Can I stay in Bali, please?

Indonesia has me reeling from the beauty of the natural world. Nepal and Thailand were very beautiful and India was very diverse, but nowhere have I seen such radically different natural sights as on Java and Bali. This morning I watched dolphins dive in an ocean bathed in the orange light of a Bali sunrise, and couldn’t help reflecting that at that time a few days ago I was up a mountain watching a volcano erupting into a blue dawn. Combine this with walking through stunning rice terraces (paddies that look like a staircase), mountains and plantations, and I feel surprised every day by how amazing nature can be. I almost feel disloyal to Nepal but I think this may be the most attractive country I’ve ever been to.

Our last few days in Java were dominated by visiting Mount Bromo. A 1.30-am start, with a long drive, jeep ride and hike were forgotten about as soon as the dawn began to break over the volcanoes. The sky, which began grey and moved through orange to bright blue, became the backdrop to a striking display as wisps of smoke rose from the crater. The feel was distinctly otherworldly and I was so absorbed that it was a shock to look down and see I had become covered in volcanic dust. The pictures can’t do it justice.

Bali of course has a very different feel to Java. Culturally it’s a little like India has sat down to take a massive breather: Hindu temples and beautiful shrines on every corner, but with the famous relaxed atmosphere. The group certainly doesn’t miss the call to prayer at all hours of the day, and the temples make the towns a lot more colourful. Today in particular my stress levels are at record lows with the morning dolphin watching boat ride followed by some time snorkelling and a lovely lunch. I actually feel a bit guilty – this feels like an annual holiday, not part of backpacking! This is probably because the tour I am on is made up mostly of people who in fact are on their annual holiday (they’re all lovely), but still.

There have of course been the usual amusing travelling disasters; inedible meals, karoke/nearby nightclubs/animals which keep you up all night, and bus rides which seem to follow the driver’s merest whim. However I seem to notice these things less and less as the months have gone by and have even been eating other people’s inedible food (should probably watch that) and I seem to have developed the ability to sleep through anything. Perhaps when I get back to the UK I will have an amazing quality of life because I will be overawed by a room without mosquitoes or getting hold of cheddar cheese easily. The pay-off is definitely going back to the cold; luckily I have a month in wintertime Australia to ease me in. Strangely I will be there in a week and will meet family I have never met before, something new again! It does however mark the end of proper travelling as staying with family in a country I have visited before doesn’t really count. Tragic!

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Published in: on July 13, 2011 at 7:44 am  Comments (2)  

A brief Indonesian interlude

So I managed to tear myself away from Kasetsomboon, and after a long bus ride (where at least there was no random man all over me like on the bus to Laos) I made it back to my favourite place – Bangkok.  After being given so many presents by my hosts in Thailand, a.k.a the kindest people on earth, my backpack is about 5k heavier. Add to this the few ks I myself have picked up, and getting around isn’t as easy as it used to be. It was with relief that I dumped my stuff at a brilliant but practically empty hostel. The next day was a whirlwind of sightseeing which reminded me how much I don’t like big cities. Having been away for a while now I know a lot of the tricks that touts employ, such as rickshaws refusing to take you directly somewhere and instead offering you a ‘tour’ of a few other places, which will turn out to be one other minor sight and two or three shops where they receive a commission for having brought you and you feel pressured to buy something you don’t want. This seemed to be particularly bad in BKK and I was really glad of the local boat which I meant we (myself and a friend I made) could get up and down the river tout-free. Seeing other tourists agreeing to the ‘tour’, or buying tickets to a river cruise which pretends to be the only way to get up and down the river when the local boat is much cheaper, made me a bit sad. I felt like running around shouting ‘IT’S A TRAP’ like that guy from Star Wars.

However this is as always a very minor inconvenience and Bangkok is still a fantastic city. Unfortunately I crashed out after a really long transfer and once again couldn’t take advantage of the nightlife, but now I have a valid excuse to go back. The Grand Palace and the Golden Mount were very lovely and caused us to reflect that although in Europe so much gold in one place would be considered tacky, here it somehow isn’t and even seems quite graceful.

