4095.2 meters, Mt Kinabalu

While finally reaching the summit was exhilarating, it was the memory of darkness slowly descending upon the forest as April and I climbed the final steps together back to Timpohon Gate that was the most memorable for me. Definitely a trip that made us realize “you win some, you lose some”. In this case, we reached the summit but didn’t make the cutoff time for the Via Ferrata (consequently forfeiting the money we paid because we had underestimated Mt Kinabalu/overestimated ourselves). And in addition, because of twisting my left knee, I had to ask someone to carry me for the last 1.5 km of the trail before the 1 km mark. Not only was it embarrassing, but it also felt like a personal defeat. But walking the final 1 km together with April, even at a snail’s pace and in pain, was what felt like the real achievement. A lot of respect and gratitude goes to our mountain guide, Alfred – and the rest of the guides and community in Mt Kinabalu that keep the park clean.

On another note, Mount Kinabalu’s summit was definitely breathtaking.

 

 

The long way to and through Iran

 Permission

“Tin is going to Iran. Stop her.”

My dad found out about my plans to go to Iran through my brother. I had plotted to make my dad think that I was going to tell him news along the lines of me having a boyfriend/me running away with a man/me being pregnant. The plan was then to take all the worry away by letting him know I’m just going to Iran to travel. My brother, ever weak in getting hints, failed to get on board with my strategy and told my dad about it before I could. “I would think he would be more worried if you travelled to Iran than if you actually had a boyfriend LOL”, he answered me over text when I confronted him about his misalignment. “Whatever”, I replied. When I finally called my dad to tell him the news I’d been holding back for a few days in suspense, he already knew it and berated me for a while on the phone. Just a minute perhaps, and he finally said “Just make sure you join a tour group.” I was surprised that that was all it took and thought he’s finally learned to accept my taste for adventure although I did feel a tinge of guilt that I was making him worry. In reality I bought the tickets months beforehand but wanted to spare my dad the sleepless nights knowing how he was. But I couldn’t not tell him either – so it was before my birthday or never. Roughly two months before the trip. At least he’ll have to forgive me on the 1st of October.

That was the end of it, or so I thought. Until I realized my dad had launched a campaign behind my back with all my aunts and uncles. The first line on this blog post was the only clue I got that this was about to start – he sent that to our extended family chat. Soon enough, my aunts and uncles and cousins started sending me messages to dissuade me from going. There was war, was I crazy, I was tempting fate, was I testing God, I was wasting my life, etc. I tried to tell them as much as I could that “It’s just a vacation, relax”. “Why not go to Dubai? To Europe? There’s tons of other places other than Iran?” And that was exactly the reason why – why would I go to all those cliché places? It was hard to explain that those places didn’t interest me at all. And that I wasn’t traveling to go on a holiday, I was traveling to experience something different and write about it. I wasn’t naive though – I did read the news. I did worry when that oil tanker exploded, and the Saudi oil plant got attacked, and new sanctions were imposed. But it was hard to let go of that dream when I already made the decision months ago . I just had to take that calculated chance. And being calculative was what I thought I was good at.

The planning

Although I had already tried lessening planning on my last solo travel, I felt the burden to ensure my safety in this trip, if only for my dad. Otherwise I could have allowed more room for uncertainty. But my dad was on fire and I had to douse that fear with a detailed itinerary. As Ray told me “Just when your dad thought nothing else could beat India, you come up with Iran”.

I started planning a month before my trip although I bought my tickets 5 months ahead. I built my spreadsheet by first deciding on the places I’ll cover (the most difficult part because there were so many beautiful places I had to choose from. I cried a little inside when I took off Qeshm island and Kurdistan from my list), my accommodations, and lastly deciding whether I was booking tour guides or not. All of this I did mostly within one entire Saturday locked up in my room with just muesli for breakfast/lunch/dinner. The rest of the time leading up to the trip was spent tying any loose ends. But going to Iran wasn’t something routine, I had to worry about the visa (potentially getting banned from USA and Israel), the dress code, and any other special nuisance that I could potentially run into. For the visa, I could get it on-arrival or pay for a visa authorization code through someone based in Iran to get a pre-approved visa. So the next step was to look for someone to do that. I had no Iranian friends, and I knew no one close who had Iranian friends. It meant that I had to crowdsource for information on See you in Iran’s Facebook (the most popular Facebook group for traveling to Iran – it’s equally filled with both genuine travelers and tour guides constantly offering services through DMs and friend requests), scour through multiple conversation threads, and read reviews/stalk people to assess if they were a good choice or not. This was how I “virtually met” Aryani, another Filipino who had been to Iran and offered to get her friend, Baba Abi, to get me the code for free. Aryani also kindly gave me a lot of advice for my trip, and I’m extremely thankful for her unconditional help. While it was really nice of them, as I wasn’t that keen on inconveniencing someone I didn’t know, I thought to look for an alternative option myself. Apart from that, patience wasn’t one of my stronger suits. There were too many choices so a systematic search was impossible, I just went with my intuition and luckily I found Amin from TasteIran. I used TasteIran to get the code (for peace of mind and because I did not want to face the possibility of getting denied entry). When I first filled out their application form and got reverted to a page to make payment without the standard “https”, I decided not to pay. “This might be a phishing website”, I thought. I gave it up and decided to maybe just ask Aryani’s help, but then Amin texted me that I had an incomplete application form and that I could complete the payment using the link he sent. Amin called me “Tankeh”, my middle name, because I had erroneously auto-filled the form with my middle name as my first name. I corrected him that my name was Christine, and being skeptical and at times too honest, I told him flat out that the payment site didn’t seem secure so I wasn’t comfortable putting my credit card details. Naturally Amin tried to assure me that it was secure. “How do I confirm the visa code I get from you is real?” I risked being rude but I just had to ask it. Amin kindly told me that foreigners can check the code at the official Foreign Ministry of Iran’s website. I ran a quick search and judged it as true, so I planned to just monitor my credit card bill for any other strange transactions and decided to continue with payment. When I finally met Amin in Iran, he recounted this conversation we had as something so funny for him – and that he was actually travelling in Nepal at that moment with his wife, Hanieh, preparing to sleep for an early trek. He decided to pursue my application because I was of course a potential client, and thank god he didn’t give up even when I asked those things. I didn’t plan on getting them as a tour agency, but Amin was so helpful and always responded to my Whatsapp messages. So when it was getting too late to make my own detailed itinerary for each city, I decided to make my life easier and just go for them to get individual tour guides in some cities. Their mission was to provide unique local experiences through sustainable tourism and upon inspection of their website and reviews, it felt genuine enough. That was to be confirmed in Iran, but in any case it was good to support their tourism industry, and I knew I didn’t know enough about Iran to think I can do without guides in some places. If I got conned, well that was part of the risk. Amin kept calling me Tankeh even after I corrected him, and I only decided to correct him again that it was Christine when we finally agreed on a plan – my reinforcing my correct identity signifying my decision to trust him. I got Iranian insurance from them (it was another requirement, and it had to be from an Iranian company) as well as an Iranian debit card (DaricPay). Amin allowed me to dictate the tours that I wanted, he never tried to hard-sell anything to me and that was why I found it easy to trust him. I emphasized that although I wanted tour guides, I valued my independent experience. That was why I booked all my accommodations and transport separately. He helped me book a couple of bus tickets and a plane ticket, things that definitely saved me time. Just to add variety, I decided to get an altogether different tour guide in Tehran – Ali. I also found Ali from the See you in Iran FB page, and when I tried talking to him he seemed indifferent enough to whether I’d get him or not. Always a good sign, so I decided to arrange my Tehran experience with him. When that was all set (not without a lot of questions and answers between me and Amin and Ali, bless their patience), I proceeded to plan what to wear as it had a more restrained dress code than India, and what to bring as tokens for the people I’d meet (I settled with chocolates and Abi, Aryani’s friend who I agreed to meet even if I didn’t get the code from him, had made it easy for me by specifically requesting for 40 packs of Mi Goreng – Indonesian instant noodles. I got him 20 packs lest the Iranian immigration think I was going to sell them for profit). That necessitated me to carry a suitcase, otherwise I risked breaking all the noddles before reaching. “A backpack and a suitcase, there can’t be anything sillier than that?”, I thought to myself initially. I was aghast at the idea when I first realized I had to do it, but soon enough it made so much sense. I’ll leave the suitcase at Tehran, and come back for it to put all my shopping inside. I wasn’t leaving Iran without pretty Persian tiles. After that, I started building my Persian playlist to set the tone of the video I planned to make. I wanted to determine the feeling I’d go for before I started filming – although I never do film consciously. If anything, I just wanted a good offline playlist while on the road. To my surprise, Persian music sounded a lot like Indian music – and so I loved it immediately. It had more of an old world vibe to it though, which made it feel more timeless. I was getting in the mood to go to Iran.

Pre-adversities

My departure for Iran was not at all smooth. Something at work came up and I had to push back my entire trip by two weeks, involving the repurchasing of 1 flight and the rebooking of another. A week before my trip, my grandfather passed away. I went home for 3 days, but it was difficult to have to tell my relatives that I couldn’t stay until the burial of my grandfather. I knew they largely disapproved of it, and considered it disrespectful. But my grandfather was 90 years old, he had lived a full life and I have done what I could for him while he was alive. I was faced with a decision of mourning with my relatives the way that they expected me to, or taking an opportunity I knew might not open up for me again – and this I realized was what growth pains felt like: making a decision out of your expected character that you’ve outgrown, and owning up to the consequences. I chose to go because life had to go on. There was nothing I could do for my grandfather at that point. I had paid my respects, and there were other ways to celebrate his life. And in truth, I didn’t go home for my grandfather, I knew he was in a better place. I went home for my father, because I knew he was the one who needed it the most. And somehow I knew that even when my dad tried to dissuade me, some part of him actually approved of me going. He would tell all my relatives about my incredulous travel plan asking them to stop me, but he almost sounded like he was bragging about how much I dared to go there. That was exactly what my mother’s death taught me, that life is short – that we should go for our dreams while we can. That was what my dad told me years ago, when my mom had her 2nd cancer recurrence. He took me aside one day and told me that he wanted me to live my life, implying it could potentially be short if I ever had cancer. He probably doesn’t remember that, but that conversation never left me. My dad did tell me though that I took an unnecessary risk and that risks were for noble things. I told him I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just being myself. I was trying to live the way I wanted to but couldn’t before, the way I might not be able to in the future. I want to go to places to be able to write stories – it was something I was passionate about. I knew it was painful for him to worry given my preferred destinations, but I had to live my own life and face my own risks. Mamoti if you’re reading this, I hope you understand. And thank you for understanding.

In addition to both of these, my flight was again unceremoniously rescheduled by Oman Air just 2 days before my trip, this time due to technical issues. I had to buy new flight tickets for my SG-KL leg because of this. My workload was at the heaviest point right before I left, I had been getting off work late everyday for the last 3 weeks before my trip, something uncharacteristic since I started that job. I monitored the news every single day leading up to my departure, and right at the morning I was about to leave, I woke up to a forwarded article from my dad that an earthquake had occured in Iran the night before. To top it all off, I also had a slight fever and a fully-developed sore throat. It was enough to make me have second thoughts for awhile. I texted Amin and Ali, just to get their affirmation that everything was okay – because earthquakes happen anywhere in the world and Iran sat on top of major fault lines after all. After calming myself down, I headed to the hospital to get medicine before I went to the airport. Luckily there was time. I wasn’t going to give up this trip – not at this point, not after all that trouble.

Kuala Lumpur

When I reached KL, I looked around for ladies wearing hijab to mentally rehearse the style I could use when I got to Iran. From my research, I knew women in Iran had a relaxed way of wearing their hijabs, leaving a good portion of their hair exposed and it almost was a hair accessory sometimes. But all the women in KL wearing hijabs wore them to the full extent with their entire hair covered. I took note of that difference at that point, but it was only when Flo, an Austrian I met in Yazd told me, that “that was the difference. In countries like Malaysia, the women had a choice if they wanted to wear the hijab or not. In Iran, they didn’t have that choice”, did it make a lot of sense.

My connecting flights at KL was something I had to repeat when I come back from Iran. I only had a two hour interval between those two flights when I was coming back, there was no other better flight option so I bought that after the 2nd reschedule. But as I made my way between the two separate terminals and considered the time I needed to get out of immigration, get my luggage, and check-in again before counters closed 45 minutes before the departure, it became clear that there was a high chance I would miss that last flight. True enough, I almost missed it by a few seconds.

(Some names have been changed if I judged the content possibly implicating)

Tehran

My flight had 3 legs – SG to KL, KL to Muscat, Muscat to Tehran. I met my first Iranian gesture of kindness at that last leg, when I sat beside Foroozan. She was just a bit older than me and was coming back from a work trip from India. She was in the field of robotics. Perhaps a start-up, I thought to myself. She was busy trying to tell me to make sure to get a sim card in the airport and take the yellow taxi (something I already knew of course, but I sincerely appreciated the confirmation). She gave her number in case I had any questions. The one thing I asked her was if I had I put on my hijab okay right before we deplaned. She raised her hands to signal that it was perfect.

I landed in Tehran 4 AM, received my visa (55 Euros) with no issues and no visible mark on my passport, and got reunited with my unsightly backpack and suitcase combination. I was physically tired by then – I still had a slight fever, endured almost a whole day of travel, and my throat hadn’t gotten significantly better. I proceeded to the MCI simcard counter, which in retrospect I almost regretted because I could have just gone to the Iran Cell counter and saved myself the next hour of going back and forth the whole airport. The lady who was in MCI gave me a simcard as usual, but it didn’t seem to work. She spoke minimal English, and after 20 minutes of waiting for it to get “activated”, she concluded that I needed to get it registered. But I knew that was only for people who were staying in Iran for more than 30 days. Because I couldn’t explain this in Farsi, I went to three different places trying to ask them about my activation problem. They couldn’t solve it either, so they also concluded that it’s probably worth trying to register it because it was an iPhone. Fortunately, a really kind lady from the airport accompanied me throughout the entire registration process that took half an hour (it involved going back to the arrival area and going to the immigration police). If I wasn’t with her easily cutting lines, I could only imagine how long more it would have taken me. The registration process earned me a sticker on the last page of my passport. I was alarmed seeing the Farsi on it, but hoped that I could peel it off after. (I was able to peel it off at the end of my trip, but not without leaving a bit of a mark.) After that entire ordeal, my phone still didn’t have any signal. I went back to the MCI counter without making an effort to conceal my exhaustion and disappointment, asking the lady why it still wasn’t working after registration. She finally retrieved the document she wrote on earlier and asked me to confirm the number and that was when I saw she had written 7 instead of 9. She started smiling and called her boss, who came a few minutes later. He told me using as few words as possible and with a quick hand gesture that the it was the lady’s fault – to which we all laughed. I didn’t have energy to be pissed over the mistake, I was just relieved that I was finally connected. I didn’t want to leave the airport without internet.

I got out and looked for a literal yellow taxi. I approached the first one I saw and the driver eagerly approached me as well. He asked for 2,000,000 IRR, and I whipped out my now-connected phone to convert. “60 USD, you must be kidding me”. He insisted I got it wrong, and I didn’t understand it at this point. I tried to get away from him but he continued to hound me (typical anywhere in the world). I was still confused with the conversion rates, so I took out the slip of paper I got earlier after I exchanged 50 Euros in the airport. I got an unexpected thick wad of rials from the money exchanger, and I eventually figured out that he was right, it was just ~20 USD. It was still substantially more than what I expected, but I was too tired to argue when he started getting my suitcase from me, and then I got scared because another taxi driver started shouting at him. I couldn’t understand what was happening and as he already had my suitcase, I felt helpless stopping him. I asked him what was the problem, and he acted as if there wasn’t any. I resigned my fate to luck and agreed to get in his taxi. I assumed the other driver was scolding him for jumping the line. I wasn’t that friendly with him because I was upset at the entire conversion confusion and the shouting, and a few minutes later he stopped the car somewhere. He got out of the cab and returned with each of us a small cup with hot liquid and a bottle of water, I grudgingly forgave him for the earlier encounter. “Chai?”, I asked. “No, 3-in-1 coffee”, he answered. He told me to stir and I felt a thick layer of powder below. I shouldn’t have listened to him because upon comparing my sip before and after, that thick layer of sediment turned out to be sugar. He brought me to my hostel without any further incident and I was relieved I was finally in the first detail of my itinerary. It was almost 7 AM when I got to Arian Hostel and checked in with Habib. I was immediately happy with the place. Persian hostels, as I would learn later, always had this characteristic of being colorful with tiles, ceramics and tassels and vibrant with all sorts of plants, with a blue pond right at the center. This was exactly my personal style preference. I fell in love with Iranian architecture and interior design during my stay in Iran, I told my dad we needed that in our next home. I didn’t have time to rest though as I had to meet Milad from Daricpay (the Iranian debit card) in an hour. I took a quick shower, prepared Baba Abi’s noodles to leave with the front desk as he was picking it up while I was away with Ali that day, and left my suitcase with the front desk as well. Daricpay made it so easy, they met me on my first day to hand my card and charge it with money on the spot. As I was still not sure about its utility, I only charged it with 600 Euros and decided to keep a substantial part of my money as either IRR or Euros. It soon became clear though that I could virtually use that card anywhere, except for taxis and perhaps splitting bills between other people. Iran was basically a cashless society, almost like Singapore and definitely way ahead Philippines. Milad even gave me a welcome pack filled with some Persian snacks and a small bottle of saffron. He tried to teach me numbers in Farsi, and explained to me the reason why I was confused with the conversion. They followed a different rate inside Iran, inconsistent with what Google used, and so while Google said 1 Euro was 46,000 rial, it was actually a little more than double that (125,000). He also tried to help me with my Snapp – their version of Uber/Grab, complete with food delivery, etc – which I couldn’t figure out although I had downloaded it. He repeated the download, but couldn’t turn it to English. I told him it was alright, I’ll try to manage without it. I had a bit of time to lie down once Milad left, although Ali arrived within a few minutes as well. My day exploring Tehran was going to begin.

