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

Adventures in Time Travel

Beautiful beaches galore: in New Zealand, the coast is never far 

Beautiful beaches galore: in New Zealand, the coast is never far 

It is a grey rainy day in Wellington, the capital of this country of kiwis. I’m sitting in the van now, one week of voyage has already gone by, flashing by in a kaleidoscope of new landscapes as I await the ferry that will take me and my Cheri and our dear van across oceans to the southern island of New Zealand. We crossed the North Island heading south in our trusty Honda step wagon ’97; we left the urban cityscape of Auckland to immerse ourselves in the magnificent countryside- rolling hills of rural pasture land, sheep aplenty, stunning wild beaches of black sand, volcanic mountains with steam spewing over their edges, and strange pools formed from magma deep in the earth bursting to the surface in sulfurous bubbles, in this country that precariously straddles the divide between two of earth’s major tectonic plates. With one week down, we’ve quickly realized in this island-country, water is never far. The ocean coast is never more than few hours’ drive; rivers run like veins, coursing between the rolling hills, as the roads themselves also snake along these natural transit systems. Mountain lakes created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago appear suddenly, unexpectedly, coming into view along the roadways.

Soaking up the sun! Coromandel Peninsula, Northern Island
Soaking up the sun! Coromandel Peninsula, Northern Island

The van has quickly became home- messy, but not too messy, lived in, an improvised chez nous- our transportation, our bed, our kitchen all contained in this vehicle that comes with its own quirks: a broken window that we had to prop up, a finicky electric system that has locked us out and locked us in, in turn, and one dead battery to count. We’ve adjusted pretty quickly to these idiosyncrasies, taking them in stride just as we’ve had to do with one another. Even after five months apart, Remi and I have quickly taken up our old habits on the road; maybe it's the diversity of landscapes here- jungle, desert, expansive coastlines, hard wood forest- but every new scene we come across here seems to incite a flood of memories, other continents, other scenes, other times. And now, Remi has officially lanced himself in the English language! In spite of his French-born and bred resistance to this language, his three month stay in Australia has given him a delightful range of new expressions; ay mate, heaps (?), and I think his all time favorite expression: I'm losing my shit, pissing laughing. I think he's just happy to be able to speak English as vulgarly as he can express himself in French. It's also a whole new language for us to explore and experiment together; it’s fun to play with my mother tongue together and being the teacher for once, and, as always, student at the same time. That’s one of the things I find so beautiful about languages, you never really stop learning it. Every day is a new expression, a new accent, a fresh translation, or a different interpretation.

Home on the road
Home on the road
Pretty pools for a picture, not a swim
Pretty pools for a picture, not a swim
Hot springs, hot colors
Hot springs, hot colors

We’re a day ahead here in New Zealand, so coming here was like doing a bit of my own time travel. The decalage horaire hasn’t been holding us back though, far from it, with long days on the road, hiking a new summit, or cooking inventive Christmas feasts, camping style. Absorbed in our itinerary, neither Remi nor I have seen the time go by, nor taken the time to watch it go by, I confess. We woke up on the 24th (or so we thought), ready to celebrate Remi’s 25th birthday together, but exhausted from a near precarious hike across the Tongariro Crossing the day before. With virtually zero visibility and dangerous winds at the peak, onwards we had fearlessly marched, too stubborn to give up on a walk over Lord of the Ring’s ‘Mount Doom,’ (which we couldn’t actually see, given the thick clouds that covered everyone beyond an arms reach). On the other side of the ridge, a bizarre mechanical noise greeted us, to our great confusion. Could it be? We had taken the name of the mountain to be simple semantics; did doom really await us ahead? It couldn't be coming from the volcano; this noise was clearly manmade. Had they come for… us? Finally, emerging out of the fog, precariously perched just at the edge overlooking the Emerald Lakes, it loomed in front of us, finally visible, it's metallic legs coming to a sharp angle against the stark mountain peak- a genuine chopper! It wasn't the mountain winds that had gotten to our heads. Luckily, we realized, it had not come for us; doom was not on the schedule for that rainy, windy day. We were lucky enough to have fared the dangerous conditions comparatively well, as we watched the helicopter airlifting one of the less fortunate hikers that day, who had called rescue services after tearing a ligament in his knee. A bit astounded at this turn of events, we scarfed down left-over sandwiches before slodging on to a soggy finish 13km farther, chilled and exhausted from the day’s trek. More or less intact, we hitched a ride back to our van that we had left on the opposite end of the track, 20 kilometers and 5 hours of vigorous hiking away.

The march ever onwards into the great beyond
The march ever onwards into the great beyond

[youtube=http://youtu.be/_eAwFA6W-6o] So the 24th we let ourselves wake up slowly, a bit dismayed at the rainy scene that greeted us outside of the van’s windows. A rare (and brief) ray of sunshine afforded a fleeting glimpse of Mount Taranaki, 150 km west of the mountain we had summited blindly the day before. She disappeared an instant later, consumed by hungry and dark storm clouds that promised rain. The quick glimpse was enough, however, to entice us over for a picnic lunch and brief tramp through the woods around this stunning volcanic mount, in the hopes of another peek. Absorbed in our mountainous activities, it wasn’t until we left the mountain later that afternoon that we became especially befuddled; all the stores were closed a day early! Frustrated, we had planned to do our shopping for a Christmas meal a day early, since surely everything would be closed Christmas day.  The gears were slowly churning in our collective mind- our gazes met and... Really, Remi?! We had done it again. It already was Christmas! It must be. We didn’t dare to ask anyone, “oh sorry mate, what’s the date today?" I didn’t even want to imagine the reaction we would incite from the poor passerby who would have to inform us that yes, indeed, today was Christmas. I had still been calculating on US time- somehow I had missed a day, skipped a beat, I suppose… Once we recovered from our initial shock and processed the absurdity of the entire situation, we had to laugh at ourselves. It was a birthday and Christmas neither of us would forget for a long time.

I suppose the moral must be, somewhere in this absurd turn of events, if you’re going to play with the elasticity of time, you better be prepared for it to snap you in the ass when you least expect it. If you don’t mind the sting, the ride can be a lot of fun.

The coast is never far
The coast is never far
Just east of Wellington, because you haven't seen enough beaches
Just east of Wellington, because you haven't seen enough beaches

Walking with Yaks

When I Left India, I knew that I would be back soon. I needed to take a hiatus from this crazy country, and a shiny, new visa for Nepal was my way out. This month long expedition away from the crazy and smelly crowds of India was strategically planned. The strategy was straightforward: get out alive. Now. But of course, India didn't let us go so easily and before arriving in Nepal, we had to escape the spiritual labyrinth of Varanasi: a city of death, drugs and, of course, dirt. Feeling sickly and a bit shell shocked, we made our way North towards new frontiers: Nepal. A tiny country (when compared to India almost anything is) with some of the biggest mountains in the world. Everest. Annapurna. Langtang. For anyone who likes the mountains even a little bit, Nepal is a place to get up close and personal with the giants. People come from all over the world to trek these renowned peaks, and regardless of your reason for coming, these mountains do not disappoint. Majestic, soaring, they are a force to be reckoned with. They dominate the landscape, a reminder every step of the way that man versus nature is really a very silly idea anyways. There is no contest: these mountains take all every time.

