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I heart Cambodia PART TWO

Jun 20, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized

(By Cori) Cambodia continued….after our time in Battambang in December 2011 we headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and left there in time to spend New Year’s on the coast in a seaside fishing town called Kep.  These final two weeks in Cambodia continued to convince me that I was in a very special country.  Read on!
 
Phnom Penh turned out to be, unexpectedly, a really memorable city

Usually we end up disappointed by capital cities when we’re traveling…they either are not tourist-friendly, too polluted, crowded, may not be safe, and just don’t have a great vibe or cozy feel.  Yet Phnom Penh ended up being a very enjoyable place to pass 3-4 days. Why?
 
We made a new friend. While waiting for our bus in Battambang we started chatting with a guy who looked like he was either Canadian or American (we were right – he was from Denver Colorado). Thom turned out to be a kindred spirit and we happily shared life and travel stories all the way to Phnom Penh and then Thom told us to pick a place for dinner and he’d treat us that night. WHAT?! We were so surprised and also super excited…this would be the first time during our travels (10 months at this point) that we’d actually be eating at a nice restaurant and not giving thought to budget. Yay! After an amazing night of food and beers and lots of personal, professional, and travel stories, we were all fast friends and spent the next two days sightseeing and dining together.  You meet a lot of people while traveling, less I suppose when you’re a part of a couple but still a good amount, yet being a picky person in general, it’s not often that I want to spend extensive time (usually a few hours is enough) with new people, or have any urge to follow up on a conversation that was started. Happily, Thom was different and joined a short list of people that I’ve met during my travels who I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to keep in touch post-trip.


 

We ate well.  Phnom Penh, catering to tourists and expats alike, has an abundance of restaurants to choose from – from the very budget conscious to the gourmet foodie, featuring cuisines from all over the world. Who knew? We had our first taste (literally) of this at the dinner Thom treated us to at a lovely restaurant called FISH where we feasted on salmon, snapper, and all sorts of yummy fishy appetizers that I can’t recall now.  Dinner for another two nights in a row (yes, shameful but we couldn’t help it) was at CANTINA, a Mexican restaurant that for the first time in all our travels, produced exceptional Mexican food. Homemade chips, guacamole, and amazing beer battered fish tacos made us instant fans. But our favorite meal? Our last day in the city while we were waiting for our bus to Kep we were searching for a quick and easy lunch close to the bus terminal where we could stow our big bags and have a cheap meal. Most of the restaurants that fit the bill were Chinese, and the one we stumbled into had friendly staff that greeted us with waves and smiles and our waiter cheerfully gave us menus that were in Chinese only (but had pictures!) and pantomimed that we should point at things we wanted. We ended up ordering what seemed like dumplings of some sort, a plate of string beans, and a plate of some tofu saucy dish. Sounds bland, right? Well when they came out we realized that we were in for Chinese family style dining with a big bowl of rice in the middle of the table and individual small bowls to scoop in rice and a portion of the main dishes. It was beyond delicious – the highlight for me were the crunchy string beans with a garlic sauce that was so unbelievably good I ate probably 80+ beans. A totally unexpected experience and one that set us up well for our bus ride to Kep.


 

We went to fun markets. We had read about the Russian Market (so called because of its popularity among Russian expats during the 1980s) and heard it was a great place to get cheap designer goods and souvenirs so we figured we had to go. It was set up as most markets are, with narrow and dark aisles absolutely overflowing with vendor stalls. What was for sale ranged from hardware to cosmetics to food (both raw and prepared), clothing, souvenirs, you name it! I was in search of high quality goods and got lucky when we found a stall selling crocodile skin accessories. Very unlike me, but I fell for a crocodile wallet and Brandyn managed to bargain down to a mere fraction of what I would’ve paid at home. The vendor wasn’t happy about it which meant we had gotten a good deal. With my fun purchase out of the way it was time to move on to checking off an item on Brandyn’s ‘to do’ list – trying durian. For those not in the know, durian is a big fruit (maybe the size of a small watermelon) with a spiky exterior that has a reputation for being really really stinky – like a very ripe bleu cheese or old gym socks.  In many places (like hotels) its banned. Literally – there are signs with pictures of durian and an X through it. So OF COURSE we had to try it, and we had been on the lookout for a small piece of durian that we could purchase, but most markets only sold the whole thing, which was a waste since we only wanted a tiny slice and we certainly couldn’t bring the rest of it home since it was banned in our hotels. But we got lucky at the Russian market! We found a fruit vendor that was willing to slice off a chunk of durian for us, and the second she put the knife to the flesh whoo-whee you could smell that! We carried our little styrofoam-packed bundle out to the street and opened it up. Fleshy, pale yellow fruit in a weird bloated oval shape – unappealing. We all tried it (me, Brandyn and Thom) and agreed it wasn’t worth all the drama but it was an unusual fruit. It was creamy and tasted a bit sharp (kind of like it smelled) but it was the texture really that I didn’t like. Very slimy yet firm, hard to describe but not a sensation I had before.



 

But the market fun wasn’t over! Brandyn was tired of shopping so went back to the hotel to rest and Thom and I pressed on, visiting Central Market with a goal of buying fun jewelry. Well, we did it. We were greeted with rows upon rows of glass-encased displays of gemstones…loose ones, earrings, rings, necklaces, everything! It was totally overwhelming but I quickly zeroed in on a few cases and chose a huge aquamarine ring and a pair of pink ruby studs. The super friendly staff bent over backward to convince me the gems were real (not that I really cared- it was cheap and fun to shop). Part of their spiel was to pull out a small hand-held machine that they focused on the gem in question and pressed a button and some special light went off and beeped alerting me that it was a real gem. They then passed the machine over a fake gem (which looked the same) and the machine made a wah-wah noise or something to tell me ‘not real’. Sigh. No matter, I got some shiny jewelry for less than $30 so I was happy.
 

We watched group exercising. Along the banks of the Mekong River there was a wide promenade/walkway that was a good spot for gazing at the river, the French colonial buildings and restaurants across the Boulevard, or the groups of locals exercising (one of my favorite sights).  I had become accustomed to seeing pairs of older people wearing track suits and walking slowly around a park, swinging their arms energetically, or doing a graceful Tai Chi routine, but the sight in Phnom Penh was a bit unique. There were about 4 groups of maybe 20 people each out along the promenade. Each group had a leader (my favorite was a young man in tight jeans, tank top and sideways hat) and a giant boombox (yep, old school kind) and was leading the group in a sort of random aerobic dancing routine that involved a lot of movement, but yet so slow that it didn’t seem like it would cause anyone to break into a sweat. Totally out of synch with the upbeat pop or rap music playing, but everyone was having a good time – from kids to the pretty darn old – and it had a wonderful communal feel to it. We debated for a moment joining in, but opted for dinner instead.
 

We learned a lot about Cambodian history. All cities should ideally present opportunities for visitors to learn about that country’s (or city’s) history and experiences, and typically that takes the form of a museum or a city tour that features a few prominent cultural and governmental buildings. But in Phnom Penh we were impressed in what they had to offer by way of a history lesson.  Two of the first things we did in this city were visit the Killing Fields (or Choeung Ek in Khmer) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Center or S-21 prison camp. These are important historic sites serve to educate visitors as well as memorialize victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
 
The Killing Fields were a 30 minute tuk tuk ride outside of the city and the three of us (Brandyn, Thom and I) were not entirely sure what to expect.  It is one of many places throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of people (I think 17,000 at this specific site) and left them in mass graves.  The area is now essentially a memorial, and looks like a wide field with various signage where old buildings used to be, and indentations in the earth where the graves were/are.  The self audio tour was perfect, allowing us to move around at our own pace listening to the explanations of various locations on the site and also some survivor stories. It was all quite emotional and I was thankful that there was shady space to sit and reflect, and ironically, absorb the horrors of what you were learning about in a quite serene environment. I had a heavy heart throughout most of the audio tour, just finding my mouth dropping open at the descriptions of the mass executions and the barbaric ways the Khmer Rouge had of killing its own citizens. I will never look at a palm tree the same way again after learning that the stems (which if you look closely have razor sharp edges all along the side) were a ‘cheap’ method for slitting people’s throats (no need to waste bullets). We also learned that after it rains you can still see bits of bone, teeth, and fragments of clothing that are washed up out of the ground…which we did. Chilling. The memorial stupa was an impressive site – a tall glass sided Buddhist stupa  that houses the categorized remains of victims that have been excavated from the Fields – maybe about 8,000 skulls in all, arranged by age and gender and body part…skulls on one shelf, arm bones on another, etc. The sheer volume of the place just made you stop and stare and think.






 

Our trip to the S-21 prison proved to be just as educational and shocking/horrifying as the Killing Fields. The prison is located in central Phnom Penh at the site of a former high school that was taken over and turned into a prison in 1975. Here the Khmer Rouge took innocent citizens, labeled them as political prisoners and tortured them (often in the form of interrogations to try to get them to admit they worked for the CIA – what??!!), and then those that didn’t die in the prison were often sent to the Killing Fields to be executed. Few survived. We hired a guide to help us better understand the prison and its place in Cambodian history. He took us to visit several cells that literally made me queasy. They were bare for the most part, with a rusty metal cot, some chains, and usually several blood stains (real) on the walls and/or floor. To illustrate what happened in the cells, most of them had an enlarged photograph on the wall of a victim in the aftermath of some type of torture. This was probably the worst thing I had seen…because they were real photographs and you couldn’t even in some cases recognize that it was a human on the metal cot because they were so disfigured or bloody. We also saw hundreds of ‘mug shots’ that were on display; all prisoners were photographed upon arrival to S-21 and some of them had their prisoner number safety pinned to them – through their skin, not their clothes. And many of them were young! Even worse was knowing that they were all innocent people just living their lives and then captured and corralled into prison by a completely wacko regime.  And this was happening between the time that I was born and turned 3. I was really thrown off by that – thinking about parallel lives and what I was doing and my parents were doing at the time that Cambodians were being slaughtered. Unreal.
 
A high point for me of visiting the S-21 prison was meeting 2 of the survivors. On January 7, 1979 when Vietnamese forces seized Phnom Penh and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 7 surviving prisoners at S-21. These individuals had escaped death because they had skills that their captors believed to be useful (for example, one prisoner was an artist and was forced to draw portraits of Pol Pot). Two of these men were at the prison selling (and signing) books about their experience and greeting visitors. Our guide introduced us to one and translated for us as he described his time at S-21. I was incredibly moved…this man had bright expressive eyes and a friendly face and though he was speaking Khmer he was making eye contact with me and speaking as if we had a connection. He was showing us his fingernails that had been removed as a form of torture and it was hard to look at him without tearing up at all he had been through. Absolutely emotional.



 
While visiting Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng wasn’t the happiest or most fun part of our time in Phnom Penh, it was definitely the most important and made me feel connected to Cambodia in a way that no country to date has.
 

Crabs, pepper and new beginnings

For New Year’s we wanted to be somewhere totally relaxing and not be in a city so we took a bus to the Cambodian coast.  Quick highlights…
 
THE BAD: BEACHES The beaches at Kep are bad. Well, the beach at Kep is bad. It’s just one sad lonely strip of sand that is dark yellow and off a major (though still quiet) road, with no chairs, nowhere to change, and no cozy palm trees to sit under. The water was dark blue, and not that inviting looking, in spite of how ridiculously hot it was. There were a few locals playing around and wading in the water but it hardly was what you would call a tourist draw.


 

Here’s the thing about beaches: you never know whose opinion to trust about them. Throughout our travels we’ve had lots of people telling us that beach X or beach Y was so gorgeous and we’d get there and it would be mediocre at best. I’m a beach snob.  A beach isn’t a good beach until it has turquoise crystal clear water and white sand. We have had people tell us about a number of beaches on this trip and many of them have been just okay. Ko Lanta in Thailand, Mui Ne in Vietnam, Palolem in Goa…we went to all three of those with high expectations and were disappointed by the beach and the water and (in some cases) the atmosphere.  So we were skeptical about going to Kep and in some ways, rightly so.
 

THE GOOD: CRABS Apart from the beach, everything at Kep was awesome. The focal point of the town (for us anyway) was the Crab Market, where  every day at the pier you can find women hoisting crab traps out of the water and a market area where locals are buying and selling crabs, grilled squid or sting ray on sticks, different fruits, sauces/spices, and tons of other fishy-smelling but unrecognizable stuff.  Next to the pier is a row of rustic restaurant shacks that hang over the water and sell DELCIOUS food at bargain prices. Nothing better than sitting at a little wooden table staring at the sea, ignoring the stray dog sniffing at your legs and digging into a huge pile of meaty, perfect little crabs with kampot pepper (a local specialty) for $5.





 

THE FUN: NEW YEARS It was a strange New Year’s Eve but a good one. We wanted to kick off the night by going to the Crab Market for happy hour sunset watching but our timing was off and by the time we left our guesthouse we realized we were not going to have time to walk. Luckily, a passing motorcycle offered us a ride and we awkwardly squeezed all 3 of us on and zoomed off. Try and picture it if you will: This was a standard small motorbike and  we had a smallish man driver, then me literally with my breasts pressed up super tight against him, and then Brandyn (who is a giant in comparison to most people in Cambodia), trying to stay on the back and not have his feet drag on the ground. Definitely got a few looks from people on our way to the Market but for $1 it was a bargain ride.
 
We luckily caught the sunset and enjoyed a few beers and rounds of cards, and then moved on to another restaurant on the water and ordered what else but CRABS. We were planning to head back to our hotel to rest before heading out to some party closer to midnight but then loud booming music caught our attention and changed our plans. Next to the restaurants on the pier there were huge speakers set up playing terrible music at a deafening level, but there were a bunch of locals (mainly kids) dancing to it so it was a fun people watching moment. We decided (read: I insisted and Brandyn acquiesced) to stay and watch for a while so we bought a bottle of Jim Beam ($10!) and a few cans of Coca-Cola and made some classy budget drinks. It wasn’t long before a dancing woman approached us and pulled us to our feet, so we asked a nearby couple (travelers) to babysit our bottle of Jim Beam and we were led to the dance floor where we let loose to a random mix of super loud songs. Once the initial bout of self-consciousness was brushed aside, it was liberating to be swirling around among kids, adults, locals, and a few travelers. The mood was upbeat, everyone was laughing and having fun and I have to say it is probably the most fun I’ve had on New Years.
 
Later that night we went to a nearby hotel that was having a New Year’s party. While there wasn’t really an official countdown, there were fireworks, or rather, there were loud firecrackers that gave off some light being set off all around the pool so that the air was super smoky and the local dogs were freaking out and barking and running in circles around the fireworks. Not really our scene, but we did the requisite midnight kiss and then retreated to our guesthouse to sleep, lulled by the beat of the music which didn’t stop until 6am. A memorable way to bring in 2012!





 

THE BEST: RELAXATION Our final days in Cambodia before we crossed over into Vietnam were spent relaxing, which was nice after a lot of touristy activities in Phnom Penh and Battambang. Kep is a small, sleepy town with not too much going on  – there are no museums to visit and few sites to see so it’s a great place just to be. We spent most of our days reading or writing or researching Vietnam on one of the decks of our awesome hotel (The Boat House – which is not on the water and has nothing to do with boats but is a beautiful and airy guesthouse with fantastic staff). Every day the staff would ask what our plans were that day and while we felt a little dumb saying “um, just sitting here” that was the truth! Since we weren’t really on a tight timeline we didn’t feel like we had to rush out and see or do a million things – just soaking up the atmosphere was all we needed. We did take a nice walk through the National Park to get our blood pumping one hot morning, and we also rented a motorbike and zoomed around town a bit, but aside from that and daily walks to the Crab Market we kept things pretty low key.




 

The good thing about all that relaxation is that it made us itchy for a new adventure, so leaving Cambodia to head to Vietnam wasn’t as sad as I thought it would be. We left filled with great memories and a certainty that we would be back. Thank you (Or khun) for an amazing experience Cambodia!


Thailand Part One

Apr 13, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, Uncategorized, Zimbabwe

Our itinerary was simple. Fly from Kathmandu to Bangkok on December 7th with a minimal layover in Delhi, then store or luggage at the Bangkok airport for a few hours and explore the city before flying to Krabi in the south of Thailand and taking a ferry to Koh Lanta the following day arriving on the December 9th. This was all easier said than done; getting to Thailand was a debacle. It certainly wasn’t as easy as it was supposed to be and drove me to writing a letter to Kingfisher Airlines which borders on maniacal with tones of an author diagnosed with borderline personality disorder to mildly amusing. We arrived midmorning but it felt like we were swimming in air. We were not jetlagged, not tired, but somewhere in between, numb.

Our next flight wasn’t due to leave for another 8 or so hours. I walked as briskly as I could while shaking from Dunkin Donuts coffee and exhaustion to the Air Asia ticket counter. After standing twiddling my thumbs I realized that I needed to draw a number rather than stand in line. I didn’t understand why there was a line if we all had to draw numbers. My number was called and I gently strolled to the counter with a smile and the simple request to please put me on one of the two flights in between when I was standing there and when mine was due to leave. I left thanking the woman with a smile having not immediately realized that she had told me that it was simply not possible and there was nothing I could do. She was just so nice and I was so stunned, that I couldn’t comprehend being disappointed. We opted for a high class hotel by the hour that was built for travelers with lack of sleep and a layover. We got a room with aircon, cable television, and a shuttle service for six hours and 900 Baht (USD$30). The exchange rate is approximately USD$1 = 30 Thai Baht.

The place was classy but not worth 900 Baht. We immediately fell asleep and woke a few hours later. Still in a fog I walked down a few streets admiring the fact that there were cars and they were new Hondas and Toyotas at that. I was amazed by the condition of the roads and that there was no garbage strewn about. I couldn’t believe that there were sidewalks and that no one was honking. I also couldn’t believe how bloody hot it was. After a brief stroll I finally came across a restaurant filled with patrons who worked in the industrial areas around the airport. We both hadn’t eaten any seafood in a few months and Cori hadn’t eaten chicken since the raw chicken incident in Delhi and before that probably in South Africa six months prior. I ordered the two things I could recognize and happily the cheapest things on the menu to boot, one pad Thai with chicken and one shrimp pad Thai for me.

