Friday, December 19, 2008

same situation

at the gym, i am handed keys to the same permanent locker i had, before i left (and they don't keep a history)

its like i never left. time is standing still.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

tell me what you see

i roam the streets of San Francisco dazed and confused, drive around the bay area, eyes wide open, level of consciousness unnaturally enhanced, experiencing all things mundane and not.

i sing at the top of my voice on my way to work on chilly mornings, with Karen carpenter, trying to wake myself up.

i wonder at the new treadmill in amazement and can't help smiling- remembering the children who imitated me running in Laos.

i browse through 600 MBs of email trying to sift out the ones i can make sense of.

wine seems heavier, the grocery stores seem too well-stocked, too well-lit. the roads seem too wide, the offices look too clean, too artificial, the ever-present toilet paper in the bathrooms too unreal.

at night i slip under two down comforters, cosy in a huge bed, in a room with sap green walls- a welcome basket by my side- filled with shampoo, conditioner, lotion, a headband- a trivial but very important detail and a big bouquet of bright orange smiling sunflowers-my favorite - i wonder how nadia knew the little things that make such a big difference.
in the morning, i interrupt dreams of me building a house and volunteering in the middle east to get up and do it all over again..

over the last 9 months, i have experienced a world so different that this seems like an alternate reality- where I have lived in the past like a zombie. now i am taking it all in- the similarities, the differences, things as they are.

its almost like i have a new set of eyes, and they came free with a new perspective- something i acquired somewhere along the way in my travels, something i hope is here to stay, unlike the love handles i acquired during the same time :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

rebirth

9 months today, i sit in an internet cafe in casablanca typing uneasily on a french keyboard.
in the last 2 days, i have stepped foot in 4 countries egypt, jordan, italy, morocco. in the next 2 days, i will come full circle and land in the country i left 9 months ago.
36 hours away from a flight which will go west, while thoroughly enjoying the present moment, i just say hello and goodbye :)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

i'm only sleeping

20 hours in cairo, 18 of which i sleep through.
then i head to alexandria to partake in the cafe culture there. i need some turkish coffee in me, so i can begin to wake up, finally, from the dream that has been..

Sunday, November 23, 2008

a sort of homecoming

in my mind, we step over the threshold, together, right feet first, and walk through the corridors of time- gently touching crumbling yellowing walls bearing memories of a lifetime- our lifetime.

we walk through the kitchen, with its folding table, noses wrinkled at the smell of ghee being made.
we run up the 32 steps to the terrace and watch the stars, lanterns in hand, and wait for the elusive night watchman, with his fierce whistle and rhythmic stomp of the cane.
we stroll through the garden overgrown with mint, and bend to pick up a pink and white flower from that resilient creeper, the one that survived all these years.
we walked to an organized closet labelled daddy's, and fold away a few stray, unironed shirts.
we gaze at the wall and straighten the collage of happy times- birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries.
we walk through the dining hall- wiping the dust off the table under where mitu once slept peacefully while everyone searched for her frantically.
we scramble up the attic, where mini was given time-outs for biting the infant me
we follow the laughter to the corner with my mothers handprints, pasted on mitu's wedding- carefully hidden behind the couch, the same corner where i, when 4 years old, hid after the tv "slapped" me.

in my mind, we, three sisters, like the three asoka trees in the garden, still standing tall and proud oblivious to the surrounding havoc wreaked by time, hold hands and walk out- empty handed, yet so full of memories, together..

Saturday, November 15, 2008

running to stand still



to me, the journey has mattered more than the destination. i still can't get enough of bus and train rides. but here, in pushkar, i just have to stand still and its a journey in itself. by now, i have had a lot of Rs 5(10 cents) "cuttings" at tea stalls in india and observed life on the move without moving a muscle myself.

its as if everyone breathes life into this city during the fair.

there are dirty, blanched roads never deserted even in the sweltering afternoon heat. a wave of pilgrims edges on, carefully avoiding a mongrel snoring in a shady patch in the middle of the road.
women balancing heavy loads on their heads- clothes, home-made food for a couple days, as they shop and bargain for the best deal on bangles.
old men in white dhotis and colorful turbans, at times indicating their caste or profession, sit and chat over a cup of tea.
the lady at the laundromat avails the hot afternoon to dry filthy travel clothes from the backpackers hostel across the road.
there are urchins with prodigious bellies and maimed and disfigured men, lying on the road, with begging bowls.
children from behind counters taller than them, offer cold mineral water. a cow saunters about the road trying to suck the leftover juice from sugarcane bits.
foreigners move about hastily on their 'sandaled' feet, mineral water bottles in their hand, big cameras around their necks, some covering their nose to escape the overpowering smells of india.
a man sits outside an art and craft store in a colorful turban and poses for photographs across the road from me.

i welcome the unfamiliarity here that sometimes makes me anxious in other countries, as i travel through india like any other country i have been to. at the same time, i appreciate the chance to be able to connect with so many people with the language i grew up talking, getting compliments from strangers about my "beautiful hindi"- mummy would be so proud.

i start to walk to the fair grounds.

women, a corner of their dupatta tucked in their mouth, turn around, whisper something to their friends and giggle, shyly- hands decorated by intricate henna, big noserings to indicate a healthy husband, outfits the color of the rainbow.

i instinctively fold my hands and wish Sat Sri Akal to some Akalis walking by. they stop instantly and talk to me in punjabi, curious where i am from. their jaded faces light up when i mention punjab, as their companion takes pictures from a nokia phone.

i stop to feel the texture of a silk blouse, when a family sitting in the courtyard inside waves at me, inviting me to join them for supper.
i oblige, unstrap my sandals, sit next to the beaming daughters, and eat home-made paranthas in my hands. they laugh when i hiss at the spicy chilly paste and garlic chuntey and are amazed at the Rs 400(abt $8) I pay for a guesthouse. they ask me to move to the courtyard for the night and sleep next to the daughters, 12 and 16, bimla and seema devi- i am one of them and i will be secure. they get excited when i ask for pictures and go on to pose with ornate umbrellas casually picked from the shop next door. i take their leave and move on.

a kid runs by me trying to sell me flutes- in english. he stares at me in shock and disperses the moment i answer in my impeccable hindi. the daypack, sandals, sunglasses, my "solitude" confuses them and i refuse to give up any of those.

a family sits on a camel cart, covered by rajasthani motifs, children screaming in delight, their legs dangling from the back.

camel herders cook a morning meal under the protection of their carts while the camels chew on stored food. strangers wave and call me for a cup of tea. i scribble notes in the grubby notebook, i carry with me everywhere. smothering a smile, they touch its chinese silk cover and marvel at its cost.

theres head nodding, shaking, hand waving- words are never exchanged and yet, these are polite conversations.

i pet camels named mr. johnson, kishan, argentina and horses named mangal, pintoo. there is an abundance of bedecked camels, anklets jingling as they walk, proud and nonchalant, looking down upon people who have descended upon the little city of pushkar.
argentina "speaks" when i pat him on his head- he is young, the caretaker asserts. the older camels don't "speak"- they bite or kick (so i heard) or sometimes run away.. not too different from humans, i suppose.

a mare kicks another before a beauty contest. do beauty contests always bring out the worst in people and horses?

i sit on the steps to watch competitions- there are competitions between visitors and locals. most of the time the locals win - kabbadi, matka phod ( breaking an earthern pot hung at a height), musical chairs.

a little girl of about 12 sits in front, her palm out, begs for money. i hold my ground and refuse, instead offering peanuts or tea, if she wants. suresh, a boy of 16, in 10th grade, takes a break from selling roasted peanuts and sits next to me. he opens up about his family- 3 brothers- 2 drivers, 1 craftsman, parents are into handicrafts. his only sister is married. he comes to the camel fair every year to sell peanuts for Rs 10. he quietly admonishes the girl.

another little boy lingers around, struggling to carry a cumbersome open box with stamps and alphabets around his neck. i give in and wave him over to get a bracelet made. its that expression on his face, representative of all the children of pushkar, thats etched in my mind.

i ask him his name, he points to a bracelet. yishai tucks the lighter that he carries around, in a tight corner of the box right by the red ink used for henna prints.

rajesh smiles weakly, lowers his head and continues, silently, to string my name through colorful threads.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

from a distance

I sit on the steps, biting on a sugarcane, waiting for the cultural extravaganza of the evening to begin. I am at the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan.

a little boy of about 8 comes, sits right next to me- hands on his knees, and, inquisitively, cranes his neck to see what I am so engrossed in.

I glance at him, laugh and straighten up- so he has a clear view and together, with an idle power, we breeze through my memories of Rajasthan in the nikon.

space and distance are like myths here- there is as much distance as there are myths and as less is space in India.

I have learnt to share space, while keeping my own intact. the distance is decreasing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

something different

from Kerala, after sacrificing a cell phone to the gods of the backwaters, I make my way to the the southern tip of India- where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea meet- Triveni Sangam at Kanyakumari.

it seems like all of India has decided to take the ferry across to the Vivekananda Rock memorial at the very moment I do. an hour after the wait, we see the spectacular sight that is Kanyakumari from the memorial.

then comes a ride aboard a local bus to see a nearby palace- after which, I, with a fellow traveler, wait at the station for the bus back to Kanyakumari. I inquire about the bus from a man standing next to me.

the best thing about traveling in Asia is that there is always someone around who adopts you. at that moment, it is this stranger. the next half hour, I simply turn to him every time a bus comes around the corner and he shakes his head. of course, as soon as ours does arrive, he nods emphatically and announces the arrival, even before I throw my questioning look.

the next day, I am off to Madurai. In a cramped private mini-bus, while sitting on the last seat, I get into a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. she mentions Rameswaram as one of the four most sacred places for Hindus.

