April 4, 2009

It's gonna be a long one!

We're back to cheap Internet!! So, where I last left off....

Oh Kolkata...

Being in Goa, and the south and the tropical paradise, "easy" version of India made it easy to forget the social problems, poverty and pollution of the rest of the country. They still exist in these areas, of course, but the sparkle of the ocean and the fresh seafood make it easy to give that little extra push to get those pesky problems out of our minds. But arriving to Kolkata on March 13 thrust those things full force front and center into our minds and the days in Kolkata were surprisingly hard for me. I'd gotten to used to the easy India and it was hard to adjust. Kolkata gave me the overall first impression of being dirty, polluted, and in various states of decay with this feeling of aggressiveness in the air. I was only there one day, and we are headed back in a couple days, so I know this is just first impression, and I'm willing to give the city another chance, but this is what I thought about it upon first arriving. Kolkata is generally associated with abject poverty and disease, since most of us are only able to reference Kolkata joined with Mother Theresa and her work, and it's as if the city knows its reputation and is fighting against it, but has given up, half giving into the bad parts, half rebelling against them in a mean aggressive, cynical way. There were some nice parts-government buildings and homes of ruling leaders, but all heavily guarded and fenced in.

We arrived to the airport of Kolkata from the south of India and after the usual search for "driver who will rip us off the least" we were taken to a guesthouse, checked into a somewhat dirty, windowless room, and headed into the city center. We walked around Sudder Street, the obvious center for travellers, the market areas, and ended the day with the Kali Temple and Mother Theresa's hospice. Walking around, we were constantly approached by beggars, which quickly began to take it's toll..."no, I can't give you anything, but in 20 minutes, I'm going to spend 50 rupees on an ice cream that I don't need". The guilt factor reared it's head again, but there were so many of them, this overwhelming feeling of helplessness began to take hold of me. I mean, even if we could give 100 rupees to each of them, what would it solve? The only way I could handle it was to be pretty cold to all of them, giving them a firm NO, or just ignoring them, but that act also got to me quickly, because honestly, they-we- are just trying to get through life, why should I treat them badly or meanly just because I've been dealt a better hand? But how can we help everyone or even 1% of them? There were just too many people in need. Also, the staring and overwhelming majority of men in the streets really got to me in Kolkata. Walking through the markets, there were areas in which I was literally the only woman within sight, and in which almost every set of male eyes were trained on me, something that gets very intimidating, extremely quickly. And the driving! It seemed that every driver was in a contest to a) get to their destination faster than anyone else gets to theirs, and b) to get the closests to hitting all pedestrians as possible, bonus points for causing the look of sheer ohmygodthey're going to hit me, panic in their eyes speeding by...but we're back to Kolkata in two days, I'm open to changing my opinion of the city!

which bring me to...


Beautiful, peaceful Bhutan!! Bhutan is everything that India isn't, and vice versa and going from Kolkata to Paro on March 16 made the HUGE differences between the two countries even more stark. Arriving to Bhutan is an experience in itself - we were on this plane that felt super powerful, and about 30 minutes before landing we began to make these twists and turns that must have meant something was wrong because on a commercial plane...?? but no, it was just one of the 8 pilots in the world certified to land at the airport weaving his way through the mountains. A glance out the window confirmed that we were, indeed, thisclose to a mountain, and it looked like we could reach out and touch the trees! The friendly guy from New Zealand sitting next us at one point turned to me and said "there couldn't have been more than 40 meters between us and those powerlines!!" Now, I suck at judging distance, and can't really picture what 40 meters is, but I'm going to say that when I'm on a 737, going through the mountains, I want triple digits to be used when describing the space between said plane and mountains! After landing safely, and a collective sigh of relief, we stepped off the plane, onto the tarmac of the airport that is literally nestled in the valley of two mountains, the airport building itself is so picturesque that I swore it was either a mirage or we made a mistake and had landed in the backyard of some Bhutanese mansion. So we passed through customs, got our bags, and exited the airport to soemthing that seemed SO luxurious after 1 month of backpacking through India-a car, a driver, and a guide, with a smile waiting just for us!! What? this pretty SUV is for Sergio and I, just us?? What? It has AC and a suspension system? What? you are carrying my bag for me? and WHAT? you are our driver and our guide and you guys aren't trying to take advantage of us??? Crazy.

