Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Summation

So it’s finally over. Well it’s been over for almost 5 months now (my bad), but putting this blog posting online seems like the final step in closing the book on the gap year that was, September 27th 2008- May 18th 2009. Sorry for taking so long to finally put this online- summer and college got in the way of my writing plans.

But before I reflect and introspect, allow me to recap the bare bones of my trip first.

Russia- I spent 7 weeks volunteering in a small city 5 hours northeast of Moscow, named Yaroslavl with a program called Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). I took a weekend trip to St. Petersburg and two trips to Moscow.

South Africa- I spent a couple days in New York with my sister where my parents surprised me, before going to Cape Town for almost 6 weeks and again volunteering with CCS. I also took a weekend trip to Johannesburg, and spent five days in the Eastern Cape hiking along the Transkei’s Wild Coast.

Australia- I came home for about a month around New Year’s, before going off to Australia. I spent a month hanging out at the houses of two family friends in Sydney and Melbourne, and went organic farming for a week on the French Island.

New Zealand- I met college kids on their semester abroad in Auckland and we rented a camper van that we took around the North Island for a week.

India- I toured the country for a month with Rustic Pathways, including a week home-stay with a Tibetan family in Dharmsala, a hike in the foothills of the Himalayas, and tours of Delhi, Kochi, Jaipur and Agra.

China- I finished up my trip with a 6 week stint in Shanghai where I interned at a bilingual lifestyle magazine through Projects-Abroad. My family came to visit and took me to Beijing, and I also went traveling alone for 10 days in the southwest of China after my internship wrapped up.

The First Half

Russia was amazing in the strangest way. I look back and I think of walking the gloomy streets of Yaro after a stretch of a couple of days of not seeing the sun, listening to Lil’ Wayne’s most depressing song off of The Carter III, “Shoot Me Down.” And that may sound like anything but amazing, but I’ve talked it over with Jaime and we agree that it was just a special time in our lives.

At any other point in the trip being in a small, foreign city for almost 2 months with little to no nightlife and only a handful of other volunteers might have been crushingly boring. But maybe because it was our first stop, it wasn’t at all. We read a lot, talked late into the night, woke up early to do our pushups, I studied Russian, we played chess. And it felt completely fulfilling.

Also, by being in the Motherland I was living the dream. I had been a closet Russian history geek since I did a book report on the history of the Soviet Union in 5th grade. During my volunteering with CCS, I got to talk to former proud card-carrying members of the Communist Party. I sat with them after they listened to a lecture on pensioner’s shrinking medical benefits and heard them feebly reminisce about the good ol’ days. Volunteering at a senior center, we had q&a time, where another volunteer and I sat at the front of the room and faced a firing squad of Russian retirees. And with the help of a translator I got to shoot questions back at them. It was an incredible opportunity.

Next up, South Africa stood in bright contrast to Russia. While Russia was all gray, gloomy and centuries of history, South Africa was bright, colorful and dynamic with an eye firmly set on a promising future. Russia was glorious gilded churches and colorful onion domes that looked like they came straight from Disneyland. Zed A (South Africa’s internet country code) was almost entirely focused on the great outdoors; amazing picturesque beaches, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, and a plethora of outdoor activities like rappelling down a mountain, hang gliding or shark cage diving.

Still, 15 years after the end of apartheid, the black and coloured (mixed-race) townships are one of the first things you see on the drive out of Cape Town International, while some luxurious white communities sit nestled above the City Bowl with amazing views of the Atlantic. Every cab ride became a new discourse on race, with drivers ranging from enlightening and thought provoking to downright racist. But while South Africa’s progress in race relations can be debated, its natural beauty simply cannot be which is one of the reasons, along with Cape Town’s amazing nightlife, that it tops the list of gap year countries I’d like to return to.

Going it Alone

Then there was the call I got from Jaime during our break at home, when he informed me he wouldn’t be coming to Australia or New Zealand. I felt a mix of terror, anxiety and excitement, with a lot of emphasis on the former two. There was even a brief conversation about my possibly staying home, but I never really considered that as a real possibility.

However I also felt liberated, not because traveling with Jaime tied me down in any way, but because going it completely alone for a spell put the onus entirely on me. Despite my anxiety, I tried to go for a little dose of spin control at the time in this space, calling it the “new and improved” second half, when in fact I was all nerves.

The Second Half

Even though I had a really great time in both Australia and New Zealand, I just found them both pretty culturally uninteresting. Sure they both had their natives that they worked hard to oppress, but otherwise I found very little else to hold my attention.

India on the other hand, was a whole different world. The first image that comes to mind is dirt streets with traffic jams consisting of oxen, camels, pedestrians and brightly hand painted cars and trucks, with nobody paying the traffic lights any mind. I remember ubiquitous masala chai, and Indian food every meal for a month straight. I was so used to Indian food being a once a month take-out dinner that we picked up from my family’s favorite place down Ventura, that I could never get my mind around the fact that there’s a place (duh, India) where it’s perfectly normal to not only have it every meal, but on planes and trains too. (Seriously though. When I think plane food, I think of Continental Airlines and some lukewarm vegetables with some indeterminate piece of meat smothered in gravy. But in India, they give you Indian food on planes!)

I’ll also remember India for its unflappably polite culture, terrifying drivers and amazing temples. And I left India with one of my favorite memories from the entire trip.

It was the first night of our trek in the Himalayan foothills and I was sharing a tent with our American guide and my friend Michael from Florida. We didn’t feel like going to bed so we wandered around rice paddies outside following the sound of drums in the distance. We eventually made our way to some sort of celebration for one of the local villager’s first-born sons. There was a full brass section in addition to the drums, and old drunk Indian men were dancing near a fire along to the rhythm. They immediately stopped when we arrived and without a word offered us three chairs closest to the fire.

As we warmed up, and the celebrants warmed up to our unexpected arrival, the music and dancing resumed again, and we decided to make fools of ourselves and join in. Soon a rainbow of saris assembled on the far porch with curious eyes burning out of dark faces at the three white intruders. We stayed long enough to see the completion of some sort of ceremonial grain pyramid, find an English-speaking friend who tried to explain some of what was going on, see a dinner of daal (lentils) and rice served on massive fig leafs to young and old alike who all made certain to eat with their right hands (the left was unclean). And we left only after the grand finale, the sacrificing of a braying, all-too-prescient goat.

I’ll remember China, the country that brought you the “one country, two systems” policy, as showing many different cultural faces. There was the local market outside my apartment where you could see your dinner slaughtered in front of you, be it turtle, fish, eel, or even brain if you were feeling frisky. The street market and the park in front of my flat, which I’ve already written extensively about, both felt distinctly Chinese.

But just a stone’s throw away, on the same walk home from my metro stop were massage parlors with Chinese girls beckoning from the windows. And if these weren’t as sketchy as they seemed, they could just as well stand in for some of the other places that I heard about, representing the seedy, sexually repressed, and more generally black-market, bootleg culture that China tries so hard to hide from the world. Finally, there was the nightlife scene, which consisted of certain posh bars that were so whitewashed that by the end of the night you forgot you were in Asia. The bars and clubs, some expat hangouts, others more local, seemed to come from a whole different world than the life of the everyday Chinese who dried their laundry out on the street and who went to lunch locales that provided a full businessman’s meal for a tenth of the price of my gin and tonic.


While home I got lots of questions about college- if I feel I’ll be a step behind in the classroom after a year off, if it’ll be weird to be in a grade with people a year younger than I am, among other things, if it’ll be hard to get reacquainted with the daily grind of school.

First, I’ll give you my political answer that I wrote over the summer. I think if anything, the gap year has made me more prepared for college life. By interacting with people who could never imagine the tremendous opportunity that an American university education really is, I feel more prepared to take advantage of it. And in meeting people over and over again this past year, I feel much more confident heading into college. Also, it’ll be nice to make friends who will be around for more than a couple weeks.

The truth is it has been a little bit hard to get back into the groove of the academic side of things. And whether it’s my own procrastinator tendencies, or the social skills I refined while traveling, I find myself able to put off work for hours in pursuit of mindless conversation with hallmates. But ever the eternal optimist, I think soon enough I’ll hit my stride and get back into the swing of things.

And I owe it to more than me to do my absolute best, too. During the gap year, I got to meet, work and live with people who could never dream of what a tremendous opportunity an American college education is. It would be a tremendous waste, and a dishonor to them, to not work up to my potential.

The gap year also prepared me wonderfully for college dorm life. After living in some pretty squalid conditions at some points last year, I realized how little my physical living conditions have to do with my overall well-being. That realization helps me shrug off the occasional cockroach and mouse that much easier.


The most challenging and rewarding part of my trip was probably my time in New Zealand and the southwest of China. I came to both Auckland and Chengdu in the Sichuan province with nothing more than a hostel reservation for two nights and a flight out.

I went from a month in Australia and the comfort, safety and warmth of staying in the homes of two friends to landing in Auckland, where I was hit with the pretty lonely and scary realization that I didn’t know a soul in the entire country. Wandering around for just the first few hours felt oppressively lonely. Luckily, I met fun people in my hostel that night to go out to a bar with, and the Wash U study abroad kids the next day and I was off seeing the North Island shortly thereafter.

