Four years ago in a land far far away, I started waking up from a deep hypnosis of technology, societal conditioning, privilege and self-doubt. Today I’m celebrating this transformation by dusting off and proudly publishing my account of the initial spark. If you really knew me, you know my regret about this piece is not being as vulnerable about the real stuff: journeys of self-discovery in relationships and identity, consciousness and spirituality. My intention is to practice writing the raw story–the one only I know–in future reflections (chapter two is in the works!).
As edited on November 7, 2014
To live is to find out for yourself what is true.
I don’t recall where or when I read those words, but I’ve decided they are the essence of this past chapter. Since returning to the West I feel I’ve been unable to effectively communicate what I did in Asia and express its meaning, even to those closest to me. As a fellow traveler once suggested, it is often not until after a trip that you can determine the important moments and learnings. I’d like to share with you one story that I believe best represents how I spent my days in the 10 months between October 2013 and August 2014.
In short, I decided to follow one of my dreams. It was impossible to predict how this would all unfold; I just knew I had to start somewhere. So on the 7th of October, after impatient fantasizing for as long as I could remember, I boarded a one-way flight to Amritsar, India.
This was not a “gap year.” I was not trying to escape anything. To travel open-endedly had been a dream of mine since childhood, and to wake up one day aware of this achievement was blissful. To be sure, the mission was not to follow the backpacker trails around creation: sipping coconuts and galavanting around exotic islands with my new foreign buddies, collecting Insta shots. My intense desire to see and understand the world led to a year-long work, study, and travel adventure. All three. I yearned to decipher global cities, deepen my historical and cultural fluency, push personal boundaries and figure out for myself what is true in 2014. Trusting that gut and intuition, with the generosity and hospitality of friends and strangers around the world, made these aspirations possible and contributed to personal and professional growth beyond extraordinary heights. By balancing productive experiences and habits with a healthy respect for serendipity and vagabonding, I’ve been able to create the journey I always wanted and then some.
I’d be remiss if I did not express unconditional gratitude to those hundreds of individuals who have been so supportive, inspiring, and hospitable along the way. I wish I could do for you half of what you have done for me, and that my appreciation emanates from the stories and learnings I’m proudly ready to share. This is me and this is one of way of doing it.
India was not the place I had in mind when I initially decided I wanted to explore Asia. In hindsight, I believe it was meant to be. Western visitors love to share tales of their first moments face to face with Hindustan upon leaving the airport: utter chaos is an understatement when the journey from point A to point B is a zero-stakes game of survival for each stretch of asphalt between horn-blaring trucks, directionally challenged mopeds and autorickshaws, relentless beggars, stray cows, dogs and pigs among a cloud of dust and the energy of 1.25 billion humans. It’s a magical place that welcomes you with a promise of existential adventures and infinite possibilities. An upset stomach as well.
I didn’t come to India to get in touch with my spiritual side, but I suppose these things have a way of sneaking themselves into one’s plans on an open-ended trip to the subcontinent. The first month in Jalandhar, Punjab I lived with my college friend, Pratham, in a multi-generational home while assisting with the management of his software development business. October was packed with holidays that provided a dazzling introduction to all things India from Punjabi cuisine to traditional dating rituals. I’d spend evenings chatting business and politics with the cousins and uncles, watching cricket and Indian epics on TV with the parents, and playing all sorts of outdoor and board games with the little nephews. Night after night I felt like an adult and a kid again. After a few weeks of living and working in Jalandhar, I was antsy to get out of town for a bit and do some touring on my own. To date I had not done much solo travel, save for a half day here or there in transit. There was one memorable afternoon spent in Santander, Spain following a perfect weekend in Basque country with friends, who caught an earlier flight home. I recall feeling a powerful sense of independence that resulted in valuable introspection and exciting encounters as I wandered around the city, stripped of my ordinary surroundings and forced into direct experience. Not to mention the flexibility. This feeling was noted.
Against the concerns of my host family and having decided against a mobile data plan, I set off alone with a small backpack and Google Maps screenshot of potential routes through the state of Rajasthan, the vast desert state between Mumbai and Delhi. I knew I was in for a little adventure when I found myself struggling to book any type of transportation online, and wound up reserving a one-way flight to Jodhpur not out of desire but because only that airline’s website would accept an international card! It was then clearly an adventure when the 11am flight was delayed till noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm and cancelled, leaving an angry mob of Air India customers cursing up a storm as I slipped away and talked my way onto a flight to Udaipur, a city I had recognized on my haphazardly created map. I would put a lot of blind faith in serendipity over the next year; it seldom steered me wrong, though the price of flexibility would manifest itself in an outrageous number of last-minute, one-way, international flights.
