Thursday, 31 March 2016

The perfect haircut

I look at my scissors and my hair in the mirror. "I'm ready," I say to myself. I begin cutting off one strand at a time without any inhibition or fear. Although I am unable to see whether I am making progress, I touch the back of my neck and I think my hair is well trimmed. Then I hear him. "What are you doing?! Are you crazy?!! Don't do that!". 10 minutes later, with his help, my hair looks neat and tidy enough to me... The moment I decided an imperfect haircut would do - very easy. The moment I decided an imperfect trip would do - much harder!





Hostels, Hotels, and Interesting Conversations

I have now lived in houses, hostels, swanky business hotels, resorts, and on a ship in Antarctica. I have camped on snow, and will live in a tent. I have slept in a train, bus, car, tuk-tuk, boat, plane, capsule hotel, and ship. If I could sleep on a bicycle, I would probably do that too. Lol.

But, I have always maintained that I feel most comfortable in hostels. After all, I get to pay nominal prices for a bed and breakfast package, and meet the most interesting of strangers!

Take the time when I learned about the 70 year old grandpa who bikes across Canada, or when I set off with my new friends on bicycles to nearby wineries in Niagara Lake!

Not all hostels are created equal though.

Some leave you just as lonely as hotels, and some do not hold the same cleanliness or safety standards as other hostels. In fact, after much convincing and informed advice, I have not spent a single day in a hostel ever since I left Argentina. Yet, I have had some of the most memorable conversations since I began my trip in December (2015).

My first memorable conversation took place in the tourist hub of Vietnam.

It was an odd sight for me as I walked down a broad, paved road that was congested with vehicles and foot traffic, with my hiking backpack on my back, after an hour’s ride on a bus from the airport. Both sides of the road were flanked by restaurants serving alcohol to foreign clientele seated outside; there were massage parlours every few feet, and street hawkers blaring automated speakers announcing the delicacies being sold.

I still remember particularly observing one lady who would lie like Cleopatra atop a portable wooden table, just like the small ceramic models sold in souvenir shops across the world. She had Vietnamese facial features, a round body, and an aura of superiority that I recorded in my mind.

A few shops down and on the right, I found a small, long restaurant with two steps leading to a cement floor, 6 tables, four chairs around each table, and two tables lining the passageway every few feet. My new-found friend and I took a seat at a table outside the restaurant.

At the table next to us was a gentleman, obviously a foreigner. He continued to sip from his bottle of beer, while watching the road only a few steps away from his table. Looking down the road, all foreigners seemed to have the same past-time, while the local residents dressed to the ninths were entering the club opposite us.

In no time, the waiter brought a couple to be seated at his table.

The gentleman courteously left his table, asked if he could grab the seat on the outer edge of our table, and took a seat. In order to preserve my stoic yet polite fa├žade, I nudged my friend – “Offer him some fries”. The gentleman refused. “Talk to him”.

One nudge at a time, one question at a time, and soon ensues an interesting conversation. He was from Canada, completing research on the air quality of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. The conversation was heavy yet humorous.  

We chatted about pollution in India and Vietnam, capitalism and economies driven by tourism, self-interest, and politics. As we parted ways, we received tips from him about where to visit so we are away from the touristic hub of Ho Chi Minh.

Hours later, just as fast as the conversation began, it ended. I have learned that these kinds of interactions are just as precious to me, as friendships that develop while travelling. #travelsuccess

The other conversation that still stands out in my mind was also with tourists in Pushkar, India.

After an hour’s walk from the resort located on the outskirts of the city, I found myself walking along the steps of the Bathing Ghat. As I felt the hot steps under my bare feet, I watched believers bathing themselves in the Ghat, and a few tourists self-reflecting as they watched the still water a few feet from them.

The steps were surrounding the Ghat on all four sides, and right opposite the gate I had entered from, my friend noticed three girls sitting at the topmost step of one set of stairs. Two were wearing traditional dresses from the state of Rajasthan, and a younger girl was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans.

This time my friend nudged me. “Take their photo. Three women seated together. This is exactly what you are looking for”. My conscience forced me to ask them whether they would feel comfortable if I took their photo. One of the three ladies responded. “Mine?!”. I replied back in Hindi, the Indian language I felt most comfortable with. “All three of you, please”. To which, the younger girl said, “No”.

I understand (okay a bit upset at the lost opportunity, but I understand), and I walk onwards to a small stone canopy. Sharing that canopy with two other tourists, both foreigners, I resisted talking to them. After all, I wanted an authentic Indian experience.

But no sooner did we start, thanks to my friend, we shared one of the most intellectual conversations I have ever had on my trip so far.

