Life lessons from rafting

1. It’s all in the set up

Probably the biggest maxim in rafting, this applies not only when navigating down the river but to the trip overall. There are no services on the river, so if you find that you need something you haven’t brought, you’re pretty much out of luck. Thus, everything you need for the trip has to be planned, prepared, and packed beforehand. This is the most difficult part of the entire trip. If you’ve prepared and set up well, then once you get on the river, you’re free to sit back, relax, and enjoy.

When it comes to navigating around obstacles in the river, it’s all in the set up as well. Setting up well often means the difference between floating through peacefully with a few strokes of the oar and struggling with all your might to not end up beached on a rock, flipped over, or otherwise dumped in the river. If you’ve set up well but messed up everything after that, you’ll still make it through just fine in most cases.

2. Read the river

To set up well, you have to be able to read the river. From a glance downstream, good rafters can tell where the obstacles are, where the current is flowing, and where the river will want to take them. Even from far away, there are small hints of what’s coming: a river bend means that the water will probably try to push you into the wall of the bend, small tumultuous ripples indicate that there’s probably shallow water to avoid. Knowing these things in advance means that you can make small adjustments early on.

What happens if you don’t read the river? My dad is fond of telling a story from his second rafting trip on the Grand Canyon with my mom, when a big, brawny man on the trip came up to him and asked him to “slow down, you’re killing me.” My dad replied that my mother had done all the rafting that day. The difference was that the big, brawny man couldn’t tell where the fast moving water was and frequently rowed into eddies (pools where the water circulates upstream), which he had to muscle his way out of. And my mother? Well, she read the river.

3. Watch the downstream boats

An invaluable supplement to reading the river is watching the boats downstream to see where the river takes them and what they do. Downstream boats help to validate your assumptions (“Yep, there’s an eddy over there”) and reveal unexpected obstacles (“Wow, didn’t see that wave from the side!”). Learn from the moves and the mistakes of those before you, so you can be better prepared when it’s your turn.

4. Different boats have different strategies

However, don’t blindly follow the downstream boat, because it may have a different strategy. Big boats are harder to get moving and to redirect, but they also barrel through waves and are harder to flip. Conversely, small boats are easy to maneuver and can fit through tighter routes, but they are toast in big waves. For the same rapid, they might prefer to take two drastically different routes.

My mother rode her own light 12-foot boat for a portion of the Grand Canyon, and she nailed all the rapids until she followed a 18-foot boat through a moderate class 5 rapid. The rapid was much smaller and easier than ones that she had previously conquered, but the big boat went through the waves and so did she, and the big boat went through just fine, but she flipped.

Later on in the trip, she figured out that her best strategy in a small boat was to skirt along the side of a rapid and avoid the big waves altogether. She could do it in her small boat with her easy maneuverability, going places and performing moves that would be impossible for the bigger boats. Once she figured out the correct strategy for her boat, she was golden!

5. Scout big rapids

When there’s not enough time or information to formulate a plan of where to go and what to do, pull over to the side and scout. We scouted every rapid that was a class 7 or above, and went through all of them without a hitch. But if we had rushed into them without scouting first, there would have been some flips, a lot more swimming, and most likely some injuries as well.

So hike up to the obstacle to get a closer look, figure out your plan of attack along with some backup plans to keep just in case, and take the time you need to gather your bearings and strap everything down tight on the raft.

6. Don’t let your guard down

It’s not just the big rapids that you need to worry about, though. Small obstacles can cause havoc too if you let your guard down. Ironically, we made it through the big rapids just fine but had the most trouble when a boat high-sided (got pushed against a wall, so one side started to flip upward) and dumped two people in the water…at a small class 3 rapid. Thus, even if something is seemingly inconsequential or routine, don’t let your guard down and be prepared to react in event of an emergency.

7. Have back up back up plans and adjust quickly

No plan is complete without a back up plan… or five. Though you may have a preferred way of going through a rapid, you might get knocked in a different direction by a wave, come across an obstacle that you did not see, or encounter a number of other eventualities.

To protect against this, have back up plans handy. When my dad rowed into Upset Rapid (class 8), he had a plan of attack but lost his oar midway and wasn’t able to complete it. However, he knew from scouting the rapid that he could make it through the big hole (where the wave curls back in on itself and where you generally don’t want to go) if he powered through it. So he instantly shifted from plan A to plan G and got us through safely, though with a hell of a ride.

My dad knew what he absolutely had to avoid and what he might be able to tackle with necessary, as well as what he would have to do in order to accomplish it. But most of all, he adjusted quickly, which is ultimately what saved us from going for a swim!

8. Take momentum into account

When executing a plan, it’s important to take momentum into account. As per an analogy that my dad likes to use, bigger rafts are like cars on ice. If you row in a certain direction and then simply turn the raft, it doesn’t do anything until you start rowing in the new direction – the car will continue in the original direction because of its momentum. And to get to a particular location, you don’t want to row all the way there; instead, row part of the and let the momentum carry you for the rest.

If you take advantage of momentum, you can perform more complex maneuvers and expend less energy. But if you don’t take momentum into account, you could find yourself going further than you intended, and then having to spend extra energy to overcome the momentum and move in a new direction.

9. Row into the waves

Momentum is most definitely needed in the waves. If you don’t have enough momentum going into a wave, the raft will stall, the wave will push the raft sideways, and then the next wave will potentially flip the raft. It is difficult to row in the waves because you have to time the oar strokes with the wave crests or you’ll come up empty, but rowing is necessary to keep your momentum going. Deep in the middle of battle, keep fighting until you make your way out.

10. Use your power stroke

You can row the oars on a raft in two ways: (1) pushing, in which you push the oars away from you, moving the boat in the direction that you’re facing or (2) pulling, in which you pull the oars toward you, moving the boat in the opposite direction. The latter is considered to be the power stroke because you can generate a lot more power by engaging your legs, stomach, and back muscles when pulling, as opposed to only using your chest and arms when pushing.

