Crimson Tundra

Amy Benson is a writer, wanderer and woodworker. She lives in Brooklyn.

A Self-Involved Essay on Money, Fear & Happiness in America

(also featured on The Matador Network)

For reasons too stupid to relate on a public forum, one morning Michael and I were lazing around our hotel room in Hoi An discussing the zombie apocalypse. Or, the potential zombie apocalypse.

The crux of my position on the matter was that there would be a certain point at which it would be better to be dead than to live in such a world. A point at which life and the world you live it in would be so bleak that a bullet or an overdose would be the way to go. Michael, however, disagreed. His answer to my argument was very simply, “there’s plenty of time for death.” That even in a world of utter despair and single-minded survival, why not live? Which, of course, brings up the question of where the value in the lives we lead lies. What are our lives about?

Last year I was trekking through the Andes in Peru with a group of people I had just met. As the days passed and the number of primitive villages we saw mounted, an Israeli man I had befriended asked me the same question about the people we saw.

“What are their lives about?”

As far as we could see, their days consisted of scrounging building materials, firewood and food from the mountains; feeding and killing chickens; boiling water, preparing food, cleaning their homes, caring for their young and procreating. Each day the same. Never an end to the cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, cooking and cleaning. And while it’s possible for me to go home and flip a switch that creates heat, and place a phone call, read out a credit card number and have food delivered to my door, and sign a lease that immediately provides for reliable shelter and have spare time to pursue myriad interests that don’t involve sustaining my physical being, does that reality put me more or less in touch with my humanity? And is “being in touch with my humanity” something I should be concerned with? In short…I wanted to ask that Israeli man, and I wish that I had, what his life is about.

I quit a well paying job in an expensive city to travel through Asia for four months because I have this vague idea that Michael is right. That the point of our lives is extremely simple and can be captured in one line: “there’s plenty of time for death.” If we’re too stupid and limited to understand our own existences, then maybe the best we can do is to collect experiences – to whatever extent we can.

A fair number of people I love and respect considered my decision to be either irresponsible or “awesome, but not something I can do.” Some of them are people who, each morning, for five days in a row each week, wake, shower, put on office-appropriate clothing, get in a car or on a train, drink a coffee in front of a computer screen and do things they don’t enjoy for money. Some of them are people who claim to not only hate their jobs, but their careers, and yet every day get up and go to their offices. Some of them say they like – or even love – their jobs but when questioned about what they would do if money didn’t matter, paint a different picture of the life they would lead than the one they do.

Of course, I’m not talking about everyone.

But I am talking about almost every person I can currently think of who I know well, who works for a corporation and who lives in America. They do it for money, but since I don’t think I know any plutomaniacs (yeah, I just looked that word up), what that really means is that they do it for comfort, for security. And it seems to me this stems from two problems that exist in the country in which I was raised: first, much of what we do is based in fear; second, we’ve been fed a lie about the concept of happiness since we were kids.

Fear.

I’m a very fearful person. Every time I tone down my personality in front of someone I like, it’s because I’m afraid they won’t like me. Every time I become jealous over a significant other, it’s because I’m afraid that the person I am isn’t worthy or whole without them. Every time I become frustrated with a friend instead of showing that person compassion, it’s because I recognize traits in them that I’m afraid exist within me. Every time I react pridefully instead of humbly to advice, criticism or even a kind word, it’s because I’m afraid that I’m inadequate. Every time I take a job I don’t want, it’s because I’m afraid I’m not talented enough to find another one. And I don’t think I’m alone. I also don’t think this is uniquely American, but I do think it’s a big problem in America because our “success” in life is measured almost wholly externally. As kids, how many of us are urged to search for peaceful, humble, open, quiet, loving, compassionate, honest, sustainable beings? We’re not. We’re urged to save up for a down payment on our first condo. Or, if you were, I think you’re fortunate and, again…rare.

Happiness.

To be clear, I don’t hate America. America has a lot of things right. Things like, infrastructure. Indoor plumbing. Waste management, the First Amendment, a relatively low level of corruption in law enforcement, free schooling for kids (not so in Vietnam). And the fact that I can be a white girl from Texas who lives in a building owned by a Puerto Rican in a traditionally black neighborhood, with a Chinese national who lives across the hallway. In those senses, I love America. But when you’re traveling extensively and asked at least once a day where you’re from, it becomes even more difficult than usual not to wonder how much you identify with the values espoused by the country you name, day after day. And the fact is, I think it’s a country largely obsessed with the pursuit of an externally-sourced happiness that will always elude those who seek it.

