Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Blog

Okay, so I took some advice and changed the url of my blog so that it would no longer have 'sex' in it. If you're looking for my new blog, so here and the url is http://tabs-examinedlife.blogspot.com/

Friday, June 26, 2009

Back in Brissie

27 May 2009
So, if I thought arriving in Thailand was good, Brisbane was even better. Sure, the curries are more expensive, as is everything else, but arriving back to the place I've called home for the past five years was comforting. Sure I was a bit skinny from too much trekking and giardia and not enough protein. If you're ever feeling a bit too thin, hang out in Aus, drink some beer and eat some rich food and you'll be cured!

Ro's mum picked us up at the airport and we drove back to their house, where we settled in for a nice meal with a view of Moreton Bay. Both Ro and I were knackered after the flight, which might I mention was delayed. Actually, to be perfectly accurate JetStar cancelled our flight for the second day in a row. Luckily they managed to squeeze us on a Thai Airways flight, so even though we'd only payed for a budget JetStar flight, which might I add doesn't include food, blankets or even water (!!!) we got a Thai Airways flight with inflight entertainment, meals,
blankets, pillows and yes, even water.

We don't have long left on this trip to Australia and I'm trying to make the most of it: a trip to Sydney, daily walks along Moreton Bay, catching up with friends, going out dancing, drinking too much (ouch. . .) I know it won't be enough time to do all the things I want to, but I mustn't worry, we'll be back.

Thailand, Round 2

14 May 2009 - 26 May 2009
Arriving in Thailand for the second time in six months really made me appreciate my life. To get to land in the tropical paradise and look forward to sun-baking, green curries and Thai hospitality is really a treat. It was particularly refreshing after having come from India and Nepal. Don't get me wrong, the subcontinent is a wonderful place to visit and I was lucky to spend the time there that I did. That said, five months on the subcontinent is just too much for this little monkey. I couldn't believe how clean everywhere looked in Thailand; no rubbish lying around, no cow
pats littering the road or footpath and there are footpaths (some anyway)!

We flew into Bangkok and stepping out of the airport is similar to stepping into warm bath; the humidity must've been above 90 percent. Still, it's nice to breath clean air and after having spent the last five years in Australia, I don't mind the humidity so much. Our goal was to make it to Ko Chang from Bangkok, but the last bus left an hour before we arrived, so we settled on a trip to Trat for the night. The bus ride to Trat was amazing; the roads in Thailand are so smooth, so paved and the drivers so sane and so quiet!

We arrived in Trat rather late, after 8:00. In India or Nepal this would mean that dinner a
nd drinks were out of the question, but we're not in the subcontinent anymore! In Thailand the world is just warming up at 8:00! So, after a shower we wandered out and got a delicious, spicy fish red curry and pork green curry. Next door to the curry stand was a general store where we got a Chang Draft (not the standard Chang and in my opinion, much nicer). How civilized to be able to eat and drink at the same time without feeling like we're committing a sin! A few more beers saw us to bed rather early.

The next morning we took a taxi to the ferry terminal and from there we headed to Ko Chang. The first beach we headed for was Lonely Beach, but don't let the name fool you. Even in low season the beach is crawling with teenage backpackers on their 'gap year', not exactly our scene. The beach there is amazing, but the bar is hopping until the wee hours of the morning and we generally are not, so we decided quieter beaches were in our future. We rented a motor scooter and scoped out the other beaches on the island. The most appealing with cheap huts right on the beach was Kai Bae, so we made the big move. Our hut on Kai Bae was cheap, isolated and mere seconds from the water. No backpackers or noisy bars here, just an American guy and his Thai wife as neighbors.

I can't say that we did much during those days in Thailand. What does one really need to do when food is so close and the beach even closer?! We did explore the island a bit on a motor scooter and paddled in a kayak over to a close by deserted island. Other than that we did a lot of reading, eating and lying on the beach. Ahh, the lovely last days of holidays.


1 May 2009 - 10 May 2009
We arrived in Pokhara after a six hour bus ride that was pure comfort when compared with our previous Nepali bus rides. Then the taxi ride through Pokhara's clean, quiet lakeside area showed me a place I knew I was going to like. The beautiful lake is rimmed by mountains, well, hills when compared with the massive Himalayan peaks towering over the town, and it is a stunning place. From the bus station you can see the best view any bus station in the world has to offer.

Our hotel, Hidden Paradise, was set up on a mountain overlooking Fewa Lake. After trekking and a week in hectic, rioting, demonstrating Kathmandu, I can't say it was eas
y to talk us into leaving our lovely room, but we managed it a few times. On several of the days on which we'd planned outings we kept in due to heavy storms that dumped buckets of rain, presented great flashes of lightning and shook the hills with booming thunder. The bright side to this was of course that we didn't have to leave and could instead take some time relax. The storms in Pokhara are incredible and reading that two people were hit by lightening during one of the storms we'd witnessed, our decision to stay in was confirmed as a wise one.
Despite the storms, we did manage to make it out and explore a bit. The lakeside village has stacks of places to eat, cool bars and more shops selling souvenirs than you could poke a stick at, so wandering around was interesting. Pokhara also has English bookstores, so we went a little book mad. During the nine days we stayed there, I read about seven books; having been starved of English books for several weeks I absolutely gorged myself on them!

I wouldn't say that we were keen to leave Pokhara, but our six months on holiday was nearing an end and beaches in Thailand were calling our names, so we bade goodbye to the lovely guys who run Hidden Paradise and set off back to crazy Kathmandu.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nepal and the Langtang Trek

7 April 2009 - 30 April 2009
My first impression of Kathmandu was that it doesn't look all that different from India: same looking shops, groups of men milling about aimlessly and the light has a similiar colour. There are differences though: there are more women around and they're not all dressed in the conservative salwar kameez or sari, some are even wearing tight jeans and fitted t-shirts! There are no auto-rickshaws and no cows!

We got a nice room in the Boudanath area (the Tibetan area of Kathmandu) and it's clean with towels and proper bed sheets. Nepal isn't quite as cheap as we were expecting though, taxis and food are expensive when compared to India (most places are). The Bouda area centres around the Boudanath Stupa, an amazing sight to behold.

One night in Boudanath we headed out for dinner rather than enjoying the food offered by our hotel. We came onto the main road and there were Nepali men, protesting down the middle of the road with sticks on fire. The power was out (as it is for a minimum of 16 hours each day), so there were no street lights. The demonstration was because the Nepalis don't feel that the new government is working for the people. They are frustrated because the government keeps saying the right words, but not following through with actions.

After a few days of resting and readying ourselves, we booked the bus and got the trekking permits to head up to the Langtang Region of the Himalaya. We were both excited to get up into the mountains and explore!

We arrived in Thulo Bharku from Kathmandu after a spine shattering, nerve-wracking and patience-trying bus journey that took no fewer than ten hours, with two breakdowns along the way. The bus was driven by two kids whose ages put together probably don't equal mine. Scary stuff! On the bright side, Thulo Bharku is a charming little village, full of bright-eyed and friendly kids. We had dahl baht takari (dahl, rice and veggies), which is fairly standard trekking food and it was good. After the long bus ride we fell into bed pretty early to prepare ourselves for the next day of trekking.

We left Thulo Bharku around 9 am, not off to a roaring start, but early for us. We walked until midday and stopped for lunch in Brabal. The menu here is the same as it is in Thulo Bharku. I had heard that the menus are created by a committee and then all the restaurants in the area are taught how to make the food on the menu and that’s all that served. The owner of today’s restaurant confirmed the committee theory, so it looks like we’ll have the same menu options for the duration of the trek. The options aren’t so bad, though by the end of the trek I might be quite tired of dahl baht!