Likewise, I left my own apartment in Shanghai and a large social circle and landed in a Chinese province without knowing a single friendly face. I spent my first day moping in the hostel under the guise of using their free Internet, but I was mainly scared about how I was going to find anything to do or anyone to hang with for 10 days. I told the first person I met, a freakishly intense Dutch guy, that I’d accompany him on a 3 day mountain trek because of a lack of other options. Thankfully, while at the panda reserve the next morning I was able to convince two less intense Dutch girls, Cindy and Malou, to rescue me from their fearsome countryman.

While it definitely wasn’t easy, I think what I’m proudest of during the gap year, was my ability, through a lot of luck and a little gumption, to make something out of nothing these two instances.


It’s hard to detail exactly what I gained over the course of the gap year. While I already considered myself a relatively self-confident person, I gained even more confidence in myself, and my ability to meet people. Simultaneously, in getting to know completely foreign people and places, I gained an appreciation for my own smallness in the general scheme of life. I became both more independent and more experienced. There’s also clearly a lot I still have to learn, as evidenced by the fact that I got tube after tube of toothpaste, (four in all), confiscated by airport security from my carry-ons during the second half.

I believe I gained a lot in both independence and experience. Even though I can't specifically qualify or explain what I mean by that, I hope that I continue to grow through my memories and lessons of my travels.

Highs and Lows

There were the good times like the Goldfish concert in Cape Town at a venue overlooking the beach, dripping sweat in a screaming crowd chanting for an encore, packed so tight I couldn’t move, where the only thought flitting through my head was “I have no idea what led me to choose the path that got me to this moment, but thank God I did.”

There were the bad times like my first night on the French Island, where I mistakenly let a whole fleet of moths into my room, and had to go to sleep with them crawling all over my body, that left me thinking, “what the hell am I getting myself into?”

And there were the times I’m not going to talk about like when I fell into the eastern toilet at KFC in China.

At it’s hardest, the gap year shook me in completely unexpected ways. In setting off for the trip, I wanted to be challenged. I was leaving in order to broaden my worldview, culture myself, see the sites, meet the people and everything else fit for the travel brochures.

But the gap year had other plans for me. It rocked me in the places I had previously felt most secure. At times, (possibly due to a contractual dispute- asking for too much time in the spotlight) it felt like I had been written out of the TV show that had previously been my life.

All my friends started building new lives in colleges scattered across the country, and the people I left at home adjusted to life in LA without me. I felt like I was on an 8 month trek of transience constantly meeting and meeting people and experiencing things but not living anything with any real degree of permanence.

But as good ol’ Nietzsche once so famously wrote, “what does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

My heart’s still beating, Friedrich, so I must be stronger. And I feel it. I weathered a fair few storms. And out of that is born a new resiliency, a new confidence to know that because I made it through some of my toughest trials to date, I’ll triumph over whatever comes next.

Last but not least

Now before I go, let me leave you with a few snapshots from the trip.

Quite literally stumbling accidentally into ladies’ night at a club in the basement of Yaroslavl’s circus with Jaime, which was fun and normal until the 14 year old stripper took the stage and Jaime and I decided to leave…
The hike on the Wild Coast of South Africa, when we watched a few black kids playing a game of catch with a little white boy- over a fence, while the latter’s parents stood guard...
Getting preached to by either one of the craziest or smartest man I’ve ever met, probably both, while watering his pumpkin patch on a farm on the French Island, Australia…
Trying to joke to mask my fear before my bungee jump in New Zealand, until finally the operators told me that I had 5 seconds to jump- or they would push me…
Being woken up by my Tibetan home-stay mother saying “hello, hello breakfast” in McLeod Ganj, India with a steaming mug of sweet, spiced masala chai, and japahtti with mango jam…
Strolling through the massive park outside my flat in Shanghai filled like it was Labor Day with old people doing tai chi, fathers and sons flying kites, and couples picnicking in tents on a random weekday April morning…

Finally, a great many thanks is in order. To Jaime, I owe you so much for everything this past year. It took us a few weeks to get in the hang of it but it meant the world to have you as a best friend first and a travel partner second. I laughed harder with you than I have at any other point in my life. Thank you for always being by my side, both figuratively and literally, like the stretch in Russia where we pretty much were never further than 10 feet away 24/7 for 7 weeks straight. And I never got sick of you! At the risk of getting too sappy, our friendship really approached something more like a brotherhood by the end and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that.

To two schools I also owe thanks, first Harvard-Westlake for being such a strong proponent of the gap year and introducing the idea to me in the first place. Secondly, the College of William & Mary for allowing me to defer my admission and have this experience with the safety and security of having my spot in college assured the following fall.

To my family, my parents for funding what was once a pipe dream with some major financial and emotional capital. I first broached the idea of a gap year almost two years before my flight to Russia. Still it’s amazing to consider that my mom, the same person who couldn’t get a proper night’s sleep until I texted her that I was home safe and sound while in LA, let me go off in the world and be completely and totally out of touch for days at a time. And my father for helping to ground me whenever traveling got me a little topsy-turvy. To my sisters,my grandparents and to all my other family and friends- thanks for being so understanding when I was hard to get in touch with, or went too long without getting in touch with any of you.

And finally, to all my faithful readers thanks for taking the trip with me. While it was nice to record my memories for posterity’s sake, it was even more rewarding when I got a new comment on a post or saw an uptick in the hits. This was one of the most important years of my life and I'm fortunate I could share it with all of you.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sichuan Shakedown

I chilled out my first day at the hostel in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, just taking advantage of the first free internet in China since I had left Metrozine. The next day I went to the famed panda reserve in Chengdu and took over 100 pictures of pandas in various poses. The best pictures I got were of a few giant pandas lying back and lazily chomping on bamboo stick after bamboo stick, reaching into piles at their side for more, completely unbothered by the pieces that fell on their chests.

I met the two Dutch girls, Cindy and Malou (who I called Moola) during the panda tour and by the time we were back at the hostel it was decided that I’d travel with them for a couple of days. We explored Chengdu for the rest of the day, seeing the famed Mao statue before ducking into a Starbucks to get out of the rain.

The next day we took a bus for 3 hours to go to Leshan, home to “dafo” or big Buddha. Really, really big Buddha. 230 foot tall Buddha carved into a mountain, making it the biggest Buddha in the world.

After seeing the Buddha and the surrounding temples and gardens, we found an internet café to settle a bet. Having heard the old All Day I Dream About Sports/ Soccer tale, I was sure Adidas had American origins. Cindy said it was founded by a German guy named Adi Dassler. Oops. I lost and had to put in 5 yuan (75 cents) for her dinner. As Westerners, we attracted a lot of attention when we entered the internet café. A few minutes after we sat down, a Chinese guy sat down next to me and attempted to converse with me through Google Translator. He was too shy to tell me to look at his screen when he had something to say to me, so I only caught what he was writing when I looked over out of curiosity. A few times I caught him deleting and rewriting a sentence, and at the end after asking for my e-mail he gave me this gem, courtesy once again of Google Translator

Subject- A nickname of your Chinese friends tell Lai Chi

Body- This is a first E-MAIL to confirm E-MAIL address is correct! A small test, hope you reply!

To wish you happy playing in China!
Do not know What's your name then! ~ It has been too intrusive! ~

Something I had to leave! ~ Am glad to see you, wish you happy playing! ~
See you soon!

Strange, overly friendly- pretty typically Chinese.

The next day we took a six hour bus to Chongqing, the biggest city in Sichuan. The municipality has over 30 million people. (Pretty weird to think that there’s a city of 30 million people somewhere in the world that I had never previously heard of). We were in Chongqing to try to book a cruise down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges.

Once off the bus we whipped out the Lonely Planet to try to find our way to a hotel or hostel. A curious Chinese woman came up to us and in pretty good English asked if we needed help. We gratefully accepted her help when she pointed us in the direction of the bus we needed to take to get to the city center.

A couple hours later, after dropping our bags off at one hotel option in search of a cheaper one, we had the Lonely Planet out again. This time a man came up to us with his girlfriend and asked us if we needed help. We asked him where a particular hotel was and he pointed us in the direction. Malou or Cindy asked for clarification and doomed us for the night. Our Chinese friend took one look at his girlfriend who made a feeble protest to continue in the (opposite) direction they were originally heading- towards home, dinner or whatever the night was supposed to consist of, and turned to lead us towards the hotel.

He immediately appointed himself our travel agent/ caretaker for the night. He negotiated with the first hotel which was far too pricey. We headed to another one and tried to get him to leave. But he couldn’t take a hint. I tried over and over again to thank him and send him on his way with his girlfriend. But he refused.

I tried to tell him more explicitly that we could handle it ourselves. He laughed at that and said he was my Chinese big brother, or "ge ge." He asked me what Chinese I knew, and I replied with “Wo jiao David.” I tried again when I saw his puzzled look, and he replied “Oh your accent is so so bad.” I just barely resisted the urge to pettily insult his English skills.

Undeterred I tried to say something else again later and was met with the equally encouraging; “your pronunciation is awful.” (However let the record show that when I tried to confirm a price in Chinese with his girlfriend, she had no trouble understanding me).

