Song of the Open Road: A Literary Roadtrip

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I know most of my readers come here for information about Japan (the stats tell me that) and this blog was started to chronicle my travels.  I’ve been posting a lot about my feelings lately, but fear not!  There are more travel plans on the horizon!

I’ll start teaching in public schools this fall, which means I’ll get school holidays off.  That’s not why I became a teacher, but it is definitely a perk.  After viewing the 2014-2015 school calendar, my mind couldn’t stop wandering and here’s where it wandered off to….

 

Fall Break: The nerdtastic literary road trip of my dreams

Literary Road Trip

The Literary Road Trip

 

STOP ONE: Monticello – Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation

I’ve had an affection for our third president since learning about him in Elementary school.  I still have a model of the Jefferson Memorial that I made for a class project back then.  About five years ago, I got to see the Jefferson Memorial in person and was emotionally overwhelmed.  Jefferson had the elusive “poet’s soul”–my favorite trait in any human being.  His writing is just as important and compelling as it was 200 years ago.  His words perfectly captured what it means to be “American.”

A picture from my visit to the Jefferson Memorial in 2009.

A picture from my visit to the Jefferson Memorial in 2009.

 

STOP TWO: Camden, NJ – Walt Whitman’s grave

Have I mentioned how much I love Walt Whitman?  Because I LOVE HIM.  Like, deliriously so.  I keep a worn, marked-up copy of Leaves of Grass at my bedside at all times.  His words have spoken to me like no one else’s.  After reading, “When I Heard The Learned Astronomer” in 10th grade English class, I knew it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.  I’ve memorized countless poems and lines of poems since then, just so they will be accessible to my heart whenever I need them.  Anyway, I will go to his grave with wildflowers and CRY.

Walt

My Walt

 

STOP THREE: Long Island, NY – Walt Whitman’s birthplace.

(Insert continued gushing about favorite author here.)

 

STOP FOUR: Concord, MA – Thoreau’s Walden Pond

No lover of the transcendentalist literary movement would miss Walden Pond!  If you’re unfamiliar with Thoreau’s book, Walden, I’ll give you a brief overview.  He lived in a cabin in the woods for about two years as a part of a personal and spiritual quest.  He wrote about topics such as ants, his bean field, cleaning his cabin, and sounds he heard in the woods.  It’s beautiful.  I want to walk the trails and kayak out onto the still water to see if I can see what he saw.

Walden

Walden

 

STOP FIVE: Baltimore, MD – My Wifey’s Wedding

My beloved college roommate is getting married near the end of my Fall break, so I will be ending my trip by wishing her a life of happiness with her new husband.  I am sad that another person will be able to claim her as “wifey,” but I will survive.

Impersonating ourselves

Impersonating ourselves

…This trip is feasible in a week’s time, right???

Factionless

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Fans of the Divergent series have made logos for each faction based on the book's descriptions.

Fans of the Divergent series have made logos for each faction based on the book’s descriptions.

I have an analogy for you. First, let me preface by saying that I despise coffee. It tastes like licking a burnt iron skillet. There’s no amount of milk, sugar, or chocolate that will mask that disgusting taste. I’ve also been a vegetarian for over ten years.

On to the analogy. Let’s say that all my friends decide that it would be fun to go out to dinner every week at the “Meat and Coffee” restaurant. They love it there and they can’t get enough bacon and espresso. If I ate beforehand, I could go with them just to socialize. But, I’d always feel out-of-place and a little peeved that I can’t participate in these dinners. I’d always hear questions like, “Why don’t you like meat and coffee?” Or they’d tell me, “Maybe if you just tried meat and coffee, you’d like it.” Or even better, “You’re just a picky eater.”

Now replace the words “meat and coffee” with “marriage” and this scenario becomes my real life. The majority of my friends are married or getting married. I’m happy for them, but I don’t want to be married. I can’t participate in the meat and coffee outings.

There are plenty of movies portraying the “woman of a certain age” who is still single among her married friends. However, the movies tend to focus on the single girl’s desire to get married or her happiness when she finally does. I feel that no one has told the story of the single woman who actually likes being single. The isolation of that woman is far worse, I believe.