Ali was a few years younger than me. He was a full-time tour guide with a specialty in mountaineering, although previous to this he was an engineer. He apologized for being 10 minutes late, which I told him was unnecessary. I was actually thankful that he was, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to rest a bit. I don’t remember the name of the first place we went to, partly because I had no sleep at all and had a slow register, and partly because I was only mildly interested in the place itself. What interested me was the constant view of the snow-capped mountains in the streets of Tehran, and the stories that Ali told about himself and his everyday life. Ali was very friendly and we got along easily. To be honest I wasn’t sure if he would be, because he sounded sparingly enthusiastic when texting, and never acknowledged my efforts to use simple Farsi words (Amin on the other hand encouraged me with my every use of salam and kheyli mamnoon, and slowly taught me other things like khubi, khubam, chetori, and khahesh mikonam). Ali was very helpful though whenever I texted him prior to our meeting, and he gave me his honest opinion on my itinerary when I was first building it – that was why I felt confident in choosing him. I found out later that he was a vegan, which surprised me because indeed as he narrated, it wasn’t easy at all to be vegan in Iran. He didn’t like wasting food, he gave away whatever I couldn’t finish to whoever we could find in need. There were also beggars in Tehran, much like any city. They were from the rural areas who tried to go to the city in the hopes of finding jobs. As we walked along, I realized how Tehran looked a lot like Europe more than Asia, but at the same time distinctly different. Most men wore suits, regardless what their job was. Buildings looked opulent, this was clearly a place of long-standing richness in culture and wealth. When Ali and I passed by a bakery which I remarked smelled good, Ali insisted we go inside and that he’d buy some pastries for me to try. I wasn’t that hungry then (bloated from airplane food) and was reluctant to have to finish whatever he would buy, but I indulged him as it was a chance after all to taste some local delicacies. Ali insisted on paying for it, even if I reasoned that I wanted to try using my DaricPay. He told me it was in return for being late this morning. We went to Golestan Palace next, and that was how I first learned about the successions of their latest ruling dynasties from the Safavid, [Afsharid, Zand], Qajar, Pahlavi to the Islamic Republic. Golestan Palace was magnificent and lavish – it was from the Qajar era, that ruled up until 1925. Walking around the palace interior and grounds allowed you to imagine the lifestyle the ruling family enjoyed at that time – the marriage of traditional Persian style and Western influence threw you off by surprise, but at the same time looked masterfully integrated. After Golestan Palace, it was finally time to go to the Tehran Grand Bazaar – markets were always my favorite. The Grand Bazaar was one of the largest bazaars in the world, and true enough it seemed never-ending. You could find everything there, both for tourists and the locals. Getting lost was also something you can be assured of. It was a maze of shops that snaked on and on, with almost 200,000 vendors. Ali allowed me time to look at beautiful Persian rugs (although I did not buy yet at this point as I thought I would have the chance to go back at the end of my trip), and soon he brought me to the other parts. My favorites were lunch at the famous Moslem restaurant (I had a singular focus on eating authentic kebabs when I embarked on this trip), and the Haj Ali Darvish teashop which in contrast to the size of the Grand Bazaar was one of the oldest and smallest tea shops. The rest of the time, I spent ogling at all the different things they sold, walking through the dense crowd, and trying to keep myself going despite the physical exhaustion. Ali was great company though and I was never bored talking to him. Over lunch, he told me about how Iranians were addicted to nose jobs, a fact that surprised me as Iranians already had beautiful noses in my (or even the world’s?) opinion. Ali got excited pointing to me people who had a nose job, clearly he had an eye for it. I did notice during my entire trip that the number of people recovering from a nose job was quite apparent in crowds. I bought some pistachios, saffron and dried roses from the bazaar. Saffron particularly excited me because it was exorbitantly priced in Asia. I felt like buying everything, but I was under the illusion that I could do a shopping spree later on in this trip so I resisted. The only thing that I immediately pounced on was when I heard an old man playing Persian classical music and selling the CDs – I knew I had to buy it then and there for my dad.

I had a bus at 6 PM that day to Kashan, so we had to head back after the bazaar. I got my things from the hostel and Ali offered to accompany me to Azadi Tower on the way to the bus station.  I considered his suggestion apprehensively because it didn’t seem like there was enough time with the traffic. Ali was confident that there was, so I trusted him. I really wanted to see Azadi Tower – it was a powerful landmark from photos, and not any less in person. Hanieh told me I could have gone up the tower, but I didn’t have enough time then. The Snapp we got literally just went around the roundabout in the monument’s circumference twice, just enough time for me to take some photos. Ali brought me to the bus station as well, and I thanked him there because I had truly enjoyed my time with him despite my exhaustion. He hugged me goodbye and I recalled my Dad’s message after sending my photo with Ali not to allow “any Muslim man to touch me because it was not allowed in their culture”. Of course that was just my father being himself, but I was ready to break a lot of misconceptions.

Kashan

It was pretty easy to use the buses in Iran, although you had to be patient that nothing was in English, not even the seat numbers. I hadn’t slept for 48 hours at this point and I was easily knocked out in the bus. A few Iranian girls helped me figure out the bus seats and they looked on curiously, asking why I was traveling alone. I was asked this question a number of times during my trip, and naturally this usually followed with what my age was and if I was married. Sometimes they asked me what the problem was. It didn’t really bother me as it was out of pure curiosity, but there were times I did mull my answer a bit longer. “That’s just the way it is”, was my usual reply. The girls gave me oranges and made sure I went down the correct stop.

I arrived at Kashan at around 9 in the evening. I slept immediately, I had no energy to brave the cold with a shower. As a consequence of that and my body clock still in Southeast Asia (the time difference to Singapore was 4 h 30 m), I woke up at 5 AM to take a bath. After my shower, I saw a light from the kitchen and peeked inside. An old man was there and he seemed to be preparing breakfast. At Arian Hostel, the lady there told me there was no need to wear a hijab indoors. So I went inside the kitchen without my hijab to ask for water and hopefully make small talk. I wasn’t sleepy anymore. The man smiled at me allowed me to sit across him from the table. He was slicing tomatoes and cucumbers. I asked him if I could have water and he encouraged me to take a cup and fill it in the tap. From the way he responded, he didn’t seem to speak English. I was taken aback for awhile since I had not assumed you could drink water from the tap in Iran, but I was so thirsty and I didn’t want to be rude so I filled my glass and drank it. I anticipated over the entire day a stomachache developing, but it never did. I kept drinking from the tap henceforth and was extremely impressed this was possible there. When I asked Leila, my guide when I was in Shiraz, about this, she told me that yes tap water is safe to drink, but not in all places. Due to some dams built and ground waters getting exhausted as an alternative to now dried-up rivers, some ground waters have been infiltrated with salt water and industrial waste. She gave me the impression that the government didn’t necessarily ensure safe drinking water for everyone.

I went back to my room to fix my things, at around 6 AM I heard roosters crowing. 7 AM came and I already wanted to go out and explore before the sun got too high and hot. As I stepped outside, I soon realized Kashan was considerably more conservative than Tehran. All the women I encountered in my morning walk were wearing black chadors – a full-length cloth to cover themselves except for the face. It was different from the niqab, which covered everything except the eyes – something I didn’t see much in Iran. I thought about me entering the kitchen without my hijab this morning, I wondered if I had been disrespectful. I tried to apologize when I came back to the hostel, but Zahra the owner, told me it was alright inside, especially since I was a foreigner anyway. Zahra wore her hijab the whole time though, she grew up in Kashan and I supposed she was just used to it.

Kashan was an ancient city populated with traditional houses. Outside, you would see mud-thatched walls that bordered earthen lanes. But once you entered the houses, their courtyards never failed to tantalize. Being a country with four seasons, they capitalized on this by making “four-season” houses which basically meant each face of the house (North, South, East, West) was optimum for a certain period of the year. They would then have a courtyard in the middle, with the characteristic blue pool, surrounded by bottled plants, flowers, and every other odd colorful thing that brought life to the place. I didn’t get a guide for Kashan and it was easy enough to walk around. I spent the day exploring traditional houses which continued to impress me, as well as traditional bath houses. The Agha Bozorg mosque would be my favorite in Kashan though – it was devoid of tourists when I got there and there was something so serene about it. I was at first daunted to enter when I passed by it in the morning. I saw it from afar and started walking towards it, but I felt ashamed not having a chador, and worried that they didn’t have chadors inside for rent. But as I walked back to the hostel after all my exploring, I knew I had to try to get in again. It turns out that they did have chadors, and it was definitely worth the second try.

Since I went out at 7 AM, I was already ready to eat lunch at half past 11. I scoured the streets for a photo of kebabs and found a restaurant situated at the basement of a building. There was nobody else inside (perhaps I was too early for lunch), and the guy at the counter barely spoke English. That didn’t daunt me in particular as some of the items were written in English, albeit with Persian words. I said beef kebab, but he didn’t seem to understand what beef was. He mumbled a couple of choices that I didn’t understand (perhaps he was talking about different types of beef kebabs), so I suggested “lamb kebab” instead. He affirmed lamb kebab and went back to the kitchen to get it prepared. The kebab was good, as usual. They always served the rice with olive oil and small slice of butter slotted in. I never opened the butter.

I planned to be at Isfahan that afternoon, so I went back to my hostel (Kashan Green House Hostel) to ask their help to book me a cab. It was roughly a 2-hour trip and Zahra readily helped me get a taxi. I had an hour to kill, and I spent it talking to her. She and her husband turned out to be renting that place that they converted to a hostel. She designed the place herself – it was simple but dainty. She told me her husband was in Turkey for holiday. I asked her why she didn’t go, and she said she liked traveling but she preferred to stay that time. They were a very good-looking couple and Zahra was a very pleasant girl. She told me they got married when she was 18. They still don’t have kids because she didn’t want them yet, though they had been married long and she was already in her mid 20s. It was good to know that she had a choice.

My taxi soon arrived and I bade a new friend goodbye. Along the way, the driver pulled up a petrol station and filled up the tank. An hour after, he pulled up to another petrol station and asked me to get down. “CNG, please get down otherwise *explosion sound*”. I got down and asked him, “so you use gasoline and CNG in your cars?” “Benzene and CNG”. “Benzene, isn’t that’s toxic?” I alarmingly thought to myself. It turns out that although benzene is used as an additive in their fuel, they seemed to call it “benzene”. I still don’t understand it fully, if it’s a consequence of the sanctions that they need to use benzene, but it was something new to me. I wondered if it was that that I kept smelling – there was something that constantly irritated my nose in Iran.

Isfahan

I got to Isfahan a little past 4 PM. When we reached the guest house I was staying at, the taxi driver taught me that the two door knocks were different. One was for women, the other was for men. So that the person inside would know. Esi opened the door to let me in and helped me to my room. He later told me he couldn’t tell the difference between the door knock sounds. There was no other guest that day except for another woman traveler from Hong Kong, but she was out. I was really planning on just collapsing in bed, but I thought it would be polite to do a bit of small talk with my host first. I took off the hijab and long coat I wasn’t used to, and changed to my down jacket. It was getting cold. Esi asked me if I wanted tea or coffee, which was standard practice everywhere in Iran. Tea, and sometimes coffee, is always offered. Coffee is however not endemic to Iran, and I only drink coffee as a desperate measure to stay up, so it was always tea for me. I asked for tea and I settled in the nice interiors – “lucky find” I thought to myself. I already anticipated the place to be prettier than the rest of my accommodations – this was precisely the reason I decided to stay here. I thought it was a homestay, but it turned out to be more of a boutique hotel. Esi gave me my tea and we started talking. He leased the place, a traditional house, that he renovated into its current state. It took him 3 years to secure the property after deciding on it, he talked about all the travails that he endured to get to this stage. Previous to this, he was a commercial diver who did the repairs in oil rigs – something that really amazed me. You can meet a load of doctors and lawyers in your life, but definitely not commercial divers. I didn’t offer the information that I dived too, my license and hobby were nothing compared to his. He was passionate on staying in Iran and hoping that the country’s economy would improve, he felt it was too late for him to move to another country even if most of his family were abroad, that was something he could have done when he was much younger. Because of that I thought he was much older than me, but as it turned out when he asked how I old I was, he was surprised we were both 31. The Iranian diaspora was a constant theme across the whole country. Thanks to a multitude of reasons, but more recently because of the repercussions of the revolution, a lot of Iranians, especially the more educated and affluent ones, have left the country. The fact that the less educated were the ones left made the situation more dire, but not hopeless. Some people stayed like him. Esi ran the hostel with his mom and sister. He also had a dog named Jessica. I couldn’t resist asking, so I did. “I thought Muslims can’t own dogs?” “Maybe I’m not the real one”, he told me. But I did notice a number of people owned dogs, even publicly walking them in the street. “Where did you buy her?” “In the pet shop”, he answered me visibly amused with my line of questioning. I was embarrassed and I apologized for my ignorance, asking was the only way I could learn. Esi was able to install an English version of Snapp on my phone. He offered to help me install a VPN, but I declined the offer – I didn’t want to unblock my Facebook and have to answer messages. I ended up talking to Esi until the sun had set, and Elaine finally arrived. Elaine was in her 50s but she looked very vibrant, and very Asian. She asked me where I was from thinking I was Chinese, I told her I was from Philippines. She was surprised, “Philippines? That’s very uncommon”. “What’s uncommon, I’m sorry?”, I asked her. “Philippines don’t usually travel alone”. “Oh”, I replied. I thought she meant it was uncommon to meet Filipino travelers. She used an interesting hand-written and hand-drawn guide made by a Taiwanese who once traveled to Iran. She held what looked like a printed or photocopied copy of that, it seemed to me that she was more of a traditional traveler. Esi told me that he always had to draw a map of her in the morning, because she didn’t like navigating using her phone. I was impressed that she traveled alone at her age. I wasn’t sure though if I wanted to be that person. We talked awhile more, and Esi asked if I wanted to order in dinner. I declined his offer because I wasn’t really hungry. “I think I’ll just stay in, I’m quite tired”. I didn’t feel like going out that night alone. A little while later, he said he was going out for dinner and if I wanted to join in. He asked Elaine as well, but Elaine was tired from walking the whole day. I suddenly felt like going out, I suppose I just didn’t want to do it on my own. It was cold and I was new there, and it was also a good opportunity to take a stroll outside with someone closer to an authentic local rather than a tour guide. It turns out that Esi had only moved to Isfahan 2 years ago. He was born and grew up in Tehran, which notably was more progressive thinking a district relative to Isfahan. Isfahan was still largely traditional, so it was something a bit new to him as well. He brought me to a popular tea shop (Azadegan tea house), which for the sake of describing was probably what was considered proper hipster there. The design was very vintage, but it was also very fancy and alluring that it was no surprise a lot of young people were there taking selfies. We sat across two girls doing just that, and Esi told me “It’s a disease”. I laughed, that was true, although I wasn’t someone who didn’t use social media at all either. I asked his help to order me anything that was made of vegetables. I had something made of eggplant which was good, but forgive me because in this travel a lot of food names had really escaped me. He got kebab and I resisted asking for some, I’d had enough meat over the past few days. After dinner, we walked around Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It was also full of shops, but not as congested as the Tehran Grand Bazaar – the walkways felt more spacious. It was beautiful at night, although it was a place difficult to capture on camera. It had too many disparate elements, the only way to see it was to be there. The choices at Isfahan piqued my interest even more. Esi gave me time to look at a few shops, I couldn’t wait until tomorrow and I could shop with my guide Elli, who I knew was a girl – I was uncomfortable shopping with a guy and I didn’t want to make him wait. I did not hold back from buying a few postcards however, I could write them tonight and send them in the morning. We walked back to the hostel and by the end of the night, we already talked about a lot of things. I also shamelessly asked about how it was to divorce as a Muslim, something my dad had ingrained in me involved simply saying “I divorce you” three times for Muslims. Esi said it was done in court, just like any other place. He talked about what it was like to be in our generation in Iran – people were reluctant to start families because of the economic situation. He told me that he believed in God, and that was all. That some Muslim practices being imposed now were for a time before. I echoed his thoughts, because that was exactly what I felt many a times. That not everything being taught as doctrine was applicable to the current day and age.

When I got back to my room, I felt a familiar sensation. There were many kinds of love, and I acknowledged this as one of them. I was past the age of being giddy, and the fact that I knew it wasn’t a possibility, I pulled my thoughts back to understand instead why I felt like I was falling in love. It was only later that it came to me…that I fell in love with people just as I fell in love with places. I fell in love for what they stood for where they were, not because they were something I wanted to be with forever. Just before going to Iran, I had written about reaching that elusive state of indifference to love. But having remembered what it felt like that night, I realized I missed the feeling of those butterflies.

The next morning was my first TasteIran tour. Amin gave me Elli’s contact number as my guide in Isfahan and I woke up early to get a start at 9. Elli arrived promptly and we proceeded back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square. That was where the palace and mosque we were visiting were. I told Elli that I had been there last night, and she asked me where I ate. She was disappointed that it was at the tea shop she was planning on bringing me, but that I didn’t need to worry she could think up another one. “So what do you prefer, a fancy one or a local one?” “Definitely a local one”, fancy places meant little to me. Elli was very easy to get along with as well. She was a few years older than me, and she easily made me feel like a younger sister. “Do you want me to help you with your headscarf?” I was pleasantly surprised that she asked, and I said yes. She was the only one that did that, even if I had 2 other female guides. Indeed, I had been struggling with it. She tied it up nicely and somehow it stayed put longer when she did it. What I loved about Elli was that she didn’t make me feel like a tourist. She treated like a friend that she was simply taking around her city. Of course she told me about the history of the places we visited, but in the same way she told me about her life and I really appreciated that. She was separated from her ex-husband, but because it hadn’t been formalized as a divorce, there were certain things she couldn’t do – like leave the country without the ex-husband’s permission. She had lived a couple of years abroad when they were still together, which I felt was why she had a broader world view.

The first place we went to was Ali Qapu Palace. Elli explained to me the illusion of the number of floors, and how the art was all stucco – plaster, not tiles. It was beautiful, as with most places in Iran. The most amazing part was the music room, which featured an intricate style of plastering that enhanced the acoustics of the room. After that, we went to Shah Mosque, which took my breath away. That was where Elli told me about Shia Islam. The way Elli, and other people I asked, have explained the difference between Shia and Sunni always seemed to give me the impression that it wasn’t substantial enough a difference to warrant the tension between those factions now. But the seeming split between the two has been largely political. As they explained, Shia and Sunni Muslims live together in some parts of the world. But I remembered how one of my colleagues, a Sunni Muslim, remarked to me days before I left for Iran that Iran was majorly “Shia – that’s the wrong teachings. Sunni is the correct one”. Although I don’t claim to understand where that sentiment came from, and I didn’t feel like engaging with him when I heard it, it was probably similar to what some Catholics and Christians felt. Largely the same teaching, but still some see the other as incorrect. That was essentially one of the things that I disliked about some people who used religion to foster exclusivity. There was something so calming about being inside Shah Mosque. The ceilings were high, the courtyard was huge, the tile work was mind-blowing, the architecture was a masterpiece – you could feel its soul just as much as a beautiful cathedral.

After the mosque, Elli brought me to a shop to try an Iranian dessert made of starch and topped with date or grape syrup. I couldn’t help citing its similarity to taho, the soybean dessert we have in the Philippines. It was too filling for me though and I felt bad I couldn’t finish it. Elli was very conscious of her plastic use and brought along her own utensils. I loved it that Ali was a vegan and Elli was an environmentalist. I’m not sure if she forgave me for not finishing my serving, but at least she allowed me not to finish it.

We went to a ghalamkar shop next, and that was where I blew most of my shopping money. A ghalamkar was a style of making a tapestry – using colored stamps. I bought a few pieces and at this point I had already bought other things. Elli was pleased I loved the shop as it was her personal favorite as well. The owners were so nice, they even allowed me to try stamping on my own. The shop was run by 3 brothers and their father – their art was a family heritage. Elli asked one of the brothers to recommend a local place for lunch and he took us to an unassuming stall in the square. It looked very basic and Elli sounded a bit worried that I might think it wasn’t impressive. But that was exactly what I hoped for – a nondescript place serving the real deal. After lunch, we walked around some more and I ended up buying a bit more (in my defense it wasn’t that much!), but Elli soon started remarking that she worried for me every time we entered a shop. I told her to relax, who knows when I’ll be back in Iran. I needed to buy these things, I’ll worry about carrying them later.

