Sunday, January 30, 2011
Well, most of these posts are a couple years old and the lady at our guesthouse in Hanoi made it sound much safer. We did have flights booked back to Bangkok, but we really didn't want to spend more time there and we were not sure if we could get out easily hitting peak travel for the Asian holidays. We also figured the more traveled route south through the border to the Laos capital, Vientiane, would not be as bad. Those were the reasons... and now how it rapidly backfired.
While waiting with a large group of westerners (a comforting feeling) for our international sleeper bus we ducked into a travel agent to see what the possibilities were to book a second bus from Vientiane to Luang Phrabang. Although it is said that Vientiane is a nice place as far as capitals go, there is not much to do and we were not interested in spending the holiday week there. We were told we were fortunate and that there were three seats left on a connecting bus so we took it. We were proud to be lucky holder of these rare onward tickets while the others wished they would not be stuck in the capital. As the bus came to fetch all of us for the first leg, Asiana and I were cleverly separated from the herd by the speedy Vietnamese grabbing our packs and running us to the "direct bus". The next thing we knew we were far from the others that were taking off and climbing onto an already moving bus with our packs thrown into the outside compartments. This bus was full of locals and it was not a sleeper. The little guy that dragged us on with him and I got into a quick argument. In the meantime we were already moving away getting lost in traffic and he would not let us out. He knew no English and just waved me off over and over. Precious minutes passed as we tried to decide if we could jump ship lost in the dark and not sure if we could get our bags or get stuck on this bus that might take us to hell. There was little chance we would find the bus we were supposed to be on even if it had not left, so hell it would be.
Asiana was upset and stressed and I was about as maddened as I ever get. It was all I could do not to grab this guy by the throat and hurl both of us out the window. One of the most important things in this culture is to "save face", meaning not to raise your voice and show any anger. I really wanted to break our cultural barriers and show them how pissed off I was, Instead... what would the Buddha do? what would the Buddha do?
I was far from being Zen though. Part of it was that we paid for first class sleeper and got sitting class. And, I didn't want this blog to read like all the others - Journey Through Hell. Trying to calm me down Asiana suggested that maybe this was the worst part (being ripped off) and asked what the worse case scenario could be. My answer included stuff like, we don't know what border we are heading toward -we should arrive there in the middle of the night - it will be Sunday- the Sunday before the holiday week - nobody speaks English...
It seemed that we got ourselves into the exact position we hoped to avoid. I tried to communicate with our little busmeister that we were on the wrong bus. We had a few stare downs each time ending with him waving me off and turning away. I had a choice of being full of hate and probably lessening any chance of getting to our destination or I could accept fate and see where the bus would take us.
Our version of accepting the circumstance was to take a a sleeping pill to alleviate the discomfort. (my ass was already hurting with the anticipation of sitting there thirty hours). I must note that Ambien helps me sleep and can make me a bit groggy, but it does not knock me out of consciousness and leave me completely helpless. I was not taking any chances of really going under, only to wake up naked without possessions on the side of the street.
We dozed off and on and off for the next five hours while the bus made it's way on a tiny mud road through small villages occasionally dropping off locals in the middle of nowhere. Each time I made sure our packs were not dropped off as well. By two in the morning the last Vietnamese had disembarked and we looked back to see three other westerners huddled in the rear of the vehicle whom we had not noticed before. It was some relief that we were not the only ones taking our chances, although the the young Canadian couple and lone Frenchman seemed more insecure with the situation than us. We did have the whole bus to ourselves excluding the driver, the copilot, and the evil busmeister. We were able to actually get pretty comfortable. During one of the pee breaks my arch rival started tickling me and joking around. I don't know what about, but he started growing on me.
We awoke at dawn finding ourselves parked at a closed gate at the border. The fog was thick and heavy, the ground was all mud, and it was mighty cold. We, including the crew, shivered under pile of blankets for a few hours until we were allowed to go through customs which took at least an hour and a half even though we were nearly the only ones there. (I think customs officials are universally the slowest moving people in the world and Laos is known to be exceptionally slow)
There was never a bigger collective sigh of relief than when we hopped back on the bus for our next ten hour leg. We were on our way, even though we were barreling down a winding road in ten meter visibility through the mud smelling the aroma of burning breaks.
To be continued...
I am such a sucker for string instruments and I want to have one of each of the three different whatchamacallits they played on. The puppets were cute and well manipulated from contraptions under water from behind bamboo curtains dancing before the audience. It was easy to imagine the villagers getting together for these special events back in the day. The kids must have squealed with joy.
Vietnam made me feel like I was back in elementary school. I was told what to do all the time with no real option to make choices or step outside of the lines. Everything was an order. "you-eat-this... eat-with-sauce" - "now-you-come-here... come-here-now" - "You-sit-here... no-you-sit-here". They really wanted me to sit a lot which was the last thing I was interested in after hours upon hours of sitting on trains, buses, and boats. I think me being a couple head higher than everyone made them a bit nervous so I got a lot of "you-sit-now".
I'm typically the guy that likes to wander off and do his own thing so this was a bit of a struggle for me to follow orders and for them to keep me in line on our group tours. The itineraries they created left little room for creative exploration and sleeping in. Answering the door to a "you-check-out-now" from little sweet smiling gal who knew no other phrases was cute. We would ask her something like, "uh, well, what time is it? think it's before seven am right."... smile smile "okay-you-check-out-now". Okay this darling little kitty cat of a person is making us leave.
All the girls age 15 to 40 were little kitty cats wearing super tight designer jeans, fluffy tops, big makeup, and prancing around in monster high heels, making them nearly as tall as my eleven years old. The boys too were extremely fashionable with the same same tight designer jeans, tight long sleeve broad shouldered shirts, colorful sneakers or boots, and the most magnificent eighties pop hairdos. In fact, I think the Vietnamese are interested in staying in the eighties. All the music I recognized I knew from junior high.
The smiles here are different than Cambodia. While they were huge smiles and lots of white teeth in Cambodia, their eyes had more of a humble and hopeful look. The smiles in Vietnam go all the way up to their eyes squinting with happiness. I witnessed so much of their interactions filled with whole hearted laughter and had many good laughs with them myself (mostly making fun of me).
Being a slow speaking, casual boy from the hills of Colorado used to more stillness, I find the Vietnamese style and pace to be polar opposite to my frequency. It's pretty nutty to me and although I'm sure I would get use to it I really don't want to. I have gotten use to the noise. Yelling from loud speakers, crashes and booms of construction, calls from each and every vendor, and barrage of honks and beeps have left me immune to the loudest of sounds. A lightning bolt could strike a meter away and I wouldn't even flinch much less turn my head.
Our last day in Vietnam was spent walking through the streets of Hanoi for seven hours wearing us out physically for our long upcoming bus ride and wearing us out energetically from Vietnam in general. I'm happy to have visited. The people are very kind and helpful. I think I am ready for a slower pace. Laos - here we come.
We boarded the Dragon Pearl, the three floor junk boat we were going to spend they night in. Thirteen other travelers would join us on a three day two night tour winding through a maze of water and rock. I had pretended I had read the itinerary when we signed up for the package, but I really only looked at the pictures and was surprised there was more than just floating through the scene, which was all one would really need to be completely entertained.
I want to acknowledge this before I cast some different image, but this area is tourist based and everything we are doing has many groups of tourists snapping off a million pictures with their tour guides spouting similar memorized sayings for three days. Like all the other wonders of the world, we are catered to and herded through. We are well cared for by very nice people and this place is worth seeing even if it's the only place you can make it to in Vietnam. I think this place is hitting the radar heavily. The tourism industry is still in it's teenage years and I am grateful to have experienced this before it is bumper to bumper boats.
