Dazhai – a feast for the senses! (part 1)

Life on the ground here in Connecticut has been keeping me away from the laptop and this blog has been awfully neglected as a result lately. Tomorrow we’re actually doing the first bit of mini travel – local – since we’ve arrived. We’re going for an overnight trip to celebrate Roman’s birthday :-D! The laptop is going to be left behind but I want to try to get in a post or two before we head off…

So without further ado, here are some more thoughts and notes on our days in Dazhai.

Sense of sound

There are so many sensuous details that stand out in my memory from Dazhai, so many little things I totally savored while we were there.

I mentioned before how refreshingly quiet Dazhai was.

The village is so small. There’s no night life to speak of, there were not too many tourists while we were there, the villagers are mostly farmers who seem to live pretty simple lives, in terms of technology at least. There are only a few motors in town – a handful of scooters and the occasional piece of mechanized farm equipment.

All this makes for unexpected but glorious quiet. Without all the background noise of urban life, the smaller-scale sounds start to gently come to the fore.

Here’s one recording taken on our first day there.

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The scene is on one of the hills surrounding the village. We stopped at the end of our hike to enjoy the trickle of a small mountain brook and listen to the symphony of insects warm up as the sun headed towards the horizon. You can hear farmers threshing rice by hand – that’s the thumping sound. Of course when I hit record, a jet had to fly overhead, so you’ll hear that too – but that’s not typical of Dazhai! 🙂

This is from another location, but here is a picture of a man and woman manually threshing some recently harvested rice, just to give a visual to the sound clip.



Of course this lack of motors means that goods coming into and out of the village are somewhat limited. Dazhai isn’t too cut off – there is a road that leads pretty close to its entrance. But much of the food we ate while there was locally produced (like the local tofu we had fried up at our hotel one night – seriously yum!!!).

It also means that larger things that have to make it up to villages up the hills that are accessible only by footpath are getting carried up one of two ways: by horse power (literally) or man (or woman) power. We saw a lot of heavy things making their way up and down hill during our hikes along the various trails and it never failed to impress.



 

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Beyond the temples at Angkor

We’re in Hanoi now at a hotel that has in-room wifi, we’ve already been in Vietnam for over three weeks, and I am determined to finish catching up on Cambodia while we’re in this city! 🙂

Siem Reap – not just Angkor

Roman was bedridden for a few days with a bad cold when we first arrived, the temples of Angkor were so captivating that we ended up tacking on an extra day because of them, and the great Angkor Pearl was a super and comfortable base for working on travel logistics. All this conspired to make for a relatively long stay in Siem Reap.

One benefit of this is that we managed to get beyond Angkor and Pub Street to do and see a bit more while we were there. I already wrote about my yummy cooking class while we were still there. We also visited a couple of non-temple-related tourist sites.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum was a simple but thought-provoking display. Roman had already learned a lot about the awful effects Laos has and continues to face due to the huge number of bombs and mines left over from a war that occurred over thirty years ago – indeed it is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Cambodia may not be in first place like Laos, but it has more than its fair share of unexploded bombs littering the countryside and the resulting casualties. Visiting the museum is humbling because of the man who has founded it – Aki Ra.

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Recruited as a child soldier by the same forces that allegedly killed his parents, the Khmer Rouge, he grew up with constant war and violence being the only reality he ever knew. That he survived is a miracle in itself. That he went on to dedicate his life to ridding Cambodia of the very mines he himself helped to plant when a soldier is to me simply amazing and inspirational.

Reading the information and the statistics in the museum is frustrating at best. Around 18,000 people killed by mines in Cambodia between 1979 and 2002; around 40,000 injured. The number of countries who have yet to sign the Land Mine Treaty; of course the US is on the list. Urgh…. So, sobering and also aggravating as it makes you want to shake people for being so bloody stupid and senseless, but definitely worth seeing and informing yourself about.

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Just some of the bombs/mines that Aki Ra has cleared across Cambodia

We did something much more lighthearted after that, which was visit Angkor Butterfly Centre (also known as Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre). It’s small and simple but a beautiful sanctuary – a gorgeous, quiet garden under massive netting and filled with floating, fluttering butterflies. We had a sweet, enthusiastic guide who showed us around, pointing out the different species and giving us a close up view of the amazing pupae and wriggly caterpillars and answering all our questions. I’ll post pictures in a separate entry for any bug enthusiasts. 🙂

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Heavy heart, full heart

So far on this trip I think Cambodia is the country that’s made me cry the most since we’ve been on this trip. Maybe this sounds weird but I’m actually grateful for this. Sometimes I’ve had a tough time getting out of my head and opening my heart to a place. I think I must have cried in other countries too, probably because of what ever internal conflict I’d have had going on with myself at the time.

