SNEAKING INTO THE TAJ MAHAL 2/27/2014
The Taj Mahal is just as magnificent as you’d expect it to be. In fact, it’s so spectacular, that one trip inside the gated walls Emperor Shah Jahan built for his beloved 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died during childbirth just isn’t enough.
When Stephanie and I first glimpsed the sight that some 3 million people a year journey to see, we understood the fuss. And after hours of exploring the grounds and snapping far too many photos, we knew it was time to leave. But something about the allure of the white pearly marble, the still serenity of the last visitors trickling out of the gates and the cool respite that the setting sun provided made us determined to stick around. We couldn’t head back, not yet. And besides, our stuffy & oppressive “hotel room” was the exact opposite of the Taj Mahal, with spiders and mosquitos for roommates and a ceiling fan that just might fly off the wall and slice us in our sleep. In India, where beauty lies, aversion lingers.
Once we were booted out of the Taj grounds at closing time, we started asking local shop keepers how we could keep our Taj-high rolling. One man, after tirelessly attempting to sell us miniature Taj statues made from “real marble,” finally accepted our dismissal of his chotchkies and told us to head to the Shanti Lodge rooftop.
It wasn’t easy to find, we were hastily given directions and left to navigate the streets of Agra…swarming with pushy shop keepers and children selling anything and everything. After a while, the Taj tranquility was starting to wear off.
But as soon as we stepped foot on the rooftop and saw that famous white marble glow in the last rays of the setting sun, tranquility was restored. We were in the midst of magic hour, the sun was on the horizon and everything surrounding the Taj was a shade softer. We sat down and soaked it in the best view in all of Agra.
And then we got drunk. Which is what happens when you order strong Indian beers with two German’s smoking hookah. We spent hours on that rooftop. Drinking, playing card games, smoking, conversing, absorbing. The sun had set but the moon was full, and the view of the Taj was ever-present.
As the night came to an end, Steph and I decided we could finally brave the shitbox we called home. So we said our goodbyes, paid our bills and went on our way. Turns out, we were surprisingly close to our hotel, which was surprisingly close to the Taj Mahal. In our stupor, we noticed people walking into the Taj gates. “But isn’t it closed!?” we yelled loudly at each other, “what are these tourists doing?!”
Turns out, for 5 nights of the month, when the moon is at its fullest, the Taj Mahal stays open for late night guests. Instantly, we knew we had to get back in and live out the rest of our buzz on the grass surrounding the Taj, a far more pleasant sleeping arrangement then the one we were headed back to.
As we stumbled over to the gates, along with other sober and better-dressed visitors, we had no idea of the challenge getting back in would be. While casually walking our way in, we were stopped by a young Indian guard holding a gun half the size of my body. We were told (unconfirmed) that we had to purchase tickets beforehand if we wanted to go into the Taj grounds at night, and the ticket office was now closed.
At this point, we had far more courage than we’d normally have (re: booze), so we really laid into the guards, protesting beyond belief. Steph and I used everything in our womanly power to get past those guards. Unfortunately, after a long day of sight-seeing and drinking, we probably looked like the most haggard white girls to walk the roads of Agra. The guards weren’t having it. So, finally, we walked away.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Steph motion to a large group of tourists with tickets in their hands, all walking in. I quickly caught on, and stuck myself in the midst of the crowd, hoping not to be noticed. It might have worked, had it not been a large group of Indian tourists and had we not been two American girls dressed in what appeared to be pajama pants (very comfy, light and loose fitting – great for Indian travel!). I heard one guard laugh, point at Steph and I, and mimic drinking to the other guards, obviously noting we were drunk. The jig was up.
We were thisclose to sneaking our way in before they walked over, picked us both up and placed us back outside the line, shooing us on our way. We pleaded, we begged, “but we’ve come so far from California to see the Taj Mahal!” to no avail.
And yet, with broken but giggly hearts, we turned around and walked back to our tiny, stuffy room, thankful for our day of Taj-viewing, but determined to sneak our way in the next time around.
INDIAN SOUNDS 10/10/2013
One thing is for certain in India: No other country has the distinct ability to evoke such a wide range of emotions in one fleeting moment.
Crippling fear coupled with nausea is washed away in an instant, leaving only a fierce feeling of merriment with a dash of laughter, as is in the case of this car ride from the sweltering deserts of Jaisalmer to the Blue city of Jodhpur. Speeding down a pot-holed “road” at 90 kilometers an hour, nerves racing as we pass large trucks and avoid free-roaming cows, the only present sound is that of our driver singing a Hindi song with a melodic quality I’ve never quite heard before. I am tense, yet I am calmed.
Often, as is the case with this trip to India, beauty shows itself through the sound of song.
Last week, outside the City Palace in Jaipur, a thankless bombardment of pushy shopkeepers was made suddenly pleasant by the deep baritone of a puppeteer singing alongside his harmonium, a strange hand pumped piano-type instrument. I’ve never heard a voice quite so distinct and I’m not sure I ever will. The world stopped for a time, and there was nothing more than that moment.