The meal was devoured. One thing that I’m sure most people don’t know is that pad Thai is one of the only Thai dishes were using chopsticks is appropriate. Most Thai food is eaten with a fork and a spoon. The fork is used to shovel food with one hand onto the spoon in the other. Food is eaten with the spoon. The Air Asia flight was brief and we were greeted by an extremely nice hotel worker who took us to our hotel in Krabitown. We got a fan room with no windows for around $18 a night. We had to get used to the extravagant Thai prices. I was blown away by how quick the internet was. I was getting speeds about 3x faster than my cable internet at home. We downloaded the Grinch That Stole Christmas and a few other movies that helped cure our homesickness over the holiday season.

We left the next morning for Koh Lanta. Koh means island in Thai. So anytime you see Ko or Koh, just know that it is island. We broke the budget for a few nights because it was Cori’s birthday and we wanted to stay someplace fancy. I think in these two days we called everyone of our family members because the internet was so fast and free. This was the first time in almost six months where we had good internet that didn’t cost a fortune. Believe it or not but internet in Africa is bloody expensive. In South Africa it costs about $4 to download the information the size of a gnat fart.

For the amount of money we were paying, we were surprised that breakfast was not included, that it was a 10 minute walk across the main road through another resort to get to the beach, and that the nearest restaurant was an Australian burger place. It did however have a decent kitchen and I made one good breakfast and one bad one because the water was turned off so I had to use what little water we had to boil eggs instead of washing the previous morning’s dishes. The beach in Koh Lanta is not one to write home about. I called Cori a beach snob in my previous blog about Goa but after spending so much time in Zanzibar, I had now become a beach snob. We’ll just say Koh Lanta is not Koh Zanzibar (yes, I know that Zanzibar is an archipelago not the name of an island, and therefore this is a lame joke. But most people don’t know that fact).

Cori’s birthday was great. We woke up late I made breakfast for us and we went to the beach. We lazed around for the better half of the day at the Funky Fish beach resort. It was a nice place with a really good atmosphere. We had a few beers and sat on triangle pillows. The triangle pillow is a Thai staple for lounging around. It is perfect for using as a pillow for your head, to lean back on against your lower back, or even to put one underneath your knees to prop the legs up. They’re excellent and dirt cheap. Unfortunately because of how bulky they are the cheapest we could find them on the internet was for about $125 a piece back home. I think that I may go into the triangle pillow business.

We have always had the rule of ordering new and exciting foods instead of sticking with what we knew. I pointed at the menu and what came back mystified me. It was a shrimp that was surrounded by a crunchy noodle with spicy sauce. It was excellent. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it again in all the time we spent in Thailand but I would love to revisit it. Koh Lanta isn’t a crazy party island like Phi Phi or Samui but it was a full moon the night of Cori’s birthday and we were a little worried that we’d be kept up until dawn. After an amazing dinner on the beach, we walked back across the street and on our way noticed that it was a full lunar eclipse. This was one of the few times I’d ever seen that. It was pretty incredible.

After spending two overpriced nights in a nice place far from the beach, we decided to spend 450 Baht on a bungalow about 25 meters from the beach. We went back to Funky Fish. We liked that it was on the water, had really good food and is run by an overly friendly ladyboy. We spent four days in total on the beach lounging around and enjoying the relative silence in comparison with Kathmandu.

Ladyboys are a funny phenomenon. They are extremely feminine and live their lives as women. Some are pre-op some are post op, but they are all a staple in Thai culture. I by no means have any kind of repressed attraction to them. I am however attracted to the fact that they are lucky enough to live in a place as accepting as Thailand. After traveling through a few places in Africa where that kind of thing would have had you killed, it was a welcome change. There is a general rule in Thailand that when in doubt, she probably has a penis. Even when not in doubt, she could probably have a penis.

Like I mentioned the beach wasn’t the best in the world, but it was an excellent spot for sunsets. I couldn’t believe how every night we were there we blessed with an incredible one. The other part that made Koh Lanta worth visiting was the food. Every dish we had whether it was at Fat Cats or a shed on the side of the street was epic. We have more pictures of us eating than we do of us on the beach.


We took a scooter around and cruised the length of the island a few times checking out all the different beaches along the coast. The island has great amenities and made us feel like we could be anywhere. It was clean, safe, and relatively inexpensive. The bike broke down a few times that day and we ran out of petrol, but otherwise it was fun and I only tried to drive on the right hand side of the road twice out of habit.

We broke the budget one day and went on a ‘four island tour.’ It sounded good and got a resounding review from an Irish couple we made friends with. The place I was most excited to see was Koh Mook with the Emerald Cave. It was the inspiration for the movie The Beach. The Beach was not filmed there but on Phi Phi Leh. The book described Koh Mook perfectly. We hopped into the water about 20 meters from a giant limestone karst. The cave was nearly impossible to see. We had a guide behind us and one in front of us to lead us. They both had flashlights and without them it was pitch black. We swam for around 15 minutes until we arrived at one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. It was the most pristine beach imaginable with limestone cliffs at least a hundred meters up all around. The sand was so white and pure it squeaked when walking on it. The water looked fake and the pictures we took did it a disservice. Imagine floating rock a hundred meters high and maybe a hundred across that is shaped like a wheel with a tiny cave that opens up into the middle of the wheel. The wheel has the most incredible beach imaginable and insane forest and plant life inside. It was ethereal.


On the way to visit the other two islands our boat’s propeller shattered leaving us marooned for 30 minutes until we could get a tow from another boat. We had lunch and did some snorkeling. The snorkeling was pretty good and come to find out fish really love rice. I threw handfuls of rice in front of my face while snorkeling so that I could immerse myself completely in the life of a hungry fish. After we snorkeled for a while another boat came that was going to take us back to the pier. For clarification, we had visited four places, but all of the guests concurred that being marooned didn’t count as one. The French guy who worked for the snorkeling company said (insert insanely thick French accent here) ‘so we see everything and we go back now, no?’ We overpaid for the trip by about $40 so I came a little unglued and said ‘NO, you didn’t take us to four places and we paid for four.’ ‘But the weather is bad and the sea is rough, so we cannot go to the fourth place.’ I called him on his BS and settled on sitting on a deserted beach for about 20 minutes so that he wouldn’t have to hear me marveling at the atrocity of not seeing the fourth island.

Something worse than being stuck on a boat with an extremely pompous Frenchman happened that day, our camera broke. It was the third camera from the trip. We had two stolen in Quito, Ecuador the day before we were going to leave to the Galapagos Islands and now this one. We got a lot of use out of it and took over 14,000 pictures which considering that I probably took more pictures with that camera than most people in their lifetime, I am happy. Goodnight sweet prince you will be missed Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS 2011-2011.

We took the amazingly comfortable overnight bus from Krabitown to Bangkok. We were a little apprehensive and on edge about entering a metropolis over 7,000,000 inhabitants after relaxing on a beach for four days. Bangkok is an incredible city but our first impression left us craving more. All overnight buses seem to arrive before the sun comes up. Our bus was due to arrive at around 7am however we arrived at 4:30am. Arriving too early is even worse than being stuck in traffic at times. We had absolutely nowhere to go and didn’t want to get a taxi ride into the city at that hour. We sat around for an hour and a half until the sun started to peek up. We found out that we had gotten off at the wrong terminal about 30 minutes further away from where we wanted to go. The taxi drivers were merciless, it was so early in the morning that the taxi stand operator wasn’t working and the drivers could name their own price and refuse to turn on the meter. I finally managed to get a price for half of what they were originally telling me but probably six times more than it should have cost.

We had reservations at a place near the infamous Khao San Road. The taxi took us directly to our place and because we had a fixed price we didn’t have to worry about him driving us all over Bangkok to milk the meter. The door was locked and a metal grate similar to the ones in New York had to be lifted. A groggy woman opened the door, took our bags, and impolitely let us know that we were welcome to return after 11am and not before. We did what anyone else in our position would do. We wandered around the streets of Banglamphu and Khao San Road. It was amazingly well organized and chipper for being a street known for being a haven for drunken travelers leaving their country for the first time. The 18-20 year old British male who’d been out drinking all night continuing into the morning demographic was well represented and out in numbers. Most were friendly and knew that this was simply what you do on Khao San as not to expect any dirty looks from anyone.

One great thing about the area is the breakfasts. In every country there is a hangover food and on Khao San you can get said hangover food from around the globe. The American is almost always cheesy eggs, toast, potatoes, and bacon. The Englishman is eggs, beans, toast, a fried tomato, and sausage. The Aussie is usually the granddaddy of them both which will be eggs, beans, toast, a fried tomato, potatoes, sausage, bacon, and ham. I don’t know if it is a competition, but if so I think that it would seem from the menu alone (forget my personal experience here) that the Aussies can drink; or get really bad hangovers.

Lack of sleep is like a hangover but without the fun of the previous night. I ate my monthly quota of pig and marveled at the amount of people having beers while we were having brekky. The street smelled like a frat house and was stained black from spilt booze. We did a fair amount of walking around and walked into an internet café to skype with family. One hangover breakfast, a few family conversations over, and 200 times getting turned around later, we could finally get our room. The room was one of the most spacious in Bangkok. What it had in space it lacked in windows and air circulation, but for 350 Baht we were in good shape.

Commence operation buy a new camera. We knew we wanted another Cannon because we love them and know how to use them. However, being that we only had a few months left on our trip, our budget was greatly diminished.

Thailand is completely in love with their king. It is not creepy or fear driven like in a lot of nations. This is genuine love. His picture is proudly adorned nearly everywhere and at many street intersections. Before any movie at the theater there is a 4-5 minute propaganda film about the king showing him do a number of different things, visiting farms, holding babies, smiling with strangers, whatever. It is kind of cool and extremely unique.

The back of the 1,000 Baht note has a picture of the king from the waist up. Adorned behind his neck is what? A Cannon camera. It is the camera of choice for the Thai people. Cannon sales in Thailand are significantly higher than any other brand. If you win on Jeopardy because of this morsel of knowledge, please keep me in mind. We felt lucky that we hadn’t wanted to buy a Nikon.

We went to MBK. MBK is kind of like a cross between an entertainment mega center, an indoor swap meet, and a congregation for tweens escaping the oppressive Bangkok heat. There is an entire floor that sells knock off clothing, another for cameras and cell phones, and everywhere you look is crap to buy. 9/10 of what is under the roof of this building is garbage with flashy packaging. I managed to do some excellent bargaining and got a camera for around 70% of what I would have at the Cannon store.

New camera in hand it was time to start getting temple fatigue. A disease that is common amongst travelers after seeing hundreds of temples in Asia, they all start to look the same. I will say though that the reclining Buddha is truly spectacular. Wat Pho that houses the reclining Buddha is one of the biggest and oldest temples in Thailand. The Buddha is over 150 feet long. It was well worth the visit. We walked into the complex through an open gate and wandered around for about an hour before we saw the ticket booth. Not believing in Karma but knowing it would only help it, we paid the entrance fee and even gave a donation on the way out.




We decided that we were going to go to the Sunrise Temple or Wat Arun even though it was the afternoon. To get there we took the ferry across the river, but before that we had the most amazing lunch to date. We had fried tofu and seafood padthai on the side of the road for less than 100 Baht. The Sunrise Temple was great too. Again it was a building that we could climb all over and roam freely. I don’t think I’m going to visit another American or European site until I’m too old to climb on things so I don’t get upset that I cannot do so. The structure itself is about 250 feet high with very steep steps and an awesome view from the top.




We took the water ferry from there back to our neighborhood in time for happy hour. We didn’t bring the new camera with us I think out of preservation. The next morning we left super early for Cambodia via train, tuk tuk, bus, and taxi. But more about that later.

India Part 2 of 2

Apr 2, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, India, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

Check out my first blog about India click here

More India

Contents
Going South
Goa
Hello Kerala
The Kerala Backwaters
Munnar
Trivandrum
My Open Letter to King Fisher Airlines
Agra and the Taj Mahal
Varanasi
India Wrap Up and Stats

It is funny to read what I write at the time that something happened versus what I write months later. Maybe it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In all honesty I did not like India all that much and to date it was my least favorite place that we had traveled. Looking back at emails and short journals it seems so trivial why.


Going South

After visiting over 50 caves in two days it was time for the beach. We’d managed to book tickets for a 3AC train to Goa. We’d read that the Panaji, the capital of Goa was supposed to be great. The Lonely Planet mentions it as a place that we cannot miss and the Google image search made it look lovely. But in order to get there we’d have to leave Aurangabad at 6AM arrive in Manmad Junction at 7:45AM and wait until the 19 hour express train would leave at 10:20AM.

I purchased these train tickets with the help of our friendly and trustworthy rickshaw driver in Aurangabad. We had managed to get the tourist quota seats and were ready for some beach! The walk from our guest house in Aurangabad to the train station during the day was around 20 minutes of dodging and weaving cows, motorbikes, and potholes. But, at 5:30 AM it was a leisurely and brisk 10 minute walk with the obligatory stop for chai along the way.

One bizarre thing about Asia is that the hotel workers sleep everywhere. The night before we left, we informed the front desk workers that we were checking out very early in the morning and that we would be happy to check out and pay that evening. They politely declined and told us that they would be happy to check us out in the morning. When we got down stairs there were two women sleeping on the floor and another three men sleeping behind the counter. They were unavoidable and we now understood why we would checkout in the morning. It would be impossible for us to reach the front door without stepping over a few bodies along the way.

This was the case in most of the hotels that we’d stayed at. In Nepal, a friend of ours had a late night snack attack and tripped over someone sleeping in the kitchen. In Vietnam, we checked into a hotel at 4AM and a woman fully dressed crawled out of a closet and registered us. 24 hour reception undoubtedly means that someone will be sleeping fully clothed behind the desk and will get you checked in at a moment’s notice.

We took a non-aircon seating car to Manmad Junction. The trip was brief and the early morning air felt good streaming through the windows.It was much more refreshing than the recycled aircon in some of the other train cars we’d ridden in. Manmad, to that point, had been the dirtiest place I’d ever seen in my life. It was appalling. Cori and I played ‘count the human shit’ with this picture (WARNING DO NOT CLICK IF YOU’RE SQUEAMISH). We’d planned on just hanging around the train station and getting a bite while waiting for our connecting train. The plans had changed; we had to get the hell away from Feces Junction.

We took a short walk around the station and it seemed like it was just as dirty as the station itself. Hanging over the busy street, we saw an advertisement for a three star hotel in town. We got the first rickshaw we saw to take us there. It was heaven in comparison to the train station. It was immaculately clean; the hotel workers were extremely friendly and enjoyed a chat. This was home for the next two and a half hours.

We got back to Manmad Junction and boarded our train which was surprisingly on time. The train that we joined with was on a 38 hour journey from Delhi. We picked it up right at halfway through its voyage. We boarded and found our seats. The train was a smorgasbord of curious children and overtired parents. We took our seats which were supposed to house 6 people, but we were assaulted by everyone’s children and the seats were now stuffed with 12 people. I was hoping that we’d get an opportunity to rest on the trip, but I was wrong. Cori’s bunk was on the top there were two kids eating up there staring down at us and my bunk was on the bottom, so we couldn’t rightly just put the bunk in position and force everyone to lie down. We were stuck being awake and had to converse with everyone.

At first the curiosity and questions were fun. It was interesting to interact with the families. One child asked me one of the best questions I have ever been asked, ‘what do you do when you get angry.’(SPOILER ALERT: he was going to find out the next morning) I had no idea how to respond. Come to think of it, and after thinking about this question for months, I still don’t know how to answer. I said that I yell as loudly as possible into something so people can’t hear. He said that he quickly drinks something very cold.

Some of the pictures from the train ride are pretty good.

We found out that the car that we were on there were 108 families from Delhi that were all on their way to Goa for a holiday. They were all on the same 38 hour journey together and were going to visit Goa for three days. Here’s the math: 76 hours of train ride for 72 hours of holiday. We had 10 long hours before it was time to sleep. Those hours were filled answering tons of questions. One of my favorite was, ‘are you on effbee?’ my response, ‘am I angry?’ his response, ‘no, no, no, on FB, Facebook’ ‘yes, I am.’ ‘My father won’t let me join effbee, he says it is not for children.’ His father at that point put his hand on my knee saying, ‘We will become friends on effbee.’
“Have you seen a giraffe?’ yes, many
‘What do you think of India?’ it is a lovely country
‘Where else have you been’’ Africa and South America
‘Everyone in America is rich, you are rich, no?’ No, I am not rich
‘Have you seen the movie The Bodyguard?’ with Kevin Kostner? ‘Who? No, with Salman Khan of course.’
‘Who is your favorite Bollywood actor?’ Aamir Khan (because it sounds like American)
‘What kind of work do you do?’ (this is my favorite, because anywhere I’ve been, an acceptable response is simply) I’m a businessman.
‘How long have you been married?’ two years
‘Why don’t you have children?’ shoulder shrug
We shared some photos from the safari we went on in Africa which the kids loved. After a while it seemed like we were becoming baby sitters to the children. They kept bombarding our compartment and were throwing their wrappers and garbage on our floor. After many more tedious hours it was finally time to go to bed. I reached up to the top bunk to grab my blanket. It was where the children had been sitting and it was a crumpled mess of crumbs, wrappers, mud, and garbage. I asked nicely if the parents would please swap me their sheets because their kids ruined ours. I got the head bobble in return. I swept up their crap from the bottom bunk and discovered that my sheet had a piece of candy stuck to it. I discarded my sheet and slept on the bare bed. I was so livid I couldn’t easily fall asleep. I played Angry Birds until I was finally tired enough to sleep.

The train was due to arrive at 5:40 in the morning. Around 4AM I awoke to my feet being pushed aside and the father of the candy kids was now sitting on my bed. I lost my head. My immediate response was, ‘what are you doing sitting on my bed? Wake your wife up, don’t wake me up, sit next to her, not next to me. What is your problem, what the hell is your problem? You have no respect for me or for my wife…I asked you a question, what is your problem?’ His response head bobble, head bobble, head bobble. Our train arrived just after 6:30 and we sat in an awkward groggy silence for the next few hours while waiting to arrive in Goa.

Looking back, I feel like I overreacted a little bit, but his actions were completely uncalled for. He should have sat down next to his wife instead of moving my legs at 4AM to sit next to me while I was sleeping. You know what, after writing this I feel like I under-reacted, f- him. Regretfully, I did not receive his friend request on ‘effbee.’


Goa

Panaji wasn’t a hectic city like most of the others we’ve visited, but it certainly didn’t have any drawing power either. Panaji at one point was crucial to the Portuguese trade routes. The Portuguese would leave Portugal, going south to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of the horn of Africa. They would then stop in Angola, Cape Town, Mozambique, Zanzibar, and finally to Goa. The architecture of the city was pretty cool and a lot of the old buildings reminded me of Zanzibar. It was the first time that we’d seen any Christian churches in India and because of the Portuguese influence there were many. We planned on taking a sunset river boat cruise and eating some seafood before heading south to the beaches in Palolem.