After a 22 hour flight to reach the relatively close port of Yogyakarta I was glad at the prospect of staying in the same city for a few days.  Incidentally, I think airport transit lounges are a great forum for studying human behaviour. People behave in them in ways they never would elsewhere! Indonesia is of course very different again from anywhere I’ve been. The population of Java is predominantly Muslim, and hearing the call to prayer is a new aspect to the soundscape of Asia. It is however on the whole a very tolerant place, and the guide we had to the stunning Buddhist stupa at Borobudur spoke of ‘one long red line’ connecting the traditions of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Yogyakarta itself is noisy, busy and dusty, shades of India in fact, but the surrounding landscape is amazing and the artistic traditions of batik, puppetry and dance are really interesting. This tour is the shortest time I’m spending in one country (apart from Laos) and the fact that we’re moving on to Bali next week seems a bit weird, but it will be great to see somewhere which I know is so different again. 

I miss so many friends and family at home. I’m not in any hurry to come home, but thinking about seeing everyone in about six weeks is very exciting. Lots of love to you all!

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 7:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Leaving kicking and screaming

I really don’t want to leave. By this I mean I am having to drag myself kicking and screaming away from Kasetsomboon. I didn’t want to leave Nepal, because it was beautiful and I was having a lot of fun. A big part of me also didn’t want to leave India (although my stomach was not included in that). But this is different – I’m in love with the work I’ve been doing here.

I know I had some difficulties with making myself understood to begin with, but this has never extended to my lessons. As time has gone by these have only become more interesting and enjoyable for me (and I think for my students as well). The students at the school are so polite, enthusiastic, fun, and for the most part, intelligent. Thai students are mostly very shy of speaking English with a foreigner to begin with so classes got a lot more interesting once they realised I wasn’t frightening and was in fact willing to oink like a pig and dance around in the name of learning a new English word. The younger classes now applaud and cheer when I walk in the room, which is a great start if a little embarassing. Life is kept interesting by getting up at the crack of dawn to give ‘merit’ – meaning to donate food to the local monks, and give a little speech on some topic to the assembled school, which my friend Dr Siriporn translates into Thai. Add to this the joy of being in such as beautiful place, being constantly brought delicious food and fresh exotic fruit at all hours of the day and learning about a new culture a little more each week, and it’s easy to see why I don’t want to leave. I’ve also made some great friends here, some of whom have been incredibly patient with the language barrier, and I will miss many of the teachers and students as well.

My recent weekend visit to Vietiane in Laos has made me wish I had a lot more time in south-east Asia in general. The same values of positivity and friendliness seemed to carry on into Laos (friendliness was much in excess regarding the pervy guy who wanted to make friends with me far too much on the international bus), but the atmosphere in Vientiane was very different. Having been colonised by the French and then experiencing a period of American imperialist aggression, the landscape looks very different. I did a double-take at seeing street signs beginning with ‘Rue’ – it was as if Dieppe, so close to my hometown, had got lost and found itself in a tropical wonderland. Many colonial period buildings still survive, and it was interesting to see the coexisting styles of architecture, even if as most of you know, anything colonial makes me a little uncomfortable. The attitude taken by the national museum – which fused ancient history into 20th-century history without feeling the need to detail any time inbetween – was amusing. Every time there was a mention of the occupying forces, they were the ‘brutal colonialists’ or similar, and Lao forces were never mentioned without the qualifying adjective ‘brave’. A one-sided attitude which we would never get away with in the UK, but perhaps under the circumstances we haven’t a leg to stand on, so to speak. The strangely European feel was heightened by the constant rain that fell literally the entire time I was there (well, it may have stopped during the night, but every time I was woken up by the air conditioner having some kind of existential crisis complete with moaning sounds, the rain it raineth every day). I would dearly love to explore more of Laos and also go to Cambodia and Vietnam, and to the south of Thailand. Maybe I will even make it to the islands one day, if I can stand the presence of so many other ‘farang’. It’s looking increasingly likely that I will be back here in the next few years  – possibly even back at this school.

My lack of making it to a touristy beach area is about to be rectified this week as I head to Indonesia. I have a few days to explore Yogyakarta by myself before I join another tour – this time on Java and Bali with Tucan. Any tour I went on now would have a hard time living up to the Dragoman India/Nepal jaunt, and this has the disadvantage of not using an overlanding truck but public transport, but I have really high hopes for such a chilled-out and interesting location. Watch this space for news from Indonesia, if I manage to make it out of Bangkok without running back and chaining myself to one of the school buildings.

Published in: on June 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Halfway point! A few silly reflections on travelling

Incredibly I’m now halfway through my four months of travelling, and thought this would be a good point to reflect on what I have learned so far. I didn’t come away with any floaty intentions to ‘find myself’ or have a ‘spiritual journey’, but I have found out some useful information about myself so far.