I am not particularly religious myself. but I respect all religions, and their holy places and other's belief in them,. I am intrigued by them, I want to know as much as I can about them. I like visiting religious places- I like the experience of being in a place, where faith and trust is in abundance, even if in an outer-worldly being, especially while living in a world where there is so less of it in each other.

the next two days, I spend in temples.
first is the Meenaxi temple in Madurai- with scaffolding shielding every gopuram- I was pretty sure the temple didn't look like this in my 8th grade history book. It is being repainted, i am told,- a part of the conservation program done once in 13 years and of course, this year happens to be that one year.

olympics, US elections, repainting of gopurams- indeed an important year in the history of the world ;)

the second stop in my self-proclaimed pilgrimage is the temple at Rameswaram. I barely reach the temple when a dark, wiry man appears from nowhere, with an aluminum bucket in his hands. He hastily pushes me through the throng waiting in line before me and leads me to the 22 teerthas.

then he goes on to inform me about the 22 teerthas/wells in the temple, and that I need to pour a bucket of water from each one of them on my head and drink some of that water. a precious little detail that the lady in the bus missed and I did too, being immersed in Malgudi. I find myself unable to turn around for fear of offending someone, once I have begun the purification process and so I follow him hurriedly to be absolved of my darkest sins.

the cast on the right ankle feels all guey, the bandage on the base of my foot all muddy. but even in this state of post-purification, I want to see Sri Lanka from a distance, if I can't go there. I get into an autorickshaw only to be told after half an hour that Lanka is actually not visible from there due to the earth's curvature! and it is only 33 Kms away from Rameswaram.

I catch the overnight Volvo bus to Bangalore the next day, in time for the biggest festival in India, Diwali.
there's just enough time to create a rangoli in front of my sister's house, pick a sari to wear from her vast collection and burst firecrackers- I can't recall the last time I did that.

this year will be different, I have reminded myself time and again. there are bittersweet endings, new beginnings and not much in between.

its the 10 months that I took out of my life for myself to follow a crazy dream. and while there may be many such months in the future, these are the most special.
its these 10 months that give me the hope of endless possibilities, the wisdom to separate dreams from reality, the courage to dream again and the strength to fulfill them.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

finally woken



while munching on an aaloo parantha dipped in yogurt, my eyes come to rest on the TV, with bollywood stars dancing to rhythmic tunes, and headlines being flashed as footnotes- results of the US elections coming in.

I am at the Jaipur bus station waiting for a bus to Jodhpur. I survey the little room for a sign of any fellow american, who would want to celebrate. but I am their only customer at 11 AM in the morning.
so I dial my go-to girl's number in SF. little surprise when she takes the call with a noisy crowd behind her. everyones watching history in the making and drinking, welcoming the winds of change.

I, too, raise my masala chai and whisper, "Obama's America'..

Monday, October 27, 2008

love and peace or else

a gentle word
of kindness
and peace prevailed..

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

where the streets have no name

I can't stand still for more than two days, especially since going into the water is not an option..
so I leave the comfort of my beach-front room in Kannur in northern Kerala and decide to head to Wayanad to the wildlife sanctuary there.

after a quick tour of a tea plantation on the way, I wait at a tea stall opposite the plantation and have a chat with workers on a break. George, in broken English, reminds me his name when I leave and asks me not to forget it.

hitching a ride in jeeps is what locals do here. so, I climb into the back of the jeep with four others going the same way.

a bumpy ride and a monosyllabic conversation on a jeep through the forest, and I am at the gate of the wildlife sanctuary. After checking into the nearest guest house, I go for a safari. I see peacocks, different kinds of birds, deer- spot and barking (extremely rare, apparently), and four wild elephants! a mongoose crosses the road in a hurry.

"very lucky" the guide exclaims, "you might see a tiger with this luck" (although they are somewhat rare during this time, he adds). my luck runs out by the time the tour ends, so no tigers in the wild for me here..

early next morning, I head to Kochi. I am the first passenger to board and make myself comfortable in the "ladies only" seat behind the driver, a decision I regret moments later- thanks to what seems to be reckless driving to me 'now'! Seven years have passed since i last drove in India.

I have a cast on my right foot, fairly dirty by now, complete with a miniature Great Wall of China and wishes all over.. as I discovered after being on about 5 buses, the one thing that it gets me, besides pitiful looks, is the best seat in house, sometimes even two of them.
old ladies ask "Accident?", I nod, indian style. they look at my foot, shake their heads in pity while muttering words of sympathy in malayalam, a hand resting on their chin, just like they do when they discover that I am 34 and not accompanied by my mother or my husband.

after just about a week of traveling in India, it feels like Bollywood isn't such an exaggeration, after all..
the downside, though, is that in the land of Ayurveda, I think twice about getting a massage. It just doesn't seem fair to the slightly broken ankle.

a couple days in Kochi, after watching an extremely good performance of Kathakali and a trance-like ritual dance of Theyyam, I head to the place on everyone's must-see list in Kerala- the backwaters- an intricate network of waterways that is the slippery highway in Kerala.

my boat is an extravagant one-bedroom affair with a western style toilet, an upper deck and a glass-top dining table and upholstered chairs on the lower deck.

i settle in, relax and watch life go by in tiny settlements merely meters wide.
occasionally, there are other boats- tourists smile- content in their personal tranquility. the village folks peek out and wave, two men walk on the village street by the water, an arm carelessly flung over his friend's shoulder perhaps discussing the best mobile phone plan, children hold forsaken tire tubes on their head and jump into the water, a rice boat passes by covered with a bright blue tarp, held in place by an old kerosene lamp, a little girl in a magenta skirt and anklets does a little dance as the boat cruises by.
men in small canoes nod their heads, a slight shake of the head towards the right signifying hello in Malayalam, and ask me if I want to buy crab.

another cup of tea on a rainy afternoon while Stan Getz improvises on the tenor sax in the background- a sharp contrast to the drone of the engine- which drowns as it sprinkles- rain forming endless circles on the surrounding waters.

the boat moves on, forming an invisible path through the water, waves crashing against it.

its just another day on the backwaters in Kerala- god's own country- a reputation well deserved.
peace and tranquility abound here- you only have to take a step away from the hustle and bustle of the city or rather a boat away..

in god's country

a fractured ankle doesn't tie me to a place anymore. perhaps, that comes with being on the road for the last seven months- traveling seems to be second nature.

after ten days of spending quality time with my nephews, watching movies over and over again, and savoring home-cooked food (some dishes I haven't had in years!) I decide to make my way to Kerala.

my first brush with Bangalore traffic and I miss my train by about 5 minutes. determined to not run into traffic again the next day, that very night I, a crutch and a small backpack, take a night bus to Kannur.

fast forward a 10 hour bus ride, and I write this while reclining on a chair lying on a raised platform, in a coconut grove, overlooking the beach, a hundred yards away, the backwaters, closer than that.
I sip on the hot tea that Sanni, the beach house caretaker, made, after an excellent feast of coastal malabar food.
I hear the birds chirping, the roll of the thunder faraway loud and clear, the moans of the ocean as it caresses the sand.

It starts to rain, and I run to take shelter on the wooden day bed in the 'veranda' of my room, tightly clutching my room key on a shell keyring- a little memory from my childhood.
I am thoroughly enjoying this magical moment, where time is standing still. I plan to do just the same.

For the first time in seven months, I toss my watch on the bed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

bohemian rhapsody- part 2



pushin' too hard
early next morning, I am awoken by my urge to take a long, hot shower- a luxury I will be denied for the few weeks in the countryside. I pack my bags while my guesthouse owner reminisces about his few months in san francisco years ago. I hand over the San Francisco calendar i have been carrying and leave him gazing pensively at the Golden Gate Bridge.

the russian van, we call it Dorj, is loaded with all the camping equipment, and groceries, bought yesterday at a supermarket for the trip. soon, we add ourselves to the load and am face to face with 6 people we will be sharing the mongolian countryside with for the next 19 days- cosy and fragrant, as a friend later put it ;)

twenty minutes out of ulan bataar and we are out in the middle of nowhere already.
if there's a 'nowhere', it has to be in mongolia and it's everywhere.

the silence in the countryside is boundless, empty yet so full. It takes a moment for us to register it and takes many more to embrace it. every day in the desert, we pass herds of two-humped camels, their humps flapping about as they run, and in the mountains, stoopy shouldered yaks desultory gnawing the sparse, coarse carpet of dry grass. horses roam wild on grasslands, massive sand dunes as the backdrop, framed by black hills in the distant horizon and land baked into a lunar crust. its spectacular..

every few hours, an overloaded van or truck passes by the driver wrestling with the wheel. apart from that, we feel human presence with the far away gers, smoke bellowing from their chimney or an isolated nomad, who chaperons his herd towards greener pastures.

