I hate goodbyes, especially this one, and I never wanted to write this post because I never wanted to leave, but the time has come and I can’t pretend it hasn’t any longer. The move will be to Houston, TX, in early November. My email box is filling with neighborhood selection information, introductions to relocation agents, and guidance on getting Stella to the US. I've got my workhat on, but my heart's not in it. It's sad, a little exciting, but more than anything else, to be honest, I'm absolutely terrified.
These three years have been the most amazing years of my life and while I can’t fill my CV with most of it, I have actually evolved more here as a human being than I ever possibly would if I’d have stayed at home. I volunteered for causes I actually saw benefit from my contributions. I developed professional skills and learned how to get things done in a country that ranks in the world's bottom third when it comes to ease of doing business. I developed and maintained a website, something that challenged me technically and creatively. I embraced different cultures and religions. I gained a deeper understanding about relationships, love, and friendship, and my perspectives on many subjects have changed as a result. Though I didn’t find out the whole meaning of life, I certainly did learn that it’s not about the checklists we make in our brains, other people’s expectations, reciprocal relationships, or possessions. Now I understand why some people dedicate their entire lives to the search for enlightenment.
Expat life, if you ever get the opportunity, is a wild ride that I suggest you say “yes” to. I’ve never regretted a moment of it, bad or good, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It changes who you are, and it makes you dive into yourself. It’s ecstasy, tragedy, despair, wonder, hope, disappointment, discovery, and curiosity all rolled into one. It pushes your relationships, all of them. It forces you to get out into the world and explore. It enriches your skills in adaptation, problem-solving, communication, tolerance, and patience. At the end of it, if you are lucky, you come out with your sanity intact, a shipping container of treasures, and an external hard drive full of memories because your computer didn’t have enough space to store them on its own.
Along with my sanity (most of it, anyway) and treasures and memories, I’m leaving in a few short weeks with a resolve as well that this move will be a “see you later” and not a “goodbye”. I know this place is where I’m happiest and that some way, somehow, some day, I will find my way back to India. For now however, it's time to press “PAUSE”. I'm excited to get back to work, to take on new challenges, explore a new place, and maybe even to find something that will allow me to bridge both worlds.
I will continue the website of course and there will be plenty of things to write about: readjustment, the relocation process, re-entering the job market, and life in the US. I know that all the "re-"s will be tough, and if I can help anyone else through the experience by sharing mine, then that will be enough motivation for me.
I hope you'll come along with me for the new adventure!
I’ve had a lot of good times in Goa, trust me, but from a road-trip perspective if I had been to Murud or Kashid earlier during my stint in Pune I would have never pained myself with the long drive just for a few days of relaxation. Don’t get me wrong, Goa is great from a social point of view: awesome restaurants, boutique shopping, lounge chairs on the beach with food and drink service, 5-star hotels…but for just a few days of chilling with the fam or some friends, Air BnB-ing a bungalow in the Kashid/Murud area and cooking at home all weekend would have been a much better option in my opinion.
What this area doesn’t have is fussiness. You can really just get back to basics and have a relaxing time. If you’re looking for high quality cuisine and bumping nightlife around fellow cosmopolitan-ites, you won’t find that, unless its in your own rented accommodation J think beach shacks, local roadside eateries, and unpopulated beaches instead.
Here’s why I loved it, and what would make me return:
1. Proximity to Pune.
You can drive there in 4-6 hours. Yeah yeah yeah, Google Maps says 3.5, but give or take a break for the bathroom/snacks/chai, a random waterfall picture stop (or two or three), random traffic, or unexpected bad road conditions, you and I both know Google Maps is a rough guess (just like the one that says it’ll take you 8 hours to Goa, haha).
