monkeys. After being chased down by monkeys on only my third day in India, I had a healthy respect for those formidable primates.

In about 30 minutes I had reached the point where the jungle path apparently met the road, but I was skeptical. It was a steep and narrow trail with no signage whatsoever, just a dotted line on my phone’s map indicating a path. Miles of uphill hiking through a hot, humid, foreign jungle full of monkeys, tigers, and poisonous scorpions was certainly intimidating yet intriguing. I’m driven to do that which I’m afraid of, for with a healthy attitude, it is really conducive to growth. However I was completely alone and nobody knew of where I was. There is a point when the virtue of Courage turns into the vice of Recklessness, and this felt on the verge between those two.

To allow myself some time to reflect, I walked over to a lookout point of Rishikesh where I saw a few people taking pictures. I asked them if they knew anything about a hiking path, and they declined. After extensive deliberation, I decided to go for it, knowing I can turn back at any point if it feels too dangerous. Still, sometimes the world has a way of leading you in different directions, and always at the perfect time. For I was only 20 feet away from embarking up the trail when a car pulled up right next to me.

“Hey! Where are you going?” asked an Indian guy in the backseat.

“I’m about to hike to Neelkanth Temple. Do you know the way?”

“No, but we are driving there too! Do you want to join us?”

“Well I was planning on walking,” the determination to at least start down this jungle path after mentally facing my fears was burning, but this opportunity just seemed too perfect to pass up. In the end, my intuition told me to take the safer option – so I hopped in a car with a bunch of strangers.

And just like that, the way my entire day would unfold had completely changed. I was now listening to American pop music with four 30ish-year old Indian dudes, rolling down the rugged road and making conversation. They were from the Delhi area, and had already been road tripping together in northern India for a few days. Ashish explained that they worked in construction and farming, and some of them were brothers. I tried making conversation with the whole group, but it soon became apparent that the others didn’t speak as much english. Nonetheless, they still managed to offer me some whiskey and a hash cigarette, which I found rather ironic. They (excluding the driver) were pre-gaming their visit to a sacred temple! I guess there are several takes on the morality of consuming mind-altering substances in Hinduism, just like any other religion.

You could say the drive was “bumpin” – to music and on the actual road. We made it there in about an hour (that would’ve been a long hike) and they were excited to show me the process of paying one’s respects. We first washed our hands and mouth, took off our shoes, and purchased a dish of offerings such as flowers and a sugary delicacy. We were funneled into a line that wrapped around the heart of the temple, offered flowers at different points, and received a bindi-like marking resembling a trident between the eyebrows where the third-eye is. Naturally many pictures were taken, but only after the rituals were completed. After that there wasn’t much else to do up there, so we meandered back down.

With a limited amount of potential discussion topics due to the language barrier, the drive back was quieter than the drive there, but I think they were still happy to have me around. We stopped to take a few more pictures on the lofty drive back, and they all were very excited to add me on Facebook. Like many other Indians, they seemed delighted to simply be hanging around a blonde-bearded American. We made it back to town and walked onto the Laxman Jhula bridge, which I must’ve crossed at least 10 times already. I finally joined the overwhelming hoard of picture-takers I always had to weave through, and felt no shame in hindering the foot traffic by snapping pics with my new friends.

It is really inspiring to realize how little communication is necessary in order to befriend someone. We reflected each other’s smiles, soaked in the same sights, and now continue to occasionally communicate over Facebook. They call me friend, brother, and so on. One even messaged me, “ok brother ❤ love you.” Always will I be deeply grateful for their friendship, and for the auspicious way they saved me from such a treacherous trek.

We said goodbye after retreating from the bridge, and I returned to my hostel – fulfilled with the day’s journeys yet not entirely exhausted. I made my way to that same beach on the Ganges as a couple days prior, and soaked in the moist mountainous air one last time while taking in the calm activity around me: a cow standing in the sand, a Baba meditating by the river, hippie tourists chatting nonchalantly. It was an exquisite last day & night in India.

Next stop: Nepal! Stay tuned (click “follow”) for a month in Himalayan heaven filled with mountain-trekking for 7 days, tracking tigers & spotting rhinos, volunteering to teach english & paint, and being constantly surrounded by some of the most warm-hearted people I’ve ever met.

Thanks for reading my blog. Please comment and/or like if you feel so inclined.

Namaste,

Hopper

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Rishikesh, India, or in Hindi: नीलकंठ महादेव मंदिर, ऋषिकेश, भारत

Categories
india

11: Channeling Energy in The Yoga Capital of the World [Rishikesh, India]

October 13th, 2019

I was awoken on the 12-hour night bus journey from Dharamshala to Haridwar by a nudge from the man next to me, signaling that we made it to our destination. It was 6 AM, and I was still foggy from my lack of sleep on the way. Another 50 Rupees (70 cents) afforded me the next hour-long bus ride from Haridwar to Rishikesh, which was my final stop in India before I crossed the westernmost border into Nepal. It was a stunning bus ride through the jungle, and the channel of rugged human development had its own glimmering prominence. Feeling nostalgic for India as a whole, I felt inspired to write some poetry to the general tune of “POWERFUL LOVE,” my anthem for the trip, which I share with you below.


Rhythm of the Road

Monkey families eating trash on the side of the road

An old man coughing from inhaling too much smoke

The bus in motion doesn’t stop us from jumping on

The seats are taken so we stand up bumpin ‘round

A raspy murmur escapes from inside his throat

He wears a tanktop with sandals doesn’t need a coat

Crumpled up Rupees will take him where he needs to be

Street’s too noisy, he takes refuge in his family

Our bodies shakin’ to the rhythm of the road

This is the rhythm, the rhythm of the road

Yeah I’ve been shakin’ to the rhythm, quakin’ all down the road

The sun is shining, filtered through the hazy sky

She clasps her hands at her heart, lets out her deepest sigh

Rice and bananas are grown for the masses today

To keep feedin’ more people, we’re takin’ the forest away

We are speaking, more than words straight through our eyes

We are reaching, grabbing out through the skies

We are running, freely playing life’s old game

We are woven, in this web from all the same

Our bodies shakin’ to the rhythm of the road

This is the rhythm, the rhythm of the road

Yeah I’ve been shakin’ to the rhythm, quakin’ all down the road


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I made it to Rishikesh, and a rickshaw ride later, to my hostel. As soon as I checked in, the staff told me that some other guests at the hostel were looking for another person to go whitewater rafting down the Ganga (English: Ganges) River with them. I’m typically a yes man – especially when traveling, so I agreed. The next thing I know I’m squished in a Jeep with a family of 7 Indians from Mumbai, bumping around together down some really poorly maintained roads.

We made it to the river banks and I could feel the cold air rushing down from the lush mountains above. As I gazed into the mouth of this holy river, I considered the irony of doing such a touristic adrenaline-rushy activity as my introduction to it. For in fact it was the only holy river in India I knew of before coming here. I dreamed of it being this sacred, slow, ominous moment where I gently kneel down to dunk my head in the water, and visions of Krishna come swirling all around me. Yet here I was, feeling more like I’m about to ride a rollercoaster than achieve enlightenment, and it felt perfectly in place. For it became immediately evident that like Dharamshala, Rishikesh has been heavily shaped by the tourism industry in the past few decades.

As we were launching the raft into the river I couldn’t help but to ponder if this was disrespectful to it, or to the Babas (a word with many meanings, usually akin to guru/teacher/saint) who revere it. Yet there was no backing out now. 

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Helmet on and paddle in hand, our guide was soon aiming us towards the rapids. I could see a slight look of fear in the eyes of my friend who I chatted with on the ride there. Trapped on a raft together, we approached, we splashed, and we conquered. It was surprisingly turbulent, causing the whole family to scream in excitement, and making me just laugh at the whole situation I spontaneously found myself in.

Riding the river was indeed like a rollercoaster at several points, but once we drifted further down it became calm enough to jump in and lazily float alongside several other rafters doing the same thing. The water wasn’t as chilly as Pacific Northwest rivers, but comparable. Half of the Indian family found it too cold for swimming, but the other half dared with me to submerge. The light-heartedness and true joy expressed by their family was what made that journey for me. An added bonus was the scenery along the way: plenty of temples, populated beaches along the banks, and a few iconic pedestrian bridges. I loved how the urban development was juxtaposed with looming jungle-mountains surrounding it. ’Twas was surreal to say the least.

