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Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

I feel absolutely ridiculous complaining about it, but it’s been tough. I just don’t know what to do with myself. An existential struggle, I suppose. Some would call it a good problem, but it fills me with doubt and I have no clear path or vision for my future.

I must disclose to you my immediate circumstances. I live with my extraordinarily generous and patient parents who support me fully and ask for less than a pinch of responsibility in return. I generally laze about the house and accomplish little to nothing with my days. I drink too much and spend most of my active time socializing. That, in all fairness, has been great. But it can’t go on forever.

And I had a dream once. I wanted to wander through some places that, in today’s world, count as difficult or dangerous. It wasn’t slashing through the Amazon, sure, but it was something that took preparation and confidence. I would go overland, circling the Arabian Sea from India and making my way south through Africa. And I was ready.

And then I skidded off the road and flipped over my handle bars. The doctor could have felt my heart hit the floor when he told me I needed surgery.

I sought a second opinion. I confidently told my parents the big, private hospitals would take care of me. World class medicine, all that. At my third hospital in two days, I watched the doctor lean back, lifting the x-ray to the light. He looked at me evenly.

“I believe your best option is returning to your home country.”

Finished.

So here I am. And I’m more lost than I ever was on the side of some rural road with an idling bike and a map and a gaggle of English-free rice farmers smiling at me.

Is it ridiculous, saying something like that? I have money and no obligations, and I could just ship off and wander a bunch more, either back in South Asia or, really, anywhere else in the world. But it doesn’t feel right. I just don’t find inspiration in it the way I used to. The wanderlust seems to have dried up. I think.

The other main option – workrentgroceriesdataplan – has its appeal, but it is also far from inspiring. When I returned from my last trip, I’d been away for two years and felt ready to settle down and live a centered life for a while. But this time I got cut off halfway through. It was a forced homecoming.

Hence the doubt. I’ve started preparing cover letters and sending in resumes. If I get a good job that makes me feel like I’m contributing I could see myself staying. But it’s hard because the jobs I really want I’m completely unqualified for.

I’m about eighty percent sure that I’ll slog it out for now. My life as a traveler isn’t over, I hope, but it is on hiatus. I’m sorry for taking so long to wrap up my trip and explain what happened, but I have only recently come to terms with it myself. There was supposed to be so much more.

I’ll try to post a few retrospectives soon. I hope it won’t take me as long to come up with them as it did to write this.

Photos!

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Just added a gallery of photos from my first five months. They’re portraits from India and Nepal. Click on the Photos tab up top.

Enjoy!

Climbing the Circuit

Monday, November 30th, 2009

(Photos are up for this post now, click on the photos tab at the top)

It was late for us, closing in on 8pm. We’d just agreed on a time to meet for breakfast the next morning. Four. The snow had been falling all day, and would probably keep on into the night. The guides and porters had us convinced: The snow, maybe getting worse, yes? The wind strong later in morning, we get over pass by nine. Leaving four, four thirty is best. If the snow and cold were bad here, how much worse would it be a thousand meters up, at 18,000 ft? People looked worried, scared even. Many of them had next to no experience in snow or real cold. I was woefully unprepared, with my warmest layer a hoodie and no waterproof gear at all. But it wasn’t until right as we were all saying our goodnights, with final words of encouragement for each other, that someone let it slip. Tomorrow is Friday the Thirteenth.

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal. (No, it has nothing to do with Spock or Picard, a ‘trek’ is the word the Lonely Planet (and therefore everyone else) uses for multi-day hikes in the mountains). The route loops around the Annapurna Massif; an enormous cluster of mountains vaguely in the center of the country. With a peak of 8091m, about 750m shorter than Everest, Annapurna is the eighth tallest mountain in the world. Needless to say, the views are a big reason the path proves to be so well trodden.

Yes, there is no shortage of gore-tex on The Circuit. Tourists from all over the world flock here for some strenuous walking mixed liberally with relatively luxurious living conditions. Instead of camping in flapping tents and huddling around fires, the entire trail is lined by lodges with walls, toilets, beds, blankets, wood stoves and solar-heated water (hot showers!). I had a (half-decent) pizza at 4400m. The tour groups can be a little much, sure, but I enjoyed the comforts as much as anyone.