And it was last night that we sat on wood stumps, watching the pink and orange-hued sunset stain Jaisalmer’s honey-sanded Havelis, drinking beers at a cafe on the edge of town, listening to three little boys sing alongside the same strange piano instrument and a bongo drum. Their voices were scratchy and raw, untouched by the wear of age, and the sounds filling our ears splashed the cafe with a melodic innocence just the way the fading sunlight splashed the city around us.
In a place where poverty is as ubiquitous as the Indian head-bobble, where hunger has consumed the cows, dogs and camels that walk the same roads we will, where water is as precious as life itself, I have found undeniable beauty. And I revel in the desire to continue this search for more, every chance I get.
IT WAS PROBABLY INEVITABLE 7/03/2012
The blinker was accidentally switched on during its decent and the flickering orange light was the only thing visible in a field full of darkness. They tried to catch their breath, stale from the slight stench of Balinese Arak, in between bouts of laughter. The familiar narrow path was never a problem, until tonight. That last drink was probably unnecessary. How in the world were they going to get their rented motorbike out of this field of rice paddies?
COMING HOME 6/22/2012
Coming home isn’t going to to be easy. It will be welcomed, seeing familiar faces after 5 months will be one of the greatest joys; sleeping in my bed after months of hostel ‘mattresses’ will be divine; eating my favorite meals I’ve missed will be delicious. But adapting to a life I put on the back burner for so long will be a challenge. Many go on a trip around the world hoping questions will be answered, searching for truths and looking for inspiration. While I left 5 months ago with these thoughts in my head, I return with a completely different bank of knowledge.
I didn’t ‘find’ myself while backpacking. Questions that I left home with are still unanswered. But what I did learn was a deep appreciation for what I have at home, and a greater longing for exploring and searching for things within my own city’s walls.
I have spent a great deal of time on trains, planes and buses, scooting from one city to the next in anticipation for the great sites that lie in front of me. I have seen the Taj Mahal in all it’s glory, and it’s just as stunning in person as they say it is. The beaches of Thailand, albeit overruled by tourism, are just as vivid as the pictures show. The hillsides of Laos are smokey and dry, and the winding roads have made me question whether or not I’ll make it to the next destination. I’ve learned how to navigate through hundreds of motorbikes in the streets of Hanoi, mastering the craft of crossing the street in Vietnam. I have seen the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and pondered the age of trees growing through the great stone ruins. And I have lived in a house on the rice paddies of Bali, sipping hot Balinese coffee while watching the workers under the sun in their conical hats.
Everyday was a constant search for activities, excitement and newfound stimulation while traveling Asia. I am determined to take that sense of adventure home and introduce it to my daily lifestyle. Work will be work, and I will strive to find uncertainty in the routine I must keep to make money, but I won’t let the seemingly mundane keep me from exploration. Everyone I’ve met while traveling had a funny story to share, a favorite activity to try, a delicious restaurant to suggest. And so do my friends at home. I want to open my eyes to the possibilities that lie just beyond my backyard.
I never want to let the idea of happiness through exploration and the power of creating lasting relationships go. Getting out and seeing something new, or reliving something old with a great friend by your side is the cherry on top. We are fortunate enough to live in a world that is constantly evolving and always thriving, and I want to know my city better than anywhere else.
So for now, I say goodbye to the backpacking lifestyle. It is time to go home and watch the world around me in the same way I do while traveling. I don’t want to take for granted the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, the beautiful sunsets that wash over the Manhattan Beach sky. I want to drive through traffic into LA and revel at the street side graffiti as I make my way up the hills of Hollywood, hoping to catch a view of the downtown skyline all lit up.
Sure, I’ll be saying hello to a life of rent checks and routine, but I’ll welcome it with open arms, as I know the adventure never ends. I have the best of friends awaiting and the whole of California at my fingertips, and I couldn’t be more excited to head home.
A WALK THROUGH SAYAN 5/7/2012
After a lazy day at home Daniel and I decided to take a walk through our neighborhood just as the sun was setting. Pale blues and faded yellows painted the sky behind a mix of light and dark clouds as we walked down narrow lanes though the rice paddies. The familiar path seemed endless. For as far as the eye can reach, acres of green fields laid still amongst the roads of Sayan. Save for a few workers finishing up the day, there appeared to be little movement. But on closer inspection, we found the many creatures of the paddies, flittering and fluttering around like kids on a playground.
It’s hard to believe that all of this beauty lies only a few minutes outside the bustling city of Ubud. They call Ubud the cultural epicenter of the Island of Bali, and it is. There are wood-carving shops, art galleries and book stores lining every street, and you can see a traditional Balinese dance show any night of the week. It’s a charming town full of warm people, delicious restaurants and plenty of places to shop and sleep. But staying in the city robs you of the true beauty that is central Bali. If you take that short motorbike ride up to the towns just outside, there is more to see than any art gallery could ever provide.
