Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cambodia 2.2

After enduring a rather cramped coach ride from Siem Reap, we arrived in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh around midnight. Waiting for Dumb and Dumber (our driver and his assistant) to change the massive bus tyre had put us a full hour behind schedule. I am pleased to say I played a vital role in the changing of the tyre: 'official flashlight shiner'. Without my help, we could have had loose nuts on the road and a tyre may have come off en route! Disaster averted!

Gerd and I, sleepy but excited to finally reach, enjoyed our tuk-tuk ride from the coach stand to our hotel. The balmy midnight air and a very quite and calm Phnom Penh were a surreal experience- our driver, "Mr. Happy" pointed out the regal French colonial uplit city buildings and the occasional 'lady of the night' that marked the landscape. The short ride was soon over and another luxury hotel experience awaited us at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal.

The hotel played its part in the torrid history of the city- it was in fact a short term safe haven for citizens looking to escape the wrath of the Khmer Rouge during the forced evacuation of the city in 1975. Troops eventually forced their way in and removed people. No doubt there was gunfire involved too.

Now the scene couldn't be any more different- this was a relaxing place to be and the perfect reward for our hard day's travel.

The next day was spent learning the about the city's disturbing past during the troubled years of Pol Pot's rule. Mr. Happy picked us up and after a nice riverside breakfast, we visited Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the high school that was converted into a torture prison and then The Killing Fields, the mass graves where thousands of innocent souls met their end.

The afternoon needed a change of pace and we finished up at the National Museum in the city, which houses plenty of amazing artefacts from the height of the Khmer Empire.

The day ended with an amazing dinner at Romdeng, a Khmer restaurant run by a children's charity- Friends International. They invest the profits into helping homeless children and the food is not half bad! Gerd tried one of the specialties; Crispy Fried Tarantula! I tried one of the legs but Gerd was seemingly on a mission to finish the plate! I was more keen on getting some coconut water down my throat and starting on the Amok Curry.

Our evening ended with a trip to a Cambodian Karaoke bar and it was more entertaining than I thought it would be- there's a uniquely mesmerising dance style that is slow and rythmic and the ladies (I'm pretty sure they were real ladies) were very pretty!

Our one day in Phnom Penh was soon over and the next morning called for Mr. Happy to pick me up at an ungodly hour for my morning flight to Bangkok, and on to Hong Kong. I was really looking forward to my Hong Kong, but sad to leave Cambodia, a country and people I had fallen in love with and hoped to return to soon.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cambodia part 2.1

My entry into The Kingdom of Cambodia started with the realisation that 'Cambodia Tourism', if there even is such an entity, does not really have a strategy for making new arrivals feel welcome. I crossed the border from Thailand at Poi Pet, now (since the road had been paved a few years ago) it was just a 4 hour drive west of Siem Reap. Gerd was quick to remind me that in his day, the whole journey was over a potholed dusty dirt road. The brat in me wanted to ask, "yeah right- was it uphill both ways and you had to walk it in the snow?!", but I didn't want Gerd to desert me before we had even reached the hotel, so I stayed quiet. 

My first 15 minutes of being in the country left me feeling like I was saying goodbye to a good friend (Thailand), and being thrown into the arms of a Turkish prison officer (Cambodia)- and I was now about to get a beating. 

Departing from the Thai side was no party- we were herded into lines divided by metal raiIings, so narrow I could not even turn around with my back pack on. I started feeling like a sheep heading for the shearing station, just waiting for some purple dye to be stamped on my assets.     
 
Once clear of Thai immigration we found ourselves on a busy street; not the Cambodian immigration counter I was expecting. There were people walking and driving around, even a hotel and casino. I wondered what country I was actually in, as our passports had now been stamped as having exited Thailand but not with entry into Cambodia. We were in no man's land- Somalian pirates were surely now only moments away.     

The Cambodian immigration booth did eventually show up further down the street, where visitors were lead into a small mosquito filled room and made to feel like a complete inconvenience to the staff behind the glass. We were not even worthy of air conditioning- I wanted to stick my head through the little slot and gasp- just to take in some of the cool AC'd air I could sense on the other side.  

We were finally stamped and free to enter and Gerd negotiated with a taxi while I stood in the street slightly bemused at the sights and sounds around me. Soon enough we were on our way, and I slept away in the back of a taxi - a Toyota Camry (imported from California I was told) for the 4 hour drive to Siem Reap. Appropriately I dreamt I was in California- it helped me sleep better knowing Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean were just outside my window.  

Waking up to luxury is always a good thing. We were staying at the 5 star Raffles Hotel D'Angkor in Siem Reap and now, we 'had arrived'. Cold towels and uber attentive staff were waiting for us and the whitewashed, colonial style room with balcony overlooking the enormous pool was a sight for sore eyes. The morning's ordeal was soon forgotten as I beat the dry heat with a very wet dip in the expansive pool. 

Unlike me, Gerd had been unable to sleep in the train; in fact on a couple of occasions I would wake up to him staring at me with what I vaguely recall as a 'Jack Nicholson from The Shining' look. Just kidding Gerd! Now he was out cold and by the evening we were both refreshed and ready to head out to Siem Reap for dinner. 

The $1 taxi ride was blatant rip-off Gerd and I joked, "where do they get the audacity to overcharge like this?!"  

Siem Reap is a small town with a few busy streets in the center, packed with market stalls selling touristy nik-naks, restaurants and the occasional 'Doctor fish' stands on the street. These are where you and a few friends can immerse your feet into a large tank of water, where tiny fish will come and peck at your dead skin. The whole idea seemed absurd to me but it was fun to watch others do it- typically they would squirm and giggle on entry and then it would just turn boring as the meal got underway. Neither Gerd nor I felt like offering ourselves as meals to the fish but we didn't mind eating some of their undersea relatives. 
We headed to The Khmer Kitchen, a Lonely Planet recommended hole in the wall and we tucked into some Amok, which is the local style curry. I was in disbelief at how tasty Khmer food could be, and also at the price - just a few dollars. Our money was going to go far in Cambodia and we were not going to go hungry. 

While walking around town we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver with whom we negotiated a rate for the next 2 days of sightseeing around the temples. Jack, or "pocket Jack" as we named him due to his pocket sized dimensions, would turn out to be a great source of entertainment over the next two days as well as a friend.

On the way home Gerd introduced me to Swensens, an ice cream chain from the US which seemed to be doing well in these parts. We stopped of course and I watched as Gerd tucked into his favourite- Green Tea ice cream. 

The next morning we discovered the definition of breakfast. The Raffles has the most amazing buffet, with waffles, a choice of at least 5 fresh fruit juices, pastries, bacon, sausages, and a little lady to make the omlette of your dreams. Gerd and I put the omlette lady to test, and her cigar shaped productions never failed to impress. 

We were so stuffed that morning we weren't sure we could waddle out and see anything. But Pocket Jack was waiting outside in his Tuk Tuk, and we were soon off to see the temples of Angkor Wat. 

Say, Angkor Whaaat ?!

The next few hours were an amazing trip through the centuries- King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Kingdom had done well- building the largest complex of temples the world had ever seen- and luckily for us time had been generous to these intricately carved buildings. Most of them have an incredible amount of detail still visible and apart from the occasional face that had been hacked off, the dancing figures, or Apsaras, were also well preserved. 

I really can't do the Temples of Angkor justice with a few lines in this blog, so I suggest you do some further research. Better still, go visit for yourself. I know a great tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap.  

That night I wanted to get a massage- people had told me about massages performed by the blind that were supposed to be amazing. I guess my communication skills with Jack were not quite perfect- in my attempts to describe the blind massage, I may have used the words "special" a few times. Before I knew it Jack had pulled up outside a massage parlour offering a special kind of massage alright. The ladies were all lined up outside for my special welcome! 

"Go to top floor and ask for special massage" Jack said, like he'd done this a few times before.  

"No! Jack! Blind massage... No-Can-See?!" It was no good. But then in the middle of our Khmer/English dilemma, technology prevailed- he pulled up a translation page on his mobile phone and handed it to me, "write!", he said.

 "B L I N D" I typed. He hit the enter key and his phone produced the Khmer equivelant (all words in Cambodian look like 555555). 

"oh!!" He laughed; I laughed. He knew exactly what I wanted now. He took me to the blind massage place.

It was sort of 'low end'; dark and dingy. There were a few blind people walking around trying not to hit things- they had no sticks or seeing eye dogs; being blind in a 3rd world country is harder without the tools available in the west. 

This niche enterprise of giving westerners massages for $10 per hour is a great idea- very resourceful. And truth be told it was a great massage-  the guy's  heightened sense of touch was so adept at finding sore muscles he gave practioners charging 10 times more a run for their money.  

The hour was up- Jack had been waiting patiently outside the whole time (try getting a London cabbie to do that!!). He took me back to the hotel and another great dinner in town.   

Our 2nd day had an early start as we went to see the sunrise over the main temple at Angkor Wat. It's a popular thing to do so we had to get as early start. Dependable like the English rain, Jack was outside at 5:00am (with a smile), to begin our pilgrimage. 

The sunrise was accompanied by a baguette with jam and sweet Cambodian coffee- phenominal! Perhaps the total experience was worth more than its parts but I am glad I got to do it. The sun peeked over the temple and as it rose it all felt very spiritual- I think it was time for a nap. 

We came back to the hotel for a nap and breakfast with another special treat from the OL (omlette lady). It was a long afternoon with a lot of temples and a lot of Cambodian children selling us all sorts of stuff for a dollar in between temples. Is this country just the worlds biggest dollar store I wondered!

The last morning in Siem Reap we headed north to the Banteay Srei temple- a small but extremely well preserved temple complete with its fierce naga heads and a moat!. A lot of the symbols and religious themes are from India and the one set of tourists from India I met in this country were really enjoying pointing out all the Indian-ness in Cambodia. It almost felt like they were laying claim to it! One final stop for a long drink of baby coconut water for $1 and we headed back to town. 

That evening we had a temporary break from real luxury as we boarded the 'luxury' coach bound for Phnom Penh. I guessed this was what the kids called "keeping it real" or something, and we had to do this to justify the next 5 star hotel stay that was coming up. Some sort of sadistic plan hatched by Gerd to test my resolve no doubt. 

