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Travel--Of People and Places

September 2006
Travel--Of People and Places

Who would have thought of running into a dog from Hampi (South India) with her owner, a "global" citizen? on treks in South America? But such are the quaint joys experienced by frequent trekkers and tourists VIJAY & MADHURI VEMULAPALLI who feels that these excursions are at least as much about people as they are about the places.

"I am going to take you on a spiritual journey," declared our spirited guide on the first day of our four-day Inca trek to Machupicchu. While that was an exaggeration, his passion for his roots clearly rubbed off on many of us, evoking an increased interest in those forgotten civilizations.

My wife Madhuri and I are enthusiastic trekkers and travelers. One of the joys of travel, particularly on the less-trodden paths of the world, is that one gets to meet all kinds of people. Interacting with the natives of these far off lands is always a treasured experienced, but is limited by the language barrier. On the other hand, on our recent trip to Peru and Bolivia, we had a lot of opportunity to get to know our fellow travelers from other countries.

Most were in their twenties, but we also met a few who were in their fifties and sixties, and that gave us some silent inspiration. We saw tears of exhaustion and tears of exhilaration at many of the memorable landmarks. Scores of mostly European and Australian youngsters were on extended breaks of six months to a year, ready to experience the world before they went off to college or start a job.

We hiked the Inca trail with a group of software engineers from the U.S.—but of different nationalities: one from Venezuela, one from Canada, one from France, one from India, and three from Taiwan. What a diverse representation of this great land of immigrants.

The dog from Hampi

While returning from our trip to Tiwanaku, an ancient city and the capital of a pre-Inca civilization that thrived between 500 and 1000 AD, the only other non-local on the bus was a young Caucasian woman who was probably in her mid-twenties. She helped us out when we had a problem with communication. Her long hair, which was in dreadlocks, had already drawn our curiosity. We wondered if it was more than just a fashion statement. On the passenger sheet, I noticed, she'd left the space next to ‘nationality' blank.

She also had noticed us, apparently, because she started to chat by asking where we were from. When we answered with our standard phrase, "Living in the U.S., but originally from India," she gave a big smile and said, "That's what I thought. You see, my dog is distracted each time you talk in your language. I think she recognized her fellow countrymen. She is from Hampi (in Karnataka, India)!" We laughed heartily, and thereafter the conversation flowed freely.

To put it in her words, she is "originally from East Germany and now living in the?World." She had been traveling for more than five years (ok, that explains the hair) through Europe, India, and South America. For the first one-and-a-half years, she went across Europe, and then entered India through Egypt and Pakistan. Starting in Bombay, she traveled in India for more than a year. She went down the West Coast through Goa and Kerala, and after visiting the South, went up the East Coast to Varanasi and Dharamsala.

Visitors to India can be divided into two groups: either they love it or they hate it. "I loved it," she said. "One year was not enough at all. I will go back." She gently patted her black dog as if to assure her that she would take her back to her village. The young woman added, "During my stay in Hampi, I saw this small one-month-old puppy shivering in the cold on the roadside, and I couldn't hold myself back." She named her Sheera and has been caring for her for the past three years!���

After becoming more comfortable with her, thanks to the dog from Hampi, I asked her how she'd been financing her travels for such a long time. "I do fire shows on street corners and earn just enough for me and Sheera," was her unexpected answer, taking us by surprise. She also does odd jobs, and sometimes her expertise in massaging comes in handy. However, it's the fire shows she learned in Spain that she finds the most useful for making a living. During her two-month stay in Dharamsala, she earned a decent living, teaching fire show tricks to other Westerners. While there, she learned yoga and meditation, which she continues to practice occasionally. She had been living in silence for the past three days with a local family in Tiwanaku.

Her parents live in a small place near Berlin. She stays in touch with them through occasional emails and calls them on Christmas Day. "How long are you going to be on the road?" was my last question. But mid-way through the question, I answered it myself: "No plans." She nodded. Our forty-minute bus journey came to an end. After adjusting her huge backpack on her rather slender frame, she shook our hands to say good-bye, and walked off into the crowd with Sheera, the dog from Hampi, by her side.

The family of six

Having finished the first two tougher segments of our trip (Inca trek to Machupicchu and the Salar De Uyuni tour), we were on to the more relaxing and final segment of visiting the islands on Lake Titikaka. In addition to being the world's highest navigable lake at an elevation of 12,500 feet above sea level, and covering more than 9,000 square kilometers, Lake Titikaka has immense religious and cultural significance. Several Andean civilizations and religions (Tiwanaku, Inca, etc.) have originated from this region. It is here on this special place that we met this special family of six.

We first saw them walking down the street of Copacabana to catch the boat to Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun) and Isla De La Luna (Island of the Moon). All of them were holding hands in a line, almost covering the entire width of the street.

In the afternoon, the boats reached Isla Del Sol and we had more than three hours to relax and hike up to the top of the mountain. This was not a steep climb, but even moderate climbs become quite strenuous at these elevations. As we took our time to climb up the mountain, we watched this entire family making their way up merrily to the top of the mountain. At difficult sections of the climb, the mother would carry the youngest on her back and the father would get the next one on his shoulders.

At the top of the mountain, we had a magnificent 360 degree view of Lake Titikaka and could really appreciate the magnitude of the lake. We saw snowcapped mountains far away on the Bolivian side of the lake, a huge expanse of deep blue water, and several islands and beautiful landscapes all around, near and far—this was a place to behold.

The family also made it to the top. I couldn't resist my curiosity and asked the first obvious question to the father. He said they are from France and both of them are teachers by profession. The kids are a girl of age nine, a boy of age seven, a girl of age five, and a boy of age two-and-a-half. They have been traveling for the past nine months in South America and have four more months to go before returning. This seems to be their way of life because, four years ago, they traveled in the USA with their three kids for nine months.

The first obvious question was about the education of the children and they answered it quite casually that they homeschool their children. Every morning they teach them for one to two hours—no weekends and no holidays. The travel schedule itself presents an occasional break from that routine, like that day to catch an early morning boat.

As we watched them coming down the hill, we were reminded of the scene from the movie ‘Sound of Music', where the family dances down the hills. We were amazed at the sheer joy, energy, and enthusiasm in those kids. We had spent just fifteen minutes with them, but they made a mark on us with their down-to-earth demeanor. We thought, what a regular couple and a regular family, enjoying life in such an unusual way! On our way back, we seriously talked about whether we could do something like that with our daughter. Can it be for at least 3 months, if not a year? Would it be four years from now? Nine years from now? Maybe. Why not? Ten years ago, we didn't dream of trekking the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas (which we had done about five years ago).

Anything is possible. And, if it ever happens, we will remember this special family and this special place.

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