Nepal opened its borders to foreign tourists in the 60s, and tourism has been a smashing success here ever since. Taking a look around, its clear that things have moved quickly since the good old days when Kathmandu's infamous 'Freak street' was at its best and weed was legal. Today the streets of Kathmandu are a testament to this phenomenon. An explosion of flashy signs and bright new imitation gear line the streets: it is a trekker's Disney-world on crack. Needless to say this stimulation overload had the unfortunate side effect a sort of a deep desire to consume, as Remi and I ran around the city preparing for our trekking debut. Lots of grub and a new sleeping bag later we felt prepared. We walked a lot in India, right?

The first phase was Langtang, the first and much needed, taste of pure mountain air in months. I was transported through time and space to home sweet home: Vermont, another haven for mountain lovers on a much smaller scale. Here the mountains were larger than life, as my lungs and thighs were reminded every step of the way. Finally it was time to bring out the tent, our faithful mountain companion, shelter from all elements: cold, rain and snow. And cold it was! Three days into the hike and we had reached 4,000 meters (13,120 ft). We came into a little village and monastery which marked the end of the map, from here on out the landscape was untouched, unmarred by human settlement and touched only rarely by hikers' boots. We made camp for the night with high hopes, setting up our tent into a little shelter normally destined for yak-use only. Yet to our dismay we realized this shelter was no protection from the snow that fell steadily into the windy evening. To the great indoors it was. We marched, with sweet resignation, to the adjacent guest house, windows glowing welcoming us to the warmth of the fire that was burning inside. Camping relinquished for the night, we snuggled into the cozy guest house enjoying the luxury of a warm bed. The next morning we woke renewed from a night of exceptionally good sleep, feeling motivated to tackle a summit that looked out over the village. With just a bit of encouragement for my achy muscles we were off, upward bound, struggling against the altitude. The yaks had forged an ambitious path for us and we took on the challenge. It was essentially straight up. Leaving the tourist trail behind I wheezed and gasped like never before, only now gaining true enlightenment as to the meaning of Tibetan prayer flags- the top! They mark the top, it dawned on me, to give you just enough hope to convince yourself that you really will make it... One... Step... More. And then, glory hallelujah! Angels we have heard on high! We reached the top, victorious, our muscles at long last relaxed and our lungs gasping to recover. Ecstatic, I took in the view in a sort of haze, feeling the raw power of these mountains with all my being.

