The India Diaries: New Beginnings

…trips do not begin or end, they merely change form” 

~ Robyn Davidson

Last week in India. Every situation I encountered became a microcosm of India in my mind, little snippets of time and absurdity that perfectly encapsulated my experience of the country…

*

A Varanasi alleyway at night. A cow thrusts her matted black head out of a weathered door, and fills the darkness with a thunderous bellow. A group of men huddled together around a fire are startled out of their conversation. They look over at the cow and point in the direction that the cow’s mate went, a ponderous white bull who was usually at her side. The black cow lumbers off in that direction and the men resume their conversation as if there were nothing odd about that interaction.

*

Ordering breakfast at a hotel restaurant. As usual, we write our order down on a scrap of paper that has someone’s passport photocopied on one side. Set breakfast with tea. The waiter brings out a tray some time later and says, “You wanted tea?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I made you coffee.”

*

Crossing a busy street. I’m about to slip into sliver of space in the traffic. At the precise moment the gap presents itself, a rickshaw driver pulls into it, spits paan juice at my feet and asks, “tuk-tuk?”.

*

The local bar around the corner from the hostel. There are never any women in here, aside from us Western girls. It’s dark and smoky; Indian music videos flash brightly on a big screen television. There isn’t a separate bathroom for women, so we all have to share the men’s. At the end of the night, a few of us go into the bathroom together and meet a trio of young Indian guys preening in the mirror. They spend the next fifteen minutes directing us in a series of bathroom mirror selfies.

*

Sarnath, an important Buddhist site just outside Varanasi. After breakfast one morning, I change my mind about my plans and decide to go back to Varanasi in the afternoon. I had the name of the hostel I wanted to go to, but no address or directions or much of a clue where it was, and I couldn’t find any wifi anywhere. But no matter. There are no time constraints and I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I vaguely remember that the street name of the hostel starts with a B, so I pick out a B named street on the map and instruct the rickshaw driver to take me there. Rickshaw drivers never seem to use maps or precise directions — they just go to the general area and ask around until they find the place. So I figure that’s what we’ll do.

After a few failed attempts at asking for directions (it’s the wrong B street), the driver sends me into an alley on a wild goose chase and bails. I hit a dead end at the end of the alley, backtrack and return to the main road. It’s a clear day, bright and sunny, and people seem friendlier than usual. I walk down the street slowly, taking in the effervescence of Indian commerce, and enjoying the sun on my face. There is a man standing in front of a souvenir shop who looks like he wants to sell me something. I pre-empt his sales pitch by asking for directions. He brings out a stool for me to sit on, two cups of chai, and lets me use his phone to google the hostel. We chat aimlessly. I finish my chai, he waves over a bicycle rickshaw and sends me on my way. Easy as that.

“Stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course”

~ Tao Te Ching

 

Travelling through India is like being tempered by fire. I have so much to be grateful to this country for and yet, most days it drove me completely nuts. I’m hardier now, with a better handle on stress, quicker to laugh when things go awry. I appreciate the art of doing nothing, even if I don’t always have the patience for it. I don’t look at my own vulnerability as a weakness any more.

Since I’ve spent so much of my six month journey alone or in a crowd but apart and hanging out in my own head, whenever I get the opportunity to retreat into myself, it feels like coming home — the place I’ve travelling all this time to find.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

~ T.S. Eliot

The India Diaries: Mumbai

My idea of travel planning is reading fiction from whichever country I’m going to, and for no other place was I as well prepared as I was for India. For years I’ve devoured books about India. The whole reason I wanted to come to India in the first place is a book I read that was set in Delhi. And the real India is almost exactly like the India of my imagination. It’s a little surreal, almost like I’ve found myself in Alice’s wonderland.

