Miso Katsu, Salmon Sushi, Green Tea and Cup Noodles: 13.10.2013

Today has been amazing, simply put. We woke in Nagoya and fall asleep tonight with new friends in beautiful Hida-Takayama.

Yuko, our couch surfing host in Nagoya, had arranged with one of her friends for us to learn how to cook miso katsu (pork) at their home this morning. It had turned into a full scale cooking school experience, with Yuko’s friend inviting her friend and cooking teacher, along with his wife, to teach us how to cook salmon sushi. This was pretty much a dream come true for us.

We arrived around 10am and were greeted as if we were family friends; the warm welcome was so lovely and we were served beautiful Japanese sweets and green tea. Then the cooking began…
Yuko’s two friends, along with one of the friend’s husband – who we called “Sense” – are all amazing cooks and they were straight into the cooking action. Sense is a Japanese chef who apparently trained at Kyoto’s most famous restaurant; now retired, he teaches cooking.

We watched as the women seamlessly prepared the various ingredients and dishes, slicing so beautifully with incredible knife skills and Japanese knives, which Jacob was thrilled by.
Once the sushi rice was washed, cooked and seasoned perfectly with seasoning, sugar, salt and water-soaked ginger, sense began his lesson: using chopsticks with the right hand and the left hand to adjust, he showed us how to place the salmon into the sushi making device so that it looked perfect. I definitely did not master this technique. Pushing exactly 200g of beautiful rice into the device and then applying the lid and lots of pressure, out came a rectangular shaped piece of pure, perfectly seasoned deliciousness. Sense showed me how to cut the sushi and clean the knife each time before placing it beautifully onto long leaves and adding pickle for both presentation and taste.

Whilst I was making sushi, the women were preparing the katsu and various delicate and beautiful dishes – both in terms of presentation and taste.

The meal was an absolute feast; we were served an array of vegetable and pickled vegetables, a beautiful pork katsu with a thick, sweet miso sauce and a cabbage salad, a delicate egg soup and the beautiful salmon sushi. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these people and were just so thankful and excited to be able to experience this. This is an opportunity we would’ve never expected and imagined; we can’t thank our couch surfing hosts or our lunch hosts enough.

After lunch and saying countless” thank yous” and “goodbyes”, Keiji and Yuko went generously out of their way to drive us almost an hour away to a JR train station near-by Inuyama, and we said goodbye; again – it’s always saddening when we have to say goodbye to people who have been so generous and kind. We feel like we are saying goodbye to old friends.

We took the local JR train bound for Hida-Takayama directly, which was a beautiful ride through amazing scenery, mountains and rivers. I love the train journeys in Japan and for the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, put my ipod in and just enjoy.

Arriving into Takayama after 6pm, it was dark already and the air was cold – a shock to our system after months of heat. The air smelled beautiful and fresh and it felt so incredible to be back here. Too late to explore and on too tight of a budget to afford premium Hida beef for dinner, we checked into our first and only Japanese hostel – J Hoppers – which is honestly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has awesome communal kitchen, a great living area, big spacious rooms and large, private and comfortable bunk beds with lots of bedding and space. Their facilities are really good and the location is awesome too.

Instantly we made friends with a Taiwanese and Japanese guy in our dorm room and together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket to get our selves some cheap backpacker food: 98 Yen instant cup noodle ramen. Another guy from China joined our little backpacking posse and soon, back in our communal kitchen, there was an even bigger group of us all coming together to cook and eat and drink the free filtered coffee and green tea. It was a lot of fun, and we spent the rest of our evening in the kitchen chatting and laughing.

I’m really happy to be staying here in this hostel; it’s such a different atmosphere and experience to couch surfing. I’m incredibly grateful and having so much fun couch surfing but in a way I’m really grateful we now have the opportunity for two days to simply relax and just be by ourselves, do as we please, sleep/shower/eat when we want and, even though we’re in a hostel in a shared room, have our own space… Couch surfing is fantastic but we’ve been staying with locals for almost a month straight already (with a two day break in Nepal), so a hostel offers another different experience and it’s wonderful to be able to meet such a diverse group of travelers. This place seems great and I already can’t wait for tomorrow morning to arrive.

Visas, Saris and Nepalese Fun: 27 – 29.09.2013

Our morning was spent lazily wandering the area in and around Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. We enjoyed more vegetable and buff momos from the Tibetan Momo Shop, along with milky chai before I bartered a taxi down and we traveled from Bhaktapur to the Myanmar Embassy. We planned to pick up our passports there and meet Sarah, one of our couch surfing hosts for the next three nights.
Arriving at the embassy, we collected our visas and were overjoyed: a whole page of our precious passports was now covered with a beautiful looking Myanmar visa, ready to use! Relief – it’s now finally done.

Meeting Sarah at the embassy proved difficult; again she had the same trouble as we originally did with trying to actually find it. Eventually we took a taxi to near-by her home and met her there. We dropped off our bags and met the new addition to her family: one very cute and tiny puppy! Sarah then took us for our first “Nepali Bus Experience” – we took a “micro-bus” (a mini van type vehicle, often overflowing out the door with people) to an area for a late lunch.
From there, we walked to Patan’s Durbar Square, where we all attempted to ‘sneak’ in through a back way so we wouldn’t have to pay the expensive entrance fee. We were stopped however, and only had a few minutes to view the historic area. It was indeed beautiful; similar to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur.

Patan Square

Patan Square

Patan area was bustling and hectic and crowded with life and activity, people, motorists, dogs and street stalls. Shops lined the street, and our entire surroundings were filled with busy people selling and buying and trying to move about. Bag sellers stood wearing twenty or thirty backpacks over their bodies, strolling up and down the street. Fruit sellers weighed their goods, motorbikes honked, children squealed and men with giant wooden sticks covered in colorful balloons for sale moved about the hectic crowds without a single one bursting.

So exciting!

So exciting!

Bag Sellers... Efficient!

Bag Sellers… Efficient!