some days in the countryside are hot, mercilessly so, but the nights are always cold, and windy. the country has a harsh, unforgiving climate, nature unleashing its fury everyday, but there's a certain peace and comfort to the people's existence, which cannot be discounted.
the blazing sun, the howling wings a part of their daily life, they go about doing their chores, milking mares, yaks, goats -all with a tough, calm demeanor, which constantly amazes us. their laughter is pure, rich- just like the yak cream they serve with fried dough. every time we enter a ger, we are served airag- fermented mare's milk, which invites an initial wince from all of us, or salty mongolian tea.
an indigo sky spills light into the room and images from ulan bataar linger on TVs powered by solar panels, while a cup of vodka is passed around. there's always a lone, bare bulb hanging from the center of the ger, an iron cooking stove and enough vodka to drown sorrows and the cold. outside a guard dog, sheep, goats, horses, yaks brave the weather along with a motorcycle or two, seats adorned with a mongolian seat and gloves, attached to the handle bars.

every other day, we pass a spiritless, desolate town and stop long enough to stock up on vegetables, beer, bread. schoolgirls, their cheeks unnaturally rosy, sunburnt perhaps, in white frilly dresses and a big pink bow in their straight black hair, saunter through the uneven streets, giggle and wave at us.

some days are relatively uneventful, with the usual stopping at the forked roads before us and trying to agree on the one to take, instant lunches and refilling our water container.

but most others are more social and memorable - staying at a random ger, milking goats early in the morning, taking a hot shower in a public bathhouse after days, watching a sheep being skinned, dancing to mongolian rock music in a night club in a small town, eating stone-grilled yak meat topped with cheese slices, staying at a wrestler's house, giving ibuprofen to a woman we meet for her toothache, stopping at a stream for an afternoon to do our laundry, taking a dip in the frigid lake water or just drinking beer and learning dutch songs about a cute puppy who grows up to be a bad dog!
our second day in the countryside, we get a chance to watch wild rams fight from a distance.

some mornings we wake up to yaks, sheep and goats invading our campsite- goats munching on tent cords.

sometimes DC stops the van, gets out and mutters something in Mongolian- points to the map. smokes a cigarette, comes back and starts driving again. but most times, its us who shout 'zogs'(stop)- there are all different kinds of zogs- is pee zogs, lunch zogs, oi (wood) zogs, camping zogs, and once- zogs zogs - to take a photo by the zogs sign!

morning comes easy- a cup of tea, sometimes with a hint of onions or tomatoes from the night before, is always welcome on a crisp morning. breakfast is normally stale bread with jelly, butter and mongolian cookies- the size of biscottis but harder.

lunch happens on the road, surrounded by the mostly barren, treeless lands enclosed in habitual tranquility, overlooking a herd of camels or horses.
barring a few days, when we consume leftovers from the previous night or stop for freshly-cooked dumplings or rice in a local restaurant, lunch is sandwiches- bread with tomatoes, butter, cucumbers. occasionally, on special days, carefully rationed cheese slices make an appearance.

dinner is an elaborate affair complete with a campfire. dinner is pasta, noodles or rice with vegetables- stir-friend or boiled.

every evening we set up camp in remote corners of the country- on level ground, whipped by persistent winds, three tents clinging resolutely to a forlorn patch of land. on stopping for the night, tents are hastily put up, water is boiled in the back of the van for pasta/rice/veggies, while the fireman/woman for the evening goes looking for wood, before night falls.

every night, warm in my personal silence and the grey silk sleepsheet, i curl up in fetal position, wearing all the woolen clothes I have, the sleeping bag half-open- i feel claustrophobic in the mummy bags. i think about the millions of stars above me, and savor the infinite silence.

one day all of us sleep under the stars, out in the open. the night buckles around us, a fire crackle breaking that deafening silence and its echoes. it is just the desert and us.

another night we stop at DC elder sisters ger. as it is established that we are spending the night here, we chop vegetables that we have been carrying around, while DCs sister makes noodles, for the noodle-meat soup that will be dinner.
a healthy, heartful dinner later, the men smoke home-made cigarettes while we work on our mongolian and try a conversation. and just like that, amidst this exchange, a boy in the ger starts singing, a song passed on through generations perhaps. on our part, each of us sings a song from our native country. that night, we sleep in their ger, six people huddled on the floor, while our hosts mind their herds through the night.

In ulastaiy, DCs hometown, we decide to sample the city life of restaurants and karaoke bars. Alex, with his dreadlocks and a nose piercing, is mistaken to be a woman, so a mongolian man asks him for a dance. Another steps in to ask Astrid for a dance, then decides she's not quite right for him- she's too tall. The one who asks Mayo for a dance, however, doesn't have height as a criterion!
At midnight, after our share of dancing and beautiful renditions of "Wonderwall", "Eight Days a Week", "Bohemian Rhapsody" (and a very bad one of "California Dreaming" ), and unsuccessful attempts of breaking the door of another bar open, we make our way back home.

Two days in the rattling russian van, and we gingerly make our way back to the capital, trying to soak in as much silence as we possibly can. our last night is in a ger, after an hour of being lost in the wilderness, DC stopping and reversing every five minutes as he encounters dried stream beds. on reaching UB, after a quick hour at the black market to buy mongolian VCDs, we find ourselves in cafe Amsterdam chowing down on their cheese and ham paninis.

as i sit and write at 16mm, a cafe in a popular hutong in Beijing, I am taken back in time to the mongolian countryside, its glorious landscapes, the reverberating silence and nothingness, which seemed to fill everything there and then, suddenly, it hits me that tomorrow i fly to one of Asia's most densely populated country- India- after more than three very eventful years.

i think, i am ready- to make peace, to exercise patience, to be home again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

the wall

the great wall has eluded me! i will be leaving china without seeing it.

it turns out that the right ankle sprain is actually a minor fracture. so I am hopping off to India a month earlier than I was supposed to.

for a couple days, i plan to enjoy the peking duck, lounge on the "closest" couches in Beijing and write about my time in mongolia before i leave China to witness the biggest Indian festival Diwali in India after 12 years.

some low-key, quality time with the two little munchkins and 2 months of paranthas for breakfast and I will be as good as new to enjoy egypt before I land in san francisco in December!

family, here i come and i might be grumpy ;)

Friday, September 26, 2008

get on the good foot

in the last few days, I have paid a visit to Chairman Mao, been to the Forbidden City, some famous temples around town and checked out 798, the art district. I have also fulfilled my appetite for scorpions, sea urchins, and starfish. and now its time to relax and relax some more..

six hours ago, en route to the Great Wall of China, I step into the slight depression of a manhole and sprain my ankle.
good thing I did not sign up for the Nike run this year ;)

in frantic need of a pep talk, I send an SOS to my go-to girl, oodles, and all she had to say was "dude, i walked around Costa Rica with a broken foot" (misdiagnosed as a very bad sprain for two months!).
it isn't funny but i laughed(sorry!)- a lot.

my now-elevated, iced, inflamed right ankle doesn't change my itinerary much (because I don't have one?) except I might still be in Beijing when half the population of China descends into this city for the flag-raising ceremony at Tian'anmen Square on National Day (October 1) and then there's kung-fu/kickboxing at shaolin, which is being postponed indefinitely..

on the brighter side, however, it means I will be able to spend more time in some traditional villages of china, when I do manage to hobble out of Beijing :)

but today, on this balmy Beijing afternoon, I will lounge in the backpacker's cafe and do a "sing-along" of my power song, the one you play on uphills, "my feet can't fail me now"..

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

bohemian rhapsody- part 1



I am not sure anymore when Mongolia crept into my itinerary.

my reasons for visiting Mongolia, besides pure fascination with a country with the lowest per capita population density, almost seem too logical now- I don’t need a visa, I don’t need a guide (Tibet does), Its close to China and so, very approachable. Nepal and India can be visited anytime (ironically the very reason why I haven’t traveled in India yet)

so, amidst the Olympics thrills and chills, I make an impulse decision and go looking for the ticket counter for the trans-Siberian in Beijing. Its not one of the trains you just show up for ;)

the morning after the closing ceremony, I wake up with a very upset tummy. I spend the entire day in bed, while contemplating if I can make it through a 30 hour train journey to Mongolia. There’s nothing some good old khichdi (rice and lentils) won’t fix. So I hail a taxi to the closest Indian restaurant and on special request, and enjoy two servings of some fine khichdi.

sure enough I am off to Mongolia early next morning. I even grab an egg McMuffin on my way there!

