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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

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.

Africa Part 6 of 6 Zanzibar

Feb 13, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, Tanzania, Uncategorized, Where we've been, Zanzibar

For part one of my Africa series, please click here
For part two of my Africa series, please click here
For part three of my Africa series, please click here
For part four of my Africa series, please click here
For part five of my Africa series, please click here

Back to Zanzibar

Contents
Arusha
Bus to Dar es Salaam
Dar es Salaam
Arriving in Jambiani
Janus and Marlene join us
Shark Fishing with Janus
Our Last Days on the Island
Shantaram Review

We were dropped off in Arusha in a grocery store parking lot with our bags and one big box of souvenirs. We booked a room at Arusha Backpackers, I think that it was supposed to be centrally located and the rooms were cheap. We paid $20 to the front desk sight unseen. When we got to the room we were shocked at how nice a tent could be. The room had no windows, it was not big enough to have our bags rest on the ground next to the beds and the sheets were dirty. $20 is not much money, but anywhere else in the developing world $20 could get you a really nice en suite room with breakfast and A/C included.

One thing that I’d noticed but was only in the back of my mind when overlanding was the guards at the campsites. They usually all had semi-automatic rifles similar to a Kalashnikov. Now that we were on our own I really noticed it. We had to walk by an armed guard every time we were leaving our hostel and it made me a little uneasy. I didn’t know if it was necessary and I wasn’t sure if that meant that outside the hotel it was that unsafe. On the message board someone had written a note saying that they were held up at gun point within 10 meters of the hostel, the workers of the hostel advised us not to go out at night. Arusha is a neat little city during the day, on the main streets people were trying to hawk anything that they had; used CDs, feather dusters from ostriches, and bracelets come to mind. Arusha had international attention while we were there as it was hosting the tribunal courts for the UN against a number of the Rwandan government officials being charged with genocide. It was open to the public, but we opted not to sit in on the proceedings.

There was a large market in Arusha that we visited. We wanted to trade our sleeping bags for some paintings or other handicrafts. The market was pretty neat, everyone selling a variety of the same thing. We traded our sleeping bags for 3 paintings. One we got for our nephew, one was a two meter tall painting of a Maasai warrior, and the next was of an African sunset. I felt good about the trade and thought we did fairly well with the deal. We had one goal in Arusha and that was to mail our box of souvenirs home. We went to the post office which was only a five minute walk away from where we were staying. They told us that they didn’t send packages from that post office and that we’d have to go to the main post office way down the road. We paid 5,000 Shillings ($3.50) to get to the next post office and the woman said that they do not send packages on the weekend. We at this point knew sending a package from Africa was going to be easier said than done.

For a few pictures from Arusha please click HERE

The next morning we headed off to the bus station, where we were about to go on the trip from hell. When it was time to put our bags underneath the bus, we were told that it was going to cost us $5 because it wasn’t luggage and that we were transporting parcels. I said something like, ‘brother, the man on the way to Arusha did not charge me for my box. This is not a parcel; it is clothing that will not fit into my luggage. I am 99% sure that you don’t have to charge me.’ He let us on with a handshake and a smile. I guess he had to try to extort us, had it been someone else, he probably would have had $5.

I bought the seats before we went to Serengeti and asked for assigned seats at the front so that I could stretch out my legs a bit. I’d been warned by my friend who had been in the Peace Corps volunteering in Kenya that East Africans do not travel well. I was expecting the worst. The bus was going at a decent speed, it was comfortable, and no one had gotten sick.

About two hours into our eight hour journey we came across another bus from the same company that was stopped on the side of the road. We waited while our bus driver helped the other fix the tire. After about a 30 minute delay we were on the road again. Another two hours went by when suddenly our bus broke down. Instructions were shouted at us in Swahili with wild hand gestures motioning for us to get out of the bus while they fixed it. About a half an hour later, I see the same bus that we helped speed down the highway past us.

Two hours went by and finally the bus was up and running again. We left around 8 in the morning and were supposed to get in around 6 PM. In two less hours than the truck took for the same journey. Accidents in Africa are a peculiar thing. When accidents happen, no one does anything. The driver stays with the vehicle to make sure that no one poaches from his belongings. We’d seen accidents on the road that were probably there for a few days while they were waiting for someone to help them clear it up. We came across an accident on the way which covered about 75%of the two lane highway. We went off-roading with the bus a short distance after being idle for an hour. At this rate we were going to get to Dar es Salaam way after dark, which we’d been warned that was the last place in Tanzania you’d want to be at that time.

For pictures from the drive to Dar please click HERE

We got into Dar es Salaam about 13 hours after we’d left. We were hungry, tired, and anything that either one of us did was annoying so we were very excited to, after paying a hefty (but we were assured a normal) taxi price, finally get to the hotel. We had some of the best Indian food we’d had in months and slept like babies. I was awoken by the call to prayer at sunrise. It is the Muslim version of church bells. It can be a beautiful sound and being that it was the beginning of a new chapter; it was almost too beautiful to comprehend.

There are two fast ferries in the morning from Dar to Zanzibar. The first is at 9:30 and the next is at 12:30. Our goal was to make it to the post office, get our luggage at the hotel, and leave by 9:30. We stayed at The Jambo Inn, which I would highly recommend. The owners were really excellent people, they were centrally located, and the food was awesome. They have their own car and driver so they will give you a lift anywhere (within reason) you need to go. The power was out that morning which isn’t uncommon but it meant that the two ATM machines near our hotel weren’t working. The driver sped past one post office telling us that they didn’t send packages from that one, only the main post office. Maybe the people in Arusha weren’t lying to us after all.

We got to the post office right as they opened at 8:00. The doors didn’t actually open until 8:15 or so, African time. The package that I wrapped so carefully had to be opened and inspected then covered with brown paper before we could go to the counter. When we got to the counter we got the price for the air-mail which was around $130. We asked if we could pay with visa, ‘no problem,’ Cori and I both heard, but that wasn’t the case. Big problem. I went to seven different ATMs, running all around Dar es Salaam. Not one worked. It was still Ramadan so I couldn’t buy water even though I was sweating my rear end off. I grabbed Cori; we admitted defeat and knew there was no way we were making the 9:30 ferry. After about 30 minutes we finally found an ATM that worked. We pulled out cash and went right to the woman, paid, kissed our package goodbye and good luck, and went back to the hotel.

