The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
"Have you been to Sinai?"
This question was asked to me by pretty much every Egyptian I met. A destination I had originally written off my itinerary due to safety concerns, it seemed that Southern Sinai was deemed the hippest, most relaxing region in all of Egypt. I could not turn down an opportunity for some peace and quiet, so after multiple reassurances that it was only Northern Sinai which was dangerous, and constant reminders that I would regret not visiting the Red Sea coast, I relented.
After my lovely excursion to Siwa, I arrived in Alexandria, tired and sweaty. I could have opted to stay the night in Alexandria; after all, it would have been cozy to get a nice hotel room and shower, but I decided instead to head back to Cairo. The trains were all sold out for the southern Egyptian cities of Luxor and Aswan, which had originally been on my itinerary. Time in Egypt was running short, and I thought: "I guess I'm spending the rest of my trip in Sinai." I booked a bus that day.
I arrived in the lazy coastal town of Nuweiba and rented a hut at Soft Beach Camp. It was an extremely basic accomodation set at the foot of a beautiful stretch of beach. The water was pure blue, and you could see Saudi Arabia in the distance. For several days, I was at peace. Every day I would swim once or twice, lay in the sand, listen to music, and eat delicious fish (cooked by the camp). On the third day, I took a side excursion to go snorkeling in a coral reef. It was a truly eye-opening experience.
The pickup truck took us at 10 in the morning, and we began our ride to Ras Abu Galum, a coral reserve. It was an extremely bumpy ride, through rough desert and mountain terrain. The sight was spectacular: miles upon miles of brownish-red mountains. When we finally reached the body of water, it seemed to burst forth, a sea of bright blue against the rock of the desert.
The snorkeling was something else. Hundreds of fish, in different sizes, shapes and colors darted around the mountains of white coral. The variety was astonishing, and the water was clear enough to see every little detail. It was like being dropped in the middle of Finding Nemo, only there were no animators needed. This was real life. This was a real place, an entire ecosystem hidden from us land dwellers. I felt like an unwelcome visitor on an alien planet, peering into a neighborhood in which I didn't belong. Throughout the day, I went back into the water a second, third, and fourth time, never being able to get enough of it.
As the sun set, we took the bouncy truck back to Soft Beach. This is what I came traveling for.
I hate Cairo. I hate this city.
Sure, I had a great time at the Giza pyramids (on my first day of the trip). Sure, Coptic Cairo has beautiful narrow alleys, a cool Hanging Church and ancient synagogue, and feels like you're walking through a piece of history. Sure, there's the Saladin Citadel, with its gorgeous mosques and sweet panorama view of the city. Sure, it's fun riding a boat down the Nile, while blasting music and having a drink with some friends. Sure, Khan el-Khalili souk is bustling with energy and soul, and huge crowds of people. Sure, there's a ton of incredible food everywhere you go.
"Yonah," you might be asking, "if there is all this cool stuff in Cairo, why do you hate it?"
I hate Cairo because it's loud, polluted and dirty, and has some of the worst traffic I've ever seen in my life. The noxious fumes on the roads are tearing my lungs apart. Having been to many developing countries in Asia, I'm used to chaotic roads. However, what really sets the driving in Cairo apart from these places is the aggression. It often feels like drivers are trying to prove something by how reckless they are, and they often let little things get to them. One Uber driver got so angry at another driver that he lost his cool, and kept swerving more and more erratically. Eventually, he got his left side mirror knocked off by another car (he finally calmed down after that).
I also hate (and this is more of a qualm with the country than the city) that I have to return to Cairo every time I want to switch destinations within Egypt, as most trains and buses depart from the capital city. To be fair though, this has been made much more pleasant by my generous host in Ma'adi, a quiet, cozy suburban district. I often forget I am in Cairo until I have to venture outside to do anything.
I hate Cairo, but it's ok! It's alright, because I've taken some incredible trips to other parts of the country, and have more on the horizon.
I went camping in the desert, near the ancient city of Faiyum. We climbed up a small mountain to watch the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen in my life. Then, we pitched tents and watched a meteor shower under clear starry skies.
