travel

Golden California

Since graduating this past December, I’ve been on a bit of a sabbatical from any form of organized writing, just jotting down half-formed thoughts here and there. In the meantime, Remi and I have been living in the California sun and snow and mountains. From our perch in Mammoth lakes, I’ve been rolling and roaming these mountains of the Eastern Sierra, our temporary home on the road.

Panum crater. Above mono lake, soaking it all in.
Panum crater. Above mono lake, soaking it all in.

With our time here quickly coming to a close, I’ve been feeling conflicting urges in equal parts: on one hand, there’s that persistent desire to nest and nestle deeply into a place, to make home and to be home. And then there’s the powerful opposition, the nagging itch to fly away, fast and high; it’s the rush of exploring new lands, meeting new people and wandering from established roots, the freedom of vagabonding. These two urges are in constant ebb and flow in my life, which I’ve become much more attuned to during the past few months in California. As I explore this world, I feel the pull that orbits me around the ones that I love and the homes I create all the while moving forward and, at times, back.  These cycles make our lives and give them deep meaning.

A shot of our trip up the scenic route 1, a truly impressive road!
A shot of our trip up the scenic route 1, a truly impressive road!

It was at the beginning of February that we bought our adventure mobile in Los Angeles, a 2001 Subaru Forester. We ready for the California mountains, sand, dirt and other elements and so sure of our route; ready for the road we set off north up the scenic coastal route via the historic Route 1. But riding life’s curves, one quickly learns that even the best-laid plans change and evolve, matching the rhythms of this new horizon and its unique syncopations. That’s one of the things that’s been so liberating about this new phase of my life; I’ve been delivered out of academia, suddenly into a wondrously, overwhelmingly vast natural world bright and blinding and deliciously unknown. There are no more semesters to organize my world around, so one month became two became three and this little town in the Eastern Sierra has started to feel something like a home. We’ve worked and we’ve hiked, ran and swam, laughed and cried here. It wasn’t part of the plan but just a part of life, a darn beautiful part and my memories are drenched in the California sun that will light up my memories for time to come.

Our trusty subaru at the foot of the mountains that had a big part in convincing us to stay.
Our trusty subaru at the foot of the mountains that had a big part in convincing us to stay.

These California sunrises and sunsets are the final act in a play that is performed every night, stretching out over the vast mountainscape or seascape, as if the sun itself expands to fill this great space, the sky is just a staging area for the creators creative whim or caprice, with a little bit of a different flair come every dusk or dawn.

Southern california sunset
Southern california sunset
Sunset over the sea, somewhere on Route 1
Sunset over the sea, somewhere on Route 1
The final act
The final act

I Learn to Fly

Beautiful people, beautiful babies!
Beautiful people, beautiful babies!

Arrival in Bangkok, Thailand! Sweet reconnection to the cyber world at long last! My apologies long lost friends, blame my near month long disappearance off the face of the earth on India (I admit to enjoying it). And now: Lights, colors, new exciting savers and spices to overwhelm the senses in this tourist Mecca of consummation: alcohol, sex and scantily clad women galore (we're not in India anymore Toto). Have these six past months really gone by so fast? Have I truly left India behind? Bangkok seems like a neon mirage, induced by some crazy hallucinogenics rather than the reality: nearly 70 long and grueling hours of train, bus and plane to arrive at the long imagined destination that is now concrete reality. It is unbelievable how the time has flown and yet all the moments that I have lived packed into the past months of my life. Oh, India. Country of madness and impossibility. Country that drove me crazy and left me enamored in turn. A country where you can never have quite what you want when you want it and yet where 'everything is possible'. Fascination and frustration all in one big, messy, greasy package: india.

Hitching a ride to Kaza, a much more pleasant alternative to the bus
Hitching a ride to Kaza, a much more pleasant alternative to the bus
Mako: the birds eye view
Mako: the birds eye view
Turbaned up and ready for adventure
Turbaned up and ready for adventure

The past month Remi and I took refuge from the summer heat in the stunning Himalaya mountains of Himachal Pradesh, a beautiful state tucked into the north east niche of India. A heaven on earth for mountain lovers and a haven of calm and serenity in the calamity of a country such as India. So yes, you may have guessed, while disconnected from the outside world I have been quite enjoying myself, thanks. We advanced slowly on the windy mountain roads by bumpy bus rides, with each passing hour delving deeper and deeper into the mountains. The roads snake along the river that lines the bottom of the valley, 14,000 ft snow capped peaks towering above on both sides of the road. I felt us moving farther and farther from civilization with each nerve wracking kilometer (landslides, inundated roads, evil ravines: pick your poison), truly going to one of the most lost corners of the earth, only accessible by the one road we were on. It was this one road that could lead us to our final destination in India, the one place that we had sought since the beginning of our arrival in this vast country. Now, thousands of kilometers later, we have crossed the entire country from south to north, consumed countryside after beautiful countryside, suffered fatigue and diahhrea to arrive here, only a few hours (or 10) from our destination: Ki Gompa. It was thanks to only one picture of this mountain monastery (a favorite of the dalai llamas) that we had set this objective for our trip: find ki Gompa! Our inquiries were futile in the south, where I might as well have asked for directions to Chittenden for the blank stares our questions evoked. The closer we grew and more and more clues led us to the right path, the one road that could lead us to our destination, a road only accessible few months out of the year. But luck and good timing were on our side this time, and we advanced on our way by a road recently cleared of snow and yet to be blocked by flooding streams, breathing in the beauty of this place.