We now had some time to kill and my beard was getting unruly, so I went to a barber close by. The barber had a beard past his neck. It was longer in front than the sides; it was your typical Middle Eastern style. I told him that I wanted for my beard and the hair on the side of my head to be the same length. He responded with, ‘that will not look good.’ I guessed at that point that I was going to look like him. When I was finished, my beard was much longer in the middle than on the sides and I looked vaguely similar to my new friend behind the shears.

For a few pictures from Dar es Salaam please click HERE

We hopped on the 12:30 ferry bound for Zanzibar. It was almost more exciting the second go around because I knew what it was that I was missing out on by not being there. Petrol in Zanzibar is around $1.75 per liter or $7 a gallon. Taxi drivers for their license, we were told, had to pay the authorities $5 per day, even if they did not get any fares. These two factors weigh in on the cost of getting around and make it bloody expensive to do so. We paid $35 ($15 less than a legit taxi) to get to Jambiani. When we arrived, Martin from The Oasis Beach Inn greeted us with open arms and gave us the best room in the place. This was our home for the next 10 days.

The second time was much different than the first. When we first got here we were all in such a hurry to do things and get in as much of Zanzibar as possible. That is sacrilege here or in any place like it. Clocks don’t exist and if they do they certainly don’t matter. The only thing that is on time is the tide and even that is fairly unpredictable. It was so important for us to arrive on this day because it was (hopefully) the last day of Ramadan and we could hang out and have a proper time with our new friends. We ordered food and didn’t care that it came two hours later. It was excellent as always. Martin seemed so happy to see us that he invited us out that night with him and Steve, the local dive instructor that we went snorkeling with last time we were here.

Night came around, and the crescent moon was spotted. Ramadan was over. We went out with Martin and Steve to a small place down the beach that was owned by some Italian ex-pats who had been living here for quite a while. We had a whole lot of beers and didn’t pay for one. We were introduced that night to a traditional bar food in Zanzibar called chips mayai. It is a quiche of sorts, a dish with French fries, onions, and peppers, all sautéed then eggs poured into the dish then baked. Chips mayai is incredible and very cheap.

School was out so a lot of the same kids that we played football with were hanging around. ‘Jambo!’ was being yelled from all around. It is one of the best greetings in any language. It can be a long and drawn out jaaaammmbooo, or it can be a quick and easy jambo. I think that this is my favorite greeting I’ve used.

We went on a tour of the local school with the principal Mr. Farid, who is a legend around there. We learned far too much about the school and how it was nearly impossible to do well without some kind of outside help. He explained to us that the money given to the school was just enough for the most basic supplies and salaries. Most of the kids would have to buy their own uniforms, books, and everything else needed to attend school. The kids sat 45 to a room on the floor. Kids’ lessons would be given in Swahili until they reach the 7th grade, after that the classes are taught in English.

That evening we were introduced to a man named Mohammed. Mohammed had been addicted to heroin most of his adult life. The first time we saw him; he was sickly and looked a stereotypical junkie. Martin told us that he was staying on the floor in the back and not to be afraid of him. He said that he was going to help him get clean and keep him away from Stone Town where he had access to his former life. Mohammed asked if I had anything to help with his stomach; because he was detoxing, and coming off of the drugs, his insides were in distress and causing him to go to the bathroom many more times than normal. I gave him some stomach blockers (an inch). Then he asked me for pain medicine, sleeping pills, or anything else we had to ease the next few days’ coming misery (a mile). I gave him a few sleeping pills and hoped he would look and feel better in the next coming days. Mohammed would eventually become a friend and a confidant but right now he was a drug, not a person.

For pictures from Jambiani please click HERE

After getting sick of looking at my beard with a long goatee I decided to shave it all off. Just after I shaved, I went outside to get confirmation that I didn’t look too weird from Martin or Mohammed. At that moment, I saw Janus with golden locks growing from his Scandinavian face and felt like I had made a huge mistake. We were so excited to see Janus and Marlene. It had been since Kande Beach in Malawi we’d seen them last. We immediately had a few beers and caught up. We heard their safari stories and shared ours. We talked about what we may have missed in Kenya; after hearing the stories we still do not regret the decision to end the trip when we did.

It was awesome to have another guy around to shoot the breeze with. We all walked to Paje which is the town next to Jambiani it is around 8 kms away. It was a beautiful walk all the way along the beach. We stopped into a few places along the way so that we could get some cold juice. When we arrived in Paje we couldn’t believe what a different feel it had. Everyone appeared to be high on something or other and we decided to go back to Jambiani.

We waited a while for the Dalla Dalla (pronounced Dah-Lah Dah-Lah) to come around. The Dalla Dalla is an overstuffed people carrier which will get you from any village on the island to Stone Town. We hadn’t at this point taken a Dalla Dalla, but will have a few stories to tell about them later. The Dalla Dalla hadn’t come after 30 minutes so we decided to get a cab rather than walk back the 8kms with 18 liters of water.

The cab cost us $4 which clearly meant that it wasn’t legit because it wasn’t expensive enough to be. The cab driver made us pay up front so that he could get petrol. They sell the petrol in liter water bottles. Our cabbie put one liter in squeezing the bottle aggressively into the tank. Then he took the empty but fume filled container and blew in it then sucked air from it getting some of the fumes into himself. We had one more stop we had to make before we were going back to Jambiani. We had to pick up some drugs for our cabbie. We stopped by a shack on the road and picked up a few joints which we begged the man to please not smoke while he drove us to our destination. He reluctantly agreed but drove like he had purpose. His purpose was much different than I would have liked. The car was being driven like it was stolen and we were all being thrown around the car as it weaved and dodged pedestrians, vehicles, animals wandering, and rocks in the road. We were probably going 50kms an hour through tiny village streets all of us feeling like total jerks for being with this guy and putting everyone in our path in danger. We finally hit a rock and the car stopped and couldn’t be restarted. The four of us jumped out and ran to Oasis and were happy to be out of the car.

