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Summer 2012

CHIANG MAI

I travelled to Chiang Mai by bus, having stopped at the historical Thai capital of Sukhothai for two nights on the way up. At the station a hungry swarm of sawngthew drivers were waiting to prey on arriving backpackers and enveloped me almost immediately. (Sawngthews are mini trucks which contain two parallel benches, with no door.) I negotiated a price of 40 Baht to take me to Moon Muang Soi 5. I was first on and waited for ten minutes while the little truck filled with hippie guesthouse types and then we set off. The rickety sawngthew came to an abrupt halt at a junction on a busy road. The driver pointed his stubby finger and summoned me out. I heaved my way through the cramped vehicle, climbing in between and over legs and bags. I had my money out, ready to pay but thought it best to double check my whereabouts. ‘Soi haa?’ I enquired. The driver looked confused and conceded he had made a mistake. I was pushed back onto the vehicle and was literally stood on the back bumper as the sawngthew made haste; my left hand clasped onto my daypack as my right hand, already containing a fistful of coins, searched desperately for a groove in the roof whilst the driver dodged and weaved his way through the congested streets. The weight of my backpack was too heavy and I found myself exasperatedly muttering the words ‘Fuck me!!!’ as I felt myself toppling backwards out of the sangthew and into moving traffic beyond. I was in this greatly precarious position when relief came in the form of a concerned Japanese tourist who hurriedly leaned forwards and grabbed me towards him in a bid to stop me falling out of the speeding taxi. A memorable welcome to the city!!!

One trip I made from Chiang Mai was to an elephant village. My touring buddies were an eclectic mix. They included: a Swiss father and son, an American guy, a group of highly strung Chinese women, a Dutch backpacker and a British student- who came from Norwich of all places. We were paired up and given an elephant to ride, with accompanying mahout. I was a little apprehensive about the visit as I had just read an article written by the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother, who had been campaigning tirelessly to ensure better conditions for those elephants used for tourism industry purposes in northern Thailand. Some elephants are beaten and starved, the young unable to suckle from their mother due to a lack of milk production caused by undernourishment. This village had the cutest elephant calf. I witnessed the baby feeding from its parent and it looked healthy and happy so my concerns quickly evaporated. The surrounding hillside scenery was stunning, with lush emerald rice paddy terraces cut into the steep sides. Our elephant trailed the mother and her baby along the river. Suddenly things turned ugly. The utopian atmosphere quickly faded away. Our elephant began to repeatedly ram the elephant in front and was only prevented from doing so by the mahout, who kept hooking and then pulling on her ear with his stick. The elephant responded by making an abrupt, petrifying u-turn and pausing momentarily before turning sharply back and breaking into an elephant ‘trot’ to repeat her act of malice. During this terrifying torment the elephant was making an unnaturally deep vibrating noise like that of a high powered diesel engine and alarmed staff came running from the camp to try and placate the enraged animal. All the while I clutched instinctively to my beloved SLR, holding it close and in my head began to recite the Hail Mary as a mechanism to stop me from shitting myself. There was a standoff between the two beasts, like heavyweight fighters facing off in the ring, as they both tried to encircle each other. Eventually, the mother and her calf were persuaded to leave and guided away to their enclosure. Our psycho elephant refused to budge for a whole ten minutes, stubbornly remaining still as it continued to eyeball its rival. The mahout spun around and grinned as he said “Elephant angry. No go. We wait”. At that moment the heavens opened and poured, soaking us to the skin but I didn’t care. I had survived to write yet another blog entry. We were later told that our elephant was jealous of the other because she was an older sibling who did not yet have a baby and therefore coveted the calf. Animal instincts!! Though I’m positive you won’t find me acting like that when Hannah has a bubba.

The next day I made plans with a fellow traveller to accompany me to the night market, located in a newer section of Chiang Mai. As I waited at the end of the largest thoroughfare in the old city, a familiar figure came bounding towards me- a colleague from Traill. What a coincidence! (I shall refer to him as Colleague X for the purpose of this blog. A likeable but curious chap; somewhat guarded yet easy company.) The three of us dined together and then we parted ways. The market sold the same tourist souvenir merchandise as any other- another MBK but on a less sophisticated scale. The quality of art work was superb though and I watched in fascination as artists skilfully drew their subjects from old photos: a spliff smoking Bob Marley, an elderly craggy faced woman, a long necked tribal girl. The next day I took an organised trip to visit Doi Suthep, a famed temple perched high above the steep hillside overlooking Chiang Mai. The temple was neither overly impressive nor beautiful in comparison to others I have seen but it did afford a spectacular view over the sprawling cultural capital of Thailand. The old quarter was visible due to the presence of a border that enclosed the urbanised section in the shape of a neat square- the dark line being the moat which demarcates the old city. The tour also included an obligatory visit to a tribal ‘hill village’ which was no more than a tourist honey trap- a handicraft, clothes and ice cream selling misrepresentation of true Hmong lifestyle and culture.

Later that night I met Colleague X for an exciting Muay Thai fight at the Typhae Boxing Stadium in the centre of town. We had pre drinks at a street bar which can only be described as a vintage farming wagon. It had been modified to include ‘seats’ (which were actually plastic bicycle saddles) that were horizontally attached to the main body of the contraption and about 1.5m from the ground. An upturned crate was used as an aid to climb and heave onto these ‘bar stools’. I began to realise the impracticality of wearing a shortish dress and although the cocktails were cheap, I couldn’t wait to clamber down and relieve the uncomfortable crotch ache I had developed in such a short space of time. As we entered the small stadium we gave our tickets to a manly looking ladyboy and were shown to our seats. As the arena filled, adolescent boys were being rubbed liberally with tiger balm in anticipation of a severe beating. The first fight showcased these lads, who in my opinion are still children. I found the whole spectacle intense and rather uncomfortable to watch. Gambling was evident amongst the tourist spectators who were feverishly placing bets with stewards. It made me question as to what extent I was involved in condoning this type of child abuse. From the moment I innocently purchased the ticket?? The subsequent fights pitted older and heavier opponents against each other, the rounds a full minute or so more than the youngsters and women boxers. The most amusing entertainment of the night was provided by five blindfolded Muay Thai fighters who were let loose in the ring, lambasting each other in hilarious slapstick fashion. The brave referee was often floored, heavy blows raining down upon him and was forced to use his bare knuckles as the only form of defence.

Colleague X gave me a ride back to the hotel on his motorbike. As I made my way to my empty room, a feeling of desolation crept over me. Travelling solo can be a lonely process just as it can be a rewarding and frenetic one. The older I get the more sentimental I seem to be about leaving behind places and people, even though the transient nature of backpacking is the very quintessence of my attraction to it. I sound like a walking contradiction! The next day I would begin my journey to the neighbouring country of Laos.

LAOS

I arrived at Chiang Kong on the border at dusk. I had to walk down an unpaved and dusty incline to reach a guesthouse that had chalet style bamboo rooms overlooking the nearby river. This was a one night stop before I crossed the border into Laos and set sail on a slow boat down the Mekong. I was made to share accommodation with another traveller. She was kitted out in typical backpacker garb: a sloganed t-shirt typically found on Khao San, batik trousers, bandana, twenty bracelets and a pair of Havianas. She was from Switzerland and in possession of three passports: Swiss, French and Israeli, apparently! She took pains in moaning and denouncing places in Asia but admitted taking great pleasure staying and drinking in backpacker districts. It really makes me simmer when over privileged children enter adulthood and in defiance of their wealthy parents choose to become ‘free spirited’ travellers. They zigzag the world staying in hostels, drinking cheap beer and partying hard. On their return they enthuse about their worldly adventures and enjoy greater respect and admiration from family/friends - but has this waywardness really enriched their own lives or those of others? I believe you really need to spend a long time in a country; working, volunteering or studying, to truly experience the magic of a place and all this BEORE you begin to give your opinions so decidedly and disdainfully about cultures you have had no inclination to understand. Grrrrrr. Needless to say we didn’t care much for each other. She latched on to a small group of Brits and spent the night playing poker. I joined an elderly Norwegian gentleman for dinner, who cut a solitary figure in one corner of the restaurant. He worked for the MoD in Oslo and we chewed the fat about homeland security, geopolitics and the world economy. I hadn’t conversed on such pertinent issues in ages and I began to wish I had done something more useful with my International Development degree.

The slowboat ride down the Mekong was pure joy. I was onboard a narrow but fairly large wooden vessel, which could hold up to 150 people- two seats on each side of a slender aisle running down the middle. Everyone clambered aboard with bulky suitcases and backpacks. The boats crew had removed wooden floor planks and was stowing luggage underneath us. The seats bore a striking resemblance to those found on a bus or aeroplane, possibly ‘poached’ from a defunct old service vehicle. Some were not fixed to their girders, so you had to remain vigilantly seated for the eight hour sail! But a wonderful and charming journey along the muddy waters of the Mekong. As I watched the world float by, I pondered on the fact that this beautiful and tranquil country has been the most bombed in history, with 200 million unexploded bombs lying dormant in the surrounding countryside. Indeed if you visit one of the many temples or even pass by a home, you may spot an old bomb casing now serving a newer purpose as a door post or flower bed! As darkness fell we reached the mid way point, a small riverside community filled with cheap guesthouses and restaurants called Pakbeng. I happened to be staying at the same place as the Norwegian gentleman and so again we had dinner, this time at a place which proclaimed ‘My wife is a very good cook’ as a restaurant front incentive! To my dismay Triple Nationality traipsed in with her Dutch dining companions. Unbeknownst to her I was sitting round the corner, out of view, but could hear her old gate going nineteen to the dozen as she bitched about the tightness and dullness of her British poker playing ‘friends’. (They were affable enough- I witnessed one carrying her backpack from the boat and over the gangway to the riverbank hours earlier!!) I arose the next day at 5am to witness the early morning food market at the far end of Pak Beng. People make the journey from nearby villages to sell their produce: piles of chillies, coriander, bamboo, meat and eggs create a colourful patchwork along the main street. I observed small plastic bags packed with tiny and very much alive leaping frogs! Around fifty baby amphibians in each bag jumping desperately for freedom but dying a slow and suffocating death. The market trader told me that people boil and eat them with rice-‘very tasty’. Hmmmm.

