Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Top Fives

Canal de Pangalanes, Madagascar (MK)

Rie tells me that when I get back to the USA in a few days, people will ask me which place--out of all the places we went this year--I liked the best. I can’t begin to answer that. I loved many places for many reasons, and I often felt that the most amazing thing was that we were getting to make this trip at all. 

But thinking about that question brought a flood of great experiences to mind. I know that when I get home, it’s going to be hard for me not to rattle on and on and on about the trip to anyone who will listen—and equally hard to zero in on the key moments. So here’s a first stab at that:

Five Great Days

With Annie in Mendoza. (MK)
  • The day Miguel took me to his hometown, the tiny village of Inguilpata, Peru. I felt privileged to be invited briefly into a way of life so different from my own.
  • Any day on our five-day wilderness hike in southern Chile. My fit, athletic big sister does stuff like this—I don’t. On this trek I discovered that actually I could too.
  • Our bicycle tour around the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina with my daughter and Rie’s younger son. I can’t believe I never wrote about this outing—it was pure fun in excellent company.
  • Our pirogue tour along the Canal de Pangalanes in Madagascar. Though we got off on the wrong foot with our guide, we ended up having a blissful day with zero travel stress.
  • Day One of a three-day trip to some remote villages in northern Mozambique. Volunteering at Manda Wilderness gave me the rare chance to do meaningful work in stunning surroundings—and sitting on the sand watching the sun go down, I was very grateful for that.

Five Memorable Meals

Honorable Mention--the indoor asado at our hostel in El Bolsón, Argentina, where Claudio (the chef) laid the food on the table and said, "Attack!" (KK)

  • Potato soup, guinea pig haunches, and sweet, strong coffee at the Aristas’ home in Inguilpata, Peru. Everything we ate was grown or raised right on their hillside patch of land—and boy, was it good!
  • Minced beef and olive empanadas at Bar Britanico, a decades-old wood-and-brass neighborhood café in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. While I ate, I watched lovers woo and old men drink coffee and argue about politics.
  • The lovely brunch in Somerset West, South Africa with Mariette DuPlessis, who had loaned us her family’s home in Hermanus for a week. For dessert, she gave us melktert (custard pie) and koeksisters (twisted, syrup-covered doughnuts), foods that till then I’d only read about in novels.
  • Any one of many dinners that ended with Nkwichi pudding—a simple tangy-lemon dessert with a crushed cookie crust—at a torch lit table on the beach in Mozambique, with the sky over Lake Malawi black and full of stars.
  • My budget-friendly comfort food routine in Chiang Mai, Thailand: stir-fried big noodles with chicken and veggies from one night-time street stall and a banana pancake from the next stall over. I’d hand each vendor one of the empty steel dishes from my tiffin carrier, then sit between the stalls on a plastic stool, people-watching until the dishes came back full.

Five Crummy Moments

It was called the Hotel Great Value--really! (MK)

  • Heading across the bridge from Ecuador to Peru, having already been stamped out of Ecuador, and discovering that we couldn’t legally enter Peru.
  • Standing at an ATM in Dehradun, India, low on cash, having just put my card into the machine, when the power suddenly failed, the screen went blank and the card was gone.
  • Sitting in a Dehradun hotel room after changing rooms once already because the door of the first room didn’t lock, and hearing a crash. It turned out the bathroom ceiling had collapsed and the tub was now full of drywall pieces and gypsum dust.
  • Riding exhausted in the front seat of a mini-bus in Mozambique, hearing a thwap! and knowing, just knowing, that my computer bag had flown out onto the highway through the faulty back door. It had.
  • Later that same day—having retrieved the bag from the highway and declined to let the chapa conductor put it back under a big dead catfish in the back of the van—walking into one of the trip’s nicer hotels gritty with dust, stinking of sweat, with fish scales clinging to what once was a respectable looking piece of luggage.