In the middle of a struggle, we may be so busy fighting that we forget to use all of the tools at our disposal – in this case, the power stroke. There were a few times where my mother struggled to push her way out of an obstacle, and my dad yelled to remind her to turn around and pull instead. When you’re in the middle of something and it’s not working, remember to work smarter – with the power stroke – and not harder.

11. Indecision kills

One of the main reasons why people get in trouble on the river is indecision. “Do I go to the left of the rock through the rapids, or do I go to the right of the rock through potential shallows? Left…no right! No left. Wait actually righ—” and BAM you’re on the rock. In reality, you would have been fine either way, but instead indecision took you to the one place you couldn’t go.

Regardless of whether your plan is the best or not, commit to it. If you decide you need to make an adjustment midway, make that quickly, and commit to that. Just decide quickly, and commit!

12. Black side down, stay in the boat!

One of the members of our group chanted this mantra every time we got ready to tackle a big rapid. “Stay in the boat, black side (bottom of the raft) down! Stay in the boat, black side down!”

It doesn’t matter if you had to abandon plans A-D and completely blew everything that you tried to do, only getting through the rapid through sheer luck. If you made it through black side down, with everyone in the boat, it’s a success (although I guess you might also want to avoid punching a hole in the raft too). That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned and you shouldn’t try to do better next time, but celebrate your victory!

Lessons from Portugal

1. Check the holidays, or at least ask your friends!

The person who informed me that I would be missing the festival of Sao Joao in Porto was the same person who pointed out to me that I planned to leave India just before Holi. Clearly I don’t learn

But I did effectively employ another previous lesson from Holi, which is that it’s worth it to change your plans and lose a little money, if it means gaining an experience that will be with you for a lifetime! I had a blast in at the festival of Sao Joao in Porto, and I’m grateful that I was still able to go.

Really, though. I’ve started checking calendars. This time for real.

2. Stop comparing in absolutes

Going from Spain to Portugal, everything was much cheaper, a fact that I never missed an opportunity to point out. I also fear that I still haven’t quite lost my awful habit of comparing local prices with prices in NYC, and then citing how much, exactly, an item would likely cost in NYC.

The thing is, it’s all relative. 10 euros for a meal may indeed be high if you can easily get one for 4, and if you only make a few hundred euros a month. This is something that I think I understood fairly well with in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, but that I lost when I had to adjust back to the higher prices in Spain.

In any case, I think it’s safe to say that it’s never good to compare prices to NYC. I moved away for a reason, now why am I reminding myself of the things I didn’t like?

3. Local guides are the best!

In Portugal, for the first time in my travels, I had local friends (who I previously met in other countries) that I could visit, and who acted as wonderful guides. It was a whole different way to see the city that I definitely prefer. I had the opportunity to go beyond the surface tourist layer and learn more about the culture outside of a tourist context.

How might my experience have been different in other countries if I had local friends? It’s hard to know. But hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to visit friends both new and old in their home countries, and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play host to them in the future too!

4. Don’t let fear of being impolite stop you from speaking up

I had my first car collision ever in a rental car in Portugal, in an unfortunate incident that involved a concrete pole and a side view mirror. I wasn’t the one driving, but I was held responsible…and it was something that I could have prevented.

As soon as I let someone else drive the car, I felt uncomfortable with the driver’s fast swerves, but I didn’t want to say anything for fear of offending the driver. I planned to come up with an excuse to take back the wheel the next time we stopped, but before that could happen, we swerved off the road and knocked the side mirror clean off.

All I could think of was the scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the villain leads the main characters into his house and ultimately into deep danger, and he points out that they could have left at any time but didn’t for fear of being impolite. And what did that lead to? Imminent torture, rape, and death. A little far fetched, but at least for me, it was just the side mirror and not anything worse. I learned my lesson – offending someone is far better than getting slapped with a bill for repairs or ending up in the hospital… or worse.

Lessons from Morocco

1. Conquered fears can resurface

Going from Spain to Morocco, I felt a little nervous. I was leaving the western comforts to go to a place with a completely different culture, where I had to be cautious of the food and dress more conservatively. Walking down the street, I was ultra conscious of the fact that I was different, and super paranoid about wearing my camera out around my neck.

Wait a minute, didn’t I already go to India? And survive? When I reminded myself of that fact, the hesitation went away. But I was surprised that it resurfaced again in the first place. I guess it goes to show that you have to constantly push your bubble, because any advancements made can shrink back and disappear with time. I was only in Spain for 3 weeks and I was already use to the comfort. But thankfully, expanding my bubble back out was a lot easier this time. It’s a constant push and you’re never done, but you do get better and better!

2. Don’t blindly trust TripAdvisor

Going to a hammam (turkish bath) is one of the popular things to do in Morocco, and there are many hammam places that offer similar services. Most places charge about 25 euros for a hammam, a full body scrub, a brief massage, and maybe a face mask.

After some extensive online research, I still couldn’t pick a hammam place to go to. Finally, I decided to just check out the top rated hammam place on TripAdvisor. It was more pricey, at 30 euros for just the hammam, a full body scrub, and a body mask (so no massage), but it was #1, so maybe it had a better experience that justified the price.

Yeah, it didn’t. The hammam room itself was barely warm enough to classify as a sauna, and the scrubs didn’t last very long. I left feeling that there was no reason to pay a higher price at all. So I’ve finally learned, top-rated on TripAdvisor doesn’t necessarily mean the best!

3. Allow room to stumble upon things

As soon as I arrived in Marrakech, I made a list of the top places that I wanted to visit and marked them all down on a map on my phone. I created a plan for which sites to visit on which days and was proud of hitting them all and not missing anything.

