Travel vi­car­i­ously through the steamy sub­con­ti­nent

Fashion Quarterly - - Contents - You can read more of Emma and Vin­nie’s work on pas­sage­jour­ Or fol­low their trav­els on In­sta­gram: @passage.jour­nal.

The act of pack­ing up your life and leav­ing a great deal of it be­hind is both in­cred­i­bly cathar­tic and strangely easy. With one-way tick­ets booked, res­ig­na­tions are handed in, boxes are taped and good­byes are said. But the re­al­ity of what you’ve done isn’t tan­gi­ble un­til your feet hit the ground again, which for us was late last year in the boil­ing heat of Ti­mor-Leste, a small is­land na­tion to the north of Aus­tralia and the first stop on our two-year trip around the world.

We spent a month in this un­likely tourist des­ti­na­tion, ex­plor­ing the de­vel­op­ing coun­try’s cap­i­tal city and the en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives un­der­way on the main­land and out­ly­ing is­lands. From there, we flew to the vi­brant, heav­ing sub­con­ti­nent of In­dia, where we’ve been based since.

It feels like a cliché to de­scribe In­dia us­ing the words ‘sen­sory over­load’, but they’re apt when try­ing to cap­ture the plethora of el­e­ments you en­counter at ev­ery turn. Peo­ple are every­where, and the streets are awash with colour and the smell of cook­ing, and crowded with cars, scoot­ers, cows and trash. It’s a jar­ring con­trast of so­ci­ety’s beauty and fail­ings.

Vin­nie and I left New Zealand in Novem­ber 2017, em­bark­ing on a loosely planned OE. We’d both been rest­less in Auck­land, and as we reached our late 20s, made the de­ci­sion to spend a cou­ple of years over­seas, in­tend­ing to get our midlife crises out of the way early. As Auck­land’s house prices climbed, we saw com­mit­ting to a mort­gage as fu­tile and de­cided we’d pre­fer to spend our nest egg on ex­plor­ing and en­gag­ing with the var­ied cul­tures and land­scapes of this big wide world — ex­pe­ri­ences we see as far more valu­able to our ex­is­tence.

The glam­orous façade of in­ter­na­tional travel is om­nipresent on In­sta­gram and Face­book, but rarely do peo­ple share the re­al­ity of fund­ing these jaunts. We spent two years scrimp­ing and sav­ing ev­ery spare dol­lar we earned, more often than not eschew­ing things like restau­rant meals and new clothes, and sac­ri­fic­ing time to­gether as Vin­nie went away for long pe­ri­ods to work on fish­ing boats in the South Is­land. We be­came al­most ob­ses­sive about bud­get­ing, find­ing sat­is­fac­tion in cook­ing meals that cost just a few dol­lars. The re­sult was a healthy chunk of sav­ings to travel with, some of which we in­vested in cre­at­ing a busi­ness, Passage Jour­nal, where we’re record­ing our ad­ven­tures.

Our bud­get­ing has con­tin­ued through­out our trip; thank­fully In­dia is an easy place in which to stretch your dol­lar. Cheap rooms can be as lit­tle as NZ$10, and a meal can be had for around $2. We’ve come to love ram­shackle ac­com­mo­da­tion and the in­ti­macy of

fam­ily-run guest­houses and home­s­tays. We have fond mem­o­ries of the old mil­i­tary bar­racks we stayed in in Chennai, en­cir­cling a stand of loom­ing trees; and the house­boat on the lake in Kash­mir’s sum­mer cap­i­tal Srinagar, a lean­ing wooden struc­ture that opened up to a view of the wa­ter and mountains. Even the shabby, sweaty ho­tels of Mum­bai had their charm; we proved an anom­aly due to our extended stay — ap­par­ently most other tourists pre­fer to pass through quickly due to the high costs in the city. In fact, we’ve in­vari­ably leaned to­wards a slower pace, find­ing it not only a bet­ter way to get to know a city and its lo­cals, but also a good method for sup­port­ing our men­tal well­be­ing and min­imis­ing stress.

That said, our first few months in In­dia un­furled at a brisk pace. We ar­rived in Chennai, then took the cross-coun­try train to the lazy back­wa­ters of Ker­ala be­fore head­ing north to Ra­jasthan, where we made our way along the famed tourist trail from Jaipur (the Pink City) through Jodh­pur (the Blue City) and Jaisalmer to Udaipur, a tran­quil city on the wa­ter often called ‘In­dia’s Venice’.

