Monthly Archives: January 2010

On to southern India!

Yes, I know. It's been over a month since our last post. We've been busy.

For most of this time, we've been in various parts of the US, visiting friends and relatives, relaxing, regrouping, and preparing for the next phase of our travels. Since our house is rented, we've remained nomadic, staying with relatives in California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington. Our thanks to all of you who have hosted us! Among other things, we:

  • did some pretending with our adorable grandsons in Portland and our adorable nieces in Mill Valley.
  • visited my parents and their friends at The Village at Penn State, many of whom seem to be avid readers of this blog.
  • saw other good friends and relatives too numerous to mention.
  • spent several late nights in the bar with my former Symyx colleagues (hisachiburi desu ne!)
  • filed amended tax returns for the years we lived in Japan.
  • took care of a year's worth of doctor and dental appointments.
  • researched health insurance options in case we're still footloose when our COBRA coverage ends.
  • sorted pictures, though by no means exhaustively.
  • registered the domain so that you don't need to type “blogspot” and Chinese readers can still find us when their government shuts down google.
  • twice reinstalled Windows and all of our software to fix our laptop's failing system disk.
  • turned away two attempts to recruit me back into the working world.

And we prepared to travel lighter.

We had way too much stuff in Nepal. That was partly because we were moving back from Japan and we had to carry medicines and other things that we could not ship. But mostly we just had too much stuff.

We learned there is a new branch of Asceticism devoted to traveling with only what will fit into a single carry-on bag. Although we haven't begun chanting the mantras of, we saw the benefit of packing efficiently enough to get everything on our backs in those cases where it will be necessary. And we had to come up with a better approach than our hiking backpacks, which cannot be easily locked or packed.

We resolved to avoid paper books as much as possible. We discovered that Lonely Planet guidebooks can be purchased chapter by chapter as PDF files readable on a computer or iPhone. We bought a Kindle, which we knew would be obsolete as soon as Steve Jobs announced his iPad, but still useful for the next year while he works the bugs out.

We bought a pair of travel backpacks that can be zipped and locked. We bought compression bags and organizers so that we can cram enough into a medium-sized pack to make it too heavy. It isn't pretty, but we are now able to carry six months of gear through a train station or city street.

So where are we headed?

We really don't know, because we don't believe in over-planning. We have to be free to follow our noses if we find an interesting detour or festival, since the most rewarding things in life are usually not the things we expect. But we have made a broad plan to take us through this summer:

  • From January 25 through February 28, we will be in southern India, in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
  • In March and April, we will take an immersion course in basic Mandarin Chinese at a private school in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
  • In May, we will return to Nepal to see the rhododendron flowers and a festival in Lo Manthang.
  • Later in May, we will return to northern India, probably Ladakh and other parts of the Himalaya that are shielded from the monsoon.
  • Sometime in July, we will come back to North America for more visits and a stay at our summer house in Canada.

Beyond that, we really haven't thought much. I did buy a book about central Asia and began dreaming of Samarkand and the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains), but we're a long way from getting visas to Kyrgyzstan.

So a week ago we boarded a flight from San Francisco through Narita and Singapore to Chennai, the Indian city formerly known as Madras. We both shed a tear of nostalgia passing through Japan, where we had great experiences and developed many close friendships. We will come back, but not now.

India has already proved surprising and wonderful in unexpected ways. I will save the details for future postings, but my overall feeling is of discovering a land that I barely knew existed. Like most Americans, I grew up with very little sense of the more remote parts of the world. I have since traveled in Europe, China, and even Nepal and Pakistan. But India alwayes seemed a land apart, huge and strangely forbidding.

Hinduism is not an easy religion. Although I had a college roommate who considered himself a convert, I have never really known much about it. Its sacred texts run thousands of pages of complex philosophy, and one's head spins from the different deities and their manifestations. And it seems closer to the animistic practices of primitive people than to our modern world – even less appropriate than other religions, which have almost universally brought suffering and oppression to the people they seek to liberate.

And yet here it is, the foundation of all eastern thought. Buddhism inherited so much from Hinduism that it could reasonably be considered a sect. Tibetan Buddhism in particular owes much to the primitive rituals of earth, fire, and reincarnation that one finds at every turn in India. Every clockwise walk around a temple and every blaring trumpet reminds us of rituals we've seen from Lhasa to Tokyo.

And India itself is both modern and otherworldly. The physical world is neglected to the point of being a garbage dump, and yet a massive middle class builds comfortable houses with spotless interiors. And while it neglects the physical, India trains its children far better in mathematics and intellectual pursuits than our Western schools. It is refreshing to be in a place where store clerks add in their heads as fast as I do.

It's high time we learned something about this place.