Friday, July 8, 2011

Full Circle

*CAUTION* -its a long one, possibly my last one since Im back in the States now. Over view at the beginning of the places I went in India, a story about one night in Ladakh in the middle, and hippy-dippy advice at the end. Read it all or take your pick, up to you. Enjoy!***
Well, here I am again on a bus in New England, this time from New York to Vermont, off to Goddard College to start my final semester of undergrad. The trip’s coming full circle, well, figure 8 really, if you make Kathmandu the pinch point that ties two circles, one in Asia and one in the United States.
After I left Lumbini and my one zillion hours of meditation, I skirted across the Northern half of the Indian subcontinent, from Varanasi, the ancient city on the Ganges river, to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and finally to Ladakh, a rocky region near Kashmir that shares the features of the Tibetan plateau with its icy moonscape and rugged, snow streaked mountains. Travelling through India, alone as a woman, was just as hard and adventurous as you can imagine. Despite countless episodes of warding off naive Indian men from sexual advances [culturally, looking a man in the eye means you more or less want to have sex with him--this posed quite a problem when walking down the street in some cities], and the unavoidable loneliness, traveling alone does have its advantages. After Anna, my best friend from home, was stranded in South Africa without an Indian visa (don’t worry, she spent two weeks in Spain instead) my plans and responsibilities were left to the wind. After wandering the narrow maze of streets in Varanasi for a few days, trying to avoid the almost overwhelming crowds and heat, I took a 17 hour train ride to Jaipur, Rajasthan, an oasis in the desert surrounded by old fortresses and palaces. There I met up with Becca Cooper, a friend from Occidental, and spent two luxurious days in an AC car (it was well over 100 deg every day on the plains) visiting the sites, feeding peanuts to monkeys, and even riding an elephant!

**pause for pictures...*

young muslim boys posing outside a mosque in Varanasi

sunrise on the ganges

milking water buffalo for my morning curd

a giant puja on the ganges

preparing for the elephant ride

a friend fire dancing with poi on my last night in Dharamsala-- full moon + lunar eclipse!


the road to ladakh

the women with whom I weeded fields in Nubra Valley

the grandmother milking her cows for breakfast

the tent settlement i stayed at near Dok

After a pit stop in Delhi, I bused overnight to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. I spent two fine weeks there, volunteering and relaxing, and met up with a fellow musician from Nepal, a dijeridoo player and carver from South Africa, who showed me around and organized jam sessions with the hundred other musicians in the area. Dharamsala, or really Upper Bhagsu was where I was staying, is a town of travelers, mostly Israelis actually, journeying on the “hummus trail” in Northern India after their two years of mandatory military service. It took a while for me to get used to the place, and land of healing and no responsibility, where people spend their days crocheting in cafes or taking a variety of courses from Indian cooking to astrology.  I spent my time doing yoga, hiking, and hanging out with my flat mates making macramĂ© and speaking Spanish. Surprisingly, though I spent four weeks studying Tibetan and picked up whatever local language I could, my Spanish really made the most improvement on this trip, due to the high volume of travelers who, like me, prefer Spanish over English. I also learned, however, how definite English has become the international language of the world. Everyone speaks it, at least a little, to converse about trade, food, transportation, and instructions across cultural barriers. Pity, since the language it quite difficult, but great for me, since I was hardly ever worried about being stranded without being able to communicate. After two lovely weeks which included hiking to the snow line and staying over night in a cave, I took the 12 hour bus to Manali, a small town in the foothills, to rest up before my twenty hour jeep ride over the Himalayas to Ladakh. In Manali I made my first appearance as a professional singer, being paid for my concert by admiring fans in the form of waffles and tomato soup from the cafĂ© at which I was singing. This little trick came in handy a few weeks down the line, when I nearly ran out of money and sang for dinner almost nightly.
The trip to Ladakh, over the second highest pass in the world on a bumpy set behind the back axle with a surface area slightly larger than the area of a laptop computer was long and arduous. It’s a trip to be made once, as the scenery is unforgettable, but I was happy to purchase a flight out of Leh and back to Kathmandu as soon as I got there. Besides, for a reasonable price, it would save me almost a week in bus transportation back over the Nepali border.