We began in a steep sided valley at around 1000m. At first I was with three Americans, but the young couple from Washington State were keeping a very slow pace so a Chicagoan and I pressed on alone. Through forest and village we walked uphill and along the east side of the massif for several days. The further we got from the road, the more expensive food and drinks became, as everything is carried in by porter or pony train. The people were of Tibetan heritage so Hindu temples gave way to Buddhist gompas (monasteries) and bamboo pole mounted prayer flags sprouted from every rooftop.

There were also many signs of Nepal’s ongoing political struggle. Maoist flags – red with the hammer and sickle – flew prominently in a few villages. Spray paint scarred cliff walls, demanding an independent Himali state or trumpeting support for the Maoists. Two years ago the rebellion ended (for the most part) when the Maoists were granted amnesty and allowed to form a democratic party. They shocked everyone by winning the election last year.

And yet the mood of the people was refreshingly light. Locals were either outgoingly friendly or pleasantly indifferent to our presence. Even up here, isolated from so much of the world by the difficult terrain, interest in our culture dominates. I think I saw two men in Avril Lavigne t-shirts on the mountain (bringing my total in Nepal to five). Two youngsters approached me in one village and began showing me stickers of wrestlers from the WWE. They loved that I knew the names of some of them (Yes! John Cena, yes! Yes! Shawn Michaels!) and rewarded me by finding me a bamboo walking stick that some foolish soul had cast off. This stick would later prove very useful.

The further we climbed, the more impressive the scenery became. The forest turned from broad-leaved to needled, the mountains grew taller and more wonderfully snow-capped. Rounding a bend on day four we were confronted by an epic curving slab of rock, arcing 1500m (about three CN Towers) above the riverbank. It looked like one side of the halfpipe in a skatepark for the gods. Owing to the pre-Buddhist animist traditions of the area, locals refer to it as the Swarga Dwar – the Gateway to Heaven – based on the belief that the postmortem soul must ascend it after leaving the body.

That night we slept in yet another little family run lodge. We were in the upper part of Pisang, perched above the main part of the riverside village. Directly above us was Pisang’s gompa, gleaming thanks to a recent restoration and home to a handful of monks. We sat down for a quiet dinner of dhal baat (Nepal’s national dish and some damn fine hiking food: lentil soup, vegetable curry, rice, papadum, and spicy chutney are all brought until you can eat no more). Right as we were mopping up the last drops of dhal with our third helping of rice, the horns began to blow. It was the evening puja, an offering of sound and light made by the monks.

They blew eight foot long Himalayan horns, as well as smaller horns, and banged on gongs, cymbals and drums. I sat on the flagstones in the cold wind, watching them play the ancient music out over the village and the river valley below. The awesome Himalaya, drenched in snow, lined up on the other side of the valley to listen. Prayer flags whipped in the wind. The next morning the puja was repeated, and so I scaled the few steps behind my lodge to watch and soak up the atmosphere. That morning I struggled with the idea of leaving.

But leave we did. We arrived in Manang, a veritable hub town with an airport and cinemas and internet access. There we spent an extra day to acclimatize to the altitude (we were a little over 3500m) before climbing toward the pass. Dinners of spaghetti and enchiladas, games of yaniv (an Israeli card game) and chess all ensued. We climbed 400m up the valley wall to a small cave cum gompa, where a 93 year old monk blessed our impending attempt at crossing the pass. We left rested and ready to head uphill.

Two shorter days followed, allowing our systems to adjust to rapidly thinning air. Yaks grazed lazily above the path. On day eight we were in Thorung Pedi, which means The Foot of Thorung. A thousand meters above us was the Thorung La, the 5416m pass we were to cross the next day. We had woken to snow that morning, and it had gotten progressively heavier as the day wore on. People were suffering early signs of altitude sickness – headaches, nausea, fatigue. Hikers from warmer climes were frightened of the very idea of walking in snow, and my assurances that it wasn’t a big deal didn’t seem to have much effect. I guess the fact that I hadn’t brought anything waterproof or windproof didn’t lend to my credibility. Two Californians decided to head back. When this news came out I saw several others waver. The whole Friday the Thirteenth thing didn’t help.