After another day sailing on the Mekong I arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. I had the address of my hotel but no idea where I was going. I knew LP to be a smallish place so decided to search for it on foot. I followed a group of tourists who had a map and as we turned a corner, it appeared before my very eyes- Villa Laodeum! A perfect coincidence. I stayed there for eight nights, mainly because of torrential rain four days out of seven. The charming laidback easiness to this former and heavily influenced French colonial gem makes it a wonderful place to chillax. There are an abundant number of coffee shops selling Lao coffee grown by the Hmong from regional hill tribe areas, as well as Spas offering cheap and good quality massages. My favourite haunt was a small bistro where I would sit in the evenings on a veranda, sometimes with new acquaintances, overlooking the gentle hustle of LP and drinking cheap glasses of Lao wine (a bargain at 80p/glass). One morning I awoke early to observe the Alms giving. Monks usually parade at dawn with metal drum baskets, collecting food donations from local residents. I really wanted to photograph this daily custom. However the receptionist at the hotel insisted that I participate instead. For a small fee, I was giving a bamboo basket stuffed to the brim with sticky rice, an umbrella due to the drizzly weather, a pale pink scarf tied across my body, a mat and cushion to sit on. As the monks approached, in a long line of brilliant orange, patient waiting tourists eagerly clicked their cameras for a unique photo opportunity. I had no spoon, so placed a handful of rice in each basket of about thirty, as the monks shuffled silently and gracefully past. Unfortunately, I was told later that they do not appreciate tourists donating food and would not have eaten my sticky rice on the count that I do not share their Buddhist faith! The saddest aspect of this spectacle are the sight of children, as young as six, who join the end of the donation line with baskets almost the same size as them. As the monks file pass they bow their heads and place their hands together in a respectful gesture. A real sign of poverty, when the dirt poor beg holy men for the same charity recently and ritualistically bestowed upon them.

The landscape surrounding Vang Vieng is stunning, with numerous giant limestone karst formations that soar into the sky and at their foot, the snaking and picturesque Nam Song River. The town though is a bit like Marmite. You either love it or hate it…….and I wasn’t a fan. A two night stay for me was just about palatable- very different from the sedate Luang Prabang I had arrived from. The small town is crammed with cheap guesthouses, restaurants and bars. A journalist once wrote ‘if teenagers ruled the world it might resemble Vang Vieng’ and I very much share his thoughts. It is a mandatory stop on the Gap Year route due to the Nam Song River and the existence of ‘tubing’. Tubing is a water based activity where thrill seekers ride or ‘free float’ on inner tubes, their path dictated by the direction of the current. In Laos this is especially popular with the younger crowd due to a plethora of riverside bars dotted along the banks of the river. Travellers usually tube in large groups and set off over a 5km stretch, with a can of Beer Lao in hand. Lao beer touts tempt passing tubers by throwing lines at them for them to grab onto if they want to purchase yet another beer to quench their thirst. It is a dangerous pastime- twenty two tourist deaths were reported here in 2011 due to drowning, alcohol consumption playing a major part.

Throughout the day the town receives back truckfulls of loud, offensive and uncouth tubing groups who then indulge in drunken debauchery, involving yet more alcohol, sex and drugs. I was privy to such hedonist behaviour on my first night, within an hour of checking into my fairly sub-standard guesthouse. (named Popular View as it offered views over the river though, typically, my room overlooked a breeze block wall belonging to the guesthouse next door) I was sitting in the lobby- where I had taken advantage of the free coffee machine, whilst reading my book- when a familiar smell, an old friend, wafted in my direction to say hello. I knew smoking weed carried heavy penalties in Vang Vieng (or so I was led to believe) and thought how brazen it was to smoke the drug so openly. After a short while I was beginning to succumb to the potential pleasure of a joint and was debating whether to go in search of the narcotic, when a group of male ruffians no more than twenty years old and ashamed to say, with pretty standard Essex accents swaggered past. As they did so the ringleader barked animatedly and in earshot of other guests, ‘Come on let’s get some pussy!’ He turned to face me and caught my eye while laughing flagrantly to see if I flushed. Which of course I did, I mean WTF????!!! Absolutely VILE. And off they went- a juvenile pack of wolves, resembling sociopathic characters from Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, seeking to hound bikini clad Australian girls sat languidly in bars whilst watching looped reruns of Family Guy.

I had only one full day in Vang Vieng, which I spent on a kayaking and tubing tour. Unfortunately the weather was abysmal; it rained continuously and the grey clouds were low lying, obscuring the beautiful karst landscape. We set off early to reach our start point on the Nam Song River, 16km upstream. We were due to kayak the whole 16km back(!), stopping for a cave tubing activity and lunch. The river was a little swollen and really fast flowing. I had only kayaked in calm conditions before so was paired with a guide who sat behind me, while I paddled in front. Our only stop was 1km from the start, where we made a hasty, sharp turn and frantic paddle across the flow of the current to reach the opposite river bank. By now the rain was heavily pissing down. We left our life jackets and paddles at the canoes and trekked through a small riverfront village towards gleaming green paddies beyond. I was wearing my Ipanemas but the mud was so thick and gooey that I kept losing them to the greedy, sodden earth. I decided to take them off and manoeuvre my way over puddles, around cow pats and through bits of rubbish. The biggest challenge was to navigate through the rice paddies which paved the way to cave Tham Nam. Tour groups had walked the trail before us and this meant the raised earth boundaries between paddies were now a thick and oozy consistency, which made it treacherously slippery. To the locals it would have been an amusing sight to see a drenched line of muddied tourists slipping and sliding over their land in comical style. One moment you were following someone and the next second they were gone, laying spread eagled on the slimy floor! We reached the cave but our guides were concerned about the falling rain and rising level of water inside. We waited for about an hour and then were given the go ahead. I removed sopping clothes to reveal my swimwear and clambered down into a crystal clear shallow pool in front of the opening. I was passed a tube which I mounted (hahaha-sorry!) and then pulled myself along a taut thin rope which guided me to the mouth of the cave. The entrance was almost concealed because of the water level and I needed to scrunch down into the tube, so I could pass underneath the overhanging rock. The darkness of the cave was made bearable by head lamps which we were provided with and as I pulled myself along the rope, I took care not to graze my legs and feet against the jagged and unforgiving sides of the cave. I hadn’t got very far when a sudden rush of tubers came gliding back towards me. There was panic and confusion. I still forged ahead when a guide stopped me to say there was a dangerous water level deeper inside the cave and a possible water surge could happen! I quickly swivelled around and retreated alongside dozens of tubers all pushing to escape the narrow depths of the cave, jostling impatiently to put hand to rope. In no time I emerged into daylight, thankful that nothing untoward had happened. My relief was compounded further when I learned that our lunch was ready- a feast of vegetable rice, hot chicken kebab skewers, bread and pineapple. Yummy!

Our kayak back down river was eventful. The rainy season had produced a raging river and with it some big rapids to tackle. My guide was a bit of a rapscallion and laughed with glee as he steered us into the thick of the churning current. Of course, being at the front I was left to contend with the full force of muddied water as we were half launched into the air and I resembled a drowned rat for much of the route. During our paddle the guide tried to persuade me to visit a lagoon with him the next day. He wasn’t working and of course he was going to take me there on the back of his motorbike! Okay then! As the river course became calmer I could hear faint dance music which gradually became louder. As we turned a bend, bamboo bar huts lined each bank of the river. The first one was larger than the rest and despite the weather, hosted scantily clad foreigners gyrating to banging tunes, in the shadow of a cumbersome three story high concrete water slide. I was in tubing territory! Because of the weather only three bars were open, providing for two pathetic and miserable looking tubing souls being swept along at a far from leisurely pace. My kayaking group stopped for a much needed rest at a bar further downstream. Kayakers and guides mingled together, making their own entertainment- playing bocce, cards, volleyball and with an excess of Beer Lao available to purchase and consume. Despite the fun and frivolity nothing could stop me from shivering and I inched closer to a little fire made from broken twigs and branches. As I begun to get toasty I thought about what an incredible party atmosphere it would be during dry season. Dare I return?? As I neared the exit point close to my hotel, the guide was becoming more insistent on his fantasy trip to the lagoon. ‘See you tomorrow?’ he asked impatiently. As I stepped gingerly off the boat and into the cool water I glanced back at him. ‘Yes, yes. Tomorrow’ I replied with a wry smile. Unfortunately for him tomorrow never came, for I was homeward bound.

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INDONESIA

THE INDONESIAN EXPERIENCE

During my first week I stayed in two typically Indonesian homestays. I engaged in various activities such as lending a hand at a special needs school sports day (which involved us being blindfolded and having to burst a water balloon by attacking it with a bamboo stick- pinata style.) To making banana fritters (apparently a typical Indonesian dish. Hmmmm...........).

The bathroom facilities at both homestays were pretty basic. In the first house the four of us travelers shared the bathroom. The sink/washbasin was a tiled cubicle that was built from the floor to reach about waist height. It was filled with water from a cold water tap. To ‘shower’ a container was needed to scoop the icy water from the sink in order to douse yourself with. Washing my hair was intolerable! The container used to wash with was also used to flush the toilet with (thats right guys, I was reunited with the classic duck toilet again!) It was particularly embarrassing because sometimes I would visit the bathroom to find a floating turd in the toilet. It was notoriously difficult to flush one away with the force of a paltry capacity of water from such a small container.

The second homestay was far more rural. We were guests of an elderly couple who kept about 4 helpers/servants. There were about 10 people in all. And only one bathroom. This time complete with squatting toilet and another fucking pooper scooper. The tiled basin was much larger and resembled a bath. It was always full to the brim with water but the tap was out of reach and I had no choice but to wash with the water that was present. However it was hard to ascertain how clean it actually was. I am sure that other members of the household had no qualms in dipping whatever unsavoury(!) body part into the mass of unsanitary water.

