As we walked into our apartment in Osaka and got unpacked, Shell sat down and muttered “Oh no…”
I began to fret just a bit, she isn’t one to be dramatic. She was looking at her phone.
“I have bad news” she continued.
It was news of mental illness having taken another life from us and news outlets just getting the push notification flywheel spun up on Bourdain’s death.
I take my mental health for granted each day. I would like to think otherwise, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I learned from my Dad how to be compassionate and involved with mental health. He worked in the capacities he could to affect change in our community and get more resources, tools, and methods to those on the front lines of helping those experiencing crisis. Years later, when I return home, I’m still told of the impact he has had on our community. I’m proud of that, and it motivates me to do more than I have.
Reflecting on the subject of suicide has made me realize how prevalent it has been in my own life. I remember being told of a family, whose kids I played soccer with, had jumped off a parking garage and all died. I don’t remember exactly how I felt but confused is certainly one of the many emotions running through me at the moment of that news. A neighbor kid I ran around with was also a victim. A friend we ran around with in New York, too. You often do not know who is struggling until it is too late.
Suicide rates have gone up over the last 15 years by 24%. That seems staggering to me, even if our measurement has gotten better, that rate is too steep. Kate Spade’s suicide served as a reminder that success and a picturesque life that so many try to attain is not an answer. Maintaining your brand is not an answer. Money makes a lot of things a lot easier, but it doesn’t solve any of our inner struggles.
Most of us know about the money part by now, but its events like this that kick us in the teeth when we’ve forgotten. Robin Williams is another, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure you have many you can recall.
Shell and I are less than a week away from finishing a year on the road. I’d be mistaken if I acted like Bourdain didn’t have an influence on our big decision. We’ve taken inspiration directly from him for more than six years. While writing on Cambodia, lunch in Saigon, dinner in Hong Kong, and a day in Amritsar, for example. There are plenty of other times we’ve taken to using his suggestions.
More than that, it was how we travel and why. We try to focus on being where we are, open to the random interaction with the locals, who may simply be trying to trap us into a transaction, but there’s only one way to support serendipity. We’ve attempted to learn about each culture we’ve visited, often through him but also through many other means of research. One thing I wished we had more of, but often don’t know how to attain, is his and his crew’s ability to set up intimate meals with locals in their homes. But to do these successfully and graciously, one must be open to all possibilities:
He has never eaten dog. When I pointed out the dog-hawker in our midst, he said, “I’m not doing it just because it’s there anymore.” Now, when he’s presented with such offerings, his first question is whether it is a regular feature of the culture. “Had I found myself as the unwitting guest of honor in a farmhouse on the Mekong Delta where a family, unbeknownst to me, has prepared their very best, and I’m the guest of honor, and all of the neighbors are watching . . . I’m going to eat the fucking dog,” he said. “On the hierarchy of offenses, offending my host—often a very poor one, who is giving me the very best, and for whom face is very important in the community—for me to refuse would be embarrassing. So I will eat the dog.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
With everything he touches and makes famous, it changes. Almost overnight. The bún chả we had in Hanoi was where Tony ate with Barack. The place is now plastered in pictures of Obama’s visit and has a steady stream of international tourists coming in and out. Even the day after the President was there local Hanoi boys were said to be coming by day and night to take selfies where Barack had eaten in Hanoi. If you ask locals if it’s the best bún chả, the answer isn’t yes. We asked. But, it was well located and the right kind of space for the Secret Service and is owned and operated by a local family, the latter is befitting of Tony’s requirements. I imagine Tony’s ideal plan would have been a plastic stool 10 times too small for him and the President in a street gutter, bowls in hand, closer to the old quarter. Open air cooking. Maybe with an angry, motherly lady yelling at customers, including the sitting President of the United States.
In Amritsar, it was hard for us to tell if the place had changed. Posing a guess, Shell and I said no. There was no well-heeled crowd, no line, and only locals were there besides us. But bustling with locals. Amritsar may not be the most frequented place by western tourists, which helps, but we felt lucky to have experienced one of his picks the way he might have. It remained my favorite meal in India, and we had a lot of amazing food there. All the while contributing to the very problem he creates.
Anthropologists like to say that to observe a culture is usually, in some small way, to change it. A similar dictum holds true for Bourdain’s show. Whenever Bourdain discovers a hole-in-the-wall culinary gem, he places it on the tourist map, thereby leaching it of the authenticity that drew him to it in the first place. “It’s a gloriously doomed enterprise,” he acknowledged. “I’m in the business of finding great places, and then we fuck them up. – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
And there is the paradox that followed him around the world. Bourdain had the job that too many of us wish we had. Fly first class all around the world, go to amazing places, eat amazing and unique treats, and converse with interesting people from interesting places. Feel alive. Connect. But, when asked about his “charmed” life:
I don’t know about “charmed.” But I’m still here — on my third life, or maybe fourth. Who knows? I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car – a really nice car – and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet. – Biography Interview
He recognized his ruining the very things he loved. He shared the truth with us, at least how he saw it. This was his superpower. To bring us in and make us wish we were there, yet still, be sharing every awful truth with us along the way.
Among other things, he was one of the first writers to tell the dining public that many high-profile New York restaurants would cease to function without the work and talents of Mexican employees. It was almost a casual aside, yet it suddenly opened new subjects to the purview of food writing: immigration policy, labor conditions, racism. – The New York Times Anthony Bourdain Was a Teller of Often Unappetizing Truths
In a world that fantasizes to be seen: glamourous travel, bottle service, and Instagram posts that do not convey reality and that serve as bait for your bite, Tony provided a dose of realism with his journies, along with a dose of idealism through his words. Realism: the maiming and destruction of people and families that United States UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) has done in Laos and Cambodia and continues to this day. Idealism:
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” -Anthony Bourdain
When I wrote Travel Is No Cure, Bourdain was often on my mind. I wondered if he would think I was being intellectually lazy. Was I just not working hard enough at making the experiences I seek? Was this year of travel too much of a bite that limited my ability to execute on the kinds of travel I pursue? Or, do you think he, in all his experience, would understand?