Cambodia brought me to tears just because of Cambodia. Obvious times like while at Tuol Sleng or thinking about Naid, or understandable times like when the disabled musicians at Bakong played so beautifully. Less obvious times like when tears just started streaming down my face while at the ruin Preah Neak Pean. My reaction to Beat Richner’s presentation was very strong and also unexpected.

I’d read about the controversial but significant work Dr. Beat Richner does for Cambodia in Cambodia’s Curse. Roman had heard of him because he is a well-known figure in his homeland, Switzerland. So we were both eager to attend the concert of this doctor who has opened and successfully runs four children’s hospitals in Cambodia (almost entirely through private donations which he works very hard to motivate!) and saved SO many lives.

Dr. Richner is also a cellist, and performs in Siem Reap every weekend to a crowd of tourists at his hospital. The place is amazing – massive, modern, with simple and stylish architecture, arriving at the concert we felt like we’d been transported back to Switzerland.

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The doctor’s performance consists of information, anecdotes and statistics he shares in a sharp, witty, direct way, interspersed with short pieces he plays and followed by a film documenting the history of his project. It’s incredible to see film footage of him as a young man, with crazy curly hair, when he was working as a doctor in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge were beginning their assault on the country.

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Tough for me though was all the footage of present day mothers and their sick and injured children. The filming is not overtly focused on the graphic, but it is an honest depiction of the cases that come through the hospital each and every day. It made me feel physically ill to see it; the suffering of the children was more than I could wrap my head around, but I could empathize with the helplessness and fear of the mothers, thinking of my beloved sister and nephew and her total devotion to him and having my heart break again with each new sick-bed scene portrayed in the hospital.

Already then I was so glad to be learning about the hospitals and their projects, and of course we were happy to donate, but I was just overwhelmed when we left and couldn’t help sobbing as we walked through the night back to our hotel. Tough, but I was also grateful to be emotionally connecting to Cambodia in this way.

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We passed by the hospital every day that we drove into Angkor. Each and every morning, there were massive lines of families waiting to be admitted. One photo from my walk – patients and their mothers entering and leaving the hospital.

Confused heart, full heart

I had one other experience in Siem Reap that left my heart in a bit of a quandary. One morning I went for a walk on my own. I got out of the central tourist area and really enjoyed walking through a normal neighborhood. I had my camera with me and was taking photos along the way. On the same, quiet, tree-shaded road as me was a trash-picker. Our paths crossed a couple of times as I’d catch up with her or she with me.

She was pushing a bike which carried not only big bags for transporting any of the trash she could find to repurpose, but also her two young children. We smiled at each other and eventually I asked with sign language if I could photograph them. She was so gracious and her young daughter and son so sweet. I came over to show them the photo, to shake the little ones’ hands.

Just up the street was a small shop. I picked up some water for myself, plus a bottle for them and a large bunch of bananas. We could’t communicate verbally and I was just going on instinct; she seemed happy to receive the fruit and we kept waving and smiling at each other each time we met as we both made our way down the rest of the street.

But as soon as I’d walked away from the store, my mind started worrying. Was that the right thing to do? Could I have done more? Who am I to think she needs bananas? What if she and her kids don’t even like bananas?? Probably she could have used something else more. Why didn’t I buy her a bunch more stuff? Is there something else I could have done besides buy her fruit? Or did the whole thing make her uncomfortable? And so on and on and on.

I still wonder occasionally about what I did, what I could have done that might have been better or more correct or more helpful. Roman and I try to be really aware about the questions and issues surrounding the poverty and disadvantage in the countries we are visiting. It’s really hard to find the line between lending a helping hand and dominating and directing a place’s culture, values or pride, between doing what we can to not condone unhealthy or unsustainable situations like child labor or begging while still finding a way to be human and to act on compassion in the moment.

I still haven’t figured out any answers or guidelines as to what is right or wrong. I do know that as confused as I felt after my interaction with the young mother and her children, what I felt more than anything was gratitude for the real, if brief, connection, for their kind and open smiles, for the chance to wonder what their lives might be like. I am sure she doesn’t wonder about me like  I still do about her, but if she does ever remember our meeting, I hope for her, on the balance, the interaction was a positive one.

After all that, here is the photo. It should be clickable so you can take a closer look.

News to me

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I picked up some bananas for breakfast from a street vendor. They were delicious but I got a shock when I bit into one and felt a crunch.

Naturally my first instinct was that my worst fears were coming true and my delicious banana was full of bugs/bug eggs/bug larvae/something even more disturbing involving bugs.

