So much to say

So few pictures, so little time, such insufficient internet access lately!

Phew!

The days since my last post have been chock full! We did some wonderful things back in Ushuaia that involved a lot of cold weather and outdoorsy-ness. I left my camera abandoned at the hotel for a lot of it. Some of it even involved getting over some apparently bigger-than-I-thought fears.

We’ve also been on the move a lot. We’ve left Argentina now (!!!) and have been in Chile (!!!!!) since Wednesday night (over thirteen hours on the bus to get there…!). First stop Punta Arenas and now we’ve arrived in Puerto Natales.

The days have been so full and there’s so much I want to say (write) – little details to capture before they slip through the cracks in my memory. It’s already past midnight though and we have to get up early tomorrow for our latest adventure – only recently discovered the existence of Torres del Paine but, when in Rome – or in this case southern Chilean Patagonia… So tomorrow we’re off to go check it out. Will try to get at least a few little vignettes together about recent events before the vividness of them fades before it’s time to board the Navimag ferry on Tuesday…

Just for now here is a snap shot of this moment though.

I’m sitting in the living room of our awesome B&B here in Puerto Natales. The lighting is low, the room is quiet and the fire in the wood stove has collapsed into a small pile of coals but still radiates heat. I suspect Roman may have fallen asleep on the bed in the next room. 😉 Outdoors, the quiet streets are filled with old snow; the sidewalks are miniature skating rinks that we skidded and laughed our way across earlier in the night. The current temperature outside is 30 degrees Fahrenheit, which only makes being inside in the warm all the more cozy. I’ve been scoping hotels on Tripadvisor for some of the next stops in Chile. I’m excited about visiting the National Park tomorrow and for the next day – our hosts at the B&B are lovely and the wife, Fabiana, has promised to show me how she makes her home-made bread. My belly is full of good food (vegetarian even – huzzah!) and tasty Patagonian beer from a local brewery/pub we visited for dinner earlier. Life. Is. Good…

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Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

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Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

Backtracking to Battambang

We’ve made it to our sixth country – Vietnam! Just got in to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night after a loooong day of bus travel. I’m excited to be here but for now I’m going to try to finish my posts about Cambodia, which means a bit of backtracking….

Our next destination after Kampong Chhnang was Battambang, where we had another short stay.

Fun with bus travel

Getting there from Kampong Chhnang was an experience. We’d bought bus tickets the day before and expected the short trip to get us there by early afternoon. The guy we bought the tickets from picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at what we assumed was the bus station.

Apparently, however, there is no real bus station. Buses barrel down the road on their way to or from Phnom Penh (where they fill up – problematic for us). You have to flag them down and if (and it’s a big if) they have any free seats, they’ll stop. It took about three hours and five or six buses until one showed up with room for us. Not awful but it was a hot, dusty wait on the side of the street – be braced for a longer wait if you’re following the same route!

About Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s 4th most popular tourist destination (following the Angkor temples at Siem Reap, the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sianoukville). With a population more than three times that of Kampong Chhnang, it definitely feels like more is going on there. Hotels are plentiful and there’s a bit of a backpacker/missionary scene with a good number of cafés/restaurants catering to Westerners, ranging from pretty boring to pretty decent (Gecko Café was our favorite).

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Delicious spring rolls at Gecko Café

Hard to say how accurate my perception was, but to me, Battambang, unlike Phnom Penh, seemed to have more “middle class” Cambodians and that tourism hadn’t taken over. Walking around the streets and parks, it felt more grounded to me – I caught myself feeling relieved to see “normal people doing normal things” – like having picnics or doing aerobics or line dancing in the park, just having fun. Maybe somehow we managed to miss this side of life in Phnom Penh, but anyhow we enjoyed it in Battambang.

There was more to see in town than in Kampong Chhnang. We did our best to overcome the oppressive heat (felt like a giant sprung up from the molten depths of the earth sat heavily on the city, occasionally pushing the heat around with fiery sighs) and took in some of the crumbling French-era architecture, every day life along the riverside and the charmingly desolate train repair sheds, abandoned since colonial times except as an improvised playground for local kids. DSC 0624
At the train shed

More photos from around town here.

