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.

m0n7zILsQWWsLdMVuB%+og_thumb_acd9.jpg

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…

October 17th, 2019 H2TXdBPKR2OYO7Txw5jGbQ_thumb_ace1.jpg

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.

PNZYWa0dR1GH1bU8rQHy3A_thumb_ace6.jpg

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

hSF7Bs%rSayg9s+1MVwfoA_thumb_acec.jpg

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


4pT3N4KATruxNXIa8py71Q_thumb_a7b8

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. 

FiL4mkAwSjGibibAVW8uTQ_thumb_a7b7.jpg

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. 

8OBFf4z2QU+e7NaFr6ChFw_thumb_abcd.jpg

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.

uh6UDos1Qt+6j8R0d1gEqw_thumb_abda.jpg

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.

FQzN0dm5Tdqx2U2nAYx2jw_thumb_abdd.jpg

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

VpT7LYlCS2SeibQtFSgF2g_thumb_abdb.jpg

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.

L105E0834.jpg

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.

L1050593.jpeg

 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.

L1050842.jpeg

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?

L1050623.jpeg

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

L1050594.jpeg

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.

L1050805.jpeg

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

L1050819.jpeg

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.

L1050828.jpeg

 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.

L1050822.jpeg

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.

94387fc8-bdea-4769-9599-6653383a695c.jpeg

 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

L1050806.jpeg

Please follow, comment, like or share if you enjoyed this post 🙂

Categories
india

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.

L105E0744.jpg

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.

L1050766.jpeg

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

L1050778.jpeg

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.

x9Zr3Qzf.jpg

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.

_____

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

L1050763.jpeg

Categories
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

Categories
india

6: Peacocks, Psy-trance, and Another Protest [Goa, India]

By Friday, Sept 27th I had been living it up at Saraya in Goa, India for almost 2 weeks. The usual was staying up late playing cards, sweating like crazy chopping greens for compost in the sun and occasionally pouring rain as I observed the ending of the monsoon season. My first week was rainy basically every day, but by now there were only infrequent massive downpours. The nostalgia of leaving soon was starting to set in, so I was spending time with others as much as I could before I set off for the Himalayas in northern India.

Outside of working or hanging out at Saraya, I was still taking advantage of the unique opportunities that presented themselves to me. Before the last Global Climate Strike on Friday Sept 20th, Zora, the son of Deeksha who started Saraya Ecostay, mentioned that there would also be another big event on the next Friday. This day had come, and it wasn’t until maybe 4 PM that Zora came by to pick up posters and see if anybody was interested in tagging along. Naturally I was excited to see how the next strike would be, and so two other volunteers and I came along with Zora and Isha, the coordinators of both of the strikes. The rainbow we saw on the ride there was a sign that something good is happening.

Though this one was much different than the prior. This time, instead of sitting at the main church in the heart of Panjim, Goa, we stood along the roadside to strike more specifically against the construction of a new highway, which was destroying a bunch of green space disrupting the livelihood of those living there. Along with many other friendly, familiar faces, the same musicians from the prior strike were there. Unfortunately, since we were spread out along 2 roadsides, I wasn’t close enough to really hear and sing along. Instead, I stood near the front and held up the same sign as before: “GLOBAL WARMING (and underneath) GLOBAL WARNING” with another 2 folks, our british volunteer and another who interchanged between Zora, Annu, and other fellow strikers.

As thousands of cars passed us, some would blink their lights and say, “Yeah, Woo!” while driving by, others would pass by in buses with their eyeballs nearly bulging through the window, but most would glance every now and then, just trying to make it through the slowed traffic. For even those seemed to try to ignore what’s happening had to notice the massive crowd of at least 100 people in the middle of the road. It’s hard not to at least be curious why so many people would stand around together with signs in such an unusual place where I doubt there has ever been any social activism before. In all of Goa, this was one of the biggest gatherings of people to fight for some cause that there has been, at least in the past few years.

It lasted maybe a half an hour past sundown, until we were all much harder to see. We (mainly Zora) said our goodbyes to the many who showed up, and started to walk back to Saraya, a couple of miles away. We reflected on how this time it was great to see more people, but didn’t feel as unified and full of a single voice as the prior one. Still, awareness was spread, voices were heard, and it was one more step in the right direction.

I started to understand the impact more as Zora shared with me about how Goa has changed in the past 20 years. It used to be a hippie town – still touristy, but not so overpacked with Indians from all over the country who flock there to blow all of their money. With this “advance,” there has been a lot of nicer hotels that popped up, along with Casios and way too many places to find alcohol at an incredibly cheap price. As the cheapest alcohol prices in all of India, with 50 Rupees (75 cents) you can buy a decent beer or with 200 Rupees ($2.60) you can get a whole bottle of Rum or Fenne (the local liquor made from cashew husks). Aside from alcohol, good foods, and a variety of cheap to nice local & handmade souvenirs, people come here to find some pretty hard drugs. Most of them I hadn’t even heard of, but some that I recognized were speed and methamphetamine. In the more relaxed, safer, quieter hippie days, one used to only be able to find weed and LSD. Now the psychedelic peace that once pervaded the lands has been replaced with a frenzied chaos of tourists trying to get messed up and everyone trying to sell you something if you come near them.