For pictures from when Janus and Marlene join us please click HERE

Birthdays are a funny thing for me. They’re really not that big of a deal for me. Nonetheless birthdays happen and mine was going to be celebrated in Zanzibar. I woke up and had breakfast. I told Mohammed that it was my birthday, he responded with, ‘yeah, okay.’ I guess people in Africa think much less of birthdays than in the west. Janus and I were going shark hunting that morning. The last time I was in Jambiani Captain Kiko and the others had caught a large shark they agreed to take us out with them.

Before we left on the trip, we had to beg Martin to translate for us to Kiko that we wouldn’t sue him if something happened. That Janus and I both had travel insurance. Lastly that Cori wouldn’t kill him if something happened to us. Reluctantly Kiko agreed to take us for $15 for the two of us. I kept thinking about how awesome it was going to be to catch a shark for my birthday.

I was out for blood, which is so out of character for me. We got on the boat and into the calm waters off the coast of Jambiani and turned the motor on to take us through a break in the reef to get us out to the open ocean. When we got on the boat Janus and I noticed a large buoy with a long rope attached. The rope led to a large piece of coral about the size of a human torso. The heavy large piece of coral was attached to a razor sharp piece of bamboo. Neither our captain nor crew spoke English so they couldn’t explain the crude mechanism. The bamboo was to be driven through the back of the head of the shark using the weight of the coral to help drive it in. The rope would then give the shark enough room for the shark to tire itself out while the buoy made sure it wouldn’t go under. I was starting to see why they might have been worried about us going with them.

The sea was rough. Super rough. The boat was tilting side to side at least 30-40 degrees. Not only were we trying to not throw up we had to worry about not being tossed around. They tossed some chum in the water and baited up huge hooks with tentacles from an octopus. They wouldn’t let us actually hold the line; we were strictly on an observational trip. We watched them fish for shark for about an hour and realized that we weren’t going to catch shark and that smaller fish were eating the bait. This whole time Janus and I were staring at the horizon trying our best not o vomit. Neither of us did throw up that day. We went closer to the reef to try and catch smaller fish for dinner. In total we caught about 6 fish within a few minutes. Kiko gave us his snorkel and we got to check out the reef. It was exhausting because the ocean was so rough.

After about five hours we’d had enough. We were both ready to get back on solid land, have a beer, and relax. The tide was a little too low at this point to go to shore so we messed around a bit and came in shortly after lunch time. We let the guys from the boat keep the fish and only took the experience with us.

For pictures from Janus and I shark fishing please click HERE

That night we were going to go to Vuvuzela, a dance club in Paje to celebrate. We were going with Steve (dive master) and (Captain) Kiko to drink a few dozen beers and listen to good African music. When we arrived in the parking lot, we were getting extorted by a security guard for money because we weren’t local. Steve told us that this wasn’t Jambiani, this was more like Stone Town or Dar es Salaam and that we couldn’t mess around. We went inside the club while Steve handled it. The club was fairly empty. Music always seems to be way too loud in empty spaces. We heard some really good Nigerian reggae, some Kenyan rap, and of course some Bob Marley. I would love to get my hands on some of the music we kept hearing every time we went to clubs in Africa and wrote down some of the names, but don’t have any idea where the paper went. If anyone has some suggestions, please leave a comment below.

The club didn’t fill up and we were in bed around midnight. It was a pretty awesome birthday with some great friends, my favorite person alive, and was in the most beautiful place on the planet. Janus and Marlene had to leave the next day and we were running low on funds. So we had to go to an ATM and the closest one was in Stone Town. We all waited for about half an hour for the Dalla Dalla to pick us up. When it did it was already pretty full of people. They put their bags on the roof and we squished down next to one other. We stopped about every minute to pick someone else up. We’d stop every two minutes to pick up firewood that we’d have to drop off along the way. We’d stop every five minutes to let people off. The ride in a taxi would cost a minimum $45 and take about 45 minutes. This ride would cost $1 per person and take between 2-4 hours. I counted when we got on the Dalla Dalla 20 people, at our maximum we had 45 people packed into the back of the elongated pick-up truck. We had other people’s sleeping children on our laps, our feet resting on one another’s, and handbags wherever they’d fit. Everyone was happy, no one complained, and the kids were particularly fascinated by us and gave us all warm jambos.

About two and a half hours later we were in Stone Town seeing our friends off trying not to be too sad about it. A big thanks and hugs go out to both Janus and Marlene for meeting up with us.

Over the next few days I read Shantaram. For those of you who have thought about reading it but don’t know if you should make the commitment, I wrote a review for you. Spoiler Alert

There was more of the same; eating amazing foods, reading up on India getting sad about leaving our friends on the island. Mohammed was starting to look much better. He was looking healthier and acting more like the great guy he turned out to be. We had some really good talks as he was an excellent conversationalist with perfect English. We talked about everything from history and politics to drugs, life, and business.

Jambiani is windy at night so the likelihood of Malaria is much less there than in many other parts of the island and especially the mainland. Jambiani, he told me was named after a traditional harp-like instrument and the sound that it makes sounds like the word Jambiani. He told me that Zanzibar didn’t want to join with Tanganyika but felt forced to because of lack of resources so they reluctantly agreed. The name Tanzania comes from Tanganyika (the name for the mainland) plus Zanzibar (name of the archipelago) Tan Zan ia.

Mohammed said that he had been addicted to drugs for most of his life. He said that Zanzibar was a key part of the smuggling route out of Africa. He said that he was involved in small time crime and robberies to pay for his habit. I wouldn’t have believed him if I had met him that day, but the man before his transformation didn’t make me doubt it.

It is funny being American because almost everyone we talk to in every country we visit knows something about American history and politics. It is always so fascinating for me to talk with people about the history of their country, especially in Africa. Tanzania is no exception. I won’t bore you with details, but the history section on Tanzania’s Wikipedia page is worth the read.

We learned more about our new friends daily. Captain Kiko had fought and was injured in the war with Uganda. Martin had been a police officer before working for the guesthouse. He’d traveled all over Tanzania finding fugitives and hauling them back to Dar for trial. Mohammed, now being clean, wanted to buy scarves and become a business man selling them to people on the beach. Steve had been all over the world. We talked with him about Colorado. He even has a child in Switzerland that he talks with often. Everyone had such a unique story.

