Monday, May 7, 2012

On planning a new trip

Over a year has passed since I flew out of Bangalore, minus one stone in weight, plus several parasitic friends. I've put those pounds back on, I look pale and sickly. I've sat in an office for nearly a year, and now it can't be contained any longer. It's time to scratch those itchy feet.

This time, somewhere a little less exotic. This time, somewhere a little less...well, India. I did love India, and I will definitely return. But it's so exasperating and frustrating. It stinks as well as shines, and I think my stomach could do with a less of a roller coaster. Suddenly, sauerkraut doesn't sound too bad after all. After flitting between several destinations - flirting with France, ruminating on Romania - I've decided on central Europe. I find myself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of places I want to go: my initially Barcelona-Berlin plan was ridiculously overambitious. I've toned it down somewhat. So, I'll begin in the German capital next week sometime (my mum: 'don't you need a special visa? It's in East Germany after all' - really?), and then meander through the Czech Republic, Poland (and maybe Slovakia), Hungary, Austria, Croatia and, time/finances permitting, Italy. I fell in love with Italy when I visited last autumn (who doesn't?) and would love to see some more.

I have a few friends to see along the way, but will essentially be travelling on my own. To paraphrase Tim Cahill, the best travels are measured in friends made and experiences gained, not miles travelled.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rishikesh to Amritsar: Golden hospitality

It's been a while. I'm getting lazy. My writing is always rushed, inaccurate, and not to the best of my ability. Many apologies. Blog is coming, the Indians would say.

I had a moderately awful yet bearable overnight bus ride to Rishikesh, arriving just before sunrise at 5am. I sat in a chai shop with some Russians and Israelis while we waited for the sun to make an appearance. Then, got a vikram (a new form of transport, but basically a large rickshaw) to Lakshmanjula, on the East (or was it West?) side of the river, which is only reachable by a suspension bridge. It's relatively quiet and I found a very cheap single room (which had actual hot water and even a tv) for 160 Rupees. Then I slept for most of the day. The next 5 days I felt pretty rough, with my stomach consistently playing up and the weather being pretty rubbish. The first day was stunning. The Ganges is a turquoise colour as it crashes out of the Himalayas, it sits in a little valley with forests on either side, and so many ashrams you can't walk more than 10 metres without tripping over a hippie, sadhu (ascetic holy man) or yoga course. The plan was to do a yoga course, but I found the ashrams and whole 'new age' thing a little much (and not to mention a little delusional) and decided to go to some drop in sessions instead. The man who runs it, Swami Umesh Yogi, teaches transcencental meditation (which he tried to sell me for 200 Euros....I think not) but the yoga was extremely good. I finally got the breathing and asanas and everything. It all clicked, but after 3 hours of it I spent 2 days barely able to walk. It was pretty intense.

I spent most of one day with a Russian man, and we spent a lot of time talking about different brands of vodka and comparing notes on our national foods. Did you know Russians wear their wedding rings on their right hand? Small fast fact. Despite his initial cold, unfriendly manner (which I judged far too quickly) once he got going he was a lovely man. I can't for the life of me remember his name. I think I've got him in my little travel address book though.

I also had an angry day where I walked for half an hour to Swarg Ashram to use the State Bank of India ATM, queued for 15 minutes and then found it was broken. Then the one round the corner was broken. And the next one was broken. I point blank refused to get a rickshaw into town and walked for an hour along the banks of the Ganges - past very beautiful beaches and a funeral pyre, amongst all manner of other bizarre Indian things, including an impromptu cricket match amongst the kids.

I ate at the Little Buddha cafe (loved the Tibetan staff) nearly every day. I felt pretty bleugh though, and after spending a lot of time wondering what to do, decided to leave early and head for Amritsar after 4 nights. I spent Friday (a week last Friday) feeling very sick indeed, and dreading the train ride. I was barely eating and had no one to go with, and couldn't be bothered to handle it on my own right now. However, after getting a rickshaw to the bus station, I hopped straight onto the bus to Haridwar, where I sat in the little booth at the front (side facing seats, in the dark - Raleigh would have been mortified) with the driver and a assortment of Indians. Of course, I was the only foreigner on the bus.  I arrived at the station, set myself up with some chai and joined the group of turbaned Sikhs similarly heading for Amritsar. I was shocked and stunned when the train turned up on time. Of course, this was too good to be true. Half the train had turned up. For some reason, the other half, with my carriage, was nowhere. A group of Spanish people were also looking for my carriage, which is where I met Martha. She was on the upper berth in the next alcove to me, an unbelievably energetic Pilates instructor who pronounced my name in the most wonderfully Spanish way.