We arrived so early in the city that nothing was open. We had a difficult time getting our bearings and had to walk all over the city to find a guest house in our budget that wasn’t a complete and total dump. We finally found a windowless room that wanted payment up front. After another 20 minutes of walking we found the one ATM that was working and were able to put our bags down and finally relax. It is a craps shoot when you book an overnight train / bus if we’re actually going to be well rested or not. This trip was in the ‘or not’ category.

We took a nap and woke up shortly after lunch time and decided to run around and see the town. We were having a hard time narrowing down which sunset cruise we would take between one with karaoke, one with a balloon tying clown, and another with a dance party on board. We opted for the dance party boat and purchased the tickets.

One thing that I despise it is are towns that don’t serve food between 2 and 5PM; Panaji was one of these towns. Unless your Spain siestas aren’t part of your culture. Please serve food. It was impossible to find anything to eat anywhere. We went to at least 10 restaurants that were all closed. I think I settled on a bag of chips and boarded the dance party boat. We were less than politely pushed to the back of the boat to make room for enthusiastic party goers. Cori and I were about the only two non-Indians on the boat. Everyone was on vacation and gearing up to party.

The entertainment for the evening was provided by an emcee and a few dancers. The emcee was speaking in Hindglish which really threw us off. He’d say half a sentence in English then finish in Hindi. It was impossible to follow. The first form of entertainment was a traditional Goan dance. The next was a dance where three people tied a giant knot on stage by what looked like three people running around in circles. To this point I felt like we wasted money. What happened next was pure insanity. The emcee announced that it was time for the women to come up on stage and dance. They played a song and the women very politely danced with one another and it was very calm. The men meanwhile were frothing at the mouth, not watching the women dance, but waiting for their turn to get up there and shake their things.

When it was the men’s turn insanity ensued. It was as if Bollywood had taken smoked angel dust and swallowed a whole bottle of Viagra. The men gyrated their hips and vigorously humped the air. They seemed to be out doing one another’s ridiculous dance moves not to impress any of the women in the audience but to impress one another. It was literally one of the most bizarre displays of machismo that I have ever seen. I would place bets that it will be the most bizarre display for quite some time to come. The music was also really bad, it sounded like electro that may have been listened to in Russia 15 years ago. Towards the end a few of the men started hopping on the backs of one another and riding each other around. Just as quickly as it started it was over and the boat was docking for the next round of insanity.

I’d made friends in Africa and held other men’s hands as a way of showing friendship. Nothing seemed too weird until I would see Cori snickering to herself and realized that I was walking down the street holding another guy’s hand; when in Rome. The handholding in India looks like it goes beyond friends holding hands. Sometimes it looked more intimate, gentle, and caressing. We were instructed by and had read that showing any kind of affection between a man and a woman was frowned upon and disrespectful to their culture. Cori and I had developed a system for showing affection in public; we would give each other a good strong pat on the back like the other person was choking rather than kiss or hold hands. I found it peculiar that when the women had the stage they were very calm and danced alone but together. The men on the other hand were all dancing with one another. At no point did the sexes intermingle.

In no way is it uncomfortable for me to see two men that are in some kind of a relationship to show affection for one another by holding hands or having an arm around one another. I don’t find it wrong nor do I condemn anything that they may do in the bedroom. The young men in India seem starved for some kind of human interaction. It is socially acceptable for men to hold hands, caress thighs, spoon while waiting for the train, and for groups of men to intertwine their legs while laying down in public. I think that because it is such a sexually repressed society that the young men would just reach out for one another rather than wait until their parents found them a wife. It was an interesting topic of conversation between us and other travelers as well.

The next morning after having Goan curried crab for dinner we took the public bus to Palolem. This is the same beach that they filmed the opening scene from the Borne Supremacy before Jason Borne’s girlfriend gets shot in the head and drives her dead body off the bridge. The scene from the movie pretty well sums of Palolem, we didn’t see the scene until a few weeks later when we were back in Delhi saying, ‘holy cow, that’s Palolem!’

I am married to a self proclaimed ‘beach snob.’ Every single beach we go to is compared with the north of Venezuela where they apparently have nice beaches. Zanzibar was acceptable to her, but I could tell that Palolem was not going to cut it. It was nice but not very nice. The water wasn’t inviting and the sand wasn’t white. One nice thing was that beer in Goa was much cheaper than in the rest of India. We ended up paying 700 Rupees for a bungalow on the beach with no AC. It was a terrific view but we wouldn’t be staying long.

The stores along the stretch of road behind the beach were nice and the restaurants served a variety of foods. I tried Mexican food one night and couldn’t believe how good it was. We actually had refried beans with our fajitas. I tried to buy train tickets from one of the many travel agencies but found out that to get to Kerala the next available train was the following week. If I wanted to try to get the tourist quota or last minute deal, I would have to go to the station in person about 45 minutes north of Palolem in Panaji first thing in the morning in order to purchase them.

I woke up at 6:30 to get out on the 7am bus so that I could be the first in line when the office opened at 8am. I sat next to a gentleman from Lumbini, Nepal; the birthplace of Lord Buddha. He gave me a number of tips on Nepal and answered tons of my questions. When I arrived at the station, I was first in line. I asked for the tickets that I wanted either the last minute deal or the tourist quota. We had given up completely on taking any more 3AC trains after the last two fiascos. He told me that there were two seats available heading south the day after next. I told him to please book it. His phone rang and he answered it. He talked for about two minutes. When he hung up the phone the seats were no longer available. I booked the tickets for the night train leaving three nights from then at 10PM.

Cori took a yoga class which was pretty consistent with the last one we took in Udaipur. She returned to our bungalow unsatisfied and I think she even said something close to, ‘maybe I’m just not a yoga person.’

We had an uneventful and relaxing stay. We took a ton of pictures of cows on the beach and did a lot of walking around. It was nice to try Goan dishes. They’re very distinct but reminiscent of Zanzibarian food. A lot of the spices were close to that in Zanzibar but with more Indian flavor. I had seafood for every meal and loved most of it. The curries were a menagerie of tastes that were similar but not quite the same, tastes that could place me somewhere familiar but I couldn’t remember where, and tastes that would made me wish I could eat like that everywhere.

The internet was consistent, fast, and the cafes were always in aircon. We used it frequently to plot our next destinations so that we wouldn’t get marooned like we had in the past. We decided where we’d stay in the backwaters of Kerala and which B&B we’d go to in the southern highlands. We also booked a flight back up north . This was the first time in our travels that we’d actually planned ahead.

After buying some souvenirs, eating like champs, and enjoying the scenery we departed to make the journey to Southern India. Our train was scheduled to depart at 10PM so we decided to have a few sundowners to make time roll by. The sunset was incredible. It officially closed the chapter on Northern India for us. We were going to a more tranquil India than we had known up to then.

We took a taxi to the train station and arrived around 30 minutes early at the advice of everyone. The train we were taking going from the far north in Armristar and arriving in Trivandrum at the far south west of the 63 hours later. We were both eager to be taking this train as it was the first time that we’d be in the 2AC car. Meaning that there’d only be 4 of us to a compartment instead of the circus act we’d experienced before. Upon arriving at the station we saw that our train was delayed by three hours. Fortunately, there was an internet café that we ducked into and waited for an hour and a half or so. The internet wasn’t working and despite telling the man running the place, he felt a cultural obligation to attempt extortion. We gave him a few Rupees for loitering and decided to meander.

We wandered the platform pacing entire length of the platform back and forth in the ocean cooled air. We again were so curious seeing men who looked as if they had fallen asleep playing twister with one another. One thing that I admire and am jealous of is that Indians seem to be able to sleep anywhere. Women will lay down a sarong or scarf and be asleep in minutes. Whole families will doze on a single sheet and be wide awake at a moment’s notice. It is like napping in war.

By the time that our train arrived, we were beyond tired as well as being jittery from the beginnings of a hangover as well as the stress to stay awake and wait for the train. Boarding the 2AC train was a pleasant experience. I was surprised by how much cleaner the inhabitants kept it and that there weren’t any stowaways sleeping in our bunks waiting for us to ask them to leave. The sheets were clean and nicely folded awaiting our arrival. This was a pleasant and very welcome surprise.

For pictures from Goa please click HERE


Hello Kerala

I blinked and found myself nine hours in the future and a few hundred kilometers closer to Ernakulam. Ernakulam is one of the largest cities in the state of Kerala and is a transportation hub to get anywhere else in the state. Kerala is interesting because it was the first place in the world to have a democratic election which elected a communist government. It was a jumping off point for us to bathe with elephants, visit the famous Kerala backwaters, and go up into the mountains into Munnar, tea country.

We were bunked with a couple from Ernakulam who were on their way back home after doing some business in the north. The woman didn’t say a word and the man didn’t acknowledge Cori’s existence; nevertheless he was the first Indian person I could candidly ask questions about India to. One story was particularly interesting. His father worked for the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (India Railway) and was a higher up. He told me about a time when he was going home on the train 32 hours from Delhi to Ernakulam. His father had given him a free ticket to travel 2AC. He missed his train and took the following train. There was only unreserved coach available. He said that by the time that he arrived there was only standing room and he was forced to stand for the entirety of the journey. What was interesting about the story was that he said that it was the first time in his life that he’d interacted with people from the lower castes and the first time he’d ever felt entitled.

I asked him about the train’s infrastructure. Being that we’d only been on one train that had been on time, I thought that I would try to get to the bottom of it and solve all of India’s transportation problems in one simple abstract conversation. He blamed it on the infrastructure the British left behind, saying that in sections of the country there was only one track so you would have to wait for another train to pass before being able to go yourself. I have no idea and won’t bother to Google any of this; all I can say is that if you need to be on time, fly.

Ernakulam was a blip in the guide book. Arriving already felt like we were in an entirely different country. The pace seemed less frantic, the people were smiling more, and it was incredibly clean (in comparison). We were impressed to say the very least. We’d eventually come to Ernakulam three times and stay on the same street twice. We found a room for 400 Rupees and booked a taxi for the morning so that we could bathe with elephants.

I know that I went on and on about elephants in my blog about Africa, but I have another opportunity to write about how magnificent these creatures are. I find it utterly amazing that something so big can be so fragile. Their skin is around 3cms thick and yet if you ride one that isn’t clean the dirt on it’s back will hurt the elephant. They have a gestation period of almost two years. Elephants can live up to 80 years and only sleep four hours a day. They can eat over 100kgs of food a day (and poop that amount too).

We woke up at 6AM and took the taxi around 45 minutes outside of town to a small village where we had a few cups of chai and a samosa while waiting for the elephants to arrive. When they finally did come, they walked down the street sharing the road with cars and strolled right past us to an alleyway that led to the river. Behind flapping ears mahouts sat with their legs straddled around their necks. Typically a mahout has no days off and is assigned to a single elephant and will watch after that elephant until they or the elephant retire. In comparison to the mahouts in Nepal these guys were much gentler with their elephants.

The elephants all knew what they were out to do. As soon as they reached the water, the elephants all rolled on their sides and waited for their mahouts and visitors to start scrubbing. We were all given the outside skin of a coconut around 4cms thick to scrub these amazing creatures. With a command the elephants would lift an individual leg for scrubbing. They’d splash water on themselves to help the bathers. It was incredible. You could see the love the mahouts had for their elephants. Their vocal amber eyes watched us bathe them. We spent around an hour with them taking pictures, scrubbing, and getting to hug the elephants. It was definitely a highlight of India without a doubt.

On the way back we stopped by a place for breakfast and got better acquainted with what is now one of our favorite breakfasts, the dosa. In my first India blog, I previously uploaded a picture of me eating a dosa and had no idea of what to do with it. A dosa is a square, triangle, rectangle, or any other simple shape that is made from a bready mixture and has a large dollop of a potato mixture inside. You can order a dosa with onions, spicy, veggies or with a wet curry potato mixture inside. With your right had you tear a piece of the dosa and grab a bit of the innards dipping it in my favorite part, the coconut chutney. The dosa is a food and a utensil and delicious.

Kerala was my favorite part of India; and for you boneheads who say “Kerala isn’t The Real India,” shut it. It was cleaner and the people seemed much warmer and Kerala is far less densely populated than anywhere else we’d been. Our next destination was the Kerala Backwaters. The list of places to stay in the backwaters is as long as my arm ranging from places with hippies with bedbugs to the highest castes honeymooning. I really give all of the credit to Cori for finding the place we stayed amongst all the other options. We paid around $50 a night which was for full room and board.

For pictures from Ernakulam please click HERE


The Kerala Backwaters

The best way to explain the Kerala backwaters is saying that it resembles a bogged bayou that has been cleaned up, shores created, and the waters covered in leafy vines. After a brief bus and rickshaw ride we settled in and had lunch. The first reaction I had to the food was being underwhelmed. We’d gotten accustomed to the rich thick curries in the north. The curries in Kerala were much more watery. There was however beautiful fish and shrimp galore. The dry curry consisted of vegetables that I was unfamiliar with and was spicy enough to punish the phony brave.

For three days we did little other than reading and relaxing. The view from our room was the finest since Zanzibar. The chairs included leg rests so that you didn’t have to venture more than 5 meters from bed to get comfortable. The family which ran the place was extremely cordial and welcoming. The meals were communal and we shared amongst another American couple who both seemed pretty uptight.

Before heading out on our trip, we toyed with the idea of buying an around the world plane ticket hoping that it would save us money. Going through it over and over again we couldn’t justify spending that kind of money and not having any flexibility. They’d spend over $5,000 for each person (which didn’t include a flight that they had to purchase to Spain) for their around the world flight. Our flights are below and you’ll notice that we’re paying less than $2,000 per person to fly around the world and have ultimate flexibility. Even if we paid for our flight home, we would still be less than $2,700 or roughly half of what they spent.
Flight
New York – Colombia $180
Quito – Galapagos R/T (which the RTW flights don’t cover) $400
Buenos Aires – Cape Town $480
Zanzibar – Delhi $420
Trivandrum – Delhi $45
Kathmandu – Bangkok $195
Bangkok – Krabi $45
Hue – Hanoi $70
Bangkok – NYC $50 + 32,500 miles

If you’re interested in checking it out, here is a link to where we’ve been and each line constitutes a flight.

On one of the days we were there we managed to motivate enough to take a two hour boat ride through the backwaters. Very few of the boats had engines. Most of them were propelled by “polers.” This was the exact same way we got around in the Okavango Delta and the water was the same depth, around one meter at the deepest point. The bottom of the water was sludge like mud with tangles of root. One of the coolest things we saw was a fish trap that was used to get shrimp and other small fish from the water. Here is a picture of the giant contraption. It was constructed from bamboo and the fibers from the coconut tree. There is a base with a pulley system. A weight is latched to one end of the main pole which is connected to two other smaller poles which intersect making an X. The long pole is about ten meters long and the smaller poles are around 7-8 meters. This is a massive enterprise. A net is attached to the four corners of the intersecting poles. The weight is released and the net then becomes submerged. After some time the weight is pulled and the net is pulled up and everything that had settled on top or was swimming above. It was one of the crudest yet spectacular engineering I’d ever seen.

It struck me as odd when we checked into our place at the backwaters that we weren’t asked to show our passports or any information for that matter. On our last night, the police showed up. Cori and I both weren’t at all paranoid, but it is unsettling nonetheless. It seemed like a whole brigade arrived. There were at least 8 officers in the back of a Jeep. We were asked for a copy of our passport. I had one but it was in poor condition and crumbled up in my bag. The only copy I had of Cori’s passport was her old one that had been stolen. We handed over our passports to one of the women of the house. She told me she’d be back in 10-15 minutes with our passports. The police were hovering around for quite some time. None of the conversation was in English so we couldn’t decipher exactly what was happening or the severity of what they hadn’t done by not taking our information. Eventually we got our passports back. The police apologized to us and let us know that we had nothing to worry about; that the owners had to worry. At that point the buzz was killed and we went to bed.

We took a local bus back to Ernakulam. Cori had some interest in seeing a Kathakali performance. The performance was bizarre and borderline tedious. We got to the theatre 45 minutes early to watch the application of the makeup; which was my favorite part. The theater had been running every night for something like the last 70 years. It was started years ago and I think that the old man who hit the symbols way too hard had been the one in the makeup before his son. The old man performed first and was a trip to watch. They briefly explained that everything could be mimicked by facial expressions and dance. We watched the old man “eat honey” and “swim.” It went on for a while. The second performance was done with the man who was getting his makeup done. There was him dancing around in an interpretive dizzying display of flamboyance and confusion. I had no idea what was happening and was pleased when the performance ended 20 minutes early.

After the performance I formed the opinion that Pizza Hut in India is just as bad as Pizza Hut anywhere in the world.

For pictures from The Backwaters please click HERE


Munnar

Our next destination was Munnar, a beautiful little town in the hills on the border of Tamil Nadu. It from what we learned was a popular spot for Indian newlyweds to honeymoon. Cori again gets an A+ for doing her homework. We arrived in Munnar and made a few phone calls to guesthouses and B&Bs that she’d found online. The third call I made was to Anil at Mystic Rain. He was the most well spoken and polite person I spoke with that morning so we decided that we’d stay with them sight unseen. We waited on the side of the road for a few minutes waiting for a car that he’d sent for us. We had to backtrack 10 kilometers which was terrible because the road summoned sickness in the most rock hard of stomachs.

When we got to the guesthouse we were immediately made to feel at home. Anil and Jeeva were the kindest and most welcoming people we’d met in our 7 months of traveling. Before we were shown our room we had to follow formalities and sign in and have photocopies of our passports taken. The time it took to tip toe through red tape lead into a few cups of chai and some great conversation. I’ll spread the many interesting conversations we had over a few paragraphs. I opened my big mouth about the police showing up at our last place.

Anil asked if we were staying at a guest house or just with a family. Cori and I explained to him that it was a well established place that we had found through tripadvisor.com. He was shocked and explained that every night before a certain time they had to submit their guest list to the local police. He explained to us that this was because of the terrorist threat and because they like to waste paper. He said that he wouldn’t be surprised if they had to pay a 50,000 Rupee ($1,000) fine and could even with their first infraction be shut down. It was serious business. He also said that it was impossible for them not to know the rules and not to feel bad for them.

