5 Day Tokyo: 16 – 20.10.2013

Our time in Tokyo became a blur; the days were spent too quickly and we became good friends with our couch surfing host Yuki. We spent a lot of time just chatting and hanging out, cooking, eating, laughing and generally just enjoying ourselves.

Our first full day in Tokyo was spent indoors – the typhoon rains were so heavy we were pretty much forced to stay inside; the ten minute walk down the road to the local supermarket left us drenched and cold, but at least we had a heap of ingredients to cook ourselves an awesome lunch, dinner, and for Jacob to attempt to make bread!

We stopped off at Daiso, the 100 yen shop near by ‘home;’ whilst Jacob worked on and succeeded to bake bread in the rice cooker (how amazing is that!?), I attempted to teach Yuki how to crochet. Craft in Japan… who would’ve thought?

Our dinner consisted of Japanese rice and mouth-watering Japanese curry, vegetables and freshly-baked bread. The rain might have stopped us exploring Tokyo, but we’d had an incredible first day.

On our second day in Tokyo the rain had subsided and the sun came out to shine. We headed by train into Tokyo and spent the day wandering through a few different suburbs, eating Yoshinoya and generally hanging out. Yuki had generously hand-drawn us a little map and given us some great directions, so we knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing.

Our first destination was Ryogoku – an area of Tokyo well known for its large Sumo Stadium, sumo attractions, sumo stables (aka “sumo homes”) chanko (aka “sumo food”) restaurants and a heap of shops selling awesome sumo stuff that I wanted to buy, purely because they had awesome sumo pictures on them… I mean, who doesn’t want a set of shot glasses with little images of obese, almost naked men with giant wedgies fighting each other!?

As it so happened, within about two seconds of actually being in Ryogoku district we’d seen a sumo and I was almost wetting myself with unexplainable delight. Within about ten minutes we’d seen several. Jacob had to put up with my constant “Jake, Jake, JAKE! I just saw a sumo! An actual SUMO!”… There was a lot of skipping involved as well.
We saw several sumos actually, they were usually just riding around town on tiny bicycles. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, the bikes were actually just normal size… maybe it was just more so the fact that the sumos were massive in comparison… Still, pretty awesome. There we were in Ryogoku, totally and unintentionally “sumo spotting…” I’d completely forgotten about the Sumo Museum and was more interested in seeking out these big guys.

Of course, being in a new place in Japan, one of the first things we needed to do was find the local Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don breakfast. And find it we did – we’re experts at this now; we can almost sniff that gyu don out! Japan on the cheap? Yeah, we’ve got this down.

We visited the Sumo Stadium and a very small museum which was interesting but way less exciting than actually seeing them in the fluffy flesh. There was some sort of event happening and by around mid-day we were ready to move on to Asakusa, where we spent the afternoon strolling through the streets, shops, market stalls and temples.

Back at Yuki’s home in the evening, we cooked beautiful soba noodles with mushrooms, spring onion and a light soy dipping sauce then filled up even more on Japanese sweets and royal milk tea. We are so Japanese right now…

Our third day in Japan was pretty chilled; we went out and strutted about for a while, cooked our selves a Japanese style lunch, explored some supermarkets, shops and areas around where we were staying, bought some sushi and ingredients for tea, surfed the internet and didn’t do a whole lot else. Jake was feeling a little unwell so most of our afternoon was quiet. Yuki had school all day and we were happy to entertain ourselves… and drink a lot of macha green tea and royal milk tea in the process.

We’re learning that traveling long-term means that not every day can be filled with all day sight-seeing, exploration and new adventures. Instead, having a day off and just doing one or two little things, taking in your surroundings and processing all the information and amazing experiences is a normal and necessary part of this long adventure – sometimes sitting back and appreciating what you have done whilst not doing too much is the best way to spend a day. Looking through photographs and reminiscing about previous travel experiences can feel like you’re traveling to that certain place all over again. I often feel really “guilty” when we’re not out and doing something – I’m always conscious of the fact that where ever we are right now, it’s not for long… but, at the same time, it’s really nice to just be somewhere..

We cooked dinner for Yuki, loving the opportunity to shop like a local and cook at home, Japanese style. Whilst at the supermarket a Japanese man stopped us for a chat – I think he was just so excited to practice his English and didn’t want to say goodbye to us. It was lovely.Poor Yuki had to put up with our cooking – we cooked the exact same thing as the previous night, although this time we added grilled chicken and egg. I’m drooling at the thought of it, it was so delicious… Jake bought ingredients to make chai, and our evening was spent eating, talking, laughing and drinking chai… and, of course, more royal milk tea.