A day later, I began what was easily the highlight of my trip thus far. I ventured ten hours away to a place called Siwa, a large desert oasis near the Libyan border. It was out-of-this-world beautiful. The desert landscape clashed with that of thousands of date palm trees (which you can simply pick and consume fresh dates from). It is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, so it's also a very interesting place culturally. The people of Siwa are ethnically Berber, and even speak their own language (Siwi). Siwa contains many ancient structures, such as the Temple of the Oracle of Amun, famously visited by Alexander the Great, and the Mountain of the Dead, which contains several tombs.
On the outskirts of the city, is a large salt lake, which is probably the prettiest thing in all of Siwa. The water is a stunning shade of turquoise, and it looks extremely aesthetic next to the salt formations and desert sand. Some local Beduins have set up saltwater swimming in nearby areas of the desert, where you can float on your back, just like in the Dead Sea! The desert also contains several hot springs (most notably Cleopatra's Bath), some with nearby cafes if you want to spend the afternoon swimming. Finally, there are a couple of great spots for sunset watching; they serve fruit juices and hot drinks and are perfect for winding down after a long day of sightseeing.
At the moment, I am back in Cairo for a short period of time. However, I plan on soon departing for a different region of the country for some more backpacking. I'm extremely happy I decided to go to Siwa, and cannot wait to see what else Egypt has in store for me!
My stay in Jordan was short-lived, albeit wonderful. I spent the first two days in Amman, the capital city. The food and atmosphere were nice; Jordan definitely felt more traditionally “Middle Eastern” than other places I have been to. Although it is a modern country, lots of people wear traditional garb, and pretty much everybody speaks Arabic as a first language.
From Amman, I headed down to Wadi Musa, a tourist trap of a city. It is full of overpriced shops and touts, whose main focus is selling tours to Petra. For those who don’t know, Petra is the centerpiece of Jordanian tourism. It is a magnificent old city, carved out of mountain stone. The archaeological park it’s housed in is huge, and at least one full day is needed to do justice to this amazing site. At $70 for a one-day pass, it’s expensive to enter. However, I was given some partially unused tickets by a French couple I met in Amman, so I entered the park for free.
My feet were worn out and sore from several hours of hiking through Petra, so I made the decision to cross the border to Israel the next day. Since I have friends and family living in Israel, I figured it would be relaxing to hang out with them. Therefore, I headed to the Jordanian city of Aqaba, where I would cross over to the Israeli city of Eilat.
The first thing that went wrong was that the taxi driver who brought me to the border, tried to rip me off. Although we had agreed for him to turn the meter on, he still insisted I pay him 11 Jordanian Dinar ($15.50) upon arrival. Seeing as the meter came out to less than 3 Dinar ($4.25), I absolutely refused to meet his demand. After a minor verbal scuffle, I paid him 3 Dinar, stormed out of the cab, and walked toward the border.
It was surreal, being between two countries; I had very little idea of what to expect. Jordan quickly gave me an exit stamp, and pointed toward the Israeli side of the border. I held my breath, and slowly began the walk to Israel. I could see blue and white flags off in the distance, and wondered how long it would take to be admitted into the country. Since there was a Lebanese stamp in my passport (Lebanon and Israel don’t get along very well), I figured they might question me for a bit. I was prepared.
A guard was waiting for me in front of the Israeli crossing. She took my passport, asked me my purpose for traveling, and ushered me inside. They took my bag, ran it through a scanner, and then proceeded to question me. “Who are you visiting in Israel? Is this your first time here? What other countries have you been to?”
I calmly answered each of the interrogator’s questions, and when it came to the query about the other countries, I began listing: “Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and Jordan.”
When I got to the word “Lebanon,” I noticed an immediate change in the interrogator’s attitude. She sharply asked me what I was doing in Lebanon, if I knew anybody in Lebanon, if anybody had given me anything to bring across the border. Once again, I calmly gave my responses, and seemed to appease her curiosity.
She then proceeded to do a detailed search of my backpack. She flipped through my clothes, journals, and everything else in sight. Of course, they found nothing incriminating, and gave me my passport and an exit card to bring to the stamping booth. “Cool,” I thought. “That wasn't so bad.”
When I handed my passport to the employee in the stamping booth, she immediately asked me why I had been to Lebanon. I answered her questions, and was then told “I need to check your passport in the back for a while.”
“Oh great,” I thought.
A second interrogator was brought in. He took me into a little room, and began asking me the same questions as I’d been asked before. Once again, I answered everything in an honest and calm fashion. He asked me to write down the name and phone number of my mom, and told me to wait outside.