We’re told that THE POINT OF OUR LIVES is to create our own happiness. It’s a huge statement that is almost completely taken for granted and accepted as fact in our culture. Yet, how often are you actually in the throws of joy? And if you were always in such a state, would you recognize it as “happiness” or would it simply be the norm of your existence? We’ve created a culture in which almost everyone is obsessed with the idea that they must become Happy. We’ve made it the entire point and it’s a goal that can’t even be achieved in any sustainable fashion. Especially if the means by which you’ve been told you can achieve this, the very point of your existence, is by buying things. Houses, clothes, cars, apartments, area rugs. These are the guiding forces of our culture, these are our deity and our idols.

So we all have these jobs. So that we can chase our own happiness by buying things we don’t really need, that don’t really make us Happy.

All that said, I do realize that people need to make money. Food costs money. Shelter costs money. Educations cost money. And I realize that many of the developments that enrich our lives are a product of Americans who have been committed to good work, to discovery, to building, to curing, to creating beauty. I’m also certainly not a saint – I like to buy things, too. What I’m arguing is that there is a raging imbalance in our country that’s making us miserable and we don’t even know it because we believe the lie. We believe that one day we’ll have worked enough hours and bought enough things and that we’ll be Happy. And we’re afraid not to be because we don’t know what else to be. We don’t know how to be ourselves.

I needed the job I had in order to save up enough money to come on this trip. And when I go home, I’ll need another one. But I will also go home and simplify my life so that the things I need are fewer, the money I need less and the time I spend working more aligned with who I am. And I hope that you will, too. Because there’s plenty of time for death.

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Hanoi

Some places are defined by the particular sense they draw out in you.

Sometimes it’s the smell of a place that tells you you’re home or makes you fall in love with someplace new, like the way my subway stop when I lived on Lorimer St. in Brooklyn always smelled of fresh bread. Sometimes it’s the way it sounds, like the way New York City’s horns, sirens, trains, street music and stoop chatter are unmistakably New York. Or the way it feels, like the way my skin is always warm and wet and the air I breathe thick every time I step off a plane in San Antonio.

With Hanoi, though, it’s entirely visual.

It’s a full-on assault on your eyes and the urgency in that mass of movement and color has seeped into its residents, who all seem to me to be more in the mood for life than any large city population I’ve tried to stereotype in a long time. They’re chopping vegetables, drinking beer at 10am, carrying giant trays of steaming pho and rice through the street as if it was a restaurant, laughing, flirting, strolling, cutting fresh flowers, scooting around on motorbikes by the millions (literally), picnicking on the sidewalk, selling fruit from bamboo baskets and eating food that’s the color of legos.

I arrived in Hanoi at 2:35 p.m. on a Wednesday after not having slept for approximately 27 hours.

It took three airlines, three airports and an absurd eight-hour stint in a small room in the Delhi airport to cheaply make what is otherwise an easy six-hour trip from Kathmandu. I had the name of a hotel written down on a scrap of paper in my pocket, emailed to me by Michael who had arrived in Hanoi the day prior. A thirty minute cab ride later I was in the city’s Old Quarter, showered, wrapped in a towel and laying above the sheets on a hotel bed, wondering if I had the will power to stay awake until a more reasonable bed time. It was the first time since leaving New York that I felt clean.

The questions you begin asking yourself in India and Nepal about whether or not a hotel room is acceptable for you to sleep in begin to seem completely reasonable after traveling there for a couple of months. It isn’t until after you’ve left that you realize how altered your worldview has become. The question isn’t “is the bathroom clean?” or “are there bugs in the bathroom?” but, rather, “how big are the bugs in the bathroom?” Other classics include, “is there blood on the sheets?”, “does the water run?” and “how much does it resemble a prison cell?” So while laying in bed during my first hour in Vietnam, regarding my surroundings, I concluded that I had arrived in paradise. The room was immaculate, there were towels and toilet paper and even soap in the bathroom, I had yet to see any insects or rodents and the furniture was freshly lacquered and shiny.

It was during this revelation that Michael, who I hadn’t seen since Nepal, burst into the room with a look on his face that I now recognize as the standard expression of any foreigner who has just successfully crossed a street in Hanoi.

