A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on an unfamiliar bicycle--winding through cars on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil. As we went over a narrow bridge, my couch surfing host shouted back at me, "watch out for the motorcycles!" They were splitting the lanes too, and a force to be avoided.
I arrived to Southern Brazil after Argentina and Uruguay. After a couple weeks in Buenos Aires, I hopped a bus up to Montevideo, Uruguay--where I spent a week. As quickly as I fell in love with the people, the culture, the herbs, and the Fainá, I was off NB again. I had 2 days to bus 2,000 km up to Rio de Janeiro. There was no bus that went the entire distance, and bus companies in Brazil require Brazilian IDs to purchase tickets online. So I bought a ticket to Pelotas and crossed my fingers. When I arrived, the bus to Rio was sold-out, but I just bought a ticket North, and--after a few transfers--I reached a station in Florianópolis with a straight-shot to Rio.
It was a bit intimidating stepping onto the street out of the bus station when I finally arrived (well, after chasing down my bus--banging on the side to let me re-board; I had forgotten my jacket in the seat pocket). Brazil, and Rio especially, is known for both violent crimes and petty theft--both on behalf of the poor and the police. This is a country with vast resources--one of the most powerful emerging economies in the world--yet there is still massive class disparity and corruption. In fact, the streets were still tagged with spraypaint condemning the political coup 5 months earlier that saw the ousting of Dilma Rousseff (from the Workers' Party).
My 46-hour train ride from New Orleans (through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, & California) finally arrives at Union Station LAX at 06:00.
I paid my respects to Mahatma Gandhi whoose ashes...are located in a sarcophagus in Santa Monica.
After spending an hour wandering through the massive station, I finally find my bicycle behind an Amtrak employees-only locked door. I present my luggage claim ticket, slide my bicycle out of the box, reassemble it, and load my panniers on. By 07:00, the February sun is high & warm in LA, and I'm happily rolling through the streets. I don't bother to check a map. I'm headed to Santa Monica; a compass indicating "west" is all I need.
After passing through chinatown, I wheel into the first grocery store I find for breakfast, which turns out to be in Echo Park. This is home to PETA's headquarters, where one of my college friends lives & works. We meet for tea, catch up, hit up a couple thrift stores, and I head back down hill.
I biked through Hollywood. This reminds me of Times Square, but it was interesting to see. Then I rode through Beverly Hills. And finally, Santa Monica.
LA is a massive city. Even though it was down-hill, it took me far longer than expected. It was a fun ride, and my friends were relieved when I showed up (mostly) unscathed. I took a long-needed shower, and enjoyed a bowl of their delicious vegan curry 😀
The following weekend I paid my respects to Mahatma Gandhi whoose ashes--little known fact--are located in a sarcophagus in Santa Monic
I've crossed the US by bicycle. I've crossed by plane. And now--I'm taking a train from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
I’ve crossed the US by bicycle. I’ve crossed by plane. And now–I’m taking a train
I just bought an Amtrak ticket from Atlanta -> New Orleans (for Mardi Gras!) -> Los Angles. It's ironic to realize that I've never done the good-ol cross-US road trip; I've never driven across the US (or taken a bus), but I suppose I shall one day (update: I did !). For now, I look forward to seeing the South via rail.
In any case, an update is due: After 4 magical months in in India, I came back to NYC just before the winter cold set in. After visiting friends & family, I traveled down the US East Coast.
I left a big duffel bag of possessions with a friend in NYC, and--due to price gouged bus fares ($700 flight from NYC to Atlanta? I don't think so) over Christmas--I tried my luck at hitching from DC to Asheville with a backpack and 2 oversized duffel bags. I could hardly walk 0.1 km without needing to rest my back hauling that much shit.
Within 10 minutes of holding up my cardboard sign indicating highway 81, a couple of southern boys (welcome back to Virginia) in an unmarked van stopped, started clearing junk out of the way in the back behind a full-size US flag strewn between the back and the cab, and told they could take me as far as highway 81, but wouldn't be able to drive me South. I declined their offer. In the next 6 hours, another 4 people offered to take me part-way.
Having too many bags to be able to walk my way out of a bad spot, I left for the DC greyhound, slept the night in Union Station on Christmas Eve, and took the next Greyhound to Atlanta.
After a week exploring downtown Atlanta (read: where Martin Luther King Jr was born), I took a bus down to Florida--where I currently sit, a true NY snow bird.
After I hit LA, I'll head north to Vancouver for Spring--traveling by train & bicycle along the majestic US-Pacific coastline. I've never spent much time in Canada; I'm sure looking forward to Vancouver!
A trip to India is not complete without a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.
This mecca for the Sikh faith is an ideal representation of compassion, hospitality, and socialism. Though it's comparing apples & oranges, I found the Golden Temple to be somewhere between 10-100x a better visit than the Taj Mahal.
