Category Archives: Guest post

Don’t F*$! With Mother India

I was 22 years old and on my way to sit in the Vipassana meditation course in Jaipur, India. It was spring of 1997. I had been traveling in India mostly alone for a few months by this time.

I was feeling resistance to the impending 10 day meditation, and I had an hour before I needed to be in the main meditation hall for the commencement of the course. I decided to distract my nerves by walking through the forest to the chai hut about 20 minutes away.

When I got to the grubby little roadside hub where the nearest rural village gathered to drink chai and wash clothes in the river, there were several young men sitting on the bridge, eyeing me as I walked past.

It was the same ignorant stare of base male desire that I experienced every day in India…on the bus, in the street. I had learned to ignore it.

But this time, something in my intuition perked up. These boys were latching on to my energy. I felt nervous about walking back to the meditation retreat alone, which entailed a 15 minute stretch through rural forest.

I bucked up my courage and went for it. As soon as I walked back across the bridge, I had a flash of knowing. These motherfucking dumb peasant punks were going to follow me.

Sure enough, I could sense that after I had passed, all three nonchalantly got up and started walking after me…keeping about 30 paces behind. I walked with quick determination, my fury and concern growing.

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As I could hear their approach, I started to fill with rage….and a strange involuntary reflex started to occur inside me.

Time slowed down. With every step I took, I could feel power coming up through my feet out of the Earth…coiling inside me with powerful wrath. It was as though the power of the goddess Kali was sucking up from the hot lava center of the Earth through my feet…steaming into a pressure of rage and power.

I felt them getting closer, and I KNEW that they were going to grab me and drag me into the bushes.

I walked faster, the contained fury filling me up with every step. As I sensed one of the men coming right up behind me, suddenly a flood of pure primal anger spewed forth like lava from the depths of the Earth and raged up through my body like a Volcano.

I felt a hand grab my shoulder…I spun around and – TIME STOPPED. One of the two men was grabbing me. His two friends were right behind, laughing and heading toward the bushes. Their intention was crystal clear. The ignorance of their gesture filled me with primal rage.

With one deep inhalation, my spirit suddenly inflated like a cobra, and with an exhaled PRIMAL ROAAARRRRRRR, for an INSTANT, I manifested as GREAT GODDESS KALI in her MOST WRATHFUL FORM.

The man’s first impulse was to raise his arm to hit me, but in a split second, his face changed. A look of sheer horror shot across his face.

His eyes became wide and his face became white with fear.

Kali was a language that his peanut-sized brain understood. In that moment, he SAW the GODDESS.

He turned on his heel and sprinted away for his life. His friend’s hadn’t seen my shape-shifting transformation, so they had one-second of confusion…looking at me, then looking at him running away. As he was the alpha of the group, they quickly decided to follow in his footsteps, and they all packed off with their tails between their legs, running as fast as they could go.

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I turned on my heel and walked on toward the Meditation Center, shaken by the experience, and sat in complete silence for 10 days through the incredibly healing experience of the Vipassana meditation.

May God bless S.N. Goenka for his commitment to teaching the medicine of meditation.

May all ignorant beings awaken to the intelligence of the Universe.

May all mothers teach their sons to respect Goddesses in all forms.

May all women be protected from abuse and violence, and have access to the innate strength that dwells within.

May all beings be free of suffering and fear.

India is a powerful entity. Traveling there as a woman is very risky. One must have a strong psychology and sense of street smarts. If you don’t have it when you go, you will definitely have it when you leave.

Don’t take Mother India lightly. She is Life, and She is also Death. Most of all, She is MAGIC.

Don’t Fuck with the MOTHER.

Elsa Bella

 

Elsa Bella is a world traveler who currently runs The Jaguar Project, a conservation project that protects the habitats of jaguars throughout Central America. You can join in saving the jaguars by clicking here

 

Currywurst and Sportscars: Endless Summer in Dresden, Germany

Would you jump into a car with a stranger in Dresden Germany without knowing anything about him? I bet you might do just that after reading this story.

Back in the summer of 2011 I decided to go travelling in Europe for five weeks. To be honest, I was completely broke at the time thanks to my previous travels, but the travelbug wouldn’t let me be.

“So low budget it is”, I thought to myself. I packed my bags and headed to Germany.

My Slovenian friend decided to join me for two weeks, and with our limited budgets we wanted to try Couchsurfing for the first time ever.

This was a choice dictated not only by shortage of capital but also by the desire to meet new people and find a whole new way of travelling.

To continue with the new policy of hanging out with strangers, we decided to use carpooling instead of trains and buses. There is a great website in Germany (Mitfahrgelegenheit.de) where you can find rides from people who are looking to share the fuel expenses. People are very well organised in Germany when it comes to most things, ridesharing included.

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So basically we decided to jump into cars with strangers and spend our nights with people we didn’t know in their houses.

Needless to say this plan was exactly what all girls are always warned not to do!

After staying in Berlin and Leipzig, we decided to go to Dresden Germany. The only problem was we hadn’t been able to find accommodation in Dresden – we were also about to get on the road and wouldn’t be able to use the internet on the way there.

We did not want to relapse into hostel accommodation, so we posted an emergency message on Couchsurfing saying that we were looking for a place to stay for two nights in Dresden and that we were already on our way. We took care to include our phone number on the post.

We arrived in Dresden with no place to stay, and decided to enjoy some Currywurst at the Dresden train station. All of a sudden my phone beeped, practically making me choke on my not-so-great wurst!

We got a message from an unknown party saying they’d pick us up from the station.

We didn’t have internet access to check out who was texting us, so it was going to be totally blind Couchsurfing.

Were we scared to see who would show up? Absolutely we were! We had no pictures, no references, and still we were about to spend two nights at this person’s house.

Picture this: two twenty-something girls standing by the train station in Germany staring at every car anxiously.

Then suddenly, an expensive-looking, shiny black Batmobile-style sportscar pulls over right next to us. We look at each other and then we look at the car. The door opens and out comes a gorgeous twenty-something German guy with a big smile on his face.

“Hi girls, did you send a message on Couchsurfing?”

“Well yes, we certainly did – if you’re here to pick us up with that face and that car!”

Okay, so I didn’t say that out loud, but I did say it in my head. I shared another look with my friend, the kind of look two single girls share when they see a handsome guy.

If he’s handsome he can’t be a murderer, right? To the Batmobile!

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We got into the car and started chatting with our new host. Within two minutes all three of us were laughing as if we’d known each other for years.

Soon we arrived at his place and my jaw dropped. There was a big black iron gate in front of us with a huge house and a beautiful yard behind it. Yes, a gate! Who has a gate? Who is this guy? Bruce Wayne?

The gate opened slowly and I started to get suspicious. How could this young guy have a car like that and a place like that?

As it turned out, he couldn’t. The house and the car belonged to his parents. We found out we were about to stay with his family. This information shouldn’t have been a total surprise considering the car and the gate, but still I was a bit nervous to hang out with a strange German family.

We got into the house and our host led us upstairs to a private room filled with fresh linens, towels, the whole nine yards. I couldn’t help wondering how his parents felt about hosting random foreign girls at their pretty house.

We got a tour of the house and on the tour we ran into his parents. We found out they were both doctors and the other building on the yard was their private clinic. For a moment I felt out of place. I’m not very comfortable in very fancy places. If I have to choose between an expensive, top-notch club or a scrubby corner pub, you’ll definitely find me at the pub.

But as we talked with his parents we noticed what wonderful, welcoming people they were. They didn’t speak much English but luckily we knew some German and they knew some English, so it all worked out. At least I like to think they could understand my constant grinning, thumbs up signs, and frequent bursts of  “Kuchenschemckt gut!” (supposedly: cake tastes good). Maybe praising their desserts with my mouth full of cake wasn’t the classiest move.

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In the morning we were invited to join the family for breakfast. Two low budget travellers in dirty shirts, sitting at a really fancy breakfast table with a German family. It was a bit absurd.

The table was set beautifully with white porcelain dishes. On the table was everything you could imagine – from fresh fruit to piping hot bread just out of the oven. The family was so warm and welcoming that I didn’t feel out of place despite the fancy settings.

The weather during our stay in Dresden was just dreadful.

It was windy, rainy, cold and foggy and there were sharks flying in the air. Okay not sharks, but it was bad!

But thanks to  our host, the lack of sunshine wasn’t too bad to deal with. He took as around the town in the Batmobile and the three of us just laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt! There’s no need to do situps when you’re laughing nonstop for days on end!

We visited the Königstein Fortress (one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe), and the Zwinger Palace among other Dresden sights.

Those two days in rainy Dresden ended up being so special that I’ll never forget them: the laughter, the hospitality, my poor attempt to speak German with the parents, seeing amazing sights, and the piece de resistance – peeing in the middle of a park (well, in the bushes) because we couldn’t find a toilet, and asking Bruce Wayne to yell out if he saw anyone coming… I bet he won’t forget us either!

dresden-germany (4)This post was written by Sanna Tolmunen, a Finnish communications professional and travel blogger currently doing an internship in Hancock, Michigan. Travelling, films and good stories in all forms are Sanna’s great passions in life. In a way it could be said that good stories are her one passion, as to her, life is a story. This is exactly why she hopes to share great stories around the world through her writing and her blog, Adventures Of A Finn.

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Superman Sprains His Wrist

A few weeks ago, after a particularly interesting night in Pai Thailand, I received the following email.

Dear Michael,

This is ____ the girl you helped a lot last night in Pai. my friend ____ now is transferring to Chiangmai lam hospital to have an operation. he got two parts of bone break of his left leg. i haven’t deal with the motorcycle problem yet by now. how is your wrist now ? i’m really sorry that you got hurt your wrist. sorry…

You appeared like a super man to me last night! you followed my friend to the hospital after the accident, you found me, you helped me to push my motorcycle for 3 km, you took me to the hospital and also took me back to the hotel.you did so much! like i said you are the best american i ever known. you are so helpful and nice! thanks for everything you did for me.

thank you Michael !

_____ from China

Now, I don’t think I’m a hero for the events described above. I mean, I’m far from being Martin Luther King Jr. (or even, say, Kirk Cameron).

