When you take a holiday, everyone wants to know what the “best thing” was about it. It’s easy to pick a couple if you visit Morocco for ten days. However, when your trip spans eleven countries and almost four months, it can be hard to choose.
But I did choose, only because it’s fun to remember the things that went well. Let’s call this list, the unexpected bests. The ones that could have gone either way (love or hate) or were just completely unexpectedly something I loved. This list is in order of travel, not order of love, because I wouldn’t even want to try. All of these were such different experiences.
Varanasi & the pervasiveness of religion
Oh Varanasi. This is one that, much like all of India, you either love or you hate. When we arrived it was pouring rain and the city was muddy and deserted. Since we only had one night, we headed out anyway into the twisted streets that rise up from the holy Ganges. People sprinted to their next destination. The guru continued to sit in his alcove. The funeral pyres still burned, despite the drizzle. And when it stopped raining, the fog settled in, enhancing the city’s already very holy aura. That night we had front row seats to the nightly Ganges Aarti ceremony at a nearby ghat. The place was packed, but only a handful were foreign tourists, the rest were Indian and many, very devout Hindus on pilgrimage to this holy city.
Ever since I saw the movie the Darjeeling Limited, I knew I wanted to go to Darjeeling. (Spoiler: The real place is nothing like the movie, but it was awesome anyway.) Plus, they grow amazing tea!
Darjeeling is a precious little mountain resort that lays in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. In fact, you could see Kangchenjunga, the third (or second, depending on the ice caps) tallest mountain in the Himalayas from the doorstop of our local hosts house. Most days it was covered by fog (more on this later), but our last morning we caught a glimpse of the peak. We took a train ride on the famous, narrow-gauge track called the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a functioning coal train, and spent hours drinking the many Darjeeling Teas at Nathmull’s Sunset Lounge. The final morning we visited the Tibetan refugees who’s camp literally looks out over Tibet.
While I’m talking about India, I have to mention the fog. It followed us EVERYWHERE. But instead of it being a curse, it was a blessing. No one wants photos shrouded in fog, but it didn’t bother me. The monuments were empty. It gave the places we visited a mysteriousness that can be hard to envision when you’re sweating and the place is crawling with people.
I don’t have any photos of this (fail) but with the major exception of Burma, we had the BEST experience with trains around the world. India’s trains are top-notch. I did the research and got us on the highest-level trains possible (meaning if there were delays, these would be put through first) so we didn’t have any crazy, multi-day delays. I think the worst was 4 hours, but most of them were on time.
Thailand and China also had most excellent trains.
When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I received a travel magazine from my mom and in it were two photos that inspired this entire trip: Mt. Kyakito (Golden Rock) and Bagan. This made Myanmar, a country that had recently been taken off the “do not visit” list, at the top of mine.
It can be hard to fathom, and indeed to photograph, a plain with 2,000 temples spread across it. It was awe-inspiring, to realize what humans are truly capable of when called. At sunset, the pink rock glows under the setting sun. I talked about this a little in my earlier post on the temples at sunset.
(By the way, the United States (including the US Peace Corps) still calls Myanmar by it’s old colonial name, Burma. It is a political choice. I have chosen to call it Myanmar, as that is what it seems to function under in most of the world and my choice is in no way political. It’s just simplest.)
Chiang Mai was not originally on our itinerary, but due to some logistical issues with India’s visa, we ended up with two extra weeks here. That turned out to be a happy change! We LOVED northern Thailand and did so many fun activities. I wrote this up in a post at the time, and after everything, it still rings true. Chiang Mai was awesome and next time we’ll explore more of the surrounding area.
This was something that Ryan really wanted to do. I was willing to give it a try for him, but I had a ton of concerns. For my Open Water, we used Scuba Junction in Koh Tao, Thailand, and could not have been happier with them. They are such a world class organization and I felt in good hands at all times. It also turns out that I really loved scuba diving. So much so that we added more scuba to the end of our trip when a happy flight cancellation gave us several extra days in Israel. We went down to Eilat and did our Advanced Open Water and Nitrox with Shulamit’s Diving Adventures, another world class dive shop.
And if you are wondering whether to dive Eilat… it was amazing. The clarity of the water was absolutely jaw-dropping and coming up on the wreck in that clear of water was absolutely incredible. And so much marine life!
Also, I do not have one single photo of us in scuba gear, or of the places we scubaed, save the one above I posted to Instagram. That’s how you know I enjoyed something, when I forget to photograph anything.
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So that covers the first two months of the trip, stay tuned for The Unexpected, Part II coming up next week!