United Arab Emirates

Every year, United Arab Emirates announces a new goal for the following year. Last January, the UAE leadership announced that this year will be the year of Tolerance. UAE is home to a largely diverse group of people. As of 2015, the official estimates stand at Emirati make up approximately 11.6%, South Asian 59.4% (includes Indian 38.2%, Bangladeshi 9.5%, Pakistani 9.4%, other 2.3%), Egyptian 10.2%, Philippine 6.1%, and other backgrounds at 12.8%. (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/united-arab-emirates-population/)

UAE leadership understands the importance of immigration. The high population of immigrants, which are estimated to make up 90% of the population, make up the majority of the work force. But, the motivations of immigration changes with each minority group in UAE.

As I set on a bus packed with 30-40 Syrian immigrants, I think of my Syrian mother. What would have happened if she stayed in Syria? Would she have found her way to Dubai like all the people I am surrounded by now? I have to remind myself that this is one of the rare opportunities I get to experience Syrian culture and I should not waste time ruminating. The entire bus begins a new traditional Syrian song and I begin to clap my hands.

https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipMywS2CPy3HbROrDwClLfU41sZxu-e06DdluvOKn5Mu-iT5RcaXlUUT3fnntqrooQ/photo/AF1QipOjrP_4HHQmmHNsM1Sujwi6VaBOP9CPZ3or38H9?key=LWZ6YURGNWJqWUQ2RGtxQVJfNW1LWFpOem05TVBR

(video of bus singing Arabic songs)

The host family I am staying with are Syrians who moved to Qatar years ago, but then were kicked out due to the stigma against Syrian refugees. Many who immigrated to UAE were escaping war and are wealthy business owners. UAE allowed these immigrants because they stimulate the economy. My host mother is a lawyer for private contracting and has a very intelligent 18-year old daughter named Zeze. Zeze applied to ivy-league universities in London, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Paris. But, because of her Syrian passport, she was rejected for study visas. United kingdom went as far as to say that Zeze would not receive a study visa because she comes from a single parent household and her mother may not have the financial means to support her daughter and lead to Zeze being a refugee.

When I asked her how that made her feel, she told me that it made her hate being Arab and Syrian for a period of time. She began to speak less Arabic and preferred speaking English for a few years. The feeling of mutual understanding connected me and Zeze. I spent the majority of my childhood with a deep hatred for my culture. My blatant Arabness made my life hell. From the 2nd grade I knew I was different when on the anniversary of September 11th, my teacher made me stand up in front of the class and say the national anthem alone because according to her, “your people should express the most nationality after what they did”.

Me and my blatant Arabness. Taken on Dubai on a day trip with a group of Syrians.

Traveling more humbles me. Hearing Zeze’s story of not being able to pursue the education she dreamed of due to an identity that she is proud to have, but the world despises, makes me think of the need to escape Arabness. In Israel, Palestine, Turkey, UAE, there is a constant theme of the need to escape being Arab. I purchased the book “Orientalism” by Edward Said to learn more about how and why the world wants the escape of Arabness. Wish me luck as I continue.

Also, I will do shame if I do not mention how beautiful Dubai is. Truly the most flawless city to ever exist. It is unique and nothing could compare to it. I read online that Dubai is “the Las Vegas of the Middle East” and I could not help but burst out laughing. Dubai is in it’s own league!

Finish Lines and Open Eyes

Content warning: in this post I describe an animal sacrifice I witnessed as part of Dashian festival in Nepal. Please read only if you feel comfortable.

On another note, please forgive me if any of the information about Nepali festival season is incorrect. My knowledge of Dashian and Tihar is limited to the traditions of the village in which I observed them. There may be regional variances, or simply aspects I misunderstand because of cultural and language barriers.

The Annapurna Circuit

Imagine this: you are walking along a path lined with hunks of red, black, grey granite rock, on through a hilly mountain pass nestled between two snow-capped mountains. The earth has fallen to rubble around you. You have been walking for days and it has only been two hours since you departed from the last tea house in Thorong Pedhi before the sun had risen over the Himalayas to the East. You feel simultaneously light and heavy, and the air is so thin and oxygen so scarce that all you can focus on is breathing and taking one tiny singular step forward in the fine moon dust.

Visualize the oxygen being absorbed into your bloodstream, pumped throughout your body from your heart, graciously accepted by your tiny muscle cells as they tear, bend, and build under a stress unlike anything they’ve felt before.

A guide walking back down the pass tells us that we have 45 minutes to go until the summit. The encouragement was appreciated, but useless. Time had already slipped away. I decided not to check my phone until we reached the summit to save battery power and my own sanity. Checking the time or map over and over is maddening. Minutes crawl when you do that. Minutes crawl anyway.

Years later, a bearded man approaches us and tells us we have 15 minutes to go. Again, appreciated, but the statement meant nothing to me other than understanding that 15 is less than 45. Marketa and I exchange apprehensive looks, but zombie march on.

There were so many moments, when we were approaching a round in the path or a crest of a hill and, coming around it, would only find a larger hill will tiny people climbing up it. Higher to climb still. My body groans, “you want me to take you up there??”

Marketa keeps a steady pace as I slow down and she takes a considerable lead. Sticking to our unsaid pact, when she gets too far ahead she stops and waits for me to catch up again. She gets around a corner up ahead and when I get close enough she says, pointing, “IT’S THERE.”

Lesson: when you have a huge project or a goal in life, staring at the summit and obsessing about getting there will drive you mad. Period. Your mind can only focus on so much, so be patient. Your body can only push so far, so pace yourself. Focus on one step at a time. Hours, days, years later you will look up to find yourself standing up there on the snowy summit. Not because you paid someone to take you in a helicopter to the top; not because you ran as fast as you could, hoping you wouldn’t burn out, but because you trusted in yourself and you made it. 242,828 steps.

Dashian and Tihar

After a few days in Pokhara, we headed back to Gaunshahar to help at the school. To our surprise, when we returned we learned that the kids were off school again in observance of another festival called Tihar. School was out, but we found little projects to help with around the house and school, such as repainting the bannisters in the courtyard or chopping vegetables.

Before Marketa and I left for trekking, we caught a glimpse of some of the celebrations of Dashian, which is the most important festival of the year in Nepal. (The festival is also known as Dashera in some regions of India.) Dashian is celebrated by many different religions and ethnicities, but I primarily saw the Hindu interpretations of the festival in our village.

Bamboo swings are constructed at the entrances of villages; shops put on huge sales; I even received a message offering extra cellular data in honor of festival season!

The main celebration is held on the ninth night of the festival and is called Kal Ratri, or dark night. Bimala, one of the women from our homestay, offered to bring us to the temple for dancing, music, and to watch the ceremony. Some of the volunteers whispered that there would also be animal sacrifice. When we got there, men were dancing and in the center of of the temple square a buffalo calf was tethered to a post.