The highlight of the tour is each and every boat ride throughout the islands to get from one place to the next which sometimes took hours. We were given food and drink plenty and jumped back and fourth to different sized boats. We spent most of the journey in the tops deck in wonderment. Since my words will never do this place justice and I have not been able to make my photographs capture the depth I think I'll just yap about what else we did.
We traveled into the light haze through the bay that contains some two thousand limestone islands with lush plants cascading down the steep cliffs.
On our first stop we took a trip through a large cave inside one of the islands. It was one of those caves that form thousands of characters in your imagination due to all the grooves and twists of the walls and stalactites. They had different colored spotlights beaming onto different surfaces giving it the ultra surreal look. If there is a rock involved I think of my father (he is a geologist) and when the geography is outstanding I think of him as well. My dad would be moved by this place and I was happy to enjoy it for him and hopefully he gets to experience it through my eyes.
Our second stop was for an hour of sea kayaking that allowed us to get under the overhangs and dip into the caves cut out in the cliffs. Asiana and I sometimes took turns slowly paddling while the other would lean back in the tranquility, take it all in, and occasionally sighing in amazement. The power of Wow.
We returned to our sleeping boat to a feast and some drinks followed by night squid fishing off the bough off the boat. Inevitably the karaoke system was cranked up by the crew since no night in Vietnam goes to bed without karaoke everywhere. I am proud or embarrassed to say I stood up and was the only representative of the westerners to sing... And I did it in Vietnamese! I don't know if I rocked it, but it was fun and a whole bunch of laughter was going down.
I set the alarm for 5:45 am to catch sunrise - looked out the window - no sun - woke up at 9 to the sound of loud Vietnamese opera as our wake up call. Again, we enjoyed the scenery all the way to Cat Ba Island, where we spent half the day riding bikes and hiking through the jungle. In the afternoon our boat took us to Monkey Island. After being in the land of many monkeys (India), I was not impressed by the hand full of monkeys that ran down to the beach to aggressively approach tourists for food once they saw a boat come onto shore. But, some of us left the beach quickly to scale the jagged limestone mountain to get a great view.
A few of us cheaper travelers were dropped off on Cat Ba island to stay the evening in a hotel, while the others chugged out into maze to sleep again on the boat. Tomorrow we will be picked up again early in the morning and spend the day floating back to the mainland where we will catch the bus back to Hanoi.
Location:Halong Bay Vietnam
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The night journey was the most comfortable one yet. It was quiet and peaceful. Of course that ended when we arrived at 5am to a cold Hanoi. As usual, we were confronted by hordes of people trying find out where to take us. I'm not much of a morning person and my brain does not deal with chaos at that time too well. We finally picked the most gentle man and went back to his hotel to book the next few days of our trip.
With some hot coffee in our hand we made arrangements for a three day/two night tour of Halong Bay on a boat then to return to Hanoi for a night before taking a bus to Laos. We are set to enjoy the rest of Vietnam the hop on out just before Tet.
Location:Da Nang Vietnam
Monday, January 24, 2011
I can't say I'm blown away by the food here. I think a meal at Saigon Bowl in Denver is just as good. The menu is the same everywhere, especially is you don't eat meat. If you are a carnivore the options are similar, but you just add cow, pig, bird, frog, eel, turtle, or maybe if you a daring like cobra or scorpion.
Lots of egg rolls, veggie stir fry, and noodle bowls. The French left their bread influence and the fresh baguettes are great. Also, my achilles heel, pizza is found in every restaurant. I like a good meal as much as the next person, but I'm happy I don't put too much weight into the food thing. If something blows me away culinary wise, I try to post it.
The river and shops are a special sight at night all lit up by colorful glowing ornaments shining all over town. This is probably first place I've been in Asia that my mother wouldn't hate... at least five square blocks of it.
It's a place that would be nice to stay for a few days, but the traveling situation gave us the choice to either be here a day and a half or stay longer than a week. We chose to move on.
There is unusually crummy weather in all of northern southeast Asia and it's pretty wet here. We are going much further north tonight and it's said to be super cold. Time to bundle up again.
Location:Hoi An Vietnam
The ocean shines an emerald green in the pictures and postcards I see here, but the weather right now resembles the shore in northwest U.S. There are dark wet clouds are mixed with the soft hazy mists and the waves are curling in large crashing surf with an equally powerful rip tide. It is an absolutely mesmerizing scene, but it sure don't make for a beach day. No complaints, it's nice to be out of the heat.
Across the street from the boardwalk is a line of high-rise four star hotels. Many are still under construction and the completed ones seem mostly vacant. This place looks like it is planning on growing their tourism industry quickly, but for now most of the action is still in the smaller backpacker district a few blocks off the beach where there are a tons of cheap little guest houses, restaurants, and scuba shops.
We ended up staying more to the north near downtown by the market. We jumped off a sleepless bus ride at 7am in front of a hotel that had a $10 room with a balcony and hot coffee - we took it. The hotel that was the easiest to get proved to be the most impossible to find again. We probably headed in and out of the place eight times over two days and could never find it before three tries. The streets go in weird directions in Nha Trang, rarely staying straight for long so so its kind of funny we decided this would be the place we wanted to rent a motorbike and tool around.
I had a motorcycle when I was 19. It was not the functioning of the vehicle that I was concerned about. Moving through the streets in Asia, as far as I've seen, looks like a great challenge in itself. There is a beautiful grace that the motorbike traffic displays. The dance is crowded yet ever flowing in the same calm pace navigating thought intersections. It's like a video game where the anticipation of twenty moving objects make you plan your flow thru a two dimensional maze. The best part is that this traffic is not in a hurry and they are all very patient.
A bus can block the whole street and everyone will wait as long as it takes. Other places I've been the horns would be going off while they tried to drive over each other to get in the front of the pack. That was not for me. I drove, with Asiana on the back, up and down coast in the drizzle and I did pretty good. I can't say i drive as graceful the lady with three kids (one in front - two in back), and a couple of ten gallon baskets of produce on each side with her right hand on the throttle while the left is typing a text message, but I only nailed my breaks a couple of times.
Our ride tools us up the coast over small hills, rice paddies, and fishing villages. We stopped at a tall statue of Quan Yin (Buddha's mom) where we got a very nice tour by the monk who was really into photography. He took our camera and made us pose in front of everything at the little temple. He was a sweet man and it was a sweet place.
I give Nha Trang a thumbs up. I think it would be a great place in the "on" season.
Location:Nha Trang Vietnam
Saturday, January 22, 2011
I think all westerners are seated in the back because of our height. There is more legroom, but I can't say sleeping conditions were perfect. There is an effect greatly exaggerated when being on the back of a bus behind the axle. at low speeds a decent size bump will toss you up to couple inches. At high speeds you are flung nearly to the ceiling only a few feel above your head. It's like trying to sleep on on the end of a diving board during freestyle practice. I landed grunting out loud losing air and beating up my ribs from the rude awakening a few times. I was still more comfortable most of the time and liked the setup, that fraction of airborne time was fun, but the landing would keep you awake.
We watched an awful movie, "Salt", on the iPad because we had to drown out the sound of the pornographic horror film they were anoint on the bus. (That was weird)
Friday, January 21, 2011
We are taking another night bus to Nha Trang to get out of the city and kick it on the beach. Gotta take a vacation from vacation. A few days of walking through Saigon in the heat warrants some beach time. Lonely Planet warned about the traffic and honking here saying it was intense, but I think they may have not been to northern India yet.
