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January 17, 2012

Four Takeaways from Traveling in India

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2011 was defined by my trip to India–even more so than moving to New York City–so I was sad to bid the year farewell.

Back in April 2011, when Kunal, Cory and I came up with the name for the blog, my only thought of my impending trip to India was excitement. I saw this trip as a way to test myself and explore my limits. But I didn’t really plan anything. Kunal had stepped up and proposed an ambitious travel schedule and I was content to go along for the ride. The only preparation I did was to read a couple books on Indian culture so that I wouldn’t seem like a Western slob around Kunal’s family.

Kunal’s plans–at least on paper–seemed very doable, maybe even conservative to me. I launched the website to share our travels and promote a cause during all our downtime. I was confident my earlier vacations to South East Asia and South America would serve as good primers for this trip and that site-seeing in India would be a similar experience. Sure, they do things a bit different, there are more people and more poverty, but the same rules of civilization apply, right?

By day two in India I recognized that trying to rationalize everything in real-time would be impossible; the new goal would be to take in as much as I could and make sense of it later. It has taken me six months of reflection to finally relax and be comfortable with my travel through India. It helped to reminisce with Cory and Kunal, exchange stories with others who have been to India and answer questions from friends and family.

I have distilled my reflections into four lessons:

  1. The places you dislike the most when you’re there become the places you’re fondest of later. For example, we were quite restless and grumpy in Kolkata; I couldn’t wait to get out of there. However, months later I think about it as much as my favorite city, Leh. It’s something I’ll keep in mind the next time I’m somewhere outside my comfort zone.
  2. Cameras are incredible, take lots of pictures. When traveling you see a lot of new things, like a cow sifting through garbage on the side of a city road or a wild monkey. A quick picture saves that moment so you can process or remember it later. You can also have a laugh at yourself for taking such silly photos when cows eating garbage and monkeys become a regular sightings.
  3. Don’t take culture guides too seriously.  Be sensitive to your audience and ask questions if you’re not sure how to act in a foreign environment.  Reading the culture guides made me think I knew how to blend in, but blending in for a tall white red head in India is impossible. People are eager to discuss the differences between culture.  That said, here’s a cultural tip: if you’re a guy, don’t put your arm around a woman like you would to your girlfriend, no matter if they’re a local or a foreigner–it sends the wrong message.
  4. No country is more privileged than America. The opportunities we have in the States are unavailable to an overwhelming majority of people in this world. Take advantage of them and share some of your prosperity with others. Over 65 people donated to our fundraising campaign for WaterAid helping some of the poorest people in India take one step closer toward a better life.
December 16, 2011

Give Water for Christmas

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I wonder if Santa washes his hands before he gobbles up the milk and cookies at each house.  Practicing proper hygiene is something we take for granted, but some people aren’t as lucky to have this basic education.  Millions fall ill and die due to the effects of poor hygiene–mostly children–and MangoHwy thinks that’s ridiculous.

When MangoHwy met with WaterAid India we learned about their innovative initiatives in Delhi schools to demonstrate hygiene practices using videos,  puppet shows and health rallies.  WaterAid is also focused on helping communities gain better access to water and improving sanitation.  Their hands-on and community focused approach to solving these issues is why we picked to support them.

So for Christmas, I am asking for help to reach our original fundraising goal of $5,000 for WaterAid.  We knocked out two-thirds of that goal on our trip to India and I believe that we can make it the rest of the way by 2012 with your help.

A gift of just $25 can pay for one person in one of the world’s poorest countries to gain access to safe, clean water and sanitation for life!  That’s a months worth of bottled water to many.

I would also like to thank all those who donated already this summer.  We watched the fundraiser bar daily and really appreciated the love.

Peace and love,

John

CLICK TO DONATE

September 6, 2011

Pangong Lake

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Pangong Lake is a closed basin lake.  Without rivers leading out of the lake, its water is brackish.  It is 134 km (83 miles) long and extends from India to Tibet.  Sixty percent of the length of the lake is located in Tibet, now controlled by China.  Further down the road from the tourist area is the Line of Actual Control, controlled by China but claimed by India, making it a heavily militarized area.

Many tourists visit to the lake for multiple days of camping but we only had a few hours free in our schedule.  Due to the salinity of the water, the lake takes on different colors as the sunlight hits it.  The water was extremely cold and it freezes solid in the winter.  After a couple of hours of taking pictures, skipping stones, and doing hand stands, we packed up and headed home.

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September 5, 2011

Journey to Pangong Lake

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On Cory’s and Kunal’s final full day in Ladakh, we got an early start so Jack could drive us the 150 km to Pangong Lake and back.  Getting there and back takes about five hours each way and we would have to cross Chang La, advertised as the third highest pass in the world.

Along the way we saw a variety of wildlife including wild ass, marmots, sheep, horses, and yaks.  A few miles from the lake Kunal left the car to test himself with a run  at and altitude of 14,000+ feet; later he admitted it might not have been the best idea!

