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.
*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 ;)