Things it is in fact possible to live without

  • Western toilets. My leg muscles have become much more toned from using squat toilets. The only really impossible ones are the ones which are squat but almost the height of a Western toilet. These seem to require muscles in places in which muscles don’t exist and my legs are always like jelly afterwards. Also, there is something satisfying about pouring buckets of water down a hole until it’s clean. I don’t know why, there just is.
  • Hot water/running water. To be fair, temperatures in places I have been have probably never dropped below  20 degrees in the daytime. I have found that if a deep breath is taken the iciest of water is bearable. If it was a normal shower with contant pressure it wouldn’t work, but when you are just pouring a bucket of water over yourself the water is soon warmed a little by your body heat. Furthermore I have found no ill effect on my body or hair from just using cold water from a bucket and only plain soap for everything. This just goes to show that many miracle working, expensive cosmetics are laughably unnecessary. (They do look and smell very nice though!)
  • Hair straighteners / other cosmetics. Yes! It’s true! Many people wouldn’t have expected me to survive without straight hair but, as long as I don’t look for too long at any photos taken of me, it’s fine.  I did cheat and have a chemical straighten done before I came away but it has practically worn off without my really noticing. It helps that, as everybody likes what they don’t have, Thai people often think white skin, a larger nose and curly hair are beautiful. It makes me smile to think of everybody fake-tanning in the UK while in Asia whitening cream is the done thing.
  • A comfortable bed. I knew this already due to a long period of time spent sleeping on people’s floors and sofas, after 6 weeks of which I couldn’t sleep on a divan because it was too soft. I now know it is possible to sleep perfectly comfortably on bare floor or on a bed made of a lump of wood with a sheet on.
  • A lack of rodents/cockroaches/mosquitoes. Not exactly preferable, but my friend Lydia and I slept (twice!) in a room in which there was reputedly a RAT (and there definitely was the other two). We listened all night for sounds of chewing, but the only thing keeping me up was the howling of 1,000 stray dogs outside.
  • Personal space. This has never been in fashion in India, a country of 1.2 billion people, and really, if you’re becoming intimately acquainted with ten other people’s extremities on public transport, at least you’re not lonely. On one bus ride I felt unable to change my position as my arm had become a sort of human seatbelt for the small child sitting unsecured next to me.

Things it isn’t possible to do without

  • Water. Obvious, of course, but I don’t just mean in the physical sense. Having problematic kidneys and being in hot climates has led to water being my primary concern. I know people who have developed obsessions with whether everything will fit back in their backpack; my obsession is with how soon I will get more water inside me, how much it will cost me, whether it will make me ill or not, and whether it will taste disgusting.
  • Someone who speaks English. Not when generally travelling, as I’m quite happy for a certain period of time in my own company, but when you’re living with people and working with them, being constantly misunderstood and misunderstanding people 24/7 is frustrating and lonely. Luckily it doesn’t last long!
  • Health. While having gastroenteritis in India was predictable and much like having it at home, having flu in a country as hot as Thailand was a very different experience. My head knew it was really hot, and the sweat dripping off me attested to the fact, but my body felt it was so, so cold and needed ten layers on it. Very uncomfortable.

Anyway this is a very frivolous post but I felt I ought to have learned something about myself, as well as the cultures I am visiting, in two months of living out of a backpack!

Published in: on June 17, 2011 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Thailand: Isaan Uncovered

It’s difficult to blog in the same way that I have been considering that, instead of shooting around from place to place, I have been comfortably settled in a small town in rural Thailand for the last two weeks. While I don’t have any exciting new places to describe, I feel staying in one place, not to mention living the life of a local person, has brought me to a far greater understanding of the culture here.

Patriotism in Thailand is really interesting to observe. National pride in England has come to be associated exclusively with thuggery, lame government attempts to define our identity, and now a cringing fear of what asses we might make of ourselves with the 2012 Olympics. In Thailand, I have not come across a single home which does not have a photograph or picture of the current or a past King. Voluntarily people tell me how hard he works for the country. On the news almost every night since I have been in Kasetsomboon has appeared a report on what one of the Princesses has been doing on a state visit to Switzerland. My friends actually seem riveted, watching with none of the sense of irony I would expect from many friends in the UK. As a republican myself (not my fault, I inherited it from my grandfather who was always right) I find this really refreshing and even heartwarming. I can’t imagine even those who have argued at length with me about how much tourism our royal family brings in feeling such warmth towards them as people. The national anthem is played twice a day and everyone is expected to stand.

