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A Thousand Strange Places

“Traveling – it gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” ― Ibn Battuta

Hanging flags on top of a mountain in Lahahk, India.
Hanging flags on top of a mountain in Lahahk, India

Rattling across a steel bridge on the way out of Varanasi, my legs dangling out of the open train door, I watched the Ganges River pass below, the orange lights of the midnight ghats far in the distance, wavering on the water. Two teenage boys were looking over my shoulder, and behind them a half-dozen others were squatted on shawls and luggage. We were sharing the ground outside the toilets in a third-class sleeper train, near the doors. We would spend the next several hours there, in that way, our cramped bodies against one another, waiting for a seat to open up on the overbooked train.

It was not my first time to spend the night on a train floor traveling in India. Berths for all classes were often booked weeks in advance, and for when I made last-minute travel decisions, as was often the case (I’d decided my destination at the train station), I would always carry a shawl and a mat to make the floor more comfortable.

One by one, those who shared the compartment with me disembarked onto feebly lit stations across Bihar. No seats opened up, but when the compartment eventually emptied, I bolted one of the doors and leaned against it with my legs outstretched. As I wrapped the straps of my bags securely around my arms and legs, so that I would wake if someone tried to take them, I thought of a story my fiancé once told me: a family acquaintance of hers, who often slept near the doors as I did, was unfurling his sleeping mat one day when the train shook suddenly and tossed him out the open door onto the tracks, nearly killing him.

I wrapped the shawl around me and drifted in and out of sleep to the clank and shift of the rails. I was on one of my final extended rail journeys before returning to the United States after many years abroad. This particular adventure had begun in the north India, in Himachal Pradesh, near the Jammu & Kashmir border. I was a few days into a month-long rail trip to Bengal in the east, and then south to the southernmost station in India, at Kanyakumari — a single chapter in my dream of seeing as much of the Indian Railways as I could.

I’d spent more than three years traveling India, and although that time had given me enough stories to reflect on for many years, I still felt that I’d only begun to scratch the surface of that vast and multifaceted country.

Before my first visit years ago, I hadn’t been so interested in India. I simply came because it was a convenient halfway meeting point between Istanbul, where I was living, and Australia, where my girlfriend at that time was living.

Before arrival, I had done almost nothing to prepare myself. And India, especially for the unprepared, can be a daunting place. I remember how dirty and chaotic it seemed those first few days. But once the shock wore off and my mind cleared, I was deeply affected by what I saw and experienced. I only stayed two weeks, but the seeds had been sewn for a relationship that I knew would last the rest of my life.

But never could I have imagined, many years later, sleeping on the floor of a night train rolling across Bihar in pursuit of another unknown corner of the country, a corner that was no geographical place, but the wandering trains themselves.

Train in India.
A typical train passing through a town in India.

I’m not a fan of destinations. There’s too many of them and they’re all quite similar. For the most part, destinations are already defined. They already know you and the rest of your demographic are coming. Internet ads catering to your browsing history may have first aroused interest, or perhaps a magazine or guidebook. The trails are already roped off, the signs have been posted, and the gift shops set up. The best photo spots are often marked on maps handed out by the tourist bureau. The best shots are on sale at the postcard racks. Millions have come before you. Millions will come after you.

But every destination is also a place, the undefined, quiet, wordless soul of a land and its people. In the cool hours of dawn, before the tourists arrive, and in the kitchens and conversations of natives, the place lives on, mercurial, vast, and full of its natives’ dreams, in which you, the transient, are but an hour of stray clouds. If we think that we have truly experienced a place in the span of a short holiday, then we are mistaken. Places take time. What we often see is our own shadow thrown upon a stage curtain. We have not seen behind the curtain. With time, the curtain begins to withdrawal. Sometimes it never does. But there is no other way. Without time, one is doomed to destination.

The open road in India.
The open road in India.

Movement is full of distractions. Where will you sleep? Where will you eat? How will you get there? Move too fast, the places blur, and the people you encounter become mere utility.

There are two solutions: stop moving, or move mindfully. Stay in one place and watch the curtain withdrawal and the place appear, or make movement itself into poetry.

Between us and anywhere else is an unwritten story. There are oceans, deserts, cities, forests, fields of snow and ice, and, of course, the people who know these places deeply. Fly over them and you experience little but stale air and jet lag. Moving through them on wheels or in a boat enhances the story. Set out on foot and the story broadens even more. New characters appear who change your life and depart; others stay, while the oldest in memory fade from recognition. The traveler undergoes transformation after transformation. It is possible that by the time the traveler arrives, the original destination has been all but forgotten, and the individual who took the first step of the journey no longer exists.

Woman in hat rowing basic boat with bike on it in Ladahk.
Woman rowing basic boat with bike on it in Ladahk.