We started the next day at Landslide Lodge at 1700 metres. The family there seemed in need of money and so to support them and take some pressure off me, we took the oldest son along for the day as our porter. I’m glad we did because it as another day of up, up, up. We got our first glimpses of the snow-capped peaks that we’ll be much closer to tomorrow. It’s amazing how much the landscape has changed as we’ve gone up. We started in the lush riverbed of Langtang River and as we worked our way up the greenery and trees got sparser. After a very long day of walking uphill we finished at Thangsyapu (3,140 metres), where we celebrated my birthday. Nothing like walking up a hill all day to make one feel her age, or perhaps her mother’s age! My birthday cake was a Snickers bar with a candle stuck in it and after such a long day of hiking, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Tomorrow we make our way to Kyangin Gompa. By looking at the map it’ll be another day of uphill, with the day finishing at 3,870 metres.

As expected, today’s walk to Kyangin Gompa was uphill, but for the first day on the trek thus far, some of the walk was relatively flat. For the effort of going further uphill, we were rewarded with even better views of the Langtang mountain range.

The people of the Langtang region are called the Tamang people. It is thought that four or five generations ago they migrated to the region from Tibet. They certainly look Tibetan! Along the track today we met an old man who claimed to be Tibetan. He communicated to us that he was selling all of his belongings because he had no money. He offered to sell us his necklace and to help him out, we bought it. When we arrived in Kyangin Gompa we met a man from Holland wearing a necklace much like the one we’d purchased on the track. It turns out he’d met the same Tibetan man with no money who was selling all his belongings. Looks like we both bought the same story and necklace!

The next few days we spent relaxing at Kyangin Gompa and sight seeing from our hotel room. We wandered out and around a bit, but it was quite cold and we were quite tired, so we weren’t game to wander too far. Still, the views were spectacular and well worth the effort of getting there.

The next couple of days were spent walking back down the way we’d come up to connect with the track that would take us to Gosain Kunda, a holy lake at 4,380 metres. Our first stop on the way to Gosain Kunda was Thulo Shryapru, a village reportedly with electricity and internet. Unfortunately when we were there, there wasn’t any electricity and hadn’t been any for days. Clearly no electricity means no internet, so it looked as if I was going to have to wait until we returned to Kathmandu to reconnect with the world.

From Thulo Shryapru (2,250 metres) we looked at the map to learn that we would wind our way up to Shin Gompa next (3,380 metres). All these mountains!

Another grueling day from Thulo Shryapru, walking up over 1.1 kilometres in one day. Because of the time we spent at Kyangin Gompa, the altitude isn’t troubling us too much, but we’re exhausted from so much walking and carrying our belongings on our backs. At Shin Gompa we decided to take another rest day. It’s so lovely and quiet in Shin Gompa, much quieter than much of the track up to now simply because we’re away from the roaring Langtang River. From here we can see the Langtang and Ganesh ranges.

One of the joys of travel for me is the food. You never quite know what you're going to get when you order and that's all part of the adventure. One night in Shin Gompa my husband was looking to order a bit of dessert. The menu said 'apple pancake with double egg' and he was thinking that meant a pancake with eggs blended in. Wasn't he disappointed when his apple pancake came out with two fried eggs on top?! 'What am I supposed to do with this' he wondered. . .

After a rest we made our way to Gosain Kunda.

Gosain Kunda was not to be the highest point of our trek – in order to start the descent back to Kathmandu, we first had to make it over Laurebina Pass, a whopping 3,610 metres. Mistakenly I thought that getting over the pass would be the most challenging part of day. The excitement of having made it so far and so high certainly did put a spring in my step for the first part of the day.

But the spring soon faded on the way down due to the steep drop and aching knees. The descent back into the low(er) lands was grueling, though refreshing at the same time. It was nice to get back down where the landscape of barren boulders has transformed into lush forests, but also nice to get back down to where I could breath!

Our first night on the descent back to civilization was spent at Gopte. I won't say that Gopte topped my list as favorite places: the guest house looked like it was thrown together and might fall apart anytime and the toilet was literally a hole in the ground with a platform built over it. Ewww. We had planned to take a rest day here, but decided that the From there we head even lower to Melamchigaon.

Peace, quiet and the Dalai Lama

4 March 2009 - 7 April 2009
Well, when I last wrote I was recovering from spending four days looking at a camel's backside and while it was a great adventure and very interesting, I was so glad when it was over. It was one of those experiences that was better to have done rather than be doing it.

Pushkar was our chosen place of recovery because of we'd heard from other travelers what a small, quiet place Pushkar is. To be honest, while it was small, it's absolutely not quiet and as most holy Hindu places in India, it's dirty, crowded and full of cows. As most tourist places in India, it's full of pushy Indians trying desparately to rip tourists off. In hindsight, not a great place to recover, but it did some good points. The guesthouse ownder, Ram, who gave us his house and the other guests at the hotel were a definite plus. It was nice to spend some time sitting around chatting to other foreigners and swapping stories of travel.

One day in Pushkar while I was walking down the street a gypsy woman said hello and dragged me into a chai shop. I'd had so few expereinces with Indian women (they're usually hidden away in their houses) that I didn't resist the opportunity to sit down and chat with one. Knowing I would need an out before I ended up going to this woman's house, adopting her children and bathing her mother, I informed her of a meeting with my husband that I had to leave for in 20 minutes. She immediately grabbed my hand and started to give me a henna tattoo (henna is a plant that is used in India to give temporary tattoos, some of which are absolutely beautiful). I'd been wanting a henna tattoo, so rather than pull my hand away, I let her continue. I watched first with interest and then with horror at what she was doing to my hand. By the time she'd finished, it looked like her henna pen had exploded all over my hand and forearm. Not for me the delicate swrils and flowers of the professionally done tattoo, no, I got the amateurs thick-lined, designed on the fly henna disaster. Thankfully it wasn't permanent and despite what she had done to me, I was feeling generous, so I bought her a chai and gave her 50 rupees (the henna pen costs 5 rupees). She said 'no, chappati flour'. I thought, okay, woman wants food, I can do that. So I let her drag me halfway across town to buy flour. We walked up to a shop and she had an exchange with the shop owner. He went to the back and returned with a bag of flour big enough to make a year's supply of chappati. I asked how much and was informed 150 rupees. I laughed and said 'no way'. She shrugged and said 'okay, you give me 100 rupees'. I gave her the original 50 rupees and walked off, annoyed that my initial generosity wasn't enough and she tried to push for more. You would think that by now I'd have stopped being offended and surprised, but what can I say, I am eternally, naively optimistic about human nature.

Rohan also had an experience with the gypsy women of Pushkar. He was walking down the street and was approached by two made up Gypsy women. He was as surprised as I was to be approached by an Indian woman. One of them took his hand and asked if he wanted 'something'. He took his hand back, politely answered 'no' and walked on. Later he found out that 'something' could've been anyhting from a henna tattoo, to hash or opium, sex. He was lucky to escape with just a handshake.

We left Pushkar and Rajasthan to head north, with the hope of finding cleaner surroundings and quieter airways. On the first train from Ajmer to Delhi I got my shoes repaired. The man wanted to charge me 15 rupees, but he'd offered such a vaulable service I have him 50 rupees and made his day. The train stopped at Jaipur and hawkers got on. One beggar approached Rohan and Ro gave him one rupee (it was the only little money he had on him). The beggar looked horrified. 'One rupee?! No sir, give me ten'. So Rohan took the one rupee back and turned to stare out the window. Even the other Indians around Rohan were a bit surprised, but you should never look a gift horse in the mouth. One rupee isn't a lot of money, but a few more of those and the beggar had a meal. It seemed quite cheeky for him to demand more.

Begging in India is often an organised racket. Poor boys, men, girls and women are organised by a 'pimp' who feeds and houses them and takes their earnings in return. The pimp may maime or disfigure them so they earn more money because of the sympathy a cripple receives. Women give their children cigarette burns to try to get sympathy by showing that their child has wounds and needs medicine and milk. The unwitting tourist gets taken to the pharmacy where they cough up for milk or medicine, which can run anywhere from 200 to 800 rupees. Then when the tourist walks away, the beggar brings back the medicine or milk, the shop gives her 80% of the money and keeps 20% and the milk or medicine for himself and the tourist walks away thinking they've helped save some baby, when all they've really done is further encourage begging. Beggars even fly from Delhi to the norht to take advantage of the tourist season; only the tourists take the bus. What can one do to actually help? Because there's no doubt that there are supremely destitute and wretched people who are genuinely in need. To tell you the truth, I don't know. The moral dilemma of being a 'rich' westerner who actually wants to help without causing more harm is one I continue to struggle with. The sometimes crushing Western guilt is something I think many who travel India (and other nations like it struggle with. But look at me complaining about Western guilt, at least I get a clean roof over my head, clean water to drink and clean food to eat.

