Ramen Kyoto: 7.10.2013

After too many late nights we were in need of a sleep in, and woke well after 11am. We cooked rice for breakfast/lunch and doused it in soy sauce and kewpie mayonaise – what I would consider a gourmet meal for us cheapskate backpackers.

It wasn’t until around 1pm that the three of us decided we should get a move on and actually do something today! Our plan was to go to the Golden Pavilion – Kinkaku-ji – which is meant to be the most spectacular temple complex in all of Kyoto (and Kyoto has a LOT of temples, so it had to be pretty bloody impressive!)…
Eventually leaving the house, we headed straight for the convenience store to get a coffee, and somehow ended up lost and in front of a supermarket; even better! Supermarkets are cheaper and have a much bigger, better andmore interesting range of foods. [Another “Japan on a budget” tip – buy your food stuff and drinks, if you can, at supermarkets; most of the time they have a hot and fresh made selection of things like sushi, tempura and fried goods at super cheap prices.] I love Japanese supermarkets – they are so interesting and every time I go into one it’s like I’m going in for the first time; I’m always discovering something new.
We walked out with sushi, onigiri, a massive bottle of water, juice, milk tea and cold coffee; the three of us were ready to start our day.

Nearby the supermarket we stopped to eat our food; as it so happened we managed to park ourselves right next to a large public tourist map of the area, and quickly discovered that we were surrounded by temples galore. The area surrounding Yudai’s home is really beautiful; full of lane ways and small streets, beautiful old traditional houses, little shrines and statues, quaint outdoor gardens and old bikes parked next to modern cube cars. Just walking through the streets was a joy, but to discover this area offered so much in terms of beautiful temples, shrines and parks was exciting. The Golden Pavilion was momentarily put on hold.

Finishing our sushi and onigiri, we turned a corner and entered a very large and beautiful temple complex that is the incredibly majestic Ryoan-ji. We spent a long time wandering through the area and enjoying the stunning ancient, intricate buildings and temples, the scenery, a bamboo forest area and silent, perfectly manicured gardens. Lots of sections of the complex were no access areas, but never the less we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, getting lost amongst the massive structures and trees surrounding us.

Moving on from Ryoan-ji, we wandered through the streets and laneways, attempting to navigate our way towards the Golden Pavillion – Kinkaku-ji, admiring the little houses and shops, the streets and the buildings. We stumbled upon tiny temples and historic landmarks and buildings, and almost walked straight past a little home with a very open shop front, before backtracking to take a closer look.

Amongst piles of wood, scraps of materials, work benches and tools, a little man was hard at work building traditional tatami mats. We stood at a distance for a minute or two simply admiring his work space, when suddenly I heard “please come in!”… Stepping into his work shop, the little man was busily measuring up – with beautiful, old looking tools – a tatami mat that looked and smelled so beautiful; it smelled just like Japan to me.
He stopped his work to show us various parts of the tatami – the older style ones and the newer versions, how they are made and what from, the materials used and some of the ways tatamis are layed out in a room – for example, a six, eight or twelve tatami room layout. At one point, we asked a question and he apologized to us whilst he tried to find the answer in his work shop; we had interrupted his work and yet, he was saying sorry to us! Japanese people are so incredibly polite, we were all standing there marveling at the generosity of this man. He was so kind, obliging and welcoming.
When we were leaving, we asked if it was okay to take a photograph of him in his work shop. He insisted we go to the front of his shop, where he untied and pulled down a large material sign hanging outside, offered to take our photographs and posed obligingly for our touristy photos. Amazing – a little experience that I will remember so fondly.

Moving on from Mr. Tatami, we got a little lost amongst the streets and lane ways whilst trying to find our way to Kinkaku-ji. We stopped at an old camera shop where two more very kind and obliging Japanese people assisted us with directions. It was already after 4pm, and Kinkaku-ji was closing at 5pm. We decided to walk there anyway and hope we’d get there in time.