Sarah mentioned that tomorrow night (we’re going to a party her gym is throwing for an upcoming festival) all the women will be wearing saris. Having packed for 7 months of travel, a sari was not one of the items currently stuffed somewhere in my backpack, however, I wanted to wear one. I’d been wanting to try one on since we arrived in Sri Lanka to see women dressed beautifully, covered in colour. That want had continued throughout our travels in India, and into Nepal. Amazed at how cheaply they could be purchased for, and at how quickly they could be tailored, Sarah and I enjoyed browsing through the various beautifully coloured materials to find a sari material I liked. Jacob took a seat on the “mans seat.” I chose a light grey material with pink flowers on it; it reminded me of Japanese cherry blossom. Upstairs, a man picked from a big range of coloured materials, a colour that perfectly matched the flowers on my sari and would be soon measured, cut and stitched to make my blouse. With my sari and blouse material and a petticoat for underneath, we moved to the next room where a woman measured me with such speed and precision I knew she’d been doing this for a long time. I paid for my sari ($11 AU) and for my blouse material and petticoat ($4.50 AU) and was given a receipt; tomorrow it would be completely tailored ($3) and ready for me to collect! We left the shop and I felt really excited to be able to not only finally wear my very own tailor made sari, but also to have the opportunity to dress up for something! Hiking boots, worn-in thongs/flip-flops, travel pants, faded t-shirts and ‘quick-dry’ tops might be convenient, but after months of travel they are ingrained with swat, filth and dirt; it was exciting to look a bit pretty instead.

Sari Shopping!

Sari Shopping!

Our evening was spent with our hosts; we enjoyed an amazing dinner – real Nepalese food – lots of rice, veggies and dahl bat, along with good conversation and new friends. I really enjoy couchsurfing; every time we’ve meet new people it has felt as though we’re just meeting old friends again. It’s such a warm way to be welcomed in and travel through a country, and a brilliant way to share cultures, experiences, food and our lives. I get excited every time we meet a new host – and a little nervous – and it’s an exciting prospect that now we have more than a month straight of couch surfing, including both here in Kathmandu and in Japan.

Tomorrow is Saturday – our host’s only day off; we don’t have a lot of plans and that is fine by us. Tomorrow evening is the party, and more importantly, us girls are wearing saris. I’m excited – like a child before a birthday – about something so simple.
Tomorrow is also our second-to-last day in Nepal – already! – I can’t believe how quickly the time is going here, but then I guess I never expected one week to go slowly.

Saturday – aka “the day of the party” was a relaxing but a thoroughly enjoyable day! I like the idea of experiencing Nepal through couch surfing, rather than blindly hopping from one sight-seeing tourist destination to the next.
We all had a leisurely morning just chatting and sitting around, then Sarah and I went shopping whilst Jake stayed back and did our washing. Who got the better deal?

After shopping, we headed back to Patan to the material shop where my sari was being made. We arrived an hour earlier than we were told to; at that point it had not even been started. Lucky we did go early – I’m learning that “Nepali time” is a lot like “Laos time” – things and people tend to run on their own time and schedule, meaning “pick up the sari at 1 o’clock” might actually mean something like… “the sari will be ready by… 2 or 3 o’clock… maybe later, maybe earlier, who’s to say?”

We came back at 1 o’clock, after strolling around, eating an ice cream and getting caught in a small rainstorm. My beautiful sari and newly-made blouse was presented to me and I went to try it on. After first putting it on the wrong way, I eventually squeezed into the tiny blouse that didn’t cover much more than my breasts, shoulders and a tiny part of my upper arm. I’ve never been one to reveal my stomach – not a part of my body I particularly like – so staring back at my reflection, I was both a bit intimidated and some how liberated by this very ‘small thing’…

I asked Sarah to just see that it all looked right, and as soon as I got the okay from her, one of the woman in the shop barged in to my little change room, stared me up and down, smiled, laughed, dragged me out of the change room and stroked my bare back whilst she exclaimed to everyone in the room how beautiful and white I was (in Nepalese), to which everyone else was replying, oh yes, so beautiful and white. Sarah laughed and interpreted this all for me; it was both a funny and odd experience.

Sari in hand, we headed back through the crowds and bag-wearing bag sellers, street stalls and fruit sellers, back home to prepare for the party and get ready. Exciiiiiting….! Saris are complicated and take a lot of practice to get ‘right’, it appears; Sarah and I spent some time watching ridiculously fast and over dramatic youtube clips of how to put on and wear a sari correctly, before Sarah helped dress me in my sari; together we tucked and folded and pleated and adjusted the meters of fabric, layering it and holding it, moving and pulling it to try and get it to look right. It felt really exciting to be wearing it; it sounds so odd and childish to say but I had a lot of fun.
In our saris, we took a heap of photos and strutted about, unable to sit down for fear of messing up or ruining the work that had gone into putting out outfits on.

Dress Ups

Dress Ups

It was pouring with rain up until minutes before we had to leave, so Sudaman – Sarah’s husband – went out to hail a taxi and arrange a fair price (before the driver could see three white people and hike up the price). To get to the taxi, the four of us had to walk down the muddy path first, with me hiking up my sari to my knees to avoid the mud.

The party was a mix of people and everyone seemed to be eating and chatting and having fun; most people spoke English and we were able to chat and feel very much welcome, which was nice. Even more awesome was that most of the women wore saris – together everyone looked really beautiful and elegant (this party was the most elegant I had been in the last few months of travel, and no doubt the most elegant I would be for the next four).

We spent our evening dancing to Hindi music and Bollywood hits remixed, and eating way too many deep-friend cheese balls and steamed momos. It was great fun, and I had the realization that this was all possible  because we chose to interact with locals and had the opportunity to meet these people through couch surfing. I thought, how lucky we are to experience this, rather than wandering through the crowded and overpriced touristy area of Thamel; what we would’ve probably ended up doing had we not couch surfed. I feel so happy that when we travel, we are making the effort to get deeper than just “the number one attraction on trip advisor” or the “top pick” in Lonely Planet; these experiences and moments are far more memorable and enjoyable in my opinion.