Thousands of animals, including water buffalo, rams, and goats, are sacrificed every year across Nepal as a part of Dashian. Kal Ratri commemorates the victory of the Goddess Durga over an evil daemon king who was disguised as a buffalo as he terrorized the Earth. On the dark night in Gaunshahar this year, the buffalo calf was offered to Durga and Kali to worship them and to ask for their blessing. I feel that it is not my place or right to judge cultural practices which I do not fully understand. I was asked multiple times that night if I wanted to leave early before the ceremony started. No, it was going to happen and I didn’t want to blind myself from a reality of this world simply because it is considered taboo by the standards of my own culture.

I watched as the Hindu priest came out in a procession, as the blade was sharpened, as the buffalo was blessed and prayers to the goddesses were offered. Then, after what seemed like hours of waiting, with one strong downward stroke, the buffalo’s head was severed from its body. A group of men dragged its body around the post three times, drawing a red circle on the stone. The man with the blade went to the other animals and began beheading them one after another. There was more dancing, singing, and cheering from the crowd. I read online that sacrifices usually carry on until dawn while locals have a great feast on the meat, but we went to bed shortly after the main ceremony was completed.

Language and cultural barriers prevent me from gaining a better understanding of the whys and hows of sacrifice as a part of religious practice. But, I would like to offer the following questions:

  • How many animals are killed every day as a part of the means-to-end-, market-oriented system of the American meat industry?
  • Why do we condemn one form of killing (animal sacrifice being illegal in the U.S.), but glorify the other?

We returned from trekking and had the opportunity to participate in Tihar, the Hindu festival that shortly follows Dashian. Each day of Tihar is dedicated to blessing and celebrating a different type of local animal. One day is for crows, then dogs, cows, and buffalo. The animals are decorated with flowers and given Tika and a treat. On the last day of Tihar families exchange colorful Tikas and share sweets and a big feast together. It felt like a balancing act, a time to celebrate life in Tihar, after recognizing death in Dashian. Not many explanations were offered for the reasons behind the traditions, but one aspect of festival season that was abundantly clear to me is that it is a time to spend with family and loved ones.

I will soon post again about my first week in India. 🙂

A little time warped

From Brazil

I woke up around sunrise to the sound of Brazilian Funk. It’s a pretty popular genre here, and it’s easy to recognize thanks to its usually looping beats and night club vibe. To dance along, pretty much any kind of twerking suffices. 

The Funk I was hearing was playing from the phone of the young Brazilian mother in the bus seat in front of me. I wouldn’t exactly say it suited the moment, but I was too groggy from bus-sleep to mind. After a little while, her cutie toddler started fussing and there was a hard cut in the music. Suddenly, “baaaa-by shark, do-doo-do-do-do-do” took the place of both the Funk and fuss.

I’m comfortable with long bus/plane/train rides these days. Twenty hours on a bus is still on the longer end, but with my talent of falling asleep pretty much anywhere, I can usually pass a large majority of that time sleeping. Seeing a toddler-bearing mother managing herself and a little one on what must be like a month-long ride in toddler time gave me renewed appreciation for the freedom I have at this point.

I move wherever, however, whenever, with whatever I need stuffed into my 40L pack. That privilege has not lost any of it’s luster. 

Anyway, the baby shark song bus ride shuttled me from Rio de Janeiro to Florianópolis, a Brazilian island nearly adjacent to the coast near Curitiba. 

Upon impact, I headed for the nearest cafe with an egg breakfast and logged online to follow the U of M Cross Country team at the B1G Conference Championships. It’s one of the most exciting and important races of the season, and exactly one year ago, that’s where I was, chasing down a title with the team.

Watching a cross country race unfold was a funny benchmark moment to reflect on.

First: because I realized northern hemisphere fall has really snuck by ! It’s easy to forget with the southern summer heat slowly turning up here. I run barefoot in a sports bra on the sand like it’s August in Grand Haven, MI. Meanwhile, my dad has been sending snowy yard pictures in the family group chat. I scrambled for a calendar after the first one. Snow?

Second: because I realized that one year ago I was still amid the uncertainty of impending graduation, applications, and drafting life plans. Remembering my past stress in the hopes of arriving at this “future” moment is a pretty sweet thing to have the fortune of savoring.

Third: because I realized I’ve only ever known a Michigan fall, and I’ll probably forever associate it with cross country. For the past 9 years, I’ve toed the start line from August to November at high school and collegiate 5-6k races. The training and racing for this has always put me in close proximity to the nuances of fall’s annual maturation:

September is tan legs, slick brows and collarbones, post-workout Gatorade tasting better than any beverage ever, ideal temperatures to race in buns, orange to red to pink sunsets above leafy horizons.

October is hardening leg muscles, starting a workout in a long sleeve, the fall smell’s sudden permanence (dried grass + distant bonfire + fallen leaves + crisp air), warm post-practice coffees, long runs, and cold rains.

November is fine-tuned bodies, gusty winds, frosty ground, the sudden usefulness of team-issued layers that seemed ridiculous in August, snowy championship races, and high stakes.

….I’m always going to love a true Michigan fall. As for cross, being away has given me the distance to appreciate and be affectionately nostalgic for a sport that I came close to burning out of. It was a treat to tune in from Florianópolis; the women currently on the team are continuing to raise the bar as people, teammates, and competitors. I’m rooting for ya’ll from afar.

***

Hearing about the seasonal transition back home has also made the temporal measurement of my absence a bit more tangible, though no less bizarre. In 10 days, I’ll hit the 6-month mark. And it’s hard to believe that I’ve been gone for almost half a year. I feel like I’m in some kind of time warp, thanks in part to the seasonal consistency I set myself up for.

Given  my timeline and the geographical logistics of the 3 world regions I wanted to explore, my options were to travel through an 8-month summer or 8-month winter. So that was a no-brainer. Last month I hopped the equator into southern hemisphere summer. And I’ll be darned, summer is starting to feel a little uncanny.

On top of this, my days seem to be passing more and more quickly. I’m accustomed to the rhythm of travel life; like college semesters and sports seasons, once I settled in, time has seemed to accelerate.

***

Checking in for this post has made me realize how, after India, I have needed some time for myself and for things that (though still new) are a bit more familiar.

So, I’ve emphasized some more personal goals while in Brazil: I’m learning how to skateboard in a half pipe, and I’m putting in some hours to become a much better surfer. I chit chat in Spanish with my amazing Argentinian friends. I bought a soccer ball, and I play Altinho (Brazilian game that’s basically juggling a soccer ball with a partner or small group) whenever I can. I’m learning how to cook new foods, from Brazilian Feijoada (stew with beans and pork + accessory dishes), to Shakshuka (a tomato-base Israeli breakfast dish), to preparing fresh-catch ‘lula’ (calamari).