Motorbikes were introduced to the city about twenty years ago and since then have exploded onto the culture. The streets are flooded with them in an almost indescribable way – they’re absolutely everywhere, tens of thousands of them passing you by, carrying businessmen, market goods, families of five… And they don’t stop. There aren’t cross walks or traffic lights and the stream of motorbikes, cars and buses doesn’t let up. Ever. In order to cross the street, you have to step out into the river of bikes like it’s a video game and weave through the mess. When I was first expected to do this – about five minutes after Michael came into our room and announced that he wouldn’t be letting me sleep – I stood on one side for several minutes watching locals before I was willing to cross. It seemed impossible to me. The trick, I discovered, is consistency – if you stop or back up, you’re dead. If you keep going, slowly and methodically toward the other side, they’ll go around you. It unnerved me each and every time, even after three days in the city.

Anyway.

As a general rule, when I’m really tired I am also a raging asshole. I want to sleep and nothing seems as important to me as the pursuit of that goal. But on the streets of Hanoi I don’t think a person can help but to start vibrating with it. On that first night, tired as I was from what was creeping into 36 hours without sleep, we stayed out. Hanoi’s hunger was infectious. Its residents are hungry for everything…for food (they’re eating constantly), for fashion, for dialogue, for coffee…and for sex. The streets are dripping with it. Hanoi is a straight man’s paradise with slender, perfumed, groomed and straight-haired Vietnamese women strutting around in the shortest skirts and highest heels I’ve seen in two months. They’re giggling, flirting, flaunting and Michael became completely useless for any kind of conversation while walking the streets.

After 36 hours in the tangle that is Hanoi, we boarded a bus for the coast.

Annapurna

We booked the “tourist” bus from Pokhara to the start of the Annapurna Circuit in Besisahar, but that isn’t what we got.

This turned out to be a good thing, of course. For one, I got to witness Michael’s reaction to an elderly Nepalese man who exhibited his idea of personal space by sitting in his lap and gesturing wildly and intrusively with his hands while in conversation with a fellow passenger. More importantly, however, it meant that we met Kristen and Jonathan. Kristen’s blonde head bobbed conspicuously a few rows in front of mine for the entirety of the five-hour, early-morning ride. I wondered if the only other foreigners on the bus were also starting the circuit that day and, indeed, it would turn out that they were.

We made the ill-fated booking for the bus through the owner of our hotel in Pokhara and two nights prior to our departure, while in that hotel trying to sleep, I was roused from bed by the sound of screaming. We were staying on the top floor of a place in Lakeside – what they call that strip of restaurants, bars, tea houses, “German bakeries” and trekking outfitters that line one of Nepal’s most striking lakes. Staying in one of Pokhara’s few tall structures meant that the roof deck outside our door offered a rare and perfect view of the lake, the surrounding hillsides, the snow peaks in the distance and the Shanti Stupa you can visit if you cross the lake by boat and commit yourself to a four-hour climb. Staying in the only room on the top floor, however, also meant that our door was adjacent to the apartment inhabited by the hotel owner, his brother, wife and three small children. The screaming we heard that night belonged to one of those children – a boy whose age I would guess to be ten or 11. Unable to ignore or disregard what sounded to me like genuine terror, I walked into the hallway and peered through the apartment’s open door. The boy’s uncle was beating him with a thick bamboo stick, striking him repeatedly on the hands and neck. Sensing my presence, the man turned to look at me and relented. The boy’s mother stood up, gave me a look that seemed to instruct me to mind my own business and shut the door in my face.

Our decision to raise this subject with the proprietor the next morning may have contributed to our fate of splurging for the shitty bus and boarding the even shittier one, but who knows.

Anyway.

Jonathan and Kristen, Canadians who had been traveling around Asia for nearly a year, became fast friends over a shared sense of humor regarding the crowded, mildewed bus ride and a lunch of tibetan bread and boiled eggs in Besisahar. It was clear that we would start the trek together and so it came to be that they were around to witness the scene I made when 30 minutes into the 11 day trek I got my shoelaces stuck together and fell into a mud pile, busting open a knee and landing flat on my face, with my giant pack increasing the weight of my falling mass. This act of grace would set the precedent for the many illnesses and ailments that I would collect, seemingly for sport, throughout the trek. These ranged from the absurd and inexplicable itchy ass syndrome I suffered – which was so extreme that at one point I ripped my pack apart in the middle of the day to find soap, new underwear and antibacterical cream (use your imagination) – to the severe cold that I woke with on day two and that would plague me for the entirety of our time there. Shin splints, a raw stomach and leach bites eventually added themselves to the list and it became a running joke for the other tourists and guides we befriended to ask me about my health any time we would encounter them on the trail.