The walk there was nice, and we found our way past more interesting streets and shops, walking up a hill to the entrance of Kinkaku-ji at exactly 4:50pm. We’d made it just in time.
We purchased our tickets and walked straight in; I think maybe we went exactly at the right time because as soon as we walked through the gates and were blown away by the indescribable beauty that is Kikaku-ji, only sharing the view with just a few other tourists. The Golden Pavillion reflected onto the lake, surrounded by such beauty that is so unique to Japanese gardens. We stood marveling at the shining gold structure, awe struck. We took photographs and spent time just standing and admiring the beauty before us. It was truly magical.
It didn’t take too long to walk throughout the complex and gardens; the pavilion being the highlight – it was one of the best temple complexes I’ve seen.

We eventually headed back to Yudai’s home; despite the fact that it had taken a long time to get to the Golden Pavilion originally, it was really quick to get back (we must’ve gone the right way this time…).
Yudai had been telling us about a local ramen restaurant he loved so much, that served a very Japanese, very local, very delicious and very large servings of ramen. Together with his house mate Hiroki, the five of us walked down to the ramen restaurant. My first impression was that this place must be bloody good – we had to queue for around 30 minutes or more to get a seat at this very small suburban eatery. Placing our order and paying 650Y at a vending machine, we took a white ticket each and sat down at the communal table. The place was tiny: the long narrow table surrounded the cooking space in a square shape, in the middle one hard-working man worked as the chef, the cook, the server and the cleaner. All the other men -and there were only men – were eating MASSIVE bowls of overflowing ramen; the amount of food was almost sickening! We ordered “the normal” – deciding to accept the challenge – and Yudai placed our orders with the man who was so busy doing so many things at once. We watched as he added stock, water, sauces and spices, boiled the noodles and added them to the stock, piled on steamed bean shoots and a massive dollop of crushed garlic, and  then… a massive ladle of pure, solid chunks of fat… Oh, good god.

When my normal sized bowl of ramen was served, I instantly thought “this could feed all five of us.” It took a lot of time and effort to get through even the smallest amount of that ramen, and pretty soon we were all struggling. I think the amount of pure fat was the most challenging, but we were all determined to taken on this “challenge…”
In the end though it was just too much; we all (besides Jake) left our ramen bowls full still; we’d eaten so much and barely made a dent in our regular sized bowls. It made me feel sick just thinking about the amount of food other men at the table were consuming…or maybe that sick feeling was due to the influx of fat pumping through my digestive tract. We left the restaurant feeling overly full, heavy, a little bit sick and at the same time, content with this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime (for us) foodie experience. Yudai told us proudly he eats here twice a week; I laughed whilst my stomach cried a little.

Heading back towards home, I think all of us were silent as our digestive systems tried to cope with the onslaught of food and fat we’d just consumed. Whilst waddling and struggling home, we came across a group of people playing with what looked like material hackey sacks – one person standing in the middle holding up a huge pole with a bucket on the top, similar to a basketball hoop. They were all going wild racing to throw these material sacks into the bucket, and I was eager to join in. Yudai asked the group if we could participate and very quickly we found ourselves bracing, ready for a count down from three so we could all go wild, racing to try and get as many balls into the bucket high above our heads. It was difficult to concentrate due to the fact that I was laughing so hard – It was such a random situation but so much fun! I managed to get one in the bucket and spent the rest of my time flailing about with pride and laughing too much. There we all were, late in the night, throwing material balls wildly around with a bunch of very welcoming Japanese people. Fuck Japan is awesome!

Stopping at Family Mart to buy litres of water and cold tea in order to fight the dehydration that was fast consuming us as a result of sudden high salt intake, as well as a good stock of breath mints – considering the amount of garlic we’d just consumed – we were all starting to feel the effects of that mammoth ramen. Bloated and heavy, all five of us flopped onto the couch at home and lolled about, sleepily, occasionally rubbing our disgruntled somachs with sympathy.

Today has been an amazing day, one I will remember fondly. I am so happy to be here.

Golden Kyoto: 6.10.2013

Our next few days in Kyoto were spent in a wonderful blur; we were never in a rush or following a strict agenda and had a wonderful time with Yudai, Karim and Yudai’s house mates, whenever they were around.

