Art and Soul in Dharamsala

Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.

These are the things I remember most from our visit to Dharamsala, India, the next holy site we visited on Intrepid Travel’s Mountains and Mystics tour.

When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.

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And while we went to the Dalai Lama’s compound and enjoyed our fair share of Tibetan eats in the town around it (see recommendations below), it was the Norbulingka Institute that really caught my eye. Continue reading “Art and Soul in Dharamsala”

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You Are (Queer) Here is Growing!

You Are (Queer) Here is growing, and we need your help!

This project began last summer as a documentary film following two queer, gender non-conforming/non-binary South Carolinians on a journey across the globe (currently in post-production–see teaser below). Since then, it’s grown into an active travel blog and social media presence with thousands of readers/followers.

Now, with your help, I’d like to expand You Are (Queer) Here to reach a wider audience, providing more content on LGBTQ travel and diverse cultures worldwide. Find out more about what’s in store for You Are (Queer) Here’s future below, and if you like what you’ve seen so far, donate today at www.gofundme.com/you-are-queer-here-winter-campaign. Continue reading “You Are (Queer) Here is Growing!”

Thinking of Shiva

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.

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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).

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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”

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”