Monday, November 22, 2010


Today I woke up at 5:30 at our lodge next to the active volcano Mt. Bromo in Indonesia, and realized that we have a mere 4 days remaining in this country and only 17 until we arrive in Sydney (note...I started this blog a couple of days ago and finished today, so I actually woke up in Bali today and will fly to Australia tonight...the rest still fits).  I have to apologize for my inconsistent blogging.  Initially my intention was to keep this updated at least 3 times a week, but my inability to write on the bus and limited Internet access have tempered my ambitions.  In Australia, I expect to have more consistent access and intend to post more frequent updates.  To catch up to where I am now, I’ll give a haphazard explanation of what all has transpired over the past 3 weeks.

Bangkok, Thailand:

Thailand joke:
Q: Why do all the soccer matches in Bangkok end in a draw?
A: Because this is Tie-land!

After winding down our time in Nepal, we once again boarded an Indian bus for three days of  travel to Calcutta from where we’d fly to Bangkok. Perhaps it was that I was merely happy to be back in a well developed place or perhaps it was the presence of a 7-Eleven at every corner (complete with Slurpees I might add), but either way: I loved Bangkok from the start.

As with nearly every other city we’ve visited on this tour, Awal and I searched for all available free sightseeing and entertainment options.  The first day, several of us walked around and saw the Buddhist temples and monuments scattered throughout downtown Bangkok before venturing into Chinatown.   I never would have guessed that Bangkok has a Chinatown (not really sure why…it‘s much closer to China than NYC), but it does and it’s vibrant, bustling, and possesses every item you’d ever want to buy (and plenty you’d never want).  We spent a couple of hours rummaging through the shops until we finally emerged on the other side after making only one purchase between the four of us (that being my purchase of "Sony" headphones...that thankfully are still working).

The next day, we hit the jackpot. Turns out, the city of Bangkok offers free bikes for rent to anyone who shows their passport.  For the next two days, we took full advantage of this offer, riding everywhere around town.  Being one who grew up in East Tennessee suburbia, I have plenty of experience bike riding on nice hilly roads, but not so much on crowded city streets.  I was amazed by the courtesy shown by Thai drivers.  Perhaps it's that there is much more of a biking culture in Bangkok, but riding a bike through Bangkok was neither harrowing or nerve-racking.  Free use of the bikes allowed us to explore all nearly all of downtown and even out to Bangkok's 8 story mall.

For much of the trip, a handful of us have talked about finding a night to go out for karaoke.  As my Fort Myers friends know (perhaps all too well), I'm a big fan of karaoke, and not in the least afraid to make a fool of myself singing a ridiculous song (Tiny Dancer with a 6'3 interpretive dancer in the background, I Want it that Way, etc.), so I was anxious for us to find a place to display our "talents."  After a good bit of work searching for a place, I found one within walking distance.  Our group of seven arrived, sat down and realized that this happened to be an "alternative" karaoke bar.  Since we were already there, we sang a song or two and then made our gracious exit (I'd like to say this is the first time I've made this mistake, but my friends Ryan, Misty, Bri and I did the same thing last year in Peoria, IL...perhaps I should ease off on my love of karaoke).

I found that one of Bangkok's perks is its street food.  On every corner, you can find pad thai, chicken on a skewer, grilled pork ribs, roast duck, or fried rice...all for cheap too.  Some people are wary of street food, and they probably should be as you never know if the food you're eating is clean.  I'm blessed to have an iron stomach, so I can practice adventure eating without having to experience anything adventurous  in the bathroom (I actually have a bet riding on whether or not I get sick to my stomach at all during the trip...tomorrow I'll go to Australia and I'm still good).

From Bangkok, we traveled to the island of Koh Samui for a several days in the sun and sand.  When we arrived there, the sand was most certainly present.  The sun, however, failed to show up.  Unfortunately, our visit to the island coincided with monsoon season in Thailand, and we were met with unyielding rain for all three days.   After a few days of not being able to swim or do anything at the beach, Awal and I went out anyway during the monsoon.  Debris of all sort had washed up onto the much so you could barely walk.  So in the monsoon, in the middle of debris, trash, wood, rocks, etc. we played bocce ball with coconuts for an hour. In the midst of our game, we spotted what looked like an abandoned beachside bar.  We waded through the newly formed river flowing from the town to the ocean and climbed over rocks to the bar where we found pretty much nothing but empty chairs and a dartboard. After a few rounds of darts, we realized that this place had been abandoned for no more than a week and decided it best for us to leave. So we went and played more bocce

From Koh Samui we had nearly a week of nothing but 12 hour bus days through Malaysia and into Indonesia.  Like Mom always said, "If you don't have anything nice to say, just keep your mouth shut." So I will.