We left Jambiani to a flood of hugs and best wishes. It is somewhere I know we will return.

For our last few days in paradise please click HERE

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a terribly written novel written by a criminal. You remember the old adage that tells you not to trust a person with two first names? Well I’m telling you; don’t trust that a writer with three first names can produce anything good. Greg Dave Rob is a self absorbed ugly scum bag who escaped from prison just like his character Lin who sometimes called Linbaba. Linbaba escapes from a maximum security prison in Australia and comes to India. When he arrives in Bombay he has an extreme ‘bromance’ with an Indian local named Prabu. Prabu shows him the ropes of the city. These are actually mini tests that an old mafia boss, who Linbaba later has an oedipal crush on, has set up for him. Linbaba falls in love with a woman named Karla. She hardly knows he exists. All he writes about is how beautiful she is.

Linbaba ends up becoming amongst many other things

a ‘doctor’ in the slums.

a money launderer

a drug dealer

a freedom fighter in Afghanistan

all the while being annoying and over using adjectives for everything he describes. If you want to read a story that describes people’s eyeballs for 50 pages, talks about how beautiful a woman is who he doesn’t end up with at the end for 100 pages, and BS’s you for 850 more pages; Shantaram is for you.

This concludes my Africa Series.

I sincerely thank you very much for reading.

Africa part 5 of 6 Tanzania AKA Paradise and Animals

Feb 12, 2012 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Brandyn's blogs, Malawi, Tanzania, Uncategorized, Where we've been, Zanzibar

For part one of my Africa series, please click here
For part two of my Africa series, please click here
For part three of my Africa series, please click here
For part four of my Africa series, please click here

Paradise and Animals

Contents
Iringa
Dar es Salaam
Stone Town
Zanzibar
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Serengeti
Recap and Reflections

Before we left Malawi our tour leader said to us something like this, ‘okay everyone, sorry to interrupt, everyone, hello…we will be going to Tanzania, for the first day there will be no ATMs. Make sure that you get out enough Malawian Kwacha so that you can change it for Tanzanian Shillings across the border. No one will accept Kwacha once you get further into Tanzania.’ Once we crossed the border, there was a man on the other side who was exchanging Kwacha for Shillings. The official exchange rate was about 10:96, so ten Kwacha equals about 96 Shillings. The exchange guy was a friend of our tour leader and wanted to give us 10:75. We were all livid. A lot of us felt as if our ‘leader’ completely screwed us over and more than likely got a commission off the sale, especially because he made sure to tell us that we should probably take out enough Kwacha to change.

We drove to the highlands into Iringa, Tanzania through coffee plantations, banana groves, and some really cool street scenes. Iringa didn’t have much to offer, but because it was at a higher elevation, it was much cooler than a lot of the country. To cope with the cooler temperature Cori got Amarula hot chocolate. We went to bed early and had to get up at the crack of dawn to drive to Dar es Salaam before heading off to Zanzibar.

For Iringa and the drive to Dar es Salaam please click HERE

Dar es Salaam (place of peace) was very crowded. We stayed on the outskirts of town on an island away from the city itself. It took us something like 8 hours to go 300kms. Cori and I spent some time in Dar es Salaam on our own after we left the tour and will talk about it in part six.

For a few pictures from Dar es Salaam please click HERE

After a two and a half hour ferry ride we arrived in Stone Town. Stone Town is a multicultural mixing pot of colors, flavors, smells, architecture, heat, fraud, allure, history, and everything you could imagine. We arrived during the holy month of Ramadan, which meant that very few restaurants would be open during the day; we’d have to dress more conservatively, and hide our water when walking down the street.

Because we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to eat, we decided to take a spice tour with the group. A spice tour sounds lame but it offered 1) lunch 2) a brief tour of the city 3) a trip to a plantation where we’d get to see the spices grow 4) coconuts and refreshments later. Sold. The tour was pretty cool and I would definitely recommend doing one. I think that it is easy to do on your own so that you wouldn’t have to pay the inflated Africa Travel Co prices or deal with their BS representative on Zanzibar.

That night we went to the night food market and ate like royalty. We had octopus, crab legs, barracuda, sugar cane juice with rum, and many other delights. I could tell I was going to fall in love with Zanzibar.

For pictures from Stone Town, Zanzibar please click HERE

It is important to introduce a few key people in this blog who played such a huge role in our enjoyment of this leg of the trip.
Charles and Thein An, from France, have been traveling with us since Cape Town and we’ve been getting on well with them the entire time. Charles and I were involved in the nabbing of Pumbaa.
Dominic and Francis, a Welsh couple, Liverpool season ticket holders, and would always have a beer with us. They’ve been with the trip since Victoria Falls but we clicked immediately.
Liz, from Australia is amazing. At first I didn’t know how much we’d get along, but it was a strong finish. She was on from Cape Town.
Nate, from the US of A. My beard buddy and super fun to be around. He’s also been on since Cape Town and was going to study in Nairobi for a semester when the trip was finished.

This was a great group of people and hanging out with them enriched our African trip exponentially. It also allowed me to have some guy time. As any couple traveling for long times together will tell you; it is really hard being a husband, best friend, gossip buddy, fashion advisor, and Joanna (Cori’s best friend back home). When Cori needs to just talk and doesn’t need a response, she’ll start with, ‘okay Joanna…’ and that is my cue to listen and not talk. I’m sure that Cori was happy to have women around that she could talk to that would give her more than one word answers half the time.

The eight of us decided that in Zanzibar, we would ditch the group and stay on the east side of the island. The east is known to be more of a relaxed environment and more beautiful (and cheaper) than where our leader wanted us to stay. The next morning we left early to head out to the east of the island to a village called Jambiani and stayed at the Oasis Beach Inn. We arranged a driver with the representative (the same BS one I mentioned above). Our driver spoke zero English and had no idea where we were going. We stopped probably 10 times to ask directions. If you look at a road map of Zanzibar, you can see there are only a few roads and you have to be completely idiotic to not know where you’re going, especially if your profession is a driver. About an hour into the drive we were getting really frustrated and the driver pulled over to the side of the road and yelled WAIT! We were sitting in the car for about 15 minutes watching him run up and down the road. Finally a van pulled up next to us and we were motioned to leave and go with the new van.