We’re loving this experience and adore couch surfing with Yuki – as we have with every other host. Couch surfing changes you experience completely and offers you a style of travel that is not possible when staying in hotels and hostels. It’s a lot of fun and we have made some very precious memories.

Our fourth day in Tokyo was just so wonderful, it’s hard to put it into words. Yuki had to unfortunately work all day today, but we did get to enjoy watching her “before work routine” where she sat in front of her fridge eating a piece of chocolate. Her little pre-work reward. Cute.

We traveled to Shibuya, where the coolest sight can be seen from the window of the world’s busiest Starbucks on the first floor – the massive and very famous scramble crossing that is also the busiest in the world. It was there we met my dear old friend Akane, a Japanese girl who had come to live with my family as an exchange student some seven years ago. When we saw each other we were so excited, we hugged and squealed and the first thing I thought – and said – was “you look the same!”

We spent the day with Akane and it was truly wonderful. We ended up in Harujuku, where we took a stroll through my favourite Japanese street, Takeshita Dori. I bought some cute socks – it’s a must when in Japan, I feel – they’re just so nice. I resisted most of the other shops and unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Harujuku girls dressed up, but Akane and I did eat a crepe which was pretty awesome. Another “must” when here… or maybe I’m just telling myself that to rid myself of any guilt.

Akane took us walking through famous areas and streets surrounding Harujuku and Shibuya, and we ended up in the greatest shop – Kiddy Land. 5 floors of toys, games, cute characters, stuffed things, stationary and staff dressed as bears and rabbits, complete with tails and ears. I want/need a job here, purely so I can go to work dressed as a bear with a pom pom stuck to my ass. The Miffy and Hello Kitty sections were my personal favourites.
Jake went straight to the Manga section whilst Akane and I swooned over every cute thing we saw… in other words, we spent a good hour or more in that store.

Moving back to Shibuya, we needed some food… and not just any food, we needed sushi from a sushi train. Akane navigated us towards a little place tucked down some stairs just nearby to Shibuya station – also, just next door to Yuki’s workplace. We spent a good hour or more watching deliciously fresh fish become little pieces of edible art and then rotate around the large table whilst hungry customers picked out what they liked. The little sushi chef man took a liking to Jake and I, and kept giving us the expensive stuff on cheap plates as a “presentu.” What a guy! He was awesome. Even more awesome when we were all taking photos of ourselves and he kept photo bombing and pulling hilarious faces. Absolute gold. Love it.

Our afternoon was spent flitting about and strolling through the streets and my favourite Japanese department store, Loft. In particular, we were in the stationary section which is an incredibly difficult place to be when traveling on a tight budget. I would consider it almost torture, actually, to not be able to buy anything. Anyone who knows me knows my absolute endless love for beautiful stationary. To walk out of that store without half of the entire shop contents in bags in my hands was a hard pill for me to swallow. I really needed those candy shaped push-pins, those do-it-yourself flash cards with a cute character on the front, the design-your-own 4 coloured ink pen, the flash disk shaped like a scuba diver, the fun shaped paper clips, those 3D sticker letter seals, the musical note writing pad, the leather bound journal in a large range of colours, a webcam shaped like a cat, those rainbow coloured set of gel pens, the camera case with the amazing design, the lime green coloured EVERYTHING…Ok, I’ll stop there…

More wandering about and I guess our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell our need to fluff about in stores made for children. What I mean to say is, our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell my need to fluff about in stores made for children. But who am I kidding, I still feel like a child and the Disney Store was like a little bit of paradise… so, yes, what I’m saying is another happy hour was spent skipping (almost) about the isles and cute character displays of the Tokyo Disney Store. If Kiddy Land isn’t looking to hire staff, maybe the Disney Store is…I’d love to work here – all the staff get to walk around with cute stuffed Disney characters on their shoulders. That’s as good as a set of fluffy ears and pom pom on the bum in my opinion. I’m not ashamed to say I bought something there. “It’s for my niece.” That’s the excuse I used and that’s the excuse I’m sticking to.

Late afternoon Akane, Jacob and I headed to Yuki’s work for an early dinner – Yuki works at a really cool authentic Japanese grill restaurant and sake bar, so she finished her shift and the four of us had dinner together. As if we needed more food after all the feasting we’d done today – but it didn’t matter; it was so delicious and a lot of fun. Akane and I reminisced and it was quite funny to look back all those years to when we were in high school.