Mumbai

The first thing I did in Mumbai was take a stroll from my hostel, and I was struck by how similar India is to South East Asia — narrow roads, little shops on the side walk so you have to walk on the road and jostle for space with rickshaws and scooters and cars. It’s loud and dirty and full of life. The men were all staring at me as if I were an alien, but they’re not as bad as the men in Turkey — they don’t follow you or sit down to eat dinner with you or try to marry you. The stares are disconcerting though; it’s like being stared at by a lot of cats. I had my “oh my god, I’m really in India” moment when I saw a large bull hanging around on the street, nonchalantly eating garbage.

In the hostel, I met an English lad who reminded me of the skinny buzzard with the floppy hair from the Jungle Book. He’d just finished a six week tour of India and was headed home. I could see in his eyes that meeting someone who was just starting out their India adventure made him wish he could turn back time and start all over again. He said that he loved this country and hated it with equal fervour; he was going to be so bored at home after India (I’d hear an iteration of this from nearly everyone I meet here). He also said Mumbai isn’t the ‘real India’ and I thought immediately of when Shantaram’s protagonist first gets to Mumbai, he meets some German backpackers and they say the same thing. It’s a strange thing how travellers decide that a certain place isn’t a “real” part of the country, when what they mean is that it’s not what they’re looking for.

Kids playing Kabaddi (an organized version of tag) on the beach
Kids playing Kabaddi (an organized version of tag) on the beach

Mumbai is a testament to the importance of urban planning: the city spills up the coast line, all higgedly piggedly, like a patchwork quilt stitched together by a meth addict with cataracts. Never again will I complain about traffic at home. The only way to get anywhere in less than three hours is to take the local train. And what an adventure that is!

The train looks like a mobile prison — drab metal, grates on the windows, industrial fans bolted to the ceiling. There are no doors; people bulge from the openings like stuffing from a torn sofa. There’s a separate car for women, which is beyond crowded but apparently nothing compared to the anarchy of the men’s compartments. Squished into the car with all the women in their saris, I was reminded me of picking wildflowers as a child with my grandma. I’d pick so many, I could barely contain them in both hands — picking just one more flower would’ve caused the bouquet to explode. Being on the train was like being inside that bouquet, only the flowers had elbows.

One day, when I hopped the train in the height of rush hour, a fist fight broke out in the women’s compartment and the whole car erupted into screaming and yelling. If the women’s car is the tamer one, then the men’s must really be intense. Everyone was incredibly nice to me though, they always asked what stop I was getting off at and helped me push through the crowd and alight at the right place. People start jumping off before the train even stops, and the people on the platform start pushing their way on. Getting off of my stop was like being shot out of a cannon. I burst onto the platform, feeling like the train should’ve at least bought me dinner first.

Just walking down the street here is an adventure, and the simplest things, like taking a train, are so full on, that even if you did nothing else that day, you feel accomplished.

Judi Dench’s character in the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was right: India is like a wave in the ocean. If you try to resist, you will be knocked down; the only way to enjoy it is to dive right in.

 

P1030134

Gratitude

After months of planning, lots of list making and organizing, I’m finally packed and ready to get on the plane tomorrow! On a scale from 1 to 10 of how excited I am, I’d say I’m at about 4000. While it’s hard to say goodbye to my life in Canada, it also feels a little like a homecoming. Being on the road and living out of a backpack has become such a huge part of my identity. It’s great to be actually doing it again, instead of endlessly talking and writing and reading about it.

I also wanted to take a minute and express a boatload of gratitude.

We’ve raised very close to $50,000 for the Roots and Wings projects in Kyrgyzstan. I am awed and so grateful for all the support we’ve gotten — both monetary and the encouragement we’ve gotten from friends and family — for a country that many people had never even heard of before, and the complete strangers who live there. It’s incredible.

With all of the terrible things that have been happening in the world lately, it’s really heartening to see such an outpouring of generosity and kindness. Go you!

And a special kudos to Roisin, who came up with this crazy scheme as a part of her continuation of her father’s amazing work in Kyrgyzstan. She has put so much love and hard work into this project. You’re the best, Rois, and I’m very blessed to call you my friend!

 

If you haven’t had the chance to donate, and would like to, you can do it over here: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/jamiemphillips/karakolhike/nonprofit

All proceeds go directly to the projects. Thank you again, so much, for your generosity!!