That’s not to say Goa has lost all of its magical energy. It still has retained some amazing pockets of harmony (like Saraya) that attracts people who aren’t there just for substance use and who aren’t just some stereotypical wanna-be hippies. Rather, those who gravitate here are people who actually live & breathe the values of healthy coexistence with each other and our environment. There’s of course still many good-hearted Goa natives too, and Indian folks who move to Goa because they fall in love with the friendly, relaxed lifestyle here. And though it can be aggravating at times how even as I’m still trying to park my scooter I’m crowded by 5 Indians who are persistently asking me to buy some jewelry or clothing, I understand that it’s often because they really need the money so they can meet their basic needs. As the population has grown with the tourist market, the necessity to compete against hundreds of others to sell basically the same product is far more pronounced.

So awareness about climate change and all of the societal factors that affect it in Goa (and many other parts of India) is quite low. Very few are blessed enough to have the proper education and decent income to learn about these things. Rather, they’re busy figuring out how they’ll eat or how they’ll not receive a beating from their spouse. As in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs,’ people cant begin to concern themselves with global issues when there’s such dire issues at home. Those who were at the second Global Climate Strike in Goa generally were those with affluence, from India and afar. Ironically, climate change will make the lives of those who couldn’t afford to be there much harder than those who could.

My takeaway from this is that it’s especially important that those who are able to be informed about these wider issues spread awareness and seek making change from the top-down as well as from the bottom-up. Since it would drain my soul entirely to become a politician, I’m hoping that my words and actions, along with the organizations that I associate myself with, can contribute from the bottom-up in some positive way to the well being of the world and all of its inhabitants. This doesn’t mean I have to be so severe about producing absolutely zero waste and not enjoying myself in the meantime, though.

For Goa is indeed known for its party scene, and by the time Saturday the 28th rolled around, I realized that my last change to go out on the weekend to dance while listening to loud music was tonight. I don’t nearly have the energy nor desire to stay up late often, but my curiosity leads me into seeking all types of situations – and some things like a Psy-trance club are only hoppin at night.

So I asked Deeksha’s other son, Sid (who is an amazing musician), on Saturday morning about where to go to find the good music & crowds and not the crappy tourist traps. Though he doesn’t go out to big parties much, he showed me a website called WhatsUpGoa and it offered a decent variety, including some place he hadn’t been to but could recommend. Afterwards I spread the offer of going out that night to all the volunteers, along with some staff and friends, from whom the typical response was, “oh, let me know closer to when you’re going and I’ll see how I feel.” Understandable – I typically can’t plan to be in a certain mood at a certain time. But I was committed to at least have a taste of Goa’s nightlife.

The sun set, the mosquitos but, and the night time settled in. By 9 PM those who were committed were Joy, our volunteer from France whose name describes her well (expect for the fact that it means f*** in Thai), and Ram (Indian but not from Goa), who volunteered a while ago, and is a frequent visitor to Saraya to play Cabo (an awesome card game) and hang out with the other volunteers. I was hoping to leave by 9, but there were still a few maybe’s we were waiting on, and apparently most people don’t shop up until after 11 anyway. Aagh so late! So meanwhile I made some coffee, and as we looked further into our plans at the last minute, we realized the cover fee at Larive was really step.

So we went to Plan B. Literally. The place was called Plan B.

And even more last minute we scooped up a cook from Saraya – Batel, a 20(?)-year old Goa native, who made our group feel complete and added some great energy. Our taxi ride led us to Anjuna Beach, and as we walked along the shore towards the club the ocean waves were increasingly illuminated with changing neon colours. The “thump-thump-thump”ing gradually became louder until I could feel the bass deep in my chest. By 11:30 we finally made it in. We first sat at a table right next to the dance floor to have a drink & a smoke, and were soon on our way to dancing the night away.

The music was amazing – electronic with a strong persistent beat and high tempo. We went hard on the floor, and after I sprung the urge to go swimming in the ocean, we brought our moves out into the waves. The rocks were sharp, so I resisted going all-in, but we nonetheless stood for a decent time period with our legs deep in the water, dancing to the music, looking out onto the colour-changing waves. Then we retreated to the sand to move around some more, and I became slightly obsessed with tracking the beach creatures – mostly dogs and humans. The slightly-wet sand revealed how our movement was in celebration, like a running dog as opposed to a hunting coyote. Nobody else was dancing on the beach at the time, but as others saw how much fun we were having they joined in, too.

The crowd was decent for pre-tourism season: around 50 people. Oddly, only 1 in 10 were female. I guess strong electronic music appeals more to Indian men, since the few females were there with another man, and most were tourists. As the time passed 3 AM the crowd was dissipating, and we were ready to go as well. After a super speedy taxi ride back another another selfie with a “Danger: No Selfie Zone” sign, we made it home by 3:30ish, and somehow from having so much energy dancing I didn’t fall sleep until around 4. That’s the latest night I can remember having in many, many months. And it was 100% worth it.

The next day, Sunday the 29th, Deeksha, being the considerate host that she is, knew I stayed up late the night before, so when I came to breakfast late she told me that I could have the day to rest and relax. I was to work the evening cafe shift, which runs from roughly 6:30 – 10:30 PM. So I wrote, sorted pics, read, and went out for a little adventure. Since the day after I arrived at Saraya (exactly 2 weeks ago) I heard that there were Peacocks in the nearby field, and if I walk down our side street at the right time I might see them. So I set off to go spot a special, rare animal in it’s natural habitat. The chances to me seemed very low, since I basically lived in the woods of the Pacific Northwest for the past 1.5 years and never saw a bear, unlike everyone else around me.