Our spectacular 30-minute river journey eventually came to an end as I wished the Indian family goodbye (“Namaste!”). I air-dried my clothing on the back of a motorbike as I headed towards the hostel. I hung out there until an hour or two before the sunset, when I went out for a walk. 

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In five minutes I was crossing the famous Laxman Jhula bridge that I had just floated underneath, which was now chock-full of head-scratching banana-eating creatures such as humans and rhesus macaques. I weaved around plenty of picture-takers, then through some more tourist-packed sections until I reached a fine sandy beach just in time to watch the sun dip below the treetops.

Ineffably gorgeous with perfect temperatures, it was fitting that Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and is one of the holiest places to Hindus. Aye, lingering in the air was a supernal aura, which was unsurprising given the plenty of Hindu sages including Shiva, Rama, and Lakshmana who are said to have strolled these riverbanks. Pondering the spiritual history of this place, I realized that it’s continually being written right before my eyes, 21st century-style. For there was a curious baptism-like ceremony taking place in the distance, so I climbed atop a boulder to get a better view.

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A white lady was standing waist deep in the river, and after her (students?) released a leaf-cup containing flowers and a lit candle down the river, she invited them one by one into the depths with her. They stood face to face with palms held at heart center, spoke some words I couldn’t hear, and after a few minutes the leader gave her followers a swift dunk. The entire group (6 followers, 1 leader, 1 camera-man) was white, and I felt torn about what was taking place. For it was a serene ceremony, but where were all the Indians? If this was a traditional Hindu ceremony, why aren’t local Hindus the ones performing it? It seemed that tourists had taken over the best spots in Rishikesh and pushed most of the locals into crowded, polluted cities. This vexation about how tourism has shaped the environment reflected a greater theme of my month-long India journey thus far: Should I feel guilty as a fellow tourist?

Well, there’s no better time than sitting on a boulder overlooking a sunset on the Ganges to dissect a question like this. To start, guilt implies doing something morally wrong. I guide my moral life by virtues, and since my chief virtue is self-trust, I believe everybody must follow their own ethics (therefore when I claim “___ is good/bad,” I mean to me it is, not that you also should think that it is good/bad).

So, the spread of eastern spirituality in the west is generally good, for it brings the entire human race a little closer together. It shows us our similarities, widens our perspective, and has brought great peace and happiness into many people’s lives. Yet I can’t help but to consider the environmental cost of every action. And interest in eastern spirituality + the physical and financial capability to travel east = a lot of plane rides. Yet if many of those tourists deepen their inner peace and love for all humanity, is it worth it?

I say yes, to a certain extent. It would be wasteful to travel back and forth from Detroit to Rishikesh 1000 times, and still wasteful if I flew there for only a few days before heading back. But to make the most out of that plane ride by traveling around Asia with public ground transportation as much as possible for three months makes it seem more justifiable. Yet there’s no clear line I can draw between one big trip and ten big trips to the East. It depends on the intention behind each visit, whether one is acting out of virtue or vice.

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Aside from environmental concerns, the touristy (and often most sacred) hotspots have become heavily consumeristic. The prices even for basic goods in these areas are geared towards Westerners or well-to-do Indians, pushing most common folks into dirtier, busier areas. As a tourist all I can do to combat this is strive to only purchase what I really need. I must admit I’ve pick up unnecessary things like a magnet for my mom’s collection, which I gave to her for Christmas. But since my intention behind the purchase is to express love, I consider it justifiable. However, 1000 magnets wouldn’t be justified in my book. And just like plane flights, there is no clear line to draw between 10 or 20 magnets which could distinguish my intention as sour, greedy, or generally vicious. I must simply trust myself, reflect regularly on my intentions, and constantly seek to live by virtues.

Yet the materialistic environment which has been exacerbated by tourism has further layers of hidden harm. Excessive consumption of things we don’t need like extra t-shirts and knick-knacks not only is unsustainable but is distracting from the truly valuable aspects of our lives. We desire more and more nice things even if it is damaging to the livelihood of other people and living creatures. We weaken our relationships with family and friends by fretting over finances, and by the time we realize the hole we dug ourselves in, it seems too deep to hop out, and so the cycle ensues. 

In addition, being an American tourist is particularly dangerous to living virtuously in India, since I think Indians would be much better off with far less influence from America than they have now. Seeing how fond most Indians are of America honestly scares me. For as our goods and fast foods spread across the globe, so does our ideology. They listen to our music, watch our TV shows, follow our politics, and often look up to those same superstars who flaunt their shiny objects and array of large-breasted women at their disposal. Not all American values are bad, of course, but the values they see portrayed through our media I must admit are typically horrendous. 

What seems most infectious is the desire for entertainment and material things. Since many Indians are still struggling to meet their basic needs, they focus on doing so, and dream of moving onto their wants. This type of thinking is so easy to fall into and become trapped in. For once they secure their basic needs and look across the ocean to see what other “very successful” people are doing, they try to bolster their happiness with nicer things. And when that fleeting purchase-pleasure fades away, the most obvious answer to being satisfied is buying nicer, better things. This can cycle can continue endlessly until they realize that greed only leads to internal and external turmoil instead of peace. Of course not every Indian succumbs to materialistic desires, but the numbers seem to be rising higher and higher.

By simply being an American tourist in Rishikesh, some Indians may assume after a brief encounter that I’m living the good life with lots of fancy things, which is why I’m relatively happy and at peace with myself. Or they might simply associate a positive interaction with me with a positive perspective on America in general, including all the superfluous consumerism. I have no easy solution for this, other than to simply be myself and express how my values are not in line with the average American.

So am I doing something morally wrong by merely existing as a tourist in Rishikesh? Not necessarily. The intention is what matters. If I am here solely to have fun and serve my own curiosities, then I am not living up to virtues of Compassion, Generosity, Love, or Temperance, to name a few. The German word for curious is “neugierig,” which translates to “new-greedy,” and seeking pure amusement through new experiences is certainly greedy. Yet I don’t consider my curiosities to be vicious, since the intention behind pursuing them is one of Compassion, which aims to give back directly to the people I meet by sharing Kindness and Gratitude, as well as to the global online community by writing this blog. 

With a wider lens on tourists as a whole, I can imagine a good intention if one is traveling for personal healing/spiritual deepening, or to somehow serve other people, animals, or even Gods (if that’s their belief). Yet none of these actions necessarily verify the intention as good/bad. There is really only one way to know the goodness of an intention (and subsequently all actions), and that is by listening to your heart and trusting yourself.

Thanks for reading my blog! I know the last portion on consumerism and morality can easily stir up plenty emotions, so please comment with any thoughts you might have. Call me a hypocrite or a communist if you feel like it. I’d sincerely love to discuss this further. For more action-packed travel stories tied with moral introspection, you may follow my blog 🙂

Hop Hop Hop Hop Hop,

Hopper

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Categories
india

10: Interview Incidents, Tourism Talk, and Fruitful Friendship [Dharamshala, India]

Saturday, October 12th, 2019

After my morning routine of having a sunny, crisp outdoor breakfast at Nature Twins Cafe in Upper Bhagsu (Dharamshala), India, I was off to another post office for the 4th time in 3 days to hopefully send a package back before I head off to Rishikesh on a night bus. I walked 20 minutes to get there and waited in line for another 20 minutes, only to be told I need to fill out some forms, have my package wrapped, and give them a copy of my passport. So I went next-door and up the stairs, photocopied my passport, and then down the stairs into the wrapping room where I had to fill out another form. Unlike my last few P.O. attempts, this time I was finally making progress.

I sat and waited for the old Tibetan-looking man to finish hand-sewing a perfectly fitting fabric around his current parcel before he moved onto the next 5 customers ahead of me. I didn’t mind at all. It gave me time to admire his seamless flow; he was so precise, effortless, and efficient in measuring out the fabric, folding it, stitching it with his foot-powered sewing machine, fitting it over the package, and finally sealing it with wax dripped from a candle. 20 minutes later he handed the exquisitely sealed package to me, which I finally brought back upstairs to ship it roughly 7,000 miles away for around 25 dollars. At last my souvenirs were no longer weighing me down.