Out and about with Sum & Dollar

While there was more action in the center of Battambang, like Kampong Chhnang, the real beauty was outside the city. We got lucky again and had two great moto drivers/guides for a day’s excursion out and about (photos and details about sights seen to follow in a later post).

Dollar and Sum were young and energetic and good fun. They drove like mad men between destinations (great for me – anything for a stronger breeze! ;-)) and shared stories about their lives and dreams.

Best of all was chatting with them over a drink at the end of the day. They got sodas and then they got sugar rushes! Dollar kept us all laughing with really awful magic tricks and really awesome impersonations of tourists he’s met. He’s got a great ear and his Scots, British and Aussie accents were amazing! I loved the day we got to spend with them. 🙂

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Sum (on the left) and Dollar. To quote them, “Small but strong!” 🙂

First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

On the road again: Vientiane to Savannakhet

After the lovely reunion with Roman and introduction to Laos in Vientiane, it was time for us to start exploring the country’s southern half. Roman had already spent time checking out many of Laos’ northern highlights while I was visiting my family in the States – keep an eye on his blog (in German, he’s still on Thailand but Lao updates will follow) to learn more about that part of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Savannakhet, whose Lonely Planet description includes adjectives such as “crumbling”, “languid”, “forlorn”. Roman’s good friend and travel aficionado, Pirmin, who has seen a great deal of Asia, mentioned something along the lines of “there’s so little going on that even the flies don’t move in Savannakeht.” 😉

We got there by way of a dusty, nine hour bus ride. Roman had already seen a lot of the Laotian country side, so I enjoyed taking in the view from the window seat, watching countless acres of farmlands and wilderness roll past. It was amazing how much space there was between villages, and how dark it got out there once the sun set!

We met a nice guy from Liverpool called Antony on the bus; he’d been depending on the bus driver to let him out at a stop about halfway between Vientiane and Savannakeht – this totally didn’t happen, but happily for us he ended up becoming a lovely impromptu travel/dining partner for a couple of days.

There we further unexpected surprises with the bus ride besides them failing to alert Antony of his stop. When we arrived at what seemed to be the Savannakeht stop, we and the rest of the passengers ended up getting loaded into a small truck – evidently some sort of transfer to the city proper. They kept squeezing in people and goods until the thing was full to bursting – Roman and a couple other folks had to stand on the back edge, hanging on to the truck’s frame. When it was packed to the driver’s satisfaction, we took off on a longer than expected drive through pitch black roads till we reached the city proper (we knew we were there thanks to the appearance of street lamps, complete with frangipani and dinosaur-shaped christmas light decorations. 🙂 ). At the bus station, we haggled most unsuccessfully with the only tuk tuk driver there (he really had an unfair advantage! ;-)), and got dropped off at the first hotel we could find in Lonely Planet.

Maybe arriving after dark was a factor, but Sayamungkhun, described as having “spacious, spotlessly clean rooms” with “an inviting atmosphere”, was quite possibly one of the most grim and depressing looking hotels I’ve seen in quite some time. We left to check out some other options, helped out by a very sweet, very enthusiastic man we met who cycled around ahead of us to see if the places he was recommending were open and had room for us.

We ended up settling in at Phonevilay Hotel (more on that later) and the next day started to get to know the city. Crumbling it certainly was, it was definitely sleepy compared to Vientiane and the mid-day sun was so brutally hot I can understand why the flies wouldn’t want to move. But the place was not without its charms and points of poignant beauty, and we managed to really enjoy our time there. More details to come in the next post, but here are some initial photo impressions of the place.

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Street-side shrine

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Fading paint

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Laundry

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Dumpling vendor on a smoke break

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Statue in front of a sacred tree

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Honda repair shop

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Cigarettes for sale

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“Sorry for inconvenience”

Thai Island Dream: Part 1 (Phuket Boat Charter)

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We spent the last two and a half weeks before my trip home with some absolutely amazing island hopping in the Andaman Sea along Thailand’s west coast.