Jaded by the om­nipres­ence of western tourism and all its ac­cou­trements — harem pants, ‘spe­cial las­sis’ and dread­locks — we rel­ished our next stop in Ahmed­abad, Gu­jarat. Al­though not a typ­i­cal travel des­ti­na­tion, it boasts some of the most in­ter­est­ing ar­chi­tec­ture in In­dia, in­clud­ing build­ings de­signed by the likes of Le Cor­bus­ier (his work can also be found in Chandi­garh) and Louis Kahn.

Al­though In­dia’s main me­trop­o­lises share teem­ing pop­u­la­tions, pol­lu­tion and traf­fic, they also dif­fer widely. Mod­ern Ban­ga­lore, the tech hub of In­dia where we spent a month, boasts a renowned craft-beer scene. We spent our time there writ­ing, ven­tur­ing out only on the week­ends to drink cock­tails and watch the ea­gle-like kites soar on the air cur­rents. Coastal Mum­bai is full of colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture and has a thriv­ing art com­mu­nity, while Chennai has a colour­ful charm.

We tend to find most plea­sure in the minu­tiae of life — the small daily rit­u­als and rou­tines we form in each place (morn­ing chai with the lo­cals in main­land In­dia and kahwa tea in Kash­mir), and fre­quent­ing the same restau­rants again and again. As with any­where, fa­mil­iar­ity goes a long way.

We found our­selves climb­ing large coastal vol­canic rocks at high tide in a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble jour­ney to a tiny vil­lage

Trav­ellers to In­dia are con­stantly warned about ‘Delhi belly’ and, in­deed, the sheer scale of the pop­u­la­tion and pol­lu­tion means your im­mune sys­tem is con­stantly un­der siege. Un­like the lo­cals, we sim­ply don’t pos­sess the an­ti­bod­ies needed to deal with the coun­try’s bac­te­ria and viruses. Water­borne sick­ness is the most eas­ily caught, so we’re vig­i­lant about only drink­ing bot­tled wa­ter (and us­ing it to brush our teeth) and avoid­ing sal­ads. How­ever, ill­ness is in­evitable.

Vin­nie went down first, in Ban­ga­lore, with a sear­ing hot fever and body aches so in­tense we feared he’d con­tracted malaria or dengue. Af­ter nav­i­gat­ing the health sys­tem and even­tu­ally end­ing up at a hospi­tal rec­om­mended by the New Zealand Em­bassy, the cause of his in­fec­tion proved to be gas­troin­testi­nal. My own ill­ness, amoe­bic dysen­tery, hit in Mum­bai, days be­fore we were due to fly out. Car­ing for each other and sharing all the grotesque oc­cur­rences un­fold­ing in (and out of) your body brings you closer in a way lit­tle else will.

Ac­tu­ally, spend­ing nearly ev­ery wak­ing hour to­gether has been an­other re­al­ity of travel, but one that’s been a rel­a­tive breeze. Our re­la­tion­ship is a part­ner­ship and we work as a team. We’ve learned to solve prob­lems quickly and when to just let things go. Aware of our own strengths and weak­nesses, we know when one of us needs to take the lead. Our frus­tra­tions are never taken out on each other and we’re able to dis­agree with­out bick­er­ing. All this time to­gether has been even eas­ier than we ex­pected, some­thing we’re grate­ful for.

One thing we both agree on is our favourite state of In­dia — Jammu and Kash­mir. The state com­prises Jammu, the Kash­mir Val­ley and Ladakh. Kash­mir in par­tic­u­lar has been marred with strife and un­rest as its peo­ple con­tinue to pur­sue in­de­pen­dence from the In­dian Gov­ern­ment. Yet it was here that we ex­pe­ri­enced the warm hospi­tal­ity of the Kash­miri peo­ple, their beau­ti­ful hand­i­crafts and in­cred­i­ble food, and the nat­u­ral beauty of the re­gion it­self — sweep­ing green val­leys and lakes sur­rounded by the snow­capped mountains of the Hi­malayas that give way to the bar­ren moon­scape of Ladakh to the east.