It’s my first brush with Americans- I share my cabin with Keith, an American journalist who will be cycling in Mongolia for 2.5 months and with David and Josh, father and son, Americans but living in China for the last 10 years. David runs an orphanage close to Beijing.

after about 12 hours of customary introductions and an engaging, interesting accompanying dialogue, we reach the Chinese border town- Erlian. We are all told to disembark from the train while it is taken off the platform to change the gauge for Mongolian tracks.

meanwhile, at the only store in the immigration building at Erlian, fellow travelers are busy loading up on pounds and pounds of groceries. later I would understand why. Everything in Mongolia is exported from China, almost no vegetables are grown there. In our 19 day countryside tour, we saw one vegetable patch (and DC drove over it!!).

we reach Ulan Bataar, the capital, in the afternoon. A poor country landlocked by two massive empires is nothing like what I imagined it to be. There are Land Rovers, Mercedes, Toyotas on the roads with an abundance of jay-walkers. In the center of it all, there is five stories of the State Department Store, a monument in its league, with cosmetic and sports counters, just like at Macys, only with more cashmere.

a stop at the English bookstore gives me a better picture of the city, an LP Mongolia and the Mongolian phrasebook. At another stop at a popular guesthouse scouting for travel partners, I see a vague notice by a dreamer who wants to go on a long trip to the countryside- north, south, west.. Exactly what I wanted—so I mail Alex and wait for a reply.

that evening, I watch a traditional Mongolian folk song and dance performance after a very commercial Mongolian barbecue. I try the horse meat, cow intestines, salty tea, sheep fat tail and have a grand finale of my experimenting with a healthy (and super-sized) serving of tofu and veggies. Mongolian barbecue, after all, isn’t really all that Mongolian.

things begin to look up the following morning as we decide to meet in a café along with two other interested people. Unfortunately, four isn’t enough to make the trip economical (Contrary to my expectations, Mongolia is an expensive country) Just when we almost give up, two girls, who had been pestered by Alex earlier, walk in and ask sheepishly if we still have space in our group—and just like that, the trip is on.

its 3 PM. We leave at 9 AM tomorrow.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

insomniac olympics

for anyone who hasn’t noticed, the titles of all my posts and the blog itself are all based on songs/numbers. So when I searched for Olympics- Insomniac Olympics came up. “Blockhead” surely has been to the Olympics.

it’s been a long-time coming- on this sunny, crisp autumn afternoon- my last in Mongolia (this visit)- with all day to spare till I board a train to China tonight, I have decided it’s a day of thank yous.

the first four months of my travels, I didn’t have any plans but one- to avoid Beijing during the Olympics- too expensive, too many people, not the true city it is without the grand event.

well I have to say I enjoyed Beijing for just those things- except the expensive part, of course!

after all, what do you do when big sis suggests I meet a good friend of their family’s in Beijing and soon after, sends a picture of him running with the Olympic torch  You send him an email!
so far, my only brush with the Olympics had been in Bangkok, where my daypack was randomly searched as we waited for the torch to pass.

Deepak (Advani, the CMO of Lenovo), in his reply to my email, was really kind to offer me tickets if I came to Beijing. so, I rushed to the train station in Guilin, changed from a sleeper to Shanghai to a hard seat to Beijing.

the 27 hours are endured with me practicing Mandarin with the college student sitting next to me and then discovering, to my dismay, that we don’t have access to the dining car AND that I won’t be able to find my favorite snack- taro chips- in the north.

my time in Beijing passed in a kind of a daze. it was a wonderful show, the Olympics complex was magnificent, the atmosphere electric, the crowds frantic and still, there was always, always order among the chaos. every train i got on, i played the "guess the country" game. there were people from all over- friends on a reunion, families on vacations, and some, like me, showing up in hope of being a spectator at the majestic Bird’s Nest or Aquatic Center.

I get up early next morning, and in my “finest” traveling attire, go to the Grand Hyatt Lenovo reception desk to pick up my tickets. I meet Deep and his wife, Puja and soon am handed a stack (yes, a stack) of tickets ranging from basketball to rhythmic gymnastics! Not to seem too greedy (and being the pragmatic (or lethargic) person I am ;), I pick a few events. My tickets in hand for events beginning tomorrow, Puja asked me if I wanted to visit the Summer Palace with her in a CAR as part of a private tour for Lenovo guests!

Now, I haven’t been in any kind of "car" in almost six months (the limited cab, tuk-tuk rides don’t count) So I jump on the offer (instead of going to an Olympics Rowing event- I just heard Mayo and Astrid scream at me for that ;) and tag along and have a wonderful afternoon checking out this once playground for the royals- the only sightseeing I did in my week there.

the rest of the week I spent in trains (free with the tickets), enjoying basketball, gymnastics, taekwondo, volleyball, athletics, shouting ‘chaaaayo’ while waving the flag of China, making new friends, arranging my journey forward to Mongolia and making more friends.

one warm Beijing afternoon, however, I spent trying to spot tall guys in the Silk Market, so my new buddy, Kenzo could approach them and see if they have any connections with the US basketball team(??). We did manage to run into LeBron James’ managers and Dwight Howard’s manager. Little did we know then how important these acquaintances would turn up to be (for him)?

we also met the Michael Jordan of Australia in the train the same day (and numerous other sports stars from all over the world). Of course, as much as I know about basketball- US or Australian, I have already forgotten his name except the fact that he has a shoe line in Australia named after him.

Kenzo came with similar intentions as me but without Deepak’s email :) so, he spent a lot of time outside venues giving the scalpers some business.
All his effort was worth it when he got into the basketball final game for free, when an angel walking by just handed him a ticket just as he was about to buy them from someone else (they were going for $1000/piece!)

And, it didn’t end there- he even made it to the after-party with the basketball gods (thanks to Howard’s manager!)! I missed because I was too busy doing the salsa with my friend, Lei and her friends.

Basketball Gods party or not, it sure was overwhelming to be a part of the Olympics, one that I won’t forget and one that wouldn’t have happened without Deep and Puja’s thoughtfulness and my sister’s insistence that I meet them!

So thank you all! I owe you for letting me witness and experience this age-old tradition that is the Olympics!

the second time

my leave of absence was extended by another four months and I am so thankful to be able to continue this adventure without any worries.

this goes out to say thank you to Meg, Vivian and Ariel at Oracle for making it happen and for their confidence and support! I truly appreciate this opportunity!

I will be back to Oracle on Dec 15th, just after my 10 year anniversary (20th Nov), to reclaim my unused Linux box and a brand new 22" monitor!

TM, Chaaayo..("Let's go" in Mandarin)

Friday, August 29, 2008

take a walk on the wild side..

some writing is long overdue..

my excuse is the Olympics were really tiring, and of course, awesome!

I am in Mongolia now, got here 2 days ago via the trans-mongolian and am headed to the countryside tomorrow morning for 19 days with five people I met today, a big map of Mongolia, a rented car, driver, lots of food, camping gear, mosquito repellent, new warm clothes and a keen sense of adventure!!

stay tuned...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

high lights

Early morning, on the 13th, I board a bus from Hanoi to Nanning in China.

With its well-manicured greenery, China is like a wife right out of Stepford Wives, prim and proper, not a hair out of place.

Nanning has a skyline wider than Chicago. It is a cross between a city and a suburb- skyscrapers scattered everywhere with wide-wide roads, the closest ATM to the multi-level bus station is a $5 cab drive away!

There is even a Walmart Supercenter. And the buses- let me not even go there- somewhere between a sleeper bus and a regular AC bus with the exception that everything works!

My vision of China was a bit more exotic than this (that is still the expectation from Yunan)- certainly the Chinatown that California #1 (SFMUNI) passes through is not based on this part of China.

Suddenly I feel lost without a guidebook. It is not as if I can walk down the backpacker’s ghetto and there will be children selling photocopies for $4. So, I decide to head north to Guilin, where the swiss couple, I met in the bus, is going.

After spending a day in Guilin sampling local food, we take the bus to Longsheng and then embarked on an hour long uphill hike to the village where we were staying for the night – PingAn.

What I love about China (so far) is you don’t have to go too far to escape the city- a 3-4 hour drive away you will land up in a small village, with age old terraces, no vehicles and fresh country air.

Of course, others have discovered this village well before I did. So there is an incessant clamoring of village women, who want to let their 2-3m hair down for a picture or sell hand-embroided goodies. One woman decided to follow me on my 1.5 hour hike and so I start running.

I stop, look back to see if she is still there, and I freeze. Euphoria! A liberating bliss!

It is a visually engaging countryside- the smoke from cooking fires in the village make it almost surreal. Women are on their way home, with a duck in their wooden basket for dinner. Men gather in a local shop to share a beer with their friends.

A teenager decked up in local finery approaches me and asks if I know why this place is called Seven Stars and the Moon. I say no. She goes on to show me the terraces- the seven stars and the moon.
I sit and sip on my ginger and fruit infusion tea and take in the view.

I have a one-year multiple entry visa to China!! And my first sentence in Mandarin was understood! And did I mention I am going to the Olympics?

I will be aboard my first train in China for no less than 27 hours on a hard seat (sleepers sold out) in about two hours from now.
yes, I am headed to Beijing- to the Olympics :)

I am already loving this country!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

a kind of magic


motorbikes, chinese lanterns, clothes- the essence of hoi an
I realize I haven’t written much about Vietnam, so I must write a report before I cross borders to another world.

Yet again, I find myself in a café in Hanoi with wiFi- somehow justifies dragging my laptop around and besides I need my monthly latte!

Back from the Mekong Delta, I had an uneventful and low-key stay in Ho Chi Minh before I spent two consecutive nights on sleeper buses (see below) to get to Hoi An.

Hoi An- a quaint little town with cobbled streets, aging, yellow colonial buildings, women with conical hats and custom-made surgical masks cruising on bicycles/motorbikes holding umbrellas, cell phones or babies, and vendors with baskets of guavas and pomellos casually balanced on their shoulders..

I wander these foreign lands on disused roads, passing by nameless faces, toothy smiles of old women, who hold my hand and nudge me to get a $1 pedicure. I pinch my nose as I walk through a market, trying to avoid the nauseating smell of dying fish, and a minute later, breathing in deeply as I go by freshly cut jasmine and lotus.

