Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A Final Message from Mumbai

Every journey moves inexorably to the point that I am currently facing. With every passing day, every steady minute and every fleeting second, that point in time is brought ever closer. And finally, it's presence becomes so apparent that you are forced to adjust your course to meet it. The end.

A point in time with such startling finality. Each of my every-day actions became somewhat more noticeable, more pointed. The simple act of donning my closed shoes, which previously lay forgotten at the bottom of my bag, had such obvious clarity of being the first time I had done so since removing them two months ago. It was a signal of my leaving, my imminent return home. I was struck by the thought that all of this, these experiences and memories, would be just that - memories and experiences - as soon as I leave. The immediacy of being here is condemned to be lost.

My Indian journey has been a true rollercoaster ride of experience. I have felt defeated by the crazy systems and masses of people. I have struggled to find my way and felt out of place. But I have also laughed at the crazy systems, got back on track and found a groove in which I fit. India seemed to fight against me at every possible moment at the start of my trip, and the craziness got the better of me. I felt swamped and overpowered, struggling to make sense of this amazing place. It was loud, fast and overbearing. It was the freezing cold water that I didn't let get past my ankles when the best course of action was just to jump in. I stood at the water's edge for a long while, afraid of the leap required, resisting it, until finally I relented. I immersed myself in India and found that the water was not as cold as I had imagined, or feared. It was refreshing and invigorating. I was instilled with a sense of vibrancy and awareness. I woke up to the wonders of this incredible country.

And now, what seems like such a short time after my awakening, I am forced to say goodbye to India. I have to let go of the country and cling tightly to the memories it has given me. Each place I visited and every person I met will be remembered. I will cherish the memories of all the times I laughed and all the times I felt despair. I will hold on to the fleeting memories of the sights and sounds, the smells and the tastes that so defined my experience.

I must leave India, but I leave knowing I will be back. In my two months of travel I feel that I've barely scratched the surface of what India has to offer. This vast chunk of land holds so much more for me to explore, to learn, to witness.

I must leave India, but I leave changed. India has altered my perspectives and adjusted my views. India has opened my mind to so much more. There is still so much to see and do, and barely enough time to see and do it. A world awaits me...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Old Goa and the Goa of Old

There comes a point in every travelers life that he must get off his arse and type up a blog post to keep the people who read it informed about his whereabouts. That time, for me, has come. I've been putting off typing up another blog post for the reason that there won't be many blog posts left to write after this one. The truth is that there's precious little time left for me in this marvelous country and if I catch up with my writing there'll be almost nothing left to write about.

But I must catch up.

If you're wondering where I am at the moment, I will tell you. I am in the diminutive town of Chapora - the Goa of Old. A quaint, one-street town which is a favourite Goa's hippy scene. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I write about the Goa of Old I must first write about how I got here. And getting here was preceded by a trip to Old Goa. If this doesn't make sense yet, bear with me - it soon will.

Old Goa was the capital of Goa during the era of Goa's Portuguese occupation. It is now pretty much a ghost town. What was once a thriving city at the height of the Portuguese rule is now just a husk of a town. The only buildings which remain are the churches and cathedrals which serve as a testament to the Catholic influence which differentiates Goa from other Indian states. Old Goa is also a convenient 15 minute bus ride away from Panaji, making it a perfect day trip for the travel enthusiast. Well, almost perfect.

Se Cathedral
Old Goa was definitely worth the visit and the churches and cathedrals were large and numerous, but it failed to excite me. I suppose that was partially due to the crowds of other tourists who got bussed straight in, and partly because Old Goa gave off an air of discomfort. It's quite difficult to explain, but Old Goa felt as if it didn't belong in India, in Goa even. Everywhere you looked you were confronted by another massive, out-of-place church. The churches dominated the area and I couldn't help but feel that it was all intended as a display of dominance by the Portuguese. The imposing structures seemed to be built to be formidable. It all felt like a religious prick-waving contest that got seriously out of hand.

Churches aren't my thing, but I do love a good beach. And so, with the beach beckoning I left Panaji and headed north to Anjuna. Anjuna is another stalwart of the old hippy scene and used to have a reputation as the place to go to experience a Goan trance party. I imagine things have calmed down since then because I only caught wind of one party happening and the next day everyone said it got closed down at 11 PM.

The sunset over Anjuna
Anjuna may not be the place to go for a party anymore, but it is a great spot to go for a swim. For once the waves were of a moderate size and could be bodysurfed, unlike anywhere else in Goa. That said, waiting for the waves of a moderate size that could be bodysurfed seemed to take up most of the time that I spent in the water. At this point you can probably deduce where this blog post is going to go. Yep, nowhere. When you're spending most of the day on a beach there's not much to write home about.

I did visit the Mapusa Friday market for a couple of hours, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. What was on sale was mostly just tourist crap and fish. I did scour the market for anything interesting or different, but all of the places were selling the same slew of tourist trash - trinkets and T-shirts mostly.

Funnily enough I decided that Anjuna wasn't the best place to be staying. I'm not sure why I came to that conclusion, but it made sense in my mind at the time. I decided to move on after only a few days of lazing on the beach. I even moved away from the beach - to Chapora.


Chapora is a forgotten town. Forgotten by
tourists, at least
The Lonely Planet likens Chapora to the Mos Eisley Canteen in Star Wars and when I arrived here I understood why. It's not much bigger than a canteen, for a start, and its residents (local and hippy alike) have a very relaxed and slow pace of life. That might have something to do with the charas those hippies are smoking, but I can't be certain. It is the Goa of Old and that's what makes it an attractive place to stay. Chapora has not grown up with the rest of Goa. Everywhere else in Goa is full of tourists, Chapora has only a light sprinkling - and most of them are long-stayers. Chapora is still decidedly cheap, whereas the rest of Goa has hiked its prices up to milk the package tourists. I like Chapora. It's just what I was looking for, an almost untainted Goa, a lack of other tourists.

There's nothing to do in Chapora, nothing pressing at least. And I can't help but like that about it. I can spend a full day sipping chai and reading a book and not have to worry that I'm being slack because there's nothing else to do. I think I might just get stuck here for a while...
A short walk from Chapora - Vagator beach

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Indians

Spending every day on a beach for a week is fantastic, but doing so means there's precious little to share with you, the readers of my blog. I thought I'd take a different angle with this post and attempt to describe the Indian people. This may make no sense whatsoever, but if it does it would be a fitting description of Indian people as a whole.

I'll start off by saying that to group all Indians together and try to describe them as a single people (which is my plan) is a ridiculous notion. The people are different everywhere you go, sometimes only marginally, other times drastically.

Indians never cease to amaze and amuse me and occasionally shock me into silence. I am constantly amazed by the warmth that the people of this fine country exhibit. Everywhere I go I encounter people smiling broadly and laughing loudly. The happiness is contagious and I've often had to stop my self grinning like a maniac while walking down a busy street, garnering funny looks from the laughing locals. Laughs, smiles and jokes are a way of life in India, and yet I'm always left wondering - why?

India's economy is booming, and that is a gross understatement. The new wealth in India is remarkable, staggering even. India is going places, fast. New money is everywhere, it is flaunted and put on display, mostly garishly. It's not enough just to be wealthy, one's wealth must be flaunted at every possible occasion. There is this crazy urge to be seen to be wealthy.. A crazy urge which seems to be killing the smiles and laughs and jokes. Yes, the smiles are still there, ditto the laughs, but they're different - hollow. In public, the wealthy laugh too loudly and speak too loudly. Trying, it seems, to draw attention to themselves, to show a carefree side which probably no longer exists.

It seems to me that the happiest Indians are those who don't have all that pressure of wealth placed upon their shoulders. The rickshaw-wallahs, dabba-wallahs and chai-wallahs. The people who are still surprised to see foreigners and are eager to have their pictures taken with them. The laughs from them seem genuine, the smiles truly happy. These are the people of the India of old, before the craziness of the dash for riches permeated their society. These are the people I love to meet. Those who have so little always seem to have the most to give.