Right as we arrived at the front desk of the Homey Hotel, where we would spend the next two nights our Chinese Savior turned to me and said, “It must be so strange to you. You must think the Chinese are so good-hearted. Why is he doing this? He must have a secret reason. But no, I have no reason!”

(I beg to differ. I personally think he was looking for someone to help him fulfill his hero complex for the night.)

Our Chinese Savior also tried to help us find dinner. Once again we insisted, not out of politeness but annoyance, that we would find a place ourselves. But he just kept making recommendation after recommendation, and if we didn’t have to get our bags from another hotel I’m sure he would’ve insisted on situating us at a dinner table himself.

We finally lost him and ended up at Pizza Hut, a lot classier in China and India than I bet it is back home. And after dinner I introduced the Dutch girls to a Coke float.

We interrupt this post to present a special exposé: Holland- the most racist country you’ve never heard of?

Cindy and Malou told me the story of Sinter Klaas, which they said America stole, commercialized and turned into the more well-known Santa Claus. Sinter Klaas shows up in Holland on December 5th in a steamboat from Spain. A more realistic story than sleighs and reindeer? Maybe. More fun? Definitely not.

My favorite part of the story is Sinter Klaas’ helpers aka the Black Peters. Instead of elves the Dutch dress up all Christmas-y and add a bunch of blackface, the effects of soot having its way coming down the chimney.

A few days later I found out that the Dutch word for people with Down Syndrome is….. Mongolian. My Dutch friends insisted this wasn’t offensive and explained that the little term of endearment originated in similarities in the eyes of the two groups.

And finally there’s a Dutch happy birthday song that goes “Hanky panky Shanghai” accompanied of course by a slanty-eyed face.

Maybe (probably) I’ve grown up in a country that’s just hypersensitive to race. I mean there are still debates that spring up every couple years about the appropriateness of flying the Confederate flag and it’s been almost 150 years since the Civil War. But because of that hypersensitivity I feel like in matters of race the Dutch may be a tad inconsiderate at times.

The Yangtze River Cruise or Ur in(e) for it now!

We spent an extra day in Chongqing trying to plan our river cruise, and stocking up on supplies. Whenever we stopped moving on the pedestrian avenue near our hotel we were approached by another curious Chinese asking for a picture. Late on our second day we headed to the booking day to take a 3 hour bus to Wanzhou where our 2 night, 3 day cruise departed from.

So, how was the cruise? Piss. Urine. Pee pee. Whizz.
How were the sights off the boat? I’m not really sure. I was too relieved to have fresh air to breathe to notice anything else.
How was the food? I stocked up with peanut butter, jelly and a loaf of bread. But all I tasted was the waves of urine I smelled whenever I moved to a different part of the room.

Besides the stench, the rest of the accommodation was nothing I’d recommend to my worst enemy. The bunk beds were hard wood with a barely-there inch think mattress. And the carpet on our floor covered warped metal plates that made a irritating, loud popping noise whenever you stepped in the wrong place. Bad Chinese karaoke from the top deck sounded at random hours. And we had to pay a one-time fee of 40 yuan to reach that top deck because we paid for a second class room.
But we laughed it all off because it was pretty amusing for only a couple of days. And it was the most authentically Chinese way to cruise. Unless you count the Swedish Chinese, my friend Khan and his posse who moved to a Swedish resort town 30 years ago and opened up a Chinese restaurant there, there were only six Westerners onboard out of one to two hundred people.

On my first night I came down from the top deck and heard in German-accented English, “Look! There’s another foreigner.” I was then mobbed by three 14 year-old Chinese kids, with textbook English knowledge and a burning desire to try it out on the first foreigners they had ever seen.

The cruise stopped late on our first night so we could see a Buddhist temple at night, tackily lit with red lights. We also stopped for a 4 hour small boat tour of the little three gorges, which was really picturesque. For our second to last stop we got on a super long motored canoe painted to look like a dragon and had "dragon boat" races, to our next destination... the opera. All of the cruise's guests still in lifejackets, sat in a floating auditorium to watch costumed Chinese dancers lip sync to opera music. All-around pretty absurd. We then went exploring a mountainside, past a sign for the unfortunately named Wintian Crack into the worse Wangou Hole

The cruise finished with a tour of the massive Three Gorges Dam Project near Yichang on Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately the tour was in Chinese so I just wandered around with my iPod. Yichang is also significantly closer to Shanghai than it is to Chengdu. But with my Friday morning flight from Chengdu to Shanghai, I had no choice but to head back to Chengdu. Pretty maddeningly inefficient, but it’s one of the pitfalls of only partially planning a trip.

What followed might count as the craziest half hour of my trip. The Dutch girls had already left, so I was in my room alone working on this blog post. The sole (barely) English-speaking employee of the cruise knocked on my door to tell me we’d be stopping to let me off in two hours. An hour later I felt the boat stop for a little while and thought nothing of it, as my friend had just told me I had more time. I was watching the clock, so when it came close to two hours, I packed up my stuff and got ready to head out.

After not feeling the boat stop for a half hour after I was supposed to get off, I went into the hallway, only to find it completely deserted. All the other guest rooms were open and there was no one left on the ship. Panicking, I ran down to the main floor. There was one employee still sweeping the deck. I whipped out my Lonely Planet phrase book to try to ask when we'd be stopping to let me off, and she shook me off and told me to sit down. I kept pacing and flipping through my book to try to find the right words to put together, when another employee came up to me and told me something in Chinese. The only word I caught was Ba, which as I understood it could either mean 8 or money or luck. So it could either be "We'll drop you off in 8 minutes/ hours/ days" or "Give me this amount of money for a bribe" or "Good luck getting off this boat. Fat chance."

My mind was still racing when another employee approached me and told me to follow her. Our boat pulled up and stopped next to another boat, and we crossed onto that one. I was handed off to another boat employee I recognized from the night the Dutch girls had broken the door to our bathroom, and one repairman overstayed his welcome trying to learn English. I followed said friendly repairman through an empty scrapyard to a very nice sports car. He popped the trunk and gestured for me to throw my bags down there... right on top of his gun. Still clueless as to what was going on, and now a tad more scared for my life, I jumped in the backseat. The repairman and his friend ignored me while blasting Chinese techno and speeding through some small nameless Chinese town. A few minutes later, we pulled up next to the bus I was meant to be on had I gotten off the boat at the right time. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags and went on the bus and tried to shout a "dui bu qi" (I'm sorry) to all the geriatric Chinese laughing at me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

IIIIIIIncredible India

The massive photo album follows the story, in the order of our travels

“Thank you Jaipur! What? Yeah, I mean Agra. Thank you Agra. We love you!”

That’s what my month in India with Rustic Pathways felt like- a rock band on tour. At one point my luggage was split between four different cities. Most of the time I couldn’t remember what day of the week or date of the month it was, and I couldn’t come up with any date to help me figure it out. 95% of my meals, including strangely for me, breakfast and meals aboard trains and planes, were Indian food, varying only slightly by region.

Rustic Pathways planned practically every hour of the trip in advance, which meant there was little left for me to do besides show up and take pictures. On the one hand it was nice to have a break from the months of planning, stressing and Lonely Planet binging. But on the other hand, it left me feeling a little bit dazed, confused as to where I was and why I was there. So I finished the month with tons of good memories, a little bit more knowledge about India, and hundreds of pictures of temples, churches and the like that mean little to me.

One of the cool parts of my month in India with Rustic Pathways was that it was the first time over the course of my gap year that I was only with other gappers on the same exact schedule as me. There was Michael from Sarasota, Florida headed off to Vanderbilt next year. Sophia from Boston wasn’t sure yet where she was going. Mo from Miami is going to Fordham, and Felicia from Providence, Rhode Island is going to the New School in NY. Our American guide was a 28 year-old Georgetown grad named Jessemin, and we had a handful of local guides throughout the month.

We started off in Delhi. On our first full day we whetted our religious appetite with a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple and the biggest mosque in all of India. We also walked around Old Delhi, a chaotic, bustling place stuck in some sort of time warp. We traveled by tour bus, auto and cycle rickshaw along the city, getting our first taste of India.

The streets of Delhi are something else. It’s as if they put down the lane markings and traffic lights as a formality, to fulfill some rudimentary requirement of being called a world city in the 21st century. But then once you zoom in and get up close, it more resembles the chaos and pandemonium of a schoolyard lunchroom on pizza day with all the kids rushing the table trying to grab the last slice of pepperoni.

But instead of the geeky kid with the glasses, the chubby one with too many freckles and the beanstalk who hit puberty about three years too early, there’s the three-wheeled auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks), cycle rickshaws, cows and oxen, men pushing carts, motorcycles and smaller cars. They weave and cut in front of each other not even noticing the lane dividers, many even chancing a suicide dash through the oncoming traffic to make it to the front of the line. And any and every maneuver is excused by the symphony of horns that sound every few seconds. I could be entertained by the streets of Delhi all day.

You come to expect bumper-to-bumper during rush hour on the 405. You expect others to follow the right-of-way rules. And there’s a comforting order in that every time you get behind the wheel. In Delhi, where I see only chaos, an Indian driver must also find his sense of order in it. But it all so completely alien, foreign, terrifying and comical that had you thrown cars, lanes and lights on a (semi) paved road and told me to do it any way I wanted, I wouldn’t have been able to dream this up.

