In a Sunburned Country and had me audibly exclaiming from his brutal descriptions of small-town life. In this book, Bill attempts to charge through the over 2,100 miles of mountainous footpath called the Appalachian Trail. This is probably as close as I'll come to tackling the trail myself, and through what vehicle would this vicarious journey be better than through the eyes of an underprepared 40+ year-old journalist and his even more underprepared, undermotivated, overweight, formerly alcoholic comrade.Read More
After perusing the web for the most interesting goodies, here are my suggested reads and views for the week!
Burning Man Timelapse
World Hum and Eva Holland displayed a video by Ben Wiggins of stunning, time-lapse footage that gives a visual account of Burning Man, an annual art festival that seemingly cannot be truly described by even the most verbose and enlightened minds. Below is an excerpt from the Burning Man website explaining the basics:
"...Larry Harvey, founder of the Burning Man project, gives a theme to each year, to encourage a common bond to help tie each individual's contribution together in a meaningful way. Participants are encouraged to find a way to help make the theme come alive, whether it is through a large-scale art installation, a theme camp, gifts brought to be given to other individuals, costumes, or any other medium that one comes up with."
The event took place during the first week of September this year, and for many days every travel publication exhibited photo blogs, videos and narratives from the sun-bleached Black Rock Desert location. Of all the attempts to describe this extreme experience, this was the most moving documentation for me.
"GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward," and this poignant graphic by GOOD displays the realities of Earth's carnivorous habits. We can see here that the average Kiwi eats the equivalent weight of two burgers, a can of soup, and a Santa Claus each year.
Coffee Houses in a Tea World
I've recently discovered I'm borderline addicted to tea. After purchasing my first load in Darjeeling last year, I got very excited when the Internship brought me back to India for a top-off on my tea stash at home. This blog post from Intelligent Travel comes at a good time for my new obsession and also takes a wee gander at the concept of a coffee house in a tea-centric country.
Speaking of tea...
Trekking in Nepal
"It was 4 a.m. in mid-November, and I was stretching in a lodge in Thorong Phedi, Nepal, at 14,500 feet, trying to pump warmth back into my body and get rid of a throbbing headache brought on by dehydration and altitude sickness. Wolfing down chapati bread with jam and a fried egg, I chased it with pints of hot tea and water, and started to feel better. I knew I was going to need all my strength...Fifteen of us, along with porters and guides, were about to climb Thorong La, a pass 17,769 feet up in the Himalayas." Continue reading...
These stories are always worth the time to read them.
Other Online Discoveries
GAP Adventure's Coolest Travel Intern Job...oh really?
Update on Nomadderwhere
A new MacBook Pro now graces my presence, making it easier for me to create the work that I love to do.
I also had two presentations on travel this week in northern Indiana, which both went very well and were quite profitable. By selling hand-knit scarves and ceramics, I was able to collect $220 for the children at Palm Tree to receive more protein and fruit in their diets. I'm so appreciative of everyone who came to these events, listened intently, and found it important to contribute to my causes. Thanks again! The check to Cambodia's Hope is going out this week.
Did you find the Good Reads?
I'm pretty unbalanced when it comes to reading material. All I read are travel narratives, often with an adventurous or humorous twist. The stack on my nightstand is about two feet high with books from BookMooch and the library, all of which I want to read asap. If you enjoy the same genre and need some suggestions, check out my page on Good Reads, where you can find short reviews on all the travel books I can recall and see which have made the list for the future. Though I like brevity of articles and features, nothing beats the total transportation caused by a good book. This is why I aim to write a book myself in the foreseeable future.
No blood was shed. The curfew worked. We strapped the chickens on board and waded in fresh puddles to the jeep. Over my dynamite Kashmiri bread breakfast earlier, I felt the boat sway and new voices bounce off the water. Mohamed crawled out of the flashy water taxi, the Parisian movie director a new arrival and "victim" of the Delhi boys' persuasive tongues, and packed in for the six day trek upon landing. There was a sweeping majority of Muslim men on this mountain adventure, and I guess it says scores about their abilities to welcome and comfort me that I didn't realize I was going alone into the mountain range that borders Pakistan with six men of Allah. Fayaz always kept me in the loop and half-amused/half-annoyed me with his insistence on yelling into the cell phone. Mountain coverage is just fine. Riyaz, the well-groomed cook with a powerful face, docile and steady, seemingly unfazed by high altitudes or the two vertical mile starter trek, which could be attributed to his many years of experience…or the ten daily hashish cigarettes he rolled like a well-practiced Rasta.
The three pony men, or gypsies, were 20 something mountain men named Niyaz, Riyaz, and Umar, and I think it was their interest in my uncustomary Western female ways, in conjunction with my dependence on their optimism and humor (which usually ridiculed Fayaz' uptight guiding techniques), that made us unspoken, uncommunicative friends. These simple men appeared a little rough, evidence of their lives of living just sustainably enough in the hills of India: making their own bread, using their cows and chickens for their kitchen basics, knowing nothing but cold and substandard comfort.