Our next destination of note was Mt. Bromo, home of an active volcano.  Unlike the rest of Indonesia which possesses humidity and oppressive heat reminiscent of Ft Myers, Mt. Bromo was chilly, and had us busting out long sleeved shirts.  We only had one full day here, so we made the most of it.  At 9AM, Awal and I took off with 8 others to climb up to the mouth of Mt Bromo where we could stare down its mouth.  Amazing.  Sitting on a ledge and staring down at a massive hole in the ground spewing with ash and sulfur was truly surreal.  As cool as it was to climb to the top of a volcano, there's really wasn't much to do from the top but just sit there, throw rocks (a totally underrated past time), and mill around.  So after thirty minutes or so, we left to embark on an ambitious climb of a nearby mountain.  Armed with only a vague map, we walked to the base of the mountain, found a road which led to a trail which led us up to the 2500m summit (though on part of it we had to do more of a climb than hike...the trail ended up getting a bit hairy).  Being on top of a mountain is frequently used metaphorically, but I have to say, few things give you the sense of accomplishment and gratitude that you get when literally standing on top of a mountain you just climbed.  Awal and I sat at the top patting ourselves on the back for a while, ate some snacks, and took a nap in the grass for an hour or so before heading back down.

Sorry this post is a sloppy stream of consciousness, but I had to catch up.  Tomorrow, I'll be in Australia where I'll be posting pictures to document the experiences detailed in this post.  I'm still shocked that this whirlwind adventure is nearing its end.  Though I'll certainly be glad to be home, I'll no doubt miss the entire experience...friends, adventure, the feeling of having no idea what today will bring, the newness of everything.  Pretty much everything except my cramped, hot seat on the bus.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More Nepal

From Chitwan we traveled to the popular tourist destination of Pokhara in central Nepal.  Pokhara's landscape is breathtaking as it sits aside a modest lake at the foot of snowcapped mountains in the Annapurna range (with nearby peaks approaching 7500m).  Unfortunately, due to cloud cover, we didn't see the largest peaks until our last day in town. Speaking of cloud cover, the morning fog here hangs amazingly low.  Awal and I kept our patio door open in our 2nd floor hotel room, and I awoke one morning to find a cloud creeping into the room. I didn't tell it to leave.

On our first full day in Pokhara, Awal and I decided to attempt walking around the lake.  Unlike most lakes in the states, this one didn't have clear boundaries.  In the distance, the deep water faded into rice fields before approaching the foot of a mountain. Either way, from our vantage point, it didn't look like much of a walk.  We set off for the far side of the lake, and after 2 miles or so, we made a friend.  A big black and brown dog with the markings of a Rottewieler, the hair and body of Golden Retriever, and the tail of a Chow ambled up beside us and followed as we walked.  At first, we thought he was just passing by and saying hi to some strangers, but he quickly showed that he was in it for the long haul. We stopped at a local shop to grab some water and he sat down at my feet, waiting for us to finish and continue.  Since we knew at this point he was our dog, Awal and I decided he needed a name.  After mulling over a few options, we settled on "Buster."  Accompanied by our new friend, we continued our journey around the lake which provided to be a bit longer than we anticipated.  Two hours into our walk we found ourselves in the middle of a rice field with no trail in sight. With no other options, we had to turn around and head back in the same direction.  As we were getting nearer to town, Awal and I started discussing our coming departure from Buster. He kept saying things like "I sure am getting attached to Buster...I don't want to make him leave." As for me, I had a cheesy Disney movie type scene in my mind where Buster is sitting at the steps of our hotel whimpering while I'm yelling " have to go home...don't make this harder than it is! Go Buster...GO!"  Mercifully, Buster made it easy on us.  Suddenly, he darted up a hill (presumably his home) never to be seen by us again.  I'd like to think he misses us...

That night, we were pretty wiped out from the 4 hour walk (my hiking shoes were still soaked from our jungle hike 2 days before, so I made the walk that day in my flip-flops...a rough day for my feet), but still had the energy to head to a "Jazz Club" right down the road.  A large group of us from the trip went in and we expected live music to start at some point. I asked the bartender and he told me that there wasn't any live music, but if I wanted I could pick up the guitar on stage.  Initially, I jumped up to play a song with vocal help from my friends Becky and Laura.  Unfortunately, we received further "help" when a drummer and flute player suddenly appeared on stage.  I suppose this could have turned out well, but considering the drummer kept a beat as well as an 8 year old on a Pixie Stix binge and the "flute" player kept trying to steal my mic for his own frantic solo when I was singing the chorus, our noise bore a closer musical resemblance to a group of laughing hyenas getting hit by a truck full of tambourines than it did to "I'm Yours."  I stepped down and gave the stage to Awal and a few other guitar players in the crowd, and after a while the backup musicians stepped down and the quality of music took a dramatic turn for the better.  After 2 hours or so, the bartender told us he had to turn off the sound system but we could continue playing if we wanted.  By that time, Awal and several of the other musicians left, so I was about the only guy left in the place who knew a few chords.  We met a group of people on vacation from Israel, who had an insatiable appetite for music.  They kept saying "Play anything...just play,"  so I listened and played about every popular song I could remember.  Nothing like a late night singalong with Israelis in a Nepali club...