When people get married, they embark on a journey that you as a single person can’t understand and can’t be a part of. Your married friends start hanging out with other married friends more frequently. The process is gradual, but one day, out of the blue, you’re an outsider in their midst. At some point it is decided that if you want someone to deeply connect with—a best friend—it has to be a spouse. Your friends will always be your friends, but the deeper connection you once had is lost. It’s as though you were having a great time at a party, but then you turned around and everyone had gone home.

To all my friends who are happily married, let me be clear: I am super thrilled for your happiness. But, what about me? Who am I suppose to spend my days with? What’s going to happen to me if I never marry? Will I live and die in a couple’s world?

I’m in a transitional place in my life (aren’t I always?) in which my groups of friends have splintered, my old self and new self conflict, and I am searching for my place in the world. This feeling combined with the incessant coupling of my friends has led me to some embarrassing behaviors such as Googling “why am I lonely” and listening to Jack White’s song, “Love Interruption,” on repeat. Why is there an emptiness that I’ve never felt before?

I couldn’t put my finger on it all until I had a long conversation with my ex-boyfriend, who is one of my best friends and ironically, one of my only single friends. I had encouraged him to read the first “Divergent” book so that we could watch the movie together when it comes out. The book is not a masterpiece but definitely entertaining. The story is based around the choosing of a faction based on your personality: The Erudite, The Dauntless, The Abnegation, etc. The Divergents are rebels that can fit into any of the factions. The Factionless have no home. Like most people who have read the book, we discussed which friends would belong to what faction. I thought the two of us would be divergent, but my friend had it right: we’re factionless.

KIT! LYLAS! Have a great summer!

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I don't know why I find this so funny.  Thanks to whoever made this.

I don’t know why I find this so funny. Thanks to whoever made this.

Happy New Year! 2013: what a year it was. I like sunrises, I like new beginnings. That inner voice that says, “I’m going to get it right this time.” New beginnings are important. If they don’t excite you, you may have a problem with hope.

One of my resolutions is to do one small creative thing each day. It can be two minutes or two hours, but it is essential. I am so much happier when I am not passively going through the motions of life. You don’t have to be a “creative type” to do “creative” things. Being creative is simply manifesting something–anything–that didn’t exist before. It could be cooking or organizing a committee or writing a lesson plan. One creative outlet that I have that I have neglected is this blog. So, I’ll write little bits as insights come to me.

Truthfully, I’ve neglected a lot in the past few month since returning home. I haven’t dealt with anything concerning my two years in Japan. My lost package, my tax refund, getting in touch with friends I left behind—nothing. Partially, this is because when I move on from something, I move on completely. The bigger reason is that some memories are just too painful. Yes, I’m still thrilled to be home, but I miss a lot of the people I met in Japan. Just going through the photos of my last few months in Japan makes me extremely emotional. Why don’t I Skype or write letters to those I miss? I don’t know. Opening a wound? Trying to turn something into what it isn’t anymore?

That brings me to another resolution that I haven’t completely committed to yet: get back in touch with people. I’m awful at that stuff. Expecting people to just know that you care about them even though you’re not keeping in touch is ridiculous and inconsiderate. Still, I hope people know I do care about them, even when I’m feeling evasive.

Writing here about the past two years should be a cathartic experience that will hopefully make me less paralyzed about it. I’ve been repressing a lot of experiences that need to be talked about. During all the seminars about reverse culture shock that I was subjected to, speakers would always say, “Don’t talk about Japan all the time because nobody cares.” This has been true. When people ask me, “How was Japan?” what they really want to hear is, “Cool, thanks.” Most people don’t actually want to know about my incredible experience. I know that and I understand. However, it put me in an odd position during my first couple of months back home. I had NOTHING to talk about except my time in Asia. So, I just spent a lot of time being quiet, not chiming into conversations. It was a little depressing. Thankfully for my social life, I’ve now been back long enough to have things to talk about that don’t relate to my life in Asia. I feel normal again, not like I’m leading a double life.

Well, I guess that’s it for now.  Here’s to 2014 and accomplishing all the things!

“You can’t go home again.” <– False.

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The warm glow of happiness on my 29th birthday.

The warm glow of happiness on my 29th birthday.

I have much more blogging to do about South East Asia as well as Japan, but I’d like to write about what’s on my mind right now: home. I’ve been home for about two weeks now. What’s it like to move your whole life back home after two transformative years in Japan? Well, read on.

