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)


Mumbai: The Face of India

Entering central Mumbai is like entering a whole new India. It’s the India you witness on the TV – the showcase piece for the rest of the nation. This is the India they want you to see, steeped in colonial stuffiness and Hollywood pretension it might look close enough to your homeland that you buy into the dream temporarily.

If Mumbai were New York, Chowpatty Beach would be it’s Coney Island, boasting “world famous” street food and doting, pre-teen couples. If it were LA, Malabar Hill would be its Malibu, boasting some of the world’s most expensive real estate. If it were Antwerp, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus would be its Central Station, offering visitors a lavish welcome to the bustling city. And if it were Paris, the Gateway to India would be its Arc de Triomphe, introducing you to the grand boulevards of this cultural capital.

Made of a series of reclaimed islands, the old fort walls of historic Mumbai were removed long ago to make way for the city’s constantly expanding sprawl.

Mumbai is a world-class city and truly a rarity among India’s megacities. In the center city, there are trash bins, clean streets, and an absence of cows and rickshaws. It’s almost as if you’re no longer in India.

Initially, this new India is refreshing. Yet, after a time, central Mumbai feels stale. It feels sterilized, manufactured, and meticulously organized to appeal to Western investors. Business suits prevail, Indians bicker on cell phones instead of gossiping with each other on the streets, and only the Indian tourists are wearing saris.

But, who’s to say this is wrong. Often times we tourists prefer things to be exotic in order to feel as though we’ve traveled further and seen more. Perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with this “new India.”

Though you’ll hear the soundtrack blasting on each street corner, Mumbai is nothing like “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, many here were upset with the way their city was portrayed in the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film. However, one thing the movie did capture quite accurately is the modern metropolis’ dizzying divide between the rich and the poor.

Mumbai is a town of grand houses and gritty hovels – a megacity centered around lavish gothic architecture, statued circles and tree-lined boulevards that spills out into one of the world’s largest slums on the far side of the horizon. It’s a city where rich and poor slide past each other without ever acknowledging the other’s presence.

It’s the India of the past fist-to-fist with the India of the future.

You’d be as likely to hear English on the streets of Mumbai as you would Marathi or Hindi. The GDP here is three times that of the rest of the country. A hotel room in Mumbai is double or triple the price of nearly everywhere else in the country and coffee at the faux Starbucks chains is equally dear.

In this modern India, caste and class are harder to decipher. The traditional system is obscured – distorted by business and opportunity.

India produces more films per year than any other nation on the planet, and the majority of these films are made in Mumbai. Home to India’s dream-making machine, grand cinemas dot the city, showcasing the latest and greatest Bollywood has to offer.

Producers are known to comb the streets for white, blond tourists to play roles as extras and backup dancers. They look for girls who’ll appear in clothing — or lack thereof — that no Indian woman would be caught dead wearing – girls that will dote on budding Hindi pop stars to make enough dough to extend their holidays.

Mumbai may be a city of dreams, but it is also a city of uncomfortable extremes.

The order of the daytime gives way to the disorder of the night. Men gather on Mumbai’s gritty backstreets, stumbling and stuttering the night away. The once polished avenues soon become the bedrooms of Mumbai’s other residents.

An early morning trip outside of the hotel reveals an entire family huddled along the steps – bare-chested and mud-marked. Small children wander around aimlessly with Disney-wide eyes and blank stares – stuck in the jail of their parent’s poverty and their caste’s fate.

Is Mumbai the future of India? If not, it’s certainly the face that it likes to portray not only to itself, but also to the world. It’s the good. It’s the bad. And it’s the ugly.

It’s a glittery dream floating above the smog of reality.