Near the stairs leading to my room I passed a man who was kindly offering for the eighth time to trade some more rocks for my watch or smartphone. I politely denied; all of my stuff could still only barely fit in my 45-liter backpack. As I was cramming everything in, Anmol knocked on my door.L1050838.jpeg Anmol is a local from Kangra who I met a few days prior at a waterfall cleanup event. We bonded immediately and had been volunteering and hanging out together every day since then. I finished packing up and we were off to interview some local cafes about the No-Plastic-Staw-Initiative in order to generate social media content for Waste Warriors (WW). I had technically been volunteering for WW for the past week while staying in a room that they provided for me through Workaway.info, which helps connect travelers like me with hosts all over the world.

The manager at the first cafe on our list was very rude and refused to interview with us, but we kept high spirits and moved on to the next one. It lied a decent hike up the hill in Dharamkot, close to the Israeli concert we went to see two nights before. We wandered about until finding the cafe owner in the kitchen. We started chatting, but I could tell he wasn’t exactly happy to see us. At first he showed us how he sometimes used paper straws and sometimes plastic for the different size glasses where paper doesn’t work as well. However he was quick to change the subject to bigger issues with the NGO. He was bothered by WW’s apparent excessive time & effort spent interviewing when he wasn’t seeing much improvement in the cleanliness of footpaths and “roads” in his community. Since no cars can make it up to his land, WW employs folks to physically haul his waste down the mountain by foot, and he commented on how those folks are being paid too little compared to the office employees. I couldn’t verify if what he said was accurate, it’s above my paygrade (*volunteer*). Since WW is a small/mid-sized NGO, I don’t think anybody is making bank, but I also don’t doubt that some folks get paid more than others. Anmol and I thanked him for his time, apologized for bothering him, and promised that his complains would make their way back to the director of WW’s Dharamshala branch.

After somewhat of a rough start I had a gut feeling that we in for a break soon, and I was right. We kept our heads held high and just when it was starting to pour we stumbled across our next cafe: Lucky Star. With stomachs grumbling as audibly as the thunder, we greeted the friendly cafe owner and took refuge. I ordered the best lime & mint shake I’ve ever had, plus it was through a metal straw, which we photographed in front of the Lucky Star Cafe sign. We then continued to play chess while overlooking the storm passing through the Himalayas. Eventually I devoured a most scrumptious meal of creamy paneer vegetable curry soup with garlic cheese naan bread. Afterwards, with a full belly and clear headspace, I interviewed the owner.

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He stopped using plastic straws about 5 years ago when an Australian tourist gave him a small pack of metal straws after eating at his cafe. He really liked them, ordered a larger bundle of them on Amazon, and has been using them ever since. We chatted for maybe 15 minutes about other eco-friendly projects his cafe is engaged in such as growing cucumbers and peppers right outside, as well as feeding the leftover food scraps to cows who also provide milk for the cafe. I covered most of questions that WW prompted me to ask, took another picture with him, thanked him, and started to head back.

Once back at my place I had to decide whether I had enough time to accept Anmol’s invitation come to Kangra with him. I was on the fence since I really didn’t want to miss my bus, and the ticket only said Dharamshala on it, not Kangra. However, he was certain that the bus would go through Kangra, so after some deep consideration I put my trust in him again and we went on one final adventure together. I said goodbye to the room that was now filled with memories of giant spiders and ecstatic hippie dance music, and left the key in its hiding spot outside where I had found it over a week ago.

Now for the last time I was to embark with Anmol and all of my stuff on the very familiar journey down the stairs, past the yoga & dance studio right beneath my room, through a tiny concrete tunnel surrounded by buildings, past the guy on the street selling rocks who really wants my $8 watch, and finally down the crazy steep and disheveled road full of vegan cafes and touristy shops selling dreamcatchers, jewelry, leather backpacks, and yoga courses.

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 This was my walk to go basically anywhere else. And it was on this street that I saw the highest percentage of tourists in relation to locals compared to anywhere else I’d visited on my month-long Indian journey through Kolkata, Goa, and Delhi.

It rightfully is a spectacular tourist destination – as the heart of Tibetan Buddhism on a Himalayan mountainside overlooking the Kangra Valley, with relatively mild weather and inexpensive organic vegan/vegetarian food (compared to the states)… it is hard to find a better hippie paradise. And as Anmol and I continued our walk to the bus station near the Dalai Lama’s temple, I was reminded that devout Buddhists from afar must also weave through the flocks of hippies and herds of cows to fight for the chance to personally meet their spiritual leader.

For when I went a few days prior to inquire about seeing the Dalai Lama, there were some 10 other people asking in a much more rude and persistent fashion about seeing him too. “He needs his rest,” His Holiness’ personal secretary said repeatedly, and so I didn’t push it when I asked him, knowing I was about to receive a negative response. It must really be exhausting to be such a popular spiritual figure. The millions who love and idolize you traverse long distances with the hope and expectation that you can give them some advice. And especially as the wise and warm-hearted leader of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s just too many people who want your attention. So as curious as I was to see him face to face, I let him rest, and marveled at the fact that we’ve walked many a same path, just at different times.

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My path down this Himalayan mountainside was now slowly taking me closer to Nepal. We boarded the back of the bus, since it feels most rollercoaster-like, and connected over similarities while comparing cultural differences. We talked about dating, swearing, music, family life – everything that societal norms have a big impact on. He asked me what the weirdest thing was about Indian culture that I’ve seen so far, and I answered, “the fact that I see more grown men holding hands with other grown men than with their partner.” For it’s true, only the younger couples begin to show some PDA (Public Display of Affection), and even as much as holding hands with the opposite sex in public can be very taboo. However, dudes are allowed to hold another dude’s hand (even with interlacing fingers) as a sign of “brotherliness” without any strange looks. It’s bizarre. I asked him the same question but regarding American culture and his response was that in America one is typically expected to move out of their parents’ home once they turn 18. As I mentioned in my 7th blog, families almost always stick together for life in India. With a 1% divorce rate, and most younger generations living with their parents at least until they get married, strong family values (and socio-economic pressure to stay with your family) are far more prevalent in India than in the states. Living with your parents forever brings along no shame or sense of failure like it does in the states. There, sticking with family is valued and even respected. I think we could learn a thing or two from India.

The bus ride to Kangra took quite a while, and we arrived there with only about 45 minutes to spare before my bus leaves. So we hurriedly made our way to his family’s home, and I finally met the superb humans who raised such a well-tempered young man. They told me that next time I come back I must stay and have dinner with them. I truly look forward to the idea of doing so some day. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to speak with them, since Anmol was eager to show me around before I took off for Rishikesh.

We hopped on his motorbike, and squeezed our through the skinny alleys he grew up on. Our first stop was a stand selling a classic Kangran refreshment of soda water & lime. We ordered, drank, and returned the bottles all while remaining on the bike. Next stop was to try some tiny sweets – crispy, fruity, and delicious. L1050848.jpegAfter that was the main temple. We walked in, paid our respects, Anmol gave me a Bindi-like marking on my forehead, and some excited little Indian girl asked for a picture with me, which I gladly accepted. Except now, I had only a few minutes to make it back to the bus station. We hurried out of the temple, back to his house where I left my bag, and over to the Kangra bus station. We made it there right on time, but for some reason, the bus wasn’t there. Was it running late? Or did it leave already?

Anmol asked the ticket officer who assured us that it was on its way, and after an anxious 15 minutes it finally rolled in. It turns out the bus was late because they were looking for me in Dharamshala! Whoops. I tried calling and notifying them, but they must not have understood me well enough. Oh well. I wished Anmol goodbye, hoping in all seriousness to see him again somewhere down the line. Still, I needed to keep moving if I was to meet up with a friend in Thailand by mid-November, especially since Dharamshala was already a detour from my former plans.