As a long-term traveler, I have become fixated on modes of transportation. In my early 20s, I hitchhiked almost everywhere. Some of it had to do with being broke. Mostly, it was the result of a lust for the adventure. When hitchhiking, I only had to have the vaguest of destinations in mind when I set out. Often I didn’t care when or if I arrived. Hitchhiking wasn’t about arriving; it was about surrendering to whatever happened. I never knew who was going to pick me up, or where they might take me. I could have flown, or taken a bus when I had the money, but looking back I see I would have been robbed of many revelations. I traveled all over Western and Eastern Europe in this way, over the span of many years. It was never about destination. Hitchhiking itself, and the kind people who picked me up, were the destination. The cities along the way were often merely rest stops.

As with anything else, so much time hitchhiking revealed certain things to me, such as the fact that it is the perfect opportunity to practice a new language. While living and traveling in Turkey, I carried a Turkish-English dictionary and language notebook along with me on all my hitchhiking adventures. I mostly tried to get rides with truck drivers, as they were usually going long distances and were always friendly and open to letting me ride with them. Stuck there in the truck with each other for so many hours, we would try our best to communicate our stories. Given that they rarely spoke English, we had to communicate in Turkish, which forced me to practice for hours on end. I would have my notebook out, looking up words I didn’t know, making notes. As the driver had nowhere else to go and nothing to do but drive, they were patient with my mistakes, and I was able to improve quickly. And once you become conversant with the local language, an entirely new country opens up to you, one that was invisible, inaccessible before. Suddenly idle chatter in the streets becomes comprehensible, and everything ones does becomes a lot less daunting.

The author hitching a ride on a truck.
The author hitching a ride.

By the time of my first long travels through India, my fixation had transferred onto train travel, a fixation that leads me to think about how certain obsessions can add richness to one’s travel experiences.

There will be a significant difference in the travels of those who come to India to see the Mughal palaces of Delhi, the forts of Rajasthan, or the Taj Mahal, versus those who build their travels around a particular concept, such as the Ganges River, tribal culture, or the Indian Railways. The latter will draw you away from destinations and bring you closer to places you may have never known existed. Concept travel will also expand your knowledge into a particular area, far deeper than it would if you stick to an itinerary of unlinked “star” attractions.

A train turning in India.
A train turning in India.

Then, each morning when I opened my eyes, the scene was no longer unfamiliar.

A steep valley lay at my doorstep. Beyond, the vast western stretch of the Himalayas rose into the sky above the snowline. Each cloudless morning the sun rose over the mountain range, and the light poured onto my fiancé and me as we lay in our bed through the front windows.

Then the routine: I would make coffee in the little kitchen while she watched with drowsy eyes. I’d open the door, allowing the fresh air in. I’d boil milk and prepare coffee. She would cook breakfast. After watering my plants and breakfast on the front porch, I’d begin my way down the trails towards the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, where I would spend my day reading and writing.

I was living in a place difficult to simply happen upon, a place one could only hear about from a local, or someone who’d found it by providence, a village about a half-mile below the well-known Tibetan-Indian town of Dharamshala, in North India. I lived in that village for over a year, after having lived in another similar, nearby village for year before that.

We pass by so many small places in the course of our travels, so many places we could imagine staying for longer. Sometime we build a life there in our minds, and sometimes we stay, receiving rewards beyond measure.

Having been born and raised on the flat plains of Oklahoma, village life in the mountains was the antipodes of much that I had known. Electricity outages were common, the nearest road was a steep climb up the mountainside, and monkeys were no strangers to the garden. I literally opened my door onto snow-capped peaks, and during the spring, thousands of butterflies would fly by every morning. I would sometimes spend up to an hour each day just lying in my hammock, watching the drama, observing the natural world, observing village life, which was often so much more interesting than any entertainment I could receive through a screen.

I did not feel like a visitor there. I did not feel like a transient. In a way, it was not travel in the sense of traveling to a place, but rather expanding myself into a certain mode of time, a circuitous, seasonal time that cannot be visited, only lived. In this sense, it was not a destination in the sense of a destination at the end of a line, but rather a circle of being one breaks through the boundary of and falls into, and the only thing that can break through that boundary is a disrobing of all previous notions of time.

Woman overlooking Hampi, India.
Overlooking Hampi, India.

I lived in that tiny village, day after day, month after month, breathing in the fresh air, getting to know more deeply my fiancé, as well as other locals and friends, tending my few, close relationships, with many days each week involving little more than a hike to the river or a series of conversations.