Turns out I was wrong and who knew – wild bananas actually have seeds in them! Thank you internet!

Bike trek adventure

We arranged for a two-day bike trek from Savannakhet – biking from the city to the Dong Natad NPA (National Protected Area – wilderness preserves throughout the country), through the forest, to the village of Ban Phon Sim for a home-stay overnight and temple visit in the morning, and then back via That Ing Hang, a beautiful Buddhist stupa.

It was a package offered by the Eco-Guide Unit in Savannakhet. Being low season, we could go on our own with a guide and a local forest “specialist”, but during peak times, this could have been a group trip of up to eight people.

Roman is a bit allergic to organized, tourist-group activities, and we were excited for the trek but also braced for the possibility that it could feel a bit “manufactured”. It turned out to be really wonderful though.

Laos has opened up to tourism later than many of its neighbors in southeast Asia and has taken lessons from their successes and mistakes. From what we’ve read and experienced, it’s making a decent effort (not perfect, I’m sure, but at least it’s trying) to develop tourism in conjunction with and to support local communities.

You can read more about it here if you are interested, but certainly our experience with Eco-Guide Unit made us feel like we got a wonderful view of traditional life in the region without being too invasive. The people in the village of Ban Phon Sim seemed comfortable having us wander around and were happy to greet or chat with us; at the same time, there wasn’t a single post card for sale or eatery with food aimed at tourists – really nice.

Jungle boogie

Our guide from the Eco-Guide Unit was a young man named Pasert. He was soft spoken but opened up more as the day progressed and we had more time to talk (the shots of Lao Lao at the home stay may have helped as well. 😉 ), and was really sweet.

We rode with him from the shop in town to the stupa where we met with our “local” guide, Sodar. He was an expert on the forest we’d be biking through. He didn’t know any English and obviously we don’t know any Lao, but that didn’t stop him from talking and laughing lots – regardless if Pasert was around to translate or anyone was even in earshot. He was good fun. 🙂

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Sodar demonstrating the flammability of the fuel produced by a special tree, used for torches traditionally used by the locals

The ride through the forest took up the better part of the day and was wonderful. The trees and undergrowth grew thick and the air was always humming with the buzz of insects. The flora was pretty varied – ferns and vines and smaller fruit or flowering trees grew prolifically under the cover of less frequent but totally impressive towering, ancient giants of trees. We saw no other tourists while we were in there, just a handful of locals who were foraging for edible plants and animals.

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We met a small group of women gathering these plants in the forest. They were too shy to have their photo taken, but they let me try the leaves. Sticky like okra but with a lovely, fresh taste.

Even under the cover of the trees, it was very hot going and Roman and I are convinced we’ve never sweat that much before in our lives. 🙂 We made pretty frequent stops, hopping off the bikes any time Sodar had something interesting to show us: termite colonies, stink bugs, dung beetles, edible (?!?) halucinigenic spiders, all sorts of amazing forest fruit, jungle vines that would yield small sips of delicious water when chopped open with his machete. Learning about those sort of things, being in the incredible nature and the exercise of biking through the muddy, sandy, rocky paths were all right up my alley – I just loved it.

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A massive cicada. Sodar played with it – making crazy sound effects by opening and closing his mouth while it was inside and chirping like crazy. This was before he ate it, the first of multiple bugs he’d munch on during the trek. 😛 I’m just grateful he didn’t eat the spiders he found…

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One of the types of forest fruit we got to try. White flesh around a big pit under that bright pink peel, very sour. Roman got pretty addicted to them. 🙂

We took a break when we came to some open farmlands on the edge of the reservation. We made ourselves comfortable in a simple hut on the field – a small platform a couple of feet off the ground with a thatched roof – and ate a lovely al fresco lunch. Lots of still warm sticky rice with a myriad of vegetable dishes. My favorites were the big steamed bamboo shoots (similar to artichoke) and some sort of eggplant dish with lots of cilantro. Dessert was dozing and daydreaming in the shade until we’d digested enough to move on.

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Pasert unpacks lunch

Home stay magic

We pulled into the village of Ban Phon Sim in the late afternoon. We were staying at the home of the village head. We were invited to make ourselves comfortable on a simple wooden platform in the yard that functions as deck, table and lounge areas and were welcomed with traditional shots of Lao Lao. Strong stuff! 🙂

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Ducks enjoying a puddle at our home stay

We had some time to relax, freshen up and explore the village before the baci ceremony – a traditional buddhist ceremony that is performed to celebrate everything from guests arriving to school graduations to the start of new business ventures – in our hosts’ home. We went for a lovely stroll around the village and some of the surrounding, peaceful farm lands. I really enjoyed cleaning up with the standard Lao shower, wrapping myself in a borrowed, well-worn sarong and cleaning myself with bowlfuls of refreshing water in the family’s outhouse.

