Surprise! My sneaky trip home

My eyes are bloodshot. I feel dried out. I’m confused about what day of the week it is. My handle on the time is not much better. I’m putting up with a ridiculously long line to get to the coffee I so desperately need.

It’s not what it sounds like: I am not hung over. 🙂 What I am is majorly jet lagged.

I got to my Bangkok hotel some time during the early hours of this day after another long-haul flight, my second in three weeks. If you’re guessing that these mystery flights have something to do with my lack of posts, you’re right. My hands have been too full to be able type – I’ve been home to Connecticut on a surprise trip for my father’s 60th birthday and between the party, catching up with friends, lots of time with family, getting really sick and, most and best of all, finally meeting my amazing nephew Martin, I haven’t been on the computer too much.

Birthday treat

I was home for nearly three weeks. Only my mom, sister and brother-in-law were in the know prior to big day. We were determined to keep things tightly under wraps, and it was so worth it. The expression on my father’s face when I surprised him at his birthday party (he can correct me if I’m wrong, but I interpreted it as total shock, big happiness and maybe a pinch of momentary terror when I burst upon the scene) was priceless – one I’ll never forget. Also the massive, heart-warming hug I got from my grandmother when she first discovered I was home.

Becoming an aunt

Meeting my nephew for the first time was intense too. For some reason I was incredibly nervous! Would I pass muster with this new (and rather critical! 😉 ) member of our family? What if we didn’t connect? Would I figure out how to be an aunty?

Some of these fears were stemming from difficulties I’ve been having during our travels with being present, staying emotionally connected, feeling disconnected from myself and others. All of this melted away effortlessly as I got to know Martin.

After the initial period of just being in awe of the little person my sister and James managed to make (incredible in and of itself), spending time discovering the elements of both of them and of other family members in his features and expressions (also fascinating) and getting familiar with his current routine and habits, I started to get to know him and promptly fell in love.

At 7 months of age it’s of course still too early to have any idea what sort of a person he is going to be, but I do already know that there is a wisdom and intelligence in his eyes that is undeniable. I know that he makes me laugh in a whole new way, and that managing to get him to laugh is one of the best feelings. I know that he is nothing like I could ever have anticipated when my sister told me she was expecting a baby – he is so much more and so much more interesting than all of my imaginings of what Alli and James’ child could be. I know that holding him and feeling his little heart beating within my arms makes my heart expand and fill up. I know that I love him completely, just the way he is, and always will.

Feeding the heart

My heart also got filled up with time and talks with some of my favorite people (from the States and Switzerland – lucky me!). I’ve written about my need for community. I think I do pretty well and actually really enjoy my own company (big caveat: when I’m not being too hard on myself, which has been known to happen from time to time 😉 ), but boy do I just love my friends and family and it was so totally nurturing, wonderful, comforting and satisfying to have time with them.

Zürich on my mind

Suffice to say, I am SO glad that I went home and had time with friends and family.

Leaving was tougher than ever. On top of the heart wrenching that goes along with saying goodbye to my family, I’m so used to doing the trip from New York back to my dear Zürich. Going to JFK without the comfort and excitement of going back “home” to Roman, to our cozy Zürich apartment brought up some mixed feelings and I found myself filled with longing for Europe, savoring every scrap of the Spanish, German, French and Russian conversations that my ears caught in the airport.

I have a feeling the Swiss “homesickness” was also exacerbated by the fact I am traveling alone. Roman didn’t join me in the States (we figured, correctly, that I might get a bit preoccupied with family and that it made more sense for me to come alone) and it’ll be a few days until we meet up in Laos, where he is right now. Having him by my side on the plane is always such a big comfort (regardless of where we’re coming from or going to – all this travel and still I always hate to leave a place (until I get to the next destination of course. 😉 ).

Now what?