Five Things I Wish I’d Done Differently

But people speak English all over the world, don't they? (Andasibe, Madagascar, KK)

  • Planned ahead more. We read a lot about South America ahead of time and we figured we’d read about subsequent places while we traveled. What we didn’t realize was that when you’re in a new place, you want to BE in that place—and that it takes a lot of mental energy to find your way around, learn bits of a new language, see and do and eat new things. We didn’t have the headspace to read much about Africa and Asia before we went there, and that was a shame.
  • Brought a better camera. I had a cheap point-and-shoot and when I ruined it in the rain on Lake Titicaca, I bought another cheap point-and-shoot. Yes, it’s a pain to lug around heavy camera equipment, and yes, you have to protect it from dust, rain and theft. But so many times on this trip I saw things I just couldn’t photograph with the camera I had on hand.
  • Joined a few carefully selected tours. We chose to make all our own transportation and accommodation arrangements, which probably saved us money and definitely resulted in many wonderful encounters, insights and experiences. Traveling like the local people do gives you a glimpse of their lives that you just can't get from an air-conditioned tourist van. But we also had days when we arrived at our destination too exhausted to be interested in what was around us. Letting somebody else do the planning now and then would have saved some wear and tear. 
  • Built in more down time. When you travel for an extended period, you just can't keep up the pace you might during a two- or three-week vacation. We learned this eventually, though it never felt quite right to "waste" a day when there was so much around us to do.
  • Learned more language before the trip. I found it impossible to even think about studying Portuguese in a Spanish-speaking country. It was hard enough to study Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country! I wish that before I left home I had mastered at least the basic phrases in each language we were going to encounter. Even stammering out “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you” makes a world of difference. Very often, knowing just a little more would have let me have real conversations.

Five Realizations

Getting a parcel wrapped for mailing in India means going to a street vendor who sews it up in white linen and seals it with red wax. (KK)

  • Slow is good. The places I remember most clearly are the ones where we stayed a while and did ordinary things—bought groceries, browsed bookstores, paid for phone service—rather than just saw the sights.  
  • The world is really big. We went so many places—and we saw just a tiny fraction of all there is to see.
  • You might as well be optimistic. When you travel, so many things are beyond your control that you can either be paralyzed or take the positive view. Staying hopeful is less tiring—and it’s almost always warranted.  
  • It's tricky to balance trust and caution. In some places you have to develop a thousand-yard stare to ward off all those who will clamor for your attention, your business, your coins, pens, sweets or whatever. Almost everywhere, you have to be alert to avoid theft and scams. But sometimes the guide you hire because his persistence wore you down turns out to be excellent. Sometimes the kid who is Bonjour-madame!-ing you to death just wants to say hi. If you’re too distant and too careful, you miss out on the little exchanges that make travel so much fun.  
  • Wherever you’re thinking of going, go now! Your knees will only get creakier. And that thing people say about how it can be cheaper to go than to stay at home? I never used to believe it either, but it's true! It's true!

    Saturday, December 10, 2011



    It’s been fascinating on this trip to hear what people in various countries have to say about the USA. First, though, we had to figure out how to refer to the place where we live. In South America—which is America too—we were very careful to say “We’re from the United States.” Actually, I learned in Peru to say “Soy norteamericana,” which I liked because it encompassed both my Canadian childhood and my adult home. But when we told people in Africa and Asia that we were from the United States, they’d sometimes look puzzled for a second and then say, “Oh! America!”

    Occasionally someone would make a critical comment about American geo-politics, but usually they were too polite. More often they’d mention someone—a cousin, a niece, a son—who was studying in the US. Or maybe they’d say, “I want to go there someday.”  Frequently they asked what we thought of Obama and barely waited for our reply before sharing their own enthusiasm and admiration. 

    A young South African man was astonished to hear there’s a lot of interest in organic food in the USA. He didn’t say so, but I gather his impression was that all we eat—and all we want to eat—are genetically modified organisms and the products of vast chemical-spewing agribusinesses.

    A man who ran a little restaurant in Antananarivo, Madagascar couldn’t believe he was talking to people from America. “It is so far!” he said in French, the look on his face expressing real shock. Then, after a pause, he added, “Everybody is intelligent there.” We laughed. “Well,” we said, “some are, some aren’t.”

    In Peru one day, I got into a discussion with my Spanish teacher—an intelligent, university-educated man—about access to medical care for poor people in each of our countries. “Are there poor people in the United States?” he asked me, clearly surprised.

    A well-traveled professor we met on a train in India exclaimed that when he visited the United States he encountered “such respect for life!” He wasn’t talking about a religious viewpoint, it turned out—he was talking about traffic. “I started across a zebra crossing,” he told us, “and suddenly I saw a car was coming towards me. ‘What should I do?’ I asked myself. ‘Should I go back to the sidewalk?’ But the car stopped and the driver did this”—he made a motioning-across gesture. “And I saw that behind her were many more cars. And they all waited for me to go across!” Having experienced Indian city streets—where, the joke goes, you need to hire a rickshaw to cross the street—we understood why the incident seemed so remarkable to him. But I also thought he was lucky he hadn’t been on some US street corners I know.