After our time in Pokhara, we drove to the capital city of Kathmandu where we stayed for 3 days.  This drive included a climb over and down a rather large mountain...a drive that's not for the faint of heart.  These roads are barely wide enough for trucks to pass and have no guardrail.  So if you're headed up or down and cross paths with a vehicle of similar size, it can make for a harrowing experience. I'm pretty well oblivious to that sort of danger, so I loved the ride!

Kathmandu is an interesting place. Like Pokhara, it serves as a base for many trekkers, only it's also the capital city of Nepal.  We stayed in a touristy location full of shops, bars, restaurants and Internet cafes.  For some reason, much of this place reminded me of a less developed bohemian Gatlinburg

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chitwan, Nepal

Since Nepal is known for its elephants, we decided to go that route with jokes:

Q: How do you kill a blue elephant?
A: With a blue elephant gun.
Q: How do you kill a yellow elephant?
A: Hold his nose til he turns blue then shoot him with a blue elephant gun.
Q: How do you kill an orange elephant?
A: With an orange elephant gun of course!

This joke loses much of its luster when written, but when spoken it’s certainly good for a pity laugh.

Before I left, friends and family frequently asked me “Where are you most looking forward to going?” Each time, my answer was the same: Nepal.  Being one who has an affinity for mountains, Nepal appealed to me from the moment I first looked at our itinerary.  We rolled in from India and were greeted by a more relaxed and calm atmosphere than we had experienced for the past few weeks.  Nepal looked promising..

Our first stop was Chitwan, home of Nepal’s most frequently visited national park.  Throughout the entire trip, we’ve had options for a variety of excursions and planned outings, and on most of these occasions Awal and I have passed up on these options in favor of wandering around town.  To do this in Chitwan, we would have had to blindly stroll into the wilderness with rhinos and who knows what else, so for once we actually splurged for the $120 package that included all meals and several excursions.  Thankfully, it ended up being worth the investment.  On our first full day, we had a sunrise boat ride down the river to our departure point for a jungle walk.  Our well trained guide pointed out a variety of birds and otherwise hard to spot wildlife as we leisurely floated down the river.  We came to a gradual stop and I heard grumblings from the back of the boat about a potential crocodile.  Sure enough, our guide dipped his paddle into the water and with a violent splash, a medium sized croc emerged thrashing and snapping.  Screams and minor freakouts ensued from our group but we proceeded unscathed.

We arrived at our spot on the riverbank and split into a few groups for our jungle walk.  About this time, the slight drizzle that had accompanied us all morning turned into a moderate downpour.  Shortly after we got off the boat and began to walk through the jungle, we were all drenched from head to toe.  I’ve been on a few game drives before, but they’ve all been in Kenya where you’re prohibited from exiting the vehicle.  Here, we’re on foot, so that level of feeling immune to your surroundings  is gone.  Trudging around in the pouring rain was a blast.  Whenever it rains, seems like I’m always trying to avoid getting entirely wet, so whenever it’s appropriate to embrace the rain and get soaked, I feel a bit of childlike freedom.  After only 30 minutes or so of walking, our guide stopped us and pointed straight ahead toward two rhinos slowly grazing 90 feet away.  Initially, these guys didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, but after a few minutes they huffed and puffed and briefly headed our direction.  Our guide hurried us behind a tree in case they charged, but they moseyed on their own way. (I’m not so sure the tree would have done much to help us, but I heard years ago that if a rhino charges, you stand your ground until it’s about 15 feet away and then dive out of the way.  To pull that off you’d have to remain calm and have some major stones.  Not to say that I could do that move for sure, but I had convinced myself that it would work)  We wandered around the jungle for two hours or so and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery, rain, and mud.  One not so lovable part…each of us kept having leaches attach themselves to me.  For some reason, Nepali leaches love me.  At one point I pulled eight of them off my leg, one of which had buried both sides into my calf.  Leaches sound bad, but they’re actually not painful, they just steal your blood…jerks (our guide had a fantastic quote “If leach bites you, no problem, you can also bite leach”).

We ended our jungle walk by walking through a river (not so deep, just above my knees) which happened to have 2 more rhinos about 50 feet away from us. They were busy hanging out in the water and paid us no mind.  After coming out of the water, we took a short jeep ride back to the lodge where we were told that in a few minutes the elephant bath was starting.  Not knowing exactly what we were getting into, several of us walked to another part of the river (each of us still soaked by the way) where our guides were with two elephants, playing in the water. (these were trained elephants mind you)  Each of us then took turns sitting or standing on the elephant's back as she threw water over her head and drenched us.  I'm not really sure why I expected any different, but elephant can fit a whole lotta water in its trunk!  We swam and played with the elephants for a good 30 minutes until it was time for the elephants to leave (though I'm not sure where they went...home maybe?

After a morning of encounters with rhinos, a crocodile, elephants, and leaches I took a long nap, ate some good food and played guitar to wind down the night.  All in all...Chitwan was fantastic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Incredible India!