A bit of background on the Annapurna Circuit…

It’s a hike. In Nepal.

I think the fact that it’s a hike that lasts for 10 to 17 days means you have to start referring to it as a trek, but, aside from the fact that the last day can very literally kill you (at least three trekkers per year die attempting it), it’s simply a very long and very beautiful hike. It starts in the lowlands in a town called Besisahar and continues on to reach its summit at a mountain pass called Thorung La, which sits 5,416 meters above sea level. If you, like me, have a limited understanding of the implications of altitude, let me just say that this is fucking high. Your body has access to about half the oxygen it normally does and you feel it.

We woke on this last day at 4:30 a.m., not merely with the exhaustion provoked by such an early morning, but with the cumulative exhaustion of the ten days that had come before. The day prior we had made it to the last stop before the pass, Thorong Phedi. This is touted as a “village” by guide books but it’s simply two tea houses, the existences of which are dependent entirely on the revenue generated by foreign trekkers. The “village” sits at about 4,500 meters, which means that once you get there you suffer from that contradictory experience of being absolutely freezing and becoming wickedly sunburned at the same time – a result of the high altitude chill combined with being closer to the sun than your body is accustomed. That morning, we made our first attempt to start the five-hour, 1,000 meter climb to the pass at 5 a.m. By 5:30 a.m., we found ourselves retreating back down to the tea house, having only gained about 100 meters. Twenty minutes into our climb, I collapsed in a heap on some rocks, thinking I might have to vomit or that I might pass out. Prior to my collapse, I was foolishly attempting to hide my symptoms from Michael, hoping they would go away. They didn’t. And when he realized the severity of my issues with the altitude, he wisely and generously insisted, amid absurd, choked protests from me (trying to explain to someone that you’re “fine” when you can barely speak isn’t very convincing), that we descend.

Acute mountain sickness.

It can happen above 3,000 meters and, if your symptoms become bad enough, your only recourse is to descend immediately. Symptoms include weakness, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion and dizziness. If you don’t descend, fluid will begin to seep out of your blood cells, most likely in your brain, you’ll slip into a coma and death is certain within hours if someone doesn’t carry you back down.

Our second attempt that morning was 20 minutes later. I could walk in a straight line – the litmus test for whether or not you’re in real trouble – and we determined that as long as we could get over the pass in one day, everything would be alright. If I could start descending on the other side that day, without going to sleep, the symptoms might be painful but the affliction wouldn’t kill me.

We started again. It was still dark out but the snow-white glacier in the distance reflected just enough light that we didn’t need our headlamps. I took slow, methodical steps and made it maybe 200 meters before collapsing again. I couldn’t do it. My body won the fight with my mind and I sat in a steep pile of rocks as Michael and I divided up our bags in the moonlight. We put as much weight into mine as we could and determined that he would go on while I went back to try to hire a horse to ride up to the pass. We had a porter with us at this point – for most of the trek we carried all of our belongings on our own backs – but we hired a local named Tongrama for the last, brutal leg. He slung my heavy bag onto his back and I insisted on walking in front of him so that he wouldn’t see me cry. I was disappointed and furious with my body, but too anxious to be off the mountain to spend another day hunkering down in Thorung Phedi hoping, perhaps vainly, that I would acclimatize. Despite its unnerving beauty and the deliciousness of its remoteness, it’s an unpleasant place to be. The air is thin, the sun is ruthless and there isn’t any escape from the cold.

An hour later, I paid Tongrama what we owed him, said my goodbyes, strapped my pack to my back and pulled myself onto the back of a brown horse to try a third time. This time, using the horse’s energy instead of my own and swallowing a mouthful of pride, the headache and nausea were bearable and we ascended. Halfway up I stopped at a small hut – the only one that exists until well on the other side of the pass – for a cup of tea. The only three humans visible for what seemed like an eternity were myself, the proprietor of the hut and a British trekker I hadn’t seen since our first morning on the trail when we happened to have breakfast together. We found out, strangely, that we had both just quit full time jobs to pursue the idea of making custom furniture – he in London and I in New York. We then sat and shared a silence more complete and full than any I’ve ever experienced. When there isn’t any wind, and when you’re too high up for many animals to survive, the top of a mountain is quieter than any other place on earth.