All I am is a guy who was riding his scooter in the rain, after midnight, on a dark stretch of road leading out of a small town in northern Thailand, against all common sense and to the horror of my mother is she ever found out (which she now will, I suppose).

I saw an opportunity to help an injured stranger, which then turned into an opportunity to help a different stranger in need, and I took it. I don’t believe in karma, I was not looking for a reward.

So why then, you might ask, did I spend four hours after the stroke of the witching hour helping people I didn’t know? I’d like to think of it as common decency; just showing concern for my fellow man.

And frankly, it was exciting.

The setting? Pai, Thailand: a small town north of Chiang Mai filled with friendly locals, laid back expats , and tourists; a town embraced by natural beauty in every direction.

With its rice fields, rolling green hills, tranquil muddy rivers, and big open sky sporting puffy white clouds, Pai is a little bit like what Eden might have been, had it existed.

The people are generally very friendly, quick to smile, quick to help. In fact, by the time I came across the injured stranger (let’s call him German Bob for funsies), he was already being carried into the back of a white pick up truck owned by two Thai men and a local woman who had pulled over to help him.

I gave his crashed motorbike a cursory once over, asked the German if he wanted me to go to the hospital with him (silly question apparently), and followed the truck there on my scooter.

At the hospital, once it became obvious that German Bob was in no great mortal danger, we got to talking a little bit (him through gritted teeth, rolling eyeballs, and in between moans, that is).

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Turns out the crashed bike was not his – he’d borrowed it from a girl he met and was speeding into town to buy a lighter, hoping to return to her hotel as quickly as possible.

He crashed his motorbike on the way to buy a fucking lighter! Smoking really IS bad for your health, ya’ll.

The girls’ hotel was located some ways out of town, and Bob didn’t recall its name. It had two lemons on its sign, however, that much he knew for certain. Bob produced a key to room 202 and told me that the girl was eagerly awaiting his return.

A bit of detective work at 1am sounded like fun, so I grabbed the key and promised I’d find the mystery girl and bring her to German Bob’s bedside.

I drove back to the scene of the accident to make sure Bob’s crunched motorbike was still there.

Crunched motorbike, check.

I then proceeded further down the road into the mysterious night, the single beam of my scooter’s headlamp keeping the darkness at bay as I searched in for two lemons in vain.

Bob’s memory was relatively sound, however, and I eventually came across a fruit-filled hotel sign some 5 clicks out of town. They weren’t lemons at all (passion fruit actually), but we’ll give poor Bob the benefit of the doubt.

Pulling into the parking lot on my hardy little scooter, I mentally prepared myself to knock on a stranger’s door to deliver some bad news.

I took a few deeps breaths outside of room 202, my heart beating a little too quickly, and knocked on the door.

A few moments later it flew open and a  short Asian girl (let’s call her Sue) stood before me in an equally short night gown.

I was obviously not who Sue was expecting as evidenced by the look on her face, which transitioned from puzzlement to alarm and back again within three heartbeats. We stood there looking at one another for a few seconds before I remembered I had to speak.

“I’m sorry to alarm you but your friend was in an accident. He is in the hospital now. Your bike is on the side of the road a few kilometers from here “, I blurted, all while trying to make what I hoped to be cross-cultural calming motions with my hands.

It took her some time to accept the news, but I guess my stammering sincerity made the harsh truth easier to stomach.  We stopped by the hotel owner’s bungalow so she could (much to her confusion) take my photograph (y’know, just in case German Bob didn’t exist and I was actually a deranged lunatic who’d come to kidnap Sue and drag her back to my den of unspeakable horrors).

Photos snapped, our next task was to check up on German Bob’s – er, Sue’s – crashed motorbike.

The bike appeared to be in better shape than Bob was, just some minor scratches on the body. But the keys were missing from the ignition, and there was a shirtless (and mostly toothless) old Thai man standing nearby in the dark, looking at the bike (and us) with some obvious consternation.

We decided that leaving Sue’s bike there was probably not a great idea, so I pushed the fucking thing three kilometers back to her hotel.

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That sweaty task completed, we set off on my scooter to the hospital. German Bob was medicated and sleeping when we got there, but woke up long enough to chat Sue up through his drugged-out haze.

They’d placed Bob in a room with 5 elderly female patients who were not super happy about our late night visit, so we kept it short. Sue told Bob she’d visit him in the morning, asked him if he had the key to the scooter (he did not), and off we went.

While dropping Sue off at her hotel at 3:30 in the morning, I nearly caused the second motorbike accident of the evening when I dropped the damned scooter and wrenched my wrist trying to keep it from falling. Apparently scooters do no like standing sideways on steep hills, kick stand or no kickstand.

Sue offered to nurse my new injury but I begged off, not wanting my travel partner to freak out due to my long, unexplained absence in the middle of the night.

Saying goodbye to ol’ Sue,  I braced myself against fresh rain as I drove back to my hotel. Stumbling into my room half a hour later I fell into bed, exhausted but content.

I never saw or heard from German Bob again after that night. Sue, on the other hand, sent me about 18 emails in gratitude, bought my travel partner and I dinner and drinks one night, and was pretty much consumed with expressing her thanks for a few days. We still keep in touch, and she still calls me “her superman” in her emails.

I never told Sue, but I think Superman is a dick. I much prefer Batman, but if she keeps it up I just might start wearing really tight spandex pants as my ego swells to unchecked heights.

Michael-Miszczk-pai-thailand

Michael Miszczak is a nomadic Brooklynite and the co-creator of www.justapack.com. He started backpacking five years ago and has thought of doing little else since. He’s spent months in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. One day he hopes to explore Saturn…but only if he can bring his backpack.

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7 Ways to Get Hotel Discounts in Asia

Do you know how to get hotel discounts and guest house deals in Asia?

I know, saving money on places where you’d like to stay doesn’t sound that sexy – but the more money you save = the more you can travel, and that’s not just sexy, that’s orgasmic! So read on!

Travelling independently in Asia, almost every price is negotiable.

Yes, that’s including the price of your washing powder at the corner shop, and your headache tablets at the pharmacy. So I always negotiate the price of my room.

How do I do that?

I never book through accommodation booking sites.

They operate on commission, so their price will always be higher than booking direct.

Plus, you can’t negotiate price and room type…

And you can’t request a free pick up from the station…

And you can’t ask about other aspects of the guest house…

And you can’t get a feel for the service you might expect when you get there…

And you can’t start to build a relationship with the staff…

So I always negotiate with guest houses directly.

How? If you’ve never done it before, don’t worry one bit. It’s easy. Even if you don’t like bargaining, it’s easy to do over email, and not embarrassing at all:

Step 1 – Research guest houses online and choose a few options

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I tend to use Trip Advisor, and initially search by price. Watch out for a couple of things:

[i] Dates of reviews – Things can change amazingly quickly as staff and seasons come and go – only focus on recent reviews.

[ii] Nationality of reviewers – Travellers from different parts of the world can have really different opinions about everything, including how clean a place is and how far it is from the town centre.

As a Western woman, when I’m researching accommodation in Asia, I look for places with reviews from other Westerners. Especially for India, I look for reviews from other Western women – not those only reviewed by Indian men. [You usually get a quick idea of the reviewer’s nationality from the name and location on their review].

Step 2 – Check prices on accommodation sites

Search the internet for the few guest houses you’re interested in.  If they show up on accommodation booking sites, note the best price they’re offering [Hostelworld, Booking.com and Agoda are good for Asia].

Unless you’re really short of time and really not worried about price, don’t book through them!

Step 3 – Find contact details

Check that internet search again to find an email address or Facebook page for each of your chosen guest houses. If they have web or social media sites they’re often not in English, but you’ll still be able to find contact information on them – or the Trip Advisor forums can often help.

Step 4 – Write to ask for best prices

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I try to communicate some interest and enthusiasm in a place, hoping that’ll encourage the reader to help me [and because I am usually genuinely interested and enthusiastic about a place!] If you’re not sure how to start, you can always look up the weather and refer to that:

Hello WXY guesthouse

I hope you’re really well in X X and not feeling too hot – the internet says it’s going to be 38 degrees today!

I’m an English lady who would love to stay with you next month. I’ve always wanted to visit X X and your guest house sounds great.

What’s the very best price you can offer me for a stay in a single room with fan and balcony, from Monday X November – Sunday Y November [a stay of 6 nights]?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, and sending very best wishes

Hilary : )

Ms Hilary Mehew hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Step 5 – Agree to the price and book

If you get a price back that’s the same or higher than you’ve seen on a booking site, quote that, asking for a better rate because you can book directly and save them from paying commission.

If you know you want to stay long term, try to get a better price by offering to pay on a weekly basis.

If they really won’t better the price, ask to have free breakfast thrown in with the deal, or a room upgrade, or something else you want.

From the offers you get, and from the “feel” you get for the place [often as important as price!] you’re ready to choose and book.

Step 6 – Ask for free pick up

Fancy a free pick up from the local bus/train station or airport? Ask for one [or failing a free one, a reduced priced one].

Check if they have any guests they’re taking back to the station/airport at the time you arrive – this option often works, especially for airport transfers, when all you have to pay for is the driver’s waiting time and parking charges between someone else’s drop off and your collection.

Step 7 – Re-confirm 3 days before

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I usually do this by forwarding the last email between us, so they can easily see all the agreed arrangements re dates, room type, price, pick up arrangements etc, and tell them how much I’m looking forward to staying with them.

And that’s it!

Honestly, this approach has never failed me. Even when I couldn’t get a better rate, I’ve been able to negotiate a better room, or something else free or discounted, or at the very least got advance notice of when a special promotion will be on.

I also really appreciate arriving at a guest house, having got to know one or more staff members by name over the email, and receiving a very personal welcome.

Welcome to XYZ guesthouse and have a great stay…

hilary-mehew-headshotHilary Mehew is a big smiler and great traveller [it does make her cheeks ache!] She’s travelled extensively, but Asia is her passion – mostly as a backpacker and on business [though not at the same time!]. Years ago she thought she’d go travelling in the region for one year and ended up being away for three and a half. Since then she’s gone back every year for work and holidays. She’s just returned to the UK after backpacking for two years in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Contact her on hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Research guest houses online and choose a few options

2. Check prices on accommodation sites

3. Find contact details

4. Write to ask for best prices

5. Agree to price and book

6. Ask for a free pick-up

7. Re-confirm 3 days before

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Zanskar

The Dalai Lama just waved at me with his piece of bread!

