A quick jaunt to Thailand

I'm reeling from leaving India -- two days earlier than I'd had in my head, wisely enough, as my visa expired on the 18th. So I checked on Thursday to see what time my flight was Sunday -- and realized it was actually Friday, giving me just enough time to pack up, buy a FREE TIBET t-shirt, and board an overnight bus to Delhi. Sad as I was to leave, I won't be romanticizing this particular overnight journey, on a government bus with extremely unforgiving seats* and the general gloom of leaving the mountains for a massive sweltering city. 

 

In the gleaming oasis of calm luxury that is the Delhi airport, I was mistaken for a man four times (sir, sir, sir, and in the bathroom, pointed at by the attendant who giggled and said boy). It must be the new haircut I got at the two seat barbershop in Dharmasala, Deepti translating to the barber as motorcycles whizzed by on both open sides of the tiny shop tucked between streets. Or my Brooklyn Cyclones hat that I never take off, multi-functioning as sun visor, sun screen, eye mask, and a shield against the man that turned around in his seat on the bus and looked at me for two straight minutes.

Thailand feels in many ways an inverse of India. Where in parts of India I hardly saw women at all, in Thailand women are everywhere: pulling me into the notorious Go Go Bars, offering massages for 100 baht an hour ($3), always stepping in to help translate when communication fails, to walk me to the place I'd asked directions for. The cool Himalayans are a distant memory, and there are many moments -- in the mall, on a rooftop above the Chao Phrayo River, snaking through the city and surrounded by glimmering skyscrapers -- that I forget where I am. 

Days ago I stood at the mouth of the Lahesh snow caves, where a blackened and melting glacier, last year's snow, was carved into domed caves from below by a river. It was frigid, but still, we stopped to eat a snickers bar, smoke a cigarette, play the flute.*** I'd trekked 1,300 vertical meters up to get there with a tent and bag and way too many apples on my back. I wasn't expecting it to be so difficult, but we climbed nearly a mile in vertical elevation in only 12 kilometers. The hike was steep and rocky, in and out of dense rhododendron forests, the valleys filled with mist that moved in and out. For a moment, it cleared, and we saw sun beams behind gorgeous cumulus stacks over the mountains, and stopped to sit and watch it with a stranger. 

As the entire town of Dharmasala had been sold out of camp fuel for a month, the only options for hot food were what was available from three little shack restaurants atop Triund. Restaurants on a mountain? Well, the hike is extremely popular: you see every idiot from Delhi climbing up in dress shoes. Aand restaurant is a stretch. One had no eggs; one had to paranthas; one had no maggi; none of them had vegetables of any sort. But they were extremely friendly and served up amazing food quickly. Talking with the owner of one of the shacks over the most delicious dinner I had in India (Maggi**** aka ramen with an omelette cut up into it) I learned that there'd been three casualties on the trail this season alone, and I thanked Shiva for keeping my shoes on the ground. 

Triund, the peak with the restaurants, is the meeting of three mountain ranges, and also another name of Lord Shiva (he has many names) and is known to be his home. Sometimes the trail was marked just with the symbol of Shiva, painted red on a rock. The entire ridge line was dotted with little white temples for Shiva, stacked with his trident. At each, I lit a dark brown incense (Shiva loves smoke) and rung a bell to wake him. 

Sleeping atop the mountain, I had an official guide: a trusty ringpa*****  who slept right outside our tent all night and followed us to the bathroom, staring at us while we peed in the dark, and growling at anyone who came to close to the tent. I woke up to a cacaphony of teletubby/baby noises which turned out to be a herd of goats and sheep walking on both sides of my tent, and for a minute or two, I knew what it was like to be a big old rock in the middle of a river. 

I'm on my way north from Bangkok, loving being out of the city though it is still far too hot for my tastes. Yesterday, I went to the Erawan waterfalls in Western Thailand. The bright blue water runs over limestone hills, and deposits minerals as it goes, creating an unearthly white and green staircase of rock it cascades over in 7 levels over a few kilometers. I shared a taxi with four other tourists on the way there who turned out to be not just from the states, and not just from Minnesota, but from my same hometown. (They were nice, as Minnesotans are, but when you're on the other side of the world, you don't really want to be hanging out with people from your hometown, and with each oh fer sure and oh I bet I missed my Indian friends more and more). 