The next stop after the main square were Isfahan’s bridges. We visited three different bridges, and Elli told me that I was lucky to visit with the water now flowing. A few years ago, it was all dried up. I felt lucky, because the water definitely brought life to the bridges. People sat there, looking at the view. Some of them had a small picnic going on. I somehow understood why it was special to Isfahan – it hosted its own life. Elli told me that it was better at night, some people played music, the lights gave a different vibe, it was the equivalent of a night life. This was a city where you couldn’t drink legally, or dance in public legally – but it didn’t feel sterile at all. Of course it would be great to have certain liberties, but the current beauty and character of the city was so strong that not even religious impositions could hold it back. Elli and I made a slight detour from Amin’s expected schedule as we decided to have tea at one of the beautiful cafes built within one of the bridges. By that time, I was very comfortable with Elli. I asked Elli if she would ever consider getting married again if she fell in love with someone again. She told me probably not, she valued her freedom now. And that I was lucky to be single at my age, living independently and making the most of these years. I understood where she came from because she told me her story, but at the same time you always wonder what other possibilities feel like. I discovered that that day was especially difficult for Elli, she received some bad news that morning and I didn’t even know it until our day together was almost ending. The fact that she was still able to be a great companion and that I had no idea what she was going through was something that I felt extremely grateful for. But I felt relieved when she told me that being with me helped her go through the day – and that was perhaps one of the sweetest things I heard during my trip. After all, it isn’t commonplace to gain a friend.

Amin soon called us both to check if I was on my way to the Persian bath. Amin highly encouraged me to get that experience, and because it sounded exotic enough to me, I didn’t hesitate saying yes. I didn’t bother looking up what was to happen inside a Persian bath, but as it turned out it was a very distinct experience. Men and women were separated, and much like other spa places you had to remove your clothes. But while in typical spas where this was usually done a bit more discreetly and comfortably, I was lying on a tile bench or on the tiled floors of the bath house as another lady gave me a bath, treating me as if I were a baby. She meticulously scrubbed almost every inch of me (something I realized later on wasn’t such a great idea). That aside, the bath house was beautiful. It consisted of multiple rooms connected with tiled corridors, and populated with central pools of hot water. The lady who gave me a bath didn’t speak English, but she constantly asked me “Okay?”, to which I’d say “khubam“, not sure if that was an acceptable use of that phrase. In a futile effort to make small talk amidst the very awkward situation of her staring down at my breasts, I pointed at my stomach and said “kebabs”. She understood it and laughed – I was pleased my joke worked. At one point, she started singing Persian songs, which was pleasant to listen to but made the situation even more comical to me. When we were finally done with all the scrubbing (thank god), she stood me up and I told her “kheyli mamnoon”, which was supposed to be “thank you very much”. I hadn’t used that phrase earlier so it resulted in her ecstatically kissing me and saying “khahesh mikonam“, which to my understanding is “you’re welcome”. A long time in the jacuzzi followed, which was perhaps my favorite part. She washed my hair and face after, although that resulted in my hair getting intensely tangled – using a conditioner wasn’t included in the Persian bath. The last stage was sending me to a pool. I stayed there, waiting for the lady to come back to tell me it’s over, but the wait seemingly took forever. I wasn’t particularly interested in lingering anymore so I got out of the pool and started finding my way along the bath house corridors – naked. Fortunately I was able to locate the piece of cloth they handed me earlier and proceeded to find my way out. The lady was waiting outside and eating, she offered me rose water with basil seeds and fed directly into my mouth a small bite of what tasted like a falafel wrap. I somehow felt weirdly infantilized, but I was impressed with the service so I gave them a substantial tip. When I got back to the hostel, Esi remarked that I was shining. When I looked at the mirror, that was the only time I realized my skin was bright red, even my face – I felt abraded everywhere. The cold weather made it worse and my skin became progressively rougher by the day. The lightweight lotion I brought didn’t help. I still think it was an experience unlike anything I’ve had before, but I’ll probably skip the scrubbing if I ever went back.

The next day, Elli had offered to accompany me to the Vank Cathedral and to a bookshop after. Because I felt comfortable enough with her, I told her yesterday that I really wanted to buy a novel about Iran – prose, because I wasn’t a big fan of poetry. I had bought a book by Hafez in Kashan, but the truth is I found it difficult to appreciate the pages. Elli enthusiastically volunteered her time even if she had work later that afternoon and I was happy I had someone to go out with that day. Otherwise I would have probably spent it in the hostel as I was scheduled to leave for Varzaneh by 12 noon.

I felt a strange cloud of sadness as I prepared to leave Isfahan, but I couldn’t change my plans. I sincerely hoped it wasn’t the last time I’d see Elli and Esi.

Varzaneh

In my desire to stay in Isfahan longer, I tried to delay the pick up time with Mohammad. He insisted it wasn’t possible because I had a sunset tour scheduled that day, so I acceded. Although I tried not to use my headphones whenever I was in a taxi as I didn’t want the driver to think I was shutting him out, I really wanted to drown myself in my playlist in the drive to Varzaneh, and so I did. Around midway, the driver made a stop. He came back carrying an ice cream and chocolate bread roll for each of us. This was another thing that constantly happened everywhere I went. Random people would offer me food almost all the time. Especially taxi drivers, they were the sweetest. No amount of “No thank you” and hand gestures dissuaded them from offering me food – sometimes it confused me whether it was taarof or not. Taarof, in my limited understanding, is supposed to be typical Iranian courtesy of refusing payment, or offering anything for free, but this is simply out of courtesy and should not be taken advantage of. The problem at that moment was that I can’t eat ice cream as I’m lactose intolerant. The driver again didn’t speak English. And not only did I not want to be rude by not eating the ice cream, I wouldn’t be able to escape eating it because it was definitely going to melt under the desert sun. Before going to Iran, my aunt sternly warned me that her Iranian friend herself emphasized I would run into communication barriers because of the language. I didn’t see that as a problem, and it was never a big deal, until then. I opened the wrapper hesitantly – it was saffron ice cream. This would be worth a fortune back home. I nibbled on the ice cream sandwich slowly, feeling my stomach gas up with every bite. I was already half-way when I noticed the ice cream was peculiarly solid even after some time. It was then I realized it probably had a high gelatin content, and I could have actually spared myself from eating it – too late. Thankfully, we reached Negaar Guesthouse with some time for me to use the bathroom before embarking on the tour.

Negaar was hosting several big European groups. They were very nice, although the disproportion made me more aware that I was alone. Luckily there were two white guys who befriended me. At first, I was apprehensive getting too friendly with them. When Jeroen learned I was Filipino, he paraded all the Filipino insults he knew. It turns out that he had a Filipina girlfriend before and she had taught him things like “maduming baboy”, and “sasakalin kita”, apart from the other cuss words. “Typical white guy behavior”, I thought to myself as I faked a laugh for courtesy. I of course had judged Jeroen too fast, but I would only realize that later. Mohammad (the owner) and Aminn (the manager) soon introduced me to Saji who would be my guide for my sunset tour. Saji was mild-mannered and friendly, cracking jokes every now and then. The way they did tours at Negaar was to have Saji as an in-house guide and contract a local taxi driver to drive. “We have around 30 drivers in Varzaneh, and we help them by hiring them”, Saji explained. We left Negaar at 4 PM towards our first stop, a Zoroastrian water temple. Zoroastrians respected the 4 elements: fire, water, earth and air. Saji explained that the temple we were going to was important because they built it after the people found water in that area. As I explored the simple temple, I saw from that vantage point that a police car blaring their siren pulled up beside our taxi. Saji looked out the window and spoke to them in Farsi. I asked Saji what the problem was, and he pointed the flying drone to me. “They’re looking for the person flying that drone”. “The person can’t be far from here”, I said. The policemen waited for me to get down the temple, probably to visually confirm that I wasn’t the drone pilot, and proceeded to make their way in search elsewhere.

Our next stop was the salt flats. The salt was from an ancient lake that had dried up. Like other salt flats, it had the characteristic hexagonal honeycomb shapes that formed because of the repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles. There was nobody in sight, but I knew the place we went to was an enclosed property because we entered through a gate, albeit without a fence. It was a gate that stood in the middle of nowhere. “Is this owned by the government?”, I asked Saji. “The government gave the rights to a company, and they’re the ones operating the salt mine here”.

After the salt flats, it was finally time for sunset in the desert. “Next stop is sandboarding”, Saji told me. “Sandboarding?”, I asked hesitantly. I wasn’t aware that the tour included sandboarding – not that I didn’t want to. I struggled to remember whether I had been to a desert before, but it was only later that I realized why I felt I had been. Ladakh was a desert, but it didn’t have a lot of sand dunes. Varzaneh wasn’t a big desert in terms of area, but it was mesmerizing enough to me. I had underestimated the effort needed to climb the height of the dunes and the weight of my boots added to the required strength. I stopped several times to catch my breath, while Saji simply walked up leisurely. I would learn later that the high season had just ended and Saji was terribly exhausted from the back-to-back sunrise/sunset/desert overnight tours he led for the past few weeks. When we finally reached the top, Saji taught me how to sit on the board. He asked me to hold the board at the back, but as I wasn’t wearing gloves this resulted in the back of my hand getting heavily abraded with the silicon in the sand as I slided down. As if the abrasion from the Persian bath wasn’t enough, now it was definitely closer to the full extent of my body. I hesitated for awhile before I allowed Saji to push me down. My reflex was to scream, but this resulted in all the sand flying into my mouth. Going up twice took the air out of me, and so I told Saji I was sitting on top of the dune for the rest of the sunset. I blew out bits of sand as I sat there entranced with the sun’s closing dance. The gradients were unbelievable, I could see six distinct bands. Sitting there in the midst of the desert, it came to me why I pursued such experiences. I wanted to feel small in this universe. So small that I could easily be taken aback by the remarkable beauty I sometimes forget the world is. This was what a lot of people described as “feeling alive”. It was the feeling of being inconsequential.

I decided to sandboard one last time – conveniently back down to the car. As the last rays of light left the desert, the sky displayed a range of color changes. Soon enough, the entire place was pitch black and stars started appearing. It was getting unbearably cold so I told Saji we could start heading back even if the moon hadn’t risen yet. Driving back in the darkness, you could see the lights from the town in the distance. Saji was preoccupied with looking for electric razors on his phone as I enjoyed the view with my headphones on. When the moon finally came into view, Saji asked our driver to stop the car. I got out and stood in the cold for awhile to bask under the moon’s reflected light.

It was dinner time when we got back to Negaar. As I didn’t have anyone else to talk to, I joined Jeroen and his friend. As it turned out, they were volunteers there. They worked for free and in return got free food and accommodation. It was a good arrangement, and they told me about the websites that I could use if I ever was interested. Franco (I’m conveniently calling him that although I don’t remember his name, just that he was French) was busy with his mobile phone. He had reached past 30 days in Iran and because he failed to register his simcard, he had lost connection. Jeroen told me Franco had an Iranian girlfriend, and I asked him how it was. Franco narrated how he always had to book two rooms because it wasn’t allowed for Iranians to stay with the opposite sex if they weren’t related. Jeroen was very amiable, while Franco was more of the reserved type. Jeroen constantly joked with the locals and had a lot of fun calling Aminn “baboy“, which was the Filipino for pig. I wondered if Aminn had any idea what that meant, but they all seemed to enjoy the banter. I sat with the guesthouse personnel that night as they joked about getting drunk from Iranian non-alcoholic beer. Jeroen constantly teased them with topics I would personally hesitate joking on as someone unfamiliar with what Iranians thought were humorous. I realized that they were actually pretty chill. Jeroen ribbed Saji that they were sleeping together that night, and Saji gamely carried on with the joke of getting intimate. I was thankful I was alone and had that opportunity to get to know them more. Mohammad told me he was also the same age as I, and I told him how amazing it was that he was running his own business. “Running a business in Iran is nothing. You know how much we got this property for? Just 5000 euros”. The renovation had costed more, but Mohammad continued to downplay his achievement. “Compare that to being a dentist here in Varzaneh, which is basically in the middle of nowhere, you could probably earn 1500 euro a month”. Dinner that night was fesenjan, a meat stew made with pomegrenate and walnut paste. When I first saw the black stew, I remembered the Filipino “dinuguan”, which is pork stewed in pork blood. Naturally that would be impossible in a Muslim country (or not). I ate the fesenjan with rice, and it was pretty good although it was too sweet and rich for me to keep going. I used the yogurt to neutralize the sweetness. Jeroen advised me to put on everything I had for my sunrise tour tomorrow. “That time is probably the coldest hour in the desert”. I was ill-prepared for subzero temperatures so I asked Aminn if he possibly had an extra thick jacket. Fortunately he was able to lend me one, and I am forever grateful for that because it really did save me the morning after.

It was that night at Varzaneh that I dreamt of my mother. I fell asleep with my headphones and the lights on. In the dream, we knew she was dying, but she still seemed fine. I kept hugging and telling her not to leave us and that I loved her. As my mom looked into my eyes and told me that “The best way to never leave you is to die”, I woke up. The dream was so vivid, it left me crying. I cried out for the sensation of holding her. But I was also happy that she visited me. Perhaps it was to tell me that yes, she really was with me.

As we drove through the darkness to the caravanserai in anticipation of sunrise, the changing landscape gave me the feeling of sinking into the ground to be one with the earth. Aminn’s jacket kept me warm, along with the 5 other layers beneath it. I also wore 3 layers of pants, necessitating the top layer to be my loose pajama. I’m always terrible with the cold. There was nobody else that morning at the caravanseri, we had the whole place to ourselves – me, Saji, and that day’s taxi driver, Hafez. The plan was to build a fire and wait either beside it or inside the car until the sun had risen to make it warm enough to have breakfast at the rooftop. I had plans on filming the sunrise, of course. I got to work and took my tripod and camera up. Because I had six layers, my core felt warm and I underestimated the actual temperature. When I started setting up my camera, that was when I realized that it was painfully cold – the wind made it especially worse. It was so cold that my hands literally started feeling sharp, stabbing sensations. I was trying to convince myself to get through setting up and quickly go down back to the warmth of the car as I fumbled with my gear. After I thought I had successfully started the timelapse, I went back down to the car and only then did I realize that my toes were numb as well. I felt them thaw back to life as I huddled myself in the car seat. Caravanserais were ancient roadside inns where caravans traveling along the silk road stopped to rest and get supplies. The one we went to could hold as much as 150 people and 600 camels – it was pretty large as it was in the middle of nowhere. Caravanserais within cities were typically smaller. As you walked inside, there was again the characteristic courtyard. In the middle was a well still with water, and everything surrounding it were now empty rooms and corridors. I went out a couple of times to look at the sunrise in progression, I could feel it getting warmer. I thought about how strong an element the wind was in contributing to the cold, and on the other hand how formidable an element the sun was in extinguishing that cold.

When the sun was considerably up, all three of us went up the rooftop to start the breakfast. Saji and Hafez prepared the set-up, while I collected my camera on the other side of the roof. I was heartbroken to see that my camera’s autofocus hadn’t functioned properly and had only collected two shots over the entire time lapse. I was slightly upset because this was the only reason I carried my tripod for, but I didn’t really bother about it for long. Watching the sunrise alone was enough. What followed was perhaps the one of my best breakfast experiences ever. Saji prepared a tahini and sugar-like syrup, while Hafez laid out the sangak (Iranian bread), homemade butter and cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrot jam – and most importantly the hot chai. “Is that honey?”, I asked Saji as he continually poured the syrup into the tahini. “No darling, it’s molasses”, Saji jokingly replied. It was a sublime experience eating such a simple but filling meal, bathed under the sun’s direct light on top of that stone and brick structure with nothing but the barren desert and mountains in sight. I took out my phone to play my Persian playlist – it did come handy after all. Music transcended any language.

After breakfast, we drove to several more sights (a dormant volcano, water reservoirs, salt lake, a waterfall, and an ox mill). Going up the volcano involved a little hike, and I had to sit down when we reached the summit to catch my breath. I asked Saji whether he made good money as a tour guide. “It’s better if you work for yourself”, he answered. After this season, he’s decided to work as a freelancer at Isfahan instead. I wished him well with his new journey. We sat there for awhile, and surprisingly I didn’t really mind the sun as I usually would.

I took off some of my layers as the day progressed. By 11 AM, we were back at Negaar. There was some time to kill so I sat around the dining area with a book. Some local tourists had arrived, and upon seeing me they kindly offered me pomegranates. I was anticipating lunch and wanted to avoid eating too much, but again I couldn’t decline. I attempted to open a pomegranate with difficulty, and quickly realized I shouldn’t have done that in front of them. The old man who handed me the fruits sliced open two for me, and now I had to finish all of it as they sat at the other table. Aminn didn’t help by offering me more apples, but at least I felt comfortable enough with him to decline those. I asked Aminn how he found his job there at Varzaneh. He laid down a tray he was holding and told me “You know in Iran, it’s difficult to find a job. So when you have one, you love your job.” He had mixed feelings about it though, he said it was great when you met new people, but it was painful always having to say goodbye. I guess that’s always how it is in the tourism industry. You make many friends, but in return you need to say a lot of good byes. I joined the staff again for lunch, and Jeroen told me about his many travel experiences. He’s spent time in many countries learning languages, martial arts, and other things. I asked him how long more he planned to go on. “I don’t know, I’m sort of feeling that I need to settle down soon”, he said. “You mean you feel the need to travel changes over time?”, I asked. “Yeah, it does get less and less over time.” I wondered about my own sentiments for traveling. I never really felt the need to see the entire world, to score as much countries as I can. What I felt was more of an urge to go to places I could seek out stories. Strangely, for some reason, there was nothing on my mind for after Iran. Despite my trip not yet being done, I felt like I needed to go back one more time before I’d say that was enough. After lunch, it was my time to say good bye to all of them.

Yazd

I took a taxi from Varzaneh to Yazd. I booked a dorm room at Yazd Restup Hotel and was welcomed by the owner, Mo. Mo was an extremely jolly fellow. He would never text Salam, but instead use Salaaaaaaaam. Restup was quite a big property with a considerable capacity compared to the other places I’ve stayed at in Iran. I picked a bed in my assigned room and started looking for a heater. It was getting progressively and unexpectedly colder and my body, ever averse to the cold, couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t locate the heater in the room and so I started taking out more clothes for the night. Flo soon went inside the room and introduced himself. He was a few years younger than me and was a UX designer. There was a characteristic calm that accompanied his presence by the way he talked and the way he moved. He sat cross-legged in the bed across mine as we talked first about our backgrounds, and slowly about politics, literature, traveling (naturally), and of course our impression of Iran. Like most European travelers, Flo had been to a lot of places as well. “What brought you to Iran?”, Flo asked me. “I don’t know. It was never a plan until this year. India used to be my favorite, but not anymore I think”, I answered. “India is my favorite as well. If you can travel in India, you can travel anywhere”, he replied. I told Flo India lured me for its rich culture and history – a stark contrast to my life in Singapore which was convenient, safe, and comfortable but as well as sterile, routine and predictable. Iran, on the other hand, was also rich in culture and history, but incredibly safer than India. Despite that, most people perceive Iran as a dangerous place. “Iran’s a special place. Only the good type of traveler goes here”, Flo concluded.

Flo soon announced that he was ready to go to dinner and if I wanted to come along. I didn’t really have plans to eat, but he said he knew of a nice place just down the road. I accepted the invitation and we went out to ask the other people checked in if anyone was interested to join us. A familiar face suddenly arrived – it was Elaine. She was so tired, apparently she had been looking for the hostel for 45 minutes. Her phone died and everything looked different in the dark. I was impressed she even found her way back. As she frantically narrated to Mo how she got lost, Mo told her to calm down and consider going with Flo and I for dinner.