 

Now, let’s do this!!!

How to Get Ready for a Long Trip

Leave the actual packing until the last minute. You will be a hundred times more efficient with the time constraint.

Except for vaccines. You’ll want to get to the travel clinic at least a month before you go. Your arms may feel like pin cushions but afterwards you’ll be invincible. (Science fact!)

If you’re going to be doing any trekking, it’s a good idea to think about what kinds of activities you can do to train (e.g. short hikes on weekends, running, yoga, going for a walk after work instead of watching Friends reruns and eating stuff covered in cheese). Don’t worry about actually doing any of these things. Everyone knows it’s the thought that counts.

Cancel your cell phone service. When they ask why, feel free to embellish (‘I’ve been chosen to start building a colony on Mars! I’ll put in a good word for you if you stop asking questions and just cancel the damn contract’).

Quit your job. When you leave on your last day, regard your fellow commuters with smug superiority (ha! see you never, suckers!).

Obsessively check flight websites to see if you got the best price. (side note: I found a website where you can track flight prices, and even get a refund with certain airlines if the price drops on a flight you’ve already purchased: Yapta.)

Bring only a small amount of shampoo and conditioner. Unless you’re super picky about what you put on your head (and I am most certainly not; I’ll wash my hair with a bar of soap if I have to), you can pick up whatever you need when you get there. Makes for less weight in your bag.

Actually, that goes for almost everything. You only need to bring the bare minimum. Especially if you’re going to places where the exchange rate is in your favor. In some countries it’s better to dress like a local anyway, and for hot places, the clothes you buy there are made for the climate. Just don’t try to buy a bathing suit in Asia if you are not Asia-sized.

Except for sunscreen… a few places I’ve been to (mostly in South America) have been lacking in the sunscreen department. It can be expensive, and sometimes it can be a pain to find one that doesn’t also purport to whiten your skin.

Make cheat sheets for each country — e.g. currency conversation rates and key phrases in the language — to keep in your wallet or on your phone, for quick reference.

Fret over your bank account. Did you save enough money or are you going to wind up wandering around some crocodile infested backwater, with only six dollars, ravaged by bed bugs (true story!), and far away from your support system? (Look into the Global ATM Alliance. A bunch of international banks have made an agreement where you can use any of their machines with no international fee. For Canadians, this means it’d be prudent to get a Scotiabank account.)

Dream about being lost in airports and forgetting your passport.

After you’ve decided what you’re taking, get rid of the rest of your stuff. This is the best part. You can donate it, sell it, give it away, leave it in boxes in your parents’ basement or a storage container. Whatever you do with it, you’re now unencumbered and free to wander the world.

Hostel Crimes

Martha Gellhorn said, in Travels with Myself and Another, that the root of any horror journey is boredom. I’ve had my share of horror journeys, and I can say with authority that the most execrable part of being stranded in the outback after a car crash is the hours of walking to get home. But at least then I was in forward motion. The only thing worse than a horror journey is going nowhere.

And so it was, in a hostel in Perth during a searing Australian summer, that I was going nowhere, and horribly.

I was waiting on a job, and my strict budget only permitted ramen noodles, three dollar wine and the occasional kebab. There was a group of us in the hostel who were waiting on work, or for something interesting to happen: myself, two German girls, our good friend Roy, a trio of Welsh kids on their gap year and a smattering of interchangeable backpackers that drifted in and out. Welcome to Western Australia: Wait around, because we’re a world away.

We congregated day after stifling day in the back section of the hostel: two and a half walls and three long, lumpy couches surrounding a dirty table. Some days, we were too lethargic to speak. We sat in familiar silence, sweating and staring absently, like cats. Other days, the conversation got weird.

“So that farmer I worked for, he had a litter of puppies,” said M., “well, his dog had the litter. Anyway, he said the puppies were useless and stupid, so he was going to drown them.”

“Jesus,” I said, “that’s like killing a baby because he can’t hold his head up on his own.”