Our room was basic but very homey. The money we were spending was going for the impeccable graciousness of our hosts, uninterrupted electricity, and the sense of being at a home away from home. Anil took us for a walk around their area. Because of its location and altitude Munnar gets an unbelievable amount of rain and is always shrouded in mist (hence the name Mystic Rain). During the walk I was regretting taking the spice tour we took in Zanzibar, Anil showed us everything from pepper vines to cloves and turmeric. The walk was great until he warned Cori about leeches. One of the millions of reasons I love my wife is that if she is around, I don’t have to worry about anything biting me. If any insect on the planet was given the option to bite me or Cori, they will without fail choose her. We walked for around an hour in that time I picked one leech that thought my pant leg was skin. Meanwhile, I picked at least 10 leeches off of Cori. This of course wouldn’t have been such a big deal had we not just gotten an email from our friend Andy. Andy warned us of leeches in Munnar that would be hungry enough to suck your blood and spit anti-coagulation as they suck to ensure that your boots would fill with blood hours after they were done drinking.

I talked with a local for a few minutes about communism in Kerala. He told me that it worked just fine when they introduced it in 1957. Everyone was being educated and the state quickly advanced. However with the advancement the system slowly started deteriorating. The local government from what he told me started enforcing the caste system to ensure that people wouldn’t rise up too much and over succeed. I’m reminded of a sign I saw when I was younger, ‘the world needs people to flip their burgers.’

We asked Anil to get a rickshaw driver that he knew and trusted to take us to the “Top Station.” The Top Station from my understanding was the highest point in the area and the official border of the next state to the east Tamil Nadu. The Top Station itself wasn’t the highlight of the trip. The best part by far was the journey. It was around 65 kilometers to get there through windy roads which were narrow enough to fit two cows and half a rickshaw on. The drive however was stunning. We passed kilometer after kilometer of serene tea plantations. Hundreds of workers sprinkled the mountainside getting their daily quotas of leaves. Apparently Tata, in addition to being a car company, cable television provider, and steel company, also owns all of the tea in the area. The workers are mostly from the much poorer state of Tamil Nadu and come to work in Munnar because there is work to be done.

Along the way we saw three wild elephants feeding. I found it amazing that there could be wild animals in one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. It still blows my mind to think that over one billion people share their country with wild elephants and an occasional tiger. When we reached the top station we had some of the worst guavas on the planet and a few of the best cups of chai the world has to offer. Following suit and seeing all of the garbage on the side of the trail, I decided to jokingly throw a water bottle on the ground. Cori’s face contorted in the funniest way. It was incredible to watch her squirm and be too shocked to yell at me. I thought it was the funniest things and immediately picked up the bottle laughing knowing that I could get under her skin that easily.

Anil and Jeeva were one of three couples that we’d met on our trip that admitted to us that they had a ‘love marriage.’ It was incredible to me that anyone wouldn’t be in love before getting married, but indeed it is the case. We made arrangements with them to stay at Royal Mist for three nights and then would stay an additional two at a less expensive place for another two nights. We took a walk on the third day looking for another place to stay. We went to one hotel and had some snacks in the afternoon. We peered into the garden and spied on a newlywed couple clearly getting to know one another better. It was bizarre to see them taking pictures of their honeymoon being so timid with one another. I asked to take a picture of the two of them with their camera; they didn’t hold hands or even stand that close to one another. Clearly, I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand arranged marriages. It is funny because the three love marriage couples that we met all seemed (in my eyes) far happier on the outside and showed more playful expressions of flirtation and touching. I thought that it was nice to see because it had been so long since we’d seen any couples who acted like they liked one another. I joked with Cori, ‘great honeymoon we’re having, by the way, what do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite color? Do you like to read?’

On Friday, the afternoon before we were scheduled to leave, Anil and Jeeva insisted that we stay a few more nights. Jeeva had a doctor’s appointment in Ernakulam that weekend so they wouldn’t be there but we could stay in our room without them being home. It was such an honor and funny at the same time. It felt like our parents (who are the same age as us) were leaving for the weekend and trusting us with the keys to the house. We promised to not have any parties, assured them that we could fend for ourselves in the food category, and would not burn down the house. It was one of the nicest things that any of our hosts had done for us to that point. We were and still are incredibly thankful for their generosity.

Like I mentioned above, we were 10 kilometers outside of town, so feeding ourselves proved to be more difficult than anticipated. We walked for as long as we could until we caught the bus one afternoon along the busy one lane street that quadruples as a sidewalk for workers coming and going, a throughway for cargo, an autobahn for motorcycle riders who transform themselves into silent speed demons with their engines off on the decent, and a ribbon dusted with mist that is nearly impossible to see. Being that it is India, everyone sounds their horn giving a sense of security.

We ate in town and decided that we’d take a rickshaw back to Royal Mist. The road on the way home was the first time in months that I was genuinely scared for the safety of my wife and I. The rickshaw driver took his friend with him to ride in the front. I thought at first that maybe it was because he wanted some company. We found out as soon as we got out of town why, the fog. The roads were terrifying. We literally could see nothing in front of us. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces if we wanted to. There were no street lights on the way home and it was so foggy that if the lights on the rickshaw were on we would only illuminate the white sky. No one was honking their horns because they didn’t know when they were coming up on turns. A few times we were riding with one wheel off the road so that we’d feel the road rather than have to see it. After an hour we finally arrived to a dark and empty Royal Mist. We went to nearest shop and bought eggs and bread. The eggs we’d boil in the tea maker and the bread we’d eat plain rather than go back on the road at night.

For pictures from Munnar please click HERE


Trivandrum

We left Monday morning shortly after they Anil and Jeeva returned from our destination. We took the local bus which was painless and took much less time to go downhill than it did going to Royal Mist uphill. We had an afternoon train to Trivandrum only 5 hours away.

We had lunch at the train station and boarded our train. An uneventful 5 hours later we arrived in Trivandrum. Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala. We found there no reason to visit. We were there to catch a flight, buy an external hard-drive, eat dosas every morning for breakfast, and maybe see its beach. We arrived after dark with no reservations in the rain. Our rickshaw driver after agreeing to a price, decided to forget where the street we wanted to go was and on the agreed upon price. We jumped out and hoofed it in the rain to a place in the Lonely Planet. It was fully booked. We saw a business style hotel and decided to check on the price. It was more than double of what the book said it was. With our wet shoulders down scratching our heads, the manager pulled us out of the rain and gave it to us for less than half of the price on the wall and we even negotiated to have breakfast included.

On our first day in Trivandrum we decided that we’d just walk around a bit and perhaps head to the beach. We had time to do both. We went to a few book stores, got some of our last southern Indian dishes, and headed to the beach. Neither Cori nor I were at all impressed with the beaches in Goa, but weren’t disappointed at all either. The beach in Trivandrum was within pissing distance of the airport. It was a wide beach which meant that it could hold more garbage than a narrow one. Something on and around the beach smelled of 50% rotting fish and 50% human waste. We saw two dead dogs on the sand and decided that we’d take a rickshaw back to the hotel at once.

Our flight left early the next morning, we were on our way to Nepal via a flight to Delhi, a roundtrip train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, the punctual train to Varanasi to experience the apocalyptic city for ourselves, a hellish train ride to Gorakphur, and a taxi ride that cost TOO MUCH! to the border.

For a few pictures from Trivandrum please click HERE


My Open Letter to King Fisher Airlines

An open letter to King Fisher Airlines,
My wonderfully patient wife and I have flown your airline twice and both times, I’ve been utterly disappointed. Your airline has infuriated me once and driven me to the brink of sanity the second time, both instances have one thing in common, water or the lack there of. I understand your status as a budget airline and your fairs are rather affordable. When we make up our mind whether or not to fly with you again we’ll have to decide what is more important to us a) money b) sanity. It is impossible to have both with King Fisher.
Our first flight with King Fisher was on October 20, 2011 from Trivandrum to Delhi. We cleared through security with little to no hassle. I purchased an extremely over priced bottle water on the other side of security after having to empty my bottle at the security check point. When I went to board the plane, I was told that we’d have to go through another security check point. Now before I could board the plane I was told that I’d have to throw away the bottle of water that I’d purchased from within the airport itself beyond the security checkpoint. This normally wouldn’t have driven me so crazy, however, when I requested a bottle of water on the plane, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT CHARGED ME FOR WATER. I believe in my heart of hearts that my water coming on the plane was not a security threat but a rouse to increase profits. This is thievery and I feel like I was stolen from by King Fisher.
The second flight my wife and I took was from Kathmandu to Bangkok on December 7, 2011. We booked the flight and didn’t give it a second thought until we postponed our departure by three weeks. The postponement went smoothly and your representative on the phone was very pleasant. The $45 per ticket changing fee still made the ticket very affordable; and being that it is an international flight, water is free!
We received an email that I have pasted below:

Dear Guest,
FLIGHT IT27 DEL BKK IS CANCELLED FOR REAL TIME FLIGHT STATUS UPDATES AND SCHEDULE TIMINGS, LOG ON TO WWW.FLYKINGFISHER.COM
Regards,
Kingfisher Airlines
Fly the good times

This email is the most asinine excuse for customer service I’ve ever experienced. It gives no solutions, link to answer any questions, a phone number to call, or anything. Clearly we had to forgo our sanity for this flight. Again your customer service representative on the phone was chipper and more than willing to help. I would give the person who helped me on the phone a 9.5/10 for resolving the issue. We originally were booked to fly King Fisher from Kathmandu to Delhi then Delhi to Bangkok with a layover in between. The representative on the phone switched my connecting flight to a Cathay Pacific flight to Bangkok with a minimal layover in Delhi.
As you can see if you look up this information, this is not at all what happened. We took our original flight and arrived in Delhi. When we got to the connecting desk, the representative informed us that we weren’t going to be on the scheduled Cathay Pacific flight at all. We were second in line behind another pair of travelers who were being put on a different flight. We were instructed to sit and wait until things were sorted out. We patiently wait for three hours until the people in front of us had their tickets. At this point we handed over our original tickets and our passports and waited. We waited ‘between countries’ in limbo waiting for connecting flights. We did not have any Rupees nor did we have a way of getting Rupees and couldn’t buy water from the vendors as they didn’t want to a credit card for our transaction.
We sat waterless until we had the next leg of our flight confirmed for another two hours. Again your customer service is much better than other airlines but internally I feel your airline has a fundamental problem. This issue should not have even been an issue as I had a printed ticket for the second leg of my journey and at the very least we should have been provided with something even prisoners aren’t denied, water.
In summary, you have an able bodied crew who are extremely helpful, the wait times on the phone are short, and the customer service representatives have an excellent command of English and solve problems efficiently and effectively. There is something however deeper that is wrong with King Fisher Airlines something fundamentally wrong beneath the surface and behind the scenes which makes flying with your organization arduous and painful; perhaps spend less time diversifying between a lackluster beer and a less than subpar airline and do one thing right.
Later dudes,
Brandyn


Agra and the Taj Mahal

We arrived in Delhi in the afternoon and took a taxi straight from the airport to the train station to catch the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. The taxi ride was fairly uneventful. There was no aircon, so we rode with the windows down and at the stop lights women and children were grabbing our arms making the same pathetic hand to mouth gestures that we’d become desensitized to over the past five and a half weeks of being in India. We were hit by a bouquet of roses when we didn’t buy them. It was funny because one child who was really young and looked like he’d been run over by a dump truck a few times was tugging on my shirt at a stop light telling me that his parents were dead. The driver said, in Hindi something along the lines of, ‘you’re parents aren’t really dead’ to which he started laughing and ran away. It was all a game and we were learning how to play it.

I don’t know if I’m better for visiting India, but I’m glad I did. I’m a cynic by nature but by India’s nurture I am now extremely desensitized by litter and poverty and madness and more wary of anyone. On the other hand I am so much more appreciative of winning the geographic lottery and happy that I was born where I was. I am also extremely appreciative that I live somewhere where it is socially acceptable to fall in love before I got married and hold hands with my wife in public.

We booked a train giving us three hours between when we were supposed to land and when the train was supposed to leave in order to give us plenty of time for anything unforeseen. Our luggage was the first off the carrousel, there was no line for the taxis, and our taxi driver drove around the city avoiding all rush-hour traffic. We got to the train station with around two and a half hours to spare.

The Delhi train station can be an intimidating place. It is home to the most ridiculous scam I’ve ever heard of and if people fall for it I feel bad because taking advantage of the elderly and mentally retarded people is sickening. It is the scam where some random guy is standing in front of the train station plain clothed and tells you to show your ticket. When you do, they tell you that you didn’t pay the tax and you need to get their signature on the ticket before entering. At least two people tried this scam on us on the way to the entry. It is funny because the Brandyn entering India would have been like, ‘you’ve got some nerve mister scammer, I cannot believe that you’d try to do something that dishonest.’ The Brandyn which had been in India for 40 days was like, ‘nice try buddy, good luck with those other idiots behind us.’

Cori and I found a nice quiet place to wait for the train with no one else around which was very clean. Ironically, it was right next to the only garbage can in sight. The only person who used it in the two hours we sat on the platform was another Westerner. We took another 2AC train and sat next to a lovely couple. This was the second couple that was in a ‘love marriage’ that we’d met in India. It was peculiar to be asked if we were married and then be asked if it was a love marriage. They got really excited that we had something in common. Again the same thing with Anil and Jeeva, they seemed much happier with one another and it was good to see a little affection even if it was just in the tone of their voices. We talked about the economy and how even the upper middle class in India felt the global recession. 2AC is certainly worth the few extra dollars with the comforts and the conversation that we’d had while taking them.

The city of Agra is unimpressive. The pictures of the Taj make it seem like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge. We expected to be able to see it from anywhere in the city. Our hotel’s website said that we were able to see it from the roof. Two problems with that; first, there were too many bugs to go outside without being swallowed alive and second, there are no lights on it at night. Here’s how it looks after dark.

The next morning we were due to leave at 5am to purchase tickets so that we could arrive at the Taj Mahal as the sun was rising. This was reportedly the best time to go; it is best to avoid the crowds and the sun is supposed to hit the building in an awe inspiring way. The morning we were supposed to visit the Taj the power was out in the entire city of Agra, thus the ATMs weren’t working. I was running around frantically going to every ATM within five kilometers of our hotel hoping that one had a generator. We had no such luck with the ATMs and with the help of a friendly bicycle rickshaw man exchanged some US Dollars for Rupees and ended up paying a 10% commission (around $4).

We stood in line for the entrance for around 3 minutes until we saw that there was a women’s line and a men’s line. I had some chai while waiting in line with an interesting Australian man while Cori waited with his wife in their own separate but equal line. We were both super tired after flying for 3.75 hours and a 3 hour train ride.

So this was the first building, World Heritage Site, or anything of interest that we’d seen pictures of in India before visiting. Every palace or fort we’d seen was a blip in the guidebook and we had a look. The Taj Mahal was something else, a so called Wonder of the World. People describe the Taj Mahal as the most romantic place on earth. It is a place that is meant to reach inside of your soul and drag epiphanies to the surface. For me it was something different.

Don’t get me wrong here. The Taj is truly magnificent. It is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. My complaint about it is the hype. I have never heard with the exception of Carl Pilkington anyone say anything negative about it at all, but he’s dubbed as ‘an idiot.’

Everyone’s heard everything there is to say about the Taj and it is all positive. Rather than reiterate jargon that has better prose than this blog, I’ll put a different spin on the Taj and write about everything that was NOT awe inspiring for me personally.

The first thing that is stupid about the Taj Mahal is the women who visit it. Every single guest house, hotel, and hostel in Agra all give out information pamphlets at the front desk. In every pamphlet it states more than one time that it is advised that no one bring a bag because it will be searched and no food or drinks are allowed in. The same warnings even with pictures and no words were on a large sign so that everyone could see while standing in line. The women’s line was about 25% of the men’s line and I still had to wait an extra 15 minutes for Cori (who didn’t bring anything but a smile with her) to clear the security line.

I know that I cannot have the place to myself, but does it really have to be that crowded? The place is swamped; every picture that I took which doesn’t have anyone in it was luck, stupid chance, and waiting forever to get the picture. We’ve all seen the picture of Princess Diana on the seat in front of the Taj with no one else there. It is complete nonsense, we had to wait 20 minutes in line (which was about the same as every other pushy line in India) just to take a picture on the same bench she was.

It in my opinion the Taj Mahal was incredible, but wasn’t worth the hype. We’d been up and down India looking at buildings for 6 weeks. At that point it was another building and I was due for a nap. We left had some breakfast and took a nap. Later that night we had beers on the roof and took a picture of it to show how it is lit up at night. Before going to bed we found out that Giddafi was dead.

We took the train back to Delhi to wait three days before heading off to Varanasi. Diwali was starting that week and we’d be in Varanasi to see what the heck it actually was. Diwali I think is much like Christmas in that when you ask someone what it is and why you celebrate it, the actuality is much different. We’re celebrating the birth of Christ in a ritual that resembles pagan tradition very close to solstice by singing about a fat white guy who slides down your chimney at night to give children presents. The nice couple that we’d met on our way to Agra told us that Diwali in short, is a festival of light. People will clean their houses, give presents, and wear new outfits, string lights on the streets and light candles in front of their homes. The Diwali we saw had men drinking and gambling on every street corner while everyone from two to 82 were lighting off fireworks (sometimes throwing them at us to laugh while we would run or jump to avoid them).

Our three days in Delhi were uneventful. We had an aircon room with cable and decent internet. We holed up while we waited for our train. The highlight of the three days was my buying a new pair of earphones and getting some of the Delhi Belly.

For pictures from Agra and the Taj Mahal please click HERE


Varanasi

We took the overnight train to Varanasi and arrived early in the morning. We booked a room with a guest house that said that they gave free pickup from the train station. Groggily we’d made the mistake of telling a rickshaw driver where we are staying. He said that he would take us there and that he was sent from the hotel to get us. I asked him then to tell me my name so that we knew that he was who he said that he was. He couldn’t, so we didn’t go with him. Another rickshaw driver heard this nonsense and said that he was too from our guest house and that he would take us there. Neither of the two rickshaw drivers could tell me my name thereby verifying that they were sent from the guesthouse. I at that point had it up to my eyelids in India and was India’d out. Finally one of the two of them called the guest house and shouted BRANDYN! We were at our guesthouse a few minutes later.

Everyone’s a poet in Varanasi. Burning is learning, cremation is education, and all sorts of other crap. Varanasi is a holy city and sits on the bank of the Ganges River; the mother of India. It is said that one’s soul can finally be put to rest by being put into the Ganges after death. It is an honor to come here to die. There are hospices full of communicable diseases that you can visit which are within spitting distances from the pyres where bodies are cremated. The burning goes on 24 hours a day seven days a week. The fires are always ablaze. The entire city has tiny pieces of ashy confetti constantly streaming down. It is possible to at sunrise and sunset stare directly into the sun because of the thickness of the haze blocking the sun’s rays make it possible to do so.