On our first full day in Kyoto, Karim, Jacob and myself took the bus to Shijo street and headed back to Nishiki market; Karim had not yet been there and Jacob and I wanted to buy a bag of rice; being able to cook rice for breakfast along with our supermarket-bought instant miso soups would help to keep our budget low. A one kilogram bag of rice cost us 400Y and should see us through a few breakfasts. There’s another little “Japan on a budget” tip for you…The three of us explored the market area a little more and I took one for the team and bought a baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed head to eat. A little too chewy for my liking.

Lunch was, of course at Yoshinoya, at the Hanumaru Udon chain where instead of our usual beef bowl we enjoyed udon noodle soup and age tofu instead. Karim is a fellow budget long-term traveler so it works well.

The three of us walked from Nishiki market area up to Kiyomizu temple area – one of the very well known and touristic areas and of course, where the beautiful Kiyomizu temple is… We easily spent a few hours wandering the little cobbled streets and exploring the many shops, eating so much food and so many – too many – free samples of various Kyoto Sweets, yatsuhashi and green tea drinks. We got lost amongst the tourists dressed in rental kimonos and the crowds of people as we walked up and up towards the temple complex.
Being budget travelers, we were too stingy to pay to go inside and instead took in the temple, surrounding buildings and structures from the outside and enjoyed the magnificent view over Kyoto that can be seen from just outside the Kiyomizu temple. It was pretty impressive and stunningly beautiful, but I think too many free samples of yatsuhashi left us feeling a bit tired and the rest of our afternoon was spent lazily as we headed back to explore more of Shijo Street.

We wandered into a Pachinko Slot Room – similar to a pokies room I guess – where Karim gave us a whirl wind lesson on how the game works. We’re not into gambling but Pachinko is everywhere in Japan and I guess part of the Japanese culture as it seems, so it was fascinating – and a little depressing – to watch all these people playing these machines. After so many months in developing countries and seeing how far even just $1 can stretch, it’s hard to watch SO much money being squandered away so easily…

Discovering that Karim had not yet experienced a Japanese department store food hall, we wandered into the basement level of Takashimaya and spent more than an hour wandering through the different food sections looking at all that exquisite food, watching various foods being made and prepared, marveling at the high price of plastic foods, tasting free samples of various miso pastes and foods we could not identify… We were amazed by the desserts that looked more like art forms and managed to embarrass a worker making some sort of delicious cake, who was too shy to face us as we watched him baking.

Exhausted by 7pm, we took refuge in a coffee shop that sold cheap, bad coffee but had free wifi – we’re budget travelers; this basically translates to “our wifi sensors are well developed.” We spent an hour or so using the wifi and chatting. It’s really nice traveling as a group – it changes up our “couple travelers dynamic” and is a lot of fun. It’s also great to hear a different perspective and have the opportunity to talk all things travel!

Late evening we caught the bus back to Yudai’s home; in the dark streets of beautiful homes we got a little disorientated and were forced to head to the local Family Mart convenience store to use the free wifi for google maps and pick up some quick, cheap dinner. Another “Japan on a budget tip”: convenience store food (instant cup noodles, sushi, onigiri) is pretty affordable.

Finding our ‘home’ again thanks to google maps, we spent our evening chatting with Yudai, Yudai’s housemate and another friend of theirs… we ended up going to sleep really late again – well after 3am. Not setting the alarm tomorrow morning, that’s for sure.

Welcome Kyoto: 5.10.2013

On the morning of the 5th we waved goodbye to our hosts Saki and Tomoki in Osaka and boarded a train: we were Kyoto bound.

A very quick (just over an hour) train ride left us feeling a world away from Osaka as we arrived into Kyoto. During our train trip a Korean couple currently living in Japan had chatted with us and kindly invited us to stay at their home in Kobe anytime – it continues to amaze me how generous people in this world are.