I'll deviate now to something which I find very peculiar - the India-Pakistan relationship. Leaving aside all the history between these two nations I'd like to discuss a strange reaction I got when I asked an Indian man about his thoughts on the relationship. A little background though - this man is from Pune (a city about an hour from Mumbai, fairly large and progressive), he grew up in Mumbai in a fairly well-off family and after school set about making himself a lot of money. He is not incredibly rich, like some Indians, but he is rich enough to want to be seen to be rich. His brother-in-law is a high-ranking army officer.

When I asked him about what he thought about Pakistan this was his exact response:
"I'm telling you, If  I ever meet a Pakistani... or a Bangladeshi... I will slap him in the face!"
I was shocked! Such raw hatred for an entire country of people. I wanted to know why. I asked him...
"I know it's the 20 which give the other 80 a bad name, but I don't care, if I ever see a Pakistani I will slap him in the face!"
More shock! The 20 which give the other 80 a bad name. Here he was, happily admitting that the whole of Pakistan is not to blame for the animosity between these two countries, but that wouldn't stop him from physically assaulting a Pakistani person unlucky enough to come across him. I find the mutual hatred these countries have for each other astounding. Hatred for each other is ingrained in the societies to the extent that even a man from progressive Mumbai would happily attack his counterpart from Islamabad. This is not the way the world should work.

That conversation made a huge impact on me. It took me completely by surprise. I was suddenly left questioning if everyone felt this way. Could a people so outwardly happy harbour such hatred for other people? Even my favourite Indianisms lost there flavour for a while.

The flavour quickly returned, though. But you're probably wondering what the hell an Indianism is. It's an Oliver Goosen invention, that's what it is. India is full of Indianisms. They are, by definition, very funny and distinctly Indian. An example of an Indianism would be talking to someone about cricket and the topic of Sachin Tendulkar pops up (as it inevitably does), "He is the maximum best batsmen in the world, my god!"
Say that with a pseudo-Indian accent and place emphasis on the underlined words and you'll see what I'm getting at. Indianisms are everywhere, in the way Indians speak, advertise and joke especially. Indiansims stem from the almost childlike way that Indians speak. I don't mean that in a condescending way at all, I just think it's oddly charming. When you've sat next to someone who describes a cricket shot as 'ultra-powerful, hyper-goodlooking' you'll know what I mean.

Indianisms are best experienced so I'll share with you a few of my favourites.

On the side of a road I spotted a cement factory. The building proudly displayed a sign which read: "Cement produced with robot technology!"
I was astounded! Here, in a random location in India, robots where making the cement for new buildings. What sheer brilliance, what incredible ingenuity!

I spotted another fantastic Indianism in a bus earlier today. Innocuously hidden just below a No Smoking sign were the words: 'NO SPITING!' I was lucky I spotted that because I had a spiteful comment lined up for the guy next to me who kept extending his seat space by stealing mine. But seeing as spitting wasn't prohibited I decide to mark out my territory with my saliva...

My all-time favourite Indianism comes from quite a large brand of... something... I'm not even sure what they're selling, but their name is one for the records. They trade under the fantastic title of Bumchums, and they advertise everywhere! I get some strange looks from locals every time I come across one of their signs. They all look at me and I can see them thinking, "What the fuck is that guy laughing about?"

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Sossegado

Writing this blog post is going to be hard work. Not because writing blogs is particularly hard, but because my fingers, and perhaps the rest of my body, have gone into a semi-comatose state brought about by the Goan beaches.

Palolem is a beach
My long train trip is over. All 38 hours of it. The train spat me out in the city of Margao in the south of Goa and I promptly caught a bus further south, to Palolem. Palolem is a beach town. It is is a beautiful beach town. It is, in fact, more of a beach than a town. The beach is, in essence, the town. Palolem is a beach. There are huts on the beach with people in them. And bars on the beach with other people in them. There are palm trees around the beach and a flat sea just off the beach. The beach is crescent-shaped, which is apparently a good shape for a beach to be. It is hot. It is sunny. There is a certain sossegado to life on this beach.

Sossegado is a distinctly Goan word. It translates, rather crudely, to laid-backness. It is undeniably the best word to describe life in a Goan beachside town. Life is just laid-back. There's not much to do but lie in the sun (or the shade, if you're a pasty individual like me who doesn't want to look like a burnt tomato at the end of the day) and read. And then spend some time in the balmy water. Because there's not much to do apart from be a lazy lout and enjoy yourself, there's not much to write about to interest other people in an obscure, traveler's blog post. Which is the reason I'm citing for not having written anything, up to now. I assure you it has everything to do with me being too lazy to remove myself from the beach and type something up.

Three paragraphs in and I've managed to say nothing at all. This is a pretty good sign. It looks like I'll be able to pass off my laziness by obscuring it in florid descriptions of beaches and palm trees.

This is my Palolem beach hut - swanky, right?
One remarkable thing about accommodation in Palolem is the accommodation itself. Almost all of the accommodation is of the tiny, beach hut variety, just off the beach, amongst the palm trees. These little huts are fantastic! They are assembled at the beginning of each tourist season, just after the monsoon, and disassembled at the end of each season, before the monsoon's return. Huts are pokey, with little more than a bed and a mosquito net (and a tiny bathroom, if you're lucky) which is exactly why I love them. Waking up in a rickety little hut and stumbling out on to a beach is a brilliant way to start a day. If you haven't experienced this, you'll have to take my word for it. Another brilliant feature of these little huts is the maze of sandy, shady alleyways that get formed between them. A walk along these narrow paths is a good way to step away from the countless European tourists in Speedos who inhabit the beach. Speedo's should be considered a crime against humanity.
I wake up to this...

Patnem, a semi-Speedo-free zone
A little way south of Palolem is another beach, Patnem. Patnem is also a crescent-shaped beach, but with the added advantage of having fewer Speedo-toting Europeans around. It's a lot less busy and is therefore a good way of escaping the tourist hordes. I spent some time there today, and I plan on spending some more time there tomorrow, and the next day. Anything to save my eyes from that horrible excuse for a swimming costume. And the people who seem to think it's a very attractive swimming costume. These people are almost always fat, roasted men in their late fifties from the south of France.

With the conclusion of my rant on the heinous crime that is wearing a Speedo in public, or even in private for that matter, I think I'll conclude this pointless update of my blog. You are now aware of my laziness. My confirmation of it is firmly in writing. It's starting to approach evening time over here, the sun is well over the yardarm. I'm going to be heading back to the beach soon to enjoy a cold beer and a spicy, prawn vindaloo.

Oh God, those vindaloos... The mouth-watering explosion of flavour that is the Goan specialty dish. The spices, the fresh seafood which practically swam on to the plate, the zing of chilli... The sudden reverie that merely typing the word 'vindaloo' induces...

I'm off... I think I'll have an early supper.

A snapshot of the rocky Colomb bay

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Only in India

A few recent events have led me to give this post that title. And it's theme. I'm going to dedicate this post to things you'll probably only encounter in India.

Since day one I've witnessed events that, in other countries, would be considered strange at the very least. Although I'm sure that many of these events do happen elsewhere, just out of the view of everyone else. I'll start off small...

One thing you're likely only to witness in India is someone else's morning ablutions... outside... in the gutter... of a busy street. Yes, sadly I've had to witness this. And when I say witness, I mean I was there when it happened. I didn't walk by later and see the evidence. It's pretty rough, and it's made even more rough by the fact that nobody else seems to notice. People seem blissfully unaware as to what is happening just a few feet away. I put this down to the fact that there are almost no public toilets to speak of in India. For example, in Mumbai (a city with a population of nearly 17 million people) there are only about 300 public toilet facilities.