Saying goodbye to Akane near by the famous Hatchiko Exit at Shibuya Station, I felt sad to say goodbye again so soon but so grateful I’d been able to meet her again.
Together Jake, Yuki and I took the train back ‘home’ where we spent the rest of the evening drinking home made chai and not doing all that much else. It was fantastic.

Our fifth day in Tokyo was spent just chilling out again – Yuki had the day off and it again poured with rain, but none of us were bothered. We were all happy lounging around, cooking, eating, drinking tea, watching Youtube clips, singing, laughing, washing our clothing in the apartment buildings communal washing machine that seems to be ALWAYS being used – we were sneaky and managed to find it briefly empty!…Yesss! We walked down to the shops and bought ourselves some lunch and ingredients for dinner, getting drenched again in the process. It was an awesome day just hanging out with our new friend, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our Sunday in Tokyo. In my opinion, Sundays were created to be enjoyed in a leisurely way; rain against the windows, blankets, good friends, good conversation, fresh rice cooker bread with butter, chai, royal milk tea, daifuku ice creams, matcha green tea, dango and red bean and Japanese curry and rice for dinner was the perfect way to spend today…

Tomorrow is our final day in Japan. I can’t actually believe how quickly these three weeks have passed. It feels too quick, yet looking back on what we’ve done and what we’ve seen, I’m just so happy. We’ve met some incredible people and done some incredible things. I feel so sad to leave – I don’t want to leave, but I know we’re going out tomorrow with a bang. We don’t fly out until almost midnight which means…

…tomorrow, I’m going to Disney Land!

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.

Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.

Photo, Photo India

Our first full day in India. It’s amazing how quickly we are adapting to such a new and different place and culture – already things seem less hectic than yesterday when we first arrived. We wonder what it would’ve been like for us if we hadn’t had Sri Lanka to ‘warm us up’ to the hustle and bustle of India.

A rest stop

A rest stop

Incredible architecture

Incredible architecture

We spent today exploring and trying to adjust ourselves; trying to navigate our way around a tiny section of this massive city. We walked the streets to just look, people watch, and try and gain a little bit of insight into this extraordinary culture.

A quiet stretch of street

A quiet stretch of street

It was wonderful to have no specific sightseeing agenda – rather, we just walked. Within the first hour of exploring, we’d been asked by four locals to take a “photo, photo” of them, using our camera. At first we were suspicious – in Sri Lanka the locals had done this in order to get tourists to pay them money. However, it became clear quite quickly that the payment they wanted was simply the opportunity to see themselves on the digital screen. I’m not sure how it is in other parts of the country, but at least here, today, that’s how it was.

Workin' it

Workin’ it

This guy wanted a photo too...

This guy loved the camera

We found a local shopping mall – Spencer Plaza – which was an interesting experience; if you imagine a bazaar with sprawling shops and little alleyways, street food stalls and touters all contained within a building, that’s a better depiction. I ended up buying a few pieces of Indian style clothing with beautiful colours and patterns; our first full day here, and I’m already shopping.

A sugar cane juice vendor

A sugar cane juice vendor

We ate lunch at an Indian vegetarian restaurant that served up incredible meals. The place was full of locals, and Jake ordered “what they’re having” – a set lunch that came out on two enormous silver platters; one dish held four watery curries and poppadoms, the other dish held 10 beautiful varieties of curries, with a savory pancake and noodle-style pancakes (the best way I can describe them) in the centre of the dish. Staff walked around with a massive bowl of rice, and continually piled more fresh white rice into people’s dishes, and the curry is never ending if you wish so. We watched as locals rhythmically mixed their rice and curries between their fingers, pouring the watery curries onto the rice and then adding generous amounts of the other thicker curries to the mix. The locals eat A LOT, it seems:  we watched as they ‘re-filled’ their rice three or four times each, as well as their curry dishes when they ran out.

Just a small part of a very large meal...

Just a small part of a very large meal…

Funniest moment of the day: when taking photographs of a wild street scene, I turned around to see the face of an Indian man with a colourfully painted forehead, smiling a HUGE white toothed smile at me and my camera – he’d been fascinated by the screen and come in for a closer look. Literally an inch or two from my face, he scared the shit out of me! I squealed, and he was delighted.

Another day...

Another day…

Our evening was spent again wondering the area near-by to our guest house, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that are so foreign to us, yet strangely familiar.

Adjusting...

Adjusting…

Stepping over the bodies of sleeping people, around stray dogs and through the small gaps between parked motor bikes, we dodged the traffic as we madly tried to cross the roads. We passed the same sprawl of textile and homeware shops, street food vendors and chai makers, flower garland weavers and men busy working at their sewing machines, through scaffolding and busy streets, past smiling faces and staring eyes. We watched as food was tossed high into the air from boiling woks, and as our naan was prepared in a tandoori oven, before being wrapped up in butchers paper and tied with string. Children asked us to take their “photo, photo” and were overjoyed at the opportunity to see themselves on a digital screen.