I never anticipated spending this much time in Brazil, and ya know what, I’m about to spend more. Argentina isn’t going anywhere.

***
CB

Living in the Lap of Luxury

My plane destined for Jaipur, India leaves at 12:10 am tonight, and I’m anticipating an adjustment period more jarring than usual after living in the lap of luxury this past week in Muscat, Oman. 

I arrived last Saturday, and as soon as my feet hit the airport’s *literal* sparkling, impeccably clean floor it was apparent I was in a country with immense wealth. My host family, much to my relief, offered to pick me up from the airport. 

Part of the complex where I stayed with my host family

It was the biggest treat to walk out of customs and have someone waiting for me on the other side. Personally, getting to my destination after arriving is one of the most daunting tasks, if not the most daunting, after arriving in a new country. To save money, I take the less convenient flights, usually leaving in the early hours of the morning or late at night (my flight to India is a prime example), which leaves me utterly exhausted upon arrival. Yet, this is when I need the most mental and physical energy to navigate unfamiliar territory, and the inevitable bartering with cab drivers to get me where I’ve never gone before. 

So, when I saw AJ, her husband Boran, and their son Jupiter waving from their waiting spot, it felt familiar and foreign all at once, but mostly overwhelmingly relieving. 

I met AJ and Boran through a site called WorkAway. Basically, it allows you to travel cheaply and the opportunity to interact with locals. In exchange for free accommodation, you give five hours of your labor five days a week. Not bad. 

AJ and I at one of the Sultan’s many hotels – it was incredibly large and sparkly

AJ and Boran are expats from Turkey, living in Oman, and were looking for a native English speaker to help their toddler son Jupiter with his speaking skills and general house maintenance. They live in a beautiful compound that caters to tourists and expats but ironically has become even more popular with Omani’s.  

Being part of a family was such a welcomed change of pace and environment after hostel living the last 10 weeks, and I quickly fell into an easy routine while here. 

With Boran and AJ were at work, and Jupiter at pre-school, I cleaned up the early morning breakfast mess I slept through, unloaded the dishwasher from the night before, and tidied up the house before greeting AJ and Jupiter at noon. We’d have lunch together, before I would inevitably find myself at the beach more days than not. I would wander back home right around the time Jupiter woke from his afternoon nap, and we would play, so AJ could cook dinner without interruption. Jupiter would do his best in helping me set the table, and soon Boran was home from work, when we would all sit around the table for a home-cooked meal (oh, how I’ve missed these!) and discuss our days. Once we were all full, I’d clear the table, load the dishwasher, wash whatever couldn’t fit, and call it a day. 

To say I lived a relaxed lifestyle while here is an understatement. In defense of my extreme relaxation, Oman is ridiculously expensive. To take a taxi into town and back would have cost me roughly $77. So, in a place where a lemonade was over $7, the beach was about all I could afford! There are worse predicaments to be in, and I enjoyed every second. 

Folding clothes, hanging wet ones on the line on the balcony, putting away dishes – these small acts of normalcy brought me so much contentment. To have some sort of purpose, even if it’s only to wash dishes, made me happy. 

I did do some things, aside from laying seaside, while here. AJ and Boran took me to the local souq (market) one evening, and in an even kinder gesture asked a family friend to show me some neighboring cities on the weekend. 

He picked me up at 7 am Friday morning, and we didn’t return until 9 pm. It was a long day due to how much ground we covered (over 400 miles!). We first went north to visit the historic city of Nizwa, the original capital of Oman. There lies the original castle and fortress that once protected the city. After touring both, we drove three hours South to the highlight of the day – Wadi Shab.

Traditional performance of war songs at the Nizwa fort

A “wadi” is similar to a lagoon. It’s a pool of fresh water surrounded by lush greenery and palm trees and in Oman’s case towering mountains. The hiking path getting there, and the final destination was astounding and like nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s a high contender for the “most beautiful natural sight I’ve seen” thus far. There was so much vying for your eye’s attention- the looming mountains blocking out the sun like skyscrapers, the palm trees set the scene, and unforgettably the turquoise-green color of the water below. 

The trail leading to the Wadi Shab

Once we reached the wadi, I jumped in and swam about 80 feet to reach the end. I consider myself a good swimmer, but parts of the path had my adrenaline pumping. The rocks below are slick and I lost my footing more than once. I would be walking with water at my waist and a deep drop-off, with no warning, would have me feeling like I was walking off an underwater cliff. This part of the hike/swim was the most beautiful, but unfortunately, I was too busy trying to breathe to take photos. 

Oman is beautiful, no doubt about it. The hotels, restaurants, homes, mosques- they’re all exquisite. Breathtakingly so. And admittedly, I enjoyed a lot of the consequences of such wealth while here. Having so much wealth has its obvious “pluses”, but, in my opinion, it also makes a place sterile. Cookie-cutter perfection truly is boring, pretty to look at maybe, but boring. Imperfection is where character, personality, and human expression thrive. And if this sounds cheesy, it’s because it’s true. 

Jumping in point!

It’s been interesting seeing the change in dynamics in a country so wealthy after experiencing those without. Someone told me they thought Omani people to be selfish. I don’t agree, that’s a sweeping statement to make about a whole country of people, but I think I understand what he was observing. The high degree of public formality and general aloofness reminds me of the States. In countries that have so much, it seems people are less open to others. They simply have more- more to lose and more to guard as “theirs”. Often it seems to be those that have the least, to show the most generosity. Why? I wonder if it’s because they are not attached to “things” the way we are in the States or how I’ve observed here in Oman, and thus find their joy in less materialistic pursuits. I think back to Egypt, a country with less money than the US or Oman, yet time and again I was offered tea, a snack, and a chat with someone who happened to pass by – purely to share in drink and conversation. Does our level of reservation with others not have anything to do with the level of wealth we’re accustomed to, and our subconscious choices to protect our own? The individual used the word “selfish” to describe the people here, but I think he was just observing an underwhelming hospitable presence that he’s accustomed to in his home country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy the spoils of wealth without growing attached or possessive? But that’s the catch, isn’t it? All too often, we do become possessive of a good thing, and in turn, it makes us more reluctant to share, less inviting even. 

Not a Wadi, but a natural sinkhole nearby…

These are simply the musings in my head from this past week of relaxation and reflection. And I don’t think it could have been better timed. I’m anticipating India to be many things, but relaxing is not one. My tentative itinerary has me moving me around this great country quite a bit, and there’s simply too much to see to keep the sleeping in schedule I’ve been indulging in as of late. 

India, I’ll see you soon. 

Till next time.

Staircases and Street Art

**In actuality this post was written two nights ago, but due to technical difficulties it’s been posted today**

Jordan gave both me and my budget a hefty workout.