The next two weeks were filled with delights such as a visit to the Ramayana ballet, a batik workshop, a 15km bike ride tour of Solo (much flatter terrain than the 20km cycle I made in mountainous Yangshuo, my crotch ached for a week afterwards), visiting erotic temples covered in phallic symbols (and foo foo’s too) and going crazy at a water boom. The waterpark was smallish but had a wave pool, body slide, open and closed slides as well as a lazy pool. I had so much fun hurtling down on my ring (!) through a black abyss into the water below. It took me back to my younger days with my sister at Bedford Oasis. A definite highlight was the magical temple at Borabadur. It is a superb outside tribute to Lord Buddha and is a dramatic spectacle on the Indonesian landscape. This detailed carved stone structure represents a transient journey from a sinful life at the bottom to a more honorable one as you ascend. Nirvana is reflected at the top where a large stupa is surrounded by dozens of smaller ones, each containing the statue of Buddha. A truly exquisite location intricately bound with spirituality.

We spent our last week on the touristy island of Bali, at Kuta- the island’s party capital. It was a relaxing week filled with shopping, massages, lazing by the pool and of course sampling the nightlife. One particular night we decided to check out Paddy’s Bar on the Legian Road. We decided to play ‘get people involved’ which required us to approach awkward looking individuals on the dancefloor and humor them with their dance moves or entice them to join in with our own crazy dancing. It was pretty funny because many revelers were young aussies who took themselves way too seriously and didn’t appreciate our antics. I latched onto a group of male aussie 40 somethings who were away on a stag weekend and they were pretty fun but I took my leave when the 60 year old in the group approached me and in his thick Australian twang asked ‘wanna come back to mine for a shag?’ I was wetting myself and couldn’t help but laugh in his face. On the other side of the dance floor, I could see my mate Calum getting cosy with an Indonesian girl. He eventually led her onto the dancefloor but despite his best efforts to engage her, her face was as long as an arsehole. Later I asked him what had happened. He confided that she was desperate for money and offered her ‘services’ in return for cash. He told her ‘I cant give you any money but I will give you a dance’. Lol.

Paddy’s Bar reopened on a different site after the Bali Bombings in 2002. The bar and nearby Sari Club were main targets and 202 people were killed in total. Tourists, many of them young, out enjoying themselves and having a few drinks- just like we were- had their lives cruelly snatched away in their prime. A striking permanent memorial is built on the site of the destroyed Paddy’s Bar and lists the names of those killed. It is fully illuminated at night.


THE LEGEND OF CATUR

A typical day for us on tour would consist of our guide, Catur, making a series of blunders. Some of which hilariously funny, others just plain vexing. An impish looking fellow of slight build, Catur was a university graduate of 21. He could manage a reasonable amount of English and I have a feeling that this was the primary reason he was employed by the travel company, as he did not possess the organisation skills nor intellect to carry out his job adequately. Some examples of his tomfoolery:

1. We were due to leave Yogjakarta by train for Solo. We were informed that the train was departing at 9am. On leaving the hotel it was noted that he was wearing his tracksuit bottoms back to front. A bad omen, I thought to myself. We arrived at the station at 8.30am to find the train pulling away from the platform and then had to wait 2 hours for the next train to depart. On arrival at Solo we were due to commence afternoon sightseeing of the Royal Palace (or Kraton). However on check in, the receptionist informed us that it was closed each afternoon. On closer inspection of the Lonely Planet guide, it was discovered that the palace was indeed shut all day of the day in question!

2. A simple bus ride in Yogjakarta turned into a nightmarish journey. On his guidance, we waited at a bus stop which took us around the city in a anti-clockwise direction and lasted an hour and a half. He later confessed that if we crossed the road and had walked for 100m to another bus stop, we would have arrived at our destination in 15 minutes. He told us that he decided not to because he felt too tired (seriously!)

3. When white water rafting he deliberately and excitedly jumped out of the boat and into the river near some gentle rapids. Suddenly his funloving demeanor changed and he became anxious and scared. Only then did he make the admission that he couldn’t swim. Lol.


CATUR THEORY

Catur was an epitome of idiocy and I couldn’t understand his muddled logic. Other examples include dampening his cigarettes with coffee before smoking them, due to his belief that ‘it makes the tobacco stronger’. Or wearing t-shirts in the rain and his jacket with the hood up(!) in the blazing midday sun.

However I fear this way of thinking transcends through Indonesian society to such an extent that when something presented itself that seemed illogical, we would turn to each other and utter the words ‘Catur theory’. For example on a 50minutes Garuda flight (grrrr....) From Semarang to Jakarta, the inflight entertainment system which included interactive games and movies was available for only 15 minutes. Yet such a system was non existent on a 7 hour flight from China to Jakarta. Or in shops, items were incorrectly priced and when queried, the response was because they share the same barcode as other products (but not the same price?!!) Or visiting the National Museum in Jakarta to find that it was not organised in chronological order, nor any other order from what I could deduce. The examples are endless.

TOP TRAVEL READS

As I have come to the end of my nomadic existence I would like to share with you my favourite books that have accompanied me through trial and tribulation, over oceans and mountains, on beaches and in jungles.

5. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence
Classic read about a mummy’s boy who cannot decide on which girl he truly loves and ends up hurting them both. Typical bloke lol

4. Into Thin Air/The Climb by Jon Krakauer/Anatoli Boukreev
Thrilling personal accounts of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.

3. City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
‘All that is not given is lost’. Beautiful book set in the Calcutta slums about generosity, dedication, love and hope.

2. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins- EVERYBODY should read this book. I shall make no further comment. lol

1. Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson- Arguably the best crime stories I have ever read. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most memorable characters to ever appear in print. If that doesn’t sway you then catch a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at a cinema.

FEAR EATS THE SOUL

So, have I learnt anything? Love all, trust a few and hurt no one. (Actually I stole this motto off a t-shirt slogan I saw in a shop in Jakarta hehe). To be fair I knew and tried to live according to this before I pissed off. I am learning to let go of fear, which is really hard to do. Not to fear about the future or fret about the past. I am learning to take each day as it comes and live it as full as I can, with a smile on my face (yes, Calum a smile. Lol). And I won’t forget all the ones that I love. I will hold onto them, after all good friends are hard to find.

Anyway enough of this prattle! I’m off to the Opera House tonight to see Pucinni’s Tosca (this reworking actually features the rape scene. Hmmmm.) Must get ready. It’s a dog’s life for some, eh? Lol.

Aaaaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!!!

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

I was in an internet cafe in Yangshou and I had just posted my previous blog entry. I went to leave and reached for my bag that was hanging from my chair- a mere 2cm away. It had disappeared!! I furiously searched around the computer area and on the floor and became frantic when it was nowhere to be seen. I approached the front desk and tried to tell them that my bag was missing but they only wore blank faces. My heart was now racing and I had a lump in my throat. I made haste and ran from the cafe to the nearest motorbike taxi. As we speedily cruised through the streets of Yangshuo, I clung tightly on to him and cried silently into his back. By the time I reached my accommodation, my silent weeping had turned into an uncontrollable sob. Isabella gave me her mobile so I could phone mother to instruct her to cancel my bank cards. I wailed down the phone as I told her that I was due to leave China in two days but my passport had been stolen (along with my money, Ipod, and new camera!). She accompanied me to report it to the police who them drove us to the internet cafe. They searched through CCTV footage. I was seen engrossed in my writing, when a suspicious looking man crept up behind me then sneaked away with something stuffed up his jacket. He was the prime suspect. The police left to investigate further but told me that it was unlikely that my bag would be returned. Of course that was of little comfort and did not help stop my tears. I needed to find a photocopy of my passport and return immediately to the police station. On arrival at the station, a window of two hours had passed by. However, I could scarce believe it, there was good news! The thief had been apprehended by chance in a nearby park and my bag with all its contents were believed to be recovered! I was absolutely dumbfounded and ecstatic to be reunited with my passport again. Time was spent at the station giving statements and fingerprints(!) The thief would now serve a minimum of 15 days in jail. Everybody commented on how lucky I was. Later that night I went to the bar and got out my cigarettes for a smoke. I opened the packet and looked inside but they had all vanished!!! The bastard must have been shitting a brick whilst 'on the run' and helped himself. Fucker. Let this be a warning to all travellers. Keep your valuables on your lap and not by your feet or on a chair. I have learnt a valuable lesson.

AIRLINE FIASCO

I needed to board a flight from Guangzhou, China to Jakarta, Indonesia. I had a confirmed e-ticket. I possessed an e-reference number but my actual airline ticket number was not referenced on my e-ticket printout (however it is still possible to obtain this by putting the e-reference into an airline data base). Fucking Garuda Indonesian (the shittiest airline in the world- you were right Amanda!) refused to board me because their database had no record of my airline ticket number (and therefore my booking.) They were seriously unhelpful and told me to ring my flight agent back in England although it was 5am London time! I was in uproar at this point because my bank cards had been cancelled due the thieving little shit and I had no access to money (only Euros that my programme coordinator had kindly lent me and this had to suffice until Australia) The 100 yuan I did have was wasted on calls to my travel company's emergency contact number. They advised me to wait 4 hours at the China Southern Airline desk until it was 9am London time, so that others could ring and better advise me as to what the problem was. During this time the Garuda staff fucked off and left me, without offering any further assistance. In total I waited 9 hours at the desk while my travel company were farting around and not really helping me solve the problem. I had no money and was hungry and thirsty. The China Southern staff took pity on my pathetic form and bought me a MacDonalds. Eventually one of them offered to help. I explained my predictament and she put my previous airline ticket number into the Air China database. My ticket was issued by China Southern (an Air China company) and not Garuda. Garuda Indonesian owned the aircraft but China Southern was a co-operating partner of the flight and had its own quota of passengers. I was a China Southern passenger but Garuda check-in didn't bother putting in my Air China e-ticket reference, even though they knew the airline was a co-carrier!! China Southern were very nice and took responsibility for me. They put me up in a hotel which included breakfast and lunch and transport to and from the airport. I rang my travel company and informed them that I would need my connecting flight in Indonesia to be changed and that my pickup in Semerang would need to be informed. They confirmed this to me on the phone and again I repeated these sentiments in an email that I sent from the hotel. I flew out of China 24 hours later on the same flight that I missed the preceding day. I arrived in Jakarta at 10pm. Because my hotel booking in Jakarta was for the preceding night and my cash was running low, I decided to sleep on the airport floor! (This needed to be done at least once- now I can say that I am a real traveller) I had a terrible 9 hours sleep – punctuated frequently by boarding calls. When at last I arrived in Semerang, guess what? No fucking pick up!! I just stood in the arrivals hall and laughed manically. If I hadn't I would have cried.

