164_6445-4.JPGOur guidebook’s first two sentences about Leh couldn’t be truer: “If you’ve battled across the mountains by road, it’ll be with some relief that you’ll greet Leh. Here are all the restaurants, cozy guesthouses and services of recuperation that you’ve longer for, all in a stunning desert-and-mountain landscape.” We’ve been in Leh a couple days now, just resting and acclimatizing. Thankfully, Joylani is feeling much better and enjoying Leh. And although my stomach is still far from better, at least the altitude sickness has worn off and I’m not puking.
Sick or not, Leh is great. It’s an old city of approximately 30,000, although it seems smaller. I would assume that most of the population are villagers that live outside the main town. And old fort and gompa (Buddhist monastery) overlook the city from the mountain that the city is built on. Across the valley, snow-capped peaks rise up thousands of feet from Indus River. It was once a trading city nestled between Central Asia and the subcontinent, while today it is a strategic military town (given the disputed border with Pakistan to the north and China to the east). Despite the military checkpoints and the well-paved roads in the immediate area, the town is a maze of brick and wood. Rock walls delineate property boundaries, as well as line dozens of back-alleyways that cut through vegetable gardens and green fields of grain.
The Muslim and Buddhist population relies on traditional farming or adventure tourism for their livelihood. This accounts for the preponderance of 4×4 Jeeps and donkeys in the streets. In addition to learning about the different demographics here, compared to the rest of India, I’ve also noticed the different traveler demographics. Dharamsala attracted Tibetan refugees, Buddhist pilgrims, and younger hippies. Manali was full of Indian tourists and older resident hippies. Rather than hippies, Leh is full of older more affluent foreigners. Mainly the adventure types- alpinists, climbers, trekkers, and rafters- who come for the highest and most scenic mountains in the world. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of Europeans from the Alp regions- Swiss, Germans, Austrians, and French.
Despite the adventure tourism, Leh doesn’t feel too touristy. Perhaps that’s because it’s still a harsh place to visit. The overland route is only open a couple months a year, depending on when the high passes are open. The numerous guesthouses are simple, but all with large sun-collecting windows. The nights are cold even now in August. There’s a chronic water shortage, the electricity goes out several times everyday, and hot-water usually is provided via buckets. Despite the cold, Joylani and I have both gotten sunburned. Our lips are constantly chapped and peeling, and sometimes we get bloodcots when blowing our noses. On the upside, while our mouths and noses are parched day and night, the air dries our laundry extremely quickly, considering the cold. Reading back over the last paragraph, Leh may seem like a miserable place. But it’s nice and the small discomforts really aren’t that big of a deal.
There are an increasing number of amenities though. Last time I was in Leh, there were no ATMs or internet cafés. Now there are two ATMs and countless internet cafes. Phone calls to the US used to be about 1 USD per minute, but are now approximately .50 USD. Internet costs a little over 2 USD per hour though; about six times as much as the other places we’ve been in India. It’s nice to be out of touch with the world and the 24-hour news cycle though. Outside of some trips to remote villages that we’ll take during the next couple weeks, we’re about as remote as could be. Despite the ATMs, internet cafes, and tourist shops, Leh retains its small old-town feel. Older people, in traditional Ladakhi dress greet us (“Jule”) as we walk down the street. Stacks of sticks and wood can be seen throughout town, stockpiled until needed for winter. Numerous dhobis can be found throughout town, washing and rinsing clothes in the polluted stream (polluted because beyond clothes soap, it collects litter and piss).
As I write this in the courtyard of our guesthouse, I can see our dhobi hanging our river-washed clothes on the clothesline string between trees. A neighbor just walked through with a basket of lettuce to sell at the main bazaar. The houseboy is sweeping the walkway with a “broom” made of sticks. Thinking about my old job at a brokerage and then looking around this courtyard, I realize I couldn’t be farther away from home.

The Manali-Leh Road


MattandJoylaniThumbnailMatt and I decided to take a jeep from Manali to Leh. The total estimated time for the trip is 18 hours. Going by jeep is still quicker than the bus, which takes 2 days, and we were able to secure front seats in the jeep so that we (Matt) could take better photos along the way.

Our trip was set to being at 2:00 in the morning with a pick-up from our hotel. Matt and I groggily checked out of our hotel to realize we were on a pedestrian only street, and wondered where our ride would be picking us up. As we stood in the deserted street with our big packs on, two patrolling police stopped to question Matt while I giggled quietly to myself.

Police: “Hello. What are you doing?”

Matt: “Uh, we’re waiting for our jeep to Leh.”

Police: “Have you already booked your ticket?”

Matt: “Yes, we have it.”

I found this to be funny because it was 2 o’clock in the morning on a street that did not allow cars. What did the policeman think we were going to do if we hadn’t booked a ticket? Hail a cab and ask them to drive us 18 hours north? It seemed obvious to me that if we said we were waiting for a jeep that we would have already booked our ticket. The police continued on down the road and a few minutes later our “pick-up,” a runner for the taxi company, came to let us know we had to walk 40 yards down the street to the bus stand where all the jeeps were waiting.