It was a quick walk down the road and we soon got in a bathhouse-looking restaurant. It was one of the coziest I’ve been to in Iran – you took your shoes off and sat on one of the partitioned sections of the circular hall. On top of the high ceiling was a dome with glass balls, and through them we saw the full moon. Flo jokingly laid down on the entire area – it seemed a good place to sleep. We ordered a generous amount for dinner, and of course chai. Elaine never stopped pouring chai on our cups, and asking for a refill whenever it ran out. Flo and I had to empty our bladders twice over the course of dinner. It was Hong Kong etiquette. As dinner unfolded, Elaine, Flo and I talked about various things – and mostly about our own lives. I discovered that Elaine was actually a serial traveler. She went to China on her own when she was 15, spent 8 years in Europe working to travel, and almost got married to 4 different men in 4 different countries. Traveling was in her blood. As I sat there listening to Elaine’s amazing stories, I wondered if I wanted to be that person. It seemed like the dream, yet I felt like the prospect scared me. While there was something magical about traveling solo – in that you’re never alone with all the new people you’re bound to meet, I wasn’t sure how long I’d feel that way. I felt the same way as Aminn, the good byes were painful. Transience was two-faced, it amplified unions but intensified separations. Nevertheless, I gained new respect for Elaine. Judging from her spirit, traveling seemed to keep her young.

We ended our heavy dinner with several rounds of hookah, as I told Flo I was keen on trying it. Elaine insisted on declining in the beginning, but soon after she tried her first smoke, she was hooked. She eagerly took the pipe whenever I passed it after my turn. I think she enjoyed it far more than Flo and I.

The next day was my Zoroastrian tour. In retrospect, this was my least favorite day in Iran. Zara treated me like a tourist, and I felt the difference with being with Elli. She would break into Farsi Dari (their dialect) whenever she saw someone she knew. I asked her if she knew the entire community since she seemed to know at least one person in every stop, and she confirmed my observation. “It’s a small community, and we have frequent gatherings so we know each other.” Zara was the one who told me about the big news that day. “They raised benzene prices to three times higher today.” “That’s terribly unacceptable”, I said surprised. “It’s a consequence of the sanctions”, Zara explained. That probably explained her long chats with a lot of people we encountered. She was nice though, and always answered my many questions. “Do you have a boyfriend?”, I tried asking. Boyfriends and girlfriends in Iran weren’t something openly accepted, but of course the Iranian youth has caught on with modern day love. “Yes”, Zara smilingly replied. They had met in the tour leading school that Zara attended, but they were based in different cities – somebody would have to decide to move, most likely her to Tehran she said. Zara was a Zoroastrian herself. Yazd was the birthplace of Zoroastrianism (one of the oldest religions in the world), but Zara shared that most Zoroastrians were already in the US/Canada due to migration over the years. She would have liked to go to the US herself if given the opportunity. Apart from treating me like a tourist, the tour involved two museums – something I’m honestly not fond of (save for modern art and art-science). I even fell asleep in the short film screening at the Markar Museum. But I took in what piqued my interest, such as the fact that Zoroastrians had women priests, they emphasized good deeds, good thoughts, & good words, and that their belief generally evolved around respect for nature and other human beings. I remembered Esi’s opinion that he thought Zoroastrianism was probably one of the best religions. It was easy to see why. We also visited several Zoroastrian towns, and I found the cyprus tree markers quite ingenious. Each town had a differently-shaped cyprus tree that towered from a distance to help travelers then to identify the place. I wondered though how long it took for the trees to reach a visibly-useful height. “Does anybody still live here?”, I asked Zara since the villages seemed largely unpopulated. “Most of the younger generation have moved into the city, but our parents still live here”. After the towns, we visited a tower of silence – this was where they brought their dead, and this unique practice only stopped 80 years ago. According to Zara, long time ago, there were a lot of wars and they couldn’t put up with burying their dead. So they built these open towers, where they left the bodies of their dead for the vultures to consume. The leftover bones were dissolved using a concocted acid – leaving the tower ready to use again. The idea seemed eerie, though the place didn’t particularly feel scary. Perhaps at night? I forgot to ask Zara that bit.

After the tower of silence, we went to another guesthouse run by another Zoroastrian. It was the very dainty Nartitee. They had a pomegranate garden in their backyard, which contributed to the serenity of the property. That was where I discovered qottabs, a Persian pastry that I took particular interest in. They offered me some with tea, and I shamelessly ate more than 5. I posted it on my Instagram story, and some of new Iranian friends volunteered the addresses of where I could buy it. I saved the addresses thinking I had time later in Shiraz, but as it turned out I wouldn’t have that chance anymore. I was scheduled to have lunch at Nartitee, and was joined by a middle-aged Iranian couple who had long been based in Australia. It was their first time to be back in Iran after 20 or so years. They were driving on their own in Iran for 2 months, visiting places they were never able to before. As our conversation progressed with the delicious lunch at Nartitee, the woman gradually told me the reason why they left the country. They were Baha’i, a religion founded in Iran quite recently (1863) – it encompassed and welcomed the distilled values from all religions, and essentially was seen as something that challenged Islam. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of that religion.”, I hesitantly admitted. “You can read about it online”, she offered. “It’s difficult to be Baha’i in Iran”, Mo explained to me later that day. In fact, the couple had narrated to me how a taxi driver made them get down the vehicle when he learned they were Baha’i. The woman told me about the challenges growing up as a Baha’i in Iran. “My religion taught me that men and women are equal, but this is different to what is taught in Islam. What I learned in school was different to what I learned at home. It was difficult growing up here, that was why we had to leave.” Baha’i people, as I read, were persecuted in Iran, which explains the mass exodus to places like Australia and the US. The woman willingly shared a lot about their belief system, and I sat there listening genuinely interested. What she was saying was probably what most of the youth believe now – that there is no one true religion as long as we had a personal relationship with God. She emphasized how Baha’i didn’t restrict themselves to a singular text of teaching – it evolves over time to ensure that it was always appropriately current. I had a long discussion with the woman about their beliefs (most of which I found easy to agree with), and she thanked me for being open to hearing about it – that was the essence of their religion. They didn’t want to encourage anyone to convert, but just to promote peace and harmony among all religions.

After lunch, Zara drove me back to Restup. All the other guests were out, and it was just me and Mo. I had a bus trip to Shiraz that afternoon and I was just killing 2 hours until then. I asked Mo if he was a Zoroastrian, and he answered “No, I am Muslim.” “Oh, I’m sorry, Flo told me you were Zoroastrian”, I apologized. “Ah, no”, Mo said with a smile and without any trace of bother. As there was nothing much to do and no other guest, Mo had time to tell me about his life. He used to be a taxi driver, until he met a serious accident and his wife forbade him to return to being one. He then decided to rent the current property, renovate it and run it as a hostel. Business was challenging with the sanctions, they only operated at full capacity for a few months a year, and there were barely any guests at other times. I saw a motorbike lying at the corner of the hostel and I asked Mo if it was his. “It is, but a rich boy is buying it. A motorcycle costs a lot, I can get a large amount of money for it. He’s waiting for me to finish the repair – but I don’t want to finish”, he said as he glanced longingly in the direction of the bike. Mo was obviously sentimental over the bike, but the money would help. In all the places I stayed at, they told me about how it’s been a slow year since the sanctions. Back in the day, there were a lot more tourists and business was good.

I soon had to leave, and Mo helped me get a taxi to the bus station. There wasn’t any English in the station again, but I found my way by asking around. It was a 6-hour bus to Shiraz, I would arrive by midnight. I sat beside a lady, who at first seemed not particularly friendly. I fell asleep immediately in the bus, and she woke me up to tell me in actions to put on my seat belt. She tried helping me locate it, but we couldn’t. I thanked her for her concern. Around midway, we made a 20 minute stop. I went down to buy water and nothing else as I was still full from lunch. The lady opened a lunchbox with rice and kebabs. She picked up one of her 2 kebabs and insisted on me taking it. I felt bad having to take it, but she wouldn’t accept no as an answer. I smiled and took it, and she offered me some bread. This has always been my general experience in Iran, their generosity to strangers was always overwhelming – I would never go hungry there. My only wish was that I had brought more things I could give away. Sometimes there was something I could give, but more often than not due to my limited luggage space, I was always only at the receiving end.

Shiraz

When I arrived at the hostel a little past midnight, Hamid was there in the front desk like he told me. He was falling sleep while standing though, and even mid-sentence while talking to me. I found it a little funny, but of course held back my laughter. He gave me a room which was a bit more expensive than what I had booked because he was too tired to bring me to my original room in a separate building. I didn’t feel too well when I got to Shiraz. My skin had become even rougher, and I developed some sort of painful inflammation in my armpits. I tried to self-diagnose using Google, but I couldn’t figure it out. (Thankfully my skin had normalized when I returned to Singapore, my body was definitely made for the tropics.) I downed a few pills for fever and my throat, and dozed off within a few minutes.

Morning came and Leila, my tour guide, arrived while I was having breakfast. She arrived at 8 AM, but I thought we were meeting at 9 AM. Thank god for my habit of waking up early, I was able to wrap up breakfast and packing within 10 minutes. My only objective in Shiraz was to visit the famed Persepolis and Necropolis, and of course the photogenic Nasir ol Molk mosque. Leila would accompany me to Persepolis and Necropolis, but I was to explore Shiraz on my own tomorrow. Leila drove her own car, like Zara. I had asked Zara in Yazd why most cars in Iran were white. “Does it have something to do with religion?”, I inquired. “Oh that’s a good question, it’s actually because of the sun to avoid getting the car too hot.” Predictably, Leila’s car was also white. We had not reached far from the hostel, when Leila miscalculated and forced the car in between a truck and the pavement. As a result, her side mirror got nagged, popped out and dropped. She was talking to me about Shiraz at that moment, and I felt bad that I possibly distracted her. She got out the car to pick the side mirror up and talk to the truck people, but of course they insisted it was her fault. “This is always what they say, it’s not their fault.” I had thought that it wasn’t the truck’s fault either, but I kept that opinion to myself. “Is it expensive to get this fixed? We could go to a repair shop first”, I offered. “With the sanctions now, all you can get are copy parts from China, not the original. It’s cheaper but it doesn’t last”, Leila explained. I also had in mind the benzene price increase yesterday, and I just decided to give her a larger tip. “I have a feeling this isn’t going to be a good day”, Leila correctly prophesized. I silently wished she was wrong. We drove back with just one side mirror to Leila’s city, Marvdasht. It was the nearest city to Persepolis. She picked up a friend there, and her friend took over the wheel. Over the drive, she had arranged with her friend to get the car repaired while we were going around Persepolis. I wondered about the coincidence that her friend didn’t seem busy today and was readily available to do this for her.

When we reached Persepolis, I was asked to leave my bag. It was an added measure they had because of the common practice of looting pieces of rock from the structure – done over the years by foreigners mostly. Big chunks of the ancient palace now sit in renowned museums outside Iran. The Persepolis site was simultaneously underwhelming and overwhelming. So much of it had been destroyed by Alexander the Great, and both prominent and common thieves. Yet if you dared imagine the structure from what was left, it was no doubt intricate and beyond opulent. Surely it was an architectural wonder during its time. I decided to rent a 3D VR glass that recreated the site when you put it on. It didn’t really do it, but it wasn’t a waste of money either, sometimes it made imagining easier. To be honest, I wasn’t that fascinated about Persepolis as much as I was asking Leila about her opinion on other things. Leila was born Muslim but didn’t believe in any religion any more. She was frustrated with the government and the way things were being run. “They impose all these rules on us, yet they live the way they want with all their children in the best schools in America.” She talked about the consequences of the sanctions on medicines – most people just died if they had cancer. Some people got sick because of inferior quality medicines that are not only fake but toxic. Water tributaries were being reverted to industrial use for the government’s benefit but to the people’s detriment. Factories can’t upgrade their machines for higher efficiency and less environmentally-damaging technologies because the sanctions have prevented importation of these as well. It was difficult to believe in anything anymore. Iran’s situation reminded me a lot of Philippines. It wasn’t directly comparable of course – but the brain drain, the never-ending projects with budgets corrupted by politicians, the disregard for the life of the poorer factions, the unfulfilled potential of both the people and the resources – they were akin to each other. I felt Leila’s extreme disappointment, but somehow I also felt that Iran and the Iranian people were surviving as gracefully as they could amidst all their problems. Even with all that political and economic isolation, they were able to sustain themselves. The people earned so much respect from me. Although Leila remarked she hated the counterfeit and questionable products from China, she also said “I like the Chinese government. They just let their people do their own work and now they’re all getting stronger with their economy.” One could argue that Chinese rule couldn’t be simplified this way, but I saw Leila’s point. All she wanted was a government that supported the people, and thereafter she was willing to do the rest of the hard work.

After Persepolis was Necropolis, which was where Darius the Great was buried, along with the other kings of the Achaemenid empire. Leila pointed at the tomb of Xerxes, which was scaffolded for restoration. “Look at that, they said they’ll start the work years ago after the budget was signed off. But it’s still not done – it’s like this in Iran.” “Money for the government, and cancer for the people”, was what Leila said when I asked about a petrochemical factory emitting fumes from afar. The last thing on the itinerary was lunch with a local family. At first I thought we were going to some random local village, but I then realized we were going to Leila’s home at one of villages at the outskirts of the city. Leila’s father owned around 200 sheep – it was their main livelihood. His three sons helped him out, one of them as full-fledged shepherd while the two of them because it was tough to look for a better job. When we reached their home, Leila’s mom was making butter from sheep milk. While Iranians traditionally usually use the animal’s skin, she was using a metal container, shaking it back and forth to make the butter curd. She fished it out using her bare hands, with the rest of the milk to be consumed as dhoogh (buttermilk). I could smell the fresh butter as I watched her do it. I entered their simple home and I realized that my earlier proclamation that all Iranian houses seemed to be elaborately-decorated was not necessarily true. I was blindsided by the manicured side of Iran. Not that Leila’s home wasn’t nice, but it was plain and simple, nothing fancy adorned the place. Leila showed me a beautiful carpet that she had weaved herself. “Back in the day, every girl in the village would make at least 1 carpet in her life. One carpet would take about 2 months to make, and there was nothing else you’d do during that time.” As lunch wasn’t quite ready yet, I sat in the living/sleeping room with Leila’s father. Neither of Leila’s parents spoke any English. I sat in front of him and smiled, and he graciously smiled back. We were soon served tea and I started drinking it as I usually did – without sugar, from the cup. I watched Leila’s father as he took a sugar cube, dipped it into the hot tea, and placed it in his mouth. He then poured the tea into the saucer, and drank from there (this cools the tea quickly because of the higher surface area). He looked at me as if waiting if I would follow suit, and naturally I did. I did as he did, and he said something to Leila in Farsi. “What did he say?”, I asked. “He said you can stay here and be his fourth daughter.” I smiled to indicate a “yes”, but mostly an “I would if I could, but my own father is waiting for me”.

Lunch was then served – it was a rice dish with lamb, traditional bread, and the butter and dhoogh that Leila’s mom just collected. It was simple yet delicious. I tried not to take too much meat, but Leila’s parents kept insisting. I ate two servings because it was both good and I wanted to show them I really liked it. After lunch, Leila’s father dipped his hands in the butter and used it as lotion. I thought to myself that it was brilliant idea, because my lotion was doing nothing for my dry skin. I helped Leila wash the dishes, I volunteered to do the soaping as I didn’t want to waste water. After that, Leila took me out to meet her brother. He had just come back carrying 3 newborn lambs. We shooked hands, and he called me “Philippines”. He took me and Leila for a short motorbike ride to where the sheep were grazing. His wife and 2 adorable daughters were there as well. Leila had narrated to me that they had married young and that they were cousins. I asked her if she really meant first cousins, and she confirmed it. When I met Amin in Tehran, I asked him about this as it was not practice where I was from for health reasons (higher possibility of offspring getting genetic disorders). He said it was true, that was completely acceptable, although perhaps not as common in the cities. After reading a bit more on it, there has been studies showing that this risk is low for first cousins. Leila was in her late 30s, she explained to me the same thing as Esi, that it was hard to get married nowadays with the bad economy, and most people lived with their parents. I asked her if she doesn’t have plans of getting married anymore, she struck me as very independent and responsible towards her family. “I want to, I just haven’t found someone to marry”, she told me with a laugh. I smiled and agreed with her, “same here”.

Leila encouraged me to take a nap after lunch. I wondered why she didn’t want to bring me back yet. I wasn’t in a hurry though, so I lounged beside her father in the living/sleeping room again. He was lying on his side, listening to his radio. I inspected the radio thinking if it was possibly vintage, until I saw the usb port. Leila was particularly busy on her phone, and she suddenly told me “The roads are blocked in Shiraz, my friend said it’s dangerous to go back now. They’re throwing stones on cars that try to get in”. I asked Leila if it was because of the benzene price hike, and she said yes. She told me we’ll just have to wait awhile until hopefully the situation calms down and she would drive me back. I didn’t mind waiting rather than endangering both of us. I seemed to have lost the signal on my phone permanently, so I busied myself with deleting bad photos I had on my camera. I particularly enjoyed sitting there with Leila’s dad anyway, I felt like we shared some affinity even if we couldn’t talk to each other. He had a problem in his knees, and Leila narrated that he needed an expensive injection every now and then. He can’t walk that far anymore, that’s why his son has taken over most of the shepherding responsibilities. I guessed it was osteoarthritis, and I could definitely imagine how expensive that was. Leila’s mother on the other hand had an eye patch over one of her eyes. I asked Leila what the problem was, and she told me she had recently had an operation to allow her to see clearly again (I surmised it was for cataract), but her eye continued to feel pain every now and then. Evening came, and Leila’s brothers and sister arrived. There was no hope of getting back in the city that night so I had to spend the night there. “That’s completely fine. Thank you for letting me stay here”, I reassured her. Only Leila’s youngest brother, Ebrahim, spoke English other than Leila. He taught me all their names, and after that suddenly asked me “Who am I?”. Fortunately I remembered, Ebrahim was something I could imagine the spelling of. Leila busied herself slicing potatoes and onions for dinner. I offered to help, but she refused and insisted she was fine. I sat with her family as they ate some “organic white pistachios” according to them. It looked more like mung beans to me, and as I tried biting into one it was as hard as a raw mung bean as well. “Don’t eat it”, Leila warned, “they don’t care about their teeth”. Leila’s parents shook their head and hands to prevent me from trying, but their children coaxed me to try. I took one again and tried to crack it slowly. I opened it and saw a miniscule soft seed within and judged “there’s nothing inside”. “You’re right, Christine”, Leila laughed. Ebrahim’s other brother grabbed one and opened it for me. He placed on my hand another of those tiny seeds and insisted that I was holding what they were eating. He urged me to eat it, but I was aware he had that in his mouth just awhile ago. “What the hell”, I thought. I popped it in and it still didn’t seem worth the effort to me.

Ebrahim asked me what my interests were. I knew he was into music when Leila introduced them, and I told him I was too. He asked about me, and soon enough gathered the confusing fact that I lived in Singapore, whereas my family was in Philippines. “Do you love your father and your brother?”, he inquired. I was taken aback by the question and said, “yes, of course”. “But you left them in Philippines?” “Well, not exactly. I work in Singapore so I need to live there.” “But you chose to leave them?” I stopped to think for awhile. I could explain my reason in a more complicated way, but I guess if you simplified it, the answer was “yes, I guess you could say that”, I slowly admitted to myself more than to him.