I excitedly pick up my own piece and wave it back at him, showing that we’ve already received the traditional chapati in our seating section.

He chuckles and gives another little wave, acknowledging that he has understood me.

After completing my ten day trek through Zanskar, I was told that the Dalai Lama was about to arrive in the area for three days of teaching. 

I’d been staying in a monastery built into a cliff for the past three days. It was located in a quaint village a few hours away.  As if that experience wasn’t cool enough, I then watched as His Holiness arrived this morning in a helicopter and was greeted by hundreds of his own people, the Tibetans.

There were villagers of all ages, many of whom had walked great distances to arrive, and the assortment of traditional clothing was impressive to see.

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Though I was lucky enough to see him speak in my hometown in Oregon several years ago, seeing him speak at this small outdoor venue amongst his own people was definitely more impressive.

Once we watched him arrive, everyone crowded into their sections around the stage. Hundreds of monks sat in lines upfront, and the traditionally dressed villagers crowded behind them.  

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The half dozen foreigners in attendance got to sit up front right next to the stage the Dalai Lama was presenting on, simply because we needed an English translation (lucky us!). 

Occasionally, His Holiness would look over to our section, say something in English, and wave. I couldn’t have been luckier to be so close.

dalai-lama-zanskar

As he began his presentation, he first touched on the fact that everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love for all in order for our world to function.

He also talked about the fact that in today’s world, we need to become “21st century Buddhists” (or whatever religion you are) which, he explained, means forgetting the ritualistic acts that no longer hold meaning in order to focus instead on truly understanding and practicing what you have been taught.

He then went on to address his own people, and though I couldn’t understand the Tibetan literature, sitting so close to the Dalai Lama surrounded by chanting villagers in colorful headdresses and robes seemed the perfect combination for happiness.

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Though I am no expert on Buddhism, I can’t help but admire the message of peace and love Tibetan Buddhists bring to the world.

After traveling through the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh areas of India, I can say that without a doubt the Buddhist areas of Ladakh and Zanskar have by far been my favorite.

After hearing the Dalai Lama speak, it is no wonder these people live devout, peaceful, and spiritual lives as it is obviously the way to happiness.

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Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old female traveler currently cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Highlights from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's recent talk in Zanskar:

1. "Everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love in order for our world to function."

2. "In today's world, we all need to become 21st century Buddhists" - in other words, scarp meaningless rituals and focus instead on deeper spiritual understanding and practice.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Stormy Night in Ladakh India

“Dang it, I’m going to get soaked,” think to myself as the heavy thunder clouds up ahead finally break. The small unpaved mountainous road I’m on is headed straight into the storm. Thankfully, if my map is correct, I’ll be hitting a “town,” which will most likely consist of a makeshift stone dhaba (small tea shop) or two, in ten kilometers. I hope to spend the night in one of the small shacks as a sleepless stormy night in my tent doesn’t sound too appealing. Of course, ten kilometers up here where I’m cycling at the speed of a toddler could take me all afternoon: cycling above 4,000m on unpaved roads is no easy feat. Hours pass and I’m finally two kilometers away. So close, yet still so far. And I am indeed completely soaked, and also completely freezing. I stop for a moment to change into dry clothes just before I realize that I have a small river to cross in front of me. Dang it, I just got dry! Instead of pushing my bike through as I usually do, I decide to ride through in order to avoid soaking my new socks and pants. Of course, halfway through I trip, and my bike and I take a plunge into the icy cold glacier melt.

As I slowly pick myself up and begin to proceed on my way, I realize that I’m shaking. I’m absolutely freezing. Night is quickly approaching, and with it, my need for food and shelter is growing stronger. But the sign says only two more kilometers so I push on, there is no way I’m setting up my tent in this wet and cold mess.

I finally see a building ahead and all I can think about is a nice warm meal and my cozy sleeping bag. I’ll finally be able to feel my toes again! But as I approach I realize that something is off, these aren’t small stone dhabas like I’m use to seeing, but rather a large abandoned government building. This is definitely not what I had in mind.

I desperately yell out anyways, and to my surprise, a head pokes out from one of the doors. I ask if he has a room, and he points me into his small section of the building where blankets are laid on the floor. As I realize he is the only one around, in fact, probably the only human within thirty kilometers, I start to panic. I can’t stay here, in an Indian guy’s room, in the middle of nowhere. That goes against everything I have learned about traveling alone as a female. So I leave, I go back outside and stand by my bike in the pouring rain and contemplate what to do next.

The man comes out and tells me in broken English that it’s safe, and that in any case, I have nowhere else to go. The storm will continue all night, he says, you need shelter. So I decide to trust my instincts which are telling me he is just trying to help and follow him back in. He leaves to let me change in privacy, then cooks me a noodle soup with egg while I hunker down in a large pile of thick blankets. As I accept my second steaming hot cup of tea I realize that coming inside was indeed the right decision, though I’m definitely still on alert.

I fall asleep somewhat uneasily, pepper spray in hand under the covers, and am practically scared to death at two a.m. when someone begins viciously knocking on the door. As I cower under the blanket my host jumps up to answer. After speaking with the stranger for a few moments, he announces to me that he is leaving, and tosses me his keys.

Leaving? At two a.m. in the middle of a storm… on a motorcycle? While leaving a stranger with your keys? I quickly remind myself that I’m in India, and in India, anything and everything is possible.

After he leaves I quickly fall asleep again, and awake in the morning to a beautifully sunny day. I cook breakfast, dry my wet clothes on the fence outside, and laugh at the absurdity of a night in the Himalayas.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old girl cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

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Blood, Fur, and Guts: Life in the Peruvian Altiplano

Blood squirts out and onto the squealing guinea pig, who is about to reach the same fate as his brother.

The knife tugs at the skin and fur, eventually severing the neck. Two decapitated guinea pigs staring at me with vacant eyes.

An unknowing sheep that my trekking partner purchased a few days back is about to receive the same treatment. I have definitely never seen my meals so up close and personal before, and I’m not so sure I want to make a habit out of this.

I just finished an amazing ten day trek through the Andes, and somehow I have ended up at the mule owner’s small mud hut in the high altitude Peruvian country side.

My trekking partner and I have set up our tent in their field, and in doing so, we have gained the attention of many curious eyes which have never been laid upon foreigners before.  

The children are more scared than the women, who have gathered around in a circle, but I know eventually they too will approach.

The house itself is amazing, a small mud hut structure with an open fire kitchen inside.

There is a shack beside it full of squealing guinea pigs and squabbling chickens, and then another open air hut which I have lovingly dubbed “the killing room.”

The man we arrived with is now tying up a very stubborn sheep, and with the help of his eldest son, is about to lift the protesting animal to be hung, then killed.

Though it’s gruesome, I have to remind myself that no matter how meat back home is packaged, it too was once a real live animal like this one.

The men chop the meat, hacking away the thick fur coat which will be used for clothing or a blanket later on. The women then take the pieces and wrap them in leaves before burying them underground.

For the past few hours the village has been preparing for this special type of cuisine by gathering the coals from a very hot fire into a pile. The women then place the leaf-cloven meat underground, surrounded by the burning coals, to cook overnight.

Throughout the evening I alternate between playing soccer with a few of the young boys in the village, and trying to speak with some of the women who live at the house.

Though I speak Spanish, this village is so remote that the few inhabitants only speak Quechua. As the sun sets everyone retires for the night, there is no electricity in the area so late nights are fruitless.

I wake at sunrise to the voices and laughter surrounding my tent, and quickly realize that the whole village has been invited to the feast.

The meat, which has been slowly cooking all night, is now in a large basket along with an assortment of different types of potatoes. The basket is passed around and everyone digs in, eagerly eating the meat straight from the leaves. The meat is tender and juicy, and by far the best breakfast I have ever had.

As I look around I realize what a unique situation I have found myself in, a special moment I will remember forever. 

I am surrounded by curious women and hardworking men in the middle of the Andes, in a small village that couldn’t be further removed from the world I come from.

I have been invited to share a feast with them, a feast prepared in a way I have never seen before. But more importantly, I have been invited to take part – if only for a few days – in a way of life completely different from my own. 

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old girl cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

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Free Tibet: Let the Voices of Oppression Be Heard

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Living in a place with so many Tibetan refugees, reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile, and then hearing him speak during the famous and important kalachakra practice here in Ladakh has prompted me to do some research into the fascinating country of Tibet and it’s devastating and unfortunately ongoing downfall.

The Dalai Lama was exiled to India in 1959, where he has since lived as a refugee with over 100,000 other Tibetans.  This exile came about after having tried to negotiate with the Chinese government for a decade once they began their disastrous take-over of Tibet in 1949.

At just fifteen, the fourteenth Dalai Lama was faced not only with the prospect of becoming the spiritual and governmental leader of six million people, but also with the impending doom brought on by the invading Chinese army and the thought of war.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded during the 1950s in order to “peacefully liberate Tibet,” a ruse ridiculous on every front because a) Tibet needed liberation from no one, it was its own free and happy country, and b) because the following fifty-five years of torture, execution, and war have proven that China’s intentions have been anything but peaceful.

At the beginning the fighting was kept to a minimum in Lhasa as to keep the Dalai Lama in the dark as to what was really going on. Gradually, horrific stories emerged from the countryside where the Chinese had completely taken over.

During years of war and oppression the PLA destroyed thousands of monasteries and tortured, imprisoned, and slaughtered thousands of innocent lives in the most brutal ways imaginable.

Along with increased amounts of violence, the cultural revolution then imposed laws against religion, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of the Tibetan’s traditional lifestyle.

Though they tried to fight back, they were untrained, lacked ammunition and weapons, and were overwhelmingly outnumbered by their obviously much larger oppressor.

Tibet, which had been independent for decades, suddenly found itself engulfed and overtaken by its powerful and ruthless neighbor who would stop at nothing to conquer its people and culture by force.

“Your attitude is good you know” said chairman Mao in 1954 during the Dalai Lama’s visit to China. “Religion is poison. Firstly, it reduces the population, because monks and nuns must stay celibate, and secondly it neglects material progress.”