After 30 hours of travel we pulled up in Mcleod Ganj, home of the Tibetan Government in exile. It's a beautiful place with the Himalaya serving as the background. The population there is mostly Tibetan, with some Indians and a smattering of expats thrown in the mixture. It was the calmest place we'd been in a while.

On the first morning in Mcleod Ganj I was having some breakfast and asked a monk who was sitting in the cafe where I could register for the upcoming teaching given by the Dalai Lama. He said he was waiting for a friend and then he would show me. We ended up spending the rest of the day with Tashi and Tenzin, two monks who fled Tibet nine years ago in order to receive a Tibetan education, as opposed to an expensive Chinese education or none at all. They escaped Tibet by foot by when Tenzin was 12 and Tashi was 16. At one point, two days walk from the Tibet-India border a blizzard hit. Tenzin's sunglasses had broken and he was rendered snow blind by the blizzard. Tashi held his hand and walked him to the border and to safety. When I was 12 I was worried about wearing the latest fashion and was crushed when I could only get one pair of Guess jeans. The stories of so many of the Tibetan refugees sure do put life into a different perspective.

While we were in Mcleod Ganj, the 50 year anniversary of the Chinese Government invading Tibet was observed. There were peaceful protests and hunger strikes. It is also one of the times of the year that the Dalai Lama gives a teaching on some part of Buddhist scriptures. The teaching is aimed at Buddhist (not like some of the Dalai Lama's speeches given in the West), but even for Rohan and I it was interesting to listen to. The opportunity to see the Dalai Lama's glowing, smiling face was really memorable. Even though he is over 70 years old, his smile and face look like that of a cheeky five year old.

We decided we should explore the surrounds since there were so many mountains around just begging to be climbed. One morning we set off up the mountain towards one of the peaks called Triund. After an hour and a half we reached a tea shop and decided to stop for a cup of chai. It's a good thing we stopped when we did because an almighty storm descended on us. When the rain and hail stopped and we were packing up to get down the mountain before it started again, we saw this very sad donkey. Half of his face was practically rotting off with infection. Both Ro and I felt horrible for the poor thing, but didn't really think there was much we could do for it.

The next morning at breakfast, these people approached us to tell us about an animal welfare clinic in the nearby town of Dharamsala. We told them about the donkey and they said that if Rohan could lead them to it, they'd send up the volunteer vet to have a look at it. Rohan made his way up the mountain after breakfast and found where the donkey lived. He spent the next six days trekking up the mountain with an Englishman we'd met named Jim. Rohan paid for antibiotics, bandages, hydrogen peroxide and anti-septic cream and Jim and he spent five days cleaning the donkeys face and injecting it with antiobiotics. When we left Mcleod the donkey was looking much better, but still needed further treatment, so Jim and Rohan paid the animal clinic to continue treatment and with any luck the donkey will be healthy in no time.

Apart from eating, hanging out with some cool people whom we'd met either in Mcleod or in other parts of India, relaxing and curing donkeys we didn't do much else there. I took on a couple of Tibetan students for a couple weeks of conversational English classes. After a month we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Mcleod.

First stop after Mcleod as Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple is the Sikh Temple, similiar to the Vatican for Catholics. And it is beautiful. It boasts to be made of 750 kilograms of gold and was built five hundred years ago. It's open 24 hours, 365 days a year and is serving free food (suggested donation) all the time. The day we ate there we had rice, dahl, vegetable and paneer curry and some kind of deep fried sweet treats. It was delicious.

Amritsar is 30 kilometres from the only Pakistan-India order entry point. Every day before sunset they have a ceremony where they close the border for the day and lower the countries flags. Neither will lower theirs first, so they have to do it at exactly the same time. Leading up to the flag lowering, there is much pomp and ceremony. It felt like a sports match! Each side is blaring music and attempting to out-do the other side. Pakistan is shouting something to effect of 'Pakistan is the best' and India's shouting something similiar about their country. And there are so many people on the Indian side! Thousands of Indians are sitting around cheering for how great their country is. Some girls got even up and were dancing to show how good India is! Both sides have soldiers who stomp around, glare at each other and attempt to show their superiority. Frankly, they all look a little silly. At the end of it all, the flags are lowered, both sides shake hands with each other and the gates are shut until tomorrow when it will happen all over again. It's a rather odd event, but it's hard not to get sweptup in the excitement of it all.

We celebrated Rohan's birthday in Amritsar with Jim. We had a few beers and some Tandoori Chicken (Sikhs eat meat and since Amritsar is the Sikh capital, we figured we'd be alright).

After a few days in Amritsar, we headed to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Agra itself is as dirty and foul as any big city, but so many people go there to see the Taj. It is really amazing, but after seeing the Taj, we were out of there.

Next stop, Delhi. Some friends we'd met a couple of times in India and spent lots of time with in Mcleod were also in Delhi, so they reserved us a room and we spent out last night in India there. The room was probably the nicest we'd stayed in, with all the things that probably sound normal to folks back home, but here are deadset luxuries: hot shower, clean room, soap, towels, clean sheets and a television. We scrubbed off the dirt of another long train ride in India (our last for the trip), ordered room service and spent our last night relaxing in style.

So, we made it through three and a half months in India. We're both about ten kilos lighter than the last time we saw many of you because of a variety of stomach bugs we've suffered through. We're tired and we're ready for a break from India, but I have to say that I really did enjoy myself there. It was easily the most difficult place I have travelled, but there are so many bright sparkly moment that stand out from the dark times. I've realised new dark depths of myself that I never really knew existed, but I've also glimpsed a better side that can be kind to people even in the face of stress and adversity. At Indian immigration as we were leaving to go to Kathmandu, the immigration man decided to start a discussion with me about the importance of a positive outlook on life. He said if you look for the good, you'll find it and if you look for the bad, you'll find that too. Then looking meaningfully in my eyes he said 'Madam, you are the kind of person who finds the positive and so I think your life will be happy.' That moment as I was leaving somehow sums up what I like about India.

Well, our next adventure is in Nepal. We're heading up into the mountains for three weeks, so no doubt you'll all hear from me when I get back!


17 February 2009 - 3 March 2009
So, we made the train trip north from Mumbai to Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The overnight train was a bit noisier this time around due to some passengers that got on the train around 11:00 pm (we got on around 4:00pm). Despite the fact that everyone's seat numbers are clearly printed on each ticket and the seats are clearly labelled, the most recent arrivals to our car couldn't seem to sort out where they were supposed to be sitting. The arguing and yelling stretched across the car and pulled Ro and I out of a deep slumber. By the time they'd finished arguing we were completely awake and totally annoyed. What did they all do then? Settle quickly into a farting, snoring sleep that successfully prevented us from doing the same.

Our arrival into Jodhpur saw us accompanied by another well meaning, bossy Indian who was determined to tell us where to go and how to get there. We shook him off and found the man from the hotel we'd booked holding a sign with 'Rohan' written on it. Is there a more comforting sight after on overnight train in India? If there is, I can't rightly think of it. This man put us in a rickshaw and told us to pay the driver 40 Rs upon arrival. We'd been told the pick-up was free and we shared this with our man. With no argument he said 'okay' and sent us on our way. Another 40 Rs saved!