Dumping our bags into the coin lockers once again – something we’ve gotten very used to very quickly – we headed for tourist information to get ourselves a decent map and then went straight to Nishiki Market area, stopping for lunch at Gogyu along the way for delicious gyozas and one very unique bowl of burnt miso ramen. Sharing the enormous bowl of ramen between the two of us meant “Japan on a budget” wins again…

Nishiki Market and the surrounding area is a great place to spend a few hours (or more!) exploring. The market offers a wealth of different Japanese foods (fruits, vegetables, pickles, meats, sea foods, sweets, rice, sushi and sashimi, snacks, crackers, candies, ice-creams, desserts, green tea, traditional Japanese foods and more!) as well as handicraft, clothing, accessories and souvenir shops, generations-old knife shops, cooking shops and more. There are foods to taste and try, cheap snacks and incredible, mouth-watering sashimi skewers for 180Y!
Nishiki Market is fantastic for wandering around, sight-seeing, exploring, tasting, eating, photographing and buying (if you’re not on a tight budget like us)!

The near-by shopping streets are also really interesting to look through; they offer an insight into the various Japanese fashion trends which are sometimes cute and sometimes just… well, strange. The shops are filled with interesting, unique, cute and sometimes weird items (like giant stuffed cartoon poos) and we had some fun walking through the mall area – Jacob darting in and out of a few very busy manga stores.

From Nishiki we headed to the famous Gion district of Kyoto and through Pontocho street. We were lucky to see three real geishas, which was exciting. The Gion district is simply stunning; so beautiful and traditional-looking. The laneways are filled with tiny restaraunts and bars, many hidden behind material curtains. If we wern’t on a budget (in fact, if we were more likely on a spending spree) perhaps we could’ve afforded some of the delicious looking meals at the many restaurants on offer.
As we walked through the quiet streets I couldn’t help but imagining what must have gone on – and still goes on – behind some of the closed doors of these exquisite buildings. It’s a fascinating culture.

This evening we collected our bags and headed to the train station near by couch surfing host number three – Yudai’s home.

Yudai is a university student in his early twenties with a passion for music and in no way “shy” like the stereotypical Japanese boy. He instantly welcomed us into his home which he shares with two other university student boys. This is a real bachelor pad home, and a real university student home. I love it already and feel very at home here.
Soon after we arrived two of Yudai’s friends came around to meet us, and it was not long after that, that Karim – another couch surfer from Argentina – arrived. The six of us spent the evening chatting, sharing stories, sharing our cultures and forming new friendships. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning chatting with Karim; it was nice to have a fellow traveler to talk with.

We fell asleep on our futons, on top of beautiful smelling tatami mats, and I felt so excited to be here in Kyoto once again.

See you again, India: 23.09.2013

It’s hard to believe that right now we are sitting in the New Delhi International Airport, awaiting our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. Our Indian adventures have come to an end.

Jacob and I just officially conquered two months of traveling in India; we stayed healthy and well, incident free and for the most part, unscathed by the touters: that in itself deserves some sort of traveller’s medal, surely.

This morning we woke up in our “home” in Delhi, India, and tonight we’ll fall asleep somewhere in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ve quite grasped the fact that after two months of traveling here in crazy, chaotic, exhilarating India, we are now leaving. Oddly enough, after only a few weeks ago wanting to up and leave right there and then in Jaipur, it now feels as though we are leaving India at the perfect time, and I’m so happy about that.

Will we miss India? I think, of course, there will be many aspects of this country and the lifestyle we were leading here that we will miss, but at the same time, I think we’ve grown a bit weary of so many of the constant extremes that India threw at us daily. It’s not that we can’t handle India – we have handled this country very well, I believe – but, more so, it’s that we have enjoyed enough of it for now. In my opinion, whilst India is indeed incredible, it is also a very challenging country for a foreigner to travel in long-term.