I walked and admired the hawks flying above me, the palm trees and rice fields, the glowing golden temple off in the distance, and eventually heard a bird call that sounded too loud and full-bodied to be a hawk or a crow. In fact, I remembered hearing this sound almost every day when working outside and when waking up in the morning. I turned back towards Saraya, towards where the sound was coming from, and walked patiently, calmly; I was hoping that I’ll find exactly what I was looking for.

And I did! I saw the peacock way across the field, not close enough to see the detail of its feathers, but still clearly visible about 200 feet away. It’s feathers were so tall – perhaps as tall as me – it was actually fairly easy to spot. I stood for a while in admiration as it twirled around in some sort of a mating dance. It was like a massive fan that kept slowly spinning, and occasionally singing out in a most peculiar way. I felt truly blessed, as I had dreamt about seeing a peacock on one of my first nights in India. It was a dream come true.

Once I arrived back at Saraya, the monthly farmers market was well into motion. As a great coincidence, I met someone selling beautiful earrings named Hayley from Ann Arbor, MI, where I lived for 2 years while going to school at the University of Michigan, and who also spent 10 years in the Seattle area, where I had been living the past year. She even knew of my most previous employer, Wilderness Awareness School, where I was an instructor. After chatting with her I found some amazing clothes in the donation box, bought some souvenirs and a vegan burger, and waited for the farmers market to start clearing out so we could set up the tables for the cafe.

The customers at Saraya are of all ages, relationships, and backgrounds. Locals and foreigners – some elders, some families with kids, and many romantic couples. Apparently the most common google search that leads people to Saraya is “romantic restaurant” even though it is mainly known for being healthy, organic and eco-friendly. Many are curious about you, and will chat with you for quite a few minutes, often giving recommendations of other places in India to visit while traveling. Overall the job is fun because you’re around good people in an open, warm, green environment.

Monday the 30th was my last day at Saraya, and naturally very nostalgic. I worked on constructing the mud houses at first by putting on boots and climbing atop a mound of glass bottles, in order to sort the right size bottle (a standard 12-oz beer bottle) apart from the rest. I’d hand them over to Sherbin, who wheel-barreled hundreds over to the mud houses. We (along with Raul) dug mud out from the ground and wheeled that over there too, until we finally applied patches of mud to the walls, in between the glass bottles. It was really exhausting in such humid and hot conditions: 88 degrees and 80% humidity. Still, I like working up a sweat, for I’m ridding toxins from my body and burning calories that I will gladly make up for later in the day.

In the afternoon I did some last minute tasks like taking a video tour of the entire place, organizing my belongings, and booking a hostel in Delhi. Finally, after a short walk to the beer store where I picked up some drinks for some friends and myself, I savored my last night by hanging out with the other volunteers such as Boomika and Joy and prior volunteers such as Ram and Annu. Good conversations were had, and I got to know them all on a deeper level, only to say goodbye in 12 hours. It was bittersweet.

Especially sweet was when Annu invited us to a nearby house party, which I was reluctant to going to because it was already 11 or so, but I had a feeling I’d never have an opportunity like this ever again. So we rode: 3 one bike and 2 on another to go celebrate her friend’s birthday until late at night. I met new people who told me about life in East India and chatted with Ram and Boomika about hiking and the way Michigan is shaped like a mitten. Meanwhile, the girl you could say I had a crush on ever since I saw her directly across the room from me at Saraya on the day I arrived is once again sitting directly across from me, too far for any interaction.

But after maybe 1.5 hours, around 1 AM, she lies down in front of me and rolls a cigarette (while still lying down). We shared it and suddenly it seemed we were engaged in a really meaningful, philosophical/spiritual conversation, and I started to wish now more than ever that I were in Goa for longer. It was the most in agreement about philosophical matters I had verbally expressed with anyone in a long time. And it was with this extremely cute, short haired Indian woman who always wears short shorts (which is very taboo in India) and comes from Delhi. Though we had this natural connection, I wasn’t sure if she even had a partner or not, and I knew that at this point finding out out wouldn’t change anything. All I could do was appreciate the inner and outer beauty of this person next to me for the impending timeless moments I still had left.

And as different people started mixing in and out, tiredness set in and timelessness faded away. It was already 2:30 AM, and we had a 20 minute walk ahead of us back to Saraya. So I wished my good friends Ram and Annu goodbye, as well as the other kind Indian folks. And the way the world worked out, everything seemed so circular, as I walked back to Saraya with my British friend who I met on the first night, and was the first person from Saraya I really hung out with. Now, he was to be the last one, too. The timing of everything and everyone coming in and out of my life the last 2 weeks in Goa was too imperfectly perfect to all be mere coincidence. I’ve felt like this many times in my life – for everyone and everything is always in its right place, and it’s often when I step out of a common routine to start seeing new horizons that this comes to light again.

There’s so much that has happened since I left Goa and where I am now. Stay tuned (scroll slightly up on a mobile device or all the way down or maybe on the right to find the “Follow” button) for a 36-hour train ride to Delhi, 2 busy days in India’s capital city, and over a week of volunteering through Workaway again, this time with an NGO called Waste Warriors, and of course meeting some more amazing people in the Dharamshala area. These incredible mountain towns are home to the Dalai Lama and more full of tourists than any other place I’ve been yet for the whole month in India. For here you can find Buddhism, trekking in the Himalayas, yoga, monkeys, veganism, waterfalls, and a surprisingly large community of Israeli people.