“Yeah, right, like what a stupid baby, can’t even feed himself.” said A.

A newcomer we’d neglected to include in the conversation, a wiry Irishman with tattoos screaming from his biceps, said, “I’d kill a baby.”

The girls and I looked at each other with bulging eyes. M. clapped a hand over her mouth. The Irishman went on to say that if the baby was from the enemy side — he was fresh from a tour in Afghanistan — he’d have no trouble killing it. What he couldn’t abide was how the Australians shot kangaroos like vermin.

“Anyway,” said M., “who wants to go to the bottle shop?”

*

It might have been the next day or three weeks later; who can tell when all the days are the same and so fantastically boring that my memory rejected them, like an incomplete job application. At any rate, it was another day, and I was buried in a book when I heard an expletive floating out of the kitchen. That was nothing new, so I read on. Soon the kitchen sounded like it had been invaded by a mob of squawking and profane crows. I put down my book and went to see what the kerfuffle was about.

Someone had, over the course of one night, drunk five gallons of milk. Milk pilfered from the plethora of cartons in the communal fridges. Whoever it was had drunk all of the milk. The hostel was collectively outraged. It was one thing to nick a dollop of milk or butter or a slice of bread here and there. There is a kind of backpacker karma: one day you mooch, the next you give. But to drink five gallons of milk that is not yours? Unconscionable. And anyway, how is that even physically possible? He must have had accomplices. Or been tremendously high.

The surveillance cameras were consulted, but the milk bandit had remained in the blind spot and was unrecognizable. It appeared, however, that he had worked alone: only one shadow was visible on the cameras. Smart enough to avoid detection, and capable of drinking obscene amounts of milk… what kind of monster were we dealing with?

*

Over the course of the next few days, items continued to disappear. A whole loaf of bread. A Swiss army knife. One shoe. People started locking their things away and regarded each other warily, like circling coyotes. In the months I had been there, this was the first time we’d had trouble with theft from within the hostel. A chilly, Soviet-style pall fell over us. Everyone was ready to turn in their friends on a soupçon of suspicion. Only the trio of Welsh kids, usually chatty, fell silent whenever the milk bandit came up, which was all the time. The corridors were full of whispers: Did you see anything last night? I think somebody went through my bag. Where the fuck is my shoe? Who is this jerk?

Tension hung in the air like clothes on a line that morning. Roy stalked into the back room, his face dark and murderous, and announced, “I’m missing one hundred dollars.”

A collective gasp; more swearing; surly mutterings about punching the thief right in his larcenous face. Roy turned around and went back upstairs, to the dorms, leaving the rest of us to speculate and seethe.

*

Meanwhile, Roy had a plan. He was going to catch the bastard red-handed.

Whenever a person stays in a hostel for a prolonged period of time, he or she will snag a bottom bunk and drape that bunk in bed sheets; the pretense of privacy. This is just what Roy had done. When he sat within his makeshift tent, he had a clear line of sight to the cupboard at the foot of the bunk, but no one could see him. And thus, he sat and he waited. Like a lion in the grass.

Before long, a lanky figure came into the room and sidled up to Roy’s cupboard. Roy couldn’t see his face, and since many in the hostel were tall and awkward and pasty, it could have been anyone. The thief opened the cupboard, slowly and carefully, put his hand inside and withdrew a cigarette from Roy’s pack. Roy didn’t budge; a borrowed cigarette is the white lie of hostel crimes.

Ten minutes later, the figure returned. He went straight for the cupboard, more confident now, and used Roy’s deodorant. Roy shuddered. Still, not a large enough offence, so Roy remained quiet, holding his breath until the bandit with no boundaries left again.

Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, and the bandit crept into the room for a third time. Roy was sure he’d get him now. The thief once again went into Roy’s cupboard, pulled out a 5 dollar bill and slipped it into his pocket. Roy stepped out from behind the sheets and clapped the thief on the arm. “Busted.” he said, “now, give my money back.”