However, one evening, I listened to the adventures of some friends from the hostel who hadn’t done any research at all but had just gone out to explore for the day. Without much of a plan, they had stumbled upon almost everything I had on my list for the next day.

From that day on, I dumped the detailed list and made more room to explore. I got some great advice from a fellow traveler: pick two must-see sites for each location and leave the rest open for your adventure.

4. Don’t let bad encounters sour your impression of a place

The second day I got to Fez, I signed up for a tour of the Medina from the hostel because the owner seemed sincere and some fellow travelers staying at the hostel recommended it. It turned out to be an awful tour with a guide who was supremely annoyed whenever I asked for information and whose tour consisted mostly of shops. After the tour, I said I would make my way back, but he insisted on getting a taxi becuase I would “get lost” and made me pay the fare.

The terrible experience left a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t get rid of the entire time I was in Fez. I knew not everyone in the city was rude and out to scam me (although the prevalence of touts in the Medina really didn’t help), but it was difficult not to let my dislike of the tour transform into a general dislike of the city.

In truth, though, in the short time that we are in a city, we only have so many interactions and luck largely determines whether they are pleasant or not. Despite the horrible guide and the touts everywhere, plenty of locals invited me to share in iftar, including a man I encountered in the residential portion of the Medina who invited me into his home and introduced me to his sister and mother after just chatting for a few blocks down the street. Try to seek the positive people and encounters, and let the negative ones go.

5. Let go of injustices

Letting go is easier said than done, of course. For a few days after the bad tour – essentially, the entire time I was in Fez – I quietly seethed about just how terrible it was and how it was completely not worth the $25 the guide charged (pretty steep for a tour, especially in Morocco). One could make a reasonable argument that I’m still just a liiiiiittle bitter about it.

But all of the time that I spent resenting the $25 that I wasted cost me far more than that in the end. It got in the way of my enjoyment of the city, clouded some of my interactions with other locals, and also spawned a lot of unnecessary negative thoughts and emotions.

Therefore, even if something may not have been right, let it go. Forgive the other parties involved, and, of course, forgive yourself for being part of it. Then move on and focus on making new, better memories!

Lessons from Spain

Lessons from Spain

1. Take it nice and slow

Since starting my travels, I’ve mostly followed the rule of staying in one place for at least 3 nights before moving to the next one. This gives me time to get to know the location a little better and means that I don’t have to squeeze all the sights and scenes into two full days, but I’ve come to discover that even 3 nights isn’t enough.

In Spain, I slowed it down even further to 5-6 nights in each location. While this seemed long before, it feels perfect now. With 4-5 full days, I was able to see just about everything that I wanted to and comfortably take day trips. However, it still wasn’t enough time to see Barcelona (I was so busy running around that I never made it to the beach) – guess I’ll have to go back and spend 2 weeks there next time!

2. Enjoy life a little bit

Spain is a place of leisure and pleasure, two things I’ve never quite been able to embrace. To me, any second that isn’t productive is wasted, and “fun” is an item that is usually scheduled (in between events of adequate productivity). Ironically, even though I no longer have a full time job, I still have a perpetually full todo list.

In Spain, however little, I learned to relax a bit. It feels good to have a sangria or a refreshing tinto de verano with a meal. It’s not a bad idea to go back to the hostel to escape the heat of the day (though I haven’t quite begun cultivating the nap yet). For the first time, I miss the makeup and non-conservative quick drying clothes – just a little bit. And all of it is okay.

3. Take fewer pictures

Even though I don’t believe my photography habits changed, for whatever reason, sorting through and editing pictures took a lot longer in Spain. Did I take more pictures? Were the pictures just crappier (meaning more photoshop)?

I’m not entirely sure, but I had enough and vowed to take fewer pictures. Even though taking another digital photo just means a few extra pixels, sorting and editing still means that each photo comes at a price: time, the most priceless thing of all. So, take fewer photos! It also means that I can be in the present and enjoy the sights in front of me a little more.

4. Don’t force yourself into a lifestyle

When I first got to Barcelona, I was lured by the party lifestyle that permeated the entire city (it probably didn’t help that I stayed in a party hostel). In the previous four months in Asia, I could count the number of drinks that I had on one hand, and I just about never went out. I only had conservative India-appropriate clothing with me, but I figured it would be a shame to go to Spain and not experience the infamous night out that starts at midnight and ends at 6am.

So on my last night in Barcelona, I joined the hostel pub crawl. We went to three bars and ended up in a club. It felt pretty much the same as nights out in college, except it went a lot later and involved more Spanish music (an improvement, if you ask me). The dancing was fun, but nowadays I’m less fond of meeting strangers in clubs and would prefer to wake up early and hydrated. The party lifestyle is no longer for me. I’m glad I went out at least once, and I no longer had fear of missing out after.

5. Just speak Spanish

Even though I haven’t practiced Spanish at all in the past 10 years, I did take about 6 years of it in school. I was surprised at how much of it I actually retained, but I was too shy to try to speak it. Most of the time when I tried, the shopkeepers patiently sat through my stuttered broken sentences and then just replied in English to put me out of my misery.

I wish I could tie it up in a rosy way by saying that I conquered my fears and unleashed a fountain of ever more fluent Spanish, but unfortunately it’s still something I’m working on. This is one of those lessons that I understand in theory but am still trying to put into practice!

6. It’s good to have work

In Spain, for the first time since I left, I started to feel an urge to go back to work. It’s not for financial reasons (though my pockets are definitely emptier than when I started), but rather a need to do something productive – not just for me, but for others. After 5 months, my travel itch has been mostly satisfied, and I’m in a place where I’m once again excited about work!