Our dinner was the leftover from lunch, and mashed potatoes mixed with caramelized onions. It was a simple yet gratifying dinner. After that, I went to the kitchen to offer my help washing the dishes. “Oh no, there’s no water. we can do that tomorrow”, Leila countered. Water was only turned on for several hours twice a week, but Leila’s mom forgot to fill the tank today because she wasn’t aware that the water was coming that day. Leila had also showed me a dry canal this afternoon, pointing to it and reminiscing “This used to be a stream. There was a huge tree at this corner, and all the women in the village would wash their dishes and laundry together. It was one of the best memories of my childhood. But it’s been dry for 15 years now, the government diverted the water to factories.” The night was young, so we all went to Leila’s other brother’s house to watch television, drink tea, and eat more pomegranate. I dreaded getting pushed to the brink of having to use the bathroom because it was freezing cold outside, and it was a squat toilet. I could pee in one, but I wasn’t confident in doing heavier deposits. Leila’s sister also showed me long videos of a wedding they attended (they were dancing in the video and wearing traditional dresses), as well as videos from their yearly ritual of giving the sheeps a bath in a running stream. It was only when we they changed the channel to BBC Persian did I understand the full extent of the protests. Streets and petrol stations were on fire, roads were blocked in a few cities in the country, the military had allegedly open-fired on the people (the reported death toll was 200), and internet was cut off by the government. My first thought was if this was on the world news already, my dad would be worried sick if he saw this. I asked Leila if this has happened before. “The last time they raised prices was 12 years ago. They’ve cut the internet before, usually it’s back by the next day.” It took a week for the internet to be restored, and in fact in some places like Leila’s, it took 2 weeks. When she finally received my messages and replied (I was back in Singapore by then), she didn’t forget to emphasize the resulting economic damage taking away the internet brought.

I was warm sleeping under two blankets at Leila’s home. In the morning, we had breakfast together and again, I had to go through the inevitable parting. I gave Leila’s parents some gifts, and when Ebrahim and I said our goodbyes, he told me he hoped to see me in Philippines one day. He didn’t say Singapore. I felt really grateful for Leila and her family, for their accommodation and warmth. Leila’s brother accompanied us in the drive back to Shiraz. As I sat in the car, I thought about how far I was from the danger of the protests, but at the same time how near I was to the actual problem, because I was with the people.

When I got back to the hostel, Hamid reprimanded me why I didn’t text or call him that I wasn’t going back last night. I apologized and told him I didn’t know I could still text or call, and that I slept at a village. He was worried because the situation was volatile yesterday, and he didn’t have my Iranian number to check on me. Whatsapp is also how people usually communicated in Iran, and I retained my Singapore number for that. I took a shower and told Hamid I had a flight back to Tehran that day. “I can’t promise you we can get a taxi, but I’ll try.” As I was eating breakfast, I talked to Hamid for awhile, I felt bad I wasn’t able to really stay at the hostel that long. He told me knew Manny Pacquiao and Batista, they were famous Filipino wrestlers. “Is that so? I didn’t even know Batista was half-Filipino”, I replied in amazement. I told him I hoped the situation would get better soon for everyone. “The politics in Iran is not normal. If you want to change this system, some people must die”, he replied as he went to the next bead in his misbaha (Islamic prayer beads).

As it turned out, Hamid couldn’t find a taxi for me. But he came up with an alternative. My colleague can just bring you to the airport on a motorbike. “Is it safe?”, I asked in concern for his colleague, because the prospect of a motorbike honestly excited me. “Yes, no problem, don’t worry”, Hamid reassured me. It was great I was traveling with a backpack so hitching it on the bike was no problem. Mooriah was the one who drove me to the airport. He was several years younger than me,  and I thought he looked more like an Indian than an Iranian. A good-looking Indian, for that matter. The original plan was for Mooriah to find me a taxi just a bit farther out of the central area, but he ended up driving me the entire way to the airport. I sensed he was expressing interest in me, by way of his conversation and when he placed my hands inside his jacket pockets to make them warm. But his lack of English and my lack of Farsi, prevented us from communicating properly. And in any case, he was just a boy, and I was not a girl anymore. I told him to take care on the way back and thanked him with an additional tip.

Tehran

Amin got in touch with me as I waited for my flight to Tehran. I asked Amin a favor to help me top up my credits because I didn’t know how to check my balance and I wasn’t sure how many more messages and calls I could make. Amin immediately sent me some credit, and gave me instructions what to do upon reaching Tehran. We were scheduled to meet that night, but it seemed like he was implying I would sleep over with him and his wife as well. “You mean I can stay at your place tonight?”, I asked. “You’ll be with us for the rest of your trip in Iran”, Amin confirmed. I was touched by their generosity. Leila told me Hanieh was so worried for me and kept calling her to check on me. I told Leila I was completely fine, and not worried. I wasn’t scared or upset at all that all of this was happening during my trip, that I wasn’t able to see Shiraz because of it, or anything else. I was taking the entire experience in, the only emotion I felt was sympathy for the Iranians and a frustration that I couldn’t really do much and will mostly have to watch how this entire situation unfolds. I tried texting my dad to tell him I was fine, but international text messages didn’t seem to get through either. I couldn’t call him as well, although Ali and Elli (who constantly checked on me) insisted that I should be able to. By evening that day, I was finally able to call my dad and naturally he was upset. I reassured him that everything was fine and that I was in good company, and he insisted that I stay indoors and get to the airport immediately. I missed my dad at that moment, he was always so concerned for me. Nobody was as invested as him on checking on my safety constantly. “I still have a full day here tomorrow. I’ll be back in Singapore soon, don’t worry”, I reassured him.

I went back to Arian hostel first to get my luggage and kill some time before I took a cab to Amin’s home. I paid for a night’s stay in exchange of them graciously allowing me to leave my suitcase there. Tehran’s roads were also closed yesterday because of protests, but everything looked artificially calm when I got there. I saw the military manning the still-operating petrol stations, and there was a long line for those. I texted all my new Iranian friends to check on them, including Esi. Surprisingly, he told me he was also in Tehran and if I wanted to meet him. I had planned to meet Baba Abi the next morning. He was the one I brought the 20 packs of mi goreng for. But I also really wanted to see Esi one last time, so I apologized to Baba Abi and hoped he understood.

I got to Amin and Hanieh’s home a little past 7. Finally, I was meeting the person who helped me make this entire trip possible. The person I’ve constantly bugged with every other question I thought of. I was really psyched to meet them both. TasteIran was a start-up they, as a couple, started just over a year ago. Amin had a PhD in IT (well almost completed) and MBA background, while Hanieh had extensive experience in the tourism industry. They both loved traveling as backpackers, and it felt absolutely right for them to work on something they were both extremely passionate about and completely capable of. They employed a few other people in their company, but Amin was mostly responsible for the website and transactions, while Hanieh was in charge of the content. They were both extremely welcoming and friendly. I excitedly told them about the last few magical days I’ve had in their country and how extremely fortunate I felt for ending up in Iran. Amin also had a lovely surprise waiting for me, they had ordered a box of qottab for me. “Oh my god, thank you!”, was the only thing I could keep saying. But Amin had his eyes on the qottab as well, he invited me to open it, and of course I did. He helped himself with some, apparently qottab was a specific specialty in Yazd, and that they went through an agent to get this. Amin got a few, and Hanieh advised me to keep my stash before he got any more. I did (haha, sorry Amin! :D). Their home was decorated very gaily, with numerous handicrafts adorning their walls and furnitures. Hanieh was especially fond of local traditional dolls, and she proudly showed me her entire collection. Amin and Hanieh were just around my age, but they somewhat felt like my adoptive Iranian parents. I loved Amin’s sense of humor, and I enjoyed listening to Hanieh’s strong opinions. They were a great couple, and I felt grateful for the turn of events that allowed me to meet them in person and even stay at their home.

After breakfast the next day, I met up with Esi and his two friends. His friend has his own place, and they were all clearly part of the more affluent population. But they weren’t condescending at all about it, as a matter of fact they were all quite down-to-earth and welcoming. In addition, they had impeccable taste in music which was always a good sign. We drove up to Lavasan, just an hour away from the more central area of Tehran. Esi likened the properties there as an equivalent to Beverly Hills. We stopped by a river outside the town and the three of them lit a fire in vain. It didn’t last long – clearly I was with city boys. Despite their general high spirits, I also felt their grudges for the political and economic situation. Even they were not spared from it. We were all the same age, but with different concerns and different liberties.

I thanked Esi for letting me hang out with him and his friends that day. I wanted to joke that I’d rate it 5 stars for an authentic local experience, but it wasn’t the time for humor. I wished him well when I said good bye, I knew there was little possibility we’d meet again. But all I needed was that second chance to tell him what I felt, and that was enough not to have any regrets.

I went back to Amin and Hanieh’s place and spent the rest of my time in Tehran showing them my photos and all the souvenirs I bought. I was proud to tell them how pleased I was with all the assistance they gave me, and for going out of their way even. I was starting to miss everything about Iran already.

Epilogue

If you had read this entire post, it’s quite clear that Iran had not left me lost for words. It was an incredibly gratifying choice, not just for the sights but mostly for the people. And everything I learned not only about them, but about myself. During my stay there, I hardly knew what date it was. The only thing that reminded what day it was were the birth control pills I took every morning for my PCOS. I never felt worried for my safety, even at night. But of course, it was like any other place I did meet a handful of people who could be described as rude, their government screwed them up, there were unaddressed social and economic problems. But it was nothing like the Iran everyone else warned me about. I don’t blame them though, Iran’s real story has been locked up within their borders as a result of the sanctions. Whether the political problem is the responsibility of their ruling government or foreign nations is arguable. What was inarguable was that nobody ever regrets visiting Iran. While every country has their own problem, including my own, knowing people in Iran has definitely made me more concerned and invested with what could unfold in the near future – I sincerely hope that it doesn’t involve the sacrifice of more lives. But of course, one hopes for real change. I thank God/Allah/Ahura Mazda or whatever else title this entity holds – the great source of energy in this universe – for giving me a wonderful lesson in the form of my experience in this country. I’ll be back, Inshallah. (Don’t worry Mamoti, God’s will isn’t always a yes)

IMG_8930Tehran Grand Bazaar

IMG_8909Golestan Palace, Tehran

IMG_8937Azadi Tower, Tehran

IMG_9020 2A rooftop inside one of the opulent traditional houses in Kashan

P1200190Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

IMG_9017Tabatabaei House, Kashan

P1200484Khaju Bridge, Isfahan

647718df-716f-4007-a02d-2128e8fe45e0Me and Elli in the nondescript local restaurant with great food

P1200348Elli liked this photo of her that I took at the Shah Mosque

P1200427Elli’s favorite Ghalamkar workshop

P1200310Ali Qapu Palace

P1200304Music room walls at Ali Qapu Palace

P1200325Entrance of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan

IMG_9114Naqsh-e Jahan Square at night, Isfahan

P1200470Zayandeh-Rud River, I was lucky it wasn’t dry anymore when I visited, Isfahan

IMG_9155Khaju bridge, Isfahan

P1200619Salt flats at Varzaneh

IMG_9440 2Varzaneh desert

P1200719That’s me after sandboarding

P1200724While waiting for the sunset at Varzaneh

P1200892Saji and Hafez on top of the caravanserai for breakfast

P1200970Me and my many layers, but without Aminn’s jacket already

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-15 at 3.01.32 AMMe, Flo and Elaine

P1210085The moon through one of the glass balls on the roof, Yazd

P1210177Tower of silence, Yazd

P1210213Nartitee, Yazd

P1210408Ahmadabad, Shiraz

P1210318Persepolis, Shiraz

P1210355Necropolis, Shiraz

P1210307The stone sculptures at Persepolis depicted many nations, but they were all men. This is supposedly the only female depicted in the entire complex – a lioness

IMG_9666.JPGLavasan, Tehran

P1200566Persian tomato omelette which I absolutely looove

WhatsApp Image 2019-12-01 at 4.02.16 PMAmin and Hanieh of TasteIran (I wasn’t able to take a photo with them so Hanieh has kindly provided one)

P.S. I spent 2,700 USD for my 10-day trip, including the flights and all the rebooking. If you subtract my flights, it was 1,500 USD. Shopping and tipping (or more like money that they actually deserved) also included, though I would have spent more for Persian rugs if I had the chance in Tehran.

 

 

Train to Kanchanaburi

I had already braced myself for resistance and consequential complaints the moment I started pitching to my friend, Ray, about my plan for us to take a train from Bangkok to a place called Kanchanaburi. “It’s just a 3-hour train ride, I promise it’s going to be fun!” Like most people, the idea of a non-air-conditioned train in a tropical developing country did not sound fun at all to him. But Ray was busy with his PhD and he wasn’t into planning trips. I, on the other hand, was the one visiting him and with the propensity to plan my holidays. He reluctantly agreed that I could go ahead and do all the planning, and I knew he was hoping I wouldn’t line up anything too adventurous and inconvenient as I usually did.

During my PhD, Ray had visited me in Singapore 3 times, which was why when he told me he was moving to Thailand to do his PhD, I didn’t think twice of booking a ticket to visit him. To properly set the story of our adventure, one must know that Ray is almost my complete opposite. Like our MBTI personalities read, we have nothing in common but the propensity for introversion and judgement. Otherwise, Ray is the paragon of logic and practicality (ISTJ) whereas I am the queen of emotion and feelings (INFJ). We’ve known each other a little over a decade, but I’m not sure when we actually started to become friends. I do remember it began with him amiably bullying me when I was in college. I couldn’t completely blame him, I had a propensity then to be childish, a prude (in his words), rigid (again his words) and a geek (and again, his words). I arrived in the most notoriously radical (and brilliant, forgive me for the school pride) university in the country after coming from an exclusive Catholic all-girls school. It couldn’t be helped, especially when I was already timid even then in high school. Ray was ahead of me by a year – we met at the university’s pre-medical society where he was a member before I became one. We were the only engineering students during our time – he was in mechanical and I was in chemical. The reason why we were in a pre-medical society is a story too long to be recounted here, but being in the same college meant we had a few things in common. Our organization was previously what you would label as a confraternity and our initiation rights, although onerous and demanding, was the basis of our strong bonds within. On his final year, he became the president of the society while I was effectively the vice-president. He ruled with efficiency and competitiveness whereas I troubled myself with building inspiration and ensuring accommodation. Naturally, we had a lot of arguments. Surprisingly though, those arguments never spilled into our personal relationship as after graduation, it became clear that our friendship (also with another person, Renee) was one of those cliques that endured despite the end of school.

I left Singapore on a Thursday and arrived in Bangkok on a Friday. I had paid an extra 90 USD to avoid telling my boss that I got my booking wrong for almost 4 months and thus failed to notice that the original flight was scheduled on a Wednesday. I didn’t have holiday leave left to clear anyway, everything else was pegged for Christmas. So much for buying ahead. Bangkok was a place I had been to twice before. As I was coming from a place also known for shopping and eating, I wasn’t keen on staying in Bangkok. I also thought it would be nice to force take Ray on a rendezvous in the countryside as his PhD woes had taken a toll on him over the last few months. Fresh air might do him well. I knew he was more of the holiday-to-relax traveler rather than the holiday-to-adventure, but I was too starry-eyed with my vision for this holiday – it had to be a mixture of both. I arrived in the older airport, Don Mueang, and took a Grab to Ray’s student apartment. During the ride, I was gripped with the realization that the last time I was in Bangkok 5 years ago, I had no Google Map on my phone, Grab had not existed, and mobile data was not cheap (or even available – at least for my social spectrum). I wondered how I planned the last holiday we had as a complete family here and I thought about digging the itinerary I had sent to my mom’s email. Unfortunately, that would have been deleted by Yahoo already.

Half of my luggage was Ray’s cookies and chocolates. That was another thing we didn’t have in common: he had a serious liking for sweets, whereas I went for more of the savoury items. I also had a tendency to eat fast while he preferred to lounge about as he snacked. “I hope you don’t eat like that when you’re out on a date”, Ray chided me. “Of course I don’t. What are you acting surprised about, I’ve always eaten fast”, I answered. “I thought you would have outgrown it by now. Clearly not”. *laughter* I was also adventurous in my food choices, whereas he admittedly describes his palate as unrefined. That was what he said the morning I volunteered to make breakfast at the hostel we went to. I asked him whether he liked the way I seasoned the omelette, with thyme or did he prefer it without. He told me he didn’t taste any particular difference. After unloading all his “pasalubongs” and giggling at our reunion after a long time, we had about an hour left to sleep before preparing for the 7:50 am train ride.

5:30 am, I woke up as scheduled. I announced “Mawnin” to Ray the moment I got up. It was my way of annoying him – with words that were weird and didn’t make sense (like “aftii” for afternoon and “nuhnyt” for good night). He rolled over in his mattress and, surely, was already hating my decision to leave that early. We got ready to leave soon after and rode a cab to the Thonburi train station. Ray had sent me photos of the train station a few days before when he inquired if it was possible to book tickets early. It wasn’t necessary, as much as there wasn’t any facility/app to do that – the train wasn’t going to be full, they said. He told me he was scared upon seeing the train, I dismissed him with an “it’s just for a few hours”. Ray had told me that his professor had shared that the railway was more than a century old already. It was evident – but we weren’t strangers to old trains. There was a train almost like this in the Philippines, we didn’t ride it regularly but we’ve been on it for short rides. The state railway of Thailand was an open railway, one that didn’t have fences bordering it – and a train where you could readily jump on or down from if you had the courage/need to do so. The toilet was the quintessential open hole on the ground, it didn’t reek of any smell at all.

P1120890Thonburi station at Bangkok

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P1130212River Kwai

Before (happy) and after (not amused anymore) the 8-hour train ride

The train left just a little bit later than scheduled (surprising when you consider how the Thais seemed to regard time). We got a seat each to ourselves, and it was more comfortable than we had expected. Ray had initially expressed dissatisfaction that the seat angles were 90 degrees with 0 degree of possible recline, but we soon realized that it was more comfortable than having to ride in a cramped van. Save for the heat, the entire ride was actually enjoyable. The views would not deserve a “spectacular” (from us, being from the Philippines), but they were certainly a welcome respite from the city. There were fields, mountains and beautiful rivers. There wasn’t any buffet car, but several vendors repeatedly plied the aisle, alternating different baskets of food. There were mangoes, pineapples, sausages, fish balls, noodles wrapped in paper, fried chicken with sticky rice, rice-banana cakes, boiled eggs, drinks and what-not. I bought mostly fruits and queer-looking items while Ray bought 3 sets of fried chicken with sticky rice (one he unfortunately dropped on the floor). It was such a relaxing ride that Ray actually found himself enjoying it. I was relieved – I was saved from possible scolding. When we were about 2 hours into the ride, I launched my plan and asked Ray if he would consider traveling to the end of the line (Nam Tok station) and just going back to our Kanchanaburi stop after. “It’s just a few stops away and the reviews say the views are breathtaking. It’s the only way we can see the Death Railway.” “I’m pretty sure it was white foreigners who wrote those reviews”, Ray countered. That was true, what was breathtaking and exotic to Westerners in Thailand would most likely be something we had similar back home. I reasoned that with our schedule, it wouldn’t be possible to cover the Death Railway (one of my our objectives) if we didn’t go ahead with the train ride. As we were already there and Ray was quite amused with the ride, he agreed. Unbeknownst to us, the train ride to the end of the Nam Tok and back to Kanchanaburi was another 4 hours – giving a total of 8 hours on the rail. Due to expected inefficiencies, the ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi took 4 hours rather than 3. Thankfully, the view didn’t disappoint and Ray only started getting seriously bored 2 hours before we reached Kanchanaburi again. During the trip, I had made a stronger realization how Ray was only interested in things that he could draw facts/conclusions from, being a “sensor” than a “feeler”. I would announce and point with wonder “birds”, “corn field”, “river”, and what-not as I stared into the window. While at first he looked out and ended up not being impressed, later on he just smiled at me in response with an I’m-sure-whatever-that-is-is-of-no-interest-to-me look, while not bothering to look. Upon reaching Nam Tok, we had to buy new tickets to go back the opposite direction (both ways were ~3 USD each). The conductor told us the train was only stopping for 10 minutes, yet the ticket counter took more than a minute dispensing a ticket to every person on the cue. Ray asked me to stay inside the train as he took it upon himself to buy. Thankfully he got them just a few minutes before the train left and we both laughed at how we knew he would have just come running back to the train if they sounded the horn while he was in line.