As Murphy's law would have it, the bus got a flat half way through and the drive just never seemed to end. Gerd and I tried to watch 'Hi Fidelity' on his iPod en route but with potholes the size of Guam nothing could keep the device steady enough to make it enjoyable. 

Once again I fell asleep and Gerd suffered the journey. Next up Phnom Penh! 
          

     

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cambodia- part 1

I'm flying and crying. Figuratively of course- I'm on board Thai airways flight TG 652 en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong, listening to a melancholy mix of music on channel 9 of the IFE ('In Flight Entertainment' as it's known in the business). I left Phnom Penh this morning on a 1 hr flight to Bangkok and now Roy Orbison and KD Lang are accompanying me on my second leg, "crying, crying over me". I too am crying (on the inside) over leaving an amazing place called Cambodia.

You see unlike the rest of my trip, the last 5 nights have been spent in a country I not only had never visited before, but knew practically nothing about. The trip has been as much about learning as it has sightseeing. And now I know more about Cambodia's real past and have experienced its food and met its people, I realize what a special place it is. I'm sad to leave after 5 days; I could stay another 50.    

As a child I only remember hearing little soundbytes about Cambodia, like, "The Pol Pot Regime", "Democratic Kampuchea" and "The Khmer Rouge". I never bothered to understand these in more detail. I also remember the movie, "The Killing Fields" but thought it was to do with the Vietnam War.    

Does this sound like your knowledge of Cambodia? If not, well done for being aware of SE Asian affairs 1975-1979. If it does sound like your knowledge, I'm glad I am not the only ignorant one!

My teammates over at "Valley Girl Guides" sent over this easy to digest synopsis of Cambodia's dark years:

"so like this really bad guy called Pol Pot or something basically literally took over the country of Cambodia and on 14 April 1975 his people, The Khmer Rouge, closed down all the schools, banks, markets and OMG- malls. O.M.G! As if that wasn't bad enough he forced people to move out of the cities by telling them the US was going to bomb them. As IF the United States would ever drop a bomb and kill innocent people!! He made them work in slave labor camps in the countryside. Like where there's dirt and stuff. He wanted everyone to work in the fields to grow like a LOT of food but it was literally, impossible. So this guy, who already sounds totally annoying right? He makes his people totally kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians because they were too smart! Just like that! Even babies- like omg- think about that next time you're shopping at Barney's, people! Your mom was buying Maybelline at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1978 and some woman in Phnom Penh was having her fingernails ripped out. Crazy right?

Like 20,000 people were tortured in a converted school and then pushed into shallow graves nearby. That's what they call the killing fields. The whole thing is literally heinous but nobody could stop him as he closed off the country to outsiders. Well anyways, Vietnam came to their rescue in January 1979 when they kicked him out and occupied (that means took over) Cambodia. There's other stuff too but you have to buy the full version. $19.99 from any good travel book store in The San Fernando Valley."

You get the picture. There was a genocide 30 years ago during which time the country saw no visitors, let alone tourists, and the capital city of Phnom Penh lay empty- a ghost town. And now?                

Now I have been there I want to tell you all to go to Cambodia!! I understand Cambodia a lot better and you need to as well. Besides, they need our tourist dollars!

Their history is one filled with pain and tragedy, yet present day Cambodia is also filled with so much joy and optimism. Sometimes I would feel like people were walking around like they had just discovered joy, and they wanted to share their discovery with others! I've never met people so ready to smile or laugh. Don't get me wrong- it's far from utopia- in fact the poverty is depressing in places. It's more the way people are towards each other, just the way 2 random strangers would interact sometimes, that impressed me. In comparison one would think Westerners were savages, the way we instinctively (and rightly so!) approach strangers with mistrust and fear. Perhaps strangers are more like friends when you have shared such a dark existence in your collective past. 

It's hard to describe, and that's why you need to go there and meet the locals yourself. Like 25 year old Tuk-Tuk driver "Jack", who left his 7 brothers and sisters and parents in the village to drive tourists around the temples of Angkor Wat. He learned English from monks, paying $10 per month and in just 6 months can speak enough to communicate pretty clearly.     

Jack was so keen to work, dedicated and motivated- it was a pleasure to behold. No room for British Chavs or Aussie Boguns here. Everyone is hungry to do well and motivated to learn. Little kids don't beg for money; instead they will sell you something for a dollar and impress you with their acquired knowledge of capitals and world leaders. It's a sales tactic but wow at least they have one!! India's 'lazy' beggars should get trained by Cambodia's kids on entrepreneurial street skills. 

Finally, not only is Cambodia home to warm and welcoming people, it is also home to the most amazing temple complex on Earth, The Temples of Angkor Wat, and amazing art and artifacts from the Khmer Empire on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. If those are not enough reasons to visit, I don't know what are!
   
Wow that was a heavy post. In part 2 I will talk about the lighter side of my stay...    

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thailand

“Four Forty Five?”
“Yes”
“Your loom namba- One nine tree seero?”
“Yes”
“Okay goo-nye saah”
“Goodnight!”

The confirmation for my 4:45am wake up call from the Guest Services operator at the Sheraton Royal Orchid Bangkok are the last words I hear on my last night in Thailand. And now it’s 12:45 am. That’s simple sleep mathematics: 4 hours of sleep tonight. Of course the only problem now is I have to write this damn blog entry, so I’ll have to deduct [time taken to write] from [sleep hours available] to leave [net sleep hours].

Wait, what?! I’m doing sleep mathematics?? That’s nuts! If you have a nut allergy, look away now!!

The last 8 days in Thailand have whizzed by faster than any 8 day period on this trip so far. Why? Because now that I have a travel partner in my friend Gerd, I have been in real travel mode; no time for “days off to stay in my hotel room” or “mornings in eating Aunty’s aloo paranthas”… No the last 8 days have been full of interesting and full days. So let me rewind for you and recap the adventure that has been Thailand:

My entry into Thailand was, as you’ll recall from the last post, by train. A nice slow train that would probably have lost a race against a pony with 3 legs carrying me, my luggage and a sack full of rice.

I could almost have forgiven the train for its sloth when my sleeper seat was converted into a bed soon after we crossed the border from Malaysia- the bed was so comfortable! But what a tease! No sooner had I lay down and really start to relax did the conductor come by to tell me my stop was coming “soon”. Of course I had no idea whether that meant 5 minutes or 35 minutes so relaxing in my bed became difficult as I started fearing I would fall asleep and miss my stop! I was glad to feel the train slowing down and my station being called out shortly after the beds were made, “Pattalung!! Pattalung”.

Gerd was there on the platform waiting for me. We spent the 45 minutes drive to the small town of Trang catching up on the last 10 years. Gerd’s been living in Fontana CA and has been to Asia 5 times- he loves Thailand and speaks near fluent Thai. Could I have asked for a better guide?! Is it any wonder then that I’ve left all the planning to him and I’m quite happy to put my maps and guide books away to sit back and enjoy the ride?! This has got to be the best way to travel!

We checked into the Thumrin Thana Hotel. This was obviously the Grand Dame of Trang at one point- circa 1987. Large swathes of pink and teal everywhere could only signify a return to the glorious 80s. The hallways smelled a bit like Listerine but it had very comfy beds. Either way it didn’t matter- I was out cold before I could even begin to ponder whether ‘Thai Iced Tea’ is just called ‘Iced Tea’ in Thailand? There would be plenty of time to find out.

We began the next day after breakfast with a minivan ride out to a lonely looking jetty where I saw my first Thai Longtail boat. Along with a couple of Swiss backpackers from Zurich, we climbed aboard for our journey to Ko Ngai Island.

It’s at this point I started to discover that there is an interesting side effect of not knowing where I’m going and that is, I don’t pay that much attention to place names. So I was in danger of describing the whole time in Thailand something like this, “So we went to this island and stayed at some hotel and did a bunch of stuff. It was really cool”. Hardly worthy commentary for my fellow travelers! I would have to try harder! Plan B is to just get Gerd to write my Thailand entry.

Yes I think that’s what I’ll do- I will recount my experiences and Gerd can recap all the places, later on.

So back to this boat ride- we soon found ourselves out in the open seas; the boat chopping along the water and weaving through small islets, each towering hundreds of feet up, faced with spectacular sheer cliffs of limestone.

The noise however was making conversation quite impossible. The unique feature of the boats is the car engine mounted on the long rudder. It’s ‘vector thrust’ in its rawest form. It’s amazing that these skippers aren’t all deaf by now- imagine having a Toyota truck engine with no muffler, just a foot away from your ear for hours at a time!

Ko Ngai island is an amazing place- it’s a small island with nothing but vegetation filling every square inch, leaving just enough room for beaches and a few beach hotels. There are no roads in the interior, just forest. Our hotel is the Thapwarin Resort and it sits at what I would call a ‘near-luxury’ level of accommodation. It’s got a very natural feel to it- the rooms are set out as thatched huts with no concrete or bricks anywhere in site- the huts themselves are very comfortable- ours had AC and an ensuite shower that was open to the elements, very ‘natury”.

Our next few days were spent relaxing to the max: the activities one can do on the island are limited to: sleeping, eating, drinking, reading, listening to music, walking on the beach or swimming in the ocean, and of course people watching. I did all of the above! Note to self- follow the Swedes! They are usually great travelers (think: quiet and not obnoxious).

Our 4 days of solitude on the small island were broken only with a half day excursion off the island in a private Longboat rental, where we discovered (after 300 other people that morning), Emerald Caves (or “Tham Morakot”, thanks Gerd!!).

Intermission: Please now go to www.images.google.com and search for Tham Morakot to see some pics!

Our Longboat moored next to 3 others like it and we donned life jackets and followed our skipper as he sploshed into the salty green sea. We started swimming, following our guide into the cave. Soon the only thing we could see was the fading light from his flashlight, leading us into an ever darkening void. It was a little claustrophobic but I was too excited to even stop and think for a minute about a surge of water or tsunami, coming into the cave and drowning me in an instant…instead I’m doing that now!