Similarly to rural and other areas in India and Nepal, religion is inseparable from daily routine here. Every home I have been to and many rooms in the school I’m teaching at have a shrine to Buddha. The local countryside seems steeped in legend and religious significance; for example, the river is not just a river but was originally the habitat of a white crocodile who appeared to those who would become unlucky. Community leaders are also admirably keen on preserving local knowledge; some students at my school have been involved in a project funded by a university which aims to research the knowledge of village ‘wisdoms’ (often monks). Traditional farming is also very important to the area and my friends proudly point out farming ‘culture’ to me, like various ingenious ways of catching fish without technology. A more observable influence of Buddhism is on one’s clothes. I had thought this was a form of school uniform, but I began to notice at an evening aerobics class that on one day many women wore pink, on another orange and so on.  After my enquiries came to nothing (still working on that language barrier) I did some research and it seems each day is significant to a certain god (oddly seeming to derive from Indian culture, but I suppose Buddhism did originate there). An exception is that yellow, or the national uniform, is worn on Mondays as a tribute to the current King having been born on a Monday.  Of course there is no evidence to link the national Buddhismn (95% of Thai people are Buddhists) to the pleasantness, politeness, and lack of confrontation in the culture but I would hazard a guess that there’s a distinct influence.

Surprisingly for such a pro-royalist people, local politics also seems very important. There is to be an election next month, and one can’t escape that fact anywhere. I would expect a proliferation of banners and slogans in Bangkok, but considering the remoteness of this location the amount of propaganda is striking. There is a billboard every few hundred metres at least, and where there’s one, there’s at least a couple more as there seem to be about fifteen candidates. Pick-up trucks (to my shame I only learned exactly what a ‘pick-up truck’ is about a month ago) are everywhere blasting slogans from loudspeakers.  I know that if I had a vote I would be voting for number 21, because a loudspeaker has told me to do so outside my house at 7am every morning. The same thing happened to me in Ireland where I knew I would be voting for Gay Mitchell if I could, because he was everywhere. It’s very easy to be swayed when you have no chance of knowing the actual politics of the candidates!

The area is so beautiful: rice fields in various states of growth, lakes, rivers, forested mountains, vast skies with gorgeous sunsets. I could sit and stare at it for hours and, and always in this situation, feel a bit indignant when I see a local person walk by a stunning vista with indifference.

Published in: on June 17, 2011 at 7:27 am  Comments (2)  

Thailand begins

I could (and indeed did begin to) write a whole blog based around some of the unfortunate, if humorous incidents that have happened to me since I left Nepal for Thailand. Such a blog would however be basically one big whine and provide no information about Thailand at all. I’ll just briefly mention one thing. In Bangkok, an extremely inept if daring criminal tried to steal a gold necklace, from around my neck, while we were both in moving vehicles. He only succeeded in giving me a big fright and a small scratch on my neck. I can laugh now to think that he put in so much effort for nothing.

Anyway. Misfortunes aside, I really wanted to sing Thailand’s praises. Despite knowing that it has a much higher quality of life than where I had been, I never quite twigged just how Western it is. In Bangkok spotless streets, real roads, street lighting, and a complete lack of locals staring at me where received by me with real surprise. Some things, like the cavernous, air-conditioned shopping malls, constituted a real capitalism culture-shock. I realised I had not paid more than five pounds really for anything in two months, and the sight of t-shirts costing what has become a week’s worth of food to me was very weird. With the necklace incident that evening I was quite glad to get out of Bangkok, and after taking a bus which not only came on time and didn’t charge me more for being a foreigner but had a stewardess(!) I arrived in Chaiyaphum. Once again the word rural, which to me meant a field with maybe a shack or two, was redefined. While many people in the area are rice farmers, a ‘village’ has houses larger than my parents’ and every kind of amenity is available.

