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.
Costa Rica, Mexico, and Pakistan have been added to the "Nationalities I Have Met" page, bringing the total to 62!
Lucky number seven. This is the part where I feel well-traveled, have little money left, and am exceedingly conscious that my trip is finite. I'm not quite at the end, but I can see an end in the (relatively) close future. Every destination is being accounted for. Each purchase is being scrutinized.
With an exception of two days in Sri Lanka, the past month has been spent entirely in India. Upon flying to Madurai, I gradually made my way up north. Eventually, I hit Mumbai, the clear turning point of my Indian adventure. I was no longer alone; rather I found myself in the company of other travelers. Because foreigners tend to visit the north of India, it is much easier to find backpacker hostels there. Right now, I am in the state of Rajasthan, and to be honest, I've met more travelers in the past week than in the whole rest of my time in India. This is a pleasant change from the long, often lonely days spent in the southern regions of the country, where I was sometimes the only foreigner for miles. Rajasthan has a high density of beautiful sites and friendly local people. In many ways, it is the perfect place to laze away my final days in this country. There is no shortage of things to do, foods to eat, and streets to wander around. Additionally, I finally have a steady stream of Western amenities such as comfortable beds, WiFi, and fellow adventurers to speak with.
I will be in India until the 31st of December, and then plan on flying to the Middle East. My first destination will be Lebanon, a small country where I shall spend ten days, including New Year's. From Lebanon, I will fly to Jordan, where (if budget permits) I hope to see the ancient city of Petra. For those who are unaware, Petra is often considered to be one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in the world.
Thankfully, the Indian Rupee stretches very far, especially compared to the US Dollar. My seventh month was the cheapest yet, beating my previous record.
Accommodation - $182.09. Average of $6.07 per day. It's nice, because I am finally able to book accommodation on the internet again. In the south of India, hostels were very rare. However, the state of Rajasthan is littered with bargain rooms.
Food and Drink - $168.85. Average of $5.63 per day, or $1.88 per meal. It is definitely a challenge to stay away from high-priced tourist restaurants. Nevertheless, eating on a budget is pretty easy, just as it is anywhere in India.
Alcohol - $14.46. This continues my trend of drinking very little alcohol in South Asia. Although liquor was very cheap in one city (Daman), it was illegal in the entire state of Gujarat. Besides, I just haven't had much of a desire to drink in India.
Transport - $42.86. Transportation costs are negligible in India. I honestly can't believe that this includes multiple buses and trains, including one 36-hour train ride. But it does.
Miscellaneous - $54.54. Includes things such as toiletries, laundry, ATM fees, souvenirs, etc.
Total amount spent - $462.60. Average of $15.42 per day. This was my cheapest month ever, and I could have done it for cheaper! It constantly amazes me how far Western currencies can get you in India.
Once more, thank you to Simon and Erin, the creators of Trail Wallet. Their app continues to be my #1 budgeting tool. If you feel so inclined, check out their journey at neverendingvoyage.com. Unfortunately, my iPod recently decided to die on me. Therefore, the rest of my trip expenses will be recorded with old-fashioned pen and paper.
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.
Wow. Six months. I didn't think I would make it this far. When I began my journey this past May, I never would have guessed I'd be where I am now. Originally, I had counted on my budget lasting just through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Well here I am, eight countries in, with plenty of steam left. Not only have I been to some places I hadn't originally counted on, one of those countries is an expensive one!
The past 30 days were spent in India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, though mostly in the latter two. I've already talked about India at length (and will do so more in the upcoming month), so I'll focus on the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
The Maldives was awesome! People usually just think of it as a bunch of tourist resorts. Honestly, those do exist, but the country is much more than that. It has a very laid back vibe, delicious food (it's Heaven if you love tuna), and a really cool shipping port. On my last day there, I walked through the port and enjoyed a joyous atmosphere, where everyone was buying and selling overseas imports!
Sri Lanka has a rather large tourism industry, and is therefore very easy to travel in. While the food was a bit of a step down from Indian cuisine, it is still pretty good. The country has many beautiful beaches and tourist resorts. Honestly, though, the place where Sri Lanka excelled for me was its hill country. The area outside Nuwara Eliya is simply gorgeous: green rolling hills and tea plantations abound. The area feels different from pretty much everywhere else I visited in Sri Lanka.
Next month will be spent in India. I have slightly more than one month left in that gargantuan land, and intend on making the best of that time. While the first leg of my Indian trip was spent in the country's south, the second leg will take place in the center and north. India has so much to see, that I'm sure I will require revisits to the country. For now, though, let's see where the road takes me.