China

BEIJING

I touched down at Capital Airport at 12am. The temperature outside was -12 degrees. As I left the aircraft and made my way through the terminal building to passport control an icy chill hung in the air. I changed up some money and waited for a pre booked ride to my hostel. I waited. And waited. At 2am the man showed up. He had a pleasant face with a moustache and smiling eyes. As we exited the building to the carpark, the cold gripped my body fiercly and tightly and it never loosened for the remainder of my time there.

I was so cold that I decided to visit an underwear store and purchase a pair of long johns. They were thick grey and very unsexy- perhaps for the fact that I mistakenly bought a mans pair which had a ridiculous amount of space in the front (with which I had nothing to fill!!) On the same visit I also bought some new knickers. This proved amusing as the lady tried to flog me a pair that was size XXS! I think not!! By means of a manic game of charades, I managed to communicate that ‘my arse was too big’. Her reply was ‘no arse big, same mine’. What a notion! Like many chinese women she was absurdly petite, about size 6 (my bottom is at least a size 12!). Eventually I made off with a few pairs size S.

Beijing is a curious city. There is an overly sanitised feel to the place. For example the subway is pristine. Yet, behind this façade old habits die hard. I dined in a restaurant where a fellow customer, on the next table, took comfort in spitting out onto the floor anything that wasn’t palatable to him. As I left I took pains to theatrically step over the foul grossness and gave him a seriously dirty look. It is also an expensive city. I paid 100 pounds for a 7 megapixel camera in the shopping district of Wangfujing and I am sure I can pay less in England. Yet many people that live in central Beijing dwell within the cramped and dark labyrinthe of the hutong- essentially a poor mans residence.

For any tourist, a visit to Tiannamen Square and the viewing of Chairman Mao is a must. Tiannamen is the worlds largesat public square, yet government security is very tight (you need to pass through check points to enter and CCTV is everywhere) I took in the enormity of the space and crossed the huge concrete slabs to the far side. I thought about the pro democracy demonstrators of 1989. As they crowded into the square, they were confronted by army tanks. Many died believing in the right to basic freedoms.

Thousands of people somberly file past the first Chairman of the Communist Party. He lies in state behind a bullet proof screen. His well preserved body is bathed in a golden glow (but his face is an intense shade of orange and looks like he has just been tangoed!) I find it hard to comprehend how a man that is widely acknowledged in China to be responsible for the shambolic disasters of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution is so highly revered. (In my opinion the present success of China is down to a later Chairman- Deng Xiaoping, who opened China up to foreign investment.)

My visit to the Great Wall was breathtaking. It was the coldest day that I have spent in China (come to think of it, possibly the coldest in my whole life!) I boarded a rickety and rusty ski lift to the top of the enormous structure and walked it for three hours. Parts had very steep steps and I had to revert to a technique that was similar to a type of crawl when ascending. In order to descend from the top of the wall to the bottom, I had to taboggan! I was given a plastic seat, with 4 wheels and a lever attached! The course of the taboggan run zig zagged down the mountain side. There were many twists and turns and I actually felt like a member of the Jamaican bobsleigh team from the film Cool Runnings! To go faster I needed to push down hard on the lever, so that I was hunched over quite a bit. This made my back ache, causing me to pull back on the lever occasionally. Not the best idea with another taboggan on my tail. ( I nearly came a cropper a few times.) It was a mad dash to the finish but mega fun.

Modern China is a vibrant new world. I visited Beijing’s 798 Art District, where a number of galleries occupy a derelict industrial subhurb, north east of the capital. I was interested to mooch around as I find the combination of art and Communism an odd one. The former is the very essence of creativity- a freedom to express- while the latter espouses the opposite. The art was insightful. However it fell to a painter from the more liberal Hong Kong (repatriated only in 1997) to be bold enough to show eroticism in contemporary Chinese art.

For New Years Eve, I headed down to Mao Live House- the most famous rock venue in Beijing. I was curious about the Chinese punk rock scene and found it very similar to a university gig back home. Girls wore short skirts, knee high boots and were plastered with makeup. ( Gwen Steffani’s Harajuka girls spring to mind!) The musicians were talented. I enjoyed seeing acts rocking out on stage and the crowd moshing- not at all repressed!! After midnight I disappeared to Sanlitun near the Birds Nest stadium and home to a few bars. I played a few drinking games (who the fuck is Jay Zhou?!) before I returned. On New years Day I was fortunate to have a meal with a group of Spanish friends who were staying at my hostel. I found the French-Italian girlfriend of one of them entertaining. Only 23 but having lived in London and now Spain, she was fluent in 4 languages. She used to live in Shoreditch(!) and was excited when I told her that Dad was Sri Lankan. She said she had worked with a few Tamil people and laughed everytime anyone said they were Tamil because it is a French slang word for pussy! Lol. Nice to know as I have been telling people that I am half Tamil for years! (go figure!lol)

The day I flew from Beijing to Guillin, heavy snow was falling and the drive to the airport was treacherous. I arrived at 6.30am. My flight was due to leave at 8.30am. I boarded and waited for take off. Two hours later I was still sitting in the stationary aircraft. I thought the flight was going to be cancelled. However we started moving and once in Guillin, I found out that we were the last aeroplane to depart from Beijing. Over 600 flights proceeeding mine had been cancelled! Lady luck was with me that day. For a change. Lol.

YANGSHUO

My time in China has been a memorable one, for good and not so good reasons (lol Anne!) Throughout my time travelling, I have been as candid as I possibly can about how I have spent my time. However, I have decided to keep the stories and anecdotes relating to my experiences in this part of China for myself. Perhaps because they concern people that are reading this blog or perhaps because they are of a highly personal but exceptionally humorous nature and can only be divulged to my nearest and dearest. I’m sorry to disappoint, guys!

Though, I will share one thing with you. I taught English in a village primary school for a week. I had the reception class! My God! So fucking cute! Their little Chinese faces are to die for. Each time I paused briefly during a lesson, they stood up and applauded me! Lol! No joke! It was moments like these when I realised that I missed working with children. I really love the little ones- they possess such joy and innocence. My Chinese programme coordinator, Isabella, is also an English lecturer at university. She observed some of my lessons and liked them. She picked up on the fact that I have a specialism in phonics and offered me work for 3 months as an education advisor, near Beijing. Her friend has just set up a kindergarden there and I will be working closely with her and maybe help write a resource pack for phonics, to aid other teachers nationwide. I will do some paid teaching in Yangshuo, south China for about 6 months first though.

It must be the case that any fool can teach in China and any schoolteacher can become an education advisor (foolish or otherwise, lol!)

This means that I will only be in Australia for half a year and plan to leave in September. Yangshuo is surrounded by a hauntingly beautiful mountainous landscape. Socially, I have met some good people here. It will be my privilege to return later in the year. My goal is to reach New Zealand by June 2011. Next stop Indonesia. Bali here I come!!!

Happy New Year from Thailand

ELEPHANTS
As I was driven from Suvarnabhumi to the hotel, I looked out the window to see thousands of Bangkokians lining the streets and dressed in pink. I thought I was witness to a large scale gay pride festival! I found out that it was 5th December- the king’s birthday. The king is highly revered and a well loved figurehead who’s failing health is a worrying point for many Thais. According to astrologers pink is the colour which has properties that are beneficial to restoring the sovereign’s health. This is why Thailand is bathed in this colour every December. That evening I donned my only pink top and ventured outside, being swallowed up by the sea of people. Thousands of lights glistened brightly, framing buildings and draped around huge portraits of the king. I made my way past live rock bands playing on stage to enthusiastic teenage fans, street vendors selling pad thai and women giving foot massages. I ended up in the place I wanted to be most of all- the Khao San Road. This backpacker’s Mecca was overcrowded with clothes stalls, hostels and bars. I found the chaos of Khao San too much, so slipped down a side alley into a road beyond. This was quieter, though still busy. I was hungry so decided to eat in a place called ‘the Cool Corner’, which had seating outside. A tall, slender waitress in a short dress, with long hair and nails was standing at the entrance enticing prospective customers. I approached her and asked to be seated. In a gruff voice she replied ‘this way!’. My first encounter with a lady boy. I departed to northern Thailand the next day. I was to spend a week in the jungle helping mahouts to look after elephants. I lived in a ‘ecohouse’ which was no more than a bamboo hut. I was tormented at night by giant frogs, who invaded through gaps in the bamboo. All I could hear were their movements around the room in the dead of night. One night was particularly horrific. I was awoken by a piercing scream. My roommate was asleep when a frog managed to jump down onto her mosquito net, making a depression in the net that was now 5cm from her face. We had no idea what it was at the time and suffice to say we never slept a wink all night. On the first day we were introduced to all seven elephants. One was pregnant and the arrival of the baby imminent. We considered ourselves lucky, for an elephant is pregnant for up to 2 years but unfortunately she was still with child when we left. Over the week I got to know the elephants. My favourite was a female called Wang Tong, who was orphaned when she was a baby. She was very amiable- I was allowed to stroke her face and nuzzle up to her. Sometimes she would make her trunk flick up in order to search and feel for my face! Her passive nature and gentleness was in stark contrast to the others, some of whom would often turn or push you away. I fed, washed and learned how to climb on and off an elephant unaided. They feel like a warm, old and wrinkly leather sofa. You need to keep perfect balance when riding them being vigilant as you pass under trees and low lying branches. The mahouts have a very different way of life to anybody I have ever met. While the elephants roam the area to feed, they forage around for food. One day they made a crude tool by fixing a knife to a long bamboo cane which was used to cut fruit from tall trees. The fruit was gathered then taken away to be sold for a profit which would supplement their measly wage, paid by the government who own the National Park. Mahout life was very simple and sedate. By the end of the week I was ready to move on. I would be sampling beach life next.