Varanasi and the Ganges
Moving on. Varanasi is a very holy city for Hindus. Dying in Varanasi allows a believer to be freed from the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It comes as no surprise, then, that Varanasi is a very auspicious place to die and death is very much a part of life (uhh...) in Varanasi. After a long overnight train trip I arrived in Varanasi and made my way through a warren of little alleys to the guest house at which I'd be staying. On my way I heard chanting coming from behind me. I turned around and saw a body being carried down to the burning ghat for cremation, wrapped in a white cloth, head bobbing as it was whisked off to the pyres. Only in India.

Staying on the topic of dead people - a boat trip on the Ganges... While most people who die in Varanasi get a flaming send-off, others are not so lucky. Young girls, pregnant women and lepers don't get burnt at the funeral pyres. I'm not sure why although a guy did mention it had something to do with the young girls and foetuses being innocent. I'm not sure about the lepers though. Anyway, those who don't get burnt have a somewhat different send-off. They get wrapped up in a white cloth, tied to a huge boulder and dropped in the deepest part of the Ganges. Nice. The ropes they use to tie the bodies to the boulders are notoriously weak and it's not uncommon to see a body floating down the Ganges. Which brings me to my boat trip. You can't visit Varanasi and get away without taking a paddle up and down the Ganges, and perhaps watching a puja along the way. I went on a cruise of the Ganges and guess what bobbed past...
Yes, you guessed it - a body. Wrapped in a white cloth and looking decidedly displeased about being released by it's boulder. But it had to make an appearance on Halloween, right?

This last one could happen anywhere, and probably does. But the fact that it happened in India, while I was watching, afforded me the opportunity to shake my head in disbelief and say, "Only in India."
I was sitting in the exact spot I'm sitting now, in an Internet Cafe. The lights started flickering and I wondered what might be causing them to do so. A flash of light outside caught my attention as the lights flickered inside. I looked outside, and saw...

Quite typically of an overhead electricity cable, it was exploding as the current passed through it. The cable crackled and lit up with a bright, white light as it cascaded sparks into a nearby tree. You'd think an event such as this would draw a crowd. Quite the opposite; rickshaws, motorbikes and pedestrians calmly passed by as the sparks showered down nearby. The only acknowledgement of the exploding, overhead cable was by the pedestrians who crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the sparks. Calm as you like.

Only in India...

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Taj Mahal and Some Fireworks

I would, at the outset of this blog post, like to inform you that I am writing it after having got very little sleep the night before. This is largely due to the fact that I was on a train and the person next to me snored at a decibel level that would shame a Boeing. I will add that (minus the snoring) the train was a fantastic experience and I'm looking forward to my next train trip - which is a long one!

Wednesday was Diwali, by the way, but I'll get to that a little later on. First on the agenda is this:


The Taj Mahal is, simply put, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It is seemingly perfect in every way. It stands on a raised platform so that it's only backdrop is the sky. The four minarets lean ever so slightly outwards so that one's gaze is drawn to the Taj. The white marble reflects the sun to give the whole building a slight glow. And it is big. It is very, very big yet somehow, I had expected it to be smaller. All the pictures of the Taj make it appear smaller than it is, but as you approach it you can't help but be blown away by the enormity of it. It's as if the Taj is trying to sneak up on you and then jump out at you while shouting, "Surprise!"

There is an interesting optical illusion as you enter the Taj complex. As you walk into the gateway the Taj appears to be magnified, but upon exiting the gate the Taj seems to recede. The effect is that you get overawed by the building twice on you approach to it. See for yourself:

Entering the Taj grounds through the main gate

Inside the Taj grounds, at the reflection pool
I thought this optical illusion was a fantastic piece of architecture and design and I had to share it with you.

Did I mention something about fireworks? Oh, yes - Diwali!

Diwali is something special. It is the craziest, loudest and brightest (and possibly the most dangerous) festival I have ever attended. And by attended I mean observed from a safe distance. Diwali in India is both easy and difficult to describe. It is easy to say that firecrackers and fireworks were set off the whole night, but it is not easy to convey that that means by everyone and everywhere. I sat for hours on a rooftop watching the festivities. There was a constant stream of fireworks being shot into the sky from all around. And firecrackers exploded everywhere, creating a rhythm for the night.

This was only a few metres way from my perch
The thought of venturing on to the streets didn't cross my mind once, though. This is because the streets didn't look like a safe place to be at all. I watched fireworks being placed and lit and then people on motorbikes casually driving past as they shot into the air. I watched as fireworks were shot into the air nearby and exploded merely 10 metres above the rooftop I was sitting on.

Diwali is not safe, but it is a blast! I'm so glad I got to experience the festival of light in the country that loves it the most. It was a whirl of light, noise and sound and a fantastic shock to the senses. It was the perfect way to end a day that included a trip to the Taj Mahal.

I'll write more about my train journey and Varanasi in my next blog. Spoiler alert: I wasn't in Varanasi for more than 10 minutes before I saw a body being carried to the Ganges for burning on a funeral pyre.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Towns in the Desert


Bikaner is a town much like every other town in Rajasthan. It is hot, dry, sandy, and it has a fort. It is also a town much like ever other Indian town - noisy, grubby and occasionally smelly. Unfortunately for Bikaner, it's pretty much bog-standard as towns go. Not even the fort leaps out at you and exclaims its presence. That said, I had a really relaxed couple of days in Bikaner. The heat means that any form of exertion is probably folly, so you're best off finding a nice, shady spot and reading a book. Which is exactly what I did.

I did visit the Junagarh fort on my second day in Bikaner, but that only took 2 hours out of my lazy day of book-reading and snoozing in the shade. The fort was, surprisingly, not built on a hill which means it's the only fort not on a hilltop in Rajasthan. Meandering around the fort, through the opulent rooms with impressive views of Bikaner was a welcome alternative to reading my book, which I had whittled down to the last few pages. Sight-seeing always seems like the thing a tourist must do at all times, but I find that reading a book in an interesting place can be just as rewarding as bumbling around the said interesting place with a guide book in hand and a lost expression on the face.

I left Bikaner with no pages left to read in my book and the hope that Pushkar would be a more interesting place around which to aimlessly wander. Pushkar, as it turns out, is fantastic for the aimless wanderer. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Before I got to Pushkar, Kaushik took me past the Rat Temple in Deshnok. As the name suggests, rats are worshiped at this temple. As the name further suggests, there are thousands of 'holy' rats which live in the temple and are fed in the temple. It's quite a strange experience walking through a temple and watching thousands of rats scurry around between (and sometimes on) the feet of the temple-goers.

Pushkar is a very holy place to most Indians, perhaps the holiest of all places in India. It is believed that at this place Brahma dropped a lotus flower to earth from which the lake in the center of town sprung. Brahma was apparently conducting a ceremony here and his wife, Savitri, hadn't pitched yet. To spite his wife for not pitching Brahma married some other bird right there and then. Savitri thought that was about as good a time as any to rock up and when she arrived she saw Brahma had married some random lady. She was pissed off at Brahma and vowed he would be worshiped at not other place than Pushkar. Brahma was pissed off that she was pissed off about him marrying some other woman and he vowed she would not be worshiped in the town itself and would have to be worshiped outside of the town. So Brahma ended up with a temple in the town center and Savitri got a spot on a hilltop nearby. A priest told me this story, although he used slightly different language to tell it.

 The Brahma temple is one of only a handful in the world and so a visit was definitely on the cards. I did visit the temple, but found that it was somewhat like every other temple I've ever visited. To an atheist all temples seem the same after a while. The walk around Pushkar was a much better experience though. I walked all the way around the lake, along small streets lined with shops selling garments, incense, spices and local treats. Crowds of people drifted to and from the lake, coming or going from their holy baths. Pushkar, as it turns out, is a fantastic place around which to wander aimlessly, and i'm a huge fan of aimless wandering.

