This is a story about the mystery of mountains, a San Francisco swami, a stroke of good luck, a dabbawalla and the fine art of resourcefulness.
Long, long ago in the late 1990s, I lived in San Francisco. And next door to me lived a man who would one day become a swami. And he told me of a land called Ladakh.
But before I get to that, a photo.
Last June, Audrey and I attended a party celebrating the launch of the ANA (All Nippon Airways, a Japanese carrier) Dreamliner route from Seattle to Tokyo, thanks to a very last minute invitation from a fellow blogger. On our way into the party, Audrey dropped her business card into one of those big fishbowls.
“Don’t know what they’re giving away…”
Fast-forward a few hours and there’s one final prize: two business class tickets from Seattle to anywhere ANA flies in Asia. I’ve never – and I mean never — seen Audrey move so fast in my life as she did that night to take the stage when her name was announced. Think of the running start that gymnasts take before they do they do the vault.
Me? I won nothing, other than the right to beg to be the companion she’d take on the trip.
LESSON 1: Put your card in the bowl. Caveat emptor: It’s likely you’ll end up on a newsletter list or two (or three), but you might also win a free ticket to go halfway around the world in style.
We got to planning straight away.
“Where should we go?” Talk about a phrase of almost unequaled beauty.
We could return to Japan, but we’d already been there. Maybe countries we’d yet to visit like The Philippines or South Korea?
But then a thought crept into my head: If it’s business class, let’s go as far as it can take us. We looked at the list of possible cities. Mumbai was about the furthest. Problem was: we’d each been to India twice. (Notice that I’d hijacked Audrey’s free tickets almost instantly.)
Then, the answer. Ladakh, a remote mountainous region in northern India. And why Ladakh? Because of a faded photo I once saw on a neighbor’s wall in San Francisco over 15 years ago.
LESSON 2: When you win something, take it as far as you can.
San Francisco to Ladakh: A Connection
For this story, we have to go back a ways, to the pre-Audrey days (As difficult as it sometimes is for me to believe, I did exist before her).
In the late 1990s, I lived among leftover beatniks and hippies in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Amidst the crowd, our neighbors Nikki and William, a separated hippie-type couple – fascinating, difficult to figure out, full of life experience, early day Burning Man burners, Indiaphiles. William would eventually become a swami in India and take an oath to only wear orange for the rest of his days.
Among the various bits of eclectic strewn about their living room was a photo, slightly rippled and faded, featuring a landscape like nothing I’d ever seen in my life.
“What’s that?!” I asked
“Ladakh. You should go there.”
You know, I don’t even remember what for exactly. Deserts, barrenness, lakes of unparalleled blueness.
Why do we go anywhere? To go. To explore. To satiate our curiosity. To learn.
William painted a canvas of an exceptional place in India – one that was cool in the summer, one where Buddhists hang out in the hills. It was a faraway place whose name ended with a hard consonant and a soft consonant, aspirated and spoken in the tone of mystical faraway lands.
Ladakh. Mountainous. Tibetan. Buddhist. Remote.
To add to its forbidden-ness, the roads to Ladakh are usually only open two months out of the year.
Ladakh was there, in my head firmly. And it would remain.
LESSON 3: Ask questions. Always. Even of the seemingly mundane. Your curiosity will be rewarded by answers that will seed your dreams.
After the fragments of our 2012 and early 2013 schedule began to fall into place, we realized that the only time we’d really be able to take advantage of the tickets was June 2013 (as in now).
A vision. Ladakh. Now is the time. The roads would likely be open. That’s all that mattered. Roads that would get us there. So we were set.
Umm, not really.
The Dreamliner begins to run into operational problems – you know, the issue with the melting batteries, smoke and all — and was eventually grounded. We went back and forth with the ANA representative wondering if we’d even be able to use the tickets.
LESSON 4: Even free stuff can burn a hole…in your brain.
She suggested, “Fly from San Francisco and take the Dreamliner back to Seattle once it comes back online.”
OK, done. We can do that. Any excuse to visit San Francisco is always welcome.
My Many Passports and Visa Kung Fu
Next up: we needed Indian visas. Ah, visas, the big multi-headed hydra. A complicated mating dance with faraway places stacked with bureaucrats.
Get this: India, the outsourcing center of the universe, actually outsources its visa application process. Sounds like lipstick on a bureaucratic pig to me. But do I love the luscious irony of how the Indian government endeavors to eat its own outsourcing dog food.