DIVING
I arrived early morning on the sunny island of Koh tao, following a 12 hour journey by bus and boat. Koh Tao is second only to Cairns in issuing the most number of PADI certificates. My dive school was DJL, where I was to train for my 18m Open Water. My accommodation was not ready for me when I arrived, so I decided on taking a walk along the golden sands of the picturesque and paradise like beach. What a mistake! Everywhere I looked there were bronzed and toned beautiful bodies of both sexes. It was like a hellish nightmare! I was shown my ‘beach bungalow’, which can only be described as a shack (though I used to refer to it as the hovel!) Again it was fashioned from bamboo but raised above the ground. Outside was small verandah with table and chairs. Inside the bedroom measured 6 by 6 feet! To the left was a small cubbyhole space for me to store my bags. A door next to this led down a few steps to a bathroom area, complete with duck toilet! Paradise. Lol. Because there was no running water system, the shower and sink were connected to large outside water tanks. I was dubious about how clean or purified the water was as half a dozen times brown, putrefying liquid came flowing out. I swear I was washing in my own shit! Lol. The first night I heard scratching against the walls and movements in my wastepaper bin outside (for there was no room for this inside the hovel). I told myself it was a gecko but it sounded much more cumbersome so I was unsure. The next night I awoke to use the bathroom. I turned on the bathroom light to see a fat little furry arse scampering away through a gap in the wall. The next day I went to my backpack to discover that the zip had been gnawed and a sealed box of biscuits had been torn to shreds, the contents gone! I moaned to management and they dispatched somebody to put rat poison down. I showed him the backpack. We cleared its contents and left the bag in the bin to be collected alongside the other rubbish. Here begins my second tale of woe. When it was time to leave I couldn’t find my camera. I had not used it on Koh Tao, yet it was nowhere in the hovel. The backpack! Which was now somewhere on the island’s rubbish dump. What a fecking surprise! I now have no camera and more importantly no SD card (thankfully I uploaded some photos but am missing those from Thailand and Sri Lanka) Despite my negligence and stupidity I can happily boast to having an amazing and enjoyable diving experience that I would highly recommend. The course consisted of theory, a confined water dive and four open water dives. I found trouble equalizing when descending under pressure which left my ears sore and painful. Though the reward of swimming the ocean floor , surrounded by sealife was a more than satisfying trade off. Life holds few distinctions but I can safely say that a fellow beginner diver was one of the most clueless people I have ever met in my life. Our instructor Alex was an extremely chilled and calm character but even he was ruffled by her antics. On one occasion we had to demonstrate a skill on the surface. She ended up floating away, arms flailing about and on her stomach (you should always be on your back when boyant). Cool headed Alex barked ‘What the hell are you doing?!’. There were plenty more comedic moments to keep me amused over the four days but everyone was lovely. I found beach life during the day somewhat confined and unvarying for my taste (think I am a city girl at heart). Come night time the bars along the beach were lively but relaxed places to hang out. There was live music to pool parties to flame throwing in order to keep the tourists entertained and the pulse of Koh Tao throbbing. I preferred to sit by the pool at DJL and chat to other divers and instructors (village number 2. Or was it 3? Lol) As I waited for my ferry to leave from the rickety pier, I felt a little emotional. As I glanced back along the coastline towards Sairee village, warm, heavy raindrops started to fall from the sky.

CHRISTMAS
I met Mum and Dad at a 5* hotel in Bangkok. I was pleased to see them (and the supplies they had brought me from Blighty!) Myself and Dad wildly differ in our definition of ‘sightseeing traveller’. He likes his creature comforts. He doesn’t like to spend too long outside because it is hot and he sweats. He prefers to take taxis rather than walk due to one of his ailments. When visiting Chinatown, a place packed with market stalls and food vendors he asked me where the local MacDonald’s was! (To be fair dad is usually very adventurous with his food) I think he enjoyed himself though and it was good to see the old boy again. One day my mother asked me to accompany her to the Patpong district, a place where she had read about. To her amazement I had never heard of it or anything to do with Planet Patpong. She informed me that it was the centre of Bangkok’s sex industry- a kind of Soho. I was less than thrilled to take part in this jaunt but we arrived mid afternoon. There were no flashing neon lights or girls walking the pavement in skimpy attire. The place was dead and myself and mother were the only Europeans walking down Patpong 1, which made us rather conspicuous. I urged her to get the hell out of there when I spotted a sign for a nightcub called ‘Pussy Palace’. She said we could cut back to the main road by walking down Patpong 2! As I was frog marched down this seedy little street, we spotted some older gentlemen slipping into one of the bars. Indeed I have never seen such a high proportion of ageing white men, on their own, in a foreign area before. One of mum’s hobbies was to play spot the sex tourist where she would recount in concise detail, her observations of elderly gentlemen and their young Thai lady friends. Christmas itself was quiet, very different from what I am used to. My parents brought with them Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on DVD. It is an Oliver family Christmas tradition to watch it, so we devoted 6 hours to this viewing over the festive period. We stayed in the Sukhmavit area which is a popular road for luxury hotels. Because of this, there were signs of Christmas everywhere. We ate Christmas lunch in a pub of a hotel. I devoured a seafood starter of crabs, prawns and salmon followed by a delicious carvery roast with all the trimmings. I do believe the pub management and cook were English so the grub tasted how it should have done. I ate so much and so ravenously but didn’t care, for it was my first roast dinner in 4 months! Mum and Dad left Thailand before me. It was nice of them to come visit me. I don’t know when I will see them again. Maybe in a year or two. Next stop China. Temperature -9 degrees. Happy days. Lol.

Sri Lanka

An hour away from landing at Colombo, I was given an arrival card to fill out. It asked me for my visa number(!) and of course I panicked. I alerted the air hostess and explained that I was under the impression that I would be granted a landing visa, therefore did not purchase one in advance. She relayed my concerns to other cabin crew and they informed me that I could obtain a visa on arrival. I was still apprehensive. I had no sterling or dollars to buy the damn thing, only Nepali rupees. She was kind and asked me to wait until everyone had vacated the aircraft on landing and then she would confer with ground staff about my predicament. By this stage I was shitting myself! Potentially more visa problems on the horizon! Fortunately ground staff declared 'no fee for a 4 week visa!' Thank God, Yahweh, Allah and all the Hindu deities. However, I did need to obtain a Chinese visa from the embassy which would take four days to process. I decided to spend a week in Colombo and applied for a 60 day visa instead of a 40 day one- having been badly stung already, I thought it better to be safe than sorry. Good news- visa granted! I spent two days mooching around the capital, although like Delhi, it is a place of little value on a tourist map. The oldest part of Colombo is Fort and its two main sights are a budhhist stupa and a clock tower. Unfortunately the security presence is heavy. I was stopped on my way to the clock tower. 'Where are you going?' 'I dunno' I replied defiantly. 'Where are you going?' Again 'I dunno.' They asked me for a third time, to which I replied that I was a tourist on a walk and unsure of exactly where. They patted me down and allowed me to pass. Less than 20ms down the same road, yet another security checkpoint! 'Please step aside madam- where are you going?' My annoyance was plain as I snapped 'forget it- back to where I came from'. The Galle Road is the spine of Colombo and runs away from Fort, parallel to the sea. The President’s residence- Temple Trees- can be found here. Again security is heavy in front of his compound. As I passed his address, I whipped out my phone, knowing full well that I fit the description of a probable suicide bomber- youngish, asian and female. At once soldiers became alarmed and scrutinized my every move until I passed them and crossed the road. I despise the Sri Lankan army and have a festering hatred for the President. His face adorns walls, buildings and even buses. He seems to be held in high esteem. Many Sinhalese praise him for solving the 'Tamil problem' in the north. However, his callous and inhumane methods have meant that he has committed atrocities against innocent Tamil civilians. Many are still suffering- imprisoned in wretched 'refugee' camps, missing family, without limbs and void of basic sanitation and shelter. Of course an investigation into the breach of human rights was thwarted by countries like Russia and China (who else?), big abusers of human rights themselves. Sri Lanka now want to be rewarded for their 'success' by hosting the next Commonwealth summit. It makes my skin crawl. Galle Face Green is equivalent to London's Hyde Park. It is here that families picnic at the weekend, lovers stroll hand in hand in the evening and firecrackers are set off to mark celebrations such as New Year. Galle Face Hotel is perched to one side of it and is one of the most exclusive hotels in Sri Lanka. After a tiring day of sightseeing I sauntered in to this imposing colonial structure and set foot inside the 'verandah bar'- a lovely spot which overlooks the sea. I ordered a king coconut drink. King coconuts are orange in colour and the juice can be drunk through a straw which pierces the husk of the coconut. As the pleasant and refreshing nectar passed my lips I watched the sun set over the Indian Ocean. It was a perfect moment.