None of these changes bothered me much because I had the good fortune of picking up a hell of a riveting book at the airport. In fact there would be several airport book stores that would change my life in some form or another that year, highlights of a reignited phase of literary consumption while abroad. I strived to understand the historical and cultural narrative of each country I was living in or visiting, through crowdsourced consumption of recommended books in addition to documentaries, news outlets and other media. I had been scanning the shelves for something India-related when I came across The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami. India, check. Adventure, check. The autobiography follows the life of Richard Slavin, a Jewish teen from Chicago whose search for meaning and fulfillment in the 1960s inspired a journey East, where he spent years along the pilgrims’ paths of South Asia, soul-searching through apprenticeships with yogis and self-examination.
I tore through his autobiography and discovered a number of ways in which I identified with the author. Richard Slavin would join the list of figures who inspired me in one way or another to embark on my own journey: Steve Jobs, Wharton Professor and author Richard Shell, a best friend’s father, Ram Das–these role models all made the leap East in their early careers to satisfy a curiosity and thirst for truth, tremendously influencing their futures. Perhaps it was a coincidence? Or maybe there was something special here. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I recognized the value of their awareness and diversity in experience. I wanted to write my own version of the story. Investing in myself by creating an adventure that nourished me from every angle has been one of the better decisions I’ve made.
Richard’s story was also compelling because we were both experiencing India for the first time, struggling to navigate the country both physically and socially. I arrived in Udaipur, “The Venice of the East,” in the evening with no plan or people to sync up with. I roamed its narrow cobblestone streets lined with artisan shops, stopping here to pick up post cards, there to buy a green leather-bound notebook. Said notebook, along with my passport, are now two of my most prized possessions. A young man approached me in the town square to ask what I was up to. My guard was up pretty high, given that it was late and I was alone and out of place, but he was a nice guy so I agreed to follow him down a back alley to check out his art school. Damn glad I did; after all, travel is all about opening the mind and challenging the soul. Only then will you discover that it’s ostensibly the circumstances that make an adventure, not a place or action. After describing Udaipur and introducing me to classmates, he’d later help negotiate a $4 private hostel room where I could at last lay down and reflect on the funky day. It felt natural to open my new elephant-embossed notebook and jot down a few thoughts. I was never big on journaling but a couple of buddies had urged me to keep a diary of sorts to record my travels, advice which I followed judiciously on Microsoft Word but with decreasing frequency over time. I had left my electronic notebook in Jalandhar so the real thing was to be my rightful companion.
That night I could not sleep. It wasn’t the stained sheets or howling packs of dogs outside the low window that wouldn’t lock. Geographically further than ever from a single person I knew, in the absence of WiFi, in a city I had not heard of that morning.. I felt free. I wrote, I read. I looked up at the ceiling for hours pondering my choices over the last few years. Who I had become and why. What I was doing now and the meaning I was constructing from it. It was Friday night and I was alone to enjoy my company, traveling further inward. I cried. This was my first encounter with solitude–it was euphoric. For the next blur of a few days I was high as the Himalayas on this. I wanted to (and I have) shout out to everybody I know and love that they need to try this thing! I wandered around India for a week reading, writing, thinking, learning, living. It was the time of my life. I mulled over the decisions I had made throughout college–the people I associated with and our relationships. The cultural differences I had learned of since arriving. The habits I had picked up and the ones I wanted to change. The reality that I found myself in. The dreams I wanted to pursue. I opened up to myself and simultaneously loved and hated what I discovered.
Perhaps I came down a little too hard on myself at times, but I believe it is important to recognize faults and shortcomings in order to address and change them. For example, since high school I had adopted a rather active social life, to the point that it had become part of my identity. I loved entertaining, enjoying times with friends old and new, with the accompanying libations. In the back of my mind I often felt guilty or troubled by how quick and passive I was to go out and party, always borrowing happiness from the next day spent exhausted and not quite myself, spreading myself thinner by the day. It was neither healthy for my body nor my mind, only less harmless to the wallet thanks to fortuitous associations over the years. So it took living in an environment where alcohol was unavailable–my host family did not drink–for me to realize I did not need it and felt rather awesome without it. The fast life just seemed to be the root of so much bad and so much good, it was up to me to navigate the right balance for me. I had felt a similar uneasiness about my diet and level of fitness, how I treated partners in romantic relationships, and in general how I spent my brain’s bandwidth on a daily basis. I recognized but failed to reverse these habits as a young professional in a big flashy city; the cure was a simple transition into a health and wellness-oriented environment and a day to day in which I felt no impatience or pressure to do x y and z. As I identified and dug into each complex shortcoming, I discovered how interconnected they were and that there was no direct prescription for each but rather a fundamental shift in personal philosophy that over time would render me a more compassionate friend and family member, focused employee, active listener and honest individual, well- adjusted and present being. Asked by a friend to describe any transformational experiences in India, I replied in an email:
“If I had to sum it up: I wasn’t explicitly looking for any big lifestyle changes when I decided to make the jump to India, but I think in the back of my mind there was a yearning to make some course corrections. Last year in NY was a blast but such an extension of college life, distracted by misguided priorities. In hindsight it was a low point in many ways. Out here I’ve been able to clear my mind, renew my intellectual curiosity and creativity, and incorporate better lifestyle choices, which has translated into a more consistent sense of excitement and fulfillment as I’ve started doing so much more of what I want to and think I should be doing. Basically I believe I’ve calmed down and become a better, more conscious and compassionate person through this distance and reflection period and of course all the unique experiences along the way.”