I slept badly - 2 of the loudest snorers I've ever heard were in my vicinity. Of course, it arrived 3 hours late into Amritsar Junction. Martha and I made a beeline for the free bus. We could barely believe it. Nothing is free in India. Nothing. We crammed onto a tiny school-like bus, and as we set off, all the Sikhs (we were, again, the only foreigners, standing in the aisle and balancing as the bus must have been packed to 3 or 4 times its actual capacity) began chanting a call and response song which was pretty damn beautiful.

We arrived at the gurudwaras of the Golden Temple - the Sikhs' holiest shrine, which welcomes everyone with unbelievable equality. We got a room in the dorm (for free) and headed over to the kitchen - also free. You sit in a huge hall (wearing your free orange bandana to cover your head, of course) with a Thali plate, and armies of volunteers, with unbelievable, uncharacteristically un-Indian efficiency, doled out meals of rice, chapati, curry, dhal and rice pudding. I still wasn't eating much but was more bewildered and excited by the incredible atmosphere around me. One of the key principles of Sikhism is equality - and they really do go out on a limb on this, if that makes any sense. Anyone, of any nationality, race, religion, or anything else is equally welcome in all parts of the Golden Temple. The volunteers serving the food and the armies involved in washing up showed the genuine compassion which came form this special place. Unlike in some holy places in India, which are plagued with people trying to rip you off and sell you stuff at every turn, I felt genuinely welcome. Also, the communal bathrooms were immaculately clean. To European standards. There was even SOAP at the sinks. O.M.G. This is a HUGE deal.

The Golden Temple itself sits in the middle of a large pool or lake. We circumambulated it and of course had the usual number of requests for photos and all that...but quite a lot of the time conversations with Sikhs from all over the world who were genuinely just curious about who we were and where we were from. How refreshing. Of course, the creeps made their appearance, but I've got the look of daggers and disdain down to an art. There was constant, beautiful music echoing around the entire complex, and we visited the Sikh museum before crashing out.  Martha enthusiastically woke me up at 2pm to announce that a group of people were heading to the border for a 'dance thing' and did I want to go. A huge, motley group of us, organised by Mathias, a German guy, crammed into a school bus and headed to Wagha, to the India-Pakistan border. absolutely hilarious. After so much security and all kinds of searches, we finally made it to the specially erected stands and the two gates which faced each other, with the flagpoles and respective flags fluttering in the early evening sun.

There were 'MCs' for each country, revving up the crowd. There were annoyingly loud happy-clappy-singy Hare Krishnas standing behind us, and hundreds of Indian flags and all the kids dancing to Jai Ho and other Bollywood favourites in the aisle below. Eventually a trumpet sounded, and the ceremony began. It involved a lot of shouting, goosestepping, outlandish hats and very silly costumes, as well as some robust handshaking and gateslamming. It's difficult to describe how hilarious the whole thing was. Youtube it. For two countries which in general hate each other, there was a fair amount of empathy, although you could still see a little tension in the shouting competitions: 'PAKISTAN...[something in Arabic] ... 'HINDUSTAN... [something in Hindi/Punjabi] it got louder and louder until it reached a deafening crescendo and the flags were lowered and marched back into the special border patrol hut.

On the way back to the Golden Temple, we stopped at a Hindu temple, the Mata Temple. It was like a fun house at a fair - crawling through tunnels, strange mirrors, crazy, colourful and sometimes gruesome statues of various Gods and other assorted deities. Then, we were given rice and dhal and chai - unbelievable! Some sort of ceremony was going on, and our multinational group looked very odd indeed amongst the bell ringing, chanting Hindu devotees who were flocking to the shrine.