Eighteen days in India.  Maybe it’s that we did so much while we were there and maybe it’s because we passed the halfway point during our stay but either way it feels like we were there for much longer.  When our journey was last updated, we were in Jaipur where we spent a few days checking out forts and monuments.  From Jaipur, we moved north to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal.  Before I continue, I should describe our experiences on the Indian roads.  First of all, we had left our plush Mercedes bus back at the Iran border and now rode in a significantly smaller Tata (India’s largest automaker) bus that looked to be as old as me.  The suspension absorbed the constant potholes and uneven road as well as a wheelbarrow, occasionally sending the backseat passengers airborne. Constant jarring and shaking from the road made it difficult for even me to sleep as we moved, so time, like progress was slow.  Indian roads are a site to behold.  In the cities, the streets are a rushing tide of cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks (small 3 wheel vehicles powered by lawn mower engines that serve as mini taxis) bicycles, buses, donkey carts, wayward cows, and pedestrians.  If you’re passing through a rural area, the roads are still a bit crowded, just with more cows and random livestock and fewer cars.  The chaos of the road is bad enough on its own, but the cacophony of horns is nearly unbearable.  In the states and much of Europe, using the horn is for either emergency purposes or to express outrage at another driver’s carelessness…not the case in India.  Using the horn is a courtesy in here, to make other drivers aware of your presence.  The majority of trucks even have “horn please” written across their tailgates.  After a day or so of observing, I was able to see why horns are a necessity rather than a courtesy here.  The reason: buses and trucks pass at even the slightest opportunity.  If you’re the type of person who’s prone to be on edge while riding in a car, or if you’re a backseat driver I recommend that you stay out of India altogether. A wreck won’t kill you, a heart attack will.  After about 10 near misses, I decided that the driver must know what he was doing and I’d just ignore our proximity to oncoming trucks. (At some point I heard the rumor that the prevailing attitude of Indians-perhaps Indian drivers is that of “when it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die.”  I might be crazy, but it seems to me that this attitude is reflected in the Indian driving culture, and though I believe in that to an extent, I also believe that our own actions can bring us to an untimely end.  So maybe this is an area where enculturation might not be the best idea.)  These driving conditions certainly took their toll on the group, so each time we rolled into a new city each of us were exhausted by the drive.

So Agra…

I’d say that between 99.9 and 102 percent of visitors go to Agra merely for the Taj Mahal, and I’m in that vast majority.  World famous monuments tend to be a letdown.  You see pictures and hear words like “breathtaking” and “picturesque”  and when you arrive your breath remains firmly in your lungs and the only pictures you’ve taken are obligatory.  Not the case with the Taj Mahal.  From the moment it entered my line of sight in the distance until I was standing at its threshold, I was amazed by the Taj Mahal’s regal beauty.  Throughout the day, I heard a variety of historical facts and interesting bits of technical data regarding the Taj’s construction (we‘re on a first name basis btw), but I lost most of them in the building’s sheer mass and beauty.  Even though the Taj itself lived up to its billing, it could have been even more grand if the surrounding area had been in better shape.  The lawn had a variety of man made streams and fountains that lay dormant, the approaching roads were covered with litter, and the adjacent river a murky shade of gray.  Unfortunately, this is more of a reflection of India as a whole as opposed to Agra or the Taj Mahal specifically.  Other than going to the Taj Mahal and Red Fort, we did little in Agra before we moved on to Dheli.

As we arrived in Dheli, my friend Laura looked in my direction and said dryly “It shouldn’t be ok to be able to stare at the sun should it?”  Sadly, Dheli is about the most polluted place I’ve ever been, and sure enough in midday, one can stare at the sun without consequence. Like a rainy day,  Dheli’s layer of smog gives the appearance of perpetual gray clouds, only no one is getting wet.   Even though the conditions outside made me want to acquire a vaporizer, stay inside and purify my lungs all day, Awal and I decided that we’d venture out catch what we could of the Commonwealth Games.  To do this, normal people would consult a schedule of events and hire a taxi to get to the arena.  Awal and I aren’t normal, we asked which general direction we’d travel to get to town and blindly walked off to find downtown Dhelituk-tuk to take us to the stadium.  Unfortunately, we arrived 5 hours before the track and field events started, and had no desire to pay $30 to see weightlifting, so we purchased track and field tickets for the bargain price of $5 and killed a few hours until the events started (In an attempt to discover more of the city in our free time, we managed to accidentally go right back to our hotel, prompting much head shaking, grumbling, and lamenting from each of us).  Despite an illogical access route to the stadium and overly cautious  security (you couldn’t take batteries in, thus rendering cameras useless.  So we have no pictures to prove that we actually went) we had a great time at the track and field events.  I enjoyed watching the crowd cheering on their home country, and celebrating their competitors even after a poor finish.  Though I cheered along with the Indians, I also found myself openly cheering for Kenya and the other Eastern African nations. (As much as this trip has proved to me that I’m thoroughly American, it’s also shown to me that Kenya is most certainly my second home).  The event was a great time…certainly worth our $5.