I always loved travel but these revelations took things to a whole new level, realizing that it helped me recover and discover parts of myself, while leaving behind others. On the other hand, I felt so grateful for the support of my friends and family, appreciative of their presence and impact on my growth. Beautiful relationships that had taught me about the kind of person I am and endeavor to be. With a clear and nostalgic-facing mindset, I kept digging up little memories that had been hidden away for years, snippets of all those wonderful moments from child and adolescence, from the silly to the profound. I also felt extremely proud of myself for pursuing this dream, one in which I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what the next few months would look like, let alone the next day, but was ready and willing to embrace what came my way and enjoy the ride guided by my passions and wonderment for the world. I believed in the importance of understanding how the world works on an economic, geopolitical and cultural level; how people of different backgrounds perceive reality and how awesome humankind is. Each curiosity had led and would lead to experiences beyond what I could have imagined. I had faith in the dots, trusting they would connect in the future.
So here I am bopping around from town to city, screenshot map and Instapaper’d Wikitravel articles in tow. I ate the best meal of all time for $5 and alone, slept on top of the luggage rack of a second class train car, shared chai tea with a royal astrologer turned travel agent, stumbled upon the world’s most famous camel festival. Happiness inhabited my every molecule. And then some weird things happened, things I couldn’t have planned for. A string of incidents suspiciously similar to those experienced by the author in his autobiography, most notably when it came to being in danger. Now to this day I tell people that the only time I felt threatened while abroad was by animals. Not a single time did somebody attempt to rob, hurt or wrong me in any manner (except whoever who stole my bicycle in Phnom Penh, although that saved me the hassle of a trip to sell it in the bike market upon departure).
The first occurred while I was wandering around the ramparts of Chittorgarh Fort, the largest in India. This was a place I had seen photos of on StumbleUpon years prior–a symbol of the ancient and exotic in my mind. I didn’t even know it was in India until I was reading up on Rajasthan a few days before the trip! I figured I would try to check it out if it were convenient to visit. It wasn’t, but fate in the form of limited rail options led me there anyway. Despite my confidence the trip had stimulated, nothing had prepared me for arriving at small town train station in India after dark, without a hotel or taxi or any idea where I was besides the name of the station. All I knew to do was put my hood up, hold my backpack, duck my head and walk straight past the touts, beggars, and traffic, pretending I had a determined destination until I could look up and guess which direction looked less sketchy and may offer shelter. It would be like this the next three nights.
I’m walking along the fort’s walls the next day when a child approaches me to ask where I am from. I entertained a little small talk, attempting to hint that I’d prefer to be alone without being overly rude. The boy follows me along the ramparts anyways, answering my questions about the fort with great enthusiasm. All of the sudden, we notice a pack of monkeys about 20 yards ahead. The monkeys notice us too and start creeping our way. I had seen pairs of monkeys camped out around touristy sites throughout India, sneaky little devils who liked to steal water bottles and food right out of your hands. But never a pack of 10+ moving towards me with menacing facial and body expressions. Before I had a chance to react, the boy conveniently spotted and picked up a long stick on the ground, told me to stay back and inched closer to the monkeys with the poise of a boxer seizing up his opponent. The pack stopped its advance and retreated into the high grass, clearing a path for us to continue on our walk.
This was strange. There was hardly enough time for my heart beat to spike before it was all over and I felt a strong sense of gratitude for the chain of events that provided protection in such a random, threatening situation. It reminded me of something I had read in the autobiography just the evening before, in which the author witnessed a group of monkeys almost attack a European man, only to retreat when a little Nepalese boy appeared to deter them. The author concluded the monkeys had sensed fear in the man, but feared the boy because he had no fear in them. There were several other close encounters in Richard’s story with dangerous animals and people–par for the course of an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness.