Mao had greatly underestimated the Dalai Lama who, though he thought parts of Marxism were great (equality for all), knew that material progress was not what counted and that the abolishment of religion would destroy humanity.

In 1957 the situation worsened when China forced monks and nuns to have sex in public, formally ending their vows of celibacy, while the army beat, starved, and raped thousands of others.

This lead to the 1959 Tibetan rebellion during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. China had requested the Dalai Lama’s appearance in secret and without body guards to a celebration, and when the people of Lhasa found out, thousands upon thousands arrived at his palace to protect him.

This was the official beginning of the uprising, which was spurred into action two days later when the Tibetans took to the streets declaring their independence. Then, a week later when the Dalai Lama fled into exile, the Chinese opened fire upon his palace and his people, killing tens of thousands over the coming days.

Nearly thirty years after China had invaded it attempted to get both the Dalai Lama and many of his fellow refugees to return to Tibet.

China wanted to show everyone that it was doing well after the atrocities of the cultural revolution began to leak out to a horrified world. The government wanted to prove that Tibet had indeed progressed under its regime and that it’s people were “as happy as ever.”

The Dalai Lama, being slow to trust China after everything it had done, sent out many delegations of people in order to see what was truly happening in his country.

The delegates, including the Dalai Lama’s brother, were mobbed by thousands of sobbing Tibetans in every village they passed through which caused great distress to the Chinese authorities. Though the spirits of his people were not yet broken and the oppression had united them like never before, his delegates came back with films, photos, and stories that depicted how ruthlessly and systematically the Chinese had worked to destroy their culture.

There were years of famine, countless human rights violations, and the deaths of thousands of nuns and monks in concentration camps.

Sure, there were more hospitals and schools, just as China had promised, but not for the native Tibetans to use, only for the invading Chinese. Progress in his country had flown backwards since the Chinese had come and the Dalai Lama knew it was critical to appeal to the Western world for help, an attempt that sadly didn’t amount to much.

By the 1980’s China had begun its last phase in its conquest of Tibet, one that is still going on today.

In order to wipe out the Tibetan culture by sheer force of numbers, the government has been offering compensation (higher wages, housing…) for Chinese willing to move into Tibet.

Because of this there are more than twice as many Chinese than Tibetans residing in the region. They have deprived the natives of their resources, have ruined the environment (in some cases beyond repair), and have overtaken Tibetan culture by restricting the people’s lives in every domain.

It is now said that there is more of the Tibetan culture left in India where the refugees have settled than in their own homeland. Even to this day  in Tibet, religion, the Dalai Lama, and anything to do with the old Tibet are strictly forbidden.

2008 marked the largest protest for a Free Tibet in over fifty years. Six thousand Tibetans were arrested or beaten for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama, waving a Tibetan flag, or showing that they are still Tibetan in any way. 

Since 2011, there have been over one hundred monks and nuns participating in self-immolations as well as other protests in a desperate cry for their oppression to be acknowledged. 

In response, China has tightened its security and brutality against the people in their conquest to completely eradicate their culture.

Since 1951 over one million Tibetans have been killed, with over 6,000 monasteries destroyed.

Tibet and it’s people are literally being whipped off the map through routine and widespread torture and oppression, and along with North Korea and Syria, Tibet is ranked as one of the most repressed countries in the world.

The Dalai Lama has traveled around the world in a way none of his predecessors were able to do and has used this opportunity to spread his global message of peace and compassion (winning him the noble peace prize in 1989).

For the last 45 years, he has tried to make the world aware of the devastating situation still happening today in his homeland.

Tibet is nowhere close to being free unless something drastic is done, and even if that happens soon, one can only hope that all of these years of violent oppression haven’t completely destroyed the Tibetan culture to the point of no return.

As the Dalai Lama himself says, “My countrymen and women are today in grave danger of becoming nothing more than a tourist attraction in their own country.”

Shirine Taylor is a solo female backpacker cycling around the world. This post originally appeared on her blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

photo courtesy of National Geographic

Have you traveled to Tibet?

Would you travel there given the situation?  Is “ethical travel” in Tibet possible?

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Traveling Alone Vs. Traveling With a Partner

Traveling alone is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world, an experience I believe every traveler should take advantage of at some point during his or her life.

Traveling alone enables you the freedom to do what you want, when you want, while showing you more about yourself than you ever thought possible.

As a solo traveler you are normally more social as well, going out of your way to meet locals and travelers alike because you don’t constantly have someone by your side. You end up creating long lasting friendships that defy distance and time.

But what happens when you meet your partner and you begin to travel as two instead of one?

Travel as a couple is supposed to be perfect, right? Visiting romantic, exotic places together, sharing new dishes at sunset, and visiting the world’s tallest peaks or most serene lakes hand in hand.

It’s impossible not to romanticize. After traveling alone for nearly two years, I have recently begun traveling with my partner, and though I wouldn’t exchange the experience for the world, I have realized that each type of travel – traveling as a couple and traveling alone – has its perks and disadvantages.

Our trip together started out rough.

Within a week of my partner joining me in Nepal he fell ill with everything from giardia to typhoid fever. His illness prevented us from cycling (a bummer when you have set out to cycle around the world) and completing a trek I had been waiting six months to do.

I was distraught. How was it that life was no longer going my way, that I was suddenly unable to do the things I wanted to do because of someone else?

But that’s the thing with traveling as two –  you learn to compromise. You learn to put the other person first even when it’s the last thing you truly want to do, and you learn to work around problems together rather than separately, just like you would need to in a successful relationship back home.

Just because we are on the road doesn’t mean that all of our troubles have disappeared, it just means we are faced with different ones than we would be back home.

Now that we have settled into more of a routine, a give and take that I have realized is extremely important while traveling with someone else, I love traveling with my guy.

For the first time, I have someone to share my adventures and stories with, someone who understands how hard the last pass was to cycle over or how great our last camping spot in the mountains was.

Traveling with someone is also a great way to strengthen and improve your relationship as it enables you both to work together through stressful or unusual situations.

Traveling with somebody shows you who that person truly is because you’re with them constantly, and enables them to see you clearly as well. It’s a learning experience, once that requires time and patience to perfect, but one that also provides both of you with an enormous reward, the beauty of traveling as two.

So which is right for you? If you are alone, take advantage of this time to explore the world for yourself in your own way, unhindered by anything but your own imagination.

And if you have already found that special person you want to travel with, then go for it instead, because travel as two is an adventure all its own.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Makalu: Trekking the Himalayas

The last four hours trekking the Himalayas haven’t been that bad. In fact, even though I have gained nearly 1,000 meters of altitude, it’s been pretty fun! That is, until 10 minutes ago….

Unfortunately, the last ten minutes have proven that the rest of the day is about to get a whole lot slower.

For the first time in over a decade there is still snow on the route, snow that has normally melted by the end of February but will clearly be here at least a few more weeks.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love snow. I absolutely love the mountains, and usually when I see snow, I feel right at home being from a cold snowy place myself.

But I guess it’s a little different when that snow is greatly hindering your progress up a never ending vertical slope.

After a few more hours of panting and slipping I arrive, completely soaked, to a small house in the middle of nowhere.

This guest house, called a tea house in the trekking regions of Nepal, is run by a Tibetan Nepali woman, and is open throughout the season in order to provide climbers a dry place to sleep and eat on their approach to Makalu, the fifth tallest mountain in the world.

 

trekking-the-himalayas-5

Though there are other trekkers who simply wish to visit the base camp, this area is mostly composed of true mountaineers, many of whom have already climbed some of the world’s most renowned peaks such as K2 and Everest.

I order a “dalbaht,” the typical rice and lentils found everywhere in Nepal, and though it’s much more expensive than usual, I understand why.

As we are now a four day’s walk from civilization, the food has to be carried up here everyday in order for us trekkers and climbers to eat.

In fact, on my way through the snow I met three teenage boys racing down the hill (in flip flops no less!). They were making their way down the mountain to a lower supply village in order to fill up the empty baskets on their heads, and then begin the long trudge back up the steep snowy slopes.

It is wet and cold as I set up the tent, and throughout the next two nights trekking the Himalayas I realize that the weather in this particular area is absolutely miserable.

The clouds are constant and the cold is bone-chilling because everything is so wet. I do get a fifteen minute break at sunrise though, and realize that the giant Himalayas are indeed surrounding us, tantalizing us by staying so hidden most of the time. 

trekking-the-himalayas-2

After talking with the lady who runs this tea house I realize that her family owns the guest houses farther along this trek as well.

While she is in charge of this one, her husband caters to the one on the other side of the gigantic pass in front of us. And beyond that, her husband’s brother is stationed at the next one.

Their children are all in private boarding schools lower down, and one is even going to school in Kathmandu. There is good money in running a tea house such as this, but it is also a lot of work.

trekking-the-himalayas-3
The woman is up at dawn preparing tea and food for the climbers and trekkers who want to get an early start to the day, and then spends the rest of the morning cleaning up in order to prepare for the next group who may or may not be trekking the Himalayas that day. 

It is cold, and in this case, very snowy, and to run this guest house she is forced to live away from her family for months at a time.

I’m thankful she is here though. Even though I am carrying a fair amount of food and am mostly self-sufficient due to the tent, there is no way I could carry enough to last me along this twenty-day trek without being able to buy meals at the mountain tea houses such as this one.

The Makalu base camp trek is a great alternative for trekkers who want something less crowded and popular than the overrun treks of Annapurna and Everest.

trekking-the-himalayas-1

 

Situated in the East, it’s inaccessibility is what keeps most people away as it requires a twenty-five hour bus ride (or half an hour flight) from Kathmandu to reach the last town in the area where the trek begins.

The long travel overland is more than worth it for the beauty this twenty-day trek grants you, and the peacefulness of being nearly alone among the 8,000-meter giants.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Trekking the Himalayas doesn't have to mean over-touristed circuits like Annapurna and Everest.

Head east of Kathmandu to Makalu for isolation and amazing views!

It takes 25 hours by bus to reach the trail head from Kathmandu, so be prepared to be surrounded by hardcore adventure travelers and true mountaineers.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

"What do MEAN this won't be my backyard anymore?"