And then came our treasure, a shaft of light meant we were close to the mouth of the cave on the other side, and I swam frantically to see what my reward was. As I came out of the mouth of the cave, I was in a small lagoon, with a beach of pure white sand, surrounded by cliffs on all sides towering above us for hundreds of feet; It’s not often that one has the sensation of being surrounded on 360 degrees by a wall of rock; it’s both surreal and comforting at the same time- like a limestone cocoon with a bed of sugary sand and your own personal size swimming pool at the bottom. It was a miniature slice of paradise that only pirates and swallows had known about for hundreds of years. I could have stayed all day except for the lack of anything to do or facilities or food!

Could there be hidden treasure still buried there? Maybe next time I’ll bring a metal detector and a spade to find out. Oh and water and some snacks so I can stay longer!

As we had hired a private boat, we veered off the tourist track and found ourselves an empty beach on Koh Muk. It was so amazing to just run up and down the empty beach like a kid and pretend that I had discovered new land. I wondered if Columbus got hysterical like this, every time he discovered uncharted land?! I took some video of myself “hereby taking possession of this land in the name of Her Majesty!”. (Yeah right- perhaps if she gives the Koh-i-Noor diamond back to Punjab!).

Ko Ngai had been an amazing first taste of the more remote islands of Thailand. There are hundreds of them, all with unique environments and offering various levels of luxury in accommodation. The waters are clean and clear, the hues of blues and greens are so relaxing to be surrounded by, and the people (most Thai but some Burmese too) are warm and welcoming. I can start to see why Thailand has been a travelers paradise for decades.

But now it was back to Trang for one more night before heading up for the ‘city’ part of the trip: Bangkok. Miraculously we got the same room at the Thumrin; 1111, on the same floor. It was Listerine-scented déjà vu, before our early morning flight to Bangkok on Nok (“Bird”) Air.

Our next 3 nights were in Bangkok. A few words seemed to be consistent adjectives for this city when talking to fellow travelers like, “dirty” and “boring”. I am here to disagree wholeheartedly- Bangkok is a dynamic city with lots to keep the traveler entertained! Perhaps it was just the fact that I had a great guide who knew a few non-touristy places to take me that made the experience richer; Gerd’s intimate knowledge of Bangkok impressed me from the start. We landed on his birthday and for a special treat he wanted his favorite, Duck noodles. We went to a well known little hole in the wall joint run by an old couple in a narrow street, in the ‘motor repair” district. Opposite said Duck-joint, there are workshops with a stack of truck axles and engine blocks piled up in front of their door. These are the kinds of experiences that are not in the Lonely Planet guide. Oh wait, actually the noodle place is! Damn Tour books!!

Nonetheless, I urge you to seek out alleyways when visiting Bangkok; you never know what amazing new eatery is yet to be discovered!

Other amazing experiences I had:
Visiting the crowded markets of Chinatown, seeing Buddhas Galore- one giant reclining, and the other in 500 tons of solid gold! Visiting the Backpacker mecca of Khao San Road, eating new and exotic fresh fruits (and juices) from the street vendors, enjoying amazing views from the Sirocco Bar at the Lebua Hotel, wandering the stores in Siam Square, pigging out on satay at the mega food court in Siam Paragon, eating free samples from the massive Tesco Lotus supermarket, and riding the very cool Skytrain around the town. We were lucky enough to meet up with a friend of a friend, Kiran, who’s a local, on our last day. She took us to the Silom Food Court where we had a feast of Thai delights, including shredded fried Catfish, Sweet and Sour Duck and Pineapple fried rice. I could easily eat my way through Bangkok for another few weeks!

But alas, all we had was 3 nights to sample Bangkok; the rest of the goodies will have to wait for me to discover on a future trip.

Perhaps reading this, you will now understand better when I said how 8 nights whizzed by so fast?! Thailand has worked a certain spell on me that has left me yearning for more- I can see why Gerd is yet to be satisfied that he really knows this place yet, despite this being his 5th trip. I don’t want to play favorites but Thailand has got to be one of the most enchanting countries I’ve visited so far.

Can Cambodia top it?! Gerd decides that a grueling 3-mode of transport, 10 hour overland journey is the best way to start my trip. My suggestion that we charter a helicopter was met with a disapproving stare.

So we will take a train to the border town of Aranyaprathet, travelling 3rd class of course! The train leaves at 5:55 am. Then from the border town, we will take a Tuk-Tuk to the border, followed by a 3 hour taxi ride to Siem Reap.

Gerd’s convinced that being exposed to a slightly um, rougher journey will not only be a good test of our worldly travel experience but will also make us appreciate the luxury accommodation that awaits. I have booked us in for 3 nights at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, a 5 star French Colonial Hotel from 1929. Some things are better left to me!

So back to my wake up call. It’s now 4.44am so I have one minute to sleep before we begin the next phase of the trip…Cambodia!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

I've lost track of how many days I've been in Kuala Lumpur now. It really can't be that many but I don't feel like counting. Maybe I can get the maid to do it.

The whole pace of my trip has changed since I got here, from flying around uber-hyper India, to a madcap weekend in Singapore, I've now s-l-ooo-w-e-d right down. So what's going on?!

KL marks the half way point in my trip, so it seemed right to take a breather and relax for a few days before diving into what will surely be an intense part 2. I didn't realize things would slow down quite this much though.

I'm staying with my friends Mike and Sandy, from Canada. They are in their last month living as ex-pats in KL, before returning back to Sydney. They are living in what I call a palace in the sky- it's a 2 storey penthouse apartment at the top of a skyscraper which itself is at the top of a hill. There are unobstructed views of what feels like half of Malaysia... I feel like I'm at the top of a mountain or in some hovering airship. Sometimes I look out from their patio and then just have to look away as it's "too much sights". The panorama is dizzying in its splendour.

The apartment is big enough to hold a Canadian hockey tournament; my bedroom is larger than most apartments in Hong Kong. Between the space, the style, the views and the facilities- a humongous swimming pool that wraps around the building complex in a semi-circle, tennis courts, gym and even cafe on site- I think I've just reached heaven and I don't feel like leaving.

So I'm using this opportunity to generally just chill out. I went into KL for a day of sightseeing and while it's really nice and well manicured, it lacks the soul of other cities I've seen which works out fine- I have plenty to not do at home.

I had a chauffered Mercedes ride to see the Petronis Towers, followed by sight seeing around town; clothes washed and pressed and generally been made to feel like royalty; I understand this is not how the locals live, but at this point I don't care. Life is good. Thanks to Mike Sandy and their team of helpers!

My friends Pete and Lisa also live here, so we caught up for dinner last night and discussed at length the dynamic in Malaysia. Topics like affirmative action, poor treatment of household staff and a general feeling that Malaysia still has some catching up to do, to be one cohesive and racially integrated country, were all discussed. While they are happy to have had the experience of living in luxury in Malaysia, they're also looking forward to returning to Sydney. If nothing else, for the chance of a cool breeze once in a while (it's constantly in the 30s and humid here).

So my glimpse into KL was brief and slightly biased; that's ok for now- I hope to return one day and explore the outlying and scenic areas like Langkawi and experience another side.

My time in Malaysia ends with a brief glimpse of Penang. I flew from KL to Penang and while I had wished to explore the island more, I chose to relish the company of my friends for that time instead, and I don't regret it- it was really great to spend some quality time with them- no sightseeing can replace that!

My next segment takes me into Thailand. My friend Gerd has organized this whole part- he's flying out from LA to join me for 2 weeks and show me around 'his Thailand'... he's been here 5 times and speaks and reads Thai. Could I ask for a better guide?!

Gerd has sent me a Thai Railways ticket for the 2:30 train from Butterworth (surely not it's Malaysian name?!) to Pattalung, Thailand. He's promised me he'll meet me at the station. As we have no other way to contact each other, I'm really hoping this works out!

My Air Asia flight brings me safely to Penang where I proceed to take a 2.70 Ringitt bus ride right to the ferry jetty. The ferry takes me across from the island to Butterworth and then just a short walk to the station. I arrive with a lot of time before the train leaves, but alas the midday heat and my cumbersome backpacks mean I dread exerting any extraneous energy. I give up the chance to walk around Georgetown, and instead flop on the first bench at the deserted station, waiting-waiting for the train to arrive. Time seemed to stop in Butterworth.

I did find a little hawker stand across from the station where I energized with a up of cold Koppee (that's super sweet cold coffee, sweetened with condensed milk to you) half way through my wait.

Train 36 arrived with just 2 carriages and we soon started moving at a pace slightly slower than that of a hunchback running along side would have been...carrying both my backpacks and with one wooden leg. This train is slow. My travel companion was a rather emaciated New Zealander who worked as an engineer for Motorola in Penang. He was very malnourished and nothing he could say to me would distract me from wondering why he was so damn thin and boney. Is male anorexia a problem with Kiwis?

With the skinny Kiwi my only source of company and a slow moving train to a mystery destination, I realized this was going to be a very long trip. Next stop Thailand!


 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Singapore

I'm watching the Friends episode where 'fat Monica' dances the closing credits. Hilarious, and it made me think of how skinny my crew was on SQ405. I can't help but think that Singapore Airlines must save a lot of money on fabric as their flight attendants aren't using a lot of it for their uniforms. Hiring skinny staff is a great cost-cutting measure that perhaps United Airlines could pick up!

My flight over here from Delhi was a 5hr nap punctuated by a 2nd breakfast(!) and I arrived in Singapore ready to face the beggars, grime and pollution that was surely waiting for me.

In fact, the streets of Singapore appeared to have been freshly and thoroughly scrubbed for my visit, probably by little elves that scampered back into their underwater lair at sunrise.

Everything in Singapore is so clean I was in a state of shock as I kept thinking about the contrasts with India. And if I'm noticing this as a tourist, what do Indians who've never left the country make of it? I was told that Indians who live here are quick to adapt to the clean ways. I guess they have no choice!


I got wondering at the thought of a "Clean up India" campaign where citizens would start picking up and bagging trash from the streets in their neighborhood. It could be sponsored by Airtel, Vodaphone, Pepsi or Coke, like everything else in India. It would probably take about 50 years of weekends spent cleaning up, and they would need a landfill the size of Sri Lanka (or Sri Lanka) to dump all the plastic bottles and bags in, but I think it could be done.

There are modest sounding stickers everywhere declaring that 'Singapore's OK' as if to say, "Singapore's just OK; we're sorry, it really should be cleaner". So has nobody made a business out of "Singapore's so clean jokes"? I'd like to start: "Singapore's so clean, you have to wipe your feet before you get off the plane, and if you're from Malaysia you have to remove your shoes altogether". Or how about,"Singapore's so clean if you spit or chew gum you'll go to jail". Oh wait that last one isn't a joke.