The second funky event happened later that day at Chittorgarh fort. I had been wandering solo most of the afternoon in near oppressive heat, with my backpack of possessions for the week, trying to find the part of the fort I had seen in photos on StumbleUpon. I was lost, hungry, exhausted. While stopping to sit and finish off the last drops of my water bottle, another little kid approached me. I thought to myself ugh, here we go again. This boy was younger, maybe just 5 or 6, spoke minimal English and the little clothing he wore looked awfully filthy. It would have taken more emotional and physical energy to evade him than to have him tag along. We had been walking together along a path for a few minutes when I started to hear the faint sound of music off in the distance. As we walked closer it appeared to emanate from a small shack and sounded quite pretty. My mind floated and heart stopped moments later once I made out the words in the music. It was the exact same chant that the author had described hearing while walking along the Ganges River, a mantra whose words and meaning were a mystery at the time but entrancing and dreamlike nonetheless. Recognizing the chant sent chills through my body. The shack-looking building must have been a small temple. I thought to myself I must go inside. Although we had struggled to exchange even a handful of words, I turned to the boy, pointed at the building and music and asked “What is over there?” He looked up, gazed into my eyes and replied with one word: “God.”
Shivers rushed through my limbs. This is my life now? Just being here today had been a sharp deviation from my normal existence to say the least, now it was beginning to seem like perhaps these two kids didn’t just happen upon me by coincidence. The parallels to the book I was reading were too eerie, I didn’t know what to think! This was crazy. I had to laugh, as my only form of defense to this new onslaught of emotions. Back on planet Earth, I was walking closer to what I could now deduce was a temple, wondering if I should go inside. Across the road was group of five or so older men, laughing at the sight of a lost-looking foreigner strolling around with a raggedy looking kid. Though I felt on the verge of something extraordinary, I grew uncomfortable about entering under their stares, and to this day one of my bigger regrets of the last year is turning around.
A third strange event happened the next day in the town of Pushkar. I was walking up a hill to a temple said to offer a good view when I looked to my right and saw some dogs and hogs picking at a mound of garbage. This was an interesting enough scene to take out my iPhone and snap a photo. The animals must have heard the shutter sound because they looked up in unison and several started bolting my way. NOT what I had in mind this morning. I swung my backpack off one shoulder and grabbed my sweatshirt with the opposite hand while backpedaling and bracing for the snarling beasts to pounce. I could see their eyes bulging with rage when out of nowhere, two children ran out from a building behind me yelling at the animals, cutting them off and gesturing for me to go in a different direction while they served as a distraction. Again? Holy fucking shit. I was dumbfounded, partially due to the extreme close call but more so because it reminded me of the author and a story he told of a near-death experience with savage dogs, only to be saved in the nick of time by similar unexplainable circumstances. A quick “dhanyavad!” and I was on my way, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
Looking back on that week, it’s difficult to think of another time I’ve felt so energized and aware. I love traveling with friends but it would not have been the same. The solitude here was immensely powerful. I embraced it. If computers are like bicycles for the mind, as Steve Jobs described, then solo travel is like being on a rocket ship. And I’ve always wanted to get to space. This was just a random week in November, which otherwise might have been spent droning out at a desk had I not taken this leap of faith and put myself in the position to have these eye- opening experiences. Rolf Potts in Vagabonding — An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-term World Travel asserts “travel is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society that aim to make us forget.” For those few liberating days I was nobody else but myself, completely out of my element, elated. It was challenging and rewarding, draining and invigorating, uncomfortable and just exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. I had no intention of pursuing any of this when I made the decision to come to India. It just happened. The same went for going cold turkey, for changing my diet, getting back into reading, deleting social media profiles and dating apps.. I wasn’t running away from anything at home, but once I was away, everything became so clear and I was grateful for the choices that had led me here and resulting transformations.
The trip continued to deliver memorable times. I’ll never forget watching the sunset over Jaipur, befriending two German girls and their driver for 24 hours, surviving overnight buses and trains with a Slovakian couple, spending an afternoon at an Ashram, seeing the Taj Mahal. I finished the autobiography on the train back to Jalandhar and did a little research upon arriving home. The author winds up committing himself to the Hare Krishna movement, a spiritual society that had become quiet popular, albeit occasionally controversial, throughout the twentieth century. Many prominent individuals like George Harrison had become devotees of this monotheistic branch of Hinduism, based on expressing devotion to Krishna, a deity manifestation of Vishnu, by chanting the mantra which the author and I had both heard. I didn’t think much of it for the next month or two, until I visited Mumbai. Oh Bombay.. whenever asked what my favorite places visited were, I immediately think of my time in this loco city. I didn’t have many contacts in town so I decided to hop on CouchSurfing to find a host for a couple of nights. For those of you unfamiliar, CouchSurfing is a social network for people who like to travel and meet others. You can create a profile and then host travelers, stay with other members of the community, meet for coffee, anything.