That evening I saw the closing ceremony where the Sikh holy book is 'put to bed' amidst much pomp and circumstance. The Golden Temple looked particularly beautiful as it was all lit up at night, reflecting in the waters surrounding it. The next day, after very little sleep, I decided it'd be a good idea to crack on to Dharamsala - which had been at the top of my 'must do' list the whole time I'd been in India. Tired but determined, I headed to Jallianwala Bagh, a park where the British committed a horrific atrocity in April 1919. General Dyer's troops open fired on an unarmed group of men, women and children who were breaking a law which banned public gatherings. There were around 1500 casualties, of which about 300 were fatal. Not our finest moment. The park has been restored beautifully and made into a memorial to the dead, though quite chillingly there is a well in which many tried to jump to avoid the shootings, and where they drowned. You can still see the bullet holes on the inside. Strangely I saw a few Punjabi kids running around the park playing with toy guns, which was very odd.

Then, Lulu, a Dutch lady from the border trip, and I, headed off for Dharamshala. We missed the direct bus by 15 minutes, and so instead took the indirect route, getting at first a bus to Pathankhot, 3.5 hours away. Then, there was no bus to Dharamshala. Instead, we got on a bus to Gaggal, which took another 4 hours. We were still 12km away, and after waiting over an hour eventually got a taxi and got up to Mcleod Ganj (Upper Dharamshala - where the Dalai Lama lives and all that) and collapsed into Pawan Guesthouse, and I fell asleep to the calming tones of BBC world news, something I hadn't seen or heard in many, many months.

I woke up, turned over, and saw snow capped ridges, mountains, and forests, and a sky as blue as could be. (Considering everyone in Amristar who'd came from there had said it was raining and hailing, I felt very lucky.) Like Darjeeling, I thought. It was like coming home, I was so glad I decided to make the extra effort to come up here - it has been magical. From the Sikhs' holiest place to the seat of the Dalai Lama and scores of Tibetans in exile, these have been two of my favourite places in India. But I must save my time here so far for another post, as I must get to bed - this is already extremely rushed and I have to get up early to hear the Dalai Lama's teachings in the morning.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Does India have an ocean?": some 'full moon party' and other tales from the turtle island

Post Open Water course, all I wanted to do, really, was the Advanced course. However, I'm really glad I managed to get in a couple of fun dives instead, as it was a completely different experience to diving with an Instructor. The Divemasters just do the fun bit: pointing out all the cool fish. We did Red Rock Drop off and this was my favourite dive of all. We had a small group, just Saul, Dave, myself and (unfortunately) a Dutch girl who ended up being my buddy but couldn't dive for shit.  Fresh from our courses, we kind of knew what we were doing, but her buoyancy was all over the shop, she couldn't equalise and, worst of all, she kept banging into the coral. We were swimming through little holes and caves, up and down and upside down, you had to be pretty careful, and I'd constantly be looking over my shoulder (to the point where I actually had a sore neck the next day) to check she hadn't shot off to the surface (again).

I went the wrong way once or twice but it was such a cool dive it didn't matter too much. Our DM was Steven, who was a lot of fun and really knew his stuff.  At the second dive the visibility was poorer, and my attempt at a dramatic direct ascent was an epic fail as it was too painful on the old ears.

Apparently the visibility gets poorer around full moon as this causes the coral reef to reproduce or something(?!) For the Big Blue crew, however, full moon meant something else. I was so happy to see Sarah, Julie, and their friend from home Sinead arrive and do their Open Water courses. There was, by this point, 10  freshly qualified divers, deprived of beer and ready to party.  The night before full moon we had a chilled evening at Chopper's, listening to acoustic music (a blessing since my ipod was stolen) and then headed to the beach to catch up with Team Bermuda's 'graduation' party - which, when I left at about 1am, looked as if it was going to end as messily as ours had. Lots of buckets and diving banter (OK? GOING DOWN! and so on) was had and they had the funniest, nerdiest guy who was hilarious and lovely at the same time. Oh Paul. When he lost the 'mine' game (as Karen had done earlier in Choppers) and had to do 10 push ups, it was too much, I think i had to look away. And then the dancing.....