Throughout the trek, Mohamed and I had to insist with red face and exhausted lung that the gypsies take a comfortable seat, use blankets and dry ground to avoid freezing mountain temperatures, eat along with us, relax after the emotional exhaust of killing a chicken…the list obviously goes on forever, because Kashmiri gypsies know no end to the hassle and necessary work involved in their lives. Understandably, the 20 year-old had the makings of crow's feet and a grumble of a 30 year smoker. It's hard to accept that these overworked men and women live very far past the age of 60, but two of the men (brothers) claimed their father was 92 and still kickin'…and smokin'.
Anyway, the trek all began with a night in Naranaj, but to those of you who learn nothing from that name, I'll paint a wordy little picture. The town appeared clinging to a single highway that cut into the lower hills of the mountains. The further we swerved around the blind, unprotected, crumbling bends, the deeper we seemed to set into a valley that resonated with running river water. The walls of this, nature's gutter (only in the functional sense), were tilted beyond 45 degrees, and the effect of turning towards the towering angle causes one to lose hold of depth and reality.
As the ponies were packed up on the periphery of the town, Mohamed surprised me with an intimate sweet talking session directed towards a dog that wandered near us. Strangled slightly by a rough rope, strips of old rice bags, and a wire suspended from the makeshift collar that poked the pup from underneath, the dog charmed us if not for his sweet nature than just the fact that an Indian dog wasn't mangy and evil. She clung to our sides and claimed guard dog duties by her sustained presence; she nearly tripped me by weaving in between my legs in order to stay close.
Past the community's permanent stronghold popped up a string of tent clumps along the river, where we saw the final gypsy grazing camps before they all retreated from the impending cold. We tracked the river's stream for a half hour and sent the encouraging clicks and hoots for the ponies' progress reverberating off the valley's bowl-like acoustics. We unstrapped the loads and claimed some river bank space for our tents to rise and ponies to mow, cuing the skies to sprinkle and spit during Camp 1 high tea. Boulders thrice as wide as my grandest hug guarded our settlement from the mountain run-off but, more importantly, set up an elaborate jungle gym for our young spirits and desires to toy with danger. From these perches, Fayaz, Mohamed, and I sent our hungry eyes and a baited line into the river pools and caught two rainbow trout to fry up in the kitchen tent.
We chomped on hot food that night, long after the sun abandoned the valley, and employed our hands to rip into the meal like only gypsies and their imitators know how. And with after dinner chais and a casual question about favorite movies, Mohamed caught a fire in his eyes, and I watched as his passion for the "talkies" lit up the air of a still night in the wilderness.
In the seclusion of my own tent with a "winter husband" hot water bottle cradled in my feet, I went to bed certain of a pleasant sleep, feeling the mass of our watch dog pressed inches from my head outside the tent. Even through ear plugs, I heard the midnight growls and even thumps of a brawl occurring on the ground where my bodyguard formerly snuggled. I think there were times that night we all reclined simultaneously wide eyed and white-knuckled.
Because of repeated delaying factors thus far, we were a bit behind schedule on our trek to the skies. Fayaz remedied the dilemma by pushing the day one hike to encompass the entirety of the trek's hurdles into seven burning hours. The burning refers not to the sun but everything else: our legs, lungs, blisters, joints, the wind and snow on our skin, and then the unsettling chill of feeling our sweaty clothes freeze the back during a water break. There's no way I would have tackled this experienced unsupervised, but I certainly prefer to set my own pace that involves frequent stops to worship the peaks that come out of hiding with every vertical step. I also set no records for high altitude hiking, so I tried to grin and bear all the moments when the men ran in front of me then stopped to wait and watch my steady struggle. Anytime I pulled the Nikon from around my shoulder to click a mountain goat's billowing hair or fresh snow on a Himalaya, I couldn't tell whether the fellas were stretching their shins or tapping their toes. We flew through clouds of pine scents and past paths that gripped the hillside in fear, trickling with mountain sweat. All I wanted to do was let the jaw-dropping sights be feet-stopping and enjoy the views I paid for. The pony men began to sympathize with me and muttered breaths to Fayaz's lunacy. I refused to let such a thing annoy me and listened only to the waterfalls as applause in my ears.
I liked walking with the ponies and letting them set a pace through the muddy paths. Sometimes their hooves would misjudge a stone or pile of sludge, and a ponyman shot forward to help heave the scrambling horse from tumbling downhill. One of these times, I was stuck between a struggling pony and gravity's arm. It's funny; after this big journey and all its thrilling moments, I now know I react to the instant of possible death with a blank mind and eyes the size of swimming goggles. So much for that last second survival and rescue instinct.