As twilight fell, Daniel and I hopped over grass and stepped aside for passing bicyclists as we strolled through the fields. The rice paddies have changed a lot since we arrived in Sayan just over two weeks ago. When we first moved in, the paddies were barren and muddy. Over the next few days, workers cultivated the land, readying it for a new crops to be planted. In just a few weeks, new colors of the land have emerged. As we walk, bright green leaves sprout from the ground amid fields of water, looking almost as if they’re floating. Daniel and I watch as curious little bugs hop across the reflection of the clouds on the water. When we look up, swarms of small, black birds that could be mistaken for bats fly every which way, trying their best to avoid our heads. In an instant, two white herons fly by and are lost in a tree before we know it. Crickets chirp and the familiar sounds of roosters crowing filled our ears, per usual. We’re used to the roosters by now, and we’ve come to learn that it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, they’re always crowing.
What seems tranquil from afar is really a vibrant and lively place for the many inhabitants of the paddies. Yet amongst all of the sounds and movement, there is an overwhelming peacefulness. One that I’m certain is only found in Sayan.
A HOUSE ON THE RICE PADDIES 5/1/2012
Two days of searching in shirt-sticking sweat was getting the best of Daniel and I. We knew finding a house to rent for one month in Bali wasn’t going to be easy, considering our last-minute searching and price constraints, but we didn’t factor in the heat. After looking at yet another house that didn’t quite fit the bill, we were ready to give up for the day.
As we started our descent down one of the many steep staircases we’d walked up, we were approached by a man who asked if we were looking for a house. We were, in fact, and he happened to have one to show us. His smile, like many of the Balinese people we had met, was warm and inviting and his enthusiasm, expressed in broken English, was too charming to deny. Daniel and I looked at each other and decided, ‘okay, one more.’
The man walked us down multiple long, winding lanes before stepping through a large stone gate into a compound with a few houses. A woman inside, the elderly man’s daughter, showed us to one of the houses just down the path. On first glance, it was a pleasant and peaceful space, quite nice for for the price. Daniel and I immediately realized this house had potential…until we asked to see the kitchen. And herein was the problem with many of the other bungalow’s we’d looked at in the past two days: No kitchen. All this house had was a small refrigerator for storing a few items.
We came to Bali not only to cruise through the island’s beauty on a motorbike and jump into the ocean every chance we get, but to rent a house for one month to relax, read, write and cook after 4 months of constant movement. Having a kitchen was one of our biggest excitements. We wanted to walk through the local markets and haggle with shop-keepers for the best priced veggies and fruit to fill our fridge. We wanted to cook up our own dinner each night, trying to recreate the meals we’d eaten throughout Southeast Asia. A kitchen was a necessity.
So we thanked the father and daughter duo and walked out of the complex back into the heat, eager to sit in front of our room’s fan for a few minutes (or hours). But we were followed out by the man who said he had one more house to show us, his other daughter’s property. We were reluctant at first, and really didn’t feel like seeing another house. However, Daniel and I eventually looked at each other, shrugged, and followed the man down another path.
We were told that this house was a little further away in the town of Sayan, just outside of Ubud, so we would need to ride our motorbike over, and could he have a ride? I told Daniel to drive himself and the elderly man over to the house while I waited for him to come back and swoop me up. After 15 minutes, I began to get anxious. How far away was this house, and was it even worth the wait?
Finally, Daniel showed up with a beaming smile on his face, told me to hop on and whisked me away down a path that would lead to the beautiful Balinese villa I’m currently sitting in.
Daniel told me right away that I was going to love this house as we sped down narrow paths; it was charming and spacious and, best of all, had a great kitchen. When I walked through the stone gates and saw the house for the first time, I knew it was perfect. We met the old man’s other daughter, Wayan, and she told me to follow her inside.
Light flooded in through the giant glass front doors as we stepped into the house. A daybed sat to our left next to a wood dining room table with 4 chairs. To the right was the kitchen, closed in by a long, clay-colored tile bar, filled with every amenity we’d ever need to cook up some fancy concoctions. Next to the kitchen was a door that lead to the bathroom, an open air space with a large stone-lined shower, bathtub and a few geckos hanging out.
Up the staircase lead us to the bright and airy master bedroom. An elegant dark wood bed with sheer white curtains hanging from the bedposts sat in front of two windows that looked out onto the lush gardens that lined the front of the house. A matching dark wood vanity sat in front of another set of windows to the sid of the bed, as well as a giant wardrobe, waiting for me to fill it with my (meager assortment of) things.
A welcomed gust of wind entered the room as Wayan turned around and opened two large wooden doors, showing us the view from the balcony. Countless green rice paddy fields stretched from the edge of the house and on for miles. And just beyond them, on the horizon, was the ocean. It was breathtaking.
Daniel and I picked our jaws up off the floor, walked back in and told Wayan we’d love to rent the house. We were floored by how inexpensive the price for one month was and asked her if we could move in the next day. With a yes, some handshakes and big smiles from Wayan and her father, we hoped on our bike, headed to our guesthouse and began packing up our backpacks. The next day we moved into our dream-like villa in the town of Sayan on the island of Bali.
A BACKPACKER’S WARDROBE 4/16/2012
Well, it’s happened. I’ve reached an inevitable impasse, one I fear is a point of no return. I knew it’d eventually come. I had glimpses of it’s arrival while walking the streets of Hong Kong almost 3 months ago. I found myself starting to think about it more and more while pirousing the markets in Luang Prabang. And finally, I snapped in Hanoi.