I knew that selling gum in Singapore was illeagal, but my cab driver was rather zealous in his warnings, "police find you with gum, you get in trouble!". I was actually chewing gum in the back of his car at the time, and my jaw slowly stopped moving... I would just have to park my Orbit behind my upper lip until I could find a safe place to spit it out. Perhaps it would just be safer to swallow it.

My friends Jodie and Kai are my hosts for this trip and I am so excited to be with them just 2 months into their move here from Sydney. Luckily for me, they're foodies too and had already been busy scoping out the best hawker stands for yummy treats.

I was so glad to see them and start my weekend of non-stop fun and adventure. Their amazing pad at Sunglade Condos is nothing short of a vacation resort; the giant pool looked so tempting I could barely maintain a conversation while drooling at the chance to cool off with a dip in the never-abating heat and humidity.

My 3 nights in Singapore were amazing- there's just too much to describe in detail, so here's a quick recap for posterity's sake: food at Chop Chop Hawkers, lots of pool time, a day at the Ion mall on Orchard road, a visit to East Coast Park, making new friends with Maarten, his friend Martijn, father Vincent and sister Saskia from Holland, (Maarten is marrying Jodie's friend Alicent next week), eating yummy spicy crab and stingray, drinks at Alley bar, a surreal visit to Orchard Towers, clubbing at Attica in Clarke Quay. Let's not forget our 4am breakfast at McDonalds and late night Karaoke cab rides. How much more fun could I possibly have squeezed in? Well maybe wakeboarding at 360 in East Coast Park but I chickened out at the last minute. But hey it's good to leave something for next time!

My whirlwind tour was over before I could say, "Wrigleys, Double the pleasure Double the Fun" and sleep was not featured heavily in the trip, so I was exhausted as I made my way to the "Budget Airlines Terminal" at Changi airport for my Tiger Airways flight to Kuala "don't call it Koala" Lumpur. I was off to stay a few days with my friends Mike and Sandy, also recently migrated from Sydney.

My cab ride over was of course another chance to catch up on local views with my 'state of the union' conversation with my cabbie. He's convinced that the migrant workers are a threat to the safe reputation of Singapore and I argued that they're probably more interested in working hard and sending money home, but I could read between the lines.

I waved goodbye to Singa, and slept the short hop over to KUL airport for my next adventure.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Agra to Amritsar

Well it’s another action packed travel day as I make the most of my last few days in India. I'm off to Amritsar, deep in Punjab state, and the holiest place for Sikhs. It's also close to the border with Pakistan so I hope to catch the changing of the guard ceremony there that I've been told is a must-see.

With just a few days left in India, I’m also beginning to reflect upon my time here and I’m already missing it. It’s not just the entertainment value- like the hilarious signs that deserve their own blog (“ACCIDENTAL HELP LINE”, “RETAIL AND HOLE SALE”, “PANICKER'S TRAVEL” and my favourite, seen in a menu- "SNAKES" (“Snacks”)), it’s the people- the endless supply of entertainment from talking to locals or just people watching on any street at any time of day or night (with 1.3 billion people, there’s someone almost everywhere at any given time).

The extreme spread between poverty and affluence is impressive but here more than anyhere it's what lies outside material wealth that makes people rich.

There's so much diversity and richness in the culture. I’ve been to 7 states on this trip (Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab) and each one has been a unique experience- from the languages to the food to just the way people look and dress- there is not just one India- there are a lot of Indias to explore.

People here often feel like the west is just fake and packaged. I'm beginning to see their point- India is real, people are more often than not fighting to survive and there is no sugar coating on things like we see in the west. "When a waitress in America asks you how you are, she's not really prepared for an answer other than, 'fine'" someone once told me here.

For me, India has set the bar on what a rewarding travel experience can offer. I'm blessed to know so many great friends here; I know this is one place I'll be returning to soon- I can't wait another 9 years!

So back to my travels- the train from Delhi to Amritsar is another Shatabdi Express, and at Rs850 ($20), I'm calling it an almost free train ride, thanks to the value of goodies I got on board. Firstly, a bottle of water, a newspaper, an evening tea service and then an amazing 3 course dinner! All in all the 6 hour trip was over in a flash.

My hotel is the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson; one of the nicest and best value hotels I've stayed in so far, with a free breakfast to boot. The late arrival didn't leave time for anything but the morning got started with a trip to the Golden Temple.

Now I'm not very religious but to be in this hallowed building is a moving experience- it's beautiful to start with- a gold plated marble structure in a moat of glistening water that is home to many Coy fish. A short wait in line and one can go in and view the magnificent craftsmanship of the Harminder Sahib. There are stairs that lead up to a rooftop level area too- with a chance to look more closely at the gold embellishments and details that abound in every feature of the building.

Now Amritsar is also known for it's 'heartland of the Punjab' cuisine, so I was keen to try out some Dhaba food. I headed to Mohan's Fish stall to try the famous Amritsari fish fry and I was not dissapointed. Later I had some of 'Surjit's' famous tandoori chicken too. I'm giving up on a healthy eating for a while- after all they say I shouldn't eat salads in India, so who am I to argue?!

Later that evening I headed to the border with Pakistan for an amazing spectacle- the 'Retreat of the Guards' ceremony. There's a lot of stomping and parading and the crowds just love the nationalist rally cries- they duly respond in unison. Then a crowd of women from the audience are assembled onto the street by the ushers and Bollywood music is blared (In the direction of Pakistan I'm sure) prompting the women to break out into a spontaneous street party.

Clapping, singing, dancing, shouting and a totally overcrowded seating area creates mayhem and excitement. Meanwhile one can peek over to the Pakistan side to see a more sober setting- white robed males chanting back to recordings of more religious style patriotic chants; no music or colourful anything in Pakistan. The Indian crowdes are no doubt secretly even happier that theirs is the better country to be in.

The whole symbolic showdown is fun no more- I quickly lose interest in the stomping and the partying as I realize I can't relate to this 'hype for hype's sake'. I considered for a moment a similar ceremony at the Germany/Holland border. Nobody would show up!

With 'Golden Temple, Dhaba food and Wagha border' checked off the list, my work here was done. I spent a brief amount of time walking through the old city but frankly Amritsar is just too dusty and polluted to be walking around aimlessly.

The next day it was time to go back to Delhi for the last night before my flight onwards to Singapore. There I meet up with a good friend, Shuchi, for dinner- she takes me to the DLF Promenade mall in Visant Kunj where I am blown away at seeing for the first time a world-class mall in India. Taman Gang, TGIF, and dozens more good to great restaurants, a cinema, and a whole section for designer stores. This is no place for the average person in India- only the elite can shop here.

I told my friend that this is great for India to have, but I need to have dinner in a less sterile environment. Ironically the sterile ambience was probably more sterile literally, but I needed to be in the real India, the one I was in love with. I was quite happy to put my stomach at a small risk to enjoy this. What was happening to me?!

Shuchi obliged and we headed to Khan Market where we had drinks and eventually dinner at Chona's, a Chinese Indian restaurant that was delicious! India is famous for its Indian style Chinese food and this was the last remaining cullinary delight on my list.

My cousin Baltej gets a huge shout out at this point for letting me stay at his place despite being on a 6 month job posting in New York. His housekeeper, Bheem and cook Bapu took care of me like I was their long lost cousin- making me Nimboo pani (freshly squeezed lemon water), breakfast and a drive to the airport for my 8am flight the next morning.

After a delicious omlette rustled up without complaint at 5:30am, we headed through the dusty and still moonlit streets of Delhi to IGI, Indira Gandhi International Airport where Singapore Airlines' SQ405 was waiting to take me out of India. I accepted that my month long soujourn in India was now officially over. There was actually no time for sadness or nostalgia; that was all stored away in 16 Gigabytes of SD card for review later.

Now there was only time for more excitment- a new high for the new adventure that awaited- part 2 of my 3 month trip now started: SE ASIA.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Taj Mahal, A Wonder of the World!

For the drive down to Agra we swapped drivers for Sunil and his Toyota Innova van.

Even though this is my 3rd visit, I am still in awe at what a wondrous thing The Taj is to behold with the naked eye. I could have found a hundred more angles from which to take photos and still not have captured its magnificence. Wow I'm beginning to sound like a guide.

I think Valley Girl Guides says it best though,

"So The Taj Mahal is an amazing resort in Reno, but it's also this other place in India! What a coincedence! The Indian one is not a casino; infact you might not want to stay the night there either; there's a couple of dead people in the basement.

Anyways, the Taj Mahal was constructed by like, a lot of people and it took them like, a long time. So it must be awesome! And you can thank this Moghul Emperor guy Shah Jahan for its amazing-ness.

I have a marble rolling pin and get this- The Taj Mahal is made from the same stuff! I wonder how many rolling pins they used to make it?!

Enjoy your visit at the Taj Mahal, and who knows try the slots, you may get lucky!"

It’s magical like no man-made object I’ve ever seen before. So many factors contribute to its magnificence- its setting (on a river bank with nothing but the blue sky as a background), its proportions, the thought that went into building it (the minarets lean slightly outwards- in case of collapse they would spare the Taj, the script that goes up vertically stretches as it reaches the top, to retain legibility while compensating for perspective), the materials (all in white marble with onyx and inlaid semi precious stones) that change mood at sunrise, sunset and by moonlight, the workmanship (22 years of non stop construction!), the sheer size, and of course the story behind it (a tomb made for love) all come together in this world wonder. You just gotta see it!
Today I also proved my Indian-ness where it counts- to get a cheaper entrance ticket to the Taj Mahal! Indians are charged Rs20 (50cents) and foreigners (including Indians living abroad, or NRIs) are charged Rs750. It’s a totally unfair difference and I was not about to pay Rs750 if I could get away with just 20. Perhaps it was the commotion that an Indian family was causing after they were accused of being NRI, but I handed in my ‘locals’ ticket and was waved through. SCORE!

