We just left India two days ago. While I was in India I kept thinking of how I would start my first blog post about the country. I imagined the first sentence would say the following: India has been, shockingly, underwhelming.
Now that I have arrived in Nepal, after not getting on our train out due to Bloom’s possible e. coli, waiting 24 hours, booking another train, arriving at the train station to discover it was cancelled, and then ending up in two very expensive taxi rides, and finally arriving in Nepal 17 hours after leaving India, I have realized how overwhelming India actually was.
In Nepal I can hear birds, without hearing people yelling or the constant honk of horns. I am not constantly trying to step out of the way of cows, or their excrement, and, my favorite thing so far, there are sidewalks in this small town of Pokhara, Nepal! My least favorite thing about India, and about much of the developing world actually, is the constant fear of being hit by a speeding, honking rickshaw/motorbike/car/jeep/truck. This is not an irrational fear, since I have been tapped by a few rickshaws, and, due to the lack of pedestrian space, there have been many times when I have stared a driver in the face as he drove straight at me, finally coming to a screeching halt while, obviously, honking.
Anyway, Nepal, after two days, seems pretty peaceful and a world away from India. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Cochin, India on our favorite budget airline AirAsia, which we used for almost all of our Asian flights, due to the fact that it is ridiculously cheap. Our flights to India were $80 each, and this was only because we couldn’t commit to a date for the flight. Originally, when we first looked at flights to India the flight was $40 each. We missed out.
Before we left the Cochin airport I braced myself for the madness that was soon to come. I gathered my bags, held them tight, preparing to be jumped by dirty beggars and street children who would grab my bags and run away laughing and yelling, and walked out of the airport. It was hot and sunny. There were some cars. People were picking up their families, and loading their luggage into their cars. No one even looked at us. No one approached us. Where the hell were we? Laos? We had been accosted and harassed in many airports, but not in Cochin. We didn’t know where to go. We had assumed someone would bully us into getting in a taxi, but we saw no taxis. I actually had to ask where the taxis were, and I was given no reply. Weird. We finally found a bus and got in. It took more than two hours to get to the touristy area of Fort Cochin, and the bus was very crowded, but I was imagining insane poverty, horrible crowds, chickens on the bus, etc. That did not happen.
When we arrived in Cochin we had no idea how to get to our pre-booked hostel, and we saw no one on the streets to ask directions from. This was shocking, and yes, underwhelming. Eventually we found the hostel, only to discover that they did not honor our booking and so we were put in the hostel next door. It was more than $20/night. Where was this cheap India I had heard all about it?? Where were we?
We were exhausted and hungry, so we went to the center of town to find some food. Everywhere we looked served meat. Where was the glorious bounty of vegetarian food everyone had raved about? We finally found a veg place, only to discover that it was both overpriced and bland. Bland Indian food! Whaat!?
I was depressed. This India sucked. We should’ve stayed in Southeast Asia, at least there we knew what to expect, rooms were cheap, and happycow.net told us about all the good veg restaurants, and although people harassed us, at least they helped us get to where we needed to go.
The next day we looked for a new hostel, only to discover that they were all overpriced. Although, we did find a cheap vegetarian restaurant, so that was a positive aspect of the day. The hostel situation was a mess, and we ended up overpaying for an absolute hole, where they were doing construction on the room below us. The owner had promised us there would be no construction, and I was such a mess about India being lame and overpriced, that I stormed out of the hostel, found a new one, went to get Bloom and our bags to move to the new one, only to discover that the savvy businessman/owner of the new hostel had given away our room to some Europeans willing to pay even more for it. At that point I broke down and sobbed. Literally.
The family living below the new hostel looked very worried about me and my sanity, and brought me into their home and made me drink tea. They then scolded the businessman who shrugged. I thanked them for their kindness and we left to find somewhere else. Never fear, eventually we found a not too overpriced place, filled with an ant nest nevertheless, which I didn’t mind actually, since I was too busy being completely amazed that so many ants had made their way into our room. I had never seen anything like it. “Their queen must be here!” Bloom kept saying frantically while blowing on the castle of ants, “we just need to find her and get her out, and they’ll follow her.” I found this whole idea of Bloom searching through millions of ants for an ant queen hilarious, and I was cheered up.
We went to Chabad for shabbos. This was to be our first of many shabbatot with Chabad in India, which we discovered is mashichist (they believe the Rebbe is (was?) the messiah). The rabbi and his wife were a nice, friendly young couple, but the constant yechi adoneninu’s really threw me off, and made it difficult for me to focus on anything else. The rabbi wore a pin of the yellow mashiach flag on the lapel of his long black jacket. He said yechi adoneinu before saying brachas, before and during bentching, before making a l’chaim, etc. I was more fascinated than disturbed by all of this, and I wished that it would have been socially acceptable for me to ask the rabbi about it. I wanted to ask, “If the mashiach already came, then how is he dead?” “If the mashiach already came, then why are you following halacha?” “If the rebbe is mashiach, then where is he???” I thought this would be rude. They had graciously invited us into their home, and it felt…well…inappropriate to start making accusations about their mashiach. But don’t worry, eventually I found ways to ask these questions to other chabadnikkim, who had some awesome answers.
One of the highlights of Cochin was the neighborhood called Jew Town. Yes. JEW TOWN. Amazing. This is where all of the Jews lived. Cochin used to be a hopping town filled with Indian Jews. There are not many left, since most of them moved to Israel, which is a shame for the community. There is not even close to a minyan of Indian Jews at the shul, and it is actually used for the chabad minyan on shabbos, and a museum during the week.
Another highlight was the backwaters tour, which was taking a small canoe through the Keralan backwaters. It was pretty, and we met some good people.
Our next stop would be Mumbai. We attempted to book a train to Mumbai only to discover that they were all full. This was another terrible Indian letdown. Everyone had raved about Indian trains. They’re so easy, they’re so fun. This was not easy. All of the trains were booked, and on our next leg, leaving Mumbai to head to Rajastan, all of the trains were booked as well, and we never made it off the waitlist. So much for ease! In every other country we had booked a day or so in advance and almost never had a problem getting seats on buses or trains, so this was very frustrating. Again, I was surprised that I was not frustrated by crowds, or public displays of defecation, but by aggravating Israeli-style bureaucracy. And so, we booked a flight to Mumbai, and we were off to what became one of my Indian highlights.
When our meditation session finished at night, and we were sent off to sleep, all my thoughts came rushing back to me. I wanted to talk about the experience with someone. It was weird not to talk to Bloom, and it was even weirder not to talk to my roommate Ebony, someone I had only met briefly. We had spoken before the silence began, and I really liked her, and I felt strange coming into our room and not even acknowledging her. We just went to the bathroom and went into our beds. I even felt like it was a bit rude not to talk to her, but I went along with the silence.
The next morning we had another round of meditation, and then silent breakfast. I found our silent meals to be the most difficult part of the retreat. This is the part that many people love, because they actually focus on their food instead of conversation, and they say how they were able to really savor their food. Don’t get me wrong, I love savoring my food, but we were sitting at very small tables and I found it distracting that there were so many people around me. I constantly watched what other people were doing. How much food were they taking? Did I take too much? Did I take too little? Am I supposed to get toast before we say the Buddhist brachas, or after? Yes, there was Buddhist chanting before the meal, which reminded me of benching, but in Sanskrit. I think silent eating would have been good if it wouldn’t have been so crowded, but in the end, it didn’t really work out so well for me, but I am definitely willing to try it again.
After breakfast we had our debriefing session. We all went around the room and spoke about our experiences and then we asked the monk questions about meditation and Buddhism in general. It was interesting to finally hear the voices and opinions of all our fellow meditators after just staring at them. I spoke about my experience of trying not to imprison my thoughts, and I asked a question that was bothering me throughout the retreat, which the monk never really answered: The monk repeatedly told us that Buddhism is all about mindfulness—the ultimate goal is to control your mind—but does controlling your mind really make you a better person?
The idea of right action leading to right thought is so ingrained in my Jewish self that I just could not reverse it. Sure, I can see that meditating, and being mindful of your movements, your thoughts, and even your actions can make you a better person overall. But what about the little things? Does being mindful make you a more charitable person, for example? In Judaism, you are supposed to give 10% of your earnings to charity, it doesn’t matter if you are mindful about it, you just do it, and then maybe eventually the act of giving will ultimately make you more mindful toward others perhaps. Maybe I just don’t trust people to act in the world when it is not imposed upon them. I just get the feeling that it’s too idealistic to assume that once someone is mindful s/he will act justly in the world in every way.