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The road out of the village, flanked by towering Eucalyptus trees

The baci ceremony began after the sun had set. A good-sized Pha Kwan, a kind of “mini stupa”, had been set up, streaming loads of perfectly white strings. Elderly neighbors arrived to join in the welcome ceremony and dinner that would follow. The oldest guest led the event, reciting traditional invocations. Everyone present reached in to either touch the Pha Kwan or touch someone who was touching the stupa as the prayers were said. Once completed, everyone removed the strings and came up to me, Roman and Pasert, tying the strings around our wrists as they blessed us, each in turn. The ceremony was simple and of course we couldn’t understand what we being said, but the gesture of blessing us individually was so heart-felt and lovely – I was so moved and so grateful.

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The Pha Kwan

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Family and neighbors gather for the ceremony

The dinner afterwards was simple but delicious, and again we were treated as honored guests, being served first and on a low table, while everyone else had their plates simply on the floor. Even though communication was really limited, still all the members of the family were sweet and easygoing and made us feel really welcome.

After dinner, we enjoyed some start-gazing from the platform outdoors until we were too tired to stay up any longer (the family stayed inside, watching music videos and comically dramatic Thai sit coms. Apparently this is the thing to do in Laos – we’ve seen it every where we’ve gone.).

We slept on mats on the floor under mosquito netting – until we were awakened in the middle of the night by booming peals of thunder close by and the deafening pounding of rain on the tin roof overhead. The storm was magnificent and huge and I was really glad it arrived during the night and not while we’d been biking.

The morning after

We had to get up shortly after 6am the next day; part of the experience was bringing alms to the local monastery. The mother of the house gently wrapped me in the traditional sarong and scarf – required for women presenting monks with gifts – and Roman, Pasert, one of the daughters and I headed to the temple, bowls of donations in our arms.

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The lovely mother at the home stay, two daughters and one granddaughter

It was a holiday, so the place was absolutely packed. We squeezed into a small patch of open floor for part of the opening prayers, then joined the crowd as the alms – everything from fruit and sticky rice to pens, toothpaste and cigarettes to money – were placed in large bowls. A lovely experience, albeit a bit early!

We were very happy to get a strong Lao coffee at a shop in town afterwards, joining a group of amiable men from the village who were getting caffeinated and chatting before getting going on the day’s work, including one teacher who was using the school holiday as a chance to go collect mushrooms in the forest we’d driven through the day before. It was fun talking with him and the other men in a mix of English, basic French and translation facilitated by Pasert.

Back to town

After a lovely breakfast at our home stay, Pasert took us for a small bike loop through delicious smelling Eucalyptus plantations and picturesque rice paddies and along a lovely lake. We stopped back at the house to pick up lunch for the road and then headed back to the village of Ban Thad – home to the That Ing Hang stupa and Pasert.

The stupa was lovely – unfortunately though my camera had run out of batteries at this point, so I haven’t got any pictures. You can see it online though if you’re interested.

After checking out the stupa, we stopped at his house in the village, where his mother and sisters welcomed us and served us lunch – and then went back to watching their Thai soap opera. 😉 Roman was brave and tried the chicken feet on offer. I was happy with my veggies and sticky rice. 😉 Fueled up with more delicious food, we hopped back on our bikes and pedaled our way back to Savannakhet, where we arrived a couple of hours later, hot, sweaty and happy. All in all, a great experience!

Coming clean about dirt, or, It’s not me, it’s you

Back in my former life, before all this travel business kicked off, I don’t think anyone who knew me would describe me as a particularly neat or persnickety individual. In fact, some may go so far as to say I had a bit of a tendency towards messiness and chaos within my own environment. And I’ve never been afraid to get grimy for a good reason (yoga, gardening, cooking, etc.).

Knowing this about myself made me feel relatively confident that I’d be fine traveling in countries that might not be up to Western standards of cleanliness. I was surprised, then, to find that I was actually more squeamish, far more often than I had expected to be. I was feeling pretty wimpy about all this and was tending to judge myself a lot for it (“Bad world traveller Jenny!”) and actually started to worry that I might be getting a bit OCD – being hyper aware of and sensitive to dirt and grime – and possibly take this new-found paranoia home with me when our trip was over.

My little trip to the States was a great opportunity to disprove this pretty useless theory my “running mind” (as Roman likes to call it) had felt the need to come up with. Within no time of arriving back home, dirt was the last thing on my mind.