Every night, the riverside becomes alive with Chinese lanterns swaying gently in the summer breeze- soft music from faraway carried by it, tourists sipping on French wine in restaurants that spring up in narrow alleys, while that wooden dragon in the water looks on and yearns for life.

Hoi An is a magical land with vestiges of Chinese culture- carefully decorated pagodas and assembly halls, quiet ancient houses with ivy/moss-covered ying-yang roof.

The other side of Hoi An is another kind of magic, there are innumerable shops for making clothes- cashmere, Italian wool, satin, silk– they have everything. A custom made wool suit costs $50-$150 and is ready in about 5 hours!

Catalogs from all over overwhelm you the moment you enter any one of these shops. A Nordstrom suit replica costs about a third of the original cost, and it’s YOUR size, not the size it comes in! Needless to say, I spend time (and dongs) on this side of town, too.

and then, I make a hasty escape to Hanoi, via Hue- another evening on a sleeper bus.

There are a few hours to be spent at Hue- a quiet, little-big town with a lofty citadel. As every other Vietnamese town, it is progressive in its own right. After a brief visit to the citadel on a motorbike, I am hustled on to the sleeper bus for Hanoi.

Hanoi is my favorite city in Vietnam after Hoi An. The streets are small and crowded, I get lost every day and discover new parts of old town, I even have a little pet puppy at the guest house I am staying at.

The first day, I run into a friend I made in Ho Chi Minh. We end up at a tailor’s and then a cloth market, much to the amusement of all the napping vendors there. And we thought we had escaped Hoi An!
(On a separate note, I am ashamed to admit I don’t even know my numbers in Vietnamese.)

It rains and pours the first two days I’m here, we visit some museums and, in spite of my reservations with organized tours, book ourselves on a 2 day- 1 night trip to Halong Bay- the only way it can be visited.

The tour is a must do for its spectacular scenery and it sure is relaxing to be on a boat. I do tend to catch up on my sleep on buses and boats, so I doze through most of the tour.

Back in Hanoi, I pay a humble visit to Uncle Ho- his mausoleum is spotless- a long line snakes towards him efficiently to get a peek. He rests peacefully and seems almost surreal with his intact wrinkles and wispy white hair.

Next on my list was Sapa- the mountainous northwest. A typhoon gets there before I did. Some backpackers I met were stuck in the flooded area for three days and were rescued in a boat by the military. So I am off to China sooner than I expected.

And today is a Hanoi day- I have spent a good part of my afternoon in a bookshop selecting four non-controversial books, which would not be confiscated at the Chinese border tomorrow. LP China is controversial, so I will be leaving without one! (Apparently you can get it in China without references to Tibet and Dalai Lama.)

On my last day in Vietnam, I take time out to look back at my time here.

Last month, as we got closer to Vietnam, we met more and more people recounting horror stories of Vietnam- bags slashed, ripped off by tour agencies, money stolen etc. Ruth turns to me, “We will hold hands when we enter Vietnam”. And we did, while crossing roads, and, as we discovered, we didn’t have to, otherwise.

Apart from an occasional abrasive behavior from some individuals, my experiences in Vietnam with the people have been generally very pleasant. I suppose, when you are prepared for the worst, anything turns out to be better than expected.

The most exciting thing here has been crossing the road, aptly put by a fellow San Franciscan I met a couple days ago. It is certainly more exciting than India, and that says a lot.

The only grievance I have had in Vietnam is that tourists and locals are really segregated when it comes to transportation.
In other countries, you lose time (but never money) on local transport but get a hint of reality as it exists for locals. However, in Vietnam, it is a lot cheaper and more convenient to take tourist buses than go to a local bus station miles away and board a local bus.
Losing both money and time forces most tourists to always be tourists- never travelers.

I have a sneaking suspicion I will be desperately wishing for this kind of segregation in the next month when I get into buses which fail my tests.

off to practise my mandarin and dumb charades..

Monday, August 11, 2008

the outernationalist

when I started out, the top three countries thrown at me by fellow travelers (not Indian, British or Italian) and the locals were India, the UK, Italy (Portugal was next).

if India, then it is normally followed by some hand-eye movement- reference to Indian cinema or gestures to indicate a straight nose and big eyes. On occasion, the die-hard fans of Bollywood request a song (i have heard them in the most unlikely places- floating islands, internet cafes in peru, laos).

sometimes, you bump into an older British gentleman in a train who says I am very “authentic” Indian.

and the next moment, you meet a group of seven Brazilians traveling together, who have never seen an Indian before (and I thought Indians were like potatoes!) and who proceeded to ask me if Indians eat cat and dog!? (I said, not intentionally. They didn’t understand, so I left it open to interpretation.)

lately, however, the EU has been ousted in favor of a larger continent- my dream destination, Africa! (if only I can only go there on my way back!)

Ah, the power of Ra or the absence of whitening creams in my beauty regimen or maybe it's just genes ;)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bus-ted

By the end of nine months, I would have spent about 2-3 months on some form of public transport(mostly buses and songtaews)

As with the rest of the time, I want no less-than-perfect conditions for this duration- correction- in fact, this is THE time I want them to be perfect- that’s the time I spend looking out the window watching places, that I won’t be visiting, go by.

I, like most travelers, have had the misfortune of being on several uncomfortable and hence, extremely long bus-songtaew rides.

So these days, my day-pack weighs more than my backpack- extra layers of clothing, medicines, toilet paper, tooth brush, headlamp, food, water, books, mosquito repellent (buses are to mosquitoes what buffets are to humans), sunscreen etc – always good to be prepared.

I have thought about it so much so that by Cambodia I had started memorizing the numbers of the “best seats”- I even recorded them in my little notebook, in case of short-term amnesia, as a result of the panic that besets me when a ticket is being issued.

Of course, those numbers are reset each time I enter a new country and in some places, like Laos, buses and everything else is as unpredictable as the stock market these days- so I just call upon all the local gods for mercy.

Every time I am on a bus, I wonder if they ever go through a customer and user feedback session. As an experienced user, I can guarantee that in every bus I have been on, there’s always been a lot of room for improvement.

There is always some flaw in the placement of different “features”

Like, what is really bugging me right now, as I write, while sitting(seat #29) in a sleeper bus, pulling an overnight 13 hour journey, is the Window-Separator grazing my face- this is the one at which I make that 'oh no!' face when I enter and keep it till I get off- it’s the worst of them all (#30 and #32 were taken although they are slightly flawed as well).

Personal Reading Light - not useful to have a light on my abdomen, when I am trying to read a book

Air Vents- certainly not fun to have an air vent right on your head so you can freeze in your sleep.

I won’t even bother talking about sacks of rice/chickens/lizards (a friend had that experience) next to your feet and on the seat next to you or air-conditioning (or lack of- I prefer non-AC buses any day but that adds about one more month on buses).

Anyway, after careful reviews, I have a recommendation for the best sleeper buses in Vietnam- they are the ones from Sinh Café!. They even make you remove your footwear once you enter, just like they do when you enter someone’s house.

Yes, true, I am on one right now with the incorrect settings, but trust me, the others are not even worth reviewing- They will miserably fail my first round of usability testing.

After spending time and emotion obsessing to find the perfect place to sit to watch the world go by, I, from personal experience, would rather sit on top of a bus, and get grazed and beheaded by branches than sit in a less-than-perfect seat for 13 hours, but then that’s just me- I guess the air from the vent is really freezing my brain off.
now’s a good time to recline..

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Con"tours"

I give in to the simplicity and convenience of signing up for an organized tour to the Mekong Delta versus taking a $7 cab ride to the “unknown” bus station to catch a local bus.

An organized tour is like a bootcamp- with a difference – I don’t like them, now even more than before.

You are made to get up at 6 AM everyday and while you are still recovering from a sleepless night in the village, herded to visit bee farms and floating markets and explained in minute detail how coconut candy or rice paper or rice wine is made. Thankfully there’s always “free” candy/wine that comes with it- the much-needed sugar/alcohol overload.

And then sometimes, you also get kicked out of a hotel at 9:30 PM!

Vietnam is the only country I have visited where you are required to surrender your passport as you check in to a hotel- as a guarantee for payment when you check out. Every hotel takes all passports to the police station everyday to get them registered (?). They aren’t allowed to entertain guests without a passport and can be raided and fined in case they do.

Half-asleep, I checked out in Ho Chi Minh to catch a bus to the Mekong delta at 6 AM, and left without my passport.

Since the guide knew about the passport situation beforehand (he never warned me), they had to “hide me” in the hall where security guards sleep- the police won’t check it, in case there is a raid.

An innocent (ok inane too) mistake of forgetting my passport– one that cost me a night’s sleep- not over the fact that I don’t have a passport (the passport was safe in Saigon) but because of where I spent the night- with a bat hovering over my bed (a mosquito net somewhat protected me) and about a 100 geckos clicked their tongues and swallowed mosquitoes while I watched the entire Season 3 of Sex and The City in one night.

And then there was light!
the only day I would be glad for a 6 AM wake-up call !

Friday, August 1, 2008

the long road

The key to survival in this ever-changing maze, is to walk without hesitation, second-guessing can cost you a leg or the current dream you are in or give you a scare that might instill a lifelong fear of crossing roads.

All the bicycles, motos, cars lined up like runners at the start line of a marathon, raving to go. The shot gun is fired and I walk, right in front of them.