I’m grateful to be here in Nepal; really, I’m just so grateful to be traveling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing – we’re so used packing and unpacking and moving, choosing where to go next and what we’ll do and see there, bargaining for this and that, checking that the food is vegetarian and that our water bottle seals are secure – it can become a blur of what has become our lifestyle, mixed with how amazing our lifestyle really is right now. Traveling has certainly, for me at least, become my normal and whilst I adore it, sometimes I forget to step back and make a point of acknowledging that right now, in this moment, I am doing what I love the most. I am exactly where I want to be.

I’m still amazed at how quickly our time in Nepal has come to an end, and both Jacob and I certainly don’t feel ready to leave this country; perhaps it’s because we saw just the tiniest snippet – enough to make us want to see more. This is a country that I want to come back to for a lot longer next time.

On our final day in Kathmandu – and Nepal! – we woke up early and were out the door before 7am, walking down the dirt path towards the bus stop ready for a full day of exploring and enjoying. Sarah and Sudaman helped us to negotiate the buses, which are a bit confusing and a little bit difficult for a foreigner to negotiate (okay, okay, a little bit difficult is an understatement in my case!). It took two buses (with a chai stop in between) to get to Boudanath; a famous holy sight where we were meeting Anjan – Sarah’s friend. We arrived just after 8am, and already the place was buzzing with pilgrims and holy men, monks and tourists. Shops were open selling all the usual touristy trinkets, the smells of coffee poured out of the many cafes and the sound of prayers could be heard from the surrounding temples.

Good morning Kathmandu

Good morning Kathmandu

Boudnath Stupa

Boudanath Stupa

Anjan was so generous to spend his morning with us; he guided us through Boudanath Stupa and around the area which was really interesting, and he spent time taking us into temples and showing us different areas and view points. At one point we were able to see the monks chanting inside the temple, and listen to the beautiful melodies they were creating – this sound is indescribable and I could’ve listened to it for hours; it’s encapsulating and enchanting; almost hypnotic.
We stopped for a cup of milky tea at a coffee stand that was crowded with monks having their daily caffeine hit; it was a really cool sight to see and be amongst – watching the religious practices amongst a mix of with tourists and locals, and lots of pigeons.

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Anjan then led us towards Pashnupathi – a large area classed as a world heritage sight, filled with temples and also used as a cremation sight; similar to Varanasi in many respects. The entrance fee was 1000 NR each, and we didn’t want to pay that to see bodies being burned, so rather, Jacob, Anjan and myself walked around the entire area, looking in from the gates as we walked through colourful stalls, past palm readers and open-air butcher shops, over hills and down to a point where we were able to view the cremations from a distance.

Jake and I had a wonderful time with Anjan and were so glad to have spent some time with him. He saw us off on the main road, where we boarded a public-style tuk tuk (driven by a female! Our first ever public transport ride with a female driver – woohoo!!) and squished in for a bumpy ride to Kathmandu Mall, nearby Thamel – our next destination.

In Thamel, we explored the shops a little more and stumbled upon a tiny momo shop selling delicious plates of steamed veggie momos for 40 rupees! Bargain – lunch for both of us cost 80 cents!… We chilled out for a while in the same place we’d found on our first day in Thamel, using the wifi and drinking cup after cup of lemon tea. Soothing.

We left Thamel around 4:30pm and planned to go back to Sarah and Sudaman’s home to cook them dinner as a ‘thank you’ for having both of us. As it turns out, we greatly overestimated our ability to find the bus, and underestimated the time it would take to get back to their home… After struggling to find the right micro bus for about an hour, we were about to hail a taxi when we found the right bus and even got a seat! Success! Little did we know that shortly after boarding the 12-seater micro bus (mini van) at 25 rupees a person, we’d be wishing we paid the exorbitant amount for a taxi.

We counted more than 45 bodies at one point inside this tiny van – images of clown after clown climbing out of a mini came to mind, but instead, the reality was lots of Nepalese people pushing and shoving and cramming into and out of the van at every stop. More than once, the driver got out and opened up the back door, shoving more people into the back of the van behind the seats in a space I didn’t know was even possible to stand in. In Nepal, it’s possible.

The sky got dark quickly, the traffic on the roads started to thin out (by Kathmandu standards) and it started to rain. The micro bus, however, didn’t thin out and our legs were soon numb from being so tightly jammed into our seats. I started to worry after we’d been on the bus for more than an hour, and didn’t seem to be anywhere near where we had to be.

Eventually we recognized the area that we had to get off at, and went straight to the nearest convenience store to ask for directions. We ended up calling Sarah from there, buying a heap of drinks, eggs for dinner, biscuits and bread, and walking back to the house feeling terrible we’d run out of time to cook anything spectacular.

Sarah was out when we got home – she was meeting a guy from the UK who was interested in teaching in Nepal – but Sudaman and their beautiful puppy were there to greet us. Sarah had bought buffalo mince meat so we were able to cook a spin on “Australian-style Rissoles” (more ‘The Castle’ quotes spring to mind).

Sarah came home, along with Howard, the UK guy,  who bought a bottle of South Australian wine and stayed for dinner. The power cut out so the three of us – Jacob, Sarah and myself – cooked in the dark by torch and head-torch light; an experience I enjoyed – we won’t get that anywhere else during our travels! Dinner was great – good conversation and great food; it was an unexpected but enjoyable way to spend our last evening with our couch surfing hosts and our last evening in Nepal, and I went to bed with mixed feelings: happy about how we’ve spent our time here, sad that we have to leave so soon, excited to be going to Japan tomorrow, and both ready and not quite ready to leave this area of the continent. Japan in a way is acting as an unofficial ‘breaker’ in our travels: we have been traveling in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – prior to Japan, and after, we’ll be in South-East Asia.

We’ve got so much to be excited about, and so much to look forward to. Tomorrow we leave a country, board a plane, fly to another country, board another plane, and touch down in Japan – my ‘spiritual homeland’ as I call it. It’s a new part of our travels, a new part of our journey, a new adventure and a new experience. I’m just so excited.

Nepal has been absolutely wonderful – incredibly beautiful and hospitable – and I am looking forward to coming back here again some day in the not-too-distant future.