The entire day was a crawl through diverse terrain and gradually worsening climates. The first scene was a steady, uphill zig-zag covering a hilly face slanted at 45 degrees to the horizon. The breeze was harmonious with the warmth of the tropical sun through the canopy. Our lunch break arrived upon reaching an idyllic, tree-lined plain, large enough for pony rebellions and wide-stretching views of new snow and secluded, unmatched power. We ate previously cooked rice curry after devouring apples the size of cherry tomatoes. Pulling them out of Mohamed's backpack with chilled fingers, one went rogue and rolled down to the bottom of the clearing. Their tastes met a tired body's hunger with a natural invigoration that sent me chasing the doomed fruit to its resting place upon pony crap. I wiped it with my sweat-drenched scarf and ate it, core and all.
Fayaz' pupils were clock faces, and he refused our requests to relax and lick our yellowed fingers. The ponies and dependant humans wound around the mountain on a path that ran, thankfully, more horizontally and squeezed into the rock's armpits. From afar I'm sure the route looked like a heart monitor pulse. The air acquired a nip and force as ominous as distant thunders.
And then the constant tree covering dwindled to patches in the distance leaving green hills, the rocky earth breaking through the carpet like stars on an undisturbed night, and old gypsy settlements from the long past summer months. A fog so arresting transformed the scene into a twilight zone or a movie set for some haunted troll colony. Minute beads of snow began to slowly coat the world.
Just like the Milky Way's streak across the black dome, the land was striped with boulder gardens that crumbled down from the peaks unseen. While the ponies panted with light feet and angered whinnies and the gypsies bounded weightlessly across the rocky streams in penny loafers, I traversed the ankle graveyards with such steady footing, I could have been stepping around spitting snakes and sleeping babies. I saw the moss and the light dew and ruled out the possibility of playful bounding with images in my head of broken feet and being flung over a gypsy's shoulder down the two miles I had just climbed skywards. The mountain started whimpering from somewhere.
We had reached Tronakun and the tree line that introduces the arctic world above. Behind a gray cloud to the left was a peak, Haimuk Mountain, and an illusion of closeness and smallness that only came about because I really knew it was the biggest thing I'd ever seen so nearby. But then I turned to my right and saw the hills curve downward out of sight. A kilometer away into the air between vertical lands blew a thick snowstorm that stopped me as would an oncoming stampede or tsunami. It was stunning. Neighbor mountains pushed through the white enough for me to see the company I was surrounded by, the most beautiful and ferocious beasts. The men were already cresting the hill in front of me and insisted I not stop moving or I'd get stuck in a cold trap. Things, people, and sights can move you to cry, but this non-replicable display, this one time vista stopped my heart. I shifted my weight, wrapped my snow-crusted scarf around my entire head, and shook in disbelief of what I was now forced to abandon for the rest of the walk to the camp site.
My pants were wet, my SLR frozen and flapping at my back, and each step brought me closer to the men and a possible hip dislocation. I didn't realize it during the trek there, but our stopping point for the night was directly behind the hidden Haimuk Mountain we'd seen across the plain earlier. The thin path's hurdles grew subsequently more monstrous until I found myself balancing on the rim of an Earth bowl against sideways snow. Water gurgled in the pit below, hundreds of meters down its untouched slopes. I froze up there at 16,000 feet high in the snowy Gandarbal range, wearing only a long sleeved tee, my fleece, jeans, and a Kashmiri scarf.
Riyaz, the "ever-enlightened" cook, lingered from the group to give me a trekking companion and someone to follow without contemplating each step, path, or rocky outcropping. My body began to conserve its energies to keep me warm and coherent instead of soaking in the scenery. When I lifted my head after crossing a fallen tree bridge and another rock playground, I saw the trek was finished. We were at the edge of a small lake that kissed the feet of Haimuk. She stood over us like a 20,000 ft tall shrine or monument to the Earth's accomplishments in beauty. I let out a gasp of awe before I was crippled by weak hips, unmovable fingers, and an inability to do anything besides layer on clothes until I ran out. The process took a half hour to become impermeable, and for the only time on this trek, I had no problem that the men didn't let me help with establishing our home base.
One tent erected in the expansive valley, and the ponies ran to the nearest nibbles of frozen greens. We were a speck amidst the white blanket that swept over us. Looking past Umar in the tent flap opening, it looked like a plain backdrop for a GAP commercial. Unable and unwelcome to assist in any way, I sat watching Mohamed fade from cold and angry to relieved and chatty as his fingers regained nerve cooperation.
We both were wearing wet clothes under thick coats that didn't make us any warmer, so I suggested using the tent as a changing room and having the others evacuate while one person gets dry, warm, and situated. I ended up being the only one willing to expose bare skin to bitter cold in an attempt to get warmer, but when non of the men waiting outside told the approaching Umar about my costume change, a very shocked, shy, and embarrassed Muslim man dove away from my sight with his freshly killed chicken dangling limp in his bloody hand.