The conversation was enhanced only due to the deeper knowledge of India that my friend possessed. As we were sitting there in the dimmest of lights, all others began to leave the Ghat. Yet, we continued talking, about pollution and cleanliness in India, commercialization for the sake of tourism, respecting local customs and religious beliefs, and the differences we experience travelling alone versus with a companion. The one point that was raised time and again was the need to have open discussions between and within countries for continuous improvement.

The fantasy of living life small, in hostels, speaking to locals, has been dashed as I sit there, whether in Vietnam or India, having an intellectual conversation with my friend from India and with visiting foreigners, all of us broadening our own narrow vision of the world….

Cheap, Luxurious, or Available (Vehicles)

The avant garde solo travelette in me, the rebel, couldn’t care less about cars and flights. In fact, my ultimate fantasy would be to use the cheapest form of transport to get anywhere in the world.

Put me in a bus, a truck, or a small boat and despite the hours of nausea and exhaustion I will recount it as one of my fondest memories. I guess I have a penchant for travel torture.

On this trip though, I have experienced the city in ways that I would never experience had I been travelling alone. Totally against my need to travel cheap, but extremely comfortable for sure.


How to book train tickets in India, and train etiquette

My train travels were of course still aligned with my need to travel cheap. Phew! Did you know? There is a website that can be used to book train tickets in India!

I still remember sitting down with my aunt to book my train to Baroda, India. The only constraint was that I did not have an Indian credit card. Shucks!

Once the tickets were booked with my aunt’s credit card, the advice I received was to refrain from talking, looking, and smiling at anyone. Oh, and no eating anything served on the trains. Totally unlike me! But I heeded the advice and not once did I even glance at another soul.

Ok, I lie. I glanced.

I placed my bags on the horizontal steel poles placed high above my seat for luggage, and sat down at my window seat. Not too long later, a man sat beside me on his reserved seat and asked me to close the blinds to block the sunlight. The sunlight! Grrrr!

My movie-like desire to feel the wind and view villages passing by had been dashed! I tried to console myself; "Who cares if it is not perfect"! No use.

A few hours later, I was surprised by an unfamiliar voice calling my name. My friend's friend had come to visit me in the train for a handful of minutes, to give me a quick bite to eat while the train had stopped at Surat. Context – I had bought a sandwich at the railway station in Mumbai when I set out, but as it was not grilled, my friends and family told me it may not be safe to eat.

A few bites of the Dhokla I was given by my newest friend, and my mood was uplifted in an instant! Isn't it amazing – how a network can be built across many miles just to uplift one spirit.

In the many months to come, I travelled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Within each city, I tried different modes of transportation, based on what was easily available, comfortable, and/or reasonably priced.

I took autorickshaws in India, Cambodia, and Myanmar; intercity tourist cars in India and Vietnam; taxis in India, Vietnam, and Myanmar; local buses in India and Vietnam; overnight sleeper buses in India and Myanmar; and local and overnight sleeper trains in India.

Out of all these modes of transportation, my best experiences in India were technology-based. I have been able to tell exactly how late my sleeper bus and train will be at each of its stops along the way, from an understated local website.

I have learned how to find reliable intercity tourist cars.

I have even downloaded mobile apps to call for local taxis in India (Ola Cabs for cars and Jugnoo for autorickshaws), and other apps (m-Indicator) to find out when and where to catch local buses and trains, right down to the platform number and name of the train and bus stations.

The perfect health

Forget about accommodation and mode of transportation. In order to successfully complete any travel plan I have devised (*LOUD EVIL LAUGHTER*), my health has been the most important.

It has been my driving force that has determined where I will stay and what mode of transportation I will use to travel. And, this has been a typical year for me where my health is concerned! I do not know about others, but I don’t think I have ever been perfectly healthy throughout a year. Lol.

Bruises in Antarctica, colds and coughs in Jodhpur and Mumbai (India), mosquito bites to boot, rashes in the weirdest places, and pain affecting various body parts.

From my experiences, I have learned that:
  • Bruises fade away.
  • So do small burns (Although I know the key catalyst for my burns to fade away was a popular Mumbai cream called zakhmerooz)! 
  • I love sleep and it really helped with my heat-induced headaches and colds and coughs. 
  • I avoid antibiotics with all my heart, but once in a while it did speed up my recovery.
  • Moisturizers really help with rashes.
What else?:
  • Lip balm helps reduce the sting of dryness in the air.
  • Hiking in the wilderness helped with my knee pain.
  • Hand sanitizer is effective for mosquito bites. 
  • My insect bite gel was an excellent investment for particularly stingy mosquito bites.
  • Painkillers were essential when I could not bear my menstrual pain.
And, finally, hurrah for WhatsApp when I missed my friends and family.
But, being surrounded by healthy people who are active also makes a big difference!