When we arrived we got our first glimpse of heaven. I’ve flown in an airplane many times and know that above the clouds there is no heaven; but there, right there, off the coast of East Africa on a tiny island, that is where heaven is.

I paid for the first round of beers. We all were absolutely stunned at how beautiful it could be. The water was glass. The sand was the color of paper and soft as cotton. We all were hooting and hollering because of how excited we were to be out of the minivan and in heaven. We dropped our stuff and just sat and looked around us. The women sat on the beach and relaxed while we guys started horseplay with the kids from the village. We raced them on the sand, played some football and brushed up on our Swahili.

The tide was low which meant that swimming was difficult at this time of the day. It also meant that the local women were picking seaweed from the seaweed farms in the water. The women would sell the seaweed to Japan. It is known to be some of the best in the world. We ordered lunch; this was our first taste of Zanzibar time. It took approximately two hours to receive our food after ordering (which is about the standard). The food was worth the wait. We could taste the spices we’d seen the day before mixed with coconut slathered on a fish that was swimming that morning. Heaven is the only describable word for Jambiani.

Being on the east side of the island meant that we had amazing sun rises and that it was ‘winter,’ meant it wouldn’t be up too early. The sun rises made going to bed early worth it. Oasis had free breakfast so we’d have a fried egg, bread and fruit every morning. The next day we went to The Rock Restaurant for lunch. Easily the coolest restaurant I’ve ever been to. It was the first time in a while that we had good white wine, perfectly cooked pasta, and amazing seafood. The beauty cannot be described and pictures don’t do it justice. Take my word for it; The Rock Restaurant may be the best restaurant in the world.

We came back and found a dead shark which Captain Kiko and the other boys caught. I really wanted to go out with them and catch one myself. I knew I would be back in Jambiani in about a week and wanted to go out with them next time. We went out on Martin’s boat for sunset. Because it was Ramadan, everyone was starving and as soon as the sun was setting, they all quickly left us to go eat. We had a fire on the beach that night and had a really great and chill time.

For pictures from Jambiani please click HERE

We left Jambiani too soon and met up with the truck in Dar es Salaam. The next morning we had to be up and leaving the campsite before the sun came up to drive around 650 kms to Arusha. The traffic made traveling slower than slow. It had taken us three hours to get 100kms. It was torture. We were all excited to get to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and to see animals. We got to a campsite a few kms outside of Arusha as sun was setting. That night we picked our groups; naturally, we picked the same eight that went to Jambiani together.

We left for a campsite on the outskirts of the Ngorongoro Crater. Ngorongoro Crater got its name from the Maasai who live on the lands in and around the region. Ngorongoro is onomonopia for the way that the bells around their cows’ necks sound when dinging. It is a volcanic crater and one of the densest populated places for African game. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to all of the Big Five.

We were all in our groups of eight and riding in open aired safari vehicles. I really felt like Steve Irwin or David Attenborough. Arriving on the rim of the crater as the sun was coming up was a beautiful experience. When the sun rises and sets in Eastern Africa it lets you know that you are but a minor cog in something far greater. The sun is three times the size in Africa as it is anywhere else on the globe. It was freezing on the rim of the crater and through the early morning mist, we saw buffalo. This brought the Big Five count to four. We were excited at the possibility of seeing a rhino in the crater (the only one we had yet to see).

I’m not a photographer, nor is my camera anything more than a point and shoot, but I hope that they do some kind of justice to the sheer awesomeness of it all. This was Africa, absolute Africa in its primal best. Getting to see a male lion do its mating ritual and let out a roar was definitely a highlight of the day. Seeing hundreds of wildebeest run across the road in front of us made my hair stand up on edge. Observing animals who seemed absolutely oblivious to the droves of trucks made me think about how amazing and truly a once in a lifetime opportunity we were having; not only being on a safari, but the whole trip. There wasn’t much driving inside of the crater nor where there many places for the animals to hide. We had some lunch and saw some of the biggest elephants we’d seen yet and their tusks reached out in front of them a few meters in length. We got to walk around for a bit around a lake. Hippos where 3/4 underwater, giraffes were drinking, and warthogs were running all around. I was stunned and can’t begin to describe how magical an experience it was to be there.

All of the guides use walkie-talkies to communicate with one another so that if they find an animal of interest their friends can get in there as well (maybe for a better tip or maybe because it is the good thing to do, I don’t know). If you are lucky enough to find something awesome on your own, your guide will undoubtedly call his buddies over to share with them. This leads to tons of vehicles all running around to the same spots, which means that the animals may not act as naturally as they had, and it means that there will be one group who does not know how to whisper that will piss everyone off.

Before we left to the Serengeti National Park, we saw in the distance (too far for my camera to take a picture of) a pride of lions with a fresh kill. Our guide told us that the male lions don’t even really hunt. That the female lions hunt in packs kill and then the male lions eat. That kind of put a damper on the whole ‘King of the Jungle’ thing for me, maybe it should be ‘Queens of the Jungle.’

For pictures from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area please click HERE

The drive to Serengeti National Park was arduous, barren, pot holed, and made taking a nap difficult. We arrived in the early afternoon after driving four or so hours. We set up camp and went out on a quick safari. I had only ever heard about how amazing the park was. It was incredible, but massive. It was impossible for us to see a small fraction of the animals that we saw in the crater. That afternoon after the triumphant morning we had, it was going to take something magnificent to make the day much better. The sunset was that something magnificent. The most beautiful sunset I could even imagine was gracing us with its presence. It was remarkable.

One particularly awesome thing about that night was that we were going to camp inside of the Serengeti National Park. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited I didn’t know how I was going to sleep. The eight of us set up our camp away from the main group of people so that we could hear animals in the distance if at all possible. One downside to that was the far proximity to the bathroom. Which inevitably meant a night trip to the bathroom with the wife…I hoped with the same hilarity as when we crossed the Orange River and Cori accidentally opened the wrong tent and grabbed Cameron’s foot, and not to find a man eating female lion in our path.