The first time I left our mountain shelter was to achieve primal relief behind a distant rock closer to the water's edge. The storm and all adjacent clouds had long passed and left a spotless sky made even more clear by the paper thin air. I had asked about possible wildlife in the area, which were improbable presences, but I kept my African tradition of drumming my hands on my thighs to scare away any animals I could sneak up on in attempt to relieve myself.
Instead, what shook me to honest fear and submission was Haimuk, hovering over me like a half pipe wave about to crest over my head. The same way I used to think ghosts chased me up the stairs or stained-glass faces in my old house haunted me in my nightly pursuits, I was sure the looming mountain would tremble, lean towards me, and terrorize just because it would be too easy. I never took my eyes off her. The lake was her mirror. The moon illuminated her deadly outline. And this was where I took my pre-bedtime pit stop…a loo with a view.
It's proved true in every occurrence of this journey that when my body needs a night of dreamless, morgue-like slumber, I cannot manage more than an hour before lying awake, eyes wide shut. I was packed in next to my frozen backpack and Mohamed's shifting frame. Umar's body, curled desperately onto the last few inches of tarp and blankets, made it impossible to fully extend my legs without using him as an ottoman. So I rolled onto my stomach and lifted everything below the knee into the air. A light breeze outside covered the utter darkness of sound, and opening my eyelids made no difference in what I could see. I had packed myself in so tightly for slumber that every shift and reposition made me feel like I was in a Chinese finger trap. My sore hips ached as they pressed into the frozen, divot-riddled ground. Starting from 4,000 ft and scaling the 12,000 ft to base camp had no effect on my breathing or dizziness, but while buried in blankets and trying to stay warm, I had breathing fits where I couldn’t get enough oxygen and lifted my head, panting like I just swam across the lake outside. And to make matters more agitating, my sleeping pill didn't let me snooze but just kept me fully aware of how tired I really was. As it frequently plays out, I realized I was finally asleep when the rest of the men stirred awake for the second day on the mountain.
By the time the sun had exposed her entire plump shape over the eastern mountain range and created a blinding landscape, the other two gypsies, Riyaz and Niyaz, returned with the ponies from Tronakun, where they had descended the night before in search of grass and warmth for their most prized living possessions.
Cold gypsy Kashmiri bread and cups of tea later, Fayaz sent us up the nearby ridge in search of Gandarbal lake number two, a more glorious sight and prime location for fishing. My hips wanted to refuse the twenty minute trek, but two of the gypsies promised me a memorable and pleasant time, our friendships having blossomed through shared high altitude agony. And it was a tremendous sight. The water's surface resembled more a clean glass window than a rippled lake appearance. I could count the pebbles on the shallow bed and see the details in their ridges.
Fayaz caught good sized trouts with ease and a top notch French-made fishing rod. Meanwhile, the mountain men waded knee deep into the glacial runoff and grabbed the fish in their leathery hands. On the spot, the men cracked the fish' jaws and gutted their bellies to throw into a bloody plastic bag, not before squirting orange fish eggs from the ladies into the crystal waters. Some didn't die until the process had long since commenced. With those same hands, they pulled out two glasses and a Thermos of chai for Mohamed and I, as if our breakfast a half hour before had already vaporized in our stomachs.
Clicking some pics and moving back down to our lake, Fayaz passed the line to me and let me cast the hook into the dark, cold waters at the foot of Haimuk peak. I wrangled nothing, but when he pulled out a flailing trout a minute later, I slowly wrapped my fingers around the slippery muscle for the first time in fifteen years. Until it left my hands, I smiled and exclaimed the trademark sound of Lucille Ball: UUUUEEEEWWWWWWW!
We were lucky to make it to the Gandarbal lakes when we did; many other trekking groups refused the risk and only day-tripped it to the exhausting height. Fearing our luck would soon run dry, Fayaz sent us back down the mountain, the day after we climbed its entire elevation. Not wanting me to fall behind and do my own thing again, Fayaz strapped me up to an annoyed pony and led me out of the valley. It was at this point that I decided to stop fighting the "special" treatment and demeaning demands to drop my dignity for the sake of sanity. They pushed me to accept the role of a helpless lady from the trek's conception, and I took that part when I understood it wasn't an option so much as an insistence. So, I rode a pony off the mountain.
From my perch, I could fully appreciate the reality of the mountain's appearances. At some point in time, the Earth's crust collided and froze at the climax of the action, creating a militant formation of protected terrain. Each ridge stood like a soldier, standing there to make it harder on human kind to reach its deepest and most remote Shangri-Las. Writers and travelers wish to be lodged in these unimaginable crevices between rocky waves, but the fact is only a few have the ability to reach them and, because of this, their virginal value remains a bit longer until time finds a way to rape them of such virtue.
My pony's hesitant tap dance across the frequent rocky streams made me nervous and imagine our shared deaths in various scenarios. Barrel rolls down the hillsides, laterally and head first, smashing bones against boulders, my all-too colorful imagination powered on.