At about 2:15am we found our jeep among several others and our driver loaded up all the bags on top, covering them with a tarp. And then we waited to leave. The front and middle rows in the jeep are forward facing bench seats which “fit” three and four people respectively. The back of the jeep has two side facing bench seats that fit four more people. Including the driver there were 11 of us, a full car. We stood outside the car, watching a group of men (possibly other drivers or tour operators?) who were talking and sharing a bottle of beer as we waited for a sign that we would leave soon. About an hour later a man in a white kurta on a motorbike (who seemed to be in charge of the beer) looked at us and enthusiastically announced it was time for us to get in the jeep. Thankfully he was not a driver.

We settled in for the long ride ahead. I thought maybe I could get some sleep but was quite wrong. From the beginning the ride was very bumpy as we drove over dirt roads and rocks (an old riverbed perhaps?). Sitting in the front provided a good view of the road ahead and I could see that although the ride was bumpy, the driver was avoiding the big potholes in the road. One word kept repeating through my mind as I made out the narrow road ahead and the cliff to the edge: precarious. I couldn’t believe that I would be sitting in a jeep with no seatbelts (sorry mom) for the next 18 hours traversing roads like this. We crossed more rocks, honked at a few nocturnal cows, and made our way over little waterfalls as we drove up the mountain. About 30-40 minutes into the drive I heard a loud pop followed by a quick rush of air. A flat tire. Already. Luckily the jeeps to Leh travel caravan style and a couple jeeps stopped to help as our driver put on the extra tire.

For the next few hours I tried to sleep, waking up every now and then as we drove through a bumpy patch or if my head bobbled to one side, either hitting Matt’s head, the window, or falling backwards (no headrest) giving me a mild jolt. As the daylight broke I slowly woke up to the most beautiful gray and green mountain side, leading to a valley below. Little horses grazed along the side of the road, and gentle waterfalls trickled down the side of the mountain and over the road on its way down to the river below. At this point Matt began taking an endless stream of pictures, and I will let him (and the photos) finish the story of our drive through the ever changing and very majestic Himalayas.

Originally, I was thinking about breaking the aforementioned jeep ride story into multiple blog entries. There are so many angles I could take with it. I could describe what Joylani ended her entry with, the indescribable scenery and landscapes we drove through. Perhaps I could make it a story about transportation in India, which might even be more indescribable than the landscapes. Or I could write about how sick and miserable I was during the last five or six hours. All would be good stories in themselves, but I feel an obligation to write about everything in the same entry- I will explain my reasons at the end of the story.

Joylani left off when she woke up around dawn, just as an unseen morning sun was illuminating the magnificent high-altitude pass and accompanying valley of Rohtang-La. We rolled down the windows to take photos and breathe in the crisp morning air of the Himalayas. It was refreshing after three hours of sleepless bouncing around in the jeep and only about 45 minutes of sleep the night before. I’m not sure why I couldn’t sleep that night- perhaps it was the anticipation of finally going to someplace I’ve dreamed of returning to for the past three years. As we descended from Rohtang-La into a bottomless valley, my dreams of returning to the Great Himalayas were realized. We were in the midst of a landscape unparalleled anywhere on earth. After two weeks of being sick and largely unimpressed, Joylani was truly mesmerized. After chaotic Delhi, interesting Dharamsala, and scenic Manali, we were finally seeing and experiencing something extraordinary. Joylani did a good job of describing Rohtang-La, although even this photo does not do the place justice.


After we turned the last switchback and reached a small village at the bottom of the valley, we stopped for a break. After handing our passports to the driver, who needed them for the checkpoint, we stepped out into the beautiful morning. Next to the river, we looked up at the mountains we had just descended to see dozens of waterfalls and small streams cascading and trickling down to the river. It was amazing to the see their paths cut through the green-covered mountains from the snow-capped peaks and glaciers all the way down to where we were.

After admiring God’s creation for a few minutes, I asked someone where I could find a bathroom. It turned out that there were no bathrooms in the village; the bathroom was “open.” Familiar with “open” already, I walked up above the village where I found a clump of bushes I could squat behind. It was hardly private, but at least I could go. In fact, while I sat there doing my business, another foreigner came scrambling up the hill, frantically looking for a place to relieve his Delhi-belly. Seeing I already had the spot, he frustratedly ran further up the hill. It made me laugh. Meanwhile, Joylani had found a spot below the village to go. She popped a squat and did her thing, but right as she finished a man popped out of an unseen hut and scolded her, “Here NOT bathroom.” (note from Joylani: it wasn’t an unseen hut, I just didn’t care because I had to pee!) Having stretched, relieved ourselves, and passports checked, we were soon herded back into the jeep for another few hours.

We drove along the meandering river for awhile, as the sky grew brighter. The sun’s rays angled farther and farther down, until the sun itself finally peaked over the mountains. As Joylani mentioned though, this wasn’t a leisurely scenic drive in the country. This part of the road was unpaved, like the majority of the drive. But, as Joylani said, our young driver skillfully maneuvered around potholes and large rocks. It was still extremely bumpy, as any dirt and rock road would be, but we were in the front seat and seeing the incredible.