    Obama-wear was everywhere we went in Africa. His face was on ties, t-shirts, backpacks, belts. Some of the clothing may have been donated by US charities, but some—the sarongs printed with his face, for instance—sure looked locally made. It seemed that people there were proud of him and of the fact his father was Kenyan. It seemed they wanted the world to know he was one of their own.
    The influence of American pop culture was dismayingly widespread. Our guide in the empty wilderness at the southern tip of Chile turned out to be a big fan of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” A waitress in a café in northern Peru played a Garth Brooks song about Baton Rouge over and over and over again so she'd be able to sing it in the karaoke bar. And a sunglass-wearing doorman in Madagascar told us that all Americans were very strong--he knew, he had seen "Top Gun." 

    We arrived in Botswana just before the Fourth of July. We’d been gone so long from home—and had encountered so few norteamericanos—that I was thrilled to hear the exuberant white woman hosting the gathering we’d been invited to address another guest as “Sugar Pie.” Americans! And not just Americans—Southerners! We introduced ourselves and were hugged and welcomed and pulled into a volleyball game, all of which bolstered one of the better stereotypes about our citizens abroad. Whatever else we may be, Americans sure are friendly—and at that moment I was very glad of it. 

    In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the man in the optical store was reading my passport information out loud so his coworker could write up a receipt for my glasses. He got to “place of birth,” and a note of envy and longing crept into his voice as he read, “New York, USA.” I felt like saying, “I’m not rich! My life is nowhere near as privileged as you think it is!” But it is. I am tremendously privileged and most of the time I don’t even know it.

    At Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient capital near Agra, India, a young teenager latched onto us in the crowded market just as we realized we’d missed the road leading up to the entrance to the historic site. He insisted on steering us through twisting narrow alleys up the steep hill, chatting all the while in English. “America? Very good country.” And then in a rush of enthusiasm he said, stringing it all together so it sounded like one word, “MichaelJacksonMichaelJordanObama.” He paused, then went on. “Well, Michael Jackson is dead. But do you know Michael Jordan?” The face of a street-smart teenager planning to steer us to a little shop he knew became suddenly naïve and hopeful. “Do you know Obama?”


    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    India, India, India – Part II

    The mosque at Fatehpur Sikri (KK)

    More first impressions of a complicated country:
    •  Qutb Minar, a 12th century religious complex built around a tall stone minaret, was my first close-up encounter with Indo-Islamic architecture. I found the buildings incredibly beautiful—the proportions, the red and buff colored sandstone, the sweeping calligraphic inscriptions around the gates. Every possible surface was ornately decorated, every object designed to be both beautiful and meaningful. It was pouring rain when we visited, and somehow the hurrying crowds with their bright saris and colorful umbrellas made the experience even more affecting. Their presence in the rain seemed to underline how much the visitors wanted to be there, how important the site was to them.

    The Taj Mahal near sunset. (KK)

    • The main road in Dehradun plunged us into our first full-on experience of Indian-style urban anarchy. First we rode in a jerky, black-smoke-belching moto-rickshaw that honked incessantly and jostled for position in a sea of motorbikes, cars and more rickshaws. People drove on whichever side of the road they felt like and narrowly missed each other on blind corners, while cattle, shoppers, vendors and beggars strolled in and among the vehicles. Later, we learned that walking along that road was even worse than driving—it required unflagging alertness lest you be waylaid by a persistant beggar, hit from behind by a motorcycle, sucked into a political procession or tripped into the roadside ditch by an off-kilter slab of cement sidewalk.
    • The Navdanya teaching farm near Dehradun was a quiet, green oasis. At regular intervals, the call to prayer floated through the windows from the mosques nearby, eerie and amplified across the rice fields and mango orchards. Some mornings, we sat on the floor of the seed bank with sari-clad local women and sorted red beans or grains of barley using wide shallow sorting trays made from reeds. One smiling, deft young woman tried and tried to improve my technique, but I never got anywhere near as quick and thorough as she was. At night, when the power failed and tiny frogs explored the concrete floor of our room, we’d lie on our hard beds trying to read as insects swarmed our headlamps and booms resounded through the dark. It turned out the night watchmen were setting off explosives to scare monkeys and wild pigs away from the crops and back into the nearby jungle. 