Don’t get me wrong, Jews do not act justly in the world in every way, ha, nowhere near that, BUT, Jewish law, I think ideally, is meant to create a system where Jews live their lives mindfully by acting in a specific way, not just by thinking in a specific way.
The problem with the Jewish way, is that often we are not mindful at all, we just do all these actions by rote. Give charity, observe the Sabbath, bless God, observe kashrut laws, all without being mindful in the slightest. This reminds me of what Heschel writes about Halacha and Agaddah (on a side note—everyone must read Heschel. You must.) It’s difficult to explain what this means in a travel blog post, but basically Halacha being the law itself, and agaddah being the meaning behind the law.
Actually, I must quote Heschel here, it’s just too awesome, he says:
By inwardness alone we do not come close to God. The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action.
But he also says:
To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit…
…There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is inner devotion, spontaneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.
Yes, I went there, I just googled Heschel and found this excerpt from “Between God and Man” and quoted it in this blog. It was too relevant, I had to do it. Now, let me explain why I felt this utter need to quote Heschel. The thing that was bothering me about Buddhism was that there was not enough action, halacha, as Heschel would put it, and the thing that has bothered me about Judaism is that it seems so mechanical sometimes, it seems that no one actually cares about what they’re doing, that it’s all meaningless, which is probably one of the reasons why I felt the need to go on a meditation retreat in the first place. What Heschel is saying is that Judaism needs to have both—the meaning and the action, and the language he uses to describe this need is beautiful and inspiring to me, and I hope it has been to you as well. If all Jews were like Heschel, or if we read Heschel every day, maybe we could be as mindful as the Buddhists.
But, the sad thing about us Jews is that most of us are not like Heschel. I know that I am definitely nowhere near Heschel, and I often don’t fuse halacha and agaddah, leaving me with existential angst and general religious frustration. For example, I rarely pray, because I often find it frustrating. I end up questioning the words, questioning the theological implications of the texts, of prayer itself, etc. Rationally I know, as with meditation, that if you want to reach mindfulness, or ever experience meaningful prayer, you need to leave the frustrations and the angst aside and just practice. Meditate every day, and your mind will not be such a feisty monkey. Pray every day and maybe one of those days you will find meaning and comfort in the liturgy.
The problem for me, with Jewish prayer, is that unlike meditation, it does not quiet my mind, it only makes it louder. My whole Jewish life has been about having a loud, tortured soul, and I’ve always felt that that was what it meant to be Jewish—being an angst ridden lunatic. I had J.B Soloveichick backing me up. If you want to know what I’m talking about find the book Halakhic Man, and read footnote 4. I think I highlighted that entire long footnote and felt that it validated my tortured religious identity, since he talks about religion as filled with tension and turmoil. I think what this meditation retreat helped me realize (along with many years of studying Jewish texts outside of the traditional Modern Orthodox establishment) is that I can integrate some of the lessons of meditation and mindfulness into my Jewish practice, especially into prayer.
Throughout the retreat I felt uncomfortable with the Buddhist chanting segments of the schedule. Other than my grandmother’s scorn, I kept thinking about the fact that I have my own religious tradition, so why am I practicing someone else’s? My tradition is rich, and I should embrace it, but at the same time, I appreciated learning different Buddhist practices that can enrich my own Jewish rituals, and I hope that eventually I can finally get my act together, and discipline myself to start putting these new concepts into practice in my daily life.
I’ve always thought that meditation would be a good idea for me. My mind is all over the place. I’m one of those people who can’t sleep at night because I can’t quiet my thoughts. I have read numerous books about meditation, and it always sounds good when I’m reading the book, but then I try a class and I freak out and leave beyond frustrated. I want to be Zen, I really do, but I am such an emotional person that it’s difficult for me to just chill out and be at peace with the world.
We were in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand in January, and we weren’t really doing much other than eating and loitering, so we decided to give this meditation thing a try. The retreat was only 24 hours, and I figured that maybe this time, when it was a 24 hour retreat instead of a one hour class here and there, that maybe it would finally work for me, maybe something would click.
Additionally, since we’ve been in Asia I have actually felt more Zen, and less like my usual American, anxiety-ridden self. It’s strange. I was so worried about this trip. How would I manage living out of a backpack? Not having a daily routine? Not having friends and family around? Moving every few days? Dealing with terrible transport and dirty hostels? Not having a real plan?? Well, as it turns out, the queen of planning, calendaring and lists (me), adores not having a plan. I am thriving in this environment. Yes, I do freak out every so often, but I am loving the freedom, and the adventure of this lifestyle. Every day I feel that I am learning new things about the world, and different cultures and ways of life. I have slept in unbearably dirty, bug-filled rooms, and I have bore it. I have ridden on buses with holes in the roof, while the juices of fish poured onto my clothes, and I have dealt with it all, and I have found it worthwhile…well, at least I have found it worthwhile when it ended…
So, with my new attitude, Bloom and I set off on our meditation retreat.
Their website had mentioned that the students should wear all white outfits. I thought this could mean white-ish, and wore khaki pants and a gray t-shirt. When I arrived at registration, everyone was wearing real white, and I felt pretty lame. There was a man selling white fisherman pants and awkward, large, white men’s t-shirts to the losers who didn’t wear all white. I asked him if I could just buy the pants, and wear my light gray t-shirt. “white would be better,” he said. “Right…it would be better…but is it needed?” I asked. I was already off to a not so Zen, more like a Talmudic, start. “It would be better,” he said again and smiled.
I didn’t appreciate this vague language. What does it mean “it would be better”? Do I need to buy that awkward t-shirt, or not? I’m Jewish, not Buddhist, I need some rules here! I decided to let my inner Buddhist win this one, and decided to go with the crowd and buy the whole outfit.
I put on the outfit. I looked like a white oompa-loompa. It was quite possibly the most unflattering outfit I have ever worn, and the all-white wasn’t really working with my pale, Eastern European skin tone. Everyone else had already been shopping at all the hip Thai markets and had proper flowing, white hippy shirts and pants, while I looked like a child attending her first karate class.
I turned to Bloom. He beamed at me. “What are you smiling about??” I demanded to know. “I just love it,” he said. “Are you out of your head??” I yelled at him, “This is actually the ugliest I have ever looked!” He continued smiling. “I need to get a picture,” he said. I groaned. For some reason Bloom thought this was an awesome outfit, probably since he loves dirty hippies and their attire.
At this point we had already heard a lecture on “An Introduction to Buddhism,” and were now preparing for our first meditation session. But before the session, our monk/teacher dropped two bombshells: 1. Men and women were not allowed to share rooms, and 2. This would be a silent retreat.
Ummm…WHAT?! Maybe, just maybe, meditation could potentially be my thing, but silence, silence is definitely not my thing. I looked at Bloom anxiously. He smiled again, maybe a bit triumphantly. “Finally some quiet,” he said, and laughed. “It’s not funny!” I whined. He laughed again, saying, “It’s not even a full 24 hours, come on, it’s not a big deal.”
Ah, but there was no time to be concerned about the silence, I had to deal with the bigger issue of finding a roommate. For a split second I felt like I was frantically looking for a place to eat in the cafeteria, but luckily it was only a split second, since I turned to my left and saw Ben and Ebony, a couple we had actually met weeks earlier in a restaurant in Bangkok. We all gave each other a look, asked “yeah?” and it was settled. Phew. I avoided the shame of being the kid without a roommate who has to go around asking “umm…do you have a roommate yet?” That is totally the worst, and since that didn’t happen, I was feeling that I was off to a good start, despite the outfit.
We had three formal meditation sessions during the retreat. One before dinner, one after dinner, and one at 5 am the following morning. Each of these sessions began with sitting on our knees, chanting, and bowing to the Buddha three times. Once for the Buddha, once for dharma (which, from what I understand is like Buddhist halacha), and once for the community (I don’t remember what word this was).
The monk began by explaining to all of us how to sit on our knees, how to prostrate ourselves at the appropriate moments in the chanting, and how to hold our hands together at our hearts in the praying position. Everyone sat on their knees. I hesitated. All of a sudden a vivid memory came to me. I was around five years old. I was at some holiday meal at my grandparents house in Skokie and I sat up on my knees, maybe to reach some food, maybe to see all the grown-ups and feel big, I’m not sure, but I remember my grandmother looking at me, appalled, and saying “Jews do not sit on their knees!!” I quickly got off my knees and sat properly again. “We don’t bow! That’s what the non-Jews do!”