Tonight I am staying in an guesthouse on the river in Ayutthaya, built of dark, gleaming teak, with old wooden windows that open out onto a garden. Tomorrow, I'll rent a bike and visit the ruins of the Ayuttayan empire. The future? After I go north, it all rests on my visa applications: I have one out to India and one out to Vietnam. I love this: the future out of my hands. 

Love,

TF

*In Bangkok, I met a hilarious Spanish girl, who I've been traveling with, who called me Patsy for a good 36 hours before I realized she wasn't just badly mispronouncing Tracy. Patsy: a foolish, easily tricked person. Is this a sign, a signal, a metaphor??**I think it's finally time to move on from the "back-is-where-the-cool-kids-sit" mentality. 

**I think it's finally time to let go of the "cool-kids-sit-in-the-back" mentality.

**I learned to play the flute! Or, the basuri, an Indian flute made out of bamboo. Well, one song, at least: Bedo Pako, an Pahari folk song. It took a good day just to make a sound on the instrument, but from there it was quick.

***Along with the rest of India, I have developed an obsession with Maggi, India's answer to ramen, which was recently banned. I am in good company: everywhere I went, people were eating Maggi, talking about Maggi, and discussing the ban, which came along with highly publicized pictures of Maggi being bulldozed (see attached). But I can rejoice: the ban was just lifted TODAY. I know this because I'm obsessed with Maggi to the extent that I put a google news alert on it. Now I just have to make it back to India to enjoy this new freedom.

****Hindi for dog. If you didn't read the footnote, I hope you were confused ;)

Into the Himalayas

It is raining in Manali, a rain that began when I arrived and lets up from time to time, revealing snow-capped peaks in the distance, only to begin again. It is a heavy, steady downpour. The rain spouts off rooftops in waterfalls to be avoided on the streets, which are steep and flanked by gutters that gush with runoff. The Israelis who dominate this town wake me up with music – American country classics? I can’t be sure – at 1:44 am, and it becomes another night spent mostly awake, thinking, reading, writing, listening to the sounds outside my room. My room is spare, with a bare fluorescent light tube mounted onto the wall, which is white with black stains. There is a mirror, a bed, and an ancient TV. There is no toilet paper in the bathroom, nor shower, just a spigot that sometimes runs warm-ish. I ate dinner last night across from Shirley, a lovely Israeli who could have been 26 or 66 with her head of silver, smooth face, and proclivity to say “wow” (like mine). She’d just returned from where I am heading next: Leh, Ladakh, elevation 11,500 feet, a place she said she’d fallen in love with, where everything felt sacred. 

One symptom of altitude sickness is a sense of impending doom, and as if my body is preemptively responding to the high mountain passes I’ll soon be crossing, a gloom settled over me in Delhi on Monday. There was the fear of leaving my hostel in Delhi, which served chai every afternoon and had a room covered in wall-to-wall pillows just for resting and became somewhat of a refuge from the bustle of the Delhi streets. There was the fact that I saw a man being zipped into a crisp white bag on the sidewalk 20 meters from my hostel, first thing of the day on my first morning in Delhi, my brain unbelieving what it was seeing even as the awful zipper closed over his body. There was learning that a train I’d planned on taking derailed last week and killed two women. (Mom, I’m so sorry, but I swear I’m being safe). There was my long, failed attempt to find a drugstore to buy avomin (anti-nausea magic), during which a lone, unwell man on the street who lurched towards me, moaning and reaching out to grab my body. This was everything I'd been warned about, manifesting its ugly face. I finally did find the drugstore, nearly in tears with relief and anger, as it was not a block from my hostel after all. 

***

I’ve been spending more time with men than I have in a long time. For one, there are just more male travellers, and more male solo travellers especially. (More on this later). It’s just easier to be a woman in India when accompanied by a man. I am mostly trying to understand this as an empowered kind of thing: men make my life easier so I will hang out with some men. So when an American boy named Jordan from my hostel was taking an overnight bus to Manali, where I was heading, too, I tagged along.