Just hoppin’ along,

Hopper

Categories
india

5: A Week in Goa: Climate Strikes, Beaches, and the Dilemma of Trust [Goa, India]

Wednesday, Sept 18th was my first day off from working at Saraya. I took a bus to the main city in Goa, India – Panjim, in order to try to get the Moneygram that this Steven Dixon sent me. He apparently got beat up and lost basically everything, so I was trying to help him get on a taxi all the way to Delhi by giving him a large sum of cash (see blog post #3 for more details). So once I arrived in Panjim, I went to where my hone told me there was a Moneygram office. It turned out to be a Thomas Cook office, which I didn’t think offered it, so after asking around I was directed to a bank, and then after failing at the bank, to the post office. That seemed unlikely to work, but I figured I’d try it. When asking for directions to the post office, I met this guy who was selling really beautiful cloths and tapestries. He chose to help me, leave his shop, and take me to get some money (so I could buy something from him).

Naturally, the post office was a no go, so they directed us to a Thomas Cook, which thankfully had moneygram, but their computers were down, so we had to go somewhere else. I ended up walking around Panjim with him for about 2 hours from bank to office to bank to store, always getting redirected to somewhere that couldn’t help us. The process was sped up quite a bit since he spoke Konkani, they native language in Goa, so he could say very directly what I’m looking for. But even he realized that walking around with me all over Panjim was taking forever, so he took me back to his shop, where his friend could pick me up on a motorbike to save time.

Finally after 2.5 hours we get somewhere that will at least look at my code to see if there is even any money that was sent to me. Though I was trying to stay optimistic about not getting scammed, I finally met my contrary skeptical expectation. The code didn’t work, I tried the other one he gave me, and that too didn’t work. I knew at this point there was nothing I could do except keep trying to contact him in hope that there was some mistake. I did so for the next few days, and no response.

So, I learned my lesson. I wanted to be trusting of people, and lending of help to those who really seem to need it. I believe strongly that we cannot start to create a peaceful coexistence with others if we greet everybody we meet with distrust. Many times, even though you can’t be 100% sure, it is worth it to trust others, for the rewards of friendship and kindness that result from trusting by default are greater than the consequences of having your trust broken every now and then. I am fine losing money or personal belongings every so often, so long as I’m able to have meaningful connections with others in the meantime. That means far more to me than holding firm onto material things, which can come and go at a whim. It’s better exude the energy that creates harmony among people than putting out a cold, unaccepting, skeptical energy, and consequently attracting people who are on a similar negative wavelength.

This isn’t to say that you should blindly trust anyone and everyone. You have to trust yourself first and foremost. When on the edge, lean towards trusting, and let yourself be proven wrong so you can learn. Otherwise, If some people rub you the wrong way, then avoid them. If you feel like something isn’t right deep down in your gut, then act on that, no matter how difficult it may be. This scam was a reminder for me to listen carefully to my intuition, because I did indeed wonder a few times if he was scamming me, but always talked myself out of the idea. My want of the world to be full of good people overtook my grasp of reality, and I paid for it – literally. Still, just because the world isn’t full of good people, it doesn’t mean your world can’t be full of good people.

In fact, my world in Goa with the exception of Steven Dixon was full of good people. Every volunteer at my first Workaway (work exchange program for a free place to stay & 3 meals a day) called Saraya Ecostay was caring and sweet in their own way. Some people I could joke around with more easily, and with others I can have more meaningful conversations. I loved all the different accents I was surrounded with – British, Australian, New Zealand, Mexican, French, and of course many varieties of the Indian accent. Each country has their quirks, and each individual too. I loved hearing Deeksha speak, for she spoke with such passion and humble authority, sounded Indian but with a hint of all of the accents of her previous volunteers.

Each volunteer and employee had at least a few things that set them apart from everybody else. Still, we all functioned really well in sharing a living, eating, working, and chilling space because of what we have in common: A curiosity for new places and people, an appreciation for community living and sustainability, and often at least a handful of yogic values. 2 of our volunteers were yoga teachers, and many others appreciated doing yoga, meditating, and reading, and seeking a stronger awareness of one’s true self.

Quite a few volunteers had done a Vipassana mediation course, where one basically meditates for 10 days straight without talking to anyone, or even making eye contact. They all commented on the difficulty of it, but also said it really changed them. Or if it didn’t “change” them, then they benefitted from it by growing a greater self awareness and achieved a deeper meditation. So after it coming into my life from many sources, event from a coworker named Laura at Wilderness Awareness School before I arrived in India, I’m strongly considering doing this Vipassana mediation in Myanmar, where it originates from.

So, it’s easy to say I found my people in Goa. It was really hard to say goodbye, for what exists there is so special, I’m unsure if I can find any other Workaway communities that can compare to Saraya. Still, I was satisfied with the myriad of adventures I had. I accepted most opportunities to do something new and different when they came to me, and it always was well worth it.

For example, on Friday Sept 20th, I was invited to a climate strike by Deeksha’s son, Zora. He and his friend Isha were the 2 people who organized the whole event. That afternoon while eating lunch after a hard day of gardening/outdoor maintenance work, Zora comes in to the dining room speaking faster and with more zest than usual, saying that there’s currently over 150 countries in the world who are participating in a global climate strike, and that it might be the largest coalescence to advocate for action against climate change there has ever been. There was some chit chat of Goa having a climate strike, but nobody was seriously taking action and putting something together, so he’s doing it. As he kept buzzing about in and out of Saraya, spreading the word of Goa’s climate strike that will take place this evening, Deeksha approached all the volunteers who had already finished work and said that we need help making posters for the event, and we can count this extra time working to the next day’s 4 hours.

