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Published: January 24th 2015
As I type this I am sitting in a fancy hotel in Kuwait Airport, provided free by Kuwait Airways because they had to reschedule our flight. I would have been happy with Travelodge quality but Safir Airport Hotel is at least twice as good as the average Travelodge, and the food I've had so far is as good as a £10 a dish restaurant.
This is in total stark contrast to how E and I have spent the past couple of weeks: ranging from ridiculously ill in a traditional Nepalese mud-and-brick house with infrequent electricity and no running water; to a basic but comfortable guest house in Pokhara; one night in a backstreet B&B in Kathmandu; and the past two nights in a middle class flat in New Delhi where we drank, smoked, ate, and watched an incredible water fountain display with host Maan and two other, Polish courchsurfers. The diversity of our experiences has been pretty incredible in the last 14 days alone.
The first leg of our journey has ended. India and Nepal: good bye, you've been cruel and kind. In the seven weeks (it feels like so much more) since we left, I already feel a different person to the muggins that left at the start of December. By far the biggest difference is that I have begun experiencing the limits of what I can handle, an experience that I now realise I'd never gone through in Norwich/the UK. Most frequently this has been the horizon of what I can take physically. Eight days and nights of cold during the Vipassana retreat; a week and a half of dirrhea and vomiting to the point it took a very visible toll on my body; the ongoing barrage of noise, smells, congestion, and hassle throughout India; arguing with or attempting to co-operate with taxi and auto drivers that don't speak English and have taken us to the exact wrong side of town; and of course dragging myself up 350 steps toward the Monkey Temple when there was nothing in my body except sewage. These have pushed against boundaries I didn't know I had because Norwich is a comfortable and familiar city that I am, by and large, able to navigate with great ease.
I have come to realise that I am not as versatile as I thought I was. Because my life in the UK had never approached any of these limits I guess I fell into the trap of believing myself to be incredibly versatile and possibly even without limits. The chaos, the sickness, the cold has been humbling in teaching me about myself. It has also been humbling in allowing me to see the often extremely bad conditions people elsewhere in the world have to live, not to mention the horrendous treatment of street dogs in India. The dogs of Varanassi (this will be the name of my folk punk band) are the most poorly treated animals I have seen outside of factory farm footage. Sure there is poverty in the UK but it doesn't compare to the shanty towns of northern India or the rural backwaters of central Nepal. It just doesn't. To know that first hand, if only glancingly, has expanded my understanding of struggle and survival.
During day 5 of my D&V, when E and I had spent the entire day in bed barring an occasional sprint for the bathroom to empty our bodies, I hit another limit. For the first time in my life of being somewhere other than "home", I wanted to return home. It is not that I hated Nepal, nor that the UK was so much better, but that the familiarity of Norwich and ease of access to exactly what I felt my body needed (medication and food) was overwhelming. So far this has been the only emotional/mental limit I have reached and it has shown me that I am not as un-rooted as I thought myself to be.
Tomorrow we fly to New York. Part of me is worried that we won't get through customs because we have no ticket out of the US at present (we plan to go by land into Mexico then onward to Guatemala) but, assuming we get in just fine then we'll have four days in what will once more be a very different environment to everything we've seen so far. Niall and Jenn are visiting. It'll be ace to see them and weird to see them in a completely alien context but it has been one of my most looked forward to things since we left the UK so I expect it to be loads of fun. Beyond that, though, who knows what other limits will be reached, particularly as we head into Central and South America. Will I reach the boundaries of my patience or the furthest reach of my understanding?
Thank you India and Nepal, bacteria and weather, humans and dogs for revealing me more fully to myself.
PS As I sat eating the free buffet dinner this ridiculous hotel provided I remembered two more things. First is veganism and the lack of it. It was easy to be strict about my veganism in the UK but the difficulty of maintaining a consistent vegan diet whilst travelling has shown that veganism is best held not too tightly after all. This is not a loosening of my ethics, just a growing realisation of the contextuality of personal ethics in the face of a manifold world. The second is that I did breach one more emotional limit and that was when we were duped during our first time in Delhi. I felt angry in a way I never had before because I had been taken for such a ride - literally. I knew that as it happened yet felt powerless to stop it. The anger was derived from feeling manipulated, disempowered, and disrespected in a way that has simply never happened before and so staked out another border that I can either obey or destroy.
This is my first post here and my first ever blog post. There've been moments and events in the trip so far that I've felt moved to write on here, but when it came to it, I either felt words wouldn't do the experience justice or that Glen had pretty much nailed it. But sitting in a hotel room in Kuwait, marking the end of our time in India and Nepal, it feels like a fitting way to mark the end of the first leg of our journey. Not being what I consider a particularly poetic or accomplished writer (basically, I'm a bit clunky) but being a fan of lists, I decided to write a list entitled 'Things I've Learnt from Seven Weeks in India and Nepal'.