I’m left with mixed feelings about India.  I enjoyed the people…they’re friendly, helpful and inquisitive, but the overwhelming pollution and general chaos is tough on a daily basis.  My time in India wasn’t spent without gaining a new perspective, however.  I came face to face with urban poverty that I’ve never previously seen outside of Port-au-Price.  Urban poverty, to me, seems very different from the rural variety.  In an urban setting, those in need are surrounded with buildings, cars, nice clothes, good food, and tourists that all serve as perpetual reminders of what the poor do not have.  With rural poverty tends to come a simple life, estranged from conveniences and consistent reminders of wealth.  (I must say that I don’t see one as more or less difficult than another…just different…I still have thoughts to unpack, you’re just getting a stream of consciousness here) In a city, those reminders are unavoidable, so a sense of hopelessness lingers.  If you have no place to sleep in the bush, you can at least lie your blanket in the dirt or on the grass.  In an urban setting, you might have to settle for a makeshift mattress on a pile of garbage, as I saw a family of 4 do in Varanasi, India.

When I first set out on this journey two months ago, I had hoped that I would have a clearer picture of what I wanted to do next in life…vocationally speaking.  By September, I had so tired of the $700/mo life that I was thinking about just finding whatever job could pay me the most so that I could live more comfortably.  Now I realize that I have to do something to pay the bills, but I felt myself thinking about my own financial well being instead of serving the poor, the broken, and the hopeless.  All that to say that I’ve felt like a bit of a hypocrite…living the wealthy life of an international tourist while internally I’m wrecked by what I see.  Seven hundred dollars a month…that’s a fortune to most of the world.

So no, I don’t have any clear solutions to what is next for me, but I do know that I’m a little bit closer.  Whatever it is that I do vocationally, it cannot be for me.  I have a passion to serve those in need and if I neglect that passion, I’ll be restlessly pursuing greater vanity.

Farewell, India…you’ve taught me much.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Iran Q&A

My British friend Chris and I in Isfahan

If I ever get to the point in life where I have an online mailbag, I’ll be elated.  For years I’ve read sports columns in this format...while envying the writers question by question.  So for my blog about Iran I’m getting to give the mailbag a shot...I hope you enjoy! (if anyone wants to send me emails about my sports opinions I could make that a mailbag too. What’s that? Nobody interested in that? Crickets...crickets....
Ok for real...
What was the most endearing aspect of Iranian culture? - Jordan and Lee Anne Johnson (Narok, Kenya)

Perhaps it's simplistic, but to me it still comes down to the people.  Nearly everyone we met took a genuine interest in us and warmly welcomed us to their country.  Those I met were keenly aware of their country's less than stellar global reputation, so it was important for them to show Iran as a friendly, welcoming place.  Just like any other country, the citizens don't necessarily agree with their government's decisions and policies, thus they're eager to help change that perception.  Regardless of their motivation, I saw Iranians as people who warmly welcome visitors...which is pretty endearing to a visitor.

As you already stated, the people are generally very nice compared to the "general consensus" or the politics of any country. Did you find that to be true, and who was the one person or personality that you met in Iran that really sticks out? Also, what was the one God thing that happened in Iran, because it seems that you got a Visa for a reason. -Scott Tageson

The average American doesn't have the most favorable view of Iran, and much of that is due to their political situation.  I as partially answered in Jordan's question; I did find the locals to be very kind and nonjudgmental.  One person who stands out to me is a man by the name of Amin, a man around my age, who I met in Isfahan.  He walked up to me and politely asked if I would have a conversation with him.  We talked for fifteen minutes or so about our countries, our jobs, our opinions, and our families.  At one point he asked me what I thought of the Iranian people and he seemed genuinely surprised that an American man spoke kindly of Iranian citizens.  Later he said, "You don't think that all of us are terrorists?"  "Of course not" I replied. He asserted (as did a variety of others that I met throughout my time there) that the negative opinions of Iran are the fault of American propaganda.  I assured him that the vast majority of Americans don't consider all Iranians to be terrorists and told him that it's a shame extremists can end up defining their home countries.  After we finished talking, he asked for a picture with his camera phone so that he could tell his friends that he met an American.  With a smile he departed and said "please greet your family and friends back home...pleasure to meet you." 
I would have liked more time to talk with Amin so that I could ask his opinions on his own government.  Even so, he was very engaging, kind, and intelligent, and I'll choose to remember Iran by Amin and people like him instead of their government.    

