19:00 – Club India, Rooftop Terrace, Paharganj, India

I love how the Indians make their coffee.  It’s strong and deep, but still milky and a little sweet.  If it wasn’t so hot, I’d be tempted to down it in one swig.  Shame on me for choosing to drink coffee over tea for a second time today in a country known for its tea, such as Chai and Darjeeling.

Here, above the madness three stories below, I’m able to finally have a quiet moment, though not literally quiet.  The sound of two-stroke tuk-tuk engines, the high pitched honking from scooters and motorbikes, and drums from some sort of procession reach up from the street like tentacles trying to swallow me back into its frenzy.

Behind me a cricket match is playing on TV.  Twisted around the walls and railings like overgrown vines are multi-colored christmas lights.  On the table beside me I spot a couple copies of the Lonely Planet: India guide, which makes it no surprise to me that almost everyone up here is European or Australian.  My a la carte knowledge of languages is able to pick out some Dutch and German.

I’m staying in an area called Paharganj, which is basically an area west of the New Delhi train station.  The main strip is called Main Bazaar, where vendors tout their wares from bags to silks to toy guns.  It isn’t so different from the night markets of Taiwan, save for the cows standing in random groups in the street.  I have yet to spot any street signs around here and the only way to find my hostel is by committing to memory the random signs that surround the seedy alley that leads down to my little pocket of Delhi.

My first full day in Delhi was a fast paced whirlwind tour of the city.  I had decided to take a car-for-hire tour offered by the hostel, thinking that it would save much hassle getting from site to site.  It was actually nice to have a chauffeur for the day, and we got a long fairly well.  Sanjay, my driver, was the same age as me, though he was already married and had one child.  My only peeve was when he dropped me off at a fairly nice restaurant for lunch.  As I peeked in before sitting down, all I saw were foreigners.  By that time, though, I was too hungry to turn around and go somewhere else, so I sat down and paid about $12 for the meal.  Despite the price, the food was very good, and definitely could have fed two people if I hadn’t scarfed it down so fast.

New Delhi is hectic and tiring.  I don’t know if it’s the jet lag, the traffic, or the constant barrage of really nice people offering to rip me off that drains me most.  There’s a phrase in the travel book that says something like “If you have patience going to India, you’ll lose it.  If you don’t have patience, you’ll learn it.”  I’m doing both.

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In country

November 22, 2009 – 03:44 Delhi, India

You know traffic is going to be interesting when on the bus ride from the plane to the terminal, the drivers are honking at each other to get across the tarmac.  Among the throngs of cardboard signs I was able to find my name and driver without too much trouble as I exited customs.  As we sped through Delhi in the dead of night, we passed trucks between their tires and the dividing wall with just enough space for the little Suzuki to pass through.  I guess it’s common practice to just flash your lights and “Blow asian horn” as one truck had painted on its rear bumper.

We only stopped briefly as a group of cows crossed the street.  As we passed, one of them got a bit frisky and proceed to mount another one in the middle of the street.

My accommodations are nothing special.    It’s basically a 10×10 box with a closet for a bathroom.  It’s spartan, but good enough for a couple nights.

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16:00 – Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing, China

This place is dirty.  Flying in on final approach, I could barely see the ground through all the smog.  I had thought that it would clear up as we passed below a certain altitude, but even now as I look out over the tarmac, the hangars and planes become gradually browner across the airport.  My seatmate for the 12 hour flight, a lady from Texas who now lives in Beijing with her husband, informed me that they government makes it rain to clear up the skies every so often, but it quickly hazes over again within a week.

It’s eerily quiet here, waiting at the airport.  Coming off the airplane, I was one of only a handful of passengers who continued to walk toward the “International Transfers” gate.  We proceeded in silence as fatigue mixed with the relief of being released from the confines of the cabin.