From these new, hard-earned heights we rejoiced at leaving the noise, pollution, insanity and sewage smells far, far behind. Every day that we climbed my body adjusted to this new, physical challenge. We rose everyday with the sun, quickly packing away the tent and walking to warm our stiff bodies. The mix of adrenaline and high altitude was intoxicating and we rushed the return, eager to take on the next objective: the famed Annapurna peaks. My knees had halfway recovered from the first trek when we began our second, hungry for more.

~~~

From where I write now, it has been over two months since I was perched, high in the Annapurna mountains. Two months later and for forever, I will remember this trek: the seven days I spent in these awesome, awe-inspiring mountains, scrambling behind Remi and our friend Antonin, another French friend that we had met along the way, bumbling along with a bum knee and (most of the time) a big smile. My knees will remember this trek as well, perhaps with a little bit less fondness. The details will become blurry as time will inevitably leave its watermarks on my memory, but I one moment remains crystalized in perfect clarity in my mind: the culmination of our week long trek, when we crossed the epic pass at an impressive 5400m, 17,710 feet reputed to be the highest in the world. It was our sixth day, everyday we were getting up early, our bodies increasingly achy but our minds clearer. We set out at a reasonable 6am (compared to most of the camp who was out by 4 at the latest), still early enough to avoid heavy winds later in the day. The expedition was on. We headed up, up and away, fields of fresh snow surrounding us, and soaring up into jagged peaks that marked the horizon's limit. The sky was perfectly clear, the sun harshly bright overhead; my legs kept working away, step after step unchanging, but I was suddenly, somehow free. I felt the presence of loved ones, friends and family that had been far away for months and yet in that moment they were all there with me, reveling on the top of the world.

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?

India, according to Remi

By Remi, translation by Amanda 

Over two months that we are in India, we love it, a country full of surprises. It has been an explosive and spicy cocktail of noises, colors, smells, life, poverty, love, hate, spirituality: an awakening of all the senses. It is a country where each town is like a new country, a country that defies comprehension, a country where the most important rule is not to ask yourself why. Everything is possible in India! And the first person that you get to know here is yourself, yourself in your vision of the good and the bad, yourself as a white person with all of the representations that go along with that identity in this country: the positive and the negative. There is no half-way or half-assing here; you are always in the extremes. The tolerance threshold in this country is beyond the humanly possible limit. Anything can happen, from the worst to the best, from one instant to the next, from one city to another, the bearable to the unbearable.

We are solicited without end. Traveling in a couple attracts the curiosity of so many Indians; people here cannot conceive that we are traveling together without being married. All day long, obligatory photo sessions because the Indians want to take a picture with you above all else. You say yes to one an then find yourself obliged to continue two minutes later with some thirty-something indians taking your photo, paparazzi style! Or they want to pose with you, like a photo session with some star. Extreme in every type of situation. And that is every time you are outside of the tourist circuit, impossible to pass incognito. It's direct, just being there is a spectacle. Sometimes relationships can be fairly superficial or even primitive here, certain people look like they'd like to take a whiff of our butts as we pass by. Spending time with a westerner is often seen as a status symbol here, also perhaps explaining the photo obsession. We are often invites to eat, sleep, etc. Then after the solicitation without end from these people so full of kindness and curiosity, you decide to rest awhile on the beautiful white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean. You tell yourself, it will e a bit more touristic, I'll have a chance to breath and to relax, only then to find yourself with 90 percent white people, with more money than they know what to do with. They come to stay in an all inclusive, to put their big butts on the beach, and tripling prices in this little paradise. The turtles that used to come to lay their eggs have long been scared away, not to mention the lives of the locals that have been likewise modified. The price of the fish harvested from their oceans is now inaccessible, and new rules have been imposed by whites in search of cleanliness and calm.. Or the identical reproduction of what they already know from home, while the Indians work at the service of these ultra capitalist colonizers of the 21st century who continue to modify entire ecosystems to build their fucking hotel, restaurant... accessible only for one clientele. Once again, the extremes. All said and done, you can find your peace and quiet here, but all you want is to get out of there, so you no longer have to participate.

Into the Kerala

From the edge of the world, we crossed into a new state, leaving the Tamil Nadu behind us as we entered the Kerala. We have now passed the one month mark of our time in India (wow, correction: two months, where has the time gone?), and starting to get into a more or less nomadic rhythm. Nonetheless, entering the Kerala was a shock to both of our systems. Gone were the dirty streets, littered with trash, the beaches with water of a questionable odor and the incessant solicitations of locals. To the contrary, going to Kovalam was as if I had taken a return ticket back to the United States: clean beach, board walk, big beautiful hotels... too beautiful. Another observation: all the bikers wore helmets, also weird. By the night of light, I could just make out the expensive looking facades. Things didn't look much better the next day, in clear sunlight. Kovalam was clearly a paradise with its white sand beaches and clear blue waters, but it was a paradise that was only accessible to few, and those few were mostly white. Even the Indians that did frequent this beach had abandoned their saris for jeans and European brand t-shirts. I realized that I was no longer in India, at least the India that I had seen up until present. What had happened here? Remi and I asked ourselves.

Playing in Kovalam, sorry Remi!
Playing in Kovalam, sorry Remi!
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It wasn't until our homestay host invited us to a delicious home cooked dinner that we were able to pose our questions, getting a few answers. He had lived in Kovalam since his childhood, and he had witnessed the drastic changes that had transformed this town in the past 20 years. He recounted a different time, when rules imposed from the outside didn't dictate local life, when villagers could afford the fish that came from their ocean, a time when the village wasn't polluted by light at night, and sea turtles came by the hundreds to lay their eggs. But all that had changed as tourism to Kovalam increased over time: the more foreign tourists, the more prices had risen, as businesses (many foreign) had began charging European prices, inaccessible for a local salary. Slowly, the locals moved outwards as the tourists moved in. As we have continued to explore the Kerala, the more evident it has become that this kind of tourism is a destructive force: prices inevitably go up as foreigners with their wallets open and eyes closed spend blindly. People come from abroad, not to see India, but to recreate their own comforts and mentalities, with the superficial excitement of a 'foreign' country. With the influx of foreign currencies worth 50x the value of a roupie, these beautiful places lose their authenticity that is so little valued in this type of tourism.

Kovalam itself, in all its glory!
Kovalam itself, in all its glory!
Sea Urchin: an improvised snack on the beach (leave it to a Frenchman...) I preferred the pineapple.
Sea Urchin: an improvised snack on the beach (leave it to a Frenchman...) I preferred the pineapple.

The Kerala is stunningly beautiful, especially its countryside. The religious tourism and fervency we found in the Tamil Nadu are replaced by an awe for naturally occurring temples: the mountains, the oceans and endless skies. We moved up the coast for a short stay in Varkala, which was like a less intense version of Kovalam, more hippies, lower prices and less grandiose development (while we only experienced the shock of Kovalam once, this type of western development is far from rare, especially concentrated along the beautiful west coast beaches). It didn't take long for us to move away from the coast, up into the mountains where the cool air was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat in Cochi. The road to Munnar wound its way up the steep road for nearly five hours, as the government bus we were riding swayed dramatically back and forth. Munnar is known for its tea plantations that surround the hills of this old British mountain station. When the sun shines the fields shine a brilliant green, reminding me of the emerald palace in the Wizard of Oz. More and more recently I have been reminded of that book, the wonderful adventures of Dorothy and her gang that animated the bedtimes and consequent dreams of my childhood. It wasn't just the Wizard of Oz, but a whole series written by L.L. Baum, inherited by my mother from my grandfather and read to me with great animation. Now I realize that L.L. Baum must have been a traveler himself, because each story is a voyage, colored with incomprehensible encounters in a world far from home. Baum understood that its the search that makes the voyage the adventure. I smile to think that many of my nonsensical interactions could easily find their way into one of his volumes.

Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar
Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar

Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar

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A few new authors have been coloring my time here as well (lets be honest, even away from school, I can't go too long without a good book). The philosophical Michel Onfray, Theorie de Voyage (Theory of Voyage) as well as the Jain monk turned Gandhi disciple, Satish Kumar in Tu es, Donc Je suis (You Are, Therefore I Am) in its (not) original French (no, the irony does no escape me, perks of traveling with a French man?). Onfray's Theory of Voyage presents a poetry of geography, pretty words to accompany the natural beauty of the Kerala. The mountains were impressive, overwhelming even, and Onfray adeptly emphasizes this power in his poetry:

Et si des signes d'eradication des differences, de suppression du Divers se reperent evidemment, on aurait tort de confondre les mouvement fluctuants de l'histoire et la permanence de la geographie indexee sur la perennite geologqiue. A l'evidence, toutes les grandes villes de la planete se ressemblent a s'y meprendre. Mais le reel de la planete ne se reduit pas a elles seules. Penser le monde sans les ruraux et sans les paysages, voila vision et obesession d'urbains. Car le paysage dure, persiste, meme mis en peril par les hommes. Et le Divers reside en lui, dans les campagnes, visible et reperable dans les epiphanies naturelles, loin des artifices de la culture.

Making friends with a goat in Marayoor, she wanted to eat everything!
Making friends with a goat in Marayoor, she wanted to eat everything!

And if the signs of the eradication of difference, the suppression of Diversity take place evidently, we would be wrong to confound the fluctuating mouvements of history and the permanency of indexed geography with the perennial geology. All of the large cities of the planet resemble each to the point of repetition. But the real of the planet is not reduced to them alone. To think of the world without her rural areas and without her countrysides is to see the vision and obsession of urbanity. Because the countryside endures, persists, even when put in peril by men. And the Diversity resides in her, in the countryside, visible and recognizable in the natural epiphanies, far from the artifice of culture.

I was reassured. It was as if the words of Onfray were written in the mountains and the fields of tea that surrounded me as I traveled from Munnar to Marayoor: a reminder of the relative insignificance of our individual lives, and even that of our history. The world goes on, despite our attempts to get in its way. Kovalam exists in all its white glory, but (happily) so does Marayoor where traditional sugar cane production has yet to be industrialized, westernized, colonized. The beach town of Kovalam was easy prey for an invasion of western tourism, but the mountains and the wild life reserves of Marayoor seem to resist this type of takeover, maybe an inherent trait of this more rugged turrain. On our journey well taking the road to Marayoor was a symbolic shift as we went from the well-traveled and well-indicated circuit to uncharted territory. Gasp! Not in the guide book! Marayoor is a gem, 18 kilometers from Chinnar national park (giant squirrels, wild elephants, oh my!). Our mode of transport for visiting the park: motorcyle. Right at the entry to the park we met a threesome of some French biker dudes, traveling through southern india on their motorcycles. They invited us to hop on for a ride and a wild ride it was, elephants included!

Beautiful sunset over the lake in Hampi!
Beautiful sunset over the lake in Hampi!

Admist these impromptu adventures, I was devouring Kumar's work, which gave me an Indian specific perspective on foreign influence in India in his sort-of-manifesto where he reprises Descares famed “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think and therefore I am). Kumar makes a declaration of dependence (human, earth, cosmos), and he seeks to deconstruct, or at least to question Cartesian dualism aka the ruling Western mentality (philosophy) since the Enlightenment (I was admittedly into it). He gets to the point in a blunt way, asserting that: “The independence [of India] proclaimed in 1947 was not truly one. [With the assassination of Mahatma] the [Indian] government lost all imagination. It preferred to industrialize the country with the Britannic model than to put into place the measures that Gandhi had envisaged” (299). The literal British rule had ended, but in its place was a way of thinking that remained: the accepted reality that the way forward was through occidentalisation and the god of the western world, Development. The influence of the western world has all done nothing if not increase. As Kumar puts it: “That is the tragedy of this country: the flag has changed, but the system rests the same” (276). He contests the increasing loss of traditional practices and values, that are little valued in an industrial Westernized and capitalist system: displaced artisans, small scale farming, close community, spiritual enrichment. Even as a newcomer to this country, the undertones of this relationship with the Western world have been clear, especially as tourism is increasing every year. The regard in peoples eyes is polarized: either bright with admiration or dark with resentment. English is everywhere: in schools, on tv, even between Indians who come from different states and English is their only common language. Larger than life billboard ads feature only the palest of Indian woman, projecting “white” as the image of beautiful. In a capitalist system the accumulation of material goods is emphasized and annual GDP carefully calculated but, as Kumar points out, often the most basic spirituality is forgotten.

“Une societe qui se croit riche alors qu'elle souffre de pauvrete spirituelle vit dans l'illusion la plus complete” (Fritz Schumacher) 219

“A society that believes itself to be rich, although she suffers from spiritual poverty lives in the most complete illusion” (219).

While I love this idea, and the above quote that accompanies it, the reality has been admittedly a little more problematic. Arriving in the Karnatka, we visited our first Jain temple. Beautiful statues, new architecture, and... really pushy priests! The first interaction was an insistent request for donation, followed by priests in every subsequent temple almost obliging us to partake in their ceremony which culminated with an obligatory donation from our part... No thank you. Needless to say it was hard to relax and actually enjoy the visit, let alone take in and understand what we were seeing. Actually accessing the people or the spirituality of this place felt impossible; the relationship was reduced to a monetary exchange that left me feeling uncomfortable and unsatisfied. I know that the spirituality and the humanity of India exists, but up until present its not been in a temple that I have found them. The spirituality I have found has been far in the mountains, lost in a field of tea, between the sun and the soil. The humanity is in the genuine people that I have met, the family in Marayoor that invited Remi and I in for tea just before a deluge of rain hit the valley, the people who take the time to say hello, and share something of themselves: a smile, a story, an explication of some inexplicable element of India.

A Long Bumpy Ride