I am officially sick of every item of clothing in my backpack and there is simply nothing I can do about it.
It was easier at first to accept the fact that what I was able to bring on a 5 month journey was limited to one backpack. I wasn’t too worried about it during our first month in India-I wasn’t sick of the clothes yet- and I had a bit of space in my pack to stuff in some newly purchased skirts and shirts. And in Thailand we spent a great deal of the month on beaches, running around barefoot wearing not much more than a bathing suit and a sarong.
It was when we got to the great land-locked Laos that I started becoming overly conscious of the same 4 or so outfits I was wearing day in and day out. My white tank top morphed into a faint shade of grey; my poorly stitched Indian skirt began to rip; I even grew sick of my favorite pair of electric blue high-waisted shorts, which I didn’t think was possible (I really loved those shorts). And day by day, more and more complaints trickled out of me like obnoxious, unwanted drops from a leaky faucet. I’m fairly positive that Daniel would gladly pay large sums of money to never hear me discuss my lack of a wardrobe again.
It was when we got to Hanoi that I really lost it. We hadn’t been in a big city in quite some time, and the bustling city vibe opened my eyes to the world of fashion I’d so quickly forgotten. Gone were the dread-locked backpackers in their ali-baba pants and their Tivas. In were the slender, straight-haired Vietnamese girls, wearing make up and heels. I was dying to fit in.
So I did what I always do- maybe the only thing I could do-I bought a scarf (I have way too many scarfs, at least one from every country I’ve ever visited. Apparently, it’s my go-to). There were many practical reasons for the purchase, them being it was cold and I didn’t have one on at the time. But also, it was a mustard-colored, long, cozy looking thing that could help scratch the itch. It’s color might spice up the dullest, worn-out items in my 5-month ‘wardrobe.’
Well, it kept me complaint free…for about 5 days. I wore that thing in and out, day and night, and it was almost enough to satisfy me. That is, until we hopped a plane from the North of Vietnam and stepped off into the blazing heat of the Saigon.
The heat has yet to subside, and I write today from a beach town in Cambodia, wearing the same electric blue shorts with the same grey-white tank. No hint of newness, no room in my pack to buy something new, and certainly no need for a mustard-colored scarf.
But then I look up from the table at the glistening turquoise sea and realize one thing: This is a pretty good compromise for a closet full of clothes.
THE OBLIVION OF OUR MORTALITY 4/13/2012
“Photographs are the images of history rescued from the oblivion of mortality.”
A few days ago we ventured into the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City where we could see upclose military armorments, propaganda, news bulletins and photography from around the world.
Upstairs on the top floor was an exhibit entitled “Requiem,”containing images captured by some of the world’s most daring photographers.
The exhibit was extraordinary. The selection of images chosen by Tim Page, an American photojournalist, told a story that penetrated your psyche. With my obvious love for conflict photojournalism aside, the collection appealed to me for presenting the ups and downs for everyone involved in the war.
The photographs each told stories of the love, joy, rage, grief and mourning found deep inside the hearts of the many involved. Some faces I saw went on to lead fulfilling lives in both Vietnam and the U.S. Other faces would not take another breath a few days past the moment of exposure. Their eyes stare through the frame meeting the gaze of the observer whom inches by. A haunting feeling floats in the air, reminding us of our own mortality.
Stepping back from a single frame, the collection itself speaks a very different story. Together the images allow the viewer a glimpse of the challenges these photographers faced. After beatings and the hours spent to repair their smashed cameras, these photographers repeatedly marched off to document the war in action.
How does a war photographer simply stand back and capture an image of gruesome struggle? How does he or she not lend a hand? Maybe that person knows the images in the camera will allow the rest of the world to examine the hardships of war.
“…and so often I wonder whether it is my right to capitalize, as I feel, so often, on the grief of others. But then I justify, in my own particular thoughts, by feeling that I can contribute a little to the understanding of what others are going through; then there is a reason for doing it”
-Larry Burrows, an English photographer who was shot down in Laos.
Many did not quite understand the conflict in Vietnam until these images circulated on the covers of magazines. At one time these images emphatically announced, while today they serve as a reminder.
We as a people tend to move day to day ready to tackle the next project. Our attention is constantly pulled in every direction as time pushes us forward faster. Each photo of ours that we come across in the storm of daily life serves as a reminder of the moments we chose to hold on to. A photo brings me right back to the day I ventured into a foreign landscape or reacquaints me with the feelings I held while I stood in front of or behind the lens. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I can use one of my photos to successfully share my thoughts with another.
OUR LAST BOWL OF PHO 4/11/2012
Yesterday we said goodbye to Vietnam with one last bowl of pho.
Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’), a Vietnamese rice noodle soup, has been a favorite dish of mine since I first discovered it while living in Seattle. Seattle is full of Vietnamese pho shops, and the soup makes for a perfect lunch on a cold, wet day. I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam to eat a bowl of my favorite soup.
One month ago we crossed the boarder from Laos and entered the Vietnamese town of Dien Bien Phu, hungry and ready for pho. Unfortunately, our first bowl wasn’t great. The cook at the tiny lunch spot we stopped in made our pho from two bags of pre-packaged ramen-noodles and spices. We left unsatisfied.