I left them, buckets in hand, and went to rest up for the inevitable night of no sleep which awaited the following day. 4 messy, noisy Japanese guys had moved into my room (yes it was my room by now!) and they woke me up in the mornings with their noisiness, which meant I was fully allowed to prance in after full moon and screech goooooood morrrrniiing! As they slept.

We went down to the pier, where we made friends with 'the twins' - Keisha and Tanhi, the most identical of identical twins, beautiful girls with the most incredible afros - it was like walking around with celebrities all night the amount of times they were stopped, and boarded the 'party boat' to Ko Phanhgan, where some Korean guys, fascinated by the twins, bough our entire group of 10 a beer and shared their pringles. Good times! We arrived onto Koh Phanghan and had a shit pad thai in a rubbish restauarant and starting painting each other with fluorescent stuff and  guzzling buckets.

I blame Karen, mostly for what happened next. I wish I could remember it all...It was so hard to keep together. 12,000 people on Haad Rin; I hadn't thought it possible. You couldn't move for people in paint, fluoro, buckets, blaring music, people filming, screaming - pure madness. We found by chance, Amy and Eleanor, who'd been on Koh Tao a few days before, and I saw Liv too. I even got everyone to 'number off', Raleigh style, so we could check we all were there. Old habits die hard! Moo Bang (Black Moon, 2009) painted down one arm, I can't remember what down the other, I just remember the sensation of fun. The bucket throwing incident - Karen - was one of the highlights of my night. There was wild dancing, fun times and a blurry, hazy messy sense of fun. That is what I remember. I didn't go near the sea, or walk down the beach, I think we pretty much stayed in a similar spot all night. I was down buying my 3rd (fatal) bucket when I heard Shakira's finest (waka-waka) and in my drunken state went a little crazy as memories from being in a similar, drunken state last summer in South Africa came flooding back. Lots of random people know now the dance, anyway.

9 out of 10 of us managed to make it back onto the boat at 7am the next day. By this point I was hanging badly and seriously angry. You do not need techno, Goa trance-esque music on a boat at 7am in the morning after a night of no sleep. I crashed out and no one emerged until 3pm that afternoon.

That evening, the night after full moon, was really sad, we all sat on the beach at the Fish Bowl, with a beer, and started the goodbyes. Sarah and Sinead (Julie had remained on Koh Phangan....) would be leaving the following day, as would Becky. The day after, I would follow. Saul and Dave would be doing their ridiculous visa run to Burma and the twins would also go to Phangan.

We had such a fantastic group, it was a melancholoy and bittersweet evening. Walking down the beach at midnight, ankle deep in sea, was one of the moments where you think you never want to go home ever again and want life to just crystallize at this moment, seemingly perfect.

Our final goodbye night, just Saul, Dave, Karen, the twins and myself, ended up being buckets again. Hi bar, Office Bar, Lotus Bar....same same, but always just a little bit different. Karen and I had a full scale drunken argument with some stupid Scandinavian boys who were throwing their cigarettes into the sea (I was still remembering the documentaries...) about the damage they were causing. Eco warriors, even when drunk. It's just RUDE!

The next day, I caught my boat back to Chumphon, and then a bus to Bangkok which arrived at 2am. Liv had bought me a room at Sidthi Guest House again and I crashed out. Unfortunately, the next day I felt really rough. Sore throat, fever, all the signs of having had too much fun in the previous 2 weeks. Also there was the bad news that Seb, from my dive group, had caught Dengue Fever and was in hospital on Ko Phangan.

I took a day trip to Hua Hin on Thursday, to meet one of my Mum's friends who was on holiday there and had brought my new debit card out with them. How lucky is that. They bought me lunch, I relaxed by the pool at their luxury hotel, and checked my card worked, and then headed back to Bangkok.

Still feeling rough, I did nothing on my last day and a half in Bangkok. I had no money to do anything anyway, and my one treat was a Thai massage, which was amazing.

