Darjeeling

Nomadderwhere on the Black Informant Podcast

I'm such a sorry case for a writer that I'm actually stalling the publication of a post on how I haven't written anything in a while! 2011 for Nomadderwhere is a Catch 22 kind of year. If that's not clear, then stick around for the explanation coming whenever I get my act together. In the meantime, my interview with the Black Informant found its way onto the internet for your listening pleasure! Prior to this, I'd never done a radio interview before. I thought for sure my charming stutter would shine through, but it turns out radio is just about the easiest kind of interview there is (aside from letting the publicist type your answers while you're busy getting a pedicure and playing Xbox, so I would imagine).

Black Informant Podcast

Black Informant Podcast

In this podcast, Duane Brayboy and I discuss:

  • the genesis of my travel obsession.

  • how travel transformed my personality, my learning, and the way I expressed myself.

  • storytelling and the power of descriptive detail with words, photos, or video.

  • documentary and editorial photography while on the road.

  • the most meaningful photographs I've ever taken.

  • impressions of Haiti and the apocalyptic media uproar.

  • where to next.

Photographing in D.C.

Photographing in D.C.

I enjoyed chatting with Duane and also hope this little update post whips me back into content cranking gear.

What did you think of the podcast? Now, I didn't do this interview just to hear myself talk. Please do share your own insight on what we discussed: Haiti's media coverage, your own travel obsession genesis, the most meaningful photos you've taken, and anything else.

Journeys of a Lifetime in January

Happy New Year! Welcome back to my new monthly series on Nomadderwhere, one which highlights the incredible trips one could take in that current month - thanks to a vibrant book called Journeys of a Lifetime by National Geographic. Each month I pick a couple adventures from each section in the book in order to provide you inspiration for 365 days from now. Read the brief description to whet your appetite, and click on the trip name for further information (links provided by National Geographic...of course you could be a gritty backpacker and make it on your own).

Across Water

The Orinoco River Cruise: The dry season in January lends to the viewing of more land mammals along this river cruise through Venezuela. Boy oh boy...the description of this places includes words such as: expedition, canoe, venture, wetland and steamy jungle. I'm there.

The Mekong River: Laos is on a ticking clock toward Vietnam status, and it's up to you to seize the opportunity to view this country's incredible landscapes before the authenticity becomes manufactured. Nat Geo claims this is the most scenic stretch of the massive river through the Southeast Asia region.

By Road

Historic Spain: There's no bad time to see the architecture of historic, central Spain. January will wash out the summer tourist crowd and give you snow capped mountains in your photograph backgrounds. Give yourself one week to drive along this ribbon of highway, and remember to ask in Segovia about the suckling pig.

Crossing the Sahara: Get your visas ready and your car rented. You're about to drive across Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania to see some cultures and barren landscapes that present an awesome challenge to the "bring it on" type of traveler.

By Rail

Bangkok-Kanchanaburi-Nam Tok Line: This time riding the rail will bring you closer to the gritty, not further away. Taking this infamous route, known as the "death railway" from WWII, will remind you of the many POWs and lives lost from building the bridge at the River Kwai. It's not all gruesome and heavy-hearted; the landscape is Thai-rific.

The Palace on Wheels: India's glitzy region of palaces and architectural masterpieces will give you plenty of eye candy and good photographs on this luxurious train ride. It's not my favorite side of India, but many find the old British and Raj culture appealing. The Golden Triangle along with Udaipur and Jaisalmer makes for an awesome itinerary, though!

On Foot

The Shackleton Crossing: South Georgia is a speck in the Southern Ocean and looks like a challenge for weathered climber types like Jon Krakauer and Bear Grylls. I pretty much guarantee no one reading this post will attempt this climb, but I thought I'd give you some dream material for tonight's slumber.

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Africa's tallest peak and the only 8,000+ meter mountain that one could ambulate - climbing Kilimanjaro seems to be an achievement worth going for. Those who have claimed the summit unanimously advise climbers to take the longer route (Machame) for better odds of success and greater views.

In Search of Culture

Japanese Kabuki Theater: With make-up that would spook the Joker and costumes that could presumably stand on their own, the men of Kabuki theater become household names for their dramatic and powerful performances. Brace yourself; these shows look lengthy but worth it for a one-time experience.

Earth Architecture of Yemen: High rise earth architecture makes Yemen look pretty darn cool. Perched at the heel of Asia's wee bootie are homes made of sun-dried mud bricks and a culture sure to intrigue. Nat Geo recommends going with a reputable tour company and taking caution with photographing people. Should make for an interesting trip!

In Gourmet Heaven

Eat Your Way Around Sydney: After you recover from a surely intense NYE celebration on the beach, enjoy Sydney's January Festival and a slew of culinary jackpots around Oz's biggest city. If you're into Euro-Asian fusion food with top notch seafood, I'm guessing there are few places in the world better than Sydney.

Malaysian Melting Pot: And we thought we were a melting pot…maybe next January you'll be traveling up the peninsula of Malaysia to sample the converging tastes of many prominent food traditions: Chinese, Indian, Arabic, etc. Thanks to all the hawkers and street food artists, some call this country a snacker's paradise.

Into the Action

Following Che Through South America: Cross the Andes on two screeching wheels in the footsteps of Che Guevara, but make sure you remember to ride something a little more reliable than "La Poderosa." Buenos Aires to Machu Pichu will take you across some varying landscapes and surely on a journey fit with ceaseless inspiration.

Cross-Country Skiing in Lillehammer: Check out this "premier cross-country location" if you want to make like a Scandinavian and glide. Easily accessible from Oslo, renting all your gear is possible on location, and going in January ensures a helluva daylight surplus!