Resolute. Impudent. Invisible.

Monday, July 28, 2008

family rules

travel exposes you to feelings that you never imagine you are capable of experiencing or rather expressing, so they say. I was a non-believer till I wrote this blog entry.

Some time ago, Papaji left.

A long time ago- for four years- every day, when I was home from college, every single day, I would drive past the model town chatwallah, past ‘niku park’, past ‘my foot!’ to get my share of ‘patashas’- a sweet treat. Papaji got them from the gurudwara.

I shared more with him than I did with my ‘real’ grandfathers- his stories about the Indian partition, his sorrow over losing Biji with a simple hug and now, little did I know then, his family.

Because family is who you trust- for everything, without a second thought, completely.

For my family- I feel blessed to have you all in my life.
I love you all.

time of your life

"A moment later Stephen Kovalski had nothing but a smile to offer a young show-shine boy, who was circling around him. But a smile doesn’t fill an empty stomach."
"Daddah, you must be in a great hurry."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because you have a watch."

-from the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

prime time

I unfold my memories
And take a good look
At the past
---------------------
Thoughts
So vivid
Cloud my mind

---------------------

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

stone temple pilots

Ruth and I decide to venture into the ‘wild east’, a world of tribal villages, waterfalls, elephants and, little did we know, bad, bad roads
:)

We end up on the top of a pick-up (“outside” tickets!) for six hours, inching our way through a foot or more deep mud, before we were implored by the driver to get into the back seat ( because we could have easily slid off the top on that muddy road).
The pick-up, precariously balancing about a 1000 pounds of fish and about a 100 dozen eggs and 4 grown adults from the west (considerably larger frames than the average Cambodian) out on an adventure, slid sideways on the hills, barely moving at times. And then it got stuck and in an effort to get out of the mud, something snapped (I was told, the axle).

So there we were, in the midst of a wildlife sanctuary, miles away from the nearest village, crouched uncomfortably in the back seat in the pouring rain, with our driver and his assistant sitting under a tarp by the pick-up waiting- for I’m not sure what.
Meanwhile, other cars, SUVs, pick-ups went by- occasionally got stuck in the mud, and then, with a little push by our driver and assistant, accelerated uphill.

After an hour and a half of waiting for a miracle while, jokingly, taking stock of our supplies of food, water and flashlights, we decide to hitch a ride to a village in either direction- whatever came first.
After being refused by three fancy SUV owners (we were covered in mud), we finally made our way back to where we came from in the back of what seemed like an antique US Army jeep driven by two Cambodian policemen. Certainly the perfect vehicle for this kind of terrain- It cruised through uphills, downhills, mud, and everything else.

A few hours later, I lay on a mattress, something I didn’t think we would have for the night, cocooned in the luxury of my silk sleep sheet.

A brief stop in Phnom Penh and then we are off to soak the sun on the beaches of Cambodia at Sihanoukhville and that was some serious sun! For two days, I lay on the beach- reading, sleeping, getting $5 massages, and just relaxing.

Turns out we really needed that time off. The next stop was Angkor Wat.

Everyone mentions how amazing it is, but no one mentions how exhausted you are at the end of every day at Angkor Wat. I suppose, the beauty of the temples overshadows the fatigue you feel at the end of every day.

Six of the seven days we are in Siam Reap, we go to take in the splendor and perfection of the temples. There’s no rush better than cycling on the streets in Cambodia in rain water, sometimes a foot deep, amidst crazy mixed traffic (than maybe perhaps cycling in India ;) motos, cars, tuktuks, buses- all honking for attention.
When I wasn’t cycling to the tunes on my iPod, I was reading up on Angkor Wat, hanging out on Bar Street watching Apsara dances at a café with free wi-fi, or getting ready for an early next day.

Another dream fulfilled, early tomorrow morning, I am headed to Vietnam – a step closer to another dream (there are so many, after all) kickboxing at Shaolin Temple in China!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

flashback

Only in Laos
- Does the bus stop for grocery shopping (driver or anyone else!) or if anyone wants to answer the call of nature
- Everyone says “No” when you ask them for directions and then point to some random direction, (which generally turns out to be the wrong one)
- Everyone says “Yes” to everything else
- There is no mail delivery service (and hence, no addresses? ) There are no street names in some cities (e.g. Attapeu)
- There are village parties on Tuesday at 2 PM, complete with communal rice liquor pot and dancing
- The songtaew driver has to be prodded to drive to your destination
- You have to struggle to get your check at the restaurant
- You can have awesome Tom Yum Paa (fish) for less than $3 and an excellent baguette sandwich for about 60 cents!
I will remember:
- Fun times with nadia- someone I know closely, someone who is family (this trip is a bit different, I suppose)!
- A village woman’s expressions as she tried an Icebreaker and listened to Bhangra Knights!
- Wonderful, friendly, honest, happy people
- Lazing, lazing, lazing
- My vow to never enter a cave again
- Wishing I find something other than noodle soup for one meal
Inspite of having been to most places easily accessible (relatively speaking), inspite of long, backbreaking bus and songtaew rides that test your patience and bladder capacity, Laos is one country I will visit again (and again)!

Monday, July 7, 2008

second thoughts

I didn’t have any expectations when I started out- none of self-discovery, self-realization (or self-anything). I haven’t had an epiphany (yet). I haven’t rediscovered myself and I feel, I haven’t even changed that much, except I am a lot more patient perhaps?

For the last 3.5 months, I have just lived life very different from the one I have had before , where I think about everything I do, decisions I make- no matter how trivial.

I have just lived a life without any expectations- from anyone, any place, anything- that’s what been different and that has made all the difference.

I feel fearless today. I feel like standing in an open field, arms raised to the blue skies, eyes closed, my sense of feeling enhanced, going around in circles, doing cartwheels (if only i could)- to go giddy- intentionally..

I remember, vividly, the moment I decided it was time that night in December. I thought out loud- What’s stopping me? A long silence followed. Me.
I was ready to let go.

Not a single day goes by when I don’t think of the ones I have loved, ones who have left me behind, ones I have left behind - not one.

It’s a great burden, it’s a great joy.
today, I choose to share it and multiply it with you all.

Friday, July 4, 2008

a day in the life

I have been experiencing Laos Withdrawal Syndrome (LWS). Its easy to feel that when the owner of the guesthouse feeds you corn, biscuits, carrot juice throughout the day.

On Don Khong, the biggest island of 4000 islands in Southern Laos, I relaxed, read, biked, ran, ate and slept.
For six days.
Then its time to move on and the island closest to the Cambodian border is Don Det, a party island (if you like partying with lizards and mosquitoes), with 2 hours of electricity every evening.

I like electricity. I like fans, laptops, music. I don’t like lizards! After a sleepless night, I cross over to Cambodia on the “backpacker’s mini bus”- aptly named so because its really "packed" (but it’s a mini-van.)

On the bus, I sit next to Ruth from Israel and, within moments of meeting, we shake hands and decide to travel together in Cambodia. Yet another country where I will end up staying longer than expected- but I'm not complaining at all!

I have been here for a few days now. Every day I have been here, I read in bed, anxious to finish my book so I can exchange it for another one that I saw in a bookshop. I read till it falls flat on my face a few times- it's been quite a few long days.

Come morning, I get dressed quickly (in two of the 8 clothes I have), rested after a good night sleep, have a wholesome breakfast of yogurt/fruit salad/muesli and then venture out to see Phnom Penh as a tourist.

Every day, I pass the tuk-tuk/moto drivers, shouting for business, offering a tuk-tuk/moto/weed/heroine and everything in between, the little girls and boys, tender shoulders crushed under the weight of photocopied books they sell, a rice cake vendor whose wares are to die for, men playing cards on the street, locals chatting up foreigners, giggling schoolgirls playing badminton on the street littered with fragrant frangipani- quietly taking in, and yet ignoring the >chaos that is Cambodia.
Just like India.

Today I get up feeling homesick and want to relive my past. So I get on a moto to a new-age café with the music and brownies and whole wheat bread, and the best bathroom I have seen in SE asia yet and sip on my first latte in two months- on a Friday afternoon of a long weekend.
Just like the Bay Area.

And I feel at home- right here, between the two countries I have called home.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

goin' nowhere

I am still in Laos, in Si Phan Don aka Four Thousand islands.

Over the last two weeks, I have:
- Stayed in seven different cities – it’s a record
- Learnt a lot of Laos (about a 100 words)
- Had a lot of Tom Yum Paa (Fish Soup)
-Explored the countryside on a bicycle
- Attended a village party at 2 PM on a Tuesday (for just long enough to introduce myself and take a few pictures – there was too much lao lao (rice whisky))!
- Briefly worked In a rice field
- Petted a black piglet who eats cherries
- Taught a card game to a Laos woman using 2 Laos words (no, good and their combination- no good)

Just when I am beginning to have conversations with the locals (even if its the same 10 questions I ask), its almost time to leave. A few days island hopping and then I will cross over to Cambodia.

Since I can’t say goodbye (I can't find a word for that in my phrasebook), I guess I will just have to come back :)
Ngaam (Beautiful)!

Friday, June 13, 2008

dark side of the moon

June 12, 2008
I went on a boat ride yesterday. There were limestone cliffs all around, a rocky river bottom. At times, we hit some rapids, and the motorized canoe trembled before the two boatmen took control and steered it in the right direction.