This immaculate white-marble square surrounds a massive, sacred, holy-water-filled tank. The pilgrims come here to bathe in the holy water, in which fish swim happily (the Sikh are pure vegetarians). At the center of the tank is a beautiful Golden Temple. All are welcome to visit the Golden Temple, and the square is open on 4 sides 24/7. The friendly spear-and-sword-armed guards only require you to follow a few simple, respectful rules: don't bring socks or footwear in the square & cover your head.
You can also sleep for free in the complex, in Air-Conditioned quarters. They serve free food & tea constantly throughout the day & night (Langar). And there's a free museum to learn about the history and theology of Sikhism.
I spent 2 glorious days in Amritsar, most of which was spent reading in the square, admiring the Golden Temple and the utopian atmosphere.
I also went to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre where British troops--without warning--fired upon men, women, and children; killing over a thousand. I was shocked to find many Indians taking smiling selfies in front of the still-standing bullet-hole-filled walls. For the first time in my 3-month stay in India, I denied requests to selfies.
And I briefly visited the Wagah Pakistani border and left with an intense desire to cross to bear witness to the culture of the more tranquil Pakistanis.
My last night in Amritsar, I caught the midnight train back to Delhi for a cheap flight back to Bangalore.
I began my ascent into the Himalayan mountains via a bus from Delhi. My stop was the last stop, Manali. The mountains were beautiful, and I was completely taken by surprise when I found myself on a Bollywood set, paid 1500 rupees to be an extra in a film.
A French couple departed the bus with me, so we shared a rick shaw to Old Manali, where we stayed in a cheap ~300 rupee/night guest house. It was November--Manali's off-season, yet there was already a half-dozen other travelers from France, Germany, and Korea staying at the guest house.
I immediately recognized Himalayan Blackberry and I could smell ganja in the air--two plants that reminded me of California.
Soon after I arrived, I started walking North along the river, basking in the peaceful sunlight in the valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I immediately recognized Himalayan Blackberry and I could smell ganja in the air--two plants that reminded me of California.
I continued walking along the deserted mountain road above the river for a few hours, passed through a village where I saw smoking men relaxing in the morning and women washing clothes from a stream running down to the river. I turned, walked back to my guest house, ate lunch, and then continued in the opposite direction towards the hustling & bustling New Manali. It was an overcrowded tourist trap full of shops, restaurants, and overcharging rickshaws--a stark contrast to my peaceful morning walk. Though it was off-season, I met local that offered to guide me on a day-trek for much cheaper than the "adventure" companies charge. We had chai, agreed on a price, and a time/location to meet early the next morning.
On my walk back up to my guest house, a man behind a gated entrance with a radio earpeace stopped me. He said they're shooting a Bollywood movie, they need a foreigner to play as an extra, and they'd pay me 1,500 rupees, and feed me for my time (for reference, 1500 rupees would pay for my lodging at my guest house for the next 5 nights).
Last night I was transported into another dimension by way of a crowded Indian bus & tuk-tuk packed with 11 people en-route to Vrindavan.
When I arrived by foot just outside the ISKCON temple, an unexpected familiar face dressed in a t-shirt (distinct from all the orange-shawle'd Hare Krishna devotees) called to me. L, an old friend I met in Auroville, was staying <1km from the temple. After briefly visiting the temple (full of happy Hare-Krishna chanting & dancing Indians & foreigners) we walked to what would become my home in Vrindavan for the next 2 nights.
It was a 2-bedroom apartment shared by 10+ travelers from America, Europe, and India alike. Everyone's funds were tight, so their sustenance was fed by free rice & gravy twice daily by the temple--supplemented by simple white bread and (local) honey.
I had no sleeping pad or bag, so I spent my nights sleeping on cardboard, covered with my thin dhoti.
My first day in Vrindavan, I had a long conversation with 2 men who moved to India 40 years ago. Both were born in New York, which is also where ISKCON was started by Bhaktivedānta Svāmi.
I was unexpectedly pelted in the back of the head by a fistfull of flowers.
Later that day we took part in a grand procession with hundreds (if not thousands) of Hare Krishna devotees chanting, dancing, throwing flowers petals, and passing out free fruit & water. Many times I was unexpectedly pelted in the back of the head by a fistfull of flowers. Before long, the streets were covered with flowers & plastic bags (from mineral water).
The following day I caught a train with 5 friends to Delhi, then hopped a bus north to Manali, where I greeted the Himalayan mountains for the first time.
Sad packs of technicolor-painted donkeys wander down the street outside my hostel just next to the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.
I sit nibbling at my peanut butter & raisin burrito trying to overcome the weakness due to hunger following this morning's stomach issues from the Dal Fry I had last night at the Bob Marley Cafe (Bob Marley--a true legend that will never be forgotten as the icon of commercialization, a perfect marketing tool to attract the middle-class youth backpackers to hostels). More donkeys pass and I'm reminded of the sad camels I saw pulling carriages of tourists between the Agra fort and the Taj Mahal. The camels, unlike horses, don't have shoes. They are massively tall with their snouts covered with a bag and their back bound to carts full of jeering Indians. I could see the misery in her eyes as the driver hit her with a stick to go faster.