When I left you last, I had just found my way to Auroville, the intriguing international community just outside of Pondicherry. This was the first time since my arrival in India that I really settled into a place, for more than just a night or two. Five days all in all I spent in Auroville, trying to get an idea of what this place was really all about. There were many interesting encounters, mostly with Europeans, who were passing through Auroville in the hopes of curing some-or-other malady of western life. Their means were varied, among them: meditation, reiki, vegetarianism and other interesting dietary choices. One man we met had decided the answer was through an entirely liquid diet, no solid foods was his path to enlightenment. He explained that it gave him incredible energy, “digestion by the mind”, was his sort of metaphysical explanation. It all went pretty far, some of it over my head, but what I did understand was that a juice-and-ice-cream diet for years on end was decidedly not any cure I was looking for.  For his part, the fifty-something year old balding man seemed about ready to keel over, as much energy as he proclaimed his diet gave him. I was surprised to find some parallel ideas when reading a compilation of some of Gandhi's texts, La Voie de la Non Violence (The Way of Non Violence), the basic idea being that what you eat affects how you think, how you act and how you live your life. In plain English it is summed up in the old adage: you are what you eat. Gandhi took this adage to the extreme, describing his own experimentation with his diet. He was a vegetarian from a young age for religious beliefs, non violence for Hindus and Jains includes animal and vegetal life. This was all certainly food for thought for me. I was happy to be reading Gandhi. So much in India has proved to be entirely beyond comprehension, I have been seeing, smelling, hearing and talking so much and it feels good to find a balance with reading, a different type of cultural intake and a different way to process the experiences I have been living.

Our home during our stay in Auroville, one of my favorites
Our home during our stay in Auroville, one of my favorites
Soaking up the sun at Aurobeach
Soaking up the sun at Aurobeach

After five days in Auroville, enjoying the beach, meeting new friends and venturing to various hippie drum circles in search of le son (the sound), it was time to take the road onwards. We decided to forge ahead to Tanjor, taking a bus by night. We arrived at 12:30 to a sobering scene: the stench of sewage and roads full of garbage, the city was more or less silent; India goes to sleep unabashedly early. We made the tour of hotels, waking up several unfortunate hoteliers, who were sleeping in the lobby area, but alas! all of the ruckus to no avail. All the hotels were full and no one seemed keen to invite us to share their floor. We weren't out of luck yet, this was the perfect opportunity to make use of the tent! So many people were sleeping outside that we assumed we would be in good company and, after finding a park near the city temple we struggled to mount the tent. It was a good half-hour struggle, the stakes did not want to take to the arid ground and without a hammer, or even a rock it was a losing battle. And then, glory! One lone rock extricated from the corner of the park. We snuggled into our tent feeling more or less secure, if hot, and we settled in for the night. Only a few short hours later we were awoken, as a mystified Indian poked around our tent, undoubtedly confused about what in the world it was doing in the middle of a park. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we broke down camp, fitting everything back into our packs to take on the temple. If the sleep had been marginal the night before, the temple did not disappoint. Ranked as one of UNESCO heritage sights, it was stunning, bigger than the other temples I had seen until present. In the place of the bright colors of other temples, carnavalesque at best and unapologetically gaudy at worst, the temple had maintained its simple rock facade, adorned with intricate stone carvings. In an outer court, Hindus passed a piece of money to the temple elephant, in exchange for a blessing of some sort. I napped on the steps of the temple's interior court, making up for the few hours I had slept the night before. Later, we made our way to the city center, with cars and rickshaw stuck in a traffic jam, as a procession passed by, and we spotted our second elephant! While it was tempting to stay another night in the city, we were tired and we couldn't find a hotel in our price range, and so, a little disappointed we took the bus on to Madurai.

Holy elephant! Outside of the temple at Tanjore after a night of camping
Holy elephant! Outside of the temple at Tanjore after a night of camping
Arrival at the tanjore temple, one of the biggest we have visited
Arrival at the tanjore temple, one of the biggest we have visited
Ganesh, a Hindi god
Ganesh, a Hindi god
Elephant procession blocking the streets of Tanjore
Elephant procession blocking the streets of Tanjore

Madurai! One of my favorite cities I have visited so far on this trip. It was bustling and fast but the people we met were kind and the city had a definite charm. Our first trip on the city bus was offered to us by a stranger, who bought our tickets before we had even realized what had happened and without the time to give thanks. We visited the city temple and the market just across the street, buying a few souvenirs. I finally had to give in to all of the tempting fabrics. It is overwhelming for the eyes. So many patterns and colors, each one more beautiful than the last.  The market was situated in an older, secondary temple, the stalls of the vendors surrounding the middle, holy area. It is such an interesting relationship here, between the sacred and the material. The two are in close co-existence, but instead of denying this partnership, like we do so often in the western world, it is accepted and even seems to be encouraged to some extent. The temples are often home to vendors, relentlessly hassling even the most pious to buy what I can only describe as religious memorabilia. It is all there; for a few roupees you can buy offerings (the classic coconut and banana duo), what I think are prayer beads, and then of course the more mundane pants, fabrics, clothes, etc. Every god has to be paid its dues. Being devoutly religious, I am starting to religious, comes at a cost here.

Shopping in the old temple, converted to market
Shopping in the old temple, converted to market
Psychadelic temple art, Remis expression says it all.
Psychadelic temple art, Remis expression says it all.
On the temple steps, our first photo together  from the trip!
On the temple steps, our first photo together from the trip!

Religion is everywhere in India, marking even the landscape. We took an afternoon trip to village just outside of Madurai. Home to a temple of its own, Tiruparankundram was nestled against the base of a small mountain. And at the top? You guessed it, another temple. And as a special bonus, it was also home to a mosque. We climbed the mountain with the idea of watching the sunset from the top. Even in the afternoon with the sun already lowering in the sky, the heat was intense climbing that mountain. Even summertime in humid Vermont cannot compare. The mountain was crawling with monkeys, who were just waiting for the moment to snatch an apple or camera from our unsuspecting hands (it wasn't until the way back down that we actually had to fend off a monkey that tried to rob Remi). The top was a welcome relief, and to our surprise and delight, a Muslim family almost seemed to be awaiting us, inviting us with open arms to join them for the dinner they had prepared to eat at sunset. Atop the mountain we joined them for a chicken briyani, though they spoke little English and our Tamil is nonexistant, we laughed and joked together, one of my favorite encounters from the trip so far. Their hospitality and openness were unassuming; it was such a simple act of eating together and yet so genuine, bringing out the best of the religious ideals that they lived by.

The Hindu temple that marked the halfway point on the trek up the mountain
The Hindu temple that marked the halfway point on the trek up the mountain
A lone monkey
A lone monkey
An impromptu meal at the summit!
An impromptu meal at the summit!
A picture with our gracious host
A picture with our gracious host
Laughing, as our hosts instruct us to pose
Laughing, as our hosts instruct us to pose

The religious fervor was at its peak in Rameshwaram, au bout du monde, or on the edge of the world. This holy place is doubly important, first for some historical, or possibly mythic, figure who came here to pray, but at the base, because it is the place where the Bay of Bengal and the Ocean Indian meet. Protruding into these waters, it is the very south eastern tip of India, like the Indian Cape Cod or Florida Keys, plus deep religious signification that doesn't apply to the American examples. Remi's impression of the temple: aqualand, indian version. We walked in, not knowing what to expect. Inside the temple everything was dark and wet, the ground drenched, we grimaced as our bare feet met the slimey temple floors. A certain odor oozed from the walls of this closed place that had been wet for too long. We almost wanted to turn around (at least I did!). And yet, as we came into one of the outer courts, a burst of light, and we came upon processions of people, milling around, sopping wet! Indians raced around in inexplicable delight! The crowds were crazed. Priests were quickly hauling up buckets of water from the various wells in the temple (22 in all, quite a circuit for these ardent believers), sloshing bucketfuls of water on the heads of the gleeful temple goers. Wow. We left the temple dazed, happy to dry off our feet and absorb all that we had seen on a more tranquil beach, a few kilometers away from the Pilgrims beach that butted up next to the temple.

The infamous barber
The infamous barber
The edge of the world: Notice the different colors of the water on either side
The edge of the world: Notice the different colors of the water on either side