After a couple days in Delhi we took a 12 hour bus ride up north to McLeod Ganj. We spent over a week there, as I detailed in my Seven Days Near Tibet post. We left from McLeod Ganj early one morning for our 6 day, 5 night 31 mile hike in the (foothills of the) Himalayas. I had no clue what to expect, so I imagined trekking through knee-deep snow in an Arctic chill, (and packed accordingly), but it was nothing like that. We hiked through Indian farmland and camped luxury style. We only had to carry our daypacks on our back, while mules carried the rest of our luggage and our tents. We stopped frequently to have a bag of Lays, sip some lychee juice or just catch our breath.

Our lunch break lasted for over an hour, and after having the soup of the day with cheese sandwich and the main course of various Indian vegetables and chicken, we’d relax and nap or read. By the time we got to camp in the late afternoon, our tents were already set up for us. We also had two toilet tents, which consisted of a toilet seat on a little kickstand with a large hole dug underneath it. We had a dinner tent as well that was randomly, inexplicably decorated with Mardi Gras decorations. And we were woken up every morning with a mug of tea or Cadbury’s hot drinking chocolate.

After setting up camp for us, our guides would play their daily game of cricket. They’d yell, laugh, and trash talk in Hindi for a few hours before cooking our dinner. Not that I’ll be signing up any time soon, but considering their job has them working in some of the most picturesque campsites in India, and they got to mess around like little kids, it seemed like quite the charmed life. It struck me that we were the Americans, the wealthiest, most developed nation on earth, but these Indian trek guides probably wouldn’t trade their lives for mine. And although I only I got to see a small part of their day-to-day lives, I can understand why.

Our trek finished at a place called Triund, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Going the short way, Triund was only a day hike away from McLeod Ganj, so after a few days of near solitude we passed lots of hikers. We also picked up a pack of dogs from McLeod who hung out with us for the entire time. My favorite was an orange-ish dog who McLeod locals called Charlie. By the time we got up to Triund, Mo, Michael, Felicia and Sophia had all gotten sick. I was the only one well enough to enjoy it. So Charlie and I sprinted the last few minutes up to the peak. And it was absolutely stunning.

We were face to face with these daunting, massive snowcapped Himalayan peaks. And we got to camp out there two nights. While the others tried to sleep off their respective illnesses, I hiked down with Charlie to where the locals were chopping up the night’s firewood. They let me use the axe for a little and carry one load of wood up back to camp. I relaxed after that and clambered up one of the big boulders next to our tents and just sat with a book and my iPod in front of the mountains.

The next day everybody was still feeling sick, so I went alone with our guide Sanjay and my trusty companion Charlie to the end of the hike, Snow Line. There was a fair amount of snow and a little log shack where we stopped for some spiced masala milk tea. (Masala chai was everywhere in India. I was woken up with it in McLeod Ganj, and had a cup of it with most meals throughout the country. By the end of the month it was practically coursing through my veins).

After one final night up at Triund, we hiked back to McLeod Ganj, took a nice hot shower and got ready for some more traveling.

We next toured for a couple of days in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan was ruled for many years by its own royalty, called the maharaja. It took a couple years after India became independent in 1947 for Rajasthan to give up its sovereignty and join the new country. We met up there with another local guide named Sudarshan. We went to a fort outside Jaipur where we rode painted elephants.

One of my favorite temples in all of India was located in Jaipur; the temple of the Sun god. On the way up to the temple we passed through a cool looking community devoted to following exclusively one of the Hindu gods. All throughout the community were vicious monkeys. We bought newspaper bags of peanuts to feed them with and they ripped them out of our hands. At the top of the temple there was a view of all of Jaipur. The woman working at the temple gave us all red and yellow bracelets, and I bought a painted, wooden Ganesh (the god of luck and second chances, with an elephant head and human body) statue from her.

We then went to the southern state of Kerala for a few days. We spent a couple nights in the city of Kochi in a mosquito-ridden, hot and humid “hotel” with the showers strangely located on raised tile in the corner of the room. When we weren’t sweating buckets in the room, we explored the city.

Kerala is nicknamed “God’s Country” because even though, like the rest of India, the majority of the population is Hindu, Kerala has sizable Christian and Muslim minorities. We saw some beautifully painted churches, a Dutch graveyard and the first resting place of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, before his remains were shipped back to Europe. My favorite part of Kochi was definitely the small tourist quarter centered around the Pardesi synagogue, fittingly named Jew Town, even though there’s only nine Jews left.

I spent one afternoon there while the others shopped, sitting and talking with a young Kashmiri who lured me into his uncle’s store by asking me about American music. I kept expecting him at any moment to launch into a sales speech, but he was just genuinely interested in talking to an American peer, and he asked me to come back the next day to talk some more. I may have ended up with less souvenirs, but it was a nice break from constantly being yelled at “to come into my shop, no buy, only look,” and the old routine of haggling. I couldn’t come back however, because we were on the move again.

We spent one day cruising on a houseboat, which literally looked like a big house dumped on a boat. We jumped off and went for a swim in the warm river, and wasted away the day solving riddles we found on Mo’s Blackberry. We spent another day on a safari in search of tigers, only ending up with elephants. Our last days in Kerala were spent at our priciest accommodation, a resort directly across from the beach. We hung out there, tossed around a Frisbee and swam in the Indian Ocean.

We wrapped up our month in India with a trip to one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. We came fully decked out in different traditional Indian clothing we had accumulated. I wore a simple white shirt, burnt orange Aladdin/ MC Hammer parachute pants, black and gold blister-inducing maharaja shoes, and a tie-dye turban I had bought for under five bucks. We took all the obligatory touristy pictures, but then we had a little something extra planned. Earlier in the month Michael had download the dance music video to “Jai Ho,” the song that plays at the end of Slumdog Millionaire. We choreographed our own abridged version and performed and filmed with the Taj as our backdrop. We were ran off by guards once or twice, but I think we were able to get one good cut. And then it was back to a real, more independent world, where I was responsible again for knowing the day and date and planning my own trips. But luckily for me, I got one last meal of Indian food on my flight to Shanghai.

Old pictures! Australia, New Zealand and the French Island


New Zealand

French Island

The Legend of Fido and David and the brown bunny rabbit

The Legend of Fido

A few weeks back I was invited by my coworkers at Metrozine for one of their Saturday basketball games, and decided to bring Jaime along. The game itself went like it was supposed to. Jaime was on fire, throwing up and hitting absolutely ridiculous jumpers and I was doing what I do best; rebounding, setting unnecessary screens and trying my hardest not to have to shoot. And Jaime’s and my team won most of our games.

After the game ended Jaime and I decided to play a few games of pool before heading back to our flat. All the participants of the game walked past us, said their goodbyes and headed off. One tall lanky guy who was pretty good at basketball but seemed to be afraid to shoot (with less cause than me) stopped by our pool table to watch. After about 15 minutes of him sitting there watching us, we struck up a conversation with him. He turned out to be a really nice 23 year old guy native to Shanghai with great English skills. He told us his English name was Lucas Cohen, but his friends called him Fido because of his resemblance to the cartoon character of the same name from the 7 UP commercials.

After Fido joined in our pool game and we talked some more, Jaime asked him where the best place to grab a bite in Shanghai was. Fido immediately responded with “home-cooking.” He waited a beat before inviting us over to his family’s apartment for dinner that night. Jaime and I looked at each other, each thinking “why not?” and told Fido yes.

Once in the cab heading to his apartment, Fido explained it was his grandfather’s 85th birthday that night and his whole family would be over to celebrate. Only then did we realize that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

After telling his Mom something in Chinese that must’ve been something like, “Hey Mom, I know it’s grandpa’s birthday tonight, but I met these two random Americans playing basketball today and I know they’re still sweaty and they smell terrible, but I invited them over for dinner,” we were welcomed in to the apartment.

We headed to Fido’s room so the amateur DJ could show us some of his music. I sat on his bed poring over a Chinese book on the history of hip-hop, while Jaime took notes on his recommendations. Fido also enlightened us on how he picked his English name, Lucas Cohen. Lucas came from a character on One Tree Hill, and even though he knew it was a Jewish name, Fido picked Cohen from The O.C.

(That method of choosing takes a close second place in the best way a Chinese person came up with their English name. First prize goes to Eacar, pronounced ee-car. Eacar was the translator for my dad’s business meeting on his last day in Beijing. Over dinner she explained that her first English name, Summer, felt too childish. So she decided to combine her two favorite English words, easy, as in “don’t stress so much Eacar, take it easy” and courage to form an entirely new and non-sensical made-up name. How grown-up and courageous of you Eacar).

One of us commented on all the cool clothes Fido seemed to have. He then took out the dozens of basketball jerseys he had, some of them looking relatively authentic. Jaime complimented him on one particular one and Fido nearly insisted that Jaime have it. We then caught sight of a completely over the top faux fur coat and asked if he ever wore it out. Fido replied that he only wore it once or twice because it got dirty too easily.

He then excitedly explained that he had a couple other ones and that we should try them on. Then for added effect he took out a couple doo rags and New Era hats and suggested we put them on too. He snapped a few pictures of us, and then when we suggested he get in one as well, he called his mom in and had her take pictures of her son, and the two still-unwashed Americans modeling full-length fur coats, doo rags and New Era hats. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch and I now have a new favorite for most ridiculous Facebook picture.