I'm staying an extra day in Pushkar because I've been invited to a birthday party. Alcohol is not allowed in Pushkar as it is such a holy place, but I believe we'll be blaspheming tonight as I've been told there'll be whisky for everyone...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

On Forts, Food and Fitting In

Ancient forts are the hot topic when it comes to touring Rajasthan. If you're not in a town with a fort or a grand palace then you're not doing the whole tourist thing properly. But if you happen to see a fort somewhere in the town and if that fort is on top of a hill, you've hit the big-time.

The three cities I've visited in Rajasthan so far have each sported some kind of massive structure straddling a hilltop. In Udaipur there was the City Palace, in Jodhpur - the 16th century giant fort, Mehrangarh; and in Jaisalmer - the 12th century Jaisalmer Kila.

I've already mentioned Udaipur's City Palace so I'll be moving on to Mehrangarh... Mehrangarh is sold to tourists as Rajasthan's greatest fort and it is definitely deserving of the title. It is a massive structure which dominates Jodhpur's skyline. Its enormity and its position on the hilltop have ensured that in its five hundred years of existence it has not once been breached by an attacking army. And it's easy to see why...

Mehrangarh

Jaisalmer Fort is somewhat less overbearing than Mehrangarh and still forms part of the town of Jaisalmer. People still live within the walls of the fort and it is a bustling hub of activity with markets and temples at its core. As you've probably guessed, Jaisalmer Fort is on a hilltop overlooking Jaisalmer. Its walls are made up of 99 sandstone bastions which are, apparently, slowly collapsing. The fort was built on fairly weak foundations and the daily activities of its inhabitants are slowly eroding the foundations even further. This is largely due to the large quantities of water that get poured  into the streets from haveli windows and doorsteps.

Not the best picture of Jaisalmer fort, but
you can see a bastion...
So, now that I've mentioned the forts it's time to get on to the next item on the agenda - food. I love food. Especially curry. India is the best place in the world to have a culinary epiphany. I've been here for 6 days now and I've only eaten one meal more than once - chicken masala. Every day, I eat something entirely different to what I ate the day before. I've eaten dhals, paneers, rotis, chapatis, naans, tikkas and masalas. It's fair to say I love spicy food. And spice in general (Masala chai is a great way to start the day).

The options on the menus seem endless and there is such variety to the food that I'm constantly astounded that it's all considered one cuisine.
Nothing beats the experience of having an Indian meal. Ordering a curry and tucking into it with that trusty butter naan as your only eating utensil. There's something remarkably gratifying about eating a curry with only your fingers and half-risen bread. If I ever manage to get fat, it'll be because of these bloody delicious curries.

And finally, fitting in. I chose the words 'fitting in' simply because it made the title of my blog sound much more pleasing to the ear. I have as much chance of fitting in to Indian society as a radish has of becoming Australia's next Masterchef. My plan for managing the system in India is to completely immerse myself in it. It is impossible to fight against the current in this country so the only course of action is to flow with it. As such, I'm learning Hindi from Kaushik and have occasionally caught myself doing the Indian head-wobble. I don't think I'll ever be truly fluent in Hindi, but at the moment I know enough to greet people, ask how they are, answer them if they ask me, and order beer/food at a restaurant. Just enough to get by.

Namaste

Oliver  

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Change of Plans

Those of you who knew I as traveling to India probably had a rough idea of where I intended to go. As I told you, I planned on arriving in Mumbai and heading south to Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. I feel it's necessary to update you about my 'slight' change of plans with regards to direction.

When I arrived in Mumbai I set about finding out the best way to get to Goa. In my search for clarity I ended up being informed that now is a terrible time to go to Goa, you silly tourist, you... Monsoon has just ended and the tides are all funky. This basically translates to: "If you're going for the beaches you'll be surprised to find that there aren't any."

After a quick rethink with the help of a friendly guy who asked to be referred to as Ali (after Ali G) I changed my plans and booked tickets to go north. I arranged to meet a driver who would take me on a whirlwind tour of Rajasthan before depositing me in Agra to catch a train to Varanasi, but more on that later.

As you can imagine I was quite nervous about booking this whole trip, but I put my faith in Ali and went ahead with it anyway. Yesterday afternoon I caught a taxi to the bus station, ready to jump on the bus to Udaipur, only to be told the bus had been cancelled. Oh fuck!
Not to worry, Ali rescued the situation. He pointed me towards a bus and said that that bus would be going to Udaipur, but I couldn't stay on it the whole way. He told me ride the bus as far as Boribuli and then get off and wait for another bus which would be going to Udaipur. The darkest hours of my trip followed. I got off the bus at Boribuli and waited... and waited... and waited...

I was stuck in a tiny travel office for nearly 3 hours waiting for a bus to take me to Udaipur. The bus kept getting delayed and I worried that I was going to be stuck in that damn travel office for the rest of my stay in India. For the first time ever, I harboured thoughts of going home - leaving it all behind and giving up. I arrived in India with such arrogance and I have been quickly humbled by this giant of a country. Travel here is not going to be easy.

The bus arrived. My journey to Udaipur began in earnest. After 21 hours on the road, or on the side of it (hour-long breaks seemed to happen every hour or two) I arrived in Udaipur. I was greeted by the head-wobbling Kaushik, my driver for the next couple of weeks.

Ahhh... Curry...
After a long journey with very little food my stomach was not just grumbling, but shouting at me. I beat a track to the nearest curry joint and wolfed down a fantastic chicken masala with butter naan. The food here is fantastic - curries, biryanis, dhals - all exploding with flavour. It's a spice-lovers paradise. Hmmmm... food...

It's a pity you don't see how long it takes to write these blog posts, because I was daydreaming about curries for a solid ten minutes just now.

But I digress, after being picked up by Kaushik I headed to the City Palace; a stately building which was built over a few centuries by many different kings. The result is a strange amalgamation of rooms and nooks and crannies that all differ slightly from the room or nook or cranny adjacent to them. There are random staircases that first wind down then spiral up for no apparent reason. From the highest point, however, is a remarkable view over cramped and crowded Udaipur. Houses seem to lean on each other and jostle for space that isn't there. I'm detecting a trend with Indian cities...

The City Palace - as viewed from a rooftop restaurant 
The palace was an intriguing  structure, but not what I had wanted to see most of all. That honour was reserved for Ahar - a collection of 250 tombs of the old kings of the Rajput laid out on a wide field. I wasn't disappointed. The white tombs with their domed roofs are quite remarkable. Although nothing compared to the likes of Angkor Wat or Bayon they are still striking in their own way. In typical Indian fashion they are surrounded by litter and seemingly forgotten, but this suited me just fine as it gave me freedom to wander around them at a steady pace and just take them in. Hassle free. Just what I needed.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped off at the Princess Garden which is thoroughly overrated, and an art school where local artists practice the fine Rajasthani painting so iconic of this region of India. That, too, was a bit of a letdown as none of the artists where actually painting anything at the time and it was clear that all they wanted me to do was buy as much of their art as I could carry.

I just read through my blog, got stuck at the food part, and now... curry.

Friday, 14 October 2011

A Message from Mumbai

I'm back!

The irony of that statement is that I'm actually not. Back - that is. In fact I'm now much further from any of you than I was in the past 2 months. But I'm back on the internet. Back to writing my blog. And now, you're back to reading it. We're all back. We're reverting to our old ways. Feels good doesn't it.

The title of this blog post should help you ascertain my whereabouts in the world, but it won't help you understand the place. That's what the body of this post should do - hopefully. Let me begin by describing Mumbai (I'm in India - if you hadn't yet worked it out. Also, if you hadn't yet worked it out there's no hope for you...)

Mumbai is a crazy city. The streets are filthy, strange pockets of strange smells waft through the air, cars and taxis buzz around the streets with hooters blaring. The lines between the rich and poor are blurred to the extent that they seem to be missing. Shacks surround high-rise hotels and banks, the railways and the airport. Decaying concrete buildings rise from the corners of streets adorned in drying clothes.
Cramped. That is a good word to use when describing Mumbai. Everything is packed together so closely and tightly that nothing can break away and be separate. Nothing stands out and yet nothing needs to stand out. Mumbai overloads the senses enough without anything jumping out at you.