But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added wistfully, “I don’t know if that place (roadside meal outside Jakarta) will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
One of the greatest lessons I have learned over the years, which Bourdain helped to teach, is to empathize with those whom you do not understand. There is no better way to learn than through immersion. Travel provides that immersion into the unknown and misunderstood, as long as you’re not the type to be doing it solely for the ‘gram. Champagne can be delivered with sparklers anywhere in the world, only the price changes. Instead, bump into the stranger. Stop and talk with the old man asking questions of you in a language you don’t speak, maybe you’ll find a way, as we have several times, to exchange the information he’s looking for.
We can have preconceived notions of a place and the people who live there. We might even think we have it all figured out without having been. Bourdain could be found guilty of this, but what made him admirable was his ability to change. Some used to say flip-flop in a derogatory way, but the ability to change one’s mind is a skill of maturity. On West Virginia:
“You know, I went right at those things — guns, God, and Trump — and I was very moved by what I found there. I hope that people who watch the show will feel the same kind of empathy and respect, and will be able to walk in somebody else’s shoes, or imagine walking in somebody else’s shoes, for a few minutes in the same way that hopefully they do with one of my other shows.” -Anthony Bourdain
The ability to learn requires some amount of maturity as it often involves being wrong, or not knowing and being seen not knowing. Changing one’s stance can be really hard. What is easier is to look for the simple answer or one that confirms what you already believe. Something that is easy to repeat, or apply to many things. Something that doesn’t require too many brain cells to get or communicate.
But our world is gray, not black and white. It always depends, and so the sound bite is never a whole. There’s always more to understanding.
“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” -Anthony Bourdain
With all his braggadocio, his schtick, his willingness to punch you in the face with words without regret, behind all that was a man of growing wisdom.
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom… is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” -Anthony Bourdain
As mentioned, on the night of the news I was in Osaka, so I put on the Parts Unknown episode with Masa, shot with the duo in Japan. During a mountain getaway part of the episode where the men gather together, cook, drink, and share stories with Masa’s old mates, Masa mentions 一期一会, Ichigo Ichie, a Japanese idiom that means something like “Once in a lifetime, never again”.
Moments are to be cherished, as each one is never experienced again.
Lajaunie, the former Les Halles owner (Where Bourdain was chef when he wrote Kitchen Confidential), said of Bourdain, “He’s extremely kind, but it’s the genuine kindness that comes from deep cynicism.” Lajaunie went on, “He has accepted that everyone has broken springs here and there. That’s what most of us lack—the acceptance that others are as broken as we are.” After Bourdain read “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book about Michel de Montaigne, he got a tattoo on his forearm of Montaigne’s motto, in ancient Greek: “I suspend judgment.” – The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain’s Movable Feast
Mental health, taking another person away from us all. Someone who ended up finding his voice, and success along the way. I hope that we as a species are able to find two things: a greater understanding of our mental health, and a greater ability to talk about and share the struggles that we feel the need to hide from each other.
Everything I read on how to write better blog posts has similar advice for the opening paragraph, it seems I’m supposed to write a real grabber of a statement here.
Am I doing this right?
I played with a clickbait title once and subsequently felt bad about it. This space isn’t meant for such tactics anyway.
This post covers Taiwan. More specifically, our time in Taipei. But, more specific than that, it isn’t as much about the place, but the people we had such a great time with and why that is.
Something of a constant theme over this past year is just how important others are to us (no surprise, really). Being thousands of miles away from all our friends and having nothing but yourself or each other for companionship can teach you a few lessons. One being: don’t unjustly piss off your only companion.
We’ve been lucky to see some family and quite a few friends along the way, as well as making a few too. But when you’re moving as fast as we’ve been, it’s usually a whirlwind type of thing. Taipei, with our 40+ night stay, offered us time to do things differently.
I’m embarrassed now to admit Taipei would not have been on our schedule had it not been for Tom and Betty getting married here. Boy, what we would have missed.
Taipei has an amazing cafe culture with superb selections of beans. The city offers everything from three Michelin star dining experiences to the night markets that have made the entire region famous for its cheap and abundant street food. The island offers a variety of climates and therefore also offers a lot of foods and fresh produce as well as excursions and topographies to explore. I’m really encouraging you to go.
The people are generous, helpful, and really seem to like that you’re there. The number of times I responded with waves and shouting 你好 (Nǐ hǎo) on each of our morning runs are too many to count, and always included a big smile and often “Good morniiiiing!” from the opposite lane. Not to mention the old ladies with fans practicing Tai Chi under the trees along the riverside, the guide runners helping the handicapped be out and get exercise and the mess of people renting bikes on the weekend for rides out towards the sea. Everything about Taipei made me happy. Outside of the oppressing heat.
Betty put us in touch with some of her family and friends, we also plugged into the Columbia Alumni network and were immediately able to find ourselves a little crew. We participated in the Taipei 101 Run-Up, we had running buddies to help us through the hot thick air of early morning runs and show us new routes, I started learning Jiu-Jitsu, we went to cocktail hours, shared dinners, and we traveled to Tainan with a group who were able to show us the real Tainan.
On top of all that we were surrounded by people who are working on ideas, companies, passions, and getting together regularly to capitalize on these ambitions. Being together, if for nothing else, for the energy of working amongst each other. We were happy to have been included and made good use of the time.
Near the end of our stay was the wedding celebration. It was beautiful, fun, and delicious. I might have even cried a little. It was also extra nice to see so many faces from our days in New York as well as make a few new friends. We may have these last two weeks in Japan, but our time in Taipei seems like the real capstone to this year.