It happens to be, my mom lives in Israel and is an Israeli citizen, so I was ecstatic. I figured he would just call her to confirm my identity, and then send me on my way. No such luck. I waited in the same chair for over two hours, during which nobody told me what was going on. The only thing that happened during those two hours, was that a K-9 drug sniffing dog was brought by to give me a friendly whiff. The dog found nothing, but that didn't stop them from making me wait another hour and a half.
Without any more updates or questions, they finally gave me my passport back. This time, it had an Israeli entry stamp on it. The whole process took around three-and-a-half hours.
I later messaged my mom to ask whether she had also been extensively questioned. They hadn't even called her.
I’m nearing the end of my wonderful stay in Lebanon. The country has been great. The food is nice, people are nice, and sights are nice. I’ve been asked multiple times about whether the country is safe or not, and I can guarantee that it is. I’ve felt safer in Beirut that almost any other big city I’ve been to. Everything has been fine and dandy here. That is, except for the time that I literally got electrocuted.
It was a night like all other nights. I was sitting in the hostel common area, reading some emails. A group of people asked me if I’d like to join them for dinner, and having been holed up inside all day, I happily said yes. We walked outside, laughing and talking as we went. I forget exactly what the topic of conversation was, but I remember passionately blabbing about something. Well, the streets of Beirut happened to be poorly lit, and suddenly, I bumped head first into something shocking. An exposed, hanging power line.
You know that feeling when you stub your toe, and time stops for several moments? That’s kind of what happened to me. My brain didn’t even register what was going on for a few seconds. I jumped away from the dangling cable, which had been touching my forehead for what seemed like an eternity. “Hey guys!” I said. “Help, I was just electrocuted.”
It must have been the direct current, because I didn’t feel any pain. Nor was I knocked unconscious. Nor was there any spark or any traditional “shock.” It was more of a super-alert kind of feeling, where I lost some control over my muscles and (it seems) my nerves. It became difficult for me to speak and think, things that I usually do too much of. I could literally feel the electricity pulsing through my body, and it did not make me happy.
Unfortunately, I am predisposed to having panic attacks. So the fact that I had just been zapped by a power cable, registered in the most horrendous way possible. I could rapidly feel my body and mind racing, and ended up having a full-blown panic attack. The first thing that jumped to mind was “out of all the ways I could have chosen to die, this is by far the lamest.” My friends tried to calm me down, but to no avail. After roughly fifteen minutes of being asked how I was feeling and cajoling me to sit down, I told them I was going to the hospital. “Go eat dinner without me; I’ll call a cab,” I insisted. I apologized profusely, and hurried to find a taxi.
Shaking, hyperventilating, and convinced that I was going to die, I hopped into the taxi and was on my way. I think the driver could tell something was wrong; he ended up not charging me for bringing me to the emergency room.
When I entered the emergency waiting room, the best possible thing happened. The man working the desk refused to let me in unless I paid first. At that time, I didn't even have money on my debit card. Thank goodness. You know why? It made me sit down and think about why I was there.
I realized that I had completely jumped the gun, and had assumed the worst about my situation. I sat in the waiting room, took a number of deep breaths, and decided to walk home. I collapsed into bed, exhausted from the mental exercise I had just gone through.
None of this stopped me from anxiously researching the effects of electrocution over the next couple of days. I had a number of small panic attacks, where I contemplated what sorts of horrible muscle and nerve damage I could have been exposed to. You know what, though? It’s several days later, and I feel totally fine. My panicking mind absolutely warped my sense of reason, and brought me to the most horrendous conclusions.
That’s my story of getting electrocuted in Lebanon. Tomorrow, I fly to Jordan. You can bet my eyes will be peeled for those loose street cables!
Lebanon (duh) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 63!
It was December 31st, and I took an early-morning tuk-tuk ride to the Delhi airport. I was flying to Lebanon, and had resigned my fate to a full day of travel, one which involved a six-hour layover in Dubai.
Thankfully, the flight from Delhi to Dubai was delayed by nearly two hours. On the surface, this may sound like a bad thing. However, it was a blessing in disguise. Instead of six hours, my waiting time was reduced to a measly four. So when I boarded the layover to Beirut, I wasn’t nearly as frustrated from waiting as I would have been. For those of you who have had to wait for a layover, you’ll know that it’s usually duller than a roll of aluminum foil.