It is an amazing place to be. A city full of smiling faces and crazy sights. A city with a loud, beating heart. The black-and-yellow taxis and rickshaws that buzz about on the streets are like the life-blood that pumps around the city. Mumbai is a huge organism that rarely sleeps, but it is undoubtedly alive! And with that word I think I have best described Mumbai. Alive. It need not be anything else, but alive.

Now it is time for me to leave you for the time being. There happens to be a very big cricket match about to start and I plan on watching it in a local pub. India vs England - the first ODI of the series. Should be a cracker!

Oliver

P.S. There will be no dong jokes, the currency isn't that funny here.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Saying Goodbye

Disclaimer: This isn't my last blog post.

It's 14:07. The clock is ticking very slowly and I'm grateful. Time seems to be slowing to accommodate my desire to stay in this place longer. It's still ticking though. Time is running out.

I've come to that point that every journey comes to eventually. The end. I have no more nights here. No more days, no more new experiences to add to my collection. No more memories to be made. And how do I feel? I feel sad to be leaving and at the same time excited to be going home. I want to go, but I can't bring myself to bear the thought of leaving. I feel relieved. Relieved to be ending my journey on a high note, relieved to know it's gone off without a hitch.

I feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achievement. I've done what I came here to do and so much more. I've traveled, laughed, made friends, crashed a motorbike, partied and felt it the next morning. I've seen temples and natural wonders. I've met people who have fascinated me with their tales and people who have shared their hurt with me. I've drunk beer at local taverns, danced with locals and played football with them too. I've been scratched, bumped, bruised and grazed and walked away with a smile. I've found a place in which I belong.

I am at peace with leaving, at peace with going home, and for the first time in a very long time - at peace with myself.

I will be back. But until that day I will cherish the memories I've made. I'll savour every recollection and every thought of this wonderful corner of the earth.

Today I say goodbye to a place which has performed a massive land grab on my heart and I do so with a smile on my face. I can't help but smile in this place.

Adieu
Oliver

"Ille terrarum mihi praeter omnes angulus ridet" - Horace (This corner of the earth smiles for me more than any other)

Friday, 1 July 2011

Recapping - Part 2

The second and final part of my recap, dealing with Hoi An and Hue, is about to commence.

Chris and I arrived in Hoi An with one goal in mind: to leave with suits. Awesome, tailor-made suits. We set about achieving this goal from the minute we arrived. We hussled over to a hotel with cheap rooms and dropped our bags off. We couldn't check in just yet as the room still needed to be cleaned so we headed out for some coffee. It's probably worth mentioning that it was 8AM when we arrived, not-so-fresh off a night bus from Nha Trang.

After coffee we set about scouting for suits and trying to find the best deals. We visited 6 suit shops in total and priced a large range of suits and fabrics. Two suit shops caught our eye, they were Minh Nhi and Nhat Vy. Both would do a wool-cashmere suit of incredibly fine quality for $110. Minh Nhi had just the fabric I was looking for and Nhat Vy had the fabric Chris was after. We didn't want to settle on anything just yet as we felt we needed to weigh up our options objectively to get the bet possible suit at the best possible price.

"To the Internet!" I cried.

I wish I'd said that, but that's exactly what we did. We hit the internet at our hotel and checked out the reputations of the places we had visited. Good reviews were scrutinised to make sure it wasn't a fake post by the tailor and bad reviews were equally scrutinised. No reviews meant no rep. We discussed our options and agreed that it would be best to go to the two standouts: Minh Nhi and Nhat Vy. But before we could get cracking we needed to wash the night bus off our bodies.

"To the Showers!" I cried.

And to the showers we went...

Getting sized for my suit.
After a thorough scrub and a bit of a rest we headed back to Minh Nhi so I could get sized for a suit. Getting a suit tailor made is a novel experience and probably one I won't experience again for a bloody long time. I sat down and specified the fabric I wanted, the colour of the silk lining, the colour of the piping, the style, the fit, the type of lapel, the number of buttons, the ride of the pants and the slant and style of the pockets amopng other things. I asked for a dragon to be embroidered on the lining of the suit. I had done a lot of research into the style of suits and what best to wear and how best to wear it before going suit shopping. It's best to be prepared and know exactly what you want. I was told to return the next morning for the first fitting, roughly 18 hours later.

Chris pulled this face just before being sized. Priceless
After the rush of being sized for a suit I took a back seat as Chris got sized at Nhat Vy. He went through the same process, being ultra-specific to ensure he got the suit he wanted. After being sized he was told to return the following day, just as I was. It amazes me to think that the tailors are able to produce a perfect suit in just over 24 hours.

We were excited about the prospect of getting our suits, but worried that they might not turn out as well as we had hoped. We decided the best thing to do was to have some bia hoi and stop worrying. At 3000 dong a glass (R1), one can hardly go wrong. We sat and sipped our beer and chatted about how our suits were going to turn out. After a couple of glasses we went on a stroll through the streets of the old town, found a place to have some coffee and sampled the Banh My. In the evening we headed down to the river to see the streets and river illuminated in yellow light from thousands of lanterns. Hoi An is a beautiful town.

The next day was D-Day. My first fitting was at 11AM and Chris's at 12. We didn't want to arrive early and be disappointed that they weren't there so we decided to arrive later instead. We took another leisurely stroll after breakfast and once again settled down for some coffee. We are complete addicts, if you hadn't already noticed.


At 11:15 we arrived at Minh Nhi and I tried on my suit for the first time. It was fantastic and fitted perfectly. There were a few touch-ups that needed to be made, but nothing major. The suit was better than I had hoped and all my fears were put to rest. I now knew what my suit looked like and I was very happy with the result.

The first fitting was incredible!
There's the dragon!
Chris had a slight disappointment with his suit. Nhat Vy hadn't had enough of the fabric he wanted to make a suit, but they had a fabric which was almost identical. They had cut the fabric and got the suit ready to be made, but were waiting for the go-ahead from Chris. After checking the fabric with his desired lining, Chris said he was happy with it and they could go ahead and make his suit. Four hours later he tried it on and it was a perfect fit. Barely any tough-ups needed to be made and Chris was told he could collect it in the next couple of hours.
Chris's purple pinstripe suit...

With a purple lining!

Collecting our suits was a simple affair. We arrived at our respective shops and tried the suit on once more. Checked that all the touch-ups had been made then payed up. We both walked away with huge smiles on our faces. We'd achieved our goal for Hoi An!

But a trip to Hoi An wouldn't be complete without a trip to My Son, the ancient Cham temples. Seeing as Chris wouldn't be seeing Angkor Wat it was only fitting that he take in some of the ancient history on offer in Southeast Asia. The day after we collected our suits we headed to the ancient temples. Chris was like a little child at the temples and couldn't help pointing out all the phallic symbols. I was, of course, a lot more mature about the whole thing. Needless to say, the dong jokes were flying.

The ancient cultures sure love their wangs...
Here's one such wang...

We left Hoi An the following morning and arrived in Hue at about midday. It was a scorcher of a day in Hue with the mercury hitting 40 degrees. We planned to go to the Citadel and Imperial Palace a little later in the day to avoid the midday heat. We avoided the midday heat, but caught the 2PM-4PM heat which wasn't much less hot. The Imperial Palace was just as aweome as I remembered it. It truly is an amazing group of structures and you get immediately transported back in time as you walk around the cloisters. You're constantly reminded that this was what the Asia of old looked like. The grandeur and wealth of the place is a show of power and the Palace oozes the strength of an Empire from every brick.