The three currencies I used during my sixth month: Indian and Sri Lankan Rupee, and Maldivian Rufiyaa. My week in the Maldives took a sizable chunk out of my savings. But you know what? It was worth every penny.
Accommodation - $385.95. Average of $12.87 per day. Accommodation was by far the biggest expense from this month, mostly as the result of my Maldives adventure. Although I managed to find accommodation for roughly $30 per night, it came with plenty of tacked on taxes and island fees. I averaged about $7-8 per night in Sri Lanka.
Food and Drink - $215. Average of $7.17 per day, or $2.39 per meal. Food in Sri Lank and the Maldives was more expensive than in India. However, it was still very cheap. I'd say the food costs about as much as in Southeast Asia.
Alcohol - $16.14. The Maldives is an Islamic country, so alcohol is not readily available (at least on the local islands. I didn't drink much this month, even in India and Sri Lanka. However, a beer usually costs between $1-3 in both countries.
Transport - $121.99. More than half of this expense came from an $85 speedboat I took in the Maldives. Local ferries usually cost about $5. Unfortunately, they do not always run every day, so you might have to take an expensive alternative. My advice is to arrive at a time where you can take local transport. Sri Lanka, however, has ridiculously cheap transport.
Miscellaneous - $88.87. Includes things such as toiletries, laundry, ATM fees, souvenirs, etc.
Total amount spent - $827.95. Average of $27.60 per day. This was by far my most expensive month. However, I think I did pretty well, seeing as I managed to comfortably include a trip to the Maldives!
Once more, thank you to Simon and Erin, the creators of Trail Wallet. Their app continues to be my #1 budgeting tool. If you feel so inclined, check out their journey at neverendingvoyage.com.
Last month was spent partially in Vietnam and Singapore, but mostly in India. It's by far the cheapest country I have traveled to, and certainly the most challenging yet. Right now I am in the state of Goa, a very tourist-friendly region. However, the rest of the country (so far at least) has been quite the adventure. You never know what you will see in India. I've eaten some of the best food I've ever had, stayed at some of the worst hotels, and have gotten ill more times than I'd care to count. The country manages to be both frustrating and rewarding at the same time; it is not a place I will be forgetting anytime soon.
I'm going to give you a brief sneak peak of the upcoming month. In roughly a week, I'll be taking a hiatus from India, by spending some time in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. The Maldives is an extremely expensive country, and is mostly filled with tourist resorts; it will likely be my most expensive week of traveling ever. Both countries are islands, and are situated within one or two hours' flight from India. After the excursion, I will fly back into India, and travel in the middle and northern regions. The country is so densely packed, there is no way I'll be able to see everything in a few months. Nevertheless, I plan on doing my best, and making the places I do go to, count.
The three currencies I used during my fifth month: Vietnam Dong, Singapore Dollar, and Indian Rupee. The latter stretches quite far. In fact, if I would have only been in India this month, my total costs would have been even less. Nevertheless, this was my least expensive month yet. Here's a breakdown of costs, by category.
Accommodation - $142.24. Average of $4.74 per day. Unlike in Southeast Asia, there are very few dorm rooms in India, so I've been staying in private rooms the entire time. Even so, the costs are very low, with a night's stay usually ranging from $4-7. Even in Singapore (a relatively expensive country), I didn't pay more than $20 for two nights' stay.
Food and Drink - $172.28. Average of $5.74 per day, or $1.91 per meal. This is one of the areas where India truly excels at being a budget destination. In most places (besides for Goa), a meal will cost you about 50 cents. A large meal, including juice and/or Chai tea runs you no more than $1.
Alcohol - $16.81. I've not had much beer in India, but is relatively affordable. A large bottle of Kingfisher is about $1. I didn't drink in Singapore, but I've been told it's extremely expensive. Once again, you can get local brew in Vietnam for as low as 15 cents in some places.
Transport - $67.81. I cannot stress how cheap it is to travel by Indian rail. I've taken a ten hour train ride for as low as $1. Obviously, the price will go way up if you opt for an air-conditioned or luxury car.
Miscellaneous - $86.55. Includes things such as toiletries, laundry, ATM fees, etc. It also includes the price of an Ipod cable, a haircut, and some internet cafes.
Total amount spent - $485.69. Average of $16.19 per day. This was by far my cheapest month yet, and my first under $500. If I had only been in India, it would have been even less. Like always, this amount does not include international flights or visa fees (which will all be tallied in a separate post some day).
Once more, thank you to Simon and Erin, the creators of Trail Wallet. Their app continues to be my #1 budgeting tool. If you feel so inclined, check out their journey at neverendingvoyage.com.