Much to my ex-boyfriend’s displeasure, I am not a Bon Jovi fan. I especially don’t like their song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” which was Jon Bon’s first foray into country music and the whole “Nashville scene.” However, the song popped up in my head the other day while I was in the dressing room of my favorite thrift store. I’ve got to say, I think the lyrics of that song explain my current sentiment exactly.

I have been warned about my impending reverse culture shock since before I left for Japan. I understand that I may be in my “honeymoon stage” and it could creep up on me. But, I’ve got a feeling it won’t. When I saw the hills of Tennessee and the Nashville skyline bathed in the pink glow of the setting sun from my airplane window, I cried tears of joy.

I’m really, REALLY home!

It was Socrates who long ago said, “know thyself.” At 29 years old, I feel that I know myself pretty well. Although outside factors muddle my intuition from time to time, I do know what I like, what is right for me, who I am, and (eventually) why I do the things I do. I’ve grown up a lot here at the end of my 20’s. I listen to myself more. I’m more patient and compassionate. I’m more appreciative and attentive. I’m more at peace. Although I admit that I am terrified of turning 30 next year, I think my 30’s will be phenomenal.

In the past, there have been many friendships, jobs, relationships, etc. that I stayed in too long because I was afraid to let go. That’s one of my personal flaws. I continue to learn from those experiences and I try really hard nowadays to listen to that little voice that says, “it’s time to move on.”

I was ready to leave Japan. Period. I left with no loose ends, no regrets, and no second-guessing. I’m forever grateful for my time there and I wouldn’t change a thing. But, it just wasn’t the right place for me.

Most nights while asleep in Japan, I experienced two kinds of dreams. Usually, I would dream of being home. If I wasn’t dreaming of home, I was having sleep-paralysis filled night terrors in which I would be trapped in my bedroom and fighting to break free. The subconscious mind rarely lies.

Now that I’m home, my dreams are about more light-hearted things, and occasionally, dreams in which I have to return to Japan but don’t want to go. When I experience sleep paralysis hallucinations now, I don’t see scary black figures in my room. Instead I see my mother talking to me, watching me sleep, or…covering me in potatoes…. I guess I went to sleep hungry that night. As you can see, a lot of stress and anxiety has been lifted from me!

Finally, I feel free and alive again. I don’t feel trapped. I don’t have to be anything I’m not. I can be myself and live the life that I want.

So what’s home like? After months of rose-tinted memories, does it live up to my expectations? Yes, and more. Home is exactly the same, but I see it differently—more compassionately–than before. Now, I accept home for what it is. I don’t want it to be something more grandiose or exciting than it is. I also don’t want to run off to a different, more grandiose, exciting place either. I just want to enjoy being here. I’m at peace with home.

Reading on the front porch with one of my cats, Phoebe.  Simple pleasures.

Reading on the front porch with one of my cats, Phoebe. Simple pleasures.

There were also so many little things that I just couldn’t do in Japan. They were things I took for granted, but now I don’t. For example, I can drive to a store. I can buy dresses and shoes that fit me there. I can pay for my purchases with my debit card. I can have a light-hearted conversation with the cashier. I can go home and show my mom the new dresses I bought. I can wear that dress, along with my pink hair and black nail polish to go out with my friends. I can stay out until 5:00AM, eat at IHOP, and drive myself back home.

I understand that these events might not be small miracles to you, but they are to me. I relish every one of them and I am so thankful everyday.

Watching the sunrise over Nashville with my best friend after a night out.

Watching the sunrise over Nashville with my best friend after a night out.

It’s not very often that you get a real “second chance” in life with a totally clean slate. That’s where I am now: no attachments of any kind and endless avenues to travel down. It feels like a total rebirth and I feel just like a newborn, excited to experience it all.

What have I been doing, then? Well, I’ve been taking time to myself to make sure my head and heart is in the right place. I want to securely anchor myself in a purposeful place. I’ve been cleaning out years of clutter, literally and metaphorically. I’ve started working towards personal goals like running a 5K race. I’ve been cautious about who and what I give my time, energy, and positivity to.

So, forgive me for the lack of blog posts lately.

Thailand: highlights, lowlights, and tips!

