Traveling the world, for me, involves a lot of jumping tracks. Getting used to one city, or one country’s vibe, and then — all aboard! — thundering (or occasionally, tumbling) into a whole different world. An entirely new situation, complete with new rules and nuances to learn.
“Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens.” ~ Frank Herbert
In November, my eighth month of travel, the clacking tracks of change transported me from chill, cheery Indonesia to intense, mesmerizing India, then onward into the welcoming arms of sweet Sri Lanka.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m running headless-chicken-style down the tracks from the station, arms flailing, backpack flopping, futilely hollering Waaaaait!! as I struggle to catch the caboose. Other times, I’m the cool, calm conductor whose ridden these rails for forty years, knows every turn, every bump, and is surprised by nothing.
This month has been packed with track switches — challenges and changes that have jarred me nearly to the verge of mental whiplash.
Let me illustrate it this way…
Illustration #1: Down and Out in Paradise
“What are your symptoms?” asked the doctor, a fresh-faced Balinese woman whose sweet, smiling mannerisms belied the enveloping stark iciness of the hospital emergency room in Kuta, the island’s capitol city.
I shifted on the hard, crackly paper-blanketed table. “Textbook malaria.” I said lethargically, self-pityingly, as I clutched my tortured belly. “Flu-like; temperature, nausea, stomach pain, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, etc.” I rattled off the terminology I’d memorized from WebMD’s “Malaria symptoms” list.
I’d initially felt the hot, bellicose breath of death two days earlier, while staying on turquoise-rimmed Gili Air Island, near the sunny coast of Bali. It occurred to me, as I writhed miserably on the bed beneath a mosquito net in my adorable tiki hut hotel room, that I had been rather neglecting my malaria pills.
Truthfully, I hadn’t downed a single one — at any point —during my travels through a few slight Asian malaria zones in Nepal, Cambodia and now Indonesia. Because they’re horse pills. I hate taking pills, particularly enormous ones. I’d also rarely applied my mosquito repellant because its fragrance is redolent of a strong (perhaps French?) industrial-strength cleaner. And now I very likely had malaria. Way to go, me.
The timing of my impending demise was exceptionally bad, as I was scheduled to board a flight to India in 16 hours.
The following morning, a thick airborne ash cloud spewed by local volcano Mount Rinjani grounded all flights in and out of Bali. The next two days were also no-gos, which, in a bizarre silver lining, bought me needed time to rest.
More good news: the malaria test had come back negative. The doctor had scribbled a note on the lab results, sent to me via email: “Likely ‘Bali belly'” — it was signed and punctuated with a hand-drawn smiley face.
By the time I finally successfully boarded the plane to Delhi, I’d never felt healthier.
Illustration #2 ‘Pop’ Goes the Holiday
The first rule of Diwali preparation in India is: there are no rules. Especially where transportation is involved.
I’ve come to believe that at no other time is the conflict between man, motor, cow, and monkey as harrowing as during this five-day Hindu holiday, which officially kicked off shortly following my arrival in Delhi.
It’s during this period that the everyday miasma of horns, wheels, hooves, burning haze, etc. is freighted with the added catalyst of thick crowds shopping for last-minute gifts, sweets, strings of flowers (mainly marigolds, sold in great heaps), and fireworks.
It was marginally controlled pandemonium. It was fascinating and new and thrilling…in a fairly terrifying kind of way.
Just before the sun dimmed on Dhanteras, the first night of Diwali, I made a rapid retreat to my hostel, as sternly instructed by the staff (who made me repeat after them: “I promise to be back before dark.”). In doing so, I was trading in the madness of the daytime streets for an electric chaos that was brewing all across Delhi.
The hostel’s fifth-story terrace offered a sublime vantage point. My friend Rachel and I smuggled up cheap Italian white wine poured into empty plastic water bottles (booze is frowned upon at the hostel) and dragged elaborate fan-shaped wicker chairs to the railing.
The glow of countless colored lights — some unblinking, some dancing and flashing hypnotically — embellished the terrace, as well as doorways and windows to the fuzzy horizon.
In a dirt park across the street below — which throughout each day served alternately as a cricket field, volleyball court, and soccer field — boys placed lit tea candles and slow-burning flares on the ground to illuminate their workspace.
Their spinning rockets seared the air, their snappers emitted satisfying pops and sparks, and their exploding “bombs” reset my heartbeat and turned my nerves to live wires with every sky-cracking boom. It wasn’t long, however, before their small-time display was completely drowned out and overshadowed by a genuinely awe-inspiring 360-degree light show.
Vasu, the startlingly tall, surfer-haired Indian who runs the hostel excitedly handed out sparklers to Rachel and I, plus another guest — an intense Polish man called Krzysztof; a tattooed, shaved-head artist-type who had been living at the hostel for around a month. He immediately set to work, taking multitudes of one-handed artsy shots with his camera of the hot sparks flying from his other hand.
Firecrackers sprayed enchanted blooms of brightness above our heads for a long time, seeming to still the frenetic city, for a while at least. A feeling of assuredness washed over me.
Illustration #3: Giving Thanks in Kandy Land
November 26th was the American holiday of Thanksgiving. If you’re not familiar with this particular holiday, the tradition primarily involves gathering together with loved ones to consume vast quantities of turkey and other foods, like pie. Secondarily, the idea is to show gratitude for all the positive things in your life.
I’d celebrated it every other year of my life surrounded by family — or in later years, after I moved to San Francisco, by friends.
This year, I was spending it mostly on a train. The blue goliath chugged slowly and surely eastward from the capitol of Colombo on the western coast to the central mountain town of Kandy. I sat by the window, next to a kind-eyed Sri Lankan woman wearing a lovely gold and purple sari.
“Is it your first time in Sri Lanka?” she asked in perfect English.
I’d been gawking slightly slack jawed with my camera poised, as dramatically lit mountain vistas flowed past my window. I told her yes, that I’d landed in Colombo just a few days earlier.
She nodded, smiling warmly. A moment later, as I raised my camera to my eye again, trying to get a shot through the dense trees crowding near the track, she leaned in and pointed at the window. “The most beautiful view is coming up. Perhaps if you go to the door, you can photograph it more easily?”
I thanked her and followed her suggestion, staggering toward the gaping doorway between the cars. Carefully, I slid down to sit as close to the edge as I dared. As soon as I did, the jungle suddenly dropped away, opening up into an epic landscape of mountains and valleys that extended forever.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m running down the tracks, struggling to catch the caboose. Other times, I’m the cool, calm conductor.
Despite the track jumping I’ve experienced in my travels lately, I’m grateful for the changes and the challenges. Sometimes I need the bumps in the rail to wake me up, to open my eyes and my mind. They make me appreciate everything that has gone right.
After the train pulled into Kandy Railway Station, I headed to the nearest cafe, completely ravenous. There I sat, chowing down not on Thanksgiving turkey, but a delicious chicken curry. Halfway through, I remembered to pause for a moment and give thanks for all the unspeakably wonderful things in my life.
Stay tuned for upcoming stories and photographs from my current destination: Sri Lanka!