I had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into but because of a sick perversion, I had to see it. Before we had gotten there people told us ‘it is literally the most disgustingly dirty place I’ve ever been’ ‘everyone gets sick in Varanasi because it is so dirty’ ‘it is apocalyptic.’ Every negative thing that has ever been said about Varanasi can’t quiet explain really how bad it is. Dead bodies wrapped up in sheets being carried down the street didn’t warrant a glance from me, the thing that disgusted me and the thing that made me want to vomit every second of every day was the smell. I wish that smell-o-vision had been created or that I could have opened a box, captured the smell, and when I was in a work meeting that was going on too long, I could open said box. It wasn’t the site of Varanasi that got to me.

The city has absolutely zero order to it. The streets are completely mish-mashed and strewn together; the same street will go in three different directions. The streets could be mistaken for hallways they were so narrow. We had to share these slender corridors with rickshaws, other people, and the obligatory cow. There was absolutely no ventilation in these meager passageways so the number of flies hovering over the steaming hot garbage and roasting cow shit outnumbered humans 100 to 1. This was no place to wear flip flops. My gag reflex was tested at least 20 times a day.

We had three days in Varanasi before we had to get our train north to the Nepalese border. The first day we spend lounging around and doing a fair bit of exploring. The second day we walked around even more and went to go see the ghats and burning pyres. The last day we woke up early to take a boat ride on the Ganges to see the city from the water.

Our guest house was nice in that there was a nice rooftop area to escape the insanity and meet other travelers. The majority of people that we met were all coming south from Nepal. I traded some e-books I had for a hard copy of the Nepal Lonely Planet. We also realized that we drastically underestimated the amount of time we were going to spend in Nepal. Everything that everyone had said made me excited to go, but knowing that we would be there in three days made me chomp at the bit.

Wandering the city made me so appreciative that I would never have to come back there for as long as I lived. The word ‘raw’ comes up when other more hippyish travelers describe it. They say things like, ‘oh Varanasi, it is so raw.’ It is raw like a raw piece of stepped in shit is raw.

Nepal, ETA two days. The ghats were covered in mud and garbage from flooding a few months previous to our visit. Clean up crews had better things to do than actually clean up. Every step we took was like stepping on a surprise landmine. It could be a soda bottle, a bone, or a cow turd. We decided that we’d take a rickshaw to a really nice hotel so that we could have one last good clean lunch. In the evening we watched the traditional dance and ceremony on the ghats. That was by far the coolest thing we saw.

The next morning we woke up before sunrise to take a boat ride on the Ganges. It was incredible. According to one source, the river is over 300,000 times filthier than what is acceptable for human consumption. People were doing their daily chores in the river. People were bathing, people were brushing their teeth, and washing their clothes in water where 20 meters away people are being burned and dumped into said water. The river was littered with dead cows and goats that people had just thrown in. For people who cannot afford to be cremated their family members will typically tie a rock to their leg and throw them into the river. Sometimes these bodies break loose and come to the surface.

Out of respect we didn’t take any pictures of the cremations, but Cori’s face kind of says it all.

For pictures from Varanasi please click HERE

Our next train ride was supposed to take a brisk 6 hours and instead took 10. All that we wanted to do was get the hell out of India and everything was keeping us there. When we finally arrived in Gorakhpur we shared a taxi with our new friend from China who negotiated on price better than anyone I’d ever seen. We adopted the phrase TOO MUCH and would walk away in any and all future negotiations.

Swindlers tried their best at the border and we just kept our heads down and breezed right into Nepal.


India Wrap Up and Stats

Here are some India statistics:
Total number of days we spent in India: 51
Number of Unesco World Heritage sites visited: 8
Number of awkward haircuts Brandyn received: 2
Total number of hours on a bus: 32
Total number of hours on a train: 95.25
Number of kilometers traveled on a train: 4,841
Average speed of the train 50.82 kms an hour or roughly 31mph
Number of beers I drank: 9
Number of dead dogs we saw: 2
Amount of pictures we took in total: 2,568
Number of times we were asked if we wanted a rickshaw: 4,000
Number of times we were offered drugs by rickshaw drivers after saying we didn’t want a ride:3,998

I heart Cambodia PART ONE

Mar 12, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Where two now?

(By Cori) After lounging on Thai beaches for a while, around mid-December we figured a plan was needed for the upcoming holidays and so we decided to head into Cambodia, where prices were bound to be cheaper even in the high season.

Spoiler alert…we loved Cambodia!! We stayed from December 19 to January 6 and could’ve stayed longer, or long-term for that matter. For a country with such a painful past (and a quite recent one at that), we were overwhelmed by the richness of its history and the warmth of its people. We decided on a basic travel route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, then Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kep and on to Vietnam. But more on that later!  Our border crossing story is below, as well as highlights of our time in the first two stops…a part two post will follow shortly.

 

Bangkok to Siem Reap: a train ride and border scam

There is always a bit of anxiety associated with border crossings, as you never can be quite sure what to believe about how to get to, across, and away from borders. It usually requires several transportation combinations as well as vigilance to not fall prey to phony money changers, bribe-seeking officials, taxi touts, etc. After 10 months on the road, we were confident about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia and well informed/prepared about what we’d need to do. No matter what, I’ve found that border crossings tend to be associated with long days, longer lines, lots of carbs, a bit of frustration, a bit more inefficiency, and ultimately a sense of “there has to be a better way to do this.” That being said, our experience was fairly smooth but in retrospect, is also a sort of funny and typical travel tale. Read on for a taste of what we consistently seem to go through…

We left our guesthouse in Bangkok early enough that we needed to wake the staff member sleeping on the lobby floor and have her unlock the front gate.  We then hailed a taxi off the street to go to the train station, after insisting that the taxi driver use the meter (as they are technically required to do) instead of randomly charging us a high tourist rate. Arriving early, we quickly stocked up on crucial travel snacks like bread, peanut butter and water at the station’s mini-mart and splurged on some DELICIOUS freshly made waffles for breakfast.  Yum. Like fried dough, but it felt way healthier since it was in a waffle shape. I had two. On the train we were crammed into very hard and very straight-backed chair/benches (2 people facing 2 people) with an open window for fresh/hot air. The ride was about 4 hours, which wasn’t too bad but sitting the way we were our backs were killing us by the time it was over.

When we got off the train several tuk tuk drivers swarmed around us, offering to take us to the border for about $2-$3. We had read warnings in our guidebooks and heard from others that tuk tuks often take foreigners to a ‘false border’ where they try to sell you a Cambodian visa at an inflated price, so we were on guard. But our driver (a young woman) seemed sincere and nice and took us to an official looking building with many staff members in uniforms who were helpfully shuttling us into the office to get a visa. My first red flag was when the man inside immediately gave us forms to fill out for our visa and I asked what about the Thailand exit stamp (since that always comes first) and he looked a bit taken aback and then said if we wanted he would take us there first and then come back for the visa. What?! That made no sense. Then I asked how much the Cambodian visa was and he quoted a ridiculous price so we immediately knew that we were in the middle of a scam so we got up, loudly said no way, and walked out, warning others on the way that this was NOT the official border. Obviously no one tried to stop us or deny that this wasn’t the official exit/entry point.  How annoying. We were especially irritated (and a bit impressed) with how comprehensive and slick the scam was with the official uniforms and all. Still felt like suckers for falling for it after all the warnings. Argh.

So we walked 5 min more down the road and found the correct official Thailand exit post and line to wait in. Some Cambodian guy who ‘looked’ official (baseball cap and some sort of nametag worn around his neck) asked us where we were from and made a big deal out of shouting “AMERICA!! I KNOW SOMEONE IN CALIFORNIA!!! GOOD COUNTRY!!” and then insisted on personally walking us across the street to the Cambodian entry point which was highly unnecessary but he was super friendly and seemed to want to help.  Even so, Brandyn and I wanted to ditch him…friendly people near borders are never to be trusted (see how jaded we’ve become!) and we didn’t want to face an awkward situation where he would ask for a tip for walking us across the street and giving us information we already knew.

Anyway, the entry point officials charged us the correct fee for a visa $20 USD each but then stuck on an extra 200 baht (for themselves presumably). No explanation, just a matter-of-fact “this is the fee” even though it wasn’t documented anywhere in the office. Oh well, nothing we could do so we paid it. Visa in hand we waited in yet another line to get our entry stamp and YAY we were legally in Cambodia.

Unsurprisingly, our friendly California-loving-official-looking guy was outside waiting for us and led us to a free shuttle bus to go to the bus station (again, unnecessary because the bus was like 50 feet away and its existence wasn’t exactly a secret). Arriving at the bus station our new friend was chatting away about where to change our Thai baht to US dollars (the currency used in Cambodia), and other helpful tidbits.  To get to Siem Reap our options were to pay $9 each for a bus that would take 4 hours, or pay $12 each for a taxi that would take 2 hours, would leave immediately, and would take us directly to our hotel. Yep, we chose the taxi. We met a nice Australian man and his daughter when we were in one of the lines so we decided to share a taxi with them. When our departure was imminent, our helper (who turned out to be a volunteer at the border who helps tourists get oriented) asked for a tip and when Brandyn gave him a dollar he literally was over the moon. We felt a little bit like jerks for trying to get rid of him earlier and thinking he was trying to con us.  This was our first official introduction to the genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.

 

Siem Reap: awe-inspiring ancient ruins meet a touristy backpacker haven

We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 nights and really enjoyed our experience. It has a pretty developed tourist infrastructure due to the fact that EVERYONE comes here and uses the town as a base to explore the nearby Angkor temples. Yeah, its touristy…lots of people selling souvenirs in the streets, night markets, “Pub Street” which is filled with bars and restaurants, tuk tuk drivers asking to drive you somewhere every second…but who cares? It was a nice and comfortable base to explore the area and introduce us to Cambodia. Highlights of our stay there include:

The temples of Angkor: So this is the reason everyone goes to Siem Reap. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, Wikipedia and a few other websites, Angkor (which means city) was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire from the 9th to 13th century and ruled a huge territory. Hundreds of temples were built during this time. They were (are) architectural masterpieces and there is immense Cambodian pride in these ruins. The one you may have heard of is Angkor Wat, the principal temple which is HUGE and is like a labyrinth with beautiful towers and it is nearly impossible to believe it was built by hand. Wow. But my favorite was Bayon, which has enormous stone faces on its towers. It also was one of the temples we visited early in the day so we were practically alone crawling all around the temple and exploring. I also loved Ta Prohm which had big old trees that had grown up and over and through the ruins. We had a LONG day of temple viewing – from sunrise to 1pm and after 8 hours of traipsing through temple after temple we started to get cranky and HOT. But they were super impressive and nothing we have seen since (in terms of ruins) even comes close.







Meeting Sam, our tuk tuk driver: We met Sam on our first night in Siem Reap when we were feasting on fresh shrimp spring rolls and 50 cent draft beers at an outdoor restaurant. He was sitting on his tuk tuk waiting for customers and struck up a conversation with us. He was clearly super proud of Cambodia and of his town and told us about Siem Reap and about the temples. He then, unexpectedly, started talking about the Khmer Rouge and how his family was impacted by their terrible regime. How his mother’s family was separated and his aunts are in France but they lost contact and now have no idea where they are or how to find them. He was matter-of-fact, super sincere and seemed to genuinely want to share information about Cambodia with us. Also, he had just about the best wide grin I’d ever seen. We were happy to spend the night chatting with him and then asked him to be our tuk tuk driver to explore the Angkor temples the following day.

Fish foot massage: Okay, so this is a kinda silly Cambodian memory since it could’ve happened in any other country I suppose. What’s the fish foot massage? A big tank filled with tiny fish (like fat goldfish sized) and cushioned benches around the tank where you sit and dangle your feet in and let the fish eat your dead skin. Sounds fun, right? Our feet were disgusting after so much sandal-wearing on dusty roads and we were in serious need of some foot treatment so after dinner one night when we were walking back to our guesthouse we finally said YES to one of the kids on the street trying to get our business at the massage place. The first second putting your foot in the water is a bit weird since you don’t know quite what to expect and then the fish just swarm around you and start nibbling! It felt ticklish for sure, but once you got over that it felt like tiny, rough (sandpaper rough), pinches and it didn’t feel bad or good. It just was. It was fun to watch them though and to see what part of your foot they went for (seemed to prefer toes, not so much into the calluses on our heels). Half hour massage for $3 and lots of fun pictures was a pretty decent way to end our night.


Silk farm tour: One day we visited Artisans d’Angkor, an artisan vocational training institution, that was originally founded to support and promote Khmer art and culture, and provide jobs to rural youth who were interested in traditional crafts. The grounds are filled with workshops where you can see the artisans in action with their wood carvings, stonework, silk painting, and other crafts. The showroom was GORGEOUS and filled with beautiful textiles and statues and amazingly beautiful and high quality art, nothing of which was appropriate to buy on our backpacker budget. They offered a free shuttle bus to a nearby silk farm where they make their silk for their products. I jumped at the opportunity, leaving Brandyn behind since he had zero interest. Long story short, I was blown away by the tour. The guide walked us through the whole silk making process which was incredibly interesting and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making natural-dyed handwoven silk products. I know that cloth doesn’t come out of thin air, but to actually see the process is eye-opening. I saw silk worms, and learned that they are fed mulberry tree leaves and then spin (silk) cocoons and then are put in the sun to dry out and then the cocoons are put in hot water and strands are pulled off the cocoons with some contraption to make thread and then they are dyed and then woven into gorgeous scarves, shirts, etc. It is such a manual and detail-oriented process and watching the men and women working in the silk factory was just amazing.  Seeing a finished product in the showroom and knowing it started with an ugly worm making its cocoon was a great souvenir for me to take with me.





Discovering fish amok: This is a classic Cambodian dish that we randomly ordered one night in a Khmer restaurant, figuring we had to try it, and it was, happily, DELICIOUS! Fish amok is made from chunks of white fish (or you can get prawns or chicken instead) that are cooked with coconut milk, kaffir lime, chilies, galangal (like ginger) lemongrass, and a few other things and then served in a bowl made of banana leaves. The taste is rich and creamy and so good and unlike any combination of flavors I’ve ever had. Such a great find.

Battambang: a boat ride and a Christmas celebration

You can get to Battambang from Siem Reap by bus (4 hours) or by boat (8 hours). We chose the boat. AHHHH! WHYYY?? Well, it was supposed to be a very scenic ride through narrow waterways and floating villages so we thought it would be interesting. Brandyn is much more into boats than I am, I tend to get bored of them after an hour, but I figured it wasn’t too big of a deal. We had heard that the boats uphold ZERO international safety standards so I was a bit nervous about overcrowding and drowning and those fun things, but we made it through okay. It actually was an okay ride. Good points – passing through floating villages, literally boats and structures that were houses and schools and stores and waving at the little kids along the way. Oh, and the little baby sitting next to us was super cute. Bad points – the hard wooden benches we were sitting on, our proximity to the engine so the noise and smell was overpowering, the man near us that had not one, but TWO seizures while on the boat so we had to helplessly watch his wife and other locals try to revive him by scratching him with their nails and then rubbing tiger balm in the cuts.





Arriving in Battambang we met a nice tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English.  (“Call me Tea like the drink” he said when we asked what his name was, but I think its spelled Ty). He took us to Lux Guesthouse, a Cambodian owned/run place that had large, lovely rooms for only $11 a night. Yay! We immediately liked the vibe in Battambang. Though its Cambodia’s second largest city it has the feel of a sleepy little town.  There were lots of restaurants around and everything within walking distance, so we felt comfortable.

What did we do in Battambang? A lot centered around things we saw while with Ty, who on two separate days rode us around in his tuk tuk to local places of interest, made all the more interesting by his commentary and explanations, and the beautiful countryside filled with rice paddies, and small villages with houses on stilts. Notable standouts include…

Riding the bamboo train: This literally was a bamboo platform with a small engine on it that runs along the railroad tracks and can quickly be stopped and dismantled and moved if a real train is coming (or another bamboo train) from the opposite direction. Apparently it was ingeniously invented by locals to get to places faster while using existing train track infrastructure. Riding on it was SO FAST so bumpy, even though we were only going like 30 km/hr it felt faster since we were so close to the rails, and each break in the tracks made it feel like we were going to go flying off into the nearby rice paddies.



Learning how rice paper and rice noodles are made: Ty stopped the tuk tuk at a few seemingly random houses that he knew of where the families made rice paper and rice noodles. So cool to see in person how they make the foods we’ve been eating nearly every day and it was yet another reminder of how important rice is to the lives of Cambodians. Rice paper is made from a ground rice/water mixture that is the consistency of thin pancake batter that is spread in a thin circle onto a piece of fabric stretched tight over a boiling water pot, and then once cooked (just a few seconds) is quickly taken off and placed onto a woven bamboo rack and left to dry. It dries hard and with a neat criss-cross pattern, but then you just dip it in water quickly to get it to be soft again (like if you want to make spring rolls). Rice noodles are similar. The rice dough is pressed through some ancient looking lever machine and comes out in spaghetti-ish shapes and then are quickly put in cool water.




Visiting the Killing Caves: This was a solemn experience, but a very important one in terms of introducing us to the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and helping us slowly begin to see what the country had been through. Ty took us to a hill called Phnom Sampeau which we climbed up and first admired several temples (as well as fed bananas to some hungry and friendly monkeys). The hill is also the home of the killing caves, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It was extremely gruesome, people were brought to the top of the caves, and then bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit and were pushed down the skylight into a deep cave. A few memorials were set up, with skulls and bones displayed in glass cases, and there were still some small pieces of bone and clothing in the area. So horrible to think about and just standing there and picturing the atrocities that had occurred there literally made our stomachs turn. Barbaric. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that all of this had happened after I had been born. Did my parents know about it? Did the world know?  This was just the beginning lesson to a lot of education about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia.