All of this might make it sound like I’m losing steam on the travel front. I don’t want to be hasty in either direction thinking about our next steps. Right now I’m full of my experiences at home and I know I won’t miss my people any less as time passes. But I do still feel really excited about the other countries we want to see, and having some time for reflection back home has made me all the more appreciative for the absolutely incredible places and experiences we’ve had thus far on the trip and enthusiastic for more. Certainly there’s a lot of food for thought floating around in my head and heart, at any rate.

On the plus side, it’s easy coming back to Bangkok. It’s a city I really like and one I’m pretty familiar with by now. It’s fun to be here once more after having had a bit of time in Manhattan. After everything we’d seen in India and Myanmar, Bangkok felt like a world away from the rest of Asia. With Starbucks, McDonalds, 7-11s and Boots pharmacies on every other block and all sorts of other modern, urban conveniences, it seemed like a slice of the west in Thailand. Now coming from the States, I still find it urban, modern and international but I can better savor the things about it that are distinctly non-western; how it smells different from any western city to the fantastic humidity that hits me when I step outside the hotel to the barefoot street vendors camped out underneath the BTS stations to the occasional Leelawadee tree that stakes its claim between all the concrete. I am missing Western plumbing a bit though!

So the short-term plan is to book a flight and hotel for Laos for this weekend, enjoy a bit more of Bangkok and hopefully get over my jet lag and catch up on sleep and maybe this blog (for starters, there’s a ton to write about Thailand). As for the long-term plan, well, I suppose that’s on the to-do list too. 🙂

Observing the weather

I had a good talk with Roman today. Have I mentioned lately that I am so lucky to have such an amazing boyfriend? 🙂 We’ve been having a relatively quiet few days in Delhi. It’s not like during our last visit to Delhi, when I think I was going a bit stir crazy and I know for sure I was in a pretty bad mental (and hormonal) space. But I have been feeling a bit restless lately, and it’s proving a good opportunity to take stock of my mental state and remember the original motivation behind this trip.

My friend Ritu is away on business, her mom has got a cold and Roman is seriously embroiled in a major IT project, trying to resuscitate Ritu’s failing laptop. So things have been a bit on the quiet side, and we’ve been choosing to take it easy. We’ve been sorting out all the logistics for the next bit of the trip, spending hours pouring over Lonely Planet and surfing through the internet and eventually making bookings. We’ve done some leisurely bits of tourism, I’ve finally gotten around to mending that needed doing. We’ve watched a couple of movies, I’ve been enjoying Ritu’s small library (reading Jack Kornfield for the first time – a buddhist who is recommending impartial and compassionate observation of the self as a good starting place for increasing inner peace. One metaphor in the book is seeing the true self as the sky, and our emotions and reactions as weather patterns that come and go across that sky. Seems like a pretty smart guy. 🙂 ).  The guys at the local Cafe Coffee Day practically know us by name at this point. And of course my love affair with food has continued. So it’s not like we’ve been doing nothing.

But it’s enough of a relaxed pace to kick up some of my little neurosis. 🙂

There’s the immediate guilt at the thought that we are in India for goodness sake, we should be doing more, we should be doing everything! If I’m not sight-seeing, exploring away from the tourist spots, practicing yoga, taking cultural classes, volunteering with street kids, Tibetan refugees and conservation efforts, having insight-providing conversations, making new friends, trying new foods, deepening my relationship with Roman, keeping up with the folks back home, experiencing inner growth, writing postcards, relaxing fully and having  the time of my life, well then, I’m simply not doing enough! 😉

The saving grace is that while part of me really feels that way, another (saner) part of me can also see me feeling this way and making these demands of myself and just laugh. I have the perspective (and a wonderful boyfriend) to remind me that we are on vacation and there are no rules about what we should or should not be doing. To boot, we are just at the start of our extended holiday. We both worked extremely hard in the months and years leading up to this – some down time is not uncalled for. 🙂

Overcoming that though, there is still plenty of static going on in my brain.

