Diving Once Again

Written in Samana on the Samana Peninsula, The Dominican Republic (March 21st, 2013)

“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.”~Jane Austen

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I do not know how to dive – neither in a generic swimming pool nor in the vast ocean. And yet, I feel that I inherently know what it would feel like – especially that moment right before jumping in. The anticipation  the anxiety, the quickened heartbeat – and then splash, water, and in a split-second, the world closes around you. Bliss.

You are left in your own sphere – reflecting, breathing. Your thoughts, your experiences are all your own – no trespassing by any interlopers. The world moves majestically about you as you try to absorb, to embrace all the various ephemeral sensations that are evoked. You gasp on sighting something new, eyes twinkling when the sight is especially beautiful.

And therein lies the answer to a question I am oft asked – Why Travel Alone?

It is absolutely marvelous and wonderful – this feeling of being so in tune with one’s self. At the same time, it is empowering. Whenever I seek inner strength, my mind often drifts back and lingers to my experiences of traveling alone. Those were liberal, magnificent  even magical moments. Over time, they have come to define further who I have become.

Today (March 21st) marks the first day after a gap of two years that I find myself traveling alone yet again. All the experiences of when I did this last come flooding back.

Two years ago, my last excursion was in Cambodia. I remember reminiscing about my month-long travel across Southeast Asia on this last day in Phnom Penh. I recall missing my newly made friends who had departed that morning for the Cambodia coast.

And then, I remember being overcome by an emotional wave – of pure accomplishment.

Now, I find myself diving yet again – this time in the depths of the Samana Peninsula in the eastern coast of The Dominican Republic. I feel as though blood, that had laid languid these past few years, has started to flow once again. Living, relishing, reflecting is precious.

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And I walk barefoot – barefoot in the sand.

I Run. Liberation.

The Moment – all my own. 

Kenyan Interjection: Backpacker insight – Hell’s Gate, Naivasha

Before I forget, I’d like to capture some core, rugged back-packer routes that a friend and I used to experience Lake Naivasha region and Hell’s Gate National Park and Green Crater Lake. They were fairly easy and showed us a slice of traveling local Kenyan style.

Hastily written entry but here goes!

What: Hell’s Gate National Park is located about 2 hours north of Nairobi in the Lake Naivasha region. It’s picturesque beauty is only magnified by the fact that a visitor can take a bike within the park and literally bike alongside wild zebras, giraffes, and buffaloes. The few KM bike ride culminates with a trek of the gorgeous gorge that is the signature of the park. Recommended to take a ranger/guide on your gorge walk – they weave in and out of spots one would have a harder time to find otherwise.

Green Crater Lake is a boat/mutatu ride away in the direction away from Hell’s Gate. One of the only few parks where one can actually walk alongside the wildlife mentioned above. A beautiful slice of nature in all its majesty only a few skips away from the hustle of Nairobi.

Watering Hole, Green Crater Lake, Kenya

Backpacker Transport:

Use 2 mutatus. Every 10-15mins or so, a traveler can find a mutatu going up to the Lake Naivsha region from the Nairobi taxi depot. Ask locals to point you to the right mutatu stop for this area. Get off at Naivasha and then take another mutatu towards the lake (going towards Fisherman’s Camp). Get off, spend the night at either Fisherman’s or the better quality Camp Carnelley’s (~$20 for a tent).

Eh, what’s a mutatu? The most frequent form of transport in East Africa – it is formally a 14-seater van that can informally take upto 20 people. Usually the longer duration rides abide by the 14-person rule but you may be lucky (or rather unlucky) and find yourself seated on a local or having been sat on by a local 🙂 I exaggerate – you are merely just squeezed.

However, if you are claustrophobic then I do suggest that you take caution.

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Cost:

Mutatus are the quite inexpensive – especially when compared with personal hire taxis.

Nairobi-Naivasha: KSH 200 one way/ $2.5. This is a fixed rate and there shouldn’t be any bargaining involved. You should be able to get a fixed price ticket from a ticket window. Should touts come up to you and start shooting off different rates – they are probably taking you for a ride. A long-winded one.

Naivasha-Fisherman’s Camp: KSH 80 one way/ $1. Again, fixed rate. No more, no less.

Some parting words:

Is it daunting traveling like a local? Yes, in the beginning – it is. However, it is extremely do-able and one can easily find a few locals who will help you sort things out. If you are surrounded by touts, just move away (most of the touts and the peers that surround them are generally in on the scam) and ask some other passersby for help.

Is it worth it? Yes. Since English is a common language, one can find regular locals to converse with on the mutatu. Definitely should be sensible and not eat/drink anything offered to you but pure conversation is absolutely fine and quite enjoyable. We ended up meeting grandmas and local University students!

Happy traveling – carpe diem.

Cheers!

The beckoning of a continent: Africa

One of my earliest memories of Africa is of when I read Joseph Conrad’s mesmerizing, steeped in heavy symbolism novel Heart of Darkness. I read it once; then I read it a second and a third time. I came out of the experience having dedicated about 3 months writing an honors thesis on it. On how Marlow’s Caucasian friends are jet black, dark on their insides than the ones who are just superficially of that darker tone. That therein in Marlow’s society lays the true heart of darkness than on the skins of the Congolese slaves.