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Bangkok
I was really impressed by Bangkok and by Thailand in general. It’s such an easy place to travel and I’d imagine it’s a nice place to live. Everyone speaks English, transportation is straightforward, you can find all the comforts of home, and the food is cheap and delicious. The people were nice enough but not exactly “friendly.” We never felt unsafe or uncomfortable (which was a nice change after my India trip). The city is a great mix of old and new. The skyline is dotted with skyscrapers, glittering Buddhist temples, as well as old, rusty houses.

Old meets new in the Bangkok skyline

Old meets new in the Bangkok skyline

The highlights of our trip were the Grand Palace and The Temple of the Dawn. The Grand Palace was quite expensive and crowded and I’m convinced we went on the hottest day of the year. But, it was worth the hype because it was absolutely beautiful, colorful, and sparkling. I’m sad that my pictures can’t do it justice.

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Grand Palace, Bangkok

The Temple of the Dawn was built in the 17th century as a Hindu temple in the Khmer architectural style. Many of the older Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia were originally Hindu, which surprised me.

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
We experienced a lot of mishaps during our stay in Northern Thailand which tarnished our experience. We kept getting lost in Chiang Mai city, which is ridiculous considering that it’s a small town surrounded by a moat! We also didn’t structure our time well and didn’t have a clear enough plan for each day. This lead to a lot of fruitless wandering. Our time in Chiang Mai was a good trial run for the trip and I think a lot of kinks were worked out, thankfully.

Chiang Mai is a great place for outdoor and adventure activities like zip lining, trekking, kayaking, rafting, etc. Usually I’m really keen on those things, but they weren’t well-suited for this particular trip. So, we stuck to the easier things, like temple visits, markets, and a failed attempt to visit an elephant conservation center (poor time management, once again!). If you do end up doing any elephant related activities in Thailand, make sure to do thorough research. Not all places treat the elephants humanely.

The day we *almost* saw elephants.

The day we *almost* saw elephants.

There was also the unpleasant tour to Chiang Rai. I should have learned my lesson from my trip to China. Though tours arranged through hotels and hostels are convenient, they may not provide the experience you’re looking for. We spent only 30 minutes in Chiang Rai visiting the White Temple. The rest of the time was spent riding in the van or visiting places we didn’t care about. When visiting Asia, it is beneficial to do some extra research and try to go places on your own. Either way, the White Temple was stunning and at times, comical in its depictions of good and evil.

Tips
One thing that surprised us all is that aside from food, Thailand is NOT cheap! If you want to do zip lining or and elephant tour, you’re going to pay $60-$100 USD. Clothes are $10 and up. Taxis and tuktuk rides can add up fast as well.

Haggle and bargain! I kind of enjoy it now that I know how to play the game. Whatever is quoted, as for a cheaper price. If you do want to buy something, have a price in mind before you start bargaining and try to get the merchant to meet your price, not visa versa.

Take metered taxis! Tuktuks are usually more expensive than taxis because they are used primarily by tourists looking for an “authentic” experience. A non-metered taxi will always quote a rounded off number, like 100 baht. However, if you use the meter, you’ll pay 63 or 84 baht instead. We never paid a full 100 baht using the meter. Before you get in the cab, just ask if they have a working meter and make sure they start it when you get in!

How much a taxi should cost in Bangkok

How much a taxi should cost in Bangkok

If you do have to take a tuktuk, never take the ones parked together in groups (especially the ones waiting near bus stations/train stations/etc.). They always charge more. Just walk 100 feet down the street, look for a tuktuk on the move, and watch the price magically drop 20-50%! Unfortunately, all drivers can sense desperation, so fares will go up if you are…say…carrying all your luggage and it starts raining. Sad face.

In Chiang Mai, there are red covered pick-up trucks that look a bit like fire engines or police caddies. Actually, they are shared taxis and the cheapest way to get around! The red taxis should rarely cost more than 30-40 baht per person around the city and to the bus/train station. The more people who are in the taxi, the lower your fare will be.

And finally, to my delight, vegetarians can eat like a boss here! Just tell the server you are vegetarian and they will understand. They may even offer to exchange meat for tofu in your dish.

Greetings from Thailand!

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I am determined to blog while traveling like a “real” blogger. In the past six days, we’ve traveled from our tiny mountain villages in Gunma to Tokyo, then through China to three cities in Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai.  I’ve really been impressed with Thailand so far, though we’ve had our fare share of mishaps (mostly self-inflicted…).  The food is cheap and delicious and the atmosphere is really relaxed. I hope I can write more as the trip progresses, but for right now, here are few photos!

