Thursday, June 2, 2016


“ I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world” – Mary Radmacher

I’ve been backpacking around this crazy country for about two months now, and I have more stories than I can or even want to put in one blog post. After hearing travel stories from others and sharing my own, I realized something. The best memories and stories aren’t when everything went well, the train was on time, you got good picture and the food was tasty. The best stories come out of the time when something goes terribly wrong, expectations aren’t met, and the plan is abandoned.  So in this post I could tell you I saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise or the Golden Temple reflected on the holy lake at night, tried Punjabi lassi, and had a generally wonderful time dragging my backpack around the country. But you would be really bored and just scroll to the pictures. So instead I’ll tell about a few experiences that weren’t exactly enjoyable or perfect. These unplanned adventures make me look back and realize why I really travel. Its taught me what I'm capable of. I feel if I can hitch rides through the jungle, navigate the winding alleys of Varanasi while vomiting, or climb a 16,000 pass, I can make a fine dirtbag someday. 

Chicken Bridges 

My first stop on the end of semester whirlwind was the Northeastern state of Meghalaya. This place is famous for its “living root bridges”, matriarchal society (as my host mom says proudly “land of women rule and men work”), and most importantly it has the highest rainfall on the planet. I was done living in a polluted 120 degree city that cooled down to a chilly 105 at night. The pounding rain on the tin roof of our hut was my favorite part of the week there. For a few days, some friends and I stayed in a village surrounded by steep hills and thick jungles, with winding trails that led to waterfalls and the hundreds of root bridges hidden in the valleys. One day we wandered down one such trail for almost an hour. Jokingly, we said we must be walking all the way to Bangledesh. Climbing a tree, I saw two locals heading up the trail. Asking them where the trail went, they responded “Bangladesh! 30 minutes”.

Just part of the back of our jeep/truck
After scrambling down a very steep steamy hill covered in moss and vines, we crossed the border and walked a mile to a waterfall some locals suggested. At this point we were all somewhat tired but I could hike all day. We realized we’d have to hike, actually climb on all fours, back up the slippery hill. I was up for the adventure, but I’m quite often an asshole and forget not everyone considers climbing up a ridiculously steep hill full of mosquitoes an adventure. Disappointed at everyone’s lack of adventuresome spirit, I grudgingly agreed to find an alternate way home. Heading to the border market, we found a truck going back to the village. Piling into the back with about 15 other people and their children, baskets of stinking fish under our feet and on our laps, and bundles of betel leaves, we headed out through the winding hills. Some people even sat on the roof of the truck. India is constantly teaching me not to have expectations, and this was yet another example. It was also a good old lesson in teamwork. If I keep being my usual stubborn self, I’ll miss out on crazy truck rides through the jungle. 

Partway through our week in Meghalya, we set out to another village a few hills over. A friend of the family we stayed with recommended we head there for even more remote waterfalls. I’ll always clearly remember sitting on the phone, trying to understand his directions through the pounding rain and his Nepalese accent I wasn’t used to. The others sat around me watching what I scrawled down on a piece of paper. It looked something like “GO TO CHERAPUNGI- find a jeep” “ask for MR CHARLIE” “Hike past the second root bridge, cross two rivers” “DON’T GO TO THE DOUBLE DECKER”  “cross two chicken bridges”. I was just as confused writing it as the others were reading it. The chicken bridges were the most confusing part- it turns out this is a chicken bridge:

Later we discovered from a local they are “shaken bridges”, not chicken, but I think the name suits because you can’t be a chicken to cross these swaying wires almost 150 above a rushing monsoon swollen river. I was tempted to sing Emperors’ New Groove songs the entire time.

These bridges are made entirely of tree roots trained across the river for hundreds of years and daily maintained by the villagers

This hike occurred in the dark of the night with a monsoon rain pounding down on us as we picked down the jungle mountainside with phone flashlights. Lost along the way we came across a small group of houses. Banging on their doors for directions soaked from the pounding rain we must have looked hilarious. At first they simply looked at us and said “Nongriat too far. Go in day.” Realizing we were quite stupid and determined, they gave us very nice directions. I don’t know if any travelers have been so happy to see Mr. Charlie in his village as we were. We piled in soaked to our underwear, exhausted from the hike that is strenuous in the daylight, let alone in a rainstorm at night.. The locals discouraged us from making the hike at night and the jeep drivers usually refuse to make the drive past 3pm as it gets too misty and stormy on the winding roads. However, we found a driver who was heading to his village that agreed to take us. Getting left near a patch of jungle at night in the pouring rain with nothing but a vague “Nongriat is down there” was a bit daunting, but mostly thrilling. You never know what is going to happen in India.