Smiley

Smiley

Again, we had to watch our every step and movement to ensure we didn’t get hit by moving traffic, or step somewhere we shouldn’t, but it was easier – it’s getting easier – to manage.

We didn’t venture much further than yesterday this evening – but we didn’t have to – there’s no need. I think we could walk the same area night after night after night, and every time we’d see something new, meet someone new, or discover a laneway we hadn’t before noticed… The thing about this place, it seems, is that there is just always so much happening – so much to see and take in.

YUM!

YUM!

We found a “home ware shop” – a tiny space between two buildings – and bought a metal chai canister. We don’t like contributing to the already horrendous rubbish situation, and with the amount of chai we suspect we will be drinking in the next three months, the 48 rupee investment in a metal, re-useable tea canister is a much more environmentally friendly option than the hundreds of little white paper cups. (Well it will be once I’ve washed and scrubbed it to within an inch of its life.)

The food is all so tempting to eat; the Indian sweets are so bright and colourful, the smells are aromatic and we watch as people effortlessly add more and more spice to whatever they’re cooking. It all looks – and is – so new and foreign, we wouldn’t know what to choose! Jake had read that Chennai, and the South of India, is known for its fabulous ‘Kebabs’; he was keen to try one but… we’re just not sure yet what we can trust, and what our western stomachs can handle.

We ended the night with two cups of chai – each – a perfect way to finish off what has been an enthralling, entertaining and insightful day in India.

The Ancient Cities: Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa – with lots of monkeys.

“Hello! Where from?”

Travelling on from Anuradhapura to Mihintale, a sacred area 13km away, we prepared ourselves in the early morning for a massive climb to the top of the Mihintale hill – a sacred area associated with the first introductions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This place is a really big deal; particularly for a nation whose state religion is Buddhism.

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

1843 (and the rest!) steps up, 4 hours and way too many scary monkeys later, we’d done an exhaustive climb whilst our guide had given us an equally exhaustive history lesson.

Cute from a distance

Cute from a distance

Standing at the very top, after climbing bare-footed up tiny steps carved into sheer rock, we looked out over the mountain whilst trying not to be blown away by huge gusts of wind. This is a place that looks damn good from up high – it’s good to be the king.

The final climb to the top

The final climb to the top

It's good to be the king!

It’s good to be the king!

….

Moving on from Anuradhapura and Mihintale, we took the local bus to Polonnaruwa – another ancient UNESCO heritage city, 3 or so hours drive away.
Oddly enough this bus ride was rather event-free; besides a few horn happy moments and a few too many pot holes, it was rather empty (only a few people had to stand for the journey) and the driver maintained a reasonably safe speed most of the time.
We’ve been making a list of all the different vendors who make their way through the buses here in Sri Lanka – it’s amazing what people sell, and how they go about selling things on the bus. Need a lottery ticket to get you through the journey? What about some faux-gold jewelry? If so, you’re in luck!

Traveling in comfort and style

Arriving into Polonnaruwa, we could barely make it off the bus before a tuk tuk driver had taken our backpacks and stuffed them into the tiny storage space behind the seats. You quite often don’t seem to get a choice – it can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your mood.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town area, stumbling upon an impromptu fresh market where the locals all yelled “hello” or tried to shake our hands. One man would not let go – things got a bit weird.

“Hello! Where from?” is a saying we are now very used to. Even more so, the response that follows our chorus of “Australia” is getting very predictable. It goes a little something like this:

Locals: Hello! Where from?
Us: Australia
Locals: Australia!…. Ah! Ricky Ponting!/ Shane Warne!/ Gilchrist!/ Ah! Good cricket!/ Ah, cricket team very bad in moment!/ “……….” (insert something cricket related here).

We have to smile. Thank goodness Jacob has an interest in Australian cricket and can hold up a conversation – I just sit there like a stunned mullet, smiling and nodding. I’d hate to confess to them that I actually hate cricket and have no interest, nor any idea of what the hell they are talking about… Who is this Shane Warne person they speak of? I thought he was just some guy who liked getting married a lot, or some guy they just decided to make a musical about.
They say ignorance is bliss – I guess if I have the choice between cricket and bliss, I know which one I prefer.