We had on this trip our guide, who is a registered guide with the National Parks and our trip leader, the guy from the truck who says about 14 words to us each day. Our leader from the truck, for whatever reason came on the trip as well. We didn’t see him all day and he was at the camp when we arrived that afternoon. Our cook and driver weren’t here because there was no need. We were being cooked for, guided, and cared for by local people. The only thing that our leader had to do; again because he wasn’t leading us this whole time, didn’t go on safari with us, and arrived hours before us to the site, was to get fire wood for that evening.

The entire 20 something of us sat in the dark while all of the other groups were sitting around their fires and having a great time. We had a big box of wine that we were all getting into, but even that was not great because we couldn’t see right in front of us. It turned out to be an early night. Cori and I got ready for bed and walked together to the far end of the campsite where the bathroom was. On the way back to our tent about 4 meters in front of us was the giant head and neck of a hyena. It looked right at me and its eyes lit up like green fireballs from the reflection of my flashlight. It didn’t seem to care and went about its business. It was a pretty cool ending to a very cool day.

That morning was ‘baby day’ at the park. It seemed like every animal we saw had a baby around. We saw baby monkeys, baby elephants, baby pumbaas, baby lions, and a few others. The highlight of the morning was when we came across a beautiful cheetah a few meters from us.

The Serengeti is so massive and the area that we covered was so small that it would never (for me) be able to compete with the majesty that the Ngorongoro Conservation Area had. We drove around for hours seeing animals here and there but mostly in the distance; too far to get good photos. It was an experience of a lifetime, but, I’d almost have wished that we’d gone to Serengeti first, then to Ngorongoro. We did see a leopard lazing behind a dirt mound before we left the park that afternoon. The drive back was more of the same; we stopped by the rim of the crater to take a few pictures then drove all the way back to Arusha.

Cori and I made a mutual decision to end our tour in Arusha rather than carry on to Nairobi and see the Maasai Mara with the tour. We’d had it. I couldn’t stand another extremely long drive in an uncomfortable truck, we didn’t want other one of our cook’s meaty meals, our leader didn’t even know that the visa fee for Kenya had doubled when we asked him, the list goes on and on and on. We decided that this was going to be our last night and we were going to go see Arusha, Dar es Salaam, and more of Zanzibar on our own. That night we all got a little loopy. Thien An, Charles, and I exchanged photos and movies. Dominic and I had a few too many beers. Charles, Nate, and I had some beard love…and before we knew it, Cori and I were on our own in Arusha.

For pictures from the Serengeti National Park please click HERE

Recap of the second half of the trip from Victoria Falls to Nairobi.
I think that the area that this trip covered on the second half was insane. The first four days of driving were to get through Zambia to get to Lake Malawi with nothing in between. The buses in Africa go faster than our Africa Travel Co truck did (on the second half) and run at different hours so that you don’t have to spend all day on a bus, you can take an overnight bus instead.

There was nothing between Lake Malawi and Zanzibar and nothing between Zanzibar and Arusha. We took the public bus from Arusha to Dar es Salaam and even after breaking down for two hours, we were still faster than the ATC truck. Reflecting back, I would not have done the second half of this trip as a group and believe could have easily done it on our own for a fraction of the cost.

I do not regret the decision to have overlanded Africa; we met some amazing people who we’ll be friends for life, saw some incredible animals and landscapes, and shared a number of once in a lifetime experiences.

If I was to do it again, I would do the overlanding trip from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. We were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t go on the main roads the entire trip. The drives were short and the truck was fast. I would split from the group at Victoria Falls and take a public bus to Lilongwe. I would then take the bus to Lake Malawi and stay for a week rather than just a couple of days. Then it is easy to catch a bus up to Dar es Salaam, relax a day or two and explore the city, then take a bus to Arusha, set up a safari on my own, see the animals, then I would take the bus back to Dar es Salaam and Ferry over to Zanzibar where I would spend the next week or two relaxing in paradise.

Part six is Cori and I on our own in Tanzania.

Africa Part 4 of 6 Zimbabwe and Malawi

For part one of my Africa Series please click here
For part two of my Africa Series please click here
For part three of my Africa Series please click here

Africa Part 4 of 6: Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi

Contents
Victoria Falls The City
Victoria Falls Village Trip
The Waterfalls
Crossing into Zambia
Entering Malawi
Hike to Livingstonia
Crossing into Tanzania

Zimbabwe has an interesting history and painful history, it was known as Rhodesia until it gained independence 1980. Mugabe since 1980 has been president. One of his famous and probably his most disturbing quote is “I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.” He’s known to be charismatic, well educated, racist, and has been described as a power monger. His people have suffered dearly because of him. An amazing documentary that anyone interested in this region is Mugabe and the White African it gives a really good and in depth account of the “Willing Buyer Willing Seller” land reform which was to distribute the land which white farmers held back to the blacks. In reality it was to Mugabe’s men and the people never saw any of it. I know that Zimbabwe is much more than just Mugabe. I was excited to see the country, get acquainted with the people, and of course see Victoria Falls.

Most people know a little bit about Zimbabwe’s ‘funny money.’ At one point the largest single note was One Hundred Trillion Dollars ($100,000,000,000,000.00). Ray told us that in the past their dollar was 1:1 with the US Dollar and the most valuable currency in Africa. In 2009 the Zimbabwean Dollar officially was discontinued and all of the ATMs in Zimbabwe distribute US Dollars.

Victoria Falls is the name of the city, which is in the park, which houses the falls themselves, all of which have the same name. We arrived in Vic Falls and before setting up camp were forced to watch another video offering all of their optional activities including bungee jumping over the Zambezi River for $130 (which was $30 more than I paid to go from the highest bridge in the world), elephant safari for over $100, walking with lions over $100, river rafting on the Zambezi for over $100 per person, and a few other BS activities that were WAY too expensive. This is Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries on the planet and they expected us to pay these outrageous prices for their activities. We later met a local guide that would have taken Cori and I rafting with his group for $40 a person, so if you shop around you don’t have to pay as much for the same activities.