I was originally only going to stay in India for 2-3 weeks until embarking for Nepal. By now I had been in India for over a month. The folks I lived with for two weeks in Goa all spoke so fondly of Dharamshala that I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. And if you can’t tell by this blog, it was worth every second of the super squished 14-hour bus ride to get there. By chance I had now made it onto a more comfortable bus, and with a full moon shiningly valiantly upon the surrounding hills, I reclined my chair, pulled up some music, and reflected on my time in Dharamshala as I rode in my first overnight bus towards Rishikesh, my final stop before Nepal.

Upon reflection, one thing was certain: the hand of tourism has had an incredible impact on the look, feel, and flow of Dharamshala in the past 50 years. Aside from some scattered agriculture, including folks who live way up in the mountains herding goats, the traditional ways of life (at least in the area where I was staying) have mostly dissipated. The locals who run the stores live nearby, but most of them can’t afford to shop anywhere other than the small, relatively beat-up corner shops that are made only for Dharamshalans. I’d be willing to bet that at least 90% of all the residents in Upper Bhagsu make practically all of their money off of tourism (Indian and international), for better or for worse. Though some aspects of their culture have been lost to booming tourism, I’d argue that any “original” culture in the area has been shape-shifted a thousand times to be what it is today, which is neither good nor bad. It just is.

For the main tourist magnet today is the home of the 14th Dalai Lama, who migrated to McLeoud Ganj (upper Dharamshala) in 1959 after being exiled from Tibet. But before that, it was occupied by the British, as well as Gurkha (Nepali) troops who fought in World War I and World War II. And before that, it was ruled by the Katoch dynasty for some two millennia and home to many Gaddis (mainly Hindu) who lived a more nomadic lifestyle. Who is to say that any distinct period in time was better or more culturally significant than another?

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The streets and even some natural areas tend to reflect a capitalistic utilization of the predominant Buddhist presence and other attractions. It’s quite inspirational to see plenty of real Tibetan Monks walking around the streets with so few possessions, following the way of Buddha. But their lifestyle is the exception, not the norm. The streets their feet hover through are filled to the brim with superfluous Buddhist-themed objects which no monk would ever buy. McLeoud Ganj has become a tourist town with pockets of authentic Buddhist culture, but mostly an exploitation of the public’s interest in Buddhism. This seems to contradict Buddhist teachings and detract from the town’s authenticity. Nonetheless, I don’t mind. The drive to make money off of a religion is entirely rational and relatable.

For say I place myself in the shoes of a local Hindu who all of the sudden can actually afford to feed his family enough calories to stay healthy by setting up a small stand on the side of the road selling mini Buddha figures instead of growing rice. I see no shame in taking that opportunity. In fact, it doesn’t matter why tourists are there, or how many shops are already selling the same exact thing; if one can better support their family by giving up their traditional way of life to selling knick-knacks, then so much for cultural preservation. If we want to preserve culture, then we (including me) need to change our consumption habits. Just like the rest of us, the locals deserve to seek the best lives for themselves, and that’s what makes Dharamshala what it is today. For better or worse? You can decide (and share your thoughts at the bottom of this post if you feel so inclined).

Happy hopping,

Hopper

Categories
india

9: Volunteering with Waste Warriors NGO, plus… Israeli music? [Dharamshala, India]

Thursday, October 10th 2019

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For my 5th morning in Dharamshala, India, I was off to the Bhagsunag waterfall for my first volunteer opportunity with Waste Warriors (WW) who I was volunteering with through Workaway.info.  As mentioned in my 7th blog, I had visited this waterfall a few days prior and accepted an offer to go hiking and eventually partying with 15 Indians from Rajasthan.  This time was completely different. Though the meeting time was at 10, it took until almost 11 for all of the volunteers to arrive. While waiting I agreed to the usual frenzy of picture-taking with several large groups of Indians passing by who rarely see someone as white as me. Amidst all this chaos, another new volunteer arrived who I was soon to befriend and share many memories with.

He was patiently waiting for the action to die down, then introduced himself to me as Anmol. He was from a nearby town called Kangra, about 2 hours away by bus, and to my surprise discovered Waste Warriors on Instagram. He was helping simply because he had the time and wanted to support a good cause. We bonded quickly over our affinity for classic hip-hop music like Eminem and enjoyment of old video games. With a degree in mathematics, he now works in Search Engine Optimization, and thanks to his flexible schedule can afford to spend a few days volunteering with WW.

After an introduction given in Hebrew for the volunteers who happened to be mostly Israeli, around 15 volunteers (mostly tourists) set off with grabber-tools and large sacks to start cleaning up the main pathway between the town of Bhagsu and the waterfall. Towards the back of the line Anmol and I found mostly small pieces of trash that the leaders skipped over, as well as some far reaches over the railing to find trash that would soon be blown further down the cliff side into the river. The process took less time than I had imagined, and ended at the base of the waterfall where I immediately jumped in and swam around for a bit until I noticed the no swimming sign (whoops). Normally that still wouldn’t deter me, but I was representing Waste Warriors, so I dried off quickly to carry some sacks back to storage with Anmol.

On our walk along a different skinny mountainside path we met a few of the volunteers who were from Israel. We made some chit-chat, realized we all were about to go out for lunch somewhere, so we happily all ate together. They shared stories from their mandatory military service, Anmol showed us some cool number tricks, and we questioned the nature of mathematics. We feasted on a variety vegetarian foods, and made potential plans to attend a live music performance that night by an Israeli named Yair Dalal who we had by pure chance met in the cafe. Both Anmol and I were very interested, so we exchanged Whastapp numbers and went our separate ways.

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I brought Anmol back to my place where I grabbed a few more things before heading out with him on a bus ride to lower Dharamshala. Aside from meeting with WW staff again, I was on a mission to mail some souvenirs back. I had tried the day before, but even though they were open for two more hours they told me to come back the following day. So I did. I brought my bag of souvenirs, and this time they told me I needed a box. “Can I buy one here?” “No sir.” Of course, even at the main post office in the entire 25 sq mile region, you can’t buy a box to ship stuff in. So we went to a small corner shop, and thankfully they had some old boxes lying around from shipments of juice and snacks. I gratefully took one of his beat-up cardboard boxes without payment, and we headed to our meeting with Shomita and Mitali. The plans for the next 2 days were clarified and they approved Anmol to come along with me. I took some scrap paper from them to shove in my box of souvenirs and we wished them goodbye until tomorrow.

By this time the main post office was closed, so Anmol and I chatted for a while in a park near the bus stop before he headed back to Kangra. Since the Israeli concert didn’t even start until 10 o’clock, we made plans for him to stay at my place that night. As my trust was tested the day before when I agreed to a spontaneous excursion with some dude who I met on the streets right outside the Dalai Lama’s home, now it was being tested to a whole new level. A local Indian was coming to my place to sleep, and could easily wake up in the middle of the night, take all my valuables and leave. Yet I didn’t have the slightest feeling of doubt or concern. Anmol was very open about any and every topic, and had a clearly good and innocent heart. This was supported by the fact that even though it’s legal at age 20, he’s never drank or smoked before. While reflecting upon my intuition as I walked back to my room, I passed a monkey trying steal someone’s bag. Primate nature is to steal. Is human nature the same way? Not once we reach a certain understanding of morality, it seems. And I trusted that my friend had reached that point.

Once back to my room I grabbed my jacket and a blanket (it’s actually cold! Yay!) and waited at a nearby cafe for Anmol to arrive. He bussed his way back from Kangra to Upper Bhagsu, from where we walked to the small village of Dharamkot for the concert. It’s the next town further up on the mountain, beyond where any cars or bikes can go due to unroadliness. We walked amongst construction and along tiny sidewalks squeezed between colourful houses for maybe 15 minutes until we spotted our Israeli friends from earlier that day. We made our way into the concert hall with them, and I was blown away by the sheer amount of Israeli people who happened to all congregate in this particular place in India. There must’ve been around 100 people – including families full of every generation. Everyone was simply sitting directly on the hard floor or tiny cushion. I don’t know how many of them were actually from Israel, but the vast majority of all the speech I heard was in Hebrew or some other language. After some research, I found out that there is more than 3,000 Israelis in Dharamkot between March and October. They come to India after their mandatory military service to spend time exploring the hills, eating and drinking with each other, and often congregating at the four-story Chabad house.