We decided to skip the coast’s best-known beaches at Phuket and Krabi, but went all out setting up a dream itinerary:

Three days and three nights on a private boat, sailing and exploring islands on the way from Phuket to Ko Lanta.

A week taking in the beautiful views, tasty food and charms of Ko Lanta.

Another week getting our dive certification on and around the sun-drenched, white-sand beaches of Ko Lipe.

Certainly the most expensive bunch of travel we have done our entire trip, but we were helped out by an incredibly generous gift from Roman’s mom (thank you Petra! 🙂 ), and it was all so amazing – I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could! 🙂

The beginning

We booked the boat with Phuket Boat Charter. The price was all-inclusive and covered the crew, including a chef, all food and drinks to our preferences and drop off at the island of our choice. All we had to do was meet Markus, the Swiss skipper, at the dock at the appointed time, and our adventure would begin.

We had booked the charter while we were still up in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province on the east coast, so we caught a VIP night bus (insanely decorated in deep blue and painfully bright neon – I felt like I was inside a black lit fishbowl – but comfortable enough, especially once the lights were off) from outside of Ban Krud to get down to Phuket.

The trip was easy enough and we found a room at dive shop called Crystal Clear. Their rooms were off of a stairwell at the back end of a lightly populated bar serviced by a somewhat intense lady-boy. The rooms themselves beautifully cool and clean in all white with a lovely, fluffy duvet on the bed that reminded me of Switzerland. We were staying in a part of town called Chalong, away from Phuket’s beaches but close to the dock and, conveniently, the immigration office where we had to extend our visas.

After a day and a half to rest up from the overnight drive and sort out admin, we woke up early and headed to Jimmy’s Lighthouse where we’d arranged to meet Markus. He and his cute Thai girlfriend (her name escapes me at the moment. 😦 She was totally sweet though. Maybe I’ll remember after some coffee…) were both totally easy-going and sweet and made us instantly comfortable. We took off our shoes (wouldn’t see them again for days!), loaded our bags and ourselves into an inflated dinghy and headed out to meet our boat.

First sight

The Aquila is a trimaran, a sailboat with three hulls. The central hull is the largest and holds the control room, a simple kitchen and dining room, space for the crew. The smaller outside hulls are bedrooms with private bathrooms, simple, but nice enough since the real place to be was on deck, which ended up serving as a superb out-door dining room, bar, lounge for reading, napping and sunbathing and pool-side.

Roman and I were both agape as we boarded the ship, gleeful at the realization that this was going to be our home and life for the next three days. Markus introduced us to his daughter, Narita, who was a fun addition to the party, and Uan, the chef who doubled as crew when an extra hand was needed, and invited us to relax at the breakfast table while the crew got us out of the harbor and on our way.

That pretty much set the tone for the whole trip. The crew was totally friendly and easy-going and the atmosphere was so relaxed. It felt like hanging out with friends. But when it came to meals, equipment prep and the like, we never had to lift a finger and we ended up feeling totally spoiled by Markus and company.

So, that first morning we sat on deck with a lovely breakfast, enjoying the morning sun glimmering off the bright waters of Phuket’s harbor as the island pulled away from us and we headed towards our first destination.

Snap shots from our travels in Uttarakhand

We went to Ramnagar because of the easy access to the Corbet National Park,  a large, beautiful wildlife preserve just a 15 minute drive from town. It’s home to well over 100 tigers plus deer, monkeys, bears and tons of different bird species. We stayed at two different hotels: first the waaay overpriced Hotel Corbett Kingdom (after the bus ride I wasn’t willing to be picky 😉 ) and then the much-more-fun Motel Corbett.

