Indelhible Memories from the North

The biggest surprise of my time in India has been how smoothly the fieldwork has gone (at least, schedule-wise). I started the trip mildly stressed that the four and a half months was irresponsibly short and would not allow for any free time or any delayed meetings. Instead, I basically have needed none of the days I’ve saved for contingency as somehow the fieldwork has gone magically well. My intern and I also worked for a few weeks straight when we learned his time would be cut short. In return, this means that I’ve had the beginnings of my dream vacation in India and Nepal, but only the beginnings. My soul is still promising itself that we’ll come back and spend a few months just traveling in this beautiful country when I become a Doctor.

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I began my trip by semi-spontaneously flying north to Kathmandu, Nepal in search of mountains, ramen, and cool(er) weather. I was immediately struck by how different Nepal is from India. Wait, not all countries in Asia are the same?? Weird, I know. We just had a Nepali man move into my neighborhood in Bangalore and start a highly addicting momo (dumplings) street food stall, which whet my appetite for Nepal’s wonderful suite of dumpling-themed snacks and soups.

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I averaged 13 miles of walking each day in Kathmandu, and even the one day that I took three taxis, I still walked 10 miles. Most of my time will be told through pictures since the places I was lucky enough to travel deserve their chance to speak their own thousand words. On the outskirts of the really touristy Thamel district is the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The perimeter of the square is outlined with piles of broken bricks, and large posters in the area show pictures of how the square used to be before the earthquakes in 2015. The majority of the Himalayan mountain region in both India and Nepal is Buddhist, standing in stark contrast to the strong Hinduism I’ve been surrounded by in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The main squares in each of these towns are dotted with Buddhist temples, and I passed more stupas, big and small, than I could count.

I spent a full day exploring Patan, an area outside of the center of Kathmandu that is home to most of the NGOs and INGOs working in Nepal. I started by eating lunch at a Newari restaurant. I asked an innocent question about aaila, and learned that it’s a Newari spirit, like a homemade rice whiskey. My innocent question led to a spontaneous aaila tasting at 11 am. The Patan Durbar Square is quite different from the similarly named square in Kathmandu.

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I happened to be in Nepal on Buddha’s birthday and witnessed hundreds of parades and musical celebrations, each with women dressed in the same colorful red or yellow or purple saris, each with a small band of children drumming and dancing, each with young ladies holding a Buddhist flag like a parachute to collect donations, each with men in Nepali cloth caps of a pale pink and blue pattern sporting shirts that proudly proclaimed that the Buddha was born in Nepal. When the parades finished and I could finally move on the cobblestone streets again, I wandered to a square with a large and colorful statue of Buddha, and was surprised that on his birthday, the square’s only sounds and signs of life came from a few fluttering pigeons, a group of three old ladies chatting on dry woven mats, and a man sandpapering furniture for his carpentry business. I sat to rest in this square and learned I may not be as mortally afraid of cockroaches as I once was. While sitting on worn bricks in the empty square, a cockroach took up temporary residence on my foot. Months of ants and mosquitos and flies have conditioned me to react slowly to crawling insects on my skin out of laziness, so it wasn’t for a few moments until I noticed the tickling feeling was a cockroach and I calmly flicked it off, only inviting light twittering from the old women, instead of the usual raucous laughter that white girl plus cockroach yields.

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The next day, I started with a brisk climb up to the Swayambhunath Temple, commonly known as the Monkey Temple due to the hordes of rhesus macaques that reside on the steps. I was chased by an aggressive group of males that were millimeters from biting my ankles—a better wakeup than the strongest cup of coffee.

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Pashupatinath Temple is a large Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati river and is known as a famous and sacred site where Hindus cremate their dead loved ones.

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The Bouddhanath Temple is, in my opinion, the most beautiful temple in Kathmandu, set in a circular square (wait what) and covered in colorful prayer flags.

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My final stop was at the Kopan Monastery, where I walked up a winding deserted road to the Buddhist enclave just in time to seek shelter from a deluge.