Eventually Yair Dalal peacefully mounted the stage in all-white clothing and started playing something that made me feel like I was in the desert with Kings and camels some thousands of years ago. It was very intricate, and in this traditional Jewish/Israeli style there’s lots of open space between the speedy strokes on the violin. His sound was fuller and more rhythmic when he picked up the oud (a stocky, roundish string instrument). It became very intense and emotional when he invited a friend on stage with him to sing. The part I most enjoyed was near the end, when he invited two local Indian folks he had met days prior onto the stage to improvise with him. The older man was super skilled on the tabla (drum) and his wife had a gorgeous singing voice. I was encapsulated in their stirring, harmonious sounds which beautifully blended styles of Indian and Israeli music into one.

It seemed so odd that out of all places to have this experience, it was in a tucked-away village in India. Nearby was a “Shalom Hostel” (Shalom= Hello/Goodbye in Hebrew), as well as multiple restaurants that specialize in Israeli food. Anmol and I again went out to eat with our Israeli friends afterwards where I of course had to try some Israeli food. I ordered the Ziva, which though it sounds like some deadly virus you don’t want around, I gladly gobbled it down while chatting with friends, spinning a local fabric-toy on my finger, and playing a hand drum. Another few musicians start playing guitar and singing together across the room, so we sat and listen to them for a little while, until somehow it was already midnight. Anmol and I wished our friends goodnight and made our way back to my room, where we both slept soundly for the whole night.

 

Friday, October 11th

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As soon as we were awake and ready we took a pleasant morning mountain stroll down to the bus station. After a fun & steep bus ride heading down the mountain to lower Dharamshala, we met up with Mitali at the Waste Warriors office to then take another bus to Kangra. Here we had planned to visit a college to see if we can get some more students involved with Waste Warriors. When we got there they were having an exhibition for their sustainable clothing designs, and so after passing through we met with some staff there and successfully set up another meeting with someone who can get us further involved.

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 We still had some time to kill, so I chatted with a pretty Indian woman about her design made of hospital curtains & plastic tubes, admired some paintings, and met various elders who were quite welcoming to us Waste Warriors.

Our time there soon ended, but since we were already in Anmol’s hometown of Kangra, he spontaneously showed us around to multiple other schools where we chatted up the principals about getting more involved with keeping the city clean. Some were receptive and set up another meeting, and others were not. Some thought that it was the city’s job, they should take care of their own trash and not have to deal with anyone else’s. At least that’s what I picked up from the tone of voice, and occasional english words tossed into the blender with Hindi. What it sounds like to me is, “ravalabidihamanavintarishi waste management shivativinanepineneswava green energy vavanapalabadawa…” Either way, even though I couldn’t contribute much to the conferences, it was really a unique experience to get inside a few “elementary” schools and meet the principles. Most kids would steal a glance at me and giggle, only to shyly look away once we make eye contact. I guess a guy like me is a rare sight at their school. It reminded me of the excitement my friends would get when a teenage girl actually entered our all-boys high school.

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By the time we visited 3 different schools, the sun had passed its mid-point in the sky and hunger had long ago presented itself in my consciousness. I mentioned that I wanted to try some local Kangran food, and we decided as a group that we needed to eat. Yet on our way to some food stands we happened to pass by Anmol’s old childhood school and just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The security there was strict, but after Anmol amiably greeted his old teacher, they let us in. We had to wait to meet with the principal, which was a-ok with me because there was a sizable buffet in the middle of the outdoor courtyard for a special event that day. They politely offered us to sit and eat, and it turns out that (according to Anmol) we were offered some of the most authentic, local Kangran food that there is.

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 It was rice with some lentily soupy thing, with some flavoured chickpeas and vegetables, plus chapati bread. So amazing! Especially on a practically empty stomach after walking around the whole day in the beating sun. Even though the temps up where I was staying in Bhagsu (6,800 ft) only peaked at around 73 during the day, down in Kangra (2,400 ft) it was closer to 90. It was a true gesture of hospitality to feed us when 10 minutes prior we were mere strangers who unexpectedly appeared at their door.

Acting politely and respectfully was very important, and though I was initially quite confused when Anmol quickly bent down to touch the feet of his old teachers, after he did it a few times I understood that it was a norm of showing respect to one’s elders. After eating we met the principle, who seemed happy to see Anmol, and was friendly towards Mitali and I as well. We discussed (finally in english this time) plans for a more formal meeting for some time until we settled on a date, each one of us always ending our sentences with “Sir.” We shook hands and were about to leave when the opportunity arose to visit one of Anmol’s favourite teachers. Upon climbing some stairs we found her busy sorting through papers, but still happy to make conversation over some crispy snacks for 10 minutes. She also politely offered us her snacks many times, and I could see that at this school in particular manners are highly valued. By now I was starting to feel exhausted, and knew it was a long bus journey back to my room. So we skedaddled, found our way onto a bus, and I somehow napped on the way back.

Once in Dharamshala I made a 3rd attempt at sending my package back, but still to no avail. The post office was closed again, and the private shipping company wouldn’t ship my “valuable” Himalayan crystal rocks (which I bought for maybe $5 total) because there’s too much risk of it getting stolen. So after another sunset-lit, windy, slightly terrifying yet gorgeous bus ride back up the mountain, Anmol grabbed his bag from my room and we made plans for the next day. He headed back to Kangra, and I was feeling exhausted from the day’s journeys, so the rest of my evening basically consisted of lying in bed.

And as I lied in bed, I said gratitude in my head. I was thankful for the room that I was staying in for free thanks to Waste Warriors & Workaway. I was thankful that this volunteer experience brought me inside real Indian schools while meeting loads of new people. I was thankful for the food and water that people gave me without expecting anything in return. I was thankful that I could develop a better grasp on what social norms are like in India. Most of all I was thankful to have a good friend to share the journey with. By the time I fell asleep I was ready to have a glorious final day in Dharamshala.

With gratitude,

Hopps

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8: Burn Ravana Burn! Celebrating Dussehra (and life) [Dharamshala, India]

Tuesday, Oct 8th 2019

It was a sunny morning in Upper Bhagsu, a suburb of Dharamshala in India’s mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. At a very comfortable 65 degrees, my 15-minute walk to the famous private home of the 14th Dalai Lama in McLeoud Ganj was a breeze. Beautifully situated on a hillside overlooking the well-populated Kangra valley below, the Tsuglagkhang Complex (pronounced: “tsjfftrslgrkng”) was bursting with life. Immediately when I entered the main grounds I was very surprised not by the large number of monks and tourists there, but what the monks were doing to each other. There were pairs scattered plentifully throughout the grounds, one person sitting and the other standing. The one standing is speaking vivaciously at the other one, culminating in an enthusiastic clap-stomp that involves the whole body. I was initially unsure of what was happening, which turned out to be a friendly, enthusiastic debate with each other. The one standing is the challenger, and the one sitting is the defender. They each take turns debating with each other, trying to break down viewpoints to create a defensible stance, all in good, respectful fun. This practice is unique to Tibetan Buddhist Monks, who have now become the majority ethnic group in their exile-home of Dharamshala at around 19,000 people. You can read more about the practice here.

After I explored around the different buildings of exquisite colour and intricate artwork, past some massive Buddha statues and in the presence of His Holiness (though unfortunately we never met), I walked out the gates to quickly find some local asking me if I smoke. I answered and swiftly walked away, for though I happy wandering around solo, I vowed weeks ago to not ignore people on the streets who greet me, even if they’re just hungry for money or a cigarette. He waited maybe 15 seconds, saw me paused across the street looking at my phone for directions, and came up to me again. He asked me about my plans for the rest of the day, and I admitted to him that I had none other than walking down this path and seeing where it takes me. That was rather symbolic for the rest of my day.

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We conversed for maybe 15 minutes as I strolled through the forest right outside of the Dalai Lama’s home beneath hundreds of prayer flags, spinning the never-ending row of prayer wheels on my right. Amidst reflecting on the magic of this environment, I found out that he used to have a shoe-repair business, but it was taken away from him. Now he calls himself a guide, but without any qualification or official business. He was only a year or 2 older than me, and seems to squeeze by in life by hanging around touristy spots and offering people like me a tour around some other interesting spots of Dharamshala. I was hesitant at first, especially since he mentioned renting a motorbike and refused to tell me his price for the day. But after a while I developed some trust in this guy, whose name I will just say is Sam for confidentiality. He told me that if anyone asks what our relationship is, to just say we’re friends; assumedly it’s illegal to guide someone without an official business. From the outside it seemed risky, but on the inside I felt it would be fine. Unlike my previous major scam in Goa, this guy was relaxed and friendly, with clear intentions and a kind heart. Plus, he mentioned some big Hindu festival that night, which lit my curiosity ablaze.