I’m staying at The Gateway Hotel (it’s #3 on Tripadvisor after the uber-expensive Oberoi Amarvilas)- a very nice hotel with a great view of the Taj Mahal from my room. I was lucky enough to be upgraded to a suite thanks to pointing out a piece of glass that looked like it could have fallen off the window (in the next year or so, but hey I could have just saved a yet unborn person from fatal injury!!).

The suite was a welcome contrast from the scummy Southern in Delhi; I spent about 40 minutes under the full body Hans-Grohe shower in the all marble bathroom- absolute HEAVEN!

After a guided tour of the Taj from Mayank, our fluent-in-Russian guide, came the anticlimax of the day- a crappy dinner at the Maya restaurant. The guide was obviously earning a commission to recommend this place. I knew it was time to leave the restaurant when I had to tell the waiter, “Umm, sir could you please take AWAY that giant dog that’s roaming free around the diners, and cancel the wine that we ordered before the meal?!”
The next morning it was no time to spare as I had to make it back to Delhi Railway station to catch the 1630 Shatabdi Express to Amritsar. Amritsar is the holiest city for the Sikhs and closest city to the border with Pakistan. I'm looking forward to seeing the Golden Temple and maybe even the border ceremony at the town of Wagha.

A quick stop in Delhi

Darminder, our driver brought us back safely and the next morning I was to meet up with my cousin from Vancouver before heading down to Agra.

That evening I met up with my friend Rashi from Delhi, and we met up with some friends of hers at Aqua, at The Park Hotel. It’s a swanky poolside bar where beautiful 20 and 30-somethings share the patio with ‘left over’ hotel guests from earlier in the day.

The (mostly European) tourists all looked a bit out of place as their poolside retreat turned from a sunbathing haven to a party scene for Delhi-ites. One by one you could see the look on their faces turn to that uncomfortablt look that says, "we really don't belong here, perhaps we should retire for the evening". Great, more cabanas for us party people!

I chatted with some nice people there; I was curious about the Delhi social scene and what they thought of their reputation (given by folks from Mumbai) for being snobby. One girl summed it up nicely, “it’s just that we dress up more- in Mumbai they are too casual. Even if I go shopping, I would probably dress up as I just don’t know who I’ll bump into”.

So listen up ladies, no going to the supermarket in your bunny slippers in Delhi!

I really enjoyed listening to some ambitious stories too- like Amrita- a Torontonian NRI who didn’t speak a word of Hindi, but had fallen in love with the idea of upping and moving to Delhi to begin a business focused on Yoga for women. So she did it! Delhi was a happening place indeed.

Now let me tell you about Ashok, my stalker rickshaw driver. He had taken me to the bar from my hotel, the horrendous Southern Hotel in Karolbagh (more on that later) and as I found out later, at Rs150, Ashok had totally overcharged me for my ride.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he also fooled me into thinking that it would be impossible to get a ride back (the ‘gullible sucker’ sign on my forehead was obviously lit up brightly tonight).

He told me I should call him for a ride back at the end of the night (at the same overpriced rate of course!). Now as it happens I did not have enough change when he dropped me off, so I told him I would pay him the Rs30 I shorted him on my way back.

I had given my phone number to Ashok and that was a big mistake- never give your phone number to rickshaw drivers! He actually called me in the bar to ask how I was doing and whether I would be coming out any time soon! He was beginning to annoy me.

When I did emerge from Aqua, I called him to come and pick me up, then duly walked down to the street, where I saw a whole line of auto-rickshaws waiting eagerly for my business! What a liar Ashok!

Of course I asked the first one in line how much to The Southern and it was Rs120. Now, I could either 1) be all moral and wait for Ashok and pay him what would be a total of Rs300, or take the cab at hand now and save Rs60 at the same time.

Ashok had taken me on two counts and now it was payback time. “TO THE SOUTHERN! And make it snappy, jaldi!! jaldi!!” I shouted to the first cabbie in the line.

Ashok had probably appeared in front of the hotel about 10 minutes later and become enraged at not seeing me there. He started calling me. He kept calling, and calling…and that little seed of guilt I had for ditching him meant I really had nothing to say to him so I hung up on him…I had to hang up on him 10 times that night before turning my phone off altogether. I got another 2 calls from him on turning my phone on in the morning!

Now, considering he knew exactly where I was staying, I had visions of Ashok waiting for me in front of the hotel when I checked out with a few auto-rickshaw henchmen ready to bundle me with blankets and shove me into the back of the little 3 wheeler. I would be sped away at 18-20kph to a deserted Metro station construction site outside the city where they would beat me for the shorted Rs180. I checked out of the hotel in a hurry and only when the driver was waiting outside with the door open!

I finally answered Ashok's 15th call at 1pm the next day and spoke to him from a safe distance of Agra (300km away). The conversation went something like this (in Hindi of course):

Me: “Hello??”
Ashok: “This is Ashok, your taxi driver from last night”
Me: “Oh!, um OK…”
Ashok: “Where are you?”
Me; “I’m in Agra”
Ashok: “So you’re coming back tonight then?”
Me: “no!”
Ashok: “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO TO ME LAST NIGHT?! YOU CALLED ME THEN YOU LEFT ME THERE, YOU…”
Me: CLICK

Yeah it was an awkward conversation, but I think he got the message.

Ashok if you’re reading this, I’m sorry- send me your information; I’ll send you the one dollar by Western Union!

And finally a quick word about The Southern. My stay was set up by ‘a friend of a friend’ and let’s just say, lesson learned: never trust a friend of a friend more than Tripadvisor! (Gosh you’d think I worked for those folks!).

Stay away! The whole hotel smells like sewage. Enough said!

Well my quick stop in Delhi was fun. The next morning I met my cousin who was wisely staying in a better hotel near the airport (her flight got in at 1am!), and we hit the road with a new driver to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal!

Jaipur; like totally Pink!

Not that I’m out to set any record for modes of transport used, but hey I just counted 8 in this trip so far! (plane, train, automobile, scooter, motorbike, bike, cycle rickshaw and auto rickshaw). I wonder if I can get to 10 by May?!

I’m revisiting the trusted car for this segment. My train from Chandigarh arrived in Delhi at 1030am and I’m picking up my friend Rajiv (and some of his friends) from Delhi and continuing straight on to Jaipur, aka ‘The Pink City’ and capital of Rajasthan state.

Our driver, Darminder negotiated his way through Delhi traffic (a mission in itself) as well as trucks driving the wrong way on a divided road, giant tractor trailers hauling hay bales that are a lane and a half wide, cows on the median, trucks carrying buffalos, trucks carrying horses, trucks carrying other trucks…and myriad other road hazards and entertainment. I dared not close my eyes for the whole trip in fear of missing any of it!

My hotel, The Royal Orchid Central Jaipur is really quite nice- a quiet oasis from the bustle of Jaipur (hmm flashbacks to Chennai?!). This was another top pick from Trip Advisor. There’s a great rooftop pool and restaurant and very cozy rooms. The staff are eager to please, down to the always smiling, Rajasthani-turbaned Hukkam Singh at the front door, with a moustache so long it wraps around his ears!

The hotel does have the most archaic system to get connected to the internet though. I had to call the front desk to log on; they sent a guy to my room with a print out that I had to sign; he tore off the top half with the log in info and gave it to me. Obviously labour is cheaper than technology around here. Unfortunately it’s not that cheap to connect, so I have written this entry offline, while Batman and Robin dubbed in Hindi played on the TV in the background, and now I’m online, I have one hour to upload and check my email before Lethal Weapon starts- I can’t wait to hear how Bruce Willis sounds in Hindi!

In the morning Darminder organized a tour of the city and I must admit, I was just not paying too much attention to the guide- I was just enjoying the sites. Let’s face it, who remembers dates and place names on these guided tours anyway?! In fact I’m thinking of starting my own tour company called “Valley Girl Guides”. It’s a California-based company(!). Here’s our blurb on Jaipur:


“So, like you HAVE to go to Jaipur!? There’s like a new city, and then there’s like an old city...the old city is right in the center of the new city. The new part has like tons of markets and shops and stuff, and a bunch of cows and wild boars and like a zillion flies!

Oh and do you like Pink? OMG! You’ll love this place, it’s like totally PINK! This Maharaja dude back in the day had the city painted when his friend, Prince Albert visited. I thought that was a piercing…Whatever! But it’s like so cool!

Ok so then you could like, walk around the Maharaja’s palace and see the world’s biggest sundial at the Junter Munter, and other old stuff. Then you can go up to some fort in an old Jeep (you CAN NOT walk up there in heels), and you can see a fort or a something or like a castle. It’s got gardens and a room made of mirrors. Basically it’s more totally awesome old stuff. It’s AWESOME! Have fun and buy some stuff from the child labor kids, they worked hard for your dollar!!

Valley Girl’s Top Tasty Tip: Try freshly squeezed Sugar Cane juice! Note: the glasses are not washed and there are like a zillion flies sitting on them, so ask for a clean glass. Your glass will be brought out from the back so you can’t see the flies that were sitting on it, so that's way better. The juice is totally delicious and just 7 Rupees so you can totally afford the hospital bill for Hepatitis if you get it! Good Luck”

Hmm…maybe not.

Two nights and a full day of walking had left me exhausted. I will just have to let the pictures do the talking! Gosh that reminds me I really should upload some!

It’s now Saturday and I’m stopping for a night in Delhi to pick up one of my cousins from Vancouver who happens to be in town too- we’re off to see the Taj Mahal tomorrow!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chandigarh

I’ve spent the last 2 days getting reacquainted with the city of Chandigarh after a 25 year gap. It’s a self governing city (Union Territory) as well as being the capital of 2 states- Haryana and Punjab (2 state governors live side by side!) and most exciting of all, it was designed and planned by leading designers in the 1950s, most notable of all, Swiss-born LeCorbusier. See the Wikipedia link at the top for more information. (Thanks to my cousin Amar for providing!)

So to recap, I made it here by ‘Volvo’ Coach from Delhi after Indian Airlines cancelled my flight. When I finally did make it to Chandigarh, it was a great relief to end my day with a warm welcome from my uncle and aunt. Their anticipation and my exhaustion had been growing in equal measure since 2pm, so by the time we met at 10:30pm they were really excited and I was really exhausted. Nonetheless we had a great reunion and spent a few hours catching up before hitting the sack.