China Wrap Up

Zaijian China

I’ve been to China many times in the past to visit family, so to me, it has never felt like a tourist location. For that reason, I didn’t really consider China to be part of my travels, and added it to the plan in large part due to obligation (also, my route took me so close to it anyway that it would be shame not to go back). I hadn’t planned on spending too much time there, so when my plane tickets worked out to give me more than a month in China, my initial reaction was to be upset that it meant less time later in Spain in Portugal.

As soon as I went back, though, I realized how important family was. I’d been living away from home for so long that I had forgotten the benefits of having family around, but everyone immediately rushed to visit and make sure I was comfortable, just like always. Even though I’ve only seen my dad’s side of the family about 5 times total, they welcomed me with open arms and went out of their way to host me. Even more so for my mom’s side of the family, who were just as excited as ever to have me back. 3 years had passed since I had last seen anyone on either side of the family – how could I have let so much time pass?

What hit me the most was how fortunate I was that everything was still more or less the same, even though 3 years had gone by. There were close calls with one of my grandfathers a couple years ago, but now he is stable and staying at home. My other set of grandparents, who are pushing 83 and 90, are still completely self sufficient. And their apartment is exactly as I remembered it, though my small triangular room has since been converted by my grandpa into a home lab. Who knows if I’ll still be as lucky the next time I go back? This was a constant reminder for me to live in the moment and enjoy it as much as possible, while it’s all still here.

On the whole, outside of family, China has undergone some huge changes in the past 3 years. As always, there are new buildings on the horizon, and this time, there is a 6.8 km bridge in Dalian that skirts around the city out in the sea. Mobile technology is also better and more widespread than ever before. WeChat is the social media giant through which everyone communicates with the world, and payment is mostly done by scanning one’s phone. I almost couldn’t buy food in a local mall cafeteria because few stalls accepted plain and simple cash.

Politically, things are also heading in a good direction. Though I haven’t been following the news, the topic on everyone’s mind is the recent anti-corruption crackdown. Xi Jinping has led a big push to punish corrupt government officials, regardless of rank, slowly but surely owning up to and addressing governmental problems one at a time.

But, of course, the Great Firewall is just as strong and impeding as ever. No Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or even the Wall Street Juornal. With a paid VPN service, I managed to stay connected and even complete some work, but it’s no exaggeration to say that sometimes things took 2-3x longer. The Firewall is the biggest single thing that I dislike about China, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

In hindsight, China was exactly the break I needed to catch up on health, work, family, and finances. A month turned out to be perfect, and I wouldn’t have minded a little longer… but once again, adventure calls. I’ll be back again, definitely before 3 years this time!

Misc China Observations:

  • Payment via WeChat and Alipay is so common that people don’t have to carry wallets anymore when going outdoors. Every vendor, down to the lady with galoshes who sells seafood in buckets at the wholesale market, simply has a WeChat QR code taped on the counter that customers can scan. Boom, instant payment. Some places only accept scanning and cards, which made for a very awkward situation when I tried to take family out to dinner with only cash.
  • Especially because the population of unmarried men is much higher than that of unmarried women, it’s become a requirement for young men (or their families) to provide a car and a house to be considered eligible for marriage. Typically, the groom’s family provides the house for the newlyweds, while the bride’s family funds the renovations.
  • In the previous year, China passed a new policy that makes it impossible to get a temporary SIM card. All SIM cards must be tied to a national ID (for Chinese citizens) or passport (for foreigners). There are no more pre-paid SIM cards – the smallest plan you can get is a 6 month plan.
  • The Great Firewall SUCKS. But if a more or less reliable VPN is only $12/month, seriously, why bother?
  • Almost all the taxis I rode in have rear view mirrors that record and sometimes display live footage of the front of the car. This is because there have been lots of cases of people throwing themselves in front of cars and then suing the innocent drivers for damages.
  • Taxi drivers, bus drivers, security guards, and people in other common service professions are addressed as 师傅 “shifu.” This is typically how you would address, say, your kungfu master. But it’s a sign of respect for people in these blue collar service professions, a remnant of communist ideology.
  • For decades and even now, all school kids wear a red scarf around their necks to school. This is called the 红领巾, a Communist garment that symbolizes the corner of the flag dyed red by soldiers’ blood.
  • Every morning, students have an hour long routine where they line up on the school field for an assembly and then do collective morning exercises.
  • Leftovers are dumped directly in thin plastic bags, even soup.
  • By 2050, 1 out of every 3 people will be over the age of 60.
  • Chengdu is the city with the second worst traffic in China, so massive highways that are 8 lanes across are frequently seen and sometimes just common streets.
  • People prefer backing into parking spots over pulling into them, while the opposite is true in the US.
  • It costs roughly three months average salary to buy 1m2 of property in a city.
  • Foreigners that are not staying in hotels/other tracked accommodation have to go to the police station to register their whereabouts. This is probably applicable to many other countries, and China is just the only one where I would not stay in a hotel. But my thanks to the little old lady in the neighborhood who tattled to the police that there was an unidentifiable foreigner in the compound.
  • Cellphone cases with rings on the back are popular. These rings can turn into a stand for your phone, and also give you something to loop your finger through when holding the phone.

Lessons from China

Lessons from China

1. Ask for help

I can be independent to a fault, and sometimes it comes back to bite me in the butt. Like when I first arrived in China.

My uncle came to pick me up from the airport, but I didn’t see him at the gate and I had no way to contact him. All I knew was his WeChat profile, but I couldn’t connect to wifi because I needed a Chinese phone number to do it. I needed a Chinese SIM card to do that, but I couldn’t get one without a Chinese national ID. Quite the bind, you see.

After walking up and down Terminal 1, where I arrived, I concluded that he probably wasn’t there. One of the shopkeepers told me that Terminal 2 was 800m away, so I loaded my luggage on a cart and ran to check if he might be waiting there instead. I couldn’t find him there either, so I ran all the way back to Terminal 1.

