Back home in Fallbrook, CA

So my summer travels are over. This isn’t any sort of retrospective post; I just want to list where I went for my own sake. Here goes:

  • China: Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hong Kong
  • Singapore
  • Turkey: Istanbul
  • India: Delhi, Kolkata
  • Hungary: Budapest, Székesfehérvár
  • Austria: Vienna
  • Czech Republic: Prague
  • France: Paris
  • Spain: Madrid
  • USA: New York
I also was in airports in Moscow, London, Reykjavik, Dallas, Seattle, Abu Ahabi, and Doha. Needless to say, it was quite a trip.

The trek to the Czech (Republic, aka we’re going to Prague)

the Czech sky from a gas station

We will get to Prague if it kills us. And it might.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, so here’s a little summary of what’s gone on since the last: we met up with Corrine in Budapest, our luggage didn’t make the connection through Moscow (problem rectified), we had lunch with some amazing nuns who Corrine knew from last summer, we stayed with a couple that Corrine knew (this pattern continues through Hungary), we saw the sights of Budapest, we stayed with a family in Szekesfehevar (sp?), I celebrated my 22nd birthday, we went back to Budapest and stayed a night near Hero Square, we went to Vienna, we saw the sights in Vienna, we left our hostel in Vienna…

But right now we’re on a bus to Prague. It has not been easy to get on this bus. We started this morning by heading out from our considerably nice Viennese hostel and got on the metro. During this time, it started raining. We got off where the bus station was, but spent a while trying to find it because even though international busses stop at this station, it turns out that it’s just two inconspicuous signs on the side of the road. Then the bus came, and it was full. Then we went to the airport and waited for the next bus. We got on this one with one seat to spare. And now we’re waiting at a gas station for a new bus because the back left tire of the bus decided that it really didn’t feel like going to Prague today.

It’s a good thing that the rain has caused some of the most beautiful cloud formations that I have ever seen because I think we’re about seven hours behind schedule right now. There were some that rolled in waves that mirrored the land they blanketed, more that were like wisps and held close to the ground, and others that were massive bursts going up. The flatlands and hills we’ve seen this afternoon are amazing. Maybe it’s ok that we’ll get in around eleven tonight.

Ps: we’re at our hostel now. It was flippin impossible to find.

Everything all at once

This post has been a long time coming, so here goes.

I’ve been somewhat music-deprived here in India. Wi-fi is nearly impossible to come by, so the flow of new music reaching my ears has slowed significantly.

Zomby’s new album Dedication is a monster. I’ve gone through his first two albums numerous times, but this one outdoes both the 90s hardcore tribute Where Were You in ’92 and the weird videogame sounding dubstep of One Step Ahead of the Other. It sounds like the spectrum of Zomby’s sounds instead of a hyper-focused collection surrounding one or two ideas.

Bjork’s single “Crystalline” is making me really anxious that I don’t have better access to a fast internet connection because I can’t see all of the multimedia that accompanies the new album. As people have said, the song’s sound is reminiscent of Homogenic, but the left turn into nutso d’n’b has me excited for more new material.

So about a week into the trip, we all started to get pretty paranoid of all the ways that we could get sick or injured around here. It doesn’t take much to recognize that getting sick is part of the experience. Mosquitoes carry malaria, it’s a crap-shoot whether or not your bed will have bedbugs (yeah, “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” – a whole lot of good that’ll do us), many of the patients have scabies, the water is like poison to a westerner’s system, yesterday it flooded -you don’t even want to know what’s in the streets, etc.  And then it hit.

I could tell something was up during work, but there was no way I wasn’t going to see the last Harry Potter on release day. Correction – there was no was I wasn’t going to see 3/4 of the last Harry Hotter on release day. Just at the end of Snape’s story, my body decided that it had had enough, and I made my way to the bathroom. Fast-forward through that scene (and almost passing out twice), I grabbed M&A after the movie ended, and they saw me back to health through the night. I was such a good patient that I gave my doctor my illness as payment! Ashley was sick through the night, so Saturday turned into recovery day, and Marissa avoided our bug altogether. Fun stuff.