I climbed more stairs the past week than I ever would have dreamed to attempt on the Stairmaster at the gym. Amman, the capital, was hands down the most difficult city I’ve had to navigate thus far on my trip. Twisty-turvy roads and discontinuous sidewalks galore. Thank god the city was as safe as it was because I had “lost tourist” stamped on my forehead with my nose glued to Google maps and a confused look perpetually planted on my face for nearly the entire venture. But even Google maps got confused. I would be instructed to turn right only to be met with a cement wall. Or just as puzzling be told to turn left and be met with three options: a left so severe it had me practically walking back where I came (naturally, back up a hill), a true 90 degree left, and a wide left sloping downward. I would choose one, but more times than not I ended up doubling back minutes later to try a different route.

They hurts less when they’re pretty to look at, right?

The positive of all this was I was guaranteed a workout no matter the length of the walk- you’re hiking up or down a hill regardless. The locals, as a sort of kind encouragement, would frequently greet me with, “Welcome to Jordan!” as they walked past me. And when I could break away from looking at maps on my phone, Amman’s beautiful street art gave me ample opportunities to catch my breath and admire the creative minds of Jordan. 

View of Amman, Jordan

From afar, Amman looks fairly monotone. Tan homes stacked upon each other up the hillsides create am impressive, but muted, view. That is until you start walking within. Street art is fairly common to most big cities, but I felt Amman had a far higher amount than usual- more like an outdoor art gallery. I wondered while admiring the many murals if the residents were under the same impression as I was, and in an effort to bring some color to their city they had taken it upon themselves. In reality, the rectangular-shaped, neutral-colored homes create the perfect massive canvas for any inspired artist. Their brilliant paintings made getting lost enjoyable because I’d always stumble across another piece of creativity. 

I call her “The Purple Woman”

Maybe Egypt’s bustle and iconic honking was still stuck on me (miss you Cairo), but I found Amman to be an incredibly quiet city for how large it is. The word peaceful comes to mind when I think of it. I spent a few afternoons walking along the trendy “Rainbow Street”. An endless option of restaurants, chic shisha lounges, and my personal favorite, café bookshops lined either side of the street. Jordan also had one of the most impressive museums I have yet to visit. It was infinitely engaging which isn’t an easy task when listing an enormous amount of information. If you’re ever in Amman, this is one museum worth your time. If Cairo was over-stimulating, Amman was subdued, challenging its guests to seek out what it has to offer.

Diversity folks.. it’s cool everywhere

I had my first “couch surfing” experience. I stayed with Linn and Jakob, both from Norway and studying Arabic in Amman. They opened their spare bedroom up to me and made me feel included despite their busy class schedules and social lives. 

After two full months in hostels, it was comforting to have my “own” room, sit at a kitchen table, and use a real shower. It’s the little things, truly. 

Linn and Jakob as I mentioned both study Arabic and more broadly, Middle Eastern culture and politics. For my personal motivations in wanting to travel to the Middle East, they made perfect conversationalists. I desired to visit this region of the world because I know the least about it. So seldom in the States do we hear anything but bad news about this corner of the Earth. 

This one was very impressive- the brush strokes were chaotic but the subject matter so serious.

My generation was just starting grade school when the Twin Towers fell. That greatly changed US perceptions and brought on an onslaught of Islamophobia in our country. It changed the obvious- like how we travel. But it also changed more subtle things, like who the villain in Hollywood film is too often stereotypically depicted as (think Taken). As I touched on in my Egypt post, what is being left out of our nightly news programs? There’s gotta be more to the story, and unsurprisingly there is. 

In just a few, brief, conversations Linn and Jakob did their best to answer my basic questions and give me a crash course of current affairs. To say it’s complex is a massive understatement, and US involvement was equally complex and lay in a grey area. I listened mostly, threw in the occasional question, and a lot was over my head- so I don’t feel comfortable delving any deeper here as I’m not an expert, however, it did give me a far better understanding of just how intricate and multi-layered things truly are. It was yet another reminder that nothing exists in a vacuum. Context is everything, and to only show the top layer without explaining the bottom five is only a half-truth.  

After four days spent in Amman, I packed my things and hopped on an early morning bus for Petra. Four hours later, I arrived slightly rejuvenated from my cat napping on the way. On the way to my hostel, my taxi driver/tour guide made the suggestion (sale) of a day trip to Wadi Rum. Now before leaving, Jakob had chided me for picking Petra over Wadi Rum, insisting that I should drop tourist prone Petra for the natural beauty of Wadi Rum desert. But I was short on time and put Wadi Rum on my “next time” mental list. So, when my taxi driver made the offer, I took it as a sign that I should see as much as I can while here. Petra would just have to wait till tomorrow. 

After talking him down substantially from his original price (happy to report my bartering skills are strengthening, considering they were non-existent two months ago), I very spontaneously took him up on his offer. 

In a rush, I dropped my backpack off at my hostel, without so much as seeing my dorm room, before jumping back in the jeep and heading off to Wadi Rum, which rests about an hour outside of Petra. 

The closest thing to the desert I’d been to, before Wadi Rum, was the Sand Dunes outside Traverse City, Michigan. Wadi Rum was the actual desert, a world entirely on its own and it was spectacular. The vastness of the desert reminded me of the ocean. When you look out and it spans for as far as the eye can see. Wadi Rum was the same if the ocean had been drained of all its water. More than the sheer size though was the magnificently vivid blue sky. Not a single cloud. Not. A. Single. One. Just a sharp blue contrasting with the warm sand. It was beautiful. 

Wadi Rum

My tour guide was kind and professional, for which I’m grateful. His father belonged to a Bedouin tribe and herd camels for a living. We went to his home for lunch. What an experience. 

An old truck that never made it out of Wadi Rum..

We pulled up to a black tent surrounded by nothing but massive dunes, and rocky mountains further in the distance. The guide greeted his father and quickly got to work creating our meal over the open fire inside the tent. His father motioned for me to sit on one of the cots, as he served me Bedouin tea (affectionally referred to as Bedouin whiskey). I explored outdoors as son and father caught up and tended to the fire. The meal was fresh and delicious and the perfect refuel I desperately needed. 

Bedouin tent sitting to the left- our rest spot for lunch

Currently? I’m sitting on the return bus from Petra going back to Amman. I woke up just after 5 am this morning to reach the opening of Petra’s gates at 6 am. Although I’m exhausted after hiking exactly 9 miles by noon, I cannot stress enough how happy I am that I sacrificed a few hours’ sleep to get there early today. 

Walking along the Siq and the uphill trail to reach the Monastery, it was seldom I passed a fellow hiker, making for a quiet and peaceful climb. In short, the Treasury and Monastery were stunning. Much like with the Egyptian ruins, I stared up in awe, imagining how such a feat could have been possible all those thousands of years ago. It’s inspiring to witness.