Pad Thai from a street vendor

Pad Thai from a street vendor

Foot Massage

Foot Massage

A VERY long train ride to Chiang Mai

A VERY long train ride to Chiang Mai

The spectacular White Temple in Chiang Rai

The spectacular White Temple in Chiang Rai

We visited lots of temples in Chaing Mai.

We visited lots of temples in Chaing Mai.

A Farewell to my Students

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I love this picture of my feet and our tiny English Club president's tiny feet!

I love this picture of my feet and our tiny English Club president’s tiny feet!

It’s been over a month since I posted on this blog! It’s been a busy month with preparations to go home, planning an epic South East Asia trip in August, and saying a lot of farewells.

For me, the most important farewell will be to my students. They have been the light of my life for two years now. The most painful thought that crosses my mind when I think about leaving Japan will be leaving my kiddos. I guess that’s the life of a teacher: always having to let go of the kids you have nurtured and cared for. This is a little different, though, because in all honesty, I’ll probably never see these students again. I can’t bear the thought!

Last weekend was our high school culture festival, which was by far my most favorite day of my two years in Japan. I so enjoyed seeing my students being creative and having fun. The best part was that I got to have fun with them, playing games, going on scavenger hunts, and eating candy all day!

The night after the festival, I was on the train to the city to meet a friend for dinner. It was a beautiful summer night. I was listening to Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as I watched the pink and purple sunset glimmer across the lush, green rice fields. Aaannnd, I had an emotional breakdown. The bitter sweetness of my situation hit me all at once.

I was asked to write a farewell message for the school’s newspaper that will be translated into Japanese for my students to read. I wanted to post it here because it really sums up my feelings. I can’t read it without tearing up, so fair warning, you might not be able to either. I seem to have a knack for tear-inducing speeches (my high school valedictorian speech comes to mind…). Anyway, here goes!

“To the students of — High School:

Seven years ago, I graduated from college with a degree in Music Business. My dream was to be a music video director. But, after working in the entertainment industry for three years, I decided that it wasn’t a good fit for me. By 2009, I had a new dream: I wanted to help people and I wanted to travel. I got my certification to teach English as a foreign language later that year. I fell in love with teaching and dreamed of teaching abroad. So, I decided to come to Japan. The application and interview process was really difficult and I didn’t think I would be accepted. When I got the telephone call that I was accepted, I ran around my workplace office shouting, “I’m moving to Japan! I’m moving to Japan!” I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true.

When I first came to Japan two years ago, I had to leave my family, friends, and pets behind. I didn’t know the Japanese language or Japanese customs. I also didn’t know anyone here. I didn’t even know where Gunma was on a map! It was a very scary, but very exciting time. It’s hard to remember what that felt like, because now, Gunma is my second home. I’ve come to love this area and it will always have a special place in my heart. I have loved living in Agatsuma. I love the mountains and nature and I never get tired of the beautiful scenery here. I think I was very lucky to have lived in the “inaka!” I have made many new friends in Japan and I have learned a lot about Japanese culture. It has been a great experience.

While in Japan, I have challenged myself to try many new things that I wouldn’t normally do. I climbed Mt. Miyougi on the expert course and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life! I also hiked all through the night to reach the top of Mt. Fuji. I went canyoning in Minakami and thought I was going to drown. I learned to ski and snowboard after falling on my butt many, many, MANY times. I traveled to different countries all by myself. I even learned to ride a bike for the first time. All of these experiences helped me to learn more about myself and to become a better person. I think it’s important to challenge yourself throughout your life. You will find that you are capable of more than you ever imagined. So, please be brave and try many new things in life, especially if they’re difficult!

I was lucky to have the chance to travel a lot while in Japan. I traveled to 15 prefectures in Japan from Hokkaido to Okinawa. I also visited China, India, and South Korea. Traveling to so many places has made me realize that people are people all over the world. We all laugh, cry, and love in the same way. I encourage you to see the world as you get older and become adults. The world is a fascinating, yet very familiar place.

