Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Now THIS is Travel!

I have the most amazing, incredible, gutsy, beautiful niece, Dawn (pictured here -- standing -- with Elisabeth, and with her sister, Nikki) who, at the age of 23, is alone in India on a 4-month quest for knowledge (the world and self) and adventure.

This is the same niece who traveled alone to Bolivia last summer. I am just in awe of her independence, her adventurous spirit, and her bravery.

When Dawn settles down eventually (IF Dawn settles down eventually!), she will know that she has already amassed the adventures of a lifetime!

Here are some excerpts from her travel e-mails.

From Bolivia, last summer:

I cannot even begin to tell you all the
adventures I have had in the last few days.
Where to start? I decided to ride a bike down the
worlds most dangerous road instead of try to
survive the bus ride because just last week 28
people died on a bus that went over. This road is
the only way to get down from the mountains to
the north, and it is absolutely horrible. To say
the least, it deserves the title. We left La Paz
at 7 am and rode down this dirt road for 5 hrs.
It was one of the craziest things I have ever
done... crazy...crazy! At first it was freezing
cold, and as you go down you begin to shed
layers... as you pass through different climate
zones, seriously. One of the guys riding in our
group crashed the fist hour and had to be rushed
to the hospital... crazy. Birds would fly on the
drafts coming up off the cliffs and as I road
down, flying like a bird, I could see miles and
miles of mountains below and above me. It was so
beautiful. We road under waterfalls and down,
down, down... the whole time on rocks and gravel
while buses barely made it by us. I can't believe
Idid that. We went from freezing cold to so, so
hot! On a bike...crazy. So, I met some people
doing this and by the end I decided to screw my
plans and try to get on their bus to Rennebequa
(in the Amazon). So... its 3 pm and we are at
the end of our ride, completely dirty from the
bike ride, sweaty...disgusting and without a
shower or anything, I went with them to catch
their bus (which was 2hrs late...Bolivian time is
worse than island time). It gets better... I was
a stow away because the bus was full. for 17 hrs
all through the night, on roads almost as bad as
the one we just rode down, while at least three
people were throwing up out the windows of the
packed bus... I road on the floor with nine new
friends. No sleep. But, in the end we made it,
somehow. We got to Rennebequa at 8 am and were
supposed to go into the jungle at 9am for three
days on a pampas tour (once again I didn't have
this ticket either). So, we jumped in a quick
shower (the first in two days of horrendous
filth) and then, off we went into the jungle for
three nights.

It would be impossible to try to explain the
jungle here in this email. Its like nothing I
have ever seen. Pink dolphins in muddy brown
water with crocodiles and parana all around?
What? Its loco, it just doesn't make sense to me.
More birds than I knew existed, snakes... all
that and more.

And from India, where she is now (this sent last week), and where she'll be traveling alone for the next three months:

I have overly prepared myself. I was expecting the worst, and instead I knew exactly what to do. I had prepared myself for this, all of this. As I settled in to my first hotel I was met with a strangely pleasant comfort. The rabid dogs on the street were barely noticed. The loud honks and strong fumes of tuck-tucks, rickshaws, buses, bicycles and vans were surprisingly familiar. The sweet and hot Indian spices where smells I knew, and while they where combined with the stench of sweat hovering in the 95 degree humid air of Delhi, they where all too familiar. Unfortunately too, the smell of garbage was more welcomed than expected. Even the stains on my sheets, holes in my walls and the bathroom without toilet paper and with a bucket shower were all to be expected. Apparently, I am a traveler after all.

I have never started a trip like this. I feel good, strong and ready for anything, and for this, I am so grateful. On the plain I was wondering why I wasn't a complete mess of tears and regret (lik e – admittedly - I have been when embarking on other unknown and intimidating adventures). This time though, I was met with only prayers of thanks. Thank you for letting me be so strong this time. Thank you for letting me feel good! And even, I am so excited!

Don't get me wrong; I am not entirely sure of myself. Delhi is amazingly insane and I still have no idea what I am doing here. I feel as if I am Alice and I have just fallen into that rabbit hole. I have landed in a world completely unto my own and I am thoroughly disoriented. But it is an interested sort of lostness. I can only compare this city to a combination of Bangkok and La Paz multiplied in filth and poverty by one million. What I mean is, it is like nothing I have seen, yet still familiar in its organized ciaos and filth. Someone told me that Delhi was best explored once someone has become accustomed to India. Before that, it is just too much. Perhaps at the end of the trip? I can say this for myself, I am looking forward to leaving tomorrow.

Also, I have to say one thing. To all of you who so wonderfully supported me and showered me in love before I left, thank you. It has brought me a long way and you will be the ones who carry me through this journey.