Thanks for reading.
Picture: Sunset overlooking the coast near Jiufen.
“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” – Seneca
“Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” – Socrates
I’ve been enjoying Adam Grant’s new podcast. One gem from the first episode is: “If you don’t look back at yourself and think ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year or two ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year or two.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that is how I will feel re-reading some of these posts. And, if the above is of any consolation, I will continue to do so as I progress through life in any number of areas.
I wrote about how this wasn’t to be a year-long vacation. I was determined to make this year into something. I knew it would be a year of transition and learning. Mostly, I imagined that stepping this far, physically and mentally, away from the lives we had been living would provide clarity for our next steps. A new perspective that wasn’t the race we had become accustomed to living.
Arriving in Taipei has reminded me we are soon ending this small chapter in our lives. So, when I started thinking about this, I began to think that we hadn’t found that clarity. When thinking more patiently about it, the clarity begins to show itself. There is something of a slow drip with most learning in life, accompanied by small sparks along the way.
When I read Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 28 on Travel as a Cure for Discontent (pasted below for reference and reading), I knew I found a nerve. One within me, that likely exists in many others. One that shows what some people may be assuming about our motivations to travel, while others might outrightly reject this whole notion of non-cure.
Keeping it short and simple, our motivations to travel were mostly two-fold. As mentioned above, to take a step back and away from the lives we had been living, in order to make more fully formed decisions on what we wanted our future to look like. Meanwhile, seeing the world, tasting the food, meeting the people, and living a simple and sparing life on the road.
We were not running from anything, but we knew the travel would set forth some amount of change within us. It must, or it wasn’t much of a striking experience. That said, this world is becoming so very small. Getting out into it thinking you will find a truly unique experience seems to be getting harder and harder to do. I think about my Great Grandparents who traveled around the world at a time that must have involved so much more roughing it and difficulty along the way than what we have faced.
The Internet tends to solve most of our problems. That, and a mostly reliable electricity grid everywhere we’ve been. Imagining my GGpa and GGma in remote lands back then, my question is very simple: What level of trust was required? I imagine your experience to be so different than our own. We have hundreds of reviews to read before laying down to sleep somewhere, we Google how to get elsewhere. Did the level of trust required to travel the globe as you did lead to more serendipitous and raw experiences that seem out of reach in today’s hyper-connected world?
The world is becoming a slightly more homogenous place. The things for sale in so many cities are the same the world over. The cafes with the best ratings look like Brooklyn or LA, the world over. I’m (way) oversimplifying, but the trend is visible. Which made me think of this:
“The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, the faster Honolulu is becoming the same place as Dallas and the less reason to make the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles. As you go faster and faster from place to place, they are all becoming the same place.” -Alan Watts
Despite all that, I wouldn’t trade this year for anything. I think about my attitude when we first started the trip, and there was still a lot of frustration in me. The same frustration that I think many friends saw in me every day in the last couple years in New York. Before then, everything external was at fault. Reality: it wasn’t New York, it wasn’t my work, it wasn’t in any relationships or a busy schedule, it wasn’t external. It was me.
I had been seeking change, but I didn’t know what change I wanted. Worse yet, I wasn’t leading the change myself. I may still not know, or ever know, exactly what solution for which I was looking. But, I am better at listening to myself, I’m more patient with myself and others, more deliberate in my practice, and confident about some of the simple things I demand to have each day: Exercise and reading, for example. Something that is productive and helpful. Those, and a good laugh.
Listening to yourself and taking risks on new things with great people might be a simple formula for my own mental health. My move to New York was one such risk, and it was one of the best things I have ever done in my life. This year felt like a risk too, it also may look like a distraction to others, but I’m quite happy with where we’re at now.
Travel-as-healing may be one method that works, but our year is just that, a year. Taking a step back requires time, the one resource for which there is no way to claw back more. Before taking a journey like ours, ask yourself what it is you’re trying to get. Read Seneca’s words below and remember that your companion each and every day of your life is none other than yourself.
We’ve begun planning what our next few steps are, and I’m excited to begin sharing more of those plans just as soon as it makes sense to share. As always, thanks for reading.
Picture: Taken from Annapurna Base Camp
Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 28 (Emphasis mine)
Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.
Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
Reflect that your present behavior is like that of the prophetess whom Vergil describes; she is excited and goaded into fury, and contains within herself much inspiration that is not her own:
The priestess raves, if haply she may shake
The great god from her heart.
You wander hither and yon, to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your very restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side or that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled. Anything you do tells against you, and you hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man.
That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become pleasant; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place. Live in this belief: “I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.”
If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case, had you believed it wholly yours. As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, – to live well, – is found everywhere.
Can there be any spot so full of confusion as the Forum? Yet you can live quietly even there, if necessary. Of course, if one were allowed to make one’s own arrangements, I should flee far from the very sight and neighborhood of the Forum. For just as pestilential places assail even the strongest constitution, so there are some places which are also unwholesome for a healthy mind which is not yet quite sound, though recovering from its ailment.
I disagree with those who strike out into the midst of the billows and, welcoming a stormy existence, wrestle daily in hardihood of soul with life’s problems. The wise man will endure all that, but will not choose it; he will prefer to be at peace rather than at war. It helps little to have cast out your own faults if you must quarrel with those of others.
Says one: “There were thirty tyrants surrounding Socrates, and yet they could not break his spirit”; but what does it matter how many masters a man has? “Slavery” has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free, – no matter amid how large a mob of over-lords he stands.
It is time to stop, but not before I have paid duty. “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation.” This saying of Epicurus seems to me to be a noble one. For he who does not know that he has sinned does not desire correction; you must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself.
Some boast of their faults. Do you think that the man has any thought of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times be harsh with yourself. Farewell.
