Bath – inarguably one of the most romantic cities I’ve visited, made even more so by the wedding we were there to attend.
Utterly enchanting, and surprisingly hipster, this picturesque town 1.5 hours from London is my new place du jour. Gothic architecture sprinkled with tea rooms and hidden passages, it’s easy to envision the 1800s high society life that burgeoned here, and before that, a countryside retreat for the Romans.
Having no shortage of literary masterminds, England is a physical bookstore, with Bath being an appropriate homage to Jane Austen. After ambling down those cobblestone streets, it’s no wonder her mind and her pen made even the most cynic amongst us slightly more zealous with the notions of love.
Outside of the wedding, we had languid, sunny days of coffee, pain au chocolat and sightseeing. Our B&B was the ultimate in English charm, with rose-covered walls and warm homemade breakfast. The pubs, great selection of beers, and variety of cuisines take Bath from historic tourist town to liveable and eclectic. For a city that was first established as a spa, the feelings of relaxation and wellness are abundant throughout.
The four days flew by and I find myself wishing I was back there, croissant in hand, transported to a time where dreamers dreamed, writers wrote, and Romans bathed.
What are men compared to rocks and mountains? – Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
4205 meters above sea level – where birds drift on wind currents, the air is charged with energy reverberating from surrounding monasteries, and the only sound you can hear is your own breathing…
Our last minute trip to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India, found us snuggled in the lap of the Himalayas, with nothing but rock, glaciers, and the rawness of Mother Nature as our companions.
With no expectations going into this trip that was planned two days prior, every minute managed to amaze me. Each day we would ascend higher and higher, leaving civilization, along with plentiful oxygen, behind. Hiking along the border of India and Tibet, dipping our feet into roaring rivers of ice cold glacier water, riding shaggy yaks, visiting the highest village and highest post office in the world, driving along the most treacherous road in the world, and getting our fill of delicious momos was just the tip of the mountain top.
Our guide, familiar with the entire region, and friendly with the monks, took us to heights reaching beyond altitude. His trained eye helped us spot the rare “blue sheep”. Living high in the Himalayan crests and seldom coming down, they are almost impossible to find. Legend says that upon seeing one, your kismet will be great and luck will be yours.
We visited 8 monasteries, each in its own style and size. While some were tucked away on the tip of a cliff, others were in the valleys – simple structures that had been there for thousands of years. The monastery in Komic was eye-opening and amazing. Set up in the passes, with the snow-capped Hindu Kush as the backdrop, the monks here shared a brotherhood that lasted from when they all arrived at the monastery at 10 years of age. Completely in contrast by their flowing red robes topped with ski jackets and sunglasses, these monks were the ultimate in cool. Joking around with us, offering orange pekoe tea and asking about life in Bombay, the peace that surrounded their behaviour was so alluring. Kaza Monastery was new, colourful, and captivating. Arriving just after the sun rose for the first Morning Prayer, we witnessed the tiniest monks, aged 5 and up running to the balconies of the temple, blowing into a conch shell, signaling prayer time. The prayer itself was unlike anything we’d ever heard before, talkative chants, with the lama leading the verses. We were given Tibetan butter tea, rich and salty to help keep us warm. At Pin Valley Monastery, we were warmed with tea, prayers, and the smiles of female monks, blending into the room with their shaved heads and crimson robes.
With the landscape changing from green foliage, to brown rock, we truly felt like we were on another planet. Trees were non-existent, and instead we found small shrubs and fish fossils from the days the mountains slept under the sea. With absolutely no network, and often no electricity or hot water, we were totally removed from the world. Save for the comforting presence of our driver, the three of us were immersed in a beautiful cadence of rock, river and self-reflection. And while on this road to reflection, I thought about so many things. How personal traveling is, especially to indigenous areas, and at home, how distant we are from reality. No cell phone service and we were cut off from the “real world?” No. This was the real world. Raw and unforgiving. Alone, we wouldn’t stand a chance. While I continue to partly feel guilt at commodifying culture, I recognize that photography is visual storytelling, and these photographs are just a recount of my experience.
If being a product of your environment is true, then peace surrounded my soul. Stars, mountains, and meditation – ten days in the Himalayas was barely enough.
Bombay – the bustling Indian city by the sea, the one that never sleeps. The one where there are only two seasons – sweltering humid heat or intense monsoon rain. For the past five months I’ve called this city my home, and every day continues to fascinate me. A car ride isn’t just getting from point A to B, but offers snippets of a culture that juxtaposes modernity with tradition. Bullock carts weave in and out of traffic pulling supplies while the owner sits atop checking his cellphone. Five star hotels catering to the rich are nestled in between chawls, while the slum dogs look on. A city of oxymorons and constant wonder, half a year in and I’ve barely lifted the veil.