Back to Bhaktapur, Nepal: 25 – 26.09.2013

Our morning started early; we had chai with our couch surfing host Hem this morning, a brief but nice opportunity to get to know him a little more; he shared some stories and photographs, and we discussed more about life in Nepal and in surrounding countries such as Tibet, Bhutan and China. We could tell he is a generous and genuine person, with a real passion for his country and for politics. He was really intelligent and it would’ve been great to have more opportunities during our short stay to talk with him like we did.

We took a taxi from Milan Chowk area – close to Hem’s home – after bartering the taxi drivers down to a reasonable fee: we were headed for Bhaktapur, a UNESCO heritage town some 13kms away in Kathmandu Valley that is apparently renowned as “Nepal’s cultural gem” – a historic city famous for its beautiful temples and pagodas, its Indigenous Newari community, and its arts and culture: traditional art and crafts, dances, festivals, food and music. Bhaktapur is also one of the three royal cities in Kathmandu Valley. I’m fascinated…

Arriving into Bhaktapur, we were amazed at how close we were in distance to Kathmandu’s chaotic sprawl, but how far away we felt; it’s much quieter here and so incredibly beautiful – it feels like a world away.

There is a 1100 Nepalese rupee ($11AUD) entrance fee to enter the main area of Bhaktapur; Durbar Square – a fee that we feel is well worth it for the two days we plan to spend here. This beautiful town and its historic structures seem to be quite well maintained and preserved, so the fee is justifiable. Also, this place is simply incredible.

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We wanted to find a nice guest house here and weren’t in a real rus; our packs were not too heavy and we were happy to wander about and look at a few places, before finding a coffee shop with free wifi and enjoying a cup of caffeine whist scouring the internet for guest house recommendations.

Eventually, we settled on a place – Kumari Guest House – which is in a nice area of Durbar Square, situated a tiny bit out of the main area where all the bustle and noise is. The staff offered us a room for 1500 NR, which he dropped to 700 NR when I continually said “no, it’s too much. If we stay for 2 nights will you give us the room for 700?”  I’m getting better at this whole batering thing. Yessssss….!

Our afternoon was wonderful; we walked around as we pleased, explored the temples and pagoda areas, the square, the market and shop stalls, the pottery square (where a cute old man let me play on his pottery wheel and then became not so cute when he demanded 200 NR. I left feeling momentarily annoyed.) The pottery square is full of people making, drying, carving, stocking the large open-air kilns, firing the clay, and selling the end products. It’s smokey and full of people and clay hand-made goods, and a really interesting place to see. There are chickens scratching in the hay whist men and women work to make traditional products from clay – both by hand and by wheel.

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Cute old man...demanded money and then wasn't so cute.

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Durbar Square is difficult to describe; it’s just so magnificent and so beautiful, so relaxing and enjoyable. It’s pulsing with life and people, locals and tourists alike. Momos are being steamed in huge pots in lane ways, there are local chia stands dotted about, women in traditional Newari red and black saris wander the lanes and sell their fruits and vegetables, and the men wear gorgeous traditional hats.
It’s touristy, of course, with every second shop selling souvenirs and handicrafts at inflated prices, cafes selling coffee and free wifi, children selling their guide services and too many offers for taxis to Kathmandu at a “good price.” Regardless, it’s oddly nice; it’s still calm – it’s easy to spend hours walking around, the shops sell some beautiful handicrafts and it’s nice to browse.

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Bhaktapur is surrounded by stunning greenery and mountains, the skies are a beautiful blue, there is little traffic, and the people are friendly. As it got dark, religious ceremonies began to take place around the square and the sound of cymbols, bells and singing could be heard.

Our evening was spent eating beautiful fresh curd, kulfi ice cream, sipping chai and relaxing; we chatted with a fellow traveler who had some impressive stories and experiences to tell. We feel so happy to be here, and look forward to a great day tomorrow – especially because I am not setting the alarm.

   

We woke on our first morning in Bhaktapur feeling refreshed and hungry! Juju Dhau – a curd served in a ceramic cup – is famous in this area, and after enjoying it last night we wanted more. It feels as if today has just involved eating and drinking: we ate curd for breakfast and then visited a café we’d heard great things about. We ordered two coffees and two meals – one coffee and one meal came out; the staff member had “forgotten” the other two orders she’d written down, but we weren’t at all fussed. It meant we could eat momos at a tiny hole in the wall place we discovered, hidden from the road – the Tibettan Momo Shop. We enjoyed beautiful vegetarian momos and delicious chai. Our cheapest meal in Nepal to date, and also our best; it always seems to be the case. As we keep finding out, plastic chairs, metal plates and barefooted staff seem to offer up the best food experiences.

We wandered about the town looking into shops here and there and a few nice hours were spent in the shady court yard restaurant outside our guest house, drinking more chai and just being. We are loving the relaxed pace and the ability to just enjoy such a quiet space here in Bhaktapur – I could literally hear birds tweeting and nothing else, it was beautiful!

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So many dogs!

So many dogs!

We wandered around with no real direction again this evening, just enjoying the beauty surrounding us. This area would’ve been simply incredible in its heyday, and it’s nice to imagine how it would’ve looked. The temples and pagodas, buildings and cobbled streets – all still in such good condition offer a glimpse of how things would’ve looked. This place really has captured our imaginations, and our hearts.

We went back to the Tibettan Momo Shop again for dinner. It’s a tiny place completely hidden from view (lucky we chanced upon it during our explorations), and obviously a local-only type place. It was packed with locals enjoying Thukpa soup and momos, and the family running the place seemed quite excited to have us there. We tried fried buffalo momos, or “Buff Momos” as they’re known everywhere around town, and they were so delicious we ordered a second plate! I hadn’t expected to be eating buffalo here, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We enjoyed more delicious curd for dessert – straight fresh from the ceramic bowl – whilst the man in the shop watched on with delight.

Back at our guest house, we could hear the cymbals and bells, the drumming and chanting coming from the nearby temples. It’s a beautiful background noise, and I felt really at ease here. We could spend longer here, quite easily, café hopping and strolling around. It would be nice to do some walks from here too, but we were happy enough just exploring the small area for the time we had here.