At that point, I finally gave in and started asking for help to connect to the internet. One woman who I approached unapologetically told me to ask airport personnel instead, but thankfully the next woman I asked allowed me to hotspot from her phone so I could finally call my uncle. Thank goodness for this kind soul!

In reality, though, it could have been much less stressful and a lot less hard. If I had just gone around asking for help in the beginning, I could have connected with my uncle right away. But I would literally rather run 2km with my bags and waste more than an hour than ask for help. This is a great lesson for work and for life – just save yourself the trouble and ask!

2. Family runs deep

My first stop in China was Chengdu to visit my dad’s family, who I had only visited a few times and usually in the company of my dad. This time it was just me, and I dropped by with little warning or coordination. More or less “Hey, I got a plane ticket into Chengdu on this day. Is it alright if I stay with you?”

I felt that I was imposing and worried that the stay might be awkward, but to my relief, it didn’t feel that way at all. They welcomed me with open arms, going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and provided for. All with no strings attached. And conversation with my cousin, aunts, and uncles was easy and natural – we weren’t almost-strangers, as I had feared.

A live demonstration that family runs deep. No matter how little you see each other or long it’s been in between, there’s something that connects you and it takes little effort to find.

3. Few things are as important as family

Having lived away from home for so long and now traveled on my own for 2 months, I’ve learned to be fiercely independent and to be comfortable being by myself. I kept in touch with family weekly (okay, biweekly), but for the most part, I was in my own little world.

However, seeing family and being welcomed back to the familial circle reminded me of how nice it is to be part of a community where (mostly everyone) cares about and helps one another. Sure, there’s a fair share of drama and bickering, but it’s so nice to just belong.

You only have this one family, and the relationships will follow you for life. Big decisions that you make not only impact you, but everyone in your close family circle. Now, even though I’ll be on my own in distant lands again, family will still be close to my heart.

4. Understand differences by understanding context

This time in China, I had the opportunity to have some discussions about Chinese Communist ideology and policies, why they are the way they are and what Chinese people think of them. It’s easy to throw a blanket statement of “X is bad” or “you should clearly do Y,” but I learned that it’s all about the context.

For example, on the rigorous Chinese pressure-cooker education system that culminates in a single college entrance examination, the western view is that such a system suppresses creativity and only tests a student’s ability to take tests. This is true. But from a Chinese view, there are so many students in China that a more holistic system would take forever to evaluate. And if the system weren’t so black and white, there would be room for corruption and students with poorer backgrounds wouldn’t be able to compete.

5. Accept others’ generosity

A funny Chinese custom is the constant battle to pay. Because I hadn’t been back for so long, many relatives took me out to eat and insisted on paying for the meal.

A few times I was invited out along with my parents, and my mom found a way of thwarting the payment plans by sending my dad out to “go to the bathroom” halfway through. The check was taken care of, all good. But the problem was that the original invites got genuinely upset.

So accept the generosity and good will, and just find a way to pay the person back – next time.

6. It’s good to relax!

I arrived in China after two months of living the independent, on-the-go, penny-pinching lifestyle, and I was stuck in that mode for a good few days. It took me a week to realize that I don’t have to hand wash my clothes in the sink anymore – I can use the washer. Slowly, I let go and embraced a little more luxury, returning for a little bit to normalcy.

It was good to relax, and my body needed it. Almost as soon as I unraveled, I came down with a cold. It’s miraculous that I didn’t get one at all while shivering up in the Himalayas – yet I got one in Dalian, and I couldn’t point to anything in particular that could have caused it. I think it’s just my body finally taking the time to flush out the bad!

Nepal Wrap Up

Namaste Nepal

Coming into Nepal from India, I was ready for a mental break from being on guard all the time about sanitation and safety. Because Nepal has long been a popular destination for westerners, I thought that it would be more developed and more tourist-friendly. I was surprised to find it at once much less developed than I expected, but still a comfortable place to be.

Nepal’s main problem is infrastructure, and I witnessed many of its infrastructure issues firsthand when coming in over land. The entire road from the border to Kathmandu was bumpy and dusty, and along many stretches it was literally crumbling on the sides into the gutters. Many buildings in Kathmandu were under construction, but progress looked to be slow because workers manually poured cement one pan at a time. Everyone wears face masks, because you can see plumes of dust and smoke travel towards you in the air. And in Pokhara, there were days with up to 5 power outtages in a row. In all these ways, Nepal felt like a much less developed place than India.

The April 2015 earthquake definitely seriously hampered development, and you can still see the effects of it, most clearly in Durbar Square. The majority of the temples are still in ruins or propped up on stilts, and it feels as though the Square has been simply cleaned up but not truly rebuilt yet. Talking to my stepdad about his experience in Nepal two decades ago, it seems as though few advancements have been made in the way of development – if anything, certain things may be worse off now because of the earthquake. Even one of the guides on the trek voiced his concerns that money has been coming in with tourism, but there hasn’t been any development and the Nepali are not getting richer.

But at the same time, Nepal is clearly a place that is familiar with – and good at – tourism. Almost everyone speaks English, and the western comforts are easy to find, especially in the lakeside resort town of Pokhara. Pokhara is a total tourist town, but I totally loved it. It was everything I needed after 1.5 months of curry in India and Sri Lanka. Nothing tasted so good as the first meal I had there of authentic Korean food, side dishes and all.

From the start, trekking was the focus of my time in Nepal. It took me a while to commit to one, and up until almost the day before leaving, I was convinced that I was going to do the Annapurna Circuit instead of Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). In retrospect, ABC was the perfect one to do (of course, I have to think that now because it was the one that I did). It’s challenging but not pushing the limit, and it still rewards you with breathtaking views.