Having some time and space, I realize now that there are only certain types of dirt that get to me, in certain situations, and in fact, upon reflection, I’m not even that big of a wimp.

I can totally handle:

•Peeing in “unpleasant” smelling squat toilets on the trains of India
•Taking care not to step in the goat, cow (and occasionally people) poo that was all over the roads of Hampi
•The rickety bus rides in Myanmar that left us and our stuff covered in a thick film of dust and grime by the time we made it to our first bathroom break
•The gleeful rats and scurrying cockroaches of Bangkok’s streets
•Sharing a tuk tuk with fly-filled bags of meat bits (hair still intact; I think they might have been tails but I didn’t want to look to closely…) in Savannakhet
•Watching our Lao jungle guide chow down on massive, living bugs
•Getting totally caked in mud up on the Bolaven Plateau

I don’t think that’s the resume of a big-time travel wuss.

What I realize now though is that I get sensitive when it comes to hotels. Out there in the world I can manage most things. But when it comes to where I lay my head, I need a bit of comfort. It doesn’t even need to be fancy. Simple is totally fine, so long as it’s clean and cared for. Places that look, feel or smell neglected just get me down. Oh, and so does bad fluorescent lighting.

Realizing this doesn’t mean we’re going to upgrade away from budget lodging for the rest of our trip. And it certainly doesn’t mean we won’t end up in shoddy, cheap hotels from time to time.

But having this knowledge means I don’t have to beat myself up for being a wimp while simultaneously trying to pretend that everything is great and I really love stained linens, spider webs and grim lighting that makes me look even more tired and grimy than I may already be feeling. It means I can accept the situation while also accepting that it’s probably not going to be my favorite part of trip, and then I can simply move on. Liberating!!

Oh, and if you’re curious what may have prompted this post, let’s just say it was a bit of a rough adjustment staying at Phonevilay Hotel (I won’t go on and on, but just to paint a brief sketch – while it could have been a lot worse, the floor was not pleasant for bare feet, the gecko poop was prevalent, the ant population was thriving and the sheets were hole-y) after the comfort and elegance of Vayakorn in Vientiane. 😉

Pearls of wisdom from our bike adventure

Roman and I are just back from an awesome little road trip adventure through southern Laos (more or less Lonely Planet’s “Southern Loop” if you’ve got the book). We rented a little Honda in Pakse and spent four days on the road, rolling around the countryside, checking out some interesting towns and villages, and getting acquainted with the rainy season in southeast Asia. 😉

I’m having some computer-related technical issues at the moment so I’ll do a proper post with pictures about the trip later on, but here are some notes in the mean time.

Lessons from the road

In case you are planning to do your own bike trip around and on Laos’ Bolaven Plateau during the wet season, here are some nuggets I learned/rediscovered that may come in handy:

  1. A little sun goes a long way in southern Laos.
    Especially if you’re fair like I am (even if you are wearing SPF 70!). Covering up for those hours on the road is advisable.
  2. Changes in altitude may significantly affect temperature.
    While we were sweating in the valley, we were shivering in the mountains. An additional layer of clothing would not have gone amiss.
  3. What appears to be light rain becomes heavy rain when you are driving through it on a bike, even at slow speeds.
  4. What appears to be heavy rain is not something you want to drive through on a bike in southern Laos.
    Trust me on this one.
  5. Travel with extra plastic bags.
    You never know when you’ll need someplace to put trash, last-minute waterproofing for your gear, or impromptu galoshes when your shoes get utterly and completely soaked.
  6. When you are in the middle of no where, you haven’t seen another soul for ages and there is no hope of a bathroom for miles and you finally give in and decide to pop a squat in the great outdoors, ineveitably someone will manage to suddenly show up while you are in the middle of your business.
    Seriously, I am two for two for this happening to me in Laos and not feeling too great about that 100% track record.
  7. Passengers are advised to hold on.
    Even when the road looks decent, you never know when the next bump, pothole or patch of bad road will occur. It’s best to have at least one hand holding on at all times, preferably two.
  8. Any right of way you assume you may have as a driver of a motorized vehicle will be entirely ignored by cows, goats, buffalo, pigs, chickens and dogs.
    Don’t expect them to take any notice of you, let alone move out of the way.
  9. While oncoming traffic is infrequent, do expect it approach from the middle of the road or in your lane.
    This is especially true on blind curves.
  10. When crossing paths with or being passed by buses and trucks, brace yourself.
    You will be hit in the face with a spray of stinky air, dust and grit. It’s best to hold your breath and keep your mouth firmly shut.
  11. Bugs in the face are inevitable.
    As above, keeping your mouth shut is advisable!
  12. Enjoy the view!
    Beautiful farmlands, dramatic mountains, gorgeous skyscapes, lush forests, stunning waterfalls, impressive coffee plantations, lovely villages and lots of smiling Laotion faces are yours to discover!