I snapped back to attention and remembered that I was supposed to be sitting on my knees and chanting to the Buddha. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I leaned my legs to the side, so I wasn’t really on my knees, and tried to give Bloom a look. He was busy chanting. I went back to the chanting. It sounded like the modeh ani I used to say in pre-school; that sort of tuneless chanting they teach small children in Orthodox schools. I thought in my head, “modeh ani lifanecha melech chai vkayam.” I don’t know why I did this. I just felt the need to think Jewish prayers in my head.
Then came the moment of full body bowing. I looked at Bloom wide-eyed, and shook my head. It’s one thing to sit on your knees, but it is quite another to bow down to the Buddha! That, I could not even pretend to do. As luck (karma?) would have it, Bloom and I had arrived a minute late to the session and had mats in the last row. Neither of us bowed, and I looked as everyone else prostrated their entire bodies to the floor three times.
Why was this so upsetting to me? Why did I care? A line from a song that I used to sing in pre-school kept running through my head, “Haman told everyone bow down to me…Esther became the new queen.” I doubt that is the actual line from the song, because it seems to be skipping some of the plot, like the whole Mordechai refusing to bow part, but anyway, those are the words I remember, and those are the words I kept thinking about.
What kind of a loser am I, thinking about Mordechai not bowing to Haman!? This is not a big deal. I don’t even know what I make of God, and now I’m so strict about not respectfully bowing to the Buddha? It’s weird. I have these entirely emotional, irrational moments when I just feel this strong connection to being Jewish. Rationally, I’m all over the place. I feel like I doubt my religious observance and lifestyle all the time. I read books, I question, I doubt, I get angry, but then I have these purely emotional moments of attachment and even defensiveness about my Jewishness. It is very strange for me.
The chanting part ended.
We were now moving on to walking meditation. Walking meditation consisted of us walking slower than ants. The goal was for us to think about every tiny movement of our bodies as we walked. We would lift our right foot and say “right,” then move it forward a tiny bit and say, “goes,” and then step it down and say “thus.” And then again with the left foot. We were not just saying “Right goes thus,” it was more like “riiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Gooooooooooooes. Thuuuuuuuuuuus.” It would take at least ten seconds to say these words and move our feet in line with the words. When we grew more advanced we no longer said “right goes thus,” but instead we commented on each movement, “lifting, moving, lowering, pressing, etc.” This made us focus even more on each tiny movement of the foot.
I was pretty into the walking meditation. It was good to focus on something, and even the weird chanting of “right goes thus,” was actually helpful in focusing my mind on the movement of my body.
Next came sitting meditation. This is the meditation that most people imagine when they hear the word “meditation.” The monk told us to feel our breath and our lungs rising and falling. We sat, legs crossed, and tried to focus on our breathing. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. We were told that the goal was to note any thoughts and distractions, yet not to focus on them, not to fall into them. We were told that we had “monkey minds,” and that in order to tame these wild beasts, we could not let our minds jump from one thought to the next, instead we had to objectively note the thought and move on.
In the past in both my reading about meditation and my failed meditation attempts, this whole noting thing has been the part that has thrown me off. What does it mean to note something and not to think about it? What does it mean to be objective about a thought or a feeling? In the past when I’ve meditated, it’s been sort of like this: I sit. I cross my legs. I think about my breathing. 30 seconds later I think about some song that’s in my head. Then I think about how my leg hurts. Then I get mad. Why am I so bad at this?? Why is everyone else so much better than I am? Is there something wrong with me? I then continue to think about all the things that are wrong with me and why I am inferior to the serene meditators of the universe. I go back to thinking about my breathing, but I’m too frustrated with myself to focus clearly for more than 10 seconds. I focus on one thought which leads to another and then another until it’s spiraled out of control. This is why meditation always sucked for me.
And so, back at the Thai meditation retreat, I crossed my legs and focused on my breath. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. I wondered if Bloom was successfully meditating, and then something miraculous happened. In my head, I thought “thought about Bloom’s meditation—noted.” And then I moved on. Rising. Falling. I did not think anymore about Bloom’s meditation. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. My leg itches. I didn’t scratch it. I thought “thought about leg itching—noted.” Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling.
At one brief moment I imagined that my thoughts were like people trying to escape from a prison cell, grasping at the bars, and I was the prison guard shoving them away aggressively, and then I realized that I was not a prison guard. I had to allow my thoughts to roam free in my mind. I had to let them wander in and then wander out. That’s where I had been wrong in the past. I had aggressively fought against my wandering thoughts, viewing it as a war of my thoughts VS me, I had to stop the thoughts! But no, I did not need to stop the thoughts; I just had to make sure they didn’t control my mind. I had to note a thought when it wandered into my head, but then I had to move on, I had to allow the thought to wander out, instead of trying to forcefully fight it out. I pictured my mind as a giant open hallway instead of a prison. My thoughts wandered in, I noted them, like a scientist noting a specific behavior, and then they wandered out. Rising. Falling. Rising. Falling. Don Draper wandered into the open hallway. I started to think about the plot of Mad Men for a second, and then I thought “Don Draper—noted,” and I imagined Don Draper casually walking out of the hallway of my mind. Rising. Falling.
Had I reached meditative nirvana? Obviously not. I had many thoughts while I sat there meditating, but I felt at peace with them, and that was brand new for me. I didn’t judge them. I didn’t let them spiral into a whole train of thought. I noted them, without judgment, and moved back to the breathing. I didn’t try to stop the thoughts from entering my mind. I know that meditation takes practice and work, and I am a beginner, so I did not get angry at myself for having so many thoughts, I just let them be. And for me, this is nothing short of a revelation. I was calm with my thoughts. For once in my life I felt at peace in my own head.
South America isn’t the easiest place to be Jewish, but with some communities and fellow travelers spread across the continent, we didn’t wander alone. We started in Lima where the local community numbers, from memory, about 1500 – half of what it was ten years ago. Their main synagogue, which was distinguished only by the fact it has no distinguishing features on the outside of its fortress like perimeter, was sparsely attended even though there was a bar mitzvah. Of those that did attend, most of the men barely utilized their siddurs, while most of the women did not even bother taking one. With perhaps three people in the shule under 35, the future does not seem bright for the Lima community. On Friday night we were hosted by the Rabbi, an Israeli who took on the post for five years despite not knowing any Spanish. On Saturday we were treated to a an extravagant gourmet Kiddush where guests were presented with champagne by white tuxedo wearing waiters, only further highlighting our our shabby backpacker attire.
Israelis tend to travel in packs so that you often encounter one or two in a given place… or enormous hordes. In Huacachina we met swarms of Israelis who would scream at the dune buggy drivers in Hebrew. In our next stop, Arequipa, there was not an Israeli in sight.
Next stop Cuzco, home to one of the most popular traveler Chabads in the world. What first shocked me about Cuzco Chabad was that it hidden away behind metal security doors. What shocked me more was that it is a complete dump. My previous experience with large traveler Chabads was in Bangkok, where I spent Shavuot 2005 in a prominent, immaculate and highly air-conditioned complex with hundreds of Israeli backpackers. Chabad Cuzco however is a ramshackle courtyard style Peruvian apartment block where Shabbat meals are held in the central yard, which I imagine would be not much fun when it snows. There were around 150 guests for Shabbat, down from their high season peak of 400. Almost all of the attendees were Israelis who of course all knew each other from hanging out at other Chabads in South America. There are all types that gather at a South American Chabad: the religious, the secretly religious, the formerly religious, and the regular Israelis who simply want to be in a place where they won’t need to interact with anyone who isn’t Israeli. One of the more interesting Israelis was a quiet, unremarkable post army guy who proceeded to do an excellent job correcting kriat hatorah… without even opening a Chumash.
Now there are many people who are uncomfortable with kiruv. I am not such a person. In fact, I welcome attempts to bring fellow Jews closer to our tradition, provided it is done in an honest and straightforward manner where everyone is treated like adults. What makes Chabad Cuzco so awkward is that they so desperately want to mekarev these crowds of Israelis, it’s just that they are so damn bad at it.