So at around 5 PM we hop in Deeksha’s car with a bunch of posters – including one big, long one made out of an old street banner for Saraya that says “GLOBAL WARMING (and underneath) GLOBAL WARNING.” Simple, big, and to the point. I ended up being one of 3 people who held this sign up for the event – right in the very middle and front, where everybody could see.

As soon as we showed up to one of the most well-known landmarks in the heart of Panjim – the Immaculate Conception Church – and sat down, there were already maybe 10 people there. Within the matter of minutes, it doubled to 20. People on the streets start walking up constantly to take pictures. It felt like there was always at least 1 person, and sometimes 5, who had a camera pointed at our faces.

As a white tourist who flew a long way to get to Goa, I couldn’t help but to feel a little hypocritical. My carbon footprint was probably bigger than most other people driving by. Still, I feel passionately that it’s not just some calculation of how much CO2 you put into the atmosphere that determines if you’re being “good” or “bad” to the planet. To me, it matters more the awareness of your actions, and the efforts that one takes to bring about positive change. Mainly, it matters that you make changes big or small to live more sustainably, live by example and encourage awareness of climate change, awareness of the current destruction of nature thanks to our capitalistic societies, and awareness of how to live more in tune with your environment. With this awareness one tends not to consume mindlessly, taking things for granted by wasting food and other products that took a lot of time and energy to produce.

I try to live this way, and even just the simple action of putting a piece of trash in my pocket instead of throwing it on the ground might confuse another Indian who notices and asks why, having some sort of a good impact. You don’t always need to be showing off to the world that we all need to care about how we’re treating the planet (and the lives of ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren). On the other hand, sometimes when the time is right, a strong action taken by the community is needed in order to spread awareness and work towards bigger change on a political level.

And so as the climate strike ensued past the sunset, we sang songs and grew in size, like a magnet that pulls in those passer-bys who feel in their heart that something good is happening here. There were other tourists and locals, even full families with children, who freed their voice in song. We sang “Do it Now” the most, along with the Konkani version, “Ami atanch komes korunk zai.” In addition, there was “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley, “We are the World” (a classic humanitarian aid song), and even some chanting to the tune of “We Will Rock You” – but instead, singing “We want, we want, green Earth, green Earth.”

I had never been a part of any social protest before, and it felt really amazing. Not because I was on Goan TV and the front page of Goa’s news (though I have to admit, that was pretty cool, too), but because I felt a such a bond with everyone else there and was standing up for what I believe in. We all had enough motivation to actually do something about what we feel is right and what we want for our future, and that group of people is going to be very different from any group at a psy-trance party or even a community meeting at a hippie tree near the beach.

By the end of the strike, there must have been at least 70 people, if not 100. Zora, who organized the event, saw nothing like this coming. The musicians showed up unexpectedly with 2 guitars and printed out lyrics to a few songs that we sang, and totally changed the dynamic of the strike. That brought more people in, and gave us something to do other than shouting things to the people on the streets, which really wouldn’t have been my cup of tea. I was really impressed by the way Zora interacted with everyone, in a personal and friendly manner to those who showed up, but when it came time to address the group as a whole, he stood back and let others speak. He didn’t need to make himself feel big or important by saying anything like “thanks for coming to my climate strike.” His actions spoke louder than words.

The next day, Saturday, I rented a scooter/motorbike for the first time. I’ve never driven one of those things before, and people told me that if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere, because the traffic and lack of respect for any driving laws are so insane. It was intimidating at first, especially graduating from the side street to the main road, but there was no option other than to trust myself. Sometimes it’s fun, other times it’s scary and stressful. Especially at roundabouts.

Regardless, I made it successfully to my destination for that day: Calangute Beach. The sun was shining so brightly off of the waves of the Arabian Sea, I was overwhelmed at first. Especially with so many people around, too. Some were playing volleyball, some cricket, many just sitting and standing by the beach, and quite a few who were waiting right at the edge of where the waves ebb out to, in order to get soaked by the next one. Interestingly, nobody was full-on swimming, so I took that as a sign of danger, and stayed back as well.

But that didn’t keep me from going in up to my knees. And how warm it was! The last time I was in ocean water was in the Pacific Northwest, where it stays around 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit all the time. This must have been 75-80 degrees. I actually wanted it to be much colder, to escape the never-ending heat of Goa, but my wish blew away in the wind. So, I sat down in the sand to just admire the energy of the ocean and all the human life around me, but away from the crowds. After a few minutes a dog came to sit right next to me and asleep, and after another 10 minutes, a human walks up to me and sits down next to me. He offers me a cigarette, and we start chatting for a while. His English wasn’t amazing, but good enough (much better than my Hindi). Varun was from Mumbai on vacation in Goa. A really friendly person, he even told me “you are my new friend,” and video-chatted his girlfriend to introduce me.

We sat together for a while, and eventually started talking about fenne – the local liquor of Goa made from cashew husks. He mentioned having some back at his hotel, so I went back with him and had a small drink so I could still drive my scooter back safely. Afterwards he stayed at his hotel, and I left to go watch the sunset on the beach. On my walk back towards where I parked, quite a few Indians stopped me and asked for a selfie. One group of men who were seemingly all in their 30’s were having a blast swimming (more like kneeling down in the sand and letting the waves hit you), and I figured this would be a good chance to really experience the sea. So I ended up in the middle of 5 other Indians, laughing and taking selfies in the water. Curiously, I could never picture a group of middle aged Americans having nearly as much fun as they were – with no toys like jet skis, no football to throw, no alcohol to binge on, just yourself, your friends, and the ocean waves. That said a lot about the ability that we all innately have to really appreciate the simpler things in life, but often lose it to consumerism.