What I have been so impressed with in Thailand, aside from its natural beauty, is the politeness and  positivity in the culture. Naturally this suits me down to the ground. Everyone follows the idea of ‘mai bpen rai’ (no worries), meaning to get angry or speak harshly is really quite taboo. As a ‘farang’ (foreigner) in an area which really doesn’t see any, I can’t pass someone on the street without them breaking into a huge smile. It’s very infectious and I have been finding my cheeks hurting at the end of the day. Furthermore the education system is so different. The children seem happy to be at school, they arrive early to sweep the playground, and never pass you by without saying hello. There seems to be very little discipline from the other teachers, e.g. in assembly the children talk and mess around while the teacher is speaking and nobody minds, and I think this is why the children are happy to be here. There also seems to be a lot of playtime but the students and teachers do work very hard.  When I am teaching a class the children are not only quiet and obedient but really excited to be learning English. This is the opposite from most English classrooms that I was in as a child at least.  Also, everybody here just can’t do enough for me. There are three women who have asked me to address them as ‘Mother’ and act accordingly. My birthday yesterday was marked in various really sweet ways despite being at really short notice.

Lastly, one thing I think our culture would do well to emulate is the respect accorded to everyone. For example, today the teachers (and I) had a day off from teaching in which a ceremony was held for the students to show respect to their teachers by bringing them flowers and singing songs. When one compares how little respect is shown to English teachers the difference is depressing, and it’s not the fault of schoolchildren – it just isn’t ingrained in our culture. The cultural mistakes I have made have involved forgetting to bow first to people older than me (which is everyone – in Chaiyaphum it seems someone my age is considered a baby still and wouldn’t be expected to be travelling alone).

Naturally by volunteering I’m missing out on all the tourism and partying I could be doing, and many people will be surprised that I won’t have time to make it to the islands. With two other volunteers I’ve squeezed ina  temple-packed weekend in Chiang Mai and I hope to make it to Cambodia and Laos on other weekends, but I won’t be able to go south of Bangkok. I have no regrets.

Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 7:37 am  Comments (1)  

Things I learned in Pokhara

1) Pokhara is an incredibly beautiful place.

2). A sacred cow can and will chase you, as will a water buffalo, even if you are on a bike and especially if you look at them funny.

3). Nationwide strikes lose their impact when they happen every week.

4). Tibetan jewellery-hawking women have long memories and mean it when they say they will wait for you.

5). ‘Hash brown potatoes’ can be interpreted as meaning many different things, apart from the one you are expecting.

6). A stray dog actually will follow you all the way up to the top of a mountain if you show it a modicum of kindness, and will use you as a human shield against other dogs.

7). Hired mountain bikes seem to have a much wider range of possible faults than your own bike.

8). I am still considered a ‘sexy lady’ by a Nepali man when covered in sweat and dirt and cursing my own existence.

9). Tea and coffee are the same thing.

10). You can flush the toilet paper!

11). Hydroelectric power is not the most reliable source in the world.

12). I’m not as good with boats or extremely spicy food as I think I am.

13). Going to church in a country where many people have so little is a very humbling experience.

14). The moment when the clouds roll back and the mountain ranges are revealed is worth anything.

Next stop, Thailand!

Published in: on May 24, 2011 at 4:13 pm  Comments (2)  

In which Nepal proves to me the stupidity of my own decisions

I’m now in Nepal, a country I have dreamed about since as a child I had a pen-pal who lived in Kathmandu. Of our last few days in India,  the time we spent in Varanasi really deserves an entry all to itself. It’s an extremely intense place, a very popular Hindu pilgrimage site where worshippers come to purify themselves in the holy river Ganges and also to cremate their dead. It’s believed if one is cremated at Varanasi one escapes the cycle of reincarnation. Our experience of the ghats, in the form of a dawn boat ride and also watching the nightly puja celebration at sunset, were really beyond description, especially the latter. Seeing the bare essentials of life such as washing and worshipping alongside what was the closest I’ve ever got to death was very moving. The evening ritual was not merely worshippers washing in the river but thousands of people watching from bobbing boats as four (incredibly attractive, if that’s not too appropriate) Brahmins performed rituals to music and chanting. It was very intense and the joy on everyone’s faces was a pleasure to see. I tried to come up with a way to sum it up in my journal and came up with ‘It was like a gaping wound of love and loss and belief and ritual’. A bit poetic perhaps, but it was the best I could come up with.

