Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The best way to save money while traveling? Realizing that conversation is free

He was an older gentleman, maybe in his mid-to-late 40’s.  He was dressed in a button up shirt, a silk tie, and shoes wafting an air of business. He was not adorning a sports coat, yet it looked as if he would be wearing one shortly. The contrast to my filthy body, sporting the same clothes as the previous day, topped with disheveled hair from a sleepless night on an airport floor, was uncanny. Yet, this contradiction did not halt nor inhibit the gentlemen from accepting my invitation for conversation. The physical disparity held no weight over the shinning similarities which linked two strangers on a sky train in a foreign land; the medium of conversation toppled societal pretensions.

One stereotype often cited for the infamous American abroad is that we have a hard time slowing down. In the US, life is rushed. Seeing as we marketing the idea of “on the go,” us folks from the states aren’t always known for savoring the moment. Traveling at high velocity, though, is one of the biggest mistakes ANY traveler can make whilst abroad. The truth is, while attractions and activities may be the initial pull to a destination, the most impactful aspect of travel doesn’t exist in guidebooks. It is conversation, and it is free. To find it, one needs only to take a moment, settle in, and let their guard take a much needed vacay.

Having just left India, I had almost forgotten the potential and enjoyability of random conversation. It isn’t to say that Indians don’t indulge in conversation (in fact, I can’t remember ever being silent in India). The sad truth is, many Indians who I was approached by only saw conversation as a tool to get money. I found myself moving quickly, keeping up a much needed coat of armor, and doing my best to discern friend from hustler trying to lure me into an incredibly uncomfortable situation. Arriving back in Bangkok (thanks to the aforementioned gentlemen from above), and more importantly, Chiang Mai, I was quickly reminded (through Lanna hospitality!) why slowing down is so important.

While realizing I had no agenda, I found myself eating a local Thai restaurant. As my meal arrived, a soft spoken, elderly, Thai monk asked if he could share my bench. Still reeling in new found hardness from India, I reluctantly obliged. He asked me where I was from, and I responded, “the States.” He asked again, I responded, “Colorado.” Again, he asked, so I told him “Boulder.” Once more, he asked the same question, and I said “Arapahoe and 7th.” He replied in broken, yet intelligible, English, “Oh bottom of Hill, much more quiet than where I lived on College.” I stared in disbelief. He laughed, and then proceeded to take us down the path of the most epic tale I’ve ever heard from any holy man to grace this earth. Sharing stories of stints of homelessness, failed inter-racial relationships, guided meditations, “pushing” 880 pounds of “fronted” weed, and preparing for a 6-month meditation job in LA starting in December, I found hours of my time had been wisped away in the most desirable manner. I also realized my mind was blown. I don’t know what attracted this man to my table, but It’s not every day you meet a monk on the opposite side of the world with whom you can joke about the merits and demerits of “The Bus Stop" (Google it if you aren’t from Boulder). 

Whether it be talking with another westerner about psychology on top of your favorite waterfall, or sharing a table with a drug-dealing Thai monk, conversation is the most sacred and treasured facet of travel. Like any precious commodity, finding ones that shimmer, shine, and endure the elements isn’t always easy. With some practice, sifting through the silt becomes easier. While preparing for your journey, remember to leave your rushed existence at home, and leave room in your bag to pack in as much human connection as possible. You never know who is waiting down the road to change your life with their words.

Photo courtesy of MIT


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

So, what’s your endgame?

Whenever my family and I talk about my “future,” (which is seemingly a lot), my Mom loves to tell me a story from my youth. When I was young, she took me to get a haircut at a local salon. With this being pre-chubby and awkward stage, I was still cute, leading to much swooning from the stylist whose chair I was placed in. The punch line comes when said stylist decided to ask me what I wanted to be in the future. According to my Mom, without a second thought, I responded, “I don’t think I’ll take a job”. The stylist laughed, and I’m pretty sure my Mom’s head dropped in her hands, wondering how she raised such a monster. Fast forward a life time, and as I sit in a café in Darjeeling, sipping tea and enjoying the view of the Himalayas, I once again am between jobs. With free time on my hands, insightful conversation in abundance, and world class tea running through my veins, the answer to what is the “end game,” to my travel appears to still be opaque.

A year and a half ago, I was working a non-profit job, 5 days a week, with benefits, and paid-time off. Following the decision to follow my heart abroad, I quit, and up until August, I was subsisting off of the pay from a free lance writing job matched with the low cost of living in Southeast Asia. Now, with a clean slate in front of my face (aka unemployment), I’m currently administering fatal blows to my savings account. Though incredibly fun and rewarding, this lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run.  As much as I embody the ways of a tumbleweed, the truth is, I’ve found when my mind wanders, it often drifts to thoughts of the next step. This, of course, fortifies the question of what is the “end game?”

