David and Lili's World Tour


November 2014 - Manipur, Nagaland, and Assam states

Arriving into NE India from Myanmar by land felt like the good-old days, travelling with only a map, some cash, and ambition, going where few foreigners have gone before, an adventure! In the 110 kilometers from the Tamu-Moreh border to the city of Imphal, armed soldiers scrutinized our passports five times, and thanks to these delays we arrived into the city just before dark. None of the hotels we found had vacancies except for one, with only expensive suites for business people. By 6:00 pm, every store near our hotel was closed, with only heavily-armed police roaming the streets. We didn't see that coming. Soon we had less cash and better showers than we ever imagined possible.

Welcome to India's Manipur state, not a place for tourists. Why so many guns? One soldier explained, "The rebels do not like the system and the system does not like them." Manipur has about 30 groups fighting for sovereignty from Delhi, some armed and dangerous. They fight to preserve their unique mountain culture and to eliminate India's corruption from their politics. We skipped through Manipur because it was expensive, militarized, and less interesting than nearby Nagaland. We registered with the police as required then we caught a bus to Nagaland.

Welcome to Nagaland. This mountain nation is one of the most isolated on Earth, so isolated that we actually encountered more former head-hunters (with face tattoos) than other Westerners. The Naga Hills (part of the larger Arakan range) are cut off from China by the Himalaya mountains, from India by the Brahmaputra river, and from Burma by politics. Technically Nagaland is part of India, but this place does not seem like India, and indeed, when people here say India they mean somewhere else.

The British conquered the warrior Nagas in 1879 but it was the American Baptist missionaries who finally brought these people into the modern world. One guy named Edwin Clark dreamed of converting the famously fearsome head-hunters to the gospel of Christ, and his dream came true. Now ninety percent of Nagas are Christian. Imagine rugged hills dotted with villages in the most defensible places each with at least one church, plus crops growing in the valleys below. That's Nagaland.

For travellers here, there's little to do except hang out in villages, so that's what we did. The scenery was amazing and the traditional life was fascinating. Khonoma is an exceptionally beautiful village, and it's a model for ecological sustainability too (including a rain-forest reserve), and if that's not great enough, we arrived during the rice harvest! Longwa village was also great; this is where we hung out with former head-hunters (the real deal); this is literally the end of the road (on a mountain ridge that borders Myanmar); this is where intrepid travellers can still glimpse how villagers used to live back when everyone grew their own vegetables.

Nagaland looks and feels like a separate country. Even the street signs are in English (not Hindi), with many educational billboards saying things like, "Condoms prevent AIDS and unwanted pregancies." And, "Bro, drive slow." The Indian government has allowed foreigners to visit Nagaland without a permit for only two years now, but Indian tourists still have to get one. "Foreigners take photos then leave," a local man explained, "but there are too many Indians who might come to live." And that would destroy Edwin Clark's dream.

The Naga people mostly ignored us; others were welcoming, and we had no problems, but that is their culture. Until recently these tribes were constantly fighting each other, and they remain suspicious of foreigners. These are a proud mountain people who want to be left alone, people finally united by Jesus.

Then finally, India. Descending the Naga Hills we arrived at the Brahmaputra river valley where we immediately saw tea plantations, Hindu temples, and beautiful women wearing colorful saris... India!

Welcome to Assam state, a relatively clean, prosperous, and friendly place with great food and very few tourists. OK, there's chaos and filth too, but we have become quite used to that. Arriving into India via Nagaland made it easy to see how geography has influenced culture and history. For example, in the mountains the food is bland and lacking nutrition, but in the river valley the food rocks. Finally, India!

December 2014 - Arunachal Pradesh

Namaste! On our tour of NE India, we saved the best for last: Tawang, a remote (and gigantic) mountain valley famous for one magnificent Buddhist monastery. At more than 3000 meters elevation (and in December) we could only hope for autumn weather and we got lucky, with blue skies every day. Plus we were there for Tawang's big party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's Nobel Peace Prize (for leading the non-violent opposition to China's military occupation of Tibet). This party was the most colorful scene we have ever witnessed, vindicating our decision to journey more than 600 kms on mountain roads in the freezing cold (round trip). And remarkably for India, not one person in Tawang ever tried to rip us off.