After a brilliant few days in Chitwan national park, a stunning area where I took a bath with an elephant (pictures on facebook), and saw rhinos as well as a fascinating display of traditional dance, we headed to Kathmandu. Here I left the Dragoman tour I’d been on, which was quite sad as I’ve made some good friends. I’m in the middle now of a few weeks travelling around Nepal with my friend Lydia. The last few days in Kathmandu have been brilliant – it’s a much less chaotic country than India and everyone seems so friendly and smiley. Being confronted with more Western people than I’d seen in probably the whole of the last month was quite something, although it is nice to be stared at slightly less than I was in India. I did have to have my photo taken about ten times at the stunning Swayambhunath stupa or Buddhist temple, which with its prayer flags and prayer wheels was quite an experience. The one negative moment of my time here so far was when I stupidly accepted a ride from a rickshaw driver with all my luggage on a day of bandha or general strike. A van of protesters was so angry to see the driver working that they tried to run us off the road and then bashed into the side of us, nearly causing us to go over. I’d like to say my life flashed before my eyes but in typical traveller fashion I was more concerned about my luggage than anything else. I was shaking for a few hours afterwards but I feel I am a lot wiser now! Also I heard of taxis being smashed up so really I got away lightly. We are heading to Pokhara tomorrow which is more chilled out and frankly after that I think I need it. The experience, however, hasn’t diminished my appreciation for Nepal, with which I seem to become more fascinated every day.

Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm  Comments (4)  

Not so much crouching tiger as hidden, hidden, hidden tigers

As a blow-by-blow account of this trip is becoming really impossible (we’ve been camping for the last four nights) I thought I would just try to highlight the incredibly diversity of India by contrasting some of the scenarios I have found myself in over the last two weeks or so.

The ‘real’ India – the caste system in practice

My time in Johdpur greatly increased my knowledge of the caste system, and it was cemented by a talk in Jaipur from a brilliant if aged guide called Eugene. The guesthouse we stayed at in Johdpur runs an extremely worthwhile programme for empowering Dalit women. There are four major castes which roughly correspond to priests, soldiers, merchants and manual workers. Below this are Dalits. I was shocked to find out that some still consider Dalits to be ‘Untouchable’, i.e. a person from a higher caste feels the need to be ritually cleansed after accidental physical contact, despite the caste system technically being illegal. Although when the caste system was introduced centuries ago it was more of a meritocracy and there was more social mobility, now one is born into a certain caste which becomes one’ surname, and intermarriage between sub-castes is rare except in the largest cities. Although affirmative action is being taken by the authorities discrimination is still a real problem. The girls and women helped by the centre, who have the double difficulty of being Dalit but also female, were wonderful people. It was said that they were all very shy when they first starting attending and so it was wonderful to see that many of them were now very confident and pressed around us as we made friends. The friendly physical contact was very poignant.

Desert India

We were lucky enough to go on a camel safari in the Thar desert near the town of Jaisalmer near the Pakistan border. The temperatures reached 46 degrees while we were there and naturally it was very dusty. I had songs from Aladdin stuck in my head the whole time. I loved riding my camel Babaloo. The bouncing caused by the camel’s lolloping gait wasn’t too bad after I gave up trying to rise to the trot as if it was a horse and accepted the fate of a sore bottom. The sight of golden sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction was absolutely stunning. After a night spent drinking rum and watching traditional dancing, I was one of the few who weren’t too hung over to ride the camels back again. To my surprise instead of leading the camels, our ‘drivers’ got up behind us and encouraged the camels to run. The bumping intensified to the point where my driver had to hold me down by my shoulders (he got a large tip for not taking advantage of this situation as have many young men who ask to take picture and then try and get an unnoticed grope in there!) but it was such an adrenaline rush.

Tourist India

At Delhi we entered the tourist ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi-Jaipur-Agra. Straight away the roads became more well-mantained and the driving more insane, and it was obvious the locals had seen many tourists as the ready smiles seemed to fade a bit. In Agra we saw the Taj Mahal and probably more white people than we had seen on the whole trip so far. I can only say the Taj is more than everything it is cracked up to be. It is simply stunning and seems to hover like a mirage. We managed to get in at dawn when there weren’t many people there. Shah Jahan, who built it as a mauseoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal when she passed away, must have really loved her – it struck me as more romantic considering that she would never see it. I think my standards for palaces and such rose by a few bars – anyone who had seen us messing around doing backflips in the Baby Taj afterwards would have thought we hadn’t even noticed the our still gorgeous, if less grand, surroundings. We returned to see it in a different light at sunset, and I was sharply jerked back to reality when our group was approached by the humblest beggar I have ever seen. He was blind. The horrible irony of his eking out a living in the shadow of a Wonder of the modern world which he could not see hit me like a smack in the face, and he received most of the contents of my wallet.