The following morning my aunt began stuffing with me with food in good Indian Aunty fashion, and before I could say, “I need a nap” they took me out on a tour of the city. As we started to drive around, I was particularly interested to see buildings designed and built as part of LeCorbusier’s master plan for the city. I was not disappointed- the modernist architecture of The Secretariat (government buildings) and the High Court were beautiful- clean linear grey concrete structures marked with splashes of colour and surrounded by green open spaces. This was optimistic 50s architecture and urban planning in all its glory.

I started to realize that Chandigarh was just not the same India in which I had spent the last 3 weeks. This city was relatively clean and gleaming with civic pride. There were a lot of signs that made this point clear; for example there’s a large Rose Garden and even a Rose festival that includes a ‘best roundabout garden’ competition. Signs encourage people to use waste bins and keep the city green, there are even signs encouraging people to take walks and enjoy nature!

But that was just the beginning- there are lanes marked on the litter-free main roads (one day people may actually drive in them!), and they even have a digital countdown showing when the light will turn. The main roads are tree-flanked, divided boulevards- straight, flat and free of cows! There’s a cool breeze from the hills that makes for fresh clean air to breathe. It’s never too hot here and the whole place is buzzing with happy people. I think I just found my happy place!

Far from being like ‘master planned’ communities in the US, the best part is that this city has character! Each sector (neighborhood) has been designed with its own shopping area so people can walk to their local shops; most even have their own temple. There are so many uniquely designed homes and so many mature trees everywhere, it never feels stale or boring.

A bizarre feature- the residential streets don’t have names; your house is identified by its number and sector number. It all seems to work and it’s actually quite cool. Perhaps it’s one more step in redefining what a city should look and feel like.

Chandigarh is also one of India’s richest cities. That’s a welcome statistic and it translates to very few beggars (begging is actually illegal here- surely a first for India!). There are a lot of very nice neighborhoods around the city too, including Panchkula; where every street seemed to be filled with uniquely designed marble-clad mansions that would be the envy of people from most western cities.

My day was filled with stops that showed off the city- a Bougainvillea garden with a war memorial, drinks at the private “Chandigarh Club” where my uncle is a member. Then there was Sukhna lake- a picturesque man made lake where families were out enjoying boat rides and where you can walk or jog along the lakeside during morning and evening music. There was Rajiv Gandhi IT Park, full of brand new glass buildings and the Chandimandar Military Cantonment and bustling Sector 43 Outdoor market. The list went on- this city had something exciting to see around every corner.

I was really enjoying being here. It was a relaxed, comfortable and safe place. Toward the end of the day my uncle drove us to Panjore Gardens in the hills above the city, and finally to the Timber Trail restaurant just outside the hill town of Kalka. There was a cable car taking people up to a hotel of the same name, and amazing views down into the valley.

We had dinner at an uncle’s house that night whom I had not seen for 14 years- last time his daughter was 7 and scared of my ‘cut thumb’ trick; now she was learning Japanese and becoming a doctor. Talk about a time warp! I really enjoyed catching up with them and it was amazing to hear that despite growing up in the US, she actually enjoyed it here enough to say she wasn’t desperate to move back there.

The next morning, after a buttery breakfast of Aloo Parantha and home made yoghurt, I took a cycle rickshaw (first time on this trip) to Sector 17- the giant concrete shopping piazza where Chandigarh shops and socializes.

After people watching for a few hours, there followed another emotional family reunion as I met up with some more cousins after 25 years. They live in a new housing development outside the neighboring town of Mohali called, “Sunny Enclave”. It was sunny alright- it’s always sunny in Sunny Enclave.

My time in Chandigarh was rapidly coming to a close… way too fast- I was left with a list of places to visit and things to see on my “I’ll be back” list. Chandigarh is a model city not only for India but for the world- of course it helps that the Indian people have brought it to life with their flair and character. And how! Go Punjabis!

The next day I was going on to Delhi, by yet another new transport method- train. I took the express ‘Shatabdi’ train from Chandigarh to Delhi. For western standards, the train was a bit rickety and a bit congested but it made up for those minor shortcomings with a great service, speed (300KM to Delhi in just over 3 hours) and of course value. The ticket was just over 400Rs ($10) and for that I got several cups of tea, a newspaper and a tasty breakfast with an omelet. Of course getting to the station for my 0650 departure was a drag but it was by far the most reliable way to get to Delhi, based on my past experience with Indian Airlines. I would take an early rise over an airport delay any day.

En route I met Mr. Yadhav, a 26 year veteran employee of government owned HTM (Hindustan Tool Manufacturers). Mr. Y works in marketing for their tractor division and was en route to a meeting with the government to talk about new developments and potential orders.

We talked for the whole 3 hour trip about his paltry salary of Rs. 20K/mo ($500), the state of the Indian Tractor manufacturing business, his son who had just moved to study Hotel Management in Brisbane and his hopes of one day in the not to distant future, leaving the public sector to pursue a job with his competition, where he could quadruple his salary. He told me that HTM Tractors had had a hiring freeze since 1990 and were not competitive with the likes of new entrants including John Deere. I started getting angry on his behalf and giving him my opinions on the state of the company. Mr. Y. was lapping up my western marketing talk and I felt like quite the consultant all of a sudden! “We have an expression in English”, I said, “ ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’- you should jump ship to the competition before your company goes out of business!” I told him. “YES YES, I will go home and discuss with my wife.”

As the train clickety-clacked its way through farmland and I saw the sunrise over the flat horizon of Haryana state, I pictured myself as a marketing guru working in India, hosting seminars on Internet marketing across the land, attended by thousands of eager business people just like Mr. Yahdhav. I was going to be the master of the marketing lecture circuit in India! I would live in Chandigarh and go boating at the weekends; visit my holiday retreat in Kasauli in the summers and patriotically drive a Tata car. I would nod my head sideways a lot in approval, disapproval and also when unsure to all who crossed my way. It would be great!

I have now arrived in Delhi, excited about the next section of my trip- Jaipur, the Pink City. On to Jaipur tomorow by hired car!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

IC 864 is cancelled

In the last installment of '87 Days', I left myself open to a catastrophic let-down, as I built my hopes up for a great return to Punjab and its shining capital Chandigarh after 25 years.

En route from Chennai to Delhi, Captain Akash Sahokh's piloting skills must have been top class, as he wafted the A-320 through the sky like a baby rocker with its own white noise generator; I slept for all but a few minutes of his Jet Lite flight. Alas once I got to Delhi, the story changed as I was now in the hands of the national carrier- Air India/Indian Airlines.

Now I say Air India AND Indian airlines and I hear you ask- which one was it?! Well it was both, and neither. You see the partnership is so confusing I have had to consult my sage of all knowledge, Wikipedia. She (Wikipedia is a She of course!) says,

"Though the company that owns and operates the airline continues to be named Indian Airlines Limited, on 7 December 2005, the airline was rebranded as Indian for advertising purposes as a part of a program to revamp its image in preparation for an initial public offering (IPO). The airline operates closely with Air India, India's national carrier. Alliance Air, a fully-owned subsidiary of Indian Airlines, was renamed Air India Regional.

In February 2007, the Government of India approved plans to merge Indian Airlines with Air India. In May 2007, India's Ministry of Civil Aviation announced that Air India Limited (AI), India's national flag carrier and Indian Airlines Limited (IA), the government owned domestic airline, would merge with effect from July 15, 2007. The new airline formed by the merger was to be called "Air India", and would operate in both the domestic and international sectors."

Are you confused yet? I am. So Indian Airlines is actually "Indian" but nobody calls it that, they work closely with Air India but of course they should as they have merged(!), and after the merger, they are actually a new airline called Air India, but my flight was still on Indian Airlines, which technically doesn't exist? OK sure, for India- that's quite logical!

WHATEVER!

The 1:10 Departure of my 50 minute flight meant I had to wait 4 hours in the terminal building. Fine- I walked around the area about 17 times, played Valet Hero until my iPhone battery died, (I am addicted to this idiotic game where you have to guide cars to their parking spots).

Oh, and I also ate at McDonald's India for the first time (along with everyone else in the terminal as there was no other decent food there). McD's does not serve Beef or Pork so as not to offend Hindus or Muslims respetively, leaving only MuckNuggets (sic), fish and Chicken sandwiches. I ate the Chicken sandwich, as for some reason I keep thinking the waters around India are so polluted, every fish in their seas has ingested at least a pound of mercury, swam through raw sewage and nibbled on the heels of a few chappals (ladies sandals) lost at sea. Not enough irradiation by McDonald's would make me change my mind. However for some reason I also imagine the little chickens hand fed little tasty morsels of corn and croutons, by Monks in orange robes, overseen by the Dalai Lama himself, thereby making the Chicken sandwiches a better option, obviously.

Ok so the wait for my flight went beyond the scheduled boarding time and the natives started getting restless. Apparantley the crew was 'missing'. They hadn't shown up to work! We were told by the HCs (Headless Chickens, AKA Indian Airlines staff) to rest assured as there was no way the flight was going to be cancelled. In just 10 minutes they would be ready to go!

About 2:30pm, the flight was cancelled. The HCs had hell to pay. Fellow passengers were annoyed about the reason given too- it was Holi and a lot of staff had called in sick. Ok Holi is a national holiday celebrated by people throwing coloured powder at each other (makes for great National Geographic photography but I could imagine it's hell to get the coloured powder out of your eyes). Right then I wanted to throw coloured powder at the faces of the HCs. Using paint ball guns of course. So rather than take a day off, the staff called in sick and there were no staff to cover them, and we were just going to have to deal with it?!

The HCs told us they were organising a bus to take us to Chandigarh, or we could stay overnight. My uncle and aunt were waiting for me so I chose the bus. The HCs offered us free snacks from McDonalds- our choice of MUCKFISH or Chicken. Well I went for #2 (as in a second sandwich!)... Stuck in the airport for 7 hours and on my second McChicken Sandwich meal from McDonalds... this was turning into "The Terminal" meets "Supersize Me"!

Several hours later, the HCs had run around the terminal with a lot of paperwork, ran away from and towards several dozen passengers (in fear and with paperwork respectively), stamped a lot of papers and tried to calm a lot of people down. But there was still no sign of a bus.

Then a large red oblong beacon of hope, a large "Volvo" bus showed up infront of the terminal. We were like convicts who just made parole, and our wardens, the HCs were probably equally thrilled, now free of us at last they probably went inside and high fived each other.