Tomorrow already we have to head back to Kathmandu – our passports and visas are ready to collect (and MUST be collected!) and we are meeting our hosts for the next three nights. We’re really looking forward to meeting them and enjoying Kathmandu with locals. There is a lot we want to see there and we only have 2.5 more days.

2.5 more days! It seems difficult to believe, we only just arrived here, right? It’s exciting and a little bit unbelievable that in a very short time, we’ll be in Japan!
I wonder if we will feel “culture shock” in a way, once we arrive in Japan? I know that after more than three months of travel in less developed countries and traveling on such a small budget, we will feel a bit of a shock in that sense. At the same time, I think it will be a wonderful “break” between where we’ve come from, and where we’re headed.

Being in Bhaktapur has allowed us to take a step back and travel slowly, enjoy our selves and our surroundings and begin to feel rejuvenated to the point where, I feel we’re back to our “optimum.” By the end of our time in India we were exhausted and a bit tired of traveling and being on the move constantly, but now I feel ready again and so excited to be somewhere new, pick up my pack and move, put it down somewhere else, meet new people and share stories and great food, explore places and try new things.

I absolutely adore traveling, more than I can express, and I can not even begin to portray or describe how overjoyed I am to be here, in Nepal… in the world… simply traveling.

Simply traveling...

Simply traveling…

A Week in Delhi, India: Part 2: 21 – 23.09.2013

It’s my birthday!

Today was amazing; a lot of fun with two special people. We woke and lazily had breakfast, chai, coffee and our daily yakkult. We were in no rush this morning with no real set plans; I wanted to visit Old Delhi and since our host had not yet been to that area, we decided Old Delhi was the go. I knew it would be chaotic and crowded, full of people and traffic and noise and mess, street food and street vendors, shops and historic sights; in my mind, a snapshot of the “real India” – whatever that means. I still haven’t quite grasped what the real India involves, it’s so diverse and ever changing, it seems.

It was wet today; heavy rains poured down for much of the day, but it didn’t dampen our fun. We took the train into Delhi, hopping off at Chandi Chowk and walking out into the chaos and madness that was Old Delhi. Walking around through the sprawl of people, traffic, umbrellas and puddles of water, we were all busy trying to navigate ourselves and the new surroundings – something which was quite difficult. People approached us and shop sellers invited us into their stores, or called out a series of “G’day mate” and “Konnichiwa;” I still wonder how they can assume our nationality so confidently (and correctly!).

We tried some various street foods: some chaat, aloo tikkia and kulfi falooda, and looked into the different shops and lane ways that were so over crowded with people riding motorbikes and shoppers busy buying gold and saris, men standing over vats of blackened oil and people eating kulfi and street foods beside the stalls.

We headed towards the Red Fort, and turned to cross the road when the rain began to pour down. Within minutes we were all soaked right through our clothing; drenched and dripping we wandered through the heavy rains trying to find shelter and the train station: we’d seen enough – for now – of Old Delhi.

We took a train from Chandi Chowk, first lining up for a train token with more than a thousand other people – absolute madness! The men in several queues were pushing and shoving, and the women’s queue, which was substantially shorter, wasn’t too much more civil. Our host, being so polite, explained to one girl who obviously tried to cut in front of us that “we are in a queue.” I don’t think that girl, or most of the people in the room, understood what a queue actually was, or involved – if they did, then it was a very different understanding to ours…

With a token in our hands, and no doubt a few bruises from the pushing and shoving happening behind us, we climbed through the security screenings and headed to Kahn Market area for some respite: we needed coffee and cake. After all, it’s my birthday today!

In the Kahn Market area, we looked around at some shops before we found a wonderful café with nice cake and coffee – we dried off and sipped our cups of deliciousness, sharing a slice of gooey chocolate cake between the three of us. The café doubled as a book shop, and after refueling we spent some time looking through the shelves; our host and I both enjoying the children’s book section and sharing our love for all the beautiful illustrations.

We stepped into one of the gourmet grocery shops and picked up some chicken breasts for this evenings dinner, then headed for the station and back “home” – some 60 minutes or so away by train.
The train system here never fails to impress me, it’s very clean and convenient, clearly signed and easy to negotiate and navigate. It really reminds me of the Japanese trains, although the rude people always pushing and shoving and generally doing whatever is necessary to get themselves a seat is not reminiscent of Japan trains in the slightest…

For dinner our host prepared an incredible Black Dahl and some beautiful salads, Jacob cooked chapatti and we made a style of grilled chicken that we usually cook back home… a mix of Indian, Japanese and Australian for dinner; amazing food, amazing people, amazing memories…

More chai, more good conversation, and I go to bed tonight technically one year older, but still feeling like I did when I was sixteen… okay, okay, maybe eighteen… fine! fine!…I know I’m not eighteen any more, but I am absolutely not a day over twenty one!

September 22nd marks our 55th day in India – our final day in this country – tomorrow we leave for Nepal. Wow.

It’s still unofficially my birthday today, according to our host (and me – every day is my unofficial birthday!), so we celebrated as we have every morning, with spicy home made chai prepared by Jacob, and a big breakfast – with Vegemite, of course!
Our host taught me some Japanese words as we sat around the table, and I diligently put them into every sentence I could for the rest of the day. I’ll be fluent before we get to Japan now…

Our second host comes home today with her boyfriend (whose birthday was on the 14th, just a week ago), and we’re having a sort of joint birthday party this evening: Our hosts are – incredibly generously – preparing a Japanese feast for this evening. I feel very spoilt.

Jake and I had no plans today: we traveled to New Delhi station and went to Connaught’s Place again. We wandered around for a while and then met up with an Indian couple – the girl who, funnily enough, I met through my blog. It was a really nice afternoon; we met and chatted in Café Coffee Day for ages, and they helped us to buy some beautiful biscuits from Wengers, an institution it seems in Connaught’s Place. We gained a great insight into India through speaking with them, and were grateful to meet them both!

Traveling back on the train to our “Japanese home in India,” it was a bittersweet feeling: tonight was to be the final hurrah, and we’ve really loved every minute of our stay – we’ll miss our Japanese family.