There is a calm zen that drips over you when crossing busy intersections here. You can walk slowly into the middle of the bustling traffic and the mopeds just swerve around you as if you were a large boulder in the middle of a river. Every step is a leap of faith. Don't bother looking cuz you'll psyche yourself out. Just pretend there is nobody there and all will be fine.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
When summing up our movement I sometime forget the amazing stillness we experience. A few of those still point have been watching some very beautiful and talented dancers.
We sat a couple hours at fancy hotel restaurant on a dock overlooking the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. The Apsara dance that we were hoping to see was performed while we sipped on Scotch. This graceful dance with subtle yet powerful movements was a treat to witness. We had seen so many statues of these ladies on the temples with their hands curled back to impossible degrees. Focus, precision, and balance...
Last evening we attended a show called Xie Chao. It was a three part performance moving across the Vietnamese history. It was a low budget Cirque Du Soile with very talented dancers, fighters, and acrobats. It was also empty. There were not even ten people dotting the tent that holds over a thousand and there was a small feeling of guilt that fifty people were performing just for the handful of us. It was a wonderful and entertaining show.
But, first, I want to back up and recall a little about the genocide museum in Phenom Phenh, Cambodia. I have a tendency to resist putting myself in situations that may cause distress or pain, but I felt it to be important to experience as closely as available to me, what happened here during the Khmer Rouge reign. As I looked into the faces in the pictures of the victims of the Rouge, I sensed a deep feeling of absolute confusion and disbelief in what was happening. I feel the Cambodians to be such amiable people, full of love and ease and trust with themselves and for each other, that the essence of deep and utter dismay as to what was happening to them enveloped every photo I set eyes on, through their eyes. It was devastating and deeply moving. And, when I checked in with how the place felt, the torture chambers where much of the killing happened, it somehow felt clear now...forgiven....not forgotten...but forgiven. Don't get me wrong, there is still much happening to bring those Khmer leaders that are still living to justice today..many court hearings much deliberation..and there is a underlying current of forgiveness, of moving forward from right now. Which is really all we can do. I feel there is great resolve in this, and it shines through. I read the downloads from the people that were part of the Kmer Rouge, the ones that were a part of inflicting the torture and killings....they all spoke of acting at that time out of complete fear, and all of them spoke about creating a existence where something like that will never happen again.
And now, here we are in Vietnam. I have not yet experienced any bit of this place that downloads sensations of the war, and I know that this will come. But, for now, I remain intrigued with the food being sold in street carts of duck embryos and dried squid. The cirque de soleilesqe performance by the young kids sharing their skills in martial arts and gymnastics while dancing stories of Vietnamese mythology, past to the present, in elaborate costumes. I get to witness the expats, drinking and lingering with the local prostitutes and the underground activities, actively not so under ground. This is what happens in the Backpackers district in Saigon. I do enjoy, and I look forward to getting out of this city!
A man we met in Hampi shared, "Everyone is aware we all use our right hand to clean after making toilet, it's just that we all make sure that hand gets more clean."
On that subject, I am really loving the spray hose and find it to be a much more efficient way of getting the dirty work done than with the toilet paper method. I'm feeling fresher than ever in such a muggy place. Thinking of installing one when I get home.
Another side note: I'm amazed at how well the Indian folk eat a full meal without tools and just one hand. I made a complete mess of my self using both hands and ended up doing extra laundry after trying the mono-hand method.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Ho Chi Min City (HCMC) is the name used by the government. The people who live here still refer to this place as Saigon. There is an immediate distinct smell here. I'm sure it comes from the food being cooked everywhere - mostly all the meats. The other noticeable difference is the transportation. While other places have plenty of scooters and motorbikes, Saigon is filled with swarms of them like tightly packed shoals of fish weaving through the streets. This place is hopping.
Each building is only a single room wide rising up three to seven stories with a shop on ground floors and residence or guest house rooms above. Asiana found a cute little place to stay in a tiny back ally with an elderly couple renting a simple room for $8 a night while I had a beer on the street with our buddy from Colorado entertained by people watching. There are a lots of westerners taking advantage of those things that are cheap and more available here, namely drugs and escorts. The large expat community seems to enjoy living here, teaching English by day, roaming around on mopeds and then hitting the many bars at night.
After hitting so many big cities over the last month and half, I have developed the knack of getting the feel of these places quickly. Each place has such a different vibe. Each place hits the senses from a different direction. Saigon definitely has it's own feel and taste that does not take long to distinguish. I get it - I like it - I think we can move on soon.
We walked by the Royal Palace, but decided not to pay the high entrance fee to see another group highly decorated pagodas with golden Buddhas. I know it sounds lame not to seeing everything a city has to offer, but these palaces really do looks the same.
We spent the afternoon at the genocide museum slowing walking from cell to cell looking at thousands of mugshots of the victims and reading about the atrocities that occurred not so long ago. It was brutal and painful and necessary to visit and pay respect to both the innocent and the confused. The building was once a high school that turned into a political prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured the inmates to death. Only seven of the thousands survived the place. There were a scattering of older prisoners while most of them were young men and women in their teens and early twenties. Children were not excluded.
The killing fields lay an hour outside of the city where the bodies of millions of the executed lay. It is a field of skulls and bones and not much more. We saw the images in the museum and decided to not take the journey to the fields partly because it would be bringing us back on a tuk-tuk in the dark and partly because of our general energy level.
I had thought I would have spent at least a couple weeks in Cambodia and there is still a possibility of returning near the end of our journey. We did see and experience a lot in such a short time. Long full days at the ruins and lots of boat travels throughout the countywide and the villages have left us satiated and content to move on. Even with such a short visit, my heart goes out to Cambodia an the sweet Cambodians.
Location:Phnom Penh Cambodia
I exercised my German heavily in Bangkok chatting a lot with a group of young Austrians. The man who ran out hotel in Siam Reap only spoke French. A crew of Brazilians hung out with us on and off for the last four days moving from Thailand thru Cambodia. I have been able to keep up with understanding what everyone is saying, but so much vocabulary has faded I have a hard time speaking without eventually switching back to English. In fact my Portuguese and French is all but gone unless I'm reading it.
Our crazy border crossing into Cambodia brought that bus load together tightly. Most of us ended up staying at the same guest house and we all when out as a group a few nights. The Brazilian boys were a blast. Young, handsome, and highly energetic travelers, they were out until the sun came up nearly every night. These charmers had stories of their earlier adventures that all ended up getting into skirmishes with the local youngsters, yet we still decided to join them for a pint of two leaving before it got too late and before any brawl took shape.
We have also hooked up with another great travel companion who is from Colorado. We have shared tuk-tuks, buses, boats, meals, and drinks with him. He is a long distance runner who privately entered a marathon in Brazil only to win it by more than four hours beating all the famous international favorites. He was immediately picked up by Soloman who is sponsoring him to race in Australia and China this year. His plans on traveling throughout southeast Asia is being cut short by his success so he has joined us on the last leg of his journey before flying back home from Saigon to start training. He lived in here for over a month and has a lot of good travel info about Vietnam and Laos. It has been a pleasure traveling with him and we look forward to seeing him back in Colorado.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Last evening we took a small boat away from Siem Reap along small canals surrounded by rice paddies with heads of big water buffalo peaking out on our way to a local floating village situated on the delta flowing into the lake. We got the the village as school let out and all the children were rowing their tiny canoes back home. There were no tourists and nobody was trying sell us the usual crap. It was such a peaceful and charming village.
Houses, market shops, and the school were on their own little floating islands. The pigs and chickens had their own floating abode tethered to the homes by rope. The smaller "convenient stores" were tiny boats loaded with snacks and produce that meandered to each house delivering goods.