After Meghalaya, I had a wedding to go to. Excited to see our friends from Bundi and spend some time in their beautiful town, Rebecca and I hoped on the government bus. To put it nicely, the next three days we spent in Bundi gave me a new appreciation for anthropologists. I want to be completely candid about my experience and feelings, but in no way am I trying to say Indian weddings are “wrong “or a bad time. I hold deep respect for Muslim/Rajahstani culture, but I don’t think I will be attending any more weddings. It was another hilarious lesson in expectations for me. In my head there was a grand picture of us dancing with the family, putting henna on our hands and feet with the women, eating delicious food, having some national geographic-esq time in their village. Those things happened, but travel shows make them look fun. The second we arrived, we were ushered into a room already rather full of 20 aunties and cousins. Introductions seemed pretty normal for arriving guests. Then you realize there’s that many people in every room of the house, and hundreds more in the houses next door (which are the relatives houses of course). After introductions went on 24/7 fro three days, I realized we were being paraded in front of guests like they got a zebra to come to the wedding. It makes you feel slightly sick inside because they are doing it because you are a couple white girls and they tell you it’s so cool to have AMERICANS there, like we’re increasing their status. I didn’t want to contribute to this inferiority complex and help solidify this disgusting concept that the west is best. Yet here we were, locked in a room paraded in front of relatives and neighbors as the “special guests”.

It may have gotten to me more because I am an introvert, and we were around at least 30 people at a time at ALL times. We slept on a dirty floor in the house everyone else was trying to stay in. I thought I could sleep anywhere, but I realized I have a limit after cramming into a stuffy hot room with snoring grandmas and sketchy 20 something year old male cousins who have certain ideas about Western women and you know there’s only one bathroom for the 200 people.  Not that we slept much. Dancing went on until about 3am each night. I also felt sick after eating so much meat (they were quite offended by my vegetarianism and made sure I wasn’t a Hindu).

I didn't mind constantly having babies shoved into my arms
On the third day, they announced it was time to go to Kota for the wedding. At this point we were completely lost because we had watched numerous rituals and festivals, thinking each one was “the wedding”.  It would have benefited me greatly to read up on wedding traditions beforehand due to the language barrier. At this point going to Kota in a bus with 200 drunk and insanely loud people sounded like hell. We told them our train was that morning. In some burst of consideration, the father promptly called an auto to take us to the train station, which we realized was about an hour out of town. Obviously we had to keep up the act so we cheerfully hoped in to catch our “morning train”… There is only one train that leaves Bundi and it is at 5pm. To make matters worse, he even paid for our ride. Woops. After hiding out in the train station for a while, we snuck back into town with our faces covered, heading to the first “AC paying guest house” we saw. I took a showered and layed on the bed naked for an unnecessarily long time, reveling in my aloneness. I’m never going to stop immersing myself in new cultures and experiences, but I now know what my introvert self can take, and you can’t change the culture you were born in. No matter how much I value the collectivist culture of India and appreciate the beauty of all the family time, I can’t become comfortable and functional in those settings overnight.  

If you’re sick of my complaining, don’t worry; I have more saved for later. After the wedding from hell, I headed to Darjeeling to visit a classmate. This visit was one lovely surprise after the other and restored my faith in Indian friends and hours spent drinking tea with aunties and meeting relatives. Darjeeling was originally in my plan because I was heading to the Himalayas. A beautiful thing about India is that if you make friends there, you will always have a place to stay. Just upon mentioning I might go to Darjeeling, Anusha insisted I had to stay with her or at least visit for lunch. House guests are joyfully welcomed and even desired, a stark contrast to the US. Darjeeling is an old hill station, cultivated by the British when they realized the region was perfect for growing their tea and a nice green place to sit while they ruled over the hot plains. I hear from older Indians that it used to be a charming place, but has since turned into a noisy tourist trap where I guess white people come to admire what the British did to the hills?? Anusha picked us up on a bridge on the state “highway”(a road switchbacking through the hills suffering from landsides and encroached upon by forest vines). I thought we would be heading to Darjeeling, but was delighted to find we came across a group of about 20 houses in the middle of the jungle and terraced tea fields. In the distance the next morning we could glimpse the Himalayas. I think being with someone I knew personally made all the difference. Meeting relatives was delightful (the whole village was related!) because it was as a friend, not as a showpiece. We wandered through the tea fields and ate apples looking over the rolling hills, talking about everything from grade school to Eminem. No intense adventures, but I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my time any other way before the trek.