Looking back over the past two months, it’s been a whirlwind that has often been quite difficult at times to imagine, comprehend and describe. Surreal. Awe Inspiring. Extravagant. Shocking. There were places that left us speechless, mouths open in awe. Other places left us shocked, inspired and moved.
India may have been challenging at times, but it was never boring; always interesting and alive and buzzing – something we admire and love about this country.
India was everything and at the same time nothing like we imagined, expected and prepared for; sometimes it was a country we were completely ready for, and other times we were left shocked and confronted to our cores.

India’s diversity amazes me, and looking back over the last two months, it’s impressive to recall our journey…

We arrived into chaotic and bustling Chennai, where the streets were a buzz of food and chai, people and traffic, and we were high on the excitement of such a “new world” surrounding us.
From Chennai we traveled to French Pondicherry, with the help of a kind stranger who shared just a few hours of friendship with us over a memorable lunch.
From French Pondi to dusty Trichy, then our first over night bus ride to the colourful and magnificent hill station of Ooty, where we pulled out the jumpers buried at the bottom of our packs and explored Jacob’s family history in nearby Lovedale.
From Ooty to Conoor, to Coimbatore to Alleppey on another overnight bus, where we paddled down Kerala’s backwaters, got caught in monsoon rains and marveled at the beauty and simplicity of life along the water.
From Alleppey we traveled to Kochi on a vomit filled bus, where we found tourists and cafes, art and Chinese fishing nets, great people and a fascinating history.
Our first Indian Railways train then took us 16 hours north of Kochi to Goa, where monsoon season meant we came, admired the beauty and left very quickly, catching our first Bollywood movie at the cinema before the overnight sleeper bus (double bed with sheets, pillows and all!) to Hampi – a magical place with a quaint bazaar and scenery that will remain etched in my memory.
Another overnight bus from Hampi saw us rolling into Mumbai the following morning; cheating and scams were quickly forgotten when our couch surfing host welcomed us and made our stay in this big city memorable for the right reasons.
Mumbai to Udaipur on another overnight train, and we were finally in Rajisthan; looking out over the spectacular city from our rooftop balcony as we chatted with other travelers was “exactly like the India I imagined…”
Udaipur to Ajmer and Pushkar: two places we saw, and probably wont ever see again, before a nightmare bus ride to Jodhpur, where we found solace and new friends at our guesthouse near the clock tower, and admired the mighty fort on the rooftop every evening.
Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, where we enjoyed mutton curry at our couch surfing host’s home and took a memorable 2 day trek into the Thar desert on camel back: an adventure I’m still smiling about.
Jaisalmer to Bikaner: another desert town that offered up some interesting food, a very unique (rat) temple, lots of staring and mixed feelings towards India.
Bikaner to Jaipur, where we ate amazing street food and drank copious amounts of coffee, explored the mighty fort walls and booked tickets to Japan.
From Jaipur we traveled to Agra on the Shatabdi Express: a luxurious train ride (by Indian standards) that left me wishing we could’ve stayed on it longer. The Taj Mahal was spectacular, but the people we came into contact with in Agra forced us into Café Coffee Day for eight hours straight; we went into hiding whilst waiting for our overnight train.
Exhausted and anguishing about our travels, my memories of Lucknow include a filthy overnight train, horrible auto drivers and scheming, scamming cycle-rickshaw riders, impressive and delicious kebabs, kulfi, lassi and chaat, and some extremely hot weather.
With the end of India insight, feeling low and exhausted, we traveled wearily to Varanasi wondering what was in store. What we found was a city pulsating with religion, tradition, culture, spirituality, life and death. Awesome lassi and lots of poo are two other stand-out memories.
Departing Varanasi on our last overnight train journey in India (for now), we signed on the dotted line that, yes, we had been informed about common muggings, druggings and robberies on this particular train route, and arrived into Delhi, our final destination in India, planning to stay just one night. Instead, we stayed 7, and spent our time eating, cooking, enjoying, sharing and celebrating my birthday with our Japanese hosts…

What a journey. One I will never forget.

Today, we’re leaving India two weeks earlier than we originally planned, and it feels right. We go to Nepal with no regrets, after experiencing two months of massive highs, amazing adventures, fantastic people, frequent challenges, successes, some lows, and then ending on another fantastic high. India is a country we’ll come back to; a life time isn’t long enough to see everything here, but how lucky we are – and were – to have traveled throughout this country.