I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you did. If you are a CouchSurfer, we are friends. It’s my favorite anything. If Wall Street placed more value on turning online connections into enriching, offline, human experiences, CS would be the Apple of our generation. But it wouldn’t want to be, it doesn’t need the recognition. I could go on. Anyways, I first used CouchSurfing while studying abroad in Milan. Rail tickets were less expensive if I headed up to Munich on Wednesday instead of Thursday for the Oktoberfest, but I would have no place to stay as every room in the city was booked and my friends would not arrive until Thursday. I’d heard about this CouchSurfing thing but never thought I’d try it out myself. I figured what the hell, nobody needs to know, best case scenario is I have a free place to stay. Well I made a profile and messaged a few people. A friendly Turkish student graciously offered to host. She met me at at U-Bahn station, we grabbed a couple of steins at Hofbrauhaus, sharing travel stories and talking about Germany. She gave me her dorm while she slept at her boyfriend’s, and in the morning I left. This was my first of many positive experiences. I’d go on to surf in Sofia, Valencia, Montreal, Delhi, Mendoza, Bali, Jakarta, Manila, Phnom Penh, Asheville and more. Pretty much every time I’ve hosted or surfed, I’ve connected on a deep level with a like-minded, awesome person. Sometimes the stay feels more fleeting and transactional but it has never been negative. I’ve kept in touch with so many of these friends, seen some years later, tried to start businesses with others. It’s part of my identity and I would encourage anybody to try it out for an authentic, heart-warming experience.
I must have messaged a dozen people in Mumbai to no luck when finally a guy named Vishal saw my public request and asked if I still needed a place. Vishal has hosted dozens of people–it’s his way of traveling and giving back. I had only planned on crashing with him for a couple of nights before either heading south to meet some friends in Goa or north to Gujarat. Unfortunately, I fall hard. This city was out of control, I can’t believe I almost completely overlooked it, as Mumbai was a whole different India. “London on acid.” I met Vishal down by his place in Colaba, got settled and took a stroll over to India Gate, the biggest tourist spot and home turf for hundreds of touts peddling everything legal and illegal under the sun. A couple of teenagers walked up to us and started pushing a book in my face. Vishal told them to go away, we weren’t interested in buying anything. But the title of the book, Bhagavad Gita, caught my eye. This was the 700-verse Hindu scripture, the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom. I had learned about this ancient masterpiece during my post-Rajasthan research and felt like I should check it out given my efforts to learn about all things India, from economics to religion. Especially for a bargain of only 100 rupees! Later that night back at Vishal’s, I opened the book and out popped a post card. It was a scene with Krishna, and there was an address written at the bottom. I thought to myself, Oh cool! I’ve visited so many temples but never a Krishna-related one, maybe I’ll go check this out tomorrow if it’s in the area. I entered the address in Google and guess what appeared in image search results on the top of the page? The author’s face. Woah! Now I pretty much had no choice but to check it out. This was exciting and peculiar. I then recalled that the final pages of his autobiography described his evolution into a spiritual leader of India, but I must have glossed over the part that mentioned he had founded a temple in Mumbai. After all, at the time I had no intention of even visiting that city.
The next day I took a taxi over to the temple (after failing to locate laughter yoga on Chowpatty beach). This temple was gorgeous. I could have eaten off the floors. Upstairs in the main room I found a seat and just took in the scene for a few minutes, reading a couple of brochures and people watching. An older Indian monk named Sankita took a seat next to me, handed me a necklace made of brilliant marigolds and started explaining the history of temple and it’s adjacent ashram. We spoke for about an hour, firing questions and answers back and forth as the conversation shifted to Krishna, important stories and their meanings. Sankita walked me downstairs for a divine and free lunch, where I was introduced to Karuna, a younger man from Montreal. Karuna and I walked along the grounds and had an even longer conversation about spirituality and our paths. We had much in common. I told him the whole story about reading the autobiography, the animals and the music, the post card. Karuna could hardly contain his excitement. His interpretation of the events in Rajashtan was that Krisha had protected me when I was in danger, and guided me when I was lost. To him, this wasn’t just coincidence. He insisted that I come back on Sunday for a special ceremony and to meet Richard–who now went by Radhanath Swami and is only occasionally in town. I accepted the invitation, though at the time I was not sure I’d be around that day, my very last in the country.