At around 7:30 am, we stopped for breakfast at another extremely small village (several tents and a couple food stalls). Between momos, fried egg, and maggi (like a saucy top-ramen), I chose fried eggs. I love momos, but not having seen any agriculture or poultry for hours, I decided against them (good thing because some other people in our jeep ordered them and hated them). That’s one thing I hate about the remote parts of the Himalaya- there’s never any good food. Even worse, it always the same bad food: maggi or fried eggs. My eggs were greasy and oily and tasted pretty bad. But at the same time, it was an amazing moment in time. Over the past two years, whenever I was frustrated at work, I would always think about what I’d be doing once we were on this trip. And we were finally living one of my daydreams. We were sitting in some remote part of the mountains, sipping chai, enjoying the clean and crisp mountain air, together. Although the eggs were gross and I was really starting to feel tired, what could be better?

Additionally, we talked to and began to get to know another couple that was in our jeep, Anderson and Liz. Married, from Iowa, and a year or two older than us, they are almost a year into their around-the-world trip. They were traveling with their cousin Reannon, too. It was cool talking to them at breakfast, throughout the entire jeep ride, and even during our stay in Leh, because I feel we could really identify with each other. We talked about moving out of our apartments, what we did before, what we’d like to do in the future, where we’ve all been and would like to go, budgets, and so forth. We continued talking throughout the day.

The day, however, had hardly begun. We’d been on the road for about five hours, it was only 8am, and we had at least another 12 hours ahead of us. Despite being extremely tired, the bumpy ride kept me pretty awake the entire day. Once, I began to nod off, when my head fell down to the left and banged hard against the partially open window. With a bruise just to the left of my eye, I tried to stay awake. The bumpiness and winding roads took a heavier toll on others in the jeep. A couple times, we stopped so Liz could jump out and hurl. I felt bad for her- feeling sick on such an incredible ride. I guess it could’ve been worse though, as a guy in another jeep in our caravan got barfed on. As the day stretched on, Joylani and I rotated between the middle seat (cramped by the stick shift) and the window seat. The scenery was continually amazing, although I’ll spare you the play-by-play (“and then we came across this incredible valley…then we saw the most amazing mountains…”). Instead, I’ll attempt to entertain you with some photos of every obstacle we came across. (Joylani: As you can see, this ain’t no I-5)




Stream over the road








Pack Horses


Photo opp


Bridge repair


High passes


Curvy Roads and Hairpin Turns


Unpaved Roads


No roads


Broken clutch


Stuck in sand


Helping others

By the early afternoon, everyone in the car was sleeping except me. I couldn’t fall asleep and a headache began to build as we snaked our way up to the second high-pass of the day, this one over 5000 meters. Partly from not sleeping and partly from going from 2000 meters to 5000 meters so quickly, I felt miserable at the top. I felt a little bit better as we descended, but then all the bumping around in the car began to get to me. Others in the car had been noticeably sick throughout the day, probably since they were sitting closer to the rear. Joylani, luckily though, who had been sick for days before, only felt a little light headed. I was glad she was finally feeling better and kind of amazed that she was doing so well. And I was surprised that I was feeling so bad. In the past, I’ve usually been the one that isn’t affected as much by altitude, compared to my friends. But it was a reminder of how little I was. As if the scale of the Himalayas all day didn’t remind me of that, the altitude certainly humbled me. We were not conquering the mountains by summiting the high passes or getting through them- we were simply enduring them.

The last major stop on the Manali-Leh “road” is Pang, which is not much more than a cluster of tents offering food and accommodation on a temporarily dry river flood plain. I got out of my jeep, found out that obviously the bathroom was “open,” and headed for the other side of the road embankment. Next to the river, with a small hill behind me, I popped a squat. Having been healthy most of the trip, but barely eating anything all day, my GI tract had finally succumbed to the subcontinent. As I sat there, feeling sick, I then puked. I finished up my business and then walked over to the river, where on hands and knees, I expelled all the water and Marie Gold biscuits I’d been consuming all day. After washing off, I headed back to the jeep to sit and rest. It was about two minutes before I was back by the river diarrhea-ing and puking some more. As I was lightening my load, I thought about how sick I felt. But looking around, I was in a beautiful place. I guess this was the price of admission to such an amazing place. The cold water felt good as I washed my hands and face, although the cold was biting as I trudged back to the jeep.

After Pang, we began our ascent up to Taglang-La, our final high-pass. I was fearing this one, as it was the second-highest in the world at 17,582 feet. Last time I was in Leh, I traversed this pass and felt sick despite having already acclimatized. This time, I was already feeling sick and had started the day at a mere 6700 feet. Of course, before we got to the pass, our clutch went out, which took a good 20-30 minutes for our driver to fix. (Joylani: fixing the clutch meant our driver had to lay beneath the car to fiddle with the stick while one of the other drivers got in his seat and teased our driver by slowly rolling the car forward, eliciting (presumably) a string of Hindi curse words from our driver and lots of laughs from the everyone else. Our driver emerged covered in grease the first time, the second time covered in powdery sand.) Not long after that, another jeep in our caravan got stuck in the sand of the high desert plateau, and our jeep’s clutch went out again. Travel in India rarely goes as planned and although I’ve pushed my fair share of buses and had plenty of vehicles break down mid-journey, this was the worst. Since Pang, my headache had only worsened, probably due to the fact that we were continually driving between 10-15,000 feet. Being stopped in cold desert with a terrible headache, while trying to help lodge rocks under tires and push a jeep was only prolonging our journey. After 45 minutes to an hour, we were on the road again. Well, figuratively speaking, as we were basically driving across an open plain.