It’s been raining a lot lately. That means flooding. Sudder Street was a sorry sight yesterday as the rain took over, but it was pretty cool to finally see what everyone talks about when they speak of the crazy monsoons in India. Not that this was was particularly nuts, but hey, the road flooded, that counts for something, right?

Now we only have a week left before we board another train back to New Delhi and go our separate ways. The volunteers who showed up around the same time as us (early July) are starting to leave, so it seems like goodbye dinners are an everyday occurrence. Aside from the work we do during the day, hanging out with all of the volunteers here have been some of the best times in Kolkata.

PS: don’t know how I almost skipped this one: a new M83 single. “Midnight City” is a power track. After seeing him/them perform with the L.A. Phil, M83 can do no wrong.

Titagarh Leprosy Colony

Today (Thursday) is typically the day we get off from work, so we signed up to visit a leprosy colony organized by the Missionaries. After hearing the inspiring but horrific story of Damien sometime in these past few years, I was really prepared for the worst; but in the end, it was a much more uplifting experience that I expected.

Leprosy is still stigmatized, and the connotations or thoughts conjured up by the disease really do the people inflicted with it a disservice. Of course there are terrible cases of leprosy that go undiagnosed or untreated for far too long, but as the brothers running the facility today, all of the patients in their care have their illness under control (in other words, there was no risk of any visitors ever being infected). The severity of the leprosy varies widely across the patients, but as we saw, there really isn’t a big need for outside help because the patients do a very good job of running their own lives and maintaining the compound.

We saw most of what they do at the colony, and it was an eye opening experience. Aside from simple cleaning/feeding tasks, many patients help make goods that the Missionaries of Charity are able to use. The coolest part of what we saw was the loom rooms where they make many different cloths including the dressings for the patients’ wounds that are changed everyday and the sari’s that the Missionaries wear.

I think most of us were expecting to do a normal day’s work at the colony, but as I’ve said, there wasn’t much for us to do. While that caught us (at least me) off-guard, it is probably better that way. How would you feel more dignified: watching some outsider come and do chores while you sat in bed all day, or by proving your ability to work and provide for you and yours?

I *heart* mangoes (this one’s about Kolkata)

So now comes the post where we’re in India. The keyboard I’m at right now doesn’t want to type apostrophes correctly right now, but I’ll try to manage.

Wifi is very hard to come by here. This is relevant only because I had typed up a blog entry while we were on the train from New Delhi to Kolkata, but I haven’t been able to upload it. Parts of it will get retyped here.

Our journey begins in the Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Our flight to Abu Dhabi went off without a hitch, and Ashley parted ways with Marissa and me as she was on a different flight to New Delhi. Again, no problems there – Ashley got bumped up to first-class and I’m sure forgot aaallll about the separation of the Three. We convened again in the New Delhi airport where Ashley had slept for a few hours waiting for us to get through customs and all. For those who care, the US Dollar is worth around 44 Indian Rupees. This means that things are very cheap in India. After the currency exchange, we took the metro to the New Delhi railway station. India’s adventures begin here – as does the blog entry written while on the train:

Up until this point, India seemed like any other industrialized nation we’d been to. You might have head about Indian trains, or maybe you haven’t. There is a wide range of seat classes to choose from going from the air conditioned first-class cars to the tightly-quartered sleeper class. Ignoring the advice of everyone we’ve talked to who has experience visiting or living in India, we chose the sleepers for our 24+ hour train ride to Howrah station in Kolkata.

After sitting in the station for 8 hours (getting from the airport to the railway station was waaay easier than we’d expected), we boarded the Poorva Express #12382. This is where we are now (note: we’re actually at the hotel right now, but this part was written while we were on the train, remember?)