I have had a wonderful time in Japan, but now it is time to start a new chapter in my life. Many people have asked me what I will do after I leave Japan. Truthfully, I’m not sure what I will do! I would like to travel some more. Eventually, I will go back to school to become an English Literature teacher at an American high school. However, I have learned not to worry so much about the future. I want to live my life by following my intuition. That’s what led me here to Japan, and I’m sure it will lead me wherever I need to go next. Many people will tell you that life is linear. You will go to college, get a good job, get married, and have a family all in a few easy steps. But, that’s rarely true. The truth is that you will walk down many different paths in life. Some will lead to happiness and some will be dead ends. That is one of the greatest joys in life: the unknown. My best advice to you is to worry less and listen to your heart more. There is a small voice inside you that always knows what is right for you. If you’ll listen to it, you’ll end up exactly where you need to be.

As for my time at —-, it’s hard to put all my feelings into words. I have so much gratitude for the time I spent here. I came to Japan to have a big adventure. But, my greatest adventure was you: my girls. When I look back on my time in Japan, you will always be my first thought. I have enjoyed getting to know you all and making so many happy memories together. You have made me smile and laugh every school day. You have opened my heart and taught me more than you’ll ever know. I care so much about each and every one of you and I am sad to say goodbye. I wish I could be around to see you grow into the vibrant, beautiful young women that I know you will become. When I look at your faces, I see endless possibilities. I believe that you can accomplish any of your dreams, no matter how big they are. So, chase after your dreams and live a life that will bring you happiness. You will always be in my heart and I love you all. Thank you for two incredible years.”

India – The photos

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Humayun's Tomb, New DelhiHumayun's Tomb, New DelhiHumayun's Tomb, New DelhiHumayun's Tomb, New DelhiHumayun's Tomb, New DelhiHumayun's Tomb, New Delhi
India Gate, New DelhiIndia Gate, New DelhiNew DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New Delhi
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New Delhi
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiGurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, New DelhiHindu Temple, New DelhiBlessing a new vehicle, Hindu Temple, New DelhiHare Krishna Temple, New DelhiParliment Buildings, New Delhi

India, March 2013, a set on Flickr.

I’ve weeded through over 500 photos from my trip to bring you my favorites! Please take a look!

My trip to India!

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Celebrating Holi in Jaipur, Rajasthan (photo courtesy of Maria B.)
From March 23-31, I traveled to India’s Golden Triangle, which includes the cities of New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. We traveled to India during one of the country’s largest festivals, Holi. I’ve been putting off this India post for a number of reasons (laziness, for one). The biggest reason is because it’s no small task to condense all my experiences and mixed feelings into a few paragraphs.

Here’s the thing: India has been my number one dream trip since high school. The colorful fashion, delicious food, breathtaking architecture, rich history, and complex culture have attracted me to this country in ways I can’t explain. I did my best to prepare and educate myself for this trip and I had really high expectations. But, the truth is, I didn’t “love” India. I didn’t hate it either. There was an almost even, 50/50 balance of absolute infatuation and abhorrence.

The Good
So let’s start with what I loved. Obviously, the food. THE. FOOD. The Rajasthani curry sampler I had in Jaipur ranks among the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. We ate curry everyday—sometimes twice a day—and never tired of it because there were so many different kinds. Also, the British influence is apparent in the variety of breads and cereals available (which I have been deprived of in Japan). Our first breakfast in New Delhi was one big carb fest with muffins, whole grain wheat rolls, glazed pastries, and more. The snacks were also delicious: either really spicy or really sweet. And of course, the vast majority of food was vegetarian, so I never, never had to worry about hunger!
Rajasthani Curry Sampler.  Phenomenal!

Next, I loved the architecture. The Mogul period architecture was especially nice. We learned a lot about the history of Mogul Emperor Humayun because he built so many beautiful buildings. If I’m ever a king or emperor, I’ll be sure to spend my time and resources building palaces and monuments so that people will remember me. Also, all the wonderful things you’ve heard about the beauty of the Taj Mahal have not been exaggerations. The hype is true and I have no words to describe how beautiful it really was. The iridescent, white marble changes shades with the rising and setting sun, making it simply mesmerizing. Also, it’s really huge.
Lodhi Gardens, New Delhi