We arrived in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, hopeful that a delicious bowl of pho was waiting for us. But again, we were disappointed after trying out a recommended restaurant. This bowl was better than the last, but still lacked that pho taste that we’d grown to love. I got worried. Was the pho I regarded as the famous Vietnamese dish at home an Americanized version of the real thing? Was calling pho ‘Vietnamese’ like calling Taco Bell ‘Mexican’? Delicious, yes, but not traditional?
But then we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known (and still referred to by locals) as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant metropolis unlike Hanoi. Right away, the contrast between Northern and Southern Vietnam became evident. The buildings were bigger, the pace was faster and the pho was exactly what we were looking for. As we sat down at a food stall in the heart of Saigon, we ordered two bowls of pho and instantly recognized the familiar tastes of the soup we know and love. In the North, pho was lacking the plate of garnishes and sauces that, when added, really enhance the flavor. In Saigon, when our waitress brought out two bowls of freshly prepared pho and a plate full of basil, lime, chili and hoisin sauce, we knew it’d be good. And it was.
We said goodbye to Vietnam with one last bowl of pho at that little food stall in Saigon we frequented regularly during our visit. Pho-king delicious!
OBSERVATIONS (2) 3/14/2012
Taking the journey of a lifetime comes complete with many things: seeing world wonders up close, jumping off of cliffs into turquoise waters, meeting new friends from all around the world. But a travelers journey is also complete with something that often goes unmentioned: homesickness. On the off moments between the amazing new sights, sounds and tastes is that slight longing for the familiar. Wishing you could cozy up in your own bed at the end of a long day, especially when you find yourself sick. There is nothing like wanting to teleport yourself home to your mom’s chicken noodle soup and the big, inviting couch at home when you’ve caught a cold in Laos.
Thankfully, I’ve got Daniel by my side. My link to the familiar. He’s there for me to grab the closet thing they have to noodle soup (a mediocre minestrone) and to pick up cold medicine from the local pharmacy. I’m not quite sure I could have gotten through the past two and a half months (or the past 3 days being sick) without him.
While these bouts of homesickness fade rapidly with windy bus rides to captivating new cities, they’re still part of traveling. Currently, I dream of carne asada burritos and a decent glass of red wine. No matter where you are in the world, a slice of home is calling.
EXPATS IN PUSHKAR 3/14/2012
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein made it seem so glamorous. But they were expats in Paris. In Pushkar, a small religious town in Northern India, these expatriates seem, at first, lost. Maybe they want to be lost, having misplaced their passports years ago with no intention of finding them again.
Pushkar is no Paris. The motorbike horns honk louder than the shopkeepers yell. The Indian boys, trying to make a buck, will take you down to the sacred lake and ‘bless you’ with the holy water, only to ask for a large donation they inevitably pocket. It’s an incredibly religious town, strictly vegetarian, without a drop of alcohol to be found. And for twice a day, three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, the whole city loses power.
But in spite of it all, there is a certain charm that resonates. If you get to know the pesky shopkeepers, they’ll light up as they tell you all about their exporting business and how two Californians, like yourselves, placed a large order for their upscale boutique just last week. They’ll offer you chai, free of charge, as they explain how to play Cricket and slowly become someone you won’t likely forget. And even the weathered expats, who walk the main bazaar up and down until the day is done, smile as they wave to old friends and new acquaintances. They’re content here, it has become home. While I can hear home calling, these souls have traded in traditional for a life of dodging roaming cows and playing chess at the side street cafes.
No, Pushkar is not Paris. There is no glam, there is no wine, there is no busy speakeasy playing Cole Porter from the gramophone. But there is a different something here. Something just as enchanting.
OBSERVATIONS (1) 3/14/2012
Watching an Indian man tie a scarf is like watching a sushi chef prepare a roll. Extremely precise and delicate, cautious. And in the end, the finished product turns out better than anything you’d ever be able to produce. It’s an art. Perfected with time, and, most of all, patience. I think that’s where I lack the ability to effectively tie a scarf. I’m too impatient. Maybe after this trip, it’ll be something I master. The patience, that is.
BAREFOOT IN THE SAND 2/20/2012
The islands and beaches of Thailand, albeit humid, touristy and pricier than the mainland, are a must-see on any travelers agenda for a reason. Many can only dream of the rich colors and luscious views provided by some of Thailand’s more popular beach getaways. Walking off the ferry onto the island of Koh Phi Phi Don, you pay a 20 baht entrance fee to ‘keep Phi Phi beautiful’ for a reason. It’s beauty must be preserved for as long as possible, it’s that stunning.
Once you’ve managed to handle the heat and the crowds of rowdy travelers, often drunk and swinging buckets of rum and coke around, you can start to enjoy the incredible dichotomy that encompasses Koh Phi Phi. By day, you snorkel with fish of every variety and color, you float at ease in the salty sea, and you hike up to the local viewpoint at sunset and pinch yourself because it’s hard to believe what’s in front of you is real.