The end of this much shorter trek brought us to what can only perfectly represent a grassy knoll. All three tents rose in the rain, and I ran to grab our ground blankets to keep them dry under a staggering tent. The boys rummaged for firewood and ended up building a fire dome made of wet bark that sent opaque clouds of smoke into the pine trees. I was in need of a cold weather exorcism and stuck my feet in the fire's blue belly, while sitting on my winter husband water bottle.
I found myself later in the kitchen tent reading my book "Three Cups of Tea" while Riyaz cooked up a fishy, chickeny, veggie-filled storm. The hero of my real life tale was working to erect school buildings in the Karakorum villages directly north of us. On this trip, I've often wondered how local people truly reflect on efforts made by foreigners of a charitable manner. Some have said its funny (though also greatly appreciated) that people spend their time and money on service projects, while others are unwelcoming to those insistent on pressing religious superiority. I decided to do further research and explain my book to the cook.
After a labored translation, he told me he found acts like that of Greg Mortenson and his schools among the top most laudable efforts one could perform in needing societies. I briefly considered whether it was my turn to follow suit for the village of Naranaj, since some boys like Niyaz fail to receive even the simplest of educations. Foreign aid, done the right way for the most honorable reasons, is truly appreciated. However, it has never been my life's intention to search for suffering people who need me because I am an angel of peace in this troubled world. Nay; I instead am open to a mission I feel will become apparent when the right year, month, and minute allow its approach. I stored that thought in the vault and resolved to stay always aware for my cause, whenever it decided to turn up and provide a purpose in my life.
Up on those mountains, I had a mess of ideas in my confused mind. Dreams of mariachi bands, the Kashmiri blue steel eyes, my future home and meaning, all inspired by the magic around me. I envisioned camping through the summer months and building my own furniture, producing artistic wares and earning only enough to support the most basic of needs, batheing and washing in bins of rain water, while also allowing myself freedom from anger at my own culture and self-righteous mind. And I wrote all these thoughts down with the expectation of laughing at myself down the road. But I was confused and growing, and this time around I'm not prepared to ridicule my bouts of idealism. I wanted to descend the mountain ready to compromise, tolerate, and approach the interpretation of my desires with Van Gogh-like self-wisdom. After five and a half months abroad, I was becoming ready to return home and follow my own clock, hoping America would give me the unpressured freedom to do so.
The next afternoon, Fayaz sent us down the mountain once more, this time because of insufficient water supplies. Half way down the backtrack, we blazed a new trail, a pin ball course on dead pine needles. I relished the opportunity they gave me to use my own legs and started running down the trail. They were impressed (finally) and especially because all their bad knees kept them at turtle speed. When the ground cover changed to a thick inch of needles laying on top of ankle-rolling pine cones, I lagged to the back once more after some falls on the derierre put some fear in my legs. The land tilted so far, my feet reached a full point in order to keep my body perpendicular to the horizon. My toes smashed into the tips of my shoes, and with the soft muddy ground making things not-so-easy, I moved like I had a baby on my back. Fayaz, probably feeling guilty for sending us off the mountain two nights early tromped ten paces ahead of me and stopped rhythmically to wait, which adequately mocked my progress. I got angry…and this is what I wrote at the bottom of the mountain:
"My inner monologue cursed in all the chameleon-life contexts possible throughout today's trek. Yesterday, I made quite an effort to hold onto that chemical imbalance that made me raving mad when I should only be humored…or at the worst, perturbed. Today, I took the last Kingfisher (purchased completely by me) and ran to the rapids for this purge and beer binge. This trek can be applauded for many things, but I will now vent those which most aggrivate me…things so colossal to my list of needs that no Haimuk Mountain can soften the unintentional blows.
"I'm not an idiot, not helpless, not incompetent, not made of money, and not a child. I could go on, but I got enough boo-hoo exclamations in that sentence. And as I sit here ready to complain about the cost of this trek, the guide, all the lack of communication with decisions made, and the commands to speed up, slow down, wait, and "just sit there with your chai and biscuits," I know I truly reason all those factors to be worth a connection to Kashmiri culture and these mountains of nature. The other night's evening pee with the stars, the half moon, the reflecting, rippling lake, and the mountain's presence, which genuinely frightened me, was one I will try to paint with any medium necessary to recapture what a photo wouldn't or couldn't do.