Arriving home, our host and her boyfriend Toshi were already home, and everyone was busy preparing everything. We showered and got ready for our party, and chit chatted with everyone whilst Jacob whipped up some more pavlova mix.

Dinner was an absolute feast; Japanese food, delicious inari, salads and beautiful vegetable dishes, along with tandoori chicken especially for Toshi, who hadn’t tasted it yet. There were six of us in total and we sat around the table chatting and eating – it felt so much like home. Yoshi – the neighbour from upstairs – bought a bottle of wine, and it mixed well with everything else going on.

With dinner finished, we cleared the table and took the little meringues we’d baked out of the oven.

…and then the lights went out and our host bought out a birthday cake. Not just any cake, but one with a whopping big photograph of Jacob and I on it! After blowing out the candles and fighting back tears of amazement and gratitude, I asked how and where they got such a cake… “Only in India” was the reply.

This massive 1kg cake, complete with our smiling faces staring back, was cut into just 6 massive pieces and served in tiny bowls; cake overflowing from the rim. It was hilarious to see everyone trying to negotiate their slab of cake, and Jacob and I were both struggling to eat the quarter of cake we’d cut from one of the six big slabs. On top of the cake, we had chai, biscuits and meringues, which were all a bit of a hit and left us all feeling full and sleepy.

Toshi was flying out late this evening, so eventually it was time to say goodbye to him – we sent him back to Japan with a bag of meringues. The evening came to a quiet end, we chatted a bit more and lolled about on sugar highs before eventually climbing into bed.

I can’t believe that tomorrow we’re off to Nepal. Tomorrow we have to say goodbye to our hosts and – bittersweetly – to India, where we’ve spent the last two months traveling and exploring. It’s hard to understand it, and I don’t think it’s quite sunk in that after tomorrow, we’re not going to be in India any more. A few days ago I was desperate to leave, I didn’t want to come to Delhi and I simply wanted out. Now, I will leave feeling good and content, and I couldn’t have asked for more. I know I’ll come back to this country again one day, and I’ll be more prepared for what is in store here. I will never forget India, nor my experiences and feelings in this country, and I am both grateful for what I’ve experienced, and grateful to be moving on.

That’s a rap.

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.

Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

We pulled into Hampi in the early hours of the morning, the sky still black with only the faintest silhouettes of rocks in the distance.
Before we could even step off the bus, touters boarded and the eager faces of four or five Indian men peered through the corridor, asking where we go and offering to take us to nice room. They swarmed around us whities as we tried to get our soaking wet, muddy packs organised and onto our backs. The smell of cow shit – lots of it – filled the air, and our nostrils.

We decided to walk into town; the Hampi bazaar is tiny an easily managed by foot; crowded with guest houses and restaurants, cows and the inevitable poo that they drop at every turn. We stopped for chai whilst the touters and tuk tuk drivers begged and pleaded with us to let them take us to different rooms for just 10 rupees (they forgot to mention the commission they’d make, at our expense, if we took a room). We’re cottoning on to their little tricks and games – thankfully – and we declined.

In the bazaar it took ages to find a room, we hopped from guest house to guest house, checking prices, cleanliness and wifi availability. It was light by the time we found a room that was basic, cheap, reasonably clean, and had a strong wifi connection.

We sunk a pot of masala chai at an eatery, and managed to have 100 rupees removed from our wallets by a pair of shifty “holy men” – learned our lesson there! We had breakfast with the locals at a little open air eatery that was cooking idlys and dosas, and took in the vast scenery surrounding us.

Hampi is a town like nothing we’ve before seen. The bazaar itself is a little maze of sprawling streets, souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants, roof top cafes, hippie shops, book stores and travel agencies. Red dirt, puddles of water and mounds of cow shit make up the roads and pathways, where children run bare footed and cows block every corner. The women walk through with baskets and pots of water on their heads, and every second corner shack is filled with convenience items like toilet rolls, biscuits and necessities like shampoo and trashy magazines. Monkeys jump from roof top to roof top, children who should be in school try to sell post cards and books, people are touting, and every restaurant wants to sell the tourists a cup of the “ best coffee.”
The cows spend their days lazily; strutting the streets and forcing their heads into any crevice that may return food. We watched them frequently enjoying pieces of cardboard and news paper from the ground, posters from walls, and occasionally offered them an indulgent banana skin treat.

Outside the bazaar, a small market area and group of street stall eateries, chai stands, produce carts and tacky souvenir shacks surrounds the bus station, which is more a large area of dirty and gravel overlooking mountains and boulders, ancient ruined monuments and one massive temple.

The ruins of Hampi are sprawled out over a large area; mountains, hills, piles of enormous rock and palm trees line every view. Still exhausted, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around the main sights for five or so hours.
The temples and monuments were amazing; spectacular architecture, carvings and scenery. At the main temple, we hired a guide for a short tour of the place which gave us great insight into the significance and meaning of certain structures, buildings, carvings and history.

Throughout the day, we were continually in awe of how empty these tourist attractions were; most of the time we had the monuments, temples and areas to ourselves, or only had to ‘share’ them with a few other people. When we were not alone, we spent the time being harassed by locals wanting to take our photo. I had a small baby shoved into my arms and posed for a family photo-shoot with a child who was obviously not comfortable. The family photograph features me pulling an unimpressed face, along with the child.
Local men continued to whip cameras and phones out at the sight of us, papping at the most inopportune moments. How many hideous photographs of me are now on facebook, I hate to think.
At the last temple we were bombarded by an Indian family, which consisted of about fifty people, who wanted photo after photo with different people in the shot, in different poses, with different family members, standing on different sides of Jake and I, and then in front, and then behind, and then with babies in the shot, and then without, and then some more. I began to get irritated by the 80th odd photograph, and when they started shoving cameras into our faces to take close ups of just Jake and I, I just walked off. They continued papping, and I continued pulling faces that would make any image delete-worthy. The photograph thing got exhausting fast.