2. Kashid Beach
This is a lovely way to spend a day or at least a few hours. The beach has light colored sand, and is relatively clean. The water is refreshing and the waves aren’t too high. There are horses that you can ride and get pictures with for Rs. 100/- and also horse-drawn carts if you fancy a trip up and down the beach. There is ample parking, changing rooms, a public toilet (bring your own toilet paper and please spare 5 or 10 rupees for the family that tends to it), plenty of beach shacks serving snacks, drinks, and coconut water. They even had eggs when we showed up at 9am!
3. That GORGEOUS Drive.
Here's the route we took on the way back. It was a suggestion from a shopkeeper in Kashid. It wasn’t exactly direct, but it was far more enjoyable and actually ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. It also beat the way we arrived, through two hours of potholes from Kolad. The roads back were in excellent shape (except for the awful beginning of Tamhini Ghat Road) and passed through some beautiful scenery; waterfalls, cliffs, grasslands, jungle. It also had lots of fun, winding switchbacks. I suggest going during monsoon or shortly thereafter to get the full benefit of the greenery.
4. Janjira Fort
This fort is insane. Beautifully constructed on its own island, it is the only one of its kind. You take a little sailboat to reach the fort (warning, there is no boat motor and no life jackets!) and there are guides for hire, though if you read up about it before you go, you won’t need one. You can basically walk all over the fort on your own, it’s a lot of fun to explore. This is a good way to sink a half day and you can have lunch afterward at the Sea Rock Restaurant near the ferry departure point, or take my recommendation below, get some crazy good chicken biryani down the street and find a nice spot to sit and enjoy it.
5. The Biryani in Murud
Bear with me, these directions are a little vague. If you go to Janjira Fort, you’ll walk up a little road that takes you to the ferry and the ticket counter (on the right). Before that, on the same road, is a guy on the left who sells biryani in a huge steel pot. Bring your own fork if you don’t want to eat it with your hands. It is super super tasty; please do not be scared because it isn’t a proper-looking restaurant. This guy has serious biryani skills.
6. Cute Bungalows!
I did not have the foresight to go on Air BnB. This was a last minute trip so I just left town on a moment’s notice…a trend in my travel-planning, or lack thereof. I stayed in a Rs. 1000/- per night hotel, which shall remain nameless, that had a fantastic view of the sea and just about nothing else. Anyway when I got home and went online to do a bit more research, I checked out Air BnB and found a bunch of really adorable bungalows and rooms for rent. So if you go, do that! I know I would if I had the chance again.
I arrived in Shimla with a loose plan to stay there a few days then continue to Gujarat where I would take a bus with a friend to Dwarka for the Dwarkadhish temple site. It was the final stop for me before heading home. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it so I ended up with some free days. I was bummed to have to miss the temples and her company (she’s one of those effortlessly fabulous people) but everything happens for a reason and if I had gone there, then I would have missed a great adventure.
Enter Mohiddin, a guide from Hotel Dreamland in Shimla. During my walking tour of the town I told him how disappointed I was with the diesel fumes (yuck.) and congestion, so he suggested a trip out east to Kinnaur, more specifically the Sangla and Kalpa Valleys. I had never heard of those places, had no idea where they were on a map, had never traveled so remotely alone before, and didn’t know the strangers who would be taking me 10 hours away by car into the mountains so naturally I said, “sure, sounds great!” I mean, what could go wrong? Haha.
The following day I piled into a car with Mohiddin and two men I had never met before: a Kashmiri guy named Arif (my guide) and a local named Vijay (the driver). Mohiddin came to say hi and introduce the two but then left about five minutes after that to go back to the hotel so it was just me, Arif, and Vijay.
We took the NH5 pretty much the entire way. I know that sounds pretty straightforward, but if you look at it on Google Maps, it basically looks like a 4-year-old high on sugar scribbled it. There were no real straightaways for the next five days, though after a while the novelty of the turns wore off and the back-and-forth rocking of the car became normal.