Seeing an amazing acrobatic performance: So we wanted to go to this “circus” in Battambang that I think is misnamed/mismarketed. The actual Cambodian name is Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is an NGO that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth learn a range of artistic skills such as painting, acrobatics, theater, music, etc. as well as traditional educational subjects. The organization is quite renowned and has sent several of its students on to Cirque du Soleil. They put on performances a few times a week to raise money for the organization (and hone their skills) and the one we went to blew us away!! Not exactly the dancing bear circus that the name suggests. The performers were ages 16-24 and so talented…there was a 3-student band providing a musical background to a high-energy, well choreographed acrobatics show. These kids were juggling, balancing, and doing crazy acrobatics literally just like Cirque de Soleil. Great showmanship and just fantastic entertainment.  After a tiring and mentally exhausting day at the Killing Caves, it was quite a contrast and very inspiring to see young Cambodians with so much energy and talent and clearly living life to the fullest.


Taking a cooking class: On Christmas morning we took a cooking class offered at a nearby restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot”. There were 8 of us in total and we first went with the chef to the local market to buy fresh ingredients, which was such fun. The market is run by women, all of whom have small stalls on the inside or designated areas on the ground outside where they squat and sell their wares. The chef explained all of the ingredients (some of which didn’t look the way I had pictured them – like lemongrass), and we got to see him bargaining with all of the women for what he wanted. Definitely an experience! We got back to the restaurant and were quickly put to work chopping veggies, grinding spices and such in a giant mortar and pestle and then we moved on to individual work stations/stoves to cook up (and eat) three yummy dishes. We made fish amok, and two other spicy ones that I forget the names of but will remember soon enough since they gave us a recipe book which I sent home.  After our disastrous cooking ‘class’ in India we finally felt redeemed, and got a little bit excited about future dinner parties once we get back to Brooklyn.




Exchanging ‘secret Santa’ gifts: Since it was Christmas after all, we decided to do our own version of “secret Santa” and gave ourselves a $5 and 30 minute limit to buy each other a Christmas gift which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Battambang isn’t a very tourist-oriented town so there weren’t any souvenir shops and the dozens of hardware, electronics and clothing stores didn’t quite have anything appropriate. FINALLY I found a small handicrafts place and bought a pair of bamboo wood chopsticks (which we had been admiring in several restaurants), a loofah made of Cambodian natural products (Brandyn loves them), and then as a final touch, I bought an Angry Birds keychain from a street vendor (we’ve become obsessed with the game on this trip). I was pretty happy with myself! I got back to the hotel and Brandyn was grinning, saying that he got a great gift for me but it wouldn’t be ready for him to pick up until 5pm. Hmmmmm. So that night we went to happy hour at a nearby restaurant and began the gift exchange. I had wrapped my gifts in plastic bags (classy) and Brandyn loved them. Yay! Then he handed me his gift, wrapped in his scarf. It was rectangular and hard…I had no idea what it could be. Then I took off the scarf and saw the back of a picture frame. Oh cool, I thought, he bought some art! I flipped the frame around and couldn’t believe it…I was staring at a professional totally air-brushed photo of Brandyn wearing his bright red Kingfisher beer muscle shirt, doing a double thumbs-up, and standing in front of a wrought iron balcony with fake smoke all around. At the bottom of the photo were the words “Merry Christ Mas 2011 Battambang Cambodia”. LOVED IT!!! We had been passing by tons of photo shops in Cambodia and all of them had these ridiculously posed and overly airbrushed photos of couples and individuals in front of outrageous backgrounds. Like a senior high school photo gone wrong. So Brandyn had played along and gotten a portrait and although it was all really was a big joke to him, he and the staff at the photo store had taken it very seriously  and took about 30 shots of him. Brandyn doesn’t want me to post a big picture of him but I DO have a digital copy so if you want to see it let me know and I’ll share it.

India part 1 of 2

Mar 12, 2012 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, India, Uncategorized, Where two now?, Where we've been

This is India

Contents
Leaving Zanzibar
Hello Delhi
Jaipur, the Pink City
Pushkar
Udaipur, home of the Octopussy
Jodhpur, The Blue City
Buying Train Tickets 101
Jalgaon and the Ajanta Caves
The Ellora Caves and Aurangabad


Leaving Zanzibar

Leaving Zanzibar has to be difficult for anyone. I was gutted to be leaving. It had been the best place we’d visited on the trip so far. Jambiani was quiet, peaceful, clean, and the people were lovely. We were leaving on an Oman Airlines flight that went to New Delhi via Dar es Salaam with a healthy layover in Muscat, Oman. The airport in Zanzibar was not much more than a few runways with a ramshackle building out front. Our ticket, fortunately, included the $30 departure tax from Zanzibar. In total the flight was around $420 per person.

I had read that Oman Airlines was supposed to be one of the nicest in the world. Maybe it was the planes that we were on, but I couldn’t see why Oman Airlines had such a great reputation. There was very little leg room and the airplane didn’t have screens on the seatbacks in front of us. The airport in Muscat has got to be one of the most beautiful airports in the world. It was modern and very luxurious. I was reading the in flight magazine and it said that Oman has one of the strongest currencies in the world. It is called the Rial and is around $2.5USD for 1 Rial. When we were in the airport the prices stunned me, the Rial is split into thousands rather than hundreds. So a magazine on the shelf cost 2.125 Rials. I couldn’t see how a currency which is split into thousandths could be stronger than other currencies, but…

India is a massive country it roughly 1/3 the size of the United States with almost four times the population. You can see from the map below where we visited in seven weeks. I will do my best in this blog to not generalize too much about a country we only visited for a brief time in which we barely scratched the surface. In this blog I’m sure that I will switch back and forth between Rupees and Dollars. 50 Rupees is approximately USD$1.


View Where we’ve been in a larger map


Hello Delhi

We arrived to the last of the monsoon rains on an early September morning. We booked a hotel room that had free airport pickup (which I’d highly recommend to anyone entering though Delhi). The driver was waiting for us past the customs gate on time. The bags were stuffed behind us between the backseat and the hatchback. About 3 minutes into the drive and five minutes into our trip to India we were rear-ended. Glass shattered all over us and spilled into the miniature Tata. We drifted into the intersection while our driver got out had a few words to the man who hit us; which was a large military vehicle with a uniformed man behind the wheel. The military man shoved some Rupees in the hands of our driver and motioned for him to bugger off.

The whole ordeal was done in maybe one minute. Rain was drenching us from the hole where the rear window had just been. Cori and I were like baboons grooming, peeling glass shards from our clothes and hair. The weird thing about it was that no one seemed to care. We didn’t get an ‘are you okay?’ which I thought was standard anywhere in the world after a car accident. It was around a 30 minute drive to the hotel. The men at the desk were lovely and we checked into a windowless with aircon, hot water, and cable television for $20 a night. When we told the front desk men about our accident he simply said, ‘I heard, the driver must do ten more pickups today.’

We napped a bit. Waking and feeling hungover from lack of sleep and sore from the accident we ordered some room service. Behind Mexican food, Indian food comes in a very close second. Mexican food has a huge advantage over Indian food in that bad Mexican food is never that bad, bad Indian food can ruin days. We finally had enough energy and courage to leave the room.

We established a rule within the first few days in India that we would have to try everything and not just get sick of the same Indian food that we already knew. The menus in India were different from those in the states. There was no translation and for the first few days we’d just go with what sounded good. I remember thinking Vegetable Jalfrezi sounds fun to say. It has to be fun to eat. It was awesome. We stayed vegetarian in India and didn’t eat anything raw to prevent getting food poisoning aka ‘the Delhi belly.’

Our hotel was either affiliated with or was owned by a travel agency; which made it awkward to not book anything with them. We were shuffled across the street to the tourism office to have a glass of welcome chai. The men who operated the tourist office were smooth. They told us that because we were tired and hadn’t slept well on the plane, it seemed like a good idea for us to get an aircon taxi to take us to a few sites around the city; not wasting the day entirely. They knew their routine a little too well.

We saw Humayun Tomb, the Presidential Palace, the India Gate, and our first Hindu temple. We paid around 200 Rupees for a driver and the taxi for three hours. The first thing that I couldn’t get over was the heat. It was so hot and so sticky. I felt like I was wearing a sweat suit while a hot shower was running. I was dripping sweat. When I looked around me, I couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to be sweating. Indian families were dressed in long pants and button down shirts without a drop of sweat on them. I was and still am amazed that no one sweat.

The entrance fee for foreigners is 250 Rupees while for Indians it is 10 Rupees. I don’t have a problem with paying more to see heritage sights, but the mentality of a lot of people goes beyond tourist attractions. A lot of people we would later encounter seemed to think that we, being foreign, were made of money and that we should pay more for everything.

Humanyun Tomb was pretty magnificent. It is nearly as big as the Taj Mahal and was built within a century of Machu Picchu but was incredibly well maintained. A cleverly named building, the tomb houses the body of Humanyun, a mogul emperor. The most interesting piece of architecture which I’d first seen in Zanzibar but would see throughout India was the presence of lattice work. These reflect the story of the Prophet Mohammed escaping the holy city of Mecca to go to Medina. Spiders had cast webs in front of a cave in which Mohammed was hiding; their enemies thought there was no way that they could be inside. The lattice work is tribute to this story and is on many buildings whom have an association with Islam.

The India gate was built after World War Two and is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe on a street much like the Champs de Elysee ending in the Presidential Palace. Food vendors, balloon salesmen, and toy hawkers all vied for our attention and our Rupees. Indian children played with one another while Indian couples walked within a few meters of one another. The sun had begun to set on our first day in Delhi. I wanted to hug and kiss Cori and congratulate her on a new chapter of our adventure, but respecting local customs, I gave her a pat on the back instead. A pat on the back would be my way of showing her public affection that day and for the weeks to come.

The next day we decided that we were going to take the New Delhi Metro around and see some of the sites in the old city. The guys from our hotel’s tourist office told us not to trust anyone. They didn’t try to sell us a tour through the old city so that made me trust them more. It is never comforting to be told not to trust some anyone by someone you don’t trust. We took the immaculately clean metro a few stops and managed to transfer trains without any trouble at all. The maps were very well detailed, the speakers were audible, and the system made sense (all the things the New York Metro does not, and if we can master that, Delhi was a cake walk). The old part of town we emerged at was absolutely maddening. The air was frothing with heat and stench. We had walked from the cleanest part of Delhi (the metro) to one that until then we’d only read about. After walking a few hundred meters to the Red Fort, we stood on the side of the road waiting to cross. We stood for few minutes waiting for some kind of a break in traffic. There was no way that we were going make it across. A man with his hair dyed bright orange helped us to cross the street. He wasn’t the Good Samaritan that we hoped, but a cycle rickshaw driver who was poaching us for business.

After the magnificence of Humayun’s Tomb the Red Fort was mildly disappointing. Visiting old buildings which have little to no historical significance for me feels mundane. I should have really done much more homework before visiting the sights. I’m sure would have made them much more memorable for me. I’ve always appreciated natural beauty far more than any building could ever offer. I knew that we were going to visit Nepal after India we’d get our fix for natural beauty soon enough.

When we exited, the orange haired man was waiting for us. He showed us a bunch of business cards with recommendations written on them. He wanted for us to ‘not pay until the end, and only pay if we were happy.’ We knew better and settled on a price of 150 Rupees for the two of us for 1-2 hours. For anyone thinking that this was an exploitative rate and that we should have paid more figure this: we booked an air-conditioned taxi from a tourist agency for 4 hours for 200 Rupees with no negotiating. We felt 150 was a very fair price. It was really cool weaving in and out of the old city on the rickshaw.

Our first stop was to the Muslim area of town. We were going to visit the largest mosque in India but decided against it when they wouldn’t let us in with our camera. We took a few pictures from the entrance of the mosque at the city below. It was absolute insanity to see. We dined at the world famous Karim’s which was incredible. Watching everyone else eat was the best part of the meal. There were no utensils and eating with your left hand is taboo. We watched a man eat gracefully with his right hand tearing the naan (bread) and scooping the gravy. We now had a model of how we should be eating. Over time eating with our hands grew on us. I still love eating Indian food with my hands and was more than happy to demonstrate my skill to any local who watched me eat.

Our new orange haired friend was winding us through some of the narrowest roads I’d ever seen. We passed through the wedding dress district the spice district and got to see a city block in which a man housed over 300 of his harem. I was happy that we’d hired the man, there was no way I would have wanted to walk through any of those streets. He took us to his ‘friend’s’ spice shop. After being shown every kind of spice in the place we felt like we had to buy some overpriced cashews, so the orange man could get his commission.

Everything in India comes back to commission. It is such an ugly system in India and made us skittish against anyone. It seemed like everyone had a friend who was selling something that they wanted to introduce us to. Rickshaw drivers would intentionally lie to us to bring us to stores instead of our intended destination. They would tell us that the hotel we were staying at were thieves and that we should go with them. All the while it just made us want to do shopping on our own to find a much better deal.

We asked to be let off by the metro station and paid the man. He looked shocked that we would have only given him the amount that we agreed on. Orange head told me that it was 150 per person not for the two of us. We had him tell us three times before we got in the rickshaw that it was for the two of us. I knew that even the smallest of confrontations would result in a number of onlookers. I started shouting at him and trying to make him lose face as a crowd gathered. I told him that he wasn’t a man and that we shook on our agreement. After a minute or two of this I threw another 50 Rupees at his face and walked away. This was how 90% of our trip in India went. I wanted to start recording our negotiations with anyone before agreeing to anything, but for some reason only recorded one such negotiation. Watching it in hindsight is ridiculous.

It was our second anniversary, so we decided to go out for a nice dinner at Qba (pronounced Cuba). I got a vegetarian Middle Eastern dish and Cori got a chicken dish. Her chicken was raw on the inside. They offered no apologies, no refund, or exchange. We spend $34 on a fancy dinner that was worth about $3.

One thing that is really terrible about every sales person that we encountered in India was that they were your best friend until you bought something. We were offered tea many times from the travel agency at our hotel. The guys were super nice and were tried to convince us that for just $50 per day we could have a personal driver take us all around Rajasthan. After doing the math for one minute we decided that sounded like the worst thing we’d ever heard. We very kindly told him that we were not interested but would book a train ticket from them to Jaipur instead. The guy who was trying to sell us the tickets just vanished and started watching television in the back. We didn’t have any idea what to do next so we sat there for a minute or two until I asked someone else working what we were supposed to do. They told us to come back at six that afternoon. A few days later in Jaipur, I bought Cori a purse; I bargained and joked with the man for about 5 minutes until he reluctantly agreed to part with the purse for a more than fair price. Before I even got out the money, he stopped giving me eye contact and started texting on the phone. When we said thank you and goodbye, we got nothing in return.

For pictures from Delhi please click HERE


Jaipur, the Pink City

The train ride to Jaipur was a surprisingly nice, uneventful, and nearly empty this ride unfortunately set the train travel bar high for us. It seems like every city in India has a nickname and Jaipur’s nickname is ‘The Pink City.’ It is called this because the majority of the city was painted pink in 1876 to welcome Prince Albert. We stayed at a very simple guesthouse which online said that they do not pay commissions to rickshaw drivers. Because no commissions were paid the rickshaw drivers didn’t like the place; online stated that drivers would say that it had burned down or that it was sold out. Upon arrival we got a rickshaw and when we were leaving the driver told us, ‘don’t trust the people there, they are bad people,’ ‘okay rickshaw guy’. We had a family room that was massive and built for four. The people at the guesthouse were really friendly and we were happy to stay there.

Jaipur was supposed to be a shopper’s heaven which inevitably meant that I would be going to ‘stores’ with Cori. Shopping in India is not much different than in the rest of Asia. There is usually a street lined with shops where the proprietors live above. Entire streets will be selling the same thing. If you want a carburetor for your motorbike, you would go to Carburetor Street. Then if you need a lock for your backpack, you’d go to Lock Street. There are literally dozens of places selling the exact same things right next to one another. The streets will be named what the people are selling (in Hindi).

We managed to get a rickshaw driver to take us to the Monkey Temple then into the city center for around $3. The walk to the Monkey Temple was really neat. The temple itself was nothing special but the view from the top was pretty incredible. On our walk down men with bags of bananas were whistling and calling to the monkeys. The monkeys gently took the bananas and ran to the side of the road. This put my mind at ease with monkeys. All my previous experience had been anxiety filled and worrisome.

Jaipur was in no way the poorest place that we would visit in India it was the first time that poverty threw itself at us. It isn’t the poverty that is bothersome to me. A number of the people in South America were poor, but, they were smiling and almost always clean; in Africa and Asia the same. But looking down at the city of Jaipur was the first time of many that we’d get a bird’s eye view of appalling conditions that were normal there. People were living too close to their own filth. On every street corner men were pissing, and the whole place reeked of human waste.

A reoccurring and unfortunate happenstance was the begging. When we would be sitting in rickshaws, women would touch our arms and pull on our shirts. Children would tell us that their parents were dead (although one time the rickshaw driver called the kid out on it and he smiled and walked away). Everyone would make the same motion. They would put their four fingers and thumb together like they were squeezing something small with the tips of each digit, make a super sad face, and motion for the hand to the mouth; on many occasions it would be followed with the beggar saying chipati chipati (which means unleavened flat bread unleavened flat bread).

Our driver said that for an extra 50 Rupees we could go and see the elephants and the Water Temple. We agreed and told our driver before agreeing to go with him that we weren’t going to do any shopping and not to take us anywhere to buy us anything, so we thought we had nothing to worry about. Along the way we stopped at a few ‘factories’. The first was at a jewelry store which made their own goods off site but had a few craftsmen outside to demonstrate how it was done. There was little pressure (by Indian standards) to buy. We had them give us their card and told them that our rickshaw driver didn’t tell us that we were going shopping so we didn’t bring any money (of course loud enough for him to hear), and that if we wanted anything that we’d come back later. Next we went to a block print ‘factory’ which was a multi-storied building with extremely pushy salespeople. After not asking, but being shown, about 15 different bed-sheets I again said to the salesmen, ‘I didn’t want to go shopping, talk my rickshaw driver about wasting your time.’ We were yelled at by multiple people for walking out of the store instead of walking all of the way through it. The elephants were tied up on the side of the highway so we opted not to visit them. The water temple was incomplete and was surrounded by swarming with children performing magic for Rupees.

I know that I previously said that I didn’t really like seeing old buildings, but the Amer Fort was an exception. I was blown away by how huge it was. This was the first sight that we were able to see in India without having to hire a driver. We got on the local bus, paid something like 60 Rupees for the two of us and were there in less than an hour. One thing we experienced everywhere we went which is really funny is that people stare. It isn’t a subtle check you out kind of a thing; it is a full on stare. If we were to look back at the people doing the staring, they wouldn’t look away bashfully like you’d expect; they would continue staring. It wasn’t at all threatening, but weird and uncomfortable. We really lucked out at the Fort that day; it wasn’t at all busy so we were able to get some great pictures.