In the meantime, I was absorbed by Mumbai. I watched a Bollywood flick in an old fashioned theater, visited Leopold Cafe of Shantaram (must read) and 2008 attacks fame, ate Muslim food and a Chinese noodle dosa, cruised around the harbor, lost myself in neighborhood upon neighborhood, napped in parks, watched sunsets from the beach, toured museums, kicked it with Vishal’s friends. I decided against the trips to the north/south in favor of extending my stay with Vishal. Each day I left his spot with a couple of destinations in mind, but left most of the day up to chance and serendipity. Which meant hours of aimless wandering. Along the beach, through markets, colorful neighborhoods. When you don’t have a rigid itinerary, interesting things will happen just by walking around and being open to whatever comes your way. After one long afternoon of exploring I sat down in a park to stretch, write down some thoughts and watch a cricket match. A young man about my age walked over and politely asked if he could shine my shoes. My default reaction should have been be to shake my head and politely decline but for whatever reason his age felt nonthreatening and a friend had recently pointed out that my three-year-old boat shoes could use a little TLC. We haggled for a moment and agreed on a steep discount that I’d usually end up doubling with tip. His name was Sanjay. As he opened his shine kit we made the usual Indian small talk, where are you from and if you’re married, yada yada.
Sanjay’s command of English was fantastic and his personality unexpectedly amiable. His story was that of tens of millions of Indians who have migrated into cities in recent years as the country has experienced rapid urbanization. Young men especially will head to a city like Mumbai in search of work with only a handful of rupees in their pockets. They can’t afford a place to live, but they can’t get a job without an address, creating a harsh catch-22 in which climbing the socioeconomic ladder would seem impossible if not for their work ethic and ingenuity. So despite Sanjay’s requisite language skills, he hadn’t yet scraped together enough savings to even rent a bed in a Mumbai slum. But he’s out there every day trying to figure it out. We spoke for half an hour without pause before he needed to look for more business. I tried to put myself in his shoes and understand the hardships so I could offer practical advice but in reality I’d never come close to empathizing with his situation. There hasn’t been a single day when I was not guaranteed a satisfying meal and clean place to stay. I’d later go on to befriend dozens of young Indonesians and Cambodians just like Sanjay who have worked their way up or been raised with more education but still only live on a few dollars a day. It was a sobering experience to learn how much of an uphill battle one has when they start with next to nothing. While I wanted to keep in touch with Sanjay, there are still a billion people in this world who cannot afford mobile phones, let alone a physical address to receive mail. Mumbai, like New York and other centers, provides opportunities and if there’s a will, there is most certainly a way.
I had crowdsourced most of my sightseeing recommendations through Vishal, his friends and acquaintances of mine who had previously lived in Mumbai. There was, however, one obscure activity that I found in the bowels of Reddit, buried in the comment section of an India travel- related post. Kalavantin Durg was an old fort built into a uniquely steep mountain not too far from the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai. The comment linked to a blog post that linked to a jenky website with a telephone number of a guide who would arrange a trek of the mountain and overnight stay in the village at its base. I had made the call shortly after arriving in Mumbai just to learn more about the excursion but decided against it when I learned that I would be doing it solo. As much as I had grown infatuated with solitude, I felt it would be more fun and safe to be with a group + a guide versus alone with him or her. It also seemed overly complicated and time consuming to get to the village in the first place. A couple of days later I learned that a group of four guys had booked the trek for Saturday and would be traveling from Mumbai on Friday night. He passed along their contact info so I could sync up and join them.
I’m not sure I’d be here today had I made the journey over alone. I barely made it with this crew! First I had to take the commuter rail during Friday evening rush hour from the southern tip of Mumbai up into the suburbs to meet the group. You can’t imagine what that trip was like and I don’t want to get into it. We met up around 11pm at which point I learned that it would be a three-hour drive to reach village Thakurwadi, and then a four-hour hike up to village Prabalgad, where we would begin the real trek from. At night. If their chain-smoking and general metropolitan area pollution didn’t sicken me on the way to Thakurwadi, the red flags about hiking in the wilderness to a place whose mentions of it on the Internet I could count on one hand made my stomach a little queazy. On the bright side, the company was awesome. Each worked for multinational corporations like Microsoft, three of the four were married. This was an annual getaway trip they saved up for, opting for the outdoors and adventure in lieu of the more nightlife-oriented nooks of Goa to the South. As such, whiskey and cigarette breaks were in order every thirty minutes of the hike. It was a riot. The darkness, the stars, the laughter, the singing, the stray dogs dubbed Tom and Jerry we befriended en route. We shared notes on life and told stories of our different worlds. I’ll never forget the moment when we finally reached the village at the crack of dawn. Our jolly presence must have awoken a couple of the village’s dogs, whose frantic barking broke one rooster’s slumber, then another nearby, then more and more in the distance, and within seconds it seemed as if the entire valley below us had come to life. I smiled at the thought of bearing responsibility for waking up the nation that morning.
