Where are we now?

View Where are we now? in a larger map Jo, Annie, Miles and I are living in Northport, Alabama and working at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We've been glad to be in one place for a bit after what appeared to be semi-permanently traveling (in actuality for a period of 2.5 years).We started this blog to catalogue some of the adventures when Jo and I were sequentially conducting our dissertation research in India and Brazil. While we've fallen off the blogging bandwagon somewhat during recent trips to Brazil, we're trying to pick it up again now that we're back in India!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Moments along on the road

Irrespective of where you are traveling, you are always crossing paths with fascinating people. Many of these people you'll never hear their stories.

Take this guy for example, I was behind him in a taxi as I left Kolkata's train station. Fascinated by the giant fish he was carrying on the back of his bike, I snapped a picture of him as we sat at a traffic light. Who is this guy? What is his life like? And, seriously, what is the deal with these fish?

Other individuals, due to paths intersecting and running in parallel for a time, one has the opportunity to learn more about. While in Cherrapunjee, I met a fascinating Dutch woman that I wanted to write this blog post about. I first saw Bernadette, as she crested the hill into the resort on her mountain bike. Given that I knew the condition of the road, and the topography, I was astonished to see a mid-50 year old woman riding up on a mountain bike, loaded to the brim with panniers (bags that attach to a bike).

Over the next two days I got a chance to learn more about Bernadette and her amazing travels. On THIS trip, she is on a four month solo trip across Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. The trip before, for two YEARS, took her through all of the "stans" (Pakistan, Kyrz, Iran etc) and across Mongolia, and China... Um.... are you serious. Listening to her philosophy of life while around the campfire was really quite moving. Not only her descriptions of her journeys were fascinating, such as how she'd stay in a guest house usually about one night a month, as most nights she'd be invited to stay in a families home, who would call their family in the next town to arrange a place to stay and so on, but also the descriptions of the pragmatic side of international life on a bicycle, such as how she created a fake passport for me bike, complete with a photo, of her, a photo of the bike, it's serial number, AND official looking stamps. At first I thought this was hilarious and ridiculous, until she explained creating it was necessary. Putting the bike on a train across China, and expecting to get the bike back from the Chinese rail officials, one NEEDS something that looks official. The majority of my questions, of which there were many for those who know my father and the tree I haven't fallen far from, dealt with these practical issues: how do you navigate (assuming she had a fancy bike-GPS)..."whatever local maps I can get" (at which part she would start laughing and launch into a story of how abysmal the maps are, but loves the feeling of them in her hands, then into how she'll stop at every intersection to clarify she's going in the right direction (not a problem in Tajikistan, she informed me as there's only one real road). Of course, the obvious questions: what do you do when you're not biking: "working as a social worker in order to save money for the next cycle trip"....and so on and so on.

What will stay with me? Her description of how friendly the people are everywhere that she meets (except maybe those Chinese rail officials). Remembering the small bits of frustration I'd dealt with on this 10 day trip (such as the 24 hour stop on the train) I couldn't imagine having such a positive attitude about all the infinite trials and tribulations she must go through on a daily basis, trying to navigate mega-cities, rural areas where no one for a thousand miles speaks English, much less Dutch...

But no, for Bernadette, it was and is, with a smile, about the beauty of humanity, and the desire to make the most of everyday, whatever came down the road...

Link to her website

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rhinos and ruminations

Following my journeys across the root bridges of Cherrapunjee, I headed on a day of various jeep rides, and rides in the backs of trucks, arriving finally at Wild Grass Resort next to Kaziranga national park.

After 12 hours scrunched into "shared jeeps" (one common form of public transport in India, where a land rover jeep will basically go on a specific route, leaving when "full", and I mean full, i.e. 15-20 people inside and on top!)reaching Wild Grass was music to my ears. To be more specific, what was so nice is that I had been planning on staying in a tent there, but the manager (who I think was astonished/impressed/incredulous with my travel means) told me had upgraded me to a suite! Now that was one sweet upgrade!

The next morning I did what I'd been looking forward to for five years, since I first came to India: a safari through Kaziranga.

In the cool morning air, I travelled in the back of jeep (just me and the guide this time!) for 3 hours, rolling through the woods and marsh lands, looking at all sorts of wildlife, including Assamese deer

Asian Hornbills

Random domestic elephants *yes, domestic, as in they're used for tourist rides)

and of course, rhinos!

While seeing the rhinos was quite cool, not surprisingly, it didn't quite live up to my expectations--not sure what I was really expecting, them to be charging each other with their horns? Regardless, what I will certainly remember from the trip was the cool morning air, warm sun on my face, standing up in the back of the jeep and hours of enjoying the beautiful scenery.

So ruminations: what is it about the difference between expectations and experiences? In other words, the more I travel, the more I try to hone in on ensuring I have the kind of experience I enjoy. Not surprisingly, right? One doesn't want to go on vacation and have a horrible time, and travel can both be the best and worst (sometimes at the same time). While standing in the jeep, watching the rhinos ruminate (wait, are they ruminants?), I pondered this for myself. I think, what differentiates my experience at Cherrapunjee (previous posts), which was phenomenal, from Kaziranga, which was nice but somewhat lackluster, is my affinity for exploration. There's something that really entices me about coming to a place and being able to explore on one's own, taking little side trails just because, sitting by a root bridge and enjoying the quite with no concern for the passage of time, enjoying walking through small villages deep in the woods and sharing in a "hayyylooow; yorrr name?" greeting with a smiling child. Opposed to this, I find myself somewhat underwhelmed with being driven around (i.e. a "wild safari"-even if the animals are completely out in "nature"). Of course, one couldn't/wouldn't want to explore Kaziranga by foot, the thought of being impaled by a Rhino coming out of that wild grass is enough of a deterrent for me! But, in general, I guess it's something about the unexpected, and the excitement of exploring that will keep me exploring those random alleys and bazaars, and not sitting in line at the next temple on the tourist trail....