Another thing that is vastly different between North America and Europe versus the rest of the world is the freedom to roam. At almost any historical landmark it was possible to wander freely wherever we’d like without any kind of safety railing or warning signs. Inside the Fort we wandered freely, while meandering about without any kind of direction or warning at all. The Fort itself was the highlight of Jaipur for me (which was because I’m sure because there weren’t many people there).

We visited Iswari Minar Swarga Sal otherwise known as the Heaven Piercing Minaret. The nicest person we’d met on our trip so far offered to walk us up to the top and give us some history about it. I retained very little about the history of the Minaret because Cori and I kept on whispering back and forth to one another worrying that we’d have to pay the man. It was not a nice feeling to worry about having to pay someone a dollar or two when in hindsight it was a really nice and passionate man showing us around.

While we were in Jaipur we met up with our friends Richard and Linda. We’d met them on our Africa trip. The first time Linda wasn’t feeling well and had gotten sick in Varanasi. The next time all four of us met up for dinner we were served beer in a teapot. Many of the restaurants serve beer this way because they’re legally not supposed to be selling. It was really great getting to talk with them about India and how they felt about it. They’d been in country for a week or so longer than us. We spoke about the head bobble, the staring, and pushy people. They had described things perfectly when they said that it at times felt ‘assaulting.’

For pictures from Jaipur please click HERE


Pushkar

We took a bus from Jaipur to Pushkar. It was supposed to be around 4 hours but ended up being around 6.5. The road conditions were appalling. It was a flat road that wasn’t too busy and didn’t gain much in altitude. Like most of the roads we traveled on, road maintenance was simply ignored until it was in a state of disrepair. Pushkar has visitors from all around the world who bathe from the lake’s ghats (steps into the water) to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases. We arrived in Pushkar and my first observation was the amount of flies everywhere. This town had the most amount of flies I’d ever seen, anywhere. Luckily we stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool and could avoid the flies by being in the water.

We did some walking around the city. It was quant, but most of the people trying to hawk things on the street were very pushy. As a rule, I avoid the pushy ones and go directly to the people who are more like people. The first rule to being a good sales person is to first gain trust then sell. I bought a really cool Ganesha notebook from a great guy named Pradeep who had the sales technique I liked. We’re still Facebook friends today.

One night in Pushkar, Cori and I decided that we’d go on a date to try to try and make up for our bogus anniversary. I said that we’d have a 250 Rupee ($5) budget for new outfits for us both before going out. It was a fun challenge and an opportunity for Cori to venture out on her own and not be ignored (more on her being invisible later). I bought a cool hand screened shirt and a pair of green linen pants while Cori bought a couple of nice dresses. We’d heard from a couple staying at our hotel that ‘The Hard Rock Café’ was a good place for dinner, so we checked it out. The food was mediocre and the proprietor decided to sit down with us for most of the meal. It would have been a cool experience had the conversation not seemed rehearsed, had it not been our second chance at an anniversary, and we got some time to respond to what the guy was saying instead of just listening to the guy ramble for a long time. We’re really going to have to have a big third anniversary celebration to make up for the last two failed attempts.

After dinner on our way back to the hotel, I managed to step in a hot, fresh, steaming pile of cow shit, so fresh flies hadn’t begun to swarm yet. My foot melted into the hot pie and my mood with it. A local guy starting singing in the loudest of voices, ‘ONLYYYYY IN INDIAAAAAA.’ I remembered when we were in Ecuador we’d met a couple who said that it takes three weeks for you to forget everything and realize that you’re in India. It had been only a week and a half and I’d had it. I remember telling Cori something along the lines of, ‘India has stolen my smile from me and taken away my happiness.’ I was ready to, at that point, cut my losses and get out of there. I think in my rage even suggested that I just leave India and meet up with Cori later. I was in a blackout from disappointment and rage.

The next day before leaving Cori wanted to stop by the shop that she’d purchased her outfit the night before to see if there was anything else she wanted. We were immediately sat down inside of the shop for chai. By this time we’d grown mildly addicted to chai. It is an outstanding mix of spices, tea, milk, and ginger. If you’ve had the chai from Starbuck’s, you have no idea what I’m talking about; that is an over-Americanized flavor combination that is good for people with a sweet tooth. After the cup of tea and before it was time for Cori to shop the plastic cups were tossed into the street right in front of the store. It is impossible for me to try and describe what it is like, being from the West, to see someone litter, especially in such close proximity to they’re store; is insanity. The entire time I had a scrap of plastic from a water bottle I opened two days ago in my pocket that was waiting for a garbage can I couldn’t find. We have a crass expression where I’m from which goes, ‘do not shit where you eat.’ This was the perfect example of just that. I have hundreds of littering stories on this trip and will tell only a few in this blog. In exchange for the hospitality, Cori bought another dress that fits quite well.

For pictures from Pushkar please click HERE


Udaipur, home of the Octopussy

Our next stop was Udaipur. If you’re thinking, hey isn’t that where the extremely appropriately named James Bond film Octopussy took place, you would be correct. Udaipur was the first place in India that I liked; I felt a mild connection with it for many reasons. The first was that we were staying across the lake where most of the action happened so it was much quieter. Next there were far fewer rickshaw drivers to pester us about where we’re going next and if we wanted to buy narcotics from them. Udaipur was like Venice if Venice was dirty, had cows running all around the place, and if it smelled of curries, sweat, and dung. Lastly it was the first place in India thus far that we could just wander around. There wasn’t anything ‘spectacular’ that we’d have to take a rickshaw out of town to get to, we could simply wander around on our own.

There were only a few things that we wanted to do in our three days in Udaipur. We wanted to take a yoga class, take a cooking class, get happy hour on the water to see the sun set behind the Taj Lake Palace, watch Octopussy, and go to Udaipur’s traditional theater.

We visited the palace on the water and to save money didn’t pay the $5 for a camera permit. It wasn’t too special and I had to run out halfway through because of the Delhi Belly was brewing. After the palace we decided that we’d wander around a bit more. We found ourselves in a piss-soaked alley way completely turned around talking with a nice enough local man. Before we knew it we’d agreed to take a cooking class from him at his home the following day.

Cori found a place that sounded great for yoga, it was for donation only and the proceeds went to animal conservation. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I was happy to go. At the yoga class, an all too typical thing in India happened, which was wearing us both out; the man was completely enthralled with me and disregarded Cori. The yoga class was something that I was not doing for myself, I was accompanying my wife and our conversation with the instructor beforehand we let him know that. The entire time he kept telling me how flexible I was and asking me about previous accidents all the while telling Cori that she needed to stretch more. We gave our donation and went to find the alley where the previous day we’d agreed to do the cooking class with the random guy.

Rather than taking a cooking class with someone that Lonely Planet recommended we decided to do it with this guy for three reasons. The first was his command of English; he spoke well and had confidence. The next was that it was going to be in his home, so we thought that it would be interesting to be invited in to see what was going on behind the closed doors. Last and most important was that we would get to go to the market with him to shop for provisions.

After showing up on time we were quickly whisked away in his brother’s rickshaw to the market. This was the pinnacle of the day. The market was a local’s only onslaught of colors, smells, music, poverty, and crowds; this was the India I was happy to see. The cooking class was costing us 500 Rupees for the day. Our host didn’t introduce himself to us, so from here on out I will call him Chef. Chef frantically bought all kitchen essentials including knives, cups, and a few plates. If at this point of the story it doesn’t sound legit, it is because it wasn’t. We spent around 150 Rupees on the cutlery and 100 on food.

We left the market and on the way to Chef’s house we were told that we should buy some beer and whisky. We reluctantly agreed to buying two beers but refused to buy him any whisky. Chef was greeted by a fuming pissed brother. Even though we didn’t speak Hindi we knew the conversation had to be about not knowing he’d taken his rickshaw. We were brought upstairs through the kitchen and sat down on the floor of the living room and told to finely chop the onions with the new knives on the new plates. One thing that shocked me was that the sink was filled to the brim with dirty dishes that never were cleaned throughout day.

After a while of chopping Chef’s father told us that we had to get out of that room because he had to go through his private things. We stood in the corner of the room watching the old fat man unlock the archaic foot locker and shuffle through papers and old pictures. Now, I felt was as good of time as any, whether or not there were guests, for the father to shuffle through his personal effects. Shortly after the father debacle we went downstairs to get further out of the way. We were greeted by a mob. There were nearly 30 guys in the road demanding money from our hosts for decorations for a city wide festival the following month. They told Chef to give him 500 Rupees. He responded that he hadn’t made that much money that day and instead gave the mob 250. All of his profits from the day were now shot and with it the effort to please his guests went as well. The mother was holding onto a banana peel and as soon as the mob left threw it out into the street, just like our chai friends did in Pushkar.

We went back upstairs hoping that some kind of progress had been made and that we’d soon be eating and getting the hell out of there. Instead, more awkwardness ensued. Chef’s fat younger sister told Cori to give her money so that she could buy Chef’s wife some candy. We less than politely refused and she was scolded loudly in front of us for asking. The ‘cooking class’ became an ‘awkwardly sit there while Chef’s wife cooks for us class’. We were out of beer and chef thought that it would be appropriate to again ask if we’d buy him some whisky. Always willing to turn down the offer to buy someone else whisky I didn’t find myself surprised when I politely refused.

PHOTO ALBUM TME!!! Chef, I don’t know why, maybe he was feeling the beers decided that it was as good of time as any to get out his old photo album from France. Chef had been married in France and was a private chef at a chateau. He showed us all of these pictures from his former life and you couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He was married to a good looking French woman. They got divorced. He was self destructive for a period and crashed his motorcycle while drunk. He was forced to move back home to Udaipur where he is now with an unattractive wife and infant son living with his parents cooking for people he can convince as they walk buy his alleyway.

After around 6 hours it was time to eat. The food was great, I don’t feel like I learned much, but was glad that I had the story to take from it. After the food it was, ‘time to see how I (Chef) really make my money, I’m going to take you to my pashmina shop.’ Apparently the cooking classes were a front for Chef’s business of exporting fine scarves from India. We met his ‘cousin’ behind the counter who immediately retrieved around 20 scarves from the shelf ranging from ‘expensive’ to ‘you’ve got to be kidding me in prices.’ He told us of a story woman who had very limited bag space because she was bicycling the length of India. She was so enamored with the quality and beauty of his pashminas that she decided to buy three. The prices for the pashminas were $30-$50. This price was of course before negotiating. Here is the conversation between me and the master sales guy.

MSG: ‘How many do you want?’
Me: ‘zero’
MSG: ‘okay, well hypothetically how many would you want so that we can negotiate a price.’
Me: ‘hypothetically, I would want zero. I don’t wear pashminas and don’t want any.’
MSG: ‘okay, well if you were to buy any for a gift how many would you buy?’
Me: ‘zero, I’m leaving.’

That night we went to one of the many hotels that play Octopussy every night. I tried a ‘special lassi’ after seeing them on the menu at many places. I thought that I would give it a shot, being that it is after all, a holy drink. I handled myself quite well. Octopussy no matter how out of your mind you are is a terrible film. Roger Moore, need I say more? We left halfway through, not even caring about how it ended.

The next day we did a lot of lounging around and went to the traditional theater. Which sounds like pure misery, but, I was pleasantly surprised. The women were incredible, at one point a woman had 10 huge pots on her head while spinning and making us dizzy. It was less than an hour and cost around 50 Rupees. Perfect.

For pictures from Udaipur please click HERE


Jodhpur, The Blue City

From Udaipur we headed to Jodhpur, The Blue City. The guide books all said that this wasn’t much of a town but a base to do some camel riding and visit the fort. We stayed at a guest house within walking distance to the train station. The man who owned the place was nice enough and the walls were littered with postcards from around the world that he’d received from previous guests. We booked a full day trip with him to see a Jain Temple then go out to the dunes for a camel ‘safari.’

The Jain Temple was the most extravagant structure I’ve ever seen in my life. It was difficult to fathom its enormity and its meticulous attention to detail. Every facet of the temple was adorned in beautiful sculpture. We were given a tour by the head of the restoration project whose mentor was American. He showed us all of the restoration efforts and explained to us the painstaking process to create just one unique figure out of millions. It has been his life’s work and I think it to be a life worth spending. We gave a small donation for a small sandstone sculpture of Ganesha; a piece I’m looking forward to putting on our bookshelf at home.

From there we visited another temple where the beginning of a reoccurring event would happen. When we had dinner with Richard, he’s asked us if we had been asked to have our picture taken with anyone. We found the request odd and hadn’t yet experienced it. At the second temple we visited that day, hoards of tweens surrounded us just staring at us until one finally got up enough courage to ask if they can get their photo taken with us. A few times the shyer people would just covertly take photos of us walking by on their camera phones. We’ve since had our picture taken with entire families, and people both old and young. I have no idea where these camera phone snapshots end up, maybe we are tagged in a few Facebook posts. The funniest one was when I was walking down the aisle of a train and a hand with a cell phone in it peered through the curtain and snapped a shot of me.

The camel safari was an experience. To that point, I’d never heard anything good about camels. A friend of mine described them as stupid f-ing creatures that are anything but comfortable. We pulled onto a patch of packed sand and before I knew it I was on top of a camel. Cori’s camel liked to scream and holler and took some coaxing before he’d let her on. Our guides walked us slowly over the terrain. Soon children were greeting us with ‘give us money’ and ‘give us money.’ The ride was great, a little wobbly, but just fine. It felt like being on top of a horse wearing stilts with a wine buzz. I didn’t think it was uncomfortable at all. We took tons of pictures of the surrounding villages and of our trusty steeds. We arrived at our guide’s home and were told to sit and wait for lunch. We were out in the middle of nowhere, at a farmer’s home, who the people in the village had learned over the generations to cultivate on sand, but I’ve got to say, this was probably the only meal in India I didn’t like. They said that it was watermelon curry, it was not watermelon nor was it a curry; it was wet matter.

A reoccurring theme throughout our trip has been the forced relaxing. You’ll book a trip and realize that ‘afternoon tea’ is really another way to say ‘your hosts / guides will disappear to do their own thing for a few hours while you sit around.’ What they didn’t tell us about this trip was that our afternoon tea was to be done in a windowless mud hut that traps heat and flies inside. I didn’t have the patience for forced relaxing or the number of flies landing on my face in the still hot room, so I went for an hour long walk on my own through the village and out to the sand dunes.

When I got back there was another couple who were suiting up for a sunset safari. We thought that this was our queue that forced relaxing was over and it was time to get the show on the road; wrong. We sat around and waited for a bit before it was finally time to go for sunset on the dunes. Unfortunately enough for me, it was the same walk that I’d taken a few minutes earlier.

Chronic throat clearing is perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable; it is not and should not be considered as rude. It is something that you will observe in most Asian count\ries. It is a little shocking at first, but with some time you will get used to it. My camel guide who was behind me on my camel was close enough to have his chest touch my back. HHHHHHHHAAWWWK THEW, one, HHHHHHHHAAWWWK THEW, two. On the tenth throat clear then spit less than 10 centimeters from me, my camel guide hit my arm with his phlegm. I lost it. It took him ten times to hawk up spit and then I finally got spit on. I kept my cool until then. I yelled and yelled and received only a head bobble in return. It was no use, only one of the men spoke rudimentary English but I think that I got the point across when I mimicked the hawking noise and pointed at my arm. I knew from watching Aladdin that camels spit and to watch out for them, but I didn’t think that I’d get spit on by my guide.

The sunset was incredible and we rode the camels back to camp in the dark. Our driver was waiting for us, we tipped our guides and left. Before our guides shook our hands they got out their cell phones to inspect the bills that we’d given them as tips.

Too long; didn’t read: camel safari. Camels weren’t that uncomfortable at all, bad food, hot forced rest, got spit on, saw great sunset, snapped some great pictures, had guide whip out his cell phone to inspect the tip before he didn’t shake our hand goodbye, told hotel man who sold the trip to us about the experience and have him respond with, ‘nothing is perfect, don’t put your expectations too high.’

The head bobble is an amazing phenomenon. Anyone who has been to India knows exactly what I’m talking about but will have difficulty explaining exactly what it is. The mechanics of the head bobble are simple. Look straight ahead and pivot your head side to side. This can be a subtle movement or an excited almost spastic movement. It can mean everything from yes, no, I understand, go to hell, maybe, I don’t understand you, and anything else. It is a code in which deciphering is nearly impossible unless you yourself have been doing the bobble since birth. I found myself after some weeks beginning to bobble when answering questions or as a greeting to the hotel receptionists. It is the most amazingly bizarre thing that absolutely everyone does.

Our train was at 9pm to Jalgaon to see the Ajanta Caves so we visited a few sites around the town to burn time. We went to a palace / hotel on the top of a hill. Our volunteer guide was telling us all about it, but his accent was so thick that Cori kept wandering off to read the signs instead of listening to him. All that I could gather was that it was part royal family home, part museum, and part extravagant hotel. We saw our first albino Indian couple at the museum. We thought that they were chubby Americans from the Midwest that were dressing like Indians. I was an inch away from asking if they’d like to join us for an English speaking guide until we heard them speak perfect Hindi to their guide. After that we went to the Mehrangarh Fort, I was very impressed how well put together the audio guide was. One of the coolest things that I learned which wasn’t about the fort at all but was that Jodhpur was the ‘Blue City.’ It was called that because many of the people from the higher casts had their houses painted blue. It was painted with indigo, which happens to be a natural mosquito repellant.


How to Purchase Train Tickets 101

We’d been previously warned about purchasing train tickets. Train tickets, from our experience weren’t that easy to come by. We had a great deal of difficulty each time we had to buy them. Trying to get to Jalgaon was no exception. The general quota seats were sold out and the foreign quota tickets are not available online or through a travel agent (same for the last minute tickets called ‘Tatkal Tickets’). I had to go to the station in person to purchase them. For each train there are only 2 foreign quota tickets available, so they are not easily attainable. The train station’s ticket office was literally right across the street from our hotel and I made the journey several times before finally getting the tickets. The process was in no way automated.