    • Rie went out walking near Navdanya one day, and a young girl came up to her. “I wanted to meet someone from another country!” she said. They got talking and before Rie knew it, she was invited to meet the girl’s family, to have tea, and to bring me along for another visit the next day. They showed us around their home and their family’s shrine. They introduced us to aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Even the grandmother who didn’t speak English sat with us and smiled. “You’re family friends now,” the girl’s mother told us. “If you come back again, you will stay with us.”


    • I mentioned to one of the employees at the farm that I was having trouble sleeping and he said, “You must meditate before you go to bed. Then you will sleep.” And later he sat with some of us and showed us the basics. I wish I could say my insomnia was cured—it wasn’t—but the matter-of-factness of his advice made me wonder why I’ve never explored Eastern paths to peace. Why act like a Westerner and carry all this stress around?
    • Our train to Allahabad arrived early, and we were out on the platform when I saw my friend Sonjoy coming toward us, dressed in a blue tunic and loose pants, smiling widely and looking much as he did 16 years ago in Baton Rouge. It’s always a tremendous pleasure to see old friends, and in this case that was especially true. Sonjoy and his wife Nandini are warm, welcoming, smart people, and so much fun to be around. Years ago, I witnessed the grace and strength with which they weathered a trauma, and it did my heart good to see that many positive things have happened in their lives since then. Being in their home allowed me to get to know them in a way that was never possible before, and they opened themselves to us generously. They shared family photographs and family stories and introduced us to many of the people in their lives—relatives, friends, former students, current students. They took us out to meet colleagues and to a big, festive party to celebrate the first shaving of a friend's brother's baby boy’s head. They took us to Sarnath to visit temples and an archeological museum and the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. And they took us out on the Ganges at nightfall so we could watch people launch little floral prayer boats at Varanasi. Near the end of our stay, Sonjoy shared poems he’d written, and Nandini impulsively gave me a kurta of hers. I was very touched, not just because I really liked both the poems and the tunic, but because they were in their different ways very personal gifts, and the giving of them the sort of gesture you make only with really close friends. 

    • Our first morning in Allahabad, we all got up very early to go with one of Sonjoy and Nandini’s friends to the Triveni Sangam, the holy confluence where the Yamuna River meets the Ganges and the Sarasvati, the invisible river of myth. It was the day after a festival, and the muddy shore by the fort was packed with people, some just milling about, others under tarps near which were long poles topped with brightly colored flags. Sonjoy hired a wooden boat and the young boatman rowed us out onto the water, which was murky from the monsoon. Whitish, unhealthy looking bubbles floated on the surface, along with coconut shells, plastic bags, bits of tinsel, some dark blobs I didn’t really want to identify, and bundled-straw deities left over from the day before. A rowdy crowd of men splashed and shouted in the water near shore. Further out, though, it was clean and very peaceful, despite all the packed boats headed for the holy spot. In the pale, early morning light, in the clear devotion of people slipping out of their boats to bathe where the waters mixed, you could sense something ancient and sacred and moving and real. That juxtaposition—the rowdiness and the spirituality, the grubbiness and the serenity, the shouting crowd and the deep, quiet pleasure of being with dear friends—stayed with me. It’s impossible to sum up India in one image, but for me this moment comes close.