The Roof of the World 

I don’t want to give a detailed itinerary of backpacking Gochaela Pass, but an overview. It’s hard to put into words how hiking gets to me. It’s the most addicting, exhilarating, love/hate thing I can find to do. I find myself climbing hills, vowing I will never try this again. But then I tell myself just to that next switchback that rock up there and it becomes an intense competition against myself. Reaching the top I forget all the sweaty curses and vow to never leave. The mountains give the most exciting peace. Something feels so right and pure about untouched nature. Coming from Washington with the Cascades and the Olympics, I thought I had seen mountains. There is nothing that can compare to the Himalayas rising up infornt of the sky. It feels like you’ve run into a wall. What I thought at fist was clouds high above was snowy peaks. It really does make sense why they call it the roof of the world, or the birthplace of the gods. They’re the closest thing to sacred I’ve ever seen. On summit day we woke up at 1am to a full moon in a cloudless sky illuminating mount Pandim and Kachendzonga in the distance, looking impossibly white and large. When we reached the top the peaks glowed golden pink where the sunrise hit them. We stayed until we could watch avalanches in the distance from where the morning sun weakened snow patches. Even from so far away we could hear the massive piles of snow and ice rumbling, heading down to fill the river we hiked up. You can’t think or talk when you see things like this.

Mt. Kachendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world 

The whole trek wasn’t some inspirational, transcendental high of course. There were a lot of leeches when we started in the jungle and our guides were a little scary. A few days into the hike, my stomach was less than happy. The familiar Delhi belly feeling worried me this time because I knew it couldn’t be the food. I asked our guide where they were getting the water, as I had assumed they were purifying it. He responded “the stream! The mountain water is pure!” “what about giardia??” “sorry what is that?” Thinking maybe a language problem, I explained giardia was a water born parasites. He had never even heard of the concept.  I wish I had the immune system to not even need to know what giardia is and drink from any stream I come across. Not a single Indian on the trek fell ill, but the two Americans did.

The guides amazed me almost as much as the snowy peaks. They climbed up muddy, freezing, steep terrain in rainboots and beanies, or converse and snapbacks for the younger ones, without ever breaking a sweat. I was bothered about the fact that a whole crew of locals and yaks carried our food and tents up the mountain. The yaks and intense amount of tourists taken on this trail were quickly destroying the land with their shit and heavy traffic. It felt definitely unethical and environmentally damaging. At one point I was hiking alone by Samtit Lake, a sacred lake high up the pass, near the top. A guide waited for the group, and called me over quietly. “Look at the duck!” A beautiful male duck with colors I had never seen floated on the stream flowing into the lake, flying away as we approached. The guide explained it was flying to the hill, where mates keep their eggs in the rocks. We sat quietly, and he pointed out a pair of white foxes running up a hill some distance away. Later, as we walked, he pointed out a herd of wild sheep with babies that let us get quite close.

Seeing the guide’s knowledge and excitement about his land and the way they moved effortlessly through it made me second-guess my frustrations with tourism. Talking with another Indian traveler, he also expressed frustration at the effect of tourism on the land. He explained that in India, without tourism the land would be deserted. The only other means of income for most of these people is cheap labor in big cities, as farming has moved to larger scale operations with less manpower. Taking people hiking gives the locals a means of income and keeps them connected to their land and ancestral homes. It also keeps them out of worse jobs in crowded living conditions. After spending time in vastly different parts of India and catching just a small glimpse of varying local traditions, it is easy for anyone to see the importance of land to somebody’s culture and identity. I know there is a much more ethical way for tourism in the Himalayas to continue, but I hope it does continue so these people to stay connected with their land.

I have no idea what it is like to be connected to a place like most Indians do, but I am excited to go home. After spending a week in the UK I’ll be done traveling, for now. I’m sad to leave India, but it doesn’t really feel like goodbye. In India, there’s not much saying goodbye to family and friends. It is a perpetual “see you later.” Even if they across the world or in your village, or a 13 hour train ride away, you will make the effort to see each other a few times a year, because that’s what people do. So when I left, my family, India and the road didn’t say goodbye, but “we’ll see you when you come back.”

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