Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Archive for January, 2008

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Posted by maudholma on 31 January 2008

Having spent 10 fantastic days on the beach in Varkala, S and I left more tanned and balanced than when we came, and appreciative of how true it is that it’s the people you meet, more than the places you visit, which make the trip. As planned, I left behind some things which I won’t be needing for the next few months but annoyingly enough, found myself worrying about why there was so much space in my backpack and why it was so light. Oh, the troubles you encounter on the road, or so I thought…

As is only fitting for such travel pros as ourselves (see my Traveling Light post), S and I decided not to book train tickets in advance for our onward journey to Madurai. In a country where you can get an unlimited lunch for 0.30 €/£ 0.20/$ 0.45 it seemed a little excessive to pay 7 times that amount in travel agents’ fees. Since things were going so well for us we were certain we’d get sleeper places but, maybe not so surprisingly, found out that they were all booked as soon as we got on the train. A little annoyed at the prospect of having to spend another night sleeping on a wooden seat, we made our way to the back of the train to where the chair cars are, where we realized that there were at least twice as many people on the train as last time. Hoping to get at least some rest, we spent most of the 9 hours crouching on a luggage shelf and trying to sleep with our heads resting on our knees, leaning on each other etc. Definitely not the most comfortable experience of my life (I would say that I’m now a complete travel pro but am sure we’ll have a few more interesting nights on this trip…) but it beat the family of 3 sharing one seat or the man trying to sleep while standing!

We arrived in Madurai completely exhausted and even though we slept a few hours at our hotel in the morning before doing some sightseeing, S and I were both looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep. Which, of course, meant that the night didn’t go exactly according to plan. Disturbed by the heat, the loudest fan in the universe, and a million mosquitoes (or just one incredibly energetic and hungry one) neither of us had slept more than a few hours in total when we woke up at 7 to watch the sun rise over the temple right next to our guesthouse.

Later in the day we took the bus to a small town in the Western Ghats called Kodaikanal. Even though it took us about 3 hours to drive 50 km up a mountain (4 hours in total for a trip of about 80 km), the trip was breathtaking, a combination of the driving and the beautiful views! Kodaikanal itself was very un-Indian: Shrouded in mist and set around a small lake, it felt more like a small village in the Swiss alps than southern India, apart from the chai stands and Indian people everywhere. This was especially true at night, when the temperatures dropped so much that despite wearing 2 shirts, a sweatshirt, jeans, 2 pairs of socks, a sarong, a towel, and a blanket, we managed another meagre 3 hours of sleep. Around 6:30 in the morning, when I had finally begun to thaw, the church next to our hostel started blaring music that sounded like a choir of 5 year olds wailing, and sleeping became completely impossible.

After three terrible nights, we decided to treat ourselves and take a semi-sleeper bus to Pondicherry. No mosquitoes, no music, and reclining seats – money may not be able to buy you love but in India, it definitely goes some way towards a good night’s sleep! The night was perfect until about 5:00 when were woken up and dumped by the side of the road only to be driven around the sleeping town by the world’s most incompetent rickshaw driver while trying to find a place to stay. We’ve now spent one night in Pondicherry where we’re living in a room intended for a family. Judging by last night’s 10 hours of sound sleep, 5 beds for the two of us was exactly what the doctor ordered!

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Pictures

Posted by maudholma on 31 January 2008

Just a quick message to let you know that I’m having some problems putting up pictures on here so until I figure it out, you can visit Stephanie’s blog (go to www.onnidesign.fi and click on the “Blog” link) to see some snapshots of our time in India so far.

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Traveling Light

Posted by maudholma on 21 January 2008

S and I are becoming quite the travel pros. After a day on the backwaters of Kerala, quietly gliding along an endless maze of waterways and canals lined with palmtrees, bamboo, and pineapple plants (pineapples, it turns out, do not grow on trees) we decided to prove to the world what seasoned India veterans we’ve become during our time here and take the bus from Kochi to Alleppey. When we arrived at the bus terminal, we watched in amusement as a herd of Indians started climbing aboard a bus while it was still reversing into the station. Ten minutes later, and we were in a similar herd, climbing onto a bus we didn’t even know for certain would take us where we wanted to go. S managed to get us two seats but there was no space anywhere for our backpacks. It seems that we’re hardcore enough to take the bus but haven’t yet figured out how to travel light. So what could we do, apart from sitting with 20 kg of clothes, towels, books, sunscreen, medicines etc. in our laps. Thankfully, the man next to me offered to put my backpack in the corridor next to his sear, so for most of the 2 hour journey we shared the weight of one bag. The bus was completely packed, with people stuffed like sardines in every available space. The man next to me told me he took the bus to and from work each day, 3 hours each way. Something to bear in mind the next time I curse London Underground and the 20 minutes I have to spend cuddling up to a stranger. Despite the number of people on the bus, S, myself, and two backpacks got off at the right stop without any major problems. I politely declined my neighbor’s kind offer to get off an hour before his own stop so as to be our guide in Alleppey and although I was tempted to ask what he planned to do about his job, decided it would probably be better just to leave it…