The Volvo swallowed up our luggage in the hold and we were off!

Note- I learned that "Volvo" is to an A/C bus like Kleenex is to tissues- ie. the generic name. If you're lucky the bus will actually be a Volvo, but it's not guaranteed. (I didn't have time to check this one). I heard people calling to inform relatives that IC (Indian Airlines code) had put on a Volvo for them. I wondered why Swedes are featuring so heavily in my travels lately (Abba cafe in Varkala, travel buddy Hokkam from Sweden, the Ikean embassy in Chennai...) ?!

Well 5 hours later we were almost in Chandigarh, and I had made a whole load of new friends on the bus! This was actually the best thing that could have happened in my quest to connect with local people. I learned the story of a 56 year old man who was working as a concrete foreman on construction projects in Dubai; he was coming home to his wife in a small village in Punjab after 6 months of living with 4 other men in one room. He had brought her a few small gifts...from the plane! A "soft shawl" (airplane blanket) and "cutlery set" complete with plastic stirrer, and a pen (with the construction company logo on it). For himself he had picked up a bottle of Scotch from Duty Free. This was going to be a great vacation for him!

There was the college student who had gone to Kolkata and Shilong to get away from the pressures of studying, and a couple from Ludhiana who run a bicycle parts manufacturing company that supplies to the UK. They have a son doing an MBA in Cardiff they were proud to tell me...and finally an ex-army officer who now flies helicopters in the Northwest of India.

My great group of fellow Punjabis and I were all making the most of our misfortune by sharing stories at the Dhaba (food stall) in Karnal where we stopped off en route for some masala chai and biscuits.

We made it to Chandigarh around 10:30pm and my uncle was at the bus stop to pick me up, my aunt waiting in the street when we got home. Hugs and kisses and after recounting the tales of the day, I was off to sleep to begin afresh the next day.

What adventures awaited in Chandigarh?!






Either way, it is amazing

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chennai to Chandigarh

As I part ways with Chennai, here are some reflections:


I can’t find anyone to say Chennai is a beautiful city. Alas if the locals can't do it, I'm the last one to bestow false platitudes upon it! Let’s be honest, I was most glad to leave the auto-rickshaw for my room at The Ikean Embassy at ever opportunity!

However I can say (with relief) that the people of Chennai proved to be a redeeming factor in my views about the city. I really wanted to talk to some locals and it happened easily- I chatted and laughed with my fellow passenger on the city bus from Chennai to Mahabalapuram (16Rs). I learned that the 37 year old commuted 150Kms several times a week looking after a cardboard box packaging business and that he had previously worked in Saudi Arabia for 17,000 Rupees ($300) a month as a driver but the mean Saudi boss made him wait 3 months to get paid and in the end he had to complain to the labour board to get his money. He took a pay cut to just over $200 month for this job but it was worth every penny to come back to India. He looked about 47 and we were both surprised when we discovered we were the same age. It’s amazing what a few hundred KMs fewer commuting every month (and a few more skin care products) can do for the skin!

Later on, I became best buddies with a group of Tamil guys in their 20s who were sitting on a rock, at the site of ancient temples whiling away their Sunday afternoon. The chat went from one of them asking, "Are you Tamil?" and ending with us taking a group picture all hugging, and me renaming the one they all teased for wearing sunglasses as, "Mr. Sexy" and promising to make a billboard in London of the picture I took of him, with the caption, "For a good time, call Mr. Sexy"... They were in hysterics. Then the made me repeat a line that their Tamil film hero always speaks and videoed it on their phones. I guess I have a knack for connecting with the locals!

I spent the day at the temples of Mahabalapuram, a World Heritage Site- the carvings in the rocks are amazingly detailed. Unfortunately Indians are not really good at enjoying anything from a distance. Let's just say, they're 'hands on' with their ancient artifacts. Hands on, limbs on, bodies on... even flasks of tea on....there were people sprawled out on the ancient rocks like they were at the beach, people sliding down rock faces like they were at a park...the list of horrors goes on.

In general, less educated Indians (they’re here in their millions), throw plastic cups, bottles and wrappers on the ground like it was the only thing to do with them, men just urinate from any convenient location. For some reason I keep thinking about the contrasts between throwing a cup out of a bus window and peeing on to a wall, to the way people live in my old neighborhood in Laguna Hills California. A man urinating on someone’s front wall without a care in the world, versus a neighborhood watch letter informing a resident that their garage door is open too long, or their hedge has 4 extra leaves on it...for example…it’s just SO extreme!!! I want to do a social experiment and pluck a family from an Indian slum and move them into a McMansion in Orange County, and then plant one from the OC into a slum dwelling in India. I think the latter family would just about have a breakdown within 24 hours. How lucky I am to have experienced both worlds, to see the contrast first hand!

I rented a bike from the Radisson Resort down the road from the temples- it was a fun and fast way to see the rocks, but 90 minutes was about all I could take. The town surrounding the site had a stench from Hell. In true Indian style, just beyond the gates, The Radisson resort smelled of paradise. A 180 degree departure from life outside the gates. I even saw a Porsche 911 parked in the lot! The resort deatured amazing bungalows built around a man made lake and the restaurant was serving a fresh barbeque fish selection. All this while people sat in the dirt outside with naked babies, begging for money.

While out on the bike, I reached a new low in disgust. After taking a wrong turn down an alley, I saw 2 rotting dog carcasses just lying on a heap of garbage at the edge of a park where kids were happily playing cricket. One even looked like it had been burned. A very nasty experience. I couldn’t pedal my way out of there fast enough!

At one point in my walk among the temples I saw a little boy of about 4 walking all alone! I talked to him and even stopped and gave him a granola bar from my bag. I had to stop a family who spoke English to ask the boy where his parents were. "He knows where he is going" said the woman, and walked off... leaving me just a little disturbed that parents would let a little boy that young walk alone amongst a crowd of thousands, and not one of the thousands would notice. I was saddened, beyond any misery I had felt on my whole trip thusfar. I walked with Darshan as far as I could to see where he was going- and when he got to the edge of the tourist area and walked into the adjacent village, I waved him off and let him go. I caught this on camera and it makes me sad to see this clip every time.

Well on a brighter note, my day had enough action to make up for the previous day's inactivity. I made some new friends through some friends of a friend (ha!) and before I knew it we were hanging out poolside at The Ideal Beach Resort, just outside Mahabalapuram. Wow was it ever a welcome relief to come back into an isolated bubble of loveliness!

We had dinner at a cool restaurant and Hookah bar called Mocha Mojo, which those of you following with Eagle eyes will recall is the same name as the bar in Mumbai where I had sat with Kunal and tried for 2 hours to dissuade him from buying a Bio-Disc. Just a quick flashback there, but this place was unrelated to the one in Mumbai. This amazing group of new friends included 3 Fellowes from the US, working on NGO programs doing work with among other things, HIV affected women in rural areas. They have set up a kitchen where women can cook for cheap and sell their food into the community. Learning about all this good work was a really welcome balance to the negative thoughts from earlier in the day. Nicole, Tatiana, Elyse, Lokesh, Nikolai, ‘Anna and the Mexican’ and of course Nipsy… fantastic people- it was so GREAT to spend time with them!

And so now I am very excited. I am going to see my people; both literally and figuratively. I’m going to stay with my aunt and uncle in Chandigarh (not Bel Air! But the Fresh Prince of Chandigarh has a ring to it). And I am of course, a proud Punjabi. I have not been to Punjab for 25 years. Let’s hope they’ve been busy building straight, cow-free roads and proper toilets!

Chandigarh is often regarded as India’s finest city- designed by a Swiss designer (Le Corbusier). It is ‘master planned’ down to its man-made lake and ‘sector’ layout. I have my hopes high. The hope building also continues, as tomorrow I board my first ever Jet Airways flight. India’s finest airline to India’s finest city? Well let’s see how the expectations re-setting goes!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chillin in Chennai part 2

I met some interesting characters last night. A woman, a man, a Facebook romance ...just another tale from India's intriguing fabric.
As luck would have it I was back in the same neighborhood- the beach at Besant Nagar, 2 for 2. And, because of my recluse day yesterday and a day out at Mahalabarapuram today (a World Heritage Site full of temples south of Chennai) this meant the beach at Besant Nagar, the airport, the hotel and a whole lot of traffic in between, were the only things I have seen in Chennai. I'll have to hold final judgement on the city for another trip.
Hey I learned two Indian-English verbs today. "Four Laning"... As in "Construction Work- Four-Laning in progress"... This is a verb to increase the width of a two lane highway into a four lane highway!
The other one is "Timepass". I like this one! This is a verb to mean doing something to pass the time, or a time-wasting activity. You can use it next time you see your coworker texting her boyfriend when she should be working. "Hey stop doing timepass- at least make me some tea if you're bored!"

Taking a time out in Chennai

Room service is on its way so I better make this quick.

Yesterday I arrived in Chennai and first impressions are not great- the city seems very congested and polluted; there are fly-overs and traffic jams everywhere and in general people seem a lot less happy than they did in Kerala. I miss the smiling Keralans faces already.

The frantic Taxi ride was not much fun either; the driver spoke no English so gone was the chance for my default 'sense of the city' conversation with the one guy who knows the city best.

In the evening however, Chennai redeemed itself a bit, as I ventured out to Besant Beach and people watched while I ate my dinner at Tasty Jones Cafe.

Later on I met up with my friend Sooraj who lives here. It was great to see a familiar face and we caught up while he enjoyed a late snack and I had dessert.

The hotel is worth a mention- The Lemon Tree Hotel. After 3 weeks of very Indian accomodation, this place is an oasis of non-Indian ness. I'm calling it the "Ikean Embassy". Also it smells of lemons.

The Euro furnishings and cozy duvet, the English speaking TV, the climate control; the lack of mosquitos and the warm lighting- it's all playing with my mind. I slept in until 11am, cossetted only by the slightest breeze from the ceiling fan.

I awoke to realize just how much for granted we take all these luxuries.

