Adventures in Asia 2008

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

Archive for February, 2008

Indian Quirks (Part II)

Posted by maudholma on 23 February 2008

A few more things I thought of during our approximately 30 hour trip (train, bus, rickshaw, bus) from Varanasi to Kathmandu:

  • You’re taking a cycle rickshaw somewhere and while you’re whooshing down the road at 5 km/h a second rickshaw driver starts cycling alongside, asking you where you are going and whether you wouldn’t like him to take you to a store or a restaurant. Your own rickshaw driver is not best pleased.
  • Toilet paper being advertised as “safe” which begs the question of in what situation toilet paper could be deemed unsafe?!
  • Hotel touts praising their rooms as “hygienic”. This is obviously not something you assume to be the case, so it’s always nice when it’s specified.
  • You (female, white) step off the train after a 10 hour journey, feeling a little tired and worn, and are greeted by a man holding a sign for “Mr. Murakami” looking at you as if to ask “Yes? This is you?”. Falls in the same category as being called “Sir” by people trying to entice you to come into their shop and buy their jewellery, scarves, “safe” toilet paper etc.
  • Although a bus is scheduled to leave at 8:30, it doesn’t actually start moving until 10:30 when enough people are deemed to have sat down so as to make the bus full. You are suitably amused when, after 2 stops within the first 5 minutes of the journey, people are standing in every available space and hanging out of the open door.

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Pictures

Posted by maudholma on 21 February 2008

I’ve finally put up some pictures (use the More Photos link on the left to see them) but the internet here is incredibly slow so there are only about 4 from Mumbai so far. I’ll add more whenever I can so check back every once in a while to see where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

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Indian Quirks (Part I)

Posted by maudholma on 21 February 2008

A few things which I just can’t see happening anywhere other than here:

  • Even with a waiting list of 150 people, there is a 90% chance of getting a sleeper place on a train when booking the ticket one day in advance. The fact that our tickets would have been valid for travel even if we hadn’t been successful (which in itself is quite miraculous) goes some way to explaining why there are always so many people sleeping on the floor and the luggage shelves. Apparently there is no maximum capacity on Indian trains. As I said before, the only thing not possible in India is “not possible”!
  • Indian people, who are very family oriented and have a lot of respect for their elders, nevertheless think nothing of elbowing their way past old ladies, children, and people carrying 2 bags in each hand when making their way onto trains. The same applies for getting off as well, even when the train has arrived at its final destination.
  • Foreigners have to pay a 750 rupee entrance fee for the Taj Mahal (250 entrance + 500 tax, “free” bottle of water included) while Indians pay only 20 rupees. However, guidebooks are not permitted at what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.
  • When leaving your belongings in a deposit box at a temple, you ask how much you have to pay. The attendant (usually a sweet looking old man) gives you a broad smile and replies “As you wish, madam”. You hand over a 10 rupee note and, smile still intact, the sweet old man tells you he’d like another 10 rupee note. As a variation of this, you hand over a 10 rupee note and, smile still intact, the sweet old man tells you that you can give some more when you come to pick up your things.
  • In the holy city of Varanasi, Hindus are cremated with 4 different types of wood and their ashes scattered into the Ganges in order to guarantee purity. Holy men do not need to be purified in this way so instead, their bodies are tied to stone slabs and lowered into the river. After having taken a boat trip to watch people washing themselves and their clothes in this same water, you are approached by a man who asks you: ” Would you like to see the burning of dead bodies? No? Hash or marijuana?”

After all this, sitting on a rooftop terrace, drinking a banana lassi, and playing cards while watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal seems like a relatively banal occurrence.