My favorite places that we visited, aside from the obvious Taj Mahal in Agra, were the Sikh Temple and Old Fort in New Delhi, the Qutab Minar monument outside of Delhi, and the Amer Fort in Jaipur. For the Sikh Temple, we received a personal tour from our rickshaw driver, Raju, who we felt was our Indian papa during our stay in New Delhi. Without him, we wouldn’t have had the wonderful experience that we did. He showed us around the city, ensuring our safety and enjoyment along the way. Raju took us to the Sikh temple (where he himself worships) at meal time. Sikhs are really lovely people and their religion is fascinating. Every day, three times a day, anyone—regardless of religion, cast, or creed—can receive a free meal at the temple. All the food is donated and the preparation is done by volunteers of different backgrounds. After our experience at the temple and with Raju, I will always view Sikhs as kindred spirits and friends. Qutub Minar was another Humayun monument that was stunning, especially in the fading daylight. The Old Fort in Delhi was like going back to the ruins of ancient Rome, complete with amphitheaters, crumbling columns, and a general atmosphere of grandeur. Jaipur was, by far, my favorite place in the Golden Triangle, and I would have liked more time to explore Rajasthan. The Amer Fort is a huge, ornate fort overlooking Jaipur (“the pink city”). I wouldn’t mind living there in the palace grounds….
Qutab Minar, near New Delhi

Sikh Temple at lunch time, New Delhi

The Old Fort, New Delhi

View from the Amer Fort, Jaipur

I also have to mention the sunsets in India. I’ve always wanted to see those long, hazy, rosy sunsets that I’ve seen in Indian films. I was not disappointed. They were just like that! So…Indian. I’ve wondered why that is. Maybe it’s the dust or the pollution. Regardless, the sunsets are spectacular.
Sunset over the president's palace, New Delhi

I also loved the lovely, warm, helpful, and funny Indian people that we met on our trip. We had a blast shooting the breeze with our friend “Handsome” in his fabric shop. We spoke at length to a bright, enthusiastic teenage girl about her future dreams studying fashion design at university. We had so many people go out of their way to help us get on the right train or in a reliable taxi. We had a great time dancing and playing Holi with our hotel staff in Jaipur. There were also some fascinating fellow tourists with whom we shared a train car or a chat over tea. We enjoyed hearing about their adventures and took notes for our next travels.
A lovely, kind woman we met in Agra

The Bad
With all that said, I have to write about the bad, and it had a lot to do with the people. For all the lovely people we met, there were dozens more that were rude. I had done my research, so I understood that Indian people can be direct, harsh, and unrelenting. That’s a result of their constant fight for survival and prosperity in an incredibly populous country where opportunities are hard to come by. I understand that the people of India are some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world. They know how to make the best of their situation and if they see an opportunity, they seize it. However, when you, the tourist, are that constant opportunity, it’s hard to appreciate their enterprising spirit.

To beggars, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, restaurant owners, and street hockers, I was simply a white ATM. I expected a bit of harassment (I had been to China, you know) but not like this. You can say, “No” all you want, but they won’t leave you alone. You can walk away, but they’ll follow you. If you’re ever walking down the street in Delhi and a woman asks if you want henna, run away! She will follow you, she will grab your hand and start to paint it, then ask for money. This wasn’t an intermittent occurrence. This happened every 30 seconds, every day, everywhere. I eventually realized that the only way to avoid being harassed was to ignore people. Don’t look at them and don’t acknowledge their presence, even if they are right in front of you. You have to treat human beings like apparitions that you can’t see. While I’m really good at this skill (just ask my ex-boyfriends about my mastery of the “silent treatment,” haha!), it’s not how I like to treat people and it’s not the way I intended to spend my vacation. Also, everyone wanted to take pictures with us. Not just one, but several pictures with different friends in different poses. The men insisted that you put your arm around them so they could have a picture with a real Western woman. Again, I had experienced this in China, but not to this extent. It was constant and invasive. I eventually refused everyone’s photo-op whether it was a nice family or a creepy guy. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I won’t even begin to elaborate on the “skin tax” placed (blatantly) on foreigners. All prices are increased, sometimes 10x, for foreigners. I think it’s a shame that foreigners like myself, who pay a very high premium in visa fees, plane tickets, and vaccinations just for the privilege of visiting India are treated so poorly.
"Skin Tax" - The foreigner's line to the Taj Mahal

Then there’s the sexism. I’ve never, never experienced sexism like this before. After the well-known New Delhi bus rape tragedy, my friend and I were incredibly cautious and didn’t take any chances. Still, we were groped in the street during the Holi festival, we were leered at constantly, and men loved making catcalls at us. Women had to pay to use the toilet. Men did not. Women had to go through a special thorough search line at the airport. Men did not. Sometimes men were just blatantly rude to us because we were women. At the airport, I got so angry at the rude, male currency exchange attendant that I threw his pen back at him after the transaction was complete, then went “all redneck” up in the airport. Typical, “Come to my country, son! I’ll show you some good ole boys that will whoop you for treating a lady that way! Etc. Etc….”