This train is everything I had hoped it would be and more. To be clear, it is not for those wanting a relaxing mode of transportation. It’s loud, cramped, and grimy. But after traveling through the developed cities of China and the beautiful Istanbul, I’ve been wanting something more like this.

I think we’ll take a taxi to the Mother House once we arrive in Kolkata tomorrow afternoon. It’s 21:15, and I’m going to go back to reading. G’nite.

G’morning! There were about 20 monkeys walking the railings just now. Oh the things you’ll see.

End of the train blog post.

All in all, I loved our train ride here to Kolkata. We did end up taking a taxi from Howrah station to the Mother House – the HQ of sorts for the Missionaries of Charity. We arrived there at around 20:00, so they were closed, but we knew enough to try and find Sutter Street.

Sutter Street is where we’re staying. Hotel Maria will probably be our home for the remainder of the month as it’s cheap (450 rupees each night for all three of us), clean enough, and on Sutter Street (aka Volunteer Central). On this street are many, many hotels, restaurants, and little shops catering to a volunteer’s every need. I don’t have any pictures yet, but I’ll try to grab some to help all of the things I will describe throughout the month make more sense.

After arriving on Wednesday night and getting situated on Thursday, we walked back to the Mother House – about a 20 minute walk – to register so that we could start working. Unfortunately, they had cancelled registrations for Friday, but they said that we could come back Saturday morning for a temporary registration until Monday came around (they only do registrations on MWF). Saturday morning we began what will be our norm of waking up at 5am in order to make it to Mass at 6am at the Mother House. After Mass, we headed down to the volunteer room for a breakfast of chai, bread, and a banana. It might not sound like much, but don’t worry, we aren’t going hungry. The food they give us is just enough. About 100 volunteers gathered in the room, and after a quick brief from Sister Mercy-Maria (who’s from Texas), we headed out to our first day of work at Prem Dan.

Prem Dan is a home for mentally-handicapped men and women. Our first day consisted of doing laundry, washing the floors of the compound, helping the residents with regular hygiene (shaving, cutting hair, clipping nails, etc.), serving them water/chai/lunch, and the cleanup after that. It’s simple stuff, but it needs doing.

After our first day, we hopped on a rickshaw back to Sutter Street (ssooooo much fun), and I went at attempt #1 to buzz my hair. The guy who cut my hair really didn’t understand that I wanted a buzz, and it took a half hour of him giving me a normal haircut for the Tibettan guy dyeing his hair from dark brown to blonde to inform the hair cutter what I wanted for us to find out that his buzzer was broken. He then tried to cut my hair really short by hand. I was freaked out at first because he really went at it once he realized what I really wanted and that he had wasted a half hour. Hair was coming off left and right, but he did a fine job in the end. I remedied the look yesterday by getting a real buzz with a #3 clipper. I like it. I also have a mustache. Facebook profile picture coming up soon. Saturday night we went to sleep around 21:00 figuring that early mornings mean early nights.

On Sunday, we went to Mass in the morning – I will leave this out of my posts from now on as we’re doing this every morning – and I split from Ashley and Marissa as I had signed up to work at Nabo Jibon. Nabo Jibon is a house for mentally-handicapped boys, and street kids come in to wash and eat on Sundays. Working there was similar to Prem Dan, except with kids. The work done by the Missionaries at their homes is not glorious. It can be fun at times, but that’s not really the point. I met some cool people at Nabo Jibon, and we went to lunch after getting back from work.

It’s odd how some things become commonplace while you’re traveling that would normally seem so out of the ordinary at home. One of these things is the extremely wide range of people you meet. Since traveling in Istanbul and Kolkata (ignoring China and Singapore because I really can’t remember that far back), I’ve meet people from the US, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Britain, Tibet, Argentina, France, Poland, Japan, Dubai, and Australia. Some of these people are doing one-off trips to India, and many other are doing what we’re doing, that is, long trips around the world.