In Berlin, we could only get 6 months. For although we were German residents, we were not German citizens. Hugely disappointing.
Then we stepped back. There were other paths, paths around the most apparent option.
We’d always coveted 10-year visas to India, but we’d basically have to make our way back to the U.S., our home country, to get them. The India visa outsourcing process requires that you have residency in the locale at whichever Indian embassy or consul you happen to be applying. The only place in the U.S. where we have provable identity: San Francisco, thanks to our California drivers licenses.
Aside: It strikes me that that the maze of our personal identity is so complicated that one day someone will figure it all out, whereupon Audrey and I will be hauled off to a Turkish prison for the rest of our lives. Cue scenes from the Midnight Express, please.
How do two Americans living in Berlin with only two days planned in the United States before a flight to India obtain 10-year India visas from an Indian consulate in the U.S.?
Enter some visa kung fu, young jedi. (Holy mixed cultural references, Batman!)
It goes something like this:
1. Pull your hair out trying to fill out online visa application. (I was already thin on top, but after this, bah!) I completed and submitted 10 draft applications before I finally got it exactly right. The India visa outsourcing center warned ominous things were in store if we submitted our applications incorrectly.
2. Mail your application and passport to sympathetic family member (moms are great) in the United States. Have them purchase money orders for visa and outsource company fees.
3. Sympathetic family member FedExes everything to the India visa outsource center in San Francisco.
4. Visa outsource center does the rest and sends our passports with India visa stamps inside and to a fabulous friend in San Francisco.
5. Fabulous friend in San Francisco hand carries passports to Toronto where we meet for TBEX.
6. Open up passports in Toronto, see the 10-year visa and do a happy dance.
But wait, how did you go from Berlin to Toronto without your passports?
Ah, good question. We each have two passports. Two American passports. And shockingly, this is actually legal for U.S. citizens if you can offer a good reason. Our good reason when we applied for ours last fall: “We are planning to travel to Israel and we hear that the Israeli authorities might not look kindly on passports mobbed with stamps from the Middle East, Iran included.
Boom. Second passports. We still haven’t made it to Israel, but these skinny 2-year validity passports came in handy – they went to San Francisco for processing while our primary 10-year valid passports went with us from Berlin to Toronto.
Complicated, yes. Doable, absolutely.
LESSON 5: Exploiting permutations and combinations, that’s resourcefulness. That’s also the secret to life.
LESSON 6: If you are a traveler from the United States, don’t let your U.S. driver’s license expire. You never know when you might need it to apply for a 10-year visa to India, or elsewhere.
Final Destination: Mumbai & Ladakh
So what are you actually going to do when you get to India?
Although we have a general route in mind, the actual details are fuzzy. (Translation: we really have no idea). We’re taking a plan-as-we-go and adjust-as-we–talk-to-people approach. This gets back to our travel roots, this is the way we roll.
We’ll be in Mumbai for a couple of days, where among other things, we’ll follow a dabba-walla (alternatively tiffin-wallah) for a day. Tiffin wallahs are the guys (and there’s a vast network of them) that deliver home made meals in stackable tins to family members working across the city.
Stay tuned for some cool dispatches from a luggage compartment of a local train.
We’ll also spend a morning and “community day” at Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest slums, with Reality Tours & Travel, an NGO invested in the community. Our visit to townships in South Africa was enlightening and broke down many stereotypes; we expect the same at Dharavi.
From Mumbai we fly to Srinagar in Kashmir for a night or two in a houseboat. This marks the starting point for the overland journey by bus to get to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The route usually takes two days but we may stop off at villages along the way to trek into the Himalayas and visit Buddhist monasteries. We’ll also use Leh as a hub for planning other hikes in the area.
As for how we’re getting back from Ladakh to Mumbai to catch the return flight to Tokyo and then to Seattle on the Dreamliner, that’s TBD. We have a few options in mind, including a land route through Manali, but quite honestly, we just don't know.
While we’d love for you to follow along in real-time with our Ladakh adventures, we’ve been told that connectivity and mobile data is rather limited in the mountains. It’s likely we’ll be checking out.
So Dan, is this just a long way of saying you’re going to India tomorrow?
Disclosure: This article and trip is entirely unsponsored. That’s to say we officially owe nothing to no one. Unofficially, don’t get me started. Om.