I arrived in Beirut a few hours before midnight. Since I had been in transit mode for about 12 hours, I was hoping to catch a quick rest, and then see what the people in my hostel had planned for the New Year’s. Perhaps they would go out on the town. Nope. There was already a dance party going on in the hostel. People were rapidly arriving to celebrate, causing to crowd to get bigger and bigger. Half the room was dancing, and somebody was serving drinks from behind a counter. Within an hour, I was tipsy and mingling with fellow travelers. That’s it; there was no forewarning, just a full-blast New Year’s party. I had expected a few festivities, but nothing on this scale.
The room was soon full, and when it was five minutes to twelve, everyone hurried up to the rooftop to bring in the New Year. While we counted, dozens of fireworks went off all around town. Through the BANG!s and POP!s and SNAP!s I could hear people murmuring that they heard gunshots going off. It was a crazy cacophony of sound. Some people on our rooftop lit up their own fireworks, causing a deafening and colorful scene before me. For about ten minutes straight, all you could hear were explosions.
Once New Year’s was beckoned in, everyone headed downstairs to continue dancing. I swear I’ve never seen such synchronized, sensual, passionate dancing outside of a music video. I’m not much of a party animal myself, but I was entertained by just watching the action take place. It was at the same time one of the most jaw-dropping and enthralling things I have experienced. The unbridled joy and intensity was mind-blowing, and it caused the room to take on a life of its own. The Lebanese have amazing style, and pretty much anybody could have passed for a professional dancer.
Unexpectedly, I went from the chaotic (and often exhausting) country of India to a fun-loving, zealous environment. Obviously, I cannot judge an entire country based on a New Year’s party; the next week and a half will truly shape my opinion of the Lebanon. However, I could not have come in at a better time. For a country that has the Syrian Civil War knocking at its doorstep, I was shocked by how ready and willing people were to have such a good time. Whether it is resilience or a simple “I don’t really care” mentality, it is unmatched by anything I have ever seen before. I will be glad to continue exploring Beirut during the upcoming days.
Photo Credit: rabiem22, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rabiem/9229231222/. All rights reserved.
Traveling allows you to see truths about the world and humanity that were impossible to see before. A number of these truths are pleasing to behold: beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, and delicious food. However, many of those truths are incredibly unpleasant; once you see them, you will never forget them. I’m talking about the dark side of humanity, the side of rampant poverty and corruption, as well as the animalistic drive to survive. As the most recent portion of my trip has been in India, I’ll be focusing primarily on that country. However, many things I am about to say are prevalent throughout much of the world.
The truth is, there are more desperate people in the world than I ever could have imagined. These are people who know nothing about the kind of life I live in the USA. All they see is a guy who goes to an ATM and pulls out their entire year’s salary in one go. They look at me and make assumptions about my privilege, level of wealth, and social status. To be fair, they are mostly right. I am privileged because the color of my skin. I am (inside an impoverished country) a wealthy person. Some of these people have absolutely nothing. Money is so scarce, that it starts to become the only goal in people’s lives. Let me share a very disturbing conversation that happened to me recently:
I was sitting on a rooftop restaurant with a group of fellow travelers, and our waiter began talking to us. I’ll paraphrase. In the creepiest way possible, he said “I didn't have any friends until I started making money. Now I am earning a wage and finally I have friends.”
He said this quite seriously, and it bothered me for many reasons:
1) The fact that the only way this man could make friends was by having money.
2) Anyone who befriends you just because of your money isn't a real friend.
3) Quite possibly, this is a common mentality to have, where it isn't worth being friends with someone unless they can benefit you financially. There is so much poverty, that people have to frequently resort to using others for survival. I know it happens in the USA as well, but the way this man described it sounded disturbingly parasitic.
4) There were five of us trying to enjoy a meal, and what the guy said totally dampened the mood. As privileged travelers, we could not truly relate to what the man was saying. I noticed the vibe in the room go dark all of a sudden.
5) The man stood creepily by and watched us for a good portion of our dinner.
You may think, ah whatever. Isolated incident, right?