Pretty soon after our photo shoot it was time for dinner. On the traditional menu for the birthday dinner was the usual bok choy dish, some whole shrimps, slices of ham and…. duck tongue. Dark red with little antenna-like appendages coming off the main meat, the duck tongue was just as unappealing as it sounds. I was able to swallow one whole grimacing as it scratched its way down. Since I keep relatively kosher, Jaime discreetly ate the slices of ham off my plate even though he doesn’t care for them either. Then like some twisted Chinese version of the old Starburst commercial where they unwrap a piece of candy with their tongues, Fido demonstrated how to de-shell a piece of shrimp in your mouth.

Fido’s aunt and late-arriving government official uncle soon joined his parents and grandparents at the table completing the birthday party. It was an intimate dinner, and it felt very much like we were intruding on their night with the amount of hospitable attention they showered on us. After practicing with Fido a few times, Jaime and I wished his grandpa a happy birthday in Mandarin, and tried to find a cue to leave.

Before we could go though, Fido said he wanted to “show us some magic.” After a couple weeks of bad English slang, the most common example being “this is really suck,” I assumed Fido meant he wanted to show us something cool. Wrong. Instead he put on a video of a French Japanese magician doing the most random magic tricks. Jaime and I sat there trying to muster up the appropriate amount of shock and awe.

We left soon after that, laughing the whole cab ride back to our flat about our overall most random Chinese experience.


David and the brown bunny rabbit

The most dramatic moment of my time in China happened outside an amusement park one quiet Sunday afternoon. Having never really had a pet before, I had been joking with Jaime that I was going to buy one of the animals they sold on the streets of Shanghai and keep it in our flat. A large group of us from Projects-Abroad was leaving one of the lamer theme parks I’ve ever been to when we spotted one of the streetside vendors hawking the usual mixture of baby chicks, turtles, birds and rabbits in cages that are so small they probably stunt the animals’ growth. Vicky, the German flatmate, spotted a brown rabbit that she found cute. I sensed an opportunity and asked the seller how much he wanted for it. He asked for 65 yuan, a little less than $10. I countered with 20 yuan, he asked for 45, I held at 20 and very quickly he gave in. Suddenly he was holding out the cage to me and asking for his money.

Everybody started shouting. Half of our group was yelling at me to take the rabbit. The other half was trying to reason with me, shouting about how I needed a cage, how I didn’t know what to feed it, how it was probably diseased. The latter, and angrier half, yelled at me to think about what would happen to it when I left. I argued my case back. I’d figure out all the essentials. I wanted my first pet. When I left, I’d pass it on to another flat. It’d become the Projects-Abroad rabbit, and it’d build camaraderie.

It felt like a cartoon with the angel and devil on either shoulder trying to one-up each other.

The first group kept yelling, “Take it!”
“Do it! C’mon!!!”

The second group, louder:
“What are you thinking?”
“Don’t be stupid.”

Meanwhile the seller was still holding out the cage to me, asking for his money.

And finally Jaime yelled at me that buying the rabbit would be murder, and if I did we wouldn’t be friends anymore.

That was enough for me. I turned to the seller, told him “bu yao” (I don’t want) and walked away.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chowing down in Chengdu

My internship at Metrozine wrapped up last week and I was pretty relieved. It wasn't Metrozine's fault, I just wasn't all that motivated and used my time there more for free internet. I did write a few articles, a restaurant review and another on India, (along with a review of the new Britney Spears cd that I didn't get to listen to). Oh well, they do it different in China.

Jaime left last Friday for LA so he could attend all the family events he has in May. :(. I stayed in the flat for a few more days and left yesterday for Chengdu in the Sichuan province, site of the massive earthquake that killed almost 70,000 people almost exactly a year ago. I'm not really sure why I headed to Sichuan. I asked people for tips on what to do during my free two weeks in China and a lot of them recommended Sichuan for its spicy cuisine and natural beauty. So I booked a round-trip Chengdu-Shanghai flight and two nights in a hostel and decided to see what would happen.

Yesterday was the first day of my ten day trip, and I met a Dutch guy who was trying to put together a trip to Tibet. I was interested in going to Tibet after having heard so much about it when I was in McLeod Ganj, India, but it turned out it wouldn't work because of visa restrictions. He next suggested trekking to Mount Emei, something I was pretty interested in so I signed on, but reluctantly because he seemed overly pushy and I wasn't exactly looking forward to spending three days with him on a mountain.

So I kept my ears and options open and met two other Dutch girls today closer to my age and I think I'll be heading off with them tomorrow to Leshan, home to the world's largest Buddha. It's only worth a day's visit, so from there we'll probably head to Chongqing, the biggest city in Sichuan, and start a cruise down the Yangtze River. That will probably all take a few days. They'll be heading to Beijing to catch a flight back to Holland, and so I'll split up and see who else I meet and what other plans I join in on.

I can't believe the gap year is coming to a close. I'll be back in the City of Angels in 12 days. I have lots more pictures, stories and a conclusion to write for this blog before then, so hopefully I get it all done. I'll have one last weekend in Shanghai to hang out with all my friends there before I head back Stateside.Hope everybody's well!

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Shanghai

So since you finally know I'm alive and I shared a little about India, I should let you know what I'm up to now in China. I'll write soon about the rest of my time in India, my trip to Beijing with my family and share some of the hundreds of pictures I've taken.

My program in Shanghai is called Projects-Abroad. The program sets its volunteers up with an internship and an apartment, gives a monthly allowance and then leaves them be. Jaime’s and my flat is much better and bigger than I expected. We have three other flatmates- Vicky from Leipzig, Germany, Christine from Phoenix and Ali from Irvine. Ali is of Iranian descent and so we’ve had some interesting conversations about his trips to Iran and his view on President Ahmadinejad.

Projects-Abroad currently has about 20-something volunteers in six flats spread throughout the city. Projects-Abroad is based in London, so the majority of volunteers are European (Brits, Scots, Swiss, etc.), but there are a few other Americans beside Jaime and me. There’s more socializing and camaraderie within the program than I figured there would be which is cool. We go out to bars, clubs and karaoke (KTV here) a few times a week.

My internship is with a bilingual lifestyle magazine called Metrozine. I haven’t been working too hard, only one article for the travel section on India so far, and generally just use my time at Metrozine for the free internet. I also took over a week off to be with my family and go to Beijing.

I love city skylines. I get trigger happy with my camera when I get a good view of a city’s skyscrapers and come to identify that city with its skyline. Like Cape Town with Table Mountain and the City Bowl, Auckland with the Sky Tower, Sydney with the Harbor Bridge and Opera House and Yaroslavl with um, well… there’s that one statue of Yaroslavl the Wise?

But I think Shanghai blows the others out of the water. After the communist Chinese government spent the prior few decades breaking Shanghai down and holding it back, the government reversed course in the mid-90s and decided it wanted to build Shanghai back up and have it reclaim the title of Asia’s main financial center from Tokyo. To that end they built up Pudong (or the land dong/ east of the Huang Pu River) into an impressive land of towering skyscrapers. In 1995 up went Oriental Pearl TV Tower, with its two pearl balls that most locals consider a trying-too-hard-to-be-futuristic eyesore. My favorite is the Shanghai World Financial Center with its slanting bottle opener top.

From Shanghai

Shanghai is a city on two wheels. In the city, you’ll find most of the Chinese riding around on bikes, scooters or some strange combination of the two. And that includes businessmen in suits going to work, old women selling vegetables and somehow inexplicably taxi drivers. Jaime actually had to resort to a motorcycle cab ride one morning when he was running extra late for work and couldn’t find a more traditional cab.

There’s a massive park right in front of my flat with one of the few large green spaces in the city. And on any day of the week you can find old couples waltzing, an old man or two eyes closed, content to solo and reminisce about a partner from decades lost. Go a little further and you see a small crowd circled around a middle aged man using a big water brush to write Chinese poetry in calligraphy. There’s bumper cars and bumper boats with squirt guns, and bigger boats for young couples to take around the river that runs through the park. Octogenarians meet in the mornings to do tai chi, and old men slip away to run through some sort of martial art in slow motion. Old women walk through the park doing something that either is an arthritic hand exercise, or the most complicated way I’ve ever been flipped off.

And this is all just along the paths through the park. When you reach the green spaces, it all slows down even more. There are young people everywhere. You wonder what they’re doing here in the middle of an afternoon on a weekday in mid-April, but they don’t seem to care, so why should you. Some play Frisbee. Others fly kites. Still more kick around a badminton birdie like a hacky-sack. There’s a few tents scattered around and couples lie down in the grass and rest together. Not to step on the band Chicago’s toes, but it does really feel like every day here could be the 4th of July, and everyone’s just waiting for it to get dark so the fireworks can get started. But the park closes at night, so those who want to stick around a little longer migrate to the front, and perform or watch some outdoor karaoke.

I guess this is the peace of mind you get when you don’t have to fuss about elections and multiple political parties. Communism seems fun.