Before the trek, I was focused on finding information, getting the necessary gear and permits, and trying to plan around the weather. In between, I thankfully still managed to see a bit of Kathmandu and Pokhara. But it wasn’t until we started off on the trek that I breathed a sigh of relief, and not until we reached ABC that I was truly able to relax. Up until then, I had to be constantly ready to make adjustments, and I was always questioning if we had made the right decisions to set us up for successfully seeing ABC. It was only afterward that I was finally able to sit back to soak in the views and explore, and it would have been nice to have a little more time to do it.

However, Nepal is also one of the few places that I know with certainty that I will visit again. So many treks still left to do! On the bus back from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I sat in front of a Russian woman who is in Nepal for the 8th time, and who has completed all the treks that I could name (which, to be fair, is not many). I don’t think I’ll be that extreme, but I do see the magic – it’s just one of those places.

Until next time, Nepal!

Misc Nepal Observations

  • Dust is everywhere, even on paved roads. Face masks are very common, and all of the clothing in the shops have to be dusted and washed off before being worn.
  • Construction is very slow and labor-intensive. In many places, there were people pouring cement one little pan-full at a time.
  • On buses, there is always someone leaning out of the door on the left side. He helps the driver scout and measure distance when passing through traffic or along the edge of a narrow road. There’s a. Patting system, which I roughly deduced to be one pat on the side of the bus to stop, and 3+ pats to keep going.
  • Taxis have meters, but it’s very had to find one that will actually use it. I read in a guidebook that it’s customary to tip a driver that agrees to use the meter…because it’s that rare, apparently? Totally defeats the purpose of having meters.
  • Alcohol ads are everywhere, and every little roadside shop stocks bottles of beer.
  • Buses are super ornate, sometimes with mini painted Hindu/landscape murals on the sides. Many look like they’re dressed up on the way to a Cindo de Mayo party.
  • A lot of buildings and temples, especially in the old area of Kathmandu, like Durbar Square, are propped up by diagonal sticks. This is due to leftover structural damage from the April 2015 earthquake that they still haven’t been able to fix.
  • Many buses, especially the gigantic ones, have little tootle horns – sounds that you would expect to come from a clown car. It’s a little hard to take them seriously, but their heft barreling down the road makes up for it considerably.
  • There are frequent power outages in Pokhara and Kathmandu, though I only experienced them in Pokhara.

Lessons from Nepal

Lessons from Nepal

1.  You’re not always going to be efficient

It’s not possible to be completely efficient when traveling, especially when you leave room for flexibility.

Coming to Nepal, I initially booked a bus to Kathmandu because I was planning on doing the Annapurna Circuit, which starts near there. However, I changed my plans to do the Annapurna Base Camp instead, which starts and ends in Pokhara.

On the way to Pokhara from Kathmandu, I realized that we were doing some pretty significant backtracking. In fact, if I had gone straight from the border to Pokhara instead of looping around to Kathmandu, I could have saved about 3 hours…per bus ride.

But that brings me to the next point,

2. But you make the best decision that you can at the moment and you adjust afterwards as necessary

Kind of self-explanatory. Though it helps to have as much information as possible when you are making the decision, which brings us back to the previous lessons of doing some research beforehand. Yep, I learn.

3.  It’s not always necessary to go for the top

The highest point of the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek is ABC itself, and just two hours below that is MBC, with its own spectacular view. On Day 7 of the trek, we left early to reach MBC, and then continued upward to check out ABC as well. The morning was crystal clear the whole way, but clouds rolled in juuuuuust as we were reaching ABC.

We stayed up at ABC for a few hours hoping that it would clear, but to no avail. All we saw was a big foggy wall of white. That night we stayed at MBC, and I had a fierce debate with myself over whether to make the trip up to ABC again in the morning. It was a four hour round trip, but when would I be so close to ABC again?

I was almost on the verge of going, but then I asked myself why I wanted to go. Yes, it was a spectacular view, but I had seen it all the way up to ABC the day before – all I was missing was pictures of the Annapurnas from that particular angle at ABC. And yes, let’s be real, all I wanted were pictures. I would barely have enough time or energy to actually appreciate the view after making the hike up and coming straight back down.

So in the end, I opted for a peaceful morning with sunrise at MBC instead. The view there was also something to behold, and once I let go of seeing ABC, I was able to sit back and enjoy it. You don’t always have to go for the best or highest thing, sometimes it’s important to remember to just enjoy where you’re at!

4. Don’t backtrack

At one point during the trek on the way down, I lost a hiking buddy who was supposed to join for lunch but then never showed up. I wasn’t sure if he was ahead of or behind me, but I didn’t want to go back down into the town below to search for him, so I pressed on.

Thirty minutes later, after I had already descended about 250 steps, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he might be waiting for me back in town. After another ten minutes of arguing against myself, I finally gave up and turned around. I climbed back up the steps I had just gone down, checked around and couldn’t find him, and set off on the same trail for the second time.

Turns out he was way ahead of me, and thankfully we did manage to find each other before the sun set. But I learned to take care of everything that I can before moving forward, so that I don’t have to backtrack. If I had just gone to check in town before setting off for the first time, I would have saved myself from going down and up and back down hundreds of steps.

5. Clarify prices and expectations before taking a service

This one I learned indirectly by observation, but it’s a very important lesson indeed!

One of the friends I met while traveling wanted to get a tattoo and found the perfect artist to do it. The tattoo ended up taking almost an entire day and exceeded the friend’s expectations, but when it came time to pay the bill afterward, the price suddenly jumped to 3 times higher than expected.

Turns out that my when my friend had asked for the hourly rate, the tattoo artist had given the rate for black and white tattoos. But the tattoo was in color, and which was twice the previously quoted rate. Neither had really asked or clarified until the end. And it had taken almost twice as much time as the friend expected.

Ultimately my friend paid the requested price – because it WAS a tattoo, and a beautiful one at that. But I definitely learned that I should clarify prices beforehand when I go in to get my own tattoo (just kidding, parents! Just checking if you’re reading).