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

Though almost every long-term traveler experiences reverse culture shock to some degree after returning home, this rarely-discussed condition often takes travelers by surprise, which makes the transition from the road to home all the more difficult.

At seventeen I returned from a year-long exchange in Belgium, an amazing year filled with friends, school, and festivals in a place I learned to call home.

Within a week of returning to Oregon I was no longer the happy carefree girl I had been. I was depressed, angry, and disconnected from the world around me.

I gradually lost all of my friends, spent much of my time wandering aimlessly alone, and, in retrospect, wasted a perfectly good eight or nine months of my life as I struggled to deal with reverse culture shock.

I had no idea that returning could be so hard, and part of what makes the transition so difficult is that it is impossible for non-travelers to understand what you’re experiencing. Your friends back home won’t be able to do much to help you transition.

At nineteen I returned from another year abroad, a year backpacking through South America, and luckily this time I was prepared to deal with the shock. I made new friends, explored my own country, and was able to transition smoothly into “normal life.”

Here are a few tips about what reverse culture shock can feel like and how to deal with it when it strikes:

1. No one understands you.

This may very well be the most difficult aspect to deal with, especially if you aren’t prepared for the shock of returning home.

You have amazing stories to tell, yet no one wants to hear them.

In fact, people will probably get annoyed when you start every sentence with “When I was in…”. It is hard to realize that most people haven’t undergone the same changes you have, and you will probably feel lost and possible even angry for a while.

Find a way to share your experiences with those who are willing to listen. Start a blog or do a presentation at a local school or community event, or even an informal dinner presentation for a few of your friends or parent’s friends.

Though it is hard, try not to impose your stories on friends who aren’t interested. Instead, find something you and your friends share in common and focus on that.

2. Nothing has changed.

Your friends are still exactly the same, but that’s the problem. You have changed, you have new ideas about the world, your life path, and about who you are, and you may find it hard to fit in with your old group of friends.

Understand that you have changed, accept it, and love your new self while working with your friends to strengthen their friendships with the new you.

Since they haven’t experienced what you have, realize it may be hard for them to understand why you are suddenly different.

Feel free to share your ideas acquired on the road, but don’t impose or force your friends to change as well.

To supplement your old friendships, try meeting new people, maybe like-minded travelers who, like you, have recently returned home.

3. Home is…well….kind of boring.

After traveling, especially across multiple countries or continents, you have probably encountered amazing history, culture, and traditions.

Every day on the road seems like an adventure, with new sights and sounds around every corner.

Once you get home, shopping in a store is nowhere near as exciting as the chaotic markets filled with foods you have never seen. Everything seems so mundane and boring.

Travel, if done right, is more about how you see and experience life than how you see and experience a physical place.

Apply what you have leaned on the road to your life back home. Try cooking new dishes  that you tasted during your travels, pick up a new sport or hobby, and explore your own country.

Chances are there are some amazing things to see close to home, so go out and explore as if it was a foreign land.

After returning from South America I made sure to plan weekend getaways almost every week. I went backcountry skiing, snow camping, and hunting and fishing for my first time.

When I got itchy feet a few months in, I took a week off to hitchhike up to Vancouver where I was able to get my fill of traveling and travelers.

4. Your friends suddenly seem shallow. 

As you travel, you become accustomed to meeting amazing and inspiring people around ever corner, people who have climbed the tallest mountains, started their own orphanages, or dedicated their lives to discovering our world.

With these international-minded friends, you have grown used to debating world issues, and in your own way, discussing how we can make our world a better place.

Once you arrive home, you may feel like your friends only talk about superficial things. Who’s dating who, shopping, consumerism, etc.

You will probably start to crave the intellectual debates that had become part of your normal life on the road.

Try discussing a few of these issues with your friends back home, find friends who read the news or who are up-to-date on current events.

Also, go out of your way to meet new people. Though it may seem impossible at first, there are sure to be at least a few like-minded people living in your town.

Watching documentaries, reading the news, and attending cultural presentations or events are also great ways to keep expanding your international mind.

5. “Everything was so much better in _____________.”

Upon returning home, travelers have the tendency to think that everything was “better in [insert favorite country here],” which makes it hard for them to be content at home.

It is typical for travelers to hold the countries they traveled through in higher esteem than may be deserved. If you really think about it, you weren’t so crazy about Vietnam that day the motorbike broke down, and you were definitely ready to leave Nepal the day you got food poisoning.

This feeling will fade over time, and eventually you will be able to look back at those places and experiences with an unbiased view.

When I returned from Belgium I thought that “everything was better there,” yet now, in retrospect, I realize that I would much rather spend my life in Oregon.

Just because you are at home doesn’t mean life has to stop being fun.

Create new friendships, go on small trips, and embrace every opportunity.

The change in you is permanent. Learn how to deal with the new you back in your old home, and you will begin to see life, even at home, as an adventure.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Symptoms of reverse culture shock may include:

1. Feeling like no one understands you.

2. Feeling like nothing has changed.

3. Thinking that home is really boring.

4. Thinking all of your friends and family are really shallow.

5. Believing that "everything was SO much better in _________"

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Shackles, Incense, and Dancing

She has finally arrived.

Beautifully adorned with a sparkling gold and red sari and an elaborate head piece, the bride is being pulled in by a cord which makes her look like a prisoner.

Her head is down, and her heavily made-up eyes are puffy from crying – weddings are a scary affair for an Indian bride.

She has an enormous gold ring in her nose, a large red mark (a tica) on her forehead, and a few dozen bangles (bracelets) on each arm.

Her hands and wrists are covered in a lovely henna design, and around her neck is a curious necklace of ten rupee bills. Her complex and colorful outfit is unlike anything I have ever seen, a stark contrast to the white I am used to seeing on brides back home.

The hundreds of guests who have been dancing to Hindi music for hours while awaiting her arrival stand to watch her enter.

Without making eye contact with anyone, she somberly proceeds over to the corner of the field where an assortment of things are laid out: rice, water, incense, and flowers, all of which will be used later on for part of the ceremony.

She looks downright miserable, and rightfully so. Like many Indian women, this bride has only met her soon-to-be husband, found and arranged by relatives, very briefly, maybe only a time or two before tonight.

She just left her own village, and this may very well be the farthest she has ever traveled alone as her own parents are not allowed to attend the ceremony.

It will certainly be her first time sleeping away from her family, her first night sharing a bed with a man instead of her sisters and mother. She is being married into a new family and house, and with that, she is forced to accept the duties that come along with it.

From now on she will be in charge of taking care of her new husband as well as his family, and will transform into their cook and maid overnight. Though most Indians do not see it this way, from my Western perspective it seems like she is walking into slavery.

A few minutes later the groom saunters in wearing a huge decorated head piece while dancing and singing with his friends. Unlike his wife-to-be, he is not leaving behind his house nor his family, and has no reason to be sad.

He dances his way over to where his bride and a Hindu holy man are waiting to begin the 8 or 9-hour ceremony that will conclude in their official marriage.

“Will they kiss? Or hold hands? Or even sit near each other?” I ask my Indian friend who has brought me to this ceremony.

“Shame on you!” she scolds me gently but firmly – physical contact is absolutely unheard of, even at a wedding.

She explains to me that the marriage is official only after the long ceremony of chanting and rice throwing that will take place throughout the night. Once that is finished, the bride and groom will be free to eat and dance with the remaining guests, though many, such as us, will have already left for home long before the sun rises.

As the ceremony proceeds, a few guests gather to watch, but most stay in the large field in front of the house where the music is blaring popular Hindi songs.

Children, women, and teenage boys all dance enthusiastically together, losing themselves in the music. Others look on laughing, notably the older women with small children drifting to sleep on their laps.

They announce the food is ready, and we rush to be in one of the first few rotating groups to sit on the benches in a large open tent.

The family is obviously wealthy as they’ve served an extravagant meal of rice, dal, and lamb from huge buckets. The second we finish our dinner, the next thirty guests rush in to take our places.

The evening continues as such, with the guests dancing and celebrating throughout the night as the bride and groom sit stoically in the corner, nervous and excited to begin their first day as a married couple.

Or perhaps, in the case of the bride, maybe just nervous.

Shirine is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Life in the Mud Huts: Far Western Nepal Part 3

“Nostalgia in reverse: the longing for yet another strange land.”

I have had people stare, even gawk open-mouthed when they see me, but I have never had people run away in fright like they are right now.

After a treacherous, three-hour bumpy bus ride on the precarious rocky path that winds up and over the Himalayan foothills, I have arrived in a small village in Far Western Nepal.

The village is comprised of a handful of mud houses scattered along the hillside, and not much else. I sit down, making myself less threatening, and see a few more heads peek out cautiously behind the trees below.

I see a child stirring an enormous steaming pot of liquid with a stick, while another half dozen children look on. I am curious and want to see what they are making, but the children and even teenagers are obviously still wary of me.

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A women appears behind me, laughing a deep heartfelt laugh. She signals that I should continue down the path, and with her blessing, I approach the group around the large steaming cauldron.

“Basnu,” (sit down) she says, as I am handed a leaf wrapped around a warm, malleable hunk of brown sugar. It is delicious, sweet yet flavorful, and I realize that they are making this tasty brown sugar out of the boiling sugarcane syrup to my right.

Most of the children have scattered into the surrounding fields and sit perched atop enormous piles of discarded sugarcane branches. From these lookout points, they can alternate between practicing flips and watching me.

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After a while a man appears and calls the children down so they can enjoy their own leaf-full of this sugarcane delicacy. Though they continue to watch me suspiciously, the temptation of sugar is enough to draw them near, and a few of the giggling girls even come to sit next to me. I knew it was only a matter of time before I won them over.

Once they’ve finished eating, they quickly set up a game, sort of like dodge ball, whcih draws an increasing number of children from the surrounding hills. They laugh and run like children everywhere, using a makeshift ball they constructed out of an old shirt.

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After the game, as the children begin to peel away and return to their own houses, I am invited by the couple back to theirs, and readily agree to join them and their two children for the night.

Their house is small, a one room mud house with nothing but a few blankets on the ground and a pile of wood in the corner which serves as their stove.

There is corn hanging from every inch of the ceiling, drying before being made into the flour we will use to make dinner. The house is filled with dense smoke, there is no ventilation for the fire they are cooking over, but the smoke seems to swirl around the hut unnoticed.