I could visit all the large cities in the world and, in a sense, not go anywhere as long as I looked at them with the same mind. It is only when you place yourself in an environment wherein the mind slows down or stops and everything you once accepted is thrown into a beautiful crisis that you are really even going to any place different. Wherever you go, you can go only go so far physically, and in the modern world, where nearly anywhere on the planet can be reached in a matter of hours or days, you can never really go very far, physically, at all. So often it is only in a narrative sense that true adventures can take place. Spatially, pretty much everywhere has been covered. Nothing is new under the sun, no matter how special you believe yourself to be. There can only be a shift in the mind, in which everything is new at every moment, and can be renewed with the blink of the eyes.

Standing on a hill in the evening.
Standing on a steep hill in the evening.

At times, if you are lucky, the moment comes when there is nowhere else you need to be but right where you are. The machine of creating futures powers down and all is quiet. You are there. There is no thought as to where you will be, or reaching for where you have been. You have expanded yourself into a place, melding into it. In such stillness, silence and understanding deepens.

There are many forms of travel, with different purposes and approaches, and each had its merits. Outside of packaged tourism, which has never much interested me, I’d like to think I’ve tried most of them, and from each I’ve derived experiences and qualities far worth their weight in gold. But that which has affected me the most deeply has been the slow, immersive kind.

My trips have almost never lasted less than a few months. Those who tell me of grand plans of weeklong vacations always make me a little uneasy. What can be experienced in a week? How many false conclusions would I arrive at if I only spent a week in a place? I understand they haven’t the time, and their priorities are doubtlessly much different, but I also know that deep travel requires time and a paradigm shift. It will be difficult for those who value their career or their social ranking within a particular community to give all that up to engage in long-term immersion travel. It is possible such travel will negatively affect your career. It may even end it. But are we our careers? Or are we simply beings thrown into a vast and beautiful world for the blink of the eye?

People waiting in front of the Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey.
People waiting in front of the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

For two years, in my mid-twenties, I lived in Istanbul. The city gave birth to me as an adult and was the harbinger of whole worlds of experience. I lived in seven different apartments throughout the city, but the most memorable was a house I shared in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in the heart of the European Quarter, with all my favorite bars, restaurants and the apartments of many good friends within easy walking distance.

It didn’t take long to feel like a fish in water in that city, with an internal map of all my favorite alleys and neighborhoods, and friends who would drink with me on any night of the week. And many nights we did drink, in the random apartments of other young expats or locals, or on the cobbled streets of Nevizade, or in the square below Galata tower. They were two of the most formative years of my life, and I savor every memory.

But then I left. I traveled around India, Nepal and the United States, and when I came back a year later for a brief visit, everything had changed. In a way, everything was the same — the same streets with the same buildings, the same shopkeepers, and the same waiters at the same restaurants – but the whole city was different because of the distance we now held between us. The Istanbul streets were no longer my intimate companions. They had become distant from me. And all of my friends were gone, save one, whose social circle was now unfamiliar.

I was there for three days, and I spent them wandering my favorite neighborhoods, just as I had for the years I lived there. I revisited the apartments I had lived in, and stood below the 3- and 5- and 7-storey windows I had once looked out of, recalling the friends I had lived there with, and the long nights, and all the mornings spent watching the sun rise over the metropolis, recalling what was important to me at that time and wondering how such things could have ever been important to me, and at how one’s life could change so completely so fast.

I drifted through the markets full of a deep and sacred melancholy, nostalgic for this foreign place, which I had called home, which had somehow felt like home more than the place I was born and raised. The stench of the fish and muscles and the roasting chestnuts carts, the Turks in their demure winter coats, their breath visible in the Bosphorus air, the tramcar dinging by with youngsters hanging off the side…

Boy holding onto a bus in Istanbul.
Boy holding onto a bus in Istanbul.

This feeling, this intimacy with a city that throughout my childhood had seemed such an alien and distant world… I marveled at how it had become entwined with me, how it was me, and I it, how we would never be free of each other. Our relationship was the fruit of a philosophy I had adopted when I first began traveling: that of immersion and dedication and deep interest rather than passing vacation, the refusal to view it as simply a destination. I had embraced it as a home and it had showered its gifts upon me, and transformed me.

But my seeing had also changed, and I now looked upon it as I might an old photograph of myself, questioning who it was, exactly, in the picture.

This is what long-term immersion travel does. It peels your culture off like a skin, exposing a fresh one, born of the old but moist with rebirth. All travel does this, but the deeper you go in time, the deeper the rebirth, the wider the eyes, and when these eyes are carried back into the familiar, whether it be into your home culture or into an adopted one, everything is thereby illuminated, and you yourself are illuminated with a deep and internal heat that almost nothing can extinguish.

David Joshua Jennings is a writer and photographer from Oklahoma, USA. You can find him at

More by David Joshua Jennings
The Secret Lives of Nomads
Turkey, Blindness, and the Philosophy of Traveling Slow
Living in the Queen of Cities
Travel and the Self
What You Should Know About Studying and Living in Istanbul
Study Abroad in Ecuador: Learning Spanish in Quito

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