Up and Away

The Nasca Lines: It is only from the sky where you can truly appreciate the diversity of Peru's terrain, as one ecosystem bleeds into the next. Also from this vantage point you can be slapped silly by the wonder of these earth drawings that were created with pre-historic tools by the Nasca people.

Alpine Baloon Festival: Arrive in Switzerland in late January for a display that surely inspires painters, children's book illustrators and surrealists worldwide. A sky of balloons decorate the invisible Christmas tree in the Swiss Alp valley. Inquire about the nighttime flight of illuminated balloons while you're there!

In Their Footsteps

Road to Enlightenment: Follow Buddha's journey to enlightenment from his birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal to Patna, India, past the third-generation descendant tree where he attained nirvana. Ahh, the ease of traveling in the moderate chill of February around the Subcontinent.

Tramping After Mark Twain: A boat trip down the Neckar River could inspire you to write a Huck Finn sequel, just as Twain was inspired to write the original on this journey. Tramp across Germany and Switzerland, enjoying the chill and scenery of winter, on a journey that the famed American author used to "improve himself."

How's that brain? Spinning with innumerable desires to traverse continents and climates? Pull out a pen and prioritize your life by putting one or more of these trips at the top of the list. And by planning a year in advance, you'll be quite able to save, prepare, and anticipate the rigors of your adventure in every way. Check back in February for the Journeys of a Lifetime you could partake in next year!

Where are you inspired to travel to next year? Leave a comment and be my new friend.

Diwali in Transit: Day 178

From Darjeeling to Kolkata, Diwali erupted in my wake.

Descending the staircase of Hotel New Vaisali, my working boys were in the process of hanging strands of orange and yellow flowers over the entrance to the lobby, taking as much care in the presentation as they would placing a fallen baby bird back in its nest. I paid the bill to the main clerk while standing next to the big eyes of the youngest employee. Five days of my Western habits weren't enough to shake their culture shock, and I left their confused gazes with a wave and a thank you, once again feeling the weight of a bittersweet departure and my ever-growing rucksack.

I wandered on the snaking main road and simply lifted my eyes to tens of jeeps that all wanted my business. Cramming into a jeep for three hours this time was by far superior as I didn't have the burden of 26-hours-sans-bathroom issues. One thing I love about these sorts of tight quarters is the smashing of bodies that relieves the muscles of all their tension. No one needs to worry about keeping their legs from touching another's or remaining perpendicular to the road when pressure from all sides keeps you in place. It's hilarious, though, that even while sharing armpits and leg sweat, two people physically forced together are embarrassed to make eye contact or share pleasantries.

"RIDE? YOU NEED RIDE? MISS, RIDE? I TAKE YOU! MY RICKSHAW!" Ten men spit clumpy red liquid.
"No guys, thanks, I don't need a ride. I'm just wandering down this road."
"BUS STATION? TRAIN STATION? I TAKE YOU! 100 RUPEES, CHEAP CHEAP!"
"Guys, I'm walking to find dinner. No thanks on rides." I repeat my mime of the act of walking and point to the street I want to wander.

Ten men proceeded to watch me change from my fleece covering into a sweaty, stretched-out, white shirt. Privacy is a luxury in a country of a billion.

I certainly gave myself time in Siliguri before catching my train a few minutes away from town. Overland travel, or all travel, in India can be predictably unpredictable and often unapologetic. I used the down time to get some grub at a nondescript thali joint, where I simply said "veg" and got a meal for $0.20. The man delivered my meal and accompanied it with a spoon, looking at me with either disinterest or grandfatherly sympathy. I was a little hurt as I had already rolled my right sleeve up, ready to plow in with a bare hand. As much as I think I can mimic the ways, I'm a Westie. I need utensil help.

I chowed; I moved on and found an open-air market where I stuck out like a sore, curry-stained thumb. Already sweaty and uncomfortable, I entered another restaurant in which to rest and sit by a window, watching parades of personal floats go by in honor of different gods. How Indians are able to haul massive shrines on the back of their motorbikes is a skill unbeknownst to me.

I crossed a firewall of candles out the front door and met an old man, thin in stature and expressionless in visage, who would take me via cycle-rickshaw to the bus station a mile or so away. This ride was surreal. It was something so subtly tremendous it would be easy to daydream through or forget about. Darkness descended, and the world passed by at about 4 miles an hour. He took me across city streets clogged with celebrations, past speakers projecting stories and music, beside temporary shrines and flamboyant structures, and over firework displays. And by over, I mean over. He steered towards some little boys setting off explosives and rode over a Roman candle ignited in spitting flames. It was a slow realization on my part, and once I saw where he had gone, I began to giggle and be completely consumed in the joys of the passing merriment I joined for split-seconds.

I left a city smelling of burned sulfur and charcoal, surefire olfactory evidence of a party atmosphere, and boarded a train in the plush luxury of a third class train car. Thanks to another young foreign girl who wanted to sit with her boyfriend, I was pushed up to second class. It was unfathomable. The planets aligned, and I got to sleep with a thick blanket and air conditioning. I welcomed the frigid air with all-night shivers, but I still remain a believer in fresh air while in India. The shock to the system of going from AC to boiling hot B.O. is too much for one body to handle.

I awoke to a stopped train, commotion, and an empty car. Asking the passing train employee where we were, I jumped towards my bag and hit the bright sun and ominous air like a crash dummy to a brick wall. My transit almost complete, the only thing between me and my final resting place for the night was the city of Kolkata and a paucity of knowledge in how to get from A to B. I actually had no B., no decided-upon destination other than the region of town for backpackers. I had things to get done here, all which required being within reach of tourist resources.