After exchanging Facebook info and watching the sun dip below the cloudy horizon, I had to ride back to Saraya for the next 20-30 minutes. It was pretty much a straight shot down one road, but I guess some roundabout must have thrown me off, because I ended up way too far north of Saraya after 25 minutes when I checked to see if I was close. Luckily Google Maps tracks your location even when you don’t have service or WiFi, so I found my way back alright, but not without being stuck in really intense traffic. People in India leave no space between the front of their vehicle and you, and especially at night when I can barely tell if there’s a pothole right in front of me, it was really stressful, but never felt terribly dangerous. People here are used to driving like this, having to stop quickly or maneuver around someone like me who is clearly still getting used to the roads.

The day after, Sunday the 22nd, I went back to Panjim with my volunteer friend, Monia, who wanted to try to find some loose rolling tobacco. She is 39, from Belgium but lived in Barcelona for 5 years, and works seasonal jobs at ski resorts in the winter, and more beachy resorts in the summer. It allows her to travel, and meet fellow travelers, while being able to enjoy outdoor recreational activities year-round. She is one of the few volunteers who did the 10-day Vipasana meditation course, and did yoga every day in the morning.

We took my scooter, and ended up going over a huge bridge that doesn’t allow 2-wheel vehicles in the fiasco of trying to find the right road to take into the city… whoops! We parked at the bus station, walked, had some coffee, then some fresh juice, and didn’t end up finding loose tobacco (at least for a decent price). So, we spent the rest of the day exploring the public parks, beaches, and lookout points. It all was incredible: we learned what a bull oak and royal palm tree look like, found some tiny crabs leaving the most peculiar signs on the beach, and saw a fancy-looking swallow with two thin lines coming off of its tall. We also ate some amazing garlic naan bread with a creamy veg soup, a mango milkshake, and basically indulged in the local foods and sights that Panjim has to offer. The main downside was that the monsoon season had finally started to end, and I wasn’t used to it being sunny the whole day, so I forgot to put sunblock on before I left. The back of my neck ended up getting super burnt, and so halfway through the day I started wearing the newspaper that my shot glass was wrapped in over my neck, and tucked it under the straps of my backpack to keep it in place. It worked surprisingly well!

On Monday I rode my bike around to visit some temples and see more of the Goan countryside. By this point I had settled in to a very comfortable life at Saraya of exploring a little bit, working a little bit, and hanging out with the other volunteers a little bit. We’d sit at a bench in the cafe while playing cards, drinking beers, and sharing stories of prior travels or comparing all of our cultural differences. I learned how English is taught more poorly than I previously imagined in France, and how in India the public schools are generally really terrible, and your only chance of having a decent education is at an expensive private school. At public schools, teachers have very little clue of how to actually teach, don’t even show up a lot of the time, and often don’t really care about the work that they’re doing. This country needs so much help, I’d have no clue where to begin. I guess bringing awareness about the state that India’s in is a start.

Tuesday was a fairly normal day. I planted some bamboo and turmeric, chopped plants for compost, experienced the most painful insect bite of my whole life… from a swarm of seemingly harmless black ants. Then hung out with friends, and took it easy, knowing that the next day had adventures waiting for me.

For Wednesday the 25th was my second full-day off from working at Saraya. So, I went on a scooter ride to Arambol beach with Monia and Joy, hoping to meet up with Raul and Emily later in the day there as well. On the way there, I was forced off the side of the road by a rickshaw driver who was passing a truck and wouldn’t move back into their own lane. There was space for me to turn off into, but it was super bumpy and unmaintained, so I couldn’t keep control of the bike. I hopped off it and saved myself from getting hurt, but the bike was damaged. No good, but no choice other than to keep going.

We made it to Arambol, checked Monia into her new guesthouse, and headed to the beach. I had possibly my best meal yet in India – Okhra Saag. It was okra (aka ladyfinger) and spinach in a slightly creamy sauce, with a side of rice and some garlic cheese naan bread… I’m salivating right now just thinking about it. Afterwards we headed along the beach to a “secret beach,” I took a selfie with a sign that says “Danger: No Selife Zone” (for pic see hopper.here on Instagram) on the way, and we ended up at a beautiful, uncrowned part of the beach, with a freshwater lake named “Sweet Lake” just on the other side, only a few hundred feet away from the ocean. From there we followed a gorgeous small hiking trail along a creek up to a famous hippie hangout spot next to a really old Bunyan tree, where there were prayer flags and a picture of a great sage named Babaji.

This was the most encapsulated in nature I had been since my arrival in India, and was so refreshing. Even more refreshing was the little freshwater pool that formed in the creek, where Joy and I swam for a little while. We stayed and relaxed until a massive, foot-long crab decided to join us in the pool for a swim. Hah, we had our fill, now it’s the crab’s turn. So we headed back down the nature trail to Sweet Lake, where I did some laps back and forth for a little while. As the day was growing old, we decided to start heading back to avoid driving most of the way at night. I bought some nice pants for 200 Rupees ($2.50) on the way, and passed many folks working terribly hard in the hot sun, carrying large stones on the top of their heads. They passed them off to each other conveyer belt style, a long ways from the pile on the beach to their future building. I felt really bad for them, and it made me feel so thankful that I wasn’t born into a situation where I had a life of carrying stones atop my head ahead of me.