Before beginning the kiruv, the rabbi stood up to welcome everybody to the Shabbat meal. He then delivered a long list of safety warnings such as, ‘people will deliberately rent you broken and dangerous motorbikes and then charge you for the repairs’, and ‘the three day white water rafting is not safe all, people have died including Israelis.’ After the warnings one of the shlichim stood up to lead a song, which I personally think is a welcome feature at any Shabbat table. What song did he choose? A little tzur mishelo maybe, a dror yikra perhaps? No, instead he insisted on leading, in English, a semi responsive reggae style chant about ‘waiting for the moshiach man.’ The second song was just as good, with a chorus of ‘I’m going Chassidish, I started speaking Yiddish.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember more of the lyrics of either song but I can assure you they left the listener in fluctuating states of cringing and laughter.
Now this is where I think they went wrong. Firstly, no one had ever heard of these songs, which makes it hard to get some group ruach happening. Secondly, the songs weren’t actually about Shabbat or Judaism for that matter, they were only about Chabad. Thirdly, everyone there was Israeli ( I joked that Ilana and the shlichim were the only people in the room who didn’t serve in the army), so why would you try to sing song in English? Kiruv is like being a good DJ, you’ve got to know your audience. In any case, most of said Israeli crowd left before the end of the meal and did not return for Saturday lunch.
Where we most would have needed a Chabad was in Rurrenebaque, Bolivia, where believe it or not you can get jungle and pampas tours in lashon hakodesh. Unfortunately, the Chabad there had closed down just three weeks earlier as it had run out of money and the visas of the shlichim had expired. Funnily enough, we had met the shlichim, who were clearly meshichistim, at our guest house in Huacachina, where they had proceeded to strip down to their underwear and jump into, in order to use as a mikvah, the lake which exactly zero other people had thought fit for swimming.
Our next Shabbat was in Salta, a city in northern Argentina with a local Jewish community where the Orthodox and Reform shule are neighbours. Upon entering shule on Friday night I was made to lead davening, which was awkward because a) they had their own nusach, b) there was no minyan and c) the guy who asked me to lead, after becoming unhappy with my leading, then stood beside me co-leading for the rest of the service. We then ate with a small group of Israelis, mostly couples, with the wife of the Chabad rabbi.
After so many weeks on the road it was strange to see men in black hats and velvet kippahs wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. As already mentioned, the city has a tremendous array of Kosher dining options of which we sampled only a few. While there are many different synagogues in Buenos Aires, the one closest to our apartment was, you guessed it, Chabad. The Rabbi was a cheerful fellow who was genuinely excited by chasidut. What set him apart from all of the other Rabbis we had encountered is that he believed in our trip. Many religious Jews, including, and sometimes especially, Chabadnikim, cannot understand why anyone would want to wander through strange lands and cultures across the globe. Chabadnikim may find their way to the Amazon’s edge, but they are not ideological travelers. Rather, travelers’ Chabads exist to ameliorate the effects of travel. To protect and shelter the travelling Jew from his hostile surrounds, to provide Jewish home in a place so far from your Jewish home. And yashar ko’ach to them for it. I am certainly forever grateful for their hospitality. But the Rabbi of Palermo Chabad was different in that he understood the journey for its own sake. He said that one of the mistakes of prewar European Jewry is that they were too reluctant to leave their comfort zone, and that Avraham’s spiritual journey also began with a physical journey abandoning his homeland. He was pleased to hear that we blessed ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’ at Iguazu Falls and wished us well in spreading light and blessings in all the far flung places we might visit. It was nice to finally be understood as a traveler and a Jew at the same time.
The Inca Trail
The Inca trail is really that good! Lonely Planet has a penchant for helping to make a place popular and accessible only to later say how said attraction is now uncool and too touristy. Well some things are touristy because they are world class attractions, and the Inca trail to Macchu Piccu is just that. Over four days it was consistently excellent, with stunning snow capped peaks and lush green valleys, cloud forests, Inca ruins, 4200m high passes and more. Book early, pay the exorbitant fees and accept no substitute.
Silence in the Pampas
While we encountered many problems with the homosapiens in the Bolivian pampas, the other animal species put on a marvelous show. Cruising down the river you see so many caimen, birds, turtles, and capybara that it starts to lose its thrill until you start seeing the food chain in action, such as caimen chomping on a large white feathered bird or birds eating baby caimen. A clear highlight was the night cruise where we motored up river and out of the darkness hundreds of pairs of crocodilian eyes reflected back at us. It was kind of spooky. And then we turned off the engine and just floated down river with the current. Absolute silence and absolute darkness, save for the dazzlingly starry sky and on occasions, starlight dimly reflected from the eyes of reptiles watching us from the banks. I don’t know when I have ever experienced silent, effortless and indeed carbon neutral transport before, and under that sparkling sky our quarrels gave way to awe.
Due to the Earth being spherical, our flight from Buenos Aires to Melbourne took us over the Antarctic. Now as an Australian I still get excited by a pile of snow or a frozen puddle on the streets of New York. When the Antarctic ice shelf became visible outside our window it blew my mind. Ice, in sheets metres or kilometers long stretching out as far as the eye can see, and cruising at 35,000 feet in clear Antarctic air, you can see pretty damn far. The ice was, I think, seasonal frozen sea ice but occasionally you could see an iceberg which had broken off the permanent glacial shelf and now gotten stranded the winter pack ice. The view was just wondrous and unlike anything I have ever seen before. For the second time in the trip I blessed ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’, ‘the One who makes the works of creation.’
See also: 3 Things to Hate About South America
While Ilana is pondering, it’s time for some backposts. South America was great, next post will be three things to love. In the meantime, here are three things I’d like to rant about.
After travelling in South East Asia I had certain expectations about accommodation. In Vietnam, for a few dollars each, I could share a clean room with a TV, fridge, Air con and a private bathroom. Here we have been staying in what is at the cheaper end of rooms with a private bathroom. These rooms are often dark, poorly ventilated and always without heating, despite the subzero night time temperatures in the Andes. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they didn’t cost so much. Why is hostel after hostel just so much worse than Asia? $US33 a night is too much to pay for a crappy hostel in a place where you can’t drink the water and you have to put your toilet paper in a bin.
Having the right means of payment is a challenge for any traveler. How much cash to carry? What type of cash? Which cards and which banks? This presented a particular challenge in South America.
Now there are some things in South America that are damn expensive. It costs around $1500 for three people to do the Inca trail. Not the kind of cash that I’d feel comfortable carrying around the streets of Cusco, or any city really. Try to pay with credit card and you can get hit with perhaps an 8% fee. I think that’s insulting. If you say you accept credit cards then damn well accept them, and if you have to be difficult then tack on 3%. So now we have to wander the streets looking for Peruvian ATMs that accept foreign cards and dispense US dollars. However such machines don’t just let you withdraw $1000 at a time, you have to do many small withdrawals, each time for a fee of course.
I don’t object to charging prices in US dollars as is common practice for expensive items in countries with volatile currencies. It can save you trying to do arithmetic with large numbers or carrying around huge wads of notes. Never before, however, have I been charged in $US and then had the vendor refuse to accept my American legal tender. $1, $5 and $100 notes may be refused as payment, as are any worn, torn or marked bills. We were told that it was common to be issued a $US note at an ATM and then for that bank to refuse that same note as payment. It was hardly reassuring to know that large banks can be just as dickish. Do they not understand the idea behind paper currency? It’s symbolic value, not literal value! If the US government prints $5 in green ink on a small slip of paper then everyone in the world, except some frustrating Andean folk, understands what that piece of paper is worth. Whether it’s stained or wet or torn, it’s still $US5! Not here Gringo!
Bolivia – It’s not me, it’s you
Now I have been to many poor countries in a number of continents and I think I am reasonably sympathetic to the plight of the world’s downtrodden. Never before, however, have I thought that a country’s people played as significant a part in the shambolic nature of their country. Quite simply, many Bolivians we encountered are just bad at what they do. Order something in a restaurant and you can expect to wait an hour for your food to come, and this not for a soufflé but for a simple vegetarian pizza. On one occasion the waiter never told the kitchen our order. On another occasion our food was missing the ingredients listed on the menu. Time after time they were incapable of even vaguely holding to schedules that they had themselves set. They’ll tell you to meet at 9am for a tour and they won’t be ready till an hour later. They’ll tell you to meet us in the kitchen at 6am for the early breakfast, and then sleep in. Now as someone who is both tardy and a late riser I can totally understand someone not wanting to meet us at 6am. So why didn’t they just say so? In a league of its own, the Pampas tour was punishment for all my years as an under communicator. Not since the army have I been on an ‘organized’ tour and had less idea as to what was going on. And it wasn’t just an issue of language, a Peruvian guest was also at his wits end. Now if you can’t get the little things right, like having a bed for all your guests or making a pizza, it is little wonder there are perhaps only two paved roads in the entire country.