The next day we checked out of our hotel, visited an awesome pagoda and got conned out of lots of money. It was an interesting day. I'll start at the beginning. We were leaving on a sleeper bus that night so we checked out of our hotel in the morning and headed over the river to one of the 'National Pagodas.' It was midday when we arrived and all the monks were taking their afternoon nap. But this turned out to be a good thing as we had the entire pagoda to ourselves and we were free to walk around and explore as much as we wanted. I'm not entirely sure why it's called a 'national' pagoda because it was pretty damn similar to the other thousand pagodas I've visited. It was still great to see though.

He was nice, until he took our money.
We left the pagoda and got screwed out of money. We met a really nice English teacher and got chatting with him. He was very friendly and invited us back to his house for some beer. We agreed and headed back to his house and had some beer with him. It was all very friendly and welcoming. He then suggested we get some lunch. We agreed, once again. This was our mistake. He took us to a local place that served hot pots and we sat down and had some more beer. The hot pot came out and we all tucked in. After eating our fill we headed back to his place and had some coffee. He then told us the cost of the meal was 520 000 dong and we had to pay it. We refused. He had invited his family along and had to contribute. We wouldn't subsidise his meal... Or so we thought. We ended up coughing up 400 000 dong for a shitty meal. Trust me, hot pots are shitty. Seafood hot pots have literally no taste. I don't know why we agreed to have it in the first place.

It's fair to say we were pretty, fucking hacked off with that wanker! All of our previous experiences with locals and sharing meals with them have been fantastic and they've always put in just as much as we have for the meal. To be ripped off by that guy left me feeling angry that he thought we had loads of money simply because we're tourists here. We had told him we were students and we were travelling on a tight budget. We had even explained how our currency is not that strong and it doesn't get us as far as European tourists.

We left that night for Hanoi feeling outraged at that seemingly nice man. But thankfully my experience with him highlighted how all those other meals with locals are such special events. Events and experiences I'll remember forever.

Oliver

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Recapping - Part 1

To say the past couple of weeks have been hectic would be a gross understatement. Chris and I have been packing our days with as much as we can possibly handle. It stands to reason that I've been a little too distracted with travel to write up my blog. To put things in perspective: My last blog came to you from Da Lat and covered everything up until leaving Mui Ne. This blog is coming to you from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, 1500km north of Da Lat (or: two 4-hour buses, one 12-hour overnight bus and one 15-hour overnight bus in backpacker terms).

I've decided to split this blog into two parts as writing one blog about all that has happened in the 11 days since my last entry would be too cumbersome. Part 1 will include Da Lat and Nha Trang and Part 2 will include Hoi An and Hue...

Part 1 starts roughly an hour after I finished typing up my last blog. We had been invited by the guys who ran our hotel to play a game of football that evening. It sounded like a great idea and we agreed to go along. At 18:30 we jumped on the backs of motorbikes and headed off to the football field. It was freezing and the ride on the back of the motos to get there was chilly to say the least. The field was a small astroturf only big enough for 5-a-side, enclosed by nets to stop the ball rolling on to the adjacent fields. I'm afradi I don't have any photos as I was expecting it to rain so I didn't bring my camera. My expectations turned out to be correct. About five minutes into the match it started belting down and it didn't stop for the rest of the night. Within seconds we were soaked to the bone. The only way to stave off the cold was to get stuck into the game. We did just that.

It was an awesome game and possibly the best experience of my trip so far. The rain and cold only added to the experience. The cold forced us to throw ourselves entirely into the game to stay warm and we were rewarded for our efforts. We had started off quite slowly as a team and soon found ourselves 5-1 down. We quickly adjusted to the conditions and mounted a comeback that was nothing short of legendary. As we became used to the rapid movement of the ball on the wet astroturf we started to judge our passes better and started timing our shots much more exactly. We became better as a team and moved the ball around fluidly between us. The result was utter dominance over our opponents.

I hate to be unfair to the rest of the team, but it was the foreigners who proved to be the winning ticket. Chris, the two Americans (Joe and Shawn) and I scored the majority of the goals for our team and performed the midfield roles to perfection - controlling and distributing the ball. In the end Chris had scored about 5 goals, Joe - 3, Shawn - 5 and I - 8.

After a solid hour of intense football the game abruptly stopped. We were told we had won and were heartily congratulated by the other team. The locals on our team were beaming and seemed very happy with the way the game had turned out. We were quickly ushered back on to the motorbikes and whisked off to the hotel. At the hotel we were told to meet in the reception area in 45 minutes. As winners we'd be going out for supper. It sounded fantastic!

45 minutes later, after a much-needed, hot shower we all met in the reception area and piled into a taxi. The taxi took us down the road to a little local restaurant which turned out to be closed. Another plan was hatched and we were put on the back of motorbikes again and scooted up the road to another local resaurant. We sat down and were brought piping hot rice wine to warm us up. It was just the thing we needed. After a ridiculous amount of shots of rice wine a huge, steaming hot pot was placed on the table. The rice wine flowed and the hot pot rapidly diminished and finally, feeling full and utterly content we hopped into a taxi and headed back to the warmth of our beds. A fantastic day concluded with a smile.

The next day we wandered around town and visited the Crazy House for a dose of the absurd. The morning started off with a meeting with the leader of the Easy Riders over some green tea. We said we wanted to do a motorbike tour the next day and it was quickly organised. We then took a very leisurely meander through the town and ended up at the Crazy House. Not much has changed since the last time I was there, but that's a good thing as it remains as absurd as ever. It was surprisingly good to revisit the Crazy House and it brought back great memories of the Easy Rider tour I did the previous time I was in Da Lat and made me eager to do the tour the next day.

Da Lat is full of pleasant surprises. The next morning we walked over to Peace Cafe to meet our Easy Rider companions for the day. You'll never guess who turned up. Or perhaps you will...

Dunhill! You couldn't have scripted it better! The star performer of the last Easy Rider tour I did had made a comeback and was now taking Chris and I on a tour. It was fantastic! The laugh, the smile, the knowledge of the history of the country - Dunhill was just as awesome as I remembered him. The tour was fantastic. We visited some of the same places as the last time, but added a few more. It's always good to be doing something new and all my fears of doing an identical tour to the previous time were quickly allayed. We took in some fantastic views, stood under a raging waterfall and visited a beautiful pagoda among other things. It was a great day out and really rounded off my experience of Da Lat.

The return of Dunhill!
The next morning we hit the road to Nha Trang. The bus trip was nothing short of memorable, if perhaps, for the wrong reasons,. The poor kid who was sitting directly behind me was terribly carsick. The road down to Nha Trang from Da Lat is probably the most winding road in the country and the poor guy felt it. He spent the better part of four hours barfing into a plastic bag.

We spent the afternoon lazing around the streets and beaches of Nha Trang then headed out in the evening to play a game of pool and have a beer. The roughest night of my trip certainly wasn't planned, but somehow it pieced itself together. One beer and a game of pool somehow morphed into a beer, a game of pool, a free mojito and 3 buckets of rum and coke. It was brutal, especially when you consider that rum is cheaper than coke, thus more rum goes into a bucket than coke. It tasted like rum with black food colourant. It was messy, very messy...

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch a boat tour of the islands. Needless to say the last thing I wanted was to be on a rocking boat. But I'll leave it at that. The boat trip started slowly with a visit to an over-priced aquarium which we chose to skip. We'd be snorkelling at the next island so there was no point in seeing fish in a tank. A swim was just what I needed to break me out of the haze and I was feeling much better after we left the second island. A huge lucn followed and it completely sorted me out. I was feeling right as rain by the time we stopped at the third island. At the third island things got extreme. The boy band came out to play us a few songs, but the lead singer was a Ho Chi lookalike. He was such a cool guy and rocked out on the drums and then the guitar, singing all the time. It was rock 'n roll at its finest with Ho Chi taking the lead. Pure genius!

Karaoke followed, which was a bit of a let down as we were now forced to listen to all the other tourists warble away at the tops of their lungs. The Irish contingent did the tourists proud, though with a swinging version of some Mexican song.

