The dhaba and the glitz

Amritsar became a bit of a rest town for us… Carolyn’s stomach took a turn for the worse which structured our activities around toilets and rest. Realizing I’d been on the go since Christmas hit, I was pretty happy for a few low key days.

It was certainly a curious town… One that Carolyn and I have remarkably different perspectives on (funny the impacts diarrhea has). I saw it as a quiet – relatively speaking – Sikh town that passionately flew kites around a golden temple. Carolyn saw it as a stink hole with poo, spit and butt grabbing men everywhere. There were elements of truth in each.

We welcomed ourselves with a bang at a local dhaba, after viewing their gold plated Sikh temple… We’d heard this was a Punjabi specialty and so Carolyn put on a brave face and tough stomach to wander through twisty dark streets to find one. Sitting down in the definition of a hole in the wall, we blindly picked 2 items from the menu to curious stares (turns out one is to share between two). Food came and it was this fantastically buttery naan with all sorts of things stuffed inside and a few curries on the side. Our server gestured us to wait while he grabbed our naan in his hands – jury is out on his last hand wash – and crumpled it… Leaving no piece untouched. He placed it back down and it was time to eat. I was mildly creeped put by the manhandling… Carolyn forbids me to mention the incident because, at the height of her illness, this was the worst possible thing she could imagine and still makes her gag.

We kicked off our second day with a man grabbing both our asses in an otherwise pleasant park. After making a not so speedy escape from him by a bicycle rikshaw peddled by an old man, we sought refuge and relief at the India-Pakistan border closing ceremony. Not as intense as it sounds. The ceremony involved all of the following: 1000+ spectators, flag running, massive dance parties, cheering, soldiers high kicking (like, forehead knocking kicks) their way to the border, humming competitions, and more high kicks. I have no idea who came up with this but it draws in throngs daily.

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With that we were off. Carolyn, now full of cipro, eagerly awaited the wonders of our layover in the Delhi airport on route to Jaipur… Wait for her guest blog on the thrills of that airport post diarrhea.

Cured and rested, we arrived in Jaipur. This is the glitzy stop on our trip. The city was the home of the royals back in the day, and it still shows. It was glitzy upon arrival, and the palaces and forts only reinforced that. The highlight was probably the observatory. It was a massive space full of gigantic (60 foot high.. See picture) tools for locating celestial objects. It felt like Alice in Wonderland being surrounded by this many massive tools and toys. For the past 2 days we’ve been puttering around other spectacularly intricate palaces, forts, tombs and temples. I’m currently reading a book about India under colonization and I can’t help but imagine how imcredible parts of this country would have been then (wrong message to take, I know).

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A more modern day glitz came at the Bollywood movie last night. The theatre itself was none other than a real life replica of a Barbie cupcake-inspired theatre. The movie followed suit. The movie was sprinkled with dramatic English sayings amidst steamy and mysterious Hindi scenes (revenge is a dish best served……. Cold). But we were obviously there for the dancing, which was everything we hoped and more. I’ve committed to buying black hair extensions after watching spectacular women swish their hair around.

The rest of our time was spent feasting and shopping. It’s been a hard city for the wallet but, we were warned and loved every minute. Now, it’s to the south! Cannot wait to shed the sweaters and scarfs, and trade paneer for fresh fish! Ill leave you now with this monkey contemplating the takeover of Jaipur from his monkey temple on the hill.

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Paneer (and the odd temple)

I originally wrote this post on an overnight trip from Rishikesh to Amritsar. When writing, I was thrilled to be on another overnight train (in an ambitious moment, I likened them to the Emirates sleeping pods)… This morning, my enthusiasm has dwindled.

At one point last night, after heavily sedating myself, I remember waking up and thinking all my senses are overwhelmed. There is a blinding light that we can’t turn off in only our car. All I can smell is horrible massage oil and Carolyn’s dead stomach. All I can hear is the loudest team of snorers ever. I’m boiling hot and itchy, despite it being so cold outside. And I just want to brush my teeth. While I very much appreciated lying down, the stars did not align for us on this train trip. However, until those few hours, India has been wonderful. It’s all been incredibly smooth – total thanks to Carolyn’s remarkable planning.

