The Long Road Home

And somehow it all came to an end.

It happened in the blink of the eye before I even knew it. Actually it happened in roughly a week’s time, but the next thing I knew I was back in the States, back in the groove, and back where I started unsure if I was meant for traveling in circles. Somehow straight lines had suited me just fine.

A straight line has no end. It keeps moving. Circles end and begin again. To end is one thing, but to begin again is another.

I wasn’t ready.

Yet, nine days, five planes and a lifetime away I found myself back at the beginning.

The journey from the life of my dreams back to the life of my reality began in Mumbai on a late afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. The hyper-extravagance of Kuala Lumpur — all glittery gold and tacky tart — was the first sign that I wasn’t ready to go back.

The crisp air-conditioned bus. A fast food chain on every corner. Megamalls. Monorails. The Asian leg of my journey began here. At the time, I found it so incredibly exotic. Upon returning, it felt remarkably reminiscent of the life I’d left behind.

I had to get out, to run away one last time. So, I ran to the deep jungle of the earth’s oldest rainforest, Taman Negara.

Wandering the jungle alone like a madman — sleeping on planks of wood in animal hides and spending my days tearing bloodsucking leeches from my feet — I explored the ancient land. I waded through chest-deep rivers, followed tiger prints, tip toed around elephant poo, and came face to face with a wild, leopard-sized Asiatic golden cat and her two cubs. I left the jungle with shoes full of blood and eyes devoid of fear.

Wasn’t that was this was all about anyway?

“To dream anything that you want to dream / That’s the beauty of the human mind / To do anything that you want to do / That is the strength of the human will / To trust yourself to test your limits / That is the courage to succeed.” – Bernard Edmonds

Man will never know his true strength until he tests it. Sure, plenty have tested their fate in much bolder, nobler ways. But this was my story. This was my climax. And I wasn’t sure if there would be another. You can never truly know what the climax of your life will be until it’s too late.

I was detained, searched, and questioned upon arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand as aftershocks rattled the ground. Border police released me two hours later after every item in my bag was meticulously inspected, swabbed, scanned, and sniffed.

My friend Karen, who served as caretaker of my things, met me in the North Island that afternoon. She had kept my luggage tucked under her downtown Auckland bed in such a way that it lifted the lower end of her mattress. The neatly arranged mementoes of my life in New Zealand had thus become a footrest.

Karen gave me a warm Western welcome, calling me too skinny and making it her goal to fatten me up in three day’s time. She had completed the same journey I did almost 15 years before and, when we spoke of our paths through Asia, we realized that, all and all, little had changed.

Three days later, after making peace with what I consider the most beautiful country in the world and a second home, I caught another series of planes – first to San Francisco, then to Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later, I caught a bus back to New York City, found a job, and the line became a circle again.

Travel is like a drug. Rather, it was my drug, and I got really high. Coming down was the hardest part.

The high began three-and-a-half years before it ended. It started with the travel bug, progressed to island fever in the Caribbean, morphed into ex-pat addiction in Oceania, dabbled in traveler’s diarrhea in Asia and ended in denial back in America.

And so, this is my last post as Mark on the Map. I’ve learned a lot transferring my first impressions and second thoughts into a blog for everyone to read.

I’ve gown up charting my journey on here. Thanks for indulging me. Thanks for reading. Thanks for caring. This blog enabled me to move on to the next stage of my life and you can continue to follow my professional career as a travel writer by checking out the information on the “About” page.

If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it’s this:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been my motto from the very start and remains my motto today.

Farewell and get lost,

MarkontheMap (a.k.a. Mark Johanson)

Quickpost: The Goan Anomaly

There’s a small corner of India where it’s not weird to chow down on chorizo and down it with a glass of port – where church steeples tower over town and the body of dead a 16th century catholic saint sits unmolested on display for all to see.

They call this tiny enclave Goa.

Goa was not officially admitted to Indian statehood until 1987. It wasn’t even part of independent India until 1961. A Portuguese colony long after India’s colonial days ended, Goa is beguiling, fiercely independent, and 100% unique.

This Portuguese enclave is the smallest state in India. It’s also the richest and most developed with the highest quality of life. The per capita income in Goa is a staggering two and a half times that of the country as a whole.