And I shuddered throughout! After all, it was on a river running 7 Km through a pitch-black, winding cave.

As Nadia found out two weeks ago, after a 30-minute, steep, rocky, slippery climb, I am not a “cave” person. I couldn’t go further than about 2 meters into the cave, just when it becomes a real cave (even with its golden promises of a reclining Buddha and a swimming lagoon!)

I get claustrophobic, and can’t wait to run out to the open skies.
So there I was, trying to soothe my nerves by listening to dance music, while struggling to recollect synonyms of 'fear' to look them up in my Lao phrasebook, so I could tell the boatmen to not stop in the middle of the cave to look "closely” at the stalactites and stalagmites. I saw enough for my lifetime in the first 15 minutes of the 90 minute ride, well, as many as I could in the dark.

Finally, it got over , and it was time for the good part. I was going to live in the village for a night.
Feeling the real Laos, Lonely Planet says, is through a homestay.

I am put up in a home with 4 beautiful little girls, Ta (12), Te (9), Dali (7), Ami (1) and their mother Teng.

I walk around the village, following the kids racing their “bottle” cars, have café Lao in the village noodle shop, while taking in the views, and spend the rest of the evening trying to learn Lao and teach the three girls English.
After an early dinner of noodles with cabbage and egg, everyone is in bed by 9.

A few observations:
- Men and women sleep in separate homes (maybe my host family was well-off to have two houses)
- When a kid gets sick, there is an endless stream of neighbors inquiring about the kid’s health.
- Everyone watches a lot of Thai television.
- The older children get up before dawn. The 12 year old goes to the paddy fields by 5, the 9 year old helps in the cooking and then walks to the field, with the breakfast.
- A quick baasii ceremony is performed if a kid is sick, to help her attain equilibrium or for falangs, who are clearly crazy to be taking photos of their bed and food served to them, among other things

The roosters wake me up at the break of dawn to a rainy morning. At 6 AM, I am fed a lot of fried rice, all of which I ate (because it was yummy!). Then I take their leave, with 2 white threads on my left wrist and a pocketful of memories.

Would I do it again?
The cave – Never, Homestay – Sure (but won’t eat up all the fried rice), Baasii – that’s something I need most – equilibrium !

Friday, June 6, 2008

bombastic..

Paradise, I haven’t seen the last of it, I suppose.

I decide to step away from the french cafes with their fresh croissants and toasty baguettes, banana pancake stalls, restaurants with backpacker’s, California, and American breakfasts on their menu and view the other side of laos, the one which exists without the oui influence. So I head to the northeast.

Vieng Xai is the kind of place where you want to empty your backpack and air it out for a bit. There are man-made lakes with the limestone karst peaks as the backdrop (man-made by the bomb craters), hidden waterfalls, paddy fields, white and yellow wildflowers, (and hence) drunken butterflies, a fresh produce market with a buffalo head, and mangoes and bananas.
Every restaurant in town has a net submerged in the lake for the “fresh catch of the day”, for your order of fish soup. There are no cafes- internet, french or others..

This is the birthplace of Laos PDR, the former headquarters Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao) revolutionary headquarters. The evidence is the caves – the former meeting rooms, houses, hospitals, printing presses, a theatre - all housed in caves. Around 23000 people sought shelter in them for 9 years during the war.

After three days of playing catch up with history and then playing cards, arranging my itunes music, reading, relaxing, I head to Phonsavan.

On the way is Hintang Archaeological site with ancient stone pillars, a mini Stonehenge- a 6 Km hike from the main road. Christian, whom I met in Sam Neua, and I keep our backpacks at a motorcycle repair shop in the village and begin on what, at times, seemed to be an endless hike.

The lonely planet mentions the way to get here, some history, but what it forgets to mention is that the hike is all uphill (and it is 8 km, I am convinced). So, with my daypack with one soymilk, 3 bananas, one mango, a laptop, 2 books, a big camera, a 5 lb. poncho, more snacks (for the bus ride), extra batteries, memory cards, I drag myself up a muddy trail to the mountain top.
The site itself is a small one but spooky, with 1.5m upright stones, stone discs. The views are spectacular.

Of course, coming down is the best part on a hill. Christian walks by a little snake on the trail and doesn’t flinch when I mention the snake. “Do you know how many snakes they have in Australia? They are everywhere.” he says. Hmm, one country I might have to think twice about visiting.

Once in the village, we flag down a bus to phonsavan. I doze through most of the 6 hour journey.
In Phonsavan, I am handed a key with a bullet as a keychain. I have reached the most devastated province in the most bombed country (per capita) in the history of the world.

Here, Cluster Bomb Unit casings are used as fence posts, planters or plain decorations. Bomblets, which can be bought for as little as $2-3 are used as lamps and ashtrays. There are warnings about UXOs (unexploded ordnance) everywhere. There are songs about UXOs, which are a part of school curriculum.

I don’t quite realize the gravity of the situation till I see a bomblet (click on the picture!) – by the road we were driving on, in a ditch.

Our van had a flat tire on our way back from the customary ‘Plain of Jars’ tour and that’s when a girl in the group discovers it.

For a brief moment in time, I feared the ground I was walking on. I can’t imagine living with this fear. But the people here do, and sometimes, they pay a price for their own land, a heavy price- with their life or a limb or an eye. 30% of the bombs dropped were estimated to be unexploded.

After a 10 hour bus ride, my eyes constantly searching for more bomblets in the roadside ditches, I am on safer ground- Vientiane for a quick trip to Thailand, to get another 30 days in laos.

soul kitchen

Mitu wrote poems, beautiful poems, words in perfect harmony. Mummy handed out a beautiful diary to her. I expressed the desire for one.

“You have to earn it. Write a poem and it’s yours”, she said.

So I did. It was about spring- 12 lines, every alternate line rhymed (the rule for poems, I thought). It was 1985.

The third poem I wrote was about my love for books.

I have rediscovered that love. At any given time, my backpack has four-five books – that’s more weight than my toiletries (and that says a lot). My third most-visited website on this trip after gmail and flickr is Shelfari.

In a part of the world devoid of Barnes and Nobles and the used bookstores like in SF and because of my inability to order on amazon, I find myself wandering the streets of a big city in SE Asia, searching for the familiar-buy, sell, trade books sign.

So I publish a list of book exchanges I have found in the two major cities of Laos that I have visited.

Laos
Luang prabang:
• Hive bookshop – the only one in LP
• Book exchange at Three elephant café- the café is mentioned in LP but book exchange isn’t.
• A small collection opposite Café Toui on Th Sisavang Vatthana
• A small collection in a restaurant on Th Kitsarat opposite the Post Office

Vientiane
• Kosila bookshop (mentioned in LP)- the best collection on Th Chanta Khumman
• Oriental bookshop, 121 Chao Anou road, 856.21.215 352 – opposite La Gondola – the second best collection
• Book café –053/2 Heng Boun Road, Haysoke 020.6893741- adjacent to the Bank on Heng Boun Road - owned by a british expat, Robert Cooper.
• A good bookshop opposite Douang Deuane Hotel (I think its called Kosila 2)
• A small bookshop opp Mixay Boutique on Th Nokeo Khumman
• Monument Books (mentioned in LP) sells new books only, very limited collection
• Vientiane Book Center (mentioned in LP) limited collection but buys, sells, trades books
• A small bookshop on Th Setthathirat next to Wat Hai Sok.

Cambodia:
Phnom Penh• D's bookshop II- next to Number 9 guest house- the best collection i found in Phnom Penh
• London Book center has closed

Siam Reap
• Blue Apsara (Old Market Area next to Capitol Tour, 012-601-483) the best collection and best value for old books
• D's bookshop #112 Mondol 1 Village, Siam Reap - great collection- opposite Angkor What? on Pub Street
• Le Tigre de Papier (012-659-770, pub street next to Angkor What? bar) free wi-fi and free book exchange with a meal, great collection of french books
• Siam Reap Book Center (#699 Pithnou Street, Phoum Mondol 1, Khum) limited collection

Monday, June 2, 2008

Guest entry...

Hello there! I'm not the normal blogger here, but rather a guest here. And, here are my thoughts on my last two weeks in Laos:

One of the first questions I got from people, when I told them I would be going on vacation for two weeks, was “where are you going?” The second question happened to be the same question, “where?” Sure, to many, Laos is not the typical place you would hear from someone who wants a real vacation, which is what I was wanting. But, when your good friend, almost cousin (as we referred to ourselves in Laos) is on a globe-trotting adventure, you go to meet her, in a destination you may have not gone to otherwise, right?

My trip started in the sleepy capital of Vientiane. I was assured that this is not what Laos is like, not just by my friend but also by the folks on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum, which I frequented daily before my trip. Next up was a, longer than what was suppose to be usual, bus ride on a local bus. Local buses in Laos are those that leave the bus station once every seat is full, and those that stop along the road to drop off passengers in their villages, which equal very long. Vang Vieng is a haven for 20 something year-olds wanting to “chill out” and be “happy.” By happy, I mean you can order bags of pot and opium for as little as $10 US. Also, this haven served as a place for some biking on rocky and gravel-filled dirt roads (as a side note, I broke my foot on a bike, on a similar road on a vacation in the past). But the bike trip was successful, and quite beautiful. We biked along the limestone caves that surround the picturesque Vang Vieng, and even dared to enter one cave.