We arrived at D Hostel at around 4:00 pm covered in grime and sporting dishevelled hair. I was looking forward to this booking as it was supposed to be a lake-view room. True enough, the place was surprisingly beautiful. We got the most expensive option which set us back by a mere 25 USD a night. The room was bare but we had full-length windows fronting the Kwai River. There was air-conditioning finally, and the entire hostel was tastefully designed: industrial minimalist with a touch of violet, dried flowers. If the hostel had been a disappointment, I was sure to hear it from Ray – again, I was saved. D hostel exceeded even my own expectations. I arranged for a taxi (they call it a taxi but it was more of a tuk-tuk) in 2 hours to take us to a river-side restaurant I had picked for dinner. After taking a much needed shower and rest, the taxi brought us to the wrong restaurant, albeit still beside the river. I couldn’t do much in the situation as the use of English was still limited in the area. As I struggled to try to hand-signal to the waiter that I wanted something on the other table, Ray looked at me with an “You’re on your own” expression. He sniggered as I gave up in frustration and started complaining that the English menu did not include everything on the Thai menu. “Girl, I told you not to expect them to be proficient in English, why are you getting frustrated?”. I realized he was right, I should be enjoying the fact that they didn’t speak much English – but I wasn’t enjoying the fact that it meant a whole chunk of the menu was inaccessible to me. If anything, we ended up spending less than I planned for dinner as the place I really wanted to go to was much more fancy and thus costly.

P1130233view from our room

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P1130260dinner at the wrong unplanned Thai restaurant

After dinner, Ray needed to finish an academic paper. I accompanied him by sleeping on the hammock fronting the river as he worked on a nearby table. The cold wind soon gnawed on my bones and I told him I’ll go to the room ahead of him. When I woke up the next morning (to his snoring), I was happy that Ray reported he had finished his paper. I wouldn’t have if I were him – working on a vacation was not something I do/could do. As a consequence, he had only gotten a few hours of sleep. “You can sleep in the car”, I grinned reassuringly as he groaned and refused to get up from bed. D hostel requires/allows you to cook your own breakfast at your own time. They provided eggs, bread, milk and jam, in addition to the usual coffee, tea and other condiments. When Ray found out about this the other day, he asked me if I think we could cook some eggs for midnight snack – to which I disagreed because I was the one assigned to cooking between us and therefore the one most likely to get reprimanded if that wasn’t the case. I made us breakfast that morning and we left the hostel at 7:30 am with a hired vehicle to drive us to Erawan waterfalls (45 USD Kanchanaburi-Erawan-Kanchanaburi). It was a little over an hour to the Erawan National Park and our driver brought along his wife. Ray and I sat at the back, him making jokes and me giggling in laughter for the most part (we both love sarcasm to help you imagine the kind of humor we share). We laughed at how the situation was like “mom and pop” driving us on a road trip. In some stretches of the road, you could see the beautiful river and mountains. We reached Erawan almost 9 am and started our climb up to the multi-tiered waterfalls. Although the easiest to reach, our favorite would be the 2nd level – where you can swim with “flesh-eating fishes”, as some blogs have unpleasantly described. It was akin to going on a fish spa where fishes nibbled on the dead skin of your soles, except the fishes were much, much bigger. Anyway, if you swam into the center, the fishes were bound to ignore you. I dragged Ray into the upper levels as much as I could, while he complained along the way. To be fair, as he had also insisted, while he complains, he still continues with it. He just needed to be vocal about being tired. After reaching the 7th level, we brought up the concept of “diminishing marginal return”, a.k.a. “you’ve seen one waterfall, you’ve seen them all – in this case we’ve seen 7”, so we decided it was time to head back to lunch at the park entrance.

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WhatsApp Image 2018-11-24 at 11.08.29 AM

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Upon getting back to the vehicle, I told our driver that we were ready to go to “Hellfire Pass”, as we discussed the day before. He insisted I didn’t say that and I insisted I did. Again, Ray left me to argue my side as he told me he was done with trying to explain in vain to his own set of Thais his many concerns. I gave up Hellfire Pass and agreed to proceed to the Death Railway at Wang Pho instead. The track between Wang Pho and Lum Sum is accessible to tourists, even if the regular train actually runs through it. When our driver dropped us off at Wang Pho, he explained to us in his limited English that he’ll meet us at the other side after we cross the tracks. I happily and excitedly agreed, and Ray and I got down and proceeded to the railway. It was scorching hot by this time and upon reaching the railway, we saw that the “other side” was farther than we expected. “There’s no way I’m crossing that”, Ray flat-out said. “But he said he’s meeting us there”. “I don’t care, I’m not crossing. We’ll just have to tell him to go back to where he dropped us off. Nobody’s crossing don’t you see?”. True enough, we didn’t really see anyone else crossing the entire length to the other side. There was no use arguing with him. It didn’t help that the track was above a river and if the train did arrive (and it did – a few minutes after we turned back), we had no idea where to jump to. Although it would have made a great story had we encountered the train and survived, it was a story Ray did not allow. Fortunately, our driver drove back to Wang Pho and we proceeded to apologize profusely. He didn’t seem that worked up and he started driving us back to River Kwai.

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When our driver stopped at River Kwai, he expected us to go to another part of the railway track. But I wasn’t interested in that segment, and though I tried to explain earlier that we wanted to skip this and go back to the hostel already, Ray told me that it might be best to just go with the motion of going down as amends to having made him drive back earlier. We went down and feigned crossing the street towards the railway, and started walking back to the nearby market when our driver went ahead to the parking area. I ended up eating pad thai at a street stall, while Ray bought a bag of the popular Thai coconut rolls. After a few minutes, we called our driver to tell him we were ready. Ray offered them some coconut rolls, surely our earlier offense was already forgiven.

When we got back to D Hostel that afternoon, we looked forward to just lounging in the room. As there was a lot of catching up to do, Ray and I couldn’t stop laughing in between the different things we talked about. Being my usual self around him, which was me being the real weird me, Ray jokingly announced that “We really need to find you a boyfriend because I don’t have patience for this”, but took it back a few seconds later saying “Oh no, you can’t get married and leave me like Bes”. Another round of laughter from the both of us, but truly that was one of the sweetest things he’s ever said to me. While Ray’s humor was centered around making fun of me, I didn’t really mind it and on the contrary, it was even more amusing to me. I certainly made fun of him as well and the reason why we get along is that he enjoys it too. That was the kind of friendship we had, despite our many differences in opinion and perspective. We accepted each other’s quirks and built on those differences as complements. While we usually bring up contradicting arguments on serious matters, we’ve been friends long enough to know how to accommodate the other person’s views, and in that way grow towards understanding another perspective as well.

We went to the local night market for dinner that day and I ended up buying black rice and a few vintage, ceramic plates. We left on a van at 7:00 am the next day as Ray had had enough of the train ride going to Kanchanaburi. It was for the better as well since I had a plane to catch that night and taking a van gave me the chance to go to Ray’s university (Thammasat) using the river taxi.

I left Bangkok that night with a full stomach of gas from laughing – I don’t think I had laughed that much or that long ever. A lot of my “emotions and feelings” from this trip has been written into a personal letter for Ray (who I actually call “Rhubz” in real life, derived from the word “Rabbi” – yeah I’m/we’re weird), and sadly a lot of the inside jokes were not written in this post for they would most likely lose their humor without context. Nevertheless, Kanchanaburi was an unexpected gem of a travel, considering how near it is from Bangkok yet still how amazing the experience was. Only if you take an 8-hour train ride of course. And only if it was with the same company. Thank you, Rhubz, for this truly memorable experience! 🙂

If you want to watch how we really were in real life, this other video is our behind-the-scenes. Proof of non-stop giggling over the weekend.

My Little Indian Excursion

Pre – India

Over Christmas vacation last year, I told my dad I was going to India for Swati’s wedding.  “You’re not going” was his answer.  I told him “I’m going” with a smile, and we exchanged the same phrases repeatedly, both unyielding yet laughing.  I was laughing because I was simply informing him of my plans.  I wasn’t sure why he was laughing though, perhaps an attempt to humor himself with how much stubborn a daughter he had to deal with.

I booked my tickets in a staggered manner soon after I found out the schedule of the wedding ceremonies.  The first ticket I bought was a one way ticket to India set to a day before the wedding.  In between lab experiments, I read about where I could possibly head after the wedding.  My initial plan was to go to through the standard Indian tour in Rajasthan.  However after consulting various travel groups and most people telling me I’d hate Rajasthan with the heat during that time, I suddenly remembered Ladakh.  I knew in myself that I wasn’t a big fan of the heat, so I yielded.  (Although I’d soon remember I was not that much a fan of the extreme cold either).  Ladakh had been one of those dream destinations I nursed along with Bhutan and South America.  I had set my eyes on them yet they felt as I labeled them – dreams.  I distinctly remember having cut out a photo of Ladakh from a Mabuhay travel magazine back when I was still in university.  It was the same place I fell in love with from my baptismal Bollywood movie, The Three Idiots.  That was close to a decade ago, and I had even planned with my friend Anj that we would conquer India together.  Unfortunately, Anj wasn’t available during this time so I had to do it by myself.  A fact that daunted myself, but much more my dad.  But I wasn’t sure if I could go back to India again, and so with that I made the rest of my bookings, ending the trip with how much holiday leave my conscience could bear.

As my dad gradually accepted the reality that he wasn’t going to be able to convince me otherwise, he had turned to the strategy of sending me every news article he read about the perils of India.  He offered to refund all my plane tickets and tried to use the reasoning that my mom would have never allowed this.  I kindly reminded him that Inay had gone to India many years ago – for a conference and not alone, but she loved it and why shouldn’t I get the chance?  My dad finally helped me choose which vaccines I should take (I got for Hep A, Boostrix and Typhoid) and asked to see my exact itinerary a few weeks before my trip.  With his blessing coughed out of him, my leave approved, and armed with my newly bought saree, I was ready to go.

Hyderabad

I left Singapore late in the evening and arrived in Hyderabad a little past midnight.  When I looked out the plane window, it was a vast swathe of darkness with scratches of light.  I wondered what the darkness was in daylight.  The time difference to Singapore was 2.5 hours, a little more standard than Nepal’s 3.75 hours.  I applied for an Indian visa online and almost got swindled by a fake website.  I had fed that fake website all of my details and fortunately got too lazy that day to finish off with the payment.  After realizing that a lot of these fake (yet authentic-looking-as-inauthentic-looking-the-real-website-was) websites existed, I repeatedly emailed the Indian Embassy to get written confirmations that I got the correct visa.  Only when the immigration officer stamped the actual visa on my passport was I relieved the fear of being sent back from the airport.  And I even got the audacity to ask him directions after to the domestic airport.

I walked out of the airport doors to a warm odor that was characteristically different from places I’ve been to.  With a 10-hour layover in Hyderabad, my stomach wasn’t feeling so adventurous yet.  Neither did I feel inclined to spend money for a transit hotel, so I pulled my bags into a Subway stall and regretted having ordered tuna.  It tasted nothing like my usual order, and so I decided that henceforth I was going to eat as the Indians do.  After settling down awhile in my new environment in the confines of Subway, I walked out to try and find a seat to settle myself in for the next 9 hours.  I soon realized that the terminal was packed with people, perhaps in the same predicament as I was – except that my flight wasn’t one of the first out.  The first thing that struck me was how the airport security looked like they were straight out of the army.  They carried long rifles and wore fatigue while roaming the airport and guarding the entrance and exits.  “It couldn’t possibly be the military”, I thought to myself (I would later learn from Bhatia that it was India’s Central Industrial Security Force).  I chose a female guard to get into the terminal, and upon handing her my passport I was surprised that she greeted me with a warm “Hey”.  I took that as my welcome cue to India.

I spent most of the 10 hours reading Martin Buckley’s An Indian Odyssey on the floor, apart from trying to buy a bottle of water from every vending machine I saw, in vain.  Apparently none of the notes I had were acceptable.  Buckley’s book was admittedly a Western perspective, but one with a great appreciation of Indian culture.  I wasn’t ready to dive into a highly Indian body of literature when I still couldn’t tell apart Vishnu from Shiva.  (I can now, after that book).  The book also contained a highly digestible version of the Ramayana that made me forget about my parched throat.  I had never realized until then just how this body of literature carried such historic and cultural significance to the majority of India.  As I checked the airport bookstores, I tried to look for my own copy of Buckley’s book because it was a good pick from the school library.  I found the other books he referred to in his story, however I regretfully couldn’t find his.

As my flight neared, I finally got to check-in and enter the gates.  I was relieved that their PA system and English were easier to understand than in Changi Airport – one of my personal peeves.  My boots would prove to be a trouble for all the gates in this trip as I was always picked out to remove my shoes.  The same went with my facial mist.  Upon entering the shopping arena, I saw a Fab India outlet that instantly gravitated me towards it.  Fab India was the only Indian Clothing shop I saw in a mall in Singapore, and I had lusted over its skirts in Singapore though their prices were beyond my definition of reasonable.  I quickly took to the skirt rack and flipped a price tag to discover the quintessential shopper’s happiness.  They were almost half of what it was worth back where I came from, and so I ended up shopping (for just one skirt) before even reaching my destination.

All the clothes I had brought to India were designed to cover my legs.  As I looked around the airport gates to find just a few Caucasian ladies sporting shorts, I wondered why in a place where erotic statues and sexual representations were venerated, women were expected to cover up their shoulders and their knees.  Although it was considered trusted travel advisory, it seemed to be an oversimplification committed by tourists.  It felt like something more than just hiding selected patches of skin.  Nevertheless I was stuck with my wardrobe, thankfully I was only going to be in a hot place for a few days.

Ranchi

P1080827The flight from Hyderabad to Ranchi was just 2 hours.  I wasn’t able to sleep, but I looked forward to being able to rest when I reached.  Little did I know that the wedding rituals had already started and were to go on until the time I would leave.  I proceeded straight to the bride and groom’s engagement from the airport and subsequently for Mehendi (painting of the ladies’ hands with henna – but the bride’s mehendi includes her arms and her legs).  By the time I laid in bed, I was effectively 41 hours awake.

Ranchi was an example of rural India, it looked a lot like the other rural areas in the other parts of Asia, except that the people looked different of course.  Summer was beginning and everything had a brownish hue.  The horn was constantly used, as if it was a consequential sound of running the vehicle itself.  I got used to it easily, after awhile I lost track of hearing it every 5 seconds or so.  Power cuts were also something common in Ranchi, and I would later learn in Ladakh as well.

The North Indian Hindu wedding ritual at Swati’s hometown was elaborate and meticulous.  A lot of it I didn’t understand as they were performed in Hindi, and perhaps even if it were done in English I could still not claim to be in the pretense of having understood their significance.  This was also what I felt as I read some of Buckley’s descriptions of the significance of the Hindu religion in an Indian’s way of life – a lot of it both fascinated and escaped me.  I wondered if it was perhaps due to my already brainwashed capitalist way of thinking, replete with modern comforts and resting on an almost agnostic slump of an excuse of trying to figure out what religion was for me.  Yet here was Hinduism offering 33 million gods.  If I already had difficulty grasping some of the esoteric rituals the Catholic Church insists on performing, the Hindu traditions boggled and piqued my unacquainted mind even further.  Perhaps that was the problem, I was trying to grasp when I should be simply accepting.

P1080790I slept at Swati’s home on my first night in Ranchi.  Their household was so busy with all the different events that day that things were understandably in disarray.  Everything was new to me, engagement and wedding ceremonies in the Philippines were nothing close to what was going on here.  Swati told me about the pujas to be performed by the pandits (priests) – pujas (prayers) I had to attend and pujas I didn’t have to attend.  Some of her and Sid’s relatives tried to explain to me in intervals what was happening as they happened, taking pity in my incapability to understand Hindi.  All I really knew was that my friend was finally getting married.  At various moments, this new reality struck me.  That she was going to lead a separate life, and I was still either free or stuck with the same.  The constant conversations from Swati and Sid’s single friends about finding a bride did not help.  There was Anupam who needed to find his own bride within a month if he didn’t want his parents’ bride, and there was Bhatia who had a laxer deadline until the end of the year.  I listened to their worries, detachedly realizing that I was in the same predicament, only my dad was thankfully not forcing me to get married.  Nevertheless, India was a “great” place to get reminded that you’re too old to be unattached at 30.

Early the next day, I was finally allowed to stay in the hotel.  My tastebuds were awakened by the dalh and chapatis I had at the hotel but I subsequently fell asleep again.  The next thing I knew, I woke up to Aunty Sumathy’s knock on my door and she invited me to have lunch with her and her friend, Aunty Sarayu.  I was honestly still full with breakfast but as A. Sumathy was the only person I knew in the wedding apart from Swati & Sid themselves, I made a mental note to lessen my dinner instead because I craved the comfort of something familiar.  (A. Sumathy is Jyothsna’s mom, and Jyothsna is me and Swati’s mutual friend.  So yes, it was quite a mouthful whenever we had to do introductions.  Everyone seemed to know me from Swati’s Facebook on the other hand.)

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That evening’s event was the Sangeet – a night of dancing hosted by the groom’s side where they retold the couple’s wedding story in a series of dances to both modern & traditional Indian music.  Dancing is completely absent from my list of competencies, so I dreaded the idea of having to dance later that evening.  Swati asked me to accompany her to the parlour for her makeup and I waited for her to finish as I looked in awe at the enviable eye shadow characteristic of Indian makeup.  As for myself, I wore a simple mashed up version of a lahenga which Swati helped me buy.  We had gone to Little India together before she took her leave for her entire wedding preparations . “They’re all too fancy and shiny”, I said in discomfort as we looked at the lahengas in the Singapore shops.  “Isn’t there anything more subtle?”.  It was a mistake in retrospect as I soon realized upon reaching the venue that this was exactly the point of Indian dresses – to be shiny and call attention to themselves.  Everyone was so beautiful, I had long been fond of Indian beauty.  And it was to my great advantage that nobody minded large stomachs.  Ladies showed them off readily and it wasn’t even disturbing to look at because the beauty of their sarees and lahengas outperformed any level of self-consciousness.  Swati’s family didn’t serve alcohol during the event and so dancing was completely out of the question for me.  I watched the other guests let go of any formalities and just sway their bodies to the lights and the music.  I silently wished there was alcohol and that I had taken Indian dance classes somewhere in my earlier life.P1080877

The next day was the wedding.  Most North Indian Hindu weddings began in the evening and stretched out until the morning.  While rituals and pujas were continually being performed by the families during the earlier part of the day, I had the morning free so I had lunch together with A. Sumathy & A. Sarayu.  We ventured out of the hotel and they hailed an autorickshaw to bring us to a restaurant recommended by a stranger we asked. It was called 7th Heaven and A. Sarayu joked with A. Sumathy that it should be in the 7th floor then. The building only had 4 floors and A. Sumathy was in no mood to play games. She was already hungry.  I enjoyed both their company as they explained to me what they knew of North Indian culture and their own South Indian culture. I had long known about an existing difference between North and South Indian culture, although it had never been that clear to me. I had understood it a bit more after Buckley’s book though I will reserve any comment to my own personal thoughts as this issue is rife with possible wrong assumptions, prejudices and hostilities which I am not keen on unearthing. What was wonderful to know was how India had been able to hold its ground as a single country despite all these cultural and ideological varieties that exist in its society side by side. It is perhaps just the same as with any heterogeneous country – the Philippines and Singapore included, though perhaps to a lesser degree.  A. Sumathy had noticed I seemed to love Indian pickles and had allowed me triple servings of the free commodity.  It was true that I had developed a taste for it, but I only realized that the pickle at that restaurant was actually spicier than the one I ate yesterday when we went out to catch an autorickshaw back to the hotel.  I felt the heat of the spice along with the heat of the air, my blush was rendered redundant.