We decided we’d leave tomorrow night for Mumbai, rather than spend a second night here in Hampi. We seem to be moving through places a lot quicker than expected, but it’s a good thing; we’re able to add in more places to visit in India which is exciting! Whilst a bus takes around 12 hours to reach Mumbai, a train takes around 25 hours and would involve a lot more hassle. We’d been keen to take a train for the sheer experience it would offer, but ended up booking a sleeper bus leaving from Hospet – a 30 minute bus ride from Hampi. We;re excited to move on to Mumbai and to spend a little while there.

A man at one of the many booking agents called us in through the window, and when we said “what’s up?” he responded with “nothing man, I’ve been waiting for you!” … Oh India, how you make us laugh.
He explained to us the sleeper bus he could book us on was “very beautiful” and would have a TV all to ourselves with English sub titles. The thought of trying to sleep on a bus with 32 separate TV units was terrifying, and furthermore, the smell of weed from his cigarette was a little off putting and we left.
We booked a non-tv sleeper bus at a different agency, and so it was official: tomorrow we’re off to Mumbai.

Well after 10pm, laying on our beds exhausted, Jake spotted a tiny bug on my pillow which was instantly recogniseable as a bed bug. Uuuuuugh! We can’t be bothered with this shit!
This was the start of a long night.
Luckily a little convenience shack was still open, and selling – of all things – fly spray. Pulling the beds apart, the mattresses off the bed frames, the sheets and pillow slips away and moving our belongings and bags as far way as possible, we coated every surface with the spray. Wondering the streets late at night, we dodged cows and goats, tiny children still awake, women carrying pots on their heads and finally found some locals playing soccer, who let us use their phone to contact the no-where-to-be-seen guest house owner. He came, didn’t seem to think that it was that big of a deal, and eventually dragged the infested mattresses out and a couple of filthy, thin, wheat packed mattresses in. We refused to sleep on the infested wooden beds, and instead were given no option but to sleep on the thin mattresses on the tiles without pillows or blankets. Our hopes for a decent night sleep were crushed.

On our second day in Hampi, which happened to be Indian Independence Day – we checked out and watched our bed bug infested mattresses get dragged back onto the bed frames, ready to welcome the next sleeping body.

Today happened to be Indian Independence Day – a holiday for all – and a not much of a day for us.

We strolled down to the street food stalls next to the bus station; the place was jam packed with people, food vendors, chai stalls; the place was buzzing. Hampi was going to be busy today; 8:30am and the area was packed with colour and life. People had Indian Flags painted on their cheeks, and a colourful image made from salt was spread out on the ground, surrounded by people cooking and eating and selling and buying.

Back at what had quickly become our “Old Faithful” in Hampi, we ordered a pot of chai and simply sat. We chatted with the owner, and about our trip. It’s moving so quickly it seems; or have we just been moving quickly? Traveling at night makes a real difference, that’s for sure.

We decided to visit another big temple today, we hadn’t been yesterday and we were keen to go today… but, it was an ocean of people – people from surrounding villages made the trip to Hampi today for the public holiday celebrations – and we were very quickly overwhelmed.
People all around us were photographing us with their phones and cameras, and tour guides hassled us to hire them. We didn’t want to leave our shoes with the “shoe guard” at the temple – and further more pay for that – and the touting tour guide didn’t console my fears by saying “yes, you know why people is wanting them is for that they are the good leather.” After several hundred photographs were taken of us from several hundred different, bad angles – with me making several hundred ugly faces for the photographers – we didn’t even enter the temple. It was irritating to not be able to move without being photographed, and we were worried about our shoes being stolen by the several lurkers near the thousands of pairs of shoes.

As we wandered away towards the river and ghats we were continually photographed as we walked, and parents forced their tiny children – and us – to shake hands. At the river, hundreds, if not thousands of Indian locals were mingling. I was getting really irritated by the number of cameras in our face, and people everywhere around us pretending to be photographing something else when they were obviously aiming their cameras at us – then looking away when I gave them the eye.

Sitting on the wall leading down the steps to the river, people surrounded us to get photos with the whities. I refused to face them, so I can only assume there will now be several hundred photos of my back all over Indian Facebook. A boy grabbed me by the arm and asked for a photo “just one madame” he said. I know this game well already – just one photo means just one with this specific camera, and no doubt there will be several cameras floating about – and I flatly refused. So, taking my answer in his stride, the boy directed his mates with their cameras around me, grabbed me and put his arm around me. He now has several photographs on his camera of me scowling, yelling at him and running away swearing. I can just imagine the photo of my screwed up face, downturned brow, curled bottom lip and two front teeth forming a “Fff….” will make a great story when he returns back home.

Running up the stairs away from the papping locals, I was harassed by several boys making kissing sounds and yelling “Hello madame, where you from?” “Hello madame, where you go?” “Hello madame, how are you?” Pissed off that I was unable to enjoy anything at the present moment without the harassment of local men, Jake and I retreated to a rooftop café where we spent hours drinking masala chai and stealing wifi.

Eventually, having spent a good portion of our day in a café, it was time to head to the bus stop, to travel to Hospet where our bus for Mumbai would depart at 6:30pm. However, we were stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us for 200 rupees – what is actually a very reasonable fair considering it was a) a holiday, b) we’re tourists, and c) it’s a 30 minute drive or more to Hospet. Not wanting to bother with the jam-packed, holiday maker buses, we took the tuk tuk, and it proved to be a better choice!
Prince, the driver, was the same age as Jake, and keen to get some advice on how to pick up Western girls; I think he may be a little confused about the process. He was asking what the maximum amount of time we thought it should take for him to be able to ‘woo’ a Western girl into marrying him in. As in, how many days – not years – mere days, for him to be able to meet, date and become engaged. Furthermore, his western bride must be prepared to move away and live in India, because he believes he cannot get Indian food anywhere else in the world, where as westerners can absolutely get western food here in India… Finally, he believes if he is married to a Western girl, he can absolutely do what he wants – go away whenever he wants, where ever he wants, with who ever he wants, and his western wife wont care – supposedly, this is the opposite of what Indian women are like, according to Prince. We shared some good laughs, tried to teach him what NOT to do (eg. DON’T make ridiculous kissing noises and behave in a ridiculous manner) and he was a genuinely nice guy.