On route to Luang Prabang, I was filled in on where to stay and what to do by my friend, as she had already spent several days there. I was not prepared to meet so many around-the-world travelers, as I was about to meet in this city. Each day, I felt as if I met a new traveler, who was traveling until the money ran out, or had already been traveling for months. I was the odd person out, who was only in Laos, and who would only be traveling for two weeks. Regardless, I tired to pull off the “I’ve-been-traveling-for-months” look with my North Face gear and giant backpack. Luang Prabang is where I was told I would want to spend most of my time, and that I did. We spend about six days there, instead of the original three days I gave us on my rough itinerary. I was able to take a slow boat ride on the “mighty” Mekong River, saw the amazing Kuang Si waterfalls, saw more wats (temples) and monks than I could imagine, spent plenty of kip (Laos currency) at the night market, played several frames at the local bowling alley, and even assisted in teaching English to the local kids and monks.

Although Laos is not a typical vacation destination, the country does know how to treat its visitors. I think I have traveled a fair amount, and I have to say the country is probably the friendliest, laid-back place I have every visited, along with being a place I felt very safe with my belongings. It has been a rough transition from flip-flop wearing, sun block wearing, 90 plus degree temperature to fleece-wearing, closed-toed shoe wearing, 60 dgree temps in a matter of days. My friend asked me if I would return to Laos. Initially, I said no, but perhaps I will. There is still the South to see, which is where my friend will be spending the next month. As the Laos people say, it will be “same same, but different.”

Friday, May 30, 2008

paradise


05.31.2008-006-viengXai
Originally uploaded by _chlorophyll hello
It is like taking the back road. It takes me 19 hours to get from luang prabang to sam neua, in northeastern laos, at the border of Vietnam.
the Ipod battery didn’t last that long. Should I be thankful for the blaring laos pop music, occasionally accompanied with clapping and singing, through the night, that forced me to stay awake and “acquire” a taste for it?

when day breaks, I see lush green valleys, paddy fields shrouded in fog, and land irregularly punctuated by bomb craters, remnants of US bombing during the IndoChina war.

The bus chokes on the uphills, it is overloaded with boxes of rice, cement on the top, back seats and the floor- they outnumber the humans on it! The road as wide as the bus leaves little room for anything else. The honks are to scare away the roosters, pigs, cows, sometimes children who run out of the village huts to wave their goodbyes. Buses are a once-a-day occurrence on this route.
Village huts, dish antennae are the signs of civilization, but other than that, this land is pristine.

I forget the sleepless night and look out and look forward to another day in paradise..

Thursday, May 29, 2008

hello old friend!

it might be sometime before I see a familiar face again. it was so great to see nadia for 10 days in laos. i was dreading the day she left and its here.
it got me thinking about what I miss about the life I left behind

i miss family and friends- I miss talking to them at the push of a button.
i miss midnight feasts (MNF), bike rides, bhangra nights, swing dancing, bollywood nights, BFF dinners, arguments and just plain conversations

i miss hot oatmeal and walnuts
i miss home-made paranthas
i miss baking a salmon with lemon and garlic salt and a glass of my favorite $7 malbec

i miss sunny afternoons on the papasan
i miss sunlight peeking through the copper canyon curtains, the treasures tucked away in the bookcase, the warmth of the down comforter, the wealth in the presidio library

i miss taking the #1 or #3 to china town and union square
i miss my morning drive to work (yes I do!)

i miss the pain and pleasure of making candles, paintings, soy lattes

i avoid my workout playlist because i miss running – i miss the runner's high, i miss waving thank yous, i even miss the amino vital after the run!
i really, really miss the Sunday morning long runs on the Great Highway- with its share of tourists, traffic, the sun, the ocean breeze, plums on the way back.

so after a month of not doing much except walking, i decided to do shadow boxing a few times a week, followed by some situps and pushups.

Who knows how long this phase will last, but right now, right here, it feels great – welcome back, endorphins!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

with a little help from my friends..

it’s what I imagine heaven to be like. a cool, mountain breeze hits me as I look out the window of our bus, as it climbs the winding roads- I can’t stop looking and trying, in vain, to capture how beautiful this place is. there is no other word to describe it – beautiful does it.

Nadia arrived in Vientiene on the 19th with all the goodies on my list and some not on it – so great to pick out the cranberries and almonds from trail mix again and have non-whitening sunscreen and of course, the best thing of all – the Thinkpad, with all my music (iDump rules!) and a regular Ctrl key.

In the last few days, we
- watched “home-made rockets” being shot into the air
- endured a 5 hour bus ride on a local bus (on an empty stomach)
- rode bicycles on rocky laos dirt roads on a really, really, really hot day, nadia even gave a ride to a local kid
- explored( for 10 minutes) a cave after a treacherous 20 minute climb on slippery rocks
- got a room with a gorgeous view of the cliffs in vang vieng
- skipped “happy” meals in vang vieng and tubing down the river (loud music and bar islands at every bend)
- splashed around in a waterfall, while fearing for dear life (due to slippery rocks and my refusal to put my feet on river/pond/waterfall bottoms)
- walked around in the sweltering heat around luang prabang
- bargained at the night market
- tried to lie as still as is possible, in the afternoons– because talking, laughing made us sweat (and we have three fans in our room)!
- Went bowling
- Finally gave in and tried beer lao and lao lao (lao whisky)
- Taught an English class
- Played ‘petang’ (bochi ball) with the locals

on nadia's last day in laos, we just want to do what everyone does best in lao – not much!
Then its long bus rides to our respective destinations- nadia goes to vientiene to catch a flight back home, and I take a long bus ride to Sam Neau in Northeastern Laos..

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

break on through..

he is a sixteen year old who dreams of becoming an actor (or a physics teacher), only if his acne go away, which he (and his friends) believe are there because he doesn't get his beauty sleep. he asks me if i know how to get rid of them, while solemnly spelling acne on the blank piece of paper ( i correct the spellings)

another sixteen year old (som peng) dreams of becoming a doctor, and wants to open his clinic or pharmacy, he's not quite sure of the difference between the two. he uses the word "success" as much as he can because he can. he is in third grade, because he didn't study when he was younger. he wants a laos to english dictionary which would increase his vocabulary and the $10 lonely planet phrasebook is too expensive to be bought. he also wants a thai to english dictionary. when asked how he knows thai, he smiles and says, 'thai television. we used to watch it back home.'
his elder brother, who lives with him, goes to college. he is in his first year and wants to work in a bank, he has many subjects in college, he says.

the nineteen year old (som pan) is quieter. he wants me to talk slowly, so he can understand. his sister, who was about thirty passed away in a house fire. he, then, left home. he wants to be a doctor and work in china hospital in luang prabang. it takes five years and a lot of hard work, he emphasizes.

in the afternoons, they practise english with foreigners such as me. sometimes, they practise their vocabulary with friends.

these days, they are learning about the different body parts- so there i am teaching them elbow, nails, eyes and correcting their grammar and spellings and solving math and chemistry equations, their homework, they say.
most everything is in laos, or so it seems, some pages are photocopies from a thai book, but all i see is chemistry equations. in any language, the symbols are the same and so is the periodic table.

they ask me to write the alphabets of hindi and then the basic questions - hello, how are you, i am fine, goodbye. i ask them if they have been to india- 'not yet'. a perfect reply- hopeful.

they ask me to explain what lonely planet says about the bqaasi ceremony - and then one runs to his room to give me three threads- white, yellow and red- the colors signify something important, he doesn't know what.
novice monks aren't allowed to do the bqaasi ceremony, he says but i give them to you

they aren't allowed to touch me, so no handshakes. even pencils are handed to me carefully

i can visit their room and their school

they aren't allowed to drive/ride bicycles. they can take a tuk-tuk, if they have the money. but they don't. so everyday, they walk to school - its a half an hour walk one-way- its tiring, they complain.

they have three terms of computer classes, the first teaches them MS word, XP, the second- excel etc and the third, photoshop. they ask if i will teach them photoshop on a laptop?

they don't do dinner- only lunch and breakfast.

they used to get books from the library, but now that the library has moved, they don't have access to them. they don't know where the new library location is.

they are learning the "part of speech", world history- the thais and the english, the vietnamese and the french.

to the world and to me, until a few hours ago, they are novice monks in a temple in luang prabang. but really, they are only teenagers, who because of circumstances and ambitions had the wisdom to put on an orange robe and lead a life of chastity and penance for sometime, to pursue their dreams, to give themselves their only chance to fly, to get out of a farmland into banks and hospitals

their ambition makes me humble, their passion for knowledge makes me proud, their age makes me envious- i want to be sixteen again.


every day, i continue to meet a variety of people, i have discussions on anything and everything from hair conditioners to relationships. i leave every good conversation with a feeling of satisfaction for having learnt something new or for having seen a different perspective to something

but its when i am down to some very basic topics that i realize, sometimes, how little i truly understand.

how do I explain "equilibrium" to someone who thinks 500000 kip(about $70) is too expensive for a year's education. that's the "discounted" hourly massage rate in san francisco.
how do i explain what divorced is?
how do i explain what a software engineer really does?

just when you think you are able to answer some pretty tough questions in life, some seemingly simple questions leave you wondering.