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Though there is no electricity, light shines in through the wooden door creating a comfortable, homey feel.

We all squat around the fire as the mother and father work together to make dinner, a simple meal of roti that we dip in a bit of spices. They have no money and no processions except their cows and chickens, but they seem content to be living freely off of their land.

The forested hillside is scattered with mudhuts, none of which have electricity, and the darkness signals that it is time to sleep. Once night falls it is completely dark all around.

I crawl under the blanket with the two children who have warmed to me, already calling me “didi” (sister), and fall into a peaceful sleep surrounded by nature and good-hearted people.

This post is part of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal.

For Part 1, click here

For Part 2, click here

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

Where Time Stands Still: Far Western Nepal Part 2

“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”

I have walked into a National Geographic IMAX documentary, into a world where time stands still.   The people of Far Western Nepal live removed from society in a peaceful, exquisite world all their own.

A beautiful girl with wide brown eyes, no older than seven, approaches with her baby sister tied to her back with a scarf.

They are mountain children, children who have grown up chasing goats along small rocky footpaths that wind down to the valley below.

Their nails are caked with dirt and their stained clothes are torn in parts, but they are happy. They are free, living in an off-the-grid universe of their own, where they rely solely upon themselves for survival.

They cultivate crops, tend to their livestock, and make tools from wood. It’s a universe where leaves turn into plates, burning sticks into flashlights, and old clothes into toys.

These children grow up with an education in nature, learning from a young age how to cultivate rice and make sugar from plants. If they want a formal education, the type held in a classroom, they have to walk three hours each way, with a grueling 2,000-meter elevation gain on the way home.

As the girls squat beside me on the dirt, we are met by another small child, waddling and giggling with one hand outstretched toward her friend and the other cradling a broken sandal.

Her hair is sticking up every which way and she has dirt smeared across her forehead, a sign of a girl being raised by the land.

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As the two small children meet on the path and grab for each other, they shriek with glee and stumble and fall, like little girls everywhere.

In the distance I see an elderly man, hunched over and leaning on his cane. He is followed by one lone goat, a runaway he is escorting back up to the herd.

There are a few more people around, two ladies collecting leaves and grass for the baskets on their heads, and an older woman squatting barefoot by an open fire as she prepares tea.

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A young boy makes his way up the other side of the road. He is no older than eight, and yells confidently at the herd of cows he is ushering home.

This world is void of car horns, bartering, or noisy shop doors slamming. The sizzling of the fire and the scurry of the chickens pecking around my feet are the only sounds I hear.

While much of our world continues to change rapidly, I have found a corner of the world where time stands still.

Where people live one hundred percent off the land.

Where beds don’t exist and money means nothing.

Where old women squat barefoot by open fires cooking rice they themselves hand picked from the field.

Where electricity is still a fare-fetched idea for the future.

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It is a simplistic lifestyle, hard at times, but it is freedom.

This post is part of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal. For Part 1, click here

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. There are still parts of the world where people live completely off the land, without electricity, money, or any education to speak of.

2. To guest poster Shirine, this off-the-grid lifestyle accounts for the unparalleled happiness of the people in Far Western Nepal.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Into the Unknown: Far Western Nepal Part 1

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel… Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

After twenty-four hours of sleepless travel, I hopped off the bus as they threw my backpack down on the ground.

I had arrived in Far Western Nepal, the most rural and undeveloped section of the country.This region is so remote that it’s closer to Delhi, the capital of India, than it is to Kathmandu.

Because of this, Far Western Nepal is left out politically and physically, a foreign land even to the Nepalese themselves.

In fact, until the mid 1990’s when the bridges were finished, this section of Nepal was completely cut off from the rest of the country for three months every year during the monsoon season.

A small, quiet highway has taken me into the terai, the flat area of Nepal where large open fields dominate the landscape.

I start walking alongside the people, cyclists, and cows who use the road more frequently than vehicles until I come to a village – just a few shops and mud huts gathered together to create a community.

I stop for a rest as a small crowd gathers around me, curious as to what a foreigner is doing in what appears to be the middle of nowhere.

An older gentlemen wearing the traditional small stripped hat of the region offers to take me fifteen kilometers up a small dirt path on his motorbike to a temple and lake.

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An hour long excursion turns into an all day adventure, when, after visiting the temple, we proceed up the unpaved rough road to the top of the immense Himalayan foothills in front of us.

Looking down I discover a whole different universe. There are a few mud huts two hundred meters down, and just below me, two ladies escorting their large black water buffalo up the hill.

They are farmers, one hundred percent self-sufficient farmers who live solely off of the land. There is no water, electricity, or anything made of plastic.

Money is useless here, there is nowhere to make or spend it. Upon watching life down below I knew that I would return, not just to watch, but to live with these families who have created their lives on the hillside.

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Guide books, which cover every inch of this tourist-dependent country in detail, write only a small paragraph about Far Western Nepal stating that the area lacks facilities and is virtually unexplored.

And if you turn to the Lonely Planet, it wastes no time depicting the area as dangerous, controlled by the sporadically violent Maoists, and a place that should be avoided.

The irony? This is the safest, friendliest part of the country I have visited.

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In fact, it is one of the safest places I have visited in all of Asia. The lack of facilities, the sheer distance, and the warnings from guide books have created an untouched jewel in a tourist filled country, a small piece of paradise where life remains centered around nature rather than money.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal written by contributing blogger Shirine Taylor. 

For Part 2, click here

Shirine is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Don't believe what Lonely Planet and other guidebooks say about Far Western Nepal. Far from dangerous, this area provided Shirine with some of her favorite memories of Nepal and an unparalleled view into an ancient way of life.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: My Night in an Indian Slum

“The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences.”

Those damn rats! Their tiny pitter-patter is multiplied into a roaring thunder, at least to my sleep deprived brain, as they scurry to and fro on the tin metal roof above my head.

They have kept me awake all night, though I silently acknowledge that they aren’t the only reason I can’t sleep. There is also a passed-out drunk Indian lady curled up half-on half-off the blanket we are using as a bed, and someone is rattling the scrap piece of metal that doubles as a door to the shack next to mine.

I am sleeping in an Indian slum, one of the last places in India you would expect to find a young Western girl who is traveling solo.

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I didn’t exactly plan to be sleeping here, but I can’t really say I’m all that surprised either. I have been taken in by countless Indian families throughout the last few months, so why not experience life in a slum if the opportunity arises?

After all, it’s just a different kind of home. And thank goodness I’m here. Though I’m not exactly sleeping in my current arrangement, it is far better than being stuck on the side of the road with nowhere to go, which was the position I was in the yesterday evening when the girl approached me.

She was young but confident, sporting short hair and an absolutely radiant smile. She asked me, signaling with her hands as neither of us spoke each other’s languages, if she could ride my bike, and I somewhat hesitantly agreed.

It was late in the evening and I had yet to find a hotel or flat piece of land for my tent, but I figured I might as well let this girl have some fun while I was deciding where to go.

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She had obviously never ridden a bike before, so after she climbed onto the seat I pushed her around, a difficult feat considering my bike was already fully loaded with all of my gear.

Pretty soon her younger sister, who had been watching us shyly from the side of the road, came over for a closer look. I helped her onto the bike as well, and began pushing them both to their home across the street, where a lady was waiting in front of six or seven tin shacks that had been built alongside the road.

I was surprised to see this women and her children here because I knew these to be the makeshift homes of construction workers. I passed these workers, predominately men, on a daily basis as I made my way along these treacherous mountain roads, which are always in need of maintenance due to snowfall and landslides.

The construction crews work all day, breaking the large rocks into smaller ones with a hammer before carrying the heavy loads in a basket on their backs. They spend their days in the beating sun, breathing in the pollution and dust from the passing trucks while putting themselves in danger of being hit.

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It is difficult and dangerous work – road workers in India have a very low life expectancy. The woman, who turned out to be the girls’ mother, was herself a worker on these roads. She smiled slightly as I approached with her children and quickly invited me into her home for tea.

As I was sitting in their small shack, a one bedroom contraption that looked like it would fall over with the slightest wind, the girl who approached me first signaled that she wanted me to sleep with her tonight.

I looked at the mother unsure of how to answer until she gave her approval with a nod. Though there were already five people living in the hut, I knew we would make it work.

One of the neighbors, an older lady who had watched me arrive with the children, came over and laughed with me as I struggled to answer her questions in Hindi. After a few minutes she pulled me up from where I was squatting with the others by the fire and led me into another room.

This space seemed to be a communal shack with the dual purpose of a kitchen and shower. There were a few pots and pans on one side, and a lady squatting in the corner with a bucket of water and soap on the other.  Needless to say, she was very surprised to have a Westerner interrupt her shower!

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The lady who had pulled me into the “bathroom” made me strip as she unraveled a beautiful cloth I have come to know as a sari. She wrapped it around me, giggling all the while as she redid it multiple times until it was perfect. She then added oil to my hair and pulled it back tightly.

I was at last ready to be presented, so we marched around the small compound as everyone admired my transformation into an Indian girl.

Just then, as I was parading around in my sari, a note arrived: “Send the girl down here. We need to talk.”

I had no idea who or where this note came from, nor was I excited to find out. One of the women escorted me down the hill and into a small building where three men in their thirties were drinking tea. Apparently these men were the heads of the construction project these families belong to, and they wasted no time explaining that they were in charge.

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They asked me why I was here, and who I was with, but in reality all they wanted was to look at my Facebook profile. After leaving them a fake name I quickly excused myself to join the two children who, much to my relief, had followed me down.

I headed back up for dinner, which was rice and dal like everywhere else in India, before following the older lady into her shack. There was more room there than with the girl and her family, so I laid down and tried to ignore the drunk men (and much to my surprise, women) outside.

In the morning I pedaled away just after sunrise as everyone was leaving for work. There were young ladies, no older than me, who jumped into the back of pickup trucks with small children strapped to their backs.

Though these families have hard lives, they wasted no time inviting me into their home, feeding me, and giving me a safe place to spend the night.

