Riding the Rails to Shimla

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).

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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).

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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 Guardian for an interesting reflection/critique on Shimla’s past and present). Continue reading “Riding the Rails to Shimla”

Beginning Anew in New Delhi

After going solo for a few days in Agra (and a solid 24 hours in Delhi), I hit a hard reset and joined a tour group (with Intrepid Travel, which came highly recommended by Nomadic Matt, one of the writers/bloggers who made this round-the-world journey seem infinitely more possible than I initially imagined).

I must say, I had (and still have) mixed feelings about tour groups. For one, I feel it sets a traveler off from the rest of a country and its people in a little, protected bubble. You get tons of stuff taken care of for you, which can be nice, but it comes at the expense of one’s independence—for example, not being able to stay an extra day or two here or taking a side trip there. At the same time, I feel like a traveler can get so much more information about a place or city than when they’re going it alone, when one might only guess what those sculptures above the door mean or why the shopkeepers hang red pepper and lime outside their doors (a thing I actually wouldn’t have noticed without this tour). When I’m solo, I’m so fixated on staying safe, getting from point A to point B, and making all the decisions, I don’t always get the chance to notice things. So, in that regard, a tour can make all the difference.

Anyway, the list goes on—both pros and cons—but I’d have to say, I had a wonderful experience with Intrepid. I joined largely because before I left, I’d read so many travel warnings for solo female travelers I was concerned about going it alone in India. I think I’d be more confident now, but part of that is because I had this great intro to the northern part of India thanks to this tour (and our wonderful tour leader).

So with that in mind, let’s delve into Delhi.

2016-09-26 16.13.20.jpg Continue reading “Beginning Anew in New Delhi”

In the Shadow of the Taj

Monkeys chasing each other across rooftops.

The smoke from your cigarette.

The curtain of the night falling behind the Taj, its shadowy silhouette.

God is close.

Allah moves across the face of the stone, never seen, but always present.

Prayers called up to the night sky, shouted and sung from speakers like megaphones, echoing across Agra at sunset.

You say you wish they’d be quiet. That prayers are meant to be whispered, shared only between you and God.

A chorus of prayers.

A family of monkeys. A mother sliding down a wall to scoop up her child, who looks too afraid to climb.

In the street, a little girl plays with a yellow balloon, dodging motorbikes and the big, dark puddle in the middle of her street.

You tell me the Taj was more beautiful years ago. That now the pollution gets in the way.

You tell me that not all Indian men are like what they say but to be careful in Delhi.

You tell me about a French woman you took to dinner and showed around for three days and how she asked you to come see her in France and how, when her plane finally left, you couldn’t believe she was gone.

How you refused your family’s proposals for arranged marriages, put it off by getting degree after degree, and finally just said “no.” You were sent out from your family’s home. You only talk to your mother now, occasionally. Still, your younger brothers can’t get married until you do.

You say we are different. We are both different. That’s why you talk to me. That people here all go in one direction, but you go the other.

You believe in God but are not religious. When a bell rings—a Hindu sign for good luck—you don’t pray like your friend, but you place your fist to your chest and then to your lips, the same thing my friend did whenever we passed a Hindu temple on the road.

You say we are all connected. That race and religion can’t keep us apart. We are different, but we are connected. Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Taj”

Impressions of Agra: From the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort

What do you say about the Taj Mahal?

It’s beautiful and mystical and a monument to love.

So I’ll let it speak for itself.

taj-1taj-3taj-6In the meantime, I finally rode an autorickshaw (a couple of them, actually, all around Agra). Did I get ripped off? Probably. But I was mostly able to negotiate. I also rode a cycle rickshaw (which I took to Chimman Lal Puri, this amazing hole-in-the-wall eatery by the Jama Masjid mosque that was recommended in the Rough Guides India guidebook I had).

And, more importantly, I saw the Agra Fort. Continue reading “Impressions of Agra: From the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort”

Going Solo in Bangalore

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Photo by Boyeon Han

Finally, the time came when I had to say goodbye to my two wonderful traveling companions: my dear Korean sister Boyeon and my new Indian friend Roshan.

Roshan got as as far as Bangalore (with a stopover in Mysore to take in a couple sights), and then we both saw Boyeon off at the airport. And then I was alone at the quiet hostel I’d selected (for its quietness), though Roshan told me if I needed anything he was just a phone call away.

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Photo by Boyeon Han

And finally solo, my confidence suddenly left me. I wandered around Bangalore the next day (and found a lovely coffee shop, managed to get some antibiotics at the pharmacy to cure my Delhi belly, tried to get a SIM card and failed, and got some delicious Middle Eastern food at a nearby eatery). I mean, all around a successful day. And yet.

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Palace in Mysore

I was afraid to take an autorickshaw (popularly known in India just as “autos”)—not because of their potential lack of safety but because I’d heard of plenty of foreigners getting ripped off by the drivers and didn’t want to deal with haggling, with deciding if a driver was gaming me, with trying to force someone to turn on the meter.