Tashi, our guide, and Sonam, our driver took us to our first hotel and the room was so pretty I almost cried. Again, after the time in India, everything was a luxury! sheets! towels! hot water, toilet paper!! I was ready to pledge my undying love and devotion to that first bed, I was in heaven the second I climbed in! The room was so nice and decorated so beautifully. Our first day in Bhutan was great, we visited my first Buddist monastary, and I loved the feelings of peace and calm that washed over me as soon as we walked in. It was as if everything petty and irritating melted away. In the afternoon, after a delicious lunch, in an old fort at the top of a hill, Sergio and I turned to each other and said, "hear that? silence!!" After India, a country that's like the radio turned on full blast, the sweet sound of nothing was a nice change of pace. Everything about Bhutan was a calm peaceful opposite to India. Where India is loud, busy, chaotic, dirty, frantic and full speed in your face, Bhutan is peaceful, clean, calm, and lays its presence our for you to stumble upon whenever you are ready. That first day, I marvelled at the clean mountain air (each breath like a balm for my poor polluted lungs), at the crystal clear river that ran through Paro, at the sweet silence that only the occasional bird felt the need to break and just felt so much at peace. India is great with all its experiences, more happens in one minute in India than anywhere else in the world, I believe, but the peacefulness of Bhutan was also great.

We had a guide for the entire 10 days we were in Bhutan, and ours, Tashi, was the best guide we could have hoped for, around our age, friendly, easy going and such a curious mixture of Westen entrepreneurship, antique Buddist belief, and modern thinking that after most encounters, we were left scratching our heads in confusion. First, he told us the basic teachings of Buddism with such seriousness and religious zeal that I though only an almost monk type of person would deliver, then later, told us about fights betwwen him and his grandfather caused by his questions about the religion. Or, watching him spend 5 minutes trying to move a big butterfly from the middle of a square to a grassy patch on the side because "he might get stepped on", but then hearing him tell us stories about his get rich quick schemes in university over a cup of Bhutanese alchohol. He was an interesting mix of Bhutanese culture and Western mentality, and I think, a perfect match for us.

Overall, Bhutan was beautiful and peaceful, that beauty and peace becoming more profound due to a sense of delicacy and fragility of the country, as if, if they're not careful, all the tradition, culture, and uniqueness could be swept away in an instant. Part of the greatness of Bhutan was the feeling of peering into an unspoiled culture that may only remain like that for a few more years. Already, scenes of pristine rivers with green mountains and animals grazing in pastures in the valley below are interrupted by powerlines, the cloud of pollution from a passing bus, or the foundation for a new, big building. I found myself torn, the Western capitalist within me was shouting yes! any advancement or development that improves the lives of the people is a good thing! Electricity, new construction methods, better information and education, it's all progress, it creates an easier way of life! But unfortunately, that ease takes away tradition, who will continue to do something by hand when there is a machine to do it? The other side of me shouted, keep your isolation! Each electricity pole or internet cafe seemed like a garish imposition on the landscape, completely out of place and unwelcome. Even as a tourist, it was almost an invasion of privacy to this unique country.

The greatest thing that came out of our Bhutan visit was the clarification of Buddhism for me. Before our trip, Buddhism was this mysterious Eastern religion to me, full of meditating monks and ancient scripts, something beautiful, but completely distant from me, but Bhutan offered me an informal lesson on Buddhism, especially conversations with our guide humanizing it and making it real and I have to admit the religion is appealing to me. I could never stop being a Catholic, Catholicism is a piece of who I am, more than simply a religion, it's a part of my upbringing, my culture, and inherent part of me. Even though, I disagree with a lot of what the Church says, I feel like converting from a Catholic would be turning my back on my culture, on my mom's culture, on myself, and I feel like my relationship with the Church is like that of a grandparent or parent with whom I disagree because of ideological differences, but who has had such an important influence on who I am that I could never go away from them. So anyway, that's my story, but Buddhism really called out to me during the time in Bhutan. I really identify with its peaceful nature, its message, everything. We were lucky enough to see a ritual being performed on the first day, in a monastery, and the voices of the 20 or so monks chanting in prayer was a deeply spiritual experience.

After Bhutan, we were thrust back into the real world, in the form of Kathmandu, Nepal where we spent five days.

Now we're back in India, back to cheap internet, and back to updating the blog more often! Upon arriving to Varanasi, on the drive from the airport to the city center, just to show that we were indeed back in India, we saw a house with huge speakers blasting loud music apparently just because they could, a boy on a bicycle carrying what appeared to be the entire front end of a semi-truck, and were stopped at an intersection for a good 10 minutes because a herd of water buffalo were crossing the street in the city. Welcome back!

More later, but your eyes must be tired of reading for now, so will post again soon about impressions of Nepal and Varanasi!

Next it's back to Kolkata and then a flight to Bangkok to go to Myanmar (our visas came through)!

Love and beijinhos to everyone!!


  1. Sérgio! Sou a Joana a prima da tua prima Ana Filipa Soares.
    Soube ontem desta tua aventura estou aqui de, alguma forma, a apoiar-te, nesta tua grande viagem espiritual pelo mundo.
    Vê tudo e vai contando. Eu que aqui estou, invejo-te confesso.
    beijos, Até breve,
    Joana Moreira

  2. Hi Guys, it's a trip not to forget!!! Lucky you! We wish you both lots of happiness and all the best. Uncle Ni and aunt Isabel