All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it’s been the poor and the uneducated – those with the least to give – who have ended up helping me time and time again.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

"All through India the rich warned me to be careful around the poor, uneducated population, and yet it's been the poor and the uneducated - those with the least to give - who have ended up helping me time and time again."

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

My Scariest Moment as a Solo Female Traveler

“Destined to be an old women with no regrets.”

I hear the sound of an engine cut out and see a motorcycle parked up above. They are back.

Panic fills me as I grab a few rocks from the ground. I see him approach. He is staring at me intently without any hint of emotion, the exact same way all Indian men look at me.

I feel naked, and his greedy eyes undress me as he gets closer. I quickly run up the small hill I had climbed down moments before for a pee break.

I say “go away,” again, as fiercely as I can, and hold up my rock. He doesn’t come closer, but he doesn’t back away either.

I reach the top of the hill and see his friend, who has parked his motorcycle by my bike. He has that same nasty cold-blooded look in his eyes. I feel my insides shrivel as anger rises up inside of me.

There is no doubt in my mind about what they are planning to do to me, and I have never been so afraid in my life.

India's children: a reminder of Heaven

India’s children: a reminder of Heaven

I grab my bike and quickly pedal away, unsure of how to proceed. They pass by me, staring as they always do. I hope they are gone for good this time –  I have been playing this scary game of cat and mouse for forty minutes now.

I’m at least twenty kilometers out from the main highway, trapped on a small road I thought would be a shortcut. “A shortcut to hell,” I think to myself now.

And that’s when I see them, six of them. They have multiplied. The two men who have been following me have brought reinforcements. Their three motorcycles are parked by the side of the road and they are all waiting for me to pass.

I stop. There are too many of them, they can easily overpower me. One starts to approach me and my heart beats faster inside my chest, I am trapped.

I beg the next couple who pass on a motorbike to stop.

“Help, help me, please!”

I am lucky, there is a women on board, a rare sight in this part of India. And she speaks enough English to translate. I quickly explain my situation as the pack approaches. She tells them to go away but it is no use, they look at her with that same slimy look they give to all women. We aren’t respected here, we are second-class, unworthy. Disposable. I have never felt so angry.

The Sikh people were Shirine's saviors time and time again

The Sikh people were Shirine’s saviors time and time again

She flags down the next older gentleman who passes. Like her driver, he wears a turban that shows he is Sikh, a gentle group of people I have come to trust and respect throughout my stay in India. She explains to him that I need an escort and he readily agrees. My followers are dispersing now, they realize their fun has been ruined.

I follow the man for a few kilometers before he speaks. He tries to ask me in Hindi where I am going, and I struggle to explain that I don’t know. It’s 5pm and almost dark out. I have never been caught this late without a place to sleep, and given my last hour of hell, there is no way I’m sleeping in my tent tonight.

He signals me to follow him to his house and I immediately feel relieved, I have a place to stay. He is kind and gentle, the type of man any child would be proud to call their grandfather. I arrive at his house were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter are surprised yet elated to greet me. I am saved, and within the next few days, I will find heaven in hell.

They serve me a cup of steaming chia before I even have time to change out of my dusty cycling clothes. A neighborhood child peers over the fence, shy yet curious about this newly arrived Westerner. The family later tells me that they have never spoken to a white girl before.

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No one speaks English, but as always, I get by with a few words of Hindi and a lot of charades. They invite me to eat dinner, a meal of delicious Indian curry and rice, before taking me next door to meet the neighbors. I am proudly shown off to everyone in this small village, and pretty soon, they have all demanded that I spend at least one night with each of the different families.

As I sit on the ground next to the ladies they talk and laugh, and though I love seeing their smiling faces, it is hard not being able to understand what they say. I get up and find the children instead as language is never a barrier with them.

They warm up to me quickly and within minutes I have one on my back, and a child grabbing each hand. They show me their rice fields and their cows, and I stop to play with the smallest calf. He is soft, only a few weeks old, and nuzzles me to pet him. I’m in heaven, surrounded by playful children, laughing women, and a cuddly cow.

My anger slowly fades as I spend the next few days enjoying this family’s hospitality. I take a motorbike ride through the rice fields and taste my first stalk of fresh sugar cane. I spend hours with the children, and find myself happily in charge of the one year old granddaughter.

I sleep every night with the grandma, an arrangement I am more than used to now after staying with countless families as a solo female traveler.

The neighbors come over and I am ordered (nicely) to visit them daily. They are all incredibly hospitable, handing me cups of hot tea and different traditional dishes at each and every visit. It is overwhelming at times, the sheer hospitality and kindness, but every minute of overwhelm is worth bearing because of the amazing experiences I come away with.

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After four days I decide it is time for me to continue on my way. They beg me to stay, but eventually relent and let me ride out with two of the men as an escort.

The girls hand me beautiful earrings and necklaces as I leave, and though I am trying to thank them, they end up thanking me. They have relatives forty kilometers away and have already arranged for me to stay with them for the following few nights.

I arrive at my next homestay to find a beautiful sixteen year old girl who speaks nearly perfect English because she attends a private English boarding school. She shows me around, tells me about her secret boyfriend, and immediately makes me feel like family.

I cook with the oldest sister, go out with the teenager and her friends, and visit the Sikh temple with the whole family. Once again I am treated like a queen. I stay a few more days before eventually heading out. They are worried about me so I promise to find a pay phone and call them that night. When I do, they tell me they miss me and that I should give up my bike journey to live with them. I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.

India. It’s heaven and it’s hell, and you are sure to experience both journeying as a solo female traveler.

You will see the savage brutality of inequality and you will learn to stand proud as a woman. You are sure to be taken in as a daughter, friend, and sister by countless amazing families.

I have stayed in a slum, with multiple farming families in the villages, and with wealthy families in different cities. In each and every home I was treated like a queen. Go out and experience it for yourself. It’s worth going through hell to get to heaven.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport.

This post originally appeared on Shirine’s blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Shirine was almost the victim of a gang rape in India.

2. She was rescued by a Sikh family who took her in and protected her.

3. India is both heaven and hell for solo female travelers.

4. Even though she endured one of the scariest moments of her life, Shirine wouldn't trade her time in India for anything and still recommends other solo female travelers visit India.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: An American in Siberia

At the corner of Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street. Seriously.

I am back on the train again after a two day break in Irkutsk, Siberia. This time I’m headed for Moscow, a three day, four night ride.

I’m currently sharing a compartment with three people, including a four-year-old child. He is surprisingly well-behaved, aside from the occasional “pay attention to me” yell, so the trepidation I felt when I saw him toddle into the room has subsided.

I haven’t seen nearly as many kids in Russia as I did in Korea, where they were bursting from every door, window, and wall (and not just because I worked at a school… they were EVERYWHERE). Perhaps this is because parents in Russia are used to things being much more dangerous than they are in other parts of the world.

It’s easy to forget that just twenty-five years ago, this was the USSR. Oh, and if some obnoxious know-it-all tries to tell you it was the CCCP, kindly inform them that this is just SSSR in Cyrillic, and that they should shut it.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

One of many forgotten cities in Siberia.

But I have seen a few remnants of that time. There are rundown buildings and factories in many cities, every once in awhile I see old men who are missing limbs or eyes, and the utter lack of English spoken by older adults is due in part to the impracticality of teaching your children the language of a culture whose principles you thoroughly disdain.

For the most part, though, the Soviet Union lies in the distant past.

Irkutsk is an interesting town; it is one of the oldest and most populous cities in Siberia, with about as many people as Milwaukee, WI.

In the early 1800’s the Decembrists, in opposition to a newly appointed tsar (which may have been a convenient excuse), staged a rebellion in Moscow.

It was quickly defeated, and the leaders of the Decembrist Revolution (at least, the ones that weren’t killed) were exiled to Siberia, most to Irkutsk. This exile had a number of stipulations, although they are pretty tame compared to those imposed on later Siberian banishments.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

This statue captures my mood perfectly.

For example, one prominent Decembrist was allowed to completely relocate his recently completed Moscow house to Irkutsk, and although many of the wives weren’t allowed to attend “societal events,” there was nothing stopping them from holding such events on their own estates.

This relocation led Irkutsk to become the intellectual center of Eastern Russia, with many explorers’ foundations and universities located there.

Many tourist sites in Irkutsk are centered around this era, and the tourist bureau makes it very easy to find them all with an easy-to-follow route through the city, supplemented by information posted at each site. AND it’s in English!

The train station at Novosibirsk

The train station at Novosibirsk

I spent a few hours wandering around these sites, most of which are statues or old buildings to which entry is forbidden, but there were a few churches on the list that I could check out.

Most of the older buildings in Irkutsk are wooden. Unfortunately the more recent trend is to use concrete and glass in construction, which leads to the creation of structures that are more stable but much less charming.

The hostel I stayed in is one of the older wooden buildings, a fact that – according to Igor,  the owner – is a huge disappointment for visitors from Moscow or St. Petersburg. Luckily I’m not from either city and I found the place much more inviting than expected.

It took a harrowing ride in a mini-bus, half an hour of searching, and a lot of gesturing with some very helpful cell phone store workers to find it, but the difficulty was immediately worth it when I opened the door to find the most unusual hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

After a steaming dinner of belmeny (dumplings) and, of course, vodka, Igor gave me a quick tour through the three-room hostel. He’s an older man who used to teach English, Russian, and French throughout Europe, and now directs plays in Irkutsk, which is why the house feels like the set of one of his productions.

The house was filled with old playbooks and music, along with all kinds of jury-rigged stage contraptions and old props – even the spiral staircase up to the attic is vintage Igor.

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

That’s a puppet show next to a handmade staircase at the hostel. SO AWESOME!

There were puppets (even an entire recreation of a house, filled with puppets) all over the place and the attic workshop contained a bunch of projects-in-progress. If anyone is in need of a place to stay in Irkutsk and isn’t bothered by waking up to miniature people staring at them in the middle of the night, the Auberge Theatrale gets my hearty recommendation.

My second day in the Irkutsk area was spent exploring Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal, with two German guys that were staying at the same hostel.

Getting there was easy, although I almost got heat stroke. There are a number of vans that will take passengers from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, and all of them must be driven by men training for the sauna Olympics.

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This guy turned the heat up as high as it went and kept it there the entire drive… even the other Russians in the car were complaining that it was too hot (although they still couldn’t be fussed to take off their giant fur coats and hats).