My tiny room had space for my single bed and little else, there was no furniture, a window which faced onto a breezeblock wall and fan which chased hot air around the room. I was kind of glad to be leaving the tourist circus of Khao San (which, when i had arrived, I couldn't have wanted more) and be heading back to some 'proper' travel in India. That's not a very fair comment, but India is definitely in a class, world, (hole?) of its own. How moods change, as this is exactly what I'd been looking forward to escaping - the ease of Thailand, the lack of hassle, the efficiency of everything, the ease of booking stuff. I guess after being in both countries, comparing them side by side, I appreciate their strengths and weaknesses far more. They are almost opposite in style and outlook. Thais will do anything to avoid 'losing face'; they are calm, quiet people. You would not et anywhere by shouting at a tuk-tuk driver to try and get a lower price. Not so in India. Survival of the fittest. Survival of the one who can shout the loudest, be the brashest and boldest.

I had to laugh as my plane landed into Delhi and everyone scrambled for the exit (and then we were told to sit back down as Delhi airport wasn't ready for us to disembark.....oh INDIA).

My worries about arriving in Delhi, alone, late at night, have come to nothing. I got a taxi and room with a lovely Austrian girl called Romy, and am escaping to Rishikesh tonight. After a few weeks away, what was started to grind on me is now amusing again. For example, this morning someone tried to give me change in bananas. the constant stream of beggars, spitters, sweepers, hawkers, rickshaw-wallahs, street-sleepers and all the other crap that comes with India has been a delightful presence today. Not that I am going t say I enjoy Delhi - I don't, really.  I have realised that travelling in India is like being in a turbulent relationship. If it were on facebook, it'd be listed as 'complicated'. Like having a boyfriend who cheats on you, lies to you, shouts at you - but you can't help but carry on loving him anyway, after the anger and rage and hate has subsided. You leave and say you'll never come back, but it's never the end. India has a strange, sado-masochistic quality quite unlike anywhere else in the world.

I love it. I hate it. I will be back for more!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Inevitable Return to Koh Tao: Diving and buckets of fun

I have been out of touch for quite a while. The internet on Koh Tao was nearly 4x as expensive as in bangkok, which is already double the price of India. On my minsicule budget, on the most expensive of the Gulf islands, I couldn't afford it.

The past 2 weeks have been blissful. The bus dropped us off at Chumphon at 2.30am, and the ferry left at 7am. I crashed out in a waiting room, and slept solidly.

Arriving somewhere you've been before, and have fond memories of, is always very strange. Expectations run high, it's so easy to be disappointed and I was trying not to get hopes up too high.  It was far busier than I remembered. Everyone at Big Blue Diving seemed absolutely rushed off their feet. I got a bed in a nice enough 6 person dorm and booked myself in for my discounted Open Water course to start the next day.

Those few days were seriously intense. It was an 8am - 5pm intense course of academics and theory in the morning, learning about the physics of diving, decompresion sickness, nitrogen narcosis, diving tables - a lot more than I'd expected. I even got set homework. Then the afternoon was learning diving skills and gradually building up to deeper dives. It felt great to be really learning something again. I also had a great group - Saul (dive buddy), Becky and Seb, Amy, Jennifer and our Instructor, Sonia, who, like many on Koh Tao, had the familiar story of  'I came here 5 years ago to do my Advanced course and have never left'. She was incredible.

My little dive log book records all the fish and things I saw. Blue spotted stingrays, clownfish, puffa fish, bat fish, groupers, parrot fish, pipefish, jelly fish, and so many more I can't remember without looking it up. Even when the visibility was failry poor, as it was at Chumphon Pinacle and Twins, the whole experience of being beneath the water was sensational.  Swimming alongside huge schools of rainbow coloured fish and spectaculary coral reef that appear to have been painted onto rocks they are so beautiful. It's something else, something so addictive it was very, very difficult to leave (again).

We did 5 dives as part of our course, Mango Bay (where I'd been previously with Dave and Ryan) Japanese Gardens, Twins, White Rock and Chumphon. The final dive site was our early morning (6.30am) dive and our qualifier. We had to do all the skills (taking off your mask, clearing it, taking out your regulator, practising the 'out of air' buddy technique etc) at a depth of about 10m and then we messed around having a dance off underwater whilst the videographer filmed it all. Buddy checks (Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas (BC/Weights/Releases/Air/Final OK) were supposed to stop any disasters but somehow Saul's tank managed to fall off as we were descending on the mooring line. I had to sort this out underwater, which was actually pretty easy, we'd had to learn to take off all our equipment, including BC and tank, weights and everything, underwater as part of training. This is probably a testament to how good Sonia was as an instructor.