Joy and I said goodbye to Monia after some coffee and failing to meet up with Raul and Emily. Now for the 45 min-long drive back, hopefully this time without being driven off the road. It was a long and beautiful ride back, though it became really dark for our last 20 minutes, but we made it home to Saraya safe and sound.

Since then I’ve lived over another week in India. Stay tuned for some of my best days at Saraya, the longest train ride I’ve ever been on, and more adventuring in New Delhi, India’s capital, before I head to Dharamshala, in India’s northern Himalayan state where the Dalai Lama lives.

Peace and Hoppiness,

Hopper

Categories
india

4: Meet Saraya – My First Workaway [Goa, India]

Days 6 & 7 – Monday Sept 16th & Tuesday Sept 17th

The morning after I went through this huge ordeal helping Steven get back on his feet after being mugged (which was likely just a scam), I am woken up by my friend at Saraya who definitely did get beaten up really badly the night before. He walked into our shared dorm and woke me up, and his eyes were all black and swollen. He went out that night, and ended up getting punched in the face a few times, and the rest he didn’t remember. He just woke up after passing out on the streets, and made his way back home.

Ironically, I heard that Goa was far safer than most other parts of India, and after being here for less than 24 hours I meet 2 people who at least claim to have been mugged. Wow! Quite a way to start my 2-week long stay in a relaxed, eco-friendly, peaceful environment at Saraya.

I found Saraya Ecostay online through a website called Workaway, where one is typically provided with a place to stay and 3 meals per day in exchange for 5 hours of work, 5 days a week. At Saraya, the general schedule is 4 hours of work, 6 days a week – Wednesday being our day off.

There are plenty of different types of jobs to do at Saraya, and though I mostly prefer outdoor/gardening work, I was interested in trying out serving at the cafe as well. I told this to Deeksha, the owner, and she was very accommodating. So Monday morning, another volunteer named Shirban and I started to “clean the jungle” back from growing into our driveway. Both Shirban and I agreed that it looked nice how it was, but I knew it wouldn’t take long for the jungle to start to overtake the driveway again. It’s still Monsoon season here, and so all around it’s super green and humid. Great conditions for many plants to keep on growing.

Most plants were unknown, exotic, and interesting to me, but I did manage to find an old friend: Stinging Nettle! Ah how happy I was to see it growing in a different shape & pattern, but still with the distinctive serrated edges. I showed Shirban how to eat it raw, and he told me that they harvest this and put it on their pizza (Saraya is well-known for their organic, wood-fired pizza made with locally-sourced ingredients).

After trimming back the jungle, we started to prepare those greens for the compost pile by chopping it up finely, so that when it mixes with the food waste it decomposes more quickly. Then, to finish up our last hour of work, we moved on to carrying stones from an old, ruined building to the far border of our property where we’re building a wall. These stones were incredibly heavy – we made a few rounds back and forth in the pouring rain and were so exhausted by the time our 4 hours was done. Speaking with Deeksha shortly afterwards, we find out that those rocks were a perfect habitat for the poisonous scorpions that live here. Luckily none of us were rushed to the hospital for an anti-venom, and didn’t start to fall sick from working in the rain either.

However, we all started to feel a bit sick the next day…

I woke up that Tuesday with a sore throat, runny nose, and other cold symptoms. Not sure exactly why – perhaps my immune system was just struggling to adapt to an entirely new environment. After a cup of Chai and a delicious rice & veg breakfast, I was feeling a little bit better. So, we resumed our outdoor work. This time, it was cleaning the whole eco-stay, most importantly, the pond. It was only about a foot deep, but filled with muck, coconuts, other rotten fruits, leaves, and all the fecal matter from the frogs and other creatures who lived in it. Still, someone had to do it, so I was the first to volunteer to get in there.

Shirban and another new volunteer named Monia followed shortly after, and we had a very memorable time getting super muddy trying to shovel out the pond muck and decomposing organic matter. It was a long, tiresome process, but it felt really great when we finished. Then we started to clean the rest of the Ecostay by sweeping with brooms made out of a tied bunch of the central veins of coconut leaves, but not for long. Shirban, who I thought would be more well-adapted to the conditions being that he’s from India, started to feel really sick and tired, and my tiredness returned, so we powered through to finish up work for the day before going back to rest a little bit (Oddly I felt all better a few days afterwards while he was bed-ridden and barely able to speak the next few days. Perhaps my dumpster diving back in the states prepared my immune system and paid off!).

After lunch I went with two other volunteers – Monia and Shweta – on a walk to the supermarket and for a cup of tea. As soon as we leave, four of the dogs who live at Saraya came out to walk with us! They run right in front of cars and bikes, sniffing all sorts of smells along the way, lagging behind and then running ahead, always in our vicinity to protect us if we need it. Their names were Fluffy, Sushi, Batman, and Dina. What sweet bodyguards! They waited outside the supermarket as we bought some toilet paper, soap for washing clothes, and some “Guava cheese” as well (there was no cheese in it, but there was ghee instead).

The dogs followed us into the cafe where we got some tea, and soon walked back with it to Saraya so I could catch a ride with Deeksha into town where I could find a travel agent to help book a train ticket to my next destination. I’d never think about using a travel agent back in the states, since it’s generally easy and reliable online to book transportation, but India is far different. I searched on so many different websites for a train to Delhi about 2 weeks in advance, and they were apparently all sold out. But, once I got to the travel agent, I got a ticket on the day that I wanted fairly easily. Thankfully I’ll have a sleeping bunk for the 28 hour-long traverse through roughly 2,000 km (1,200 mi) all the way to Delhi. And it was only ($12) 830 Rupees! Whoopee!