I’ve just added a new page full of reading suggestions and podcasts to listen to. You might have already noticed the new link in the menu system depending on your reading device. Over the two years at Columbia and these months of travel, I’ve had the joy of being exposed to great material that has been expanding and challenging. I wanted to capture some of the things I’ve enjoyed most and share them. I hope you can enjoy something there and welcome any feedback and suggestions.
Shell and I have been very lucky to spend some days on the rainy island of Hawaii with her family and will journey on with them to the snowy mountains of Canada. After all this great fun celebrating several birthdays with family and friends, we fly to Tokyo where we are planning to stay at least five weeks. We plan to connect with quite a few people we are lucky to know in Tokyo, take some language lessons, study martial arts, enjoy the cherry blossoms and suck down a lot of ramen. Depending on how we do with budgeting Japan we’ll see how long we stay, but for now, we’re very excited to do all that we can. More suggestions and connections are always welcome!
We also plan to spend time in Seoul and Taiwan, but the planning has hardly begun for those outside of a wedding we’re pretty pumped for – So, send us everything you know 🙂
Since the time I last wrote we have enjoyed our time on the beaches of Railay and Ko Lanta (above), the markets of Chiang Mai, the ancient town of Hoi An, and the bustling capital of Hanoi. Vietnam was a treat for us just like it was five years ago. I am anxious to share more of those experiences with you just as soon as we settle into Tokyo.
I sat next to a man for ten days and never said hi, learned his name, or communicated in any way other than the occasional bow of the head as to indicate an apology if one of us were to bump into the other. Eye contact was a no-no during our ten day Vipassana course at Dhamma Giri in Igatpuri.
Shell and I were sitting on a curb after being reunited. We were sharing stories and feelings from our ten-day adventure when this same man, sitting to our right and dressed in a beautifully vibrant white traditional tunic, turned and asked where we were from. We exchanged pleasantries and how we were moved and how we experienced these ten days. Our answers must have seemed dull.
“Before I came here I had a spot on my chest,” he said, mid-way through our conversation.
“And now?” I replied.
“It is gone!” As he tugs open his tunic for the reveal.
“I nearly did not come here. I thought I needed to go to the hospital to have it checked for cancer,” he explained.
“You believe these ten days with Vipassana have healed you?”
“Oh, yes, it shows you the power of our minds,” he remarks in a fatherly manner.
He continues to riff on the power, value, and importance of what we did over the past ten days. Most of how he is feeling and what he is espousing, I completely agree. But, I spend most of my attention thinking about him needing a biopsy of the dark collection of cells.
He’s an older man, easily into his 70s, but still quite healthy in appearance. His mind, obviously, still sharp and curious. The concerns of someone his age and his generation are not any different than in any other place in this world. He worries about his family being unable and unwilling to care for him as he gets old. I imagine the cancer scare made him more acutely aware of this, and then he meditated with this information bouncing around his mind for ten days. Regardless of how well he focused on his breathing or vibrations, I know his mind wandered. He’s human.
As with anything societal in India, there are rules and guidelines one must live by and as India modernizes some of these rules are changing. I imagine one would find similar percentages in both India and America about how positively and negatively these changes are viewed in each of our own societies. But to what degree, on any of these many things, is likely a function of your generation and station in life.
As Americans, we seemed to represent something to him. I’m guessing this is due to some of his younger kin having immigrated to the states. America represented materialism. He seemed sorrowful over his relative’s obsession with money over family. We were, in part, representative of something he struggled with, but we were also with him at Vipassana to meditate, clear our minds, and participate in a distinctly ancient practice with roots in the subcontinent. We were a paradox, perhaps, or were dualistic?
Hearing this from him immediately upon ending our silence gave me pause, and reminded me just how prevalent confirmation bias is. People will find what they want to believe, especially when a finding fits perfectly into their self-designed puzzle. This, regardless of empirical evidence. So much of what we learned and experienced in those ten days was free of dogma and religion. Yes, there were bits of pseudo-science and strange explanations here and there, but taken with a mature and open mind with clear lenses and clean logic anyone would walk away healthier from these ten days regardless of their creed. One doesn’t need to walk away with a different religion than with which you came.
I fear that his credulity will blind his need for accepting cellular biology as something we’ve learned a great deal about and goes much further than feelings.
“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
― Ludwig Wittgenstein
I had not been exposed to Wittgenstein before our time at Vipassana. A very articulate man by the name Manish spoke of him and quoted great philosophers in earnest during a late night discussion outside our Dhamma Hall after we broke silence. Manish blew me away with his encyclopedic knowledge and assessment of both Western and Indian philosophies. A mid-aged man with a prowess in spoken word that left me in envy. (Manish, if you’re out there, say hi – I missed saying goodbye on the parting day).
Another young man shared his stories as we stood there in the dark together. One of his (mis)adventures in trying to read his way through experiencing the deeper side of meditation and enlightenment, only to see that one must go and experience it. As with anything, preparation can only go so far, and nothing can replace real practice. His reading has left him a mini-philosopher, and as he grows I will not be surprised to see him find a following or write a book I would be excited to read.
India went deep. India stirred and troubled me. India will continue to inspire and influence me.
“India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy.”
“Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all. Nothing should more deeply shame the modern student than the recency and inadequacy of his acquaintance with India….This is the India that patient scholarship is now opening up like a new intellectual continent to that Western mind which only yesterday thought civilization an exclusive Western thing.”
– Will Durant
A friend wrote to me asking for suggestions and tips for her quick trip around Delhi. I wrote back a lengthy, and arguably distraught, reply. A reply that I described as ‘hungover’ after our month touring and moving too quickly through India. The last experience we had was a full-blown stampede while attempting to board our plane from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur. This wasn’t the nonsense that happens at JFK where people of all boarding zones stand like waddling penguins outside the gate blocking all those eligible to board. This was more primal.