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Perfect Day

It all began waking up and realizing I didn’t have Giardia. (My literary equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”).

What spawned this realization? Well, first that the smell of food wafting over into my tent from the kitchen was actually making me hungry and not nauseaus; the fact that I didn’t need to run to the bathroom; and most importantly that I wasn’t having “egg-burps”. Now why would the latter be so important? Well, foul egg-tasting burps are usually a diagnostic indicator of giardia, and so when I had them the day before I immediately feared the worse. Blame a feverish state I guess, but I hadn’t put 2+2 together and realized that I only started having the egg burps after I vomited (and my lunch, albeit the day before, had been eggs). Regardless, it seems that the antibiotic I started the night before had been fast acting and I was on the way to recovery.

Full of energy, I decided to make the most of my last day in Cherrapunjee, and go see the famed “double decker bridge”

It was a very long hike (approximately 13 miles) including 6000 feet of elevation change, and a 2.5 km staircase. That’s right, 2.5 km of unending 6 inch wide (small indian feet?) steps. Down, and then at the end back up…

Down was fine, I got into a groove and was able to kind of do a little run down them several at a time.

Upon reaching the ending of the set of stairs there was a trail to a fantastic root bridge.

With no one else around, I sat, ate a granola bar and just listened to the birds and marveled at the ingenuity that had resulted in the construction of these bridges.
And a note: I learned last night the following: description of root bridges here
After lolling about for long enough, I continued on, where I had to cross the first of several wire bridges (roots will only go so far I guess, or more likely it’s hard to lash several hundred feet of betel nut trees together….although one would think it could be done…). I’m not sure if these pictures can capture the emotion of crossing, but for me, these were actually quite scary. Knowing that hundreds of villagers crossed them everyday, with 90 lb sacks of firewood strapped to their heads, (seriously), and without using hands for stabilization, I bucked up, started counting breaths, and one foot in front of the other made it across.

A few of these wire bridges, and the random root bridge later, I made it to another small village. These villages were incredibly picturesque, and reminded me a lot of where I did my master’s research in the Himalaya. 10-15 houses dotting a hillside, children playing, men tending small vegetable patches. A chorus of aylooooo, aylooooo, guuubyyeeee, guuubeeee! (hello, hello, goodbye, goodbye) emanated from the smaller children, and older ones would stand on their porch and ask me my name, and which country I was from. Very friendly people, and what amazing surroundings.
Passing through their village, I came across the double decker, which I’m sorry to say was actually not quite so impressive. Of course, it is amazing, two giant root bridges—where else does one see that. Nowhere. Here are some nascent research questions: was there really that much traffic in the olden days to warrant a double decker? Or perhaps one bridge started collapsing? Or maybe water level was very high for several years? Or maybe villagers were just playful? My personal hypothesis is the latter. Well, while it was amazing, what with the hanging orchids and all, the incredible amount of concrete that some development scheme had used to make the area tourist friendly (remember the 2.5 km of concrete steps) detracted from the ambience).

Well, after the double decker root bridges, it was on towards these two swimming pools. So skipping along I went, glad to be on solid flat ground (i.e. not on a wire bridge or set of steps!) and who did I find but Mr. Butterfly (or Mrs.—can’t remember if butterflies are sexually dimorphic, and if they were what I’d be looking for!).

Leaving him to enjoy whatever sticky/salty wrapper it’d found, I made my way over to one of the two most amazing swimming holes I’ve ever seen.

Again, the same absolutely turquoise water, sculpted rocks, birds singing, rainforest above, and no one around. Perfect. After swimming for a bit I consulted my little hand-drawn map, courtesy of the hotel. It said “ledge walk” to get to the next pool. Well, there was a rock face above me, and what looked like a ledge, and what looked like a wire that could be used as a pendulum-like hand rail, but upon taking the first few steps onto the rock, I thought “Self, how much fun is a 7 mile hike up 2.5 km of steps with a compound fracture and a concussion going to be in the dark…..?”, Not, was the resounding answer. Sometimes a modicum of wisdom does come with age! So I came back down and just enjoyed the bliss of having this pool to myself for about an hour.

Starting back, I thought to myself “A) Self, you’re pretty adventurous, more so than many tourists that come here, and B) those Khasi villagers are pragmatic if anything (yes, I do frequently lay out arguments in my head in this manner, must be from that training in philosophy). There must be a trail that goes to that next pool, because not many tourists would do that rock walk, and the Khasi would’ve built a nice little trail eons ago. So walking back, and keeping my eyes peeled, there enough was the trail! Much better than the compound fracture/concussion scenario!
And what a pool it was…

Words really can’t describe the beauty of this place, the late afternoon sun, the birds, surrounding forest, cool air but warm sun after swimming, muscles tired from a good long hike, and no one around.
Perfect, except for two thing A) I had to go back (the way I came); and B) Jo wasn’t there to share in it all with me. Oh well, sometimes you can’t have it all….but sometimes you can have it pretty darn close.
And then at the end of the hike back up, an amazing sunset to top it off and light those last few km on the road back.