We lay in hammocks on top of the floating restaurant enjoying a cold beer as the sun set over the village. I have not visited a quieter town. The people move as slow as the gentile water they live on. Could people be any more watery?
We are now on our way to Phenom Phen, the Capital of Cambodia. The first part of the express boat zoomed across the lake and the last half runs down the rivers with a phenomenal view of the countryside and it's inhabitants. Other travelers on the boat made their way to the roof to wave back at all the families fishing the river. The blare of the engine is so loud that nobody can talk and everyone has their headphones on. We are all working with completely different soundtrack, but watching the same movie.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
I was surprised when we went to market street our first evening here and found a barrage of bars, shops, tons of people, basically a hopping little town much like Playa del Carmen in Mexico. I must of thought this would be more of a village built up around the temples. I get the feeling anything goes here in Siam Reap and the plethora of Europeans with three or more month homes and tourists makes that apparent, oh, and the young, beautiful prostitutes swaying up and down the streets. And, it seems like this is lucrative time right now in Siam Reap.
I was happy when our tuk tuk took us off that main drag as we started to see the expansive temple area. The webbing of forest and temples crawling, reaching out from every view. It is hard to fathom the amount of human energy it took to build these temples, carve the intricate stories and sculptures, everywhere, in every stone, around every corner within a 200 km range. And then, to feel and see how the forest keeps knitting through, on, in and around, both tearing these temples apart and sewing them together. Some of the bigger temples, like Angor Wat have been kept clear of the forests intermingling. And, the difference of styles of art from one temple to another...I also thought we may get templed out, but I just keep getting blown open. This has definitely been an opportunity to release the things I thought I knew, again and again. One of my favs is a temple called Neak Pean, or coiled serpent. This tiny island temple was obviously a sanctuary for the ladies! It was said to have risen out of a lotus flower. This little sanctuary was a breath of fresh air in comparison to these massive, mandala structures full of spires and lingham energy. This gem is surrounded by three round lakes, rising up out of the center lake, an orbesque temple crowned with lotus petals and the base, the coiled serpent with two tails entwined, or nagas(water gods), guarding as this temple rose up out of the water. The feminine energy celebrated, the elixir of mama. It felt really good to be here, a lightness and breath fullness, as this was our last stop after a long rich day of exploration.
From animism, to Buddhism to Hinduism to Buddhism, back to Hinduism...and representation of the merging of it all, so apparent through these temples, the amalgamation through the Khmer art. It is forever fascinating, the stories of religion and humans, how these stories can rip us apart causing wars and also unify us, deep source power. Here it All is.
Location:Siem Reap Cambodia
I am an elder here. Few people have survived the ravages of their civil war and all but a handful of the older generation have disappeared. The youngsters who remain have wide smiles and laugh freely and easily. I cannot tell if this is a mask or if they are happy to move on with the great strength of forgiveness. In a way they are enjoying the most prosperous times they have known and I pray that it keeps getting better for them. Now that there is some money coming into Cambodia there is also the beginning of corruption leaving the stability of their future questionable.
Their modesty has made Cambodia an oasis for travelers who tire from the fast cold deals made elsewhere. They seem happy to help and interested in engaging in conversation without ulterior motives of getting an extra dollar. Still, this is an amazingly poor place where most people sleep on the ground or in hammocks. The children spend only a half day at school so they can try and make a buck selling trinkets, scarves, or books by the temples during the rest of the day. Vendors and Tuk-Tuk drivers are not too pushy, but the kids work the sympathy better than I've ever seen. The looks the give you after telling them you are not interested in whatever they are selling make you feel like you're the devil himself. I've even had to give them shit about their fake crying they display after not donating to the orphanage.
One evening we attended a Bach concert performed on a cello. I could not miss my favorite classical composer ringing out from one of my favorite instruments. Well, he did not play any Bach and although he played nicely he was not what you would call a professional musician. Instead, he was a Swiss doctor who nearly single handedly built a healthcare system in Cambodia. As he put it, the cello is his weapon he uses to fight sickness and poverty. This funny man puts on a show every Saturday. Between his short solos he tells long stories about the past and current situation here in Cambodia - about his flight from the country when the Khemer Rouge took over and his return to a county that was totally ripped up. He has built five children's hospitals supported purely on donations from the western world. They are saving the lives and the sick are getting treatment free of charge. The "concert" was free and while donations are welcome they also accept donations in blood. Being of type O blood, the universal donor, I plan on making it to the blood bank and making a deposit. Blood or money as the cellist put it!
Location:Siam Reap Cambodia
I have visited the Egyptian pyramids and the Mayan pyramids. I have seen cathedrals, temples, and mosques around the world. I have been fortunate enough to visit roman ruins from many of the corners of the roman empire. I have never seen anything like the Wats the Khemers built here in Cambodia.
It is not just one big temple, it is a vast array of intricate structures spread out over 200 kilometers built over 700 years starting from 800 AD. When viewed from above each temple has the appearance of a mandala creating sacred geometric patterns. The walls are loaded with stories, nearly all depicting a battle of epic proportions, some are mythical while others historical.
The crumbled structures have the giant roots from enormous trees glueing them together. The quiet motes and lakes reflect a perfect mirror of the spires towering above them. The jungle echoes calls from the birds and make for such a serene walk throughout the forest from Wat to Wat.
I have had day dreams about wandering throughout the ruins of Cambodia and I am not disappointed. Our first afternoon was spent going to some of the smaller temples ending with a spectacular sunset. Our second journey started at 5:30 am to catch sunrise over the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. At that time of the morning we had the whole temple to ourselves with the ability to snap some photos without hoards of tourists in the image.
I thought that it might be if-you've-seen-youve-seen-them-all sort of thing, but each temple has it's own flavor, style, and layout - not counting the base relief stories of war. The surrounding forest have towering trees that must have been here forever watching history. Let's hope they get to experience some peace here finally.
Location:Siam Reap Csmbodia
Saturday, January 15, 2011
I have wanted to visit Cambodia realistically for over ten years and I have been intrigued by the place since eight grade, when I was assigned to write a report about this exotic place. Staring out the window as the sun slowly set over the rice fields gave me the warm feeling that I have succeeded in making a dream come true.
Location:Siam Reap Cambodia
Friday, January 14, 2011
In Bangkok, the agencies try and talk you into getting visas for five times the normal cost. After the four hour bus ride just before the border, 8 kilometers (too far to walk), we are dumped off for lunch where the bus quickly disappears. A very welcoming man then tells us we all need to give him our passports so he can get our visas for three times what we know it should be. We were a crew of ten, four Brazilians, two British, a gal from Argentina, another guy from Colorado and us. We decided to resist as a group. The happy welcoming man stopped being so nice. He had our travel tickets that was supposed to get us from the Cambodian border to Siam Riep and he would not give them back saying we could go to the border ourselves. After all the bluffing a small minivan picked us all up. We were taken to the second test, the Cambodian consulate. Someone in our group had read that they would also rip us off and we told our driver to take us to the border. When we got 100 meters we were dropped off where hoards of tourists were getting their visas. We all ended up to succumbing to the 200 bhat fee so they could basically run them down the sidewalk for us. We still all got ripped off, but only a handful of dollars.
After waiting in hot lines to get out of Thailand we got to wait in hot lines to get into Cambodia. Upon entry we were placed in a staging area to queue up for the shuttle bus that takes us to the main bus station where are jump on another pubic bus that takes us to the final destination... I think... I'm writing this on the bus so who know what comes next. Laughing at the chaos the whole way through.