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For my last full day in Kathmandu, I ventured outside the capital to an ancient city called Bhaktapur where modernity and history stand juxtaposed at every turn. Uneven burnt orange brick streets are populated by men with long greying beards carrying vegetables in woven baskets suspended from their shoulders with a bamboo pole and while younger men beep past on their new motorbikes.

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I accidentally spent extended time with a little old man named Ram because his infectious enthusiasm and desire to share his knowledge and his world drew me into his handmade paper factory. Enraptured, I followed him around the rickety old wooden staircases of his workshop and watched his fingertips brush lovingly across the painting and carvings he has collected and created as he gave life to the stories of his ancestors. Ram also swore that his slightly crumbling, leaning brick building was perfectly earthquake safe—I think more out of pride that it by luck survived the 2015 earthquake rather than actual engineered safety.

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One of the highlights was when I happened upon a little open-air restaurant with live music, the best jhol momo (dumpling soup), and wait staff who loved me and fed me free drinks all evening.

From Kathmandu, I flew to the Darjeeling district in West Bengal and joined a group of 21 Indians, 3 guides, and 5 hired porters for a five day trek in the Singhalia National Forest with hopes of seeing sunrise views of K2 and Mt. Everest. I had kind of mentally panicked about the prospect of trekking at altitude in the Himalayas when the past four months have been spent at sea level and with minimal athletic endeavors. However, the majority of my 21 fellow trekkers had never been on an overnight trek before and very few had ever gone on any trek at all.

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The first day, I was picked up at 5:30 am by three of the trekkers from Assam and quickly learned that there were a few states, like Assam, in northeastern India that I failed to know existed. We drove up the winding roads to a small village where we hiked down a short, steep hill to a guesthouse. We spent the day wandering the lush farms and walking on the mountain road while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. In the evening, we walked down the foggy road to the town, which was a small stretch of stores and chai shops run out of the front of homes. We failed to find chai and were instead offered homemade rice whiskey and cabbage momos and a local soup with yellow noodles. I’m starting to think that you can’t know a people until you share a bowl of their local village soup.IMG-20170526-WA0015IMG-20170526-WA0014IMG-20170523-WA0058IMG-20170523-WA0057IMG-20170523-WA0053IMG-20170523-WA0047IMG-20170521-WA0025IMG-20170521-WA0020IMG-20170521-WA0019IMG-20170521-WA0006IMG_0584IMG_0581IMG_0492IMG_0489IMG_0483IMG_0473IMG_0468

We started early the next morning for a fifteen kilometer climb through a green forest to a small Nepali village called Tumling. At night, everyone who had previously been exhausted by the day’s hike scrambled willingly up another hill to try to get cell service. I thought we were hiking to see the view, but that was just me. The unfortunate part of the trek is that we were supposed to see the Sleeping Buddha and Mt. Everest multiple times, but due to lots of fog and rain, we only got brief glimpses of the former twice at sunrise (which happens at 4:15 am).

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Over the course of our five day trek, I think I registered my passport and visa no less than twenty times and made friends with some of the Indian army officials who somehow were at nearly every checkpoint. They thought it was amazing that I was traveling alone and signed up for the trek by myself, having assumed I was married to one of the Indian guys on my trip (who, incidentally responded in Hindi and told them “I would be lucky to marry this girl but sadly not yet”).

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From West Bengal, I flew to the opposite side of northern India and spent a short, but incredibly informative few days in Kashmir. My original plans were leading me elsewhere, but last minute weather and budget decisions directed me to Srinagar, one of the larger cities in the Kashmir region. When I landed, I was immediately singled out by a policemen, since I was the only foreigner (and one of four women) on the plane. He led me to a counter where all foreign visitors to Kashmir must register so that the government can know who is there and what their plans are in the event of an unlikely kidnapping by local militants. He then directed me to a cab and called my guesthouse to make sure I arrived safely. I normally avoid organized tours or packaged deals, but my hosts convinced me to hire a tuk tuk driver to take me on a tour of the city’s major and lesser known sites, so I spent the day with a Kashmiri man named Blal.

