To Asia, With Love (and Other Emotions)

Shelley with Ultadanga kids

My time in Asia challenged me, rewarded me, made my heart ache and churned out a stronger person. I learned more in the last 11 months than I have in the last 11 years, and that’s no hyperbole. I became more familiar with the world and with myself. As it turns out, I’m a nomadic homebody. My style is to hunker down in a city and get the lay of the land instead of moving every three days. Maybe when in a state of constant change, it’s comforting to know where you can go for a reliable bowl of pho or a cup of REAL coffee.

Surprisingly I did make it to 12 countries (if you count Tibet and Hong Kong as separate from mainland China, which I do). I’ve had 7 telephone numbers, taken 13 flights, crossed 2 borders overland, added 31 stamps to my passport, secured 10 visas and spent about $24,000. Below is a snapshot of my feelings about each country: what I liked, what I didn’t and how I sum them each up. India is longer than the rest because I spent the most time there and it had such a profound effect. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my view of Asia in 2,000 words or less… Continue reading

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Indian Wedding

Wedding entrance

I arrived in Delhi by plane, Dan via overnight bus, and we’d both leave by train bound for Kolkata that night. We planned to meet at Subway (the sandwich place, not another mode of transport) in a touristy area near the train station. Good  ol’ India welcomed me back as only India can. Upon arrival I told the cab driver where I was going and he nodded his head in recognition. What I had quickly forgotten is that cab drivers ALWAYS say they know where they’re going. This one did not. We drove in circles, and then retraced our circles. I tried to navigate via the map on my phone, but of course that led us astray as well. I reiterated the location and my aging driver put his hands to his head and shook it, as if it were the first time I’d told him the destination and we were way off course. Continue reading

Slowing Down in Kerala

Chinese fishing nets- Arabian Sea

Chinese fishing nets- Arabian Sea

Kerala is the one state in India that I’ve wanted to visit since my year in Japan; photos of serene backwaters summoning me. I even bought a guide book for South India, hoping to visit. Nearly 13 years later I made it to Fort Cochin (Kochi), one of the tourist destinations on the tropical southwest coast. This was not the India I had become acquainted with. It lacked crazy traffic, blaring horns and trash piles along the roadside. The seafood is fresh and curries are made with coconut. It reminded me more of Thailand than India, and at times I even mistakenly converted prices from Thai baht instead of rupees. Continue reading

The Best Butter I Ever Had

Himalayan sunset

Himalayan sunset

I consider myself an adventurous person. Go with the flow, if you will. If someone says “Hey, I heard about this great place…” I’m in. But when too many things are outside my control and I feel them going south, I rebel. That’s what happened in Sikkim, an Indian state in the chilly Himalayas. It was to be my one week of winter and I was really excited about going. Sikkim borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, and requires a special permit for foreigners to enter. Even then, we are only allowed in certain areas. Two of the places on the itinerary were outside those areas and required not only an additional permit, but a minimum group of four foreigners. Because India and China don’t have great relations, apparently the Indian government is leery about foreigners getting too close to the border. Why four foreigners are safer than one, however, is a mystery to me. Upon reaching Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, I learned they wouldn’t let me travel to Tsmogo Lake, even though I was travelling with very responsible Indian nationals. There weren’t many foreigners in Gangtok, and finding three who wanted to go to the lake was a long shot. Plan aborted. Continue reading

To Delhi and Beyond- Part 2

Road sign for Taj Mahal

This way to the Taj Mahal!

There were no train tickets available for Haridwar, one of the destinations on the three-day Das family vacation I hijacked. Is this shocking? No. So, new plan: Ritu’s husband, Arindam, will take Friday off work and drive us in his compact car. The wrinkle in this new, shiny plan is that the car only seats five people so Ritu will have to stay behind. NOOOOO! Ugh. This is not happy news. Another slight obstacle is that his trunk space is taken up by a CNG tank. Congrats to him for being green and using compressed natural gas, but there’s a small matter of luggage for five people. Ok, light packing, got it.  Oh, and departure time is 5am. I learned pretty quickly during my stay in India not to ask too many questions because if the answers are known at the time (which is not always the case), chances are they’ll change anyway. So when our plans took a slight left turn, I wasn’t surprised, and just had to go with the flow. That phrase holds so much more meaning than it used to. Continue reading