You hear another crazy story about rapid Chinese expansion and development. And then you stop and take another look around Zhongshan Park, and it all feels so very far away. And it makes you want to tread very carefully, so as not to pop the magical bubble they’re living in. This is the part of China I want to remember.

Seven days near Tibet (with pictures)

Tibetan Uprising Day Bday

The short girl with the Tibetan flag painted on her face (and small black tears too if you looked close enough) shouted “China, China, China!” Then came the resounding reply from her fellow protest marchers, “Out! Out! Out!”

Then Facepaint Girl again- When? When? When?
The protesters- Now, Now, Now!

And that is how I celebrated my birthday, chanting and marching for a few hours, a few miles downhill amid a sea of Tibetan flags.

The festivities for David’s 19th- fine, it was also the 50th anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day, were kicked off with a speech from His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, it was in Tibetan, but English translations were passed around for the many tourists. But we’ll get back to my birthday soon enough. First let’s catch up on how we got to be hanging with His Holiness.

After a quick two days in Delhi (or Deh-LEE if you were to pronounce it like an Indian), my Indian gap year program Rustic Pathways, headed north to McLeod Ganj, home to Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

McLeod Ganj, or Mickey G’s as I like to call it, is a strange place. Not quite Tibetan but definitely not Indian, it is a small town filled with Tibetan émigrés, the Westerners, tourists and aging hippies who support the Tibetan cause, and the Indians who moved there to make money off the former.

The streets, all three of them, are narrow and winding up and downhill. The soundtrack to the city is the constant honking of cars as they play Marco Polo around the blind corners. The streets are barely wide enough for one car, so you can imagine how the pedestrians are sent scrambling into the streetside vendors hawking veggie Tibetan dumplings called momos, Tibetan flags and other nationalist paraphernalia whenever a car comes through.

And when two cars play their game of Marco, Polo sounding each other out with their horns around a no-look bend, the people of McLeod Ganj may be forced to seek refuge in the Italian restaurant, or the Mexican place, or the one on the corner boasting everything from Indian food to Israeli.

In McLeod Ganj the four other gappers traveling with Rustic India and I stayed with Tibetan families as part of a homestay. I collapsed onto one of the three beds in the small two room apartment almost as soon as arriving on the 12 hour bus from Delhi. I awoke, bleary-eyed a few hours later startled to find a picture of Pierce Brosnan arm-in-arm with my homestay Bala (Tibetan for father) looking down at me. Later in the day, I found a similar picture of Richard Gere with the owner of a café. So what were James Bond and Mr. Pretty Woman doing in a small town in the north of India? They were two of the many celebrity pilgrims, like Jet Li, who came to see the Dalai Lama.
There are literally dozens of Internet cafes, some with Hebrew letters added to the keyboard. And alongside one of the many coffee ships is a poster advertising cooking lessons “recommended by Lonely Planet.” McLeod Ganj is clearly a small village for more than just the stray Tibetan and entrepreneurial Indian.

My Bala was part of the Ministry of Information and Foreign Affairs which would’ve been fascinating if we could’ve conversed enough for me to find out what the job entailed. Our main translator was my 9 year-old homestay sister, Chezuh. She was much better than her 11 year old brother, named something that sounded like Jimmy. The two of them would sit and watch Cartoon Network after dinner, first Spiderman in Hindi and then a show called Krishna featuring a pint-sized god.

When it came time for bed, generally around 8:30-9, I’d retire to my bed with Pierce Brosnan keeping vigil over me. Bala and Jimmy would sleep in the bed perpendicular to mine and my Amala (Tibetan for mother) and Chezuh slept in the bed together in the kitchen/ dining room. Even after the kids left for boarding school, my homestay parents still slept in different beds. I’m not sure if this was for my benefit, or just the Tibetan way.

When it came time for sleep, the picture of the Dalai Lama surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights went from being an amusing curiosity to an annoyance as flashing Vegas-style lights invaded and interrupted my dreams.

I got a crash course in the Tibetan issue over my first few days in McLeod Ganj. We watched a documentary one day and then met with one of the stars, Ama Ahde, the next day, a Tibetan woman who had been imprisoned for nearly 30 years by the Chinese after being arrested at a protest. Another day we met the flashy organizer of the annual Miss Tibet beauty pageant and the 2008 Tibetan Olympics, who explained his work and his professional view that the evolution of Tibetan culture can organically absorb Western influences without being consumed by them.

We also met with a fiery old man, the most fascinating of all the speakers- a militant extremist. He believed the best (and only) way to free Tibet was to send in an uncoordinated army of Tibetans into mainland China to disrupt communications and infrastructure. He likened it to trapping Arnold Schwarzenegger in a small room with a hive full of pissed off bees, thereby rendering all his muscles useless. His ideas seemed pretty half-baked, but he was a really convincing, charismatic speaker and it was real interesting to hear somebody stray from the Dalai Lama’s pacifistic line.

We spent most of our time when not listening to speakers doing service. Through a community service center, we were each set up with conversation partners at the beginning of week, someone interested in bettering their English speaking skills. I was set up with a Buddhist monk named Palden.

On our first day we talked about Bill Gates, Buddhichita and beating back lust and desire. We had a riveting discussion about the little value in doing good for the wrong reasons, and later the extent to which a devout Buddhist is supposed to be selfless.

For example a Buddhist is never supposed to raise a hand in violence, even in self-defense. But if a Buddhist has a chance to stop someone from doing evil, say a terrorist, then the Buddhist is expected to stop the evildoer by any means necessary, even potentially killing said terrorist. The Buddhist’s actions, taking another’s life even if that saves millions of others, as I understand the Buddhist orthodoxy, still is considered damning. And why is the Buddhist required to do this? So that he can sacrifice himself in place of the terrorist, to stop the terrorist from condemning himself, more importantly than saving the innocents’ lives.

I was pretty excited after that first day with Palden to learn more. I had been interested in Buddhism since reading Hermann Hesse’s classic Siddhartha. But the conversations sort of went downhill from there, and we found ourselves spending some of the time sitting in silence, sipping tea as I checked out the amazing snowcapped Himalayan peaks facing us, and the colorful Buddhist prayer flags strung from building to building.

And then there was the day-to-day life in McLeod.

Showering was bad. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I had the whole conception of showering wrong. See the things is, when I thought shower, I thought “nice, warm, cleansing, therapeutic and just generally not painful.”

None of which applied to my bucket shower in the small, dark stall. My Amala filled up a massive bucket with boiling water and led me to the shower stall, nearly identical to the pit toilet stall my homestay family shared with the neighboring apartment. (Think of an open air horse stable, but much, much smaller with an uncomfortable view of one of the main streets).

The big bucket of hot water came paired with a smaller bucket, which I used to scoop and pour. Cue 15 seconds of beautiful warmth, followed by 3 minutes of shivering and cursing myself. Rub some soap on some small fraction of my body, rinse, repeat. How this is was supposed to get me clean I have no idea. I did know that one bucket shower was one bucket shower too many and that I was done for the week.

At least my Amala made good food. She woke me up every morning by walking in and saying “hello, breakfast, hello.” She then presented me with japatti, sort of like nan or pita and mango jam with a hot steaming thermos of spiced masala milk tea. Dinner was generally potatoes, peppers and some sort of mutton or noodle combo.

On Tibetan National Uprising Day we marched for two hours down through the bigger city of Dharamsala. I chanted loudly, even taking my turn to start one chant of “Release! Release!” answered by the crowd with a chorus of “the Panchen Lama!”

But I didn’t really feel this one like the other protesters. I was more bemused by the whole spectacle of it all, rather than angry at the Chinese or scared for Tibet like my fellow marchers. I was there for the experience and to answer as loud as I could when Facepaint Girl shouted “People of the world!”

“Support us!”

Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Kiwi Experience

It could’ve gone either way. I could’ve kept listening to my iPod and continued wandering around the harbor looking for my sushi lunch. And in that reality I would’ve found myself at what sounded like a pretty cool vineyard for the next few days. But instead I decided to ask the group of kids with their American accents where they were from, and after about five minutes of conversation they decided to invite me on the camper van tour of the North Island that they had just decided to take.

We crammed 11 into a six person van, eight of the others from Wash U. in St. Louis, another from Miami of Ohio and a tenth from Arcadia in Pennsylvania. All of them were juniors studying abroad at the University of Auckland for the semester. Three of the Wash. U kids were from LA, including one who went to Harvard-Westlake’s rival school Loyola, and another who not only was in the same graduating class at Milken Community High School as my sister Karin, but had actually hung out at my house in middle school. Small world indeed.

Within a few hours of landing in Auckland, I got lonely. New Zealand was one of Jaime’s countries, and not only did I miss having one of my best friends with me, but it also hit me that I didn’t know a single friendly face in the entire country. If you think about that long enough, it can get you pretty down.

But I found another Nando’s, the amazing Portuguese chicken restaurant from South Africa, had a filling lunch, spent some time talking to some Uruguayans and kept on my way. I checked out Mt. Eden, the dormant volcano which lends it name to the little, very Asian suburb my hostel was in.