Did you have tea with anyone? If so, I'd like that story. -Michelle Arnold (Nashville, TN)
I actually didn't have tea with anyone, though I was invited.  On our last morning in Tehran, I stood on the elevator with a man and who told me he was in Tehran to take his wife to the hospital and we had the following conversation:
Iranian man: I came from far to take my wife to the hospital...she is a little unwell but should be ok.
Me:  Well I hope she gets well soon and is seen quickly today
IM: Yes, yes, thank you.  Do you have a wife?
M: No, I sure don't
IM: haha...oh, you see for me two wives, three problem!
M: (chuckles) yea, that would definitely be a problem for me
IM: Please...for tea?
So I did successfully get an invitation for tea, but I had to turn my new friend down because we were leaving for the city of Isfahan a few minutes later.
Another interesting elevator story...
In the same elevator several days later (we returned to Tehran to fly out), a man asked my friend Bev and I where we were from as we entered the elevator.  I've been a bit reluctant to divulge my nationality considering the tension between the US and Iran so I replied "Our group is from England." (I thought that was a clever response since I avoided the question without lying)  He said "I am from Iraq, why did you come destroy everything? Tony Blair destroyed everything!" I didn't really know how to respond to that and since he had a smile on his face I knew that he had no ill intentions toward me so I just said "If it were up to me, that wouldn't be."

How does Iran compare to the rest of Africa? –Adam Griffith (Ft. Myers, FL)
Sunset in the Iranian countryside
Funny question, Adam (he's joking about Iran being in Africa fyi).  My African experiences are isolated to Kenya and Uganda, and those countries are vastly different from Iran. For one, Iran is certainly more developed than eastern Africa.  The infrastructure is fairly good and modern convinces are readily available.  Kenyan roads are comically bad (but getting better...that new road from Nairobi to Narok is glorious!), whereas in Iran we enjoyed miles and miles of well paved interstate.  Perhaps the only way that Iran reminded me of Africa was in the scenery.  Like parts of Kenya, desert with sparse vegetation extend to brown mountains on the horizon.  This makes for beautiful sunrises and sunsets but little else. 
                Culturally, however, Iran and eastern Africa (and pretty much everywhere else I've been) are completely different.  In Iran, everything operates within the confines of the restraint of the Islamic government. Media is closely controlled; every newspaper and TV broadcast (at least all I saw) extols the government for its competence, lauds the national military strength, and portrays the west (specifically the USA) as arrogant aggressors intent on keeping Iran from prospering.  The most obvious way to see Islamic law is within the dress of the women.  At all times while in public, ladies must keep their heads, legs, and arms covered.  In Kenya and in maybe other parts of the world there's certainly a cultural dress code that should be observed, but this one felt different.  I think part of it is because there's a lack of color...everything is black, brown, or (if you're really getting flashy) dark blue.  In Eastern Africa you often see women in vibrant colors, and that's not the case in Iran. 

Hmmm, questions... here we go. On the whole how would you describe the demeanor of the people you encountered? Was there a consistent military presence? Did you ever feel/were you ever followed? Love you buddy be awesome. –Mike Sheagren (Ft. Myers, FL)                           
Demeanor of the people:  Overall, I'd say people are friendly and helpful in Iran. With the few exceptions of people being sullen and grumpy (like anywhere else), the Iranian people are wonderful.  Smiles are universal and I saw a lot in Iran.
Military: I actually didn't see much of a military presence.  Aside from a few bases and the like that we passed, I didn't see anything.  I did expect to see guards and men with guns everywhere but that was not the case. 
Were we followed:  When we got to our tour bus, I thought it was strange that we had 2 drivers plus one tour guide.  We were told that we had a backup driver for when our regular driver was tired. Our backup driver never touched the wheel and was as always careful to do a headcount each time we loaded up in the van.  He never said much and constantly kept a watchful eye on everyone.  He didn't speak a word of English but seemed like a nice, helpful guy. His presence may have been merely for security purposes, but regardless, we were monitored.                              

OzBus friends in Isfahan

Alright, that's it for the Iran mailbag...if you're interested in knowing more about my time in Iran, feel free to ask more questions. Also, if I have posted a ton of new pictures on Facebook...check em out here. I'll be posting about Nepal and the rest of my time in India in the next few days.  Thanks again for reading/supporting...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More India and turning 27

After leaving Armristar, we made a stop at a small town on the way to Jaipour.  We didn’t know anything about this location and didn’t have much time to discover it, so six of us left the hotel just to explore.  We made it about 200 yards off the premasis when a man my around age approached and started talking.  Unfortunately, I’ve become suspicious in India because conversations often start as friendly and enjoyable and quickly turn to a sales pitch or a not so subtle ask for money. However, my friend here seemed much more interested in discussing Richard Gere, the US, and the various downtown London department stores than trying to sell me postcards.  After walking for a while he asked where we were going, and I told him we were just exploring-looking for a park, palace, or temple.  He then told me the location of a local temple and volunteered to show us the way and give a tour…what a great guy!  Along the way, we passed a veterinary university where our friend was enrolled.  He explained his studies and the activities that take place on campus and that one of the main forms of recreation is basketball. My eyes lit up on hearing that, and I told him how much I love to play.  “You want to play? Come now,” he said.  Sure enough, the school had a fabulous outdoor full court where a dozen or so guys were playing, so we walked up and asked to join in.

After Awal and I each took a few practice shots (both firing up glorious airballs on our first attempts), the guy who seemed to be the ring leader asked us to play 2 on 2.  Of course we did. (Asking me if I want to play basketball has always been about like asking Dwight Schrute if he’d like a little more authority…the answer is always yes, even if I don’t know what I’m doing).