We did end up reaching the pass, where we stopped for a couple minutes. Just long enough for Joylani to take one of the coldest pees of her life (“open bathroom”) and to take a quick picture next to the Taglang-La sign. I think everyone in the jeep was feeling the altitude, a bit of car-sickness, and the cold. As we descended down towards Leh, my headache eased, although I only focused on trying not to throw-up for the next three hours. When we finally did stop about three hours later (about an hour from Leh), the altitude was still hurting. While our driver had hopped out for a quick snack, everyone else stayed in the car, too tired or sick to get out. I stepped out and puked all the water I had drunk the past couple hours right there next to the front tire. I then walked behind a wall, since of course this small town only had “open” bathroom. Puking next to the jeep at that snack stop was one of my most miserable moments. I can’t remember if I’ve ever continually puked and had the runs simultaneously. And if I have, it hasn’t been at least an hour’s bumpy jeep ride away from a place to stay, with altitude and sleep-deprivation working against me.

The last hour of the ride went by fairly quickly. We got into town, haggled with too many hoteliers, finally found a place, and quickly passed out leaving my throbbing headache behind. And that was our day. Our ride lasted from 3 am until 9 pm. And although we only traversed a 475 km, our ride spanned 3278m in altitude. While the first two-thirds of the ride were pure excitement, the last five hours were miserable. Despite this, the last leg of the trip was still filled with new and sublime landscapes. And despite my feeling sick, Joylani’s exhaustion, a flat tire, a broken clutch, and getting stuck in the desert, we made it. We endured the journey and we made it. We didn’t do anything, but sit (and bounce), but we still arrived in Leh with a sense of accomplishment.

The reason I feel obligated to write only one entry rather than split it up by topics, is that this is how it was. To write just about the landscape and focus on the scenery, without the sickness and rigors of travel, would be to idealize the journey, and travel in general. To focus on just the bad would be to neglect everything that can be appreciated, even under difficult circumstances. And to entirely focus on or neglect the standard of transportation wouldn’t be telling the story at all. I can honestly say that that overland journey was the best and worst I’ve ever embarked on. The question obviously is then: Is it worth feeling miserable to see the unimaginable? I would say so, within reason of course. One of my favorite authors, Paul Theroux, has written that travel is rarely comfortable. And I tend to agree, travel is often tough. But if comfort were our first priority and our focus, we’d never see anything truly awesome. We probably wouldn’t visit Asia, certainly not India, and never go on such a crazy jeep ride. But we did. We sacrificed our comfort for a day, just a day, and saw things we couldn’t imagine and will never forget.




164_6445-4.JPGReading back through my old travel blog, I realized I was in Manali and Dharamsala almost exactly three years ago (Entry August 3-10, 2004). After that trip, I knew I’d return to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj (which I did a couple more times in 2004 and now once again in 2007) and I knew I’d never return to Manali. But here we are- in Manali. Just as some destinations lose their appeal, Manali is an example of one that is better than I remembered. Here’s what I had to say about Manali in 2004:

            “We arrived in Manali around 11 on Wednesday morning. After eating a bit, we walked around the town a bit. Manali looks like a stereotypical mountain/ski town in the US. Its set in a valley of pine tree, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. There’s lot of little touristy stores and restaurants and there’s a lot of log-cabin architecture. While it was a really nice place and everything, Alvir and I decided it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, so we booked tickets for a night bus to Dharamshala that night! We hiked around the area, which was interesting. We saw a really old temple, walked down a few km through a village, passed some farmers fields, and even passed through an apple orchard. Then we walked down to the river, found some rocks to sit/lay on, and fell asleep for awhile. Its not that Manali wasn’t nice- I mean we had a great day- but its more of a R&R place than somewhere with lots to see and go. So we got on our bus at 7 and headed out.”

            Perhaps this entry sheds some light into why I like Manali more this time. Last time, I was looking for an interesting and different destination. This time, Joylani and I are just stopping in Manali, en route to Ladakh. Its not our final destination or a place that we had high expectations for. Its just a transit point, where we can get some “R&R” as I put it three years ago. Originally, we were only going to stay in Manali long enough to catch a ride out. However, the only departure options available yesterday were the very back seats (fold out side-benches in the trunk) of a one-day jeep leaving at 2am last night or the back row of a two-day bus leaving this morning. Between those options and Joylani not feeling 100%, we decided to wait a day.

            Yesterday turned out okay, despite my boring experiences on Manali in the past. While Joylani napped during the afternoon, I walked down to the river, which was much as I remembered it. Sitting on a boulder over the river, watching the river was both calming and hypnotic. Indian families and couples were around as well. And the same guy had a couple boards balanced across several rocks, which held cold drinks and snacks (here’s a pic from 3 years ago). And although he had a small fire going, I resisted my urge to order a chai. Instead, I walked back up to the road and across a bridge, before heading north along the Beas River.

I mentioned this in my last post, but the Beas was the river that Alexander the Great stopped at. Although not sure exactly where his massive army stopped, it was interesting to think about as I walked. Seeing the river, it made sense why his men wouldn’t want to cross. They would’ve already had to have come down steep mountains into the Beas Valley. And across the river, to the East, they would see equally steep rock faces which would have to be navigated. This is not to mention the rapids, which modern-day tourists take rafting trips on. It was also interesting to think that he began his conquests in Macedonia, north of Greece. Three weeks ago, we were in Athens, one of the Greek polii amongst which Alexander had to consolidate his power before heading East. We were in Istanbul two weeks ago, along the Bosphoros, where Alexander crossed from Europe to begin his lengthy conquest of Asia. And now we’re here on the Beas, where Alexander stopped. It just interesting to think how long a trip its been for us, taking boats, buses, and trains. I cannot imagine how tough it was to travel and fight all this way. And Joylani and I think we need an extra rest day….