We got back onto the boat and got back to Sairee beach at about midday. Shattered, we all retired to bed for a good solid nap. That evening everyone met in the bar to watch our video and recieve our offical Open Water certification cards. The group got larger as we headed out down to Lotus Bar, and celebratory Singhas and Changs turned into celebratory buckets and it all turned pretty messy pretty quickly. It was an amazing end to the course, and the huge group of us that started out slowly diminshed until the last few staggered home at about 5am.

I think I spent the next 2 days recovering and not diving or doing anything, really. Liv came over from Ko Phangan for 2 days, so it was nice to catch up with her, and there was a mass exodus from the island in the opposite direction as everyone went to start worshipping the full moon at Haad Rin. It was perfect on Koh Tao at this time. Lazy afternoons in the bar, watching movies and chilling on the beach, the amazing all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel up the road, and Saul's conversion to eco-warrior after watching two documentaries, Sharkwater and The Cove - both are highly recommended, really powerful films about illegal shark finning in Costa Rica and dolphin slaughter in Japan, respectively, and their effects on marine ecosystems and general damage to the planet. I never realised that coral reefs provide 70% of the world's oxygen, or that 40% of these reefs were already lost or severely degraded, and had no idea how killing a few sharks would so severely displace the fragile underwater ecosystem which hangs finely in the balance. I learnt a lot in those few days. We were swimming in the sea one day and picked up a ton of broken bottles and litter and I have myself a 'Big Blue Conservation' T-shirt. Seriously interesting stuff I knew nothing about.

Check out and the Cove won an Oscar for best documentary - deservedly so.

I would have loved to do my Advanced course, but that was pushing my already ridiculously tight budget too far. Next time, Divemaster. Definitely. I am hooked.

Monday, February 7, 2011

To the kindness of strangers (and Thailand)

Yesterday was the worst day of my travels. Of travelling, ever. I realised, at Calcutta airort (what a dive - worse than Humberside) my debit card was missing. I don't know how or why, but it is my only source of cash. After a lot of crying and panicking, I am in Bangkok, with some very kind people. A woman at the airport offered a hug and a tissue. The Indian guys working at Cafe Coffee Day even tried to offer advice and comfort. A wonderful Taiwanese girl, Wan-Yin, bought me water and offered me a free space in her room. Unfortunately, I lost her at customs, I waited but there seemed to be some problem with her visa.

I tagged along with a group of Israelis and a Polish guy, who all offered sympathy, to lend me cash and just general reassurance. I have a plan now and enough money to last for the duration. Found a cheap guest house (SO CLEAN, everything seems so clean) and can't wait to see Liv later. Walkng down Khao San alst night, hearing shit Western pop Music, seeing people drinking, remembering the women selling wooden frogs and the fake IDs - oh, 2009! Culture shock after 4 months in India. I'm wearing SHORTS! My shoulders are out! It's 35 degrees! It's swarming with people and this is exactly what I need. Ease.

Now I've realised I'm going to be fine, I'm getting excited about going to Koh Tao. I am enjoying doing nothing except sorting my life out for the next few days, and then heading south to start diving.

I think it's time for some Pad Thai....

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Darjeeling, unlimited

My first experience of going solo in India got off to a relatively bumpy start. Not only was the train delayed by 4 hours (meaning it arrived at 1am) but there was someone in my bunk. This meant I had to turn on all the lights, pull his blanket off him, and generally throw a strop until eventually he moved. The wait hadn't been too bad as a group of gap yahs and a lovely old English couple, Steve and Betty, who bought us all fruit, had sat it out with me.  Eventually the train arrived into NJP sometime in the early evening of the next day. I had a group of Bangladeshi lads on tour in my carriage who were actually really friendly and non creepy (how refreshing) and asked me to sing my national anthem  - refused, but offered to play them a song on phone instead, onyl having stuff from South Africa they all clapped and cheered along to waka-waka which was pretty funny.