We’re now seven months into our trip. Af­ter In­dia, we’ll head to Iran be­fore trav­el­ling across North Africa and end­ing up in Europe by Christ­mas. You’d think that be­ing con­stantly in mo­tion and thrown into new en­vi­ron­ments would cause stress and anx­i­ety, but we’ve found the op­po­site is true for us. Since leav­ing New Zealand, we’re the most re­laxed we’ve ever been, and al­though there have been pe­ri­ods of anx­i­ety, we know how to man­age them. Trav­el­ling gives you the frame­work, ex­pe­ri­ences and time to repri­ori­tise things. Is­sues that might have been a source of stress back home lose their sig­nif­i­cance when placed in a greater con­text of the other things you see and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Of course, lows are a re­al­ity, as with any pe­riod of life, but they’re al­ways man­age­able — al­though in the heat of the mo­ment some things seem in­sur­mount­able: be­ing stuck in the scrum of a queue in a sti­fling hot train sta­tion, try­ing to buy a ticket to our next des­ti­na­tion through a lan­guage bar­rier, or end­ing up in tears af­ter four fu­tile hours at a post of­fice. Then there was the time we found our­selves climb­ing large coastal vol­canic rocks at high tide in a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble jour­ney to a tiny vil­lage. There have been mo­ments when we’ve thought, ‘It’s time to head home’, but most of the time, it’s the most dif­fi­cult mo­ments that end up be­ing the most re­ward­ing.

The high­lights and per­sonal growth over­shadow any low points. It’s also al­most jar­ring to dis­cover how eas­ily you can feel at home any­where, some­thing fa­cil­i­tated a great deal by the kind­ness and gen­eros­ity of lo­cal peo­ple — espe­cially in places like Mum­bai, Kash­mir and Ladakh.

It’s been in­cred­i­bly hum­bling to see the re­silience and prac­ti­cal­ity of peo­ple as they cope with a lack of in­fra­struc­ture and sup­port, as well as the strug­gles of day-to-day life. Fas­ci­nated by so­ci­ety and cul­ture, the chance to wit­ness the di­ver­sity of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence was one of the main rea­sons we left New Zealand.

We’ve stayed with self-suf­fi­cient farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Ladakh who are snow­bound for half the year, and vis­ited mi­grant work­ers in Gu­jarat. When we vis­ited, the peo­ple of Ti­mor-Leste were get­ting by de­spite a freeze on gov­ern­ment spend­ing due to a failed elec­tion. The first new sov­er­eign coun­try of the 21st cen­tury, the vi­tal devel­op­ment work there spans ev­ery­thing from health­care and ed­u­ca­tion to en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives and in­dus­try.

And, of course, there’s Kash­mir, where they con­tinue to ad­vo­cate and fight for the in­de­pen­dence they were promised dur­ing the Par­ti­tion of In­dia in 1947, through both civil and mil­i­tant chan­nels

— the re­sults of which have af­fected the com­mu­nity through loss of life, gov­ern­ment-im­posed cur­fews and eco­nomic de­cline.

The scale of poverty, pol­lu­tion and over­pop­u­la­tion in In­dia is also un­de­ni­able, not to men­tion the in­grained ef­fects of the caste sys­tem on the well­be­ing, op­por­tu­ni­ties and qual­ity of life of its peo­ple.

Above all, though, we’ve learned that kind­ness and po­lite­ness are universal virtues, and one must avoid be­com­ing hard­ened and los­ing them. Re­spect for hu­man life should be the pri­or­ity we all share. When we left New Zealand, we never sought to ‘find our­selves’. In­stead, we were look­ing for that which makes each so­ci­ety unique and, most im­por­tantly, unites us in our hu­man­ity.

Clock­wise from right: Colour­ful graves at Santa Cruz ceme­tery. Climb­ing trees in Adara Vil­lage on Atauro Is­land.The NaTerra per­ma­cul­ture ini­tia­tive in ac­tion. Cristo Rei sur­veys the Ti­mor-Leste cap­i­tal of Dili. Be­low: Bloom­ing bougainvil­lea in Maubisse.

Above: Cul­ti­vat­ing a sus­tain­able life at Leublora Green Vil­lage, Ti­mor-Leste. Right: Emma in a Kow­tow en­sem­ble, worn – and made– in In­dia.

Left: The palace of Amer Fort drawsthe crowds to visit Ra­jasthan.

Above: Vin­nie re­laxes in Ladakh in Kiwi la­bel Gen­eral Sleep, also hand­crafted in In­dia.From right: Cash­mere in Kash­mir. Boats bob in the Co­laba har­bour in Mum­bai.

Botan­i­cal gar­dens in Srinagar, Kash­mir. Right: Find your for­tune in Jaipur.

Clay pots and school­child­ren (above) gath­ered in Jaisalmer.

Cricket is In­dia’s most pop­u­lar sport by a long shot.

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