Location:Poi Pet Cambodia
We killed some time our last day by taking a short long boat tour throughout the smaller canals that run through the suburbs. It was the classic view of houses and shops on stilts backed up the the water. We must have passed another dozen temples scattered about the outskirts of town.
Eating is another good way to move the time along and we stopped off at our favorite PadThai cart on the docks for lunch and visited favorite vegetarian restaurant in the evening. At least we ordered something different from the vast menu.
The next morning we got up early to catch or bus to the Cambodian border. On the walk to the bus stop we passed through Khaosan Road where clusters of international travelers were still up from a night of partying. They were getting fresh beers for breakfast. Most of them were German singing their beer drinking songs and trying to focus their glazed eyes while we walked by. Reminded my of some younger years.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
I was able to upload all the photos I've taken to the picas web site. It was an all or nothing move so there are a lot unnecessary of pics pushed to the page, but at least there is something to look at and I don't have all my eggs in one basket in case I have equipment failure. They are viewable at:
The day was pleasantly overcast and we took advantage of the cooler day to walk around and visit the other major sites in the city. We have gotten good at navigating the area and in half an hour we made it to the Grand Palace or "Wat Phra Kaeo" where the famous emerald Buddha resides. Similar to the other temples here, the grand palace is over the top fancy shining will gold and mosaic buildings made up of little colored mirrors. Our favorite part of the place was the ten foot high mural depicting the history of Rama that runs around the parameter of the place. The highly detailed images of evil monkey god wars, flying magical elephants, and concubines serving the royalty was intriguing. We entertained ourselves making up our own translations of the story. I bet we were way off.
Three bhat got us a quick ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River, the main water artery of Bangkok, to visit Wat Arun, one of the Hindi temples. We were able to hike up the seep stairs and get of good overlook of the river and city.
The rivers and canals were one the main highway and street of the city long before the automobiles showed up and they are still heavily use to shuttle people and goods throughout the area. We hopped on the express river boat with the locals and found that it was the cheapest and most efficient way to move through the city.
Our relaxing evening at the lodge turned up a small tragedy. Apparently, a poorly placed Kindle, our electronic book, was not mean to be sat on. Although it still works, the screen only displays the bottom third making it virtually in operable and completely useless to us for the rest of the trip. It's not the end of the world, but the end of a minor luxury. It was also our main use for contact when we were not parked at a wireless outpost. Let's hope I can keep the iPad safer.
|From 2011-01-11 xillas|
After breakfast, my first attempt to eat for a couple of days, we headed to the tourist ghetto, Khaosan Road, so we could send off a second bundle of clothes that don't work well in this climate back home... or its an excuse to renew her wardrobe in each country.
We did the shopping that seems to be required at a new place and it hit us that we forgot it takes a couple of days to obtain a visa to get into Vietnam. We spent much of the afternoon looking into prices and timelines on getting the visas as well as booking a bus into Cambodia.
After a beer at a roof top cafe we moved ourselves to an excellent hidden vegetarian restaurant for a delicious meal with some soft live music. I know that when I got to India I said that I loved the food and I could eat it every day forever, but by the time we took off I was ready for something new. Well, I love Thai food and I think I could eat it every day.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
The next day we got up and started hitting the streets. They actually have street sign here, so for the first time in a while I could use a map and navigate the place. I didn't feel too bad, but I was not gonna risk eating food. With my belly still questionable I stuck the proverbial cork up my ass and toughed it out.
We didn't have to walk too far before we hit our first Wat (temple). These amazingly colorful and ornate structures are all over the city. The insides are decorated with sparkling gold while floors are carpeted brilliant red. The Buddhists roam around in their orange or crimson robes and the faithful kneel with hands full of burning incense and flowers. Some of the temples sell small birdcages filled with your basic city finches to be purchased for the devotees who then make their prayers before releasing the birds who fly off probably to be caught and sold another day. I can only assume it is a act representing the release of something the individual wants to let go of.
Every temple we visited was crowded with golden Buddha statues. You could also buy small flakes of gold leaf to adorn the statues even more. We saw the 46 meter tall standing buddha and we came upon the famous reclining Buddha which may have been even bigger. Both status were,of course, completely gold. The last Wat we visited at dusk was the laughing Buddha temple which is only open to the public once a month and happened to be on that day. We sat and listened to the monks chant their prayers as the day came to a close.
After we made our way back to our guest house we sat and enjoyed the evening with a group of traveled from Austria where we gathered lots of good information and wonderful hints about getting around the area. It didn't take long before my German started falling back into a condition that I could feel good about basic communication. Shanti Lodge, a place recommended to us by a friend in Colorado proved to be a wonderful retreat with great food, fun travelers, happy smiling staff, and comfortable charm. We signed up to receive Thai massages there for breakfast the first thing the next morning.
|From 2011-01-11 xillas|
Sunday, January 9, 2011
I don't feel like ranting about the book that I found so amazingly moving. Rather, I just wanted to give acknowledgement that it made my journey and interactions in India a much more positive and accepting experience. It would have not been the same trip without Shantaram. I am grateful it fell into my lap with the help of a couple great gals from back home.
Ironically we thought this might be the quietest place we were to stay in all of India until the fireworks started outside our window.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ahhhhh, India, a land of so many flavors indeed! As we floated through the backwaters of Kerela yesterday, witnessing how these village people live and flourish with their coconut farms where they make coconut oil, spice farms...how they make rope with the fibers of coconut husk and so much more. I also had the opportunity to really kick back and let our trip permeate through my system. As this is our last day in India, there is a sweetness, full of gratitude as I say goodbye India...for now.
What I am so struck by, endlessly wowed by, and deeply moved and inspired by are the people. All the incredible people from Nepal all the way South to Kerela, India. These people, for the most part, are so utterly comfortable in their bodies. So at ease in there skin. This shows me how connected they are through root source. Root chakra. No matter what they are doing, being, there is a deep easefulness in it. From the beggars, to the shop keepers, to the women bathing and doing laundry in the river, to the men fishing and bathing, to the men and women cooking and defecating, to the children wide eyed and curious with their bindi marks on their forehead...all are so at ease. I can only presume living in such close quarters with each other, sharing everything, seeing everything, people here are not hiding any of it, it's all right there. Whether I want to see it or not, there it is. This is so much different than many of the awkward encounters I have come across in the west, trying to guess the meaning of words, or the intonation. Even in talking with those who want something from us here, they have it down to a tea, really brilliantly working the psychology of it - this is where the practice of being in my center is so supportive, so I can as ease fully and truthfully respond. What a gift!
There is definitely a different vibration that exists in each state here, but, there is this underlying current of steadiness. In all the chaos, there is a currant of perseverance that shows up in the people, perhaps it's because they have practiced and repeated the same rituals for over 5000 years, perhaps it's because this land still holds the remnants of temples, of carvings, engrained in the earth, to their bodies. Perhaps its because the blood line has remained somewhat pure in comparison to the melting pot of the west, perhaps all of it and so much more. And whatever it is, it is an honor to be here and receive the transmission of this India! So much Love.
This post has not particular order. It is mostly a conglomeration of thoughts and observations that I wanted to write before I move on and they fall out of my head into the ethers.
My processing power is mostly only concerned with the current moment. I don't have emails, text messages, or phone calls to keep me multitasking. I am not sidetracked by any other conversation since I cannot understand what is being said. Even most of the westerners use their native foreign tongue so rarely is English in the air. I see few TVs and those are always broadcasting a game of Cricket which only entertains me for a minute. There are no thoughts of work tasks past or present or any other daily task for that matter. I don't have to come up with what time I'm supposed to pick up my daughter or where I should meet my father for lunch. While not living day to day I am able to think beyond day to day. I'm not only traveling to see shit on the outside, this allows me to check shit out on the inside. I think more people need to give themselves this vacation of the mind.