Two days later, having taken another boat trip along the backwater from Alleppey to Kollam, we had the sense to leave our backpacks at the front of the bus. I don’t know how happy the people in the first row were about it, but the way to survive a bus ride in India seems to be by ignoring the needs and comfort of everyone else. In order to get to our destination, Varkala, we had to get off the bus at the hilariously named town of Kallamballam and take a rickshaw the rest of the way. Our driver couldn’t stop praising Finnish technology (since “Santa Claus land” doesn’t appear to clarify where we’re from, we’ve switched to “Nokia land”, which gets a lot more recognition) but this unfortunately meant he turned around at regular intervals to show us how nice his mobile phone was. He also spent what seemed like an eternity looking at the map in our guidebook while completely ignoring the road and straddling two lanes, and nearly ran over someone crossing the street. Seeing as how Varkala beach is entirely surrounded by cliffs, I was happy to realize that rickshaws weren’t allowed to drive down the narrow pathway running along the edge of the cliff, if a little annoyed at having to carry 20 kg for the umpteenth time that day. Our plan now is to spend the next week or so on the beach, so the next time I write, I’m hoping to have used up a few bottles of sunscreen and read most of my books. I’m also planning on leaving my beach towel here, so my backpack should only weigh around… 19 kg.

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Beach Bums (Part I)

Posted by maudholma on 12 January 2008

My first meal of 2008: grilled kingfish washed down with an ice cold coke! This after I missed the train station (yes, the train station) at Gokarna and had to take the bus from the next town, followed by a seriously overpriced rickshaw ride to the beach in the dark which I gallantly finished by flashing the rickshaw driver my underwear while trying to put on my backpack before lighting my way down a steep hill using only the dim light of my mobile phone. When I finally arrived at Om beach, though, the sky was filled with stars and all I could hear was the sound of bongo drums mixed with the waves crashing against the shore.

And that more or less sums up Om beach, near the town of Gokarna, in the province of Karnataka which is on the west coast of India; not the easiest place to get to, but well worth it and beautifully peaceful when you finally make it! S and I have just spent 5 days there, during which time our mission was to do as little as possible. Considering that there are only about 10 places to stay on the entire beach, it was well over 30 degrees every day, and there was a steady stream of people selling fresh pineapple, papaya, and coconut, it’s no wonder we succeeded! We stayed in a bamboo hut on the beach without running water which translates to a lot of sand everywhere all the time, but also an incredibly relaxed and relaxing atmosphere, which it was very difficult to leave.

No wonder, then, that arriving in Kochi after a 13 hour train ride in “cattle class” (there were no sleeper tickets left, but at least we both had a place to sit) this afternoon, I felt like I underwent more of a culture shock than when we initially got to India. From watching the cows go by on the beach followed by relaxed evenings hanging out with the other people at our hostel to cars (and honking) everywhere, garbage everywhere, people selling junk everywhere etc! Even though the older part of the city is much more genuine and has much more character than where our hotel is located, we’re only planning on staying here for a few days before heading further south to the backwaters of Kerala and some more time on the beach. Check back later for Beach Bums (Part II).

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Happy New Year!

Posted by maudholma on 5 January 2008

Apparently my body has decided to cleanse itself in honor of 2008. Starting the new year with style it is most definitely not! Far from it, in fact. But things could be much much worse I keep telling myself…

On New Year’s Eve, S and I went to a party at a beautiful house in the northern part of Mumbai. When we got there, I had a fleeting thought that it was the sort of party my friend from school would go to. If he were in Mumbai, that is, which clearly wasn’t the case. Still, I thought it would be amusing if I bumped into him. About 3 hours later, I turn around with a sparkler in my hand and find myself standing face to face with said friend! An absolutely insane coincidence, so nice to catch up with someone I haven’t seen in nearly 4 years (thank you for the rides and the ice cream and hope you’re still feeling inspired!), and a great way to start my new year full of new experiences!

Our last few days in Mumbai were spent exploring the city some more: visiting some bazaars, taking a boat trip out to an island near the coast, chilling in the peaceful Hanging Gardens, walking around the slums, and trying to capture as much of Mumbai on camera as possible. Channelling Shantaram (read it if you haven’t already done so – one of my favorite books ever), S and I also set out on a mission to see Colaba Lighthouse, at the southernmost end of the city. When our attempt to walk there ourselves finished with a dead end and no ocean, we decided to take a taxi instead. Having pointed out where we wanted to go on the map, our driver set off enthusiastically. A little while later he seemed a bit confused, but kept driving on. A little while more, and we stopped outside a convent with a streetlight outside it. “Lighthouse” said our taxi driver. We showed him on the map again and he nodded, suddenly having realized where we wanted to go. After a few minutes, we ended up about halfway down the coast of Mumbai, but it was quite clear there was no lighthouse, nor was it the southernmost tip of the city judging by the buildings we still saw in front of us… At that point we gave up and decided that a streetlight and the ocean, albeit not at the same place and without an actual lighthouse, was the best we would do this time.

On the evening of the 2nd we took an overnight train to Palolem in Goa, where we are at the moment. Before going to sleep, the Indian guy sitting near us put on a jacket and hat before taking a blanket out of his bag. He had been telling us earlier about how it was winter and relatively cold in the area at the moment, only 15 degrees. S and I looked at each other and decided his overreaction was a bit endearing. He actually thought 15 degrees was cold! Cut to 3 AM, when I wake up absolutely freezing and can feel the wind through the window right by my face. I look around at all the Indians sleeping around us, snoring while comfortably snuggled up in their warm blankets, and suddenly it’s not the Indian who seems a bit silly!

Despite this, Palolem itself is the tropical paradise I thought it would be. We woke up at 6:30 this morning and went on a boatride to watch dolphins in the sunrise before fishing for crabs. After lounging on the beach all day, we headed to one end of the beach and sat on the rocks while watching the sun set into the ocean. Like I said, things could be much much worse.

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