Things I've Learnt from Seven Weeks in India and Nepal
(in no particular order)
1. I am not invincible
For people who know a bit about my retreats of choice and Buddhist practice, I am a flag-waver for the benefits of renunciation. Give me a cold, damp place with bland, limited food, silence and minimal materials and I'm happy as you like. As a consequence of this and other life choices, I like to think of myself as pretty hardcore when it comes to conditions and comforts. What the journey so far has shown me- uncomfortably and starkly at times- is that I have my limits. While I can push it pretty far on a physical/material level (the conditions on the Vipassana retreat didn't bother me as much as they did Glen, for example), the renunciation and discomfort I've experienced previously has always been on my terms; I've chosen a length of time to experience them, I'm in control of the variables and I pretty much know the drill. The extremes I've experienced in the last few weeks have not been of my choosing, have not been in my control and while a believer of 'what doesn't kill me makes me stronger', there have been snippets of moments where it's crossed my mind that 'well, this situation might actually kill me'. I've found that the things I've actually had to renounce that have been the biggest and most squirm-inducing haven't been the electricty, water or my health but ínstead have been my pride, the concept of 'my space' and the notion that I can flourish in any situation. It turns out that to flourish (and by flourish I mean to be someone I enjoy spending time with and enjoy sharing with other people,) I need certain conditions. I need beauty; green spaces, quiet, art, music and time on my own (outside of squatting for the toilet). Iam not invincible and life at home hasn't really presented me with the conditions that have shown me just what that means. I chose my challnges, I picked my battles and I won. India and Nepal have shattered my armour, flipped my plans and preconeptions upside down and smiled at me in an amused but benelovent fashion. I am humbled.
2. It's not about being nice
I like to think I'm a pretty likeable person. I quite like that I'm liked. I don't need everyone to like me, but it's nice when people do. I like to make a good impression, especially if I'm on the back foot in a unfamiliar country, culture, language, timezone and general situation. This, however- much like myself- has its limits. Being nice does not mean being a pushover, being indecisveness about prices or donations due to misplaced guilt or keeping a conversation going when danger is lurking because I don't want to seem rude (for example). Being un-nice does not mean being unkind or disrespectful, it means enough is enough. Iheard a new tone of voice come out of my mouth a couple of days ago- it was clear, succint and no-shit. The man wasn't angry, he didn't seem offended, he took a metaphorical step back and backed down. The situation diffused, we all felt better.
3. New skills are needed
I don't like map reading, I find it tedious. I like looking at maps, they're quite interesting and often pretty, but reading them requires an effort that I'd previously chosen not to exert. Orienteering as a Brownie was not for me. Nor do I like converting currency; it requires maths. I don't like trawling the internet or leaflets for bus and train timetables; that's a bit of a mix of map reading and maths. This attitude no longer cuts the mustard. Glen has been doing more than his fair share of coordination and decision making over the past two months- and in his own newly found 'not about being nice' voice, he raised this quite clearly and fairly. I had known I was shirking, but I was riding it and denying it to myself a little. I figured that because I did being cold and sick better, it sort of balanced out quite fairly. That was rubbish. I'm a good decision-maker in the UK but I think I've been viewing this as a bit of a holiday from said skill so far. Because when there's only one other person and your laziness and resistance is being mirrored back to you quite clearly, there's only so long you can hide. So I'm embarking on honing skills that have lain unnurtured for some years and am taking responsibility for the good and the bad of what comes as a consequence. It feels surprisingly good.
4. Politics, social issues and religious tensions are crap but people are ace
That's a sweeping statement, I know. But I find it very easy to see the problems- or needs for improvement- in politics, society and religious situations and can easily get lost in them. One of the things Iwas hoping from this trip was for an opportuinty for me to experience trust, generosity and a general faith in humanity restored. It was a big ask, but the people of India and Nepal delivered. Yes there were difficulties and some people were sneaky- to them I say 'pfffffffff'. But for the vast majority- from those previously hooked up with on the internet to unexpected strangers- the sharing of time, energy, advice, humour and limited resources has been quite breath taking at times. To see how people rise despite the crap, how ingenious and DIY communities are, how people pull together not rip eachother apart when things need doing and don't rely on systems or powers that be; that has been affirming. We are not all the same; I'm constantly amazed at the differences in interactions, customs and priorities. But we all want to be happy and we're all just living our lives, getting on with stuff. And the number of people who choose to envelop other people- even naive and grubby travellers such as us- while living their lives and getting on with stuff; that's one of the best things ever.
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