"What is this insistence to possess the dignity of a Queen? Is it just because this was an exhibition of my paucity of cardio strength or because I am a Western woman being treated like a subservient child while on this soul-searching, life-defining discovery tour of my own genuine opinions and trajectory? I gotta go; it's high tea time in the wilderness…"
When it comes to these moments when emotions spoil the expected thrill and good time, it placates me to remember it's not a wasted time thanks to the opinion on travel I've formulated. My mind has cycles, and they don't stop for vacation. Unfortunately, this sometimes means I have sour memories of thrilling destinations. They are "nothing fights" that part with a smile. It's hindsight appreciation for having had the opportunity to be pissed in the Himalayas. "An adventure," after all, "is an experience of discomfort, recalled later in a moment of tranquility." The snowstorms, the freezing, the sleepless nights, the pony rides, boulder jumping, chicken slaughtering, fish gutting, intra-group disagreements, chapped lips, traversing of mountain passes, scrambles up and down steep trails, blisters, bruised toes, matted hair, and staring down the slope into a cloudy abyss…yes, it was my very own Kashmir mountain adventure.
The final two days, I read…constantly. I read sprawled on rocks surrounded by rushing water, read by torchlight with my feet squishing the hot water bottle, read curled in the kitchen tent watching Riyaz and Fayaz butcher a freshly killed hen, and the book ran out of pages even before finding society once more. As the Kashmiri men packed the ponies for the final trail blaze, Mohamed took a lounge on a massive boulder and stared at nothing but pure H2O flowing past him. I gave him his space and sat downstream under an oak tree, assuming his head was filled with relief and coulda, woulda, shouldas regarding his recently finished film.
I ripped apart every orange, crispy leaf that fell into my lap and covered my face from earth, wind, and fire with my scarf, singing to an audience of one. As my voice slowly deteriorates from wear, age, or lack of use every year, I occasionally test my former strength to see if I not only have the ability to push out good sound but also the creativity and genius to interpret my mind music audibly, following the greats I blare from my car stereo. I think the consensus in that valley was a negative to original music skill, and if I wasn't inspired in that oasis, it meant I just don't have it…or I have to put some all-consuming effort into it. I never let myself completely rule out an option for life on the big journey…so I kept professional musician on the table from that moment on.
I climbed onto my pony express for the last time, thoroughly bruising both thighs on the ascent, and arrived back into Naranaj atop the trusty steed that hated me. We passed the ancient ruins that marked our start and passed gypsy wives of 16 and 18 years old, all giggling at my interpretation of the hijab with my dirty scarf.
The red jeep that took us back to Srinagar pulled up after we collapsed on bags of tents, onions, and down jackets. The one chicken that survived the entire journey still flapped and jerked her neck around inside the wicker cage, watching us suspiciously for the approach and that knife that would signal her demise.
Once loaded, we followed the ribbon of highway back to roads clogged with flamboyant buses, rickshaws, impatient cars, and herds of goats on a death row walk to the big city. Our driver, a younger version of the chain-smoking, strong-eyed man behind the wheel last time, was nothing short of the craziest driver I've ever witnessed from the backseat. He was a bully on the road, overtaking cars even when smaller opponents were oncoming fast, and his handle on the dimensions of his vehicle were astounding. He cleared motorbikes and goats by centimeters at top speeds, leading me to believe he really didn't care what happened to his car or the unlucky matter that came in contact with it. Mohamed gripped the handle above the window like he was hanging above a cloudy abyss, and I sunk my fingers into the two front seats to steady myself so I wouldn’t dive bomb the boys sitting on either side of me. Fayaz, Riyaz, and Captain Insane-o chatted and smoked like they were at a tailgate, while Mohamed and I exchanged looks that said, "Someone 's gonna die on this drive home".
And once we thought we had seen the extent of his recklessness, we got to a city road and saw a woman, dressed in a lime green sari, crossing the street far ahead of our car's projected path. Mohamed and I both saw the woman in plenty of time to notice she was possibly in our way if the driver didn't slow down. I actually remember him speeding up. Our grips deepened to white-knuckle status, eyes widened to let our pupils swim in seas of trembling white, and two warning screams filled the backseat as we sent the woman running to the median. I kid you not and have no room to exaggerate this recollection. The woman was an inch from being struck by our car going 45mph. The driver had to swerve and blare the horn in order to not make contact with a woman so close that we could see up her flared nostrils. The driver laughed at his close call. This sent Mohamed into an awe-struck rage. I sat in shock with my hands over my mouth the rest of the way to the houseboat. We sent the driver foul looks and no gratitude as we slid out of the car, happy to be stationary, and ran to our rooms for the much-anticipated, fire-heated showers.
The trek was over, and we welcomed civilization like we'd never experienced it before. Chai? Send it my way! Clean clothes? I'll put on the fanciest ones I've got! Hot dinner and a Wesley Snipes movie? Who can I worship for this miracle? Throw that winter husband in my bed and let my toesies sizzle while I read my newest novel. A man that approached my water taxi a week before drifted by our balcony thrones at dusk, and we went into a shopping frenzy as another Mohamed presented his hand-painted paper mache wares.
Fayaz wandered into our boat and offered his cell phone for me to call my awaiting parents. I hadn't told them about my trip to Kashmir, for fear of raising their already boiling blood pressures, but I guess my lack of contact for nine days caused even more distress; Papa Bear was contemplating a flight to India to find me. I heard the organ from the sanctuary behind their relieved voices. While they were at Sunday church, I was watching house lights squiggle toward me on the lake's surface that Sunday night.