But by night, you become one of those rowdy travelers with a bucket in hand. You walk from your hostel with a crowd of new friends who have come from every corner of the world, sharing travel stories and bucket straws. You kick your sandals off and dance on the sand and into the sea to the latest remix of some song you’ve already heard 5 times that night. Somebody decides to try the flaming jump rope and you cheer them on with all your might, and contemplate whether you’ll try jumping as well.
As you wake up the next morning, hot, sweaty and a bit woozy, you guzzle down water before heading downstairs to meet with the crew and do it all again. This day, you all sign up for and hop on a party boat that takes you and 60 other like-minded travelers to and around the neighboring island of Koh Phi Phi Lei. You jump off the side of the ship into jellyfish encrusted waters, using a lifejacket as a floatation device in a forgotten cove, splashing about while trying not to get seawater in your beer can. Then, you climb the steep ladder that takes you over to Maya Bay, revered for it’s ominous beauty and for it’s role as the infamous getaway Leo DiCaprio ran around on in The Beach, a movie nobody really liked. But you all really like Maya Bay, it’s that stunning.
Your boat ride ends with a cruise around open waters at sunset, and you eat fried rice and finish your drinks while snapping pictures of new friends in front of a melting sun. Once you’re back on dry land, you shower, maybe nap, and find yourself on that hostel porch once more. Cards are dealt, games of ‘shithead’ are continuously played, and everyone takes turns going on a beer run. And then someone shouts that it’s time to head out and you find yourself on the beach once more, dancing barefoot in the sand.
HIKING IN KRABI 2/15/2012
After 6 days of bliss on the island of Koh Phangan, Daniel, Jason, Phil and I were ready for a move. We decided to head to Krabi, a gateway point to many beaches and islands on the Andaman Coast of Thailand. We hopped a ferry and, two bus rides later, had arrived. The Krabi Peninsula is home to sprawling mangrove forests, exquisite beaches and a vast array of kayaking, hiking and sightseeing activities. It is easily one of my favorite places we’ve visited so far.
After a delicious and cheap meal at Krabi’s night market, we headed to bed to get some sleep before a busy day of exploring. The next morning, we rented motorbikes to drive us around the town instead of relying on expensive taxi’s. As we zoomed down the hot, black asphalt, we made a left-hand turn at Krabi’s Tiger Temple. With towering tropical trees, monkeys leaping about and the hum of Buddhist Monks praying, the Tiger Temples seemed to be a pleasant stop on our journey. However, as peaceful and serene they first seemed, the Tiger Temples ended up becoming one hell of an undertaking.
As you walk further into the Temple grounds, a daunting staircase rests next to a sign that says “1,237 steps to the top.” I’d seen this sign before. 3 years prior on my first visit to Thailand, a different group of friends and I took the plunge and walked the steep staircases all the way to the top. We discovered the magnificence of the giant golden Buddha statue and a breathtaking view of Thailand that stretches farther than the eye can see. Having done it before, I was alright not doing it again. It was, after all, a grueling hike, especially in the heat.
I casually mentioned to the boys that I didn’t really feel the need to hike those steps again. Daniel, Jason and Phil looked over at me and laughed. Within seconds, I found myself hiking those steps once more, wishing I’d worn something besides flip flops, avoiding families of monkeys and praying for rain to cleanse the dripping sweat. A good 45 minutes later (maybe it was 30, maybe it was an hour, I couldn’t keep track), we saw the familiar golden glimmer and knew we were almost there. The same question I had when I first reached the top 3 years ago plagued my mind once more as I stared at that giant Buddha statue: how in the world did they get that thing up here??
Walking down 1,237 steep steps is actually more nerve-wracking than walking up them. With shaky legs, we carefully reached the bottom, guzzled down water and got back on the bikes, determined to find the nearest ocean to jump in. Luckily, the beautiful coastal beach Ao Nang was nearby, and jumping in the water has never felt so good.
As we headed back to our hostel, we made a stop at the Tesco-Lotus supermarket. I haven’t stepped foot in any market larger than a 7-11 for almost two months. Walking into the cool, air-conditioned super-store had me wide-eyed. As we grabbed a couple bottles of Chang, I noticed Daniel making his way for the snack aisle. I knew he was determined to find Goldfish. The obsession that Daniel and Phil share for Goldfish is die-hard. The first time they both realized this was a shared obsession, they talked for 2 hours about everything Goldfish related. Imagine their excitement when, after two months without their favorite snack, they discovered the familiar smiley face of the Goldfish crackers staring down at the them from the aisles of the Tesco-Lotus.
With beer and one hand and Goldfish in the other, we chalked the day up to be one of the best we’ve ever had together.
A THAI BIRTHDAY 2/04/2012
The thought of turning 25 was a scary one. While it may seem so young to so many, it seemed like such a dauntingly high number to a wide-eyed 24 year old. Part of me feels like I was just in Seattle preparing to graduate college. Part of me feels like I’d be in a much different place as a 25 year old. But when I turned 25 on January 31st, all my worries faded as I woke up and realized I was in the perfect place. Physically and mentally, I was exactly where I should be.