When I left the US to come to Switzerland all those years ago, I had the opportunity to really live for myself. With no ties in Zürich in the beginning, I had no obligations towards anything aside from my job. Non-business hours were mine and mine alone. Back in the States, my love for and need to please the people in my life meant that I had overextended myself beyond my physical, energetic and emotional means. During the first few months in Zürich, I had the luxury of being able to do only what I really wanted to with my time. And with no distractions – no social engagements, no TV, no internet, no expectations – I had the space to find out how to listen to myself and discover what it was that I wanted, both in general and in the moment. I felt genuinely present in my life and in the moment for the majority of the time, and I loved it.

I was lucky enough to experience this at different points during my time in Zürich. But as I mentioned in my first post, towards the end I was feeling less and less ‘in my own life’ – less connected to myself and less present. For me, coming on this trip is, in part, about trying to be more present again.

So, I also have to laugh at myself, watching how my brain is fighting doing just that during these days of down time in Delhi.

Traveling and seeing new things, it’s easier to be present because I am simply taking in the new sights and experiences – my ego takes a back seat. But take away the entertainment of something new, and my brain steps in right away. I’ve been diving into books, podcasts, iPhone games (good when used for downtime, less good when used for escapism) as one means of avoiding the present.

I also find that I am daydreaming about what happens after the big trip is over. Which is somewhat ridiculous considering it’s only just started. I’m not too concerned about it as I’m not building up any expectations or spending any real energy on it – it’s just light-hearted daydreaming – but it’s still being anything but present in the here and now.

I’ve also been spending a lot (and I mean a lot) of energy on my favorite pass time – worrying about other people’s comfort and other people’s perception of me.

Are we over staying our welcome at my friends’ house? Am I getting on her mothers’ nerves? Are we being entertaining house guests? Are we polite enough? Are we being too polite? How should I act so that I can put the women working in the house at ease while not being too informal with them which might be awkward? Am I behaving too much like a tourist or too much like a tourist who is trying not to behave like a tourist when we are hanging out at the Cafe Coffee Day? What do the local people there think of us? What about the other tourists? Is it culturally awkward for me to be wearing a salwar kameez? Am I being culturally aware enough? Am I being poised enough? Am I pretty enough? Smart enough? Generous enough? Present enough???

And that is just the short list.

All of the nervous energy spent on those questions is very effective at keeping me from being present and just experiencing. Roman was talking about the difference between the need to control a situation when you feel like you are separate from it, feel like an outsider, versus the ability to just be present and experience a situation when you know that you are a part of it. Knowing that you are where you are meant to be in your life and that we are all part of the same thing, trusting that what is going on for the people around you is perfect as it is and their reaction is not your responsibility, trusting that you just have to be responsible for yourself and that where you are is just perfect too – a trust based on a degree of faith I suppose.

I understand these concepts on an intellectual level. When I was at the center of my life during those wonderful months in Switzerland, I was also living those concepts. But I guess I need some more practice to really ‘get it’ to the point that I can act from this knowing.

I am grateful that at this point in my life I have the ability to (mostly) see my thoughts and reactions for what they are. I am grateful I have the opportunity now to practice – to let go of fears and insecurities based on the beliefs that I am not good enough, that I am separate from the world and responsible for its reaction to me, rather than for my reaction to it. To see these how these thoughts and insecurities thrashing through my brain keep me from engaging in a genuine way with the present moment. And to try to disengage with those thoughts in my head and instead start genuinely engaging with the experiences and people right in front of me.

It’s great to have this time in Delhi (even with the slight discomforts I am creating for myself), to remember some of the original motivation for this trip. Here’s hoping I’ll get better at this whole being present thing as we get deeper into our journeys! And that I’ll have the compassion and perspective not to beat myself up about it when I don’t get it perfect all the time. 🙂

Me and Miss Swiss; reflections from Delhi

The breeze coming through the open window is cooler after the thunderstorm – the first we’ve experienced in Delhi. Although the daylight had been coming to an end anyhow, the darkness grew thicker and faster than normal and a breeze began to rise, stirring up the leaves on the trees and the dust in the street; from a distance the thunder began to grumble. I could hear and smell these things through the window’s screens in our cozy room. Now the wind and rain and hail have come and gone. The city’s dust and heat are tamped down for now and the darkness outside feels peaceful as I’m writing.