So if I've spent so much of this time thinking in India, what do I think about India?
I realize that there is no easy way to tour this country as rapidly as we have without being a tourist. My perception of India is only from the point of view you get as an outsider. I made the decision to see as much of India as I could sacrificing the chance to see deeper into it by becoming saturated in one spot. It would not be fair to try and judge anything from this distorted perspective.
A man from Malaysia said he was returning to Varanasi with excited anticipation as well as a bit of dread. I asked him why he keeps coming back. His answer was, "India is a land of contradiction that allows you the freedom to think any direction you like". If nothing else, I certainly saw the contradiction.
Everyone is impatient, almost pushing through each other, yet nothing happens quickly or efficiently here. I cannot discern the order in the chaos and am amazed that anything even happens here. The simplest things run through a gauntlet of hands to get done leaving multiple points of failure in any given transaction. I am surprised a rickshaw driver can get us to any given destination and even more surprised an airplane gets off the ground here. I'd have better chances on a roulette table than I would getting into the correct line at any given public transportation center and asking 10 different people will get you 10 different "correct" answers. Things don't get done around here because of any order, policy, or procedure. I guess things get done here because they just have to.
At the same time, you get to see how it all happens here from beginning to end like no other place I've been. Anything consumed can be witnessed from it's initiation. We have watched the planting and harvesting to the preparation of the food we eat. We watched them make the utensils we used eating the food. We've seen the textiles being woven and knitted. We've seen what they do with their trash. We've seen what they do with their animals. We have watched how they transport everything form the peanuts on the carts to the bundles of hay on the backs of women. We have witnessed the may ways they show their devotion and we have watched what they do with their dead. Because of this, India seems so much more real. The most we witness in America is the semi truck pulling into the rear loading docks to stock Walmart. Everything in the states happens behind the scenes.
I knew the basics of Hinduism coming here and although I never thought I would show up and adopt it as my primary faith, I was hoping I would gain a little more insight to a powerful and complex religion. I have to admit that I am no closer to embracing it than before. I did not have a epiphany or moment of greater understanding while being in the thick of Hindu spirituality. There are some fundamental aspects that do make sense to me. I get that all the deities are different representations of human nature in various forms and that paying homage to one is to acknowledging this incarnation within yourself. Ringing the bells and light candles at a temple, rubbing paint from an idol or statute, or chanting love song for a god is the the display of repeated devotion to highlight your intentions... or at least that's the spin I'm putting on it. It's all a prayer to manifest our wishes.
Yet this county, being steeped in a vat of religious spices, does not appear to have in some way moved toward a sort of enlightenment. I think that is up to the buddhists anyway. These people are hoping to come back in another more comfortable life and with the discomfort they have to work with here I don't blame them. When they reach their highest level then they win and do not have to be reborn and come back to deal with this world again. I guess this does not work for me since I have had a blessed life. My suffering has been trivial and I'm enjoying this existence. Had I the choice to return I would choose the life I have.
There are more than Hindus here. Every religion is mixed around in India. Buddhists, Muslim, and Christians are just as devoted. There is a mosque, church, temple, or stupa around every corner. When I think that it seems too much I think of the churches in the states. They may not be one at every corner, instead they are huge modern affairs sometime built of all glass with built in audio video sound systems. They may not be any more fanatical here. It just shows up differently.
The food has been wonderful. I like the eats in the north better. The south is bit blander and after ordering hotter and hotter up north I don't feel as satisfied in the lower half of India. I do miss the availability of beer yet I'm also glad there is not an alcohol problem in such a populated area. The few drunk locals I saw in Delhi was enough to make me want to promote the no drinking policy here.
There are your run of the mill farm animals here except they are not restricted to farms. The chickens, goats, pigs, and the sacred cows are at home in the cities as much as anyone. They seem to be much thicker in the northern states, while Goa and Kerala allowed me to wear flip-flops without having to worry about dodging so much shit. I saw only one elephant while riding the bus in Kerala. There were monkeys nearly everywhere in the north. I did not see any while visiting the shore. The streets throughout India are home to cats, rats, dogs, ferrets, cockroaches, and mice. While we were less urban we found lizards, bats, spiders, snakes, crabs, frogs, and a slew of birds. We saw our fair share of Kingfisher with their brilliant colors. There were parrots perched on just the right places. White egrets were scattered about the fields or taking rides the on water buffalo. We saw eagles that most resembled the bald eagle and we saw the soaring vultures. Of course there was the universal bird, the one that should be upon the
Earth emblem, the pidgin. But the bird that was with for every step of the way, the birds always watching us and calling our attention to something new was the Indian raven. These birds were not completely black like the ones in Colorado. They had a blue-gray collier to crowd a slightly smaller. It seemed like each one had a different voice and different accent making a crazy range of birds calls and banter all from the same spices. I wonder if the crow will be there in south east Asia.
The scent of India is as expansive as the rest of the country. The spicy aromas wafting from any given kitchen are immediately shattered by feces in a quick moment. Incense burns everywhere trying to cover the smells of the ever-present garbage. And you can always catch that special odor I have labeled Urincense hiding in the less blatant corners. There is the smell of flowers and there is the smell of death. India has is all. One of the best things about the extreme smells going on here is that Asiana has been battling other repulsive oders and doesn't complain out how ripe I am.
Chronic road-rage offenders should be sentenced to a one month driving a taxi here. Yes we all know it's complete lunacy on the streets here, but as nutty as it is there is no anger involved. The honking is continual. People are cutting each other off form every possible angle with every possible type of contraption of transport. How could they not when the rear view mirror is angled directly back to the drivers handsome face. Oh did I mention there's a shit ton shit in the roads. With so much stress on the street nobody gets truly upset over it. They don't take it personal like we do. I have to admit that it seemed like each block we rode had some of the closest accidents I've ever been involved with, yet i have not seen one crash outside of a minor bumping of a couple of motorcycles. I see more crunched cars on the side of the road in a day in the States than I have the whole time here.
To me, what really makes India so distinct is the people that inhabit the subcontinent. They are the creators of the beauty and responsible for the filth. Although their noise and aggressiveness got on my nerves at moments everyone was completely kind and helpful... or at least tried to be helpful. The stern stares snapped into broad smiles the moment I said hello and gave them a grin. The people in India are full of love. There is no other way they could exist together in such crowded and intense conditions. There is a sense of national community here partly because there is no privacy anywhere. They bath together, cook together, wash together, and live on top of one and other. They are more comfortable with each other making the western world seem uptight and tense. There is nothing to hide here.
I wince each time a local throws trash on the ground and garbage out the windows of the train. I have used the filthiest toilets imaginable and that is after seven visits to burningman. I have refrained taking pictures of what would be heavenly scenery due to molding of garbage or all the bottles floating down what would be a stunning river. The Arabian sea in Goa was swimable but the greenbrown water was only inviting to cool off or a quick dip to pee, but not the kind of ocean you want to stay and play in.
I feel fortunate to have spent a month journeying from the high north to the slow south. I have only gotten a small sip of India as a traveler and I know there is so much more to it. I have met Europeans that come back every couple years saying they love the place more with each visit. I know I would love it more if I melted into the community in any given place. Although I am glad I visited India, I question if I would return any time soon. There are a great number of places on the globe I would love to visit and I think I would choose to make my way to other far off destinations before spending more time here. But I do love India and am very grateful to have the change to taste such a magical country.
Namaste and Danyabot!