Going faster on a horse than a person can on foot, I caught up to Michael just as he reached the pass. We lingered just long enough for a few pictures before descending aggressively. At certain points, he was literally jogging down the trail – a feat I considered mind blowing given how he spent the previous five hours, but he was running on adrenaline and snickers bars. I hurried along behind on foot, feeling a bit healthier and having left the horse with the guide who was to take him back down. Three hours later we emerged from the desert remoteness of the mountains into a green valley and soon after, to the town of Muktinath, where we had decided our trek would end. You can continue on along the other side of the pass for a few days but that piece of the land has been scarred by a road that, though useful in some ways, has robbed the landscape of much of its natural beauty, as well as the tea house proprietors on that side of many of their customers.

A word about the tea house proprietors…

Aside from the fact that during our ten days in the mountains I saw more natural beauty than I have at any other time in my life, one of the truly beautiful things about this trek is that you aren’t just walking through the wilderness…you’re also walking through people’s lives. The tea houses you come to to eat, sleep and share tales with other travelers at the end of each day aren’t just lodges, they are also these people’s homes. The kitchens where they prepare the dal bhat you’ll eat at the end of each day – a meal of curried vegetables, rice, lentils and pickles – are the kitchens in which they prepare their own meals. The people bringing tea and food to trekkers are families, often children, and everyone in the family – from small children to the elderly – pitches in to cook, clean, harvest crops or take care of infants. I have walked into a tea house in the middle of the day to discover that the proprietors are in a field behind the structure, working their land, and that the only human presence in the house is a sleeping baby, tenderly placed in the middle of the room on layered blankets.

Something Jonathan said to me as we walked together a few days into the trek stuck with me. He said that everyone always talks about how small the world is and how technology keeps shrinking it, but that the more he travels and the more he sees, the more he realizes that it’s enormous, that the scope of people you’ll meet if you keep exploring is vast and that there will never be enough time to experience it all. I think as I walked through the circuit I came to a middle ground regarding that statement. Yes, the people who call the mountains their home and I are worlds apart, separated by cultures that couldn’t be more different. But I also saw mischievous kids being kids – exactly as they would in the west. I saw grandparents tenderly scolding them and workers sharing a smoke and a beer after a long day, sitting in solidarity and taking comfort in their shared lives. And, though the world is vast and Jonathan is right, I take some comfort in the fact that no matter where you go, the humanity you share with the people you encounter along the way is recognizable and pure and beautiful.

Dharamsala to Leh

Sometimes a story is already written. It was waiting for someone to give voice to it, but it was always there.

In fact, I think most are. There is some texture to life, slightly below the surface that you can perceive if you try. It is the inevitability of things known. Things known now and always known, simply going unacknowledged until they manifest themselves so tangibly and fully they can no longer be denied. Thrust in your face as punishment for your stubborn refusal to see their quiet, humble truth. Fuck you, pay attention, the universe says.

And so it was with Monet. Hospitalized after nearly a decade of giving in to his corporate job in South Africa’s every urgent demand. His illness vague, idiopathic. His recovery reversed upon his return to work. His decision to quit his job obvious. He’s been working four months out of the year ever since, earning little to pay for his newly humble and very nomadic lifestyle.

I met Monet at 3 a.m. on a mountainside somewhere along the ten-hour road that separates Dharamsala from Manali. Our bus quiet, my fellow passengers smoking, eating and peeing, drunk locals stumbling about and my attention drawn upon hearing that he too was trying to get to Leh sometime in the next 48 hours. An opportunity to share the cost of a jeep for the 18 hour hell ride, a particular stretch of which translates literally into “pile of dead bodies” for obvious reasons if you’ve ever driven on it. The Indian government keeps the Manali – Leh Highway in perpetual disrepair to ensure that a Chinese army cannot easily invade overland, should it ever choose to.

The desert beauty of this drive is hard to reconcile with the fact that you’ve piled yourself into a tiny shared van at 2 a.m., have been sitting upright and unable to stretch out your legs for ten hours (realizing you have eight to go) and are in a vehicle in which the shock system long ago gave way to the fact that the “road” you’re on is more just a ten foot wide piece of earth that has been scratched out of mountain side and is nothing but rocks and rivets.

But I digress. Before we could make the trip from Manali to Leh, we had to survive the one in front of us. Monet has spent quite a bit of his 32 years traveling by bus throughout Africa, a fact he is at least somewhat proud of, given the extreme disrepair of the transportation system there. Apart from stories of sharing bench seats with chickens and goats, he doesn’t go into much detail, but does explain that the system he has encountered in India rivals it.