But the next morning we set out. The snow was still falling, though lightly now, and the low clouds added an imposing closeness to the darkness. Lines of bobbing headlamps zig-zagged their way up the steep mountainside ahead of us. Apparently 4:15am was too late for some people. We had amalgamated our smaller groups of young backpackers into an international conglomerate of four Aussies, two Kiwis, three Americans, two Germans, and singles from Northern Ireland, Holland and Canada (me). Between us we had three guides and two porters. Almost immediately we were separated.

The Chicagoan I had been with since day one was sick. An Aussie couple, a girl from South Cali (who had originally been walking with the two who turned around) and I stayed with her as the rest of our fellowship pressed on. We arrived at a base camp of sorts, four hundred vertical meters above our starting point, and she told us to go on without her. I objected, but she insisted, so only ninety minutes in we were already one down. The other four of us climbed slowly through the snow, the only sound the crunching of snow beneath our feet.

Ascending further and further, I found it increasingly difficult to breathe. This manifest itself in two ways, neither of which was particular pleasant. The first was an inability to order my body parts around with the reckless impunity I usually enjoy. Unzipping my camera case for photos of huddled hikers or entirely white landscapes became a battle. Even convincing one foot to fall in front of the other was difficult. The other was a lightheaded dizziness that was, eventually, frightening. Closer to the top I would have to stop every five or ten steps and lean on my bamboo stick to catch my breath. More than a few times I thought I was going to pass out.

Yet on we went. A false top presented itself with a few lonely prayer flags and I cursed my gullibility when I saw a line of people climbing even higher beyond it. Some people were doing terribly at this point. A few ponies went by with breathless or puking foreigners bouncing in the saddle. I don’t want to know how much they paid for the ride. One of the Aussies was suffering immensely from nausea and headaches. There was a moment of inspiration, however, when the sun came out.

It was difficult to call anything ‘perfect’ at this point, but the clouds parting to reveal two immense peaks separated by the prayer flag clad pass was as beautiful a sight as I have ever seen. One peak was brown and rocky and rugged, while the other domed in ice and snow. The sun warmed my back and encouraged me on (but only five steps at a time) toward the windy pass with it’s celebratory sign (CONGRATULATION FOR THE SUCCESS!!!). A few foreigners were doing handstands and posing for endless team photos, but we snapped a few shots with each other or with the sign then quickly began the descent.

The way down was much, much more dangerous than the ascent. With the fresh snow the path was slippery and, lower down, muddy. It was steep and often traipsed precariously along sharp drop-offs. At one point it was a tight-rope walk along the edge of a cliff, with the snow packed down into ice by previous boots. My Aussie friend, still feeling like he’d drank ten times too much Nepal Ice beer the night before, gladly accepted my bamboo stick for the rest of the day. Now without my prop, I just let gravity take over and basically ran down the side of the mountain.

That night we were all gathered around a fireplace eating pizzas and drinking beers. It had seemed out of place at first, but now the Bob Marley Hotel and Rasta Restaurant was home. Around nightfall, our Chicago amigo, lost to us so early in the day, strolled in. She had crossed the pass three hours after us, after a drastic improvement in her condition. Celebrations were now even more called for. The next day we simply hung out in the town for a rest day, exploring some nearby Hindu and Buddhist holy sites.

From there, our walk was over. Many people chose to spend another week walking back down the other side of the massif, but there are roads on the west side and so we chose the four wheel option. We spent a night in Tatopani, which translates directly to ‘hot water’. There we sat in the natural hot springs drinking locally made apple brandy and beer (and listening to some sweet Nepali pop).

It was, all told, a wonderful experience. The fact that it was far more difficult than I had anticipated just added to the sense of accomplishment. It also renewed my patriotism somewhat, as even though I had far less gear than pretty much everyone else up there, I handled the temperature better than most. There are some moments, I guess, where it pays to be Canadian.

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts, where I’ll discuss sleeping in a bank and crashing my beautiful motorbike into a man and his wife on their bike. At over 50km/h. Wheee.

Diwali! (and movement)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Sorry about disappearing there. Had a good time in Rishikesh and have spent the last week making my way into Nepal. Some pretty rural places along the way, so no real internet. But I went tiger spotting (without actually seeing one) in the Nepali jungle and am now in Lumbini, the birthplace off the Buddha. More on this soon. Here’s a post on a religious festival in India).