We woke up early to catch a bus taking us to our backwater boat tour with a handful of other travelers. The whole state is laced with channels of water flowing toward the sea. They range from wide arteries to small veins skinny enough to step over. It is virtually impossible to tell at a glance which way the water is flowing unless you find a leaf start taking direction.
The first half of our trip was taken in a small canoe wide enough to sit two side by side and small enough to navigate the narrow canals. Rather than being rowed with any ores, the boatsman pushed us along using a long bamboo pole. This was the most silent and serene time have spent in all if India.
Our tour stopped in the forest where they harvested coconuts, split them, dried them, and later used the inner skin from the shell to make oils. The husks were then soaked then sifted and we watched how the women wove them into the ropes that tie everything in India together.
We walked through plantations growing over twenty different types of spices, fruits, herbs, and even poisons used as anti-venom. Like everywhere else in this country the banks had people bathing and slapping their laundry across the rocks.
At noon we jumped boats onto a larger vessel with a wicker roof to shade us in the afternoon heat. Again, it was powered by two men with bamboo poles. We tools a short ride to an inland in the middle of the river where we had our lunch on banana leaves. I even got a large cold beer.
The afternoon was spent falling in and of a midday nap while where were slowly pushed down the banks of the river. Nearly everyone on the boat when into dream state during the afternoon float. The only sounds were coming from birds. The men steering us down the river made no sound whatsoever gently dipping the bamboo gently and tiptowing barefoot along the deck of our water bus. No wonder everybody slept - we were in the quietest peaceful place in India.
|From 2011-01-11 xillas|
While Asiana took a morning yoga class I sat in a circle with maybe a dozen people for the morning raga meditation with sitar and tabla. It was one full song that lasted the whole hour. I have written songs on my 12 string guitar tuning the low string down to D that fit perfectly well with this mornings raga. It was as if they were playing a tune I had written. It was explained that these ragas where written by yogis that had taken to the forests and mountains and used the instruments to mimic nature and the frequency of the earth. It is not about a religion or a particular story, it is everything that just exists. I was happy to listen to it and even happier to be a part of it, even if nobody but I knew it.
Midday we went and saw a classical ceremonial dancer famous in all of south India. This adorable girl moved with an amazing amount of expression telling us a complete story each dance. In the evening we went to see a performance by Kathakali dance troop where they spend hours perfecting their makeup and adornments. It's a combination of hand and body gestures (mudras), facial movement, and costuming used to tell the mythology of the gods. We really only got a demonstrative performance since these dances tend to last 7-9 hours. We got just part of the story in the two hour version.
I went to the barbershop to get a trim and a shave. It was mostly for a shave. I knew it would be easy to buy razors in Asia. What I didn't know was that you could not get a sharp one. I could scrape this one across my face four times to give myself a three o'clock shadow or I could pay someone 40 rupees to do it in once swipe.
I have never had someone else shave my face. It seems like such a personal thing or at least something that I felt had always been my personal responsibility. I see and feel this face more that any other face in the world. I was willing to put that face, where I knew all the creases and angles, into the hands of a kid, that looking at him, shaving himself was still a few years in his future. The boy did a meticulous job taking care of the hair on my face, neck, ears, and the ones peaking out of my nose as well as snipping out some of the thick undergrowth that over heats me from the back and side of my head. I feel so sharp now. I guess there is something to having one monkey groom another.
Asiana didn't look like she we due for a shave yet so she treated herself to an Ayurvedic massage with some deep rubbing and lots of special oils. We also treated ourselves to pedicures partially because we cannot bring nail clippers on planes and the claws on my feet needed a little retraction. They were quite amused Asiana was not the only one who chose toenail polish. I figure I'm wearing my sandals the whole time I might as well have some nice foot bling going on. Its not like I've been the least bit inconspicuous so purple toenails now makes the eyes starring on the ground come to meet my face.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
We strolled along the shore by the fish market observing the the technique using chinese fishnets. We took in most of the sites in the town made up of mostly old european churches including the old Dutch area. It's a get town to walk around in despite all the pressure to take tuk-tuk tours.
We are using the afternoon to take care of the business of doing some laundry, emailing, setting up a backwater trip, and getting flights to Bangkok. Enjoying the peace this pose is give us to to it.
We decided to try our first real budget room on this trip and checked into a hot hole for 300 rupees a night ($7.59). You get what you pay for and we didn't get much. The one thing you really want here is a ceiling fan which we had, but the polarity was wrong and the wiring had it spinning the wrong way pushing the air away from us. On our evening walk we found a ten dollar much nicer place that we booked for the following three nights.
In the evening we attended a concert at the only theater in town enjoying a beautiful trio playing Indian ragas with at the tabla, violin, and ganjeera. The sounds they made were absolutely moving. The Kathakai theater has many different shows during the week as well as morning yoga. We made plans to make a day at Kathakali for morning yoga, morning meditations (sitar music with tabla)', and an dance performance.
We retired early into the thick empty heat box we had for the night.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Our train took off at 1:30 pm heading north, the opposite direction. It hit every single village for the next couple of hours until it stopped for an hour at Belleny. When it started moving again it went toward where we came from. After few more hours and plenty of stops we ended up just outside of our original starting point near Hampi. I even talked to a kid through the window that I chatted with earlier in the day. So there was a reason why the trip was five hours longer than it needed.
It's now 2:30 am and I cannot sleep. It's a bit hot for my thick blood and while the train is not moving it's sweltering enough to keep me from going under. The rest of the passengers whom seem relatively cold this time of year and are bundled up in blankets and are not allowing me to keep a fan on. It's not too bad if we a moving. There is some circulation that keeps dankness cooler and maybe keep the Mosquitos at bay. The only problem is that this train only moves for about one third of the time. It seems like it sits stopped for 20 or 30 minutes then gets moving to top speed in 5 minutes only to hit the brakes for another stop. Basically, this train sits and does nothing much more than it moves.
I'm learning. Book all your trains in advance. Get at least a class 3 sleeper. Pick the express lines. I'm sure I'll find out more rules but I have not found all the discomforts just yet.
We made good work of the morning bouncing around throughout all the scattered granite ruins. Many were large and impressive with detail in fine condition. It reminded me of King Lou's temple in the disney cartoon movie The Jungle Book and I could not help but sing at lot of it during our outing. "well, I'm the king of the swingers, man, the jungle VIP..."
We planned on taking a break during peak heat hours, but there was no place to find shelter and refreshments. We ended up throwing our bikes on a ferry (which was a tiny row boat) to take us to the other side of the river where we thought we'd find a town. There were small farming villages where we could get some water, but no place that we wanted to spend much time.
The ride took us through the rice paddies and banana plantations and it was a wonderful way to see the area. We were about to give up and find another ride across the river to get back to Hampi when we came upon the town we heard of directly across from it. We had a couple of beers and a snack lounging on a covered deck talking with a couple from Romania until we decided we had enough energy to explore a little more. It was 4pm and we had been riding in the heat for nearly eight hours.
We went to a nearby lake where I jumped in to get a good cool down before talking the long hike up to the Monkey temple at the top of a cliff that overlooked the whole valley. The 570 step hike looked daunting after using so much energy for the day, but it was there and a perfect time to catch sunset.
The Monkey temple was exactly that. It was loaded with plenty playful and mischievous little rascals. The locals put red bandanas around the necks of the more "aggressive" guys and I watch them plot and scheme eyeing bikers backpacks wit a keen knowledge of how to open the zippers quickly. While sitting and gazing at the sunset one such little critter crept onto my lap as if to snuggle with me. I jumped up through him off without giving the monkey the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what he was really up to, but others around me pointed out that I was wearing a read scarf around my neck and I just might be mistaken for the father of the rapscallion monkeys. I guess that would be quite apropos.
