TO travel is to discover. For every inch of the ground you have set your foot on, it becomes “your world” instead of “the world.” When you return, you are never the same person as before.
In 2009, Hong Mei quit her job and embarked on a year-long adventure that was spent mostly backpacking through India with her husband, American travel photographer Tom Carter.
“We entered India four times within the year, through four seasons, and experienced almost all the religious festivals,” said Hong at her recent book launch in Shanghai.
To keep herself occupied during long train rides, Hong bought a big leather-bound journal, into which she wrote notes and pasted whatever she had collected along the way. As she discovered the incredible aspects of India, she also discovered her talent in words.
When they came back to China, Hong started transcribing all her journals and eventually published her first gap-year travel book, “The Farther I Walk, The Closer I Get to Myself” this year in May. The young couple found that the journey strengthened their love.
Hong said the book wouldn’t be the same without Tom’s photos. Carter said if it were not for Hong, he wouldn’t have sustained to the end.
The book recounts how adventurous spirit took the Carters deep into India and its customs and led to the discovery of a real India. They watched ritual cremations; entered a red-light district and befriended India’s famous Hijra transvestites; and worked in a Bollywood production alongside superstar Aamir Khan. Hong became the first Chinese ever to be authorized travel permits in some restricted border regions. She and her husband were even kidnapped in a slum.
“The most popular catch phrase I have learned from the Indians is ‘I’m dying without notice’!” Hong said, laughing, “Every day in India is an adventure.”
Hong and her husband selected regions off the beaten path and spent a total of eight months — on an extremely limited budget — backpacking throughout the country, because they wanted to integrate themselves into local life and culture. They lived in flophouses with only cold showers, ate at cheap eateries, and took hard-seat trains or throw-your-bags-on-the-roof buses.
“We kept getting lost in some foreign regions,” Hong said, “Usually we’d just walk or ride around on the back of an auto-rickshaw looking for a place. But that’s the beautiful way of backpacking, isn’t it?”
From the perspective of a young Chinese woman of the 80s generation, Hong’s travelogue showcases the brilliant diversity of Indian life and culture, which she wrote humorously, passionately and earnestly. Carter, a critically acclaimed photographer, adds a wonderful dimension to the book with his beautiful pictures.
Q: How many states, cities or villages did you visit in India?
We estimate having visited at least 100 cities/villages, in most every state except the far north and northeast states. In all, we probably logged around 20,000 kilometers, maybe more.
Q: What was your daily budget?
Including transportation costs, our daily budget for two of us was around US$10-15. It was tragically scant, but that’s the life of a backpacker. It wouldn’t be “backpacking” if you traveled with enough money to live comfortably.
Q: What was the most memorable festival you encountered in India?
India has many festivals, but Kumbh Mela is particularly famous for the parade of naked Naga Sadhu (holy men who have renounced all their material possessions). It is held every third year at one of the four places across India by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, which means Kumbh Mela is held at each of these four places every 12th year. At Haridwar in 2009, we witnessed thousands upon thousands of pilgrims arriving every day to take a royal bath in India’s holy mother river, the Ganges. The pilgrimage is held for about one and a half months.
Q: Introduce one of the most impressive natural scenes you have visited in India?
The most impressive natural scene in India is its holy mother river, the Ganges. Beginning at Mount Kailash, it runs for 2,500 kilometers from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal. The river is life, purity and a goddess to the people of India. You can witness the full cycle of life at any point along the banks of this sacred river, from Hindu baths to public cremations.
Q: What did you expect/didn’t expect to see before traveling in India?
The thing I did not expect is that India has the world’s largest democracy. In Delhi, I saw thousands of protesting sugarcane workers shut down the streets of their nation’s capital. And I was in Mumbai on the Election Day of 2009. But, to be honest, the more we traveled and learned about India, the more it became painfully obvious that their “democracy” is imperfect and flawed and corrupt, leaving hundreds of millions of people impoverished.
Q: How did you feel as a Chinese laowai traveling in India? Any suggestions?
Sometimes it felt like I was the first. “We’ve never seen a Chinese before,” they’d say. Some would do a little song and dance from a popular Bollywood kong fu comedy called “Chandni Chowk to China.” That’s the extent of the average Indian’s notions of China. Suggestions? Smile back when they are shouting a greeting at you. They are just being friendly. Or dance and sing along with them; they love that!