Tawang sits between Bhutan and Chinese Tibet in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, one of India's most remote corners. We saw zero other tourists, but we did see fabulous beauty, charming Tibetans, and Indian military bases overflowing with soldiers at every strategic location. Why the soldiers? Because China claims the territory of Arunachal Pradesh too, exacerbating tensions between the two great powers. There is a road from Tawang to Lhasa, Tibet's capital (the road the Dalai Lama used in 1959 to escape the Red Army), but it is closed for most purposes.

Lower down in Arunachal Pradesh's mountain valleys, the culture is quite different. We visited Ziro, home of the Apatani tribe. Here we found a sophisticated civilization that's protected from the outside world just enough to maintain its unique approach to survival. We met women with face tattoos and conspicuous nose plugs (designed to make them less attractive on purpose, to prevent them from being kidnapped for marriage by neighboring tribes), but these woman are now all old. The younger women might look more modern, but they still practice a unique form of wet-rice cultivation (with fish in the fields), and their community government still works according to the ancient rules. This unique culture is protected by the Indian government, and all outsiders (including Indians) must obtain a special permit to visit. Yes, travelling to remote outposts like Ziro and Tawang in overcrowded local vehicles can be exhausting, but it's worth it!

We left the Himalaya mountains back down to Assam state just ahead of winter's first storm. Unlike Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, Assam looks and feels like India, but the people seem friendlier to tourists, perhaps because we are so rare. On the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra river valley, we rode elephants in search of one-horned rhinoceros (at the Pobitora wildlife sanctuary). Cool stuff! Assam's capital Guwahati is a dirty, noisy, and crowded metropolis. From here we finally abandoned mountain roads and minivans for the second-class luxury of a train towards Varanasi...

February 2015 - NE India to Goa

Yippie! After an epic overland journey, we finally reached a place to take a holiday from our holiday, to be without the Internet for a whole month, with no hurries and no worries but instead with bars and restaurants and parties on the sand, with great swimming and perfect weather. We arrived at Arambol Beach in Goa. Getting here from NE India was a fun ride! We stopped at Varanasi (the most holy city on the river Ganges), then Khajuraho (with the world's most erotic temple statuary), then Ajanta (with the world's best ancient Buddhist paintings in human-cut caves), then Ellora (with the best "cave" of them all, the most bad-ass temple ever carved from solid rock). We also explored Aurangabad and Mumbai.

This was my second time in Goa, and so much has changed (in 11 years) that Arambol seems like a different beach altogether. It's still cool, though. Before there were hippies and Israelis but now there are Russians too, a lot of Russians, so many that the tourist population has increased ten-fold. Russians! The crazy thing is that last year there were several times more Russians, but then their economy tanked. Anyway, we found a good deal away from the crowds down the beach, a surprisingly great family destination, y'all...

Arambol is a beach that has everything one needs to relax in a fun way. But sadly now there's so much car traffic that it's no longer fun to cruise by motorcycle, and there's so much rubbish that it's no longer OK to walk barefoot all day, and there's so much smart-phone individualism that most people have stopped saying hello to each other (the old hippies and the locals still say hello), Compared to 11 years ago, Arambol seems to have 10 times as many fishing boats, but less fish. As goes the world, so goes Goa. Anyway, for us this was the perfect place to rest up for South India!

PS: Here's our travel-mate Embe's YouTube video for Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. And here's his video for Nagaland. Yes, video! One more: Cambodia to Varanasi overland. Thanks Embe!

March 2015 - The South

We made it to Kanniyakumari. Where? That's the southern tip of India, a geologically powerful spot. Unfortunately the passenger ferry to Sri Lanka has been cancelled (price competition from airlines?) so we will have to fly (bummer), but that's a small detail. We made it to Kanniyakumari!

No trip to southern India would be complete without visiting the back waters of Kerala and the temples of Tamil Nadu, both spectacular for different reasons.

Kerala is a gem, a calm and friendly place compared to other Indian states, and that's without considering the famous back-water canals where we cruised in a private house boat. That's calm! Even visiting the biggest city, Trivandrum, was a relaxing experience, especially as our Keralan friend Sarath arranged for us to sleep in a colonial mansion. Thanks Sarath!

Aficionados of ancient temples take note: go to Tamil Nadu. Unlike the ruined monuments found in places like Angkor and Tikal, where one has to use one's imagination to envision colorful cultures and fascinating rituals, in South India the monuments are still very much alive. We were most impressed by the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. This grand complex has thousands of quality statues and at least one elephant. Here one can visualize the epic stories of Hindu mythology in all their glory, with great Gods creating and destroying and protecting humanity. This is a religion we can relate to, because in ancient times the great kings had God-like powers over the peasants, so naturally the early philosophers explained life, the Universe, and everything in terms of Gods of wisdom, time, and the magical illusion called human consciousness. Hinduism, don't take it literally and it's full of great stuff.