For some reason that still isn’t clear to me, all of the seats in our bus that night were somewhat damp. I can vouch for at least seven of them. I began the trip in one of the two seats at the very front near the driver, but within half an hour was so car sick that my puke bag and I ran for the back, hoping to god¬† that those five seats that line the rear were unoccupied so I could lie down. As I passed, I noticed that a young traveler had started weeping. Presumably out of raw fear? The driver had to stop more than once just before driving off the edge of the mountain road to back up and make the required turn.

As I lied down hoping the nausea would subside, I learned several things:

1. Never, ever stick your hand between a bus seat and the wall of a bus in India. There is a moist, sticky goo that lives there and becoming intimate with it is not worth the recovery of any electronic device that might have slipped into that crevice. Buy a new one.

2. When you’re thrown out of your seat and slammed back down into it a few seconds later, the slamming is a good thing. It means the bus isn’t airborne.

3. Breathe through your mouth. It’s just better that way.

Anyway.

Monet wanted to be a surgeon when he was young. An inexplicable tremor in both hands, though it comes and goes, was the end of such aspirations but his interest in medicine remained intact. And so it came to pass that his knowledge of rural medical clinics throughout Africa – as well as the West’s influence on them – is extensive.

The African bush (Monet’s word for rural Africa – I like it) has been home to traditional healers for presumably as long as human beings have inhabited it, which, if you subscribe to the theory of evolution, has been as long as human beings have existed. So when you ask a native whose worldview is a product of generations upon generations of his family relying on those healers to then put his faith into a white doctor whose medicine is foreign and who arrived six months ago and his answer is “uh, no,’ this surprises you?

Monet tells stories of two lines. One of thousands of sick Africans waiting to see a traditional healer and one directly next to it that is comprised of literally one or two sick people waiting to see a western doctor. He tells stories of how western doctors have inhabited villages for a year only to abandon their clinics because the villagers refuse to be treated. He tells stories of doctors and surgeons who have worked with local healers to educate and integrate and earn their trust. He tells stories of how this approach helps the indigenous to trust them, as well. He tells stories of how rarely this actually happens. He told these stories as we were sitting on a wrap-around porch in Manali, having woken around noon after our 5am arrival from Dharamsala. We felt relieved to be off the bus alive, delirious from sleep deprivation and grateful that the Irish couple sitting on the porch next to us was more than happy to share the joint of local hash they had just rolled. We were also in awe of Manali’s beauty, especially coming from Dharamsala, which receives more rain than all but one other place on the planet and is shockingly filthy and chaotic, despite being the home of the Dalai Lama (who we had missed by two days and who was, ironically, in New York at the time).

We ended up here because there are only two ways north in India. One through Manali and on to Leh via the treacherous but stunning Manali-Leh Highway. The other through a region known as Kashmir that sits along the border of Pakistan and India, and has been a point of contention between these two countries for decades. The dispute about who owns this land has led to bloody conflict over the years. We were told of one incident in particular that involved the brutal beheading of several travelers who were hiking and camping in the region a few years back. This along with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looming informed our decision to avoid Kashmir. A shame as it contains some of the lushest land in northern India.

Manali, however, is stunning in its own right. It sits in a valley surrounded by pine tree-covered mountains that are, in turn, surrounded by even taller snow capped mountains. The buildings, and our hotel in particular, have a lodge-like feel and I might have thought I was in Denver if it hadn’t been for the definitive signs that I was still in India: cows roaming the streets as freely as humans, half finished construction projects everywhere, rebar hanging off the sides of buildings, staircases that end abruptly and lead to nowhere¬† and an abundance of chai and lemon, ginger honey tea offered everywhere.

Monet left for Leh that very night. Michael and I couldn’t bring ourselves to get on a bus again that night – nor did we want to leave laid back Manali just yet – so we followed 24 hours later. It took us 18 1/2 hours to get to Leh. The drive is a mixture of fatigue from sitting in the cramped seat for longer than you think you can; altitude sickness; amazement at land that looks otherworldly. I know I was not okay when we finally got here. Leh’s 3700 meter altitude and the dust we’d inhaled on the drive made it difficult to breathe. Food, though we hadn’t eaten for hours and hours was unappealing and my mind was numb. We slept for 11 hours.

As I’m typing this I’m sitting in a cafe in Leh and in the background I can hear monks chanting. We’ve been here for three days. Three days spent wandering; driving 40 km at 6am to join monks for their morning prayer at a nearby monastery; eating Chinese food with Monet and the Scottish traveler he met on his way here. Last night we said our goodbyes to Monet as he left for the South. Tomorrow we leave India for Kathmandu by plane.