It was 6:00am. I started walking. I joined a mass crowd of locals half my size in the struggle to not get hit by cars, avoid stepping on sewage, and navigate the active alleyways. I have no idea why I did this.

Snubs and Grub, Why Eating Alone is Gangster: Day 176

To seek out mental exhaustionTo be stranded with nothing but my mind To be shoved completely out of my bubble and to let the one that covers me burst into tears on occasion To see things I read about To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten To prove I can return alive

Traveling is tough, and those who travel don't always love the loner chapter of the book. At times I hear people say they follow my blog and love to read the stories, some like to think they are experiencing the adventures with me, and others wish they could come along the next time. Some, like my mom, are just proud I'm able to do such things but would never partake in the quests.

The solo traveler lifestyle is a bit of an acquired mindset and may only be at the mercy of one's innate nature. I used to request a seat away from my parents on a flight, stare out the window, eat my peanuts, and imagine what I would do if I were alone. A wild concept, to be without guardians or help, left to tap my own resources and make something happen; my first solo flight to Florida and connection dash across the Atlanta airport gave me a taste of the adrenaline that comes from fending for yourself when no one is around.

During my final Spring Break in college, instead of wearing wet shirts and dancing in strobe, I sat in my basement and schemed. I used a laptop to plot a personal journey around the world, taking the same eastward route of my previous voyage, to see if I could hack it independently. And when my travel agent asked for the dates of each onward flight, I took no arbitrary approach. I counted out the amount of days needed to see the sights, get a feel for things in that country or region…and then doubled it.

Why?

To seek out mental exhaustion; I wanted to curse myself for making a trip so lengthy and difficult. To be stranded with nothing but my mind; I anticipated epic novels billowing out of the journey's memories. To be shoved completely out of my bubble; utter vulnerability was the name of the game. Let the bubble that covers me burst into tears on occasion; even though I am an expressionist, I bottle up a lot. This bottle explodes under extreme pressure, like a bottle of Aqua-net in a bonfire. To see things I read about; I'd rather not leave some things up to the imagination. To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten; it's either my poor reading comprehension gene or my decision to imbibe, but I cannot seem to remember things, unless of course I experience it (Thank you, Confucius). Finally, to prove I can return alive; I wanted to get in touch with the original human purpose: survival.

I'm supposed to be describing Darjeeling, but why the lengthy digression on going solo? It has to do with the need to eat while traveling. It has to do with trying new cuisines and enjoying a leisurely meal in a good ambiance. It has to do with the look of pity across the restaurant, the confusion exhibited and exclusion maintained by other travelers who don't get the weird ones who go alone.

Darjeeling, being an eclectic mix of cultures and a secluded town in the hills, had a fantastic selection of places to break my trend of mediocre food consumption after the stomach woes. I ate fancy-pants grub at a tablecloth joint, had Thai food that hugged me from the inside, and slowly eased back into the difficult tastes of post-body battle Indian dishes. Not one meal ever exceeded $3. Since I became a hermit in the hills to enjoy the serenity of writing and non-hostel culture, I had met no one in town, besides the anxious hotel boys, and normally ate alone. It does not send me into an existential episode when I eat a meal in public by myself; I usually used the time to stare out a window and envision the next thing or read a page of my novel on a Bombay gangster.

As I took a forkful of rice or a gulp of Indian beer, I often saw the glance of pity that all single women hate. A little blonde British woman with a clean French braid, looking past her male travel comrade's head, trying to understand in a split-second why I am so undesirable. Usually, I am too focused or tired to notice, but spending the entire day in a hotel room can make one ultra-sensitive to interactions with humankind.

These moments of misunderstanding don't make me angry but cause me to be stable in myself, sorry for others, feel mysterious to onlookers, and be a keeper of unknowns. I wish I could share with some of these shifty eyes the joys of wandering aimlessly on my own accord, and seldom do I get the chance to do so effectively. Never was I sent away from an inn because they didn't have enough spots open for my whole group, nor did I have to settle for an undesirable location in a compromise with my travel clan. Instead, I settled with whispering to myself while taking a bite or turn a page in my book, "Pansies."

Eating in Darjeeling was not always a big display of my travel situation in seemingly unflattering terms, but at times, I felt downright gangster. People really wonder about your abilities to get around and your strong determination when you hold your own shield and saber, so to speak. Often, less harassment comes your way as a loner because people think you've got a lot more know-how or power than meets the eye. It's like steering clear of the runt or the mute one in a gang...no one wants to question the crazy stuff they did for respect in their world.

Speaking of gangster, my last meal in Darjeeling was the Asian version of a scene from Casino. Walking by a Bhutanese restaurant every day bred much intrigue in what the ambiance would be like and what foods would run down my trap. I hid my massive novel and notebook under my slicker and ran through the kind of rain that only happens when you live inside a cloud.

The seemingly tiny establishment doubled in size with an upper floor, separated into rooms with encircling booth seating and central tables. The walls had a dusty cover of memorabilia often replicated in the corporate chains of Applebee's and Buca di Beppo; the accumulation of real artifacts from the lives of those working in the building: portraits of kings from the Motherland, dated notices on the wall of restaurant policies and sweeping landscapes adorned with pristine monasteries. I sat in a big room by myself, placed my book on the table covered with kitchen linoleum, and gazed out the opened window surrounded by twinkle lights that provided all the lighting in the room. I browsed a menu I was unable to read and mimed for suggestions from the one careful man who waited on me with complete attention. His folding of my napkins in a jazzy manner was laudable and his water refill intervals worthy of a standing ovation. I was taken care of.

The rain dripped slowly. The water trickled down the mountainside in a sweet delivery of ambiance. It was mountaintop gangster.

This is Why I Travel: Day 174

BANG! POW! CRACK!