“And this also… has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 1

That the book left an impact on me is an understatement. It started my (till now) unrequited love affair with the African continent. Africa became that land of mystique – that place far, far away that only a few could ever enter. It never seemed a possibility. I chased after it in college, I ran after it in Boston, and I am finally achieving it – reaching touchdown in a few hours – in graduate school.

Now to think that such a distant land is only a few flights away seems so impossible to me. And that so many friends of mine have been there multiple times and/or are working there for the last few months – that parts of the continent have become so accessible in the last few decades – just shows  how fast the world has progressed. And how, there are very few places truly left in our tiny globe that are unreachable.  In fact, I have a friend from business school who took a cruise up to Antarctica! Antarctica – just think about that!

I set off – travel to Kenya for a week first to take in some game, some beautiful views, and catching up on summer stories with friends. Then, the real fun starts. My friend and I will be taking a 14 hour long bus ride through the sinewy roads of East Africa to get from Nairobi to Kampala. There, in Uganda, my dream is realized. The rest of my team joins me and we’ll be spending 2 weeks conducting a market assessment for a point of care drug delivery tool. Having spent the last 4 months working on this project – with a wonderful group of people – seeing it come alive will be tremendous.

And personally, achieving that sought after dream of Global Health in Africa finally comes to life. Many, hoards of people have done such work before me – but to me – it’s my personal feat. It is what I had my eyes on when I started researching business degrees, global health, and social entrepreneurship. And my hunger will finally be satiated.

I’m nervous, apprehensive and certainly getting some pre-travel jitters. It’s funny – I’ve racked up many an international mile but before every trip that I take to a place unknown, my stomach ties up in a tight knot and my heart pleads to stay back in the comfort of the known. And yet, I plunge – and the swimming, the beautiful strokes – just start up naturally. The knot loosens, and the heart and the mind both become free – to roam, to breathe, to absorb the unknown like a second skin.

Commuting from sandy beaches to ancient cities

For the last two days, I was on an island off of the coast of Thailand, known as Koh Samet. I picked this island not only because it is the closest to Bangkok, but surprisingly, despite its distance – it is also minimally commercialized.

Now – my pictures will show the beauty of this island and indeed there are many interesting stories that come from it. I, however, want to concentrate on transportation and making my way from this island to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. Not only did I get to ride some vehicles that I’d never ridden before – the whole travel day was spent in a long adventure!

The day started off as wonderfully sunny – with Koh Samet’s emerald waters glittering in the sunlight. I was expecting a calm ferry back to the mainland – where I would catch a shuttle back to Bangkok. Ah, was I mistaken! The sun soon gave way to menacing dark gray clouds that thundered and roared and drove the calm sea wild. To catch the ferry back, I had to hop across three floating boats with my backpack while the downpour cascaded on me. Our ferry then went straight into the eye of the storm – and now our small fisherman’s boat crashed against the waves – drenching me even more. It helped that this journey was passed with a few British blokes – some who I’d met earlier in my time at Koh Samet. We swore, we squinted and then we finally saw land.

I then took a shuttle back to Bangkok and literally passed out. On my brief awakenings, all I could see was thunderous rain.

Got dropped off at the Train Station in Bangkok. Had to catch a 2hr train to Ayutthaya but didn’t know which one or what time. Managed to figure my way out and was on the 5.15pm train, third class (wonderfully clean with wide, open windows). The rain had stopped by now and I excitedly awaited the journey. I was the only non-Thai in a jam-packed commuter train.

A Songthaew

The vistas that the train presented were some of the most beautiful I’d ever seen. The city of Bangkok gave way to lime-green rice field pierced by small Wats (temples) and archaic wooden bridges. The sun was in all its majesty as it set behind these fields – the sky awash with orange and pink hues. The World was Beautiful.

Finally, I took a funny lil’ songthaew when I finally arrived to the save haven of my guesthouse, Bann Lotus, named after the beautiful lotus garden it houses in its backyard.

Whew, indeed a journey to remember!

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Traveling towards the Orient

In a few hours, I will be boarding a plane here in India that will deliver me to Bangkok, Thailand by tomorrow morning. I am in a bit of a surreal mood – not entirely believing that I am setting out to do something that I’ve always dreamed of doing: taking a backpack, picking places on the map, and jetting off.

My itinerary is as follows: Bangkok, Thailand – Koh Samet (island beach), Thailand – Chiang Mai, Thailand ->> Vientiane, Laos – Vang Vieng, Laos – Luang Prabang, Laos ->> Siem Reap/Angor War, Cambodia – Phnom Pehn, Cambodia ->> Bangkok, Thailand

I tried, at first, to just go with the flow and not book any hotels until I decide what the next city on my route would be. However, the believer in itineraries and in making the most out of trips that I am, I couldn’t help but have this detail all ironed out.

I will try to capture through the power of the pen all that I see and experience. I am thoroughly psyched that I am exploring places that I have very little exposure to. We didn’t study these as diligently as we studied European and American histories in the classroom. Indochina was covered in the one chapter that concerned the Vietnam War. Pol Pot’s atrocities were never mentioned in my K-12 education while Hitler’s were drilled into us from grade school onwards. One wonders why this is so? Is it because the developed world is so self-centred that it only thinks about itself and how it was affected by the world?

Anyway, I have plenty of time to reflect on this. For now, I say Let the Journey Begin!