            Our rest will be interrupted at 2 am tonight, when we’ll catch a jeep to my most anticipated region of our entire trip. A region defined by its isolation. A place only reachable by plane or 15,000+ foot passes, open only two months a year. A place so  extreme, day/night temperatures range from 30°/-3° Celsius. A place so desired its borders are disputed by three countries (India, Pakistan, and China). A place where only a couple cities have phone/internet. Why would I desire to go to such a place? An inhospitable mountainous desert, which Kipling commented on in Kim, “Surely, this is no place for man.” Hopefully over the next few weeks, our posts and photos will explain why.

Mountains, Tibetans, and Spiders

joylani-thumbnail.JPGI’ve been surviving my first India mountain experience.  Under other circumstances I could probably say enjoying, but between my nose running from my cold or me running to the bathroom, combined with overnight buses that make airplane turbulence seem like nothing, to large bugs and dank moisture hanging in the cool air, it hasn’t exactly been pleasant.  Our second night in Dharamsala Matt and I were getting ready for bed when a gigantic spider appeared in the corner of the room above the armoire.  It was at least the same size as a tarantula, but unfortunately not in a cage.  It was too high for us to reach, and we had no bug spray.  Hysterically I ran outside of our room into the lobby to get some help from the staff.  I frantically pointed to the abnormally large spider and asked if they had any spray, all the while making crushing motions with my hands so that he would be sure I wanted it dead.  The hotel guy took a long duster and brushed the spider from the ceiling to the floor where, being a good Hindu boy, he did not kill it but tried to capture it so he could take it outside.  It appeared that it had gotten away because he was having trouble locating it in the bristles of the duster, but then he got up, took it outside and shook it out over the balcony.  Uncertain of his success, I asked if he got it to which he replied, “Yes.”  I didn’t believe him.  Matt and I closed our door and conducted an unsuccessful search for the pest, and even stuffed newspaper in a cranny we thought it might have hidden in.  Sure enough, about an hour later the beast resurfaced, but this time Matt and I were ready.  We didn’t want to have to use any the spider bite antivenoms the guidebook wrote about so instead of seeking help from the hotel staff, we took matters into our own hands and used a shoe.  Even though the spider was dead, I had a hard time sleeping that night.  I was finally able to fall asleep with my sleep sheet pulled up around my face, leaving just a small space to breath.  We changed rooms the next night.  I saw many more spiders in Dharamsala, but none as big as that first one. 

To the credit of the mountains though, they haven’t been uninteresting.  The small community where we stayed outside of Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, is where the Tibetan government is set up, and the Dalai Lama lives there next to the Buddhist monastery.  For the first time in India, the majority of the people I saw were not Indian, they were Tibetan and to my surprise many of them were dressed pretty normally (not in the western style many young Indians unsuccessfully attempt to imitate).  Also interesting was the organization of the Tibetan community and comparative wealth to the Indian communities I’ve seen.  I figured at least two of the reasons for this may be: 1.) Outside support—how many universities don’t have a Students for a Free Tibet?  Not many.  2.)  A strong, cohesive community that has bonded together through many hardships.  Our first day there Matt and I took a walk through the Tibet museum where I was able to learn about the Chinese occupation and the Tibetan’s long journey across the Himalayas to seek refuge in India.  One of the days we were in McLeod Ganj, almost all of the Tibetan run shops (i.e. most of the town) were shut down.  In the morning there was a protest march down the hill, and in the evening a candle light vigil.  Both events were to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and specifically targeted the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Many people had t-shirts for the event, and the leaders passed out slick informational flyers—like the kind the college clubs pass out for events back home.  You may be thinking, so what?  A flyer?  Who cares?  But you must understand that this is India and many of the things I have seen here appear to be extremely inefficient, like the guy at an internet place who took Matt’s ID down the street to be photocopied rather than scan it digitally using his own equipment.  Or at the Indian Airlines office where only one person could get you fares, the other desks were for bookings, even though all had access to the same information and many of the booking desks were open. Or that you can’t even book/pay for a flight from Indian Airlines on-line.  And these are just IT related examples, but the list could go on.  Anyways, my point is is that there definitely seemed to be a contrast between the Tibetan community norms and the Indian norms I’ve seen so far.

Back to the beginning of this post, I hope to more than just survive my India mountain experience.  Tonight we leave for a higher and drier destination.  I will do my best to stay hydrated on my electrolyte solution and hopefully other things will start drying up thanks to Cipro.  Until then, happy wishes to you where ever you are—at work, at home, at school.  Remember, when times get rough, at least you’ve got hot water and a toilet you don’t have to pour a bucket of water in to flush.  J




164_6445-4.JPGIt’s been a few days since either of us has written anything, but we’re now in Dharamsala. After a hectic last couple days in Delhi, we finally escaped to my favorite region on the planet: the Himalayas. It’s the beginning of what I think will be an epic month. There’s just something mystical about the Himalayas. I’m not sure what it is; perhaps its scale and natural beauty of the world’s highest mountains, or maybe the foreignness of the region, or perhaps it’s the people. Whatever it is, I love these mountains. I could live the rest of my life living and exploring these mountains, from the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan/Afghanistan to the high plateaus of Ladakh and Tibet to the ancient kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan and down to the verdant foothills towards Southeast Asia.