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Never Have I Ever

Posted by maudholma on 16 February 2008

New experiences are essentially what traveling is all about, but during the past few days we’ve done things I definitely hadn’t expected of this trip. Four moments in particular stand out…

In addition to our new winter clothes, S and I had bought some other things which we decided to send home from Delhi. According to the Rough Guide “sending a parcel out of India can be quite a performance”. They weren’t kidding. First we visited a parcel packing place where we stuffed everything into a cardboard box which was wrapped in a cotton cloth and then sewn shut by hand. The man doing the sewing stitched our customs declaration into one of the seams; we kept the other copy. By the time we had written the address on with a marker the whole endeavor had already taken over an hour, at which point the post office nearest to our hotel had stopped accepting parcels. So we took a rickshaw across town and then spent 10 minutes waiting at the parcel counter until the man “serving us” stopped weighing packages and throwing them in a heap on the floor for long enough to tell us that we had to glue the other copy of the customs declaration onto the parcel before he could help us. “This. Glue. Here. Glue there.” Thanks a million. When that was done, he slammed a label onto the parcel before weighing it, demanding payment, and telling us we could expect delivery within 4 months. Our prized new possessions then joined the heap on the floor and now all we can do is wait and see whether they ever arrive and if so, in what condition.

After 3 days in Delhi we took the train north to Amritsar. Our first evening there we went to Wagha, a small town close to Pakistan, to watch the border close. We walked down a long stretch of road lined with popcorn and soda vendors until we came to two stands with a seating capacity of about 400. On the Pakistani side were identical stands, also chock full of people looking like they were at some sort of sporting event. When the loudspeakers started playing Hindi music two men got up, walked into the middle of the road, and started dancing. And I’m not talking European style swaying from side to side while clapping their hands. This was full on Indian “shoulder shaking, jumping around, bending forward and back, hands in the air” kind of dancing. The border closing ceremony itself was even funnier: one by one the guards walked (Monty Python style) to the gates, stomping and waving their arms in front of their Pakistani counterparts who were doing the same. The gates were pulled open, the flags theatrically lowered, and the gates were slammed shut, all to the whooping, cheering, and clapping of the crowds on each side. Then the whole spectacle ended as abruptly as it had begun, people ate the last of their popcorn, and everyone went home.

Later that same evening, S and I were crossing the road on our way back to our hostel when two guys on a motorbike snatched S’ bag and nearly got her whole arm as well. 15 minutes and a police escort later we were sitting at a police station with apparently one of the only English speaking policemen in Amritsar. Even though the circumstances were obviously not so pleasant, what followed was a combination of bizarre and endearing in a way that could only happen in India. While our policeman tried to find a blank piece of paper and a pen that worked we were served tea in small dainty porcelain cups. We then proceeded to drink tea and eat doughnuts while a group of about 8 men crammed into the 8 m2 room in order to contribute to the police report. It took the form of a letter addressed to The Incharge and ended with possibly the best two sentences I have ever read in my life: “Kindly nab the culprits and punish them according to law. I shall be very thankful to you.” The whole experience was surreal and ridiculous to say the least, but there was a level of humanity and compassion involved that would have been entirely lost had this happened in the west. After all, who could imagine an English or Finnish policeman sending an e-mail to someone whose complaint he had taken earlier that evening, hoping that she will “rise above” and that he will “do my best to trace out your snatched carry bag” and wishes for her to “recover from this jolt”?

The morning after our meeting with the sweetest police inspector in Amritsar (thinking we had experienced the worst and being proven wrong yet again) we woke up early to visit the Golden Temple, one of the most beautiful buildings (actually a whole complex) I’ve ever seen. We took a cycle rickshaw across town, but had to walk up a hill when our scrawny driver had some trouble keeping up the momentum and old ladies were ambling by… To complete the experience of visiting the Sikhs’ holiest temple, S and I decided to eat in the temple canteen. It’s free and open 24 hours a day to all, regardless of color, caste, creed or gender. A beautiful idea, and the food wasn’t too bad either. Unfortunately, S spent the majority of our that day’s 8 hour bus journey to Dharamsala feeling like she was about to die and I joined her towards the end of the trip. The following two days passed in a food poisoning (or maybe it was the two sips of tap water we had?) induced haze of vomit, diarrhoea, fever, muscle aches, and other such unpleasantness, the details of which I won’t go into more. Suffice it to say we won’t be eating black dal or drinking tap water for a long time.