6. Once you’ve tried your best, shake it off

I went into a bit of a shopping spree buying gifts for family in Pokhara, unleashing some dormant consumerist force that startled me quite a bit. In the middle of it, I unwittingly overpaid for a blanket that I later realized was not as thick or as big as I wanted it to be.

Though I suspected that returns were not allowed, I figured I might as well take it back to the shop and try. The salesman said that regrettably the boss didnt allow him to do returns, and at best I could exchange it in for a different blanket and pay the difference. I pulled out every negotiation trick in the book that I could think of, but he had all the leverage because he had my money.

Finally, when I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I kept the blanket and left. It was a little difficult to transition from full-on combative mode to making peace, but the shift is important to do as soon as possible. Once you’ve tried your best, there’s no use in holding on.

A similar situation happened on my last night in Kathmandu, when a group of literally hundreds of Indians descended on my hotel at 2am. They were an extremely loud and disorganized group with no concept of what time it was, so they were standing and shouting at each other in the hallway right outside my room.

I tried going out to talk with them, but I couldn’t even communicate with the universal gesture of “shhhhhhhh.” The only hotel staff I could find was the security guard, who was also fairly frazzled and assured me that he would do his best to get them to settle and quiet down. I even called the hotel manager, who assured me that he would do his best (read: call the security guard).

Nothing worked. But having tried everything I could, l put in some ear plugs, laid down to sleep, and saved this story in my archives, for bad experiences make for good stories!

7. Every day of your life is precious

The day after returning from my trek to ABC and reconnecting with the world, I found out that my previous employer, Quidsi, is being shut down by its parent company, Amazon. This wasn’t totally surprising, and the company outlook is partly why I left.

But when I heard the generous severance packages, I couldn’t help but start calculating. If I had just stayed for another 3 more months, I would have had a lot more to travel with.

However, who could have known? If I stayed, I might have made more money, but I also may have gotten sucked in and never left. In the past two months, I’ve seen and learned so much, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s no point in staying even one day longer in a situation that you’re not happy in, because you never know what day might be your last.

Lessons from India

Lessons from India

1. Heed reports and warnings, but they can be exaggerated

Of all the countries that I wanted to visit, India was the one that made me the most nervous to travel in alone. I heard plenty of horror stories of pickpockets and scams to avoid, sexist attitudes that made it more uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous to travel alone as a woman, unsanitary foods that make you violently ill, and the general grime and crowds everywhere.

And then there were all the warnings: only eat things that are cooked or peeled, avoid meat, don’t make eye contact with men, don’t travel anywhere by yourself after dark.

As a result, my image of India was not altogether great. But after spending about a week looking around, India really isn’t as bad as the picture that I had painted. So far I haven’t had any stomach problems and I’ve managed to avoid any situations that feel unsafe. There is grime and poverty, yes, but it’s similar to that I’ve seen in China and other developing countries.

Of course, I’ve been very careful and it’s important to take precautions, but traveling in India has not been nearly as bad as I feared. This seems to be the general consensus among many other travelers (including a large handful of other solo females) that I’ve talked to as well. As my dad says, live like a optimist but prepare like a pessimist! And sometimes you just have to go see for yourself.

2. Ask your network for recommendations

I came to India without any idea of where to go except for the two biggest cities, New Delhi and Mumbai. Some brief research yielded Jaipur and Varanasi, and I planned to just wing the rest of it. Even though I have many Indian friends and coworkers, for some reason I never took the initiative to ask them for recommendations.

It wasn’t until I had actually gotten to Mumbai that, during brunch with a friend of a friend, I asked for advice. She suggested Amritsar, and the Golden Temple there turned out to be the highlight of my trip. A little too late, I realized that I could have planned this trip a lot better and potentially seen more highlights like it.

So if you’re going to be lazy and not do research, at least ask a couple of friends! And preferably before entering the country.

3. Don’t get hung up on principle

My SIM card saga during the first few days in Mumbai left me with a useless SIM card and a bitter taste in my mouth. I paid for the SIM card and they told me I should be able to use it within a few hours, but 5 days later it still had not been activated. At that point I gave up waiting, but I also didn’t rush to get a new one because of self-righteous principle.

However, an episode in Agra made me realize that not having data was a major inconvenience. My train, which was supposed to arrive at 9:40pm, got delayed for almost 5 hours and didn’t pull in until 2:20am. I got a tuk tuk that couldn’t find the way, and I would have been completely lost if my phone had not saved the hostel phone number by luck.

After all that, I came to my senses – a SIM card only costs $10. Yes, it sucks that the first $10 was wasted, but surely I would pay another $10 to avoid another situation like that in the future. Why was I making myself suffer, just because I was bitter on principle? And the same thing applies to negotiating for tuk tuk rides. Yes, I might be ripped off by 100 extra rupees, but if that’s the fastest (or only way) to go, it’s less than $2.

4. Spend some extra money to get the experience

It’s common in hostels to ask each other how long you’ve been in India and how long you’re staying. In Jaipur, when I told one of my new hostel friends that I was leaving on March 10th, she replied with, “but Holi is on the 13th, you’re not staying?”

Shit. I already spent $75 on the airplane ticket, which I was pretty sure I couldn’t get back. It would be amazing to experience Holi (the festival of color) in India, but it’s also celebrated in Nepal (where I would be flying to), and I could come back another time to do it. At the same time, though, even if I do come back to India at some point, would it likely be around the dates of Holi?

I wavered back and forth on whether to keep my original plan or make adjustments, and finally decided that I should stay for Holi. It’s the things you don’t do that you regret, after all, and while money can be regained, the same cannot be said for experiences.

5. Seriously, though, look up the holidays

In addition to looking at a map before booking, which I previously learned. Totally my fault for not realizing Holi was so close.

Looking up holidays would have also helped to avoid the struggles I had at Adams Peak. You think I would have learned then…but naw.