If you’d asked me last year what I thought I’d be doing on my 25th birthday, I would have never been able to predict such an amazing day. Sun was shining into our hot beach bungalow as we awoke late on the Thai Island of Koh Phangan. After lathering on what would turn out to be not enough sunscreen, Daniel, Jason, Phil and I headed to a beachfront restaurant on Haad Yao beach for some lunch. After a bowl of Tom Yum soup, we decided to rent 4 motorbikes and explore the island.
The seductive beauty of Koh Phangan is visible the minute you step off the ferry onto the sand. But driving a motorbike into the center of the island with the wind whipping through your hair unveils a different type of allure. The winding inter-island roads showcased lush and abundant landscape, green from recent rainfall. We drove for a while before turning down a road that lead us to a beach on the northern most point of the island. We parked our bikes, kicked off our sandals and ran over a small bridge towards the picture-perfect turquoise waters. This particular beach had a sandbar that connected it to a small, neighboring island. We spent the next hour wading in the water across the sandbar, exploring the deserted little island and laughing a ton.
Back on the bikes and ready for more exploring, we stumbled upon a sign that said Paradise Waterfall with an arrow. After turning off and parking, we walked up a steep hill and discovered a sparkling pool of water just below the furiously flowing waterfall, complete with 2 rope swings and a handful of children laughing and screaming as they swung from the trees into the water. We had to join them.
A while later, hungry from swimming and swinging, we made a stop at a small restaurant with a big Thai woman inviting us inside. The restaurant was Panee’s Corner, a delightful little stop on the way back south that everyone visiting should make. Fat and sassy, Panee told us to order the Panang and a while later, her and her daughter served us 4 dishes of the most delicious Panang Curry I’ve ever had.
Motorbiking through forests, colorful beaches, waterfalls, delicious curry, good friends…the day was perfect. But, it wasn’t over yet. After a few drinks, we found ourselves in a cab being driven to the Half-Moon Party that happened to be taking place that night at a venue in the jungle. As soon as we arrived, vendors with cans of day-glow sat painting the arms, legs and faces of party-goers. With black lights lining the jungle, we all knew that we needed to participate. I ended up with a neon yellow, orange and blue dragon on my right arm.
Walking further into the party, the sounds of DJ’s spinning blasted the air, fire-dancers caught our sight and the smell of buckets full of coke+whisky lingered. We headed towards the center of the party and joined the crowd of brightly-dressed people, ready to dance and ready to celebrate.
Turns out, turning 25 was one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.
DRIVING IN INDIA 1/26/2012
We are privileged in many ways. But it’s often that I take advantage of the United States’ vast and reliable infrastructure. I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the drive from Manhattan Beach to Downtown LA in traffic, a 20 minute ride that usually takes an hour. But LA traffic is appealing after experiencing the roads of Northern India. There is madness in every direction. Stop lights are scarce, and when there is one, it’s treated as a suggestion rather than a requirement. There is only one long dirt road out of any big town and everyone and everything is using it: trucks, cars, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, bike-rickshaws, walkers, bikers, mule-drawn carriers, cows, camels, dogs. It’s madness.
Our first experience on the roads was on our third day in India. Because all the trains were booked, we had to hire a taxi to drive us from Delhi to Agra. Agra is one of India’s most highly trafficked towns as it’s home to the mother of all tourist attractions, the Taj Mahal. The road to Agra is even more crowded than the busy streets of Delhi.
While on our way out of town, Ohm, our driver, made a slight shift right in an effort to avoid a few schoolgirls walking down the dirt road. And as he was shifting, a large cargo truck was turning slightly left, and thus-we collided. The right-side passenger door wouldn’t open and the window was cracked, but aside from that, there was no other damage, and everyone involved was unharmed. But what came next was quite the unnerving spectacle.
I figured that since a nearby police officer witnessed the incident, it would be a relatively quick interaction and exchange of information. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The police officer promptly told Ohm and the truck driver to “figure it out” and forced them to move their vehicles further to the side of the road. What proceeded was 2 hours of arguing, yelling, and furious pacing. We didn’t get out of the car once, as we were advised not to, and watched the entire event unfold from the smashed backseat window.
When Ohm got in the car for the final time and buckled his seat belt, we knew an agreement had been reached. Ohm told us the whole story, fuming, but trying to hide his anger. The truck driver was claiming it was Ohms fault while Ohm was claiming it was the truck drivers fault. They argued this point for hours. Finally, Ohm asked to see the man’s drivers license. It was expired.
Ohm explained to us that because of this, and because he is a licensed taxi carrying tourists, the result of all the arguing was that the fault was not his own. In Hindi, there is a saying that many Indian’s consider sacred. It translates to “the tourist is like God.” India is a very proud nation, and any harm to it’s reputation is unacceptable. If you are showing a foreigner your country, they must be protected, their experience next to perfect. When Ohm explained to the truck driver that he was carrying two tourists in his car, the truck driver recognized that he needed to take the blame. He knew that the consequences were far worse (jail) if Ohm reported the incident to the proper authorities than if he offered to pay for damages.
As we continued back down the same crowded dirt road, I thought, “Maybe next time I’ll think twice before I complain about LA traffic.”