East or North?

The question posed by the fact of our arrival in Delhi in early September was very simply, east or north?

To the east lie Agra, which houses the famed Taj Mahal, as well as Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously populated places in the world and the Hindu religion’s holiest city. It sits along the River Ganges and the masses who go there to die can be seen bathing on its banks and then later, if they’re lucky, burned as corpses along those banks. The Hindu old flock there to die, believing that a death in Varanasi promises automatic Moksha, an end to the cycle of reincarnation and a release from human suffering that the devout spend years – or maybe lifetimes – trying to achieve.

To the north lie an escape from the monsoon, the annual assault of heat, humidity and rain that overtakes south and central India each summer and fall. Also to the north was the promise of a culture and landscape wholly unfamiliar to us: that northern tip of India flanked by Pakistan and Tibet and defined by the demands of living in the mountains. During our research, I discovered that this was an India I had never envisioned, one that looked more like the images of Tibet and China that exist for some reason in my subconscious.

And so after experiencing the heat and hardship of Delhi, deciding to go north was almost so obvious as to go unspoken between us. We left behind hopes of making it back south in the next few weeks and recovered from Delhi by boarding the “toy train” from Kalka to Shimla. Amazingly, during our transfer in Kalka, we also discovered that, despite having purchased our tickets in Delhi the previous morning, our names had been written on a piece of paper and taped to the side of the tiny train car we were meant to board, along with the names of the other passengers for that car. Proof of a measure of order to what otherwise looks like complete chaos.

The train set off at 5:30am, still dark out, and so we were treated to watching the sunrise from the twisting, six hour route through the hills. The train and requisite tracks were built in 1903 and felt it. The upholstery on the seats was ancient and the train slow. We sat next to an Indian family from Punjab who were going to Shimla for a few days of vacation. The family encompassed three generations – including an adorable toddler who kept trying to take over for the crew member whose job it was to pass out chai every so often. I found out later from the family who owned the hotel we were to stay in in Shimla, and who became friends over whiskey and poker a few nights later, that Indian households are generally comprised of several generations. It’s unusual for grown children to stay away from home longer than it takes to go to college or complete some type of schooling.

We arrived in Shimla in better spirits but still exhausted. Despite all attempts at staying awake in order to cure our jet lag, we passed out in the afternoon and woke in the evening. Staying up all night and going to “bed” at 7pm was, unfortunately, a pattern we repeated for several days.

The next day we discovered that Shimla is a lazy, quiet place where friends hold hands and nothing happens for several hours during the afternoon so that shop owners and school kids can lounge in the town’s common areas and have lunch. We were staying at a hotel recommended by a good friend of mine who used to live in Mumbai and had been to Shimla the year prior. The owner, a really young guy named Sid, treated us much more like friends than hotel guests and we ended up passing four days (we had originally planned on two) doing little more than sleeping, eating vegetable curry over rice, walking through town’s narrow labyrinth of streets and talking extensively with Sid’s family in the lobby of the hotel. For all but one of those days, we were the hotel’s only inhabitants.

Sid’s brother is into politics and as we sat in the lobby one afternoon talking, a bomb went off in Delhi. We were told of the corruption that exists within India’s government, its more than 500 political parties, the government’s control over the media and, finally, of the government’s distraction tactics of which he believed the bomb was one. A way to get the accusations of corruption that had been appearing on the front pages of Indian newspapers for weeks, out of the news. A conspiracy theory, yes, but Varun is far from alone in his opinion.

Our last night in Shimla was spent on the roof of the hotel with Sid, his brother and his cousin who all have a hand in running the place and who collectively got us drunk on Indian whiskey and took 600 rupees from me by killing me in some family card game called Flash. Early the next morning, hungover and dangerously late for our bus, we said goodbyes and started a ten hour journey farther north to Dharamsala.

36 Hours in Delhi

I have never felt as vulnerable as during the 36 hours I spent in Delhi.

Men stared. And I mean really stared.

Men in this part of the world often hold hands or walk arm in arm and as a result they take up a fair portion of the street when they go by. So if you happen to be, I’m guessing, young and white, then walking toward a group of five or six of them with eyes entirely and aggressively focused on you feels like walking at a wall and somehow trying not to crash into it. I think at certain points I actually ducked from the sheer force that is an intent human stare. Michael called it looking at me like an alien they wanted to rape. And that was when I was with him. The couple of times that I unreasonably insisted that I wanted to go walk around Karol Bagh alone, they got even bolder and would make sure to pass in a way that allowed some part of their bodies to brush against some part of mine. I lasted about ten minutes.