6. Boldly explore (while still being respectful)

I often hesitate to do things for fear of being told off, even though they’re most likely fine/nobody would likely care. I like to say that I’m trying to be respectful, but if I’m honest, fear of reprimands is closer to the real reason.

Part of the reason why I enjoyed the Golden Temple so much, though, was because I explored beyond the highly trafficked tourist areas. It was while wandering in the kitchen that I met locals that taught me more about the temple.

That doesn’t mean barging into places, because respect is still important. I still took care to avoid clearly blocked off areas and to get a nod of permission before entering if I wasn’t sure about a particular area. But I can definitely be a lot more bold than I have been, and asking for forgiveness is not the worst thing in the world.

7. Allow plenty of buffer time

You can’t necessarily count on anything being exactly on time, but I’ve found that trains in India are especially bad. My train to from Jaipur to Agra was delayed by 5 hours. And my train from New Delhi to Varanasi, which was scheduled to arrive at 6:15am, didn’t pull into Varanasi until 4pm (that’s 10 hours, count ’em!)

I’m not necessarily complaining, because sleeper trains are still moderately comfortable and all the train time is wonderful for blog post writing productivity. But I’ve definitely learned not depend on the arrival time or to schedule anything within a full half day after a train is scheduled to arrive. And it’s probably smart to pack one more meal than you think you’ll need. Maybe two.

India Wrap Up

Alvida goodbye India

India is a huge country and a popular destination, but I knew next to nothing about it. I had heard plenty of stories about traveling in India, mostly centered around upset stomachs, solo females being kidnapped or attacked, and complete craziness.

All these stories had me worried, I’m not going to lie. India is so large and has so many cultures that I feel like it would take several months (if not years) to be satisfied with seeing, but I didn’t want to commit such a huge chunk of my trip to it, especially without getting a feel for it first. So my plan from the beginning was to stop by in India for two weeks to dip my toe in and decide if I wanted to go back at a later date.

Because I only had two weeks, I figured that I would just go to the biggest cities (primarily Mumbai and New Delhi) and didn’t research much else. However, I soon realized that there was much, much more to see, and I was more interested than I originally thought. So two weeks became almost three, and I have an ever growing list of places I still want to visit (including Goa, Hampi, Udaipur, and Jaiseimer).

In terms of the warnings, I feel that it’s necessary to take precaution, but India is not as bad as the rumors make it out to be. A lot of the poverty, crowdedness, and grime, as well as all the things we have to look out for as tourists, are similar in India to any other third world country.

It may also be that I’ve made many trips to china before and seen similar conditions, so it’s less striking to me. But from conversations with other tourists, there is a general concensus that things are not as bad in India as they are made out to be. Especially considering that there were a large number of solo female travelers in India – totally unexpected, but totally awesome!

As a woman, there certainly were plenty of times when I felt uncomfortable, but (thankfully) never downright unsafe – even when I was riding in a tuk tuk by myself at 2am with a driver that was lost. I deliberately bought the least flattering clothing that I could find, and still I was often stared and occasionally jeered at. Sometimes the stares are uncomfortable, and I don’t even want to know what they might be thinking. But even when I stare back, they don’t bat an eyelash – and so, I’ve learned that unfortunately, avoiding eye contact does seem to be the best.

In culture and beauty, India is hard to beat. Even what little I saw at the tip of the iceberg – the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, Jaipur, and Varanasi – was completely astounding.

And in terms of food, India is home to many great cuisines. However, most everything I could find was fried or drenched in curry sauce. The curry is delicious, but after the first few days I found myself escaping frequently to Chinese stir fry and subway sandwiches (yes, the fast food. But no shame – they make perfect packed meals for long train rides) just for some non-sauced vegetables.

All in all though, India treated me very well. No stomach bugs, no assault (except during Holi, but I guess I signed up for the experience), and only one lost phone in Varanasi (still unclear as to whether I misplaced it or it was swiped, but it was about time to ditch that old android phone anyway).

There WERE a fair bit of frustrations, from trying to get a SIM card to booking bus tickets. Anything administrative seemed to be inefficient and to lack any sort of urgency. But I guess that’s just part of being a developing country with more than a billion people to sort out.

I will definitely be back in India in the future, though! Don’t know when, but I’m hoping for an Indian wedding. Gotta get in good favor with all of my single Indian friends! 😉

Misc India Observations

  • People tend to stand in line behind you very, very close. Very close.
  • There are special ladies-only areas and services, like the ladies-only line in the train station (which saved me about an hour)
  • In all the ads, all the people are white. Some Indians are so light-skinned that I think they are Caucasian until they start speaking in fluent Hindi.
  • Paperwork takes forever and you have to prod them in person to make sure that it’s done.
  • People stare and don’t look away when you stare back.
  • Never book connecting travel depending on one leg to get to the destination on time. My train from New Delhi to Varanasi was delayed by a whopping 10 HOURS.
  • Boys walk down the street holding hands.
  • The national anthem before movies in theaters.
  • Cows are everywhere, sometimes just chilling in the dividers in the middle of the road.
  • When traveling between states, get a SIM card and make sure it works (is activated) in the state you’re in, or else it will never work
  • Autos in Mumbai have meters, but they don’t in any other places. In New Delphi and Mumbai, use Uber.
  • The student ID card discount can be steep, e.g. 200 rupees vs 1000 rupees for a ticket.
  • Serving alcohol needs a special license, and it is pretty strictly enforced.
  • You can buy fireworks from the street and set them off whenever, wherever. There are guidelines to do them before 10 pm, though.
  • Carry mandarins (~5 rupees each) to give to begging children. They might not be happy with it, but at least it’s food and not money that they might have to pass on to someone else.
  • Triangle kites fill up the sky, especially at twilight.
  • There are open public urinals for men in many places.