The two best players jumped out to play us and the rest formed a small crowd along the baseline. Initially, it looked bleak for the Americans.  Before we could shake off the rust we found ourselves down 4-0 (playing to 11 by ones and twos) when I decided I’d be better off playing barefoot instead of playing with flip-flops.  The change seemed to help and we brought it to 8-4 when our tour guide came over to tell us it was time to go to the temple.  Our basketball buddy told our guide “Please do not disturb us as we are having great fun,” so our group headed on to the temple and we stayed to finish up. (pretty nice way for our buddy to tell the others to go away)  We weren’t about to go down quietly, so Awal went back to his roots and started playing fundamental Indiana basketball (sharp passes, solid defense, strong rebounding, quick cuts), I found my quick-fatboy low-post game (jump hooks, head fakes, put backs, spin moves), and we pulled out an 11-10 comeback victory.  Go us.

We high fived a few people and briefly talked the guys there when our opponent offered to give us a ride back to the hotel.  Three sweaty (and not so small) guys hopped on his little Honda motorbike and rode the mile or so back to our hotel.  What a kind and generous gesture from our new friend.

Awal and I got to play pickup ball and the rest of our group received a free tour of the local temple, all thanks to the generosity and hospitality of the Indian people.  I’m learning that many citizens here treat foreigners as their own personal guest; it’s quite an honor to be their guest.

Jaipour, India

Jaipour, I learned, is one of the most visited cities in the country for its forts and other historic monuments.  The city itself is the first place in India where the crowd and poverty truly struck me.  Jaipour is a fairly compact town, so I was shocked to find out that the population is over 3 million (about half the population of the entire state of Tennessee).  The vast amount of people in a small space is perpetually evident.  Each street is bustling with cars, buses, rickshaws, livestock, dogs, pedestrians, salesmen, and children.  Even the side streets are packed.  We rolled into Jaipour in the late evening on the 5th so all there was to do was find dinner and go to bed.  Awal and I weren’t too crazy about the idea of hotel food so we decided to go for a walk until we found food. Our friend Frankie came along with us, so she ended up being dragged into a guys night out.  After stumbling into some rougher parts of town, we backtracked to a main road when I spotted a familiar sign: Pizza Hut.  Since it would be my 27th birthday in a few hours, what better place to be than in a Pizza Hut? (Anyone else remember the Pizza Hut Kids Club? You’d get a free personal pizza on your birthday and a lame Land Before Time toy or something like that…I much preferred the crappy basketballs they gave out every March)  We all enjoyed a western treat and headed back to the hotel to hang out on the roof. (By the way, considering my affinity for the night sky and cool breezes, I love rooftops…especially if I have a cold drink and a guitar)  We sat around telling stories, playing guitar, and singing along for around an hour.  Suddenly, I noticed a solitary firework explode in the distance.  I looked at my watch and there it was: 12:00 midnight…my 27th birthday.  In celebration, Awal ran around and danced a ridiculous jig while saying “happy birthday” over and over.  We then decided that it would be a good idea to jump off a nearby 2 foot ledge and take a take a picture in the process (if done correctly, it would look like we were jumping off the side of the building).  Initially, Awal and I jumped while Frankie tried to get the picture.  Our first few takes didn’t turn out so well, so Awal and Frankie switched.  We took another jump, and though I landed just fine, Frankie did not.  Instead of landing nicely on her foot, she landed on its side, severely spraining her ankle in the process.  Being the fine young men we are, Awal and I took good care of her and since each of us had dealt with severe sprains before, we knew what to do.  I’ll never forget that I spent the first few minutes of my 28th year searching for ice in Jaipour at 12:15AM…not so easy. (side note, she is recovering nicely)

The next day, we had a full day of sightseeing scheduled.  We explored a palace which possessed an encircling 9km wall as well as a few other monuments.  I know there were plenty of nuggets of cultural significance throughout the day, but I can’t say that I remember any.  Though I enjoyed it all, nothing really stood out to me.  Most likely the reason for that is that I spent much of the day lost in my own personal reflection.  For me, every birthday is a reference point for where I am in life, so I thought about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.  A large part of the reason I’m on this trip is that I wanted to take time just to think and write.  So on the 6th, I did a lot of thinking to myself.  No talking, just sorting out changes, chaos, excitement, and tragedy of the past two years.  As this grand journey continues, I hope to continue to make time to think, write, and listen.

I still have some catching up to do for India (we went to the Taj Mahal and caught one night of the Commenweath Games in Dehli) but I’m most excited to talk about Nepal.  My next few updates should be more interesting…full of rhinos, elephants, water, adventure, and my answers to questions about Iran.  As always, thanks for reading

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Amristar, India

Amritsar, India

After our semi-stifling week in Iran, I anticipated India being a refreshing change…it was.