Hotel Corbett Kingdom

  • The hotel dining room was just bizarrely tacky, with very poor lighting, wonderfully hideous fake plants everywhere, a good sized, elaborate buffet set up but completely devoid of food, and a waiter who had no qualms telling us all the items on the menu that we couldn’t order (Me: I’d like palak paneer please. Waiter: No ma’am. Me: Okay, um, in that case, I’ll take alloo gobi. Waiter: No ma’am – and so on. 😉 )
  • The hotel was partially under construction and we woke in the morning to the sound of drills and hammers coming from the rooms down the hall. It was the weirdest sensation – the smell of wet paint in the air is the first thing since I’ve been in India that has strongly and viscerally reminded me of the west. Specifically, for some reason it made me think immediately of Manhattan?? Funny and very random! 🙂

Motel Corbett

  • Much cheaper than the first hotel, this place was lovely – set in a grove of mango trees, half the rooms were actually tents! There was a simple but great restaurant with some tables set out under the trees. As far as we could figure, there was an outdoor Tandoori oven – our first afternoon there we went out and there was a thick, fragrant layer of smoke hanging over the outdoor tables coming from a small building next to the kitchen. The food at this place was great!
  • Lovely was waking up in the tent in the pitch dark to go on safari the first morning. Just five minutes after my alarm had roused us, we heard the call to prayer start from first one, then two and three different mosques in the city. A sound both beautiful and somehow eerie, but I loved the thought of people so devoted to their beliefs that they would start their day at that dark hour giving time and attention to God. I have practiced yoga Sadhana that early in the day a few times in my life and it is incredible, to start the day with so much peace, intention and inspiration.
  • There were some lovely, sweet dogs living at the hotel including a couple of older puppies. One female dog, a mutt, spent some time following us around. She was different shades of brown and had the most beautiful, melt-your-heart golden eyes.

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Tents among the trees at Motel Corbett

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Yummy veg pakoras – just one of many delightful things eaten there

Corbett National Park

  • The subsequent safari was also great. The feeling of cold air on our faces as we drove in the open jeep into the park, the smell of green everywhere, the transition from grey morning to bright day – all that I just loved. It was incredible as well to see such clean streams and paths after all the gulleys and streets congested with trash everywhere else in India.
  • We didn’t see any tigers, but we did have some evidence of the big cats. Plenty of tracks along the water and at one point across a valley we could hear a peacock calling out in warning; our guide said that it was likely he had spotted a tiger. We did see three different types of deer, two species of monkeys (cool to see them in trees rather than ambling along rooftops in the cities), many different types of birds and tons of termite hills – apparently a favorite place for bears in the park to snack.
  • Along the jeep path there was evidence of many small fires – cold ashes and blackened rocks. The guide told me this is where the park rangers would stop and make their tea during their rounds.

Travel in Uttarakhand

  • The first bus driver was a young Sikh in jeans and an ancient wife beater. He was a stoic driver, calm and quite, intermittently chewing on tobacco and constantly skipping between tracks of incredibly loud Punjabi music blasting from the jerry-rigged speakers at the front of the bus (directly in front of us 😉 ).
  • We passed through numerous villages on the bus ride from Haridwar to Kashipur. Dirty, dusty and not always attractive were these places and the roads that connected them but the women were amazing, like exotic flowers in vibrantly colored saris and salwar kameez. The contrast was lovely to see.
  • At one point during the bus ride I looked down at the side of the road and saw the carcases of an adult and two young cows (perhaps buffalo?). They had been skinned completely so there was just flesh and bone. Strange, like cuts of meat at the grocery store only these were the entire animals. There were crows sitting on them, picking at the flesh. I’ve seen dead horses, dogs and pigs since being in India but they were just ‚standard’ road kill and I know that cows are sacred here… so I wonder what the story was with these cows.
  • From the train: Thousands upon thousands of dung patties laid out and stacked against each other to dry in the sun. They are used for fuel. Striking on some of them to see the hand print in the middle were they were last pressed into shape; some sort of anonymous signature.
  • From the train: First ever glimpses of water buffalo actually in water – it was a pond covered in green and they were in it up to their broad, black shoulders; you couldn’t see anything below because of the algae. Beautiful.
  • On the train: A man with a handgun and extra bullets in a holster on his belt (!!). His was the top bunk in the sleeper compartment across from us. He lay up there people watching for a while and I tried not to feel nervous about it. After a while he tired of lying in the small space; he climbed down and in body language asked if he could sit on my bench with me by the window. I smiled a welcome of course – you don’t say no to a man with a gun! 😉