These are not the captions of a Marvel comic but the sounds that reverberated off the walls in my all-marble hotel. They were unexpected, oddly timed during the day, and seemingly arbitrary in the grand scheme of normal life in Darjeeling, India. I had no idea why the boys that worked in my hotel were setting off fireworks INSIDE the building where I slept.

And then I realized…Diwali; a Hindu holiday I had never heard of until July when my Italian hosts got me amped about being on location during a major celebration. The memory must have slipped by me, what with all the gastro-intestinal fireworks of the last week, and the only evidence of this special time of year was the spontaneous explosion during dinner that would send my hard-boiled egg sliding across the table.

There must be something in the water, or maybe it's the air at 8,000 feet, but the boys in Darjeeling who work in hotels are ever so special. Hotel New Vaisali was staffed by some pre-adolescent and full-grown teens who all expressed intrigue in my lone American quest. While reading or relaxing in my room, I would get knocks at the door by three or four anxious boys wanting to steep a nice pot of tea for me. I often took up their offers because: A. they found me to be an exotic species of human whose every move was worth watching, and B. I was in the process of documenting my African memories and felt drinking steaming tea and eating biscuits while writing instantly produced Pulitzers.

One day during my five night stay, I went nowhere and did absolutely nothing of note. I took a shower, watched TV, read my novel and wrote extensively. The boys came looking for me, worried/utterly riveted by my unusual habits. When I told them I was just resting and reading, you would have thought I said, "I'm on the phone with Mother Teresa, shaving the TV, and trying to slingshot a cookie at Kangchenjunga Mountain." I smiled at their confusion, closed the door with a wink, and let the intrigue beget a little more mystery. When you have a view of the world's third tallest mountain out your $15 per night hotel room, sometimes there's little reason to actually go outside. Plus, I was almost caught up with my sleep, my laundry, my book, and my journey notes. Cha-ching!

Every one of these Darjeeling boys, whether hotel worker, waiter, or bracelet maker, passionately possesses a belief in a common community denominator. Whether its exhibition is in the military hat atop their head, the simple sign on the shop window, or their participation in a demonstration that occurred outside my room window, they believe in their birthright of an independent nation called Gorkhaland. The original inhabitants of the West Bengali hills have made some bloody attempts in history to retake the land of the Nepali/Lepcha/Bhutia-blend people, but India, just as it does with its top hat of Kashmir, claims ownership. Not only were these boys universally hooked on romance but also on the impassioned game of politics there in the clouds.

The legendary hilltop train station, a rolling tea plantation, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute; all things I wanted to experience before the calendar sent me running to Kolkata for a flight eastward. I hit three of the city's major points of interest in one afternoon by way of my Merrell trekker shoes. Most taxi drivers charge over $20 for transportation to these hot spots, but it seemed unnatural and akin to defacing a world wonder to ride in a car when you could instead witness every inch of this city on foot. I dodged overstuffed taxis and walked by kitchen windows wafting relatively unpleasant smells, which always seemed to make my stomach gurgle in hunger. An hour or more later, all I could see was tea.

Happy Valley Tea Company is an old establishment that sells their products to visitors at the factory or in wholesale only to the retail giant, Harrod's. The snaking path down into the plantation from the street was a good place to sprain an ankle from all the necessary rock-hopping. But I landed at the bottom to find a woman with two teeth and beautiful skin grinning at me. She worked for the tea pickers, ladies who have yet to be replaced by machines or even primitive shears of any kind. The woman spoke English in staccato but quite well and offered to give me a lesson on Darjeeling tea.

I was plucked like a lucky little leaf to be chosen into the tea workers rest house. Not everyone gets the pleasure of seeing this woman first, sometimes only after spending loads in the factory and learning little. She brought me in and gave me a test, one-on-one, to see if I knew good tea from swill. I think I got two out of three correct, and she proceeded to describe picking seasons, leaf quality, steeping instructions, and impress further with the big Kahona of the tea world, Flowery Golden Tippy Orange Pekoe One. This ultra-high grade tea sat next to me, bulging like bags of Sam's Club kitty litter. My tutor grabbed a handful out of the bag, dragged me into the adjacent room with rolling hot water on the stove, and threw the leaves in for a grand total of five seconds.

With America as the birthplace of Starbucks and, as a result, constantly wired, we aren't big on tea. After going to the Boh tea plantation in Malaysia last year, I grew to appreciate a good cup and began to prefer it against its harsh opponent. I still cannot distinguish the good from the marginally bad, but this tea, FGTOP1 as they call it, was superb. Colors seemed brighter, my cushion seemed more welcoming, and the two-toothed woman and I became a little more chummy. She told me her beauty secrets and how she was able to have the skin of a forty year-old when she was sixty. I was shocked to hear her age, but when I considered her forty year-old skin and ninety year-old teeth, it all seemed to average out.

I walked away from my new friend with two bags of high grade FGTOP1, and the best part was her supply came from the tea pickers' ration. The factory pays them dismally but supplements their salary with weekly amounts of the tea that causes their carpal tunnel. Instead, they sell what they receive to make monetary compensation and make this monotonous life of slowly scaling hillsides worth it.

Mountains? (long pause) Wabash, Indiana. (long pause) Yup.

I guess it makes sense why I like the craggy, snow-covered beasts of the world and maybe even more sense why I am intrigued by those who climb them. Meandering up a hill and past oodles of street-side restaurants, I emerged from the foothills to the gates of the Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Tenzing Norgay presides over each day from his tomb above the Institute, and I went to give him a bit ofmy time. India's pride and joy, the second (according the Sir Edmund Hillary) person to summit Everest, is the celeb of the century in the West Bengali Hills as his 'hood was in the surrounding area. I snuck around the halls of the low-key museum and shivered at the thought of wearing the animal hides and tin cans they used in the early attempts at mountaineering. I searched for a tribute to the expedition with Jon Krakauer that inspired the book Into Thin Air in order to make myself feel somewhat "in the know," but alas, I saw none.