Walking kilometers to the end of the world
Walking kilometers to the end of the world

The next day we made a pilgrimage of our own, to the bout du bout as our French Guide, le Routard adeptly names this place. A rough English translation leaves you with, the end of the end or the tip of the tip in this case. In fact Rameswaram is about 20 kilometers inland from the actual place where the seas meet, giving us our mission for the day: reach that point. We got somewhat of a late start, missing the first bus we wanted to take by minutes, but by twelve noon we were on the bus in the right direction. White sand and a deep azure ocean met us as we stepped out of the bus, to an overwhelming sun. While there were shuttles that would take you the remaining 5 km to the tip, the beach was too inviting. We made it our project to walk to the end, but what we didn't know was that the 5km marked in the guide book, were actually closer to 10 or 12km in the real world. Would this walk to the end of the world never end? And yet, I admitted to Remi, it felt appropriate that such a walk be at least a little bit epic. We were walking to the edge of the world, after all. Enrapt, we watched as the beach grew smaller, at long last, we jumped into the ocean, feeling the water crashing together. As it was growing dark, we caught a ride back with some friendly Indian tourists.

Ather highlight of Rameswaram was Remi's unforgettable  haircut. The barber was totally old school, you could tell that he would never replace his scissors with an electric razor. But the cut wouldn't have been quite so memorable if it weren't for the (entirely) unsolicited massage that followed. The barber took to Remi's back and neck as if it were a nice slice of meat that needed to be tenderized before cooking. After what I can only describe as a well intentioned beating, the icing on the cake was the extra 50 roupees the barber wanted to charge Remi for his “massage” treatment. He assured us that he offered full body services and he could, indeed, accompany us to our room if we wanted round 2. We graciously declined and got on the next train out of town, headed toward another famous gathering point of the seas.

Kanyakumari fits a similar description as Rameswaram: holy both for its dramatic location at the cusp of the earth and sea, and for some other mythic and/or potentially real person who came here to pray some 200 years ago. We arrived at 5 in the morning, after a night of little sleep but lots of crazy-man-talk on the train. A Hindu had decided to serve as our personal companion for the train ride, chatting incessantly in Hindi with an occasional word in English, but more drastically deciding to purchase an additional ticket at his intended destination to see us to our final stop: everything in the extreme. We got off the train feeling a little extreme ourselves: who wants to pay for a night in the hotel when you can sleep on the beach? Maybe it was the spirit of India that had gotten into us, maybe it was just the promise of a free night of lodging. In any case, it was already 5 in the morning and we had nothing to lose. We were hot and tired from carrying our sacks, which somehow felt heavier than when we had packed them in Rameshwaram, when finally we saw a promising sign: Sunrise Point, 200 meters! Onwards we marched, collapsing into the sand with great joy. We didn't even really think to question the hundred something hindus that were already gathered here, at the feet of the temple where the land extends into the sea. I closed my eyes and escaped into sleep. Needless to say, everything was clearer in the morning!  We awoke, surrounded by Indians, who seemed only slightly surprised to see our makeshift camp, and were more delighted than anything to greet us and come take pictures. You couldn't blame them, really; we were quite the site. Everyone had assembled here to watch the famed sunrise at the edge of the world. Without further questioning, we joined them, rejoicing the new day.

The sunset over Kanyakumari
The sunset over Kanyakumari
Makeshift camp on the beach!
Makeshift camp on the beach!

Arrival in India

Our first train ride, Chennai
Our first train ride, Chennai

It is hard to believe that more than a week has passed since my arrival in India.. loud, colorful, vibrant India. All the sights and smells and encounters seem to take up more space than a weeks worth of time. I arrived in Chennai after 16 hours of travel from Paris, with a layover in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Although it was a relatively brief 3 hour layover, it definitely marked the entrance into a new world; Remi and I were directed to opposite sides of the room for security checks: men in one line, women in another. I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the plane before arriving in Chennai le bon matin, walking straight into a wall of heat as I set foot outside the airport. We made our way to the local train, growing sweaty under the weight of our backpacks, hassled by the cries of all the taxi and rickshaw drivers.  The adventure was just beginning. Of course, taking a taxi directly to the city center would have been much too simple, (not to mention way too expensive) so we squeezed our way into the train, to the surprise and I think delight of many of the Indians, many of whom gave us directions in broken but decipherable English. The train was packed! People sitting, standing, sweating: it felt more like a train for cattle than people. Yet everyone around us was friendly and accommodating, curious to see backpackers braving the train. One time we got off too early, but we quickly corrected our mistake and set off anew, on the right path once again. We transferred trains once, making our way to Triplicane, a neighborhood in Chennai that promised guest houses for travelers on a budget.

Checking out the beach, indian version
Checking out the beach, indian version
Make shift carnaval on the beach
Make shift carnaval on the beach
Exploring the streets of Chennai
Exploring the streets of Chennai

After a few attempts, we found guest house in Triplicane for a reasonable rate: the King Royal Palace. Palace might not be the word I would use to describe this hotel, where a few friendly cockroaches greeted us in our room, but the grandiose name was a (comical) statement in and of itself. We were situated right off High Road, one of the busy main streets in Triplicane, where there seemed to be zero rules of the road: between the cars, taxis, tuk tuks and bicycles ran the street at all hours without any seeming order. Other striking first impression: the filth! Garbage was everywhere, in the streets, in the train, in the water. Chennai is a coastal city, but the shore is covered in trash and even if the strong ocean current wasn't enough to keep people out of the water, I imagine the trash would be. A few people had warned me before my depart that Chennai was an unfriendly and uninteresting place to visit, but I was pleasantly surprised by the two days I spent there. It is true that Chennai is not a tourist city, but I liked that, especially for the starting point of this trip. People were surprised and usually happy to see Remi and I, as we blundered through the public transport system and got lost at night, walking circles around the street that led to the King Royal Palace. We visited our first temple and we enjoyed the carnavalesque beach. We met some really interesting and authentic people.

Street encounter, she practiced her English!
Street encounter, she practiced her English!

Street encounter, she practiced her English!

Making friends in Chennai!
Making friends in Chennai!
Chennai Baba at a local temple

Chennai Baba at a local temple

After two days, we were ready to move on, and we were excited to say goodbye to the cockroaches.  We headed on to Kanchipuram, but not before an exciting ride on the city bus, which took us to the bus station. I had thought the train was crowded, but once I took a look at the bus situation, it turns out it wasn't so crowded after all. We squeezed in with our backpacks; this time the Indians were decidedly less delighted to see that we were taking up about twice the amount of allotted space per person. More offensive still, we had yet to learn proper bus etiquette! Only a bit ruffled, the Indians pushed us into place, at the front of the bus, where we were supposed to have been all along. We made it to the bus stand unscathed and with a rush of adrenaline, we were off on another bus, this time to Kanchipuram (and with air condition. Luxury.).