About two hours in, I had a landmark event. I had to pee and the only place to stop had an elevated squat toilet with no toilet paper which was fixed, seemingly as an afterthought, on the side of a building. The whole thing looked as if it could detach from the structure at any moment. I did what I needed to but then I made a mental note to put in this blog that if I have one recommendation for this trip, it’s to take toilet paper with you. I would have liked to take a picture of all the potty spots I chose, because there were some amazing views. Sides of mountains, crevices between rocks, really breathtaking…but toilet paper would have been great because a bottle of cold water and a wet ass is no comfy way to end a bathroom break.
After visiting the newly finished Hatu Temple in Narkand, our first night’s stop was Sarahan, a quiet and walkable town that sits around ~7500ft elevation. It’s home to the ornately decorated Bhimakali Temple and the King’s and Queen’s Palace. Though entry to the buildings isn’t allowed, the grounds are accessible and there is a lovely manicured lawn from which you can admire the palace. I stayed at Green Valley Resort, a humble little place with nice staff, good food, and terrible coffee. The terrible coffee was a trend at every place I stayed so if you like it THAT much, bring your own.
The second and third days were spent in Rakchham, a self-proclaimed “Modern Village” in the Sangla Valley. We took several walks through the local buckwheat fields and visited Chhitkul, the last inhabited town along the Hindustan-Tibet trade route (according to Wikipedia). There is a marriage of modern development and traditional folkways there, though I can see the toll of tourism beginning: tetrapak juice boxes, cello wrappers, and other trash littered the sides of the road and the walking paths, painfully unfitting against such a majestic backdrop of the mountains and village.
While walking around to admire the architecture, I saw the women in the village preparing offerings for a full moon festival in the common square and they invited me to sit with them. I took a seat on a bench and after a while of watching, one of them gave me a hot cup of tea. We couldn’t talk to one another but through facial expressions and laughter we had some warm and humorous exchanges. Later that evening when the moon came out, it was the biggest, brightest one I’d ever seen and I thought of them.
My last day before driving back to Shimla was spent in Kalpa. To get here, one needs to pass through unpaved roads in a barren valley cut in the middle by the river. It’s dusty, seems to last forever, and is filled with workers on either side cutting rock by hand. It appears as if maintaining and repairing the road from landslides and deterioration is a full time job. There’s also no place to stop for the restroom or food for about an hour and a half and I ended up having to pee in a crack between a giant rock and the cliff face. I could see the workers cutting stone while I was squatting down, but I had to go so badly I really didn't care and honestly, I'm sure they've all been there before, haha.
We made it to Kalpa after about three hours of winding roads, mostly unpaved, and probably thirty steep switchbacks for the entire last twenty minutes. I was thinking of that quote "dangerous roads often lead to beautiful destinations" but actually I wasn’t impressed when we got there; I think it may have had something to do with how beautiful Rakchham had been. It had a wonderful view of the mountains though and some pretty tourist attractions. After settling into Hotel Rollingrang (I think it was about Rs. 700 per night), another cozy and adequate but unfancy guesthouse, we took a walk down a steep set of stairs to a hilly part of the town that had beautiful Hindu and Buddhist Temples, old wooden houses, and a few lovely, fluffy, friendly neighborhood dogs. The apples on the trees hadn't yet been picked, which provided a great foreground for some beautiful photos of Kinnaur Kailash, the snow-capped peak in the distance...over 19000 feet in elevation!
Afterward, we took a drive to Roghi Village, accessible from Kalpa through a 20-minute drive on a narrow road rife with potholes and no safety barriers in places. We stopped to take a look at Suicide Point from the opposite cliff halfway there and arrived at the village in just the right sunlight to take some pretty pictures. Arif showed me around the terrace farms, explained the the apple harvesting, and took some clicks of the mountain view, then we turned back and headed to the hotel for the evening...I was exhausted from 20 days of continuous travel and in desperate need of dinner. I slurped down a very oily but delicious butter chicken and crashed early. The bed had a thick blanket and the air was crisp, so I slept like a baby. In the morning, I woke up to an AMAZING view, the perfect memory before my 9 hour drive back to Shimla.