Ok so I am a wimp, and other travel notes

This is a more technical post, just notes following up on the last post and on travel gear and things like that. Updates on where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to to come later…

Off roading

The trip from Agra to Varanasi was uneventful; running late by over two hours it was simply long. So after 15 hours on the train we were looking forward to arrive at the hotel.

Teerth Guest House is the name of our first non-Lonely Planet hotel. The staff has been friendly and helpful; even with the crazy delay there was someone waiting at the station to meet us (with a chicken scratched piece of paper with my name on it, charmingly held upside down 🙂 ).

We are staying in the heart of the old town, which is a maze of narrow alleyways, so the rickshaw could only take us so far and we had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Thank goodness the place provides pick up service or it would probably have taken us five times as long to find the hotel as it’s really hidden away at the dead end of one of the smaller alleys.

At 550 rupees a night, it is on the cheaper end of what we’ve been paying. And it shows. The room is a good size and the floors are relatively clean, but the walls and linens are particularly shabby and dirty. This isn’t too bad (hurrah for sleeping bag liners and my pillow cases from home! 😉 ), but we were bowled over by the smell (I am telling myself it smells like spoiled strawberry milk; I’d rather not think about alternative explanations) and the first squat toilet we’ve encountered in a hotel.

We borrowed air freshener from the (overly chatty) manager and that’s helped somewhat, and I’m sure it will be fine for the short time we are staying here, but even Roman mentioned at dinner that he could handle the smell or the toilet, but after such a long journey, adjusting to both was just a bit much. 🙂

The location is good though, and maybe we’ll find other redeeming features over the next few days. And in the mean time, I am doing a decent job cultivating amused compassion for the (wimpy) diva in me who is arching her eyebrow in distaste at the questionable stains on the wall and the bugs that keep landing and ants that keep crawling on the bed. 🙂

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The room at Teerth

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Squat toilet!

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This towel will never be white again

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This guy and his friend love hanging out on the beds

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Air Wick to the rescue! 😀

Transportation booking

For anyone considering traveling in India, I wanted to mention the website Cleartrip (thanks for the tip Kay!). We’ve been using it to book all our trains and flights within India. It’s very easy and convenient and has some nifty features like SMS notification and automatically syncing flight/train info onto our calendars. We had to change some plans today and cancelling the flight we had booked on the site was easy as pie; we even were able to get back most of the cost of the flight. The site also has hotel booking, but the selection is limited and I’ve found the prices are better when I’ve gone direct to the hotel site. But for air and train transport in India, it really is super. http://www.cleartrip.com

Gear check up

11 weeks into the journey, here are some reflections on some of what I’m carrying with me.

As mentioned above, the silk sleeping bag liner is an absolute Godsend. For cleanliness but also for warmth – Teerth for example provides no blankets what so ever so it’s doubly good to have them.

The Osprey packs have been mostly great but I’m disappointed that the zipper tabs on mine have come off less than two months in. It’s probably a reflection of my heavier packing that Roman’s pack hasn’t had the same happen to it, but I don’t think my load is unreasonable… (Roman may disagree 😉 )

I have mixed feelings on my Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) clothes. The underwear sizing is much smaller than the clothing sizing, so the expensive high-tech underwear I got is all on the tight side. The tech wick shirts are fine, but they feel too big for me – between the large cut and the plastic-y look, they just don’t feel like me so I find that I don’t wear them much. The EMS Compass Pants are great though – comfortable, light, versatile. Love ‘em.

Love my Merrill shoes as well – they have been totally comfortable from day one, no breaking in necessary. An update on footwear – Roman brought me a pair of light, simple flip flops from home and I am loving this extra luxury. They are my ‘inside shoes’, to be worn only when my feet are clean (I have given up ages ago on the notion that my other sandals are at all clean – they have been through way too much) and only in places where there is no dust, mud, cow poo, etc. to walk through. It’s a little thing but I love having “clean” shoes. 🙂

Another new luxury that we have bought here in India is a small set of Phillips speakers. They are travel size but have really decent sound and it’s just great being able to play our music at the hotels – really enhances the ambience of any place we are.