Mohamed wanted to share tea and chit-chat that evening, both of us finally comfortable enough to not worry about frostbite or the smell of rotting clothes to actually talk, but I wandered like a zombie to my room and apologized for answering the call of my comforter to join it in slumber. Before falling into my bed's embrace, I walked to the bathroom and thought back to the last bathroom journey in the woods. I hope it's normal to reminisce or even prefer the thrill of the life or death stroll to the facilities. I had it with every squat in the African continent, every adventure behind a big rock in Kashmir, and when it's no longer acceptable, I get a little nostalgic. Yes, my trek in the Himalayan mountains brought out the real lady in me, and I wait with bated breath for my next low encounter with a grassy knoll.
Thank you, Nature.
The brilliant skies of a port sunrise illuminated our cabin before we cleaned up our mental messes from India, but regardless of your readiness for another mind blowing experience, they rise out of the horizon and thrust you to land. Malaysia was a 270 degree sight to behold, where billowing clouds transformed into neon palettes that decorated the mountains in our path. High dock prices kept the Explorer in the harbor, so we boarded our own lifeboats to tender onto Penang Island. City buses helped us avoid the taxi rush and dropped us near shopping malls and street markets, where raw fish and chicken carcasses dampened the mood to shop for the local candy and pretty trinkets. Alexis and I shocked ourselves with a multi-hour stay in a massive indoor mall, equipped with a Starbucks and internet cafe. Reasoning that we would be one with nature the next day silenced any internal disappointment immediately, and we continued to spend money.
Trishaw rides, local beers, and night markets gave us our first cultural taste later that evening, but we cut the evening short in order to rest up for an early morning bus ride to the Cameron Highlands. Anna, Laura, Alexis and I caught a tattered old bus and discussed life goals before the bumpy ride rocked us to sleep. We took Lonely Planet's suggestions and set up camp at Father's Guesthouse, where the sound of rain drops on the corrugated steel roofs won us over. The mountains wrapped a misty haze around our relaxing day, and we soaked up the lush land we so often miss at sea.
What the city of Tanah Rata lacked in activity, it made up for in ambiance. We planned for a "Mossy Forest Hike" the next morning to quench our flora and fauna cravings and spent the rest of the night tasting Malaysian table wine, playing new card games, telling stories, and watching Alexis track jaguars outside. We neglected to tell her this was not jaguar country but tiger territory.
Our adventure began with the sunrise, as we piled into a van and drove up to the highest point in the Highlands. The wind was brittle on the lookout tower, as was the rusty tower itself, but we braved the cold and the tetanus to take our scenic photos. The mossy ground gave with every step of the hike, where we had to hurdle logs, weave around bamboo, swing around branches, and long jump frequent mud pits. Every few minutes, we would reach a clear patch that revealed a breathtaking view of the tea plantations, but the mood heightened from serene to exhilarating with the discovery of a tiger paw print.
The BOH tea plantation wrapped around every hill in sight, and the museum café that overlooked the fields was a perfect location to sip on a cup of fresh caffeine. Instead of heading back to the city, we asked our guide to drop us on the side of the road, just to make the trip a little more interesting. Strawberry, bee, butterfly, and rose farms littered the mountain roads, and we couldn't pass an opportunity to buy cheap and fresh produce at the little markets. Four American girls walked down the country roads in Malaysia, with bags of tomatoes, dried strawberries, and jam galore. While we walked back towards Tanah Rata, I had an incredible urge to hitchhike in the back of a pickup truck full of chickens, but my search for the perfect candidate went unsuccessful. Instead, we settled with the city bus that we flagged down by throwing our bodies in its path.
Only after a little shopping and dinner did we get back on a return bus to Penang, and I spent the five hour ride day-dreaming and giggling at Alexis sleeping with mouth open wide. We called it an early night in order to maximize our last day shopping and wandering aimlessly. After a stressful tendering situation, where I nearly received dock time, I stood on the back deck watching the lights of the city dissolve into the sea.
In short, Malaysia was a success.
After having the be-jesus scared out of me for this port, I was a tad hesitant to step off the gangway, expecting to have my passport easily sliced out of the money belt that was conveniently located in my underwear. Because of this long winded warning, I was at my most attentive state, armed with an angry stare and a determined stride (holding a pen like a weapon at my side). Even though my façade was solid, pulsating drums and colorful piles of houses melted my interior, as did the humidity. Scamming taxi drivers got us to the bus station where we quickly bought the last three tickets to Lençois. It was a six hour ride full of unnecessary pit stops, grotesque Brazilian teens smoking in the lavatory, and smelly seat companions, but we certainly had an adrenaline rush every time the bus played “chicken” with oncoming traffic. Every little uncomfortable bit of the journey was a treat to experience.