Our guest house, Leesha Tourist Home, served home-made dinner for the guests, and we enjoyed an incredible feast of traditional Sri Lankan curries and rice. I’ve been on – am on – the hunt for the “best vegetarian Sri Lankan curry” and so far, this place wins hands down. We spent our first night feasting, drinking Sri Lankan Lion beer and chatting with fellow travelers; it’s a hard life, but we love it, and someone’s got to do it.

Feast!

Feast!

We spent our only full day in Polonnaruwa exploring the ancient ruins and historic sites, marveling at the archeological wonders that have remained for more than a thousand years.

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We walked through structures that had once belonged to royalty, our bare feet standing upon intricate stone carvings of elephants, horses, lions and bulls.

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

It was simply incredible.

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We wandered about the sites, through old monastery complexes, around dagobas and amongst sacred crematorium.

A snippet of a Monastic Complex - 'Monk Cells' in Polonnaruwa

A snippet of a Monastic Complex – ‘Monk Cells’ in Polonnaruwa

The old Monastic Hospital was incredibly interesting to see; a medicinal trough still stands in place in one of the ‘rooms’ of the hospital, and the Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum displays many ancient surgical and medical tools found there during excavations.

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

And if these ancient sites couldn’t get any more stunning; we literally had the areas to ourselves. Where are the tourists? I wonder what this place will be like in years to come…

Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Spectacular Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Our time in Polonnaruwa was brief, but incredible. We saw an enormous amount in a short space of time, and furthermore, we managed to scrape through without any monkey bites – winning! (No need as of yet to carry a “monkey stick!”)

Next we’re off to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital Kandy, leaving the ancient cities behind us – but probably not the monkeys – they seem to be everywhere.

Malaysia: Ribena, Roti and Papping

Well we’ve made it; we’re finally here! The count down is over, and instead of shivering through the rest of Melbourne’s Winter, we’re now sweating in Asia’s endless Summer.

We arrived into KL and navigated our way through the city to down-town Chinatown; the backpacker haunt. Wading through the night markets with bulging backpacks on both our fronts and backs, we were hit with the sounds, smells and heat of Kuala Lumpur. And it felt – and feels – so good to be back in Asia.

Honking horns and wild traffic, market stalls and enticing foods, the smell of durian mixed with car fumes, people everywhere and touters touting – it feels so normal – like we never left; and we are back into the ‘swing’ of things already.

On our first night in Malaysia we sat back in our chairs at a little local restaurant, ordered roti and dahl, and toasted to the next seven months; to our Asian trip of a life time.

Today we were on the move before we could even begin to settle in Kuala Lumpur. We took a bus – actually, three – to Melaka: a quaint historic UNESCO heritage town, 3 hours drive south of KL.

We wandered every main and back street, up alleyways and lane ways, through art galleries and eclectic shops. We stepped through Chinatown and Little India, and were exposed to the many different cultures and nationalities that make up this township.

IMG_8183It’s a beautiful place here; its gorgeous old buildings and incredible architecture make for little surprises at each turn. Paint peels from every wall and patterned tiles are cracked and loose; not every building is beautiful but the charm of the place is alive and unmistakable.

IMG_8196
Rickshaw drivers with overly decorated vehicles relax in the town centre, chatting to their friends or snoozing in their empty seats.
The evening lights dance on the river, locals and foreigners are out and about: the people are warm and friendly and the place has a genuinely relaxed vibe.

IMG_8197After hours of walking and exploring, we found ourselves back in the town centre square, where we sat down in front of the iconic Red Christ Church, sipping Ribena Juice, people watching and sheltering from the heat momentarily.
People watching is so easy to do in Asia; it’s intruiging and fascinating and interesting and entertaining.

Whilst sitting in the shade, a girl came up to us and asked “I take you photo?”
Accepting her request was a rookie error.

She paved the way for a group of Indonesian tourists to then bombard us with photo after photo, each one for which they happily posed around us, boxing us in with their arms around us. They laughed and squealed as each one took turns in being the “photographer” for everyone else in the group, whilst Jake and I gave uneasy, uncertain and confused smiles. As soon as it seemed the papping would stop, another iPhone or camera appeared and another stepped forward happily to pap us.

It made us wonder: firstly, what do they want and what will they do with a hundred photographs of two complete strangers, and secondly, is this a taste of what’s to come?…

Oh, Asia. We had to laugh.

IMG_8194Continuing the search for lunch, which at 8pm, had instead become a quest for dinner, we finally stumbled upon a corner shack/restaurant. The man out the front was cooking with two large woks and sending oil, egg and grains of rice flying high into the air with each toss.

Deeming the food safe and the vendor trustworthy, we ordered  a basic meal and sat down to enjoy the delicious ending to our first full day in Asia.

And it was amazing.