So I agreed, went back to my hostel to grab a few things, and was soon off with him on a rental motorbike down to another famous Buddhist temple named Norbulingka before the festival. As the summer residence to many prior Dalai Lamas it was naturally gorgeous and peaceful, but with a strangely large gift shop. With time to kill we went to one of Sam’s main hangout spots, where we found all of his friends sitting on logs next to this small, beat-up wooden shack along the river. Immediately the mosquitos were more intense than anywhere else I had yet been in India, so to help they set fire to some nearby coconut husks, as well as to their hash-filled cigarettes and mini Indian cigars known as “Bidis.” Sam’s friends asked me all sorts of questions about my travels, where I’m from, what I do for work, and the likes. Conversely, I learned how some of them had lived in a small wooden structure with only a light tarp as their roof, but after 16 years or so the government kicked them out and forced them to find somewhere “legit” to rest their heads. Now they still live together and struggle to get by, but shared amongst 6 men they can still manage to drink bottle after bottle of rice beer (called Handia). It’s the cheapest alcohol you can find in the region, made right at this tucked-away no-name shack (I’m not sure if they even make anything else). It consists basically of mildly fermented rice, plus some hot spices they mix in for flavor. I tried a little bit to be polite, and it was actually quite odd & tasty, but I was too concerned about the cleanliness of the water to drink very much of it.

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30 mosquito bites later, we were off to celebrate Dussehra, which commemorates the victory of the Hindu god Rama over the “demon king” Ravana. In a wider scope, it is celebrating the triumph of good over evil. We arrived just as the sun was setting to an amazing crowd of at least a couple thousand scattered about the field, concessions and amusements such as a ferris wheel. Front and center in the massive field stood three towering figures perhaps 150 ft tall: King Ravana, his son Meghnad, and his brother Kumbhakaran. We all stood in patience until some flares marked the beginning of the ceremony. I had no clue what was going to happen. They started throwing something like powdery-water on the figures. Was it holy water?

They lit a small fire under the figure closest to me, and I had a feeling that it might slowly reach the head of this figure. What I didn’t expect was that as soon as the flame grew to the calves of the figure, it started exploding in rapid bursts, like the grand finale of a fireworks ceremony. The fires climbed up 150 feet to the head of the first figure in less than half a minute as I stood in total awe of this bizarre, rather superfluous tradition celebrated by Hindus all over India. After the first figure was 90% incinerated, they moved onto the the next one, and finally to the demon king, Ramana. I was blown away by the fantasy of it all; I’d never seen anything like it in my entire life.

Following the destruction of these towering figures was a fireworks celebration, similar to those that one might see on the Fourth of July in America. Safety standards were of course sub-par compared to the states, as a few men walked from firework to firework scattered across the ground, lighting each individual one by hand. You can even watch fireworks explode prematurely into the crowd at the end of the video above. They were beautiful, varied fireworks, but I’ve seen better in the states. Still, nothing could compare to what I watched just moments prior as thousands of Indians cheered over the utter obliteration of these three symbolic figures of evil in Hindu culture. Though incredible to watch, I knew that such a celebration was quite wasteful and only contributes to India’s already enormous pollution problem. Afterwards I contemplated the irony of how it represented good overcoming evil, when it’s really just adding fuel to the fire. However I found delight in reading that some Indian cities such as Delhi have at least added an installation made entirely out of single-use plastics. They do end up burning it (gasp!) but in a cement kiln which supposedly absorbs the bad gases so that “no environmental issues” occur.

Though skeptical of Sam at first, I got to know him quite well over the course of the evening, and just as his friends at the rice-beer shack had told me, he really did have a big heart. He told me of a long-term girlfriend he had from Sweden, who ended up breaking his heart after claiming that she loved him and wanted to marry him. He was happy to share with me the fun and exciting aspects of Dharamshala as well as anything I was curious to know about his life. At the end of the day, a tour like this was incomparably better than one I could have taken through an official guide service. He considered me his brother and despite our stark differences we bonded over many similarities as we got to know each other more. It was clear that he often struggled to get by, and was happy to pay him 700 Rupees ($9) for the unforgettable experienced we shared together. After the festival he dropped me off near my room, and I had a feeling that though we’d occasionally keep in touch through WhatsApp, I wouldn’t see him again, at least on this trip.

Wed, Oct 9th

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It was my first cool and drizzly day in Upper Bhagsu and after 4 nights of staying in a room thanks to Workaway.info in exchange for volunteering for an NGO called Waste Warriors (WW), I was still unable to get in contact with them. So, the day called for a change of pace with some leisure souvenir shopping and laundry-washing. I found the weather rather energizing, compared to the humid heat that drained me in Goa, Kolkata, and Delhi. Thankfully, right as I was finishing my tasks around 3 PM without a clue of what I’d do for the rest of the day, I received a message from the project manager at Waste Warriors requesting me to discuss upcoming opportunities at their office in lower Dharamshala. I immediately took a taxi ride to a nearby landmark, where I wandered around accepting help from multiple kind Indians for at least 20 minutes. Alas, I found the building and could finally connect face-to-face with some folks from the NGO.

I spoke with two women a little older than me named Shomita and Metali, received an official T-shirt and badge, and had some tasks planned out for the rest of my stay in Dharamshala. On Thursday I’d help with the waterfall trail cleanup, on Friday I’d visit a school and promote involvement with WW, and on Saturday I’d interview some cafes near my room who are involved with WW’s no-plastic-straw initiative. Days prior I had booked a night bus to Rishikesh on Saturday evening, and so like that it was decided how I’d spend the rest of my days in this holy Himalayan home-away-from-home. Still, there was plenty of space to fill in with unexpected cultural opportunities and spontaneous adventures with new friends who I was soon to meet.

Walking to find some food before I headed back, I found a patch of plants that blew me away with their elegance and size. What I found most beautiful, however, was a small-flowered plant called Lentina Camerana, which, thanks to its invasiveness across Southeast Asia, I would later identify in the next five places I’d visit in India and Nepal. I fell in love with the variety of its floral displays, with buds in a bow-tie shape, blooming into small lobey flowers of different colors in endless different patterns. The leaves held an intoxicating smell of fruity and minty goodness (though sadly was inedible). Despite it being an invasive species, I must admit that it was my favourite plant I discovered on my entire trip.

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As I stopped for food I saw a “just married” car pull up outside the window. There were the typical celebratory orange Marigolds stuck evenly about the Mercedes Benz, lines of purple ribbons criss-crossing the roof of the car, and a “bouquet” of plants and flowers on the hood of the car. I took this Indian marriage carriage as a sign that good experiences with Waste Warriors were on its way. However, when I returned to my room, I received another sign indicating that my coming experiences wouldn’t be without a little bit of healthy discomfort.

For as I was just finishing up my business in the bathroom, I spotted (without exaggeration) the biggest wild spider I’d ever seen in my entire life. It scurried like lightning across the wall, only to pause right in the doorway where I had to duck my head to avoid being hit. I weighed my options… (1) Stay in the bathroom forever or until it crawls away. (2) Scare the spider away by throwing my toothbrush and soap at it. (3) Run out, grab a cup and magazine, trap it, and release it. Considering I’d never be able to sleep if it crawled away to some hiding spot in my room, I chose option three.

I ducked, ran, and… phew! No spider attack. I measured the 3-inch wide cup against the spider and it seemed too big to fit in it, but I had no choice. I couldn’t kill such a beautiful yet ominous creature. Though still unsure if it could kill me with a poisonous bite, I suddenly flung the cup towards it; I was hoping not to crush its legs, which it thankfully tucked in as it became trapped. I barely slid the magazine underneath it thanks to the bumpy nature of the doorway, but successfully carried it out to my second story balcony, where I tossed it into the open air onto the plants and sidewalk beneath me. Though nothing helps me sleep at night more than the fresh cool air, I promptly shut the windows, which remained that way for the rest of my stay. What an exciting end to a rather easy-going day! Though it initially terrified me, I felt that in some way this incident with the spider was a blessing.