Meanwhile, Deeksha had some errands to do, so I followed her to the different markets where she’d buy fruits and other ingredients for the cafe. Since they know her (and her preferences) at her usual stops, they’d tell her after she asks for this, that, and that if something isn’t local. It was especially useful for her to have these local connections, because although she’s Indian, her skin is very fair, and her grayish hair almost looks blonde, so most merchants would try to charge her the foreigner price, which is typically at least twice the amount that locals pay.

By Tuesday night I had gotten to know all of the volunteers at Saraya at least on a base level. There’s a fellow from Britain who I would enjoy staying up with and exchanging slang and music from our respective countries while drinking rum & water. There’s Shirban from South India, who although we come from opposite sides of the world, we have quite a bit in common as far as family life goes, as well as ideas about people’s energies and karma. There’s Monia from Belgium, who speaks fluent Dutch, French, Spanish, and English! She is super sweet, taught me how to make some amazing Spanish-style coffee, and is not afraid to get dirty. There’s Rebecca from Australia, who offered me some Ayurvedic healing herbal blend when I was feeling sick, and mostly works on making art out of old fabric and reusing it to make jellyfish lanterns!

The youngest volunteer here (18) is named Emily, from New Zealand, but she doesn’t lack in expertise. She makes amazing cheeses, sourdough bread, and other goodies for the cafe and the volunteers. Our oldest volunteer (44) is Raul, from Mexico, and is incredibly friendly and caring. He worked as a school psychologist for a long time in Mexico, and we share many similar opinions on how to deal with difficult children. Then, there’s Joy, from France, who is just a joy to be around. She always wears a beautiful cloth wrapped in a south-African style around her head, and has given me great recommendations of where to go in Thailand and Vietnam for when I travel through there in a few months. And last but not least, there’s Annie, my neighbor from Ohio! She taught me the ways of the kitchen as soon as I arrived and helped me settle in and feel at home. She’s been away from the US for over 6 months and said she hasn’t met someone who comes from so close to where she’s from the whole time.

So, that’s it for the volunteers. It’s a decent size group, and there’s about the same amount of staff who work here full-time as well. First, there’s Deeksha, or simply “D.” She is so amazing, she started this place about 5 years ago, and has overseen construction of many treehouses and mud houses, using the natural materials that are available in Goa. The dorm where I stay is all built out of bamboo and another type of decorative wood for the “walls” (sticks criss-crossing each other widely with mosquito nets lining the inside. No insulation necessary in Goa – it typically doesn’t ever get below 70 degrees!). D always eats breakfast with us in the morning and covers the plan for the day – a usual job assignment would be 2-3 people for the evening cafe, 1 for afternoon cafe, 1-3 people in the kitchen, 1-2 making artwork, and anywhere from 1-4 people working outside with plants or cleaning up in some way.

D has 2 younger sons – one who lives here and another close by. The younger son, Siddhu, is really passionate about music and has a little studio set up in the main building at Saraya. We’ve had good chats about music theory and he let me play his guitar yesterday. Her older son, Zora, is a big activist for climate change action, and was the main person alongside his friend Isha who organized the first Goa climate strike when there protests happening all around the world at the same time. Both are really kind-hearted people, and I appreciate the strong family bonds that are quite common in India. Neither of them work here, but I see them so often that it’s easy to mistakenly think that they do.

In the kitchen we have Mira – she’s the main cook and always makes such delicious food! – Especially a sweet pudding like thing for breakfast, and the lunchtime dal & cooked vegetables. Helping her are Raj and Batel – still teenagers who take great pride in their work, often taking pictures for Instagram of the fancy-looking dishes they prepare for the cafe. The manager of Saraya is also named Raj – he spends most of his time on his computer doing the business side of things, and still enjoys joking around with everyone here. The resident lady in charge of cleaning is named Vasha, she doesn’t speak much English but is always helpful in pointing me in the right direction when looking for a broom or some tools.

Then there’s maybe 4 people who work on construction of the mud houses (which have used glass bottles dispersed evenly throughout the walls, helping light find its way in while creating a beautiful design). Sadly I don’t know their names, since I barely interact with them, and they pretty much only speak Hindi. Two people who help with construction are also in charge of making all the pizzas for the cafe, which can get quite busy at times.

I’ve really loved spending time with all of these people – the volunteers and staff – for the past approximately 2 weeks. They all contribute to a welcoming, kind, easy-going energy that flows through Saraya. Though I enjoy meeting new people and seeing new faces, it’s really nice to see the same faces day after day to feel more settled in and at-home here. It is going to be really hard for future Workaway experiences to live up to this one – the social & natural environments are so suitable for me (other than the fact that the days can get really hot & humid) – the people here all have a least a hint of hippie in their blood, and I’m in a green haven of tall fruit trees and plants, with the Arabian Sea (India’s west coast) nearby and plenty of mega-sized familiar creatures – frogs bigger than my fist, earthworms as long and wide as snakes, and so many large, bright-colored dragonflies & butterflies. All in all, Goa, India is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, and though I am looking forward to traveling up to the Himalayas in north India, it will be really bittersweet to kiss this place goodbye.

Cheers,

Hopper