Jungle Book India – Bandhavgarh

As an absolute contrast to the desert safari, we have most recently been in Madhya Pradesh where the landscape has become distinctly Rudyard Kipling. The (almost, but not quite as its not monsoon season) lush landscape is home to tigers amongst other brilliant species, but the thrill of being in their natural habitat had to suffice as we weren’t lucky enough to see any. I did however have my up close experience of an elephant – their faces are more beautiful that I would have thought. I was a bit nervous as its truck explored everything around until I remembered they don’t have sharp teeth! Can’t wait to ride one in Nepal. A highlight was seeing a jackal chase a group of spotted deer across a plain by a watering hole.

At a few points it has felt like a totally different country to the one we were in the previous day. I’ve been warned off using the phrase ‘city of contrasts’ in travel writing as, after all, which city does not have contrasts. However this is only a blog, not an article, so India is a country of contrasts, no matter how much of a cliché I am.

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 6:50 am  Comments (2)  

Now that I can look at a screen without saying Namaste to my dinner again . . .

I haven’t obviously been able to write as often as I’d like to have done – even my diary has fallen by the wayside as I’ve been ill for over ten days with gastroenteritis. Luckily Indian doctors are very good and I’ve been taking antibiotics, but up until now looking at a screen, along with mostly everything else, made me want to be sick. I haven’t actually missed anything on the tour though which has been fantastic. They do say if you can survive India you can survive anywhere, so hopefully if I can survive India with gastric flu I can survive anywhere and also anything. Anyway.

I’ve so much ground to cover now that I’m just going to try to sum up each town in a few words, with a bit of an explanation.

Udaipur – Beautiful Octopussy Lakes

We watched the Bond film, which was set in Udaipur, at sunset on a rooftop with a great restaurant, overlooking a gorgeous white palace which appears to be floating on a lake. Also ran into a big Hindu festival with elephants, dancers, fireworks and a knife dancer who lost his knife into the crowd at one point.

Pushkar – Holy Dirty Stonerville

No alcohol, meat, eggs or onions (they create sexual excitement, don’t you know) as this is a holy place, but muchos marijuana for anyone who wants it. Also we saw our first ghats – holy bathing pools where the dead are also cremated. Despite being a holy site, rubbish and touts abounded.

Johdpur – Humbling, Inspiring, Blue.

Here we stayed in a guesthouse which also operated a foundation for Dalit women (formerly known as Untouchables) and learned about the caste system. We also saw a magnificent Rathore fort which has never been breached in its long history. And all the houses are blue.

Jaisalmer – Hot, Camels, Rum.

In 46 degree heat we took a camel safari into the Khar desert and slept under the (many many stars) after consuming (very much) rum. Other than that, Jaisalmer was very dirty and very hot. We did go to a museum where we met an amazing guy, who founded the museum. We learned a lot about Indian religion, culture and history from him and then he blessed us. Legend.

Bikaner – Sick, Medicine, Hotel (sorry)

Delhi – Mumbai Without Soul

Very Westernised city, we’re into real tourist country now so lots of touts, beggars etc. We did see the red fort, or rather I sat holding my stomach while the others looked and a million Indians took my picture, and also the largest Mosque in India, where I hid in the shadows because the sun made me sick.

Jaipur – Pink City Actually Dirty Orange

Climbed about 2k up a steep hill in sweltering heat before discovering we had come about 1.5k too far. A monkey stole my ice cream. We stayed in an amazing hotel with a swimming pool. We had a talk on culture, particularly the caste system (probably a whole blog about this will come when I’m better) from an amazing old man called Eugene, also we saw an Observatory with ancient astronomical equipment and the city palace, which blurs into many other city palaces I’ve seen.

Fatehpur Sikri – Maharaja A Lucky Man

We looked around a palace of a king who had three wives, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Christian, (also “800” mistresses) and sensibly kept them quite far apart. We also had the opportunity to tie a string to a lucky temple lattice window. I didn’t do this because the children selling tat instead of going to school had probably tied plenty, and still have no luck.

My apologies for my lazy writing style, I am feeling very tired as I ate my first whole meal at lunch today for ten days and my body seems to be in shock at what it is being asked to cope with.

Love to everyone, to name everyone I’m missing would take more words than I could manage.

Published in: on April 30, 2011 at 4:02 pm  Comments (3)