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! 😉

Pics from Uttarakhand

We spent a few days in Rishikesh, of Beatles/Maharishi fame

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Stalls outside a temple

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Building detail

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Cool cow graffiti

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Shadows at sunset

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View from the bridge

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Monkey sentinels on the bridge. Very cool – but after hearing stories from two people who had been bit by monkeys in India, it was a bit nerve wracking to pass within swiping distance of them. 😉

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Beautiful Ganges and mountains

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Cheeky monkeys trying to break into a temple

We left Rishikesh, traveling by bus from Haridwar to Kashipur, and from Kashipur on to our next destination, Ramnagar.

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Waiting in the bus station in Haridwar

The reason for going to Ramnagar was access to the Corbett National Park, a large reserve for tigers and many other animals. We didn’t see any tigers on our safari, but enjoyed it very much none the less. 🙂 Pics from the jeep safari:

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Spotted deer crossing the stream

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Spotted deer

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Crossing paths

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Termite hill against a tree. These hills were everywhere. Apparently they double as bear buffets.

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Safari elephant being taken for a breakfast walk

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Langur monkey

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Roadside shop in Ramnagar

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Marigold wreaths

Notes from Rishikesh

It’s our last night in Rishikesh. Tomorrow we will attempt to get to the Corbett National Park. I say attempt because we are assuming we will be able to get a bus there, but this is based on the fact that Lonely Planet mentions there is a bus connection from Haridwar (an hour’s bus ride from the main station in Rishikesh); the guy at the hotel said that there are no fixed times for this bus but it goes a few times a day. So, we’ll go to Haridwar tomorrow morning and see what we can figure out. 😉

The night train

I loved the mountains and landscape in Mcleod Ganj so much, and was eager to get back into a less urban setting and check out more of India’s outdoors. The state of Uttarakhand seemed to have a lot on offer in terms of amazing nature and I thought it might be neat to check out the yoga scene at Rishikesh. We arrived here by night train from Amritsar, travelling in AC3 class – basically the best class there is for over night travel in the standard trains.

The first night train experience during the group trip was a bit of a shocker – we’d had our expectations set for something à la the ‘Orient Express’ and had been imagining private cars, chic on-train dining, something pretty swanky. Instead we discovered that there was no dining car at all – just chai, soap and playing card wallahs who roamed the corridors between the bunks constantly hawking their wares. And during the ticket collection, the train official made us sign what was basically a waver saying that we understood the risks of train travel and the importance of keeping an eye on our things, etc. Very reassuring before settling down for a night’s sleep. 😉

In the end, the journey was just fine and actually lots of fun. Nevertheless, it was nice to see just how much more relaxed and easy it all felt this time around, now that I knew what to expect. (This time there was also no official giving us a warning about thieves) Like the bus ride to Amritsar, we arrived at our destination quicker than I could have imagined – and having gotten some solid hours of sleep to boot.  🙂

Rishikesh

Similar to Mcleod Ganj, Rishikesh has a good amount of Western tourists. This seems to have a bit of a demotivating effect on Roman, so we’ve had a pretty lazy stay here. It’s not as high up as Mcleod Ganj, but the hills and mountains are lovely. As is the Ganges, which is broad and fast moving here – we’ve seen white water rafting groups meandering down the river every day. And every night after sunset, this amazing, strong breeze kicks up that makes a gorgeous sound as it moves through the trees outside our hotel.

For me though, it doesn’t compare to the rugged mountain beauty of the area around Mcleod Ganj, and I found I haven’t had such a strong connection to the vibe of the town either.  It’s been cool to see all the Hindu temples and Ashrams, and we’ve had some nice walks in the area, but the best part for me has been enjoying the hotel, reconnecting to yoga and time with Roman.