With the internship I came here for finished in 4 months, my current freelance schedule has allowed me to take time to explore the areas of the city that intrigued me the most. First was a trip to the buzzing Crawford Market. Everything and anything you need is available – from buckles to plastic sheets, to imported food, to fairy lights. Men walk around with large circular baskets for you to put your packages in, so you can continue to shop while they follow you around lugging the load. With this being the first foray into the interior life of the city, we were overwhelmed and thus marked tourists with our poor bargaining skills. Next was Chor Bazaar, or the Thieves Market – a dwindling bazaar that was once the place to get antiques and knick knacks. The famous Mutton Street where only a discerning eye can tell antique from replica is lined with tiny shops and their Muslim proprietors.
Dharavi has been named the most densely populated place in the world, as well as Asia’s largest slum. These two facts were enough to both intrigue yet intimidate me. The thought of venturing into the slums always conjured up images of claustrophobic alleyways, suffocating heat, and sketchy people. The visit to Dharavi was enlightening, not to mention humbling. The alleyways provided shade from the unyielding sun, and rather than being cramped, they were relatively cool and easy to walk through. The production that takes place is amazing –everything from baking and fabric dying, to printing presses and clothing for export. Despite this being a slum, tea and beverages were kindly offered to us, in the classic way Indians are so hospitable and good-natured regardless of their circumstances.
My most recent and that too solo adventure was to the 140 year old Dhobi Ghat. Deemed the world’s largest open-air, human powered Laundromat, the Dhobi Ghat is lined with cement troughs and washing basins, where the washers or dhobis beat the dirt out of Mumbai’s soiled laundry. The washing basins are lined with the houses of workers, making the entire expanse feel like a big joint family, with children running in between hanging shirts, and men taking a bath beside the spinning machines.
I’ve recently felt conscious of my camera and have hesitated greatly in using it. The things that I find fascinating are the everyday norm for so much of the city’s population, and that too a norm that is a harsh reality. In trying to capture this, I’ve often felt like I’m objectifying them and further intruding on their privacy, something which they as it is, have very little of. I struggled with finding the balance between being a photographer who takes unreal photographs, and being a humanitarian who is understanding. I missed some great shots with this internal battle, but as I continued to venture around with my camera, I realized how open many people were to my taking pictures, and how it was a source of excitement and fun, especially when I showed them the snap after. I took a picture of a woman washing shirts, and her friend joked and said she would be famous. She said “Good, the world should know how hard we have to work to eat.” So world, here are the people of Bombay, the labourers, who work behind the scenes, barely being noticed but whom this city could not do without.
New York is one of the most well-known cities in the world. Iconic beacons such as Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park are all points of interest you can identify without even having visited the city. This trip however, resulted in a more authentic experience, as I stayed with my high school friend in the not-what-I-imagined-it-to-be Harlem, spent time with a Shanghai turned Chilean bestie, and indulged in drool-worthy macarons with my architect cousin. Besides copious amounts of free-flow boozy brunches and (trust me, they were happy) hours, walking around the city, and becoming well-acquainted with the 2/3 line, showed me a side of the city that I hadn’t had the chance to yet experience. A mix of old and new experiences with old and new friends – I’ll let the pictures say the rest.
This day holds a lot of weight for me – January 21st. I’m a big believer in everything happening for a reason and that no matter what, everything does come full circle. Loose ends tie up and coincidences don’t exist. It’s hard to imagine that a year ago I was a delusional traveler, thinking the world was mine, laughing in the face of danger. Life decided it was time to test me, and just like that I was stripped of everything that was worth anything to me. All it took was an overconfident me ignoring every warning sign in my gut and a skilled pair of thieves trying to make it in an overpopulated Thai city. A tuk-tuk ride and a vicious snatch resulted in pure disbelief. Did those men really just zoom away with my entire purse?! Camera, iPhone, money, every piece of ID I had, passport – doesn’t this only happen to people you read about and laugh at because who is actually stupid enough to carry everything on them? Why I felt my SIN card would come in handy in South East Asia is beyond me. My years of traveling made me scoff at money belts, judge those who lost things, and gave me an unreasonable amount of cockiness.
It was such a dizzying feeling, knowing that my purse contents were most likely already being sold in underground markets somewhere and my identity was quickly being turned into a way out for a nice Thai girl. After the initial shock wore off and I continued my travels (lighter in my hands, but heavier in my heart), I oddly began to feel a sense of liberation. I didn’t miss my cellphone, and for someone who has dedicated a blog to photography, I almost felt relieved without my camera. I was focused on just taking it in, rather than scrambling to get the best picture. We’re so weighed down by physical things that we kind of forget to live in the moment. So much of traveling and life has become sharing on social media, and only when we’re satisfied with the number of likes a picture gets do we feel as though what we’re doing is cool. I thought back to a week before in Cambodia, and how the best moments I had were the ones I didn’t document. The tuk-tuk ride to Angkor Wat at 4 am for the sunrise, waiting with a hushed crowd for the first rays of dawn to come up over the temple, being serenaded in Khmer by our hostel owners as a special birthday treat, hitting up seaside hut parties and finding a secret path to a virtually untouched beach, trusting a Cambodian man to get us over the border into Thailand faster than the officials. None of that was documented, but the snapshots are forever in my head.