Kashmir is a state to the northwest of India, bordering Pakistan, and is technically mostly under Indian control. However, since independence and the partition in 1947, there have been disputed claims between India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiri people as to which country the state belongs. According to all of the locals that I spoke to (and the commonplace spray painted slogans), the vast majority of Kashmiri people want Kashmir to be independent from both India and Pakistan and they hold a less than favorable view of the Indian army for their far-reaching occupation and restriction of basic freedoms. For example, social media like Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Whatsapp are all banned in Kashmir since the Indian government is worried that terrorist attacks might be caught on film and then broadcasted instantaneously worldwide, creating more fodder for an already tense conflict. While conflict has existed both passively and violently for the last seventy years, Kashmir has had periods of prosperity. A law in Kashmir prevents any company or industry from being started by any outsider, so all businesses are owned and operated by Kashmiri people solely. The two main (and essentially only) industries in Kashmir are tourism and handicrafts (ever heard of pashmina, Kashmir shawls, or silk rugs?). Prior to the 1990s, Kashmir had a thriving tourism industry that came to a grinding halt after several highly publicized kidnappings of foreign tourists (in addition to numerous other tension-building incidents). Only recently has the region been opened once again to foreign tourists and the economy has taken small steps towards recovery. The economic pains felt in this region as the result of militarized occupation from the Indian government and a long ban for tourists still are visible, with literally hundreds of men waiting in giant groups outside of every hotel, bus stand, or major site touting goods and services of questionable integrity. I’m generally used to receiving a lot of attention while traveling, especially in India and especially when I’m traveling alone, but the attention I’ve received in Kashmir reaches astronomical heights. I spent most of my time with an unending monologue of “no thank you” and eventually chose restaurants solely based on the criteria that no one from the restaurant headed me off in the street and begged me to look at their menu. This actually led to some really excellent meals and conversations with restaurant owners and waiters who were quite surprised to find an American suddenly sitting at one of their tables and asking for their recommendation for the best Kashmiri non-veg (a week of trekking in the Himalayas with a diet of all veg food has made me even more ferociously carnivorous).

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My general rule is to refuse to let groups of men take my picture or take selfies with me, as saying yes in past experience has led to uncomfortable conversations or even more unwanted attention and company, but I’ll usually say yes to women since they seem more innocently excited about having a new American friend. I made the mistake of letting one woman take a picture with me in Pahalgam, only to open the floodgates of her ten friends taking probably hundreds of pictures in every combination of individuals and poses—including several where they took turns wearing my sunglasses and my scarf. This led to a group of professional photographers asking if I would pose for them, and my fleeing to the safe confines of a tea shop.

From Srinagar, I went to Gulmarg, a small mountain town most famous for its high altitude gondola and wintertime ski touring. I took the gondola to the top of the mountain and discovered a gaggle of Kashmiri tourists panicking at the sight of snow and the opportunity to sled across the muddy ice. I instead avoiding this activity and walked until I got my desired view of Pakistan.

