After conducting research in Bangladesh, Jon Collins set off to travel around South Asia, visiting India and Nepal on different occasions. He discovered that travel in the region was far different – and often more overwhelming – than his experience living stably in the Bangladeshi village. In fact, Jon left India unexpectedly early on his first trip there, unable to persevere through the noise and the chaos and the colour. The experience did not deter him from returning, however, and a year later, Jon returned to the region to explore further and deeper.
“I once read the musings of another traveler that stated that India was the closest you could ever get to reaching space without ever leaving the Earth. No country can compare to the experience you will have there – to the intensity of it all. It took me a long time to realize that I had been swept by the wave but had barely skimmed the surface. I had not unlocked any truths, or connected to people on a level I would usually do in any other place I explored. When my friend asked me to travel with her a year later, I knew the time had come. I hated being afraid and cautious of what the second adventure would bring. I was ready to ‘leave Earth’; to take it slow and let the pace of India devour me again.”
Was it difficult traveling in the region once you had lived stably in one village for an extended amount of time? Did the experiences color your perspective or perception of South Asia differently?
I think it actually made the traveling much easier after being stationary in Bangladesh. In many ways, it felt so familiar that it became like a second home. By the end of my stay in the village, I was walking with bare feet, no shirt and wearing a lungi, the sarong worn by Bangladeshi men. I knew the best places for biryani or street food, had sampled multiple recipes of jackfruit, had travelled in overly cramped boat for 24 hours, and had been exhausted to my limits following mistranslated English-Bengali conversations. I knew the price of buying a baby cow at market, the cost of purchasing land, and had even semi-adjusted to a humidity level above 90% everyday. Traveling simply added another element of interest as I moved from country to country or from state to state.
Most importantly, I learnt to expect the unexpected always. What I had experienced initially while researching was only the beginning of my immersion in the region. Senses were still thrown into overdrive with each rising sun. I was still surprised by cows wandering on tracks at train stations, the sour taste of an unripe jackfruit, burning tastebuds after a samosa or the number of people clinging to the top or sides of trains, buses or boats in peak hour. I still had shivers with every echo of the Call to Prayer at dawn, became mesmerised watching anyone submerge into the Ganges, or breathless at every new corner on a zigzagging track in the Himalayas. These moments made me feel almost powerless in the sheer scale of life surrounding me. In every corner of my eye, something new was happening. In seconds, you watch an act of kindness, an act of sin, one of lust, greed, desperation, exhaustion, or love; all occurring at the same and in the same point of vision. It is because of this that the ‘wow’ factor never leaves.
You’ve described India as a country that tested both your physical and emotional endurance. Can you share what your first experience there was like?
India is quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. Every person has a different immersion experience into the country, but all can agree that it is the most intense culture shock you will ever experience. It is an attack on all senses. It is loud and overly scented; food burns your mouth and makes you sweat; you are pushed around in the thoroughfare and your eyes are easily distracted or deterred from watching everything. Every day is the ultimate test of patience, endurance, wit, and humor. You crawl into bed exhausted, even if you have only been walking through sites or visiting gardens, or waiting for a train that has been delayed by 12 hours. Each activity becomes an effort, not only to navigate to the destination or place without maps, but to navigate the number of people trying to convince you that you need to buy spices, or rugs, or eat biryani in their cousin’s restaurant, or ride on their rickshaw, or stay in their guesthouse. Each day, interactions are blurred by a game of trust and mistrust, which takes you down a pathway of having the best or worst day with a friend or foe. My first trip was coordinated in the spring so I could witness the Holi festival of colour and travel solo through Rajasthan to get a taste for the country. While getting pummeled by colored powder in my eyes and ears, getting pushed around, and trying to photograph the festival in one of the largest pilgrimage sites in Vrindavan, I had an epiphany – and not of the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ kind. No matter how much I persevered, I could not stand it anymore. So I left India behind.
How did you feel as you planned your return home?
I was exhausted. I felt completely defeated and for the first time in my experience traveling, I felt as if I hadn’t connected with the country or the people. At Indira Gandhi airport, I remember thinking: ‘I never need to come back here. I’ve tried it, it’s done now’. The chapter was over. I have always hated the thought of ticking countries off as though they are part of a check-list, but I couldn’t help but think of India as a giant tick; a place I didn’t need to come back to.
And yet, the strangest and most overwhelming thing happened the moment that plane left the tarmac of Indian soil. I didn’t feel a sense of relief or of excitement to move on. Instead, I started to think about the billion people trying to make a living, earning each day, praying at sunset, piling into a luggage compartment or stacking on the rooftop of trains. I started to realize that though the country is chaotic, its systems work in the best way possible. Sure, they can feel absolutely crazy, convoluted, exhausting, and sufferable at times, but no person can argue that they work given the context. It occurred to me that life would feel stagnant without all that chaos. I suddenly had a different, albeit slightly removed, appreciation for the country and my experience there.
Given how soul-shaking that experience was, what motivated or convinced you to make a return visit a year later?
I once read the musings of another traveler that stated that India was the closest you could ever get to reaching space without ever leaving the Earth. No country can compare to the experience you will have there – to the intensity of it all. It took me a long time to realize that I had been swept by the wave but had barely skimmed the surface. I had not unlocked any truths, or connected to people on a level I would usually do in any other place I explored. When my friend asked me to travel with her a year later, I knew the time had come. I hated being afraid and cautious of what the second adventure would bring. I was ready to ‘leave Earth’; to take it slow and let the pace of India devour me again.