When we'd booked the hotel we'd asked for an inexpensive room. The 650 Rs we were quoted seemed a bit expensive, but it was the cheapest we'd been able to find through research and we wanted somewhere to go after an overnight train ride. Upon arrival there and after a rest we got up and headed out to search out somewhere a bit more budget friendly. We found a good place for 200 Rs and decided we'd move there. When checking out the next day they asked us where we were headed. They pushed us until we told them the hotel we were going to. We told them we'd found a room twice as big, quieter and for half the price, with a view of Mehrangarh Fort from our window. They informed us that they had cheaper rooms they could move us to. Hmm, would've been nice to know about those cheaper rooms from the get go. We decided to go with the hotel that was giving a fair price first up, not only when threatened with losing business. If you're ever in Jodhpur, may I recommened Achar Newas? The rooms are spacious and cheap and the view is spectacular. The people who run the place don't speak enough English to pester you with sales pitches or invasive questioning, yet are kind and pleasant to deal with.

Jodhpur is a spectacular city. It is also referred to as the Blue City because the houses are washed in paint that has indigo in it - this is supposed to keep the buildings cool and act as an insect repellent. It certainly does make the place pretty to look at!

One of the major attractions of Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh Fort. We made our way through the back alleys to try and find it. The fort itself is pretty amazing, particularly a royal room devoted to sensual pleasure with a ceiling carved of gold. The view from the ramparts was pretty spectacular. The hand carved marble screens within the palace were impressive; they were used so women could see what was happening in the court without being exposed to the lustful gaze of men. There was an idol in the museum women prayed to for long life for their husbands. This isn't as selfless as it might sound: the practise of sati (a woman throwing herself on her husband's burning funeral pyre, thereby burning to death and joining her husband in the afterlife) was not uncommon practise. After all, what is a woman's life worth without her husband's dirty underwear to wash?! Sati still happens in rural villages, mostly in Rajasthan.

While sati is no longer widely practised, women seem to have a far inferior role in much of Indian society, though there are laws attempting to reverse this. In the north, most women cover their heads with dupattas and many cover their faces as well. Predominantly boys are favoured for education, food, and sometimes even life, as female infanticide still happens, mainly in the rural areas. On the streets, men are far more prevalent and visible; they greatly outnumber the number of women. Women dress quite conservatively everywhere bar the big cities and even there they dress extremely tamely when compared to the west (a really daring outfit might include fitted jeans and a loosely fitted t-shirt, oh the immodesty!). Like I mentioned, there are a whole slew of laws attempting to change the status and rights of women, but with a civilisation as old as India's, change is slow to come.

We were meandering through the streets of Jodhpur when a man pulled up on a motorcycle and stopped in front of us. 'Be careful around here. You are in much danger. People here attack you. This your problem.' Then he drove away. This news might have been exceptionally unsettling except that Indians are always warning us against them: 'People from (insert city, state, geographical locality, etc.) will cheat you'. This said by a person from a city or state you've just come from and where undoubtedly we'd either been cheated in or there's been attempted cheating.

Not long after our warning, this crazy little man popped out of his house with an exuberant 'Hello!'. He invited us in for tea and since his whole family was there inviting us in, we felt fairly safe. He proceeded to feed us tea, entertain us, and send us on our way.

Jodhpur is a lovely city. The scenery looks so Indian, so much what I pictured India would look like. There's an incredible temple we climbed up ladder after ladder to get to because it's perched on top of a massive rock. The view from in between the rocks holding the temple up is pretty special. Jodhpur has palaces, a fort, a clock tower that the market gathers around, where camels and elephants are seen along with cars and rickshaws.

From Jodhpur we bussed or way to Ossian, a small village about an hour and a half away. As with much of our trip, we knew little to nothing about where were going and when the bus dropped us in the middle of this po-dunk village where no one seemed to speak any English or be the slightest bit interested in helping us, we were wondering if this time we'd stuffed up. Luckily, a priest from one of the local temples showed us to the tourist guest house. The very helpful man at Ossian Guest House, who also runs the town's Jain Temple gave us a room and sold us a three-day camel trek, heading towards Pushkar, our next destination.

So, we found ourselves packing up the next morning and heading out into the desert in the back of a camel cart.

For lunch we stopped at a hut and lunched with some desert men. Once we'd finished lunch the men got out some mystery herb, mixed it with water, filtered the water and insisted we drink it. Not knowing if we were going to get high or diarrhoea (or both), we drank it so as not to offend. It didn't appear to have any immediate effects.

Our next stop was for afternoon tea, where we were served and drank tea with camel's milk in it. We also witnessed our camel man, Dunshing, drink milk fresh from a camel's udder. After we'd packed up and headed off from afternoon tea and after about thirty metres, the camel man pulled over, hopped out, hid behind the cart we were sitting in and did his 'business' so to speak, with us fully in ear shot.

We set up camp for the night and broke our non-drinking fast by sharing a bottle of Old Monk rum with Dunshing. We were hoping the rum would help us sleep in the too-small camel cart, but for me unfortunately the rum was of no assistance. Getting up in the morning after having frozen and tossed and turned all night, we peeked out from beneath our blankets to see that we had an audience. In good humour we shared our fruit with the family who'd so patiently waited for us to get up so they could watch our every move.

Speaking of audiences, every where we went on the trek we had observers. Every house we went by, every village, every shop , temple or school. Some wanted to chat, others wanted 'one pen', some wanted photos and yet others just wanted to have a really good, solid stare with no interaction. Both Rohan and I were generous with our conversation and provision of entertainment. The constant audience gets tiresome, but getting annoyed or ignoring them is more tiresome and only makes us feel worse. So, I generally say 'hello' and even attempt interaction, even though that provides untold amusement and is met by children and adults alike falling into helpless giggles. On the bright side, I've never been so effortlessly funny in my life!

On day two of the camel trek we stopped for lunch with Dunshing's aunt. There were were subjected to yet another round of 'Gather Round and Stare'. At one point I found myself with three women, one child and five men all sitting on the floor in front of me, as if I were their grade school teacher or something. I wasn't talking, I was just sitting, but let me assure you, it was fascinating! One of my 'pupils', the leering 18 year old one, was somehow nominated to make the rest of the journey with us as our cook and our interpreter (Dunshing speaks a sum total of about 15 words of English; still more than my Hindi or Rajasthani). Unfortunately our new joiner neither spoke English or knew how to cook. His one talent seemed to be leering at me, so neither Ro nor I was thrilled about this boy joining us. Fortunately after an or so he hopped off the cart with no explanation and walked off into the desert. Good riddance!

Night two of the camel trek we settled in with some more Old Monk. Rohan must've consumed a bit too much of the ole' rum because when he attempted to stand up and head to bed, he fell over and landed smack bang on his dirty dinner plate. The next morning he didn't remember going to bed or asking repeatedly for the torch and water, even though he had both in his possession. He did however remember being pulled out his drunken sleep by a Hindi festival in the middle of the desert that started at 12:30. He doesn't remember how late it went because he fell back asleep, but unfortunately I didn't have the same luxury and laid awake until well after the festival finished (3:00am!!!).

The next morning saw us facing our typical studio audience. From the moment our heads popped out of our sleeping bags until the moment we were packed up and ready to go we had a minimum of eight eyes on us. Somehow word always seems to get around that there are foreigners camping and packing their bags, so our audience would grow. The point of camping and trekking was to get away from it all, but by removing four walls and a lockable door, we'd placed ourselves smack-bang in the middle of it. And as a woman, I'm such a novelty out there! You don't see many women around, certainly not in the village centres and absolutely not wandering further than the well from home. On the third morning camel man shared with our audience the fact that I was drinking alcohol the night before and the audience (all men) were visibly shocked. One man was so shocked, yet managed to ask 'You. . . drinking. . .?', as if that could quite possibly be the most preposterous thing he'd ever heard. 'Yes', I admitted, feeling slightly chagrined despite myself. After my shameful confession, I attempted to justify my behaviour by explaining that where I come from, both men and women drink. I would love to have been able to explain that women are treated almost the same as men (yes, there still is sexism in the west, but now's not the time to go into it. After being in India for over two months, I am so appreciative of my freedom in the West) - we can wear, drink and eat whatever we want to. We can go wherever, whenever we want. We can choose to remain unmarried and we don't necessarily have to have children, whether married or not. But how does one explain this to a group of men who speak no English? And even if there was no language barrier, how does one overcome the cultural differences and understanding? Women's lib has hardly touched India and it's yet to be seen in rural Rajasthan. What a strange creature I must be to them.