It would be a played out travel-writing cliché to call India an exciting melange of the ancient and modern. Every stupid culture is a blend of old and new (except, perhaps, for those isolated indigenous tribes that have yet to discover the world of fridge magnets and R. Kelly). Even relatively infantile countries such as Canada and Australia combine old European perspectives with fresher (mostly American) influences.

In India, however, the word ancient actually applies. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, centered around its longest running major religion. Hinduism developed over 1500 years before Christianity, and the famously Buddhist concepts of karma, reincarnation and liberation from the cycles of rebirth are actually appropriated directly from it. Hindus consider Siddhartha, the Buddha who began teaching the Path to Enlightenment 2500 years ago, to be one of the ten major incarnations of Vishnu. Buddhists disagree, of course, but seemingly without anger. Big surprise, there.

Considering the origins and longevity of the tradition, it was with some excitement that I considered where to be for Diwali, the widely celebrated Hindu festival of light and renewal. Much like back home for Christmas, locals hang strings of coloured lights from their homes and businesses. They light candles and release floating lanterns down rivers. Garlands of (real, so often wilted) flowers are strung up everywhere, and people are generally happy and wishing each other a Diwali Dhamaka!

Based as much on time and distance as auspiciousness, I decided to stay in Rishikesh. It’s position alongside Ganga endows it with some holiness, and its mountainous surroundings provide some scenic background as well as cooler temperatures. It still reaches thirty in the afternoons here, though the evenings are pleasantly cool. Asking locals about the celebrations, however (Lanterns? Singing? Candle lighting?), I was met consistently with a single word: fireworks.

Of course. What other direction could modern Indians take the celebration of light conquering darkness? What better way to symbolize knowledge overcoming ignorance than with explosions? And I mean fucking explosions! These aren’t the piddling Roman Candles you stupidly fired at your friends when you were fourteen. Nah, the locals here can get their hands on some of the big fellas you’d trust only with trained professionals. Locals like the pack of preteens in the alley behind your guesthouse.

Hilariously, the most popular option seems to emit little to no light at all. They’re just little cylinders of gun powder designed purely for maximum pop. The blast easily registers an eleven on Spinal Tap’s dial, and if you’re close enough you actually feel the concussion wave. There’s nothing quite like watching three Israeli girls jump six feet in the air, spin around with death stares blazing, only to see two sheepish six year olds giggling behind them.

Yes, the absolute lack of safety precautions which makes life in India so exciting becomes even more obvious during Diwali. Instead of stepping a reasonable distance away, the locals seem preoccupied with ducking their heads. I guess as long as only your back and shoulders get singed you’re doing well. A spinning disc unit that throws off ankle-level sparks was danced around by three kids about four or five years old. Much to our shocked amusement, they all lifted their pant-legs, as if scorching their feet and ankles was fine but holes in trouser hems would be unacceptable.

It was a much rowdier celebration that we had expected. The staff at our guesthouse restaurant didn’t close up until 11, which meant we had fireworks exploding in front of our third floor balcony until midnight. At least you could brace yourself for the sound of artillery fire thanks to the bright glowing light that filled the room as the rocket ascended to eye (and ear) level. The police and army stations that are ubiquitous in every tourist town were understandably on guard. Bombs and gunfire could have been going off all night without them having any idea.

It was quite the party. It lasted three nights of adventurous walking in dark streets and laneways. Dodging cow, horse, dog or mystery shit is a normal part of pedestrian life here. So is avoiding the aforementioned animals, semi-drunk young men on scooters, maniacal jeep drivers trying to dump their loads of tourists, and truck drivers with questionable brakes.  It’s been fun adding flaming projectiles to the mix. One group of locals started firing rockets into the river. Some of them bounced off the surface and careened onto the opposite bank, where other groups of locals were sending off their own barrage. I watched a South African friend get saved by a rickety fence as a runaway rocket struck it and bounced to the ground before exploding.

India, the land of near misses.