I advised her to let her baseline assume chaos. “You’ll have a more comfortable time if you simply expect this at all times,” I said. I believed what I told her, and thought it to be helpful. But, I also wanted to take it back the moment I hit send. Am I tainting her experience before it has even started?
“Human beings cannot live without challenge. We cannot live without meaning. Everything ever achieved we owe to this inexplicable urge to reach beyond our grasp, do the impossible, know the unknown. The Upanishads would say this urge is part of our evolutionary heritage, given to us for the ultimate adventure: to discover for certain who we are, what the universe is, and what is the significance of the brief drama of life and death we play out against the backdrop of eternity.”
― Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads
India was a challenge. If I only had one thing to say, that would be it.
She ended up appreciating the advice. Adding later that she felt like she had to play defense the entire time in India. I thought that was a better way of putting it. There tends to be an all-out assault if you’re outside of your hotel room or another controlled environment. Some friends, in preparing us, advised a strategy: find every five-star hotel in town and have them marked on your maps prior to starting each day. Anytime you need a reprieve, head for the lobby. They advised further: If you get one major site explored that day, it is a success. They had high expectations of how much they could get done each day, but the environment and the challenges bog one down everywhere one goes.
I consider myself someone who will embrace someone else’s country for what it is, and recognize I am in their country, not my own. With that, I should expect things to be done differently, and, occasionally, for me to have trouble with how things are done. Hell, I have trouble with how things are done in my own country. Why aren’t people walking on the right side of the sidewalk!?! Yet, I needed to remind myself of this minute-by-minute in India. It wasn’t a matter of me not ‘getting it’ and needing to find the flow in another country, I’d argue, it was a complete reset in cultural norms and expectations. Consider our arrival as just one example:
We landed in Delhi, the second time. We had flown through on our way to Kathmandu via London. Our layover was long, and we didn’t have a multiple-entry visa, so we needed to stay within the airside of the airport. We went to the lounge, a worthwhile credit card benefit, and loaded up on butter masala and other Indian comfort foods. Then we worked on making the many hours pass. India remains the top destination for lounge food, btw. It is a large and spacious airport, we enjoyed our overnight in the lounge and looked forward to coming back through.
This time we headed straight for passport control and were quickly introduced to queueing in India. Chaos. Disorder. Cheating.
“Here, the good guy does not get ahead,” I kept telling myself, as I continue to see people lie and cheat their way into cutting. One Brit ahead of us responded to one of these cheat’s propositions in saying “we’re all in that situation, friend, stay put” – I wanted to hug him.
Fifteen minutes later that cheater tried someone else and succeeded, his third cut from what we saw.
To complicate things, these weren’t Indians. It simply was India. These cheaters knew much more about how to operate in this country than I did. I felt like I was some kind of delusional person who believed in (mostly) order and good behavior. I had a lot to learn, and it had nothing to do with identity, it was simply the place.
More than four hours pass before we reach the counter, in a line that should have taken no more than one. So, before we were allowed to enter India my temper was already blown. A doctor would have rightfully prescribed Xanax and a pile of beta-blockers if a blood pressure cuff was around my arm. Our bags had been moved to storage off of the conveyor. Our driver, upon finding him, expressed concern over our well-being considering the all-day wait time when he was expecting to see us at 11AM, and now we were thinking about dinner. But, I calm:
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
― Gautama Buddha
Finally, we were out and being driven towards our hotel in Delhi. The first thing to strike us was the color of the sky. Nay, the air. We couldn’t see the sky, let alone more than ten blocks. An orange-yellow hue was lit by the intense sun that we couldn’t see. If this had been an early morning fog, my elementary school would have declared a two-hour delay. Instead of water hung in the air, this was heavy particulates and pollution. Newspapers in the west reported that a day in Delhi was the equivalent of smoking 44 cigarettes. Some American airlines stopped flights into Delhi on visibility grounds, and there was a 24 car pile up on the highway. It has its own Wikipedia page.
We started off on rough footing, India.
Given our day was nearly gone, our driver offered to take us to see one sight before leaving us for the evening. We went to see the Lotus Temple, where we were able to stay for a prayer service and some singing. The temple itself is modern and beautiful, and the religion left me confused and in need of more information. I didn’t know anything about it before arriving in Delhi and am still not well versed. We learn our driver’s child had a birthday that night, and we urge him to let us go so that he may return to his family for one last night before leaving town with us for ten days. He dropped us back off in the area where we were staying, Hauz Khas, and we grab some dinner of southern Indian cuisine.
The next day we tour some of the great sites around Delhi. Two were, in particular, memorable for me. First, was our rickshaw ride around Old Delhi. Besides the usual proposition to go into the rickshaw driver’s friend’s shop every 100 feet, we got to see the old and narrow markets. This assault on the senses was exactly the kind of assault I want while traveling. Deeply colored fabrics of scarves and tunics flowing in the breeze and chaos around their wearer, popping the indigo, turmeric, and other natural colors everywhere one looked. This against a backdrop of fruit and vegetable stands with equally saturated colors of limes, cabbage, red onion, cauliflower, and chilis. The corridors so narrow one was able to forget about the smog.
Second, was Raj Ghat, the site of Gandhi’s burial. Walking around the open gardens of Raj Ghat made me think of a professor of mine who liked to stem lessons from great leaders in history. Gandhi was one he used frequently. We would pull apart his speeches and writings to assess what made Gandhi such an effective communicator to such a great many people. One can’t escape Gandhi nearly any day you find yourself in India. There is one piece of iconography all over Raj Ghat that you’ll also see often throughout the country: those wireframed glasses.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
There were several other stops that day, one allowed us to walk around the grounds in some amount of peace with audio guide earphones on – which turn into a sort of armor. Once they’re off, however, we might as well have been a celebrity couple or something. Requests for selfies happened every few steps, and once one happened you were free game for others. One stop, three or so groups asking for selfies. Walk a bit, and it starts over again. Everyone was excited, kind, and caring during these exchanges. It wasn’t off-putting, really, but you also feel like you turn into a jerk the moment you start refusing. But one must, otherwise, you won’t get anything else done that day. The off-putting part is when someone’s hands get a little aggressive. I saw this happen to one female who rightfully shut the operation down after such an invasion. Shell had better luck, perhaps due to me always being there.