We set up camp at one of the more beautiful camp sites we’d been to. We could hear Victoria Falls in the distance rumbling and see mist rising from it in the distance. We had a beer by the pool and hung out for a while before going out to wander around. We decided that we were going to go walk across the bridge to see Victoria Falls from one perspective and walk a few meters into Zambia. We watched a friend bungee jump and walked around town a bit more. One of the coolest things about Vic Falls is that there are a ton of Pumbaas (warthogs) running around town. They would let you get right up to them and take their picture. We saw a Pumbaa getting into the garbage at the campsite when a monkey attacked it. It was a brief altercation but pretty cool to see nonetheless.

The end of the first night we had our goodbye dinner. The tour was split into two parts the first was Cape Town to Victoria Falls the next was Victoria Falls to Nairobi. So those who were leaving at Vic Falls were stopping here. We had an amazing time that night, after dinner we went to Shoestrings, a hostel in town, which was lame-o-potato and left when it closed at midnight. We decided to go to Hunters, a kind of locals only joint, we had to walk down a dark path to get there. This normally wouldn’t be a big deal but because we were in a National Park, there were animals around and elephants had been known to kill people in the streets that spooked them (this is what we’re told and I no reason not to believe them). The walk went fine and a large group of us went into the bar and were greeted by blaring beats. Super good African music pulsed and the place was absolutely packed. We all drank too many beers and got back to bed around 2am. It was one of the happiest nights that I had on the trip. It was awesome to hang out and be welcomed with open arms (sometimes the local guys would grind up a bit too much on the women from our group, but it was a friendly grind); we danced until we couldn’t stand, partied with the locals, and got to listen to some awesome music.

We had to start saying goodbye to some of the people we had gotten so close with. David and Cinzia were leaving, Cameron was heading back home to Mozambique, and Rob and Marieke were deserting us as well. I could go on and on about all the people leaving, but it happens. Janus and I were drinking a Fanta by the pool when a black guy covered in tattoos asked me where I was from. I said America and he said that his brother Tupac was from America too. He went on and on about Mugabe and what a horrible person he thought that he was. He even said that he wanted to be a security guard for him so that he could “make it an inside job.” Once he said that, I freaked out a little bit and left not wanting to get involved with a guy like that.

For pictures from Victoria Falls, the City please click HERE

That day Cori and I went on a village tour to see what people lived like outside of the city. We paid too much for it, but in hindsight was a pretty good experience. We went to a village about an hour outside of Victoria Falls and first met with a farmer who didn’t speak much English. We learned about making some traditional foods. Culturally it was a funny experience for me. The guy’s place we were visiting was obviously a little buzzed. We all sat inside of his mud hut which was built by his wife. Women build the huts. I got to sit on a small chair inside of the hut while Cori sat on the floor with the man’s daughter, because, women of course, aren’t allowed to sit on chairs either. Elephants from time to time will terrorize villages, take all of their food, and sometimes knock down their huts. So from time to time these elephants are shot and killed by the park’s authorities. Everyone from all around will share in the booty from the elephant and no part gets wasted.

The man was a sculptor and made hippos from teak wood, which was technically illegal to chop down but he said that he did it in the night to not get in trouble. While he was trying to sell us his wares, he kept talking on his cell phone. I asked him where he charged his phone and he said, “At the bar next door to my house, of course.” This is where the memory gets a little better. I’d read about Chibuku before coming to Zimbabwe and knew that it was a popular drink and hard for Westerners to get accustomed to. It comes in a two liter plastic bottle with a screw top lid 5 centimeters in diameter. When you take a sip undoubtedly, your nose will touch the brew. It is to be served at room temperature, which in Zimbabwe is hot. The brew is not at all fizzy like beer, but it flat and chunky. The brew is also to be shared and not drunk alone. To recap, Chibuku is a warm and chunky brew to be shared warm everyone around while their noses touch it. We had six liters of the brew while we were there.

Throughout the day they kept asking if we had any questions. I didn’t know if it was okay to ask about Mugabe or if he was feared enough to where people didn’t say anything. His picture was up all over the place and I thought that it would be taboo to ask the questions that I really wanted to know. I asked them if they had any questions that they wanted to know from an American. They were interesting and thoughtful questions. The first question was, “why did your government impose economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, why does your government want to hurt the Zimbabwean people, and what do you think about it.” My jaw hit the floor and I think I said something along the lines of, “we’re citizens of a country which does things all around the globe which I don’t believe in; we’re here spending money in your country and I’m buying the next Chibuku.”

We got to go to the township of Victoria Falls as well to see what the people hawking goods on the side of the roads lived like. Which in all honesty, the township looked better than a lot of places in Los Angeles or Arizona. One thing about Victoria Falls which is wears on us is the number of people hawking goods on the side of the road. They pester you and walk with you the entire length of the walk which makes it impossibly difficult to avoid or ignore. Cori thought it was so bad that she didn’t want to leave the campsite; which even there people were trying to sell us goods through the fence. We ended up trading a lot of used clothing for some pretty cool wood carvings.

We had our briefing with our new team leader which left a lot to be desired. He seemed like he was in a partial coma and didn’t do much talking at all. He wasn’t the charismatic leader that we’d gotten used to with Ray.

For pictures from the village tour around Victoria Falls please click HERE

After the briefing we went to see Victoria Falls. They were magnificent and truly amazing. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been said about them.

For pictures from Victoria Falls please click HERE

The next morning we went to Livingston, Zambia. Crossing the border was simple. We paid our $50 visa fee and went right across. Livingston, like many African cities is much more modern than you’d expect, has a few malls, and restaurants all around. We went to the grocery store and picked up some wine (which is getting more and more expensive the further away from South Africa we were getting). Our camp site that night was at a beautiful location right on the Zambezi River. Charles and his wife Thien-An joined us for a few beers by the river. There was a giant crocodile sleeping under the deck by the river that afternoon.

Jan and Karen joined us for beers as well. We bunked with them when we had our party dorm in Swakopmund were an amazing duo. Jan’s daughter was married to Karen’s son. The two of them planned their wedding from New Zealand as the “kids” (who are Cori and my ages) lived in England. They are such troopers, leaving the significant others behind to camp with a bunch of kids half their age and loving it. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for these ladies and hope to do something that cool when my kids are all grown up. We’d gotten close with them on the first leg of the trip, but naturally had gotten closer as time went on.

Zambia as far as Cori and I are concerned doesn’t really count as a country we visited, but rather a country we paid to get into and drove out of three days later.