See you again, sometime, India.

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.

Generous India – 01.08.2013

We can now mark our second dot on the Indian map – we’re in Puducherry (Pondicherry), but I’m just going to do as the locals do and call it Pondy. It’s easier and it sounds cuter.

We planned to take the bus early this morning from Chennai to Pondy, in order to spend all afternoon exploring, stay just one night here, and then move on to our next destination late tomorrow afternoon… But like I said, that was simply the plan, and travel is no fun if you stick to a plan.

Waking late, we fluffed about, re-packed our backpacks – which we had managed to sprawl over the entire of our tiny room in the three days we were there in Chennai, and filled our canister with chai.
Checking out, the guest house staff told us how we could save a whole hour of travel if we most simply walked 5 minutes to the train station near by, took a train 15 minutes South, and then got down and got a bus to Pondy…So most simple, so quick, cheaper, and so much more convenient sounding…

Firstly, the walk was not 5 minutes and was not most simple either; it was like 30 minutes of walking in the relentless heat and pollution with 20kg on our backs through hectic traffic and hoards of people, past touters galore, and over the bodies of the sleeping homeless.
We finally then arrived at an empty – I repeat – EMPTY – train station… EMPTY! In Chennai! It was scary. We bought a ticket to a train station we didn’t know how to pronounce, with no idea where the platform was, where to go from the station, or how to get to Pondy…Things weren’t feeling that most simple any more…

And then a young man (whose name is Sreeram) walked by us, and was kind enough to show us how to get to the platform, which was ‘hiding’ upstairs. We chatted a bit, and it ended up we were both getting down at the same station, so thankfully he said he’d show us where to go; turns out, knowing which station the train was currently in was really difficult, as the large signs were only in either Hindi or Tamil, with tiny English translations underneath. We spent the duration of the train trip talking, and when we got to the station that we needed to be at, he explained that it was a 20 or so minute walk from the station to the bus stand to catch a bus to Pondy – a walk we soon realised would’ve been very hard for us to navigate on our own. “Get down from train and catch bus to Pondy” wern’t exactly detailed, accurate or most simple directions, Mr. Guest House man!

Sreeram was so generous, he hailed a ‘Rick’ (a rickshaw) – as he called them – and tried to barter with the driver to give us the local price (which should’ve been around 25 rupees). The driver refused anything less than 50 – because of our bags apparently – but it didn’t matter. Sreeram hopped in the seat next to the driver and the drivers friend, so there was three in the front, Jake and I in the back, along with our two bulging backpacks. Sreeram told us “Now you’re getting a real ride in India.” He said the tuk tuk driver would drop us where we needed to go, and that he was going to go a little further to a restaurant he loves here; turns out the food there was the whole reason he was travelling to this area on the outskirts of Chennai. Since it was lunch time, we asked if we could join and he was delighted.

He paid for the tuk tuk, much to our protests and explained we are his guests. At the restaurant, he ordered for us both the local specialty, and we had a wonderful time talking and learning a little more about India, and him and his family.
At the end of the meal, he refused to let us pay, again saying we were his guests – he was really so very generous, we felt really humbled.
Finally, he walked us to the ‘bus stop’ (just a stretch of road much like every other stretch of road) and hailed a bus for us when one quickly drove by.
Our goodbye was quick, but we hope Sreeram knows how appreciative we were of everything he did for us today; without his assistance, we would’ve been very, very lost.

The bus to Pondy was really very civilized! It was full, but not packed, the chairs were comfortable and they reclined, there was no blaring music, the driver drove at a very comfortable speed, and we even had a rest stop break! Very different from what we’d expected!

We arrived in to Pondy late afternoon, around 5pm, and managed to find a decent guest house in the old French Quarter. We booked for two nights here instead of the one we had planned – we got caught up today with other such fun.