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Much time has passed between now and then. I made it safely home after my 95-day journey through India, Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia. The main reason I discontinued blogging-on-the-go is because it was keeping me from experience more valuable to me than writing – be it socializing, sleeping, exploring, and so forth. Now, with newfound time and a lack of unfamiliar places around me, the blog continues forth! Stay tuned for the rest of my journey by following me on WordPress or by email.

Hoppin’ never stoppin’,

Hopper

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india

7: Train across India, Himalayan Hiking, and College Partying [Delhi; Dharamshala, India]

Tuesday, Oct 1st – Monday Oct 7th

Eventually after 2 weeks it became the day that I was to leave Saraya Ecostay – my first Workaway experience in Goa India. I wished goodbye to all the friends I had made the last 2 weeks, and in the morning was off to the train station for a 36-hour ride to India’s capital: Delhi. In the Non-AC sleeper class the average Indians travel – it was mostly full of men, but I sat across from a family with a 2-ish year old baby who had pierced ears. It’s oddly quite common that Indian kids both male and female have pierced ears at a very young age.

Riding the train was thrilling at first, as I stood with my body partially out the open door to get a fresh breeze (and regularly a very strong stench of urine) listening to music like “Born on a Train” by the Magnetic Fields. Watching the world go by, India uncovered its beautiful lush green semi-mountainous terrain along the stretch from Goa to Mumbai. The sunset over the river was magnificent, and watching it while having conversation with new friends I met on the train was an added bonus.

The excessive trash along the tracks was however quite saddening. Especially since so many farms were bordering the path, I’m sure that all the human waste (organic and non-organic) can’t be good for the soil, and for one’s health when eating rice grown in that soil. Even when stopped on a bridge over the river, people are throwing plastic water bottles and tin lids out the window without any second thought of the impact it has down the line. The good news is that now the ideology is starting to change, slowly but surely, partially thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s campaign to clean up India, as well as NGO’s such as the Waste Warriors, who I would soon start volunteering for after 3 nights in Delhi.

By the time we reached Mumbai around 6 PM the sun had set, so I ate a samosa, drank some mango juice, and passed the time by reading and writing. The thrill had diminished, and I was soon ready to try speed up the conscious journey I was taking by going to sleep. Even the top bunk didn’t feel clean at all, but I managed to stay healthy during and after the ride. With my bag of clothes as a pillow and backpack locked to the adjacent mesh bars, I fell in and out of sleep for maybe 10 hours.

Wednesday, Oct 2nd was still spent mostly on the train. My friend who I had shared some Goan cashews with the day prior bought me a cappuccino in the morning, and I was feeling surprisingly refreshed. The terrain had flattened, and we passed by many small villages that looked so burning hot, poor, and run-down, I couldn’t help but to feel so grateful that I was born in America where there’s decent infrastructure and far less falling apart buildings and trash scattered everywhere. So I read, listened to music, and absorbed the scenery that I’ll likely never see again.

I made some more friends once we were close to Delhi – some who were big fans of American heavyweight lifters, as they were traveling to compete in Indian heavyweight lifting themselves. Another named Vikash told me how he has been traveling alone for the past 2 years because his family wouldn’t support him any longer. At 19 he was a traveling chef, and though he was very engaged in his nomadic lifestyle, I could see the deep pain in his eyes when he talked about his family. His father simply doesn’t understand him and is not willing to listen. They haven’t spoken on good terms in over 2 years, and every attempt turns sour. I guess like attracts like.

As an American with a broken relationship with my father, my case isn’t terribly rare. But in India, family ties are much more sacred. What my friend Anmol (who I met in Dharamshala) found most strange about American culture is that at age 18 one is expected to move out of their parents home and either live with friends or alone. In India, people usually stick in their family’s homes for their whole lives. You’re not judged as someone who is unable to support themselves so they have to live with their parents. Sticking with your family is the norm, and when you are alone at a young age like Vikash was, that means something terrible must have happened in your family.

Sure Indian families argue with each other, but they tend to work things out or at least deal with each other’s differences. At around 1%, India actually has the lowest divorce rate in the world. But the reasons for this aren’t entirely positive. Women generally have very little voice and often aren’t able to support themselves on their own. Divorce is also a great shame to the family name, a terribly difficult legal process, and a sacred bond taken much more seriously in Hinduism than Christianity. Plus with so many arranged marriages, not having much of a choice from the start doesn’t set you up to have choice later on. Still, although I think that my parents made the right choice by getting divorced, there is something to be learned from the cooperation and strong family values that exist all over India.

So eventually Vikash and I parted ways after exchanging social media info, and I finally arrived in Delhi around 5:30 PM. The streets there are possibly the most chaotic and jam-packed I’ve ever seen. I made it to my hostel, went out to eat and considered ordering a beer, but since it was Gandhi Jayanti, one of India’s 3 national holidays marking Gandhi’s birthday anniversary, all alcohol sales were prohibited. So I simply took advantage of having a comfortable, stable bed to sleep in, and rested for a long time that night.

Thursday, Oct 3rd

In the morning I was off to see sights for the whole day. I first walked through crazy streets and underneath a sketchy bridge to find the Lotus Temple of the Bahá’i faith, which was super tourist-packed but still really beautifully designed in the shape of a lotus flower, or water lily. Then I hit the streets and I saw so many people heading down this narrow footpath all heading the same direction, I thought I might as well go see what all the hustle was about. It was for Shree Kalka Ji Temple, and though in the moment I really didn’t enjoy being squished on all sides between hundreds of people, it was perhaps my most interesting cultural experience in Delhi.

For it wasn’t touristy at all, but a Hindu tradition that took a totally different vibe in India’s capital and second most populated city. Once you’re filtered into a walkway that goes around the temple’s core, you pass shops selling flowers, puffed rice, and other sacred items, which you eventually give to the man in the center through a little window (What he does with it, I’m not really sure). Eventually after plenty of excessive pushing and people cutting in front of you, you walk around the small perimeter of the temple, touching the walls and then your forehead directly after. You eat a little bit of the sweet puffy rice that others had placed there, and when walking out after your 5-minute loop you get a red and yellow string tied around your wrist. Also perhaps a Bindi, or a red dot atop your “third eye,” the center-point between your eyebrows. Thankfully there was a kind man I was following who offered to show me what you typically do at every step.

I was relieved to finally escape the hoard of people, and I rejuvenated myself with some sugarcane juice. Then I rode a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled tiny taxi) to Humayun’s tomb, which was full of beautiful architecture but quite touristy. I took plenty of more selfies with Indians, and was then off to Akshardham. After a 20 minute ordeal of checking in my bag and camera, leaving me only with cash and my free entry ticket, I made it through the gates. This was the most beautiful architectural design I’d seen yet in India. So many tiny carvings of people and animals, perfectly symmetrical with everything else. A big golden statue and clean marble floors gave a very royal feeling to the Hindu Temple. However the nearby theater exhibit felt more like something from an amusement park. You move from room to room maybe ten times, either watching a film or a stage of mechanical characters that act out the storyline of Swaminarayan. It was informative but felt very out-of-place at such a magnificent place of worship. So did the multitude of shops selling junky food, the large overpriced gift-shop, and costly photo opportunities.

After Akshardham I went to check out the India Gate (like the famous arches in France and Germany). It naturally was very crowded all around but at least spread out over a big street and nearby fields. It was a long walk down a very wide footpath to reach Indian Parliament. The sidewalks were covered with nice tents selling food and products in the tradition of practically every state in India. I was happily surprised by the delicious food, free art exhibits, live music, and tastes of various Indian cultures. Right after nightfall I reached Indian parliament but it had just closed for the day. I started to walk back but it started pouring rain so heavily that by the time my tuk-tuk took me to my hostel, the water level was sometimes halfway up to my knees as I walked the rest of the way. It was an exhausting day, and I slept quite soundly that night.