Hannah's parents in law live in an impressive house in the northern suburbs of Colombo. It was here that I stayed. On the second day of my visit, I was introduced to his Grandmother and the servant girl, Rani. They were delightful. Granny (or Ammie) has long grey hair and no teeth! So adorable. She speaks limited english and is going deaf. Rani is the personification of goodness. She is a wonderful cook (I have definitely put on a few pounds here) and busies herself throughout the day with household chores. She will do anything to make your life more comfortable. I was sitting reading one evening, when she started to massage my head and shoulders. I was much embarrassed and pleaded with her to stop- to which she replied 'but it is my pleasure madam'. I have always looked upon the keeping of servants with an unfriendly eye. As the days rolled by, I built up a rapport with Rani. Her story is a sad one. Her mother left when she was small and her alcoholic father remarried a woman who used to beat her. By the age of 10 she was already in service, working in the kitchen of a wealthy family. By the age of 14 she came to live with my brother in laws parents. She has been with them 10 years and swears she will never marry. 'What for?' she answered when probed 'I have everything that I want right here.' True. She can watch tv, listen to music, is fed well and has a roof over her head. But all this at a price - her freedom. However, the realistic alternative for her is bleak. Tea picking for a handful of rupees a day, back in her hill country home town. Who am I to judge? Granny keeps a kitten named Sindu for a companion. She is very friendly and playful. I will always remember Granny's attempts at trying to discipline her- brandishing a cane whilst shouting 'adi pat' (I will hit you). On one occasion she did and the poor cat limped badly for days.

I travelled to Galle, on the south coast by train. I decided to volunteer here for 3 weeks. I moved into an apartment 5 minutes walk away from the home of the volunteer coordinator, Janaka. It is in the middle of a small village community, amid jungle like terrain, which is set back away from the main road into Galle. I live above a family who own three bakery shops. One day they asked if I would meet them in the afternoon so that they could show me their bakeries. So I did and the whole family were waiting for me in their best attire, all smiles. I could have cried! Their chain, Sahana is quite famous in Galle. I was living above local celebrities! They fed me pizza and gave me fresh juice, then insisted on driving me to the peace pagoda, a Japanese Buddhist stupa that stands on lush green land, which juts out into the sea and affords superb views of Galle Fort and sea front. They are very hospitable and are forever bringing me fruit and cake to eat. The downside is that I have to devour these delicious treats almost immediately as I possess no fridge and ants are problematic. My apartment has an open gap between wall and ceiling, so I have had a number of visitors which have included cockroaches, spiders, geckos, centipedes and leeches. Happily enough I have been reunited with my old friend the mosquito. They do not seem to have any respect for me- indeed I have received a bite on my eyelid and each bum cheek, amongst other places.

I work two days a week at a college and two days at a nursery. I teach conversational english to 18 year olds (scary!) and a notoriously unruly and large class of 11 year olds. One day I was unexpectedly dumped with 43 of the little sods. It has been almost constant rain in Galle since my arrival, so on this day I had an umbrella with me. I had no lesson plan so decided to do what I know best, a phonics session which is fairly interactive. To my dismay a group of boys were flicking coins at each other as I was trying to teach. I lost my temper and began to thrash my umbrella wildly about on table tops. I confiscated their money and made the main culprit stand on a chair. This made him tearful and I felt heartless but it yielded their attention and I never heard peep out of them for the next hour. lol. (probably because they were shit scared about being stuck in a classroom with a psychotic from England!) The nursery class is quite an experience. The first day I was surprised by the teacher's lack of discipline- so much so that I took over! The teacher is hell bent on rehearsing for an end of year concert and turns a blind eye to the rest of the children, who run wild, whilst she rehearses with the others. There are minimal resources in the classroom to engage the children but when asked for toys, she produced a box with lego and building blocks from a locked room. It so happens that this room is well stocked with paper, card, crayons etc but these are simply not used. It is horrendously evident that the teacher does not plan or prepare anything. In terms of OFSTED, she would not be deemed inadequate but 'diabolically incapable'. In this case the need is quite clear. The teacher needs to be trained. With another volunteer, we have engaged the children in a variety of activities. These have worked well and we hope that our work will be to the teacher's benefit when we leave. In stark contrast, I visited a street children's nursery in a poor part of Galle. The teacher was so lovely and caring. It was an absolute joy to watch her interaction with the children. She dotes on them and they clearly idolise her. The learning here is very much child initiated- like a Montessori nursery. The stories of the children though are heartbreaking. One comes from a family of beggars, whilst another had a mother who hung herself.

Siri is the tuk tuk driver responsible for transporting us to and from placements. He is a comical character that potters around chewing animatedly on beetle leaf. His mouth is always a bright sanguine colour, stained from the unpleasant concoction that he is addicted to. He is possibly the worst driver. I have seen him reverse into a motorbike and others tell me of their journey of terror whereby Siri proceeded around the busiest of roundabouts, in the centre of Galle, the wrong way. This brought traffic to a standstill and prompted furious tooting from fellow drivers. Each morning he ritualistically burns coconut husk and marches ceremoniously through Janakas house, wafting acrid smoke in our direction as we eat breakfast (apparently as a mosquito deterrent.)

Each weekend I have opted to stay at the beach. Rooms are as little as 5 pounds a night. I managed to get a room at Mambo’s in Hikkaduwa. It is a hip joint on the waterfront and is run by local surfers. They all have long untamed locks, the ends dyed peroxide blonde (when I first arrived I genuinely thought Malinga had come to sample the surf!) It was relaxing reading a book, pint in hand watching the surfers tumble and fall into the waves. The party scene here is lively and spills from the dance floor onto the beach. I had drinks with some solo travelers, who seemed to dissipate as the night went on – some went skinny dipping, others went to have a ‘smoke’ under a palm tree. I took control of the dance floor! Earlier in the evening I became acquainted with a French girl who by the end of the night was fairly inebriated. I was worried about her walk back as she lived quite a way down the beach. Me and a fellow Brit decided to follow her. On the dimly lit road behind the hotel were a group of local lads who surrounded her like vultures to their prey. They were far from happy when we appeared and as we hastened away with the poor girl, a torrent of verbal abuse ensued which culminated in one calling me a ‘foreign bullshit fucker’ (WTF? !! Ive not been called one of those before!)

Towards the end of my stay, Janaka invited us to his daughter’s sports day at Sacred Heart (!) Girls Convent. He was chief special guest and had to make a speech. We arrived to a girls marching band and a walk past where each of the four school houses were represented by groups of girls holding their house flag! I have never known such pomp and circumstance. What followed was no less than 30 events which included book balancing, coconut shell walking and water bottle filling!! I must say the students were well behaved and it must have taken a huge effort by staff to coordinate the morning. I was impressed. The special education class had their own event. I found this quite distasteful. The overt labeling of them as different from their peers is one thing but one ‘obstacle’ in their obstacle race event was to down a bottle of Fanta! I was alarmed by the irresponsibility of it. One was gulping down her drink at such an alarming rate she almost choked! The wellbeing of these students was not thought through and I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdness of it.

I have felt much closer to the people and community here than I have done on previous volunteer programmes. Living with a family has helped me understand the local way of life and culture a lot better. I will miss the sound of clunking from the machine in the flip flop factory opposite, the Fur Elise tune that the bakery truck plays which wakes me early each morning, the odd terrifying encounter with a monitor lizard (or dinosaur lol) and the taste of fresh avocado juice from Sahana. Next stop Thailand.

India and Nepal Photos


Me in effing Delhi Me in effing Delhi

I love this place.


Katmandu/ Rant/ Post Rant

KATMANDU
Katmandu is a bustling little city. The main tourist area is Thamel, where you can find almost anything. Outdoor adventure shops stand wedged between bakeries, bars, music stores and banks. The tourists that frequent its dusty and ramshackle backstreets are hardcore trekkers- usually older in age than the easier to spot hippy crowd. (trekkers tend to wear North Face branded clothing and carry walking canes!) After a jam packed day spent sightseeing, the group ate at the restaurant Rum Doodles for what was to be our Last Supper. We were allowed to decorate a giant footprint, which is now hung in the restaurant for others to see -a reminder of our adventure together. RD is notorious amongst climbers- if you summit Everest, you get to eat here free for the rest of your life! Sir Ed Hillary and Chris Bonnington’s autographs hang proudly in a glass showcase as you enter the joint. The next day the group parted in a midst of jovial farewells. I carried my rucksack about 1km down the road to my next hotel- my new home for 9 nights. I spent my birthday with a friend. It was all very exciting. We went to see a film called Wake Up Sid. On purchasing balcony seats at the ‘Kumari’, we ventured inside to what was a set up not too dissimilar to our own movie theatres. I purchased a bottle of mountain dew and a bag of popcorn (only 30p!). The film was typically Bollywood disguised as a coming of age comedy- with love playing the central role. The Hindi language was punctuated throughout with English and you could just about make out what was going on. At one point a character asked ‘Hows your sex life?’ Yet its strange because Bollywood films are ultra conservative and there was no kissing, just lots of hugging (I felt a little cheated lol!) We left the cinema in search of an idyllic hideaway called the Garden of Dreams. It is located in a walled area to the east of the royal palace. The sculptured gardens and water features contribute to an atmosphere of serenity- a world away from the noise and congestion of the city. Lounging mattresses and pillows are dotted around the landscape, providing welcome and ideal places to read a book or snooze away the afternoon. We ate at a pizza restaurant called ‘Fire and Ice’. Rumour has it that Crown Prince Dipendra used to frequent this local eatery with his girlfriend before he massacred his entire family in 2001. Mum and Dad sent me birthday money, so I booked myself 5 hours of spa treatments which included: body scrub, ayurvedic massage, reflexology, pedicure and facial. A bargain at 30 pounds! The beautician was thorough. She insisted that I remove my bikini shorts, much to my embarrassment. But after exposing all of my unsightly flesh, I felt strangely liberated. She scrubbed me vigorously, at times in areas that were ticklish(!) which prompted an hysterical laughing fit. She must have thought I was a nutter. Imagine what I was like by the time she reached the massage stage and started to rub my breasts and buttocks! I was impressed with her dedication (even though I had felt somewhat violated) and tipped her 300 rupees. I passed the rest of the week reading or exploring the city. Every morning I would walk down to the bakery and order a bagel, peanut butter and a pot of mint tea. Then I would run errands like buy new flip flops, do laundry, exchange books, send a postcard etc. and then read some of my book. In the afternoon I would take a walk. I managed to find my way to the old palace complex – Durbur Square- and was quite proficient in locating and returning from there via different routes by the end of the week. The square is a big tourist pull and locals such as market traders, rickshaw drivers, school children and policemen can be seen milling around. I contented myself by finding a roof terrace to overlook the market place and observe the hustle and bustle of the throngs of people below. The night life in Katmandu is pretty sedate. Restaurants serve varying types of cuisine, from Italian to Korean, Tibetan to Thai. These are bountiful in number and you can eat out decently for less than 3 pounds. However, most places close by 10.30pm- though I found a few bars with live music, cheap beer and good shisha! It’s quite reckless for a girl to be out alone at night. Men tend to brush past or bump into you in search of a purse. Muggers aside, I was approached many a time and asked if I wanted to buy hashish even though it is illegal in Nepal. Another danger on the streets are the sheer number of motorcyclists that seemed unconcerned about pedestrians that surround them. The frantic driving and unnecessary tooting of shrill and ridiculous sounding horns is something I will not miss. Nor will I miss the phrase ‘You looks Indian/Nepali’. Note how an ‘s’ is added to the word ‘look’ and it requires a response, when said, even though it is not a question! The last thing that has driven me insane is hocking and spitting in public places, less than a foot away from me. It strikes such a disgruntled chord that I have to bite my tongue in an effort to stop myself shouting ‘you dirty bastard!’ I had an affection for my hotel ‘the Hotel Florid’ Its rooms were clean but basic and there was hardly any hot water. It was the worst hotel I have ever stayed in for noise (And I have stayed in a lot of hotels). One day I decided on an early night. The hotel next door had a live bad until 10pm. Fine. Soon after a solo guitarist from the hotel room opposite started strumming. It soon was accompanied by singing that would make Simon Cowell cringe. This lasted until 11.15pm. Then the relentless nightly chorus of yapping and barking dogs that dementedly chase each other up and down the street until gone 1am. Welcome to Hotel Florid! The staff were lovely though. The waiter in particular was cheerful and friendly. He had the cutest Nepali face and nothing was too much trouble. The hotel was run by a family and I got hugs all round when I left…..and a Buddhist scarf tied round my neck…….and a large bottle of mineral water to ensure that I didn’t die of dehydration on the way to the airport. Lol.