Next up: 3 things to love.
I know that a few months ago I wrote this whole thing about feeling bad about not writing, and how we were about to change that, etc. Obviously, we did not hold to our end of the bargain, since you can see that we have not written in quite some time.
The thing is, I think I’m a decent storyteller. I’m good when it comes to an entertaining/ridiculous tale of the madness that is the life of the backpacker. What I’m not as good at is describing how I feel about the state of the world as I see it, or discussing all the questions that I am constantly asking on this trip.
At some point in Asia I reached a turning point when travel became less about the crazy stories and more about the difficult questions, and honestly, I found those issues difficult to write about. Even more than the difficulty of the subject matter, I find that I am scared to write something stupid, since I do not have a degree in public policy and as a matter of fact I know little about global politics in general, so I feel like I am an inappropriate speaker on such issues.
Bloom looks over my shoulder. “Why are you writing about excuses?” He asks me. “Just write!”
Ugh, fine. So here it goes, a disorganized, stream of consciousness post:
I will start by saying that we are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos in a “fancy” guesthouse. We decided to splurge ($23/night) for Bloom’s birthday, and it’s totally worth it. Clean sheets, a balcony overlooking the Mekong river, a clean bathroom. Luxury for us.
We discovered yesterday that this place also came with a middle aged, large-ish American man and his much younger, svelte, Asian female companion. We have seen many of these mis-matched couples here in Laos and also in Bangkok. Are they just an inter-racial couple, or is she a prostitute? Is it rude of me to think that she probably is his prostitute? Possibly. The couple spends their time sitting on the balcony while the man drinks beer after beer and blasts loud American classic rock from speakers. He is basically declaring to the world that he owns this place. He will play music that blasts throughout the guesthouse and the streets, and he doesn’t give a shit about people who might not want to listen to it. Something about this man, his “his relationship,” and his music is driving me nuts. This is what people think of America. An occupying force. A few minutes ago, to prove some sort of ridiculous point, I went out to our balcony and started blasting “Jump Around,” which seemed to be an appropriate fight song to his classic rock. I only have a computer, so my music was not nearly as loud. I looked down to the street and saw a bunch of locals staring up at the balcony toward the American man and his loud music, and I realized that it was not worth a music war, I was not stooping to his level, so I came back inside, turned off Jump Around, gave in to listening to “Free Ride” from the other room, and started to write.
In terms of Laos in general—it’s a great place to be. I would advise everyone I know to come on a vacation to Luang Prabang. It has everything. It’s beautiful, and it’s cheap, and people are friendly. On the other hand, it has fancy places for the more upscale, and it’s not completely “rustic” like the places in Sumatra. So what are you waiting for? Get over here!
For weeks, and much to the chagrin of anyone we hung out with in Burma and was forced to listen, Bloom and I debated back and forth about if we should even come to Laos at all, since we don’t have so much time in southeast Asia. Finally, the day we arrived in Bangkok, last Friday, we decided, screw it, let’s just go to Laos, and we’ll work it out from there. On Sunday night we got on a train to the Thai-Lao border, and Monday morning we were in Vientiane. My brother and Bloom both said that Vientiane was lame and we should not spend much time there, but in the end we spent 2 and a half days there, and loved it. We had just been in Burma days before, and then had a rushed weekend in Bangkok, and we needed time to just breathe for a bit. Vientiane was perfect for breathing. We spent our time drinking lattes (or tea for Bloom), eating baguettes, and talking to people at the local French cafes, and in the evening we would watch the sunset over the Mekong and wander the night market.
Over the past month or so we have been much more social with other travelers. It seems that in Southeast Asia the travelers are just really friendly, which is nice for us. In South America, we rarely met friendly people (we were instead snubbed by hordes of Israelis), and in Indonesia and China we rarely ever saw other backpackers.
In Burma we did a three day trek from Kalaw (a small town in the hills of the Northern Shan State that looks shockingly similar to Alon Shvut…) to Inle Lake, another small town in the same state 60 km away, which, as its name suggests, is on a lake. Our trekking group had a total of 8 people, and it was a fascinating group of characters. There were two guys who were actually from the Chicago area! That was very exciting for me, and led to great nostalgic talks of skiing in Wisconsin and summer weekends in Lake Geneva. One of them currently lives in Hong Kong, and the other in NY. There was a Canadian woman who had spent the past decade living in Europe, a New Yorker living in Singapore, a woman from Reunion Island (which I shamefully did not know of before this encounter. It’s near Madagascar, but part of France), and an older Israeli man who spoke to us about the superiority of Israeli produce. “The strawberries are the best in the world! And the cucumbers!”
I really liked this group, and it was nice to spend three days with such interesting people, and when we got to Inle we continued to eat dinner with the other trekkers almost every night until they slowly left for other destinations, while we stayed in Inle, reading, biking, taking a boat trip and generally lazing around in our deluxe balcony room.
The thing I realized when hanging out with the trekkers was how JEWISH we are. What I mean is, we don’t notice this so much on a daily basis, but our Jewishness has taken over our lives. We decided to explain about our eating habits, and because I didn’t want the trekkers to think we’re fanatics, I felt the need to thoroughly explain our practice and our choices in great detail, and then after I would finish speaking, I would feel horribly neurotic about seeming like a religious fanatic to these people who I really liked. When I listened to what Bloom and I were telling these people, I tried to imagine what they must think, and then I realized that we sound completely crazy, and all my religious questions, that I thought I had filed away when I was 22, came flooding back into my mind gnawing at my so-called frum self. I explained to the trekkers—‘Judaism is a value system that helps me be mindful of everything in my life, that’s why there are all of these seemingly small details,’ but after I spoke, I silently questioned what I had said. Does all this ritual actually do anything? Who am I doing this for? Other people help change the world through belief in social justice and good deeds, why isn’t that as meaningful as a religion?
On our last night in Inle, after our trekker friends had all left town, we found ourselves in an Indian restaurant in a conversation with other backpackers. There were two Americas, a Malaysian guy and a Slovakian woman, and somehow the conversation turned to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The American man was talking about atheism, and how it made sense, and about a quote someone said about how it really makes no sense to say that children have a religion, and that religion is generally dangerous and causes wars, etc. For some reason this made me feel anxious and defensive. I started wondering if he knew Bloom and I were religious Jews, wondering if we could make it through an entire conversation without me blowing our cover and mentioning something about being Jews. I’m probably more agnostic than anything else, but still, for some reason I felt the need to defend believers. I went on a rant about how religion doesn’t make someone evil, an evil person if he wants to do evil, will use anything as his excuse for committing evil acts. People can use religion for good, or they can use it for evil, people can use science for good, or they can use it for evil. That’s how the world works. I then referenced a South Park episode about Richard Dawkins and a future world war not about religion, but about details of evolution, to prove my point. I didn’t stop there, and I went on to talk about how it would be wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism, it’s not Islam, it’s certain people using Islam. I’m not a muslim, but I would be pretty pissed off right now that the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist, when really it’s just some assholes using Islam as an excuse. You can find an excuse to kill people in anything!
The Malaysian guy beamed. I am a Muslim, and I am angry about this! I’m Jewish and I’m angry for you, I said. And there it went. I was back to putting myself in the Jewish box. The conversation went on for a while and in the end the Malaysian guy gave his phone number so we can meet up in Kuala Lumpur when we’re there later this month. The whole thing was interesting, and it made me re-remember that I am Jewish, because I can’t not be. I feel it in my bones. I feel the need to defend religion, I feel the need to defend Jews, I feel that I cannot eat that delicious looking grilled chicken on a stick, and I feel committed. This is not compelling, but it is true. The thing is that traveling has made me question everything. Maybe it’s because I have the luxury of time, maybe it’s because I am seeing new things and meeting new people, but either way, I feel like everything needs to be reevaluated—be it my religious identity or my politics or how I spend my money.