Even though I had numerous teachers in high school and college tell me I should pursue dance as a career, I knew I didn't have the build of a waif under this shell, nor the catty, competitive edge. And even though I am drawn to peaks like a moth to a very cold and dangerous light, I know I cannot pursue anything serious with mountaineering when my heart burns from lifting weights or running in place. Darn you, mitral-valve regurgitation and lousy cardio fitness, darn you to hell.

However, I think to a more subtle extent I am an adrenaline junkie. I go to unknown and risky places regardless of my hesitations. I embarrass myself or expose my most vulnerable thoughts because it's invigorating to be honest. And I like a steady climb below the tree level, when my hips feel as though they will dislodge, my scarf is icing over, and a blizzard is blowing past me on the right. I take on mini-mountains regularly in hopes all this effort will get me to a more informed self-realization. Because if I die without knowing the real me, my last moments will be the definition of depression. This is why I travel.

दार्जिलिंग इंडिया। अ मिड-लेवल मक्का।

When It’s Right, Let it Simmer: Day 172

Alice Villa and her crew kicked me out with a smile and a tear. My beloved guesthouse was overbooked, and my sorry load needed to relocate for the remainder of my mountain adventure. It was a bittersweet parting with an establishment that saved me from extreme bowel distress, gave me food and impeccable shelter, and created an inexplicable feeling of comfort and acceptance that sped up bodily recovery time and revitalized my withering appreciation for the Indian nation. The desk clerk and bellhops appeared regretful to see me toting my earthly possessions out of their gates, and I left without an idea as to where I would go next. I knew Darjeeling and I clicked. More wilderness trekking opportunities announced themselves around every corner of this town. And Sikkim, a.k.a. Shangri-La, was only a short, albeit treacherous, ride away. However, I couldn't ignore that I had finally tapped into something really rare here, in this nook of the world.

When experiencing the world in quantitative form, maximizing the number of locales and tight-wad tendencies but risking pinnacles of quality, seldom does one develop a connection with the people, the local mentality, or the offerings of the destination. My Lonely Planet runneth over with restaurant recommendations and beautiful ways to spend an afternoon. I saw few tourists, none of which represented the toxic species I hated from Varanasi, and the prospect of having another high altitude sunrise grace my retinas kept me lingering for more from the legendary hilltop station.

$15 was the new $2.50 in my spending habits for shelter. After such a satisfying three nights in a joint that merited even one star, I stuck with my new standards of living (e.g. not squalor) and searched for anything that had a personal bathroom, moments of warm water, a TV, and bedding. Hotel New Vaisali did the trick. To illustrate the ease of this search, I'll paint an experiential picture. Imagine all hotel options being within a three minute walk of each other and your favorite spots in town. Picture yourself staring at a sign for a few seconds, working on your Nepali translations, then being approached by a helpful man with a Gorkha hat atop his noggin. Pretend said helpful sir decides to inquire about your requirements and acts as translator/negotiator for each establishment you both enter. When attempt #3 is successful, you find yourself uttering, "Thank you, India. I take note of your incredible hospitality."

A comfy king size bed, a shower head, functioning cable TV and a wall length window with a view of the mountain range; these are a few of my favorite things. I broke a rule within the first five minutes and did some laundry inside my room, hanging the dripping clothes on the glass to billow in the thin, fresh breeze. Performing this act at home is a monotonous chore that requires no elbow grease. However, on the road, I was someone who wore clothes until they rotted off the body and needed to be quarantined inside a backpack; any chance to launder my wardrobe relieved numerous troubles and tripled my daily clothing choices, amounting to three options. Using my shampoo to generate lather for not only my hair and body but the clothing still hanging from my frame made shower time not so relaxing, but, boy, was I gettin' everything clean! And I'd probably round the number up to 750 for the amount of people around the world who have seen my undies flapping in the wind outside out of my various domiciles.

Only in Darjeeling… …do boys carry two different love letters in their back pockets…one in Nepali and another in English. …does the train get caught in a traffic jam. …do you walk through the town once and meet the same people ten times. …can you jump off the train, take a leak, and catch the train again. …do people sit in the fog and watch an entire soccer match, without knowing what the hell is going on on the field. …do the unemployed dress better than the employed. …do you find distances in kilometers and places in miles.

I found the following adorable list on my menu at a bakery in town. This wasn't a spot on the typical Lonely Planet trail, but it had a menu in English with humor to delight the foreign masses. I read the long list and smiled, pulling out my notebook to copy the most location-specific and oh-so true phrases. Writing them down brought flashbacks of all the hopeless romantic boys that work in Alice Villa and New Vaisali, the ridiculous train track that braids itself with the road on the route up to Darjeeling, the little boy on the observation deck that would sneak up on me multiple times a day to scare me and make the local elderly laugh at me, and the road signs in kilometers I desperately searched for when my body was in deep digestive distress on the ride up. Darjeeling and I seemed to grow more and more alike, our interests unmistakably tied with a humorous string.

Alain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, covers a vast array of topics not commonly discussed in guidebooks or Samantha Brown specials, topics which speak straight to the one half of my soul that is eternally nomadic. One of his chapters brings up the connections between people and their beloved destinations, those places that bring people to life even though they may be thousands of miles from their home soil. De Botton develops on the idea that there are inexplicable reasons why I love the city of Florence, why Anthony Bourdain is at times persuaded to move to Indonesia, and why the world's travelers feel compelled to hit certain places over and over again. I was born in Wabash, Indiana, and though my childhood friends are the coolest people on the planet and my other half is all about small town values, my birthplace does not satiate my soul.