P1080937Swati had asked me again to accompany her to the parlour, and the parlour attendants helped me put on my own saree as well. When they were done, I tried not to think of how many safety pins were inside my dress. It held on to me tightly that I wondered if I would even feel the accidental pierce if I had no blood circulation to begin with.  I decided not to bring any makeup while packing as my winter clothes for Ladakh already took up so much space in my luggage. I regretted that decision as everyone came looking well made-up and glamorous. My exotic East Asian look and the beautiful (but overpriced) saree I purchased were my only redeeming factors. The wedding began with the groom’s processional. Sid rode a horse while his party danced to his entrance. Upon reaching the gateway, several pandits and Swati’s dad sat with him to formalize giving his daughter to Sid. After this, the bride enters and on the stage they engage on a tease of putting on garlands to one another. The trick, A Sumathy said, was not to make it easy for the other party to put on the garland. A very long pictorial session with the couple then ensued and the guests were invited to partake in the wedding banquet which consisted of so much food. I tried most things that looked new to me, though I had gorged on the fruits the most. Raw vegetables were not something popular in this place and I missed eating something less oily and simple. Though I couldn’t really complain as I guiltily loved Indian food myself.

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At around 1 am, as the pandits had determined to be an auspicious time to get married, the actual wedding rites began. It consisted of pujas and singing and various rituals that the guests watched over until just before sunrise.  I was not able to finish the entirety of the wedding. I left at around 3am as I had an early flight the next day. My unchaperoned experience in India was about to begin.

Delhi

I reached Delhi at around 10 am with Swati’s friend, Bhatia. He was kind enough to have helped me use the metro and an autorickshaw to get to my hostel. The Delhi metro was well connected and was even more extensive than Singapore’s.  Delhi in itself was the seat of government offices and so it was a long way ahead Ranchi.  Upon reaching the hostel, Bhatia was concerned I took a mixed dormitory at Nomadia Hostel although I wasn’t especially worried about it. I wasn’t staying for more than 24 hours in Delhi anyway. After resting for awhile and dreading the notorious 40 degree Delhi heat, I decided to go on a short excursion to purchase a local sim card. I didn’t feel comfortable exploring on my own without the capability to book a cab on my phone. Uber had inconveniently just closed shop in Singapore and Ola, an Indian counterpart, required me an Indian number. I had bought a Thai-issued travel simcard which worked in India fine, but did not solve my incapability to book a cab.  I was however dissuaded from buying one as it would only get activated 24 h later, when I’m already in Ladakh where an Indian prepaid simcard would not be usable (the Jammu & Kashmir region requires you to buy a local simcard there, which can take as long as 10 days to get activated – tight security measures due to border issues). I went back to the hostel while taking in as much as the short distance offered.  I had picked a hostel in Chittaranjan Park, which I realized upon arrival was a good decision.  It was an upscale Punjabi neighborhood that felt safe even in the evening.  Upon arriving in the hostel without a simcard, I met another solo female traveler from Vietnam.  Her name was Hanh and coincidentally she had also just come back from Ladakh.  Our similarities made the connection easy and I soon asked her questions while she told me her stories.  As I was contemplating meeting Gaurav from Couchsurfing later that evening, I asked her if she would like to come along.  At this point I was still overly concerned about safety after various family and friends insisted that Delhi was not a good place for women.  She agreed tentatively but later on had to beg off as she realized she needed to meet her own male Couchsurfing contact.  We laughed at the similarity of our predicament and exchanged numbers as a precaution.

Gaurav initially told me that his train from somewhere outside Delhi (due to a rock climbing competition) was arriving at 5 in the afternoon that day.  It was already past 7 when he finally messaged me that he was on the way to his climbing gym, which was a 10 minute walk from my hostel.  “A 10 minute walk in the dark at this time”, I thought to myself.  But Hanh had already left with her Couchsurfer friend, and so there was only the option of adding experience to this trip or wasting the leftover hours with a sour-looking backpacker in the hostel who insisted on silence and no lights.  I walked out with slight paranoia, holding on to my mint breath spray for life.  I was planning to spray it in the eyes of anyone who tried assaulting me.  I had also brought a whistle but I quickly realized it would not save me if I used it with all the city’s endemic noises.  I reached Gaurav’s climbing gym with no event after a few minutes, and I wandered into his underground playground by myself.  The gym was actually impressive, it felt like being allowed access to a real locations in this city.  The warm yellow lighting felt like an extension of the street lamps outside.  As I scanned the people inside, I finally recognized Gaurav from his photo, and he told me to wait for him to finish in a few minutes.  He was trying to solve a bouldering route while I sat there looking at the other facilities in their gym.  When he finally got done, I asked him where we could eat dinner and he told me he wasn’t that hungry.  I wasn’t hungry either, but he asked me if I wanted to get a drink instead.  When you’ve already taken the first step to meeting a stranger in Delhi, you should just take the rest of it (said none of my friends and family).  So I resisted the strait-laced girl inside me and said “Sure”.  Only when we stepped outside did I realize that Gaurav used a motorbike and I was naturally expected to ride behind him.  The alarm that I felt was not at all because I had to ride a motorized vehicle under a stranger’s control, but the motorbike itself.  I had developed a phobia of motorized bikes after my small accident in Myanmar, and I had seen Delhi traffic.  It deserved an altogether separate accolade.  At that moment however, all that came out of my mouth was “Is it okay to ride without a helmet?”  Gaurav gave me a semi-assurance about not getting caught at this time in the evening.  Nothing was mentioned about my safety, I simply assumed he relied on the fact that he got home unscathed every night.  There wasn’t any time to assess my choices and the next thing I knew we had launched into the local night traffic.  We swerved with vehicles inches from my legs, missing both cars and people by a few seconds.  I both reveled in the adventure and prayed to God to not let me die that evening.  Caution had not completely escaped me as I invested every drop of energy into holding on a seat handle and to conceal my fear, I held on to Gaurav’s shoulder lightly.  I thought it had already been bad that I forgot to put my cellphone in my backpack before starting the ride, until he told me my bag was open upon alighting.  Thankfully I didn’t lose anything – a good sign that the universe wasn’t punishing me yet for my detour of plans.  The best experiences are after all the unplanned ones.

Gaurav asked me to wait in the flat that he rented with his friends as he fixed up the drinks and finger food.  They rented 3 floors, including the sole unit at the rooftop.  He had moved out of his parents’ Delhi home to be independent and pursued his passion in rock climbing as his career.  All of his friends were on vacation that day though because it was the tail-end of a long weekend.  I sent my location to Roshni & Ray while waiting and reassured myself that this was exactly why I love traveling – to meet people, the only difference was that people had tried to scare me about India.  It turned out to be a good decision in retrospect because I ended up talking to Gaurav for hours about everything under the sun.  If only I could have left later, but I had plans waiting.  I left his place at 1:30 in the morning as I read Hanh’s message on my phone, 2 hours late, that she was heading to bed and didn’t see me in bed, hoping I was fine.  I texted her that I was on my way and upon reaching, got prepared and subsequently left for my 5:40 am flight.

Ladakh

I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight from Delhi to Ladakh.  I had also incurred a faux pas that costed me precious filming time, specifically during take off and landing.  But I was still rewarded with fully unobscured sights of the Himalayan ranges – I had not expected the majestic sight.  I was reassured with my previous decision not to purchase the 200 USD chartered flights when I went to Nepal to see the Himalayas, at least this flight was only 100 USD and had an altogether different purpose.

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The airport security repeatedly reminded that photography was prohibited in the airport as it was a restricted zone.  People snapped selfies anyway.  But “No Photography” signs were something common in the Ladakh region as due to conflicted border issues, the entire area is heavily militarized.  I joked with my friends upon my return that next to the mountains, what you can see in Ladakh is the Indian military.  The airport was a small building, built to fulfill its function and nothing more.  Foreigners were asked to complete a declaration form before exiting the airport, and this was also done before departing Leh.  I suppose it was to account for tourists who could possibly go missing.  I easily got a “prepaid taxi” from the airport counter and headed to Nirila Guesthouse.  The drive from the airport was a short one, and I noticed how the day started late in Leh.  It was 7:30 in the morning and everything was closed, most shops opened at 11:00.  It didn’t seem to differ much from the city.  Upon reaching Nirila, I was satisfied with my decision.  I intentionally picked a mid-range accommodation as acclimatization was mandatory, especially if you go to Ladakh by flight.  Leh in itself was 3,500 m above sea level, and the abrupt change in altitude had sent many healthy people to the hospital.  I had started taking Hong Jing Tian a week before heading to Ladakh.  I chose it over Diamox because of the reviews I read, hoping for lesser side effects.  Its potency was only confirmed after I chatted with two friendly Thais at Nirila, Pooh & Meen, about how they both were taking Hong Jing Tian as well, but their friend who didn’t got hospitalized during her first day in Leh.  At that moment, I slightly envied them for being on this trip with friends, they both looked like they were having a lot of fun together.  In Nirila, I also met Kooryong and his family.  They were from South Korea and along with his wife and teenage son, they were going for a Eurasian journey in the span of an entire year.  I asked him where he was previously working, wondering if I could have the chance to do that in this lifetime.  He told me about the stress he had previously been enduring at Samsung and how he had then decided to go on this trip.

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I spent the whole morning asleep.  I woke up around 2 in the afternoon and ordered lunch.  I had told Tsewang Dorje I would meet him in his office at 12, but I had obviously overslept.  Dorje was the proprietor of Nature Tracks Tour, which I randomly found online along with other travel agencies.  He offered me the best rates out of all I inquired from, was a Ladakhi himself, and replied to me in the most comprehensible English so I decided to get his service.  He also never got tired of all my repetitive questions so I assumed he would be a particularly patient person.  Nirila didn’t cook its own food and ordered from a restaurant inauthentically named “Chopsticks”.  I made a mental note to eat outside after because their momos didn’t come with achar (pickles).  In truth, I never found the same achar I loved in Kathmandu anywhere I ordered momos in India.  In Ranchi, they used a different version of achar for their momos; whereas in Ladakh (where momos are usually spelled as mo-mok and variably classified as either “Ladakhi” or “Chinese”), they used chili.  I didn’t bother trying in Delhi.

After lunch, Dorje picked me up somewhere near Nirila.  The people at Nirila were very kind to always send one of their staff with me whenever I wanted to figure out the way to somewhere for the first time.  It was probably a luxury given the fact that I was at Ladakh right before the tourist season began – and so there were only a few guests.  This was due to the fact that the roads going to Leh were still closed, but were bound to open soon.  Their opening signifies the beginning of the summer peak season.  Otherwise during winter, which lasts from November to May, businesses are usually closed in Ladakh.  Dorje’s office wasn’t that far from Nirila, it was situated in the main Leh market and I thought we would spend an hour at the most finalizing my itinerary and payments and I could get the rest of the afternoon off to explore the town.  But I had underestimated Dorje’s patience because we spent almost 3 hours finalizing my itinerary due to his thoroughness in detail and options.  I became wary of having to figure out my own way to Nirila in the dark so I finally told Dorje that I should get ahead going before the last few rays of the sunlight left.  He kindly offered to give me a ride instead because he was worried a dog might bite me.  I asked in surprise, “The dogs bite?”.  There was an overabundance of dogs in the streets, and they didn’t really bother me that much because I assumed they were used to people.  But then Dorje began to recount an experience wherein a dog bit him and a passing car’s headlight saved him from further damage.  The next day, I became a little more wary of them and hoped that as I hadn’t seen them biting the cows they chased, they would at least treat me the same.  But then again, this was India, and the cow was more sacred than me.

Dorje offered to take me to Hemis Monastery and Thiksay Monastery for free the next day.  We drove in his white Suzuki Maruti and he gave me a welcomed lecture on the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Jammu & Kashmir, and India itself.  I was amazed at his breadth and depth of knowledge that I asked him whether he studied university in Ladakh or elsewhere.  He quickly corrected me that he had finished until 10th standard and decided to educate himself the rest of the way.   I sat there ashamed of my Ph.D..  Dorje also readily picked up hitchhikers along the way, like 2 young schoolboys.  He even bought them a piece of banana each on the way to dropping them to their school.  They had missed the government-run school bus plying the highway by a couple of minutes, and I peered from the road towards what could have been the only possibility of where they came from – a town which was substantially a long walk away.  Dorje was also a devout Buddhist, never failing to kneel and bow at every Buddhist prayer room we entered.  This was where I saw my favorite experience that day: hearing and watching the monks doing their morning chant. I was totally entranced by their vocal blending and the serenity of being in their presence.  At lunchtime, I had discovered Dorje was also someone who didn’t like leaving food on his plate.  I had ordered my own chapati and matar mushroom as I wasn’t that hungry to begin with.  Dorje ordered hot & sour soup as well as the localized chow mein (Chinese noodles?) , half of which he took upon himself to pour into my plate.  As a result, I couldn’t finish my food in the end and he insisted I take it home.  But I did not want to put the matar mushroom inside my bag for fear of spilling it and smelling like curry for the rest of my trip.  I forced myself to finish the mushrooms and fortunately he started eating the matar (green peas).  I took home my leftover chapati however.  On the drive back to Leh from the monasteries, Dorje allowed me to listen to his favorite Ladakhi love songs, translating to me at the same time what they meant.  It made the ride back a bit slower as he would stop on the side of the road to check for the elusive 4G signal, stop another time to look for a song in Youtube, and stop as well to change the song.  He told me he preferred local songs over the modern ones – the old ones had meaning.  I agreed to his observation.  One of the most memorable questions Dorje asked me was if I believed in culture.  “What do you mean?”, I asked.  “If a culture is not good, do you think there is a purpose preserving it?”.  I had never thought about it that way, I had always seen culture as something to be preserved and admired no matter what.  But I saw where he was coming from with his point.

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Upon reaching Leh Market again, I told Dorje I would go to the Brazil Cafe to get wifi.  As my Thai simcard did not work in the Jammu & Kashmir region either, I had to learn to live without any connection whatsoever most parts of the day.  But I needed to tell my dad I was alive at least once a day to prevent him from texting Dorje himself.  “What took you so long to text?  Been stopping myself from texting guide” was one of his messages after I had come back from a particularly long internet-less rendezvous later on.  Before my trip, my dad had given me a grave warning to abort my tour if I wasn’t able to find other people to go along with.  In the end, I did not find anyone to go with, and Dorje suggested that it might be less safe and less convenient to travel in a group.  My dad asked me for a photo of the group and I hastily explained to him that I was going alone and that it was the better decision, albeit the more expensive one.  He did not remonstrate me any further and I was relieved – but that relief soon turn into mild panic as I discovered my gold bracelet was missing.  I recalled how Dorje pointed to it this morning as we drank masala chai (spiced tea) in a roadside stall.  “Is that gold? You shouldn’t wear that in India, but in Ladakh it’s okay”.  I realized I must have accidentally unclasped it while removing my heavy jacket in the monastery this afternoon.  I desperately tried to shake it off myself and from my bag, but after 5 minutes I finally accepted that it was forever gone.  I started wearing that bracelet when my mom passed away.  It was my way of remembering her.  But it would have been for naught to be distraught about a bracelet when I had spent the whole afternoon learning about the Buddhist way of separating themselves from material possessions.  I convinced myself that my mom must have wanted to visit the monastery a little bit longer.

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The next day was the main event of my trip to Ladakh.  We were to drive 11 hours to Nubra Valley, spend the night at Nubra Valley, and drive back to Leh while passing Pangong Tso Lake the next day.  Pooh & Neem generously gave me their unused canister of oxygen last night, in case I needed to use it in the high passes.  I rode a Mahindra Scorpio driven by Sonam, who knew little English.  “You know Scorpio?”, Dorje had asked me yesterday.  I stared at him blankly, deciding internally that he couldn’t possibly be talking about the zodiac sign.  “Any vehicle is fine”, after I realized what he was referring to and not wanting to have a further discussion about the vehicular options after the already extensive discussion we had.  Sonam picked me up from Nirila early that day and proceeded to ask me about the “wachar“.  I became concerned about not understanding what the wachar was as it seemed to be connected to my accommodation in Nubra Valley.  As I was to leave my excess luggage at Karma Guesthouse (Dorje’s own home), I told Dorje upon going down that Sonam was trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand.  He told me he’d take care of it and asked me to take breakfast first while he talked to Sonam for 10 minutes about the arrangements.  As I would repeatedly learn, Dorje’s 10 minutes usually spanned half an hour to a little more than an hour.  I waited patiently in their living room, and that was when I first met Yangsal and Jigmet, Dorje’s nieces.  They were both playful little girls, although they decidedly tried to skirt my presence.  They teased me by looking but shook their heads in disagreement when I asked them to come sit beside me.  I’d have to win their hearts when I come back then.  Half an hour later, Dorje told me I could leave with Sonam now.  Right before the vehicle was about to leave, Dorje told me “You have the wachar with you”, and I asked him in alarm what exactly was the wachar, discovering the earlier issue had not been resolved.  He laughed and indicated the piece of paper he gave me just a few minutes ago.  I bade him farewell and silently prayed Sonam would not need to ask me any more important questions on the way.  It was only when I was finally in Singapore that I figured out they had both meant voucher.

P1090509The drive to anywhere in Ladakh was full of dry mountain ranges.  Ladakh is in fact a desert, and known as the Land of High Passes.  While Jammu was largely Hindu and Kashmir Muslim, Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh was spared from converting into Islam because nobody cared for a desert region, as Dorje explained to me later on.  Military trucks and bases appeared periodically while the roads circumnavigated mountains up and down.  Loose rocks peppered the road margins, waiting for the slightest push to induce a landslide.  The road width was also a tight fit to 2 vehicles, often requiring one to stop at a broader segment to allow the larger opposing vehicles to pass through.  The Scorpio’s windshield also sported a huge crack, which seemed to me enlarging as our trip progressed, but thankfully never shattering completely until the end of the drive.  We passed through the first police checkpoint before reaching Khardung-La Pass, touted as one of the highest motorable roads in the world.  I handed my passport to Sonam as he parked the Scorpio on a snowy incline and placed a rock behind the tire to prevent it from slipping.  I looked at the cliff right behind and resisted going out in fear that it would make the car nudge even more and almost got worried as Sonam took 20 minutes to get clearance.  I wondered how the traffic would look like in the checkpoint during peak season – surely they couldn’t take 20 minutes for every tourist.  Khardung-La Pass is 5,359 m above sea level, staying too long in this area without proper acclimatization was sure to give the unaccustomed person Altitude Mountain Sickness.  It was amazing to be in a snowing region when just hours earlier, we were in a dry, barren desert.  I took the mandatory photos on the marker and told Sonam we could go ahead – it was too cold for me.  We drove down the mountain and after a couple more hours reached the checkpoint for Nubra Valley.  I wanted to use the restroom at this point badly, so I told Sonam I was heading for the paid toilet (toilets along the road are all squats) while he processed my permit.  I thought he would have been finished after all the rituals I had to do to be able to use the squat toilet, but the wait slowly turned into an hour.  I squirmed in my seat in fear that this might just be the end of my drive today if they didn’t allow me in.  I saw Sonam and the policeman pacing back and forth to the phone repeatedly, and finally they both walked towards me.  The policeman told me I didn’t have a permit.  I told him I processed everything through a travel agent at Leh and to what I understood I had it – I showed him my copy of the permit that Dorje asked me to keep.  And the policeman finally exclaimed that this was what was he was looking for!  Dorje had mistakenly handed me the Nubra Valley permit and they had all been trying to locate it for the past hour.  I sighed in relief, until the policeman said that I wasn’t actually allowed to travel to Nubra alone because I was a girl.  “Are you single?”.  I blanked out wondering if the police was actually asking my relationship status, until I realized he was probably asking if I was alone.  “Yes”, I answered effectively to both variants of the question.  But he was going to make an exception for all the trouble because Sonam was an elder uncle.  If he had been a young Indian driver, I would have been denied entrance.  All of this, I got from Stanzin later on, as Sonam explained to him in Ladakhi what had transpired in the checkpoint.  We were finally allowed past the checkpoint and I breathed a sigh of relief and said “Thank you” to Sonam for all his patience.