Accommodation

We’re staying at the cheapest place so far; at R350 a night, our room at Bhandari Swiss Cottages is actually one of the more expensive ones on offer, because we are on a higher floor and have more of a view of the Ganges. For a true budget hotel, this place is pretty darn nice.

Room is a good size, simple but relatively clean. The bed is not super comfortable and could smell a bit better, but it could also be a lot worse. 🙂 Very few bugs and none that are too disturbing or invasive. This may be due to the fact that we have some gecko friends living in the room with us – very cute and very welcome if they are in fact eating bugs! 😀 Another one of those ‘the bathroom is also the shower’ deals, but this one comes equipped with a squeegee and while I have yet to perfect my technique, squeegee-ing the floor after showering is for some reason becoming a random thing I am loving about the India experience.

The outdoor café is a lovely bonus. The Indian food is the worst I have ever had (including outside of India), but they do killer muesli with yogurt and fruit, great fresh juices (lemon and mint is my favorite) and decent brown bread. Pretty good Nutella crepes as well! And it’s just a great setting to hang out in. All sorts of beautiful foliage growing all around, full of butterflies and birdsong. There are a few sweet dogs that I think belong to the hotel that hang out, you can see cows ambling down the street and today there was even a monkey having a snack in the woods by our table as we were having breakfast. (I love the monkeys! Although after having met two people since being in India who have been bitten by monkeys here, I’m also kind of scared of them. 😉 ) Eating our last dinner there this evening was fun; there must have been a festival going on in the town below because there was music floating up – male vocals and instrument accompaniment (maybe some sort of organ?). Not sure what sort of music it was or what the guy was singing about, but to our amusement, it sounded like an Indian take on the Macarena – pretty awesome mood music!

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Our room at Bhandari Swiss Cottage

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Gecko friend. 🙂

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The bathroom – check out the high tech plumbing on the sink – a tube leading to a drain in the floor. 😉

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Lovely muesli!

Nice things

I’ve been attending the hotel’s yoga classes as well. Taught by a young, nice Indian named Arvind; it’s different from the sort of yoga I usually practice. It’s a very simple class of pretty basic, classic asanas with more of a focus on stretching than strengthening – I haven’t even worked up a sweat once. But as always is the case when I come back to it, I am amazed and grateful at how good it feels to reconnect with my body, with my breath in that conscious way, with yoga. Even seeing how flighty my mind is during class – a clear sign that I am way out of practice – that bit of broader perspective that allows even that simple observation feels like such a relief. I love yoga! And will have to try to get a ‘home’ practice going from on the road.

I can feel that Roman and I are settling a bit more into this travel thing. I’m realizing that we’re still really at the beginning of this thing and still have a lot to figure out about traveling in general and traveling together specifically. He and I are still ‘arriving’ in some ways – still adjusting to the reality that we no longer live in Switzerland and that our time is really our own. I am still trying to get my head around what that really means. There is a bit of internal pressure about what we ‘should’ be doing, and sometimes I feel a bit restless, thinking that we should be doing more (more what, I don’t entirely know). So far I haven’t felt inspired towards volunteering, taking courses, etc. but I can see myself doing something more structured/active like that at some point.

But knowing how long we intend to be on the road, I’m happy that we are pacing ourselves and taking it easy right now. We talked about this a bit today. In general, Roman tends to be a more chilled out person than I am, so we’re trying to keep that in mind and intend to look for ways that I can be more active when I need to without necessarily being dependant on him (i.e. having to drag him along to stuff because of safety issues for a woman doing something on her own – we’ll have to see how this develops; perhaps we are being too paranoid and in a few weeks time we’ll have forgotten that this was ever something we considered). It’s feeling great that we are able to look at and talk about these things together – so far he is a really great travel partner and I love being able to explore not only a new country together but also new aspects of our relationship. 🙂