The actual trek was equally as fun, with technical rope climbing and rewarding views, though cut short due to my appointment on Sunday back at the temple. I descended in the mid afternoon and had to hustle towards the end of the trail in order to beat the sunset and make the one bus back. I found myself dancing down the trail and feeling so rejuvenated from the new experience, complemented by the rays of sunlight on my body against the crisp, refreshing mountain air. The next morning I cabbed it to the temple, where Karuna greeted me at the entrance and escorted me to a personal balcony seat. The service was beautiful, with the worshipers, mostly Indian, sitting shoulder to shoulder and fixated on Radhanath Swami’s ever word. His sermon related a Krishna story to practicing empathy and sharing love, painting such a pretty image that admittedly elicited tears of happiness. As soon as the service ended, Karuna took me downstairs towards Radhanath Swami’s office, where there was a line of dozens of people out the door. Since he is rarely in Mumbai, devotees clamor to get a chance to have a few private minutes with him and will wait hours to do so. You can imagine my surprise when the monks ushered me to the front of the line to be the first one with the honor of sitting down with the endearing Radhanath Swami. What was I to say! This was all too surreal. I sat down cross legged across from him with Karuna next to me. I introduced myself and told my story. His eyes were wide open with amazement the entire time as I did my best to describe everything that happened, tying in the parallels to his story, my own questions about life, and learnings from Karuna and Sankita. We discussed the meaning of it all in the context of my own spiritual journey, in addition to Hare Krishna in 2014 (Russell Brand, a devotee, was scheduled to meet with Radhanath Swami later that day) and its views on certain issues on my mind. We spoke about compassion, life and death, material passion, and the spiritual journey. He gave me some gifts on my way out and we said goodbye with the feeling that it would not be the last time we met.
One of the crazy things about travel is the amazing opportunities you wind up having to pass on in favor of another. Having sensed interest and good character, the monks invited me to spend time on their eco-village in Maharashtra and to join a pilgrimage to Myanpur in February. While it’s natural to be defensive when strangers are excited about your curiosity with their faith, I’d say it’s ignorant to flat-out dismiss the energy that inspires recognition of beauty in everything and unconditional love for everyone. I kept these invitations in mind but would not make any commitments, opting to continue going with the flow, trusting my gut and the dots to see where else they could take me. Ultimately, I would not explore this path further, but I would forever cherish the experience for opening my eyes to an Eastern religion and a different yet similar way of making sense of life for so many beings on this planet. I’d later spend time in Nepal and Cambodia learning first-hand about Buddhism, a philosophy that I don’t necessarily practice but whose values I appreciate.
So this is just one of many stories I’ve walked away with. If there is one thing I can underscore, it’s Rolf Potts’s view that “long-term travel is not the exclusive realm of rebels and mystics but is open to anyone willing the embrace the vivid textures of reality.” The world is your oyster, and this has never been more true than in 2014 when one can take advantage of low cost airfare, remote work opportunities, and a swath of social networks to figure it out. It’s not for everybody, it’s seldomly a picnic–my birthday comes to mind, working on a rainy Saturday in a small Indonesian town, homesick and lovesick, alone and regretful. But I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve felt the itch and are willing to take the risk. I’d later write this poem to a pen pal, inspired by one of her signature phrases about life, and motorcycle rides home from work in the context of the year spent abroad:
Body aches, exhausted yet ever awake,
A descending star heats the bare arms and hands; cool wind skims our rider’s face. Anxious to reach home for the familiar mosaic of comforts and norms
I pause for a moment, to take in the scene like I’ve reminded myself to do before.
Notice this sunlight, saturating golden hour’s matter to life, right here in plain sight.
That scent, the faint smoke of human activity, teeming with development.
These cc’s of mechanical intensity, purring louder through our driver’s alacrity.
Those internal voices wondering what happened to good sense, control, threshold acceptance.
And I’ve closed my eyes; I no longer fear the haunting roar of other vehicles passing by. Almost back but forever in this special place of mine, a free soul and clear mind.
Nor can I be bothered by the statistics, skeptics, the threats of uncertainty and regret, Deep breaths, I smile ear to ear because life is short, beautiful and imperfect.