Then I started to think about my life, and how I’ve noticed that my karma is immediate. If I do something wrong, I am reprimanded a few days later, and similarly, I’m quickly rewarded for good behaviour. There is no waiting for my next life. Losing my stuff was almost a positive. It was cleansing, and one that was needed. Almost all the contents were attached to someone, who on this day exactly two years ago made me realize a lot about life and love. While I mourned a loss that day, a year later, sitting in a Thai police station, I mourned again. But I think it was life’s way of telling me to finally start fresh. The purse was gone and therefore the connection to that person had faded. Just let it go. The test results were in – did that confident traveler exist underneath the facade? She was there. Not without the help of her faithful friends and still a little fragile, but she was there. Wiser, humbler, and secure in the fact that karma had come full circle and closed an end that was frayed too long.
Despite the months that have passed, I find myself (amongst other fellow restless Shanghai returnees) nostalgic for that Chinese city that hooked me. The opportunity to see a friend visiting from there was too good to pass up, so after a large debate on travel modes and a flight booked the night before, we were on our way to Chicago. A Chi-nese reunion in Chi-Town – pretty much paralleled our year away, complete with unpleasant weather, lots of drinks, eating too much, sky high views, and the fetchest of girls.
4 day roundup: Weight (personal and baggage): significantly stuffed; Number of skillet baked cookies: 1; Number of international calls made to those missed around the world: 4; Amount of pizza eaten: deep dish and then some; Number of Mad Scientist/Mister Frizzle lookalikes: 1 too many; Overall experience: cool beans . Hmm where to next?
Upon returning home after a year away, every person I’ve encountered has had one common question –what was the best part? I feel silly and always stumble, because despite anticipating the question, I cannot come up with a suitable answer. How do you sum up a year of your life in one sentence? I need paragraphs, a novel really, and even that’s not sufficient. Someone told me to just show pictures, which has proven to attempt to say what I’m unable to. But how do I account for the sweet old man who sat on the corner every day in his makeshift shoe repair shop, giving me a nod of recognition every morning? Or our street noodle guy, who upon walking to his stall immediately began preparations for a veggie chao fan without me having to tell him my order? Or how after an exhausting day of sightseeing in Siem Reap, our hostel staff insisted we sit with them, have wine and raw mango with spicy sauce, so that they could celebrate my birthday with me? Or the time we literally walked into Thailand across the Thai-Cambodia border? How do I explain how I felt when I was stranded in Bangkok, passport –camera – phone and money-less, only to put my troubles aside because playing with baby tigers and riding elephants was far more important than gaining back my identity? Or that first day of school where 50 expectant 8 year olds’ eyes were focused on me, waiting for me to start the class, and me having absolutely no idea what I was doing…? It was collectively, the most stimulating and exhausting year I’ve had. Physically, mentally, emotionally, I was drained – and I’ve never been happier.
While I’m still uncertain if I’ve truly found myself, whatever that means, I have come away different. What was the best part? I’d have to say the struggle – which initially made me cry with frustration, but slowly became easier with every day, and by the end of it, wasn’t even something to think about. Rather it is something to celebrate. A Canadian-Indian, non-Mandarin speaking vegetarian lived in the most populated country in the world – hell ya.
I think the two major lessons I’ve learned are as follows: 1. Always, always, always listen to your gut. It’s never wrong. Ever. 2. Don’t give a shit about what other people think, because in the grand scheme of things, who the hell really cares. Oh and something I would have been a wreck without: 3. Meditate – you are the only one who knows your center, and to get there, look inside yourself to keep things in balance.
Some of the incidents (of a long list) that occurred and that make me smile when looking back:
Feeling like a celebrity everywhere you go because of the wide eyed amazement and stares received from curious locals
Feeling like a local when you spot another foreigner because of the wide eyed amazement and stares you give them
The morning metro commute – when push comes to shove, they’ll do both
Learning and adopting the art of being a pro metro seat snatcher
Being punched in my “nether region” by a kid who thought that was an appropriate response to “hello”
Signing a contract for an apartment solely using profuse gesturing and charades
The realization that essentially every animal is available on a stick
Never fully knowing whether your school lunch is meat, vegetables or plastic
Getting the “friend” price at the bargain market
12 months, 5 countries, 23 cities, and an unaccountable number of experiences. Shanghai, I will be back.