I must admit, I was very skeptical about going to Goa. India’s smallest state is well known for its beach tourism, and I was trepidatious that would be overpriced, overcrowded, and no fun. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. Perhaps it’s because I decided to go during off-season, but this is the most relaxing, enjoyable part of my Indian experience yet.
I decided to head to the small town of Benaulim. Compared to other parts of India, there are miniscule amounts of people here. Everything is clean, quiet, and tourist friendly, albeit slightly more expensive. I’m renting out a gigantic double room (with refrigerator and kitchen sink) for $6.50 per night. There are dozens of great restaurants and shops nearby, plus a beautiful beach.
Unlike the rest of India, which was colonized by England and (partially) France, Goa was colonized by Portugal. As a result, the state feels significantly different from the others I have been to. Christianity is more prominent, and the architecture is unique for India. Goa is sort of the “Florida” of India. Located on the country’s coastline, it is lined with beautiful palm and coconut trees.
Seriously, Benaulim is just what I needed. I’d been moving around nearly every day, and figured I would find a place to rest up for a while. This town is absolutely perfect, and is one of the highlights of my trip. I’m sure Goa gets crowded and hectic during tourist season, but right now it is Heaven on Earth.
The best experiences, in my opinion, happen off the beaten path.
It was morning I arrived in Mangalore, a fine, albeit standard Indian city. I walked about for a couple of hours, eating and checking out various guesthouses (no, I didn’t eat the guesthouses). After a while, I had an idea. Why not move on to a smaller city? Usually I would stay a few nights in each place, but as of late I’d been getting sick of big cities.
I chose a city at random: Kasaragod. It was in the state of Kerala, and took an hour by train. I disembarked and…meh. Once more, it was a fine city, but not one I felt like staying in. So I had my second brilliant idea of the day. I was going to hike to a nearby town. I hit the road, with absolutely no idea where I was going. With just a backpack and nerves of steel, I trekked for the good part of an afternoon.
Midday, I found myself in a residential neighborhood. It was fascinating, as I had not yet seen the suburbs of India. The big cities have many slums and apartments, and numbered houses are something of a rarity. So here I was, the only person on a long and winding street; it was an extremely calming, peaceful experience. The sheer number of citizens in India can be enough to drive you mad. You are constantly surrounded by people, so good luck ever finding some alone time. There’s a good reason I mentioned that I’m sick of big cities; it’s because Indian crowds are stimulating in all the worst ways.
So here I was in a moderately remote area, possibly the first white person to ever be there. A few residents were tending to their lawns, and gave me incredulous stares. As I passed by, I noticed something interesting about the houses. Some of them were absolutely beautiful: huge and polished, with a couple of cars in the driveway. However, their neighbors would often be small, disheveled, dusty-looking shacks. I have a separate article planned about the class divide in India; let’s just say for now that it’s very “in your face.”
Right as I was getting ready to throw in the towel and head back, a kindly man and woman invited me to rest by their house. I took them up on the offer, and chilled outside their humble abode (it was one of the “shackier” houses). The woman brought me a cup of water, which I pretended to drink (foreigners aren’t supposed to consume tap water). Neither of them spoke English, but we managed to communicate with a few broken words. The man, whose name I don’t remember, was an electrician. He told me of a nearby Hindu temple, and offered me a ride.
After Thailand, I’d considered myself all “templed” out. So this was the first time I had been to a temple in India. It was interesting, with many beautiful paintings of Hindu gods. We stayed for about five minutes, and then he dropped me off on the side of the road. I bade farewell to my new friend, and continued my trek.
In the end, I met another cool dude who was working at a roadside restaurant. He gave me a ride to the train station, and I ended up going…back to Mangalore. That’s right; I spent the entire day trying to escape the city, only to arrive there again at night.
Moral of the story? Hit the road, bud. Guess how much fun I would have had if I’d stayed at a hotel in Mangalore? I’d be willing to bet, zero. When in doubt, move on. You never know who you will meet and what you will see.
While trying to find a guesthouse in Bangalore, I came across not one, not two, but three dead rodents…within the span of half an hour.
Let me backtrack.
After spending three marvelous days in the experimental town of Auroville, I decided it was time to move on. I set my sights on Bangalore, capital of the state Karnataka. The idea was to head back to Pondicherry (a very busy city), then catch the overnight train to Bangalore. Unfortunately, I had some trouble booking a train at night, and ended up having to stay an extra night in Pondicherry. The next day, I booked my very first overnight train in India.