      Wednesday, December 7, 2011

      India, India, India - Part I

      We left India in mid-October, and for a month and a half I have been trying to sort out my jumbled reactions. India was splendid, India was sobering. It was delightful and difficult, heartwarming and utterly baffling. The more I try, the harder I find it to write coherently about our time there. So I’m throwing up my hands and throwing out some random impressions. Here's the first batch:
      • Other travelers’ accounts had led us to expect an onslaught of beggars, heat and nasty smells the moment we came through the airport doors in New Delhi. But the brand new terminal we arrived at held us a little longer in the gleaming insulated bubble of air travel. There was no onslaught, no clamor. And from the back of an air-conditioned taxi, the roadside scene didn’t seem any more challenging than, say, New York’s Chinatown. 
      • Cattle in the streets—check. Piles of litter—check. But we’d seen these things in other countries, and it was other details that stood out as distinctly Indian. Women in saris rode sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes. A wooden rickshaw with a school’s name hand-painted on the side carried six little girls wearing immaculate uniforms and black braids tied with ribbons. A policeman with a rifle on his back directed traffic from a pedestal with a permanent umbrella over it.
      • It didn’t take us long to make our first cultural blunder. Changing planes in Mumbai, we obliviously got into the Gents security line and were sternly redirected to the Ladies line. It turns out that women in India get wanded by a female security guard in a tile-lined booth—the first of many gender divisions we would encounter.
      • The elaborate plantings in New Delhi’s parks and in front of its big hotels seemed incredibly green and lush after dry season Africa. And as we were touring the city on our second day, we were caught in a deluge—a tremendous, sky-opening downpour—that surrounded our taxi with grey walls of rain. Almost instantly, the roads developed small lakes and the cars and rickshaws forging through left arcing wakes behind them. I suddenly realized why some people talk with pleasure about the monsoon season. I hadn’t been in a real rainfall for months, and the abrupt reprieve from the steamy heat was exhilarating.
      • As our visit went on, we had no choice but to adjust our ideas about personal space. At first, I was startled when, say, a fellow passenger on a train reached over and moved the book I was reading closer to him so he could see it better. And I had to laugh when a waiter in Khajuraho pointed to the thin slices of green pepper I'd put to one side of my plate and said, “This is good for health!” A hotel manager in Agra ingenuously summed up the cultural divide. Our first hotel room there opened directly onto the restaurant and the curtains didn’t quite close. When I told him the next morning that we were changing hotels because we needed more privacy, he asked me blankly, “What is privacy?”
      • On train platforms, people slept on the floors or sat in groups on cloths they brought along for the purpose. The smells of urine, sweat, excrement and betel were inescapable. We saw a man turn away from the crowd and pee against a freight train standing in the station, oblivious to the hundreds of people all around him. Meanwhile, others waited to wash, drink or brush their teeth at the trough of cold water on the platform. Despite the challenge of keeping clean, almost all the passengers looked spotless and well turned out, most of the women in saris or the pants-and-tunic outfits called salwar kameez

        • In the stations there were endless staticky announcements in Hindi and English to tell us the trains were running late and to assure us over and over that the inconvenience caused was deeply regretted. Sleeper-class passengers in trains standing at the platform gazed out windows with horizontal bars. They bought tea in paper cups from the chai man when he came along with his big battered kettle or exchanged coins for samosas served through the window on squares of newspaper. Men pushed four-wheeled carts piled high with burlap sacks along the platform. At one less-touristed station, a row of young boys gathered around us the instant we arrived and gaped at us until I shooed them off, suddenly finding myself mimicking the imperious attitude I'd seen some middle class Indians display. At another station, I smiled to see a sign just past the platform that said, “Kite-flying area ends.”
        • From the open door at the end of a train car leaving a city, you see tarp-covered hovels crowding right up against the tracks, then flat, green fields, then the bar of a railway crossing and behind it a cluster of rickshaws, red tractors, bicycles, motorbikes and wooden carts pulled by water buffalo. So much of India is so incredibly crowded that I was always surprised and relieved to see these wide, green spaces.
        • Garbage and filth are everywhere in part because of insufficient infrastructure, but also because many people seemed to have no interest in keeping public areas clean. The walls of a spiffy New Delhi shopping area were stained with red, reeking betel juice. People spit and shat everywhere. Once when the train we were riding was in a station, I walked to the end of the car to put some crumpled Kleenex into the garbage container under the sink there. A man was standing in front of the bin washing his hands, and a railway worker held out his hand for my trash. I gave it to him thinking he’d wait till the man moved away and then put it in the bin. But he didn't--he just tossed the wad of dirty Kleenex out onto the platform.
        • A news item reported that a woman whose husband had run off with a younger woman was set upon by the husband’s relatives, stripped naked and prodded through the streets of her village, the assumption being, apparently, that she was somehow to blame.


          • From a boat on the Ganges at Varanasi, we saw the burning ghats, yellow flames shooting into the night sky and faintly illuminating the grey-white building behind them. The tourist in me automatically reached for my camera before I suddenly realized, wait, these are human beings burning. These are somebody’s relatives. It was disquieting to know each bonfire contained a body—we were too far away to really see that, for which I was glad—but it also struck me that allowing death to be so visible on a daily basis makes for an honest, inclusive view of life.
          To be continued.