I made it back in time to my hostel for the meet-and-greet BBQ, and wandered around talking to people- two British girls there, a few Germans here, and more Germans there. (Germans are absolutely everywhere in Australia and New Zealand). Eventually I met a few people who wanted to go out, so four Germans, an Israeli girl and I walked to a bar playing live American hits ranging from the 50s and 60s to the latest from Kings of Leon. Two fights, or more shoving contests than full-fledged fights, broke out at the bar, the first between girls, the second guys. A little bit after the second, jetlag got the best of me and I headed back to the hostel.

Then my second day in New Zealand I met the group of Wash. U kids. I bummed around their dorms, sleeping on a different person’s couch for the couple nights before we left for our trip.

First we headed off to Waitomo, a small town that probably wouldn’t exist if not for its tourist trap, the glowworm caves. We were told that without a tent, we wouldn’t all be allowed to sleep in the campsite with all the other RVs and camper vans, so we split up. Half of our group slept in a luxurious hostel, while the other half got the van. A few of us in the van group decided to really enjoy the great outdoors and sleep next to the van. We had just stopped talking, preparing to go to sleep when a shooting star streaked across the sky. I think it was the first I had ever seen, and it had us city kids talking for a little bit longer about the stars and the Milky Way. I lasted til about 3 in the morning before the cold conquered my $15 camouflage sleeping bag, purchased earlier that day, which struggled to reach my sternum. I spent the rest of the night equally uncomfortably, if not a little less cold, in the camper van and decided it’d be hostels for me for the rest of the trip.

We chose the longest cave adventure called the Black Abyss, which started off with a long abseil/ rappel into the caves, followed by a zipline, some underground tea and cookies and then finally led us into the water for some blackwater rafting. Blackwater rafting sounds a lot more intense than it is. After finishing our tea, we jumped about 10 feet into the water, clutching black inner tubes to our backs so we wouldn’t have to experience more of the frigid water than was absolutely necessary. We then coasted through the caves on our inner tubes, admiring the glowworm larvae splattered on the wall like lime green snot and singing Don’t Stop Believin’.

Feeling adventurous we decided to choose the waterfall exit out of the caves. I found this to be the most exciting part of the excursion, because we had to scramble up through the cave and over the waterfalls without any sort of safety harness. Granted our guides were yelling through the noise of the waterfall and pointing to exactly which rocks to step on, but it still felt appreciably more dangerous than any other part of the afternoon.

Our next stop was Lake Taupo, probably my favorite city in New Zealand. I’ve heard of other cities in New Zealand on the South Island claiming to be the extreme sports capital of the world, but I can’t imagine any city squeezing more action into each square mile than Taupo did. There were a solid four different skydiving companies vying for your thrill-seeking dollars, a place to bungee jump and water sports galore.

Nine of our crew decided to go for the skydive. I thought about it, but since I had already done it last June and didn’t love it, I thought I’d give bungee jumping a try. Ben, the one who went to high school with Karin, wasn’t so big on heights, so he came to watch me bungee.

I freaked out a little right before the jump, but I ended up taking and loving the 47 meter (130ish feet) plunge. I jumped into water, maybe Lake Taupo, and asked to be dipped only head deep, but I jumped too far out and only got my hands in.

Ben and I then headed to the water sports center, grabbed a quick lunch and then decided to try our hand at sailing. After the shortest tutorial known to man, Ben and I were given the boat for an hour. We had quite the rocky start with lots of shrieking and laughing, and a few close calls. After we made it back safely ashore, we found out that in the early going, my letting go of the steering rod to help Ben on the sails, was analogous to letting go of the steering wheel on a car. But we eventually found a better (and safer) groove with Ben steering and me on the sails.

Just to put it in perspective, when I went skydiving I had to leave around 8 in the morning, drive two hours away south to Lake Elsinore, and then wait for a few hours, before heading back, getting caught in typical LA freeway traffic and finally getting back home around 6 at night. In Taupo, you could skydive, bungee and windsurf all before lunch.

Our next stop was Whangamata (pronounced fahn-gah-ma-TAH). We watched Sideways in our hostel, and went to check out the beach the next morning. Everybody else messed around in the water, but I wasn’t feeling the cold so I went running on the beach instead. After lunch, we kept on north to go back to Auckland and return the van.

I had a really fun couple of days, and am really glad I got out of Auckland and got to explore the country a little. In my few months of traveling I haven’t heard of a single city as roundly criticized as Auckland. Sure, people from St. Petes trashed Moscow and you heard the fair share of Jo’burg horror stories that made you want to scurry indoors the second the Sun set, but at least the residents of the two cities spoke fondly of them. Most people I talked to in Auckland complained about how boring it was, and encouraged me to leave and see the rest of the country.

We got back to Auckland for the end of orientation week, just in time for a pub crawl at the other international students dorm. Three of us decided to take the half hour walk there together, and on a whim we popped into a random house party. We walked straight up to the barbecue and a girl in her late 20s asked us if we were the barbecue technicians from next door. And why not? The ruse was up quickly enough, but not before we thoroughly and completely burned the shish kebabs for the dentist hygienists party that we were supposedly so expert at cooking.

We finally made it to the student dorms in Parnell village. I was sick of relaying the whole extended gap year story, so I just started to tell people that I was living in the other dorms (partially true, at least for the week) and that I was a sophomore at William & Mary (completely false). I had to disappoint a few people by admitting that I didn’t know a senior named David on the gymnastics team.

“But everybody knows David!”
“Well I mean it is a pretty big school.”

Right as I was explaining how I didn’t know everybody at William & Mary, a girl I vaguely recognized came up to the group I was talking with. She listened and then exclaimed excitedly, “I know you! You’re not in college yet.”

I had met this girl on my second day before the Wash. U group took me in, and talked to her for a little while at Dunkin Donuts while I ate a bagel and egg sandwich. She was studying abroad in Auckland and I related the whole gap year story to her, before we went our separate ways. Another one of the random conversations with a stranger never to be seen again, except this time she decided to have another cameo with some perfect timing. Nobody was any worse for my little lie, and I really enjoyed the small taste I got of what the study abroad experience might be like.

Well, my 12 hour layover in Hong Kong International Airport is thankfully wrapping up. Now it’s time for India. Fingers crossed that when I inevitably get sick from the food, it passes quickly and easily! Hope everybody has a great March. I have no idea what my computer access situation will be, but I’ll be sure to write in a notebook and throw it online at a later date if I have to.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy! Oy! Oy!


We can call the rest of my time in Australia my YPO vacation. Young Presidents Organization is an organization of company presidents and CEOs with chapters around the world. My dad, president of the third generation family business Alpert & Alpert Iron and Metal, has been a member of YPO for about a decade. In Melbourne, before and after my week at the French Island, I stayed with a YPO member my dad and my sister Karin had met on a YPO trip to Cambodia.

A hilarious, divorced father of four, he seemed to cherish his newfound bachelordom. His favorite among his series of one-liners seemed to be “a bachelor is a man who never makes the same mistake once.” His two older kids are in boarding school so I only got to meet them once, but his two elementary-aged girls were there for my last few days.

And then there was his housekeeper Joan. Within minutes of meeting her, during the car ride from the airport, the 68 year-old grandmother spilled to me (completely unsolicited on my part) almost all the secrets of her employer’s divorce and every off-color comment she could remember him making, interspersed of course with bits about Melbourne. She also seemed to be practically deaf and could drone on forever on any topic from the intimate details of the personal lives of every member in her large family to the wildfires in the 1890s. But talking to her made for some good entertainment, and she was very warm, even going so far as to give me a tour of the 19th century house she was staying in and personally renovating.

I wasn’t very productive during my few weeks in Melbourne. I slept in, took the tram (Melbourne has an extensive network of trams like San Fran’s trolleys), and just wandered around the city. I did make it to the Shrine of Remembrance commemorating Australia’s war dead in World War I, which was pretty moving.

My social life in Melbourne was also buoyed by YPO. I spent one night at the gargantuan Crown Casino for a YPO event with 2005 World Series of Poker winner Joe Hachem. I spent another night on a yacht for a dinner cruise of the Yarra River with kids of YPOers, and spent a weekend with another YPO family down the Great Ocean Road (the Aussie equivalent of PCH) in a small beach town named Fair Haven. I also hung out with the Australian sisters from my Russia program a few times.

Melbourne was hot, hot, hot during my two weeks there with temperatures reaching a scorching 47 degrees Celsius (around 116 Fahrenheit). I was there during the terrible Victorian brushfires (little taste of home), but was in no way affected. I was surprised to learn about how severe the effects of an 8 year drought were on Melbourne. Melbournians were supposed to limit themselves to 155 liters of water per day, meaning showers of three minutes or less and washing encouraged during non-peak hours.

Traveling alone was not nearly as hard as I anticipated it being. Before I left I dreamed up worst case scenarios where I’d feel so bone-crushingly lonely and starved for meaningful human interaction that I’d ambush the stranger sitting next to me on the tram with a big bear hug. Not only did it never get that bad, I actually felt happy and content almost all the time.

I chatted up strangers because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to. And it led to a pretty strange existence. The most interesting parts of my days generally were the little five minute snippets of conversations with strangers that I would never see again.

There was Curtis who stood behind me in line while I was buying my favorite breath enhancer, mint Mentos. He was wearing a red Washington Nationals hat, so I asked him if he was from DC. He told me that he was actually from NYC and that he had been playing basketball as one of the two imports for one of Melbourne’s teams for the last 8 years. We talked basketball, the NBA and the Lakers until he was finished buying and then we went our separate ways.