After walking the Siq you’re faced with The Treasuary

Walking back, I hardly recognized the trail I’d just come from. It was nearly 11 am at this time, and the barrage of tourists and merchants was growing thick. I got asked maybe fifty times total if I would like to take a donkey up (or down) to the Monastery by locals who herd them for a living. I looked at these donkeys, laden on either side with tourists’ bags and satchels, fruits, drinks and food for the kiosks at the top. Every couple of minutes I had to step to the side to let a donkey carrying what appeared to be an able-bodied, shameless lazy tourist on its back up the steepest of steps for miles. I tried (not really) to wipe the look of disdain off my face as I would move out of their way to let them pass. The donkeys would sometimes halter, as they (smartly!) questioned what they were doing, trying to find placement for their hooves on the sand dusted steps. Whenever this would happen, their handler would whip them harshly across their bum and reluctantly the donkey kept it moving. If it wasn’t so difficult to watch and hadn’t preoccupied my thoughts for pretty much the entire hour-long hike back down, I wouldn’t bother to mention it. But it did. Just don’t do this. It’s a tough hike, yes, but no one’s made it a race. Take all the time you need reaching the top, but don’t shirk your laziness off to these poor animals – it was too cruel to see. 

To the left are the steps leading up to the Monastery
I was met by a feline friend once I reached the top where the Monastery rests

I have one last night in Amman before waking up early in the morning to catch my plane for Muscat, Oman! I’m staying with a family there. In exchange for my accommodation, I’ll be helping them out around the house, and teaching their toddler son English. I’m very much looking forward to staying with a family- something I miss very much. 

The highest point I hiked in Petra – utter silence

Till next time.

Spending November in Istanbul? Yep, I’m going cold Turkey.

God, I know what an awful title, but I needed to use a Turkey pun at least once. I am headed to Turkey on November 2nd! Finally seeing my parents after more than 2 months. My mom wants to bring me minimum of 2 weeks worth of home cooked meals, 2 pairs of shoes, and the entirety of my closet. It is impossible to tell an Arab mother that there is not enough space in my bag.

I originally chose to visit Turkey for the same reason I wanted to visit Palestine. Both places are home to a foundation of oppression towards marginalized communities. The genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks in Turkey was used to define the word “Holocaust”. Now with the current political tension in Turkey in regards to the Kurds, it provides for a interesting time to visit Turkey and learn more of what the civilians think of the situation.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation it seems is that the civilians are the ones who pay the consequences of war more than the political leaders who profit from these decisions. This leads me into my thoughts on my trip to Israel and Palestine. Reflecting will take time and I am not ready to share my experience. I wrote down everything I witnessed and documented my entire trip so I can properly articulate my feelings. For safety reasons, I do not post politically fueled posts while in countries with political tension. But, when I leave the country and have time to reflect then I will be sharing. That includes Turkey and Lebanon.

The *real* City that Never Sleeps

It’s my final day in Cairo. I’m sitting in a café a block from my hotel, attempting, but failing, to savor this piece of chocolate cake I ordered. And I ordered orange juice. Something that was served at the breakfast table every morning in my home, but one I never indulged in. Never cared for it. But since arriving in Egypt two weeks ago, I’ve requested it with each breakfast. Egyptian orange juice tastes different. I came out of my room my first morning, after relishing every gulp, and asked what fruit this tasty juice came from, because I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The hotel staff hesitantly informed me it was simply orange juice, probably thinking, “only the most common juice served with breakfast.”

Cairo by Night – just outside my hotel

Orange juice isn’t the only food or drink my appetite has fallen in love with since being here. Admittedly, I am an annoyingly picky eater. It’s not a trait I’m proud of, and while I’m always open to trying new things, nine times out of ten they don’t agree with my taste buds. This was one thing I was worried about initially before leaving the US. To turn away food, or not be up for second helpings can be a real insult to others. Often it can be interpreted as turning your nose up to someone else’s hospitality, hard work, and even their culture. When in reality it’s just a shortcoming of mine, not your cooking skills. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how taken I was with Egyptian cuisine. Fita cheese (not to be confused with feta) is so creamy and delicious and also became a breakfast staple. Koshari- a mix of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, chickpeas, and lentils topped with caramelized onions and a red sauce is an Egyptian comfort food and carb lover’s dream. Fresh strawberry juice, feteer with cream, falafel, ful beans stuffed inside pita bread, shawarma…the list goes on. 

Koshari – the dish to make you happy and sleepy all at once

And the pleasant surprises Egypt had to offer didn’t stop at their menu selection. Allow me to backtrack. 

I arrived in Cairo early in the morning, exhausted and disoriented, just over two weeks ago. The first thing that struck me wasn’t the endless stream of traffic- that’s to be expected in any metropolitan area. It was the symphony of car and motorbike horns from the traffic. My first day trying to sleep, I was annoyed- was all the honking really necessary? But quickly I became amused as I walked along the street and began to take notice of all the diverse reasons I witnessed drivers use their horns whilst driving. It’s endeared me to Cairo, in a strange way that’s difficult to describe. Say what you will about this congested, dusty, and crowded city- it stole my heart within the first 24 hours. It has the hustle and bustle energy of New York City with twice the amount of grit and old European architecture lining either side of the street. 

From the top of Cairo Tower – the Nile River runs through the massive city

Cairo lays true claim to “the city that never sleeps”. Not only restaurants but nearly every type of store and shop stays open till three or four in the morning. Sure, it’s busy at three in the afternoon, but triple that by 11 at night. There are lines for ice-cream and fast food. Women shop from one clothing store to the next (shopping at 10 o’clock at night is a different kind of fun). Old men sit adjacent to one another outside the traditional coffee shops, smoking shisha and solving the world’s problems. Cairo comes alive once the sun goes down. Because of this, I felt the safest I have since leaving the states when it came to venturing out at night. I got back some of my independence I’d desperately been missing. Now when my ice-cream cravings hit at 9:45 pm, I simply grabbed my things and went down the block to fulfill my sweet tooth, dodging families, couples, and groups of friends along the busy sidewalks. 

The beautiful Cairo Citadel

Night or day, I was pleasantly surprised by how safe I felt walking around alone. Like any big city, you have to use common sense, but there wasn’t an exaggerated concern of having my things stolen, being harassed, or led astray. I found the locals I met while exploring, to be so incredibly hospitable and kind. It served as a warm reminder that there are people who are kind just for the sake of being so. And I say all of this because if I’m being honest, I was bracing myself mentally for Egypt. 

The Pyramids of Giza

Before coming, I read up on other solo female travel bloggers sites, as I usually do before going somewhere new, to get a sense of their experiences and what challenges to expect. And what I found wasn’t all to encouraging. Many advocated for hiring a private tour guide to go with you everywhere- which sounded more like a bodyguard/babysitter than anything else, and some suggested not going at all. And it was the only country I’m going to that the University has considered a “warning country” in its entirety (rather than just certain areas like other countries I plan to visit). But from the time I landed, to the very minute I’m typing this, I scratch my head, wondering why this country has gotten the rep it has, because in my (albeit short) experience while here, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have loved Egypt, Cairo especially, and I know with certainty I will be back again one day soon. I’m terribly sad to be leaving, and future countries on my list have big shoes to fill. 