If I believed in purgatory, this would be about what I imagine it to be.  Walking through this silent airport, tired, yet unable to sleep.  Rest, an unknown number of hours away.  I’m stuck here for the next five hours.  I don’t even know which terminal to wait at since it’s so early.  Cheesy chinese music plays over the intercom.  Wafts of food and cigarette smoke that has seeped out of the smoking areas fill the air, making me hungry and sick at the same time.  I should relax a bit, stretch my legs.  I still have another long flight to catch before this day(s?) is done.

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Itinerary Almost done

Sitting down and preparing an itinerary for a trip is something that I love and hate at the same time.  I love it because it allows me to start researching and planning the things I’m going to do and see, and while doing this, I get excited for the upcoming trip.  I hate it, though, because it inevitably starts locking me into trying to do the things I’ve planned out and I know that I’ll be missing things, even if I leave room to explore.

Ideally, I’d like to have the money and time to travel to a place with no plan, and just make it all up as I go.  Unfortunately, the reality of life makes this the luxury of the rich and the vagabonds.

I have 17 days reserved for India, including a couple days lost across the international date line, and another day of travel at the end, which leaves about 14 days of real exploring time.  So here’s the tentative plan:

Day 1: Take off from SFO
Day 2: Lost over the Pacific
Day 3: Arrive in Delhi in the wee morning hours and sleep. Wake up, relax, enjoy India Day 1.
Day 4: Delhi
Day 5: Morning train to Agra. Taj Mahal etc.
Day 6: Agra, evening train overnight to Varanasi
Day 7: Arrive in Varanasi
Day 8: Varanasi
Day 9: Varanasi, evening train overnight to Agra
Day 10: Arrive in Agra, take a bus to Jaipur
Day 11: Jaipur
Day 12: Jaipur, evening train overnight to Jaisalmer
Day 13: Arrive in Jaisalmer
Day 14: Jaisalmer, evening train overnight to Delhi
Day 15: Arrive in Delhi, relax
Day 16: Last day in India, plane leaves in the early morning hours
Day 17: Flying home

I’ll send this out to a few friends of mine to look over and get their input, then go ahead and book hostels and train tickets.

T – 16 Days Until India

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Stamps and Memories

When I started my new job back in January, part of the first day paperwork was to confirm my citizenship by showing my passport to HR.  The first thing the lady said to me was, “I’m jealous, I wish my passport was as beat up and filled stamps as yours.”

I hadn’t thought much about it before, but I realized at that moment that I had done my fair bit of traveling around the world.  Obviously not as much as I would have liked, but I think more than most other Americans at least.

As the HR lady handed me back my passport book, I flipped through quickly to see all the stamps that I had collected over the years; multiple in and out stamps to Taiwan, Paris, London, Japan, and a few others that had been washed out from that time I had to walk a few miles in the rain to get to my hostel.  The memories from those journey’s flashed through my head and I was happy that I had this passport to remind me.

Preparing for this upcoming trip, I had to renew my old passport first in order to get a 6 month visa into India.  This meant filling out new forms, taking new pictures, paying a bunch of money for an expedited application, and sadly, returning my old passport to the State Department.

I had bittersweet feelings about relinquishing my passport and the memories associated with it.  Bitter that I’d have to lose the one souvenir that tied together all my travels for the last 10 years, but sweet in that it meant I would be entitled to another decade of wandering the Earth.

Two weeks after mailing in all my paperwork, I received a large shiny priority mail envelope which I immediately opened to find a brand spanking new US Passport, futuristic microchip and all.  I flipped through to find a more mature looking me on the second page, as well as 27 crisp new pages for visas and endorsements.  I was happy to be making progress in preparing for this trip.  I didn’t think twice about my old passport as I’d long since accepted its loss.

What a pleasant surprise it was this afternoon to find a plain brown envelope from the Department of State containing my old passport, hole-punched, yet still intact with all my old stamps in it.  Who knows if it’s their policy to return old passports, but I’m thankful to have it back either way.

T -29 Days Until India

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Parental Units

Last Friday my mother called to ask if I’d be coming home for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, as this is my first year living 3,000 miles from them.  I told her that I’d be coming home for Christmas but not Thanksgiving.  In that moment, a shot of adrenaline sped through my system, and as I tightened my neck to prepare for the worst, I added as quickly and as succinctly as possible, “I’ll be in India over Thanksgiving”.