To those outside of the freewheeling travel community, end game conversations can look like this: College, career, family, mortgage, 2 weeks off each year, death. As appealing as that sounds, what travel has revealed to me, like the Himalayas I’m currently gawking at as the fog lifts off the valley, is that there is only one true end game, and that is the inevitable departure from this earth. For those of us oscillating between adolescents and adulthood, the luxury of an end game isn’t available. We don’t have the job security of the generations of our parents. In fact, we seemingly don’t have jobs period. Our lives don’t have end games. What we have in front of us is stages. Each new job, degree, relationship, closed door, triumph, and failure is a new chapter in the epic tale unfolding that is your life story. Yes some of us may have promising careers at the moment, with a seemingly endless ladder to ascend, but how many of us have also seen our friends in those positions laid off? How many of us have worked for free in internships for far too long, only to still not get that break into the career we’ve poured our blood, sweat, tears, and finances into? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the answer is quite overwhelming.

I’m not knocking those who have taken the more traditional path by any means (in fact, often I’m awe of them!). What I am saying is that for the rest of us, realizing life is made up of multiple stages, instead of an end game, eases much stress bestowed by unreasonable societal ideals. I’ll admit that this tumbleweed lifestyle is one phase, one chapter, in the erratic and unpredictable path that defines my existence. I know it won’t last forever, but does that make it any less important than other chapters? Is catering my intentions to be able to gain money to hop on a plane and gain perspective really a bad thing? Am I actually straying from the “path,” to that elusive end game, instead of growing towards something real? I don’t think so.  My path having not dropped me hard enough that I can’t get up also seems to fortify this belief.

I’ll admit the map of my life’s journey is still a piece of esoteric art, but I can tell you that I’m happy and content in my current stages. While I may not want to be a vagabond for life, I do know that there are far too many places and too many faces belonging to strangers I want to familiarize myself with before “settling down.” And you know what, that is OK. For those of us in, above, and below the “millennial,” generation, we are not in a head-to-head, single elimination match with existence. We are in a never ending game of Monopoly, or maybe Risk. We have plans of attacks, glimpses of triumphs, and moments of clarity where the supposed end game is on the horizon. For each of these stages, there is a reciprocal downfall, failure, and stroll along a grim path with no fixed star or guiding light to balance the scales. These are phases and chapters, and while the uncertainty may not be easy, it is a blessing in disguise.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know with each loss comes a brand new opening in life to fill with something new and exciting. If you find the notion of staying in one place daunting, looking at life in chapters and stages allows you to view existence in a much more inviting manor. And to the stylist I made giggle so many years ago, I may not have a distinct answer to your question, but I can tell you I’m gonna be just fine. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

11 not so stellar, yet essential experiences in India

Ah India, breath it in. Well, don’t breath in too deep, unless you want to inhale an amalgamate of cow excrement, exhaust fumes, and intoxicating splendors of the tongue. While India has a seemingly infinite array of places to go and attractions to visit, the truth is that not everything goes forth as planned. While the list of essential experiences in India is ever expanding, there are, of course, inevitable less-than-stellar situations one will face. Alas, with travel being an exercise in exorcising judgment, here is a list of 11 experiences you are bound to have while in India that may test your patience.

1.)    Stepping in cow pies – Cows are literally roaming free everywhere in India. Even if you aren’t a big beef fan, by the end of your trip you’ll find yourself engrossed with these massive, majestic creatures. The only down side is the amount of excrement the behemoths can create. For those who aren’t aware of where they walk, a foot in shit is definitely in your future. Don’t worry, though, it happens to everyone. In fact, most people see it as a sigh of good luck! 

2.)    Being gored by a seemingly shanti cow – While most the cows are pretty calm and sweet, some of them get annoyed with being touched, slapped, and almost killed by Indian helicopters (rickshaws) on the daily. Ergo, if you mess with the bull, be prepared to get the horns. Just try and make sure you aren’t the one in close enough proximity to be on the receiving end of a powerful head butt.

3.)    Getting clipped by a vehicle cruising through narrow streets – Using a general word like “vehicle,” is the only way to describe all the things that can kill you on Indian streets. Be it a motorbike, car, jeep, rickshaw, human rickshaw, bicycle, or a stampede of goats, if you don’t get out of the way, you are going to feel the pain. Your best bet is to stay your course and let the conductor of the vehicle weave around you.

4.)    Involuntarily participating in a large scale scam- While some of the occurrences on this list are easy to laugh off, this one unfortunately is not. In many parts of India (mostly large cities) large scale scams are created to extort money from tourists. The scam starts with a taxi driver, but usually involves friends placed throughout the city, at hotels, restaurants, and even tourist attractions. Most of the time you end up being taken to a fake destination, or told your hotel has been burned down or closed. In any light, these scams pry on the naïve and the caring, and end up costing most people their Indian innocence. 