Tomorrow will mark my seventh week in India. Our little tour in Uttarakhand is feeling ages away. I’ve been basking in the comforts of Delhi. On this, my third visit, the city – or at least parts of it and certain aspects of it, are starting to feel more familiar. We are again tucked away in the generous hospitality of my friend’s family home in south Delhi. And, the biggest comfort of all: this time my friend Ritu is here. During our last stay, she was away on business. It’s feeling like heaven to have time with her. Beyond being an incredible boyfriend, Roman is also a great travel companion: relaxed, fun, supportive; he is my prince. But boyfriends are not the same thing as girlfriends and the company of a dear friend is simply irreplaceable. So it’s just great to see her and to have time to catch up; it’s helping me to relax and get more grounded on this trip.

Even nearly two months in, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover I’m still unravelling knots of past (and perhaps even more recent) stresses, still letting go of my corporate, ‘need-to-be-productive’ habits and easing into and discovering myself within this new lifestyle. Seems like there are layers of this stuff to move through and discard. For the most part, I’m able to maintain a sense of humor during the process, which is helpful. I was able to laugh at myself for the trip from Rishikesh to Ramnagar for example. The control freak (let’s call her Miss Swiss 😉 )in me was squirming like crazy at the prospect of such a loosely formulated journey.

The guy at the hotel in Rishikesh had been able to tell us in broken English that there were a couple of buses a day to Ramnagar from Haridwar, the next major town over from Rishikesh, but details such as when these buses might run, how long they’d take, etc. were not forthcoming. That was enough for Roman – I pretended it was enough for me too and watched little Miss Swiss inside me have a bit of a freak out. As a last ditch effort at organization, a.k.a. control, I started taking photos of the maps in the area so that we would have some sort of back up in case the whole direct bus thing ended up being just a myth.

We took a cab down to the bus station in Rishikesh and as luck would have it the man hanging outside of the first bus we came to was calling out ‘Hardwar! Haridwar’ (two equally recognized pronunciations for the place). We climbed right in – easy peasy – and the bus was off shortly there after. I was feeling pretty confident and started to relax, until I noticed that the bus was heading off on a completely different route than the bus that had brought us from Haridwar to Rishikesh a few days earlier. Last time we’d driven through small towns to get there. This time, we were seemingly driving through the middle of nowhere – skirting a river, moving across empty plains and wooded areas with not a person, dwelling or town in sight. What if we mis-heard the destination? What if we were on some sort of scam bus? What if we ended up in the middle of nowhere with no way back?? My inner control freak started spinning out of control. I did my best to bat back paranoia and enjoy the absolutely beautiful landscape that was rolling by outside the bus window and of course, eventually we arrived without incident at the center of Haridwar. Sit down Miss Swiss!

The bus station at Haridwar was awesomely obscure. I sat down with our luggage and diligently put Miss Swiss in the corner while Roman did the leg work of trying to find out what bus might get us to Ramnagar and at what time. Every single person he spoke to had a different answer for him. My map photos ended up coming in handy after all (score one for being paranoid! 😀 ) – the best information we received involved taking a bus to Kashipur and changing there for Ramnagar, and the map corroborated this logic. After waiting around for a couple of hours, we crammed our stuff and ourselves onto the most ergonomically awful seats ever invented and hunkered down for the six-hour ride, which, aside from resulting in two very numb derrieres, was very enjoyable between the incredibly loud Punjabi music the driver was playing and the striking scenery along the way. We were instructed to disembark in Kashipur; by this time night had fallen and so had Miss Swiss! Good thing too, because finding a bus in Kashipur was much dicier than in Haridwar.