When we went to China I became obsessed with learning more about global politics, about world history, about policy, about development, about everything, and I was overwhelmed by how little I knew about anything. I read a handful of books about China and watched tons of Chinese government propaganda TV to try to bring me up to speed, obviously I am not even close to up to speed, but I am trying. The thing about China that is so unfathomable to me is that in many ways it is a totally developed country. The Beijing and Shanghai subway lines put the NYC subway to shame. Both those cities seem more modern than any American city, and there are fancy expensive shops everywhere you turn. But, at the same time, the fact that a Chinese citizen cannot openly say anything critical of the government, that websites are blocked, that news is censored, that the cultural revolution took place (!!) is totally shocking to me. The shocking part lies in the modernity of its big cities, I think. At least for me, I didn’t expect such a “modern” place to have such closed policies, and I felt guilty about loving China so much, although a big part of that love was out of sheer fascination for the place, and because I want to know more about the country, it’s citizens, and it’s policies. If we could have overstayed our Chinese visas, I would have. I would still be in China now if I knew we had more time. I want to learn Chinese. I want to befriend Chinese people and live in this crazy place that feels so alive and also so stifling all at once. But, alas, we moved on to our next country, since this year is not meant for serious iyyun (in depth) on any particular place, but a b’kiyut (overview) study of the world. For now.
Yes, we know. We are irresponsible bloggers who have not written in quite some time. We are sorry, but we have been busy traveling around and making plans/booking flights that will cover our travels through Pesach.
This is not meant to be a very detailed post, just a preview, and to let you all know what we’ve been up to, and where we will be over the next few months. A more detailed post including feelings and reactions to China will come soon.
We are currently in Yangshuo, China. It is a beautiful small town in southern China. We arrived in Beijing on November 10th and have been slowly making our way south since then. Here is our route:
Nov.10: Landed in Tianjin. Took a high speed train (334 km/hr!) to Beijing. Planned to leave after a few days, but we loved it and stayed almost a week.
Nov. 17-18: We then took an 11 hour sleeper train to Xian to see the terracotta warriors. I was really into them, but Xian itself was an absolute hole. We stayed there only one night. It was fun, because we finally hung out with other backpackers and met an Australian couple who we liked and who supports (Australian way of saying ‘roots for’) Collingwood, Bloom’s grand-final winning Aussie Rules Football team. There was much talk of ‘footy’ and Seinfeld. Good times all around.
Nov. 19-22: At the last minute we decided we would go to Shanghai for Shabbat, since according to their website, Shabbat davening and meals were being held at the old shul, so this seemed exciting. We knew we would arrive somewhere on a Friday and figured it would be best to arrive somewhere with a Chabad to take care of us. We signed up for meals online and booked a hostel near the shul. We took another overnight train from Xian, this time 16 hours, and arrived in Shanghai Friday morning only to receive an email from Chabad telling us the shul was closed. After writing an angry, possibly passive-aggressive email to the rabbi we were invited to a “small gathering” at the rabbis house, which was thankfully close to the hostel. This “small gathering” was at least 25 French ex-pats. I had one of those moments where I was beyond ashamed of my outfit–dress over pants and hiking boots–and wanted to hide under the table away from all the well dressed, diamond wearing French ladies. Ok, I exaggerate, it was really only one fancy lady who gave me a blatant dirty look, but still, the others were also dressed well, but they were not ALL in diamonds. On Saturday the rebbetzin’s sister approached me and said “I heard you speaking English, are you not Israeli? I was SURE you were Israeli!” “That’s because I look like a dirty backpacker, usually I look a bit more put together and American,” I responded, and immediately felt guilty for saying that out loud to a stranger.
Anyway, Shanghai was amazing. I love big cities. It felt like NY covered in haze and pollution. We stayed longer in Shanghai than planned, but we had a great time wandering the streets, eating amazing vegetarian food, and generally appreciating city life. All the ex-pats told me they “love” living in Shanghai, and, since I am easily swayed, I decided I too wanted to live in Shanghai, so I guess we have a back-up plan if we are still jobless at the end of the year. Move to Shanghai and hang out with Jewish French ex-pats while eating and possibly teaching English or something. But I digress…
Nov. 23-26: Zhangjiajie Village and Wulingyuan. We said goodbye to the cities and took off for the next leg of our China trip in rural villages. We took a 21 hour overnight train to reach our next destination, a national park that we had randomly come across in the Lonely Planet book that sounded like a nice place. This was much more than a nice place, and was probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen, or at least it would definitely be in the top 2 with Iguazu Falls. They re-named one of the mountains in the park “Avatar mountain” because allegedly James Cameron Pandora was based on the mountains in this park. The park was all about putting up posters of Avatar next to posters of the park to show how similar they look, and they’re right, they do look very similar, other than the fact that the mountains in China don’t float. All in all, it was amazing, and totally worth the horrific train ride.
Nov. 26-29: Fenghuang. This is a small minority village that we decided to go to for Shabbos hoping to find food. In Zhangjiajie there was definitely no food for us other than Snickers and instant noodles, and the occasional find of chestnuts, and we were hoping we would find something more substantial in Fenghuang since we heard it was touristy. Yes, it was touristy, but it was filled with Chinese tourists, not Western ones, so nothing was in English, and most of the food contained pigs. The villagers were especially fond of hanging pig faces from the rafters to dry. The village was nice and we liked strolling though the alleys and on the river. It would have been nicer had there not been millions of Chinese people yelling into megaphones, and screaming their heads off at karaoke.
Dec. 1-3: Ma’an. You may notice that Nov. 30th is missing in this outline. That is because we spent that entire day in transport hell. It involved taking a taxi to a bus station outside of Fenghuang. Trying to communicate where we needed to go next, being pushed in opposite directions to different buses, and finally picking a bus, which we sat on for over an hour, waiting for it to depart. When we finally got to our destination, where we were meant to catch an afternoon train, we had of course missed it, and booked the next train, which left at night, 6 hours later. This city, Huaihua, was an even bigger hole than Xian. It was dreary and bleak and there was mud all over the place. The bus had dropped us off in the middle of the city somewhere, and we luckily found some people in backpacks to follow to the train station, though the mud. The people were from Hong Kong and spoke good English. After posing for a picture with one of them, he told us to be in touch when we get to Hong Kong. So that’s one good thing that came out of the misery of Nov. 30th.
After 6 hours of listening to an Audible book on my iphone (seriously, baruch hashem for Audible and for my mom for allowing me to download books from her account), and holding my hands over my ears to try to block out the yelling ladies with megaphones making announcements every 40-70 seconds, it was time to board our train. Imagine the running of the bulls, or a Long Island Wal-Mart on Black Friday…I’m guessing that those mobs are nothing next to a bunch of Chinese people trying to get on a train. People were running and pushing each other over, and shoving and yelling. It was complete chaos. I felt pressured to run too, but then I realized that it did not make any sense to run, since we had tickets and seats. I still have absolutely not idea why every person was running as if his/her life depended on it. We knew this train would be awful since we had booked hard seats, the lowest class, since that’s all that was left, and we figured we could handle it for 5 hours, a short train by China standards. When we got to the door of our train car it was as if the whole running mob had congregated there. There were tons of people trying to shove into the car at once, and many of them were carrying large bamboo poles over their shoulders with massive bags hanging from each end of the pole. at first I was ok with the shoving, I’m a good shover after living in Israel and New York., but then I became genuinely frightened as the pushing got more aggressive and I realized I was not in control of my movement. I thought I would get stabbed in the face by bamboo, or maybe get shoved and plummet to my death on the train tracks. In the midst of this I suddenly felt a distinct grab on my boob. It was definitely not part of the shoving, and I knew it. I jerked my head around to see a middle aged man pull his hand away. I was absolutely seething. “DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!” I screamed. My eyes narrowed and I looked at him hatefully and pointed my finger in his face and yelled again, “DON’T YOU F—ING TOUCH ME!!” Obviously, he did not understand a word I said, but I figured the finger pointing and swearing and look of pure rage on my face possibly got the point across. I tried not to cry, as I eventually grabbed on to the railing and simultaneously jumped/shoved my way onto the train. The pushing did not end here, and I was now being shoved into the carriage and tried to find my seat.