I don't know if this idea falls under the jurisdiction of reincarnation or the mystical, but I think people don’t just have "soul mates" but soul cities. This relationship cannot be determined by how good of a time one has at a destination. I met some fantastic people in Delhi, but that crap hole and I are not an item. I enjoyed some fantastic wine and thermal bath sessions in Hungary, but I, for some reason, loathed that place. Florence, Italy and I have had a multi-faceted history, one filled with complete immersion and dreams becoming occurrences but also rejection and sorrowful, emotional pain. I don't know if it's the colors, the landscape, the smells, her age and past, the art, the possibilities, the wine, the gastro-pleasures, or the fact that I know her secret gems. All I know is she has a spirit that I can see, feel, taste, and sense even when my eyes are closed in sleep.

After this trip, I realized that I cannot be exclusive with the cities I court. Florence and I aren't meant to be legally bound. On this big journey, I got around, saw a few different cities, and realized my soul connected with many places for different reasons. Along with Florence, Jinja, Zanzibar, Krakow, and to some extent Srinagar, Darjeeling and I fit. It's the sense that these cities or islands WANT me to be there, and even if there are massive problems, physical hardships, or money issues, I know something is right in our close physical proximity. I knew this as I sat once again on the observation deck for Kangchenjunga, delighting in the sensory overload that coated my consciousness.

Prayer flags and drying clothes flapping on lines Palm trees and cedars intertwining their phalanges The smell of wax, trash bonfires, dirty cement, incense and body soil All mixed with sweet mountain air.

This place wasn't a bucket of fries, it was a stew. It had to simmer in the bowl of my mind and get better with each hour and each bubble of thought. I planned to satiate another sense the next day and follow the need for a hot cup of honest tea.

The Best Part of Wakin' Up: Day 171

COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE

Smile and decline.

COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE CHAAAAAAAI

I wasn't tired. Yes, I woke up at 3:30am and ran through the echoing city of Darjeeling in the bare cold of her film noir-esque pre-dawn. Yes, I jumped in a stranger's jeep, gave him two dollars, and squashed against four other foreigners on a bumpy half hour ride. And at 8,500 feet, it is true that the wind and the chill on Tiger Hill are hard to endure without a blanket, an adequate jacket, or a warm body to lean against. However, anticipation is a more effective stimulant than anything that can be brewed or smuggled in a dirty balloon. I declined the back-to-back offers for a drink and waited, shivering. The horizon was turning blood red, and I could faintly see her lines in the distance.

At this height, we were face to face, Kangchenjunga and I. The sky was nearly opaque, but the jags marking her presence cut through the miles between. Cameras were poised at the sunrise and bodies huddled against a steel barrier looking eastward. I didn't get that. I have seen the world turn slowly towards the luminous star countless times before. It's beautiful, until the bright ball emerges and burrows into your retinas. I stood alone to the west. I was waiting for the big climax. I was waiting for nature's most incredible billboard of light and color.

On one side of Tiger Hill, a layer cake of slate blue, cream-sicle orange and crimson changed the sky, casting a subtle glow on the floating castle to the west. Below this spectacle, the foothills wore the blanket of night's darkness. Bhutan was just seeing its sunrise, and, now, so were the peaks of Nepal, the sun skipping over Darjeeling and all of the West Bengali hills until a more reasonable hour.

The mist caught the ambient light and illuminated the edges of each tea plantation and rolling bubble of land. The air below looked wet and heavy, slowly becoming the color of a glacial lake. Prayer flags flapped their silhouettes against a mystical backdrop. Suddenly, the world was pastel and wearing a tiara. I whispered.

"Wow."

It's not easy to upstage Kangchenjunga from this vista, but Everest made a stab at it. I could see her from behind the curtain of haze in the twilight's glow. I saw the Earth's crown from 107 miles away. She hid between two other 8000+ meter beasts and winked at me as if to lean around the curtain and say, "Get ready for my big entrance."

Meanwhile, the tiara alit as if the snow caught fire and burned from head to toe. It was an orange I've only witnessed on buildings during Italian sunsets in summertime. Nothing else mattered in the world, an impressive beauty that occurs every day over the grime of human existence. We gasped and held our breath until the tingles subsided, fingers poised over the shutter. The summit and its radiating edges looked jagged and razor sharp, as if the sky or the wind would suddenly snag and bleed from a cosmic gash.

Two minutes after the mountain fire, Planet Earth had its ultimate daily idea. Its principal light bulb turned on as steadily as a wave's advance. Somewhere, in the middle of Nepal, Everest grabbed sunlight an hour before her foothills would know night was over. It was a sight capable of buckling knees. I propped myself against a jeep and called home. They were all in a movie theater, enjoying a Heartland Film Festival specialty, and messaged they would call me later. What does one do after beholding their dream sight? Stare in disbelief and laugh at modern-day advances in global communication; that's what.

Still vibrating, I returned to Darjeeling and climbed the hill to Alice Villa Guesthouse. The stray dogs were sleeping across main square in any patch of light that warmed the cement. Arriving back to my room, I crawled into the bed, opened my novel, and savored the last of my Tibetan dumplings from the night before. Occasionally, I let out a "Ha!" upon every flashback to the morning's thrill. In the fall of 2007, I read my first book on these mountains and made the initial steps of my pilgrimage. Approximately one year later, I reached fulfillment.