The sky blackened quickly and it rained heavily for a little while, so we didn’t venture out until late evening, but it didn’t matter – like Chennai, this place doesn’t sleep early.
The shops and streets were buzzing, and certain areas were blocked off to three and four wheelers (although those vehicles didn’t seem to want to obey the laws and crammed the streets anyway). People were selling, buying, shopping, eating, drinking – it was as hectic as Chennai had been, but it doesn’t really phase us now; already we’ve adjusted to the madness of every day life here in India.

Walking the French influenced, but very hectic Indian streets, we looked through shops and market stalls before heading back late, preparing for a day of exploring tomorrow. It’s been a great, inspiring day; one we will absolutely remember for the rest of our trip, thanks to one very generous stranger.

Inside the Fort: Galle, Sri Lanka

Arriving in Galle after 5pm – exhausted, hot and sweaty, dirty and frustrated – having only minutes earlier been prayed upon by a sea of tuk tuk drivers ready and willing to rip us off, we arrived inside the Galle Dutch Fort.

Instantly, we were taken a back by the impressive forte walls and the beautiful UNESCO heritage streets and  lane ways, lined with quaint, old-fashioned Dutch homes with intricately carved window frames, peeling paint and charming little gardens. Handicraft shops, art galleries and cafe’s are all around, and I was very much looking forward to exploring

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Surveying a small area of the fort, we hoped that local touts would be quick to identify us (how could they not, with our bulging packs and disheveled looks) and show us a room somewhere – and it didn’t take long. We got a good little room for a good price, above the family room of an elderly couple who, although spoke no English, were happy to smile at us every time they saw us.

It took four face washes before the white cloth would run clean on our skin, and two hair washes before the shampoo foam was no longer a grey colour. Never before had a cold shower felt better, and with the dirt, grime and pollution that the water washed away, so did any past frustrations and stress; with that, we were ready to spend our first evening in Galle exploring the fort.

Inside Galle Fort is beautiful and intricate, with quaint little shop fronts, tea houses, antique boutiques, homes, miniature gardens and cafes. A mix of old and new can be seen there; old in the architecture and buildings, lane ways, and of course the large fort walls, and new in flashy cafés, stylish shops and refurbishments. Tuk tuk drivers line the streets – as like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, but the vibe here is relaxed and laid-back, and the salty sea air and crashing waves beyond the light house and fort walls makes this place idyllic.

Galle Fort Light House

Galle Fort Light House

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

Street Art

Street Art

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

A section of Galle Fort

A section of Galle Fort

We settled in very quickly, thanks to our very generous couch surfing hosts, our beautiful surroundings and copious amounts of tea!

Our first day in Galle was spent simply walking around the Fort – we explored the little handicraft and chic shops, selling exquisite teas, beautiful gem stone jewelry and hand-made all sorts. We visited the lighthouse, and walked along the historic walls of the massive Dutch fort. We passed through the streets to the ocean, and found a perfect way to wind down after hours of exploration – lots of cups of tea.

King Coconuts for sale

King Coconuts for sale

The locals here are so friendly, with big smiles on their faces, and on our second day, when we moved guest houses, we were welcomed by an incredibly generous couple who looked after us well for our short stay.

Sun down in Galle Fort is a sight to be seen, and a really wonderful experience. People are just, suddenly, everywhere – locals and foreigners, young and old, school groups, families, couples, friends – they all come out to enjoy the evening; to walk along the fort walls overlooking the crashing waves of the ocean, to play cricket in the grassy area, to eat ice creams and street foods, to swim in the shallow water, and to socialize.

An evening in the fort

An evening in the fort

We passed so many people along the fort walls at sun down, and everyone seemed to be so simply happy. We passed a group of young men – one with a drum – who were singing and clapping and moving to the drum beat as they danced along the fort walls. We joined in with them – more by force than choice – and it was wonderful to share smiles and hand shakes with the locals.

Singing,  Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Singing, Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Sri Lankans seem to love hand-shakes; we’re forever putting our hands into the open, outstretched palms of smiling locals… but, then they never seem to want to let go: they hold on after the initial shake and continue to hold your hand until they’ve finished talking with you. People are so friendly with each other, with us, and it feels wonderful to be so welcomed.