My cousin Avi called me from Toronto using his Vonage line and now I really felt disconnected from the India outside my double glazed window. I chatted with him for over an hour and he recounted a hilarious tale from his recent cruise to the Caribbean that must be retold:

He had been chatting to a fellow cruiser, a Texan man, who was sharing his experiences aboard the boat. Everything was fantastic they agreed, but the Texan mentioned how unhappy he was with the microwave in their room- it just didn't work very well.

Avi started quizzing the man, as he had no microwave in his cabin
and would not have said no to such a wonderful convenience to their stay on the ship.

"Where exactly IS the microwave?" Avi asked..... "Well, you know, it's riiight thaayar, insiide the clooset?" (think: Texan accent).

Inside the closet?! Avi went back to his room and sure enough his suspicions were confirmed. His Texan friend had been placing meals inside the room safe to warm them up.

The best line though I save for last: "The microwave does work," he said, "it's just really slow- we put in some food one night and by the morning, it had cooked just a bit"...

Well cooked or not, his food had been safe as other guests' diamond jewellery.

Well India continues to amaze and impress me- but for most of today I'm going to be a recluse in the Ikean Embassy until the sun abates. Perhaps I'll venture out after my late lunch. Talking of which, Room service has arrived- it's time for my mushroom soup, club sandwich, and melon juice (for 9pounds!). Cheap good food rocks!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kochi- funny airport code, fascinating history

Today I said goodbye to Kerala and hello to Tamil Nadu. I flew on IC511, a decrepit Indian Airlines Airbus A320 that was a good candidate for an episode of “How Dirty is Your Plane?”. This thing needed a good scrub down from the inside out. Luckily the food on board was delicious enough to distract me from looking too hard at the dirt. It’s amazing that Indian Airlines can serve a delicious meal on board a quarter full, 1 hour flight, while US carriers will leave you starving or let you pay for a 3rd rate snack on a 5 hour flight right across the country.

As Captain Prashant Rajdev piloted us safely across India and I munched on Cholay Paneer, I reflected on my last few days-

On Wednesday, I was to catch a boat from Kollam to Allepy, to ferry me up through the backwaters of Kerala and help me continue my journey northwards to Kochi. Unfortunately I had left Varkala too late to catch the train, so I took a cab. Alas I still arrived too late to catch the boat from Kollam, (I’d like to blame traffic but it was actually because I had been too busy enjoying my breakfast of porridge, fruit salad and iced coffee at the Abba Café).

Luckily my cab driver had a plan of epic proportions. For another 300Rs, he drove me to a tiny village, where he knew of an even tinier jetty. From there he phoned a friend who had a line to the captain of the boat. The friend told the captain he needed to make a pit stop at the jetty to collect a lonely backpacker that would be waving him down. Luckily it all went to plan and I got a special pick up from the river side! I actually needn’t have waved so frantically. Nothing is frantic around here.

The backwaters are beautiful- especially around sunset. We passed by village life on the banks; kids bathing in the river, women washing clothes and dishes in the river, their heads lifting for a couple of seconds to see us waft by, sometimes waving back. More than once I actually felt a bit voyeuristic- after all you wouldn’t like it if someone passed by your kitchen window in a bus and peered in for a few seconds while you were doing the dishes!

By sunset we arrived into Allepy, and 8 hours of chatting with fellow passengers had paid off; I now had a travel companion (Hokkam from Sweden!), and a free lift to Kochi with 2 French couples who had a rented minibus. I was ready to say goodbye to the boat and looking forward to the next adventure.

We arrived into Fort Kochi late, and Hokam had the worse sense of direction ever (I knew it was bad when I had to tell him we had already walked through this intersection 3 times looking for a place to stay). We walked (and I sweated) our way around Fort Kochi for an hour or so, looking at rooms in homestays and B&Bs. After I had lost my day’s water intake in sweat I just needed a place to stay. The place to stay became a 1700s Dutch Colonial hotel called The Rosita Inn on Rose Street, with a lovely courtyard and just a few steps to the action. So for 1500Rs/night, it was a deal for the next 2 nights.

Hokam and I spent most of the next day exploring by foot- and what a delight Fort Kochi is! It was coveted, plundered and rebuilt by the Dutch, French and British and remnants of all these colonial powers remain. This was a smorgasbord of cultural remnants, to use a phrase from Hokam’s home country. It’s just bursting with color, character and life; from cantilevered Chinese fishing nets to a Portuguese Catholic Church built in 1505, to a whole area of antiques shops in ‘Jew Town’, and no shortage of restaurants and cafes to recuperate from the heat. There’s some beautiful colonial architecture to admire and myriad alleys where rickshaw drivers are awaiting to offer you a ride to your next destination, even if it’s a 3 minute walk away. (me: “It’s just around the corner, I’ll just walk thanks!”, Rickshaw walla: “but Only 10 Rupees!”).

Hokkam was one hungry Swede- so we asked a rickshaw driver for a lunch recommendation where locals go- and were pointed to Krishna’s Café. Now I can say I’ve had my cheapest meal out ever! Hokkam ordered 2 Vegetarian Thalis, I had one, along with 2 “Lahar Pepsis”… and the total bill (for 3 meals essentially) was 100 Rs. About 1 Pound 30p, or $2 US. And the meals were delicious and filling! Wow one could get used to eating good food for nearly free!

Other firsts today were 1) eating an Italian pizza for dinner in an Indian restaurant, and 2) eating an Italian style pizza in an Indian restaurant with no lights, as the electricity went out in the restaurant about 2 minutes into my meal!

And so we come back to this morning, when I had just enough time to pack up and catch the A/C bus to the airport for my flight. Next stop, Chennai!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wherever I oil my head, that’s my Om

I’m now in week 3 of my trip so I’m going to recap my experiences from week 2 (at the Beth Saida Hermitage) and get up to date on my travels this week.

Far from going insane in solitude last week, I actually found some partners in crime and together we chuckled the latter half of the week away, improvising wry commentary at the goings on around us. My fellow guests Tina (Cologne), Norina (Basel) and I had no shortage of material between the guests and staff to keep us in hysterics.

The biggest drama though was the Russian woman who had slipped poolside and fractured her hip. This was most inconvenient for me as the hotel representative who accompanied her to the hospital was also the only guy who could process my mobile phone top up. I had to wait a whole afternoon- some people are so inconsiderate!

Other funny moments included the old German woman who kept pulling the male staff aside one by one and making them pose for pictures; one under a tree, one by the pool etc. We imagined she was working on a “Men of Kerala” calendar 2011 (think dark skin and moustaches as a theme). And then we saw her walking with what was surely to be Mr. December- a 4-starred security guard whom she escorted back to her quarters, no doubt for a more intimate photo-shoot.

I got non-stop entertainment from trying to explain English idioms to the staff. Like “That’s the way the cookie crumbles”. It was impossible as they kept thinking I was being literal. Then there was the Bugs Bunny incident- the last guy thought I was saying “Bagbani” but then one waiter thought I was saying “Pakistani”- he thought I was asking him if he’d ever seen a Pakistani cartoon about a rabbit. I now realise that in an Indian accent “Bugs Bunny" and "Pakistani” actually do sound similar. So from then on, Tina and I were convinced Bugs Bunny was Muslim.

I’m pretty sure Tina and I will see each other in Hell.

I left the Bethsaida Hermitage thoroughly relaxed, mind cleansed and body massaged to the point where I couldn’t handle any more massages (The last one was the nail in the coffin- a sort of Rice Pudding rub!!).

I was also tired of South Indian vegetarian curries. I sent the staff into shock by Friday as I ordered an omelet at lunch and by Saturday I broke up with Vegetarianism and dug into some Tandoori chicken. Crispy dead bird had never tasted so good!

I also left knowing a lot of Malayalam swear words, taught to me by the waiters. They all seemed to enjoy it when I swore at them!

So in summary- there were lots of sunset pictures, a short trip to Kovalam beach, daily swims, massages, yoga classes, lots of food, talking and laughing, a couple of Keralan entertainment shows, and a lot of Malayalam swearing…and my stay was over.

My next destination is Varkala, further up the west coast of India, past Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum). A little like Kovalam in that it is a favourite of hippies and travelers, it’s unique in its setting on the top of (red) cliffs. There is a narrow walkway on the clifftop that stretches for at least a couple of miles, full of places to eat and shops selling every trinket ever made in India- from elephants to Saris, to elephants wearing saris. They’re all here.

I am staying at The Kerala Bamboo Resort, recommended by my friend Ankit. It’s quaint- a series of bamboo huts surrounding a courtyard with a koi pond and just a few steps to the cliff-top walk. A nice little oasis just a few steps from the people watching.

Varkala is a great place to connect with my inner backpacker (you know, the one that is lugging this giant backpack around, constantly wondering if a Tumi wheeled case wouldn’t have sufficed nicely thank you). There are a lot of skinny, hippie looking travelers in their 20s, the type of people who don't question the fecal matter count of the ocean or what species of jelly-fish are present before swimming in it. The type that rent motorbikes without a license and drive in the pouring rain without a care in the world. I'm not sure I will ever find that inner back packer in me. But it's fun to hear their tales!

The beach itself is a little disappointing only in that in comparison to my oasis in Kovalam (I know it’s such an unfair comparison), it’s filthy. The beach is littered with garbage; mostly empty plastic bottles. India has got some catching up to do.

I whiled away the evening chatting with fellow travelers, breathing in second hand pot smoke and listening to reggae. At one point we all had to run for shelter as the heavens opened up for a 5 minute downpour. I’ve never been so happy to feel rain; it’s very very hot and humid here. At least 34C. I am just constantly sweating, and not just a ‘dab it off with a moist towellette’ sweating… I mean profusely. Like drops and drops of sweat, constantly pouring down my face, all day. There was no point applying any moisturizer to my face, hair product or even sun tan cream this morning. I did, only to feel everything get washed off in an instant by a tsunami of sweat beads.

So I spent the hottest part of the day playing “Valet Hero” on my iPod touch. It’s quite addictive. I am now sitting on the terrace of my bamboo bungalow looking at the koi pond and listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings… that bit of music heard during the soppy scenes of nearly every love story ever made.

Und! Now I wait, for ze inferno to become ‘just a sauna’ before heading out for a cold coffee or two at Abba Café.

I'm meeting up with Sarah from Pinner, Middlesex tonight for dinner. She was in the online media business and left her job to travel. How bizarre :).

I love not being the only crazy one here- she's travelling around for 8 months :)