By the final day of the camel trek I'd resorted to covering my face an attempt to reduce the staring. I can't say it worked. In fact it just made them stare harder and longer to try to figure out what my face looked like. What does it say about the men of a place when women can't even show their faces. . .

The final day saw us making our way to Bawari, where we'd planned to take the bus the rest of the way to Pushkar. There was a town meeting called to discuss, argue and shout about the best way for us to get to Pushkar. We ended up taking the bus route that looked shortest on the map. What should've been a three or four bus trip ended up taking seven, dusty, hot hours over back 'roads'. We arrived in Pushkar so shattered and so tired, but the place we checked into had hot shots and seemed quiet enough. We were both planning on eating some dinner and hitting the hay early.

As we sat down to order dinner, some drums started up next door. And not your teenager practising for her or his rock band, this was some seriously loud and committed drumming coming from directly next door. We asked the hotel man what was going on. He explained that wedding preparations that had been going on for the past four days had finally come together for the last and final night before the wedding. Both Rohan and I were desperate for some sleep and the celebrations were expected to shake the local area (including our hotel room just next door) until two or three in the morning. Thankfully we looked so desperate that the hotel man offered us his house to sleep in for the night. The house turned out to be quiet and dark and provided us with one of the best night's sleep we've had since being in India.

We leave Pushkar tomorrow to head north to Himachal Pradesh. Another overnight train will see us arriving in Dharmasala, where the Dalai Llama is supposed to be giving a teaching on 11 March. We're both quite excited about getting north where it's supposed to be cleaner and a bit more chilled out than where we've been.


2 February 2009 - 16 February 2009
We made the journey from Hampi to Yoga Vidya Dham Ashram in Nashik and by the time the 36 hour journey was over, we needed the entire 10 days of yoga and relaxation just to recover! We took a boat, bus, rickshaw, train, rickshaw, train, rickshaw and taxi to get there. Between the two train rides, we had eight hours at a train station in Mumbai, from 5:00am until 1:00pm. Killing eight hours after having spent the previous night sleeping on a train is never what I can a good time and doing this at a Mumbai train station is my new definition of hell on Earth. First off, it's dark and there are rats. Then you notice all the people and the dogs sleeping at and around the station. You take a closer look at the tracks and notice that people have chosen to ignore the sign in the train toilet that says 'Please do not use toilet whilst the train is stopped at stations' (the toilet is a mere hole in the bottom of the train, though at least it comes with a door and a hand sink. . .). Then you're sitting at the station and someone starts screaming 'Police, police, police'. The police come along with their bamboo sticks, give some guy a good whack and then drag him off. And as if all this wasn't enough, you walk outside, past a man just standing there amongst the hustle and bustle. There's something not quite right about this man. Is his hand down his pants?! Why yes, yes it is. Is he. . .?! In the train station, with all these people around, is he really. . .?! Yes, yes he is. Hmm, okay, keep walking.

We found our way to an internet cafe to kill time and escape the train station. It wasn't open when we arrived so we loitered out the front. While we were waiting, this old woman approached us: 'What are you doing?' she demanded. 'We're waiting for the internet cafe to open' was our answer. 'Come to my house, take tea' she says and quickly scurries away. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and hurriedly grabbed our rucksacks and followed this little old Indian woman. She arrived at her apartment building, ushered us in and sat us down. Her grandsom sat and chatted with us while Grandma made us tea. Mom got out of the shower and got the surprise of two filthy foreigners (we were covered in dust and India from the overnight train) sitting in her living room, drinking her tea. She took it very well and insisted that we eat breakfast. She made us dosas (a food similiar to crepes). They then took our photo, we took theirs and we all carried on with our respective days.

Finally we made it to Nashik, to the main office of the yoga ashram. From there we piled into a taxi with five women from the ashram who'd just finished their 30 day yoga teacher training course. They were hyped up on their first cups of tea in a month and overly excited about a Bollywood film they'd just seen. They put on some Bollywood music, cranked it up full blast and proceeded to talk and laugh over the music for the entire 40 minute taxi ride to ashram. Luckily once we arrived at the ashram, both peace and dinner were waiting for us. So, life in the ashram. The rules include getting up at 6:00am, doing yoga for an hour and a half twice a day, meditating, chanting and eating healthy food. No drinking, smoking, drugs, meat, sex, talking during meals, caffeine, chocolate, chilli, television or internet and only about an hour or two a day to yourself. The food is all very fresh and quite tasty once we adjusted to the lack of chilli, pepper, cheese and spice (and for me who puts Tabasco or chilli sauce on everything that holds still long enough, this took some getting used to). The yoga, chanting and meditation has left me feeling quite strong and refreshed. The chanting was great, but I have to admit, on the first Saturday night we were there when we chanted a particular mantra 108 times and then danced around the hall chanting, I did think to myself, 'Wow, if the people back home could see, they would be a bit worried about me. . .'. Overall, after 10 days of eating clean, healthy food, doing yoga, spending my spare time sleeping, reading, writing or walking around enjoying the scenery, I feel really good. The peace and quiet and settling down was wonderful!

Life in ashram was pretty close to ideal, after the initial settling in and detoxing from caffeine, sugar, etc. When we first arrived there was a group of people who had just finished 30 days and were in really high spirits. They didn't fit the 'yoga wanker' stereotype - you the know the ones who carry on about chakras and the healing power of purple in an attempt to loard it over you how very enlightened they are. The people who were there when we arrived were all really down to Earth and friendly. We spent a few days with them and then the next batch of people showed up. A fair few of them were yoga princesses, wearing carefully selected 'yoga outfits' complete with flowing scarves and perfectly matched jewelled bindis (the thing Indians place on their foreheads). These princesses pray before they eat with their hands hovering over their food, thanking the plants for sharing their energy. This practice is to help them develop their compassion. Meanwhile, they ignore the crying stray kitten that has chosen the ashram as home who just wants a bit of food. Don't get me wrong, the idea of giving thanks is great and so is the idea of developing compassion, but on kitten ignoring princesses the whole thing comes across as an act to show everyone at the ashram how 'enlightened' they are.

So, we finished 10 days at the ashram and we're both feeling all the better for it. Has it changed our lives in some miraculous way? I don't think so, but it has helped strengthen my resolve to take better care of myself. Did I achieve inner peace? No, but perhaps I got a glimpse of it and some hints on how to reduce stress and remain calm; skills I know will come in handy, particularly over the next few months of traveling!

As a matter of fact, those skills have already come in handy since leaving the ashram. We left and headed to Mumbai where we have a train north to Rajasthan. To get from Nashik to Mumbai we took a passenger train. It wasn't as mad as we'd expected, but what should have been a three hours journey took five and a half hours because the train stopped at every station along the way and in some places that weren't even stations. It was alright though, we met a very nice guy who chatted with us a good portion of the way. When the train pulled into our station he got off with us and ensured we were safely settled into our hotel room before he headed off to start work (he works for an American call centre collecting debt - some of you back home have maybe spoken to him:)

The next day we headed to Borivali, an area closer to the train station that will take us to Rajasthan. After going from hotel to hotel, each one assuring us they were full even though the wall behind them had numerous room keys on it (I suspect that since the Mumbai attacks they don't want foreigners staying there. The hotel the night before had to ring the owner to obtain permission for foreigners to stay), we found an over-priced but nice, clean place to spend the night.

We thought something nice to do in Mumbai would be to go to Sanjay National Park to have a look around some caves we'd read about located within. We got to the admission gate and inquired about a bus to take us the seven kilometres to the caves. The government employee behind the counter informed us that there is no bus and rickshaws aren't allowed in the park. We shrugged and walked off to stroll around the park. We got about two metres from the front gate and a man walked up to us offering us a tourist taxi to the caves for 850 rupees (the bus costs 20 rupees). We laughed at him and said 'no way' and kept walking. Another Indian man approached us and told us he'd lead us to the bus. What?! But we were just told by the government employee at the admission desk that there is no bus??? Ahh, the government employee and the tourist taxi driver are in cahoots. Of course.

