The last few weeks have been characterized by a new job, new routine, new home and all the tedious and sometimes irritating complications associated with moving to a new country. In the midst of all of this, Simon and I have become the owners of a new hostel in Madrid.
This hostel happens to have our same address, and we don’t charge our visitors.
Since moving in, we have had three guests come and stay with us, a few of whom we met in Southeast Asia and traveled with for a while. As we have been getting to know Madrid, they have been around to experience it with us. We have also done a lot of reminiscing about Asia– the bumpy roads we traveled, the sweaty hostel nights we slept and the crystal clear water we swam.
It’s taken a while for me to decompress and reflect on the 4.5 months I spent backpacking this year. I can’t believe it was only a few months ago I was laying on the beaches in Cambodia, exploring temples in Burma, and navigating the decrepit sidewalks of India.
Why did that all feel so normal at the time?
The amount of memorable experiences from that trip could fill an entire binder, but there are a few that take place in the forefront of my memories.
Trekking in Nepal
When people ask me about my favorite place or experience, I always mention trekking in Nepal. Before embarking on the short trek for 5 days (most treks are closer to 10 days or more) I wasn’t exactly excited. I really only committed to doing it only because “it’s the thing to do in Nepal.”
This time following the crowd paid off.
The simplicity of those five days was refreshing, to say the very least. Every morning I got up, put on one of the two outfits I packed, and started the day’s walk. Each morning we began beneath clear views of snow-capped summits in the distance, and each afternoon we arrived at a new stunning village. We rested our sore legs with warm cups of tea and long games of cards and went to bed ready to do it all over again.
Ten days of new friends and chaos in Northern Thailand and Laos
When I think about the craziest times we had, it was here. Many of these experiences were just bizarre, but luckily we met a ton of new friends to share them with. This list warrants bullet-points.
- Getting Thai massages by convicts at the women’s prison in Chiang Mai
- Drinking bottle(s) of whiskey to pass the time on the two day slow boat to Laos.
- Crashing our motorbikes in the middle-of-nowhere northern Thailand, having to clean out our wounds with what felt like pure alcohol, then going to the hospital for further inspection.
- Getting said wounds on my arm become infected and having to let Simon scrap out the infection every night. (As I cried like a baby.)
- Seeing a mini-bus steam towards us in front of our hostel, then yelling and hitting the back of it after almost being run over. We were then met with a crazy Thai man jumping out of the driver´s seat and pulling out a huge knife. As I cowered away, Simon was then chased around the hostel as many of the other guests were just finishing their breakfast. (Thanks to the wonderful owner at Spicy Thai Backpackers this man was reported and then released from his driving job.)
- Sleeping in the hottest “shed” of a room for $3 a night in Laos. The goliath cockroach in Dan’s mosquito net came for free.
- Exploring waterfalls by motorbike and tubing down the river in Vang Vieng.
- Taking two, ten-hour local buses on consecutive days which were not only used as transportation for people, but also roof tiles, a hospital patient, a barrel of toxic materials, a basket of ducks and a motorbike (appropriately placed in the aisle). The lack of working air conditioning was a given.
Yes, this all happened in a span of about 10 days.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
We aren’t accustomed to dealing with death lightly in the Western world. We separate it from our day-to-day and try not to think too much about what will happen to us when we pass.
Varanasi turns these ideals upside down, then confronts you head on.
Sprawling beside the River Ganges (the holiest river to the Hindu religion) Varanasi is not only a spiritual center, but also one of the oldest cities in the world. Indians from all over the country dream of ending their time on earth by being cremated on banks of this river, and specifically on the banks in Varanasi.
One day, while having a lassi within the narrow stone streets of the old city, out of nowhere came a procession of “untouchables” (the lowest Indian caste). On their shoulders they were carrying a deceased man to the river whom was covered by an orange cloth and surrounded by incense. Another time while on a slow row boat, we passed the piles and piles of firewood on the banks which were engulfing the bodies into dust. Later on, we wandered into a ghat and saw an uncovered dead man’s face only a few feet away. He was laying there awaiting his family to carry him to his burning spot. Black feet came out of the high piles of wood as the families and loved ones watched and waited.
Hoi An and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Thailand gets most of the applause because of its scenery in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam is equally– or even more– beautiful than its famous neighbor. And while Thailand has embraced a lot of Western brands and habits, the Vietnamese still cling tightly to its path of socialism and traditional values.
Second to scenery, food is also what I think of when reminiscing about Vietnam. Hoi An, in the middle of this long narrow country, sticks out specifically. We spent about four nights in this little riverside city, and as we waited for our clothes to be finished at one of the many tailor shops, we tried a different restaurant every night. Only the Vietnamese can make vegetables and fried tofu taste so amazing, and I’m still craving a plate of morning glory, some white rose dumplings or a crispy Banh Mi sandwich.
In Vietnam, we traveled simply. We explored during the day and went to bed early at night. We didn’t try and rush, fit too much in, or bother with going out at night. It was relaxing to backpack through a country this way.
Jaisalamer, Rajasthan, India
Wandering around inside the walled city of Jaisalmer is like walking through an Arabian themed amusement park, without all the crowds. The entire fort is built on a ridge of sandstone, which protrudes out of the surrounding desert like a life-sized sandcastle. We met two new friends a few days prior to arriving there, and ended up spending all of our days together, just chatting, dodging cow patties and roaming inside the city walls. During the day we had long rooftop meals and got lost within the narrow stone streets. At night, we had an authentic ‘bhang lassi’ and took some beers to the top of city walls to enjoy the cool desert breeze and the expansive desert view.
From Jaisalmer we had the chance to take a camel safari into the desert towards Pakistan. We ate thali under the stars and slept on the dunes after a few hours of card games by the campfire.
While traveling, you are always looking to experience a place which feels as far away from home as possible.
Jaisalmer feels like that place.