The iconic Sphinx

And the most disheartening part was in various conversations with locals, it was clear that they too are very aware of the reputation the West has stuck them with, and they too shook their heads in confusion as to why. And it’s this same reputation of being dangerous, and unsafe, especially for female travelers, that has devastated their tourism economy badly.  

What we see and hear on our television screens from our news broadcasters back in the US, does not tell the stories of the people actually living there, or give an accurate representation of what it’s like on the ground. While it would be hypocritical of me to say, “throw all those other opinions out” and take my two-week experience as gospel, I do hope to add to the conversation that’s stacked against a country unfairly.

One of many temples visited while in Luxor – photos don’t do these incredible structures justice in the slightest

Future aspiring travelers, young and old, male, but especially female, please don’t rule this beautiful country out. It’s not an impossible mission that you have to be “brave” to do. And please, for the love of god, don’t hire a private tour guide. You do not need it, and you will only gain a much better understanding of the place without one. Your news stories coming from your TV screens are selling you ratings, not necessarily the truth- something we all need to keep in mind before passing harsh judgment. 

I’m headed to the airport in a few short hours, where I’ll fly to Amman, Jordan. I’m staying with my first host from couch surfers, and I’m looking forward to staying in an actual home again, after bouncing from one hostel to the next. 

Fun was had bartering at Khalili market

It’s been two months since my Bonderman journey began, and with each arrival and departure I’m met with a lesson and a tighter grip on this whole “solo travel thing”.  My normal pre-departure jitters haven’t set in yet, but it won’t be long now, I’m sure. Regardless, my confidence in being able to adjust to whatever is waiting for me upon arrival continues to grow. 

The last thing I fell in love with while here? The language. Arabic, to my eye, is so beautiful to look at. It’s delicately intricate. The front desk man at my hotel was kind (and patient!) enough to help me sound out some phrases. The first thing I asked him was, “How do you say ‘hello’ in Arabic?” And he paused, looked upwards like people do when they’re in thought and their mind is grasping for the right words. In my mind, I was thinking, “did he understand me correctly? Every language has a direct translation for ‘hello’ right?” After a quiet moment, he responded, “Salaam Alaikum” Which directly translates to, “May peace be upon you”, a common greeting here. “That’s so much better than ‘hello’”, I said. Silly me, I guess there isn’t always a direct translation after all, and how great is that.

Beautiful temples sitting on the bank of the Nile in Aswan

    I’m not sure how or why Cairo, with your incessant honking, crowded sidewalks, stimulating sights and smells, and a city that only gets more vibrant with the night, despite all this, a much-needed peace did find me here. Salaam Alaikum. 

Till next time.

India.

I. Where to begin? Mumbai.

Mumbai isn’t really a place that tourists go with intent to stay long.

It has its touristy hotspots: The Gateway of India, Marine Drive, the beach, a handful of famous hotels and restaurants and malls – more than enough to fill the time that most foreigners are willing to spend in Mumbai. That’s also about all the space it spares for tourism anyway.

During my month in India I ventured from Mumbai just once. I headed south with (of all people) my own brother, who was able to rendezvous in a lucky, between-jobs-travel-opportunity. We explored the extensive ruins of Hampi, followed by an attempted aquaponics Workaway near Bangalore.

Attempted, because we both got pretty sick and ended up cutting things short to return to Mumbai. In hindsight, I’m just grateful that we were together. It was a dose of family time I needed at that middle-of-Bonderman moment, and I’m honestly not sure who else would have kept me alive with crackers and Gatorade out there.

Flopped aquaponics adventure aside, a somewhat frustrating number of people I met were surprised that I chose to stay in Mumbai when there are many [cleaner, photo-worthy, less chaotic, ‘cultural’, yoga-oriented, peaceful] other parts of India to see.

Which brings me to a Note:

India’s incredible diversity manifests in spaces ranging from small city block to the ‘northern-southern’ Indian separation. A famous Indian author described the country along the lines of ‘if America is a melting pot, India is a Thali – one platter with a variety of distinct dishes served together’.

As far as I can tell, that’s an A+ metaphor. The US is diverse, but it’s more blended, with eroded extremes seen (for example) state to state – a Tennessee to Michigan comparison has a lot less to it than a Punjab to Jammu & Kashmir, or Maharashtra to Sikkim comparison:

Linguistically, religiously, racially, financially, culturally – there are so many points of distinction, and I only skimmed the surface in understanding them. I would never pretend to know-know India (or Mumbai for that matter), but I’m proud the solid effort I made, and I’m grateful that Mumbai was my lens.

So – I did not see many of the things we foreigners can more easily associate with the majesty of India: The Taj Mahal, the Himalayas, the beaches of Goa, Delhi’s pollution, famous yoga Ashrams, Gandhi’s house). I’d like to, sure, someday.

But I wouldn’t change my route, or my commitment to a singular city. I’ve come to appreciate that some constraints are necessary when diving into so much unfamiliarity at once.

II. Sensory Overload

Mumbai was a huge contrast from my first 3.5 Bonderman months in Eastern Europe. It’s truly unlike any place I’ve ever lived.

The air’s a stew: car exhaust, incense, sour body odor, spiced street food, feces, fresh rain, decomposing trash, the constant yet unidentifiable scent of something burning, wet plant (similar to the distinctly organic, muggy way that Florida smells).

The climate was overwhelming: Since I arrived at the tail end of monsoon season, the weather was still kind of psychotic. I splurged on an umbrella because the downpours would start and stop at random. I didn’t see the sun for the first week. Life in monsoon season is perpetually damp; my hair wouldn’t fully air dry, though nothing ever really did. I underestimated how tiring constant wetness is.

The street is constant motion: There are usually no lanes, but if there are, no one stays in them anyway. The traffic is too thick; it’s every man for themselves out there. Horn honking is nonstop – it’s how rickshaws (called autos in Mumbai) nudge their way through intersections, how motorbikes make sure to not get pinched out, how everyone expresses frustration when traffic gets inexplicably clogged. To cross the street as a pedestrian, you just start walking into traffic, and you don’t stop – the buses/cars/bikes/autos/carts swerve just enough to zip by. And there really are cows roaming about.

Getting anywhere takes a while, and usually multiple modes of transportation: The local train was a particular thrill, because it jams so fully with people, body to body like sardines, that people lean out the doors. There are no doors to close, anyway. The doorway is the best spot because you catch some fresh air and city views.