We went back to work at Prem Dan today, and we registered for reals this afternoon at 15:00. Registration is a simple orientation by a long-term volunteer and your placement amongst the many homes that the Missionaries run. All three of us got our first choices! Marissa will be at Shishu Bavan working with handicapped children, and Ashley and I will be at Kalighat. This home is for the sick, destitute, and dying. It is where Mother Theresa did much of her work, and will no doubt prove a challenge and a privilege through the month.

So much more has happened in the few days that we’ve been here, and I’ll try to communicate more as the month goes on, but it’s not the easiest thing to do here.

In closing, I love mangoes more than anything else right now (a little bit of hyperbole is good for you, deal with it). They are God’s gift to Indians. Words cannot express my love for mangoes. Mangoes are the reason that I’m stopping this blog post right now. Seriously, we have three in our room waiting.

We’re in Kolkata (but this is about Istanbul)

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this (sorry Mom), and I think I just have to dump thoughts here.  I’m going to start with Turkey and try to do it justice. Then I’ll move to our trek to India and how it’s been in Kolkata so far.

Istanbul, Turkey. I went from Singapore to Istanbul and waiting a day and a half to meet up with Ashley and Marissa. Their bus got in to the station at around 9pm, and they had me worried that they possibly weren’t going to make it (their bus was scheduled for around 8). From there, our Couchsurfing host Tarik met up with us and brought us to his house in Karakoy, which is on the Asian side of Istanbul(the city spans two continents!) He was an awesome host for the three days we stayed with him.

He took us around the touristy sites on Friday, the Prince Islands on Saturday, and we made our own way on Sunday. On Thursday night, there were some Polish guys also staying at the house, so we all went out to a fast-food place that makes something similar to sloppy joes. The hamburgers were wet with some sauce so that you had to eat them with a wrapper to avoid getting too messy. Good stuff.

As I’ve said, Istanbul is beautiful, and its historic sites are incredible historically and aesthetically. The city is predominantly Islamic, and there are many, many mosques to see. We didn’t make it to the Hagia Sophia, but we did go to the Topkapi Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque, Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, Taksim Square, Spice Market, and we crossed the Bosphorus River too many times to count.

Tarik also cooked dinner for us on Saturday and Sunday nights, with Sunday being an all out multi-course meal with four other surfers who were staying at the house (two Canadians who were teaching English in Spain, another Polish girl, and a New York screenwriter). Sunday night was definitely one of my favorite nights thus far. Dinner lasted about three/four hours and we talked for quite a while. We tried some raki (some Turkish anise-flavored drink you mix with water that was pretty good).

Final thoughts on Istanbul: it’s beautiful, so glad to meet up with Marissa & Ashley, Couchsurfing proved itself, anxious to get to India.

Oh! The ice cream! How could I forget the ice cream?!?! I mean, it was cheap in China, but in Istanbul, you get a performance when you order it! Also, it’s stickier than the ice cream in the states. Apparently it’s called dondurma, and it’s made from orchids. Go figure. It’s so much better than normal ice cream.

Next begins our journey to New Delhi and then to Kolkata. I don’t have time to write these right now, but believe me, it’s been an adventure.

First morning in Istanbul

The view from the restaurant on top of the hostel I'm staying at.

So I’m here in Istanbul, Turkey. I got in around noon yesterday, and I’m meeting up with Ashley and Marissa tonight. Istanbul is just as beautiful as everyone has said. Just look at that picture! If I turn around from that position, I see the Hagia Sofia two streets away!

The hostel I was at last night (Istanbul Hostel) was really great. Not the nicest, that goes to the hostel in Shanghai, but it has the best feel to it. Breakfast is included, and I woke up this morning to a cup of coffee, a plate with a block of feta cheese, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, a hardboiled egg, and all the French bread I wanted. And I ate it on the roof.