Nope, I run into people like this on a daily basis. Men will just come over to me and ask incredibly personal questions about my financial, personal, and romantic life. The whole while, they leer at me as if they expect me to tell them I’m a billionaire playboy who throws cocktail parties every weekend. Benevolent tourists have created an expectation (at least among uneducated people) that everybody from the West is Jay Gatsby. I might as well wear a tuxedo and throw $100 bills from my hotel window. Also, too many of my fellow female travelers have been harassed while walking about. They have been groped at, stared at, and even been crudely asked for sex by passers-by.
How can I go back home and ever look at my life the same way? I've seen some really sad things: things that cannot be changed without a complete overhaul of the system.
Sure, you’d think the government could do something. No. Many governments are corrupt. It is very common for police officers and government officials to take bribes. Heck, if you have money, you can probably get away with anything. I've met several travelers in Southeast Asia and India who have had encounters with police. Not one of them ended in a conviction or acquittal; they all ended with the foreigner paying a few dollars in bribe money. I’m not saying that every single police officer and government worker is corrupt, but it is a serious problem. If you’re interested, there is a site called ipaidabribe.com, where you can get a taste of the problem’s extent.
Now, all of this stuff I said may sound negative, but I’m about to throw a positive spin around it. The above spiel is one of the reasons why you should travel. Sure, go for the beaches. Go for the food. Go for the fun. But most of all go to expand your horizons. You should see the good and the bad stuff, because it will help you understand the world in a richer, fuller way. The more you can see the big picture, the less things seem “weird” or “difficult.” You can learn to appreciate what you have, on an even deeper level.
I've always been a pretty avid thinker, but I have seen things while traveling that have entirely changed the way that I think about the world. There are things that have to be experienced to be understood. To be totally honest, I can’t find the words to put everything in writing. Some things cannot be summed up into a few words. However, by exposing ourselves to the realities of life, we can face the world head-on with an open mind. If you are already somebody who thinks outside the box, consider travel to be the next logical step in your development.
Cuba and Venezuela have been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 59!
I don’t believe I have gone an entire week yet in India without falling ill. It’s getting really frustrating, because it’s been putting a damper on my (otherwise) fantastic trip.
Within three days of arriving to India, I got food poisoning. This was the first time I had ever gotten food poisoning, and I hope it was my last. The pain was so bad, that I had to check myself into a hospital, and be given a painkiller injection. Even after building up a strong stomach from my previous four months of travel, it only took three days of Indian food to take me down. That’s a bloody shame, because I love Indian food.
Besides the aforementioned food poisoning, I have also been suffering from a series of random colds/fevers. I’ll have one for a day or two. It will mysteriously disappear, and then come back several days later. I’m pretty sure mass transit is to blame; I cannot even begin to imagine how many germs there are on a crowded Indian train. Seriously, every time I enter a general seating train (standing room only), my nose and eyes immediately begin watering. It only takes a few seconds. I blame overcrowding and poor hygiene for this. In fact, I have decided to “wuss out” whenever possible, and begin taking the higher class train cars. While they are more expensive, these tickets guarantee you a seat, and are much cleaner than the general compartments. Perhaps Indian immune systems are used to the high level of germs and contamination; I, however, am certainly not.
I recently took a 36 hour train ride from Madurai (in the south) to Pune (in central India). Luckily, I had been upgraded for free, to a decent compartment. The ride went rather smoothly, and I arrived to my destination in good health. Then I took a local (crowded) train ride that lasted less than two hours. You know what? I’m writing this blog post with a terrible sore throat. It’s no fun. I rarely ever get sick back home in the USA: heck, I’ve barely gotten sick in any countries other than India.
I really hope that India doesn’t permanently screw up my immune system. The optimistic side of me thinks that it is helping me build immunity to illness and disease. The pessimistic side thinks just feels me getting weaker and weaker. Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger, right? Or maybe not. Only time will tell.
Anyone who wants to travel to India but has a poor immune system, please consult first with your doctor. Unless you get chauffeured around by a private taxi and stay at five-star hotels the whole time, you are bound to get sick at least once (even then, I’d still count on it).
For those of you who have spent extensive time in India, I’d be interested to hear about your experience. Did you get ill? If so, how badly, and did it significantly affect your trip?
Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the northern regions of Sri Lanka, because of government imposed bans. Seeing as I only had two and a half weeks to spend in the country, I forwent trying to apply for a region permit. The time I did spend traveling around Sri Lanka was more than enough, considering my situation and personal tolerance.