I tried desperately to book a train ticket to Agra (my next stop), but the online booking systems of several different sites seemed to be trying to thwart me.

And it seemed quite likely that someone had rifled through my backpack at the hostel while I was out exploring earlier in the day.

My one reprieve after all of this was my sisters’ friends, John and Alison, who live in Bangalore with their two young kids and had invited me over for pizza that night. Because, you know, when you’re a solo traveler, you’re never really alone. Continue reading “Going Solo in Bangalore”

Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir

“I’m sorry I have to ask you this, but are you a ‘sir’ or a ‘madam’?”

The security guard at the Taj Mahal looked at me earnestly. He was helping me figure out where to store my daypack. The lockers were at another entrance, I’d found out. I couldn’t bring in my computer that was tucked in the depths of my bag.

But first, he had to know this one thing.

*

When I left for India, I had all the intentions of passing as a man. I was worried about safety. Boyeon and I bought matching rings so we could pretend to be a married (heterosexual) couple, if necessary. I was totally prepared.

Except that I was also totally silly. Continue reading “Why, Hello, Sir-Madam-Sir”

Wild Haven

If I’d known how amazing Roshan’s family’s resort in Tamil Nadu would be, I might’ve asked that we go there first.

After all our driving, all our exploring, he finally took us to his home in Masinagudi, the place where he’d grown up, the village where he works.

And what a place it is. His father owns and runs Wild Haven Resort, an old colonial hunting lodge that he turned into a set of lodgings that would be memorable even for the most seasoned travelers. The accommodations were, of course, lovely and well-kept.

But more impressive were the views. And the nightly bonfires. And the calls of tigers we could hear while sitting around said bonfires.

Because, as the name implies, Wild Haven is in the wild, surrounded by mountains, almost encapsulated by the nearby wildlife refuge.

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And if there’s one thing I love as much as water, it’s the mountains. Waking up to them. Breathing in their heights. Marveling at their beauty. Feeling that quiet invitation to come join them, wherever the path leads.

I think that’s one reason I loved my Korean hometown Yeosu so much—all those green mountains pressed right up against the sea.

But now, I had another place to love: Wild Haven. Continue reading “Wild Haven”

The Backwaters of Kerala

There is something inherently peaceful to me about water. Be it rain, ocean, river, lake, or otherwise, being near water almost immediately soothes me.

I remember when I was younger and the summer thunderstorms would come in, and my dad and I would sit on our screened-in back porch in Raleigh and wait for the rains to come. We’d count the seconds between lightning and thunder and guess how far away the storm was. And when the clouds finally broke loose over us, there was something beautiful about the rain pounding on the roof, pooling around us, while we were watching from safety.

I felt the same comfort waking up every morning to the strait between Yeosu peninsula and the small island where I lived with my Korean homestay family in my early 20s, watching the water lap at the banks and the fishing boats puttering by. I would breathe in and out and feel inexplicably comforted.

This was no different when Boyeon and I went to Kerala. When we got there (after a long, arduous journey), with Boyeon’s friend Roshan as our guide, we went immediately to the water, where we stayed at a lakeside resort that looked out at the sunset moving swiftly across the waves and the boats criss-crossing their way to their finishing places.

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When given the chance, we also decided to take a houseboat on the Keralan backwaters. For that, we have Roshan to thank. After his friends and friends of friends said that they were all booked up (Roshan’s social network is amazing), he managed to find a boat in Alleppey that had space for us for an overnight cruise. Continue reading “The Backwaters of Kerala”

Bowties, Binders, and Binaries

Keyes and I were sitting on the top ledge on the South side of the State House, looking toward Main Street and USC’s campus and Immaculate Consumption, one of the my favorite coffeeshops. It was dark, but the lights from downtown shone all around us.

“But what about—” I stopped myself. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. “What about countries with strict gender binaries—you know, for dress and where you can go and stuff. I want to be culturally sensitive, but I’m not growing my hair out.”

Keyes paused and looked at me as if that were the most absurd concern ever. “Of course not,” they said. “You’ll pass as a man.” Continue reading “Bowties, Binders, and Binaries”

Home (in My Own Skin)

I feel like I’m on a constant search for home—for “homeness,” that feeling of belonging, of alignment. That resonance that says, “Yes, I’m here.”

I feel that “homeness” more with people than with places. After a long dinner and longer conversation with a friend. After a long walk with someone when we’ve both allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Or sometimes it’s just a look or a hug that makes me think, “You’ve come this way before.”

I’ve felt it in a few places—Korea, Ireland, New Orleans. I’ve often tried to figure out where it comes from. The loving community I have? A kinship in spirit with others around me? Similar personality types? Freedom? Love?

I can’t pinpoint it, and thus, I am always on the search.

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Continue reading “Home (in My Own Skin)”