Garrett, Alexis and I jumped out of our seat when a woman passed us and asked in English, “Is anyone in the bathroom?” Immediately, we made friends with the American and her bilingual friend, who within minutes of meeting us made accommodations for our overnight stay and two day trek through the wilderness.
We greeted a very wet Chapada Diamantina at 0900 hours with our guide, Arnaudo, who was equipped with all our gear and a wonderfully bouncy gait. Natural rock slides and water the color of iodine made our first rest stop a bruising but exciting delight, and after teaming up with another trekking group, we powered off into a rainforest known to gobble up naïve travelers without guides.
The rain came and went in the most unfortunate of times, for instance, while trudging up a steep rock face on the side of a mountain. Apparently their motto that it only rains in the mornings and at night is relative (similar to ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’), as well as their concept of time (15 minutes = 3 hours). The most unexpected part was watching one of the guide’s backpacks float down some rapids we were debating on crossing, only to see him jump in at a moment of panic. The rain rerouted our travels to a cavern on a cliff where we spent a soggy night spooning on sleeping bags that smelt of unpleasant things. Alexis was careful to listen for jaguars outside our nylon walls, but Garrett focused on not rolling down a 60 foot drop. I, on the other hand, had little to think about other than the Chinese water torture nature was conducting on my forehead.
We survived the night and left alone to back track our travels to the rockslides, which went from amusing to abusive overnight. Arnaudo met us at the top of the falls to warn us against crossing, out of fear for our lives, so we lounged on the other side of this tourist destination and relaxed our burning feet in the cool waters. After twenty minutes of peace, we see crowds forming on the other edge of the water hole and men with ropes jumping haphazardly into the rapids. We started to pack up and look for the guide, but the men told us to stay. They were the survival crew from town, crossing the water to rescue us. The following twenty minutes included zip lines, cheers from the crowd, grasping rope for dear life, being pulled underwater by the force of the currents, the crowd taking pictures, bloody knees, bags flopping on the rocks, and a triple high-five from the three “Americanos” who were saved from danger in the Brazilian outback.
It was only when we ended our two day trek in the mountains of Brazil when we realized how horribly we smelt. One hospitable offer from Arnaudo and the three of us were taking showers in shantytown. My dripping hiking boots did not look inviting, so I took the streets like a local and walked barefoot to the nearest shoe store for some Brazilian sandals.
Meeting back with our fourth friend, Robb, at an Italian restaurant back in town facilitated an animated recount of all our travels and the great times we had, as did the three Caipirinhas that satiated our thirsts. As the night winded down, we rested in the town square where a stray dog and his antsy legs kept us company until a spontaneous downpour sent us running with everyone else under the covered market, laughing all the way. During that overnight bus ride to the ship, an overwhelming exhaustion sent me into a deep sleep that I could not remember having. I rejoined mankind at noon the next day with sore legs and clean hair, finally.
Pelourinho, the old city district in Salvador, glittered of elaborate Carnaval celebrations, loud musical presentations, and children spraying very wet silly string on their annoyed parents. Women in large, bell-shaped dresses and men in mini-skirts made us feel like the least festive people on every city block as we pranced around in jeans with our valuables duct-taped to our stomachs. The constant fear of being mugged or abducted by lurking criminals exhausted us, as did the shock that we were in the presence of the biggest festival celebrated on planet Earth.
We decided to embrace this once in a lifetime opportunity and head to the heart of the main event, the Barra circuit. My heart vibrated in my chest with every semi that rolled by, blaring traditional music and rattling bass beats from the hundreds of speakers on every truck. Twirling skirts, sweat beads flying, free bandanas being thrown everywhere, SKOL vendors shaking makeshift maracas to lure in thirsty partiers, confetti shooting into the sky, old ladies with tinsel wigs and gold pants…every audio-visual stimulus sent our hearts racing.
Brazilian women with beads and mustaches made our nights with their shimmys and chants, making us feel like we were united in the celebration. The only thing that brought us down from our elevated state was when they informed us that we were presently surrounded by drooling, dangerous criminals, eager to ruin our American lives. Luckily, the Brazilian SWAT teams were constantly weaving through our territory.
Millions of dollars in fireworks and pyrotechnics could not have raised our excitement anymore than when the next "bloco" rolled into our vicinity and the name of FATBOY SLIM appeared in flashing lights. Parked at our feet, the world-renown DJ’s semi blasted a techno/reggae remix of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, an American classic that we alone appreciated to its fullest extent. For many of us, this was one of the best moments of our lives, only topped by the fact that our safety that night was never in jeopardy.
I melted into my bed that night, too pooped to even ice my throbbing feet, but my ears were ringing from an unforgettable experience. The intensity of every situation in the past few days was paramount to what I have known in the past, and I met it all with two thumbs up and one very shifty eye. As I like to put it, Brazil smacked me in the face, but I smacked it right back. And now…on to South Africa.