Then it was time to transfer to a jeep for the climb into the Himalayan foothills (Darjeeling is 2100m), which took 3 hours. It was freezing when we got out the car at 8pm and I'm glad Sarah and Julie were there to take me to their hotel!

The next morning I got up at 4am with them and a group of Kiwi guys to go to Tiger Hill, even higher up. On a clear day, you can see Everest and the whole Himalayan range into Sikkim, but it was cloudy and we saw nothing. I was gutted. We got the jeep back down, stopping briefly at a Tibetan Monastery on the way. There are prayer flags streaming everywhere all around Darjeeling and 'Gorkaland' (there are currently strikes and protests for a separate state from West Bengal) as it has a huge Tibetan refugee presence.

What I loved about Darjeeling was its relaxed atmosphere: no 'come look my shop', no 'Madam, madam, look this, just looking', no one asking for money, no staring, no rickshaws, no traffic, no hassle. Perfect. It's difficult to describe how much I appreciated just being able to browse in a shop without being mobbed by desperate salesmen. What a relief. I spent the morning with Sarah and Julie, visiting the local market, drinking tea at Glenary's (English style patisserie and cafe, complete with red phone box) and sitting at the viewpoint. We got really excited when we caught a glimpse of Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, as the weather had been rubbish and cloudy for their whole time in Darjeeling.

That afternoon, after they left, I wandered around the windy streets and found myself at a Victorian mansion, only to be promptly escorted out by a man with a gun as it was off-limits government property.  There were few tourists around and I felt a little lost that afternoon.  I had a comforting dinner of mac & cheese and then went back to the hotel at 8pm, as everything shuts down pretty early due to the freezing weather (I assume this is the reason). Luckily I got chatting to a group of Japanese guys who were planning a trip to Tiger Hill the next morning, and decided I'd give it another try - the weather forecast looked good.

This was the best decision I've made in a while! Despite the cold and the horrendous 4.30am wake up, the stars were all out when we arrived and when the sun started to come up it was simply magical. Kanchenjunga and the mountains around it slowly came into view, and as the sun came up it lit up each mountain range in turn - from Everest on the far left, three sisters, then Kanchenjunga and the Sikkim ountains. There was a purple haze behind Everest and mist in the valleys below. The sky was bright orange and Darjeeling itself, looking tiny in the valley below, was slowly bathed in the pastel hues of the early morning sun. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my entire life. Greenery, snowy mountains (warm chai at 6am sharp!) and magic. I'm going to go to Sikkim itself next time.

I met Margie and Charlie, who I'd briefly bumped into the day before, at Tiger Hill and we wandered back to Darjeeling (about 13km) via several beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, quite unlike anything else I'd seen in India or South East Asia. An energetic blend of Hindu iconography and Buddhist beauty, they were really special, peaceful places, and I loved walking back through Alpine-esque scenery. Tango 5 would have been proud. I even heard, climbing a hill, walking past a chai shop, a scratchy version of 'The Climb' coming from a radio. I thought of Tango 5 and smiled.

That afternoon I wandered up to Observatory Hill, which was strewn with prayer flags, and again happened to bump into Steve and Betty who were staying at the Windamere, a lovely Heritage Hotel perched up  on the hill. They very kindly treated me to another cup of Darjeeling's finest.

That afternoon, as the mist moved in, I went and did my tea shopping. I tried several teas and have ended up with nearly a kilo. But it is bloody good stuff (they supply Harrods) and when I run out I have the details fo how to get shipped more!

That evening I met up with Margie and Charlie again and we went to see another Bollywood movie. It was so funny, as they always are, and an early night was again in order after some great chat and noodles in a nearby cafe.

The morning after was, again, thankfully, crystal clear, and I booked a 'joy ride' on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, otherwise known as the toy train.  It chugged up the road at a very leisurely, often walking pace, alongside the road. Quite literally, on the road, sometimes zig zagging across and stopping the traffic. The views were absolutely out of this world, and the Bastasia loop, around the Gurkha War Memoiral, was another great opportunity to gaze at the Greater Himalayas.

