Five Months in India
by Jonathan Kalan


I woke up and went through the same routine I went through every morning living in Kathmandu, the bustling urban capital of Nepal tucked under the foothills of the Himalayas. I took a cold shower from the bucket, cursing the 8 hours of electricity cuts a day, and embarked upon the two kilometer walk to work. I wandered past the blood-dripping goat legs and decapitated boar heads dangling off the tables of the butcher shops, past the university school children, and past the various vendors whom I’d come to know through multiple cups of chai on slow days. This day something seemed quite different, replacing the normal excess of cars, motorcycles, buses, horns and exhaust fumes was silence. A stench of burning tires mingled with the exotic array of sewage and spices, that normally assaulted the senses. Charred remains of various objects thrown into the flames and black smokestacks billowing from every corner, substituted the constant threat of being demolished by a speeding bus or deafened by the constant noise of another crowded Asian city. It was yet another “Bandh” strike, this time against the government’s oil price hike.

Yet it wasn’t just this predicament that threw me into a whirlwind of reflection on my nine months studying, working, and traveling through the mysterious maze of India and Nepal. It was actually the simplest of things, or so it felt to me, that reminded me of how long I had really been gone.

While standing over one of the fires, I looked behind me down an empty soot coated street, and noticed a homeless man, dancing and singing to himself and his pet monkey. The man seemed happy as a clam, strolling along singing with his monkey on a leash bouncing off this and that- the sidewalk, flowerpots, tables, human heads. I had seen the man and his monkey a few times, and to be honest seeing a monkey in South Asia is about as special as seeing a squirrel in Isla Vista. But it wasn’t until that instant, seeing the couple gaily enjoying the open road, walking through what could pass as a tattered war zone that I realized how completely absurd my situation I was. I worked hard to visually compare this scene to a typical Saturday afternoon on State Street. The image of pretty girls in skimpy skirts dancing from shop to shop to the tune of street performers projecting in one side of my brain, and a homeless monkey wrangler dancing in a war zone in the other, made me giggle quietly. I began to wonder, where the hell does my sense of reality lie?

I spent a total of nine months in South Asia. Of my five months on EAP India, among the more impressive things I learned was how to navigate a motorcycle around cows, people, more cows, rickshaws, piles of cow shit, more people, and more cows, in Old Delhi. I then traveled for a few months and found myself working for a small-scale renewable energy development NGO in Kathmandu. By the time of the monkey epiphany, I’d seen Everest, hiked the Himalayan range, white water kayaked the holiest of rivers, laid eyes on the wondrous Taj Mahal, vast Rajasthani deserts, the dense misty bazaars of Kolkatta and the pristine coast of Kerala. I’d given offerings to the gods in countless temples of historical significance I could barely even begin to understand, seen a traditional Tibetan cremation in the hills of Darjeeling and even tossed a quarter to an elephant on the streets. I’d seen and done a thousand things I never imagined, but still, a man and his monkey can really throw you off guard sometimes. You realize that in a place where you are constantly facing a barrage of humanity- people, animals, colors, machines, sights and sounds- it is almost essential for you to just close your eyes, breathe, and let yourself attempt to comprehend just what is going on. Even if when you open them, you still haven’t got a clue.

If there’s any one lesson I’ve learned while traveling that I must pass on to fellow adventurers, it’s that you can never let an opportunity pass you by. The difference between one moment and the next while traveling is the chance you take on that first one. You never know an opportunity until you take it- or let it slip by. Whether it’s simply accepting an invitation for chai from a guy named Babu Ram who walks around the streets all day playing the Sarongi (a traditional Nepali instrument), or not questioning why the hell you just let yourself be walked in full circle, through dark alleys and gigantic piles of cow shit, by a man who wants to show you something that was literally a ten foot back step from where you were first standing. Opening yourself up to opportunities can be something as easy as sitting down and listening to a half naked Sadhu (holy man) tell you, literally, how “anything is possible”. Your new friend may take you for a free boat ride, or at least leave you with some interesting Hindu food for thought.

At face value, people, places, and things are always unknown. That’s their nature before you discover them- hence unknown. Yet if you take the chances, learn some patience, and open yourself up just a little bit more to doing things that make absolutely no sense (even when you look back on them months later), the rewards are great. You will never learn if you do not try and you will never understand if you do not experience. Yes, of course, sometimes situations can be annoying, people troublesome, and places rather uncomfortable. I’ve had more of those experiences in nine months than I wish to share. But I’d say one time in ten you may find yourself in quite a unique situation that will dip you, even for a short while, into a completely different universe.

One day you may find yourself having dinner with a wonderful new family, smoking some odd substance with your camel driver in the middle of a desert, bungy jumping off a 500 ft bridge, kicking back with a group of street musicians in a secret bar, or maybe, simply standing on a smoky street next to a man singing to his monkey. It’s up to you.