Stupa style in himachal Pradesh, outside of dhankar
Stupa style in himachal Pradesh, outside of dhankar
Stunning Dhankar, city perched on a rock
Stunning Dhankar, city perched on a rock
A stunning sunset from the trek up to Dhankar
A stunning sunset from the trek up to Dhankar

All that would have been all too mundane however if we hadn't decided to realize one other dream along the way: it was time to take flight! The proposition of a paragliding course at an indian price was too much to pass up and for five days, Remi and I ate, breathed and dreamed paragliding. We pitched the tent and woke every morning to walk a few hundred yards to our training ground of Solang Nullah, a ski mountain by winter and an Indian carnival/bordel (remember your French vocab??) by summer. And by bordel I mean a true mess- the place just embodied chaos. Stoic mountains abound and yet Indian tourism just does not seem to share this same reverence. Irreverent it was in all sense, an irony up against the majestic backdrop: horse rides, huge transparent zorbing balls zipping down the slopes, para gliders galore coming in for full speed landing in the midst of a crowd of Indians on vacation, who were geared out in full force ski unitards in spite of the relatively warm weather... Full power, Indian tourism at its finest. And it was in the midst of this scene that I was to learn to fly for the first time. Remi and I did have to be careful, but not for the reasons you might guess (passing a bow and arrow stand was one of our daily obstacles on the way to the slopes and from firsthand experience i can assure you thatan Indian with a bow in hand is a much more frightening concept than the potential casualties of flight).

Our training grounds in the wee hours of the morning
Our training grounds in the wee hours of the morning
Remi in flight
Remi in flight

The technique was surprisingly simple (I shouldn't have been surprise after 4 months in India): latch yourself in and run. A few botched attempts and then things seemed to be going better- I was successfully running down the slope, my glider in tow, bobbing along cheerfully behind me when... Eeeeeyooow! Airborne!!! Help man! I have no idea how to steer this thing! I'm flyiiiing! And so my heart racing, adrenaline flooding my veins, I flew for the first time: over the unitarded Indians, the giant zorbing balls, my instructor below hand motioning frantically at me so that I should properly manipulate these wonderful new wings. The freedom!! The mountains all around, brilliant sunlight and then, wham! Back to earth. Hike back up and start over. Times 20... And it wasn't all smooth sailing; the wind reminded me (repeatedly and violently) who was boss. Bam, dragged along the ground, wham slammed down by a gust of wind, ouch, painful landing in the rocks, ankle twisting, hands rubbed raw, ribs bruised. And yet the trials and tribulations did not end there. Back at our home base another danger lurked in the shadows of our cozy tent. The night was peaceful with the huge starry sky above, a window into another world as we philosophized over the deeper meaning of our rather comical hoppings into flight. Morning time came and my mind was on the challenges to come, mastering the glider, or at least making a convincing attempt. Our tent was baking in the morning sun when, before i had even emerged to stretch my aching, bruised body, an ominous black shadowy creature dashed out from under my pack. Dastardly insect! A scorpion with one direction in its path: the tent. Remi was intrigued, I less so. Channeling Athena, I hesitated not and lifting a pointed rock as a make shift dagger I went in for the kill. Adios scorpion! And we won't see you next time, for which you may now alternatively refer to me as scorpion killer.

Scorpion killer on guard
Scorpion killer on guard

And so after a week of exhilirating, exhausting flight, scorpion killer and Remi moved on with their shiny new flight diplomas in search of the famed ki monastery. Farther and farther the road led us on, every night a new village, almost untouched by the outside world. And then: there it was, rising out of the rocks before us, lost in the midst of mountain peaks that surround it from all sides: ki Gompa. From there, you know the rest: an incredibly masochistic 70 hours to kalkutta with a relaxing (thats a joke) Pitt stop in Delhi for a lovely forecast of 47 degrees Celsius. And here I am, somehow having made it all the way to Bangkok in a new country with some many new adventures awaiting. Somewhere along the 70 hours it took me to leave this country it hit me that I will miss India deeply. Even in leaving, I know that I will return here someday, for it is a country that takes time. In my six months here I will have crossed the country, what i set out to do, and yet I am so far from seeing it all! Its as if each region i visited multiplied itself into five more that i have yet to stumble across, each new place distinct from the last, unique in its traditions, its language and its people. It is a country that has taught me not to ask why, to let go of those questions since what is really important is not necessarily to understand but to live, to live each moment to its fullest and trust that that is enough. India defies analytics and neat explanations, something my scholar self had a hard time accepting. But to accept incomprehensibility, that's part of having faith. And the past six months have certainly taught me to have faith in myself in all sorts of unexpected and kooky and yes sometimes scary situations. To go with the flow and just trust. So its for that, that India will forever remain the country where I learned to fly.