More on vulnerability: sleep deprivation has an incredibly adverse effect on the brain and one’s cognitive functions. In loosely scientific terms, it can make you clumsy, irritable, confused and impaired. In plain terms, it just makes you stupid. And so after cleaning, packing, subletting, inoculating, painting (we decided the day before leaving for six weeks in India and Nepal would be an excellent time to paint Michael’s long hallway) and flying…we were incredibly stupid.

We arrived in Delhi around 4:30pm and were at our hotel about an hour before sundown. During this hour, we managed to take a rickshaw half an hour out of the way to a random train ticket window where we completely failed at communicating our need for tickets to Kalka the next day. Soon after realizing how completely pointless this journey was, we also realized that we were outside at dusk without mosquito repellent and with billions of mosquitos buzzing around, all of them infected with malaria or bengal fever in our minds. We booked train tickets online later that night at the hotel. We cancelled them the next morning. We were not functioning well, nor did we sleep that first night (see previous post written on the floor of the bathroom).

The next day, again on no sleep, we succeeded in getting train tickets to Kalka that night where we were told we could get a connecting train to Shimla. This, however, is all we succeeded in. We were failures at even going for a walk. Michael grew up in New York and I’ve lived there for almost five years, yet we walked around clumsily. Rickshaws were constantly almost running us over, the sidewalks were too polluted to traverse (even the locals avoided them), begging was constant and overwhelming. At first I was giving out rupees to everyone who asked, feeling too guilty not to. Michael bought a mother milk for her gaunt baby. After a while, we realized there were just too many of them. An ill advised nap later, we were at the train station waiting for our overnight journey to start.

Old Delhi Rail Station. If you’ve ever been there, you can comprehend the filth. If not, I’ll do my best to describe it, but will very likely fail to get at its extent. It’s a seething mass of human and animal filth piled together and somehow, miraculously facilitating enormous masses of people getting from point A to point B. It started with the car ride there. We sat in the back of a taxi engulfed in a stench that seemed to be some combination of human feces, rotting garbage, exhaust and I don’t even know what else. We passed empty lots that were piled six feet high with garbage – apparently Delhi’s idea of a sanitation solution – and realized at some point that the masses of garbage were moving. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that they were filled with feral dogs, all trying to scrape together an existence off the discarded mess. They were interspersed occasionally with cows, and were eating, roaming and shitting in the piles of filth. The rail station itself seemed to me some extension of this. Families of six, seven, eight were strewn everywhere, laying on the ground, many asleep, presumably waiting on trains. The tracks apparently doubled as toilets as men and women, both, would wander out into them to relieve themselves. Dogs roamed everywhere digging and scraping for scraps of food. And the smell. I can’t describe it but it’s worse than anything you’ve smelled and inescapable.

First Night in Delhi

Sometimes the most pressing question you have to ask yourself is: What kind of insomnia do I want to have? Do I want to lie still and quiet hoping to trick sleep into eventually taking me, or do I want to succumb fully to the nagging relentless wakefulness and creep into a dingy bathroom to sit on a floor, turn on a completely inadequate and ancient flourescent light and be awake in India? Do I want to be awake at 5:18am in New Delhi after not having slept for two days? That’s the real question. Except that’s not precisely the real question because this reality that I’m experiencing probably isn’t best characterized as Awake as it is Not Unconscious.

In an attempt to not wake my traveling companion, before I retreated to the discomfort of the humid bathroom, I tried to prove to myself that I was merely restless and could be one of those people who sits at a window, achieves some manner of peaceful thought and goes back to bed. What I did instead was to hallucinate at the window that men in black capes were conspiring on a balcony across the street, moving in sillouhettes and shadows among clothes lines and ill-fated construction projects. This isn’t the reality of the Awake, but that of the Not Unconscious. It’s become mine as a result of two sleepless and somewhat anxiety-ridden nights in the states followed by a 13 hour overnight flight into Delhi, an Ambien-induced zombie march to a hotel in Karol Bagh, a meal of plane rice and naan in our room and finally trying to pass out in our clothes to outsmart any malarial mosquitoes that might be lurking. So far, Delhi has been nothing but dust and extreme poverty and smoke.