Hordes of motorbikes sped by as my taxi wove through the tight streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. Signs and billboards flashed at me. Vietnamese words were scrawled across them—but at least this time, I thought, the alphabet was Romanized.
I’d been on the road for about six months, had traveled to Japan, South Korea, India, Nepal, and Myanmar. Donald Trump had just won the U.S. presidency, and I’d slept off my post-election depression and fatigue in Yangon, Myanmar, like a champ.
Here I was, another new country, another new city, another new language—starting over yet again, unsure of myself and harboring lingering doubts about having sold all my things to take this yearlong journey through Asia and maybe beyond.
Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi
I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.
It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.
I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.
I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.
I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.
When I think about my time in Nepal, I think about movement. Cars and motorbikes hurtling past me, the winding roads on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, birds swirling in flight around the eaves of temples and palaces.
As a traveler, Nepal was hard for me. I struggled with confronting poverty in Kathmandu, a region still recovering from the earthquake that killed thousands of people in 2015. I didn’t know what to do with my own economic, white, and American privilege in Bhaktapur. I got sick in Pokhara and was grappling with grief.
There were many bright spots, of course, including hospitable hotel owners who shared their stories and their vodka with me, fellow travelers who wandered the city streets with me talking about feminist theory, and raucous street performers that enlivened squares during the holidays.
I hold all of these impressions in my hands at the same time, but when I look back on photos of my month there, I can’t help but be awed. I knew even while I was taking those pictures that I wouldn’t appreciate the beautiful complexity of the place until long after I’d left. Continue reading “Eyeing the Divine: Photos from Nepal”→
My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.
I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.
I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.
Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.
The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.
After the noise and crowds of Delhi, Shimla was a welcome rest. The mountain air. The quiet(er) streets. A chance to take a walk among trees. The stacked shops and stunning views. The old Viceregal Lodge, where the British colonial Viceroy once lived and which later became the summer home of Indian presidents.
I drank it in (and also took in a mediocre Bollywood movie called Banjo that at least had good music). And after a couple days, we moved on to Mandi, also known as the mini-Varanasi for the number of temples it has, corner after corner.
This is what I remember: Shopkeepers standing in open storefronts. Oil sizzling in big, big pans by the sidewalk. Puffs of bread emerging. A tailor looking up as we passed, surrounded by colorful fabrics. An old Raj—a man who should’ve been king if India hadn’t become a fully unified country under one government (post-independence).
We stayed in said Raj’s palace-turned-hotel (The Raj Mahal), and the history stared down at us from the walls—pictures of kings gathered in Delhi, a portrait of his father before him, paintings, black-and-white photos with color added (circa 1935).
And down the streets of Mandi, the temples on every corner. The river. Shiva’s temple watching over—Shiva the destroyer. “He’ll take anything,” our leader said. Shiva does not discriminate. “But we worship Shiva because we know things have to be destroyed for life to be possible. It’s part of the cycle. Destruction and creation.” Continue reading “Thinking of Shiva”→
If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far this journey, it’s that I love train rides. And slow travel, more broadly, but train rides in particular. Keyes and my train ride out West. Multiple trains across Japan and Korea—some slower than others. The 38-hour ride from Bangalore to Agra on the overnight train (top bunk with air conditioning—don’t worry, I didn’t suffer too much).
And then the beauty that was the train ride to Shimla. My tour group (via Intrepid Travel) took a regular train first to Kalka and then transferred to what’s called the “toy train” to Shimla, a hill station (mountain town) north of New Delhi. It’s called a “toy train” because, unlike its other Indian counterparts, it’s a smaller train on a narrow-gauge track that chugs through over a hundred tunnels (and hundreds of bridges) that are of their original design (from the late 1800s).
Shimla is now a honeymooners’ getaway (and a state capital), but it was once the summer home of the British colonial government, when they wanted to escape the heat of the then-capital of Calcutta. It was also where some of the first discussions about independence were held between British and Indian leaders in the mid-1900s. And in many ways, it still reflects the effects of its colonial legacy (check out this article in The Guardianfor an interesting reflection/critique on Shimla’s past and present). Continue reading “Riding the Rails to Shimla”→