The floating bar followed and I dived into the water to cool off. Despite my best efforts to avoid the bar I had 4 horrible shots forced on me. I let a lot of that brutal liquid wash away into the sea and steered clear of the bar. I opted to lie in the water and cool off. I was still recuperating from the night before.

After a brief stop at the fourth, and final, island we headed back to the harbour. The Irish blokes were now well on their way and sang along to all the old classics that got blared over the stereo. They were great company and one couldn't help but smile at their rendition of Wonderwall by Oasis.

We arrived back at the hotel and booked our bus ticket out for the next day. We collapsed on o our beds just in time to catch the start of the day's play at Wimbledon. It was a brilliantly relaxing end to a packed day. We packed our bags the next morning and checked out. We then headed to the beach to kill time before our bus trip to Hoi An. We played cards and read under a palm tree on the beach then wandered back to our hotel to catch the bus.

More in part 2
Oliver

P.S. I ran out of batteries for my camera on the Nha Trang boat trip. So I don't have any pictures of Ho Chi to upload from my camera. I was able to snap a few on Chris's iPhone though. Here are some links:
http://yfrog.com/kf5gzyj
http://yfrog.com/gzkt1jbuj

http://yfrog.com/h264810013j

Friday, 17 June 2011

Being Lazy

So it's been a week since my last post, which is bloody slack of me. But when you're having a good time the best thing to do is keep going. That's not to say I'm not having a good time at the moment. I'm just taking a break to catch you all up.

As you may know Chris has joined me in Vietnam for a month of travel. If you didn't know this already then you didn't read my previous blog. Shame on you! Here is some ocular proof that Chris is in Vietnam:

Musing in HCMC
Seeing as it's taken me so long to write this blog entry I have a lot to fill you in on. I'll start at the beginning, a logical starting point if ever there was one. Chris joined me on Friday last week in the amazing Ho Chi Minh City. I was waiting at the airport for him to arrive when he popped up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. It's great that he spotted me, because I sure as hell hadn't seen him. What a terrible job of meeting him at the airport I did. He wasn't particularly bothered and neither was I. We headed back to the city centre to get Chris acquainted with the crazy pace of Vietnam's biggest city and with the local beer.

Needless to say, Chris was knackered so we both called it an early night with plans set for the next day. The following day we visited some of the tourist hotspots and historical sights in HCMC. That night we spent at the local steetside pub, pissing it up with the locals. We had planned on going to Apocalypse Now after pre-drinks, but pre-drinks evolved (very quickly) into 4 litres of bia hoi a piece and all thoughts of Apocalypse Now (and even moving) rapidly dissipated. It was an amazing night out that didn't really get very far, but was definitely better than anything we could have planned.

The next day was a very relaxed affair. We meandered around for a while and spent a few hours in the parks before heading down to catch the sunset from the Saigon River. It was there that we met Frederigo (pictured below). We caught motos back from the Saigon River to the park opposite Pham Ngu Lao street. A flower show had been set up in this park and the whole park was lit up with neon lights and adorned with bamboo displays. We found a local who spoke a little English and she explained that the Vietnamese people were voting for their national flower and all the flowers on display were the candidates. It was an amazing festival to be part of. The people seemed so excited to be choosing a national symbol and we were lucky enough to drop right into the middle of it.

The omnipotent Frederigo

The festival of flowers in the park
The next day was one of the best I've had in Vietnam. Chris and I got up at the crazy hour of 08:00 and headed to the local bus station. We were going to the Cu Chi tunnels and we planned on going there solely by local transport. It turned out to be the best decision we could have made. It was incredibly easy to catch the correct buses and it was a lot cheaper than going with an organised tour. The journey there and back cost only 18 000 dong each (roughly R6). The Cu Chi tunnels were everything I'd hoped they would be and more. We watched an old propaganda film from the late '60s and were then promptly led to the entrance of the tunnels. The entrance we were led to was a tiny rectangle roughly 40x30cm. It was crazy to think that not so long ago this was the only means by which people could enter and exit the tunnels. Fortunately that's changed to accommodate tourists and slightly fat people. You can now enter the tunnels through proper staircases although the tunnels remain the same.

An idea of size. That was big.
Entering the tunnels was fantastic! And not a little unnerving. Our first tunnel experience was a very short hop between two rooms underground. It was a quick 3m walk on our haunches. But our guide didn't plan on letting us off easy. The next tunnel we went through was slightly longer at about 10m and included a right-angle turn. A few more short tunnels between rooms followed and then the guide stopped us all.

"Anyone with heart problems or respiratory problems or anyone afraid of the dark or small spaces go through this tunnel," he said, "The rest of you follow me."


Going in...
We knew something big lay ahead. And it was massive. The guide took us through a tunnel that measured roughly 150m in length. There were numerous twists and turns and even a narrowing of the tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel there was a section about 10m long without any lights. The tunnel tilted down, narrowed and turned a corner at this very point. It was bloody terrifying! At this stage we were about 6m underground, with no lights and no idea where we were going. Turning around was impossible so the only thing to do was to plunge ahead and hope you didn't crash into the person in front of you. Sight was completely eliminated and we were forced to rely on touch and sound alone to navigate. Knowing that the tunnel had narrowed around you didn't exactly make things easier.
Into the abyss

We climbed out of the tunnels with our adrenaline pumping, sweating like pigs and laughing like maniacs. It was superb!

I should have ended my blog at that point had I written it earlier, but as the title implies, I was too damn lazy to write it up earlier. I blame that entirely on Mui Ne. Those damn beaches are so alluring and relaxing that you couldn't be asked to move yourself and share your experiences with the world (Or rather the 18 people who read this).

Going back to Mui Ne was awesome! I felt like the prodigal son returning. I was greeted warmly by all the people who remembered me and was pleasantly surprised to know that they had actually remembered me. I remembered them, of course, but to be recognised and greeted so warmly was such a brilliant surprise.

Mui Ne welcomed me back into the fold and I fell straight back into the relaxed pace of life. Getting up late and going to the beach for a swim then relaxing in the shade in the afternoons. Mui Ne reasserted its hold over me almost instantly. I like to think it had the same effect on Chris who joined me in all my strenuous relaxing and beachgoing. That was an intended oxymoron by the way.

On our final day in Mui Ne (yesterday, as I write this), Chris and I hired motorbikes and headed out to see the surrounding area. We went to the red sanddunes just outside Mui Ne and were unimpressed. We then cruised along the beach to a tiny fishing village about 20km outside Mui Ne. We watched some local lads flying kites in the growing wind and decided that we should get to the Cham tower before the heavy weather set in. We cruised back along the coast and Chris's petrol seemed to evaporate. He went from having a nearly full tank to driving in the red in roughly 20 minutes. I told him not to worry we'd get there and back easily. I was, naturally, correct. We got to the Cham tower without so much as a splutter from his moto and promptly set about jumping between old war bunkers on the hilltop. The Cham tower took a back seat as Chris tried to take a photo of me jumping between two remnants of the Vietnam-USA war. I must have jumped the gap roughly 40 times before Chris got that damned photo. It was my first taste of parkour in Vietnam and it was done roughly 50m from a historical site, on top of another historical site. It was awesome!
The final shot
When doing parkour make sure your dong is secure
Oliver

P.S. That rhymes, courtesy of Chris.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Rest of Cambodia

I had intentions to write about the rest of my time in Cambodia at the end of my last blog, but I thought given the nature of my previous blog it would be best to write another blog post about the rest of Cambodia instead. Wow, what a sentence that turned out to be!

So here goes. After visiting S-21 and the Killing Fields I spent another day in Phnom Penh, just walking around. I visited a few markets and walked along the Tonle Sap River for a while, just taking in the ambiance of the place. My second day in Phnom Penh was really chilled out. I went back to my guesthouse in the evening and booked my bus ticket to Kompong Trach.