Steam Dreams…

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

I’ve slept terribly here. At first I chalked it up to jet lag, which I’m sure has been part of the problem. But there is definitely something more going on, now a few days after getting here. When I sleep, it’s only for two hours at a time. Every time. I can stack together several of these two hour blocks if I’m lucky, but I’ll wake up – wide awake – every two hours, no matter how long I’m down. What’s more, I’ve been dreaming vividly, and remembering it, both rarities for me. All of the dreams have been set in Toronto, as if my mind has refused to believe we’ve left.

Steam dreams, I’ve started calling them.

It’s so hot here, there is no cold side of the pillow. If I lie in bed reading or watching TV, I have to roll over every twenty or so minutes to allow the sweat on my back to dry. After twenty minutes on my side or stomach, I have to roll again to dry that side. Rinse, repeat. Needless to say I’m excited to get out of Delhi and into the cool mountains, but I’m still waiting on my motorbike.

The dreams, as I mentioned, are all in Toronto. They involve people from different points of my life, often mixed. I was wrestling one of my university roommates, under water, in front of my junior high school. I was riding my bike down Spadina Avenue with a girl I used to work with, singing Milli Vanilli.

I  had a great one in which I was driving a luxury convertible around the city with three high school friends. We pulled up to a stoplight and, crossing the street in front of us, there was the old grumpy guy from Corner Gas. He was lugging several bulging bags of heavy groceries. My friends and I knew him quite well, enough to know he lived in the east end like us, and that we could give him a ride home. He resisted but we persisted, and before you knew it we were spinning away with him wedged in the back.  Suddenly I was having that classic dream frustration of not being able to properly control myself or, in this case, my vehicle. For several seconds I simply couldn’t find the gas pedal, then a split second later my foot was made of depleted uranium and we were gunning it straight at a bus. Luckily, the laws of physics don’t apply, so we simply bumper-carred off of obstacles and spun out into the grass in the Don Valley. At this point, things got weirder.

I jumped up and, turning to my companions, laughed.

“It’s only a dream, fellas! So none of it matters. I’ll by flying home now.”

And, sure enough, I jumped out of my seat in the classic comic book flying pose: right arm extended upward, left arm clutched to my chest, right leg fully extended, left knee brought up. This is, clearly, the most efficient flying position a human being can manage. I actually did pretty well: I leaped up and though I felt the tug of gravity as I climbed, once I reached the apex of the jump gravity got lazy and gave up on me. Now I was sort of suspended six feet above the car. My friends applauded sarcastically. I started kicking my legs (yes, I tried the swim, the egg beater and the bicycle kick) and flapping my arms. I climbed a few more feet this way.

Then, in a minor epiphany, I remembered: The laws of physics don’t apply. So I simply closed my eyes and, holding that comic book flying pose, I willed myself into the sky. After a few seconds I opened my eyes and saw that I had climbed at least another thirty feet or so.

“This is going to take a while,” I thought. I started looking for a streetcar.

At any rate, you get the idea. Has anyone else experienced something like this? It’s not like I’m delerious or anything. I’m staying well hydrated (I’m approaching eight litres a day here) and I’m eating well. It’s just damn hot.

Keeping you occupied

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Well, you’re here. Now what?

It’s going to take me some time to get things set up properly and to begin posting regularly with stimulating content, so for now here are a few things you can do to keep yourself busy.

First, read the Who? Where? and Why? pages I’ve used to describe a bit about who I am (in case you forgot), where I’m going, and why I’ve chosen Non-Essential Travel as the name of my site.

Second, take a look at the layout and let me know what you like/don’t like. It’s a pretty standard wordpress template I’m using, with a few personal touches (the banner photo up top is one of mine from Luang Prabang, Laos). But I’m sure there are some improvements I could be making, and some feedback would be helpful.

Lastly, drop a comment or two, so the site doesn’t look so lonely.

Under construction

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Welcome to nonessentialtravel.com. This site is mostly set up to allow me to document and share the stories/experiences I’ll have on my two year(ish) trip that begins this summer. Right now I’m just in the process of building the site and its features. So for now don’t expect too much in the way of content.

But thanks for coming. I’d love any feedback you might have, especially relating to the look, layout and/or navigation. Everything – other than it’s existence, I’ve already paid for that – is subject to change.

So feel free to comment or email me. My contact info is under “Who?”

In the beginning…

Monday, April 20th, 2009

So I guess we’ve started up here.

This should be an interesting project. More soon.