The trains in India are how everyone gets around, not just the tourists. Each train typically has 20 train cars. From what we noticed 18 of those cars are unreserved cars. This means that they will pack the cars until they’re splitting at the seams. It may be a great way to experience ‘the real India’ but a terrible way to do it with any amount of personal space or comfort. This limits the feasible options to only two cars that are worth traveling on. One car is Three AC / 3AC which is a triple bunk bed option where the top and bottom bunks are static and the middle bunk folds down to be the seat back for the bottom bunk. Three people sit on the bottom bunk until someone decides to go to bed. These three bunks face another three bunks. The luggage goes under the bottom bunk and there are metal rings to lock your luggage. The compartment is separated from the aisle by a sheet which doesn’t stop anyone from poking their head into. The other car is split between Two AC / 2AC and First AC. The 2AC is the same as the 3AC but without the middle bunk. It may not seem like much of a difference, but having 1/3 less people is well worth the extra money. First AC (which we didn’t take) has a real door and only two beds in the room. Because there are so few seats which are worth taking, finding one can be extremely difficult and it is best to plan as far ahead as possible (which isn’t our style of traveling at all).

Buying train tickets in India 101. First you must get the order form to fill out. There is an information line, but they are typically too busy booking tickets to answer any questions. The form must be filled out completely before you stand in any line. But you must get the form from a person behind the counter. This process is usually done by pushing someone aside and making a hand motion like you’re drawing a rectangle. Pushing isn’t considered rude either. So once you’ve pushed your way and have a form you must fill the paper out completely. The most important part of the form is the train number and what day you’d like to go.

Once said form is filled out you can proceed to stand in line. I found it helpful to have a few contingency forms in case the train that you want is sold out. If you are Caucasian, be prepared to have people stare at you. It is not an intimidating stare but a curious stare. Chances are, you will be the only Westerner in the building. Standing in line is another experience altogether. If the person behind you doesn’t have their chest touching your back, someone will squeeze between. Same goes for in front of you. Keep your chest on the back of the person in front of you. God willing you will get to the front of the line. Once you’re in front, do not make the mistake of being nice and assuming that the person who’s pushed you out of the way is looking for forms. They will undoubtedly be cutting in front of you. Keep your cool; do not use all 78 kilos of your mass to push this man out of your way. You will outweigh the vast majority of the population and they will move with much more velocity than you anticipate. It is best to avoid these shoving matches. When you are second or third in line, straddle the man in front of you, bracing your arms on either the counter or the window in front of you. This I can guarantee you will not make the man in front of you uncomfortable. If you are lucky, you will receive ‘the head bobble.’

Be cautious to the man behind the counter. I found they really enjoy being called sir. Do not let your frustrations from your previous pushing match alter your mood which may cause the man behind the counter to sell you two middle seat bunks. It is important to tell the man that you are married and that Mrs. Sir will be traveling with you all the while smiling and remembering to create a barrier between you and anyone who may try to get in front of the window. Always ask for the tourist quota because they are the same price as general and if those are sold out then ask for Tatkal which are around 20% more.

This concludes our lesson; I appreciate your attention and will get back to the blog.

We bid our hotel man a lovely evening and walked to the train station only a few hundred meters from the hotel. The train had originated in Delhi and when we reached our 3AC compartment people were already very comfortable and we had to squeeze in to where we’d be sitting / sleeping. English is only one of 13 official languages in India. It is not as widely spoken as you may think. We were in 3AC which meant that I had the bottom bunk and across from me was a fat man, above me was Cori, across from her was a skinny woman, above Cori was another skinny woman. Those three were together and spoke no English. On the top across from us was a nice well dressed man who didn’t say much and stayed on the top bunk for the entirety of the journey.

For pictures from Jodhpur please click HERE


Off to Jalgaon

After an hour or so one of the women made the begging hand to mouth motion to Cori. We both looked at each other like what the f- is she doing, is she begging? Apparently it was dinner time. The three of them were sitting where I’d be sleeping divvying up what looked like trail mix, bread, and some kind of liquid. They were spilling everything all over the place. I was starting to lose it. I couldn’t tell them to eat on their own damn bed and to get off of mine. I was just stuck watching them eat. They put the remainder of their food on the communal table and hung up a bag of stinking food next to where my head would lie.

When we were getting settled in for bed and after I scrubbed off the sticky mess from my bunk we noticed the bag with their melon inside of it shuffled slightly. A cockroach had crawled out of their melon and under our beds where our bags were. Cori asked the man on the top bunk who spoke English if they’d kindly wrap the melon up so no more cockroaches would get out and on to us. Grudgingly, they agreed and looked at us like ‘what’s the big deal?’ Finally we were laying down and trying to sleep. Just as I was about to fall asleep their other stinky food bag dripped a drop of sticky mess on my face. It smelled like a chili pepper had farted on me. The rest of the night was about the same. I got terrible sleep because of people peering into our compartment to see if there were open seats. No one on the train that night, despite the hour would whisper. If someone’s phone rang two compartments away, sure enough they would answer and answer loudly they would.

Jalgaon came, but not soon enough. The trains have no speaker systems to warn you of upcoming stops. The conductors do not let you know that your stop is coming next. The only way of knowing is to write down the last two or three stop names and look for them as you’re passing by. The last few hours of any journey are edgy as they’re almost never on time.

Jalgaon didn’t have much in the way of attractions outside of the caves themselves. We stayed at a great guesthouse with one of the friendliest proprietors that we’d met to date. The power was out so he suggested that we eat at one of the nicer hotels that had a generator. We had dinner and on the way back stopped at a stationary store where the man bent over backwards trying to find Cori a blue pen. He finally took the ink from one pen and replaced with another. The process took 10 minutes and cost 15 Rupees. I left him with a huge smile and a fast bobble. He responded back with a bigger smile and a faster bobble. I felt like I was getting a hang of the whole India thing.

I’d read that the Ajanta and Ellora caves were some of the most impressive monolithic structures in the world. I didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t fathom why that would be something to brag about. A monolithic structure is something that is carved from one piece of stone.

We rode in the back of a truck to the caves and stored our luggage at the information center. We climbed up some stairs and saw what the caves actually looked like. The caves aren’t really caves at all. They were carved from the side of the mountain. The Ajanta and Ellora caves are one of the few places in the world that are home to Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples. The Ajanta caves were discovered in 1819 when a British officer was hunting for tigers and stumbled across them. They’re said to be built in two phases starting around 2,100 years ago. We walked around for hours and hundreds of photos; it was difficult to get good shots inside because we weren’t supposed to use the flash. It was also impossible to encapsulate in the photos was the mass of the caves. They were huge and even the smallest cave could house a football field.

After the caves we stood by the side of the road and waited for the public bus to Aurangabad. The first one was stuffed to the gills with people. We let it go by. The next was overfilled as well, but we had to get on. At first Cori and I were separated until a very nice man was peeling people from their seats and pulling our arms and having us crawl over people until we were finally next to one another. The man spoke no English and our only communication was the bobble and a big smile from Cori and I.

For pictures from Jalgon and the Ajanta Caves please click HERE


The Ellora Caves and Aurangabad

We got to the bus station and had the rickshaw driver take us to a hotel that had positive reviews online. He of course told us that he knew of a much better place that was cheaper and that we should look at his first. We lied and said we already had reservations. Aurangabad doesn’t have much to it but an amazing tourist information center who can give information about all of the states in India and the Ajanta Caves.

We walked to where we thought that the tourist information center was. A rickshaw driver told us that it wasn’t there and that he would take us. After telling him to leave us alone we arrived at a vacant building where the office once was. The rickshaw driver was waiting for us there and was not full of doo-doo like we’d thought. This was our guy; he told us the truth and tried to tell us the truth the entire time. Traveling had stripped me of my trusting nature. Rather than believe anyone, I instead think that they are scammers. It is the same anywhere in the world, taxi and rickshaw drivers feeding you a line for commission, but rather than smile and say you know they’re lying, I began to just ignore everyone. We hired him for the next day to take us around.

Before going to the caves we visited what seemed to be an abandoned fort. We wandered around the place and the only other person we saw was the ticket agent. Again, we got to wander around freely and take pictures. Aurangabad had at one time been the capital of India. The former president had moved the capital and all of its citizens to Aurangabad. No one was exempt from the move. Many elderly and disabled people had perished on the journey. They had realized that they had made a mistake and strategically Jalgaon wasn’t the best location for the capital and made the citizens return to Delhi.

I am very happy that we first visited the Ajanta Caves. The Ellora caves were much more spectacular but had many more visitors as well. Most of the caves were reminiscent of Ajanta and we breezed through them because it was more of the same. There were two caves however that really stood out. The biggest and best was Ellora Kailasanathar Temple and took hundreds of years to complete. This has been to date the most impressive structure I have ever seen. It is incredible to think that it was carved from a mountain. It made Rushmore seem like child’s play in comparison. The next highlight was one of the smaller caves which looked much like Kailasanathar but had much fewer people. There was a security guard who spoke little English that took a liking to Cori and I. He took us into a few places where the paintings were exceptionally well preserved. He showed us a few places we would have surely overlooked with the majority of other people. It was insane to think that we could stand in the same room and touch (if we wanted to) 1,000 year old priceless paintings that depicted Buddha in a number of different scenes. Before we left I had my picture taken at least 10 times with 10 different cell phone cameras with young men.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Bibi Ka Maqbara ‘the mini Taj.’ The story goes that a Moghul price built the structure as a loving tribute to his mother. It wasn’t that impressive at seemed to be haphazardly thrown together. We were asked to have our picture taken with a family in front of it. The picture was the highlight of the visit.

For pictures from Aurangabad and the Ellora Caves please click HERE

I’ll continue more about the south of India in part two. This was getting a little long for a single blog post.

Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau

Feb 24, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cori's blogs, Laos, Uncategorized, Where we've been

Our initial days in Laos were spent in a few small cities in the Central and Southern parts of the country respectively, where we welcomed the sunny days and the relaxed pace of life.

Pakse doesn’t have many attractions in the town itself, but is a good base for nearby trips and also is a common bus stop on the Rte 13 North-South main road through the country.  We took a bus there from Savannakhet, a trip we thought would take 4 hours but instead took 6. Ugh.  It was a local bus that we boarded about an hour before it left, and it was a good thing we did since it soon filled up and then little plastic stools were placed in the aisle for additional people to sit on. There was not an inch of space left in that bus. We started off and soon realized that this was going to be a long trip. The bus literally stopped every 5 minutes (I was keeping track on my watch). Each time it stopped on the side of the road it was to cram more people on (as well as stow their big bags of rice or whatever on top of the bus), or to let people off. The thing about letting people off was that if someone was in the back of the bus they needed to make their way to the front by crawling and stepping over all of the people on the stools in the aisle which was a painfully slow and awkward process since there was no floor space to step on at all. No one seemed to mind at all though, this was totally typical. Occasionally the bus would stop to let people off to pee by the side of the road…no bushes really to hide behind, just out in the open, but most of the women had sarongs on so could be discreet. Since I was in my normal t-shirt and pants going to the bathroom was not an option for me.  In a few towns when we stopped the bus was instantly surrounded by women food vendors selling the ubiquitous grilled chicken on a stick which looks like the entire chicken splayed out. Also little sacks of sticky rice and sliced mangos and hardboiled eggs. All of which were enthusiastically waved in front of the windows or shoved inside for the passengers to buy. The bus soon smelled like a big barbeque.  It was brutally hot and the constant sweating combined with the constant stopping was making me cranky. After 6 hours the novelty of riding a local bus had long since worn off.

Upon our arrival in Pakse, we settled ourselves into a decent hotel in the center of town and strolled along the Mekong River getting our bearings, eating (yummy papaya salad and sticky rice), people watching, and bowling.




We debated how to spend the next few days and decided that we wanted to visit the Bolaven Plateau which is a nearby elevated area that has a cooler climate, is home to several small village and is known for its coffee plantations and waterfalls. It seemed like a very scenic and interesting place to explore and the best way would be by motorbike. There is a common route known as “the southern swing” which you can follow around the Bolaven Plateau, taking as little as 2 days or as much as 2 weeks to complete, depending on your side trips. I, of course, being someone of a square and a scaredy cat was hesitant. I wasn’t sure how safe it would be on the motorbike or what the conditions of the roads were like. I didn’t want to rent my own motorbike, and though Brandyn wasn’t overjoyed to lug me around on the back of his, he ultimately was okay with it. Having never ridden one before I didn’t think a 4 day trip was the best initial training ground…plus renting a motorbike in places like this is like renting a bicycle. No explanation, no safety instructions, just here are the motorbike keys – BYE! Not for me.

So we ended up with a cute red Honda Wave 100cc (no idea what that means) with Brandyn up front and me in the back wearing the daypack crammed with our stuff for 4 days. On January 31 at 8am we were off!

 

Day One: We rode from Pakse to Tat Lo which was about 85/90 km or so on a paved road, and traffic thinned considerably once we were out of town which was great. My views (except for the back of Brandyn’s helmet) were of the Bolaven Plateau in the distance, occasional cows by the side of the road, houses on stilts, and just nice greenery in general. We stopped at Phasoume Waterfall along the way and had some baguettes and Laughing Cow cheese (our go-to snack in Southeast Asia). We reached Tat Lo around 1pm and checked into a riverside room with a lovely view off the deck of some waterfalls and other nearby wooden bungalows. Explored the area for a bit by traipsing through the woods and enjoyed dinner on the deck while watching little kids playing/bathing in the river. Very peaceful.







 

Day Two: We got up early and walked about 20 minutes along a path up to the big waterfall – also named Tat Lo – and spent some time sitting at the top taking pictures. The whole scene reminded me of upstate New York, particularly the Finger Lakes region.  We got back on the motorbike and continued along the loop, this time with Sekong as our destination, about 75 km away on paved roads again. We passed by rice paddies, more houses on stilts, many of which were drying coffee beans spread out on large tarps in the front yard. Saw several big pigs snuffling along the ground or crossing the road (my absolute favorite), and then ended up in Sekong which was a small and empty town. We found a nice hotel to stay in and a nearby restaurant that had an English translation on the menu so we ate and then just settled in to read and relax. We had a TV in our room but the only English language station was ESPN so we watched the world bowling championship for a few hours – riveting.









 

Day Three: This was going to be a long day of riding but we were mentally prepared for it. We bought breakfast at some food stalls in town which consisted of a huge bunch of mini bananas (they wouldn’t sell us individual ones) and about 6 mini Chinese doughnut-like pastries, all accomplished through pantomiming and pointing and laughing. The Chinese buns turned out to be amazing…doughy and fresh and some of them were stuffed with what looked like mushrooms and tiny glass noodles but we weren’t sure. Sounds gross but was awesome. Best breakfast ever. After stowing the banana bunch in our bike basket we set off again, this time heading south. We turned at a waterfall sign down a long dirt road hoping it would result in something cool. Success! A beautiful waterfall and some nice rocks to sit on and eat more doughnuts. Back on our way, we were looking for a turnoff onto a dirt road which we needed to take for another 71 km west to the town of Paksong. We had heard it was a really rough road and I was a little nervous since we’d been spoiled by perfect paved roads and low traffic the past 2 days. We found the turnoff, filled up our tank and headed off.  The road was pretty bumpy, all packed down red dirt with quite a few bulldozers and tractors since the road is currently under construction. But once you looked away from the red dirt road you realized you were in what felt like a jungle. It was absolutely beautiful and so quiet. We were slowly ascending and whenever we stopped to stretch our legs we could just hear tons of birds chirping and then silence. Our first goal was to spot Nam Tok Katamtok, which we had read was super difficult to find and we had to look for landmarks by crossing 3 bridges and then heading slightly uphill. Turns out the waterfall was super simple to find – it was right off the main road and it was huge and quite beautiful. We tried to walk a bit into the woods to get near the top of it and then sat for a while just enjoying the atmosphere. Back on the road we continued navigating over our bumpy dirt trail and our backs and butts were starting to hurt from all the jostling. Brandyn did an excellent job of keeping us upright though and managed to avoid most of the potholes.  The last 20 km were the worst because the road turned to gravel and it was incredibly hard to stay steady on and in general it was super jarring and uncomfortable. We were thrilled to finally reach Paksong, which seemed just like a small one street town, but at least it had paved roads! It was also much cooler now that we were at a higher altitude and I realized I needed a jacket! We had lunch (amazing noodles and fresh veggies) and then visited a coffee shop we had read about in our guidebook that is run by a Dutch ex-pat and his wife who is from a nearby village.  We had hoped to go the next morning on a coffee plantation tour but they didn’t leave until 10am which we thought was a bit late, and also the Dutch guy turned out to be quite arrogant and unfriendly and we weren’t in the mood to give him our business. Our silent protest! So we spent the rest of the day reading and hanging out.

















 

Day Four: Instead of having breakfast in Paksong we thought we’d get on the road early and have breakfast at Tad Fane Resort about 20 minutes away.  This turned out to be a great idea! The road there was paved and easy and the resort itself was rustic and beautiful. We had a second floor view from the restaurant out into the valley which overlooked the Tat Fan waterfalls, twin cascades about 120 m high. Breakfast was delicious and the service was absolutely fantastic. We met a few Germans who were watching us playing cards while we waited for our food so we taught them our game (Shithead) and chatted with them for a while. By then it was 9am so we started to explore the grounds. We left our helmets and bag with the restaurant staff and started off on a nearby trail, not knowing exactly where it would lead but since it was a well-worn path we figured we were safe. Turns out the path went first through a coffee plantation and then down down down through the dense forest we had been looking at during breakfast, and then up up up again to the waterfall we had been admiring. It was a hot and challenging walk because of the steepness, but worth it. We sat for a while on the rocks of the waterfalls, enjoying the serenity and then headed back. Oddly, climbing back up the steep hill turned out to be much easier than going down because we were able to just pull ourselves up by tree roots and not worry about slipping so much. All in all it was a great hike, Tat Fan was definitely the highlight of our day and probably the whole motorbike trip.

We left the resort, sweaty and hungry and pushed on to the final 50 km or so back to Pakse.  It felt weird to see all the traffic increasing as we approached town as we had gotten used to being the only people on the road. But we made it back safely and were happy to check into our hotel again and reward ourselves with a hot shower and the first change of clothing in 3 days.





For my first ever motorbike trip I think I did pretty well. After the first hour or so on the bike I was much more comfortable and less of a backseat driver (even Brandyn agrees). Riding a motorbike definitely gives you a different perspective on the areas you’re passing through too…in part because you’re moving through at slower speeds and have more time to look around but also because you’re out in the open air sort of feeling what’s around you in addition to seeing it. Every bump in the road, passing dust cloud, mooing cow crossing in front of us, smells of foliage, just felt more real than I think it would’ve felt had we been speeding along in an A/C vehicle. Arriving at a destination dusty and sweaty with a sore backside also makes you feel like you earned whatever it is you’re about to treat yourself to, whether it is an ice-cold Beer Lao or a beautiful waterfall.

Maybe next time I’ll even try to drive.

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