The coolest things about the drives were the kids and getting a sample of “real Africa”. The kids we’d see would get so excited to see our big green truck coming. They’d all wave like crazy. Some of them would be jumping up and down because they were so excited. Our arms would get tired from all of the waving back we’d be doing. It was really cool to see to start seeing the women who were draped in colorful sheets (called Kanga) walking slowly with baskets on their heads. The roads surprisingly weren’t as bad as we’d anticipated and certainly better than a lot we’ve been on in Asia. Nonetheless, it was tiresome only being able to go a maximum speed of 80kms an hour (about 50mph).

Long boring days of playing cards in the truck pursued for the next three days until we crossed into Malawi. Malawi for whatever reason had been calling me. I really wanted to visit and was ecstatic to be going. Crossing into Malawi was a breeze, no visa fees for most of us, except oddly the nations who need one which include Ireland, South Korea, and Switzerland.

One thing that was very different about this trip versus the previous one is that there was a fine line between whom the crew was and who the people on the trip were. On the first leg, Ray stood up to make it more accommodating for us and anyone who wanted could sit up front with Christie. This leg our guide sat alone on the best and most comfortable seat. Our cook, who actually was a great cook, sat in the cab next to our driver the entire way. We were given strict chores and the men were referred to as “dog’s bodies.” Dog’s Bodies is a derogatory term for someone who is meant to do menial tasks. These menial tasks were performed by us men while the crew stood back and watched. The women were assigned to be in different groups. One group would do the prep work with the cook. The next would clean the truck.

The cook was a complete and total scum bag who would treat the women poorly and degrade them while they were on his duty. He wouldn’t even tell the women what it was that they were helping him make. One of the women on our trip was constantly being harassed by him and had to fend off his sexual advances on a daily basis. He asked one guy on our trip who took a slice of avocado which was waiting to be served, “What’s your problem,” when he did so. It was a much different vibe and one that I wasn’t happy with. I feel okay posting negative things about Africa Travel Co because we complained to them and never received any response back from their office. If anyone was going to do an overland trip, I wouldn’t suggest using them.

For pictures from Zambia please click HERE

Malawi is home to Lake Malawi, the second largest lake in Africa. It is wide enough to not be able to see the other side and is the border with Mozambique on the east and Tanzania on the north. 20% of the country is water. David Livingstone came to Malawi in the mid 1800s and played a large role in the colonizing of Malawi by Britain’s as bringing Christianity to some of its people. There is a town which we hiked Livingstonia which was the site where he successfully settled after a few failed attempts at other locations.

We stayed at Kande Beach for three nights; but we arrived late the first night. It was a beautiful location right on Lake Malawi. Beautiful clean sand as far as we could see in both directions and an island covered in rocks laid a few hundred meters from shore. It was a perfect location and a wonderful and welcome stop after all of the driving we’d been sitting through. We chilled out, drank a few beers, and swam out to the island on the first day. Later we were met by Janus and Marlene, the doctors from Denmark that traveled the first half of the trip with us. It was good to see that Janus still hadn’t shaved. Nate, Charles, Janus, and I all decided that we weren’t going to shave until the trip was over. If you look at us day one versus the last day we look more and more like we’ve been camping through Africa.

That night we got sauced and forgot that the second half of the trip had been pretty bogus so far. Janus and I got up to our usual no good and Cori and the girls enjoyed themselves pretty well. It was a stellar night and one of the fondest of the trip.

Liz, who has a heart of gold and has been travelling with us since the beginning stopped by an orphanage the day before and told the man who ran it that we’d be by to give some things to the kids. The next morning I was super hung over but persevered. We went to the orphanage early in the morning and a few minutes later Jonathan showed up and let us in. We first went and met with a group of women who were all HIV positive and were making crafts that were sold in Australia. Jonathan said that these women were all free to stay there and that living with HIV wasn’t the end of the world for them. It tore my heart out to see all of these women, some with babies in their laps, and know that despite everyone’ efforts they wouldn’t get the medical care they needed and may not be around much longer.
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Cori and I bought coloring books crayons, and bubble mix in Lilongwe so that we could donate them. We gave them to the kids who were incredibly appreciative. They were very careful with the books and crayons. They didn’t fight over the goods nor did they cause any fuss when someone else was using the colors that they wanted. It was the first game of the Premier League season and we were invited to Jonathan’s village to watch Liverpool play Sunderland at one of the few televisions in town. We went with Jonathan to his village which was about a twenty minute walk from the beach through cassava farms and palm groves. We arrived to an outdoor hut which had bamboo mats up on the walls so that people couldn’t see in on 3/4 of the sides. We weren’t asked to pay an admission but the rest of the people were. There was around six of us from the trip in total and the rest of the place was packed with locals. I decided that we all needed to pay for Fanta (alcohol was not allowed) and buy some snacks as well.

Luis Suárez scored a goal for Liverpool. Everybody in the place booed and hissed. Remember, Suárez was the guy who during the World Cup while playing for Uruguay used his hand to score a goal against Ghana and eliminated the last African team. Everyone in Africa from what we were told hates this guy. It was funny because everyone wanted Liverpool to when but was disgusted to see him score.

That night we did more of the same. We had to go the next day early in the morning which didn’t make much sense because it was only a short drive up the coast to our next site. We stopped at a market along the way. The power was off which made shopping more difficult and made me worry about eating the meat we’d be served later that night. We stopped for hours to pick up supplies and by the time we arrived it was already too late to enjoy the scenery.

For pictures from Malawi please click HERE

The next morning I went on a 35km hike up to Livingstonia. The hike itself wasn’t that great. We got up there and the church we were supposed to see was closed and didn’t seem to be worth it regardless. We stopped by a beautiful waterfall on the way back which made the trek completely worth the while. We swam in a pool and took some great photos. On the way down my knee crapped out on me and I struggled almost the entire way down.

For pictures from the hike to Livingstonia please click HERE

The next day we were to go to Tanzania! Animals Animals Zanzibar Animals! Crossing into Tanzania was the easiest one that I’ve ever had to do. We gave our passports and visa payment to our leader; he went in, returned with our passports, and a receipt. We didn’t even have to leave the truck.

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