Thankfully, the story ends well and we’ve both now recovered to be able to enjoy the small town of McLeod Ganj, at an altitude of about 1800 m and home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Tibetans, monks, noodle soups, dumplings, and beautiful views of the snowcapped mountains are now our reality. And although very few things seem unreal in this country (someone told us that the only thing not possible in India is “not possible”) we’re doing a one day trek to the snow line tomorrow, something I can’t quite believe is true until I’m making snow angels in the Indian Himalayas!

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Hot and Cold

Posted by maudholma on 10 February 2008

India is full of contrasts, and never has this been more obvious than during the past 2 weeks of this trip. About a week and a half ago we were in Pondicherry, on the east coast. The city used to be a French colony and the influence could be seen everywhere, from the pastel colored houses to the French language schools to the boulevard running alongside the beach. S and I spent 3 days falling in love with the place and picking out which houses we’d like to live in. We treated ourselves to manicures, pedicures, facials, and full body massages for next to nothing. We bought fresh cheese, bread & tomatoes and made ourselves a picnic in the park. We learned what it feels like to have sweaty legs. In short, we enjoyed life (minus the sweaty legs) and chilled.

A few days later (after having spent a day eating our way around the otherwise uninspiring city of Chennai) we stepped off the plane in Jaipur, in the north, and the word ‘chilled’ took on a slightly different meaning. Winter in the north of India apparently doesn’t mean 25 degrees and sunshine, as one would think. Instead, we found ourselves worrying about things like whether our guesthouse had hot water (the first one didn’t and we didn’t shower for 2 days), if there was a chai stall nearby at all times, why no one in India seemed to wear woollen socks… We’ve now been in the north for a week and are slowly but surely getting used to temperatures of around 15 during the day and closer to 5 at night. It doesn’t hurt that we’re both the proud new owners of winter coats, fleeces, hats, socks, tights, and blankets. Definitely not the shopping list I had made for myself before this trip, but when all those things together cost less than the average dinner in Europe, it’s not so painful.

We arrived in Delhi 2 days ago, 6 o’clock in the morning and 6 degrees outside, after an overnight bus ride which would have been comfortable except for the drafty windows which made it feel as if we were on an AC bus. Having taken a rickshaw to the backpacker area of the city, we were approached by a man telling us about the brilliant establishment he worked for. “All rooms in our hotel have AC, madam”. Which is true, although we haven’t yet needed to test it out on account of the constant breeze blowing through our room. When I wear my new socks and hat to bed and pull my blanket over my head, my legs almost start to sweat again, and I find myself dreaming about the sunshine in Pondicherry.

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A Few Thoughts

Posted by maudholma on 8 February 2008

Something that S blogged about the other day and which I thought was well worth paraphrasing in English.

Have you ever considered:

  • that the rickshaw driver sleeping in his vehicle at night isn’t hoping for a late night customer, but rather doesn’t have a house
  • that children (often unintentionally) sacrifice their own education in order to work in the family business
  • that the Indian man/woman standing on a crowded bus for 3 hours each morning and afternoon on his/her way to and from work does so because he/she has no other choice
  • the amount of and speed with which diseases spread when the garbage constantly thrown into the street floats around after it has rained (forget about proper sewage systems…)
  • that there are still countries in the world where it is considered better to have light/white skin since this means the person in question doesn’t have to do manual labor outdoors
  • what infinitesimal percentage of the £3.99 that you pay for a mango at Marks&Spencer actually ends up in the hands of the mango farmer
  • that sick people can spend the entire day queueing outside the hospital in the burning heat (alternatively freezing temperatures) in order to see a doctor and pay a weeks’ worth of wages for the privilege
  • that the man taking a dump on the streetcorner is probably not doing it because he didn’t make it home on time but because he doesn’t have a home
  • that women’s magazines in India not only write about fashion, make-up, and celebrities, but also give tips on how a girl should behave when being introduced to the man her parents have arranged for her to marry

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