Traffic jams nearby Hospet meant wandering hands had the opportunity to find their way into our tuk tuk, and men stared at me from every angle and viewpoint. Prince ended up having to drive a different way; 5 extra kilometers through muddy tracks and over rough road to get us to Hospet. Once there, he spent time chatting and talking, took us to our bus company stand, showed us where to get food and use a bathroom, and didn’t once ask for more than the 200 rupees he originally asked for. What a guy! We tipped him anyway.

Using a bathroom in Hospet was an ordeal; the men surrounding our tuk tuk as we got out were intimidating as they stared blatantly at me, and there just didn’t seem to be any women around, anywhere! They stared and stared, and when we finally made it to the bathroom to pay the 5 rupee charge, the man there tried to tell us it was a 5 dollar charge – in whatever currency ours was. Ridiculous.

Sigh. I think today was just one of those ‘off days’…

Finally on the bus, we joined forces with a Spanish girl and spent our evening eating Hide and Seek biscuits and chatting. Laying back in our double bed berth as the bus rolled towards Mumbai, we were able to relax and let today’s frustrations and stressors wash away.
We feel nothing but excited for what this new part of our travels will bring.

 

Scary Toilets and The Luxury Hampi Express

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Goa – or at least in Agonda – we’d unexpectedly ended up planning to leave. The tiny section we have seen of Goa has been breath-takingly beautiful: green, lush, misty, rice paddy fields and hills that climb into the clouds. Farmers and dirt roads, palm trees and oceans…

We packed and left Agona early in the morning, bleary eyed and still utterly exhausted; still trying to catch up on the lost nights sleep from the sleeper train. We took another overpriced tuk tuk to the bus station near by, then an hour long bus to Maragoado. From there, we sunk a couple of chai (oh, the withdrawals we were already suffering!) before taking another one hour long bus journey to Panji – Goa’s main city.

We dumped our backpacks with another sweaty man at the cloak room, which happened to be situated between the ladies and the men’s toilets: instead of praying that our bags would still be there when we returned, I prayed they wouldn’t absorb the smell of stale piss within the next 8 or so hours.

We’d been keen to go to an Organic Farm – Savoi Spice Plantation – to take a tour and see what organic farming is like in India; particularly in beautiful Goa. However, it was a 35km trip out there, and we didn’t want to spend 1000+ rupees on a taxi or tuk tuk, so we tried to find a bus. It was foolish; we’d just come off two hours on two separate buses that were packed so tightly it was difficult to move, and further more, we were both exhausted and hungry. But we persevered; asking one bus conductor after another for assistance in finding the right bus. We were sent to one side of the massive station, then back again, then back again, then back to a smaller section of buses, then told there was no bus, then told there was several buses, then told we had to pre-purchase a ticket, then told after we’d lined up for the ticket we didn’t need a ticket and to go “over there”, then we were “over there” we were told that bus didn’t go to the plantation, and it was around about then that I said “Fuck it I don’t even care!”, and we decided we’d just go and stuff our faces with North Indian thali and drink lassi instead.

We were so exhausted, we struggled to get up after eating, which had consequently made us even more fatigued. We had the good intention of visiting Old Goa – 9km away – which was filled with old Portuguese churches… The thought of visiting Churches today however, felt like the biggest chore, and we were much more inclined to find a chilled out café and waste away the hours until our sleeper bus departed. As we wandered about like a couple of sloths, we found a ‘Nescafe’ café – which would do for a few minutes at best – and then suddenly, I had a fantastic idea.

Let’s go and see a movie at the cinema. Not just any movie. A Bollywood movie.

Arriving at INOX Cinema, we booked tickets for Bollywood Blockbuster “Chennai Express.”
The next three hours were amazing; we don’t understand any Hindi, but we followed along easily enough, thanks to Bollywood’s ridiculously dramatic over-acting, spontaneous singing and dancing numbers and a good dose of imagination. We loved it – definitely going to see more Bollywood. We came to beautiful, beachy Goa expecting to spend our time mostly outdoors, but instead we spent our best hours there inside the cinema complex, and came out singing the catchy tune “Chen-ai-ai-ai-ai, ai-ai-ai, Chen- aiii expresssssssssssssss” – a tune that has stayed with us ever since.

We didn’t have to wait long between our movie finishing and our bus departure; enough time to get a drink, walk to the bus station, collect our bags, buy some food, and for me to use the bus station bathroom. It was the scariest Indian toilet I was yet to see; you know it’s going to be a horrifying experience when you – the white forigener – walk in, only to meet an Indian woman warning you “dirty! So very dirty! Do not go!” with a horrified expression on her face as she rushes out. Still, I had a 10 hour bus ride ahead, and no choice. I picked the least scary squat toilet, rolled up my pant legs, held my breath… I thought the worst was over… and then I went to wash my hands in the sink which was filled with ricey vomit. Uuuuuugh.

Jake downed five samosas in the time frame it took me to mentally recover from the scary toilet experience, and then along with several other foreigners, we boarded our first ever sleeper bus – a mighty steed – bound for Hampi. We were not sure what to expect; I feared the worst as I’d read about bad experiences, but when we walked through the isle to find our beds 7 and 8, we were surprised to find a double bed – with sheets, a pillow and even a blanket! What luxury. I called this bus, the Luxury Hampi Express.

In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a refreshments break. I clambered out, bleary eyed, needing to wee. Jake came along to the toilet block to protect me, but waiting outside the piss smelling building, he couldn’t save me from the horrors of the officially scariest toilet I have now seen since arriving in Asia. Use your imagination.
Stifling my screams, I was forced to wee in the open air onto a sloped piece of concrete whilst Jake stood guard to make sure no one else came along for the show.
I guess, when your partner can openly, willingly and comfortably watch you squatting over a piece of piss sodden concrete, and not be at all bothered by the sight, you know you’re the best possible companions.

Back on the bus and with the horrors of the refreshment stop slowly easing, we lay there in the Luxury Hampi Express saying a silent goodbye to Goa, and letting the feeling of excitement for a new place to explore wash over us.