I looked around and realized that Bloom and I did not have seats next to each other. I then noticed that someone was sitting in Bloom’s seat. I looked across the aisle and saw that someone was sitting in my seat as well–it was none other than the sexual predator from 3 minutes earlier. “You have GOT to be kidding me!!” I cried in frustration. I saw down across from Bloom, neither of us in our seats, until I was physically pulled off the seat by an angry looking lady who proceeded to yell at me in Chinese. I showed her my ticket and Bloom’s, and she yelled at the people who were in his seat and made them move. I tried to communicate to the guy next to Bloom that we should trade seats. I was in no mood to sit by myself in this hell hole of a train, and I was definitely not going to try to have any form of communication with the sexual predator. I kept looking at him and giving him dirty looks, until eventually I was scared that maybe he was actually dangerous and would chase me off the train and kill me,and I was just so damn tired, so I stopped. Finally the man next to Bloom got the point and went to my seat, but did not kick out the sexual predator, just shoved next to him, almost sitting on his lap. I then started crying a little over the fact that I felt completely violated by this man, that I couldn’t do anything about it, and that I was on a crowded, loud, smelly train in the middle of the night. I eventually fell asleep on Bloom’s shoulder and tried to ignore everything else. We had no idea where to get off the train, since we could not see through the filthy windows of the train, and most of the time, when we did try to see, there were no signs. Bloom frantically showed everyone around us our tickets asking when to get off. Eventually we were motioned toward the door, and got off at 1 am in the middle of what appeared to be a forest, not a train station. A lady pushed us into a taxi and we showed her the name of a hotel listed in Lonely Planet. She took us somewhere, there was no English, so we don’t even know where we stayed, but we checked in and immediately went to sleep.
But wait, we had not even reached the village of Ma’an yet! We were in a city, Sanjiang and had to find a bus to the village in the morning. We could not find this alleged bus station, and ended up taking a motorcycle rick-shaw to the village.
The thing is, after all that awfulness, the village was worth it. That’s the thing about China, everything is difficult, but somehow, against all my better judgement, it actually ends up being worth it. Maybe the difficult journey makes me appreciate the nice places, I don’t know. But we hung out at a very quiet, relaxed village and wandered through the rice paddies and surrounding hills for two days, until we traveled south to Yangshuo, where we are now.
Oh my, I did not mean to write so much here, and now I realize that I could not resist, and as usual, the only stories I told in depth were the most traumatic ones. I will write up some of the nice ones next time.
In conclusion, our visa runs out on Thursday, so we are taking a night bus Wednesday night to Hong Kong where will will hopefully get our visas to Burma. We fly to Burma via Bangkok on Dec.14-15, where we will be until Dec. 31st, when we fly back to Bangkok for Shabbos. We will travel around Thailand, and maybe Laos if there’s time, making our way back down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we will fly to Kochi, India on February 1st. We will be traveling around India and then into Nepal, flying on April 17th from Kathmandu, Nepal–Qatar–Amman, Jordan. We will spend the night in Amman, unless we can miraculously hitch a ride to Israel that night, and then we will hopefully, cross the border into Israel on April 18th. We will be in Jerusalem for Pesach, and it will be glorious. Unless we get stuck in Qatar or Jordan, which would be glorious in a different way I guess.
It’s crazy to have all of these flights finally booked. We booked them over the past few days, since we have finally had some time to relax here in Yangshuo, so we have been making plans for the rest of our trip, which is of course why we had no time to write earlier!
We will not be able to post anything while in Burma. I am not sure that we will find any functioning internet there at all, but Bloom and I both plan to write some flashback posts to post before we go to Burma, so you will have something to read.
And there you have it. My version of a short version of our China trip. In conclusion, China is a bizzaro world in every way, and sometimes it is absolutely horrible, but for some reason I love it here. More on this later!
When I thought about Bali I imagined beautiful rice patties and some sort of “spiritual” place. God, what does it even mean to be a spiritual place?? Even though I hate to admit it, it’s actually quite obvious that I am generally a religious person, also I am fascinated by different religious traditions, so I figured Ubud, the “spiritual” capital of Bali would be the perfect place for me to relax and find my inner self…or whatever.
So what did I find in Ubud?
Well, for one, I found many Balinese men standing on the sidewalk saying “Taxi? Transport? Hello? Taxi?? “ At first I responded with a polite smile and a “no thank you!”
Their response: “maybe tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t think so, sorry!”
Ten minutes later: “Taxi? Transport”
Another ten minutes pass: “Taxi??”
“No. I do not want a taxi.”
“NO. Not tomorrow either.”
Five minutes go by. “Taxi?”
This time Bloom responds “Do I look shy to you?? Do you think I wouldn’t ask you if I needed a taxi?? I do NOT need a taxi, and if I need one, I will find you, and I do not need one tomorrow!”
I told Bloom that this was a rather aggressive approach, and seemed pretty rude. “They’re the ones harassing me!” Bloom protested. “And you want to spend three months in India??” I asked him. He ignored me. I decided I was going to take the high road here. I explained to Bloom that yes, these guys were annoying, and yes, they assume that since we’re white we are rich and want to hire private taxis to drive us everywhere, but the truth is we do have money, and even though we are not rich and have a pretty tight budget (that I am currently blowing on expensive lattes), it’s likely that we do have more money than they do, and so they have the right to harass us.
The next afternoon: “Taxi? Transport??”
I had just about enough. Yeah, fine, they’re poor and I’m white and western and have some dollars, but step off!
“You listen to me, guy. I DO NOT want a taxi. I DO NOT need transport. I am sure I will walk past here again, and you BETTER not ask me if I need a taxi. Got it??”
The guy smiled and laughed and shook my hand. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Ilana, and I’m on my way to dinner. No taxi, got it?”
I looked at Bloom and apologized for being a self-righteous ass earlier. Damn, these people were getting to me too. I missed Sumatra where the people might harass you, but it felt friendly.
Ok, fine, I knew that Bali was a million times more touristy than Sumatra, I should have been prepared, but isn’t Ubud supposed to be some sort of spiritual haven and not a place of constant harassment?
So, about that spiritual thing… I don’t know what exactly I imagined when I thought “spiritual haven,” but it was not a bunch of skinny American women sitting around with perfect posture and talking about raw food and their yoga class. Ugh. This is exactly how I imagine LA, which is why I don’t go to LA. All this pseudo spiritual crap is making me realize that I am not zen at all, no, I am a Jew through and through, and not even a Jew-Bu at that! Maybe I don’t actually respect other people’s religious journeys as much as I thought I did. There is something that feels inauthentic about coming to a city and expecting that you will find some sort of spiritual enlightenment, just because other people may have had spiritual experiences there. Take Elizabeth Gilbert, the infamous author of “Eat Pray Love” for example. There are now “Eat Pray Love” guided tours and different classes here in Ubud for you to experience your own “Eat Pray Love” style awakening!
WHAAAAT. Look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I like Liz Gilbert, and I liked her book, but just because she found something here in Ubud does not mean that I, Ilana G, will find something here. My “journey” is mine and mine alone, which means I have to find meaning in places because it’s meaningful to me, not because it was meaningful to Liz Gilbert and to many Balinese people.
There’s also something that’s making me depressed about this whole place. Are westerner’s so devoid of their own spirituality and meaning that they have to come and hijack someone else’s religious culture?
Ok, I’m being a judgmental ass right now, and I realize that, but there’s something so frustrating about this. How am I any different than these spiritual seekers who come to Bali or India or wherever else? Well, for one thing I have my own religious culture and traditions, I’m not looking for something completely new, I just want to see how other cultures practice their religiosity and then maybe see if any of their traditions can work within my own Jewish traditions. Do they have something that I’m missing? Do they have something that can enrich my own religious life?
Ok, so maybe I’m not so different than the alleged seekers. Ugh, but I am! Something just seems so disingenuous about this whole process here; people seem to just have automatic buy-in to yoga/ayurveda/chakra/healers, etc.
So Bloom and I actually went to a yoga class here to see what all the fuss was about, and because I have always thought it would be cool if I was into yoga. So I guess I’m the real inauthentic poser here, taking a class because I think it seems cool and all… But, in my defense, I also think it could potentially help lower my anxiety levels and help strengthen my leg injury, but anyway, back to the class. There was a point at the start of the class when we were sitting there with our eyes closed and the teacher was telling everyone to think about their breath, the flow of your breath in your body, blah blah blah.