September 5, 2011

More Gompas and Palaces in Leh

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After a few hours at the Hemis Festival, Jack took us to see a few more gompas and palaces around Leh:

  • First, Thikse Monastery, the largest monastery in central Ladakh.  It was supposedly built to look like Potala Palace in Lhasa.
  • Next, the Shey Monastery and Shey Palace complex.  Shey was the old capital of the upper Ladakh region, but when the Dogras of Jammu invaded Ladakh in 1842, the Namgyals abandoned the palace and fled to Stok.  Most of Shey Palace is in ruins, but the monastery has a nice 39 foot tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue.
  • Finally, we traveled across the Indus River to Stok Palace.  It was here that the Namgyals, rulers of Ladakh, fled to, and it is still used today as a residence by the Ladakhi royalty.

 

September 5, 2011

Hemis Festival

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The Hemis Festival is held every year in the Hemis Monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery of Ladakh.   The two-day celebration kicked off on July 10, the tenth day of the lunar month on the Tibetan calendar. The festival celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism. During the festival, the Lamas gather around the central flagpole in the courtyard of the monastery and perform mask dances and sacred plays depicting Guru Padmasambhava’s fight for good over evil. Their performances are accompanied by the music from drums, cymbals, and long horns.

The Hemis Festival is a major attractions in Ladakh and we saw more tourists here than anywhere else in the last six weeks on the Mango Hwy.   The actual entertainment value of the dances and plays is short-lived and we found ourselves chatting with other tourists more than watching the stage.  Kunal did get some photography tips from a German photographer that he put into practice.  Below are a few of his best shots selected from
about a hundred.

 

September 5, 2011

Diskit Monastery

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Heading back to Leh from the Hundar in the Nubra Valley, we stopped at the Diskit Gompa (gompa means monastery in Tibetan).  Founded by Changzem Tserab Zangpo in the 14th century, the gompa belongs to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is a sub-gompa of the Thikse gompa.  At the foothill of the gompa is a 32 meter statue of Maitreya Buddha, known as future Buddha.

In the wintertime, when the pipes freeze, monks have to carry water up a steep staircase built into the rock.  Along the staircase and the road there are hundreds of prayer stones with Sanskrit characters carved into them, possibly with prayers that each monk will make it back up to the top!

September 5, 2011

Nubra Valley

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We made it to Hundar, a small town in Nubra Valley, in the late afternoon and went straight to the sand dunes.   The geography of the Nubra Valley is overwhelming: the Shyok River meets the Nubra or Siachan River to form a large valley separating the Ladakh and Karakoram ranges of the Himalaya.  Like the rest of Ladakh, Nubra is a high altitude desert with rare precipitation and scant vegetation except along the river beds, where irrigated.  Between Hundar and Diskit lie several miles of sand dunes, and two-humped bactrian camels graze in the neighbouring “forests” of seabuckthorn.

We didn’t see any wild camels but there were plenty available to ride!  It was about Rs. 300 (US $6.50) for a half an hour. 

After camel racing we ran up and down the sand dunes.  Jack had just finished washing his car and wasn’t excited to see us covered in sand. 

That night we stayed at the Organic Retreat Camp in a nice, bedded tent.  There were a number of other Indian tourists staying at the camp so we shared stories and drinks around the campfire.  The camp also has its own organic garden, and we enjoyed the taste of locally grown veg in our meals.

September 5, 2011

Flat tire on the way to Nubra

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About an hour after crossing Khardung La, Jack stopped to replace a flat tire with a spare.  This was the third and thankfully final time we had had car troubles in India and surprisingly this time was the quickest fix.  One hour further down the road, just inside Nubra Valley, was a small auto shop that repaired our tire in about 45 minutes.  Jack seemed to know the guys from his years of driving this route.

While we waited we enjoyed some chai and maggi and marveled at an area that used to be part of the Silk Road.

 

September 5, 2011

Highest Motorable Road in the World

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On the third day in Ladakh we set out early for Nubra Valley.  Located northwest of Leh, we had to cross Khardung La (La means ‘pass’ in Tibetan) at 5,602 m or 18,380 feet.  At that height it is the highest motorable road in the world, however, further research online reveals that the altitude reported by the signs may be slightly exaggerated; a recent GPS study put it at 17,582 feet, making it the third highest road.

Like most roads in Ladakh, Khardung La is maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and is always under some state of repair.  In addition to carrying travelers to more amazing sites in Ladakh, it is also strategically important to India because it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier.  About 100 miles further north of Khardung La, Siachen Glacier is the highest battleground on earth, a place where India and Pakistan have fought intermittently since 1984 over a border dispute.

Khardung La is also home to the highest cafeteria in the world. Travelers and soldiers mingle and eat maggi and momos (dumplings).  There are tens of thousands of prayer flags located at Khardung La and we enjoyed hiking to higher spots to get a better view.