The surroundings are visually chaotic: The winding streets are bordered with little shops dedicated to singular things: lamps, or piping, or backpacks, saris, candy, or little stands selling cups of chai, or white tshirts, or bike helmets, flip flops, coconuts.

At the major intersections that actually do have street lights, people walk and weave through the idling vehicles. About half are asking for money, the others are selling something random like apples or tissues: Hands extend into the covered space of the auto (rickshaw). Or, on the window, a tap-tap-tap. I’ll never lose the image of the small boy whose nose didn’t make it over my window ledge.

Among all this, shiny white high rises jut out. Expensive cars weave through the autos and motor bikes. Posh cafes border local barber shops and fruit stands. For the middle-ish class, it’s common to have a housekeeper or cook (she will make the rounds between 4 or 5 homes in a morning, doing a quick clean before preparing meals, for very minimum pay). With some money, the chaos and hassle of Mumbai can be paid off.

Mumbai’s funny that way. It’s growing, it’s trying to modernize, but it’s so thick with daily life that growth isn’t happening in a coordinated manner. The malls, the posh neighborhoods, the gyms, the restaurants – they pop up on their own, like calm little oases for those who can afford to block out the chaos.

the street, during monsoon season

III. Ganesh Celebrations

Few things give away my naiveté in India quite like dropping (~unaware~) into Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra, during the largest annual celebration for the state’s patron Hindu deity, Ganesh.

It was another result of my on-the-fly travel style. Having the freedom to pivot, answer unanticipated opportunities without hesitation is awesome. But I still fail in the preparation department from time to time; so be it. My timing in Mumbai was a happy accident, at least. What Ganesh-awareness I lacked on-impact, I made up with effort.

Ganesh is objectively cool looking: head of an elephant, beautiful big eyes, ornately decorated human body. Once introduced, I saw his image everywhere – on dusty taxi dashboards, stone statues in temples, in frames on home walls, mini replicas at tourist stalls.

Hindu mythology explains the elephant head: Ganesh’s father (the Great god Shiva) semi-accidentally beheaded him; the nearest available animal’s head ultimately served as a replacement.

Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi isn’t a strict, solely ceremonious, exclusively religious ordeal. It’s part of Hinduism, but even for the many who don’t literally believe Hindu mythology or actively practice India’s most popular religion, it’s widely cultural in celebration.

Families, neighborhoods, or organizations band together for a communal idol that’s as small as a teddy bear or as large as a pickup truck stood on its nose. Ganesh’s spirit is infused into each idol and paid tribute for 10 days: he’s prayed to, “fed” with food offerings, showered in decorative garlands and flowers, among other ceremonies.

The final ritual is the immersion. The colorfully illuminated pandals (Ganesh shrines loaded onto small carts, mini vans with open trunks, trailers, or huge agricultural trucks) process through packed streets with a lot of dancing and chanting in tow, until each Ganesh meets his eventual end at sea.

I watched the processions out to sea among the huge crowd at Versova Beach, near where I was staying at my friend Pritam’s (from the farm in Hungary!). It was so purely joyful. Girls in colorful saris and golden jewelry dancing and chanting; young boys eagerly helping carry a pandal; older women seated around the larger Ganesh idols on trailers, smiling in flickering candlelight; men laughing and walking together in typical Indian bro-mance fashion: arm in arm, hand in hand, and sometimes just two linked pinky fingers.

Since monsoon season lingered this year, it was still steamy-hot n’ humid. The rain started up again, so we watched through a misty curtain as silhouette after silhouette of statue-bearing mini-mob melted into the black waves, idol toppling, group dispersing, figures splashing back to shore in the semi-dark.

IV. It’s all rubbish

Versova beach in Mumbai is best at a distance. From far and high enough, it’s almost possible to ignore the floating plastic debris and unusual brownness of the shallows, or pretend the colorful sprinkles of trash and broken tiles are seashells.

There is so much of it: bottle caps, juice box straws, cracked spoons, cracker wrappers, soda bottles, pen casings, condoms, tied plastic bags, old clothes, shredded polypropylene from sandbags, broken toys, faux flowers from festival décor, toothbrushes, ketchup packets, coffee lids… It’s half-buried in the sand, it bobs in the breakers, it tumbles up and down the beach face with the advancing and receding of the waves. I’ve truly never seen anything like it.

It’s not only plastic waste. In the early morning, people from the seaside slums defecate on the sand, and the ocean flushes it away. It’s unofficially scheduled: women go in the darker early morning hours, men when the sun starts rising.

I saw and learned about this around the same time that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, declared that India was open defecation free. That one landed a bit controversially. Although they did build many public toilets, there was less attention on social integration and general maintenance. Not to mention the number of toilets still isn’t enough. With India in the international spotlight surrounding Modi’s international visits (including to the US, if “Howdy, Modi” rings a bell) and Gandhi’s 150th birthday celebration, optics were especially important.

I got to know Mumbai’s Versova neighborhood pretty well while staying at my friend Pritam’s place. He affectionately calls it The Neighborhood of Struggling Bollywood Actors. Not to be confused with Bandra West, where the successful Bollywood actors reportedly live.

Morning chai chats with Pritam often circled back to how things in India are more transparent. I came to appreciate that this, while true, makes them no less complicated.

Take Versova beach: It’s a brutally honest display of trash – trash that would get collected and hidden from sight in many other countries, including the US. And yet- in Versova, the apparent simplicity (‘this city has poor waste management/these people must litter’) of its trash-filled shore is actually quite misleading.

For one thing: Versova beach has actually been undergoing weekly cleanups for the past 4 years, spearheaded by an ordinary man who spent 2 years setting a national-headlining example and attracting the help of many others along the way. He’s still at it, by the way; I met him at one of the Saturday beach clean-ups. In addition to the Versova cleanups, they’ve set up trash catchment at some of the major estuaries, but there’s just so much trash. The beach gets re-coated before the next Saturday. It’s palliative care, though the precedent matters.

For another: Hindu traditions are being modified in an attempt to emphasize environmental awareness as a cultural priority. Remember the Ganesh idols’ ocean immersion? Plaster idols, chemical paints, and non-natural decor are technically no longer allowed; they’ve also started building pools as an alternative location for immersions.

And one more: Despite the slum’s proximity, it’s not the main source of Versova’s trash. Trash may cover pathways, pile up against brick and corrugated tin structures, settle into in crevices of the rocky seawall that the slum is built on. But the majority of the trash is in the water, and that trash comes from all 18 million people of Mumbai.

I spent a lot of time stressing about Versova’s trash, specifically, which seems odd since most of Mumbai has a major trash problem. The streets are littered with tire-flattened trash. The marsh areas are suffocated by it. The local train’s tracks appear to plow through it. Scruffy kids make a makeshift soccer ball with it. The slow-moving rivers are saturated with it.

But Versova is a beach. And that struck a particular nerve with the Lake-Michigan-grown beach kid in me.