Mountain lakes above Ki Gompa
Mountain lakes above Ki Gompa
The hills are alive with the sound of yak!
The hills are alive with the sound of yak!
Women at work, outside of Kibber
Women at work, outside of Kibber
View of Dhankar from above
View of Dhankar from above
The zen look is but a facade.. Did I mention they serve scorpions kebab style in Bangkok?
The zen look is but a facade.. Did I mention they serve scorpions kebab style in Bangkok?

Transitions

On the plane to a new world, direction Chennai, and the past two weeks I spent in France already seem far away. It came and went in a second, and yet it also lingered, as I was swept up in Remi's hectic preparations for India. It was an in between time, not yet the voyage for Remi, but the conclusion to his time in France, tying up all the loose ends (or at least the most important ones).

There were countless friends and family to visit, doctors appointments to attend, insurance, bank accounts and chommage to organize and somehow never enough time for all the activities we had planned. Not to mention that Remi unfailingly forgot something every time we left the house: wallet, phone, or paperwork (luckily for us you don't really need those things anyway).

I was along for this wild ride, and with all of the time we spent driving around Marseille, things certainly did have the tendency to get wild. I had essentially already gone through the same prepping process before I left the States, although it was an expedited version: I only had time for the basics, visa, vaccines, prescriptions, friends and family. As we made the tour of family and close friends, I reflected on goodbyes. It had been different for me; when I return to the US (and the return is definite, I promise Mom) my life will be essentially waiting for me to pick back up: my friends will still be at school, where I have a year and a half left of university.

The life I return to is more or less certain; I didn't leave behind anything never to pick it back up again. Remi is leaving France without a plan to return, and with nothing to bind him to this country. He quit his job, sold his apartment and his car. There is no expiration date on his voyage and thats the way he wanted it.

And yet, even for me, I am reminded that the nature of the return is never sure. When I last left Aix, I had no idea when I would be back, "at least not for a few years, not before I finish school" I remember thinking oh, so sure of the future on the plane back home, so sad to say goodbye to everything I had constructed over the semester, deeply feeling the weight of this loss.

At Harvard after returning to the states, I found myself reminiscing now and then, my nostalgia for the sun of southern France brought on by the dreary Cambridge days, long hours in the library prompted daydreams of a less demanding academia, and city life inspired nostalgia for the stunning mountains of Provence. So I imagine that it must have been a twist of fate that brought me back to Aix only half a year later. But the world is in constant change; once you leave a place you know you cannot return and find it unchanged.

The Aix I knew existed during a moment in time, and this struck me hard upon my return. I had known it true all along, but back in France, I felt it in a more physical, iminent way. My American classmates were back in the states at their home universities, many of my other friends, both French and International had moved on, finished with their studies. Even the program that had brought me to France had changed, now under new directorship (what is Wellesley in Aix without Madame Masson, after all?? I was forced to ask myself). That period of my life that I had lived in Aix, as clear as I could see it in my mind's eye, was definitively over.

Physically, Aix looks the same; it's beautiful architecture that's been in place already for so many centuries are all still there, the main squares, the little bustling businesses, that's all intact. But it feels different. So many of those little pieces that rendered it my own have dissipated with time. Of the people who did remain, I had the change to get drinks with my host mother and it was a pleasure to reconnect with her a year later. She has hosted another student since I left, and she will soon have one more. Yet this will be her last, she informed me. Her life too is taking a new direction, as she pursues her dream of splitting time between Paris and Aix.

With all these changes, I was surprised and excited when I saw that a friend from Harvard had arrived in Aix. I had met Zanny last semester; she was a classmate in a course on French feminism and we had struck up a friendship. I was excited when she decided to study in Aix, but I had no idea that we would cross paths so far from home. We got together for drinks, she got to meet Remi and a few other French friends, and she even ventured to Marseille for a night. Everything changes with time, but that brings out the unexpected in life. Its not necessarily so important to understand these rhythms of continuity and change, but to live them to the fullest in the moment.

I learned a lot during this stay in Marseille. I learned about the workings of various French institutions through all of Remi's errands. I learned about his life and met wonderful, welcoming people. I partied in Marseille (not so scary after all). I lost myself in the hills of Allauch, a beautiful and hidden corner of Marseille where I went running and hiking. I made friends with the family donkey. I ate cheese that was made right in the family kitchen, from the chevres that live their bucolic life in the backyard. I befriended Remi's adorable nephew, who never really did master the pronunciation of my name but who sure did give it a good try.

Oh yeah, and of course, the intensive French continued. I was put to the test: a raucous game of taboo with Remi's familly, girls versus boys. I dreaded playing, I was at an inherent disadvantage after all and that was not my idea of a fun time: I may be known to be a sore loser when it comes to taboo. We started playing, my heart pumping with adrenaline and stress, which somehow, miraculously gave way to laughter. Was I having fun? Oh wait, I was actually good at this game! Everyone was eclat de rire, and the competition was sharp through the final round. But in the end, I am proud to say, the best team did win.