But Agra is more than just unconscious lovers, tourists, rickshaws, and animal cruelty--it's a grand city of history & architecture. They say its best to go the Taj for the sunrise, but I didn't want to queue for an hour, so I decided to catch the sunrise from the hostel roof--where I'm told the Taj can be seen in the distance.
a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I waited until 06:30. The sun was up, but not visible behind the cloud of post-Diwali pollution that blocked visibility to only a few km in every direction. When I arrived at the Taj a few hours later, a permanently-affixed, wall-mounted, scrolling LED marquee hanging on the old mosque assured visitors to the Taj Mahal that the air pollution today was "safe" for today.
I saw piles of burning trash in the streets...poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
The Taj Mahal is located just south of a wide river, but the ubiquitous "fog" covering the magnificent structure's white marble edifice is anything but water vapor. Last night, constant streams of firecrackers were exploding in nearly all directions from our rooftop of the Bob Marley Cafe. This morning I saw piles of burning trash in the streets as I walked to the Taj ticket counters. In the afternoon I was choked in the streets as poorly tuned exhausts of autos spat thick black smoke into my lungs. If you look carefully at the ubiquities photos of tourists pinching the top of the Taj, you can see a dark horizon of pollution that hangs sadly on this awkward city.
After Admiring the beautiful gem-inlayed flowers surrounding the tomb at the center of the Taj, I went to the backside, plopped down upon my backpack, and studied the impressive structure. But my mind hardly had time to take it in, for within a minute someone and his boy came up to me asking for "one photo" of me. He did his pose, I tried to smile, they switched, snapped the second photo, and thanked me. Then another, "one photo please sir?" And another. Before I knew it, there was a queue of Indian tourists standing between me & the Taj Mahal. Everyone wanted a selfie with me. The impatient ones wouldn't queue, the just stood next to me with a stranger, as their friends traded turns snapping the photos. A passer-by told me I should charge 20 bucks/snap or they'd never stop. Sadly, he's right. Eventually, a guard came and made it clear that I wasn't allowed to sit here, so I took the opportunity to rush away from the crowd.
My time in Agra is all but finished. When I finish my lunch, I'll head to the station for a trip to Vrindavan. I can only hope that the mass of Krishna devotees are more grounded than the people here in Agra.
This weekend I climbed 660 granite steps to the temple at Shravanabelagola on my way to Belur. At the top, I was overwhelmed with about 300 children from Bangalore who all wanted to shake my hand, ask me my name, my country, and ask "sup boy?" in their thick Indian accents. Overwhelmed is an understatement. I have never met so many people in such a short period. As I descended the rock, every child I passed on my way down, remembering my name, said goodbye.
Belur itself was incredible. The temples had thousands of intricate carvings on nearly every wall, column, and ceiling stone. Weathered for the past 8,000 years, these carvings depicted stories of the gods from the hindu epics. Some of the work was so fine, you could just stick a thread into the intricacies of the carvings.
When stopping for dinner, I sat alone and ordered one of my favorite Chinese-Indian dishes: Gobi Manchurian. After ordering, I went to wash my hands, and a group of ~20 local women were staring at me. They asked, simply "hi. how are you?" But when I simply answered "Hello. How are you?" and returned to my table, I must have left something to be desired. They continued to stare at me while I ate my dinner for the next 20 minutes, and eventually came to sit at my table to take selfies with me.
They thoroughly complimented my 1-month-old baby dreds, and asked me to smile for their camera while I tried to finish my meal. Before they left, one of them asked me to come to their home. Again, overwhelming, but incredibly nice. In any case, I had a bus to catch, so I scarfed down the last of my food and climbed onto my tour bus. A few minutes later, a van full of women passed by my window seat, cheering, shouting, and waving "goodbye!". I smiled, waved, reclined, pulled down my bandanna over my eyes, and tried to sleep for the last leg of my journey back to Bangalore.
Last week I went swimming in the ocean off the Indian Subcontinent for the first time.
I was visiting friends at Serenity Beach just outside Auroville for a long holiday weekend (Ghandi's Birthday). After emerging from the warm South-Indian water, my friend V complimented my long, dripping wet hair. She told me I would look great with my hair dreaded, and she offered to lock my hair. Flattered, I gratefully accepted her gift!
V's 9-year mature dreadlocks are wrapped beautifully. She has a lot of experience with dreadlocks. The next weekend, I returned to Auroville. It took her 5 hours to lock my hair using the so-called "rip & twist" method. The following weekend, she spent a few more hours with a crochet hook to finish the task.
On Wednesday I came home early from work with a 101 degree fever. I've been traveling in-and-out of malaria & dengue fever zones for the past 2 months, so my first thought was: get to the hospital for a diagnosis--this could get bad, fast. For some reason, I had no other major symptoms. Despite weakness, chills, and pain, I walked myself to the nearest ER--less than 1km from my bed.
I'm damp with a mild euphoric, dissociative trance reminiscent of years past experiments with Ketamine.