After travelling from India's most-remote border to her southern-most tip, we feel qualified to make some random observations, in no particular order:

The Incredible India campaign did a lot to increase tourism by dispelling the myth that all of India is poor, dirty, and dangerous. Few places are dangerous here (indeed, it's remarkably safe) but some places are quite poor and dirty, and that's hard to avoid when going from place to place.

Beware of noise pollution on the road (excessive honking). Bring ear plugs.

With more than a million employees, the Indian railroad is the world's 7th largest employer, a positive legacy of British colonial rule, good trains that sometimes run on time.

Yes, the middle class is booming, and many things seem better to the casual observer (compared to David's visit in 2003). For example, the train stations are cleaner, and there's a separate queue for foreign tourists to buy tickets, which is great, because Indian men sometimes don't exactly queue. Improved infrastructure and public health (plus a drop in the birth rate per women) are all good news, but it seems to us that India already has too many people. This place is crowded! And loud!

Alcohol is usually tightly controlled or not available at all (this varies by region). To buy a bottle of red wine for that Kerala back-water trip, I had to make my way through a labyrinth of metal cages designed to force the Indian men to queue.

India has some reasonably good and inexpensive red wine.

The drinking water in restaurants is now almost universally potable. Nevertheless we see most tourists buying expensive mineral water. Tourists!

Compared to 2003, India has almost 200,000,000 more people (approximately 1.3 billion total). That's a lot of fucking people, literally. As aquifers dry up given the demand from all those new people (something that will be made worse by global warming and by that growing middle class), then expect trouble.

Price inflation has been steady at about 10 percent per year, so despite the favorable exchange rate, travelling here is not nearly as cheap as it used to be. But India is still cheaper than Australia by a lot.

We saw slaves. We know these people had to be slaves because it's impossible for a company to profit while paying a large team of people to crush rocks by hand with hammers. A little research on this subject confirms that this is an incredibly big problem.

Indian people communicate non-verbally by wagging their heads, and they often expect foreigners to wag their heads too. This takes some getting used to.

In every corner of India, local women smiled sweetly towards Lili; this same-sex solidarity was always delightful. In contrast, the men usually ignored David, but if they approached, sometimes they were welcoming (wagging their heads and smiling) but more frequently they seemed only interested in making business.

The women in television advertisements generally wear modern clothes, not saris, and they sometimes even wear shorts. Sex sells, or at least it causes people to pay attention. We never saw an Indian woman wearing shorts in public.

Everywhere has the exact same brands of corporate snack foods.

The Maharashtra state government just made beef illegal (this includes Mumbai) but meat lovers do not fear, the Sikandari Raan (lamb) is fabulous.

India is one of the BRICS countries along with Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa. As such, they have managed to stay away from so-called 'free' trade agreements led by the USA. For example, thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement would allow corporations to sue governments in secret tribunals to overturn laws that threaten their 'expected future profits'. This is bad, and so therefore it is good for India to avoid this insane push to give corporations a sovereign right to profit.

The new prime minister Nerendra Modi is widely respected as a strong leader, but opinion is split on his major policies. He's pro-business, eliminating some of India's legendary red tape for foreign investment, some of which is certainly necessary, but has he gone too far? We're no experts on the details, but that's the debate we hear. Modi's critics want more protections for poor laborers not for wealthy investors.

We applaud PM Modi's initiative for a Clean India. Good. This is a country that is just now learning how to deal with modern rubbish. The smoke from burning plastic can be particularly bad. In Tamil Nadu now there are signs that say, avoid plastics.

Finally, the food, we love it, great spicy veggies with enough regional variation that we never got bored. Having said that however, after a year in Asia we sometimes dream with Brazilian cuisine.

In summary, India is a mystical land with remarkable treasures plus gurus skilled in meditation and contemplation, seeking to learn not how to conquer the world, but how to live in peace. India is also a land with many cultures and languages, plus its fair share of madness and filth. What a place! Escape your comfort zone and go see for yourself.

There is much more we could say about India (for example, regarding yoga, the caste system, and dealing with beggars), but we will stop here. Namaste!

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