More thoughts on/reviews of gear later…

Me and Miss Swiss; reflections from Delhi

The breeze coming through the open window is cooler after the thunderstorm – the first we’ve experienced in Delhi. Although the daylight had been coming to an end anyhow, the darkness grew thicker and faster than normal and a breeze began to rise, stirring up the leaves on the trees and the dust in the street; from a distance the thunder began to grumble. I could hear and smell these things through the window’s screens in our cozy room. Now the wind and rain and hail have come and gone. The city’s dust and heat are tamped down for now and the darkness outside feels peaceful as I’m writing.

Tomorrow will mark my seventh week in India. Our little tour in Uttarakhand is feeling ages away. I’ve been basking in the comforts of Delhi. On this, my third visit, the city – or at least parts of it and certain aspects of it, are starting to feel more familiar. We are again tucked away in the generous hospitality of my friend’s family home in south Delhi. And, the biggest comfort of all: this time my friend Ritu is here. During our last stay, she was away on business. It’s feeling like heaven to have time with her. Beyond being an incredible boyfriend, Roman is also a great travel companion: relaxed, fun, supportive; he is my prince. But boyfriends are not the same thing as girlfriends and the company of a dear friend is simply irreplaceable. So it’s just great to see her and to have time to catch up; it’s helping me to relax and get more grounded on this trip.

Even nearly two months in, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to discover I’m still unravelling knots of past (and perhaps even more recent) stresses, still letting go of my corporate, ‘need-to-be-productive’ habits and easing into and discovering myself within this new lifestyle. Seems like there are layers of this stuff to move through and discard. For the most part, I’m able to maintain a sense of humor during the process, which is helpful. I was able to laugh at myself for the trip from Rishikesh to Ramnagar for example. The control freak (let’s call her Miss Swiss 😉 )in me was squirming like crazy at the prospect of such a loosely formulated journey.

The guy at the hotel in Rishikesh had been able to tell us in broken English that there were a couple of buses a day to Ramnagar from Haridwar, the next major town over from Rishikesh, but details such as when these buses might run, how long they’d take, etc. were not forthcoming. That was enough for Roman – I pretended it was enough for me too and watched little Miss Swiss inside me have a bit of a freak out. As a last ditch effort at organization, a.k.a. control, I started taking photos of the maps in the area so that we would have some sort of back up in case the whole direct bus thing ended up being just a myth.

We took a cab down to the bus station in Rishikesh and as luck would have it the man hanging outside of the first bus we came to was calling out ‘Hardwar! Haridwar’ (two equally recognized pronunciations for the place). We climbed right in – easy peasy – and the bus was off shortly there after. I was feeling pretty confident and started to relax, until I noticed that the bus was heading off on a completely different route than the bus that had brought us from Haridwar to Rishikesh a few days earlier. Last time we’d driven through small towns to get there. This time, we were seemingly driving through the middle of nowhere – skirting a river, moving across empty plains and wooded areas with not a person, dwelling or town in sight. What if we mis-heard the destination? What if we were on some sort of scam bus? What if we ended up in the middle of nowhere with no way back?? My inner control freak started spinning out of control. I did my best to bat back paranoia and enjoy the absolutely beautiful landscape that was rolling by outside the bus window and of course, eventually we arrived without incident at the center of Haridwar. Sit down Miss Swiss!

The bus station at Haridwar was awesomely obscure. I sat down with our luggage and diligently put Miss Swiss in the corner while Roman did the leg work of trying to find out what bus might get us to Ramnagar and at what time. Every single person he spoke to had a different answer for him. My map photos ended up coming in handy after all (score one for being paranoid! 😀 ) – the best information we received involved taking a bus to Kashipur and changing there for Ramnagar, and the map corroborated this logic. After waiting around for a couple of hours, we crammed our stuff and ourselves onto the most ergonomically awful seats ever invented and hunkered down for the six-hour ride, which, aside from resulting in two very numb derrieres, was very enjoyable between the incredibly loud Punjabi music the driver was playing and the striking scenery along the way. We were instructed to disembark in Kashipur; by this time night had fallen and so had Miss Swiss! Good thing too, because finding a bus in Kashipur was much dicier than in Haridwar.

Inquiries led to the discovery that there were no more scheduled buses at that time of the night. All we could do was stand along the side of the road leading to Ramnagar, wait for a bus to pass, and call out to the ticket collector to see if they happened to be heading in the right direction. This technique was explained to us (in even more broken English than the guy at the hotel) by a slightly tipsy, older gentleman who was apparently also waiting for a ride in to Ramnagar. Roman shared a cigarette with him and that was enough to cement a temporary friendship and even get me adopted as the guy’s new daughter! It took over an hour of standing by the side of the buggiest road I’ve ever encountered (this was one of the few in town with a proper lamp post, which attracted literally tens of thousands of harmless but very active bugs that kept landing and crawling all over us) until a bus arrived that would take us. With barely any space left, we perched on the metal mound housing the engine; I had to keep moving my knees so the bus driver had room enough to shift gears, and we barreled into the dark night (outside of town all street lights disappeared) for about an hour until we arrived in Ramnagar.