RANT
I booked my flight from Katmandu (Nepal) to Colombo (Sri lanka) online. I used the Indian carrier, Jet Lite. I considered it to be an international flight. However I had to change twice in India. Once in Delhi and once in Chennai. I didn’t give this a second thought. I go to check in and the guy says that I have to collect my luggage in Delhi and clear customs in order to fly on to Chennai as this flight leaves from the domestic terminal. In order to do that I needed a VALID INDIAN VISA! FUCK OFF! A shriek of disbelief left my lips as I informed him that I didn’t have one. He informed me that as a traveler I should have been aware that traveling India domestically requires a visa. I told him that as a customer who purchased a ticket via his company’s website, that I should have been informed about visa regulations when purchasing a GOD DAMN INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT! He shrugged his shoulders and refused to check me in. Out of desperation I asked for an alternative option, to fly straight from Delhi to Colombo. This is the joke. Air Lanka would fly me that night in Business class for 700 pounds extra! I laughed in his face and told him no chance, before turning on my heel and storming out of there. I got a taxi back to the hotel and stood in the doorway. Confused faces greeted me as I uttered the words ‘I’m back’. I legged it to the tour operator in town. He informed me that to even change planes in Delhi I needed a transit visa! I had no choice but to fly to Colombo via Bangkok! Bye bye Jet Airways and hello Thai Airlines! Staying an extra night wasn’t so bad. In fact it turned out to be one of my best in Katmandu (albeit a costly one at 375 pounds!)

POST RANT
I don’t think that I will ever get over my time spent in India. The sights, smells and sounds of that magical country were intoxicating and leave an indelible imprint on my mind. It is a country that bewilders me. I don’t understand her and have a feeling I never will. However it is precisely this that will spur me to keep returning- in a quest to comprehend. No amount of grief caused me by its over bureaucratized government will stop me. Its frustrating to think that the officials and their staunch rules and regulations that were such a hindrance to an insignificant traveler like me, seem absurdly to focus all their energies in the wrong direction. India is an overpopulated, chaotic and under governed nation that drastically needs a plan of action. In some parts of the country economic growth is rapid but filtering downwards at a slow rate. Globalization is a process which takes time to reach all levels of society but cannot solely be relied upon to lift people out of poverty. Education is key in the answer to India’s problems. Resources are needed to educate the masses, to teach them things like basic levels of hygiene and sanitation. Perhaps if the downtrodden were given opportunities to increase personal knowledge and choice, then seeds of social consciousness will grow. Hopefully this would spark radical thought, then revolution and with it social change. The average Indian lives on 17 rupees a day! Mumbai is a millionaire’s playground. Redistribution of wealth through tax reform to subside social welfare programmes seem an obvious and urgent solution. However the rich will always remain wealthy in a country where officials and politicians can be so easily bought. Political corruption is rife and India is a crying shame because of it. I’ll go back. One day.

Touring India and Nepal (part 2)

Hey guys. Ok. Where was I? Varanasi. My God! What a place. The most holy city in India and premier spot for Hindu cremation. We arrived late afternoon and after a quick freshen up, joint our guide for an orientation walk. Our hotel was situated behind the steps or ‘ghats’ that lead down to the murky depths of the Ganga river. It took an hour to reach the main ghat of the city but what a multi sensory experience. As we approached the first set of steps (Asissi Ghat) there were a few stall holders peddling their wares and men in simple rowing boats trying to entice passers by to take a trip down river. Many men were wandering around in sarongs, whilst others were bathing semi naked- submerging their bodies fully in the polluted waters of the river. Further along people were doing their laundry- scrubbing garments unusually vigorously, then laying them out to dry in the hot afternoon sun. What made it hard to believe was that a short distance away, about a dozen cattle and bulls were comfortably immersed in the river, their eyes peeking out just above the water level. The river is extremely dirty at this point. Plastic bottles, animal faeces, bits of cloth and paper litter the Ganges – so I find it hard to fathom when grown men evacuate the water in order to relieve themselves on the ghats in full view of onlookers! Dirty bastards. Why not do it in the bloody river? If their argument is because ‘it is holy water’ then damn well clean up the filth that floats so abundantly upon it! As we approached a small cremation ghat an electric crematorium and wood chopping shop loomed ominously on the left hand side. We reached the burning platform and three corpses were burning slowly upon funeral pyres. A small boy was armed with a large stick, bigger than he, and kept prodding the bodies intermittently. It was a dramatic spectacle. The charred and twisted faces of the dead were visible through the flames. It was strange to discover that rows of benches overlooked the platform- the only form of proper seating to be found anywhere along the ghats. Ceremonial burning of corpses is a very voyeuristic. People back home and in many western societies see death as something taboo. Yet here it is a celebration of life and rebirth. I even witnessed small children playing with the ashes of the dead. However, I still felt disrespectful watching and quickly averted my eyes. We were taken by our guide to a clothes shop where garments could be custom made. I was made to sit through chai and the salesman’s long and tedious explanations about different types of dye and fabrics. I declined to buy and slipped away into the night. I felt annoyed that I was robbed of the electric and spiritual atmosphere outside. A huge crowd had gathered along the main ghat to watch the evening daily prayer ceremony. About 6 Brahmin priests were holding a ceremony dedicated to Lord Shiva. They used various aids such as a conch shell and fire to give thanks whilst facing the waters of the Ganges. Once back at the hotel I was horrified to find that my favourite top, which was given to the hotel laundry back in Delhi, was ripped down the front. Those deceitful fuckers. They never even told me. (Yet another reason to dislike that insufferable city!) Because I am becoming quite cheap as my travels roll on, I asked a hotel porter if he would stitch it for me. He agreed for 20 rupees (and did a good job). We rose early the next day to take a boat ride at sunrise. We clambered aboard a large rowing boat that was manned by two elderly gentleman. It was amazing to see the waking city from the river- a feast for the eyes. We had a free day. I decided to make my way along the ghats and find a quiet place to sit and people watch for a few hours. At one point there was an overflowing water pipe. It was the only way for me to pass but there was thick mud mixed with general filth on the ground. I only had on my flip flops but decided to skirt round the edge of it. However at that moment, for some mischevious reason of his own, a child picked up the pipe and started spraying it in my direction. The force of the water made me slip and my legs got covered in filth! A nice local grabbed my hand and helped me across whilst all the time scolding the boy. He advised me to wash the mud off in the river. I politely declined his suggestion and spent the rest of the day with shite smeared up my legs. The sun around noon was very strong and there was not an iota of shade to be found along the bank. However I came across Raja ghat- one of the most impressive along the Ganges. It was originally commissioned by a king, so was larger and grandiose than most. There was a little archway at the top of it, which contained steps that led to the road beyond. I sat myself down on the bottom steps, grateful for the shade. A group of men were playing cards behind me. Small boys were flying home made kites. Young ladies were herding goats in search of a better grazing place. And grown men were pissing on the steps(!) That evening we took the same boat to witness the evening prayer ceremony from the side of the river. Beforehand we participated in a flower ceremony where candles are placed in terracotta pots, surrounded by flower petals. They are lit and then each one floated on the river. Wishes are made as each candle is floated. As the boat cut silently through the water, a trail of candlelight could be seen, flickering in the darkness behind us. The next day we left the hotel at 3.30am(!), our destination was Nepal and it took 12 hours to reach there. (I was slightly scared as Gandhi reappeared and acted as our chauffeur for the day) We passed the time playing ‘eye spy’ and ‘I went to the shop’, which took me back to my childhood. As we neared the border trucks queued for at least 1km out of town. The roads were jam packed. Eventually we had to cross the border on foot, climbing over rickshaws and motorbikes on the way. As we entered Nepal tranquil serenity greeted us. It’s funny- India was chaotic right til the very end! We made our way to a town called Lumbini. This is the birthplace of Lord Buddha. We were taken to see a complex where his mother gave birth. There is an old tree, about 20 metres from the main temple. It is said that she grasped the branches of the tree when she felt labour pains. She gave birth in what is now the temple. Seven days after his birth Buddha was supposed to have walked to the tree (yeah right! lol) Next we boarded a bus to Chitwan National Park. The plan was to trek in the jungle for a day and a half. For about a week at this point my mobile wasn’t working. I gave it to my roommate to have a look. It transpired that I hadn’t switched it on. (such a muppet – sorry jo!) That afternoon we were to see an elephant breeding centre. Imagine my horror when outside the hotel appeared 10 bikes, waiting for the group to ride! Now, I haven’t ridden a bike since I was 12 but managed to not fall off for the 2km ride! I didn’t like the centre. The adult elephants were chained up and exhibited some stressed behavior, such as nodding relentlessly and rocking back and forth. The baby elephants (so cute) were free to wander but I witnessed staff hitting them with bamboo canes. In addition, about 20 Nepalese youths came bounding out of the jungle and took pleasure in chasing the frightened little things back into their enclosure. The staff did nothing. Needless to say I was the slowest bike rider! The roads were unpaved and instead of going over small rocks and boulders, I tried to avoid them. At last I came to a paved road. I thought great! A chance to show everybody what I can really do. I started to peddle frantically in order to gather speed. However my plan went awry as my chain came off and the guide spent the next 10 minutes trying to fix it for me. The next morning we left early for the trek. We were instructed to travel light and to wear dark colours. I have turned into something of a skank. I have these dark blue combats which I had worn for 6 days and 3 nights previously (when I was ill) and had not washed them since. I decided to give them one last outing for the jungle walk. I calculated that the total time of wear must have been in excess of 130 hours!! I guess you have a different set of standards when globe trekking! Lol. We sailed the river by canoe which were made out of hollowed out trees. They were no more than 2 foot across- a little uncomfortable for a 2 hour journey but it was pleasant. The Annapurna range provided the snow capped back drop and I saw a Garrawal crocodile. The guides were equipped with large bamboo sticks. I too was given one- no doubt because they thought I was a slow arse and it might help to quicken my pace. We set off looking for tigers and rhinos but saw none. I did see a tiger foot print and rhino ‘drag marks’. Apparently these are made when rhinos copulate for ‘up to 4 hours’. Lucky them! During the trek I felt what I thought was another insect bite on my tummy. “oh crap!’ I thought as I started to scratch it. Then I realized it was writhing. I pulled up my top and there was a leech feeding on my stomach! I managed to pull it off but it had left a bloody mark on my skin. I slept in my trekking clothes and skanky pants that night- combats tucked into socks, hoody zipped and pulled over my head- in fear of another encounter. Paranoid much? Lol. A short time later I managed to whack myself full in the eye with one end of the jungle cane. Luckily it left no mark. I got bored of carrying the stick and used it as a polvolt to leap over low lying foliage and then as a light sabre as I fought my way through the long grasses and overgrown trees. My roommate, Chrissy, got really sick that day. Fortunately we stayed in a jungle lodge and not a campsite. She departed for the hotel by truck the next morning. She affectionately remembers her time on trek as ‘shitwan’ lol. Next day was better. We did no more bush walking over jungle terrain but stuck to paths. However I discovered my walking boots were too small. I formed blisters and both sores were sore and puffy. The guide sprayed my feet, with something, and I applied blister plasters (which made little difference). We reached the truck after an hour. That night we ate at a roof terrace restaurant that played….ABBA! No doubt I enjoyed myself and sang my heart out- much to the annoyance of other diners. It got even better later when the Irish Rover was played. I got all nostalgic and thought about the Sacred Heart gang. The next day we left on a bus for Katmandu………………..TBC!