            We’re beginning our Himalayan adventure in the old hill station Dharamsala. Famous for being the residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, it’s a mecca for monks, hippies, Tibetan refugees and activists. I’ve visited several times in the past and chose it as the first stop for several reasons: it’s a socially-interesting place, has a relaxing and laid-back atmosphere, and is a good first step altitude-wise on our journey to higher elevations.

            While Delhi had some noticeable changes since my last visit (like the Metro and different businesses opening and closing), Dharamsala has remained much the same. The same guesthouses, same restaurants with the same menus, and same eclectic demographics. Still a ton of backpackers and hippies walking around enjoying the cheap accommodation and chill atmosphere. There’s always been a lot of monks here, but we’ve seen them interacting with and coordinating a lot with the activists, in the run up to the 2008 Olympics. I was mad at myself yesterday for not carrying my camera, as I missed a hundreds-strong marching protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet and a candlelight vigil for the Tibetan political prisoners that China is holding. Even in Delhi there were demonstrations, flyers, and a hunger-strike demanding any of the following: a free Tibet, an autonomous region of Tibet, the release of political and religious prisoners, the inclusion of Tibetan athletes in the Olympics, the cancellation of the Olympics from China. I have pretty strong feelings/opinions on the whole issue, but I’ll keep them to myself until after we visit China.

            Besides our relaxing routine of eating, walking, talking, reading, and writing all day every day, we watched Borat and hiked to a nearby waterfall. Borat was funny, the waterfall fun. We hiked up to just under it and dipped our feet in the cold water. It was cold enough that a nearby snack stand had siphoned off part of the stream to fill a makeshift cooler full of cold drinks. The view from the falls looking down the narrow gorge was amazing, with clouds floating around within the valley. Unfortunately, this was the same aforementioned day that I didn’t carry my camera. Regardless, it was great- just sitting on the rocks, feet in the water, talking and enjoying the Himalayas.

            Other than all that, we haven’t been doing too much. We spent our first night in The Yellow Guesthouse, which was my favorite place to stay a few years back. Unfortunately, they’ve doubled their room rates since then and Joylani was kind of grossed out by the mold and lack of hot-water there. So we’re now staying on the other side of town at Holiday House. Both places have amazing views; the Yellow Guesthouse looking south down into the Beas Valley (whose river of the same name marks the eastern-most border of Alexander the Great’s empire, as his troops refused to cross the river) and Holiday House overlooking the westerly downward slopes of these Himalayan foothills down to the green plains of the Punjab.

            Tomorrow, we’ll head deeper into the mountains before setting out for higher latitudes and altitudes.

Seeing India Through a New Lens

joylani-thumbnail.JPGFor all those who have thought we were crazy to go on a trip like this and crazy in particular to start it with several months in India, I would have to agree with you. As the nature of our trip and the realities of our new lifestyle begin to sink in, I have two competing thoughts running through my mind. The first thought is that what was I thinking when I decided to do this, I must be partially out of my mind. And the other thought is that I feel like my life is like reading a good novel—one that I have no idea where the heck the author is going with the story line, but it is interesting enough to keep me turning the pages.

Delhi is more or less how I remembered it, if not more—hot, crowded, dirty, and polluted. But somehow my reaction to it has matured since the last time and I don’t feel overcome by the elements, and crossing the street isn’t as intimidating. On my first morning in India as I stood scrunched under a waist high water spicket for a refreshing, though not refreshing like a hot shower at home, “shower” of water and I realized that India would teach me to have joy in all circumstances, good or bad, clean or dusty. Though I know my experiences won’t run the gamut of human experiences in terms of good and bad things, I know God will still teach me through experiences that are tough for me, such as adjusting from western amenities, which wasn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things.

On a lighter note, Matt and I spent 5 extra hours in the district of Kamla Nagar waiting for my new pair of prescription sunglasses to be finished. Why wait in the same area? Because we were all the way across town from our hotel, so rather than travel an hour back and forth each way, we hoped to find enough to keep us entertained until my sunglasses were done. In a nutshell, we got EXTREMELY bored; there’s only so much one can do in a place that mostly has clothing and accessory stores when you aren’t looking for either. We probably passed by the same kid with her scale on the sidewalk at least 8 times during our wanderings throughout the afternoon which went something like this:

M: What do you want to do?

J: I don’t know. Go somewhere with AC.

M: Ok, but we’ll have to buy something.

J: Ok. As long as there’s AC.

(wander around a little bit looking for a place, go inside, order a snack or drink)

J: Mmm. Doesn’t this feel nice?

M: Eat slow, we’ve still got 3 hours to go.

(I somehow managed to make one cup of tea last an hour. The last sip was like the last 2 minutes of a basketball game, strung out over way more than 2 minutes.)


The day left me with a question of whether spending 5 mindless hours wandering around hot Delhi was worth this pair of $20 stunnas (prescription!) that I can’t figure out if they make me look like either a grandpa or that my shades should be accompanied by gold chains and 20” rims on my rickshaw. What do you think?