What was most sickening was knowing that my life has contributed more waste than anyone living in the Versova slum — I am a consumer, from a consumer-oriented, American society. But our country is designed to hide the byproducts of consumption. We teach people where to dispose, we have organized services, we build landfills, we even pay a rotating menu of the world’s poorest to take our excess plastic (though these days are numbered; link). We consume more, we burn more, we throw away more, but it’s out of our sight, and off our beaches, so it’s a non-issue..

So.. How does this make us more deserving of clean shores? I lose sleep on this one.

To be clear: it’s not coastal aesthetics that I stress about. The visible trash in India belies the real culprit, while demonstrating a much larger injustice.

Does Mumbai’s waste management system need an intervention? Yeah (though they have other fish to fry first). But does America need to cut back on consumption, maybe reduce the 16.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita that we contribute? Absolutely, (we’re #1, by the way (link).

But a larger injustice is that now, and even more in our future, environmental consequences will continue to disproportionately affect the wrong people most. And this stuff does matter, because environment largely determines our quality of life – a basic human right that many lack. I’ve never seen it more obviously than in Mumbai, and there’s so much racial and socioeconomic inequality wrapped up in it too.

Traveling is showing me firsthand how and why environmental intervention has the opportunity and obligation to target multiple injustices at once. A dirty shore is only ever the tip of the iceberg.

***

CB

Morocco

Morocco was such a beautiful place! I stayed in Essaouira, Marrakesh, Fez, Chefchaouen, and a day trip to Atlas Mountain. The country is so rich in culture. Marrakesh is a very busy city and you have to be alert at all times. Essaouira is a small farming village that is a nice break from Marrakesh. Fez is a great city to visit for the new city and has a beautiful market. Chefchaouen (also known as the Blue City) was worth the trip- although, I would say only 1/3 of the city was actually painted blue. So glad that I had the opportunity to visit such a great country.

The Islamic culture is interesting to witness. The call to prayer is broadcasted five times a day and shop owners leave their shops to go pray. The community is very trusting of one another and I felt very safe. Even in the 100 degree weather, The men wore pants that extended past their knees. Muslims are prohibited to pray if knees are shown regardless of gender.

The Slow and Steady Yetis

October 14, 2019

Namaste! from Upper Pisang, Nepal. I am currently sitting in the sunny dining room of our tea house, at an altitude of 3,300 m (that’s 10,826 ft above sea level, for those accustomed to the imperial system). Through big glass windows, the room overlooks the dusty, pine-tree-covered valley that folds like crinkled paper below Annapurna II. The walls of the dining room shake as the wind coming down from the mountain thunders past us.

Everything here is immense, giant, expansive, and towers over us like a child over a line of ants. Gazing up at her, concepts of time and space fall away; here it is nearly impossible to comprehend how big, how high, how old. The dazzling sun brings everything into sight, but perception can only take me so far. For the first time I see something that completely baffles me: the largest objects on Earth.

We are nearly at our halfway point of the Annapurna circuit trek. Tomorrow will be a tough day, as we hike 16 km and ascend 200 m to Manang. I am trekking with a girl from the Czech Republic, Marketa. We met in Basisahar as we waited for the same jeep to take us up to Gaunshahar, where we would start work together as volunteers at a local school. We were both planning to do the Annapurna circuit and decided to begin the trek sooner rather than later when we realized that school would be out for another week in observance of Dashain festival.

I am so incredibly grateful to have met Marketa. We joke with other trekkers that we’re lucky to be trekking together because we have not met a single person who walks as slow or takes as many breaks as we do. 🙂 We’re taking it slow because we have very little experience with high altitudes. Actually, scratch that, we have no experience with high altitudes. In fact, where we sit right now, high up in the Himalayas, is the highest point on Earth we have ever been.

Others laugh at us as they proudly announce that they are attempting the circuit in 10 or 12 days, and that they “have no time” for altitude sickness or acclimatization or rest days because they would have to miss their flights home. Marketa and I, each independent and stubborn in our own way (and each equipped with a hefty 3-month visa) ignore the gallantries. We know our limits and would rather take twice as long to complete this journey than risk enduring serious injuries by rushing to the end.

As it turns out, after surpassing 3,000 m, we consistently “feel the altitude,” as they say. Walking and breathing at the same time is a difficult task, made even more difficult by the relentless morning sun. It feels like there is a pressure sitting in my sinuses and in the back of my head, almost like the feeling of taking off on an airplane, or an uncomfortable and hot high-pressure summer day in Michigan. A small voice calls out nervously from under the pressure, “you’ve never been here before, this feels unnatural.”

I make note of the sensations and check them against a list of symptoms that signify altitude sickness. Today I start carrying two liters of water instead of only one, so that I can have one to drink while the other purifies. (The purification process takes 40 minutes, which is 40 minutes longer than I am willing to wait for clean drinking water in this environment.) We need to hike up a little today after lunch in order to respect the golden rule of “walking high, sleeping low.” Most of all, at the trusted advice of a friend’s trekking guide, dal bhat and garlic soup (two super foods that help with acclimatization) will be our very best friends.

Dal bhat is a staple food here, and I absolutely love it. In rural villages and lower-income households in Nepal dal bhat is customary because it is inexpensive and relatively easy to prepare. The dish consists of lentil soup (“dal”) served over a bed of rice (“bhat”), along with fermented root vegetables and curried potatoes. In Gaunshahar we eat dal bhat for every meal of the day, which vividly reminds me of those not-uncommon periods of frugality in college when I did the same with penne pasta and marinara for days on end. The blaring difference, however, would be that dal bhat is prepared by Nepalese men and woman who have been making the dish from scratch with fresh ingredients every single day of their lives. The rice is packed with water, carbs and oxygen; the lentil soup is hot and flavorful; the curried vegetables are hearty and satisfying. But, if you remember nothing else about this family favorite, please always remember that the best part of dal bhat is that it is always served with a second helping of all of the above.

In four days we will attempt to hike over the Thorong La Pass, which is the highest point of the circuit at 5,426 m (17,768 ft). This has been, by far, the most physically and mentally challenging endeavor I have taken on in my life. We laugh at ourselves, for having considered the trek with such naivety and overconfidence, saying, “why not? Let’s just do the Annapurna!” While we are now saturated with a seriousness that attempts to match the extreme features of this dangerous and magnificent landscape, that initial enthusiasm still rings through our hearts.

Tonight, after the sun sets over the mountains and the stars begin to spread across the sky, I will bundle myself into my sleeping bag and listen carefully to the encouraging song of the wind on my window pane. Then, I will fall asleep with a smile on my face because here I feel happier and more powerful than I have in a very long time.

October 15, 2019

Update: We made it to Manang! The wifi on the trek is not strong enough to upload photos, so I’ll make sure to send some after we get to Pokhara.