We got the bus to the caves, with only about twenty or thirty minutes until the caves closed. The price to get in was 20 times more expensive for foreigners than Indians. We asked if we could have reduced rate since there was only 20 minutes until the caves closed. The government employee behind this particular admission desk assured us that there was no way they could bend the rules. Rohan and I were quite annoyed at this point about how we were being treated as tourists, so we had a good whinge to the bus driver. He walked up the gate, negotiated with the man behind the counter and got us in for 100 rupees for both of us (half the price). What they did was issue us two Indian tickets and split the difference between themselves. So much for not being about to break the rules. . . We spent 20 minutes viewing the caves, which were pretty amazing. It would have been nice to have more time, but oh well.

After the caves we had some dinner and wandered around the night markets of Mumbai. The sheer number of people in the Mumbai area just baffles the mind.

Next stop, Rajasthan!

Incredible India

25 January 2009 - 2 February 2009
Last time I wrote was from Go Karna. The week in a comfortable roomat Kudle Beach was a nice break from traveling. It as nice to unpack our clothes, toiletries and bits and bobs, put them in a place and not pack them up the following morning. The beach was nice and the restaurants served good food (though avoid the salads - I got food poisoning again and this was by far the worst case yet. Not to worry though, I've learned two lessons from my forays in food land India: 1) when food poisoning strikes, STOP eating and 2) stick to what your mind knows is safe, not what your nose or eyes says might be good. I am now finally curbing my natural love for ALL food (all food, excepting beets) and confining my enjoyment of food to cooked, vegetarian foo - as I said in I would before leaving Aus, before cravings for kebabs or salad led me astray). It was nice to settle down in one place for a week, especially a place as nice and relaxing as Go Karna. I love to travel, but sometimes a rest is necessary.

We left Go Karna to make our way to Hampi. We took a rickshaw (please note when I say rickshaw, I mean an auto-rickshaw, not the bicycle rickshaw, which doesn't settle well with me) and a local bus to Ankola, a po-dunk Indian village, that to put it nicely, is a bit of a hole. We rented a room for a couple of hours to store our bags while we waited for our bus. After killing three hours playing celebrities, we headed back to our room to brush our teeth, wash our faces and ready ourselves for the overnight bus to Hampi. We flipped on the light to our room, walked in and a rat the size of Penny (for those of you who don't know Penny, she is our cat who is currently enjoying a holiday at Rancho Relaxo chez Sam Durham) went scurrying from the bed, where one can only assume it was resting quite comfortably nestled in my beautiful, hand-woven cotton scarf (now currently being disinfected). Thank God (or Ganesha, Allah, Jesus, pick a deity) we didn't have to spend the night there!

We had booked our bus ticket on an overnight 'sleeper bus' but when we got on the bus, there was some confusion about whether we'd booked the sleeper or seats, whether there was one or two of us, whether we were together or not and where our bags should be stored. Perhaps we were the first people to ever get an overnight bus. . . Anyway, we settled into our beds and faded in and out of consciousness for the eight hours to Hampi. At one point in the middle of the night we pulled over for a toilet break. I disembarked the bus and foolishly expected something along the lines of an Aussie or American 'rest stop.' I suppose where we were could be called a rest stop, but it looked an awful lot like someone's front yard. The boys just went wherever (as boys are luckily enough to be able to do) and the girls walked into this poor person's yards, behind their front gate for cover and did their business there. What else is a girl to do? Demand a toilet, hand sink, paper towels and anti-bacterial soap? Good luck!

At around 8:00am we pulled into Hampi, quite disoriented, having spent the night not exactly sleeping, but not entirely awake either. We stumbled off the bus, sure we wanted to head to the other side of the river to find a guest house, but not sure where the river was. We asked a rickshaw driver to take us there and he quoted 50 rupees each. As we didn't know how far the river was and because the bus quite frequently drops you miles away from where you want to go, we said okay. We drove about five hundred metres and the river came into sight. Two hundred metres more and the rickshaw stopped and the driver indicated for us to get out. This ride is worth about 10 rupees, not the quoted 100, and had we known how close the river was, we would've walked. When we got out, I handed him 20 rupees, which is still twice what he should've gotten. He started yelling and waving his arms at me and was very angry. What I should've done is told him if he's not happy with the 20 rupees, we could consult the police and see what they think is fair. This is not, however, what I did. Rohan said, 'Give him 50 rupees and he'll go away' and so I did and he did.

We walked down the stairs to the river, looked to the right and saw an elephant being led to the river for a bath. It turns out every sunrise and sunset the elephants from one of the temples are led to the river to be bathed. We then waded knee deep through the river to get into a boat that took us to the other side, where we found a bungalow, ate some breakfast and then passed out for a few hours. When we got up and strayed as far as the cafe ten metres away, there was a family of monkeys just down the hill from us. Between the view of temples, ruins, the river, monkeys and the rocks, we really felt like we were in INDIA.

Rohan really felt like he was in India. He had that special feeling that everyone gets in India; the special feeling that has already disabled me twice and has now struck Ro down once. Whether it was the long overnight bus ride or something he ate or both, he was not a well boy.

In addition to the monkeys hanging out near the cafe (and on our roof. . .), the wildlife of Hampi had more surprises in store for us! We were taking it easy so Rohan could recover, so we spent most of the first full day in Hampi hanging out at the cafe. I'd had several cups of tea and a bottle of water, so I went to our bungalow to use the toilet. I opened the door to our toilet and what should I find? I truly believe a picture speaks a thousands words, so here is what I found. Clearly I need to find another toilet.

We weren't sure what to do with our visitor or what kind of snake it was. We assumed it was a poisonous one, because the toad didn't appear to be crushed like a python might do. Turns out we were correct, it was a poisonous snake, a King Cobra. 75% of King Cobra bites result in death. We knew if we told the people who run the bungalows about the snake, they would kill it. We left it for an hour and it continued to swallow the toad. Then one of the guys from the cafe moved the pitcher that had been front of it. This pleased the snake none too much. It removed its mouth from the toad and very agitatedly moved and hid in the corner of the bathroom, coiled under the toilet. We left it there, hoping it would find its own way out. About an hour later we went back to check the bathroom and see if it'd left. Rohan cautiously looked around and with a stick lifted the lid of the toilet, where the very upset cobra was coiled. This is when we decided it was time to tell someone, so I got one of the Nepali waiters. He walked into our bathroom, quite calmly confirmed that yes, it was a cobra (we of course had figured this out because of the flared neck), got the 'snake stick', gave it one solid whack and that was the end of the snake. Neither Rohan nor I were happy about the snake being killed, but it also wasn't a desirable option to have an angry cobra roaming around the neighbourhood. To say the least, we now search our room thoroughly when we enter it.

The next day we took it fairly easy. One of the great things about Hampi is that it is so beautiful and so full of temples and incredible scenery, that you don't have to go far or do much to enjoy yourself. At sunset I climbed up to the monkey temple. What a view! The next day we wandered through some ruins of a now dead city that was built in 1534. It felt like something out of Indiana Jones, with secret tunnels and caves included!

Tomorrow we will make a move north. We'll leave Hampi at 8:00am tomorrow and arrive at our destination the following day at 3:00pm (assuming there are no delays). We'll take a boat, rickshaw, bus, train and then probably another rickshaw or bus to get there. Once we arrive, we'll check into a yoga ashram for 10 days - no drinking, smoking or meat allowed. We will rise at 5:30am every day and spend the days meditating and doing yoga. There is no talking during meal times and we're required to attend all yoga and lecture sessions. It should be interesting!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Happy New Year

25 December 2008 - 6 January 2009
Happy New Year! I know I can speak for many of you when I say that it is good to see the other side of 2008. It was a tough year, but 2009 is upon us and with it, all the fresh opportunity offered up by a new year. As for new years' resolutions? Well, this year I'm working on 'inner peace'. Some of you may wonder about the likelihood or perhaps sanity of attempting to cultivate inner peace in the noisiest country in the world. I reckon if I don't work on it, I just might go mad :) If I can cultivate it here, I'll be set anywhere else in the world I go. An Indian, Deepak, I was speaking to said 'in the West you work on alleviating noise on the outside. In India, we work on alleviating noise on the inside' (perhaps that's because the reality of ridding India of outside noise is an impossibility, still, it's a nice sentiment).