As the two of us left our hostel, packs on back, to the bus station, the clouds that had hung over Delhi all day broke cinematically into rain and thunder. I couldn’t stop laughing: it was one of those days when everything went wrong and then it really did rain on you to top things off. The boy I was travelling with was far less amused, but my bad mood broke with the clouds. It took us a quarter of an hour to find a tuktuk. I peeled off my socks and hitched up my pants so I could wade through the filthy run off into the streets (you can join me in not imagining what lurked in the runoff) and jammed myself & my big backpack into the little rickshaw, only to realize we could go practically nowhere: the streets of Delhi were flooded and gridlocked. Shop owners were using giant squeegees to push water out of their shops and on the street, a group of men lifted up a massive cement manhole, causing a the brown water to pour in at a frightening velocity (you can’t really see this in the video attached, but you can hear Jordan & I react at the end). Our tuktuk stalled in the standing water a few times – once, in the middle of a massive intersection – and at a few points we considered getting out at walking, although it was dark and we didn’t know where we were going. We made it to the bus station 5 minutes before our bus left and there was no better feeling – despite being wet and shaky with stress – to be sitting on a big coach bus and knowing when the sun rose, you’d be in the mountains.

When my poetry mentor emailed me a day ago and asked if I’d found kindred spirits on my travels, I felt a pang because I hadn’t. It was nice traveling with Jordan, but he’s kind of a bro (no offense to my actual brothers) and decidedly not my kindred spirit.

Then, yesterday, I ran into Shirli (the Israeli) in a cafe, and soon afterwards, my friend from Delhi, Eduardo, arrived in Manali and came to meet me. The three of us drank cappuccinos & waited out the worst of the rain & talked about Leh, where Shirli spent the past month, and we decided to walk together to the Hedimbe temple nearby. The real joy, though, was the couple of hours we spent meandering there, leisurely looking for raincoats. I could have spent the whole day doing this – I felt buoyant with the feeling of being with people I truly liked, and had that pleasant feeling of putting my feet in front of one another without wanting or needing to be anywhere other than where I was at that moment. After all of the comical mishaps of trying on raincoats (too small! bright pink! 5,000 rupees?!?!?) they said yes to the dress/raincoat and of course, the rain immediately stopped. After we hiked up to the temple, we spent the rest of the day hopping from chai shop to chai shop on the Beas river and had dinner at a restaurant where a singer-songwriter type played guitar and sang Punjabi songs.  

Today I woke up at 4, typed this out, and when the sun began to rise just after five, set off. And the mountains! In full blinding white glory, peeking behind the lush green mountains surrounding us, unveiled after two days of rain, like seeing earth for the very first time. I hiked up to the top of the village where I'm staying, past a temple, walking with men my age who had baskets strapped to their backs to fill with apples in the orchard. Then, I walked down to the Beas River, blue-green in the sunshine, and through a park of Redwood-like trees and moss covered boulders the size of cars. When I crossed the river and came into full view of the peaks beyond, I was bowled over with gratitude just at having limbs, a brain, just to be a witness to such beauty. I cried. I attached a photo, but it does no justice to the moment, so I almost want to say -- just imagine it. 

This morning, while typing this up over coffee, I heard the sound of drumming approaching. From up the street came a parade of people with huge instruments and drums, and then, men carrying a litter draped in gorgeous orange fabric. It was a funeral. Behind the musicians and the litter was a crowd of some hundred men. Each carried a log on his shoulder. This is how I came to understand that the body would be burned on a pyre. Although I was tempted to follow them, I knew it wasn't my place, and didn't. Later, while walking to the hot springs in Vishisht with Eduardo, I saw the plume of smoke from the pyre on the river.  

Tomorrow morning I start a 2 day journey to Leh, Ladakh, a place that has consumed my imagination and has become the focus point of my trip. I'm traveling with my new but adored pal Eduardo by jeep, and we'll stop to make camp at Sarchu (elevation 4,290 meters, or 14,070 feet) before finishing the journey to Leh the next day. There, I'll be staying in a homestay with a family that came recommended to me by Shirli, and acclimatizing for a few days before heading out on a trek in the Himalayas.