I took the 40 minute plane ride to Madurai excited to begin the second leg of my Indian trip. My arrival brought about mixed feelings. Yes, it was exciting to get back to the colorful chaos that I had grown (somewhat) accustomed to. However, Madurai sucked out all of my energy; within a few hours I had already jumped onto a moving bus, and was trying very hard to not get my pockets picked in such a tightly packed space. At the railway station I purchased a long-distance train to another city (Pune), but that didn't leave for another four days. I made a split-second decision to leave Madurai that same afternoon, and spend a few days elsewhere.
The place I chose was Kodaikanal, a hill station located roughly four hours away. Filled with trepidation, I took the bus and happily zoomed out of Madurai. The bus ride was windy yet somehow comforting; I think the loud Indian blasting from the bus speakers had something to do with that. As we reached altitudes of nearly a mile and a half above sea level, I felt a chill in the air. Soon, we met the destination.
I can honestly say that Kodaikanal is one of the best places I have been in India. I was immediately met with a magnificent view of India’s Western Ghats mountain range, and an inviting atmosphere. Cold, foggy, and friendly, Kodaikanal was as much of a departure from hectic Madurai as I could have hoped. Although the temperature was brisk, the people were warm. I quickly checked into the nearby youth hostel ($6.50 for a private room with some blankets).
The next morning, I took a scenic two-hour walk around the local lake, where many Indian holidaymakers were riding pedal boats. The calm I felt during that walk tremendous; it really made me appreciate the picturesque location. Also, the air was some of the freshest I had breathed during my trip. Cold weather did unfortunately give me a cold once more, though not as bad as the one I had in Nuwara Eliya. It really bothers me that certain beautiful locations make me ill; I just cannot adapt to cold weather. Heaven help me when I try to travel through Russia…
It feels great to be back in India. I hope during the next six weeks I see many nice places like Kodaikanal, an absolute standout city.
I decided to head to the city of Nuwara Eliya, located in the hill country of Sri Lanka. It is a fantastic place, surrounded by beautiful nature. Outside the city center are lots of rolling green hills, waterfalls, and tea plantations. Upon dodging the seemingly endless barrage of tuk-tuk touts, I managed to secure myself a guesthouse, at the cost of roughly $7.50 per night. Thankfully, it was located on the outskirts of town, with plenty of trees, plants, and fresh air. While most of the country has a tropical climate, the hill country is an exception. Nuwara Eliya can get rather chilly, especially in the evening.
And so it was, I caught a terrible cold overnight. Through my miserable sniffling and sneezing, I contemplated what to do that day. The delicious home-cooked banana and coconut pancakes I ate for breakfast didn’t help my cold. Neither did the large pot of tea that I drank. After visiting the pharmacy and taking some (negligibly helpful) medication, I figured it was time to learn a bit about my surroundings. So I decided to take a bus to one of the local tea factories.
The Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre was located on a large estate, though the factory itself stood on a fairly small area of land. Many tourists were crowded around guides, who gave a brief description of the various functions of the factory. Because of my annoying cold, I remember very little of what was said. However, it was very concise and educational. Surprisingly, there was no entrance fee. I’m pretty sure that they were counting on tourists spending time and money in the gift shop and restaurant. Indeed, there were crowds of people in both facilities. Without further ado, I peaced out and took a bus back to the Nuwara Eliya. Total cost of my excursion? 50 cents.
Because of restrictively high prices, I’ve been skipping most of the sites in Sri Lanka. My traveling style doesn’t really revolve around “site-seeing,” and it takes something as essential as Angkor Wat to necessitate me blowing 2-3 days worth of budget on an admission fee. To be honest, the factory experience itself wasn’t very exciting, and perhaps I should have actually spent more money to have a good time. But you know what? It helped me forget about my horrible cold for a few minutes, and gave me the chance to spend some time with nature. It’s all good.
When I returned to my guesthouse, the kindly owner brewed some medicinal leaves in boiling water, and had me inhale the steam while covered by a blanket. No, it did not cure my cold. But it ended my night on an up note.
The day made me think a bit about the notion of “experience.” I think experience goes way beyond individual moments and places; it’s more of the collective yearning, learning, and feeling that we face all the time. Nothing mind-blowing ended up happening in those 24 hours, but I think that’s the point. It was the collective blasé of the day that caused it to stick to my brain. I’ll take it.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write music and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.