Such an interesting place India, full of contrasts. For example, the rich and the poor. A labourer can be expected to work a 12 hour day shovelling rocks and gravel in the boiling heat for 60 rupees a day (about $1.25 USD). That would hardly be enough for him to feed himself, let alone for him to feed a family, pay rent, buy firewood or gas or any of the other basic necessities. The man who is paying him, of course he makes plenty, but still only pays the labourer pittance.

More contrasts: you have the smells of jasmine, cardamom and sandalwood competing with vomit, urine and faeces (and frequently losing the battle); the beautiful surrounds (ocean front, tea fields, etc) covered with rubbish. The list could go on.

We were in Munnar for about a week. After the cities of Ernakulum and Bangalore, both Rohan and I were seeking somewhere a bit more peaceful. As we rode the bus into Munnar, with it's rolling green hills and mountains, tea fields and rivers, we thought we'd found heaven. Christmas and New Years are busy times in India for tourism (westerners and Indians alike) and we were lucky to get a quaint little cottage in the hills. Unfortunately we could only stay one night - this might help explain why. We moved to Old Munnar, where I was struck down with the cold Rohan had been battling with since we arrived in India. It was the worst cold or sickness I have had since I was a kid, complete with fever, oozy ear infection, sore throat and coughing. Fortunately it's nearly better, though I still can't hear properly.

Despite the cold, the week in Munnar was good. The surrounds were beautiful and with the tea fields all around, there were stacks of places to go wandering around. One day we were out walking through the hills and we saw a temple up a hill. Temples are EVERYWHERE, but they are all different, so we walked to it. It bordered a few small houses, so we headed towards them. Down the path there were two women who were watching a small snake. They beat the snake to death (none of Gandhi's non-violence there) and then wanted us to photograph the. They then invited us into their home for tea . The owner of the house wanted to show off her television, so she turned it on and found the only English speaking show: WWF Smackdown! A bit of a surreal moment, sitting in a small house (comparable to a small studio apartment) in the tea fields of southern India with three old ladies watching Smackdown!

After Munnar we moved south to Kumily. We expected Kumily to be a small, quiet village bordering Periyar National Park. Unbeknownst to us, a massive number of bare-footed, sarong wearing, shirtless pilgrims had recently alighted on Kumily.

Kumily was very nice, but we got out the map of India and looked how far north we are hoping to head (Jaisalpur) and decided we should move on (if you're interested, look on google maps and see how far it is from Kumily to Jaisalpur), so we took yet another hair-raising, horn-honking bus trip with a suicidal bus driver - this time to Allepy. The main attraction in Allepy is the backwaters and the house boats . The house boat was beautiful and very relaxing.

After Allepy we took a train to Cochin, which is a bit of 'not India'; it's clean, it's quiet and it's not crowded. A few days here and I'm ready to get back out into India! Unfortunately, that is proving difficult as the trains are fully booked and the website to book the next available train hasn't been working the last couple of days. Oh well, we'll get moving soon.

The Journey Continues

7 January 2009 - 24 January 2009
In our haste to get moving from Cochin we booked and paid for a bus to Mangalore on the advice from a fellow traveler that it was a six hour bus ride. Perhaps we should've known that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Upon arriving at the bus station we were informed that it was a 12 hour bus ride, arriving at 6:30 in the morning. Thankfully the 12 hours wasn't too bad, despite the road that wasn't always paved (though it is the main highway running up the west coast) and when it was paved, it still had pot holes big enough to lose a cow in. We arrived in Mangalore after a nearly sleepless night and caught the bus straight to Moodbidri, a place known for it's 1,000 pillared Jain temple. We found a room, conked out for a few hours and when we woke up, we decided to head out to find this famous temple.

Moodbidri is a sweet little village. Because of its lack of tourists, the people are kind and genuinely interested in foreigners, instead of pretending interest as a way to siphon off as many rupees as possible from the (perceived) unending well of the Western wallet. Every temple we went into (which was a considerable number) a kind soul would self-nominate to be our guide. At the 1,000 pillared Jain temple a tiny little old man with false teeth and glasses showed us the uniquely carved pillars and in basic English explained the numerous gods and goddesses depicted. At the Devi temple (the goddess to whom you may pray for anything) our self-selected guide was a pudgy man with one wandering eye. He explained Devi to us, as well as the rituals of accepting offerings from the temple (a plate of smashed rice mixed with coconut and sugar and a cup of boiled, sweetened buttermilk to be taken at the temple after the devotional work of praying, dancing and chanting and a take away package to be eaten the next day of bananas, half a coconut, puffed rice and red coloured powder to be placed on one's third eye after praying). Our Devi guide then insisted we come to his house, meet his beautiful daughter and eat some chick pea curry dinner, which we happily did.

I don't know if it was the seemingly auspicious chicken kebab (auspicious, or so I thought, because I'd been craving a kebab) or what, but our first night in Moodbidri I was wrenched from peaceful slumber by the contents of my guts staging a mass exodus. The exodus was to continue throughout the next day, but I wasn't to be deterred from heading to Kodyadka, a nearly town with a Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) temple. The bus ride there helped raise my awareness of just how many people are in India. The 40 minutes ride was spent crushed between sari clad old women telling me to 'watch my person', a throng of Indian men and a Catholic nun. At the temple, in addition to another guide, this time a shirtless man with a grey afro and Coke-bottle glasses, we were also given a free feed (which didn't help my tummy), allowed to gaze at a massive statue of Hanuman (61 feet!!!) and watched a very talented elephant. Despite my being unwell, the elephant alone made the visit well worth it.

The next day, fortified with antibiotics and a lassi, we caught the bus to Udupi, one of the Tulu seven centres of salvation and home to a very famous Krishna temple. Upon arrival and after checking into our room, we headed out and wandered around the Krishna temple, then caught the bus to Malpe Beach. At the beach, Rohan was lucky enough to go for a swim. I suppose I could have joined him, but with a cast of thousands of curious, pervy and staring Indian men, I decided Malpe Beach wasn't ready for my string bikini. The few women at the beach were wading in the water up to their knees, but not a salwar kameez or sari was hiked up, just left to get wet rather than expose the oh-so-sexy ankles or calves. When Ro finishd his swim, we had a couple of beers (the luxury of this must be understood within the context that in Kerala, drinking is a sinful thing, only to be done quickly in bars with blacked out windows, on filthy tables and closed-in private booths, leaving one feeling like she's really rubbing elbows with the dirty underbelly of society). After a couple of beers, we walked down the beach and watched the sunset, then met a Danish guy motorcycling around India for four weeks. We chatted with him, shared dinner and a bit of his Jagermeister. Before we knew it, it was 11:00 and Rohan and I gathered ourselves together to make the 9 kilometres back to Udupi and our hotel. What we'd lost sight of was that in the India we've seen thus far, everything shuts up and closes down after 10:00pm. Unfortunately this includes all forms of transport apart from privately owned and operated vehicles, of which there are few in a small beach town. While the romance of sleeping on the beach was appealing, the reality of mangey packs of dogs and the potential of getting mugged made the situation somewhat less that ideal. Fortunately as we were discussing our options, our saviours pulled up in the form of two guys riding motorcycles headed for Udupi. A moonlit, pleasantly warm, flower scented, palm tree lined motorcycle saw us safely delivered to the doorstep of our hotel.

No matter where we've gone in India (apart from where we are now and Cochin), we seem to have celebrity status. Be in a touristy place or not, we get stared at, giggled about and questioned incessantly. This has advantages in that we are well taken care of by people (even when we don't necessarily want to be) and treated kindly, but as with every wilver lining, there's a cloud: we answer the same 20 questions between 10-20 times a day, everything we do in public, be that washing our hands, drinking water, eating or even breathing, is closely scrutinised and anonymity is an impossibility. To combat this cloud, Rohan and I have come up wit a brilliant idea (currently under patent) that no foreigner in Asia should be without: the Foreigner's Collector Card. It's like a business card crossed with an auto-graphed photo. This way, those who stare have something to gaze at long after the foreigner has gone, those who have questions may get all the info they desire and those who wish to be photographed with the foreigner will be directed to a URL where they can photo-shop themselves into a photo. The biographical information will include such items as the foreigners good name, marital status, likes and dislikes. It can be altered to suit the Asian country you are traveling to, but along with passport, money, antibiotics and camera, you should leave home without them.