I was about five minutes from stripping naked in a heat-induced frenzy when we made it to the city and escaped into the freezing street.

We hiked up a few hills around the lake, and had some lunch in a local restaurant. Lake Baikal is home to a lot of unique fish, but the most famous is the Omul. I had some for lunch, and it was fatty and delicious. The only thing better than the Omul was the view—the lake hadn’t frozen over for the winter yet, but it was cold enough for icicles to form on just about everything surrounding it.

Igor told me that I should come back in January, when the whole thing is frozen over with almost completely transparent ice. It sounds amazing, but I don’t know if I can brave the average low of minus a zillion. We’ll see.

Even the trees are cold.

Even the trees are cold.

My butt hurts from sitting and typing, so I think it’s about time for a walk around the train. I’ll leave you with a word of the day:

PECTOPAH = restaurant. If you transliterate the Cyrillic, it is actually pronounced “restoran.” I picked this one because it’s one of the only words I can type in Cyrillic without having to figure out where my computer stores the special fonts…

Dan Gerber is a solo traveler from La Crosse, Wisconsin who has traveled to India, Vietnam, and just about everywhere in between. He is currently teaching English in China. Follow his journey at www.restofthebook.blogspot.com

Have a question for Dan? Post it below and he’ll get back to you!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you find yourself in Irkutsk, Siberia, stay at the "puppet hostel," AKA Auberge Theatrale. It's a magical place that's decorated like a theatre, complete with vintage manuscripts, a handmade staircase, and a working puppet show.

2. Siberia is COLD.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: Hitchhiking to Happiness

“When I was 5 years old, my mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, I told them they didn’t understand life.”

I run beside a grandpa who’s pedaling his bicycle with a young boy on the back, and hold up my sign: an old piece of cardboard with the name of the town I am trying to get to written hastily in black sharpie.

“Por favor,” I plead jokingly, causing both the young boy and his grandpa to chuckle and wave. There is no way they could pedal me and my backpack 300km to my next destination, but hey, it was worth a try.

I see a few cars approach in the distance and get ready for my next shot. I run alongside them as they slow down to enter the small Argentinian village, and yell “Salta, Salta, Saltaaaaaaaa,” the name of the town I am trying to reach. I take care to yell in the same loud and catchy voice Latin American street vendors use.

The passengers all laugh and wave before signaling to me that they are turning left, not right towards Salta, at the intersection just up ahead. I have been running, dancing, and serenading every passing car for the past hour, but unfortunately my efforts have been fruitless; everyone is turning left.

As I retreat to the sidewalk to consult with my hitchhiking posse, two French boys who are also journeying to Salta, the couple selling street food to my right approaches me to thank me for the entertainment I have apparently been providing them for the past hour – them, and the entire row of street vendors beside them.

They hand me a basket full of fried donuts along with a beverage – some sort of sweet milky concoction to both drink and dip the donuts in.

They talk with me  awhile before heading back to work, and I’m able to put my Spanish to good use as I explain why I have been jumping up and down with a sign.

They are a fun young couple, so when they make me promise to give up and join them for the evening if I can’t find a ride within an hour, I readily agree.

As I run and dance alongside the dwindling number of cars for a while longer, I know it’s more for fun than anything else. I end up in the couple’s small, open road-side hut along with the French boys, and we enjoy eating, talking and laughing until late. I finally accept their invitation to set up my hammock in their hut for the night.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

2 years later…

Though I didn’t find a ride that evening, the feeling of jumping and dancing with my sign in the middle of the highway and running alongside the passing cars has stayed with me even now, two years later.

It is the feeling of pure happiness, of absolute bliss.

Though hitchhiking can certainly be frustrating at times (nothing like standing on the side of a busy highway for hours without a single car slowing down), it is an amazing way to experience a country, especially in a place like Argentina where it is considered the norm.

I met countless other hitchhikers, mostly Argentinian students on their summer holiday, and quickly grew to view hitchhiking as my favorite form of transportation.

It is cheap, usually free in most countries, and it’s a great way for travelers to connect with locals and explore non-touristic regions of the country.

Hitchhiking also provides a great opportunity to practice (or learn) the language, eat the local food, and encounter adventures and opportunities you would never have dreamed of while sitting idly on the bus.

So weigh your options carefully next time you are about to hop on that bus –  instead, you might want to stick your thumb out and see where the adventure leads you.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Hitchhiking is not necessary the most dangerous thing in the world for a solo female traveler.

2. If you're going to hitchhike, make sure a totally normal thing to do in that country (and in many countries, it is!)

3. Keep in mind you might be expected to pay your way, pay for gas, etc.

4. Hitchhiking is an amazing, eye-opening way to see a country, explore areas most tourists never see, meet locals, and have the kind of Eat, Pray, Love-experience you've been searching for.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

What’s it like to do a homestay in India?

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

The pressure cooker is whistling, announcing that the rice is almost ready. The tractor drivers in the sugar cane fields out front are taking a tea break, so the rumble of their engines is no longer overriding the silence of the countryside.

I hear a child’s cry from one of the neighboring homes and the chomping of the cows a few meters to my right, but besides that, all I can hear is laughter.

I am squatting beside three radiant women around a small wood fire. A mother and her two daughters are teaching me to make roti, a typical Indian flatbread that we’ll end up eating at every meal.

Though the women – even the youngest girl who is barely nine – can all make their roti into a perfect circle, mine always come out completely lopsided and ugly; a fact that consistently results in a ruckus of laughter and gentle teasing.

I guess I need more practice. I only met these women a few hours ago when I stopped to buy bananas from their roadside fruit stand. Within minutes they had asked me, or rather, they had signaled me (since none of us spoke the same language), to stay at their home for the night.

Though it was barely ten a.m. and I had planned to cycle all day, I readily agreed. Being integrated more deeply into Indian culture and the life of a family is far more important than racking up kilometers.

After lunch the women decide to dress me in a beautiful yellow and red sari that is traditional to the area I am currently cycling through.

It is no longer just the four of us anymore. The youngest two girls, who have been kicked out for lack of space, have been replaced by five women from the neighboring houses.

homestay-in-india-2

I am probably the only Westerner they have ever spoken to and word travels fast – all of the curious women in the area have come to see this young white female who has stumbled upon their small farming village.

They strip me down in their small two bedroom mud hut, laughing when they see that the sari top is too small for my breasts. There are three women working on me simultaneously, I feel as if I am in a beauty salon.

A women in her mid-twenties is keeping the long piece of colorful cloth from touching the ground as her older sister begins to wrap it around me, creating a traditional sari. The third women is working on my hair, pulling it tightly back and into a braid.

Finally I’m ready. They quickly apply some makeup and give me their plastic slippers to wear before hustling me out of the door to present me to the rest of the village.

The women crowd around, laughing, talking, and pointing. They all want their picture taken with me, so I hand my camera to one of the younger girls to start clicking. Though she has never used a camera before and has no idea how to focus it, a few of the picture turn out all right.

It’s overwhelming – I’m not used to being the center of so much attention, but I know I will remember this moment forever.

homestay-in-india-4

I need a break. It is hard not being able to participate in the conversations going on around me, so I eventually change back into my “normal clothes” – an Indian suit I was given by another family I stayed with – before heading out to find the children.

They aren’t hard to find as they too are curious as to who this newcomer is. There are five of them who have been watching this whole episode from the corner of the field. As I approach, they giggle and a few of them turn to run away, but the smallest one sticks around.

I kneel down, put my hands in the prayer position, and say namaste. She smiles and does the same to me, an instant friend. Curiosity wins over the other children and they join her, quickly greeting me before grabbing my hands.

And we are off, I have my new tour guides. They show me their homes, small mud huts like the one I am staying in, and present me to their older siblings who have just come home from school. They too are shocked-yet-elated to meet me.

homestay-in-india-5

I am invited into multiple homes and each family gives me a steaming cup of chia before signaling that I should stay and spend the night with them. I explain, or try to, that I am already staying with their neighbor, but I will be sure to stop by tomorrow.

I know by now that I will be spending at least a few days in this village. The children tug me out of the third house into a game of chase. I catch them and throw them on my back as they scream with glee. Playing with village children has easily become one of my favorites parts of this trip. It is starting to get dark though, so I soon part with my young friends and head back home.

After a delicious dinner of rice and dal with curried vegetables, we wash our hands and feet in the freezing cold stream water and head to bed. It is only 8pm but the electricity has cut out and night has already fallen which makes it hard to do anything but sleep.

Plus I know we will be getting up before the sun tomorrow and I am exhausted. I crawl into bed with the two girls who are excited to have me sleep with them. The mother is in our room too, sleeping with the youngest boy, while the father has his own room next door. It is crowded with three in our small rickety bed but none of us seem to mind. It feels like home.

Throughout India and Nepal I experienced countless homestays such as this, where families, and even entire villages, adopted me for days or weeks at a time.

homestay-in-india-6

My homestay in India, and all of my homestays, have left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the outpouring of kindness I have been shown since beginning my journey around the world. They have also enabled me to see a glimpse of what life is like in these parts of the world, and given me an insider’s view into the traditions, work, and home life of an Indian family.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!

But what if I’m not as adventurous as Shirine? Can I still have an authentic Indian experience if doing a homestay in India sort of freaks me out? 

You don’t have to be as adventurous as Shirine to enjoy everything India has to offer. Homestays are amazing and everything, but there are lots of great ways to see the country if you can’t imagine yourself descending upon a village and spending the night with whomever happens to invite you in.

If you’re more of a “Type A traveler,” you may want to begin your Indian adventure by staying in hotels or guesthouses and exploring villages by day, or doing an organized tour. Our friends at HolidayME have awesome India tour packages that really feel authentic and less touristy than your typical group tour (and we all know how I feel about group tours, so this one must be the real deal!). You can check out their packages here: https://www.holidayme.com/

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

There's much more to India than what you see on the news.

Solo female traveler Shirine was taken in by multiple Indian families during her travels throughout the country, and given food, shelter, and friendship.

Her homestay in India gave her a completely unique perspective into Indian life and culture.

The quick+dirty takeaway of today = people are kind, especially to travelers, and especially to women traveling solo.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!