Warned about the chaos of Delhi, our first two nights were spent at an amazing hotel in New Delhi as part of a Christmas present to Carolyn and I. They greeted us with a wiener dog wearing a coat (the city has really gotten on board with clothed animals) which obviously sold us on the city immediately. The next 3 days were spent sight seeing, exploring markets, tasting all sorts of food and pulling together the warmest things we could find. We’ve been featured in a surprising number of Indian tourist pictures… Initially we thought it was because we had to wear the equivalent of a Hawaiian shirt in burka form to enter a mosque (every other tourist had a regular looking cloak….). But the requests have continued and we can now only assume it is our hilarious attempts at warm clothing that draws the attention. Or our beauty…

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After a day trip to the Taj Mahal (more spectacular than I could imagine) we were off further North to Rishikesh, the self-proclaimed yoga capital of India. This quiet town was a welcome change from the chaos of Delhi. While horns are still used for every style of communication, I was less concerned that my death was imminent when I heard them there. We got fully out of town on our second day with a hike up to a temple. Entering this hike, we assumed it would be a subtle incline winding through the forest… After all, monks do this walk each morning. Jokes on us as it ended up being a 10km very uphill hike. It led to a temple that was perhaps mistaken as a shopping complex at first.

For being the yoga capital of the world, I took only one class. Most come to Rishikesh for a spiritual awakening or teacher training and as such, I don’t think much emphasis was placed on the one off classes. The one I took was delightful but much more cut and dry than what I anticipated. A more thorough review after more classes around the country.

The food, the original purpose of this trip, has been wonderful. Having been “denied” of cheese for all of 2 weeks in Ethiopia, it has been one huge paneer-fest with us. It has involved the usual paneer based dishes, but also paneer sandwiches at a German cafe and a McPaneer from McDonalds. It had led to a real leaning experience about all the sounds, smells and aches a stomach can produce. Luckily, nothing more serious than the odd asphyxiation.

Today, we recover. We’re staying in a Sikh-dominated town called Amritsar where they have built a spectacular golden temple. But first, hot showers, naps and laundry are required.

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The simiens

An overnight train out of Delhi has finally given me a chance to catch up on what happened in Ethiopia….

This trip to Ethiopia was inspired by a quick layover in Addis years back, a newfound love for Ethiopian food, and a Human Planet episode. Given this, Bryce and I went with a fairly simple list of things we wanted to do on our extended layover. It included: eat all kinds of food (me), spy the elusive Simien Wolf (him), guzzle coffee (me), hug baby baboons/watch them if hugging not possible (me), and explore the plateau mountains (both). Upon arriving in Addis, this list grew to include chewing chat, guzzling macchiatos, remembering how to say thank you in Amharic and a few other things. Most of these things we could satisfy by hiking the Simien mountains…

We quickly learned that our trip was scheduled at a busy time. Christmas had just wrapped up on the 7th and a celebration for the baptism of Jesus was about to begin. This drew loads of domestic and foreign tourism to hotels, busses and flights. Combined with Ethiopian time (time is told relative to how many hours the sun has been up for) made travel arrangements a bit more complicated than our unplanned selves anticipated.

Sidenote: the fact that it was 2008 in Ethiopia had very little impact on the trip. People seemed totally unphased by the fact that i, and other foreigners, came from the future. Disappointing.

We made it to the Simien mountains in the north through 3 days of busses and small towns. The trip up came with the usual highs and lows. Coming up to cliffs overlooking massive valleys was a literal and figurative high. Plunging down them on a rickety bus was not. Lunch and snack stops were wonderful, but those final hours before a break were trying. We spent 2 nights in lakeside Bahir Dar where we poked around waterfalls and tree filled boulevards. Something about that town felt very Florida-ish. Another few days were spent in Gondar, a mountain town with a massive pre colonial castle that would be the stage for one of the biggest festivals of the year.

The highlight was undoubtably the mountains. We spent our days walking on old footpaths that connect villages throughout the newly formed park. The paths wove us through forests, cliffs, plateaus and valleys. Led by a scout who used the word “no” to say “no” “yes” “lets go” “not safe” “come here” and a few other words, this was probably my most basic trip yet. We were surrounded by baboons, spied 2 foxes and met all sorts of surprising and interesting hikers. I spent a portion of each day dreading the cold that descended each night on our underprepared bodies, and another bit trying to protect my sad burnt Canadian skin… Which is still peeling… 10 days later…

The beauty of the mountains were at times contrasted by incredible overgrazing and drought, which seems to be an ongoing challenge here. While he government and country in general recognize the potential and significance of these mountains for both the environment and tourism, this has been hard to convey to the 2000+ people living in the park grounds.

After a few days, we bussed down to spend a few final days with injera and richly spiced sauces and soups. I have no idea what my favourite meal may have been called since blind ordering was certainly the name of the game. Food descriptors were generally tough to come by.

Then somehow, the 2 weeks were up and it was off to India. Having crossed a number of things off my bucket list ill have to spend some time rebuilding it (suggestions?).

Ahmaseganalou (thank you) Ethiopia. It was all I imagined and more. I do hope you find a short form for thank you that sticks… But otherwise, see you soon.