To understand my cringing response to delivering this awesome news to my mom, you need to know a little bit about my history with my parents.  To put it in a sentence, they have never supported me in anything that is even mildly unfamiliar, risky, dangerous, or adventurous.  I’ve done my best to live my life seeking those activities that embody those qualities, which, as you can imagine, has left me quite unsupported from my parents.

As young as third grade, I remember my first independent initiative was the desire to join the school band.  Our school had recently offered open enrollment for band and orchestra for certain instruments, and when I heard that they were offering saxophone spots, something in me sparked.  I’d later become quite familiar with this spark and to interpret it as “I don’t know why, but I want to do that!”

I got the required form, filled it all out and took it home to my parents.  All that stood between me and a lifetime of playing the sax and being the coolest cat on the block was their signature.  Surprisingly to me, they weren’t as enthused as I was with the idea of playing the saxophone.  Maybe they didn’t understand what a saxophone was or what a school band was.  I can’t quite remember the exchange that occurred between us, but I left accepting that I wouldn’t be joining band or playing the sax.  Maybe I should have fought harder at the time, but there’d be plenty of fighting in the years to come.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate.  There would be plenty of arguments over the years, but not quite about things that I wanted to do.  As I grew older, I slowly realized that I could do the things I wanted to do without them, except when it came to things that required more funds than I could muster on my own.

But with most things, the basic formula was this: Don’t ask them for permission, and if they ask, tell them after the fact.  By then, they can’t do much fussing about it.

When I wanted to start riding a motorcycle, I did it all without them knowing.  After about 6 months of owning and riding a motorcycle, I decided to sit them down and just tell them.

When I was leaving for Europe, I called my dad from the terminal minutes before boarding just to let them know that I was leaving the country, in case anything terrible happened.

When I decided to up and move out to California, I told them after I had gotten a job and worked out all the details for the move.

And this time, just as all the other times, I already had a plane ticket to India in hand before telling them I was going.

Luckily, this phone conversation occurred during dinner with friends, so I used that as an excuse to end the call quickly with my mother, but I knew that after I had hung up the phone, worry and trouble was about to brew back east.  Over the course of the weekend, being busy and all, I had missed 4 calls, 2 voice messages, and an email, which basically stated that they thought it was a bad idea for me to go to India alone, as expected.

When I finally called them back earlier this week, I think most of their fussing had been done without my involvement and they had settled with trying to make sure I was as safe as possible.  I suppose this is better than them fighting me all the way.

T -30 Days Until India

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Why India?

When I tell people that I’m going on vacation to India in a month, the first question most people ask is “Why India?”  To these people my default reply is “I don’t know, to see Indians?”

To be honest, I don’t have much of a good answer to their question.  With people that I work with and with people that I interact with day to day, I can understand the disconnect between the word “vacation” and “India”.

I speak only for myself, but growing up in a middle class, suburban family, vacations typically meant long weekends near the coast, trips to national parks, visiting family, sightseeing in New York or other metropolitan city, and general relaxing in “nice” places.  Not that India doesn’t have nice places or beaches or tourist attractions such as Goa or the Taj Mahal, but other than those two mentioned places, India, in my mind, conjures up images of Indiana Jones, tiger filled jungles, cows wandering the streets, nuclear tensions, terrorist bombings, and last but not least, widespread poverty.

In fact, my ignorant, media-centric view of the country is a large part of the reason I’d like to see it for myself.  India seems to be a complete antithesis of the world that I am familiar with.  I haven’t confirmed this yet, but I don’t think I’ll be finding any strip malls or fast food restaurants while I’m there.

I want to learn about the culture and their customs and spirituality, which plays no small part in their lives.  Customs like arranged marriages are so ingrained into the culture that even in the US, the practice continues in some Indian families.

I don’t know India, and despite having a number of Indian friends over the years, I don’t know much about Indians.  So to answer “To see Indians” is only half true.  I’m going to India to see India, period.

T -37 Days until India

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