While I had bid farewell to the cockroaches, the Guest House in Kanchipuram was home to its own fine array of insects as well, although more so the nocturnal variety which we would find out a few hours later. We had settled in after a brief tangle with a local rabatteur, who had made off with 500 roupies (Remi had accidentally paid the middle man instead of the hotel). I was in the room, so I heard the scene from above and didn't particularly care to implicate myself in the proceedings. Remi raised enough of a commotion that the townspeople rallied, bringing in the guilty man with a look of shame on his face and the 500 roupies in hand. With that fiasco resolved, Remi and I set off to visit the temples of Kanchipuram. The city is a place of pilgrimage for Indians as well as foreign visitors, for its nearly 125 temples in the area. We decided to do the visit by bike. Renting bikes proved to be relatively simple, 6 roupies per hour and we just had to return the bikes before 9:30 when the shop would close. The shop keeper gave us a few vague instructions to start out and we were off! Into the craziness of Indian traffic, with me in a full length skirt, and reverse traffic rules (legacy of the British rule). After a few wobbly starts (that bike was heavier than it looked!) I started to get a feel for things, and after one corrected wrong turn, we arrived at the first temple, which was right in the city center. It was much bigger and more impressive than the temple we had visited in Chennai, and there were buses of Indians outside coming and going. The adventure continued, as we traversed the town to see two more temples, to the shock of the oncoming traffic. There were smiles and car honks, and even one older man on a motorcycle who pulled up next to me, all the while pedaling through traffic, as he inquired where I was from. A beautiful and thrilling experience all in all; the traffic felt much more navigable as a biker than a pedestrian and I'm already excited for my next ride. The night brought a different type of adventure, although it was of a less thrilling nature. The hotel was mosquito ridden by night, even with the windows closed tight, and the sheets seemed to crawl. Remi and I were awake all night, tossing and turning, and scratching! We were more than ready to leave when morning came.

Temple visit in Kanchipuram
Temple visit in Kanchipuram
My favorite means of transport, our trusty bikes!
My favorite means of transport, our trusty bikes!
Inner court of the temple in Kanchipuram
Inner court of the temple in Kanchipuram
Kailashanatha Temple under the moon
Kailashanatha Temple under the moon
Ready to eat after our biking adventures!
Ready to eat after our biking adventures!

Our next stop was Mahabaripuram, considerably more touristic than either Chennai or Kanchipuram. Mahabaripuram is a little town next to the coast thats known for its rock carving, located about 130 kilometers south of Chennai. Its a little beach town, with a relaxed vibe and its fair share of foreigners who come to vacation on the beach. Here, finally, we found our first clean hotel!! Clean, truly clean (and even better, no mosquitoes!). After a little bargaining, it was only a little bit more expensive than our usual price (350 roupies, about 5 euros). We relaxed with the pace of the village, happy to leave the craziness of Chennai and Kanchipuram where the streets were constantly filled with honking drivers and city noise. My favorite place in Mahabaripuram was a public park, about five minutes from where we were staying, filled with stunning sculptures. All of the figures had been carved out of enormous boulders that lined the park; imagine a sort of a rock field transformed into a sculpture-park. In certain places, entire temples, cave-like, had been carved out of the rock! We also visited the beach, an enormous stretch of beautiful beach, unfortunately also littered with paper, plastic, basically trash. All of the Indians congregated in one area, some braving the waves with glee, but always fully dressed.  Our second beach trip, Remi and I came prepared to take the plunge, only with a few hesitations after having seen (and smelled) the city sewage that undoubtedly emptied somewhere nearby. These thoughts aside, we plunged in, refreshed by the ocean water. We stayed close to shore, since the currant was strong; I could feel how easy it would be to get pulled away.

Other park goers in Mahabaripuram

Other park goers in Mahabaripuram

We spent the afternoon exploring the cave temples.
We spent the afternoon exploring the cave temples.
Arjuna's Penance, we spent the whole afternoon exploring the park.
Arjuna's Penance, we spent the whole afternoon exploring the park.

The next morning we left Mahabaripuram, to make our way to Pondicherry, which promised to be interesting; the city has a long history of French presence and to this day it maintains a close (and somewhat unclear, at least for me) relationship with France. There are various French écoles and numerous signs in French throughout the city. The trip took us two hours by bus, a tiring trajectory especially since there were more people on the bus than seats. We arrived in Pondicherry and I still didn't have an appetite, even though I had yet to eat that day. Up to this point, I hadn't had any real signs of stomach problem or sickness, for which I owe thanks Mom and Dad and to luck for a strong stomach; street food is appealing for its variety and especially its price! But now, I was beginning to question my food choices: had it been unclean water? A chai from the street? I'll never know, but either way I was out for the day. After finding a hotel, I laid low, nursing a stomach ache and nausea in turn. Later in the evening we ventured out; Pondicherry doesn't have a beach, but there is a nice boardwalk by the ocean. The overall vibe of the city was an Indian-ized European city (which has become so popular among Indian tourists that staying for the weekend without a reservation is nearly impossible). Think streets on a ninety degree angle and boulangeries. Its appeal was somewhat lost on me, although Pondicherry did serve as a jumping off point for its neighboring city, Auroville.

While Pondicherry is known as the Ville Blanche of India, Auroville is something else entirely (although it does admittedly have one of the highest percentage of non Indian residents)- it is a sort of human experiment, living experience, blended with a certain type of spirituality. It is a relatively new community, envisaged by a German woman in the early 60s who is referred to as “The Mother”. She died only five years after the commencement of this project, but now her picture is throughout Auroville (or so I've heard, I have yet to actually see one). The basic idea, or at least as I understand it, is to form an international community that is simultaneously a spiritual community grounded in material projects. There are 46 nations represented in Auroville (or 43 depending on the day, the number varies depending on a Pakistani, Mococcan and Algerian, if one leaves the number goes down, one comes back it goes back up). Auroville is a large area of land, and while the Mother envisaged a community of 50 000, there are little over 2 000 that live there today. The largest group is Indian, which makes up 40% of the population. The next largest is French, at 30%. After that its mostly a mix of Europeans (notably Germans and Italians), some Israelis and a few Americans. And thats where I am now! More to come next about Auroville.

Checking out Auroville, first look around
Checking out Auroville, first look around
A woman we saw on the street, getting cozy with her goat
A woman we saw on the street, getting cozy with her goat

The first week in India has been a rush, an immersion in new colors, smells, language, and food. I have emerged (victorious?) from battle with the mosquitoes, newly armed with Odomo's cream, the local guard against these noxious predators. Never have I been asked by so many strangers (or any stranger I think for that matter!) to take my picture so regularly! I guess thats one way to leave a trace... I have been away from home for a month now, and I miss it. I miss my family, especially since its been hard to connect with the time difference. Wifi is few and far between and sort of shoddy in practice (ok really shoddy). This homesickness reminds me of what I am doing. It is hard to leave a place you love, even when you know you will return. Ultimately that is one reality of traveling; you are always leaving somewhere, constantly in transit. And I love what I am living. I am full of curiosity and questions, excited to look for answers that will only lead to more confusion and questioning. But that's the point.

A New Year

Obligatory picture with Big Ben, magnificent at night
Obligatory picture with Big Ben, magnificent at night

And so it begins! Nearly a year after my first visit to this anglophone capital, I have returned to London, this time with a raucus band of Marseillais. I reunited with my French cheri and his very French friends (the irony does not escape me that London also effectively marks the debut of an intensive French immersion, I hardly spoke any English there). On my last trip to London I was with Anna, my steadfast travel companion during our time abroad in France (I missed you this time around, Anna!). Indeed, my third day in London, was the one year mark of my depart for France the year before. Needless to say this visit was a little bit different in comparison, read: revelry of english tea and endless hours in museums, replaced by debauchery in english pubs, and taking to the streets for New Years celebration for music and fireworks. In the place of terribly obnoxious German adolescent bunk mates from a hostel, we slept 5 to a bedroom, in an apartment 9km outside of London, thank you our hosts, Greg and Marine!

London is beautiful at night
London is beautiful at night
The Marseillais in all their glory. I have never spent quite so much time in public transport, how do you deal Greg?