For those of you who don’t know, India has a world-famous railway system. It’s efficient, comfortable, and inexpensive. One of the things I was most excited for about the country was to ride its trains. I purchased the cheapest kind of ticket (sleeper class) for my destination, and boarded what was to be a very uneventful ride. The trip took ten hours, and I must say: I definitely prefer the trains to the buses! Not once during the trip did I assume we were going to crash. The traffic in India is ridiculously congested, so road travel can be something of a frightening experience.
I arrived in Bangalore at five in the morning, and began walking. Unfortunately, I don’t sleep very well while being transported, so I wanted desperately to find a guest house. While hiking through a neighborhood, it became apparent to me that guesthouses wouldn't open for another hour or two. I decided to set my bag and guitar down, and chose a street corner to sit down on.
It was then that I saw the first rat, lying dead on the ground.
OK, so no big deal; I've seen plenty of dead animals before. I thought nothing of it, and watched the sun rise. Across the street was a stray cow, poking her nose in a pile of garbage. I amused myself for a few minutes, until the cow realized nothing of value was to be found in the heap. She trotted away, and my eyes snapped back to the morning light.
Suddenly, a crow flew by, a rat trapped in his beak.
I must admit, it gave me a little shock. I hadn't been expecting a bird to fly right by my face, let alone one brandishing a rodent. With a chuckle, I leapt to my feet. It was prime time to find a guesthouse.
I had walked only a few meters when I saw it: the third dead rat.
What I got out of that morning, has very little to do with the deceased animals. Rather, the scenario caused me to reflect fondly about the country I was in. In India, you can never be sure what you will see. In a couple of hours, the street I was on would surely be bustling with crazy sights and sounds. The precious half-hour that I sat there was the “calm before the storm.” The “calm” involved a cow poking through trash, and three dead rats.
God, I love this country.
Nepal and Rwanda have been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 54!
India is a country that keeps reminding you that it’s India.
Honestly, in the past few days, I've probably had more sensory stimulation than during the whole rest of my trip. This is not a country you can half-ass; I doubt you can just check out a few sites and do the whole hostel thing. I’m sure there’s some sort of “backpacker trail” in India; however, I’m certainly not anywhere near it. I recently wrote about the tidiness of my previous destination, Singapore. Well, India is surely Singapore’s worst nightmare: a grimy, disorganized, loud place, where anything goes.
I arrived in Chennai, capital of the southern state Tamil Nadu. According to Wikipedia, Chennai is rated as one of the twenty cleanest cities in the country. Hmm, if the ranking holds true, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from the thousands of cities that didn't make the list. There is garbage strewn all over the streets, dilapidated sidewalks, plenty of homeless people, and heavy traffic pollution. It’s not uncommon to see cows on the side of the road, and street food hygiene standards are nonexistent.
I quickly left the big city, and headed to Pondicherry, capital of the Puducherry union territory (sort of like a state, but ruled by the federal government). This territory was under French occupation, and thus architecturally reminds me of Vietnam (a French occupied country). However, Pondicherry is still unmistakably India. I was served food with bare, dirty hands, walked through death-defying traffic, and got stared at by hundreds of curious Indians. On my second night there, I got food poisoning. It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life; I quickly ran to the hospital where they injected me with some painkillers.
As I sat in the filthiest, most run down guesthouse I've ever stayed in, I felt, for the first time like a “real” traveler. I’m so glad that I chose to travel in India after leaving Southeast Asia. Now that I’m slightly more wary, I’m finding it simpler to “ease” my way into this colossus of a country. I can already tell India requires a great deal of effort to explore.
If it sounds like I’m bashing on this wonderful country, I’m not. Sure, it can be an exhausting, sickening, and depressing place at times. However, the rest of the time it is exhilarating, colorful, and friendly. I actually love how there are relatively few tourists here; as a result, I've been interacting more frequently with the local people (it doesn't hurt that many of them know English). Yeah, there are a fair number of people who just want your money. However, the rest have been interesting, kind, and helpful. Upon taking the train from Chennai airport to the city center, a man graciously explained the transit system to me. He then spent the next ten minutes writing me a page full of useful Tamil (the local language) translations. This happened within an hour of arriving in India, and gave me a wonderful first impression.
I must also say, Indian cuisine is hands down my favorite cuisine yet! I plan to eventually dedicate an entire post (or three) to just Indian food. Though I've eaten a number of incredible dishes throughout my journey, Indian food blows the competition away. It’s ridiculously cheap (less than a dollar for a large meal), is usually eaten with one’s hand (even rice), and uses a heavenly blend of spices.
Right now I am staying in Auroville, a beautiful town near Pondicherry. It is a historically diverse place, whose community is comprised of people from over 40 countries!
I’m just beginning my two-month-plus excursion into India. I cannot wait to see what lies ahead!
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.