*

Roy returned to the back room wearing his aviator sunglasses, and he dropped down beside me on the couch with a smile. He told me that the owner of the hostel was kicking the milk bandit out as we spoke. “So, who was it?” I asked. Roy slid his sunglasses down his nose an inch and nodded his head toward the opposite couch. There were only two Welsh kids now.

 

 

* some details have been changed and names omitted, except for Roy, because he is a legend.

Things I’ll Miss About Home

With my flight to London fast approaching, I’m busy preparing for my trip, i.e. making to-do lists, double checking that none of my flights are passing over Ukraine, and carrying around unopened guide books (I’ve had a guidebook for India sitting on my bedside table for months, but I read Shantaram instead — which is, at least, set in India). Buying and not reading the guidebook has become my travel prep ritual.

The time period right before a trip is a magical one — full of daydreams and countdowns and soaring potential. Even going to work in the morning takes on a delicious quality (“only two more Mondays left; today I’ll spend lunch booking my flight to Turkey”, etc). I remember packing for my first big trip to South America five years ago, and having absolutely no idea what to bring. Being generally lackadaisical about packing, I just winged it and hoped for the best. Now I know for sure that it doesn’t really matter. It’s a law of travel that you won’t need half of what you pack and you will forget something, but as long as you’ve got your passport and a bank card, it’s all good. Half the fun is not knowing what shenanigans you’ll get into.

The significantly less magical part is saying goodbye to everyone — a process that is more difficult each time. In addition to my family and friends, I’ve been thinking about the other things that I will miss from home, things I didn’t fully appreciate until I didn’t have them anymore…

1. Electrical outlets. At home, there is no fussing about with converters or jockeying for the two overworked sockets with ten other backpackers who each have at least seven things to plug in. Waking up, expecting to find your phone all charged up and discovering that someone pulled out your charger and replaced it with theirs is the worst. Even though you did the exact same thing the day before.

2. Laundry Baskets. Soon, the days of leaving my soiled laundry in a nice pile within the confines of its own basket will be over. No longer will I be able to make the short jaunt up the stairs to do my laundry whenever the mood strikes. Instead, I will be shoving socks that are nearly capable of standing up on their own into a plastic bag at the bottom of my backpack until I can find a suitable day to leave my sad sack of increasingly ratty clothes with the cleaners. On the upside, I can pay someone to do my laundry for me. Or multi-task and wash my underwear in the shower.

3. Drawers. I had no idea how wonderful a chest of drawers could be until I went traveling. Things are so much easier to find when stacked neatly in a drawer; I’ve even gotten a little odd about arranging my shirts by color and style. Although, to be fair, on the road it doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re only choosing between three shirts.

4. Showers. Specifically, predictable and reliable showers. Now, when I skip a shower, it’s because I’m being lazy, not because I got electrocuted trying to figure out how to switch the shower head, which was located conveniently right above the toilet, from freezing to lukewarm. It’s also quite nice not to have to share my shower with scorpions, cockroaches or giant spiders. Frogs, on the other hand, make great shower buddies, especially if they sing to you.

5. Not having to share. I’ve been spoiled: I’ve got my own bed, my own room entirely to myself and I can watch whatever I want on TV. Soon, I will be sleeping on tiny bunk beds again, listening to people snore and rustle around with their plastic bags inexplicably at four in the morning, hoping there are no bed bugs and that no one steals too much of my milk out of the communal fridge.

Actually, that’s about it. As sad as the goodbyes are, and pleasant as the conveniences of laundry baskets and non-hazardous showers are, I’m just excited. Excited to feel the thrum beneath my rib cage as the plane takes off; to hang out and swap stories with other travelers in hostel common rooms; to eat food I’ve never eaten before; to be surrounded in languages I don’t know; to look at a place on the map and say, there, I will go there today.