And how did that second adventure in the country compare?
India is India. I would love to say it got easier, but it didn’t. Instead, the experience was just different. This time it spanned over two months and was shared with a friend I had known for a very long time. What changed on the second visit was that I was no longer alone in experiencing the everyday chaos of the country. There was a shared responsibility, a shared stress, a shared motivation to push, and someone to listen, debrief, laugh, or cry with at the end of an exhausting day. Nothing changed the way I saw the country and nor did I expect it to. Even the second time around, the feeling stayed the same when being squeezed through the entrance of a train station with heavy backpacks, hearing the sound of muffled speakers blaring Bollywood classics at 3AM, with the intensity of each mouthful of a thali, smelling bodies being cremated in ceremonies on the Ganga and at each sight of saturated colours in every corner of the country.
We navigated the green jungles and tea estates in Kerala and traversed the crowded cities and deserts of Rajasthan to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, before seeking hidden wonders in the remote northeastern tribal states of Meghalaya. With each distance was a new lesson. When we became complacent, we slipped up. When we were over-cautious, we missed opportunities. The moment we crossed the border over to Nepal, that same feeling took control. I fell in love with India the day I left.
So you ended that journey in Nepal – can you describe your time there?
My time in Nepal was bittersweet to say the very least. I needed to plan and prepare for my time there – for what we intended to do. We were meant to be physically ready to trek in the Everest region for 29 days, but arrived in Nepal exhausted from our time in India. Consequently, our days in Kathmandu were spent relaxing and partying with friends we had met through our journey, while we slowly sorted out trekking permits and shopped for cheap shoes, jackets and sleeping bags. We were unwinding, but at the wrong time.
On the day of our bus ride to Shivalaya, a village where we intended to start the trek, my friend fell seriously ill. The next couple of days became an incredibly difficult test, as her condition deteriorated rapidly and the ability to find a solution was limited by the remoteness of our location in the lower Himalayas. With the only phone in the village, we had to coordinate an emergency helicopter to come in and she was taken to the hospital in Kathmandu to be treated. We’d spent every waking hour together through some amazing and tough days and were forced to say goodbye in a way we never anticipated. With my permits in hand and a 9kg backpack ready to go, I realized how important it was for me to finish the trek.
It takes a lot of strength and bravery to continue on such a physically and mentally-strenuous trek, especially solo. What was that like?
By flying to Lukla, I was able to alter the plan to a much shorter 22 days, which was still an ambitious target but one I knew I was physically ready for. By chance, I was lucky enough to meet two trekkers from New Zealand who we had shared a bus ride with a week earlier, and they asked if I would join them to the end. We were all there for different reasons and at different stages of our lives, so despite hiking together each day, it was very much an internal venture. The first days spent in the lower Himalayas made calves feel like jelly, and the heat from river valleys meant clothing was often soaked in sweat for 8 hours while you zigzagged up and down switchbacks on steep hills.
When oxygen started to become a precious resource at altitudes 4000m above sea level, the trek became more of an emotional battle. Together, we would have upbeat conversations in intervals, but spend days watching light cross the sky, from dawn to dusk, with the majority spent in silence as we looked out on the extraordinary landscape. Often at night, temperatures dropped so low in that I didn’t get changed or shower out of fear of getting colder; I just crawled into a sleeping bag fully clothed and fell asleep shivering. Drinking water also became an extraordinary effort, and despite my appetite being in overdrive due to the exercise, the prospect of dahl baht – lentils, vegetables and rice – twice daily was never enticing. We would count down and strategically discuss Pass days, where you would climb to altitudes of up to 5500m between a mountain pass before descending again. The three passes, the Kongma La, Cho La and Renjo La, required leaving at first light and trekking 13 hours through quite extreme conditions of snow and sleet, across glaciers and down sheer rock faces with loose scree. At every minute on Pass days I considered giving up. I would remain completely silent, in fear of speaking because I knew nothing positive would be said. Pass days conjured such incredible strength, to internalize emotions and push through physical and emotional boundaries. We all felt the same, so there was no need to complain or vocalize what we were dealing with. We were there as choice, and were there to complete the trek. The strenuous nature of the trek made those moments when we first glimpsed the glacial lakes of Gokyo Ri or the peak of Mt. Everest all the more mesmerizing and beautiful. We earned every second of those moments.
What an expression of resilience and endurance and perseverance. Do you think those traits are built through travel? Do you credit your own travel experiences to contributing to the growth of those characteristics in you?
Ultimately, humans adopt measures that they need in order to survive or thrive in a given situation. I like to think that I did develop these as a result of travelling, but not in the way many people would expect. It is not from exhaustion to the point of needing a way out, or watching the sunrise over the world’s largest mountain. It is not from an immense culture shock or the chaotic rhythm of a place. Often the qualities we adopt are from observing others around us and testing new ways to cope.
These are traits you see every day in South Asia as elderly women carry firewood on their head to heights of 5000m and above, as floods conquer entire mud or straw houses which are constructed from hand, or in the ways people interact in one of the most overly populated countries on Earth. It spreads from the tiniest of rural villages to the most crowded urban centers as people go about their daily life. There, if you do not push, you do not survive. The traits I found were only a mere reflection of what others were challenged with every day.
I like to think of travel as my stepping stone in understanding the world and seeing the human condition much clearer. When economic, social, political, and environmental constructs are inflicted or removed, we are after all, still humans capable of the same qualities.