5.)    Being lied directly to your face- I’ve been told that maybe fibs mean different things in different cultures, but in many parts of India, they are words which local people say to foreigners. I’m not saying all Indians are liars, but those who interact with tourists seem to have no problem saying something that is absolutely untrue directly to your face.

6.)    Getting hustled by a “holy man” – If a person wants give you tika on your forehead or pray for your family at a holy site, it’s gonna cost you. Be prepared to decline their offer or else dish out a tip you think is fare (which will be scoffed at).

7.)    “Dehli Belly” – …it happens to all of us. Here’s to hoping you are in a nice hotel with a bucket and western toilet! 

8.)    Paying western prices for handmade clothing – This is particular to Rajisthan, but can occur anywhere. India is known for its clothing. Travelers can find fantastic handmade garments for next to nothing. You can even have these clothes tailor made. With that being said, tailors know what their work goes for in the west, so unless you are ready to put on your bargaining face, you may have better luck getting fitted for that fancy suite elsewhere. 

9.)    Taking a rickshaw to the wrong destination and being left – Rickshaw drivers can be dicks. They also don’t care about you or your destination. These ingredients can and will add up to you paying to be taken far away from the destination you are hoping to visit. 

10.) Drinking a bang lassie without realizing what a bang lassie actually is - :)

11.) Having your heart torn out by street children – For most visitors to India, experiencing  extreme poverty is one of the toughest aspects of the trip. The street children seem to know this, milking it to the fullest. Even a stern, cold ass honky like myself has trouble trying to avoid a group of street children. Be prepared for these adorable youngsters trying to hustle you. Just remember, giving money only encourages kids to leave school. As hard as it is to say no, it really is better for the children’s future. 

Hopefully getting passed these situations doesn’t deter you from a visit to India. It may not all be fun and games, but if you are willing to sift through the bad, the good is incredible!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Experiencing a cremation in the holy city of Varanasi

Varanasi in all its glory

Like many tourists before me, I arrived in Varanasi looking for a holy experience. With this being one of the main pilgrimage points for Indians, due to its proximity to the holy Ganga River, I thought this may be the place may be a holy catalyst. Varanasi’s storied past and stellar reputation breads excitement. It almost seems as if a trip to India isn’t complete without it. So, after 26 hours on a train and one bumpy rickshaw ride, I found myself on the banks of the holy river, looking for an authentic Indian experience.

I made my way down the slippery, squalid steps of a lesser known Ghat to where all the action was occurring. There was a large gathering, and while normally shy, I found myself weaving through the crowd to see the spectacle at hand. On the temporary banks of the overflowing river, four men ushered a bamboo gurney charioting their fallen loved one. Near where the body would meet the water, there was a wooden altar set ablaze. The men fully submerged the body, then proceeded to chant, pray, and wash themselves and the fallen with the murky, brown water. The body and pallbearers remained submerged for nearly 30 minutes. As the fire was feed and began to grow, my new found boldness faded, and I retreated to a nearby, more secluded perch.

The process of the cremation isn’t one that occurs rapidly. The body, the ushers, and those surrounding spend much time looking out over the flowing waters. As I watched from my elevated vantage point, I noticed that there wasn’t a single female on the banks, or in the surrounding crowd. Unlike a western funeral, I also saw onlookers come to gaze at the procession, as well as try to sell tourists an opportunity to get a nice, “snap” of the body for 200 rupees. At one point, I even had a group of Indians come to take a photo of me, followed with offers to imbibe in their local moonshine and/or potent, burning chillum. The boys were reluctant accept my declination, and were even more reluctant to return to the procession when called, due to an ember still burning in the chillum. This is the point when the body was finally placed atop the mound of flaming logs. After a few moments, I found myself unable to bear anymore. Having experienced enough death in my mere 26 years, and not anxiously anticipating inevitable funerals of loved ones in the future, my time at the cremation came to a close.

While seeing the cremation was the authentic situation I was looking for, I started to feel uncomfortable witnessing something so intimate for a person, a family whom I’ve never known. The truth is, this thought is purely created through a western lens.  India is a spectacle. Each and every day the streets, sounds, and smells are a show, yet not created for an audience. With a population so large, the idea of intimacy or seclusion is next to impossible. People performing all their daily doings publically has created a culture of showmanship where even the simplest acts are under subject of passerby. This has only been exacerbated by the influx of tourists. Whether you are purchasing food for a meal, or the crazy westerner bathing in the Ganga in a bikini, your actions will render a crowd. Knowing this is necessary to survive and thrive in India.

As is life, Varanasi is subject to the same fate as many popular destinations in India; consumer driven and a vestigial of its past. For those willing to sift through the metaphorical shit, Varanasi is a place that offers a plethora of authentic experiences, and a look at what makes India such an appealing destination. The trick is learning how to discern the pukka from the contrived.

Photo courtesy of Mana Hotels