All of my love from here to there,


And today:

Dear ones,

I have been in Kashmir almost three days and, although I knew about Kashmir's struggles from reading, I have only come to understand the complicity and depth of them today. This state is a Muslim one (some 95%), and so Pakistan wants it and feels it should be theirs. Yet its history is in India and so India will not give it up. The Indian government has made themselves more than present in Srinegar and throughout the entire state of Kashmir . Half of the town is covered in military bunkers and there are Indian soldiers on every street and in every shop. The Hindu temples are completely guarded by Indian military as to protect them from being destroyed by the Muslims. The few Hindus here get stoned on a regular basis. It is for this reason that I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and discomfort. The Muslim people seem foreign to me and I cannot kick an understandable sense of unwantedness. I admit I cannot even begin to relate to their lifestyle, religion and situation. Islamic religion demands an enormous amount of 'blind faith' as well as a very strict way of living: the two things that us westerners do not easily submit to - or understand.

As a woman I have absolutely no power here. It seems that my words go overheard and my comments mocked. For this reason I have been completely scammed into paying way too much money for a trek I never went on – long story - and other things too. Even if I persist I cannot seem to get my way. (This, as some of you could imagine, is very difficult for me, as I have learned that I am very used to getting my way.) I cannot even begin to tell you how worthless women are here. Baby girls are not even counted as children. If you ask someone how many children they have and, lets say they have two boys and a girl, they will tell you they have two children. At first I pitied them and felt an, admittedly now, ignorant serge of rebellion. I wore jeans and a normal long sleeved shirt on the first day and asked our guide a series of grueling questions about the women's attire. He answered me nicely and somewhat informingly.

The next day I inquired on a real religious and political discussion with him. Still he seemed impartial. "Some Kashmiri people (Kashmiri people never call themselves Indian) want to be part of Pakistan and some what to be part of India while others want an impartial independence." I myself think most want independence and some perhaps want to be part of Pakistan, a country that will embrace their religious customs. I cannot see, though, how any of them would want to be part of India with the way the Indian government treats them here. India, though, is very proud of their Islamic population. Half of their tourist sites are Mosques – not to mention the Taj Mahal. My guide told me today that when he goes to the market each day he is not sure if he will return. I said to him with shock, "you are sure you will return." After all I had asked the question, "it is generally safe now though, right?" he assured me it was not. I am beginning to understand why these people never seem to smile.

I have never been stared at like the men stare at me here. Apparently the Muslim men cannot control themselves. I shyly asked my guide if he could take me somewhere to buy a shawl to drape loosely around my shoulders and chest. I am beginning to feel really out of place. My live-next-to-guide, who lives with his wife on the boat next to the one I am staying in, will not let us leave the boat without him. We are not even allowed to go to the bakery alone. (By the way I have asked to meet his wife many times and he will not let us. He says things like, "wife good to make food only." And when we ask him to thank her over and over for the meals he says, "yes, yes - will" in an annoyed tone and walks away.) Oh the things we take for granted.

Srinegar too is strange because even in all the confusion it is subtlety and delicately the most beautiful place I have ever been. The lake is constantly shadowed by the ever-present base of the Himalayas and covered in water flowers and floating gardens. Woven between the gardens are century old houses, floating houseboats and gondola-like boats used for anything from transporting children to school to selling flowers. The reflection of white Mosques in the icy water mimics the strength and omnipotence of the religion that dominates the area. Five times a day the whole city echoes seemingly infinitely with Islamic prayer. I awake at four every morning to the gradual murmur and then complete outburst of chanting. These people amaze me and I am learning more about religion than I ever have. (Luckily I have an audiobook on my ipod titled 'Understanding Islam'. Being here and seeing all of this brings a whole new interest.)

The lake sparkles with dew covered lilies and lotus. When there is not prayer there is the soft sound of singing from either the boat paddlers or the women beating clothes clean on the shores of the gats. I am overtaken with wonder and awe. The houseboat we are staying in is completely hand carved pine, from the porch to the throne-like chairs. Every curtain, bedspread and footrest has matching fabric. There are endless cabinets full of delicate china and other foreign riches and chandeliers hang from the dining room and living room ceilings. This place was once a true floating palace and I can see that we are getting a deal because of the lack in tourism in the area. I have learned that famous westerners even owned their own houseboats here and would come to write or to simply get away. The history here is endless and amazing and the people are their own time capsules of their past. This life is as different from mine as could be imagined. If I came to India to further my understanding of religion, I have come to the right place.

I am thoroughly overwhelmed and guilt stricken by my own good fortune.

Love and blessings to all of you,


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