Touring India and Nepal (part1)

Hey guys. I found an internet café and have so much to tell that I thought I would update you ahead of Nepal.
A fellow traveler was overheard saying ‘I hate f***ing Delhi’. It is easy to understand her sentiments. Delhi is an overcrowded, noisy, polluted, smelly and quite frankly filthy city with very few things to recommend it. My experience in Delhi was not a pleasant one. I had a stinking cold and had to constantly hold onto my dirty tissues as bins were no where to be found- no wonder people get fed up and throw their rubbish anywhere. I walked to atm after atm trying to withdraw money. After communicating with my bank I found I had no money left in my account! To top it all I got really sick and my stomach kept cramping over the course of my stay. I checked into a different hotel on the third day- ironically named ‘Hotel Goodtimes’- in order to start my tour to Nepal. I arrived declaring to reception that I had Delhi Belly and they hurried me to my room, where I met my roommate- an Irish girl named Gill. The group were about to leave for a walking tour of Delhi. I stayed behind and slept. The next day we left on an air con train for Agra. I resigned myself to my hotel room during the day but come the evening joint the group for an evening jolly to see the Taj Mahal (again!) I sat in front of this wonder for a full 2 hours. I deduced that its beauty must lay in the perfection of its symmetry. I felt better so managed to eat some tandoori and nan. Next day we left Agra for a 5 hour non air conditioned (!) journey to a place called Jhansi. This was a few km by car to a historic settlement called Orccha, on the Betwa River. The train was crammed with people. We had to push and fight our way to our seats, which when we got there were occupied. After a few strong words they were vacated. I lost my temper with an old Granny who was trying to push her way past me down the aisle, whilst I still had my backpack on. It was physically impossible for me to move. She scolded me. I looked her in the eye and told her to wait! I don’t think that Indians are the most patient or self reflective people in the world, which slightly annoys me. The train was full of characters. Each stop brought something new, like the travelling musician who brought along his drum and continued to sing and bang his instrument next to my head. Or the ‘magazine seller’ who tried to sell me an old, ripped and much read magazine for 10 rupees. Everytime I looked around this edition of Marie Claire was thrust in my face. The funniest people were a group of men who boarded the train dressed as women in saris. Locally they are known as eunuchs as they ‘have no particular sex organs’. To me and you they are just plain transvestites. Apparently when they die they are punched and kicked by people as they are put on the funeral pyre because they have been reincarnated the lowest of the low, which is rather sad. Whilst on the train they demanded money from people. Surprisingly most actually gave something, in fear that a curse would be placed upon them. A particularly vile looking one with pitted skin and twisted teeth kept jabbing a bony finger into my shoulder. I pretended to be engrossed in my book. She was persistent but in the end she cursed me repeatedly and skulked away! Her curse must have worked because I was bitten on the leg 13 times by mossies that day and after eating a simple meal of vegetables and nan, I got the shits again! Lol. We stayed in Orccha as the preparations for the Hindu festival of Diwali were underway. I stayed in bed for 2 days and missed most of the sightseeing. My lethargy was not helped by the fact that I ate very little in the space of 48 hours but did manage to attend a purge ceremony on the eve of Diwali. The square outside the Hindu temple had many stalls dotted about selling sweets, candles and rangoli powders for the festivities. At 6pm we entered the temple and sat cross legged until a bell was heard. We stood up and crowded to the front, where a priest was performing a ritual around a statue of Lord Rama. Two men stood either side hitting chimes and then the chanting began and lasted for at least 20 minutes. It was very peaceful and soothing. After a time I began to hum along to the chant. I felt very much a part of my surroundings. Diwali night we left on an overnight sleeper train to Allabad. I will never forget my tuk tuk drive to the station. The hot night air was filled with smoke and the sky lit up with fireworks which lined the route of the journey. Allabad is famed for being the birthplace of the most famous Bollywood actor Amitabh Bacharan and home to that great political Indian dynasty the Nehrus. I visited their house, not far from the station and saw the room where Mahatma Gandhi often stayed, as well as the veranda where Indira Gandhi married. From here we drove a few hours to the River Ganges, where we going to catch boats that would sail us down the river. The roads in India are often in disrepair and it takes the skill of a good driver to avoid potential disasters. However most drivers are adept in avoiding stray animals and other road users so I actually feel quite safe! There were 4 boats waiting for us. 4 for the group and 1 for the kitchen staff. My boat carried four of the group. It was a basic wooden rowing boat that had a rudimentary frame made from rope and bamboo overarching it. A blue sheet of tarpaulin was pulled tightly across, which acted as a much needed shield from the midday sun. Two men helped row the boat. Once out a little way into the centre, the boats were floated together and tied. Delicious vegetarian dishes were passed across each boat to us hungry lot. I managed to eat a plateful and hoped for the best. I could not believe my eyes when our rower not only washed his plate in the Ganges (probably just like ours were) but drank from the foul water. A few meters away was the decaying carcass of a cow!! They must have stomachs of steel. Drifting on the Ganges was one of the most relaxing experiences so far. I laid across the boat, dozing happily for a few hours. Along the banks of the river were a few funerals that were taking place. I could hear the wails and sobs from anguished relatives as their loved ones were set alight. Comically we moored up for the night on the opposite bank of these pyres. I couldn’t help but wonder what morbid surprise would await us when we emerged from our tents the next day! The crew quickly assembled six 2 people tents and a small cubicle with a whole in the sand to do your business. We were fed well yet again and then fireworks were set off as a delayed celebration to mark Diwali. (They seem to have no qualms about returning to unexploded fireworks in order to relight or pick them up. Do these people have no fear?) The next day we sailed all morning and disembarked at a place with two or three small huts and a group of smiling and friendly locals. However one guy was a little inebriated and began to make a nuisance of himself. Whilst at the taxis he got into a slanging match with a taxi driver who looked like Gandhi and was standing on the roof of the car, trying to tie our luggage up. All of a sudden Gandhi came flying down like some sort of batman from the roof of the car, landing on top of drunken man and repeated lambasting him in the face. Several locals jumped in to separate the men whilst we looked on in astonishment. So much for ahimsa! I want to write more about my time in Varanasi but this will have to wait until Nepal as I am getting a bit restless now. Time for a banana lassi methinks. xx