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Since it was the offseason, one of the hotel workers, Imran, offered to take me on a walk to see a few of the local spots, and I assumed this would be a quick thirty minute excursion. Ten miles and three hours later, we returned to the hotel and I went to sleep at 8 pm out of exhaustion, only to be woken up by the same guy at 1 am because it was raining and he wanted to know if I wanted to see the rain. I spent the three hour “walk” basically running after this man since he was used to the altitude and I was still hobbling in recovery from last week’s Himalaya trek. The great benefit of this personalized tour was that we were at times far from tourist and tout eyes and army ears, and I spent the majority of the conversation asking question after question about life in Kashmir, relations with India and Pakistan, the Indian army’s occupation, Kashmiri and Pakistani terrorism, and his opinions on Kashmir’s freedom. Gulmarg is located close to the Pakistan border, and is the last “major” stop before Pakistan, so two entire army battalions (4800 people) are stationed there, taking up a massive amount of formerly pristine forest land and having an ominous presence in an otherwise peaceful mountain town. At several points on our walk, Imran actually pointed out shepherd huts that have housed terrorists who have trekked across the Pakistan-Kashmir border en route to disruption, a Hindu house burned to the ground several years ago, and river crossings that are used in the winter by Kashmiri guides who bring Pakistani militants across the border. I can’t claim to have an opinion on the question of Kashmir’s independence or the ethics of the terrorist attacks or the Indian army occupation. I don’t have an iron in that fire and I have no right and no experience to make any judgement. It was, however, fascinating to compare everything that I’ve read in history books about the partition and in recent news about violence or tension in Kashmir and between India and Pakistan with the narratives shared openly with me by new Kashmiri friends.

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From Gulmarg, Imran’s dad drove me to Pahalgam where I spent a couple of days avoiding touts and finding some quiet amid beautiful snowcapped Himalayas. I’m not sure if this is all of Kashmir or just the four places I picked to stay, but all of them have had non-functional wifi and shower taps that run out of water after 15 seconds. Since the start of my trek in West Bengal, I’ve taken one ice-cold bucket shower in Siliguri where I couldn’t last more than 120 seconds and two fifteen second “showers” in Kashmir. I’m thankful I’m returning to Bangalore after midnight, otherwise my accumulation of two weeks of filth might be embarrassing. In Pahalgam, I took a couple of short hikes up the hills to find waterfalls and better views of the surrounding mountains and quickly discovered that trekking by foot is extremely uncommon, as all other visitors were “trekking” via pony ride. On my second day, I was convinced by one of the people at my hotel to go on a pony ride, offered free of charge by his friend. The ride ended up being surprisingly fun and immensely painful. I think riding bareback would have left me with fewer bruises, as the worn saddle had hidden pieces of metal that dug into my body every time the horse took a step.

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My final night in Kashmir was spent on a houseboat in Srinagar. The houseboats here are much more within budget than those of Alleppey in Kerala and appear significantly more “budget” as well.

The only awkward conversation I had was when someone was asking me about my plans after Kashmir and I told them I was going “back to India”, and they stammered that we are in India. A few days speaking to Kashmiri “nationalists” is enough to believe it’s a different country.

After five days in Kashmir, I actually nearly converted to introvertism. It was great to make some friends and have interesting conversations throughout my explorations, but eventually the uninvited conversations and the endless stream of men who would sit down at my dinner table and talk to me became a bit wearing.

After my two week vacation to the Himalayas, I returned to Bangalore for one last long weekend with good friends. When my time in Bangalore came to a teary close, I flew to Delhi for a short day and a half of meetings with USAID, local NGOs, and local universities that were more for professional networking than directly influential for my research. I stayed in a little homestay, my new favorite mode of Indian travel, which was a flat shared by two older women and a recently rescued stray cat. I also shared an Afghani meal with a dear friend from Cal Poly who’s now living and working in Delhi and experienced a wonderful moment of finally having someone who knows both India and me to help process life here. I’m now at the Delhi airport waiting for the beginning of my journey home, reflecting on the beautiful whirlwind the past five months have been.

To everyone that I’ve met over the past five months—over the eight months I’ve spent in India in the past year—so many of you will never read this blog and will never know of its existence, of its sarcastically scripted observations of your lives and your impacts on mine. But I hope that in some dimension, you understand the way that you have touched my heart and given life to my soul, through the ways that you have encouraged me and challenged me, shocked me and taught me, laughed with me and wept with me, graciously forgave me and humbly welcomed me. Some of you have become cherished friends that I hope to know for the rest of my life, others we shared brief moments that remain no less impactful. The chances I’ve had to come to India a dive headfirst into the ups and downs of fieldwork and travel have been the best of my life, and to everyone and to India, I am thankful.

Until the next adventure,

Allie

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