I could have come home to the US after those two and a half months in India, with plenty of stories and learnings to close the book on this abroad odyssey. Except I had tasted it, embraced it, and wanted more. I was on top of and excited about what was going on in the world, picking up skills and gaining unique work experience, feeling higher self-esteem than ever. Expanding my mind and discovering truths for myself. What was wrong about continuing? After all, aren’t we told to “do it while you’re young” and taught “the path less traveled is the most rewarding?” Whatever the conventional wisdom of the day, I learned that this India engagement was no longer a final, apocalyptic chance to see the world. There were external pressures to call it quits and find a more formal job, fighting internal voices singing songs of untold possibilities. Part of the great millennial dilemma seems to be the troubles we have “finding our way.” We’ve branded the quarter life crisis. Systematic dynamics aside, it’s tough to choose what we want to do with our lives when there is an ever-increasing assortment of appealing paths to pursue, amplified by social media and FOMO and so we switch jobs often and we define hookup culture and have no loyalty to anybody or anything. I’m generalizing but I’ve felt the weight of this cultural fabric and tried to cut through my own bullshit so I could build the future I wanted. I’m dumb enough to think I can do anything–since I couldn’t find the answer in a structured form, I created it when the time was right, leveraging everything I knew. And that was the best decision I’ve ever made. It has given so much back to me and felt right to continue despite overwhelming uncertainty of what would come next.
I’ll never forget the two-hour sunrise motorcycle ride from a stranger up Java’s Mt. Bromo, being lost and terrified by wild dogs after dark around the Golden Buddha in Hong Kong, the majestic silence and barrenness of Kuta Lombok that left my jaw permanently dropped, the millions of Buddhist prayer flags waving in the wind of the hills around Pharping, divine Chinese food in Kathmandu with Manoj and his superhuman friend, carefree afternoons with Isadora and Arian in Sao Paulo, the wine tour by bike in Mendoza, the whirlwind tour of Doha on Qatar Airways’ dime, shadowing a road construction business for a week in Kolkata, getting drunk on knowledge each time I visited Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, post-Shabbat dinner walks with Natasha in Singapore, purple sunsets from Tanah Lot, pink sunsets in Kep, getting caught in the rain on the back of Anita’s bike deep in Bali, epic El Nido adventures with Gustaf and Oskar, sleeping on the beach and inside a restaurant, sea kayaking past the safe zone, good times great people on Jon’s rooftop in Chinatown, reading Shantaram around the foothills of the Himalayas, drinking iced mate with a dog and turtle by Juan Jose’s pool in Mendoza, spending a Wednesday morning on the edge of an active volcano with nobody else in sight, tasting Manila with Lange and Sean and Malaysia ETAs, delivering lectures on entrepreneurship at LPU and hanging in the dorms of India’s future leaders, eating on the floor of Amritsar’s Golden Temple, recklessly lighting fireworks in celebration of Diwali, the first time I made plans with a coworker speaking in Bahasa Indonesia, the little Nepalese chick that taught me about compassion, visiting Devash’s temple at the intersection of three rivers in Himachal, happy hour on a helibar with Hafiz in Kuala Lumpur, matcha and taro-flavored everything, spontaneous $40 paragliding in Kangra, spotting the rainbow fish from that childhood book while snorkeling in Gili Air, commuting by ojek mototaxis in Jakarta, three exit row seats on a Korean Airways A380, the whole beautiful CouchSurfing community in the Big Durian, cricket matches with VenturePact, dreadful overnight buses to Agra/Mendoza/Palawan/Bali/Yogyakarta, posing as a celebrity for hundreds of photos, egg custard buns in Hong Kong, Indian sweets for days, busted backpack and boat shoes, daily magi noodles and double fisting fruit juices, foggy evening jogs around campus, touring a sweets factory, attending a boarding school’s Founder’s Day, rolling around in the sand and fireworks in Busan, seeing bands of the Milky Way Galaxy, dancing on blue phytoplankton in Kep, ghost hunting in the forests of Bandung, banana flower salads, moonrise at The Vines retreat, hawker food, Japan towns, biking through the mud and rain on the other side of the Mekong, receiving a water blessing by Buddhist monks and releasing doves into the sky, throwing a launch event at the InterContinental with high ranking government officials and international business executives, burning the midnight oil with team Bima, running through the streets of Saigon high on life after three and a half Vietnamese iced coffees, eating tarantulas, red ants, frog legs, stingray, eating at a North Korean restaurant, learning what monsoon season means, eating mangosteens by the $1/kilo, following Jokowi vs. Prabowo, hot stone and doctor fish massages, conducting business via emojis, discovering the third-tier Indonesian city I was living in was 180.0 degrees away from Brooklyn longitudinally, graduating to extra passport pages, racing to setup a facemask business in my final 24 hours in South Asia, my first international business trip to Singapore, crushing my first couple of cricket at bats, cycling on the wrong side of the road in Phnom Penh more often than not, the entire population of Serang that made my day by extending a warm smile at every turn…
“If you believe in yourself fully, no activity is beyond your potential. The entire gamut of human experience is yours to enjoy, once you decide to venture into territory where you don’t have guarantees.” ~ Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” ~ Rumi
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.” ~ Steve Jobs