Friday October 4th was (thankfully) my last full day in Delhi. So I went to see some more sights – first the Red Fort – which was quite touristy but had some interesting history and architecture. Then a walk through old Delhi revealed more super crowded streets and cheap shops of all sorts. Afterwards I walked around the Indian parliament, alongside a monkey who had much more access to different areas than I did. Then I made my way to a park, which was peaceful and a much needed break from the city life. Finally I went to Hans Plaza, because why not, but there were no signs even saying my name :/ just more crowded streets and fancier clothing and jewelry shops. It was a busy day with lots of walking, but nothing too extraordinary worth mentioning here.

Saturday Oct 5th I took a bus around 5:30 AM to Dharamshala. The ride was rather long and boring until I got to Chandigarh, which is when I first laid eyes on the Himalayas. A very sweet girl sat next to me who was from Himachal Pradesh (India’s NW Himalayas), and told me a little bit about her life. Unlike most other Indians I’ve met, she doesn’t listen to American music or watch any American television. She loves the simpler, quieter life in the mountains, and is happy without so much constant entertainment (though she is a regular Instagram user).

As we talked our bus passed by monkeys, Eucalyptus trees and Mango trees, up massive hills and back down into the next valley, revealing some of the tallest (perhaps the tallest) and steepest snow-laden mountains I’ve ever seen. Like Colorado but on steroids. It was incredibly beautiful, and also offered me some super refreshing cool air as soon as we started gaining significant elevation. The sun set over the mountains and I still had another 2 hours until I reached Dharamshala. I was so relieved to finally arrive around 7:30 PM, and after a taxi ride past the Dalai Lama’s residence and steep hike up the road where taxis can’t even drive I made it to the room where I’d be staying for the next week as I volunteer with my next Workaway – Waste Warriors.

Sunday October 6th brought a handful of unexpected adventures. There was no work for me with Waste Warriors, so I explored the town of Upper Bhagsu for a little while. It was very hippie-tourist oriented, with yoga centers, ecstatic dance, and Tibetan massage parlors spread about. A strange temple held a shrunken stair set leading through the mouth of a tiger. Shops were selling dreamcatchers, mini Buddha figures, and handmade leather notebooks. It was hippie paradise, and accordingly the human environment was more full of white people than anywhere else I’d been so far in India.

So I went for a little nature walk to a nearby popular waterfall called Bhagsunag. I passed some stunning birds with long, striped tails, and took the secret path to the waterfall where I followed two Buddhist monks dressed in their traditional red robes, or Kasayas. Once I got there I found a small cafe, prayer flags, and plenty of people hanging out on the rocks surrounding the small pool that the waterfall plummeted into. Very few were actually swimming, but that was no deterrent for me. I emptied my pockets into my bag and went full-in, soaking my head beneath the cold falling water, feeling the rejuvenating rush of energy. A fellow Indian traveler from Jaipur noticed me, as he was the only other one crazy enough to be doing the same thing as I was. He mentioned that he and a group of friends were going to continue hiking up the mountain, and I was welcome to join. I was planning on going back to my room after the waterfall but without any specific plan in mind, so I gladly jumped on the opportunity.

It turned out to be a group of maybe 15 other Indians, all from Jaipur, a 16 hour drive from Dharamshala, visiting just for the weekend. We started hiking alongside a herd of goats and picked up a dog who tagged along for our entire trek. I got to know several of them very well by the time our hike was finished. One was an electronic musician named AFTERall, another was still afraid of heights, and they all were students at a university. On the way up we listened to a surprising amount of American pop music, most of which was new to me. We ascended through the forested hills up into the drier, shrubbier land for perhaps 2 hours. Close to our stopping point we met another Indian named Sid, who was traveling solo and was likewise happy to accompany us for the rest of our trek.

Eventually we rested at this spectacular clearing about 8,000 ft above sea level where we could sit on the grass, eat Maggi (like Indian ramen noodles) and drink chai from this super isolated mini-cafe way up in the mountains. It was the deepest into nature I had been since I arrived in India, and made me feel so at home. We sat and exchanged Instagram info, took an abundant amount of group selfies, and talked a bit with the other folks who were sitting nearby. There was a way-too-drunk man from Afghanistan, some Europeans, and two Buddhist monks sitting off in the distance. I ate a wild tomato and met plenty more mountain goats, soon to return back down the slope.

It was a swift walk down, for we hadn’t much time until the light in the sky disappeared. We made it back to the waterfall where I met them just as it became too dark to see, and we took the easy, wide footpath back to town to have a few snacks afterwards. I tried some street-food I had never eaten before, such as momos (pretty much Asian dumplings) and this strange but delicious hollow fried wheat ball dipped in a cold spicy water/sauce called Pani Puri. Like so many other Indians I’ve met who take me under their wing, they wouldn’t let me pay for anything.

There was talk of hanging out at their hotel, possibly with alcohol, and I was thoroughly enjoying their company, so I tagged along. It turned out to be a 30 minute walk from Bhagsunag waterfall (and where I was staying). Since we had dinner quite late when we arrived there, they offered that I could spend the night at their hotel. It was a kind gesture, and I was open to it depending on how the night went. Soon after dinner (which at their hotel again costed me nothing) we went to buy drinks, and I picked up a bottle of the classic Indian rum: Old Monk. On the way back (before any drinking occurred) we were listening to some really loud music and stopped multiple times in the middle of the street (or stairs) for a dance break. At 10:45 I felt concerned about waking others up, and eventually someone indeed opened their window and yelled, “Do you have no respect!?”

We walked more quietly the rest of the way back, and once we got to their hotel I needed to pass some test to get into the room where we were to hang out. I was asked “what do you call this person who does […]” and thanks to my friends teaching me some Hindi swear words just a few hours prior, I responded with “Matachodh” and “Gandu”, each time the group erupting in cheer and laughter. We made it in and I recognized another face who I had briefly danced with at the waterfall. I sat and mostly talked with my few closest friends I met on the trek, since everyone else was speaking Hindi. After maybe 30 minutes, it became obvious that one girl I was trekking with suddenly got way too drunk, and we decided to go back to her room to take care of her and not disturb the others.

Apparently in India it’s very taboo even at college age to get too drunk, and they told me that everyone was judging her pretty hard for generally losing control of herself. I, however, was quite used to seeing both sexes lose far more control than her at University of Michigan. I shrugged it off while I kept having a good time with everyone else, though as I passed by she kept apologizing for being so drunk. That night really showed me how drinking is far less integrated into their culture than in the US. Even though the drinking age is 18, some people I had trekked with had still never tried alcohol and were well past the legal age. One of them, aged 20(?) tried alcohol for the first time that night, and many others had only drank a few times before. It mainly is because of Hinduism, and the way that it has shaped the social norms, even if one isn’t a strict Hindu. I actually find it pleasantly refreshing that the cultural norm of meeting a potential partner or reuniting with friends doesn’t typically involve going out to a bar.

I hadn’t been to a house/hotel party with college kids in quite a long time, and with all Indians was a first. There was a very light and happy mood, except for the girl drank too much and started crying. Many Indians I’ve met so far are very expressive and passionate, and even more so when drinking. I don’t want to stay up until 3 AM like I did that night very often, but it was totally worth it. The best adventures are the ones you don’t plan, but fall right into your hands.

Since I was up so late the night before, Monday Oct 7th was mostly a rest day. I walked back to my room around 10, and afterwards wrote, read, napped, and did a little bit of exploring. I discover many more hippie-friendly cafes up these paths that change from road into tiny footpath into road again. A taste of the quiet life further up in the mountains where I don’t hear honking every 10 seconds was a well-needed break from all the commotion in the rest of India.

Well, that completes another entire week of adventures. So much has happened since – I started volunteering with Waste Warriors, traveled to Rishikesh, and then took another bus through Nepal’s westernmost border with India. There I’ve stayed in Bardia while visiting a national park with tigers, rhinos, and elephants, and have stayed for the past week or so at my third Workaway in the Nepali countryside near Chitwan national park teaching English and painting. With so many adventures and time spent connecting with other natives and fellow travelers, I find myself more behind in blogging than ever. Regardless, there will be evermore exciting stories and cultural reflection to come!

Namaste 🙏,

Hopper