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Ethiopian Air

Ethiopian airlines has provided me with more stories on my 3 (of 5) flights with them than all other airlines combined. While I craft up a blog post about mine and Bryce’s time in Ethiopia, here are some highlights of my flights with them…

1. A 2 hour delay due to seat scams. As we boarded in Pearson, the majority of passengers sat in someone else’s seat. Reasons were varied for doing this… One didn’t like the look of his chair and preferred the open middle seat next to me. Another didn’t want to sit beside any men. A third wanted to drink and as such, couldn’t sit beside any religious people (he ultimately became my neighbour after road testing 3 other seats). A fourth wanted to sit with his entire family. Flight attendants attempted to figure out who was in whose seat, since many people boarded to find another in their chair. This process of locating original seat holders was then repeated 3 times with each meal that was served, since most had requested specific meals.

2. A heated debate over old and new Ethiopia. My (semi drunken) neighbour took it upon himself to discuss with the row behind me how little the younger generations appreciated Ethiopia, and how much they idolized America and Vegas. He spent hours turned around talking into my ear (but not to me) about the changes he has seen through his time in the US, Ethiopia and Canada. While perhaps poorly timed and too loud, a fascinating conversation.

3. A midnight shoe borrower. Midway through my flight to Delhi, my 50 year old Nigerian neighbour woke me up asking where my other flip flop was. He had one on, but needed the other to get to the bathroom. He hoped I could locate it for him (since putting his slip on shoes back on seemed silly).

4. The Sound of Music as a movie choice. Enough said given that I recently attended the sing along sound of music in Toronto. The magazine also said that they will show That Thing You Do in a few weeks. I’m not sure who submitted my favourite movies to the airline, but thanks. You’re wonderful.

It’s hard to believe 2 weeks in Ethiopia with Bryce are over and I’m onto India already with Carolyn. More on our trips through the mountains, busses and kitchens soon!

the plunge

We’ll, I’ve taken ‘the plunge’. I’ve quit my job, I’ve packed up all my furniture (and oh-so-many trinkets), I’ve weeded through my clothes and am reduced to my backpack again. I feel a bit naked. I’d spent the years leading up to my own apartment dreaming up how I’d display currencies, beer labels, paintings and post cards and didn’t hold back (had I been more on top of things, perhaps Carolyn and I would be world famous DIY bloggers by now). But, I’ve packed up the waxy beer bottles and have come to terms with the idea that those are just things that all represent memories.

The bigger plunge was likely leaving Students Offering Support (SOS). The opportunity to play a leading role in developing the charitable arm for a quickly growing social venture quickly drew me back to Canada from South Africa. Over the past few years, I’ve grown alongside this organization and have learned a tremendous amount, largely from Greg – one of my best teachers. The decision to leave was one or the hardest I’ve made to date. But, I’d found over the past while that the things I was most passionate about at work were strongly developed and the areas that needed work were those that did not inspire me as much. It felt like it was as good a time as any to leave.

I had many debates with myself and other listeners over whether leaving because I wasn’t in love with my work was reasonable or justifiable. So many are seeking out NGO jobs (and jobs in general) to no avail and I held a fantastic one with autonomy, flexibility and fantastic people surrounding me. To leave that for ambiguity still sounds a bit nuts. But, the proverbial bucket list is still too long. There is so much I have not seen, smelled, tasted and heard for me to begin taking on a [insert big life commitment here]. I found it particularly challenging because so many of my close friends are doing the opposite… Backpacks are exchanged for suitcases and homes are looking more permanent. Ill probably always worry that my savings should be spent on that rather than authentic curry.

At the end of the day I decided that I was still young enough to follow adventures, challenges and passions. Ive had a lot of good work experience that I hope will translate into future jobs that push me in all ways. An old travel magazine published their last issue with the following words on the back cover:

stay hungry, stay foolish.

Re-quoted by Steve Jobs at a convocation speech, I’ve tried to take these words to heart in most of what I do. This “plunge” (potentially to be re-named the ultimate quarter life crisis) is my biggest effort yet to live in this vein.

So now, with only one more band aid to tear off (saying a temporary goodbye to my family) I’m off. Ethiopia and India have been on my bucket list ever since I tasted vindaloo and injera. My time in both places will undoubtably be too short – 2 weeks and 3 weeks respectively. But then, I’m off to Mozambique to see what kind of life I can build there. I think after a few weeks of backpacking I’ll be more than relieved to see a familiar face and set up a base, hopefully beside the ocean.

So, here goes! I’m unsure how often ill have access to Internet over the coming weeks but you can sign up to have posts emailed to you at the bottom of my blog.