The Marseillais in all their glory. I have never spent quite so much time in public transport, how do you deal Greg?

In spite of a somewhat different approach, the city had the same effect on me. London is a city that has made me dream from my first visit. It fills me up with ideas for the future: plans, projects, and wanderings. I can see myself here, for a year of studies, a year of work; the reason itself remains unimportant to me, what counts is really having the time to really absorb this city for its daily rythms. It is a city that excites me with these daydreams for the future. The only drawback, if I can even call it that, London is huge which means endless hours on the underground, the train, or the bus to navigate the city. It was at least an hour commute into the city from Greg and Marine´s apartment and I was tired of public transport after the week.

The london that makes me dream, in the middle of the city you find this gem of a park
The london that makes me dream, in the middle of the city you find this gem of a park
A merry-go-round next to the Thames
A merry-go-round next to the Thames

All in all, it felt fitting that this New Years in London I found myself much more oriented towards the future, rather than in reflection on the past year. Later, plus tard, when I did take the time to reflect at least a little (it was New Years afterall..), I realized that the best resolution I could formulate would be to continue living as I have been in many ways, with continued curiosity, excitement and opennness at all this life has to offer and teach, to revel in the things that may be the most simple and not to fear the beauty of things that are more complicated, to learn as I go and to invent as I see fit. The past year had brought my semester in France and the return to Harvard when all I had learned became so evident. I finally felt at home in this institution, relaxed enough to make of this experience what I wanted and to enjoy, yes actually enjoy, this process. It was a year where I loved my studies, I loved my friends, new and old, and I loved life in general. I relaxed into a new type of travel; I accepted and even enjoyed the messy parts, when things go wrong, since in the end these are really just opportunities to find a new friend.

This became especially relevant upon my arrival this year in London. I was exhausted after the flight, especially since I hadn´t slept the night before, due to a missed flight I had spent the night driving to New York from Washington, arriving just in time for my early morning flight. And then, Remi wasn´t there... I double checked the message he had sent me the day before, Victoria train station, I was sure that was where we had agreed to meet, I had the message saved in my phone that proved it was true. I had already accounted for his lateness, previous meetings (Remi. is. always. late.) had prepared me for that, but when he still hadn´t shown up by 10:30, 3 hours after my plane had landed at Heathrow, I knew something was wrong. The search for wifi was useless, all the cyber cafes were closed and there was somehow no public network that I could access. It was only in striking up a conversation with a local Londondien who lent me her phone that I could have seen Remi´s message about the changed meeting place. The couple that I met while I anxiously waited in the line to buy yet another underground ticket did me more good than they could have possibly realised. My nerves frayed, exhausted from lack of sleep, it was their friendly words that got me through that line. And I made it! The night I thought would never end finally came to a close; I found him at a bar at Hammersmith, I was more relieved than mad (he had been on time afterall, he just hadn´t realized I wouldn´t have received his message in time). For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of travel is that it renders you in need of other people, and therefore open to so many encounters that you might otherwise avoid, or at least not actively seek out.

I know he looks innocent, don´t believe it!
I know he looks innocent, don´t believe it!

After this misadventure, the rest of time in London passed without calamity to speak off. We visited Buckingham palace, a huge tourist site, but a must see, and we got pretty silly in the presence of all this royally (excessive) monument.

"C´est royale" thanks, Regis at Buckingham Palace where it was truly "royal". And ok, I admit I trust him afterall
"C´est royale" thanks, Regis at Buckingham Palace where it was truly "royal". And ok, I admit I trust him afterall

Another favorite of mine was the Bogough Market, although I didn´t eat there, the smells alone seemed to comprise a meal: cheese, suasage, sandwiches and I did sample some hot wine, which was surprisingly delicious. Or not? Heated wine throws me off my game, I wasn´t quite sure what to think. Turns out its about the same idea as hot cider. If you haven´t tried its worth a shot.

My food, captivating as always
My food, captivating as always

We also visited Covent Garden, which was a first for me. We got an impromptu opera sampling, thanks to a woman singing on the street. The christmas decorations made for a really festive ambiance, which almost made up for the terrible London weather.

On se regale, the crazies themselves at Convent Garden
On se regale, the crazies themselves at Convent Garden

One other lasting highlight: on our last day, Remi and I visited the Tate Museum which is now among my favorite museums. THe modern art was stunning, and in constrast to the surprisng (at least to me) collection of more historic (classial? art terms escape me at the moment) art on display. I found many new artists to my liking and a few I recognized. Visit if you are in London!! We were lucky as well; we visited on a Friday and the museum exceptionally stayed open until 10pm, (22h for those who prefer).

The next day we were in the plane, god bless you RyanAir for your shitty quality and affordable fares. Next stop: la France.

The Decision

For a long time, I've thought about the idea of taking time off from school, always in a distant, dreamy way. It started as an ambiguous desire, surely inspired by my parents` stories of cross country road trips and wilderness treks of their younger years. I knew that I wanted to live this in between time myself, yet I remained unsure of the form it would take. As I grew older I traveled more and more; the more I traveled, the more I wanted to see. My travels led me far and wide: in high school I spent time in France, my maiden voyages when I fell in love with the beauty of the country and the language. I graduated after spending a semester living in Washington DC, and then I discovered Israel, during a brief two weeks. Freshman year of college passed and I spent the next summer in Tanzania, the first time I set foot in Africa. It wasn`t until I spent a semester abroad in France that I was really able to digest and process all that I had learned in this time. But my travel was always structured: formulated around a program, a job, or my studies. Each time the path had been laid out for me, always with a clear delineation from beginning to end. I dreamed of a different type of freedom: mentally to read and write what I wanted and how I wanted, and physically to be wherever in the world I would find myself, free to pursue my wanderlust to my heart's content. And suddenly, a few short weeks ago, I found myself face to face with: The Decision. Looking back, I realize that it happened quite unexpectedly, a jolt: new energy and opportunity. And yet there it was, peering back at me: the possibility to take a semester off of my fast paced Harvardien existence, putting that life on pause to peruse a more vagabond existence on the other side of the world. I had met Remi the previous spring, when I was studying abroad in France for the semester. I had just left my apartment to meet up with some friends one night, when walking down a side alley street in Provence, I was accosted in Spanish by a very friendly and very drunk Frenchman. The first exchange was a quick one, but we continued to see each other that spring. I left France a few months later when the semester ended, but Remi followed me to Barcelona, for a short weekend visit that seemed to end too soon. Later that summer, we spent two weeks traveling in Eastern Europe. This trip cast its spell on both of us and again it was hard to say goodbye, as Remi headed back to work in Aix and I went back to Harvard to continue my studies.

Amidst all of this travel, the idea slowly took root. A seed of an idea, to leave Cambridge behind for a semester to travel Southeast Asia. I was falling in love, the new places I visited with their own colors and charm, a different way of traveling, and always the allure of the unknown. In the meantime Remi had made the voyage to New York, and then Boston, where we reunited. During three whirlwind weeks, Remi visited my rural home in Vermont, road tripped halfway across the country to Michigan for his first ever Thanksgiving, before venturing solo to Montreal for a cold few days, and then reuniting with me in Boston. Finally the depart was upon us and Remi flew out of New York. He was gone and I knew I had made my decision: it was time to fly.

fly
fly