As I have travelled, I have seen the best of the best in terms of health advocacy around the world.

Winter marathons for youth and adults across India; seniors waking up early to catch the sunrise while walking in their local parks; youth playing badminton on the streets at night and practicing yoga by lakes in the park; and outside gyms in Vietnam and Delhi (India), so local residents can exercise any part of their body on open-air machines at all times of the day.

In fact, I think my body has just been exhausted taking local buses, trains, rickshaws, and cars. Combine that with the pollution and the incredible heat that is pervasive in Asian summers. Unfathomable!

I guess there are only two possibilities – one is that there is no recourse for those who must travel for work and work in the heat, and the other is that those who do have recourse can find comfort under fans and ACs in restaurants or shops.

The perfect experience

My best experiences in India were ones that involved laughing and singing with my cousins on a bed while watching old, classic movies; sitting on the floor eating sandwiches and full-on Indian meals; and watching my niece jump around the house like a little kangaroo.

Kangaroo? Imagine - a 2-year old running around the entire house, singing at whim, pouring you imaginary tea, spreading powder on her face and yes, refusing to sleep!

Apart from the moments I spent with my family, I have learned about my need to believe in others despite their negative attitudes, the vast array of intellectual thoughts and paradigms impacting Indian education, and the efforts of the few in spite of their perception that their impact will just be a drop in the complex history and infrastructure of India.

There were times where I was tired and sleepy and could not keep my eyes open for longer than a few minutes.

Yet, I fought the urge to sleep and captured my environment on camera so I could really feel its power, if not in the present then in the future. There were also times where I admired the architectural prowess of heritage structures while battling with the knowledge of the pain and death involved in their making. In some cases, death has followed some structures until recently because star-crossed lovers have decided to leap to their deaths from them.

Genuineness of intent

The most appreciated and respected figures are no comparison to regular women I have met. I still remember sitting in Nimisha’s car when I met her in Surat.

She was passing under an expressway when she asked me, “Did you see them fighting”. I hadn’t. To which she responded that she had once intercepted a fight by walking over and hugging one of the people involved in the fight. The person she hugged automatically calmed down. “Do you want to do that now?,” I asked. “Should we?”. “Sure!”.

A U-turn, a quick parking, and off she went to mediate. Not too long later, I saw smiles on some of their faces. Her presence had obviously made a difference, and she had spent more than a few minutes with them, listening to both sides and nodding her head to imply she had heard them.

When she returned to the car, I asked her whether she would return the next day and whether she thought she had made a difference. A practical person, she responded that she may not have. But I truly believe she had in that moment….

There are few like Nimisha who step out of their regular routine to help a passerby.

Some I have met who explain and assist me graciously. Others who care only for their self-interest, avoiding any services that may be in their professional package but cause them inconvenience. Still others who claim ignorance when they are alerted to their lack of service.

All this to say, I must learn that no trip is perfect, no person is perfect. But, I continue to be an ill-fated optimist that everyone has a soft, pleasant, kind, caring corner somewhere deep down in their heart of hearts.

Nature versus Nurture

Vietnam

In Vietnam, I spent USD $265 on a hike. Too much right?

After months of city dwelling, I needed it. After all, that is where I have always found pure happiness – amongst the trees!

A long ride to the national park, much asking for directions and searching for vegetarian food, forms filled in the dim light of a lamp by a lake, a short boat ride, a 2 minute golf cart ride to get the keys to the hotel room, and the end of the night in the room.

However, the trip to the hotel did not disappoint as much as the attitude of the hotel staff, who found it inconvenient to cook vegetarian meals, had little to no knowledge about the species in the park and why their large mammals were extinct, and were unable to advise us when crocodiles could be seen at the nearby lake.

With my training in Antarctica, I patiently waited for an hour on the second floor of a lean, tall, three story wooden structure. Staring through the camera my friend loaned me, I noticed something harsh and brownish on the lake surface.

I zoomed my friend’s camera to focus some more, and omg! There, far in the distance, after being told they were not around, I and only I saw the teensy weensy eyes of a croc! I took one hazy photo and then it disappeared, not giving me a second chance to hold the camera more stable.

But, the walk to the lake and back to the hotel was the best part of the experience. As I walked amongst the trees, I mulled over my thoughts while listening to cricket-like chirping around me, an orange jacket around my waist, and drinking my bottle of water in the humid heat. I realized how much I had missed hiking. Solo or not. This was #MyNature.