We begin the ten-day tour around Rajasthan which is probably a little more than one-third part sitting in a car, one-third sleeping in your accommodation, then less than one-third actually experiencing things. With the remainder being meals and other odds and ends.
Pushkar is a hippie’s escape. The town seems to be filled with Indians looking to bathe in the holy waters of the lake and westerners looking to not be found for a while, particularly, Israelis. We stayed at a hip little place called U-Turn Hotel, which was fine for the price point. They had a nice rooftop to chill and eat at come evening time which overlooked the lake. We stirred before sunrise and watched from the rooftop as the sun brought life to the town and the bathers performed their rituals. We took an early walk after the sun was up to explore the lake and the relatively quiet streets. There was a small coffee shop that advertised real Italian coffee, it isn’t on Google Maps, but do find it if you go. I think it was called Honeydew Cafe and Restaurant. The proprietor was warm and full of smiles, and Shell said it was the best chai she had on the trip. We watched as the cows and people passed by and commerce came to life that morning. Be sure not to accept the marigold petals everyone offers you here. Once accepted, you’ll be obliged to turn over a good amount of rupees.
We stayed at another nice place with an even nicer rooftop this time, a place called Hostel La Vie. There was a nice view overlooking the blue city and other rooftops. At night we almost felt like we had company not only from our own hostel but the neighboring rooftops as well. We toured Mehrangarh Fort, a UNESCO site, and once again found the audio guide to be worthwhile enough and well organized. Many of these sites seem to use one company for these recordings which created a sense of uniform quality, in a good way. This Fort is high on the hilltop, and we hiked up to it from Hostel La Vie, however it seemed most people took cars. The view of the surrounding area offered a chance for us to stop and see if there were other things we should see before leaving. There was one huge palace off in the distance, and I checked our schedule to find it wasn’t included.
Hm. Just by the expanse of this structure and how well lit it was at night, I thought it must be a tourist attraction of some sort. Two minutes of more research and it becomes apparent this is Umaid Bhawan Palace. Where the royal family lives today, and a breathtaking resort.
The number of recommendations, personal connections, and outreach we received from friends regarding India really blew us away. It reminded us of two things: how many of our friends and connections are Indian or of India decent, and how many of our friends and connections have traveled there. Silly how we don’t notice things sometimes. Udaipur was no different, friends recommended Shashi’s Cooking Classes, and this was easily one of our favorite activities in India.
Shashi had a rough start to finding her new calling after losing her husband and having to break the rules of her caste in order to provide for her children. She stuck it out and eventually started teaching cooking classes and working on her English. She is warm, caring, and motherly. She’s sharp and not afraid to call you out or put you to work. She also goes to great length to make sure you understand the ingredients and why they’re being put together and how. If you speak something other than English, she likely knows the ingredient name in French, German, etc. Clearly, she’s a quick study.
Other sites toured: Monsoon Palace, Sahelion Ki Bari, City Palace (Udaipur), and Jagdish Temple.
If you’re looking for that extra special experience, look no further than the Taj Lake Palace. If you’re a romantic at heart, this will treat those heartstrings. We stayed at the Lassi Guesthouse, which suited our needs and the staff was very kind.
By now we had spent many days with our driver and were getting to know him better. He had cooked us his famous chicken dinner and graciously served it to us in his guestroom while we were in Udaipur. In Jaipur, he invited us to eat dinner with him again. This time, we would eat where the drivers eat. This industry is large enough that the guests eat in the main seating area, and then there is a totally different area for the drivers. The roadside establishments we often ate lunch at in the middle of nowhere also had these kinds of arrangements. I never knew where he went off to, exactly.
In Jaipur, we were in a hotel and were soon invited to join our driver in the basement. He had already run out to get some traditional Indian snacks as well as a bottle of Indian whiskey. I’m not certain what his normal whiskey choice is, but he said he got the slightly better bottle for us. One called Royal Challenge. This was a good compliment to the salty Moong Dal and peanut snacks. These were soon followed by a long line of curries and other dishes from the hotel’s kitchen while we were periodically joined by other drivers looking to say hello to their friend and greet us. The bottle was gone by the time we were ready to depart. The owner of the hotel paid us a visit and we stood for pictures outside the front steps. Then we loaded into a rickshaw for the ride back to the hotel we were staying in.
We visited most of the main attractions in Jaipur including the Hawa Mahal and Amber Palace. We sprung for the expensive private tour of the city palace which we felt was worthwhile. We had a knowledgeable guide who also let us go at our own pace. It included tea time and some other novelties along the way which added to a colonial feel. The palace is home of the prince still today who was indeed home when we were there. One knows of his presence by whether the flag is flying or not.
My other recommendation would be to visit Gaitor. It was a peaceful stop that allowed us to get away from it all for a bit, but not be in some hotel. A beautiful little complex of temples where we sat in peace and walked the grounds.
On the way out of town, we also visited Chand Bawri, also marked as Step Well. Movies have been shot here, and it is a really incredible site. This is also one of the times where I let my guard down and succumbed to the request for a guide. He basically just followed us and offered to take pictures, which cost us. Then, on the way out, having learned that we were successfully poached, a man approached requesting a tip for sweeping the floors. He was simply a hanger-on.
The most impressive and daunting site we saw was hands down the Taj Mahal. Seeing the Taj is worth all the trouble of getting there. While our time there was not optimized, it was still worth it.