164_6445-4.JPGOne thing that always jumps out at me here is the transportation. Seeing it in action is the only way to believe any of it. Here’s my lighthearted guide to getting around Delhi:
For short distances, walking works. It may seem simple enough, but not in Delhi. Walking is an exercise in awareness and reflexes. You must get across streets and intersections without getting hit, for pedestrians are lowest on Delhi’s transportation food-chain. You always have to be careful to not step in cow dung, puddles, or trash too. And on top of watching where you’re going and where you’re stepping, you must avoid scooters, motorcycles, bikes, ad buses- it is, of course, the pedestrian’s responsibility to get out of the way- there’s something very Darwinian about it all. One of the funniest things I’ve ever heard was my roommate Rushi tell me a few years back: “You how I know there’s a God? There’s a God, because I get across [the street next to our flats] everyday and haven’t died.” And even Joylani, who is generally clumsy, is pretty adept at walking and dodging her way around Delhi now.
Bicycle rickshaw are fun because you don’t have to do anything, but get to experience your surroundings first-hand. The downside is the guys always seem like they’re about to die when you reach your destination. Just tip a little more.
One step up, auto-rickhaws are quicker and more expensive than their bicycle counterparts. You don’t feel quite as bad as on a bicycle though, because nobody is killing themselves to transport you. They’re still small enough to ignore most traffic laws here; direction of traffic, illegal turns, stop lights. Yet, they’re zippy and get you to where you want to go fairly quickly. And while there’s nothing funner than zooming down a road in a rickshaw, wind in your face and hair, watching the city go by (first photo below), there’s nothing scarier than being in a rickshaw that’s loud and bumpy with a driver that you swear will crash you, blow-up his engine, or flip the thing on a pothole (as my friend Payal and I did once) (second photo below).



I usually don’t recommend buses, because while they’re cheap they are not door-to-door like rickshaws. They’re crowded, dirty, and you gotta watch your wallet. Upside: its fun to watch people run and jump in the door of a bus, as they often only slow down instead of stopping. Downside: if you don’t look both ways before crossing a street, a bus will end you.
This trip, I’ve also had the pleasure of taking the new metro a couple times. It’s new and consequently clean. It’s cheap and fast, but you often must take a rickshaw or bus from the station to where you want to go. And while police keep the homeless out of the station, those that can afford the ride pack those cars more than the buses! Its good to take if the stop is near where you’re going. Otherwise, it may be better to just rickshaw it.



My view, when I follow Joylani around shopping :)

164_6445-4.JPGAnother day of errands for us. It may seem boring, but India is one of those places where it’s exciting to just be there. It’s great because stuff is always going on all around. Life is moving. Even a boring day of errands is exciting, because we see all sorts of crazy stuff. I took my camera with me today to try and capture some of the madness. Rather than walking today, we took a lot of bike-rickshaws which allowed me the freedom to concentrate on my photos. You can look for a little bit of artistic experimentation with my photos the next few days, mainly being more creative with depth-of-field and shutter speed.

We spent our day just doing routine things: picking up stamps at the post office, shopping at Sarojini Nagar, taking care of admin stuff and emails at an internet café. I think today is representative of how much of our trip will be: just doing everyday things in foreign and exotic places. I lived in Delhi and have seen all the sights already. Joylani’s visited here before, seen quite a few sights, but like me doesn’t have a desire to sightsee after a month of sightseeing. It’s nice because we’re in no rush to do anything. We’re just trying to rest for a few days, before we head up to the Himalaya. On the other hand, I feel like we should start to set some goals or get back into a routine in some areas of our lives. Its nice to travel non-stop, but I also think its bad to just be idle bodies and minds.
One thing we’ll be doing a lot of is hanging out. Alvir’s departure marked the beginning of a long stretch of time where it’ll just be Joylani and I. Tonight at dinner, I told Joylani we should go out on a date one of these nights, maybe see a movie or something. But then we realized we were kind of on a date and that we’ll be having dates almost every night for the foreseeable future. It’s kind of nice to think that we’ll be going out every night for a meal and conversation. At some point, it might be nice to be at home and eat. But for now, it seems great that we can go see a movie, eat out, or do anything we want together anytime. I guess we’re beginning to realize one of our goals for the trip: spend quality time together.



164_6445-4.JPGWe began our day by switching hotels. We were paying approximately 13.75 USD for a triple, with a non-functioning bathroom, squatter, and cooler. But we’re now paying approximately 16.25 USD for a larger double, with a functioning bathroom, western toilet, and AC. Its not that we need AC or a western toilet, but for 2.5 USD, it was worth it to us. Especially for our first few days here. For those of you who know how cheap I am, it is nice to be in a place where money isn’t a much of a factor in most decisions. A shave and massage cost me .50 USD. A big dinner may cost us 6 USD. Yesterday I bought a soft serve at McDonalds for .20 USD. A combo meal would’ve cost between 1.50 and 3 USD. Europe would’ve been about 10 USD. I bought a Financial Times today for .06 USD. Six cents, compared to a couple dollars at home. I really noticed that my paradigm had shifted when I checked the rupee-dollar exchange rate before I checked the stock tables.
On the other hand, the same economic forces that allow me to travel without working for several years, works against those born into less desirable circumstances. Although Delhi is the capital and a relatively affluent city, the poverty is still constantly visible. Of course some countries have higher standards of living than others, but there’s people beyond poor here. The photo above is a toddler that was trying to hawk cheap necklaces. Barely able to talk or walk, she was already working. There’s the bicycle-rickshaw wallahs that pedal us around town- men and boys with skeletal physiques that strain their bodies to the limit for next to nothing. We rode by my old school today (Delhi University, Faculty of Arts) and it looked beautiful. But I remembered the construction workers that I saw building the new courtyard a couple years ago. Families- men, women, children, and toddlers- who worked all day for approximately 1.50 USD per adult. That’s nothing. How do you live on that?


