Right now I am living in a part of Hong Kong called Sheung Wan. It is very international, semi-dense, and highly multicultural. In the past week I have explored Central and Kowloon quite a bit and I have been happily inundated with the sights, scents, and sounds of the city. The people have been kind, the streets shockingly clean, and the air warm and humid. It is a place of activity. No one stands still. Interrupting the flow in a public place by being on your phone is called “phubbing” or “phubbering”. Still, people move politely despite the denseness that everyone talks about when referring to Hong Kong. I still feel that I have my space.
On my last day in Italy I rode a bus into the mountains and debarked at a stop in the Val Rosandra Nature Reserve, moderately far from any signs of civilization. Unable to find directions in English, I asked a few climbers along the way and they were more than helpful. The canyon was breathtaking with it’s silvery trees and golden riverbed, home to a thin emerald line of water winding below the steep rocky trail. I reached the road in Rosandra just before sunset, starving, and lucky enough to find a delicious, modestly priced café. I accidentally bought something with meat in it. I didn’t care, I ate it anyway. The bus ride back to Trieste was an introspective one. I spent the last few hours before my train to Prague napping by the water.
Slovenia stole my heart. The all-night train from Belgrade traversed Croatia in darkness then eased into Slovenia as the sun rose. I leaned out the window and let the cold March air touch my face as the train wound through along the breathtaking Sava river. When I arrived in Ljubljana I had hardly sleep, but I was too restless to stay in my hostel. I walked around the quaint city for 2 hours, enthralled with the inventive architecture and brightly painted exteriors. In the center of town sits a local market complete with a milk dispensing machine that is refilled every 4 hours with fresh, unpasteurized milk from a nearby farm. That night I went out by myself to a bar on the outskirts of town nicknamed the “Graffiti Bar”. It was worth the walk. I befriended a small group of Slovenians who whole-heartedly adopted me for the night. We drank Lasko and “Bear Blood”, danced inside and played music outside around the bonfire till 4am.
The next day I left for Lake Bled, a haven known as The Jewel of Slovenia. The name is not an exaggeration. The calm beauty of Bled was unparalleled on this trip. Abound with castles, placid water, and stunning views of the Alps, Bled was the kind of place I’d like to return to and stay a while. The 20 Czech hockey players in my hostel added an edge to the experience. I was talked into joining them for a late-night visit to the casino, which turned out being somewhat lucrative for me at the blackjack table. They were a rowdy bunch of characters if I’ve ever seen one. Undoubtedly a loving bunch. My next move was the Alpe Adia. The hike was primarily in nature, but it ended in the Italian port town of Trieste. Trieste is not a tourist town. I hardly met a soul who spoke English, and after days of hiking, I was used to minimal conversing. These two kind men below picked me up hitch-hiking over the Italian border from Slovenia. I’d veered from the trail and was nowhere close to the town I was supposed to be in. They laughed at my story and decided that I would go to lunch at a pizzeria with them and they would take me to San Lorenzo. In a patchwork version of Italian, Spanish and English, they told me about their grandchildren and asked about my parents, my travels, and my work. I was informed that I was their granddaughter for the day, and that if I needed anything while I was in the region I was to call or email them. When they dropped me off in San Lorenzo I was strangely glad I had gotten lost.
View of the burning ghats from a rowboat.
Varanasi, the place where people come to die. In the narrow streets bodies covered with colorful silk, lined with carnations and roses are carried past on the shoulders of their male relatives. I stopped walking outside the break in the wall, where men weigh the massive pieces of scented wood they use to build funeral pyres. Just past the gates, where photography is prohibited, are the cremation ghats, steps to the river laden with burning bodies. Varanasi is the Hindu capital of India. It is said that if you die on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, you are absolved of sin, and your soul is released from Maya, the painful cycle of death and rebirth. It was a very intense city, the air weighs down on your body in a different way. I avoid the subject of death. In Varanasi, death confronts you. It is natural, not something to be overlooked or dressed up, just the end of maya, the end of pain.
In Khajuraho we met a few boys around our age who, when they witnessed our love of Indian food, decided it was their responsibility to give us an authentic experience making chapati. On our last day Laki brought us to his grandfather’s house in a village a few kilometers outside of town. The house had the exceptionally clean feel that I have noticed in smooth mud and clay based structures in North India. A modest home with a simple, mostly outdoor kitchen, Laki’s grandfather’s home was the perfect place to spend the afternoon beneath the shady branches of Neem trees, peeling and chopping aubergine, peppers, potatoes, garlic, onion, and tomato and roasting them over the fire as the chapatis heated on the embers underneath. This simple fare tasted as fresh and delicious as the most elaborate spreads I’ve had in India.
The Temples in Khajuraho are known because of their sexual carvings, as the Kama Sutra Temples. The walls of the many edifices depict elaborate scenes of women engaging in sexual acts with men, dragons, and other erotic beings. The one I found most seductive I would not have seen on my own. Marina, Katie, and I rented bicycles and rode out with some new friends to the farther Eastern Temple where our friend Aashtosh showed me a massive wall of carvings. About half way up the wall was a 2ft carving of a woman in an upright sexual pose with a large, intricate scorpion crawling up her leg. She was remarkably preserved, and her body language spoke through barriers of time and spirituality that represent a past I am fascinated by. I don’t think our obsession with sex is modern, temples like this teach me again and again that the world has always been wild.
Agra Fort was the first time in my travels that I have solicited the service of a guide. Our guide was technically retired, he said he still gives tours just to stay sharp. His hair was dyed with henna, and his glasses magnified his kind eyes by twice their size. My friends and I were grateful for him because there were countless details about the place that we would have been oblivious of, such as which room the Shah was imprisoned in by his own son when he was placed under house arrest. He told us of the King’s 260 concubines and I saw traces of them as we walked in the gardens below their quarters. In the marble bathing pool, I imagined the king surrounded by his ladies, one in each of the 36 curvy carved seats lining the ivory pool. The Fort was an impressive representation of the lavish life a king lived in early 17th century India. It took my mind back in it’s jeweled arches and time stained walls.
A few weeks ago I, and my wonderful travel partners Katie and Marina set forth on a 2 week adventure around Northern India. Our rambling began with a sunrise train from Rishikesh to Agra. We booked the sleeper class which is far more affordable than the AC trains, but is known to be somewhat uncomfortable. Luckily, we didn’t mind it and I’d say I preferred it thanks to Katie’s ukulele. We played it for a moment then an elderly man in our compartment asked to try the small instrument. He completely retuned the uke, which would take us about a week to reverse, but it was worth it. Our compartment became the life of the sleeper. Four older men sang and danced and the women below my bunk clapped to the tune of the Indianized ukulele. Even the busy chai carriers stopped beside our bunks to partake in the enjoyment.