To Delhi and Beyond- Part 1

It was a Microfinance Conference in Delhi that provided the impetus for the trip. The Kiva Field Support Specialist and Portfolio Manager would be in attendance, and they asked Michelle and I (the other Indian fellow) if we would like to join. Following the two-day conference would be a Kiva meeting with all of the Indian partners which Mr. Das would also attend. Of course I jumped at the chance to visit Delhi and hoped to somehow sneak in a trip to the Taj Mahal, which sits at the top of my bucket list. The latter would take a little finagling as the conference and subsequent meeting was only three days. I then came to learn that Mr. Das would be bringing his wife and son to Delhi and travelling for several days after to visit Agra and a few other pilgrimage sites. It wasn’t long before Mr. Das invited me to join- perhaps encouraged by a few subtle hints from my end. Ritu would also join since she and her husband have a flat in Delhi and know the city pretty well. Continue reading

Tigers and Textbooks

On a Tuesday morning Mr. Das called me into his office to tell me he’d been up all night thinking about an area south of Kolkata called the Sunderbans. He wanted to check it out to see if it was fit for microfinance. I’ve only known Mr. Das for a short time, but I’ve learned that when he gets an idea in his head, he’s full force. He asked if I wanted to go, but I wondered WHEN? I was leaving for Delhi on Saturday, which he knew. “Tomorrow,” he said, “if I can arrange it. We will stay one night and come back Thursday.” Wow, way to pack it in. “Uh, sure!” I said, always up for some time in the field, especially since the last few weeks had been spent in the office. He then asked who should join us, and of course I suggested Ritu: my co-worker, friend and traveling partner in crime. Next thing I knew, the three of us were on a train… and then a boat… and then a car… followed by another boat… and finally an auto rickshaw. Five hours later we reached the Sunderbans.

Sunderbans boat dock

Sunderbans boat dock

Boat ride in Sunderbans

Ritu and I on one of the many boat rides

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Why My Pants Don’t Fit

There are a few lessons to be learned from this post: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, don’t speak too soon, don’t anger the gods, don’t jinx yourself. You get the picture. This is how my post started about a week and a half ago when I first drafted it…

For years I heard two things about India. 1) You both love it and hate it, and 2) Everyone gets sick: from the annoying and uncomfortable “Delhi belly” to doubled-over, antibiotic-requiring food poisoning. Oh, and there are also those pesky parasites. So in the two weeks leading up to my departure, I ate everything in sight figuring I’d drop weight through vomiting episodes. Hamburgers were at the top of the list since I knew it would be awhile before I got my hands on one. I probably ate more beef in those two weeks than in the prior six months. No worries, however, as those few extra pounds would surely be gone in no time.  Continue reading

Foreigners on the Loose

Michelle is another Kiva fellow working in India, the only other one in fact, and she came to Kolkata for the weekend between assignments. Her flight arrived from Imphal, Manipur, which is an area of the Northeast that is totally different from the rest of “mainland India”, as they refer to it. Many inhabitants are members of various hill tribes, and the community she was staying with was Christian. It’s remote and home to active insurgent groups, so she had seen fewer than 10 foreigners in the two months she was there. My foreigner interaction was also next to nil, so we were thrilled to jabber inarticulate English with each other at regular speed. Picking her up from the airport was no easy task, unsurprisingly, but we made it back to my guesthouse, ordered Domino’s and compared notes late into the night. Continue reading

Getting to the Middle: Overnight Field Trip

You have to work for the good stuff in India; it doesn’t just appear to those standing around waiting for it. To get to the chocolatey middle, you need to rip off the impossible-to-open wrapper and crunch through many layers of hard candy shell. But when you get there, the sweet and creamy chocolate hits your tongue and you’re reminded just how delicious chocolate is. I’ve had had a few of these experiences in India, and each time I attempt the wrapper, I wonder if getting to the center is worth the reward. So far, it always has been.

Train ride- Jalpaiguri

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