In Ladakh, the final leg of my trip, I was content to enjoy the moment, knowing that the end was near and happy to be headed home. It was just enough time; I got to go on a small trek to Nubra Valley, six hours North of the capital city of Leh, and over the tallest motorable pass in the world. At 18,382ft high, it was a family record, my dad coming in second with 18,100 on the lip of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Nubra Valley, to me, looks like the spitting image of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, but without the Chinese infrastructure. I spent a day in a small but beautiful village, literally paradise with a fresh mountain stream running through the town to make it an oasis in a san dunes desert, complete with two humped camels and backed with jaw-dropping mountains. Three generations of Ladakhi women invited me into their home for some bread and tea after I spent a few hours weeding their field with them and trying out some Tibetan phrases mixed with basic English, Tibetan being similar to Ladakhi, and English, as I said, known to some extend by everyone, even farmers deep in the Himalayas who had never gone to school. The next day I set of to Diskit, the town with the bus station, but got distracted by a beautiful river gorge extending into water cut mountains with snow capped peaks. Captivated, I changed plans and started up the winding trail, fresh cut by the road crew building the first motorable path to the Dok, a village some fourteen kilometers away. Unfortunatly, I started on the trail too late, and the sun was already casting long shadows on the canyon walls by the time I got to the end of the road- the path wasn’t yet finished, and Dok was unreachable even on foot at this moment. Not discouraged but a little exhausted I turned around to find a cave to sleep in for the night. I didn’t have a sleeping bag, but enough clothes to keep me warm and a bit of food- not a problem for only one night. About a half hour before the cave I’d spotted on the way up, I saw two giggling children by the rushing river and their tent camp nearby. They were the children of the road workers, Nepali immigrants resettled in India for an income. I peeked inside one of the worn tents and said in my best (and quite pathetic) Ladakhi “nga nit i?” [I sleep this?] The adults, visibly surprised looked up at each other from their card game. “Yes, you can stay here” answered one of the men in English. The man’s wife led me to the white tent, their home for the past year. Don’t let outside looks discourage you, inside that ragged structure was a true home: a decent sized bed, a kitchen area with gas stove, china plates and metal cutlery, some trunks of clothes and personal items, and a glowing alter with a picture of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The woman and I conversed in stunted Nepali and showed each other pictures of our families while she prepared tea. That night under billions of stars and a half moon the young married couple only a few years older than myself taught me how to make Thentuk, a traditional Ladakhi  and Tibetan soup, and prepared a bed for me on the floor after I refused to take theirs. Returning from brushing my teeth, I found they’d complied by putting their mattress on the floor for me and laying down on the wooden frame. Feigning irritation, I thanked them gratefully and settled down to a comfortable nights rest. Much better than the cave would have been, I think.

The next morning after a breakfast of flatbread tea, and eggs, I set out back down the gorge toward Diskit to meet up with the other travelers with whom I’d taken the bus. Despite all my internal complaints of loneliness and feeling ungrounded, I know that experiences like that, the will and ability to follow wherever your heart tells you to go and finding unexpected kindness in a place far from home could only come about if I’d done it alone. Responsibility to yourself only and not external forces, the ability to listen to that voice inside that tells you to go down this path or stop under that tree, is the gift Ive gained on this journey. I don’t know if I believe in something that has plans, in a path that’s cut out for me and only me, but when I do it, when I listen to what’s happening inside me and how I fit with the forces around me, things just work out for the best, they do. Maybe it’s a sign that god exists. Maybe its sheer luck. But I hope I can keep listening even when life is structured and planned out and I don’t get to make the decisions all the time. Because that little voice that tells you to bring a rubber band to work today even though you can hardly fathom why on earth you would need a rubber band, and then it comes in handy so unexpectedly, that little voice gets louder the more you listen to it, and discernible from other little voices like your sex drive or the little devil who always thinks that chocolate is a good idea. I don’t know, Im just on the precipice of this really, but maybe if we all just listened to ourselves a little more instead of advertising, or subliminal messaging, or our parents or our lovers or our friends, we might just be a little more content with our lives, a little more adventurous. Its not always clear cut, but next time you have to make a decision, whether a big one or just deciding which street to walk down to get to the other end of town, stop for a second and see if you can feel a pull in one direction or the other. Its usually right.
As for me, my next big decision is whether to take the train 28 hours from Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to San Francisco or fly for $40 more and the chance to see my parents for one more day before I move to the big city. My travels are almost up, and I’m settling down in San Francisco for my finally semester of college and a dream life living in an ashram in the Mission, single and 21. Next spring I’m headed back to Asia for my first job out of college doing research in Bhutan for the Ministry of Education, not far from the lines of my independent research project while I was there this semester. Then its off to Central America again with a job with Amigos and perhaps I’ll hit South America after that, who knows.
I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to read and respond to my blog posts, it’s nice to know I have an audience- it keeps my writing up to higher standards so I’ll have something solid to look back on years from now. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my journeys and got something from my little notes of young adult wisdom I threw in there every now and then. I might keep posting, or I might not, but regardless I’ll take the time to say thank you for your support. May your journeys in life be as fruitful as this one was for me. Carpe diem and bon voyage,
Happy trails,
Andrea Savage