Knowing that dusk was short the further south you are we scrambled town the cliffside steps and jumped on our bikes before it got completely dark. We arrived at the ferry boat side just as they were tying up the last shuttle of the night. Everything we had was across the river at our hotel and we only had a handful of rupees between us. Begging for one last ride over the river was to no avail as it was illegal after 6. Eventually some of the locals conjured up one of the round basket boats to smuggle us and our bikes across.
s we loaded our bikes precariously into the basket the boat was pushed away from the shore. In a moment of bravery Asiana run off the dock crashing onto the basket thing the guys were taking off with our rented bikes. Although I don't believe that was their intention I commend her on here swift action. The boat guys freaked out thinking she was crazy and trying to break the basket or something. Halfway across we got into the argument about money. We have found no such thing as generosity or sympathy on India. No one is interested in doing a favor. Money is all that matters. While in the middle they wanted to row us back to the wrong shore once they found we only had a hundred rupees (twice as much as what it cost us to get over initially in a normal boat) when they like to charge tourists three hundred for the novelty of being in a basket. This river is small and did not take more than a couple minutes of effort to get across. I am disappointed that nobody cares about real worth rather they are concerned about what they can get out of any deal. They knew we were desperate and had few choices. Our last option was to lock the bikes and swim across in the dark hoping not to get my camera wet. I would have done it but opted to promise that we would return the next day with the remaining part of the rip off.
I very nice man visiting from Karala had been whispering into Asiana's ear while rowing across telling her not to pay. All the locals got the ride for ten rupees. This poor nation has it's greedy side and we are not feeling guilty about catching our train with returning to the river to pay thirty times more than the ten times we already paid.
After breakfast we took off to get a closer looks are the ruins scattered about the area. Our first stop brought us to a handful of rock temples on a hill overlooking the village. People in India had been asking if Asiana and I were friends after not seeing any rings on our fingers. Although we are not married, we found it's easier to let them know that we are married. The young men are very aggressive here especially if I step away from sight. Telling everyone that we are husband and wife feels like it helps - a least with confusion. We thought we would buy some rings to back up the fib and after ascending "sunset hill" we exchanged matching silver bands with the inscription Om Namah Shivaya on our sixth anniversary.
I would like to report that we had a full day of sightseeing, but the night before left us a bit weakened and the afternoon heat ushered us into an early dinner and early bedtime. I set my alarm for 6am again with the intention to make a full day in Hampi.
The two obvious temples at the center are only a few of the many structures built and carved into the rock valley. Nearly everything is cut from the same light granite. I can say I have never seen a place like this. Nowhere I've been has the look and feel that I had when pulling in. We picked a good place to spend the weekend.
We checked into the hotel we made earlier contact with, guided by Lonely Planet. It's a nice place with a great crew of people. It has a rooftop cafe with a great view right next to the main bizaar. I think that lonely planet needs to publish more frequently. I feel that once Lonley Planet publishes a place their prices get higher by the next season. I don't blame the book. I'm sure these were some of the cheaper good-out-of-the-beaten-path deals last year. In a country that will do anything for an extra rupee it is completely expected that the guest houses use their fame as leverage. There are cheaper deals for half the costs across the river, which we did not get to until our last day to even know it existed. What made the Gopi Guest House the right place to stay was the guys running it.
When going over the scenario of our new years choice I recognize that what we did may have the making for a potentially not-so-safe situation. We spent four hours enjoying the sites in the area upon our initial arrival. The whole time we weighed out what we wanted to do concerning an invitation from some locals to join them out of the town to celebrate the new year. I don't mean to scare my folks so I have to say I thought of all the worst scenarios and our judgement, instinct, and intuition was correct in deciding to join a crew of locals and other travelers four kilometers out into the banana plantation forest.
We joined what would become twelve foreigners to Gopi's land to share the evening. The plan was to go to this place watch the sunset, check out the crocodiles, have a meal together, have a drink (there is no drinking in Hampi proper), play drums and dance around the campfire bringing in 2011... and that is exactly what we did. We made it home safe even though 4-wheeling throughout the mud in a overpacked 3-wheel rickshaws at 3am gave it that some extra spice.
Asiana and our rickshaws shuttle was the first to go out to the plantation and we shared our ride with an adorable and super cool deaf couple. We nodded our headed and three thumbs up at each other smiling as we bumped around on our way towards the site. Once we reached the house where the food was going to be prepared we broke out our notebooks and and chatted up a storm. They were a great couple and were great fun. We were grateful to have started a special evening with a special couple. He was from California and she was from Sweden joining their long distance relationship in India.
There was a Frenchman and a French Canadian, a couple from Belgium, a German from Munich and a German living in Buenos Aries, a couple from Japan, a British chap with his lady from Finland, and an adorable Canadian gal. The other Girl from the States was an American born Japanese that was well traveled enough that she could have a come from anywhere.
The initial group that worked at our hotel was there and we were joined by another group of older locals later in the evening. We spent part of the night in a bamboo stilted hut sharing stories and going around the circle singing songs representing the countries we came from. When it came to the deaf couple we witnessed a beautiful dance as the song. We shared a simple meal of rice and dal fry using banana leaves as biodegradable plates. The late feast followed by the new years countdown and hugs.
My heart was thinking of family and friends, yet I could not have come up with a better script for celebrating the new years while traveling - with a group of strangers from around the world. We spent some quality time in discussions especially with the local Indians. It was refreshing to interact in that manner. Outside of our friend in Mumbai our contact with Indians has not been representative of India. We are either mobbed by the intrigued wide eyed kids wanting to practice their English or we are mobbed by vendors on all levels selling anything they can or we are beggar magnets and none of those conversations get beyond a very basic level. On this night we talked about the world and life and especially life in India.
The great conversation went well into the night until Asiana and I took the first rickshaws back at 3am. We hoped to still have a full day the next day... the day we start our seventh year together.
The bus ticket we tried to get went awry forcing me to take the public bus back form Panjin to Candolim to collect and then bounce back to meet Asiana where I left her reading and watching televised cricket at a cafe near the bus depot. It seems like when making these deals here you always find out later - "there was a bit of confusion" or "there was a problem". The confusion in transactions are always occur between the locals and not the tourist.
In this case sleeper beds in the coach bus were already sold out and we had to take seats for the nine hour ride. My run back and fourth was to collect 300 rupees for the difference of cost downgrading our comfort.
Panjin had a nice charm to it. Portuguese colonial style went well with the tropical feel. Walking around the town for five hours may have been a wonderful way to wait for a bus unless you have all your belongings on your back and it's a bit sweltering. We spent more time popping into shops for some tea or a beer than we did getting around the capital.
They may boast having a very reliable train transportation system in India, but I don't think people say the same for busses. Our bus was a couple hours late to pick us up. We were a part of a gaggle of foreigners clustered together in the middle of a hectic bus bazaar along the highway. There were mostly Korean with a handful of French and a few Israelis. It was kind of fun. Being in the center of mass chaos and confusion can be good sport. At least when you know everything will be fine. I knew that bus would show up.
We stopped a few times throughout the night collecting more westerners on their pilgrimage to Hampi. They looked even more weary waiting for a progressively later bus than we had while boarding at rediculas hours of the night. The progressive lateness stretched a 9 hour ride to just beyond 12. Outside of the schedule, I would say it was a reletivly nice journey. We will consider taking another long bus to the closest international airport when before heading back to Thailand. I'd really like a sleeper and I would want to give it a huge buffer time.
Location:Panjin Goa India