Then there’s the corruption. The corruption at all levels of government in India is widely known. Experiencing it firsthand really made me appreciate the law and order that I experience in both the U.S. and Japan. The corruption, I feel, is the key reason that India is struggling to become a developed country. Bribes are all too common. Say you’re breaking the law by stealing electricity to power your house. A police officer or city official will tell you to either cut the power, or pay them monthly bribe money to ignore the problem. Many ordinary citizens are indebted to those who should be protecting them, and until that changes, no real progress towards civil peace can be achieved.

I envision returning home to the U.S. and confronting my Republican family and friends who hate “big government” with the phrase, “Let me tell you about India….” The truth is, people need a government to help them. When people are left to govern themselves, chaos ensues. There’s no clean water to drink, no housing codes, no traffic rules, no one to pick up litter, and no way to ensure safety without a good government. Granted, the U.S. government has plenty of its own corruption (power and money do that), but my country does ensure that my basic human needs are met and more.

An aside: During my trip, I found myself comparing China and India quite a lot because they are both up-and-coming superpowers. They are also the only developing countries that I have visited so far. If I had to choose which country will be the next superpower, I’d definitely choose China. China has its fair share of chaos, but it’s nothing like India. China is working hard to get its act together. It is struggling to bring its country to the level of other world superpowers by using modern business practices. The people of China are demanding a better life and more freedom day by day. India, however, is still doing most things the Indian way (every man for himself), which does not work on the world stage. Many of the people in India are not fighting very hard for better living conditions for fear that the cost of living will go up. Generally speaking, I think China sees the big picture whereas India can only see itself. This is not entirely India’s fault. Britain did just divide the country and abandon it not too long ago.

Back to my trip, I enjoyed India as much as I could under the above circumstances. But I admit, by the sixth day or so, I was fed up. I had to take some breaks to collect myself so that I didn’t go crazy or start shouting at people. The constant hounding and bullying from the local people left me feeling very drained—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I felt they were constantly wanting something–taking, taking, taking–and it drained my spirit and energy. (This is ironic to me since India, being the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, is such a mecca for peace and spiritual enlightenment.) Again, I understand the reasons WHY India is this way, but I’m just not iron-hearted enough to handle it myself. I really empathize with the people living there and their daily fight to survive and thrive. I hope that in the coming years, their fight becomes an easier one. I’d like to go back to India in a different context. I’d like to experience the mountains and deserts, tiny villages, and places of spiritual cleansing the next time around. I know I only saw a tiny part of the country, so I will not yet judge it’s whole based on my experiences.

India is not for the faint of heart, and if you’re planning a trip there, all I can say is: brace yourself. You’ll never feel more conflicted than in this conflicted, complicated, beautiful country.
Taj Mahal photo shoot (photo courtesy Maria B.)

Taj Mahal photo shoot (photo courtesy of Maria B.)

Obligatory Taj Mahal Photos (photo courtesy of Maria B.)


If you’re interested in learning more about India…
Here’s a link to a great 3-part documentary that I watched before my trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpdoRUMeshw
…and another great documentary about the history of the India/Pakistan partition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amnevwW0MJo

HATE: Creepy babies, especially Milton.

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Japan seems to be fascinated with creepy baby mascots.  Just look at Kewpie, a doll originating from Germany that is now the mascot for a popular Japanese mayonnaise.  But creepiest of them all, I think, is Milton.  Milton is the uni-browed, crazy-eyed mascot of a (I’m assuming) baby bottle disinfecting solution.  His name in Japanese is pronounced “Miruton” (“ミルトン”)which, admittedly, is a little funny.  What makes Milton really despicable is his insanely catchy theme song which is forever stuck in my head.  I’m posting it here just so you too may enjoy the torture. Make sure you watch until the end…those eyes….