I of course got bored and opened my eyes a drop to peek around the room to see if anyone else wasn’t feeling it. I looked at Bloom, he looked into it. Hmm. Ok, I tried again and closed my eyes and tried to think of my breath and nothing else. Impossible. I thought about how lame it was that I couldn’t focus on my breath, then I thought about how lame it was that everyone else was focusing on their breath. Eventually the class was told to open their eyes and we all did some weird pulling at our knees and bending and stuff. After pulling at our right knees for a while the teacher told us to sit back and see if we felt a difference between our right and left knees. I thought about it and realized that my right knee actually felt loose and relaxed! Had it worked? I took the rest of the class relatively seriously, and had a pleasant time. Maybe I can be a yogi yet?
But, dear reader, please do not be fooled by the fact that I enjoyed a yoga class. This does not make me any less cynical than ever, but I do think that this whole yoga thing could be good for my pizza-eating, daily milk-shake drinking body.
So maybe I will go to another yoga class and see how I go. The problem is these damn seekers everywhere.
Bloom just read over my shoulder and asked, “but how can you be sure that you’re not one?”
“Not one what?”
“Not a seeker.”
He laughs as he watches me turn back to the computer and type instead of answering his question.
We arrived in Solo after a miserable night of not sleeping outside the airport and a massive fight when security took our really nice American spray sunscreen away from Bloom. “What are YOU going to do with it??” I yelled at the security lady at 5 am. “You can put on now,” she replied calmly. “IT IS DARK NOW. I DO NOT NEED SUN SCREEN NOW.” I yelled back, and then to Bloom, “WHY WAS THAT IN YOUR CARRY ON??” I then stormed off and sat by myself for a while mourning the loss of the sunscreen.
This whole fight may sound stupid, and maybe it was, but when it’s 5 am and you’ve been up since 7am and have spent the day taking a ferry, then a bus, then 6 hours at the “airport” in Medan (airport being a very very generous term here, since it was more like a really crappy bus station) until finally flying to KL where you were kicked out of the airport and onto the streets to spend time until 5am when you can finally check in your bags…then you may not be in the best mood. Additionally, when we got to Medan super early, I asked if we could go on one of the earlier flights. The guy behind the counter checked his computer and then said “ok.” Great, I thought, but I thought too soon. The guy continued, “you will not get money back from your flight and you have to pay for the new one.” WAIT, what? “I don’t want to switch flights completely, I just want to go on the earlier flight, since I’m here, instead of the later one. Standby, you know?” He did not know, and was not hearing it. We argued for a while, and I asked who was in charge, apparently no one. We had six hours to kill until our flight, four hours before they would allow us to check our bags. This set the stage for the rest of the evening. And about that sunscreen—we have searched everywhere for a replacement, all over Java and Bali, and have not been able to find good sunscreen. So, this is why a little thing like sunscreen was quite valuable to me.
Anyway, back to Solo. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by the adorable airport and friendly people. We had no place to stay, and didn’t have much of an idea of where we were going. We found an information desk and the guy wrote the name of an area on a piece of paper for us, which we gave to a taxi driver. We made it to this area, found a hostel, and slept for the rest of the day.
When we finally woke up, we wandered the streets, and we decided this was a cute place, and we wanted to give it more of a chance. It was now Thursday night, and our original plan had been to leave Friday morning for Yogyakarta (for some reason pronounced Jogjakarta), a bigger city an hour away, but now we decided we would do an early morning bike tour before making our way to Yogya. This was a wise decision, because the bike tour was really great.
Bloom and I, with a guide, set out early in the morning and biked around the city, and into the outskirts to see all sorts of artisans at work.
We watched a guy painting traditional leather puppets, people making shrimp crackers, which was crazy, because it wasn’t a factory, but people making thousands of crackers more or less by hand, tofu-making, traditional gamelan (like a gong)making, batik making, and other such fun things. At one point we ended up in a family home, where I was asked to please hold their newborn baby. Our guide told me that in their culture it is very important that people have babies, and holding this newborn would “pull the baby” out of me. I guess the idea is that there’s a baby inside me just trying to get out, and it needs help from babies on the outside. He turned to Bloom and said seriously, “do not worry, there is no science to prove this yet.” OK. Phew. I held the baby, who was only 3 days old (!) and the parents were very pleased and took many pictures. I thought of my friend Becky’s baby who was having his bris on this same day, and was sad to miss it, but found it funny that I was meeting this other Indonesian newborn on that day.
While at the tofu making hut, a torrential downpour began. We decided to wait it out, while we ate fresh fried tofu and soy milk from plastic bags. Shockingly delicious! I have been craving soy milk ever since. Our guide asked us why we had to take the early train, couldn’t we just wait and take the later train? We explained that it was our Sabbath, etc. He was interested in this, and asked us many questions about what we can and can’t do on the Sabbath, and then after a few minutes asked/said excitedly “You are Jews?” Bloom and I looked at each other. Should we admit it? He seemed safe, so we said “Yeah, we’re Jews.” He was really excited to hear this and asked us why we didn’t tell him this earlier, because he had many questions to ask about Jewish things and about the Talmud and the forefathers, and Jewish traditions. We spent the next 30 minutes or so, waiting out the rain, and answering his questions about Jewish law and tradition while he compared it to different Islamic traditions. We talked about Yom Kippur and Ramadan, praying 3 times and praying 5 times, torah reading and Koran reading, the Talmud and hadif, etc. When we told him about different kashrut laws and what we ate and didn’t eat while travelling, he was very impressed and said “you are very serious!” He decided he would take the train with us to Yogyakarta and help us find a hostel, and promised us it would all be done before Shabbos started.
Since everything was going so well with him, I stupidly decided to ask him why he thought Israelis were not allowed in Indonesia. “Thailand makes tons of money off Israeli travelers,” Bloom explained, “Indonesia would make a lot of money if they let Israelis in.” He looked at us seriously and said “Indonesia does not allow colonizers in the country.” We tried to explain that surely Israel is not the only colonizing country out there. In fact Indonesia can be seen as a colonizing country. “Indonesia allows people to live freely,” he explained. “What about China?” I said, “You know, Tibet?” “China is very good,” He said, and looked confused when I mentioned Tibet. I tried to explain to him that I agree that Israel has done some bad things, but in the country everyone can say what they want, there is a free press, etc. We also explained that many countries do unfavorable things, but they singled out Israel as the colonizers. He refused to budge on this one, but said “you are very open Jewish people,” and seemed to like us, even after the Israel conversation.
Overall, it was a great day and we had a nice time seeing artisans at work, and of course discussing religious philosophy with our guide. When we got to Yogyakarta we had an hour to find a hostel and arrange shabbos meals. We gave the guide a list of vegetarian restaurants, and he found us a hostel near a few of them, and it even had a pool. Sadly, it rained for hours every day we were in Java. On Sunday we went to Borobudur, a giant Temple, which was amazing, but again, there was a downpour and this time we had nowhere to hide. We were also, again, bombarded by teenage Indonesian tourists who took many pictures with us.
We almost went to check out Mt. Merapi, but people were saying that it was probably going to erupt soon, so we deiced we would skip it. It did indeed erupt, and I think it is still erupting, and has caused many deaths and lots of damage. It started erupting the day we left Java, so I guess we had good timing. We left Yogyakarta on Sunday night, taking a very loud overnight train to the big, not so quaint city, Surabaya. The sole reason for our visit to Surabaya was that it is one of two cities in all of Indonesia where one can acquire a Chinese visa. Since we only decided to go to China once we were in Indonesia, and since we wanted to get to China as early as possible in order to avoid freezing temperatures, we had to go to Surabaya. We checked into a hostel at 7 am, went to get our visas, went to a mall in search of food, where we found Red Mango frozen yogurt, which was by far the highlight of the day. Who knew it was in Indonesia?? And who knew it was in this random mall?? I was starving and sweating through every article of clothing, so Red Mango was a fantastic find.
We left Surabaya at midnight to see the sunrise at a volcano in Eastern Java called Mt. Bromo. We arrived at 3 am, and it was freezing, which I stupidly, was not prepared for in my sandals. We also had not really thought about the fact that we now had two bed-less, transit nights in a row. When the driver kicked us out of the jeep at 3 am, I was ready to just skip the sunrise and sleep in the jeep. The sunrise was nice, but it was packed with tourists and Bloom witnessed two Europeans get in an actual fight over God knows what.
After our time at the volcano we went to the bus station and hitched a ride to Bali with some French people. We had no idea where we were going in Bali, so we told the driver we would go wherever he was going, and that is how we got to Seminyak, a fancy beach resort town. More on that next time!