The next morning, bright and early I headed to the bus station to catch my bus. Kompong Trach is not a tourist destination, there is only a single paragraph on it in the lonely planet and the only reason that paragraph is there is because of it's proximity to the Vietnamese border. But in that paragraph there was a little jewel of information. 2km from Kompong Trach is Wat Kiri Sela, a buddhist temple built into the side of a limestone karst mountain. I was instantly intrigued by this mysterious wat and simply had to go there. The lonely planet described the wat as having hundreds of caves and caverns under the mountain and a 'hidden valley'at the exit to one such cave. They described the walk through the cave as a 'stumble back in time to the Jurassic period'. The deal was sealed so off I went.

The one-road, one-tourist town of Kompong Trach
Kompong Trach was a one-tourist town and that tourist was me. The locals seemed shocked that a tourist was in their town and I was stared at constantly. It's a strange feeling, being stared at, and it's somewhat disconcerting. But their stares weren't malicious, just curious and they were some of the friendliest people I've met. Nobody spoke English in Kompong Trach so I had to get by with my limited Khmer. Basically all I could do was say hello and thank you. I did a lot of miming in Kompong Trach.

The beauty of getting away from other tourists is that you get charged the local price for everything. There's no farang mark-up off the tourist trail. Because of this, Kompong Trach became the cheapest place I have ever been to. The first meal I had there cost me only 25c (American) and I left feeling completely full and satisfied. When one gets off the tourist trail one doesn't expect to have the same quality of food as they are used to - I thought I might have to become accustomed to tarantulas for dinner. It was to my great delight that I was proven wrong. In fact, I had one of the best meals of my journey in Kompong Trach and for only 75c. I'll dream forever more of that fantastic pork and ginger dish with steamed rice.

It looks like I'm rambling again. What you really want to hear about is Wat Kiri Sela, I'm sure. The day after I arrived in Kompong Trach I borrowed a bicycle from the guest house and headed off to Wat Kiri Sela. Nobody could really point me in the correct direction, but thankfully the lonely planet gave clear directions. Hoping I was going in the right direction, I headed down a gravel road in the direction of a karst mountain. On the way I met a boy who was heading to the wat. He spoke good English and was going to the wat to guide tourists through to the hidden valley. Score. I said he could guide me. The wat wasn't far from the main road and before I knew it I was at the base of the karst mountain in the centre of the wat. My young guide pointed at the cave entrance and said I should follow him through to the valley.

Caves are generally very dark places and this cave was no exception. The only light that penetrated it was from it's two openings - the one we had entered through and the one to which we were headed. In the distance I could see the light coming from the exit, but the valley was impossible to make out. We walked through the cave and my young guide pointed out limestone formations that looked like animals and common objects. All of a sudden we were at the exit and what confronted me was one of the most beautiful natural phenomena I have seen. The cave opened up into the centre of the mountain. The valley was not so much a valley as it was a depression in the centre of the mountain, but it was fantastic nonetheless. Sheer limestone cliffs towered around us and vines and lush vegetation hung down from the mountaintop. We spent the next hour wandering through the little caves and caverns that are peppered around the hidden valley. It was an amazing place to be and I was lucky to be the only tourist there to experience it.
Walking out of a cave... 
Into a 'valley' that looked like this

Thoroughly please with myself, I headed back to Kompong Trach and inquired about a bus to Kep, a beach town 30km from Kompong Trach. I was able to gather that a bus comes past every day at 10AM and 4:30PM. I was also able to gather that nobody sold tickets for the bus. I would need to wait until the bus came past and then flag it down. If you've ever flagged down a bus in Southeast Asia you know that it can be very hit-or-miss. I was a little apprehensive about missing the bus. Kompong Trach was great, but I needed to be able to leave.

I got up early the next morning and packed my bags. The previous day I had waited until 4:30PM to see if the bus came past and sure enough it did,  10 minutes early. Armed with this information I guessed that the locals must have got the times right when telling me when the bus would come past. At 9:30 I went outside and waited. A moto driver was sitting beside me and said that the bus would only come at 11. I was now really uncertain as to when the bus would come past. So I waited. 10 o'clock came and went. I thought the moto driver had got it right, so I resigned myself to leaving at 11. An hour longer is really not that much. At 20 past 10 I was getting thirsty so I went to get myself some water from the shop next door. I can back and spied a chair which looked very inviting after having been standing for an hour. I picked up the chair and was taking it outside when the bus cruised past. "Shit!" I thought. I dropped the chair and waved at the bus driver.

He noticed. The bus stopped and I climbed aboard. I was on my way to Kep.

Kep is a beach resort town. And it isn't cheap. It was the polar opposite of Kompong Trach, yet it was charming in it's own right. I found a guest house that had cheap rooms and settled in. Kep has a very narrow strip of sand called Kep beach it's claim to being a beachside town is a little exaggerated. I've seen more sand in sand pits at playgrounds. But Kep's fame comes from it's seafood, pitched as the best in Cambodia.

Kep lives off this reputation and takes great pleasure in punching tourists' wallets in their kidneys. My own wallet spent the second day in Kep in the bathroom, pissing blood. I felt very sorry for inflicting that damage upon it, but bloody satisfied with what had inflicted the damage. But more on that in a moment.

Kep Beach
On my first day in Kep I went through my orientation and acclimatisation routine of walking around for a while and taking in as much as I can. This was a little trickier in Kep as it is a lot more spread out than most towns and to find a cheap room I had to get right out of the town centre. My orientation ended up being a walk down to Kep beach and then a walk back to my guesthouse to get out of the sun. My first experience of kep prices was dinner that evening. $2.50 for fried rice is unheard of in the rest of Southeast Asia, but not in Kep. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, besides cooldrinks and my poor wallet started whimpering at the thought of what lay ahead.

The next day I headed down to Kep beach again, this time on a bicycle. I lay on the rough sand for the entire morning and listened to the wavelets trickle up the beach. At midday I decided to get out of the heat and headed to my guesthouse to sit in the shade of a palm tree.You may find this back-and-forth strange, but I had a reason for it. I was deliberately doing it to build up an appetite for lunch. "Oliver you are a strange guy," you might be thinking. But there is method to my madness (I think). I was building up an appetite for seafood.

Munching on crab at the Crab Market
At about 2 o'clock my stomach started growling. I knew I was ready. I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled furiously down to the crab market. At the crab market there is no such thing as a cheap meal. Every dish costs in excess of $5. (Yes, that's not much by our standards back home, but in SE Asia that is at least 3 times the cost of a meal). The freshest seafood you can imagine is on the menu, some of it caught just offshore the previous hour. But if you go to the crab market, you'd be a fool to order anything but crab. And so I ordered grilled crab. 45 minutes later a plate with 5 massive crabs on it appeared in front of me. Who can complain about paying R9 per grilled crab, really?

By now I was famished and I tucked in with gusto. Eating crab at Kep will definitely go down as one of the top 5 culinary experiences of my travels. It was fantastic! The crab was incredibly fresh and the meat was fantastically tasty. It had been cooked to perfection and by the end of the meal I was too full to move. My wallet started simpering when I payed for the meal and pleaded with me to spare it from any more torture. I was happy to oblige, I didn't need dinner; I was too full.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Actually nothing was happening back at the ranch (except, this sunset pictured below) I just really wanted to say that line. I went back to my guest house and booked my ticket to back Phnom Penh. The nest morning (yesterday morning, as I write this) I jumped on the bus and headed back to the capital. Upon arrival I booked my bus ticket to HCMC. This morning I headed to the bus station with a huge sense of excitement. I was going back to my favourite city in the world and Chris was going to be joining me the next day. I could barely contain myself.


And here I am, back in Ho Chi Minh City! Sitting, typing to all of you (my avid fans) and eagerly anticipating the arrival of Chris. He's currently on a flight to Kuala Lumpur where he will change planes and fly to HCMC. i'll be meeting him at the airport tomorrow and a whole new leg of my journey will begin. Vietnam with my brother. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....
There I go again!
Oliver