Looking Back and Moving Forward

I meant to do a one-year anniversary post awhile back, but as with most things in India, it’s a little late. So here I am, celebrating 400 days since I left home. It’s odd to be on this side of one year of travel. I can recall my first night in Thailand when I shared a dorm room with a woman who had been on the road for 14 months. I was in awe. I couldn’t even imagine 14 weeks, let alone 14 months. But here I am, approaching that benchmark and my imagination still swirls with possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many times when I’ve wondered “What am I doing out here, anyways? I miss cold milk and hot showers. Take me home!” Those doubts have been met by words of encouragement from family and friends, ranging from kind advice (“We love you, Larry, take your time and decide what’s best for you”) to borderline abuse(“Stop your whining, you big baby. You haven’t worked for a whole year. Jesus.”). Ahhh the loving support of family can’t be beat!

So, 400 days of travel. 400 days filled with elephants, hiking, scuba diving, safaris, lava lakes, ancient churches, helicopters, amazing kids, motorbike rides, pristine beaches, new friends, falling in love, volunteering, yoga, late night adventures, trains, festivals, reading, temples and mouth watering food. 400 days of getting lost, struggling with languages and customs, feeling lonely, cramped bus rides, food sickness, distrust, boredom, heartache, misplaced items and being robbed. 400 days with new loved ones but without so many of those I hold dear.

I’ve learned a lot about myself, or in some cases, re-learned, as a wise new friend recently told me. I’ve learned I have strengths I never knew I possessed, but also have weaknesses in areas I once thought I never would. I’ve learned to wait. I’ve learned to forgive and let go of hatred that had soiled me for years. I’ve learned that food tastes better when you eat with your hands. I’ve re-learned that it’s ok to make mistakes and to stop worrying about making the perfect choices. I’ve learned that things change, so embrace it.  I’ve learned that I don’t want to be alone, but I like being left alone. I’ve learned that there is an endless amount of ways to live life and not to be boxed in by expectations. I’ve learned that it’s normal to be afraid. I’ve learned that everything will be okay.

What I don’t know is where I will end up after this journey (Ugh, I hate that word. Journey. It feels a bit pretentious and self-important. I’m traveling around Asia, not around Mars). When this is all done and good, will I be back in California with a work desk close enough to yell over my cubicle walls at Shilpa and Duy; spending Saturdays watching my nephews play soccer? In London, taking the train into work with my cousins Emma and Mary and sharing dinners with Jayme and Danny? In the Netherlands, butchering the Dutch language with Loes, Yvonne and Karin? In Colombia? Mongolia?

I don’t know, and frankly, I’m not too worried about it. Check back with me in another 400 days or so.

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Een-y Meen-y Mine-y Mo…

It was hour 20 of a 22 hour travel day, and I was standing in the train, elbow to elbow in a thick sea of Indians as we rolled down the tracks towards, at least I hoped, my destination (I already had one incorrect train experience that day, so you never know.) Flashbacks of beach volleyball, morning yoga and eggplant/feta wraps saturated my thoughts. Why did I leave Goa, again? Please remind me. That reminder would come a day later. It would come at me full speed, a blur of muscled black and orange fur, determined eyes and stained teeth. Big, sharp, stained teeth.

I had decided to make my way to Bandhavgarh National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh to take yet another safari, this time in search of an elusive tiger. I rolled up into Tala Village, and with great luck found two other budget travelers (the only other two non resort using tourists I saw there) who had just arrived and booked a safari for that afternoon. A quick trip back down to the ticket office and I was officially signed up and ready to go. Jumping into the aged, open jeep, I was joined by Peter, a 47 year old German who spends his time leading bike tours throughout Europe and Russell, a Santa Cruz Mountain local (near where I went to high school) who has more stories than the Bible.

You must understand, seeing a tiger is relatively rare. Advice is to book six safaris in order to “guarantee” a tiger sighting, so I kept my expectations muted. Bandhavgarh provided a beautiful setting, with dense forests broken up by peacock spotted meadows. We came across jeep after jeep, each filled with frustrated tourists sitting in a haze of disappointment. No tiger sightings in the entire park on the morning safaris, and none as of yet on the afternoon, so we headed towards a fenced in area for a quick stretch. No sooner than our guide jumped out did our driver yell out “ Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”, his voice getting louder with each word. Our guide hurled himself back in and warned “ Hold on tight” as our tires began to spin and we darted off. With all of us clinging for dear life, we met each turn in the road at full speed. Branches shattered against the car frame as our momentum nearly lifted us airborne as we went over the rolling hills. We came to a sudden halt and there in the distance he stood. Right on the edge of the forest, as if patiently waiting for us, a 4 year old tiger peered off into the horizon at a herd of spotted deer. He then looked over at us as we pulled out an arsenal of cameras and the air filled with muffled excited proclamations. (This is amazing! I can’t believe we saw one! Oh shit I left my lens cap on!) He gave us a good five minutes, but soon the show was over and the tiger faded into the thick foliage behind him. It was a sweet but brief victory.

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Our determined driver and guide were not done though. We found a rarely used ranger trail and looped around the backside, hoping to see our striped friend once again. Sadly we had no luck with him, but we came across some fresh tiger tracks and stopped to take a picture. Each of us huddled over the dirt track, listening to our guide explain the behaviors of a tiger. It wasn’t until we started the jeep back up did we notice the 12 foot tiger laying blissfully in the sun a mere 20 meters away. Cue the cameras. But almost immediately, our driver broke the silence with a loud, sharp whistle in order to get the attention of another jeep we had seen early. However, the only attention we received was from the tiger, who went from blissful to berserk. Quickly to his feet, he let out a guttural roar as he sprang towards us. 20 meters turned to 15 to 10 to 5. His lips curled back in rage, his eyes set on this unknown intruder.

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(Above: Photo by Russell. Tiger mid-charge. Sorry it’s a little blurry. We were too busy crapping ourselves.)

I had the misfortune of being the first target in his path, and as he approached me, things began to slow. Images and sounds sharpened. Honestly, I’ve only had a few experiences in my life where I thought I might die (Morphine allergies, near car accident, and now a tiger charge.). I felt strangely calm as he was charging towards us, and I made no movement to hide or run (I’d like to say I was stoic, but I think frozen in fear is more accurate.) Once he hit about 3 meters, he turned abruptly to the side, eyes still upon us, let out another growl and circled back to where he was before. Adrenaline replaced fear and we each looked at each other with wide grins. Our guide just kept softly muttering “very dangerous…this one is very dangerous” and our driver, with trembling arms and a blank stare, had to be relieved of his duties. The rest of the safari was filled with reenactments, laughter, and disbelief. We had come for a tiger experience, and that is definitely what we got.

Looking At Old Things, Part 37.

I look at a lot of old, run down things during my trip, and that’s not just a reference to pictures of my father (HEYYOOO!). From forts to religions to ruins to traditions, it seems that most things I take in these days have a “made on” stamp of hundreds to thousands of years ago. These past few days have been no exception as I spent the last 48 hours hiking up and down the many stairs and peeking into the dozens of caves of Ellora and Ajanta.

By far the most impressive was Ellora, with its gigantic Kailasa Temple silently demanding your attention and admiration. Intricate carvings abound, and it’s easy to see the care that was put into the 150-year construction period of these cherished structures. I poked around these ruins, inspecting each dark corner, running my hands along the cold, smooth stone. I made a friend or two, and was gifted with a headscarf (For which I might have been a little too excited to receive. Pretty sure my “wow, for me?” echoed through all of Maharashtra. It’s a scarf, bro, settle down.) I decided to take a shared jeep home, which turned into an unexpected tour of the local villages and the tasting of still unknown foods. (What is this? I’m sorry, what? I can’t understand you, one more time? Ok I’ll just eat it. Mmm gross. Thanks.)

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(Above: Look at me, being so cultural)

The next day found me in Ajanta, and forgive me if I was a bit underwhelmed. I think it’s only fair to say that I went in offseason, though. Evidently monsoon season is the time to come, as the hills are alive and green, and the river and seven waterfalls are flowing at full strength. Still, it was a peaceful experience to sit on the view point, the horseshoe shaped cave line laid out before me. I sat there for a few hours in silence, reading my book and occasionally chatting with touts that came by to push their wares (No, I don’t want to buy a rock, but thanks for asking. Not from you or the thirteen guys that asked me first.) I ventured into the caves for an hour or so, witnessing one Buddha statue after another (How many Buddha caves does one really need, anyways? Evidently the answer is 26.)  Ajanta is known for the well-preserved frescoes that can be found in many of the caves, and in truth, they were beautiful. I think I just expected a bit more.

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I also spent an afternoon at Daulatabad Fort where I blindly made my way through bat infested passages, crossed wide, water filled moats and summited the highest peaks it had to offer. It was all very Game of Thrones-y. No Direwolf sightings, but I did make some friends who took me on a drive through the city of Aurangabad to see Bibi-qa-Maqbara (Also known as the poor man’s Taj Mahal.) and other local sights. One thing I was really impressed with was the amount of knowledge young people had about their city’s history. It is a sense of pride I’m not used to in San Jose. Hell, I can barely tell you how to get onto Highway 280, let alone the cultural significance of…of…see, I can’t even think of anything cultural in San Jose. The HP Pavillion? Point made, I think.)

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(Above: A small sample of the bats of Daulatabad Fort. Creepy. Very Creepy.)

After a wonderful dinner with a Canadian couple that pretty much epitomized the stereotype of Canadians being warm, kind and polite, I’m now on my way to Bandhavgarh to search out some wild tigers. I read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes as a kid, so I’ve prepared for this moment. I just need to find a can opener for the tuna fish…

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