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)

Indians Taking Pictures of Indians at the Taj Mahal

Strange World: Erotic Art

Later on this week:

MarkontheMap heads to the Himalayan hill town of Darjeeling where political turmoil leads to a late night escape.

“Are You Liking India?”

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.”

-Mark Twain

Landing in India is like landing on another planet.  There’s no place on Earth quite like it.

It’s the ultimate travelers test.  It provokes your senses, demanding them to breach the extreme boundaries of their limitations.  You smell the most horrific smells.  You see the most audacious sites.  You hear the most deafening noises.  And, more than anything else, you feel such strong emotions that it threatens to overwhelm you.

In Don Delillo’s The Names, a local on the street asks, “Are you liking India?”  “Yes,” the Westerner replies, “although I would have to say it goes beyond liking in almost every direction.”

Life in India has its own set of rules that are utterly foreign to the foreigner.  Respect and privacy carry altogether different meanings.  It’s easy to misunderstand it all, casting the sari-clad characters around you in a demonic light.  It takes a while to get used to the pushing, the burping, and the screeching sounds emitted as your neighbors form the most gelatinous balls of spit to coat the muddy streets.

I’ve heard stories of several travelers who, after 3 days in the country, packed up their bags and caught the first plane back home.  I can’t blame them.  India is not for the faint of heart.  It’s certainly not for the romantics.  But, I could not imagine a more amazing place than India to learn about humanity.  The streets of India are both an explosion and celebration of the human condition.

That said, I have to be careful not to generalize the people or the country as a whole.  With 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, 5 main religions, over 2,000 castes, thousands of Gods, and the remains of over 500 former kingdoms, India is not so easy encapsulated.  India is much more diverse than most Westerners imagine.  There is nothing typical about India and there is no typical Indian.

Most Westerns enter this country at Mumbai (Bombay) or New Delhi.  I arrived at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Some might describe this as being tossed directly into the fire.  My taxi driver from the airport put it best.  “You see this…” he paused to swerve around a cow in the middle of the road.  “This is Kolkota.  Welcome.  Welcome to the zoo.  Kolkota…” he waved his hands wildly, “India’s zoo.”

Kolkata has always lagged behind the nation’s other modernizing megacities.  Mother Theresa gave the city a face, albeit the face of extreme poverty and destitution.

Entering Kolkata was like receiving the golden ticket to a traveling depression-era freak show.  Yet, the excitement and utter curiosity of it all soon waned and manifest itself in an overwhelming sadness.  A man crawled past on all fours, another contorted himself at the side of the street hoping for a rupee.  Women shoved their babies in my face while pleading for money.  Naked kids clamored up my back, demanding payment.

Further down the street, I encountered the chalk etching of a man’s body decorated with patches of crimson red.   On the corner by my guesthouse, a man sat in a daze as a team of westerners prepared for an ad hoc operation on his flesh-exposed arm.

This was my introduction to the nation.  Though by no means an all-encompassing generalization of my experience as a whole, it certainly set the tone and begged me to question, “Can I really spend two months in this country without going insane.”

Maybe traveling in India with a bigger budget would have made my experience more pleasurable, but I set aside a meager $10 a day, which found me in the kind of accommodation you don’t tell your folks about back home.

In Kolata, I slept on a thin brick of a mattress that was swarming with bedbugs.  Fuchsia paint peeled off the cracked walls and a spout from the ceiling set a torrent of cold water down for bathing.  The “western” toilet had no toilet seat, making it a hybrid western/squat.

I was photographed at intake and my details were logged into a computer from the 1980s.  Each foreigner is strictly accounted for in India.  You can’t log onto a computer at an Internet facility without first checking your passport with the attendant.

The streets of Kolkata were a blur of fast moving colors – the Bangladeshi women with their elaborate saris and the men in tight pants and polyester shirts of the 1970s.  Amidst the chaos, the hand painted busses and street signs were all decorated in a sweet, toybox font.  This widespread cuteness was unexpected and in stark contrast to the everyday realities.

The street stalls and quick eats of Kolkata were a greaseball’s glory land. Indians have a vastly different body image for the female than the west.  To be plump means you can afford some luxuries in life.  One Bangladeshi explained to me that Indians love their deep fried snacks and a well off woman will have “shiny hair and shiny lips.”

I spent my first days in India with a samosa sheen.

For such an unruly city, Kolkata has several areas of respite to escape from the busy streets and cacophony of horns.  There are quite gardens, colonial cemeteries, and tidy aircon museums.  The former capital of the British Raj, Kolkata has a jumble of colonial architectural marvels like the Victoria Memorial (which bares a striking resemblance to the White House in Washington D.C.).

I went to an actual zoo in Kolkata.  It was a back alley zoo on the edge of a gated off mansion on the fringe of town.  I had first to obtain a letter of permission from the tourism board to even visit the place.  Surprisingly, it was the most peaceful part of the city – this zoo within the zoo.

Yet, like any peaceful place in Kolkata, a community of squatters had set up homes on the fringe of the park, washing their clothes by the monkey cage and drying them on the rocks near the pheasants.

A mansion, a zoo, and a squatter settlement.

I could hardly think of a better image to describe modern India.  There are over 125,000 millionaires in the country living side by side with those who make much less in a week than the average American does in an hour.  Herein lies many of the problems.  Problems that would lead me to flee the riots and protests in upper West Bengal for Nepal just one week after entering India… But, I’m getting ahead of myself (and you can read about that in the coming weeks)!

I will never properly be able to describe India to someone who hasn’t been.  It’s impossible.  On my first call home from India, my sister said, “India.  Now that’s one place I hope I never have to go,” and I don’t think she’s the only one who feels that way.

I’d have to say of all the places I’ve been in the world, India is probably my favorite.  That said, I have never felt such hatred for a place in my life.  Never have I struggled with simultaneous love and hate like I have in India.

Yet, India casts a spell on its visitors and, like it or not, I was knee deep in the mess and trudging towards the carnival with kaleidoscope goggles.

“Are you liking India?”

It goes beyond liking in almost every direction.