Feeling pretty happy and energetic, I set off to find he zoo, which everyone I'd met had recommended, and which was full of pretty interesting and sometimes exotic Himalayan animals. It had some decent breeding programmes, too, but the best part for me was the attached Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded by Tenzing Norgay, where there was a really cool museum all about the Himalayas and all the expeditions and attempts to conquer Everest. They even had the British flag hoisted a\at the top in 1953. 

I then hiked round, looking down on all the tea plantations (a darker green than those in Kerala) to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, where recently arrived refugees were taught English and other useful skills to help them find work in India. There was also a really interesting display on the plight of the Tibetans.

I finally got back to Darjeeling proper at about 5pm, hiking again up some insanely steep roads (the altitude was a killer, at least I blame that for how out of breath I was) and had some dinner and wrote my postcards. It was great to get some alone time and chill out after a lot of exercise.

I had my last cup of tea the next morning, and bought yet more tea to take home as presents. I didn't want to leave - the people were so friendly, there were so many more women around (this was a big deal, Indian streets are very male dominated), and it was so unbelievably beautiful. I'm now in Calcutta and about to head to Thailand but must go as I'm late or dinner with Sarah, Julie and Liv.

Namaste, India (for now). Sawasdee-kah, Thailand!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Varanasi: Burning, burning, burning, burning (and murdering a sitar)

I ventured out alone last night, with Liv still ill in bed,  to wander the narrow, labyrinthine streets of Godaulia just to see what would happen. I was again on my guard for hassle, but none was forthcoming (well, not much).  All roads lead to the Ganges and eventually I found myself strolling along the ghats.

I'd heard all about the burning ghats but not much prepares you for seeing human bodies going to meet their maker in such a graphic way. Huge piles of wood marked the beginning of the burning ghat, and silhouettes under white shrouds gave me a very strange feeling; I've never experienced death so close up before. The Hindus seem very happy for people to show you around and explain what is happening. They burn 250 bodies per day. The workers build a pyre, then the body is dunked in the Ganges to 'cleanse' it, left to dry for a while, then put on a bed of differing types of wood, depending on what the family can afford. There's no bad smell, as they use sandalwood powder and ghee to increase burning time (and I assume hide the smell). I stood literally next to these fires and it was a very ethereal, morbid and fascinating experience.

Then I wandered back along the ghats to where the evening's puja ceremony was taking place. 6 men, identically dressed, stood on high red platforms and wafted lots of fiery things, feathery things and sprinkled water everywhere. As per usual, I had no idea what was going on. Lots of bells were rung and I joined in a bit by lighting a candle and sending it off down the Ganges as a 'prayer'. It was a beautiful ceremony, but again a reminder of how far I am (and ever could be) from 'getting' India. I guess this is why it is so compelling as a tourist destination.

I again wandered (lots of wandering in Varanasi) fairly anonymously back to my lovely guest house, via an Indian classical music concert where I had lemon tea, which I'm addicted to (as well as chai).

A group of girls had taken over the kitchen and were cooking rice, chapatis and chutney, so I joined them for dinner.

Went to bed nice and early, but spent the wee small hours being disturbed by an incredibly noisy Indian family who moved into the room next door to us. Their light floodlit our room and after much shouting, and wailing of small children, eventually they stopped. I got up at 5.30am (again) and took a boat down the Ganges. It was lovely and peaceful, and I again stopped by the burning ghats, as well as watching the morning bathers taking a dip in what must have been freezing (a well as filthy) water. I again got to see the sun rise, this time over the banks of the Ganges opposite the city.  The sun was such a perfect, orange circle it looked as if someone had cut a hole into the sky, revealing an orange backdrop.

One of the strangest moments of today was getting knocked out of the way by a funeral procession, I think I very nearly touched some death. I then went for my long awaited sitar lesson with an ancient old man in someone's house. I expected to be able to do nothing, but the scales he taught me were easy to remember and I could get something like a tune out of it by the end. I guess musical theory in some way translates West to East, though I'm not entirely sure how. Now it's time to read, write, relax (maybe have a nap?) and then get on the train to freezing Darjeeling. I have a bit f a sore throat and feel a little run down, so hopefully some mountain air will do me good.

Namaste x