On this trip I have realized my best experiences may not necessarily be solo, but they must involve hiking, pushing myself, and feeling the incredible physiological and mental satisfaction of achieving something while being out and about, amongst the trees!

Case in point – Myanmar.

My favourite experience there was the ride along a narrow stretch of water that turns into a wide lake and then begins to be spotted with floating farms with cows and chickens, houses and shops on stilts with clothes hanging outside to dry, and tufts of green dotting the lake.

Despite the stopovers at the tourist markets and only one small child asking for payment (uncharacteristically) to park our boat, I enjoyed watching the clouds above me with squinted eyes due to the harsh sunlight beating down on me.

As I lay there face up in the boat, staring at the sky, I could feel the boat leaning forward, landing in the water with a whoosh everytime there was a dip in the river. Inle Lake is known for its fishermen who row the boat with one foot while using their hands to hold their coned nets and catch fish.
Many of us choose to idealize this picture and the simple way of life, with local residents bathing in the river, and their children fishing with makeshift rods.

I choose to remember this serenity of Inle Lake, and wonder whether I truly understood the economic and emotional state of its residents #MyNature.



India

In India, I enjoyed my brief, 90 minute walk from my resort, on the outskirts of Pushkar, to the Bathing Ghat in the city town.

Hiking in my Merrells in the desert sands, I felt I could tackle anything in front of me. Heat? Pshh! Sand? Pshh! #MyNature. I heard kid’s voices in the distance. Oh sweet village children; innocent, smiling, children. But my naivety was shattered.

First asking for chocolates, then for my bracelet, and finally for money, I wondered where their innocence had disappeared.

And, whether genuineness could be preserved while also building infrastructure, spreading technology, and encouraging tourism.

Cambodia

And finally, the environment was totally different in Cambodia, which took me back in generations to a time when a whole city was dotted with differently built Hindu and Buddhist temples.

Angkor Wat.

After a long drive in a tuktuk, hiking in the heat from 5am in the morning till 3pm in the afternoon, past trees enveloping the temples, in the dirt, up each temple’s steep steps, along the temple’s corridors, and finally sitting outside the temple by a murky, green lake watching the sunset.

I could not get enough of it, gulping down mouthfuls of water and trekking in my Merrell shoes was the best feeling!

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In the past two months, I have learned that if one enjoys travelling, it doesn’t matter if it is solo or with someone (only the right companion is required).

#MyNature is one in which I can be outside and push myself physically and mentally.






























I have hiked in national parks, deserts, villages, and cities. I have experienced minor and rare incidents of sexual harassment, a fascination for foreigners, and commercialization and exploitation of tourists (local and foreign).

I have appreciated architectural prowess while feeling overwhelmed by my historical knowledge of wondrous monuments.

I have gone entirely vegetarian and experienced difficulty finding vegetarian food.

I have learned that there are advancements in the East that I have not come across in the West, and I have learned women are pursuing any and all professions around the world.

In all these experiences, one thing is for sure, I feel most comfortable in #MyNature, one in which there are trees and I can hike. In fact, did you know that Stanford researchers have found a positive relation between hiking and mental health!


Before I end this post, I have been asked to share my tips on 5 essential things I think every person should travel with. What I have learned I should never travel without:
  1. Working phone – I used it to take photos, access maps, order taxis, and Google top destinations I wanted to visit. I also kept in touch via WhatsApp with family and friends.
  2. Hand sanitizer and toilet paper – So very important when I needed to sanitize any injury, when I found myself dotted with mosquito bites, and when I needed to use the bathroom!
  3. Menstrual underwear (yes this is directed to women) – I wanted to make sure I did not leave behind a large environmental footprint and that I was travelling light.
  4. Medication, including painkillers and cold medicine
  5. Local currency cash, and a valid credit card – No matter what Google tells you, I have learned not everyone accepts US dollars!
Of all these, except for #3, you can find the others at local stores and at the airport.

My secondary list would include:
  1. Universal adapter with a high quality USB cable - I have come across so many types of plug outlets around the world!
  2. High-end portable charger – Smartphones run out of battery quickly. So annoying.
  3. Synthetic fibre clothes that can wash and dry fast. Super helpful!
  4. Excellent hiking backpack that won’t break your back
  5. Healthy snacks for midnight hunger pangs!

I am in the process of preparing a video to share all my experiences with you in Asia. Do stay tuned and thank you for continuing to check if and when I make a post!

P.S. There is also a new website (onewomanempowered.com) that will lead you to all my different social media accounts - Instagram for photos, my facebook page "One Woman Empowered", and Twitter. Please do not forget to leave a comment, and like my facebook page so you can continue to be notified of new posts, which will I hope be more frequent going forward!!

Wish you a perfect day!