Of course, there’s those that cannot work. The lepers and amputees that beg at stairwells and on sidewalks. The ones that tap us as we wait at lights in auto-rickshaws. The people that we try not look in the eye when approaching and pretend not to see as we pass. I realize that we’re the people Jesus spoke against in his “The Good Samaritan” parable. Joylani and I are no different that the millions of people that ignore the problem everyday here in Delhi. The more I think about the poverty, the more hopeless it seems. And so I ignore it. What am I going to do? Give to every beggar that approaches us? Tend to every person that needs help on the street? When I lived in India, I came to the conclusion that the only thing I could do are little things. Tip a little more, pack my leftovers at restaurants to give away, buy begging kids a snack if there’s a food stand around. Joylani and I (and you too, if you know how to read this, use a computer, and the internet) are infinitely more fortunate than hundreds of thousands in Delhi. We cannot solve the problems or help everyone. But we can help a little, perhaps one or two people a day. I tried to wrap this topic up quick, otherwise I could write pages and pages. This is just a brief snapshot of the poverty and my thoughts on it.




We made it to India last night and couldn’t be happier! After a three-hour delay in Helsinki and a six-hour flight, we landed in monsoon-soaked Delhi. One of my best friends, Alvir, picked us up from the airport and took us back to the hotel he had gotten for us. He had arrived in Delhi earlier in the day from Ahmedabad and left this afternoon for Kolkata on his way home. We didn’t have much time together, but we made the most of it since we haven’t seen each other in over a year and probably won’t for at least another. Through IndiCorps, he’s been living and volunteering in a Rajasthani village for the past year. It was a cool rendezvous in the sense that we met up in the city that we both lived in years ago and shared so many memories, but it was odd in that we were coming from Europe and he from a third-world village.


Coming out of our hotel this morning was a shock. I haven’t been to India in a few years and we’re just coming off of Europe, so I was not prepared at all. Last week, I began thinking Turkey is similar to India in some ways and noticed we were getting farther East. But after today, Turkey seems like Britain or something. India is crazier than anywhere. I’d forgotten just how crowded it is, how poor it is, how miraculous transportation is, how dirty, how noisy, how hot, how humid, and how amazing it is. There’s no way to describe it, but it felt good to be back. I was a little intimidated at first, but luckily we had Alvir to navigate and arrange everything for us. It was a good introduction back to the country.
The first thing we did after waking up was take the new Metro north to Civil Lines, to try and say hi to the director of my old study abroad program. The Metro is super fast, cheap, clean, and crowded. I was amazed by how quickly we got to where we were going, compared to the time and cost of the rickshaws we took everywhere just two and a half years ago. Our old director wasn’t around, so we headed to the neighborhood where we lived a few years ago to hit up our favorite restaurant, Grand Plaza (or GP for short). We sat and enjoyed their world-famous chai (at least to us) and a simple Indian meal of dahl makhani and palaak paneer. It was just one of many things we did that day that brought back so many great memories. Then we headed to south Delhi, because Alvir hasn’t smoked in year and was craving some hookah. We couldn’t find one hookah place and the other one we knew of closed, so we settled for some coffee and ice-cream instead. We talked for awhile until Alvir had to leave for the airport. Then it was just Joylani and I again.

While we were with Alvir, I was in disbelief that I used to get around Delhi by myself. Having poor Hindi and sense of direction, I doubted I’d be adept at getting Joylani and myself around. But once Alvir was gone, my Hindi came back. Words and phrases that I forgot I even knew just came out of my mouth as I negotiated rickshaw fares and spoke with touts and waiters. It was amazing. On our way back north to central Delhi, things began feeling familiar again. It felt good to be back. It felt good to be in India once we arrived at the airport. It felt good to see Alvir and hang out with him. But once we were on our own, Delhi really felt like home again.

At first, Delhi was a shock. But throughout the day, with Alvir’s help at first, I found my groove again. Part of that was doing some of my favorite things. We enjoyed chai at GP, where we used to chill every night. We took a bike-rickshaw along Mall Road towards Model Town, just like we did back from school or Muhkerjee Nagar. We crisscrossed the city in auto-rickshaws, trying to find Shalom (where I had an awesome birthday party) or Mocha (or favorite hookah/coffee shop). We walked around CP. It was just the little things that brought back memories, places, and a language I’d forgotten. It was also the little things that made this my best day of this adventure yet. Today solidified India’s position as my favorite country too (in case you’re curious, the Maldives is my number two, with several competing for third). It was a day full of memories, but its even more exciting that Joylani and I get to spend the next few months in such an amazing place.