Christianity is said to have arrived in South India in 52 AD with Thomas the Apostle. It’s widely believed that Christianity spread in India even before it spread to many Christian nations of Europe. Some theories even hold that Jesus Christ traveled to Kashmir in present day India after crucifixion along with Mother Mary and studied Hinduism and Buddhism before being entombed.

Today, Christianity is India’s third-largest religion with roughly 24 million followers. Many of them live in the southern states like Goa.

Indians are a devout people, no matter the religion. Just like the fanatical Hinduism of the north, many in southern states like Kerala and Goa are passionate about their Christian faith.

Christianity really took root in Goa with the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498 when the Portuguese Goan Inquisition brought repression and brutality in the name of religion, introducing Catholicism to the subcontinent.

In the 1500s, Old Goa had a population exceeding that of Lisbon and London and was able to stand up and demand real authority in the European-Catholic community. However, the good times did not last long – the Inquisition and a major epidemic saw to that, decimating this decadent dropping of Portugal.

Though the Portuguese are no longer in control, their influence remains not only in the food, but in the landscaped gardens and palm-encased villas of Margao and Panjim:

Celebrating Holi in Goa

A few years back, I entered into the damp basement of an old building in New York’s posh Upper East Side neighborhood for a gathering of Indian families. My friend and I were invited to celebrate a mysterious Hindu holiday called Holi.

We were the only white guests at the event, but our skin would not remain so for long. Unbeknownst to us, Holi was the festival of colors – a festival that involved the hurling of neon powder until every human was tie-dyed into a spirograph.

I wore a black coat that day – a coat that would never quite recover from the event. I left the party looking like a clown that accidentally wandered into a paintball arena, vowing that if I ever made it to India, it would be for Holi.

Somewhere in the neon haze of that day in New York, I forgot one key fact: Holi is a Hindu holiday. So when Holi approached and I found myself in Goa — the heart of Christian India — I went into panic mode.

Searching Google at the Internet café, the words “Holi” and “Goa” returned little results. Every blogger recommended staying in Northern India for Holi – anywhere, they said, but Christian Goa.

Yet, when I arrived at Goa’s Agonda Beach and saw specks of neon powder on the road, I realized something I knew deep inside all along: no Indian would ever let a holiday go by without celebrating, regardless of where in the country he may live.

In southern Christian states like Goa, Holi is celebrated within the greater festivities of Shigmo – a holiday heralding the arrival of spring. As such, the celebration lasts a fortnight and powder flies day in and day out until the festival ends.

Many guesthouses along the popular tourist beaches of Goa threw Shigmo parties, but to me, it seemed like an excuse for Indian men to “decorate” Western women with neon powder. I wasn’t after this sort of Holi celebration, so I rented a motorbike and drove out into the countryside on the proper day of the Hindu Holi looking for a celebration. I found it in the picturesque riverside community of Betul.

Hugging the Sal River estuary, the small, homespun village of Betul was the quintessential image of serene, rural Goa. A towering pastel church signaled my arrival in town and the palm-lined main street beckoned me in.

Far from the throngs of bespeckled tourists, I arrived in Betul just in time for the festivities. I first encountered the women of the town celebrating separately from the men. Having sufficiently painted each other with powder, the girls rinsed off — fully clothed — in the middle of the street, giggling as they doused each other with water.

I felt a tad out of place at the girls’ party so I ventured further into town and found the men, quickly realizing why the women kept their distance. The men pounded on drums and danced in circles around the center of town, flinging powder as they marched.

Bare-chested men of all ages formed a mosh pit as the girls slowly edged in on the periphery.

The chanting grew louder, the men grew wilder, and colored particles erupted from the volcano of human activity until the entire pack of wound-up neon revelers marched straight to the river and dove in.

It was nothing like the Holi in the Upper East Side basement. Nothing like the Holi on the tourist beach. This was the Holi I came to India to find.

572 Steps Above Hampi with the Monkey God

I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.

I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.

Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.

The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.

Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.

Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.

In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.

Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.

It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.

The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.

Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.

Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.

Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.

Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.

The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.

Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.

It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.

Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.

As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.

As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.