Fun story. You know the saying “It’s a small world.”? Well, traveling makes that saying sound dumb. Cities have similarities, but the time it takes to get everywhere and the vast differences in cultures make America seem very removed from the rest of the world. That is, until you realize that there are four other USC Class of ’11 grads staying at the same hostel you are in Turkey. It’s a small world.

Goodbye Xi’an (and the guy crying outside of the bus)

Traffic to the South Gate in the afternoon from the Bell Tower roundabout.

We’re on the bus to the airport, and this guy is standing outside crying because his girlfriend is on the bus with us. They’re talking on the phone. I have no idea where she’s going, this like a horrible chick-flick that Tim would watch.

Joel wants him to come on the bus with us and just fly with her wherever she’s going. I think they clearly need time apart.

So yes, we’re leaving Xi’an today and flying to Hong Kong. Xi’an was great, and for people who don’t speak Chinese, really easy to get around in. There’s no subway, but their busses are fine, and the city is walkable enough.

We started our two day stay by going to the Terra-cotta Army on Monday. Although our hostel had a tour group that goes everyday, we decided to go on our own so that we could go at our own speed and see what we wanted to see. As was recommended to us, we saw the three halls in reverse order (3-2-1) so that it’d get better as we went. If you ever go, definitely do the same. As for my impressions, I don’t think I have a very original take on the site, but it really is amazing that things like this were ever constructed. The army is considered the eighth wonder of the world for a reason.

We wandered around the center of the city for the afternoon and wound up in the Muslim Quarter. It’s essentially a big market with tons of little shops and restaurants to check out. Pretty much the perfect place to people-watch.

(side-note: I’m listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast right now, and this group BOBBY is incredible. The song called We Saw builds like the best of ’em.)

Yesterday was our walk-around-te-city day. We left the hostel around 10:30 (also, I’ve dedicated myself to making 24-hour time second nature before I get back) and took off for the Big Goose Pagoda which was outside of the city walls. Throughout the day, we hit up the Big and Little Goose Pagodas, an antique marketplace, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church, a Taoist temple, the Bell Tower, and wrapped up with dinner and haggling in the Muslim Quarter. I snagged a pair of super-real looking Ray Bans for 20¥ (the shop owner started at 170¥, so I’d consider that a successful buy.) It was a day filled with walking, and we were dead afterwards, but it was worth it.

Now we’re at the airport waiting to board our flight. Fun stuff.

Can’t wait to get to Hong Kong to meet up with Pat and Andrew again. We’re also going to see some old ‘SC CC (Catholic Center) friends Thomas Chow and Brian Lang.

Good ‘ole KFC (in Xi’an)

Don't judge. You can't understand until you've been here.

I know what youre thinking. He went all the way to China, and he’s eating KFC?! Believe me, I’ve been plenty adventurous when it comes to trying local food, but sometimes you just need a taste of American fast-food :) These crispy chicken sandwiches are better than I’ve had in the states, and like everything else in China, they’re cheap.

In other news, Joel and I split from Pat and Andrew a couple days ago when we flew to Xi’an and they to Hong Kong. The air polution isn’t as bad here as in Beijing or Shanghai, but it’s still noticable. Sunday afternoon, after checking in to our hostel, we walked around the area nearby the Bell and Drum Towers in the middle of the city.

While wandering around in a market, a bunch of young guys who were locked together with heavy metal chains ran by yelling, so naturally we ran along with the crowd to see what was up. We all wound up down a side alley onto what seemed like someone’s doorstep where some sort of party was hapenning. Not sure what the celebration was for, it could have been a protest for all we know, but it was more likely some sort of engagement party (what else could the chains mean?) or something like that.

The city seems pretty cool so far; really touristy, but clean nonetheless. I’ll update more on Xi’an in a bit, possibly while sitting in the airport waiting to go to Hong Kong.


Roof view out of the Shanghai hostel

Not sure if this qualifies yet, but it’s raining cats & dogs out there right now.

Love me some summer thunderstorms :)

Patio of our Shanghai hostel (pretty nice place)