 

 

 

http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/jamiemphillips/karakolhike/nonprofit

 

Adventure Time: Hiking the Silk Road for Charity

It’s *almost* adventure-time — I’ve been saving up my pennies and in two short months, I’m hitting the road again! This time, I’m going to Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, India, and the U.K…

Kyrgyz

 

It all started in 2009, when I met Roisin in Bolivia. We traveled together for a few weeks, through the red and gold cowboy country of southern Bolivia and into Argentina, where we cemented our friendship over many cones of ice cream and nights dancing in Buenos Aires. We’ve been ardent pen pals ever since. Nearly every week for five years, we’ve penned long emails to each other, sharing the highs, the lows and the minutiae of life; there’s probably enough text to fill a novel or two by now.

Since we are both turning 30 this year, we decided to celebrate together, and to do something amazing. We decided that our something amazing should include travel, obviously, but also should be beneficial to others in some way. We are both so lucky to be able to travel the world, and we want to pay our good fortune forward in some way.

To that end, us two and four other like-minded people, are doing a 6-day trek through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in August, and raising money for the Roots & Wings Foundation.

icecream
Ice cream cones for dinner in Salta, Argentina

“A little goes a long way….” 

It started with a bag of coal that Roisin’s late father, Hugh Coulter, donated to an orphanage in Karakol when he was there working on an EU project in 2004. Things escalated quickly, and before they knew it, her family was fundraising for the orphanage and later for micro-credit loans. Shortly after he passed away, they were contacted by Danielle Riley, the founder of Roots & Wings, who had met Mr Coulter when she was in the Krygyz Republic working for Habitat for Humanity. She had not forgotten the work that they had been doing, and wanted to continue to support them. They have now joined forces, and Roisin’s mother, Jean Coulter, is the Senior Director of Global Programmes for Roots & Wings.

In the spirit of Roisin’s dad, a very generous ‘friend of the Irish’ in the US has agreed to match every donation we raise in June – dollar for dollar! His catchphrase, “A little goes a long way” rings doubly true now, and could not have come at a more appropriate time with the run up to Father’s Day. 

With this in mind, we have decided to increase the target to an ambitious $50,000!!  

little girl Kyrgyz

More than 1/3 of the population in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country sandwiched between China and Kazahkstan, are deemed to be living in ‘extreme poverty’. Helping launch businesses here provides much needed job opportunities. We help the neediest people to never need help again.

https://www.facebook.com/rootsandwingsfoundation

Roots & Wings sponsors Micro-Credit projects in the Karakol region. In the past year, they have supported 14 businesses. These businesses cover many sectors, including: livestock, agriculture, production of boilers for heating, taxi, clothing, Veterinary Pharmacy, and chicken production. It is a breath of fresh air to see so many families benefiting from relatively small loans, and to see businesses grow in such difficult economic times.

Last year when Roots & Wings visited Karakol, they were introduced to a private kindergarten, Kinder Land, which demonstrated ‘Best Practice’ in early childhood education. They set up two scholarships for children of disadvantaged families. The intention is to give mothers the opportunity to find employment while the children are being well cared for and educated. Roots & Wings named the scholarship ‘Hugh’s Bear Cubs’ in memory of Roisin’s father. As well as the scholarships, they also set up a clothing fund for the Bear Cubs so that the children can fit in with their peers.

Swingin'

With all donations you will get our sincerest thanks, be published on the donor roll and we would like to include you on our mailing list so we can keep you up-to-date with Roots & Wings. These are examples of what your donations could do to make a difference:

$10* – could cover the cost of a fleece for one of Hugh’s Bear Cubs.

$20 –this could provide a winter coat for a child as part of the clothing fund established to provide warm clothes for children in need in the winter.

$100 – this could fund a Hugh’s Bear Cub clothes for the school year so that the Bear Cub will fit in with his peers in Kinder Land.

$300 – $1,000 – this could provide Micro-credit loans.

* in U.S. currency

Please help us empower the in-need people of Kyrgyzstan and leave a donation:  http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/jamiemphillips/karakolhike

or email me at jamiephillipsubc@hotmail.com for more information.

All funds raised by this project will go to the Roots & Wings Foundation.

A great big thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of the hike!! xo 

Roots and Wings