All in all, it was relatively straight forward – people were more or less happy to answer our questions – even when the answers were in Hindi or contradictory it was heartening to see how willing they were to help out complete strangers. And we didn’t end up having to spend a night sleeping in a bus depo or getting dropped off at a completely obscure, random destination in the middle of a desert, as Miss Swiss had been contemplating in the morning. In fact, we made it to Ramnagar in really good time, all things told. That being said, I was very happy to check into the very first hotel we found – and so was Miss Swiss! 😉

Photo impressions from the group trip: Part 4/5 (Mcleod Ganj continued)

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Apparently there is an increasing effort to deal more responsibly with trash and the environment in the area.

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Nevertheless, there is a lot of trash in the area. Opinions from travelers I have spoken with vary as to whether the amount of pollution has increased or decreased in recent years; it seems it depends on when they were last here.

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People in the area seem to have taken precautions against potential laundry thieves. 🙂

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Vendors in the morning

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The valley below Mcleod Ganj

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Thumbs Up Cola – tastes a bit like Moxie apparently. Taste the thunder!

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This is Deepak number two. I’m pretty sure I was hustled by the guy.

He told me this story about how he repaired shoes and could sew clothes and that he really needed work but he didn’t want to be paid in money – he just needed food. HIs dad was a drunk and so was his boss and they would just take any money from him and he was the only one looking after his two little sisters and they and he were just hungry. I knew my friend had a hole in her skirt that needed mending so I I brought it to him to do, and even got someone else in the group to give him some work. I told him let’s go shopping, expecting to by a few hundred Rupees worth of food and to make his day.

He walked me straight to a local shop and without blinking an eye started pulling massive bags of rice and flour and containers of oil and ghee off the shelves, speaking to the shop owner in a local dialect the whole time. I started to get a funny feeling but felt too polite and unsure to say anything. Finally the shop keeper told me the total – nearly R4,000 – way more than I had spent on anything during the whole trip and this was for basic food staples, and a heck of a lot more than I had intended to spend on food to pay for a skirt being mended! At this point I was pretty sure I was being scammed but still, the instinctive need to be polite persisted – I told them I only had a certain amount on me – still way too much money to spend on a skirt but a good deal less than R4,000, and that was all I could pay for.

Deepak put one bag of rice back on the shelf and said the money would be enough to pay for the rest, but that it was too much to carry so he would come back for the food later on. Now I knew for sure this was a scam. But even then, part of me really wanted to believe Deepak, and that “be nice” instinct was still overpowering, so I paid the money and left to meet my friends at dinner, to digest what just happened and what my deal is that I would rather be polite than defend myself and say to someone, “Hey, are you taking the piss or what?”

Needless to say, the small incident created plenty of food for thought. I’m grateful that it was such a benign situation – I am sure people have been fooled out of bigger amounts of money in less pleasant ways while traveling. One friend’s way of dealing really appeals to me. If he gets a weird feeling about something like that, he’ll say “I’m outta here”, and just high tail it out of the situation. I love this idea, and am going to try to adopt it! I have enough presence of mind to know that something doesn’t feel right, but not enough to figure out how to extract myself while saving face for the people who are scamming me. I think and hope it’s enough awareness though to be able to override the polite-instinct by pushing the “I’m outta here” button and just leaving. A good lesson if I can learn it! 🙂

Incidentally, he did a crap job fixing my friend’s skirt. I ran into him now during my second visit to Mcleod Ganj. As grateful as I was for the opportunity for introspection, it did still feel a bit unresolved and I thought I might get some closure talking to him again. I told him how disappointed my friend was with the work he did, trying to get the message across that I didn’t believe he was really a tailor. He seemed to be listening to the constructive criticism; in the next breath he said with a big grin, “So if you have work, you give to me!” 🙂 Not quite the vindicated closure I’d had in mind – but it’ll do. 😉

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Mcleod Ganj at night. This photo doesn’t do it justice though – many more stars in real life!

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Eight-legged visitor perched conveniently above Heather’s open suit case! Blarg! It looks small in this picture but that is due to the flash distorting the perspective. Do not be fooled, this spider was seriously large and nothing to mess with! Cousin to the other big, eight-legged friend that visited Roman and me in Apex hotel during my second visit to Mcleod Ganj.

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Sunset