When we arrived at the Tehran airport, I expected a bit of an ordeal going through customs and immigration.  As I learned from my border entry experience, the guards don’t see many US passports come through and considering all the “random” screenings given to middle eastern people in an American airport, reciprocity seemed certain.  However, I received a nonchalant passport stamp and passed through the second most lax airport security system I have ever seen without a single interruption. (The most lax I’ve ever seen was in Liberia, Costa Rica where I threw my bags on a cart that passed through something that resembled a drive through window more than an x-ray machine and walked through a metal detector that was supported on 3 sides by cinderblocks) 

We flew directly from Tehran to Amritsar, India, a small but significant town near the India-Pakistan border.  Our first afternoon we drove out to the border where every day the two nations engage in an elaborate ceremony.  Soldiers from each country assemble outside the government building within their respective national boundaries and demonstrate their marching techniques to an energetic crowd of roughly 3,000 people.  We sat on the Indian side and it was difficult to see what was going on behind the Pakistan border, but it seemed like each group of soldiers were doing the same sort of marches.  The ceremony culminates with each side opening the gate to their country and soldiers lowering the flags of their respective countries while saluting one another.  Perhaps the most entertaining part of it all is before the actual ceremony begins.  Loud, upbeat music plays as women take turns running the Indian flag up and down the street and then joyously dance together (men aren‘t allowed to run the flag…after seeing some teenage boys down there getting in line to run I thought I‘d give it a shot…nope…”Gents not allowed“).  After spending a week in Iran where at best women have to live in cultural restraint and at worst are an afterthought, seeing women honored and appreciated here was refreshing. The pageantry is fun, but the atmosphere is what makes the border ceremony so enjoyable.  If you’re not dancing, chanting, clapping, waiving a flag, or cheering, you’re at least smiling.  Maybe I was just enjoying the moment, but I felt a sense of great  national pride all around me without an ounce of nationalism.

After the border ceremony, we made our way to the Harmandir Sahib, or Sikh Golden Temple.  By the time we arrived, night had fallen and the temple was beautifully illuminated.  I didn’t know a thing about Sikhism, but I learned much by the atmosphere of the temple and the attitudes of the people.  An enormous marble entryway (one of four to signify openness to visitors) led us into the temple where a golden structure sits in the middle of a football field sized lake.  Though not crowded, the temple was most certainly full when we entered.  In every direction people prayed, meditated, slept, sang, and bathed.  The temple is open 24 hours to anyone, and they even feed thousands a day…all for free.  While walking around and taking it all in, my friend and fellow Oz-Bus tripper Frankie asked me “I know this isn’t your religion, but do you feel close to your God in here?”  To which I replied “Ten times out of ten I feel closer to God in nature…at the mountains or the beach.  Structures don’t do much for me.  However, I cannot help but appreciate these people who believe in something bigger than themselves and warmly welcome all comers.  They even feed them and give shelter if it’s needed.  I definitely feel God in that.”

My feeling of welcome was soon confirmed.  On a peninsula in the center of the lake stands the part of the temple that gives the namesake. Awal and I wanted to check it out, so we proceeded up the walkway to the golden building and ran into a long line.  At this point, we decided to turn back and pass on going inside the main part of the temple.  First of all, we weren’t sure if it would be disrespectful for us to enter, and second we thought the line would take a long while.  Seeing that we had turned around and started back the other direction, an older man in traditional Sikh dress gently snagged my t-shirt as I was passing by. “Why are you turning back?” he asked.  I replied that the line was long and I wanted to remain respectful.  With kindness and sincerity in his eyes he said “Please…please come inside.  The wait is not long, and you are most welcome here…please.”  This man knew good and well that I’m not Sikh, but he not only welcomed me, he urged me to go inside.  I smiled, thanked him and Awal and I turned back to enter. 

The entrance was packed, so we walked through in a semi-hurried crammed mess, but a respectful semi-hurried crammed mess nonetheless.  We passed through so quickly, that I struggle to remember may details aside from the fact that everything is ornate and either gold or red and in the very center, the Sikh holy scriptures sit with dozens of men and women sitting in worship.  Mostly I admired the devotion of these people and understood that likely someone near me was making their once in a lifetime trip to this holy place…a landmark life moment they’d never forget.  As we exited, two lines formed where people receive free food from one of the Gurus.  Initially, Awal and I walked past, again fearing we’d be disrespecting.  One of the Gurus made eye contact with me as we skipped around the line and to the exit…he smiled and motioned with his hand for us to get in line…so we did.  I approached his station (sort of a massive wok with a mound of mysterious brown mush) cupped my hands and received, from my new friend’s bare hands, my portion.  I’m still not entirely sure what it was I ate…something like cornmeal with brown sugar…but the makeup and taste of the food isn’t important…the act of giving and providing, however, is.  Departing from the temple that night I realized that like the people making their once in a lifetime pilgrimage, I too had an experience that I’d never forget.

More updates soon to come, including answers for the Iran questions.  My apologies for my lack of updates and pictures. I've not been able to update pictures because the connections have been painfully slow.  I hope to have good internet soon...but who knows?

Thanks so much for reading