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The next stop was finally lunch where I ordered for an egg maggi, as Dorje instructed me to.  “Maggi is better for stomach on the road, you might get a stomachache from the local food”.  The maggi noodles did not come with an egg, which left me perplexed as what exactly “egg maggi” meant then when there was “plain maggi” in the menu as well.  I wondered if they had only forgotten the egg that instance so I tried ordering another egg maggi at a different stall the next day.  I did not get an egg either.  I gave up the fantasy of eating my childhood favorite.  At around 3 in the afternoon, we finally reached Nubra Valley.  The first stop was the camel ride, where I paid 200 INR for a 15 minute ride.  After that, Sonam and I proceeded to look for the guesthouse I was to stay at.  Nubra Valley looked like it came straight out of winter –  the land looked barren apart from the number of guesthouses that populated the area.  There wasn’t much anything else to see apart from the donkeys that walked around and the camels at Hunder.  Water rafting and ATV ride businesses have been started though, although I had little interest for them.  I theorized it must look greener during the summer when their vegetable gardens started growing, I had simply arrived at the wrong time.  It was at this point that Sonam got exasperated trying to find out where the guesthouse was.  He would repeatedly tell me “Check. No?”, to which I would say “No” in every absence of the correct direction plate.  We drove around Nubra Valley in circles and he was soon shouting into his small mobile phone.  Sonam’s voice was raspy even before he started shouting, and I realized that this was probably the reason – he carried his local conversations to the brink of his vocal chords’ capacity.

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Stanzin, the owner of Sand Fields Guesthouse, finally found us and led us using his own Scorpio into his guest house.  He apologized profusely as he had just changed the name of his guest house yesterday and had not put up the signs yet.  I was the first guest of the season and the only guest that night.  I got down from the rocky 11 hour road trip quite tired, and asked Stanzin if it would be possible to eat dinner at 5 pm – I was starving from just having had the half-pack of egg-less maggi earlier.  He kindly told me he’ll have dinner prepared immediately and also informed me that there was no power.  “Power usually comes back at 6 or 7 pm”.  I was actually looking forward to the fact that Dorje told me this place would have wifi but he had forgotten to tell me about the power problem.  I ate dinner in darkness and Stanzin joined me shortly, perplexed at my decision to go to Nubra Valley by myself and embarrassed at the lack of power.  We had an extensive conversation about Ladakh and Nubra Valley, and how like all the other travel industry-involved people I met, he stayed elsewhere during the winter months.  I couldn’t imagine living in this region during the winter to be honest, the cold was already killing me in May.  I suspected it was because of the way their houses were built – using mud and rocks.  It was reminiscent of a cave that always felt cold no matter the time of the day.  I had regretted listening to Dorje that I didn’t need gloves.  My hands were like ice cubes, I couldn’t even bear touching my own skin.  I spent an hour pacing my room after dinner because lying in bed made me even colder.  It gradually became 7 in the evening and the power had not come back.  I fell asleep in exhaustion of waiting and I finally woke up at around 9 and discovered that the power and the wifi was on.  The wifi signal lasted for only 15 minutes though, enough for me to text my dad, and it never came back.  At around 11, the power left as well.  I silently prayed not to have a hyperactive imagination in the desolate darkness.  I left early the next day with Sonam to finally go to Pangong Tso.

P1090648The drive to Pangong Tso was both strange and scenic.  At some parts, Sonam seemed to be driving off-road, it puzzled me how he figured out which was the road and which wasn’t.  There were long stretches of drive that I didn’t see any other vehicle.  The road signs to remind drivers to drive slowly also continuously amused me.  “Darling I like you, but not so fast”.  “Be gentle on my curves”.  “Drive like hell and you will be there”.  “Better be Mr. Late than Late Mr.”.  I wondered why there weren’t any Ladakhi signs, Sonam can’t possibly understand these.  There were also several markers for where people accidentally fell off from the cliff roads, as well as “stone shooting zones, caution” and “avalanche-prone areas”.  Unlike the other Indian drivers I had experienced, Sonam didn’t seem to like using the horn.  I would mentally press it during precarious curves while Sonam rarely did.  While Sonam and I barely talked, I’d like to think we developed a silent affinity towards each other.  On occasions wherein the views just insisted on me stopping to take a photo, I would tell him to stop and he would gladly oblige.  He would always go down the vehicle to offer to take my photo although he never did manage to take a decent photo of me.  He would constantly offer me a banana to eat from his own stash and at one point asked me “problem?” when I was coughing incessantly after having taken photos at Pangong Tso.  I didn’t understand him at first as “problem” was a new word he had used during our trip.  I mumbled to pretend a knowing reaction, but upon realizing what he said, I laughed and said “Oh problem! No problem, thank you”.  Sonam did almost run over me at one instance while I was taking photos.  If I didn’t sense that the Scorpio was inches away from me as it backed towards my direction, I would be sporting broken bones on my left foot now.

When the vehicle was finally approaching Pangong Tso, I was mesmerized by how the mountains seemed to open to the first sighting of the aquamarine lake.  It was like a dream, it was finally my dream.  The chill in Pangong Tso did not stop me from taking so much photos, although the photos never did any justice to the lake.  I got tired trying to get the perfect angle and just stared at the contrast of the blue lake with the earthy mountains.  I recalled how Pooh and Meen told me they slept one night at the tents in Pangong Tso – I would have definitely frozen to death.  It wasn’t just the lake that left me awe-struck of these wonderful natural landscapes, it was the entire drive.  During a few mind-wandering moments, I wondered if I would have preferred doing this trip with someone.  But I concluded it would have been an altogether different experience with someone. I would have broken down less barriers and I would not have opened up to meeting new people that easily.  Regardless of how long I’ve been effectively “alone” these past few years, I can’t seem to get enough of solitude.  It was probably a personality hazard.  My Introvert rating from MBTI tests have been climbing close to 80% recently.  God help me.

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On the way back to Leh from Pangong Tso, we again passed by another high motorable pass, Chang-La Pass, where it was snowing and bitter cold again.  I wondered how the profusion of stray dogs in the area survived.  Sonam shouted “chai” to me and I told him “You go chai.  Me, no”.  He shook his head, so I didn’t even bother going down anymore.  The cold was starting to get into me.  It would only get worse the next few days I spent in Leh.  As I stayed in Karma Guesthouse for my remaining nights, Dorje’s father, who was a pharmacist and ran a pharmacy shop at the main market, was so amused at how cold I was.  Even Yangsal and Jigmet wore less clothes than I did.  I told him I was from the tropics, withholding my opinion that the houses here lacked artificial heating.  They kindly lent me their electric heater every time I sat in their living room admiring their local cooking wares on display and attempting to befriend Yangsal and Jigmet.  I tried making them a paper boat, a paper plane, offering my flashlight and my cap.  Nothing worked that effectively in my first 2 nights.  I hoped I didn’t see my future as a mom.  Dorje’s family treated me warmly at their home, almost treating me as a family member and an actual guest.  I talked to Dorje’s brother, who was a professor at the local university and who diligently helped Yangsal with her homework every night.  Dorje’s mom and sister-in-law cooked exceptional Ladakhi dishes and I ended up equally exceptionally full every meal because of this.  The nights tortured me however.  I bought 2 one-time use heat packs each day for the succeeding days, and held on to them for dear life once the clock hit 5 and the winds started gnawing cold into my bones.  I developed a phobia of sleeping because even the bed and the comforters were cold.  No amount of layering seemed to help, it was either colder or suffocation.

P1090793I preoccupied myself with exploring Leh Palace and the local market the next day.  One can climb to Leh Palace easily from the main market, it offered a view of the entire Leh locality.  I also befriended Sameer, who owned one of the pashmina shawl stalls in the main market.  He was kind enough to take me to a local shop that sold nuts and dried fruits without charging an arm and a leg, and invite me to tea in his shop.  I leeched off wifi from Brazil Cafe as I knew their password from having frequented it the first few days and because their signal reached the street.  Kooryong even saw me from one of the rooftop restaurants they were eating from, and sent me a photo of Leh Market with a “Find Christine” (i.e. Find Waldo) caption as I stood in the crowd.  During meal times, I tried eating from more local shops and started to grow a surprising fondness for their chow mein.  I ate more chili than usual at every instance because it made me feel warmer.  Mutton momos from a nameless restaurant Dorje took me to would still be my favorite food however, out of everything I sampled in Ladakh.

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During my last day, Dorje told me he’d take me to Sangam Point to see the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar river.  During the drive back, he also decided to wander into a new town he’d never been before.  He was so happy at his discovery and constantly taunted me that he was going to drive me straight to the glaciers and leave me there.  I told him to go ahead and try, I’ll hitchhike my way back.  He told me it was dangerous and I shrugged.  I knew he was too religious to do so.  Dorje finally inquired about why I was still single.  I told him I didn’t know.  He then encouraged me to think positively about finding someone, which I honestly didn’t do consciously.  He gave me a lecture of how to approach life, reminding me of Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret.  How he himself had started thinking positively and thereafter met his current girlfriend after some time.  I had wandered into deep thoughts of nothingness as he expounded on this theory and he would periodically ask me what I was thinking.  But Dorje rarely builds up or reacts to my answers whenever he asks me “What do you think?” on our earlier conversations wherein I readily explained my views on religion, traditions and human behavior.  So I just told him “Nothing, I’m just admiring the view.  I might never see it again”.  It was true anyway.

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On my last day at Karma Guesthouse, Yangsal and Jigmet finally started warming up to me.  Dorje asked me to say “Hello” to them when we reached that afternoon, and they would giggle “Hello Buffalo” in return.  I discovered Jigmet’s fondness of playing catch and I started a game with them of trying to topple the water bottle with their ball.  Soon Yangsal let me draw a mountain landscape reminiscent of my entire trip on her notebook.  I colored the mountains while she took care of the towns.  My asthma had started by this time however and I couldn’t stop myself from coughing in between sentences.  They didn’t seem to mind though.  Soon enough, they excitedly asked me to watch Zootopia with them.  I looked forward to finally being able to just watch a movie with them and not having to talk because of my asthma.  But their idea of watching a movie turned out to be imitating the entire movie.  They took turns enacting every character that appeared on the screen, clearly they had watched this movie a lot of times already.  They made me take on some of the characters in the beginning, but eventually I got Jigmet to just sit on my lap as she both watched and played on her grandma’s mobile phone.  When Yangsal and Jigmet’s parents came home, they teased the girls of how they were finally friends with me.  “Finally”, I told them with a smile of accomplishment.  I was sad we only started this bond on my last day.  I hate good-byes.  I didn’t have the heart to tell the girls I wouldn’t be around tomorrow, so I didn’t.  I left Yangsal and Jigmet a letter and some souvenirs the next day before my early morning flight and promised to myself that I’d send them a postcard upon my return to Singapore.

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On my flight back to Delhi from Leh, there was zero visibility of the Himalayan ranges.  I felt a little disappointed at having bought the window seat, but I anyway stared out the window.  Beneath the clouds were the majestic mountains.  It didn’t mean they weren’t there just because I couldn’t see them.

Delhi

Upon my arrival to Delhi, my asthma had already gone a notch up worse.  Of all the medicines I forgot, I had neglected to remember my stash for asthma as it had been a long time since I had to use them.  Thankfully, Tita Mayan’s friend, who I have never met before, was conveniently picking me up with her friendly driver, Shalli (short for Vishal, which I found really amusing).  I was relieved upon meeting her of how warm she was – the familiar hospitality of a Filipino towards a fellow Filipino.  Her boyfriend was part of the Mexican consulate in India and they were kind enough to let me stay in their beautiful rented home in one of the gated villages in Delhi.  I met Bhatia at his office at the Ministry of Environment for lunch, and that was where I also met his sweet friend, Harveen.  They shared with me their packed lunch and I got to see a little of their government office, though it was mostly heavily guarded by the same CISF personnel from the airport.  Bhatia helped me book a Grab to go back to Tita Vangie (Bhatia booked most of the Grabs I had to take in Delhi and I’m indebted to him for that).

Tita Vangie looked younger than her age and possessed both intellect and wit.  She was also very friendly and didn’t carry any airs, it took no effort to get along with her and she soon felt like my own aunt.  After resting awhile from having had lunch with Bhatia and Harveen, she took me around some of the Delhi landmarks.  Although on all occasions, we viewed the structures from the outside because everything seemed to be close in India on Mondays.  She also wanted to take me to the Delhi gate later that evening, but I thought it wasn’t necessary anymore, I’ll probably save it for another visit in the future.  Tita Vangie recounted to me her experiences having been stationed in different countries in the past, and about other familial things.  We watched a bit of Dangal in the evening after eating mutton spaghetti and I soon begged off to sleep sooner than I expected.  In the morning, Shalli took me to the airport and I bade all the friends I made in India thank you through Whatsapp while waiting for my flight.  I wished I could see them again, but as with all people you meet during your travel, you’re never really sure.  Delhi airport left a good impression on me, it almost felt like Changi without the bonus facilities.  Shalli had even told me that Delhi was the best airport in the world.  I did not bother correcting him that it was Changi.

India was nothing like the scary place a lot of my friends were worried for.  It in fact exceeded all my expectations – even having been on my bucket list for so long.  People were warm, it was as safe as any other similar country could get, it had so much character, and it was obviously too vast to be generalized under any other statements.  I’m still finishing Sanjeev Bhaskar’s INDIA One Man’s Personal Journey Round the Subcontinent to prolong my experience as much as I can.  Dorje asked me during my last day what my favorite country was so far of all the places I’ve been to.  I did not answer him honestly because I didn’t want him to think I was just gratifying him, but I had seriously considered this place once called Hindustan.

It was surreal having to go back to Singapore already.  In 11 days, I had forgotten what the life I left was, however an exaggeration that statement sounds.  Changi airport felt like the unwanted reality from a dreamlike sojourn.  When I finally opened my phone with my Singapore simcard, I was greeted by an email that indicated I would need to resign in the next two days.  There were so many things I had to reorient myself to.  The work I had to wrap up and the new work I needed to begin.  But a powerful spell of hangover had befallen me from my little Indian excursion… I might just have to return.


I spent 650 USD on my 6 flight tickets, (180 USD for the 2way ticket DELHI-LEH), 300 USD for the sightseeing & accommodations in Leh (this could be substantially lesser if you travel in a group – I had to shoulder my entire transportation and accommodation cost), and another ~300 USD for food, miscellaneous expenses and souvenir shopping.  My style of road trip which was Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Leh in two days was 180 USD.  If it were hotter, I would think sleeping over in Pangong Lake is better than sleeping over at Nubra Valley.  Registered tour operators have a booklet of published transportation costs so tourists can easily check if they’re being given the correct rate.  Shared taxis are the usual option, you can also rent your own motorbike or vehicle (marutis are the cheapest, followed by the Scorpio, and the most expensive is the Toyota Innova option).  I mostly bought walnuts (800 INR/kg) and dried blackberries (600 INR/kg) in Leh, though dried apricots were considered the prized souvenir (I didn’t particularly like them though).  There were a lot of Tibetan handicrafts as well, very reminiscent of what I saw in Nepal but Nepal had more options.  I got really good pashmina shawls from Sameer (Gojji Complex, Opp. State Bank of India, Leh Main Market, Ladakh, sameeremporium@gmail.com) for 40 USD each, those weren’t his best quality yet though).  I stayed in India for 11 nights but 4 nights of accommodations were given generously either by Swati’s family or Tita Vangie.  I don’t have photos with the people I became friends with in this trip because the idea of taking a photo with a new friend just feels too staged for me, I kinda regret it though.

P1090161early mornings in Leh

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P1090184breakfast at Nirila with the local apricot jam; on a side note, their butter was delicious! I wonder if it’s because it’s fresh or if it’s because it’s an Indian brand I’m not familiar with – hence the novelty

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P1090134not yet taking the cold seriously at this point during my first night, wearing Yeshi’s jacket which had allowed me to survive the nights in this trip at all

P1090342Dorje giving me a samosa, which has potatoes which I don’t like, but ate anyway because it was better than the samosas in Singapore that I’ve tried

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P1090393on top of Thiksay monastery, this is most likely where I lost my bracelet

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P1090241Hemis Monastery

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P1090417at a local bread shop, they told me they were from Kashmir

P1090480one of the outposts at Khardung-La

P1090507with Sonam, right after he almost ran over my foot

P1090517locals eating at the side of the road, even women worked in construction activities here in Ladakh – building houses, shoveling snow, etc.

P1090520my half-pack egg maggi (with no egg and barely any soup, water supply is limited in some areas)

P1090446my Nubra Valley permit, permits are processed for a minimum of 2 people, agents at Leh can do it within 1 day, you typically get it on the next day if you submit in the morning

P1090526the Scorpio’s windshield crack.  I swear that long line wasn’t connected when we started our drive

P1090536at Diskit Monastery

P1090538only this soldier…

P1090552…and this monk, stood guard at the Diskit monastery’s Buddha statue

P1090557Buddha statue at Diskit Monastery

P1090568Diskit Monastery seemed abandoned so I just took photos at the nearby periphery, in case you’re wondering why I usually seem to have no eyes on most photos, UV light in high altitudes are stronger, and this was around lunchtime

P1090553Sonam and the Scorpio

P1090633my 10 SGD bag from Challenger which proved to be very useful, it didn’t tear up with 10 kg

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P1090576camels at Hunder, Nubra Valley – individuals who own them go to the sand dunes to rent their camels by turn

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P1090672toilet with probably one of the best views in the world. I’ve been holding my pee in for a couple of hours before we reached this place, was almost seriously contemplating of asking Sonam to stop and wait for me do it behind a rock – but I was worried he might drive off and leave me in the wilderness

P1090673toilet view

P1090712Pangong Tso Lake from a distance

P1090747a little girl at Pangong Tso, loved the color contrast

P1090699one of the several small towns we passed by on the road, this one was for our lunch stopover

P1090763a frozen stream

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P1090784Leh Palace

P1090810view from Leh Palace

P1090845Kashmiri dried fruits and nut shop

P1090901Dorje’s mutton thukpa, he got envious of my momo order and ordered an additional plate of momos but asked me to eat 2 pieces from his plate so he didn’t have to feel that guilty…

P1090902best mutton momos everrrr…warning: fatty

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P1090869tourists at the a viewpoint

P1090877at the town Dorje explored for the first time

P1090965street food at Delhi

P1090967Qutub Minar from a distance, it was open on a Monday but my asthma was getting worse at this point, didn’t bother going down