78 WORD STORIES 1/28/2012
( A few months ago Esquire magazine held a contest for a well written 78 word story. Being inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous 6 word story, Esquire’s writers devised a format designed to place importance on every word. Many call it Flash Fiction. The stories were so limited that even a paragraph break could signify a dramatic change. The imagination had much room to fill in what the limiting words could not.
Obviously confused, Corey and I turned the page in last month’s issue and found our entries missing from the glossy print. Since we had so much fun writing the pieces we thought it best to continue the format in our blog, telling stories of our adventures along with our larger entries. )
“You have life insurance?” is what the local asked as I climbed on his motorcycle. Foreseeing an inevitable accident, we maneuvered streets barely wide enough to walk. The unmarked storefront presented itself and money was hastily passed through the haggard bars. We departed and against the cool Indian wind I hugged the box in my lap.
Walking back into the restaurant, I place before three grateful women a bottle of rum intended for drinking at tonight’s final hurrah.
“No water? What the fuck!?”
James desperately needed some after consuming an ungodly amount of flaming alcohol. The night had started right: good food, good friends, and good drinking! But we had to swap goodbyes just before midnight.
The crowds were already growing.
She and I raced to the metro and the party greeted us when we emerged.
I spent New Year’s under Hong Kong’s spectacular lights, in a sea of people, with the only person who mattered.
ARRIVING IN DELHI 1/5/2012
Our cab driver appeared to be lost as we drove circles around Paharganj. We were looking for the Vivek Hotel in the Main Bazaar, but after several phone calls and stopping a few people on the side of the road, our driver was essentially clueless. We continued making windy turns down dirt roads that weren’t meant for driving and stopped when a local knocked on the window and told our driver that cars couldn’t drive down this particular road. It seemed odd since we’d driven down every other dirt road in the area, lost for 40 minutes.
And with that, we paid the man, put our packs on our backs and started walking. We walked by the huge ditch that halted our taxi and continued on past a half-asleep homeless man throwing up on the side of the dirt. It was when we walked by the free-roaming cows that I stared getting nervous.
Lost at midnight in a place Lonely Planet described as having ‘a seedy reputation for drugs and dodgy characters’ wasn’t exactly how I’d planned on meeting India. We stopped inside a brightly lit guest house and asked a friendly gentleman where Vivek Hotel was and he told us we were close. I started silently praying to the cows who were eating a discarded piece of luggage as we rounded a corner and saw the sign. Some typical dread-haired backpackers were walking out of the hotel door and I knew we were home.
Or that’s what I thought until the front desk man told us we wouldn’t have a room here, but at his other hotel. Which was named ‘Avatar’ or something and was not in our trusty guidebook. But we have no choice, and he says he’ll help us get there. Fair enough.
Getting there turned into a 30 minute galavant around the dirt roads outside of Vivek with three men trying to find us a bike-rickshaw that would carry us to the next hotel. We got in one, and out, and in another, and out until a finger-wagging fight broke out amongst all parties involved. One man finally said ‘come!’ and we started walking. Down the same dirt road, past the holy cows and the barfing man and the taxi-stealing ditch. Then down another street past men burning fires out of coal and plastic bags creating a smell that was supposedly a recognizable smell in Delhi. Which I interpreted as, ‘Delhi smells like burning flesh.’
We finally entered Avtar Hotel, which wasn’t nearly as welcoming, and were given the keys to check out our room. There was no one else around, no familiar looking hippies, except two Indian men sitting on the lobby couches watching Bollywood. We lugged ourselves upstairs and opened the door to a dingy room with a double bed, an AC unit and a bathroom. The sheets probably hadn’t been washed in years and the AC unit was attached to the wall that separated the room from the hallway. There were cracks that let us catch sight of anyone who walked by. Budget accommodation at its finest. I looked over at Daniel and he could tell.
We walked back downstairs when the front desk phone rang, and the man who answered handed it to us. Confused, I grabbed the phone and said hello. It was the man from Vivek Hotel, telling us how sorry he was that he didn’t’ have the room we reserved at his highly rated and supposedly cleaner Vivek Hotel, but that we should stay at this Avatar place and it would be free of charge.
I told Daniel the news, he shrugged, and we gave the front desk man our passports, preparing ourselves for our first night in Delhi.
We ran to the roof just as the sun was setting and caught a glimpse of the roaming kites and the eager children. The kids began calling for Daniel to take their photo with his camera. They waved at us as they flew their kites, asking our names and posing for pictures. They were on every rooftop, playing and calling to each other. It was the simplicity of it all that struck me. Back home, the mere thought of going outside to fly a kite was something we’d likely save for Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke. But here, it was playtime. It was their livelihood.
After 3 hectic days exploring Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, the city of Jaipur welcomed us with beautifully wide open arms. Since leaving home, I’d yet to feel relaxed, struggling with constant worry of where to go next and which train to take. But running up the stairs to the rooftop of the Karni Niwa Guest House and witnessing the full moon behind the flying kites, I felt peace.
As the night falls, the children’s clatter fades and the kites drop from the sky one by one as the moon rises. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. And I’ve only just arrived.