We got caught up in the crowd of young singing and dancing boys who all wanted to talk to the foreigners – one was apologizing and claiming “I sorry, we are a little bit drink” – at which we all burst out laughing. It ended with the large group taking photo after photo after photo of us whilst they posed in every different way they could’ve thought of. After thanking us a hundred times over, I was able to put into practice the one Sinhalese saying I know – “pachnayak ne”  (no problem) – and the response was a group of boys all squealing with delight, and so, so many more hand shakes and smiles.

...Old Mate in the pink wants a piece.

…Old Mate in the pink wants a piece…can you guess which one is a little bit drink?

When we haven’t been exploring the fort, we’ve either been in the bustling, busy New Town area, taking small day trips to near-by coastal beach towns, or drinking cup after cup after cup of tea.

In new town, once you exit the walls of the fort, things are much more happening and lively; where you can easily get caught up in a whirl wind of people and traffic, beeping horns and touters, food vendors, lottery tickets and market stalls.
We found the old Dutch Markets where colourful vegetables are sold (and cheeky cows munch on stray egg plants), the fish mongers selling their massive tunas and other daily catches, and the fruit market area where we’ve been buying bunches of bananas and rambutans on a daily basis.

New Town bustle

New Town bustle

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

Back in the fort, we spend a happy couple of hours at the start, of end – or both – of each day drinking pots of tea at “our local haunt.” The owner of the café knows us already as his regulars; we sit down and he doesn’t even have to ask – he just says “I’ll get you a pot of tea” with a huge smile on his face. We can easily spend hours watching the passers by, and the frequent, but short lived, massive downpours of sudden rain.

Close to Galle city, easily reached by bus, we’ve been taking small half-day and day trips to beautiful beaches with wild, crashing waves. The places have been as equally fun to say, as they have been to actually visit. Hikkaduwa, Welligama, Koggala, Mirissa and Unawatuna; all little beach towns with palm trees hanging over the sand and waves and roti shops catering to western taste buds.

IMG_9366

Along the stretch of coast, on the road from Galle to Welligama, stilts jut out of the ocean with fishermen perched, somewhat precariously, on tiny seats. The ‘season’ for the fishermen is not so good at the moment we’re told – the oceans are rough and wild, the waves big and the rain heavy. We were lucky enough to see a handful of fishermen amongst many more empty stilts, and the sight of them alone is really fascinating. The stilts are passed on from generation to generation, and there is an absolute art to their trade – including making sure no foreigner captures a photograph of them without handing over a wad of cash.

Empty stilts

Empty stilts…

The weather in Galle has been on and off rain; enormous down pours that last just a little while, but dump massive amounts of water. Last night the rain was heavier than I’ve ever seen, and within minutes the water was flooding the roads and gushing down the streets.

Our mornings and evenings for the past three days have been spent with our couch surfing hosts (if you don’t yet know what Couch Surfing is, google.com it and get on it – it’s amazing!) who have been incredibly generous in making sure we are extremely well looked after, and just as well fed. On our last evening they requested pizza, and we were only too happy to cook for them. Finding the appropriate ingredients for western dishes, and furthermore, cooking in a foreign kitchen was a bit of a challenge – but we hope our pizza made them happy; it was a lot of fun to make! It’s been a fantastic experience to share the home of a local family, and we will miss our Sri Lankan family when we depart Galle tomorrow morning, with our sights set on Colombo.

We’ve been in Galle longer than the average tourist generally stays here; but then again, we don’t consider ourselves tourists – we’re travelers. Hours just spent watching and ‘being’, has meant that some of the locals have started to get to know us – they wave to us and come up to say hello. Being involved in Couch Surfing has meant we are not so much looked upon as tourists, but instead another friendly face in the fort.
It’s true – we could’ve left days ago, but we’ve been happy to mull about and explore a little longer, and Galle, and it’s people, have truly been a highlight destination during our in Sri Lanka.

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower