Last Days in Thailand

After surviving India and spending a few weeks in the relatively cool northern region of Thailand, I was ready to indulge myself with Thailand’s most attractive draw: it’s picturesque southern beaches. The day I arrived by night bus in the town of Krabi was sunny and clear. My hotel was from from any sort of beach, but I made it to the waterfront to take my first dip into the Indian Ocean. 

 
On the next day, the skies had taken a turn for the worse. The island-hopping day trip that had looked so appealing in the brochures, with people happily snorkeling in aquamarine water under clear skies and sunshine, had been turned on its head in the foul weather. Intermittent rain continued throughout the day and it was much warmer to stay in the water than to crawl back on shore. I shivered between people wrapped in towels as the boat cruised to my next destination. 
 
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I had been planning to try some rock climbing in Railay, which is renown as one of the best places for the sport in the winter months. In my accomodations on Ton Sai beach, I found myself surrounded by climbing fanatics. Though excited from conversations with them to get started on some real rock, the almost constant rain forced me into beach side coffee shops and restaurants the entire day. Finally, with a break in the rain the next afternoon, I had my chance. I signed up for a half-day course with a local climbing school and had my first substantial rock climbing outing. 
 
According to the forecast, the weather was going to clear up in a day or two. I wanted to get somewhere I could finally enjoy the beach. While my first choice was Ko Phi Phi, our boat got turned around with a warning of big waves near the island. While I had been trying to avoid going over to Phuket, where thousands of Europeans swell on a few miles of beach during this season, it was either that or staying where I was, and i was itching to use this rainy day for travel. 
 
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My last few days in Thailand were nice, but like my gut instinct was telling me, I should have stayed out of Phuket. Sure, the beaches were beautiful and the water refreshing, but its hard to fully appreciate it when surrounded by thousands of other tourists lining the waterfront, sitting in beach chairs and sipping martinees. The epitome of a resort vacation. The nearby town, completely devoted to entertaining the tourists, was a conglomeration of western restaurants, bars, and massage parlors. Too many old men with young Thai girls roaming the streets. And massage parlor ladies grabbing and yanking at your arm as you pass by.  
 
This last week has definitely not been the highlight of my trip. It was nice to see the sea again, and get at least a couple of sunny days on the beach. But at more than any time on my trip thus far, I’m ready to come home. Unfortunately it will take more than 2 days of transit and layovers to get there, but I have my computer and Kindle to keep me entertained.  

Yee Peng Festival

While in Pai, I heard some tourists lamenting the fact that they needed to be out of the country in a few days and wouldn’t be able to catch the Yee Peng festival in Chiang Mai. Also known as the floating lantern festival, over one weekend in November the people of the city let off tens of thousands of floating lanterns into the sky. I knew I’d heard of the event from somewhere, but I had no idea that it took place in Chiang Mai, much less the weekend I was already planning on passing through the city. 
 
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Every evening, you could look out into the night sky and see dozens of these lanterns drifting farther and farther off into the distance. But this was nothing compared to the festival’s opening night, at the city’s largest floating lantern event. When I arrived, hundreds of lanterns were being launched from the riverside and slowly drifting in clumps into the sky. I lit my own and watched it float off until I had last track of it in the clutter of the other lanterns. 
 
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But the real show had yet to begin. Thousands of people gathered in a huge field facing a stone buddha and a dozen robed monks sitting at its feet. A loud speaker made frequent announcements to hold back on setting off lanterns, which many ignored. Then came a flooding of murmurs, some sort of Buddhist chant resonated through out the clearing. The go-ahead to lit the lanterns was given, and the surrounding audience began setting their flames and holding the contraption down to let it fill with warm air. And then a thousand lanterns burst into the sky, producing a sudden blaze of light that illuminated a crowd of marveling faces and a wave of heat like a bonfire on a cold night. The dark sky was drowned by a flood of innumerable lights rising higher and higher and slowly gathered together by a steady breeze. A massive and blazing eye formed in the sky, thousands of feet above our heads. And the lanterns never ceased their seamingly endless flow, even as the crowd began to fade away. 
 
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Life in Pai: Getting over the three-week traveler’s hump

Inspired by all the backpackers I met on my trips to China and the Philippines, for the last couple of years, some part of me has wanted to make a trip around the world. I have met so many people traveling for a year or longer, and my passion for travel was stirred up in part by listening to all their stories. This trip was the first I have ever taken to last longer than a month, and the later part of that has been spent travelling alone. 
 
But towards the end of my time in India I began to think that maybe long-term travel wasn’t for me. While every day promised excitement and new experiences, I began to miss the consitancy of a routine and interaction with people I was familiar with. 
 
Upon first arriving in Thailand, I found a bit of a respite from the tourist’s trail. I met up with one of my former university professors, who is now retired and has settled down in Bangkok for the time being. I was also able to make contact with Thai friends who had studied in ICU a few years ago. 
 
But then it was back to the well-beaten path of the tourist. Bangkok’s golden temple complexes were impressive, but I still found myself questioning the purpose of my travels. After so many forts and temples, I seemed to lose the thrill I once felt when visiting the ancient and exotic. 
I knew I needed a change of pace, and felt like getting out of the big city as soon as possible.
 
After a night bus and local minivan, I arrived in Pai in the north of Thailand. This small town has transformed itself into a backpacker’s haven; go for a walk down the main street and it seems as if tourists form the majority. And the friendly locals all seem to be in the business of accomodating them – with hostels, restaurants, and reservation centers that line the streets. While admittedly a bit artificial, Pai has a charming, laid-back vibe that makes it easy to kick back and enjoy the cheap food and accomodations. Some people I talked to say they planned to visit a day or two and ended up staying a few weeks. 
 
I made friends with a French guy and two Irish sisters, and we got into the routine of meeting up for dinner in the evenings after our daily activities. Options for ways to stay entertained were endless – motorbiking, trekking, elephant rides, and massages. Locals and expats alike were offering lessons in everything from fire juggling to the ukulele. I spent one day rafting and devoted another to cooking lessons. 
 
Over this period I found myself readjusting to my current lifestyle. I got in a conversation with another traveler, who told me about something he called the “three-week traveler’s hump”. Most people on vacation will be on the road for a few weeks, but back home before the thrill of traveling has worn off. But at around three weeks people find that their initial travel rush has settled down. They get antsy for the life they left and feel like getting back to work that they are passionate about. Only after this hump do people find that this kind of lifetyle has become second nature to them. 
 
While I have been on the road for a bit longer than three weeks, that is about how long I have been traveling since leaving the orphanage. But after several days in Pai I think I started to get in tune with the ebb and flow of this lifestyle. And now after leaving I am again enjoying not knowing exactly where tomorrow will bring me. 

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Adventures in Rajasthan

I debated with myself over whether I should plunge into the arid lands of Rajasthan and see the proverbial Indian highlights, or go to some cooler nepal-bordering province in the north where I could possibly do some trekking and perhaps escape the chaos of big cities. In the end I figured that Rajasthan would give me more of an “all-Indian” experience; I’ll save himalayan trekking for another trip. The first leg of my journey in Rajasthan was on a night train that took me to the “blue city” of Jodhpur.

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The city lays in the shadow of what’s said to be one of the preeminent forts of India. I took a ride on the zip-lines that run over a small lake behind the fort.

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I never tired of this view over the city. The Brahmin, the highest caste of the Indian social structure, living in the city have been painting their houses blue for centuries. Apparently today all castes are allowed to join in.

Next, I was off to Pushkar, home to an annual camel festival in November that has made the town a sort of haven for hippie travelers who come to see the show. I was probably fortunate to have arrived a few weeks earlier, avoiding booked-out-accomodation and prices that are said to be up to five times the normal rate. The lake, which acts as the focal point in this small town, is a holy place for the Hindu, who are supposed to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

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With so many camels converging in the city in preparation for the upcoming festival, it was a golden opportunity to join in on a camel safari. While a bit painful on the inner thighs, riding out into the arid countryside on a seven-foot-all camel was an unforgettable experience. Accommodation for the night was a bit rustic (we were given our camel’s saddle to use as a blanket), but the chance to sleep under the stars in a lonely desert landscape was a welcome respite from the traffic and car horns that fill most of my evenings here in India. Image

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While I’ve heard how hundreds of millions in India live on less than a dollar a day, I’d never had much of a meaningful conversation with this class before the trip. Our camel driver told us he was making $25 dollars a month, most of which he sent home to his family living in a different area of the state. Two travelers and two guides shared a night in the wilderness, but there was little else in their lives that they would ever have in common.

And the last destination in India: Jaipur.

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The biggest sun dial in the world. Accurate to two seconds.

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One last Indian fort….

On the 1st of November I’ll be heading to Bangkok. My current plan is to do Chiang Mai in the north, perhaps with some trekking around Pai, and then to find some beaches in the south for snorkeling, swimming, and hanging out before returning home.

Horrors and Wonders in and Around Delhi

Out of the safety and care of good people we could trust and into the heart of Delhi. Nothing could have prepared us for the abrupt change. Of course we had faced some of the same overcrowding and chaotic traffic in our travels up until then, but it had been nothing like Delhi. We stayed there for almost a week, with one day-trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, before Sayaka had to go back to Japan and I moved on to Rajasthan. In that week we saw a different side to India then we had at the peaceful grounds of New Hope. And to be honest the worst of it – the poverty, traffic congestion, pollution, and living conditions – were much worse than I had expected. I had been exposed to all of this to some extent in Mexico, China, and the Phillipines, but Delhi seems to have it all at a whole different level. 

 
With that introduction it may sound like I had a terrible time in Delhi, but this is not at all the case. We had a great time meeting friends, exploring the city, and seeing the sights. But I wouldn’t want to just write about the tourist sites and gloss over all the bad stuff that happened that has changed my initial impressions of India. I think that the best way I can I describe it here – admittedly with the very little experience I have – is that for better or worse, India is always in your face. It seems to confront you with either the awe inspiring or the utterly shocking at every possible moment. 
 
Arriving at the New Delhi station, we first set out to try and find the hostel we had picked out in a location that seemed a short walk from the station. But once arriving at the main street where it was supposed to be, I realized it was going to be a whole lot more difficult to find than I had anticipated. Every few steps someone was demanding we give them our attention; either a shopkeeper ran forward to block our path and to push some cheapo sunglasses on us, or else a tuk-tuk (auto 3-wheeler enclosed in a larger passenger cabin) driver paced us asking where we were trying to go. And then there were the people that first seemed genuine enough. They greet you with a big smile and want to shake your hand. Then they ask you where you are from, where you are traveling next, how long you will be there, and so on, all while following in your footsteps for a few hundred feet. When the questions finally stop, they say they know a place where you can get all your traveling plans set in place, because everything is being booked fast in the places I plan to go this time of year…
 
There are many other places to stay in the main bazaar, but we want to stay at a place that had some good reviews and was within our budget. If you ask someone on the street for help, they tell you they’ll take you there, and then when halfway there, mention that they are taking you to a better place they know of. We got lead to some random tourist office at one point, which we were told was the “reception” for our hotel. A few hours after starting from the station we finally found a place that had been on our back-up list and settled for that.
 
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Over the last week, I came to realize just how hard living in Delhi must be for the millions who call it home. You must either brave the fierce traffic that seems to work on a whoever-has-the-guts-to-go-for-it right away system (including pedestrians) or be jammed into the overcrowded metro system. While I’ve been in enough Tokyo rush hour trains not to flinch at this, I’ve never had to fight so hard to push my way past people cramming into the train while people are still trying to get off. 
 
Coming from a richer and less populated country, I know it’s not my place to come and judge people here on there life here. I realize that cultural standards set the norms for how people behave and expect to be treated. And even if some people are deceptive or obnoxious about their business practices, the locals obviously no how to handle and adapt to it. Most of this is probably due to the tourist industry in these places and I am sure that only a few streets in from the main sites business owners would play fair. But no matter how much many times I got ripped off, it’s hard to be frustrated too long when you work it out in your head and realize the amount is a miniscule dollar or two. And these vices are just as prevalent in the business world in developed nations – just not as transparent as their are here. 
 
And of course not everybody was out to get us (though it may have felt like that at times). Some people just want to say hello and shake your hand. Or take a picture with you or by you. And people are quick to offer help to you when you looked confused, though its hard to know sometimes whether or not alterior motives are involved. 
 
As for the awe inspiring, my first glance at the grandeour of the Taj Mahal upon entering its gates confirmed for me what many people find when they visit world famous sites: that a place just cannot be fully captured by a snapshot, and can only be truly appreciated up close. I was impressed by the scale of the mausolem, and for how its pearly white surface so elegantly reflected the sun. We saw the Taj from every possible angle. We even hopped aboard a rickety old rowboat that ferries locals across the river behind the Taj Mahal at sunset to see the mammoth structure from behind. 
 
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Within Delhi, I was most impressed by the Jama Masjid Mosque and the surrounding Muslim quarters. The Chatterjee’s, the family we stayed with in Kolkata, daughter Manoshi and her friend Estha took us here in the afternoon for some lunch and to see the main mosque complex. I think this is the first active mosque I had ever been to, and I was really impressed by the enormous symetrical courtyard lined with faded red-brick walls. Women tourists who did not come wearing long-sleeve shirts and long skirts, including Sayaka, were asked to put on a full length bedrobe-looking garment. We climbed the attached turret in the early evening and while gazing over the surrounding delhi city landscape, I began to see small specks in the horizon. By sunset there numbers had increased by tenfold and hundreds of kites dotted the sky in every direction. On the nearest roofs above the bazaar you could see children patiently manipulating their spools and string. 
 
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On Monday evening Sayaka and I said our farewells and while she headed to the airport to catch her flight back to Japan, I grabbed a tuk-tuk to the station to board a night train to Jodhpur. From here I will spend another week traveling around Rajasthan before taking a flight to Bangkok on November 1st.  

New Hope India

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Ten days at an orphanage in rural Kothavalasa, India. One protestor uprising over the Andhra Pradesh state splitting into two and one cyclone that tore through the Vishakhapatnam costal region. Thankfully our rural location a good distance from the coast kept us out of harms way through both incidents. Little was felt in the New Hope India orphanage but an overnight power outage caused by protesting power plants workers; but random power outages are an almost daily occurence here, so everything was running normally – at a slow pace that took some adjusting to.

 
My time in Tokyo weeks prior to leaving for India had been full of work, preparations for the trip, and final farewells. Upon arriving at the orphanage I was immediately submerged into a radically different lifestyle. While both my physical surroundings and cultural differences were a factor in this, the hardest thing to get used to was their slow-moving lifestyle. The children wake at the crack of dawn to do chores and get ready for their day. On school days the kids are in school from 9 to 4, get free time in the afternoon, have an hour of prayer time in the evening before dinner and bed. On holidays the children are about the campus playing and enjoying their day off. 
 
What impressed me the most about everyone there was their patience. They didn’t need to be constantly occupied by something, and seemed content with what little they had. They were fine with just sitting and waiting for something, and no one appeared in the least bit anxious or antsy. There was one day when lunch was called perhaps a little too early, and because of some delay or other, we all sat waiting in the dining hall for over an hour. I was shocked by how over seventy children could stay seated on the floor for such a long span with no form of stimulation in the least. 
 
This patience is something that I have lost touch with in my everyday life. I never really seem to need it; the second my attention is no longer needed somewhere or I have to wait for something, I can grab my iPhone from my pocket and be connected to a world of infinite possibilities. But every time I do, I lose the chance to just wait – to lose myself in thought, to have a conversation with those around me, to anticipate what is coming next. 
 
Over the course of my time in Andhra Pradesh, I taught a few English classes each day, did translation work on my laptop, and enjoyed some time relaxing and playing with the kids. We ate delicious curry meals prepared by our hosts, the Roses, three times a day, and spent getting to know this family that has been working for orphans in India for decades. 
 
And then of course the time spent with the children. They taught me some cricket, and while I never completely figured out the rules, they kindly let me take more than my fair share time at bat. At the nightly prayer, they asked me to sing them English worship songs between songs sung in their native Telagu. There was always a bit of a language barrier, it being hard for me to understand their Indian English and hard for them to understand my American English – but always worth the effort when we were able to communicate. 
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We said our goodbyes to the kids the night before we left, and the morning of departure, each child wanting to shake my hand multiple times and persistently asking when I would be coming back. And then we left for the Vishaknapatnam airport for our flight to Delhi. While I’m excited to finally be seeing some of the famous sights in India, it was hard to say my goodbyes to the children and staff that had made me feel so welcome at the orphanage for the past week. 

Arriving in India

 When you find the cheapest flight possible for a journey abroad, you have to expect that your flight is going to be anything but convenient. I was prepared for a few layovers and little leg room. But I didn’t realize how toiling four flights in a span of about sixteen hours would be. We spent the day airport hopping across China with the country’s infamous budget airline, China Eastern Air: Tokyo to Shanghai, Shanghai to Beijing, Beijing to Kunming, Kunming to Kulkata. Even though it was all within the same airline company, it was apparently such a complicated arrangement that the airline agent couldn’t book it when I called them, and we were forced to go with Cheapoair. 

   Since I hadn’t slept at all the night before, the time on the planes passed quickly. I remember being startled awake a few times by the sudden roar of the engine before take off or the jerking breaks when the plane landed. We got a preview of the major airport hubs throughout China before making it to our destination. 
   After finally arriving in Kulkata a few minutes before midnight, we were met by a cab rider with a sign reading “Calvin and Sayaka”, and hurried over, relieved that our first night in India would not require bartering for a ride into the city center. We would be staying with the Chatterjees, the family of a friend from my old dorm, for a couple of days before moving on to the south. On the two hour drive to their home a few hours outside of the city, I had my first glimpses of India. Though there was little traffic at this time of night, the driver laid on the horn at an opportunity he got: when passing the occasional truck, to arose the occasional cluster of dogs sleeping in the middle of the street, or to warn whatever might be coming by as we took blind corners throughout the town. We arrived at the Chatterjees a few hours later, ready to put an end to a very long day.
 
   For the next two days we made a few trips to the local market, ate home cooked Indian food, and had long conversations around the table about Indian food, culture, and customs. Stepping outside the house immediately put us in the center of a Kulcatan suburb. We walked a few blocks to the main street where Mrs. Chatterjee waved down a tricycle cab to take us further into town. We dodged bicycles, motorbikes, cabs, and the occasional car or truck and somehow made it to our stop without a collision. After visiting some food stalls where Mrs. Chaterjee filled our bags with fruits and vegetables — half of which I couldn’t even identify — we made our way through aisles of fish sellers in search of meat. Raw chicken lay piled on the counter, but after some exchange I couldn’t understand in Bengali, we were taken to another section with live chickens lined in little cages. A hen was decided on and taken to the butcher around the corner where its last struggles were hidden from us. It’s safe to say that I had some of the freshest food of my life later that afternoon.
   At the Chaterjees we were prepared authentic home cooked Indian food meal after meal — mostly curry, dal, and rice — and I decided that if it were always this good, I could survive eating curry every day during my month here in India. Apart from the delicious food, we spent hours talking about India, Sayaka’s research at the orphanage, my plans for this trip and beyond, the Chaterjees’ life here in Kulkata and Mr. Chatterjee’s work teaching organic farming methods to local farmers. We also got some much needed rest after the long day of travel and were able to mentally prepare ourselves for the next leg of the journey.
   
 
 
 
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Today we will be taking a train to Vishakapatnum, on the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula, and will be staying at New Hope India, a local orphanage that Sayaka has been working with in past years. This time, she will be doing research for her senior thesis, interviewing older students on their experience at the orphanage. Meanwhile I’ve been told they plan to put me to work teaching English in the orphanage’s school. We are planning on being their about a week and a half before moving on to New Delhi.