The developed world spends so much time pitying the lifestyles of those on the other side, which makes ignoring these realities more possible. However, I will forever applaud any man, woman, or child who has enabled themselves to start every morning like this, with a sunrise so majestic it blurs the line between reality and ultimate fantasy. A view like that just doesn't seem real. Actually, it's completely ludicrous that I am from a place that appears eternally colored by the gray scale. My old concept of a great landscape was a luscious Indiana field of corn without a massive power line going through it. This is why I told my travel agent to send me to northern India. I needed to see nature exhibit her "Best in Show."

A Dumpling with a View: Day 170

I wrote these thoughts while on the "road"..."A nervous dog pacing for a good, sunny, uncrowded spot to bathe and relax A little boy snorting and scaring girls (including me) to impress his buddy between swings on the monkey bars Old women with elephant wrinkles thumbing 109 prayer beads"

This "road" could have be anywhere. And then... "School boys and older men standing right in my sightline of the 8000m high mountains, staring hard back at me or posing with nonchalance Faces beam, evident of an eclectic mix, where the South, East, and Southeast become a passionate blend The world's chimneys billow the breath of the skies"

I was in a fascinating nook of the world, a nook I used to dream about being tucked into. And then I got there…the West Bengali Hills of India.

The Way back to Enlightening Elevations It took a sixteen hour train ride, filled with traveling bands, beggars, and more chai salesmen than one could shake a stick at, until I felt a cool breeze once more. Befriending the Germans below my sleeper bed gave me an always-appreciated price cut on the $1 rickshaw ride from New Jaipalguri station to the Siliguri bus terminal, and knowing far too well the antics of the transportation biz in India, I anticipated and enjoyed a small fight with our driver, who claimed sudden inflation by the time we reached our destination.

It was a battle fought with smiles and a constant handshake, and the Germans watched patiently. I saw the driver rack his brain quickly for a way to get more money from our pockets, and an audience began to form, though they were relatively uninterested with this common scammer occurrence. A tip to those who encounter this situation with annoyance: write the agreed price on your hand in front of the driver and proceed to strike a creepy pose towards him or her, smiling for the entire ride until he caves in hopelessness, knowing you are a rupee-pincher 'til you D.I.E.

If I feel anything towards policemen in my own country, it's fear, even when I'm not doing anything wrong. Must be a Pavlovian dog response from years of conditioning. However, in any other country, it seems police are hired to just stand on street corners and chew unknown substances along with the "every man," except the "every man" doesn't carry a big stick. I use these statuesque resources for help around town, though they are almost always the ones who cannot speak English. There's always that lingering obligation, though, that causes these civil servants to help you, and this is how I was introduced to two travelers in desperate need of a ride to Darjeeling.

All buses had stopped service, no trains could rise into the mountains, and all jeeps were seemingly hired. Down the road, we saw a sign for the last ride of the day, jumped into a Jeep after about seven seconds of thought, paid $2, and settled our minds and bags into the already packed vehicle. Enter two or three more bodies and a second driver hanging onto the spare tire rack in the rear, and we're off. The driver stopped the Jeep to place some kind of sailor hat on his head and then booked it up the switchbacks into the Himalayas. It was such flavor for a simple three hour car ride. This is how it always is in India.

With a Chinese man sitting on my left leg, an Israeli's knees pressed against mine making sweat sandwiches, a greasy head laying on my right elbow, and a backpack compacting my stomach, I could do nothing but submit to my discomfort. Not only was I in a clown car, rising in altitude, and bumping from pothole to crumbling pothole, I hadn't gone to the bathroom in 26 hours. I didn't trust anyone with my bags in the sleeper car, nor did I want to experience the sum of the food poisoning + rocking Indian train equation. My body was not amused, and it slowly began to drain me of all vivacity and life to the point of being an empty shell by the time we hit Darjeeling.

For the first time, I wasn't bombarded, or even approached, when I walked around the town. It was dark, shops were still ablaze and selling assorted wares, and I wandered nearly unconscious by my distressed bowels. I stood outside a parked taxi and stared at the relaxing driver like a beaten puppy, hoping he would give me quick and easy directions to a hotel I heard of but hadn't booked ahead. He insisted on taking me at a ridiculous price ($2.50), refused to cave because I wore my vulnerability on my sweaty sleeve, and I flopped into the vehicle in resignation.

It was as if a friend or family member from home popped out from around a corner and came running to me, embracing my weary soul in a monster hug. Alice Villa Guesthouse opened their gates to my taxi, and the head boy in a bellhop's uniform took me in with a smile to the front desk. Every employee at this establishment treated me with the utmost care and concern, showed me a luxurious room with two beds, a fireplace, a personal bathroom, and cable television, and walked me into town to make sure I knew where to get a good meal. This hotel experience surpassed virtually every other one I had on the entire journey (minus the Kashmiri houseboat), and it all ran me a total of $15 a night.

"So you are traveling alone?" "Yes." "No one is with you or meeting you?" "No." "What are you going to do here?" "Hang out." "You really are alone?" "Unless I'm being followed." "And you're American…" "Indeed."

I can imagine what it's like to be a celebrity, or notorious, or a notorious celebrity. Being a spectacle for just being oneself can be amusing or quite unsettling. Who ever heard of a typical Midwestern American girl being considered "exotic?"

After bringing a close to my bathroom record, completely unpacking my smelly bag, grabbing a noodle meal to eat in bed with my hands, and watching numerous episodes of Seinfeld and Friends, I passed out in between some clean padding and a blanket. Simple pleasures.

The following morning I emerged slowly to shiver in the new air and see what the mountains looked like. The blank canvas of sky the night before gave me no smidgeon of an idea as to how gargantuan the landscape was, and I could only get a sneak peek by viewing the photographs adorning the guesthouse walls.