I recommend doing some research and getting a good guide. One that will get you in there early and has some connections/friendliness with the Taj Mahal staff. It will go a long way to making your experience trouble-free. A knowledgeable guide will also help you absorb all there is to absorb at such a historical site. While we were recovering from our treks in Nepal I watched a documentary on the cleaning of the marble aired on CNN. It was a fascinating introduction to the all-natural process of keeping the white marble, white. I was also able to learn some of the history of the Taj, something I didn’t learn anything about while we were there.
Upon arrival in Agra, we were obliged to visit another shop. One of what felt like hundreds on this tour, meanwhile we were buying nearly nothing. Upon returning to the car, another man was with our driver. He was introduced as our tour guide for the Taj. He would be with us this evening for a quick tour from across the river and then again in the morning for the proper entry and tour. We were not consulted on this prior to it happening. If you need a good guide, feel free to reach out. A friend found one, and I’m happy to make the connection.
While he was a nice enough guy, he spent most the time talking about himself. He boasted about how many people he’s taken through the Taj, how he studies Japanese to help all the Japanese tourists (yet didn’t know how to respond to my saying おはようございます, good morning), and how he has a great personality for being a tour guide. He spent considerable time showing me the portfolio of selfies he has with his clients who are from all over the world. He insisted what he earns helps him continue his education, but I think it mostly when to lifting weights and creatine. “Feel my bicep” was once said. After getting answers on how many tours per week, and how many gym visits per day and per week, little time remained for study unless he’s especially diligent. His biceps and Japanese proved what I felt I needed to know. He carried the gait of someone who lifts and does not stretch, and couldn’t be more than 25 years old.
I was spending considerable amounts of my time alone with my camera, clearly not giving him enough attention. But I was only hearing the same three facts about the Taj repeated over and over. So, as I was standing there alone with him while it was Shell’s turn to take a time lapse a distance away he confided in me that I needed to work on my personality. I assured him I had no future as a tour guide. He really earned his tip.
After Agra, we had planned to meet our driver’s family in Delhi before departing for the airport later in the evening. But we ran into a bit of a mechanical issue along the way and our departure was delayed out of Agra. We missed meeting his wife and kids, which was an experience we were looking forward to and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get to do it. But, despite the mechanical issues, we made it to the airport in Delhi for a flight to Amritsar. Now, we were on our own, no driver or preplanned course.
In the airport, we stuck out while waiting near the gate for Amritsar. We were the only white folk on the flight. A man in his 60s approached and very animatedly used broken English to ask where we were from. He wanted his niece to speak with us, she seemed to be the family’s star pupil and English speaker. She was not shy, but considerably more reserved than her uncle who continued to talk with me.
He had a lot to say about Pakistan (overwhelmingly negative), and a lot to say about the United States (overwhelmingly positive). I don’t want to seem disingenuous in invoking this, but his mannerisms and speech were not unlike the fictional character of Borat. At times this was a lot to handle, but he was giving it his all. He said he learned his Enligsh exclusively through television. He was not an educated man, but much of his family was and it was a source of pride for him. This was our introduction to being on our own and we were already getting a lot of attention.
As we scanned our boarding passes to board the plane the screen flashed “seat already assigned.” We were reassigned to an upper class. The only white folk on the plane got auto-bumped to the upper class. I’ll admit it is always nice to have an upgrade, but having one so visibly was a different feeling.
We got to Amritsar late into the night and headed to our accommodation at Hong Kong Inn. They kindly had rates printed out for hiring a driver for the day and such, something we knew we would need. The next morning we took Bourdain’s suggestion of Kesar da Dhaba for our morning meal. This ended up being one of my favorite meals in the country.
When we hired the driver from Hong Kong Inn we simply expected a cab-like experience that we had hired out for the day. Instead, our Sikh driver ended up being a great guide for us as well. He did not speak English, but his smile and kind eyes were all we needed to follow. He took us to the Golden Palace for our first time. He accompanied us through the temple and tied my scarf around my head like a turban.The temple feeds some 100,000 people each day. He showed us the rituals along the way and took us through the kitchens. We would not have done this otherwise, or have known where to go. It’s easy to find a meal, it wasn’t easy to find the kitchen or know that it is possible to go in. I also wouldn’t be surprised if one cannot go in without the kind of company we had. We went from corner to corner with different experiences in each. One which has water that you drink, another with an interesting putty-like edible that is smashed into your hand which had a sweet nutty flavor. All creeds are welcomed into this temple, unlike many other religious places we’ve been to this trip.
We also took a ride out to the India/Pakistan border for a very curious show. At the Wagah Border, there is a nightly ceremony which fills up the stadium seating built up on each side of the border. The guards are dressed flamboyantly and impeccably, and with equally large showmanship they march and salute during a loud and strange celebration of sorts. The show is obviously growing in popularity as there is a second level of stadium seating being built on the Indian side. This, as it would seem all construction in Asia, is made of concrete. The men doing the work at the sky-high levels were sawing and chipping away at the concrete, which as we all know creates massive amounts of noise. Not any of which we could hear above the cheering and music being pumped over the loudspeakers.
An equally intense audience was just across the border decked out in different colors and more Arab dress. HINDUSTAN bellowed from one side. PAKISTAN from the other. Everyone was cheering, it was like being at the most intense ball game you’ve likely ever experienced. But instead of a bowl game, think nuclear war.
This border station is, after all, a border crossing, and the gate is being closed for the night. We had been sitting in the stands for a bit, watching men sell sodas and snacks around the stands when a tour bus comes flying through the main route. People were peering through the glass, waving at the crowd as the bus passed through the gate and into Pakistan on its way to Lahore.
After the show as we filed out of the arena-like viewing area we bumped into a couple from the states. He was born in this area of India, and they were visiting his parents with their newborn. She was born only 30 miles away from where I was and I soon learn she and I are both Purdue graduates. They now live in the Chicagoland area, and we are, once again, reminded just how small the world is.