Inquiries led to the discovery that there were no more scheduled buses at that time of the night. All we could do was stand along the side of the road leading to Ramnagar, wait for a bus to pass, and call out to the ticket collector to see if they happened to be heading in the right direction. This technique was explained to us (in even more broken English than the guy at the hotel) by a slightly tipsy, older gentleman who was apparently also waiting for a ride in to Ramnagar. Roman shared a cigarette with him and that was enough to cement a temporary friendship and even get me adopted as the guy’s new daughter! It took over an hour of standing by the side of the buggiest road I’ve ever encountered (this was one of the few in town with a proper lamp post, which attracted literally tens of thousands of harmless but very active bugs that kept landing and crawling all over us) until a bus arrived that would take us. With barely any space left, we perched on the metal mound housing the engine; I had to keep moving my knees so the bus driver had room enough to shift gears, and we barreled into the dark night (outside of town all street lights disappeared) for about an hour until we arrived in Ramnagar.

All in all, it was relatively straight forward – people were more or less happy to answer our questions – even when the answers were in Hindi or contradictory it was heartening to see how willing they were to help out complete strangers. And we didn’t end up having to spend a night sleeping in a bus depo or getting dropped off at a completely obscure, random destination in the middle of a desert, as Miss Swiss had been contemplating in the morning. In fact, we made it to Ramnagar in really good time, all things told. That being said, I was very happy to check into the very first hotel we found – and so was Miss Swiss! 😉

Along the way – a travel journal. Or, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Welcome to my online travel journal. Today is the first of September and I’m just days away from embarking on the biggest travel adventure of my life (so far).

An alternate name for this blog was “I don’t know what I’m doing”. By way of introduction: I grew up in America. Over five years ago I moved to Switzerland for a job and ended up staying for love. I’ve been living with my boyfriend for over four years now. We have a fantastic life in Zürich – good jobs, a lovely apartment, wonderful friends. We have been very happy together, and I’ve been very happy with my life here in Switzerland.

But starting last year, something began to feel like it was missing. Where before I had delighted in the smallest details of my life overseas, I found that the sparkle had gone out of even the nicest experiences. Somehow, I had gotten trapped in a never-ending cycle of ‘shoulds’ and obligations. My time no longer felt like my own and I felt increasingly that my true self existed more and more on the outskirts of my own life.

I’m still not entirely sure how this happened. I had a very demanding job that took a lot of time and energy. There are certain aspects of Swiss life that can be a bit rigid (Sunday means stores are closed and doing laundry is forbidden, for example. And making plans with friends and family, you usually have to get into their calendar at least a couple of weeks in advance, if not longer.). I also have a tendency to over-commit myself in a need to make others happy. All of these things probably contributed, but even when feeling stressed, I could still see the good in my life – I just no longer felt it. Maybe it was simply time for a change. All I know is that one day in December I was on my yoga mat in class and this voice inside me said loud and clear and totally undeniably: something’s got to give. The seed was planted and my heart started to move towards change. Easter weekend, my boyfriend and I were sitting at the station cafe by our apartment when we decided.

Traveling the world is something we’ve talked about doing since we met, something we’d thought about individually even before we met, but for various reasons, we hadn’t been able to make it happen – until now. We’ve chucked our corporate jobs, given up our apartment and are saying our goodbyes to the people we love. Friday I’ll be taking a one-way flight to India (boyfriend will meet me there three weeks later). The first three to four weeks of the trip are planned. After that we’ll just make it up as we go – destination, activities, duration all up to how we feel and where the journey leads us.

As I can’t say why my life as it was wasn’t working anymore, I also don’t know what I hope to do or find out there in the big world. Like I said, I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t know how long or how far we will travel. I don’t know how I will react to the lands and cultures I have never experienced before. I don’t know how we’ll spend our time. I don’t know how I’ll handle being essentially homeless. I don’t know how the travel will affect our relationship and if we’ll come out the other end stronger as a couple or ready to go our separate ways. I don’t know where we’ll land when it’s over, where we will live or how we will earn a living. But, I do have hopes for how it will feel (honest, open, relaxed, joyful), and I know that every step taken since December has let me feel more like myself, more honest, more open, more relaxed, more joyful. And even though I don’t know what I’m doing now, I do know I’ll figure it out along the way.