After Udupi we headed to Kollur, a small pilgrim village with a temple devoted to Ganesh (the patron god of scholars, writers and thieves, the one with the elephant head). We checked into our 60 rupee room and readied ourselves to go trekking the next morning. At 7:30 the alarm went off and hopped on a bus to take us to the beginning of the trek up Kondachadri mountain. The trek was beautiful, quiet and quite strenuous. 5 hours later we got to the end of the trek, to the guest house we were assured there was no need to pre-book for because they have plenty of rooms, only to find they were full. We could pay 250 rupees for a small room with a concrete floor for a bed, we could hike back down the way we'd just come up or we could hope some nice Indian family would make room for us in their already over-crowded Jeep. The latter option seemed preferable, but hindsight reveals the reality of that choice: cramming Rohan, myself and our packs in with 8 adults and 3 children. In this way, we headed down what could loosely be described as a road, made up in equal parts of boulders and pot holes, with one side bordered by mountain and the other by a sheer drop of never fewer than 100 metres. Add in hairpin turns, pilgrim jeeps approaching from the opposite direction and a maniac driver hellbent on scaring the life out of the foreigners and one may understand by both Ro and I were wishing we'd just walked down ourselves. All the meanwhile, the Indian family, seven adults and three children (the driver was the only one remaining awake) fell into a deep and restful slumber.

Decided we were ready for some beach relaxation, we took three buses, two auto-rickshaws and a 20 minute walk to reach Paradise Beach, Go Karna. It's a small beach within a cove, surrounded by rock cliffs. There are a handful of hippy tourists, beach huts to accommodate them and restaurants to feed them. As nice as it is, the huts all had shared walls (and by walls I mean woven together palm leaves) with rooms on either side, so instead of having a charming little beach hut all to yourself, you're sharing a room separated by a leaf curtain with eight or so people, all sneezing, burping and snoring away. The price was right, 80 rupees, by to really relax we felt a little more privacy was in order.

We made the move to Kudle Beach, to a place that while it costs a fair bit more, offers luxuries we haven't gotten to enjoy since Australia: four solid walls, towels, a shower and a toilet of our very own, a fan, lights and an extra luxury - a view fo the ocean from our pillow. To walk to the ocean is merely a few dozen steps and even at night with the doors and windows shut, we can hear the gentle rolling of the waves. It's the most relaxing place we've been in since Thailand and an amazing haven in such a busy country. India has everything.

Mother India

21 December 2008 - 24 December 2008
We left quiet, peaceful Koh Lanta, Thailand (though it wasn't so quite our last night) and made it to India! We flew into Bangalore and landed quite late at night after a very long day of travelling and hanging out in Singapore. Singapore was a nice break from 'Asia' - toilets that actually smell good or at worst neutral and provided hand soap and paper towels, clean streets, orderly traffic, good food and safe drinking water - a pleasant reprieve before touching down in India.

Once we'd landed in Bangalore, we took a hair raising taxi drive (it's not real, it's not real became a little mantra I was repeating in my head) and reached our hotel at 12:30am. We were both starving and in need of some alcoholic refreshment, so we naively stepped out of hotel expecting to find a bar that served beer and some sort of delicious Indian fare. Instead what we found were dark and nearly deserted streets with only a few dodgy characters wandering around. Before leaving the hotel we were told there was a restaurant open until 1:00 am. We bumbled our way to this restaurant through sinister looking streets until we came to the restaurant which came with about five to ten unsavoury characters hanging out the front. We asked if they served beer and they quite aggressively attempted to put us in a taxi with an axe-murderer looking fellow who would take us to a shop that they told us wasn't open, but we could still get beer there. We declined the kindly offer, took our shattered, nerve-wracked selves back down the sinister streets to our hotel with only bottled water to show for our efforts (at least we had that!). Somehow we'd expected a bit more of a Bollywood welcome to India, as opposed to the horror/thriller movie one we got. I can't speak for Rohan, but I was beginning to have some doubts about three months in India.

But never fear dear readers, because our Bollywood welcome was just waiting until morning for us (Bollywood minus the singing, but keeping the bad moustaches and beautiful saris!). After conking out for the night we awoke to a whole new world, filled with people (lots and lots of them), honking cars, auto-rickshaws, buses and trucks, colour and hustle and bustle. We had breakfast (rice and curry and tea - oh! the tea here is just beautiful!) for about $.80 USD, found ourselves an auto-rickshaw driver and went out to explore. We asked the driver to take us to the markets and he assured us he would, but first we needed to stop by his 'brother's shop'. Five 'government shops' (selling extremely expensive rugs, trinkets, jewellery, saris and shawls. For taking us to these shops he collects coupons which somehow benefit him) and three hours later we finally managed to shake the driver and get to the markets. And what markets they were! About a million people, auto-rickshaws and stalls selling everyone imaginable, all bustling about in so little space. We found all the things we needed (charger for the camera, clippers for our heads and tailor made salwar kameezs for $18 USD each).

India is exhausting and overwhelming! The constant traffic, hoards of people, beeping horns, stares from everyone and every third person (in Bangalore) trying to sell you something you don't want at prices you wouldn't pay in the West tends to wear one out.

The next day we set out with the address of the tailor who was making the salwar kameezs for me and we attempted to make our way back there. We found an auto-rickshaw driver who wanted to charge us three times what we'd paid to get home from the markets the day before. That should've been a sign that we weren't necessarily headed where we thought we were. He dropped us off somewhere that didn't look like where we wanted to be, but that said it didn't necessarily look unlike it either. From there we spent three hours wandering around completely lost. We asked person after person where the address we had written down was located - one person would point left and say '4 kilometres that way', so we'd follow that. After walking 4 or so kilometres, we'd stop and ask someone else where the address on the piece of paper was and they'd point back the way we'd come and say '6 kilometres that way'. Arrrgghhh! Eventually we ended up here, which was certainly not where we wanted to be. Finally we asked someone and this is the only someone we'd asked all day who actually knew where the address was. It turned out that all day we'd be NO WHERE near it! We jumped in another auto-rickshaw, who once we were moving asked us if we wanted to go to some shops (same scam we'd wasted three hours on yesterday), we vehemently said 'NO' and I demanded he pull over the rickshaw. I had thoroughly lost my patience by this point. He wouldn't pull over, but clearly got the message that going to the shops was out of the question and from there on he was quite nice, pointing out the sights along the way and getting us there safely. All of this for a few tailored shirts and pants!

That night we were out looking for some dinner. A beggar girl approached me and asked for money. I said I would buy her food and she happily agreed (usually they won't take food, only money). It wasn't immediately apparent where we could get her some food, so we asked her where we could find some. She took us to KFC! Rohan and I laughed, but I took her inside and bought her 300 rupees worth of KFC (please note, dear reader, that our dinner cost 40 rupees); not to mention the moral implications of taking a beggar child to a multi-national corporation for a dinner of dubious nutritional content. The security guard approached me while we were in KFC to share that our dear little beggar girl was a regular at KFC! So, once again, we'd been hood-winked; I have a feeling this will be an ongoing theme in India.

On Christmas Eve we got a train to Kerala. The train experience was quite mild, particularly when compared to my expectations. It was actually quite nice, though 12 hours long, but fortunately we'd booked sleeper class, so we spent most of it sleeping.

And Kerala is so beautiful! And the people here are so nice and everyone of them isn't out to fleece us! In fact, some of them just want to say 'hello' and find out where we are from. This is in opposition to Bangalore where we had one, and I'm not exaggerating, conversation that wasn't someone trying to sell us something or take our money. I have a feeling we're going to like it much more here.