In leaving the area, we mixed up with a whole pile of people and you might think we could have sunk into it all and become anonymous. But, we stuck out and had a plethora of pictures taken. One memorable moment was of a bunch of young Sikhs with very colorful turbans. They kindly asked for a group selfie shot and we obliged. I soon regretted not asking for a copy. It took me a while, but I searched them out and found the group. I got one’s attention and he rounded up the rest. They were even more excited than I for this second go.
Our driver was waiting for us and seemed happy to find us smiling and mixing up with a whole lot of people from the crowd. We had him take us to a restaurant he liked for dinner, which ended up being a sister place of one of Bourdain’s dinner stops. We then took another visit to the Golden Temple, this time in the dark. We did not brave the line for entry to the temple itself on either visit. I’m not sure if we regret that at all or not, the lines are very long. The grounds themselves and all the action going on at the temple seemed more interesting to me, likely due to our private tour.
We arrange for our kind driver to stay along with us for the next day and have him drive us to the mountain station of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I wrote a post on Thanksgiving, which marks our time in Dharamsala and includes some of the details of our stay there. We never did cross paths with His Holiness, and we also just missed him in Mumbai. But we did meet some very kind folks at our homestay in Trimurti House. One couple on a spiritual journey, and two older friends who have spent much of their life traveling the globe. The older gentleman had been to Dhamma Giri in Igatpuri for a ten-day course 30 years before us and told us his tale. A tale of staying in dormitories in Mumbai with no electricity. The imagery he provided us was of him opening the door to the dorm and seeing a string of sweaty faces turn towards him in the dark. He admitted to upgrading to a different arrangement.
We enjoyed the relaxing time up in Himachal Pradesh. We had a lot of spider friends and slept under many blankets each night without heat. But each day was a bustling and sunny day of exploring the area in the foothills, mixing up with monks, volunteering our English skills, and visiting temples. We met some American students studying there, one was surprisingly studying in Indiana near the Ohio border at a school, of which, I’ve never heard before but was trying to tackle the topic of consciousness.
We may have had more boots on the ground help in Mumbai than anywhere else. Between former coworkers and friends, we had several people we could have called for help or to meet up with. With some regret, we didn’t take advantage of either. We arrived very late into Mumbai and waited in the horn honking mess outside the airport for a considerable time before making it to the Fort area. We grabbed some food in the neighborhood after dropping our bags. We explored a little in the morning and found some breakfast, but were soon off to catch a train to Igatpuri. An experience all to itself. Then we paused for ten days of Vipassana.
Upon our return to Mumbai, we had an afternoon to explore before our flight the next day. We stayed in the Juhu beach area and strolled along the long, but polluted beach. The disparity in living conditions may be most apparent in Mumbai. It also is not a cheap city to be in.
“India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.”
― Shashi Tharoor
We didn’t leave ourselves anytime, really, to meet up or explore. We soon caught that flight that included the stampede. At this point, we had become exhausted with all the movement and were feeling relaxed and at peace after ten days of silence. Ready for a change in our surroundings.
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
― Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
P.S. I read this article on India’s economy, I found it harsh but also some harsh reality with it too. “Visitors don’t return from India thinking this is a country about to take off, but one that is, as always, muddling along at its own pace.” I do see enormous potential despite the tough environment.
I’m excited to tell you the galleries are mostly updated on the Photography page. Nepal and India are the most recent ones up there, and if you have explored this page previously, those are not new. However, Venice, Croatia, Basque Country, London and more have all been posted.
Before we started the trip I bought a FujiFilm X100F to be my trusty sidekick for the year. Small and simple, I thought it would be perfect in a purist sort of sense. Fixed lens, few choices, but amazing hardware and chips within. When you carry a camera every day you simply increase the chances you’ll take a picture. I loved my Canon 7D, but the kit is large and heavy and I never carried it much. I lugged it around Cambodia and Vietnam in 2013, but I would often leave it behind. Either in the hotel room or back in the states entirely like when we went to Myanmar. I thought the X100F would be a great compromise.
Good or bad, that little Fuji brought back to life a love for photography I haven’t felt since high school. By the time we got to London I was already shopping for other models from Fuji that could still make me feel unnoticed and not hinder my willingness to carry every day. I settled on the new X-Pro2. This camera had a range of lenses to choose from, and I got two. The number of situations I’m equipped to shoot went up drastically. With my little fixed-lens X100F there were many times it simply wasn’t the right focal length for what I was trying to capture.
The morning I made the trade, I also took a street photography workshop in London. 500 photos that day, the two batteries I had were dead by the end of it. The gents putting the workshop on were kind to extend into the night for some additional challenge and lessons in the dark, but my camera was dead and I was already late for dinner. The trade has enabled me to take long sky exposures in Nepal, reach in tightly for portraits and people, and really scale up both the breadth and depth of what I can capture. This is also why the London gallery is overflowing.
The galleries don’t function precisely how I’d like them to. It would be nice if the captions I’ve written were visible, and if a few extra options were removed to save some confusion I think is inevitable. But if once in a gallery, you click the picture itself it will open in whats called a lightbox. In the bottom left corner, you will see the photo filename, which may help place the photo a little for you. Then use the arrows or your arrow keeys to cycle through the photos. That would be my recommendation.
I invite feedback on these pictures. I’ve loved shooting them, but another challenge I’ve taken on is learning more about post-processing. In high school, I used the darkroom. Now it is all software and I’m trying to learn all the secrets of Adobe Lightroom. I’ve played with different scenarios, presets, treatments, and so on for certain looks. Sometimes I wonder if I’m working the post-processing too much, other times I really love the additional feeling it gives the picture.
Do you see any that make you feel one way or the other?