The first step outdoors brought me fresh air, with a hint of trash and incense, and a view of the tea hills. They undulated like a heart beat or the bathwater from a rowdy tub session, and the green kiss of chlorophyll in my eyes made me feel natural again. I crawled up a hill to the main square and found the fork in the road that leads to the town's best observation deck. Strings of prayer flags decorated or replaced power lines. Stray dogs walked past me as if they were running errands and checking off their "to do" lists. The road was seemingly endless as it snaked around the tip of Darjeeling, until I saw some benches and a turn ahead. The Himalayas appeared.

I thought they were clouds billowing and blowing across the hills. But these clouds were too pointy and shaded to be clouds; these were rocks. There was such a gap between the feet of the range and the snowcapped beasts themselves. Just looking at the mountains from hundreds of miles away, I could hear the winds at the summits, imagine the bite in the air and the number that could be done to my lips and fingers.

The observation decks were littered with more stray dogs, all looking almost pet-able and serene, and I looked at them, looked at the mountains in the background, and wondered if they sensed any inspiration from their daily majestic sights. It certai nly seemed as though the local inhabitants appreciated these visual luxuries, kids coming straight from school to the outlooks to chat or older couples enjoying an afternoon with sun on their backs and amazement in their pupils. I tried to blend in, but a little boy pestered me every time I looked away from him, sneaking up behind me to poke my sides, making startling sounds. I would scream like Lucille Ball, laugh in awe, and look around to see that everybody around was grinning, too. Innocent harassment felt like a big community handshake. Being picked on made me feel welcome.

"Altering my geographic placement upon which to reflect The audacity of the gesture and the potential for more as the main thrill and focus Making that presence truly felt by interacting and letting my personality subtly mark someone from that place Leaving an unconscious and feather mark legacy that seems greater and more romantic than a momentary dent and an activity list It's enough to mark a pin on a map or put it at the bottom of a running list Since I'm young and think I've got abundance in the future, I take it all in as a global pupu platter But this could also be it, and I could only know the skin at most, but I do know the fuzzy, ugly, stale, comforting, brown, flat, giggling realities of a small town that feeds the material of my most frequent dreams"

These are the sorts of thoughts that flow from a mind high on the Himalayas. I was tingling at my proximity to such grandeur and slapping myself for having this desire to see them. I couldn’t tell whether such a thirst came from soul searching depths or just the need to do something laudable and not have to fight anymore for a legitimate voice. My traveling mind always conflicted, it was impossible to ever feel pure emotions. Some day, I sincerely hope I acquire that ability once more.

After peeling my eyes away from the craggy range and getting harassed again by the comedic little boy, I just started walking. I followed every snaking road lined with street markets, tea shops, and Indian-style convenience stores. The grade of the roads varied from semi-flat to 45 degree angles. Thank you, Merrell Sports Shoes, for your adequate development of sole traction. It felt so wonderful to wear a scarf and a fleece, comfortable shoes and socks, layers and jeans, and not sweat profusely or accumulate visible, tangible filth on my legs and toes.

At the bottom of one hill, I found myself in a small neighborhood and amongst tens of school girls playing games like "Ring around the Rosy." My vision was cut slim by the surrounding buildings to only see an extreme vertical image of children under towering homes clinging to a hillside. I almost ran through their human tunnel, clapping and giggling all the way, but the sight was too perfect to disturb. It took me back to the days when the idea of "playing" gave me the six-cups-of-coffee jitters and my partners-in-crime were all I needed to be happy, back when I wasn't ruled by insatiable desires and nonsensical world missions. They looked at me once, I smiled, and then we all continued on with our days, I ascending the hill again and they sending the next girl through the tunnel of hands.

Branching off the main square at the top of Darjeeling was a road designated for foot traffic and booth browsing. Shops selling winter accessories, Kashmiri goods, and anything tourists or locals could ever need were abundant. A puppy the size of a lemon slept without bother next to 90 year-old saleswomen and her wares. The universal mission in this community to be content was palpable. After six months on the road, the only take-home items I purchased were a Masai bracelet and a few clothing items. It seemed as perfect a time as any to do a little shopping. Withholding until India gave me thrilling backpack space to work with, so I walked into the only shop that appeared remotely unique and just stood still inside.

DSC_0312

The owners smiled and stared in anticipation of a big sale, but I remained rather motionless, my eyes scanning the big paintings of mountainous landscapes around the room. The "fixed price" sign drained a little fun out of the moment, but instead I let the right piece yodel down to me, asking me to take it home. As a Californian hippie in Brazil, a.k.a. the "Vege-Nazi," once told me, "If something calls to you, just buy it. If it doesn't, move on." One large painting worked its magic on me, and I walked away smiling, envisioning the blank wall in my future abode the painting just filled.

One very early and quite frigid morning in China, I experienced the delight of real Tibetan dumplings, the chewy yet crisp sensations almost as comforting as the salty, homemade quality of the flavors. It was one of the best meals I can ever remember having, and the ambiance of sitting on a deck overlooking an historically preserved Southern China town with my best friend pumped the moment up to perfection. This lingering memory of great veggie-filled dough balls led my nose to a place with "Tibet" on the window and one woman by a stove.

Steam from a vegetable broth condensating on my face. Perfect noodles splashing trickles on top of my nose and around my cheeks. Hand-crafted lumps soaking up soy sauce and spices, layering the dumplings' flavors with extreme contrasts. I scanned my Lonely Planet for the next best thing to do, but all I wanted was to have this meal again and again. Soul food for the feeble and relaxed.

Darjeeling, in one day, had become a place where I could talk to no one and feel I was amongst friends. I still felt completely independent, but I was lifted up by a community that wanted me to be there. With a pair of fingerless gloves and a notepad, this is the perfect town to be a writer.

I stayed for a week.