There was the German girl who sat across from me on the tram with a fresh bouquet of flowers. I asked her if she was giving or getting them, and she raved about her abroad experience studying tourism at one of the universities until I got off the tram.


A week of Melbourne before and after the French Island seemed to be enough, so I headed north. I got to Sydney right in time for some more bad weather, this time five straight days of rain. In Sydney, I spent a week with a friend named Lachlan I had met a few summers back on a YPO trip for teens in Switzerland. I lazed around, sleeping until noon most days and then getting up and watching TV. Lachlan’s also taking a gap year and will be spending five months living and working in Europe with friends this fall. I went out to the major nightlife district in Sydney, King’s Cross, with a few of his friends. We also went snorkeling on a beach when the weather got better on my last day.

Earlier in the week, I went up to Lachlan’s family’s farm about an hour away with him and his girlfriend. It was a ton nicer than the McLeod Eco Farm at the French Island. And I quickly found out that I may not be cut out for country living. Lachlan and I were with the horses, feeding them and petting them, when I got too close to the new baby foal. Its mother apparently felt threatened, and I was too slow to react when I saw it wheel around. Before I could think to move out of the way, it landed a decent blow to my upper left thigh.

I followed up getting kicked by a horse by crashing an ATV. I didn’t give it enough gas going up a big hill, and suddenly was rolling down a hill. I bailed out safely, and the ATV was stopped by a barbed wire fence. We decided it’d be best to have Lachlan take it up the hill after that.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We tried our hand at fishing in one of the lakes, I successfully hit a can of Fanta on my first try with an air rifle, and we collected crickets by flashlight for bait. And in the morning I tried an old Aussie favorite, spaghetti on toast. It was the canned variety of spaghetti, tasting a lot like Spaghetti-Os, and despite what the name might have you believe, it’s eaten with a fork and knife and not like a sandwich.

While in Sydney, I did a few more tourist-y things. I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Well, to call it climbing would be a stretch. It was more walking up ramps and ladders as we made our way slowly up to the summit of the bridge at sunset. But I had a lot of fun and really appreciated that the rain that had been pouring down all day paused for the 3 hour climb.

And of course, I also made it to the Sydney Opera House. It was good to see that I wasn’t jaded by traveling. As the ferry pulled up in front of the Opera House, I was snapping away with my camera like any shameless tourist. I felt a wonderful mix of awe and excitement at being so close to such a global icon and was drawn to go back again and again. After I had taken enough pictures of the Opera House, I started watching the other tourists taking their pictures. And then I decided it’d be a cool series to have pictures of other people taking pictures. So I have a few pictures of random strangers taking pictures, some of them with the Opera House in them, others not. And the pictures are coming to the blog, I promise, as soon as I can figure out how to get my memory card in my computer.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frenching (and quick NZ update)

How was it to be a farmer on a remote, deserted island? Relaxing. The work was, in the words of one of my co-WWOOFers, “piss easy,” and since we only worked from 8:30-1:30, we had lots of free time. There wasn’t much to do in that down time, which may have made it go by even faster. I stayed from Monday to Saturday the first week of February, working in exchange for my room and board.

The French Island is right next to the Phillip Island, world-renowned for its penguins, and is about as well-known to Australians as it is to Americans. I got lots of puzzled looks when I told people in Melbourne where I was going. But the locals I met on the quick ferry ride over said that they like being overlooked, even after pop star Kylie Minogue bought a house there. There is also no running water and electricity, although with generators and water tanks you could hardly tell.

The work itself consisted of watering the plants, either the pumpkin patch or the bigger field with a myriad of crops, in the morning. After our half hour mid-morning break, we were usually sent to the garlic shed to cut and beautify garlic, shucking off the bruised and ugly layers to make them look, nice, clean and white.

Despite how easy the work was, within a half hour of my first morning working, it looked like I had been working (and sleeping) in the same clothes for weeks. Mud and water splashed all over my jeans and shirt, and a few days in the dried dirt had the desired effect of allowing my jeans to stand up a little all on their own.

And for the duration of my week-long stay my face was coated with a fine mix of sweat, dirt, sunscreen, bug spray and grime. We were allowed to shower with the cold water every other day, but that only served to help move the dirt around, not actually help us get clean. I also perfected the Aussie or Outback salute of batting away the flies in front of my face who actually seemed to relish the bug spray.

In our down time, we read, took long, leisurely afternoon naps and played games like Monopoly, poker and other card games. We watched the tv, which helped to really simplify the answer to “what’s on?” since it had only one working channel.

I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (absolutely great) and made some headway into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (took a while to get into, but then gripping in its own slow way) and Frederick Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (thought-provoking). We rode bikes and ATVs (known as quadbikes here), and the 11 year-old daughter of the farmer’s owner taught me how to drive a stick shift in a pick-up truck missing one functioning door, a radio and a sideview mirror.

The farm was used as a prison until the late 1970s and the WWOOFers dorms were converted former prison cells. While the room wasn’t bad, if not a little sparse, it also wasn’t that much of a step up from its prison days. It had just been spruced up with a better paint job, a better bed and carpeting, but the layout remained almost entirely the same as the one cell they kept unchanged for tour purposes.

My first night at the farm I made the mistake of leaving my light on and door open. I was attacked by moths all night long, and had trouble sleeping with the feeling of them crawling all over my legs. Turning my flashlight on to try to bat them away only made more flock to me. So after some morning pest removal, I returned to my room the next night to see a huntsman spider patrolling one corner of my ceiling. The huntsman to my untrained eye resembled a small tarantula, but was supposedly harmless. I joked that I would be freaked out if I woke up to find it was no longer in the same corner, but I didn’t have to wait that long. I came back to my room later that night to find it gone. My search proved futile, so I spent the rest of the week with my friend the huntsman lurking somewhere in my cell.

There were a handful of other WWOOFers there during my stay. There was one couple from Scotland, two friends from England, and Germans who left and came while I was there, all pretty much in their early to mid-twenties. The Scots were interesting people, sort of fantasy freaks. He had “stylish” tattooed in the Elf language (Elfish? Elvish? Elvis?) on his stomach, and she was part of a paranormal investigative unit with friends back home. Not the type of people I normally hang out with, but not bad either for a change of pace.

I was real friendly with the two Brits. The guy was from Liverpool, which I’ve decided narrowly beats out the Scottish variety for hardest native English-speaking accent to understand. When I was able to understand him we had a good time, including an epic ping pong marathon that started with me teaching him how to keep score and ended with a crushing, nailbiter loss.

All the other WWOOFers were long-term travelers, in Australia for at least a year, who were using the McLeod Eco Farm as a sort of free base camp and some work to fill their days while they had recruitment agencies look for paying work. When they found out I was staying in Australia for only a short month, they exhorted me to get back to civilization and enjoy the country. So I listened and shortened what was initially planned to be a two week stay to five days.

The proprietor of the farm was probably the most interesting part. Mark Cunningham is a self-described Jewish, Christian, Muslim with a Hindu, Buddhist, capitalist outlook. The others found him to be annoying, but I always enjoyed it when he broke up the monotony of the work by preaching his philosophy on life to us. I wrote down some of his more memorable pearls of wisdom.

He talked about “making love to the land” instead of raping it as others do, to try to learn its secrets. He was also big on what he called the parachute theory; the basic premise is that we all know absolutely nothing. Once you open up your mind, like a parachute, to all you don’t know, then you’ll finally start to learn. He called all religions, stories, which is probably how he rationalized calling himself a man of so many faiths. He just simply liked the different stories.

He also loved to tell us about his own story. He told us that he was using the farm to build the Garden of Eden economically, because “the only way you can save the world is through economics.”

I personally couldn’t really connect all the dots, but he planned to open a Japanese wagu beef burger restaurant. The restaurant would turn a huge profit because he’d put it right next to one that’s currently doing good business, but sell his burgers for almost half the price. He talked about copying the McDonalds formula too, but I don’t really know how that applies considering his burgers would cost significantly more, and would hopefully be of higher quality. But I guess the fact that he’s doing all this biodynamically (you got in trouble if you said organic, but don’t ask me to explain the difference) sort of fits with the whole Garden of Eden analogy and returning the land to its natural, chemical-free state.

Oh and as a postscript, I’d like to paint the picture of the Scots’ arrival to the farm as they told it to me. From the ferry, they were picked up in the broken down pick-up by a paid employee of the farm named Jamie. The car wouldn’t start so Jamie took a sledgehammer to the engine, to get it going. Then once they hit the road for the half hour ride, he took a few swigs from his bottle of Jim Beam, explaining that it was okay because there were no cops, and all the locals kept guns anyway.

Ladies and gents, the French Island!


I'm currently in Auckland, New Zealand. I've been here for three days now, staying in a hostel. I had planned to spend the rest of my week at the vineyard I referenced in one of my earlier posts, but yesterday I met a group of Americans studying abroad here from Wash . U in St. Louis and they invited me to come with them in a rented camper van for the week traveling around the North Island. It'll be a quick, fun week in New Zealand, by far the least amount of time I'm spending in any country, and then I'm off to India this Saturday!